Burls and Guys

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outward self is wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
2 Corinthians 4:8-11,16-18; 5:7

I once sat in on a sermon where the pastor speaking posed this question: what is the best meal a person could ever eat? People in the audience chuckled, and a few brave souls raised their hands and ventured a guess. “My mom’s home cooked lasagna,” claimed one. “Olive Garden bread sticks!” another chimed in. “Definitely a well made steak,” shouted a third.

“No,” the pastor continued. “The best meal a person could ever eat is the meal that follows a marathon. It doesn’t matter what the meal consists of – it could be bread and water – what matters is the hunger that was created by the activity that proceeded it. If you’ve run a marathon first, that will be the best tasting bread you’ve ever eaten and the most deliciously refreshing water that you’ve ever drank – I promise.”

Recently, I tested the pastor on this point. I am serving as a wilderness trip leader at a camp in the Adirondacks for the summer, and so naturally, I went on a couple of training trips with my co-leaders during preseason. One of the trips was a canoe training trip. As Murphy’s Law would have it, our canoe training trip coincided with the worst torrential downpour of the millennium. I’m talking rain coming down so heavily that you could go from comfortably dry to drenched to the skin in 0.002 seconds. The you can’t quite keep your eyes open kind of rain. It was a cold rain. It was a furious rain –  the alright now, who angered God? kind of rain.

It was utterly m i s e r a b l e.

I have nothing against rain. There are few things I enjoy more than curling up with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa, listening to rhythmic patter of rain against a window. I grew up in an old farmhouse with a tin roof, and I spent many nights being sung to sleep by the soothing sound of rain against the roof. But there’s an important operative difference between those scenarios and this one – in both of those ones, I’m happily dry and comfortable; in this one, I’m shivering and exposed.

And as if the rain wasn’t bad enough on its own, it was soon accompanied by a thunderstorm. Again, nothing against thunderstorms. I just prefer enjoying their beauty from the safety and warmth of my house.

Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time outdoors knows that rain, while an inconvenience, is at least tolerable and manageable for the sole fact that you can keep moving as needed. With a thunderstorm, however, arises several complications. First of all, you can’t be on water for obvious reasons. Which, as a canoeing group of five people desperate to get to the spot where we could make camp for the night, this was more than a minor inconvenience. Secondly, you want to avoid open areas (and thus avoid being the tallest point around.) We had to portage the canoes along a well worn path if we wanted to keep moving forward. But the canoes are made of aluminum, which is another thing you don’t want to be in close proximity to during a thunderstorm.

Inevitably, we were forced to come to a complete halt. We sought respite along the side of the path that we had been portaging on, under the trees. We then assumed “lightening position” (a sort of crouch where you make yourself as small as humanly possible, tucking your head down, and keeping your feet together so you don’t have more than one contact point with the ground) – a position that frankly, I thought we had only learned ironically – on top of our lifejackets and waited it out.

I’m sorry, did I say earlier that merely canoeing in the rain was utterly miserable? No no. This was utterly m i s e r a b l e.

After the half hour that lasted a lifetime and aged me twenty years, we were finally able to plod on. The rain hadn’t stopped, but the thunderstorm had. Soggy, we slogged on, arriving at our campsite like wet dogs with our tails between our legs. We fanned out – some setting up tents and tarps, some working on dinner. Through it all, the rain droned steadily on.

But let me tell you this, chicken rice stew has never tasted so good. (From the way my male co-leaders raved about it, you would have thought I’d missed my calling as a chef.)

I didn’t run a marathon, but that night, lying in my tent, still slightly damp from the day’s events, the pastor’s words echoed in my memory: The best meal a person could ever eat is the meal that follows a marathon. It doesn’t matter what the meal consists of – it could be bread and water – what matters is the hunger that was created by the activity that proceeded it.

Immense hunger leads to immense gratification.

“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of this world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.”
– John Piper

Detours

I don’t know about you, but it’s much easier to fantasize myself as a “good” Christian when I’m not behind the wheel of a car. When I’m driving, suddenly it’s as if this totally different person emerges. I promise, every time I drive, every other driver on the road that day is conscientiously driving in such a way as to intentionally annoy me and make my driving experience as miserable as possible. It’s this weird thing. Don’t people know that the left lane on the highway is intended for people who want to go fast, not take a leisurely Sunday drive? Also, I wasn’t aware that turning signals are so difficult to turn on. Nor was going the speed limit.

But few things are worse than hitting construction while on the road. As a person who already struggles with punctuality, hitting construction while driving is the stuff of nightmares for me. When I come to a complete standstill on the road, sitting in a vehicle intended for motion, it rapidly becomes undeniably clear that the Lord is not finished with me yet.

And so it follows that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of detours either. I don’t want to add twenty or more minutes to my drive. I want to go straight and arrive at my destination at the time I was expecting.

But that’s not how detours work.

Perhaps the reason I hate detours so much is they’re all too familiar to me. My entire young twenties thus far have felt like one detour after another. I have ruthlessly and painstakingly planned, and yet, no sooner do I place the finishing touches on a plan than God deems it necessary to place it under construction and send me on a detour instead. I have been in and out of school, jobs, churches, and ministries. I’ve planted only to be uprooted and sown without reaping. If you want to know the truth, it’s immensely discouraging.

The rain keeps coming down; I keep plodding on. I’ve even been forced to halt entirely at times and wait out a storm.

Ironically, I’ve only realized I had an expectation that my life would look differently than it does in this cosmic undoing of it. I don’t know what exactly I thought my life would look like, but I definitely thought that by this point if I wasn’t already married, I would at the very least be in a serious relationship to that effect. I thought I would be done with my Bachelor’s degree and in a job I loved. I thought I would be settled somewhere.

I thought a lot of things.

At the very least, I thought my life’s trajectory would be straightforward and somewhat “normal” looking, as opposed to how it has actually looked.

But, this past semester, finally fed up with watching my plans crumble and tired of trying to make things look differently than they do, I cried out angrily to God from my own personal Valley of the Shadow of Death – a valley marked with loneliness, broken relationships, directionless ambiguity, and monotony.

“Why?!” I demanded angrily. “Why me? Why whywhywhy WHY?!”

The Lord answered me out of the whirlwind and said:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
surely you know!
Or Who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or Who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
(Job 38:4-7)

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
(1 Kings 19:11b-12)

“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
(Psalm 46:10)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways My ways,”
declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are My ways higher than your ways
and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
(Isaiah 55:8-9)

The issue was not that I was asking why – or even that I was angry. God is big enough to handle both of those things. The issue was that I was demanding an answer for my situation as a condition for contentment. I was willing to struggle, but only with the stipulation that I knew why I was struggling. God wanted me to cease striving, and know that He is God. It was almost as if I heard Him sigh and say

Oh my sweet girl.
My beloved creation.
Don’t you know Me yet?
Trust Me.
Though in your heart you may plan your way,
It is I Who establish your steps.
It is I Who is your confidence.
I AM WHO I AM.
I Am working all things together for your good.
(Proverbs 16:9, 3:26, Exodus 3:14, Romans 8:28)

Making plans is not wrong. Nor is desiring to be a wife and mother, or aspiring to finish college, or working towards having a successful career. None of these things are wrong, or even ignoble aims. The problem is when we start holding things with clenched fists instead of open hands. Because if God is not God of the detours, He’s not God of the successes.

“What harm can happen to to him that knows that God does everything, and who loves beforehand everything that God does?”
– Madame Swetchine

Burls

I love being in the Adirondacks in the summertime. There’s so much greenery and it smells like nostalgia and the happiest parts of my childhood. The sunrises are only surpassed by the sunsets, and the sunsets are only surpassed by the vivid clarity of Adirondack stars. But perhaps one of my favorite details of all is the overabundance of burls among the trees in the Adirondacks. A burl is an abnormal spherical growth on a tree that looks like a giant bark-covered wart. It can be near the roots of the tree, nearly anywhere on the trunk of a tree, or even encircle the trunk of the tree entirely. I used to find them hideous obstructions, an aesthetic disgrace, and now I find the opposite to be true.

Though scientists have yet to ascertain precisely what causes a burl to form on a tree, the common assumption is that a burl is formed as a reaction by the tree to some kind of trauma – damage to the exterior of a tree, an insect infestation, a virus, or a fungi, to name a few. Although the burl may look unhealthy, it doesn’t typically affect the overall health of the tree. Moreover, because a burl grows with the tree that it’s attached to, removing a burl while the tree is still alive can cause more harm than good. Unlike the wood grain in a tree, which runs in one direction, the wood grain of a burl is chaotic and complex, and thus highly prized by artisans, making it the most valuable thing a tree can create.

I think that few things encapsulate the beauty of what God does in us through trials – through detours, rained out canoe trips, and loss – better than burls. The tree does not stop growing because it has been afflicted. It does not cease reaching towards heaven. Instead, it stands boldly, rooted, proud. Daily wearing the scar of the battle that it has undergone and survived, an ongoing invitation to others to be vulnerable and honest with where they’ve been, what God has brought them from, and the beauty and value God has created from it. It is an opportunity to rejoice at God’s salvation, preservation, and redemption.

“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
Isaiah 55:12

I have spent these past six months feeling immensely vulnerable and exposed, shivering in the unrelenting rain of my trials, forced on a detour that I didn’t choose. But God is in the business of making all things beautiful (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and I’m excited to see the burl He will create out of this season – a burl that boasts of His glory and grace. Also, through this season, God has awakened in me a hunger for Him unlike any I’ve ever known. My appetite has been whet through my circumstances, and I have truly never met a better meal than the Bread of His body and the Wine of His blood. I don’t expect I ever will. Man does not live on bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4), and nothing tastes sweeter than Jesus.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
John 6:35

“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”
Psalm 34:8

“Why does God allow us to spend so much of life in the heat of the battle?
Because He never meant for us to sip His spirit like a proper cup of tea. He meant for us to hold our sweating heads over the fountain and lap up His life with
unquenchable thirst.”
– Beth Moore

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Romans 8:18

 

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Celebrating the Struggle: The ‘Already’ and the ‘Not Yet’

Reeling in “get tos.”

Throughout my lifetime I have had many people tell me that they look up to me – especially in recent years. They mean that figuratively, of course. (In the literal sense, I obviously look up to everyone.)

It is always immensely gratifying and humbling to be told that. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that the attributes that they admire – “my” strength, “my” wisdom, “my” resilience – are attributes that have been borne of grief and pain. They are a direct result of what I’ve walked through and the faithfulness of my God in the midst of my pain. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the product of what they see in the day to day – the poise with which I’m able to carry myself and the things I’m able to accomplish – is the product of many lonely nights spent weeping and crying out to God, many days of just going through the motions, many days of making microscopic decisions of obedience in faith, even when I didn’t feel like it. It has not all been glorious or beautiful. In fact, more has probably been gruesome than beautiful or noteworthy. I actually am of the opinion that I look quite hideous when I cry.

I’m not sharing this to proclaim how “amazing” I am and toot my own horn, but rather to display the incredible faithfulness of my God. I know how often I’ve felt alone or even diminished by my struggle with grief and depression. Ironically, it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. In my experience it’s been all too easy to withdraw from people and isolate myself – which means it’s pretty easy to convince myself that I’m all alone and that no one understands because no one else is struggling the way I am. And how easy it would be for that perspective to remain unchallenged if I isolated myself and didn’t allow for others to speak truth into my life. Because the fact of the matter is that I’m not alone. Others are struggling and hurting. But unless you’re honest with yourself first, you can’t be honest with others. And it took me a longer time than I care to admit that I was struggling, because honestly, I’m a prideful person. I like being okay and pulling myself up by my own bootstraps (isn’t that the American Dream?)

Asking for help felt like admitting defeat. 

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As it would turn out, I was just admitting that I was human. 

It has been a rough few semesters for me. I had to take some incompletes last semester due to how crippling my depression became around the five year anniversary of Nancy’s passing. I’m still in the process of finishing the work. I’ve also had to withdraw from a few classes this semester due to some personal setbacks early on this semester – meaning my college graduation is likely put off by another semester.

I’m tired.

However. I don’t “have to” struggle. I “get to.”

This doesn’t have to be my story. It gets to be. I have a story, not of defeat or failure, but rather one of victory; the story of how a girl was able to still finish college in spite of losing her sister at the onset, due to the faithfulness of her God. So it took her a little longer – so what? All the more time for God to be glorified. After all, as a Christian I don’t fight for victory. I fight from victory. Death is already defeated, and Jesus is risen. I serve a living God.

 “And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.
– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe


“I am increasingly suspicious that laughter and tears are not opposites, but that somehow, in their fullness, the two run into one.”
– Diona Southcott


“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.”
– C. S. Lewis

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Beaver Lodge, Beaver Camp. I’ve spent many hours in worship, quality conversation, prayer and stillness here. 

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be my disciple.'”
Luke 14:25-27

Jesus didn’t “have to” come to earth. He “got to.” He chose love over fear.

If that’s what Jesus did, what other choice do I have? There is no other choice. I get to choose love over fear. As Thomas Merton so eloquently puts it, “Our job is to love people without stopping to inquire whether or not they’re worthy.”

Now, I am in no way Jesus. But I have the privilege of knowing Him. And that changes everything, including my suffering.

Especially my suffering.

To be clear, it doesn’t change the fact that I suffer. Being a Christian is not some get-out-of-jail-free card that acts as a prevention against suffering. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. In fact, it is just the opposite. It invites it. After all, if you want to look like Jesus, you’re going to get some scars.

As Romans 8:16-17 states:
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.

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Imperfect yet thankful.

If Christianity prevented suffering, wouldn’t everyone convert? (I mean, it follows right?) However, as my pastor says, Christianity is a terrible religion – because it’s not based on your merit. It’s based entirely on Christ’s merit. Being a Christian is not all sunshine and unicorns. In fact, the gospel is the story of Jesus being nailed to a cross – the most tortuous way that the Romans had devised to kill people. And they were experts at killing people. They thrived on it.

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus dying on the cross. It ends with Him defeating death – the ultimate consequence of sin – by being resurrected back to life.

As Romans 8:18 goes on to say:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

My suffering is not the end of my story. It’s the beginning of a tale of God’s eternal glory.

“There is always enough grace for you, Amy.”
-Jarron Widrick

(a reminder from a beloved friend of mine recently that I think everyone needs)

Adventure in Hope

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Last spring, I decided to get a tattoo – partially in memory of Nancy, and partially for my own sake, as a constant personal reminder. I got the words “adventure in hope” written as a permanent reminder and memoriam on my upper left hand shoulder. It was a phrase I had coined upon initially moving to New Paltz, after years of debating how I wanted to honor Nancy. I wanted something simple but meaningful to me – words I would carry with me as a banner going forward in my life, and a reminder of where I came from. I finally settled on the phrase “adventure in hope” for these reasons:

  • I want my life to be an adventure. I want to love boldly, live joyfully, give freely. In truth, I think that my life already is one. I think that loving people unconditionally is the most adventurous thing you will ever do, and is entirely too rare.
  • Also, the term adventure reminds me of the summers I spent serving at Beaver Camp, the place that introduced me to adventure, my previously unexplored capabilities and interests, and my love of ministry.
  • Hope is a concept that became deeply meaningful to me after my mom had a stillbirth between Lorilee and Sadie Mae’s birth. It was then I discovered what a “living hope” meant (1 Peter 1:3-9). In retrospect, I can see how God used that time to prepare me for an even more devastating loss, the death of Nancy. The penmanship of the word hope on my tattoo is written in such a way that is intended to mimic Nancy’s handwriting.
  • But why the phrase “adventure in hope?” Simple. Adventure is both a noun and a verb, and hope is both a noun and a verb. Meaning they’re both things that exist in their own right, but that they’re also things that you can actively do. In my life, I intend for them to be paired together; I intend to adventure in hope. Both in knowing God, and in making Him known. (Yes, my tattoo has a dual meaning.)

The problem with knowing God is that you get a tiny taste of perfection on this side of heaven – in this woefully imperfect world. This longing to be with Christ only increases and makes some days on this fallen earth nothing short of torturous. My heart is broken by this dark, sin-encumbered world, and the despair we’re seeing as a result.

But that’s nothing – as one of my closest friends, Rachel Musteen so succinctly puts it: “God lives in a state of perpetually having His heart stomped on.”

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Philippians 1:21-24

“As Christians, we live in the ‘already’ and ‘not yet.'”
– Pastor Joshua Stewart

As I was reminded so boldly at a wedding for two dear friends of mine recently:

“Your ministry matters.”
– Dierdra Moran

You might not know the impact you’re having. But if you’re still on this earth, it is for a purpose. Cling to that truth. And rejoice in it. Your struggle is not in vain or pointless…ever.

I serve an intentional God.

“…all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.”
Psalm 139:14bc

Everyday Joy

“To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
but life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire –
it is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”
– Edgar Lee Masters

Recently, I’ve been feeling very restless with the monotony prevalent in my life. I’m tired. I’m tired of the day to day, mundane routine that my schedule has sorted itself into. I’m tired of being in college. I’m tired of being broke consistently. I’m ready to be onto the next stage of my life, doing ‘bigger’ and ‘more important’ things. I’m ready to step into adulthood.

However.

I’m wary of slipping into a “destination addiction” of sorts. I’m wary of idolizing the idea that true happiness, true joy is just around the next bend in the road. Because the fact of the matter remains that if I’m not content in the here and now, then I won’t be content in the there and then. Period. Mic drop. That is a fact.

You know why? Because contentment is not rooted in surrounding circumstances. It is rooted in Christ. And I have Christ now. So what else am I looking for? What else could I possibly need?

As long as I’m looking for contentment elsewhere, I’m setting myself up for inevitable and continual disappointment. My circumstances should not have the power to dictate my joy. The gospel should be enough to bring me to my knees in worship, adoration, and humility every day. As Dan Mohler says so succinctly in his sermon entitled “Becoming Love,” we don’t really understand the gospel. We have too many issues. We have too many rights.

We ought to have Jesus. 

“Each day presents a new opportunity to experience God…this is a sacred expectation!”
– A.W. Tozer

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1ab)

I’ve been struggling with insomnia for over a semester now. I haven’t been having issues falling asleep, but rather staying asleep. Every night almost without fail for the last several months, I have woken up at some point between one and four in the morning, and am typically unable to get back to sleep for a minimum of two hours. I had 8ams everyday of the week except Wednesday last semester. On Wednesday, I worked at 7am.

Needless to say, I quickly got very tired of this (pun entirely intended.) I require quite a bit of sleep, and don’t always function the best without it. Finally, in a rage (and as a last resort – perhaps right there is the problem), I prayed about it. (Well, more accurately, I whined to God about it in the semblance of prayer.)

God, I’m sick of this. I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me. It’s unfair. I’m tired. I’m in school and working. I don’t have the stamina to be losing 2+ hours of sleep every night. 

I know. Not my proudest moment. Looking back on it now, I can practically hear God gently smirking at me.

Be careful of the questions that you ask God. Because He just might answer you.

My precious child, those are hours you could be spending with Me. 

Ouch.

Who am I to demand anything of God? He owes me nothing. (See Job 40.) And thankfully, He is not willing to let me stay in the place of terrible arrogance where I presume that He does. He loves me far too much for that. He loves me too much to leave me in a place of complacency and pride.

God doesn’t want me to only understand enough of the gospel to save my soul. He wants me to understand the gospel to the point that my life is transformed by it. 

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To say it another way, (a more theological way), Jesus didn’t just die on the cross to save me for my eternity future (heaven.) He saved me for my present (earthly life.) He saved me for the now.

Wow.

God literally loves me enough to allow me to struggle with insomnia. He loves me enough to allow me to experience grief through the death of my sister and brother. He loves me enough to allow me to fight depression. He loves me enough to not always allow things to work to my advantage or how I expected them to work out. He loves me enough to allow me to find value in the menial monotony of life. He loves me enough to be faithful when I am faithless, because He cannot deny Himself.

He  l o v e s  me.

“When hardship comes your way, will you tell yourself it’s a tool of God’s grace and a sign of His love, or will you give into doubting His goodness?
Here’s the bottom line. Right here, right now, God isn’t so much working to deliver you to your personal definition of happiness. He’s not committed to give you a predictable schedule, happy relationships, or comfortable surroundings. He hasn’t promised you a successful career, a nice place to live, and a community of people who appreciate you. What He has promised you is Himself, and what He brings to you is the zeal of His transforming grace. No, He’s not first working on your happiness; He’s committed to your holiness. That doesn’t mean He is offering you less than you’ve hoped for, but much, much more. In grace, He is intent on delivering you from your greatest, deepest, and most long-term problem: sin. He offers you gifts of grace that transcend the moment, that literally are of eternal value. He has not unleashed His power in your life only to deliver to you things that quickly pass away and that have no capacity at all to satisfy your heart.”
– Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies

“The great paradox of the Gospel is that God’s love drove Him to do the unthinkable: become naked and exposed for those who rejected Him. We, who exposed ourselves through disobedience, are “covered” by the nakedness of Christ’s obedience.”
– Pastor Joshua Stewart

To get that – to truly understand the gospel – is to be transformed. There is a paradigm shift in your thinking. To know Jesus is to be changed by Him. (See James 2:14-17). Loved people love people. Forgiven people forgive. People who know mercy show mercy. There is no other way. It is a simple rule of logic.

“The gospel is such a revealing of man’s value. It’s not a revealing of man’s sin – it’s a removing of man’s sin. The cross removes man’s sin, it doesn’t expose man’s sin. It removes man’s sin to expose his value and his created purpose.

The cross brings destiny back into the picture – you can write legacy again.

YAY.

I don’t have to be disheartened. I don’t have to let life speak louder than truth.”
– Dan Mohler, Becoming Love

Oftentimes, we fixate on the last three years of Jesus’ life: His “ministry” years. Um. What about the other thirty? His whole life was a ministry. His existence in the flesh was an act of grace. You cannot properly appreciate His “ministry” years without acknowledging that it was those thirty years – those years that we know so little about, those years of silence – that equipped Him for the years we do know about and spend a lifetime studying. Those menial years full of monotony, those years of practicing obedience, prepared and enabled Him to act in continued obedience – even when the destination was the cross.

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him.” (Philippians 1:29)

“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13)

What a privilege it is to know and serve Christ. I am overwhelmed, humbled, and so thankful.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7a)

“‘Where is God?
Where can I find Him?’ We ask.
We don’t realize that that’s like a fish swimming frantically through the ocean
in search of the ocean.”
– Ted Dekker

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)

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(If you click on the picture, it will bring you to the song “Ever Be” by Bethel Music. I have been saturating my mind with these truths recently, and wanted to share access to the song with you. This picture is taken at the Rock, a place we camp out at Beaver Camp, from a spot I’ve spent many quiet moments with God. Note the worship tree.)

 

For further encouragement, check out this sermon that was preached by my home church entitled “So Loved” by Pastor Joshua Stewart.

Wrestling (Always Winter, But Never Christmas)

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
-C.S. Lewis on Aslan, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (emphasis mine)

“…we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
Hebrews 6:19

I’m going to be very honest here: some days, it’s really hard for me to believe. Some days, faith just seems too simple a response to the complex issues relentlessly plaguing our world. Is God really enough? Is He really in control? Because if He is, I for one would like to know where the hell He’s at.

Especially in recent years, I have been increasingly disillusioned. The church has disappointed me. Those closest to me have let me down. My only brother was stillborn, and my oldest sister passed away in a car accident. Christian culture as a whole seems very trite and fabricated to me, and thus, to be perfectly honest, I don’t particularly care to engage in it.

I have been wrestling, and it’s gotten sweaty…maybe even a little ugly.

In a world overrun with disease, death, natural disasters, corruption, racism, human trafficking, and inequality, how does a God Who claims to be good and sovereign fit? There is so much evil and chaos. Why isn’t He intervening?

Sometimes it seems like I have more questions than answers.

The only way I know how to answer the questions I just raised is by raising more questions: is God, in fact, not intervening? Or is He simply not intervening the way I would like or expect? And does this basis alone, the fact that I don’t get to dictate how God works, enough to dismiss His existence? Because obviously, if God doesn’t work the way I want or expect, it only follows that He doesn’t exist. That’s just simple logic right? If God (a Being presumed omniscient and omnipotent) doesn’t fit into the box I want Him to fit in, He must not exist.

Personally, I know I’ve been extremely hurt and disappointed by some of the circumstances I’ve gone through. And that accounts for only one person. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one. But is this alone enough evidence to deny the existence of a Being greater than myself? Is this alone enough to unseat my faith? Is faith merely something I cling to in ignorance simply to console myself when painful circumstances arise?

After all, faith is all about what feels good and what makes concrete sense…it has nothing to do with intangibles beyond what we can see or comprehend. It’s intended to cater to us, and our whims – it has nothing to do with God. That would clearly be ridiculous.

So if that’s the case, I can just decide when God exists according to when He is and isn’t convenient for my purposes.  Easy. Problem solved.

Or is it?

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
C. S. Lewis

Does a faith that only has merit apart from pain and suffering actually have any merit at all?
I mean, by definition, it is either always true or it is never true: it is as plain as that.

The interesting thing is, whether you subscribe to a belief in God or not, you still yearn for justice. In fact, you demand it. Where does this desire for justice come from? Why do we have any sense of morality at all? Could our desire for justice as a human race alone be indicative of a higher power?

Is the issue actually with God? Or is it with us? Let’s get to the root of the problem here.

In order to have unfulfilled expectations you must first have expectations. In order to be disillusioned, you must first believe something. This is simple logic. And the most common, basic argument I hear against Christianity (with surprisingly little variety) is: “A good God wouldn’t let ‘bad things’ happen to ‘good people.'” And if that is truly the case, I’m wasting my time – as indicated above. There are a lot of presuppositions that are wrapped up in that statement. So, let’s unpack it a little bit, shall we?

If indeed a good God wouldn’t let “bad things” happen to “good people,” then based solely on what we see in the world and our understanding of what a good person is, I’d say we have every right to deny the existence of a God entirely. Or, at the very least we have the right to be resentful toward the God that does exist, if not only for allowing “bad things” to happen to “good people,” but furthermore for claiming to be good in the first place if He really isn’t.

But, if indeed a good God would let “bad things” happen to “good people,” then we have to accept that to believe in Him and follow Him is not some sort of contract that guarantees our safety, comfort, and protection. Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?

The statement “a good God wouldn’t let ‘bad things’ happen to ‘good people'” indicates three major presumptions:
one, that God is good,
two, that there are good people, and
three, that we don’t live in a just world because bad things do in fact happen to good people.

Does a book as archaic as the Bible have anything to contribute to such a relevant discussion? I mean, does the Bible even address any of these problems?

Rest assured, it certainly does. In fact, the Bible is a book devoted to addressing problems just like this one.

According to the Bible, the entire premise of the argument is undermined immediately due to the fact that there aren’t technically ‘good people’ to speak of. Every human is sinful and flawed and possesses a hopelessly impaired judgement. Romans indicates that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). By this definition, then, ironically, it follows that it is our own fallen nature that is the direct harbinger of injustice into our world. Because if all people are innately bad, then to receive any goodness at all is actually to receive something we don’t deserve.

So, technically, justice is what we’re experiencing. We live in a world full of pain and darkness because the consequence of sin is death, not because God isn’t good. Still pretty bleak, I know.

“The White Witch? Who is she?” [asked Lucy.]

Mr. Tumnus: “Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

“How awful!” said Lucy.

(The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, again emphasis mine)

At least it would be, if the story ended there. Just like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be if Aslan never came to help the Pevensies bring about the dethroning of the White Witch and restoring Narnia to the way it was intended to be.

Can you imagine how the story would read? “And they all lived miserably ever after.” Who would honestly want read such a story? Evil triumphs over goodness, and even the smallest of the remaining flickerings of goodness are eventually snuffed out. Enjoy a life of hopelessness, kids.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
– C.S. Lewis

But the story doesn’t end there. It goes on to culminate in an epic battle in which, not only is the White Witch defeated once and for all, but, many Narnians are literally given their life back through Aslan’s breath. However, there is a point where it does seem that the White Witch has conquered and Narnia will eternally be subjected to a state of  bitter winter with no Christmas. Early on, Edmund Pevensie had aligned himself with the White Witch in ignorance, unaware of the costly ramifications of this choice. And thus, too late for him to change his mind, it is established he belongs to her. His blood is her property. The only way for him to be able to stand for Narnia and with Aslan is if he is bought back. This requires an exchange. Aslan offers himself as a sacrifice for Edmund. And in arguably the most emotionally jarring, sorrowful moment of the book, Aslan is killed – willingly – at the hand of the White Witch.

This is a moment that has been immortalized in my imagination forever. The palpable silence that descended with the murderous hand of the White Witch upon Aslan. The serene sadness behind Aslan’s gentle eyes. The terrified roaming eyes of the White Witch, even as she attempts to stay calm and collected. She knows the power she holds in that moment is borrowed – it is not something she could have achieved of her own accord. This unsettles her, even as she delivers the final blow to her enemy.

Aslan draws his last breath, and his majestic body goes limp as his life shudders to a halt.

The entire body of the White Witch exhales a visible sigh of relief. Somehow, up to that point, she had this terrible suspicion that she was being duped somehow. It couldn’t really be this easy – could it? She had been hoping for Aslan’s demise for longer than even she truly knew, but was paralyzed in the knowledge that she was incapable of matching with his strength and power. And yet, here he laid before her, lifeless, defeated by the Deep Magic and his own goodness.

It. Is. Finished.

Edmund has been redeemed and is no longer in bondage to the White Witch – but at great cost. And defeating the White Witch apart from Aslan’s wisdom and power is essentially impossible.

When I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time, I was unsure as to whether I even wanted to turn the page after Aslan died. What else was left to be done? What story could follow such a tragedy? But sometimes the difference between sorrow and victory is only a matter of turning a page.

Lucy and Susan are depicted as walking aimlessly following Aslan’s death, completely distraught about what they just witnessed and uncertain of how to proceed. Suddenly in the midst of their mourning they hear the Stone Table crack and Aslan’s body is immediately gone. They turn to find Aslan behind them, somehow even more majestic than before. More magic? Indeed. Magic deeper than even the Deep Magic.

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

C.S. Lewis is painting a meaningful picture here of the hope we as Christians have in resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-22):  an essentially “deeper magic” than the traditional categories of death and decay. Jesus’ resurrection defeated death – the consequence for our sin – once and for all, thereby defeating the evil forces of this dark world. Aslan is a picture of Christ, and Edmund Pevensie is a picture of all of us and the dire situation we’re in apart from Christ. We live in a world that is in the cold wintery clutches of evil, and yet something within all of us longs for something better, for a thawed Narnia. We recognize the world isn’t as it’s supposed to be. This is extremely relevant and noteworthy, because it is this recognition that causes a lot of people (myself among them) to get very frustrated with the deteriorating state of things in the world when God is powerful enough to stop it from occurring. I raise my puny fist toward heaven and demand that God answer for Himself. “How dare you! What do You have to say for Yourself?” I cry, my finite perspective bristled against His infinite one.

Funny, how infinite answers have a way of silencing finite ones every time.

You see, all of my questions I’ve asked as I’ve wrestled essentially boil down to one question: is the gospel enough?

Oftentimes, within the private wickedness of my own heart, I anticipate it not being enough. I anticipate the gospel failing me and all of the skepticism I’ve received as a result of my faith finally coming to fruition. And yet, the crucifix doesn’t disappoint, even in the crux of a problem – actually, I would argue, especially in the crux of a problem. I’ve found that the beauty of the cross has only increased throughout my life.

Do I really believe what I profess to believe? Because if so, than the suffering and injustice that surrounds me shouldn’t surprise me. They point straight back to the problem of sin and the need for redemption. We are all living, breathing testimonies of how desperately grace is needed to meet us in our broken state. History also attests to our inability to fix this issue with sin and injustice ourselves. We are not even strong enough to overcome the evil within us as individuals, let alone the evil in the world. We need something beyond ourself. This is why Jesus came to die. However, suffering is even built into the redemption story. Jesus is betrayed by one of His closest friends. He is brutally whipped. He is scorned. Nails are driven into His flesh. Crucifixion is a terrible, terrible way to die.

But Jesus’ crucifixion is not the end of a story of defeat. It is the beginning of a story of victory where death works backwards.

So, why did God choose do things this way? Why did He allow suffering to be built into the very circumstances that directly lead to our redemption? I have to guess it’s to teach us. To indicate to us that He is still in control: even in a world overrun with evil, His purposes will not be thwarted (John 19:11). After all, He allowed evil to be used in accomplishing our redemption.

 The question shouldn’t be, “Why does a good God let bad things happen?” but rather, “Why does God take such a single interest in humanity to allow us to experience things that will overwhelm us with His grace?”

As a Christian, we can walk in the assurance of knowing that while we can readily anticipate suffering, the separation between suffering and glory is oftentimes only a matter of turning a page.

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Romans 8:17-18

(This blog was partially inspired by a song by Relient K entitled In Like a Lion: (Always Winter). You can listen to the song here.)

Token Christianity

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”
Romans 1:16-17, ESV

My generation of believers loves to discuss the idea of “relevant faith.” It sounds edgy and modern, as if our generation has stumbled upon something in the Bible that all the generations prior to us failed to notice. We love to discuss theology over our dark-roasted coffees, do Greek word studies, and wear earrings from the missions trip we went on to that impoverished nation that one time.

Of course, far be it from us to allow those discussions to actually alter our lifestyles. That would be close-minded and offensive. It also has the potential to make us look a bit irrelevant, which, as previously stated, is not the goal. We must yield to the idols of Tolerance and Political Correctness at all costs. Far be it from us to talk about Jesus. Don’t you know that His name is one of the most offensive and divisive of all?!

We’ve grown up in a world where we’re inundated by advertisements, much more so then generations previous. They’re everywhere we turn. And with the emergence of the internet, they infiltrate into our personal life. They show up as we peruse through our various forms of social media. They’re on the side of the web pages as we do research for papers. It seems as though everyone is trying to sell something to us.

I would even make the argument that the emergence of social media is one thing that has aided in this explosion of advertising. We want to portray ourselves a certain way, and social media is one venue we have to do such. We control our image. In a sense, we determine the “advertising” of our own life. All of us are journalists. All of us are photographers. We can generate our own media at anytime. This is a very recent phenomenon. In the past, there used to be “gatekeepers” that controlled what made the cut – what was newsworthy and what wasn’t. The internet has eliminated this.

With all this media noise, how can we be expected to siphon through it to make informed decisions? How can we really be sure in any decision we make? There’s so much information available to us at any given point, and new information is being shared all the time. It’s impossible to keep up, much less determine the legitimacy of the sources providing it. How can we know anything? The obvious conclusion is we can’t. We must remain carefully undecided about everything, lest we appear ignorant by having an opinion. We must remain apathetic towards everything, lest we look foolish in our passion. We must be carefully guarded, intelligently educated individuals who are faithful to plead the Fifth at every heated discussion. Appearing gutless and vapid is far preferable to having an opinion, obviously.

And so, the stage is set for the emergence of token Christianity.

You’re all familiar with the brand of Christianity I’m talking about. It’s the “feel good, God is love, you do you” Christianity that has so deeply penetrated my generation. “Do what makes you happy,” “follow your heart,” and “do what feels right to you,” are all pithy sayings that run in this same vein of thinking. And just to clarify, I’m not denying that happiness is important. Life is short. However, my question is this: is it the most important? The problem with allowing these types of clichés to dominate your thinking as a Christian is that it sets your personal fulfillment and individual autonomy up to be more important than all else.

This kind of thinking has led to a generation of cross-wearing Christians that have forgotten the Cross.

In an age of such heavy advertising, it’s hard to promote something that doesn’t necessarily “sell” very well. The temptation is to amp up the parts of faith that sound appealing and sweep the other, less inviting things under a rug somewhere.

I understand the temptation, friends. I’ve been there. But, I’m going to be very honest with you here: to create a gospel message that intended merely for mass appeal is to distort the gospel. I understand. Your intentions are good. But to “advertise” God’s love apart from God’s justice undermines the purpose of the gospel. Yes, it was love that energized it. But it was justice that required it. It was God’s justice that needed to be fulfilled. God’s love for us does not eliminate our need for redemption. It does not eliminate the fact that we are depraved sinners. In order to understand the gospel, people must first be made aware of the fact that they’re sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Repentance must take place. The incomplete gospel message is a different message entirely. Therefore, to take one attribute of God and set it up against His other attributes is a form of idolatry. You are then not worshiping God, but rather an ideal.

“By the way,” C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “This point is of great practical consequence. The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own and set it up as the the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them that will make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity,’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”

My concern in this separation of God’s love from His justice – this splitting of hairs, to borrow a popular colloquialism – is that it not only eliminates the need for repentance and the gospel, but it also aids in the mindset that you can pick and choose truth for yourself. You can create your moral palette to taste rather than to truth. This makes the Bible out to be a buffet, where you determine what you consume based on how you feel. You don’t have to allow it to infringe on your personal freedom. The Bible is not meant to be digested like that. It is intended to be consumed in its entirety, like a wholesome meal.

As Matt Moore writes in a recent blog post, (see blog post here), “A ‘Christian’ faith that calls sin what it is but lacks love, mercy, and grace isn’t very Christian. Likewise, a ‘Christian’ faith that embraces the ideas of love, mercy, and grace, but refuses to submit to the Bible’s teaching on sin and repentance isn’t very Christian. The former fleshes out in angry, loveless religion that does not point to Christ; the latter fleshes out in God-belittling, powerless religion that does not point to Christ. And in my opinion, based on my understanding of the Scriptures, neither of these faiths has any kind of saving power. It is the holy faith of Christ characterized by love and truth that saves.”

Jesus loved. But He loved enough to speak truth. Can you imagine if Jesus had came to earth, and in His omniscience, said to the Pharisees (infamous distorters of the gospel), “Well, what you’re doing is all wrong, but I mean, whatever man. You do you. I just want you to be happy.”

Imagine.

You see, Jesus did want them to be happy. But in the true sense of the word. He desired them to find their fulfillment in Him, rather than the approval of those they were leading. He knew that calling sin “expressing yourself” and “celebrating individualism” was to celebrate death. He understood that truth and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Am I preaching a health and wealth gospel? By no means! Having a relationship with Jesus does not mean that the rest of your life will be painless and perfect. It instead means that you realize that there’s more to this finite existence than the present circumstances. There is deeper hope than what can be seen. You have no need to fear, because your eternity future is secured by grace, not by merit. This knowledge causes a paradigm shift in your thinking that radically changes the perception of the world around you.

When we belittle sin, we belittle the gospel. And when we are so paralyzed by the fear of being offensive that we don’t speak truth, we’re ineffective. Not to mention that conforming to the world to “sell” Christianity is a bit oxymoronic. We’re instructed to be in the world and not of it. People are longing to see authentic faith. Don’t undermine your own testimony through faulty notions of “reaching more people” that way. It’s beautiful to be passionate about something when that passion is not misplaced.

It’s not that the gospel is more relevant now than it has been in the past, it’s that it’s always been as relevant as it is today. It’s a message people need to hear in it’s entirety.

We are accountable to what we know. My prayer for my generation is that we will cease to be cross-wearers, and start to be cross-bearers.

 “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.'”
Matthew 16:24

On the Subject of Pain

Image

“He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10

 

I had someone tell me recently that truth is subjective. And upon first appearance, that seems like a lovely notion. It eliminates any possibility for conflict and judgement – because while you may not agree with someone’s viewpoint, it doesn’t matter, because at least they’re doing what’s “true for them” and they’re happy. And you’re doing what’s “true for you” and you’re happy – so everyone’s happy, right? Everyone wins.

Wrong. Ultimately, everyone loses. If there is no such thing as absolute truth, than the logic only follows that nothing, in fact, is true. If nothing is true, then we are all wandering around blind, with no greater purpose than ourselves to live for. And if that is the case, my friends, then we might as well live as we will, because everything we do is meaningless (see Ecclesiastes for more on this topic, specifically Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 for the conclusion of the matter). We will be forgotten after we die anyway, so why accommodate to others? Who honestly cares? I want x, y, and z to happen in my life, and I frankly don’t care how I achieve those things. I need to look out for Number One, because no one else is going to do it. And if I offend someone along the way, too bad. At least I’m abiding by what is true for me. I’d hate to be hypocritical.

Lack of absolute truth only results in mayhem. Where does the moral code come from? There has to be an Ultimate Standard to draw from. Why do we as a society deem one action “bad” and another “good” if the standard varies from person to person? Understand, I’m not claiming that everything is black and white. There are grey areas, even in Scripture. However, I am claiming that there is something larger than life that allows for certain absolute truths; things that are true for all men in all times through all circumstances. Joe Schenke, the Dean of Students at Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, NY once defined truth this way:

“Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, glory, and being of God.”

Some other attributes of truth include (as taught in the same sermon by Schenke):

  • It is revealed, not not invented.
  • It is unchanging, even though our beliefs about truth change. Beliefs cannot change a fact, regardless of how sincerely they are held.
  • It is not affected by the one professing it.
  • It is narrow. Contradictory ideas cannot both be true.

I say all that in order to simply say this: God is good. I realize that this is not necessarily a popular thing to say, and in fairness, I want to clearly state the perspective from which I’m coming from, recognizing that I’m claiming something that may strike people as ignorant and hopelessly optimistic. I am an unashamed believer in Jesus Christ – He is the Savior of my soul. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but by it I see everything else.”As a believer, it follows that the Bible is the starting place from which I draw my conclusions. Not to do so would be inconsistent with that which I claim to believe. I know that the subject of the goodness of God, or the existence of God Himself is a divisive one, especially in reference to pain. However, as previously stated, the denial of truth does not make it any less true; and therefore, not believing that God exists does not cause Him to cease to exist.

Now to address the question, if God is good, than why do bad things happen? How can such a “good” God allow such atrocities? It’s certainly a fair question. Looking at the prevailing pain in the world around us, it seems inconsistent to argue that God is simultaneously good AND sovereign. We don’t want to accept that. If God is sovereign, why doesn’t He eliminate pain? It’d be easier to believe in a good God if He was rendered helpless, unable to intercede on our behalf to prevent pain. Or it’d be easier to believe in a God that was sovereign but disconnected and disinterested in our lives; therefore making our pain of no consequence to Him. It is hard to accept that God possesses both attributes. But it is vital to understand if we are to experience a relationship with Him that goes deeper than a superficial fandom.

The reason this world is so broken is a direct result of the sin that exists therein. What is sin? Anything that contradicts the will, character, and word of God. A quick theology lesson: God created the world without sin. However, He loved the human race enough to give men a choice as to whether or not to follow him. The first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they were expressly told not to do by God Himself. In eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they disobeyed Him and committed the first sin (see Genesis 3 for more details.) Romans 5:12 says that: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” So, in Adam, we all fell. Any one of us would have made the same decision he did. So why did God even give Adam and Eve the option? Because He loved them (and us) enough to give them the power to choose. He granted us free will because (to quote C. S. Lewis again): “though it makes evil possible, [it] is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” Love that is coerced isn’t love at all. God loves us enough to allow us to choose Him.

But I still haven’t answered the nagging question, how can a good God allow pain? Doesn’t He want us to be happy? Yes, of course. But His desires for us are so much larger for us than satiating the desires that we think will make us happy. More than happiness, He wants us to be holy. In Elisabeth Elliot’s book Passion and Purity, she records a conversation that captures this mindset well:

“The blue eyes filled with tears. ‘Doesn’t He want me to be happy?’ (I heard an echo of Eve in Eden).

‘He wants you most to be holy.’

‘Miserable and long-faced then. Is that what holiness has to mean?’

‘Has to? No. Not only doesn’t have to, but can’t. Real holiness can’t possibly be miserable and long-faced Jane. Holiness means ‘wholeness.’ Comes from the same root as hale–you know, hale and hearty. Healthy. Fulfilled.’

‘Well, that has to mean happy.’

‘That’s what it means for sure. The problem starts when we make up our own minds what will give us happiness and then decide, if we don’t get exactly that, that God doesn’t love us. We slither into a slough of God-hates-me self-pity.’

‘But you just said He wants us to be happy. He must want to give us what we want, doesn’t He? I mean, within reason.’

‘He wanted Adam and Eve to be happy, but He didn’t give them everything they wanted. He knew it would be the death of them. So they got mad and decided He didn’t love them and was being stingy when He told them not to touch the fruit. How could He love them if He didn’t let them have it? They put more stock in the snake’s reasoning than in God’s.”’

I am not in anyway trying to belittle pain. I am simply stating that I serve a God whose sovereignty supersedes pain. In knowing that God is good, I can trust in His goodness, knowing He only allows things for my betterment. Because He loves me enough to place circumstances in my life that force me to recognize my inadequacy and need for Him. It’s easy to claim a faith when it’s never tested. The contents of our hearts are revealed in trial. Only then do we start to recognize the depths of our depravity. Until we come to the end of ourselves, we will tend live in our own strength, whether advertently or inadvertently.

Job is the classic example of a righteous man that underwent trials of massive proportions. In a matter of a few days, he lost his wealth, his children, and his health. As he sat in the ashes scraping off his sores with a piece of broken pottery, his wife inquired, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” To which Job replied, ” You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10).

Yes, and how would we recognize pain if we had never experienced good prior to it? To experience great loss means you first have been blessed enough to experience great joy. It is God’s grace that allows us to experience good in the first place. We are not entitled to blessings. God is not our heavenly vending machine.

I have recently realized that I have a very low view of God. This was unsettling, to say the least. In working through my own grief of the death of my dear sister, I’ve recognized how very shallow my view of God is. As A. W. Tozer describes it, “To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: This requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him.” I am definitely guilty of this. But really, my question in the midst of trials should not be “Why me? I don’t deserve this.” Instead I should be humbled that God loves me enough to take such interest in me that He is willing to allow events in my life that will overwhelm me with His grace.

The key difference between believers and non-believers is not that believers never experience pain. In fact, based on Job, there doesn’t appear to be any immediate correlation between righteousness and adversity. BUT there is one between godliness and grief. And that difference is, believers have hope. We can rest assured in God’s goodness and love by virtue of the fact that He sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins. But the story doesn’t end there. He was resurrected, defeating death, the ultimate consequence of sin. So as believers, we can claim victory over this life and our circumstances through Christ. Yes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:55-56.)  We know that our immediate trials are not all we have to look forward to. As Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). Our lives are not dictated by circumstances, but rather truth.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

“For we live by faith, not by sight.”

(1 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16-18; 5:7).

 

 

Passages for further study:

  • 1 Peter 1:3-9
  • James 1:2-4
  • Hebrews 4:14-16
  • 1 Corinthians 1:3-5
  • Isaiah 55:8-9
  • Psalm 119:49-50, 71-72
  • Psalm 34:18
  • Romans 5:1-5; 8:28, 31-38