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?

 

 

Baby Steps

I have completed the first draft of my book. Hurrah! Now maybe I can keep up with the blogopshere a little better. Still, some time needs to go to my teens – one of whom may very well leave the nest next year.

And speaking of nests…

I love watching birds at the feeders. I’ve seen quite a few species visit over the years and caught some of the “regulars” with my camera. Often, I’ve seen  a pair of birds flying to and fro from feeder to bush or tree as they work tirelessly to keep up with the demands of their now-hatched young.

I am always entertained when the fledglings begin to visit the feeders themselves, mainly because it actually takes some time for the parents to convince the young that they can get food on their own.

I’ve watched both a male house finch and a male cardinal go through this with their fledgling. The young bird, usually drab, will stand on the rail of my porch and flutter his wings while Dad hops back and forth between railing and feeder. Occasionally, Dad will succumb to the youngster’s begging and feed him a morsel before beginning the whole routine again.

When I read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church a few days ago, one of the grey cardinal juveniles was eating – all by himself – from the feeder just as I happened upon 1 Corinthians 3.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

I have to wonder if Paul was as exasperated and worn out with his spiritual children as these birds surely are with their needy, adult-sized young. And if the apostle was weary of the Corinthians’ worldliness, how much more so must our longsuffering Father be? It’s a good thing He is longsuffering!

Take my country. We live in an age where we who call ourselves Christians still have freedom to worship without fear of arrest, beatings, or death. We have a plethora of Bible translations available to us in print or digitally. We even have the resources available to learn the original languages the texts were written in, and yet so much more of our time is squandered on things which will not last.

In many ways, we are like those birds. We are sized like an adult, we can fly like an adult, but we are still dressed in the drab plumage of our flesh instead of the vibrant white of our Lord’s righteousness. We still want to be spoon-fed a nutritionally weak, fast-food devotional snipped rather than feasting on the rich and lasting fare provided by the Bread of Life.

Let’s take to our wings, brothers and sisters, and see how much stronger our spiritual  stamina will be when we make use of the solid food our Provider has given us! Many of us have a long race yet to run, and endurance is required if we are to finish the race.

Especially if we are to finish well.

Oh Lord forgive us. Let us grow up into Christ and move forward without fear in obedience to what You call us to do. Teach us to learn from You and to let our knowledge be reflected in all our actions and choices, amen. 

 

Inglorious

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
(James 1:14-15)

If ever there was a flowering plant designed with the busy (or lazy) gardener in mind, the morning glory may well be it.

As a child, I always admired the perpetual presence of purple flowers adorning a remnant of fencing left between my grandparents’ property and that of their neighbors. When my children were small, I even bought a packets of morning glory and sunflower seeds after reading about a fun-sounding, natural “clubhouse” that could be planted – the sunflowers serving as the frame and morning glories filling in for walls and roof. Somehow, that year, I never actually got around to it, very possibly because my children were small…

So the first year I saw a morning glory growing near my vegetable garden, I did not MG008mind. The purple trumpets of flower and the cheerful, heart-shaped or deeply lobed leaves seemed a very attractive addition.

Little did I know how I would later rue the moment I let the thing grow.

One busy spring and summer, my family ended up traveling much more often than usual and so I had little time to devote to weeding. Upon returning from one of our trips, I walked out to check on the progress of my vegetables and was rather surprised to find that, in our absence, the tall and majestic rows of popcorn were festooned in green frocks of dense, heart-shaped segments embellished here and there with deceptively delicate-looking purple and blue blooms all nodding at me in mock friendliness as they effectively choked out the life of my plants, diminishing my harvest.

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From that summer on, most of what little time I have for gardening has been spent stalking and uprooting morning glory sprouts. To my utter dismay, the plant reseeds itself with prolific, almost furious abundance.

MG006Every time I take the short hike from house to garden, I keep an eye open for the little seed leaves shaped like old-fashioned ladies’ bloomers that pop up by the zillions. Despite my best efforts to scour the area thoroughly, those treacherously innocuous-seeming hearts pop up apparently the moment my back is turned, sending out their coiling tendrils to snare and suffocate the very plants I try to nurture.

As I was ripping out fistfuls of the demonically attractive vines the other day, it occurred to me that most sin is a good deal like the morning glory.

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Sin, too, appears attractive at the beginning. As it grows, it can also appear friendly-looking, even desirable. At times, we sow the seeds of sin with eager anticipation, looking forward to some pleasure or indulgence that seems benign, unlikely to harm anyone but ourselves.

At other times, sin grows from neglect. We see it sprouting up in our hearts, but either we are too apathetic or too busy to care. Perhaps, even, one tiny pair of cotelydons thrusting themselves up through the soil of our hearts seems to pose no threat. After all, it is a very small, even an insignificant thing.

 

 

MG009Yet, left to its own devices, sin also grows quickly to overwhelming proportions. It, too, sends dainty tendrils snaking through the landscape of our hearts and minds, catching hold of those things we have purposefully sown and choking them, diminishing the harvest of good and useful fruit. Fully grown, it mocks us with the very flower of what we once desired; the very thing we once thought beautiful now nodding at us scornfully from every corner and niche. And sin, too, is prolific in its reseeding.

Just as I wage war with the morning glories in my vegetable garden, I find that identifying and uprooting sin in my heart is a never-ending task. Yet I give thanks to my Lord because He has not left me to this battle blind and empty-handed.

Though I may be prone to overlook a shoot here or a shrub there, the Light of the World illuminates the shadowy places in my heart, exposing sin in various stages of growth.

And while my efforts at defeating the virulent growth fall short, the only good and perfect Gardener is able to do what I cannot – ripping out the twisted vines by their roots, killing even my desire for them, and pruning the sickly, undernourished plantings of righteousness that are left behind so that they may once again bear fruit for the glory of the King.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
(Romans 7:24-25a)

Amen!