Thursday, April 07, 2016

An Example

As Christians, we are exhorted to be examples to others.  Christian parents teach their children to be examples to others -to younger siblings, to peers in school, etc.  But it raises the question... an example of what?

"Well, we are to be a light."

Okay, I agree.  But a light to what?  To whom?  This needs to be fleshed out a bit more, I think.  Otherwise, we can easily run the risk of being an example of something other than we intend.

I've talked to young teens who are raised in wonderful Christian families who feel the pressure to be an example to people, and they have struggled because they have thought this means that they never laugh at inappropriate things, they never complain, never show any negative emotions, etc.  They almost feel as though they have to be perfect, and while they are very sweet and well-meaning, it can sometimes end in a result they don't want.  It can just make peers feel bad.  They aren't pointed to Christ.  They aren't encouraged.  They flip-flop back and forth between feeling like they aren't good kids, and aren't good Christians, because they aren't "perfect" like this peer of theirs.  Or they wind up just feeling awkward around this friend, not being able to put their finger on why, because it seems like their friend cannot relate to real life... at least not to theirs.

"Ah.  But that's just because they are young in their faith.  And plus, teens... they tend to be a tad insecure and compare themselves to each other too much, anyway."

Yes, I agree.  But it doesn't stop with our youth.  It is found in our adults, as well.  That same feeling of alienation is felt by people who join a Bible study or women's group and are met with people who, honestly, try a bit too hard to keep up appearances.  Rather than being able to reach and encourage people who may need genuine help and discipleship, these folks who seek to be a godly example just wind up making them feel bad or pushing them away with what appears to be fake religious pretense.

"But maybe they should feel bad."

This is what I sincerely question.  A person should experience repentance over sin, but that is not necessarily the same as feeling "bad" or ashamed simply because you don't fit in with people who act like their life is perfect and they have it all figured out.  Feeling excluded because you don't fit the mold of this nebulous, quasi-artificial, culturally informed idea of "Christian righteousness" is not the same thing as repentance at all.

So it brings us back to the original question.  What are we to be examples of?

We are to be examples of people who love Jesus, who live by the Gospel, who blow it but have the humility to admit it and trust in Christ and the power of His Holy Spirit to cleanse us and bring us to glory.  We are to be examples of daily repentance, of humility, of love.  We are to be examples of people who have a living hope.

This doesn't mean we make all of our private business public knowledge.  We don't need to go around talking about all of our deepest sins and personal problems to everyone who crosses our path.  But being an example of the grace of God in our lives fundamentally means that we don't shut people out and hide behind a mask of artificial perfection, either.  Holiness, at the end of the day, is primarily about faith and dependence on the grace of God.  That is where the fruit comes from.

It isn't easy.  As honest and humble as we seek to be, we will still be labeled, "no fun" and "fake" by some and "not Christian enough" by others.  I guess it's a good thing that we stand before the Lord for ourselves, only. :)

Worse than You Think

When a fellow believer tells me how disenchanted and depressed they feel because they fell and did some bad things or don't even seem to have a heart for God anymore, I hope I can always remember to tell them this:

"Cheer up.  You're much worse than you think."

The only thing that happened is that you discovered a little more of what already resides in your heart.  But God has seen it all the whole time and still delivered up His Son for you.

The power of the Gospel is not in it's ability to make us feel good about ourselves or minimize our sin.  It is in its ability to slay the old Adam with the truth of our foolish condition and create in us a man of faith, who doesn't live for himself but for Him who died and rose from the dead for him.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Deceitful Heart - More Social Media Wisdom

Sometimes, I want to gently pull aside some of the people who write things like the meme to the left and ask them if they ate paint chips as a child.  You don't need a PhD in Biblical theology to recognize that this isn't even common sense.

When has doing the right thing ever been the easy thing?

How often has doing the right thing been the thing that is the most interesting or alluring?

Here's an experiment.  Observe your kids to see what kinds of things grab their interest most... the thing they ought to be doing, or something that is shiny and fun?

Want to know why people sin?  Because it feels good.  Sin is fun.  It is exciting.  Temptation is temptation because of how alluring it is.  It makes us feel good, like we can forget our problems and finally enjoy ourselves... like we deserve it, even.  Sin feels good... for a while, at least.  But eventually, the blinders come off, and we realize how deceived we have been.  And then we turn around and look, and there is a wake of carnage trailing behind us.

"You know you are on the right road when you lose interest in looking back."  Tell that to Lot's wife.  She was on the right road.  She looked back, literally, and turned into a pillar of salt.  Oops!  Lot's wife illustrates my point -nine times out of ten, being on the right road is hard, and you will absolutely feel the pull to look back.  However, if you're on a road that is easy, then maybe you need to check yourself.

Listen, who knows.  Maybe you are on the right road -that is between you and God.  But please entertain the possibility that you have lost interest in "looking back" because your heart is actually hardening.  Hmm... I tend to think that is not a good thing.  The Bible talks about hearts being hardened.  It talks about consciences being seared.  It talks about those things within the context of sin and God's judgment upon sin.  Not good, sorry.

I think this ultimately all comes down to a flawed and self-deceived understanding of the human heart.  Some think the human heart is a good thing that will never steer us wrong.  "If it feels good, if it feels right, then it must be right..."  How has that worked out for you?  Ask the single mother who has four kids from four different men how that has worked out for her.  The Bible, however, says that the human heart is "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9).  We're not all as bad as we could be, praise God, but we're not innocent, morally neutral beings.  Our heart is not going to steer us down the right road unguided.  It's going to ultimately steer us down the road of selfishness and self-deception.

"He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, But he who walks wisely will be delivered." (Proverbs 28:26)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Our Obsession with Our Own Strength - More Social Media Wisdom

I don't get it.  I don't get the modern obsession with finding out how "strong" we are during times of trial.  Even during the darkest times in my life, as I was struggling to make it through one day at a time, I had people tell me how "strong" I am.  I thought, "I don't feel strong, but thanks, I guess."  I remember seeing memes on Facebook about how bad trials make you stronger or show how strong you are, as if part of our problem is that we are blind to some hidden strength within ourselves.  But I never found those helpful or encouraging then, and I still don't.

Why?  Well, there are two reasons.  First, I was never overly encouraged by those things because I never really thought I was "weak" to begin with, and that was a big problem.  I felt weak, but not weak enough.  See, even though I had struggles with self-confidence or whatever you want to call it, I increasingly knew that a big part of my problem was that I was too self-sufficient and relied too heavily upon my own strength.  My problem was that I didn't want to admit my weakness, let things go, and trust God.  I resisted my real powerlessness and held onto my precious illusion of control, and that is exactly what kept me stuck in a lot of situations where I may have felt like I was "weak".  My perception of feeling weak was a combination of emotional exhaustion, largely stemming from my white-knuckle grip on controlling out comes, and worrisome doubt -I would not believe that God could do something good, better than what I planned and wanted.

The second reason was that I couldn't find a single thing in the Bible that says anything like this to people who are going through trials.  We are never pointed to our own strength.  We are told, instead, that we are proud people who struggle because we don't want to trust God.  We are a people who don't want to admit our need.  Sure, we'll admit that we need help, but we want help from God to accomplish things our way and it is that insistence on having things go our own way that saps us of real strength.  Those who do find strength, real strength, don't find it in their flesh.  They find an alien strength, a supernatural strength that comes from Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.  How exactly does that make me strong when it is actually Someone else carrying me?  Hmm...

The Bible explains that God uses trials to refine us.  The metaphor of burning away the dross and impurities in a refiners furnace is used.  Rather than revealing to us some kind of hidden natural strength that we didn't know about, they squeeze things out of us that we didn't know were there -that, in all honesty, we probably didn't want to know were there- so that they can be brought to the light and burnt away.  They bring the impurities to the surface so that what is left is the work of God in us, the faith, strength, love, etc. that He has wrought in us with the expected result of "praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ". (1 Pet 1:7)  If our trials reveal any strength in us at all, it is the strength that God has worked in us by His grace.

But let's not lose the point, here.  Someone please explain to me why I would need to believe that I am strong in the first place?  How exactly does that help me?  If I know I have a strong God, whose hand is not too short to save, do I really need to know how strong I am?  And where in Scripture do we find this?  We don't.  In Scripture we find something quite the opposite.  We find the faithful being pointed to the faithful works of God, over and over.  During tough times, we are encouraged to remember the faithfulness of God in His works.  We are encouraged to find our hope in Him, even when all hope seems lost.  When going through a difficult time, is failing to believe in myself really my problem?  If there is any strength we seem to be blind to and have a hard time believing in, it isn't ours -it is His.

I do get one thing, however.  I get the need to encourage someone that they can endure a trial, come out on the other side, and have things ultimately work out better than we could ever have planned.  I understand how we want to encourage someone to "hang on" and that "they can do it," especially when they feel like giving up.  By all means, even in our natural, fleshly strength we can survive and endure quite a bit.  We see stories of this all the time on television, about the indomitable will of a certain individual to endure great obstacles and come out victorious.  We do possess a kind of earthly strength, indeed.  But I would be remiss to not harp on the glaring fact that our total reliance on our own strength, apart from God, is part of our ailment not our healing.  What I really need to know is that, yes, God has given me many natural faculties to navigate and endure this life (and those are good things to give glory to Him for), but ultimately my best source of strength and hope are found in Him.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Suffering and Identity


It's always a bit awkward bumping into someone you know that isn't involved in every detail of your everyday life.  I hadn't caught up with him in quite a while, so I really didn't know what to say.  Searching for subjects for small-talk, I fell back to the familiar things that had sadly defined most of our conversations: 

"I'm good, but lots of drama... " 

"Really?" he asked, concerned. 

"Yeah.  Dramaville."

Was there a lot of exhausting, emotionally-draining, spiritually-numbing drama going on that day?  Oh yes.  A lot... for the last few weeks, in fact.  But though I was feeling a bit tired and drained at the moment, the fact of the matter was that I've been really blessed lately.  So many things are going so well.  My marriage.  My job.  The kids.  Lot's of personal and private things we've prayed about have been un-knotting themselves right before our eyes.

The thing about suffering, especially something that has enveloped your life for a long time or that is huge in magnitude, is that in countless subtle steps it takes over who you are.  You become "that guy... the guy who all that bad stuff happens to and happened to."

It becomes what you fall back upon when you're in awkward social situations and don't know what to talk about.  "Yeah... I'm good. Just lots of drama, lately."

It becomes what you talk and pray and think about when you first get up in the morning, during the day, and even before you go to bed at night.

It becomes what you reach out to others about, when you reach out at all.  In the community of faith, you become one of those broken loner-types while others, who have been involved in the church for sometimes much less time, become active members who serve and sometimes gain small positions of leadership.

It becomes, in a very real sense, who you are.  It owns you.  It gives you a name.  It becomes the story that you tell over and over, the narrative that defines your life... that is, until you're ready to hang that story up for good. 

No matter what you've gone through and no matter what kind of chronic drama lingers on the fringes of your life, ready to cycle its way back in with one text message or phone call, you reach a point where you must make a choice.  Is this my life, or is this just a part of my life?  Am I a perpetual victim of an unfair world, unfortunate circumstances, and bad, mean, or crazy people who won't leave me alone, or am I a person who undergoes trials that can and will teach me, train me, and strengthen me into a better and more faithful man, a man who serves and gives out of those experiences rather than dwells, mopes, and makes his residence in Victim-ville?

Is it really that easy?  No, it isn't easy, but it is that simple.  It may not seem that simple at first, but by God's grace at some point you realize that part of you lives off of the havoc in your life.  Part of you gets something from it... a sense of identity or security.  It gives you something to hide behind, to set yourself apart with.  But it only holds you back.  Don't be "that guy."  Give up that yoke.  It gives you nothing good.  Maybe you cannot change your circumstances, but through repentance you can change the position these circumstances are given in your life.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Love Yourself Like Lucille Did - More Social Media Wisdom

One of the prevalent themes of our age is the notion of loving yourself.  You just ain't cool if you don't, and if you don't you'll be encouraged to... incessantly.  In a sense, I can understand why this is promoted as a cure-all for healthy living.  People do seem to commonly struggle with all kinds of self-loathing, self-destructive behaviors, and body-image issues, just to name a few things. 

But I wager that these problems are largely what you get when you live in a culture that treats pride as a virtue and elevates the individual to such a high level.  When everything is supposed to be about you, your rights, how good you look, what you were supposed to get but didn't get, when we idolize things like fame and physical beauty and getting attention and personal happiness, is it any wonder we are suffering the ill-effects of so many broken relationships and so much self-preoccupation?  This is not to suggest that we are purely the product of our culture, but there is definitely something destructive in the human heart that is drawn out by the idols of our society.

God's Word shows us that self-hatred is the sister to self-adoration.  They are two sides of the same coin of self-preoccupation, of pride.  The self-focus and self-elevation that we believe will help us and make us happy heaps an impossible burden upon us that we were never meant to bear.  It is exhausting trying to fill a black hole.  I posit gently that self-loathing and so many related things are the result of a fallen heart seeking to navigate a sinful and often cruel world on its own, self-reliantly, disconnected from God.  While pretty much all of us could trace our problem back to some previous wound (a wound that may indeed be very serious and very real), we only feed into the problem when suggest that the solution is also self-reliant, man-made, and involves focusing more on ourselves.

Here's one example I will give to illustrate.  It is suggested often that "you cannot love others until you love yourself."  In fact, it is suggested so often that it is taken as gospel.  But could it be that the real inhibitor to loving others is that, beneath our apparent lack of self-love, we are actually very painfully stuck on ourselves and whatever wounds we are carrying?  What if those things that plague you about yourself didn't matter so much because you were taken out of yourself -enraptured with the beauty of God, enamored by His grace and forgiveness toward you, and eager to think instead of others and how you can serve them?  I cannot think of a more wonderful and load-lightening thing than being free of the need to focus on yourself.

God's Word does not shy away from recognizing things like pain, abuse, oppression, and loss, which are all sadly a very real part of living in a fallen world, but it gives us a different direction, a different starting point or focus from which a good life can spring:

"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Prov 1:7)

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths." (Prov 3:3-6)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Four Thoughts for Today

Ultimatums really don't work.  You can't force someone into changing in ways you want to by applying pressure.  In some cases, they may see what they risk losing if they do not give up a certain destructive behavior.  But usually it is too late.  Besides, do you want someone who merely modifies their external behavior because they are afraid of what will happen if they don't, or do you want someone who has a true change of heart, without any external pressure from you or anyone?

Change is hard to come by.  If someone who has been a habitual offender suddenly promises that everything is going to be all better and that they going to seek help, be very slow to believe them.  Many times, people appear to want to change when really they are just panicking because the status quo is changing, they are losing their security blanket, or they want company in their misery.  Most people don't change that much -their basic strategies for coping and relating, the preoccupations and allegiances of their heart, etc.  God can change anyone, and he does, but as a general rule people don't really change all that much.

People won't change their lifestyle until it is their aim to do so.  You cannot hash out a "plan" for someone to fix their life and expect them to follow it unless it is their plan or unless they asked you to help develop a plan for themselves.  If they aren't taking real initiative to follow through, they won't.  And if you keep trying to do this for them, you are just enabling them and allowing them to bring their crazy roller-coaster of drama into your life... and for what?

Boundaries are an unfortunate necessity in life.  People don't always manage things well, and they have their own baggage that they carry around everywhere they go.  If you don't keep watch over your domain and the boundaries of your domain, if you keep trying to just be nice and accommodating, you are going to end up allowing those people to share their bad with you, and it will indeed infect you life and everyone and everything in it.  They may want to get close to you to hurt you, or they may just expect that everyone else should join them on their drama-filled roller-coaster of misery.  Either way, learning to say "No, and you need to stay out" doesn't feel good, perhaps, but it is necessary for the sanity of your own life and those in your life that you need to love and care for.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

#Butt-Hurt

If there is one thing that Facebook is good for (or bad for, depending on your level of sarcasm) it is the memes.  Some of the most ridiculous statements and advice are peddled and shared via memes on Facebook.

This one immediately provokes two thoughts.  First, yes.  Yes, I have.  I have gone out of my way to help people and been taken advantage and treated with a lack of gratitude.  It isn't hard to find someone who has, which is my point.  Welcome to the human race.  So, why post it unless you are harboring some kind of bitterness over particular offenses?

Second, have you ever met someone who has gone out of their way to help someone in order to gain appreciation and receive gratitude in return?  Yes, yes I have.  They do nice things for you, going out of their way, and then get mad and hurt when you don't react with the appreciation they expect.  People who do this usually aren't trying to be manipulative.  They just don't know how to directly ask for love so they try to get it from you indirectly. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I didn't want to be one of "those" kind of Christian

I spent a lot of the last decade with a semi-secret disdain for "those" kind of Christians.  You know the ones I'm talking about... the ones with their perfect little families, who sing songs together around the dinner table, whose children are all home-schooled and can all explain to you the significance of the temple sacrifice and how it was fulfilled in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ by the age of 8.  I'm talking about the families where the husband and wife seem glued at the hip and work together to focus the entire family on Jesus.

I told myself for a long time that I didn't want to be like that.  They were too "Amish".  I wanted to be able to relate to people who weren't Christian.  I wanted to be a "real" Christian, who can live in the world, relate to people with real life problems, and yet still follow Christ.  I might swear.  I might drink.  I might say and do things that would shock those kind of Christians.  And so I looked down my nose at them, while claiming they were looking down their nose at me.  I almost enjoyed it.

The truth is that, well, there was sometimes a grain of truth to these things I felt toward certain groups of Christians and families like that.  Sometimes they couldn't relate to the rampant number of single mothers in this little town, for example, living on food-stamps in subsidized housing.  Sometimes they couldn't relate to adults stuck in abusive marriages, and sometimes they gave some pretty terrible (though I'm sure well-meaning) advice.  Sometimes they were a bit too... Amish... and didn't see how the motif of their ministry unnecessarily alienated people who could really benefit from what they had to offer, otherwise.

But that wasn't the whole truth, not by a long shot.  The truth was that I didn't give a lot of these people a fair chance.  The truth was that I was hurt and angry at God because, at that time, my family was falling apart and all the formula for Christian headship in the home and Christian marriage and family worship couldn't save it.  I felt alienated and ashamed because, well, I couldn't be like them... or at least I couldn't have the perception of what they had that I built up in my mind.  I was angry at God, broken, and envious.

But God has seen fit to be merciful to me and redeem my family.  I am now remarried to an amazing wife and I have two more children for a much bigger, and fuller family.  My children have a wonderful example, and I have big shoes to fill to be a godly husband and father.  I am learning, and I have a lot to learn, but I am supremely thankful.  Times have changed, and although there are still challenges, I am awestruck and humbled by how things have turned around.

I will always have an aversion to what I perceive as legalistic leanings.  I will always have that (if I may be so bold) Luther-like outlook that wants to challenge anything that undermines the Gospel.  But... and this is a big "but"... my tune has changed.  I may never completely fit in to either camp, and I think that is how it goes when you strive to live out the Gospel -you will offend the religious and alienate the irreligious, but I am learning to not allow "those" kind of Christians -whoever they are, whether they are real or an image created in my mind- be an obstacle to me following Jesus more faithfully.

I am now learning that I don't want to be one of another kind of Christian... the kind who holds Jesus at arms' length in order to hold onto my own pride, refusing to humble myself before Him, picking and choosing what I will and will not follow in my life.  I don't want to be the kind of Christian who uses Jesus like a get-out-of-hell-free card but doesn't actually care about His love and headship in my life.  I don't want to be the kind of Christian who uses the mistakes of other Christians, or even how their success in life makes me feel about myself, as an excuse for not picking up the mantle, following Christ, and building friendships with people who want the same.  I should allow nobody and no thing to interfere with that.

As I let go of my envy and pride and hurt, and as I allow myself to let people in that I would not have let in previously, I see that many of "those" kind of Christian are actually not what I thought at all.  They are just people.  They have their sins.  They fall down, and they get up.  They are people trying to do the right thing by Christ, trying to do what is right in their marriage and in their family.  They have more hardships and struggles than I knew of, and they seek to still remain faithful during those times.  I admire that, and really... it's the same heart I've always had.

I'm at a time in life where things are changing, and some of that is hard, but I am thankful for it.  I'm finally allowing myself to listen to that part of me that cringes when I see loved ones who claim to love Jesus not take Him seriously.  I don't judge them... I love them.  But I can't follow that.

I went to a funeral the other day, and it helped cement in a lot of things that have been brewing in my heart for the past year.

It says in Ecclesiastes 7:2...

"It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart."

Short translation:  at a funeral, you see what life is really all about and are wise to pay attention to it; at a part, you don't.  

This has given me pause to think about what I want my life to mean and count for.  I look at my life, and if the Lord were to take me in a few years I don't want to be remembered just as a dad who was funny, as a guy who went through a lot of hard things, or as a dude who says ridiculous and hysterical things when he's had too much to drink.  That may be all fine and well, but it's not enough. 

I want to be remembered as a guy who loved and pointed his family to ChristI want to be remembered as a faithful husband who loved his wife and gave himself for her.  I want to be remembered as a guy who -by God's grace- built a lasting legacy of faith that goes through the generations.  I want to be remembered as a guy who, because of his experiences, really can relate to all people.  I want to be remembered for the Christ in me, not for the world in me.  The former lasts, the latter does not.  That is the kind of Christian -the kind of person- that I want to be.  God help me.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why Aren't All Saved?

Why aren't all people saved?  Some turn to Jesus, but why don't others?  Some get it, but why do some not?

The Bible gives us multiple answers.  Each of these answers are not contradictory but rather complimentary, giving light to a different facet of this complex issue.

1.  Because men love darkness.

The reason why people don't turn to Jesus is because we love darkness (John 3:19).  The responsibility falls on us.  We are culpable for our own rejection of God and His Son.


2.  Because no one is able to come to the Son except the Father who sent Him draws him.

Jesus peels back the curtain and declares more than once in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel that people lack the ability to come to Him (to believe in Him, to spiritually discern and accept Him and what He says) until and unless the Father who sent Him draws them (read John 6:22-71).  If you consider the context, you will see that Jesus states this directly in response to grumbling of his audience.  Christ's response said in effect, "Yes, I know you don't get it and can't accept it.  It is because you're spiritually blind and the Father has not opened your eyes."  He even explicitly says to His disciples, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."(v. 65)


3.  Because God created from one lump of clay some for common use and some to display His mercy and grace.

After eight Gospel-saturated chapters in Paul's letter to the Romans, the apostle finally addresses the issue of why some -namely, why so many Jews, who were supposed to be God's chosen people- reject Christ and are lost.  What happened?  Were God's promises nullified somehow?  No, and Paul set out to give us a behind-the-scenes view into the hidden purposes of God (read Romans 9).

Here, the "one lump" of clay represents all of sinful humanity.  The Potter (God) justly decides some are to be molded for common use and some are to be molded into trophies of his grace and mercy.  Since all are under sin, He does no violence nor injustice in choosing to leave some of us to our own way, as vessels fit for destruction, while choosing to have mercy and grace on others whom he has chosen to be vessels of mercy.