Joy And Rejoicing-A Reprise


Christmas_shoppers_in_Leeds_in_December_2009Complaints. Angst. Cynicism. Malaise. Western society seems bent toward dissatisfaction. I blame this in part on our consumerism. We are constantly being told we need something other than what we have which instills a sense of disgruntlement. At the same time, however, we’re aware that wherever we turn, someone is trying to sell us something or scam us, spam us, or hack us, so we have our guards up.

Ironic. Perhaps no people on earth have more material goods than those of us in western societies. And yet, as one pastor said recently, we are a covetous people.

Instead of enjoying what we have, we plot and plan how to get more, even as we worry and work in order to keep what we’ve got. We spend hundreds of dollars purchasing warranties and insurance–health, auto, home, renter, life, dental. There are specific kinds of insurance, too–flood, fire, earthquake, theft, comprehension, accident, collision.

Protect, protect, protect. We have passwords to keep people out of our computers and mobile devices and social media sites. We have security alarms in our homes and cars and places of business. We have cameras and automatic light systems and safes and security doors and gated communities and security guards.

I’m not saying any of those things is wrong, but quite frankly, I don’t know how anyone keeps up. And I understand why so many people seem unhappy.

In the midst of all the frenzy connected with getting and keeping, magnified during the weeks known as “the shopping season,” the US has tucked into the last week of November a day we call Thanksgiving.

After cooking and cleaning and gathering together in our family groups, we eat our feasts, then go through the appropriate motions of being thankful to whomever for whatever before we rush off to the next hurried and hectic day of shopping.

A friend recently wrote a blog post that indited Christians for not being joyful, not laughing, not making merry. I don’t think it’s a problem with Christians as much as it is with people living in western societies. Oh, sure, there’s laughter in places where the people have had too much to drink or are making sport of others.

But joy? Where do you go to see people with joy oozing from their expressions?

Well, certainly it ought to be the Church. Joy is a product of contentment, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t require happy circumstances, and it doesn’t need to be greased with a pint of the bubbly.

Rejoicing is the same. James says the poor man is to rejoice in his humble circumstances. Peter says the believer is to rejoice to the degree that we share the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13).

It’s already abundantly clear that lots of stuff doesn’t lead to joy and rejoicing. Sure, sitting down with a group of friends or finding the perfect present at a bargain price or cheering for a team that wins all might make us happy for a time, but joy lasts and rejoicing doesn’t need an occasion.

At least not a new occasion. We already have received the good news of great joy which is for all people. And that’s reason for rejoicing for all time.

This article originally appeared here November 2013.

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Published in: on November 17, 2017 at 4:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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Hope And The Here And Now – Reprise


westcoast sunsetWhile I acknowledge that this world is filled with disappointment, I also recognize the beauty of God’s handiwork. Yes, there is sadness, but there are also joys. People get married, and babies come into the world. People get promotions and book deals and raises. People go on vacation and spend an evening with friends.

There are so many joys, I can’t help but be hopeful about today.

There are friends, too, bringing laughter and acceptance and companionship. How about family and loved ones—people who don’t care what our hair looks like in the morning and aren’t afraid to tell us if something is hanging from our nose. They love us in such everyday ways we sometimes overlook them, but when we list what we’re thankful for, they come to mind first.

snow_road-winter-xsYes, the joys and the people are part of God’s handiwork, but of course the natural world can’t be left out. Which of the beautiful things tops the list—the white-capped Rockies, the sunset over the Pacific, the snow-dressed forest, the green and golden fields, the woods clothed in autumn finery, the dew-kissed rose, the yellow-breasted song bird . . . the list is endless.

Joy, people, creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and each one brings hope. If things are this good today, can’t tomorrow be just as good? Or better?

The greatest present hope is God Himself. The amazing truth is that God IS, though all else fails. God is the greatest treasure, so I may be poor in this world’s estimation, but if I have Jesus, I am rich. I may mourn, but joy comes in the morning. I may feel defeated, but Christ is the victor. I may be grieving, but not without hope.

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord GOD is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places. (Hab. 3:17-19a)

God, in His great mercy, gives us memorials so that we don’t lose sight of hope. He gives us sun after the rain, spring after winter. He gives us comfort in the midst of sorrow, kindness from unexpected places.

He tells us to remember Him in the broken bread and shared cup at Communion. He established His Church as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” He gave us the Lord’s Day and reminded us to continue gathering together then.

He gave us His word that is sharper than any two-edged sword—the perfect weapon against the false teaching our adversary throws at us. He taught us to pray and gives His Holy Spirit to interpret when we don’t know what we ought to say.

This is the same Holy Spirit that lives in us—which is why we can truthfully say we are never alone. He is the One Jesus sent when He left earth, promising that it was to our advantage that He go.

God’s presence in the form of His Spirit, His communication with me through prayer, His word, His fingerprints all over the world—these are things I have now that fill me with hope.

Though our society is far from God, why not revival, I think. God changed my heart. He can change anyone’s heart, even atheists putting up anti-church billboards—Nebuchadnezzar was just such a man, and God brought him to his senses. Even people killing others in some mistaken view that they’re doing God’s work—the Apostle Paul was just such a man, and God opened his blind eyes.

With God, there are no limits.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power. (Isaiah 40:28-29)

To him who lacks hope, I daresay, He gives that, too.

This article originally appeared here December 2014.

Published in: on November 3, 2017 at 4:39 pm  Comments (8)  
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Joy And The Holy Spirit


Most Christians have probably heard or read that joy is not the same thing as happiness. I think we’re pretty clear about the distinction.

A quick study reveals that joy is grouped with patience, peace, love, faithfulness, and a few other traits to constitute the fruit of the Spirit.

Why, then, I ask myself, do I think I need to manufacture joy?

And since the Holy Spirit is the source of joy, wouldn’t it be fair to say, if I’m not experiencing joy, I must be quenching the Holy Spirit?

I mean, Galatians 5:22-23 doesn’t make joy an optional piece of fruit. If we have the Spirit, we have the fruit. It’s a matter, then, of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Or not.

As I’m writing this, the little chorus “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes to mind. The words simply repeat that line over and over — a line from Nehemiah 8:10.

The returned exiles, struggling to make a go of it in the homeland most of them had never seen before, asked Ezra, one of their leaders, to read the book of the law. He read from dawn to midday. A group of others then explained the text and taught the people what it all meant.

Their reaction? Nope, not joy.

They were weeping and mourning. The Law exposed their sin, and they were undone.

That’s when Nehemiah stepped in. Stop crying, he said. Today is a holy day, set aside for the Lord. Get up and let the feast begin. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.

And the people calmed down, got up, and celebrated “because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).

Except, two verses earlier, their understanding caused them to grieve. But now? Celebration. How can that be explained apart from the joy of the Lord?

The Spirit convicts of sin. The proper response should be sorrow leading to repentance. And then comes joy, not a manufactured joy or an inauthentic emotion.

The reality was, their circumstances hadn’t changed. They were still returned exiles struggling to get it together. In their own estimation, they were still slaves:

Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which
You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress. (Neh 9:36-37)

Under those circumstances, Nehemiah gave them that salient truth: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Not bitterness or complaining, certainly. But not continued grieving, either. And not what we rely on today, a can-do spirit.

Their strength came from what only the Spirit could provide — joy from the Lord.

Ironic, then, that quenching the Spirit leads to the opposite of what someone going through difficult circumstances needs — strength. The little recap of Jewish history in Nehemiah 9 spells it out:

You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst. (v. 20, emphasis mine)

Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell. (v 21)

You also gave them kingdoms and peoples … (v. 22)

You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven … (v. 23)

So their sons entered and possessed the land… (v. 24)

They captured fortified cities and a fertile land… (v. 25)

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You (v. 26, emphasis added)

Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them. (v. 27)

Listening to God’s Spirit strengthened the people; rebelling against Him, didn’t.

So what was it those Israelites Nehemiah addressed, understood that made it possible for them to calm down, stop grieving, and celebrate?

Not a change in their circumstances, as I’ve noted. Not the promise of a change in their circumstances either. Rather, I believe they understood how faithful the Lord is and how He had not left them or forsaken them, and that He would not. They had the Lord, so they had His joy which gave them strength.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2011.

Eyes On The Prize


Peter014I don’t know how other Christians feel, but me, I get tired of living in a world that is so broken. When Jesus said, the poor you’ll always have with you, He wasn’t kidding.

The poor, the brokenhearted, the insecure, the lonely, the abused, the misused, the victim, the addict, the spiritually poor, the deluded. And then there are the wicked—the greedy, the covetous, the murderous, the takers, the users, the immoral, the bullies.

Honestly, it gets depressing. The news tells us all about the people who have been displace or injured or killed by the latest storm/earthquake/fire/flood/war/terrorist attack. It tells us about the spread of diseases we don’t know how to cure, about people who have been in horrific accidents, about people robbing or raping or brutalizing others.

The news is not fun!

And the longer I live, the more I realize I’m going to hear bad news from my friends and family too. Loved ones die or get sick or lose their jobs or face disappointment.

Without a doubt, life is also filled with many, many joys, but in the end, after the Super Bowl parade, comes free agency and the loss of well-loved teammates. In other words, our joys are temporary.

Except for one. The joy of the LORD is not fleeting. Instead, it is everlasting because its source is not circumstances or stuff or even people or my well-being. The joy of the LORD is based on the LORD, the King of Heaven, whose works are true and whose ways are just.

Because of who He is, we can have joy here and now. We can have joy because God is with us and will not leave us or forsake us. We can have joy because He is faithful to walk with us through the waters, through the fire, through the valley of the shadow of death.

We can also have joy because we don’t carry the weight of sin and guilt. We don’t have to look over our shoulders to see if we’re about to be caught in the midst of our sin. God’s Holy Spirit is in us and He will guide us and convict us and teach us. Further, God has forgiven us. That’s not a future thing for Christians: If we sin we have to come groveling back to Him and beg Him to let us return to the banquet table. NO! We are in right standing with God because of what Jesus did at the cross, and our sin doesn’t change that fact.

Granted, sin can disrupt our joy because it disrupts our fellowship with God. But that’s the key: the friendship we have with God is the source of joy. When we pray about the things that trouble us, God doesn’t snap His fingers (generally) and change the circumstances. But He does take us by the hand and tell us He’ll go with us wherever those troubles take us. We aren’t alone and we can trust Him to turn ashes into joy.

Job went through horrific loss, but God gave him a glimpse of Himself, then restored what he’d lost. Ruth suffered the loss of her husband, then gave up her homeland and her native culture, and God replaced her loss with a husband and a son in the Messianic line. Abraham “lost” his son Isaac who he’d waited for, for decades, only to have him restored and become the beginning of nations. Peter was a miserable failure, unable to stand up to the jeering crowd, but instead denying his Lord and Savior. Yet, the risen Christ restored him to his place as one tasked with feeding God’s sheep and proclaiming the truth about Jesus as Messiah. I could go on and one.

The point is simple: our circumstances don’t have to dictate our level of joy. God has given us His forgiveness. God is giving us His presence. And God will give us our future inheritance—the joy from the ashes. We have the hope of heaven and an eternity with God. That’s the greatest source of joy a person could ever want.

But there is a catch. It’s easy to take our eye off the ball. Ask any athlete. When you are anticipating what comes next or when you’re evaluating what you need to change, it’s easy to be distracted by past mistakes or at expected successes. Either one can cause you to drop the ball that’s right in front of you.

We need to keep our eye on the prize which is Jesus Christ Himself. He will not disappoint. He will not fail us. He will not forsake us.

I found a very, very cool verse in Zephaniah (the minor prophets are filled with little unexpected gems) which lets us know more about God:

The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy. (3:17)

A victorious warrior! How cool is that! But how amazing that He rejoices over us, that His emotional response to us is love and joy. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it hard to be in the presence of joyful people without some of their joy infecting me. How much more so God, who lives in my heart and who exults over me with joy.

Can I turn my back on Him and put on my grumpy face and say, Leave me alone! Well, apparently so, because Scripture tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit and not to quench the Holy Spirit. So when we take our eye off the prize, when we stop looking into the face of Jesus, we can fall into the tumult of our circumstances. Ah, dear Peter also gave us a great illustration of that when he bravely stepped out of the boat to walk on water to Jesus. But he took his eyes off the prize and started to sink. It’s easy to do, what with the wind and the waves swamping the boat. But it’s certainly not inevitable. We can keep our eyes on the prize instead.

Published in: on May 13, 2016 at 5:57 pm  Comments Off on Eyes On The Prize  
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Pollen


I was a hay fever kid. Every spring, especially during recess or P.E. class, newly mowed grass gave me fits. I was allergic to ragweed, too, but apart from those two plants, I managed just fine.

Unlike others, I neither out-grew the condition nor became worse, though I discovered one more thing I’m allergic to — more than anything else I’ve ever encountered. And it so happens I am living right next to it.

Just beyond the fence is a beautiful tall, full tree that offers wonderful shade in the summer. In the fall, which is usually in December here in SoCal, the tree begins to lose its leaves. Sometime after the first winter rain, it starts growing little blossoms which eventually produce new leaves. In the process those tiny yellow flowers release a fine yellow pollen, visible on our car windshields, porch, stairs.

It is that pollen I am allergic to.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, though some times I fall into a bit of a grumble. Except, I don’t want that tree gone. How many people live in the Los Angeles basin and can look out a window without seeing another apartment building or house? Plus there’s that extra shade which makes a ten to fifteen degree difference in the summer temperatures. I like this tree. I just don’t like its pollen.

Except, of course, the tree would have no leaves if there were no pollen. And Science 101 says pollen is important for bees and such — the whole eco-system. I’ll have to take the word of the experts on that one. I just know, I have to take the bad if I want the good. And I do.

This whole pollen thing seems a bit like an illustration of all of life. Things happen — a broken wrist, a rejection notice from an agent, a promotion that goes to someone else, a fender bender on the way home from work. All such things are much like the pollen — those are not things anyone wants. Except without them, we don’t have the growth needed that can get us through the days when the temperature rises. The tough things train us.

“Consider it all joy,” James says, “when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3).

Peter says positive things about hard times too:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7)

For a little while things might be hard, but rejoicing is still possible because there will be a reveal.

Writers like reveals. It’s something we need to put into our novels to create those A-ha moments for readers. And of course the biggest and the best reveal is saved for last. So too in real life.

Now the days of pollen (which are almost over — we had some rain today, which clears the air) will serve as more than a reminder that new leaves are coming on the wonderful shade tree that will cool my place in the summer. Now I have one more reminder that God makes joy and rejoicing out of the various trials He allows because the great A-ha is coming!

This post originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in February 2012

Published in: on February 10, 2015 at 6:43 pm  Comments Off on Pollen  
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The Joy Of The Lord, Or The Joy Of Our Stuff


Christmas_candles_wk_3In this third week of the Advent season, my church is focusing on joy. It’s a fairly common practice now for pastors to explain how joy is different from happiness. And it is. I’m glad for the good reminder.

But the reality is, many of us, while looking for joy instead of happiness, are looking for it in all the wrong places. Someone might look for her joy in owning the latest, chicest, most stylish dress or necklace or handbag. Someone else might look for her joy in creating the perfect home, with perfect landscaping, perfect decor, perfect meals. A third someone might expect her joy to come from her awesome family relationships—her academically strong, emotionally well-balanced, spiritually minded, socially accepted children; her best-friend, sexually-fulfilled monogamous husband; her pleased and proud parents and in-laws; her supportive and/or adoring siblings and their families; add in the grandparents, and her world is made!

Note that these “wrong places” aren’t wrong in and of themselves. If someone looks for her joy in her job, it’s not a bad thing that she works to be the best she can at what she loves.

The thing is, success or relationships or stuff or power or fame or influence or beauty or talent or accomplishment—none of it—is the source of joy, not the kind that lasts, not the kind that gives us strength.

Strength? I mention strength because the passage I quoted from Nehemiah in “Hilarious Joy” includes, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

It seems to me all other joys are weakness. The latest stuff will be outdated tomorrow, so where’s the joy then? The perfect yard gets weeds, the perfect house gets dirty, the perfect food gets eaten—or worse, gets turned into garbage! Relationships are constantly in flux as children grow and relatives die. Job fulfillment is as tenuous as the economy. The joy in all these things is fleeting and may actually be the source of much effort and worry.

In reality, then, all our stuff, even our relationships with friends as well as family, are dissipation rather than strength. We either have and want to hold on or we don’t have and want to gain more to reach that level where joy sets in.

It would seem joy’s companion, when sought in the wrong places, is contentment. When we have what we want, we’ll have contentment and joy sets in.

So when is this great contentment going to fall on us—somewhere around 2034? Maybe 2031 if we do things right. But possibly not until 2037 when the kids are grown, out of school, settled in their own jobs, making a good living, having their own perfect kids . . .

The joy of the Lord is our strength, not the joy of our stuff.

This truth was perfectly illustrated by today’s guest blogger at Spec Faith, Timothy Stone. Here’s the pertinent part of his article:

[Those in my army unit deployed in Iraq] had been told that the flights home would not happen until the evening of Christmas Day, and we had to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in Kuwait on the base. There had been this air of excitement in the building as we all (those of us who got to have leave at this time) awaited the details of our impending flight home in the early morning hours of the 24th. Then the sad news was given to us, that we could not make it home until the day after Christmas. The general feeling of dejection was palpable. We grumbled amongst ourselves, and at the travel staff. Our behavior was quite lousy, to say the least. Most of the day was spent in sadness, until the evening, when a surprising thing happened.

There were several services that evening, including one at midnight. As each service passed, it seemed that everyone’s mood – including my own – improved drastically, until finally the midnight service came. There, in that small Air Force chapel in Kuwait, we shut off the lights, took lit candles, and passed them around. In hushed tones, we began to sing “The First Noel.”

I remember looking around as I sang, looking at everyone’s faces faintly illuminated by the candles that we all held. So many different denominations, believers and lost alike, and countries of origin, were represented. Yet here we were, on Christmas Eve, thousands of miles from home, and we were all happy. Most people would wonder at that, that joy that we all seemed to feel that night, given where we were, but I know it was really what was in our hearts . . .

In that moment, no one seemed to be contemplating gifts, food, decorations, or any of the usual “holiday cheer”. We appeared to focus on the miracle that occurred a little over two thousand years ago in a stable a couple of hundred miles away in Bethlehem. God came to save us from our sins. He did so much for us, when we were His enemies. Not because He had to do so, but because He chose to do so.

That day we had spent sulking about not being home for Christmas, about “missing Christmas”. We (including myself and other Christians) didn’t seem to have Jesus or God’s gift of salvation on our hearts. We truly needed a wake-up call. The Lord had no reason to give us one, or to bring us comfort, as we showed nothing but ingratitude and lack of joy. Nevertheless, He chose to give us said comfort. He chose to bring us the joy of Christmas, and show us the true meaning.

Timothy and the soldiers with him were looking for joy in returning home, in being with their family for Christmas. What they found was the joy of the Lord—the true joy which comes when we look at the Savior instead of what we have or what we don’t have.

They were surprised by joy, as C. S. Lewis liked to phrase it, because they actually forgot about looking for joy and simply enjoyed worshiping the Messiah. Suddenly the joy of the Lord was theirs.

Therein lies the strength to face the loss of a loved one, the fear of an upcoming doctor’s appointment, being laid off at work, the unknown of a child’s illness, or whatever uncertain circumstances we might face.

Emmanuel, God with us, makes all the difference.

Published in: on December 19, 2014 at 6:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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Joy And Rejoicing


Christmas_shoppers_in_Leeds_in_December_2009Complaints. Angst. Cynicism. Malaise. Western society seems bent toward dissatisfaction. I blame this in part on our consumerism. We are constantly being told we need something other than what we have which instills a sense of disgruntlement. At the same time, however, we’re aware that wherever we turn, someone is trying to sell us something or scam us, spam us, or hack us, so we have our guards up.

Ironic. Perhaps no people on earth have more material goods than those of us in western societies. And yet, as one pastor said recently, we are a covetous people.

Instead of enjoying what we have, we plot and plan how to get more, even as we worry and work in order to keep what we’ve got. We spend hundreds of dollars purchasing warranties and insurance–health, auto, home, renter, life, dental. There are specific kinds of insurance, too–flood, fire, earthquake, theft, comprehension, accident, collision.

Protect, protect, protect. We have passwords to keep people out of our computers and mobile devices and social media sites. We have security alarms in our homes and cars and places of business. We have cameras and automatic light systems and safes and security doors and gated communities and security guards.

I’m not saying any of those things is wrong, but quite frankly, I don’t know how anyone keeps up. And I understand why so many people seem unhappy.

In the midst of all the frenzy connected with getting and keeping, magnified during the weeks known as “the shopping season,” the US has tucked into the last week of November a day we call Thanksgiving.

After cooking and cleaning and gathering together in our family groups, we eat our feasts, then go through the appropriate motions of being thankful to whomever for whatever before we rush off to the next hurried and hectic day of shopping.

A friend recently wrote a blog post that indited Christians for not being joyful, not laughing, not making merry. I don’t think it’s a problem with Christians as much as it is with people living in western societies. Oh, sure, there’s laughter in places where the people have had too much to drink or are making sport of others.

But joy? Where do you go to see people with joy oozing from their expressions?

Well, certainly it ought to be the Church. Joy is a product of contentment, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t require happy circumstances, and it doesn’t need to be greased with a pint of the bubbly.

Rejoicing is the same. James says the poor man is to rejoice in his humble circumstances. Peter says the believer is to rejoice to the degree that we share the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13).

It’s already abundantly clear that lots of stuff doesn’t lead to joy and rejoicing. Sure, sitting down with a group of friends or finding the perfect present at a bargain price or cheering for a team that wins all might make us happy for a time, but joy lasts and rejoicing doesn’t need an occasion.

At least not a new occasion. We already have received the good news of great joy which is for all people. And that’s reason for rejoicing for all time.

Published in: on November 8, 2013 at 7:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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Evangelical Myth #3 – Suffering And God’s Blessing Are Incompatible


america_arrestMost people probably wouldn’t want to admit it, but if they’ve taken the time to read the book of Job, they’re inclined to think his friends make a lot of good points. I mean, can we really disagree with Eliphaz when he says,

According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity
And those who sow trouble harvest it.
(Job 4:8)

Of course, we have the prologue in the first chapter that tells us Satan is testing Job, but without that information, what would we honestly think about him?

He was rich beyond measure, well respected in the community, generous to the poor and needy, godly in every respect. And then one day, his world collapses. He loses practically everything he owns, his children die in a freakish storm, and then he himself gets sick. Horribly, painfully sick.

Would we conclude that God’s favor is on this man?

Again, I understand how the idea that suffering and God’s blessing are incompatible got a foothold in evangelical circles. After all, there is some Biblical foundation. Take Psalm 1, for example.

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.

Clearly, in this contrast between the righteous and the wicked, God is saying there are advantages for the righteous. Those advantages could easily be interpreted as here and now.

But there are also any number of passages that indicate suffering has nothing to do with wickedness. Christ Himself suffered, and we are to experience the “fellowship of His sufferings.” Peter and John suffered because they wouldn’t stop preaching about Jesus. Paul suffered a “thorn in his side” which God would not heal. Stephen suffered to the point of death.

In the end, the Christian who believes the Bible and doesn’t just give lip service to it, must take into consideration its entire counsel if we are to understand what God wants to teach us about suffering.

A brief summary shows that suffering

    * may come as a part of persecution
    * can be a blessing
    * may be a result of Satan’s opposition
    * sometimes exists solely to bring God glory
    * is something in which we can rejoice
    * is experienced by our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world
    * can be experienced by those who are doing wrong

One thing that seems absent is the idea that suffering is a sure sign of sin. Peter says it’s far better for us to suffer for doing right rather than for doing wrong, and he commands believers to make sure they don’t suffer as “a murder or thief or evil doer or a troublesome meddler.” But if we suffer as Christians, he says we’re not to be ashamed.

So Peter highlights the fact that suffering can be a consequence of sin or a result of persecution. In other words, there is no automatic, “this is what suffering means” answer.

Peter actually seems to look favorably on suffering. In his first letter, he starts chapter 4 by saying, “Therefore since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that last line, but clearly, he was looking at suffering in a completely different way than do most western evangelical Christians.

I think about the newly converted Paul having to leave Damascus in a basket because his fellow Jews were trying to kill him for preaching Jesus. I suspect today if someone had a similar experience, they’d write a book about being disappointed in God for not smoothing the path for their preaching or they’d give an e-zine interview about how they lost their faith because God couldn’t be counted on.

The fact is, we put God on trial and judge Him based on whether He gets us out or keeps us out of uncomfortable, hard places. When we walk through the fire, we think God has messed up, but the prophet Isaiah said,

When you pass through the water, I will be with you
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you. (Isaiah 43:2)

There’s no promise there that the waters won’t be overwhelming or that the fire won’t come near. There is God’s promise of His presence, His direction, and even His protection in the midst of suffering.

James says, “When you encounter various trials,” not if you encounter various trials.

The real question doesn’t seem to be “will we face suffering,” or even “why do we face suffering,” but “how will we face suffering.”

As long as western evangelical Christians buy the myth that suffering is incompatible with God’s blessing, I don’t see how we can respond with the kind of joy Peter and James both talk about.

Joy To The World


Philippines TyphoonYet another individual tragedy this past week. A well-loved Christian radio personality here in the Los Angeles area died of injuries he received a month ago in a motorcycle accident.

For whatever reason, many US citizens continue to struggle to cope with the violent deaths of so many school children in Connecticut a week ago.

Then I learned on Tuesday that a killer typhoon hit the southern Philippines. Hundreds of fishermen are lost, children are traumatized, the death toll has reached over a thousand, and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes.

Joy to the world?

I’ve had it, some people are saying, Christmas is over. Who can celebrate when the world is in such turmoil, when sorrow is so present, when there seems to be so little to engender joy?

But isn’t this precisely why we must celebrate Christmas? Not the Christmas of Santa and Fa-la-la-la-la or Black Friday Greed. Not that Christmas.

What we need to celebrate is God, come down to rescue us from the trauma of sin that puts puts evil intent in the hearts of people and corrupts the very fabric of our planet.

Christmas is proof that God hasn’t left us to cope on our own, that He has a solution.

Good news! the angel said to the shepherds, that night Jesus was born; this joyful announcement is for all people–you have a Savior.

Who needs a Savior? Not those living contentedly, convinced of their own ability to heal the woes of Mankind. Not those untouched by fear or grief or devastation.

Who needs the joyful announcement, The Savior has come? People aware of their need for a Savior.

In the midst of an obviously broken world, Jesus appears with comfort and assurance. For those who trust Him, He gives His presence through the dark and His promise that things won’t always be like this. Sin won’t win. There is a future and a hope.

That’s good news, joy for the whole world.

Published in: on December 20, 2012 at 7:10 pm  Comments (4)  
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Joy And The Holy Spirit


Most Christians have probably heard or read that joy is not the same thing as happiness. I think we’re pretty clear about the distinction.

A quick study reveals that joy is grouped with patience, peace, love, faithfulness, and a few other traits to constitute the fruit of the Spirit.

Why, then, I ask myself, do I think I need to manufacture joy?

And since the Holy Spirit is the source of joy, wouldn’t it be fair to say, if I’m not experiencing joy, I must be quenching the Holy Spirit?

I mean, Galatians 5:22-23 doesn’t make joy an optional piece of fruit. If we have the Spirit, we have the fruit. It’s a matter, then, of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Or not.

As I’m writing this, the little chorus “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes to mind. The words simply repeat that line over and over — a line from Nehemiah 8:10.

The returned exiles, struggling to make a go of it in the homeland most of them had never seen before, asked Ezra, one of their leaders, to read the book of the law. He read from dawn to midday. A group of others then explained the text and taught the people what it all meant.

Their reaction? Nope, not joy.

They were weeping and mourning. The Law exposed their sin, and they were undone.

That’s when Nehemiah stepped in. Stop crying, he said. Today is a holy day, set aside for the Lord. Get up and let the feast begin. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.

And the people calmed down, got up, and celebrated “because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).

Except, two verses earlier, their understanding caused them to grieve. But now? Celebration. How can that be explained apart from the joy of the Lord?

The Spirit convicts of sin. The proper response should be sorrow leading to repentance. And then comes joy, not a manufactured joy or an inauthentic emotion.

The reality was, their circumstances hadn’t changed. They were still returned exiles struggling to get it together. In their own estimation, they were still slaves:

Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which
You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress. (Neh 9:36-37)

Under those circumstances, Nehemiah gave them that salient truth: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Not bitterness or complaining, certainly. But not continued grieving, either. And not what we rely on today, a can-do spirit.

Their strength came from what only the Spirit could provide — joy from the Lord.

Ironic, then, that quenching the Spirit leads to the opposite of what someone going through difficult circumstances needs — strength. The little recap of Jewish history in Nehemiah 9 spells it out:

You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst. v. 20 (emphasis mine)

Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell. v 21

You also gave them kingdoms and peoples … v. 22

You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven … v. 23

So their sons entered and possessed the land… v. 24

They captured fortified cities and a fertile land… v. 25

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You v. 26 (emphasis added)

Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them. v. 27

Listening to God’s Spirit strengthened the people; rebelling against Him, didn’t.

So what was it those Israelites Nehemiah addressed, understood that made it possible for them to calm down, stop grieving, and celebrate?

Not a change in their circumstances, as I’ve noted. Not the promise of a change in their circumstances either. Rather, I believe they understood how faithful the Lord is and how He had not left them or forsaken them, and that He would not. They had the Lord, so they had His joy which gave them strength.

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 6:09 pm  Comments Off on Joy And The Holy Spirit  
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