As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.
What delights your soul? Is it the saints you know? Do you even know any saints? And, if you do, do they make you glad?
Or does this sound like silly talk? Like such words about saints could only come from a super-spiritual poet living long ago in a faraway land?
Saint-Friends Who Stick Closer Than Brothers
It’s not silly talk. It’s real and daily- this saints-are-so-lovely talk. I know this because in the last week I’ve had- not one, not two, not three- but four different friends tell me, as it were, that sometimes blood isn’t thicker. That it depends on whose blood; specifically, if it’s saints’ blood.
All four confided to me big hurts inflicted by blood. A sister whose words are sword thrusts, a brother whose whose aloofness wounds, another brother whose lifestyle choices take him to a distant land (my friend misses him), and a father who waited until my friend was 42 to tell her, “I love you.”
All four also shared how a Christian friend- a saint- had helped them through. How, for example, when a blood-brother wound was raw, my friend texted a saint-friend to pray and then her friend not only prayed but showed up 30 minutes later to whisk my friend away to a happier place.
Christian friends may be more loyal than an unbelieving brother. Since brotherhood is one of the tightest relationships we know, a friend who sticks closer than a brother is a life-giving gift, indeed. (David and Jonathan’s friendship is a great biblical example of this type of closer-than-a-brother friendship.)
Proverbs 18:4 says, There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. And if the friendship is between saints, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that water’s sometimes thicker.
Just who are these saints?
Saints literally means, “holy ones.”
But if the term’s still a bit murky, don’t worry. You’re not alone. One source says the word “saints” has almost completely lost its original meaning,
[T]hat is, of being set aside for the exclusive ownership and use of the Triune God. Very few people in the Christian Church today would consider themselves to be “saints”…Unfortunately the original meaning of the word “saints” has largely fallen into disuse.
But if the term’s still a little fuzzy, a quick survey of Scripture makes it clear: saints are simply believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. And all believers are called saints, even when their character is “dubiously holy.”
Paul uses the term “saints” – the plural- to refer to a group of Christians about 40 times. In fact, Paul addresses almost all of his letters to “the saints” in that particular place. (See 2 Thess. 1:10, 1 Cor. 1:2, Romans 1:7, Eph. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:2.) Only once does Paul refer to a solo “saint.” That’s at the end of Philippians where he writes, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.”
So saints are not a special class of Christian. They are all those called by God’s grace and sanctified by His Spirit. Saints are in Christ Jesus.
Saints-R-Us. Saints are believers. Saints are “just” Christians,running the race by grace through faith, in Christ Jesus.
Still, we’re prone to put people like Mother Teresa and Apostle Paul on pedestals and think they’re super-human. We ought not.
Their holiness is attainable even by us. We are “called to be saints” by that same voice which constrained them to their high vocation…They lived with Jesus, they lived for Jesus, therefore they grew like Jesus. Let us live by the same Spirit as they did, “looking unto Jesus,” and our saintship will soon be apparent.
I crossed paths with some saints last week. Their names were Holly and Hannah, Jim and Jen, Christin and Cindy and Shari and Stan. They live with Jesus, they live for Jesus, therefore they are growing like Jesus.
The saints in my land are doing this. They are growing more like Jesus.
That’s why the saints in my land make me glad. Saints remind me of Jesus.
Saint-Friends Strengthen Our Hands In God
In 1 Samuel 23:16-18, we find the best description of a best saint-friend a guy—or girl—could ever have. David is running for his life from a jealous king Saul.
Then Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Even my father Saul knows that.” So the two of them made a covenant before the LORD. And David stayed in the woods, and Jonathan went to his own house.
Whatever else Jonathan did to knit his soul with David’s he did this: he strengthened his hand in God.
We don’t use the phrase much. Maybe instead we say: He encouraged me. He gave me courage. She helped me hope in God.
We walk away from saint-friends like this feeling stronger. Feeling like we can look that difficult person in the face and take on the tough circumstance. We don’t feel so afraid. Jonathan reminded David of God’s promise—that you shall be king.
We, too, are strengthened when our friends remind us of God’s unbreakable promises.
Saints Point Us To The Right Rock
That is what Jonathan did for David. They stabilize us.
Jonathan could not rescue David, but he strengthened his hand in God. Jonathan couldn’t give David all the answers, but he strengthened his hand in God. Jonathan couldn’t stay with David, but he strengthened his hand in God.
My best saint-friends are those who don’t ignore my pain or minimize my trials. And they seldom solve my problems. In fact, I wouldn’t call any friend, even my husband, my rock.
It’s no wonder, then, that believers like this are closer to us in than even our non-believing families. That’s the oneness of the body of Christ. That’s the intimate, eternal relationship that we have with the saints.
That’s why the Psalmist cannot help but say, “As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.”
Or as S. L. Johnson said, God’s the center. Those that are nearest him are nearest to one another. Saints take joy in saints.
David did this too. He took delight in the saints he knew. “I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me,” (101:6), he said. And “I am a companion of all who fear you,” (Psalm 119:63). The saints were David’s delight.
Saints make saints glad.
Do the saints make you glad?
David says that there’s one type of person who gets him stoked and fired-up and makes him really, really glad. It’s saints. It’s the holy ones who treasure God.
So I repeat, do the saints make you glad? Do you cherish God’s people? And do you delight in them or merely endure them?
If your honest answer is merely endure, I have two questions for you. They’re from this sermon by Pastor John Piper.
Do you know any Christians? I mean radical people who lay down their lives for Jesus because Jesus means everything to them and they are servants of the world and God has broken them free from their love affair with the world and their ego and power and comfort.
Why would it be that you, a professing Christian, would find more joy in people who find no joy in what is your primary joy?
Hard hitting, those. But it makes sense: If we treasure God, we treasure those who treasure God.
These are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.
When it comes to people, he says, the ones who give him pleasure are godly people.. He doesn’t mean that he has delight in God’s people instead of God or above God. He means that godless people don’t give him delight in their godless ways; only the godly do. What delights him about people is how they treasure God and exalt God. This is the sweetness of his relationships.
Saint-friends are sweet to us because God is sweet to them. That’s why this saint stuff matters. Because it is one way we can measure our relationship to the Lord. It’s a simple test, really. For, as James Boice explains, Those who love the Lord will love the company of those who also love him.
So I’ll ask again: Do you love other Christians? Do you cherish the people of God and seek to be near those who treasure your Lord?
Do you delight in the saints in the land?
The new men are already here, dotting the earth- recognisable if you know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. (We must get over wanting to be NEEDED: in some goodish people, specially women, that is the hardest of all temptations to resist.) They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognised one of them, you will recognise the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect that they recognise one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of colour, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.
Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy? Proverbs 27:4
Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.
By this measure, Oscar Wilde’s measure, my nature is not very fine. I get jealous. Sometimes—when a friend shares a joy I wish was mine— I fake a smile. Mine is still a sin-twinged nature.
My daily reading today were 1 Samuel 18 and Acts 13. They got me thinking on jealousy. When David returned from striking down Goliath and the women came out singing, “Saul has slain his thousands; David has slain his ten thousands” Saul was very angry and greatly displeased (1 Samuel 18:7-8).
The word jealousy isn’t there but it’s there. So much, in fact, that King Saul repeatedly, ruthlessly sought to kill David. He nearly speared him to the wall in his jealous rage.
But in Acts 13:45 the word JEALOUSY is used: “The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.”
Jealousy messes with our minds. It makes us assume the worst of others and to doubt God. And maybe it’s equally a sign of a messed-up mind. A mind that thinks it deserves what God has not given so much that it would hurt the one who has what it desperately wants.
Not A Jealous Bone
But, the good news is that if we are in Christ we are not slaves to sin, but to righteousness. Jealousy knocks at our door but we must master it. More good news, with the Spirit’s power, we can.
The Bible has some great examples of meek, contented souls. Like Jonathan, Saul’s son, the would-be-heir of the Israel’s throne who loved David as his own soul and helped to save his life (1 Samuel 18:3-4).
And in Acts 13:43, we read that there were “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism who followed Paul and Barnabas,” urged “to continue in the grace of God.”
Not a jealous bone in Jonathan and those many Jews. Theirs was such grace, such faith that God is good. Counting His blessings crushes my jealous bones.
So dear God, increase my faith. Help me put on the Lord Jesus Christ so jealousy won’t have me.
Let us behave properly as in the day […] not in strife and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Afterward: Yes, you are absolutely right. Our God, our righteous, holy God is a jealous God. Our jealousy reveals two things-two hopeful things:
Through jealousy, God shows us two things. First, he shows us himself. He is a jealous God (he even says “my name is Jealous” Exodus 34:14). It is part of his character as the covenanting God to take on the pain and hurt of experiencing his bride’s unfaithfulness (Hosea 4:13–14). Through our jealousy, we experience a communicable divine emotion (Deuteronomy 32:21).
Second, he shows us ourselves. Through jealousy, the deepest desires of our hearts are elicited and amplified (Genesis 22:12; Psalm 66:18–20). The fire burns away the distractions of life’s details to show us the things we treasure. This process of internal emotional suffering — of jealousy most pointedly — can help clarify and bring to the surface all that we would otherwise have kept hidden from God and even from ourselves.
Driving out -ites is effortful. It’s hard work to hold back weeds. Despite all our pulling and digging, wild mustard grows like gangbusters and burdocks keep sharing their spiny seeds.
In fact, I plucked some burdock off my running tights this morning. Two steps off the trail was all it took; they latched on before I knew. I ran all of five yards before the itch was too much and I had stop and pluck them off.
At least some of them.
When It’s Not Good To COEXIST
In Part I, I shared how God told the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land to drive out the current residents—the “-ites.” God promised through Joshua that he would be with them and give them success. So he called them to take and to possess the land. But they did not. They chose to coexist.
Neither God nor Joshua suggested the Israelites “coexist” with the Canaanites. Because coexisting with -ites leads to compromise (Deut. 7:16-26), “for that shall be a snare to you.”
The Israelites could not possess that part of the land where they coexisted with the Canaanites (Judges 1:27-34). Instead of destroying or driving them out as God had commanded, the Israelites allowed them to live in their midst.
But we are not called to dwell with sin in our lives and let burdocks to stick to our pants. With these we ought not coexist.
For we are called not only to take but to possess the land.
Take And Possess
In an insightful message called “Living With The Enemy,” pastor Bob Deffinbaugh explains the distinction between the Hebrew words, “take” (lakad) and “possess” (yarash),
The term “to take” has reference to the initial conquest of a territory while the term “to possess” refers to the permanent occupation and control of that territory.
We may read of an earlier conquest of a certain city in Joshua only to discover in Judges that it had to be taken again and then possessed. When the Israelites first “took” the Promised Land under Joshua, there were too few people to occupy and possess the land. When the victorious Israelites moved on to fight another battle, the displaced Canaanites moved back to “re-possess” their land. Under Joshua, the Israelite tribes united to fight the Canaanites and make strategic victories (Joshua 1-12). Later under Joshua (Joshua 13 ff.), the land was divided among the Israelite tribes with each tribe allotted an inheritance. Then, in Judges, it is the task of each individual tribe to “possess” their inheritance. This usually required retaking the land and then occupying (possessing) it.
But these two JoyPrO posts are more than an Old Testament history lesson. They’re meant to help make sense of our struggles with “indwelling sin.”
Because if we focus elsewhere the enemy slips back in. This morning it was a bright yellow flower, a cowslip I think, that took my focus off the beaten path where the burdock got me.
They represent our besetting sins, the ones that are hard to shake, that “cling so closely.” We might “take” and name them: gossip or anger, grumbling or envy or anxiety. But we don’t fully drive them out.
They’re irritating. But it takes more time and effort than we’d like to spend to pull all that burdock off.
Or, I could say, to fully “possess” my pants.
Why They Didn’t Possess The Land
Like we said at the start, taking possession is effortful. The Lord’s rebuke of his people in Judges 2:1-3 makes that plain.
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”
The Israelites did not obey God. So God did not drive out the -ites. Which makes me wonder, does God drive out our sinful -ites while we stay friendly with them?
A Thorn In Your Side
The Lord had said that He would not drive out the Canaanites, but would leave them as a “thorn in the side” and as a “snare” to them (2:3). Thus, coexistence was a form of divine discipline.
God said to Israel, in effect: ‘If you make alliances with the people of the land, you shall no longer have power to cast them out. The swift rush of the stream of victory shall be stayed. You have chosen to make them your friends, and their friendship shall produce its natural effects, of tempting you to imitation.’ The increased power of our unsubdued evils is the punishment, as it is the result, of tolerance of them. We wanted to keep them, and dreamed that we could control them. Keep them we shall, control them we cannot. They will master us if we do not expel them.
The world’s prescription for hurt is to hurt back or to retreat, but it’ll only make it worse— more self-focused and proud. I know this. The worldly way of handling hurt won’t help you grow.
We’ve got to cling to the Lord and obey his commands. Or the weeds will come back.
Cling to the Lord & Possess the Land
We see this in Joshua chapter 23.
4 Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. 5 The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you.
6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day…
11Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12For if you…associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.
The world will not yield an inch to the person who is not resolute for God. Like the -ites who became a trap and a snare. Like pesky, unyielding weeds. The world and the weeds come back. They’re invasive.
Worldliness is a garden of spiritual weeds.
But we don’t live those weeds.
Already & Not Yet
If you know Jesus, I know your address. Because it’s the same as mine: Between the already and the not yet.
The Book of Joshua speaks of both the complete fulfillment of God’s promises (11:23, 21:45) and the incompleteness of the actual possession of the land (13:1, 23:4-5). The writer speaks of the conquest as completed (21:43-45, 10:40-42, 11:23, 23:1, 14)—I have given them rest— but he also describes the occupation as incomplete (13:1-7; 15:63, 17:12-13, 18:3, 23:5). I will drive them out.
A country may officially be defeated and occupied before every part of it ceases resistance. I was after all jogging along with more prickers in my pants. But there will comes a time when they’re all plucked out.
We see the same truth in the New Testament: the power of sin is broken, but it’s still present in our lives. God has already blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing and our future inheritance is guaranteed (Eph. 1:3, 14).
But we don’t possess it completely. Not yet.
Able Not To Sin
Have you ever heard this progression? That after the Fall we were:
1) Not able not to sin. But when we were redeemed, we became
2) Able not to sin. Then, in glory, we will be
3) Not able to sin.
Zach Howard explains it well in context here. Near the end of the article he writes,
Although we are able not to sin, sin still plagues us. Scripture gives no promise of sinlessness in this life; indeed, it says the opposite (1 John 1:8). We’re never promised total victory over sin.
Instead, the renewal we experience in our life is a foretaste of future glorification. We will win battles against sin in this life, but we should not expect to win the war. We have the ability not to sin, but not the ability to eradicate sin…Our ability to achieve total victory over sin will never come in this life. But it will come. It will come because Christ will return.
As Christians we can live in hope — hope that God’s grace is sufficient for our fight against sin, hope that the Spirit is renewing us and restoring our ability to fight sin day by day, and finally, hope that we will one day be completely remade.
Yes, battling our own sin and waging war on our weeds is exhausting! But God’s grace is sufficient and the Spirit of Jesus is with us to strengthen us day by day.
Our Joshua Is Jesus
Which brings us full circle to Joshua. Reading the book of Joshua started this two part post.
Remember that the Greek name Jesus simply translates the Hebrew name Joshua. The names are the same.
What Israel received in the Promised Land, they received through the hand of Joshua. What we receive from God we receive through Jesus Christ, our Joshua. For all God’s promises are “yes” in Christ. Joshua led Israel into Canaan. Likewise, Jesus goes before us.
So don’t go into battle against with a coexist mindset. For in this Land of Already and Not Yet we are, after all, able to not sin. Even if the burdocks stick us now and then, we will pluck them off.
Until one day, led by our Joshua, we will possess a glorious thornless and weedless land.
A land with a tree and a river.
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
And as much as I’d like to think it was because our family is weary of fighting off Covid-19 and because layers of a loved one’s harmful stronghold keep unfolding. I’d like to think it was those—those “tough life circumstances.”
But if I search my heart, hard as those are, the real trigger is my sin within, my bad habits, my mental weeds. Self-pity is one. Comparing gifts—I’ll call it what it is, coveting—is another. These joy-killing natives in the land—these godless -ites—have have dwelt so long in my life that they dislike being dislodged.
They’re stubborn. The roots are deep. They go way back.
Back to the dejected five year-old hiding in Grandma Wustmann’s dark coat closet because she felt slighted by an aunt. Back to the eight year-old crying bitter tears because my up-north cousins go to Grandma Considine’s overnight grandma parties and again when my best friend Jane got a pool. Way back.
My sins are ever before me. They tell me that I need to be satisfied in God, that I need salvation’s joy restored (Psalm 51:10-12). But why should these enemies, these weeds, leave their dwelling-place?
After all, like the Canaanites in Promised Land- they were in the land first.
What Are Your Evil -ITES?
Do you know about the evil -ites? They’re the natives in the land; the enemies God’s people faced when they finally entered the Promised Land. God made it clear that Joshua was to destroy them and drive them out.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Deuteronomy 7:1-2
Why so severe?
God made that clear too. Because coexisting with Canaanites leads to compromise, “for that shall be a snare to you” (Deut. 7:16, also 7:17-26). That’s why this Canaanite must be conquered. The Canaanites were real godless people who lived in a real godless place. They were not an ignorant, innocent people.
To escape the evil, corrupting Canaanite influence, God told the Israelites to destroy them and drive them out.
But I think the -ites also represent our besetting sins, the sins that “cling so closely.” I mentioned a couple of my evil -ites, coveting and sullen self-pity.
They’re pesky and persistent—these “Canaanites.”
This Canaanite Must Be Conquered
But God commands us to deal with them the same way he commanded the Israelites to deal with the evil, godless -ites. “Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies…For sin shall not have dominion over you,” wrote the Apostle Paul.
Do you see how the imperative—let not sin reign— is grounded on the indicative—for sin shall not have dominion. This means that when God gives us a command to do, it’s rooted in what He has already done.
Christ has already set us free from sin’s ruling power (Romans 6:2,14,22). His death on the cross has already disarmed evil rulers (Colossians 2:13-15). What’s more, the Holy Spirit is ready to war against the sinful desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:17).
Which means, “The hasty temper [or the self-pitying, melancholic temper] may be natural to you: but seeing that your position is Christ is supernatural, this Canaanite must be conquered,” F.B. Meyer declares. “Talk no more of these Canaanites who would stay in the land; but say of the blessed Spirit, ‘He is well able to drive them out.‘”
If, by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body, we will live (Romans 8:13). We are well able to drive them out, to uproot our weeds.
Weeds—and -ITES—Have No Rights
Sometimes, at the beginning of our Christian life, we make a feeble effort against them, and hope to cast them out; but they stubbornly resist, says Meyer. If conscience strikes, we reply, “Do not find fault; we couldn’t help it. These Canaanites are self-willed and persistent, they would dwell in the land.”
Meyer is referring to Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, the land west of the Jordan. I just read about that in the book of Joshua and the start of Judges.
The book of Joshua opens with these words,
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
The book of Joshua is about how God was with Joshua on those conquests, gave victory over enemies, and gave Israel the Promised Land.
The Earth Is The LORD’S
Which means that their enemies had no right there. The rightful owner of the land, the Creator of the heavens and earth, had promised it to his people way, way back. In fact, hundreds and hundreds of years even before the Israelites were slaves in Egypt God promised this very land to Abraham.
For, “the earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). Which means the wicked -ites had no rights—no right to dwell in or to possess the Promised Land.
So too, our bad habits, our besetting sins, have no right to persist in our lives. We walk in newness of life.
These weeds have no right to grow in our united-with-Christ lives (Romans 6:1-11).
All Came To Pass
Because God keeps his promises. And He promised us his overcoming power. Remember 1 John 4:4, Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world?
God is greater than the enemy -ites. And He said if we obey, he’d drive out our enemies; and none of God’s good promises fail.
These next few verses come near the end of the book of Joshua,
Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. Joshua 21:43-45
It is ours to obey, and not to make peace with the enemy (See Judges 2:2). The whole soil of our hearts has been made over to the Son of God, Meyer writes, and there should be no part left to weeds.
Where “COEXIST” Cannot Exist
Whatever you might think of the bumper sticker, it was impossible for Israel to coexist with the Canaanites and thrive. And it is impossible for known, unrepented sin to coexist with righteousness (Romans 6:15-23).
There can be no peace between you and Christ, C.H. Spurgeon said, while there is peace between you and sin.
Which means that I had to do some fighting with my self-pity, whose roots were deep in coveting a life and I don’t have, and deeper still in discontentment.
I must wield the sword of the Sprit—real gospel truth—against these Canaanites. Truth like, The vinedresser prunes branches that bear fruit and the Lord disciplines those he loves. Like, in everything give thanks and be content with what you have.
Because we cannot possess what we do not first dispossess. We cannot possess what someone else controls. If coveting rules my heart, the peace of Christ won’t. Those two can’t possibly coexist. Don’t you know, James asked, that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?
The Israelites could not possess that part of the land where they coexisted with the Canaanites, even if they “kept” Canaanites as slaves. Instead of destroying or driving them out as God had commanded, the Israelites allowed them to live in their midst.
But if they had the power to enslave the enemy, they had the power to drive them out. (More on that in Part II.)
Living With The Canaanites
Judges chapter one gives an account of the successes and failures of the Israelite tribes in “possessing” what had been “taken” under Joshua. Judah did okay, but the other tribes did not.
At first, the Canaanites are dwelling among the Israelites (1:21), but soon after we read that the Israelites were dwelling among the Canaanites (1:32-33).
Do you hear the difference?
In the beginning of the account in Judges 1, the Israelites are driving out the Canaanites while a few pesky Canaanites lived among them. Even the finest manicured lawns have a few, isolated bursts of April dandelion bloom.
But eventually the Israelites are either using the Canaanites as forced labor—trying to put sin to work for them—or even worse, living among the Canaanites. That’s the yard so emblazoned with dandelion weed, you barely see green.
Dandelions And Grass
Here’s the progression from a few dandelions in a sea of green to a splash of grass in a field of dandelions.
It’s in Judges chapter one,
27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages[…]for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.
29 And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.
30 Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor.
31 Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, 32 so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out.
33 Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land…
34 The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain.
The tribe of Dan didn’t even make it out of the hills. And so Israel failed to possess the land.
Not To Conquer Is To Be Conquered
Not to conquer your spiritual foes is to be conquered by them, A.R. Fausset warns. They will push the first advantage you give them over you, until step by step you are brought down from being their master, to become their dependent vassal.
We have all unconquered ‘Canaanites’ in our hearts. And friendship with the world is enmity toward God. We must be alert to our inward foes, whom we imagine we have “under control,” and so treat them leniently. Soul-foes like nursing a grudge, throwing a pity party, or maybe just “blowing off steam.”
But no. We can’t all just get along. These can’t righteously coexist.
Partial Obedience = Incomplete Victory = More Weeds
This was not a complete victory for God’s people. Despite the promise God made to give them the land and give the enemies into their hand, this is not that story. God had said to drive out these Canaanites. Israel was to get rid of them and then to dwell where they had dwelt. The tribes failed to drive them out.
There are things that God has told us to drive out of our lives. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” In other words, fight your sin with urgency.
Irish Pastor David Legge warns, Do not flirt with it! Do not allow it to take root! You see, if you do not obey God completely, only in a partial obedience, you will be conquered. If you do not conquer that sin, that sin will conquer you!
I drive out the -ites in my mind. Sin has roots in thoughts. I must go deep to pull out weeds and plant that place with the excellent and praiseworthy.
Because gratitude and self-pity don’t coexist. Joyfully pressing on doesn’t dwell with discontentment. So I fought hard. I wrote thank you notes and sent I-care texts, and I thought on what is true. That’s how I took back the land.
Keep Up The Good Fight
I know I will have to keep up the fight because the Canaanites are persistent. But day by day, moment by moment, I can push them back. Because Christ died and rose again to give us His power to overcome.
So don’t make peace with sin. Don’t let the enemy possess the land. If you know it’s a sin, drive it out.
Don’t let the Canaanites dwell in your land.
When Joshua dismissed the people, the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land.
Amy’s “If’s” do. But her if’s are not meant to be read one after another. In her introduction to the book simply titled, “If,” Amy Carmichael writes,
Perhaps only one “If” will have the needed word.
But if one does, I say, then run with the one. Feel the conviction, let Christ’s love control you.
And if you’re like me and 21 “ifs” ring true, well then, back to the cross. He came, He died, He rose for these.
If I have not compassion on my fellow)servant even as my Lord had pity on me, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I can easily discuss the shortcomings and the sins of any; if I can speak in a casual way even of a child’s misdoings, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I find myself half-carelessly taking lapses for granted, “Oh, that’s what they always do,” “Oh, of course she talks like that, he acts like that,” then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I enjoy a joke at the expense of another; if I can in any way slight another in conversation, or even in thought, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If, in dealing with one who does not respond, I weary of the strain, and slip from under the burden, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I cannot bear to be like the father who did not soften the rigors of the far country; if, in this sense, I refuse to allow the law of God (the way of transgressors is hard) to take effect, because of the distress it causes me to see that law in operation, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If my attitude be one of fear, not faith, about one who has disappointed me; if I say, “Just what I expected,” if a fall occurs, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I cast up a confessed, repented, and forsaken sin against another, and allow my remembrance of that sin to color my thinking and feed my suspicions, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I have not the patience of my Saviour with souls who grow slowly; if I know little of travail (a sharp and painful thing) till Christ be fully formed in them, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I cannot keep silence over a disappointing soul (unless for the sake of that soul’s good or for the good of others it be necessary to speak), then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I can hurt another by speaking faithfully without much preparation of spirit, and without hurting myself far more than I hurt that other, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I am afraid to speak the truth, lest I lose affection, or lest the one concerned should say, “You do not understand,” or because I fear to lose my reputation for kindness; if I put my own good name before the other’s highest good, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I am content to heal a hurt slightly, saying “Peace, peace,” where is no peace; if I forget the poignant word “Let love be without dissimulation” and blunt the edge of truth, speaking not right things but smooth things, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I fear to hold another to the highest goal because it is so much easier to avoid doing so, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I am soft to myself and slide comfortably into the vice of self-pity and self-sympathy; if I do not by the grace of God practice fortitude, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I myself dominate myself, if my thoughts revolve round myself; if I am so occupied with myself I rarely have “a heart at leisure from itself,” then I know nothing of Calvary love.
IF, the moment I am conscious of the shadow of self crossing my threshold, I do not shut the door, and in the power of Him who works in us to will and to do, keep that door shut, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I cannot in honest happiness take the second place (or the twentieth); if I cannot take the first without making a fuss about my unworthiness, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I do not give a friend “the benefit of the doubt,” but put the worst construction instead of the best on what is said or done, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I take offense easily, if I am content to continue in a cool unfriendliness, though friendship be possible, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If a sudden jar can cause me to speak an impatient, unloving word, then I know nothing of Calvary love.* *For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water however suddenly jolted.
If I feel injured when another lays to my charge things that I know not, forgetting that my Sinless Saviour trod this path to the end, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I feel bitterly towards those who condemn me, as it seems to me, unjustly, forgetting that if they knew me as I know myself they would condemn me much more, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I say, “Yes, I forgive, but I cannot forget,” as though the God who twice day washes all the sands on all the shores of all the world, could not wash such memories from my mind, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If interruptions annoy me, and private cares make me impatient; if I shadow the souls about me because I myself am shadowed, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If souls can suffer alongside, and I hardly know it, because the spirit of discernment is not in me, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I become entangled in any “inordinate affection”; if things or places or people hold me back from obedience to my Lord, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If something I am asked to do for another feels burdensome; if, yielding to an inward unwillingness, I avoid doing it, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If the praise of man elates me and his blame depresses me; if I cannot rest under misunderstanding without defending myself; if I love to be loved more than to love, to be served more than to serve, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I want to be known as the doer of something that has proved the right thing, or as the one who suggested that it should be done, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I do not forget about such a trifle as personal success, so that it never crosses my mind, or if it does, is never given a moment’s room there; if the cup of spiritual flattery tastes sweet to me, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If it be not simple and a natural thing to say, “Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If in the fellowship of service I seek to attach a friend to myself, so that others are feel unwanted; if my friendships do not draw others deeper in, but are ungenerous (to myself, for myself), then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I slip into the place that can be filled by Christ alone, making myself the first necessity to a soul instead of leading it to fasten upon Him, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If my interest in the work of others is cool; if I think in terms of my own special work; if the burdens of others are not my burdens too, and their joys mine, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I wonder why something trying is allowed, and press for prayer that it may be removed; if I cannot be trusted with any disappointment, and cannot go on in peace under any mystery, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If the ultimate, the hardest, cannot be asked of me; if my fellows hesitate to ask it and turn to someone else, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
If I covet any place on earth but the dust at the foot of the Cross, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
THAT WHICH I KNOW NOT, TEACH THOU ME, O LORD, MY GOD.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;
And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and was raised again.…
But in case you know about Pound and in the event a Good Friday poem by an unholy man like Pound is off putting— for he lived not like a saint—please read this quick bit by Matthew Melema,
God often shares his truth through unlikely sources. Nebuchadnezzar was cursed to live like a beast because of his hubris. But he later wrote one of the humblest tributes to God’s grandeur in the Old Testament. Paul was the “chief of sinners” before becoming Christ’s chosen vessel. Balaam’s donkey was, well, a donkey before God used it to berate an oblivious prophet.
That’s how I view Pound in the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere”: a donkey. Sure he’s hard-headed, brutish, and even bestial. But when his culture had grown dull, thinking of Jesus as a mere teacher of platitudes, Pound was there. He reminds us of the vitality, the loyalty, the gospel-strangeness of the Son of God.
Our King Jesus was a man’s man and a gentleman. He is the Lion and the Lamb. He is the Mighty King of Meekness. His strength was tenderly harnessed, his anger was ever righteous, and his love for his mates, to the end.
The Greatest Drama Ever Staged
I opened with Pound’s poem but I’ll close with Sayers’ prose. Both make the same point: Jesus was not the least bit dull, nor for a second is the Passion Story.
[T]he tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull – this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.
If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore – on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.
To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before Heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; he referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; Christ assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness […]
Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed […]
Perhaps the drama is played out now, and Jesus is safely dead and buried. Perhaps. It is ironical and entertaining to consider that once at least in the world’s history those words might have been spoken with complete conviction, and that was upon the eve of the resurrection.
From, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged Is the Official Creed of Christendom,” which first appeared in the London Sunday Times two weeks before Easter 1938. Reprinted here from Letters to a Diminished Church, by Dorothy L. Sayers.
We are here again friends, on the eve of the resurrection. And I hope that with me, you’re more smitten with the master of men now than you’ve ever been.
Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
What Our Savior Saw from the Cross, James Jacques Tissot. (Public Domain)
Dr. Pepper seltzer, Tim Hawkins, the ragged copy of My Utmostin her WC twenty years ago that led to one in mine; the elegance of Hedgehog and Goudge and countless other good books, whole cream in coffee, radish slices not Ruffles, and those flexible plastic cutting boards. Oh, those blessed chopping mats!
How could possibly forget that legendary Swiss vinaigrette, something like this but on the exact recipe, I’ve vowed secrecy.
Those things are not the half of it. They’re only a fraction of the ways Linda has influenced me.
On Linda’s Influence
You went to Peoria again last weekend? my friends ask. Why’d you go down this time?
It’s alway the same reason: Linda. Linda and John, and their five vibrant kids—remember that long, non-looping trip?— and their beloved “urban family” who have become our friends too.
And Linda. Linda is my husband’s sister, my sister-in-law. But more, she is my friend.
Turns out, my first memory of Linda is my first memory of my husband Jim. I was 14 when my family spent two August weeks at their grandparents’ campground. Jim and Linda would bound and bounce around the deck then spring into that little Meadowlark Acres pool. Vivacious, friendly, bright—I loved the life in them. Thirty-one years after we met at the pool, I still do.
Linda is a good influence—a joyful, faithful, cheerful influence. But you cannot be profoundly influenced by what you do not know.
Linda and her crew are why we go to Peoria. Because we want to know them more. I want them to influence me.
Think About These Things
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8
As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7
What do you think about when your mind is “resting”? Because the teacher wrote, as you think, so you are.
Lovely people think about lovely things, Alistair Begg said in a message on Philippians 4:8. By extension, truthful people think true thoughts, pure people think pure thoughts, and just people think just thoughts.
But the only way we can get those good thoughts a-thinkin’ is to place ourselves with them in the first place. That means we seek out good influences—influences that build our strength, our faith, our joy.
Do you see why all the three-hour drives to Peoria and all the time spent in the Word? In a word: influence.
Because thoughts stick around. For better and worse, they loop.
There’s a sign on a gravel road in Alaska that reads, Choose your rut carefully. You will be in it for the next 25 miles.
We have a say in what tracks we choose. As Christians, we’re called to choose an excellent and praiseworthy groove. Which means I must wisely choose my influencers. I must make an effort to spend time with people like Linda who affect me for good.
There Are No Ordinary People (So Be A Good Influence)
God created us to be influenced. Over and over, Scripture calls us to imitate, to be influenced for good. First, by the Spirit applying God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But then by the fellow image-bearers with whom we rub shoulders.
But God also created us as influencers.
This bit from Lewis is often quoted, and for good reason. Because we are all in process. We are all heading one direction or the other. We are all influenced and influencers.
It is a serious thing […] to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
From The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis delivered this sermon at Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, on June 8, 1941.
All day long, we are influencing each other in one direction or another. Influence is never neutral.
You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.
We are influenced—for good or for ill—by who we know and by what we know. This knowledge base directly impacts our thoughts. As we think, so we are.
Which brings us back to the top. Find yourself some good influences. Latch on to a Linda. And set the Lord always before you.
Because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
This year I connected with two more of Patrick’s Confessions. For the uninitiated, Patrick lived in the 400’s AD and has two surviving writings, the Letter to Coroticus and and his Confession. (Read the Confession here, in English—or Gaelic—for free!)
On St. Patrick’s Eve I’ve made it my practice to read the Confession. Each time, I find more to make mine.
First, is Patrick’s Confession 6. It’s the reason Patrick wrote and the reason I write.
Although I am imperfect in many ways, I want my brothers and relations to know what I’m really like, so that they can see what it is that inspires my life.
That’s why. I want to be real and vulnerable enough in the blog that you get a sense of what I’m really like, not because I’m worthy of your time, but so that you can “see what it is that inspires my life.” In other words, I want to make God look big.
Which brings us to that other connection I have with Patrick.
It’s all about strength. Confession 30 is another way to say what Confession 6 said. Because what “inspires me” is what empowers me and makes me strong.
For that reason, I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people.
Patrick knew God’s strength when he risked his life over and over to preach the Gospel in Ireland—the very land where he’d once been enslaved. He felt it when he dealt with the hurt of his “very dear friend” sharing decades old dirt (See Confession 32). Patrick wrote his Confession so that his readers would know the source of that strength.
That’s also why I write. I write because I sense “no little strength” from Christ. Any act of forgiveness or repentance, any evidence endurance or love is through “no little strength” from Christ. I want you, kind reader, to feel it in your life too.
Let’s celebrate today. Because Patrick knew what Paul knew and what you know and I know. He knew what all of us saints know.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
My country girlfriend braved Chicago traffic last week. Because her husband’s cancer is still there, still growing. He’s barely 40 and his first brain surgery was ten years ago, before their youngest could even walk.
So off they drove to the big city to determine if he qualified for an experimental new treatment. But 48 hours after the consult, they got the call. He did not. A previous chemo disqualified him from this new drug.
Resting on the soft pillow of providence can happen at night, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
I still don’t always, but day by day, through Spirit power, I am training myself to not just trust, but to rest in God’s providential hand. I’m slowly learning to ask myself this one good question, “What good and wise thing is the God who loves me doing in what doesn’t seem good and wise?”
I won’t always know the answer. But it builds my faith to ask.
My Trials Are Because He Remembers
Paul Tripp’s devotions have a way of convicting and encouraging me in one fell swoop. This one from NEW MORNING MERCIES nails my little faith and helps me replace it with bigger trust when I face trials.
From day one, God has clearly communicated his zeal to us. It is his purpose that, by the means of rescuing, forgiving, transforming grace, we would be brought into relationship with him, and in the context of that relationship, be fully molded into the image of his Son. He has never promised us that he will deliver to us our personal definition of the good life. Rather he has promised that he will use all the tools at his disposal to complete the work of redemption that he has begun in our hearts and lives. He has not been unfaithful. He has kept every one of his promises He will do what he said.
Our problem is that we tend to be unfaithful to his holy agenda and get kidnapped by our plans for us and our dreams for our lives. The trials in our lives exist not because he has forgotten us, but because he remembers us and is changing us by his grace. When you remember that, you can have joy in the middle of what is uncomfortable.
This truth helps me retrain my brain to reframe my discomfort and pain. It helped my friend and her husband do the same: the white-knuckle drive to Chicago, the medical tests, and the rejection to the clinical trial. She texted, “We thank God for guiding us. He is with us. Even in this ‘no’.” He is changing us by his grace.
Truth is, it’s only when we remember this that our little, light and momentary trials bring joy. Because God loves us and wants us to endure and mature and be changed. Because he is good.
Sometimes he guides his children with “no’s.” But he always follows them with goodness and mercy.
Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, 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.
Asking you to tolerate whatever I do or say because you say you love me is a fundamental misunderstanding of what love is and what love does. Much of what we think love is simply isn’t love after all.
-Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies
If You Love Me, You Would…
Have you ever said that? Has anyone said it to you? If you love me, you would ___________. Fill in the blank: scratch my back, stay up late, wear a mask, don’t make me wait.While it’s absolutely true that love is kind and seeks not its own, love does not mean anything goes.
We know this intuitively. Which is why I don’t bite when my 13 year-old says loving him means I allow him take a phone to school. Or when the 15 year-old insists loving him means I let him go deep with an ominously named gaming stranger.
But, as helpful as are, the love languages they might hurt us here. Because if I assume that for love to be love it must always come in my preferred language—and feel good—I’ll miss and misinterpret a whole lot of love.
I know this because the Lover of my soul doesn’t always speak my preferred language or love me how I would choose to be loved. He didn’t with Mary and Martha either.
Jesus loved them enough to let Lazarus die—yes, to die—so that he could raise him up in a majestic way and so that they would see the his glory. And I guarantee that Mary did not say, Master, if you love me, please wait to come until Lazarus dies.
I Wanna Know What Love Is
We’ve got to know what love is. And Jesus can show us.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (John 11:5-6). Jesus loved them so much he didn’t save Lazarus from dying. He didn’t spare Mary and Martha that pain.
Love is doing whatever you have to do — or whatever God has to do — at whatever cost, in order for the glory of God to be shown. If that sounds like no definition of love you’ve ever heard, like it’s straight out of left field, please reread John 11:1-6. (If that definition is still confusing, you might listen to “Even When It Hurts,” where John Piper explains this definition.)
Because seeing the glory of God is the greatest good. And love, we know, is helping the beloved enjoy the greatest good.
5 Things I Know About Love
1. Love Is Anchored In Truth
I know it must be anchored in truth. It cannot contradict truth. It cannot exist without truth.
Real, biblical, self-sacrificing, God-honoring love never compromises what God says is right and true. Truth and love are inextricably bound together. Love that compromises truth simply isn’t love. Truth without love ceases to be truth because it gets bent and twisted by human agendas. If love wants and works for what is best for you, then love is committed to being part of what God says is best in your life. So, I am committed to being God’s tool for what he says is best in your life, even if that means we have to go through tense and difficult moments to get there.
Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies
This, for the record, is one of the marks of a true friend. And lest we misconstrue Tripp’s words, it’s not as if one person in the relationship is always the “truth tool” while the other is always the “project.” Holding out the truth in love, or “truthing it in love” ala 4:15, is to be reciprocal. The subject and object are not fixed. Heidi truths it with me and I truth it with her.
What’s more, speaking the truth in love is not the main point. It’s not. The grammar of Ephesians 4 is clear. Truthing it in love is not an end in itself. Me correcting you or you proving a point factually true, or even us rooting out our idols together, is not the point.
Do you see the purpose of Ephesians 4:15? The end for which “speaking the truth in love” is but a modifier?
It’s grow up. We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. That’s the goal.
Speaking truth in love is not the endpoint. Growing up into Jesus is.
But what you might not know off the top of your head is what comes right before it. Here’s the famous command in context:
That jumped off the page when I read it last week. Because most of us are conflict avoiders. It’s so much easier to walk away when we see a brother do wrong. And if the wrong hurt us, well, we might walk away and nurse a grudge. Because, if I’m honest, to hate my sister in my heart takes less effort than to reason frankly with her.
When conflict comes we are tempted to think God has left the building. In peacetime we feel God’s presence; his providence is sweet. But the moment a fellow sinner hurts me, we imagine God left. But God said Love, don’t hate. And God said the way out of hate and the way into love is reason frankly.
Speaking truth in love includes “reasoning frankly.” And, done right, it not only benefits my sister it also helps me. Because the alternative to reasoning frankly with her is “incurring guilt” myself. The guilt could come if I take vengeance, bear a grudge, or get passive-aggressive. And she could be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:13). In both cases, reason frankly is God’s preventative against incurring guilt, against harm.
But this is hard. Because reasoning frankly and holding out truth in love can cost a lot.
3. We All Need Influencers
But I’m learning that silence is costly too. To the extent that I feel I can’t speak truth—because a friend is that sensitive— it is equally hard to feel love. My closest friendships are the ones who truth it love, side by side, with me. They say, “Smile more, talk less.” They ask, “Do I hear discontentment?”
I read this paragraph last night. It doesn’t use the word truth and it doesn’t mention love, but it’s on point. Here, a main character—The Man in the Wing Chair— describes his mother.
She just has her own opinions, and they’re the only tribunal that’s permitted to judge her when she makes a mistake. Can you imagine what you would be like if you didn’t have anyone close who was capable of influencing you? Anyone to point out your flaws, to confront you when you went too far, to correct you when you did something wrong?
Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim
Isn’t that so sad? When I read the paragraph, I dropped the book and asked myself, Who is close enough to correct me?
Now I ask you, Who in your life is close enough to dare correct or confront you?
4. Speak Soft Words And Give Hard Reasons
I won’t grow if I stay blind to my faults, blind to my sin. As a Christian, I know that the Word of God and the Spirit of Christ can convict me. I don’t always need a fellow sinner to show me my sin. Sometimes it comes to light without him.
But God uses means. I wrote about the large chocolate spot I obliviously sported one night. The lesson: friends tell friends.
But how we hold out truth matters. And I’ll be first to admit that I don’t always get the how right. My family and friends will tell you that. But I do aim to apply C.H. Spurgeon’s advice:
If you see that a stick is crooked, and you want people to see how crooked it is, lay a straight rod down beside it; that will be quite enough. But if you are drawn into controversy, use very hard arguments and very soft words. Frequently you cannot convince a man by tugging at his reason, but you can persuade him by winning his affections.
That might sound like this: Kelsey, your voice is gorgeous. And I know you want us to be drawn to worship Christ not be focused on your clothes. That’s why I wanted to tell you I was distracted by your clothes the last few times you led singing. But I don’t doubt your love and I thank you for your hard work.
Gentle words, with gratitude and hard argument, rooted in truth. We speak this way so that we will grow into Christ and not incur guilt.
5. We Love People When We Love God
That was a big takeaway for me as I studied 1 John. Since God is love (1 John 4:8), it stands to reason that if I don’t understand God rightly, I won’t understand love rightly. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
But isn’t that out of order? Hasn’t John explained that the main way show our love for the God who we can’t see is by our love for our brother we do see (1 John 4:20)? Yes, he did: We cannot love God without loving His children.
But that answer just kicks the can. How do we love people? In 1 John 5:2, John explains that we love others by loving God and keeping his commands.
That brings us full circle. So what about, If you love me you would…? Jesus is the only person who could say with impunity, If you love me you would.
Do you know why? Because he and the Father were one. The God-Man had no sinful nature to taint his If you love me you would. He knew with certainty what would help us see His glory. So he said, If you love me you will keep my commands.
Truth without love is abuse. Love without truth is neglect.
The doctor that conceals a cancer diagnosis is not “loving” his patient. Remember the prophets who “healed the wound of the people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14)? Perhaps out of self-love or fear of disappointing, the prophets did not act in love for God’s wounded people.
Love covers offenses and sins (1 Peter 4:8, Proverbs 10:12). But it also exposes and rebukes (Matthew 18:15, Proverbs 27:5-6). Soft, gracious words do not abuse and hard, biblical reasons do not neglect.
Paul David Tripp writes,
Love doesn’t call wrong right. Love doesn’t ignore wrong and hope it goes away. It doesn’t turn its back on you because you are wrong. Love doesn’t mock you. And love doesn’t go passive and stay silent in the face of wrong. Love moves toward you because you are wrong and need to be rescued from you. In moving toward you, love is willing to make sacrifices and endure hardships so that you may be made right again and be reconciled to God and others. God graces us with this kind of love so that we may be tools of this love in the lives of others.
Love moves toward you because you are wrong and need to be rescued from you. Jesus did that for me. He—Love—covers a multitude of sins, but also shows me my faults.
And as much as I want to be a tool of this kind of love, sometimes it’s hard to discern which path love takes.
What I Don’t Know About Love
There are so many things I don’t know about truth in love. The God-Man alone, could rightly say, If you love me you would… Because he knows all things. He alone knows all that is good.
I do not. Which is why I can’t always tell if my friends and sons are right when they say or imply, If you love me you would….
And I don’t know how much truth love tells. I’m not always sure when love conceals and when it reveals. I often don’t know the best, the most loving way to hold out the truth in love or if I should say a thing when I don’t feel the love.
But I do know that I want to be pure for the day of Christ. And I know I need a discerning love.
We hit a new low. We’ve had bad weeks in our house before, but this week’s behavior borders on criminal. Still, there’s a reason this blog is called JoyfullyPressingOn. My times are in his hands; every jaw-dropping event in his providence.
To protect the guilty one I love, I won’t share details. But trust me, if I told you, your jaw would drop too. You’d ask, “What are doing about that?”
So why do I disclose this much?
Because I know that some of you are facing tough stuff too—that kind that keeps you tossing and turning at night. Please don’t hear me this as a brag on me, because I’m boasting in the grace of God: I slept like a baby last night.
Because I’ve got a stellar pillow.
When It’s Hard To Sleep
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. Psalm 31:9
The events of the week could have made it hard to sleep. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
What happened this week marks not months but years of prayers answered with Not yet, if not No. That answer, this waiting, these events could make it hard for a mom to sleep.
At least, without the right pillow.
But too many nights tossing and turning on too-soft and too-firm foreign pillows have taught me. When I travel, I take my pillow. The extra space it takes to bring my just-right pillow is well worth it.
That pillow helps me sleep in all sorts of strange beds and new places.
Providence Is A Soft Pillow
I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4:8
But when I put my head on that pillow and catastrophic, hopeless thoughts still swirl, I need another pillow. Because uncertainty should not be the occasion of panic.Alistair Begg says, The only thing you can put your head on is the providence of God. Then you go to sleep.
The Puritans said, “Providence is a soft pillow for anxious heads.” And some of us are terribly anxious about the uncertainty we face. We are not trusting our unknown futures to a known God who knows the future. And we are not alone.
Most of the occasions of my worrying, most of the occasions of my rising fears can be traced ultimately to a loss of confidence in the doctrine of providence—can be traced to the fact that I am prepared to say, “My times are in your hands,” but I’m not prepared to live in the light of that truth.
Joyfully pressing on means living in light of that truth. It means that even though I have no idea how this today’s event will unfold and if the heart will untwist, I will trust. In peace, I will both lie down and sleep.
Because I sleep on the soft pillow of providence.
My Times Are In Your Hands
But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand… Psalm 31:14-15a
My old theology text books defines providence as the “continued exercise of [God’s] divine energy whereby the Creator preserves all of His creatures, is operative in all that comes to pass in the world, and directs all things to their appointed end.”
Unpacked: Providence means God is guiding all the events of the world including those in your life. In other words, your times are in his hands.
Some of you know I’m working on a book about meekness. Here’s a little secret: The meek know how to sleep. They have a heightened sense of God’s providence. They carry this pillow everywhere. On it they rest their heads.
And as they doze off, you might hear them pray, “My times are in your hand.”
Asleep in the Storm Like Jesus
And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the back of the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow.Mark 4:37-38a
As I was writing this, it hit me. Jesus had a pillow too. His head was on it that evening he slept in the stern of the boat on the stormy sea. But his disciples then, like his disciples now, had trust issues. They got anxious.
Remember what they did? They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?”
For Jesus, Mark tells us, was in the back of the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow. Yes, a pillow. The very same pillow, in fact, that you and I can sleep on—the soft pillow of providence. The pillow that helps me sleep in the midst of the storms in my home is the same pillow that Jesus lay his head on in the storm-tossed boat.
Into Your Hand
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. Psalm 31:5
How do I know? Well, it goes back to Psalm 31. A few verses before David prayed, My time are in your hand, he prayed:
Into your hand I commit my spirit.
I doubt Jesus prayed that on the boat. But great David’s greater Son did pray it in the most stressful of all times, ever.
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour,while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
Luke 23:44-46, ESV
Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it, John Calvin said.
I did not sleep well this week because I know how this chapter ends. I only slept well because of my pillow.
But when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing it’s an idol. When you’re willing to sin to feed it or sin if you think you’ll lose it, you may be feeding the beast.
Lent: Spring Cleaning For Your Soul
When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, Timothy Keller writes, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping.
I shared 4 “idol-identifying” questions a couple posts back. And when the Spirit convicts me of inordinate time and energy going into Facebook—specifically a Bible study ministry group—I’d best change that.
So then along comes Lent, a lovely 46 days (I’m including Sundays.) to forsake a good thing to make space for “more vibrant discipleship.” In other words, Lent is a great season to do some spring cleaning in your soul. It’s a great time to starve your idol.
So I’m fasting from Facebook and the hardest part of that will be laying aside my baby, my Isaac, my little Bible study ministry, the Wonders of the Word (WoW) group that I so enjoy.
Not, because WoW is bad, or Facebook is bad. So why give a good thing up?
Why My Facebook Fast?
It’s the same reason one friend is giving up a nightly glass of wine for the month of February, and another friend is fasting from sugar for 12 weeks.
Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
My focus, my energy, my “happiness and self-worth” even, is coming too much from my social media presence. I’m being mastered by a good thing— my online ministry. And any good think that is not God can morph into an idol.
That’s why you won’t see me on Facebook (or Instagram or Twitter) for a while. That is reason #3 for a Lenten fast .
The other two are described now, in a repost from April 2015, when I kissed ice cream good-bye.
Why give up a good thing? Why wage an optional war?
In a word, training. In four, Christ-exalting soul strength. Each time I skip a soft-serve and pass on pie a la mode, my soul gets a little stronger. Train yourself to be godly, Paul told Timothy. I from a little thing like ice cream and am strengthened for bigger battles against greed and pride, grumbling and envy.
It’s called resistance training.
Reason #1: Resistance training makes me stronger.
Lent is testing ground; a time for spiritual resistance training. It’s a battlefield of sorts. Fasting shows what controls me, what comforts me. It exposes what I really live by: ice cream and coffee, Facebook and fitness? Or every word that comes from the mouth of God?
Christian fasting-giving up a good gift for a time- is not about Stoic pride, or proving my love for God. It is about training in godliness. I work my soul in a new way to build spiritual fitness. It’s resisting what would lure my heart away from my all-glorious, all-satisfying God.
Fasting increases the strength of my soul. so, I will not be mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12). That is why I kissed ice cream good-bye.
If I can’t deny myself ice cream for six weeks, how can I resist the more habit-forming, tempting tastes of pride and envy, of anger and impatience?
A heaping bowl after dinner and a long run every morning and notices on my phone could all have me for breakfast. When my happiness hinges on those, I’m done. I’m captive.
All are innocent pleasures. Caffeine and ice cream, Facebook and fitness are gifts from God. And all can move subtly to become an end in themselves. To enslave. Ice cream has that power?
It does. Or did. And so does coffee in the morning and posting that elusive “100 likes” photo. A sub-seven minute mile can do it for me, too.
But I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his suffering, becoming like him in death (Philippians 3 :10-11). Starting with these little denial deaths. Paul said he counted everything rubbish that he could know Christ. Little food and Facebook fasts make me strong for big soul fights, because in them I know Christ better.
But there’s one more big I kissed ice cream good-bye.
Reason #2. God gets glory when we call on him for help to resist temptation.
C. S. Lewis hinted at it. Only those who try to resist temptation knows how strong it is, he wrote. And Christ is the only one who never yielded to temptation.
Jesus was like us in every respect, and because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:14-15). He can sympathize with our weakness, because in every respect he has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.
And here is how Christ is exalted. It’s when we confidently draw near to the throne of grace, to receive mercy-forgiveness when we fall– and find grace-power to keep from falling-to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).
He gives mercy and grace. I call, tempted and weak. Christ answers, sympathetic and strong. I called, you answered; my strength of soul you increased(Psalm 138:3).
That exchange- I call, God answers- is soul-strengthening, Christ-exalting soul training.
But what does look like in real life?
For me, it looks like closing the freezer without sneaking a bite from the pint in the back. And refusing to peek at Facebook one last time to check if someone liked my post. At Arby’s last week it was Thank you Jesus as the rest of the family shared a Jamocha milkshake.
That’s freedom. It’s starving idols that would ensnare and enslave me. That’s some Lenten cleaning for my soul. But we don’t go it alone.
We don’t call uncle; we call Jesus.
Help me stand stand firm. Fill the hollowness. And please remind me of your truth. Like this.
It might be countering your itch for human praise with this reminder: Let another praise you and not your own lips.
Or dueling with envy the minute he starts to whisper, You ought to have a four bedroom, sunny-side house. Nope: Godliness with contentment is great gain.
And striking with the sword of the Spirit when despair over a failed friendship falls. Why so downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God. He’s the lifter of your face.
Or wielding the Word to kill worry when the infection spreads to your kids. Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you. And, Commit your way to the Lord.
Or trading gratitude for grumbling, when we feel entitled to better this, or more that. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
That’s how God gets glory when we strength train. The One who was tempted in every way, who is right now interceding for us, His strength is exalted when I work my soul muscles.
Then we really know the truth we talk: no temptation can seize us beyond what we can bear. God truly is faithful to provide a way out so we can stand up under it. That kind of resistance strengthens our spiritual muscles.
Yes, we are a Resurrection People; Christ is Risen indeed! My sin is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. We stand forgiven at the cross. But our battles aren’t over yet.
Jesus suffered and died so I won’t have to suffer is NOT its message. It’s He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).
The cross isn’t just past. The word of the crossis to us who are being saved the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). John Piper says the cross of Christ is not merely a past place of substitution. It’s also a present place of daily execution.
It is not just history. It’s a present way of life for the Christian. It’s Colossians 3:5, Put to death what is earthly in you. It is Roman’s 6:11, Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ. And, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
But remember, fasting and denying are not ends in themselves. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-24). The Lenten fast always leads to the Easter feast.
In heaven there will be no self-denial because none of our desires will tend toward sin. We’ll be with the Bridegroom and we won’t fast. Oh no. We will feast.
That this our fast of forty days, May work our profit and Thy praise!
The ancient hymn, Audi benigne Conditordescribes the bonds between our bodies and souls. Anthony Esolen’s translation beautifully expresses how God is glorified when we bring both into subjection. When we resistance train in the present power of the cross.
I don’t know which was the bigger miracle—my question or his answer.
Miracles Never Cease
The first title of this post was “Miracles Never Cease: How The Phone Stayed Home.”
It was an amazing, soaring short story about how a son who so loved his phone willingly agreed to leave it at home for a weekend youth retreat. The climax of the story was the part when the prone to over-control mom—after days and days of praying and pondering and asking her friends to ponder and pray— stunned herself.
How’s that? you wonder.
Believe it or not, it happened when she asked the son in a voice so open and gentle that it surprised her own ears,
So, what would you think of leaving your phone home this weekend?
That open-ended meek question was miracle #1. If you knew the Mom you’d marvel.
But then on the heels of #1 comes miracle #2.
That’d be okay.
That’s it. That’s what the son said without hesitation, protest or reservation. Two miracles right in a row. That would have been the post. It’s what I had written at 10 pm last Sunday night.
A JoyPrO about two amazing Spirit-controlled actions of a mother and son. Tied with a bow. Happily ever after. The end.
Then along came 11 pm.
How One Phone Stayed Home
When in a too-rare flurry of mother-son affection, the mother decided to sneak into the sleeping teen’s room to plant a kiss on his forehead. That was her plan.
So she stole in to where he lay—wide awake with earbuds in and spare phone in hand. And off came the bow.
Did you sneak this phone on the retreat?
Yes, he nodded. I did. But I hardly used it, he added, handing off the hot phone.
But there was more. Two words from this son the mother so hungers for,
It was late and he was caught red-handed. But this time, she believed him. Because little by little we grow. And little by little we change.
Because it’s little by little that we drive out the enemies of our soul.
Little By Little
Please stick with me. Because these couple of verses in an obscure chapter of Exodus have a lot to do with snuck phones and with how all Christians grow. With how I learn to ask not force, with how I learn to resist self-pity and give thanks, with how I train myself to get to bed before eleven. Little by little.
Here’s the background. The Israelites were fresh out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. But the Promised land was occupied—by the -ite peoples—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These were strong nations.
But not so strong that the God who’d just split the Red Sea and closed it on Pharaoh’s chariots could have destroyed them all at once.
But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by littleI will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. (Exodus 23:29-31, NIV)
Little by little I will drive them out. And you will drive them out too.
I Will, You Will
In a message on Exodus 23, Kevin DeYoung explains how those three little verses describe the whole of Christian life, of Christian growth. You drive them out, I drive them out. That is how we grow.
Did you see that? In verse 30, “I will drive them out.” In verse 31, “You will drive them out.” That’s how it is with sanctification, with the process of becoming more like Jesus. We work out our salvation, for God works in us to will and act. God is doing the work. At the same time, he tells us to get to get to work (Philippians 2:12-13).
DeYoung sums up Christian growth this way: Victory comes from God, victory takes work, and victory comes little by little.
God works in you, so you work. Growth happens little by little, change comes from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Degrees. Little by little degrees. The son didn’t take his phone but he snuck another. The mom held her tongue two times, but not the third. By degree. Victory comes little by little, when we work because God is at work.
Perpetual Vigilance, Constant Dependence
Don’t despise the day of small things. I wrote about that with the same phone-sneaking son 6 years ago. Screen time and sneaking have been issues for a decade. And truth be told, overbearing and controlling have been too. And after those two miracles the night before the retreat, I was so hungry for growth. I was hungry for victory and freedom in his life— so hungry I could almost taste victory.
And sometimes God works his power in our lives in an instant. He removes a desire or heals a cancer or creates a life. All of a sudden he does it and completely he does it.
But more often, we see his work little by little. Transformation comes slowly. Today may not feel like a success, but over time we could see growth.
Little by little the Israelites would drive out their enemies. Bit by bit, rather than in an instant, would keep them from getting sluggish and overconfident. And it would keep the wild beasts from multiplying in the unpopulated land.
Thus too in our spiritual warfare, it is no doubt ordained for our highest good that our corruptions should be subdued, not all at once, but by little and little; that our old man should be crucified gradually. This keeps us in an attitude of perpetual vigilance, and reminds of our constant dependence upon God, who alone giveth us the victory. (G. Bush)
And when you think about it, what could be better this side of heaven than to fully rely on God?
Little By Little We Grow
Israel was promised a bountiful land, but we are promised an abundant life (John 10:10). Not easy life, but abundant life.
So I was going to end the first post, the happy bow post before I learned about the stolen phone, with Ephesians 3 verse 20. But then I scrapped it. Because that’s a powerful victory verse and we’d had a setback.
But as I think about it, to stay the course and drive out our enemies little by little takes massive power within us, too. And it’s at work in the son and me.
So I think I still will.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,
Idols? What idols? And why would you want to identify your idols? After all, asking these questions is like plunging into Lake Michigan on February 1st.
Exposure stings. It’s painful in the moment, but— my Polar Plunging niece tells me—you’re glad you did it once it’s done.
Exposing our idols at once stings and bites and cleanses and invigorates.
What is an idol?
I’ll borrow from Brad Bigney, since he wrote the idols book my girlfriends are studying with me.
An idol is anything or anyone that captures our hearts, minds, and affections more than God.
Brad Bigney, Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols
In other words, when I fear or seek anyone or anything more than Jesus Christ, it’s an idol. And worshiping idols is a fool thing to do.
Because idol worship is a self-injurious, double sin. In Jeremiah 2:13, God explains how,
My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Whenever we look to things other than God to meet our desires— even perfectly legitimate desires for gifts like health and happiness or security and peace— we have become idolaters. Period.
Because God is the Giver of all good gifts. When we turn a good thing—whether health or helping, our children or friends— into an ultimate thing, it’s become an idol. Paul David Tripp asks, Could it be that desire for a good thing has become a bad thing because that desire has become a ruling thing?
3 Reasons Idol Worship Matters
Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them (Jonah 2:8). That’s why idolatry matters. God gives special grace to the humble, to those who fear him, to those who seek his face. By idol worshipers forfeit that special grace that could be theirs.
They pursued worthless idols and themselves became worthless (2 Kings 17:15b). That’s another reason your idol worship matters. Because we become what we behold. When we look on Jesus, we are transformed to his image, from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). But when we pursue drivel, our souls shrivel.
When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts...I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them (Ezekiel 14:7-8). That’s the big gun. God does not share his glory with others or share his praise with idols (Isaiah 42:8). In shorts, if you set up an idol in your heart, God will set his face against you.
Clinging and pursuing and setting up idols sounds a lot like slavery. Timothy Keller has written, An idolatrous attachment can lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold on to it. It may drive you to violate all good and proper boundaries. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.
I told you. It would feel like a cold shower. So get your towel out. In we go.
4 Questions To Identify Your Idols
But first, have you noticed how it’s so much easier to spot other people’s idols than our own? I can see a friend with a security idol a mile away—the anxiety, the refusal to risk, the control. And an approval idol—I can spot that one from two miles away. But I can be a bit blind to my own.
So it follows that others might see my idols more clearly than me.
That’s where the questions come in to play. But my Thursday morning girlfriends and I are serious about rooting out our idols. We’ve taken the stinging, invigorating, cleansing plunge. You are absolutely right—this is not for the faint of heart.
Because most of us are a little too defensive. We’re a little too tightly wound to receive criticism aright. We want answers for our troubles, but we can’t handle the truth.
Are you ready? Brace yourself. Then humble yourself and invite a spouse or a close friend to speak into your life.
What do you see me running to instead of God?
Where do you see a demanding spirit in me?
What do you see me clinging to and craving more than God?
Where do you see me wanting something so badly that I’m willing to sin to get it or sin if I think I’ll lose it?
An Idol Revealed
I was feeling strong the night I posed those four to Jim, and he didn’t hesitate. His answers were stinging and cleansing at once. But none was a shock. I’ll spare you most of the sordid detail, I will confess to you that Jim’s answer to #4 was <gulp> “writing.” Which, I’m aware, goes deeper to a root of influence and pride. I like to feel esteemed. Not always and in every way, but sometimes and most every day.
I am guilty as charged: I have sinned to get my writing in. Namely, I may ignore the family around, or I may stay up too late—it’s 10:37 pm as I type—and wake up grumpy and get myself sick, both of which are unloving to those around me. Or I may be tempted to use work time for writing, which is stealing. And if, after I’ve poured heart and soul into it, my writing goes is unread and ignored I may commit the twin sins of envy and self-pity.
2 Ways To Guard Yourselves From Idols
It’s not quite Whac-A-Mole, but my idols keep popping up.
Seeing as, “Man’s nature…is a perpetual factory of idols” (John Calvin), my first tear-down technique is to realize that the fight won’t be over till glory. Bigney calls this a “wartime mentality.” Galatians 5:17 is true: For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want to do. That is as true for me today as it was 20 years ago and will be 20 years from now.
The second idol-destroying strategy is to seek Jesus. I seek Him in his Word, and I seek him in the wisdom of the saints. As Bigney notes, “Reading the Bible keeps you honest, because you don’t just read the Bible—the Bible reads you.” It exposes us—Polar Plunge style sometimes—but the more time we spend with Him in his Word, the smaller our idols will be and easier to uproot. But, addsTullian Tchividjian explains, If you uproot the idol,but fail to plant the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back.
That’s it: be on guard, and know Jesus. And follow him. Obey his Word. That will starve those idols out.
For me and my writing (and respect) idol, it meant no JoyPrO post last week. It meant delaying this post to play Euchre and watch a movie with the boys last night. And every single day, by grace, it means that I won’t open the laptop to write or head to Facebook to post if I haven’t sought God in His Word first.
Knowing Jesus Christ will keep us from idols. Or, as Elisabeth Elliot wrote, When God is first in our hearts, all other loves are in order and find their rightful place. And a cold plunge can be a rousing way to expose those other loves.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
1 John 5:21
Bonus: 10 Probing Idol Worship Quotes
1. “Thus it is that we always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
2. “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior. ” –Martin Luther
3. “Saint Augustine defined idolatry as worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped.” –Colin S. Smith
4. “If we make an idol of any creature, wealth, or pleasure, or honour – if we place our happiness in it, and promise ourselves the comfort and satisfaction in it which are to be had in God only – if we make it our joy and love, our hope and confidence, we shall find it a cistern, which we take a great deal of pains to hew out and fill, and at the best it will hold but a little water, and that dead and flat, and soon corrupting and becoming nauseous (Jer. 2:23).” -C.H. Spurgeon
5. “What are you really living for? It’s crucial to realize that you either glorify God, or you glorify something or someone else. You’re always making something look big. If you don’t glorify God when you’re involved in a conflict, you inevitably show that someone or something else rules your heart.” –Ken Sande
6. “The most dangerous mistake that our souls are capable of, is, to take the creature for God, and earth for heaven.” –Richard Baxter
7. “Our culture says ‘live your dream,’ but God calls you to place your dream on His altar and to keep it there at all times. It is good to have hopes and dreams for the future, but we have no rights. There are no certainties. Any dream can become an idol and, if it does, God will bring it down.” –Colin S. Smith
8. “When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping. When such a thing is threatened, your anger is absolute. Your anger is actually the way the idol keeps you in its service, in its chains. Therefore if you find that, despite all the efforts to forgive, your anger and bitterness cannot subside, you may need to look deeper and ask, ‘What am I defending? What is so important that I cannot live without?’ It may be that, until some inordinate desire is identified and confronted, you will not be able to master your anger.” -Timothy Keller
9. “When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around.
Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. People who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.” -N.T. Wright
10. “The bottle of the creature cracks and dries up, but the well of the Creator never fails; happy is he who dwells at the well.” -C.H. Spurgeon
Cut comma, delete clause, better word. First impression! No typos on this one, Abigail. Big breath. Triple check.
Read it out loud. Read it again.
Is it wrong to want more influence? Is it bad to try to build your tribe? And is it sinful to want more opportunity to make a bigger mark for God?
It all depends.
It depends first of all if you’re being, what Paul David Tripp calls, a glory thief. If you’re craving the credit for what only God could create, or wanting your tribe to dote on you and hang on your words rather than worship God, you are a glory thief.
But there’s this other piece I’m learning. S L O W L Y learning. I am learning that while it isn’t wrong to approach Mom’s apple from a position of scarcity—because there are a limited number of pieces— it is both irrational and wrong to approach ministry and writing this way.
Because there is plenty of ground to go around.
On Friday, I wrote the big **Intro Post** to the Hope*Writers group I joined four months ago. Four months of build up to make the perfect first impression that could connect me to the “right people” and help launch the MORE MEEK book before long. That’s what the deleting and cutting and breathing and re-reading were all about before I hit post.
Saturday evening I looked back at the post, back at the group. I looked back like Lot’s wife and I started comparing. Not only the meager likes and tepid welcomes on my intro post with the massive likes and red hot welcomes on Amy’s intro post, but my life with her life.
You see, Amy was working for the campus organization that I almost joined 20 years ago. She is doing what I love do as her job. Plus Amy has a real book published by a real publishing house.
Silent tears kicked off a short-lived, impromptu pity party on Saturday night.
Yes, I know. Ug-ly.
Tend Your Territory
Enter Jonathan Rogers into my ugliness. The words of his post were God sent for me that Saturday night, when I started comparing my writing with hers.
Rogers describes urges his writing readers to switch from a hierarchical orientation to a territorial orientation. A hierarchical orientation is fueled by comparison. Instead of comparing and thinking better than, more than, think of faithfulness tending your land. Because comparison, we know, is the thief of joy.
Writing, like running (and, for that matter, like football) requires discipline and work and a willingness to do hard things when a thousand easier things present themselves. But the goal of all of that work and discipline is to get better, not to get better THAN. Other writers are your allies, not your adversaries…
If you’re a writer, forget about your place in the hierarchy. You don’t have a place in the hierarchy because there is no hierarchy in any meaningful sense. What you have is a territory—a little patch of ground that is yours to cultivate. Your patch of ground is your unique combination of experiences and perspective and voice and loves and longings and community. Tend that patch of ground.
Please be encouraged. Because we all have a patch of God-given territory. It’s ours to tend. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.
So tend your little patch of ground that is uniquely yours. Tend the girlfriends who want to spend time with you. And tend the growing sons who need you even if they don’t want you. Tend the home that needs your gentle stability. Attend to the readers and listeners God sends you.
Tend, tend, tend. Tend them.
Two Prayers: Both/And
Remember the prayer of Jabez? It’s buried in an obscure passage in a rather obscure Old Testament book. The genealogy is humming along, when after forty-four names, the name Jabez breaks in. And in 1 Chronicles 4:10 we read,
Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.
Jabez prayed for more territory—for me that might look like more people to encourage with God’s Word, more Bible studies, more readers, and maybe, getting that MORE MEEK book in print. What would enlarged territory look like for you?
Pray for it. But remember, too, the words of Psalm 131—that little prayer that King David prayed,
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Both. Pray for an enlarged territory. Pray that your little patch of influence for Christ, please God, would increase.
After a three month build up to that big first impression intro*post, which 5-6 hours of deliberation, I did the deed on Friday. Then came the sore dejection and deflation on Saturday when I compared my post, and my life, with Amy’s.
Then I got to tending. I started the Bible study prep in the Gospel of Matthew for my little Sunday afternoon territory. And as I prepared this little patch of ground that God has entrusted to me, I started to see that even though my envy is ugly, God isn’t afraid of ugly. So neither should we be. Jesus touched the unclean and made them clean. He deals in beauty made from ashes.
It was getting late and I was still straddling the fence. But my choice distilled to this: Do I stay at the party or blow the joint with the meek and humble Jesus?Do I compare or choose fellowship with the man of no reputation? I can’t do both.
He knows. Which means he can sympathize with the likes of you and me.
All Glory Be To Christ
That was Saturday night. Then came Sunday morn.
God wasn’t done speaking to me about envy and legacy. He speaks through his Word. Sometimes his Word is expressed through man’s lips or song lyrics that remind us of God’s truth.
And it just so happened that on the first Sunday of the new year we sang a song that starts like this, and this pity-party throwing, would-be glory thief was all undone.
In the best of ways.
Should nothing of our efforts stand No legacy survive Unless the Lord does raise the house In vain its builders strive To you who boast tomorrow’s gain Tell me what is your life A mist that vanishes at dawn All glory be to Christ
Hair fades, brows crease, and it is all grace that our marriage has endured to year 25.
But even with 24 years under my belt, I’m no marriage expert.
I do have one quick tip, though. I call it the THAT’S WHY I MARRIED YOU game; AKA: CALL OUT THE GOOD, or I LOVE THAT ABOUT YOU.
Single? No worries. It works with friends, too. Just call it, THAT’S WHY YOU’RE MY FRIEND.
In fact, I advise my single friends, Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, then half-closed after the wedding. This, I think, is an active way of keeping our eyes half-closed—closed to negatives we can’t change in others—and wide open to their praiseworthy ways.
To clarify, calling out the good does not mean we don’t see the bad. It only means we choose to dwell on the good, à la Philippians 4:8,
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Not Blind, Just Focused
So playing this “game” doesn’t imply you’re smitten down to the pinky toes. It just means you’re choosing to see the good in them. It’s not blind devotion. It’s proper focus.
Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates…But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52
And you’re real soul-mate will thank you and feel more like your soul-mate if you practice this one tip.
Do Not Withhold Good
Directions for use: Simply call out the good when you think it. You notice when a friend keeps her word when it hurts, call it out. Your husband unloads the dishes, acknowledge it.
Don’t save you loving speeches. Praise the praiseworthy. Don’t be stingy with it. If you think a complimentary, affectionate, kind-hearted thought about your husband (or friend) share it.
Bonus Points: Call out the good in front of others. I try to play “that’s why I married you” in front of the boys. It sounds like, “He gives great hugs. That’s why I married your dad.” Or when you’re having coffee with Meg and some mutual friends you casually ask, “Doesn’t Meg give the most thoughtful gifts?”
And without any more ado, here’s why 24 years after the wedding, I’m glad Jim’s my man.
In no particular order, here are 10 reasons I’m glad I married Jim:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
I think of these lines as December runs out. They’re from a king’s speech to his fearful people—people of one of the most powerful nations on earth in a time of great uncertainty and three long months at war.
More than eight decades have passed since King George delivered that message, but its truth is as needed as it was then. Because the times they are a-changin’. And the order rapidly fading and the roads rapidly changing isn’t all good.
It wasn’t so good then, either.
Peace In Troubled Times
Great Britain had entered the Second World War in September 1939. In the three months since, air-raid sirens had been ringing in their ears and tension was rising. Anxiety and fear over the New Year pressed into English hearts and minds.
King George VI was England’s reigning monarch in December 1939. As was the custom, the king addressed the nation on a BBC radio broadcast on a Christmas day when all was not calm and bright. He told the people of the only true source of peace in troubled times. King George concluded the message with the part of a poem introduced to him by his 13 year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth.
The king read the poem to encourage the English people that even during the dreadful war their future could be bright and secure.
That’s why I share it with you on the gate of this year. If your hand in His, you will walk by faith in him, your way will tread safely and rest secure—come what may.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
So heart be still: What need our little life Our human life to know, If God hath comprehension? In all the dizzy strife Of things both high and low, God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will Is best. The stretch of years Which wind ahead, so dim To our imperfect vision, Are clear to God. Our fears Are premature; In Him, All time hath full provision.
Then rest: until God moves to lift the veil From our impatient eyes, When, as the sweeter features Of Life’s stern face we hail, Fair beyond all surmise God’s thought around His creatures Our mind shall fill.
God knows. His will is best…Our fears are premature. He will provide for all time.
For all your days and times.
Our Days Are Numbered, And That’s Good News
All of our days are numbered. They were written in his book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16). Priest and missionary Henry Martyn said, You are immortal until God’s purpose for you is complete. And since God loves his children with great love, this is very good news.
So I echo the king at the gate of our year, May that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all. Amen.
I finished the list—the 23rd list. Compiling the Piquant Page-Turner ladies’ book club annual book list is both one of my favorite and one of the most difficult things in all the world.
Partly because I feel a sacred trust. Selecting in which friends will invest their precious time is a burden. I don’t want them to waste their time. But it’s excruciating for another reason: I see how many good books I cannot introduce to my friends.
After 22 years of reading a book a month together—250 or so books, I think—we have barely touched the top shelf.
Good Ladies Behind Good Books
This year two books helped me pick good books. Not surprisingly, both books were gifts from book club friends. Before I tell you about the books, let me tell you about the friends.
My friend Jen gave me the book on the left, Karen Swallow Prior’s, On Reading Well. Jen joined the book club over a decade ago, but her health seldom allows her to leave the house. But still Jen reads. She reads and reviews and helps launch books. Jen has been behind some of our best books and arranged the most fascinating author interviews.
My friend Karen gave me the other book about good books, Sarah Clarkson’s, Book Girl. Karen came to the very first book club meeting I hosted as a 22 year-old, married 1-year, grad-school student who loved reading and talking about books. She’s 30 years older than me and Mom’s friend—Mom comes too—but age is no barrier to when you love to read.
I wish I could tell you about my other book club friends—friends like Lisa and Kathy and Joyce and Jen.
Why Read Good Books?
Reason number one: because my imagination and attitudes and behavior need tune-ups. Reading helps me set my mind on what is good and pure and lovely. But it’s not enough to read widely. As Karen Swallow Prior notes, One must also read well…Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true.
And, as Mark Edmundson explains in his book Why Read?, The ultimate test of a book, is the difference it would make in the conduct of life. So why take the time to find and read good books? Because reading good books makes us more virtuous people.
Prior quotes Thomas Jefferson to explain this further,
Everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original Act of Charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves to do charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive and importance of Vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and…the exercise of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.
We read good books works our virtue muscles, if you will.
Why Keep Reading Good Books?
Build An Excellence Habit
In a word: habit. To have your imagination bathed in virtue you must continue at it. Don’t just dip your hand. Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, Karen Swallow Prior explains, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in Man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life…For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”
Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, quoting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
We keep setting good books before our eyes because goodness is formed in us over time. We become what we behold, someone said. And what we keep beholding.
Build Empathy Too
Why else should you keep reading good books? Because continual reading of good books gives us more empathy. Empathy enables kindness, and God knows we need more kind and tender-hearted among us.
Reading allows us to place ourselves in another’s shoes, seeing the world through another’s eyes, empathizing with views different from our own… Just as thinking about walking can actually stimulate your brain and muscles to remember the feeling of walking, reading a book stimulated the brains of readers in such a way as to suggest they were imaginatively “feeling” the story as something real. Imagine the power that gives us to feel the pain of another, to understand someone else’s struggle, stubbornness, or need. The kind of compassionate insight offered by a perceptive story is one that drives us toward connection. We are given the insight both to understand and to reach across the barriers…
Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life
We need each others’ presence. And we need—and crave for ourselves—empathy in their presence. That’s why we keep reading good books.
Why Keep Reading Good Books Together?
I won’t lie. It’s a drain. I’ve greeted my book club friends with dinner-stained sweatpants and tear-stained eyes some Monday nights. It takes time to read and effort to get together and the family still needs feeding. So we eat and I and race to the couch to finish the last 20 pages which more often than not make me cry. Then I answer the door and we book girls talk about books together.
In these more “socially-distant” days, we need friendship. Reading books together builds friendship. As Irving Stone noted, There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Clarkson explains how this connection happens.
[A] woman who reads is a woman who relates. A book girl knows that a shared book is a ground of mutual discovery, a space in which the soul and thought of another may open to her in a wondrous way…When people inhabit a realm of imagination or theology or poetry together, their own realms of soul and spirit are revealed to the others who sojourn with them to that place. Reading, when shared, begins a conversation that breaks down the barriers of isolation and connects us, one to another, as we exclaim, in C.S. Lewis’s description of friendship in his book, The Four Loves, “What! You too?”
Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life
Reading good books together connects us.
Will You Be a Book Girl (or Guy)?
That’s it. Now I’ll share the book list. And I hope with me you’ll resolve to keep reading good books in 2021, and maybe to read some together. (You’re always welcome to join the Piquant Page-Turners. If you can tolerate sweats and tear-stained eyes.)
I’ll close with this. It’s a vision of the generous Book Girls I’m blessed to know (you know who you are), and, by grace, I want to be.
The reading life is, I’m convinced, a form of love, a way of encountering the world and its splendor and drama. The reading life comes to us as a gift and, as it fills us, drives us to fresh generosity. As you read and imagine, learn and grow in the company of great books, I hope you, too, will find that joyous urge that comes of a heart grown rich to hand out books to the children in your life, to pass on novels to your best friends, to press a good story into the hands of a struggling teen.
Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life
I hope you’ll enjoy these books and I hope you’ll use these books—to learn and grow, to gain hope, to battle well.
Love, be changed: read good books together.
2021 Piquant Page-Turner Picks
January 11- Perfectly Human: Nine Months With Cerian, Sarah Williams
February 8- Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High, Melba Pattillo Beals
March 8- The Awakening of Miss Prim: A Novel, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
April 12- The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
May 10- True Grit, Charles Portis
June 15- The Death of Ivan Illych, Leo Tolstoy
July 12- Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher
August 9- A Gentleman From Moscow, Amor Towles
September 13- The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
October 11- Health Is Membership, an essay by Wendell Berry
November 8- Pilgrim’s Inn, Elizabeth Goudge
December 13- Two From Galilee, Marjorie Holmes
The Piquant Page-Turners typically meet at 7 PM on the second Monday of the month. Please note that dates and times are subject to change based on the fancy and whim of its members.
In 1948, C.S. Lewis published a poem called, “The Turn of the Tide.” In it, he imagines the cosmic significance of Christ’s birth.
Rest assured, the tide has turned. It might not feel like it, but feelings lie. Oh sure, we’re still in these long last days and I’m still one of the poor orn’ry people—but about 2020 years ago the tide turned.
It was never intended to stay there. In fact, it reached the highest heavens. Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. When the Virgin gave birth to a son the galaxies tingled and rocked.
But it also reached the lowest shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that night and it penetrates into our little house in some big Wisconsin woods in these Covid-19 days.
The Turn of the Tide
I read the poem aloud to three teenage boys in that little house this afternoon. At least two out of three at half-listened. I hope you enjoy it at least twice as much as one of three did.
Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. Black and bare Were the fields; hard as granite the clods; Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge in the vice Of the pool, like pointed iron rods. And the deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem. It was shed Wider each moment on the land; Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall Stole the hush; all tongues were at a stand. At the Procurator’s feast the jocular freedman ceased His story, and gaped. All were glum Travellers at their beer in a tavern turned to hear The landlord; their oracle was dumb. But the silence flowed forth to the islands and the North And smoothed the unquiet river bars And levelled out the waves from their revelling and paved The sea with cold reflected stars.
Where the Caesar on Palatine sat at ease to sign, Without anger, signatures of death, There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom, And his pen faltered, and his breath. Then to Carthage and the Gauls, past Parthia and the Falls Of Nile and Mount Amara it crept; The romp and war of beast in swamp and jungle ceased, The forest grew still as though it slept. So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth A signal, a warning, went out And away behind the air. Her neighbours were aware Of change. They were troubled with a doubt.
Salamanders in the Sun that brandish as they run Tails like the Americas in size Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes. In Houses and Signs Ousiarchs* divine Grew pale and questioned what it meant; Great Galactal lords stood back to back with swords Half-drawn, awaiting the event, And a whisper among them passed, ‘Is this perhaps the last Of our story and the glories of our crown? –The entropy worked out?–The central redoubt Abandoned? The world-spring running down? Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore Even them. They were as flies in a web, In their lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come; The tide lay motionless at ebb.
Like a stab at that moment, over Crab and Bowman, Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock Of returning life, the start and burning pang at heart, Setting Galaxies to tingle and rock; And the Lords dared to breathe, and swords were sheathed And a rustling, a relaxing began, With a rumour and noise of the resuming of joys, On the nerves of the universe it ran. Then pulsing into space with delicate, dulcet pace Came a music, infinitely small And clear. But it swelled and drew nearer and held All worlds in the sharpness of its call. And now divinely deep, and louder, with the sweep and quiver of inebriating sound, The vibrant dithyramb** shook Libra and the Ram, The brains of Aquarius spun round; Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known Since the Word first founded the abyss, But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged, A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.
Heaven danced to it and burned. Such answer was returned To the hush, the Favete, the fear That Earth had sent out; revel, mirth and shout Descended to her, sphere below sphere. Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost, His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze; Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One, The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes. A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth went gliding. Her bonds were released. Into broken light a breeze rippled and woke the seas, In the forest it startled every beast. Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France, Leprechauns from Down to Labrador, In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.
So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d Nothing greater could be heard Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born, And cattle in stall as they stirred.
C.S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper, 1992, pp. 49-51.
The After Effects
I’ve never imagined how it would feel to be a galaxy—Bowman or Crab, Libra or Ram— or even a planet of moon. But I’m glad Lewis did.
Because there must have been a ripple effect—a pulsing sound into space and even into forest and seas—when One babe was born. Maybe a shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth.
And because every single day I feel the after-effects of the Babe born, the Son given. I live and love, I confess and forgive, and whenever I joyfully press on, it’s because of the coming of the One. It’s all because of the birth that arrested death.
Oh, yes. All these pulses and ripples and shivers and thrills and all this joyful musicmust mean the tide has turned.
The Tide Has Turned
A few years later, another famous Inkling, was also writing about the turn of the tide.
‘Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’ He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in a cloud again. ‘Yes, you may still call me Gandalf,’ he said, and the voice was the voice of their old friend and guide. ‘Get up, my good Gimli! No blame to you, and no harm done to me. Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 1956
The Child was born and the Son was given—unto us. The tide turned when the majestic glory of the King of the Universe was revealed in a Babe laying in a manger in Bethlehem.
And I’d be surprised if the galaxies didn’t dance.
So feel free. Be merry!
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
We await our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…
He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name…
I can’t wait for 2020 to be done! 2021 has got to be better. I keep hearing that and I’m just not so sure.
But I know we have need of endurance.
Need Of Endurance
That’s how the author of the book of Hebrews put it, For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised (Hebrews 10:36).
Endurance is bearing up under pressure or strain. It’s holding the weight above your head for 30 more seconds while your arms are quivering and aching. It’s carrying the six-year old all the way back while your legs are shaking. Weight bearing strengthens your body. It also strengthens your soul. But there are no shortcuts. You must bear up.
Endurance is strength in opposition. People who endure stand firm and handle pain because they know that trials can be productive (James 1:2-4). I like to write about about strong moms and strong grace and strength to do the ordinary things. My business card says I’m a spiritual strength trainer. I love to help people stand firm and grow strong.
So it’s not surprising that in this truth-denying climate, with freedom-ceding Covid-19 and a hyper-charged political scene, I hear the call to endure louder than ever.
Because 2020 might have been birth pangs and tremors. Not recovery and aftershock, but beginnings. You have need of endurance.
Because who’s not to say that the year of our Lord 2021 may be an even wilder ride?
Oak Or Squash?
Before James Garfield was President of the United States, he was head of Hiram College. At Hiram, a father once asked Garfield if his son’s course of study could be simplified so he could get through by a shorter route.
The blessed are the steadfast. The ones who endure like Job and grow strong in their faith like Abraham (Romans 4:20). The ones who feel the pain and scratch with potsherds and grieve their losses as praise, but don’t charge God with wrong (Job 1:22). But they don’t take shortcuts. They cling to God’s promises (Romans 4:20). They’re strong, steady oaks.
The not-blessed are those who squish under pressure. They feel they heat and turn to mush. They don’t stand firm. They spring up. But trials— like 2020 come and under the pressure, they wilt (Mtt. 13:21).
Or, to borrow from Garfield, they seek shortcuts. They don’t stand firm and they’re squash. Squishy, mushy squash.
Ooh. That sounded condescending, I confessed seconds after using the phrase, “So cute.” The topic? Christmas decor.
What does condescending mean? asked the 13 year-old son.
Like you’re God’s gift to the people you’re with. I paused, As if they’re beneath you and you’re so great to get on their level and give them the time of day.
Oh, he said.
I didn’t tell him the Latin part.
Condescending Is Seriously Bad
I can be condescending. The bad way—the smug, snooty, Seriously?! way. The, How could you not know that? way. I don’t say it. But sometimes I think it. And thinking it even once is too often for a child of God.
But I begin to think how good it is of me to “go low” and help someone “up.” Even with “so cute” Christmas decor. That thought betrays my pride. For humility is not thinking less of yourself, Lewis said, it’s thinking of yourself less. Jesus said, Don’t let your left hand know.
Bad condescending is bad not only because it’s proud, but because it lacks sympathy. I condescend the bad way when I feel like the people I’m “gracing” with my insight or presence should know better or know more or fear less and trust more.
I’m not alone in that mire. Even the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon confided,
There are distresses to which God’s people are subject with which their fellow Christians can have but little sympathy. Some Christians whom I have tried at times to comfort, have had fears so silly that I have felt more inclined to laugh at them than to console them.
Aunt Merriam says to condescend means 1: to assume an air of superiority, 2: to descend to a less formal or dignified level; to waive the privileges of rank. Number one is bad. Number two is the good.
Now here’s that Latin part. Condescendere comes from the Latin words con- which means ‘with’ or ‘together’ + descendere which means to ‘descend’ or ‘come down.’
A question for us: When we descend to be with another, is it with love and sympathy or pride and superiority?
Condescending Is Gloriously Good
The God way is the good way. Philippians 2, verses 6 and 7 explains the “good” condescension so beautifully,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Come, lift your hearts on high, Alleluia! Amen! let praises fill the sky; Alleluia! Amen! he is our Guide and Friend; to us he’ll condescend; his love shall never end. Alleluia! Amen!
Did you see it again? God’s condescending love is worthy of our praise. God’s is gloriously good condescension; his condescension is free from pride and full of sympathy. Spurgeon—and I— know that even when we are unsympathetic and condescend in the bad way, our God in not like us. Thank God he is not like us.
Now our God is so tender and gentle that He even condescends to deal with our silly fears…His gentleness shows itself in His being afflicted in our afflictions and entering into our sorrows, and putting Himself side by side with us in the battle of spiritual life.
Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a joyful mother of children.
The Lord who is enthroned on high nevertheless stooped to look down upon me. He was mindful of my humble estate. After ten years of barrenness, he remembered me. He came down with me and lifted me from the heap.
But our Lord condescends in everyday ways too. Today he gave me peace in conflict and strength to forgive again. Then he allowed a cancelled session which gave me time to finish a report. In big and small ways, God stoops down.
But He did it biggest at Christmas.
Christmas Is About Condescension
I think C.S. Lewis saw it that way. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body, he wrote. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 5)
That condescending conversation in the van last night brought this song to mind in the morning. You might like it.
Who but God would send his Son To condescend and make himself the likes of a mere mortal man
For in the end, condescend is one of the sweetest, most Christmasy words I know. It’s why we stretch Advent out. Because in the incarnation, God did way more than just come down and give us a hand. More than just step out of his castle for an evening of revelry with his serfs at Ye Olde Pub. Oh, no. Infinitely more.
He became one of us. He took on our weakness, sympathized with our weakness and bore our sin. The Creator became a creature. Like us becoming slugs but far more shocking. Who would condescend like this?
We didn’t know what discountenance really meant until Bilbo began his smuggle in Smaug’s lair and Gabe bawled, I’m not listening. Then he plugged his ears and shouted, I can’t hear you. He could.
We can’t hear, Bud. If you don’t obey and quiet down, you will be punished.
He did not and he would not. So I did what I had to do. I sent Gabe from my presence. I turned my face away.
Gabe, go out in the hall. You may listen there. Come back when you will listen.
He balked. Instead of heading to bed, he clapped hands over his ears, and wailed louder.
Go. A. Way. Get out of my sight. You may come back when you are quiet.
Then I waited for him to return. How I waited for him to return.
A Most Grueling Parental Duty
You have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Isaiah 64:10
It had held every promise of a perfect night.
Apart all day, we four were back together at night. We feasted on our favorites: beef fajitas topped with home-made salsa and vanilla bean crowned with Magic-shell. Then Chinese checkers and baths for the boys before we all snuggled in for a first-rate family film.
Gabe was in a very good place. The boundary lines had fallen for him in pleasant places. It began a night of delight.
But the DVD stopped and bedtime came and Gabe pushed the boundaries. He was bent on hearing his bedtime story— THE HOBBIT—on the couch. I agreed to that. But when finally bedtime came, he stomped and stormed and plopped himself down defiant. He turned his back on me bawling like a little man banshee.
That’s when the night turned ugly. But the next hour included a most-grueling parental duty.
Your Sins Have Hidden His Face
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you… Isaiah 59:2
Some wise Christians won’t use the word punishment when they discipline their kids. I do. Not often, and I wish never. But in this fleeting season, sometimes I do punish. By punish, I do mean that bit of discipline that is intended to inflict a penalty for an offense.
I don’t mean paying them back or giving them what they deserve. That work is entirely God’s. And thanks be, He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10).
But our merciful, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness Lord does discipline his children. He lets our sins separate us. The perfect Father found it necessary to punish his hard-hearted children. God turned his face from his people (Ezekiel 14:8, Leviticus 20:3-5, Jeremiah 21:5). He did not approve. He could not approve.
So when our children turn away, rebel and refuse to obey, we cannot approve. We cannot countenance, we cannot look on or look past defiant, hands-pressed-over ears rebellion.
So we discountenance. We turn our faces away.
“In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:8
The Westminster Catechism (1648) uses the word discountenance to describe the “Duties Required of Superiors towards their Inferiors” (Q. 129). Scripture seems to reserve the punishing job for parents and for civil authorities. It is not our job to punish a spouse or friend—or an enemy. It is for us to do good, love mercy, and walk humbly and with truth in love. These are our appointed tasks.
But for our children, punishment may be right. Two centuries after the catechism, J.C. Ryle listed punishment as one of The Duties Of Parents:
Fathers and mothers, I tell you plainly, if you never punish your children when they are in fault, you are doing them a grievous wrong…Reader, if you would train your children wisely, mark well how God the Father trains His. For He does all things well.
But it is so hard. Done right, discipline truly hurts me more that it hurts you. But it is a work to which all loving parents are called (Hebrews 12:6, Proverbs 23:13-14). And it is a purposeful pain maturing saints are called to bear (Lamentations 3:22-30, James 1:2-4).
So we pray that after the hard work, and all discipline- from correcting to training to punishing- is hard work, it will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
He Longs To Be Gracious
For the Lord will not cast off forever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.Lamentations 3:31-33
There is such grace in God’s face. It was there for the woman caught in adultery when Jesus stood up and looked at her, and for the rich young man and the Gadarene who was Legion.
But when hearts are diamond-hard, our ears are plugged, and we sinfully walk away, our lovingly jealous Lord doesn’t shove up our chin and force us to face him. He waits, but He won’t approve. He longs, but He won’t condone. God yearns for our return, but he might look away until we turn to him.
The LORD waits, He longs to be gracious to you, to show mercy. In repentance and rest is salvation, he said. But you were unwilling (Isaiah 30: 18, 15, see also Isaiah 8:17 and 54:8).
Return to me, your fountain of living water and I will heal you. But my people have forgotten me, forsaken me, so I will show them my back, not my face (Jeremiah 18:15, 17).
My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. But, when I would heal Israel, the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed (Hosea 7:1).
While we sit and bawl in the hall, he may let us feel the shame and disgrace we deserve. Being discountenanced is bitter. Divine disapproval of our defiant disobedience smarts. Therefore repent and return, Peter preached,so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.
The Grace In His Shining Face
The LORD bless you and keep you, the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD lift up his countenance to you and give you peace.Numbers 6:24-26
But then we remember the bitterness and the gall, and the pain of being separated from His shining face drives us back to its light. Then we confess our sin and he covers it. And the moment he does, we cry with Micah, Who is a God like you, pardoning sin and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love (7:18).
But that covering and passing over comes at high cost. It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10). We considered that Son smitten, stricken, afflicted by his Father. But he bore our punishment. Like disobedient sheep, we’d strayed. We didn’t heed his voice. But now we’ve returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).
Maybe it was for sheer fatigue or for want of blanket and brown Bear-bear, or maybe he was contrite to the core. Maybe the little banshee boy simply came to his senses and realized he’d be better off beside brother in bed. Or maybe it just sounded cozier to hear how Smaug was taken down while mom rubbed his back than to rage alone at the far end of the hall.
Whatever the reason, Gabe obeyed and lay down his sweaty little head.
Then you better believe I turned my shining face to him.
I’d like a white horse for Christmas. I wouldn’t mind some Florida sunshine, strong coffee and a stronger back rub, but a white horse tops my list.
Bring me a white horse for Christmas We’ll ride him through the town Out into the snowy woods Where we will both lie down
Underneath white birches Our faces toward the sky We will make snow angels With our white horse standing by
Hush now, baby One day we’re gonna ride Hush now, baby Our white horse through the sky
Bring me a white horse for Christmas We’ll ride him through the snow All the way to Bethlehem Two thousand years ago
I wanna speak with the angel Who said do not be afraid I wanna kneel where the oxen knelt Where the little child was laid
Hush now, baby One day you’re gonna ride Hush now, baby Your white horse through the sky
No bridle will he be wearing His unshod hoofs they will fly Keep a watch this Christmas For that white horse in the sky
Hush now, baby One day we’re gonna ride Hush now, baby Our white horse through the sky
Hush now, baby Let every angel sing Hush now, baby One day we’ll ride again
Over The Rhine, “Snow Angels”
Keep looking up. The baby of Bethlehem will ride.
Is this white horse on your Christmas list?
It’s only the first week of Advent, but 2020 has had feel of an eternal Advent with all the waiting for relief and cries for peace and longing for right.
I feel the ache. This week left me second guessing a lot of things I thought I sort of knew. About how to love like Jesus loved and live not by lies and walk in the truth. About the right times to tear and to sew, to keep silence and speak, to love and hate, for war and for peace. In darkness.
This first Advent week my convictions are getting all muddled and despite seeking God’s will, I was the more befuddled.
Because relationships are messy business. So is love. When love is feels cruel it makes you wonder, is the lover deceived or the beloved blinded by feelings? Or are both or neither true?
I don’t know.
A White Horse Comes
But the darkness in the world, in my mind makes me wait more. And that’s what Advent’s about, right? The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
I know Jesus is coming. And I want to be one of those looking up, like Paul was, longing for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:8). Longing for Him. While I don’t always know how to love His world, I know that I love Him and He loves me. And I know the Baby of Bethlehem will come again and take his children to be where He is (John 14:3).
And that knowledge is hushing my harassed and burdened heart this week. Will you join me in these long last days and short three weeks and bear the weight of sin until He brings his peace to reign?
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Thanksgiving this year will be different. The massive Considine clan will not gather for the first time in my adult life.
Thoughts Of Former Thanksgivings
There will not be the moment when I walk into my Uncle Nathan’s house and stunned by the dozens of beloved aunts and uncles and first cousins who are now having dozens and dozens of children whose names I can’t always remember.
There will not be those catching up down country roads with my cousins Hannah and Humility, Rachel and Kathleen.
Nor will there be the competitive-friendly, after-dinner football game with cousins and uncles from age 8 to age 58, when I count apples and rush, and sneaky cousins eavesdrop on play calls and we run and laugh—and some of us limp—until we just can’t see no more.
Then there will not be the hymn sing with Aunt Judy playing the whole hymnal by ear, while I curb my enthusiasm just enough to refrain from calling out consecutive hymns, to give others a chance to request.
No, there won’t be those.
Thanksgiving of 2020—in one way or another—will be different for all of us.
This Thanksgiving, Think Upon The Things That Are
So the annual Thanksgiving post is different. It’s not about giving thanks per se. It’s about “cleaving the faster together,” and being “friends in adversity.” It’s a theme I keep coming back to in 2020: maintain good friendships. Whatever shape they take, do not give up meeting together, as some are doing (Hebrews 10:25). Keep your friends close.
The feasting was over and the tables were cleared. Robert Cushman delivered the same advice to the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims shortly after “The First Thanksgiving” in November, 1621. In a sermon entitled, “The Sin and Dangers Of Self-Love,” Cushman warned the Pilgrims that they must not go it alone. Self-love must not cuase them to forsake the friends. His whole message can be read here.
But it’s the end of the message that prompted this post. In a fraught year when fear and unknowns make it easier to let our friendships go, the last two paragraphs are both timely and timeless (bolding mine),
And as you are a body together…labor to be jointed together and knit by flesh and sinews; away with envy at the good of others, and rejoice in his good, and sorrow for his evil. Let his joy be thy joy, and his sorrow thy sorrow: Let his sickness be thy sickness: his hunger thy hunger: his poverty thy poverty; and if you profess friendship, be friends in adversity; for then a friend is known and tried, and not before.
Lay away all thought of former things and forget them, and think upon the things that are; look not gapingly one upon other, pleading your goodness, your birth, your life you lived, your means you had and might have had; here you are by God’s providence under difficulties; be thankful to God, it is no worse, and take it in good part that which is… when Job was brought to the dung-hill, he sat down upon it, Job 2:8…consider therefore what you are now, and whose you are; say not I could have lived thus, and thus; but say thus and thus I must live: for God and natural necessity require, if your difficulties be great, you had need to cleave the faster together, and comfort and cheer up one another, laboring to make each other’s burden lighter; there is no grief so tedious as a churlish companion and nothing makes sorrows easy more than cheerful associates: bear ye therefore one another’s burden, and be not a burden one to another; avoid all factions…singularity and withdrawing, and cleave fast to the Lord, and one to another continually; so also shall you be an encouragement to many of your christian friends in your native country, to come to you, when they hear of your peace, love and kindness that is amongst you: but above all, it shall go well with your souls, when that God of peace and unity shall come to visit you with death as he hath done many of your associates, you being found of him, not in murmurings, discontent and jars, but in brotherly love, and peace, may be translated from this wandering wilderness unto that joyful and heavenly Canaan. AMEN
Robert Cushman, 1621, “THE SIN AND DANGER OF SELF-LOVE”
To these ears, Cushman’s sermon is as much for Christian pilgrims in November 2020 as it was for those who heard him deliver it in November 1621. Avoid all factions, singularity, and withdrawing. Do not forsake your friend,the proverb says.
And for those of you who are missing Thanksgiving days of yore, well, like Cushman said, Here you are by God’s providence under difficulties; be thankful to God it is no worse, and take it in good part that which is.
There won’t be the Considine multitude, the after-dinner football and cousin walks and hymn sing. But there will be other good things. Within a smaller circle, I will be thankful.
I wish you all a thankful Thanksgiving, friends. Take it in good part that which is.
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Conversely, one of the biggest deflators I face as a small group leader is deafening sound of silence. Sometimes it’s like this: I pray. Others are invited to pray. But if the people all prayed, I heard not what they said.
Admittedly, sometimes it might be that I sucked all the air out of the room. I’m working to change that.
But sometimes the silence might have to do with comparing our prayers with others.
Admittedly, my prayers can be profuse, sprawling and verbose. I’m like that in most of my close relationships. I’m seldom terse—with my human friends and my God-man friend. One praise reminds me of a second, a third request of a fourth and it’s off to the races. I’m a mouse with a muffin, if I don’t rein me in.
But I love when my concise friends pray. I love when my casual friends pray and I love when my formal friends pray.
In short, I do love to hear the saints pray. And some of them are models.
Choose Models—But Choose Them Well
Theologian D.A. Carson says there is not one best way to pray. But prayer models can help us pray. In different, good ways.
Most of us can improve our praying by carefully, thoughtfully listening to others pray. This does not mean copying everything we hear. . . Not every good model provides us with exactly the same prescription for good praying, exactly the same balance. All of them pray with great seriousness; all of them use arguments and seek goals that are already portrayed in Scripture. Some of the seem to carry you with them into the very throne room of the Almighty; others are particularly faithful in intercession, despite the most difficult circumstances in life and ministry; still others are noteworthy because of the breadth of their vision. All are characterized by a wonderful mixture of contrition and boldness in prayer.
I am learning to pray. First from Bible pray-ers, then from my friends. Cathe ends prayers with Psalm 19:14, and Jen prays with touching spontaneity; Hannah with God’s character first, and Donna ever with gentle persistence. My friend Sarah prays in earnest for the lost.
Prayer is an active exercise of a personal relationship. Our friendships are dynamic. They change and grow. How I relate to my friend Jen isn’t the exact way my friend Lisa relates to Jen. There is uniqueness, and that is as God means it.
I start with the truism that each Christian’s prayer life, like every good marriage, has in it common factors about which one can generalize and also uniquenesses which not other Christian’s pray life will quite match. You are you, and I am I, and we must each find our own way with God, and there is no recipe for prayer that can work for us like a handyman’s do-it-yourself manual or cookery book, where the claim is that if you follow the instruction you can’t go wrong.
Praying is not like carpentry or cookery. It is the active exercise of a personal relationship, a kind of friendship, with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ, and the way it goes is more under divine control that under ours. Books on praying, like marriage manuals, are not to be treated with slavish superstition, as if perfection of technique is the answer to all difficulties; their purpose, rather, is to suggest things to try.
But as in other close relationships, so in prayer: you have to find out by trial and error what is right for you, and you learn to pray by praying. Some of us talk more, others less; some some are constantly vocal, others cultivate silence before God as their way of adoration. . . Yet we may all be praying as God means us to do. The only rules are, stay within biblical guidelines and within those guidelines, as John Chapman puts it, “pray as you can and don’t try to pray as you can’t.”
J.I. Packer, In My Path of Prayer, ed. David Hanes, p. 57
In a word: pray.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
When’s the power coming back on, Mom? the 13 year-old called from somewhere down the pitch black hall.
By 8 o’clock, I hope. For Roboman from the electric company had assured me of that time when I called at 4:45.
Well, Roboman was wrong. He was off by almost a day. We did homework by candlelight, ate sandwiches by candlelight, played euchre by candlelight and by the time we brushed our teeth by flashlight, all the candles had burned out. In the morning my husband rigged up a generator to power the fridge. By noon—guess what?— the gas had run out too.
It all got me thinking as I ran along. Admittedly, I may have been thinking more since—for the first time in months— I ran without my (stone-cold dead) phone. And as I did, I grew downright glad. I was the gladdest jogger around because I have a power source that will never go out. It will never burn up, fizzle out, or run dry.
Do you tap the same source?
Our Power Source
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises… 2 Peter 1:3-4a
Our power source is a divine. Do you see that in verse 3?
Divine power is available to us through knowledge. Namely, it comes through knowing Jesus Christ, who even as I type, is upholding the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).
Have you ever stopped to think about this?
Every day God lights up the Milky Way with yottawatts of power and he never has an energy crisis. And the amazing thing is that His divine power- this power- is available to you. If you are a Christian you have power to progress. This power is available to you! Before you were a Christian you lived you lived your life in the condition of a power cut. You were powerless to please God. But now you have power to progress.
Colin Adams, The Pilgrim’s Progress
All this power is on tap for us who know Christ. And He never has an energy crisis.
No Charge, But You Must Plug In
Here’s more glad news: we don’t pay for this rich source. It is given to us. Gratis, granted. That means it’s a gift.
Knowing God and trusting his precious promises is, if you will, the electrical wire that empowers our life and growth in godliness. In case you wondered, the growth doesn’t come to us when we work like a hamster in a wheel, Kevin DeYoung explains. But neither does our growth in godliness come while we stand still as if riding up an escalator.
No, we cooperate with him. We work out because God is at work in us (Philippians 2:12-13). A vacuum won’t work unless you plug it in. A car won’t run unless you turn the key. We access, if you will, divine power through the twin outlet of our knowledge of him and our trust in his promises.
Promises like it is more blessed to give than receive, and like we will reap a harvest if we don’t stop doing good. Promises like these empower me to give and do good when I’d rather give up and receive.
So God gives the power, but we turn the switch. The car and vacuum are a gift and the outlet and gasoline are too. But to make progress in godliness, we get in the car and push the gas pedal. We make every effort to supplement our faith (2 Peter 1:5). And here’s another empowering precious promise: our effort in this struggle is productive and good.
But that’s not the point of this post. This post is simply to remind you, as I reminded myself in the dark, that we have a power source that will never go out. Oh yes, the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is power. First Peter 1:3 says that his divine power comes to us through our knowledge of Jesus. We know the gospel, that we are more sinful than we realize and God loves us more than we realize. Both. That while we were still in our sins, Christ died for us. If we know Jesus Christ we won’t be powerless. Growth is possible. Hope is possible. Change is possible.
But we won’t have this power without knowing him. So we press on to know him. In His power, we press on.
That’s why my three non-negotiables for health in any fraught—or not—days stay the same. Especially #3: Go hard after God. I mean seek His face. I mean listen to him speak in his Word. Put down your phone, turn off the news, and press on to know Him.
I have too many impoverished friends. Friends, we will never—never— experience divine power if we don’t know Jesus Christ. Oh you might be a “strong person” and carry on with lots of props. But when the cords are pulled— when your health fails, your nation fractures, and your family is all a shambles —what then?
Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He is our keeper (Psalm 121). God’s power never goes out.
But we unplug from the power of God when we leave our Bibles on the shelf. Going about life without striving to know God is like unplugging from the power source then complaining that we feel anxious and alone in the dark. Complaining about God being silent when your Bible is closed is like complaining about not getting texts when your phone is turned off.
Tim Challies puts a bow on it:Apart from this, speaking by his Son, through his Spirit, in the Bible, God does not promise that He will speak in any other way.
In other words, we can all believe that God will speak to us through the Bible. And all this JoyPrO stuff is about how God does speak and how when we listen we gain divine power when we seek.
That’s the one thing. It’s the one habit I hope I never shed. Till kingdom come, I want to keep knowing Him and his power. Because all other powers, even the sun itself, will grow dark.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? Then Peter answershis own question: You ought to live holy and godly lives.
Don’t Make Excuses
So we’d best not make excuses. First Peter 1:3 doesn’t allow it. We cannot say, “If only I had more time or more money or a better church or better family I could be more godly and have a stronger spiritual life.” There is no good excuse.
But we can’t expect God to give us what he did not promise us. He did not promise us the power to cure disease, or create world peace or even to change a child’s heart. But take his promises to the bank. If he tells us, Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you, believe it. Seek first his kingdom.
And keep seeking. His Kingdom and Himself. Don’t settle. Because Christ wants us to grow- in spiritual life and godliness.
Don’t Make The Fatal Mistake
Because God’s powerstore is always available through our knowledge of Him and of his precious promises, we can’t slack. I’ll leave you with C.S. Lewis.
I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not put it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say ‘I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.’ And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble.
But this is the fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us.
Fraught is the word of the week. As in headlines like, “How is TV news going to cover the weirdest, most fraught election in US history?” Or, “How to talk to kids about the election and fraught politics.” Fraught, fraught, fraught. Fraught.
Election or not, our lives are fraught.
So just what is “fraught”? It’s an adjective and its strong synonym is UNEASY. The word worked its way to us from the Middle Dutch noun vracht, which meant “load” and which is also the source of the word freight. As in baggage, burden and load.
Merriam-Webster defines fraught as,
1: full of or accompanied by something specified —used with with a situation fraught with danger; The paper was poorly researched and is fraught with errors.
2: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension : a fraught relationship
I’m writing this post to reassure my fraught self and your fraught self that God strikes with severe mercy—he shakes our sense of security and sends moths to devour our treasures—because our Lord God will not share his glory with another or his praise with idols (Isaiah 42:8). In his grace, our Lord will not permit us to have stability apart from Himself.
In other words, I’m here to say that God sends these fraught days.
God Sends Fraught Days
Why? James answered well: “that you may be perfect [mature] and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.4).
That’s good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be mature and complete lacking nothing?
But what if those only come at the cost of days fraught?
Our current trials may be discipline. Covid-19, the political scene, and our increasingly tense relationships could be God’s moths. He might bring these circumstances so that we tighten our grip on him or he could be bringing it to loosen our grip on our treasures. But in both cases God is working in and through these fraught days to make himself our chief treasure.
Consider the Psalmist in Psalm 39. He believed that what he was enduring was a result of divine discipline for sin.
Erik Raymond explains,
In other words, God sends the discipline and the circumstances act as a divinely dispatch moth to consume his treasure! This is good because in sin we are, like Achan, hiding treasures in our tent (Josh. 7.22). God intends to unfasten us from these fleeting treasures and to refasten us, wholly and completely upon himself.
Regardless of whether our specific sin prompted these fraught Trump v. Biden post-election days or if God’s more general goal that his children grow in holiness was the cause (Hebrews 12:10), we can rest assured. For we know that if we are patient and trained by our trials, these fraught days will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
Therefore, we should not be too taken aback.
We Should Not Be Too Taken Aback…
I, for one, do not want to miss the forest for the trees in these fraught days. God’s ultimate purpose is that we trust in Him (Psalm 37:4-7, Isaiah 26:3-4, Proverbs 3:5-6). Our work, Jesus said, to believe in the One He has sent (John 6:29). To trust him.
We tend to feel like our times are more fraught than times past; as if Noah and Job, Joseph and Moses had fewer reasons for discouragement and unease. So I’ve come back to this bit by J.I. Packer a few times in the past couple fraught days.
The same wisdom which ordered the paths which God’s saints trod in Bible times orders the Christian’s life today. We should not, therefore, be too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Why simply that God in His wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly.
Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humour, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult conditions. Perhaps He has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Or perhaps He wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to Himself in conscious communion with Him…
J.I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press, 1973, p. 86
Free From Fraught
As I write this votes are being recounted in my hyper-divided swing state of Wisconsin. Our nation is on a razor edge. The tension is tangible, this fraught-ness that is new. Oh sure, I’ve been disappointed before.
But this is gloom goes far beyond the two men atop hundreds of thousands of contested ballots in light blue and pink states. As much as I spout hoping in God, I’ve been more skim milk than real cream since election night. Kind of weak. Rather fraught.
But I know there is a good design in it all of this. To quote from a Puritan named Thomas Boston,
It speaks comfort to the afflicted children of God to consider that whatever the crook in your lot is, it is of God’s making and therefore you may look upon it kindly since it is your Father who made it for you. Question not but that there is a favorable design in it toward you.
By some miracle of grace, that is what saints do. We trust that there is a favorable design in our fraught days. I am drawing near. He is drawing me near. And I’m more aware of the treasure it is to commune with Him.
We trust, and we watch for the divinely dispatched moths. They might fly in with coronavirus closures and kids stuck at home. Or they might appear in the mail with late arriving ballots or on the wings of a Twitter bird that does not tweet away.
We trust that God in His wisdom sends moths to eat away our idol hopes and make something of us which we have not attained yet. Yes, we trust that God is at work. Perhaps simply to draw us closer to Himself.
We have to be push-backers, Abigail. Truth demands it.That from a recent email from a friend-who-shall-go-unnamed. This post is that: a little pushback. It is not a call to civil disobedience, to wear a mask or to take it off, or even to vote.
It is a call to not live by lies—a call to be courageous and walk in the truth in love and in truth. Both. John Stott wrote, Our love grows softif it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love; John the Beloved, Let us not love in word or talk but in action and in truth. They belong together. Believers love truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
So when the world calls evil good, bitter sweet, and darkness light (Isaiah 5:20), those of the truth refuse. They refuse to drift along or succumb to self-righteous masquerade. Rather, because they love the truth, they push back against pretense.
They live not by lies.
1. Are You A Push-Backer?
Do you ever push back for truth? Or only ever go along?
I’m not (naturally) a push-backer and I don’t (generally) like to rock the boat. But sometimes a shift is too important to ignore. When it comes at you on multiple sides you can’t let it slide out of mind. You’d be a fool not to take note. I don’t want to be a fool.
So I took notes and now I share them. Because my friend is right. We must be push-backers. Truth demands it. Since Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), as his follower I must walk in truth. The Father commanded (2 John 4) and the Spirit guides this walk (John 14:16-17).
In fact, did you know truth is the reason Christ came into the world?For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). And, at some point, everyone who is of the truth will push back for truth.
2. Do You Trust God’s Truth And Doubt Your Deceitful Heart?
Culture makes it hard. For one thing, our culture cherishes moral ambiguity as an end in itself, as an intrinsically good thing; theologian D.A. Carson notes. Humble Christians trust God to be true (Isaiah 66:2) and doubt their deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).
But the world does the reverse. Be true to your heart, it shouts. How can you be so sure, it taunts. If you trust God—if you “stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E” and believe the sum of his word is truth (Psalm 119:160)— now that, it sneers, is most virulent form of pride.
This reversal is nothing new. G.K. Chesterton described it a century ago, when he wrote,
[W]hat we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.
Do you see? We should doubt ourselves—our feelings, desires, and ‘needs’— not God’s truth.
But believing a truth and speaking it are two different things. Gabi taught me that.
3. Do You Speak Up For Truth?
It was a Friday night in July. Maybe it was pushback to even be where we were. I’m not sure. But the after-dinner mood was light and Gabi was right across the table from me. We’d only met the hour before, but I sensed my new friend from the Czech Republic wouldn’t mind if I asked.
So what was it liketo live under communism?
Gabi was in middle school in 1989, when the Wall fell. Almost overnight, she replied.
That’s how fast her teachers went from denouncing democracy to decrying communism. Her school dumped the pro-communism for pro-republic curricula—taught by the very same teachers who’d spouted the party line mere months before.
How could they do that? I asked, incredulous. What do you think they really believed?
I think there was relief when communism fell and they could teach the truth. They taught what they were told to keep their jobs.
Since statue toppling and painting was big in the news, I pressed on.
So what about all these statues toppled and defaced?
Without blinking, Oh, yes. That happened in Czechoslovakia shortly before Soviet rule.
My stomach churned with the same tension I’d felt a lot in 2020 when I felt torn to like a friend’s post or affirm her position—even if it didn’t sit right. Gabi was insightful and wise, and still across the table from me. So I asked the burning question.
When do I just go along when and when do I speak up for truth?
I think—here Gabi paused and took a deep breath—you must be true to your conscience.If your conscience says it’s wrong, do not go along.
4. Do You Lower Your Voice And Close The Door?
Rod Dreher said the same thing Gabi did in Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents. The title comes from an essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, dated February 12, 1974 —the same day Russian secret police broke into his apartment and arrested him. He was exiled to West Germany the next day. Live Not By Lies, the essay and the book, are clarion calls to courage for those who are of the truth.
But courage to push back against lies doesn’t mean we refuse all compromise. Daily life requires assessing which fights are worth having. Choose your battles. Though one must guard against rationalization, prudence is not the same thing as cowardice. (p. 105)
Sometimes silence is an act of resistance.My refusal to like a popular post or parrot a trendy mantra is choosing to live not by lies.Judit Pastor, whose father was arrested for vocally opposing Ceausescu in 1968 was arrested and his life destroyed in a Romanian prison. She says, Keeping silent when you aren’t expected to be silent is also pushing back.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed the restrictions, “soft” restrictions, I now feel on freedom of speech. I am loath to admit that I close more doors and look over my shoulder far more often when I speak in public places. I wonder, “Can I trust her with this? Should I say that in front of him?”
This is new. It’s a shift. I never used to wonder like this.
A Primer On “Soft” Totalitarianism
I don’t fear arrest by government police. That happened in Soviet era where compliance to the Party’s demands were enforced by the state. That’s not what we’ve got. The totalitarianism we face is “softer.” It demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs… It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings or “victims.” I’m not worried about arrest as much as Facebook nixing my post, or a “fact-checker” blocking a link. I have, by the way, experienced both.
Compliance within soft totalitarianism, Dreher explains, is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations, that thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit. (p. 8-9)Anyone else second guessing your open invitation to Echo and Alexa?
But no, this is not a copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, gulags, and strict censorship. Which is precisely the problem, according to the many émigrés Dreher interviewed who had experienced “hard” totalitarianism. One Czech émigré, a professor in the Midwest, told Dreher about the shift he feels: friends would lower their voices and look over their shoulders when expressing conservative views. I grew up like this, he said, but it was not supposed to happen here. (p. xiii)
I agree with Dreher: it’s hard for us who’ve never lived through such “idealogical fog” to recognize what’s happening.
But don’t forget the frog in the pot.
Silence Doesn’t Save Us, It Corrodes Us
Part of the reason it all feels so foggy is that language is changing. Newspeak, here Dreher borrows from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the Party’s word for the jargon it imposes on society—it controls the categories in which people think. “Freedom” is slavery, “truth” is falsehood, and so forth. Doublethink—”holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”—is how people learn to submit their minds to the Party’s ideology. If the Party says 2+2=5, then 2+2=5. (p. 14)
We might see through the lies, but will we speak up? But if we never do, our silence will not save us but corrode us. So says Czeslaw Milosz. He would know. Milosz was exiled from his native Poland as an anti-communist dissident in 1951.
To dissent costs more these days. To even post this blog gives me pause. But walking in truth constrains me to write and encourage you to live not by lies. Because when you see someone acting courageously, you will act courageously as well. (p. 170)
5. Do You Prefer the ‘Peace’ of Conformity to the Tension of Liberty?
Dreher interviewed Vladimir Grygorenko, an immigrant from the Ukraine. He expressed concern over polls showing waning support for the First Amendment. Grygorenko sees this as a sign of a society that prefers the false peace of conformity to the tensions of liberty. He added, To grow indifferent, even hostile, to free speech is suicidal for free people. (p. 104)
I walked and talked and ached with a friend over our difference this morning. I bear witness: tension, discomfort, and hurt feelings are the price our free expression. But wouldn’t your rather bear the tension of our differences, as our Founding Fathers did, than enjoy a false peace of conformity? Wouldn’t you?
What I did with my friend—imperfectly as I apologized twice in 20 minutes for raising my voice—we must all do. We must speak up. We must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19), but we must “truth it in love” and grow up (Ephesians 4:15).
You have to live in a world of lies, Dreher concludes, but it’s our choice as to whether that world of lies lives in you. (p. 105)
The Greengrocer Breaks The Rules
One of the most gripping sections in the book was the Greengrocer story.
The grocer posts a sign in his shop bearing the well-known slogan from the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!” But the grocer doesn’t believe in it. He hangs it in the store to signal conformity. He just wants to be left alone.
But his action is not meaningless. As Dreher explains, the grocer’s act, “not only confirms that this is what is expected of one in a communist society but also perpetuates the belief that this is what it means to be a good citizen.” Then he quotes Vaclav Havel, one time Czech political prisoner who became the Czech Republic’s first President.
Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really things at political meetings. And he even finds the strength to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game…His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. (p. 98)
And Shatters the World of Appearances
But this act is costly. He loses his shop, his salary is cut, and he can’t travel abroad. Maybe his children can’t get into college. People mock him. If not because they disagree with him, then to keep the authorities off their back. By refusing to mouth a lie, the man suffers.
But there is a deeper meaning to his gesture,
By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. The grocer has…demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie…He has said that the emperor is naked…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. (p. 99)
Maybe you’re shaking your head, saying, Get off it, Abigail. Lighten up.
Last year I would have agreed. But now I say, The kind of Christians we will be in the time of testing depends on the kind of Christians we are today. (p. 204)
What are you willing to risk—to sacrifice—for the sake of truth?
6. Will You Choose Comfort Over Your Soul’s Health?
Because if you live by lies and never push back for truth, your spiritual health will suffer. A person who lives only for his own comfort, said Havel,who is willing to live within a lie to protect that is a demoralized person. (p. 99)
Havel’s words remind me of something J.I. Packer wrote. Packer sets up the analogy by describing first how our bodies are like machines, that need the right routine of food, rest, and exercise to run efficiently. Conversely, if they’re filled up with “the wrong fuel—alcohol, drugs, poison—they lose physical health and ultimately ‘seize up’ in death.”
Then, to our point,
What we are, perhaps, slower to grasp is that God wishes us to thing of our souls in a similar way. As rational persons, we were made to bear God’s moral image—that is, our souls were made to ‘run’ on the practice of worship, law-keeping, truthfulness, honesty, discipline, self-control, and service to God and our fellows. If we abandon these practices, not only do we incur guilt before God; we also progressively destroy our souls. Conscience atrophies, the sense of shame dries up, one’s capacity for truthfulness, loyalty, and honesty is eaten away, one’s character disintegrates. One not only becomes desperately miserable; one is steadily being de-humanised.
J.I., Packer, KNOWING GOD, 102-103
Simply put, believing one thing and doing another will ruin your spiritual health. Living by lies will enslave your soul. It might seem like a liar is strong, and his lie is a victory over his victim. But in reality, a lie is an enslaving act.
Because, as Ayn Rand wrote, one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked.
Maria Wittner said, We live in a world of lies, whether we want it or not. But you shouldn’t accommodate to it. She would know. Her refusal to go along with the Party lies landed in a Hungarian prison. It’s an individual decision if you want to live in the freedom of the soul. If your soul is free, then your thoughts are free, and then your words are going to be free.
Refusing to live by lies isn’t always comfortable, but comfort is overrated. The idol of comfort will disappoint. C.S. Lewis observed,If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
If you refuse to live by the lie, whatever it costs you, you will gain a spiritual victory. And this is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith. (1 John 5:4) But God doesn’t mean for us to conquer alone.
I read it and I agree. It’s hopeful because it says we are not without options and because it is a call to be alert.
That call to be alert and watchful so we’re ready for the Bridegroom is not new. Jesus urged us, Peter urged us, Paul urged us: be alert, stay awake, be watchful (Matt. 24:42, 1 Pet. 1:13, Eph.6:18).
Christian community helps us does that. That came through loud and clear in all of Dreher’s interviews with Christians who kept the faith under communism. To stay alert and remind ourselves of truth, Dreher prescribes the Christian dissident form small cells with fellow believers with whom she can pray, sing, study Scripture… (p. 18)
Rod Dreher wasn’t the first to note the connection between living in loving relationships with other believers and being alert. John praises his readers for “walking in the truth” (2 John 4), then reminded them “to love one another” (v. 5), expressed by “walking according to his commandments” (v. 6). Those words probably don’t surprise us: truth, obedience, love.
But it’s the connection in verse 7 that grabbed me, the reason we must not let our love grow cold (Mtt. 24:12). Love one another, John writes, For many deceivers have gone out into the world. Walking with others in love is a protection against deception.
When we walk side by side we gain strength to live not by lies.
The Final Word: Touchstone For Truth
None of this is easy. Lies aren’t always obvious. The conscience is pricked at different points. But the Christian, as J.I Packer described, is the one, who acknowledges and lives under the word of God. She says with the Psalmist, The sum of your word is truth.
He submits without reserve to the word of God written in ‘the Scripture of truth’ (Dan. 10:21)…since the Scriptures tell him that all things work together for his good, the thought of God ordering his circumstances brings him only joy. He is an independent fellow, for he uses the word of God as a touchstone by which to test the various views that are put to him, and he will not touch anything which he is not sure that Scripture sanctions.
J.I., Packer, KNOWING GOD, p. 104-105
But we need to the Spirit to illumine and help us apply the word. I feel my need acutely. My sin is ever before me.
Solzhenitsyn, for all his calls to resist totalitarian rule, knew well his own sinful heart: “the greatest totalitarian ruler of all—myself.” We are not gods. We never will be gods. But we can know the true God.
For only when we know him can the truth set us free— free from slavery to deadly self-rule and free to live not by lies.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
1 John 5:20
AFTERWARD: If You’re Still Wondering What It Means to Live Not By Lies
Even if, Solzhenitsyn wrote, we do not march into the squares and shout the truth out loud… let us refuse to say what we do not think…let us each make a choice: whether to remain consciously a servant of falsehood…or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect from one’s children and contemporaries.
Such a person, Solzhenitsyn wrote, will not:
sign, write or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth;
utter such a phrase neither in private conversation nor in public, neither on his own behalf nor at the prompting of someone else, neither in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, nor as an actor;
depict, foster or broadcast a single idea in which he can see a distortion of the truth, whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science or music;
cite out of context, either orally or in writing, a single quotation to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not completely share the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue;
allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations and meetings if they are contrary to his desire;
remain in a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda;
subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.
While these are not “all possible and necessary ways of avoiding lies,” wrote Solzhenitsyn, “whoever begins to cleanse himself will easily apply the cleansing pattern to other cases.” Learn more in John Stonestreet’s probing 4-minute Breakpoint podcast.
How will you resolve to live not by lies? I’d love to read your comment.
Holding Out for a Hero is back on my playlist. This election season gets me belting it out with Bonnie Tyler. Where have all the good men gone? Isn’t there a white knight on a fiery steed?
Trump & Biden: Not My Heroes
Admittedly, this might feel like a bait and switch. Because you thought I’d back a candidate here and now. In fact, I did vote today. And if you’re still on the fence, here’s a voter guide.
But I’ll tell you the end at the beginning: my hope and my joy are not in a President. Why? Because the LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our King. He will save us (Isaiah 33:22).
That’s the main reason I’m not holding out for an earthly hero. But there’s another reason: I’m already blessed by heroes I know.
Heroes Among Us
And for the record, my heroes do need to be strong— and humble and joyful and meek. Even if public heroes are in short supply, they are out there. They share common traits. May I describe them to you?
You can recognize them both by what they do and what they don’t do.
Heroes Don’t Write Their Own Stories
Your eyes saw my unformed body; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were not one of them. Psalm 139:16
Heroes don’t write their own scripts. They don’t star in their stories. But with courage and grace, they play parts in stories they didn’t write. And they don’t begrudge the author.
Heroes are the ones who play their assigned part even when it is so hard. My heroes are Julia and Barb, Shari and Kate—but not Bill.
My heroes are the ones who go with good cheer to places they never planned. They have touched the bottom of the deep and can assure me, It is sound. These are my heroes. Not the ones who swimmingly make their way.
Real heroes embrace their place in Someone Else’s story. Often it’s a waiting stage. Like the string of Bible heroes from Noah’s ark stage to Moses’ wilderness stage and Daniel’s Babylon stage and Esther’s Persian stage. Not one of those heroes picked his stage. Sometimes it’s a moving stage. Moses speaks for them when he asks God, “Who am I that I should go?” (Ex. 3:11).
But real heroes stay or go depending on what’s written in the book, in the script. Real heroes play their parts.
Before his fall from grace, I remember Bill Cosby saying of his- to date, storybook- life- It’s as if I’ve written the script myself.Hold out past the ones who live their dreams and follow the script they wrote.
But search high and low for heroes who embrace parts they didn’t write on stages they didn’t select.
Barb is 60-something, a friend of our family’s from way back. We reconnected at Grandma’s funeral. Barb’s got way more pep and way less gray than this 45 year-old has got. Not for a second does she seem senior.
But when Barb’s husband suffered a brain injury a few years ago, they sold their home and moved to Oak Park Place Senior Living. She explained, He needs some extra help plus he loves to visit with all the neighbors. He’s so social. Barb blesses the 90 year-olds that are now her neighbors. She shares Jesus’ love and calls them friends.
She doesn’t begrudge this change in setting in the story she did not write. For that, Barb is my hero.
*Note: Since writing the original post four years ago, Barb’s husband went home to be with Jesus. Like Job, Barb worshiped.
She’s a whiz with words and super-savvy with people and works for a Fortune 500 company. Julia always dreamed of being a wife and mother. Julia never married, never bore children. She wouldn’t have written her script that way. But she says it’s okay.
Aunt Julia is the most generous, most nurturing aunt her nephews could ever have. Two live with Aunt Julia half the week. She takes them to church and shows them Jesus better than their mom and dad have. And her nurturing love overflows way beyond those two nephews.
*Note: After 20+ years at that Fortune 500 company, Julia was laid off in February of 2020. She begins a new lower-paying job next week, and says, “Now I trust God (not money) to open up ways for me to live on this salary.”
Julia didn’t select single status or job loss as a character in this story. But she has trusts God still. For that, Julia’s my hero.
Kate’s in her thirties. Kate’s calm, patient presence speaks volumes of the Refuge she’s got. You see, before Kate turned thirty, her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Treatments and seizures and surgeries left John disabled, and Kate with the lion’s share of raising four kids under eight.
But Kate’s strengthened by his glorious power for all endurance and patience with joy. She’s got a heavy load, helping care for four kids and a husband with fragile health.
*Note: In the four years since I wrote this, John has been in and out of hospitals and other heartache has come Kate’s way. But last week Kate said, “I wouldn’t have chosen this. But the intimacy I have with John and God, well—I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kate didn’t pick the twist in their love story when she married John 20 years ago, but she embraces the story, her husband and God. For that, Kate’s my hero.
Shari was pillar in our church. She was the Christian education director who wrote curriculum that was a smashing success year after year for a decade. Shari wrote plays and painted sets and designed stunning graphics and fun games to draw others to Jesus. Thousands were nourished with the fruit of Shari’s lips and scripts and pens.
Then, Shari’s story took a turn. Things at the church changed and Shari’s husband lost his job. Now Shari sells insurance. Who’d have thought? she said the other day. She’s still awaiting His timing for her writing.
*Note: Shari was diagnosed with a serious cancer last summer. Because it was so rare, treatment decisions were excruciating. But Shari trusted God through. She’s the one who said, you can’t ride two horses with one heinie. Anxiety and gratitude can’t coexist.
Shari didn’t write the job change or the cancer into her story. But with incredible grace she plays this part. For that, Shari is my hero.
Maybe as you read about some of these heroes you were wishing you had more courage, or strength or greater faith to believe the story you find yourself in will actually turn out okay.
Please take heart. Every single thread in God’s story will come together. In His hands, nothing is wasted. Every line in the script is crafted with the glorious end in mind. Blogger Jean Williams is one of my heroes who’s felt the bottom and knows that it is sound.
Heroes Do Get Caught Up in a Bigger Story
Jean’s blog breathes strength and courage. She too has felt the bottom and calls back to us on shore, Fear not, it is sound.
God is a far better author than I could ever be. I wouldn’t have written so much hardship into the recent pages of our life. But as I look back, the suffering has…helped me see just how weak I am, and driven me to rely on God’s strength.
Better than that, this author hasn’t stayed outside the story, an omniscient, removed narrator; he has become a character on its pages…For in the end, this isn’t my story at all. Not only am I not the author of my story, I’m not the hero either. My part in this narrative serves to do one thing: highlight and direct attention to Jesus. He is the hero of this story, not me.
So forget me being the author of my story. The real Author is far more skilled than I am. Forget me being the hero of my story. Jesus is front and centre on all its pages. Forget this being my story. It’s God’s story, and it’s moving towards the glory of his Son. We’re all caught up in a bigger story, you and I, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Heroes forget about being heroes.And that’s exactly the way it should be. Because they don’t want to be front and center, eclipsing God’s glory, starring in their own little dream stories.
Oh, no—real heroes want a larger than life, overcoming hero front and center.
Holding Out for a (larger than life)Hero
These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have troubles, but take courage; I have overcome the world. –Jesus, in John 16:33
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said decades ago.
Courage is declining in 2020, I think. Fear of Covid, fear of the future, and fear of losing control of our stories chokes some of us. Opening our hands to release the scripts we wrote and embracing roles we didn’t seek is scary. It takes faith and courage.
We need more courage. That’s why we need more heroes. Because real heroes- overcoming, faithful heroes- bring it. If their names are not on our ballots, they are still among us- real world heroes like Kate and Barb and Julia and Shari. Let’s not forget the heroes bursting forth in God’s Word. Read about Abram and Deborah, Moses and Joseph, Esther and Daniel and Paul. Read and take courage. Be encouraged by the way they play their parts.
But worship only One. And hold out for Him: the Hero who overcomes. Because Bonnie Tyler had that right: He’s gotta be larger than life. He is larger than life because he swallowed up death.
And He will come again on a fiery white steed. I am holding out for Him.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
The recent loosening of stay-at-home orders has ramped up fear of missing out for countless Americans. Friends agonize on a high wire between fear of death on the one hand and fear of missing out on life on the other. It’s FOMO on steroids. Many lack conviction.
Apart from the temptation to let fear dominate us are these others Lewis described: To say the things are bad (wearing masks, singing in church) or that the people who practice- or don’t practice these- are unloving or bad. That quote has been heavy on my mind as our country opens up.
The purpose of this post is not to persuade you to eat inside or make it a picnic, to go out or to stay home, to wear a mask or not wear a mask.
My purpose is to share a bold, jarring truth, a truth Paul proclaimed to those with strong, and opposing, convictions in the Roman church to- get this- promote peace.
Disputable Matters & Conviction
Opposing behaviors in disputable matters may both glorify God.
Before I back that bombshell up, we must define disputable matters.
Disputable matters are subjects on which the Bible does not prescribe the right way. In the church of Rome, some Christians felt they could not eat meat, drink wine, or celebrate certain holidays. Those were disputable.
However, adultery and pride, lying and stealing, gossip and envy, to name a few, are not disputable. They are never right. God has spoken on those. And he does not change his mind. (Numbers 23:19)
Jack Arnold offers this background Romans 14. What he calls “doubtful practices” are also called “disputable matters,” or “non-essentials.”
A weaker brother in Romans 14 was one who insisted that because they held the conviction that something was wrong it must be wrong for everyone else. Note: They were not weak because they did not practice these doubtful things, but because they judged others who did. So Paul told them not to judge or condemn others who held opposite convictions.
Which is, as Lewis wrote, a marks of a certain type of bad man.
3 Bad Attitudes about (Coronavirus) Conviction
When you throw mud at others you not only get dirty, you lose a lot of ground. –Ravi Zacharias
C.S. Lewis talked about the badness of “looking down his nose” at someone who feels more free to do a thing than we. There are also these three:
1. Irritation. Impatient annoyance gets us nowhere. However much we may disagree, we must try to see the other person’s point of view.
2. Ridicule. No one remains unwounded when that which he thinks precious is laughed at. No one has a right to laugh at what another holds sacred.
3. Contempt. To scorn and disdain is unloving. William Barclay notes, Of all attitudes towards our fellow man the most unchristian is contempt.
The point: Have your convictions. Make them motivated by love and faith, to the glory of God. But recognize that there are many paths to the same end. My husband and I take different routes to town. I take Johnson Road and he takes Potter. My route is steeper, his his longer. But, both roads get us there.
Paul’s plea is that the common goal should unite us and the differing routes should not divide.
Each One Should Be Fully Convinced
Romans 14:5 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Note well: Paul does not say “lighten up,” or “let it be.” He says, “Where you see things differently- be fully convinced.” This is not what we would expect.
He is not saying as a kind of concession, Each one can have his own conviction. He is saying, Each one should have his own conviction. It’s a command, not a permission: “Let each one be fully persuaded in his own mind.”…It’s the same idea that we find in Romans 14:23, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” In other words, minor matters do not call for mushy faith or flimsy convictions. They call for clear faith and full conviction.
Romans 14 says that Christians who disagree on non-essential things like these can do opposite things to the glory of God.
Shocking as it may sound, dinner with friends or takeout at home, can both be done by faith, with conviction, to the glory of God.
“Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” If God has convicted you that something is wrong- that wearing a mask or dinner with friends is wrong- then you must not do it, but this does not mean that this same act is wrong for another Christian in the area of doubtful things.
But, whatever is not from faith is sin.
Whatever is Not from Faith is Sin
Romans 14:23 says, Whatever is not from faith is sin. And without faith it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6) Faith looks forward to the promises of God, believing that He will keep his word.
In a message on Romans 14:23- 40 years before all this COVID-19 chaos- John Piper said, Coming to church may be sin, staying home may be sin. Eating steak might be a sin, not eating steak might be a sin…Sin is not a list.
Because faith is not a list.
Conviction Comes To You Of Little Faith
To you who still feel anxious and panicky and just not convinced, Jesus loves you. You say, Abigail, easy for you. You’re healthy as a horse and don’t have a family member with fragile health. We just don’t know what’s coming.
But guess what? No one but the Good Lord knows what’s coming. My choices must be borne of faith as much as yours. I don’t know if there’ll be another spike in COVID-19 deaths. We don’t know if we’ll get sick from having friend over for dinner or singing maskless at church. You don’t know if you are hugging a friend who is an asymptomatic carrier or if that hug might might do more harm to your body or good for your soul.
We just don’t know.
Exactly. That’s what faith must be: the conviction of things unseen.Unseen.
But, as Paul says in Romans 14, be fully convinced. Do your research and say your prayers and believe that God will care of you through whatever decisions you make, come what may. Have your conviction and carry on.
Let’s not be those who drown in information and starve for wisdom. The research– for and against– is ever new and at our fingertips. What seems obviously good and loving to one person is not so clear to another.
But whoever said love always looks the same?
We don’t need the CDC to tell us that ten out of ten people will die. And still no evil shall befall you. Christians are united by faith to the One whose own death broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15) It’s not just that Christians aren’t afraid of rejection or affliction- it’s that they are free from the fear of death!
Finally, I offer this advice to you who have moved forward in faith with conviction but love someone who is afraid: The best response to fear is to live free of it. And be as gracious as you can be. (Douglas Wilson’s to C.W.’s “Letter to the Editor“)
Back to Romans 14. As if to prove the point that opposite extremes can both glorify God, Paul adds in verse 8: If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Talk about taking an argument to its logical end. Living and dying. Both can glorify God. I write this on Memorial Day. All gave some and some gave all. In God’s providence, some faithful soldiers lived to ripe old ages and some died on beaches. Life and death- BOTH to the glory of God.
And if God would ordain some live to his glory and some die to his glory, might he ordain that some don masks by faith, to his glory and some don’t, also by faith to his glory ?
That’s it, folks-Romans 14, Memorial Day, and COVID-19 together. Here’s the end of all three: Live free from fear. Be fully convinced.
And be as gracious as you can be.
Whatever you do, whether you eat or whether you drink, do all to the glory of God.
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
What One Ought To Do
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,Benjamin Franklin wrote.
A nation’s soul can’t be stronger or more free than the sum, or soul, of its parts. And without individual ability to self-govern, without willpower, national government has no hope. A nation of souls enslaved to their sinful ways will not a free nation make.
Michael Novak explains that true freedom is not being able to do what what desires at the moment or is impelled by passion to do.
To be free as a human being ought to be is to be able to discern, not only what one desires to do or is impelled by passion to do, but also, and even more clearly, what one ought to do…In short, in “the American ideal”… is not the capacity to do what one wishes but the capacity to do what one ought. It is, in short, to be capable of self-government, self-mastery, and self-control.
Paul knew this too.
For he knew that true freedom is not found in following our hearts and acting out our selfish desires. Rather, it is found in subverting our desires to serve one another. Paul knew how easy it was stay slaves to sin:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Strong (Joyful) Souls Are No Accident
Add to the self-control mix, this common refrain I keep hearing as I talk with strong Christian friends. Can you hear the repeating theme?
Believe me, I could definitely down that whole pan of brownies tonight. I could. That’s why I can’t even sneak a bite. I’ll share them Friday.
It’s hard to get to bed by 11. There’s so much I can do when the kids are asleep. But when I stay up so late I overeat. Then I’m short and grumpy come morning.
It seems a little over the top, I know, but I add my husband whenever I text or email another man. It’s just a safeguard. I’ve watched affairs start.
I try to practice giving others the last word, especially when we disagree. It’s hard to bridle my tongue and resist setting the record right. But it’s good.
In short, my faithful, fruitful Christian friends didn’t get that way by accident. They had all learned to exercise self-control.
No One Drifts Toward Self-Control
There was quite a lot of Spirit-powered, self-control happening behind the scenes. They don’t toot their own horns, but day after day, they discipline themselves. Oh, sure, they stumble and fall sometimes. Then they get back up because they know the joy of self-control.
Do you know that joy? The joy of going to bed on a hungry stomach? Or of leaving a well-deserved zinger unsaid?
It’s counter-intuitive, the joy of self-control. Because the pleasure of Spirit borne fruit is way deeper than the fleeting joys of giving in to sin.Knowing that you didn’t cave, but by grace overcame- now that feels great.
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Like a city with walls broken down
Like a city with its walls broken down is man who lacks self-control.Proverbs 25:28
Cities with broken down walls will crumble. They are open to enemies and become slaves to invaders.
A person without self-control is like an unprotected city. When we don’t exercise self-control, when we don’t say yes when we should and no when we shouldn’t, we are vulnerable to our soul’s enemies. In time, our city-souls will crumble.
Self-control matters. In this age of distraction and endless temptation to drift online and through social media, we so need self-control.
America will never be destroyed from the outside.If we falter and lose our freedoms, President Lincoln said, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
Soul-strength or city strength depends on walls of self-control. When we lack-self control we destroy our city from the inside, as individual and as nations. But exercising self-control confirms and bolsters the soul.
When Paul was called to explain the Christian faith to the Roman Governor Felix, he summed up the Christian gospel and worldview as “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). He didn’t tack on peace or patience or kindness with Felix. He talked about self-control.
Not surprisingly Sir Secular Felix didn’t drop to his knees and convert. No- he was alarmed. “Go away for the present,” he said. Self-control is not flashy or flamboyant or fun. In the moment, anyway.
Author David Mathis describes self-control as not terribly attractive, but, frank and functional. And difficult.
It doesn’t turn heads or grab headlines. It can be as seemingly small as saying no to another Oreo, French fry, or milkshake — or another half hour on Netflix or Facebook — or it can feel as significant as living out a resounding yes to sobriety and sexual purity. This is the height of Christian virtue in a fallen world, and its exercise is quite simply one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do.
But even then- I won’t kid you- it’s still a fight. Reining in my tongue, my stomach, my controlling appetites.
By the grace of God, self-control is possible.
And America, you listening? God has shed his grace on thee.
But America? The grace God shed on us is one and the same as the grace that confirms our souls in self-control, our liberty in law.
So, yes, America: Happy Independence Day!
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL
O beautiful for pilgrim feet, Whose stern, impassioned stress A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!
The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.
The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.
At least for a rascal like me. It’s so easy to say I love the world or a major subset of it. But when it gets down to it, I’ve got my hands full loving the people right in front of me.
I am right there with Brother D. Some of the same petty things that disturbed him, disturb me. The brother who picks at his food and the sister who sniffles, the brother who doesn’t clean up his dog’s doo and the sister who speaks in high-pitch- that these little things can annoy me reveals a sin-sick heart. Not to mention the deadlies, like my envy and pride.
If I- sometime difficult, irritating sister- cannot love my sometime difficult, irritating brother – then Houston, we have a problem.
Because how can I love the God I cannot see if I cannot love the realio, trulio people in right in front of me?
Or, to borrow the Beloved Apostle’s words, If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Why am I writing this now?
First, because I need to hear it. I want this chaos to breed clarity. And love. As always, I’m writing first to me.
Second, because I want you to be free from false guilt you might feel for not having a feeling of love for people you don’t know. We cannot love what we do not know.
Third, because our world is being shaken. And when things are shaken we must anchor on truth. Since the murder of George Floyd the world wants change. One thing I know about change- about good, gospel change- is that it happens one sinful heart at a time. Racism and all other forms of selfish, sinful, setting ourselves above others only ends when Christ comes to rule our hearts.
This is not to say we ought to be content with the state of our love. As if we could say, “I’ve loved enough. I’m done.” No way. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another (Romans 13:8). Be zealous to love and do good (Titus 2:14, Romans 12:11).
But we can’t let our love for “humanity in general” or our zealous words on social media substitute for patient, kind love for the real people in our lives.
Talk Is Cheap
The course of thy life will speak more for thee than the discourse of thy lips. Puritan George Swinnock wrote those words 400 years ago.
But Apostle John said way before that, Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
We say we love God. We celebrate his love for us. But there is in us irritation and impatience and jealousy and greed and selfishness with respect to the people that God has placed nearest to us.
Brothers and sisters, should we say this gospel contradiction is okay? It’s easy to say, ‘I love God.’ Surely it’s much easier to claim allegiance to a God who I can’t see than to live in self-sacrificing love toward the people that we live the nearest to.
It is so easy to say we love people we don’t know. To hashtag my #love for the world is cheap. But to show patience with a sister who’s annoying me is much more costly. It costs my time and energy.
To forgive a neighbor who mows down my flowers, to rejoice with a sister who gets what I want or forbear a brother whose words wound- those can be harder than loving the world.
God Loves The World
The past two weeks have tapped me dry. In large part, because I have passionate and caring friends and family on “both sides” of these vital issues. I want to love them well.
I’ve searched my heart and sought peace as the Spirit leads. I’ve read uncomfortable words and wept for the heavy burden of sins. I’ve reached out to black brothers, albeit awkwardly, to to express my imperfect love.
But I haven’t loved the world. By grace, and for Christ’s sake, I am trying hard to love my neighbor. The one I met yesterday on the way to the mailbox, the friends I listened to last night, and the three who share this house with me.
It sounds glorious to say I love the world. But I cannot love the world. Only God is big enough and pure enough and loving enough to love the whole wide world.
Let Us Love Our Neighbors
Which is as He intended. Correct me if I’m wrong, but God never called me- called us- to “love the world.” That’s God’s job. Almighty God alone is equal to that task (John 3:16).
In point of fact, we are called not to love the world. (See 1 John 2:15.*) We are called to do something much harder than loving the whole world. We are called to love one another (John 13:34), to love our neighbor as ourself (Mark 12:30-31) and to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). And loving those I see, who hurt or disagree with me, is far harder than loving the world.
So in these days when love-talk for humanity abounds, our challenge is first to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind and to love our neighbor as ourself. (Matthew 22:34-40)
But there is another challenge.
Let us rest in the unfailing love of God who alone can and -Hallelujah!- does love the whole wide world.
We love because he first loved us.
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4:19-21
*In Scripture and in John’s writing, the word world has multiple meanings- from the created physical universe to the people who dwell on earth, to a particular subset of them. This article helps explain. For the purpose of this post, I’m using world in the sense of “all humanity.”
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’
Meg’ll like that, I thought, tucking in a gift card with the note. Meg is my friend’s daughter. She was turning 10.
But as I sealed the envelope, the old unfair bee stung. Even if she never remembers us on our birthdays.
The Word For Weary Givers
Don’t grow weary in doing good. For at the right time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. -Galatians 6:9
Why am I always the giver, the initiator, the one who remembers? I love to give, but why does it feel like I give more than I get?
It might be partly a love language thing. Words and gifts might be more my native tongue than, say, service or touch. When I start begrudging giving, that might play a wee little part. But language isn’t the main thing.
I know that because almost instantly the living, dividing Word moved in. It shoved me off the dark horse racing off to Self-Pity Land. I’ll tell you what God said.
Shut Your Mouth, Girl. And Open Your Eyes.
I am unworthy- how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. -Job 40:4
See the health and peace you’ve had all these COVID-19 days. See the family who loves on your sons. Give thanks that you and Jim have jobs. Remember your friends. Rejoice at the rhododendrons and rhubarb.
God didn’t audibly say those words, but through his Word he called to me. Give thanks, my Girl. Open your eyes. I’ve given you so many gifts.
Because we’re all givers and takers.
We’re All Givers And Takers
You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.-2 Corinthians 9:11
Paraphrased: We are receivers so that we can be givers. God gives us gifts- financial, spiritual, uncanny memories for birthdays and anniversaries-so that we can channel those gifts to others. But there’s more.
Christians are given grace and give grace so that God will get thanked. God made us to get and then give, so that he will be praised. What’s deadly is to let his love flow into your life without finding an outlet in love for others. Receiving is not bad. It’s not- getting is also a blessing. It’s just that Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Jesus, who came to earth to give his life (Mark 10:45) and told his disciples, Freely you have received, freely give (Matt. 10:8).
Which brings me to a big reason giving is more blessed.
Why Giving Is More Blessed
From his abundance we have all received one blessing after another.-John 1:16
Giving reminds me that I live by the grace of a giving God.The God who so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son. When we give we are blessed because it we are becoming more like our giving God.
Talk about perspective. Selfish me says, Why put yourself out for them? Why initiate and spend your time on them? They don’t bother with you.
That’s sin talking. Sin does something terrible to me. Sin turns me in on myself,Paul Tripp says. It makes me obsessed with my wants, my needs, my feelings. I want, I want, I want, I want, I want. Sin turns me inside out. Focusing on how much we give and how little we get is a sin (1 Thess. 5:18, Phil. 2:14).
When you give- forget, when you receive- remember. That’s a truth.
And the truth of a giving God’s turns us right-side out again. It did last week after I sent Meg’s birthday card. So next time giving feels more like sting than blessing, let’s remember God’s truth.
It really is more blessed to give.
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
I could go right down Proverbs 31 line by line and apply each virtue to Mom. It would be easy. Because my mom is easy to praise. In fact, that’s how this post started (See me later for that draft, Mom.)
But one bit of wisdom mom has given from me is: Short and sweet, Girl. Get past the curse of knowledge.
So I’ll try that. I won’t assume background knowledge. I’ll be short and sweet.
Here’s one more reason I praise my mom.
Mom Doesn’t Meddle
Meddling means interfering. Not minding your business. Sometimes I struggle with that. Not meddling isn’t among the virtues hailed in Proverbs 31. But it’s between the lines. Because children don’t rise up and call a meddling mom blessed. And because meddling flies in the face of laughing at the days to come (31:25), nor is it wise (31:26).
In fact, the word meddle isn’t used much in the Bible. But the one time that jumps to mind is 1 Peter 4:15. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler. Yes, meddler. Peter lists it right there with murderer and thief as behaviors that bring suffering down on us. Mom knows this.
I can count on one hand- maybe on 1 finger, maybe none!- the number of times in my adult life that Mom has given unwanted advice. She uses her words with restraint (Proverbs 17:27) and knows that holding her tongue is wise (Proverbs 10:19).
When I share my own mom struggles with my mom her MO is to 1. listen well, 2. purse her lips, 3. nod her head, then maybe ask, 4. Want my advice, Babe?
Such restraint. Such wisdom. What a gift from my non-meddlesome mom.
Not Meddling Does Not Mean Un-Involved
Which is not at all to say Mom’s hands-off or uninvolved. In fact, those words couldn’t be further from the truth. Mom is in our lives in so many kind, daily ways.
Hardly a day goes by without a happy text or punny picture. Yesterday was “Two Canadian guests at our lakeside property.” The pic-fowl swimming in their flooded garden puddle.
During garden season, we await mom’s weekly, post-farmer’s market calls: Hi Babe, here’s what we’ve got.
Then she lists what’s left- seasonal, of course- radishes, peas, lettuce, asparagus, and a fresh bouquet for you.Just tell me what you want and we’ll bring it.
But she doesn’t force it on us or ask why we don’t take turnips (a private matter between Jim and me).
A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.
But my friend Cathe is the one who called me up after reading a post one summer dayand said, “Abigail, there’s something wrong.”
I braced for the worst. Because one thing I love about Cathe is that she speaks the truth. She’s gracious and discrete. And direct and sincere.
So I prepared to hear, “You’re too long-winded, dear. Your message gets lost in your words.” Both true, still true.
But that’s not what I head. Instead Cathe said, “That post you just wrote was good. More people need should see this. I think you need a website.”
But my friend didn’t stop there. Cathe hooked me up with her website host, then took time from her writing with real deadlines to walk me through the nuts and bolts of my little website design.
Proverbs 27 says, Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. It’s true.
As we were loading in the van last night Cathe leaned in- not to talk to me but to my 15-year-old son. “Sam,” she started, “I have some advice about girls. Mind if I share?” We both stared at Cathe, rapt.
Find a girl with a cheerful disposition, she said. I like that. Because the moodier seem to grow moodier still. Sage advice, and kind.
You can see, Cathe doesn’t waste words. She uses them kindly and well.
The Sweetness of a Friend
It was Cathe who broke the ice after a month of estrangement from church, and asked, “Abigail, want to join the Thursday group?” I did. And with 3 week old Gabe in tow I joined the ladies in Cathe’s home over Cathe’s magic carrot nut muffins and spicy sweet tea.
Now 13 years later, I lead “the Thursday group.” It goes on with new faces and a handful of good old, including Cathe, though lately we meet via Zoom.
But after 20 years in our local life, as I write, Cathe is moving away. Last night, Jim, the boys and I got to help fill the U-Haul to its squid-ly brim. Totes, bins, washer, dryer and (Yes, Pat.) even the big brown sofa fit in.
Cathe is candid with herself too. I heard that last night. When she looked toward the sunset, maybe a little wistfully, and said,
Because Cathe is a country girl, even more than me. So as my friend makes her way to a big city in Minnesota today, I’m back in the country thanking God for her- a friend who goes and chokes me up when she moves.
My tears come, in part and probably a selfish part, because I realize that Cathe is a keeper of my story. She has a valuable perspective on my life that I don’t have. She sees me in a way I can’t.
Friends, the Keepers of Our Stories
While Cathe is a gifted weaver of made-up story threads, she took a few minutes away from loading bins last night to tell some of my own real story threads. Threads that can get all tangled up in my head.
Like the one about how we came for dinner almost 20 years ago. After dinner, her tween son who knew that Jim and had been married a while and still didn’t have kids, leaned in and asked,
“Hey mom, are you sure the Wallace’s know how?”
But Cathe also remembers the Sunday in November 2005 when we walked in to church holding our son, fresh from Korea. And how on a Sunday one year later, there was a collective, congregational gasp as my sister announced, “Abigail is expecting in June.”
Then, next June when Gabe was just a baby, Cathe broke silence and breached a tender subject. She broke that ice and welcomed me to the ladies’ study that met in her home.
Cathe has shared some of her precious story threads with me. They’re not mine to tell. But I do want to say, Cathe, that watching you endure with joy spurs me to do the same.
You Have Been My Friend
You know I’ll miss your real hugs and earnest counsel and practical kindness. And, as a keeper of my story, I will miss you because you know- and keep- my story so well.
Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being a keeper of my story the last two decades. I’ll miss you on Sundays and Thursdays and I’m excited to see how God writes this next chapter in yours.
Cathe, you have been my friend. That, in itself, is a tremendous thing.
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
Something bad happened, Mom. You don’t want to know.
So ended our easy Saturday morning.
I do want to know, Gabe, I assured, kneeling before him.
Then my seven year-old showed me two of the most obscene gestures I’d ever seen. The sun went dark.
But ever the prisoner of hope, I thought: Maybe they’re only meaningless motions to him. Innocent-like when he’d use his third digit to point.
Alas: This one means a boy is…And that other one is what a girl does…
Test positive. Gabe was infected.
The boy who watches G was exposed to X, or R at least. The son with the sensitive eyes- the son who won’t watch Wallace and Gromit for “weirdness,” and who covers his ears to block the voice of a Talking White Rabbit-this son saw that. He heard that.
My heart crashed into my gut. Then, in the hush I asked,
Gabe, where did you learn that? Who showed you that?
Wide blue eyes to mine. Earnest, sober voice to me:
It was Evan, Mom, on the bus. I shouldn’t be his friend anymore. And a big boy-he showed Evan. He told me what it meant. But I don’t know his name. He doesn’t go to my school.
That’s how Gabe got infected and his tender mind was tainted. It’s how his innocence was lost.
Actually, Gabe’s innocence wasn’t lost by the vile words and vulgar gestures of a big boy on the bus. It actually happened way before that.
Because neither Gabe, nor any of us, has ever been truly been innocent. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, Israel’s sweet, sin-stained, Psalmist wrote. Babies aren’t blank slates and children aren’t cherubs.
Apostle Paul knew and in our heart of hearts, we it too: we’re all infected with sin’s dread disease. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned(Romans 5:12).
We’re all carriers and one day we’ll all die of it. Sin is a bad infection.
But there is another kind.
In Mere Christianity(Book IV, Chapter 4) C.S. Lewis wrote about infections. Not all infections, he asserts, are bad.
Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them…
Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has–by what I call ‘good infection’. Every Christian infected is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.
This is the good infection- that we may share the life of Christ. That we may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).
And we ‘little Christs’ can spread this good infection, this loving life of Christ, to those infected with the bad.
Prayers For Carriers
That exposure came 5 years ago. A couple years later there was that online scare with the 12 year-old. And just this morning there were texts too ugly to show my husband. Contamination, exposure, infection. So we pray.
We pray that, though both sons were exposed and, like their parents carry the bad infection, God will keep keep them largely symptom-free. We pray they won’t infect others with this brand of the sin disease, and that they’ll be able to be sensitive to the Spirit and to resolve each day not to set of before their eyes any worthless thing (Psalm 101:3); that they will be wise to what is good and innocent to evil (Romans 16:19-20). We pray that this disease won’t keep spreading, that it’ll stay in remission.
And today when I jogged by Evan’s house I prayed for him too. For Evan and the big boy on the bus who infected him all those years ago. I prayed that they will know Jesus so that they too can be healed.
Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who infect us with theirs. Please use us to spread your “good infection,” too. Help us to live in love like you. Amen.
For in Adam all die, so also in Christ will all be made alive.
Good Friday turned great just before midnight. That’s when my pride died.
Again. This side of heaven, it won’t stay dead.
I can’t tell you the details. It would not be right. But I can tell you that it happened after a good friend confronted me about my wounding words.
Before Pride Died
But before pride died. I want you to know that the words I write do rattle around in my head. By them, I will be justified, or condemned. If I know the truth and ignore it, I’m worse than hot air. I’m a hypocrite.
Maybe especially last night, because Good Friday is so good.
Why Good Friday Is Good
Good Friday is good because “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), and because, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And it’s good because “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
I read and re-read my friend’s words. They stung. But I knew there was a kernel of truth in them, because I know there is sin in me. So I confessed, not was she accused, but what I knew was true.
That layer removed, I thought of other sins of which my friend had no clue. And just before midnight, I went to bed and paged to the prayer called “The Grace of the Cross.”
O My Saviour,
I thank thee from the depths of my being
for thy wondrous grace and love
in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.
May thy cross be to me
as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs…
I got that far before the bitter tears began to flow. Bitter, in Hebrew, is marah. The Israelites found water too bitter to drink and called the place Marah (Exodus 15:22-27). Then the Lord showed Moses “a piece of wood.” He threw it in the water and the water turned sweet.
Wood turned bitter water sweet. I remember when I taught the story to my Sunday school class. Millie and Michaela and Audrie got it. They saw the cross of Christ.
They understood it was wood that makes our bitter water sweet.
But then sobbing like a hot mess in bed, the bitterness became sweet. I knew I was forgiven by my crucified King.
Christ died for this.
Feeling that was how Good Friday turned great. The cross makes our confessed sins, even our most embarrassing and ugly and bitter sins, sweet. Because, Who confesses and forsakes finds mercy (Prov. 28:13).
That is when bitter turns sweet, and good becomes great. We stand forgiven at the cross. We remember and we celebrate:
Christ died for this.
I saw my sin loud and clear last night. But I also saw the cross and confessed and found mercy and grace.
And that is how Marah became sweet and Good Friday turned great.
In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross…
The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life.
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge- no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
Psalm 91:3-6, 9-10
President recommends Americans wear masks in public.That’s the headline of the day.
Fear is at fever pitch. There were more Google searches for prayer in March than in the last 5 years that comparison data has been available. People are afraid.
No Evil Shall Befall You
He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence. Those words from Psalm 91 sound like a perfect fit for these COVID-19 days, don’t they?
People recite it when they wash their hands or as they go to the grocery store. Many are clinging to these verses for health- and for life. The words, for some, are like a Christian incantation, a hex on the deadly coronavirus.
And that makes me very uneasy.
But the Psalm does say, No evil shall befall you, no plague will come near your tent.
So what does that mean? Does it mean that if I have faith, or better yet, if I have faith and wear a mask and wash my hands and self-quarantine I- and those in my tent- won’t get COVID-19?
Is that what Psalm 91 really means?
Faith, by cheering the heart, keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself…
Charles H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 91:3
Abby, I’m really scared. My caregiver does not wear a mask. That’s how my friend Jean started our call. Jean is physically fragile and homebound. She paused, then added, I feel guilty for being scared because I believe in God.
Jean, about the guilt: You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair. You can’t stop the fear that tenses your gut. But you can keep fear from nesting in your head. She liked that. I went on.
May I share two things I try to do when I’m really scared?She agreed.
Here’s what I told Jean.
Reality Therapy for Real Fear
What is the worst thing that could possibly happen if my worst fear comes true? I try to ask myself that the moment fear springs up. Whether I hear a bump in the night or I feel a lump in my chest- I ask, what it the absolute worst thing that could happen? Then I sit with that answer a while. And usually, Jean, if I’m honest, my worst fear is death.
How can you be so sure, Miss Abigail? That’s what you’re thinking, right? Because faithful Christians will die of COVID-19. Pestilence and plague will befall us. Death will come near our tents.
They may have done everything right and may have even prayed Psalm 91 each night.
What Does Psalm 91 Mean?
Not to burst your bubble, but unless Jesus returns first, you and will die. We’re mortal. We must.
So what does, No evil will befall you mean? We’ve got to understand rescue the right way or we’ll be greatly shaken when good folks get sick or when we have to look death in the eye.
Charles Spurgeon ministered through a deadly cholera epidemic in London. He explained “no evil” like this:
It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward…Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honour, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him,for everything is overruled for good.
Let that thought nest. Actually, go you rest under his wings.
Because one way or another, God will deliver all his children. He will rescue us from the fangs of COVID-19 and bring us safely into his kingdom.
One way or another, in life or in death, he will.
God does not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil.-Thomas Watson.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. These are some of the very last words Paul spoke. They’re at the end of the last chapter of the last book he penned in prison shortly before he died, probably by beheading at the hands of evil Nero.
He had just mentioned Alexander the coppersmith who did him much evil and he knew his days were short. What most of us would call evil was “befalling” Paul. Then in 2 Timothy 4:18, he writes,
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.
We must understand this to understand what Psalm 91 really means. Real evil was is that Paul’s faith would wither. Real rescue was being brought safely home to Jesus.
That is it! If we make the Lord our refuge, then fear won’t cripple us- because we know that the worst- even disease and dying- brings the best.
Because real rescue means God bringing us safely into his kingdom.
When Death Sounds the Retreat
Faith is endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger, someone said. If there’s an upside to COVID-19, this is it.
I know the Puritans paint a rosier picture of death than we’re used to. But tell me this isn’t true:
Friend, if you were prepared, death would be to you a change from a prison to a place, from sorrows to solace, from pain to pleasure, from heaviness to happiness. All your sins and sorrows would be buried in your grave and the ship of your soul…and you would arrive at a blessed and everlasting harbor. Death would sound the retreat, and call you out of the battlefield- where the bullets fly thick in your combat with the flesh, world and wicked one- to receive your crown of life.
George Swinnock, The Fading of the Flesh and Flourishing of Faith, 1662
We are under his wings. Evil cannot touch us there!
And, if it seems to, as John Piper wrote, there must be a glorious deliverance we can’t see. What else can we conclude when we put these two Psalms together:
Psalm 44:22 – “For thy sake we are slain all day long.” Psalm 34:19 – “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
Remember how Jesus talked to his disciples this way?
Luke 21:16 – “…some of you they will put to death.” Luke 21:18 – “But not a hair of your head will perish.”
Jesus doesn’t tell lies and he doesn’t speak out of both sides of his mouth. He speaks truth. He is the truth.
So Jean, this all means that you might- I might- get infected with COVID-19 and Psalm 91 is still true.
No evil will befall us.
What is our hope in life and death? Christ alone, Christ alone What is our only confidence? That our souls to him belong Who holds our days within his hand? What comes, apart from his command? And what will keep us to the end? The love of Christ, in which we stand
Words and Music by Keith Getty, Matt Boswell, Jordan Kauflin, Matt Merker, Matt Papa
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’ll share those three healthy, stabilizing habits in a minute.
But the first and last word on health has got to be grace.
For in Him we live and move and have our being. Because He is our life and the length of our days. And His word has given us life. (Acts 17:28, Deuteronomy 30:20, Psalm 119:50)
Because any measure of health is a gift from God.
Because the LORD forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases, redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with steadfast love and mercy. He satisfies me with good so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:3-4)
So what are we to do when the foundations are shaken? How do we live in these confusing COVID-19 days?
Well, our God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33). So here are my three: three means of grace to find the health and peace we so crave in these turbulent days.
Move your body. Exercise- outside if you can. Because God made our bodies and he made them to move. And- guess what?-he made them to feel good when they do. We weren’t made to stay put, even during these shelter-at-home days.
With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, and the smartphone in 2007, many of us are still coming to grips with how sedentary human life has become. But this has not always been so. God made us to move, and to do so vigorously. And he wired our brains to need it, reward it, and reinforce it. Exercise makes happier humans, and God made humans to be happy — in him — with bodily movement being an assistant, rather than adversary, to our joy.
Regular human movement has been assumed throughout history, but the innovations and seeming progress of modern life have made a sedentary lifestyle more normal than ever before. Perhaps we’ve never needed to state the obvious about regular bodily movement and “bodily training” as much as we do today.
We get this- the dogs of the world are making out like bandits with all our extra walks. Still, I predict Weight-Watchers will go gangbusters. Because many of us have never had so much food stored up. Nor, I suspect, has the temptation to emotional eating ever been greater.
But getting physical doesn’t just mean walking or biking. My husband’s job is “non-essential” these days. He’s cleaned the garage and chopped lots of wood. Friends are cleaning drawers and sanding tables. That’s work-moving the body. It counts.
Let us…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. –Hebrews 10: 25
No joke: I’ve phone-called and Face-timed more in the last week than in the six months combined. Yesterday was extra-social: 2 phone dates, 1 Zoom Lifegroup, 1 FaceTime call and 2 6-foot distant visits with my neighbors.
Every single contact was encouraging. And all provided much needed perspective. Each one was a real time was to give and receive love.
Rhythms For Quarantine
Justin Whitmel Earley provides Spiritual Rhythms For Quarantine, four habits that create household patterns of stability and hope in a time of distraction, upheaval and fear.
About Gather Safely, he writes,
Friendship is the lifeblood of the soul. We were made for community, and without it, we wither.
Christian community is the primary place where we process our anxieties and preach the good news of Jesus to each other. While now is a time where we absolutely must significantly alter the way we meet, we must not give up small and safe gatherings, even if that means we have to connect by digital means. These times will either be some of the most rich because of the ways we lean into community, or they will be some of the most despairing because…we fail to [meet].
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” –Luke 10: 42
Social distancing does not apply to God. COVID days or not, God’s call to us is the same: Draw near (Hebrews 4:16, 7:25, 10:22). Christ calls us to come to him every single day.
Honestly, this non-negotiable is the one I negotiate the most. It’s the one most likely to get squeezed out. Exercise and the friendship have immediate effects- endorphins from exercise and encouragement from friends. They make me feel good in the moment.
But of spending time with my Father who is unseen takes faith. Because I don’t always feel the perks right away. But blessed are those who hear these words of mine and obey them (Luke 11:28).
As if to drive that point home, it just so happened that Mary and Martha were in my daily reading today. Remember them?
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better thing, which will not be taken away from her.”
Am I the only one these days tempted to keep checking the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 interactive map? I’ve checked it twice since I sat down to write. The numbers are still going up: 116,505 confirmed cases in the US and 8 deaths in Milwaukee.
And Martha was anxious and distracted by many things too.
Choose The Better Thing
So if we need any reminder of non-negotiable #3- enter Mary. Mary, who chose the better thing that cannot be taken from her. She could have been distracted by the same things Martha was, but Mary chose the better thing.
The better thing was sitting and listening to the Lord Jesus, caring for her soul. Yes, I’m naturally Martha. But by grace these days, I’m becoming Mary – choosing the better thing. Seeking God in the Word and prayer: that is healthy habit #3.
A while back, my friend Jen gave me some good advice about parenting our new teen. Her words have been echoing in my ears: Teach him to care for himself. Don’t tell him what to do. Instead, ask him how he can care for his physical, social and spiritual health each day.
Will you take her advice? Care for your body, your friends, and your soul. Make those non-negotiables.
If you do, you won’t waste these COVID-19 days. Or any days.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
Recommended and Related:
Author Amanda Barratt wrote a thoughtful piece about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even though his social distance was kept in a Nazi prison camp, his non-negotiables were the same. Care for your body, your neighbor, your soul.
For the most part, his days were spent alone. He organized his time, dividing it between reading, writing letters, working on various writing projects, and exercising, both in his cell and for a half hour every day in the prison courtyard.
He said it last summer as I helped haul hay from the wagon to the mow. That wasn’t the only, but it’s the last time I recall.
Today’s my good dad’s 70th birthday. Let me tell you a few things about him. But in some big ways, if you know me, you already know my dad. For I am my father’s daughter.
A Dad Of Contrast
Let’s start last Sunday. With COVID-19, we worshiped at home. At 9:30 AM, Mom and Dad and my sister showed up with 4 hymnals. Hymnals. Dad and I love singing hymns. We started with Rise Up, O Man Of God. Man, not church, let the record reflect. But dad’s not a musical snob. Not at all.
He loves him some foot-tappin’ Gospel and strong-strummin’ folk. Besides playing the bagpipes- he recorded Danny Boy at dawn on St. Patrick’s Day for my sister to share with her 2nd grade class- he picked up some tin whistle too. He could probably play in a pinch at a session.
It’s like that with cooking too. He’ll whip up the most elaborate, marinate all day, ingredient list the length of spatula, simmer all afternoon with fresh rosemary and thyme from his garden dish you’ve ever tried. Then he’ll go a few days on vegetables with bread and cheese or just plain cabbage soup.
Teaches And Learns
Dad’s at home with the most intellectual. He’s reading a new book on redemption from a Greek Orthodox position- and did I mention how he popped open his Greek New Testament on Sunday to show us that the beyond in 2 Cor. 4:17 is hyperbole in Greek.
Dad’s a thinker. But he’s also a teacher and a lifelong learner.
In fact, he’s taught our boys most of the finer points in etiquette and mending relationships with Laurel & Hardy,What About Bob? and Ernest Goes To Africa. Just ask Gabe- or don’t- who taught him to lick last bit of ice cream from his bowl.
Dad’s always reading the farm journals to improve his horticulture. Currently, he’s learning be a champion broccoli sprouter. He’s already taught us how blowing fans on his tender sprouts toughens them for big gusts outside of the house.
Laughs and Serves
Dad can go toe-to-toe with a gifted theologian, and nose-to-nose with a baby. Dad pastored for decades and now he serves with mom in the little church nursery. I wouldn’t say the nursery is his passion, but I think being there brings him joy. Dad knows a real servant does what needs to be done.
I’ve got a lot to learn about being a servant, but what I’ve learned is mostly from watching Dad. Servants are humble. Dad isn’t all wrapped up in himself. For the Christian, that’s called maturity. Others’ focus is spiritual health.
I first remember thinking that about Dad when I was five or six. No kidding. We’d stopped off at a park 10 minutes from home. The park had a tunnel slide and Dad carried my down in his lap. I probably had begged him to go. But when we got off, I looked at him and burst into tears. Because blood ran from the top of his head down his face.
Dad was balding even then and the top of his head had scraped the tunnel and I thought he’d soon drop dead. But instead he laughed and grabbed his handkerchief. That was that.
Now fast forward to my 7th grade year. Dad was my science substitute teacher. I don’t remember anything about it except that Brian whispered, in range of my sensitive ears, “He’s a chrome dome.” Aaron laughed. And I about died of embarrassment- for my dad.
Somehow it came out at dinner that night- the outrageous, shaming slur- and guess what? He just laughed and said, Don’t let that bother you, Ab.
Dad Loves His Friends
Dad definitely loves his family. I’ve never doubted that for a second. But Dad also loves his friends.
For almost two decades now, Dad gets together with his friend Tom early Wednesday mornings, I think, to study and pray over coffee. Sometimes with Baileys Irish Cream. He used to do that with dear Mike, his literary friend.
Then there’s Paul and Robin their movie-swapping, ag-chat friends and Bob and Jane their all-thing-Irish friends. And for decades, until last year, there was Patsy and Jim. And on Tuesday nights, Lord willing, there’s sweet time with Jen and Tim.
My Dad loves his friends. I have a hunch that watching Dad love his friends has made my friendships second nature. We all need friends, and all different sorts of friends.
A Good Dad
But the best thing Dad did is make it easy for his kids to come to Jesus. I’m sorry some of you don’t have a dad like mine. Some fathers make it hard. They lay stumbling blocks instead of sowing gospel seeds.
But a good father lays down his life for his kids. He goes low to love his own. Dad feeds his kids what his sweat has grown, potatoes and berries and beans. He laughs with his grandkids, sings hymns with his kids, and, for love, serves us all in love. Where once he preached in the pulpit, now he plays in the nursery. That’s my Dad.
I have good dad. That’s in large part because he has an even better Father. So I’ll leave off with this song my father loves.
It’s about his Father whose name is love.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
My family celebrated St. Patrick today, but capped at 10 only. Dad read from the Confessions and we sang St. Patrick’s Breastplate. I wore my green Irish sweater and made mashed potatoes. It’s St. Patrick’s day.
But it’s also the day that all the schools in my town locked up and the library shut down- while the librarians wore plastic gloves. Culver’s is takeout only and the Wellness Center is closed.
Some of us are tempted to anxiety, some to pride. Many are tempted to find security in hoarding supplies and as many are tempted to arrogance because we don’t.
Some of us grow harsh trying control to our little kingdoms– Virtual school starts at 8:45 sharp. Go wash your hands again- sing Happy Birthday two times. Go outside! You need 30 minutes of exercise.- in a world that feels out of order.
Some of us are so overwhelmed that we’re letting go of any semblance of self-control- Sure, wear your PJ’s all day. I’ve lost two hours scrolling the news feed.- and tempted to dulling sloth.
Coping Skills Or Just Rats?
We might try to excuse it by saying, We didn’t see this coming, and We’ve never lived through anything like this before. But don’t take it. What we might call our coping methods C.S. Lewis just calls rats.
…Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth?
If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.
Coronavirus hit us fast and hard. The rats had no time to take cover.
I’ve had my heart laid bare and humbled. My desire for order turned surfaced and turned into bossing the boys. I didn’t buy extra toilet paper, but I did hit the grocery store three days in a row.
The last few days, I acquired lots of peanut butter. And, I pray, more humility toward those who don’t see things just like me.
But today is a new day, and time for a new confession from one of my favorite saints. (You can read all 62 confessions here.) Confession #34 (C 34) is a confession about acceptance- acceptance of good or bad– and gratitude.
Here’s where I connect Patrick, me and COVID-19. In big ways Patrick’s day wasn’t so different from our COVID-19 day. Patrick lived on the ragged edges of the Roman empire where “there was a sense of impending chaos, if not a very real experience of it.”*
Rather like our day.
The Time of Our Temptation
In the face of that wild world, living at the edge of western civilization, with high anxiety (C. 27), almost perishing (C. 28), very real threats to his life (C. 35, and actually running out of food (C. 22), here’s what Patrick said,
I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation… He is the one who defended me in all my difficulties. I can say: Who am I, Lord, or what is my calling, that you have worked with me with such divine presence? This is how I come to praise and magnify your name among the nations all the time, wherever I am, not only in good times but in the difficult times too. Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God. He has shown me that I can put my faith in him without wavering and without end...
God is able to keep us faithful in the time of our temptation. For many of us, this is the time. Whether it’s pride or anxiety, control or sloth, the rats that live in our hearts come out.
But If Not, He’s Still Good
We all fear the unknown. Some days, we fret. Honestly, some of our worst fears may come true. I might wish I had bought more toilet paper and peanut butter or not gone out at all. I don’t know. But I do know this: God will provide all that we need for our souls to prosper.
Not a single one of us- the CDC or otherwise- knows what the future holds. But we know who holds the future. And he is good.
Nooo! I am so embarrassed! I half shouted, half cried. Why didn’t you guys tell me? Didn’t you see this spot?
Death By Chocolate Spot
No one has ever died of embarrassment. And I’ve lived through other wardrobe malfunctions. But, my oh my, how they hurt my pride.
Parent-teacher conferences were last night. I’d sat across from not one, not three, not five, but seven- SEVEN!- of my son’s 9th grade teachers. I was close. Close enough to see the fray on his collar and the stain on his tooth and to compliment the Spanish teacher on her Jerusalem cross pendant.
They must have all seen the spot. How could they not?
That is the shirt pictured above. But, for the record, that is not the spot. Oh, no. It was much bigger and far darker and way more chocolatey than that. Because the spot that mortified me was a caked-on splatter of chocolate cookie dough, whence those dark beauties came.
4 Takeaways from the Spot
I’m always looking for a lesson. So without (way) overthinking the chocolate spot, here are four quick takeaways:
1. Look in the mirror before you head out the door.
Literally. Check for spots, check your teeth. But also spiritually. There are blindspots we don’t see in our lives and we won’t see without the mirror of God’s Word before us. So look in the mirror.
2. Friends tell friends when they see spots.
When a friend mentions the spinach in my teeth or the cows coming out, that’s a gift. Better a second of awkward than an hour of public display. And remember, faithful are the wounds of a friend. Friends tell friends.
3. A little embarrassment humbles me.
And that’s good because God embraces the humble, embarrassed. Embarrassment means failure- big or small. I failed to look in the mirror before dashing out the door. But failure isn’t the end of the world. God still loves me.
4. ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down to where I ought to be. I know this: when you’re low you don’t have to fear falling. Someone’s even said that creativity only comes when you feel at ease with embarrassment.
That might be a stretch. But here I am sharing my spot story with you. Being vulnerable about my own failure might help you grow. Or at least help lighten the mood if you’re feeling low.
To See Ourselves As Others See Us
Speaking of low, I’ll close with that Robert Burns’ poem, “To A Louse.” He’s a few pews behind fancy Miss Jeany, who is oblivious to the “ugly, creepin, blastit” fellas hopping beneath her bonnet and tossing her hair about.
The last stanza comes to mind as I munch on a cookie and think on the spot.
O wad some Power the giftie give us To see ourselves as others see us! It wad free many a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion: What airs in dress an’ gait would lea’e us, And ev’n devotion!
My laden flowers? A few quiet hours alone with my man on Friday night. That was my plan.
How My Friday Night Plans Fell Through
6:15 pm– I plopped the groceries on the counter, set the oven and kicked off my shoes. I’d gone straight from work to fetch the boys and a friend, then to settle them in at the waterpark. Now came the sigh.
And the ringtone.
Mom, you have to come get us! Sam’s really sick. He’s just sitting here with his down and I don’t feel so good either.
Weary Mama rolled her eyes. Why don’t you get some fresh air and take it easy and we’ll come get you in 2 hours.Good-bye.
6:23 pm– Undeterred, I rubbed the salmon, poked the potatoes and set them baking. I was tearing greens when the phone rang again.
Hi Mom. He’s really sick. You need to come get us now. Please.
This wasn’t my plan. I hadn’t even sat down. You can last an hour. Besides, $50 is a lot a money for one hour of fun.
Hanging up sounds heartless, I know. But that son can be Chicken Little, and the caring adults were all around.
6:35 pm– Jim got home and the salmon was done and my phone dinged again. My sister, also at the waterpark,
Can I bring the boys home? Sam looks pretty sick.
Jim called back. I filled our plates, lit a candle and sat down.
And Why I’m Glad
I wasn’t glad. I was grumpy and mad and starved for a quiet dinner alone with Jim, who was calm on the phone as I sat stabbed at my salmon.
They’re on their way. Your sister’s bringing them home.
We were eating our last bites as in they walked in smiling. All better. Their friend Andy wanted to stay and play games. So we cleared the plates and set out Codenames. And in between obscure teen-ager clues, they introduced us to their music and soon Andy had Sam at the piano plunking out tunes.
I wasn’t so blind to miss those. Those answers to prayers I pray almost every day. That the boys would enjoy using the gifts they’ve been given, make and be good friends, and that we’d have more fun as a family.
It all boils down to trust issues, again. I need a consistent trust. I trust God to wake me each morning and bring me safely to heaven, but I can’t trust him with my dinner plans?
This is not to say we shouldn’t make plans. Only that we should hold them loosely. James wrote, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). So sit loose. As we make our plans for tonight remember that God may have different and better plans than ours.
My plans have come crashing down before. And I’m starting to understand that when, in infinite wisdom and matchless love, God ruins my plans, he’s really wanting me to trust him. Because,
God knows infinitely more than we do, and can do infinitely more than we can — should we be surprised in the least when he has planned differently than we have? Plan on it. He has, and he will…Disruptions become welcome reminders that God is real, that he is almighty, and that his plans always prove wiser than ours.
The disruption of my Friday night was God’s kind reminder that he is wiser than me. If I’d have had my quiet night, I’d have missed His better plan.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.
I’m not content with my discontent. In fact, I’m downright discontent when my soul is not at rest.
Which is, I think, as it ought to be.
Easy To Please
I’ve always been drawn to “low maintenance” types. The friends who take a 30 minutes to fix their hair and another 20 for makeup aren’t *naturally my type. Out of bed and off in 10 is more my style.
Christians ought to be the most easy to please people on the planet. We ought to be the most sit-loose people around, with our joy independent of our circumstances. I ought to be as as happy in my house in the woods as in a sunny mansion on the hilltop, as thankful with a can of Campbell’s tomato as with gourmet lobster bisque.
We ought to be. Because in Christ all things are ours (1 Cor. 3:22).
Paul penned these staggering words to the Philippians from his prison cell: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
Contentment is not natural. It must be learned. The good news is, it can be learned. It can be or we wouldn’t be called to be content (Heb. 13:5).
I have stilled and quieted my soul, the Psalmist wrote. Contentment is the goal. I agree, I aspire, I press on. Joyfully often. Woefully sometimes. But I want contentment to mark me. I don’t want to be the high maintenance one who needs this food or that praise or those props to put my soul at rest. I want to be easily pleased.
Because God is my portion. And because I want to grow. But contentment doesn’t have to mean I’m always satisfied.
Hard To Satisfy
Because self- dissatisfaction promotes spiritual growth. It does for me and I think Paul might agree. Growth starts with realizing that I am not yet what I want to be. Philippians 3:12 is about that, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Paul was content with his outward circumstances. Yet he wanted to know Christ more.
While we are to be content physically– with our circumstances and possessions (Phil. 2:12, Heb. 13:5), we don’t want to be satisfied spiritually. Because blessed discontent often begins spiritual growth.
It’s when we feel satisfied spiritually, that we can get proud and complacent and that is dangerous. Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 4:15), Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. In other words, don’t loiter.
Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.
Have you heard of David Brainerd? He said that. That quote appears weekly on my iPhone reminders. Because I need it.
David Brainerd lived his short life this way. He was a missionary to the native and died in 1747 at the age of 29. His drive for more holiness and more usefulness, while enduring all manner of physical hardship, was a dissatisfied contentment. His love for Christ and the native people drove him.
Brainerd wrote, “When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable . . . Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! And oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God . . . Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.”
He was gripped with by the apostolic admonition: “Redeem the time for the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) He embodied the counsel: “Let us not grow weary in well doing, for in due time we shall reap if we do not faint” (Galatians 6:9). He strove to be, as Paul says, “abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).”
We press on. We thirst for Christ and grow thirstier still. With Paul we forget what is behind and press on for the prize. We fight the good fight.
Learned to be Content
C.H. Spurgeon cautioned, Do not indulge, any of you, the silly notion that you can be contented without learning, or learn without discipline. We grow strong in the Lord and the strength of his might.
You cannot learn contentment merely by living in difficult places. But you cannot learn contentment merely by living in happy places. You learn contentment by living in both places. And by discounting your joy as being dependent on either place.
So the formula for contentment for us as it was for Paul: look through the circumstances to the God who’s using them to shape me for good. Expect if you’re on top of the world today, he may drop you low tomorrow. I know what it is to abound and I know what it is brought low. Trust that he’ll keep us going from high to low to keep us depending on him. So we don’t get smug when all goes as planned or despair when nothing does.
I’ll share this to keep it real: this week, after 5 weeks of a sugar fast, my scale went up. That was not the plan. Weight-loss wasn’t the goal, but neither was gaining weight. So I’m at the end of myself today. In his strength, trusting God with that. My weight going up is my being brought low. It’s my proving ground for contentment.
When we are truly content, and enduring all in God’s strength, we neither grow proud in success, nor are we crushed by failure. It’s a freeing place to be.
But there are two places we should not be content.
When We Should Be Discontent
You’ve already heard about the first.
1. Complacency about my own spiritual condition. It’s not: I am what I am what I am, but I am what I am and his grace was not without effect to me. No, I worked harder than the rest (1 Cor. 15:10). One James McIntosh said, It is right to be contented with what we have, never with what we are. Paul was not content to stand still in his faith. He struggled with all Christ’s energy.
2. Apathy over others’ suffering. John Piper calls that “dissatisfied contentment.” He explains, “When Paul writes in Romans 12:15, Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, he shows that the contentment of the believer is not a static, Buddha-like serenity unmovable by the hurts of others. When Christian joy perceives grief, it becomes “dissatisfied contentment.” It senses a lack and a need… Thus, Christian joy starts to expand in love to fill that lack.
But we turn these upside down. We get content with the state of our souls and stand off from the hurting people in our circles. At the same time we grow discontent with our circumstances and possessions, which are precisely where we’re told to rest content.
But there is another reason why we must get this right.
Content and Dissatisfied
Because, in a word, our contentment adorns our Lord. But so does pressing on to know him, eager to grow.
When my life isn’t marked by staggering success at work or ministry or children excelling at school or on the court and I still smile– well, that shines on a satisfying Savior. A gracious quiet spirit reflects the good Giver who supplies all our needs (Ph. 4:19).
And when we ignore our phones and create sacred space to know Christ more, that makes him look good too. Because, Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition (Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment).
We do have a good Father- the very best. So we both rest content with the things of this world and press on discontent, until we see him face to face.
Burroughs can close.
My brethren, the reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them. That is not the reason. But the reason is because they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God Himself.
For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.
-Teresa of Avila
Even if you’ve never said it, you’ve probably felt it. St. Teresa’s words can stab us when we’re suffering. After all, aren’t we friends of Christ and Children of God? (Ps. 25:14, John 15:15, 1 John 3:1)
Because, is this how friends treat friends? Or how good parents love their kids?
We desperately need truth to counterattack the lie that a loving God wouldn’t let his children suffer. Because Satan would love to sift the faith right out of us. And he does a lot of sifting with just that lie.
He even tried it on Jesus.
If You Are The Son Of God…
Those sneaky words are bookends: If you are the Son of God. Christ’s ministry begins and ends with those words being hurled at him.
Bookend 1: After 40 days of fasting Jesus was hungry. And the tempter came and said, If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread. (Matt. 4:1-4)
Bookend 2: Fast forward three years to the cross. Hear the crowds abuse the Christ on the cross. They use the same exact words: If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross… (Matt. 27:40)
Between the bookends (Matt. 16:21-23), Peter does it too. Jesus had just explained how that he must,
…suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed.” At that, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mtt. 16:21-22)
I probably would have said the same: Assert your beloved son status. You shouldn’t have to hunger or suffer like this. Maybe God won’t really provide.
Because being a beloved son or daughter of the King seems like it ought to bring some big perks. Like, say, not having to suffer this way.
Away From Me, Satan!
Suffer many things and be killed doesn’t sound the least bit loving. But Jesus stood on truth.
He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” (Matt. 16:23)
To bypass that suffering would have been nothing short of satanic. Because God’s interests demanded that His beloved Son suffer (Mtt. 3:17). For us and for our salvation he suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God. All of God’s interests are good (Ps. 119:68).
But that can be pretty hard to hear when life gets hard.
So the first and last temptations of Christ and Peter’s words in the middle have this lie at the core: If you suffer, God must not love you. End your hunger pangs: Turn these stones to bread. End your suffering: Come down off the cross. Satan loves to plant this seed of doubt that: suffering = unloved.
But Jesus would have none if it. To Peter, he said: “Get behind me Satan.” Which sounds an awful lot like what he said at the end of his wilderness temptation (Matt. 4:10), “Away from me Satan.”
Spare Me, Or Not
Kill that doubt! Don’t buy the lie that God spares his children suffering. Kill the doubt by looking first to Christ. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered (Heb. 2:10).
If for the Firstborn, so for the other sons and daughters. If for the Shepherd, so for the sheep.
There was a fitness of suffering for the Author of our faith and there is a fitness for the faithful. Jesus knew this. Thank God he knew this. But Satan got it too, so he twisted and abused it. Peter didn’t get it and the crowds at the cross didn’t either.
Do you get it? Do I?
Suffering takes countless forms. What’s hard for me, might not be for you. Lately my “trials” -if I can even call them that- have been mental, taking the form of dashed hopes. This week, one son’s first semester grades brought my little dream of a four generation, top-of-the-class, streak to a screeching halt. High hopes from 13 years ago of another sort are also grinding down.
This suffering is meager and weak. It’s just layers of selfish dragon skin being peeled off bit by bit. It has to come off before heaven anyway. And it’s not worth comparing to heartache, cancer, and decades of pain that friends of mine face. But that little stuff, when I’m feeling weak, is enough to give a twinge of doubt.
Because we just don’t get it. Try as we might, we just don’t. We think:
We don’t think:
We misunderstand his love.
Don’t Misunderstand Suffering
It was misunderstood then- by Peter, the rulers, the soldiers, and a criminal on the cross: He trusts in God; let God deliver him, if he delights in him. For he said, ‘I am the son of God,’ (Matt. 17:43). In other words, If God really loved you, he’d spare you from this.
In our heart of hearts, we misunderstand too. If he delighted in me, he’d spare me this_____________ (Insert your loneliness, illness, loss, heartache, temptation, or pain). If God really loved me, he’d see that my mama longings are all fulfilled.
If we are children of God, glory awaits. We are heirs of eternal life. But guess what comes before glory?
Suffering With Him
Paul tells us in Romans 8:16-17. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Provided we suffer with him. Suffer. With. Him. He did. We do. He does with us. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)
But be ready. Because the same taunt that was hurled at Jesus tempts us today: If you are a child of God, you wouldn’t have to deal with this. If you were loved, he’d spare you. But we know that’s a lie from the pit of you know where.
Because Jesus Christ suffered and died and was raised to life to prove God’s love. Because God did not spare his beloved Son.
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
When was the last time you were thirsty? I mean lips-parched, throat-ablaze, tongue-stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth thirsty. I mean all- consuming, dying–for-a-drink thirsty?
Have you ever been that thirsty?
Thirsty For Water
One day last July I came close.
I had a good podcast to feed my mind and green fields my eyes. I pedaled away as was my custom on hot summer days. A few miles out, I grabbed my water bottle. Groped, actually. Because I had no water bottle.
How could I forget?I chided myself. Should I head back? But the glutton for punishment part of me said, Finish the 18-mile course.How bad it be? I kept on.
When I felt the thirst, I’d swallow hard and lick my lips. That worked for a few miles- until cottonmouth hit and my tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Strange, I thought, how fierce thirst and sheer force of habit have me groping again and again for a water bottle that’s not here.
Before long I grew deaf to podcast and blind to the scenery. All I could think of was water, maybe a lick from that trickle in the ditch. I was consumed with thirst. The last kick up the driveway was more glorious an ending for me than ever a Tour de France win could be.
But in this CamelBak-Contigo-HydroFlask crazed culture, that kind of thirst is unfamiliar to most of us. My thirst was partly self-imposed. I could have turned around and been thirsty for the 3 miles rather than 15.
But I’m glad for that thirst. Because it taught me a lot about thirst.
Thirsty For God
O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1
Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and thirsty soul too. Every single one of us is thirsty for love and searching for significance. Each soul longs to feel its worth. But the thirst for God himself is a thirst is peculiar to Christians.
Blessed are they who know where the fountain is…and can go on to say, ‘My soul thirsts for God!’ That is religion. There is a great deal more in Christianity than longing, but there is no Christianity worth the name without it...
Dear friends! if you have found out that God is your supreme good, see to it that you live in the good, see to it that you live in the constant attitude of longing for more of that good which alone will slake [satisfy] your appetite.
See to it. Long for that good. Quench your thirst and thirst again.
Cultivate The Thirst
We can cultivate the thirst. In fact, to stay thirsty, we must cultivate the thirst for God and suppress lesser desires. If we don’t, MacLaren says, the desire will break off into a thousand little channels. We won’t feel thirsty.
But, dear friends! let us not forget that these higher aspirations after the uncreated and personal good which is God have to be cultivated… with great persistence, throughout all our changing lives, or they will soon die out, and leave us…
A man who lets all his longings go unchecked and untamed after earthly good has none left towards heaven. If you break up a river into a multitude of channels, and lead off much of it to irrigate many little gardens, there will be no force in its current…and it will never reach the great ocean…
So, if we fritter away and divide up our desires among all the.. partial blessings of earth, then we shall but feebly long, and feebly longing, shall but faintly enjoy, the cool, clear, exhaustless gush from the fountain of life-’My soul thirsts for God!’
The soul who thirst for God and his righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Then that self-same soul immediately renews its quest.
At once he is thirsty for God and satisfied in Him.
Thirsty and Satisfied…
I’m at Day 25 of a 40-day sugar fast. It’s helped me see how sugar is like a drug. A brownie sliver from the edge of the pan can become a slab and then a whole pan. A little is not enough. For better and worse, we crave more.
MacLaren again, on how a thirsting for God is like that, but different:
You have to increase the dose of the narcotic, and as you increase the dose, it loses its power, and the less you can do without it the less it does for you. But to drink into the one God slakes all thirsts, and because He is infinite, and our capacity for receiving Him may be indefinitely expanded;therefore…the more we have of God, the more we long for Him, and the more we long for Him the more we possess Him.
That helps me understand Psalm 63. It helps me wrap my mind around the thirsty soul in verse 1 which is the satisfied soul in verse 5. My soul thirsts for you. My soul is satisfied with you, the Psalmist cries to God.
The more we have of him, the more we long for Him. But really, isn’t this how it is with the best of lovers and friends?
…And Thirstier Still
Can’t we can spend time with loved ones and both be satisfied and have be “thirstier” for more sweet times together? To be with best of friends both quenches and kindles, satisfies and makes us thirst for more.
When will we get together again? is how time with my best friends ends. That helps me “get” what David felt for God on the run in the wilderness. He thirsted for God and God quenched his thirst so that his soul was more satisfied than even the most lavish feast. What then?
David grew thirstier still. Beg your pardon for quoting MacLaren one last time,
The two things come together, longing and fruition [satisfaction] … Fruition begets longing, and there is swift and blessed alternation, or rather co-existence of the two.
This is a blessed back and forth of thirst and satisfaction, a co-existence of the two.
God in his great mercy by every conceivable means is going to set to work in our souls to set us thirsting after him. Sometimes that may mean…depriving you of the comforts and blessings of life sometimes even a conscious awareness of his blessing upon you, as with David. You might find yourself brought into a desert place, barren, wilderness.
But you know the one thing you can keep hold on and be absolutely certain of is that God intends to keep you thirsting for his glory.
David wrote Psalm 63 when he was in the wilderness fleeing for his life from a rebellious son who would take his life and steal his kingdom. And it was there that David’s soul thirsted so.
They teach us both to want most and to seek most what we need most. This is a painful gift of priceless worth, because it drives us like nothing else to the only fountain that will quench our soul-thirst.
Water and water only could satisfy my thirst that July day. Our loving Lord wants us desperate and thirsty for him. For him alone.
But he might take us into a wilderness to get us thirsty for him.
Are You In The Wilderness?
For months, a dear friend has had some serious sleep trouble. She sleeps for 2 or 3 hours and then she’s awake the rest of the night. She’s tried all the secrets. But still- 2 or 3 hours. She told me how hard it is to be a good mom and a good wife and wondered, Why wouldn’t God grant me sleep for them?
I don’t know why.
But we prayed and after Amen, with wet eyes and head bowed low, she said, Maybe better than a rested mom, God wants me here. Dependent and desperate for him.
The wilderness is not comfortable. But God sends his dear children to the dry, barren place. His Beloved Son with whom he was well pleased? Off to the wilderness (Mark 1:11-12).
Adulterous Israel? Off to the wilderness. Hosea 2:14: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
Judah, his people, the apple of his eye? Exiled in Babylon. But, they found grace in the wilderness (Jeremiah 31:2). I think he also means for us to feel his goodness in the dry, sleepless wilderness.
Being thirsty isn’t comfortable. My hot summer ride drove that home. It’s a desperate place. But comfort is overrated, so that’s good. Because God wants us thirsty. Desperately thirsty for Him.
Once upon a time Jesus said, “I thirst.” And he was in excruciating pain when he did. But he drank the cup of God’s wrath that we can have eternal, thirst quenching relationship with him. As Isaiah wrote, Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.
That is our Suffering Servant. Because he thirsted and was satisfied, we too thirst and are satisfied. And grow thirstier still.
Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine; Oh, languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth; Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine — For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”
Today is day 14 of the 40-day sugar fast. The last post explained why I’m fasting. This post is about how.
Fasting By Faith & For Faith
Yesterday a friend who’s fasting with me asked, What’s one thing you’re learning? In typical Abigail fashion, I proceeded to give her five. Then I thought of two more. They’re not profound or super-spiritual, nor are they universal. They may not be true for you. But still I’d like to share.
Because this fast was borne of faith. Faith that God does indeed satisfy the hungry soul with good things (Psalm 107:9). And that whoever comes to Jesus will not hunger, and whoever believes in him will not thirst (John 6:35). But that sugar sates my flesh so my spirit doesn’t hunger, and that I go to sweets (and salty treats and Facebook feeds) to fill hunger that Christ wants to fill and he alone can satisfy.
This fast was from faith, but pray it also leads to greater faith. I’m sharing these with so that you will be encouraged that God can use the loaves and fish you offer up- our desserts and sweets- to nourish others. That we may be strengthened and mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:12).
So, please consider sharing your experience, whether mundane or triumphant. Your comment is most welcome.
7 Lessons, 14 Days In
1. It’s easier to fast when food is out of reach.
The word *easier makes me wince a little because fasting isn’t supposed to be easy. Maybe possible is the right word. Because the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Therefore watch and pray. (Matthew 26:41)
Some temptations we fight head on. We take up the shield of faith and wield the sword of the Word. But other passions- we flee. The end of 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. Purging chocolate from the house has made this easier possible. It’s been a way out. So don’t expect to see me at Dairy Queen in the next few weeks.
2. Old habits die hard.
I knew this. But I’m learning it in a new way, a really physical way. When a surprise batch of my mother-in-law’s frosted sugar cookies appeared in front of me last week, I grabbed one and on autopilot, took a bite, completely forgetting I was on Day 10 of a sugar fast.
The second the frosting hit my tongue, I remembered, humbled. Romans 7:15 popped into my head, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Not at all that I hate the cookies- the opposite is true. But it’s not the season. Only that my response to seeing them was to take and eat, without thought, and without thanks. But there is grace for that.
3. Substitutes don’t force me to deal with my heart.
And my heart is what this fast is all about. I think we know this, about substitutes. Because we trade obsessions, and compulsive eating is more common than we may think.
I just heard about a heroin addict who broke free of that evil and got hooked on cupcakes and candy instead. He never learned to handle the pain inside and now all the sugar is ballooning his waistline and seriously hurting his heart. That’s why I won’t let Stevia sweetened pecans replace my dark chocolate almonds. But truth be told, peanuts and popcorn keep trying to fill void. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, or with sugar. All things are lawful, but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Cor. 6:12). I get trading obsessions. But I need to take my hungry hollowness to God.
4. I anticipate the feast more because of the fast.
For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven, the Teacher said and the Byrds sang. Jesus Christ did both. He explained in Matthew 9:15 that while his disciples weren’t fasting when he was with them, they would fast when He, the Bridegroom, was taken away.
It is time for a 40-day sugar fast, but the season for feasting will come. And when it does, it will be that much more of a treat. I admit, I’m really looking forward to breaking fast on February 10th. How much more we should we be looking to the return of Bridegroom and the marriage supper of the Lamb?
5. Rich food is more satisfying.
Jim and I redeemed a gift certificate last week to a local bistro. It was more gourmet than our dining out norm. Roasted olives, sourdough with salted butter, lobster bisque, and blackened salmon hit the spot.
Usually I crave ice cream after a dinner out, but the richness of our meal made the sweetness- and the after-dinner snacking- easy to forgo. That made me think of a fighter verse my friend quotes when she’s tempted by food, My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. When we fill up on the rich food, we won’t crave fillers as much.
6. Hunger pangs can be pleasant pain.
Romans 12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Part of our mind renewal, I think, is to learn to reframe the pain. Because we know that to grow strong- physically or spiritually- we must recognize good pain, by which I mean productive pain. Hunger pains become good pains when I face them with faith that God is producing good in me through them.
Here’s what I mean: Not caving to my sugar craving tears down the idol of food as comforter. It makes space that the God of all comfort will fill (2 Cor 1:3). Then He gets the glory. But when ice cream soothed my after-dinner unease or chocolate bars got me through writing difficult IEP’s, ice cream and chocolate got the credit, the glory. Sweets were my refuge and retreat.
7. Fasting from sugar helps me pray.
I’ve written before about how prayer can be more like a spare tire than a steering wheel. I don’t want it to be. Fasting helps me this way.
When that emptiness or antsy-ness or hunger pains come and I go to God first and say, Fill me, help me, He does. When that happens the Giver, Living Bread, and the God of Comfort get the glory. That’s what I meant, in #6 by pleasant pain: hunger pangs can be productive.
So how’s this 40-day sugar fast going?
There are still 25 days to go. But this morning I did something new when my stomach growled at me. Two weeks ago I would have grabbed a few chocolate almonds and last week some peanuts. But today, I let the rumbling be a quiet call to pray.
I didn’t drop to my knees or fall prostrate. I just closed my eyes for five seconds and prayed, Lord, I want to know you more. Please fill me.
That’s it. Then I did the laundry. But I did it a little more full of Christ and a little more happy in Jesus.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
“Why you putting all that chocolate in there, Mom? That was from Christmas. You like that stuff,” Gabe wondered aloud as he watched me pack it all in the little plastic bin.
“I’m not eating sweets for 40 days, Bud. Because I want to be more hungry for God.”
He shrugged and then begged for the York peppermint patties tucked at the bottom. I surrendered them to the mint loving son. Tomorrow Jim will take the little bin to his office in town, a safe place away, for 40 days.
This Much, O God, I Want You
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast: “This much, O God, I want you.”
John Piper, A Hunger For God
For the next 40 days, from January 1- February 9, the online Bible study group I facilitate (Wonders of the Word) will focus on key Bible verses about hunger, fasting, and the satisfaction found in God.
Along with this Scripture focus, I will be going on a 40-day “sugar fast” and I invite you to join me. I’m committed to saying no to foods with added sugars. No sugary snacks or desserts, sweet lattes, cocoa or candy. It will mean forgoing some of my go-to, feel-good treats: ice cream and dark chocolate.
A few of you are already gung-ho, but most of you are probably wondering why. So I’ll share 3 NON-REASONS for this 40-Day Sugar fast and then 3 of most compelling REASONS to try.
My NOT 3 Reasons for a 40-Day Sugar Fast
To lose weight. There are plenty of good physical reasons for fasting and I’d be glad to share them some other time. Intermittent fasting is part of my life. But physical health is NOT the reason for this fast.
To impress God (or you) with my discipline or devotion. This is big. Huge. In fact, after reading what Jesus said in Matthew 6 about fasting for show, I almost skipped this altogether. But, the benefits outweighed the risks. We’ll do this 40 days with smiles, by grace.
To escape evil, wicked sugar. It’s not. Everything God created is good and is meant to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:4). God made sugar cane.
By definition, Christian fasting is voluntarily and temporarily giving up a good gift to express our need for something greater, namely God and his work in our lives.
Why Fasting Magnifies Christ
Maybe you’re saying to yourself what I said to myself, “Well, I can eat my chocolate and ice cream and give thanks and it’s all good.” You’re right. It is all good. But maybe it- maybe your love and hunger for God- could be better. That’s what I’m banking on.
I love how John Piper explains this, how fasting and feasting can both exalt Christ, the Bread of Life:
Hunger and thirst were created for the glory of Christ. And fasting was created for the glory of Christ. Which means that bread magnifies Christ in two ways: by being eaten with gratitude for his goodness, and by being forfeited out of hunger for God himself. When we eat, we taste the emblem of our heavenly food—the Bread of Life. And when we fast we say, “I love the Reality above the emblem.” In the heart of the saint both eating and fasting are worship. Both magnify Christ.”
John Piper, A Hunger For God
Emblems are tasty. Chocolate covered almonds and Ghirardelli Intense Dark and Almond Joy ice cream are sweet emblems. I love those tastes.
But I want to love the Reality more.
L’appétit ient en mangeant
I don’t speak French, but I know this proverb. Appetite comes with eating. It fits. The more we feast on Christ and his Word, the hungrier we get.
One might think that those who feast most often on communion with God are least hungry. They turn often from the innocent pleasures of the world to linger more directly in the presence of God through the revelation of his Word. Paradoxically, it is not so that they are the least hungry saints…The strongest, most mature Christians I have ever met are the hungriest for God. It might seem that those who eat most would be least hungry. But that’s not the way it works with an inexhaustible fountain, and an infinite feast, and a glorious Lord.
So, that’s why. That’s why this 40-Day sugar fast. Because appetite comes with eating. Eat more Word of God, crave more Word of God.
My TOP 3 Reasons for a 40-Day Sugar Fast
Because I want to taste more of God’s goodness. I don’t taste it as much when the sweetness of sugar is on my tongue. I want Christ to fill my craving soul, even as my body craves the sugar. He satisfies the hungry with good things. Psalm 107:9
Because I want to use my yearning for sugar as a cue to consume more of God’s Word. I want to crave pure spiritual milk, so to grow up in my salvation. Because I don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 1 Peter 2:3, Deuteronomy 8:3
Because I want to master the appetites that would master me. Sugar, for the record, is far from the only one. Fasting can reveal what’s in us and how much a thing dominates us. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12
So I ask: Will you commit to 40 days of fasting from a good thing in order to increase your taste for God and his nourishing Word? Will you put your stomach where your heart is and say, “Lord, you’re more important to me than sugar?” Can you give up a good thing for a better thing?
Whether or not you decide to fast-from sugar or another food or an activity that lessens your hunger for God- I invite you to join the WOW crew as we seek more fullness in Christ, the Living Word and the Bread of Life.
Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and they will fast.
Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Luke 2:19
Do you ever ponder? I mean, do you take time to think about and reflect on a thing, what Miriam-Webster defines as, “to weigh in the mind”?
Pondering isn’t the same as drifting. It’s not the same as what occupies your mind those 90 seconds that come around every other fifth month when you’re alone for the night and your phone is off. That’s not pondering. Pondering means prolonged, intentional thinking over. It may start as a wisp, but when it comes, you hold it in a mind and weigh it a while.
Pondering is effortful for some of us. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as, say, to my husband. He is content to drive for hours with no music, no screens, no talk- content with just his thoughts. Just pondering.
Which is precisely what Mary did after the shepherds returned to their sheep that first Christmas night. Mary pondered.
What Mary Pondered
What did Mary ponder?
All these things. Yes, you appalled English teachers, Mary pondered things. The Greek cuts it a tad tighter with the word rhēma, which refers to a thing spoken. And that “thing” is probably the message announced to the shepherds, recorded in Luke 2:10-11,
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
So the shepherds probably told those things to Mary who treasured them up as precious things. Maybe Mary sang again. But certainly she pondered.
Taking cues from the Blessed Mother, I’ve been pondering pondering lately. In Greek, it’s symballō. It means to throw together or to bring together in one’s mind, to confer with one’s self.
It is formed from sum- with, ballo- to put into. Symballō is used five other time in the New Testament. It’s used in Luke 14:31, when Jesus asks, What king, going out to meet another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate? It’s what the Jewish leaders did after they forced Peter and John to leave the council in Acts 4:15, they conferred with one another. And it’s what happened in Acts 20:14, when Paul met the ship at Assos, and went aboard.
We don’t ponder enough these days. We don’t let thoughts meet up and confer with them. Maybe because we’re out of practice; to reflect and meditate and think long on the same thing is hard work. So distractedly we drift and rush. Screens train our brains this way.
So with the culture, we wade in the shallows.
If Mary, How Much More I?
But we’re not off the hook. If anyone could have been exempted from taking time to ponder the reality of her Savior Son, it would have been Mary. She nursed him, held him, bathed him. And pondered him.
No one can absolve himself from the duty of spiritual thought... Shall we, with our restless, distracted lives, with our feeble and imperfect grasp on Truth, be content to repeat with indolent assent a traditional confession? Can we suppose that the highest knowledge alone… is to be gained without effort, without preparation, without discipline? Is it credible that the law of our nature, which adds capacity to experience and joy to quest, is suddenly suspended when we reach the loftiest field of man’s activity?
Westcott’s words challenge, maybe even incriminate us. Because we know that the more we learn about an artist, the more we savor the art and that the more we read a good writer, the more we enjoy his work,
If in all other realms this is true, then why- when it comes to knowing Jesus- do we think that if we’ve sung a few carols and prayed a few prayers, “we’re good”?
Why would we think that knowing him and enjoying him a little is enough?
Let your intellect be exercised concerning the Lord Jesus. Turn over and over by meditation what you read. Do not…stop at the surface; dive into the depths! Be not as the swallow, which touches the brook with her wing, but as the fish, which penetrates the lowest wave. Drink deep draughts of love; do not sip and go away, but dwell at the well…
Ponder him. Think on him. Let your intellect be exercised. Come to think of it, that happens to be what Christ himself called “the first and greatest commandment“: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
And the command is not without promise. Because the more you do, the more you’ll love him and the more you’ll know his love. Spurgeon again: Certain persons are best esteemed at a distance, but not the Savior; when you shall have known Him to the very fullest, then shall you love Him with the love which passes knowledge…
We can’t love, trust, or adore someone we hardly know. If we’re content to ponder the Lord Jesus for a few minutes on Christmas Eve by candlelight we won’t know his love, or love him, well. For that we must ponder.
Ponder like Mary pondered.
Ponder the “Complex Beauty” of Christ
I don’t ponder enough. I’m so often running and doing. But I can take more time in 2020 to keep Christ in mind, to ponder Jesus, strong and kind.
I may ponder the complex beauty that John Piper describes as “coming together in one person of the perfect balance of extremely diverse qualities.” It’s like what we see in a man with bulging biceps cradling a baby in his hands and gentle woman standing immovable for the cause of truth.
That’s our Lord Jesus. He is tough and tender, lion and lamb, mighty and meek. He held the children in his arms and put his fingers into the deaf man’s ears and sat to chat with the woman who’d had five husbands and lived with another who wasn’t. Jesus, who spoke to the raging sea and it was still and wept before he raised his friend Lazarus to life. The Savior, who spoke to his disciples, O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe and to us, He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
I’ve pondered this- this beautiful, complex Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.
On Us To Know Him More
We sing about the beautiful name of Jesus, but to see more of his beauty, we must know him more. In her humility and trust, Mary somehow got that.
[She] grasped what much more sophisticated people have often failed to understand: that Jesus is to be treasured and pondered… that there is something so deep and wonderful about the person of Jesus that a lifetime of pondering will not suffice. We can both know him deeply and marvel that we cannot comprehend him totally.
Christopher Ash, “Repeat the Sounding Joy,” p. 109
But it’s on us to ponder these things. Because to us also a Child was born, to us also a Son was given.
And to us also comes thenews: a Savior has been born and he is Christ the Lord.
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee! Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee; Ponder anew what the Almighty can do If with His love He befriend thee.
Even though no zig-zagged, half-heart BFF charm has ever graced my neck, I really love my friends. I’ve been given some great ones. Lately, I’ve been thinking how much my friends fit me.
I mean how they shape, form, fit and transform me. I’m learning.
Truth #1: No one likes jealous, clingy friends. Enjoy a bunch of (imperfect) friends.
My jealous bone came out in 6th grade when my friend Jill spent the night at Teresa’s without me. I pouted. Then Mom’s sage advice clicked: being clingy will drive friends away.
If you think of yourself as a needy, leaky love tank waiting to be filled, you’ll probably stay that way. You won’t have many friends. Mom’s advice made sense and I stopped pouting and soon Jill – and Teresa- were both my friends.
But I still try to take mom’s advice to heart. I get it about how if you love someone, set them free and if they come back they’re yours and if they don’t they never were. That.
But I’m not too proud to say I need friends. A bunch of friends. Because no one soul can bear the load of me, and no one friend can meet all my needs. Friendships flourish when we don’t expect all from one.
Paul knew this too. He had a big bunch of imperfect friends.
Truth #2: No one outgrows the need for (imperfect) friends. Not even saints.
For the last month, I’ve been studying the last half of the last chapter of the last epistle that Saint Paul wrote. Paul who wrote the magnificent theology of Romans 8 and set the doctrinal record straight.
But do you know what was on Paul’s mind at the end of his life? His friends. His fickle, deserting, imperfect friends.
Paul ends his second letter to Timothy with mention of no fewer than 17 friends (18 if you count Timothy and 20+ if you count “the brothers”). Verses earlier, Paul wrote those triumphant words, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. He spoke about the crown of life that the Lord would award him. You’d think that would be the end.
But it wasn’t.
Paul eagerly- desperately?-wanted to see his friends. Do your best to come to me soon…Luke alone is with me (4:9,11). Paul was a spiritual guy. He’d already been caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). He knew what it was to set his mind on things above and not on earthly things (Col. 3:2).
And Paul really wanted to see his friends: Jesus- soon, Timothy- now.
Truth #3: You can love Jesus and (imperfect) friends. It makes both loves sweeter.
John Stott explains how these two desires, to be with Jesus and to be with our friends, are not incompatible.
One sometimes meets super-spiritual people who claim that they never eel lonely and have no need for friends, for the companionship of Christ satisfies all their needs. But human friendship is the loving provision of God for mankind. (John Stott, Message, 120)
In other words, if you say you’re beyond the need for human friends- maybe because you’ve been burned by friends- you’re beyond the Bible. Paul had been burned. Paul was deserted by his friends at his first defense in Rome, but said, “May it not be counted against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16)
(Have I mentioned yet that our friends won’t be perfect? That they will fail us even as we fail them. They will hurt us and we will hurt them. Count on it. There will be the giving and taking of wounds. But that needn’t end our friendships. It’s par for the course. In fact Jesus made Peter- as in Peter denied the Lord and cried Peter- his Rock to build his church.)
Don’t feel you must choose between the supreme love and delight you have in Jesus and the pleasures of Christian friends… The joy of a Christ-centered friendship is meant to magnify the worth of Christ as the common treasure of the friendship and this deepens the sweetness of the friendship.
Because maybe behind our choices, it’s God who chooses our friends. And because He does use (imperfect) friends who fail us to shape us into Christ’s faithful friends.
Truth #4: God shapes us through our (imperfect) friends. Welcome the rub.
We are the friends we keep: the faithful and the unfaithful, the timid and the bold, the new and the old. We need them all. Failing friends, failing kids, failing wives can still be our friends- our sweet friends, John Piper says. God brings them into our lives and they all play a part in the people we become.
God works in us through the friends he gives us.
A few weeks ago a friend told me how she’d asked another friend if there were any “blind spots” in her. That question is not for the faint of heart. But, if she could do it, I could too, and an hour later I asked her the same of me. What she said is another post and I’m not recommending you do the same. But I am suggesting that you have you’re close enough to others to feel loves frets and rubs– divine sandpaper on our rough spots, if you will.
Sometimes that hurts, but it need not be painful. Being with a soft-spoken friend helps me to speak more gently. Time with a big-hearted friend makes me want to be more generous. Being with a self-controlled friend makes it easier to skip bedtime snacks. Sanding me smooth.
But most spiritual growth is slow. Sometimes we don’t recognize the tools. We might even ask, God, how are you actually working in me?
In Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives this memorable answer.
…[It] is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways...He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences…
Now here’s the kicker:
But above all, He works on us through each other… Men are mirrors, or ‘carriers’ of Christ to other men… That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important.
We need friends because they are one of God’s choice tools to transform us to be like Jesus.
Truth #5: (Imperfect) Friends fit us for heaven. And we are fit with them.
But this year, as I shop and bake and wrap and read it’s dawning on me that Someone else is doing the lion’s share of preparing. For all the thoughtful stocking stuffing and gift wrapping he does, I don’t mean Jim.
All this while, Christ is preparing us, fitting us. He is rebuilding our ramshackle houses, transforming our stinky stables, and sanding our rough trim to make a fit throne room for the King.
The last line in Away in a Mangernails it:And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.
It strikes me that He might just be doing that through (imperfect) friends.
In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Because I know- not just in my head but in my heart- that giving thanks is as close to a silver bullet to joy as there possibly could be. While we cannot force thankfulness, the feeling; we can coerce the action.Even if we don’t feel thankful, we can give thanks.
And if we do, if we force ourselves to be thanks-givers, I say this from experience, the thankful, joyful feeling follows. It works like this: I wake up and feel the discontent not gratitude oozing out of me. But if I make myself thank God for five things before I roll out of bed, I hit the ground happier, and more thankful. Because I forced the issue. I talked to myself instead of listening to myself. I grabbed the reins and took myself in hand.
It works. Every. Single. Time. When I feel discontent because of what my husband didn’t do, I can thank him for what he did do. When I feel envious about a girlfriend’s gift, I can thank God that she is my friend. And when I’m grumpy about a sink full of dirty dishes, I can thank God for mouths to feed. One or the other: grumble or give thanks.
Because you can’t ride two horses with one heinie.
You Can’t Ride Two Horses
You simply can’t feel thankful and entitled at once. You can’t ride the I-Deserve and the All-Grace thoroughbreds together. You just can’t. I can’t. And believe me, I’ve tried.
I’ve tried to ride the Thankful bay and the Self-pitying painttogether and it never works. But sometimes I still try to saddle up the Envy pony right alongside the Gratitude gray and climb up.
But no matter how hard I try I cannot ride both. Because I’ve only got one heinie.
Ride The Thankful Horse
How it went down yesterday: I started saddling up my Envy pony after hearing opportunities for friendship and ministry that some friends of mine have because they don’t work outside the home. I had one foot in the stirrup before I came to my senses and climbed on Gratitude Gray. God’s got me at this job for his good reasons and I’m thankful- YES THANKFUL!- for the ways He’s using it to grow and shape me.
That was yesterday. Today when I was tempted to mount the Comparison mare and let it gallop off again with my old dreams for a quiver full of kids- the Spirit counseled me off her back and onto the strong Thankful stallion. The Father promised He’d provide all your needs. So if you don’t have it, you don’t need it. No good thing does he withhold.
Those were Spirit-wrought victories. Other days I ride too long on the wrong horse’s saddle. I climbed on the I-Didn’t-Choose-This chestnut and let him get the best of me. He charged off to You-Deserve-Better Land. And if I spend any time at all there, I return quarrelsome and harsh with my family.
All because I got on the wrong horse and let it take me for a ride.
Defeat The Dark Horse: Give Thanks
The best way to drive out my self-focused, self-pitying, envious grumps is to be a thanks-giver. Gratitude, John Piper explains, is the song that defeats the enemy. Suppose, he says, that you discover that there is a song which the enemy and their sympathizers cannot tolerate or approach. Whenever they hear it, they pull back and run the other direction.
Isn’t it certain that you would want to learn this song? And after you learned it, you would sing it when you went to bed at night and when you got up in the morning. You would sing it on the way to work, and among strangers… Others would see and hear and learn the song from you. And in the end you would conquer the enemy.
The enemy rides a dark horse. He steals our joy and deceives us with lies. We play right into his hand when we compare and complain. One of his most convincing, joy stealing lies starts like this, But you deserve.
And the song that drives the dark horse and his lying rider away is thanksgiving.
Sing the Song of Thanks
You can give thanks or you can grumble. One will drive out the other.
The note said without saying, Thanks for holding your ground, Mom. You were right not to give in to me. And I love you so much.
It was taped to the coffeepot Saturday morning. He said he put it there because he knew I’d find it.
Now I’m putting it here so you don’t give up or give in.
Because the night before I found the note, Tall One and I were in a tussle and I almost quit.
Strong Ones Don’t Give Up
Aw, Mom, why can’t we just play Brawl Stars?He brought his iPad too. C’mon. That’s what we want!
We had very different ideas about how our Friday fun night should look. When a new 6th grade boy visited, Tall One pushed hard for screen time, alone. Mom held out for tacos at the table and real games- board games- after dinner, together.
And I asked myself what I sometimes ask my husband, Why am I surprised parenting is so strenuous and effortful and just plain hard ?
Unlimited screentime would have been so much easier.
Strong Ones Stand On Promises
Honestly, had it not been for these verses swirling around my mind, I’d have given in.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.Hebrews 10:36
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58
They’re a few of my go-to, keep-on promises from God. And you know what they say about what makes strong ones strong, don’t you?
They stand on the promises. They don’t sit on the premises.
Strong Ones Endure
Strength can be measured, physically and spiritually, by what will make us stop. What will make us throw in the towel, cry “Uncle!” or just be done?
But God strengthened me with his promises that night. I endured Tall One’s onslaught and stood my ground when the 12 year-old lashed out against the good. This mom endured that pain.
Because I’m learning that strong ones reframe their pain and so renew their minds (Romans 12:2). Strong ones know that it’s trials and pain that build endurance- the ability to stand up under a burden (picture big dudes gripping bendy barbells)- and that it’s endurance that makes them mature and complete, lacking nothing (James 1:2-4).
Add that to your go-to promises.
Strong Ones Rest
But, to be sure, strong ones rest. Athletes build rest days into their training plans. God rested the seventh day and commanded that we rest, for our good. You might even say, so that we can better endure.
I love how Timothy Keller explains this, and, fair warning, if you’re a driver like me, this might be hard to read:
Anyone who cannot obey God’s command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don’t have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom. It means you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities… In the long run, of course, a deeply rested people are far more productive.
Yes, rest. In freedom, rest. By grace through faith, rest in the God who supplies all our needs (Philippians 4:19) and freely gives us all things (Romans 8:32).
Let the record reflect that three games of Mexican Train, twelve hands of Apples to Apples (Tall One’s friend wanted more!) and five dirty taco bowls later, I did rest.
Strong Ones Know Their Real Home
But in this pilgrim life, rest is not the norm. The norm is work and work out. The norm is get up and press on. Strong ones know that comfort is overrated and don’t expect full satisfaction this side of heaven. They know that expecting comfort and ease now tends toward anxiety and disappointment and, well, being dissatisfied.
Knowing that truth is the only reason that this weary mom could hold her ground against Tall One’s barrage coming home Friday night after a very long work week.
Because even Friday night at home, I’m learning, is not really home.
The settled happiness and security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Strong ones know their real home. They know they are pilgrims on a narrow way. They enjoy fun times but they know such times are just “pleasant inns.” And they don’t demand the inn every Friday night.
The Strong Know God Knows
Pilgrims were sturdy souls. They were focused and strong. The hundred who settled Plymouth 400 years ago had every reason to quit.
But they were strong ones and strong ones don’t look for excuses because they know spiritual strength comes from endurance, and endurance must finish its work. So they push back against pressure to quit because their eyes are on the prize (James 1:12), even when it’s invisible to naked eyes (2 Corinthians 4:18). Oh, yes! Strong ones see that victor’s crown that awaits enduring saints and jubilate.
So whether your pressure is long term or short term, whether a difficult job or a strong-willed kid, whether it’s aches in your body or strains on your mind- please keep on. Will you join me and stand on the promises? Our labor is not in vain, we will reap and there will come God’s reward. God will strengthen us (1 Peter 5:10) to endure.
You might not be gifted with a note from a Tall One taped to your coffeepot like I was.
But you can know that God knows when you bear up for his sake. So keep on.
I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
Not all quotes can make the cut. This one didn’t quite.
So you won’t hear me share it as I speak at the first annual Empowered Women’s Retreat, but boy, did it speak to my heart. I hope it encourages you too.
It’s from a chapter called, “These Inward Trials,” in J.I. Packer’s, KNOWING GOD (IVP, 1973). Spacing, bolding and italics mine.
What is grace?
In the New Testament grace means God’s love in action towards people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty one might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. “(God) made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
What is the purpose of grace?
Primarily, it is to restore man’s relationship with God. When God lays the foundation of this restored relationship, by forgiving our sins as we trust His Son, He does so in order that henceforth we and He may live in fellowship, and what He does in renewing our nature is intended to make us capable of, and actually to lead us into, the exercise of love, trust, delight, hope and obedience Godward- those acts which from our side, made of the reality of fellowship with God, who is constantly making Himself known to us. This is what all the work of grace aims at- an even deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself.
How does grace prosecute [go about] this purpose?
Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from the burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor by shielding us from the troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all those things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to Him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another- it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.
The reason why the Bible spends so much time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defence, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of His time bringing to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road. When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him.
Why is life rough and perplexing?
And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing so that we may learn thankfully to lean on Him. Therefore He takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in Himself- in the classical biblical phrase for the secret of the godly man’s life, “to wait on the Lord.”
One of the most startling applications of this truth is that God actually uses our sins and mistakes to this end. He employs the educative discipline of failures and mistakes very frequently. It is striking to see how much of the Bible deals with men of God making mistakes, and God chastening them for it. Abraham losing patience and begets Ishmael… Moses killing an Egyptian…David seducing Bathsheba and getting Uriah killed… Jonah running away from God’s call… So we might go on.
But the point to stress is that the human mistake, and the immediate divine displeasure was in no case the end of the story…God can bring good out of the extremes of our folly; God can restore the years that the locust has eaten.
You know what they say about those who never make mistakes?
They say that those who never make mistakes never make anything; certainly these men made mistakes, but through their mistakes God taught them to know His grace, and to cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise.
Is your trouble a sense of failure? The knowledge of having made some horrible mistake? Go to God, his restoring grace waits for you.
By the way, ladies, if you’re in the Waterford, WI area this weekend, I’d love to meet you at the retreat. It’s about how to count it all joy.
And, guess what? It goes right back to knowing our good God.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
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 with sin 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.
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 – and fall- 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 is 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 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, 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 makes sense 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 on 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 struggles 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- many daily decisions- to live free. And the struggle is made possible only by God’s strong grace. Strong enough to help you bear up under every single struggle you face. And 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.
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
Perfectionism paralyzes. For perfectionists, the perfect is the enemy of the good. According to productivity gurus, it’s also the enemy of the done.
Because perfectionism is crippling. When the project looked great on Pinterest, but then the drive to make it match the pin made you freeze? Like when I a blog post and feel so overwhelmed by the thought of knocking it out of the park that I grab a bowl of popcorn and pour a cup of tea and dust those cobwebs in the corner and grab another snack and… well- the post never gets started, much less done.
We’ve all been there. In fact, I just left my last stop there about an hour ago. Now I’m soaking in the wisdom of just doing something. Namely, of imperfectly writing this.
Because when it comes right down to it, I agree with G.K. Chesterton that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And, honestly, as D.L. Moody once told a critic, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
Or as I often remark, “Something is better than nothing.”
Perfectionism Stifles Growth
But we’d best define terms. I’ll borrow Jon Bloom’s definitions of both perfectionism and excellence. They’re not the same.
What we call perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence, though sometimes the lines can blur. When we pursue excellence, we’re determined to do something as well as possible within a given set of talent, resource, and time limits. But perfectionism is a pride- or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all — both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things.
His clarification is important. Children of the King are called to excellence, to working “wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23). The focus is God. But that is entirely different from a self-focused orientation that insists on flawless, likely motivated by fear or pride to win others’ approval.
In one area or another we all have an inner drive to excel. Whether running a faster mile, proofreading before sending, or becoming a better listener- we strive to do well.
Making good resolves is a healthy way to grow.
Perfectionism Or Healthy Striving?
But perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. Those who strive for excellence- and, dare I say for *perfection?– in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards.
I do this when I strive to make a batch of chewy chocolate chip cookies or teach a lesson that drives a point home or write in a compelling way that makes you want to read it. I enjoy this sort of striving. But perfectionism does not promote joy. Instead, it leads to discouragement, self-pity, and fear.
Though not overtly “Christian,” this article is insightful on the distinctions between paralyzing perfectionism and healthy striving.
Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
Reacting positively to helpful criticism
Do you see the difference? Are you more of a perfectionist or a healthy striver? Your focus probably determines your answer.
Focusing on Christ leads to freedom. Fixation on self enslaves.
Be Freed From Perfectionism
I struggle to rest in God’s grace when I am so aware of my failure, a friend confided. I can relate. I suspect every Christian who struggles with perfectionism can.
Can you rest in the grace of God when you miss the mark? In other words, can you know God’s love when your life is an imperfect mess?
The answer is a resounding YES! But only if our focus is right. Jon Bloom again,
God has something far better for us to strive toward than our idealized imaginations of perfection, which only end up enslaving us.
Perfectionism’s subtle, but great danger is its self-orientation. Since it is a fear- or pride-fueled effort to win approval for the self, its primary focus is de facto on self, not God or others. In other words, perfectionism, even in the battle against sin, is not motivated by love or faith. And “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom.14:23).
But God wants us to be free — free from the tyranny of pride and fear. He wants us to live in the freedom of knowing that he has our past, present, and future perfection issues completely covered.
Do you want to be freed from perfectionism?
Look For Growth
In our ongoing battles with failure and sin, we must know that God is not looking for perfect, externally performed behavior. He is looking for us to look to Him. He is looking for faith that works through love (Gal. 5:6) and for us to trust in his love (Psalm 147:11).
Remember, growth implies we haven’t arrived. If we were already perfect, there wouldn’t be room for growth. But God’s call for us to grow also means we shouldn’t be not stagnant and stuck. Or paralyzed by perfectionism.
Because when God commands a thing, he also enables it. The God who calls us to grow, gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). And that God calls us to grow also means he knows that there’s room for growth. He knows.
Can you rest there?
There’s Grace For That
A friend and I tag that on a lot when we talk, and confess our sins to each other. “There’s grace for that,” we say. For my being late, again; for her overeating, again; for my hasty words that cut, again.
That’s why He died. That is the gospel, my friends. If we were already perfect, Christ wouldn’t have died for us. He loved us and gave himself for us when we were dead in our sins. Perfectly dead.
That truth knocks the perfectionist breath right out of me.
Because Scripture is clear: “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:4-5). This is true.
This truth has power to demolish the lie that you can only please God and know his love if you are perfect. It is both humbling and exalting.
Because, as Timothy Keller so poignantly put it,
We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.
Maybe we recovering perfectionists ought to write that out and tape it to our bathroom mirrors. Then maybe we should to take a tour through the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11.
Commended for Faith, not Perfection
I did that with my Sunday school class yesterday. And it was so refreshing to see the very imperfect saints on the walls in there.
There’s Rahab the prostitute and Samson the proud who loved a prostitute, Jephthah the reckless and Abraham the liar, there’s Noah the drunk, David the adulterer, and Moses the murderer– just to name a few.
And all these, though commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:39). Do you see? These were not commended for being perfect. They were commended for their faith.
But perfection will come. In fact, the very next verse tells us when perfection will come. It will for the ancient saints when it comes for us (Heb. 11:40). We will be made perfect together in glory, when we see see Jesus face to face.
Until then, we press on in faith and love. But we do so with our gaze on the God who loves us so and has already made us his own.
And with Him in focus, and his grace, we can be freed from perfectionism.
Not that I’ve already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.
Do you have trust issues?
I do. But my trust issues aren’t so much with trusting others so much as with others trusting me.
I don’t mean trusting me to decorate a cake or back a semi-trailer into a loading dock or entertain a two-year old. I don’t even trust me to do those things well.
No, my trust issues come when people don’t trust me to do what I said I’d do. I mean, trust me to keep my word and come through without micromanaging or second guessing me. That kind of carte blanche trust means the world.
Trust, I know, is built on trustworthiness, tested-ness, character. We trust others because we know something about their character. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
And I am thrilled to the depths of my firstborn, take-charge, competence seeking soul when people trust me with a task. I still glow to think about the affirmation a leader gave me when I proposed a project a few years ago. “Abigail’s got this,” he said to the team. “Best thing we can do is let her run with it.”
This got me thinking about trusting God (more than the GPS Girl) and how our lack of trust- our little faith- must displease him. Could it be that our fear and anxiety and grieve God for at least some of the same reasons that others’ mistrust grieves us?
At the heart of this hurt, I think, is the fact that others’ lack of trust in me betrays the truth that people don’t really know me as well as I thought they did. Mistrust can betray a lack of intimate knowledge.
I know it borders on audacious to compare my sin-twinged reactions to distrust with our Holy God’s. But I dare.
Because if it hurts my puny fail-and-drop-the-ball-selfhow much moreit must grieve the faithful God’s heart when His people don’t trust Him. Like the disciples in the boat, with the waves splashing in on them (Matthew 8:23-27). Can you hear Jesus saying, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
“O ye of little faith!” What a pang must have shot through the disciples — “Missed it again!” And what a pang will go through us when we suddenly realize that we might have produced down right joy in the heart of Jesus by remaining absolutely confident in Him, no matter what was ahead.
At rock bottom, our anxiety and distrust reveal that we don’t trust God. Which means we really don’t know him as well as he wants us to know him.
Trust Him Wholly
So trust God. I know- easier said than done. So I’ll let you in on a little secret. It will be way easier to trust God more if you know him better. So get to know God. Seek him where he is to be found. Read his self-revelation. There are 66 books of the Bible all about him. He wrote them because he wants you to know him.
And He wants you to trust him. Because He is faithful to all his promises. God always keeps his word. Because, as the old hymn reminds us, those who trust him wholly, find him wholly true.
God is the only one worthy of our complete trust. Even the best of friends will sometimes disappoint us. But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 145:13. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. Faithful and loving. Could there be a better pair of traits to gain our trust?
If he gave you breakfast this morning, and he’s given you life everlasting, can you not trust him with what comes in between? If he has demonstrated his love and his concern by even dying on a cross to give you life everlasting can you not trust him with your concerns?
Still it’s hard. Trusting an unseen God with our hopes and our hurts and our very lives is hard. I feel the tension to trust him or to go my own way every day.
But I can assure you of this. Often sooner and for sure later, it’s way more sweet to trust in Jesus. And it makes God glad.
The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who trust in his unfailing love.
For our heart is glad in him, for we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
Whatever you do, don’t breathe a word of this post to Gabe. He has no idea I took these pictures. He’d be mortified if he knew you knew that he did battle with a dragon yesterday.
Gabe started sixth grade last week and Gabe still works hard at his play. At imagination. And as much as I pray his imagination thrives until the day he dies, I’m aware that there probably won’t be too many more dragon battles.
That’s why I had wet eyes.
Never Laugh at a Live Dragon
I don’t laugh at dragons. Yesterday I almost cried, but I wouldn’t dare laugh. The full quote is “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool! he said to himself and it became favorite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb.” If you haven’t guessed, it’s from The Hobbit.
Saturday night Gabe said he couldn’t put his figures away because he hadn’t finished the battle. He’d assembled the Playmobil warriors Friday morning. Then life took over, the fair and friends came, and the army waited, helmets on, swords in hand- for 48 hours on the couch in the back room.
Until Gabe woke early Sunday morning to do the great work of imagination: to make dragon and men do battle.
Too many of us grow up and we forget about imagination. We forget that we still need imagination to grow spiritually. Reality can be beaten, G.K. Chesterton said, with imagination. I still believe it.
So last night when Gabe asked, not really out of the blue, “Mom do you think there really were dragons, that even breathed fire?” I paused.
“Gabe, I think maybe there were.”
Not Too Old Too Imagine
You’re not too old. A sixth-grader is not too old to fight a dragon battle and you’re not too old to set your mind on things unseen. You are not too old to imagine. In fact, you might say, that’s part of your “calling” if you’re a Christian. It’s what we’re supposed to do.
Because imagination is not mere pretending. Merriam-Webster says it is the power of the mind to form images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved. Imagination is the ability to form an image in the mind, to see in the mind’s eye what is not present to the physical eye. To these ears, that sounds remarkably Pauline!
As in 2 Corinthians 4:18: Look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Or Ephesians 1:18: Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.
And Colossians 3:2: Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
You are not too old for this.
Narnia’s No Dream
One of my first and favorite JoyPrO posts was about imagination. It started with a 4 year old Sam making a face out of flower petals. But it ended with one of my favorite scenes in all of the chronicles of Narnia.
Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum the lanky, languid Marshwiggle are closing in on their rescue of Prince Rilian. The Prince had been captured and held hostage by the evil Queen of the Underworld who had him under her spell, believing there was no other world.
…steady, monotonous thrumming…you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. This also made it hard to think.
Narnia, said the witch thrumming, is all a dream. There is no sun. The lamp is the real thing, the rest is a children’s tale. And Aslan? Why, he’s only a big, make-believe cat. (The Silver Chair, p. 182)
Then, just as the enchantment was almost complete, Puddleglum did a very courageous thing. He stomped his webbed Marshwiggle foot in the Queen’s enchanted fire. And there’s nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.
Live Like A Narnian
Puddleglum’s mind became perfectly clear, and this is what he said:
Suppose we have made it up. All I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seems a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. (p. 190-191).
If you’re “into” Narnia, maybe you’ve already adopted this as your battle cry: Live like a Narnian!
That is labor! Some of the most effortful work I do happens the first few minutes after my alarm clock goes off.
Do Battle (For Joy) Every Morning
Exertion is just as necessary for us as it was for Puddleglum if we’re to break free from the evil enchantment of the Underworld. We need to exert our minds to form images of what we can’t see right now. Imagination can break the spell of worldliness.
Gabe did battle with dragon Sunday morning. Every morning I have to do my own battle.
Most often it’s against discouragement, selfishness, and the pervasive pride of self-pity. If you wage war in bed first thing in the morning, you’re in good company.
John Piper explains the fight of faith as a fight for joy in the Lord; a battle “to continually recognize, see, savor, receive Jesus as more valuable” than anything in this world.
I get up every morning and fight that fight. Every morning, that’s my war. Am I wanting to look at Twitter before I look at Jesus? Sounds stupid. That’s how stupid sin is. So every morning, there’s war in the Piper household. It’s not against my family; it’s against me, and my old man that I have to reckon dead over and over again (Ephesians 4:22) and pray that the Holy Spirit that would poured out on me, that my eyes would be opened; I would see and savor Christ as supreme. That’s war. That’s called the life of faith. Faith is seeing, savoring, the supreme treasure of Christ.
Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you…But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls happy in God Himself…Day by day, seek to make this the most important business of your life.
It’s effortful. Other things will press upon you. But God’s grace has been teaching me to make this my first labor each day. So, I thank God- sometimes I force my selfish self- to thank God for 5 things before I roll out of bed.
That’s usually how my battle with the joy-stealing dragon begins.
Labor Each Day: Imagine Dragons. Fight For Joy.
G. K. Chesterton had a way with words. Some of my favorite quotes come from him, including this one: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
I did some digging and the quote is not exact. But it seems to be based on this bit from his essay “The Red Angel“:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Gabe was St. George on Sunday. Defeating the evil and the ugly. I was him this Labor Day- fighting evil and ugly- and pray I’ll be everyday.
But defeating an evil dragon is work. It’s noisy work sometimes.
Can You Handle The Noise?
After I snapped the pictures yesterday, I walked in, Bible and journal in hand,
Gabe, would you mind if I sit out here and read for a little while?
I was ready to leave and give him battle space, the pause was so long. Then the shrug,
Well mom, if you can handle the noise, it’s okay.
I sighed the happiest of sighs. Doing dragon battle is noisy, but Gabe wasn’t ashamed.
Oh yeah, Gabe, I can handle the noise.
In fact, I love the noise. Because it’s the noise of real life.
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.
Atop the empty grandstand, amid dust kicked up by the Massey hauling plow for the rodeo that night, Hyunjin slapped me one exultant high five.
Because with 30 minutes of a month to spare, he- we actually- finished HELLO UNIVERSE.
For the record, I don’t recommend HELLO UNIVERSE. The universe with its bright crystals and stars are gods. But it’s a book I’m glad I read because it gave me precious side-by-side time with Hyunjin.
The young-adult fiction was assigned by Hyunjin’s English teacher in Korea. With 320 pages, it was Hyunjin’s daunting summer read.
But heaviness turned to joy in the top row of the grandstand.
Joys Doubled, Twice
Two years ago today, I posted about Kibum. I told you how our joys were doubled and our hearts were wrung by our first Korean exchange son. Wet eyes still come when I think about Kibum. Now they also come reliving the month with Hyunjin.
Which brings me to one of those sweet memories. Most nights before bed, I’d check in with Hyunjin about the next day’s events. That was the drill. So I walked into his room, calendar in hand.
Nine days left, I said.
Nine days? he repeated with urgency and scrambled for paper and pen. Then he did some long division: 238 divided by 9.
Oh! 31 pages, he exclaimed, eyebrows high.
Then I got it. He had nine days to finish an epic-long book written in a foreign language and he had barely begun. I knew what I had to do.
I read with you each day, okay Hyunjin? We sit together and read. We will get it done.
He smiled and sighed and for the last nine days, we did. We sat side by side on the sofa and read. And he taught me snake is pem and cat is goyang-i and I taught him that Prank is different from Frank and Birgil is not how we say Virgil. We learned and laughed.
And it was all joy.
Joy Shared, Joy Doubled
I’ve learned this pretty well, but sometimes I slip back into thinking I’ll be happier if I keep my little joys private. But I know better. Remember, love seeks not its own. Joy shared isn’t halved, it’s doubled!
Seeing our humdrum lives through Hyunjin’s fresh eyes proved it again: Joy shared is joy doubled.
Hyunjin helped us enjoy common things more: round-robin basketball in the driveway, dashing around in the van (sans flat tires), meals together, after breakfast reading and then turtle feeding, after lunch chess and playing with goyang-i, after dinner Monopoly Deal or even better slap-jack with dad.
In four weeks the boys played more chess, solved more cubes, took more bike rides and we all rolled our eyes at goofy-sounding words and our Korean mispronunciations and laughed more than in the whole year before.
There were more visits with family and friends and more lingering after dinner and, I admit, probably more home-cooked dishes than the other 11 months of the year.
To be sure, there was also more junk food in the bedrooms, more Dude Perfect flips, more multi-player video Brawl Stars and more goofy talk.
(Hyun-Jin, you know what we call that in America? Gabe would ask Hyunjin. Gooch. To mix it up, sometimes he’d say, equally ad nauseam by week three, Saucy.)
Go ahead, roll your eyes. Sometimes good friends do.
Hyunjin, like Kibum, brought out our best and smoothed out our worst. I like to think we grew a little more gentle and courteous last month too. Maybe we became a slightly less American and a slightly more Korean?
We do miss Hyunjin. But there’s one more thing I miss: I miss what we were when he was with us. Hyunjin brought out something in each of us that wasn’t expressed fully without him.
C.S. Lewis writes about that in The Four Loves. He describes the way he missed his friend Charles Williams, and how that one friend changed the “dynamics” of the group of friends called the “Inklings.”
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth…They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, “Here comes one who will augment our loves.” For in this love “to divide is not to take away.”
Adding One Multiplies
Adding Hyunjin to our family didn’t divide our love. His presence multiplied it.
Hyunjin brought out sides of Sam and Gabe that only a middle brother like Hyunjin could bring out.
Gabe cracked more and sometimes funny “Gucci-gooch” jokes and Sam played hard for chess Grandmaster. Hyunjin won the last game they played, for a 7-6 series lead. Sam says, “He’s lucky.” Gabe says, “gooch.”
Hyunjin also brought out fun sides of Jim I don’t get to see so much and, I suppose, more gentle, domestic sides of me.
His fresh kind eyes brought out our best and reminded us of the gift of each day.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, we say. We ventured, we gained. We opened our hearts and home, and- you’ve loved- you know what comes.
C.S. Lewis again, from The Four Loves,
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Kamsahamnida, 현진. (Thank you, Hyunjin.)
So fast. Our days together went slow but the month went by fast.
Not too fast though. God’s timing is perfect and our times are in His hands. It’s like that Hangul printed artwork you made for us, and explained when I asked you what it said that it’s kind of hard to translate, but what it means is, Today also is a gift.
So kamsahamnida, Hyunjin. Thank you. Thank you for bringing out our best and doubling our joy as a son and brother and friend. Thank you for opening your courteous, gentle, Korean heart to us oft-times wild and willful Wallaces. Thank you for being so kind that your absence left a hole in our hearts. You humbled us in the best of ways.
And I’m really glad we read that book together, about crystals and stars and Virgil and Valencia and the pem. But the universe deserves no thanks for bringing us together.
My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I have notlearned the secret to being content. My 44 year-old soul still gets restless and worked up and sometimes I fret. Paul learned to be content (Philippians 4:11-13). I am learning.
But I had no plan to write about contentment. Until God about knocked me out with his word on a sunset walk.
So here goes.
My Restless Soul
It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. C.H. Spurgeon said that about Psalm 131. He’s right.
I spent a lot of time focused on the three verses of Psalm 131 last week, the first of which is:
My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with things too great or too wonderful for me.
It’s the second half that grabbed me- not that I’ve got the pride thing all under control- only that I struggled with the meaning of too wonderful. Other versions use the phrase, too profound, or too high. It means “things that are extraordinary; things that are miraculous or astonishing; things that are beyond the bounds of human powers or understanding; inaccessible wonders; things we can’t possibly figure out.”
Reasons my reason can’t grasp.
Old-time Bible commentator Matthew Henry helped me here. He wrote,
It is our wisdom, and will be our praise, to keep within our sphere, and not to intrude into things which we have not seen, or meddle with that which does not belong to us.
I’ll admit, my soul has been a bit vexed and stirred up this week because of a decision made that does concern me but that I was uninvolved in making. I was not content. The reasons for the choice did not sit well with me.
But to decide was not “within my sphere.” I was not on that team.
Not Consulted and Not Content
Can you relate? Can you think of a time when you were not consulted and you certainly would have consulted you? A time when you felt put out that your sage insight was not sought out?
You have? You’re in good company, because I think this trigger to discontent is universal. It goes back at least as far as Job, who experts say may have lived around 2000 BC. So we’re talking 6,000 years of ruffled, restless spirits wanting to meddle outside their spheres.
Granted, Job had a lion’s share of loss. I won’t rehash that, only to say that even patient Job wasn’t perfect. His soul got stirred up.
Job started with a calm heart, but then he began to ask God and his friends the questions that come flooding in. Why questions like:
Why me, why this, why now, why?
Things Too Wonderful
But, to the point of this post, after God challenged Job with no less than 55 rapid-fire, questions to put Job back in his “sphere,” he uses the same word- wonderful– to confess and repent of his restless discontent.
It’s in the final chapter of Job, chapter 42, verse 3:
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
If Job could say this after his children and wealth and health were taken from him, surely I can say it in lesser things. Surely after I’ve thought and prayed and researched and called the proper authority- who graciously heard me out and explained why “we’re moving in a different direction” -surely, I can rest, right?
Squawking Like A Fussy Child
Wrong. My soul was not at rest. It was not, to quote verse 2, “like a weaned child with its mother.” It was more like a squawky, squirmy 10 month-old year old, rooting and restless in his mother’s lap. I was not free from what “nagging self-seeking.”
Because our minds- or at least my mind- dials back. I wondered why my opinion wasn’t sought? Because I wasn’t on the team. But then I wondered why I wasn’t on the team that decided? Why, why, why?
I won’t tell you how far I dialed back, but it was more than five cause-effect loops deep.
Then, as is my custom, I went for a walk. It wasn’t till the home stretch they I stowed my phone and recited Psalm 131. And listened. At the last line of that first verse, the Good Lord stopped me cold.
Hold up, Abigail. Listen to my word you quote. Listen. Stop squirming. You’ve made your case. It’s not your concern. This issue is too wonderful for you. I have my reasons. Let it be.
God has his reasons. Be meek. Look past the “second causes,” the human decision makers- I told myself– and let it be.
Hoping When You Don’t Know Why
Ten years ago next month my niece Hope was born. By the time my sister began to labor, Hope was already with Jesus. Grief comes in waves and life is never the same. My nieces and nephew talk about their sister Hope who’s in heaven. It still hurts.
But Danielle and Andy know. They know that the LORD will swallow up death forever and wipe away tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8). They know that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4). And they know– intimately and in real life and real time know- the God of hope (Romans 15:13).
But there’s one big thing they don’t know.
Contentment: When You Don’t Know Why
They don’t know why. God didn’t consult them 10 years ago, and I don’t believe he’s told them since. But they rest content.
Vaneetha Risner isn’t a personal friend, but she’s endured “unspeakable, unexpected, and preventable,” loss. And she has learned contentment.
While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.
God is infinitely more purposeful than any of us. And he always has a reason. He’s probably got many, because, He alone knows all the facts.
John Piper says, God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.
By faith, we believe there are reasons. Good reasons. Believing there are good reasons for thwarted plans and for huge, unspeakable losses tends toward contentment.
We must trust that they are simply too wonderful for us. Even if we can’t name a single one.
Thy Will Be Done
Someone once said, God’s will is what you’d want if you knew all the facts. I like that. In the months and years since Hope’s birth, my sister and her husband did wonder why. We all wondered why. No test or doctor could explain why they couldn’t know Hope this side of heaven. Too wonderful, I guess.
Andy and Danielle learned contentment. They stilled and quieted their souls. They’re are not “concerned” with things too high, or wonderful for them. They released the need to know why baby Hope died, the “nagging self-seeking, and said “Thy will be done.”
For instance, when you wish, and by every means endeavor, to be well, and yet remain ill, – then say, “Thy will be done.” When you undertake something and your undertaking does not succeed, say, “Thy will be done.” When you do good to others, and they repay you with evil, say, “Thy will be done.” Or when you would like to sleep and are overtaken by sleeplessness, say, “Thy will be done.” In general, do not become irritated when anything is not done in accordance with your will, but learn to submit in everything to the Will of the Heavenly Father.” (Father John, JOY AND STRENGTH, 7/21)
Thy will be done. In great trials, and with my “small potatoes.”
I’ve had my say and, unless I’m asked to explain, I will rest my case. Rest content and hope in the LORD.
Contentment Means Hope in the Lord
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever. That’s how Psalm 131 ends. And this side of heaven I think that’s how most of our restless stories end and how contentment is restored: Hope in the Lord.
Scripture is clear on this: Those who hope in the Lord will not be disappointed(Rom. 52-5: Is. 49:23, Ps. 25:3). In the meantime, we train ourselves to stay in our lanes and our spheres, and not to concern ourselves with things too great or wonderful.
God told Job, and God told me as I recited Psalm 131, quit trying to understand. Learn contentment instead.
[It’s] foolish to try to know all the reasons of Divine Providence—why this affliction was sent and why that, Spurgeon wrote.
When we begin asking, “Why? Oh why? Why?” what an endless task we have before us! If we become like a weaned child we shall not ask “why?” but just believe that in our heavenly Father’s dispensations there is a wisdom too deep for us to fathom.
A wisdom too deep to fathom. Too wonderful for me.
Weaned Children Stop Asking “Why?”
I picked the picture at the top because it’s the best one I could find of me holding a freshly weaned son. Gabe was 14-months old. He was weaned when I was on jury duty, two weeks before.
Psalm 131:2 says, I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child with his mother. Weaned means being calm in God’s presence, trusting His wisdom and power and love. Weaned child = contentment.
As much as it hurts a no-pretense, country girl like me to admit it, they do. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, optics means how a thing looks to an outsider. The word is often applied in the worlds of politics and business. A politician playing golf as his home state is declared a disaster or a Starbucks barista holding a Dunkin’ mug, as examples, would create bad optics.
Image, if not everything, means a lot. It can make or break a cause. And I don’t just mean on Wall Street or in Washington.
I mean for you Christian, driving along in your automobile.
Elizabeth’s “Smile & Drive Challenge”
My friend Elizabeth has got a thing for joy. And for smiling while she drives. I’ve seen it. We’ve passed in Burlington’s streets and parking lots and it’s striking.
Elizabeth has a gorgeous smile to begin with, then add to it that she sports it while weaving her black, 12-person van around the one-ways in our town and she stands out.
Let me tell you how the challenge came about. Our ladies’ group was discussing what more than conquerors and “not somehow, but victoriously” mean and how sometimes it’s all we can do to crack a smile.
Which is when Lizz looked at us with a twinkle in her eye and began:
So, I’ve been trying to smile while I drive. Even when I stop for a red light or a train.
Then she threw down the gauntlet:
I challenge you. Smile while you drive.
I don’t know if that sounds easy to you. But I ca. assure you, it does not feel natural. Smiling while I drive feels odd.
So why does Elizabeth do this?
Elizabeth cares about optics. That’s why.
Or, to be precise, Elizabeth wants to attract unbelievers to Jesus. And there’s nothing like a radiant smile to attract people.
As much as I’d like to believe that it’s virtuous to be authentic and let it all hang out so no one can charge me with hypocrisy, it’s not. If we want to influence others for Christ, we must dress up.
Because, as Steven Cole has said, Our job as believers is to give good press to our good God, not by spinning or bending the truth, but by conveying by our demeanor and words how excellent He truly is.
Or again, reflecting on Psalm 67:1, John Piper asks, How can you say to the nations, “Be glad in God!” if you are not glad in God?
Optics and gladness and good press for a good God. That’s why I took Elizabeth’s challenge.
Smile: Make God Look Good
I love Alexander MacLaren’s description of adorning the gospel, of making God look good. Even though he wrote it 150 years ago, it sounds like he was describing optics.
[M]en do quite rightly and legitimately, judge of systems by their followers...It is just as fair, when a creed comes before our notice which assumes to influence men’s conduct, to say: ‘Well, I should like to see it working…”
So when we Christians stand up and say, ‘We have a faith which is able to deaden men’s minds to the world; which is able to make them unselfish; that is able to lift them up above cares and sorrows; which is able to take men and transform their whole nature, and put new desires and hopes and joys into them’; it is quite fair for the world to say:
‘Have you? Does it? Does it do so with you? Can you produce your lives as working models of Christianity?
So, dear friends, this possibility does lie before all Christians, that they may by their lives conciliate prejudices, prepare people to listen… to the message of God’s love, win over men…and make them say: ‘Well, after all, there is something in that Christianity.’
The Smile & Drive Challenge is a cheap way to improve optics. Smiling while wait for in the pick-up line after practice now this is a “working model of Christianity.”
Smile: Make Yourself Feel Good
The goal of the Smile & Drive Challenge is to make God look good. People may see you smiling as you drive and put 2 and 2 together and think, “She’s a Christian and she’s smiling. Her faith must make her happy.” Smiling Christians are more likely to draw others to Christ than grumpy Christians.
But God is so good that he made us with creature features to promote our own health. Smiling is one of those. Mother Teresa said, We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.
Intentional smiling can improve not only your mood but your body’s stress response. Think of smiling as free therapy. Apart from the stress release, smiling has been found to lower blood pressure and improve immune function. Truly, a joyful heart is good medicine (Prov. 17:22).
Joy will bring out our smiles, but smiling can also bring out joy. Even if you’re not feeling the joy, do what joy to would do. It might just be enough to ignite the spark of joy so that you feel it too. (Read this for 10 more reasons to smile.)
Good Press Or Bad Press?
But the biggest reason to smile is because our God is good. Psalm 100 is a call to make a joyful noise and give thanks and be glad and the last verse tells why. It’s a good one to memorize if your joy well is dry:
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
I’ve asked myself and I ask you: Does your life give God good press or bad press? If you’re doubting His goodness and grumbling about your trials, it’s not good. Why would onlookers be interested in your God?
But if those around you notice your joy and glad submission to God, they just might be drawn to the Lord who whose joy is your strength; who is so good that you smile while you drive.
That can be hard.
Smiling Through Spilled Gazpacho
God wants to keep me honest so he has me write. You see, when I started writing this post earlier this week, life was peachy. Literally peachy. My friend Jen had just brought me a box of those juicy Georgia peaches and, my, were they sweet.
But two days later a few got bruised, a son got grumpy and a row with Jim ensued. The rats in the cellar all broke loose. To top it off, en route to dinner group, the precious peach gazpacho spilled.
My smile was AWOL until two miles west of the gazpacho spill. That’s where the Spirit called to mind the words in this half-finished post. And you know: Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
So quick as a ripe Georgia peach disappears, my frown turned upside down.
When Your Smile Is Worth Double
Peach gazpacho cleans up in a jiffy, but some of you face troubles that won’t go away. But here’s the good news: your smile is worth more.
I recently read a story about unconverted John Wesley. A conversation with the the luggage handler at his college impressed Wesley deeply. Somehow Wesley had learned that the porter had only one coat and had not enough money for that day’s food. But the man overflowed with praise. Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon! What else do you thank Him for?”
“I thank Him, answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], p. 100.)
That poor man gave his good God good press and God used it to bring John Wesley to saving faith. Steven Cole concludes, God is good, so we who belong to Him should give Him good press by being people of exuberant joy, glad submission, and thankful praise.
In other words, optics matter.
Will You Take the “Smile & Drive Challenge”
If you’re still on the fence about taking Elizabeth’s challenge, consider this: God’s reputation and honor are at stake.
“If we do not rejoice — if God is not our treasure and our delight and our satisfaction, John Piper says, then he his dishonored. His glory is belittled. His reputation is tarnished. Therefore, God commands our joy both for our good and for his glory.” Optics matter.
I know that smiling and joy are not the same. But I also know- I mean from experience know- that I cannot smile without feeling honest to goodness joy in the Lord.
So, if you happen to see me driving around town and I’m not smiling, please honk.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Where do the saints get their joy from? If we did not know some saints, we would say– “Oh, he, or she, has nothing to bear.” Lift the veil. The fact that the peace and the joy of God are there is proof that the burden is there too. The burden God places squeezes the grapes out and out comes the wine; most of us see the wine only..If you have the whine in you, kick it out ruthlessly. It is a positive crime to be weak in God’s strength.
Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other. Nehemiah 4:17b
It was incidental and mentioned merely in passing. It wasn’t the point.
But on the heals of that weekend, smarting from that blast from a friend and that hideous snarl from my mouth, the pastor’s almost throwaway line was the point.
When The Enemy’s Up To Something
Because I was thinking of hanging up my work clothes and throwing down the trowel.
Because even though I’d confessed, I felt like a fraud. Like I’d disqualified myself from ministry. Lead that life group in the afternoon? Share my faith with younger believers? Expand God’s kingdom? I wasn’t equal. The Accuser had me right where he wanted me.
Since the Fall, the enemy has tried to bait us with lies and lure us into sin. He does this because we are God’s witnesses to the world. He does this to keep us from carrying out the Great Commission, from making disciples. That’s why he seeks to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8).
Chuck Lawless explains: The enemy wants us to mess up (fall into sin), give up (get discouraged), get puffed up (live in arrogance), split up (divide), or shut up (quit evangelizing).
To mess up, give up, get puffed up, split up, or shut up- that’s what the enemy’s up to.
Stand Tall, In His Strength
But God calls us- which means He also enables us- to stand against the enemy (Eph. 6:11, 13, 14). Paul is our precedent. He kept on with kingdom work in the face of opposition. Pray that I may proclaim the gospel boldly. That was Paul’s prison request. (Eph. 6:18–20).
“Standing” -sword in one hand, trowel in the other- meant that he would keep preaching if it cost him his life. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18a), Paul wrote. He knew, sorely opposed saints must know, that no one is strong enough-or weak enough- to fall away while God is resolved to hold us.
Lawless explains, We put on the full armor of God not so we can defend ourselves, but so we can…do the work of the Great Commission.
Which brings me right back to that sermon last Sunday.
Don’t Let Opposition Stop You
The sermon was not about Nehemiah and Co. rebuilding the wall. It was about Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28. But when I paged back to Nehemiah 4 and the opposition I faced suddenly paled.
First, the enemy fire:
Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? They won’t finish up in a day. Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
Then came friendly fire, from fellow Jews:
In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”…At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”
But all that opposition didn’t stop Nehemiah and the Jerusalem wall building crew.
If You’re Doing God’s Work, Never, Never, Never Give Up
The point was: Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the trowel. Opposition is not a license to quit. Nehemiah didn’t.
When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail…Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.
They kept building God’s kingdom in the face of opposition, with trowels and swords. We must do the same when we face opposition.
Including opposition from our flesh that wages war within.
A Violent Streak
Nehemiah’s wall builders carried swords to fight enemies outside the wall, but we do battle with the enemy inside our skin.
Which reminds me of a John Piper quote that comes to mind again and again, when I fail again and again. It reassures me that battling my indwelling sin is par for the course.
There is a mean, violent streak in the true Christian life! But violence against whom, or what? Not other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. It’s 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…
If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.
That’s why I need a sword.
Sword And Trowel
But I also need a trowel. Because building the spiritual kingdom- making disciples- is the Christian’s call.
So it’s no stigma to carry a sword with your trowel. In fact, it’s just hearing Paul’s call to “take heed” (1 Cor. 10:12, 16:13) and Christ’s call to “be on guard” (Mk. 8:15, Luke 12:15). In Nehemiah 4:9, we read that after the enemy showed itself, “We prayed to our God and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.” And by grace, the work continued.
Battle sin, build God’s kingdom. Sword in one hand, trowel in the other. That’s how we build God’s kingdom. We can’t let opposition stop us.
We cannot use the excuse that we haven’t arrived to disengage from the work. My ugly outburst discouraged me. But, thanks to Pastor Matthew’s mid-message nod to Nehemiah, it did not disqualify me from serving.
It did not keep me from teaching truth on Sunday or listening to a hurting friend on Monday or taking Sunday school girls out for smoothies on Tuesday.
It could have, but God spoke straight to my discouraged heart in that quick mention of “trowel in one hand, sword in the other,” Sunday morning.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.Psalm 32:9
A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. They’re said to be more hardy than horses and more intelligent than donkeys.
Still, being likened to a mule isn’t exactly a compliment.
My uncle owned a mule named Petey. Petey was both strong and headstrong. Life on the farm was good for Petey the Mule.
But one day, which happened to be manure hauling day, “Petey decided he no longer liked his ears touched. This caused problems putting on his halter and bridle,” Uncle John posted. “He developed some escape routes which included trying to run Farmer John over; thankfully this isn’t Farmer John’s first rodeo.”
Thankfully, God can relates to mules too. He’s familiar with beasts that charge and beasts that avoid.
But, biblically, what is it that makes mules so mulish?
Hint: It’s what our kids do when they refuse to come and confess that he stole the candy or broke the lamp or lost his Fitbit, again.
That is, they refuse to come to us until after they’re busted outright or the guilt gets so heavy they simply can’t bear it. That’s mulish.
About The Most Happy-Making Thing You Can Do
In Psalm 32, this is the behavior in view: Refusing to come and confess to the one who freely forgives.
Staying away from God when we sin is irrational-without understanding. Because confessing to the God who already knows and freely forgives is one of the most happy-making things we can ever do.
In fact, that’s how David begins Psalm 32, with a double-whammy description, and prescription, for happiness:
Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
The way to be happy and blessed is to go and confess.
Why Mulish Is Foolish
Which is exactly why the next two verses in Psalm 32 contrast this path to happiness:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Pity the fool, the mule, who does that- who stays silent and far away from the Master.
But mules do. They are silent, slow and stubborn. Mules need pressure applied to come to the master. They must be curbed with bit and bridle. That’s why God’s hand feels heavy on us sometimes, like Farmer John’s did on Petey the Mule that day.
I put pressure on you when you were sinning and neglecting me, our Master might explain, so that you’d come back to me. But I wish you’d just come freely. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.
Not Confessing Is Irrational
In case you missed it, avoiding the master is irrational. It is not acting in accord with the truth that repentance brings refreshment and confession clears the conscience. It is living as if estranged relationships and hidden sin are to be preferred over restored relationships and forgiveness. That is foolish. Mulish.
Like when son-who-shall-not-be-named confesses to eating my prized Dove Dark only after I show him the wrapper I found under his bed and not a moment before.
To be human rather than horse or mule, is to be rational. To be rational is to realize that we will be happier when our sin is confessed and covered by God.
And that when we cover it, he will not, but that when we uncover our sin before God, he will cover it (Psalm 32)
Life on the Farm
Mules live on farms. Here John Piper expands the image for us:
Maybe we should try to picture God’s people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule…
God likes to get his animals to the barn for food and shelter by simply calling them.
Or even with a look.
Steered With a Look, or a Bit?
Psalm 32:8 says, “I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”
My Mom says that I was disciplined with a look as a child. All it took was the look, and I’d usually come around. I’d curb my tongue or knock it off or change my tune.
If only the grown-up Abigail was always so sensitive to God’s eye.
But sometimes I’m a mule. Sometimes God has to put the bridle of suffering on me and drag me from danger. I completely agree with John Piper that,
A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.
Piper continues the barnyard analogy, “So God gets in his pickup truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule’s mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.”
But we’d be better off and so much happier if we just came with a look or a call.
Repentance Brings Refreshment
But isn’t all this come and confess talk very gloomy? you ask.
C.S. Lewis answers that question like this,
It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.
C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121.
I bear witness: confessing is happy-making. In the moment, it’s humbling and hard and it hurts. But, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.”
In fact, isn’t being forgiven about the most lightening and relieving, soul-healing and refreshing gift a sinful soul can ever receive?
In Acts 3, Peter preached just that:Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins mat be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.
Repentance brings refreshment.
How Not to be a Mule
Sometimes it is the bit of affliction and the bridle of suffering that makes us come to him. Or, to borrow David’s words, to stay near him.
It is much to be deplored that we so often need to be severely chastened before we will obey. We ought to be as a feather in the wind, wafted readily in the breath of the Holy Spirit, but alas! we lie like motionless logs, and stir not with heaven itself in view. Those cutting bits of affliction show how hard mouthed we are, those bridles of infirmity manifest our headstrong and willful manners. We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much of the ass about us. If we will be fractious, we must expect to be kept in with a tight rein. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly…
In summary, not being a mule means staying near God without being forced. It means praying to God before his hand is heavy on you. It means confessing your sins to Him straightaway. Before you’re busted.
That is how NOT to be a mule.
And when I do come to him and confess, he will freely forgive. He will tenderly take my chin in his hand and lift my humbled head.
My unbridled, forgiven head.
You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.
Have you heard that the pope changed the Lord’s prayer?
You know that line about temptation?
For centuries English-speaking Christians have been reciting the same Our Father. I pray it with Catholics at my sons’ parochial school and with perfect (Protestant) strangers when I’m in a new church. Young and old, at home and away, we say it together.
But this month, Pope Francis approved a revision. Rather than, “Lead us not into temptation,” Catholics may now pray, “Do not let us fall into temptation.”
“I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation. That’s his department.”
The pope was worried that the words “Lead us into temptation” might confuse us. They might cause us to think that the Father who calls us to be holy might also lure us off the narrow way.
So we no longer pray in unison.
A Less Confusing Translation?
Pope Francis is absolutely correct in saying that we are the ones who fall, that Satan is the one who tempts us, and that our Holy Heavenly Father does not seduce his children to sin.
Those are not in question. The Greek word eisenenkēs is the word in question. It’s the word that he changed. It means “lead into” or “bring into.” The same word is used in Luke 5:18; 12:11; Acts 17:20; 1 Timothy 6:7; Hebrews 13:11, as in “They will bring you before the synagogues.”
But, to avoid confusion, the pope approved the revision. Do not let us fall into temptation, is easier to wrap our brains around.
But Is It Accurate?
While the saints have long wrestled with the implications of the words-going back at least as far as Tertullian in the third century- they’ve agreed that Lead us not into temptation is the most accurate translation.
Ancient translations like the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta preserve this meaning, as do classic reformation translations like those of Luther and Tyndale…Translators across cultures, centuries, languages, and theological perspectives have all grasped the Greek here the same basic way: we are to pray that God would not lead us into temptation.
So we agree. The traditional wording is the most accurate.
But I understand the pope’s concern. Asking God not to lead us into temptation implies that rather than lead us in paths of righteousness, he might draw us off the way.
Does God Tempt Us To Sin?
Scripture is clear. God does not tempt us to stray.
“Let no one say, when he is tempted,” James wrote, “‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14).
In this Look at the Book episode, John Piper helps explain from James 1 how innocent desire can cross the line into sin. Suffice to say, our Good Father has nothing to do with it.
What Good Fathers Don’t Do
Now back to the pope. Here’s why he approved the change: “A father doesn’t [lead his children into temptation]. A father helps you to get up immediately.” So says the pope.
John Piper argues that this approach to the Bible is upside down.
God is a good father to his children. A perfect father. And since he is God, and not a mere human, his perfections should not be forced into the mold of our fallible views of what good fathers do. Having perfect wisdom, and knowing all things, our heavenly Father does things no human father should do.
A prime example is Isaiah 53:4: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. . . . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.”
No human father should take the life of his child as a sacrifice for others. Yet that is precisely what God did to his beloved Son. There are other examples, but the takeaway is this,
We should learn whether he does or not from Scripture, not from our prior notions of what good fathers do. Our notions are finite, and distorted by sin and culture. We must continually refine them by what the Bible teaches.
Since lead means lead and temptation means temptation maybe we shift the focus to the word into. Which may change our focus as we pray this way:
Do for us, dear Father, what you did for Jesus, when you “led (!) him by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). You filled him with the word of God and, though he was led to the crisis of temptation by your Spirit, he did not get sucked into sin, but triumphed by your word (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). For this same grace, in all your leadings, we earnestly pray. Amen.
What does “Lead us not into temptation mean?”
This is what you’ve been waiting for, what I’ve been puzzling over for the last three weeks since the pope changed the Lord’s Prayer.
When we pray Lead us not into temptation,
We are asking that we should never be led into a situation where we are liable to be tempted by Satan…into positions where we are liable to fall. This is what our Lord meant when He said to His disciples at the end, ‘Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.’ There are situations which will be dangerous to you; watch and pray, always be on guard lest you fall into temptation.
God does test His children, and we must never presume to tell God what He is or is not to do. He knows that we need much training in our preparation for glory.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Volume 2, “Prayer: Petition”
In other words, as Paul warned, Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
Take Heed Lest You Fall
George Whitefield, an 18th century evangelist, said, My brethren, if you were left to yourselves, you would be overcome by every temptation with which you are beset.
What this “confusing” last petition in the Lord’s Prayer teaches me is to take heed. To not ever think I’ve grown so much that in my faith that I can’t fall. I can. We can. We must see the weakness of our flesh.
This is not a contest in which we are being tested and tried to prove ourselves,Al Mohler suggested. The reality is we are being tested and tried in order to prove God. To prove his faithfulness. To prove God’s strong grace triumphant in our self-control. And to prove that we need the Lord.
Because at the end of the day, we are not up to this. But for the power of God, we will cave in, we will grow faint, and fail.
Christ’s Chosen Words
Of all the words the Lord could have used, he chose those.
When one of Christ’s disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1), Christ answered, “When you pray, say . . . ” (Luke 11:2).
Lead us not into temptation. Those are Christ’s chosen words.
On the one hand, there is a Father whom we must ask not to carry us into evil. On the other hand, there is a Shepherd who suffers unspeakable agony in his triumph over evil. From Job to C. S. Lewis, Christianity has a rich spiritual and intellectual history of reflecting on God’s relation to evil. We could let the words of the Our Father continue to prompt the faithful in this consideration.
Or we could whitewash all the timeless tensions in Scripture and play master over Christ’s words.
I’ve been pondering this for the last few weeks and my head is still spinning. I feel this “timeless tension” of Scripture. But I’ve landed on this.
As with all of our petitions, the requests we make in the Lord’s prayer are not meant to bring things to God’s attention that He doesn’t already know. As Jesus says before offering the model prayer, “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him,” (Matthew 6:8).
To pray is to admit we need help- help to do God’s will and help to want to His will. We don’t so much aim to change God’s mind as transform our own.
So in the Lord’s Prayer. The other requests contained in it make that plain. Praying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” reminds us that we need to forgive. Praying, “give us this day our daily bread,” reminds us to be content and trust God to provide. And praying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” reminds us that, with God’s power, we can resist temptation and stay on the narrow path where God leads us.
We pray about these things because we need God’s help. We are weak and cannot do them alone. As we pray about them, we make them priorities. Prayer is a means God uses to conform our will to His will.
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Today we will face countless temptations. We’ll stare down multiple desires that could conceive and give birth to sin. But, Father in heaven, forbid that we would give in. Deliver us from evil.
Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
-Jesus, quoted in Mark 14:38
EXTRA (aka: More good stuff that would have made the real post way, way, WAY too long.)
The Greek word translated temptation is the same word for trial or testing (see Acts 20:19. Heb. 3:8, James 1:2,12, 1 Peter 1:6, 4:12, Rev. 3:10). Lead us not into temptation-or trial or testing.
In Hebrews 2:10 it says that it was fitting that the author of our salvation be perfected through suffering. If it was true for Christ, how much more true for us. Therefore, there is a fittingness to our trials. Temptation, testing, and trials are necessary for our spiritual growth and strength.
And good fathers and mothers do test their children. In part, at least, we give tests to help our children learn and succeed. So with our Heavenly Father. He puts us in the fire to strengthen our faith, not to see us fall.
God doesn’t tempt us. But he does test us.
Need some evidence?
Exhibit 1: Abraham.
See Genesis 22. Abraham was told to offer Isaac, his child of promise, as a sacrifice. He was tested. God the Father tested his son Abraham to see if he believed the promises of God of not. Abraham was asked to offer up the child of promise. He reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead. He passed the test.
Exhibit 2: Job.
See Job 1 and 2. Does Job fear God for nothing? Satan asked. Then Job was tested- he lost his children, his wealth, his health. God’s purpose was not that Job would fall, but that he would stand. And we have heard of Job’s patience and have seen the Lord’s aim: to show that he is compassionate and merciful.
Exhibit 3: The Israelites.
See Exodus 20. God had just given the 10 Commandments. Then came came some audio-visual effects sent by God to mark the day. Then the Israelites trembled with fear and stayed away. That’s when Moses told them , Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.
Exhibit 4: Philip.
See John 6. It’s just before the feeding of 5000. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Jesus tested his disciple Philip.
Exhibit 5: Jesus.
See Matthew 4 (& 26). Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This is the strongest evidence. It was the Father’s good pleasure that his dearly loved Son be tempted. Jesus was tempted in every way as we were yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). With crimson colors, Jesus passed this test.
Should we bother to pray about the little things? You know, for lost cats and clear skies and skinned knees?
Why should we pray for things that don’t seem to have a tight connection to spiritual growth, which we know is our greatest goal. Because, after all, great praying saints like Paul prayed far more for big things like inner strength than for relief from little circumstantial things.
So why would we pray for little things like broken dishwashers and dirty dishes?
The party was over, the guests had gone home. The table was cleared and the counters were clean. And the dishwasher was filled to the gill with table service for 13.
But then, at 10:45 Friday night, with a rinse barely long enough to loosen shreds of beef and traces of greens, it stopped. A red OE showed up and it did its little dingy thing and five minutes into the cycle it quit. Barely into its fourth run, our brand new dishwasher was done.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
Well, I read the owner’s manual. OE, it said, means “Not Draining Error.” So I opened the door and, sure enough, gray water surrounded the drain.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
Rinse the filter was the obvious first step. But the stagnant pool remained. So it wouldn’t wash because it it wouldn’t drain.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
I read the next steps: Clean the disposal or air gap. Inspect the drain hoses for kinks. I sighed. We have no disposal and where’s the air gap? And how would an out-of-sight hose suddenly kink?
Still, I turned the kitchen sink faucet off and on and on and off and swished the dirty dishwasher for good measure. Then I closed the door and pressed start, again. It didn’t.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
Hon? I called to Jim, The dishwasher won’t drain. I know you can fix it. Will you please try? By now it was after 11. I trusted my handyman husband, and I went to bed.
Morning broke bright but the dishes were still dirty and gray water was still undrained.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
I hurried out for my jog before a track meet that would mean a full day away. When we got home, I beelined to the dishwasher. But I knew- the nose knows- even before I opened the door that Jim couldn’t fix it.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
He got home and after we ate, I unleashed my best pep talk: You can fix anything, Hon. You’re so good at figuring these things out. Can you please try again?
What’s a Girl to Do?
But Jim was weary- he had a lot on his plate. More, in fact, than those ripening in the dishwasher: a broken kitchen sink faucet he’d already replaced twice this month, an air conditioner that wouldn’t cool, and plugged gutters to boot.
He sighed and opened the manual, again. Then he took out the filter, again. And sighed, again- and walked away. I did those dinner dishes by hand.
After all, what’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
The smell of the that load filled the kitchen each time the door was opened. And I knew these greasy old dishes were truly small potatoes. But it sure would be a gift this new dishwasher of ours could make them clean.
Then I knew- what a girl’s to do when the dishwasher won’t wash.
Jim was sitting at the table sorting through his mail and the boys were already in bed when I walked over. Hon, I announced, I think we need to pray.
So pray we did. Father God, would you please help Jim figure this out? Would you please give him insight to drain that water so the dishes can get washed? Please open his eyes to see what’s wrong. And we’ll give you all the thanks and all the glory. Amen.
Then I went to bed with a broken dishwasher full of dirty, stinking dishes.
I started the coffee Sunday morning, then walked three steps to the dishwasher. I winced as I pulled open the dishwasher.
The dishes were clean. The water was drained. God had fixed the dishwasher. And I had never been happier to unload a dishwasher.
How the Dishes got Washed
So that’s how the dishes got washed. I prayed, God answered. In a way the details don’t matter, but in a way they do. God fixed it. But he did so by answering my prayer, by giving Jim insight late Saturday night.
Turns out that the drain stop in the kitchen sink needs to be lifted to run this new dishwasher. If it’s down, the water won’t drain and in seconds the dishwasher quits. Jim was just poking around and, on a lark, pulled up the drain stop in the little sink. And that was the fix.
But, would God have done it anyway? I mean, if I hadn’t prayed on Saturday night, would Jim have had the insight to lift the drain in the little left side sink? Maybe. Or would we have paid a repairman to tell us to lift the drain stop sinks full of dishes later? We’ll never know.
But I do know I’m glad I prayed for this little thing.
Steering Wheel Or Spare Tire?
I do know that, once again, I called, he answered, and my strength of soul he increased (Psalm 138:3). I do know that I called to him in the night of trouble, and he delivered me(Psalm 51:15). And I know I will cast my cares on him because he really does care for me (1 Peter 5:7).
A woman once approached the British preacher G. Campbell Morgan and asked, “Do you think we should pray for even the little things in our lives, or just the big things?” He answered, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?”
That’s answer #1. Because really is there any truly “big” thing with God? With the God who spoke and the worlds came to be, for whom the nations are like a drop in the bucket, who enabled a virgin to conceive?
Now here are reasons #2 and #3- We pray for “even the little things” because it opens us up to a double grace. God gets the glory and thanks, because the giver gets the glory. And, we get the joy of feeling as if we had a role in it. God instituted prayer, Pascal said, in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.
(Not) Impossible, So Pray
God gets us into impossible situations- situations we can’t fix by ourselves- take Abraham and Sarah, or the Exodus from Egypt, or Elisha surrounded by the enemy, even little things like dishwashers that won’t drain- to display his power and goodness. In other words, to reveal his glory.
So pray. Pray, pray, pray, pray. For big things and little things, pray. For his glory. And because our God cares about little things.
Because just maybe, to Him, all things are little things. And because He is able.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
You have the rare ability to see both sides at once. The glass is half empty and half full to you, lauded Mr. Baughn. You see shades of gray.
Mark Twain quipped that he could live off a good compliment for two months. That’s a gross underestimate in my case. Because those words from Mr. Baughn- senior year, English Lit- go back 25 years.
The reason I mention them now isn’t (mainly) to hail the power of praise or to encourage shades of gray. I bring them up, because they help explain why this pity thing keeps surfacing.
The Good Side Of Pity
Sympathy is good and it’s bad. In fact, if you don’t have pity at the right times, not to overstate, but you might be a cold-blooded psychopath. And the Bible commands us to have sympathy (1 Peter 3:8).
Rightly placed pity is godlike and divine. Jesus Christ had pity (Matt. 9:36, 20:34, Luke 7:12-15). We are to be like Christ. We are to have pity.
The Pitfalls Of Pity
But the glass is also half-empty. While we are to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15b)- we are to express our pity with discretion.
Being overly empathic, leading with our hearts not our heads- as when we don’t consider the long term and get lost in emotion- can hurt us and those close to us. Too much pity- or what this post is about, pity misapplied- might actually be harmful. Like when we know that our disappointment is clearly God’s appointment. Or if you always cave when your five-year old cries at bedtime, and decide he can stay up.
Pity is good. Like many good gifts it can be misapplied. And lately I’ve seen a lot of misdirected pity.
Here are four ways I think our pity may get misdirected.
1. Pity is misdirected when it is self-focused.
Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for his purpose in the world. –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest
Self-pity– the kind defined as a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes- would land squarely in the first category.
I’ve written about this again and again. I suppose it’s because I’m too sensitive- that sensitive – and self-pity is one of my besetting sins. Time and time again this line from C.S. Lewis rings in my head: Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearance in ourselves.
Merciless. Like we were to the carpenter ants that bored their way through the ceiling and dropped onto our living room floor. They were destructive. We showed them no mercy.
Be intolerant of your own self-pity. Strike it at its roots. Distract yourself if you must-write a letter or wash the floor like I did Sunday afternoon.
But show no mercy to pity directed toward yourself.
2. Pity is misdirected when it is used to hold joy captive.
I’ve been re-reading The Great Divorce. It’s C.S. Lewis’ imaginative, instructive tale of a bus ride through heaven and hell. Near the end, we meet Sarah Smith in heaven where she’s reunited with her (shrinking) husband Frank, fresh off the tourbus from Hell.
In this scene, Frank is bemoaning the fact that her joy- both on earth and now in heaven-is not contingent on his.
You who can be happy without me, forgetting me! You don’t want even to hear of my sufferings. Don’t, you say. Don’t make you unhappy. And this is the reward–
Stop it at once, she said.
Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity. You see I know now. Even as a child, you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic. Because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, “I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.” You used their pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end.
Those who choose to focus on their own misery will not be allowed “to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy.”
Pity must never be directed so as to hold joy- ours or others’- captive.
3. Pity is misdirected if it never spurs us on to action.
Let us not love in word or tongue but in action and with truth. –John the Apostle
So there’s pity and there’s pity. And we must distinguish between the two. Because only the pure, active one will endure.
Continuing from The Great Divorce,
The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth… that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.
‘And what is the other kind- the action?’
It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good.
Pity in this “passion” sense is not necessarily noble. It might just be a knee-jerk response or a veiled way of rejoicing that I am exempt from that particular suffering. That I am healthy, my husband has a job, my boys get decent grades. My pity may simply be an expression of my joy in not suffering that way.
Clearly the, “add-a-sad-emoji-and-be-glad-it’s-not-me” expression of pity is not a crowning virtue. This “pity” demands nothing from us and may just be an expression of underlying selfishness. It is certainly not heroic.
To add a sad emoji can be a kindness. But if out pity always stops there and doesn’t leap to bring healing and joy, it’s merely sentimental.
But if it’s never action and truth, it’s not enough.
4. Pity is misdirected if it doesn’t reflect God’s just mercy.
Virtuous pity, or what Thomas Aquinas calls ‘misercordia’, is married to justice, regulated by reason, and structured by doctrine. –Joshua Hren, “The Problem of Pity”
Joshua Hren’s Touchstone magazine article is super insightful. In it, he draws from Dante’s Inferno to explain why we must discriminate among pities, and “learn to measure our mercy against the just mercy of God.”
Hren cites a scene in Canto V, where in the circle of the carnal, Dante meets Pauolo and Francesca. As a result of their illicit affair, “these lovers glide through Hell’s whirl like grotesque mating doves.”
When Francesca sees Dante, she recognizes his pity- and, Hren writes, “pounces on it, telling her own ‘piteous tale.'” As she explains her sob story of “how love had led them there,” Paolo stands beside her as both of them weep. Seeing them, Dante felt, “my sense reel / and faint away with anguish.”
With that, he begins his descent into the Inferno, prepared “to face the double war / of the journey and pity.” In other words, Dante realized, misplaced pity is, in a certain sense, the enemy.
Hren, and Dante long before him, recognize that many (wrongly) think that pity should be indiscriminately expressed toward the other, whether that person has cancer or a married friend confides that keeping a secret life is so trying.
Hren concludes, “we ought not to pity the sinner to the point that we try to rearrange the architecture of Hell.”
Jesus Hurt Peter
The germ for this post came on Easter Sunday as I sat reading just past our pastor’s sermon text.
My eyes stopped at John 21:15. It’s in the context of the conversation that Jesus had with Peter after the bread and fish breakfast on the beach.
Here’s the part that arrested me:
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Knowing all things, Jesus could have said, “I’m sorry Bud, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” But our Lord, who was moved with compassion at times, didn’t pull his punches. He said, for the third time, “Feed my sheep.”
But there’s more: Jesus’ next words to Peter explained how he would die a martyr’s death. No mention of pity here.
But we know Peter loved Jesus. And Jesus loved Peter.
Therefore, pity must not equal love.
Break My Heart For What Breaks Yours
For the record, midway through the writing of this post, my husband loved me without showing an ounce of pity. Jim knows the tell-tale signs of my self-pity and they were starting to ooze Sunday afternoon. So, in love, he showed no mercy. Don’t go there, he simply said.
Sometimes pity’s a beautiful thing. Other times it’s ugly. And I only know one way to determine which it is: Break my heart for what breaks yours, is how the song goes.
But maybe the flip side is, don’t let my heart break for what does not break yours. Or at least, don’t hold back from speaking truth in love even if it hurts. Like Jesus did to Peter.
By the way, only an abounding, discerning love can do this. With so many shades of gray, that kind of love is the only way to avoid the pitfalls of pity.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.
And there was one question I was not ready for.
Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?
I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.
But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.
But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls itspiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feelthat genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change.
A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.
How’s your soil?
“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.
With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow.
Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasing– note: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good.
Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield,wild, or dry?
The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.
Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.
What about contaminated soil?
What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those?
Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this.
Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots?
What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?
The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.
Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.
Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.
To go back to the garden metaphor, it meansif you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.
Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.
But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.
Change what you can change.
We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.
But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.
We cannot escape the downers around us, but we can nourish friendships that bringrefreshment and joy.
We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.
It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.
All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit.
But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.They will see his face…
It’s a strange feeling that comes when you must pay for what is already yours; when you must buy back to keep what you own.
There’s a story about that with a boy and boat. But I’m going to tell a different one, about how Milky the cat came back.
I admit: it was my great idea to take Milky and Oreo back to their barn of origin while our family vacationed in Florida. So a month ago, we carted the cats back to Mom and Dad’s farm.
Mom thought crating them a day or two in the barn would be good. Then they could acclimate to their former home.
I didn’t think that’d be necessary. Milky and Oreo wouldn’t need that. They’d remember their old kitten haunts and the smell of the sheep and the hay and their cousins.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Stray Cat Dirge
The second the boys left the van, was the second the cats exploded in a mad dash from their hands. Milky south through the corn field, Oreo north through the garden. Like spooked cheetah cubs escaping a lion, they ran.
Gabe raced after Milky a few steps, but in the dusky light they were instantly out of sight. And as he burst into tears, Sam shook his head.
It’s all your fault Mom. You ruined vacation.
I miss my cats. They’ll never come back.
Those were the words to the song. The dirge that Sam and Gabe sang as I packed the van for a sunny spring break away.
They sang them again ten nights later, upon our catless return.
Fast forward 20 days from the day the cats escaped.
The Cat Came Back
Your cat has been found, the voicemail said. Please contact Lakeland Animal Shelter at 262-741-1000.
I did. And learned,
A trucker found the cat at a rest stop [10 miles from Mom and Dad’s] and picked him up. But he figured a cat so cool must be someone’s pet so he took him to a shelter in Milwaukee. They read his chip and called us and the trucker brought him back down. So your cat is here.
And just so you know, it’ll be a $20 handling fee and a $25 repeat occurrence fee when you pick him up. (Yes, repeat. But I’ll save that story for another time.)
Milky Is Redeemed
Jim redeemed Milky from the shelter an hour later at a cost of $45. Our “free barn cat” was worth much more now than he was when the boys found him behind between bales in the haymow last fall.
Milky was our cat. But he had strayed. Milky needed to be redeemed. And the cost to buy him back was infinitely- any amount is infinite from zero- more than the cost to own.
But now he was ours. Because we loved him. Milky was worth it.
And you, Christian— you are worth it too. The way you’ve been redeemed is proof.
We Are Redeemed
The Greek word for redeemed in Titus 2:14 and 1 Peter 1:18 is “lutroo.” It means “free by paying a ransom, redeem…set free…rescue.”
Titus 2:14 shows Jesus’ death has rescued us from a life of slavery to sin: “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from lawlessness and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good work.”
The same word is used in 1 Peter 1, “knowing that you were redeemed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things such as silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish” (1:18-19).
We redeemed Milky with an infinitetesimally smaller price. Jesus gave himself for us. Himself. As a lamb without spot or blemish. He gave himself.
We only gave 45 perishable, measly little dollars for Milky the cat.
Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
That is the Gospel.
It’s the priceless key to both true humility and truly feeling valued. You- we are more sinful than we know and more loved than we imagine.
After all, it took the precious blood of Christ to redeem us.
And our Lord Jesus Christ did do that.
Redeemed from the Curse
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). We can have peace with God because Jesus became the curse for us.
What’s your secret? How do you stay so healthy? my friend asked, noting I hadn’t been sick all winter.
Ooh. Right into my wheelhouse. Because health and fitness are some of my favorite topics and I do have a few secrets. None of which, incidentally, involve dietary supplements, protein powder or organic juicing; some of which involve intermittent fasting, everyday friendship, and every other day push-ups.
And since today is my “golden birthday” -44 on 4/4- I’ll take full advantage to tell you one of my “secrets.” One the pathways to the good health I’ve enjoyed to this ripe old middle age.
But before I do, I must give credit where credit is due.
Because the first and last word on health has got to be grace.
It is in Him we live and move and have our being. Because He is our life and the length of our days. And His word has given us life. (Acts 17:28, Deuteronomy 30:20, Psalm 119:50)
Any measure of health is a gift from God.
Because the LORD forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases, redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with steadfast love and mercy. He satisfies me with good so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:3-4).
Means To Health
Not to guarantee it, but to go to places where God’s grace flows. You’re more likely to get sunshine on Sanibel Island than in Seattle. God has revealed certain channels through which he regularly pours out his favor, David Mathis writes. And we’re foolish not to take his word on it.
Just like we can’t force electricity or water to flow our direction, we can’t force health. But God has given us circuits to connect and pipes to open and trails to hike. Pathways to power, water and health should he send them.
Our God is lavish in his grace, often liberally dispensing his favor without even the least bit of cooperation and preparation on our part. But he also has his regular channels. And we can routinely avail ourselves of these revealed paths of blessing, or neglect them to our detriment.
Health is a blessing. And going outside avails us of that blessing.
The Secret: Vitamin Sea (or just a walk around the block)
Physical health and spiritual health are closely intertwined. Very closely. A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).
So when I talk about this secret to health, I am talking about both. This pathway is a means to spiritual and physical health.
“Have you been outside today?” is subtitled, “The Spiritual cost of Isolation from Creation.” In it, John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris hail the spiritual benefits of basking in the great outdoors.
Hear them make the case in the rest of this post.
Have you had your nature fix today?
One of the defining features of God’s Word is how often it points us to God’s world.Much of Scripture, in fact, assumes a level of understanding about nature. So, it would seem, if we fail to go outdoors, if we fail to experience and engage in God’s creation, our faith could suffer.
Nearly every book of the Bible is bursting with references to creation, chronicling in soaring prose the making of the universe, identifying God’s covenant promise with colors in the sky, and inviting us to gaze with Father Abraham at the starry hosts, where an even greater promise was written.
The psalmist compares the longing of his soul for God with the thirst of a deer running to water, fully expecting his readers to get the word picture! He sings of the heavens’ divine declaration, he praises the Lord for making mankind ruler of “all flocks and herds…animals of the wild…birds of the sky, and the fish of the sea…”
John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris
The Birds And Beasts Will Teach You
“Ask the beasts, and they will teach you,” exclaims Job, “the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”