What’s Your Ask-to-Thank Ratio?

I’ve gotten two terrific answers to prayer in recent months. One within my family, one within my church that has been shared by many (which I’ve cryptically alluded to).

The number of individual entreaties I made of God in these two matters are well into the hundreds for both. When the answer came back from the throne, I committed myself to thanking him. I didn’t want it to be another “thanks God, see you next crisis” on my already considerable list.

But it occurred to me…how much thanks is enough?

What if God got one thanks afterward for each request beforehand?

For a fleeting moment, I thought that was a great idea. Until I remembered that this is probably exactly what God’s been getting at in the Bible this entire time.

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)

Nobody is without grounds for thanksgiving. Every one of us can look backwards to something we once spent hours on our knees for, something which once gripped our hearts with a fierce desperation, something which we’d give anything to see God grant us.

Maybe that’s one reason we’re constantly commissioned to give thanks: we’re being urged towards a respectably low ask-to-thank ratio. Doesn’t every pleading, every session, every “amen” deserve its own thank-you? It seems to fit the rich, vigorous, austere tone that the true faith always holds.

I won’t let that desperation evaporate into complacency, as the enemy would desire. Tonight, I will go to bed and give thanks for these two things and others, not because I must to earn his grace (though that grace will also get its thanks), but because I wish it. Because God deserves it.

It’s the least I can do. Because there was once nothing I could do, and God did it instead.

 

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Leave Your Egypt Behind

It can be quite fun to view our Christian faith as a long, extended defeat of external enemies, and one of the most familiar stories is the exodus. God’s people are enslaved by Egypt for four centuries, and the day finally comes when they pay the price. While instructing the Israelites to protect themselves from the angel’s wrath by spreading lamb’s blood on their doorposts – a ritual installed as Passover – the Lord’s hand moves against Egypt in ten plagues and then the destruction of their army in the Red Sea. The lesson: “The Lord will fight for you; you must be quiet” (Exodus 14:14).

But that is not Scripture’s final lesson on the exodus.

Centuries later, there is a new Passover lamb. Where once blood on the doorposts served to guard huddled Israelite families from God’s judging hand, it is ultimately revealed as a foreshadowing for a much greater protection. As with so many things in Scripture, something in the Old Testament is taken up and given fulfillment in Jesus: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Glory to God. Our personal taking up of Christ has spared us God’s judgment once and for all.

But it begs the question: If Jesus is the new Passover, then who is the new Egypt?

The answer is not so pleasant. Some flavors of church love to emphasize the destruction of our enemies, giving it a prominent place in their teaching, and people love to hear it. It’s not that it’s un-Biblical.

But like any matter of discernment, the problem is often what’s not there. We like to talk about our enemies’ defeat, but we miss the one enemy that matters most. We’d rather not hear about that, for the revelation is disruptive, tense, exposing.

For the exodus story ultimately had a sad ending. What happened to Israel once they were freed? Did they file straight to Canaan without hesitation and conquer it in God’s name and power? Did they honor God’s deliverance with faith and trust? They didn’t. They doubted, grumbled, set up golden calves. They ate quail as a concession from God, then quailed from his mission. They never saw the promised land.

For although triumph of our enemies is part of the faith, what does Scripture always guide us back to if not our own hearts?

If Jesus is the new Passover, then who is the new Egypt?

We are.

You and I.

For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! (Romans 5:10)

It’s easy to focus on external enemies. It spares us from having to look inwards and admit the gossip we’ve been partaking in, or the white lies we’ve told our clock punch, or how long we’ve neglected to crack a Bible.

But sin isn’t an external enemy. It’s internal. The New Testament ultimately guides our vision back to our own hearts, and reveals us – all of us – as God’s enemy. Such stark words! And God’s greatest mission is not to deliver us from external enemies, but from the sinfulness of our own hearts. That’s why the best teachers remind us that the greatest enemy is not without, but within.

And God tells us to leave that Egypt.

Leave self.

Leave sin.

Leave the idols and doubts and grumbling.

And walk to the promised land of faith, selflessness, and peace.

Next time you read the exodus story during the upcoming Easter season, remember that its ultimate fulfillment was in Christ and his deliverance of us from our sin. Choose to leave your Egypt. Leave your sin behind. Use your life to honor Christ and all he’s done for you.

 

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The Thing I Most Ask to Be Delivered From

A book I’ve been reading posed a whopper of a question: “If God were to remove one of your greatest sources of pain, what would you ask him to take?”

Now, this was not followed by another ill-fated health-and-wealth excursion, no tired treatise of living your best life now through positive thinking and self-actualization. The author was actually framing it as a teaser for heaven, one of whose rewards will be to wipe away every source of pain.

But when I read the question, I found myself applying it to my life here, on earth.

What would I ask God to take?

My mind riffled through any one of countless prayer requests, obstacles, and disappointments, both for myself and those closest to me. If I could pick only one, what would it be?

I know a handful of things I probably would have settled on, in years gone past.

Now, I wouldn’t pick any of them.

Instead, one goal now overrides the rest.

I would ask God to remove my inability to know his love.

Scripture and its teachers keep on telling us that we can find true purpose, joy, and safety only in God, but do we listen? Not particularly. We’re the stubborn teenager who just has to find things out for herself.

We look for satisfaction in being selected for projects and leadership. It lasts for an instant. Then we’re wondering why we didn’t get selected again, or whether we did well the first time. It crumbles to ash in our mouths.

We look for satisfaction in relationships. It lasts for an instant. Then we’re overanalyzing, navigating hurdles, finding ourselves in need of constant reassurance. It turns to sand in our hands.

We look for satisfaction in food, drink, or distraction. It lasts for an instant. Then we wake up to the consequences, sending much of it literally into the toilet.

I’ve tried these things, in varying degrees. I’m glad to say I’ve never committed any grievous sins in them. But there was one: thinking that they’d be better than God.

We don’t always wake up explicitly thinking “these things must be better than God”. It’s not that we high-ball the Other Things; we just low-ball God. It’s hard to cultivate a relationship with the unseen, so we gravitate towards the seen. And oftentimes, we find what we think is a “safe zone” within our Other Things (enjoying lots of food but not alcohol, seeking a godly marriage rather than just any marriage, looking to bring your talents to ministry rather than the corporate meat cleaver). It’s still not God. Not necessarily.

When God says he’s the source of life, he’s not being insecure. He’s not giving a big cosmic “you’ll get nothing else and like it”. He’s not being the psychotic parent who goes out and sabotages a daughter’s relationships so she’ll stay home. He’s rescuing us from disaster. As long as we build anything without his love as the foundation, it will collapse in on itself, taking us with it.

For that reason, and for his own glory, I really do want to know his love more than anything now. Seriously. He’s convinced me.

So I ask him to remove the barriers. He has erected none of them; they’re all of my own construction. But he can show us what they are, help us tear them down. All that’s left is beating the illusion, destroying the images of worldly goodness that crop up all around us, even good gifts that God has given us, or wishes to. They look so good. So we must endeavor to fill our minds with God instead. Meditation, Scripture, the spiritual disciplines…only then will he look good to us.

 

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Healing Doesn’t Have to Be Self-Focused

A speaker I once heard said, “I believe the healing that God wants for this generation is emotional.”

It was not difficult to spot the wound driving his words. Three generations of compounded familial and sexual sin have left our society in critical condition. With each passing month, more and more people come of age who will never figure out who they are, or how to operate in this world, and whose brokenness will inevitably wound others – an ever-expanding cascade of infection. It certainly looks like our world could use a sickbed.

But some corners of Christendom depict healing, or any attention to self, as unholy. It’s a spiritual-sounding thing to do on the surface, since Christ preaches loss of self. They dismiss what they see as a self-focus problem and conclude the battle isn’t worth fighting. Don’t look for affirmation. Don’t look for healing. None of this makes God the center.

I struggled with this for a long time, for I have known wounding. What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me?”

We know he meant surrender. Holiness. Following his Word. Mustering all the faculties that comprise “you” and retasking them to worship.

But did he mean that certain faculties – pain and emptiness – don’t exist, that they’re mere figments or projections, or inappropriate subjects of attention?

Again, it certainly sounds spiritual.

But not if Scripture says otherwise.

Here’s my case. It’s interesting to observe that if a human was heard uttering the phrase “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, he might get shot down by this very application of selflessness. We could make a day of rest sound self-focused in any circumstance. If he argued that it was needed, that we’re no good to God worn out, we could simply reply that it’s not about him. “The harvest is nigh. Work on the seventh day. It’s about God!” And immediately he’d feel shamed out of any response.

If a human was spotted seeking words of affirmation from God, we could easily label it an egocentric pursuit. “God’s not here to make you feel good about yourself,” we’d thunder from the pulpit. And immediately he’d feel shamed out of any response.

I have actually seen people attacked for merely looking forward to heaven’s termination of all tears and suffering. They were told that they should “instead” be anticipating the full revelation of God. “Focus on his glory!” they were told, as if they can’t do both. And immediately…you get the picture.

Yet all of these treasures proceed directly from the mouth of Christ (Mark 2:27, John 1:47,  Daniel 10:11) or within earshot of his throne (Rev. 21:3-4). That’s authoritative Scripture, which God saw fit to inspire.

So at what point is God having words put in his mouth here?

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)

Guys, I’m not Earth’s smartest person. But if Scripture shows God offering aspirin, I’m probably not going to go around campaigning the evil of aspirin. If it reveals God prescribing physical therapy, I’m unlikely to go on television and dismiss physical therapy as a category. And if it depicts God recommending heart surgery, you won’t catch me trying to talk folks out of it. I’d instead suggest just doing what he says. (And if your denominational flavor emphasizes the dread of God’s wrath as part and parcel of his greatness and glory, I’d politely suggest that arguing with God’s prescriptions might be hazardous to your health. This is not scruffy-faced Dr. Bob down at the corner clinic we’re talking about.)

It’s possible to define self-focus so rigidly and extremely that one loses any reference point. Teachers of Scripture teach self-denial in one podcast, then (rightly) trusting God for our daily bread the next. Why not instead pretend we have no stomach? Isn’t it holier to label hunger as a failure to revel in God? Some have claimed that historically, and not just for themselves. Do you see where I’m going with this? Let this idea drift in the wrong direction for long enough and it starts to reek of Eastern mysticism – the “emptying” of ourselves. No, God is not against food. Scripture’s definitions of self-denial are a little more flexible than that. A few personal callings aside, you can eat. (Just honor God with what you eat.)

And yet.

And yet.

We know God calls us to die to ourselves. That’s got to be in here somehow.

So how do we escape this maddening paradox?

Well, nobody would argue if I say “embrace Scripture”. But let’s do it fully. Surrender to it. No bathwater theology, no throwing out things because idiots dirty it. Allow the Word to lead us, to reveal God doing whatever he fully well feels like, flexing and classifying things over our own instinctive and experiential definitions, without regard to how we (or our defining teachers and traditions) have seen things distorted by idiots. That kind of objectivity is tough. Yet I’d argue that it’s necessary to fully glorify God. If we were to deny every abuseable idea, we’d have to start with grace itself.

Go back to Psalm 147. It belongs to a stanza that opens with a praise call. It’s sandwiched between displays of his power, justice, and creativity. God is worshiped for all these different facets. It’s placed in the context of repatriating the exiles – a highly emotionally traumatic event. And it’s repeated in Isaiah 61:1 and Jeremiah 30:17, even as God acknowledges that he himself inflicts some of our wounds.

God does care about us. And that reveals his perfect nature. It leads to his glory.

I’m still firmly Baptist in my persuasions, so let me hasten to add that emotional healing goes hand-in-hand with holiness in our lives, not without. Our woundedness is no more an excuse to sin than grace is. We can obey while broken; we can praise from the hospital bed.

Also, healing comes solely and exclusively through Scripture’s provisions, not our own or the world’s. I also agree that the ultimate purpose of mankind’s healing is God’s fame and exaltation – not us walking out of the ER and not praising anybody.

And, honestly, I do think there are many days when it’s holy to just set ourselves aside for a while and do things for others’ gain, whether we benefit or not. As we heal, we do it more, and better. That’s where this is going.

But the point is, Scripture denies neither injury nor debilitation. It is sin to steal antibiotics; it is not sin to be sick in the first place. The holiness in healing lies not in denying the problem, but in accepting God’s solutions. God’s Word reveals that he cares very much about our hearts, that he acknowledges its tangible impact in the here and now, and that he has solutions. He’s not asking you to pretend there’s no wound, or to just shut out the pain. He’s offering to heal.

And then rush out and tell others about what Jesus did for you.

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The Answer to a Painful Christmas is…Christmas

If you’re one of those people for whom it takes everything you’ve got to not hate this season’s guts, I understand.

When I was seventeen, life and Satan hit right where it most often hurts this time of year: family. After that year, we would never again celebrate the holidays as a family. The head count is always one short now.

Some don’t even get the first seventeen years. Others got fifty, yet are now going through their first Christmas without, and finding it just as shattering. It’s difficult to keep our seasonal joy from being diminished by those losses.

Have you ever noticed how vulnerable Christmas is? As inevitable as its arrival is every year, it doesn’t actually offer everyone refuge. For some, it’s the reverse – a reminder of what they don’t have. As long as Christmas is about perishable things, it will be perishable itself.

It’s a good thing that the true Christmas has something to say about those very losses, then.

Imagine if the manger pointed to nothing but another Jewish prophet standing around on hillsides and boats, telling stories and handing out advice. Awfully anticlimatic, don’t you think? Not much worth celebrating there.

But the manger points to much more. It points to the cross that will triumph over the very things that shatter us today. It was the birth of the Conqueror of death and loss, who will return on a white horse to make all things new.

If we make a soft-focus Hallmark family mentality the central purpose of Christmas, we leave it vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. Though God is powerful and good, he has not promised to always protect even that precious jewel in this life.

But if we make hope the central purpose of Christmas – the hope of redemption – then the season becomes as unshakeable as every other promise of Christ.

Christmas isn’t a family reunion, as wonderful as that is. It’s the promise of greater reunions down the road, the reversal of all the theft and death and destruction the enemy has wreaked upon us. It looms large over the damages looming over us. The properly interpreted Christmas heralds victory over its own oppressors.

This is why Christmas is bigger than our opinion of it. It’s why we can truly celebrate: its promise never lay in the present, but in the future. It may be difficult to find joy now. But perhaps the cure to finding that joy, is delving ever deeper in.

 

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The Value of Knowing Your Value

I ran across the following meme the other day (who says the Internet is useless?):

value

It is an incredible quote, for it brings many of our lives into sharp relief. It went straight onto the Facebook page for my blog, for it was propulsive and illuminating, at least for me. All of a sudden, through this idea, many of the regrettable actions we take (or see taken around us) gain an interpretation they never had before.

Most of what we interpret as immaturity are unhealthy attempts to prove our value.

The office worker who stirs up drama is trying to prove his value by bringing others down.

The family member who deflects or passes the buck when called out on a mistake does not realize that she can be valuable and wrong at the same time.

The one who turns every conversation towards themselves is too busy securing their own value to see that of others.

I’ve just described all of us somewhere. Like a dog chasing its tail, we are all trying to capture something that could not escape us if we tried. We cannot attain what is already ours.

Being made in the image of God carries incredible value. We are shredded and dirtied by sin, lost in a haunted house called the human heart, yet pursued by the Cross’ offer of redemption. God went to great lengths to open a way to salvation, all because he calls us valuable.

His ways not only clear us of sin’s sentence, but free us to live wisely in the practical realm every day by revealing our value. When one understands his value in God, they are protected from having to prove it. They are no longer driven by those compulsions. They no longer seek their identity in sports, hobbies, political causes, or cruel and legalistic religion. They can admit errors, break addictions, set boundaries, forgive, help, lead, and love. Since they’ve had their core questions about themselves answered, they can start focusing on others’ questions instead.

This is impossible with the world. They’re not even trying to hide their self-hatred anymore. More openly each day, they celebrate our supposed insignificance in the cosmos, place higher value on animal species than themselves, and embrace pornography. Suicide and self-centeredness are epidemic. Satan loves to claim you have no value, then propose an endless series of hoops to prove otherwise.

God cures all that. And only he can.

Come to Christ and let him break your chains. Whether you are new to him or part of the old guard, there is always something to be mended. He welcomes all comers with open arms, and writes new stories where there were only scribbles before.

 

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Your Greatest Worship Experience Won’t Come At Church

I don’t have much against flashy, neon-drenched worship services courtesy of starched hair and skinny jeans.

That’s because I don’t know the hearts of the hair and jeans. When the great test of worship comes at 3am – when they get the dreaded phone call, or when they simply wake up with the old terror pressing in – for all I know, they pass with flying colors. They trust God. They worship at their bedside. Why assume they don’t?

See, your greatest worship experiences probably won’t come at church.

I attend a church that doesn’t have one of “those” worship experiences every week. We try to stay simple, competent, and authentic. Fortunately, it’s also a church that teaches us to think of ourselves with “sober judgment”, which has helped me check my critical spirit towards other churches and how they operate. We celebrate when other churches succeed.

After all, what access do I have to the hospital rooms in which the rubber of those believers’ faith meets the road?

What access do I have to their last late-night session with their thinning checkbook?

What access do I have when twenty years of isolation finally breaches the dam of their hearts and leaves them curled up against a silent wall, even after all their valiant demeanor from stage?

Your greatest worship experience won’t come at church. It comes unscheduled, unrehearsed, unforeseen, on days other than Sunday, when your character and trust are tested by life’s nastiest assaults. It comes when you’re on the ragged edge of snapping at your coworkers, or when the bottle’s comfort just feels irresistible, or the arms of someone you know you shouldn’t be seeing. The true and only question is simply this: will you choose him? Over despair? Over idols? Over distance?

That’s worship.

Raising your hands on Sunday means nothing if you sin with them the other six days. Tithing means little from a resistant giver. A degree from a Bible college is pointless if it’s not put into practice. This sounds harsh, but I can draw no other conclusion from Jesus’ words.

Worship at its deepest form happens not on the stage, but in the closet.

That’s actually comforting. It means your life doesn’t have to be the internal equivalent of multicolored spotlights and smoke machines for you to come before him. It means that humble churches without such assets can still run to him. It means that the “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10) is ours regardless of the rest of our wardrobe.

Worship with your life.

And if it’s been a while since you did so, worship with repentance right now, in your closet. It can be done. Jesus awaits with open arms.

 

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