And Yet…We Praise Him. Thanksgiving When Life Is Hard.

2400 years ago, Plato wrote his famous work, The Republic. In it, he addressed a crucial question. Is justice an intrinsic good? Is the just life, the righteous life, really the good life? That is, if you removed all the rewards of righteousness and the penalties of unrighteousness, would it still be worth it to live justly? Plato’s character, Glaucon, claimed that it wouldn’t. Those who live justly, he argued, only do so for its worldly benefits.

Many thousand years ago, Satan made the same argument to God concerning his righteous servant Job. “‘Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face'” (Job 1:9-11).

And so, God allowed Job to be tested. He was stripped of all his earthly goods including all of his children and yet…He praised Him (Job 1:22).

Two thousand thousand years ago, Paul and Silas were beaten because of their identification with Jesus Christ. They were thrown in jail and placed in shackles and yet…they praised Him (Acts 16:25).

Two weeks ago, my uncle suffered a stroke during his bladder removal surgery. He awoke unable to see. Barring a miracle, He is now permanently blind and yet…he praises Him.

A week ago, my mother, who has suffered from the effects of cerebral palsy her whole life, underwent ankle replacement surgery. Her pain is great and her recovery will be long. There is a possibility she will end her life in a wheel chair and yet…she praises Him.

Today, the Prosperity Gospel tells us what Glaucon told Socrates and what Satan told God. Righteousness is only worth what it produces. God is only worth what He gives. He is not the end to happiness, but only a means. The good life is the life that is full of health and wealth and if God does not give it, He is not worth our time. Our righteousness has been in vain (Psalms 73:13).

This Prosperity Gospel has a childish sort of logic to it, a basic arithmetic.  Be good. Get good. If this is the case, then Job and Paul and Silas and my uncle and my mom and so many more are either fools or they know a greater truth. The Prosperity Gospel cannot account for worshiping prisoners or singing blind men. It has no explanation for joyful suffering.

Like Satan in the garden, it mixes truth with lies. The content of its promise is true, but its timing is wrong. We are promised health and wealth, but not in this life. Its claim that God wants to make us happy is true, but its understanding of that happiness is wrong. God is both the means and the end to our happiness. He is not only the giver of the treasure. He is the treasure.

This is the true heart of the Christian faith and it radically changes its message. Grace confounds the Prosperity Gospel’s basic math. In fact, it reverses it. We have done bad and yet, we receive good. Moreover, the treasure we receive is of such great worth that not only does any earthly treasure pale in comparison, but it is such that we would gladly give it all up in order to obtain it. As Paul said, we would count it all as rubbish that we may gain Christ and be found in Him (Philippians 3:8-9).

Christ is the treasure we could not afford to buy and the treasure we would sell anything to keep. That is how you account for worshiping prisoners and singing blind men. That is the only way to make sense of joyful suffering.

Next week, we will all gather with family and give thanks for our blessings. For those who are suffering, this may be harder to do. It is hard to believe in God’s goodness when it can’t be tasted and seen, but there is a day of prosperity that is unseen, but surely coming. We couldn’t earn it and we can’t lose it. This treasure is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us (1 Peter 1:40).

The good life is not the easy life, but the life lived for Jesus. If we have Him, we have more than sufficient cause for giving thanks. If we know Him, we have known and we will know happiness. While we tarry here, we are not promised easy and comfortable circumstances, but a joy that exists independently of all circumstances. We may have seen great sorrow and we may see greater sorrow still and yet…we praise Him.

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On Christians and Politics. Remember Who You Are and Whose You Are.

These are strange and disturbing times we’re living in. The tumult of the last few weeks has revealed what a great divide or even chasm exists between the two political parties of this nation. For the Christian, it can be especially strange. There is a great tension in the Christian life. We are first citizens of heaven, but we are also citizens of this one. Our home is with Jesus there and yet we are now living here. We live for eternity and not this world and yet what happens here matters greatly.

Politics matter. We should care deeply about the affairs of this nation. We should fight for truth. We should fight for justice. We should fight for goodness, but we should do so very, very carefully. In all of it, we must never forget who we are and whose we are.

We are sojourners here. We know that empires will rise and empires will fall. Rulers will come and go, but there is a King who is now reigning and will reign for all time. If we are called by His name, we are His ambassadors on this earth. We represent Him and if we forget our allegiance is first to Him and His kingdom, not any political party, we will do a pretty poor job of it.

If we claim to have His Spirit, we must show that we have its fruit. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control. Navigating the politics of this world is hard. Figuring how to engage and when to engage with people you disagree with is hard, but if we do it without these qualities, we are no different from the world. At best, our voices will do nothing more than drift off into the futile cacophony of discord and at worst, they will misrepresent Jesus and push people farther from Him.

Christians should be marked by these traits, not because we’re better than other people, but because we are different from other people. Different because we have been transformed by grace and as such, we should be people of peace. I don’t mean that we should be doormats. I don’t mean that we should never contradict or argue. I mean we should be calm, unflappable. Our peace should be our strength amidst political upheaval and disagreement because our identity and our hope lie in something, someone beyond this world. Jesus rose. Jesus reigns. Jesus will return. Therein lies our peace. Therein lies our ability to wade into the political fray with wisdom and grace.

It is worth noting that the epistles of the New Testament know almost nothing of politics. This should surprise us more than it does. If we think today’s political climate is rough I’m sure that the early church had it worse. The government was literally killing them because of their faith and yet never once do you hear Paul or Peter telling them to fight for their rights. Never once does he present a political argument or strategy. Rather, they are told, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5-6).  “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry” (James 1:19).  “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders, make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:5-6).

The writers of the New Testament were far more concerned with who early church members were becoming than what was being done to them. Its overwhelming narrative is not a political one, but a Gospel one. First, remember who you were: a child of wrath, a citizen of darkness (Ephesians 1:3). Second, remember who you are now: a child of God, a citizen of heaven (Ephesians 2:8). Third, live in this world in such a way that reveals your new identity (Colossians 3:10). I don’t think it would be overstating things to say that all of our affairs here on earth, including political ones, should be governed by these three points.

Since we have been saved by grace, we care about this world, but we live for the next. We may be members of a political party, but we vow allegiance to none but Christ. We are ambassadors of no ideology of this world, but of the Gospel of Jesus. Let us then be careful how we live. Let us be careful how we speak. Let us remember who we are. We are not our own. We are His.

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Good Friday Was Bad

The older I get, the more I become aware of life’s fragility, of our precarious position in this world. We are not promised tomorrow, nor even tonight. What’s more, neither are our loved ones. Living is risky and loving is even riskier. Motherhood has made me all too aware of this. From ISIS and the zika virus and just basic human error the endless list of what if‘s could bring a mother to the brink of insanity. I think with each pregnancy, I will confront fear again and again. I can be haunted by the words of Job, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me…”

The question then, is what is the answer to the problem of our fears? Is it a blind, unfounded belief that bad things won’t happen to us? Do we just tell ourselves God wouldn’t do that? I don’t think so because we can plainly see that bad things do happen to people. As scripture tells us, God not only lets them happen, but He ordains all that will come to pass. How then can we know that this God, this sovereign God is really good? How may we look our fears in the face, knowing that they might all come true and yet believe that God is trustworthy?

Whenever I wrestle with the sovereignty of God and the existence of evil and suffering, a profound mystery, God always leads me to the surer, solid ground before the cross. We celebrate today, the day Jesus died, and we call it good, but the truth is, it wasn’t really good. Good Friday was bad. Nothing could have been more disastrous, more terrible for followers of Jesus than the death of the one on whom they had pinned all their hopes.

But it wasn’t even just that it seemed bad at the time. It was really wrong. It was really evil and unjust that Jesus, who had committed no wrong, was crucified at the hands of those who had. Jesus himself, when they came to arrest him, said, “But this is your hour when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53). What a startling statement for the light of the world to make. God purposed that darkness, evil, should reign–but only for a time. For we know that the real injustice wrought by man was, at the same time, mysteriously coinciding with God’s perfect justice against sin and amazing grace to sinners. You see, the cross tells us that God always re-purposes or rather, “supra-purposes” evil and suffering. What man intends for evil, God intends to work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Genesis 50:20, Romans 828).

So my answer to my fears and worries is not some wishful belief that they will not happen, that they could not happen. As they happened to Job, they could happen to me. All that I fear might come to pass and it might be truly bad, truly wrong. Yet if I follow the logic of Romans 8, the logic of the cross, I find the freedom to walk in faith instead of fear. Good Friday was bad, but now it is so very, completely good. Through His resurrection, Christ redeemed His own death and if He can redeem such a great wrong, He can and will redeem all the pains and sorrows of those He suffered so greatly to purchase. If He can redeem the cross, He can redeem anything and if He can redeem anything, we have nothing to fear. That is not trite, vain hope, but plain, solid truth to which our souls can firmly hold.

 

American Individualism and the Myth That We Are “Special”

In my Bioethics class last semester, we discussed an interesting statistic. America is by far the most individualistic society in the world.  Most countries have a general sense of a community identity while America was at the far, far other end of the spectrum, having almost no sense of communal identity and an overly heightened individualistic independence.

I think this is because in America, we are taught that we are “special.” From childhood, each of has been fed a steady diet of feel-good phrases about how wonderful we are and how we can do whatever we set our minds to.  I was suspicious of these even as a child.  They seemed to be founded on blind and willful belief rather than any actual truth.  We can all work hard to achieve things, but we also have natural limitations.  I may have wished to be the next great artist, but my complete lack of artistic ability told me that was not a viable option, no matter how hard I might try.

Why do we work so hard to pump this stuff into our children’s brains when it is clearly not true?  What is this need we have to be “special?”  I think it is fairly obvious that from a worldly perspective, this nonsense comes from an over-exalted sense of self.  We are all going to glorify something in our lives and for most, it is ourselves.  Our great fear is to be average because deep down, we believe that an average life is not a worthwhile life.  We need to feel that we are special in an attempt to fill our desire for meaning and purpose and value for our lives.  The ironic truth though is that we cannot all possibly be special. To be special is by definition, a rare privilege given to a select few.  If we are all special, then we are actually all just average.

What I have been learning over the past few years is that this thinking can leak its way into the minds of Christians as well.  It is just a little more subtle and cloaked in the holiest of language.  “God has a special plan for my life….”  “God wants to use my gifts for His glory.”  So what am I saying?  That these things aren’t true?  No, not exactly, but I think that our take on them can be self-centered instead of Christ-centered.

The Biblical Perspective on Being Special

So what does the Bible have to say about this?  Does it reinforce our desperate desire to believe that we are special?  Well, I think the answer is yes and no.

The Bible affirms that each of us is special in the sense that we are unique, created and designed in the image of God with inherent value and purpose (Psalm 139).  However, in another sense, it tells us that we are not special at all.  In fact, it has some very sobering words about mankind.  It tells us that there is “nothing new under the sun.”  Each of our lives is in some way, the same song, second verse.  “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).  That is not very flattering.  If there is one thing that is not special, it is grass.  It is abundant, replaceable, and easily forgotten.

This tells me two things.  First, we are not at all special in the way the world would have us believe.  No matter how gifted and talented we are, no matter how much we achieve, it has all been done before and it will all be done again and we, for all our striving, will soon be forgotten.

Secondly, we are special, but not in the way we desire.  We want to be special in a way that glorifies ourselves and God refuses to give His glory to another (Isaiah 48:11).  No, in and of ourselves, we are quite average and it is time we, myself included, come to peace with that.  The only special things about me, I can take no credit for, even my gifts and abilities.  I am special because God has made me in His image.  I have gifts because He gave them to me (1 Corinthians 4:7).  And by far the most special thing about me is that I have been saved by the grace of God and that, I can certainly take no credit for.  In fact, what it really shows is how special and how infinitely precious and worthy of praise Christ is.

The Bad News and the Good News

This is definitely not the fluffy, feel-good message printed on posters in classrooms all over America.  The bad news is that it makes us feel much smaller than we would like.  It refuses to flatter our egos and pamper our pride.

However, I think it is good news as well, but we must first accept the bad news before we can receive the good news.  The good news is that it frees us from our fear of being “average.”   If our need to be “special” is met in Christ instead of ourselves, we find that being average is not such a terrible thing after all.

Moreover, I think it actually frees us from a small vision for our lives and gives us a greater one.  Once we get past the disillusionment that we are not as wonderful as we thought we were, we can glimpse a greater purpose.  God insists on humbling us before He will exalt us, but if we accept that humility, we can find that our lives can have greater value and purpose than we ever dreamed for ourselves.   No matter how average a life may seem, if it is spent showcasing how special and infinitely valuable Christ is, instead of ourselves, that will be the most special life of all.  And that, my friends, is very good news.

The Example of Christ

No one has demonstrated this better than Christ Himself.  Being God, He was certainly more special than any of us could hope to be. There is none like Him.  And yet, for our sake and for the sake of obeying and glorifying the Father, He put that aside to become completely and incredibly average.  He became one of us.  If we really want our lives to be special and meaningful, we are instructed to follow His example, He “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).  

How average He must have seemed.  How terribly ordinary.  And yet because He insisted on obeying and glorifying only the Father in the midst of His horribly mundane and humble human existence, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).  

This tells me that what we need to fear is not being average, but in missing the point of it all:  that God is less concerned with how special we think we are than how special our lives shows Him to be.  And that it is not so much about finding His special plan for our lives as it is about finding how our average lives conform to the special plan for His glory.

I read a quote recently that really impacted me.  It said that “it’s better to play a small role in God’s story than to cast yourself as the lead in your own fiction.”  The fact is that God’s story is the only one that matters, but He only takes those who are willing to deny themselves, to deny their own need to be exalted in order that they may exalt Him.  This may entail leading an incredibly average life of which no one will take any particular notice, but if we can be content with that and any small and humble role which God would have us play, we will not have missed out on His good and perfect plan for our lives. Moreover and most important, in be willing to lose our lives for His sake, we will gain Christ Himself, He who is life and who is the treasure and prize for which God has called us heavenward.