Sermon: What, Exactly, is His Grace Sufficient For? Part 1

I wrote a post back in 2013 that has been my most-read post to date. In it I set out to answer the question, “What, exactly, is God’s grace sufficient for?”

Apparently, a lot of you have asked that question, because over 57,000 of you have taken to the Google, entered a form of that question, and wound up reading my post on the subject.

Yesterday, I turned that post into a 2-part sermon and preached it to about 80 women at a conference at Slayden Baptist Church in Slayden, MS.

(Side note: they misspelled my name on the poster for the retreat, and I could not love that fact more. I see it as God’s way of saying, “This ain’t about you.”)

And, let me tell you something, brother [read that in a Hulk Hogan voice], they were a sweet bunch of ladies who encouraged me to no end. We had women in their 20’s to their 70’s, most of whom had been born in that country church, who knew how to love one another across generations and make a stranger like me feel welcome.

At any rate, today you can hear Part 1 of my 2-part sermon on God’s sufficient grace. Part 2 will be on my YouTube channel tomorrow!

How to Struggle

This morning I read Romans 15, and I became fixated on one verse in particular. Verse 30 says, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.”

Paul is wrapping up a long letter to the Christians in Rome, and in chapter 15 he is explaining his future plans. He is going to run an offering from the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia (think Greece) east to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Then he is going back west to drop by Rome on his way further west to Spain. Why he didn’t just wire the money I’ll never know. I digress.

Paul is a bit apprehensive about returning to Jerusalem because, well, Paul’s “betraying” Judaism and becoming a Christ-follower was generally frowned upon by the Jewish establishment, and, thus, the general Jewish population in the region. Paul petitions the Romans to, “Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed,” (Romans 15:31-32).

I am struck by Paul’s vulnerability in his prayer request. Here is the greatest missionary of all time asking those he has discipled in the faith to pray for him because he is SCARED. He knows he is walking into a volatile situation in which he could quite literally be murdered if he falls into the wrong hands. But the poor Christians in Jerusalem need help, and he has the ability to help them. So he really does not think twice about going to aide them.

However, he still “urges” fellow believers to pray for his safety. “Dangerous conditions” won’t stop Paul from doing what God wants him to do, but the reality of the danger is still enough for him to plead for prayer. It’s like Paul thinks prayer really works or something… … …

I’m also struck by the verbiage Paul uses in his request. His “urging” the Roman Christians to pray for him communicates…urgency. He has a serious task before him and doesn’t take it lightly.

But beyond that, Paul describes a) the mechanisms by which he is urging the brothers to join him, or b) the mechanisms by which he and the Roman Christians are brothers. And those mechanisms are “our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of the Spirit.” Since there were no commas in the original language, it’s hard to say which possibility Paul meant.

Maybe all Paul means is he and the Roman Christians are brothers because they all were saved by God’s love exhibited through the Holy Spirit’s drawing each of them to Jesus (option b). And as spiritual brothers, they can and ought to join in each others’ struggles.

On the other hand, if the commas are right (option a), Paul is urging the brothers to join him in his struggle via Jesus and the love of the Spirit. It would seem these are the avenues of their joining together.

Perhaps, then, Paul means that their being Christians and their possession of the love of the Spirit make it possible for the Romans to truly unite with him in his struggle. Without the commonality of being believers, maybe it wouldn’t be possible for the Romans to join Paul in his struggle? Can non-believers reallyfully join in believers’ struggles when non-believers lack the correct perspective of prayer and God?

And/Or, without the love of the Spirit working through them, maybe it wouldn’t be possible for the Romans to have the motivation to join Paul in his struggle? I mean, how fun does that sound, anyway? If the decision is left up to us selfish humans, I’m thinking most of the time we won’t be chomping at the bit to join anyone in struggles…Paul is essentially saying, “Hey, you guys? Wanna  feel this incredible fear and anxiety I’m currently experiencing? It sucks big time! You’re gonna hate it. There’s a heavy weight on my chest, I toss and turn all night, and the panic attacks are coming every hour or so… but come on over and suffer with me! I’ll put on a pot of coffee, and you bring cookies.”

At any rate. Paul tells the Romans they can join together with him in his struggle by doing one thing: “praying to God for me.” 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t pray enough. I hardly pray at all, really. I’d never say this out loud (yeah, I would; I have no shame/filter/verbal boundaries), but I feel like prayer is pretty boring and is more of a chore than a privilege. I don’t like feeling this way; I know it is wrong. But prayer is a pretty passive thing to me most the time. I rattle off some thanks and some requests while God sits by trying not to yawn in my face.

But there have been a few times in my life where a friend desperately needed prayer, and I fervently prayed for him. About a year and a half ago, for example, a friend of mine was in a car wreck. He was airlifted, had emergency surgery, was in a medically induced coma in a trauma ICU unit for 6 weeks, etc. Things were broken, breathing was inconsistent, infections arose. He almost died numerous times. Due to the emotion of the circumstances, it was easy for me to “pray without ceasing.” I “joined” this friend and his family in their struggle for life. And there was nothing passive about it. Praying for him and them consumed my thoughts most of every day. Worship songs about depending on God and trusting God came alive to me in a whole new way. I actively worshiped God as I learned how to live what those songs say I believe. I grew spiritually, my friend eventually recovered, his family made it through the worst couple of months of their lives, and God was glorified.

It kind of blows me away that we believers have this ability to actually enter into someone else’s struggle. We can actively join together with them, experiencing at least some level of the pain they are experiencing. We can suffer along with them. And, yes, at first glance, this seems sadistic. Why would anyone purposefully subject themselves to suffering, esp. on someone else’s behalf? Hmm…I don’t know, why don’t we ask Jesus?

Jesus chose to enter our world and our lives to suffer on our behalves. In salvation He takes all the suffering for us. But in daily living He enters our lives and suffers alongside us when we are hurting or scared or anxious or depressed because we still live in a fallen world. He is with us always (Matthew 28:20), even when we’re broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18). We may forget He is there most of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that He is, and He is feeling all the same emotions of the moment we are (Hebrews 4:15). And just knowing that makes our suffering a little more bearable.

There is something beautiful about us humans loving someone else like this. When we willingly volunteer to walk so closely with someone who is struggling that we actually feel their pain ourselves, we’re showing Jesus to them. A holy communion of sorts takes place, and we come to see that joining them in their struggle is actually a privilege. And the chief way we do this is by praying for them.

  When we struggle, we are to struggle together.

What to Do When You Go through a Trial

Hi. My name is Kelly. I used to write here. Often. And I used to love it. And some of you enjoyed it, too. But in January, 2015, I started working on my master’s and all but totally stopped writing here. And I missed it. A lot. And some of you missed it, too. Fast forward 3 years, and my degree is complete. I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot of things. But now I don’t know what to do with myself. So here is me shaking off the dust and seeing if I remember how to write…

Yesterday, I sat down and read through the whole book of 1 Peter to get the bird’s eye view of the thing before we start dissecting it next week in the Sunday School class I attend. As I read through the first chapter, a sermon started welling up in me down around verse 7. It seemed particularly fitting for a friend of mine grieving a death in the family, so I tapped my thoughts out with my thumbs and sent them as a text message. Today, I sat down and turned that sermon/text into a post here.

(I don’t know why I think you care about all that back story, but I’m just going to go with it serves as a “practical application” of what follows. My preaching professors would not be happy with the application coming before the explanation, so it looks like those three years away were for naught. Oh well.)

Now then, in Peter’s first letter to early Jewish Christians, his primary goal was to encourage them to live godly lives as they endured terrible persecution for being Christians. This was back in the time of Nero, that Roman emperor who outlawed Christianity and thought it fun to light Christians on fire in order to illuminate his palace gardens at night. Most of the references Peter makes to suffering, then, are on par with levels of persecution we contemporary westerners know nothing about.

However, in 1 Peter 1:6, Peter expands his thoughts to include “all kinds of trials that produce grief.” And that is something you and I can relate to. The next verse reads, “[All kinds of trials that produce grief] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed,” (1 Peter 1:7).

Trials produce grief for two purposes.

First, trials that produce grief have come so that your faith in God is proven genuine both to yourself and to those around you. It is when you are in the midst of trials that you and others will see whether or not you really trust God’s decisions to allow/cause your trials and whether or not you have faith in Him to perfectly handle the results/consequences of your trials. As you trust Him in the middle of trials, other believers will be encouraged to do the same, and unbelievers will see Jesus in you. Your attitude will pique their curiosity in Jesus.

Second, trials that produce grief have come so that praise, glory, and honor will be the results when Jesus Christ is revealed.

This may be Peter’s way of saying YOU–the under-goers of the trials–will receive praise, glory, and honor from Jesus when He returns. In other words, Jesus will give you an, “Atta boy!” or “Atta girl!” for persevering and handling trials faithfully.

An alternate take on this part of the verse is that Jesus will get praise, honor, and glory when He returns as a result of your handling trials well. Why? Because the lost will get saved when they observe believers going through trials with unwavering faith. You are experiencing these specific trials of grief so lost people can see how you handle things with the power of Christ, and then the Spirit will draw them unto salvation. Maybe not today. But at some point before Christ returns, and, as a result, there will be even more people worshiping Christ when He returns than there would’ve been if these trials had never happened to you.

No matter which interpretation is correct (perhaps they both are), it is important for you to remember this: you don’t save people. God saves people.

So while you are undergoing “all kinds of trials that produce grief,” just focus on walking with Him. Receive comfort from Him. Dialogue with Him. Tell others what He is teaching you. Describe to others what the Bible says about trials (which necessarily requires you to learn what the Bible says about trials…).

Make it your goal to stay close to Jesus in your grief-inducing trials, and your faith will be evident to others. 

On Darkness

At our Easter service the pastor said something to the effect of, “Darkness cannot eliminate darkness; only light can eliminate darkness.”

Of course, the darkness is our sinfulness and/or pain we experience because we are fallen people in a fallen world, and the light is Jesus, but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of the fact that we – in our own strength – often try to eliminate darkness with more darkness.

When we feel depressed or angry or otherwise discontent (that is, when we feel darkness), how often is our knee-jerk response to try to combat those feelings with more darkness?

My go-to’s include, but are not limited to, over-eating, under-eating (I’m a complicated person), distracting myself via hours of reruns or Word Brain (you guys, I’m addicted), manipulating, withdrawing, clinging, sleeping, worrying, over-analyzing, indulging and the list goes on and on.

I sin to make myself feel better because I buy the lie that sin will make me feel better.

And so do you.

Unchecked, we all use dark measures to try to rid ourselves of dark emotions.

And the way our pastor put it made me realize how illogical that is. Darkness cannot eliminate darkness. Sin cannot eliminate emotional pain. (In fact, sin only and always amplifies emotional pain, but that’s where the darkness metaphor breaks down, so let’s save that for another day).

Only light can eliminate darkness.

Jesus is the light, according to the scriptures (John 9:5). He is truth. He is love. And whoever lives in the light – whoever combats their own darkness with the truth of Jesus Christ – has life (John 8:12; Psalm 36:9).

There is only one way out of our pain and our sin – our darkness. And that way is Jesus – the Light. As we press into Him in our moments (our days, our months, our years…) of darkness, He will bring light (truth, hope, love, comfort).

What to Do with Grief

It’s hard, this life.

This summer, in particular, has felt like one gasp after another – personally, globally. Murder is everywhere, in every form. The pre-born, the just born, the born not-long-ago, the bearing, the bearing arms, the unarmed, the armed forces, the forced to bear arms, the forces of faith and fortitude born within me… they’re all being murdered all around us every. single. day.

What do you do when you can’t breathe anywhere?

Our hearts weren’t made to grieve all the time.

But how do you not when pictures of unattached pre-born hands and legs in petri dishes pop up on your screen? You can’t unsee that. You can’t unfeel that.

How are we not swallowed whole by grief when the heads of babies and children and pregnant women are rolling daily on the desert floor, sometimes at the hands of pre-schoolers who should be rolling playground balls instead?

How do we keep our heads above water when our police officers and Marines are being shot in theirs by career criminals and brainwashed terrorists who don’t understand that they are loved by the Creator and are worth so much more than the identities they’ve settled for?

How do we breathe when racism has choked out the breath of unarmed men because hundreds of years of a false sense of superiority keeps getting passed down in white families in our country?

How do we not grieve when we know the one behind each and every one of these incidences hasn’t stopped there but has incited a personal attack inside each one of us, seeking to kill and destroy whatever faith and hope we have in God?

It’s too much, this daily onslaught of heartbreak.

We have two choices, as I see it.

We can let the grief win. Here’s how that process typically looks for me:

  1. Hear bad news/realize Satan has the upper hand in my spiritual life.
  2. Feel like I am suffocating.
  3. Try to combat that uncomfortable, paralyzing feeling with any manner of distractions.
  4. Try to encase my heart with steel in an attempt to not feel anything.
  5. Fail at all of these things.
  6. Feel depressed.
  7. Get angry I am losing the battle against grief, depression, and Satan.
  8. Lament things will never get better.
  9. Stop making any effort at anything whatsoever.
  10. Generally irritate myself and everyone around me.

As you can see, this is a super mature, wise, and productive way to handle grief. It enhances every relationship I have, including my relationships with myself and with God. My loved ones really get the message that I love them, and Jesus is glorified through me.

I may or may not have chosen this approach to grief the majority of the summer, and that may or may not have played a huge role in why I have contributed nothing to this blog for six weeks. (You’re welcome.)

The alternative response to the chronic soul-crushing chaos that constantly threatens to consume us is to use the grief for our good.

We can choose (so I’ve been told) to see grief as a gift.

A grieving heart is one who understands things are broken. And it’s not until we understand that reality that we can comprehend how dire our need for a Savior is. And it’s not until we understand our desperate need for Jesus that we will choose to sprint to Him for holding and healing and hope – for Him. And, of course, it’s not until we draw near to Him that anything will be right at all in our lives and in our hearts. And none of this will happen without our experiencing grief in the first place.

Grief is a gift that leads a willing heart to the heart of God.

And when we get there, He gives us the breath we can’t find any other way.

What to do with grief

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. 

Grief and Joy

I’ve been mulling over an oxymoron the last 24 hours or so.

At church yesterday, somebody (Keith Thomas – give props where props are due) brought up the idea that, as Christians, we can have hope and joy in the midst of grievous situations.

We can trust Christ is at work – doing His best work, in fact – and the hope we have in Christ will not disappoint us, according to Romans 5:5. The person discussing this issue said, “We can experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time.”

It was an interesting concept… He used an example of a mother losing her teenager whom she knew was a believer. Deep grief, yet tremendous joy…

To be honest, the idea didn’t really take hold of me emotionally the first time I heard it. Sure, I agreed with it, but it remained in the philosophical compartment of my brain for the next hour.

Then I went to service, and as the Lord is wont to do from time to time, He put His finger on a part of my heart I’d been trying to pretend wasn’t hurting and communicated, sans words, “You are experiencing deep grief and tremendous joy simultaneously right now.”

He was right.

I’d been trying for so long to convince myself I was only experiencing the joy Jesus was offering in my situation, subconsciously believing that if I never admitted to myself that I was also extremely sad, then I wouldn’t be. I’d be able to keep the feelings of grief at bay.

Except I couldn’t anymore.

Things came to a head, and I – superior emotional wall-builder that I am – couldn’t keep the bricks in place any longer. The wall fell, and I felt firsthand the truth I’d been exposed to earlier that morning… we can experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time…

I scribbled something down on Twitter so I wouldn’t forget it…

Grief and Joy

From experience, I think this is a true equation. Prior to my becoming a believer in Jesus, I was hopeless in times of grief. After I became a believer, I was hopeless in times of grief when I neglected to focus on Christ. But those rare moments, like yesterday, when I’ve considered Jesus’ faithfulness and goodness in the midst of my grief, I’ve found hope and joy.

But, to be honest, it doesn’t matter at all if I think this equation is true. My feelings and experiences don’t make something true. Truth is defined in the Bible, and our experiences only serve to confirm truth. But that’s another post.

My point is, I don’t want to post this idea without biblical proof. And Peter gives it to us.

In 1 Peter 1:6, Peter writes to believers, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

Joy during suffering and grief…

How? What are they rejoicing in while they suffer so greatly?

If we back up to verses 3-5, Peter tells us.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

Verse 6 begins, “In all this…” That is, the believers are rejoicing in the 4 things (at least) I highlighted in verses 3-5 while they “suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

So, it can be done…

You, me.

We can experience the depths of grief and the heights of joy at the same time… if we keep Christ in the center of our suffering.