Excuses

{ image source }

Gentle Reader,

I like honesty. I like it when someone is willing to own up to the facts, the truth, of a matter.

I can’t stand excuses.

Have I used excuses? Of course. I’m a human being, just like you. When I look for excuses or try and shift the blame, however, I rarely feel justified. Instead an awful, weighted feeling grows inside my chest. I know the truth. I know I should have owned up to whatever it was I needed to own up to.

Really, an excuse is just a lie.

This weighs heavily on me today in terms of our attitude toward Bible study. It annoys me to hear people who call themselves Christians say that they don’t like to study the Bible. Please don’t misread me here. I don’t have a perfect daily Bible reading record. I’ve gotten frustrated or bored with certain workbook authors. I’ve had weeks as a group leader when I’ve neglected to prepare for lessons. The truth in all that is I didn’t want want to do my reading on the days I skipped it, often didn’t want to hear what those authors had to say or didn’t want to set aside time for lesson preparation.

If you tell me that you don’t study the Bible because you don’t want to, I’ll believe you. I’ll say, “Yep, been there.” I’ll respect your honesty. I’ll try and engage you in a conversation about why you don’t want to study. Maybe it’s a “not-knowing-where-or-how-to-start” thing. Maybe it’s a “can’t-find-a-workbook-author-I-connect-with” thing. Maybe it’s an accountability thing.

But if you tell me that you don’t study the Bible because you don’t like it, then I will tell you that you make no sense. You honestly don’t like learning more about the God you say you love? You don’t like discovering wisdom and direction, especially in tough situations? You don’t like being able to discern the difference between truth and a lie?

Pray tell, what do you like?

There are so many different ways to study God’s Word. The reality is that we don’t have any reason not to do it. There are dozens upon dozens of authors who have taken the time to produce study guides and commentaries. There are dictionaries to aid in understanding difficult words and concepts. There are maps and timelines galore. There are audio readings, both straight and dramatized. Whatever your learning style, whatever unique way God gave you for understanding the world, there is an avenue for you to get in there and grow.

Is it true that God is beautiful and arresting in His majesty? How can that be so, but His Word be boring or unlikeable? There are tales of creation and fall, grace and redemption, prophets and kings. Men and women return from the dead. Storms are calmed and earth is shaken. People are taken – alive – to Heaven. Dreams and visions, wrestlings and exoduses. The Lord revealed.

Like it or not, we Christians truly are, as Muslims say, “People of the Book.” Yes, God reveals Himself in creation. Yes, His Spirit dwells within us. But there’s just no getting around those 66 books, nor is there a way to avoid the clear consequences of trying to. In saying you don’t like to read and study the words, aren’t you really saying that you don’t like what God has to say? Or, deeper still, that you don’t care?

My friend, I know that comes across as harsh. If you could only see my face! I am desperate for you to know the truth. Lies abound out there. Something or someone is always going to be attempting to suck you in. How are you going to recognize the falsehoods as being such without a firm grasp of the truth? How will you guard your heart and mind if all you ever fill them with is what the world shoves at you? How will you ever understand that what may begin as an act of sheer obedience may turn into the greatest adventure of your life?

Lies brought me to the edge of death. His Word drew me back to life. I haven’t always cried tears of joy at every word I’ve read, but I have been saved. I am being transformed.

I like that.

My journey to faith. (15)

Is it Right for You to Be Angry?

{ image source }

Gentle Reader,

Most of us are at least nominally familiar with the story of Jonah, the prophet called by God to preach to the people of the city of Nineveh. Jonah decides that this a pretty ridiculous request and runs in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish (either Carthage in Northern Africa or ancient Spain). A great storm comes upon the ship and the only way for the crew to survive is to thrown Jonah overboard. He is promptly swallowed by a fish, left for three days in what must have been a beyond-words-disgusting environment and is finally spit out onto the land after crying out to God. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches all across the city, telling the people to turn to God or be destroyed.

They choose repentance.

Jonah’s response?

This seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live!” – 4:1-3 (NKJV)

Seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it?

Jonah had good reason to be upset that the inhabitants of Nineveh would go unpunished. The city was the capital of Assyria, one of the cruelest nations in ancient history. Expansionist policies during the Neo-Assyrian empire (911-612 B.C.) consisted of “systematic economic exploitation of subject states. . .[and] vicious military action.” (1) This was no “live-and-let-live” type of conquest.

Assyria had intermittently harassed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, where Jonah lived, since its inception. While the decisive victory would come in 722 B.C. with the fall of Samaria and the deportation of at least 27,000+ from that city alone, it is safe to say that national prejudices were running high during Jonah’s time. He “does not want God to relent and is angry with Yahweh being true to Himself.” (2) Jonah wanted to see the inhabitants of Nineveh, and probably the rest of Assyria burn (see Luke 9:54 and its surrounding context for another example of this brand of intense disgust).

I understand Jonah’s anger. When someone has wronged me or those that I care about, I want to see them punished!

But then God asks a question:

“Is it right for you to be angry?” – 4:4 (NKJV)

Jonah certainly thought he was in the right, but it’s glaringly obvious in reading the text that he should feel the same compassion that God does. The people have chosen to turn away from their wickedness and God forgave them. Shouldn’t that be a cause for rejoicing?

Jonah is left shaking his head.

I haven’t been called to preach a message of repentance in an atmosphere of racial and cultural intolerance, nor have I ever pitched a fit about God forgiving someone and welcoming her into His family. Nevertheless, the question haunts me. “Is it right for you to be angry?”

There are times when we can answer this with an honest and unequivocal “yes.” Nowhere in Scripture does it say that anger is wrong. We should feel angry when we witness or experience abuse or betrayal. It would be abnormal if we didn’t. So, if someone spreads a rumor about me, I’m going to be offended. I’m going to be angry that this person felt the right and the need to be so hurtful.

Would it be right, however, to be angry about it months later?

I have heard it said that depression and anxiety are anger turned inward. Instead of expressing the sense of injustice, lips remain sealed and a placid expression remains on the face. It is a different story within. The incident is studied over and over again, the hurt growing each time it is looked at. Conversations are imagined, the “enemy” always coming out on the losing end. Eventually a place is reached where punishment is actively hoped for; it becomes easy to enjoy the misfortunes of others.

Someplace buried deep inside, where all the secrets are kept, it becomes easy to ask God to burn others.

It frightens me to know that I have the capacity to be (and have been, more than once) just like Jonah. How quickly anger can be blown out of proportion. How simple it is to expend precious energy fuming and fussing.

“Is it right for you to be angry?”

There comes a point when the only true answer to this question is “no.” We know that. We know when we’ve held on to the pain and the offense far too long. The stench of it clings to us like garbage sitting in the sun. We can’t go anywhere, do anything or be in relationship with anyone without the smell tinging everything. What’s worse, we’re not the only ones who notice it. All we come into contact with know, somehow, that the rage burns.

Anger can be constructive. It can motivate us to have that difficult talk, to stand up for the oppressed, to work to make things better. And that is the point – anger must move us to action, for in that action the anger dissipates. New perspectives are achieved. Energies are moved in a healthy direction  Holding on to anger clouds the vision and blocks the ears.

I want to experience this beautiful, blessed and messy life without the blinders of intense, misplaced anger. I want to rejoice in God’s forgiving spirit, knowing that His justice is still maintained and that He cares about the hurts I feel. I want to release the heaviness generated by carrying around so many things and people into His capable hands.

Old, musty anger robs us of joy and delight. It saps our energy. It makes us bitter, difficult and unpleasant people.

Let’s move on.

My journey to faith. (15)

References

(1) Chad Brand, ed., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Nashville.: Holman Reference., 2003.), s.v. “Assyria.”

(2) Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 233.

This post appeared on the Far East Broadcasting Company Gospel Blog on April 24, 2014.

The God with Whom we Are Uncomfortable: a Strength

photo-1429371527702-1bfdc0eeea7d

Gentle Reader,

For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10b (NKJV)

I forgot to take my various medications this morning, so my brain is sloshing around, no longer solid enough to neatly fit inside my skull. That, oddly enough, illustrates the final point I want to make about us and God perfectly:

It is only in fully owning up to and embracing our weakness that we are able to engage in authentic relationship with God.

We can’t go the full-on deterministic route and assign God the blame for every bad thing or every moment of suffering. Nor can we go the complete free-will route and decide that God is totally hands-off. Neither position accurately reflects what Scripture reveals to us about our wildly wonderful Creator and King. When I started this series of posts, I was hoping to be able to discern whether or not God causes suffering to come into our lives. I no longer think that’s the right question; we don’t know enough, can’t see enough, to able to nail that one down.

Now, I ask: What do You want me to here, Lord?

In my heart, I feel that His answer is: Trust Me. Rest in Me. Obey Me. Stay with Me.

I am weak. Frail. Fragile. My life is but a breath, the merest whisp of eternity. I can’t deny that, especially when I want so much to break down crying because the chemicals in my brain are out of whack and it will take awhile for the recently-ingested antidepressant to kick in.

Whether God ordains a thing to happen or allows a thing to happen, I think that He works to bring us face-to-face with our intense inability to maintain any semblance of strength. He is like a drill instructor in that; He seeks to peel back the layers of self-assurance and get to the heart of who we are. He then builds us into the people that He designed us to be. That process, I think, means coming back to this weakness over and over again. What does that song say? Heal the wound – but leave the scar.

In some strange way, I am content in not knowing exactly why I am sick and sad. I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure that out and never get anywhere. I’d rather travel the roads of healing that God has provided, gathering as many tools for the fight as I possibly can, all the while knowing that I will never, ever arrive at a place where I am not in desperate, aching need of Him.

The tears are coming down my cheeks now. My adopted niece likes to say, “But I’m just little.” That is what I feel my soul is crying out. I’m just little. I’m just awkward. I’m just weak. I’m just tired.

And yet I am strong. I am hidden in the folds of God’s robe, tucked safely against His heart. He is my shield, my defender. I might be little, but He is so beyond big. I might be awkward, but He moves with perfect grace. I might be weak, but He isn’t. I might be exhausted, but He never sleeps. I can go confidently forward with a Lord like that.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all posts in the God with Whom we Are Uncomfortable series, go here.

The God with Whom we Are Uncomfortable: a Boast

photo-1429371527702-1bfdc0eeea7d

Gentle Reader,

I find myself extremely resistant to looking at the rest of the passage I spent the month of January memorizing. It’s hard enough to consider that some pain may be directly ordained by God, worse yet to know that He will use forces of evil to work His will in my life. That is beyond my understanding in more ways than one. The rest of verse 12, however, takes the cake:

Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9b (NKJV)

What the what?

The Greek gives no additional insight into this sentence. Paul is straight up saying that he’s going to revel in his weaknesses. He connects this acceptance and glorying in frailty to an outpouring of Christ’s strength.

I’d like to lodge a protest against this. Believing Scripture to be God-inspired doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with what it has to say. I’m supposed to accept and even enjoy the fact that I’m sick and sad? I’m supposed to be looking for ways in which God’s power works through me? Seriously?

And yet…

I can’t get on this boasting in weakness train, but I will say that there is a level of intimacy that I am experiencing with God that I would not otherwise know without this pain and illness. No, I am not hearing an audible voice and there are no burning bushes. I don’t suddenly understand everything in the Bible. This intimacy is built upon desperation. I must know God. I have to stick close to Him. I don’t have many illusions about my own strength left, and those that do remain are being systematically knocked down by a Divine hand.

So, maybe that’s what Paul is talking about. I can’t imagine that he was actually happy to be in pain, but maybe the pain led him to a new experience with God, a new level of relationship.

There are certain things I know for sure now that I didn’t before. God is intimately involved in our lives. He is always faithful and ever-loving. I need to memorize Scripture if I want to have any chance against the dark, irrational thoughts that come so easily. It’s vital to cling to what I know, rather than what I feel. Other things that I used to be so sure about, like my calling, where my life was headed and my own abilities, have fallen by the wayside. The place I find myself in is extremely uncomfortable, but that is somehow better than where I was before.

Til we meet again.

My journey to faith. (15)

  For all posts in the God with Whom we Are Uncomfortable series, go here.