Three Pitfalls of Suffering

Concerning the subject of suffering, CS Lewis famously said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Countless people, including my family and I, would affirm the truth of that statement. Pain opens the door to intimacy with Jesus. It’s through pain we grow, mature, and even find some previously unintended avenues for ministry. These are all examples of redemption – the Lord taking the broken pieces of our lives, crumbled under the weight of a corrupted creation, and creating a mosaic of something beautiful from it.

From a scriptural standpoint, there are numerous places we might point that show us the good that can ultimately come from pain. Take, for example, James 1:2-4:

“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

Suffering produces the good of maturity which, according to this verse, is a key to spiritual maturity, which is a good, good thing. Or take another example from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

“Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort.”

Suffering creates an avenue for ministry, for we are able to extend the comfort we receive from the Lord to others. This, too, is a good and right after effect of suffering.

These are just two examples of how it’s supposed to work. But like all things, it doesn’t always go that way. In as much pain and suffering can, in the end, have positive and redemptive effects, there are a number of ways that our pain might have negative effects. Though there are many such pitfalls, here are three:

1. Callousness. If you go back and look at the passage above from 2 Corinthians, you can glean that pain in our own lives is meant to soften our hearts toward the pain of others. We can truly sympathize with what they’re walking through; we can shoulder the burden along with them in a very true and honest way. But sometimes we find that instead of making our hearts pliable and soft, our pain actually causes us to have a sense of callousness toward others. We spend so much time looking inward at what’s happening in our own lives that we find we have little interest, emotion, or empathy left to look outside of ourselves.

2. Entitlement. Pain is the great equalizer. In the hospital waiting room, everyone seems to be on equal (albeit it shaky) footing. That’s because all of us live in a world broken by sin, and because we do, none of us are immune from the effects. But when you suffer and suffer greatly, there is sometimes a temptation to think that you have “paid your dues.” You’ve done your time in the prison of pain, and because you have, God owes you some measure of peace and comfort. In a perverted kind of way, your pain becomes your pride, proof of the fact that you have been tested and tried. Having earned that badge, you are now entitled to live above such things.

3. Comparison. Suffering is relative. A scraped knee isn’t going to mean the same thing to a 35-year-old man as it does to a 5-year-old boy; that’s because that man has been though a lot more life than that boy has. That doesn’t mean, however, that a father can’t stoop low and sympathize with a boy. And yet sometimes the ugliness of comparison rears its head even in the midst of our suffering. We walk through a season of pain and then must battle the temptation to look at what others might be going through and compare their struggle to our own. We look with contempt on the suffering of others, bolstered by a sense of our own superiority because, ironically, of something that we did not control and something that caused us so much grief.

How, then, can we recognize these pitfalls and do the thing that none of us wants to do, but all of us will have the opportunity to do, and suffer in a God-glorifying and honorable way? I’m sure there are 3 or 4 good steps to doing so, but mostly, we can look to Jesus.

Jesus, who suffered more than all, and yet even with the knowledge of His own suffering wept at the tomb of His friend. Jesus who emptied Himself and befriended and had compassion on the dregs even when He was the only truly superior One. Jesus who did not compare the suffering of His cross to the suffering of others but instead willingly took it upon Himself for the sake of others. We can look to Jesus and see a Savior who did it the good and right way, and we can be humbled under the weight of His sacrifice and emboldened to feel deeply for others in light of His compassion.

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The Gospel is Not Mere Superstition

We are more superstitious than we realize. Sure, we might not think that we have to sit in a certain chair or wear the same pair of socks for good luck, but superstition is still there. And superstitious traits can thwart the work of the gospel in our lives.

  • We make sure and have an extra long quiet time on the days when we have something tough coming our way, you know, to make sure it goes well.
  • We find that things are generally going well in our lives but we don’t feel like we can truly enjoy them because no doubt the other shoe will drop as soon as we do.
  • We sin, and we are sorry, but we feel the need to do something “extra-good” in order to even the score.

Oh, it’s there. In as much as we might congratulate ourselves for having a handle on the gospel, superstition still lurks in our hearts. When we see it, we must confront it. Confess it. Root it out. But then replace it with something better. We must remind ourselves that the gospel tells us that God is in control of all things and is working those things for His glory and our good. We must remind each other that God’s love for us is not dependent on our performance, but on the completed work of Jesus. We must sing the truth that God is good, and His goodness is not dependent on our temporal circumstances.

Say it. Preach it. Sing it. Call your soul to remember. And when you think you have it down, do it again.

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Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the Foundation

I can’t lift my arms today.

That’s because my wife and I, along with some hard-working and very meagerly compensated volunteer friends, spent the vast majority of the last three days building a patio in our backyard. So far, some measure of our building party has visited Home Depot 5 different times, we’ve unloaded over a hundred bags of various kinds of sand and gravel, and dug up more shovelfuls of dirt than I’d care to remember.

Without getting too much into the technical details of the build (which frankly I still don’t completely understand, but one of our friends is an engineer, so you trust and go), we had to build a retaining wall around the area where the patio would be in order to account for the changing elevation of the yard. In regular terms, we had to dig an enormous hole so we could refill that hole.

If you add up the time we spent on this project, you’d get roughly 27 hours. But here’s the crazy thing:

24 of those 27 hours were spent on the foundation. Only the last 3 hours were spent on the visible portion of the patio. Fascinating, right? To spend so much time on what’s beneath the surface compared to so little on what’s actually visible? Given that ratio of time, I’ve got a couple of reflections this morning that relate to our life with Jesus:

1. Strength and stability lie in the foundation.

You can have the most beautiful paving stone or the most eye-catching paint color, but in the end, they don’t really mean anything if you don’t put the right amount of time into the foundation. In our project, for example, we had to dig down approximately 18 inches in order to build the retaining wall so that not only the wall but the surface of the patio would have the right shape, definition, and strength when we were all done. I’d like to think I didn’t need this experience to know that Jesus’ words were true:

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Still, seeing this principle lived out in front of me in a physical way made me think a lot about the amount of time we are tempted to allocate to what, in actuality, are the most inconsequential things. Like people who focus on the paint color while neglecting a crack in the foundation, we become those who choose to close our eyes to the greater issues inside of us. The battle and the work of the Christian is to be done at the heart level. And though it might not be as immediately gratifying as focusing on the surface, this deep soul work where the Holy Spirit molds and shapes you is where strength for the journey is made.

As Jesus’ words tell us, this foundation work might not be visible until the rains and storms truly come, but when they do, the private and quiet work of the soul will show forth. The structure will stand and endure.

Today, Christian, no one might know what internal fear, insecurity, or idolatry the Holy Spirit is convicting you of and walking you through. And because it’s internal, you might be tempted to put it to the side in favor of something seemingly more flashy and exciting. But don’t neglect His work. Embrace it. Because the storm is coming.

2. Most surface issues are really foundation issues if we are courageous enough to find the source.

We spent a lot of time on the foundation of this patio. A LOT. And hopefully, we got it right. But someday, there is going to be a crack. There will be some shifting. Sometimes when that happens, you can correct the issue by a surface level tweak. But if we really care about the stability of the structure we would do well to investigate the source, and that’s going to mean some hard work. It might even mean messing up the carefully crafted exterior and then putting it back together. But such is the way of building.

Similarly, think about this passage from the Book of James:

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).

Do you see the progression? Long before sin has become fully grown, it has been conceived and birthed in our own evil desires. When we see sin manifesting itself, then, and we truly want to root it out, then we should be willing to retrace that progression back to the root. That will no doubt mean messing some of our own carefully crafted exterior. It will be hard. And it will be messy. But in the end, that’s the only way to truly move forward. Otherwise, we are deluding ourselves about the supposed victory we claim to live inside of.

You are building today, whether you know it or not. In that building, don’t neglect the foundation. And don’t be afraid to re-examine it from time to time.

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Be Careful, Clever Teacher, What You Teach

“Lord, please give me an original thought.”

I’ve prayed some version of this prayer fairly often. That’s because in large part, I communicate for a living. Whether with my co-workers, through the blog here, through writing, or through teaching and preaching, most of my life is spent in communication. When you spend that amount of time crafting and delivering messages in various forms, you find yourself praying things like this, hungering for something creative and original to put before people.

It’s frustrating, then, when I begin to plan or write to realize that most of what I’m going to say has already been said by someone else.

I feel this especially since writing a work of fiction is one of my dreams. So I start dreaming about a story, a character, or a setting, only to find myself drifting into plagerism:

  • What if there was this little boy who discovers that he has magical powers? Dang it. Potter.
  • Okay. But what if the animals talked? And what if there was one great animal, maybe a lion…? Dang it. Aslan.
  • Alright. What if this story happened in the future, maybe in a dystopian future…? Dang it. Everything.

So it goes. You think you’re onto something and you start teasing it out and you figure out that someone else at some other time was already onto it, so you pray:

“Lord, please give me an original thought.”

While that might be a fine and even nobly God-honoring thought in terms of creating a work of fiction, it should cause us to have a check in our spirit when it comes to the biblical text. We might have the best of intentions in praying such a thing, and certainly we might mine the text for every nugget to be found therein, but each and every time we come across some tidbit and feel like we are the first to arrive there, we might well wonder why that is. Is it because throughout the years of church history no one has been quite as insightful, quite as clever, or quite as studious as we are? Or is it because the reason that thought is so original is because it didn’t arise from the text at all, but instead from our own idolatrous and insecure hearts that want to be the one who finally found “it.”

Beware the lure, preachers and teachers. Beware the temptation of cleverness. Don’t be willing to sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of originality. Instead, find the glorious freedom of knowing that God has spoken, once and for all. And then say the same thing again.

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Disappointment is an Opportunity to Be Reminded

Have you been disappointed by something yet today?

If not, just wait. It’s coming. Because it happens most everyday. We make our plans, with the best of intentions, and then things don’t wind up going the way we think they should. Granted, some of these disappointments are bigger than others, but imagine with me for a second that the disappointment you face today is something big. Maybe it’s a project you have put your heart and sweat into that is not yielding the results you wanted. Maybe you poured your soul into a Bible study or a sermon and only were met with blank stares. Maybe you bent over backward to create a special experience for your spouse or child and they were only mildly enthusiastic. And you find yourself disappointed.

It’s easy to see why. In your mind, like mine, what you did is good. It’s worthwhile. It was certainly difficult. And the results do not, in your opinion, match the quality of the effort.

What do you do? Cry? Complain? Give up? Here’s what Paul the apostle did:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, bypassing Mysia, they came down to Troas. During the night a vision appeared to Paul: A Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us!” After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them (Acts 16:6-10).

Paul was visiting the churches he planted on his first mission, and all was going well. Very well. The churches were encouraged and grew in numbers. So they set out again with the intent to head into Asia, but as the text tells us, they were prevented from doing so by the Holy Spirit. Okay – not such a big deal. Disappointing I’m sure, but the world is a big place and lots of people needed to hear the gospel, and the Lord had other plans. So they set out once again with the intent to go to Bithynia probably to preach in the big cities like Nicomedia, Nicea, and Byzantium. And they were stopped again.

Again? Maybe a tinge more disappointment this time, but still, nothing to get down about. The missionary group set out once again through the backwoods country of Mysia down to Troas. That’s when Paul had the dream. And finally, a moment of absolute clarity:

During the night a vision appeared to Paul: A Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us!” After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them (Acts 16:9-10).

Surely this was a message from the Lord. A clear direction after two false starts. Go to Macedonia and help the lost who were there. So they readied themselves for the journey with all the confidence in the world they were at last going the right way to do the right thing. The text continues to tell us that their journey from Troas to Philippi was an easy one. A journey like that might ordinarily take 5 or more days, but Acts tells us they made it in 2 no doubt because of good weather.

So far so good – they have a clear vision. A clear mission. And even sunny skies to bolster their spirits. In Philippi Paul shares the gospel with Lydia and her family and all are converted and baptized. The missionary party must have been riding high, and then it all unraveled.

Acts 16:16 tells us the story of a slave girl in Philippi who could predict the future. Paul cast the spirit out of her, rendering her unable to make those predictions which had made her owners so much money. Enraged, those slave-owners dragged Paul and Silas before the local authorities. An impromptu lynch mob formed and the two missionaries were stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison.

Let’s review now. There was a clear mandate. There was a clear vision. There was a pure motive. And the results from all the travel, the faithfulness, and the effort was being locked into stocks. This is the kind of disappointment I have never faced, and it makes the way Paul and Silas responded all the more remarkable:

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…” (Acts 16:25).

How can that be? That this was the reaction to such disappointment? Perhaps the reaction stems from something deep within that usually escapes me when I find myself in a posture of complaint and despondency at the results I see in front of me. I would propose that for people like us, who often find themselves casting their gaze heavenward in pleading fashion, asking why the results are meager when the effort was so great, that disappointment is actually an opportunity to be reminded of two things, one about God, and one about ourselves.

1. God is far wiser than I think He is.

I am more likely to be the person in this story who never made it to Philippi, but instead threw up his hands at the first redirection. But when I find myself disappointed, it’s an opportunity to be reminded that God is far wiser than I am. Just because the results aren’t what I expected or wanted, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It only means that God, in His wisdom, has plans that are far more wide-reaching and encompassing than I can conceive. Which leads to the second reminder when we are disappointed:

2. I am far more short-sighted than I think I am.

If I had a nickel for every opportunity in my life that I thought everything was contingent upon, then I’d have a lot of nickels. I can think back as far as playing Little League when I thought that the results of one at-bat would determine the future of the known world. I’ve prayed for a certain set of results countless times since then – in sermons, in books, in work developments, in family life. Each time I’ve been disappointed, I can look back and see that my prayer for those results was less a result of desiring God’s will and His glory than it was a result of my own short-sightedness. I was suffering from tunnel blindness, focusing only on what was directly in front of me in the moment.

When you are disappointed today, and you likely will be, perhaps it’s an opportunity for you to cast your eyes toward heaven not in complaint, but in worship of a God who is far wiser than you and in confession of your own short-sightedness. If we can do that, then we will find ourselves accepting the specific kind of daily bread the Lord has chosen to give to us on a given day, no matter what it might taste like in the moment. For we recognize that though it might not be delicious in the moment, it is indeed the best thing for us.

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The Burden-Bearing Leader

Leadership, whether of an organization or of a Bible study or of a family, is a burden. A joyful burden much of the time, but a burden nonetheless. Oswald Sanders said it like this: “The world is run by tired men. Mediocrity is the result of never getting tired. Fatigue is the price of leadership.” In other words, leading is the willingness to pick up the burden. But most of the time, we think of that burden in “strategic” terms.

If you do a cursory search on “leadership” you’ll find all kinds of resources, most of which have numbers associated with them. You can 5 Ways or 7 Methods or 14 Theories. The vast majority of these resources deal in strategy, and they should. That is one burden of leadership; you are responsible for the overall vision and perspective of the people under your care. But it can’t really stop there. As a leader, whether in the home or in the church, we bear the burden for what we are leading, but we also must bear the burdens of whom we are leading.

In pastoral ministry, for example, the burden you bear cannot be exclusively in terms of the vision of the church. The burden must take on a more personal nature. Same thing is true in a family, or even in a small group or Bible study. The burden is not only the crafting of and guarding of a clear vision; the “burden” has faces. Problems. Sicknesses. Pain. The burden-bearing leader is one who is not isolated from those he or she leads, but instead is checked into the real issues the people under their care are walking through.

It’s this kind of burden-bearing Paul described in Galatians 6:1-2:

“Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

This passage is about more than stewarding a compelling vision for an organization or a family; it’s about people, and the willingness to come alongside those people in the day-to-day lifting. It seems to me that this is not just a single moment, but instead a lifestyle of investment. To that end, here are three characteristics of the burden-bearing leader:

1. The burden-bearing leader is available.

Time is a commodity like most other things. As a commodity, it is in limited supply. And the greater the leadership responsibility, the greater demand on the time. It’s tempting, then, to want to have a very insulated leadership kind of style – to focus on the big picture and to not come into the details. Unfortunately, it’s those details that are the most representative of people. The burden-bearing leader must, then, be available. This availability is also a responsibility, and it must have limits. But the leader who is available is the one who is going to err on the side of making accommodation to their time or their schedule if they can.

2. The burden-bearing leader is long-suffering.

One of the tendencies we have in leadership is to desire quick fixes to problems. We want to have the meeting, send the email, or have the drop in conversation and resolve the issue quickly and succinctly. And while that might work in some instances, it rarely does when you consider the people involved. Instead, the burden-bearing leader makes the choice to be long-suffering. They are willing to not just a conversation once, but to actually engage in that conversation and to have it again and again. It’s this kind of long-suffering investment that will mark someone who recognizes they are doing more than leading a nameless and faceless entity, but instead stewarding some part of the lives of those whom God has seen fit to put under their care.

3. The burden-bearing leader is listening.

Nothing makes a person feel less like a person than when someone gives only cursory notice to their issue. Conversely, nothing is quite as uplifting as when you know you have the absolute and undivided attention of the person you are speaking to. For a leader, there are lots of voices, and each one needs to be heard. The tendency for us whether in the home, the workplace, or the church is to try and have as many conversations as possible in a span of time. But many times, less is actually more. The burden-bearing leader does the simplest thing that can make the most difference – they actually listen. They look and concentrate. They are fully engaged in the conversation they are having. And in so doing, they are recognizing the creature before them is created in the image of God.

Leadership is a burden. And many times, it’s a heavy one. But as leaders we can cultivate the kind of habits that will not only make us bearers of the burden of what we are leading, but of whom we are leading.

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A Holy Aloofness

“Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add a single cubit to his height by worrying? And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these! If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you—you of little faith? So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (Matthew 6:25-32).

We read it, we want it to be true, and yet such a life that Jesus commands in these verses eludes us.

A life free from worry? Free from anxiety? Not only does it seem unattainable in practice; it also seems just a wee bit irresponsible, doesn’t it? At first glance, these words from Jesus seem to be advocating a life of apathy – worry about nothing, because you care about nothing. But the kind of life Jesus wants for His brothers and sisters is far from apathetic. Think of it like this:

Let’s say a child comes home from school full of anxiety because despite doing her best, she flunked her history test. She studied the chapters on the Louisiana Purchase instead of the chapters on the Revolutionary War. Or something.

And so she comes, with trembling hands, to her father to show him the test paper. And he doesn’t fly off the handle; he doesn’t yell and scream; he doesn’t immediately send her to her room bearing her history book. There are a couple of reasons why he might respond this way:

Reason number one is that he’s a terrible father. He responds like this because he doesn’t care. Her history test is her problem, and he’s got enough stuff to worry about on his own. So sign the test, put it in the folder, and then turn back to the TV. Of course, there might be a different reason.

He might respond like this not because he’s a terrible father, but because he’s a good one. He knows his daughter, knows that she is a good and caring student – that is, after all, why she’s so upset about this test. He also knows that this is one single test, and all the rest of her grades are A’s. He responds like this because he has a broader perspective than a single incident.

That perspective is the key difference. And it’s that perspective that moves us to see the words of Jesus not as advocating apathy, but instead creating inside of us a sort of holy aloofness. Like the father in the example, we can, by faith, see the bigger picture. Though there are all kinds of reasons for us to look around and feel the pangs of anxiety, but when we do, we are operating from the same limited perspective as the little girl with the failed history test. We fail to see the bigger picture.

And into that sense of anxiety steps Jesus who, with His own lofty perspective, reframes our perspective to the bigger picture, where despite all the sources of potential worry around us, we have a Father who loves us.

Christian, live with a sense of holy aloofness today built not on apathy, but on confidence in the God who provides.

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The Lion Roars, and We Are Free

Let me take you back to Narnia for a second. One of the children from earth, the sons and daughters of Adam, is a traitor. He has aligned himself with the White Witch, and though he has been returned to his brother and sisters, she now has a claim on his life. We pick it up as the White Witch comes to the children and Aslan, the great lion, seeking that Edmond be handed over…

Edmund was on the other side of Aslan, looking all the time at Aslan’s face. He felt a choking feeling and wondered if he ought to say something; but a moment later he felt that he was not expected to do anything except to wait, and do what he was told.

“Fall back, all of you,” said Aslan, “and I will talk to the Witch alone.”

They all obeyed. It was a terrible time this – waiting and wondering while the Lion and the Witch talked earnestly together in low voices. Lucy said, “Oh, Edmund!” and began to cry. Peter stood with his back to the others looking out at the distant sea. The Beavers stood holding each other’s paws with their heads bowed. The centaurs stamped uneasily with their hoofs. But everyone became perfectly still in the end, so that you noticed even small sounds like a bumble-bee flying past, or the birds in the forest down below them, or the wind rustling the leaves. And still the talk between Aslan and the White Witch went on.

At last they heard Aslan’s voice, “You can all come back,” he said. “I have settled the matter. She has renounced the claim on your brother’s blood.” And all over the hill there was a noise as if everyone had been holding their breath and had now begun breathing again, and then a murmur of talk.

The Witch was just turning away with a look of fierce joy on her face when she stopped and said,

“But how do I know this promise will be kept?”

“Haa-a-arrh!” roared Aslan, half rising from his throne; and his great mouth opened wider and wider and the roar grew louder and louder, and the Witch, after staring for a moment with her lips wide apart, picked up her skirts and fairly ran for her life…

Boy, I love that. The lion roars, and the witch runs for her life.

Now I know, I know – it’s just a story. But God shouts, too. Take, for example, Psalm 32. The psalm begins with the joy of someone who has been forgiven; of he who, like Edmond, knows that a great price has been paid in order to secure their release:

“How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How joyful is the man the LORD does not charge with sin and in whose spirit is no deceit!”

But then the text continues as the psalmist remembers what it was like before he confessed his sin. He recalls the burden, the guilt, the shame of bearing one’s own sin, and then the amazing relief that comes  when someone is unburdened. The burden falls to the ground, and everything changes:

“When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat. Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You took away the guilt of my sin.”

Then comes the shouting. It’s not from the psalmist, though – like the roar of the great lion, this shout erupts from heaven. And it is glorious in its power and its joy:

“Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to You at a time that You may be found. When great floodwaters come, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; You protect me from trouble. You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance.”

What an astounding thing to think of. God, the One who paid the price for our deliverance, does not do so reluctantly, but instead surrounds us with joyful shouts of deliverance. In those moments when we think that God, because of our continued failings, is experiencing the pangs of regret, that He paid such a high price for such a half-hearted child, His shouts of joy in the gospel ring through our souls. He yells, and He yells again, “This one is mine.”

How do we respond to that? The Psalmist got it right:

“Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; shout for you, all you upright in heart.”

We shout because God shouts. We yell because He is yelling. The lion is roaring, and we are free.

 

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Finding the Source of Discontentment

Find the source.

It’s a good practice in most area of life. If you have water in your basement, don’t just clean up the water. Find the source of where it’s coming in. If you have ants in your kitchen, don’t just spray the ants. Find the source of where they’re gaining access. If you have a pain in your body, don’t just take Advil. Find the source to make sure nothing deeper is going on.

See the problem, then find the source.

So it is spiritually. We see a behavior manifest itself, and we should be quick to focus on the mess it creates. But we shouldn’t stop there – we should find the source. And when we follow the trail of that physical behavior, we will always end up back at the heart. There, in our hearts, we will likely find some misshapen belief about God that is working itself out in various ways. We treat those manifestations, but we ask the Holy Spirit to do surgery on our hearts.

Let’s apply that philosophy to an overall issue that most of us deal with – that of discontentment in life. Let’s say that you look around your life, and you find yourself constantly thirsting and striving for more. You are living with a sense of entitlement, borne by your discontent, and you are entertaining the fantasies of the ever elusive “else:”

  • You want, and you deserve something else in your marriage.
  • You want, and you deserve, something else in terms of your income.
  • You want, and you deserve, something else in terms of your living situation.
  • You want, and you deserve, something else in terms of your personal importance.

In pretty much every area of your life, you are dissatisfied with the current situation. And while there is nothing wrong in and of itself in advancing your career, in these particular situations it’s an unhealthy preoccupation with that advancement. Your desire has morphed into something selfishly sinful and idolatrously entitled.

This discontentment is the symptom; but what is the source? If you and I are living in this way, there is something malfunctioning in our hearts. Our beliefs have been corrupted, and this kind of life is the evidence. Once we’re at the heart level, then, our question shifts. If we want to live a life of contentment, then that life should be fueled by what we believe to be true about God. So what must we believe to be true about God if we are to live contentedly? At least three things:

You must believe that God is in control. Did you come to this marriage, this home, this job, this life by accident? If you did, then by all means, seek something other and else. If it all happened by accident, then you should get all you can while you can. But if there is actually some kind of intentionality behind this, if God is truly in control, then there must be reason and meaning behind where you find yourself in life right now. If God is in control, then, you can pursue and pray toward a sense of contentment where you are. But that’s not the only thing you have to believe. You not only have to believe that God is in control…

You must believe God is loving. Most of us at one point or another have had a boss that loved the little bit of power and control that he or she has over us. Because they loved it, they abused it. They used that power not to lift others up and serve them, but instead to beat them down. If you only believe God is in control but are not convinced He loves you, it means that you should do everything in your power to escape from under His thumb if that were possible, because you know that He will abuse the power He has over you for His own enjoyment. But if you do actually believe God is both all powerful and that He actually does love you, then you are free to be content in the situation you find yourself in. Though it might be difficult, you can choose to believe God has placed you there intentionally, and though you can’t for the life of you see how, you know that ultimately this too is for your good. Which leads us to the third thing you must believe about God to lived contentedly…

You must believe God is generous. Now this is where it gets even more difficult, because the root of many of our choices is actually a failure to believe in the generosity of God. Think back with me to the very beginning of time, when everything was good and right in the garden. The first man and the first woman were there, and all was well. And God was incredibly generous with them – He not only provided what they needed; He went above and beyond that. He gave them every single tree in the garden of Eden to eat from. Every single tree – save one. And that’s where the serpent entered into the story.

The question he asked the woman in Genesis 3 went like this – “Did God really say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?” And yet, there is a subtle but unmistakable charge at the heart of this question, and it’s a charge against the generosity of God. The charge is this: “God is holding back on you.” He’s not giving all you could have. He’s withholding what you are entitled to.”

When we continue to look to something other than what God has generously provided for us, whether in marriage, work, relationships, or anywhere else, we are believing the same lie. We are buying into the falsehood that God is not in fact generous, that He is withholding that from us which would truly satisfy us and make us happy.

Contentment is a demonstration of our faith in a powerful, loving, and generous God. When we are content, we demonstrate that we believe God has intentionally placed us where we are, out of His love, and He was good and generous in doing so. But how do we know that’s true? How can we believe it? Especially when we look around us, at the devastation, disease, and destruction in our lives and the world today which seem to tell us over and over again that God is anything but in control? Anything but loving? Anything but generous?

The pull is strong. The temptation is mighty. And in the end, to truly believe these things about God and to therefore live in the middle of what God has provided for us, we must look to the cross because that’s ultimately where we see the power, the love, and the generosity of God.

We see His power and control – “Yet the Lord was pleased to crush Him severely.Whenyou make Him a restitution offering, He will see His seed, He will prolong His days, and by His hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished” (Isaiah 53:10). Ultimately, it was the plan of God for Jesus to go to the cross. Though the situation might have seemed to those in the middle of it to be spinning out of control, God was not once taken aback in surprise, but instead was accomplishing His own purposes even at the hands of sinful men.

We see His love – “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be thepropitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The very definition of love is displayed at the cross, that Jesus willingly gave up His very life for us.

And we see His generosity – “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything?” (Romans 8:31-32). God gave us all when He gave us Christ. He has held nothing back from us.

Look to the cross, and let this display of God’s control, power, and generosity fuel your contentment today.

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Jesus Himself is the Answer

John 13 is full of bombshells.

After having traveled with Him for three years, the disciples likely thought they had a handle on this thing. Though they never quite knew what to expect from Jesus, they knew enough to expect the unexpected. Three years, after all, is a long time to breathe the same air as a person. But then came the trip to Jerusalem.

There was the foot washing and the objection and misunderstanding of Peter. Then it was the uncomfortable truth that there was a traitor in their midst. And then, to top it all off, was the prediction that Peter, of all people, would actually deny any association with Jesus not once, not twice, but three times that very night. The result of all, no doubt was troubled hearts. Hearts of anxiety. Hearts of confusion. Hearts of pain. And it was to those hearts Jesus spoke:

“Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also. You know the way to where I am going” (John 14:1-4).

Though these words were meant for comfort, they only seemed to inspire more questions. And Thomas was the one who verbalized them for the room: “Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

Translation? “No, we don’t! Jesus, I know you say we know the way where you are going, but we don’t. I may be the only one here, but if no one else will say it, I will. I don’t even know the destination, so how can I possibly know the way?”

It must have felt a bit like driving on a country road, lost and out of the reach of Google maps, when you come upon a farm house with an older gentleman sitting on the porch. You ask him if he knows where so-and-so lives, and he responds that of course he does. And then he tells you that you actually know the way as well. The only conclusion would be that either the person giving directions has no grasp on the reality of the situation, or that he has you confused with someone else, because you clearly do. Not. Know. The. Way.

So Thomas asks, and Jesus answers the question. Sort of.

He does not give directions; He does not give a map; He does not even say, “Well, do you know where Farmer Smith used to live before his house burned down?” Nothing like that. With this question, as He is apt to do with many of our questions, Jesus points us to Himself:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

He doesn’t just know the way, He is the way. The answer to Thomas’s logical and honest inquiry was standing in front of Him.

There are still questions. Questions about life. Questions about trials. Questions about direction. Questions about the future. And with each and every one, Jesus can say, “You know the answer, for I am He.” Christians have the amazing privilege of knowing He who knows the answers for He Himself embodies them. This points us to the great truth that the better way is not necessarily knowing all the answers to all the questions we have, but doing what we can to abide in the One who Himself is the answer.

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