The Battle Within

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Psalm 43:5

Oh, how I wish each step of this race could be joyful; filled with moments of awe and splendor and wonder. How I wish that I could run my race without the weight of the sin curse dragging at my heart and snatching the breath from my lungs. But this is real life, and David’s Psalm aptly expresses my real state of mind today.

One of my oldest enemies, the fiendish Despair, still dogs my heels from time to time as I labor on my course. Oh,though he is sly, I know him; I know his true name — it is Pride, dressed though he may be in a darker suit of self-focus. From time to time on deserted stretches of the track, my sinister stalker will fling the well-paired bolas of fatigue and pain, entangling my legs and causing me to sprawl ingloriously onto my face.

One would think I would learn to keep an eye out for him when the way is desolate… one would think.

Always, always it is the same setup: a few weeks of relentless pain, a sense of uselessness and failure, a realization that much of the past efforts I have given in ministry was  either  unheeded or unneeded. Too little sleep. Too much to do. A certainty of ineptitude made more concrete by the actions of others. The reality of being forgotten. The conviction that not only do I not belong, I have passed that quirk of not belonging on to my children. The very painful understanding that sometimes to be a sojourner on this earth means that I will sojourn alone.

Well, not entirely alone.

There is One who has promised never to leave me nor forsake me… not even when I allow my thoughts to fall into the familiar old iniquity of despondency.

There is my Shepherd who will be with me even in the valley of deepest darkness.

There is the Light for my path, even if it is just glimmer enough to see an inch or two of the way before me.

There is my great High Priest who can sympathize with my weakness, for He has been tempted in all ways that I have yet without my sin.  For in Gethsemane, I am certain that even He was tempted to give in to Despair… yet He fought on. And won.

So at times like this, I remember that my body is weak and prone to falter, but that my Savior is neither of these. Though I may feel cast down, discouraged, defeated, and useless; though I may not have the strength to fight, in Christ I can find the strength to stand. And I remember that the battle is not mine but the Lord’s.

When the horrible ache of being a person on the fringes threatens to swallow me in sorrow, I recall that I do belong — to the King of kings. That, too, I can pass to my children and together we can view this vast and often hostile territory with fresh eyes, cherishing its beauty and even loving those who unwittingly inflict pain because we remember that we are just passing through until the great Day of our final Homecoming.

So why are you cast down, O my soul? Rather, hope in God for I will again praise Him, for He is my King and His grace is sufficient for me.

 

 

 

 

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Embracing What May Come

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5

It seems that every time I look at Facebook, my feed is filled with atrocities, horrifying acts of violence, signposts that indicate waning morality and even social insanity, hints of increasing government control  in America and simultaneously decreasing public awareness, and all manner of corruption both here and abroad.

Then there are the inevitable social media responses which vary from outraged furor to gleeful celebration to bland misunderstanding.

Sometimes it all just sounds like noise to me. And I grow so weary of Facebook and of the news…

All things taken as a whole, it does appear that as a nation we no longer accept any actual standard for discriminating between right and wrong. Media seems to play an increasingly large role in creating and supporting a somewhat shifty moral basis, more intent on what captures the attention of the people than honoring any absolute truth.  The role of government seems to have shifted, too. No longer merely content to uphold a certain standard of right and wrong, they are now modifying it to fit the mood of the people.

Friends, that is not only sad, it’s frightening. If what is “moral” today can become “immoral” tomorrow based on something strikingly similar to a whim, than the value of our very lives is subject to fluctuation.  If morality is a standard judged by something as fickle as society — like fashion — than there is no future guarantee of safety, prosperity, rights… of anything, really.

“Here is a simple but profound rule: If there are no absolutes by which to judge society, then society is absolute.” — Francis A. Shaeffer

I admit these things scare me some. I understand history enough to see the logical conclusions of the very choices that are presently being made by our country.  I am often saddened at what likely lies ahead, particularly for my children and subsequent generations.

But I also have hope, for I am reminded constantly that this America is not my country.  I belong to a Kingdom that is not of this world, and when I view the signs of the times through that lens, I am no longer afraid. In fact, I feel excited. Exhilarated even.

No matter how quickly or slowly the moral climate of America may shift, one thing we can count on as believers is that persecution will come. We are promised it in no uncertain terms many times over in Scriptures (see Matthew 2:9, John 15:20 to name a couple).

As Paul wrote to Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:12-13).  Persecution is one certainty in an uncertain world. But we who are in Christ need not be afraid. Even persecution has immense value in our Kingdom’s economy.

Historically, the Church has thrived under persecution. It shakes things up, makes believers get to the root of their faith, brings out the importance of prayer and the preciousness of the Word. It leaves little time for bickering over secondary issues and brings Christ into sharp focus. It provides opportunities for real forgiveness where there little or no reason to forgive. It scatters communities of believers and brings the Gospel to new areas because of it.

It also highlights genuine love and faith in a risen Savior like nothing else really can. When believers choose hardship, exile, or death over renouncing their faith in Christ, it is a mighty witness to His worthiness. Others will be watching us, wondering if this thing is real. They already are. What are they seeing? May it be You, Lord; let it be You!

Yes, the darkness is menacing. But we are not children of the darkness, but of Light. It is heady stuff, my brothers and sisters. We do not have to knuckle under to fear, even if it should come knocking at our very doors. We serve a powerful and living God, a God worth not only living for but dying for, and we are His witnesses. Who knows but that we may be on the verge of seeing His hand move in ways we have so far only read of or dreamed about? That is exciting stuff!

Don’t let these crazy times make you fearful, bitter, or angry, Christian! Try to remember that we are just travelers tarrying here for a time on our journey Homeward.

Instead, let’s pray for strength for the Church and for each other, for unity in Christ, for a commitment to the King of kings and to His Kingdom purposes. Rather than feeling hopeless, pray that as we see lawlessness increase, we will also see grace increase more and more, and His Light in us will draw scores of souls to salvation in Christ Jesus. Let’s pray for humble, obedient hearts and for an eternal focus in our present lives.

Let’s pray for each other daily, for endurance and to see His glory and the power of the Holy Spirit. And let us not be sorrowful to live in such a time as this but rejoice at the opportunities they present!

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:4-5

 

On Fear

…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7

It’s true that I have not yet faced what can truly be called “persecution” in my Christian walk. Oh, I’ve had a little mockery here and there, but unlike so many of my fellows, I have also enjoyed the luxurious freedom to read my Bible every single day. I am able to purchase numerous commentaries, Bible translations,  and Bible study materials.  Not only that, but I meet frequently and openly with others to discuss the Word, to pray, and to worship — and I am able to do all these things without fear of being arrested, beaten, slaughtered, or having my offspring taken into state custody.

Still, persecution has been on my mind lately. For one thing, my heart breaks to hear of the pain and the wretchedness experienced by so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ overseas. And while I live in a free land at present, I have enough of a grasp of history to understand the changeable and uncertain nature of governments, borders, and empires. My current freedoms are neither guaranteed nor even likely to last for many more generations, and I cannot promise my children that the relatively friendly world we operate within will be there for the remainder of our lives.

It is a sobering fact that one thing Christians are guaranteed in this life is persecution. In the same letter that today’s opening Scripture came from, Paul also assured Timothy, “Indeed,all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived,” (2 Timothy 3:12-13).

Does that scare me? If I am honest, I must admit that it frequently does. However, we who are in Christ are given another guarantee, one that should help us to endure even the most heinous of circumstances; one that I hang on to when fear constricts my heart. Summed up, it is the guarantee that whatever we endure here and now will be worth the hope of eternity we look forward to once we have cast aside these old tents and taken up residence in our true homes.

We have this guarantee in the words of Jesus, whose sacrifice ensured that the suffering of those who are in Him will not last for eternity: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33  We also have it in Paul’s letter to another ancient church, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

So I keep these things in mind. For now, I enjoy my freedoms. I relish my time in the Word and savor public worship and prayer meetings. I am also preparing both myself and my children for what may come, knowing full well that we may or may not live to see true persecution on this hemisphere of the globe.

Whether we ever see persecution or not, we are still called to be a people prepared, and so I pray daily for my family:  for our sanctification, for deeper devotion, for stronger, genuine faith. I also spend time reading and reveling in the Word and encouraging my children to do so. We actively memorize and rehearse Scripture, hiding it in our hearts both so we might not sin against God and because of the possibility that what we have stored in our hearts may someday be all we have access to.

I also remind myself constantly that my God has not given me a spirit of fear. I can trust Him. I do not look forward to persecution, but neither should I let the dread of it weigh on my mind, color my decisions, or keep me from living boldly for my God even if it someday means suffering unflinchingly for Him. He has already suffered unflinchingly for me.

 So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”  Hebrews 13:6

 

 

In Appreciation of Pain, Part Three

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:2-5

(Earlier, I wrote about two other lessons I learned that make me thankful for the decade I spent struggling through chronic migraine. If you would like to read them, you can find them here and here.)

The third,  but perhaps the most purely delightful, lesson I took away from those years of suffering was in learning to praise my God even when shrouded in pain. While those words are easy to write now, it is critical to note that my gratitude for the suffering did not begin after I  had exited the dark valley of daily pain– I began to express thanksgiving and praise aloud to God even while striving to function through the throes of migraines.

Those years were truly dark ones in all senses of the word, some points of which I have already outlined in my previous posts. Implacable pain was only one of the reasons for the gloom, but it was a pushy, domineering one. I could not escape the grip of pain for long. Medications would work for a few weeks, but they had their own side effects besides losing efficacy over fairly short periods of time.  I began to dread waking, knowing that all that waited for me was an awareness of pain.  My mind also seemed to be failing as I struggled to recall familiar words like “toaster” and “laundry” or my children’s names. I was perpetually, relentlessly tired, almost a zombie trudging mindlessly through each day. Because of the intensity and long-term quality of the affliction, I found myself frequently succumbing depression.

I remember clearly the first time when, in the clutches of a migraine so fierce that I dared not twitch a finger for fear of the repercussions, I was compelled to whisper oh, so quietly my adoration of God and praise that He was allowing me to be broken and reshaped by such pain, allowing me to participate in some minute way in the sufferings of my Lord Yeshua. It was the first toddling steps of a shaky practice that I began to form, a routine of murmuring blessing or praise even. or rather, especially in the depth of affliction or when despair constricted and stifled my heart. It was some time and many stops and starts before the practice began to be a habit.  It is still not a solid habit, I am sorry to say, but I now remember more often than I forget.

Slowly, strangely, the leaden fog of despair was rent and began to dissipate as surely as mist in the sun.  I began to understand the truth behind yet another quote from Nancy Leigh DeMoss: “True joy is not the absence of pain but the sanctifying, sustaining presence of the Lord Jesus in the midst of the pain.” I understood because I had begun to learn to recognize His Presence always, even when veiled by my own pain.

Through this moment and countless others like it, I learned to acknowledge the glory and worthiness of my King despite what I may be feeling. Though my body was wracked with exhaustion and tormented by ruthless headaches, I learned to be thankful that He was greater than my pain.

What’s more, I learned that He is worth praising no matter what my circumstances are. Even the worst of my pain can never amount to the humiliation and rejection my Lord experienced when He literally became sin on that cross as ransom for billions of undeserving, debauched human lives like my own. Even the temptation to despair can be overcome when I focus less on myself and more on the majesty and undeserved compassion of my Lord and my God.

So all in all, I am thankful for the trials God has sent my way. I am thankful for pain so persistent and intense that I was forced to the end of myself… and most gloriously of all, I am thankful that I found Him waiting for me there.

It is my sincere prayer that you will know that He is there with you in your dark valleys as well, and knowing that, you will unabashedly sing His praises into the cold and uncaring darkness. Hang in there, my dear, no matter how long it takes. He is there, even when you do not see Him. And His grace truly is sufficient for whatever trial you face.

In Appreciation of Pain, Part Two

 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:11

(If you missed the first installment of why I am thankful for a prolonged season of pain and want to check it out, you can find it here.) 

Some of the spiritual gleanings of the years I spent living with chronic migraine cannot be expressed in clunky words. They are, for now, just impressions of intense joy or closeness with my God. Other lessons are permanently etched into my consciousness, as palpable as scars from a wound. They act as a brand of sorts, reminding me to Whom I belong and are entirely caused by my opposition to His firm leading.  Many of these scars are remnants of the chastening I received during those years, reminders to me now of the plentiful grace God was eager to give when I humbled myself… and of the ridiculous wilfulness I demonstrated, digging in my heels against His attempts to lead me to still waters and green pastures.

This second lesson is the one for which I am most exquisitely grateful but is also the most difficult to share. However, I want to share it with you; this bit of  instruction more painful even than the migraines themselves, poignant and personal, so that if you, my beloved, go through a season of crushing, you can be reminded that all the trials God allows to afflict us are for our eternal good–shaping us, preparing us for an eternal expanse of joy beyond compare.

During those dark years, I went through Nancy Leigh DeMoss’s study for women entitled Lies Women Believe and was confronted with a truth, roughly summarized that my circumstances do not make me what I am; they reveal what I already am. Before entering this long, treacherous stretch of my spiritual journey, I had felt pretty good about myself as a Christian. I served my God well, or so I believed. I had sacrificed much and was pretty proud of that. I did a lot for the Kingdom–at least in my own estimation — and I was able to demonstrate love to a variety of people. By all appearances, I was a good servant.

However, the God who knew my heart was ready to show me what lurked beneath the surface.

When I had walked in that dark valley long enough that even my hobbies weighed as a burden and the concept of “fun” had faded to a distant memory, then the real me was revealed.  I discovered that my heart contained more that was shrewish, complaining, and hateful than I had ever dreamed. I saw that I had little self-control and less patience. In short, my circumstances revealed a me that I was ashamed of and horrified by. It was as if I had imagined I was dressed for a royal gala only to have a mirror held up, exposing garments that were soiled and tattered,  greasy hair in utter disarray, skin that was sallow and sickly.

Here, in the disagreeable circumstance of chronic pain, I was confronted with some bare facts: my heart harbored more bitterness than blessing, more rage than compassion, more indulgence than self-discipline. Much of my service was revealed to me now to be done out of pride; a prim little girl looking for accolades and disappointed when none were offered. God lovingly but firmly exposed the real me that seethed secretly with bitterness and resentment.

I felt entitled to appreciation, entitled to have someone else help me in my work when I was sick, irritated when I felt that the work I did was unfair. And sometimes it was. I justified my peevishness with worldly standards, but by the grace and chastisement of my Father, I now fully comprehend that it was –and is — desperately, desperately wrong.

You see, for me to think that I deserve anything for my paltry, haughty service, to believe that I deserve anything at all outside of condemnation for the tremendous sin debt I owe, is tragically incorrect. All I deserve is death, yet in Christ I have been granted not only unmerited forgiveness but eternal life as well. It is by His grace alone I am saved. The thankfulness I have for this gift is beyond expression, though it took suffering to make me see clearly.

So did this time of intense and painful scourging result in a harvest of peace and righteousness? Peace, yes. I now have a more profound peace in my heart than I ever knew to be possible. Righteousness–well, the only righteousness I can claim is the mantle of my Lord that He, in His mercy, has clothed me in. I can say undoubtedly that I am no longer serving Him for what I may get out of it, but out of a gratitude so intense that it makes any task He metes seem light and simple, and when I fall into old habits of grumbling, the scars remind me to repent and fix my mind on His grace once more. The burdens I once whined beneath are now cheerfully borne because of the love I bear for my King. This is the meaning of Matthew 11:30, and I rejoice in the pain that helped me to understand it.

But even that is not all. He had something to show me still yet. . .

In Appreciation of Pain, Part One

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
James 1:2-3

Today I am thankful for the relatively recent freedom from chronic migraine and associated headache pain I have experienced. I am grateful beyond words that my days are no longer bookended by varying degrees of that miserable pain which was both my first and last awareness for so many years.  As appreciative as I am for the fact that the number of headaches has drastically reduced, I feel the need to stress that I am also thankful for the many years I spent in the ruthless, dense fog of chronic migraine.

Strange though it may be,  I now consider those months of  incessant pain a blessing. There was absolutely nothing about it that was pleasant, nor would I wish to repeat even a week of the experience. Still,  it was during those interminable, torturous days marked most heavily by fatigue borne of perpetual pain that I learned such a great deal about the goodness of my Creator.

I have always been the type to plow on through an illness or injury to the point of utter collapse. Even that trait, however, proved a poor prop under the onslaught of nearly a decade of being both awakened and lulled to sleep by the pitiless ache in my head. For a while, my own strength sufficed. . .  for a while. But there came a day when I simply had nothing left. Even the most mundane tasks were overwhelming and the job of educating my children with patience and love seemed hopelessly out of reach.

Up to this time, I had sporadically called upon God for help when I found myself quite over my head. Now, however, I was in a perplexing state of trouble where my tremendous need was not covered by occasional pleas for mercy.  This was the time when I began to understand that a commonly spoken platitude was horribly flawed: God does give us more than we can handle. Often. Repeatedly. Even tenaciously for those of us who, like myself, are stubbornly proud and unwilling to even recognize our own weakness.

Finally desperate to break the cycle, I began to pray for help and confess my ineptitude continually throughout each day. I asked for His Spirit to expose and give me strength to repent of every act of self-sufficiency and for the grace to remember to call upon Him for mercy and for help in time of need — not only when troubled waters had swelled and I was drowning, but at the very moment those waters began to rise around me. I began to call upon Him sometimes hourly, sometimes every minute, and He willingly provided far above what my feeble efforts were worth. Slowly, the darkness of the valley did not bear down so intensely and though I still was too benumbed by pain to see far ahead, at least He provided the light to my feet for the step that was imminent.  I could see enough to walk forward. I could see that I needed to lean completely on the limitless sufficiency of His great grace.

But God had still more to show me…

 Lord, thank You that Your grace is truly sufficient! Thank You for not allowing me to move forward in self-sufficient pride; that You care enough to humble me and cause me to see my need to abide utterly in You.