Bloom Where Planted

Sometimes we find ourselves sojourners in a location or circumstance that is not our ideal, happy place. Maybe we’re undergoing a job transition, adjusting to a new marriage, grieving a divorce, or have lost someone we love.

These can be times of testing and loss. We may find our trust in God weakening and wonder if he still cares. We can spend a lot of energy focusing on everything that is missing or wrong about our environment and circumstances.   

This is a very human and understandable response to changes in our lives that are beyond our control and that we do not like. We complain, shut down for a while, grieve, feel a sense of futility and disconnection. We spend a season in discontent.

Sometimes this season passes quickly, and we move into a better state of mind. But when we discover that the unfavorable circumstances are not going to change any time soon, what would God have us do?

This happened to the Israelites when they were exiled to Babylon. When their captors asked them to sing some of their songs of worship to their God, they lamented, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:4)? They hung their harps on the poplar trees. They were given over to sulking in self-pity.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Israel at the time, and God spoke to him about their situation. Interestingly, this is the same chapter that holds the favorite verse of many believers:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer.29:11) 

It is indeed a wonderful verse of promise that God holds our future, and he intends good things for us. But what about now, when we are frustrated that we are not there yet? If we look at verse 11 in context (as we should always do when studying Scripture), we find God’s fatherly answer:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v.4-7).

God instructed them that as long they were sojourners in this land awaiting the fulfilment of his promise, they were to settle in and contribute to the welfare of the community. He told them to go to work, marry and build families, bear fruit, and bless the land and people in their temporary home.

I believe this instruction applies to New Testament believers. We too are strangers in a strange land, whatever our circumstances.

God told his people not to forget him while in exile. He wanted them to retrieve their forsaken harps from the trees and start singing songs of praise to him. He exhorted them:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.” (v. 13-14)

We don’t wait for things to get better to praise him.

Nothing we experience here on earth lasts forever except God and his word. Circumstances always change, sooner or later. In this case, the Israelites had to wait 70 years. That’s a long time.

Whatever our period of waiting, in whatever “foreign land” we are experiencing, we hold on to God’s promises for the future. But we stay in the present and “bloom where we are planted.”

We can choose to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, show up to church to worship and serve. We can learn new things. We can live to be a blessing to those around us and allow them to bless us back.

We can strive to thrive exactly as we are and where we are.

Most importantly, we can and must continue to seek God with all your hearts. He will bless, honor, and deliver us in his time. He promised.  

A Walker’s Creed

God came walking through the garden in the cool of the day and spoke to his first listeners. I will walk, because he first walked, and I will listen for his voice.

Enoch walked faithfully with God, until God whisked him away. I will walk away from death and into the whirlwind of God, wherever it carries me.

Noah walked faithfully with God and built a very big boat. If God asks me to build something never been built before, I will do it, even if it seems too big.

Abram walked the length and breadth of the land of promise found a home there. I will walk in the direction of my heavenly home.

Pharaoh’s daughter walked along the riverbank and fished out a special child in a basket. I will be alert for hidden gifts as I walk.

The blessed one does not walk with the wicked, even through a valley of shadows. I will steer clear of evil companions.

If I walk blamelessly, the Lord will be my shield. I will seek to be blameless.

Isaiah saw that those walking in darkness would see a great light. I will walk in the light God gives each day.

Isaiah saw a highway of holiness. I will keep my feet on this narrow road and walk upon it until I die.

Those who wait upon the Lord walk and never faint. Woven together with him, I will keep going and not quit, trusting always in his goodness.

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

There was a fourth man walking through the fire with the Hebrew exiles. Even if I must walk through fire, I will not be afraid.

Jesus walked by the sea and found disciples. I will be one of those willing to leave all to follow him.

Jesus walked upon the sea. I will go to him when he bids me to walk upon the water.

Two disciples encountered the risen Lord as they walked the road. I will walk with him too, as he teaches me about himself from the Scriptures.

The Lord says to stand at the crossroads, ask for the ancient path and the good way. I will ask for the wisdom of this ancient way and walk in it.

The Lord has shown me, a mortal, what is good. I will act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

Christ loved me and gave himself for me as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. I will walk in the way of love, as he is love. I will walk in the light, as he is the light.

Integrity in Our Hearts

It is uncanny how God’s revelation appears, always so timely and appropriate. This is why I keep insisting that Scripture comes to life in all of our everyday experiences. We can see it if we’re looking for it.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the word and concept of integrity. This word that has been central in my life and work for many years.

I believe it is often the missing component in our induvial lives, in the church, and in the culture at large. Lack of integrity can absolutely cripple our effectiveness as ambassadors for Christ.

Obviously there are evildoers in this world who spend much time and effort trying to steal from and destroy whomever they can. They reveal the opposite of integrity.

But there is also a tension within believers, and within the body of Christ, between the flesh and the Spirit, the spiritual and the carnal. This also reveals a lack of integrity.

So, come with me as we look at this beautiful word and idea.

Integrity would make my top-ten list of favorite words in the English language. It’s a word that is drenched with meanings that can help us on our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ.

I’ll share dictionary definitions to help us along. But more importantly, we’ll explore how the Bible illustrates this aspect of character and identity.

The first definition Merriam Webster provides is the one that we probably think of first when we hear the word integrity. It is an “adherence to a code” of morality and possessing a character that is “incorruptible.”1

People of integrity are morally and ethically upright. Biblically, people of integrity walk in the fear of the Lord, can be trusted with God’s assignments, and are impeccably honest and honorable.

Scripture attributes this priceless character trait to Job, David, Nehemiah, and Paul. They were humans, and no human has perfect integrity. But when they failed to measure up to God’s standards, they admitted their faults and were restored to moral integrity.

When Job’s life was utterly ruined, the only thing that remained was his integrity. His wife railed at him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). To paraphrase, Job answers, “Nope, not going to do it. I accept all things that the Lord allows, and I will not change my commitment to his righteousness even in my devastation.”

Some alternate biblical translations of the concept integrity corresponding with this first meaning are clear conscience, clean hands, pure intentions, acting innocently. They describe purity of heart, holiness, and righteousness. Jesus declared in the Beatitudes that such people are “pure in heart” and that they will “see God” (Matt. 5:7b)

The second dictionary definition points to structural soundness or having “an unimpaired condition.”1 Integrity is a term used in the engineering field. A quality building must have structural integrity. It must be built on a sound foundation and erected in such a way that it won’t be knocked down by the first strong storm that blows through.

Sound familiar? Jesus says that those who come to him, listen to his words, and follow them, are like builders who build upon rock and not sand.2

Whether sincere, or merely using flattery to advance their own crooked agenda, the disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians said to Jesus,

“Teacher…we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others because you pay no attention to who they are” (Matt. 22:16).

These questioners correctly affirmed that Jesus wasn’t like other teachers they’d met—his words were sturdy, authoritative, grounded in truth, and not swayed by the arguments of men. His were sound words because everything about Jesus was sound and good. Jesus himself declared that his words would persist throughout eternity! (Matt. 5:18).

This reminds me of Chief Ten Bears in The Outlaw Josey Wales, who recognized integrity in Josey when they met on the prairie to negotiate a peaceful sharing of the land:

“It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carry the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death. It shall be life.”3

Do we have iron in our words of life and death? Will our way of life stand up in the face of pressure and temptation? This is one of the measures of integrity in our hearts.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com This bridge is just north of the city of San Francisco, an area know for earthquakes, because it lies on top of the San Andreas fault. It must have some structural integrity, because it is still standing beautiful and strong after 90 years and many earthquakes.

The third definition denotes simplicity, wholeness, and completeness; it is “the quality or state of being complete or undivided.1

This definition is especially true of our God. A.W. Tozer wrote,

God is simple, uncomplex, one with Himself. The harmony of His being is the result not of a perfect balance of parts but the absence of parts. Between his attributes no contradiction can exist.”4

God is whole and indivisible, and God designed his creatures to be whole also, as his image bearers. Because of the entrance of sin, human beings lost their integrity and became broken and in conflict with God and themselves.

Thankfully, there is a way to regain our integrity. When we accept the gospel truth about Jesus Christ as our risen Messiah, Savior, and returning King of Kings, we are not only rescued from hell after we die. We are made whole while still on earth because his Spirit comes to live within.

Body, soul, and spirit can come into harmony and agreement.  Paul confirms this when he writes, “You are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. (Col. 2:10, NKJV).

We are made complete in him.

But we need to walk this out, to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). There begins a process wherein God heals our broken places and draws us closer to him day by day as we worship and obey him. The work he begins he will complete (Phil. 1:6).

The result is wholeness. Integrity within that pleases God and keeps us in sweet fellowship with him.

David spoke of this, as he confessed his sins to Yahweh:

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom….

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
(Ps.51:6, 10, NKJV)

Because God answered David’s prayer and restored him, the Lord later informs his son Solomon,

Now if you walk before Me as your father David walked, in integrity of heart and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded you, and if you keep My statutes and My judgments, then I will establish the throne of your kingdom over Israel forever” (1 Kings 9:4-5, NKJV, emphasis added).

Do we truly desire this kind of character and life?

We now see that Scripture shows us three aspects of integrity that are worth seeking.

We are to seek to be scrupulously ethical in our treatment of others and adhere to the Scripture’s very high standard for moral conduct. We are to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8).  We are to remain on the narrow path Jesus has paved for us.

We are to build our lives on the solid rock of the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. This will give us the structural integrity we need to withstand the many storms of life that may come.

And finally, we rejoice in the truth that God made a way for us to be restored to complete wholeness, through our salvation and through our sanctification. He is working to perfect what he has begun!

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/integrity

2 See my more detailed study of this parable at https://scripturecomesto.life/2020/05/20/come-listen-follow/

3 Clint Eastwood, Jerry Fielding, and Lennie Niehaus. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. USA, 1976.

4 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1978.

God’s Alignment

(This blog was originally published in January 2020, when I had my last round of back problems and chiropractic treatment. I’ve had yet another recurrence in these aging bones. I wanted to revisit the wisdom found in the way God has fashioned our bodies and the way he “adjusts” us in every way throughout our entire lives in relationship with him. Enjoy…and keep a healthy spine if you can!

Ruth E. Stitt

Recently I’ve had a recurrence of sciatic nerve pain caused by disc issues in my lower back. This has returned me to the chiropractor’s office.  Chiropractors address and cure neuromuscular irregularities through “diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and the effects of these disorders on the function of the nervous system and general health.”*

I’m grateful for this option of care and the ingenious methods chiropractors have developed to reduce pain and restore healthy functioning.

In the midst of this trial common to humans, the opportunity for metaphoric reference to spiritual growth and health has not escaped me. I am inspired in this by the writing of A.W. Tozer on the sovereignty of God and the limitations to human freedom. He writes,

“We are not psychologically conditioned to understand freedom except in its imperfect forms. Our concepts of it have been shaped in a…

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Majesty Streams Down, Praises Rise Up

Lord, your name is so great and powerful!

People everywhere see your splendor.

Your glorious majesty streams from the heavens,

Filling the earth with the fame of your name.

You have built a stronghold by the songs of babies.

Strength rises up with the chorus of singing children.

This kind of praise has the power to shut Satan’s mouth.

Childlike worship will silence

The madness of those who oppose you.

                                                          –Psalm 8:1-2, The Passion Translation

I have for many years been drawn to the Psalms in my summertime devotions. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they invite me to bask in poetry, the luscious sensory images and complex emotional themes pouring out in the spiritual cries of the psalmists.

Psalms seem to fit the different feel and rhythm of the summer for me. Psalms invite us to bring heaven down into our full awareness and can bring color and life to the most ordinary of days. If you’ve never allowed this portion of Scripture to pour over you in its richness, I recommend it highly!

Psalm 8 is what has impacted me most this week. I can’t miss the message of the interchange of heavenly majesty with the fragile simplicity of praise from the mouths of children. The revelation is this:

Majesty streams down from heaven and fills the earth with God’s manifest presence. When God’s children encounter his majesty, they begin to praise him. The praises connect us directly to his infinite strength and give us power over the enemy.

David introduces his theme with a declaration of the greatness of God’s name, and the reality that anyone anywhere can bear witness to it. God is always speaking–through his creation, through his Word, through his Spirit, and through his people. God makes himself constantly, unceasingly available to us. He volunteers to participate in our daily experiences as much as we will open ourselves to him. Then entire Bible attests to this.

This is why Paul boldly states that there is no excuse for missing the reality of God all around us (Rom. 1:20).

In real, everyday life, we acknowledge God’s presence both consciously and unconsciously in the never-ending interchange between heaven and earth. We can become conduits of a flow of energy, majesty, love, and praise, from heaven to earth and back again.

We breathe in, we breathe out…constant communion with him with every breath. Our limited, broken thoughts can be directed toward and influenced by his perfect, wholesome thoughts.

We don’t have to be literal children to join the chorus that sings with heaven. We can all be immersed in the flowing current between God and his world. Have you noticed that we are never called “adults of God” in Scripture? We will always be children in relationship to God.

God delights in our childlike efforts to connect with his majesty, because he is the kindest of fathers. We build our bond with him through our praises and we stay attuned to the larger and higher realities of his kingdom.

Jesus told us to keep it simple (Matt. 18:3; 19:14), to be like kids who haven’t been taught NOT to believe and trust him.

Photo by Guduru Ajay bhargav on Pexels.com

Psalm 8 goes further and bolder. David declares that the sincere praise coming from our flawed and fragile souls carries great power.

 This kind of praise has the power to shut Satan’s mouth.

Childlike worship will silence the madness of those who oppose you.

These days, many of us have a silent scream inside of us as we read about atrocities of human behavior happening around the world. If we choose to release words of anger, criticism, opinion, or judgment, we may get a momentary catharsis, but it will not soothe our souls for very long.

Maybe this psalm gives us another way–exuberant praise and worship to God. In its many forms, praise itself shuts down the advance of the enemies of God. It’s like a system override.

The god of this world has established systems for exploiting and deceiving human beings, stealing, killing, destroying, and robbing the true God of the worship he deserves. When we lift our hearts in praise and worship to heaven, we flip the override switch. Destructive powers shut down and the creative, constructive power of God goes to work. Madness is silenced.

This isn’t a one-time fix for us as individuals or as communities. It is a constant way of living. A life of breathing in and breathing out this exchange of heavenly majesty and earthly praises.

Lord, please remind us throughout our days that we can stay connected to you in your power and majesty by giving you praise. Help us with our praises to conquer and disable the madness of the world. You alone, Lord, truly understand these mysteries. Thank you for revealing enough for us to find you and live as your blessed children.

Abide, Abide, Abide

The news is so discouraging and disheartening these days. So much suffering and anguish all around. I can only attend to little snippets of the noise at a time because national news stories provide so little hope, and no clear paths forward on solving any of the myriad problems we face in our American culture.

Add to this the negative bias that is so obvious in much reporting, and most of it is not worthy of our trust.  Sometimes it feels impossible that we will see better days ahead.

Indeed, the Bible states plainly that “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13, NKJV). We are warned by the Apostle Paul so that we will walk and listen very carefully in perilous times.

When the tragedies pile up and I am tempted to dwell on the darkness, I recognize that I need a dose of the gospel, taken like good medicine, or like a burst of sunlight through the clouds.

When I go to that source, I remember, again and again, that this world is passing away, but the truth of Jesus, and our destiny in him, is absolutely true and guaranteed to come to pass. This is the key to keeping our courage and hope.

The fact that I don’t like the direction humanity is heading, AND my desire to keep my faith in Christ strong and vibrant elicits some questions. I’m navigating this month through the gospel of John, so the words of Jesus are my primary guide as I seek the answers.

How do we as believers dwell in this world and not become like the world? How do we fully engage in the lives we have been given without falling in love with our lives? How do we fully surrender ourselves to Jesus and his kingdom while still obligated to participate in this worldly kingdom?

Jesus makes very clear in John’s gospel that his followers are in the world, but not truly a part of the world once we become born again children of God. We are in the world, but according to Jesus, the world is no longer in us. We are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20).

John writes that there is someone greater in us than “he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4, KJV). This is the Holy Spirit. There are practical, behavioral aspects to the ways we differ from those who are still “of the world,” but there are other aspects that are altogether spiritual and mystical, directed by the wise Counselor Jesus sends to those who believe.

We find guidance on these questions in John 15, where Jesus teaches his disciples about abiding, or remaining in him. He likens his people to branches connected to a vine, which is himself. As long as we are in the world, and even after we leave this world, we are connected to him, remain in him, are united with him, dwelling in him (some of the various other translations for the concept of “abide), as part of the same organism.  He uses these terms multiple times throughout the passage.

There is nothing that can separate us from him unless we cease our abiding in him. It must be possible to disconnect ourselves from the vine somehow. Otherwise, why would Jesus command us to stay close?

Lord, never let us detach from you and go our own way. Without you, we can do nothing truly worthwhile!

We have to stay close to Jesus Christ or life stops making any sense, and we fall into despair. This is what I’ve observed in myself over my years of relationship with him, and I’ve also observed it in so many others.

When our attachment to him strengthens, we find that our attachment to the world and its attractions is weakened. We may enjoy relationships, work, play, and other experiences without NEEDING them in the same way. They are “extras” that we can utilize and enjoy.

When our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) all of our experiences can be directed toward communicating the love of Christ to others. This is our primary purpose for being here while the Father is preparing the wedding feast for his Son—inviting others to join us through our attractive and convicting influence.

As Bob Goff has so winsomely demonstrated and taught, Love Does, and love needs to be extended to Everybody Always. (These are the titles of two of his books, which I heartily recommend.) This kind of life is not complicated, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. It usually is not easy. It often makes us quite uncomfortable to dedicate our lives to a reality that is outside the visible realm. The standards for love in the kingdom of heaven are so high above the standards down here.

That’s why it’s so essential to abide. Only Jesus can represent himself through us, and he can only do this if we maintain our conscious contact with him as our primary source and our ultimate destiny.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Sitting in the Ashes

(I wrote this essay in 2018. It came to mind this week as I, with the rest of my state and nation, have had many troubled thoughts and feelings about the horrific evil perpetrated in Uvalde, Texas. We’ve observed people with strong opinions very quickly jump in and insist on sharing their anger, blame, or political slant in the public arena. This hurts my heart for the people most directly impacted. Can we give the traumatized a minute to simply grieve and get past their shock before getting political or blaming others? If we have a possible solution to propose, wonderful. But even then, we have to wait for the right moment. In Job’s case, as you’ll see, his friends did many things well to support Job in his deep grief. Then they started talking….)

Most people, even those who know little of the Bible, have heard of Job, and connect his name to great loss and suffering. He’s the poster child for the apologetic question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But that is not my focus here.

My focus is how Job’s three friends attended to him when they heard of his overwhelming losses.  Job’s friends are famous in the story for being “miserable comforters” (16:2), but they didn’t start out that way. These friends are given a bad rap. I want to give them credit for what they did well and encourage us to follow that example. Then of course, there needs to be a word of caution about how and when they stopped being helpful.

Job lost everything but his wife and his life. He suddenly lost all ten of his children, all of his servants, all of his livestock, all of his assets, and finally, his health. He began to curse the day he was born.

Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, heard of the calamity that had befallen him. These men “made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (2:11).  This is the first thing they did right. They came. They traveled some distance, leaving their own families and businesses to bring love and comfort to their friend. It appears their intentions were right and good.

When they saw him from far off, they didn’t even recognize him. That’s how devastated he was, sitting in the ashes and scraping with a shard of pottery the “loathsome sores” (2:7) covering his entire body. Their response was the second right thing they did: “They raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven” (2:12).  Job’s friends didn’t stand at a distance feeling sorry for him. They joined him in his grief. They took it upon themselves. They interceded in prayer.

The third thing they did is the most beautiful and praiseworthy, in my opinion. “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13).

They sat in the ashes with him. How many of us have done that? I’ve never put all else aside, forsaking all other concerns, keeping silent for an entire week to be fully present with a grieving friend. Have you?

adult alone autumn brick

Contrast that with Job’s wife. Her counsel to her husband was to let go of his faith and his integrity, and to “curse God and die” (2:9). We must excuse her, because she had lost everything too. She clearly was incapable of bringing any comfort. The text doesn’t say, but I hope some friends showed up for her as well.

As for Job, his friends stepped in, and with their silent presence, they waited and grieved together.

When did these friends start to go wrong? As soon as they started talking. They started explaining things. They lectured Job in theology. They impugned Job’s integrity. They condescended in self-righteous indignation. They rebuked him as he cried out to God, desperately trying make sense of things for himself.

Job’s friends accused him of presumption and arrogance. Worst of all, they made him feel alone and forsaken. These friends, with their many words, undid the beautiful ministry they had practiced sacrificially for those seven days and nights.

The lesson is clear. When we have friends who are experiencing great grief and loss, we are to go to them, to suffer with them, to uphold them and help them carry their heavy burdens (Gal 6:2; Rom 12:15).  We quietly pray and cry out to God with them.  We simply stay present and protect the space while they grieve.

We wait to speak until we know we have a word from God that will speak truth in the right way and at the right time. We are exceedingly gentle and patient. We put their needs ahead of our own.

This may mean that we keep our mouths shut and our opinions to ourselves for a very long time. There is a time for theological arguments, but this is not it.

Grieving friends need our loving presence.  They need for us to be willing to sit in the ashes with them, so they know they are not alone.   

Saved for a Purpose

Often I’ve heard those who’ve had a close encounter with death speak reflectively about what they have learned from the experience. They may have heard a very frightening prognosis for a medical condition and then recovered against the odds. Or they had a near-fatal car accident, or almost drowned, or were gravely injured in war, or survived a lethal assault.

There are a few very common, almost universal realizations for humans in this circumstance. I’ve heard them repeatedly in counseling sessions, ministry situations, support groups, and more personal communications.

People will often say that they have a new appreciation for the value of life once they’ve experienced the imminent threat of death. They are more grateful for the life and opportunities they possess and don’t want to take anything or anyone for granted. They encourage others to tell the people they love how they feel while they have the opportunity. These people who have come back from the brink of death remind us that we could lose those we love without warning, or they might lose us.

Another comment that I frequently hear is that their lives were spared—they were saved, in other words, for a reason. They may or may not have a full understanding of what that reason is, and for what purpose they were given another chance at life. But they take it on faith that God has a reason.

This is where Scripture came to life for me while reading the opening chapter to the letter of Paul to the Galatians. As we learn in this letter, in other letters, and in the book of Acts, Paul was saved from death in a few ways. Spiritually, he was saved by faith and welcomed into the eternal kingdom of God; mentally, he was saved from his own distorted version of God’s demands upon him that were leading him to peril, and physically, he was saved from physical death many times once he switched teams and started preaching Jesus.

Speaking in part about these transformational experiences, Paul writes,

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being… (Gal. 1:14-16)

The book of Acts records the metamorphosis that occurred in this man following the day he met the Lord on his ill-fated trip to Damascus. He went from being a religious zealot, a rising star in the Orthodox rabbinical community, to a humble, persecuted, extremely dedicated servant of Jesus, whom he had declared his Lord and Master.

In this letter to the believers in Galatia some years later, he recaps the highlights of this transformation process. He had had enough time to reach the understanding that God had a very specific reason for saving him, and it went far beyond just the assurance of eternal life for himself.

Paul acknowledges that he was saved through the sovereignty of God, who called and set him apart even before he was born. But then he adds the declaration that God chose to “reveal his Son in me” so that “I might preach him among the Gentiles.” He was saved and called and sent out for a reason—to bring truth and life to Gentiles who had been living in darkness, shut out from the promises of God to people everywhere, whether Jew or Gentile.

This overarching purpose must have brought great confidence and comfort to Paul. He understood that whatever he might experience, the Lord Jesus was directing him, and would not let him die until God’s purposes in him were fulfilled.

Paul’s testimony can also be applied to us, and can also bring us confidence and comfort.

Salvation through our relationship with Jesus Christ is the best gift that could ever be given to anyone. That is the greatest prize, in itself. We didn’t deserve it, didn’t earn it, and didn’t pay for it. God owes us absolutely nothing, and yet he purposed long before we were born that we would be redeemed through our mediator, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. What more could we need or ask for?

Yet, we come to understand that when we occupy our new position as children of the kingdom of God, we are given both an assignment to fill, and a generous benefit package.  The benefits include Holy Spirit empowerment, Scriptural wisdom and instruction, assistance from angels, and ongoing advocacy and intercession from God’s throne room.

As for the assignment, that varies from person to person, and sometimes from season to season. For some of us, it may take many years to get full revelation of our purpose in God, but be assured, there is one for each of us.

Paul waited 17 years before he was commissioned and blessed by the other Apostles to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. In the meantime, God was teaching him who he was designed to be in Christ, and what he was saved to accomplish.

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We all have different audiences and different spheres of influence, and that is why he calls us to different ways of participating in his work in this world. He wants us to say yes to our unique assignments, whatever and wherever they may be. When we do, we experience fruitfulness and great reward. He will keep us moving forward until he decides we are finished.

He saves us because he loves us, and this is his good will toward us. He wants us to be secure as his children, now and forever. And, I believe that he saves us with a call to serve him, to speak well and often of him, to reveal him to others, and to live in his light so that others can also find their way to him.

Suicide: What Scripture Says and Does Not Say

In thirty years of counseling in various places and contexts, I never personally experienced the suicide of a client. Until now. Strange that two weeks after seeing my last client and stepping into the new flow of retirement, I learned of the suicide of a client I had been seeing right up to the time of my departure.

As is natural when hearing such tragic news about someone we sincerely care for, I ran through the gamut of questions. Did I do all I could to make sure he would stay connected to his support system when I left? Did I assess him closely enough for suicidal thoughts or plans? Was there anything I could have done differently that may have prevented this terrible loss of hope and will to live?

My lovely former supervisor, who phoned me to break the news, graciously allowed me to process these questions with her. She had looked through every record concerning this client and found not a trace of concern about suicidal intentions from any of his providers. She assured me that I had given him excellent care, that I had facilitated a very warm transfer to a new provider, and that I had done nothing wrong.

This is reassuring but doesn’t take away the grief and sadness. It is heartbreaking to have lost this very good-hearted individual. He had been working diligently on his recovery from alcoholism and its serious legal and financial consequences in his life. I ache for his family. I don’t know any details, but it appears that it all just became too much for him, and he gave up.

Since last week when I heard this news, I have been reflecting on suicide, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written about it. So here I am, seeing how Scripture comes to life on this topic of individuals who deliberately end their lives.

First, I want to look at a few cases of suicide in the Bible. Then we’ll look at some examples of souls who chose to continue living, even when pressed to the very limits of their endurance. Then, I want to share some thoughts on what the Bible implies about suicide, and share thoughts about what it does not say about it. That might be even more revealing than the few things it does say.

There are few suicides mentioned in the Bible. King Saul, already grievously wounded in battle by the Philistines, fell on his own sword so the enemy couldn’t come and finish the job (1 Sam. 31:4). When his armor-bearer saw what Saul had done, he also fell on his sword, and they died together on the battlefield.

Another is Ahithophel, a trusted advisor of King David until he aligned himself with David’s son Absalom. He advised Absalom to sleep with David’s concubines and then to kill David. David was notified of the threat, and the plot was thwarted. Knowing that he was as good as dead, Ahithophel “put his house in order and then hanged himself” (2 Sam. 23).

And then we are familiar with Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. When he came to his senses and understood the enormity of what he had done, betraying the “innocent blood” (Mt. 27:4) of his Savior and friend, he promptly hanged himself.

In none of these biblical accounts does the Holy Spirit-led author offer an opinion or value judgment about the suicides themselves. About the events leading to them, yes. But God’s word is silent about their choice to end their lives. It is simply reported as a fact.

Though these suicide stories are included in the biblical narratives, there are many more stories in the Bible about individuals who encountered incredibly painful trials and suffering but did not end their lives.

What of Job, or David, who wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, about their longing for the relief that death might bring?

After 7 days of overwhelming, silent grief over the loss of everything that mattered to him, Job began to speak, and the first thing he spoke was a curse against the day of his birth. He cried out,

“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?…For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest” (Job 3:11, 13).

Job’s wife challenged him, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). But Job did not curse God and die. He challenged her back, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (2:10).

No, Job did not kill himself or “sin in what he said” (2:10). He wrestled with his pain. He listened to the arrogant, misguided theological arguments of his friends about the calamities that had befallen him. He waited. He brought his case directly to the Lord, and the Lord responded to him. As the story plays out, we see that Job was restored; he re-engaged with life, had more children, and received God’s blessing.

King David, if he were alive now in our psychologized secular environment, would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medications. I base this on some of his writings, especially in the Psalms, when he felt threatened, lonely, and misunderstood, and seems suicidally depressed. But then, after describing how close he came to giving up on living, David proclaims, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done” (Ps. 118:17). He understood that his life, whatever he might suffer, was designed to bring glory to God.

When I assess new clients at the beginning of the therapy relationship, we always have a conversation about any current or past thoughts of wanting to die or do harm to themselves or others. This is a duty of every responsible clinician, especially during a time when suicides (and homicides in some places) have become epidemic. Part of the conversation is about what we call “protective factors.”

I validate the reality that most people, even children, think at some point that it would be much easier to check out rather than continue to suffer. Life feels so difficult sometimes, and we can feel we are trapped in circumstances with no apparent hope of relief or rescue.

Most people deny any current impulses to harm themselves, though it’s hard to tell sometimes if they are being honest about it. As I continue to engage, I push a little bit: in light of that very normal, human feeling of wanting to be gone, what is it that keeps them going? What protects them from acting on that impulse, whether it is just fleeting or a more serious and chronic urge to die?

People often cite their children and other loved ones, recognizing the pain their suicide would inflict upon them. Maybe they’ve witnessed the suicide of a friend or family member, so they’ve experienced the devastation it creates. I am quick to agree that the agony of losing someone to suicide is different from ordinary grief and is something their loved ones would never be able to “get over.” Especially if a parent leaves his or her children behind.

Others, like King David, say that in spite of a depression that daily brings excruciating pain, they still have hope. They are curious about how their story will turn out. They want to see what life feels like on the other side of the pain and despair. They believe rescue is still possible. They have a dim but still present belief that things will eventually get better, and they are coming to me for help because of that belief.

It is a great honor to walk with someone in these moments, and to let them borrow some of my hope when they need it.

Others give a religious argument. They were taught that suicide is an unforgiveable sin, one that condemns a person to hell, and this is why they have never acted on their suicidal impulses.

Though I don’t believe this even a little bit, I don’t argue with people about it at this point, because at the initial stage of our relationship, my main concern is that they stay alive long enough to get better. At the risk of sounding flippant, if they stay alive because they love vanilla ice cream and if dead, would never be able to taste it again, I’d take even that as a good enough reason in the moment.

But this notion that suicide sends believers to hell is a fallacy of medieval religious doctrine for which I have never found a shred of evidence in the Bible. It is neither stated nor implied. Not in the Law, or the Prophets, or the Wisdom books, or the gospels, or the apostolic writings of the New Testament. I’ve spent a lot of years in the book, and I can say with some confidence this doctrine is not there.

The Bible is God’s story, and he is a God of mercy and compassion, from beginning to end. This God, our Father, knows what we suffer. He knows we are fragile, that we are dust, grass or flowers that quickly perish or fade away, and our time on the earth is brief even in the best of cases.

This God also knows that the enemy has imprisoned some of us in chains of mental illness, addiction, and suicidal depression, and some may not recover. This has gotten baked into the human condition over many generations of satan’s work. Suicide occurs in a moment of lost hope because of the enemy, and not because the person is evil or unworthy in some way.

This is not to say that suicide is not a terrible sin. It is–one of the worst. It is equivalent to murder because it is self-murder. Murdering a human being should bring consequences, and it does, whether it is murder of self or another. It causes great harm, and not just to the person who is dead.

But there are many sins committed by human beings that bring harm and terrible consequences. This is why we all need a Savior! We all need our great High Priest to mediate and intercede for us.

Suicide isn’t in a special category outside of the sin that was covered at the cross with the shed blood of Jesus Christ. If a person has been born again and come into God’s kingdom and care, taking his own life does not remove his identity as a child of God any more than a child who commits suicide becomes less of a son to his grieving parents.

Paul clearly states that there is NOTHING that destroys God’s love for us in Christ.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Do we believe this?

Jesus Christ, who lived among finite humans like us, understands that some of his children suffer from mental illnesses or prolonged periods of despair and hardship, and they might succumb to the temptation to end their pain by suicide.

He knew each of us would give our lives to him before we did, and he knows that some of us unfortunately will get inexorably trapped in the snare of the devil and will end our lives without his permission. He loves and forgives us through and through no matter how long we live, or how we die. This is what I will believe until my own dying breath.

But here’s another thing I share with Christian clients a bit later in the conversation. If we are saved by grace, it means that we have come to call Jesus Lord, and that we came believe that he was raised from the dead. These are the stated conditions for salvation in Romans 10:9-10. He died in our place, and was resurrected as the victor over sin and death. This makes him worthy to be called Lord. He becomes our forerunner and our source of hope.

If Jesus is not only Savior, but Lord, that means that we no longer have lordship over our own bodies and souls, but that we belong to him. We may feel that we are in the director seat, but ultimately, the Lord is the only one with the right to determine the beginning, the end, and everything in the middle. Paul says it like this,

For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:7-9).

Suicide does not condemn a person to hell if they are already saved. Suicide is, however, a horrible sin against the Lordship of Christ in your life. It is an act of disobedience that has many tragic consequences, especially for those who love the person committing the act. But that doesn’t make it unforgiveable. God’s mercy triumphs over his judgment through the blood of Christ. The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.

The Father grieves, Jesus weeps, and the Spirit groans over the enemy’s work that causes his people to lose all hope. And when they cross over into the realm where they are in his eternal presence, I believe that he receives and embraces them just as he receives all those who come home to him.

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Accidental Rest

Recently a friend stayed with me while in town for a job interview. On her way back from the interview, her car broke down and she had it towed to a garage. We didn’t know that day that she would wind up stranded and staying as our house guest for an entire week. That’s how long it would take the garage to get the necessary parts and complete the repairs.

As she and I talked about this unexpected change and delay, which we both could have found highly frustrating, we stumbled upon the phrase, “accidental rest.” My friend hadn’t intended to set aside her normal activities and commitments at home, but her car troubles necessitated her making use of the week for something different–namely, rest.

This meant I had the choice to fight against or to simply accept her reframing of the circumstances and adjust to having her company all week. Maybe I could consider joining in her in this accidental rest. I chose the latter, and for the most part, had a fun and relaxing week, putting aside items on my to-do list that weren’t urgent.

The idea of rest is especially relevant for me at this moment of my journey. I am in my first full week of retirement after 30 years as a professional counselor. I didn’t expect to retire this year, but as I kept at my counseling and recovery work (which I was enjoying and doing well), the thought became daily and persistent: “It’s time.” There wasn’t any event or experience that solidified the decision, just an inner knowing.

I don’t believe in retirement, really, because I will always need to be working at something. In fact, I’m excited about working on quite an array of things, mostly creative. Writing, music, worship, Bible teaching, photography, landscaping, decorating, and of course, walking much in pretty places. My inspiration and ideas are running rampant and free. But the difference is that I get to choose when to work, create, or rest, when to play and when to sleep.

Last week I was reading in Romans 7 and saw through a new lens Paul’s description of the universal struggle of the disciple between the flesh and the Spirit. He describes a warring between what is deep within—the Spirit of life—and the external parts of our bodies and lives.

Often, we are led by the external things, because the practicalities of life require it. But sometimes we have a moment, which might feel like an “accidental rest,” when we can truly attend to the Spirit that lives within. I know that my decision on the timing of my retirement came from that inner place.

This has been confirmed in a few ways. For one, I have had complete peace about it, and not a moment of doubt. Second, everyone I’ve told who knows me even a little bit has been overwhelmingly supportive. So many have responded with something like, “Wow, I’m so happy for you, and so proud of you for going after what you want in this next season of life.” In other words, for me and for those who care about me, it just makes sense. And thirdly, it seems as though the Spirit is nodding with a big grin on his face, like he’s happy too that I listened to the better voice within. He’s adding supernatural joy to the mix.

Now, the question is how to think about and safeguard the rest that has has become available in a new way. I know that God is greatly in favor of rest because he rested himself after a six-day splurge of creativity. He instituted it as a commandment to his human creatures because he knows we need it. Rest is not accidental in God’s plan; it’s strategic, essential, and intentional.

So I embrace the intentional kind of rest and encourage you, dear reader to embrace it also. If we do this consistently, we can keep our hearts healthy, open, flexible, ready for the surprises that come as we deal with the issues of life.

You may not be at the point of retirement from a long career as I am at this moment, but I believe the principle still applies. Day after day, we can attend to the inner voice of the Spirit and create moments of rest that nourish us. And when unexpected things pop up, maybe we take some accidental rests too.

The sky won’t fall. The planets won’t collide. Maybe, just maybe, life will be better, more orderly, more peaceful, more sane, more attuned to the deep, satisfying love of God.  

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