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Good news for the weary

Sunrise

In our community group last night, our group leader shared this passage from Isaiah as an encouragement to all of us, especially those who are worn out:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the whole earth.
He never becomes faint or weary;
there is no limit to his understanding.
He gives strength to the faint
and strengthens the powerless.
Youths may become faint and weary,
and young men stumble and fall,
but those who trust in the Lord
will renew their strength;
they will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not become weary,
they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

I’ve been chewing on this all night—throughout our meeting, on our drive home, and into the night as I prepared for my flight to Seattle this morning. Which means it inevitably led to more reading, specifically by turning to Ray Ortlund’s commentary on this book.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit out of sorts at the moment, in that although I am a pretty high capacity person—both personally and professionally—I definitely feel stretched in a way I haven’t before. And in that, there is a temptation to continually rely on my own strength, to act as though I have to do everything that I’m responsible for without any sort of help from the Lord. What I found this passage stirring within me was a realization of how I was working from the wrong starting point. That if I want to work under my own strength, I am doomed because it’s not going to be enough. It can never be enough. Instead, I need the Lord who strengthens the powerless, those who wait on him. Ortlund puts it better than I can though. He writes:

We’re all weak. But we don’t have to be supermen. God simply calls us to believe what we believe and to set our hearts on things above. If we will, that longing for God is the channel through which his power will lift us and renew us and cheer us all the way there.

This is good news, friends. This is what I need. This is what we all need. Lord, help us to believe.

No one is too far gone to be saved

Sunrise

There’s this moment on the cross when Jesus is about to die that seems strange to me. It’s one that’s easy to gloss over, or ignore, or even turn into a debate: Jesus’ encounter with the thief on the cross. As he was crucified, two thieves jeered and mocked him. But as the day went on, one turned from being a scoffer to a believer and defender:

But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:40-42)

There’s so much to be said about this passage. Without question, it is a powerful challenge to those who behave as though our salvation is dependent upon our works. Without a doubt it is a glorious picture of justification by faith alone. But it is also a picture of hope. I love the way J.C. Ryle addressed this in his tract, “Christ and the Two Thieves”:

Reader, the Lord Jesus never gave so complete a proof of His power and will to save, as He did upon this occasion. In the day when He seemed most weak, He showed that He was a strong deliverer. In the hour when His body was racked with pain, He showed that he could feel tenderly for others. At the time when He Himself was dying, He conferred on a sinner eternal life.

Now, have I not a right to say, Christ is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him? Behold the proof of it. If ever sinner was too far gone to be saved, it was this thief. Yet he was plucked as a brand from the fire.

The thief on the cross should give us hope for those we know who are far from Christ. They may be caught up in the darkest of sins. They may be fully committed to their love of darkness. They may have scoffed and rejected Christ at every opportunity. But there is still hope. As long as they still have breath, there is an opportunity for their heart to be transformed by Jesus, and for them to turn from their sins in faith.

No one is too far gone for him.

So let’s not lose heart as we seek to share the gospel with all. Instead, let’s hold fast to our confidence in Christ. If he could save the thief on the cross, and if he could save people like me, then he can save anyone. And that is all the reason for hope we need.

Hope in heartbreak

Sunrise

An online acquaintance shared this yesterday, and it broke my heart:

What’s heartbreaking about it for me isn’t a realization that anyone assumes this is the norm. What’s heartbreaking for me is that I generally assume it, too. I think about people in my life, and I can create a frighteningly long list of women (and men) who have been violated. Dehumanized.

What’s heartbreaking for me is that there’s always a possibility of my daughters and son experiencing it too.

My son is still deep in the throws of learning to people; developing empathy and consideration for others. Recognizing that others are worthy of dignity and respect by virtue of being people. That showing love includes being kind and helpful. That hurting others, whether with his fists or his words, is never acceptable. That he would never be the type of “man” who would dare say, “She asked for it.”

 

My daughters have been taught from a very early age that their bodies belong to them, but it’s something Emily and I always trying to reinforce. They have freedom to say no to anyone—even us—if they’re uncomfortable with anything. And our rule is that we always respect the “no.” They know what they’re supposed to do if anyone asks them to keep a secret, ever: tell mom and dad, always.

But there’s part of me that fears that no matter how much we try, they could still have a “me too” story. That they would experience the same pain, guilt, and shame that so many others have in a world that encourages the abuses it then decries.[1. Don’t believe me? Then tell me why 50 Shades of Creepy was a bestselling series and a box office hit.] But where I find hope is that even though all this could happen, God will not leave it unanswered.

Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation.”[2. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, 113] Suffering and pain are real. But even if it doesn’t come how or when we might wish, deliverance is real too. Lord, may it come quickly.

You are never alone (though you may not realize it)

I’m almost always grateful when I see other Christians writing attempting to write honestly about pain, suffering, sadness, and grief. We should not try to pretend that these are not part of our experience as Christians living in a fallen world. As long as sin remains in the world, so too will all these.

So why “almost”?

The almost isn’t because I want to stick my head in the sand. It’s not because I feel there are subjects that we can’t talk about as Christians or anything like that. No, it’s something far more significant: it’s the sense of aloneness that’s communicated in so much of this writing. There’s a sense in which people are absent, but more importantly, that God is absent.

But who told any of us that? Does the God who swore that he would never leave nor forsake his people abandon them when things get messy? Do our feelings of distance mean he truly is distant from us?

When I’ve felt like this (which I have on many occasions), it’s taken time to see the truth. That God was right there with me through everything. For example, in recent months, I’ve been dealing with what for me is a fairly significant amount of anxiety. I have had more than one night staring at my ceiling wondering if I’m going to get a letter saying I’ve done something—anything—that will result in my visa being cancelled and forced to return to Canada.

Maybe I’ll mess up my taxes and I’ll be sent back. Or having my social security number run so I can volunteer at a church. Or my boss will suddenly change his mind and decide he doesn’t want me on the team anymore. Or…

(This is how my mind works, gang.)

But what keeps me from spiraling most days are the moments where the unexpected happens, which in my case usually means someone offers an unsolicited word of encouragement. And then another comes up. And then there’s another one still. While I wouldn’t use them as hard evidence regarding his plans, these moments are genuinely gifts from God to me. Small reminders that help me at least get through the day.

But that’s not the case for everyone. Some of us just take a pounding and it doesn’t seem as though it’ll ever let up. And in those times, even to say, “don’t worry, God is with you” feels like a copout. And maybe it is, depending on how who’s saying it. But the truth is, well, it’s true. Remember that David and the other psalmists all wrote and prayed and sang this way.

“Where are you? Why do you hide yourself from me?” They would cry (see Psalms 10, 13, and 42, among others).

But they didn’t stop there. They didn’t say, “God’s hidden himself, so I’m out.” Instead, they would speak the truth to their own hearts. They would remind themselves of reality, in spite of their feelings. “Why, my soul, are you so dejected?” the psalmist asked himself (Psalm 42:5). “Why are you in such turmoil?” When darkness threatened to overcome them, the psalmists would encourage themselves (and those who read their work today) with one truth: “Put your hope in God.”

That’s what we need, despite it feeling like a cliché at times. Weary believer, it’s easy to despair and to give up. To believe what your feelings are telling you. But despite what you may think or feel right now, despite any evidence to the contrary, God is with you. He will not leave you. He will not forsake you. And he will not fail you.

On hope, joy, pain, and false dichotomies

How many of us would say we are joyful people? Chances are, probably not that many. 
And we all have reasons, probably really good ones. Maybe we’ve been lied about by someone we thought was trustworthy. Perhaps we were abused verbally, physically, or spiritually. Maybe we deal with depression, or struggle to make sense of the loss of someone close to us. Maybe it’s just that God seems to have abandoned us… or at least that he’s got better things to do with his time than to deal with you and me. 

We’ve all got a list, don’t we? One that can’t be easily written off or placated by pithy statements and well meaning advice. Our lists make it difficult to see “joy” as anything more than a platitude. A cliche. But it’s not something we actually experience in our day-to-day lives. 

I get frustrated when I see Christians try to downplay feelings of loss, despair, or even emptiness when they’re brought to light. I also get frustrated when I see those who experience such feelings dismiss help or encouragement as something disingenuous. They generally represent two views in a false dichotomy that says the two can’t coexist. Why? Because the psalms exist. Because David, the man after God’s own heart, the greatest human king of Israel, was intimately familiar with both. 
Think about psalm 22 for a moment:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from my deliverance and from my words of groaning? My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, by night, yet I have no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2 CSB)

David began this psalm with a powerful expression of grief, doubt and pain. With the feeling of abandonment by God. And he had every reason to feel this way, didn’t he? I mean, he was on the run for years because King Saul wanted him dead. Later he lived on the run again as his son attempted to stage a coup and usurp the throne. He experienced war, betrayal, enemies surrounding him on all sides… He had every reason to express himself this way.

And the same is true of us. There is nothing wrong with expressing our feelings, even when they say we think we’ve been abandoned by God. (Just read v. 3-18 if you have any doubt about this.)

But David didn’t end there. Even in his darkest moments, he challenged his feelings. He asked God to save him in this psalm. In another, he asked “why are you cast down, O my soul?” (Psalm 42:5 ESV) before replying to himself, “Hope in God.” 

This is just a snippet, a brief glimpse into what God wants us to know about the relationship between these two realities. But even though it is brief, I hope it is an encouragement to place false dichotomies that make us try to choose between between expressing grief and pursuing joy where they belong: straight in the pit of hell. 

It is not pithy to say God is the answer, to encourage the weary and angry and frustrated and grief stricken to hope in him. God is the one who provides an answer to all pain and suffering. He is the source of joy because he is the destroyer of death. He is the one who identifies with us in our weakness. Who understands our sorrow as well (or better) than we do. And although we may not always feel it, God wants us to know it so we can respond to our feelings with the same plea as David: “But you, Lord, don’t be far away.” (Psalm 22:19 CSB) 

Hope in God, because he is our only hope. 

For goodness’ sake, be heavenly minded!

I don’t get people who say things like, “You’re too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” Correction, I do understand them. I just think they’re wrong.

Most of the time, I suspect there’s an impression that being heavenly minded means having your head in the clouds, daydreaming while letting the world burn around you. But that’s not it. Heavenly-mindedness is what helps us to pursue the common good here and now. Why? Because being heavenly minded means having your hope rooted in the right thing.

I love how Martyn Lloyd-Jones expressed this in Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. He said,

Unmixed joy, and glory, and holiness, and purity and wonder! That is what is awaiting us. That is your destiny and mine in Christ as certainly as we are alive at this moment. How foolish we are that we do not spend our time in thinking about that. Oh, how we cling to this unhappy, wretched world, and fail to think on these things and to meditate upon them. We are all going on to that, if we are Christians, to that amazing glory and purity and happiness and joy. `Rejoice, and be exceeding glad.’ And if people are unkind and cruel and spiteful, and if we are being persecuted, well then we must say to ourselves, Ah, unhappy people; they are doing this because they do not know Him, and they do not understand me. They are incidentally proving to me that I belong to Him, that I am going to be with Him and share in that joy with Him. Therefore, far from resenting it, and wanting to hit back, or being depressed by it, it makes me realize all the more what is awaiting me. I have a joy unspeakable and full of glory awaiting me. All this is but temporary and passing; it cannot affect that. I therefore must thank God for it, because, as Paul puts it, it `worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory’.

The hope we have, this “unmixed joy, and glory, and holiness, and purity and wonder” that awaits us, is what we need more of in this world. When we are consumed with the cares of the world, we are distracted from doing what is truly good. We are not free to love others as fully as we ought when our hope is built on something less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. We cannot even truly enjoy the good things of the world because we put too much stock in them.

But it is heavenly-mindedness that changes that. We know where our source of hope and joy is, so we are free to enjoy what is good and to pursue the good of others. We’re not counting on them to satisfy us. We’re not looking to created things to make a name for ourselves. Heavenly-mindedness allows us to live as we were always meant to, and because of Christ in us, now can live.

I want more of that. I hope you do, too.

 


Photo: Pixabay

Hope out of a hard question from Jesus

An open Bible being read

The other day, I read a particularly convicting question from Jesus:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say,” he asked (Luke 6:46). I can only imagine the thoughts that ran through the minds of his original hearers. How long was the list each was coming up with? What did they feel when they began to examine themselves?

Take a second. Sit with that question for a while. Maybe it’s just me, but this is a question that makes me really uncomfortable. I can’t help but think of the ways in which I struggle to obey Jesus (and it almost always comes back to sharing the gospel with others). I actually spent a good chunk of Saturday thinking about this question from the perspective of writing a list of failures.

There’s something helpful and necessary about examining ourselves, of course. Paul encouraged us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5). We should not assume we’re running the race at our best when we might be running hobbled. But sometimes when we make our lists, when we examine ourselves, we can turn what we see into a task list. We determine our next steps and set out to accomplish them.

Or not, which is more often the case.

Then despair sets in. And we give  up.

In thnking about the question further, I started to have a different response. I stopped making my list—rather, I stopped trying to turn it into tasks that I can manage. Instead, I found myself thinking about the man who cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

And this became my own prayer to God. To stop trying to create tasks for myself and first deal with my heart. My weakness in evangelism is a heart issue, as are a host of other sins and areas where I’m slow to be obedient. So I can’t just tell myself, “Evangelize harder.” I need Jesus to deal with my heart first. To help my unbelief.

And so that’s what I’ve been doing as I’ve been thinking about this question of Jesus’. And in doing so, I’m starting to feel a little more hope that things will change. I can have hope because I know the One I am asking is good. He gives all that I need (and more). He wants me to obey him in all things, and by his grace and through his Spirit, he will give me what I need to do so.

Obadiah, judgment, and finding the good news in the least-read book of the Bible

BIble-glasses

My wife and I don’t agree on music. She tends to like songs that are bright and upbeat, where I enjoy minor keys. This can cause issues on family road trips, as you can imagine. But it’s not just music like this for me. I tend to resonate with books, movies, and TV shows that tend to be a little more downbeat.

This is true with the Bible, too. I resonate with the psalms of lament. I get Jeremiah. Ecclesiastes is my jam. But it’s not because I like to be angsty, running around with a cape and pretending to be deep and dark or whatever. It’s that the laments, the honest complaints and appeals, and even in the cries for justice help me to more clearly see the hope that the good news God has given us.

This is the least I explored this theme in greater detail in a post this week at The Gospel Project blog, focusing on Obadiah’s message of judgment and hope:

Edom and the nations had sinned against Judah and against God, and the Day of the Lord would come against them. “As you have done, so it will be done to you; what you deserve will return on your own head” (14). But the promise of retribution was not the entirety of Obadiah’s message. God also promised restoration for His people. “But there will be a deliverance on Mount Zion, and it will be holy…the house of Jacob will be a blazing fire, and the house of Joseph, a burning flame…” (17, 18). God would restore the people; He would make them holy. And greater still, He would come and establish His kingdom for all to see (21).

Imagine what it must have been like to first hear these words. God’s people had never had a history of unfailing faithfulness. Throughout the Old Testament, God was continually calling His people to repentance, to turn away from the sin that ensnared them. The situation they found themselves in was the fruit of years of rebellion against God. Yet even as He disciplined them, God had not abandoned them. He would restore His people, and better still, He would ultimately establish His rule over all the nations! How can we, like Obadiah’s original hearers, be anything but encouraged when we consider this message?

Keep reading at The Gospel Project blog.

The happy ending we are longing for

A page from the ESV single-column Bible

I love a good happy ending. At least, if it makes sense for the story. There are some that a happy ending seems forced—like pretty much every romantic comedy ever.[1. Notable exception: films involving Cameron Crowe prior to 2000 (Jerry Maguire excepted, of course).] But there are others where it just seems to make sense to have a happy ending. The story naturally leads to the conclusion.

Teaching the kids in our children’s ministry this weekend, I wished Joshua had been one of those. Although it kind of is.

The happy ending I wish we had

After all, the book ends with this powerful, amazing moment where you’d imagine a Braveheart-era Mel Gibson standing before the people of Israel, saying, “…choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).

And everyone cheers and rejoices, swearing, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods… we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (24:16, 18). And that’s it. Big finish. Everyone’s excited because they all live happily ever after. Except we have the book of Judges.

The continuation of the story

Judges is arguably the darkest book of the entire Bible. The entire message of this book is summarized in the last line of the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

The people, despite their swearing to the contrary, abandoned the Lord. They forgot his promises. They forgot what he had done for them. They worshipped and served other gods instead of the true God… and so they experienced the consequences God warned of through Moses. They were oppressed by foreign kings. They were in bondage. And in their sorry state, they would remember the Lord. They would ask him to save them.

And every single time, he does. Though they don’t deserve it. Though they have failed to keep their word, God saves them. He is just that good. And he is that committed to keeping his own word, to bless the nations through the offspring of Abraham.

So, God would send a deliverer—a Judge—to rescue the people. To save them from the consequences of their sin. Some were, from what we know of them, pretty decent in terms of character. Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar and Deborah don’t have any serious flaws recorded in Scripture. But after Deborah, things went down hill fast. Gideon was double-minded. Abimelech was evil. Tola and Jair, we know little about (Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, too). Jephthah made a foolish vow that cost him his daughter. And Samson—he was probably the worst of all.

It was through people like these that God would work to fulfill his plans. People like you and me, that he would use for his glory. But the best that any of these judges could do, even the good ones, was deal with the consequences of the people’s sin. They couldn’t address the cause. For that, the people—and we along with them—would need a different and better Deliverer.

The happy ending we can share

This is where I find some tiny bit of good news in the book of Judges—that the Judges themselves point forward to a different, a better Deliverer. One who would not be limited to addressing the consequences of sin, but the cause of it. One who would rescue his people from bondage; bondage of the heart. Our enslavement to sin.

And that Deliverer is Jesus, the One who deals with our sin problem by giving us a new heart through his Spirit. One who never does what is right in his own eyes, but only what is right in his Father’s eyes. One who leads us to do what is right in the Father’s eyes, too. One who not only holds out a hope for redemption, but the sure promise of it, as he prepares to make all things new in this world, erasing sin and sadness and sorrow forever.

That’s the happy ending we really need—and even better, it’s the happy ending that is coming, and coming soon. And even as we’re thankful for it, we should be telling everyone about it. That through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are freed forever from our bondage to sin, that when we believe in him, we are forever brought into his family, and no one can ever make him change his mind (not even us).

That is good news. That is the happy ending I’m looking forward to. It’s the happy ending I want others to know. Because it’s the best kind of happy ending of all—it’s true.

Longing for the first chapter

Hope statue in New York

My daughter and I finished reading The Last Battle last night. I’ve read it before, of course—at least four times, in fact. But This time, as I read it with Hannah, something hit me differently as I came to the last paragraph:

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.[1. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, as published in The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, 524.]

I don’t know what it was about reading them this time—maybe it was Hannah’s sadness that we were all done with the Narnia stories for now—but this paragraph struck me more profoundly than any other time I’ve read it.

I’ve been sitting around thinking about this for some time now, wondering why it’s sticking with me so strongly this time around. What was it I was feeling? It wasn’t the sadness my daughter feels about being done. I think if I had to put a word to it, it would be longing. What C.S. Lewis managed to capture here is the expectation all Christians should have for what is to come—the new creation. The world as it will be when Christ has come once again to make all things new. The renewed and restored world that is more real than this one.

The world that we know is coming, but is not yet here.

And this longing for the new creation, the expectation we have of what we gain a glimpse of in Revelation, puts all our lives in perspective: for though the experiences we have here now matter, they are not the full story. Compared to eternity, they are, to borrow Lewis’ analogy, but the cover and the title page of the Great Story. And we have not yet begun the first chapter.

This longing is hope. It’s hope that the promised return is coming soon. That all the sin and sadness and death and doubts and fears and nonsense we all deal with every single day will someday be no more. That someday we will begin that first chapter, and like Lewis’ creations, we too will find that every chapter is better than the one before.


Photo credit: New York 2016 via photopin (license)