What to Do When Pain Overwhelms You

I’ve had a heavy heart the past week or so. I’ve been blaming gray winter clouds hiding the sun that I need to light me up and the beige walls of my home closing in as winter weather held our family hostage all last week.

And maybe they have something to do with it.

But the Lord brought it to my attention this morning that those things aren’t the true source of my disquieted spirit.

No, my sullen disposition lately is a product of my internalizing a lot of hard news instead of exporting it to the Lord.

I’ve struggled to get the savage murders of the 21 martyrs off my mind. The images of them in orange jumpsuits with knives to their throats are still all over the internet. And today I woke to news that at least 90 more Christians have been kidnapped. We know in our sickened guts which way that’s going to go…

A couple of high school kids drove a rural road two weeks ago and slammed into a tree. Dead. I drive by the gifts laid at the bottom of the giant oak every day. A headlight still hangs on a branch, and part of the bumper lies unclaimed a few feet away. My heart aches for those boys’ moms. My lungs burn when my imagination jumps to “What if my kids…”

Last night a 16 year old in a nearby community took to a highway I’ve driven many times and threw himself off a bridge into oncoming traffic below. Gone. Every overpass I drive under I hurt for his family… his classmates that had to digest the news this morning… his teachers who had to keep it together enough to guide teenagers through tragedy… and the driver who struck the boy as his body fell in darkness…

All of this news is devastating. Although none of it “personally” involves me, I am a person with a soul and emotions and so it goes that I am personally affected by each horrific story.

I think I may have forgotten this.

I took each piece of news as it came. I heard about it, I read about it, I saw images of it, I have tangible reminders of it. But I never processed it with the Lord because I never considered it mine. Sure, I uttered a plea for mercy, “Oh, God,” each time I learned of an event, but I never said, “Lord, this hurts my heart.” I didn’t sit with God and let Him minister to me.

So these pains piled up in my soul. I drove to a ministry this morning where I knew it was highly likely I would face more deadly news. Driving under overpasses and imagining what that boy who jumped must’ve been feeling before he leapt, God connected some dots for me.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about Him as I drove until my heart got so heavy a sentence fell out of my mouth: “I can’t handle this!” The weight of the emotions inside had become too much. And the Lord responded in turn, “You’re not meant to. I will handle this.”

I marveled. Then I tried to decipher what, exactly, He meant. I had meant that I couldn’t handle the hurt in my heart anymore. And He knew what I had meant. So logic tells me what He meant in His response was I am not meant to handle all these emotions that are too big for me; He is supposed to handle them for me.

After giving me time to come to that conclusion, He continued, “Just bring me your heart.”

Ah. That’s all I’m supposed to do during heavy times. And I’ve known God long enough to know His solution would work. If I brought Him my battered heart, He’d tend to it.

To be honest with you, I didn’t have time to let the Lord stitch up my heart at that moment. I was walking into a war zone where Satan tries to do some of his best work by convincing women who have made mistakes that they are unlovable and that having an abortion will somehow solve their problems.

But I did have time for a quick band aid.

The Lord brought to mind a verse I had discussed with my kids a couple days earlier.

Colossians 3:15, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Paul was instructing the Colossians on how to live holy lives with one another. I told my girls we can learn three things from this verse.

  1. There is peace that comes from Christ, and God wants that peace to control us because
  2. God expects Christians to live at peace with one another.
  3. And when we don’t feel peace in our hearts, we can get some if we start giving thanks for things God has already done.

Although, linguistically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that thankfulness causes peace to rule in our hearts, I am certain these ideas were put next to each other for a reason. The ideas are connected in some way. And experience tells me, whether this verse does or not, that cultivating gratitude does lead to peace in my heart.

This mini lesson resurfaced in my mind this morning, and I asked myself, “Okay, am I going to do this and live this thing out or not? I have a choice right now, what’s it going to be?” Most days my heart rolls its eyes and the heaviness wins. But not today.

I started thanking God for what I knew to be true about all these tragedies. “Thank You, Lord, that You are in control of all these situations. Thank You that You are willing and ready to comfort all the hurting right now. Thank You that You care.”

That was it. That was all I had time for before I walked through the doors of my clinic and had five counseling sessions with women who were hurting in their own right. But my short act of giving thanks had birthed enough peace in my heart that I was able to offer some to them. 

Pain and suffering and grief are hard. They are big, ugly problems we can’t handle. But we’re not meant to. It’s His job to handle our hearts. We just have to let Him. 

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Who’s Laughing Now?

It’s almost laughable…how life is just one sucker punch after another.

Just when you think you’ve recovered from one crushing situation, just when you’ve gotten back up on your feet and are in a semi-upright position, another seemingly catastrophic circumstance hits you in the gut, and down you go again.

I don’t know why this surprises me. The cynic in me knows this is how life goes. The Bible even says this is how life goes, “In this world you will have trouble,” (John 16:33). But I’m still always unprepared when another bad situation comes my way. I always act shocked.

It’s almost comical, both that the number of ridiculous events seems to grow daily and that I am always taken aback by such a reality each and every time.

I’ve made it a habit for the last 20 years to respond to hard situations with anger and sadness. Those are the default emotions, after all, so I didn’t have to try very hard to develop a pattern of responding to hardship this way. But you know what reacting like that has done for me? It has made my heart hard. It has made me captive to bitterness. It has robbed me of joy.

And so I’m wondering if a new approach would help…

I want to laugh.

The next time I get bad news, I want to laugh, not unlike Tom Hanks in the Money Pit when he starts to lose his marbles.

Go ahead and watch the clip. I’ll wait.

 

I don’t want to laugh in order to suppress any anger or sadness but, rather, as a way of saying, “I see what you’re doing there, Satan (or broken world, or sinful self – whichever the culprit might be). You haven’t caught me off guard this time. I’m not surprised by your ridiculousness. I can laugh that you continue to send your haymakers because the truth is God is not moved by your efforts to wreak havoc. He is unchanged. He is still sitting on His throne. He is still working all things together for the good of those who love Him. He is still in control of every single detail in this world. And because these are facts, I have no need to get angry or sad.”

I can laugh out of pride – boasting in the Lord that He’s going to take care of whatever mishap comes my way – and I can laugh out of joy – rejoicing that the Lord is going to take care of whatever mishap comes my way!

He’s got this. Laugh with me?

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17

How to Abide in Christ

There is this concept that sounds like it is straight out of the mouths of powerhouse Christians from the 1800’s: abide in Christ.

In fact, one of those dudes, Andrew Murray, wrote a book by the same name, and I happen to be reading it now. (You can, too, for free, here.)

Turns out Murray wasn’t the first person to use the word “abide” in relation to our interaction with Jesus. In the famous “I am the Vine, you are the branches” teaching, Jesus instructed the disciples to “abide in me” (at least in the KJV, John 15:4).

To be honest, the word “abide” is pretty ambiguous to me.  As is the alternate word other translations use: “remain in me”.

How – I’ve often wondered – are we to “abide” or “remain” in Jesus? Practically speaking, what does that look like?

I’m not entirely sure. But Colossians 2:6-7 may give us a clue. It reads, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

There’s another ambiguous phrase: “continue to live your lives in him”. What does that mean?

When I think about what we can do to root and build up our lives in Jesus, I think about things like prayer and Bible reading. I think about cultivating a lifestyle of thanksgiving and praise. I think about making Him and His Word the basis for all our decisions.

When I think about what kind of things strengthen my faith, I think about all the same things. But I also think about swapping God-stories with others. When someone experiences the Lord’s faithfulness in a personal way and they tell me about it, my faith is strengthened. What’s more, if someone let’s me walk along side them during a crisis and we get to witness the Lord’s faithfulness together, that strengthens my faith even more.

These things will help us abide or remain in Christ. But we both know we can’t/don’t do these things constantly.

Yet the very definitions of the words imply we are to continuously remain/abide/live in Christ. How can we do that when we know we can’t do that?!

One thing about the Lord… He doesn’t ask us to do things we cannot do in Christ. (Note: He asks us to do A LOT of things we cannot do in our own strength.)

Murray suggests in his book that our job is to believe that Jesus will help us abide in Him, and the rest, basically, is up to Him. It’s true, we can’t abide in Christ for very long. But, just as He was able to rescue us from our sins, He is able to empower us to live continuously in Him. We were saved, Murray says, by faith. It should be no shocker, then, that we abide by faith as well.

If we truly believe that He is the vine (and meditate on the implications of such a claim [paragraph 6]), and if we truly believe that we are in Him (and meditate on the implications of such a position [paragraph 7]), we will be abiding.

To abide in Christ is to have faith that He is our everything at every moment and that we are forever being perfectly held and kept by Him.

Thanks be to Him that His grace makes these things so.

Us Versus Them

In any kind of conflict, we humans instinctively feel defensive. Whether it’s a tiff with a spouse, a disagreement with a friend, or an argument with a boss, we immediately adopt an “us versus them” mentality. It’s just how we’re wired.

Which would be fine if that were how God is wired too. But it’s not.

In that passage we all hate, Jesus said we’re to forgive other believers who hurt us 70 times 7 times, by which He was implying as many times as it takes (Matthew 18:21-22). Why? Because Jesus has forgiven us a million times over – there is nothing He hasn’t forgiven us for – and He wants us to offer the same grace to others (Colossians 3:13).

And He doesn’t want us to just forgive them and part ways. He wants us to forgive them and continue in relationship with them (so far as it depends on us – Romans 12:18). (The obvious exception – when abuse is involved.) I know this because that’s what He does with us. And the longer we spend on this earth, the more like Him we should become (Romans 8:29).

He also tells us Christians to love one another as He has loved us… which begs the question – how has He loved us (John 13:34)? Unconditionally. He literally died for us, and He calls us to figuratively give up our lives for one another. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul pens a whopper of a passage. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Completely humble?

Every effort?

But what if I’m tired of trying? What if the other party doesn’t care? Worse, what if the other party continues to hurt me or show no regard for my feelings?

How long do I have to bear with them? Surely there is a statute of limitations… As much as my humanity would love to say there is, I don’t see one in scripture… Jesus’ “bearing with me” and all my crap doesn’t have a time limit. And neither should our bearing with one another.

But wouldn’t it be more “peaceful” for two people in seemingly irresolvable conflict to part ways? Let’s call that what it really is – to divide. Shouldn’t two believers who can’t work things out split up in order to “keep the peace”? After all, “keeping the peace” is biblical… (Romans 12:18)

As much I as I wish it did, that just doesn’t seem congruent with “keeping the unity”… Logically, how can that which is divided also be unified, simultaneously? By definition, it can’t.

Might I propose that between two believers, there ought not be such a thing as “irreconcilable differences”? By the power of the Spirit, at least one of the parties ought to be able to extend grace, humility, love, and mercy… as many times as it takes… and since we can only be responsible for our own actions in any given conflict, our choosing to be the party that makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is all that’s in our control. We can choose to obey scripture, despite our feelings, and despite the other person’s choices.

But if the other person doesn’t seem to care at all about “keeping the unity”, that can make for a pretty crummy situation.

So what then? Are we to just remain in a bunch of miserable relationships – us versus the ridiculous them?

I don’t think so.

After his tall order of how we ought to behave, Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all and through all,” Ephesians 4:4-6.

You see, there is no “us” or “them”. At least there shouldn’t be. Not in the body of believers. We are one.

The people we disagree with – we’re one with them.

The people who hurt our feelings – we’re one with them too.

The believers who outright hurt us time and time again – one.

We must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. The Church depends on it. The Gospel depends on it. We have to forsake the “us versus them” mentality that we reflexively assume when someone crosses us.

We believers are one, whether we feel like it or not. We should be rooting for one another to succeed, spurring each other on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Lord, by Your power, may everything we do and say contribute to the unity of Your Body, the Church. We are one. May we act like it.

 

 

Isaiah 43:11-13

Isaiah 43:11-13. I read it and smile. Because the Old Testament always points to the New. The Bible isn’t 66 books – it’s one book pointing us to our need for the one God.

“I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.”

God said this to the Israelites some 700 years before Jesus was born.

God gave Himself in Jesus to save a people that could be saved no other way.

God gave Himself in Jesus to save you and me because we can be saved no other way (John 14:6).

“I have revealed and saved and proclaimed… You are my witnesses that I am God.”

God revealed Himself to Israel in a number of ways… burning bushes and separating seas and babies for the barren and on and on.

God reveals Himself to us in the pages of scripture and in the pulse of His Spirit keeping time with ours and in promises proved sure and on and on (2 Timothy 3:16, John 16:13).

God saved His nation from enemy after enemy – Egyptians and Canaanites and Philistines and more.

God saved you and me from the death our sins worked hard to earn us when we accepted the gift only Jesus could afford to give us. And He saves us still from living each day as if we are still hell bound (Romans 6:23, Galatians 5:1).

God proclaimed to Israel over and over – speaking it loud to messenger after messenger – “I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 18:4, Exodus 20:2-3).

God proclaims the same message to us – speaking it loud in book after book – “I am the Lord your God,” (John 17:3, Colossians 1:16).

Israel witnessed God’s displays – grand and subtle – of His Godness. Passover protection and morning manna and lavish land…

Do we see?

Look around at our divinely orchestrated lives within a divinely complicated creation. He still protects and provides and pours out blessings too numerous to count and too good to convey on us.

We are witnesses when we choose to be.

“No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”

Not then. Not now. No one can undo what the Lord does. He has revealed and saved and proclaimed, and there will be no undoing any of it.

We can’t cover up His working. We can’t explain it away with scientific theories or paint over it with another coating of skeptical shellac.

He has revealed what He has revealed.

We can board a ship sailing away from Nineveh – we can try to flee His presence – but He goes with us. We can deny we love Him – deny we know Him – three times before the rooster crows, but He still claims us, holds us, preserves us, redeems us from ourselves.

He has saved whom He has saved.

We can say it’s all untrue – believe lies about ourselves and our God – but He still says what He says in scripture – we are His, we are forgiven, and He has good plans for us (1 John 3:1, Romans 8:1, Romans 8:28).

He proclaims what He proclaims.

Who can reverse it?

Not us.

Not any one.

Amen.

Why Church Membership is Important

So my last three posts – When it’s Not Okay to Leave Your Church, When it’s Okay to Leave Your Church, and What to do if You’re Unhappy at Your Church – all started with a basic presupposition: church membership is important.

Why is church membership important?

But there is an ever-increasing number of Jesus-loving people who don’t share that view. And it makes perfect sense that if you don’t value church membership, you are less inclined to feel like loyalty to your church (or any church, for that matter), is a biblical hill to die on. 

In fact, one of my readers was brave and honest enough to just say what a lot of you may be thinking:

“These last three blogs seem like a whole lot of agonizing over a non-issue to me. If a church is not for you, move on. End of story. And no, don’t feel sad or guilty about it. There aren’t thousands of separate churches. There is one true Church (as in body of Christ that we commit to), and all the separate institutions are just parts of the whole. If you don’t like your building, go to another. Loyalty to a bad/mediocre/not for you church is just silly.”

I so appreciate this comment because it clued me in to the fact that I shouldn’t assume we all value church membership. And we must value membership before we can talk about persevering in our commitments to our churches.

So, why is church membership important? After all, church membership isn’t even in the Bible…

Or is it?

It’s true, you can search for the word “membership” all day long and not find it in the Bible. But if we stop and look at Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings, we find commitment to a local church commanded ad nauseum.

Each letter Paul wrote was to a local church body – at Rome, at Corinth, at Galatia, at Ephesus, at Philippi, at Colossae, at Thessalonica. And in talking to these individual churches, Paul stresses things like unity (Ephesians 4:3, Philippians 2:1-4, Colossians 3:14) and each believer using his spiritual gifts to build up the body (1 Corinthians 12:7, Ephesians 4:12). He emphasizes serving one another (Galatians 5:13) and sacrificing personal freedoms in order to see to the best interests of others (1 Corinthians 9:12, 10:32). Paul commands Roman believers to “be devoted to one another in love,” and to, “Honor one another above yourselves,” (Romans 12:10).

New Testament books written by other people speak to the same topics as well as to believers in local church bodies submitting to church authority figures (Acts 16:4, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:5).

In other words, the majority of the New Testament is about how to do church in the lowercase c sense. And when all the lowercase churches do church the way Paul and others tell them to, the uppercase Church – as in the body of Christ all believers are committed to – is freed up to accomplish its God-given responsibilities to spread the good news about Jesus and to help believers grow in their understanding of Jesus.

Without committing to a local church body – and by that I mean doing more than filling a pew anonymously on some Sunday mornings – how do we live like the New Testament tells us to? When we church hop and/or fly under the radar of church authority by not committing to a local church (which our culture calls “becoming a church member”), it’s hard to be held accountable to live our lives according to the Bible. We have no community context in which to live out the New Testament commands.

If we leave our churches when our preferences aren’t met, how is that being devoted to one another or honoring others above ourselves or sacrificing personal freedoms for the benefit of others?

If we leave our churches every time the Elders make a decision we don’t particularly care for, how is that submitting to their God-given authority?

If we leave our churches every time we have a disagreement with other believers, how is that working toward unity?

If we aren’t committed to our church, who’s going to help us see when we are erring in our ways?

What’s more, it’s difficult (impossible?) for the Church to do its jobs when believers constantly flit from one part of the body to another – from one little c church to the next. It takes time and people to get programs that reach nonbelievers and programs that disciple believers rolling, and it takes commitment from said people to keep them rolling. If we all leave our churches every time we become dissatisfied with something, there is an “us” shaped hole in the ministries in which we were serving/participating, setting the ministries back.

Church membership is the answer to these kinds of problems. It isn’t a commitment to a building, like my friend stated, but, rather, it is an avenue through which we can be encouraged to live our lives according to the New Testament – to love one another, to work out our differences for the sake of unity, to serve others, to submit to elders – which requires a community of believers.

“Church membership” may be a modern term not used in the Bible, but the concept is one of its main themes. The idea that one can be committed to the capital C Church without being actively involved in a local lowercase c church is a myth at best and a lie at worst.

You may love Jesus, and, by His grace, you may be going to Heaven, but the Bible is clear that you can’t live a New Testament life without being committed to your lowercase c church. God desires us to live in accordance with His word because it’s in our best interest to do so and because He is glorified when we obey.

And that, I believe, is a biblical hill to die on.

Choosy People Choose God

A concept that fascinates me in the scriptures is the idea that God chooses people. 

In the Old Testament, He chose a lot of individuals to do a lot of different things (2 Samuel 6:21, 1 Chronicles 15:2, Nehemiah 9:7), but, overall, He chose the nation of Israel to be His people (Deuteronomy 10:15, Psalm 33:12).

In the New Testament, Jesus chose the 12 disciples (John 15:16). And ever since the resurrection, God has been choosing Israelites and Gentiles alike to believe in Christ and become His sons and daughters (Romans 11:5, Ephesians 1:4-5, Colossians 3:12).

The thing about choosing is God doesn’t have to choose anybody. He isn’t forced or required to show any of us grace or favor. He just does.

And if you are a follower of Jesus, that means God chose you. Personally (1 Peter 2:9).

I can’t tell you why God chose me. It is true there is no good thing in me apart from Him (Psalm 16:2). So I certainly didn’t merit choosing. Quite the opposite. Before God chose me, I was as blasphemous as they came. I denounced Christianity vehemently, used His name in vain frequently, and had no use nor respect for the Church or the Bible.

By all accounts, God shouldn’t have chosen me. 

And by all accounts, He shouldn’t choose you either.

You may not have the sailor mouth I once boasted or the outwardly rebellious heart I once wore like a badge of honor… you might be a “pretty good” person… You might even go to church on occasion… but if you haven’t lived a perfect life by His account, you have a problem. Your imperfections have earned you something… death (Romans 6:23).

More specifically, you’re a dead man walking into eternal separation from God. And so was I. It’s a double whammy, really. You pass through this life having never really lived, blind to the reality of God all around you, never experiencing the joy that is doing life with God. And then you die physically, and you get what you always wanted… eternity without God. I’m sure words don’t do it justice, but John attempts to describe hell as a lake of fire. Those who want nothing to do with Jesus are thrown into that lake for eternity (Revelation 20:15).

Choosy People Choose God
image via arztsamui/freedigitalphotos.net

Unless.

Unless you choose differently.

God didn’t like this idea that all the people He created to know and love Him would be separated from Him eternally on account of sin. So He remedied the situation. Himself. Romans 6:23 says, “The gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The bad news is every single one of us has earned death. The good news is God wants to give us the gift of eternal life – Heaven. 

It doesn’t make sense, honestly, that it works this way… God in the form of Jesus Christ lived a perfect life, volunteered to take the punishment for our imperfect lives, and God the Father accepts that arrangement for anyone who signs up for the deal. I don’t pretend to know how that works. But I’ve experienced it to be true in my daily life through personal interaction with God that wasn’t possible before I accepted Jesus.

God chooses people, yes. But the irony is that He offers each one of us a choice as well. Do we want what we earn, or do we want the gift He offers?

God wants to choose you. Will you choose Him?