The Allure of the Dream World

the-matrix-red-pill-blue-pill

We avoid pain because…
We love our dream and don’t want to wake up

Have you noticed that we humans are a stockpiling people? Even those of us who aren’t too good at savings accounts know how to accumulate stuff we want. We hoard the treasures this world has to offer, believing that they will satisfy us. We build bunkers and treasure chests of various kinds, load them up with our collections of revered goods and experiences, and invest all manner of resources in defending them from outside intrusion.

Treasures of Having

treasure-room goldSome of our treasures are material. Cars, houses, toys, cash, retirement accounts, etc. We want these things because they give us an immediate-term happy fix. In our heart of hearts, we know they’re temporary, but we love them anyway. Most of us also know that, in the extreme, they’re “bad” … but only in some amorphous, comfortably distant way. And, of course, only other people pursue them in the extreme. We tell ourselves over and over again (and there is some truth to this) that it’s okay to own them as long as they don’t own us. But here again, that’s a fairly fuzzy concept, because we typically fail to establish an actual definition of what it means for them to “own us.” In any case, when treasure is physical or material in nature, there is at least an awareness of the dangers in storing them away in ever-bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21).

Treasures of Being

the-good-lifeBut there are far more insidious treasure temptations out there than material goods. Some of the treasures of life can be found only in God Himself, but are (falsely, deceptively) promised to us by the world as well. So in addition to toys and trinkets, we also invest heavily in chasing after peace, love, wisdom, abundance, security, comfort and a big-ole’ pile of other things that God does in fact promise us. In fact, God generously gives us these things for the asking, but not as a pharmacist fills a prescription. God doesn’t hand out bags of peace or wisdom or security which are varying degrees of “full.” Rather, God gives us Himself (living water), and because He does, our cups are always overflowing. As heat and light are experienced as the natural and necessary outcome of being near the fire, so also, when we are walking with God, these treasures (and many more) naturally and necessarily result.

But when we look for these soul-deep needs in anything other than authentic communion with God … when we search and claw and scrape long enough and hard enough in this fallen world … in a sense, we do find treasures like love and happiness. But they aren’t what we think they are. Instead of finding “the real thing,” we end up with cheap copies. They shout loudly that they’re authentic, but they aren’t. They cannot satisfy us. It’s like finding safety and peace (just two examples) in a dream. While we’re sleeping and in the clutches of the dream world, they seem real, so we hold them to our chests and feel secure in them … that is, until we wake up and discover that we never had anything of the sort and that in our slumber, while we indulged fanciful dreams, we have missed the coming of real peace and real security.

Isaiah said it this way, almost 3,000 years ago…

As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. (Isaiah 29:8)

Dreamed up treasure

dreaming-of-treasureReal life — and all that we long for in the depths of our souls — does not come at our own hands, or because we have planned carefully and worked hard, or as a result of material wealth. We do not achieve soul-satisfying “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) through the right combination of labor, luck and LinkedIn. The most important things in life come to us exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ, whose own life and own presence are abundance, security, safety, comfort, peace, rest and so much more. Outside of the presence and power of God, these are only a dream. If we are defining our lives by the things we have or happiness we self-generate, then we are living in a dream world.

All too many people, even Christians, ignore this truth. We mistakenly believe that life consists in the abundance of things and comfort. While safe and happy in a dream world, we store away these earthly treasure like misers, and then we build fortified military-grade defensive emplacements to protect it all.

fortified military bunkerGod, in His goodness and tremendous love, seeks to wake us up from this dream … before it’s too late. One of God’s most effective tools to shock us awake is to introduce painful circumstances into our lives. Like an electric shock to the heart or that really loud alarm clock I bought in college to make sure I got to my early morning classes on time after being up late night after night … pain and suffering can shatter the allusions of the dream world.

But we love our comfortable, fanciful dreams. We’re so warm and cozy in our fortified dreamland bunkers. And we feel safe. So, the last thing we want is the shock of pain or the loud alarm of suffering to wrench us out of the Matrix into the cold hard reality of the waking world. We tend to agree with Cypher, “Ignorance is bliss!

ignorance-is-blissSo, unknowingly trapped in our dreams, we pour endless work, time, energy and money into fortifying our defenses. A bigger 401k will make me safe. A different job will bring fulfillment. A new girlfriend will make me happy. And whatever it takes to protect the dream state, that’s what we do … which for sure includes a severe allergy to painful circumstances. Budgeting, tithing and living generously means sacrifice, so we bail. A job can be dull and difficult, so we bail. A relationship can be messy, painfully hard work, so we bail. The dream world says to run away from these kinds of “hard” as fast as possible. Seek safety, fulfillment and happiness in something else (but of the same kind). Follow the cheese as it skips elusively around the maze. It is a dream, after all, so we don’t even question that the cheese was just here a second ago.

How do I wake up?

super-loud-alarm-clockBut what if suffering through these circumstances is exactly what would make it clear to us that it’s all a dream … a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14). What if real safety, fulfillment and happiness (and I chose these three nearly at random just to represent the point) cannot be found in any bank account, job or human relationship? What if they actually are only found in God Himself … outside the dream … in the real world? What if the real world was much harder but much better than the dream world?

If all that’s true, then God’s attempts to wake us up are paramount. As sound asleep as we are, God’s methods to rouse us are probably gonna hurt, but that’s what we need. If you have a tendency to hit snooze and fall back asleep, then the only way to avoid being late to school or work is to make the alarm clock louder, more annoying and further from the bed. God’s tactics to get your attention (some of the pain and suffering we experience in life) aren’t cruel … they’re what’s necessary for love to succeed. An easy softness that leaves us in the dream world … now that would be cruel.

A sense of urgency

sunriseAnd one more thing … there is, in fact, (at least) one critical flaw in this Matrix analogy. Unlike the movie, everyone will ultimately wake up from our dream. The dream we call “real life” has a clear and definite end. And it’s racing upon each of us with relentless metronome precision. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Some will remain under the pressures and challenges of life, feeling pain and seeking the Lord in suffering, until they come to grips with the reality that this really is a dream. This person takes the red pill, and wakes up to a new reality in which God Himself, by virtue of His presence, showers us in the abundance of the treasures of heaven. They come to grips with the fact that only God fulfills the needs and desires of the human heart. This doesn’t mean you’ll be rich or that life will be easy, it means that life will be lived together with God, which is more precious by far than any gold or silver or comfortable circumstances.

Red Blue Pill

Watch the Matrix movie clip

But others won’t wake up. They take the blue pill, “wake up in their beds the next day [still in the Matrix], and believe … whatever they want to believe.” Instead of the pain of a wake-up call, they flee discomfort, avoiding anything that would disturb their slumber. They live carefully-constructed lives to avoid anything that doesn’t feel like treasure. Every nugget of dream-world treasure they find, they stockpile it and build defenses to protect it … chasing wind, erecting barns … and remain blissfully asleep and unaware … until one day, they are wrenched away from their false security at the end of life, and forced to face the fact that their stockpiled treasure and well-crafted defenses don’t really exist. It never had any power to protect them. They were never safe. They were always perishing. And their “desert of the real” might even be eternal separation from the God who would have given them everything if they had just chosen reality over a self-gratifying dream world.

So, ignorance is most certainly not bliss. Far better to wake up, even if it hurts to get out of bed.

“Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

alarm clock silhouette at sunrise


Read more about the goodness of God.

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The Big Move: An Incarnational Life of Worship

To the Christian…
A sermon manuscript on 1 Peter 2:4-12, prepared for my worship class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

moving in to a new house

Introduction: A Stranger in a Strange Land

Two weeks ago, as Elaine sat in her boss’s office, the look on her face said volumes about her uncertainty and trepidation regarding her new assignment. A single, ambitious 34-year old professional – Elaine has been the company’s Director of HR for just over ten years. In that time, she has seen incredible changes, but over the last year, the most dramatic change yet had come to affect nearly every aspect of her job: the company is going global. When she started, they had only been in three locations (one of which was clearly the main office). But now – what seemed like only minutes later – they had offices all over North America, and were only 60 days away from the grand opening of their new Asia-Pacific headquarters. The company had merged with a Chinese partner, and was now in the process of integrating a whole string of offices on the Asia-Pacific coast into their operations.

Ever since the merger was announced, Elaine had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And that meeting had been it. They had finally announced her new assignment: to move to Beijing for a minimum of one year, and there oversee the integration of all personnel from the merger, and to work with them to hire and fire others.

Now, two weeks later. Elaine finds herself in another conference room on the other side of the world … this one full of people who speak English only when they need to and whose culture is as foreign to Elaine as anything has ever been in her life. Looking around the room, she realizes … again … that there is only one other Caucasian present, and no other women. And the average age in the room can’t be less than 45. To say the least, Elaine is now a stranger in a strange land.

tourists seeking directionAs time passes, Elaine is faced with countless decisions about how to engage her new environment. Is it unfair of her to expect Chinese – or Filipino or Japanese (where other Asian offices are located) – people to adopt policies which were developed and tested in the US? Is it disingenuous for her to try to somehow “be more Asian” in her thought and action? How should she react to the fact that they view women totally differently than her US-based colleagues do? Is that okay? Does the corporate culture need to bend to them? Do they need to bend to the existing corporate culture? Both? Neither? Should she learn Mandarin? On the personal side, should she go out with them in the evenings and try to become more a part of their world? Should she wear new kinds of clothes and eat new kinds of food, or is it okay that she craves pizza and McDonald’s? I mean, who knew her distaste for fish would come back to bite her like this! Does she need to get over that, or is it okay to “be herself”?

Suddenly it seems like every decision she makes is now colored with 10 layers of complexity and complication. And she certainly doesn’t remember being this tired at the end of the day when she was back in New York.

Elaine is a fictional character, but as our 21st century world continues to shrink, her situation is being faced by millions of people all over the globe. And it’s not just in the business marketplace. Whether you realize it or not, you too are a stranger in a foreign land. Whether you live within 20 miles of where you were born, have never traveled internationally, or are a world traveler like Elaine, if you belong to Jesus, then this world is not your home. Like Elaine, you are living for a short time in a place very different from the place of your new birth, where you will spend eternity in the house God is personally preparing for you (John 14:2-3). And just as it did for Elaine, this reality can create an astonishing level of complexity and complication in our lives as we try to live in this world but not be of it (John 17:13-19). At the very least, it should dramatically affect how we perceive the world around us.

tom-hanks-terminal

Primary Claim / Organizational Sentence

These past few weeks, we’ve been studying key passages in Scripture to help us cultivate a theology and life of worship. Today, we’re looking at 1 Peter 2:4-12. Here, the Apostle Peter, writing only a few years after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, instructs us that part of what it means to worship God is to live life as sojourners in this world, engaged in a very significant mission God has given to us. God has chosen us and sends us to live incarnationally in this world as strangers in a foreign land. Just as Jesus came to us and lived among us and brought (continues to bring!) the Kingdom of God with Him into this broken, hurting, darkness-loving world, so we too are called to bring the Kingdom of God with us wherever we go.

Scripture Reading

Our Scripture for today is part of a letter written by one of Jesus’ disciples and close friends. He intended it to be read to several churches that he and the other apostles helped to start in Asia Minor. We pick it up toward the beginning of chapter 2. To this point, Peter has been talking about how we are God’s children. He has excitedly described how we are called by God to be set apart for special use and how God has prepared an unimaginable inheritance for us in His Kingdom. He now turns to describing how the reality that we are God’s children should impact our daily lives by comparing us to Jesus.

Using some interesting metaphors which we’ll discuss and which should remind you of key concepts in Old Testament worship – keep an eye out for those – Peter makes the astonishing assertion that we are sent by God into this world on an important mission … in exactly the same way that Jesus was. Jesus came from God and was “incarnated” among us. He became flesh and dwelt among us. Most people in this room, even many of our friends who don’t attend church, know that. But the truth of the gospel doesn’t stop there. What many don’t know or don’t live out is the amazing reality that we too, as the members of Jesus’ body, are sent to be incarnate in the world … just as Jesus was. Jesus said (in John 20:21), “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And in our passage today, Peter unpacks a little of what that means.

If you have your Bibles, please follow along in 1 Peter 2:4-12. I’m reading from the ESV.

As you come to him [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

(1 Peter 2:4-12)

Let’s pray, and then dive into the passage.

{ Lead in prayer, specifically for God’s revelation and for practical life-application in response. }

1) God chose and sent Jesus into the world on a mission

(1 Peter 2:4, 6-8)

Peter opens with “As you come to him, a living stone, rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious…” Because Peter has been talking about Jesus throughout chapter 1, we know the “him” here is Jesus. But what does Peter mean by “a living stone”? And what exactly is Jesus, the living stone, chosen to do?

Reading ahead, we see that Peter (in vv6-8) gives Jesus four closely-related titles that help us answer these questions. He calls Jesus “the cornerstone,” “the stone that the builders rejected,” “a stone of stumbling,” and “a rock of offense.” We’ll come back to the rest of these in a second, but let’s start with the term “cornerstone,” which would have been very familiar to Peter’s audience, even if it’s a bit foreign to us. So, what’s a cornerstone?

cornerstoneBuildings, especially large important ones, used to be made almost entirely out of stone – literally by laying one big carved stone on top of another. The first, largest and most important stone to be laid in the construction of any building was called the “cornerstone” or “capstone.” This stone had to be absolutely perfect – perfectly square, perfectly sized, perfectly placed, and perfectly level … because from this first stone, all the other stones in the building would be squared, sized, placed and leveled. If the cornerstone was off, then the whole building would be off. Think leaning-tower-of-Pisa kind of “off.” So, Peter is describing Jesus to be the first, largest and most important element in God’s architectural plan – the foundational ingredient or centerpiece of what God is building.

So what is God building? Cair Paravel castleIn the Bible, construction metaphors are often used to describe a fairly broad array of the works of God on earth. However, when the Bible talks about what God is building, it’s typically talking more about a state of being than a geographical place or building with four walls and a roof. What God is building is a place or state in which His Son, King Jesus, reigns supreme and uncontested, where all the brokenness of this world has been restored and redeemed, where people are reconciled to God and to each other, and where evil has been finally and forcefully defeated. My favorite term for this place is “the Kingdom of God.” But with a certain degree of poetry, Peter is referring to God’s kingdom in this passage as a building or “spiritual house.”

So, God chose His Son Jesus and sent Him into this world to be the first and most important element – the cornerstone – in building or bringing about the Kingdom of God – a place where we can finally live at peace with God and each other the way we were intended to from the beginning.

2) God chooses and sends us on a mission with Jesus

(1 Peter 2:5-10)

kings-and-queens-of-narnia1But God does not send Jesus on this mission alone. One of the staggering truths of the gospel is that we are chosen and sent by God on this mission with Jesus. The building that God intends to build consists of more than just the cornerstone. It’s the most important piece to be sure, and without it the entire building would fall apart. But it’s not the only piece. Though Jesus is in fact the all-powerful God of the universe, amazingly, He doesn’t undertake His mission to redeem the world by Himself.

Now I want to pause for a second to avoid confusion. When it comes to the work necessary to forgive our sins and make us clean and acceptable before God, the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for us is the whole story. It is both completely necessary and completely sufficient to save us from our sins and reconcile us to God. We do not add to that. I’m not saying that we are sent on a mission with Jesus because somehow Jesus isn’t enough. But for some unfathomable reason, God chose to make us partners (underkings) with Jesus in establishing His kingdom. In other words, it is an incredible act of love and grace that God chooses us for this kind of mission. It is not because we are worthy of it or because He somehow couldn’t have gotten it done without us. This is not fine print, it’s an extremely important distinction that I don’t want any of us to miss.

Okay, with that said, let’s continue on in v5 and see how Peter puts it. He says, “you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.” So, just like Jesus, we are chosen by God to be living stones. Note that we, the stones, are alive … we are not lifeless, unthinking, raw materials that God stacks into a wall or molds into a front porch, but alive and conscious and responsible for active participation in the building project. Look back at the passage… Our freedom and responsibility in this picture is so real and so available to us that most of the “living stones,” or (as Peter varies the analogy) “fellow builders,” do the unthinkable… we reject God’s cornerstone. refusal-to-workMost people want to build their own building in their own way or to dictate their own terms to God (the master builder) as He attempts to shape them and place them. And as a result, the perfect cornerstone, which should be the rule and guide for the whole structure, instead becomes “rejected by men” (v4), “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (v8).

So God intends somehow to incorporate our active cooperation and thereby to build us all into His great spiritual house – which is to say, to bring about His Kingdom. What exactly is He calling us to be and do as our part in this construction? To find out, look back at v5. God says,”[you are being built up as a spiritual house], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And later in v9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession.”

Now we’re getting to specifics… we are a holy priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. Breaking this down, I see at three key concepts that might help us better understand the mission on which God is sending us…

A) We are holy

fine china silver dinner settingWe see that immediately in the text: “a holy priesthood” and “a holy nation.” To be “holy” means to be different, peculiar, unusual, set apart for special use. Like the fine china that you only break out when you are entertaining guests of great importance or the outfit that you only wear on special occasions, we are set apart by God for His special use. We don’t use the fine china for everyday dinner in front of the TV. We don’t wear our best clothes to work in the garden. And neither has God chosen to send us on a mundane or unimportant mission in building His Kingdom. We are not optional decoration on the facades of His building. We’re load bearing members in its internal structure. We are necessary, special and set apart for a particular reason that God Himself determined was vital before the world began. And as such we should stand out in this broken world. We should live peculiar lives … lives that are different … the kinds of lives that make others question “Why do they do that?” in the best possible way.

B) We are temples and priests

small-churchSo, we are holy or set apart. But for what specific purpose? Precisely in what way should we be “peculiar”? We already saw we are being built into a spiritual house – what we could call a “temple.” But here Peter is also saying that we are God’s “priests.” I think these terms still need some explanation. Remember when I said a few minutes ago that you should be watching out for Old Testament worship terms? Well, here they are!

Peter’s original audience, listening to this letter being read in their church 2,000 years ago, would have been flooded with very clear Old Testament worship imagery here. In those days, people believed that they could only worship God by coming to a specific, literal, physical temple building. The temple was where God lived, so the temple was where the people went to meet with God. But even then, the people didn’t go before God themselves. Not directly. They came before a priest, and the priest went before God. The priest was a special class of person in their society, specifically appointed by God, to “mediate” between God and people. In our terms, we might say that the priest “facilitated” or “brokered” their relationship with God. Finally, people literally brought animal sacrifices with them as a common part of worship. We’ll talk more about that next week. For now, let’s unpack what Peter means by calling us temples (“spiritual houses”) and “priests,” and how these terms relate to God’s mission for us.

neighbors-eating-together2Like Jesus (the ultimate Temple), we are called to be God’s temples in this world – meeting places between God and man. Ultimately, people don’t come to a building to find God, they come to Jesus. And we are the body of Christ. As God’s presence was once located in the Old Testament temple, it is now found perfectly in Jesus, so it should also be found in us. When people are around us, they should feel like they have in some degree been in God’s presence. One of the many metaphors that the Bible uses to describe this is that we should be smelly. We should smell like life to those who want to live and smell like death to those who are determined to have their own sinful way with their lives … which means they’re continuing to die (2 Corinthians 2:16). We worship God by smelling like God, so that people wonder when they’re around us… What’s that smell!?

neighbors-talking-over-fenceAlso like Jesus (the ultimate Priest), we are called to be God’s priests in this world – mediators between God and people. People can’t carelessly, recklessly approach God as if He were just like us. The Bible says that God is an all-consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). Anyone who wants to come to God must come first to Jesus, because Jesus stands between them and their sin and God’s transcendent holiness. Jesus ushers people into God’s presence. They come to Jesus to worship God. And we are the body of Christ. Therefore, when people come to us looking for answers … looking to us for more than busy schedules, tough days at work, and wild parties. We are to usher them into God’s presence. In an ultimate sense, your pastor isn’t more of a priest than any of us are. We are all responsible for knowing and rightly representing God’s word in the circumstances of life. We all rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and bear each other’s burdens. We all hear our neighbors’ confessions, encourage them to seek forgiveness, and assure them of absolution from sin. We all intercede for our friends and even our enemies. We all lead people to God, because we are all the priestly servants of God, whom He has chosen and set apart for special use.

C) We are in this together

neighbors-eating-togetherAnother important point I want to briefly mention is that Peter clearly sees the Christian life as a team sport. He uses a number of plural terms in our passage, such as race, priesthood, people and nation, and pretty much every pronoun is plural. He clearly sees us all as interconnected and interdependent with one another. I love the way Peter says it in v10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The life lived in Christ is the life lived in community, by the mercy of God. We should not be individual stones off by ourselves trying to be whole buildings; we are built into a spiritual house together with many other stones, all patterned after and aligned to the cornerstone, Jesus.

3) The mission is to live incarnationally

(1 Peter 2:9-12)

neighbors talking

What do all these thoughts – being set apart as holy, serving as God’s temples and priests, and being reconciled together as the body of Christ – have in common? Perhaps many things, but what I think Peter intends us to notice here is that they are otherworldly. They stand out as peculiar in this world. They smack of heaven!

Remember Elaine, and her move to another culture? I think that’s a weak (but hopefully useful) way to visualize what it means to be living in one world but to be from another. Peter goes on to say something similar. Let’s look back at vv9-12 of the text:

[You are chosen] … that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

In a number of different ways, Peter is saying here that this world is not our home. He is clear that we live in this world, but we are not of this world. Jesus said the same thing in John 17:16, as He was praying for us all these years later. We are not owned and operated by this world; we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. We live here temporarily, but we are not at home here; we are sojourners and exiles. We are passing through.Temporary Housing Units We do not embrace earthly passions (conforming to this world); we acknowledge that they are at war with our very souls … so we resist them with all the power of God who lives in us (we are transformed by God’s Spirit). We live peculiar lives among our neighbors so that they would see God and come to Him.

How, exactly? Looking at the remainder of the passage, I see three specific marks of the incarnational life of a Christ-follower. Let’s run through those quickly, and then we’ll close.

A) We proclaim God’s excellencies

good-neighbor1God is excellent. His mercy and grace are excellent. His love is excellent. His power and authority are excellent. His Kingdom is excellent. His law and ways are excellent. The fact that He has “called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (v10b) is excellent. Living incarnationally means that we proclaim these excellencies – with our words and our lives.

Jesus said, “Go and tell the world about me – about how excellent I am – and teach them to be with me and follow me wherever I go” (Matthew 28:19-20, my paraphrase). When our words and our lives show who God is and what He’s done, then people see Jesus for who He really is. And when people see Jesus for who He really is, they fall in love with Him and follow Him and want to be more like Him. This is a key part of our mission.

B) We pursue heavenly passions

Prayer-Ministry-GroupLiving incarnationally means investing in heavenly things, rather than earthly things. We invest in success as God defines it, rather than as the world does. This means prioritizing God’s ways over the world’s ways. Over time, we care less about orienting our lives around climbing corporate ladders, being the most important kid on the playground, seeking revenge when wronged, watching the latest trendy show, etc. Instead, we love others even when it hurts, and focus more on God’s definitions of significance than worldly definitions of success. We trust God to provide for us, rather than clawing and scraping and scheming to look out for #1. We live generously instead of hoarding what we have. We get excited about purity, rather than about careless or ungodly living. We spend our time on things that glorify God not entertain or stimulate our flesh.

The momentary thrills and pleasures of this world are less and less attractive, because we have found true, lasting, abiding satisfaction in Jesus. Leaning into this far better reality is also part of our mission.

C) We live honorable lives

good-neighbor2Finally, living incarnationally means living honorably and seeking justice. We act with honor and do what’s right, even when it costs us. We see people the way God sees people, even when that makes us unpopular. If we love Jesus, it changes us. Where we would once have lied to get ahead, now we tell the truth, even if it hurts. Where we would once have cheated and connived to get our way, now we live out the law of God in honorable and peaceful living. And it’s not just about better action, it’s about a new perspective that wars against inaction. If we love Jesus, it becomes increasingly difficult to act unjustly or to ignore the injustice we see in others. We find it harder and harder to look the other way when we could have helped or to step back and let others stand in the gap when someone is hurting, afraid or oppressed.

People around us are watching to see if all this talk about Jesus really means anything. We can’t say we love Jesus and not treat others the way Jesus did. The Christian life calls for action … for honor, for justice, for integrity, for compassion. A life of worship that demonstrates this kind of godly concern is part of our mission.

Conclusion

We’ve covered a ton of ground, and I suspect it might be easy to get somewhat overwhelmed. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When she moved to China, Elaine felt a significant increase in the complexity of life. And we can feel that way too. While it’s true that mission-minded people can discover whole new layers in the choices of the Christian life, it’s also true that God does not leave us to make these choices alone. The wisdom and companionship of His Word, His Spirit and His people are our ever-present help and guide.

So, armed with these, as we go out today, remember that we live in this world, but we are not of this world. We will be here for such a short time, and then we will be with God forever. But it is for this time and this place that God, in His wisdom and power, has chosen us. As He sent Jesus to all mankind, He has sent you to your neighborhood, your school, your office, your home … to show the superiority of life in the Kingdom of God. So, while we are here, let us live among our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and friends as Jesus lived among us. Let us proclaim God’s excellencies, pursue heavenly passions, and live honorable lives, so that they will see Jesus in us, come to Jesus, and find in Him life in all its fullness.

{ Close in prayer, specifically that God would a) receive our worship in our attempts to live the gospel, b) would keep His promise to empower us, and c) would bear fruit from our meager efforts to live incarnationally. }

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The Fantasy of Quick Fixes

microwave-cooking

We avoid pain because…
We’re enamored with quick fixes

Growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was absolutely my favorite meal of the year. I looked forward to it all year long. My parents would literally spend days preparing for it — shopping, chopping, marinating, and otherwise laboring over ancient family recipes I can’t seem to replicate no matter how hard I try. Then, when the moment finally came, we’d haul out the fine china and silver, set the table in linen tablecloths and napkins, and feast ourselves into food comas. thanksgiving-dinnerThere was ceremony to it as well. We prayed special prayers and circled around the table each sharing what we were thankful for. So between that, the quantity and variety of foods, and the anticipation involved in building up to it, this meal always took longer to actually eat as well. And cleanup was monstrous, but we whistled while we worked because, after that, the homemade pies appeared … and were enjoyed … and then, unconsciousness.

In sharp contrast, on the average day when Faith is working and I’m home with my son John, we typically want something fast and easy for dinner … something we can eat in front of the television on a single plate that we toss in the dishwasher afterwards. Or, if we go out for a treat, John invariably wants something ultra healthy like Taco Bell or White Castle. I’m typically okay with that, though, because it’s fast, easy and cheap.

tv-dinnerWhat does any of this have to do with experiencing pain or difficult life circumstances?

It’s about how you view your life. When you picture your growth as a child of the Most High King, actively being transformed by the Spirit of God to be more like Jesus, do you picture yourself as a Thanksgiving feast or drive-thru fast food?

Your life before God is way more than fast food. HE sees you far more like a Thanksgiving feast than a TV dinner! You are God’s masterpiece! In you, God is preparing the best meal of the year. Jesus didn’t leave heaven, sacrifice Himself on an implement of Roman torture, and endure the unspeakable weight of the sin of all mankind so that you could have a cheap-tacos-in-front-of-the-TV kind of new life in Him. He’s after the full three-day, fine linen, real silver, grandma’s apple pie kind of experience for you.

And here’s the rub … that’s not fast, it’s not easy, and it’s not cheap. With all due respect to the production mindset of the industrial revolution, the fact is that you simply cannot microwave redemption. The redeemed, sanctified life of a child of God cannot be achieved with high-speed, quick-fix, patch-it-temporarily, better-life-by-next-Thursday kind of strategies. So, if God follows recipes you can’t replicate and does a bunch of work to cook the meal that you aren’t expecting or don’t understand, don’t run from it wishing for quick-fix, Taco Bell kinds of solutions. If you do, you’ll miss out on the best meal of the year.

And don’t forget, our goal isn’t next week, it’s heaven. It would be “easy” and far more microwave-friendly for God to hook you up with a new job or a new fancy toy or a new hair style or new relationship with someone you meet at youth group or whatever it would take to give you a little emotional high about your life by next week. That’s simple … and almost meaningless by comparison. Your Father isn’t after a better next Tuesday, He’s after life transformation … conformity into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29) … a life of real joy, real love, real goodness, real faithfulness (Galatians 5:22-23) … an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or even fade (1 Peter 1:3-4) … to make what is perishable and weak to be imperishable and glorious (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).

God is transforming you so that you will fit in and be at home in heaven!

Why are we willing to wait patiently literally for years as buildings are built or movies are produced or sales cycles are resolved, but think that being rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought over from death to life (Colossians 1:13) and being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), so that we may be presented before God as spotless and perfect (Ephesians 5:27), constitutes a reality that God should whip up in an afternoon or through a single sermon series or after reading a couple books or in a few months of small group meetings and half-hearted prayer? gensler-shanghai-tower-under-constructionAnd how much more important are you than any building or sales cycle? How much more entangled is your sin problem than any engineering challenge man has ever faced? How much work is needed in your heart to make it like Jesus? Surely you see that it’d be much easier to build a new skyscraper!

If we’re going to see the goodness of God in the circumstances of our lives, we have to be willing to let God work at God’s pace. And God is not slow (2 Peter 3:9); He’s doing what is necessary. It’s fantasy to believe there’s a better way … not to mention the height of arrogance. We are not wiser than God. We do not understand the ancient recipes the way He does. Let Him cook. Maybe even set aside a few distractions to look over His shoulder and learn a thing or two about really good recipes while He does. But in any event, I promise you that what He’s making in you will be worth the wait.

long journey

Be still before the Lord; wait patiently for him. (Psalm 37:7)


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A Clear Context for Suffering

clear-vision-better-perspective

We avoid pain because…
We have cultivated unhealthy perspectives

God commonly uses pain and suffering in people’s lives to get their attention and to grow  them up into spiritual maturity. Nonetheless, most people work very hard to avoid pain.

Why is that?

One of the greatest contributing factors to our distain for suffering is that we do not rightly value it, specifically in comparison to the seriousness of our sin and to the gloriousness of heaven. Most of us find it hard to stand up under painful circumstances because we haven’t prepared ourselves well for it in our hearts. For all too many of us, when the trial comes, we lack two very critical pieces of context within which to rightly receive and evaluate it, and what God might be doing through it.

Suffering vs Sin

boo-boo brown medicine bandage on injured finger

Our view of sin

First, as a rule, people have an unhealthy view of sin. We don’t really believe sin is all that serious. It’s a minor problem, a snafu, a mistake. It’s a slip-up. It’s, “I know that was bad, but I’m only human.” Or the famed, “At least I didn’t… [do something that someone did whom we consider to be worse than we are].” In short, for many reasons, we excuse the flaws that God would refine out of us (like burning impurities from gold to make it pure). We feel like we need a bandaid to deal with a minor infraction, when God tells us that major surgery is needed. And we tend to overvalue and overemphasize the sins of others while simultaneously undervaluing and underemphasizing sin in ourselves.

God simply doesn’t see our sin the way we do. Unlike us, He understands the devastating consequences of sin, and loves us too much to permit those consequences to devour us and those we love. Even the smallest imperfection in your character moves the heart of God to go to great lengths in order to bring healing and restoration to your life and reconciliation to your relationships — with Him and with others. You may not realize it, but your sin is greatly damaging both — even the sins you might consider to be “small” or “minor.” You may think your pride or critical spirit or selfishness is no big deal, but it is. You may think your private sin is actually private and doesn’t affect others, but it isn’t and it does.There is no understandable or excusable sin. Your sins are a big enough deal for the Eternal Son Jesus to leave His throne in heaven, take on flesh, dwell among a profane people, submit to torture and murder, and be separated from God. Your sins are significant enough (and His goodness and love are great enough) to induce God the Father to send His Son to do all these things on your behalf.

open-heart-surgery

God’s view of sin

So, if Jesus suffered so expansively for your sin, why would it not logically follow that your sins are important enough to God that He would introduce a temporary, comparatively insignificant level of pain and suffering into your life in order to set them right?

If you had cancer and a surgeon caused you a great deal of pain on the operating table to cure you, would you think that he was cruel because he did what it took to save you? I doubt it. Or what about the doctor that amputates your leg while you’re unconscious from fever to keep the gangrene from spreading and taking your life? Does that make him a sadist? Does that mean he’s cruel or is playing games with your life? Hardly! But we don’t seem to realize that sin is worse than any cancer or gangrene. It separates us eternally from God and would cast any one of us — no matter how virtuous he or she may appear on the outside — into the fires of hell if it is not redeemed … destroyed … refined … burned … amputated out of our lives. So, if it takes some pain — even severe pain — to rescue you from such a horrendous fate, then it is exactly God’s goodness and God’s love which compel Him to put you through it for your own sake.

Here vs Heaven

mansionThe other reason we can wrongly value pain is our overly-lofty view of this life, compared with our severely anemic view of heaven. Most of us have it so good here on earth that we don’t really care that much about heaven. In our most honest moments, we’d be forced to admit that we see the contrast something like this, “I’m sure the clouds will be fluffy and beautiful and all that, and that the harps will sound great, but a really big TV and a really glitzy car, or a mansion with a pool and a tennis court … those would be really amazing.” And of course we believe we can have both (whatever heaven is and a bunch of cool earthly stuff). Besides, heaven is a “someday” thing; we want [fill in the things or circumstances that you think would make your life totally amazing] right now!

Because we don’t have a clue what heaven is like, we don’t long for it like we should. And we don’t know what heaven is like, because we haven’t spent enough time with Jesus. We think we know what peace is, for example, but we really don’t. If you could have true, deep, abiding, soul-quenching peace, what earthly trinket or treasure would you not be willing to pay for it? Or love; do we really know what love is? If you could be accepted and held and made beautiful and always be satisfied, wouldn’t you want that? What would you sacrifice to have it? Or real security? Or real wisdom? Or any of a dozen other things we spend our days clawing and scraping to achieve in this world, even in their dimmest, weakest, poorly replicated form? But in heaven, because you will truly be with God, all these things and more will be yours.

Meanwhile, those things feel out of reach to us here on earth. Or if we do believe they exist, we believe that we will bring them about by the strength of our own mighty hands. So, we fix our hearts on earthly things we believe are means to achieve these ends, when in fact they are idols which weigh down, distract and poison us into a dull-eyed complacency that Jesus said was so hard to escape that He likened it to a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). And because our hearts are glued to things and relationships and circumstances, we fail to see that if God’s perfecting work (to make us like Him and fit for eternity) costs us any, or even ALL, of these things, then it would be well worth it. As we’ve discussed, God would wrench every one of our idols out of our hands in order to give us Himself, which is better by far.

To really say, with Paul, that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), we must have a clear and compelling vision of who God is and what God has in store for us, and a clear and discerning understanding of how hopelessly dim and insignificant the things of this world are by comparison. If we viewed Christlikeness as the unparalleled treasure that it truly is, then we would readily undergo whatever painful surgery God felt was necessary in the sanctification process.

Sanctification (n.) —
1) The process by which God transforms us into His likeness as an adopted child.
2) The journey through which we, day-by-day, look less and less like rebellious Satan groupies and more and more like Jesus.


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The day Penitens died

young man in hospital bedPenitens was a busy, notable tradesman, and very prosperous in his dealings, but died in the thirty-fifth year of his age. A little before his death, when the doctors had given him over, some of his neighbors came one evening to see him, at which time he spake thus to them:

I see, my friends, the tender concern you have for me, by the grief that appears in your countenances, and I know the thoughts that you have now about me. You think how melancholy a case it is, to see so young a man, and in such flourishing business, delivered up to death. And perhaps, had I visited any of you in my condition, I should have had the same thoughts of you. But now, my friends, my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like yours.

It is no trouble to me now to think, that I am to die young, or before I have raised an estate. These things are now sunk into such mere nothings, that I have no name little enough to call them by. For if in a few days or hours, I am to leave this carcass to be buried in the earth, and to find myself either forever happy in the favor of God, or eternally separated from all light and peace, can any words sufficiently express the littleness of everything else?

Is there any dream like the dream of life, which amuses us with the neglect and disregard of these things? Is there any folly like the folly of our [earthly] state, which is too wise and busy, to be at leisure for these reflections?

bruce-wayne-two-dates

When we consider death as a misery, we only think of it as a miserable separation from the enjoyments of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man that dies rich, but we lament the young, that are taken away in the progress of their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not that I am going unprepared to meet the Judge of quick and dead, but that I am to leave a prosperous trade in the flower of my life. This is the wisdom of our [earthly] thoughts. And yet what folly of the silliest children is so great as this?

For what is there miserable or dreadful in death, but the consequences of it? When a man is dead, what does anything signify to him, but the state he is then in? Our poor friend Lepidus died, you know, as he was dressing himself for a feast. Do you think it is now part of his trouble that he did not live till that entertainment was over? Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us, whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business, than the losing of a feast.

If I am now going into the joys of God, could there be any reason to grieve, that this happened to me before I was forty years of age? Could it be a sad thing to go to Heaven, before I had made a few more bargains, or stood a little longer behind a counter?

And if I am to go amongst lost spirits, could there be any reason to be content, that this did not happen to me till I was old, and full of riches?

If good angels were ready to receive my soul, could it be any grief to me, that I was dying upon a poor bed in a [dismal one-room flat]? And if God has delivered me up to evil spirits, to be dragged by them to places of torments, could it be any comfort to me, that they found me upon a bed of state? When you are as near death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life, whether of youth or age, riches or poverty, greatness or meanness, signify no more to you than whether you die in a poor or stately apartment.

The greatness of those things which follow death makes all that goes before it sink into nothing. Now that judgment is the next thing that I look for, and everlasting happiness or misery is come so near me, all the enjoyments and prosperities of life seem as vain and insignificant, and to have no more to do with my happiness, than the clothes that I wore before I could speak.

successful-business-woman

But, my friends, how am I surprised that I have not always had these thoughts? For what is there in the terrors of death, in the vanities of life or in the necessities of piety, but what I might have as easily and fully seen in any part of my life? What a strange thing is it, that a little health, or the poor business of a shop, [or the pleasures or goals of earthly life in general,] should keep us so senseless of these great things that are coming so fast upon us!

Just as you came in my chamber, I was thinking with myself, what numbers of souls there are now in the world, in my condition at this very time, surprised with a summons to the other world; some taken from their shops and farms, others from their sports and pleasures, these at suits of law, those at gaming tables, some on the road, others at their own firesides, and all seized at an hour when they thought nothing of it; frightened at the approach of death, confounded at the vanity of all their labors, designs and projects, astonished at the folly of their past lives, and not knowing which way to turn their thoughts, to find any comfort. Their consciences flying in their faces, bringing all their sins to their remembrance, tormenting them with deepest convictions of their own folly, presenting them with the sight of the angry Judge, the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched, the gates of hell, the powers of darkness, and the bitter pains of eternal death.

Oh, my friends, bless God that you are not of this number, that you have time and strength to employ yourselves in such works of piety, as may bring you peace at the last. And take this along with you, that there is nothing but a life of great piety, or a death of great stupidity, that can keep off these apprehensions. Had I now a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more, that I might present unto God one year of such devotion and good works, as I never before so much as intended. You, perhaps, when you consider that I have lived free from scandal and debauchery, and in the communion of the Church, wonder to see me so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death. But, alas! what a poor thing is it, to have lived only free from murder, theft, and adultery, which is all that I can say of myself. You know, indeed, that I have never been reckoned a [habitual drunkard], but you are at the same time witnesses, and have been frequent companions of my intemperance, sensuality, and great indulgence. And if I am now going to a judgment, where nothing will be rewarded but good works, I may well be concerned that though I am no [habitual drunkard], yet I have no Christian sobriety to plead for me. It is true, I have lived in the communion of the Church, and generally frequented its worship and service on Sundays, when I was neither too idle nor otherwise disposed of by my business and pleasures. But then, my conformity to the public worship has been rather a thing of course, than any real intention of doing that which the service of the Church supposes … living up to the piety of the Gospel.

not-a-fan

And can it be thought that I have kept the Gospel terms of salvation, without ever so much as intending, in any serious and deliberate manner, either to know them or keep them? Can it be thought that I have pleased God with such a life as He requires, though I have lived without [truly] considering what He requires, or how much I have performed? How easy a thing would salvation be, if it could fall into my careless hands, who have never had so much serious thought about it, as about any one common bargain that I have made? In the business of life I have used prudence and reflection. I have done everything by rules and methods. I have been glad to converse with men of experience and judgment, to find out the reasons why some fail and others succeed in any business. I have taken no step in trade but with great care and caution, considering every advantage or danger that attended it. I have always had my eye upon the main end of business, and have studied all the ways and means of being a gainer by all that I undertook.

But what is the reason that I have brought none of these tempers to religion? What is the reason that I, who have so often talked of the necessity of rules, and methods, and diligence, in worldly business, have all this while never once thought of any rules, or methods, or managements, to carry me on in a life of piety? Do you think anything can astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel, when his conscience lays all this folly to his charge, when it shall show him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters, that are passed away like a dream, and how stupid and senseless he has lived, without any reflection, without any rules, in things of such eternal moment, as no heart can sufficiently conceive them? Had I only my frailties and imperfections to lament at this time, I should lie here humbly trusting in the mercies of God. But, alas! how can I call a general disregard, and a thorough neglect of all religious improvement, a frailty or imperfection, when it was as much in my power to have been exact, and careful, and diligent in a course of piety, as in the business of my trade? I could have called in as many helps, practiced as many rules, and been taught as many certain methods of holy living, as of thriving in my shop, had I but so intended, and desired it.

Oh, my friends! a careless life, unconcerned and unattentive to the duties of religion, is so without all excuse, so unworthy of the mercy of God, such a shame to the sense and reason of our minds, that I can hardly conceive a greater punishment, than for a man to be thrown into the state that I am in, to reflect upon it.

Penitens was here going on, but had his mouth stopped by a convulsion, which never suffered him to speak any more. He lay convulsed about twelve hours, and then gave up the ghost.

Now if every reader would imagine this Penitens to have been some particular acquaintance or relation of his, and fancy that he saw and heard all that is here described; that he stood by his bedside when his poor friend lay in such distress and agony, lamenting the folly of his past life, it would, in all probability, teach him such wisdom as never entered into his heart before. If to this he should consider how often he himself might have been surprised in the same state of negligence, and made an example to the rest of the world, this double reflection, both upon the distress of his friend, and the goodness of that God, who had preserved him from it, would in all likelihood soften his heart into holy tempers, and make him turn the remainder of his life into a regular course of piety.

This therefore being so useful a meditation, I shall here leave the reader, as I hope, seriously engaged in it.

— William Law. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

training-hard-1

In every race, only one runner wins. So run the race of life to win it. Every athlete trains hard, to receive merely a perishable wreath. But we will receive an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, or train as if there were no race to win. But I discipline my whole body and conform it in all things to the will and ways of God, lest there be any chance I might lose the race. (1 Corinthians 9:24ff paraphrased)

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Selfish Glory?

gods-glory

God causes suffering in order to bring Himself glory

Ultimately, God’s primary motivation for everything He does — including His work in my life and yours — is to bring Himself glory. With all His divine sovereignty and power, God sets out to ensure that His fame fills the universe and that His greatness is demonstrated in and seen by everything He has made. Sometimes, God’s glory is advanced by giving gifts to His children that cause them to run around squealing with delight. Sometimes, God’s glory is advanced by withholding gifts, enforcing discipline, or otherwise bringing about what we would call “suffering.” God is even glorified by granting us free-will, which opens up the possibility for our outright rebellion, or by severely punishing His enemies, or even by allowing Satan temporary dominion over the earth.

sculptor chiseling art from rockIt’s not as if God is somehow directly glorified in our pain. But God is most certainly glorified in our redemption, which requires great sacrifice and pain. If the stone could feel, it would experience great pain in its being chiseled into a masterpiece for the artist’s benefit, but it would no less be the artist’s right to chisel it.

I’ve met many people who experience a fairly extreme allergic reaction to statements like these. Perhaps you do too. They interpret all this with no small measure of cynicism and incredulity… “So God is willing to sacrifice my happiness or cause me pain just so He can somehow make Himself look good!? And what kind of ‘good’ God looks good because I suffer?!”

Well, in a word, yes, God is willing to sacrifice your happiness for His glory, but I wouldn’t put it exactly in those terms. And I would certainly spend some time unpacking the implications of such a statement to make sure we’re starting with valid assumptions. So, let’s do that…

First, God created the universe, including us. His role as Creator inherently gives Him the right to leverage His creation for His own purposes, which (let’s face it) we don’t truly understand.

Second, why should the world revolve around our happiness? How does that work? If you have kids, do you gauge the value of your parenting by how happy your kids are all the time? We’ve already talked about this at some detail, so we know that the only way to have a remotely healthy view of life is to get yourself out of the center of it.

Third, God is everlasting, all-powerful, infinitely-amazing, utterly-perfect majesty. If anything or anyone was going to be famous, wouldn’t it obviously be Him? In fact, for praise or glory or fame to flow to anyone or anything other than God would constitute a phenomenal injustice. It’s the very definition of idolatry. Such misdirected glory is at the core of every wrong and broken thing in this universe. Far from being some kind of injustice, the only way (by any meter stick) in which things can be right with the world is when, at all costs, God is glorified.

Except by the meter stick that says that *I* should be the one glorified instead of God.

broken-meter-stickIn part, I think one reason we bristle against such comprehensive statements about God’s right to make us implements of His glory because we fear pain. Some of us also reject this thinking because we want the glory for ourselves (the aforementioned faulty meter stick). But I suspect the most common reason is that we dramatically underestimate and undervalue God. We don’t see Him as worthy of relentless glory. In the final analysis, we’re not actually all that concerned with Him. We wrongly consider other things (for example, our personal happiness) to be approximately as valuable as He is.

All of which is because we’ve never really seen God.

But check out the prophet Isaiah’s account of what happened when he came face-to-face with God…

I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:1-7)

Come Let us Worship and Bow DownIsaiah really saw God. And as a result, he didn’t protest that somehow God has no right to be glorified at his expense (or do whatever else He wants). Instead, he fell on his face before God and volunteered for whatever mission God wanted to send him on. And in so doing, he set an example for us on many fronts. Ultimately God sent Isaiah to Israel as a prophet who would spend the rest of his life pounding his head against a brick wall … proclaiming God’s word to a people who kept on hearing, but not understanding, who kept on seeing but not perceiving, who had dull hearts and heavy ears and blind eyes. But I guarantee that Isaiah didn’t feel like God had treated him unjustly … especially when He got to heaven and realized that it was all worth it in order to know and love God the way He did (see Isaiah 6:9-10).

Many years later, Isaiah clearly still believed what we too must fully internalize…

Woe to him who strives with Him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to Him who forms it, “What are you making?” or “Your work has no handles!”? Woe to him who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” or to a woman, “With what are you in labor?”

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the One who formed him, “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands? I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city [do my work] and set my exiles free [be instruments of justice in my hands], not for price or reward [but because I am his God and he is my son],” says the Lord of Hosts. (Isaiah 45:9-13)

So it is clearly God’s right to form whatever pot He chooses from the clay, or sculpt whatever statue He chooses from the stone. And though the clay and the stone will almost certainly feel discomfort and uncertainty, pain and hardship in the sculpting, they will also feel great wonder and awe as they share in the glory of the One who molds them … because their glory is in their becoming works of art, not in remaining raw materials. Our problem is that we are too enamored with ourselves as raw materials, and not enamored enough with the Artist and the astounding beauty of what the Artist makes.

Will we not look back and consider the pain we experienced in the molding to be well worth it when we are works of art instead of lumps of rock?

Potters hands

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
That the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”?

Isaiah 29:16


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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Painful Love

mother teresa serving children

God causes suffering in order to perfect others

refiners-fireAlthough it’s sometimes very easy to live like it isn’t true (especially in the American cultural context), the fact is that I’m not the only one in the universe God is working on. God is creating a “bride” for His Son, a diverse body from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9). God does His refining work on a global, all-of-history scale, “that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). This means that it’s not all about me, and that God may do a sanctifying work in someone else which costs me something to achieve.

I’ll be honest… This is the point in the conversation where I have struggled the most in my life. I remember how frustrated and resentful it used to make me to think that God might “throw me under the bus” for the sake of someone else’s development. I had very little interest in being the flux added to someone else’s gold refining process. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way? Does it make God a sadist to introduce pain into your life for the sake of another? Does it constitute unjust favoritism on God’s part … a callous using and discarding of one person for the benefit of someone He loves more?

two children sharingThese are all very pertinent and emotional questions, but each of them is focused on the wrong thing … me. We can no more expect to avoid all the pain in the process of God’s redeeming and reconciling His bride than we can expect to horde all the blessing. It’s about sharing. It’s about being one body. And if I want to be more like Jesus, if I want to learn to actually love my neighbor, then wouldn’t I rush to help someone or serve someone, even if it cost me something? This concept of God’s withdrawing from your account (so to speak) to purchase something someone else desperately needs is a classic act of love. It’s what Jesus did for you, isn’t it? And it’s what God has every right to require of those who would say they are His children. It doesn’t make God sadistic or callous, it makes Him consistent…

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that rebellious, selfish, profane, God-hating, comfort-loving, goodness-hoarding rebels could be made His family and dwell in intimate communion with Him forever (John 3:16, slightly paraphrased).

This reminds me of the story Jesus told about an unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, in which one servant owed his master a debt so large that he couldn’t have repaid it in several lifetimes. But the master (representing God) was merciful, and in a moment of compassion, forgave the entire, unimaginably-large debt. Overjoyed, the servant rushes out into the street, only to bump into another servant who owes him a few dollars because the first servant had spotted him a burrito at lunch the week before (or equivalent). The second servant didn’t have the money, so he too begs for a continuance — just as the first servant had done with their master. But instead of showing mercy, the first servant (who had been forgiven much) treats the other servant with harsh contempt and throws him in prison. Remember what happened when the master found out…

He summoned [the unforgiving servant] and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:32-35)

The price Jesus paid so that you could be reconciled to God and consecrated as His child was quite literally unimaginable … so much so that it required the incarnation and death of the divine, eternal Son. Who could even truly understand the dramatic scope of that statement, let alone replicate it?! In the face of such a high price paid for your glorification, can you not spare the cost of some pain and suffering in this life — perhaps even extremely difficult (though in any eternal sense, brief) pain and suffering — for the sake of God’s work in someone else? Doesn’t it mean something incredibly profoundly valuable that this, in a way little else could, makes you more like Jesus?

soldier sacrificed for youAnd all that says nothing of the price others have perhaps paid for your sanctification! What has your spouse endured, that you might be drawn into God? What have your parents endured for you? Or your kids? What about the countless soldiers who have fought, bled and died for you? What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who’s life and imprisonment and death have taught the church about mission and community? What about Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed in a tragic accident and now reaches millions? What about the Apostle Paul, whose personal sacrifice for the gospel is likely unsurpassed in all of history? What about childbirth and parenthood? We could go on for days.

Do you think you are alone in suffering so that others might be rescued from hell or grow in godliness or be found more in Christ each day? What if we looked at the insanely difficult and complex work that God is doing to redeem the universe as something we are all in together, and are sharing the load of the brokenness of sin in the universe?

We must learn to love! Not pat-someone-likable-on-the-head kind of love, but sacrifice-a-little-bit-like-Jesus kind of love. I think then we would be slower to fixate on or complain about our own pain (even if it is legitimately severe), and quick to rush to the side of others in need.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)


Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.

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