Choose joy in suffering

Romans 5:3

Rejoice in suffering. Now that sounds fun. Don’t we have enough to deal with right now with pandemic and racism and Zoom fatigue and hurricanes and wildfires? And we have to be joyful about it?

In a word, yes. We don’t need to be happy about suffering, but we can choose joy over anger, bitterness, and dwelling in misery. Suffering has a role to play in our lives. The most important thing suffering can do is drive us to the Father (James 1:2-5). That alone should be a sufficient reason to choose joy in the middle of the mayhem.

Paul added that suffering produces endurance. As a runner, I get that. I suffer through long runs on hot and humid days so that I get a stronger and faster and able to go a little farther than ever before. Look at how much we have learned the last six months. We have not gathered together at church or small groups, but we have learned to stay connected in other ways. I look forward to attending services as much as anyone, but I also see the value of having to be intentional in community. When social club church is shut down, deep and powerful ministry can be unleashed.

Suffering isolation teaches us how much we need each other. We can endure almost anything together, but when we must fully rely on the Father we witness His faitfulness in new and exciting ways. That should motivate us to choose joy.

In choosing joy, we need to come alongside those who struggle in the hard time. We can use technology to send a quick message. We can make a phone call. We can mail a letter. We can order groceries or flowers or any number of things online and ship them to the people we know who need a hug. In enduring hardship with joy, we have an opportunity to be the light in the darkness that Jesus calls us to be.

By faith

Romans 5:2

We have peace with God because Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:9.) What does this mean? It means we have ACCESS to grace and JOY in hope no matter what our circumstances may be.

We stand on a foundation of salvation because Jesus did the work on our behalf (Titus 3:5.) Our faith means we have unfettered access to the very throne of the Creator in both good times and hard times (Hebrews 4:16.)

We are justified, not by what we do, but by faith in the grace of God (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9.) Hard times happen to everyone. Sometimes, like with a pandemic or natural disasters, the hard times are shared by communities. Other times, the struggle is an individual one where suffering seems magnified because the world keeps moving forward. Isolation increases suffering.

In faith, however, we have hope because we can be assured that God is with us. That hope gives us the freedom to rejoice, even in the worst of times. Grace to faith to hope to joy: this is the progression of the believers’ mindset in all times. In good times and hard times, God is with us.

Justified

Romans 5:1

We are justified by faith; Jesus did the work. What a beautiful reminder that we can rest in knowing our salvation is already worked out for us. In this ever changing world we can have peace with God, not by our own doing, but because Jesus did.

Today is Labor Day. It is a good day to remember Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.”(ESV). The Voice paraphrase says, ” Be still, be calm, see, and understand I am the True God.” The Passion translation interprets the Hebrew as, ” Surrender your anxiety! Be silent and stop striving and you will see that I am God.” The Message hits the point home, ” Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”

We all need the reminder that it is by grace we are saved and by faith we are justified. We don’t have to earn our way into God’s love; He loved us first.

Seeking Purpose

Sunday night gathering August 16, 2020

For the last several weeks a small group of friends have met in a church parking lot to dig deeper into what God might be saying to to Church during the Covid-19 pandemic. This week we began a more systematic look at Scripture, pairing Romans and Hebrews. Several people shared the insights they had gleaned from their own study during the week. This post is the narrative I composed based on our discussion Sunday evening.

Hebrews 1:10

Seeking Purpose

These are trying times, and it seems like we are in it for the long haul. Back in March, we thought things would be back to normal by summer. We learned better; this is a persistent virus. Like the false prophets who told the exiles, “Very soon now the articles from the Lord’s house will be brought back from Babylon,” we were assured by some of the pundits that summer heat would kill off the virus and all would be well.  Hananiah gave the exile a limit of two years (Jeremiah 27), giving the people false expectations for quick resolution. To our society, two years seems like an eternity; we want to check off the box marked “pandemic” and move on. However, it seems to become clearer with every press conference that we might be stuck in this space for a long season.  No one wants to hear that, but no one wanted to hear Jeremiah’s word to “Build houses, plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” either (Jeremiah 29). 

If we are in pandemic mode for another six months or two years, what is our purpose in it? What are the lessons we need to learn, internalize, and share? What do we need to develop in order to be salt and light in this brave new world?

Romans 1:-5 sets the foundation we must build our lives upon: We are set apart for the sake of His Name. Our building materials are the gospel, God’s promises, the perfection of Jesus, the holiness of the Spirit, and the matchless grace of the Lord. Our work orders are simple: bring about the obedience of faith to all the nations. The work is not easy, but it is clearly laid out for us. 

The difficulty of the work before us lays in the nature of the building project: we are not engaged in physical work, but rather spiritual (Ephesians 6:12). The false promises of a quick ending to the pandemic are spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. As a result, uncertainty prevails among the people, whether or not they are believers. Uncertainty breeds fear, and with fear comes despair. What a contrast to the hope and peace God has for us! Yes, we may be suffering in the uncertainty, but “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5). 

So, why a pandemic? Why does a righteous, powerful, and loving God allow the whole world to be afflicted instead of blessed? And why does He allow chaos and uncertainty? 

The short answer is that God allows these things because humans can’t handle blessings and need adversity to remember that they aren’t gods. Catastrophes remind us of God’s promises and compel true believers to turn to Him. Prosperity is not a bad thing, but it is easy to lose focus on Who is our provider. We get caught up in enjoying the gifts and doing the things that make us feel good about ourselves. We list our activities as evidence of our faith. Like the disciples who heard the words of Jesus and witnessed his miracles, we eat the bread and the fish, but are taken aback when things get complicated (John 6). 

Sometimes a crisis separates the true disciples from the cultural christians. When Jesus told his followers that only the Spirit gives life and that the flesh is powerless, many of them left. They could not accept a gospel on God’s terms; they wanted the miracles without the suffering. Similarly, if this current pandemic persists and churches are restricted in their physical meetings for an extended time, people who go to church for cultural reasons will ultimately fall away. The faithful, however, will use the time to dig deeper into the Word. When Jesus asked the Twelve whether they wanted to leave with the others, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We reclaim the time that we once spent doing by focusing on being connected to the Father, not because things are easy, but because He is good. The things we suffer now are nothing compared to His glory (Romans 8:18). This is our testimony.

Our testimony begins by declaring the Lord’s righteousness. The psalmist wrote, “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day for their number is past my knowledge. With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone” (Psalm 71:15-18). Every believer has opportunities to testify of the mighty deeds of the Lord, whether that is in a children’s Sunday school class, a ride-sharing trip, or in a small group coming together for mutual encouragement (Romans 1:12). We need to be aware both of God’s sovereign movements in our days and for the divine appointments He puts before us. 

We are set apart and called to this work (Romans 1); we can be confident that God will work everything together for our good (Romans 8:28). We place our hope in Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12). He is greater than the angels (Hebrews 1:5), greater than creation (Hebrews 1:10), and certainly greater than anything the enemy might dream up (Ephesians 6:11). We are dwelling in the liminal spaces of time, the place between what once was and what will be. What we do now determines how we will respond to whatever it is that comes next. When we focus our time and attention on God’s eternal power, divine nature, and tremendous love for us, we can be assured that He will use even this time of pandemic to work out His sovereign will in and through us (Romans 1:20; John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:10).

Mutually encouraged

Romans 1:11-12

When I started this blog I planned to use it as a place start thinking out loud about a book I want to write. My concept was a book for church people on the need for grace toward parents of prodigals. Too often I have experienced judgement from my brothers and sisters in Christ because of the decisions my teenage and adult children made. In talking to other parents, I learned my experience was not unique. I used the father of the Prodigal Son as an exemplar and started reading broadly about the concept of grace throughout the New Testament.

As I read, I felt that I needed more comprehensive and deep study, so I turned to one book at a time, initially alternating Old Testament and New Testament. One thing my doctoral work taught me was how to research and how to articulate what I learned. I worked my way through Ecclesiastes, James, Habakkuk, Galatians, Jonah, Nahum, and Ephesians.

Partway through Nahum COVID-19 hit, and 2020 turned into a year of one catastrophe after another. As days of quarantine turned to weeks, I turned to the passages of scripture that offered hope and comfort. In late May, the death of George Floyd sparked protests (mostly peaceful) and riots (always violent.) Outcry over racism dominated the news, even as the COVID pandemic spread. I started Psalm 119, and then used Hope Church Las Vegas’s prayer week as an interlude to consider some of the names of God. I attended a prayer rally on Juneteenth in Atlanta, and was both encouraged and saddened. I turned to Lamentations in response.

Throughout the summer, the dual crises of physical and spiritual warfare divided the American church, often down political party lines. AS I returned to complete Psalm 119, I found my thoughts returning to the book I had planned to write, and I realized, while parents of prodigals do need to be treated with grace instead of judgment, there is a larger issue of grace that the Church and my Christian friends need to reconsider. Social media, particularly Facebook, has become a battleground, not between the saved and the lost, but between brothers and sisters in Christ. How can this be?

So, now, I return to a theme for now instead of a book. Lament over the Church in the US is a place to begin thinking about the need for grace over judgment. Lament over racism, lament over partiality, lament over the tongue as a fire, lament over unholy pursuits– there are so many places to begin. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we will never be able to truly offer grace until we have first suffered through the depths of lament. How else can we bear one another’s burdens unless we come alongside in their struggle and sorrow?

In Romans, Paul wrote that he longed to see the people of the Roman church, not so he could bestow grace on them or drop some wisdom. He wanted to see them so that together they could benefit from mutual encouragement by each other’s faith. Believers have been largely relegated to remote church attendance for five months. We long to be together again, but we cannot hope for “normal.” We should not want to return to the old ways. We should, however, long to be mutually encouraged by our faith. And that requires grace upon grace.

I don’t pretend to know where this blog will go from here. I hope to be listening to the Spirit’s leading as I consider the role of lament and the responsibility of grace. It is the beginning of learning to love the way Jesus did.

TAW

Psalm 119:169-176

Psalm 119:175

This final section is a synthesis of what has gone on before. In it we read about what God does, what we do, what we desire, and how God responds to us. The whole of Psalm 119 is this: Let my soul live and praise You, and let your rules help me. It’s pretty simple, but oh, how hard it often is!

So what does God do? He gives us understanding, He delivers us, He teaches us, and He helps us.

Our role is to cry out, plead, praise, sing, choose, delight, and remember.

There are no excuses, extenuating circumstances, or circumstances that can interfere with our focus on the Lord. When we cry out, He gives understanding. When we choose His testimonies, He delivers. When we remember His commandments, He teaches. And when we praise and sing of Him, He helps us.

We must desire His salvation, seeking to abide in Him and longing for Him to find us when we go astray.

He responds to us according to His Word. His word is life (Philippians 2) and truth (2 Timothy 2). His word is both seed and sword (Matthew 13; Hebrews 4). And in Jesus, His Word is made flesh (John 1).

No matter how tumultuous the times or how complicated the circumstances, God is faithful to be with us. He speaks to us through His Word. When we remember His promises, we will live and praise Him with all that we are forever.

SIN and SHIN

Psalm 119:161-168

Psalm 119:164

We are a people of checklists and boxes, aren’t we? There’s nothing like the feeling of striking through some task on paper. Even phone app lists give us that glorious feeling of accomplishment when we finish something.

So, does the checklist life include our praise? I mean, the psalmist says “seven times a day.” The question is rhetorical; of course not. If we did that, our salvation would be based on works, not faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. May that never be our approach to praise!

Seven is a number of completion or perfection. Jesus told Peter to forgive people “seventy times seven” times (Matthew 18), meaning that forgiveness has no limit. Likewise, praise has no limit.

Some days, though, it feels hard. 2020 is just a hard year for most of us, and boundless praise seems like a challenge. The psalmist here offers some ways to begin our praise, which I have conveniently put into 7 points

• Stand in awe of God
• Rejoice in God’s word
• Love God’s law
• Seek peace while standing strong
• Recognize the hope of salvation
• Mindfully keep God’s testimonies
• Know God makes a way

If we (myself included) can begin with these precepts, we will find that an attitude of constant praise becomes our normal approach to even the most difficult times. All to the praise of His glorious grace.

RESH

Psalm 119:153-160

Psalm 119:153-160

Life is from the Lord. I wrote that in bright pink in my journal. Nothing I do or think or say gives me life. No matter what the circumstances may be, my life is secure in Him. There will be difficulties, challenges, and sorrow upon sorrow during my sojourn on earth, but I know my Redeemer lives, and in Him, I have life (Job 19:25).

This section of Psalm 119 also clearly connects deliverance to obedience: give me my life (because the Lord gives life) according to Your promise, Your rules, and Your precepts. Over and over, life is entwined with God’s character. It is His mercy and His steadfast love that binds us to a living and vibrant relationship with our Creator.

We must never believe that we have the power to save ourselves. Humans prove over and over that anything good in us is easily spoiled by a little bit of power. You don’t have to look farther than the daily news for evidence of people’s inhumanity to one another. The only deliverance available from the human realm is to exchange one marginalized group for another. There is no egalitarian utopia possible if human beings are involved.

God’s salvation is according to His mercy. God’s redemption is according to His promise. Our acquiescence to His word and His righteousness through Jesus is our hope for life.

God’s commands, precepts, and rules are grounded in His mercy, truth, and steadfast love forever. We can abide in Him, knowing that our lives are hidden in His grace.

Qoph

Psalm 119:145-152

Psalm 119:145-152

Pandemic life keeps getting harder. What should be open? Do we send kids to school? Is this nagging cough allergies or Coronavirus? How long is this going to go on?

It’s hard enough it the daytime with incessant news and social media panic posting, but at least during the day there are distractions. It’s at night when anxiety rears it’s ugly head. Sleep evades us and fear of the unknown begins to dominate our thoughts. I see people struggling with anxious thoughts all over my social media fees, and there are a number of studies showing that depression is on the rise. And it seems to be the night hours that are the worst.

The Lord is there. In the dark, before the night watches and in the nautical dawn, He is near.

Our hearts can wholly call out to Him in the night, knowing that He hears us. We can listen to Him without the distractions of living and we can meditate on His promises. Our hope for the future is in His just and faithful words. Find rest in His eternal sovereignty. His promises, protection, and provisions are founded forever.

Tsadhe

Psalm 119:137-144

Psalm 119:141

The Grand Canyon is misnamed. Grand is an understatement. It’s impossible to describe it adequately, especially since it’s impossible to see all at once. You might capture the width of it from and airplane, but the depth is missing. You might view the breadth from one side to the other, but still miss height. From the Colorado River you sense the scale of depth, but the length and breadth are hidden. As magnificent as our eyes are, they cannot contain the fullness of this one natural wonder.

We are so small. There’s no getting around it. The planet on which we live is a tiny blue dot in the vastness of the universe. Our lives are short. The things we consider important is trivia in the expanse of time and eternity.

In all our relative insignificance, God knows us, individually. He who created all things calls us by name (Isaiah 43:1). While we cannot begin to fathom the height and depth and breadth of His love for us, we can consider His attributes individually. We can meditate on His Word. We can hope in His promises and we can remember His precepts. His righteousness is forever; beginning to understand His holiness requires more than a lifetime.

We will never run out of discoveries when we seek after the Father with our whole hearts. Like the Grand Canyon, there is always more to learn, to see, and to know about the Almighty One who calls us each by name.