Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Contradictions

How can we be honest with both our faith and our doubts? Sometimes I'm afraid to doubt, and sometimes I'm afraid to believe. Both stem from a lack of love. John says that he who fears has not yet been perfected in love because perfect love drives out fear. When I am afraid to be honest with my doubts, I am somehow believing that my lack of faith has made me unworthy of God's favor, God's work in my life, God's love, God's forgiveness and grace. I am somehow afraid that my questions are stronger than God's power and grace in my life. That his love for me is conditional. When I am afraid to show those same doubts to others, I am believing the same about their love. I have not yet been perfected by the love that drives out fear, knowing that that love is unconditional and eternal. He has loved before the creation of the world and will love long after this world is gone. That's pretty amazing...


On the other hand, there are times when I am afraid to believe. This God I have placed my trust in is sometimes unpredictable. Often times, actually... While I can see glimpses of his beauty and majesty and glory and am drawn to that, wanting to be absorbed in it, I am also afraid of him. I don't mean the "respect" kind of fear. I mean really afraid. He has the power to hurt me if it fits his plan, and he has the power to leave me abandoned and break my heart because I have placed it in his hands. How do I know he won't? Sometimes it feels like he already has. Maybe it would be safer to keep myself to myself, and keep my life in my own hands. At least then the only person who can hurt me is me. This fear too stems from not yet having been perfected in love.


A God so powerful and wise can only be trusted if he is a God who loves, and who loves without limits. I cannot trust a God who might take revenge, not forgive, not consider my heart, consider others more important than me. How is it that God mysteriously loves absent from all these things? He is just, yet perfectly loves those who have committed injustice. He sees and knows my offenses completely, but forgives even before I know I am wrong. He loves himself and fulfills his ways yet thinks of me and knows the very hairs of my head, loving and caring for each part. He loves my enemy passionately, loves me just the same, lays down his life for us both, and asks me to do the same. Such an opposite love, but so perfectly entwined and filled. It seems impossible to live with these contradictions and to accept the wholeness and perfection of even the ones we hate, but somehow they are the only thing that make love true. A God who can hold them all in balance and fulfill them all without faltering: this is impossible in our world, and so it seems impossible to believe or understand.


Sometimes I feel like I am believing a fairy tale in order to cover over all the pain, but I do not want a band-aid God, or a Tylenol God for that matter. I want a God who loves fiercely, who both pursues me with all his heart and who will settle for nothing less than for me to pursue others that they may also know him. This is the balance of the contradictions. That the joy and the tears work together for the perfection of his love. This is not a soft love that knows only comfort, but a passionate love that will endure and ask to endure anything for the sake of the ones he loves. A forgiving love and a just love. An accepting love and a demanding love. A giving love and a sacrificing love. It is the working out of these contradictions in me that perfects me in love. When I live only in the comfort, I know only one side of his love. Though the other side of love can be painful, this too is necessary if I am to be perfected in it. Having walked through the contradictions still faced with his love, where can fear have a hold? If I am on the mountaintops, this is love. If I am in shakels, this too is love. Oh, Lord, though I still am not perfected in love, and I shiver even in saying it: perfect me in love, that I may know that whatever comes is perfect love. And may that love push fear further and further out of my heart, mind and life that I may live wholeheartedly and fearlessly, always.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Song

Standing high for all to see,
Sure of the woman I would be,
Sure I could love and live my dream,
So sure that he was meant for me.

A distant doubt whirled swift around,
A fearful heart now pushed it down.
I pushed my way through a tunnel of weeds,
Dark and moist surrounding me.

I tried to stay while days went by,
Safer there, afraid to see.
Hoping there my doubts would hide,
The light that shed it's truth on me.

The Lover came there calling me,
I hid still waiting hopefully,
That those I loved would come and give,
The joy I craved, the love I hid.

He didn't come, he didn't see,
The heart there breaking hopelessly.
The Lover called again to me,
Waiting for me patiently.
He waited there,
He waited there,
He waited always there for me.

Made for Him and for Him alone,
His touch could mend my broken soul,
His love could give me perfect peace,
For He alone could comfort me.

But still I hid there stubbornly...
And as I did, the weeds grew deep,
The roots around my heart took hold,
With bitterness my heart turned cold.

I could not see,
I could not hear,
The gentle song sung over me.
I could not trust,
But only fear,
The pain, that slowly covered me.

In darkness there I did not move,
Imprisoned by the weeds I knew,
Too weak to try to break away,
Afraid of love so strong betrayed.

But still His song played over me,
When silence fell,
And hope fled way,
I heard His love sing over me.
I heard His voice sing over me.

I listened there, so silently,
Afraid to trust His love for me.
What if He too would leave me there,
Alone and cold, unloved and bare?

Closer still He sang to me,
I dared to peak, to see Him there,
And in His face a love sincere,
I saw amidst a smile and tears.

"My love, I have been waiting here,
I know your pain, I know your tears,
And though his love I cannot give,
I give myself, that you may live."

"I've loved you before time began,
And still when days and nights will end.
I gave you life, I made your soul,
Your purpose in my heart to hold."

And as He sang the weeds pulled 'way,
With each new note His song they sang,
They lifted me to where He lay,
So still I looked upon His face.

The bitter root with poison bare,
Still held my heart with rage and tears,
His hand he pressed upon my heart,
And sang and sang till day grew dark.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Extravagant Grace for Extravagant Need

For those of us who have grown up in the Protestant tradition, grace is an utterly common word. Salvation by grace through faith is our motto. Growing up, I understood that grace was "unmeritted favor." It is when God gives us a gift, something undeserved, free and unearned. I remember that illustration, "I have a gift for someone here today. You, in the red shirt, come up here. I have a gift for you. See it? Do you believe I have a gift for you? Do you believe I will give it to you? [Holds out the gift to the volunteer] I am giving it to you. What do you have to do in order to have it? That's right. Just accept it. [Person takes the gift and leaves.] It is the same with salvation. Salvation is a gift from God. He is offering it to you, and you do not need to do anything to earn it. All you have to do is accept it." That is the grace I grew up with.

Somehow though, I think I missed something along the way. While this gift metaphor encompasses a very important aspect of grace, it does not show the breadth of God's grace and the love that motivates it. I understood God's grace for salvation, but I did not understand God's grace in every aspect of my life. The result is believing that I did not earn or deserve salvation, but that I earn and deserve everything else in my life.  In Galatians 3 Paul says,

"2 Tell me this one thing: How did you receive the Holy Spirit? Did you receive the Spirit by following the law? No, you received the Spirit because you heard the Good News and believed it.3 You began your life in Christ by the Spirit. Now are you trying to make it complete by your own power? That is foolish.4 Were all your experiences wasted? I hope not!5 Does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you because you follow the law? No, he does these things because you heard the Good News and believed it."

"You began your life in Christ by the Spirit. Now are you trying to make it complete by your own power?" Somehow I have believed that my salvation is a gift of grace, but that I must work to earn God's continued approval, presence and power in my life. I say that the Spirit is the one who changes hearts, but really I believe that any growth and accomplishments in my life have been a result of my own hard work and perseverance. Because of these two things I have believed that I must work really hard and be nearly perfect in order for God to love and delight in me.  I am saved but not loved.  Grace was divorced from love. The result was that I believed in a grudgingly gracious God, who is gracious more out of duty than out of love.  The law is what earned love and my own power is what created change. I therefore also show grace to others out of duty rather than love, and I judge others when they struggle to change. Yikes... Not a pretty picture.

What changed?  I experienced my utter need for God, not only for salvation, but for continued faith, for survival, for growth, for love, for everything and anything that really matters. It was when ALL of my own power was stripped away and my faith was revealed to be weak and unstable that I realized three things:

1.God loves and delights in me, even though I was at the worst place spiritually I had ever been.
2.I still believe only because of God's grace to continue to reach out to me when I rejected Him.
3.If anything were to change, it would have to be by the work of His Spirit in me, not by my own power because I had none left.

God's grace was no longer a signature on a contract, but a continual act of love drawing me back to Himself  every single moment, when I have nothing to give, nothing to earn, and nothing to lose. He has given Himself, and that is enough. That is grace.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Servant King

John 13:3-5 (New Living Translation)
"3 Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him."

How was Jesus, who was equal to God, able to empty himself and serve in such a humble way, washing the feet even of those who would abandon and betray him? In the passage above we see that Jesus knew who he was. He knew where he came from and where he was going. Because of this he did not have to prove himself in any way. He did not have to put on a show for anyone because he was not seeking anyone else's approval. It was the knowledge of the Father's approval and the security in his identity as coming from the Father that gave him the ability to serve in humility.

The same is true of us. Ephesians 5:1-2 says "1Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."

Our standing as God's children through the life of Christ in us allows us also to shed our defenses and pretenses and to serve and love in humility like Christ did. When we know who we are (a.k.a. God's child, fully approved, accepted and loved, given authority by Christ) we have no need to prove ourselves. We do not need to push others down so that we can appear better or more important than them, because our identity is not formed by our success in this world or by the perception of others but by the knowledge and reality of our standing before God. We know who we are. We know who our Maker is. We know where we are going, and that this is not the end. We are free to serve in the most "humiliating" ways without ourselves being in some way soiled or devalued. Rather, by serving in these ways we are following in the footsteps of Christ, the fullness of God, who did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself as a servant and gave himself up willingly for us (see Philippians 2:6-8).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Come to me... and I will give you rest

How often do we truly rest? We rush to work, rush through lunch, rush conversations, rush the deadlines, rush growth (physical, spiritual, financial), rush relationships, and we even rush through pain, doing anything it takes to make it go away and to make things better.

I was reminded today of Matthew 11:27-30 that says:


"All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

 I have been working so hard recently... saying, "Debbie, you should be able to handle this. You should be able to get over this. You should be able to believe the right things, feel the right things, think the right things. If I just try a little harder and keep working at it..." Man, that is exhausting! Today God brought this scripture to my mind, and all I heard was an invitation to come to Jesus for rest, to stop trying so hard, to stop pushing, even in my faith and heart.

It's funny. I say I understand grace. I talk about it and preach about it, but it seems like I just peel thin layers of understanding off one by one not realizing there are a thousand more beneath. I never thought of this passage in the context of grace before, but that is what it is all about, isn't it? That Jesus invites us to rest our souls in him.

Jesus says that only those to whom he reveals the Father can know the Father. Sounds a little exclusive... but again, it is this abundant grace of Jesus that we cannot even know the Father without his generosity; but in the very next sentence Jesus invites all those who have been burdened so heavily, to come and find rest for their souls in him. Even our searching for the Father finds rest in Jesus. Ahhhhhh... what a relief... In my struggle to understand, to believe, to be certain, to KNOW the Father, Jesus again says, "Come to me, all who are weary... learn from me... I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls." Stop fighting. Just come...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Diamond Diaries

As women, there are a lot of cultural influences that tell us who we are, what we want, what we do or do not deserve, and what makes us of worth, of value. Most of these voices, unfortunately, are broken, replacing the voice of God with the voice of selfish desires in a culture that is often striving to lift oneself up and push others down. The voices of broken hearts by broken people.

As I think about my own heart responses, those of my beautiful friends, and the stories I see in movies, television shows, trashy romance  novels, and even the classics of Jane Austen, I see a subtly destructive message that I believe has led many a woman (including me) to live in ways that destroy our hearts, bodies and minds. Think of any chick flick you've seen recently. He's Just Not That Into You, Pride and Prejudice, Everafter, Never Been Kissed, etc. The woman is portrayed as having an ordinary, unremarkable life, until the fated day when her "savior" comes into the picture. There is uncertainty, drama, risk of loss, and then the culmination when the couple is finally together, and the ordinary, unremarkable woman now has happiness, significance, completion, a confirmation of her worth. And we believe this.  Think about it. Think of everything you do to gain the approval or love of a man. And what do you feel when those attempts fail? The one person who could declare you "worthy" by the proof of his love, declared you unworthy of his love. As a result, you wonder whether or not you are worthy of anyone's love. I don't presume to know the expriences of every woman, but I would dare to venture that almost every woman in this country has experienced this feeling at one point, or many, in her life. We're taught from a tiny age that the most important moment in our lives will come when we are finally rescued by a prince.

I heard a song this morning that says, "we are diamonds waiting to be found... a glimmer in the corner of our eyes... when I look into your eyes I see the tip of an iceberg..." We know we are messed up. We all are. There is so much brokenness in all of us, imperfections, selfishness, pride. And yet, there is an inner worth, that may be covered up by so much sin, rejection, pain, and shame that even we refuse to believe it. It's the diamond underground, the iceberg covered by muck. In a world inhabited by billions of people, where does this significance and value come from? Why should I believe it?

Genesis says that God created men and women in his own image. His own image! Do you realize the significance of that? "God don't make no junk!" The most beautiful, gracious, perfect, loving, just, holy being in the universe, made us like himself. And he declared us good. Through a broken world, in which we have all made decisions to move away from God rather than towards him, that image has been covered in filth and it reflects dimly the nature of its creator. But God desires to restore us to himself, to all that he has created us to be. God doesn't make junk, and he made you. The nature of our brokenness means we  have a hard time even receiving that love. Somehow, we keep striving for our own worth, significance and happiness in other places believing that we know better than God how to be declared good. It is God alone who declares us and makes us good. When we look for that in any other place we will be continually broken.

It was Jesus who, dying on a cross, traded our own sin for his perfect righteousness, so that this image could be restored. He again declares us good! He declares us worthy. And that worth is proven by his love for us. 1John 4:10 says: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."  Romans 5:8 says: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. " God considered us worth dying for even when we were steeped in sin and muck. We rejected him, but he chose to love us. He offers us restoration, to truly be declared "good." Instead, we look for this declaration elsewhere, saying, "No, God. Your love is not enough. I don't believe you. I need someone else to declare me loved." And so we continue living out the story of our culture in which a woman is only truly fulfilled, loved, and of value, when another man says she is. I pray that we would remember that we are already of worth, as we let God clean away the filth and lies to restore the beautiful image he created. Let us remember that we were created in his image and that he longs for us and pursues us with his love, even to the point of sacrificing himself for us so that we could be restored to him and again be declared good.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Follow the Leader

I was reading a book by Francis Chan about the Holy Spirit recently, and the thing that keeps coming back to me from that book is the question, "Are you trying to lead the Holy Spirit, or are you being led by the Spirit?" There's a big difference. I think many Christians (including me), believe in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and we recognize the importance of involving the Spirit in our ministry, lives and decisions. But I think what happens a lot of times is that we see the Spirit as a means to an end, a tool to be used, a source of power and experiences, rather than as God, to be followed and submitted to. The Spirit gives us power, so we manipulate our experiences and conditions in order to receive that power when we want it for the results we want.  The Spirit gives wisdom and guidance so we try our hardest to get the Spirit to tell us what we need to know for the situations we think are important. We know we can't accomplish God's work on our own, so we try to lead the Spirit to do what we think God's work is. We try to convince him to do what we need him to do. If he does not do what we need him for, then there must be sin in our lives or doubt or hardness of heart. We think if we get those things right, we can then go again to the Spirit and lead him to do the right thing.

This leading instead of following is subtle but tragic. Leading implies initiation and action on the part of the leader, and following implies observation, waiting and agreement on the part of the follower. As I've begun to see the distinction I've realized how hard I have worked to get the Spirit to do what I want him to do, instead of really letting the Spirit lead without assuming I know what needs to be done. I've begun waking up every morning, not requesting anything of the Spirit, but surrendering to him. "Spirit, I trust your leadership. I will follow you today. Soften my heart, and help me to hear." When I think of a situation that I am uncertain about or that I would like resolution or change in, instead of tyring to convince the Spirit to work, or to work in a certain way, I again pray, "Spirit I know you are working. I am not going to try to figure this all out. I want to follow you." You are leading. I am waiting and following and trusting.

What peace this brings! It really is a huge burden to have to try to figure out what God needs to do and then to try to convince him to do it. And what a lack of belief in who he is that attitude reveals. Of course, really following the Spirit moment by moment is easier said than done. There is still A LOT of pride and fear and selfish desires that interfere, but I surrender those too, and trust God's grace and power to gradually chip those away. The more we see him, the more we will be like him. And the more we know him, the more we will be one with him and with each other.

Friday, April 23, 2010

You ask but you don't receive...

Aaaaa! So many things I'm learning, and I want to write about them all! So even though I should be writing a paper for my Masters, I will write on my blog instead. :o)
James 4
"1What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 4You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
"God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble."[b]

I read James recently, and somehow God has been helping me to see things I had never connected before. It's like he's been shouting these things at me, not in anger, but just so loudly that I HAVE to hear. What I do with it is another question...

In chapter 4 James talks about why the Christians he is writing to pray for things but do not receive them. Good question, right? Jesus tells us, "ask and you will receive," but a lot of the time that doesn't happen. Before when I read this passage I usually thought it was saying that we don't receive what we ask for because we want to use want we get for evil purposes. Of course God wouldn't give us things that we will use for evil! But I don't think that is quite what James is saying here. He says the people in this church are fighting with each other because of desires "battling" among them. They want what they don't have and are jealous of those who do have them. These desires are creating havoc! So then they turn to God when they can't get what they want and ask him for them. Maybe these aren't necessarily bad things, but they have made these desires the goal of their faith and prayers. They ask God for these things in order to satisfy these desires that are consuming their lives.

James continues on in verse 4 saying, essentially, "when you are obsessed with the things you want, you are having an affair with your desires and are rejecting God." The desires are not evil because their object is by nature bad, but because the desire has turned its object into an idol. The Spirit that lives in us "envies intensely." He WANTS us. And he will not give us what we desire when that thing has become for us an idol, more important than God. The Spirit leads us to love God above all else, and anything that gets in the way of that has to go. And even though that can be incredibly painful, ultimately it is a demonstration of God's grace because those "evil desires" will always leave us empty when their intent is to replace God. We were created for God and are satisfied in him alone. As Psalm 73:25 says, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you."

So what is the solution then?
7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. "


We submit ourselves, our desires, our plans for what our lives should look like, to God. Resist the devil and the evil desires he dangles in front of us to distract us from the true source of life, and turn to God. The promise? God will come near to us. We wash our hands and hearts, ridding ourselves of these consuming desires so that we can be of one mind, one intent, one desire, no longer the double-minded person, tossed by the wind, that we see in the first chapter. We truly grieve and confess those things that have replaced God in our hearts, recognizing our need for him and trusting that he alone is our good. When we do this, he will lift us up. He does not leave us in the "gloom." He restores us and brings us into the joy that only a life full of Him can give. But before he does this, there must be a grieving, a purging, a letting go of the things we cling so tightly to that keep us from seeking God himself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I'm asking for WHA...?

James 1:2-16

"2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."

As long as I can remember, I've been asking God for wisdom. I'm not sure why I started. I just remember I decided one day that wisdom was something I really wanted.  I've always assumed that this passages in James means that if I believe when I ask for wisdom, I'll get it, and I pretty much stopped at that. But recently, I've been wondering some things... James says that trials come so that the testing will develop perseverance which works in us to make us mature and complete, not "lacking" anything. He then goes on to say that if we "lack" wisdom we should ask for it. Apparently, wisdom is one of the things produced by perseverance through trials. So, I began wondering, "does that mean that when we are asking for wisdom, we are really asking for trials, which in turn, produce perseverance which produces wisdom?" Yikes! Have I been asking for trials my whole life without knowing it???

In this light, the following verses also make a lot more sense. James says that we must "believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind."  The reason we are to believe and not doubt is that our request for wisdom implies the coming of all kinds of trials. If a man asks for wisdom but then doubts and is "tossed about by the wind" when the trials come, the work of perseverance cannot be completed. In order for wisdom to be born out of trials, there must be belief, faith that enables us to persevere. It is this perseverance through faith that breeds wisdom. A woman who doubts when trials come, who is unstable and does not persevere in faith, should not expect to receive the wisdom she has asked for.

Ouch. That hurts a bit. Here I've been asking for wisdom, full of confidence that I am not doubting God's willingness to provide wisdom. What I did not realize is that the doubting is revealed during the trials, not in the asking. Tossed about by the winds like a wave of the sea... Haven't been the best in that area... Forgive me, Father. It is not faith alone, nor trials alone that result in wisdom, but faith in the midst of the trials.

"9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. 12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

This passage is also still connected to the former, but what is the connection? Why does James suddenly jump to wealth vs. poverty? Well, I assumed it was wealth and poverty, but if I'm considering the context again, maybe this has to do, not just with material riches, but with a life full of humble, difficult circumstances vs. a life of ease and apparent blessing. The privileges of the rich are temporary, fading away without him even realizing it. But the person in humble circumstances who perseveres under trial will receive the crown of life from God. Because of this the person with the life that seems to be plagued with problems and struggles can rejoice and take pride in his position, because he will receive God's eternal promise and reward.

"13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."

When the painful or difficult circumstances come and we respond in doubt, "tossing about like the waves in the wind," it is easy to blame God... not only for our circumstances but for our response to them, for the pain they cause us, for our hardness of heart and sin. It's easier that way. That way we do not have to face our own weakness. We do not have to admit that our faith was weak, our desires evil. But the response is all our own. Another scripture says that when we are tempted God always provides a way out (1Cor.10:13). When we waver during the trials, letting our desires for things other than God lead us into sin, it is our own choice. It is a  part of the testing inherent in suffering that reveals our faith for what it is. This is not a testing for God to figure out whether we really have faith or not, but for our hearts to be revealed to ourselves. When the trials come, do we choose to turn to God in faith, or do we choose to follow our evil desires, which will always lead us into sin?

"16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created."

After all this talk of suffering and testing and perseverance and temptation, James says, "but don't be fooled! Every good gift is from God, who never changes." In the trials, the suffering, the poverty, the injustice, God is not tempting us. He is blessing us. He gives us good gifts. He gives the gift of wisdom, the gift of growth. He gives Himself. He gave us birth through the word of truth (Jesus). Though we may be tossed about by the wind, the Father is not. He is constant, and he is Good. And everything he gives us is a good and perfect gift.

Man... That puts a different spin on my prayers for wisdom...

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Strange (but extravagant) Love

It is counter-intuitive to believe in God's love, especially when we are hurting... when it seems impossible that a God who loves us could allow or ordain such pain. It's the old saying that if someone has the power to prevent evil and does not, or the power to do good and does not, that in itself is evil. So how can we believe in a good God who allows suffering? It is easy to give a theological argument and brush off the question when the suffering belongs to someone else, but when it enters our own lives, that is when our true belief comes to the surface.

I have this picture of my faith being refined like gold, like it talks about in First Peter. I have a picture of my faith in a big pot, with fire under it, boiling, boiling, boiling... as slowly, all these ugly  impurities of doubt and anger and control, selfishness and pride creep to the surface. Boy, do we hate the fire! Not just because it burns, but because it injures our pride. Because when the fire is burning we see all the impurities that were hidden inside. Able to hide or ignore them before, the refining process makes them impossible to hide. And I do not want to see my sins and weaknesses, especially when they are revealed in suffering.

When we realize that this is going on, we can admit that maybe God has a purpose in our circumstances and pain, but this still doesn't mean he loves us. Even an unloving God could use suffering to refine our faith. "You can refine me, but I don't have to like it!" How can we trust God when we don't believe that he is working for our good?  How can a God who loves me cause me pain? And how can I ever trust him to lead my life if he works this way?

Hebrews 11 says:
"13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect."
 
The first thing we see here is that God knew ahead of time that what he promised would not be fulfilled during the lifetime of those he promised it to. God commended all these people for their faith, but NONE of them received what had been promised. It is not that God did not fulfill that promise, but that his plan reached beyond the lives of those he promised it to. The same is true for us. We can become bitter when it appears that what God has promised has not been fulfilled, but we know that what God has planned reaches beyond our lifetime to something far greater that only he knows. Secondly, these "heroes of the faith" persevered because they did not look back to what they were leaving, but forward to what God had promised, a heavenly promise beyond this life. What a temptation it is, in the moment of suffering, to look back to what we have lost instead of forward to what God has planned for us to gain.
 
Hebrews 12
"1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood."
 
Jesus is our example of faith and suffering. When we are in the middle of a trial, we look to Jesus, who voluntarily endured the suffering of the cross because of the joy set before him, this future fulfillment of the promise. Not only did Jesus endure great suffering, but he did it for me. For all of us. Plain and simple, that is the proof of his love. He did not have to. He chose to, and God had this planned from the foundations of the world. That is how I know he loves me: God sent Jesus to die for me. Whatever suffering, injustice, circumstances I endure, these are all outshadowed by the fact that Jesus died for me. I cannot say he does not love me because he already gave me the greatest proof of love possible. His own life. Further, I cannot say that my suffering is proof that God does not love me, because God ordained suffering for his own son, Jesus, whom he loved, again for a purpose that went beyond the physical life of Christ on this earth, for the good of all of us, not just for one.
 
Hebrews 12 continues...
"5And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."

I think this passage speaks for itself. This is the connection between a God who refines and a God who loves. The process of refining, the hardship, should be thought of as discipline by a Father who loves us . It does not seem pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces righteousness and peace. The suffering too is proof of God's love.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Treasure Chest

This week has been tough, and at the same time I think I am finally learning to trust God a little. Or a little more than before at least. I think that trust is coming from really believing in his love and goodness. Not a selfish goodness that takes care only of me for my own pleasure apart from God, but a goodness that draws me into God's arms knowing He is my greatest good and that His kingdom is worth losing everything else for. Paul said it in these words... "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ." Phil.3:8 Jesus also tells a parable about the kingdom of God, comparing it to a treasure that a man finds hidden in a field. The man recognizes the worth of the treasure, so he sells all his possessions and buys the field. Jesus is that treasure. Jesus is worth losing everything for. I think I had forgotten that. I think I had grown attached to my own treasures. Jesus also says, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." When I find something of worth, I begin investing in it. I begin giving my heart. Whether I am investing my money, my time, my thoughts, my efforts into that thing or person, the perceived worth grows. It becomes my treasure, and it holds my heart. What God has been gently reminding me of in the past few days, is to reinvest my treasure. To invest my life into Him, into His kingdom and what He tells me to invest in. When I store up my treasure in Him, my heart will be there too. Right now my heart is torn because I have been putting my treasure elsewhere, in multiple places, leaving me feeling confused and insecure. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. May you be my treasure, Lord. May your Spirit guide me to place my treasure where you would have it, for your Kingdom.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Joy in Weakness: Refining the riff raff

Isn't it amazing how God knows exactly how he needs to refine us? Wouldn't it be nice if he only gave us challenges that were easy to handle, where our character was already strong? Yeah, he doesn't work that way most of the time. It's exactly in our place of weakness that God throws us in the fire. Like he said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Isn't that the heart of the gospel? God's power in our weakness. This apparently was a lesson God drove home for Paul often. Elsewhere, Paul says, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Phil. 4:12-13  We often use this verse as a way to say we can accomplish anything we want through the power of Christ. But it seems to me that this passage is talking about the power to suffer, to be in "unfavorable" conditions. Paul's confidence in the power of Christ gives him endurance, peace, contentment. He doesn't have to strive through the affliction, worrying about how to get out of it or fearing for himself. He knows Christ will give him the power to endure. Oh, that I had that same contentment! That same faith...

God refines where we are the weakest. And he goes back and back again until we learn. God put Abraham in situations that constantly challenged him to have enormous amounts of faith in God's provision and protection. Leaving his country, going into foreign lands where he feared for his life, waiting till he was about 100 to have a child upon which hinged all of God's promise for descendants and a nation blessed by God, then being asked to sacrifice that son. As we see his journey, we begin with a man full of fear, needing to control his circumstances, not trusting in God's greatness, but by the end we see a man who willingly offers up his son, trusting God's power to even raise him from the dead. But it was a journey, and it took God's constant refining.

I have one of those. One of those areas that God keeps refining, and refining and refining. I guess (I hope) I grow a little each time, but it is never easy. I always like to think I've learned to trust God in that area, but then the refining comes, the pain, trying to take control, and I realize I still have not. My hope is that, just like for Paul and Abraham, God's grace will be sufficient for me. That the more I mess up, the closer God gets in there to reveal my weakness and work in His power. The weakness seems overwhelming. Lord, work your power in me. Give me the contentment that comes in knowing that you are, and that you will give me the strength I need in every situation. And may my joy come not in what I do or do not have, but in knowing and being with you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

God is Good - so we don't have to look for satisfaction elsewhere

I'm teaching in a few weeks about God's goodness so I've been thinking a lot about it. I'm reading 2 Corinthians right now and today read in chapters 11 and 12 where Paul talks about his hardships. Paul had incredible faith. Never once does he doubt God's goodness, and yet he saw more suffering in his lifetime than most people ever do. He says:
"23Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?"

And yet, he also says, "rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice!" as he wrote from a prison cell. How is this possible? In most of my experiences with suffering, our belief in God's goodness is dependent on our circumstances. I lose my wallet, and God is not good. I cannot pay my rent, and God is not good. I am unjustly accused, and God is not good. I get cancer, and God is not good. I am 40 and still single, and God is not good. I struggle with temptation, and God is not good.What made the difference, for someone who suffered not only one of these things, but all of them multiple times and still had an unshakable faith in the goodness and love of God?

If we look in the following chapter, Paul continues on saying that in order that he wouldn't begin to think too highly of himself for persevering through all these trials, God gave him "a messenger from Satan"and, though Paul asked, God would not take it away. God's response was: 9"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Cor. 12:9-10

Paul knew that God was enough. God is good, so we don't have to look for satisfaction elsewhere. God's goodness was not dependent on his willingness to alleviate Paul's suffering, but was proved in his grace and his provision of strength to enable Paul to persevere. God did not offer Paul a comfortable life; he offered him Himself. In this way, Paul knew and experienced the goodness of God and could rejoice, praise God and be full of faith in his goodness even in the midst of apparent evil. God's grace is sufficient for us; He offers Himself, and satisfies the thirsty soul.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fearless Love

 I have been paying attention recently to all the things I fear, in decisions, relationships, actions or lack thereof. How much of our lives are motivated out of fear? Why am I afraid? Where does fear come from, and how can we be free from fear?

I had a dream a while back that has really stuck with me. Maybe it was from God. I'm not sure. But one of the things that keeps coming back from that dream is this statement, spoken by a "mediator" between me and another person: "So we are agreed then? You will not make any decisions based on fear, because God is greater than your fears." Ever since then I have been catching myself making (or almost making) decisions based on fear, and that phrase comes back to my mind. If fear were not present in my heart, what would my decision be?

I am a fearful person. Not anxious. Fearful. There is a difference. For me, fear causes me to want to run away. Anxiety usually makes me want to take control, but fear just makes me want to run for the hills. Usually, this fear is manifested in relationships. For a while, God has been speaking to me about the relationship between love and fear, and it has taken me a looooong time to begin to understand the connection.

How many of us have been burned by people we've loved or who we thought loved us? Just about everyone, probably. For many, this wound leaves deep pain that is hard to get past, and trust is replaced by fear. Fear of being hurt again, fear of loving too deeply and being left alone.  And so our relationships begin to be motivated largely by fear rather than love, including our relationship with God. We can't believe that anyone will really love us. We can't believe that God really loves us. And if he doesn't love us, we cannot trust him. That is a problem because trust is the foundation of our relationship with God. If we cannot trust him, we will not follow him. So we live in fear, trying to trust only in ourselves, but even then knowing we ourselves cannot be trusted.

All throughout scripture God speaks of his love for us. Psalm after psalm speaks of the enduring nature of God's love. We are told that God loved us so much that he gave his own son to die, so that we might live (John 3:16). God compares his love for us to that of a husband and a father who desires nothing more than a relationship with us that would bring us true delight, satisfaction and joy. Over and over again he calls us back into loving relationship with himself, settling for nothing else. (see Jer. 2 and 3) God's very nature is love; none of his actions or desires exist apart from love (1 John 4). For the longest time I've struggled to believe this, but am finally beginning to grasp the depth of God's love for me, for you, and what the implications of that love are.

1 John 4 says: 15If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  19We love because he first loved us.

Yes, my fear is dispelled by my trust in God, but in order to trust him I have to not only believe that he is great, but that he loves me. A God who loves me may not always do or give me what I want, but I can trust that he will never lead me astray. Whatever he does will be motivated by love. I have been created for loving relationship with God, and because of that I am most satisfied in him. Regardless of where he leads me, it will always be back to himself, which is true life.

When I believe in THAT love, I can trust. I no longer have to fear. The answer to fear is to "know and rely on" God's love. We no longer think of God as a God of vengeful judgment but as a loving husband. The reason we fear is that we have not yet been perfected in love. Love perfects us? It does. Once we live in God's love, we can trust and live in connection and obedience to him, which in turn reinforces our love and trust as we see him working for the good of others through us. And it is receiving this love that enables us to love others without fear as well. We no longer have to fear the rejection of others, intimacy, or judgment, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts, driving out fear.

Just imagine what your life would look like if you were perfected in love. In other words, you knew and relied on God's love completely and because of that trusted him completely and lived moment by moment in satisfied connection and relationship with him. Listening, worshiping, thanking, obeying. You are no longer afraid to love others because God's love has satisfied the desires of your heart and placed his own love within yours. You no longer have to fight for your own rights because God's love is enough. You no longer have to prove yourself, because God's love has saved you through the sacrifice of Christ. You can serve others with joy and rest because you understand not only God's love for you, but the depth of his love for others and his desire to bring them into loving relationship as well. That knowledge enables you to sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of that love. You can love, because he first loved us.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. Let it be, Lord! Let it be!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Complex of Grandeur

I'm awake. It's 2AM. I wish I could say it's for a good reason. But it's not. I've been flipping a mental coin for hours, thinking, thinking, thinking. Praying. Evaluating. Worrying. Trusting. Afraid of making the wrong decision. Somehow I think this decision will determine the fate of the world. Ha...  It doesn't. And I wonder what God is thinking. If I could just hop into his mind for a second... Oh, wait... I can... Somewhere I read that I have the mind of Christ. Where does that theology meet my decision? I remember that God is great, and that he is good, gracious and glorious. He is pleased with me. He loves me. I am his child. Christ is in me. I'm accepted. It's not one strike and I'm out. There is grace. I don't have to be perfect. I don't have to know what to do. God knows, and I know through his story that he talks to people. I'll bet he'll talk to me. What must God be thinking? Hmmm... As he looks down on the world, all things in his hands, with power and grace. With a love strong enough that he would sacrifice himself so that we would know him. He sees me. He sees my church. What does he see? He sees someone he loves. Imperfect, fumbling, tumbling, I can imagine a chuckle, a tear. And a hand of mercy raising us up. He sees many other things that I cannot see, and the things I worry about are like dust, blown away by one exhale of his breath. He sees a grand plan that involves all of humanity, all of the earth, all of time. I think I have complex of grandeur... I keep forgetting it's not about me. Finally, I remember that the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know what to ask, and I throw myself upon that.