No Pain, No Gain

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
(Proverbs 27:6)

As many of you know, I’m in the editing phase of a novel I hope to have published. The setting is dystopian – either our own world in the future or one enough like it to be almost familiar. It’s meant as an extended parable for sacrificial living and the potential to use or abuse our God-given gifts.

I belong to a critique group, which was a pretty brave act for me. Through them, I’ve received a lot of great feedback. But there’s this one guy…

He never hesitates to ask questions about what is confusing, to point out continuity issues or passive voice or a myriad of other mistakes. In fact, my submissions often come back from their time under his scrutiny riddled with comments and dissected sentences.

I could ignore his emails. I could collect a handful of people who love my writing as is and say very little. But in the long run, I would be the worse for my refusal to hear difficult truths.

As it is, I love the criticism. Not because it feels good to have your rough draft sliced and diced. It doesn’t. I love it because he pushes me to work harder, to tighten and refine and grow as an author.

Naturally, a part of me adores glowing feedback, but the reasonable part of me knows it’s the criticism which drives me to exert my mental abilities and strive toward a better product.

Similarly several years ago, my family took judo under the instruction of a dear friend (whom I often still refer to as Sensei though it’s been ages since I stepped foot on a mat or took a fall). Every time he would praise a technique I’d done correctly, I would blow it for the next 15 minutes. I finally told him, “I think I just work better with criticism.”

He believed me, and lo and behold, I did improve.

My point?

I have been reading the Word of the Lord daily for many years. Studying, memorizing, and reflecting on it are all parts of my average day. I also spend no small amount of time reading works by other Christians.

None of this is to my own credit, mind you. This desire for the Word is a gift from God; one I requested early in my walk with Him and one He happily granted.

Anyway, the more I become saturated with the Word, the more I realize that often it’s the things I want least to hear that I need to hear most.

In today’s American Christianity, there is an abundance of shelf space advertised as “Christian.” But mark my words: Just because a thing speaks of the Lord or quotes Scripture does not mean the teaching is based on sound doctrine.

In an act of audacious irony, our ancient enemy quoted Scripture to the Word made flesh (see Mark 4:6). And believe me, his kisses are profuse. He loves to keep us snuggled in such comfort we overlook the bars of our cozy cage. If I wanted, I could easily surround myself with nothing but heartwarming sentiment.

But then I wouldn’t grow.

I’m certainly not knocking encouragement – God knows every one of us needs it, and He offers it in due time. But we need an equal balance of rebuke and reproof. We need the sharp prick of a goad now and then to remind us to stay on the narrow path that leads to life just as we sometimes need a word to lift us out of the pit to soar on wings like eagles’.

Friends, the Christian walk is not one of self-indulgence and earthly pleasure. We are promised joy, but it is joy in the presence of the Lord. Pleasure at His right hand. This means that our joy will often come not in lieu of suffering but in spite of it.

And to achieve this state of “joy anyway,” we need a full complement of both correction and encouragement. Of discipline and strengthening. We need the wounds of a friend who has the long term as a goal. If we are to become more Christlike, we must also be willing to endure Christlike suffering.

To compete so as to win the prize, we have to put in the hard work of training if we are to run our race well. But the Prize will be well worth our effort!07

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 3:13-14)

How about you? Do you tend to gravitate towards what I would call “easy button Christianity?” Or are you equally open to hearing hard truths which require some sacrifice or painful confession in order to grow in Christ-likeness?

 

 

Gentlemanly Disagreement

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.
(2 Timothy 2:14)

Is it just me or do my fellow countrymen in the US seem to be increasing in verbal combativeness and anger? Even a casual perusal of social media will reveal at least one vitriolic argument delivered with such vehemence that the reader raises a reflexive hand to ward off the virtual spittle.

If only such disagreements would stay buried among emojis and uppercase fonts. But I’ve seen an increasing number of public lashings-out as well. Not only shootings but aggressive driving and other hostilities seem to be becoming more and more pervasive.

It’s our new normal, somewhat infamously (and embarrassingly) highlighted during each new political rally for local, state, or federal elections.

But Christians, we have a calling and it is NOT to take part in vicious debate. In fact, we’re expressly told to love our enemies and respond to their acts of hostility with kindness and to overcome evil with good (see Matthew 5:38-45, Romans 12:21, et al).

We are called not to argumentativeness, but to truth.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.
(2 Timothy 2:15-17a)

Not only are we to uphold an unashamed adherence to truth, but when it becomes necessary for us to correct, we do so with gentleness. Not trying to fight fire with fire, but cooling the heat of the moment with the genuine love and humility modeled so excellently by our Lord when He asked, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:24).

Somehow in our embracing of the sincere belief that modern man has evolved to such a greater degree of wisdom than our primitive and somewhat foolish ancestors, we have also evolved ourselves right out of the art of gentlemanly disagreement.

In our quest for Nietzsche’s “superman,” we’ve run roughshod over the man of honor, trampling him and cursing him for slowing us down in our frantic hurtling down the broad path. We’ve forgotten that path leads to destruction. Indeed, the track is littered with the detritus of its destination. Not that we’ve time to stop and take notice, of course.

Yet it wasn’t so many years ago that men could agree to disagree. Two men I know of went so far as to be the greatest of friends despite the absolute opposition of their ideologies.

G. K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were fabulous friends, yet their viewpoints could not have been more opposite. Chesterton was a Catholic, a prolific author, and from all accounts filled with a boundless joy. Shaw epitomized atheistic viewpoint and had some sympathies for communistic society.

Both men never ceased their attempts to convert one another to his own way of thinking. Both men frequently engaged in a hearty and heartfelt sparring with words.

But each of them respected the other, often praising his opponent’s clarity of thought or well-turned phrase even while rejecting the philosophy behind it. When Chesterton reached the end of this life – an end Shaw firmly maintained was his friend’s grand finale – Shaw, knowing that his long-time rival and colleague wasn’t the greatest money manager, he wrote to Chesterton’s widow:

“It seems the most ridiculous thing in the world that I, 18 years older than Gilbert, should be heartlessly surviving him. However, this is only to say that if you have any temporary bothers that I can remove, a line on a postcard (or three figures) will be sufficient.”

In 1936, three figures represented quite a sum of money. To put the gesture in perspective, it helps to realize that the average annual income at the time was less than $2000.

For the sake of the God we serve, for the sake of bearing His name well, and on the off chance any Shaws in our lives may be persuaded by the kindness of the Lord expressed through us, His body, let’s try to tone down the anger. Please? Let’s ramp up the humility and start jabbing those furious fingers into the face in the mirror.

Then, perhaps, we can see how ridiculous we look all hopped up and blotchy with rage. Then maybe we can enjoy a laugh or two at our own expense, and get back to the business of telling the world of the marvels Jesus Christ has done for us.

Starting, just maybe, with the marvel of how He worked in us a desire to remain in tandem with His Word of Truth as we reach out to others in love, patience, mercy, and unwavering faith in a God who is worth suffering a little shame for.

The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth…
(2 Timothy 2:24-25)

Tuesday Prayer: Because He Knows

Bit of background on today’s prayer:

As some of you know, I have been studying Biblical Hebrew with the goal of someday being able to read the Bible in both Hebrew and Greek. The reason? I just plain love the Word that much; both the Word who was in the beginning and the Book. For real.

At any rate, I was working through a portion of Exodus 3 and came to the end of verse 7 where God says, “I know their suffering.”

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…  (Exodus 3:7)

The Hebrew word translated “I know” ( יָדַ֖עְתִּי) is transliterated yadati. The root, yada, connotes several concepts, among which are to discern or find out, to know by experience. It is the same word used metaphorically for carnal knowledge (as in “Adam knew his wife”), which in my mind implies a very intimate knowledge.

Then it hit me. God truly does intimately know the suffering of His people. He even knows suffering by experience, because He experienced suffering as one of us.

By the hands of those He came to save, He endured flogging and blows. By the mouths of those He supplied with the ability to speak, He sustained mockery. By the act of one of His closest companions, He faced betrayal. Upon the wood of a cross made from a tree He created, he bore our shame.

And because He did these things and more, we who are in Christ have a great High Priest who intercedes for us before the Throne of Grace. When we turn from our own way and submit our lives fully to Him, we receive grace. Because the One who never sinned became sin for us, we become His righteousness when we, though faith, become His.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 5:21)

So today, I raise my plea to Him:

El Roi, our God Who sees, we praise You for the simple yet profound fact that You do see us. You see us in all our afflictions, in each celebration, and in every mundane moment in between.

Nothing done in the darkness is hidden from Your sight and no evil passes without Your noticing it. Not only the wrongs others commit against us but also the wrongs perpetrated by us – all alike are noticed by You and wrought for the good of those who love You. For this, our hearts overflow with gratitude and praise.

Not only do You see us, but You know us far better, even, then we know ourselves. Before a word is on our tongue, You know it. You even know the number of hairs on our heads. But perhaps the most poignantly, You know the suffering of Your people because You also lived and suffered as a man.

Thanks to Your compassion and grace, we can trust You in the intimate way You see and know us. Because of Your love, this knowledge does not beat us down but instead inspires us to keep pressing forward, lifting our eyes off of ourselves and our sorrows and onto the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with grief.

It is Christ’s experiential knowledge of suffering which allows us to approach the Throne of Grace with confidence. Because of what our Lord Jesus did in his time on earth, we have a high priest who has suffered in every way we have yet did so without falling to sin.

So it is today, Lord, that we as Your church humbly approach You and ask for a filling of Your mercy and grace. Please supply us with both in ample supply that we are enabled to serve You with fierce effectiveness, bearing much fruit for Your harvest – fruit that will last and that is rooted in mercy and grace as we share Your truth with others, amen. 

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:15-16)

Analog Interaction in a Digital World

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
(Romans 12:4-5)

Because my time is short, today I hope to give you the nickel version of a topic which deserves much more time. Much more. I want to talk about church membership and why it is important to the believer.

I know, I know, I’ve heard it before. Truth be told, I’ve even said it before: I don’t need the church to worship God. I can worship Him in private. Et cetera.

When I was a young Christian, I believed that with all my heart even though I never did actually stop going to church. But as I’ve walked in some dark and frightening places with the Lord, He has shown me otherwise.

Because, friends, those dark and frightening places were not out there in the world but right here, in my own heart and soul.

I’ve walked with His light shining in the darkness, exposing sin and I’ve learned to call it what it is. My sin. My selfishness and self-protectiveness and approval addiction and other ugly features.

But I’ve no wish to focus on those things today. Many have been dredged up and removed, and while I’m sure there will be many more dead and decaying things dredged up in the future, today I want to focus on the Lord. He is the reason to be a part of a church, because the church is His body.

And you need it. And it needs you.

Friends, here’s the thing. If we are truly the body of Christ, we don’t really get to choose. It’s God who makes the body and He’s the one who gets to decide where the pieces go, what they do, and how they work together to achieve His purposes.

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
(1 Corinthians 12:18)

If we take the arrangement of the body into our own hands – even choosing our own part to play – we invite chaos and disaster. In such a case, not only are we taking on the role of the Creator, we are also rebelling against the authority of the Head – a body made of parts with no control center, running amok and doing as they wish without a central purpose or direction.

And if you think of it in those terms, it’s more than a trifle ludicrous.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
(1 Corinthians 12:14-15)

It’s also somewhat mutinous. Just think of your own elbow deciding it would much prefer to digest food than be a hinge. Ew. Or your heart imposing a preference of beating on the outside where all can see his might instead of dutifully thumping away in a cage.

Or what if the heart bore a grudge against his bony housing and decided he would not beat at all as long as the ribs remained in their place? That would not be a healthy body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
(1 Corinthians 12:21)

Aside from that, there’s a simple fact we cannot afford to ignore. It is not in spite of the church’s fault but because of them that we need it.

By learning to be rejected and overlooked, by having our toes stepped on and stepping on the toes of others, by being burnt out or just burnt; in short, by belonging to a group of redeemed sinners in various stages of sanctification, we strive together and grind against one another and wear on one another.

We grow to be more Christlike because we learn to endure mistreatment like Christ. We see how far we are from being Christlike because we are forced to see how we mistreat others. Our pride is exposed and humility begins to take its place as we learn to submit to the Headship of Christ together.

In putting aside jealousy and self-importance, we learn to celebrate others’ success and mourn others’ losses as if they were our own. We become a single Body, living and breathing and worshiping no longer for self but for the eternal glory of our Head, Jesus Christ our Lord.

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
(1 Corinthians 12:26-27)

And as much as I love the blogging community, I also realize the limitations of digital relationships. There’s zero chance of an awkward encounter on the web. We aren’t forced to get through relationship difficulties on the internet; we can just unfriend,  mute, or ignore. Even delete. And we can’t blurt out something accidentally offensive. We have time to read and edit.

That is why in this day and age, we need to foster our face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder relationships, growing together and building one another up in love.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
(Ephesians 4:15-16)

For more on this topic, check out: Hurt by Church? Me Too. Let’s Chat.

Sufferin’ Succotash

There’s an idea I hear tossed around from time to time among well-meaning Christians which goes something like this:

Christian A is speaking (texting, emailing, whatevering) with Christian B who is in the midst of a painful ordeal, possibly looking for ways out. In a sympathetic effort to console, Christian A says something to the effect that “God wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.”

But frankly, I find this concept puzzling. Why? Well, because I don’t see it reflected in God’s Word. Quite the opposite, actually.

Now before you accuse me of thinking God is a sadist or some grumpy old lightning-bolt thrower, let me state my case clearly: I don’t.

He is, was, and always has been a loving Father who is devoted to what is best for His children. And sometimes what is best for us in the long run (ie-for the next ten zillion years) us difficult or painful right now. In short, sometimes we have to suffer to be prepared for what’s next. God also happens to be the Creator, so his definitions about what is and is not “good” kinda trump ours in every single instance imaginable, but that’s a story for another day.

If I’ve learned nothing else from living half my life for me and the other half for Him, I’ve learned that suffering serves a vital role in the life of a Christian. After all, the Christ suffered, so it follows that if we are to become more Christlike, we will follow His lead.

Or as Paul put it to a young preacher named Timothy several centuries ago:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
(2 Timothy 2:3, emphasis mine)

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, emphasis mine)

**Note that persecution = suffering

Again, I do not view God as an angry deity just waiting to catch me in the act of doing wrong. I do, however, understand God’s perspective is so much wider and deeper than mine. Sometimes big benefits in eternity are purchased with a few drops of blood, sweat, and tears for His sake here on earth.

But please note the “for His sake” part of my little soapbox stance. If we suffer for wrongdoing, that’s merely us getting our due. But if we suffer for His Name’s sake, well… one possible solution is to embrace it. Maybe even count ourselves lucky like these guys did:

…and when they [the Sanhedrin – Jewish council] had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name.  (Acts 5:40-41, again, emphasis mine)

But what about suffering that has nothing to do with His Name’s sake nor with our wrongdoing?  There’s a topic you and I could spend hours one.

I have learned not to trust my own judgment in discerning when I’ve done wrong because I am diabolically clever at lying to myself. Thus sometimes, my suffering is disciplinary and I need to ask my Father where I erred.

Once unintentional sin is ruled out, I’m left with the raw fact that suffering is a product of living in a fallen world.

And my friends, it’s at precisely these two points where hope comes in.

You see, if disciplinary suffering is lovingly administered by our Father, we can trust that it is for our good even if we don’t understand why.  No matter what mistakes our earthly fathers may have made, God is not earthly.  He made the thing, and believe me when I say we can trust Him with all of it. Even the pain.

As for other reasons for suffering, they may not be what we call “fair” (which is really just a monosyllabic way of saying “I don’t like this”). The crucial point about suffering for a Christian is that our suffering is not purposeless. Every single thing which happens to us, good or bad, is being used by God to mold, refine, and shape us into the Image of God as we were meant to bear it.

Not only that, but 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 5:3-5)

Christian or not, we will all endure suffering in some measure. But for a Christian, there is a hope beyond suffering and even a reason to embrace it. This is the good news we ought to be sharing even when we are suffering. Even when we suffer for sharing it.

If you are interested in more Scripture-based thoughts about suffering (and have more time than me), feel free to select “migraine” in the drop-down box beneath the heading on the right side of the page. And let’s pray for each other, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9)

 

On the Altar

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
(Genesis 22:9)

Well friends, I’m back after a protracted blogging hiatus. At least, I’m partially back. There are several competitors for my time these days, most of which occur in my analog life.  But I have missed you and am trying to read a handful of posts each day.

This is a crazy season for our family. My girls are thriving – exploring who they are, growing in faith, and learning some important communication and time-management skills (because, really, this fall has been brutal schedule-wise).  It’s been insane but in a fun and exhilarating way.

Then there’s our prodigal… In his case, this life season is something less than exhilarating. Something much less.

But as I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed for him and for others who resist the Lord’s call to obedience, it’s my own resistance which I’m forced to confront.

Once again, God brings my attention back to the beginning – both the book of Genesis and the genesis of my own faith journey.

Figuratively speaking, I trek in the footsteps of Abraham as he traveled to Moriah along with Isaac, the promised son. For much of my calling is a call to sacrifice.

For perhaps the first time, I find myself more like Abraham on this trip. In the past when my King has called for me to meet with Him in the smoke of a sacrifice, I’ve hesitated. In moments I’m now ashamed of, I’ve even been guilty of begrudging Him the offering He’s asked of me.

Not today.

Today as I step up to the altar, the ashes of the past serve as reminders of the things I’ve burned here before and of what’s become of them.

The ashes of a career lays in the mix; remnants of the time I offered up my aspirations and financial comfort on these old stones. Though I barely knew my Lord back then and believed I would be staying home for 5 or 6 years, experience now superimposes the glory of God over the sooty remains.

I became a homeschool mom. The 5 or 6 year span stretched out into 17 years and counting.

Today I can say, as Abraham once did, “The Lord will provide,” because He has – far more than I would’ve guessed. My sacrifice seemed large at the time, but what God provided in the aftermath is massive. Superfluous even.

So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
(Genesis 22:14)

Since those early years, God has called me back to the altar from time to time and other remains lay scattered in the dust; charred fragments of my time, my convenience, my preferences, many of my dreams, my sense of control – a whole lot of me, when I think of it.

Not for nothing did the old German preacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer write, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Much of what Christ called me to sacrifice on this altar is myself. Just as He once did. His immaculate life for me and my grubby little speck of a life for Him. Words can’t do it justice.

Today, I once more stand symbolically where Abraham, my father according to the Promise, once stood literally; feet covered in ash but a heart full of trust. For now I know that anything I offer up in obedience to His call will not die in vain. Either its death is a necessity for the better plan of the All-Knowing God, or He can and will raise it from the dead. I have not only read of this matter in the Book, I have seen it with my own eyes.

This time, I approach with a dual offering.

For the first, I lay down my goals for You, Lord. On this altar I place the writing career I’ve been trying to eke out in my spare time over the last couple of years. Do with it as You will.

And for the most profound, I give you the son of my womb whose name translates, “He gave.” You did give him to us, and you know him better than I ever could. I have done with him all I know to do and he is now nearly a man. And Lord, it grieves me immensely to say he seems to be rejecting You.

I set the life of my son on this altar before You, Lord, trusting that even if I must watch his faith in You die, You are able to raise it up from the dead.

He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
(Hebrews 11:19)

And I wait with eager expectation to see what You will do…