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When We Suffer

Paul.

I can’t begin to understand the fervency of this dude’s faith. I think part of it is just his personality. He was a zealous Jew before he became a zealous Christ-follower. He seems to just be one of those people that never does anything halfway. It’s all or nothing for Paul.

As such, his vocal dedication to Jesus through every conceivable trial and tribulation makes sense… sort of.

I mean, Paul went. through. it. If ever there were a Christian who would have had reasonable cause to give up the faith, it was Paul. Beatings and imprisonments and persecution far greater than anything we could imagine – not to mention having to lead a bunch of knuckleheads in the faith who seemed to exasperate him in every city he planted a church… The whole thing sounds exhausting to me.

So what was Paul’s secret to staying the course? How did he muster up the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to go round after round of his ridiculous life?

I think he gives us a little glimpse in 2 Corinthians.

He tells the believers at Corinth that he and Timothy suffered and had hardships in Asia. In fact, Paul says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death,” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

Can I just tell you I am there with Paul some days?

No, there is no bounty on my head. The government isn’t after me (although folks from the Department of Defense have been reading my blog – I like to pretend it’s Jack Bauer). I don’t have a physical malady that is threatening my life like Paul seemed to have had.

But I do often share Paul’s sentiments that I am under great pressure, far beyond my ability to endure… at home… at church… in new ministry ventures… in relationships… in my walk with the Lord… and sometimes I just want to pack it all up and go Home. My mind spins, like Paul’s, and I despair, thinking to myself, “Surely, this is it. Surely, this is the end of the madness because I cannot. take. any. more.”

And that’s usually where I stop. I identify with Paul’s emotions, and I sit down in the mud and give up. I stop reading his letter to the Corinthians right there, in the middle of verse 9.

And I miss out.

I miss out on the explanation as to why hard things happen in my life.

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead,” (2 Corinthians 1:9). I miss out on the invitation to intimacy with the Lord – utter reliance on Him – and seeing His power displayed in a new, tangible, personal way in my life. One reason we experience hardship is because God wants us! He wants us to realize we can’t really do anything – much less anything difficult – without Him. He wants us to draw near to Him, and we simply will not do that unless circumstances force us to. The human heart is a stubborn beast that way.

As if He Himself weren’t enough reason for us to draw near, God offers us even more. He is not “empty-handed”, as it were. He gives us an invaluable gift I miss out on when I give up during hard times.

I miss out on the deliverance offered me by the Lord.

If I would just keep walking, relying on Him, “…he will deliver [me],” as Paul says (2 Corinthians 1:10). Paul recounts how God has delivered him in the past and declares his belief that God will deliver him in the future. “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (2 Corinthians 1:10).

(Side note: what deliverance looks like in your mind may be far different than the deliverance God has in mind. His version is always better, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.)

At this point I’m thinking, “This is all well and good, Paul, but I am not an optimist like you seem to be. You may be able to ‘set your hope‘ on God’s deliverance, but I just can’t swing that in my own power.”

And Paul says to me, “Kelly, once again, you’ve stopped reading prematurely. Look at the next verse, friend.”

“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers,” (2 Corinthians 1:10-11).

Whoa.

Zealous Paul – superhero Christian Paul – derives help keeping his hope set on God through the prayers of fellow believers!

I feel better.

Paul needed people to pray for Him. I need people to pray for me. And I need to be praying for other people, especially those who are struggling to keep their hope set on God.

And Paul really believed that the Corinthians’ praying for him helped him. Prayer to Paul was not some obligatory, trite ritual. It was an avenue of powerful support one believer could and should offer to another.

When we are suffering, we need to remember how the Lord has delivered us in the past, and we need to believe He will do it again. And when we can’t muster up that belief on our own, we need to ask believers who love us to help us set our hope on God by praying for us. 

 

Standing in Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Romans 5:1-2

Every word in scripture matters. Every word. God inspired Paul to use the word “stand” for a reason.

A posture of standing communicates strength. Standing commands a certain sense of readiness, stability, and power. Standing is an active posture, utilizing more muscles and burning more calories than sitting or laying.

Most of the time I don’t stand in grace.

I sit, head hung low, shoulders slumped, face downcast, enduring the days the Lord has allotted me.

I mentally assent to the fact that I am saved by grace through faith, and I continue to grow, iota by iota, because of that same grace… but rarely am I inspired to take hold of that grace in my heart and use it as a catalyst to live boldly and confidently in my position with the Lord.

If we correctly understand grace, and we never fully will this side of Heaven, we ought to be on a constant emotional high. We ought to be overtaken by joy and awe all the time because we have been redeemed – bought back from a life of self-induced destruction.

Our confidence ought to be off the charts, our security utterly unshakable, knowing beyond all doubt that we are His. It is finished. Nothing can undo our status as a child of God, forgiven, set free, and empowered by our faith in Jesus Christ to live a life fully pleasing to Him and, simultaneously, fully satisfying to us. (They are one in the same, by the way.) And it is only by grace that this is so.

Paul, the Christians to whom he wrote in Rome, and you and I are to stand in grace. I find it interesting that the text doesn’t read on grace.

The grace given us through our faith in Jesus is our foundation, yes, and we are definitely standing on that foundation. But we are also charged to stand in grace.

That tiny preposition implies we are surrounded and upheld not by our own power or merit or strength but by the very power of grace itself

If we stand in our own strength, it won’t be long before we fall, feint from all the work it takes to get through life. We can’t do it. Or, at least, we can’t do it well.

But when we stand in grace, it’s as if the Lord is holding us up with His own two hands, bearing all our weight for us, relieving our muscles of their duties to keep us upright. And, in that case, we don’t grow weary. We don’t stumble and fall.

You may be realizing about now that I am drawing opposite conclusions from this verse. At first, I said the use of the word “stand” communicates we have an active role in our standing in grace. But then I said the phrase “in grace” implies the standing is not of our doing.

So which is it?

Both.

It is a beautiful mystery how our free will and His sovereignty work together, and if you ever meet someone who can explain it to you fully, don’t believe them.

It seems to me that we have to consent to and cooperate with His desire to stand us up in grace. (I know, I don’t like that sentence either.)

Get out of your seat, Christ-follower. Stand up. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith. Stand in that grace. And allow the Lord Himself to keep you standing. 

Sometimes We Just Need to Hear This From the Lord

I am the everlasting God.

I have no beginning, and I have no end.

With Me, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

I created time.

I am outside of time.

 

And I love you.

You.

YOU.

I have chosen you.

I have called you by name.

You are mine.

 

Time is mine.

And you are mine.

And so it is that I always have time for you.

 

I am ever-present.

I am always with you.

And that is My choice.

I have all time for you.

 

You are precious.

You are honored in My sight.

And I love you.

 

Our Father

I spent last week here:

 

Our Father

Panama City Beach, FL

Yeah, I’m rubbing it in.

But more to the point, my husband and I went to the beach with 130+ high schoolers from our church for a retreat. As retreats tend to go, we had a great time connecting with the Lord outside of our normal daily routines.

The most impactful part for me occurred the third night. During the message, the speaker, Greg Speck, invited students to accept Christ, to rededicate themselves to living for the Lord if they felt they had wandered off the beaten path, or to commit to continue pursuing Him fervently.

This is a pretty standard part of retreats, so I was not surprised by the invitation. But, almost as a side note, the speaker took an unexpected detour and began talking to the kids whose fathers have left them.

Understand, we are a predominantly white church located in an upper-middle class suburb. In other words, we have a higher rate of dads in the home than other sections of Memphis.

But for whatever reason, the speaker, an experienced communicator with teenagers and a man with four grown children of his own, felt the need to address abandoned kids. I found this a little odd given our demographic.

He explained that when he leaves, in the dad’s spot is a hole in his kids’ hearts only Jesus can fill. Counselors who knew this to be true looked at one another with tears in their eyes.

Then the speaker said something like this to the students, “If it’s been a long time since you’ve had a fatherly hug, or if you just need someone to speak some fatherly truth to you about who you are in Jesus, I’d be glad to do that at the end of the message.”

More tears.

I had only known most these kids about 3 days and already 3 popped into my mind whose dads had either left them or passed away. But what happened after the message blew me away.

Student after student lined up to wait for a dad hug. 

Students from affluent suburbs. Students who more than likely knew their dad at one time. Students who now come from broken homes because the divorce rate knows no economic nor spiritual boundaries. But also students whose dads are physically present in their homes but completely checked out emotionally.

The line stretched down the aisle as teenagers – people who are highly sensitive to what their friends might think about them – cast aside their egos out of their desperate emotional need for a connection with a father figure.

More tears.

The following evening – the last evening with the speaker – kids walked up to say goodbye and thank you to him. Others, still starved for father attention, humbly requested one more father hug.

The best part?

The speaker was not playing the hero to these students; he was pointing them to the only One who can permanently rescue them from their pain – their Heavenly Father. 

I watched this fallen, kind-hearted, imperfect man offer all he could – a hug and some words – and it was a beautiful example to these students of what God’s fatherly love looks like.  With his words and actions, the speaker not only modeled God’s love, but he purposefully pointed these kids to their true Father as the ultimate, perfect Source of fatherly love.

And you know what?

The speaker’s humble offering was enough. It was enough to give the students a glimpse of the One who can fill their hearts eternally and perfectly. It was enough to crack the shell that some of these abandoned students had around their hearts. It was enough to encourage some of them to open their hearts to God for the first time or once again after months or years of having turned away from Him.

And my hope in sharing this story is that it will be enough for you, too. You whose dad has died. You whose dad left before you were born. You whose dad left when you were a kid. You whose dad stayed physically but abandoned you emotionally. You whose dad is not enough. And, when we get down to it, that’s all of us.

Max Lucado tweeted this week, “We never outgrow our need for a father’s love. We were wired to receive it.”

Scripture says we believers are children of God (John 1:12). He is our Father, our perfect, never-failing, more-than-enough Dad of dads. 

Amen.

 

Hostages of Hope

I’m not really sure how it happened.

Maybe it’s because I keep re-reading that crazy gratitude book.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time in the Psalms this year than any other book of the Bible.

Or maybe it’s because I finally got fed up with being fed up and did something about it.

Or maybe it’s a combination of these things, swirled together by the Lord in His perfect timing to finally begin producing a change in me that’s been a long time coming.

I hardly recognize myself.

I’m positive. As in optimistic. As in not cynical. As in I have hope.

And those of you who know me well know this is a radical change indeed.

I used to quip, “I’m not a pessimist; I’m a realist.” And I always knew it was a cop out. What I really was was stuck in feelings of hopelessness, even after – well after – I became a Christian.

And I know I’m not alone. A lot of (most) Christians live in doubt and bitterness and anger and depression and cynicism.

But we don’t have to.

(It’s taken me YEARS to believe that to be a true statement, by the way – that we can choose to have hope. It can be a lot more complicated than it sounds, which is why it often feels impossible, but it’s not. And that’s another post for another day.)

Not only do we not have to live in hopelessness and cynicism, upon further reflection, I think, as believers, we mustn’t.

Here’s why.

To not have hope – to adopt a cynical, hopeless perspective about ANYTHING – is to disbelieve the power of Christ.

As Christians we believe that Jesus bore the punishment we deserved for our sins on the cross, died and rose again. We believe God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and the evidence of that acceptance is that Jesus was resurrected (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

If we are convinced the resurrection happened, we are also convinced of God’s total sovereignty (Psalm 103:19). After all, if He can make a dead man rise to life again, as impossible as that sounds, can’t He do anything (Jeremiah 32:27)?

Can’t He redeem any impossible situation we find ourselves in?

Hostages of Hope

image via sattva at freedigitalphotos.net

If we have hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we must have hope in ALL seemingly hopeless situations. There’s no room for cynicism and/or giving up and/or losing hope in anything or anyone if we believe in Christ.

THIS IS NOT NATURAL FOR ME! I can’t emphasize enough that I am NOT a naturally sunny person with a pleasant disposition. You will never catch me with a “Life is good” bumper sticker on my car. Hear me when I say I am not an optimist writing this pie-in-the-sky blog post. To hope when it seems illogical, to hope when it is uncomfortable, to hope against my natural will is just as difficult for me as it is for you.

It’s hard to not let people and circumstances affect our having unwavering hope in Jesus’ ability – His desire, and His ultimate plan – to rescue and redeem everything.

When we find ourselves feeling hopeless and cynical, I think the underlying cause is that our hope has subtly shifted from being in Christ to being in man (others or ourselves). We have to find a way to put our hope back where it needs to be.

Here is one practical way I have found to do that. When you catch yourself having a cynical/hopeless/depressed/angry thought about anything, staunchly refuse it by asking God to take away that feeling and to replace it with hope in Him (2 Corinthians 10:5). And then make yourself find something to thank Him for in that moment (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

This is a simple exercise, but it’s very difficult. Don’t worry – you don’t have to do it perfectly. But you won’t begin to change unless you start. You will find, as I have, the more gratitude you offer, the more hopeful you will become. You’ll feel yourself begin to change. Others will notice a change in you. You’ll go from being a hostage of negativity to a hostage of hope. And I think that’s exactly what the Lord has in mind for us when we become believers (Romans 6:22).

“Never partake of the cynical view of life.” -Oswald Chambers

 

How to Diffuse Anger

My phone chimed once, twice, three times (although, not a lady).

I read the messages, trying to make sense of them because when will Apple figure out how to deliver successive texts in the order in which they were sent? I feel like it shouldn’t be that difficult…

I digress.

I read the texts and felt it come over me as if someone had lit me on fire. FIRE, I tell you.

How to Diffuse Anger

image via luigi diamanti/freedigitalphotos.net

Anger. Hot ire threatening to overflow the boundaries of my heart. And I knew it would fill my mouth quick (or texting fingers, in this case) if I didn’t do something to stop it quicker.

I set the phone down. I breathed in. Out. In. Out.

I prayed between breaths, “Father, help me honor You. Calm me.”

And I talked to myself, “I don’t have to react in anger. Doing so won’t help the situation. I don’t even have all the details. The greatest chance at peace and communication is to calm down and wait to talk about things when my heart can be respectful. This is not about me; this is not a personal attack. I don’t have to be defensive. I do have to honor God.”

The texts kept coming.

We agreed to talk in a couple hours.

My blood pressure returned to normal.

I felt good about myself, proud, even, telling my feelings what to do… not lashing out in anger for once…

Until we talked later. And the anger flared once more, and I spoke but couldn’t listen for all the rage rendering my ears useless.

I hung up the phone and thought to myself, “Well. Clearly, I was not ready to talk about that…”

So I turned to the scriptures to read about anger.

And you know what?

God was angry. A. Lot.

Yahweh was angry with the Israelites every other page of the Old Testament, and Jesus was often angry in the New Testament, mostly with dense Pharisees.

The Bible says God is slow to anger (Psalm 86:15), meaning it takes a lot to push Him over the edge, and He is only angry for a moment (Psalm 30:5), meaning He processes it quickly.

That’s great for God. But what about us? What about me – the woman who is enraged by children spilling milk because how many times have I told them not to play with their cups? The woman who is still angry at bedtime about the offense that happened over breakfast?

Well, the Bible speaks to us too.

Ephesians 4:31 tells us to “get rid of…rage and anger”. It’s okay to feel angry initially, but don’t let that feeling hang around. God doesn’t; we shouldn’t.

And just how, exactly, are we supposed to do that? Perhaps the next verse tells us how?

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” (Ephesians 4:32).

Huh.

If I’m being kind and compassionate and forgiving, there’s not much room for anger to linger.

But what if I don’t want to get rid of anger? What if my anger is justified? Other than that whole “imitate God” thing (Ephesians 5:1-2), why should we want to get rid of our anger?

“Because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires,” (James 1:20).

It just doesn’t.

Anger doesn’t bear in us correct thinking or spur us onto correct acting.

We want to act right (i.e., how God tells us to act) because our obedience is an expression of love to Him (John 14:23) and produces joy in us (John 15:10-11). 

Anger blocks us from accomplishing those things.

It’s okay to feel anger initially. That’s just being human. (And, apparently, it is a sign we are made in God’s image because God feels angry at times, too).

But once we feel it, we have to learn how to diffuse anger as quickly as possible by being kind and compassionate and forgiving, just as Christ forgave us. That  is how we express affection for God when we feel angry, and that is how our joy is made complete. 

Win, win.

What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church

The fact is there are lots of awesome church people out there that have decided it’s not okay for them to leave their churches because they don’t really have biblical reasons to do so.

So they are staying. Right where they are. And, truth be told, they are miserable. They find it difficult to be at their churches. They aren’t happy, and unhappy people have difficulty connecting with others and with God.

What then?

Are they obligated to stay at their churches and be miserable?

No.

God doesn’t want you  miserable at your church. Barring any unbiblical things going on, God wants you happy at your church. 

Read that again.

God wants you happy at your church, not at a new church. 

How do I know that?

a) God loves us and wants us to be happy (Psalm 68:3). God is a compassionate God who weeps with us and rejoices with us and is able to relate to every emotion we have (Matthew 14:14, John 11:35, Hebrews 4:15). He desires for us to feel happy, but that is not the end all be all of our existence, and if our happiness and our growth in Christ are at odds with one another, God will choose to attempt to grow us every time (2 Corinthians 3:18).

b) If there is one thing the New Testament stresses to the church, it’s unity (2 Corinthians 13:11). When people leave their church bodies in search of personal happiness in a new church body, whether they intend to or not, they effectively stress fracture their former body. Whether they leave quietly or recruit loudly as they go, they weaken other believers in that body by taking away their services (assuming they were serving in the first place) and by causing other believers to wonder if they should leave too.

When the body gets multiple stress fractures from multiple people leaving, it becomes so weak it breaks. And when the body breaks in multiple places, it hurts. A lot. For a long time. Ministry is crippled, to some degree, among the remaining church members as they are left to try to salvage the body. Energy and resources have to be focused on healing the body rather than on what the church should be focusing on: spreading the Gospel and discipling believers.

c) Every time we feel like our happiness is at odds with an opportunity for us to grow, we aren’t viewing the situation how we should (James 1:2-3). We need a heart change quick. We should value above all else our conformation to the image of Christ. That should be our chief source of happiness, and being miserable at your church affords you the perfect opportunity to grow. Rejoice.

So, if you’re unhappy at your church, can I gently challenge you to stop waiting for the things around you to change to suit your preferences and to start changing yourself?

If you want to feel happy about going to your church, stop the self-focus – “What am I not getting?” – and train your mind to focus on others (Philippians 2:3-4) – “How can I serve others here today?” If you’re not serving, start (1 Peter 4:10).

Now, the tricky part is we can serve until we’re blue in the face and still feel unhappy about our churches because our hearts are still focusing on ourselves while we go through the motions of serving others. Psalms says God doesn’t value that kind of external sacrifice, he wants our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17). When we serve with the motivation to honor the Lord, others will experience the love and truth of Jesus, and we will gain joy knowing the Lord is happy with us (Ephesians 6:7). 

If you are among the minority of church members who do serve and are others focused, but you still feel unhappy with your church, there is one other area that needs to change.
Consider that everything your church does is not for your benefit. If you’re a seasoned believer, the outreach arm of your church is not trying to make you happy, it is trying to reach unbelievers and new believers and welcome them into the church so they can come to know Christ. What’s more important than that? (Matthew 28:18-19)
Knowing this, seasoned believers should approach outreach times not with an “I’m not getting anything out of this” attitude but with a rejoicing heart that the Gospel is being preached and non and young believers are getting exactly what they need – small doses of scripture and basic truths (1 Corinthians 3:2). Your jobs during outreach, seasoned believers, is to bring non and new believers so they can grow and to pray for the Spirit to move. Rejoice that seekers are being introduced to Christ at your church!
Likewise, if you’re a young believer, the intensive Bible studies that are way over your head are not trying to make you happy, they are trying to help seasoned believers go deeper in their relationships with the Lord (Hebrews 5:14). If you’re in one of these classes, and your eyes are glazing over because you don’t care about the original Greek, your job is to pray that the Spirit would move and grow these other members in their walks with Him. Rejoice that seasoned believers can grow at your church!
This is the kind of perspective change – to value others more than ourselves – that is called maturing in Christ. If you church-hop in this moment, you lose. You lose the opportunity to mature in your faith (Ephesians 4:15). You lose the opportunity to be apart of others coming to know the Lord.
If none of this is helpful, you need to call your pastor, schedule a meeting, and have an open, honest discussion with him about how you’re feeling. Tell him that you are unhappy and that you don’t want to leave, but you don’t know how to get happy, and allow him to speak to the sources of your unhappiness. Some of the very things that cause you the most trouble could be simple misunderstandings. Or they could be legitimate problems that your pastor needs to be aware of so he can redirect the church.