When Life is Hard

There are days (and weeks and months and years…) that life is one heartache after another.

That just kind of comes with the territory living on a broken planet among broken people being broken ourselves. Things don’t go right very often.

And it hurts.

It hurts me.

It hurts you.

It hurts everyone around us.

And sometimes talking to the Lord about all this helps.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

And sometimes reading scriptures about comfort and love and peace and joy and hope, all of which He wants to provide us, helps.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

On the days the brokenness inside me refuses to be comforted, about all I can do is decide to mentally assent to two things:

You are good, and all You do is good…

Psalm 119:68

This is the foundation of my worldview that I have to return to when I am stumbling.

God is good (and loving and kind and for me and attentive and trustworthy). God is good. He doesn’t just act in good ways; He embodies goodness.

And all God does is good (whether He is passively allowing things to unfold or actively causing things to happen). God is in total control of everything every second, and because He is good – that is, there is no badness in Him – He cannot act in a single bad way. Not ever. Even when He allows bad things to happen – evil things, horrid things – He only does so that we might come closer to His heart, the very best place for us to be.

Broken people on a broken planet watch the madness, feel the sadness, and are all but overwhelmed. Our feelings tell us, even those of us who know Jesus, there is no hope.

And, truth be told, sometimes we can read scripture and pray until we are blue in the face, and we will still feel hopeless. Reading, “You are good, and all You do is good…” may not alleviate the pain.

But I think just telling God we believe those things to be true does two things.

It shows Him we trust Him even if we don’t feel happy about it. And I have to believe He likes to be trusted.

But it also shows us we trust Him even if we don’t feel happy about it. And, especially when we’re despairing, we need all the help we can get reminding ourselves we do, in fact, trust God. It forces us to think about why He is trustworthy. And if we want feelings of hopelessness to lift, it seems to me sowing seeds of His trustworthiness is a good place to start.

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When All Feels Lost

When the world starts to turn upside down and my stomach turns with it, it can feel like the whole globe has run clean off its orbital path, veering into the vastness of dark space waiting to swallow it whole.

When all feels lost
image via chrisroll at freedigitalphotos.net

When order and routine and the expected and all that is right get disrupted, it’s easy to believe God has lost all control and the whole system is nothing more than rotating chaos.

I give up hope. I sit down and throw my hands up in despair while I watch the whole thing fall apart through doomsday glasses. At least I think it’s going to fall apart. I’m so easily convinced God can no longer redeem.

Something inside knows better. An inkling rises against the apparently hopeless fate of the world – of me – and I am spurned on with a defiant, “No! All is NOT lost! It cannot be!”

So I put on my space suit and swim into black. I put my lasso around the Earth and try to muscle her back to where she belongs. Sweat on my brow, I pull. I pull. I pull and nothing happens.

Defeated, I drop the rope and drift. Wherever weightless space wants to take me. All feels lost. I feel lost.

And then, God.

“Time out!” He yells. “I’m still here!”

“And nothing has really changed!” He continues. “I have loved you with an everlasting love! I knit you together in your mother’s womb, and I know all the hairs on your head! I have called you by nameyou are Mine! You are precious and honored in My sight, and I LOVE YOU! I take great delight in you! I have good plans for you! I will never leave you or forsake you! I am with you always! When you walk through the fire, you’ll not be burned! Come to Me, and I will give you rest! Put your hope in Me – in My unfailing love! Trust in Me with all your heart!”

And everything else?

“I am working all things together for your good,” He says.

The truth is nothing is out of His control. Ever. The world feeling like it’s off its path? That’s just a feeling. It’s not reality. The heart is deceitful above all else, and so is Satan, the father of lies. It’s just an illusion that the Earth isn’t exactly where it should be – that I’m not exactly where I am supposed to be.

And if that’s true – if it’s true that God is sovereign, that nothing is out of His control – there is no globe petering out into infinite darkness that I need to fret over. There is no world completely off its course that I have to drag back to its proper path. I am neither helplessly doomed nor responsible for righting all that seems wrong to me…

My job is simple – to fix my eyes on Jesus. Minute by minute, hour by hour. Whether I feel right on course or lost in the depths of outer space. I must resist the urge to cry, “All is lost!” and fight the pressure to control everything. Neither action is fitting for one who is intimately acquainted with the Lord.

I will fix my eyes on Jesus, and simply say, “I trust You.”

How to Grow Spiritually

Most mornings I read Oswald Chambers‘ daily devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. If you’re not familiar with him, Oswald is like a Christian superhero, right under C.S. Lewis, but well above Larry Boy.

Somehow I started reading Chambers straight out of the gate when I became a Christian almost 15 years ago. I like him because he’s not a fluffy devotional writer. (You know the kind of crap I’m talking about. Don’t make me name names.) He typically gets to the deeper heart of the believer with no sugar-coating in a few short paragraphs. He challenges. He calls you out. And he never ends his daily lesson with a, “Now go have a great day eating ice cream and playing with puppies!” kind of feel.

That being said, he doesn’t convey a holier-than-thou attitude either. A guy can’t have the kinds of insight into the depravity of man Oswald has without having experienced the depths of his own depravity first…and often.

All that to say, Chambers knocked it out of the park today. You really need to go read it. I’ll wait. In fact, you don’t even have to come back here; my thoughts won’t hold a candle to what Chambers wrote. But in case you do come back, I’ll finish the article for you below.

 

It should be pretty apparent that I am a “words” person. I like everything about words – learning new words, plays on words (but not puns – God is not a fan of puns, sir), applying one word a lot of different ways, comparing words, researching words, and taking the time to choose the perfect words to convey what I mean.

So I suppose that’s why Chambers’ opening line today blew my mind. He wrote, “Perseverance means more than endurance — more than simply holding on until the end.”

Immediately, my mind set about comparing perseverance and endurance to evaluate the validity of this statement. In English the word perseverance has a more purposeful sense of action, while the word endurance has a more passive connotation.

To persevere we put forth effort and work a plan in the hopes that we will achieve a goal. Persevering requires time and energy and often sacrifice. To persevere may be to physically do something, but it could also be the action of mentally and emotionally focusing on something (or the discipline of NOT focusing on something, as the case may be). We are active participants in this process.

To endure we hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. We don’t do anything. We let the trials and problems happen to us and hope that, in time, we will come out on the other side when the rain is gone. We are passive observers in this process.

As Chambers pointed out, perseverance is more than endurance, insinuating that endurance is part of perseverance. You have to have endurance to persevere. But the reverse is not necessarily true (although I think it can be at times). You can endure something – tolerate it, wait it out – without persevering – taking any action steps to overcome it – and be successful (for example, waiting out a tornado). But in some cases, if all we do is endure, refusing to take persevering action, we’ll never overcome our hardship (for example, if we are starving, and there is food on a plate in front of us, but we refuse to put the food on our fork and into our mouths, we will remain hungry.)

I’d venture a guess, if my definitions are correct (and that’s a big if), that there are times we ought to persevere and times we ought to endure. (Another article published today speaks more to this.)

But, to ride the coattails of Mr. Chambers, I think there is at least one aspect of our lives in which we ought never choose to endure but insist we persevere – our own spiritual growth and development.

Lest we get off on a rabbit trail about whether or not we have the power to spiritually grow ourselves, let me share the initial thought I had this morning that sparked this whole post: just holding on and riding things out is NOT spiritual growth. (I think that may have been where Oswald was going in this devotional, but I have yet to confirm with him since he’s busy being dead. In tomorrow’s devotional, however, Chambers definitely speaks to us doing our part being key to our spiritual growth.)

What I’m saying is if we are passive about our relationships with God, passive in the “growth opportunities” (otherwise known as trials) that come our way, passive in responding to the Spirit, passive in prayer, passive in being obedient (i.e., being disobedient), we aren’t going to grow spiritually. If we merely endure this life while we (im)patiently wait to get to the next life, we waste our lives and squander the opportunity to know Him intimately.

But if we persevere in our faith, actively reaching out to God through prayer and worship, actively studying the scriptures, actively responding to the Spirit’s promptings, actively focusing our emotions and thoughts on all that is lovely and true when so much around us is broken and false, we will grow closer to the One who made us to know Him and to make Him known. We will grow spiritually.

If we find ourselves spending most of our time enduring life as a Christian, all we’re doing is burying our heads in the sand. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that’s okay. Just holding on and riding things out is NOT spiritual growth. We must persevere in our personal relationships with Christ, doing whatever it takes to love Him a little bit more each day.

 

What to do When People Hurt You

Sometimes people hurt us.

Insightful, no?

Accidents happen. Feelings get hurt. Egos get bruised. People get overlooked. And, every once in awhile, people may purposefully take a stab at our hearts out of anger or bitterness.

Most of the time this kind of thing happens in isolated incidents. Especially the hurting that is inadvertent. We swallow it, and move on. Or we talk about it, resolve it, and move on.

But what do we do with the relationships in which we know the other person is going to hurt us before they actually do so? Sometimes people aren’t safe or mature or good at loving other people, and, if we had to guess, they are going to hurt us sooner than later.

There are a lot of clues we may be dealing with this sort of person…

Maybe they have a track record of hurting us, and we’ve just come to expect that from them. Maybe we’ve observed them hurting others before, and we figure it’s only a matter of time before they hurt us too.

Or maybe the person isn’t intrinsically hurtful, it’s just that we’ve been around the block enough times to realize that loving others is risky. The more emotionally vulnerable we are with someone, the more deeply they can hurt us.

So what do we do?

The natural tendency is to allow very few people into the depths of our hearts. Keep them on the surface so if they do something insensitive or flat out stupid, it won’t hurt very badly. And if the handful of people we let in ever do hurt us, we quickly learn to construct a wall to keep them out for good so they can’t ever hurt us again.

In other words, we protect ourselves.

Except the only problem is that’s not how Jesus did relationships. 

Jesus had a friend named Peter who swore his faithfulness to Jesus up and down (Luke 22:33). As good as Pete’s intentions were, Jesus knew better, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me,” (Luke 22:34).

Jesus knew Peter was going to hurt Him. They had been great friends, doing life together daily for the better part of three years. I can imagine the pain in Jesus’ heart – the heaviness – at the thought that Peter was going to deny even knowing Him. How hurtful…

Sure enough, after Jesus was arrested, Peter was questioned about his relationship to Jesus, and Peter denied knowing Him (Luke 22:56-60). “Just as [Peter] was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter,” (Luke 22:60-61).

I don’t think Jesus was shooting Peter an “I told you so” look. That’s not in our Lord’s character. Rather, I can imagine the look was mainly one of great sorrow and hurt. Jesus had known it was coming, but it didn’t hurt any less.

All that to say, when Jesus was in a relationship with someone He knew was going to hurt Him, He didn’t back away. He didn’t build a wall. He didn’t self-protect.

He let the hurt happen. 

And then He continued to love Peter well and do what was in Peter’s best interest by serving him and sacrificing for him – even unto death.

It was not fun. It was not easy. Peter hurt Jesus deeply. But Jesus chose to respond in love.

And we are called to do no less.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (Ephesians 5:1-2). 

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.

 

 

Thoughts for the Anxious Christian

Anxiety is a broad term for a lot of different psychological and physiological responses. And people use it in a myriad of ways.

Psychologically speaking, some people say they are anxious when they are mildly worried about something. Others don’t consider passing worry to be anxiety until it becomes obsessively debilitating worry – worry that’s often irrational or over the top.

Still others reserve the word anxious for when their bodies are responding to the fear in their minds – increased heart rates, feeling hot, feeling claustrophobic, feeling unable to breathe, feeling like your having a heart attack, stomachaches. When physical anxiety is at it’s worst, most people call that experience a panic attack.

The nice thing (if there is one) about anxiety is that the Bible speaks to it in more than one place. To be honest with you, I’ve always read verses about anxiety from the stand point of mild worry. But the Lord has me in a season where anxiety means more than that to me, so I am looking afresh at the “anxiety verses”. Just because I’ve limited their meaning in the past to mild worry doesn’t mean that’s the only way God intended them to be interpreted.

On that note, I read this today:

6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. 10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1Pe 5:6-11)

Verse 6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” 
  • We should submit to the idea that our anxiety (however we experience it: mild worry, obsessive worry, depression, panic attacks, debilitating anxiety disorders, etc.) is God’s doing (either directly or indirectly); He is in control. He knows what’s best, and, as hard as it is, He has deemed this best for us right now.
  • He will deliver us from this suffering at the proper time. (The NIV isn’t a great translation here; thankfully, vs. 10 clarifies Peter’s meaning.)
Verse 7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
  • We are to continually place our anxiety on Him, not keep it ourselves. Whether it’s worrisome thoughts or physical anxiety, we should consciously give those things to God. We can do this through prayer: “Lord, I don’t want to worry about ____. I don’t want to be afraid of ____. I don’t want to feel ____. You take these things.”
  • I have a hunch that if God tells us to cast our anxiety on Him, it’s because He is willing to take it from us. In other words, it will be a fruitful exercise. I can’t prove this. So don’t go hanging your hat on it.
  • He cares for us! As alone as we may feel in the midst of anxiety, we are not. And because He cares about us, He wants our anxiety. He wants to free us from all levels of worry, just as we long to ease our childrens’ worried minds and take their physical pain from them.   
Verse 8: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
  • Satan wants to devour us in the midst of our experiencing anxiety. This is an opportune time for him. I don’t know that he can cause our anxious symptoms (particularly physiological responses), but I am certain he tries to exacerbate them by drumming up our fears concerning them.
  • We need to say to Satan, “I will not be the one you devour!” in the midst of our anxious episodes.
  • We are not picked on by Satan because we are weak or less than; I believe we are targeted because we unashamedly identify ourselves with Jesus. We should consider Satan’s attacks an honor and not feel ashamed in anyway that we are experiencing them (1 Peter 4:12-19).
Verse 9: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
  • We can resist Satan by declaring truth out loud, “God is good. He only allows that which is in my best interest. I refuse to believe otherwise. He is in total control, and I am safe with Him.” (Psalm 107:1, Romans 8:28, Proverbs 19:21, Psalm 4:8)
  • We are not alone! Believers all over the world and all over our own churches are experiencing the same kinds of anxiety in all its forms. As a side note, Satan seeks to divide and conquer us by isolating us. The more we share our stories with each other, the braver we all become to get the help we need to overcome our anxiety, especially the more debilitating forms.
Verse 10: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
  • We will suffer, but not forever; only for a little while.
  • We are personally called and chosen by God, and He Himself will restore us from this season of suffering. And when He restores us to emotional health, He will make us strong, firm and steadfast. There is no mincing words here; this is a promise
Verse 11: “To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
  • It is by His power and as a testament to His power that these things will come to pass.
  • Amen is an expression of absolute confidence that it will be so. Peter is confident. We can be confident.
Whether you struggle with “normal” worrying from time to time or more intense anxiety, reread this passage of scripture the next time you feel concerned. There is power in the Word. I’d even encourage you to read it out loud. In some situations, doing so will be enough to quell the anxiety and empower you to cast all your anxiety on the Lord. Other situations warrant additional action steps. Either way, incorporating scripture will undoubtedly help us.

Grace and Peace to You

I drove in the winter sun, feeling warmed not just by the rays streaming in through my windows but from somewhere inside my body.

I’m not sure how many miles I covered before I realized it – I had been smiling the whole way.

I noticed the feeling of warmth and the curve of my lips because they aren’t my norm; they caught me by pleasant surprise.

I didn’t have to inquire what was going on with me; I knew.

His peace.

In that moment, throughout that drive, the Lord was giving me His peace.

Jesus had said it to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” (John 14:27).

I thought as I drove – isn’t it only by His grace that He gives any of us peace? 

His peace is a gift we get to experience because we are His, and we are only His because we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). Out of His great grace, He bestows peace upon each believer. He leaves it with us; we can choose it anytime we want.

And when I access that peace? When I feel that peace given me by the Lord’s grace? I walk gracefully.

I walk grace-fully.

There is nothing more beautiful than a believer who knows in the depth of her heart Whose she is and walks in that power. There is a grace about her – on her face, in her words, in her steps, in her actions.

Her walk with the Lord and through this life is full of grace.

I can’t remember for sure, but I may have laughed aloud when I realized it. By God’s grace, He gives us peace, which fills us with grace. 

What a beautiful cycle. Grace begetting peace; peace begetting grace. And the cycle doesn’t have to end… ever.

I wondered as I drove, maybe this is what Paul had been trying to teach believers all along?

How many times did Paul start or end his letters with “Grace and peace to you”? Grace and peace. One leads to the next, and vice versa.

Not two hours later, Satan tried to knock me off this truth I was standing on. He looks for opportune times (Luke 4:13).

Someone who is supposed to love me spoke words that cut deep. Unintentionally, the message this person sent me was you’re a failure, and I am ashamed of you.

I got back in my car, but this time I felt the cold of the winter air. There was no trace of the grace nor the peace I had felt earlier.

I did all I knew to do. I thanked God. “Lord, thank you for this conversation that just took place. It wrecked my heart, yes, but it is giving me the chance right now to come to You, to grow closer to You, to learn to walk in Your truth.”

I drove slowly, processing with the Lord what had just happened. I knew what was said to me – what was implied about me – was not true. But that didn’t make it hurt any less. Because the person who said it is supposed to love me.

The Lord spoke truth to the lies I had just heard, words of His sovereignty over my path, my past, my choices. He affirmed I hadn’t failed, despite this person’s opinion. He affirmed He was quite proud of me and spoke to the strength it took to walk the road He had for me. He reminded me that ashamed people shame people; the words spoken to me were not about me, they were about the person who spoke them.

Gently, because of His grace, He was breathing peace back into my demolished heart. My soul re-inflated with His peace, slowly, steadily. And then I was able to look at the person who hurt me so with grace and say, “Lord, his rock of a heart needs You. He is cold and closed and hurting, and he is in desperate need of Your saving. Soften him to Your love.”

Even in the difficult times, His grace bestows peace to enable us to walk gracefully.  If you find yourself lacking either, the solution is to go to Him and talk it out. If you are a believer, He has left you peace. It’s yours for the taking. Go get.