The Goodness of Affliction…

As much as we hate to admit it, there is a redeeming factor to suffering. In fact, we could say that in some cases suffering is life-changing. A classic example is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose writings probably did more to reveal the corruption and emptiness of the Soviet Communist system than any single political factor. He said of his time spent in a Soviet prison camp:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…. That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617)

Psalm 119:71, 72 “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.”

Job 23:10, 12 “But he knows the way I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold….I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.”

In these verses we have the experiential testimony of two more sufferers; the Psalmist and Job. I have read and pondered these verses for years and am just now coming to understand what they mean.

The goodness of affliction is known (experienced) when God’s Word reveals to us who we really are, and becomes more precious to us than all our investments and more necessary to us than our next meal.

One cannot know such goodness without affliction and one cannot benefit from affliction without God’s Word. Do not distain your suffering, but embrace it for you will nourish your soul there. Truly, it is “God’s megaphone.” (CS Lewis)

How do I know I am a Christian?

A teaching given for the Alpha Bible Study Series:

If I were to ask you to prove that you are married, you could do it in one of three different ways. First of all, you could show me your marriage license. This is an objective statement, signed by witnesses, that you were married to such and such a person on such and such a date. Secondly, you could introduce me to your wife and children. Thirdly, you could just smile and say “I know that I know that I’m married!”

Now, if you kept showing me your marriage license, but I never met your wife and kids, I’d start to get a bit suspicious. I might think to myself, “I bet he forged that thing!” Or, if you introduced me to your wife and kids, but I went down to the county courthouse and couldn’t find any marriage license on record, I’d probably conclude that you weren’t married at all, but were cohabiting. Or, if you went around with a big silly grin on your face declaring, “I’m married, I’m married, I just know that I’m married!” but no one could find your marriage license or your wife and kids, I would conclude you were either lying or crazy. To be able to prove that you were married, you would need to be able to display all 3 witnesses: your marriage license, your wife and kids, and your inner conviction. 

In just the same way, you would need the same three witnesses in order to answer, “How do I know that I am a Christian.”

1. First, you must have the witness of the truth of God’s Word. That is like the marriage license. It is an objective standard to which you can appeal. The Bible tells me I am a sinner who cannot earn God’s forgiveness, but that God in his great love sent His Son to die on the cross, for the forgiveness of my sins and to reconcile me to God.

Romans 6:23 – “For the wages sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Isaiah 53:5 – “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our sins; the punishment of our peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, but the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

2. Secondly, you must have the witness of the fruit of the Spirit which is the evidence of new life. That is like introducing me to your wife and kids, the fruit of your marriage relationship.

2 Corinthian 5:17 – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation old things have passed away; look, all things have become new!”

Matt. 7:18-20 – “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit…. Therefore, by their fruit will they be known.”

Galatians 5:22, 23 – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (character change from inside out)  

Some other changes: new love for God and desire to worship Him, desire to read the Bible and pray, desire to forgive others, a desire to love and help others, a desire to meet with other Christians, to share Christ with others, etc.

3. Thirdly, you must have the witness of the Holy Spirit and the imbedded Word of God. This is like your inner conviction of knowing that you are married. 

Romans 8:16 – “The Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are God’s children.”  The assurance of our salvation comes from an inward conviction given us by the Holy Spirit based upon what God has told us.    

1 John 5:13 – “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”  

Romans 8:15 – “We have been given a Spirit of son-ship whereby we cry Abba, Father!” JB Phillips translates this verse as “The Spirit himself endorses our inward conviction that we really are the children of God.” 

When the believer has all three of these witnesses, he/she has what the Bible describes as the full assurance of faith, which is the base-line confidence we need in order to grow in our faith. It is my prayer, that you will believe that Jesus died for you and that you will repent and ask him for forgiveness; believe that the Holy Spirit has transformed your life because you see some evidence; have the certainty that you are a child of God and a present possessor of eternal life. 

Justice or Wisdom?

One of the reasons why our suffering can become unusually difficult is because we often look at our situation through the single lens of God’s fairness and justice. We are told that righteousness and justice are the very foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14), but that is not always evident when we look at our world or at our own difficulties. Perhaps we are not tempted to curse God and die like Job’s wife counseled her husband, but it is hard not to question God’s fairness especially when we suffer. Is it really worth serving him and trying to be an upright person? There seems to be plenty of people in this world who do not love God and yet they look like they are healthy and flourishing. Does he really care for me?

In my last read through of the book of Job, I zeroed in on a truth I had not before noticed. It wasn’t a truth found in the raging argument between Job and his friends, who essentially threw Job under the bus of God’s retributive justice. Their singular theme was that people suffer because they have done something wrong and are being punished for it by a God of justice. Their counsel, was pretty simple: “Job, fess up and repent and God will have mercy and restore your health and prosperity.” (11:14; 22:21-23)

Neither was my attention caught by a truth found in the argument of the younger man, Elihu, who also suggested that God was just but that Job’s suffering was remedial. In other words, God uses suffering to wake us up, to save us from walking the wrong path, to correct us, and to lead us to repentance. (36:16)

All of these arguments were not wrong in themselves, but were wrong in their application to Job’s situation. Neither these men nor Job were privy to the context of Job’s suffering that was introduced to us at the beginning of the book. They did not know what took place in the secret chambers of God’s wisdom. Hmmm… could it be that we also fail to accurately assess a situation because we do not know what lies beneath or behind it — the wisdom of God?

The truth that caught my attention was found in Job 28, often called the Great Interlude. The entire chapter is about wisdom (the book of Job is considered wisdom literature) and is the entry-way that leads to God’s appearance in chapters 38-41. And guess what? When God does show up, he does not defend his justice but displays his wisdom!

Application: Let us not believe that my cancer or your suffering have been allowed by God as a punishment for some sin that we’ve committed, or else you and I would have died a long time ago. God is not our enemy, but we do have one. In the book of Job he is called the Accuser, and he wants us to curse God and die, or to question the fairness of God, or his care for us.

We have a choice here and I choose to trust God for his great wisdom. “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Rom 11:33) Yes, I believe that God is just and fair, but I also believe that his judgments are unsearchable. How can I even begin (like Job and company) to challenge the way God runs the universe or ask why he has allowed something to enter my life that seems to run contrary to his love, mercy, and justice? In the face of his unfathomable wisdom, I have no place to stand; no footing from which to argue. Instead, I must fall down and worship, like Job eventually did (42:1-6), and submit myself to his unfathomable wisdom.

This is not a pathway of resignation nor is it merely the passive acceptance of things over which I have no control. Submission to the unfathomable wisdom of God is based upon the reality of my relationship with God through Jesus Christ. My place to stand* is based upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the establishment of an eternal relationship with the God of the universe. I may never know or comprehend all that is happening to me, but I believe that Jesus is my Redemer and God is my Father. Therefore I trust that nothing will ever come into my life that has not first passed through his Fatherly hand.

Thus we need to understand our suffering and hardshp through the bi-focal lens of God’s unfathomable wisdom and his great love for us in Christ.

Though darkness hides his lovely face, I trust in his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. His oath, his covenant, his blood, support me in the whelming flood, when all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay. (Edward Mote, 1834)

*It should be noticed that Job also had a place to stand; a place that grounded him in the face of all he did not know or understand. See Job 16 and 19.

My feet had almost slipped…

Have you ever felt such deep disappointment that led you to believe that God was no longer there or had forgotten you?  Perhaps it was a situation where you didn’t particlarly like the way He was running the universe?   Maybe it hadn’t yet come to head, but you were simmering inside even though carrying on as if everything was fine. Maybe you are feeling like that now. You’ve noticed that your passion for God has started to ebb, you are beginning to lose your desire to be in the Word and pray; you’ve started to fall asleep in church; you’ve become critical and hard to live with, and you just don’t care much about the things of God.

If you feel this way, or think that you ever might, Psalm 73 is very important.  It is a tale of how a true believer became isolated from God through a crisis of faith.  It also shows the process that person (the psalmist) used to restore himself to fellowship.

The psalmist began by confessing that God is good.  This is important.  While he didn’t understand the ways of God, neither did he stop believing in God.  He began with what he knew to be true about God before he proceeded to address the things he didn’t understand. Many people are not successful with faith-crisis issues because they do not have a firm footing from which to deal with them.  Do yourself a favor and don’t reinvent the wheel every time you struggle with God.  Start your struggle by confessing those things which you know to be true and then proceed from there.

 The psalmist then proceeded with his compliant.  The psalmist (Asaph- writer of 12 Psalms) was a singer and chief musician in King David’s court. Asaph wasn’t engaged in a scientific study.  He merely looked around and saw the lives of those who did not have a heart for God and it seemed to him that they were getting along just fine, maybe even better than he was.  He wondered if it was even worth it to be righteous. He began to get the sense that things just weren’t fair and this began to distance him from God.

We do the same thing on a human level.  I know some people, for example, who go to church and make the observation that they are the only ones who aren’t happy or have it all together. Therefore, they feel out of place and stop attending.  It is not abnormal to make unsubstantiated assessments about people or situations which cause us to feel a certain way about ourselves. The psalmist did this as he looked around at the health and prosperity of those who did not love God, and it destabilized him.  He could not make any forward progress in his relationship to God.  Notice how he put it in v. 2, “my feet had almost slipped”. 

A number of years ago, when we lived in New England, I went up on my roof after a snow storm to shovel off two or three feet of snow along the edge to prevent an ice build up.  It was melting, so as soon as I shoveled a section it became very slippery.  I had to be extremely careful and deliberate with each step because I felt I was about to slip.  Finally, it got so bad I could no longer move in any direction, I was completely immobilized.  So it is when the feet of faith feel like they are almost slipping- we cannot move in our relationship to God.

And so Asaph poured out his complaint before God; he did not broadcast it to others.  He realized the effect that such spiritual turmoil could have upon the believing community, especially upon those who were less mature in the faith.  Instead, he kept pondering the issue and struggling with it before God until something happened. In v.17 we read, “till I entered the sanctuary of God and then I understood…” We’re not told what happened when he went to church that day. We know that he was on the church staff, being the chief musician in the Temple.  Maybe he was leading a worship song that he had sung a million times before, when all of a sudden he gained a new perspective of the Lord.  He ceased dealing with God as an object of speculation and began to see Him as the subject of worship.  He bowed himself before the majestic greatness of God and his whole perspective changed.  He bowed and then understood — that God was just and that the wicked and their wealth would be destroyed. 

 The psalmist also confessed his own humiliation and brokenness, v. 21, “when my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant, I was a brute beast before you.” This is a biblical response when we recognize the presence of God – like Isaiah, “Woe is me for I am undone!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the KING, the Lord Almighty” (Isa.6:5).  Or Peter, in Luke 5, after he had questioned Jesus’ authority and then witnessed his power in the great catch of fish; he fell down before Jesus and said,  “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man.” Also, Job’s experience, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 4). 

Similarly, the psalmist confessed his humiliation and something else (v. 23-24); He also confessed the realization that God had always been with him, even though he felt far away.  God was present with him and would be even in death (“and afterward you will take me to glory”). You can sense the psalmist’s growing passion for God in v. 25, 26, Asaph turned from the wealth of the wicked that he once envied to his true wealth.  “And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. God not only satisfies completely, but He remains the true treasure that even death cannot take away.

Do you remember that I told you about being stuck on my roof, feeling that my feet were about to slip?  The only way I got out of that predicament was by falling back into the unshoveled snow on my roof. The very thing I tried to get rid of became the very thing I turned to in the end.  The psalmist did the same thing with God.  He pushed God away and his feet almost slipped.  He fell back into God and he found his refuge.

Stay at worship, my friend. Keep in the Word and maintain your prayers, regardless of how you feel because this is real faith. Hang onto what you know to be true: God is good, He will always be with you, He will never fail you, He is your refuge, He is enough!

[Note to my readers: I am going through chemotherapy. Therefore, if I have made any glaring grammatical or spelling errors, please be gracious and attribute it to my chemo brain and not to my ignorance, which is far more likely.]

              

How Can the Church Become What Jesus Intended?

The church is at the same time a spiritual organism and a human organization. We become members of the organism by new birth and baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13) and of the organization by covenant. Most of the controversy about the church failing to become what Jesus intended is focused on its organizational form. The real issue, however, is not with organization, but with people who run it (pulpit and pew).

We Christians still live with our own version of the flesh. We see the sin of others so clearly. We carry with us our own set of expectations as to what the church should be. We go from church to church in search of this ideal. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “Life Together,” writes, “He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”

We all have our own dream of what the church should be like and when we cannot find it, we grow disillusioned. However, true fellowship is based upon faith and not dreams; upon truth and not emotions. Bonhoeffer boldly suggests that the sooner disillusionment comes, the better. “Therefore the very hour of disillusionment is instructive because it teaches me that neither I nor my brother can live to ourselves, but only through the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.”

The church (organizational) will become what Jesus intended it to be when we receive one another with grace and forgiveness and not measure one another by our own faulty expectations.

Thus for me to make a statement that the church has no relevance in my life, speaks more to my own unconnectedness and selfishness than to the nature of the church.

And by staying in the church, I place myself in the position of receiving from others the very grace and mercy needed most to help me work through the issues of my heart.

Marriage then and now…

Marriage then… June 26, 1971, a date that will live in infamy -wait, that was Pearl Harbor. Let me start over: a date that will live forever in memory. A day when a 22-yr old woman (a beauty) and a 24-yr old guy (add any adjective or noun that is appropriate) said their vows to each other. Those vows did not announce how much they were in love on that day, but the vows were commitments made that they would, by God’s unmeasureable Grace, love each other “until they laid each other in the arms of God.”

Marriage now…June 26, 2019           

48 Things I Love About My Wife, GLORIA   

G   od-lover, great (wonderful) grandma, giver, glad to help others, grateful when people help her, good cook, genuine servant, gold and diamonds are not important, glued to her marriage until death do us part

L   oves her husband and kids and is loved by them, longs for meaningful conversation, loves to explore and take back roads, loses things but they usually turn up (just found car keys in coat pocket after 3 yrs), likes to stay up late but not get up early, lavish prayers said daily on behalf of her kids and grandkids, loyal to her marriage vows especially the in sickness and in health part

O  pines often,  outdoor girl, ovulates no more, overlooks her husband’s faults, opens her home to the stranger and refugee, open-handed to those in need, oppressed by the computer, observes carefully whatsapp messages from kids about the grandkids, overwhelmed by the thought of selling our house and moving 

R ank means nothing, raspberry lover (especially black raspberry pie), reads good books (especially about missions), redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, regularly reflects on God’s Word, rather not do housework, really rather be hiking or kayaking, regrets living so far away from her new grandson in Switzerland, reads idiots guide to understand financial stuff

I   nterested in just about everything having to do with her kids and grandkids, intelligent, incurious about sports (except baseball), inflexible in her convictions, initiates conversations with strangers

A   lways faithful, always supportive of her husband, asks a few questions once in awhile, an accomplished pianist and marimbist, appreciates working together on anything, always likes apple butter, an amazing ESL teacher, age has enhanced her beauty, a woman who fears the Lord

Hypocrites!

I already posted this quote on my FB page and it drew so many comments I decided to put it on my blog. It comes from J.C. Ryle in his book “Practical Religion.” Ryle (1816-1900) was the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, England, and his book strikes a cord for the reality of Christ in the life of the believer.

“A bad coin is no proof that there is no good money; nay, rather it is a sign that there is some current money which is valuable, and is worth imitation. Hypocrites and sham Christians are indirect evidence that there is real grace among men. Let us search our hearts then, and see how it is with ourselves.”

On another note: my cancer has returned and I start chemo treatments tomorrow. I would appreciate your prayers and I will be posting some thoughts and meditations regarding this new phase of my discipleship. Blessings