Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Contradiction?

But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in sorrowful, yet always rejoicing... --2 Cor 6: 4ff

"Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing." What does this mean? I have pondered this passage many times, trying to understand how Paul could be sorrowful (a word that, in my mind, means sad), yet rejoicing, which I think of as happy. How can one be both happy and sad at the same time?

I thought maybe the word 'rejoicing' in the original language, meant something other than happy. But when I went to the lexicon, I found it means exactly that: The definition of the original word is "exceedingly glad".  Likewise, the original word for sorrowful does indeed mean sad, burdened, and downcast. What could possibly be the explanation for this? There is no earthly reason to think that this is not a total contradiction. 

There is, however, a perfectly reasonable heavenly solution to this seemingly impossible language. Paul is rejoicing in Christ! His joy is obviously not in his circumstances, for they are terrible as he is writing this letter. I don't know about you, but needs, distresses, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness and fastings do not seem joy-inspiring to me! Paul had to have risen above his circumstances in order to rejoice in the midst of them. He had his mind fixed on Christ:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. --Hebrews 12:2&3

Like the writer of Hebrews, Paul had learned to look up instead of looking around. My default response to trials is to look at the trial and lament or mourn. Paul’s was to look up to Christ instead of looking at the trial, and rejoice! Make no mistake, Paul is not rejoicing about the trial, except to the extent that it brings glory to God. In this second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is rejoicing in Christ, the author and finisher of his faith, who went to the cross for the joy!! Christ endured the greatest suffering any man has ever known, and He did it for the joy set before him!
My friend, there is much joy before you today as well:
The joy of patiently enduring the trials and pain that your loving God has ordained for your good and His glory (Rom 8:28).

The joy of obeying God’s command to take every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.  (2 Cor 10:5).
The joy you will experience as Christ leads you in triumph over your pain and troubles and through you diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge.
(2 Cor 2:14)
And, last but not least, the joy you will know on that great Day when he says to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’  (Matt 25:23)

What “few things” has the Lord entrusted to you today? Problems? Pain? Heartache? I’m sure you could list many things the Lord is asking you to bear right now. But rest assured, my believing friend, you will enter into the joy of your Lord, because you have been faithful. What does that faithfulness look like? No matter how you are feeling today, pick up your Bible, open it, and hear from Him. He has much to say, and longs to encourage you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Like a Weaned Child

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

When my children were young, long before I was a biblical counselor, I was a breastfeeding counselor. I worked with an internationally known group of volunteers who offered help and encouragement, mostly to new moms who were struggling with nursing their newborns.

As their babies grew, there came a time of natural weaning. Many babies just seemed to gradually lose interest in nursing as more solid foods were introduced. For these moms, weaning was easy. But some of the moms had babies—toddlers and even some preschoolers, who just did not want to stop nursing. They would fuss and scream, demanding to be held and nursed. Their moms, desperate for peace, gave in, and when this had gone on as long as they could stand it, they called us for help.

Fast forward to today. The Lord brought me to Psalm 131, where David compares himself to a weaned child with his mother. Because of my background, my initial thought when I think of weaning is whining, crying, and discontentment. But this is not the picture that David describes. He says he has calmed and quieted his soul, like a weaned child with his mother.

Weaning is a process. Just like a mother refusing her child because she knows what’s best for him, my Father sometimes denies me what I think I need, and I become discontented. I may complain, cry, and whine about my desire to Him. David cried and complained to God, too. There are many Psalms of complaint in the Bible (e.g. 142:1-2; 74, 88 ) written by David and others, which are exactly that— cries to God for what the psalmist thinks he needs. But, throughout these Psalms, and the whole Bible really, the writers always end up confessing that God is both loving and good, and most of the time, if the end is revealed to them, they see that what He ordained was best, for their good and God’s glory.

Friend, you and I are currently in the weaning process. We scream and cry for what we want and think we need, but perhaps our heavenly Parent knows that we need something else. The weaning itself is part of the growth process. As we learn to deny ourselves the things that He seems to deny us, we will become less whiney and discontented. There is no one more self-focused than a child who refuses to wean from the breast, and there is no greater picture of a trusting relationship than a weaned child with his mother. He has learned that, in spite of what he thought he needed, his mother knew better, and she lovingly but firmly denied him. Because she has consistently and faithfully fed him for his entire life, he trusts her and eventually quiets himself.

So my question for you today is this: Who has loved, fed, and nurtured your soul? Can He still be depended on to continue doing that, even if you don’t get the things you want in this life? What if He decides that the best thing for you is not less pain, but more? What if a more severe disability will draw you closer to him than improvement in your functionality? What if progression of your disease will bring Him more glory than a miraculous healing? Will you still trust Him? Will you still believe that He loves you? Or will you be like the angry toddler who refuses to wean, throwing fits and grieving his parents?  

My dear friend, like a weaned child with his mother, will you calm and quiet your soul in the arms of your Abba?  Will you trust Him and only Him to provide what is best for you today? 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Go Ask Your Dad

I recently had a wonderful answer to prayer, and the surprise I felt when I got the news raised a red flag for me spiritually. While I was thrilled with the direct answer of “yes” to my specific prayer, I was also a little disappointed in myself for being so surprised by it. Usually, if we are surprised by something, it means we were not expecting it. So, apparently, I did not expect God to answer my prayer.

What’s the reason I was so surprised? Why didn’t I expect God to answer my prayer? Well, first of all, my request had to do with something that has been a longstanding and seemingly impossible situation. By sight, there is no way it will ever happen. Maybe I was walking too much by sight, believing that a humanly impossible situation was also impossible for God. But Scripture tells me that with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). My unbelief made me doubt.

Secondly, to be honest with you, I haven’t had a lot of direct answers to prayer in my life. This particular situation was one I could have manipulated to try to get the outcome I wanted. In fact, I almost did do some fancy footwork to influence people in the direction I wanted them to go. But in the end, I decided not to do that, but just to pray, and to ask the Lord specifically for what I wanted. After He granted it, I realized that all too often, I manipulate and control situations instead of praying and trusting God. My pride makes me rely on my own power, and not on God.

Finally, I think I was surprised because I have allowed myself to forget who God is, and how much He loves me. My father wants to give good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11; James 1:17), and this thing that I wanted was very good. Why did I doubt that my Father would give it to me? He loves me with an everlasting love, and His love never fails. But many of my prayers have gone unanswered, or been refused. Though I know that all things work together for good (Romans 8:28), maybe the disappointments had led me to give up on my prayers being answered, at least the really big ones. 
Maybe recent history crowded out the truth that I know about God’s love.

Did you ever ask your mom for something, and have her tell you to go ask your dad? If so, you know that if and when you did ask him, there was a chance he would say no, but there was always a chance that he would say yes. I’d like to challenge you today, to think of the one big thing you really want God to do. Maybe it’s the salvation of a loved one. Maybe it’s healing of your body or restoration of function. Whatever it is, commit it to prayer today. Stop running around, stop trying to change it on your own. Walk in humble obedience, believe that your loving Father can do it, and go ask your Dad.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Do You Love God More?

Are you struggling against a life-dominating sin pattern that seems to have such a grip on you that you wonder if you will ever overcome it? You are in the Word, praying constantly, and begging the Lord to give you victory, and you are making good progress. Most of the time now, you do pretty well, and you’re grateful for that. But there are still too many times when you fail to win the battle between your heart and your mind, and you fall again to the temptations of sinful anger, depression, self-pity, or fear. As you dust yourself off from your most recent fall, shaking your head and feeling ashamed, you may be asking yourself, what am I missing here? Why can’t I completely shake this thing that I hate so much?

The answer to that question may be in the question itself: Maybe you don’t really hate it that much. Maybe (and you may not even be aware of it, but just maybe), you still love your sin. We know that the Lord sends affliction for our good and His glory (Rom 8:28), to make us more like Him and to grow our faith. But too often, when pain or other trials press on us, we become self-focused, which leads to resentment, lack of trust in God, and many sinful responses. In fact, this self-focus is at the root of most sinful responses to trials. When we think about ourselves instead of about others or God, we are well on our way to giving in to sinful anger, depression, fear, or whatever our “signature sin”—that one life-dominating sin that we can’t seem to shake—may be.

What is at the root of self-focus? You can probably guess. It’s pride. Pride says, “I don’t like this ______. It’s uncomfortable, and I desire my own comfort more than anything. God should fix this for me, and if He doesn’t, I will be angry/sad/fearful/despairing or whatever else my feelings tell me I should be. Basically, pride puts our purpose at odds with God’s purpose. It refuses to allow our hearts to submit to God’s plan for our lives, and instead insists that our plan is better.

Jerry Bridges, in his excellent book, Trusting God, says that submitting to God means making His purpose our purpose. In our sinful hearts, these two are often at odds. We know that His purpose is to make us more like Him and to bring glory to His name, but in our hearts, we’re not quite sold on the idea that that’s better than our purpose—our  comfort and happiness. We live in this world, in these bodies, and the pain we suffer gets our attention.  The truth is, we hold on to our sin because we love it more than we love God.

Ouch! Is that really true? Just because I keep on sinning in this same way, does that mean I love my sin more than I love God? Yes, in that moment, when I choose sin over obedience, it does mean that, because we obey the one that we love and trust. When I choose sin, I am loving myself, obeying my own plan, my own purpose, instead of God’s.  There can be many motivations for choosing sin over obedience to Christ. Maybe your anger gets people to do what you want. Maybe your self-pity gets you sympathy and attention that you think you need. Maybe your depression gets you off the hook in your responsibilities, as sympathetic friends and family members pitch in to help.

Whatever the reason, you are hanging on to you sin because there is a part of your heart that still loves it. Your love for that sin overrides your love for God and your desire to obey Him, even if it’s just long enough to indulge your flesh. What will it take to convince you that God’s plan is better? Only God knows the answer to that question. And that answer is in His Word. Prayerfully search the Scriptures and your own heart, and ask the Lord to reveal it to you. He is faithful, and He will do it.
Here are a few Scripture verses to get you started:

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?  Romans 8:32

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.  Ephesians 2:10

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…  Ephesians 2:20

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—    I Corinthians 2:9

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18