Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Among my recent reading, I nominate for "most immediately significant" Chapter Nine ("The One Thing Needed") of Mark Buchanan's book Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever. In it, pastor Buchanan describes a session with a counselee whose feelings beautifully echo my own of late: "Don’t take this too seriously [but] I just would rather not have to live anymore.... I’ve been waiting for a long time for something, anything, to change [for the better]. But nothing ever happens.... It’s like God doesn’t notice me. I don’t rate His attention."

God, I work hard. I'm committed to advancing Your Kingdom through the talents You gave me. I try to make time every day for prayer and worship. So how come I haven't had a drop of income in two months; and how come You let me stay so uncertain as to whether that's because of anything I'm doing or not doing? And how come You won't heal my depressive and perfectionistic tendencies that are just making things worse?

Buchanan relates such periods in our lives to Matthew 11:2-6 and notes, "Blessed is the man who doesn’t fall away on account of the One who does all this for others, but who sometimes leaves you–you!–in your prison, with death just outside the door. For me, one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that too often I witness firsthand the lopsidedness of divine miracles." For those of us who pray about our problems for months or years without seeing anything discernible happening, hearing about the wonders God has wrought in others' lives doesn't always encourage; it may just tempt us to thoughts of "He cares about everyone but me." Why does He instantly answer a prayer about a relatively insignificant problem with a "yes," and seem deaf to "an entire church fasting and praying for forty-eight hours" for someone whose illness is not only terminal but strikes with agonizing pain in the prime of life? Why is it that two equally dedicated believers in seemingly identical situations can pray for relief, and one gets a "yes" answer and the other a "no"?

Then there was the man who prayed for healing of a potentially serious health problem and saw a minor one healed instead: "I guess God just wanted to show me He was able." I don't see how he could have taken it so well; to me, it would have been like asking for rent money to avoid eviction and having someone open a vault bulging with bills--and toss me a penny.

It doesn't help that many Christians who do get the more obvious blessings let it blind them to the reality of "lopsidedness." Hearing "God healed me when I prayed, so He'd heal you if you just prayed enough" is not comforting to someone who's already praying as best she feels able. Neither, for that matter, is hearing someone list how much worse she's lived through and conclude "...and you don't see me feeling sorry for myself," never considering that the ability to be happy in adverse circumstances might also be a blessing that God bestows in unequal degrees. No, I don't deny that self-pity is a sinful attitude; I just deny that all Spirit-filled Christians find it equally easy to put aside.

So what comfort is there for the believer who, by extreme circumstances or by temperament, finds himself in the "Lord, where's my miracle?" situation?

Quoting again from Buchanan's Things Unseen:"We hope in Christ not just because He feeds us, or heals us, or routs our enemies. Indeed, sometimes he doesn’t do any of that... No, we hope in Christ because of who He is, because He has the words of eternal life, and because anyone 'who feeds on this bread will live forever' [Jn. 6:58]. Because the world–and all its bread and all its fish and all its jewels and all its wonders and all its everything–is not enough." Because the physical healings and material provisions we pray for will eventually pass away with this life, and "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19). "We can hope in Christ, but if that hope is only for the here and the now, if it is strictly earth-bound, we are in the deepest sense hopeless.... Life doesn’t justify living. Only eternity does. And Jesus alone grants that."

Our impatient natures hate waiting for Him to grant us the full blessings of eternity, which is why our "light and momentary troubles" (2 Cor. 4:17) seem anything but. Especially when we realize that nothing we can do will definitely guarantee God will perform at the speed and in the way we prefer. Still, He doesn't really leave us without compensation during our waiting periods; He always gives us Himself, and though we don't always feel comforted, He is still "the God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3). We don't really know how much worse things would be without Him there protecting us.

With that thought, I'd like to close with a poem emphasizing God as our protection.

When food and clothing are uncertain,
When every paycheck is in doubt,
God is a shelter from despairing;
He will provide and bring you out.

When all the world seems set against you,
When foes are strong and friends are few,
God is a shelter from all scheming,
And He is Friend enough for you.

When tragedy has numbed your senses,
When deep depression grips your heart,
God is a shelter from the darkness,
And He will bring a brand new start.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Overload Syndrome

It's frequently said that Americans don't get (or take) enough vacation time, that we've forgotten what it's like to just relax. Even forcing ourselves to leave the workplace often doesn't help. I've just finished a three-week "break" and feel as stressed as ever--that time "off" included a family funeral; two crowded airplane flights; too much sightseeing in too little time; a doctor's appointment; a badly timed project deadline made worse by a shortage of research sources (that project is still unfinished, and prayers are appreciated); and, worst of all, a never-ending flood of e-mails (most of them pure junk) and a mailbox that won't let me ignore it four days before it fills up and starts rejecting new messages.

One survey reported that half of U. S. executives skip their vacations entirely to "get caught up on increased workloads." Probably the majority of the other half spend their "vacations" telecommuting. There's no place to hide from bosses or clients anymore; even on cruise ships and wilderness hikes, we see people discussing mergers by cell phone or pounding away at laptop computers. (You can always tell those who are conversing or Web surfing for business from those who are doing it for pleasure; the former are the ones whose fingers and lips move at hyperspeed and who have upward bends in their brows instead of their mouths.)

And all our attempts to "catch up" with the success we're chasing only seem to prove the quote from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

The place we really want to "get to" is the point where all stress and worry disappears; and human logic says that will be our reward when we finish all our responsibilities. Sad to say, human logic is part of fallen human nature. If we prefer Scripture as an example for our thinking, we can only expect to reach that cherished point of pure rest when ready to depart for Heaven (e. g., Paul in 2 Tim. 4:6-8); and yet, it would be not only unhealthy but sinful to refuse to stop until then. When Jesus made His famous offer, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30), He didn't say, "You'll never have to work again" or "You'll never be tempted to stress again." He offers rest on His terms: the freedom to take breaks before everything is finished; the freedom to do His work rather than being enslaved by the demands of the world or our own lusts and pride. The bad news, to human thinking, is that we have to give up our presumed right to do and get what we want. Say "yes" to God's offer, and you may learn the hard way that His definition of "rest" doesn't always extend to the physical, and that "every decent person is entitled to a long and happy life" is not one of His inviolable rules.

Still, most people who do accept His offer say they wouldn't have chosen differently for anything.

My mind is a whirl of confusion;
My brain jumps from thought into thought.
My life has a million priorities--
With all of them coming to naught.

My brain always dwells in the future:
Try get it to work on one task!
There's so much that I could be doing,
So much that this world has to ask.

I'd love to get everything finished
Within the brief span of a day,
Then sit back and rest for a lifetime--
If only the world worked that way!

The books and the chores and the travel,
Each option that's under the sun:
Of all of the times to be born in,
Lord, why this insane, cluttered one?

But wait: I can hear His voice speaking:
"The stressful life only was new
When Adam was cast from the Garden;
Sin's weight passed from him down to you.

"Each life has its burdens and clutter;
Remember, it never was meant
For this world to be your soul's mansion,
Or make you completely content.

"Your true home is waiting in Heaven;
But even today, I give rest
If you will let Me take your burden
And set you the chores that are best.

"My task is the one that is easy;
My load is the one that is light.
So cast out this world's expectations
And find in Me purest delight!"

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A God of Second Chances

Most Christians struggle with at least one "sin issue" that, at least occasionally, tempts us to think, "I know God can redeem anything--but maybe what I did is the exception to the rule." It doesn't matter whether it's a single heinous act we never would have thought ourselves capable of, a long pre-conversion record of being as antithetical to Christianity as a person can get, or some issue of attitude that keeps getting the best of us despite our efforts and prayers: in our moments of discouragement we seriously wonder if we've managed to out-sin God's grace. In some ways the "minor" problems--the worry habit, the bad temper, the prayerlessness--are worse torment than the obvious physical sins; the latter are, at least, easier to never do again! We get tired of accepting repeated apologies for the "same old thing," so it's natural to wonder if God also thinks in terms of "if she really wanted to change, she'd have done it by now."

The difference is that God knows when we're really sorry, as opposed to just saying so in the hope of staying out of trouble. Moreover, He fully understands our weaknesses and ignorance, what we literally can't help, what we aren't yet mature enough to manage--and His full understanding is what enables Him to be compassionate and forgiving toward us. (See Psalm 103:8-14.)

When it comes to long-term change, most of us have trouble understanding the boundaries of our own responsibility and at what point we should "let go and let God." Maybe it's humanly impossible to understand; every Bible scholar knows about the paradox that you can't choose God's way unless He calls you, and yet He holds you responsible for refusing His way. Two things can be stated with certainty, though:

1. God doesn't expect us to instantly eradicate our own tendencies toward sin--or to wipe out our sin's consequences--by our own willpower.

2. God would always rather receive back a sinner than punish one.

We serve a God of second chances:
However deep our sin may be,
We cannot sink beneath His mercy;
He ever longs to set us free.

We serve a God of second chances:
However far our souls may fall,
He reaches down to lift us upward,
And longs to pardon each and all.

We serve a God of second chances:
However black our hearts may grow,
He longs to heal us with His cleansing,
And change that “black” to “white as snow.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

God Is the Faithful One

1 Corinthians 13 is commonly known as the "love chapter," and rightly so. More than half the chapter focuses on how only love can give accomplishment true value, on what love looks like, and on how "the greatest of [all good and lasting things] is love" (v. 13:13b).

Still, verses 8-12 and their focus on things to come deserve some attention. The main point here is how we are growing into perfect knowledge of God and will one day experience the joy of an eternal relationship with Him, where our own sin and failure will no longer blur the view. Paul was hardly rambling when he used one final characteristic in the description of love--it "never fails" (v. 8a)--to transition into this section. God is Love; therefore, God never fails or gives up; therefore, He will continue to guide us through all the imperfections of this life until He has completed the task of making us fit to live fully in His presence. We needn't be discouraged because we only "know in part" (v. 9a) or afraid because we can't hold onto the temporal things of this world; God ever remains our one sure Anchor, the Faithful One Who gives us hope and Whose love never fails or weakens.

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love" (v. 13:13a). And God is the epitome of all three.

God is the Faithful One, steadfast forever,
He never changes nor fails to provide;
Though all the pains of this world may assault us,
We need not fear, for He stands by our side.

God is the Faithful One; God is the Lord of Hope;
God is the Loving One, ours to the end;
God is eternal and righteous forever;
True to each promise and ever our Friend!

God is the Lord of Hope, and He has promised
Greater things for us than we dare to dream;
He is preparing our home in the Heavens,
Safe for eternity in His Light’s gleam.

God is the Faithful One; God is the Lord of Hope;
God is the Loving One, ours to the end;
God is eternal and righteous forever;
True to each promise and ever our Friend!

God is the Loving One, He Who redeemed us:
He Who gave all, He Who suffered alone,
Willingly paid with His life for our freedom,
And He will never abandon His own!

God is the Faithful One; God is the Lord of Hope;
God is the Loving One, ours to the end;
God is eternal and righteous forever;
True to each promise and ever our Friend!