Vaccinations, a Traveler’s Tale

Vaccination

Countdown to departure for Uganda: T-32 days

Vaccinations … Check!

I’ve done enough traveling outside the US not to be terribly nervous about going again, even to a new place. Granted, most of the places I’ve been have been more affluent and/or westernized than Uganda, but not all. The Philippines (particularly where we were) and parts of Israel and Eastern Europe are examples. But logistically, I’m used to travel. I already had a current passport. I’ve applied for Visas. I can pack efficiently for long absences without laundry services. I’ve dealt with language barriers, extremely foreign food, severe jet lag, power adapters, etc. I know how O’Hare works, even the extra rigmarole of international travel. And so forth.

What I didn’t know anything about, prior to beginning to plan for this trip, was the disease prevention side of the equation. I knew I needed a yellow fever vaccination and anti-malarial medication, because those requirements were explicitly stated when I signed up for the trip. But other than that, this has been a bit of a “figure it out” kind of adventure. So, I thought I’d share…

CDC Uganda Travel PageChecked in with the CDC

I started my research on CDC’s Uganda travel page. “If you’re going somewhere,” I was told, “always start with the CDC’s recommendations for how to go there safely.” They were right. The page was packed with useful data, and the folks at the CDC even did a pretty good job being concise. Still, I found it a bit overwhelming. My immediate thought was, “How can ALL this be required?!” So, printed out the page and started making rounds talking to people I trusted to get a real plan together.

Checked in with my wife, the nurse

First, I consulted my amazing nurse wife. Not everyone is blessed like I am with a nurse in their house, but I highly recommend it. icon_wink If not marrying one, at least establish a friendship with a nurse (or doctor, I guess). She will know 100x more than you or I will about diseases and drugs, and it’s super-helpful to be able to just talk through planning with her.

(PS – Even if she’s not a nurse, always ask your wife. Law of nature; what can I say?)

Checked in with my doctor

Serious DoctorSecond, I consulted my doctor (to whom I am clearly not married). To cover all bases, I scheduled a general physical with our (new since moving) general practitioner, and warned him when I made the appointment that I would  be going to Uganda and wanted to update my general vaccinations. If I thought *I* covered all the bases, it was nothing compared to him. He worked me over. No, I mean he really worked me over. Everything I even so much as mentioned about my past earned me some sort of test or exam to get a baseline, update my records, etc. I loved his thoroughness. Well, most of it at least. Let’s just say that I’m a guy and I’m too close to age 50 to be safe from … um … certain unpleasantness in the presence of a doctor as thorough as mine seems to be. Sigh. #GettingOldIsntForTheFaintOfHeart

At any rate, he brought me up-to-date on the standard vaccines, which I thought I’d list here for those who (like me) are a bit clueless about this stuff. Here’s what the docs wanted me to be walking around with. Obviously, I’m no doctor, so don’t do ANYTHING because you read it here. I thought this article was helpful, but what really matters is what your doctor says to do, not WebMD and certainly not me. Did I mention that I’m not a doctor?

Anyway, hopefully this is helpful…

  1. Diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (pertussis). This is the TDaP (or DTaP) vaccine. This has to be updated every 10 years, so write it down somewhere and keep it current. (Read more)
  2. Measles, mumps and rubella. Tis is the MMR vaccine.Your medial history should list this. If you’re unsure that you got it as a child, you can get a booster. (Read more)
  3. Hepatitis A and B (Read more)
  4. Chickenpox. I had theses severely as a kid, so nothing had to be done. If you haven’t had the chickenpox, you’re at risk for shingles, and ain’t nobody got time for that. (Read more)

As it turns out, my records didn’t indicate whether or not I’d been vaccinated for MMR, so the doc ordered a blood test to discover if I had the “MMR titers” to indicate I was properly inoculated. So, I fasted that night, came back in the morning, they did the blood test in literally 10 minutes, and I had the results back 2 days later. Positive. I’m all good.

So, my doctor got all that done lickety-split (two visit; couple days; no fuss, no muss), but in the middle of my initial visit I realized that the two things that were actually required for my trip weren’t on the doc’s list: yellow fever and malaria. I asked him, and he informs me, “We don’t do that.”

Jeff: “Excuse me?”

Doc: “We don’t do that.”

Jeff: “Well, you’re my doctor, so if you can’t make me a yellow fever and malaria fighting machine, then who can?”

Doc: [as if everyone knows this and I’m a little on the slow side] “You have to go to the travel clinic!”

Jeff: “Huh?” [proving I’m a little on the slow side]

Doc: “A travel clinic is where you go to get all the stuff you need to travel abroad that I, as a real doctor who worries about every day medical needs of families in this town, don’t focus on.”

Alrighty then. Next step…

Checked in with the Travel Clinic

Travel ClinicTurns out there are travel clinics all over the place. They’re privately owned, staffed with nurse practitioners (or equiv) who can give you shots and write prescriptions, and exist solely for the purpose of helping people like me travel to places like Uganda. Cool!

The big company out there (admittedly, I did very little research) is Passport Health. Preparing people for travel abroad is a primary line of business, and they evidently have hundreds of clinics, and not just in the US. They dominated the headlines (the first page) of my google searching, there was one between my house and school, and I was able to apply online. So they won the coin toss. The two things I had to do to prepare for my visit were: a) fill out a three-page, far-less-painful-than-I-expected-it-to-be personal health history, and b) snag a copy of my general vaccinations history from my general doctor, and I was off to the races.

I found the Travel Clinic in a medical office park in a light commercial area (all that SimCity as a kid helps me to classify these things so clearly now for your benefit), on the second floor of what felt a bit like a converted private residence. I walked into the office, thinking it was a waiting room, and evidently barged right into the middle of an in-flight consultation. That was weird! frown The whole thing gave me a not-too-professional vibe. But after waiting outside the door for a bit, I was waved in and we got down to it. The only person I met in the whole process was a female registered nurse who had prepared a personalized “health and safety plan” for me. It was a pretty beefy document, and she walked me through lots of possibilities and options. I could get this vaccination and that medication, this lotion and that spray, etc. On and on it went. And because, as we already established, I’m a little slow, it took me awhile to realize that each and every one of these things was something she could sell me.

Passport HealthThe office visit itself was $75, which wasn’t the end of the world. And the yellow fever vaccine, which was mandatory, was $195. Ouch. So, they were into me for $270 the second I walked in the door. Next was the anti-malarial medication. There were three options, some daily and some weekly options, all at various prices per dose, which had to be taken for varying lengths of time, and which had varying side effects. Joy! I was hoping for, “Take this pill and you’re good for a year” or something, but … um … no. More like, take this pill for a week before, every day during, and 40 days after. It costs $10 per pill. And it will make you hallucinate.

Jeff: “Excuse me?”

Nurse: “I said, it’ll make you have crazy dreams and possibly even hallucinate.”

Jeff: “What if I do a missions trip to Indiana instead?”

In all seriousness, there were several options. I had no clue, but I had to pick one. And she only carried one of the options in-house: the expensive one. So, I clearly needed to shop around. I told her I wanted to check prices at my wife’s hospital (nurses rock!), so she wrote me a script for the expensive meds which I could get filled anywhere, and we closed that topic.

But then, she starts in on all the other meds and shots I could buy. I could buy special lotions or sprays for my clothes or nets to sleep under … all to ward off deadly malaria-infested (or worse) insects. I could get vaccinated for everything from Typhoid to Cholera to Polio, and myriad other prophylactic drugs were available. I even asked if she had anything for my baldness. The best was a $20/dose twice/day take-it-before-during-and-after anti-viral drug. That would have been $500 by itself. I could literally have spent thousands if I’d wanted to.

I didn’t.

So, I left with the basics — yellow fever vaccine and a script for Malarone, the nurse’s recommended anti-malarial med. Plus, I had decided that I clearly needed to consult a few people who weren’t making a living on my vaccination and drug choices.

International Certificate of VaccinationOh, one more thing though, before we move on. Upon receiving my yellow fever vaccination, the travel clinic gave me this bad boy (to the right) as proof of my yellow fever vaccine. I then filled out the rest of my vaccination history info in here, so now I have a complete, passport-sized record of everything. NOTE: I had to submit this with my passport to get the visa I needed to make the trip.

Checked in with my team

I going to Uganda with a team of about 20, some of whom had been there before — even multiple times. So, they know way more than I do. When I asked them about the food, the bugs, the myriad vaccines, the preventative pills, and the anti-baldness treatments, the pretty much said not to worry about any of it. Where we’re going to be, the food will be safe — very low probability of ordering a Typhoid salad — and you just need to make common sense choices about insect repellent, not drinking the water, etc. So, looks like I won’t be going back for $2,500 worth of extra shots. Whew!

They also recommended that I switch from Malarone to Doxycycline for anti-malarial medication, which I did. On the plus side, it’s much cheaper (than Malarone), and they all agreed that the side effects are manageable. On the minus side, I’ll have to take it longer when I get back, and it still presents at least a chance of fun dreams or even hallucinations. But the best / my favorite potential side effect is that you sunburn easily.

Jeff: *dumbfounded wide-eyed look of disbelief*

So … I’m German and English (and French, but we don’t talk about that much in our family), which means light hair (what’s left of it) and fair skin. I’m going to a desert city located like 3 miles from the equator, and I’m going to be taking a daily drug that makes me sunburn more easily? Are you kidding me?!

Safari HatWell, always an adventure, I guess. I’ll just order some liquid sweatshirt — something around 10,000 SPF or so, and a really cool (at least I imagine Faith will think so … ha!) safari hat like this one.

Then I should be good, right?

Checked in with my pharmacy

Okay, last step…

The travel clinic peeps called my new script for Doxycycline into Walgreens. Turned out to be $25 for 28 tablets — way better than Malarone was going to be. And I walked into the store with my script for Azithromycin in hand. This is the only other drug besides Advil that I’ve purchased (or plan to purchase) for this trip. It’s the break-glass-in-case-of-Montezuma’s-Revenge 3-day z-pack. It was $7, and I thought well worth it … just in case.

Walgreens had it in stock, filled it in 15 minutes, and already had my Doxycycline waiting. They even texted me when my order was ready to go. The whole thing was super easy and convenient, and now I’m ready to rock and roll.

Vaccination Baby

Okay, that’s a wrap!

I think that about covers the meds and vaccinations. Now it’s time to shop for the rest of the stuff I’ll need to take along, including the hat. Woot! I’m sure I’ll write about that soon. If you think there’s something specific I should make sure I take along, comment on it below. I’d love to benefit from your experience.

Thanks for being on this journey with me!


Image / Photo Credit:
1) Vaccination – Sydney Morning Herald
2) Doctor – Shutterstock
3) Travel Clinic – Healthy Gallatin
4) Int’l Vaccination Form – TripAdvisor
5) Safari hat – Zetaboards
6) Vaccination Baby – KEWO Science
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Uganda Trip Funded!

Celebration Fireworks

Countdown to departure for Uganda: T-37 days

I am very excited to announce that I am fully funded for my upcoming mission trip to Uganda! Hooray! Please praise the Lord with me for His provision for the trip!

I sent many, many letters to dear, dear family and friends. And Faith and I are so very grateful for all the generous support so many have given us. We weren’t at all worried about whether or not God would provide for us, but we also weren’t sure exactly how He would do it. And I’m certainly very uncomfortable asking people for money, but God is explicitly working on me in that regard. He’s teaching me humility, as well as to serve others by extending to them the opportunity to be involved in God’s work in my family’s life both prayerfully and financially, just as we would want to be involved in the lives of others in that way. That’s part of what it means to be the Church!

So, having reached another milestone in preparation for the trip, I thought I’d share a few things God taught me in the fundraising process…

1) Start early

Letter writingI’m really glad I didn’t wait to get started on communication and fundraising. It took a lot more time than I guess I thought it would. In my experience, it didn’t take a lot of hard work, per se, to raise these funds. It’s not like I put in hours and hours every week setting up meetings, making presentations and so forth. I can imagine that this kind of rigorous engagement might have been necessary if I had been raising much more money or if I had a different circle of friends, etc. Everyone’s situation is different. But in my case, it just took time for people to respond. So, I’m glad that we got started early.

How early? Well, my trip is 5/15/2017. We wrote our support letter over Christmas break, mentioned it in our Christmas letter, and then sent out the first fundraising email on 1/14/2017. My first blog post about the trip was that same day. On the other end, the last dollars we needed just came in — early May, 2017. And in between, there were several emails, physical letters, coffees with people, discussions with the church, etc. So, it took time.

2) Cast a broad net

Send out lots of letters. Ask lots of people to get involved. Not just because that helps you raise money, but more importantly (I mean that!), because it includes more people in the blessing of participating in missions with you. Every person you don’t talk to about your trip is a lost opportunity to deepen your connection to them, to bear witness to the gospel, and to be God’s instrument to expand their view of the world or to grow their heart for people who are a) likely in great need and b) not like you. God is doing amazing work in my heart in these areas as I approach the trip. Doesn’t it stand to reason that He might use me to be a catalyst to do that same work in the lives of others … even if they’re not physically getting on a plane with me? I think so. Plus, the trip needs prayer, I need prayer, and we all need to pray. The trip needs funding, I need funding, and we all need to grow in generosity. Etc.

So don’t think of a missions trip as “I have to ask people for money.” Think of it — as God has been teaching me — as, “I’m so excited to include you in what God is doing in my life!”

3) Involve your church

Sturbuck Community ChurchFaith and I love our church. We’ve been attending there for 6-7 months, since shortly after we moved to Wauconda. No church is perfect, but ours is a wonderful place. As we’ve gotten to know people there, they have welcomed us so graciously and generously. We were encouraged early-on to talk to the missions team about assistance in funding the trip and certainly to ask for prayer. We did, and they joyfully and generously responded … not just by officially sponsoring us, but with prayer, with encouragement, with interested questions, and with the personal contributions of loving, missions-minded brothers and sisters, even those who don’t know us terribly well yet. Another member, who is embarking on a long-term mission in June, and I are even being given the opportunity to share about our trips with the congregation. All up, it has been a huge blessing to be “sent” by my local church, and I suspect we’re just at the beginning of that. I look forward to sharing further and discussing more with them about the trip in the weeks and months ahead.

4) Pray and trust the Lord

Child Trusting FatherI suppose this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s clear to me that the success of fundraising for my trip has very little to do with how skillful I am at writing fundraising letters, the approach I take to “marketing” my trip, the fact that I’m blogging about it, the size of my church, the composition of my friend group, etc. Instead, it’s clear to me that it’s all about God’s being faithful to do what He wants to do … which is always right, and the highest good. It’s about prayer. It’s about trusting God to act. Yes, I worked hard and labored long to write a “good” letter, but my focus was more on glorifying God and testifying to His work than on establishing an air-tight, tremendously-compelling, unavoidably-persuasive case for why sending money was the spiritual and loyal (to me and God) thing to do. Or whatever. Our church is small. Our friends are not a bunch of millionaires. Our family isn’t exactly listed in Forbes. But God provided for this trip, as He has provided for everything else. And we never doubted that He would.

5) Check (or flat-out discard) your expectations

God didn’t do this the way I thought He would. I thought money would come in faster than it did. When I played the mental game about who I thought would do what, I was totally wrong. People I would never have guessed would send much money sent a lot, and people I thought would be a key contributor didn’t respond. A couple conversations at church went it directions I didn’t predict. I encountered negativity from places I didn’t expect and positive encouraging support from people I never dreamed would even notice I was going. In other words, God in His sovereignty does what He wants, and what He wants is always good. If I had gone into this guns-blazing with expectations that needed to be met in order for me to be happy, I’d have been anxious and miserable. Instead, glory to God!, our posture as a family was teachable and flexible, and that served us well.

My recommendation to anyone entering this process: Stand in awe of God proactively, before the first domino falls. Before you even start, resign yourself to the fact that you have NO idea what God is going to do, and then choose to be certain that when you see it (which might be long after the fact), that it’s going to be amazing!

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14)


Images Credit:
1) Fireworks; Daily Hive
2) Letter writing; The Odyssey Online
3) Community church; Wikipedia
4) Trust; HPWP
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Upgrading Eden

Garden of Eden

Preface

I recently facilitated a theology class at my church focused on the goodness of God entitled A God in Whom to Take Refuge. I’ve read and written quite a bit on this topic over the last couple of years, so it was very interesting (and a deep privilege) to provide leadership in a multi-week discussion on the topic.

Of course, one of the things we worked through at length in the class was God’s purpose in human suffering – how He uses it, why He allows it, how we should respond to Him in it, etc. I’ve written on this too, but as I was praying and preparing the materials for that particular week of class, God advanced some of my thinking about this topic beyond what I had previously written. And then, as if on cue, some people in the class challenged my thinking on a few points, forcing me to do even more work and research on the topic.

Specifically, in class, I made the statement that New Jerusalem (where the redeemed will live with God forever; see Revelation 21-22) will be superior to the Garden of Eden. I drew an explicit contrast between the two by calling Eden (before the fall) “sinless” and New Jerusalem “perfect.” This is the particular point my friends challenged, so I thought I would write down some of what I’ve been learning as I continue to read, study, and interact with God about it.

A few words about “perfection”

First, upon further reflection, I rather regret having used the word “perfect” to refer to heaven, New Jerusalem, or anything else but God Himself.

Associative Perfection

There is a sense in which everything God makes is “perfect” because God, who is Himself perfect, ensures the proper working out of all His plans and intentions (Psalm 115:3; 2 Chronicles 20:6; Job 42:2). I would call this a kind of “associative perfection,” meaning that all things associated with a truly perfect God are in some sense themselves “perfect.” But to be healthy, this view must focus more on how things will end up than on how they are. Whereas people and everything else in the universe are far from perfect in any sense now, God is sovereignly moving all the universe towards an end which we will declare is perfectly just and right and good (Romans 3:4). So in that sense, looking ahead to our ultimate end, I suppose we could call the world “perfect.” I don’t particularly like this approach, though, because I suspect it’s very hard to hold this view in balance. Instead, it seems likely to foster the temptation to excuse the brokenness we see in our world because of the goodness we imagine God will create out of it. For this reason, I’d rather consider the world to be “purposeful” or “destined to glorify God,” rather than “perfect.”

True- or Absolute Perfection

There is also a sense in which *only* God is perfect, because He is the defining standard and ultimate good by which everything right and just and beautiful in the universe is measured. Nothing can remotely be compared to Him. To show my hand right up front, my preference would be to reserve the word “perfect” only for this usage. God is perfect in holiness and beauty and glory and power and everything else for which we have categories of goodness … and no one and nothing else comes close.

Relative Finite Perfection

The term “perfect” might also be applied to people, if by it we mean to set up a comparison between, on the one hand, how we will be when we have been glorified in heaven and, on the other, any and all other possible states of humankind. So, in that sense, compared to any other “phase” or “season” or “state” of human existence throughout all of human history, including before the fall in the garden … compared to any of that, in heaven we will experience “perfect” human existence. This is how I used the term in class, and which I now regret.

Relative General Perfection

Lastly, if by “perfect” we mean “in comparison to anything else that can be imagined, including God himself,” then I don’t think the term can any longer be applied at all — not to people, regardless of how much sanctification or glorification we undergo, or anything else in creation. Once you include God in the set of things you are comparing (in general, a practice we shouldn’t get into — God is always alone in a set unto Himself, not truly comparable to anything or anyone else), then God is perfect and everything else is not. This returns us to our second category (true- or absolute perfection), in which God is perfect and everything else – whether Eden or heaven or angels or redeemed saints (whenever and wherever we are) – is not.

So, right out of the gate, in a discussion that compares and contrasts Eden with New Jerusalem, I would prefer to use terms like “fully realized” or “best possible” to describe New Jerusalem, rather than “perfect” … just to avoid confusion.

And speaking of that comparison, which is the point of this post, let’s dive in…

weak fallible manWhy did God make us fallible?

Have you ever wondered why God made Adam and Eve in such a way that it was possible for them to sin? As a younger Christian, I was pretty baffled by this, and the more people I talk to about it, the more I think many others are as well. On the surface it seems like God made Adam and Eve weak and breakable, and then (callously?) threw them in the deep end of the pool.

There they were in the garden, naked and blissfully ignorant of evil, camping right next to a big, beautiful tree full of juicy, shiny, red apples (who knows what was actually on the tree) which possessed the power, with a single bite, to destroy the world! AND God made them in such a way that they were able to decide for themselves, in all their frailty and (I’ll say it again) ignorance, whether or not to eat the apple. AND God had made a bunch of angels who broke bad and started a war against Him. AND He let the leader of all these wicked angels – the smartest, nastiest one of the bunch, mind you – take on the form of a serpent and slither around with Adam and Eve in the garden, tempting them to eat the apple. And to top it all off, at least as I read Genesis 1-3, it doesn’t really seem like God does much mentoring of the young couple about the many and varied reasons why they shouldn’t eat the apple. No seminars. No flannel graph lessons. No diagrams showing how thoroughly screwed up everything will be if they disobey. He just says “I command you not to do it!” and then seems to walk away, leaving them in their finitude and vulnerability to be tempted by Satan.

On the surface, this seems like a situation that can’t help but go horribly wrong. If we were watching this unfold in the first few scenes of a movie, we’d be pretty sure we could predict where it was all going by the time we got to Genesis 3:2. I suspect the movie version would seem a touch predictable. Some might even get bored and change the channel. And many of us, if we’re really honest, could say we’re tempted to consider God to be a bit negligent.

Was the fall of humankind part of God’s plan?

Edge of the ChasmDid God intend for Adam and Eve and their descendants to live in harmony with Him and with each other in the Garden of Eden forever? Well, yes, in the sense that Adam and Eve (therefore humankind) could theoretically have done so, if they had obeyed God. But they didn’t (and we wouldn’t have either), and before God created us or them or the first rays of light to separate the darkness, He knew they wouldn’t. When Adam and Eve defied God and ate the forbidden fruit, God was not in any sense surprised. I’ve heard so many people talk about that moment as if He were. They seem convinced that if we could somehow have seen “backstage” right after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, we would have found God shocked and shaken … crying in His Wheaties and madly scrambling to throw together a cosmic backup plan.

But this would imply all kinds of things that simply are not and cannot be true about God…

  1. That He was careless or incompetent or capricious, unknowingly or unfeelingly setting the first parents up for a fall when He put them in the garden. But the Bible is clear that God knows everything (e.g. Isaiah 40:13-14, 46:9-10; Hebrews 4:13) and loves us deeply (e.g. Proverbs 3:11-12; Exodus 34:6-7; Romans 5:8).
  2. Or that He was powerless to prevent their actions. But the Bible is clear that God is all-powerful (e.g. Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 44:24; Ephesians 1:18-23).
  3. Or maybe that He was blind to the possibility of human choices and/or out of control when Adam and Eve made them. But the Bible is clear that God intimately knew the number of my days (Job 14:5) and every choice I’d ever make (Psalm 139:1-6), even when I was still in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16).
  4. And on and on.

Unless we’re willing to disregard a whole lot of Scripture, I think we have to agree that God knew what Adam and Eve were going to do long before they did it. He knew what He was doing when He created humankind … exactly the way He created us. He didn’t accidentally or carelessly or sadistically overlook our weakness and ability to sin. I don’t think He made us hoping or intending that we’d be one way only to have His purposes thwarted when we broke bad. The God of Scripture does everything with a purpose (e.g. Proverbs 16:4; Exodus 9:16; Philippians 2:13), and unfailingly accomplishes those purposes (e.g. Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 14:24-27; Job 42:2). And I believe that includes the way He designed humankind from day one…

We are finite – we have to be, because that’s what it means to be created … in order to not, ourselves, be God.

We are weak – because that’s another way of saying “finite.” Plus, this is clearly, vividly demonstrated when we in any sense compare ourselves to the Almighty God who made us.

We are able to sin – because we are made in the image of God … able to love, and therefore able to choose. And if we’re able to choose the right, we must accept that we are also able to choose the wrong?

Given these integral characteristics of humankind, I contend that the Fall becomes essentially inevitable. And God absolutely saw that coming. If He didn’t, how would He be, in any meaning sense, God?

Then why did He do it?

Wait a minute! If God is all powerful and predicted humankind’s rebellion – with all the horrors we have subsequently perpetrated on our fellow creatures throughout history – then why did He create us the way He did? Why did He set us up for a fall?

For years I’ve been giving the same answer to this question: “So that we could be with Him.” We can’t avoid finitude if we’re going to exist at all. How can God create another infinite being like Himself? That wouldn’t make any sense; it wouldn’t be possible. Any created being, by definition, must be finite, as we are. But also, being made to rationally and meaningfully and consequently choose means that we possess a fundamental prerequisite for meaningful relationship with Him. So, God made us in this way – in His image, able to choose – that it might be possible to be with Him. In other words, our finitude and our freedom of choice are integral to our existence. It couldn’t have been any other way, not if we’re going to fulfill the purpose, at any rate – which is to be sons and daughters of the Most High God. And that means we had to be “setup for a fall.”

To be finite and able to choose means to be fall-able (fallible).

The Rest of the Story

Paul HarveyBut there’s a deeper implication to this that God has been impressing upon me over the last few months. Yes, God created us and put us in the garden, but He did not intend for us to remain there. God created us to start in the garden, but then it was His plan for us to fall down so that He Himself might pick us back up again (1 Peter 5:10) … and set our feet upon a rock (Psalm 40:2). This wasn’t an accident or an oversight. It wasn’t a rebellion God failed to suppress. Satan didn’t get one past Him. And we don’t have to wonder if tomorrow something else might happen in the universe over which God doesn’t manage to retain control. Instead, we must face the difficult truth that we were made to be humbled so that we could then be exalted (c.f. Luke 14:7-11). In Eden, we were servants who tended the garden (Genesis 2:15) and named the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). But we failed to be good servants and got ourselves booted out of paradise. Now, in this world, we are strangers and aliens in a foreign land (1 Peter 2:11). But God is redeeming us. And someday in heaven – what Scripture calls “the holy city, the New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2) –, having been resurrected and glorified, we will be adopted sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:3-6). Then we will be what we cannot now imagine …  what we, frankly, couldn’t have imagined even if we had remained sinless in the Garden. In heaven, we will be true children, receiving our inheritance from our Father (1 Peter 1:3-5) and reigning with His Son (2 Timothy 2:10-13). We may have started this journey in a beautiful garden, but we will end it in the holy city, which is better by far.

This “journey narrative” should sound familiar. It’s the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). It’s the story of the nation of Israel – in the exodus and the exile, and the promises of God which were fulfilled through and only after great suffering. And most importantly, it’s the story of Jesus (Philippians 2:1-11). It’s the story of my life – so often unable to humble myself, God in His love and mercy presses down on me until I cry out to Him to be rescued, and then He lifts me up. And then, when I look back, I realize I’m standing on a cliff far above where I started, looking down over a valley and grateful for all God has taught me by bringing me through it – down one side and up the other. The vertical gap between the plains far in the distance on the other side of the valley and my new lofty perch up on the next plateau is what Scripture calls “sanctification.”

And I don’t see it as a stretch to apply this pattern in general to redemption history. We see it throughout the Scriptures. It isn’t just Adam’s story or my story or Jesus’ story, it’s the story of the whole human race. This is the phenomenon that theologians have labeled “the two-fold pattern” of redemption.

Two-fold Pattern of Redemption

So, the Garden of Eden was good, but it wasn’t perfect. It was a good place for us to start, but God fully intended to improve us … to “perfect” us in the crucible of sin and brokenness and redemption. The garden was never God’s intended destination for humankind … even before the fall. It was the first step in a long, very well planned journey, ultimately leading to glory (Romans 8:29-30).

How can you say the Garden of Eden wasn’t perfect?

Well, there are several reasons actually.

Argument from language: Good vs. Perfect

The original languages in which Scriptures were written – the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek – don’t support calling the Garden of Eden “perfect.” I’m certainly no expert in the Biblical languages, but I did do some research and can at least offer a layman’s perspective…

When God created the world, He calls it “good,” not “perfect” (or equivalent). The Hebrew word used seven times in Genesis 1 to describe God’s work is טוֹב (“good”). There are other words translated “perfect,” such as תָּמִים (without blemish, complete, full, perfect, sound, undefiled, upright, whole) or תָּם (complete, pious, coupled together, perfect, plain, undefiled, upright) or כָּלִיל (whole, complete, full), etc. These words refer to things like the sacrifices to be brought to God (e.g. Leviticus 22:21), cities (e.g. Ezekiel 27:3-11), finishing tasks (e.g. throughout the book of Ezra), and of course to God Himself (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:4, 2 Samuel 22:31, etc). They are not used to describe Eden or God’s unfallen creation.

In Greek, there are also a few words that can be translated “perfect,” but none of them are applied to the Garden of Eden. The adjective τέλειος is the primary Greek word for “perfect” in the Scriptures, occurring 48x in one form or another in the GNT (Greek New Testament) and 66x in the LXX (the Septuagint; the primary Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, created in the 1st or 2nd century BC). When these terms are used, the vast majority of the time, they are translated “perfect” or “complete,” and refer to God Himself, to God’s will (e.g. Romans 12:2), to God’s expectation of our righteousness (e.g. Matthew 5:48), as an abstract concept of perfection (e.g. 1 Corinthians 13:10), etc. But to my knowledge, it is never used to describe Eden or human existence, other than as it is being sanctified and moved by God toward heaven.

In other words, given the language of Scripture, there is no justification for viewing the garden of Eden as “complete” or “perfect” … but rather as “good” (in Greek: καλός, meaning “beautiful, handsome, fine” or “someone, good, useful”; in Hebrew: טוֹב, meaning “merry, pleasant, desirable, pleasing, usable, beautiful, kind, etc.”). This supports the conclusion that there is not an equality between Eden and New Jerusalem. The former is “good,” but the latter is far better, more complete, glorified. Again, even about heaven I’d be hesitant to use the term “perfect.” And this disparity is inherent to the nature of these two places, not a result of the Fall. The biblical language of perfection in Scripture is entirely oriented around “completeness” and “maturity” and the “end of a journey” (heaven), not its beginning (Eden).

Argument from Augustine: Able vs. Unable to Sin

Straight RoadIn the Garden before the Fall, according to the great 5th century theologian Augustine of Hippo, humankind was simultaneously “able to sin” (in the Latin, “posse peccare”) and “able to not sin” (posse non peccare). But in New Jerusalem, we will still be “able to not sin” as we were in Eden (posse non peccare), but also “unable to sin” (non posse peccare). This will be a totally new reality for us. Having been fully redeemed and reconciled to God, we will also fully realize the new nature we share with Christ. Anyone who has committed her life to the Lord has this nature, and is growing / being sanctified in this life. But not until God raises us to new life in heaven will we fully realize this new nature. And when we do, we will be “locked in” to our righteousness, in some respects similar to the angels. (Parenthetically, those in hell will be locked in to their depravity as well, in some respects similar to demons.) This doesn’t mean that God will take away our freedom in heaven; rather, He will be fulfilling our destinies and our deepest desires as those who have “chosen sides” in this life. This isn’t a loss; it’s a gain. Not a suppression of freedom, but the ultimate, true freedom to be who we were made to be in the first place: children of the Living God. So, as residents of God’s holy city, we will enjoy the freedom to live sinless lives.

Now, contrast this with the first parents’ lives as a resident of Eden. They enjoyed freedom as well, the freedom to live in accordance with their nature. But that nature was such that they may or may not sin at any given moment, depending on how the mood struck them. In heaven, our new nature in Christ will be fully realized, and we will also be completely free to live according to it … always and only choosing what glorifies God. Put another way, we will always want only to do right, and will do it. No more conflict, internal or external. No more struggle. No more rebellion.

It seems obvious to me that, if these are accurate portrayals of New Jerusalem and Old Eden, that I’d much rather have New Jerusalem. Wouldn’t you? And if so, then I think you’d agree with me that New Jerusalem is vastly superior to Old Eden. The τέλειος (perfection, completion, maturity, fulfillment) of our new natures, purchased by the blood of Christ, is vastly preferable to the inevitably-temporary, fundamentally-coincidental sinlessness Adam and Eve experienced in Eden.

Argument from vocational role: Workers vs. Family

Man GardeningIn Eden, Adam and Eve were with God in a beautiful garden, and that sounds pretty great. But what kind of experience did they actually have? What kind of language is used in Scripture to describe their experience and their interactions with God?

This is good and interesting and beautiful stuff, and no doubt Scripture paints a “luxurious” (what “Eden” means) picture of the garden. But I don’t think it’s the best stuff. Contrast this portrayal with how Scripture describes our being with God in New Jerusalem…

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:2-4)

Or how about…

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
(Ephesians 1:3-10)

I put it to you: Which experience do you want with God? What kind of relationship are you looking for? The Genesis 1-2 experience (created and well-cared-for servant) or the Revelations 21 / Ephesians 1 experience (beloved wife and adopted child)?

Argument from typology: Garden vs. Temple

Solomon's TempleNow fast forward a bit in Revelation 21…

And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. (Revelation 21:15-16)

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:22ff)

Note that New Jerusalem is a cube and there is no temple. That’s interesting. Are these actual physical dimensions and descriptions of the buildings that will or won’t be on main street? I don’t know; maybe. But I would ask this instead: What’s the only other cube in the Bible? Give up? It’s the holy of holies in the tabernacle, then later in the temple in Jerusalem. For this reason, D. A. Carson sees this (TGC article | Interview with John Piper) as symbolically expressing that we will be united with Christ and dwell intimately with God in heaven. I tend to agree. The other language in Revelation supports this too. For example, there is no sun or moon, because God will directly be our light (Revelation 21:23), where there was definitely a sun and moon in Eden (Genesis 1:14-19). Or, consider that nothing unclean will ever be in heaven. This can’t be said to be true of Eden, because God permitted the serpent (who is Satan) to be there and to tempt Adam and Eve. Well, that and mosquitos, but I have no biblical reference to support that claim. Etc.

I know these are just two examples, but I think they’re reasonably representative. And whatever else these differences mean, they are painting a picture in which we are much closer to God in heaven than the first parents were in Eden.

Conclusion / Putting it Together

Last Puzzle PieceMy intention is to make two points. First, the Garden of Eden wasn’t the best possible condition or context for humanity. It was a starting place, not a destination. And second, that God’s plan was from the beginning that humankind would fall and that He would redeem us.

Heaven will not be a return to Eden. It will be a serious upgrade … a whole new world … a final, intimate, best possible, unsurpassingly glorious, not-just-sinless place which God intended for His children from before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). I don’t think God made a mistake or overlooked something or failed to get His way in the fall of humankind. I think, instead, that the fall was part of the plan … a means of “perfecting” us and this world in which we live … a plan to move us through humiliation and suffering to redemption and glory, not just to leave us in a beautiful garden.


Images and illustrations (in order of presentation):
1) Bill Looney in The True Account of Adam and Eve
2) Weakling, Information Age
3) Patrick Jager, How deep is your chasm?
4) Christian Examiner
5) Kirwin Narine, Straight Road 
6) Master Gardener
7) Solomon’s Temple
8) Missing Puzzle Piece, Cave Mamas
Posted in Theology | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Limitless

boy-and-dad-pointing-49654347_m

Opening weekend of The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (Gavin Stone FB page) was last weekend. Our former church (Harvest Bible Chapel; see also Vertical Church Films) made the film to depict the Church as a place of 2nd chances, which is at the heart of the Gospel. I even participated in the making of the film (microscopic part, huge fun, big honor!).

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

I went to see the movie with a group of friends on its 2nd night, and really enjoyed the movie. Definitely check it out! It dreams big dreams for the Church of Jesus Christ in a broader culture of individualism, isolationism, and consumerism. And it tells its tale masterfully. Cast is great. Story is great. Very funny. And edifying. I love that it would challenge pastors and churches to take the gospel more seriously. Maybe some critics, even Christians, will call it “cheesy” or doesn’t focus enough on God’s law, but I fear that might be more a (sad) commentary on our limited view of the gospel and the church in our day than it is of the movie or the people who made it. Go see it for yourself! I’d love to know what you think.

At any rate, very few things disappointed me about the movie, but one of them was that the Colton Dixon song Limitless ultimately did not make it into the final cut of the movie. It was featured in the official trailer, which is when I first heard it, but not in the movie itself. Sad panda!

But that didn’t keep me from buying the song the day I saw the trailer, and it doesn’t stop me now from writing a little bit about this song and its theology.

First, here are the lyrics…

Too young, too old, too shy, too bold
Too average, to make a difference
The world’s too big and you’re too small
If you try to fly, you’re gonna fall
They’re shouting, but we won’t listen

No more “impossible;” so much for “too difficult,” we know
That our God is greater
Oh, wake up you dreamers, become make-believers
This is who we are

We are limitless, limitless, limitless, limitless
The power of love, alive in us
Is limitless, limitless, unstoppable, and nothing less
No, nothing can hold us down
We’re limitless

Take away the limitations, when we fix our eyes on You
Flood our hearts with expectations
Lord, there’s nothing You can’t do

Doubt sees a mountain, no way around it
Faith sees a victory, no doubt about it
Fear sees a ceiling, hope sees the stars
Love be the light inside of our hearts

We are limitless, limitless, limitless, limitless
The power of love, alive in us
Is limitless, limitless, unstoppable, and nothing less
No, nothing can hold us down
We’re limitless
‘Cause You’re limitless

This is one of those songs that you need a solid theological foundation to rightly interpret. If you hear it, and it ratchets up your self-esteem a few notches — Look at me, aren’t I wonderful! Look at all this power my amazing humanness gives me to bring the rest of the world under my direct control! — then I’m pretty sure both Colton (wrote the song) and Dallas (made the movie) would strongly disagree. I certainly would.

This song, like so many others (whether they know it or not), is about Jesus — the primary, no-close-second lead role of history. Specifically, when I crank this song up way too loud for my teenage son’s taste, I’m not thinking about how amazing I am, but how amazing He is … and that I get to be in His story at all.

Gavin Stone PrayingFor the God of the universe to step into time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, live a sinless life, and suffer death and separation from the Father that we might be brought into fellowship with Him and adopted into His family and sit beside Him in His throne room … Well, cheesy or not, what’s “limitless” here is my astonishment. God is clearly entirely irrational. Guess that’s what love does.

But given that He has been moved to action by His amazing grace, rescued me from the Kingdom of darkness, and transferred me into the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13), I have to grapple with the fact that God has done so for a reason. He created me for a reason. He sends me out for a reason. He gives me His Spirit for a reason.

And the limitless God of limitless purposes and power has indwelled those who are united with Christ by His limitless Spirit … making the scope of our lives, yes that’s right, limitless. “The power of love, alive in us, is limitless — unstoppable and nothing less.” If you belong to Christ, then the same power that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in you! (one of several messages of Rom 8:11).

As you might have guessed from the highlighting, my favorite lines in the song comprise the bridge, which brilliantly contrasts doubt, faith, fear and love.

Doubt sees a mountain, no way around it
Faith sees a victory, no doubt about it
Fear sees a ceiling, hope sees the stars
Love be the light inside of our hearts

The power of the Spirit should be increasingly moving the fixation of our minds and hearts and hands from doubt (What if I can’t?) to faith (We am more than conquerers! Romans 8:1), from fear (What if I fail?) to love (Father, all that matters is that I’m with you; you do the rest! John 15:16-17). And I assure you, by the authority of God’s Word, that the love of God which gives you live and indwells you by faith, is sufficient to accomplish the purposes for which God created you, me, this song, this movie, and the lives of every person involved in all of them. (Isaiah 55:6-11)

Gavin Stone LimitlessI know the movie isn’t grossing as much as Dallas and the team would like (go see it!), but my encouragement would be that God controls the market that returns on the investment of our talents. Our failure is only in choosing not to invest (Matthew 25:14-30). Be patient, pray, trust, and wait to see what the Lord does. God fights for us battles we can’t even understand, let alone fight for ourselves!

I also know many Christians who have essentially divested their lives of Christian music, as well as those who dismiss movies like Gavin Stone out of hand (along with many other excellent Christian films made in the last few years) on the assumption that they must inevitably be cheesy or trite or poorly acted or whatever. But I disagree, and so does God. I don’t really have an opinion so much on how “cheesy” (or whatever) it is — for my part, I actually quite enjoyed it — but isn’t that entirely personal preference anyway … driven almost exclusive by the culture we’re imbibing? Do those opinions say more about the movie and the music, or about us? Honestly, I wasn’t grading it, I was praising God for it and asking God to make me more like Him, as the movie depicts that transformation. Same for Colton’s song.

Bottom line, what I know is this… In this movie and in this song, the Word of God goes out, and it will not return to the eternal God having failed to accomplish everything that He intended for it to accomplish. And He is drawing His people into that adventure.

This is what Dallas demonstrates in the life of the character Gavin Stone. This is what Colton Dixon sings about. And this is what God dreams over your life.

The possibilities are limitless! I hope we don’t miss them.


Photo credit: main image, 123rf.com sideInikov; others, Vertical Church Films
Posted in Psalms, Music and Worship, Real Life, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

I’m Going to Uganda!

Ugandan Cityscape

As you probably know, I have been in seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) pursuing my Masters in Divinity for the last couple of years. Although we are not exactly sure where or to what God is calling us when I finish school – whether pastoral ministry or teaching in the academy, in the US or elsewhere – it has been the blessing and opportunity of a lifetime to pursue seminary education. As part of my program, I have committed to participating in two short-term mission trips. They are specifically designed as “vision trips,” to expose me to other cultures (particularly in the majority world) and to provide vital experiences which will help our family better discern whether God could be calling us to teach or minister in another part of the world.

What’s the plan?

Uganda MapThe first of these trips will be this May 15-30, 2017 to Mbale, Uganda (right on the equator in East Africa). I’m going with several students and faculty from TEDS. We will be connecting with Uganda Christian University, which connected with one of the country’s leading hospitals. We will also be working with JENGA Community Development Outreach, who cares for some of the most vulnerable and needy people in the area. We will be learning about local customs and culture, meeting with professors, engaging local Muslims, preaching in local churches, sharing meals, and generally spending a great deal of time experiencing the people there. I’m so looking forward to this opportunity!

How can I participate?

I’ll be journaling through this experience as well here on my blog, sharing updates, photos, prayer requests, and stories of God at work. I’ve created a special page to collect all that material into one place (similar to my trip to Israel a few years back), so please join me there to share this journey with me.

Uganda KidsAlso, one of God’s explicit instructions to me in all this is to share the opportunity to fund this trip with the people in our lives. So, I’m asking you to partner with us, both financially and in prayer, to make the trip possible. Each team member is responsible to raise their own support in gifts for Trinity. The cost for participation is $2,800 to cover airfare, in-country transportation, housing, food, and ministry expenses. Gifts to Trinity, with an expression of a preference for my trip expenses, are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you are willing and able to make a gift to Trinity to assist with my expenses, kindly do so at http://tiu.edu/givetomissions.

Thank you so much for your consideration on this. Whether or not you can help us fund the trip, we would ask you to please pray:

  1. Pray for me (for stamina, wisdom, humility, and to learn and grow from this experience).
  2. Pray for the team and the people we encounter (that the gospel would go forth in power and that all of our lives would be changed by God’s work among us).
  3. Pray for my family whom I’m leaving behind for two weeks for the sake of this trip.

For the sake of Christ’s Kingdom,

-Jeff (Faith and John) Block


Photo credit: eLearning Africa News (cityscape); Lower Park School (map); Willow Creek Compassion & Justice (kids)
Posted in Travel | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Death, Faith and the Christian Life

A sermon manuscript on Galatians 2:20, prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes)

Death Faith and the Christian Life

Introduction

Who here loves to camp? My wife and son like to camp and I have many friends who like to camp, but I have to admit, I’m not a big fan. I’m more of a Marriott camper. I don’t mind getting dirty or wet, per se, as long as I can then get clean and dry. But camping always seems to be an exercise in getting dirty and wet and staying that way for a really long time. In fact, I’m nursing a theory that time slows down when you’re dirty and wet, but that’s a topic for another day.

At any rate, a couple years ago when my son was in Cub Scouts, we went on a camping trip with his Pack in mid-October. Now, because I’m not the #1 camping dad, we weren’t entirely prepared for how cold it got that weekend. The first night we were there, I wore pretty much every article of clothing I had to bed with me and snuggled with John for warmth, but we were still freezing all night long! At the crack of dawn, we got up and rushed to the camp fire, which was my new best friend. We heated coffee and cocoa, and dangling arms and legs over the flames in a fine balancing act between “thawing out” and “burning off.”

And as an aside, this was the moment when I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a Cub Scout dad. Because you know what all the other dads were talking about around the campfire? “If it had been just 2 degrees colder last night, we’d have gotten the Polar Bear badge! Everyone needs to pray it’s just a little colder tonight.” Seriously?!

But I digress.

Anyway, the point is that the most valuable thing in my whole world that morning was that campfire. And I’d have done just about anything to get to its warmth. And I want you to have that mental picture in your head, because we’ll come back to it this morning.

bonfire

Invitation to turn to the passage

In the meantime, please take out your bibles and turn with me to Galatians 2:20. This is a short but incredibly weighty passage that encapsulates the gospel and describes the Christian life. In fact, if we were to set out to identify the single best verse in Scripture to do so, I think this verse would have to at least be in the running. So much so that you may even have it memorized. But even if you do, please turn with me to Galatians and follow along as I read from the ESV. Then we’ll pray, and dive in.

Read the Passage

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

Prayer for Illumination

Lord, we marvel at your love for us, that you would give us your very Word, written down to study and ingest and feast upon, that it might become to us the very words of life. Thank you for this small but powerful verse. As we turn our full attention to your Word, would you quicken us by your Spirit to understand it, to trust it, and to live it out in our daily lives. Make us doers of the Word, not hearers only. Would you speak through me, Lord, that all of us would hear not from me, but from you. We come before you today with great expectation, knowing that the only true life is your life. Reveal that life to each person here, and draw each of us into it, we pray … in your name and for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

Primary Claim

In this passage, Paul states that the Christian life is a great exchange: our lives for Christ’s life. It’s about Jesus Himself, by His Spirit, living in us. This exchange is made possible by God’s grace and by Christ’s sacrificial death, but Scripture is also clear that it depends, in part, on two specific and profound human decisions: the choice to repent (to be crucified with Christ) and believe (to live by faith).

Organizational Sentence

In other words, we see in this passage a three-fold progression in the establishment of the Christian life. Specifically…

  1. Our deaths with Christ (I have been crucified with Christ…)
  2. Christ’s life in us (It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…)
  3. Our faith in Christ (And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith…)

So, let’s break those down one at a time…

Main Points

I. We must die with Christ

I am crucified with Christ. (2:20a)

One of the central and most important truths of the Christian faith is that “Christ died for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18; paraphrased).

But if we are thinking of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross as something that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or as an event which only affects me in the sense that I get to go to heaven when I die, then we’ve missed what Jesus was doing on the cross.

Jesus became a man to join with us in our humanity. In an incredible mystery that we can’t possibly fully understand, the eternal and omnipotent God left His throne in heaven and entered fully into humanity and the human world. He became entirely man without failing to retain his nature and position as entirely God. And He lived the life that all of us live, except without sin. He truly experienced human life, but instead of being dragged down by a broken and corrupt nature into sin and rebellion, he rose above sin and succeeded where we have all failed – in living a perfect life. And because His life was perfect, He did not deserve the punishment for sin as we do, namely death. So, when Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross, He died a death that He didn’t have to die. And not just as a man, who through a perfect life could save only himself, but as the unique God-man, whose infinite righteousness and position made His sacrifice of infinite value, allowing God the Father to apply His sacrifice to all who believe, in all places, throughout all of history. Because of this great sacrifice, anyone who wants to find life in Jesus can do so.

Now that is amazing news! But it’s not the whole of the gospel. I think that if we stop here, having marveled only at the fact that Jesus died for us, then we run the risk of allowing His death to drift into the background of life, and become something far away or distant, something which provides only a residual, vague reassurance that something good has happened to our destinies. Instead, Christ’s death plays an active, significant role in every day of our lives.

Look at what Paul is actually saying here. He does NOT say, “Christ was crucified for me, therefore I live.” He says, “I have been crucified with Christ, therefore Christ lives in me.” Of course, the Christian life is first and primarily contingent on Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, but it is also contingent on our deaths alongside of Christ. Paul uses the same word here which the gospel writers use to describe the thieves who were crucified with Jesus, on either side of Him. In our passage, Paul is explicitly saying that before Christ lives in me, I must be crucified with Christ.

Jesus said the exact same thing Himself when He said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” There’s only one reason a person “takes up a cross” … when they’re in the midst of a Roman death sentence.

But how does this happen?

A. Death is the only way out of fallen sinful life

There is an important theological reality we need to understand here, namely that the only way out from under the effect of sin and curse of the law is to die. We don’t have time to turn to it, but Paul covers this in significant detail in Romans 6, and I would encourage you to check it out in your own time this week.

Because humankind has rebelled against God, we have become slaves to sin. And the wages of sin is death. So we are all trapped. We cannot experience the life for which God designed us apart from Christ. We can’t get better because we try harder. We can’t experience new life through self-help plans or really great new year’s resolutions. We can’t make our self-help plans better by adding a little of Jesus’ help to the mix. There is no overcoming sin while remaining in a life corrupted by sin. Our sin and guilt will haunt us as long as we live. But that’s the point… only as long as we live. The only way out is death.

two-exitsThink of this life as a room with two exit doors. One door was created by Christ, by His death and resurrection. He is the first to have exited this life through that door, and He bids us to follow Him. He waits for us in the next room — not just someday when our physical lives are over, but right now. Eternal life does not sequentially follow physical life; rather, we enter eternal life through the spiritual transaction of dying with and being raised with Christ.

The second door was created by me and my sin. Originally God created us to live forever in the garden, but we destroyed that option with our rebellion. And in so doing created a door through which all of us must exit by default. But if we exit through this door, we will live forever alone, apart from God and cut off from everything we were made to be. So, there are two doors, and we choose which one is our exit from this life. But one more thing about this room…

star-wars-trash-compactorWho here has seen the original Episode 4: A New Hope? Remember when Luke and Han save Princess Leia but have to dive down the garbage shoot to escape the storm troopers? They end up in a room-sized trash compactor, which inconveniently turns on as soon as they land in it. The walls are pushing in and there’s nothing they can do to stop them. Well, because of sin, that’s exactly what’s happening in our “room of life.” Nobody stays in the room, because the far wall is slowly, ominously, inexorably pushing you toward a wall with two exits. There is no choice to stay here; the choice is, which exit will you take?

Or think back to the campfire at the cub scout retreat. Consider that real life is warmth, which has only one source: the fire. If my son John and I had stayed in the tent that morning, there would have been no way to get warm. None. Can’t heat the coffee or thaw out frozen fingers and toes. Even if you brought back a torch or hot rock or steaming bowl of soup, it would be cold again in minutes. If you want to become warm and stay that way … if you want the fire to “live in you” … then you have to get up, leave the tent behind, go the fire, and stay there!

B. Christian life must be exchanged for, not added to, earthly life.

Many in our culture assume that the Christian life is something we can add to the lives we were living before we met Christ. If we subscribe to this theory, we might sing new songs, spend Sunday morning differently, or give up some unacceptable sins. But this isn’t being crucified. It’s more of what I call the “thin candy shell” approach to the Christian life because it boils down to trying to add a thin candy shell of Jesus to what is essentially the same old life. And it is by far the most common approach to Christianity in our culture today.

thin-candy-shellThose who approach Christ this way tend to assume there is only one exit door in the room of life, and that we will all exit through it … someday. Therefore, they focus on tidying up and living a good life while inside the room, making sure in their own minds that they are spiritually “covered” for when they eventually are forced to exit.

But that isn’t the Christian life. In this model, no matter what you add to your life or how thoroughly you clean, you’re still inside the room, and sin still reigns inexorably. Even if you do manage to overcome some sin … Even if you say a prayer or go to church every week or serve the poor or are really nice to people … Even if God works some miracles in your life … Unless you take Jesus up on His offer to come and die – to abandon the room altogether, with Jesus – we cannot access what Scripture calls “eternal life.”

This is because God, on the other hand, very clearly subscribes to the “come and die” model of Christianity.

exit-signTo be free of sin … to walk upright and blameless before God … to share fellowship with Him … you must exit the room. Death isn’t something Christians do someday; it’s what we do to become Christians. It’s the unique, distinctive mark of the Christian that we die in order to find life.

C. How do I die to myself?

But that still doesn’t get at the practicality of how this happens, does it? Give me details, right?! What exactly does this mean I’m supposed to do?

no-work-harderWell, first, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. To be crucified with Christ does NOT mean “to work harder at being good.” What it does mean is to surrender, to repent, to turn around. To die is to come to the end of yourself and turn away from all that you are or could be on your own, and give that all to Jesus … to abandon any hope that heat can be found in the tent or in the woods, and live out the reality that the only way to be warm is to stay by the fire.

And this isn’t a one-moment-in-time thing, it’s an every-moment-all-the-time thing. When I feel like this is working best for me is when I’m throughout the day bringing elements of my life to Jesus open in the palm of my hand, and asking what He wants to do with them.

Here’s a very recent example from my life: Though this past Monday was a company holiday, I received an email from a person at work that really rubbed me the wrong way. In that moment and in many moments afterwards as I grappled with the implications of the email and my reaction to it, I was repeatedly faced with a choice: respond the way I want to respond, or give it to Jesus and ask Him for a response.

Maybe for you it’s a question of how you interact with your family or whether or not you take that promotion or what kind of time you’re going to invest in a hobby this year. Maybe God’s been calling you to do something for a while, and you’re afraid or otherwise resisting. Maybe it’s about a sin nobody but God knows about, but the truth is that you really love that sin, and you don’t want to give it up. Maybe it’s not a sin, but it’s something you know God is asking you to let go. Or maybe it’s a life change you’re in the process of making, and it’s really good … but you’ve never discussed it with Jesus. There’s simply no way to say that we’ve died to ourselves, when Jesus isn’t present in the 2017 planning meeting for your life. Maybe it’s something you’re just assuming is a non-negotiable in your life – like where you work, where you live, whether or not your family has cable TV or your kids have smart phones. Maybe your flirting with an inappropriate relationship. Maybe is the jokes you laugh at or the movies you watch or the music you listen to. It could be anything.

Dying to ourselves means that we don’t make the decisions about mortgages and music, acquaintances and acquisitions any more. Jesus makes them.

In all these things, I believe the question God has for us is this:

  • Will you exert yourself (which equates to making yourself a little bit more at home in the freezing cold room of life)?
  • Or will you consider what you want to be nothing, take it to Jesus, and consider what He wants to be everything (which equates to dying to self, exiting the room, and warming yourself by the fire)?

{pause}

Okay, let’s continue on through the verse. We have quite a bit of ground left to cover.

II. Christ must live in us

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (2:20b)

Again, pay careful attention to Paul’s words. He does NOT say, “I have been crucified with Christ, but now I live.” He says, “I have been crucified with Christ; I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

Paul is saying – unbelievably – that as I stand here and talk to you, Jesus actually lives in me and through me to present this message to you. It’s not about our making Jesus look good, but about Jesus living in and through us as we go to work tomorrow or watch the game or go to the store or be a mom or a friend or a sibling. We are His agents, His ambassadors. We’re living brushes with which He paints or living stones with which He builds His house, as Peter puts it.

To help us understand this, Jesus used the analogy of the vine and the branches in John 15. I absolutely love His word picture. It’s so rich and deep. So, let’s take a second to explore it, because it depicts so well what Paul is getting at in Galatians.

Picture yourself as a branch. God planted you in good soil, but because of your choices, you have poisoned that soil. Now, the soil is bad, and anything planted in it is dying. That’s you, and every other branch like you, attached to a corrupted vine growing from corrupted soil, destined for death. You’re already starting to look brown and withered. It’s only a matter of time.

dying-vineJesus, the Great Gardener, desires to save you. But, in order to do so, He must establish a new vine in good soil and transfer you to it. So, in a miracle that defies the imagination, Jesus Himself, God of very God, becomes a vine and plants Himself in good soil. Because of the overpowering magnitude of His perfect life, this new vine is not and cannot be poisoned – the only vine that can nourish and sustain life. And that leaves you, Mr. or Mrs. Branch, with only two choices: stay on your vine, wither, die, fall to the ground, and be gathered for the fire. Or ask the Gardener to cut you off the dying vine right now – that’s death; you’ve exited through Jesus’ door–, and graft you onto the new life-giving vine. And incredibly, that’s what He does! You can now experience life! Your leaves firm up and straighten and turn green again. Your skin no longer looks withered. You become a vibrant, living branch, because the vine lives in you. You even start to bear fruit!

living-vineImagine the branch says to the Gardener that it wants remain connected to the old vine but receive all the benefits (life!) of the new vine. Or imagine it says that it wants to be transplanted, but carry with it the “life” of the old vine. It doesn’t want to miss out on any of the old withered grapes, after all! Or what if it stays where it is (on the old vine) but tries really, really hard to have green leaves and bear fruit? All three are epic failures! None of these options are possible or even make sense. Vines and branches just don’t work that way. The branch must be fully detached from the old vine and reattached to the new one where the life of the new vine can flow through it.

And notice that once the branch is attached to the new vine, it’s still not about trying really hard or coaxing life out of the vine. The vine pulses with life and energy and vitality. The branch experiences it and is renewed by virtue of remaining attached. So, from start to end, it is the Gardener who brings life –1) in the sacrificial incarnation of His life as the new vine, 2) in His expert skill in performing branch transplants, and 3) in the life itself which now sustains the branch from within the new vine.

So, does that mean that we have no responsibilities here whatsoever? Hardly! Let’s look at the rest of the passage…

III. We must live by faith

And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (2:20c)

The first thing I notice here is that the life we live is “in the flesh.” By this, I think Paul simply means our mortal, physical bodies. He is saying that even though we have died to ourselves, which is a spiritual transaction, our mortal bodies are still physically alive here on earth. So, we are not to anticipate a transformation at some time off in the distant future when we physically die or some kind of out-of-body, mystical experience. Instead, we remain earthly creatures, even though we have died and Christ now lives in us.

And now we come to our responsibility in this transaction: we live by faith. We could easily spend a lot more time than we have remaining to study biblical faith. But I suggest that our research would lead us to understand that biblical faith has three dimensions. Faith is a three-legged stool, consisting of equal and irreducible and interdependent parts…

A. Biblical faith involves knowing with our heads

First, biblical faith involves knowing. To believe, or to have faith, means that we must engage our minds. At least part of faith is in our heads. We must know what is true and what is false, and be able to discern the difference. This is why the study of Scripture and theology is so critical to the Christian life. Not everyone needs a degree in Systematic Theology, of course. But you cannot truly believe something you know little or nothing about any more than you can love someone you’ve never met. Faith isn’t having a vague sense that the Bible says something about something, it’s about knowing the truth well enough to perceive it even amongst subtle and compelling lies.

In our day, the word “theology” has a bad rap. It’s thought to be boring or irrelevant or reserved for scholars off in some ivory tower somewhere. But theology is simply thinking rightly about God, and I agree with A.W. Tozer when he said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

When we think about God, we must be sure that we’re thinking what’s true, not some vague nicety that comes from pop culture rather than Scripture. Even in this passage, Paul explicitly states that our faith has a specific object. We don’t just believe whatever makes us feel good; we live by a specific faith … “in the Son of God” … about whom specific things are true … “who loved us and gave Himself for us.” At the very least, biblical faith concerns itself with learning about and getting to know the real, biblical Jesus.

B. Biblical faith involves trusting with our hearts

Second, biblical faith involves trusting. There is no belief without engaging our hearts. When we truly believe something, we don’t just know it’s true in our heads, we know it in our guts and it changes everything about the way we perceive the world around us and respond. This includes our desires and who or what we run to and lean on to fulfill those desires. It changes our hopes and dreams. It changes our motivations. It even changes our emotional responses (whether we worry or are at peace, what makes us happy or sad, etc.). We put our weight on what we believe in. We count on what we believe in to come through for us.

It’s one thing to know something the bible says. It’s another for that knowledge to change what you expect from God and how we live our lives. Do we merely know what God is promising us, or do we actually live as if we trust Him to fulfill His promises?

For example, because we know that God has bid His children to come to Him and ask for what they need, do we start with prayer? Or do we maybe sometimes pray, but certainly only after everything else has failed to yield the results we desire?

For knowledge to become faith it has to seep into our hearts and wills, defining who and what we trust, and influencing every aspect of our lives. As you might guess, this leads us to the third leg of the stool…

C. Biblical faith involves doing with our hands

Biblical faith involves doing. It becomes action. The third dimension of biblical faith is located in our hands. The Christian life is not passive, it’s a life of action. “Faith without works is dead,” the Apostle James said. If we believe something to be true, then it affects what we do. We make different decisions because of what we believe. Regardless of what we say, it’s what we do that most reveals our values and beliefs.

Let me share with you one of my favorite illustrations of faith at work…

niagara-falls1

Who here has been to Niagara Falls? Our family has not, but it’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Niagara Falls is the collective name for three gigantic waterfalls, located on the Niagara River along the American-Canadian border, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The largest of these three waterfalls is the called “Horseshoe Falls.” It’s brink is about 2600 feet long and 170 feet high, and 600,000 gallons of water pour over the falls every second. So, that gives you a sense of their sheer immensity.

niagara-falls3-charles-blondinIn 1858, a 34-year-old French acrobat named Jean François Gravelet, better known as Charles Blondin, was the first to walk across Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. He suspended a 2” rope across 1,300 feet from one side of the horseshoe falls to the other, and walked across with no practice, claiming that practice was just another opportunity to make a mistake. Once he’d done it the first time, it became a regular occurrence, getting more involved each time he did it and drawing larger and larger crowds. A few examples… Evidently he walked across looking through the lens of a camera, walked across backwards, did cartwheels across, walked across upside down on his hands, pushed a wheel barrel across, and even stopped for lunch in the middle sitting on the line, hauling up wine and other supplies by rope from a boat below him. This is crazy stuff!

Every time, the crowd cheered. Every time, they passionately expressed their belief that he could do whatever new ridiculous thing he claimed he would do next. And think about all the demonstrated competence the audience had on which to base their beliefs. But let’s say one day, he showed up with his wheel barrel and asked for volunteers to ride across the Falls in it. That would be the real test of who believed in him and who didn’t, wouldn’t it? Attending his shows doesn’t really constitute belief. Neither does cheering him on, or agreeing that he can do what he says he can do. But volunteering to ride across in his wheel barrel … actually getting in and riding across … that is how we know who really believes in the great Charles Blondin. That person knows in his head that Blondin can make it, trusts in his heart, and then acts accordingly.

And the same is true with us and Jesus. The faith that follows Jesus is a faith by which we know in our heads, trust in our hearts and acts accordingly. And Paul says in Galatians 2 that this is how we die to self and open our lives to Christ’s living in us.

Putting the Pieces Together

puzzle-piecesLet’s put these pieces all together and look back at Galatians 2 in light of them…

God calls us to be crucified with Christ. This means we bring all of life to God – what’s in our heads, hearts, and hands – and submit it to Him. Whatever He says to do with it, we do it, no questions asked. Even if it’s scary. Even when we realize how much it will cost. There is no price too high to pay for the life Jesus offers. We die to receive it. Then God Himself will live through us, claiming total and complete authority to dictate to us how life should work – again, what’s in our heads, hearts, and hands.

Throughout his letters, Paul refers to this as the putting off of one life and the putting on of another.

But, it’s at this point that we need to address a very critical issue: Who is doing the putting off and the putting on? Is it God? Is it me?

The bottom line is that it’s both! God saves us, but we think, trust, and act in submission and response to His work of salvation. Somehow, there is a mysterious and awesome partnership between the sovereign work of God and our active faith. It’s seemingly contradictory, and it creates tension. But to try to resolve the tension easily leads to error and heresy and disaster. Those who deemphasize God’s sovereign work and choices end up living lives of spiritual lethargy and acceptable sins, drifting through life bearing very little fruit for the kingdom of God. Those who deemphasize our responsibility end up working feverishly for something they can never earn, unable to trust God and rest in His grace. And both run the risk of rewriting the gospel to suit their own proclivities, which is to walk away from the true gospel at their own peril. To be biblical, we must accept the existence of this tension and embrace it.

And I don’t view this uncertainty as a bad thing, either. This tension should cause us to run to God, that we might walk with Him and depend on Him in the context of mysteries in the way God made us that we just cannot fully understand.

So, to help us do that, I want to offer five quick but important principles for doing so and then we’ll close…

1. The only “enough” is Jesus.

If you’re burning a bunch of calories trying to decide if you are good enough or pious enough or doing enough for God, let it go. The only “enough” in the Christian life is Jesus. And He is “enough” for all people in all things. Ask God to help you rest in Him!

2. God’s laws are gifts, not obligations.

If you’re going to start a new training regimen in 2017, train yourself to love God’s law. As a parent creates rules out of love for her children, so God disciplines and sets boundaries for those He loves. Ask God to change your mind!

3. Ask God what He wants and do it, no matter how scary it is.

Get a little risky. God will be there to catch you. I doubt there’s a person in this room, including myself, who couldn’t open themselves up to a little more earthly risk for the sake of the gospel. Remember, God lives in you. It’s His dreams we should focus on. And He will not seek to do in you what He does not make possible / equip us to achieve. Ask God to dream big dreams in you!

4. You will fail, but you can fall on God’s grace.

Part of being fallible is failing. That’s okay. Remember, God is doing something greater than you understand. And even if you get it “wrong,” God always gets it right. He can be unequivocally relied upon to catch you when you fall. Ask God to make you bold in the shelter of His grace!

5. Above all, actually walk and talk with God.

Until we’ve prayed, nothing else matters. Remember, prayer isn’t your way of punching orders into a vending machine, it’s walking and talking with God in the Garden in the cool of the day. It’s being with God. And being with God is how He rubs off on us. Ask God to transform you – to make you more like Jesus.

Conclusion

Hopefully these principles will be helpful in practically applying this message, especially the last one, as we view the Christian life as an ongoing surrender of self and an increasing openness to the power of God to live in us. Ask Him what that means for you every day, and do it, no matter what it costs! You won’t regret it.

When Jesus launched His earthly ministry, He did so with these words, which essentially restate our passage from today. He said, “The time has come. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

If you’ve never died to yourself and put your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the renewal and regeneration of your life, you can do that right now!

Maybe you prayed a prayer a long time ago, but as you’re listening today you known in the pit of your soul that you have been trying to add a thin candy shell of Jesus to life the way you want to live it. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’d have to admit that you’ve never climbed up onto the cross next to Jesus and said, “Absolutely everything that I am and everything I have is yours. Take it, and give me your life in return.” Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever stepped foot in a church or heard anything like what I’ve been saying. In either case, the God who made heaven and earth, who made you and loves you and gave Himself for you … He wants to live inside you so that you might know real life forever.

If that’s what you want, tell Him that right now; He’s always listening. Be honest with Him about where you are, and ask Him to meet you there. And then come find me or one of the elders or leaders after the service. We would love to pray with you and talk with you further.

But whatever you do, if God is tugging at your heart, don’t ignore it. Everything your life was meant to be waits for you in Jesus.

Behold, the time has come. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

Closing Prayer

Please stand with me, and let’s pray…

Father, you have called us to come and die that we might find life. And we do not come in faith to a God who stands far away or who cares little for tiny creatures like us, but we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave Himself up for us. Jesus, you left the glory of heaven to come to a dirty barn in an ancient time in an obscure place, to be mistreated by people like us, and give your life as a ransom for many. And you call us to leave the brokenness and uncertainty of this world, that we might find glorious life in you. It seems like it should be an easy bargain, but it’s not … because we’re weak and selfish and afraid. Give us the courage to answer your call. I ask you, Father, to quicken the hearts of every person here, that we would rush to take up our crosses and find there life in you. For your sake, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

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God’s Goodness vs Seeking Safety

defensive-life-armored-bunker

Should we actively avoid suffering?

(Question 4 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)

No matter how much we might understand, intellectually, that suffering in our lives is necessary and good, it’s our instinct to avoid it. We have discussed the ways in which God actively uses suffering to give us good things — refining us, so that we will come forth as gold (Job 23:10). Instinctively, we know that a diet of all donuts and candy is a bad thing. It makes you grow, but in all the wrong ways. Vegetables and lean protein don’t taste as good as burgers, fries and chocolate shakes, but one dietary pattern leads (statistically) to a long, healthy life and the other leads to far greater pain and misery down the road than saying “no” to your favorite comfort foods will ever cause you today. It’s at least in part about delayed gratification. Will you endure some pain now for much glory later? Or will you avoid pain now at all cost today, even at the tremendous risk of unbearable pain in the future?

So if pain and suffering are so valuable and necessary, why do we run from them?

Some might think the answer to the question of pain-avoidance is a little silly … or at least that it’s patently obvious. Nobody likes pain, so of course everybody should want as little of it as possible! Right? Most of us, when life is good and we aren’t experiencing suffering, fear it and work hard to insulate our lives from even the possibility of it. And when we’re in the middle of painful circumstances, we beg God to get us out of it as fast as He can and/or we resent Him for putting us through those circumstances in the first place. So let’s start there…

Isn’t it obvious we should avoid some kinds of pain?

In an earlier post, I talked about the pain of getting too close to a fire. Doesn’t this demonstrate that exactly the right reaction to pain is a) to avoid it (by not getting too close to fire) and b) to make it go away as fast as possible when we feel it (by putting the fire out or retreating away when we get too close)? I mean, no sane person intentionally sticks their hand in the fire because “pain is good” … right?

Around a CampfireTrue, but I think this reasoning confuses two important concepts: the pain caused by fire and the damage caused by fire. The fire inflicts pain if you get too close to it specifically to warn you that you are too close … to turn you away, so that the damage that would inevitably follow can be avoided. Pain is an insulator against damage — a sentry standing guard outside its door. In knowing that pain will result, we keep our hands far enough away. Or, in feeling pain, we retract our hands from the fire so it doesn’t in fact harm us. In either case, we’re not really avoiding pain, we’re avoiding getting burned. Or, at least that’s what should be happening. Either way, pain is avoided or subsides, but that’s only because the risk of burning is being avoided or has subsided as well. The pain is what was at work to help you avoid being burned, damaged, hurt by the fire. Avoiding the pain could be good, in that you pull your hand away from the fire, but avoiding the pain could also mean the opposite … becoming calloused and unaffected by the pain so that you end up plunging headlong into the damage the fire can do to you, because the pain wasn’t there to stop you. In fact, the pain is your friend; it’s goal is to help you avoid the damage the fire itself can inflict upon you.

Another way to look at it is that there are degrees of pain. The pain of the heat as you get too close to the fire helps you avoid the far, far, far worse pain of 2nd and 3rd degree burns that would result if that pain wasn’t there to warn us away from the flames before they had a chance to really severely burn us.

Does that mean that we should seek pain out?

guardrailsNo. When driving on a road on the edge of a cliff, you don’t swerve intentionally into the guardrails to see what will happen. You stay on the road, avoiding the “pain” of the guardrails. But if you get distracted or happen to get off course … if something goes wrong … and you come in contact with the guardrails, they keep you from going off the cliff. When you swerve back away from the guardrails to get yourself reoriented to the middle of the lane where you belong, your goal isn’t to avoid the guardrails per se, but to be on the road where you’re supposed to be in the first place. You’re not avoiding pain, you’re driving safely and responsibly. No sane person plows into the guardrails intentionally, or rides for miles scraping against them. But at the same time, nobody in their right mind wishes the guardrails weren’t there or curses the minor damage done to their car when encountering them … given that they have just prevented her from plummeting to her death.

What about other (bad!) kinds of suffering?

Maybe you think those aren’t particularly helpful examples, or that they don’t cover the kind of pain you’re experiencing. You might ask… What about the pain of a couple who desperately wants but can’t have children? What about the pain of someone who lost a child or parent or close friend, especially if it’s considered a premature loss? What about someone suffering from cancer at a young age? What about being displaced from your home by a war or a natural disaster, or the person who has experienced some kind of trauma and now lives with chronic, daily pain (physical or emotional)? We could go on and on and on.

These pains don’t seem like the heat of a fire warning us away or the scraping damage of the guardrail as it saves you from falling to your death. These seem more like the torture inflicted by some sick sadist or like being a ball of string for God’s cat. What about this kind of pain? Shouldn’t at least this kind of pain be avoided?

Two thoughts…

First, how do you know that these pains aren’t appropriately to be cataloged as heat-of-the-fire pains or guard rail pains? How do you know what God might be protecting you from, or how He does so in His infinite (as in, way better than yours!) wisdom?

Second, I would actually make the argument that this kind of pain is in fact the most valuable and the last thing we should seek to avoid. But this is where many of us place our energies — attempting to build defensive bunkers to protect ourselves against this kind of pain. We plan extensively, invest our resources endlessly, pray for safety continually, and worry obsessively … in the hopes that we can shield ourselves from suffering.

Why is that?

I would suggest a few reasons…

1) We have cultivated unhealthy perspectives

clear-vision-better-perspectiveIt’s difficult to rightly value suffering as a means of God’s sanctifying work in us, if we do not first see clearly the seriousness of our sin and the gloriousness of heaven. Before we find ourselves in painful circumstances, we must prepare our hearts to stand up under them, if we’re going to rightly trust God’s goodness as He works in us.

Read more about gaining clarity of perspective.

2) We are enamored with quick fixes

microwave-cookingYou are God’s masterpiece. And it takes a long time and a lot of work to create a masterpiece. If we view our lives like a hyper-quick, questionably nutritious meal, then we will never be what God made us to be. His work in us is far more like Thanksgiving dinner than leftover pot roast, and we would be wise to embrace (not avoid!) the long time and sometimes painful difficulty God is investing to make us like Jesus.

Read more about not expecting quick fixes.

3) We live in a dream world (and don’t want to wake up)

the-matrix-red-pill-blue-pillMuch of what we call “treasure” and “happiness” in this world are little more than trinkets we collect in a dream. Pain and suffering are God’s megaphone to wake us up from that dream into a world of abundant blessing (real treasure; heavenly treasure). But we have to choose to be roused from slumber into real life.

Read more about God’s attempts to wake us up.

4) We are focused on earthly goals

Cloudwatching Look UpImagine you’re the average Israelite slave building Pharaoh a pyramid a couple thousand years ago. Moses shows up, hacks off the king, and gets you and your family in trouble. Now you resent him, God, and the Egyptian government even more than you already did! Who knew that was possible?! But maybe it’s because you have your heart fixed on the wrong thing.

Read more about dreaming for yourself the way God dreams for you.

5) We don’t really trust God

Trusting GodGod is wise, and we aren’t. When life it’s hard, it’s easy to consider God to be callous or even incompetent, but just because we don’t understand what God is doing doesn’t mean that He isn’t working all things together for our good. The more we shift our focus from our circumstances to trusting the God who orchestrates them, the better we’ll navigate the storms of life.

Read more about trusting God in the midst of painful circumstances.

6) We misunderstand what it means to follow Jesus

Seed GerminationJesus did not call his followers to a life of pain-free comfort, but to picking up our cross every day, dying to self, and living only in Christ. That’s hard. It’s explicitly not pain free, any more than Jesus’ life was pain free. But our purpose on this earth is to be germinated into new eternal life, which unequivocally requires death.

Read more about dying to live.

Temporary suffering for permanent good

By the very nature of our extremely brief lives on this earth, whatever refining work God is doing in us … whatever pain is involved with dying with Christ that we might be raised to life … It is, by definition, temporary. It is, however, carefully designed to prepare us for the permanent reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our tendency to desire a world without suffering is grounded in the common intuition that there really should be (and in fact is) such a place. But because most of us have a relatively weak and distant view of heaven, we fail to view that future life as far more important than this one, and we fail to trust that God is always and perfectly doing in us what needs to be done to prepare us for it. As a result, we tend to desperately desire the best possible life today or next Tuesday, with dangerously little regard for the best possible life in eternity.

God’s actions are always, only and entirely good, but they are eternal in scope. What God is doing is always bigger and better and more important than the things we want Him to do. We think God isn’t thinking big enough for us, but in fact it is we who are thinking small. CS Lewis was right, we are far too easily pleased.

open-heart-surgeryWhat if you were an alien visiting from Jupiter and walked in on Sally in the middle of a root canal or Fred as he is undergoing open heart surgery? If these brief experiences were your only barometer for measuring their lives and you made the assumption that these events represented the totality of human life, then you would walk away from those encounters with a totally skewed view of reality. You would probably say that Fred’s and Sally’s lives were utterly, breathtakingly horrible. Next thing we know, you’ve recommended that your fellow Jupiterians wage war on the brutal earthlings! And it would be downhill from there.

Without patience and perspective, our theoretical alien would have no way to realize that the pain and difficulty Fred and Sally are both experiencing could very well turn out for their ultimate good. You have to step back and zoom out — maybe a lot. But even accounting for the weeks before and after surgery, life could still looks pretty miserable. They’re awake now and nobody’s actively cutting or drilling into them, but they’re miserable and in pain and somewhat emotionally traumatized, even when in recovery. But zoom out far enough, and you realize that the doctors have done a life-changing service for both Sally and Fred. The suffering they experienced under the knife represents the goodness of the doctor, not some kind of brutality … exactly the opposite of what our alien friend originally assumed.

Yeah, but what about “real” pain?

But what if the pain or injustice we’re describing is far worse than a root canal? What about Elisabeth, who was kidnapped as a child and forced into sexual slavery? (Read that very real news story recently.) What about the woman whose husband died a few years back, leaving her alone to raise their 5 young children, only to be diagnosed with stage 4 cancer herself? (This was a real prayer request in our small group recently!) What about the really really bad, horrible, unspeakable-tragedy stuff?

zoom-outWell, I would ask this question: How bad does the circumstance have to be before it outstrips and nullifies our hypothesis that God is good, totally knows what He’s doing, and is always at work for your good? Maybe the surgery required in your life is worse than what’s required in someone else’s. There’s no question that Fred’s open heart surgery is “worse” than Sally’s root canal, but does that make either of them less valuable or important? Does that make one of their doctors cruel and capricious while the other is kind and helpful? Maybe your condition, and therefore the work needed to repair the damage it causes, is far worse than either of these. Maybe you’ll have to stand back and zoom out all the way to heaven to fully recover or see it’s purpose. But that doesn’t make the surgery less of a life-saving operation in the hands of the Great Physician. It’s a question of trusting that God is redeeming you, not understanding how He’s doing it. It’s about what you will find in God’s Kingdom, not what you will leave behind to get there.


For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
But you were unwilling, and you said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
Therefore you shall flee away;
And, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
Therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
A thousand shall flee at the threat of one;
At the threat of five you shall flee,
Till you are left
Like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
Like a signal on a hill.
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
And therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
Blessed are all those who wait for him.
(Isaiah 30:15-18)

child-resting


The Goodness of God Series

  1. How do we know that God is good?
  2. If God is good, why didn’t I get what I want?
  3. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  4. Where does evil come from?
  5. How can a good God directly cause suffering?
  6. Should we actively avoid suffering?
  7. How can a good God send people to hell?
  8. Does God change His mind?
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