Airbrushed to Death

There, but for the grace of God, go all of us...

There, but for the grace of God, go all of us…

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

– Revelation 3:17-18

I spent last weekend in lockdown … literally. I joined a group of men (largely from my church) in conducting a “Dad’s Seminar” at a nearby state prison (check out New Life Corrections Ministry, part of Wayside Cross). The goal of the program is to help incarcerated dads break the cycle of fatherlessness and crime.

In ministry, it’s easy to think you’re bringing something to someone — somehow riding into someone’s life or a difficult situation on a white horse with the gospel as your sidearm. But more often than not, you end up realizing that God used them to minister to you at least as much as you were there for them. God is always at work. Nobody ever takes God anywhere. And God’s work always starts with me. So it was with this trip. I didn’t take God to the prison. The question was wether or not I would join God in the work He was already doing there.

This was my first experience in a prison or working with the incarcerated. I don’t know what I was expecting really. I didn’t go down there with much of a clear picture in my head of what I would find, what the inmates would be like, etc. It was guys only. They were all fathers, but only some were married. And they all realized that they had severely messed up their lives (knew what they’d done to earn a prison sentence was wrong). Many were Christians, and many were — to be honest — not that different from me. I found myself repeatedly thinking, alongside 16th century preacher John Bradford, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Some were there for things I’ve never done and never considered doing, but others were there for things I’ve definitely thought about and could easily have done (but didn’t). Still others did things I’ve done too, but they got caught and I didn’t. Now that’s sobering. And almost all of them could testify to a condition I thankfully could not: having an absent father. The stats about how much more likely a kid is, without a father, to get into every conceivable trouble are incredible and almost unbelievable:

  • Fatherhood67x more likely to be arrested by age 12
  • 32x more likely to run away
  • 14x more likely to commit rape
  • 10x more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
  • 5x more likely to commit suicide
  • And so on

But there they were — guys who might easily have traded places with me if our fathers had traded places a generation before. It was uncomfortable, but I think good for me … to feel a little too much like them, so to speak. And God used that feeling to show me, in an extremely potent and profound way, the deceitfulness of sin.

Somewhere on Saturday afternoon, it hit me. The enemy of our souls got himself an airbrush kit for Halloween one year, and has been hard at work ever sense making the devastating consequences of sin look as sparkly and shiny as demonically possible. Satan’s days are spent making steaming piles of crap sparkle like gold.

We covered a sizable array of topics with the inmates who attended the seminar, and over and over again this was the testimony… That glittered, but it wasn’t gold. That seemed like it would satisfy me, but it turned to poison in my hand. That promised me life, but instead brought pain and suffering and death. And not just for me, but for my family, especially my kids … for whom, frankly, it will take a miracle to avoid ending up in the same cell someday. Scary stuff!

Our goal was to try to disrupt that cycle, and topics during the two-day, eight-part seminar mostly centered on right relationships with God and family. The session on God-honoring sexuality perhaps made the clearest, most vivid point on this topic. There was a lot of blunt, straight talk among the men (awesome!), including the topic of pornography. Of all the places where sin is (in this case quite literally) airbrushed to falsely turn it into something attractive and appealing, this is a great example. And so many men are snared by it. I’m ashamed to say that I have been. If they’re honest, most men (and [sadly] a growing number of women) will say it’s a constant temptation.

Beyond the obvious wrongness and adulterous nature of pornography (yes, it’s cheating on your spouse), our topic of the false promises of sin forms an insidious undercurrent. Men get into porn as a carnal urge-satisfier or an escape, and end up thinking (even if subconsciously) that this is somehow how real life is supposed to be. Women were not created to be men’s sexual fantasy vending machines; that’s a horribly twisted way to look at sexuality (which God created for our good) and the marriage relationship. In the Bible, marriage and sex are synonymous — never one without the other, and exclusively together. But even beyond that, here’s a news flash… nobody really looks like that.

Before-and-After-Airbrushing

The truth is that many of the women glitzed up to look appealing to men in porn pictures or videos are actually, literally someone’s slave — kept in a box somewhere when they’re not “working”, and airbrushed on film so that you can’t see the malnourishment or the bruises when they are. Men — especially men of God — have to come to the point where porn makes us sick. Because it should. Even setting aside for a moment the intrinsic value of the people in these videos, the damage this “industry” causes them, and the horrible betrayal that is adultery, another important reality (and a point we made with the inmates) is that no real woman (aka your wife) can or should be compared to a comic strip. What porn sells men as “pleasing” or some kind of “standard”, isn’t in the least bit real. And if a man feeds himself the disgusting and unrealistic filth of pornography, he will be decreasingly satisfied with his marriage (you know, real life), and sin crouches at the door ready to utterly destroy anyone it can get its hands on.

Likewise, but less dramatically, the car in the showroom is under just the right lighting so that you have to have it. But the truth is that a shiny, new, super-fast car cannot make you happy or give your life meaning in any sense.

Lexus_Automobile_Lineup_2007

The model home has every bell and whistle imaginable. But the truth is that the more you own, the more your stuff owns you.

Mansion

The toy on TV is shown in maximum unsustainable fun mode, not made-in-china, broken-in-a-week mode. The truth is a new toy is never as great as the anticipation of receiving it.

Toy Story

Even lunch never looks like the advertisement when your order comes up.

perfect-cheeseburgersad-cheeseburger

And the apple in the Garden of Eden looked really great too, but sampling it led to death. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). And through that door, ever disease and deadly consequence imaginable entered human experience like a run-away freight train. It glittered, but it wasn’t gold!

There’s a war raging in this world. Nobody wants to be in a war, but we don’t get to opt out. We do, however, get to choose… a life of power lived in the Spirit, or a life of slavery and impotency lived for myself. That concept isn’t new to me, but I feel like I saw it with new eyes in prison this past weekend. To the one who doesn’t know Christ, there is no choice. It’s sin, sin, sin … until you choke to death on it and wake up in hell. But the invitation goes out to anyone who will listen…  “Repent [turn around!], for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near!” (Matthew 3:2)

The sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ has made new life possible to anyone who wants it. Not just someday, but right now! But you can’t want it in addition to some other form of “life” you really love or want to hold on to or think is gratifying you. You have to want it instead of your old life (which is in fact death — it’s just airbrushed to look like life). You can’t have fake gold and real gold too. Real gold … life that amazing … costs everything. All fake gold must be exchanged … left for dead. That’s your stuff, your desires, your goals … your very life. Does it belong to you or God? If it belongs to you, God will take it away. If it belongs to Him, God will pour into it riches you literally cannot imagine. (Matthew 16:25)

God desires for me, you, and every prisoner I met last weekend to have this new life. If you are in Christ, you are no longer a slave to sin. It tells you it has power over you; it doesn’t. Sin tells you it’s your friend; it is not. Sin can not and will not deliver on its promises. It looks good, but it’s a lie.

Sin is like a pet tiger; it’s fluffy and beautiful and purrs when you pet it … until it suddenly turns on you and rips your face off.

God, on the other hand, always delivers on His promises. You may not understand them or His answers when you ask your many questions, but you can trust Him. God will keep His promises. What God calls gold you can take to the bank. And God has clearly promised you power to live for Him (Acts 1:8, Galatians 5:16-23). You can chose life! And when you do, His blessing will extend not just to you, but to 1,000 generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:9-10)

I counsel you to buy gold refined by fire...

I counsel you to buy gold refined by fire…

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Best… Dinner… Ever

Feast

Home for Dinner

In reading Luke this week, I saw something that struck me in a new way that I thought I’d share. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about two men who came to the temple to pray. He specifically calls out that the story is meant to highlight the critical difference between the Pharisees “[those] who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:1) and the sinners with whom He (Jesus) was so frequently accused of fraternizing. Here’s the story…

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week;  I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  — Luke 18:10-14

I remember a time in my life where I barely understood anything Jesus was saying in this parable. Eventually God revealed to me / really impressed upon me what spiritual poverty is. I’m still learning that, but at least I am now full-on moved every time I read the tax collector’s plea to God for help. I can imagine his being trapped in sin. I can imagine his feeling totally overwhelmed and defeated. I can imagine his being able to articulate what the Lord is telling him, but being too afraid to act. I can imagine his heart’s acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy, contrasted against what is likely significant material wealth. Not comparing him to me in the specifics at all, and this is all supposition, but the point is that I can relate. It’s clear to me that he has assessed and is deeply in touch with his desperate need for God. In observing that this man goes home justified before God, Jesus is simply rewording one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3; Luke 6:20). The man who believes he is righteous on his own is condemning himself in that belief. The man who acknowledges how desperately he needs the Lord will be shown mercy, and not just mercy, but will be “exalted”.

The King's Table

Reclining at the King’s Table

And there’s the new insight this week…

I’ve always glazed over the last word in this passage. Those who humble themselves before God will be “exalted”. Or “lifted up” (James 4:10). I think what I (we?) have fail to realize is that just being with God will be more glorious than we can possibly image — better than anything in this world, no matter how seemingly wonderful. Being “exalted” might not be intended to mean anything more than simply being invited to dinner and seated at God’s table (Luke 13:29). And if so, that would be more than enough, wouldn’t it?. Obviously more than we deserve.

Still, reading passages like this, I always had flashing thoughts of thrones and glory, and didn’t give it much of a second thought. I get that there are passages in the NT about our “reigning with Christ” (particularly in Revelation, but also 2 Timothy 2:12 and others), but I wonder if much of God’s language about “exalting” is less about some kind of glory we’re going to have, and more about the glory (His glory) that we will then more fully experience. We simply cannot fathom the awe and joy we will experience in just being with God. Nothing in this life can possibly compare. But I think our culture and our privileged lives rob us of connecting with thoughts like this, because we have so much. Our expectations of this life have gotten so high and large, that we have a hard time processing Jesus’ offers of a better life to come.

In thinking about it this morning, I wrote down this cheesy-but-probably-pretty-close-to-home adaptation of a warning Jesus once gave to his disciples about materialism…  It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a person who thinks having an iPhone is amazing to enter the Kingdom of God. CS Lewis was right that we are far too easily pleased. And, after reading Jesus’ story in Luke with fresh eyes this week, I wonder if that low bar of gratification makes it harder for us to marvel at how utterly mind-blowingly awesome it’s going to be to simply recline at God’s table with Him someday.

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But what happened to the widow on Monday?

Vast Treasure

The wealth of dwarves, or the wealth of God?

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums.  And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.  And he called his disciples to him and said to them,  “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  — Mark 12:41-44

In the story, Jesus commends the widow because she put everything she had in the offering at church on Sunday.

So, what happened Monday? Did she buy food? Did she pay her rent? A widow in that culture would have had almost no ability to earn money. Shouldn’t Jesus have chastised her for her foolish and reckless generosity? Or at least encouraged her to have enough set aside for her bills? Or maybe a 3 month reserve? How did she manage?

Is it possible that God simply and miraculously provided for her needs?

I think that’s exactly what happened. We have no idea really. It’s speculation. She’s not mentioned again in Scripture. But I assume God took care of her. I think there’s enough clarity on this topic in Scripture to believe that God will be proven faithful again… in caring for her in ways she could never have cared for herself. Trusting the Lord, she literally gave her last penny, and I’m going to go on record betting that she didn’t starve to death the next week as a result.

At the root of it is the question of whether or not we are going to take God seriously. Maybe we’re thinking about “having enough” all wrong. Maybe the point is that God is always enough, and that He is the one that should be doing the providing … not the widow, not us. Maybe we should be assuming that Jesus can actually be trusted when He said that He takes care of ravens and lilies, but loves us far more than He does birds and flowers. (Luke 12:22-30)

I think the widow believed God, and He made a way. And I wonder what would happen if we actually believed that her story was in the Bible as an example to us. I think it’s amazing how many of us (myself included) read this story and in fact take it as a rationale for doing exactly what everyone else in the story is doing.

We read Jesus words, see that He commended her for giving all she had, and then we get all juiced up and “contribute [a little more than last week] out of [our] abundance” (v44). The longer I walk with God, the more I think we’re doing way more patting Jesus on the head than kneeling at His feet.

Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus' feet

Wherever the gospel is proclaimed…

In another story, Mary Magdalene made a tremendous sacrifice by anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume days before His execution (Mark 14:3-9). The perfume was “pure nard”, worth over a year’s wages. It was incredible extravagance, and some criticized her saying that the money from selling that perfume could have been given to the poor. But what Jesus said to Mary’s critics, I believe He would say of the reckless faith of the widow in our story as well: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

And so it has been. Not just the next day or the next month or the next year. I suspect that the woman in our story never had much in the way of material wealth or possessions, but I’m going to assume she ate and slept under a roof and cared for those around her and had friends. And even if none of that was true, even if she died 3 days later starving on the street somewhere, that doesn’t make God unfaithful. God has lovingly afforded her the ultimate provision in Christ, and if she had that, then we will meet her in heaven someday and I know she will say that the Lord has never failed to provide for her every good thing. It’s perspective. And faith. And the willful decision to trust God to take care of her.

Most of what we chase lasts for only a moment, and then it fades. A disheartening-to-mention percentage of those things aren’t worth pursuing at all, and turn to ash in our mouths the second we finally catch them. But this woman (both women) pursued honoring the Lord, and her fame has greatly exceeded yours or mine or even the wealthiest people our world has to offer. For thousands of years, wherever the gospel has been proclaimed in the whole world, what she did has been told in memory of her.

Praise be to the God of the totally upside-down!

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My Favorite One-liner in Scripture

Earthscape

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”  But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me  a denarius and let me look at it.”  And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”  Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at him.  (Mark 12:13-17 ESV)

Denarius

A Roman denarius

This is one of my favorite one-liners from Jesus in all of Scripture. Makes me want to jump up with a “God is awesome! Take that, you simpletons!” every time I read it, so I thought I’d share it with you…

Jesus, holding a denarius: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
Mere men trying to trick Jesus: “Caesar’s”
King of the Universe: “[Then] render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”

What’s the correct spelling of the word, “booyah!” ?  icon_wink

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The Love of God… Is Stronger Than Death

“And Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and  the life. Whoever believes in me,
though he die,  yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’” — John 11:25-26 ESV

He is not here; He is risen!

He is not here; He has risen!

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; He has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6 NIV)

That, in my opinion, is a great question. I think we (as a people; even God’s people) do that all the time… search for the living among the dead. Let me elaborate…

Autumn Leaves

Autumn – march toward death

Physically, this world is dying. Everything in it is dying. Our bodies start winding down the second we emerge from the womb. Every other creature on earth is the same way. Plants live for a brief season and are gone — even plants in ideal tropical climates. I am forever recharging my phone. And the more gadgets you have, the more acutely in-tune you probably are about how fast they wear out.

Even with constant investment, our stuff runs out, falls apart … flat out dies … really fast. Every system – from electronics to relationships, from stars to corporations, from single-cell organisms to complex biological ecosystems – requires live-giving energy to thrive. Any organizational system, if you interrupt the continual flow of energy into it, dies a horrible death. Skeptical? Stop doing the dishes. Stop calling a particular friend. Stop holding leadership meetings at work. Stop watering your plants. Cut off your own oxygen supply. In a blink of an eye, death follows. The truth is that in every corner of our lives and the world around us, the relentless march toward the grave is being stalled (only slowed, not halted) with constant hard work. And I don’t mean just human end of life, but every living thing you could name — whether created by God (people, animals, trees, etc.) or created by man (buildings, roads, cell phones, etc; not biologically “alive”, but functioning and producing nonetheless … until you unplug them from their power source).

But what’s even more interesting (at least to me) is the question of spiritual life and death. Unlike the physical world (which is very much alive but winding down like a cheap watch), the Bible clearly teaches that everyone and everything in our world starts out spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-5, Colossians 2:13 and others).

I doubt it will spark much debate if I categorically state that rocks and buildings are spiritually dead, with no hope of spiritual life. The same is true of grass, apple trees, and tiger lilies, though I do know a few people that might argue that point with me (only a few). The probability of opposition dramatically increases when we get to other animals. As unwilling as some might be to accept it, the truth is that non-human animals are also spiritually dead — permanently. Spiders, lizards, dogs, cats, monkeys, dolphins — all of them. No matter how smart an animal is or how much personality it demonstrates or how much DNA it shares with us humans, the bottom line is that they have no soul. No spiritual life is possible.

Our dog Toffee

Our beloved pooch, Toffee

As wonderful as animals (especially pets) can be, only human beings are “special” among the great diversity of God’s creation. God spoke everything in creation into being by the word of His power. Everything in all the universe was created the same way – from time to light to dirt to animals… God spoke, and it was so, and God called it “good”. See Genesis 1. But God’s last act of creation was different. Here, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27). Then, “the Lord God … breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). And we were given the tasks to “be fruitful and multiply”, to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26)

So, not just created, but created to be a little like God. Not just alive, but alive with the breath of God in our nostrils. Not just taking up space, but given a mission borne out of our relationship with the Creator. Not just “good”, but “very good” (Genesis 1:31). God didn’t talk to the bears and the antelope. The dolphins and chimpanzees didn’t get jobs to do. God didn’t walk in the garden in the cool of the day with the zebras or the llamas. Clearly the animals and plants and all of creation were designed to be in the service and dominion of the man (and the woman). God gave us a special-ness in His creation.

And at the end of the day, that “special-ness” boils down to eternality. God is holy, infinite, with no beginning and no end. We are nothing like Him. He is infinite; we are finite. He is all-powerful; we are weak and frail. We are only a little like Him. But “a little like God” is … utterly amazing! And that similarity includes the capacity to live forever as adopted children in covenant relationship with the Lord God of the creation story. We are more than dust. More than complex biochemistry. More than even sentience. And more than the brief, every-second-marching-steadily-toward-the-grave physical life that we share with the creatures and things around us. One way or another, we (unlike anything else in all the physical universe) will live forever. Unlike God, we had a clear beginning. But astoundingly, like our Heavenly Father, we will not have an end.

Uh … wow!

But wait a minute. Back up. I thought we discussed a few paragraphs back that we — like everything else in the world — start out spiritually dead?

Indeed we do. Look back at Ephesians 2:1-5 and Colossians 2:13, for example. The Bible is clear.

And this is where I want to focus to close us out. We start out spiritually dead. We have the capacity for spiritual life, but we don’t have it. Adam and Eve had it, but they threw it away (Genesis 3), and we inherited the curse of their sin. But be careful being too down on them. Every last one of us is wired the same way. In their shoes, you and I would have done the same thing. Most of us prefer darkness to light — because our deeds are evil (John 3:19). Most of us are perfectly happy being dead — because on this brief vaporous blink of a journey on earth, we love having our own way (Isaiah 53:6). We’re so steeped in “me” and what I want, that we’ll throw away the eternal to get the now. That’s unspeakably sad, but it’s human nature … and a broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). CS Lewis (in The Weight of Glory) was right, “We are far too easily pleased.”

And it is this sinful bent to trade eternal life and everlasting joy for a fleeting moment of pseudo-satisfying, feel-good-for-a-second-and-then-leave-you-cold-and-alone, self-gratification sin that I’m reminded of when the angel asked at the tomb, “who do you look for the living among the dead?”

Buds of spring

Spring – newness of life

We can life our eyes from the dead to the living. God’s love is stronger than death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The cross of Christ is God’s great conquering force over death. The Bible depicts Jesus as the “first born” from among the dead. He was the first to rise in bodily resurrection, but not the last. All those whom God has adopted as sons will rise to eternal life. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). This is our Father’s great love for us…

Created us for abundant life (with Him).
But we chose rebellion and its wages, death.
But the power of God’s love overwhelms the grave.
The cross and the empty tomb show us what for us is yet to come.
We lose this life (our way is dead and buried),
And we gain life everlasting (resurrection power).
So we will always be with the LORD…
Which is beyond-words-amazing!

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The Love of God… Overcomes Obstacles

“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” — Romans 8:28 NIV

Overcoming Obstacles

Overcoming Obstacles

Life is just plain hard. Things go wrong all the time. There are many and frequent happy moments for most of us, but the truth is that there are a lot of moments mixed in there that are anything but (happy). Work is hard. Ministry is hard. Juggling schedules is hard. Keeping on top of all our various responsibilities – from grocery shopping to helping the kids with homework to fixing things around the house – is hard. Relationships are for sure hard, especially the permanent ones like family and marriage. They’re wonderful, but they take a ton of hard work to maintain and even more work to make them flourish. I’ve heard my pastor (James MacDonald) say it dozens of times: “There are no enduring relationships without forgiveness.” That’s enough evidence for the “relationships are hard” theory all by itself, right?

One of the things that frustrates me quickly is when I set out to do something that feels like it should be easy, and then it turns out to be much harder than I had wanted it to be. I plan to drive home from work in 30 minutes, but there’s an accident and now it’s going to take over an hour. I try to carry some things downstairs, and it turns out I balanced one too many, and they all start sliding off the pile and falling everywhere. I pop into the store to quickly grab just one thing I need in a hurry, and it’s out of stock … or they have it, but the checkout line is really long … even in the express lane. I’m trying to get a project done at work, and the computer crashes and somehow completely devours a key file three days before it’s due.

I don’t know about you, but being inconvenienced with this kind of stuff doesn’t mix very well with my American I-deserve-to-get-my-way heart. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. I’m a little embarrassed to write about it, but in the reality of daily life, these kinds of obstacles can absolutely set me off. And they’re not even real problems.

What about a cancer diagnosis or losing a job, sustaining a serious injury or losing a loved one, having a child get in serious trouble or the losing the big deal and now you can’t make payroll? Forget the minor inconveniences for a second… Life can throw the far-more-serious stuff at you just as easily, and with frightening regularity. And nobody’s immune or exempt. Disaster is no respecter of persons. Your status, your bank account, your network of high-powered contacts, your political affiliation, your good looks, your stuff… None of it can stand between you and the onslaught of problems that come with being human and living in a fallen, broken, sinful world.

A Broken Sinful World

A Broken Sinful World

Quick aside: We need to stop thinking of “the world is broken” by picturing a small crack in the car’s windshield. When the Bible says the world is broken by sin (Isaiah 24:5) picture an amazingly intricate crystal figurine that it probably took a master craftsman weeks or months to make. Now lift it over your head, and slam it down as hard as you can on a big rock. Then grind what’s left into the dirt with your heel. Look down. That’s what “the world is broken” looks like. That’s on us! Our sin is very serious. With it, we’ve taken what God made so beautiful and utterly trampled it to oblivion under foot. I’m so glad that God is mind-blowingly, amazingly, gloriously brimming with redemptive, resurrection power. This kind of brokenness is overwhelming for us, but by the blood of Christ, God is restoring what we have callously trashed. Another James MacDonald classic: “If that doesn’t get you fired up, then your wood’s wet!” But I digress…

Where were we? Oh yes… money, people, and stuff… None of it can stand between you and real obstacles in your life. But the really good news is… God absolutely can!

That may sound like a cat poster – Did I seriously just use my first Lego Movie reference? *shakes head* — or a bumper sticker, but it’s absolutely true. God’s not dead or distracted or distance or disinterested. God knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). He knew you intimately before you were even born (on second thought, read all of Psalm 139). He counts the hairs on your head (Luke 12:7), knows the number of your days (Job 14:5, and back in Psalm 139), saves your tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8), and in general knows ever aspect of your life absolutely perfectly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Doesn’t sound particularly aloof or unconcerned, does it? That’s because God loves you. You know, the kind of love that would sweep broken-to-dust crystal off the dirt floor and with great power and precision, regenerate it into something literally more beautiful than you can imagine. And it’s this amazing love that compels God to rush to your side in the midst of trial, and walk with you through whatever you face. You are never alone … unless you really want to be. And except for the one who loves darkness more than light (John 3:19), who wouldn’t want God to walk with them? Especially when you’re hurting.

But it doesn’t stop there. Two important ways we need to take this to a new level…

First, God is not simply walking through your life with you as a companion (as wonderful and amazing as that is). More than that, God *planned* your life. That thing that is so painful you can barely stand it… Or that trial from which you’re desperately asking God to deliver you… Or that circumstance you absolutely don’t understand and would never ask for…  It might be that God has no interest whatsoever in getting you out of it or in ending it quickly. Maybe that’s exactly what God carefully, lovingly planned for your life, for your good, for your growth … to make you more like Jesus. The truth is that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

I know that might be hard to accept, especially if you’re carrying around a view of the universe that – if you’re honest – says that really you should be calling the shots. But it’s still true. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that the eternal, all-powerful, omniscient God who took so much care in creating you and paid such a high cost to redeem you, would be any less devoted to and involved in the way your life would unfold as His child. God isn’t shocked and shaken by your circumstances. He’s not scrambling for a way out or a backup plan. Neither your sin nor anyone else’s has the power to derail God’s plans for you. The only way out (of God’s plan) is to want out. Summon the totality of your life into telling God to go away, and He will. But otherwise, the current of God’s river is far stronger than even the best swimmer’s sin-stained brokenness. Trust Him. And not just a little or as a last resort. Trust Him … as in … I dare you (as I am actively daring myself) to put your whole weight on His promises. You will find Him more than able to hold you up.

And that brings me to the second point… God is in control. And God is able. And God loves you. What you perceive as a totally insurmountable obstacle is insignificant to the God who spoke the universe into being with a word (Psalm 33:9). Not “I don’t care” insignificant, but “What else you got?” insignificant.

So, stop trying to power up on your problems, or mastermind your way through the maze of life. You can’t earn enough money or make enough connections to avoid real problems or make them go away once they’ve arrived. Either that trial is from the Lord for your own good, or it’s a consequence for your sin or the sin of others. Either way, run to God. If it is a mountain that needs moving, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to ask the God of Angel Armies to move it for you than to throw your own shoulder into it? And if it’s not to be moved, then trust God as you slog your way over it with Him. He is taking you on a course He charted for you before the foundations of the world were laid.

Behind either scenario is a God whose love for you is literally incomprehensible to you in its greatness. If you can’t lean on that in the face of the “hard” of life, exactly which better plan did you have in mind?

Aslan Attacks

“You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.” — 2 Chronicles 20:17

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The Love of God … Never Gives Up, Never Runs Out

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” — John 6:37 ESV

God's Persistent Love

God’s Persistent Love

A few years back I worked hard to lose weight and get in shape. I even took up running, and spent more time away from my desk doing “outside things” than I ever had before. I studied nutrition, counted calories, and spent a lot of time being hungry. I joined a gym, encouraged a personal trainer to yell at me, and literally worked my butt off to get healthy.

It was tough. It took a long time and a lot of effort, but this time I finally succeeded where past attempts had failed. I lost a lot of weight, and feel a whole lot better about how I look. But even now, years later, I don’t have a metabolism that just lets me eat whatever I want, and the hours and stress and travel associated with work cause my default trajectory to drift more toward Chico grande than Chico delgado. It takes constant effort to maintain the results I achieved years ago, and even with all that work, I’m not as svelte as I once was.

Two Important Food Groups

Two Important Food Groups

Persistence, by definition, is hard. At least for us humans, that is. My general weakness… My natural proclivity to compromise and cave in to even the smallest bit of pressure or temptation (because, let’s face it, I love ice cream and french fries)… My sinful bent to rebel against what I know is best for me and others… And for sure my tendency to overestimate my strength and capability as I frequently bite off more than I can chew…

All these things and more make it extremely difficult to do anything well in the long-term. Sometimes the short-term victory is the best I get. Whether saying no to a cheeseburger or pushing for one more mile on the run or forcing myself to go to bed on time so that I can meet with God early the next morning (how amazing would it be to routinely say the things David says in Psalm 5:3 or 119:147-148?!) … these are all hard to achieve even a few times. But day after day, year after year, they rise to the level of impossible. I’m just not strong enough for awesome like that.

Human Persistence

Human Persistence

But the Lord does not suffer from my weaknesses or inadequacy. God’s strength doesn’t wear down or run out or lose focus like mine does. More than simply not failing to accomplish what He sets out to do, God achieves with ease what man calls impossible. Where in my life, “persistence” is characterized by a blood-sweat-and-tears-two-steps-forward-one-step-back-rolling-boulders-up-a-hill kind of slogging through life, God’s “persistence” is calm and constant. Infinite and unwavering. He never breaks a sweat. Never runs away. Never throws in the towel. Never even compromises. He doesn’t have challenges that He’s working hard to overcome. He’s simply unchanging and unwavering and unstoppable. He rules the universe with His feet up.

Not only does God not run out of strength, neither does He run out of the will to work. When I give up a mile before the designated end of the run or cave in and order fries, it’s not necessarily out of physical exhaustion (like losing my grip hanging from the branch because my hands get tired), it’s failure of commitment (I just don’t want to run anymore or live another day without my taters). But that’s just another form of giving out. Certainly God’s will is no less sufficient than the strength of His hand or the reach of His arm.

And that is God’s love toward His children. Relentless. Consistent. Never faltering or failing. Never giving up. Never bailing on us for an easier play. For those God has chosen, He sets His love on us … permanently (Deuteronomy 7:7-8), and will not fail to accomplish His purposes in that person’s life. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) That doesn’t mean we necessarily get what we want. It doesn’t mean we somehow become perfect by our 30th or 40th or 107th birthday. Remember, the “you” God sees is the eternal you … your soul … the “you” who will either dwell in the house of the Lord or live in a foreign land with your head in a pig trough weeping and gnashing your teeth … forever. God’s knowledge of us is perfect and exhaustive, and even then, His love for us cannot be shaken.

So don’t ever fear that God will give up on you. He doesn’t quit. Anyone who comes to Him, He will by no means turn away. (John 6:37) But here too, remember that “coming to the Lord” isn’t about words. Talk is cheap, and God will see through them to your heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  He cannot be mocked (Galatians 6:7). You might fool everyone else, but you will not fool the one who peers effortlessly into your soul.

God's Persistence

God’s Persistence

But that’s a good thing! To be fully known, and yet loved… Nothing could be greater. The persistent love of God literally draws life out of death, something out of nothing, beauty from ashes. May that be your testimony and mine! Draw near to God, and He will absolutely and completely draw near to you … forever. (James 4:8-10, emphasis mine)

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