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Your Struggle is Good, His Grace is Strong

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One of my writing goals is to normalize struggle. Another is to energize grace.

Struggle Is Good

What I mean by the first is this: I want my readers and friends to know that struggling with bad stuff is good. That struggle is both normal and good.

In fact, I expect and solemnly hope that there’s some fight in me until the day I die. Because my sin is ever before me and I know too well my proneness to pride and impatience, to gluttony and envy– to name a few.

And because there is a “mean, violent streak” in every vibrant Christian life. In one of those sermons I keep going back to, John Piper explains that this violence is never against other people. Rather,

It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. A violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality. It’s a violence against all lust in ourselves, and enslaving desires for food or… alcohol or pornography or money or the praise of men and the approval of others or power or fame…

Christianity is not a settle-in-and-live-at-peace-with-this-world-the-way-it-is kind of religion. If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.

If you’ve read JoyPrO for any length of time these two goals won’t surprise you in the least. I’ve written about how comfort is overrated and faith is a muscle that must strain to grow and even why, for a time, I kissed ice cream good-bye.

For Strong-in-the-Lord Superconquerors

Recently I spent some time exploring what Paul meant in Romans 8:37 when he called us “more than conquerors.” Because to be a conqueror is one thing, but to be a “superconquerors”- well, in this tempted and tried flesh of mine, that is, to quote from The Princess Bride, nearly “inconceivable.”

The word in Greek that is translated “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 is only used once in the whole Bible. It’s one compound Greek word that takes two- super conquerors– or three of ours- more than conquerors– to express.

Albert Barnes explains what this strong man term means.

That is, they have not power to subdue us; to alienate our love and confidence; to make us lose our faith. We are the victors, not they. Our faith is not destroyed, our love is not diminished, our hope is not blasted.

But it is not simple victory; … it is more than simple triumph; it augments our faith, increases our strength, expands our love to Christ.

Think of it this way: borne by faith, the weight of trials and temptations are transformed from burdens slumping our backs to CrossFit bars squaring our shoulders. Same weight, different results.

This is more than simple triumph.

But Not Without Struggle

In, “The Law of Antagonism,” Oswald Chambers explains that super-conqueror status doesn’t come without struggle.

Life without war is impossible either in nature or in grace. The basis of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism. This is the open fact of life.

Health…is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside…Things which keep me going when I am alive, disintegrate me when I am dead. If I have enough fighting power, I produce the balance of health.

The same is true of the mental life. If I want to maintain a vigorous mental life, I have to fight, and in that way the mental balance called thought is produced. Morally it is the same… No man is virtuous because he cannot help it; virtue is acquired.

And spiritually it is the same. Jesus said — “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” i.e., everything that is not spiritual makes for my undoing, but — “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

I have to learn to score off the things that come against me, and in that way produce the balance of holiness; then it becomes a delight to meet opposition.

No man, or woman, is spiritually strong because he cannot help it. Strength is acquired. Strength only comes through struggle.

Why It Matters

You must know beyond the shadow of a doubt that struggle is normal, healthy, and good for you, Christian. This knowledge matters immensely because too many Christians think something is wrong with them- or worse, that God does not love them- when they’re tempted again and again. That if they were “really a Christian,” struggle and temptation would be done.

It matters because, honestly, if you see struggle with as the exception rather than the rule for the saint, “as if something strange were happening to you,” it will weaken you. I’ve seen too many friends give up, give in and quit.

I don’t know where that idea comes from, but it is definitely not from God’s Word. The Bible says the opposite. Over and over, we read that the Christian life is effortful and vigorous and full of struggle.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13, “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” And Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”

We must know this or the next time we crave the other sleeve of cookies, or another glass of wine or feel the urge to look at something we shouldn’t or the say words we’ll wish we wouldn’t have- because if we’re not prepared for the struggle, we’ll probably succumb.

And over time, giving in to sin gets demoralizing. Seeing the empty jar or empty sleeve or reliving the words that wounded or that image on the screen can sap the life right out of you.

Struggling (With Help) Makes You Strong

But when you know that struggle is normal and, in fact, the exact means God has chosen to grow you up and make you strong, well, then, you’ll be more likely to rise to the challenge and less likely to give in to temptation.

You’ll be more likely to plug in to a very great and precious promise to escape the temptation (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). You’ll be more likely to send out an SOS text to your comrades in arms. That is what should be normal.

Texting a friend to say: Please pray that I’ll be self-controlled and satisfied in God and listen well at the party tonight. I know I’ll be tempted to overeat.

Or messaging your prayer warriors at 12:45 am to ask, What promise can I cling to right now when fear is freezing me out? I can’t latch onto a single truth to break in on my catastrophizing dreams.

Or calling a sister to say, Can we please talk NOW? I am feeling paralyzed by anxiety and I need help.

We’re Needed and Needy (Both)

Those are real. Those came through from faithful struggling saints last week. Real people. And God’s grace was strong to meet their needs.

But remember that God uses means. He uses us- his needed and needy children- to strengthen his other needed and needy children.

So why does knowing that struggle is normal matter so much? That, in fact, if you didn’t struggle against besetting sins, that would be a problem.

It matters because if you don’t know that trials will come but God’s grace is strong you might be overcome. You might end up like seed sown on rocky ground, that sprang up fast but wilted away as soon as tribulation came (Mark 4:12). Do not be surprised, Peter wrote, when fiery trials come to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

No, struggle is not strange. It’s normal.

And Grace Is Strong

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul told Timothy. Since God designed the good fight of faith to be normal till the day we die, it’s no surprise that he gives more grace. “Grace,” John Piper says, “is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to work for holiness.”

Grace is strong. Good struggle and strong grace go hand in hand. Do you see that? Grace, I think, is less a safety net for hang-loose living, than the stabilizing bar that helps us cross the wire.

Biblical grace is also more than the gift of the kids sleeping in on a rainy days and picking strawberries sunny days and the power that keeps illness away. Grace is that- unmerited favor. But it’s so much more. It’s power.

God’s undeserved favor also comes in the form of strength to call out for help, and power to fight. To take up the struggle like a strongman hoists a barbell. This also is grace.

Daily Struggle + Strong Grace = Freedom

Freedom is not so much a destination that we reach as it is a daily choice that we make by our actions. Matt Fradd, author of The Porn Myth, said that in an interview with Janet Parshall.

The freedom Fradd mentioned doesn’t only apply to the porn problem. It applies to our struggle with other temptations. Fradd says,

We need to think of struggle as a daily battle. Whether it’s losing our temper or eating too much, succumbing to anxious thoughts or shutting off our screens, it’s not realistic to simply say, I’m done. I’ll never do that again. Rather than thinking of it as an all or nothing battle, we should think of it as a daily battle. Rather than think of this as one and done, we need to think of it as a daily decision to live free.

Struggle is a daily battle, a daily decision, to live free. And the struggle is made possible only by God’s strong grace. Strong enough to get you through, to help you beat up under, every single struggle you face. Not just somehow, but victoriously.

Having a free will, John Piper says, means doing what you want to do and not regretting it in a thousand years.

Such freedom, I think, will only come as we see struggle as good and embrace God’s strong grace.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

-Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:10

When through fiery trials our pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be your supply.

-John Rippon, “How Firm A Foundation

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Not Exceptional Things, Exceptional In Ordinary Things.

Cold Shower

Sometimes I just shake my head and laugh. At myself. I think yesterday the good Lord may have had a little chuckle at me too.

Because I have this uncanny knack for acting as if doing big, grand things are no big deal. As if– my latest grandiose conception- adopting siblings is no big deal. As if we could pull off a 50% increase in our family size like we pull off hosting a birthday party.

As if.

(For the record, that’s what this is for now- just a conception. No paperwork has been filed. But your prayer for he siblings to find a loving home, and for us, is welcome.)

Big And Small Things, Upside-Down

That I could embrace something as life-changing as the thought of taking two children into our family for life and in the same 24 hours balk at taking one needy young man into our van for two hours may be comical. It is, for sure, inconsistent and upside-down.

And balk I did Saturday morning when the doorbell ring at 8:15. I was looking forward to a mother-son date with Gabe after his game. I resented this surprise arrival.

That’s upside-down: embracing the big and grand and tripping over the little and mundane.

But we know it’s the small things- thoughts and acts- that form habits and character. And if you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength. But we are those who rejoice in the day of small things.

Still, some of us would polar plunge into Lake Michigan for any number of reasons, but can keep we our tongues from grumbling when the shower suddenly goes cold?

Now that’s hard.

Choosing What We Did Not Choose

It might have something to do with choice. Chafing at the little stuff while embracing the big things might have something to do with our struggle to choose what we did not choose.

When we decide on a life-changing course of action and we decide to take the plunge, well- that’s different from when God decides a thing for us. Like, say, when he says be kind and take the kid who needs a ride and do all things– including taking a cold shower- without grumbling or complaining

Maybe little things are so hard because they weren’t in our master plan. Because who chooses a cold shower in February in Wisconsin?

Or maybe we just prefer the drama.

He Would Have Done Any Great Thing

While I was laughing at my own inconsistency, Naaman popped to mind. His story is recorded in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was commander of the Syrian army. When he contracted leprosy, he sought help from Elisha, the famed healer and prophet of God.

Elisha’s prescription was not grand. So it’s no wonder proud Naaman didn’t like it: Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored, Elisha’s messenger said.

The muddy, little Jordan River, Naaman thought then ran off in a rage.

Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not the Abana and Pharpar the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?

Naaman expected the exceptional and desired a grand cure– like the mighty prophet working his wonders and waving his hands. Washing in the dinky, little muddy river was demeaning. So Naaman wanted nothing to do with Elisha.

He would have done any great thing to be cured. Naaman had already traveled miles and miles and offered a vast treasure.

But a commonplace, mundane cure? Never. 

Supernatural Grace (for the Mundane)

Maybe Oswald Chambers felt this strange inversion in himself, too. Maybe he know what it was to embrace a great cause and balk at the everyday.

Maybe he shared the impulsive boldness that I share with Naaman and with Peter, I’ll-die-with-you-after-I-deny-you Peter, too. Big-talking, water-walking Peter, who had grand ideas but stumbled on the mundane.

In “Impulsiveness Or Discipleship?” Chambers explains,

Discipleship is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God. Walking on water is easy to someone with impulsive boldness, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is something altogether different. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he “followed Him at a distance” on dry land (Mark 14:54). We do not need the grace of God to withstand crises- human nature and pride are sufficient for us to face the stress and strain magnificently. But it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint, going through drudgery, and living an ordinary, unnoticed, and ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God- but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people- and this is not learned in five minutes.

Disciples of Christ aim to be exceptional in the ordinary and love the ones they’re with.

Loving Our Neighbor Is Harder

Our duty is to love our neighbor not the mass of nameless humanity. GK Chesterton nails that: We have to love our neighbour because he is here… He is the sample of humanity which is actually given to us. 

My heart has grand adoption plans. I’d love to expand our family. If God makes it clear us that we’re to adopt the siblings, I’d do that big thing in a heartbeat. If they come here.

But when the doorbell rang at 8 AM it wasn’t an “if”. It was God’s clear call for me to forgo my plan and love this little 5th-grade “neighbor.” He was here. 

We don’t have to do exceptional things for God, we have to be exceptional- and I take that for faithful and obedient- in life’s cold showers and among ordinary 10-year-old boys.

That’s hard. Learning to live in that supernatural grace is not learned in five minutes.

“If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

1 John 4:20

Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.

Mother Teresa

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Resolve. Even though you’ll fall.

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We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.

C. S. Lewis, Letters, 1/20/42

Why We Don’t Resolve

Only one of five was. Some of the five shrugged. One shook her head and grimaced.

Why don’t we start the New Year with a resolution or two? Reasons tend to fall in one of two groups: either for sloth of soul or for fear of failure. I’ll explain.

1. Some of us opt out of New Year’s Resolutions because they’re so much work. We like comfort and a fast fix. Saying no to nighttime snacks and prepping salads for tomorrow’s lunch instead – these take diligence and effort and self-control.

And we don’t want to dig in for what might be a duel to the death. We’ve got work to do and kids to feed. Maybe next year. We’re not ready for that fight. Not yet.

2. Some of us resist resolutions because we know we’ll fall. Whether in two months or two days or two hours, it’ll happen. We’ll succumb. I’ll eat that bowl of ice cream at 10 pm and interrupt my friend, again. It’s only a matter of time.

But could it be that we fear stumbling on the right road more than we fear drifting along the wrong road?

Because we’re afraid of getting dirty, we let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We’re afraid to run and fall in the mud.

Which is why you might actually consider making these three resolves.

1. RESOLVE: To know God’s power in the fight.

C.S. Lewis knew of whence we speak, of what we fear, at the start of this new year.

I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc. don’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of his presence. (Letters, January 20, 1942)

So up and at ’em. Get in the fray. God is present with us in our muck.

Though a righteous man falls seven times, he gets up again (Proverbs 24:16a). Muddy and sweaty, maybe trembling or scraped, the righteous get back up.

But cowards watch unscathed from the couch. And cuddled up, clean and dry, they probably don’t much notice God’s power. They don’t feel his forgiveness and grace, helping them up.

We don’t know the strength of the wind until we try to walk against it and we don’t know the force of the evil within us until we try to fight it.

But, we also don’t know the power of God to strengthen us until we resolve, face off, do battle against the besetting sins and bad habits that would have us bound.

My power is made perfect in weakness, our Lord said.

2. RESOLVE: To avoid greater cost later.

It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish. -Sam Gamgee

Waiting can be costly. Strike while the iron’s hot. Resolve now. Agony comes when we wait too long, from thinking I wish I would have.

Rory Vaden is a motivational speaker. It’s hard to argue his premise that success of any sort requires self-discipline. He quips,

Procrastination and indulgence are nothing more than creditors that charge you interest.

He’s right. We eat too much and we feel sick and gain weight. That’s costly. We spew angry words and lose friends. Very costly. We don’t proof our messages and take triple the time undoing the confusion. Big interest. Procrastination and indulgence are costly.

Left unchecked, they cost us our souls. Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion (Hebrews 3:15).

Get started. Resolve today.

3. RESOLVE: To exalt Christ in the good fight and when you fall.

The Apostle Paul was a resolver. He resolved, he made it his ambition, to preach where Christ had not been named (Romans 15:10), to know nothing but Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), to minister in Rome (Acts 19:21) to name a few.

You might not know this, but Paul also encouraged us to make resolutions. To make faith-filled resolves for good.

My proof text for urging you to make good resolves is 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12,

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s train of thought here is important for us to understand in order to make good resolutions. Not all resolutions are good resolutions. Because without faith it’s impossible to please God and whatever does not come from faith is sin. Resolves that are made, and-even worse-kept, without faith cannot be good and only tend to pride.

Yes, definitely- count the cost (Luke 14:28). Don’t be like the guy who started the tower and got laughed out of town because he didn’t have the resources to finish. If you are in Christ, you do have the resources. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work for you (Eph. 2:19-20).

But then, make good resolves by faith, relying on God’s power to help us will and act. And refuse to see failure as a sign that you’re on the wrong path.

The fact that you get mud on the windshield and temporarily lose sight of your goal and swerve, doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong race track.

If you were, the enemy wouldn’t bother you. What the mud really means, John Piper explains (Future Grace, p. 55),

[I]s that you should turn on the windshield wipers and use your windshield washer.

Be encouraged. The mud means you’re right on track. Spiritual growth ahead.

Resolve Now. Quit Limping.

The opposite of resolved is not a happy-go-lucky drift to holiness. We only drift one direction and it’s not toward heaven. Not to resolve is to be undecided and irresolute.

Not to resolve is to limp between two opinions and to think, I really should stop ____ (eating, scrolling, interrupting)but not yet. 

So when should we resolve?

Whenever we see something we should be doing that we’re not doing we should resolve to do it and whenever we see something we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing, we should resolve not to. To walk worthy, to see God’s power, to exalt Jesus. We should resolve. January first or December 31st and any day in between.

How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God follow him, if Baal is God follow him, Elijah challenged the Israelites.

It’s the same today. If God is strong and your resolve is born of faith and for good, don’t be irresolute. Resolve. Don’t go on limping.

Oh, sure, we’ll fail and stumble and get a little muddy. But we will rise.

And the towels will be out and our clean clothes waiting.

Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.
Jude 24-25
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Like You Wrote It? When You’re Not Living The Dream

Like You Wrote It?

It didn’t sit right.

That America’s funny, wholesome family man- The Cosby Show was one of 3 sitcoms mom let us watch- would say something like that didn’t fit. It sounded smug, arrogant, proud.

I won’t comment on Bill Cosby’s fall from grace and imprisonment, except to say, It’s all so sad.

But Cosby’s comment does make more sense now.

These are not the exact words I heard on the TV interview two decades ago, but these are attributable, and they’re close. When asked about married life, Cosby said with that big easy grin of his,

We are living it now just like we wrote it.

It hit me wrong. Because even then, fresh out of grad school, newly married in my early 20’s, with a house and a job and good  friends, I may have been living somebody’s dream, but I knew I wasn’t living mine

My story had already taken some twists and turns I couldn’t have imagined, much less written 20 years ago. Let’s just say, I didn’t think I’d be playing these roles, with the “cast”  now. I’m not (mostly) living my dreams. This isn’t how I wrote the story.

Which is really no matter.

Playing The Part

Because, my life is not really my show.

C.S. Lewis explained like this: We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played.

The playing it well is what matters infinitely.

God wrote us each into this story, where He wanted us. He’s the Author of our salvation (Hebrews 12:2) and  the Director of our hearts (2 Thessalonians 3:5). And He casts each of us in his grand play to the praise of his glory (1 Corinthians 7:17).

And when we are on our set stages- and in our waiting stages- playing our roles with joy and thanks, we make Him look great.

Testify to Grace

Paul said something 2,000 years ago that ties all this story-play-dream stuff together for me.

In Acts 20 Paul shares some sobering last words with some old friends, church leaders from Ephesus. He explain that he will go to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to him there.

In other words, Paul didn’t know what turns his story will take. No worries, though, because not knowing the story didn’t stop him from playing his part well. Heres’s how he summed up that part (Acts 20:24):

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 

Is that the aim of our lives too?

Different Stories, Same Aim

Our stories are so different. But, John Piper explains, in Christ,

We do all have the same essential goal: to magnify the glory and the greatness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the racecourse all Christians are running. The turns and the terrain are different. The aim is the same.

This means we embrace the fact that we do not write our own stories. We don’t know the next page, let alone the next chapter. The way there is unknown.

Our stories twist and turn,

[A]round the corner called future and disappears into the unknown. Therefore, the unwasted life is always lived one step from the unknown. This is what faith is for. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). That’s what faith does.

I don’t want to waste my life. Which means I need to rest content with the unknown next chapters and with parts I wouldn’t have scripted this way.

Not Living the Dream is Still Alright With Me

So, no. I wouldn’t have written myself in this way- not into this marriage or this job, not these boys, this house, or this blog. (Well, I guess I do write the blog. But it wasn’t my dream. My friend Traci spurred it on.)

But I do know this story I’m in, with both its surprise twists and its storylines that feel more static than I’d write, was scripted by God. 

And- oft in sorrow, oft in woe– often way too slowly both for the characters around me and for me- I’m learning that it’s not so much what part I play but how I play that part that matters.

Oh, sure, sometimes I let my hungry eyes drift to what seem like others’ storybook lives and dream up different parts for me. But my aim is to play my part well, which is to testify to the grace of God.

And the great thing is, I don’t have to have to be living like I wrote it, living the dream, to do that.

In fact, God’s grace might just look that much greater when the testimony to it comes from one whose story is not just like he wrote it.

I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.

Jeremiah 10:23