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. 

 

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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 Combat Spiritual Warfare

I’m a little Type A (my score: 14/16).

I’m also slightly sarcastic.

But you know this already.

I have a point. It’s coming. It will be here soon.

Oh, yes, when I am told to do something at which I am inexperienced, I need instructions. Step by step, tell me how to do it, on account of the Type A in me.

One subject in the Christian world where there seems to be great confusion and hocus pocus is spiritual warfare.

I mean, we hear about it. We read about it in our Bibles. We’re told we’re all in a battle that is not of flesh and blood but is somewhere out there in the 4th dimension we can’t see (Ephesians 6:12).

(Or is it the 5th dimension? I’ve never been friends with the science.)

The point is spiritual warfare is invisible and intangible and the majority of Christian instruction about it has proven unhelpful for me.

Things like “Take every thought captive to Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

What does that even mean, really? Handcuff our thoughts? I can’t deal with this ridiculous imagery.

Most people explain this verse to mean that when you have a thought, check it against scripture to see if it is true.

Ah, now that is more practical.

However, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed or not, but the Bible IS A HUGE BOOK. How can I check my every thought against thousands of pages of words, especially when I am emotional about something?

I did an exercise the other day that proved helpful.

Step 1 – Don’t wait until you’re upset and prone to think unclearly to do this exercise. Be proactive and do it before you need it.

Step 2 – Write out the lies Satan baits you with most often. Off the top of your head, write them out until you can’t think of anymore. You may end up with a list of 10-20.

Step 3 – Look for similarities in the lies, and reduce the list to the Top 5 Lies Satan Gets You to Believe on a Regular Basis. Write this list on the left half of a piece of paper.

Step 4 – For each lie find a specific scripture that refutes it. The Bible is huge; there are lots of details in it. Use a Bible search engine like BlueLetterBible.org and enter the key words from your lie to see what truths are returned about it. Sift through them and find one that speaks to your specific lie as well as your heart. If it doesn’t encourage your heart when you’re calm, it won’t encourage you when you’re emotionally involved in spiritual warfare. Write this list of scriptures on the right half of the paper, lining up each truth across from the corresponding lie.

Step 5 – KEEP THIS PAPER WITH YOU. Take a picture of it with your phone. Save the list to your computer. Post it on your fridge, in the car, everywhere you frequent.

Step 6 – When you sense Satan baiting you in one of the usual ways, look at your list, find the corresponding truth, and read it OUT LOUD. This is the model Jesus left for us; refute lies by saying, “It is written…” and quote the scripture (Matthew 4:1-10).

Step 7 – Tell Satan to leave. This is also what Jesus modeled (Matthew 4:10-11). Because the Holy Spirit – i.e., God – resides in us (1 Corinthians 3:16), we quite literally possess the same power Jesus had, also being God, to tell Satan what to do. And he must obey, not because we’re hot stuff, but because God in us is the authority over him (1 John 4:4).

Step 8 – Be aware that Satan will leave, but he will also return at a more opportune time (Luke 4:13).

I know the temptation is to think, “Huh, this is a good idea,” and close the page and not think twice about it.

Guess what?

THAT WON’T HELP YOU.

Do the exercise.

Now.

Don’t tell me you’re too busy; you’re reading a blog for crying out loud.

Come on, go do the exercise.

I’ll wait. 🙂

A New Thing

This is what the Lord says –

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:18-19

I am guilty, as I’m sure you are, of remembering the former things instead of forgetting them, of dwelling on the past instead of moving forward, of not perceiving what God is doing in my life because I’m stuck on what’s already been done.

We rehearse the ways we failed and the ways we were failed by others.

Combing through our childhoods, looking for explanations – excuses – as to why we are what we wish we weren’t.

Combing through our careers, looking for choices we made that led us to the jobs we wish we didn’t have.

Combing through our marriages, looking for moments that brought us to the places we wish we weren’t.

Combing through our broken relationships, looking for reasons we aren’t as close as we wish we were.

Other times we run to the former things because we’re certain they were better than where we are now. 

We replay those handful of good memories made perfect by the passage of time, wishing we could rewind to relive those days we’re certain were our best.

All of this dwelling on the past, whether we’re loathing it or glorifying it? It’s no good.

Because when we look back – with our eyes and with our hearts – we can’t see what’s happening now. We can’t perceive the new thing – the good thing – the Lord is doing right under our noses when they’re pointed toward the past.

The Lord – He’s always doing a new thing for us – in us. He’s always making a way in the desert, streams in the wasteland.

A New Thing
image via numanzaa at freedigitalphotos.net

He  is continually renewing and redeeming all that we thought was barren and parched (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Do we perceive it?

Are we paying attention to the now?

The new things God is doing in each of our lives – they spring up like Jacks in boxes. And like children surprised something so delightful comes out of something so plain, God wants us to laugh in astonishment as He raises new things from our nothings.

Don’t miss it. 

Spread your smile wide and your eyes even wider and delight yourself in the Lord (Psalm 37:4).

He is doing a new thing. For me. For you. 

 

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.

Spiritual Gangrene

In my last post I tossed out the idea that when we choose Jesus to be our Lord and our Savior, our “old things” pass away… but, like gangrenous tissue, they are still apart us, threatening our new lives in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Although the old things no longer have the power over us they once did, until we remove them, they can still affect us in seriously detrimental ways. But what does removing our dead spiritual tissue look like?

D&C
image via Apples Eyes Studio/freedigitalphotos.net

Unlike a case of physical gangrene , there is no antibiotic to take or surgery that can be performed to remove our dead spiritual baggage – the lies we’ve believed our whole lives, the sinful coping mechanisms we developed before we met Jesus, and the erroneous thought patterns ingrained in our psyches as unbelievers.

No, the removal of spiritual gangrene requires two things: a desire to get better and a trust in the Great Physician performing the “operation”.

When we become believers, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our hearts. The Bible says the Spirit’s job is to guide us into truth (John 16:13). One way He does that is by convicting us – giving us a feeling of “that shouldn’t be” when we sin or are tempted to believe lies. When we feel this conviction, we can ignore it, or we can pursue it.

We know we are pursuing what’s behind our conviction when we start asking questions like, “Why is this wrong?” and “How can I change?” When we want to get to the bottom of why we’re feeling convicted, we are almost ready for surgery.

The other part of our pre-op is emotionally preparing ourselves for the pain during the procedure. Dealing with parts of ourselves that are unhealthy is hard. Which is why most people never do. But the Lord says He is trustworthy. It will be painful, but He will use the painful process to heal us if we let Him.

When we want to get better and resolve to trust Him no matter how intense the pain gets, we are ready for surgery.

Unfortunately, we will not be anesthetized. We must be awake and cooperative during the entire procedure, or it won’t work.

We begin by allowing God to label parts of our lives – thoughts as well as actions – as “wrong”. In fact, we invite Him to do so (Psalm 139:23-24). And we wait for His reply. This can be quite a wrestling process, as He often points out things we had no idea were wrong. It’s okay to disagree with Him initially. Be honest with Him, and keep asking Him for understanding, for His perspective to become yours.

Once we agree with Him that a particular issue is indeed wrong, we repent. Even if we don’t feel very sorry, we acknowledge our wrongdoing. We ask for His forgiveness, and He gladly grants it.

Then we ask Him to correct that wrong thought or enable us by His power to no longer act in that incorrect manner. We feed our minds and our souls truth about who God is (found in scripture) to dispel wrong beliefs that are at the root of our wrong thinking and wrongdoing. We ask God to take away our desire to think or do this wrong thing and to give us new desires – His desires (Psalm 37:4).

Sometimes we must repeat the last 2 steps over and over again for months, maybe even years, on end. That’s ok. The important thing is that we have not gotten off the operating table and left the hospital all together.  Like a skilled surgeon, He is slowly, tenderly, cutting our healthy tissue away from our dead, infected tissue. And no matter how long the process takes or how much it hurts, we choose to trust His hand. Don’t worry, He’s done this before.

Eventually, God completely detaches the dead tissue within us and removes it. The old hasn’t just passed away – it is gone (2 Corinthians 5:17)!

The death that was once a part of us no longer threatens our lives. We are free.

Congratulations, the removal of your spiritual gangrene is complete… for that one particular issue…

Take a little time to recover, then get back on the table.

Why this “New Creation” Often Feels Old

I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that when we become Christians, we become “new creations”. Actually, I don’t so much have a problem with the “new” part as I do with the the idea that the “old” things are no longer a part of us (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And for good reason: the old things still feel like a part of me.

The Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NKJV).

image via wandee007/freedigitalphotos.net
image via wandee007/freedigitalphotos.net

But when I became a Christian, my sinful tendencies didn’t vanish. In fact, I remained ignorant to the fact that most of them even were sin for quite awhile. Over time, the Lord brought (and still brings) to my attention what was/is not okay in my life. He exposes the old things that are still tripping me up.

But how can that be if the old things supposedly passed away when I became a Christian? There shouldn’t be anything left to expose…

So either scripture is wrong, or my interpretation is wrong. (Hint: scripture is never wrong.)

Last week an analogy came to mind that shed some light on the subject for me.

Sometimes things in our bodies go awry, and some of our cells begin to die. When this happens on a large scale, we can develop a condition called gangrene. You may have heard of this in relation to frost bite or bedsores. Don’t Google it, you’ll see all kinds of pictures that will make you vomit. All you need to know is trauma or infection causes the death of a large group of cells.

There are various treatments for gangrene, but all involve the removal of the dead tissue. In extreme cases, amputation is necessary. If patients opt to leave that dead tissue in their bodies, their health, and possibly their lives, will be compromised.

And so the analogy practically writes itself.

What is dead inside must be removed for the patient to fully liveThe removal of what is dead is necessary that the patient themselves might live.

Maybe that’s how it is with us Christians, too.

When we choose Jesus to be our Lord and our Savior, our “old things” pass away… but they are still within us. Our old selves, full of corruption and brokenness, are just as dead as gangrenous tissue… and just as deadly.

Until we have it removed, the death within us threatens our lives.

More on what the removal process looks like next time…