Sunday, April 24, 2011

Counterintuitive Words of Comfort for the Hurting

There is a moment in the story of Job that disturbs me when I read it. In Job 23, Job is at his lowest point. His children have died, he's lost all of his money, and he's covered in painful boils. Everything to which he has given himself in this life has become dust. His comforters don't bring comfort. He says his complaint is bitter and cries that he doesn't even know where to look for God. Job, a righteous man by God's own account, is in a miserable place not by his own foolishness. Really, if anyone deserved serious comfort, by my system of accounting, it was Job.

But, after a long silence, when God finally speaks to Job in chapter 38, His words don't fit the profile of what I think Job deserves to hear.

1Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

God continues on this way for four chapters. "I am GOD, Job! I hung the stars in the sky, created the oceans and every animal in them. Can you do that?! I am all powerful and all knowing. Don't act like you could possibly know better on any issue than I do."

I would expect God to say something more comforting--at least as I define comfort. Something like nothing can separate us from the love of God. Or that God works all things together for our good. Or that they who wait on God mount up on wings like eagles. Or that He who began the good work in us will be faithful to complete it. But none of those promises are emphasized here.

Instead, to the guy who was probably at the lowest point of anyone ever named in Scripture, God says, "I am God. I am all powerful. And I know what I'm doing!"

I have been wrestling personally with God over some things in my own life. Recently, I seriously prayed for a word from Him--"God, give me something to make sense of this time in life. Help me know how to think about all this and how to respond in obedience." I don't know what I expected, but His word was pretty clear. "Without faith, it is impossible to please Me." (Hebrews 11:6).

God didn't tell me that my troubles would soon end or that things would make more sense soon. Instead, He said pretty forcefully, "Trust Me! Believe in Me. I hung the stars in the sky and I know what I'm doing."

I am reminded that God never explained to Job on earth (at least according to the Scriptural account) the purpose for his suffering. As far as we know, Job didn't know until heaven what all was going on behind the scenes. In fact, Job's suffering had no earthly purpose at all. It was fully about proving the trustworthiness of God's character in the heavenly places to Satan and his minions.

I am beginning to see that the primary point of long periods of silence by God during our earthly sorrows and suffering is that we show His worthiness of our belief and trust based fully on who He is and not on what things He gives us. Satan can't believe we would trust God just based on His character and not on the blessings on earth He gives us. That's Satan's taunt--"They only worship you because you are good to them. They'd never worship you if you didn't answer their prayers and take care of them like they expect."

The truth is that true faith doesn't worship God because God is good but because God is God. We don't endure because we expect deliverance but because He is worthy. And we will never fully clarify this in our own hearts until God stops fitting our definition of goodness and requires us to sit patiently at His feet without answering our prayers for a season. And even if that season lasts the remainder of our lives, He is worthy.

The other truth is that for no one in Scripture did that season last the rest of their lives. God's promises ARE that He will complete the good work He began in our hearts. He will work all the hard circumstances for honest to goodness GOOD in our lives. And when we wait on Him to work, He lifts us up on wings as eagles.

But that isn't why we trust Him, have faith in Him, or worship Him. We worship Him because He alone is God. And He is worthy.

Oddly enough, until God actually moved again in my life (and He did), those counterintuitive words from Him did minister great grace to me.

... my righteous ones will live by faith. Heb. 10:38

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Easter Reflections

My reflections each Easter season are fairly consistent. As I mull the significance of Palm Sunday, the march to the cross, Christ’s passion, and then resurrection morning, I always zoom in on Peter. I’ve mentioned before that of all the characters in Scripture, Peter is the one with whom I most self identify. I would rather be like Ruth or Joseph. But like it or not, I’m like Peter. I have had a lifelong problem with my mouth working faster than my brain. Peter had the same problem. God has worked on me for years to shut my mouth, listen, and think before I speak. But as I read each negative situation in which Peter managed to get himself, I can see me doing the exact same thing.

The most soul wrenching interaction between Jesus and Peter is recounted in Matthew 26. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he tells the disciples of the coming crucifixion and their scattering. Peter rashly proclaims, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Mt. 26:33) Yet, just hours later, Peter denies Jesus -- not once, not twice, but three times -- even swearing curses that he never knew him. Peter quickly comes to himself, goes out, and weeps bitterly (Mt. 26:75). It is a sad, sad scene. Peter has failed Christ miserably. His failure is all the more bitter in light of his bold, na├»ve protestations that he would never do such a thing.

The first time Peter sees Jesus after the resurrection is recorded in John 21. In contrast to the previous scene, it is all the more beautiful. If anyone should be ashamed, hiding themselves from Jesus, it is Peter. He failed Christ miserably at His darkest hour. Yet both Peter and Jesus have a different reaction than expected. Christ offers no condemnation, and Peter exhibits no shame.

4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, "Children, do you have any fish?" They answered him, "No." 6 He said to them, "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

While the other disciples make a respectable return in the boat, Peter jumps right into the water and swims/runs to Jesus. I can imagine the moment for him. They had crucified his Lord! He had denied Jesus! And there the Savior was, standing on the shore. Peter’s response reflects his utter need for Jesus. “Jesus, I can’t do this on my own. I just denied You three times. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing now. I can’t even catch fish on my own. I’m sitting here fishing on this boat because I have no idea what else I’m supposed to be doing. I need You!” In that moment, NOTHING else mattered. His shame was preempted by his NEED of Jesus. Getting to Jesus was number one priority.

After that scene, Jesus gives Peter a chance to affirm his love for Christ the same number of times Peter had denied it. And each time, Jesus tasks him with the great responsibility, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17). Do you see the great mercy and grace Christ deliberately shows Peter and deliberately records for us today in his Word? This man, Peter, got it wrong more times than he got it right in the gospels. And, yet, Jesus tells Peter that God will build His house upon Peter the Rock!

The image of Jesus coming to Peter after the resurrection means much to me. As someone who has failed Jesus enough to know the turmoil Peter must have felt in that moment, I love the thought of Peter’s eyes meeting Jesus’ for the first time after the resurrection. And I praise God that Jesus doesn’t condemn Peter. He is SO GRACIOUS with Peter. Before all of this, Jesus had told Peter He was going to build His church on Peter the rock. And after Peter’s denial, Jesus comes to him in affirmation that His plans for Peter have not changed. God’s purposes for Peter were still on track! And then Jesus spends precious time before His ascension reaffirming His plans for Peter. “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Then feed my sheep.”

Christ’s interaction with Peter before, during, and after the crucifixion epitomizes gospel grace to me. I know the theological language for all Christ accomplished for me on the cross. But watching it play out between Jesus and Peter in the gospels (and then reading on into Acts and the epistles to see what Peter became and taught in consequence) puts a face on it for me. Peter earned nothing and nearly squandered everything. However, though Jesus knew Peter would betray Him, He loved him anyway, pursued him with His grace, and affirmed to him His purposes for him. And this same Jesus loves, pursues, and affirms you and I. This is such very good news.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Justified

I wrote about authentic confession this weekend. I had an interesting conversation with a friend at dinner afterwards, and she challenged my thinking on the topic of confession/repentance even farther. At issue was how to deal with partially correct accusations. I am tempted to create a hypothetical situation to illustrate my argument. But I am becoming suspicious of hypotheticals, because they are … hypothetical. It's pretty easy to create hypothetical situations that justify particular points of view. But they are often deceptive and can be a cop out because we don't have real situations to illustrate our ideas. So instead of a hypothetical situation, I'm going to tell you about a real one.

This week, someone dropped the ball in a way that hurt me in a ministry setting. Yet, despite the extenuating circumstances they could have used to excuse themselves, they called me on the phone and told me how very sorry they were. They didn't offer the other good works they were doing all week as an excuse for the problem that hurt me. They just said they were so sorry and what they were going to do to repair things. It ministered much grace to me.

This person could have justified themselves.

Justify – to show by act or statement to be just or right, to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded. To absolve or acquit.

Instead, I think they understood that they are already justified, and not by their own works. They were willing to admit their own mistakes without simultaneously needing to look to their good works to absolve themselves. Their apology was the apology of one who understands Romans 3 for themselves.

Romans 3 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 

If you are justified by Christ, you don't need to justify yourself. You don't need to absolve, acquit, or generally defend yourself. You can say you are sorry for whatever wounded another and begin the work of repairing and correcting it because the gospel equips us to let go of our reputation and empty ourself of our rights. And when this kind of gospel conviction slams up against serious pain and conflict, amazing, miraculous things happen, to the praise of God's glorious grace.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Authentic Confession

I'm thinking tonight about authentic confession. In particular, I'm thinking that authentic confession and defensiveness are mutually exclusive.

Defensiveness--excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one's ego, or exposure of one's shortcomings. (www.dictionary.com)

Defensiveness and authentic confession are incompatible. Yet, I've done it many times myself. “I’m sorry for [whatever], but you [did it first] …”.

Instead of stopping with a simple confession, I add a justification of my actions at the end. To be frank—that simply is NOT repentance. Instead, I’m trying to give a reason for my anger/bitterness/insensitivity or whatever it was that I did. But repentance is recognizing that my hurtful statements/actions were wrong. Period.

C. J. Mahaney discussed this on his blog a while back.

“When I have sinned against someone, a sincere confession is required. A confession that is sincere and pleasing to God will be specific and brief. I have learned to be suspicious of my confession if it’s general and lengthy. A sincere confession of sin should be specific (“I was arrogant and angry when I made that statement; will you please forgive me for sinning against you in this way?”) and brief (this shouldn’t take long). When I find myself adding an explanation to my confession, I’m not asking forgiveness but instead appealing for understanding.”

The thing that most often undermines sincere confession is the "yes, but" mentality. Especially when it's "Yes I did that, but you said this about me." But confession and repentance are solely about acknowledging OUR OWN personal sin. It stops being confession and repentance the moment we get distracted from our own personal sins and focus on what was done TO us or said ABOUT us. Those things likely need to be dealt with at some point. But don't confuse them with authentic confession or let them interfere with repentance.

Our first instinct will always be to feel more woe over others sins against us than we do of ours against them. But it is a good gospel day when we shed defensiveness (as the gospel equips us to do) and face OUR sins head on with sincere apologies with no BUT's attached.

Psalm 32:5
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,"
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Wisdom Verses the Law on Women's Issues

In an article posted at Desiring God today, I wrote about my journey to understand Scripture's instructions to women through the lens of the gospel. Apart from the gospel, the law kills. Presenting instructions to women apart from a thorough fleshing out of the gospel sets women up for failure, and I have sat under much teaching and read many books that do that very thing. In fact, I have myself done this very thing to others.

Furthermore, among the books I read and teachers I heard, I wasn't just presented with the law, I was also often presented with the teacher's personal application of the law. I'd like to think I haven't done this myself, though I probably have. But I have had a conviction since I was a teenager that Scripture was sufficient—sufficient in what it says is wrong and sufficient in what it says is right—and have tried to let that conviction constrain me in anything I might project onto others.

The law says tithe, but the legalist pressures others to tithe their spice rack. And that's exactly what has happened in many presentations on women's issues. As a new wife, I felt constrained by other's applications for their families of general Bible principles. My husband finally had to tell me point blank, “Honey, I don't NEED that.” I was stressed over color coordinated, organic meals when he just needed clean socks. I was greeting him in a state of anxious self-condemnation over the clutter in our home when he is actually more comfortable IN clutter than in a precisely organized room. But no one clarified for me the difference in general Bible principles and personal application.

I had an interesting conversation with a friend over brunch a few weeks ago. This is a friend who regularly gets provoked on a topic on which she has a passion. I have learned that when she starts, I need to grab a pen and paper and start taking notes, because her thoughts are usually quite profound. Such was the case when I brought up my struggle at times to figure out what choices on many different fronts were best for our family.

She pointed out Christians' confusion at times over the difference in wisdom and law, Proverbs and the Ten Commandments. There are no opposite laws, but we are all familiar with opposite proverbs. “Look before you leap” verses “He who hesitates is lost.” Or for a Biblical example, consider Proverbs 26:4-5.

4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
   lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
   lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Wisdom is not law. And wisdom is only wise when applied correctly in the right situations. You can't read Proverbs the same as the 10 Commandments, yet in our fight against moral relativism, conservative Christians fear situational wisdom. The result is silly, one-dimensional conclusions.

The answer to our fears of moral relativism as we apply wisdom in ways that are actually wise is the indwelling Spirit. Yet, we are suspicious of Him. Wouldn't we all rather spend 3 years in person at Jesus' feet as did Peter? Yet compare Peter after 3 years in Jesus' presence with Peter after 3 years of the indwelling Holy Spirit. As Jesus Himself says, it was better for Peter, resulting in greater growth and maturity in his life, that the Spirit indwell him than he continue to sit in person at Jesus' feet. It's a profound concept.

Paul exhorts us in Galatians 5:16 to “walk by the Spirit,” which literally means to “keep in step with the Spirit.” It is this pressing into God via the Spirit that equips us to apply wisdom in wise ways without fear of moral relativism. It equips us to distinguish principle from application and to know what application God has for us as opposed to what He has for the zealous teacher at a women's conference. Remember that you have something BETTER than sitting at the feet of Jesus. And He will teach you well.

John 16 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: … 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Schooling Our Kids

We were created in God's image, created to be like Him and to reflect Him to others. Despite the fall, we still are called to be like Him and to reflect Him to others. It is the natural outworking of the gospel and all that Christ has reclaimed for us through the cross.

Eph. 4:32 – 5: 2 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us ….

The Bible gives some instructions specific to parents. Too often, we only think of Christian parenting using the language of those few verses. There are virtually no verses on being a good Christian sister, yet I feel well informed on how to love my sister because there is a larger context to Scripture. Whether it's loving my sister or parenting my children, I am called to be an imitator of God who walks in love as Christ has loved us.

It is in that context, Christian parents as imitators of God or parenting our children the way God parents His, that I bring up the issue of schooling. Occasionally, I get asked my views and advice on the different educational options available to Christian parents. I must offer this disclaimer – my boys are FOUR and SIX! That means that while I do have 4 years of schooling under my belt, it was preschool and kindergarten. Though they have presented their fair share of emotional situations, I know good and well I have MUCH to learn. However, despite my lack of hard experience on the issue with my own kids, I still feel fairly confident in my core conviction on the issue of the education of our children (under the overarching principle of parenting my children the way God parents His).

Here is my core conviction. BE INVOLVED!

Between my husband and myself, we have attended homeschool, Christian school, and private secular school. I note that we have chosen for our children the only option we didn't experience ourselves – public school. I think that is telling. If I'm not careful, it can just be reactionary. We're not going to protect our children from the social pressures we faced in public school by sending them to Christian school. Nor are we going to protect them from the hypocritical Christians we met in Christian school by sending them to public school. You know what protects our children from the social pressures in public school and the hypocrites in Christian school? Parents who have a relationship with their kids who know what is going on in their kids' schools and their kids' lives.

Homeschooling can be a great way to be involved in our kids' education and lives. Or it can be an isolating experience. It's not the panacea either. And for the parent who is not gifted in educating children who does it out of guilt, it's devastating for everyone involved.

Our family first chose a secular cooperative preschool in our neighborhood. When you sign on for a co-op, you sign up as a parent to be involved. It's core to the entire philosophy. I was at a point mentally where I would have LOVED to drop off my oldest and walk away from the building. But I also knew that was my nature and that I needed the accountability to stay committed to my core philosophy of being involved. The result is that after 4 years with 2 kids there, I know my boys' teachers, their friends, and their parents VERY WELL. I have remained the first discipler of my children even in their secular classroom setting.

Then, we chose our neighborhood elementary school, which is a 5 minute walk up the hill from our house. We chose this because of my core conviction of being involved. It helps that it is a classic elementary school that looks and feels like the ideal you hope for your children. However, because my 4 year old was still at the co-op preschool, I made a mental choice that I couldn't yet be involved at the 6 year old's elementary school. Next year, when they were both at the same school, I'd be able to be involved at the elementary school.

It's funny how quickly my fundamental convictions were overwhelmed by my circumstances. Kindergarten in the public school started off reasonably well. But in January, things started falling apart. My son was having problems getting going in the morning. He was getting in just late enough in the mornings (my fault) to be behind with assignments the rest of the day (and don't get me started on the ridiculous expectations of kindergartners in the Seattle public school system). But the final straw was that I got called twice in one week because another kid in my son's class hit him. The kid is a classic bully, and my son is no shrinking wallflower. So the conflicts kept escalating, with my son ending up holding the icepack to his head or arm at the end.

Should I take him out of school?! Go half day? Try homeschooling (heart palpitations and sweat breaking out as I even consider it)? I set up a teacher/principal conference, but we all got sick and had to cancel. When we got well, I decided to walk my oldest to school and stay (with the 4 year old in tow) until I could figure out a better alternative. That was a few weeks ago. Now, most mornings of the week, the little one and I stay for 30 or 45 minutes, or however long I can. My oldest is notoriously slow and easily distracted. So I make sure he gets his stuff in his locker, seated in his class, and started on his first assignment in a reasonable amount of time.

I also made sure I talked to the bully. “Why did you hit my son?! You are a bad boy and you better stop it now!” Just kidding. I know that bullies tend to be bullied elsewhere in their lives. I've tried to have compassion on the kid and help him at school. It wasn't much, mostly just saying hi to him and helping him in subtle ways when it made sense. A few days later, I asked my son as he came out of school if the bully had bothered him. “No, he's my best friend now.” Huh?! I questioned him up, but sure enough, the bully decided he liked my son and now they are fast friends.

Wow. That was easy. 2 weeks of minor involvement in my son's class pretty much resolved the crisis. Now this is just kindergarten level crises. I know I haven't seen anything yet. But it reinforced my core conviction. I can't give over my sons' education to someone else, whatever choice I make for their education. I can't let my circumstances distract me from this core principle. I want to know their teachers and know their friends. And if I can know their friends' parents, that's even better. My sister who is a single, working mom has had to go at this from a different angle due to her work schedule. Yet she believes it too. She is involved, aware, and responsive, though it looks very different for her than it does for me.

I have other preferences about my children's education. I do want to raise them in their culture. I want to protect them from, say, gang violence, but I don't want to protect them from the general secular nature of their culture. Instead, I want to teach them how the love of God and the gospel equip us to love our community. We are not against the bully. We are FOR him. We don't want him destroyed. We want him saved from whatever it is in him and his circumstances that causes him to act in such a way. Thankfully, in our very secular Seattle culture, God has given me and my boys good Christian friends at both our hippie preschool and our public elementary school.

Most of all, it is me, the parent, who is called to nurture/disciple/instruct my children. For me, the biggest temptation of all is to be lazy and ignore things until it gets so bad I have to do something. God has called me to be proactive, not reactive. He's called me to disciple my children, and discipling them as they navigate secular society is one of the most important pieces of that.

Finally, this is my personal application of general Bible principle. Please don't be constrained by my application. Feel free to be constrained by the general principle of proactive discipling of our children (knowing, loving, and nurturing/teaching our children as God parents us), but let the gospel and your own personal access to God give you confidence in how you apply it in your own life. The last thing I want is someone feeling guilty because they don't volunteer in the mornings at their kid's elementary school.

I spent the evening with two of my closest friends in town last week. We talked about the issues all of our kids were facing—social pressures, educational struggles, and their faith. It wasn't until later when I was contemplating this article that I noted that one home schooled, another had her kids in Christian school, and my son was at public school. Despite our differing choices for our kids' education, we share the same spiritual burden—to know our kids, to love our kids, and to direct them to Christ and the gospel. Each of us reevaluate our choices in light of our call to disciple them. In fact, one is switching from one form to another next year because, while it worked for a time for her child, something has changed. She knows this because she has a responsive relationship with her child and because she's aware of her child's friends and social situation.

So my advice on schooling your kids? Don't get sucked into a single mentality that causes you to ignore the needs in your kids' hearts (or in your community). Love your kids as Christ loves you. Be responsive to their needs as God responds to yours. Disciple them the way Christ modeled. Pray for wisdom, and then get up and do as God convicts you.

Psalm 94:12  Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law,

Proverbs 29:17  Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.