Pastor’s Pen

The Fight for Joy

It seems to come so naturally for most children who have their basic needs met – a joyful enthusiastic attitude toward life.  Smiles a mile wide at the mere prospect of an ice cream cone, screams of delight at the sight of a friend coming over to “play”, a secure and confident trust that leads to almost instantaneous sleep in the arms of a mother or father – all of these are simply normal reactions to life for a child who is loved and secure.  Unfortunately, as the years pass and the reality of the brokenness of our world, our own lives, and the lives of others increases, our joy seems to erode away like a sandcastle on a beach slowly being washed away by the encroaching tide of life.  When that tide hits, many of us embrace a cynical pessimism towards life and attempt to substitute momentary “adult” pleasures of many kinds (generally some form of the “big three” – money, sex and power) for the heartfelt joy we may have experienced as a child but which now seems as scarce as snow blowers in the Bahamas.

Yet, I believe this heartfelt joy for a believer is essential…so essential is this quality of joy that God commands it (Phil. 2:4) and the health and vigor of our spiritual lives depends on it (Neh 8:10).  So critical and central to the life of a believer is this joy that only love precedes it in the list of fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22)!  Many sincere followers of Christ would argue vigorously that we need to be loving, patient, self controlled, kind, and good, etc. but, do we consider a lack of joy a spiritual deficiency?  Or do we simply accept this lack of joy as an inevitable part of life?  I believe the lack of real joy may be the greatest sin of omission and one of the most debilitating sins that the church is facing today.

So crucial is joy that we need to be willing to fight to get it and battle to keep it.  Yet, therein lies the paradoxical problem.  As C.S. Lewis has written, “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.” (Surprised by Grief)  How can I fight for something that ultimately is a gift from God that I cannot produce in my own life by my own effort?  If it is a gift, why is it commanded?  Yet, when you think about it, this is the central conundrum of all the commands in Scripture:  I am called to do something that, in and of my own power, I have no ability to do…but I am still told to do it and held responsible if I do not obey!  Impossible!  Unfair!  Yes, it would be were it not for the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Paul calls me to “work out my salvation” which implies exerting significant effort on my part in order to grow in holiness.  But, in the same sentence, states that the reason I can work it out is that God is at work in me for his purposes (Phil. 2:12-13).  So is it me or is it God??  It is God in and through me!  I am called to obey in faith trusting in the resources I have in the Holy Spirit to enable me to do the impossible.   In our fight for joy we need to remember that joy is indeed a gift from God, yet it is received as he enables and equips us to fight for it.

In 1 Timothy 4:7 the old experienced Paul tells his young protégé to “train yourself to be godly”.  As we have applied various “disciplines” of the Christian life, I doubt that very many of us have consciously thought about training ourselves to experience joy.   We discipline ourselves to memorize Scripture, do our DQT, gather to worship and fellowship, attempt to share our faith.  But, if you are like me, the thought of engaging in disciplines to experience joy was not something that regularly crossed my radar screen.  Yet, since joy is one of the key characteristics of a life connected with the Spirit, it should be one of the primary foci of my spiritual training/discipline.  Recently, I sank deep into the “slough of despond” primarily because I was not fighting for joy…training myself to be godly in this area.  Satan is no slouch when it comes to his attempts to weaken us as believers and put us on the sidelines.  He knows that since the joy of the Lord is a major component of our spiritual strength (Neh. 8:10), if he can rob us of that joy, then we will be ineffective for the cause of The Kingdom.  How enthusiastic and effective are you in sharing your faith, teaching the Word, resisting the temptations of sin, and loving sacrificially those around you when the joy you have in the Lord has waned?  Do you see how vital this deep seated joy in Lord is if we are to truly follow Christ and obey all that he has commanded us to do?

Well, how do we fight for joy?  I don’t have this all down, as my recent visit to the “slough of despond” clearly shows, but I am learning some things from the heat of the battle that have helped me.  I’ll share them with you in hopes that one or two may be used by God in your life as you fight for joy.

Keep short accounts with God!  Deliberately holding on to sin when the Holy Spirit is convicting us is a sure recipe for spiritual depression!  The gift of joy will not be poured into our hearts when our hearts are full of sin.  Read Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 for David’s experience before he was willing to come clean and confess his sin… “strength sapped”, “bones wasting away”, “groaning all day long”.   He doesn’t sound like a very joyful camper!   David needed to come clean and ask the Lord to restore the joy of his salvation because it had vanished due to his unconfessed sin.  I’m sure most of us have experienced a lack of joy in our spiritual life during periods of willful rebellion.  If the Holy Spirit is calling you to repent and confess, then get on with it or you will not experience God’s joy.  It has been said the most miserable people are believers who are holding on to sin because they can’t fully enjoy the pleasure of sin due to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and they certainly are not experiencing the joy of the Holy Spirit when they are grieving him!  Moral perfection is not required for joy but honest confession of our failings certainly is!

Honest prayer is required!  “Why are you downcast, O my soul,” is David’s repeated honest statement in Psalm 42.  Life throws us curveballs and it is inevitable that we will be “downcast” at one point or another.  What do we do then?  Do we merely accept the reality?  David here talks to himself and to God…in other words he actively fights for joy. Prayer is an essential weapon in our fight for joy.  After describing our spiritual armor in Ephesians 6, Paul urges us to pray.  Cry out to the Lord.  Admit to him that you lack joy.  Ask him daily for the strength to overcome the temptation to be joyless.  It will do no good simply to paste on a plastic smile and tell everyone you are doing “fine”.  Joy is a deep seated happy confidence in Christ and his love for you.  If we lack it we need to be honest and ask the Lord to supply what is missing.  See Paul’s prayers for his fellow believers in Eph. 1:18-23 and 3:14-21.

Develop a perceptive thankfulness!   We tend to focus on what God has not given instead of perceiving and then rejoicing and giving thanks for all he is giving us.  It started at the beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  An awesome, amazingly perfect environment with huge joy producing potential was ruined because the couple focused on the only thing God had not given.  This was a key feature of my recent time in the “slough of despond”.  I was terribly ungrateful for the many, many ways God has shown himself faithful and became fixated on one area where God has not performed to my satisfaction.  We can do this in a marriage, in a job, in a church, with our kids.

Lose the “Christmas Letter Life” myth!  In a culture that panders to our selfish whims and a Christian sub-culture that constantly markets self-help books “guaranteed” to make our marriage, finances, children, jobs, relationships, and spiritual lives work perfectly, it is very easy for us to develop unrealistic expectations of what this life owes me and how it should work.  Life is NOT like it is in everyone’s Christmas letter.  The perfect picture where even the dog is smiling – what you don’t know is that they took 2357 digital shots to get the one they included with the letter.  The kids are perfect and on their way to Harvard right after they compete in the Olympics and finish the calculus class they are taking in Pre-K!  We are broken and live in a broken world and much of life will be difficult this side of eternity.  God promised us his presence in the midst of trouble not the absence of trouble altogether – that comes later.  A wise older mentor told me, “If you know the road ahead will be rough, then every bump along the way just confirms you are on the right path.”  Our joy is in Him, not our circumstances.  If we are depending on sunny circumstances to provide us with joy then the inevitable and necessary rainy days of life will quickly put us into a tailspin.   Joy from the Spirit runs deeper and can even enable us to sing God’s praises in prison! See Acts 16:23ff also Ps. 73;  Hab. 3:17-18

Resist regret!  “If only…” is the way some of our most joy destroying thoughts begin.  “If only I had married a different person.”  “If only I had taken a different job.”  “If only I had more kids (less kids, no kids).”  “If only…..(I’m sure you have filled in this blank before)”  Paul had all sorts of issues from his past that could have seriously robbed him of his joy in the Lord (running into a relative of a Christian you had killed would tend to suck the joy out of you!).  Yet,  he learned to “forget what was behind” and press on toward Christ and what was ahead for him (Phil. 3:13-14).  God in his sovereignty can and does even use our sinful mistakes and poor choices to get us where he wants us to be (Eph 2:10; Rom 8:28ff; Gen. 50:20).  Letting go of the guilt and regret will help us immensely in our fight for joy.  Memorize Rom. 8:1

Eat Right!  What is my mind feeding on?  If I am giving it a constant diet of media and depressing news coverage, is it any wonder that I am feeling my joy drain away?  If I am feeding on a constant diet of glossy magazines, catalogs and drug store novels, is it any wonder that my actual life does not meet my unrealistic expectations and my joy evaporates?  God’s Word is nourishment.  It is life. It is hope.  By the time George Mueller (the famous English orphanage director) was 71 he had read through the Bible over a 100 times.  He said this to a group of young believers, “I saw the most important thing I had to do was give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it…What is the food of the inner man?  Not prayer, but the Word of God; and…not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.”

Rest Right!  My joy will fluctuate wildly until I come to the place where I develop a strong confidence in God’s sovereign control over every aspect of my life (Eph. 1:11).  When I mistakenly think that I am in control and I need to “make it happen”, the weight of that responsibility crushes the joy right out of me.  I need to make every effort to enter that place of confident rest in the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the fact that he will guide me exactly to where he wants me to be ( Heb 4:10-11; Eph. 2:10).  Then, like a child, I can fall asleep joyfully and confidently in his powerful arms.

Warning:  I realize that there are those who struggle desperately to experience joy.  I also realize that we are all fallen and broken people.  Some of us must deal with broken thyroid glands, some with broken insulin regulators, some with broken brain chemistry.  If your brain chemistry is not as it should be there is absolutely nothing wrong with availing yourself of modern medicines that allow you to function at a “normal” level.  One of the greatest preachers of all time, Charles Spurgeon, would often spend Sunday afternoons, after delivering a powerful message and seeing many come to Christ, crying like a baby on his wife’s lap.  I have no doubt that he was dealing with a brain chemical imbalance and would have been helped greatly with modern medicine.  A pill will not eliminate the need to fight for joy but it may place you in a position where you can wholeheartedly engage in the battle.

As with any training program, I advise you to consult your physician (the Great Physician) for specific guidance and direction as to how you should approach your fight for joy.

Good Resources for the fight:  The Bible – all others pale by comparison.  Desiring God and When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper; Spiritual Depression – Its Causes and Its Cure by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Christian Bragging?

Most of us don’t like to be around braggarts.  Their subtle and often not so subtle references to their achievements, their status, their latest and greatest purchase, the size of their portfolio, their brilliance (and that of their extremely gifted children) can cause us to inwardly cringe, look for the closest exit, or excuse ourselves to “use the facilities”. Yet, most of us, if we are honest, are aware of our own tendencies to “toot our own horn.”  As followers of Christ, we hopefully recognize that all we have is a gift from God (For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? I Cor. 4:7 ) and that all of us are not nearly as bright and shiny on the inside as the image we often project.  God, in and by his grace, saves “wretches” like you and me and then begins the slow and challenging process of making us more like Jesus through his Spirit which is at work in us.  He started the work and he will finish it and the truly humble believer grasps how totally dependent we are on him to reform and reshape our hearts. In light of this reality, a “boasting believer” sounds like an oxymoron.  Yet, there is one thing that Scriptures tell us is actually good to brag about… something of which we can boast without sinning.   This truth is found buried in the writings of that old and often sad prophet Jeremiah and we’ll read his inspired thoughts a bit later but, before we do, I’d like to do some digging into the reasons that cause us to boast.

Why do we brag?  Why do we insist that others know we are superior to them in some way, shape or form?  Why do we find it so hard to listen yet words of our own achievements and wisdom seem to flow effortlessly off our tongues?  I think the main reason we brag is to assure ourselves that, in the midst of this broken world of 6.6 billion people,  we are significant…we are important…we are worth something.  This need to feel significant is accentuated in our modern world because we are taught by the most learned in our culture that we have no real intrinsic worth.  If I am here as the result of the merely random connections of certain chemicals and I will soon die and those chemicals will breakdown and return to the ground, then it is extremely difficult for modern man to build a case for any intrinsic value resident in the human species.  Yet, built into us is a longing to be significant and to “count” for something so we desperately seek out something that will at least give our transitory and ultimately random life the temporary illusion of being significant or valuable.

In this Sisyphusian work of seeking to establish our worth, some of us throw ourselves into academic studies attempting to demonstrate that my brain is bigger than yours and therefore, even though both our brains will be chemical mush in 100 years, I am of greater worth than you.  We make sure others know of our academic achievements: the prestigious schools we attended, the important letters that follow our name, the various exclusive organizations of other large brained humans to which we belong.  We enjoy correcting other smaller brained humans, especially in the company of others, to show how truly erudite we are.  We study and learn not out of genuine curiosity or an inherent desire to figure something out…no, we study so that others know how “studied” we really are!  There is much boasting of our intellectual capacities in this broken world.

Others of us, who may not have been randomly selected to have big brains, may have won the genetic lottery in some area of our physical structure.  We practice throwing, hitting, kicking, whacking a ball for endless hours so that we are able to beat other lesser physically gifted ball handling humans.  We may have more efficient lungs and muscle fibers so we focus on feats requiring endurance enabling us to evidence our worth through blue ribbons and shiny trophies.  We may have more dexterous hands, so we practice scales and fast, extremely difficult fine motor skill movements in order to prove our worth through our musical achievements.  We may have been given lightning quick reflexes and great physical coordination which enable us to fly extremely fast and complex machines, earn spectacular scores in “Whack a Mole”, or crush our online video game rivals. We make sure that everyone around us knows that we are far superior to other less adroit and nimble humans.  We may have been given physical structures of particular body parts that our culture desires at this particular time in history so we accentuate those structures and we look for opportunities to showcase how superior our physical form is to other less culturally attractive human beings.  There is much boasting about physical capacities in our broken world.

Others of us, who may not have been favored genetically, may have been born into circumstances that are extremely financially favorable or simply been at the right place at the right time with the right idea that generated significant financial rewards.  So, we seek our worth in our net worth.  Making sure others know the size of our salary, our home, our vacation getaways in Aruba and Aspen, our yachts, our cars, our planes and all our bling.  We drop names of other influential industry “players” with whom we associate.  We mention taking exotic vacations, buying exotic cars, eating in exclusive clubs and restaurants inaccessible to other less financially well endowed humans.  There is much boasting about financial capacities in our world.

Yet, in the end, all of this type of boasting is vaporous (Ecc. 1:2) and doesn’t really establish our worth or value…because we know that none of it will really last.  Our learning will become dated, our physical prowess will diminish with age, our money may grow but we will realize that it cannot really buy anything that gives life meaning.  So boasting in all or any of these areas is actually a fool’s errand.

Let’s listen to wise Jeremiah as he gives us a word from the Lord,  “This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the strong man boast in his strength, let not the rich man boast in his riches…” 

It is not wrong for a follower of Christ to enjoy and even celebrate the intellectual, physical, and financial blessings that we have been given. (I Tim 6:17).  We are to think of ourselves in a sober way (Romans 12:3) and that means an accurate assessment of ourselves – not pretending that certain gifts of intellect, body or resources don’t exist.  Jeremiah does not deny that there are those who are wise, strong and rich.  However, when we attempt to establish our worth based on these gifts we will quickly begin to “boast” in both overt and covert ways and this is not the place where God wants us to be as followers of Christ.

Yet, there is something that Jeremiah says is OK to boast about and that is the relationship with have with our God.  “Let him who boasts, boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth. For in these I delight.”  What truly makes us significant, valuable and gives us worth in a world of 6.6 billion human beings is our relationship with the Lord!  He has created us and formed us for himself.  We will continue to grow in our relationship with him throughout eternity when all the intellectual, physical and financial achievements of our lives here will seem so miniscule, insignificant, and forgettable.

Do I “understand” and “know” my Lord?  To “understand” the Infinite is obviously an infinite process but it can begin now.  The focus of the word “understand” is on our intellectual grasp of the true nature of God as revealed in his Word.  The word “know” in the Hebrew mind connotes the deepest levels of personal intimacy and closeness (it is a common euphemism in the OT for sexual intercourse).  So, do I have an increasing grasp of the character and greatness of our Lord and am I relationally moving closer to him?  If I am moving in that direction, it is something of which I can be proud…and even boast!  If not, then it may be time for me to take another look at my priorities. How does the effort I put forth to grow in my understanding and intimacy with Jesus compare to that which I put forth to grow my intellect, physical skill set, or net worth?  Am I as disciplined in my study of the Word as I was in my academic pursuits?  How does the effort I put forth in order to understand God compare to that which I put into practicing an instrument, hitting a ball, or focusing on my physical form?  How does the amount of time I spend focusing on business or finances compare with the time I set aside to really get to know God and relate to him?

As I pondered the Lord’s words through Jeremiah, I realized how much I still “boast” in things other than God.  How much I need to seek my significance in the only thing that really makes me significant – my relationship to God.  How my pursuit of understanding and knowing God so often pales in comparison to my pursuit of intellectual, athletic and financial concerns.

And, as I feel the conviction of Jeremiah’s words weigh heavily on my heart, my eyes are drawn back to the text and I remember that my God is also a God who “exercises loving kindness” even with proud and boastful people like me and that makes me want to get to know Him even more!

This is what the Lord says:

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises loving kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.

How to Enlarge God?!

As we have been thinking through the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, a statement in Mary’s Magnificat struck me as quite puzzling when I first began to ponder it:  “My soul magnifies (literally- “enlarges”) the Lord!”  How in the world can we enlarge God – the Creator and Sustainer of all things who measures our universe, which astronomers now estimate to be 156 billion light years in diameter,  with the span of his hand (Is. 40:12)?  Imagine how large that makes the Lord’s heart!  I realize this is an anthropomorphic poetic image, but the point is clear – ain’t nothin’ bigger than God!  So how in the world, or should I say universe, can I enlarge God?  It is clearly impossible to make God bigger than he is yet, the Scriptures give us some clues as to how we can go about this process of “magnifying” the Almighty God.

Make God large in our mind’s eye

Luke 1:46  “Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”

To magnify or enlarge an object may mean to physically increase its size but it can also mean to view a particular aspect of that object with greater precision and detail.  Remember your first look through a magnifying glass at a common object – say a bug of some sort – and all of a sudden the bug’s pincers took on B movie monster status.  Or recall your first look at a paramecium swimming around on a microscope slide in biology class – getting larger and larger as you turned the lens from 10x to 100x to 250x.  In the Magnificat Mary is turning up the magnification on the Lord and his wonderful mercy that reaches out to the humble of heart.  She has had several days to ponder the implications of the amazing announcement of Gabriel and her mind’s eye is enlarging and focusing in on the reality that she, a nobody from the middle of nowhere, has been chosen by God to bring his child into this world of space and time!

As we walk through life, it is nourishing to our souls to periodically magnify an aspect of God’s nature – to put it under, as it were, the microscope of our mind’s eye.  In Mary’s song she chooses to “rejoice in God my Savior”.  As we live amidst the often daunting challenges and crises of this very broken world, it can be extremely encouraging to enlarge and rejoice in an aspect of God’s character.  For example, if I have I just been given some bad news from my doctor, I can immediately “enlarge” the crisis (unfortunately, my natural tendency) or I can deliberately choose to magnify the Lord’s control over and care for my life.  To enlarge and focus in on the fact that He has ALL my days mapped out (Ps 139:16) and nothing can “cut them short”.  To magnify the reality that he truly does care for me (I Peter 5:7) and values me so much that he even knows the number of hairs on my head (Mt. 10:30) and that ultimately he gave his life to rescue me (John 3:16) and that everything is still under his sovereign control (Eph. 1:11).

It appears to me that whatever challenges we might face, we make a decision to magnify and enlarge something.  We either enlarge the challenge and it assumes monstrous proportions (like a bug under a magnifying glass) resulting in stress, sleepless nights, and dreading the worst or we choose to magnify the Lord by enlarging and rejoicing in an aspect of his character that brings peace, comfort and perseverance in the midst of the crisis.

This process is not an easy one.  Imagine how Mary could have magnified all the possible negative consequences of Gabriel’s announcement – possible rejection by her family, possible rejection by Joseph, possible social shame, maybe even death via stoning.  Yet, despite all the possible negatives, she chooses to magnify God’s mercy and rejoice in his faithfulness for the humble and weak bringing her to a place of joyous praise instead of gloomy angst.

This process is also not usually an instantaneous one.  In Mary’s case, it has been at least several days from the time Gabriel announced to her the good news until she bursts forth in praise magnifying the Lord after Elizabeth’s prophetic confirmation of her pregnancy.  As we grow in maturity and our understanding of the Lord, the time needed to move from news to praise will likely shorten as we have a stockpile of evidence in our own life of God’s faithfulness in the midst of all types of circumstances and situations.

So, in your life at this moment, what are you magnifying and what is the result of your focus?

Make God large through gratitude

Psalm 69:30  “I will praise the name of God with a song, and I will magnify him with thanksgiving”

We can also magnify the Lord through remembering all that we have been graciously given by God.  My wife is reading a book by Ann Voskamp entitled, One Thousand Gifts where the author recounts how a challenge to write down 1000 gifts of God to her totally transformed her life and her thinking about her Lord.  According to David, we can magnify God by simply being grateful.  Grateful for the breath I breathe, the food I eat, the family and friends I’ve been given, the freedom from guilt, the freedom from the tyranny of self-absorbtion, the good news that God really has accepted me, the joy of diving into a warm pool, the exctasy of physical intimacy, the truth that has been revealed to me, the smell of cinnamon rolls and garlic bread (not at the same time!), the smile on a baby’s face, a sunset over the aqua waters of the Gulf, a cool breeze after a Pensacola summer, etc. etc. etc.

God’s magnification comes when a life is lived “with thanksgiving” as the constant background music of all we do and say.

So, is the quiet, yet very real, background music of your life tuned to the key of discontent or gratefulness?

Make God large through sharing with others

Psalm 34:3 “O magnify the Lord with me, let us exalt his name together”

We can also magnify the Lord by urging others to join us in the process as we attempt to see, in a more detailed and intimate way, the various aspects of God’s wonderful character (the “name” of someone to a Hebrew represents the true nature of the person).  Discoveries long to be shared.  The biologist calling a fellow biologist over to the microscope saying, “You’ve got to see this!”  The lover longing for her friends to meet her beloved, “You’ve got to get to know him!”  The child of God made aware in a more focused way of the truly amazing grace of Jesus, “You’ve got to understand this!”

So, what does my life and what do my words magnify to others?  Is it the amazing wonder of a God beyond our ability to comprehend in power, holiness, and glory choosing to become comprehensible in the form of Jesus Christ living, loving and laying down his life for arrogant rebels such as myself.  Or am I magnifying myself, or some trinket that in 50 years will be all rust and dust, or some accomplishment that will be long forgotten not long after it is trumpeted by my lips.  Far too often, I magnify the gifts of my gracious God more than the Giver himself.

It is my prayer for myself, and for all of us, that we learn to “enlarge” and “magnify” God over and above everything else that he has given us for it is in seeing his magnificence magnified that our hearts are amazingly transformed to become more like his (I John 3:2)!

Judgmental Judgment

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrode
Have mercy o’ my soul, Lord God,
As I would do were I Lord God,
And Ye were Martin Elginbrode.

-Epitaph in a Scottish graveyard

One of my mentors shared a true story that I have never been able to forget.  A single young man was employed by a company whose president gave turkeys to all the employees at Christmas.  This man did not have a clue how to cook a turkey nor did he have a desire to learn, so the gift was more of a burden than a blessing as far as he was concerned.  Each year he had to figure out how to get rid of the large bird.

On the day the turkeys were handed out, a couple of this man’s friends nabbed the turkey with his name on it and substituted a fake made of paper mache.  The only original turkey parts were the neck and the tail protruding from either end of the brown paper wrapper.

The bogus bird was then presented to the man and with his burden under arm he caught his bus and headed home.  As it happened, he sat down next to a man who was obviously very discouraged.  Feeling compassion for the man, the salesman began a conversation in which the poor man unfolded a tale of woe of losing his job and having no money for Christmas.

The salesman with the turkey sized up the situation and realized that he had a solution to both of their problems.  He could unload his burdensome bird and bless this poor man at the same time.  He decided not to give it to the man to avoid wounding his pride.  So he sold his turkey to this man for a couple of dollars.

Can you imagine the man explaining his good fortune to his wife and children as they gathered around the “turkey” and began to unwrap it.  You can certainly imagine their anger and disappointment of the poor family.  They were convinced that they were the victims of a cruel hoax by a man whose soul must have been blacker than soot.  Yet, the salesman went home content and satisfied with the “good deed” that he had done that evening.

“Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor?”
James 4:11

The origin of the word “slander” implies “speaking down.”  When we link this with James other word, “judging,” it suggests a tendency to put a brother or sister down.  Paul makes a similar observation, “Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?”  (Romans 14:10).

According to Josh McDowell, “Judge not lest ye be judged,”  is the most frequently quoted biblical text of  non-believers these days.  By which they imply that any evaluation of their behavior or attitudes is out of the question – does not our own book even rule it out?  Yet, that view is a befuddled interpretation of the text.  Certainly it is not acceptable for a believer to “tolerate” clearly wrong actions.  As we live in the midst of a culture confused over the notion of tolerance – a “tolerance” that maintains that we cannot critique anyone’s idea of right and wrong- we must understand that it is legitimate and profitable to say what one should and should not do.  We have been given the Word and God calls on us to discern between good and evil.  Good judgment is one of the main marks of a mature person.  As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Morality, like art, consists of drawing a straight line.”

Jesus’ words, “Judge not that you be not judged,” are not an admonition to suspend all our critical faculties and turn a blind eye to sin.  Immediately following this statement he calls his disciples to “not give dogs what is sacred” or “throw pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6).  This caution assumes that we are able to recognize cynical and hard-hearted people when we encounter them.  Likewise, Jesus calls on his disciples to “judge for yourselves what is right” (Luke 12:57) and we are called on to judge disputes between believers (I Cor. 6).

Jesus’ and James’ warnings against judging are not about “drawing straight lines” but about condemning others and writing them off.  A harsh judgment without showing mercy or caring for their souls is what is condemned.

God, in his absolute justice, has every right to instantly annihiliate us the moment we do any wicked deed, yet he has chosen to show us compassion and mercy.   God will bring all sin to account in the final judgment,  but for the time being he is reserving final judgment.  How much more pleasant we would be if we were more like our Father in this regard.

I know my own heart and how quick I am to judge in a haughty and unforgiving manner.  How I rush in to judge others motives and behavior though I have neither the right nor the complete knowledge required to do so.  John Calvin wrote, “ Our indulgence ought to extend to tolerating imperfections of conduct…There have always been persons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness, as if they had already become a kind of aerial spirits, spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains.”

Judging others doesn’t seem like that grievous a sin – but James would have us see it as a serious breach of the law of love (James 2:8).  When I judge my brother in this way I am not a lover but a condemning judge.  When I am condemning my brother or sister I am playing God – taking his place as the rightful judge of the earth.  “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy,” says James.  Then his finger rises out of the text and points directly at me:  “But you — (Yes, I am talking to you) – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).

Some actions are clearly sin and need to be dealt with in a biblical manner (see Matt 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1ff; I Cor. 5; II Cor. 2:5-11).  But judging gets a little more complicated.  What is the difference between discernment and ungodly condemnation?  To be honest, I don’t always know the answer but here are some helpful hints that should be useful in guiding us.

The Scriptures are clear that all right judgment of my brother or sister begins with proper self-judgment.  I cannot effectively discern another’s sin unless I have first been ruthless in dealing with my own.  When I find myself pointing one finger at you I need to realize that four of my fingers are pointing right back at me.  “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)  Pray along with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

Another point that keeps me in line is to realize that God has called me not to go “beyond what is written” (I Cor. 4:6) and to make obligatory for others what is not a biblical command.  It is very possible for me not to judge another believer because he or she is in sin but because they are simply different than I am.  People are strange…and sometimes Christians are even stranger!  The oddities, eccentricities, personal scruples, habits, personality quirks of others are not necessarily an indication of sin or disobedience in their lives.  “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To his own master he stands or falls.  And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4).   When the Word is silent I need not wag my tongue at another!

Finally, we get in over our heads very quickly when we presume to judge another’s motives.  We are skating on thin ice when we make statements like, “You did that because…”  God is the only one who is perfectly able to sort our motives out.  “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”  (I Cor 4:5)

When I judge a man’s heart I presume to know something that only God knows – his motives.  One day everything that is hidden will be made known but until that time I am called on to exercise grace toward others and to wait for the only truly qualified judge to take the bench.

Remember the “Turkey man”!

(I want to thank David Roper for his wise insights and illustrations of this truth)

Opposing Forces in the Church

As we are about to embark on our journey into a new year,  it is important not so much to evaluate where we have been but where we are today and where we sense God calling us to invest our live tomorrow (Phil. 3:13-14).   As a church we want to be about “TURNING ORDINARY PEOPLE INTO EXTRAORDINARY FOLLOWERS OF JESUS CHRIST”.  For this mission statement to be realized, the first step we need to take is to be proactively looking for opportunities to share our faith.   We all face what I call the “centripetal pull” of the church.  That force that operates in most believers lives that pulls them towards other believers and isolates them from the world- the holy huddle mentality.  Fellowship is good and it is commanded in the Scripture (Heb. 10:24-25) yet we dare not forget that God is calling us to reach out and love the lost (Luke 19:10).  This is what I call the “centrifugal pull” of the great commission (Mt. 28:18-20).  The church needs to be an oscillating system that builds people up and equips them for ministry (the centripetal pull) only to fling them out into the world to seek and share with the lost (the centrifugal pull).  For most of us the centripetal pull is stronger than the centrifugal pull.  Here are some ideas that will place us in the centrifuge and launch us out to make an eternal impact for the Lord:

*Ask God to guide you into new relationships with unchurched people and to help you deepen the ones you already have

*Pray for these friends by name, asking God to open them up to His love and truth, and to empower and use you in the process.

*Ask a non-Christian friend to join you for lunch, or invite them to come to your home for a dinner or dessert.

*Write a letter of encouragement to someone in your life who is going through a difficult time and doesn’t yet know Christ.

*Make a call to an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time and catch up with what’s new in your lives

*Go out of your way this week to meet someone in the office, school, or neighborhood with whom you have not yet had the chance to talk.

*Make a “top-ten” list of non-Christians that you will consistently pray for and reach out to.

*Follow up with someone with whom you have talked about Christianity some time ago.  See where they are in their spiritual journey and how you might be able to help them take the next step toward Jesus.

*Read John 4 and ask the Lord for opportunities to raise spiritual topics in ordinary conversation.

*Ask God to show you what spiritual risks he wants you to take today.

*Study up on the faith related issues you think a friend is most concerned about and look for opportunities to talk about them.

*Pass along a Christian book or tape that has been especially helpful to you which your friend would also be able to relate to.

*Read Luke 15 and spend some time reflecting on how God views those outside of his family.  Ask God to give you His heart for the lost.

*Meet with a couple of friends and pray together for people you are trying to reach.

*Write down and share your personal testimony with someone that you have had a spiritual conversation with.

*Bring a friend to an appropriate outreach event.

*Join a club or participate in an activity that will provide you with an opportunity to develop relationships with non-Christians.

These are just a few suggestions that believers have found helpful in increasing the centrifugal force of the great commission in their lives.  As we enter into a new year, may we as a body strive to maintain God’s balance between the centripetal and centrifugal forces of the church.

(Some ideas taken from Mission Today, Fall 1999)

Where’s Your Confidence?

As I have been studying through the book of Hebrews, one verse has really been rattling around in my mind… “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need.”

Frankly, I don’t know many believers who approach Jesus in this manner.  We tend to approach rather tentatively.   Fully aware of our various failures and faults, missteps and mishaps, needs and greeds,  we attempt to enter the throne room through a side door hoping to be hardly noticed…often preferring to just stay in the corner…many times we are so rattled we don’t go in at all, preferring to wallow in our miserable neediness instead of “bothering” the Lord with our problems.

What causes us to hesitate and cower? Why do we fail to obey this verse?  For if we hesitate and approach cautiously with great trepidation…we are indeed disobeying a command of our God which is as much of a sin as whatever we did in the first place that is keeping us at arm’s length from Jesus!  Approaching Jesus boldly to find help is as much of a command as loving our neighbor as ourselves!

I think we fail to obey this command because we feel we have somehow disappointed Jesus because of our neediness and sin and, truth be told, many of us feel he would rather not spend the time with us.  So instead of approaching with boldness to ask Jesus for forgiveness and help, we languish and linger and attempt to cover it up and “deal with it” on our own.  This somehow seems more humble and self –effacing to us.  However, at its core, this type of thinking is really incredibly arrogant and self-aggrandizing!  At first hearing, this sounds strange to our ears because we feel we are being so penitent and humble.   Yet, when we hesitate to approach Jesus we are assuming that, in and of ourselves, we have the ability to clean up our act and restore ourselves to a state of spiritual acceptability.  “I’ll go to Jesus once I stop… drinking, cussing, gossiping, lying, visiting porn sites, holding grudges, worrying,  spending more than I can afford, eating more than I should, seeking my worth and value in the eyes of others… ”  Yet, the very reason the Holy Spirit inspired this verse, the very reason Jesus called us to approach him in this way is that we desperately need his mercy, his grace, and his help!  Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” and one part of the “nothing” that we can’t do is clean up our act on our own.  Yet, we somehow feel more deserving of his mercy and grace when we cower and at least make an attempt to remedy our problems on our own at first…what arrogance!

Our Lord knows the stuff of which we are made (dirt is not all that impressive) and when he saved us he already knew in advance what all of our failures would be.  Even our own “righteousness” is like a filthy rag (I’ll let you do the research on that word!).  Therefore, it is impossible for us to disappoint him.  When he called us he committed himself to us for the long haul (Phil. 1:6) and, unlike marriage, his vow to us doesn’t even include a contingency dealing with the dissolution of the relationship upon death!  If we have genuinely trusted him, we are his forever! Period!  He already knows how much we will need his help as we stumble through this life.  James, the Lord’s brother, informs us that we all will stumble and do stumble in many ways. Yet, how true the saying is:  “He, who knows us best, loves us most!” …despite our missteps and mistakes.   Young children with trustworthy parents immediately call out for help when they get into something they can’t handle.  If they are approached by a large barking dog you can hear their cries for help from around the block!   Why can’t we cry out to the Lord with the same boldness?   Didn’t Jesus say something about having the faith of a child?  That’s why Steve Brown says, “Cheer up, you’re much worse than you think you are!”  It’s only as we embrace our complete inadequacy (we are worse than we think we are!) and His complete desire to help us with our inadequacies that we can truly be joyful…and experience the transformation that only God can produce in our lives.

I think the Accuser brings out his biggest guns and most potent weaponry for this battle.  If he can keep us away from our Lord through his accusations then he will effectively incapacitate us spiritually.  (“You messed up so badly, there is no way Jesus wants you anywhere near him.”  “You better get your act together before you dare talk to Him.  Who do you think you are anyway!”  “You really blew that opportunity to share your faith…why don’t you just shut up from now on!” “Jesus is so disappointed by your lack of love, patience, follow through, prayer, scripture memory… ad nauseum, ad infinitum…that you would do better just to stay away from Him for awhile.” )   The Evil One knows, much better than we do, that our sole hope of victory comes through the help that only Jesus can give us and desires to give us if we would simply ask him.

So next time you are deeply aware of your brokenness and sin don’t listen to the Liar and don’t commit yet another sin by failing to come near to Jesus’ throne of grace – simply and boldly cry, “HELP!”  He already knows you need it. He knew it before he created the earth and the stars.  He’s just been waiting for you to ask!

The Fear Factor

It is all around us these days.  It’s in the atmosphere we breathe.  It’s spawned in us by the media, by internet blogs, by declining house values, by declining stock values, by jobs lost, and innumerable stories of hard times, even our President seems daily to remind us of how bad things are…and, worst of all, the prognosticators are telling us it is going to get worse…much worse.  At times, I think I’d prefer eating a tub of worms on Fear Factor – at least I could see when I was getting close to the bottom!  Many of us are running on fear instead of running on faith…myself included at times.

Has God lost control?  Has he decided to take a bit of a vacation from caring about his children…who could blame him, we are so bothersome at times!  Has the truth that he is working out EVERYTHING to conform to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11) suddenly been made null and void by the bursting of the housing bubble?  Does the continuing fall of the Dow, even after all our government’s stimulus efforts and mortgage rescue plans, mean that God’s hands are tied and he cannot take care of us until Ben Bernanke and the boys and girls at the Fed get it right?  Very few of us would answer, “Yes” to any of the above questions yet, if our emotions could speak, they might give a different answer!

I am confident that the Lord is still on his throne and He is still at work…even using the current economic crisis to develop and mature his children.  God can speak to us – even through our fears – if we are willing to listen to what He has to say.  Here are a few things that I am hearing as I listen to my fears in the midst of all the uncertainties of life:

Listen to what our fears say about our blessings. It seems often that our fears are proportional to our blessings.  The more God has blessed us with – whether monetary resources, relationships, responsibilities – the greater the temptation to fear. Someone who has worked hard, saved, invested, and has others who depend on him or her (employees, children, etc) will face a greater temptation to give in to fear than one who has not been so richly blessed. So, when my fears rear their ugly heads, I can “listen” to them by allowing them to point out to me the immensity of the blessings from which those fears flow.  I thank the Lord I have a wife and children to care for and that they have never had to beg for bread!  I thank the Lord that I have a retirement account (even if it is half the size it was a year ago)!  I thank the Lord I still have a job even though the future may be uncertain!  I thank the Lord I have been able to provide shelter for my family…even if it is worth 30% less – it still keeps the rain out and the A/C in!  Let’s listen to our fears tell us how much we have to be thankful for and give the Lord praise for all his great gifts!

Listen to what our fears say about our true source of security.  Nothing reveals to us quite so clearly the true source of our allegiance than our fears.  At times the Lord allows our lives to be shaken in order to remove from us the idols that subtly divert our trust from Him.  It is one thing to say we “trust” in the Lord when our financial future seems secure it is quite another altogether when the financial future looks bleak.  If we are deeply shaken by fear when the economic prospects are dim, our fears may be graciously telling us there is an idol in our lives we need to remove.  Edward Welch in his book, Running Scared, calls these idols “functional gods”.  Those “gods” that we really count on to take care of us – despite what we may verbally profess.  In this time of economic shaking, let’s listen to what our fears are saying about what we really worship and, by God’s grace, remove those lesser “functional gods” from our lives.

Listen to what our fears say about what we really love.  As believers we are called to love God supremely (ref.) and make knowing Him the ultimate purpose of our lives (Phil. 3:7-14).  If the Lord is our ultimate love, can economic conditions impede that relationship in any way?  Are materially poor believers in China, Lesotho, or PNG less able to love Jesus and get to know Him?  Just like our fears can reveal what we are looking to for our security, they can also clearly reveal what or who has captured our affections. We tend to minimize the dangers of money in our affluent culture yet, the Word has much to say regarding the importance of not loving money (e.g. Matt. 6:19-34;  I Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19). What do your fears say about your love?  Let’s listen to our fears and allow them to direct us back to our “first love”! (Rev. 2:1-7)

Listen to what our fears tell us about our past decisions.  One of the reasons we may be anxious and fearful is that we are reaping some difficult consequences of poor choices in the past.  We may have ignored what the Scriptures say about debt and lived well beyond our means banking on our homes appreciating 20% annually forever and the stock market never hitting the skids.  Learning to be content with what the Lord has provided usually takes some time and involves some financial pain. (Phil. 4:12&13)  Listen to what your fears reveal about your decision making process and make your decisions differently in the future as the Lord leads.

This process of listening to our fears and examining what they say about us is challenging but it can be very hopeful.  It points out areas in our lives that are out of alignment with God’s will.  It reveals the “functional gods” that can creep into our lives and steal the love and devotion that only the Lord Jesus Christ deserves.  The hope comes as we ponder the gospel that is for fearful people like you and I.  The gospel that allows me to be honest enough to admit my fears and what they reveal about me and bring my sins to the Savior for forgiveness.  The gospel that not only provides forgiveness but the power that will allow me and you to turn from these lesser “functional gods” to live securely trusting in the only one who really knows what will happen tomorrow!

Investing for the Future

I’ve always been intrigued by investing…trying to develop an ideal portfolio that minimizes risk and maximizes return is fascinating to me.  There is no end to the number of financial pundits out there who, for a not-so-small fee, will manage your money promising sky high returns while assuring you that there is virtually no downside risk.  The Excel spreadsheets look so impressive on glossy paper, yet very, very few actually deliver on their promises consistently…that’s why virtually every investment solicitation you see contains some variation of the phrase, “Past results do not guarantee future profits.”  In other words, they have no idea how well or poorly they are going to do in the coming years and you, as the investor, bear all the risk.

What if I told you that there is one investment with an upside potential beyond your wildest dreams and absolutely no downside…guaranteed!  With this investment, there are no potential “black swan” events that could ever erode or destroy your principal.  There is absolutely no chance that you will be buying into a bubble that will soon burst quickly deflating your initial investment.  There are no accounting shenanigans, opaque newly developed financial “instruments”, or Madoff style investment managers who can deceitfully transfer your investment into their own coffers.   And even if the world were to melt away, your investment will still be secure and continue to provide you with a return…forever!  Are you skeptical?  You should be, because no earthly investment instrument or manager can deliver on those promises. Even if you decided to invest your savings in a FDIC insured bank account earning .25% you assume a high risk that inflation will slowly eat away at your savings buying power.  There is no such thing as a guaranteed risk-free return with no downside on this side of eternity.

Yet, a “too-good-to-be-true” investment does exist in reality and the Lord describes it in several places.  In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord states several times that rewards, even “great” rewards, await those of us who are more invested in living out our relationship with Jesus than in human accolades, prestige, or earthly wealth (Matt. 5:11&12; 6:4,6,18) and you will find NO disclaimer at the end of the Sermon on the Mount stating, “Past investment results with the Lord do not guarantee future rewards.”    In fact, when we “invest” our lives and our resources in this way our rewards are 100% secure and guaranteed! (Matt. 6:20)  We also see in I Timothy 6:18&19, Paul telling his young protégé to urge those who have been blessed with material resources to be rich in good deeds, generous, and willing to share thus storing up “treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age”.  How interesting it is to ponder the fact that our present use of material resources can influence the “foundation” of our experience of eternal life.

In a recent adult Sunday School class, we considered what these “rewards” actually will look like in eternity.  However, given the dearth of solid biblical evidence as to the nature of these rewards, we must generally remain content with speculation. (If you are interested in delving deeper into the nature of our eternal state, I highly recommend Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven ) However, I do believe at least one reward of using our resources for eternal purposes is clearly described in the Word.  Since I taught the parable of the Shrewd Manager in Luke 16 in early January, the Lord has repeatedly been bringing this “reward” to my mind.  In verse 19, the Lord gives the application of this parable to his disciples when he says, “And I tell you (a phrase used to strongly emphasize what would immediately follow), make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails (not “if” it fails!) they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”  As I have meditated on this verse I have realized that the size and the joy of our reception into heaven will be influenced by how well we have used the earthly “unrighteous wealth” entrusted to us to make eternal friends.

I don’t know about you, but I love homecomings.  When I have been away from my family for a period of time, it’s a great feeling to be mobbed at the door with the hugs and kisses of my wife and kids and to hear the pathetic whining of our schnauzer, Shona, as she awaits a greeting from me.  The Scriptures tell us that we believers are not at home at present (we are “aliens and strangers” – I Peter 2:11) and we are all groaning for our home in eternity according to Romans 8:23 (the older I get the more I groan!).  As we travel as aliens (citizens of another “country” – Phil 3:20) through this life, we get tired of the spiritual equivalent of sleeping fitfully on mattresses that are either too soft or too hard, eating fast food, being surrounded by strangers that don’t really know us, and getting lost in places we don’t know well.

How I long to finally turn the handle of my eternal dwelling and be welcomed home at last.  How great our joy will be when we are welcomed by our “family” which includes those “friends” we have been fortunate enough to make through the sharing of our earthly wealth! Your welcoming party may include natives from across the globe that you touched through supporting a missionary;  a single mom that you helped with a mortgage payment or medical bill;  a former addict that you helped through a rescue mission;  an orphan from India that you supported through the childhood years;  a neighbor across the street that you provided for during a time of unemployment;  a woman or man that would have been aborted had you not supported a crisis pregnancy center;  numerous people from a village that you helped provide with food and clean water;  a child you adopted using resources that could have been spent on some personal item; a young woman you helped rescue from human trafficking; a widow that you faithfully supplied with food when she was all alone; a native evangelist that you provided with education and training; etc. etc.  And the great thing is, these friends will literally be friends for eternity…how awesome will that be?!

Since I have been pondering this “reward” or “spiritual return on investment”, I have begun to think of the “opportunity cost” of the stuff I buy.  Those who want us to plan well for our retirement years often will show the “opportunity cost” of spending $15,000 on a fancy watch or new car instead of investing that money for our future years.  If someone is 25 years old that initial $15,000 would be worth $224,616 at age 65 if the money was invested for retirement at 7% per year.  When you think of a watch actually costing you close to a quarter of a million dollars, it makes you a bit more hesitant to just put it on your Visa!    In a similar way, I have tried to imagine the great eternal returns yet to come as I look at buying more stuff here and now.   Is this thing that I am currently longing for really necessary?   How could I spiritually invest those resources? Will this material thing provide me with more joy than the potential of an eternal friendship?

It is so easy to be lured into the materialism of our culture.  The advertising/marketing professionals make sure we are not long satisfied with our current stuff.  It is a rare person that doesn’t feel the tug of new/nice/cool/beautiful/fast stuff.  Yet, we need to remember that in the long run what is new will soon become old, the nice will soon become worn, the cool will soon become dated, the beautiful will soon become faded, and the fast will soon become slow. (Remember your first computer?)

May Jesus Christ, our great Lord and Savior, who desires our lasting joy, give us the resources, the desire, and the will to invest our earthly, temporal possessions in ways that will make our final homecoming richly overflow with eternal friends!

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”   – Jesus

The Paradox of Pain

Pain is paradoxical…it can sink us into the depths, yet simultaneously raise us to new spiritual heights; it can cause us to become self-absorbed, yet also develop in us a great compassion for others who suffer; it can cause us to cry out for any and every kind of temporal relief, yet simultaneously loosen our grip on all things temporal in this life; it can produce in us great anger toward God, yet cause us to draw closer to Him than we ever have been before; pain can make you stupid, yet is one of the most effective means of gaining wisdom.

Let me say at the outset of this article what I am not going to do.  I will not attempt to develop a philosophical treatise on the problem of pain and evil given the reality of an all good, all loving and all powerful God.  Others more erudite and articulate have sought to wrestle with that dilemma (See C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Phillip Brand and Phil Yancey, et. al.).  I will also do my best not to minimize the very brutal reality of pain.  I am no masochist and our Lord is no sadist.  Pain is the result of the fall of man – it was not present in God’s unfallen creation and it will not be present in eternity.  It is the harsh consequence of our sin that will one day be eliminated but, like other broken aspects of our world, the Lord is using it temporarily for his purposes and for the ultimate benefit of his children even though it is not part of his “good” creation.

In this article, I will reflect on some of the lessons that I have learned through my limited experience with pain.  I do not claim to be, nor would I ever want to claim to be, an expert in pain. I realize that there are many in our body who have suffered greatly and have been deeply wounded by our fallen world.  My reflections here come from an adverse reaction to a chemo drug designed to rid my chest, shoulders and neck of cancer and pre-cancerous growths (too much fun in the sun in my youth).  My pain was similar to a burn that lasted for about 3 weeks.  How intense was the pain?  I honestly can’t answer that question.  It was the most severe pain I have experienced so far in my life, yet all attempts to gauge or measure pain  seem a bit hokey to me.  I hate those “1 to 10” scales of pain…1 or 10 compared to what –   being submerged repeatedly in a vat of boiling oil?  Not having enough chips to go with your guacamole dip?  Losing cable service in the midst of the Superbowl?  I am also not sure how to compare physical pain and emotional pain.  Is it more painful to lose a spouse or lose an arm?  Does it hurt more to be lonely or to suffer from chronic back pain?  Is it more painful to deal with infertility or a wayward child?  Is it more painful to have cancer or watch someone you love battle with cancer?  Pain is subjective and individual.  I do not know how you experience pain and you cannot understand how I respond to pain.  Yet, we all know what it means to experience pain or hurt.  So, regardless of how “intense” my pain was compared to the suffering you have experienced, here are some lessons that the Lord taught me through my experience.

First, to quote REM, “Everybody hurts!”  No one is immune.  There is a universality of our experience of pain because there is a universality of our experience of sin.  Our sinful nature leave us deserving the wrath of God and it is only due to God’s mercy and grace that any of us experience “good” days free of pain and suffering.  We may experience pain due to our own rebellious choices, the sinful behavior of others, or the general brokenness of our world (Rom. 8:20-23). Are you groaning?  Welcome to the human family!  When we suffer we are not being singled out.  As our Lord said, “In this world you will have trouble!”  Pain can remind us that we are not as innocent as we sometimes think we are…our sin has truly made a painful mess of things.

Pain also has a way of humbling us.  To think a couple of grams of a chemical applied twice a day would be able to render me incapable of functioning normally is indeed humbling.  Pain shouts out to us that we are not captains of our fate and masters of our own souls.  It reminds us that we are indeed fragile and control so little about our lives.  Every breath I take is a gift of God and it is only because of his abundant grace that I live and move and have my being.  When I am feeling well, the illusion of self-sufficiency can subtly creep into my mind.  Pain shatters that illusion like a champagne glass dropped on a concrete floor.  Pain helps me to humble myself so that the Lord can indeed lift me up.

Pain makes you realize the importance of the rest of the body.  In our individualistic culture it is easy to live life disconnected from others.  Pain forces you to lean on others…and this is a good thing.  We are to “weep with those who weep” and “comfort others with the comfort we have received”.  We need one another…especially those who have already waded through some deep weeds themselves…when we are going through pain. (II Cor. 1:3-7)   I was greatly encouraged by those who shouldered some of my normal work load (preaching).  I was comforted by those who shared the reality of their experiences with pain and how the Lord brought them through it when I was in pain’s grip.  I was also sustained as I realized that there were many who were remembering me and praying for me (Heb. 13:3).  Once you have experienced pain, you tend to have a greater compassion for others in the body who are experiencing suffering.

Pain has a way of getting our attention.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone”.  Unfortunately, all of us tend to suffer from “fortunitis”…that condition of the soul that dulls our sensitivity to God’s voice and our compassion for others when we are experiencing a period of good “fortune”.  Good health, success, prosperity, and fulfilling relationships can actually push God to the margins in our lives.  Though we deeply and desperately need him always, we don’t sense that need as acutely during times of smooth sailing.  Pain can be God’s means of redirecting our focus back to him.  Times of deep suffering cause us to depend on God like we may never have done before (I Pet. 4:19).  It is amazing how pain can cause us to “set our minds on things above” and deeply long for our true home.  As Sheldon Vanauken stated, pain can truly be a “severe mercy” that guides our hearts back to the Lord and tunes our ear to hear his voice.

The Lord can use pain to bring back perspective and cause us to reset priorities.  During the pain-free times of our lives it is very easy to magnify the insignificant and get sucked into lusting after what the world values.  Yet, when you are in pain, you don’t care what your house looks like, what kind of clothes you have in the closet, how your IRA and 401K is doing, who won the baseball or football game, how successful you are at your vocation, or what kind of car you have in the garage.  As I said before, pain makes you stupid.  During a period of intense pain, I went out into the garage, got into my Civic and proceeded to back out without opening the garage door! Fortunately, I was going very slowly and the garage door didn’t need to be replaced!  My Civic had a slight gash in the bumper but I didn’t really care – which is pretty amazing considering the fact that I am a recovering car-a-holic!  All the stuff we have is either going to decay or burn (I Pet. 3:11)… why do I so often live as if it won’t?  Pain helped me remember that I am just passing through and this world is not deserving of my deepest love (I Jn 2:15-17).  Soon this old body will be pushing up daisies and I want to spend my life on what is truly significant and enduring.

Additionally, pain heightened my sense of gratitude for all those good gifts of God for which I so often fail to thank him – a decent night of sleep, the ability to exercise, the ability to give my daughter a shoulder ride, being able to turn my head when backing up the car, making love to my wife, enjoying a good meal, not fearing taking a shower, etc., etc.  When we finally make it home and the pain is gone, I believe our “light and momentary” afflictions (II Cor. 4:16-16) will not only pale in comparison to the “weight of glory” we experience but they will produce in us a “weight of gratitude” as we live eternally free of pain and suffering thanks to the grace of God.

I also realized that pain makes obedience harder and easier.  When you are in pain, there is a tendency to become very self-absorbed.  We can think that everyone around us should be focused on us and alleviating our suffering.  However, if we are obedient and seek to think of others even in the midst of our pain then, when we are out of pain, obedience seems a bit easier.  When you are experiencing pain, obedience may be as simple as just giving someone a kind word or a smile when you feel like screaming or being grateful for the care and prayers you are receiving.  If Jesus needed to learn obedience through what he suffered I certainly will need to as well (Heb. 5:8).

If you are in pain and if you are suffering, fix your focus on our Savior, whose birth we will celebrate this season. Unlike us, he willingly chose to experience this life of temporary pain and suffering. He didn’t stay at a distance theorizing about how his creation experienced pain and suffering but he became intimately familiar with it through the incarnation (Isa. 53; Heb. 2:14-18). Why would a perfect and pain-free being leave glory to live on this painfully broken orb?  Jesus dwelt among us so that he could demonstrate his love to us by permanently and eternally freeing us from sin, pain and suffering through his death and resurrection.  I don’t have all the philosophical answers for why there is pain and suffering in the world, but this I know: We have a Savior who knows first hand what it is to suffer and experience excruciating pain and we have a Savior who one day will return to completely eradicate all suffering, all pain and all evil from the lives of his children!  I, for one, am longing for that Day more than ever before!

Family Reunions and Church Unity

When was the last time you attended a family reunion?  That interesting time of celebrating the “union” that exists among members of a family.  There is brother Bob who tends to drink a bit too much and then share his opinions about others a bit too loudly.  There is crazy aunt Matilda who is convinced that she has every disease known to man and that there are several worldwide conspiracies designed to imperil her future security.  There is the matriarch or patriarch of the family surrounded by young ones listening to tales of the good old times or the bad old times…that seem to be getting better or worse each time they are recounted.  Then there is weird uncle Louie…well, you know, some things are just better left unsaid.

We Are Family…Like It Or Not!

You have heard it said, “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.”  That comment contains some deep theological truth as we apply it to the church.  Every family has a ‘crazy aunt Matilda’ or ‘weird uncle Louie’ that are still invited to the family reunions because, after all, they still are part of the family.  Every church family has the equivalent of these aunts and uncles.  If we communicate to them that they are no longer welcome at our Sunday or mid-week “reuinons”,  then we as a church, as a family, as a body suffer.  If we really believe that Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 are true then we dare not exclude anyone – and that includes ourselves – because ALL of us have a unique role a vital function to carry out in the body of Christ…his church.

As we think about Christian “unity” we need to recognize that, in one sense, it is NOT based on our best intentions or efforts to “get along” with others in the church.  This aspect of unity is based solely on the fact that we have, through faith in Jesus Christ,  the same spiritual Father.  If we have genuinely trusted in Christ then we share a common life (Col. 3:4);  we are all born of one Spirit (John 3:5);  we have one Father (Eph. 4:4);  we are all one body (Rom. 12:5).  So, like it or not, we ARE family.

If I am an authentic believer, then this aspect of Christian unity is a fact that needs to be reckoned with and accepted by faith.  I  may be positively impacting those with whom I am united through demonstrating practical love towards them or I may be negatively impacting those with whom I am united  through sinful attitudes and actions BUT,  regardless of my impact on them,  I am still united with them…for better or for worse!

This unity among believers does not mean uniformity.  In fact, it should recognize and even prize variety.  The one Spirit gives a variety of gifts (I Cor. 12:4).  The one body has a variety of members (I Cor. 12:14).  Contrary to some modern conceptions of unity, biblical unity is not the absence of conflict and sometimes involves significant differences of opinion among believers.  Yet, this need not threaten us or sidetrack the church.

This can be illustrated with the human body.  When I go to the health club different members of my body can have some serious differences of opinion.  My quadriceps may be saying, ‘Go for it!  Add another 50 pounds to the leg press.’  While the nerve endings in my knees may be saying, ‘Hold it a minute!  If those stubborn quadriceps get their way this knee is going to blow out and the whole body will be laid up for weeks!”  That short term ‘conflict” between my quadriceps and the nerves in my knees is actually beneficial for the overall long term health of my body.  My quads are seeking to push my body to grow in strength while the nerves in my knees desire to pursue excellence but not at the expense of permanent joint damage.

Likewise, in the body of Christ,  the different members using their various gifts may disagree but the disagreement can, if handled biblically, actually lead to a healthier spiritual body in the long run.  In I Corinthians 11:19, Paul states that differences are necessary in the process of sorting out truth and evaluating members of the body.  A strong disagreement between Paul and Barnabas is described in Acts 15:36-40 over whether to take along John Mark on their second mission trip.  Paul was strongly opposed to including him because of his previous abandonment of the team on their first mission trip (Acts 13:13).  Barnabas wanted to give his cousin John Mark a second chance on this second trip.

I believe this strong  “difference of opinion”  was the result out of Paul’s and Barnabas’ different spiritual gifts.  Paul was an evangelist called to reach the unreached (Rom. 15:20).  He had no time to nurture an immature believer because he was heading to the front lines where the opposition was intense and he needed to know his troops would stick together in the midst of adversity.  Barnabas, on the other hand,  was an encourager as well as an evangelist.  He was given his name by the church because it meant “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36).  He was able to see the potential in people despite their past failures.  In fact, it was Barnabas who was instrumental in getting the young church to accept Paul despite his previous persecution of Christians (Acts 9:27).

Who was right?  I this case, I don’t think it was a matter of right and wrong.  Paul and Silas accomplished great things on their second missionary journey.  Yet, John Mark did mature and grow under Barnabas’ mentoring.  So much so that at toward the end of Paul’s life he actually wanted John Mark to come to him because he was “helpful to me in my ministry” (II Tim 4:11)

Since We Are Family…Let’s Work Hard To Show It!

Even though we are united as believers due to our common spiritual parentage, there is an aspect of unity that must work itself out in the real world experiences of the church through much effort and serious prayer. In Ephesians 4:3 the Holy Spirit says this,  “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  In Romans 15:5 He says this, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.”

I believe that the reason the Lord put I Corinthians 13 right between two chapters on the operation of spiritual gifts is because of the potential challenges inherent in having different gifts operating to build up ONE body.  Unity amidst diversity will only be realized in the life of the church when we operate with supernatural love recognizing our gifts are designed for the building up of the body not for personal glory.  That supernatural love will only come as we diligently seek to abide in the Lord and as we pray that this type of sacrificial other-centered love would permeate this local body of believers.

We are all people in process…and some of us need more processing than others!  However,  none of us have yet arrived at a point of spiritual perfection (I Jn 1:8-10).  So, it is vital that we learn to accept one another as Christ accepted us (Rom 15:7).  How did the Lord accept us?  With all our baggage and all our hang ups!  Now the Scriptures are clear that this does not mean the acceptance of sin (Matt. 18:15-20) but it does mean that even though we are commanded to confront a sinning believer it must be done with gentleness and love (Gal 6:1; II Tim. 2:24-26).

As we move forward as a church, we can expect opposition from the Evil One.  Therefore, it is extremely important that we make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit. This means that when conflicts and differences of opinions arise, and they will, we need to exert the effort required to work through the situation instead of simply sweeping them under the rug or running away from the conflict.

Since We Are Family…Let’s Grow Together In Our Understanding of God’s Word!

There is a third aspect of unity that should be constantly growing and increasing…that is our unity in “the faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”  This is not a unity that exists already and must be maintained but a unity that develops and grows as the church functions according to God’s design.   When you see the words “the faith” mentioned in the New Testament it almost always refers to the content of our faith (‘doctrine’ or ‘theology’ we would call it) not the exercising of personal faith or trust in Jesus (see Col 2:7; I Tim 2;7; 3:9; 4:1;  II Tim 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:13; I Pet. 5:9; Jude 1:13).

This unity regarding the understanding of Christian truth and intimate knowledge of Jesus develops over time as the church is built up through the proper exercise of spiritual gifts. Ephesians 4:11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ..

These verses imply that reaching this type of unity is a dynamic process that takes place over time as the body grows and matures.  This means that  a proper understanding of doctrinal truth takes time and is worked out in the context of the body of Christ.  Yes, there are certain doctrines in Scripture that are clear and very important – pertaining to the nature and character of God, the basics of the gospel and salvation, the nature and destiny of man, and the nature of God’s Word, the Bible.   In these primary or major doctrines of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 13) we dare not tolerate unorthodox views.  Paul and Peter were very intolerant when it came to these foundational or core beliefs being assaulted (see Gal 1:6-9; I Tim. 1:3; 6:3-5; II Pet. 2:1-3).

However, we must admit that there are parts of Scripture that are not crystal clear to us and are challenging for us to understand (I Cor. 13:12; I Pet. 3:15-16).  It is in these areas where we need to wrestle with the text and pray for understanding and deeper insight.   Yet, this striving for unity in “the faith” must be carried out in love recognizing that our brothers and sisters who, at this stage in the Christian growth, may have a different interpretation of a particular text are still our brothers and sisters.  Growth in unity of doctrine must be couple with growth in our intimacy with Jesus.  If our “”knowledge” creates a proud uncharitable attitude in us it is not genuine biblical knowledge (I Cor 8:1-3).  I’m sure we all know people with a large amount of biblical data stored in their synapses but who are devoid of genuine concern and care for other people.

We need to remind ourselves that our maturity in Christ is not primarily evidenced by our ability to amass doctrinal knowledge but by the fruit of the Spirit becoming increasingly more visible in our lives – especially the demonstration of sacrificial love (I Cor 8:1; Gal 5:22-23; I Tim. 1:5).

I will paraphrase the great preacher Chrysostom, “In Essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty, patience and study.  In all things, sacrificial love.”

So, the next time you come to the family reunion of God’s children, sit down next to crazy aunt Matilda or weird uncle Louie.  Who knows, you may just learn a something new.  But, even if you don’t,  one thing I know you will learn for sure is how to better love those with whom  you are already united in Christ.  And do you know what?  They may be sitting down next to you for the very same reason!