Fighting Futility with Hope

Danger! These are days when even the most stalwart of souls could fall into the grip of futility. We’re shut up, and we’re shut down. We’ve been lied to so much that there are few people out there we dare to believe.

Our heroes have all been found out. They are men and women no better than us, and they have failed us. This hit me hard last week when I heard about yet another man of God whom I’ve followed and greatly respected had been sexually abusing and exploiting women for years.

The resulting frustration can fuel addictions, depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicidal despair if we let it. It is rooted in a sense of futility, which is defined as “pointlessness or uselessness.”

Solomon’s word in Ecclesiastes is sometimes translated vanity, or more poetically, a “chasing after the wind.” There is a sense right now that whatever we might try to do to effect change–whether in our personal lives, our political milieu, or our spiritual vocation—it probably won’t amount to much.

I love how these homely looking cacti stand unashamed before the barren wilderness.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes came to believe this. He tried it all, in search of enlightenment, or meaning, or peace. He went the route of wisdom and found futility. He followed his pleasures and found futility. He sought wealth and found futility. He tried working his way to happiness and found—futility.

Sometimes it seems everything has been tried and done, and tried and done again, over and over, century after century. Has the human race progressed? We wonder.

But the answer is not in finding a new way. The answer is in remembering that we need God, and wise people know this. Our technology and scientific advancement can’t save us from futility. Only the Savior can.

We need saving as much as the wanderers of the ancient world. As much as the cathedral builders of the 11th century. As much as the star-gazers of the 16th.  As much as the tribalists of Africa, the pantheists of Asia, the atheists of Europe.

I’m not writing this to be a downer. I’m really not. I believe that when we acknowledge that we can’t find the sense of purpose our hearts long for without connecting ourselves with a loving, saving God, we can find comfort and encouragement.

It’s not up to us to do all of the work to create meaning; God in Christ has provided us with a remedy for futility.

David cried out,

“Remember how short my time is; For what futility have You created all the children of men?What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?” (Ps 89:47-48). We all know the answer to these rhetorical questions, and to Job’s, when in his great suffering shouted to the heavens,

“Is there not a time of hard service for man on earth? Are not his days also like the days of a hired man?
Like a servant who earnestly desires the shade, And like a hired man who eagerly looks for his wages, So I have been allotted months of futility, and wearisome nights have been appointed to me.When I lie down, I say, ‘When shall I arise, And the night be ended?’ For I have had my fill of tossing till dawn’”
(Job 7:1-4).

Paul the Apostle also recognized that in the absence of the Savior’s saving grace, humans are lost in the “futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Eph. 4:17-18).

So, in our struggle against futility that plagues the soul, what is the remedy?

Here it is:

The entire universe is standing on tiptoe, yearning to see the unveiling of God’s glorious sons and daughters! For against its will the universe itself has had to endure the empty futility resulting from the consequences of human sin. But now, with eager expectation, all creation longs for freedom from its slavery to decay and to experience with us the wonderful freedom coming to God’s children” (Rom. 8:19-21,TPT).

I love the Passion Translation rendering, “standing on tiptoe.” A universe that has been perverted by brokenness and chaos, purposeless and pain, now can glimpse the beginnings of new light, and an end to “empty futility.” There is a “wonderful freedom” coming! There is hope, and the hope is tied into the redemption of “God’s glorious sons and daughters.”

Even the rocks and trees, animals, birds, and fish, the water, the air, the stars—everything is waiting in breathless anticipation for the full revelation of Christ and his army of followers. We carry within us by faith the seed of hope in the kingdom to come, the kingdom of heaven.

So be of good cheer child of God! What you are sowing, you shall reap. Stay faithful with every gift and calling the Father has placed in you. It is God who brings the increase, in his own way, and in his own time.

This is our hope, and hope is how we fight futility and find meaning in our days.

“Buts” and “Ands”

So often in ministry and counseling work I encounter people who are plagued by “buts.”

“I’d like to get out and meet some new people, but….

“I’d like to go back to church but….”

“I’d like to tell my husband/wife/mom/dad/son/daughter, etc. how I really feel, but….

“I’d like to quit this bad habit, but….”

“I’d like to change jobs, but….”

And many more examples that touch on different aspects of their lives and well-being.

What follows the “but” is often a statement of fear, doubt, or unbelief, such as, “I’m afraid I’ll be rejected…I’m afraid they won’t understand…I’m afraid of how I’ll cope…I’m afraid I’ll never be able to find a better job…”

Or worse, it is a statement of shame and self-loathing, such as, “I know no one would want to be with me…I’m too messed up to dare get around a bunch of Christians…I’m worthless…It’s hopeless…”

“But” is a necessary word in our vocabulary. It is a way of expressing a contrast or qualifying a statement. BUT, it can also be a dangerous word. It can shut down growth. It can keep people stuck in depression and loneliness and defeat.

Sometimes I recognize that someone is “butting” themselves to death because I am feeling frustrated. I’m trying to help them find solutions, and everything that we discuss has an obstacle, a “but” that rules it out as a possibility. I’m aware of the “but” syndrome by my own frustration in trying to be helpful!

I’ve found a way of working through this that comes as a revelation to people when I suggest it. It is to replace their “but” with “and.”

Check out what a difference this makes:

“I’d like to get out and meet some new people, and I acknowledge that this is hard for me.”

Self-acceptance instead of fear of rejection.

“I’d like to go back to church, and I need to find a community where I will be welcomed as I am.”

A positive goal instead of religious self-condemnation.

I’d like to tell______ how I feel, and I need to learn how to express myself more honestly.”

A move toward assertiveness instead of passivity and co-dependency.

I’d like to change jobs, and I’d better get started looking because it might take time and effort to find it.

                               Optimism and determination instead of pessimism and defeatism.

Scripture actually contains lots of “buts.”  Do a search and you’ll generate hundreds of instances.  God contrasts himself with his creation, his ways with the double-minded ways of humanity, his goodness and light with wickedness and darkness. “But” is incredibly useful for that.

We celebrate the places in Scripture and in our lives when God intervenes with a “but God, …” This is where God takes our impossibilities and makes them possibilities, only through his love and power.

Here’s a favorite one of these. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…(Eph. 2:4-5).

“But God” is the best kind of “But” statement!

“But” also plays an important part in Scriptural admonishments, such as, “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…but when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” (Matt. 6:2-3). Or “…Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph.5:17).

Of course, we must take heed to these instructions that include a but. 

But, as illustrated above, in our personal lives but can be grossly and destructively overused.

Is it possible that we can be guided by Scripture toward some ands that might allow us to be more positive and fruitful? Try on a few:

When wondering how our needs will be met:

And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).

When afraid because things are not looking so good:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

When discouraged because the world seems hopelessly lost:

 The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore, let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light (Rom. 13:12).

And, there are many more. As we live our lives and search the Scriptures, maybe the best route is to notice both the buts and the ands, because we need them both. And, we can ask the Holy Spirit’s help to keep them in balance.

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The quiet, passionate insistence of his ‘Follow me” is spoken to those with every power wide awake. If we let the Spirit of God bring us face to face with God, we too shall hear something akin to what Isaiah heard, the still small voice of God, and in perfect freedom will say, ‘Here am I; send me.” (Oswald Chambers).

The first direct encounter Jesus had with his disciples, and one of the last ones, both involved large catches of fish. The message Jesus left them, in both instances, was “Follow me…”

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Jesus had already become well known, as he walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Crowds pressed on him wherever he went. John the Baptist worked to prepare many people for the arrival of the Messiah, and some of those people recognized that Jesus of Nazareth was the One. The king had come and had begun to establish his kingdom.

Jesus was compassionate and willing to teach the crowds, those sheep without a shepherd. But he desired a small group of men who would join his ministry and walk with him day after day.

These would be the first disciples. He chose fishermen, tradesmen, and tax collectors. Not rabbis, scholars, or teachers.

“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” ((Mt. 4:19).  Leave your nets. Leave the family business. Leave all other priorities you’ve had. Sell everything and give it all to the poor. Let the dead bury their dead.  Just follow.

He didn’t tell them what to expect. He didn’t present an itinerary, a job description, or a benefits package. He didn’t hand them a contract to sign. They were to simply follow, no questions asked. They would learn as they went.

And learn they did. They learned to be followers, which is what disciples do. Disciples follow a teacher and his teaching, becoming wholly identified by it and with it.

When we follow a leader, we assume he is leading us somewhere. Where were the disciples following him to? Where was he headed as they followed?

Jesus was headed to his death, and then, to his resurrection. And he told his followers this: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Mt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Luke 9:23). Follow me into death and into resurrection life.

What a challenge! Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow, no questions asked. And if you’re not willing to do that, you’re not ready to be a disciple (Lk. 14:27).

If you want to minister to others, these are also the qualifications for leading and feeding his sheep. Loving him enough to be willing to abandon all and lead while following.

Jesus wasn’t fooling or playing. But he did make one pretty great promise in the deal:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Follow the light, he says. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always know what you’re doing or where he is leading you to, just that you won’t stumble in the darkness along the way.

Is that enough? Can we trust him to lead, even when we know he’s leading us toward death to our own wishes and ambitions? Death to all that we have counted on to make us feel safe? Death to the philosophies of the world that creep in to corrupt us?

And maybe even literal death for being a follower. Most of those first disciples, after spreading the gospel of Jesus far and wide, were martyred for doing so. Are we prepared for that?

As I tune into the news these days, even for a minute, I cringe and have to turn it off. Almost all of what is being said and done in the public realm, amidst the crowd, only distracts from my commitment to walking the path of discipleship.

Some people can be deeply involved in the kingdom, and deeply engaged in politics at the same time. I think I’ve done it at times, but I recognize that in this particular season, I can’t.

Attending to current events doesn’t help me in my following. I can’t risk taking my eyes off the feet of the one who walks just ahead of me, showing me the way. I suspect I’d quickly fall into a deep, dark ditch.

Lord, I’ll leave my nets. Without you, I fish all night and come up empty. With you, my nets burst with all that you provide, and I am satisfied.

Let me never stop following you.

The Puzzle

I came across this essay in my files that I wrote on a snowy February day in West Virginia in 2003, and thought it was a good week to share it.

I’ve always liked jigsaw puzzles, especially on snowed-in days like this one. I enjoy the relaxing and invigorating mental exercise they provide. It is prudent to remember, before I take one out of the closet, that once I have started working one, I am driven to finish it.

Even though I may be busy with other chores, every time I pass through the room where it lays, I will have to stop and find a piece or two. I must be willing to make a commitment of time, concentration, and space on the table for its completion.

Jigsaw puzzles remind me of the often puzzling experience of being a part of the body of Christ, and of serving and worshipping in a local church. We come together, week after week, each bringing our own small and unique piece of the picture.

We are drawn back, again and again, by some strange determination and fragile hope that if we keep showing up, keep working hard, keep studying at it, concentrating…if we want it badly enough, the puzzle will one day soon start to look like something that makes sense. Even when frustrated, discouraged and weary, disappointed with our seeming lack of progress, we are irresistibly drawn back to the table. We want to see the thing finished.

Our worship to God seems most of the time piecemeal and scattered. The individual pieces are painted in interesting colors and shapes, but in themselves they have no definition, no recognizable pattern. The random array of pieces seem to us to have no discernable order or beauty when compared with the vision of God we seek.

“Hear O ye people, the LORD is one”—complete in Himself, all One majestic Whole, clothed in a seamless garment of holiness, exalted, perfect; we can only stand in this Presence with speechless awe.

Yet here we come, trying this piece here and that piece there. Prayer, intercession, preaching, teaching, serving, singing, dancing, bowing, lifting hands, tears, laughter, sacrifice, holy romance, surrender, sanctification, and on and on in our religious endeavors.  

Once in a while we find a piece that fits and we shout, “Hallelujah!” (like a miner shouting “Eureka!”, striking gold after months of panning for it). We testify that for a moment, we have located God. We’ve come into contact, the pieces fit. God has heard and answered and has given us a moment of rest in him.

But the divine humor in this is that even when we experience fitting into the picture, we still can’t see the picture. We are not high enough above it. And even if we were, we might be surprised to find that the picture is not coherent, because it is not yet finished. Only God has the power to envision it done. He holds the box top.

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God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to finish the puzzle he’s designed. He wants us to keep coming back, making our feeble efforts toward a vision of him that our limited minds can comprehend. He enjoys our heartfelt songs, our fellowship, our acts of love and compassion. He is moved by them, perhaps in much the same way that we human parents are moved when watching our children perform in a pageant or school play. It is the very fact that the effort is so flawed, yet so sincere, that makes it so charming and endearing.

This puzzle we are working on is not an easy one. It is not the one we would have chosen from the shelf. The pieces are far too many and too small, the patterns far too complex, the level of difficulty deliberately beyond our aptitude on our own. There is mystery. We need help from the manufacturer.

We whine sometimes, “Can’t you at least show us how it will turn out?”

The only answer we receive is to look to the word pictures of one man who lived long ago, in a different time and culture. The only person who has ever been in God’s picture and above the picture at the same time. The biblical portrait of a perfect man keeps drawing us back with his loving encouragement. “Abide in me,” he says, “and I will abide in you. You will bear fruit, I promise. Our joy will be full!”

This piecing-together process of God’s great puzzle seems to us so painstaking and long, requiring every bit of strength we can bring to it. We have to keep paying attention.

And once the picture is complete, what is to become of it?

On this snowy day, once my scene of some houses on a hill with horses and cows feeding on the grass and birds and clouds floating by—is complete, what then?  I may admire it for a little while, feel some satisfaction, but before long it needs to be cleared away to make room for other things (like breakfast).

God, once his workmanship is complete, without spot, without blemish, without wrinkle—plans to sweep it up in himself! No longer itty-bitty pieces, but all of us made one with the perfect completeness of Almighty God.

In the end, there IS satisfaction for all. For us—blessed relief. For the Holy Spirit (who has been whispering clues as we worked away), the honor which is due him. For Jesus Christ, the privilege of putting in the glorious final piece, and for Father God, the joy of declaring, “Well done!”

Manifesto of the Moment

This is the moment for the followers of Jesus.

This is not the moment to shrink back in fear; it is the moment to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.

This is not the moment to deny that we know and love Jesus; it is the moment to represent him as ambassadors.

This is not the moment to play games with the truth; it is the moment to be unashamed of the gospel.

This is not the moment to be flavorless or hidden in the shadows; it is the moment to be salt and light.

This is not the moment to hold onto petty offenses; it is the moment turn our attention to worthier things.

This is not the moment to wallow in bitterness; it is the moment to forgive and be forgiven.

This is not the moment merely to please ourselves or serve our own interests; it is the moment to seek first the kingdom of Christ and his righteousness.

This is not the moment to turn away from those who are in need; it is the moment to show goodness and mercy in his name.

This is not the moment to give in to fear or mediocrity; it is the moment to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not the moment to compromise our integrity; it is the moment to honor our commitments.

This is not the moment to be prideful or judgmental; it is the moment to show kindness to strangers, and to friends.

This is not the moment to get lost in worry; it is the moment to pray without ceasing.

This is not the moment to rely upon the doctrines of devils or men; it is the moment to return to God’s Word.

This is not the moment to be complacent about the lost; it is the moment to make disciples in all nations.

This is not the moment to slander God’s people; it is the moment to edify one another.  

This is not the moment to shrink back; it is the moment to show courage and faith.

This is not the moment to dwell in successes or failures of the past; it is the moment to reach for the prize that lies ahead.

This is not the moment to hold anything back; it is the moment to love God with everything we are.  

This is the moment.

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There is No Plan B

Many years ago, when I was a worship leader in Ohio, my pastor and I came to an understanding. I told him that the Lord had forbidden me to lead our congregation out of my own musical ability or experience. I was only to use my abilities in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I had been a professional guitarist and singer for a couple of decades at that point. I knew how to look like I was “on” even when I wasn’t. I knew how to fake it, whether on a jazz gig or on a church platform. I had good musical chops and I relied on them for my confidence.

But the Lord had broken into my life in a new way at that time, giving me clear revelation of the sacred, holy privilege of leading others in worship in the house of God. I learned that in the time of David, and the kings that succeeded him, worship leading was a role for the Levitical priesthood. It took much more to qualify to be a musician in the Temple or Tabernacle than simply playing an instrument and having a decent singing voice.

This priesthood required intimate knowledge of Scripture. It required living a consistently holy, blameless life. It required an anointing from the Lord, like spiritual oil poured upon the head from heaven. Only this would qualify a lowly human to serve as a conduit in song, gathering up the praises of the people and directing them heavenward. 

So, I began to think quite seriously about my responsibilities, and concluded that I was to be in full submission to the moment-by-moment inspiration of the Holy Spirit at all times, and especially when leading worship.

It may seem like this was a recipe for chaos or a decision to fly by the seat of my pants. To the contrary. I always worked throughout the week on a written and practiced plan. I showed up with an impression of what I believed the Lord wanted to do in communion with his people and had chosen songs I prayed were congruent with that.

The caveat was that the perfect Lord was free to change my imperfect plan, and I needed to be free to follow him into his glorious unknown. As I moved in this freedom, the band and congregation became more and more free to follow also.

My, we had some amazing times of thunderous praise and deep, transformative worship!

In practical terms, this meant that sometimes the musical part of the service would run longer or shorter than planned. Perhaps he would suggest a different song that was not on the list or the slides. Sometimes our order of service would be interrupted by prayer, or prophecy, or an instrumental departure from the charts. The pastor could also redirect as he felt the Spirit prompt him.

It also meant—and this is the really tricky bit—that if I arrived at my moment to lead, and knew I was out of fellowship with the Spirit for some reason, I was allowed to tell him so, and we would forego the music altogether. Because as for me and leading people in worship, we would do it by the Spirit or we would not do it. There was no Plan B.

As the band was practicing early on Sunday, Pastor would stick his head in the sanctuary and ask me how I was doing. Our code phrase that said we could proceed was, “We’re doing Plan A.”

There are very few pastors who will tolerate this much spontaneity. But my pastor trusted Christ in me as much as he trusted Christ in himself, so we were able to minister together harmoniously, submitting to one another as each submitted to Christ. And if the Lord was not going to be fully honored in what we were doing, we figured it was better to go against religion and tradition and simply not do it.

As I recalled this rare experience of learning to fully rely upon the Lord, it brought to mind a story about one of those above-mentioned kings.

Asa was one of the mostly good kings of Judah. This mostly good king would be put to the test, and unfortunately, fail miserably in the Lord’s estimation.

In the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s reign, Baasha, the rival king of Israel began to threaten Asa’s authority. Asa’s response was to enlist the help of a pagan king of Syria, sending him silver and gold from the temple treasuries as incentive to form an alliance against Baasha.

This strategy was clever and successful. The enemy king’s plans were thwarted, and he was driven out. But now Asa had to deal with the King of Aram, with whom he had made an unholy alliance.

The Lord was not pleased; He spoke through Hanani the seer:

 “Because you relied on the king of Aram and not on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from your hand. Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen? Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war” (2 Chron. 16:7-9).

Isn’t it fascinating to consider that the God of the universe is watching his human creation, scanning for individuals who exhibit a loyal kind of faith in him, and seek his counsel in everything? He wanted Asa to ask, and Asa did not. Unfortunately, instead of accepting Hanani’s word of rebuke, Asa put the messenger in prison, and started brutally oppressing his own people.

A few years later, Asa contracted a serious disease in his feet, and “though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians…” (2 Chron. 16:12).

This is the way it so often goes with us humans, great and small. We think we are so clever and talented that we can conduct our affairs without consulting the one who made us.

The story about myself is not intended to exalt myself above anyone. There have been so many times, before and since, when I have not humbled myself and surrendered my own plan to the Lord. I have relied on my own experience, training, or talent instead of staying with Plan A.

I share this with you because when I recall those moments in my story when my heart was “fully committed to him,” his ranging eyes found me, and he strengthened me to win my battle in the right way, his way. Because this is Plan A, and there is no Plan B.


Like it or not, throughout life we almost always have someone who is watching us. Someone may actually be following our example. Imitating us.

It may be a sibling, a friend, a student, a person we’re discipling, or someone we don’t even know. But they know or see something in us that motivates them to imitate us, for better or worse

I remember when my son would follow and pester his older sister and she’d get so exasperated with him. I’d tell her repeatedly (though it didn’t seem to help much at the time), that he wanted to be near her, to be with her, and even be like her.

We are all imitators to some degree. And sometimes we become aware that we are the ones being imitated. In fact, a model for discipleship that I appreciate is the one that encourages each of us to take the hand of someone who is a bit ahead of us on the faith journey, and offer the other hand to someone following close behind. That way everyone is leading someone and everyone is following someone.

Paul approaches this propensity to imitate in a very sober tone in Ephesians, saying, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise…”

Let’s back up to see this emphasis on how we live.

Paul begins Chapter 5 of Ephesians with the exhortation that we are to be imitators of God.

Imitators of God! What a concept! How, pray tell, does a person imitate God?

We are just people. Don’t we feel most of the time that we are quite unlike God? He is unspeakably vast and we are, in our flesh, unspeakably puny. He is perfection, while we are imperfection.

But imitators pursue perfection. Not perfectionism. Not perfecting ourselves, but becoming more accurate in our imitation of his perfections.

Paul, like Jesus before him, asserts that the perfect thing to imitate is God’s love, as evidenced in the gift of his Son. Jesus the Son is the perfect imitation of the Father in human form, and he shows us the way to be imitators of the Father in our own humanity.

We do this by sacrificing our own selfish wills to the will of the Father like he did. This emits “a fragrant offering” of sacrifice (5:1). Others catch a whiff of this fragrance and are drawn by it to the same perfect Jesus.

What else makes us imitators?

Holiness. Holy living, holy thinking, holy talking. As counter cultural as it sounds, imitators of God don’t mess around with sexual immorality, or coarse language, or greed, or idolatry. Purity is a priority.

Imitators emit the light of God, and their behavior is consistent with “the fruit of the light…all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (5:8-9). They have nothing to do with darkness or its “fruitless deeds” (5:11). Imitators reflect the light that Christ shines on them.

Imitators don’t pursue foolishness, or drunkenness, or debauchery. Instead, affirmatively, they are:

“filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:18-20).

So, in this season and all seasons, let us be so good at imitating our Lord, that people get a glimpse of him in us, and want to imitate him too. Let us live, and sing, and speak good words of truth, and give thanks for everything he has done.

Let this be our magnificent obsession.

God bless you all with a beautiful Christmas!

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God’s Mysterious Plan

(*This is the second essay in an end-of-crazy-2020 series.)

I remember the first time I watched the movie “The Sixth Sense,” a brilliantly written and acted thriller. I got so caught up in the characters that I did not perceive that I was experiencing a sense of mystery. Toward the very end, I had an exhilarating, sudden flash of insight when the truth of the plot was revealed.

For some reason, we humans are attracted to mystery. We are intrigued by things we do not yet understand. This drives many of the efforts of scientists and philosophers alike.

We like the riddle, the puzzle, and the tension of not knowing, followed by the pleasure of revelation. Mystery can be a beautiful thing, especially when it points us to the glorious attributes of our holy God.

Webster’s dictionary defines mystery as a “profound, inexplicable, or secretive quality or character.”A second definition isa religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.” I think both definitions are necessary when speaking of the mystery Paul describes in Ephesians.

A quick concordance search of the word translated mystery in the King James Bible reveals 22 hits, all in the New Testament, six of them scattered across the 6 chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Paul was a vessel chosen by God to receive revelation of mysteries that had been hidden for ages. Speaking of the mystery, Paul wrote, “God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit he has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5).

At the right time, after the resurrection of Jesus, and after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God ordained that this man Paul would be the vessel to carry and then teach God’s long-hidden truth.

What was this mystery that Paul revealed to the church as God’s messenger? It has a few interwoven components.

First, Paul was one of the first to discover and describe the mysterious, supernatural transformation of an individual soul from death to life, sin to redemption, darkness to light—made possible only by the grace of God through faith. God, so rich in mercy, desired to “point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us…” (2:7). It’s a mystery why God would care enough to rescue us so perfectly and completely.

This links to a second revelation. Because this great gift of salvation is available to “whosoever believes” (Jn 3:16), believers are eternally united with Christ and with each other irrespective of their ethnic or religious pedigree.

In Paul’s day, it was a big deal to be a Jew. Jews had always looked down on Gentiles as heathens. The mystery of God revealed by Paul (and also by Peter) blew their justification for racial or religious prejudice to smithereens. Repeatedly in Ephesians Paul hammers at this second crucial aspect of God’s mystery:

“You Gentiles used to be outsiders…but now you have been united with Christ Jesus” (2:11,13).

“Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people” (2:14)

“He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (2:14)

“He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups” (2:15).

Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us” (2:18).

God’s story is in the genre of mystery! He keeps us in suspense. When his mystery is “solved” through the Holy Spirit, it turns out it is all about reconciliation. We hold the tension of separation from him and from others who are different until we are ready to take in God’s incredible plan to make us one.

Paul speaks not of a political unity, but an organic one: all believers become members of one body, with Christ as our Head. It’s not just that we now have a basis to get along, though that may be a good fruit of unity. It is that we are inseparable from each other. We are parts of the same organism.

I like to think about how our Chinese, and African, and other faraway brothers and sisters are connected with us in this mysterious way, at God’s pleasure. He has a plan to show off his intricate workmanship at the end of the age.

God allows Paul to give us these teasers in Ephesians so we don’t have to wait for the new heaven and earth; we can start experiencing and enjoying our oneness now. Paul sums it up–

 “And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus. By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News” (Eph 3:6-7).

I know my focus is on Ephesians, but I have to add a parallel passage from Paul, this one written to the Corinthians, expressing the thrilling revelation–

The wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began. But the rulers of this world have not understood it; if they had, they would not have crucified our glorious Lord” (1 Cor 2:7-8).

The idea that Christ would bring together people from all nations of the earth into one body was so threatening to the powers of darkness that it had to be kept a secret until after the crucifixion. If they had understood the mystery of God’s plan for the church, they wouldn’t have crucified him, and we’d still be dead in our sins, unredeemable.

I have been pondering this mystery revealed to Paul for many years. But no matter how long I ponder it, it remains mysterious. This is as it should be, because that is the nature of mystery. This is God’s design.

It’s as though our Father has purchased an amazing Christmas gift for his family to share, and gives us some hints of what it will be like when we can open it an use it freely and fully. That will happen when he returns and restores things to the way they should be.

In the meantime, we wait eagerly, and practice being one with him and with each other.

This is God’s mysterious plan.

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An Embarrassment of Riches

About thirty-five years ago, a young musician living in New York City was drawn to the Lord Jesus Christ purely by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

There was no one preaching to her, and no one she could think of that would have been praying for her to come to Christ. God just wanted it to happen, it seemed, and she responded.

That young, lost musician was me. He found me.

Shortly after this supernatural stirring to know the man called Jesus, the Word of God was opened to my understanding. I remember at a deep, visceral level the joy that enveloped me, body and soul, as I absorbed the words of ancient Scripture.  

There I was, working for a diamond cutter on 47th St., commuting each morning on the subway with my little green pocket-sized New Testament and Psalms. You know the kind I’m talking about.

I stood, reading Ephesians while holding onto the pole. Astonished by the revelation of God (always in the King James Version, those days):

He blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.

He chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

He predestinated us to be his children according to his own good pleasure.

He redeemed us through his blood, forgiving our sins because of the riches of his grace.

He abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence.

He has made known to us the mystery of his will.

He has determined to gather together in one all things in Christ

He has provided an inheritance, that we should be to the praise of his glory.

We have been sealed by faith with the holy Spirit of promise as earnest for the promised inheritance.

In other words, an embarrassment of riches. And that’s only the preamble to Chapter 1!

The great Apostle Paul—how grateful I am for this courageous, faithful, brilliant man of God!–went on from there, praying for all believers that:

The eyes of our understanding would be enlightened to know—

                    the hope of his calling and the riches of his glory;

                    the exceeding greatness of his power toward us

                                       according to the working of his mighty power,

                                                  which he wrought in Christ

                                                  when he raised him from the dead

                                                   and set him at his own right hand in heavenly places

                                                                   far above all principality, and power, and might,

and dominion

                                                                   and every name that is named.

Lest we forget, Paul reminds us that God the Father did all of this to glorify his Son. He put all things under the feet of the Son, and made him head over all things pertaining to his church, which is his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.

Ridiculous. Heady stuff to be learning for the first time at the age of 23.

I was a bit angry, to tell the truth. Why didn’t anyone tell me this stuff when I was growing up in suburbia, becoming a teenager, acting like a fool?

Why didn’t anyone tell me sooner that heaven had come to earth, and that God had made available such extravagant gifts of grace!?!

I felt like I’d just stumbled on a goldmine no one had ever discovered. It had been there all along, hidden in plain sight.

These words from a letter from 2000 years ago haven’t diminished in their power. Paul’s language is so theologically rich and effulgent that scholars spend years parsing a single verse.

These words changed me then, and continue to impact me every time I meditate on them.

As we endure times of tediousness, mediocrity, hypocrisy, and broken dreams, there is still Ephesians. There is this source of supernatural, poetic, mind-awing truth.

There is this embarrassment of God’s riches, poured out for all who will seek and find it.

God Laughs, We Laugh

I love the story of Abraham and Sarah when God announced they were going to have a baby in their old age. The text says that “Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief” (Gen. 17:17). Really, God? Very funny.

God laughs, and sometimes he makes his people laugh with the surprising and funny ways that he leads us. Ironically, his sense of humor is often lost on us because we are crying at the time. Maybe we’ve already become cynical, like Sarah:

Sarah laughed, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (Gen. 18:12).

People tell me that I don’t look as old as I am. I’m younger than Sarah was, but I’m old enough that if the Lord laid something like that on me, I think I would be tempted to laugh first, ask questions later.

But there is a difference between me and Sarah. I was blessed to conceive and bear children. Sarah had been childless. A barren womb was one of the worst curses (perceived curses, if not actual curses) a woman could endure back then.

When this whole scenario played out, and baby Isaac–whose name means “laughter”– was in her arms, she responded, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6)

We inherit our gift of laughter from our Father. Psalm 2 declares that when nations and their leaders conspire against the Lord, “the one in heaven laughs” (v. 4).

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A similar thought is conveyed in Psalm 37: “The wicked plot against the godly; they snarl at them in defiance. But the Lord just laughs, for he sees their day of judgment coming” (12-13, NLT)

So sure is the ultimate plan of justice and judgment that those he has made righteous can laugh with God. Those who trust in him instead of their wealth or wicked schemes have no reason to fear or be overcome with anger. He tells us that we will laugh in amazement:

The righteous will see it and be amazed. They will laugh and say, “Look what happens to mighty warriors who do not trust in God. They trust their wealth instead and grow more and more bold in their wickedness” (Psalm 52:6-7).

The psalmist Asaph, puzzled over the apparent prosperity and ease of the wicked, finally made his way to God’s sanctuary, the place of worship. There the veil was lifted, and he cried, “When you arise, O Lord, you will laugh at their silly ideas as a person laughs at dreams in the morning” (Ps. 73:20).

Have you ever done that? Woken up in the morning and remembered a strange and funny dream? That dream has as much substance as the haughty ideas of worldly people who put no trust in the Lord

Perhaps the best example forms a concluding statement in the Proverbs 31 description of a godly woman:

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future
Proverbs 31:25).

I don’t think this is gender specific. Anyone can be wrapped up in this clothing of strength and dignity, following in God’s ways.

He laughs, and we have his permission to laugh with him, in full confidence of a glorious future.