Monday, May 30, 2011

It isn't good to be alone.

It isn't good to be alone. Especially on a holiday. I've talked about the issue of long term singleness a number of times on this blog. I broke up with my boyfriend when I was 25 and had a deep emotional crisis, probably clinical depression, that started around my 26th birthday and lasted until right before I started dating my husband a year and a half later. I acknowledge the absurdity of me speaking with any authority to friends in their 30's, 40's, and 50's who've experienced decades of frustrating singleness when my own experience was so short. But here goes anyway.

My experience is that there comes a moment as a single woman where it just stops being fun. Where you are done with the single scene, worn out by meat markets, and frustrated by well meaning but insensitive friends or family who keep suggesting the wrong guys to you. I remember feeling like I needed to talk myself into marrying someone that friends thought was good for me but who made me feel like dying inside personally. Was he my last chance at happiness? Being a Christian single woman is hard!

And I don't think it gets easier. I only seriously struggled with unfulfilled longing for about a year and a half. I have many godly friends who have struggled with it much longer. A few months ago, one shared with me how she keeps thinking she's dealt with the emotions and put them to rest, just for them to resurface months later. Each resurfacing of pain is particularly hard. “Hadn't I gotten past that?! Not again!”

Another friend this week shared with me her struggle to figure out her life at this stage. She thought she'd be at a different place in life at this point. She would have done so much differently if she had realized she would still be single into her late 40's. There's a temptation to point out the positives in her life. Isn't that how we like to counsel/encourage people sometimes? “Hey, it's not so bad. Look at all the opportunity you have. Look at all the people who love you. You've done this, this, and this that you couldn't have done if you had a family.” Blah, blah, blah.

Instead, I think there's something profound to be learned from God at creation noting that it is “not good” to be alone. That's monumental. In PERFECTION, it's not good to be alone. Single friend, I encourage you to stop kicking yourself when the painful feelings of loss arise in your heart. Don't fall into the “why am I not past this” mentality. You aren't past it because it's a really deep need! I can't imagine trying to guilt someone who had lost a loved one to death when recurring feelings of grief arise. But we often project such guilt onto our single friends. It's normal to feel grief! You feel grief and restlessness because you bear the image of God. Because you are like Him.

I've talked about this broader theme a lot lately. It's the idea of godliness with contentment. Because you are godly – you love God and have God-given longings – you experience restlessness with the things in your life that don't reflect His perfect created order. I received this timely email from a reader this morning who gave me permission to post her question.

“Whilst you were single desiring marriage did you find that it was once you were content in your singleness that the Lord brought forth you a husband? Alot of the time I come across articles and personal testimonies whereby its often cited "once I was content in the Lord" or "once I had enough faith" or "once I stopped doing x and did y" the Lord blessed me with a spouse. Doesn't this show that its based on man's efforts and not on God's sovereignty and grace which none of us are deserving of. I know many women who are mature and very content in the Lord who desire marriage and motherhood but the Lord has not opened His hand to give them these roles.”

Succinct and well put. Heaven knows God didn't wait until I had it all together in my singleness to give me my husband. And I know many women experiencing infertility who struggle with the same idea. “What is the lesson I have to learn before God will give me a child?!” No, friend! Your sisters in Christ with husbands and/or children did not EARN that good gift by their obedience or faith. It only takes a cursory look at society to know that for a fact. You aren't single because you squandered your last chance at happiness with your last boyfriend (which is what I thought during my particularly depressed time. I learned that you don't have to talk yourself into marrying a guy with whom you aren't at peace just because you think it's the last opportunity you are going to have.)

So what is godliness with contentment in these circumstances? It it NOT bucking yourself up to be all happy and smiley with your situation. Contentment is not a command to be OK with something God Himself says is not good. You long for something that is normal to long for by the very nature of your creation by God. Yet in our fallen world, that God-given aspect of your nature is unfulfilled. Contentment is understanding that you are not left as an orphan in this longing. You can say, “This sucks!” Because it does, but you can say it hand in hand with God, who said it first but in nobler terms. And you can say it knowing that you are equipped by the gospel to do battle and not be overwhelmed in this season.

If there is a lesson to learn in your singleness, it's to stay engaged with God in the wrestling. It's not to put to death longings that are part of your very God-given nature. And it's not to disengage with God because He refuses to answer those longings. It's to stay engaged with Him, alternately crying out in longing and resting in peace in His arms, calling on Him at every moment to meet the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs exposed by your unfulfilled longing.

It's not good for man or woman to be alone. And God has not left you to navigate this by yourself! You are not married. But you are not an orphan. May the vision of your very good Father in heaven holding your hand through this season uphold and encourage you this day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction

Fruitful in the land of my affliction. That phrase may sound poetic to some and archaic to others. Personally, I find it striking. I first wrote about it a few years ago when I was in a very dark place, and it is time for me to revisit it. The phrase comes from Genesis 41:52, where Joseph names his second son.

The name of the second he called Ephraim, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."

I have heard a number of sermons over the years from the life of Joseph. He often becomes a moral lesson – be like Joseph when you are sexually tempted and unjustly accused, and God will exalt you as He did Joseph. I strongly resist that view of the life of Joseph. God's not conforming me to the image of Joseph. He's conforming me to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Joseph's story is powerful because it reveals God, not because it reveals Joseph. My circumstances will be distinctly different than Joseph's, but my God is the same.

There is much to learn of God in Joseph's story, and the naming of Joseph's son is one such place. Many thoughts hit me as I meditate on why Joseph named his son Ephraim (which sounds like the Hebrew word for fruitful). First, it's counterintuitive. Joseph was fruitful in the very place that should have sucked the life out of him. The paradox intrigues me. But, second, I resist the name, because I don't want to be fruitful in the land of my affliction. I want God to END my affliction, and then I want to be fruitful in the beautiful land I imagined would be God's best for His children. However, like Joseph, I am powerless to end whatever troubles plague me, and I get impatient waiting for God to move. It is in those moments that I wrestle with God, "How can I do what You have called me to do in THESE circumstances?!"

Once I calm down and take an objective look at Scripture, it finally hits me that no one in Scripture seems to be very fruitful EXCEPT in the land of their affliction. In fact, you can argue from Scripture that suffering, affliction, and death to self are essential to God's plan for fruitfulness in His children.

John 12:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

I have situations in my life that plague me, that I would desperately love to see changed. God tells me to pray for His will to be done, for His name to be hallowed, and for His kingdom to come. I long for those things to come about in my home, in my neighborhood, in my church, and in the larger Body of Christ. I talked about this in depth here. But in the midst of waiting for the affliction to end and God's kingdom to come, I am blessed by God's story in the life of Joseph, and I meditate on what it looks like to be fruitful in the very places from which I would most like to be delivered. And I receive hope that affliction doesn't end the possibility of fruitfulness but may instead be the very thing that prepares the ground for "fruit that remains."

John 15:16 NAS "You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain ... "

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Gospel Frees Me from Circling the Wagons

There are several types of accusation that cause us to circle our wagons in a defensive posture. There is JUST accusation – you are accused because you did wrong, and the accusation is true. It is just. There is INCONCLUSIVE accusation – you are accused of something you don't think you did, but your accuser is pretty sure you did. And there is UNJUST accusation – your accuser is speaking clear, provable falsehood about you. The gospel meets us in all of these types of accusations and equips us to bear each.

I wrote recently on how the gospel equips us to embrace authentic confession and eschew self-justification. Today, I am thinking about a similar idea – that the gospel frees us from circling the wagons in defensiveness when we are accused.

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)

After a long history in the church, I've gotten to watch a number of different people from a number of different backgrounds accused in each of those categories. Sometimes they are humble people who are already well familiar with their failings. Those people rarely embrace defensiveness. They know all too well their ability to wound those they love. They value repentance and find in it a balm that soothes their soul.

[I need to stop to clarify the difference in the Christian understanding of repentance and the general use of it in English-speaking societies. It's used in our culture to mean regret for something you have done. However, in Scripture, it's not just feeling bad about something. It's a recognition of our wrongdoing and NEED for forgiveness that ALSO turns to God to forgive and correct it.]

In contrast to Biblical repentance, defensiveness is a response that says “I don't have a need.” I expect this from those who don't understand the gospel. But I note this response quite often among Christians that, in theory, embrace the gospel, especially Christian leaders – like somehow preaching or teaching the gospel has freed them from their actual need of it. What it is that causes people who should value repentance more than anyone else (at least if you measure the veracity with which they call others to repent) to avoid it like the plague for themselves?

The foundation of the gospel is that I NEED THE GOSPEL. It's good news because apart from it, the news is so very bad! We were made in the image of God. Yet we were born with Adam's sinful DNA. And while any one of us may do many good things, the gospel teaches that there is no end to the evil we are capable of. By our very nature, we deserve the wrath of God (Ephesians 2). But God has stepped in and clothed us, not with our own righteous works which are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), but with CHRIST's righteousness. The mark that you really get this truth is HUMILITY, not defensiveness that you are too moral to even consider you may have sinned.

In light of this gospel, let's consider the 3 types of accusation that I mentioned in the opening. We probably all agree with the problem with circling your wagons when you are justly accused. But what about defensiveness when you are inconclusively accused or outright unjustly accused? I highly recommend my pastor's sermon on Absorbing Injustice for those who are outright unjustly accused. It centers on Christ's example at His trial and how the gospel equips us to absorb and endure injustice and return it with grace, the exact opposite of what is deserved by our opponent.

As for those who are inconclusively accused, let me challenge you. What would you do if someone came to you and said that 15 years ago, when they were a teenager and you were a spiritual authority over them, you said or did something to them that wounded them? Many respond, “What? Who? Me? No way I'd EVER do something like that!” My unbelieving friends recognize this hypocrisy among Christians easily. They know well when we are more concerned about their sin than our own. Few things strangle evangelism like Christians who sniff out sin in their culture while ignoring the stench of their own.

I read one conservative Christian pastor defending his wife online by saying that no virtuous woman would ever say something as offensive as she was accused. Apparently, in his belief system, she has reached some level of Mother Theresa type sainthood and is no longer capable of sin. Frankly, in that case, he needs to examine his understanding of the gospel. Even if you accepted Christ as a young person, you weren't saved from BECOMING a really bad sinner. Some of us became a believer at a young age and have strived to reach that virtuous status, where you finally become above the capability of sinning. I bought into that idea for a while, trying to become a person full of wisdom who always got it right. It finally dawned on me, via Paul's struggle in Romans 7, that wrestling with my sin nature didn't indicate failure on my part. It just indicated reality. Making peace with the fact that you are indeed a sinner is pretty core to moving past a preschool-level interaction with the gospel. The gospel is precious to me because I need it today, and I REST in it today.

Personally, if someone comes to me and says that 20 years ago when I was their camp counselor, I said something that wounded them, I'd tend to believe it. Because I'm not always right. I don't always respond correctly. And I am capable of flippantly hurting someone with careless words that didn't mean enough to me that I'd even remember. When we are inconclusively accused, we likely don't recall the details. But remember that things can seem trite to a grownup in power though they profoundly impact the younger person under their authority.

If you have been accused, do not choose defensiveness. Defensiveness is for people who DON'T UNDERSTAND THE GOSPEL. The gospel completely frees us from a need to circle the wagons and defend ourselves. God circled the wagons 2000 years ago and accepted Christ's perfect sacrifice in the middle. Then He smashed the wagons. We don't need them anymore. God has freed you from your need for self-protection.

This is the dividing line, the fork in the road. When you are accused, do you defend yourself and try to discredit your accusers? Or do you take a serious look at yourself and recognize that even if you don't perceive things happening that way, this person DID? Perception is reality for the one who perceives it. Whose sin are you more suspicious of – theirs or yours? Are you more suspicious that they are trying to persecute you by telling lies about you? Or are you more suspicious of your own ability to say or do something in passing that wounded someone else that you then forgot? Remember well Paul's exhortation in I Corinthians 13. Biblical love is ever ready to give the benefit of the doubt. Give the benefit of the doubt to your accuser. Biblical love calls you to do this, and the gospel protects you from being destroyed by their accusations.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Christ in Matthew 5. Not the humbly dressed or the poor in bank account. Being of humble means is irrelevant if you have a high view of your personal spiritual abilities. In contrast, poverty of spirit is a counterintuitive means of blessing. Happy are those who are spiritually bankrupt, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Don't fear humility. Don't embrace defensiveness. Humble repentance in light of the gospel is a wonderful, freeing thing. And it's a fundamental of our faith, is it not?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Desperate Mothers

Every Tuesday morning, I meet with a group of moms from my church for Bible study. We pay a babysitter to come watch our kids, though there always remains a few boisterous but really cute toddlers wandering around our feet during the study and prayer (we've learned to talk and pray fast and loud). We're a bonded group, though always ready to welcome another battered mom to our midst. We crawl in each week, kids in arms, study, cry, and pray. And we walk out tall, renewed by the mutual love and support of our sisters in Christ equally battered by life as ourselves, reminded that our devotion to God is not in vain, ready to stay engaged with God in prayer and study as we face the storms of life.

We are reading through Paul Miller's A Praying Life this quarter and anticipating studying Families Where Grace is in Place by Jeff Vanvonderen in the fall. The Biblical truths that are foundational to each study are swirling together and complementing each other nicely.

“Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.” A Praying Life, p. 114

“Until you are convinced that you can't change your child's heart, you will not take prayer seriously.” A Praying Life, p. 167.

“It took me seventeen years to realize I couldn't parent on my own. It was not a great spiritual insight, just a realistic observation. If I didn't pray deliberately and reflectively for members of my family by name every morning, they'd kill one another. I was incapable of getting inside their hearts. … It didn't take me long to realize I did my best parenting by prayer.” A Praying Life, p. 59

Vanvoderen's opening salvo in the introduction to Families Where Grace is in Place struck me hard.

“When people spend their lives trying to transform their spouse and their kids, the natural result is tiredness, discouragement, and the desire to quit. Therefore, this book is more about learning the right job, and less about learning new techniques. … We must learn the simple difference between God's job and ours.” p. 13-14

I have a lot of techniques and strategies. For the wrong job. I know how to manage a day. But I do not know how to transform a heart. I am learning that it's quite reasonable that I don't know how to change my boys' hearts, because it's not my job anyway. It's still hard for me to believe with Miller that I do my best parenting on my knees. Yet, as I meditate on that idea more and more, I don't just agree with it in terms of spiritual philosophy, but my day to day experience is reinforcing it practically as well. Sometimes it's praying for my family by myself. Many times it's praying for my boys with my boys about a specific issue we can't work out any other way.

I'll write more on this subject after I finish Vanvonderen's book. But for now I'm thinking through what good techniques I've adopted for the wrong job, manipulation and control (which substitute for authentic transformation quite nicely in the short term). Their hearts might not transform, but at least they looked good on the outside! I know better. I really do. Yet, I default to control and manipulation with my children regularly, when I should be defaulting to prayer.

Certainly, there is value to management and thoughtful strategies in parenting. When I don't plan ahead and prepare, I feel like I often set my kids up for failure. Yet, such planning and strategizing can distract me from my real job in my children's life. The more I get a hold of the difference in my job and God's job in my family's life, the more I realize how desperately I need Him in prayer.

I linked to this message before, but my friend, Holly Stratton, speaks here on holding tight to gospel hope for our troubled children and the power of faithfully communicating it to them. This message really blessed me.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review of Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James

I was asked to review Carolyn Custis James' new book, Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women. I have a free copy to send someone, so if you're interested, leave a comment to enter the drawing.

James' books always provoke me to think, and this book does it as well as any. If you're a complementarian conspiracy theorist, this book is not for you. I know some folks think James is out to undermine complementarian teaching, but I actually have benefitted from some of the push back she subtly gives. She married later in life and had problems having children. I can identify with sincerely valuing and longing for marriage and children, yet being thwarted from each by the sovereign hand of God. That experience opened my eyes to the flawed ways we present women's issues in Scripture, which I've talked about many times on this blog. I think James' experience is similar.

Carolyn Custis James is not anti-complementarian, yet she is challenging for complementarians. And that's OK. If you aren't threatened by a challenge, this is a good read. The main thrust of the book is how the creation mandate gives dignity to all women. James forms a vision for women in the church informed as much by Genesis 1 as Genesis 2. She also draws attention to the inadequacies of women's teaching dominated by western cultural views of needs and roles. Surely Scripture's message to women is as relevant to the Afghani mother seeking to shield her daughter from physical abuse as it is to a homeschooling mom in the midwest. Yet, much content of typical women's books or retreats are so bound by our conservative western culture as to be completely meaningless to the much larger, global body of Christ, which also needs solid teaching to women. I experienced this when attempting to edit one of my books to be relevant to Filipino pastor's wives. I was moved to think in new ways of how the principles so precious to me in my comfortable home in Seattle would transcend to women in starkly different cultural situations.

I have two criticisms of Half the Church. I hate offering criticisms, because as an author myself, I hate receiving them. But I also know that charitable, constructive criticism can be helpful to an author and an audience. So here goes. First, there isn't much Scripture in the book. I understand the author is painting a global vision rather than exegeting a specific passage. Yet, I prefer a lot of Scripture written out, especially when I'm being challenged on applying Scripture. I think there are a lot of Bible principles floating around in her head as she writes, and I hear echoes of them in her words, but I do a lot better internalizing principles when the actual Scripture is written out for me to reference.

My other criticism is that while she paints a clear picture of the need, James doesn't present solutions. Now, I haven't finished reading everything, and I'll certainly correct this criticism if I've missed something at the end. But I long to hear of her example in addressing this in practical ways. I found Tim Keller's Generous Justice helpful for forming a vision of what this will look like specifically in my life. I also recommend Carolyn McCulley's website. She has some concrete, practical ideas on drawing attention to global needs of women and addressing those needs in ways that make a sustainable difference for the long haul. I was very inspired hearing her talk about it at dinner after we both spoke at a conference together a few weeks ago.

Again, if you'd like me to send you a free copy of Half the Church, leave a comment and I'll have a drawing on Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More on Godliness with Contentment

If you've already listened to the audio I highlighted in the last post, then this post is redundant. But I've been wanting to write this out for the blog since I started studying it in January in preparation for the Grace and Truth Conference. So here goes. I apologize for the length.

I Tim. 6:6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment.

What does the phrase godliness with contentment mean, and why is the gain of godliness so severely compromised without contentment? First, consider the term godliness. The Greek word is eusebia, which means simply devotion or piety. For most reading this, in an honest assessment of yourself, though you fail in many ways, you are devoted to God. You love Him and are ordering your life toward Him. You are godly.

But you can be godly—showing reverence, piety, and devotion to God and His things, loving Him from a sincere, pure heart—without being content. The one doesn't imply the other. There are godly people, devoted to God, who are not content, and that is not particularly great gain.

It makes sense to me that godliness and contentment are distinct from each other. My problem isn't that they are separate, but that they seem mutually exclusive. There are facets of devotion and piety toward God that seem completely incompatible with my idea of contentment. How do you be godly and content with this mess of a life?!

As pious, devoted believers, we're called to pray that God's kingdom come. Yet we live in a world where we are constantly faced with all the ways His kingdom is not yet fully realized – sickness, death, suffering, and sin. The kingdom of God is at hand, the gospels proclaim. Yet there is so much, according to Hebrews 2:8, that we still do not see subject to Him.

There are so many ways in which the kingdom of God is not yet fully realized in my life and your life. For some, it's infertility or the loss of a child. You love God and desire to raise children for His glory. He Himself calls children a blessing. Yet this righteous kingdom desire is unfulfilled in your heart, and you ache as you process it.

Maybe you're a wife who wants to honor God in your marriage, but your husband undermines and deflates you constantly. Your love of God draws you to raise your children to love Christ. Yet your husband is at best apathetic and often actually hostile to Christianity, maybe even exposing your children to the sin you are trying to teach them to avoid.

Maybe you're a single women living in a state that God Himself says is “not good.” You have a piety and devotion toward God, yet daily experience a loneliness that is far from the perfect community for which He created us to enjoy.

Maybe you are a daughter whose parents are close to divorce or a parent whose grown children are separated. You long for these people you love to embrace God's plan for their marriage, yet daily must watch them wound and sin against each other.

The examples could go on and on—conflict in the church, conflict in the world. “God how do I be content with THIS?! Really, You want me to be content in the midst of THIS sin? THIS suffering? THIS conflict? THIS thing that is not like You?”

It's one thing to be content with your bank account or your clothing options. But how do you reconcile godliness with contentment when your parents divorce, your church splits, your husband leaves, or your child rebels? Godliness and contentment seem mutually exclusive in such situations.

Now, let's consider the word contentment. The Greek word is autarkeia, which means a condition of life in which no further aid or support is needed, in which you have sufficient supplies for the needs of the moment. It is used one other place in the New Testament. There it is translated sufficiency.

2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;

Sufficiency – you have what you need. You have adequate provision, adequate supplies.

In a world of people and situations that consistently miss the mark of God's perfection and all He intended us to be as His image bearers in Eden, we have adequate, sufficient supplies for this season. For this struggle. We have something that bridges the gap between what our piety and devotion to God calls us to long for and the reality of our experience at this very moment. We have a bridge between our godly longing and our fallen reality that sufficiently equips us to deal with each struggle.

It is the gospel.

The gospel is the bridge. God has done something through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ by which He is able to make “all grace abound to you.” He has done something through Christ that sufficiently equips you so that you are abundantly supplied for every good work He has called you to do, this kingdom living that stands in such stark contrast with our fallen earthly reality.

Gospel grace sufficiently supplies you to face your parent's divorce or conflict in your church. Gospel grace sufficiently supplies you when your husband fails you, your children rebel, or your friend rejects you. Gospel grace sufficiently supplies us in our suffering over sickness and death. And it also sufficiently supplies us to face our suffering over sin—our sins and other's sin against us.

However, the terms gospel, grace, gospel-centered, grace-based, and so forth are more often thrown out than accurately defined. I don't want to use the gospel as a buzz word. I've written this out before, but it is so integral to the meaning of godliness with contentment, that I MUST write it out again here. Otherwise, this post is meaningless.

What is the gospel?

I grew up hearing the gospel in very conservative baptist churches. Looking back, I realize I learned only PART of the gospel. The presentations I heard focused on the universal nature of our debt (all have sinned and come short of the glory of God), and Christ's payment of my sins on the cross. They focused on the value of Christ's DEATH for me. But they didn't focus on the value of His LIFE. I have come to understand that the good news of Christ is not just that, through Jesus, my debt to God is canceled. No—God did not JUST bring my account up to zero, but He also lavished positively His grace on me, crediting to my account Christ's righteousness

2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Think of an inmate deserving the long sentence he received. Then, by the mercy of the judge and sacrifice of another, the inmate's sentence is paid in full. He gets to walk out of jail a free man. Yet, he's broke. Sure, he's grateful that he no longer has a debt to society, but he faces a long, daunting road. He can't even buy lunch. He can't pay a taxi to take him home (if he even has one). If he doesn't have someone outside who's watching out for him, he can't even pay for a hotel room for the night. He's set up for failure. He's set up to return to a life of crime. His only hope is to pull himself up from the bootstraps. But pitfalls surround him, and he has virtually no safety structure to keep him from utterly failing. And so is the very great difference between a view of the gospel that ends with penal substitution and one that also strongly embraces imputed righteousness.

Paul teaches this view of the gospel in Ephesians. He starts off with a bang – in Christ, you are blessed with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING. He then goes through them all, praying at the end of Ephesians 1 that we'd come to understand this inheritance in our accounts and power at work on our behalf. Then he gets into the fact that we were dead in our sins, by nature deserving of God's wrath, alienated from God. I think Paul understands, under the Spirit's inspiration, that we need to know our bank account is full and that we have resources.

Just being spared death does not prepare you for life. Now, in Christ, I have an abundant surplus in my account because God sees me wearing Christ's robe of righteousness. I AM RIGHTEOUS! And not by works of my own. God has lavished this righteousness to my account fully by His mercy and grace, and I can REST in it. This is the gospel.

Now re-read 2 Cor. 9:8 in that context.

2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;

So here you are in this moment where your godliness, your devotion to God and desire for His kingdom to come, seems at war with your reality. God says, “No, you can rest. You are sufficiently supplied by My grace. I have blessed you with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING there is. You have a spiritual bank account that is full. You are now equipped to face this struggle head on. You have an abundance to draw from for the good deeds that I am calling you to.”

Now, in Christ, I am the inmate set free from my well-deserved sentence who has the bank account and resources of the child of the king. I have RESOURCES for every spiritual need that comes my way. When I am provoked to anger with my children, I have spiritual resources. When I am sinned against by a friend, I have spiritual resources. When I am tempted with gluttony, lust, selfishness, or gossip, I am fully equipped for battle. When my church has conflicts, I am equipped. When my parents sin, I am equipped. When my husband fails me, I am equipped. When loved ones suffer, I am equipped. When loved ones sin against me, I am equipped. Paul says that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is the power at work in me!

Paul's prayer at the end of Ephesians 1 has become ground zero in my heart as I struggle to understand what this looks like in my life.

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places,

This is my wrestling place. “God, open my eyes to my hope in the gospel. Open my eyes to the riches in my account. Open my eyes to the power at work in me, the same power that raised Christ from the dead. God, these things are not anything like you. They aren't what I'm supposed to long for when I say, 'Your kingdom come.' How do I be godly and content with this?” God is always faithful to meet us in that place of wrestling with the grace and mercy He promises in Hebrews 4.

Am I supposed to encourage my friends and myself to be content with this mess of a life? Well, if by contentment I mean passive acceptance, then NO, I'm not supposed to passively accept all the ways this life does not reflect King Jesus. But if by contentment I mean that I have faith that God has adequately supplied me and you through Christ's life and death and resurrection; that He has sufficiently equipped us by lavishing on us a spiritual bank account with great equity to face this struggle head on; that the same power that rose Christ from the dead is now the power supernaturally at work in us, equipping us to deal with these struggles – if THAT's contentment, now I understand why devotion to God coupled with that confidence is GREAT GAIN.

Godliness with contentment is great gain in deep, hurtful circumstances. But it's also GREAT GAIN in the daily, humdrum muck of life. Godliness with contentment does not mean pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If the phrase fills you with guilt, you are missing the point. The gospel doesn't obligate me to contentment, it equips me for contentment. That battle with your sin, the temptation to gossip, anger with your children, church conflict, failing marriages—the gospel equips you to do battle with sin and suffering with the very same power that raised Christ from the dead. You have a lavish spiritual bank account, and this is integral to the very good news of all Christ's life and death has accomplished for you. Devotion to God coupled with this confidence in His sufficient supply is GREAT GAIN.

2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Godliness with Contentment

I had the opportunity to speak at the Grace and Truth Conference in Rockford, IL last weekend. I have realized that traveling for speaking engagements just doesn't work for my family at our stage of life. But these folks treated me very well and it was a blessing to be with them. I'm glad we bit the bullet and decided as a family to make it happen, though I don't foresee us doing it again any time soon.

Most of all, I am glad that I was forced to study through the idea of contentment, which was the focus of the conference. God has worked much in my heart, especially as I wrestled with the phrase "godliness with contentment" from I Tim. 6 in preparation for teaching. Here are links to three of the sessions, two by myself and one by my friend, Holly Stratton.

1) Godliness with Contentment.

Godliness (piety/devotion to God) and contentment seem mutually exclusive. How do you love God and long for His kingdom to come and be content when your children rebel, your husband fails you, your friend rejects you, or your church splits? It's one thing to be content with your bank account or clothing options. But what about life situations that are clearly not what you are called to long for when we pray for His will to be done?

2) The Hope of the Gospel.

Holly Stratton encouraged me so much with this session. If you've struggled as you raise your children with confidence that He who began the good work in their hearts will perform it until the day of Christ's return, this message is for you.

3) The Discontent Psalmist.

This is a look at Psalms 73, which I call a case study in godliness without contentment. It corresponds to the session on godliness with contentment and applies those truths in practical ways.

I'm going to post some thoughts from these sessions in the coming weeks. So more to come on godliness with contentment -- a concept that has become very precious to me over the last year.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

For Moms, Former Moms, and Wannabe Moms

I'm reposting my thoughts from last year's Mother's Day, mostly because I needed to reread it myself.

Mother's Day is a tricky holiday. Like any holiday, it is sweet for some and bitter for others. For some, it’s both. I remember feeling on the outside looking in on Mother’s Day, first as a single woman and then after I miscarried our first. Our church had an entrance near the nursery called the Family Entrance. Could I use it? Were we a family? I finally just used it regardless, almost as an act of defiance. Now as the mother of a 4 and 6 year old, I can deeply appreciate someone setting aside parking near an entrance that kept me from having to walk my toddlers across a busy intersection. But at the time I was dealing with emotions that weren’t swayed by practical realities. I just wanted to be a mom. And that sign at the church entrance reminded me I wasn’t.

It is an age-old conundrum in humanity in general and Christianity in particular. How do you honor someone who has something good that you want too? How do you applaud the sacrifices of one without minimizing the suffering of the other? I don’t know exactly, but I do think there is an over arching principle that is helpful.

Motherhood is not the greatest good for the Christian woman. Whether you are a mom or not, don’t get caught up in sentimentalism that sets it up as some saintly role. The greatest good is being conformed to the image of Christ. Now, motherhood is certainly one of God’s primary tools in His arsenal for this purpose for women. But it is not the end itself. Being a mom doesn’t make you saintly. Believe me. Being a mom exposes all the ways you are a sinner, not a saint. Not being a mom and wanting to be one does too. We may long to get pregnant, looking at motherhood from afar. God sanctifies us through that longing. We may lose a pregnancy or a child, and mourn the loss of our motherhood. God conforms us to Christ through that as well. We may have a brood of children of various ages, and heaven knows God roots sin out of our hearts that way. It’s all about THE greatest good, being conformed to the image of Christ – reclaiming the image of God that He created us to bear through gospel grace. And God uses both the presence and the absence of children in the lives of His daughters as a primary tool of conforming us to Christ.

Single woman watching your biological clock tick away, I encourage you to look today at your longings through the lens of the gospel. You don’t have to deny your longing or talk yourself into a happy attitude for all the good things you can do without kids. It’s OK to mourn the loss. God said children are a blessing. But after the fall, we do not all get to experience that blessing. The gospel makes up the difference. While you are disappointed in deep ways and that disappointment is real, you will one day sit with Jesus in heaven profoundly content with His work in you through this disappointment. In heaven, you will have no longing for something you missed. You will not be disappointed. May confidence in that hope sustain you.

Married woman experiencing infertility, I encourage you with similar words. People can be callous with their words, especially in the church. But believe in confidence that God in this very moment loves you with a deep love. You may feel estranged from Him, knowing that He has the power to give you that sweet infant that He has given so many around you. It seems like He is dangling a desire in front of you, teasing you with it. But understand that unfulfilled desire is a tool He uses to give you even better things – things of Himself that you cannot know in easy ways. Believe in confidence that this time of waiting is not just a holding pattern with no discernible value, but it too is a blessing, albeit in disguise, as it increases your strength to run and not grow weary and to walk and not to faint. Wait on the Lord, dear sister, in confidence.

And mom who fails her children regularly (because that’s everyone else), preach the gospel to yourself this day. If you have any grasp on your reality, you are likely painfully aware of every failure you’ve made with your children. And maybe you are fatigued by the fears of future failure as well. It’s okay that your children expose your own sin to yourself. In fact, it’s the mom who doesn’t seem daily aware of her failures that most concerns me. Christ has made the way for you to be at peace. If you sinned against your kids, ask their forgiveness. If you are kicking yourself for your failures, preach God’s grace to yourself. Don’t learn to live with your sin – don’t embrace it with the attitude “that’s just how I am.” But don’t deny it either. Be honest about it. You sinned. You confess. God forgives. You get up and walk forward in confidence. It’s called gospel grace, and THAT is the legacy to leave your children.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Help My Unbelief: Suffering

I was at a conference this weekend outside Chicago, and three ladies came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed my pastor's sermons. I haven't linked to one in a while, but this is one that piggybacks well on the last post on suffering, which resonated more than I expected with a lot of you.

If you have 30 minutes, this is a helpful sermon on the reality of suffering as a very great test of our beliefs and how Jesus meets us in it.