Habit #4: Joyful people give from a place of grateful generosity.

Some of us have sinned a lot. Some of us have sinned a whole lot. Some of us ought to be dead (or at least incarcerated for an extended period of time). Some of us should be very, very grateful for the things they don’t know about what we’ve done.

And some of us who have sinned a lot, who have made a lot of mistakes, who have walked on the dark side, have discovered in Jesus a kind of forgiveness that hardly seems possible. When we found grace, we fell on it like a starving man at a buffet.

Grateful people are a joy to be around. People who have found life after years of mere existence are inspiring. They tend to respond to life with a grateful generosity that is catching. If you are one of them, consider yourself deeply blessed. To live from a place of deep gratitude is a real gift.

Not everyone cultivates this gift, however; left to itself, gratitude can starve again. If you want to lose your joy while giving, follow these seven way-too-easy steps:

1. Respond to every need as if it is your personal responsibility to meet it.
Here is a spiritual principle: The need is not the call. The call is the call. If you want to lose your joy while giving, then respond as if the need is the call. And of course, there are more needs than any one person can ever possibly fill so pretty quickly, you’ll be overwhelmed and you’ll get bitter. This is a great way to lose your joy.

2. Let yourself believe you’re the only one who cares.
I call this the Elijah Principle. Maybe you remember that story in 1 Kings of the time when Elijah ends up on top of a mountain talking to God and he gets a little whiny. He says, “Everyone else has abandoned you, God, and I’m the only one left.” We’ve all felt that way.  When you’re the only one taking out the trash, or doing everyone else’s job, it can feel lonely. Discouragement can give you tunnel vision. But God told Elijah, “Son, there are 7,000 people down in the valley waiting for you. You’re not alone. You’re just not tuned in.”

The truth is, God chooses to work through us but it won’t all fall apart if we somehow can’t keep up. There are others working, too, and God’s plan will unfold. That’s a given.

3. Make guilt your driving motivation for giving.
One of the bigger lessons I’ve learned about the Spirit-filled life is this: You cannot be in two places at the same time. That’s both a physical reality and a spiritual principle. The same frustration we have when we try to do squeeze too many things into our calendars is the frustration we feel when we are in one place internally and another place externally.

John Townsend and Henry Cloud talk about this in their book, Boundaries. They talk about the internal yes and the external yes. It is the battle between our commitments and our feelings. When the internals don’t match the externals, the Holy Spirit has no room to move.  If you’re spiritually frustrated in your giving, maybe this is a question for you: Do your internals match your externals? Because folks, you can not be in two places at the same time.

4. Close your heart toward every need except your own.
The other end of that spectrum, of course, is being so self-protective that we ignore every other need except our own.

5. Have an agenda behind your giving.
If you want to suck the joy out of giving, give with strings attached. Decide you’ll only give if it makes you feel good, or if your name can be on it, or if it gets used in a very specific way. That’s a surefire way to generate frustration and choke out joy.

6. Have no personal strategy or vision for giving.
Give as a reaction instead of a reasoned and prayerful response. Kingdom giving is always about “call,” and not just about “can.”

7. Don’t ever pray about it.
Give for the emotional rush, or give because of an emotional appeal or because someone makes you feel guilty or because someone has manipulated you. But for goodness’ sake, don’t give because you’ve prayed about it and sought the counsel of the One Person in the universe you can confidently say is smarter than you.

That’s how to lose your joy while you’re giving. If, however, you’d like to cultivate joy rather than kill it when you give, then Paul has some good advice for us: Holy Spirit living leads to Holy Spirit spending. Let the Spirit invest in your life, then invest your life in the Kingdom. Find things that make you grateful (like your salvation, for instance) and give from that place.

When we think more intentionally about the use of our resources, our giving flows from a more grateful place and leads to deep joy and real peace.

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Habit #3: Joyful people know how to wait.

Our church has been in a season of remarkable transition in the last year or so — a season of trusting and waiting and listening and deepening. Change is not usually easy and this is no exception; but I have noticed a sweetness to this season.  God has worked in such gentle and unmistakable ways.  Every need provided for, every shift purpose-filled. Watching God’s hand move over our community of faith has been an amazing, faith-building experience. It causes us to suspect we are on the cusp of something pretty powerful.

God’s theme through this season is an old one:  wait. It has not been lost on us that the word “wait” is such a primal theme in the texts we call “wisdom literature.”  Evidently, wise people know how to wait.  Waiting on the Lord is a popular theme for the psalmist and a proverbial one for Solomon. Mary waited and pondered and she, too, was a wise woman.

Wait, God says. And the more I do it, the more I realize it isn’t what I thought it was. In moments of spiritual clarity, I see that waiting is not a gap of emptiness between two events. It isn’t a staring contest with God; we’re not toe-to-toe waiting to see who blinks first.

I’m struck by the connection between the term “waiting” and another biblical phrase, “the fullness of time.”  While the waiting may seem to stretch on as empty space from my perspective, I am beginning to reckon that from God’s vantage point, this isn’t space at all but a full, rich basin of intangibles all designed to prepare me for the next thing.  While I’m drumming my fingers or begging and pleading for movement, God is no-holds-barred working out his will.

Who knew the time was so full?  Shaping, preparing, stripping, educating, awakening.  All that must happen before we can move on wisely.

Think “desert travel.” After experiencing their complete lack of faith in their own future, God told Moses that not one person of the original generation of exodus travelers would make it across the line into the promised land. Everything and everyone that smacked of faithlessness and fear would be eradicated, because he simply wouldn’t allow those traits to seep into the DNA of his people. Those forty years they were marching in circles, God was busy sloughing off the old, birthing the new.

In the same way, our desert travels are not empty time but the very fullness of it, as God sheds from us everything that isn’t fit for the promised future he has appointed for us.  He strengthens us with layers of spiritual sinew designed to help us stand (“mount up on wings like eagles; run and not grow weary; walk and not faint”) when this new thing happens.  We get impatient and beg for movement while God works, knowing that a move in one moment less than the fullness of time will crush us.

Wait, he says.  Not because he is finishing a crossword, or because he hasn’t yet figured out which direction the map is taking us.  Wait, he says, because we are in the middle of something important now.   Foundational work is being laid here, work that will help us hold the next thing.

Wait.

Wait actively — patiently (which is to say, lovingly), prayerfully, expectantly.  Wait like the father who stands at the window, watching for his long-lost son to return.  Wait like Mary, who knew from the moment of conception that she and her son were headed toward greatness.  Wait like the angel assigned to a slab in an empty cave, sitting for who knows how long so he would be there when someone stopped by, to tell them of an unprecedented power and presence unleashed into the world.  Wait like Paul, who sat in blind silence for three days while God completely rewired and wound him up for a new thing.  Wait like John, who steeped in desert-island darkness long enough for his eyes to adjust, revealing the unhindered, unfurled Kingdom of God in three-D splendor.

Wait.

In our own season of waiting at Mosaic, we’re leaning heavily on God’s promises as we build our faith muscles.  We’re learning to fast, something our circumstances didn’t require from us nearly so much in past days.  We’re learning the kind of worship that looks like quiet trust (“Though he slay me, yet shall I praise him”).  And we’re developing a more holy hunger.

In days past, we might have gorged on the first available opportunity to come our way.  These days, we are allowing the wait to purify our motives.  We aren’t on our own time any more; we are yearning toward the fullness of time.  The work of waiting is creating in us a deeper hunger for the Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Right now, we can almost taste it.  Maybe God will move the day we can actually taste it — taste and see that the Lord’s timing is delicious.

What if that is what all spiritual waiting is really about?  What if our waiting is answering Jesus’ own prayer?  What if our waiting is actually more important than the thing we’re waiting for? Wouldn’t that be just like God?

“I came that my joy might be in you,” Jesus said. As it turns out, joy is not a moment (like an emotion) but a process of being at peace with God’s pace and time.

Joy is embedded in the waiting.

A few questions for those challenged to wait: Do you have a knack for focusing on what you haven’t done instead of on how far you’ve come? Do you ever spend energy worrying about how slowly things change? Does your life move so fast that often you don’t have time to stop and notice the progress? Do others ever get frustrated with you because you are so hard on yourself?

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Habit #2: Joyful People pursue intimacy with God.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. – John 15:4

The first time the Greek word for abide shows up in the book of John is when he’s talking about Jesus getting baptized by John. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit comes down and remains on him.  That word in Greek is the same as the word used in John 15:4: “Abide in me.”

A baptism, then, ought to be something that lives with us, that invokes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what makes it a sacrament and not just a sign.

John uses the same word again when Jesus is talking about the eucharist in the most graphic of terms. Jesus says, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood makes his home in me and I make my home in him” (John 6:56).  In this expression, there is a mutual abiding.

Here in the two sacraments of the church — baptism and eucharist — we are reminded just how deeply this connection with God is woven into the fabric of Christ. There cannot be intimacy with God without the work of Jesus. And just as true, where Jesus is, abiding happens.

Abiding happens when Jesus Christ makes his home in me and I make my home in him.

In chapter 15, John is careful to connect this kind of abiding with the call to bear fruit. How do you know you are abiding in Christ? John says you know it when you find yourself bearing fruit. How do you know your baptism is alive in you? You’re bearing fruit. How do you know your worship life is alive? You’re bearing fruit.

People who abide bear fruit, but not just any fruit. People who abide bear much fruit. They bear fruit that lasts. They bear fruit that abides. Jesus affirms these three things.

People who abide bear much fruit. I tell people all the time that I’m looking for the kind of results in my ministry and life that don’t match the effort. When the results outstrip the effort, I know the supernatural has been involved. I want this, because, frankly, it gets old, measuring progress in centimeters when I want to measure in miles. I frustrate myself when I focus my efforts in places where I don’t bear much fruit rather than in the places where I do. I’d like to get better at catching the “holy hints,” noticing the places in my life where the outcome is unequally bigger than the effort. When I press in where I see fruit, I am gratified and God is glorified. Those are the places where the Holy Spirit is present.

People who abide bear fruit that lasts. I have been saved a lot and saved from a lot. Some days, though, I still wake up and feel like I’ve never been a Christian and wonder if I will ever be a Christian (I’m in good company; John Wesley journaled those same feelings).

The places where I manage to feel most secure are the places where the gospel of Jesus actually sticks, where I press in and people get transformed and stay transformed, when I do work that bears fruit far beyond my intention. Bearing fruit that lasts is about more than just posting Bible verses on a Facebook page, or learning Christian-ese. It is about seeing lives beautifully, finally transformed. At the end of time, we’ll discover this is all that lasts.

People who abide bear fruit that abides. Moses teaches me a lot about how to abide as a leader so that the people I’m leading are positively influenced. When he and the Israelites were out in the desert, he would sometimes take his tent out beyond the camp to meet with God (mental note: getting outside the camp to be alone with God is a good habit to cultivate).

Out there away from the people, in moments of deep intimacy, he and God would talk face to face, like friends. In those conversations, Moses would talk honestly, and sometimes even rail against God, venting his frustrations over all he couldn’t understand. God would listen and from what the Bible says, God would meet Moses there at his point of deep need. Far from being offended, the Lord would provide.

So why doesn’t that happen more often for me?  How often have I railed against God but come away empty-handed, frustrated, with more questions than answers? Why doesn’t God hear me the way he heard Moses?

I have a hunch about that. I suspect it has to do with my proximity to the Spirit. When I’m yelling at God from the far side of intimacy — when I haven’t done the work of building a close and intimate connection (my home in him and his home in me) — I get nothing but frustration.

But listen: when I’m yelling at God on the abiding side of intimacy, I notice that it is a much more fruitful conversation.

I’m not talking about “making God do stuff.” I’m talking about the kind of connection that puts me in sync with God and his ways so that when I ask for things, I’m asking from a place of abiding. A place of faith.  A place of knowing, of intimacy, of wisdom. When I ask from that place, it bears fruit.

When I am abiding, I bear fruit. And fruitfulness breeds joy.

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Habit #1: Joyful people forgive easily

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called Blink, about the thousand decisions we make every day in the smallest slices of time — choices we make in split-seconds during a conversation — that determine how we respond to life at the subconscious level.

forgiveness2Gladwell writes about an interview with a psychologist who has made a study of watching couples in conversation. This guy has become so adept at watching their non-verbal communication that he can tell with incredible accuracy how likely they are to divorce after just a few minutes of watching them talk. His point is that how we react to other people in the briefest moments (even non-verbally) says a lot about what’s beneath the surface.This psychologist has boiled hundreds of facial expressions down to four major categories. He calls them the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. And he says the real killer among those four is contempt.

“You’d think criticism would be the worst, because it maligns character,” he says. “But contempt is worse, because it puts one person above another. It’s when we look down on another person that we do the most damage.” And it is so damaging, the psychologist says, that it affects our immune system.

Contempt is a killer. No wonder the enemy of our souls has made a career out of getting us to go there. He wants us to make pecking orders. To make ourselves better than others. The enemy has made quite a career out of doing nothing more than keeping your heart hard toward another human being. And it is brilliant, really. He can make it slice both ways, so we feel chronically inadequate while we’re tearing others down so they never feel good enough, either.

That’s the tactic of the enemy of our souls.

In his teaching on forgiveness, Chuck Swindoll asks some good questions:

  • Do you free people, or do you hold them hostage?
  • Do you relieve them of guilt and shame, or do you increase their load?
  • Do you encourage others or discourage them?
  • Do you find yourself participating in the world of construction or the world of destruction?
  • Do you point out people’s faults and failures or their strengths and accomplishments?

As it turns out, joy flows from the same well as grace, so the goal is to cultivate within ourselves a kind of grace that overflows. To put it plainly, I have to learn to discipline my emotions, especially the emotion of anger, so it doesn’t create opportunity for sin in my life.

How can I drill down and tap into that well of grace?

  1. Name your spirit of offense.  This is what it means to confess your sins. If you won’t name it before the God who already knows it, he is not likely to heal you of it
  2. Pray daily for those toward whom you have unforgiveness. Ask yourself: What one good quality in this person’s life can I begin with as I pray? Never mind whether they deserve it or not. Here’s the thing. When it comes to grace, “deserve” has nothing to do with it.
  3. Seek help from others. Sometimes what we need most is another perspective. David Seamands says that when we are angry or depressed, our perceptions change. A little hill becomes a great mountain. But real friends can help you see its true height in perspective.
  4. Sing! Make music. Its such a simple thought, but it works. If you can’t stop being angry at someone, try singing the thought out of your head. That’s what David did. That’s where a lot of those psalms came from. He chose in the midst of his anguish to praise the Lord.
  5. Remember and give thanks. This one is related to singing, but different. With this one, we are choosing to look at things differently. We are choosing, like Joseph, to see the big picture and to say, “Maybe the world meant to hurt me, but God means nothing but good from this.” God can use anything, and God can make good out of anything.
  6. Lean heavily on the power of God’s Word. Because here’s what I’m learning about scripture and about Jesus and about all the things we teach and say: It works. God’s Word is exactly what it promises to be. It is good news for the poor and release for the captives. It really is a way for blind people to see and it is the very power of God for salvation.

If God asks us to forgive our enemies and those who persecute us, it is because he wants nothing less for us than joy. And if God tells us that we can’t be in communion with him as long as we harbor anger and unforgiveness in our hearts, he tells us that because He knows it to be true. He knows what we’re made of and he knows what we’re made for.

“I came,” Jesus said, “that my joy might be in you, that your joy might be full.”

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The habits of joyful people

“I tell you these things that my joy might be in you, so that your joy might be full.”

– Jesus (John 15:11)

Did you ever run across the old children’s book called Mr. Happy? His story goes like this: One day he leaves his very happy home and goes walking in the neighborhood. He finds a door and wonders to himself, “Who lives here?” When he goes through the door he is led down a long staircase and into the room where Mr. Miserable lives. Mr. Happy leads Mr. Miserable out of the room, up the stairs and back to his home, where Mr. Miserable stays for some time. Over the time he is there, Mr. Happy begins to rub off on him and one day Mr. Miserable finds himself beginning to do something he has never done before. He smiles. The story ends with the lesson that if we’re ever miserable, we can fix it by smiling!

Isn’t that precious? And maybe a bit delusional?

Yes, there are some people who actually can “fix” themselves just by turning their frown upside down. I don’t how that works. Either they have such optimism that they can will themselves happy, or they live in such denial that they can smile past anything. Privately, I am envious of those people. We need them, so the rest of us don’t pull the whole ship down.

But those people — the naturally giddy ones — are not most of us. Most of us are moody. We are stressed out and confused about our lives and the lives of people we live with. We deal with real depression, real anxiety, real mood disorders. Many of us chronically feel like we’re running just to keep up. So how do messages about joy work for real people like us, whose lives are a little more complicated than Mr. Happy? How do we do this thing called reality without it looking like a Hallmark card? How does joy mesh with stress and broken dreams and broken relationships and the death of people we love and the kind of anxiety and depression that goes deeper than a bad mood or a bad day?

Here’s my real question: How does what we read in the Bible about joy make sense if you’re on Prozac or worse yet, if you’re not, but should be? If Jesus said, “I came that you might have joy, and that you might have it to the full,” then how do I acquire that inheritance

Here’s what I believe: I believe biblical joy is not only attainable, but is the normal state of the Spirit-filled life. Christians are meant to grow in joy.  And as we’ve already said, maybe your temperament or approach to life or other circumstances makes this more of a challenge for you. But as a follower of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, it is your inheritance. And there are things we can do to clear the channel so we have the most opportunity to experience the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

Let’s start with a definition. What is biblical joy?

1. Joy is a spiritually generated response to God’s goodness.

2. Joy is a deep, down assurance that the quality of my life is not rooted in my feelings or circumstances but in the love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.  Spiritual joy comes from a deeper place than our everyday emotions, which are also gifts from God. The difference is that emotions don’t have roots, but spiritual fruit does.

4. Joy is a natural fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

What are the habits of these Spirit-filled people? I count at least seven:

  1. Joyful people forgive easily.  
  2. Joyful people have learned the value of intimacy.
  3. Joyful people have mastered the discipline of waiting.
  4. Joyful people are gratefully generous.
  5. Joyful people focus on progress not perfection.
  6. Joyful people maintain a mood rooted in something bigger than themselves.
  7. Joyful people pursue the Holy Spirit.

Over the next few weeks and the next few posts, I’d like to teach a little on the habits of joyful people because as we’ve said, Christians are meant to grow in joy. I don’t notice an over-abundance of joy in the Christians I meet, and I wonder if it is because we’ve misunderstood the nature of this inheritance. Maybe we’ve become impatient for it; maybe we haven’t done the hard work it takes to break through into joy.  Yet, Jesus promised it.  “I came that you might have joy, and that you might have it to the full.”

How do we acquire that inheritance? I hope these posts on the nature of joy will help you diagnose those areas of your life that block the flow of joy, so you can experience all the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

 

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Are these Mark Driscoll’s best days?

What we need is a death worthy of repentance.

We believe in a God of Second Chances. Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel; repentance is our response. For real repentance to happen, there has to be a death to self. There is more to it than just saying, “I did it.” At its heart, repentance is God-focused, humble, broken, confessional, unashamed, open to change, non-defensive. In short, something has to die.

When I recently watched Brian Houston’s interview of Mark Driscoll, taped nearly a year after his resignation from Mars Hill, I looked for signs of that kind of repentance, the kind characterized by a death. After all, this is a man with whom I have disagreed deeply, not only on theological issues (he is Reformed; I am most definitely not) but also behavior.

Driscoll’s approach to ministry and life has been just about everything I stand against. He seemed (and indeed, by his own account, was) deeply controlling, misogynistic, ego-driven and opportunistic. In his salad days, he talked too much from the stage about beer-drinking and sex. He cussed. He bullied. He over-dramatized the need for more testosterone in church, and under-emphasized the role of holiness (both serious understatements).

There were plenty of things in Mark Driscoll that needed to die.

Some things Driscoll said, I had to agree with.  One of my favorite Driscoll lines had to do with singing “prom songs to Jesus” (“I’ll be happy when we have more than just prom songs to Jesus sung by some effeminate guy on an acoustic guitar … “). I agree that men are being largely left out of the current church culture, their interests being passed over for too-often feminized styles of worship and community. Driscoll has argued that the American church is missing the mark on offering a fair account of the good news to men, and I would agree.

I also have to admit appreciating his tough talk on small churches who like to think they are small because they “got it right” (“This generation can be a whiny bunch of idealists getting together in small groups to complain about megachurches and the religious right rather than doing something.”). We are called to bear fruit. All of us. If our churches aren’t growing, it isn’t likely because we have the secret sauce, but because we don’t.

Everyone is a mixed bag and Driscoll is no exception.  In his worst days, he made a few good points.  And I would argue that now — a year after his ministry career imploded and nine months after his mega-church disintegrated — Mark Driscoll may well be in the midst of his best days.

In his interview with Brian Houston (see the first half of the interview here and the second half here), he seems genuinely reflective and at least from the appearance of it, repentant. I’m sure there is nothing like destroying your job, status and one of the largest churches in the country to make you think twice about your approach to things.

Rather than playing the victim, Driscoll addresses the theological shifts he has made since his fall and doesn’t even attempt to defend most of the worst statements of his worst days (especially the explicit statements denigrating women). He admits that he too often operated from a place that was ungodly and immature. His wife agrees. We all agree. It is good to hear him say it.

In a word, Driscoll seems, at least in that one interview, broken. Maybe he is posturing to regain some place in the world of ministry. Maybe this moment is driven more by humiliation than humility. Either way, it is good to hear someone of his celebrity thinking again about how he acted when he was on top of the ministry world. I appreciate his willingness to publicly reflect on his past. I appreciate Brian Houston’s unapologetic but sensitive approach to the interview. It was a fine example of grace and truth.

This is what we’ve so often looked for in the stories of big-name Christians who get caught and admit wrong. We’ve longed for a spirit of Isaiah (“I am a man of unclean lips”), for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth (we are free, but not free to do as we please).

What we want but so seldom get is a death worthy of repentance. Where Mark Driscoll seems to be digging deep for this, I’m grateful and inspired. He may still have miles to go, but at least he isn’t signing on for a reality show yet (note to Mark, should you read this: please resist). Instead, he is allowing a man he trusts from within our tribe to help him talk with some integrity  and transparency about his journey through the valley.

For that, at least, he should be applauded.

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A sign from God

I am beginning to think it really was a sign from God.

I found it in front of The Holy House of Prayer of Jesus Christ (Elder William Butler, presiding). At the end of a string of other announcements about repenting and where you can find them on the radio, the sign read, “God have [sic] never called a woman to preach. Never will.”

The day IWomen-to-preach sign saw it, I knew that sign was for me. It stood in front of a little building with burglar bars deep in one of the most impoverished areas of Georgia — what is known as Frog Holler or Bethlehem — in downtown Augusta.

I will admit that the day I found it, I delighted in that sign. Things like that validate my experience of being a woman in ministry in the South. There is still a remarkable amount of prejudice. I don’t hear it in every conversation, but I’ll admit that over time I have developed more of a suspicion about people’s motives. I have had enough conversations with folks in my church to know that they debate their friends and co-workers regularly on this issue. They defend their church and their pastor admirably. I wish they didn’t have to, but I’m grateful beyond words for their convictions.

I wonder how many people I will never meet, how many opportunities I’ll never even know I missed, because the people I might have known don’t trust my place as a pastor. I have taken way too much time to reflect on this. The inequality exposes something broken in me. I feel trapped. I get angry, defensive. I obsess. I find myself talking about it far too often, with far too much passion. I go beyond good sense. Because I am so darn competitive, I have a hard time making peace with the realities of life.

You know what I want? What I secretly want is for someone to erect a sign that says, “People think this way. It is not just Carolyn’s imagination. This is real. But it is also wrong. It is not an educated response to scripture. It is an injustice and an impediment to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

That’s what I really want. I want someone to publicly acknowledge what I know to be true.

And that’s why Elder William Butler became my friend when I saw his sign. He has done what I only dreamed of. He put up a sign that pretty much says it all. People think this way. It is not just my imagination. This is real. But it is also wrong. It is not an educated response to scripture.

Elder Butler has exposed the problem magnificently.

Sadly, he has also exposed my heart. His sign is in the poorest part of town, in one of the poorest districts in the state. Rampant crime. Burglar bars on the church building. Deep poverty, serious drug issues. And I took a picture of the sign, and neglected to say so much as a prayer over the community.

Shame on me.

(This post was first published in the early days of my old blog, “Fivestones.” I publish it today as a sort of personal Ebenezer — a place in my life where I remember still an intersection where my brokenness met God’s grace.)

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Ten myths about suffering

While it is true, technically speaking, that “everything happens for a reason,” the truer fact is that not all reasons are justifiable. Some reasons stink. There was a reason behind the Holocaust, but it was an evil reason. There was a reason behind 9/11, but again, not a good one. There is a reason why people murder people and why people die unexpectedly, but the reason may not have anything to do with why or how much we suffer. And the reason certainly may not have been a God-inspired one.

All suffering is not good or of God, but the great news of the Bible is that God can redeem anything. Here are ten truths about suffering to build hope into your life:

1. Myth:  Suffering is caused by my sin (it is always my fault).
Truth:  Disaster, other people’s sinfulness and the state of the fallen world are all causes of suffering, and none of that is my fault.  

Do you remember that scene in The Sound of Music when Maria and the Captain confess their love for each other? She sings this line to explain her current good fortune: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good” (fyi: unless you’re Hindu, that’s not sound theology). Most of us, when it comes to our pain and suffering, tend to sing the same tune with different words. “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something bad.” Somewhere, I screwed up and now God is after me. Philip Yancey reminds us in his book — Where is God When It Hurts? — that “the book of Job (in the Old Testament) should nail a coffin lid over the idea that every time we suffer it is because God is punishing us or trying to tell us something.”

2. Myth:  Suffering is caused by your sin (it is never my fault). 
Truth:  At least some of my suffering is the result of my own poor choices, my decision to act against God’s law.  

It is a very human thing to encounter suffering and ask, “Who started it?” But even if it isn’t always our fault, to say that our suffering is never our fault is not biblical, either. At least some of our suffering is the result of our own poor choices. Think “texting and driving,” for instance.

3. Myth:  Not all suffering is the result of sin (sometimes, as the old bumper sticker says, stuff just happens).
Truth:  All suffering is the result of sin – either mine, yours, or Adam and Eve’s (the fallen world).  
If it isn’t always my fault and it isn’t always your fault, sometimes it must be no one’s fault, right? Wrong. Directly or indirectly, all suffering is the result of sin — either mine, yours, Satan’s, or Adam and Eve’s (the fallen world). Suffering is not part of God’s original design. It is an effect of the fallen world. We know this intuitively, because we don’t believe we will suffer in Heaven. We know it biblically, because everything in the Garden was good.

4. Myth:  All suffering is good (God loves to see us suffer, because it makes us better people).
Truth: “Suffering is never good in itself, but God is able to use it for good in a number of different ways.”

We suffer from too many bad cliches about suffering. God does not need another angel. Everything does not happen for a good reason. And even if God will give us strength to handle anything, we don’t always want to be strong. Side note for those wanting to comfort a friend who is suffering: Sometimes words are not the best help; sometimes just being there is.

5. Myth:  All suffering is bad (God wants us to avoid it at all costs).
Truth:  God can use suffering to draw us to Christ, bring us to Christian maturity, and make our lives more fruitful.

God has a knack for redeeming the most unlikely things. C. S. Lewis says, “Pain is God’s megaphone.”

6. Myth:  All my suffering is God’s fault (I’ve done so much wrong that God has rejected me).
Truth: God’s grace separates us from our sin.

Gods’ grace is always greater than our sin.  Period.

7.  Myth:  All my suffering is Satan’s fault (I am a threat to Satan and he’s trying to ruin my life).
Truth: While all suffering is caused by sin and all sin is the property of Satan, it is not wise to avoid personal responsibility for what happens in our lives

My guess is that the enemy of our souls spends his energy on the ones who are a threat to his kingdom.  The rest of us, he just watches for entertainment.

8.  Myth:  If I pray enough, I won’t suffer.
Truth:  If I pray enough, I can expect to suffer (see truth #7, sentence #1).

James 1:2 says, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds.” Notice that James did not say, “if you face trials” but, “when you face trials.” Whether we are the Lord’s or not, we will suffer.

9.  Myth:  If I suffer, I must be a great Christian.
Truth:  Nice try (see truth #2 and truth #7).

While not all suffering is holy, God is not afraid of suffering. He is not afraid of pain. He will allow us to live in it until we finally come to the end of ourselves and take hold of his love. How amazing to think, as Corrie ten Boom once said, that “there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

10. Myth: All Christians suffer greatly on earth.
Truth: All people suffer, and that should prompt us to pray for the Kingdom to come. 

Everyone struggles. Everyone has bad days, everyone grieves, everyone sins, everyone makes mistakes. In the final analysis, it isn’t whether or not we will suffer, but what we do with it that counts. That’s the mark of Christlikeness. What we do with our suffering proves what we really believe about Christ’s ability to make good out of anything.

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