Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

To Keep Me From Becoming Conceited: A Thought Experiment

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“Only by surrender to our proper human place can we glorify and enjoy God the way we say we want to and the way he requires.” – Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine

I was dreaming recently about what it would be like not to be beset with my particular set of social, physical, and emotional weaknesses. If I weren’t so prone to anxiety… If social situations didn’t make my stomach hurt… If my body were stronger and I had a bigger capacity… And it all seemed so ideal.

I didn’t realize though, that I was neglecting a key variable in this thought experiment. That is, until a wise friend said a few days later, “Maybe if you were able to do all you wanted to, you would come to the end of your life and say, ‘Look at how productive my life was.’ But because you can’t, now you’ll say, ‘Look at what God did.’”

Truth.

God has countless, hidden purposes in our weaknesses, and I would never claim that guarding us against pride is the only, or even main, reason why he assigns us our trials. But in the Scriptures and in my life, it is one of them.

The Apostle Paul had a thorn, a trial, that he pleaded three times for God to remove. But God said no, saying to Paul instead these well known words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). At times I have seen my weaknesses used this way, as the lightning rod for God to display his greatness and power. But lately, I have been camping out a few verses back to where Paul writes of his thorn and says, it was “to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7).

In the calculations I was making which resulted in a picture of my ideal self, I had not accounted for one weakness that isn’t merely human frailty, but an insidious, deadly, and corrupting sin in me— pride. With my friend’s words of truth factored in, I’ve been thinking again of what it would be like if God removed all the weaknesses I wanted him to. But this time I shudder.

You see, if it were up to me, I’d be super human.

I’d be fearless, confident, and competent. A force to be reckoned with, I’d be, for all intents and purposes, limitless in strength, wisdom, and capacity.

I wouldn’t need to eat or sleep or sit down or go to the bathroom because I’d be doing more “productive” things. (“Are you an ascetic?” my sister has asked, and with good reason.)

I wouldn’t be needy, and would ever be in the position of giver rather than in need of others.

And, come to think of it, I guess wouldn’t need God.

I am not unlike our first mother who listened to the voice of the serpent. You will be like God! — not in the sense of being his representative, but his replacement. Like the builders of Babel crying, “Let us make a name for ourselves!” my heart in it’s twisted depravity yearns to say, “Look at all I’ve accomplished (for God)!”

But this is not the way of our Lord. God does not take delight in the strength of men (Ps. 147:10). He is never the beneficent of our works, never in need of our productivity. He alone never slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121). He alone is always at work (Jn. 5:17). God destroys the wisdom of the wise and discernment of the discerning. He makes foolish the wise and does not choose the strong. And he does this so no human being might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1).

Just as Paul’s thorn was given to him by God’s grace for the sake of his own soul, sometimes God guards us from ourselves through our weaknesses. The very weaknesses we pray for God to remove may be God’s grace to us, for the sake of sparing our souls. God only knows who we would be not only apart from his saving grace, but for gracious trials from his Fatherly hand.

I know partially the danger I would be to myself and those around me if I were unencumbered by weaknesses. It is scary how much harsher I would be to others and how much credit I yearn to take. Through my weaknesses, God is in some ways keeping me from being tempted beyond what I can bear.

Even more importantly, God knows I would be blind to his grace, power, and lovingkindness if not for his work of bringing and keeping me low. Our Lord delights to show himself glorious as our powerful, kind, and gracious Giver and Sustainer. His righteousness is on display as he lifts up the powerless and defends the weak.

God wonderfully takes our work, bound in time and fraught with weakness, and accomplishes his eternal purposes through them. And when we come to him in humility, in recognition of the reality of our dependence, how kindly he supplies our needs and reveals his grace. All these things he does to the praise of his glory, giving us the most precious gift of all, true knowledge of him in a loving relationship.

As God is shedding the light of grace upon my weaknesses and limits, I am coming to a very different conclusion today in myIf I were/weren’t…  thought experiment. Could God be doing the same for you? Maybe he is, in unexpected ways, answering our prayers to spend and end our days proclaiming truly, Look at all God has done– through, in, and for us, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Truth & Orthodoxy

Learning How To Handle Abundance

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My life is filled with good things. As I write, my sweet boy is crawling around the room babbling to himself, every now and then coming to check in with me, snuggle, and play. My two girls are still asleep after a late night yesterday— one of them stayed up to help me clean while waiting for daddy to come home. So I sit in a now tidied-up room in a home I love. I write with a relatively clear mind and healthy body. The sun rose again this morning as it does every day, and I remember its glory I witnessed during Monday’s solar eclipse. I hear footsteps upstairs now. One little lady is up and calling for me.

My life is filled to overflowing with good and sometimes I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t merely mean sentimentally, though at times my heart does feel so full it could burst. And I don’t mean how to handle all the cuteness of my fuzzy haired boy or handle the messiness caused by my energetic, playful, artistic girls.

What I mean is that I often struggle with knowing what it means to respond to all this good, or as Paul writes in Philippians, how to “abound” and “have plenty,” in a Godward way. It may sound like I’m overthinking things, and maybe there’s a hint of truth in that, but stick with me for a moment here. I have a hunch that I’m not alone in this.

A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating NY Times magazine article, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age.” In it the writer shares an anecdote about how she decided to stop dieting only to realize she didn’t know how or what to eat. She writes about seeing a nutritional therapist and learning to eat in an intuitive-eating class. In it, they took small pieces of food, starting with a raisin, and learned to eat food as if they were “aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it.

Ever since Adam and Eve took of the fruit and ate it, our relationship with things of the Earth has been complicated to say the least. Because what God made is good, there is good in the world. The skies proclaim his glory, people reflect his worth. But with sin’s entrance came the distortion of good things.  Food is one example of this, but it is just one category among all created things has the potential to be confusing, twisted, or misused.

After the Fall of man, we have elevated created things to the place of God and misused what we have toward idolatrous ends. We are tempted to find satisfaction in people and things rather than God and to use them for our own glory.  Furthermore, with sin came an element of fearful anxiety cast over our days, the entrance of loss and risk in a world now inhabited by thorns. We make friendships, work, buy houses, and start families knowing we could lose everything we have in an instant. And even with all the good we have, in the back of our minds we are always aware of countless others who are presently suffering.

In a world East of Eden, filled with good things but also of temptation, uncertainty, and suffering, it is then a struggle to know how to handle the “good things” in life– the created things that God has declared good. Like someone learning to see a raisin in a healthy way, we often need to undo and relearn our relationship to created things.

Apart from God, we only see glimpses of the purposefulness behind the universe and all it contains. But as Christians, our relationship to created things is redefined by our knowledge of the Creator to whom, for whom, and through whom all things exist. And as we grow in the faith, God teaches us how to relate not only to trials in life, but to the good, the blessings he chooses to give.

For those who struggle with temptation, guilt, fear, or anxiety in dealing with good things from God, here are some ways to start rethinking and receiving God’s gifts.

Receive good from God as a gift. (Or, receive with thanksgiving.)

I’ve written about how when my son was born, I struggled with reconciling such enormous blessing from God with the suffering I witnessed around me. Why God, why such blessing? I wondered. And God’s answer to me was simply that he is a good God who gives good gifts (Ja. 1:17).

I cannot make sense of the good things I have because I don’t deserve any of it. But I don’t need to deserve it to receive them as gifts. I am called thus to turn to God in thanksgiving, to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. And when I meditate on the heart of the Giver, I am drawn to him not to his blessings as ultimate, but to see his grace and surrender to his wisdom.

Receive good from God as a sermon. (Or, turn to God in worship.)

God speaks through the goodness of created things. As a Creator, his nature is reflected in his works— his beauty in the skies, his abundance in supplying our physical needs, his wisdom in creating our bodies, his lovingkindness in the care of others.

Sometimes, in an effort to push back against the prosperity gospel, we neglect to see that though God speaks through suffering, he also speaks in his endless supply of good things. The sun rises and rain falls— that is a sign of his goodness to all creation, to both evil and good. The skies proclaim his handiwork, day to day pouring out speech, declaring his glory. We breathe in his air, we walk on his earth, we enjoy the company of others made by him in his image.

All the goodness in creation is a sermon meant to harken our ears to the Preacher and turn to him in worship. As one pastor said, we don’t honor the Preacher by ignoring the sermon (quoted here.) As we guard our hearts against thinking God only speaks in blessing us, we don’t need to ignore the ways he does speak to us in giving good gifts. Rather we can see his character in the things created and turn to him in worship.

Receive good from God as a postcard. (Or, long for home with hope.)

Because we live in a world where death and sin have yet to be swallowed up, our enjoyment of good is often tainted with sorrow. We are sorrowful over our inability to enjoy good gifts today with those who have passed on. We endure the uncertainty of knowing those we love aren’t guaranteed safety and longevity. We are aware that every vacation must come to an end, each peaceful stretch on life’s road will eventually come turn into a place of struggle. As another has written, the “prospect of pain threatens our pleasure.”

We live in the time in between Jesus’ resurrection and return, after the beginning of the restoration of all things, but not at home yet. And so, all of our enjoyment of created things, though real, is still a flicker. Our delight in God’s good gifts are in a sense still fleeting. The flickering and fleetingness, though meaningful and wonderful, point us to our lasting hope at the end of the road. Only at the return of Jesus will our joys never be followed with sorrow, our gains never threatened with loss.

The good gifts from God we enjoy today are “postcards from the lasting city that are meant to be handled, admired, passed around, stuck on the fridge.” They are truly good but they are still shadows of what is to come for those who believe in Christ. So we enjoy these postcards with great hope and anticipation of a place filled with only good and eternal joy.

Receive good from God as a stewardship. (Or, seek to be generous.)

Sometimes, when we consider our lack of merit in receiving good from God, we are tempted toward guilt and introspection. Who are we to receive such good? And while there is an appropriateness to feeling our unworthiness, we are not meant to stay there because all we’ve been given is not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of others.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to give generously so that their abundance may supply the needs of others. He references the Israelites gathering manna, saying “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Cor. 8:1-15).

Rather than merely feeling guilty about our lives being relatively struggle-free compared to others or even fearing that the trials of others will come upon us, we are called to willingly enter into the suffering of others to bring relief. Whether this means having the time and emotional capacity to intercede for the hurting or financial means to give to someone who lacks, all we have has been allotted by God to us to use for others. We are merely stewards of the created things we have however much and for however long God chooses to entrust them to us.

My life is filled to overflowing with good. Little things like a curbside find of a like-new infant push-walker we’d mentioned would be nice to have but weren’t going to buy or opening up the fridge for a late night snack to find fried chicken wings Jeff brought back from church last night. Important things like our wedding anniversary we just celebrated, three sweet little people in our home, and a cherished church family.

And I am learning to receive all this good and more from our gracious God— in thanksgiving, worship, hope, and generosity.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)

Truth & Orthodoxy

If God Is In Control, Why Pray?

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When it comes to God’s sovereignty and prayer, it is enough for some people to know that 1. God is sovereign (in control) and 2. God commands us to pray. But there are others who struggle with seeing prayer as an Achilles heel for belief in God’s providence and sovereign control over all things.

In other words, they sincerely wrestle with the question,  If God is sovereign, why pray?

All of us, though we may not verbalize the question,  practically live out our implicit answers to this question in how we pray. I’ve seen this play out in my life and in teaching, both good and bad,  I’ve received through the years. If God is immobilized by my lack of prayers or constrained by their content, I will pray with feverish anxiety, maybe in fear of forgetting something important or asking for the wrong thing. If my prayers only change me, my intercession for others end up short and passionless, “Do what you will, you know what’s best, amen” with faithlessness masquerading as faith in God’s sovereignty.

The question of “Then, why pray?” came up in church during a class on God’s sovereignty a few weeks ago, so I thought I’d share a few points here. They’re brief but may be helpful for some wrestling with the seeming contradiction of God’s sovereign will and our supplications in prayer.

1. Prayer is more than just asking for things.

Worshippers of God praise him in prayer because adoration is a natural and fitting response to seeing his greatness. We pour out our hearts before him in prayer not because he does not know our minds, but because he is a refuge for his people and he comforts us as we lay our burdens before him. We confess our sins in prayer not to inform him of what we did while his back was turned, but to receive his cleansing forgiveness and power to change.

Prayer is more than just asking for things and it is relational, not transactional. Even as we present our requests before God, our supplications are not so much like placing an order for Amazon as much as it is approaching our Father. We come to him with the longings of our hearts, trusting in his goodness and wisdom, knowing his love and care. Those who believe that prayer is pointless if God is in control do not yet understand our communion with God in prayer.

2. Scripture affirms that our supplications are effective as God responds to them.

Prayer changes us as we commune with God, but does not only change us. Scripture is full of stories of God responding to his people’s requests. Israel’s mass exodus from slavery is preceded by,  “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Ex. 2:23-25) And the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal proved that, unlike false idols, Yahweh is the God who lives, hears and responds to his people. These are only two of innumerable Biblical examples.

In the New Testament, James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (Ja. 4:2b) Paul urges supplications to be made for all people and asks the churches to pray for him (1 Tim. 2:1, Eph. 6:19, Col. 4:3.) And Jesus himself straightforwardly says, “Ask and you will receive.”

3. God’s sovereignty does not negate the meaningfulness of my prayers, but rather upholds their effectiveness.

Scripture overwhelming attests to God’s sovereignty, or providence.* At the same time, it also attests to the meaningfulness of my actions, including my prayers. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3:1-2)

When we think of God as merely an actor in a pre-existing world, then his sovereignty seems to negate the effectiveness of our prayers. But remember that everything that exists is continually held together by his command and that fabric of the universe would completely unravel if he did not uphold it (Heb. 1:3). Therefore, “second causes” or what we may think of as “means” make a difference not in competition with but because of God. Our actions have consequences in the world because God upholds it. Our prayers are effective because and only because God himself establishes their effectiveness.

4. God has sovereignly ordained means.

Also, in believing that God has ordained all things, Christians believe that he ordains means. For example, though we believe that God has chosen how many days we have on earth, we still eat (Ps. 139:16). We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Well if God wanted me to live, I would,” because we believe God has chosen to use physical sustenance to prolong our days. God has not only determined outcomes in history, but the means toward these outcomes.

When it comes to prayer then, as one of my professors put it, What if God has sovereignly ordained your prayers as a means toward accomplishing his will on earth? 

5. Ultimately, we pray not in spite of, but because we believe in God’s sovereignty.

R.C. Sproul has said, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Similarly, rather than feeling demotivated to pray because we know God is sovereign, Christians can pray in faith because God is in control of all things.

Our God is able to direct the will of earthly kings, so we pray for leaders in our home, work, and nations. He can make dead hearts live, and so we plead for him to grant salvation to hardened hearts. He is able to break the power of sin in our lives, families, and churches, so we plead for more grace to overcome. And he has chosen to do all this and more through the prayers of his people to the praise of his glory.

Nothing is outside of our Sovereign King’s rule and thus nothing is impossible for him. What great confidence we have in Christ to approach the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

* Kevin DeYoung writes in, The Good News We Almost Forgot:  “The Bible affirms human responsibility. But the Bible also affirms, much more massively and frequently than some imagine, God’s power and authority over all things. The nations are under God’s control (Pss. 2:1–4; 33:10), as is nature (Mark 4:41; Pss. 135:7; 147:18; 148:8), and animals (2 Kings 17:25; Dan. 6:22; Matt. 10:29). God is sovereign over Satan and evil spirits (Matt. 4:10; 2 Cor. 12:7–8; Mark 1:27). God uses wicked people for His plans-not just in a “bringing good out of evil” sort of way but in an active, intentional, “this was God’s plan from the get-go” sort of way (Job 12:16; John 19:11; Gen. 45:8; Luke 22:22; Acts 4:27–28). God hardens hearts (Ex. 14:17; Josh. 11:20; Rom. 9:18). God sends trouble and calamity (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20–23; Isa. 45:6–7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14). God even puts to death (1 Sam. 2:6, 25; 2 Sam. 12:15; 2 Chron. 10:4,14; Deut. 32:39). God does what He pleases and His purposes cannot be thwarted (Isa. 46:9–10; Dan. 4:34–35). In short, God guides all our steps and works all things after the counsel of His will (Prov. 16:33; 20:24; 21:2; Jer. 10:23; Ps. 139:16; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11).”

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Looking Unto Jesus

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If you’ve studied physics (or ever played QBasic Gorillas), you know it only takes a slight difference in launch angle to completely change the trajectory of a moving object. Likewise, in the Christian life, there are many seemingly subtle nuances which actually have massive impact on our worship of God and lives with him.

I enjoyed this devotional from Charles Spurgeon on “Looking Unto Jesus” and am struck by the fact that though there is a world of difference between looking to Jesus and looking to ourselves, sometimes the initial shift feels so slight we don’t realize we’ve turned our gaze inward.

Sometimes, it isn’t until we find ourselves despairing, doubtful and discouraged that we trace back our struggles to trying to find hope in ourselves and our own faith or spirituality. And sometimes, we need to hear someone articulate for us the difference between hoping in Christ and hoping in self to make that connection.

So, here’s an excerpt from the prince of preachers today:

“Looking unto Jesus.” (Heb. 12:2)

It is ever the Holy Spirit’s work to turn our eyes away from self to Jesus; but Satan’s work is just the opposite of this, for he is constantly trying to make us regard ourselves instead of Christ. He insinuates, “Your sins are too great for pardon; you have no faith; you do not repent enough; you will never be able to continue to the end; you have not the joy of his children; you have such a wavering hold of Jesus.” All these are thoughts about self, and we shall never find comfort or assurance by looking within. But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: he tells us that we are nothing, but that “Christ is all in all.” Remember, therefore, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee–it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee–it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument–it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith. We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “looking unto Jesus.” Keep thine eye simply on him; let his death, his sufferings, his merits, his glories, his intercession, be fresh upon thy mind; when thou wakest in the morning look to him; when thou liest down at night look to him. Oh! let not thy hopes or fears come between thee and Jesus; follow hard after him, and he will never fail thee.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

( June 28, Morning by Morning. Tip: Access Charles Spurgeon’s Morning & Evening daily devotional at Biblegateway.)

Yes!

The Christian’s hope is not how much faith he has. It is in Jesus who trustworthy.

It is not in the progress in sanctification she’s making or how she is doing spiritually compared to others. It is in Jesus who sanctifies.

It is not in yesterday’s experiences or our own “decisions for Christ.”  It is in Jesus’ finished work on the cross and his ministry of intercession for us today.

It is not in our promises to “do better next time.” It is in he who finishes the work he began in us.

It is not in our penitence and sorrow over sin, but he who receives and purifies repentant sinners.

It is not in our fruitfulness as branches. It is in the life-sustaining vine.

It is not in our faithfulness as sheep, but the Shepherd’s steadfast care.

Dear Christian, look to Jesus today.

And take heart. Because in the final count, what matters most won’t be how well you did looking to him, but that his gaze was ever upon you.

Church & Ministry, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

We Quickly Fly Away, But…

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I don’t normally talk to inanimate objects, but there’s this one time I got mad at a flower.

During this particular day, I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for a ride and happened to look down. That’s when it did it. Or at least, that’s when I noticed what it was doing. A tiny flower, no taller than 2 inches or so, had bloomed in the little patch of dirt. It was pretty and colorful and it was just standing there, being all flowery, and as far as I could tell, happily so.  I, on the other hand, completely drained and empty inside, exploded, yelling in my mind, “Why do you even exist??!”

Here’s the context: though only in my early 20’s, I was burning out in ministry and probably showing signs of depression. For me, life had been boiled down to what I accomplished in ministry and the purpose of life was being fruitful (ministry-wise). I was laboring for the sake of what I understood as eternal (visible conversions, explicit discipleship), seeing other parts of life as superfluous and worldly, and by the end of two years I was running on fumes.
Continue reading “We Quickly Fly Away, But…”