Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

The Resurrection Is Not A Footnote

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Question: How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?
Answer: First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he obtained for us by his death. Second, by his power we too are already raised to a new life. Third, Christ’s resurrection is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.
(Heidelberg Catechism)

Easter Sunday is my favorite day of the year. I love meeting together as a church after having corporately embodied the wait between the cross and the empty tomb. I love waking up ready to sing resurrection songs with God’s people. I love hearing of the hope we have because Christ lives and joyfully declaring to one another “He has risen indeed!”

It has not always been this way though. I have not always looked forward to Easter with such anticipation. I suspect this is so for a number of reasons, including my own spirituality and progress in the faith. But in large part, it has had to do with my lack of understanding regarding the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Back when I served in campus ministry, going on regular short-term missions, we would share the gospel here and abroad using an illustration. I would walk through creation, sin, Jesus’ death, and his promise of salvation and did it so often (maybe hundreds of times) it became second nature. But as often as I presented it, I still had to make a conscious effort to remember to tell people Jesus did not stay dead.

At the time, my understanding of the resurrection largely centered on its apologetic force— Jesus defeated death and Satan, proving he was truly God. Thus, we could be sure his teachings are trustworthy and that he was able to bear the weight of our sins. While this is by no means untrue, seeing the resurrection primarily as the greatest of Jesus’ miraculous signs pushed it to the background. More than once as I shared the gospel, I’d have to backtrack to say, “Oh yes, and Jesus also came back to life! Because, he is God and more powerful than death!” 

Without knowing it, I was missing a key pillar of the Christian hope. Since I grew up in the church, I know I’m not alone in this. While we see it as fundamental to our faith to understand the meaning of his death, we are a little hazy on the subject of his subsequent life. But there’s something wrong when the resurrection of Christ is not central to our understanding of the gospel.

How do we know this? 1 Corinthians 15.

The Apostle Paul, addressing the Corinthians about their doubts over a future physical resurrection of the dead, brings them through a thought experiment. He writes,

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (v 12-13)

Did you catch that? If Christ has not been raised, Paul says, then his preaching is in vain. The believer’s faith is in vain. To Paul, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is no mere footnote — helpful but okay to gloss over– it is essential to the Christian faith. He goes on to list some implications of the hypothetical, “if Christ has not been raised.” 

According to Paul, if Christ has not been raised…

We are believing manmade lies. (v. 15)

We are still in our sins. (v. 17)

Those who have died trusting Christ are facing God’s eternal wrath. (v. 18)

We are the most sorry and pathetic people in the world. (v. 19)

This list shows just how devastating it would be if Jesus did not rise from the grave. But why are these things so?

Well, because the apostles claimed Jesus came back to life— and if he didn’t, they are liars.

Because if Jesus were still dead, it means he has not satisfied the wrath of God for our sins. In other words, if he did not rise, he is still under the curse of sin and has not finished paying the debt of sinners. Furthermore, “If Jesus had stayed dead, it would have proven that death had a rightful claim over Him, and since death has a rightful claim only over sinners, Jesus’ remaining dead would have meant that He was a sinner and not our Redeemer.” (“The Resurrection of Christ”)

Because if Jesus has not paid for sins completely, there is only fearful judgment awaiting believers in death. Those who died believing in Christ for eternal life would find they trusted him in vain.

Because to have staked our lives on a Christ who was not raised is utter foolishness. It is to suffer persecution for one who will not save, to labor in life and ministry for nothing, to trust in someone who cannot deliver.

If Jesus did not come back from the dead, we too are dead in our sins. We have absolutely no hope. But, wait! Paul goes on to declare, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

So, looking again at the list above, because of Christ’s resurrection…

We can trust the testimony of the Scriptures.

The early believers either were or had access to firsthand witnesses to the resurrection. The tomb was empty because Jesus’ lifeless body was raised with power and transformed to a new body with an indestructible life (Heb. 7:16). Jesus ate with his disciples to prove he was no ghost or vision. Those who had abandoned Christ at the garden now boldly proclaimed his Lordship, even unto death, because they had seen the Risen Lord.

Thus, our faith is more than morality and psychological wellness, right living and positive thinking. It is founded on the historical reality of a man who was declared dead and then seen more alive than ever before.

We are justified.

Romans 4:25 says Jesus was “raised for our justification.” His resurrection is proof our debts have been paid and the Father no longer has wrath stored up for those who take refuge in Christ. Herman Bavinck writes of Jesus’ resurrection as, “the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification” and, “a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the ‘Amen!’ of the Father upon the ‘It is finished!’ of the Son.”* 

Therefore, when plagued by guilt over our sins and doubts about our salvation, we look to the cross and to the empty tomb. The cross shows us Christ has borne our punishment. The empty tomb assures us there is no longer any more of our punishment to bear.

We will live though we die.

Those who trust in Christ are saved from the wrath to come. While we still grieve over the unnaturalness and sting of death, there is such hope. For the believer, pardoned for sin and brought into the family of God, death has become a doorway into life eternal. Not only are we promised salvation from the wrath of God, but Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Many Christians think of life after death as a disembodied, ephemeral, dreamlike existence. Nothing could be further from the picture Scripture paints for us. Jesus went through great lengths to show he had risen into a real, material body. The Christian looks forward not to an escape from the physical world, but a renewal of creation at Christ’s coming— the New Heavens and New Earth and where we receive glorious, immortal, material bodies (Rev. 21, 1 Cor. 15:48-49).

How can we be sure we will be raised in this way? We have seen the firstfruits of Christ. In farming, the firstfruits was the guarantee that the rest of the harvest would be good. It was proof of what was to come for the remaining season. Jesus was not the first person to ever rise from the dead. But he was the first person to rise from the dead into an imperishable body, raised in glory and power (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

We have a sure hope of resurrection because one who is the Son of Man, now glorified, has put off his perishable body and put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:53-54). And what has happened to him, will happen to those who are in him.

We are not to be pitied.

Though the Christian life is difficult. Though we are discouraged and downcast. Though we labor and see little fruit. Though we mourn hardheartedness and the wreckage of sin. Though we weep over prodigals. Though we are hard pressed on every side, perplexed, and afflicted.

Christ is risen.

What assurance of our forgiveness! What courage as we labor to serve him! What power over sin! What comfort as we live in broken bodies! What hope as we walk with believers through death into victory!

Christ is risen indeed!

Crown Him the Lord of Life! Who triumphed o’er the grave.
Who rose victorious to the strife for those He came to save.
His glories now we sing, Who died and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring and lives that death may die.

 

 

 


*Herman Bavinck writes of the resurrection as being:
1) Proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge. (Acts 2:36, 3:13-15; 5:31; 10:42)
2) A seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33, Rom. 1:3)
3) A divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son. (Acts 2:23-24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:3,10)
4) The inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering. (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4;Phil 2:9)
5) The guarantee of our forgivenesss and justification. (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25)
6) The fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:3f), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:21)
7) The principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14)
8) The foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff)

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Being In The Waiting & Room For Sorrow

Christianity is often portrayed as unable to withstand the weight of reality, and I understand why some people would feel that way. As a younger person, I had a passion to share with others my conviction that the Bible and the Christian faith can more than take on our intellectual doubts. Having had my fair share of questions, I deeply desired for others to feel free to ask questions without thinking that Christians believe use of the mind is antithetical to faith. I still believe that the church should be a safe place to bring our questions about God, but these days, I am experiencing a deepening of another conviction about Christianity and how it relates to reality. Namely, that not only can the Scriptures withstand our intellectual questioning, but that the vision of God and life laid out in it withstands the full range of human experiences, especially suffering.

There are many wrong ways to think about suffering and trial. We may expect that as Christians, we won’t face difficulties because we are children of God, not realizing that Scripture says he disciplines those he loves and that we are meant to receive difficulty as his discipline for our holiness (Heb. 13). We may think of trials as punishment from him, not knowing that the Scriptures say there is no longer any wrath left for those of us who are in Christ (Rom. 8). We may see suffering as meaningless rather than purposefully given to us from a loving Father for our good (Ja. 1, Rom. 5). Or we may not realize that God may be purposing to comfort others even as we suffer and receive his comfort. (2 Cor. 1) We may miss the richness of God’s purposes accomplished through our difficulty in a myriad of ways, so I am grateful for the way that God has been forming my understanding of suffering through theologically sound preachers, teachers, and books.

Lately though, I am finding that as I’ve grown in the knowledge of these rich truths about God’s purpose in our suffering, I have often failed to grasp the full picture given in Scripture and thus erred in the application of some of these truths in my life. Slowly, I have begun to think that since I know these things, my experiences shouldn’t feel as hard and I tend to try to think of hardships clinically and analytically. There has slipped in the subtle wrong view that an understanding of the joyful and glorious final purpose of God in and through our sorrows means I ought not to so sorrowful, and there is a temptation to push through in my own strength.

God is showing me these days through the Scriptures that oftentimes he doesn’t expect or ask me to respond in the way I may feel I ought to. I am experiencing that as one who is struggling, I find good company in the stories and poetry of Scripture, and that there are deeper measures of comfort in it than I had previously thought.
Continue reading “Being In The Waiting & Room For Sorrow”

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Soul, Don’t Forget

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5

The coming months are ones of transitions for our family as we step into unknowns on two major fronts. The first one involves changes regarding church and with that, Jeff’s ministry responsibilities. The other is our entering into the world of foster care where we are, God-willing, set to finish the licensing process within a few weeks. Anyone following my blog can see that I write about anxiety a lot, so unsurprisingly, “transition” in my life reads: stomach knots, an incessantly mind-reel of worst-case scenarios, and varied refrains of “what are we doing?” (in a panicky tone). But, as God often does in his unmistakable kind and gentle way, he is speaking words of life afresh to my fearful heart.

Last week, I read a post by blogger Tim Challies on journaling with suggestions from John Flavel. The third and last instruction was not to diminish past difficulties compared to new ones:

Whatever is beside us always appears most significant to us. Just as the land seems to shrink as the sailor sails away from it, so those troubling situations can seem to grow smaller as time increases the distance between them and us. By reading the accounts of God’s mercies you will remember that in the past you have faced dangers just as great and fears just as terrifying. For this reason make sure you do not only record the facts, but also your emotional and spiritual experience of them. Write them as if you will need to cling to them in the future.

With that in the back of my mind, somehow sophomore year of college came up as I remembered how for almost two semesters I struggled with despair and probably depression. It surprised me that I could’ve forgotten about those times, or at least that they’d be so far from my mind that it felt like I’d forgotten. I had forgotten what it was like to not be able to imagine things being different. Not wanting to live and having a hard time finding motivation to get up. To live with self-loathing and a constant voice of accusation in my mind, to feel that sin had the final word in my life and longing so much to be freed from my wretchedness, but not understanding what hope-filled sanctification and living out the gospel could look like. And I had forgotten the way that God miraculously pulled me out of that place of darkness. Later, as I reflected in my new moleskine journal (purchased after reading the aforementioned blogpost!), those memories, along with other accounts in my life of God’s power, salvation, and redemption, renewed my heart of trust in God for the times ahead.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were rebuked over and over again for their lack of remembrance. Their lack of faith in God in trial was a reflection of the state of their forgetful souls. They forgot the deliverance of God from Egypt and so lamented that God wanted to starve them in the desert, pining for their former lives as slaves. They panicked and created a god of their own to worship when Moses was taking too long to come down Mt. Sinai. They refused to enter into the land of promise because of the bad report of 10 men. The incredulity of the Israelites is almost unbelievable because this wasn’t just about a random person telling them where to go or what to worship. They had seen with their own eyes God’s deliverance, tasted the salt in the air as they walked through a sea that parted for their feet alone and swallowed up their pursuers. They had carried the gold their former masters gave to them as Pharoah finally had them leave after the last of ten mighty acts of God. They had known the works of God, his salvation– and still they did not trust him.

Properly speaking, the Israelites didn’t really forget, did they? They must have had the memory of the experiences, just somehow it didn’t connect to what they believed and thought about God as they faced their more current, pressing situations. Unbelief took root to twist their interpretation of their past, reflecting hearts that didn’t respond to the knowledge of God’s works with an accurate, rightfully earned trust in his character.

And I am seeing once again that I am prone to do the same. I forget that the dangers I faced in the past were just as great, fears just as terrifying as those that I am encountering at present. I forget all that God has shown me about himself in those times and how that remembrance is what I need to strengthen my trust as I face the future.

So, I recall and recount. How God has delivered me from the emptiness that I often felt as a high-schooler. How he brought me through the subsequent times of doubt and questioning. He heard my cries for deliverance from sins I thought were unconquerable and has set me free from the constant cloud of condemnation I used to live out of. He has healed my heart from lies about myself I’d believed for years and carried me through heartbreak over relationships and ministry. He was with me when I was stuck in a shady casino hotel in Las Vegas after missing a connecting flight to LA– a timid new graduate going to join a ministry in a city where I barely knew anyone. He was with me on the gut-wrenching flight and transition back home after the two years I’d grown to love the people I served deeply.

I think about how the years since then have flown by, packed with decisions that carried no risk-free guarantee, but full of blessings immeasurable both seen and unseen. Two daughters and motherhood have brought more things to be fearful about, but breakthroughs in perspectives of and trust in God. Being newly initiated into ministry in the local church, we have already seen God growing us in hope through times of deep discouragement, molding us through the daily grind of learning to pour out our lives on behalf of others because Christ did the same for us. I have seen him redeem places of shame and guilt in my life by taking those experiences and making them the ones that I can most use to minister to others. And I have rejoiced at truth breaking through to others coming out of the same places I had been in, in awe of how he delights to take and use us not just in spite of but because of our brokenness.

What’s most important about these memories are not that I am promised quick deliverance in the future because of them. No, infinitely more precious than that type of guarantee is what I have come to know of my Savior experientially, how I’ve had glimpses and moments of faith becoming sight. I have seen his salvation, experienced the power at work in me that raised Christ from the dead. I have seen his faithfulness to me to carry me through trial and shape my character in ways that I would never be shaped had I gotten exactly what I wanted when I wanted it. I think about how I’m not who I used to be and how if you told me what it would feel like now, living unto God imperfectly but by grace and with joy, living free from the things that bound my heart, living increasingly out of love and not duty or guilt, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. And, still, there is more of Christ to know, more of his deliverance to come. These remembrances remind me that he is indeed kind, powerful, good, and worth my life. They take away some of the power of fear of the future over me and even– how is this even possible?– stir in me a new joy, an anticipation of what he will do around, through, and in us as we step into the unknown.

Yes, the very definition of faith is that it does not and can’t see everything, at least not right now. But ours is not a faith ungrounded. On the contrary, it is my unbelief and fearful dread that I ought to question more skeptically in light of all that I have come to see and know of God, not taking my own word of doubt as authoritative. The cross has shown me the greatness of his mercy. The empty grave has proven his power over death and sin. And if I incline my heart to, I can recount the ways I have experienced this love and power in countless ways through the years. It was never, and isn’t now, blind faith that God asks for from his people, from me.  Rather it is trust in One who I’ve proven, as we sang on our wedding day, over and over. Oh for grace to remember and trust him more!

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On our quote board: “You’ve never failed, and you won’t start now”

 

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Note: As I’ve been thinking through these things, I’ve also been reading Ed Welch’s “Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest.” On a Chapter called “The Manna Principle”, he writes about this idea of trust and remembrance, and much of my thoughts as I’ve written may have what he’s written mixed in there, without me knowing exactly where my thoughts were “original” or from the book. So, I want to give credit where it may be due. And also note that I’ve been helped by the book in how it is getting to some of the root of my anxiety and defanging it.  

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Good News for My Daughters

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As a new parent, I remember hearing someone say that our greatest comfort is that the two things we tend to worry about most– our children’s physical wellbeing and the spiritual state of their souls are not, ultimately, under our control. After having visited the ER with our first daughter for stitches, finding a baby at the top of the stairs with an open gate multiple times, an “I did not see that one coming” accident last week, and many more close calls, I have been experiencing how true that first bit is. It’s good to know that God is ultimately in control of the health and safety of my children when I start seeing how, try as I might, there are a thousand potentially harmful situations out there that I haven’t taken into account. (Seriously, after becoming parents, Jeff and I often comment how it is a miracle that any of us have lived to adulthood!) I desire my children to be healthy and safe, and though I may have deep fears about disease, sickness, and accidents, knowing that I don’t control it but God does has brought some measure of peace to my otherwise worry-wired heart.

But Jeff and my greatest desire for our children is not that they would be healthy and live long lives, which is why we may be tempted to worry about that second part– the spiritual state of their souls.  Our greatest desire and prayer for our girls is that they would love God and love people. We want them to know God personally, to trust him with their whole hearts, to taste the sweetness of being in relationship with him, and to count everything else as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. We want them to be driven by one passion– his glory– and to commit their lives, with joy, to live, and even be willing to suffer and die for the cause of the gospel. And we want more than anything for this to come out of a heart that is made new by God. This isn’t about being good church going kids, moral people, or having “prayed the prayer” at one point in their lives. We pray that God would work and that we would see fruit of obedience out of love for God stemming from new, Holy Spirit wrought hearts. Hearts that are awakened by the Holy Spirit to put faith in the saving work of Christ and do and desire things that dead hearts never could. We want them to know his love and have their lives marked by a deep experiential knowledge of grace.  Our commitment to the gospel and personal experience of it in life is that it is the good news that God isn’t in the business of making bad or good people better, but dead people alive, and we pray and plead with God that he would bring this about in our children even now.

In recent years as I have come to love this gospel more deeply, I have been made undone over and over again with gratitude for God’s sovereign choice to make me, once dead, alive. I know, not just because of teachings about Biblical interpretation or theology, but in the depths of my being that had not God opened my eyes to see and value him, I would not, and am left with trembling awe at the thought. The sovereign will of God in initiating and bringing about salvation has been a source of great gratitude, joy, and humility in my life, but in recent years as a parent, somehow it shifted into a subtle source of fear, not verbalized even in my mind, but still there. The question lurking there and that if thought about enough would bring tears: What if God doesn’t choose to save my children? And so, the knowledge of sovereign grace that has brought me joyful gratitude considering my own life has started to wear away and burden me as a mom. That is, it did until a few weeks ago, when I was brought low in my own eyes that God’s mercy may be lifted up.

It has been a consistent set of those “fail” weeks, that are not just a general “I’m a bad mom” feeling, but ones where I know what I’m doing wrong, how I’m being unkind, and still have not changed. It’s been a stripping-away week of pride in my abilities to parent and I am, by the grace of God, being brought to the end of myself again and again. With clarity I saw a few weeks ago that I was doing so many of the things I never wanted to as a mom. I was, and still am more than I ought, comparing, speaking out of irritation, overly concerned about the opinions of others (too strict? not strict enough?), being inconsistent, and other things that, if left unchanged, would mean that our family would be on the road to being one full of fear, bitterness, ungratefulness, and hurt. It was in the midst of feeling the weight of my failure and as I thought about the hearts of my girls, anxious and unable to sleep, that the thought came clearly to me: Do I want my girls to be at the mercy of my parenting, or at the mercy of God? That was the turning point for me from anxious grief to joyful trust and rest (and with that, thankfully, sleep).

This was the question that cast a light on my prideful fear and offered me a chance to step into grateful, humble trust. Do I want my girls to be at the mercy of my parenting, or at the mercy of God? In other words: Do I want their futures– and namely the state of their hearts, whether or not they love Jesus, and where they will be for eternity– to be at the mercy of my ability to be the right kind of godly mom? Me, inconsistent at best, and love them as I may, still selfish and still foolish at times? Or do I want them to be at the mercy of God who is abounding in love and mercy, unchanging, able, and willing?

Up until feeling the increasing weight of my own failure to know and do what is right as a mom, I was unconsciously saying I’d rather have the first be the case. This showed in my fear of God’s sovereign choice and of our complete need for him to do the heart change, granting us faith to make us alive in him (aka “monergism”). I’d rather be told and taught what to do and pray, or at least how to have the right heart, attitude, and guiding principles, and then be able to say that through those means,  I’ll know my girls will love God and live for him. It’s subtle because I would never have said that through having right rules or teaching, I could change their hearts. But still, underneath it all, there was a fundamental trust in the choices I’d make as a parent–  my own strictness or non-strictness, in how much I discipline or give grace, in how consistent or how flexible I am, and in my own ability to love God. With trust in self high, my heart says “What?? I could do everything right and my kids still could reject God and be messed up? How scary and unfair.” And though I’d never say that out loud, it shows in my fear that a sovereign, powerful God could “undo” or work against all that I do right and well. His election and grace and mercy in it are begrudgingly assented to, but not rejoiced in.

But with a realistic taste of my own self as a mom, sinner, and imperfect and unable to produce the type of family that I desire– with a picture painted of what my family would really look like were it all up to me– God’s sovereign mercy and grace brings about a completely different reaction. It’s “What?? I can do everything wrong and my kids still have a chance of loving God?? THANK GOD THERE IS HOPE!” Like the parable of the workers, I begin to see myself as one of those who have worked much less in the day but still have been paid more than I deserve, and I walk away in awe of mercy given at the free will of the owner of the field.

It’s not that I think I can do whatever and it doesn’t matter what I do as a mom because, hey, God is in control! I, as a mom and as a person will answer to God one day for everything I do and say. I want to do what’s right by him. I also don’t want my children to have baggage to carry, (too many) issues to work through because of me, or to have a twisted view of who God is because of my inaccurate portrayal of him in their lives. Those things go without saying. But I have seen God work in the family I was raised in to bring about gospel reconciliation and change– he still is doing that now. And one of the greatest witnesses to me and others through our family has been not what was done right by us, but how God is still making us new and how there is hope in the gospel to heal. Through that, one of my core values and hopes in life is that in the same way my family now, with my own children, would be a picture of gospel grace. Not just that we would be known as people who are gracious or that we would experience grace through one another, but that people looking at us would see that indeed that God is a gracious God to have had mercy on ones such as us. To know that he had mercy on us, the worst of sinners,  so that “Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:16 ESV)  And so, I am needing to repent of the ways I have been standing on my own merit, trusting our own family’s standards or hoping in parenting methods and advice, instead of falling on the mercy of our exceedingly merciful, compassionate, gracious, and sovereign God.

Reading through the Bible about families used to scare me. All these godly people having evil children, especially seen starkly in the lines of the kings. And yet, maybe that’s because I was thinking of myself as on the wrong side? Elisabeth Elliot quotes Thomas Fullerin in her book, Gateway To Joy:

Lord, I find the genealogy of my Savior strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations. (1) Reheboam begat Abijah; that is, a bad father begat a bad son. (2) Abijah begat Asa; that is, a bad father begat a good son. (3) Asa begat Jehosaphat; that is, a good father a good son. (4) Jehoshaphat begat Joram; that is, a good father a bad son. I see, Lord, from hence that my father’s piety cannot be entailed; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.

Good news for my children indeed.

So we still plead–for new hearts, for mercy, but not in fear but in faith with gratitude. We put kindling around them– teaching, loving, disciplining, instructing, repenting– and we pray, pray, pray for the Holy Spirit to send fire. If you would, pray for our kids that they would love and know him and be given new hearts to trust him? Praise God for his sovereign grace. There is hope for them and hope for me.

Church & Ministry, Truth & Orthodoxy

I Am Dust

Wow, has it really been over two months since I last posted? It isn’t a bad thing, I guess, as these weeks have flown by and included a road-trip family vacation down south, various summer church activities, and the like (i.e. I don’t really remember much of what fills my days).

Something I have been mulling over these days is how to live out of a correct understanding of my own limits. It’s possible that most other people already know how to do this, but a recurring pattern in my life is that I often push past the point where those who know me well begin to notice I’m fraying a bit at the edges. The reasons I am prone to this are complicated– I’m thinking having to do with personality, culture (Chinese? American? Mix?), modeling, sometimes guilt and other times pride– and it’s tough because I am not as self-aware as I ought to be about this given the way it affects me and those around me. Whatever the reasons, I am increasingly convinced that the understanding, implications, and applications of understanding that we are finite creatures is an important topic to consider in ministry in particular and life in general.

One Biblical Foundation to Consider: God Alone Has No limits

I think one reason that it’s been hard for me to think about the having a healthy understanding of work, limits, and rest is that so much of Scripture seems to talk about how God is able to supersede our limitations and do more than what we’d expect. God often calls us to do hard things and many people in the Bible were called to operate out of their comfort zones. Because of this, I’ve often found myself in Christian circles where saying that something is beyond one’s capacity can be seen as a symptom of a lack of faith in the power of God or, worse, a self-focused rejection of God’s call for us to deny ourselves.

While it is true that God calls us to deny ourselves daily and not live a life driven by comfort and our own human assessments of our capacities, I believe that understanding our own limitations (physically, emotionally, capability, capacity, giftedness) is not antithetical to faith, but a sign of faith in the word and character of God.

We see in the Psalms again and again the contrast the psalmists make between God who is unlimited vs. us, people, as created creatures. Rather than being cause for condemnation, it is fodder for worship. God alone is the one who does not slumber nor sleep and thus though we are weak and needy, he is our help! (Psalm 121) The work of our hands only matters if God establishes it, and rather than live in anxious toil because of this limitation, we rest because God grants sleep to those he loves! (Psalm 127)  God cares for us and remembers that we are dust. This isn’t a derogatory statement, but one of love and gentleness– he remembers we are dust and he knows our frame (how we’re made) and has fatherly compassion on us. (Psalm 103) (Christopher Ash talks about these passages here: How to Maintain Pastoral Zeal While Avoiding Pastoral Burnout.)

A year or so ago as I wrestled with how to deal with brokenness and the fallout of people’s sin in ministry and life in general, reading through Zachary Eswine’s book Sensing Jesus was one of the best things I could do. The premise of his book is the way that we often operate when trying to serve God and others actually shows our refusal to recognize that we are not God. Rather, we act as if we are omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at the same time) in the big and small things we do. His book is amazing at getting to the heart of much of our striving and is written beautifully too. I highly recommend it!

Why This Matters

These are a few reasons why I am convinced that understanding and responding accordingly to my own creaturely limits is helpful for me, honoring to God, and best for loving others:

1. Knowing my limits helps me better serve those around me.

A few months ago, when talking to Jeff about how I could grow in serving our family, he encouraged me by saying something like, “Well, I think you’re getting to know better when you’re reaching your limits and how to ask for help.” It surprised me that he said that, but I am learning to see this now as an issue of stewardship for the sake of serving others.

It’s easier to talk about stewardship with physical things (e.g. money) because we all see clearly that we have a limited supply of it. Though there are many good causes we can give to and people we can serve, we give of our money towards specific circumstances we believe we are called to. I can act like there is no limit to how much money I have, but I’d eventually  have to face the reality of an empty bank account.

It’s tougher with intangibles– energy, giftedness, emotional capacity– but still real nonetheless.  There’s no bank statement sent out, but that low-balance text alert does come in the form of depression, sickness, burnout, frustration, anger, deep discouragement, etc. That not only affects me, but those around me who I am called to serve and can no longer serve well. When I recognize my limits, I am able  to prioritize a resource that is limited. Though I may want to, I can’t give my best to everyone. That means I need to set priorities with godly wisdom and with the help of those around me for the sake of those that I am called to.

I remember an older missionary giving advice during a talk at a college conference. One thing that stuck out to me was “your body is your horse, take care of it because you can only push it so far.” It stuck out to me because it seemed strange that he would choose to share something so seemingly non-spiritual, at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time. Now I realize the wisdom in that. First of all, God made our bodies and we are called to honor him with them. And secondly, we can’t push them beyond what they ought to handle and still continue to serve others as we are called to.

2. Knowing my limits keeps me from temptation.

Do you ever get to the point where you know you’re thinking crazy and that if you open your mouth, you’re going to say things that you shouldn’t say and wouldn’t say if you were clear headed? A few weeks ago, I had one of those thank-you-Jesus-for-keeping-me-from-saying-what-I-was-thinking-yesterday moments. That was in large part due to my realizing at the time that I was, in fact, thinking crazy because I was physically exhausted and that any “discussion” I started would not be fruitful and would find me saying things that are, in fact, untrue. And it was true that in the morning after a good rest, I was feeling better and relieved, was able to pray “thank you SO MUCH for keeping my mouth shut!”

Being physically, spiritually, or emotionally exhausted is not an excuse for sin. If I sin when I’m tired, I still need to repent and ask for forgiveness from those around me. But, we are embodied souls and the interplay between our souls, minds, and bodies, though mysterious, is real.

This quote in Kevin Deyoung’s Crazy Busy (quoting D.A. Carson) is great:

If you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing your sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need. We are whole, complicated beings: our physical existence is tied up to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationship with others, including our relationship with God. Sometimes the godliest thing you do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep– not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates you get the sleep your body needs. (97)

A few months ago, I was battling feeling an overwhelming amount of annoyance at people which I normally wouldn’t feel. I didn’t want to serve people or in ministry and I kept finding things people did annoying. I was sharing this to ask for prayer and help, and it took three different people at different times suggesting that maybe I needed rest and that I was just really tired to realize that yes, I needed rest and was just really tired.

3. It brings me to humble dependence on other people and deeper appreciation for God’s church.

One summer on missions in Taiwan, I was supposed to lead a Bible study and I felt like I just could not do it. I couldn’t take it on physically–I was exhausted– and I felt so guilty. This ended up being one of the biggest testimonies of God’s work that trip, that because I was unable to lead the study, my teaching assistant, another young man from the local church did so– with better language skills than me (of course), and with the possibility of continuing the relationships long after the team left.

As Christians, we are all part of a body and we can’t say to each other “I don’t need you.” Though we would never say “I don’t need you!” to another person in the church (that’s messed up!), we often do not live in such a way to affirm the opposite, that in fact, Biblically  “I do need you.” One way I have seen the work of God through the body of Christ most clearly is when I, having reached the end of my own resources, experience God’s provision not through the increasing of what I can do, but through another who is able to do what I cannot.

4. Knowing my limits helps me to be merciful towards others in understanding they have their own God-given limits too.

I find that I get upset at others for not doing more when I am pushing past my own limit. (Public confession: This happens especially at home.) I compare my own tiredness to others’ and in my mind, they have a right to be tired if they’re doing more than I am (at which point I feel bad that I can’t handle more), but if they aren’t, then there’s no sympathy from me! The more I am pushing myself past the breaking point, the more I expect others to be pushing themselves too. But when I am being faithful to work within my God-given limits, recognizing that God as my Father is compassionate toward me, I can empathize, sympathize, and be understanding towards those who are having a hard time or need rest.

A pastor’s wife shared once at a workshop about how in any given harbor, there are boats of different sizes with different weight limits. If the water level rises beyond a certain point in any one boat, it means that the limit has been exceeded and if it’s floating much higher, than there is still more that can be put onboard. Likewise, we all are made differently with different capacities physically, emotionally, etc. If I can accept that and seek to honor God with that as a boat myself, it helps me to recognize that others also have their own weight limits that may differ from mine.

5. Knowing my limits leads me to deeper worship through the recognition of my own creaturely bounds vs. God who alone is God.

One distinction that has helped me in considering my limitations is recognizing the difference between being a sinner and being a creature (created). I used to think that saying no to an opportunity that could be God-given because of my own assessment of my limits was a lack of faith. It is true that my orienting question for serving others shouldn’t be “will this make me tired?” Serving and loving others means suffering, inconvenience, and tiredness oftentimes. But I believe there is an appropriate place for considering that I am a creature, created to be limited in energy, wisdom, power, and strength. Rather than being led to guilt (“What’s wrong with me?”) or apathy (“Oh well, if I can’t, I can’t”) because of this, I can be thrown into deeper dependence on God and awe at his being God (i.e his divinity).

I am bound by space and time. I can only pray for so many people or care about so many issues. I can only “take” so much on. And as I consider what I am unable to take up, the emotional burdens I can’t carry, the time commitments I can’t make, people I can’t help, causes I can’t participate in– I can come to God in praise and trust that he who has no limits is able to carry all that I am unable to.

How I’m Learning

What I’m not saying is that I’ve figured it all out or that this is the only factor to consider when taking on that extra responsibility or going out of my way to serve another person. I’m learning that I need wisdom, both from God through Scripture and through those who are good examples of this to me. I need to see people who give to God and others sacrificially when it’s hard and inconvenient, and yet have a Biblically sound and practical way to consider their own limitations. I also need those around me who know me well to either give me a kick in the rear (don’t be lazy!) or to let me know, “hey, I think it’s okay for you to say no and I think you need to rest.” I’m learning that there is a difference between a sustainable tiredness that is part in parcel of being a parent with young children and serving in the local church versus a sustained dread-filled exhaustion. The first is to be expected, and we rejoice that we are tired because of God’s blessings! The second is cause to consider whether or not I am living out of Biblical truth.

God’s grace comes in varied forms, and I am learning to consider that the grace I am praying for to sustain me with help through the day may not come in the form of my receiving superhuman strength and abilities (though if necessary, it may!), but the grace of being permitted to say “no, maybe in the future”, to sit down and rest for a few minutes in trust that God will enable me to finish a task later, to ask for help from a willing husband and grandmas (the girls’) and friends. I am learning to embrace the fact that I am in fact, dust– and this was in fact designed for the sake of the glory of him isn’t merely “super-human”, but God.

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Here are some resources that in the last year or two have been greatly helpful to me and shaped what I’ve shared:

A great practical and engaging talk by a seasoned minister: How to Maintain Pastoral Zeal While Avoiding Pastoral Burnout (YouTube) Here’s the description:

How can burnout be a problem in ministry when Christ Himself encouraged His followers to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Christopher Ash explains that there is a vital difference between living sacrificially for Jesus and pursuing our calling in a way that leads to mental and physical exhaustion. When Christian leaders bear in mind that we are created by God from dust and that all of our endeavors are dependent on Him for success, we are reminded that Gospel ministry is a humbling privilege and enabled to rejoice that we are recipients of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being by Zackary Eswine (Amazon, WTSbooks)

Crazy Busy by Kevin Deyoung (Amazon, WTSbooks)

Some Books recommended by Christopher Ash in talk above (I haven’t read these, but may soon!)