How to Have Faith in the Face of Unanswered Questions

There are things about God you and I will never understand.

I’m being reminded of this a lot lately. As I teach through the entire Bible, chapter by chapter, questions arise.

Questions I once asked but now know the answers to… Questions I once asked but never found the answers to… Questions I once asked but was too lazy to go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and never find the answers to… Questions I now ask and am too lazy to go find the answers to… And questions those I’m teaching ask that I’ve never considered…and may or may not know the answers to.

[See the analyticalness in that last paragraph? I have to cover every base, every combination and permutation of options. It’s a sickness, really.]

My natural bent is to feel unsettled when I have questions I can’t answer. I like information. I like all the information. Having it gives me a sense of control–a false sense, by the way–and when I don’t know something, I feel uneasy.

This feeling once drove me to totally deny Christianity and the existence of God. Because Jesus couldn’t be proven in a lab, I would not accept His claim to be God as a possibility.

Do you know what changed my mind about Jesus?

I’ll give you a hint: I never got all my questions about Him answered to my satisfaction. I didn’t finally meet someone who could smush Christianity into my tiny box-of-logic.

What changed my mind about Jesus is 1) I realized I needed God, and 2) the God of the Bible made a lot of sense to me. Notice: the Bible didn’t make total sense to me.

As I began to study the Bible with an open mind, God began teaching me about His character. I discovered more and more who He is and what He is like and, conversely, what He isn’t like.

Over time New Testament scriptures proved true in my own life, enhancing my trust in the Bible’s validity, and, in turn, in the Bible’s descriptions of God as wholly trustworthy and good.

I still had plenty of intellectual hurdles I couldn’t clear in regards to Christianity. And I still do. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the unanswered questions than I used to be. Because the questions I can answer–Will God forgive me? Will He abandon me? Does He love me? Is His Word true?–all confirm His character.

So when someone asks a question like, “When babies die, do they go to heaven?” I can say, “I don’t know–the scriptures don’t expressly speak to that–but I know God is good and just and loving, so I trust Him to do the right thing by those babies.”

And when someone asks, “Why did God even give Adam and Eve the option to disobey Him in the garden? Why even plant that tree? He set them up for failure. Who is kidding who?” I can say, “I don’t know why God allows evil. It may not make sense to us, but I know God is wise and in total control, so I trust Him to use evil for good.”

To put it philosophically, the sensibility of God (that is, the fact that He makes sense), does not depend upon man’s (in)ability to completely make sense of God. There are things about Him that will never make sense to us humans. But He has given us enough glimpses of Himself in the scriptures for us to reasonably believe He does, in fact, make sense in all ways. It is not He who is illogical from time to time but us.

And that thought provides me comfort and peace in the midst of unanswered questions.

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How to be Ineffective and Unproductive

(If you read the title of this post and thought, “I can be ineffective and unproductive right now by reading this blog instead of doing ______,” then we’re going to be great friends. Sarcasm is my spiritual gift, and I salute your wittiness.)

Now, in Peter’s second letter to believers in Rome (presumably), Peter opens by correcting a false doctrine that had splintered off of Christianity called Gnosticism. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a test.)

The Gnostics taught that salvation came through the attaining of a mysterious “higher knowledge,” which is in contrast to the true gospel that says salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ.

So Peter opens chapter 1 with 4 verses that all emphasize the gospel vs. Gnostic garbage. Peter is reminding the believers in Rome that you are saved because of your faith–not because you have some special knowledge. And you have that faith because Jesus is righteous–not because you have attained some sort of enlightenment others haven’t (v. 1).

Further, Peter says God’s power has given us every thing we need for life and godliness (v. 3). In other words, believers wouldn’t even need some special knowledge, even if it did exist, because their abilities to live in a way that both fulfills them and pleases God don’t depend on what they know; their abilities depend on the power of Who they know.

In verse 5, Peter seems to get out his megaphone and yell, “FOR THIS VERY REASON, make every effort to do what I’m about to tell you to do.”

I had to read this 45 times before I could nail down what the exact reason is (because I’m sharp like that). I’m sure you’re much more astute and don’t need me to point out the reason, but for the sake of clarity (and so when I forget later I’ll have something to remind me), here’s the reason: in order to actually live out the fulfilling life that sits there for the taking.

Life, godliness, relationship with God (i.e., “participation in the divine nature,”), and no longer being a slave to sin (i.e, engulfed by “the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,”) all await each believer (v. 4).

Peter is imploring the Roman believers to make every effort to do the following because their wholeness and God’s being glorified hang in the balance.

If that’s what we want–to be spiritually healthy people who thrive in our relationships with Jesus and who regularly resist the seduction of sin (characteristics that all bring God glory)–here is what we need to do:

…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love (v. 5-7).

And this is the point in reading where I set the Bible down and say, “Nope. Can’t do it.”

This is a tall order. Like, Empire State Building tall. Or Everest tall. Not only do I lack most of these things, the thing I lack the most is the very effort needed to gain more of them!

Peter says make every effort. Why can’t I just make some effort, like maybe when I’m having a good day and there’s nothing on TV?

“Lord!” I whine, “I can’t make ‘every effort.’ It’s too haaaaaaaaaaaaard.” And He smiles and says, “I know.”

Well. Now that we’re all in agreement…

Peter’s very point is it is by God’s power–not by human effort–that any of this growing in godliness stuff actually happens anyway.

HOWEVER.

We have a cooperative role to play. We put forth effort toward a goal we can’t achieve, and God miraculously infuses said effort with His power to bring forth His desired outcome: godliness in His children. And on account of His power being put on display in our lives, His glory is revealed.

It’s like if I were to run into someone from my freshman year of high school. To say I wasn’t a believer back then would be an understatement. I didn’t worship Satan, but I was a pretty smug atheist, and I wasn’t afraid to let my peers in the Bible belt know it. If there had been a superlative for “Least Likely to Believe in God,” I’d have won it.

Enter God.

I became a Christian at 16, started attending church at 17, became FASCINATED with the Bible, earned a Bachelor’s in Biblical Studies and Theology, taught and wrote about the Bible for years, earned a Master’s in Christian Ministry, and now I build websites. Just kidding. But, seriously. I do. But I ALSO continue to teach and write about this Jesus guy.

If someone I knew B.C. ran into me on the streets today and learned all this about me, they’d have little choice but to say, “Wow, there really must be a God because there is NO WAY she would have transformed like this on her own. Not possible.”

Well, Peter and I have news for you: nothing has changed. I still have no capability to transform myself into a person who has measurable amounts of faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.

And neither do you.

So when we increase in any of these areas, it is clearly God transforming us, which brings Him glory. We bring God our meager offerings (i.e., our “every efforts,”), and He multiplies what we give Him into an abundance of fruit.

Peter puts it this way: “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (v. 8).

There aren’t many things more terrifying to me than the thought of being ineffective and unproductive in my knowledge of Jesus. The seminary degrees are nice and all, but what am I doing with the knowledge rolling around in my brain? If it stays in there, it only benefits me.

And the same is true for you, whether you have “more” knowledge than me or “less” (can we even quantify that?). Knowledge un-shared, at best, only improves one life.

But if our knowledge manifests itself in our actions–like in our self-control and brotherly kindness and love–it benefits others. What we know about God should motivate us to try to live like God.

And when our motivation collides with His power, we are anything but ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of Christ. In fact, we are the opposite: effective and productive.

If that’s not what you’re after, by all means, make no effort to add any of the qualities Peter speaks of to the knowledge you have of Jesus. And, whatever you do, never share whatever knowledge you have with anyone else. In little to no time at all, you will surely be ineffective and unproductive!

 

Above All

I have a love-hate relationship with relationships.

I love them when they’re going well, but I hate them when they’re going poorly. I love them when they are well-established and comfortable, but I hate them when they are new and awkward. I love them when they fulfill me and make me happy, but I hate them when they hurt me and leave me empty.

You, too?

Fortunately/Unfortunately, people are made for relationships…with each other and with God. Even us more introverted folks are made for relationships, and we cannot be well emotionally without participating in a few.

God knows this, which is why He “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6) and makes relationships the fabric of His Church.

As much as I wish it was the case sometimes, relationships are not optional. 

And given that relationships between two people are always relationships between two broken relaters, we’re going to find ourselves in relationships that are hard and messy and make us want to quit and move to the beach alone forever and ever, amen, far more often than we’d like.

Which is probably why the subtitle of the New Testament letters could be “How to Get Along with People in Ways that Make God Happy.”

Every one of Paul’s and Peter’s letters is brimming with instructions on how Christians are to relate to themselves, non-Christians, other Christians, and God, in a variety of different circumstances.

I’m not excited to report that I am currently in the middle of a great friendship that is going through a very not great rough patch. As I prayed about the situation this morning, I didn’t get any direction from God on what needs to occur next in this relationship. So I opened my Bible to read it in preparation for a Sunday School lesson my teacher would be leading me in a couple hours later.

We’ve been going through the whole book of 1 Peter, and it “just so happened” that we were going to be on chapter 4 today. And it “just so happened” that this morning I couldn’t remember which portion of chapter 4 we’d be learning about, so I decided to go ahead and read the whole thing.

In the letter Peter is encouraging believers who are experiencing severe persecution to live godly lives in the midst of their suffering. And in verse 8 Peter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

My eyes stopped and re-read that verse three or four times.

I pretended to not know how this instruction I “just so happened” to read had anything to do with my prayer for direction in a difficult friendship I had literally prayed 1 minute and 28 seconds prior to reading this verse.

I put on my best pensive face and said, “Lord, what do you mean? How does this verse apply to me right now?”

He didn’t even dignify those questions with a response.

I went to church and successfully avoided thinking about the verse 98% of the morning. But this afternoon I started praying about my struggling relationship again, and the verse popped right back in my mind. So I grit my teeth a little and said, “Ok, Lord, let’s look at this again.”

I opened my Bible and started reading 1 Peter 4 again. But this time verse 7 stood out to me in addition to verse 8. Verse 7 reads, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.”

I paused.

I had never considered that when we are not clear-minded and are out of control that we really can’t pray. But I think it’s true.

I was just telling the Lord prior to reading this verse that my friend and I are both out of control. We’re both very passionate people who have big emotions that can cloud our minds and blow our judgment out of the water.

And when I am in that kind of heightened emotional state, my prayers are hindered. I still pray…but my prayers are not usually efforts to understand what God is doing so much as they are efforts to tell God I want things to go differently than they are going.

And pushing my agenda on God is not an effective way to pray. Mostly because I am a moron who can’t discern a “good” plan from a “bad” one, meaning my agendas are usually not what’s best for me or anyone around me.

I need the Spirit to override the stupidity that comes with being fallen and to lead me into truth…the truth about what’s best for me and for others. That’s the purpose of prayer: to allow the Spirit to align my heart with God’s heart. And I just can’t go to God in prayer with a level-headed aim like that when I am not clear-minded and self-controlled.

I prayed verse 7 for my friend and me, and then I went on to verse 8.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

Above all.

Above all.

Loving each other deeply is more important than being clear-minded and more important than being self-controlled.

Hmm.

On the one hand, that sounds like good news for those of us who struggle with being clear-minded and self-controlled in the heat of emotions. If we can’t master those two things, maybe we can put all our energy into this most important thing and still come out all right…

But it’s really hard to love other fallen humans deeply without first having gained God’s heart for them through prayer. 

That Peter.

He’s not giving me a pass on the clear-mindedness and self-control. He’s not saying loving each other deeply trumps having clear-mindedness and self-control, so don’t worry about those last two.

He’s saying we have to be clear-minded and self-controlled so we can be strengthened by the Spirit through prayer to love each other deeply, the most important thing of all in relationships. 

Why?

Because love covers over a multitude of sins.

When we love each other deeply, we will still sin against one another. We will still blow it. We will still hurt each other. And when that happens, those things will still need to be addressed. But our deep love for one another will enable us to forgive quicker and get on with the business of loving one another all the more.

And when a watching world sees Christians who live this out–even and especially when we love/forgive/love over and over and over again–they see a picture of Christ. They see a picture of grace and mercy and redemption and unconditional love.

And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be known for?

Didn’t Jesus say, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35)?

Loving is hard. Relationships are hard. I have yet to ever be in any relationship of any value that didn’t have its rough patches…but when both parties commit to persevering through the hard times, both parties become better and better at loving one another deeply, above all.

How to Become Wise and Make Those Around You Wiser

I’m reading through Proverbs right now (not right now, but you know what I’m saying), in which Solomon writes ad nauseum about wisdom. I guess that makes sense since that was his forte, but still, he repeats himself over and over (which I realize is redundant, but I like redundancy…I also like to say things again and again… … … … …)

Anyway, one of the dead horses Solomon beats is that wise people listen to advice and accept discipline. In fact, Proverbs 19:20 reads, Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” So. There you go.

Likewise, Proverbs 12:15 says, “The wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 13:10 reads, “Wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Proverbs 10:17 says, “Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life.” Proverbs 12:1 reads, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge.” Proverbs 15:32 says, “The one who heeds correction gains understanding.”

Several thoughts occur to me.

First, if we want to be wise, the verse says we have to listen to advice and accept discipline. Which we cannot do if people aren’t giving us advice and disciplining us.

Now, don’t get scared. I’m not going to say we should walk around spanking adults for misbehavior or placing grown people in time out (although, I think I’d benefit greatly if someone would make me sit on a mat and think about what I’ve done from time to time). Discipline here has less to do with punishment and more to do with instruction and correction. Think disciple. Wise people listen to advice and accept instruction and correction.

Obviously, all advice and instruction are not created equally. Some people give really crappy advice. Others over-correct constantly because they like the sound of their own voices. So we have to be careful about who we consult. But we all need good advice-givers and discipliners/instructors/disciplers in our lives. 

On the other side of the coin, we all need to be good advice givers and discipliners.

I don’t know a lot of people who struggle with not giving advice. Most people like to give advice and find it easy to do so because it is a lot like giving an opinion. We all have a lot of opinions and most of us don’t mind sharing them.

But I don’t know a lot of discipliners and correctors. It takes more guts to correct someone than to give them some advice. Personally, when someone is saying or doing something stupid or wrong in my presence, I’d rather keep my mouth shut and silently wish the moment would pass than confront him on it.

I suspect most people are like me in that regard; we have an aversion to correcting people because we associate conflict and animosity with correcting. We anticipate it won’t go well. How many of us have been taught how to correct/confront others in a gentle, helpful way and feel comfortable doing so?

But what is the result of being a society–a Church–who does not correct people when they are wrong or foolish? We end up with a void of wisdom.

The verse says, “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” We cannot produce wise people unless we are willing to correct people. This has far reaching implications in every aspect of life. On a a big picture level, those of us who have an aversion to conflict have to get over ourselves if we want a society/government/culture/Church/family that is wise. 

On a small scale, when we withhold valuable instruction and correction from the person sitting across the table from us who is bragging about his latest sin or laying out the worst plan we’ve ever heard in our lives, we contribute to his downfall. We stunt his emotional and spiritual growth. Ultimately, we fail to love him well.

That puts a whole new perspective on things. Next time you feel compelled to not correct someone out of fear of the uncomfortable confrontation that may occur, think to yourself, “Self, if I love him, I will speak up.”

If you don’t love him, well, that’s a whole different problem.

 

Control. Sigh.

I’m angry. Fuming. More than mildly annoyed.

The short version of why is we had some work done on our house, and the workers suck. I am sitting here waiting for them to come back FOR THE THIRD TIME to correct work they should have gotten right the first time… simple things, like making sure we can’t see daylight around the new door they installed, and lining up the dead bolt correctly so we can, I don’t know, LOCK THE DOOR. And they are an hour and a half late (so far).

I am telling you this not because complaining is my spiritual gift (although, I really think it might be…), but because I am realizing that while, yes, I should be hacked off about this situation, I am way beyond the appropriate level of angry.

Why?

Because those workers are blocking my goal of doing what I want to do with my morning off. And, also, because I am the least flexible person in the world (not literally, although, that’s probably true, too.)

I hate changes of plans. I hate people interfering with how I have already decided my day should go.

Why?

Possibly because I don’t feel in control when someone else changes my plans without my expressed, written consent. 

If I have the time over the next couple of months (which is laughable), I anticipate writing a lot about control. God is bringing me into a period where He intends to harp on the fact that my name is Kelly, and I’m a Control-aholic.

He brought this to my attention years ago when I had my first baby and stressed everyone in my zip code out by demanding they care for her EXACTLY HOW I WOULD when they graciously offered to keep her FOR FREE ANY TIME I WANTED THEM TO. (I won the daughter-in-law of the year award for at least three consecutive years.)

After my first daughter survived 2.25 years under my tyrannical rule, I had my second daughter and lightened up. I was still a stickler for things like don’t feed the 6 month old donuts and chocolate milk (a necessary rule with certain caretakers…), but, by and large, I learned to trust that God would take care of my girls when I couldn’t.

The dust settled for awhile, but I can see now the control-tide has been steadily rising in other areas of my life over the past year or so.  God has been unsuccessfully trying to teach me to trust Him with relationships instead of strong-arming circumstances and people. I really don’t see myself comprehending this lesson anytime soon, which is frightening because we both know God won’t leave that alone.

But most recently God has begun to show me my propensity to want to control things in ministry. My husband and I have started an adult Sunday School class together in which two curse words are involved: shared leadership. We have a team of leaders running this show, of whom I am just one. Which means the control – I don’t have it.

Throw in the lingering/chronic need to control my kids and my schedule and my uncooperative hair, and, well, I am just about ripe for some delightful “pruning”, as Jesus would say. Stay tuned for reflections on how much I kick and scream through that process in the upcoming months…

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

Rely

I’m going through Beth Moore‘s Loving Well Bible study. Again. For the third time.

This is partly because it’s the study the director of women’s ministry at my church chose. But, let’s be honest, it’s mostly because I don’t love well.

Anyway, the bulk of the study focuses on the latter half of 1 John 4, where John illuminates what God’s love is, what our love is, and how the two are connected.

What caught my attention this week during Bible study was verse 16. For context’s sake, here is 15 and 16:

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

Hmm.

Know and rely?

A lot of days I know God loves me. But do I rely on His love? What does that even mean anyway?

Well, I think John is speaking to our relying on God’s love for salvation through Jesus. Verse 9 reads, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Christians are putting all their eternal hopes in one basket, and that basket is labeled, “Complete Forgiveness through Faith in Christ”. We’re relying on the love God has for us, believing that love spurred Him on to send Christ to die for us. If God didn’t love us enough to send His Son, we’ve all been duped. Worse, we’re all still in our sins, and when we die we’ll have to explain ourselves to the Lord.

But I think we can also rely on this same love – the love that went to extreme lengths to redeem us – in our daily lives.

When we’re worried about paying bills that are bigger than our paychecks, for example, we can rely on the love God has for us by recalling that time He loved us enough to send His Son to redeem us. We can trust that that same love will work out our financial needs.

When we’re feeling lonely or frustrated or angry, we can rely on the love God has for us by believing that the love that sacrificed Jesus for us is still loving us today. We can believe God is with us in our hard times and wants to comfort us with His love.

When we have no idea what we’re doing with our lives – what job to take, what ministry to serve in, whether or not to have another kid, where we should live, etc. – we can rely on the love God has for us by thinking about the compassion for us that prompted the Lord to send Jesus out of Heaven, to Earth, through extreme beatings, to a slow, violent death on a cross in order to win us back. We can have faith that that same all-encompassing love will guide us in our life decisions and won’t let us fail anymore than we need to in order to better know Him.

It’s easy to know intellectually that God loves us. It’s all over the pages of our Bibles, it’s in the lyrics of the worship songs we sing each week, and we can recall times in our lives when God really made it abundantly clear that He cares for us.

It’s much harder to consistently feel like God loves us and, in turn, to rely on the love He has for us. I think learning to actively depend on God’s love is more of a learned skill than a natural inclination of the Christian’s heart.

I wonder what would happen – how my mindset might improve – if the next time a challenge arises I ask, “How can I rely on God’s love for me in this situation?”

I know, answering that question takes effort. (I’m grumbling myself at the thought of doing this exercise.) It’s hard to see the forest for the trees, and even attempting to when you’re the one stuck in the brush may take more emotional energy than you have to spare. But I think it’s a question worth answering.