Is Your Comfort Overflowing Along with Your Trial?

waterfallI’m grateful that our youth group is willing to talk about suffering. We don’t masochistically enjoy the topic, but as Paul wrote with intake of breath, we don’t want our students uninformed (2 Cor. 1:8). We can either warn them, or we can let them catapult into the world and discover gravity on their own. Pick your poison.

(It’s not like suffering is abstract to them anyway. In our era of family brokenness and instant access to news of the world’s powder keg, anxiety and trial are finding them. Getting into their homes, their pockets, their hearts.

They should never have had to deal with all this so young.)

Last night, we had a chance to get ahead of the game and cut off a common twisting of Scripture: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s a distortion of 1 Cor. 10:13, which refers to temptation, not trial. And it’s a not a trivial fudging. For when it’s trial’s turn, God will allow more than you can handle – purposefully.

For we don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, of our affliction that took place in Asia: we were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life. Indeed, we personally had a death sentence within ourselves, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8-9)

Sounds like more than he could handle.

trickle.jpgHasn’t that proven true for you by now? As one student said, “how do you grow unless God breaks your boundaries?” (I secured his permission to use that brilliant phrase in this post, and promised him a dollar.) This verse is unmistakably foundational in its description of the Christian life.

BUT!!!

As I sat in our circle last night, combing through this chapter while the students philosophized and giggled, one verse struck me differently. It was the fifth.

For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. (2 Cor. 1:5)

Overflows.

In a manner grammatically constructed to compare in intensity to the suffering – and written as a promise.

Would you say your comfort is…overflowing?

For much of my life, the comfort was merely a drip. A trickle. Maybe a rivulet. I dammed it up with self-pity, entitlement, despair. I let it take center view. The implosion of my family, the stress of the Air Force, a lot of social isolation for numerous reasons…it was a waterfall. The comfort did not match it.

And that is not how it should be.

6918284549_c37f2b073b_zDid God’s promise fail in my life? I say no. Just because you’re promised something doesn’t mean you possess it. There’s a real world we must still go through, and an enemy. I didn’t yet know how to go through my enemy, how to swing the sword.

Now I do.

Triggering the second waterfall starts with being prepared for the first. We pray. We worship despite our pain. We mix in some service, partially to alleviate others’ suffering and partially to get our own minds off things. We acknowledge God is not cruel, has not abandoned us, but remains faithful and is dispatching comfort our way. And that it will match our suffering.

Let us be raised from the dead. For we know that one day, at the trumpet sound, one of these waterfalls will dry up forever.

 

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3 Reasons I Dislike “God’s Waiting on You” Theology for Singles

prayer2As long as I’ve been of marriageable age, one of the most common responses I’ve seen to struggling singles is some version of God’s waiting on you.

God’s waiting for you to be fully satisfied in him.

God’s honing your character.

God has work for you first.

The upshot being, move! Get in the Word! Go through your character with a fine-toothed comb! Hit the mission field! Be the best you! And for the love of God, learn to love God already!

“I love that stuff and I hate it,” a single friend of mine said.

That’s where I land. I’ll never object to doing all those things. But I’ve come to hold serious misgivings about God’s Waiting On You theology where it pertains to singleness.

For one, G.W.O.Y. has too many exceptions. God allows the worst people to marry. He pairs off believers to mature together(!) from age 19. And fortysomething singles like my friend spend years on international missions but still find nobody with their last name waiting when they get off the plane home.

You can get your neck twisted trying to reverse-engineer God’s ways from all this. Outside of express Scriptural teachings, God actually doesn’t exhibit a lot of patterns to how he shapes lives. Jesus never healed people the same way twice; Joshua’s battle strategies kept getting divinely switched up. Many saints have believed that God stays somewhat unpredictable so that we must seek his guidance firsthand. If all his ways could be guessed so easily, what need would there be to talk to him?

God could be waiting on you to clean something up. But get that from him directly, in prayer.

Never try to make your experience a principle for others, but allow God to be as creative and original with others as He is with you. – Oswald Chambers

For another, G.W.O.Y. can offer a false sense of control. Some singles actually kinda light up when they find a problem in themselves: Hey, maybe I’ve uncovered That One Thing that I can fix to finally open God’s hands! This can look like holiness, but it’s mixed with an attempt to control God. That makes it an idolatry – the same one lodged in any worldly philosophy of If you don’t like your life, change it!

We know better. At a wedding last weekend, as the maid of honor told the couple’s story, she reminded us, “We’re not in control of any of this.” Yes. That’s what we must remember. Mixed motives and a spirit of control? Avoid them.

But most of all, “God’s waiting on you” knows little of grace.

Singleness can already feel like a graceless state. You don’t get as much help with life; everything relies on you; you have not (yet) been chosen by another. To add insult to injury, countless singles are exhausted from running around like beheaded chickens, worrying subconsciously over any character flaw or unfinished work that might be The Thing over which God is holding your future hostage. I’m not sure worry meshes with the fruit of the Spirit.

Push towards holiness. Always. Relentlessly. But tying blessing to your works is how Islam and Hinduism operate. It’s how the pagan religions surrounding Israel operated (and how the Mosaic covenant operated until God replaced it). It’s not discouraging, and you’ll never arrive anyway.

Instead, we have grace – the grace of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, single or not. The very foundation of our faith is God giving when we’re not deserving. I would argue that this should be the foundation of our prayers for a mate as well. After all, marriage is a reflection of Christ’s relationship with his church (Eph 5:21, 32), and that’s all grace.

Consider the Canaanite woman with the possessed daughter (Matthew 15). She had nothing to plead before Jesus – no works, no cleanliness, no national identity. But she said, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!” She was appealing to Jesus’ character.

Marvel at his generosity, but also, don’t miss that we are not dogs! We are the children Jesus spoke of, the adopted heirs, the kingdom citizens. How much more shall we receive?

Switch things up. Next time you pray for a spouse, pray not out of your own merit, but out of God’s grace and fatherhood.

I make no promises about how God will respond. Remember, we’re not seeking formulas here. But we’ll be praying correctly, out of knowledge of God’s character and our true position before him.

Like any grace, this is actually a relief. It’s not all up to us. He gives freely without finding fault (James 1:6); he keeps no record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5). Dump your stingy views of him and pray out of that.

 

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When You’re Hard on Yourself

feetHere is an encouraging thought: God might be showing us more grace than we are accepting.

I used to think that most humans’ only mistake was denying the sins they committed, or their need for forgiveness.

Then I grew up, learned to be hard on myself, and realized that we also fail to fully accept the grace God is offering.

When I mess up, it’s a hard battle to not let it wreck my day. Many of us, whether parents or single, pastors or congregants, inhabitants of any job, could say the same. Our competitive world rewards perfection. We’re competing for scraps of success, love, and security. We intuitively sense that any flaw will get us lapped, so we drive ourselves. Hard.

It spills over into our relationship with God. We never think we’re good enough to enter his presence. (And by ourselves, we’re not.)

But…

And a woman in the town who was a sinner found out that Jesus was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house. She brought an alabaster jar of fragrant oil and stood behind Him at His feet, weeping, and began to wash His feet with her tears. She wiped His feet with the hair of her head, kissing them and anointing them with the fragrant oil.

When the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching Him — she’s a sinner! ” (Luke 7:37-39)

Even before we go any further into this rich passage, we get a stunning lesson in God’s grace from the simple fact that Jesus does not drive this woman away.

It’s established that she’s a sinner. The obvious Jewish expectation is that Jesus would repel her for her past. He does not.

The feet of Jesus are exactly where we belong after we have sinned.

I briefly had a Muslim housemate in college. During a conversation, he admitted that he had no way of knowing whether his fastidious adherence to the Five Pillars of Islam was getting him anywhere with God. Every time he sinned, or even forgot an observance, he feared eternal destruction. Zero assurance.

We can strut about how awful that existence sounds, but are we any different? Do we “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time” (Hebrews 4:16)? Typically, no. I think we hold off until we’ve “shaped up” (itself an unreliable assessment) before we feel God is near.

But the Cross and the Empty Tomb were given so that we could approach him. Relying on our own effort would preempt his credit. Jesus’ sojourn in the Pharisees’ house is meant to foreshadow this new and living way.

If you’re “in” with Christ, yet being hard on yourself today, remember the torture and effort God went through so that you needn’t. His grace is greater.

 

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You Matter

Just the other day, Neil deGrasse Tyson dropped this pearl of morbid nihilism in his Twitter feed:

Well, thank you, Neil. You have a singular talent for brightening everyone’s day.

The greatest tragedy, though, might be how many likes that tweet got. If you read enough (forgive me, Lord) internet comments from the agnostic, scientifically curious types, you almost see a perverse delight in their rejection of anything significant about man. To hear them talk, we’re just another species adrift in the dark, clinging to a pale blue dot in its dance across the blackness, one that’s quite indifferent to whether we maintain our grip. Nothing special about us.

Anything to reject God, I suppose.

God is another matter.

You matter to God.

“I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18)

We studied this last night and marveled. Our teens shared a bemusement: “Gee, God, couldn’t you have picked someone slightly better to gift with an inheritance?”

Perhaps. But he chose us.

When I observe Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which You set in place,
what is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?
You made him little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:3-5)

Unbelievable. He cares.

…casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7)

You are not an accident or a leftover; you were planned.

That thing that happened to you in high school, the one you’ve never told anyone? He saw. He is furious. And he has plans to make it right.

The trial you’re undergoing now that’s lasted years with no end in sight? He is the God who produces solutions out of nowhere long after hope has surrendered.

Those sins you committed? God wants to forgive. He arranged for it, through the blood of his son, if only it is accepted.

Behold the black hole, one of which was first finally imaged by mankind yesterday:

hole

Amazing, is it not? I’ve waited my whole life for such a vista.

You are more than this.

You are more than just a failed star, more than just a void surrounded by cosmic detritus. That weird phenomenon, that collision of the most exotic, bizarre properties of our universe, endowed with power to anchor galaxies…God has done far more intricate work on you. Your body, your life, all stamped with his seal, bound up as a testimony to his love and care.

Amidst the energy and matter that collide hourly across the universe, you matter to God. Will you not accept this?

 

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Yes, We Can Still Carol Amidst the Darkness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday I learned that I shouldn’t be singing carols as long as suffering persists in the world.

At least that’s the charge of John Pavlovitz, a Christian progressivist blogger whose post I stumbled across today, quite unintentionally, in the course of my internet wanderings (I will not link it). He says our holiday joy should take a sober and subdued form as long as poverty, disease, injustice, and war persist.

I’m still trying to decide how literal he’s being. At first, this seems like a rigid and unfair stance. Suffering will always be around. The poor will always be with us. If you’re holding out for utopia on earth, you’re in for a long wait.

Should we never again sing at Christmas, then?

Continue reading

Find a Savior Who Looks at You Like He’d Die For You

5661613189_65be533432_bLife has a way of breaking down your categories. You leave home and discover that Christians aren’t always decent people, nor atheists villains. You get a job and find out that some of the people out there with the foulest mouths and quickest tempers also have the very biggest hearts. You go through an election cycle. I’ll say no more about that. Whatever the case, our black-and-white definitions of things and people are constantly being broken down by life. It’s really a huge favor, if you think about it.

Same thing with marriage.

I’ve longed to be married for quite a while. I have many friends who can say the same. The world around me, too, seems convinced that this is the answer. You can tell by what they say, what they post, what they pursue. They just don’t talk about anything else. “Find a man who looks at you like…” Continue reading

After You Betray Him

Doctor: “You betrayed my trust, you betrayed our friendship, you betrayed everything I’ve ever stood for. You let me down!”

Clara: “Then why are you helping me?”

(long pause)

Doctor: “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”

fireSuch a simple, powerful moment. Such a cosmic overturning of the most solid, fearful expectations, without even a blink.

Every once in a while, we regrettably grow numb to the Scriptures. We let a certain detached glaze develop between us and it. Then God invokes a moment from a drama or from real life – something we’re actually paying attention to – to get us back to his holy Word.

 

When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”

“Feed My lambs,” He told him.

A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”

“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.

He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”

Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?”He said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.”

“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said. “I assure you: When you were young, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to signify by what kind of death he would glorify God. After saying this, He told him, “Follow Me!”

(John 21:15-19)

It is by a fire that the shivering Peter betrayed Christ; it is by a fire that Peter is restored. Three times Peter denied him; three times Jesus restored him. The intention is unmistakable.

Nobody has ever failed to betray Christ. Even those who love him, do so every day. In our actions, our words, our looks, our fears and mistrusts and doubts, our daily sins.

Yet for those who truly love God, he knows who you are. We can come right back to him, seeking his help, his love. That is exactly where he wants the repentant, even if we just sinned. Especially if we just sinned.

We can still follow him.