Sunday, January 29, 2012

Safe at the Rainbow

Our church recently had it's women's retreat at a retreat center not far outside Seattle called Rainbow Lodge. It always amazes me that in a brief drive from Seattle you can be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by giant fir trees and mountains in a setting fit for Big Foot. Our lodge was an awesome place with a slightly cheesy flare. Each of our rooms had names that invited mockery if you're a cynic. Mine was called Moonrise. It was actually an awesome room with big windows looking out on mossy woods filled with ferns and fir trees. A friend walked by the first night looking for God's Love. Was that a theological question, I thought? We could talk about that for a while. But no, it was just the name of her room. God's Love was near my room, I informed her. The funniest moment for me was discovering the Pledge to the Rainbow, positioned above the stairs.

I pledge allegiance to the rainbow
and to the elation for which it stands,
one circus,
one ringmaster
with balloons for all.

You've got to love a retreat center that names its rooms Moonrise and God's Love and posts Pledges to the Rainbow over its stairwells. What happens at Rainbow Lodge stays at Rainbow Lodge.

The elders' wives at church invited me to hash out ideas I am putting together for a book I hope to write this spring on the Gospel-Centered Woman. One friend made up her own name for the session titles, 'How I could be more like an Ephesian's 31 woman if my husband wasn't such a tool.' That made me laugh.

But seriously, beyond the teaching and the setting, the weekend was a fruitful, meaningful time with friends. One leader said she felt like this group was safe. That word, safe, evokes deep emotions for me.

safe: affording security or protection from harm; secure from risk; worthy of trust.1

I have spent time in many environments, particularly Christian ones, that didn't feel safe. Instead of feeling worthy of trust, they made me feel wary to share myself. To be safe in those environments, I had to know the limits of what I could and couldn't talk about. I felt safe, but only within specific boundaries. This weekend was different—a brief taste of something that is our truth even now in heaven though on earth we don't yet see it fully realized. But it's coming in its fullness one day soon. It's what I call Gospel-Safe Community.

What is it about certain groups of believers that makes them emotionally and spiritually safe? And how does that safety play out practically? I think the crucial practical aspect of gospel-safe environments is that you can be honest. You don't fear admitting mistakes or failures. This isn't the same as glorifying our sins or rejoicing in wrong-doing. No one WANTS to fail. No one wants to get it wrong. But failure is inevitably going to happen at multiple points for all of us. In gospel-safe environments, honesty about our failures is an invitation for people to bear with us and support us, not an invitation for them to condemn and shame.

This is what the gospel does for relationships. How? Well, the term gospel-safe community implies that the others in community also understand the gospel. And inherent to understanding the gospel is acknowledging our own personal and very real sin problem. Gospel safe friends have admitted to themselves how very serious their own problems were/are and how utterly needy they were/are for a Savior to redeem and repair what they could not begin to touch on their own. This is true in terms of our own personal sin, others' sins against us, and our suffering over sickness, death, and all the ways this world is broken.

When we are nestled snuggly in the gospel, we can be honest about the good and the bad in our lives. Gospel-safe environments allow us to speak and to process out in the open. Gospel-safe friends will listen. They'll ask follow up questions. They may share back to you a similar struggle. These are all pieces of emotionally bearing a burden with someone. Their first response won't be advice. Maybe they actually have great advice. But gospel-safe friends won't push it on you. Gospel-safe friends understand it's not their obligation to FIX the problem. Bearing it with you is different than fixing it. That's key. The GOSPEL fixes our problem. Our gospel-safe friends bear with us until the Lord makes it clear exactly how. Maybe they have insight that is helpful, and that can be received, but there is a difference in the tone of advice when we all cling to the gospel and not our own works to solve our core problem in the world.

Was our group at the Lodge perfect? Nope. Not by a long shot. Were there problems? Boy howdy! But there was a TASTE of what God has created us for long term. A taste of what was lost in the fall of man and what is being redeemed day by day through the Cross. And those moments when His glory breaks into our present are beautiful to behold. I had to leave the weekend early due to sickness at my house. Laughter echoed from the dining room into the night as I drove away, and I praised the Lord for the beauty of Gospel-Safe Community.

Psalm 133
 1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is
   when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
   running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
   running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
   which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
   life forevermore.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lonely in a Crowd

My 5 year old son cried last week in bed because he was lonely. And I cried with him because I knew exactly what he was feeling. It all started when friends had to reschedule a play date on Friday. My little one was looking forward to them coming home after school, and when I told him they couldn't come after all, he started crying and asking whom else we could have over. He cried on and off most of that evening. We had friends over on Saturday, and he enjoyed that very much. But by Monday evening (a school holiday), he was very lonely again.

Here's the thing—he's never alone. He has a built in playmate in the form of his 7 year old brother with whom he shares a room. They play together quite a bit. But overall, my youngest is much more social than his Aspie-ish brother. My eldest is more like my engineer husband. My youngest is more like me. My eldest rarely struggles with loneliness, but the little one and I, boy howdy. And it comes at the weirdest times – times that don't make sense. I recognize being lonely when I am actually alone. But with two young boys, being physically alone is so rare that I actually enjoy it right now. Lonely in a crowd – that's a different thing altogether.

We were created for community. In perfection, God said it was not good for man to be alone, and He made a partner for him in the woman. God Himself is not alone—He makes up His own core community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He talks to Himself in the plural – “Let Us make man in Our image.” And He then created us in His image. We need community – it's core to being an image bearer of God.

The pivotal moment at Jesus' death on the cross was when He cried out, “It is finished.” The veil of the temple that separated man from the symbolic presence of God in the Holy of Holies was torn apart. After sin had alienated us from community with God, Jesus made the way for us to be restored to fellowship with Him. The heart of the gospel is this reconciliation with God. In Christ, we are no longer alone. We have community with the most Holy of all. We have access to the throne of God, and He invites us to enter it boldly and with confidence that we may receive the grace and mercy we need at every turn.

God's community with Himself makes Jesus' cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” that much more poignant. Talk about being lonely in a crowd—Jesus has felt it!
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
So here I am in a moment of profound loneliness even though I'm surrounded by people. There are many lesser reasons for that loneliness. Maybe others with me seem to be enjoying something together, and I feel left out of the group. Maybe something is going on in my head that I want to share with someone, but no one around me seems interested. My youngest in his moment of loneliness wanted someone to play, not just around him, but actually WITH him. He was around people all day, but he wanted to be engaged with someone who enjoyed what he enjoyed. 

Maturity in the faith helps me in these moments—not necessarily to solve the problem but certainly to recognize the source of the problem. I was created for something more, and this world is broken. The perception that everyone else is enjoying healthy community while I'm ignored on the sidelines is a deception by the enemy. They are broken too, and so is their sense of community. 

The gospel meets me here. I am not alone. And I do not mean that in a trite or superficial way. I. AM. NOT. ALONE. God's community with me through Christ's death on the cross is real. It means something very practical for me in those moments of profound loneliness. I feel lonely in a crowd because those around me don't seem to understand me or care about me the way I long to be understood and loved. Yet, I have access to the One who does understand me perfectly and who does love me unconditionally.

I have found only one source for relief of such loneliness—and it is simply Bible study and prayer. I read the Word, and God speaks to me. I pray and speak to Him. Then maybe I'll read some more, and He speaks more. Sometimes His Word to me reflects His eternal purposes for His glory. Sometimes it reminds me that He's doing something big and transcendent. But sometimes, He speaks a special word to me that pinpoints an exact issue with which I am struggling. It's a word He spoke and preserved thousands of years ago in Scripture, yet for me in that moment, the Holy Spirit applies it in a profound way.

As I talked with my son that evening, I had a simple answer for him that at first sounded trite to me. But it was anything but trite, and I am glad I didn't shy away from it. “Honey, when you believe in Christ and have Him as your Savior, you are never alone.” I said more, prayed with him, and snuggled him in bed for a bit. We talked about what bothered him, and that seemed to help. But most of all, I hope I sowed a seed that will flourish in his heart as he grows older. In Christ, we are not alone. We are known and understood and heard and loved by the most Holy of all. The One who created us for community with Him has made a way to bring us back. Make use of this truth. Appropriate it. Nothing will sustain us emotionally like living daily in this truth. I quoted Hebrews 4:15 above. It's noteworthy that it is immediately followed by this.
Hebrews 4:16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Discipling an Aspie

I read an article recently that discussed ministering to those with Asperger's Syndrome.

“The name comes from a pediatrician in Vienna, Hans Asperger, who in the 1940’s discovered that certain children have a unique set of character traits.  He began to study them, and he noticed they had some of the following characteristics in common:

-they tend to have a low EQ, meaning they lack certain social skills
-they prefer to be alone
-they are very intelligent (“little professors” he called them)
-they see things in black and white, meaning they take things very literally
-they do not easily process information
-they miss subtleties, do not easily intuit
-they are very sensitive to sounds, textures
-they have an odd sense of humor—quirky fits here
-they do not easily read faces, tend to avoid eye contact
-they are not so sensitive to feelings—they do not easily empathize
-they can melt down if given too many tasks at once

I immediately thought of my son, who is distinctly different from his brother and most of his preschool and elementary school peers in how he processes information. My son is not on the most extreme end of the Asperger's Spectrum, yet, he's there. I read these attributes to my husband as well, and we laughed. It explains a lot in our family.

My husband is by far my best resource in parenting my little Aspie because my little guy is in many ways just a smaller version of my big guy. The big thing we've talked about is accepting simply that he processes things differently than many other kids. And different is not bad.

Different: unusual, not common, not in step with the norm

Bad: of poor or inferior quality; defective; deficient; inadequate or below standard; morally reprehensible

This has been a very important point for me to get. DIFFERENT is not the same as BAD. Unusual is not the same as defective or morally wrong. Because I have a very different personality than my son, I value the norm. If I walk into a room of people in a social situation, I try to assess what is already going on and join in or support it if I can. And that can be a good thing—maybe I'm being polite and empathetic. It can also be a bad thing—maybe I'm insecure and trying to please people. Maybe I am proud and want them to think well of me. When my son walks in a room and is oblivious of others, it's not necessarily wrong, but it is very different from me.

Once I fortify myself against the “different is bad” mentality that others project onto me and that my own personality tempts me to believe, then I can deal with my son's strengths and weaknesses at a healthy level. What are the strengths of his personality spiritually speaking? What are the weaknesses?

The strengths I have come to recognize easily enough. He isn't easily pressured by his peers. I wouldn't mind so much if he looked around his 1st grade classroom and tried to blend in a bit better. But I recognize that long term, this will serve him very well. He won't be hogtied emotionally like I was by the way others look at him. His personality traits will protect him, at least somewhat, from the kind of negative peer pressure that debilitated me when I was in junior high and high school. If he thinks he should or should not do something, he won't be easily persuaded by the opinion of others. That is an awesome gift, and I admire it greatly after having struggled with that myself.

But his personality comes with weaknesses too. He often lacks empathy. And he can lock in so hard on a project that people become meaningless to him. I can't just TELL him to be considerate, because it's not intuitive for him. I have to model it and truly, proactively disciple him in it. I can't just tell him the Golden Rule. I have to explain it in detail and then help him evaluate specific situations again and again in light of it.

The places we are focusing right now are the Greatest Command and the Golden Rule. People are more important than projects. That doesn't mean that projects aren't good or that he shouldn't have opportunity to focus on his projects. We give him a lot of room there. But when the rubber meets the road, people are more important than projects. Our first priority is loving God. Our second is to love our neighbor as ourself. Which leads very nicely into the Golden Rule – how do YOU want to be treated, son? Ok. Then love your brother and treat him the way you want him to treat you.

I have learned so much in this journey with my son, yet I still can get very discouraged. It helps me to think how far we've already come – to think back on our miserable first year of preschool. I had experienced enough playdates with friends in the first 2 years of my son's life to know he wasn't exactly developmentally on target. But when we hit preschool, it was starkly obvious. There were 12 kids in the classroom—eleven 2-3 year olds remarkably similar in their ability to interact with peers and grown ups and one, my son, who was very, very different. The teachers helped me much that first year, patiently modeling for him again and again how to interact with other kids and grown ups, how to understand their expressions and repair with them when he had hurt them. And patiently modeling for ME how to redirect him and help him build the social skills that came normally for other kids but which he could not intuit for himself. They pointed me toward speech therapy, where a therapist modeled for me how to help him make eye contact and take turns in communication. In the five years since then, he and I have both come a long, long way.

It's hard to water seeds and wait for fruit with our children, and it's certainly hard when discipling a child with aspie tendencies. The exhortations in Scripture to persevere and endure are precious to me in this journey. Stay engaged. Repeat instruction as necessary. And never give up. Different is not bad, and it's OK that I have to teach this son things that come naturally to many other kids.

1 Corinthians 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James 1 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wisdom v. the Law on Women's Issues

I posted these thoughts a year ago but want to revisit them today.

In an article posted at Desiring God, 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. 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.

Christians historically have confused wisdom and law, Proverbs and the Ten Commandments. For instance, 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 Ten 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 too. 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,

God bless you as you seek His guidance in how to apply general Biblical wisdom to your specific situation without condemnation for how others apply it in theirs.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Much of Tebowmania represents the worst of American Christianity

American Christians love a winner. We love big numbers and big personalities. And when Tim Tebow is winning, we love him. There is a big difference in Tim Tebow and Tebowmania. Tim seems a genuine guy, and I've written about him before. Tebow's up front faith isn't why people dislike him. Most everyone who has rubbed shoulders with him for any length of time (coaches, teammates, and reporters) has been warmed by his humility and care for the suffering. Tebow's fans, well we're a different story. I just saw this in a secular article in the Chicago Sun-Times on the aftermath of Tebowmania.

"... People have constructed a world for him in which there is no room for mistakes, only perfection. And if he should stumble? What then?

It’s frightening how much belief followers have put in a 24-year-old. I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for the woman who marries him. I can’t imagine the glare of the spotlight and the pressure to be sinless.

Tebow seems like a very nice guy with a very big heart. It’s the people who worship him, rather than just admire him, who make my skin crawl."

We have done this to ourselves, fellow believers. It's not persecution that causes this reaction -- it's bad theology. I don't want to write about Tim Tebow. Whether or not he makes it long term in the NFL, he seems to have perspective. He'll be fine. Tebowmania--that's a different story, and that's the point of this post. It represents to me the worst of the prosperity gospel of conservative evangelicals (which is different than Joel Osteen's version, yet equally destructive).

Michelle Bachman's presidential campaign is an example. During Tebow's 6 game winning streak, she authorized a campaign ad likening herself to him -- under appreciated, maligned for his faith, yet able to get it done. The problem was that by the time the ad hit the airwaves, Tebow had hit his dismal 3 game slide at the end of the season. A losing Tebow was of no use to her campaign. Losing Tebow wouldn't resonate or inspire the voters she was trying to court. Coupled with her losses in early primaries, the ad was the death knell of her campaign. If only she had held on a week, she could have milked it for all it was worth after his improbable win over Pittsburgh. But it would be useless again now after the loss to the Patriots.

Tim, I know you're not reading this but if you were (after asking you if you could get me a size large women's NFL Tebow jersey because they are sold out online), I'd want to tell you how very sorry I am to see you exploited so by conservative evangelicals. Exploitation by unbelievers is one thing, but when it is so called brothers and sisters in Christ, it's so much worse. They'll mostly leave you alone if you lose consistently next season. You'll be of no more use then to prop up their distorted prosperity gospel. Life makes better sense for Christians when Marian Barber's fumble and Prater's miraculous field goals are God's affirmation of you for your up front faith. But if you continue in that faith and lose miserably for any length of time, they won't know what to do with it. They don't know what to do with THAT God.

In reality, sometimes the greatest gifts God gives faithful Christians come in the form of losses. They that lose their life will find it, Jesus says. Losses often pave the way for His better gifts -- not gifts of things, but gifts of Himself.

Conservative evangelicals may not uniformly want that God, but, nevertheless, He's the One we've got. And there's something about Him that is infinitely better long term than the one who makes bad teams fumble and good teams win.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How Should Christian Women Who Value Submission Think of Vashti and Esther?

I've spoken in times past of my concerns about the things some complementarians say that I think actually undermine the position. As a Christian woman, I have learned to strongly value the words help, submit, and respect—at least when those terms are used the way God intended when He used them first in His Word. The more I embrace these words in my home, the more annoyed I get with teachers who are sloppy with the terms and sloppy with Scripture when trying to defend these concepts. And one place we do that is with the story of Vashti and Esther in the Old Testament.

So I ask the simple question, how SHOULD women who are IN Christ and IMAGE BEARERS of God read the book of Esther? Well, first, the way I've worded the question sets me up as an authority that I am not. Second, it sounds like you are obligated to agree with my analysis, but that's not true either. As I often say, this blog is just a lecture to myself, so I'm really only answering the question how should this Christian woman (me) who values submission think of Vashti and Esther. Maybe I'll say something here that the Spirit causes to resonate with you, and that's good too.

There are a few principles that help me navigate the story of Esther. First, I must remember with any story in Scripture the very great difference in DESCRIPTIVE and PRESCRIPTIVE passages. Many, many times in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, we are given stories without commentary that we are not ever intended to embrace as examples to us. Don't cut up your concubine and spread her remains around the camp of those who murdered her. And please don't kill your daughter as a sacrifice just because she's the first one to walk out a tent after you make a vow to God. It's not a good idea to lay down in the middle of the night at the foot of the bed of a man whose attention you are hoping to land. And we don't prescribe that all widows move in with their mother in law and marry their husband's cousin just because the book of Ruth describes that scenario.

Second, Scripture is the best commentary on itself. We know from Genesis 2 that woman was created to be a strong helper in the image of God. That certainly reflects on Esther—she was strong for the children of God, helping to protect them by potentially sacrificing her own life to get the ear of the king. We also know from Genesis 3 that the curse among other things is that man oppresses woman (see here and here). Well, boy howdy, that certainly reflects on the story of Vashti and Esther. There is no indication of any virtue in the king towards women in that story. God's people are basically in captivity and the king demonstrates no faith in God. He's not the worst of kings, evidenced by the fact he didn't kill Vashti. But he's obviously feared—Esther keeps the fact she is Jewish secret from him at the start. And he is willing to wipe out an entire people, male and female, based on Haman's flimsy reasoning of their threat to his kingship. The king has a harem and concubines. There is nothing about him that reflects virtue or goodness.

In terms of Ephesians 5 and wifely submission, Esther does submit, but not to the king. She submits to Mordecai, who is neither her husband or father—when he says don't tell the king you're Jewish, she doesn't. When Mordecai encouraged her to defy the king's orders by approaching him about sparing the Jews, she does. In the end, there is nothing about Esther's story that can be reasonably construed as having anything to do with wifely submission in terms of Ephesians 5.

Here is what Esther teaches us as Christian women who value submission.

1) Nothing about submission.
2) Everything about the sovereignty of God.

Esther is a beautiful book, much like Ruth, on God's supernatural moving behind the scenes to preserve His people, particularly the line of the Messiah. To this end, Vashti's refusal is as much a part of God's sovereign plan to move Esther into the place where she could advocate for God's people as Esther's promotion to queen.

If you want to understand what God prescribes about help, submission, headship, and respect, don't read Esther for advice or example. However, the book of Esther has much to teach us about our sovereign Father in heaven who wrote a story before time began and declared it FINISHED on the cross. When we face uncertainties in life, the same God who is never mentioned in Esther is the same one flying under the radar at times in our life. He holds it all together though, and His plan will be accomplished.

Colossians 1 16 For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Godliness with Contentment

After posting the top 5 posts with readers for 2011, I started thinking about the top posts for ME. Of all the lessons the Lord taught me last year, what most defined my year? What most changed me? Working through the idea of righteous anger and coming to the strong conviction that “righteous anger” is not a Biblical principle, was a big one for me. It's changed how I respond to things. It doesn't make me less resolved to stand against oppression, though. The Christian's call to strong advocacy for the oppressed and marginalized in society was another important lesson in 2011 for me. Tim Keller's Generous Justice helped me on this topic with it's clear exposition of passage after passage on the Christian's call to social justice from Scripture.

But of all the lessons from last year, without a doubt, the concept that has most changed me is the phrase godliness with contentment from I Tim. 6:6 and the subsequent study I did of it in preparation for a women's conference on contentment last April.

I Tim. 6:6-8
6 But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. 7 For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8 If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.

At first, this just sounds like another obligation to add to the long list of obligations I already have. “Great—it's not enough just that I be godly. Now I've got to be content too.” Is it an obligation? Is it something I need to do or be? What does the phrase godliness with contentment mean, and how is it even possible?

The Hebrew term for godliness, eusebia, means devotion or piety. Synonyms would be respect, veneration, or devotion.

You are devoted to God – you are aligned with Him, you keep a posture toward Him. You love Him. And most of us reading a blog on theology for women probably generally consider ourselves devoted to God. In an honest assessment of ourselves, we really do love Him. But you can be godly, showing reverence, piety, and devotion to God and His things, you can love 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 these are distinct. My problem isn't that they are separate, but that they seem mutually exclusive. They seem completely incompatible. There are facets of devotion and piety toward God, i. e. godliness, that seem to fundamentally war with my idea of contentment. What godly person is going to be content with this life? As pious, godly, devoted believers, we're called to pray that His 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. It's the already, but not yet nature of the kingdom of God.

Hebrews 2:8 (of Jesus) ...putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Everything is subject to Jesus, but we do not yet see everything subject to Him. That's our reality. Where in your life is the kingdom of God not yet fully realized? Where in your life is there this disconnect between what God says is GOOD and desirable vs. your reality?

Many of you have experienced infertility or the loss of a child. You love God and desire to raise children for His glory. He himself calls them a blessing. Yet this righteous kingdom desire is unfulfilled, 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 maybe even actually hostile to Christianity.

Or maybe you are a single woman living in a state that God Himself in perfection says is “not good.” You have a piety and devotion toward God yet daily experience a loneliness that is far from the community for which He created us to enjoy in perfection.

Maybe you're a daughter whose parents are close to divorce. You long for them to embrace God's plan for their marriage yet daily watch the two people you most love in this world wound and sin against each other.

The examples could go on and on.

“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? Your child rebels? Or when none of them ever show up in your life in the first place?

Am I really supposed to be content in the midst of all these things in my life that do not yet reflect God's kingdom and God's goodness?

Godliness and contentment seem mutually exclusive in such situations.

The other word in this phrase is contentment. The Greek word autarkeia means a condition of life in which no further aid or support is needed, or a condition in life 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, you and I 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.

Gospel grace sufficiently supplies you when your husband fails you. Gospel grace sufficiently supplies you to face unreconciled conflict between Christians. Gospel grace sufficiently supplies you when your parents divorce, 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 sin and others' sins against us.

Gospel grace is the bridge to contentment, or the gospel is the bridge to this confidence in His sufficient supply for us in this very moment—though there is a grand void between the Garden of Eden and our backyard as it stands right now. But the terms gospel, grace, gospel-centered, grace-based, and such phrases are more often thrown out than accurately defined. I don't want to use the gospel as a buzz word. So I need to flesh out what I mean when I say the answer is the gospel.

I grew up in very conservative churches, learning short pithy sayings that “summed up” the gospel. I took evangelism classes so I could walk someone through the “Romans' Road” and memorized 5 step flip charts at Christian camp. Now, looking back, I realize that I could only articulate a PART of the gospel. Each presentation focused on the universal nature of our debt (all have sinned and come short of the glory of God) and Christ's payment of our 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. Over the years, I have come to understand that the good news of Christ is not just that, through Jesus, my debt to God is canceled. 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.

I had an infinite debt to God. I was by nature deserving of His wrath, Paul says in Ephesians 2, dead in my sins unable to save myself. I have benefitted greatly from Christ's death, the penal substitution. But I can't begin to articulate the benefits to me from His LIFE, this imputed righteousness. Christ's righteousness is in my spiritual bank account now. And that is every bit as precious as the payment for my sin. 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 a home). 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. And he goes through them all, praying at the end of Ephesians 1 that we'd really 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.

God didn't bring me just to dead even. But 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. And 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 a 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 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!

A few years ago, I walked with friends through a confluence of really ugly circumstances—things that seemed like the exact opposite of the kingdom of God coming. I remember sitting across from one of my friends on the sofa in her living room in the first week of a really ugly, painful abandonment by her husband, praying to God in desperation – “How do I reconcile this? How are You good in this? Where is the gospel in this?” In that moment, the word content sounded sounded profane. I couldn't tell her to be content with this circumstance. Her husband just abandoned their children in the ugliest way possible. Be content with this thing that is so unlike God and what He tells us to long for?! It truly sounded profane to even suggest such a thing.

Yet, I knew IN THEORY there was something in Christ's life, death, and resurrection that was supposed to speak into this. To transform this. That was in February. In May, my aunt was murdered after coming home from Sunday church. I can't even begin to unpack here the wrestling between godliness and contentment in my heart provoked by that one act by a violent kid none of us knew. This was in conjunction with an intense conflict between Christian friends that resulted in what seemed like the exact opposite of God's kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven. In the midst of all that, I was writing By His Wounds You Are Healed, my study of Ephesians, and I was becoming intimately acquainted with Paul's presentation of the gospel (both Christ's payment of our sins and the lavish grace applied to our account) and then his prayer at the end of Ephesians 1.

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 became my wrestling place. 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, the same power that raised Christ from the dead. God, these things are not like You. How do I love you and long for Your kingdom to come and be content with this? Am I supposed to encourage my friends to be content with this? And if by contentment I mean a passive acceptance, then NO, I'm not supposed to passively accept this. This is not God's kingdom. It's not OK. 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 me and you by lavishing on us a spiritual bank account with great equity to face this 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, then I understand why devotion to God coupled with that confidence is GREAT GAIN.

And that is my testimony. There was great gain to be had in all these struggles. It wasn't immediately obvious. It was counterintuitive. And yet I can look back now on the worst of times and see how God gave us great gifts of Himself throughout. The gain may seem intangible to others, but it was real to me. And my friend that I mentioned would gladly give the same testimony.

Godliness with contentment does not mean pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If that phrase fills you with guilt, you are missing the point. The gospel doesn't obligate me to contentment; it equips me for contentment. The gospel equips you and I to do battle with sin and suffering with the very same power that raised Christ from the dead. We 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 us. And 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;