Tuesday, June 21, 2016

He Cannot

Do you struggle with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God? If I’m honest, I have to confess that I do. I have often said to myself, especially when I am in pain, “God could have allowed that surgeon to do my operation perfectly, but he didn’t. I don’t understand why, if he could spare his children suffering, he doesn’t. Can you relate?

But then this morning, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I ran across this post, from Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, taken from one of her books:

"My path has been rough; but I have not had one trial which my heavenly Father could, in faithfulness, have spared me. He has dealt with me only in lovingkindness and tender mercy. I have not a doubt now, I shall see hereafter, that all His dealings with me have been for my good."
Susan Huntington, 1791-1823, suffered from lifelong physical afflictions. "In 1817 she lost both of her parents only months apart; in 1819 her husband died when she was eight months pregnant; and in the fall of 1821, two of her children died. In all these afflictions her suffering was intense, and she felt as if her feeble frame could not sustain her. But her merciful Father, who taught her that her strength was made perfect in weakness, upheld her, and she looked to Him as her only portion in life."  (From: Seasons of the Heart: A Year of Devotions from One Generation of Women to Another; Reformation Heritage Books)

As I read that first line, I realized that I have been wrong all along about whether God could or could not spare his children pain and trials. He could not. I don’t mean that He doesn’t have the power, because He certainly does. But He cannot spare us the pain of trials, because He loves us. In His wisdom, He knows exactly what is needed to make us more like Him, and He designs each of our struggles perfectly for our unique personality and soul. I am certain that I would never have fallen to my knees (at least figuratively!) over anything other than a physical trial. He had to cause me to be physically weak, because my physical strength was what I was trusting in. He knew I would not give that up if He did not provide for it to be removed, and so He graciously did.

As I type this, there are three dear saints in my church who are battling cancer, and many who are struggling with chronic pain. Tomorrow evening, I will attend a memorial service for a dear brother who went home to be with the Lord at thirty years of age, leaving a young wife and three little children. We begged the Lord to heal him, because we know that He was able to do it. But He could not. He could not heal that young man, because He loved him and his family.  Out of love for them, He has graciously given them this unique opportunity to trust and rely on Him, and to glorify Him in their response. I do not understand it, but I am content with the truth that, while He is able, sometimes, he cannot.

We are weak and frail, my sisters, but the good news is that our weakness, our frailty, and our dependence on God bring glory to Him. Isaiah 43:7 teaches us that we were created for the purpose of glorifying God. In His mercy, he arranges everything in our lives to allow us to fulfill that purpose. How could He take that opportunity from us? It would be cruel to create us for His glory, and then, by keeping our lives smoothe and easy, deny us the opportunity to fulfill that purpose!

Let’s begin today to look at our trials as opportunities to glorify God. I keep the following question handy at all times in the back of my mind, and when trials come, I pull it out and ask myself:

“I was created to glorify God. How am I doing right now?”

This helps me to reel in my perspective back to biblical truth, and it renews my determination to change my default response. I don’t always succeed, but I do have victory more than I used to, and that is what progressive sanctification is all about!

Friday, June 17, 2016

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

I overheard a conversation the other day between two people who were discussing the number of mutual friends who had died recently. They were talking about the rise of cancer among their acquaintances; a number of accidents; and one who had died of “old age.” But the comment that stood out to me the most was when one of them said, “Yeah, it seems they’re dropping like flies these days.” Now, this is an old expression I’ve heard many times, that simply means there are a lot of people becoming ill or dying, all at the same time. But the phrase struck me in a peculiar way this time, because I happen to know a number of people suffering with late-stage disease, and I’ve seen firsthand how they suffer. Flies seem a poor comparison for the precious people in this condition.

If I were to speak of my beloved friends dying, I think maybe I would say they’re dropping like sparrows:

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.—Matthew 10:28-31

No matter how many people pass on from this earth, they are all precious in the Lord’s sight. Jesus died so that not a single person should perish apart from him, but that all would have eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). When a dear brother or sister passes from this earth, I am sometimes envious of their new home. It causes me to think of heaven, of Christ, and of eternity.

When we suffer, not knowing how long we will have to endure, we do dream of heaven, and long for home. It is such a comfort to know that the Lord knows every moment of pain we experience, and will not allow it to go on one moment longer than it has to. This precious passage about the sparrows is a great encouragement to me as I watch several friends endure “terminal” illnesses. If the death of even a sparrow is known to God, imagine how He attends when one of His precious image-bearers suffers and dies. What a great and loving Father we have!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I Am Persuaded

Sometimes, I think that I’ve already written everything I can possibly write about living with pain. The Lord has always brought things to mind, as I’ve struggled with my condition, and then graciously given me the words to make my experience meaningful for you. But lately, I seem to be running out of things to say. Maybe it’s because I’ve achieved victory in the struggle, but I seriously doubt that, being human and all. Maybe it’s because, honestly, I’m just not thinking about it that much anymore. It’s become such a part of my life that my moments of self-pity or sadness over it are fewer farther between because I am so used to it. No amount of pain surprises me, and no return of pain that had subsided catches me off guard. These days, when I experience pain, my response is usually, “Oh, Lord I hurt. Please help me to do what I need to do today anyway.”

As I look over that first paragraph, I’m amazed that it was written by the same person who used to be paralyzed with fear whenever a new or unfamiliar pain cropped up. I am not exaggerating when I say paralyzed. I remember when I first injured my ankle while trying to rehab my twisted knee replacement. (Before I knew that the knee was misaligned, I had pushed hard to get it straight, and ended up tearing a tendon in my ankle.) As I experienced this new pain, I was terrified that my mobility would be further limited, I would need additional surgery, and I would suffer even more than I already was. I remember that initial pain plunging me into a deep depression, fueled by anxiety and self-pity, as I Googled my symptoms and panicked for days.

So, what changed? Did my condition become less painful? Did I develop a better tolerance for pain? Did the therapies and other modalities I’ve tried over the years for pain management make such a big difference that my pain is more manageable now? Well, to a degree, some of those things are true. But none of them made the difference in my response to pain that I’ve written about here. What has really changed is my heart. Our tagline at Reigning Grace Counseling Center is, “Heart Change for Life Change,” and my own experience reflects that perfectly. My life of anxiety, self-pity, and depression seemed hard wired until the grace of God changed my heart. When that happened, my life began to change.

I say the grace of God—not His mercy or faithfulness or love, though those have definitely played a part—because God’s grace was able to accomplish the two things that I needed before I could have true heart and life change. His grace provided the forgiveness I needed for my sinful attitude, and it also provided the power I needed to overcome that pattern of sin.

The first step in overcoming any sinful habit, whether it is an action or a thought, is confession. If we truly want to be rid of sin, we must confess it to God. First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So, confession is the first and most important thing. God’s grace is what draws us near to Him when our sinful hearts want to run away. God’s grace assures us that our faithful and just God will forgive us when we humble ourselves to confess, and to ask for that forgiveness; and God’s grace is what brings us the heart peace of knowing for sure that our sins are forgiven.

As we walk away from that confession and restoration of peace, we walk into what can be the daunting task of heart change. Once we have assurance that we have been forgiven, we must draw on that same grace of God for the power to resist falling back into the same sin. Romans 5:20 says, “…where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” This shows us that sin and grace are inextricably bound, albeit in a mysterious way, to bring us to eternal life in Christ. So, when we confess our sin by God’s grace, that same grace empowers us to live a life that is pleasing to God. Without grace there is no forgiveness, and without grace, there is no power.

Here are just a few examples from Scripture that show us the connection between God’s grace and His power:

In the early church, the apostles spoke of Christ with great boldness, even in the face of persecution and the threat of death. How did they do this? They were empowered by God’s grace:

And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.  (Acts 4:33, NKJ)

The word of God spread, and God’s grace empowered Stephen:

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8, ESV).

God’s grace empowered Paul, even in the face of a great trial:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in   weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV).    

Paul received the power to minister the Gospel by God’s grace:                                                                                                                                                                
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power (Ephesians 3:7, ESV).

Have I made my case that our power to resist sin and live with godly heart attitudes comes from God’s grace? I sure hope so, because this is really our only hope of heart change! My hope that I am able to resist sin rests in the fact that I know that God’s grace is real because it was the agent of my forgiveness. If I know I am forgiven (because 1 John 1:9 assures me of that), then I know that I can call on that same grace to empower me to continue to think and live in a way that is pleasing to God.

So, in those moments when you are tempted to repeat that sin for which you have already received forgiveness, remember the grace that provided that forgiveness, and rely on it to empower you to overcome that temptation. There is no temptation that is more powerful than God’s grace, and no sin as satisfying as obedience to Christ and sweet, uninterrupted fellowship with Him. I know that pain brings great temptation, but remember: The power to resist that temptation is already yours. I’ll close with encouragement from Paul, shortly before his martyrdom, to Timothy. 

   For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day (2 Timothy 2:12).