God Had Other Plans

Three Roads Diverging

A Scripture Vignette on Romans 1:13

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you, but have been thus far prevented, in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.

Romans 1:13 (author’s translation)

What strikes me about this passage is that Paul and God weren’t on the same page. Paul had what seems to be a very godly and right-headed intention: to travel to Rome and minister to and among the church there. He wants to see a harvest reaped among them, to see fruit born in their individual lives and in the lives of their church. Surely God wants that too, right?

Well, probably He does. But evidently He doesn’t want it in the way that Paul does, or by the same means or on the same timetable. Paul has been trying to get to Rome, and “has thus far been prevented.” By whom? By circumstances? By other people (like Roman jailers)? By Satan? By God Himself? Maybe … by all of the above? Who knows! But no matter who or what it is preventing Paul, the responsibility ultimately “rolls up” to the sovereign God who controls all things. No matter how you slice it, it’s arguably “God’s fault.”

So, Paul wants something it seems like everyone should want. But God doesn’t give it to him. God has other plans, and Paul clearly doesn’t understand them. If we read on in Romans, what do you think we’ll find? If Paul were the average American Christian today (and far too often I can relate), we might find a ton of whining about how unfair the world is — which means God, whether we admit it or not — or a bunch of demands that God explain Himself. But that’s not what we hear from Paul. Instead, he clearly states that He is under obligation to go when he can (1:14), eager to preach (1:15), and unashamed of the gospel (1:16). The obvious implication: “I don’t know what God’s doing or why, but I’m ready to go when He is!” And then he goes on to write arguably the most powerful and significant theological treatise ever put to paper.

And who knows but that God prevented Paul from being in Rome in person explicitly so that he would write down his message to them and send it ahead in letter form — which means that it went not only to them but to us as well!?

Life is chalk full of stuff we don’t understand, can’t explain, and would never do if we ran the universe. Good thing too, because every day of the week and twice on Sunday, I’d much rather have God’s infinite intellect and purity and love and power running things than I would my brokenness and limitations. Or yours!

I suspect Paul was keenly aware that it is absolutely God’s proper place and right to do things he didn’t understand. I suspect Paul graded his circumstances by what He knew to be true of God, not the other way around. And I suspect he would commend to you and me the same approach.

So do I.


Photo credit: Bob Marshall, Think Different

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Seen Another Way

Man Scattering Seed

A Scripture Vignette on Acts 8:1-4

Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. But those who were scattered went about preaching the word.

Acts 8:1-4 (ESV)

Things looked pretty bleak … and confusing.

Jesus had been murdered. But He’d rose again. But He’d gone away. But now, the Holy Spirit had come (in obvious power), and people like Stephen were becoming great preachers of the Word of God. And through their ministries, many were coming to know God and partake in His Kingdom. But then it all began to fall apart … again.

Stephen stepped on the wrong toes, so they stoned him to death. I suspect they hadn’t necessarily singled him out, but rather that he was the first of many. Though he was a godly man and an excellent example of a life lived for Christ, to be sure, I think it’s likely that Scripture focuses on him (tells his story in detail, but not others’) more as representative than as unique. (See Acts 7.)

At any rate, we know that this is where the train started downhill for the Church. At this point, a man named Saul enters the story. Saul was a zealous, powerful, well-educated leader in Israel. He was well-connected, had exceptional knowledge of the Scriptures, spoke many languages, and was even a Roman citizen. He was a Jew’s Jew, to be sure. And now, He began arresting and even killing people who followed Jesus, confident that he was acting on God’s behalf. In his mind (and the minds of the other Jewish leaders), He would wipe out the people who were God’s enemies. He knew who they were and what to do about them, and He knew that God would be pleased.

But he was wrong.

What looked to the rest of the world like the beginning of the end for Christians became instead the end of the beginning. On his way to initiate his reign of terror, Saul literally encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road and was radically converted (Acts 9:1-22). As a result, he became not only the most powerful voice that’s ever spoken for Jesus (writing 2/3 of the New Testament), but he also became “the Apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:8; Rom 11:13). In other words, God’s mission for Paul (Saul was renamed to Paul when he was reborn for Christ) was not to wipe out the church, but to do what was unthinkable in the minds of Saul’s Jewish-leader advocates… to extend God’s invitation into His Kingdom to the entire world.

But not only that, the persecutions which were meant to stamp out Christianity instead scattered it out of Jerusalem. Within a few short years (maybe months) of Stephen’s death, the message of the gospel spread out over three continents. History traces the expansion of the gospel into India, E. Asia, Africa, and throughout the Roman empire back to this one moment in the life of the Church — a moment which, at the time, seemed about as dark and confusing as it could get. On that day, it might have been tempting to think that God had abandoned them, but the truth is that God was doing something far greater than they could have asked, imagined or thought (see Gal 3:20-21).

So is it with us today. Looking at the trouble in this world or even specifically in your life, you might be tempted to think that God doesn’t care or is asleep at the wheel or has lost control. Not so! But the truth is that God is doing something amazing that you just don’t yet understand .. and maybe never will, on this side of heaven. But that’s okay. You might find it disturbing, but I find it incredibly comforting to know that the God of the universe is about work too great, too spectacular for me to understand. That breads a trust and a worship in my heart that simply wouldn’t be possible if God spent His days trying to explain Himself to someone as finite and fragile and incapable as you and me.

My plan for 2017 is to lean into that, not rail against it. Hope you will join me.


Photo credit: Mark, One More Thing

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Consecrating Christmas

Reading the Christmas Story

It’s December 26th … the day after Christmas. And I’m a bit sad. Christmas is my favorite time of year, my favorite holiday, but I have to confess that I didn’t “keep Christmas well” this year (as a converted Ebenezer Scrooge would say). In fact, I’ve had more than one moment of struggle and sadness over the last few days, as a result. So I’ve been asking myself, and God, what went wrong and why I don’t feel satisfied with Christmas this year.

What I feel like God has been telling me, as I’ve brought my frowning lonely disconcerted moments, is that I did a bad job of “consecrating Christmas” in my heart this year. To consecrate something means to set it apart for special (or uncommon) use, particularly by God. In other words, I feel like I’ve treated the last month of my life just like the month before that or the month before that, but with a few extra Christmas-y check boxes on the todo list … instead of setting it apart as holy, kicking off my sandals, and treading carefully and contemplatively on holy ground.

I thought about naming this post “What alien invasion, Clark Griswold, Christmas cookies and gift cards taught me about creating a sacred space for Christmas,” but ultimately thought the better of it. Instead, let me unpack a little of what God and I have been talking about in the last 48 hours, in the hopes that it benefits all of us in the years to come. Here are a few principles I’m proposing to my family for how to change the way we can do a better job setting apart Christmas as holy … in our lives and unto the Lord.

(Bonus points if you can find the four lesson-teachers from my original title.)

Christmas Principle #1: Life is broken; worship God anyway

Christmas CarolersYes, I had really tough finals that took a lot of preparation this year. Yes, Faith and I both have colds, have less energy, and are therefore drained of some of our holiday cheer. Yes, Faith is a nurse, works nights, and specifically had to work Christmas Eve, so John and I were home alone. Yes, because of Faith’s work schedule, we didn’t get to spend the kind of time with family that we would have liked to this weekend. And yes, because we’re new to our church, we didn’t really have the connections that would have allowed John and I to surrogate our way into the Christmas celebrations of some of our spiritual cousins.

BUT… None of that (or even circumstances far worse than those, had they pertained) is an excuse not to worship God fully and joyfully and passionately, with our lives … not just at Christmas, but every day. These realities are simply no excuse to fail to set apart Christ as Lord or to set apart Christmas as sacred. To be blunt, God’s response to my whining to Him about my circumstances this week has been, “Um … suck it up.” And even if I hadn’t just downed my latest Advil Cold and Sinus an hour or so ago, I would have to agree.

What do I do?

No matter what process is in place or changes we make to schedules or whatever, nothing’s going anywhere unless we change our minds. It all starts with the commitment to take the time and expend the energy to do it right, even if circumstances seem to be in the way. And in practice, this kind of commitment starts with a changed heart … and that happens by asking God to change it. It’s about making a decision to be, and asking God to cause us to become.

Christmas Principle #2: Work hard, but worship first

Man Studying the BibleAs I said, my finals were really tough this year. I studied a total of 71 hours for 3 finals during the two weeks leading up to them (yes, I track my time; we all know I’m a grade A nerd). When I was more executive and less student, I remember working hard to close out the fiscal year or get something ready for the coming year that had to be able to hit the ground running on January 2nd. That too can take a huge commitment of time and energy. I get it. But again, I don’t think that’s an excuse. The question is, “Who is your God?” Is it the final? The grade in the class? The deal? The promotion? The customer? The boss’s approval? The cash that comes from all of the above? The prestige? Some kind of obsessive compulsive bent you can’t seem to shake (which is one of my own personal demons)?

Whatever it is that tempts you to work first and worship when the work is done is from the pit of hell and smells like smoke. News flash, Jeff: It’ll never be done. The only thing that kept me from studying for 72 hours for my finals (vs 71) is that I ran out of waking hours. And honestly, if it’d been 57 hours vs 71 (leaving one additional hour per day during those two weeks to invest in the active attempt to set apart Christmas as a sacred time), would it really have changed the outcome? I submit not. And even if it had, the cost would have been worth paying.

The work is never done. It’s not a question of getting it finished, it’s a question of how you do it along the way … of where you start and end. If you wait until the work is done to worship, then it’s not worship, it’s perfunctory box checking. Period. Worship comes first, or it’s not worship at all. God will not be “fit in” to anyone’s busy schedule. So, it’s no small wonder that waiting until 12/16 (the day after finals ended) to even start thinking about Christmas sucked the life and joy and sacredness out of the holidays for me.

What do I do?

First, realize that everything valuable takes time. So plan ahead and be realistic. Having totally unrealistic expectations (a la Clark Griswold) won’t help you. Neither will waiting ’til the last minute to start what’s important.

Second, redirect existing activities. If you’re going to watch a movie, make it a Christmas movie. There’s no excuse for watching Independence Day Resurgence over It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, as I did this year just because my son wanted to. If you’re driving somewhere and listening to something, make it meaningful Christmas music (O Holy Night, not Jingle Bells), not your latest sci-fi novel (did that this year too). You get the idea.

Christmas Principle #3: Get tasks done early, so Advent is sacred

The Christmas StoryNo matter how you slice it, it takes time to do Christmas right. Even the logistics related to visiting family, decorating, or exchanging gifts are very time-consuming. Unfortunately, because our time is severely limited, many of us (and I stepped squarely into this bear trap this year) focus more on the functional and logistic tasks of Christmas than on the spiritual, regenerative, communal aspects of Christmas. That’s not okay.

There’s absolutely no way to slide into home at 7pm on Christmas Eve, and suddenly expect to switch from frantic task accomplishment mode to quiet, worshipful, soak-deeply-in-the-meaning-of-all-this-with-God-and-my-family mode. If you want depth, you have to plan for and make space for depth, and that starts with level 1 planning months in advance, level 2 execution starting at Halloween (yes, I think the goal of starting at Thanksgiving isn’t early enough … although obviously better than starting on Dec 23rd), and level 3 intentional space-making during the advent season itself.

What if we front-loaded the logistics and planning and tasks with the goal of having them done by Thanksgiving, and then spent Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas) in the sacred space of anticipating the coming of the Messiah? That would change our lives.

What do I do?

Literally make a check list / plan for the execution of Christmas tasks starting … like now. What will you do between 1/1 and 11/1 to identify the people to shop for, think through what to get them (so their gifts are meaningful, not perfunctory), buy their presents, and put them in a bin somewhere so they’re ready to go next year? Not only does that protect the time in the run-up to Christmas from becoming one giant shopping day, it allows you to buy real, actual, thoughtful gifts for people, not just restaurant gift cards (yep, that was me this year too; ugh!). The only reason we don’t have shopping done by Thanksgiving is that it’s not a priority until the last minute. That has to change now, not on Black Friday, if we want Christmas to be sacred.

Next, get the decoration done early. Be ready to go on Thanksgiving, or even the weekend before. Move other things out of the way. Start planning for that now. Make it a family affair. Talk about why you’re decorating and how. Intentionality is your friend.

personal-dayThird, take time off from work before Christmas, not just the company holidays one day on either side of the 25th, or in the week between Christmas and New Years. Take time off before the holiday with the specifically goal of keeping the holiday well. Use that time to create sacred spaces, not just to take a family vacation to warmer climates.

And with those three changes in place, use Advent to actually celebrate Advent … slowly, meaningfully, with intentionality. The music you listen to, the devotions at dinner with the family, the movies watched, the stories read, the time spent… focusing on Jesus, who is our very life!

This year, I literally realized on the way to Christmas Eve service at church that we had no Christmas cookies to eat together around the tree or to put out for Santa. And because we were running late getting to church, we had to put off picking them up until after the service. And when we finally got to Jewel, we discovered that they had closed 10 min before. Epic fail! And then, I woke up at 2am Christmas morning (while Faith was at work) realizing that I had nothing for stocking stuffers either. In fact we’d never even put up the stockings. Double face palm! Now, John is 12, so this wasn’t the catastrophe it could have been, but it all still demonstrates — quite embarrassingly, frankly — just how poorly my engagement of Christmas really was this year. We simply didn’t make the time or invest the focus to make the holiday what it is supposed to be.

By God’s grace, never again!

Christmas Principle #4: Sacred time starts by being with Jesus

Christmas Tree by the FireplaceNo matter what else you do for Christmas, if you’re not sitting alone in prayer to frame the rest of the time you spend, then it’s not sacred. Period. And because I wasn’t (for many reasons), it wasn’t.

It has been my habit in years past to stay up late after everyone goes to bed at least on Christmas Eve, if not for a few nights leading up to Christmas, stare at the lights on the tree, and pray … thanking God for Jesus and for the other countless blessings in our lives. But this year, it was all tasks and trappings and distraction, and somewhere in all of it, the sacredness of the presence of the Messiah in our living room got lost. Again, that’s just not okay.

What do I do?

Read the Christmas story alone, listening to God and responding in prayer and song and thanksgiving, before you read it Christmas morning. Get a cup of coffee or egg nog or whatever, and just sit alone after everyone else goes to bed. Or if you have a different practice, great. But the point is to actually remember the Lord … slowly, with a purpose. If the frantic pace of work or school or holiday logistics or inviting friends over or whatever else is such that no time is left over for this kind of devotional, contemplative, soaking with the Lord, then the whole thing is fundamentally broken … no matter how good the individual parts may be. Cancel everything else until this is in place, and then build on that.

Of all the things I regret this Christmas, it’s that I just didn’t spend much time with Jesus. And it can’t be Christmas without being with Jesus. Christmas isn’t about a Savior coming abstractly for the whole world, it’s about Jesus coming to you and to me, to be our Brother and King, Savior and Friend. A Lover who has no interest in our perfunctory observations or leftover time. He expects to be invited in, to join us for Christmas dinner, to sit with us staring at the tree … to just be together. There is no Christmas without that.

Don’t get me wrong…

In closing, I just want to make sure you know that this post is not some kind of indictment of anyone else. It’s my sharing my personal convictions, having felt like I failed pretty spectacularly at keeping Christmas this year. I’m not telling you what to do; I’m sharing what I feel convicted to do … and, yes, hoping it helps you too.

If you read my blog regularly or know me personally, please hold me accountable to these principles. Expect to see concrete steps from me to protect a sacred space for Christmas… not just starting after finals next year, but starting now.

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!'”

― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

scrooge-god-bless-us


Photo Credit (in order of appearance):
1) Pressmaster
2) Austin Hodgens
3
) JHDT Productions
4) Kyle Huber
5) Indiana University
6) TechBlogStop
7) Disney
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Dying to Live

Seed Germination

We avoid pain because …
We don’t really understand what it means to follow Jesus

Jesus said the most profound and disruptive things, including:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Here, Jesus is categorically stating that real life actually involves daily death. This can be pretty confusing too, if you lean into the wrong images when you envision your earthly life.

Real life Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Family GatheringFor example, a commercial I saw recently depicted Thanksgiving. It showed an American-dream family (right down to the friendly, cuddly dog) gathering in a giant house, around a fancy table, surrounded by expensive decorations, dressed in designer clothes, all with great hair, clinking crystal wine glasses, preparing to serve a perfectly cooked 30 pound turkey. Wow! Breathtaking! What a life! If I just buy their product or service (it was for a financial management and planning firm), then I too will have a “real life” … surrounded by beautiful people and thanking God around a magnificently-set table and a massive turkey.

A preview of heaven?

thanksgiving-dinnerNow don’t get me wrong… I love Thanksgiving, turkey and gathering with my family … and I have had much the same experience this commercial portrayed. I’m not saying that Thanksgiving is wrong or bad, or that this commercial depicts something unhealthy. In fact, I think it gives us an interesting glimpse into heaven. There, the turkey will be huge, God’s mansion will be breathtaking, and the family will be pretty much permanently gathered around the Father’s table. And taking time now to do things that we’ll do in heaven — like setting aside special time to express gratitude to God while sharing abundant food and fellowship — isn’t bad, it’s wonderful. Especially if we are conscious in it to remember God’s blessing and to look forward to heaven.

The problem is that we, as Americans, have absorbed the imagery in this commercial to such a degree that it now represents our expectation for what life in a sinful broken world is supposed to be like. What God is storing up for us in heaven, we have come to believe we can build for ourselves here on earth. The unparalleled abundance and blessing which God has given so many of us is taken for granted. The comfort and ease and peace, fine china and full tables are no longer awe-inspiring, they’re expected, maybe even deserved. And we forget that life doesn’t consist in doing what it takes to replicate this commercial. It consists in walking with God, in following Jesus. And Jesus was very clear that following Him doesn’t always look like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, it looks like carrying a cross and dying every day.

A better picture of real life

If I were to make a commercial for the life Jesus offers, I think it would look something like this…

Farmer hands sifting wheat

We fade in on the work-worn hands of an elderly farmer. He’s working his field with a hand hoe, tilling up dark rich soil that he’s obviously been nurturing for a long time. The sun is shining brightly in the background. We never see his face.

He stops his work, rests his hoe on a fence post, and wipes sweat from his brow with a worn cloth handkerchief. Then, he reaches his weathered hand into the pocket of his overalls, pulls out a handful of seed, and begins to scatter it over the well-prepared soil.

When he throws the second or third handful, the camera zooms in on a single seed as it flies through the air and ultimately lands on the ground. Then time speeds up. We see rain fall on the seed, while the sun rises and sets repeatedly behind it. And we watch the seed work its way down into the soil … and die. Soft, sad music plays in the background.

Growth process of wheatBut we all know what’s coming, so we keep watching. The music begins to change, and eventually the seed sprouts a single, tiny green shoot. It pushes up out of the ground, and slowly begins to look like a stalk of wheat. By now, the music is beginning to crescendo, and as it mounts, the camera zooms out and up, until we find ourselves looking at a huge, rolling field of beautiful golden wheat. The sun shines again in the distance, and the farmer stands with his back to us off to the right, leaning on his pitchfork, looking (we imagine approvingly) at his wheat field.

Wheat Field

Which picture do we prefer?

Seen from the perspective of heaven, the earthly life of the Christ-follower is represented well in this image of the lifecycle of a grain of wheat. The whole of our lives on earth is lived, spiritually speaking, in God’s act of sowing us into good soil, and then taking us, in Christ, through death, germination and resurrection into “real life.”

Some overtly reject this notion of transformation through death and rebirth. But many, perhaps even more insidiously, believe that they are on this path simply because they “prayed a prayer” or “came forward” one day at church or “made a decision for Christ.” In our affluent, distraction-filled culture, we tend to view the Christian life more like membership in a club or a document to be signed or an extra layer of affiliation we can paint over a life fixated on earthly comforts and stuff and experiences. The busier we are making sure we have the latest styles in fine china or the nicest shoes or the best Pinterest recipe for mashed potatoes, so that everyone will have the best possible experience when they come for Thanksgiving, the less interested we’ll be in the image of (like the grain of wheat) falling to the ground and dying. Put simply, I don’t think most of us truly believe that real life comes only through dying.

“When Christ calls a person, He bids them ‘Come and die.'”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Which utopia do you want?

I think this all boils down to a question of which utopia — bear with me as I use the word “utopia” as a euphemism for “real life” for a second — do we want?

God’s utopia is heaven, or “the new Jerusalem,” or the Kingdom of God — the place where God dwells with His people and they dwell (directly, uninhibited by sin, totally free) with Him (Jer 32:38; Rev 21:3). Life in this kingdom starts the moment someone turns from their sin and accepts Christ as Savior and Lord. It’s the life Jesus described as “denying yourself and taking up your cross” (Luke 9:23) and Paul overtly described as “dying with Christ” (Col 3:1-17). Grains of wheat have no access to this utopia. Only wheat fields. The only way a grain of wheat gets in is to fall to the ground and die, and be raised to new life by God in Christ.

Utopia World Hotel (Antalya, Turkey)

Utopia World Hotel (Antalya, Turkey)

Man’s utopia is the American dream. It’s Antalya, Turkey or Dubai. Once while visiting Las Vegas, as I took in the glitz and glitter, I found myself thinking, “This is man’s utopia; what we would build with seemingly infinite resources.” This is grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner every single day. This utopia is what sells itself as possible if grains of wheat work really hard to make being a grain of wheat as awesome as humanly possible. But what we struggle to believe, and what Jesus meant by so many of the things He said, is that this utopia A) isn’t possible on earth, and B) even the momentary approximations of it aren’t worth what it costs. And it’s primary cost is that, in the pursuit of it, grains of wheat often fail to become what they were meant to be… wheat fields. In fact, if you make a grain of wheat comfortable and self-reliant enough, it may no longer even want to.

And in this difference is the rub. Which utopia we’re shooting for will make all the different in how we live and what we tolerate or invite into our lives. Whichever is our goal, we’ll sacrifice quite a lot to reach it, investing ourselves for the return of that goal (even if it’s futile… like creating heaven on earth). We will put on the things we think will help us get there, and throw off the things that we feel get in the way.

If your life consists in putting on money and power and comfort and ease and the recognition of your peers and independence and self-sufficiency, then I would submit that your heart is for man’s utopia. Seen from the other side, this life is spent avoiding the poverty and weakness of others (which sucks away resources), remaining under trials (which sucks away comfort), inconvenience, neediness, rejoicing with others’ victories, accepting when they have the advantage, responding with grace and love when we are wronged, investing in those who cannot help you in return, transparency, relational vulnerability, (inter)dependence, and many other things Jesus and the apostles espoused as signs of a life that is already sprouting up in the Kingdom of God and ultimately bound for heaven.

Serving OthersConversely, the life aimed at God’s utopia reverses the polarity on these things. The challenge in our culture is that we don’t really believe that. We want the life described in the last paragraph, and we want heaven too. Whether we like it or not, it doesn’t work that way. To attempt it is to turn the gospel into a “get out of hell free” card. But Jesus said, “If you want real life — which is to say, ‘if you want me’ — then you have to die to yourself every day and accept the life I have for you” … which Jesus and the apostles spend much of the New Testament describing.

But we started out talking about avoiding pain and suffering

Bringing this all the way back around… We’ve talked about lots of reasons why people avoid pain, and about how God uses pain and suffering to get our attention and to grow us into maturity. So, I leave you with this thought, which I believe connects us squarely back into that discussion…

“We are by nature comfort-seekers, not cross-bearers.”
-Kyle Idleman

If you take a hard look at your life and find yourself working hard to avoid discomfort, difficulty, inconvenience, and irritation… If you spend your days building systems or stockpiling resources to ensure your security and comfort and ease of life… If you define “freedom” as the power to sit and do nothing or to entertain and indulge yourself 24/7… If you put far more thought into what flows into your life from others than what flows out of it to others… Then you may actually be working against what God desires most for your life: that you would die to yourself and be raised with Christ in newness of life (Rom 6:4).

Serving OthersCould it be that all these things — the messy, painful, stress-filled difficulty of a life centered on God and people, rather than on ourselves — are the signs that we are in the process of germination? And if so, wouldn’t we want to lean into that process and thank God for His amazing vision that we would become an entire field of wheat, rather than remaining a single dried-up grain?

But that assumes that you believe what God would build in your resurrected life is better than what you would build here and now. So I ask, “Do you?” Because this is just another way of asking what Jesus asked, “Will you repent and be baptized? Will you deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me? Will you die to yourself so that you can live in me?”


Read more about the goodness of God.

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A Matter of Trust

Trusting God

We avoid pain because…
We don’t really trust God

When, in the midst of very difficult circumstances, we shake our fists at God and say, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” … it is a clear indicator that we believe we know what’s best for us and that God is either a) cruel — toying with you like a cat with a ball of string — or b) incompetent — He has no idea what He’s doing. In either case, it’s a clear indicator that we do not in fact trust the Lord. I know it’s hard to see past suffering and the brokenness of the world, but faith sees what is invisible. When we vent our frustration and anger, or question God, what we’re actually saying is that everyone would be better off if God ran the universe your way.

refiners-fireIt comes down to this… God is wise, and we aren’t. God, as a loving Father, is at all times masterfully working all things together for our good. If there is pain, it’s because God is using that pain to do something in you and/or in others that you don’t understand and cannot rightly imagine. If you are a child of God, then when you get to heaven (sometimes you won’t even have to wait that long), you will confess with your own lips that God was right and everything suffered at His hand was totally worth it to bring about the results He has dreamed for His children, for His kingdom, and most importantly for His glory. But in order to trust God, we have to learn, even train ourselves, to believe that this is true … that God’s dreams for us (the pure gold) are worth the pain required to refine out of us that which is in the way of our purity (the dross). If the metal were alive, I suspect it wouldn’t like being pounded by the blacksmith. But looking back on those days from the perspective of a gleaming sword or an ornate jeweled necklace, I’m quite sure it would say that it had all been worth it.

Sapphire NecklaceIt would take far more space than we have to dive into a deep discussion about how to invest well in developing a deeper trust in God. Perhaps we could get into that more in a separate, future post. For the time being, my goal is to raise the vital importance of that trust — to propose that perhaps the origin of angst and frustration in the midst of pain is not in fact God’s unreasonableness, but rather our lack of trust. If we can make that recalibration in perspective, we can at least take a (huge!) step forward in recognizing when we’re failing to take God at His word with regard to our lives.

The next time you find yourself allowing circumstances to measure God’s goodness and interpret God’s heart (producing fear and anger and resentment) instead of allowing God’s goodness to interpret our circumstances (producing peace that passes understanding), then try this … Get alone with God (like in-a-dark-closet-without-your-phone alone) and directly tell Him that it’s hard to trust Him. Ask Him to supernaturally give you a faithful and trusting heart, which you simply do not have and cannot develop on your own. Ask God to work a miracle in you. Soak in Philippians 4:4-9 for a season, and see what God does with it. Preach the gospel to yourself to remind your weary heart of God’s goodness.

Prayer Closet

It is possible that God’s purpose in bringing the pain your experiencing into your life is that He is explicitly about the work of developing this trust in your heart. Whether it feels like it or not, you can trust Him. And once we accept that, we’re much more likely to accept, even embrace, the things in life that we don’t understand and would never ask for. Trust God’s work as a master goldsmith. His refining power in our lives is removing impurity and dross, so that we may “emerge as pure gold” (Job 23:10).


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Dreams of Heaven

Cloudwatching Look Up

We avoid pain because…
We are focused on earthly goals and dreams

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians to challenge them to forsake inferior gods and destructive religious practices, and to reorient their lives completely around Jesus Christ, who is everything they need. About halfway through the letter, he issues this clarion call:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2)

Less-than-Great Expectations

Great ExpectationsBut we — especially those of us who practically wade through wealth and comfort in the everyday of life — tend to have a really hard time raising our eyes and hearts and minds to heaven. And when God sends difficult circumstances to get our attention or wake us up or burn away impurity … when He attempts to draw our eyes off the things of this world and onto Himself … then it’s easy to feel mistreated and cry foul. This is precisely because we tend to have our eyes fixed on the disillusion or destruction or disappointment of earthly goals and plans and material goods, rather than on the parting clouds above us. But we can only see the far-greater treasure that their parting reveals if we look up.

spots in your eyesHave you ever looked at a bright light long enough to sear temporary spots on your retinas? Even when you look away or close your eyes, you still see the spots. Well, people do the same thing with their plans for life and dreams for the future. How easy it is to fixate on earthly goals or desires or possessions until our eyes and hearts are seared with their images. The bright spots burned onto them can then obscure what God is actually doing in our lives. So in ignorance of His far superior plans, we turn away feeling like the universe (or God Himself) has somehow done us wrong.

looking-at-phonesBecause our eyes are firmly fixed on what’s in our hands or on our bucket lists or in our wallets or on our neighbors minds (or at least what we think that’s what they’re thinking), we can totally miss what God has set His eyes and mind and heart upon in our lives … which can always be summarized as “being conformed to the image of His Son” … which is better by far.

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29)

To live the life we were made to live, we must fix our eyes on things above … on God’s definitions of success and accomplishment, on God’s goals and dreams, on God’s treasure and reward. If we expect our treasure to come in the form of earthly things or unthreatened comfort or emotional simplicity or some kind of guarantee that God would act in support of our own plans, then we haven’t at all understood the higher calling of God on our lives.

watching-sunrise

But we’re in good company. We see this over and over in the Bible. We could probably choose from dozens of stories to illustrate the point. But God specifically brought to my mind the story of Moses and the Exodus, so I thought we could zoom in on it…

Freedom from Slavery vs Making my Life Harder

Thousands of years ago, God appeared to a man named Abram, and promised that He would make Abram into a great nation. This nation would be, in a unique sense, God’s people and become a blessing to the entire earth. Through very unusual circumstances, which weave their way through the book of Genesis (specifically chapters 9-41), Abram’s great grandson, Joseph, ends up Vice President of the region’s uncontested superpower, Egypt. God has highly blessed Joseph, and directs him to lead the people of Egypt to store up food in preparation for a great famine which God has revealed to Joseph will be coming. The nation dutifully prepares, and when the rest of that part of the world sinks into great hunger and need, Joseph’s family (like many others) seeks refuge in Egypt. There, they find plenty to eat — thanks to God’s work through Joseph. Now called “Israelites,” after the new name God gave to Joseph’s father Jacob, God’s people prosper in Egypt and greatly increase in both numbers and influence under the protection of the king.

And this, by earthly standards, is where the story takes a turn for the worse. We pick it up in the opening pages of the book of Exodus…

Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built … store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor, the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
(Exodus 1:6-14)

Israelite slaves in Egypt

Eventually, through very interesting and dramatic circumstances, God raises up a man named Moses, and sends him to demand that Pharaoh — the most powerful man in the known world — release the Israelite people — now numbering in the millions — to walk out of Egypt with all their stuff, and be free to live with and worship God as they see fit.

Moses: “So, Pharaoh, you know all those slaves who are building your cities and monuments? Well, I want you to let them all go and do the work yourself for a change!”

Pharaoh: {blank, disbelieving stare}

God: {pointing to Moses} I’m with him. Best do what he says.

To put it mildly, Pharaoh rejects Moses’ demands. So, God works terrible and terrifying miracles through Moses, bringing down plagues on the king and his people. But instead of relenting, Pharaoh angrily digs in his heals, and reacts to Moses and his (really God’s) people with attempts at brutal suppression. So, the plagues get worse and worse and the Pharaoh gets more and more angry — round and round — until God has pretty much destroyed Egypt (punishment for their great wickedness). And finally, the king lets God’s people go. And God leads them, again eventually (more interesting drama), to a new homeland which He had promised to Abram centuries before.

Think about the drama which unfolded between Moses’ first round of demands to the king and the end of the story, when the Red Sea finally comes crashing down onto Pharaoh’s army, confirming that the Israelites had truly and completely escaped. There is a definitely escalating pattern in this part of the story. Moses would make his customary demand, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh would refuse. God would drop a plague — from frogs to locusts to blood to boils — onto Egypt. And Pharaoh would both hold his ground against Moses and retaliate against the Israelites.

Here’s an explicit glimpse we get of one round of this escalation early on in the story (read it for yourself in Exodus 5:1-22)…

Pharaoh: Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.

Moses (with his brother Aaron): Bad call. God sent us, and that should sum it up for you. Now, let our people go!

Pharaoh: No way; get back to work!

That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

Slave drivers and overseers: {to millions of slaves who already lived in back-breaking hardship} No straw for you! Thanks to your buddy Moses and your “God”, your life just got even harder! Oh, and why haven’t you met your brick quota yesterday or today, as before!?

Israelite slaves in Egypt

Godly perspective presupposes delayed gratification

Imagine you’re the average slave building Pharaoh a pyramid. From your perspective, some guy came sauntering into the boss’s office and got you in trouble. Yeah, your life is horrible, but at least “the company” provides you with straw to make bricks. That was at least something. Now, thanks to the guy with the big mouth and the staff, you have to go gather the straw AND make the bricks. How does that make you feel? You’re probably pretty ticked off, as the Israelite rank and file surely were.

Why?

Israelites making bricks in EgyptBecause you have no way to know that “my job just got harder” isn’t the end of the story. If all you see are the problems of that day, then the whole straw shortage thing is very bad news. But if you really believe the things God has promised you, you’d be forced to conclude that there is more going on than that. You’d have to say, “I don’t know how, but somehow God is working all this straw gathering and brick making together for my good” (Romans 8:28, paraphrased). Thinking about Moses’ story from the outside, it’s certainly more obvious than it would have been to the Israelites from inside the story. And it’s for sure more clear looking back on this story from history than when we evaluate our own lives in progress. But still, looking back it’s hard to imagine the Israelite slaves saying, “I know God is working all things together for my freedom and the freedom of all my family and friends, but that goal is too far off and abstract. Who wants to think about actual freedom? Ain’t nobody got time for that! What I really want … what would make me happy … is for my taskmasters to dump a pile of straw outside my house in between beatings.”

I know that’s extreme language, and I present it somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but isn’t that pretty much what the Israelites said (see Exodus 5:20-21)? And if we’re honest, isn’t that (in effect) the kinds of things we say as well? “God, I know you said you’re doing everything for my good and conforming me to the image of your Son, but that’s just too far off and abstract. What I really want … what would make me happy … is … something trivial by comparison that I want right now.”

If you could see the universe and human history and your life the way God does, what language would you use to compare the goals on your personal bucket list with the dreams God has on His bucket list for you? Would “no comparison” even come close?

It’s a perspective thing

This brings us back around to where we started — to your perspective and focus. It’s about where you fix your eyes. The average Israelite slave didn’t understand that the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh was necessary. It was evidently required to gain the peoples’ freedom and glorify God and progress God’s redemptive strategy for all mankind. So, yes, there was immediate pain — and not short-term, either. They’d been slaves their entire lives … and now, work had gotten even harder. But who knew that this meager slave was in fact playing a key role in the drama that would stand for all time as the ultimate story of God’s redeeming power, giving hope and exemplifying promise to billions of people all over the world for millennia to come!?

They all knew God’s promise, “I will bless you and make you a blessing… To you and to your descendants, I give this land.” (Genesis 12:1-7). And I know it had been awhile and circumstances were blinding them. I get that sometimes it’s hard to choose to believe. But they still had that choice … to decide whether or not to actually believe what they all knew God had promised, even in the face of suffering and uncertainty. They had to choose to look up — to fix their eyes on God’s promises — or to look at their admittedly very difficult circumstances.

And so do we.

God is a promising God. He’s clearly told us that He is working all things together for our good. He is wise and understands how that works; we do not. He sees where our lives are going; we do not. We must resist the urge to repeatedly demand that He explain Himself. Even when there is pain and sorrow and what feels like inexplicable derailments or insurmountable roadblocks… Instead of shaking your fist at heaven or demanding some short term balm on your circumstances (your very own pile of straw!), let us trust in the Lord with all our hearts, lean not on our own understanding, acknowledge God’s right and competence to do what needs to be done, and joyfully submit to His way. He will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and you will not be put to shame (Psalm 25:3).


“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)

cloudwatching look up


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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


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