Devotion and Distraction

We live in a time and a culture of distraction. This is so much the case that there are now signs on the highways reminding drivers to avoid driving while distracted. This usually refers to texting on cell phones, but they could add eating a burrito, changing your clothes, applying mascara, disciplining your kids in the back seat, completing your tax return, etc.

It seems to me that some people want to be distracted. They might say that they find their lives very stressful and rushed, and would like to be able to relax and focus on only one thing at a time. But if they were to be completely honest about it, they might admit to being scared to death of what thoughts would occupy their minds if they allowed themselves to become very still and listen.

Life as a disciple of Jesus should be different. It requires a measure of devotion that surpasses that which we give to any other pursuit. I’ve found that the distracted, busy mind is the enemy of this kind of devotional life.

In the famous account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, we witness Martha busily preparing a meal. She loved Jesus and wanted to be a good hostess. What was wrong with that?  I would want to cook a meal for Jesus too, and watch him enjoy it. This was Martha’s ministry. But the problem was that she became “distracted with much serving” (Lk 10:41, KJV). This led to resentment toward her sister, who sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to his every word. Jesus commended Mary for her choice, because it was a choice of devotion, not distraction. There was nothing happening for Mary that evening but being in love with her Lord. It eclipsed every other concern.

The Apostle Paul makes a very important point about devotion and distraction in his exposition about singleness and marriage in the kingdom of God. The married person, he asserts, is perfectly entitled to be married, but cannot devote the same attention to ministry of the Word as his or her single counterpart. Married people, he says, are concerned about the affairs of this world” and how they can please their spouses, and their “interests are divided.” But the unmarried are “concerned about the Lord’s affairs,” pleasing Him, being “devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.” Paul brings no condemnation, but clarifies that whether married or single, the aim as a Christ follower is to “live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32-35).

“Undivided devotion to the Lord.” That seems like a pretty tall order these days, doesn’t it? But the Holy Spirit doesn’t ask us to do things that are impossible to do. We have the God-given grace to press into his rest and to give him our full attention, even with the other demands of our lives. We can be undivided, un-distracted, devoted. Like Mary, we can choose the “one thing that is needed,” wholehearted, abiding fellowship with our beautiful Jesus.

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Be Reconciled!

Paul taught in his second letter to the Corinthians that Christ-followers have been given a “word of reconciliation” and a “ministry of reconciliation.” I am going to attempt to present my understanding of these concepts, as well as some application. I offer this caveat: As with other deep theological truths, there is great mystery here, because the initiator of reconciliation is God, whose ways are never fully explainable by human beings. As a wise soul once said, “Henry can explain the Ford, but the Ford can’t explain Henry.” I don’t presume to have perfect understanding of a single thing when it comes to the mind of God.

There are several occurrences of the word reconciliation in the New Testament, all of which refer to “a change in the relationship between God and man or man and man,” moving from “a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.” * Most of the occurrences are found in this well-known passage:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.  Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.  For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor 5:17-20).

We see first that God is the originator of the plan to reconcile us to himself through Jesus Christ, the only suitable mediator. He draws us near. His plan results in a new species, human beings who are spiritually alive and in intimate fellowship with Him! Never since Adam has the earth known such a being.

Second, when God gives us the unspeakably lavish gift of restored relationship with Him, he also gives us a ministry, an assignment to serve and represent him in the world. This God-ordained ministry is rooted in the “word of reconciliation.” This can only refer to the gospel, the essence of which is that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He has seen fit to wipe out our guilt and transgression, and then appoint us ambassadors. As ambassadors, we plead with those who are not yet restored in the grace of God, “Be reconciled!” This is a beautiful message we get to carry. It is the key that opens the hearts of men and women.

Most people are not looking for a religion. Deep inside, they are looking for the missing piece that only God can fill. The fatherless are crying out for a Father. The lonely long to be set in a family. People everywhere want to feel some assurance that God is real, and that he is not angry with them. He is not harsh or arbitrary, plotting ways to punish them because they are not perfect.

I believe God never has a bad day. He never wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, itching for a fight. Scripture asserts that when we accept his righteousness by faith, we are at peace with him. He loves us just because we’re his kids. No further negotiation is needed between us on that point.

Afterwards, though, there is work to do. There is stuff to learn and grow in if we are to serve as effective ambassadors. Here is where the application begins.

Our spirits, brought back to life in the new birth, are perfect. But our souls are dinged, dirtied, and damaged by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Soul and spirit are at enmity with each other and must be reconciled. This is the process of sanctification. We work to attain a new mind, a cleansed conscience, and a will that conforms to the good purposes of our Creator. This is the reconciliation within. It happens by deepening our relationship with Him through prayer, fellowship, and meditation upon his words of truth. In the process we are aligned, cleansed, and healed.

There is also a necessary reconciliation with the outside world of humanity and the rest of creation. We are becoming more like God, the one who choose to exercise grace and love on all occasions. It is a very strange person who loves and forgives the ones who are trying to kill him.  Jesus is this strange person, strange in his magnificent love. The ministry and word of reconciliation causes us to become strange like that, if we are doing it right. Paul tells us that the “dividing wall of hostility” between groups of people has been destroyed, and he has made a way of peace possible for us (Eph. 2:14-15).  We walk this out by demonstrating radical love and forgiveness toward all, especially our enemies. If that isn’t a counter-cultural idea, I don’t know what is!

So…reconciliation with Him, reconciliation with ourselves, reconciliation with others. Restored relationships bring new life.

How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are! (1 Jn. 3:1).

*https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/reconciliation.html

Choosing and Being Chosen

Recently I have been reflecting on how people make the choice to become Christ-followers. What I have remembered through my study is that we are chosen before we choose.

I am not a staunch Calvinist by any means. I believe that all men and women are free to choose their respective paths in life, and that salvation by grace is accessible to all–to “whosoever believes.” But I recognize and accept what Jesus and his apostles said concerning choosing and being chosen. The word of God overrules all else for me. The first passage that comes to mind is this exhortation Jesus gave to his disciples:

 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you (John 15:16).

Jesus knew the hearts of all people he dealt with in person, and he knows our hearts as well. He knows whether we are going to follow him and put our trust in him. He knows when and he knows how to reach us. Sometimes we observe him orchestrating circumstances, decisions, and personal connections to draw souls to him. Jesus confidently declared, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me…” (Jn 6:37), and, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (Jn 6:44). His mission was to declare the will of the Father and bring his kingdom to the earth. The Father oversees and continues to designate who will join Jesus in this assignment.

The Apostle Paul understood that the destiny and purpose of God’s people lie squarely in His hands. Paul saw the saints of God as “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph: 2:10). Even more explicitly, he wrote, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…”(Col 3:12).

Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, described members of Christ’s body as “chosen by God and precious” (2:4). Collectively, we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (2:9). These Scriptures clearly indicate that the Father has the privilege of choosing us first.

Then it is our turn to respond and choose him!

Those who had been baptized by John the Baptist were quick to recognize Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). Brothers Peter and Andrew, and James and John, abruptly left their homes and jobs as fishermen with only the simple invitation from Jesus, “Follow me.” They had no way of knowing where the journey would lead, but they knew they had been chosen to follow, so they followed!

God takes the initiative. Always. The New Testament reveals that he calls, “Follow me,” to many kinds of people—sinners and godly persons, pagans, priests, secularists, Jews, scholars, businessmen, paupers, princes, soldiers, widows, and orphans. He invites the sick, the lame, and those tormented by the Devil. Some say yes to his call, and sadly, many say no.

I’m very grateful that in spite of an upbringing, education, and cultural environment that caused many in my generation to turn away from Christian faith, my heart persisted in responding to Christ’s invitation.

My family and friends couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me. I had trouble explaining it. I just knew that he had whispered my name. He had chosen to reveal himself to me, and nothing would ever be the same. And I am not ashamed of my choice.

Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, because you also made a conscious choice, like Joshua:

“…if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Folly of Man

In my journey through the Bible this year, I have recently found myself in the books of Kings, and it has not been pretty. Such seemingly relentless violence, depravity, idolatry, rebellion, and apostasy propagated by the kings of Israel and Judah! It has left me asking Holy Spirit why some of these stories are included in his Book.

I call this horrific history of the Jewish people “seemingly relentless” because there are a few notable exceptions among the kings of Judah.  I’ve titled this blog “The Folly of Man” because my study has shown me that even when leaders acted righteously and honorably, when their lives and reigns were largely pleasing to the Lord, they were quite flawed and their influence was fleeting. The next generation typically reverted to the same depraved apostasy and rampant idolatry of their forbears.

Folly, as defined by Merriam Webster, is a “lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight…criminally or tragically foolish actions or conduct…lewd behavior…a foolish act or idea.” In biblical context, it is foolishness that leads to futility and ultimate destruction. As Paul describes it, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor 1:25). This is obviously a figure of speech, because there is no foolishness in God. But it’s a way of saying that if God could have a “foolish” thought, it would still be infinitely more brilliant than the brightest thing humans could come up with. Thankfully, we do have some role models of men and women in the Bible who cared deeply about discovering and applying God’s wisdom.

Let’s look at Hezekiah, an especially interesting example amongst the kings of Judah. He started out very well! Scripture nearly gushes about him:

“He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it…Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.  He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.  And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook” (2 Kings 18:3-7).

In spite of Hezekiah’s godliness, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, began to stir up trouble. Like politicians and propagandists do so craftily today, this foreign intruder tried to undermine Hezekiah’s credibility and authority in the minds of his own Hebrew subjects. He told them not to trust their king when he insisted that they could stand firm and defend their nation against the aggressive Assyrians. Hezekiah’s response to Sennacherib’s threats was mourning in sackcloth, humility, and earnest prayer for God’s intervention. He declared back to Yahweh the history of his covenantal protection and provision. He pleaded for God’s help so that “all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God” (19:19).

The Lord responded miraculously, of course, as he always does when he sees true humility. The Jews didn’t even have to raise a weapon. The next morning 180,000 enemy combatants were dead on the ground, and Sennacherib was promptly murdered by his own sons while worshiping his pagan god. What better illustrates the folly of man than this tragic waste of human life and energy?

Sadly, Hezekiah became more and more selfish and boastful as his power and wealth was secured. When he died, his son Manasseh took the throne. In contrast to Hezekiah, he was an exceedingly wicked ruler from the start. He rebuilt the pagan altars his father had destroyed, and reinstituted the detestable Baal and Asherah worship Hezekiah had finally eradicated. Alas, more folly.

Two more generations of wicked kings passed until the reign of Josiah, who again established righteousness and justice in the land. An important distinction was that he also established the primacy of the ancient Scriptures, which had been discovered and pulled from the temple of the Lord. The priests and prophets taught the people the word and will of God. And this is where I bring this to a close:

The Scripture records about Josiah, “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25).

The only real and lasting remedy for the folly of man is the wisdom of God. And this is to be found in his laws and covenants, his prophets, his poetry and proverbs, his narratives and histories, his gospels, and his apostolic letters. Mostly, in the unsurpassed teachings of Jesus Christ, the only perfectly wise God-man who ever graced this earth.

This is our only blessed hope.

I pray wisdom, revelation, and blessing to all. Lord, deliver us from folly.

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The Assumption of Good Will

Sometimes the people in our lives behave in confusing or offensive ways.

Over the lifespan, each of us develops explanatory models to assist us in understanding our own and others’ behavior. These models are highly subject to error.

One of these is what social psychologists label “fundamental attribution error.” This means that when someone behaves in a way we don’t like—another driver cuts us off in traffic, or cuts in line at the market, for example—we tend to believe that this is because they have some sort of internal character defect of laziness, carelessness, or selfishness.

In contrast, when we are explaining our own similar behavior, we attribute it to external forces and circumstances. When I am the one in the wrong, I quickly rationalize that I had a good excuse based on my circumstances. I had a very important meeting to get to, perhaps. But when you commit a wrong, it is because there is something fundamentally wrong with you!

I’ve discovered that the assumption of good will is one way to counteract this error. Key relationships require a level of trust if they are to be healthy. I must be able to assume you have good will toward me, as I believe I have good will toward you. This means that you can trust that as much as it lies in me, I will always seek what is good for you. I genuinely want life to go well for you, and I’m not just in it for myself. And my assumption is that you hold the same intention toward me.

Because it is based in subjective assumptions, and no one is perfect, there is an element of vulnerability in the assumption of good will. For instance, before I see a new counseling client for the first time, I assume that he or she will bring good will toward me. In other words, my client, who is seeking help from me, is not going to try to hurt me in the process. This keeps me open, friendly, kind, and curious as I begin to get to know him or her.

I could be proven wrong, and have been on rare occasions. But I maintain the practice of the assumption of good will, because the vast majority of the time I do experience good will. Could it be that the expectation of good will directly influences the outcome, like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Could it also be true that despite the sin, evil, and brokenness of the world around us, there are more basically good-willed citizens than bad-willed ones? I’ll leave that to observers more astute than I.

I believe that assuming good will is an essential element of honor within spiritual communities. I believe it is pleasing to the Lord when we forego our paranoia and skepticism and expect from others a good and godly response when we make an effort to connect with them.

When Jesus sent out his disciples, he prepared them with the belief that they would encounter men and women of good will who would bless their mission and show them hospitality. The Bible does not record any of the names of “persons of peace” they encountered on their journey. But it does say that they returned with glowing reports of widespread healing and deliverance as the demons fled from them. They must have found persons of good will who gave them places to stay and places from which to launch the ministry. They may have had to shake off some “dust” of bad will as well, but if so, it did not prevent their overall success.

Jesus and his Apostles consistently teach us to love our enemies, with the result that they become no longer enemies. If we insist on seeing them as enemies, we will be unable to bring the gospel of the kingdom to them. We will be defensive and unable to walk in good will.  But if we suspend our assumption of enemy status, we are allowing the possibility that our influence will warm them, feed them, and change their hearts toward God.

If you tend to assume bad will from people because you’ve been hurt a lot, I understand. But I challenge you to experiment with a shift in your assumption for a month. Try on the assumption of good will, and see what happens within and around you!

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How to Approach a King

I know I am not alone in being captivated by the series, “The Crown.” It follows the British monarchy from the era of Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, the reign until death of his brother George VI, and the ongoing reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

The royals still enjoy popularity around the world today. Some observers attribute this to a universal desire among we commoners to feel part of a grand historical tradition of drama, wealth, romance and adventure.  Others strongly object to the whole idea of royalty, finding such institutionalized elitism politically incorrect in the extreme. Either way, fascination with royalty persists.

As someone who habitually relates everything to Scripture, one thing that catches my interest is the way that kings and queens are treated. There is a protocol for being in the presence of royalty, and sometimes severe consequences for disrespecting the rules. Throughout the Old Testament, and especially in the Davidic dynasty, approaching a king incorrectly could bring a death sentence. We see this in Queen Esther’s fear of approaching even her own husband the king without having been summoned by him. We see scores of characters in the chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah who fall on their faces to give homage to even the most wretched of kings. One of my favorite examples is Abigail, who so impressed David with her approach that he married her (see 1 Samuel 25)!

In his weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill (played stunningly by John Lithgow in “The Crown”) exemplifies this. Though three times her age, with a lifetime of heroic leadership on the world stage behind him, his demeanor becomes imbued with awe and quiet reverence when he enters the drawing room of the queen. He demurely kisses her hand. When departing, he backs out of the room to avoid turning his back to her. These are only a couple of the “rules” for showing respect when near a king or queen.

In a democratic republic, we Americans don’t have this knowledge of protocol embedded in our DNA or collective history. We are above all things egalitarian in our contemporary ethics. This is not a bad thing in itself, but there is a down side. We often have difficulty showing honor where honor is due. In government, in business, and even in the church.

Danny Silk shares the principle that “accurately acknowledging who people are will position us to give them what they deserve and to receive the gift of who they are in our lives.” * This works in our vertical relationship with God and in our horizontal relationships with the family of God.

The Bible and many of our praise and worship songs portray Jesus Christ as our everlasting, majestic King of all kings. In worship, we invite him near, that we might experience his presence among us. And we often do sense his glory in our midst. What a privilege!

I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes here, but—do we act as if we really believe we are in the presence of a king? Do we respect this king as we would respect an earthly king or queen, or even a president or prime minister?

We are on level ground with one another, but He is exalted high above all created beings. And yet the paradox is that He has granted us intimate access to him. He has raised his scepter, so to speak. How then are we to approach him?

Circumspectly, of course, eager to seek his pleasure and not our own. With awe and reverence. I’m not suggesting a return to rigid formalism or religiosity. Jeans and t-shirts are great as long as the hearts of the people wearing them carry a sincere adoration for the King. Spontaneous expressions of praise and worship are wonderful as long as they are directed to the One to whom all honor is due. When he is manifestly present with us, we are truly standing on holy ground. That’s not a time to be rude, sloppy, or insincere in our devotion, but an opportunity to behold the glory of the King.

Selah!

  Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:16).

*Silk, Danny. Culture of Honor. (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2009), p. 25.

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Tale of Two Doggies, Part 2: The People Whisperer

In a recent post, I shared some things I had learned from my dogs about submission to God’s leadership. Since then, some new developments with Scooter and Maggie have served to amplify those revelations and inspire further insight.

On one of our morning walks, I let both dogs off leash to wander and exercise in a field near our home. (Scooter wanders and Maggie exercises, as you might guess if you read Part 1). Although we were far from the road, Maggie caught sight of a woman walking by with her small dog. Before I could restrain her, Maggie tore toward them. The woman wisely picked up her dog, but when Maggie got to them, she jumped up on the woman, and began attacking the dog, snarling and barking. The woman, of course, was pretty freaked out until I got there and got Maggie under control. To our horror, Maggie had latched on to the other dog’s backside, but when we inspected, there was no physical damage done, fortunately. Even so, it was very embarrassing, and could have been much worse for everyone involved.

Rick and I decided to consult with a professional trainer to help us with an array of doggie behaviors, especially Maggie’s reactivity and aggression toward other dogs. As we spelled out the issues with the trainer, she began to formulate a diagnosis of Maggie’s behaviors, and analyze the family dynamic since Maggie came on the scene. Two things became clear.

The first is that we underestimated the difficulty of both dogs to adjust to Maggie’s arrival. Scooter was still mourning the loss of our Wheaton, Annabelle, and was not ready to share his space again. Maggie had been through significant change, loss and trauma before her adoption, which caused her to be an attention hog. Their prior experiences made it difficult for them to be at peace with each other, or to come into obedience to us, their parents.

More importantly, Rick and I were confronted with our lack of clear and consistent leadership. Both dogs had become confused and anxious by our lack of boundaries. As with human children, our dog children required the right balance of love and discipline. We were okay on the love part, not so much on the discipline part.

As we were finishing our visit and devising a training plan, the trainer began working with Maggie, demonstrating some do’s and don’ts. In mere moments with Julie, I could see Maggie relax, pay attention, and follow her leadership. It was a beautiful thing. I was immediately much more hopeful about Maggie’s potential. We still have a lot to learn, but I already feel that there has been breakthrough.

Dogs need to know who is in charge. When there is a lack of leadership, they compete for dominance and act like jealous toddlers. They misbehave and don’t get along.

I see a spiritual parallel to what happens in the church when God’s people fail to submit to the Holy Spirit’s leadership.  We come together into packs, but are hindered by our reactivity to one another. We each come with our own respective historical baggage, often hindered by all sorts of emotional triggers from the past that haven’t been dealt with.  Still subject to an orphan spirit (like Maggie perhaps), we covet attention, control, or recognition. Like the Israelites during the time of the judges, each one does what is right in his own eyes. This leads to collective immaturity, unbelief, conflict, and lack of fruitfulness. Paul tells us that where this type of spirit dwells, we are being ruled by the carnal mind.

God always leads impeccably and mercifully, treating us with the perfect balance of love and discipline. If our hearts are truly his, we should be very teachable. Outer behavioral change, away from rebellion and anxiety, can be accomplished as we fix our eyes on our loving, righteous leader and follow his lead. More importantly, inner heart transformation results when we consistently experience God’s loving presence and trust him each day to discipline us.   We can be at peace with God and others, all walking together in his beautiful kingdom. Like Scooter and Maggie, we just need the right trainer, Jesus the “People Whisperer.”

Danger and Opportunity

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In Chinese, the character for the concept of “crisis” is a combination of “danger” and “opportunity.” Where there is danger to physical or psychological safety, there is also an opportunity to respond. A crisis requires some sort of response.

Many parts of the world are experiencing major crises these days. Earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and homelessness, famines and genocides, overdoses and suicides, terrorism and school shootings. These events are danger and opportunity on the grandest scale. Beyond the danger of the events themselves, we understand the long-term damage these traumatic experiences inflict on fragile human bodies and souls. But we also see the opportunity for people to come together in new ways to help each other to recover stability. The result often is a stronger sense of community, heroism, and charity.

On a smaller scale, in my general counseling practice, I see danger and opportunity inherent in most of the problems clients bring to me—sudden losses, too much change at once, relationship dysfunction, chronic illnesses, etc. The danger is ongoing mental confusion, chaos, or hopelessness. The opportunity is to learn new ways of understanding and responding to difficulties, and drawing nearer to God.

With couples who have neglected their relationship, often one or the other partner will consciously or unconsciously create a crisis that forces them into therapy. Often it is an extramarital affair, but it also might be an alcohol binge that ends in a DUI, or a secret, devastating financial decision. Whatever the crisis, it is perceived as a danger to the marital bond. The opportunity is to open a previously closed-off, dying family system to outside intervention, and set the couple on a path toward healing and transformation. If they will face the process wisely, they often arrive at a much more satisfying relationship than what existed before the onset of the crisis.

Crises have this potential to teach and transform. We typically experience them as painful disruptions in the normal course of events. We must find some means of coping with and adapting to reality. We instinctively try to resist pain. But as C.S. Lewis so wisely wrote, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The way we respond to the pain of crisis makes all the difference on how and when we will recover, and how we will respond when the next crisis comes.

And it will come, in one form or another. That’s a fact of life on this planet.

Allow me to present a biblical illustration from the life of David. For some time, David was pursued by King Saul, who wanted to murder him out of jealousy. During this period, David gathered around him a militia of six hundred men who traveled and warred with him. Their hub of operation was the town of Ziklag. One day when David and his men were away from home, an army of Amalekites raided Ziklag, took away all of the women and children, and set the city on fire.  When David’s troops returned and saw that their families had been abducted and their property ruined, they blamed David and began talking of stoning him to death.

A good-size crisis, I’d say. The danger is clear, of course. But what is the opportunity?

David could have torn his clothes and frozen in a posture of mourning, because his wives and children were also missing. Or he could have run away from his men and hidden in the wilderness alone. But David the warrior, the man after God’s heart, “found strength in the LORD his God” (1 Sam 30: 6). He inquired of the Lord, who assured him that he had opportunity to go after his enemies and take back what had been stolen. And because the Lord is ever true to his word, this is exactly what happened. The narrator of the story tells us that when David’s men returned from battle, “Nothing was missing: young or old, boy or girl, plunder or anything else they [the Amalekites] had taken. David brought everything back” (v.19). Beyond this, David took so much plunder from the stores of the Amalekites that he sent lavish gifts to his friends and family and friends back at home in Judah.

David faced the danger courageously and spiritually, took the opportunity the Lord provided, and came out way ahead of where he was when the calamity hit.

I understand that we can’t always respond so well. Sometimes it’s like we’re in crashing surf. We’ve been hit with a powerful wave and tossed under the water, completely disoriented, and just when we find our footing, another wave comes. It seems we can’t stand long enough to catch our breath.

But whether we respond quickly or slowly, we can look for a redemptive gift in whatever crisis we face. There is always opportunity for growth hidden in our pain. If we, like David, find our strength in the Lord, even the worst crisis can be an opportunity to grow in grace, wisdom, and patience.

Grace and the Thorn

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Recently I was involved in a deep conversation with a small group of women friends. We were each sharing current life circumstances that bring on the temptation to be afraid. Many of these surrounded family relationships. There was an adoption story, a foster mothering story, marriage stories, toddler stories, and stories of adult children who seem to make one poor decision after another. One friend remarked that she is keenly aware of an extra measure of grace in her life to manage situations that would otherwise seem impossible. My mind went immediately to Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

Many have advanced hypotheses about what afflicted Paul. He didn’t reveal it, and maybe there is a good reason for that. It suggests that if he had revealed the exact nature of his chronic irritant, readers might not see the deeper relevance of the text or its application. If he wrote that he had gout, or warts, or migraine headaches, or eye problems (as many people guess), those of us that have never experienced those particular afflictions might get distracted from his real message or fail to apply it.

God’s message to and through Paul has a few aspects. One is that sometimes we don’t get the answer we think we want or need, even after praying over it several (or one thousand) times. Imagine that–we can’t boss God around! Paul had been through so much in his ministry, from great surges of revelation and triumphant power to days on end of hardship and rejection. He had learned, as he wrote to the Philippians, “the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil 4:12). His life was so surrendered to God’s mission that he didn’t attribute the lack of removal of the thorn as a judgment from God. This requires some maturity in the Lord—to cling to the knowledge of God’s goodness even when the thorn remains.

Secondly, sometimes God does seem to allow his children to struggle with difficulties as he teaches and disciplines them. Many don’t like this thought, and it does arouse theological controversy. Paul wrote that the affliction was sent as “a messenger of Satan” to bring torment.  Why did God allow this? Paul was God’s apostle and faithful servant! Paul’s answer was that it was to keep him from becoming conceited because of the abundance of revelation given to him. God allowed Paul to experience demonic torment to keep him humble? That seems to be Paul’s perspective.

Apparently, our covenant with God does not stipulate that we will never have to fight demonic forces. In fact, Jesus makes clear that advancing his kingdom includes frequently confronting demons. I’m not saying God sends demons to torment us. But neither does he prevent us completely from experiencing some of their trouble-making in our lives. We can trust that if God is allowing it, He has a reason, whether we understand it or not.

It is a legitimate response to pain and suffering to seek freedom and deliverance as soon as possible. But we can also choose to remain alert to the opportunity to grow in character and discipline through our suffering until our answers come. The Christian walk requires perseverance most when the road is most difficult. Or when a thorn is causing throbbing pain.

Finally, we come to the heart of the matter. Paul was not delivered of his thorn, after thrice praying. Instead he received the response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:8).  Grace is sufficient. His power shows up perfectly when we acknowledge our dependence upon Him.

When we are weak, he is strong. And when we are even weaker, he is even stronger. Grace fills in the gaps between our own ability and the “all things are possible” promise of God. God’s grace more than compensates for our lack of ability. With or without the thorn.

Another Take on Complementarianism

Last year as I was completing my seminary degree, my penultimate class was a residency in pastoral theology. My professor was an esteemed evangelical pastor, scholar, author, and educator. As we began discussing pertinent theological issues in the life of the contemporary church, I quickly realized that I strongly disagreed with a few of his doctrinal positions. For example, he is a cessationist, believing that the Holy Spirit no longer speaks directly to or through the people of God since the canonization of the Scriptures. In this view, there have been no apostles or prophets in the church since the deaths of the first apostles of Jesus, because God has spoken everything he will ever say in the Bible.  Although he holds this—and all doctrines—quite tenaciously, he does respect a conflicting view of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, appreciating that a legitimate argument can be made from Scripture. He just doesn’t happen to believe that argument.

On the topic of the roles and relationships of men and women in the church, however, he is completely unbending. He declared to the class (comprised of both men and women preparing for pastoral ministry!) that there was little point in even discussing the issue. He is a staunch complementarian, believing that while men and women are of equal value to God, they have different roles that are not to be confused or conflated with each other. Women, in this view, can be highly gifted to serve in various aspects of church life—teaching children or other women, showing hospitality, singing, etc., but they are never to be elders or senior leaders, and are never to preach to mixed groups that include men.  Men occupy the main leadership positions, with women serving in complementary roles under the guidance of their male pastors. This is still a prevailing view in some very conservative denominations, while a majority of denominations are egalitarian. In egalitarian churches, men and women serve according to their recognized giftings and qualifications, and being male is not a requirement for promotion to leadership.

The strongest Scriptural bases for complementarianism based on gender are found in Paul’s pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus. Throughout these letters, Paul does indicate that elders and deacons are to be men, while women are cautioned not to “assume authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12). Church leaders like my dear professor believe these standards must be maintained in the church regardless of cultural or other contextual issues.

The problem is that to rigidly adhere to these passages brings one into conflict with some of Paul’s more general theological truths, such as his bold statement that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Egalitarians also point to Paul’s frequent commendations of female leaders in the churches (e.g., Phoebe, Rom 16:1). The first church Paul planted in Macedonia was in Philippi, after the conversion of the devout Lydia; clearly Lydia would have been a prominent leader in that influential church.

But an even more convincing truth–and one I don’t hear mentioned in arguments for egalitarianism—is Paul’s discussion of the distribution and interdependency of the various gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ. Throughout 1 Corinthians 12, Paul masterfully portrays the body as a manifold work of God in which every member’s unique contribution is essential to the working of the whole. Those parts that seem less strong or honorable are given greater honor, “so that there should be no division in the body” (v. 25). In his summary statement, he identifies some of the giftings in the church: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healing, helping, guidance, etc. Not once does he mention gender!  If it was so important to Paul to keep women from ministering in certain types of gifts (i.e., leadership or preaching), wouldn’t you think he would include that caveat? Because the caveat is missing, he seems to be recklessly stating (and believing) that the only guiding principle that matters is to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). It seems to me that he is encouraging men and women alike to work to outdo one another in showing love to others and building up the body of believers.

Ironically, it could be said that it is on this issue that both cessationism and complementarianism crash into the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work among us. God has liberally imparted spiritual gifts to men and women, young and old, rich and poor. He desires that all believers, whatever their gender, race, social status, or other identifying factor, zealously pursue ministry to one another and the outside world. When we do this, we discover a peculiar alchemy, in which the Holy Spirit causes our gifts to complement one another, representing God in loving unity.

That’s a complementarianism I can embrace!pexels-photo-1065707.jpeg