All Things

How do we know what to believe? 

Once we know the truth, how do we know we are making good decisions? 

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Lessons from Less

The COVID19 pandemic has put a halt to all of our normal church routines. At a time like this we are simply unable to participate in many of the activities, even spiritual activities, that bring us joy and happiness. That does not automatically make the situation good or bad from a spiritual perspective. It simply is. Compared to much of what happens in a fallen world, the current situation we are facing is definitely challenging but it certainly is manageable. We have a reasonable expectation that this crisis eventually will pass and there is much that we can we learn during this time.

 

By studying the lives of Christians through the ages, and their responses to the unexpected hardship and suffering we can grow in our own Christian walk. One such person is called John of the Cross.

 

John of the Cross (1542-1591) suffered a great deal for his beliefs and wrote the poem “Dark Night of the Soul” while in prison. During this time, he was taken from his cell 3 times a week to be fed and whipped to force him to recant his beliefs. It is interesting to note that John and other ancient mystic Christian writers never appear to accuse or question God. God allows certain joys, happiness, pain and suffering in the lives of his children for reasons known only to God. John of the Cross never asked why. The presupposition is that based on scripture, Christians will suffer. If they were not required to suffer, they would question why not. Some (I believe misguided) even went so far as to intentionally bring suffering on themselves. Others, like John, viewed difficulty and suffering as the only school where the greatest lessons are learned.

 

For John, the reality was that God in his wisdom and love allows more suffering in the lives of those blessed enough to experience it because of the growth and maturity of the soul that suffering brings. The deeper Christian life is not distracted by physical or even religious activities and blessings. For John, the greatest growth occurred in the absence of everything but God. The question was “What soul growth can be gained that will only come by the removal of physical and spiritual joys and comforts?” Only then, without the self-centered flesh interfering, does the soul fully know and rest completely in God.

 

The true follower of Christ has always been challenged by the complexities of sorting out what it means to serve God in the midst of living in the world. For many Christians throughout history, simply naming Christ has meant poverty, hunger, suffering, relentless persecution and often death. For many, God’s comfort through the absence of any physical comfort is recognized as more than sufficient.

 

Living as a Christian in a free, more affluent culture opens up the danger of developing a self-centered theology where the material blessings may become the focus and even the purpose of our faith.

 

This logic of the pursuit of personal happiness has seeped into modern American theology without many being aware of it. It places the individual at the center and assumes that personal liberty and happiness are in fact realistic and attainable goals of one’s faith. This thinking assumes that by placing faith in Christ, a quid pro quo deal has been struck with God in which He is responsible for satisfying our all our appetites and pleasing us. Whatever is experienced in life that makes life easy satisfies the fleshly appetites and furthers creature comforts is labelled as “good”, and anything that interferes with the self-proclaimed version of freedom and happiness is therefore bad, “evil”.

 

We all make plans for what our day, week or even our life should look like. In a self-centered theology whatever occurs that does not contribute to our goals is labelled as not God’s will for us. According to this thinking the realities of life – what truly is – are judged to be good or bad based on our version of what brings us joy or hardship. It then follows that any situation that doesn’t contribute to my version of reality should be opposed as contrary to the will of God. The fact is that drawing closer to God through the losses is of far greater value. John of the Cross said it like this,

 

“This is very evident, since ordinarily that which is of the greatest profit in it – namely, to be ever losing oneself and becoming as nothing – is considered the worst thing possible, and that which is of least worth, which is for a soul to find consolation and sweetness (wherein it ordinarily loses rather than gains), is considered best.”

 

Serving God in spite of what the world throws at us is very different from a perspective that evaluates everything in terms of what we want which ends up sounding more like sovereignty of the self – by which God is judged for not giving people what they want.

 

To compare this sort of logic to learning anything else I can think of would be considered ridiculous. Suppose a parent would like their child to become proficient at math. There are two teachers to choose from. One teacher asks the student what they would like to do to make math easy. Class is a party. The same simple problems are solved day after day and year after year. We would not be surprised at the result. The other teacher assigns harder and harder problems to be solved. As soon as the student grasps and solves a problem another concept is introduced. The successful student learns to find joy in learning and following the direction of the teacher. The student who is constantly pushed and challenged and embraces the challenges as necessary for advancement will go far. Should the more strict teacher be judged harshly for not coddling the student?

 

With God as our teacher, what hard lessons are in the loss of things we expect and enjoy?

Our prayer should be that God will enable and empower each one us to be the successful student.

 

 


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Peace and Joy

I will have peace in my soul and joy in my heart when  _________________

 

Christian people should have a ready answer with which to fill the blank. If not, why not? This is a question always worth considering. And the question becomes even more obvious and demanding whenever we face a trial – a crisis – something which interferes with life as we know it. If we honestly consider our lives and those things that most influence our thinking and behavior, it becomes apparent that we are all changed by our trials and difficulties. A child loses a parent – a spouse threatens divorce unless things change – someone experiences trauma or abuse – an unrepentant sinner accepts the reality of a holy, loving God – and the world and life as we understood it is forever changed.

 

Most people who seek counseling do so to address a crisis. In addiction counseling, it is always some type of crisis that will lead to effective treatment. The fact is, with whatever we are considering, if nothing changes, nothing changes. In the challenging times things will change and real positive change and growth  can occur in the context of crises. God is in the business of healthy healing change. We also know that as part of that healthy change we need to have a vision of where we are heading – we need hope.

Paul understood this.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Romans 5:1-5

Finding ourselves without hope, peace and joy in trials reveals much about the depth of our faith and our level of commitment to God.

 

Suddenly, in the early part of the year 2020 we find ourselves in a crisis. We are in the midst of something that promises to try us in ways we never expected. Several simple questions should be asked in the current situation.

 

“ Is there anything that offers lasting peace, joy and contentment in every situation in life?”

“How is my response different from the world’s response because of my relationship with God?”

“In what do I hope?”

 

To unpack this, here is another important question. How this question is answered can help clarify the nature of our response to any crisis. As we grow in our relationship with God we learn to trust in and place our hope in Him.

 

What is my “relationship with God”?

The language that is typically used in the contemporary Western church in reference to Christian salvation is that someone “accepts” Christ. Unfortunately in many cases what we mean by that is that we “accept” and permit Him to come into our life, and it is assumed that by just doing that we have become a Christian and have began an authentic Biblical relationship with God.

 

C.S. Lewis in Giving All to Christ states:

The ordinary idea which we all have before we become Christians is this. We take as the starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. We then admit that something else —— call it “morality” or “decent behavior” or “the good of society” —— has claims on this self: claims which interfere with its own desires…, Because we are still taking the natural self as the starting point.

 

Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there I want the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent, as well as the ones you think wicked —— the whole outfit.”

 

Much of Christian evangelism is rightly based on the Great Commission but carefully consider Jesus’ words:

“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go  therefore and  make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am  with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Amen.” Matthew 28:18-20

 

Jesus didn’t say “just get them to say “the sinners prayer”. He was very clear. They will be disciples who observe what He commanded. Could there be a difference between a Christian and a disciple? In scripture they are one and the same.

 

Dallas Willard in The Cost of Nondiscipleship:

The word “disciple” occurs 269 times in the New Testament. “Christian” is found only three times and was first introduced to refer to the disciples…. The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ.

 

When we accept Christ’s sacrifice for our sins it is an acknowledgment on our part. The miraculous, spectacular, overwhelming and incomprehensible fact is that God has accepted us as disciples of Jesus. What God is offering is for us to enter into His life. It does not mean that He will join us as we wander aimlessly through life continuing to live as we always have. When He accepts us, he offers to lead us from the wilderness into a spiritual and emotional garden of Eden – into a life of peace inside while the world spins out of control. Put a different way, we often treat this gift as if we simply invite Him to come along with us as we continue making poor choices and satisfying our flesh. But He will have no part in that. That is not what He died for.

 

Dallas Willard in The Cost of Nondiscipleship:

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or intend to be a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship.

 

A different model was instituted in The Great Commission Jesus left the church. The first goal he set forth for the early church was to use his all-encompassing power and authority to make disciples….Having made disciples, these alone were to be baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

But in place of God’s plan, historical drift has substituted: “Make converts (to a particular faith and practice) and baptize them into church membership.”

 

 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1:2-4

 

This emphatically underscores something we should already know – that we have a very special opportunity through the testing of our faith – to be better people and better Christians (more complete in the ways that truly matter). In that –  each one of us can agree with the psalmist – that  “The Lord is our shepherd we really will not go wanting” in His presence. God’s faithfulness to us as his people and to us as a church has been unquestionable. We can be confident that has not changed. Although the pause button has been pressed for what we call “normal church activities”, let’s be intentional and hit fast forward for our spiritual growth and the real work of God in each of our individual lives. You might ask yourself, “How is God leading me to a deeper level of true discipleship right here, right now?”

 

I will have peace in my soul and joy in my heart when __________________

 

In this time of COVID19 much of humanity is fearful as we are daily reminded how much we don’t know. If we are Christians in name only and are simply not living as disciples we have much to worry about. If we are true disciples of Jesus Christ, we increasingly recognize that the blank has been filled in, settled, finished at the cross. We already knew that we don’t know the future in this life. Yet as we walk moment by moment with Jesus and follow Him deeper into the kingdom of God, nothing can take away the joy in our hearts, the peace in our souls and our unshakeable eternal hope!


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