Thursday, October 22, 2015

Just Put On A Happy Face

“How are you doing?” the tenth person asked me. I smiled and said “fine”. Only, I wasn’t really. But that day, just like the day before I tried to put on a happy face and say that I was fine.

I’m sure you’ve been there; those hard days, that lonely path of suffering where you don’t feel that anyone could possibly understand. But you smile and say “I’m fine”. There are many reasons… I just want to hide, they won’t understand, they actually don’t understand, they won’t know what to say, it’s too awkward, I’m supposed to be happy, what’s wrong with me?

I was reading a book1 recently and something the author talked about stood out to me as so true in many churches today. We tend to have this idea that if you’re a Christian you’re supposed to be happy no matter what. And especially when you come to church! If you’re suffering, well that’s normal, but we’re here to worship God not focus on our suffering. Todd Billings writes, “…when we inevitably face the reality of death or suffering – along with the fear, anger, and grief faced during other hardships – we are not encouraged to bring those ‘to church’; such emotions have come to be frowned on as ‘unreligious’. When worship expresses only ‘victory,’ it can unintentionally suggest that the broken and the lonely and the hurting have no place here.” (p. 41) But is that the way of Scripture? All throughout the book of Psalms we have psalms of lament. They are songs lamenting, complaining and crying out to God in the midst of suffering. Do you know how to comfort a suffering brother or sister? Too often most of us, if we do speak, say something like “I’ll be praying for you” (but then never follow up - this happens ALL the time, but I am guilty too!) or offer some trite word of “comfort” that actually isn’t comforting at all. How often has someone said to someone suffering “Don’t worry, God will work it all for good” or “God says we need to rejoice in our suffering”? While that is Biblical truth please excuse me while I go and nurse the wound that you just poured salt on. Unfortunately sometimes our efforts to help don't end up helping at all.

Too often we focus just on the need to praise God instead of the reality of suffering. Billings further writes, “Cherry-picking only the praises from the Psalms tends to shape a church culture in which only positive emotions can be expressed before God in faith. Since my diagnosis with cancer, I’ve found that my fellow Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death.

But we may ask, is it OK to complain to God? Isn’t that an expression of unbelief? It can be. Our lamenting to God can be misguided. But while we are called to “rejoice always” (Phil. 4:4) that doesn’t mean that we rejoice the actual suffering itself, rather we rejoice as we look past the suffering and see a God we can trust. “The Psalms bring our whole life before God – in happiness and grief, in joy and bitterness – and focus our eyes on God’s promises.” We can look to God and express anger at sin and its effects, we can cry out to God for judgment. God is a God of justice after all. But in these moments we yield Him the right to act and trust His timing. You notice in these psalms that they start off with lament, but then they grow. The psalmist moves from lament to a statement of trust in the Lord’s faithfulness even in the midst of his suffering. Lamenting to God does not mean that you have unbelief, although it can at times, it means that you realize that this isn’t the way things are supposed to be. We should bring our lamentations to God, but not against Him. If your laments are a prayer to God, than they are actually a form of worship, not a form of unbelief. Despair does not pray at all, unbelief accuses God, but lament brings its complaint to God, and looks upward. The Enemy of course will seek to use this as an occasion to condemn you for unbelief, as if you should be some kind of super-Christian who only rejoices in the midst of extreme suffering. That kind of person does not exist! Certainly God gives some an extra dose of grace in some circumstances to be remarkably joyful, but God also does not minimize our pain. It is real, and He wants to share in it with us. “Praise, petition, and lament in the Psalms are all tightly woven together in prayer that help us recognize and rest in God’s promises.”

Psalm 77:1-3 says, “I cried out to God with my voice - to God with my voice; and He gave ear to me. In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; my hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God, and was troubled; I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.” Psalm 13:1 cries out “How long will you hide your face from me?  How long O Lord?” Psalm 62:8 says to “pour out your heart” to God. That means going to God will all your emotions. Take your pain, your disappointment, your confusion, your fear to God. That’s what prayer is; prayer is worries and doubts taken to God, to the One who can actually do something with them.  Another song of lament in the Bible comes from the book of Lamentations. Here we have a whole book full of laments to God concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of God’s people. Especially chapter 3 where Jeremiah is despairing of God’s judgment against Israel. But then he says, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord's mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23). There is hope, the sun will shine on you again.

It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to grieve. You don’t have to put on a happy face, you can be honest about your feelings and your struggles. Part of the beauty of the church is that we are all broken, we all need help. Don't be ashamed to admit it. Listen! We should not hide our needs from our brothers and sisters. We need to learn to have compassion on those who are hurting and you can help us. Instead of giving advice we need to learn to cry out to God with you for deliverance. Let us walk alongside of you.

Next time someone asks you how you are doing, be brave and try to be a little more honest. Start by saying something like "I'm just OK" and see how they respond. And for the rest of us, next time you ask someone how they’re doing, are you ready to really listen and love them?

1 All quotes from this post are taken from J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. Even if cancer is not your struggle, this book will still be extremely helpful and very encouraging to you as you walk through your own form of suffering, or as you seek to minister to others in midst of their suffering.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

My Soul's Delight: Finding Treasure in the Field of Suffering

"Yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend.” (Song of Songs 5:16)

Nearly all my life I’ve wanted to be married. Not only that, but I wanted to get married young and have a whole string of little ones to raise. Well, here I am, 31, and not a prospect in sight! This has been an area of suffering for me, and the Lord tested my devotion to Him rather severely in the recent past. But, as extremely difficult as that season was, I have come out with something so valuable, that I really would go through it all again.

I’ve been a Christian since I was 13; I fell in love with Jesus then and never really looked back. But yet there was so much deeper to go, so much more of this Lord and Savior to know and delight in. The Bible talks about God being everything we need, about Christ being more precious than any other thing. We believe this to a degree. Yet coming to the point where we really, truly believe that so that it utterly consumes us, is another matter. To love Jesus to the point where your soul nearly bubbles over with joy; to the point where you just weep with joy; to the point where truly nothing else matters, that sadly is not the experience of many.

However, it is possible. David writes in Psalm 16:11, “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” This is not theoretical! It’s real! Yes, it’s spiritual and not physical, but that doesn’t make it any less a reality. In His presence (which really is all the time), there IS fullness of joy, there are pleasures beyond anything this world has to offer. It took a severe disappointment, a hard time of suffering for me to learn this. There may indeed be weeping for a night, but joy does come in the morning (Ps. 30:5). There is a joy and delight to be found in Jesus that comes only when everything else has been stripped away. He indeed can fill the soul with a rapture and delight that is other-worldly.

I have been reading through the Gospel of John recently and was stopped short by a passage I have read probably a hundred times. The Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus and basically asked for His judgment. But Jesus responds by saying “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” At this all the men just walk away. Then the passage says this:

Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one 
condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I 
condemn you; go and sin no more." (John 8:10-11)

To think that Christ, because of His death on the cross, does not condemn me, when He as the Creator of the universe ought to, it beyond amazing! I was nearly overwhelmed by the love of Christ! How glorious to think that He no longer condemns me! Are you amazed by this truth? If you’re not, then you know nothing or very little of God’s love. For how should one respond to such a love as this? How then shall I live? The answer is found in the last part of Jesus response: “go and sin no more”. This is more than going and trying not to sin; it’s much more than legalism. Jesus wants us to delight in Him! He wants us to love Him so freely, so unhindered, because it’s also there that we experience a greater measure if His love for us.

The other night I was in the car and a little song came on that was a love song. At first it only served as a rather painful reminder that I had no man to love me in that way, but then instantly I was reminded that I had a much better Lover. He loves me more than anyone else ever could! He wants my whole life, my whole heart, my whole devotion. This means my thought life, my spare time, my daily life stressors, my relationships with my family and others. All of it, He wants to be the center of every part of my life. Shall I resist Him? This wonderful beautiful Lover of my soul? If you do resist Him (even just in certain areas you are unwilling to fully surrender) what does that say about your response to this love? Can you really look at Christ on the cross and not give up all that you would hold dear?

Friend, Christ is all-sufficient for you! The struggle, the disappointment, the suffering you face is worth it, because on the other side you have the opportunity to know Jesus in a deeper way that you think is possible and let me tell you, it’s worth all the pain. Wait, and He will come to you, He will restore you and give you more joy than you had before. I would do it all again, I would turn away from the dreams I have for my life, and I will be content never getting married, all because He is enough . Unless the Lord so pleases and I meet a man who delights in Jesus as much as I do, there’s no way I’d give up what I’ve gained. I’m not perfect nor have I attained perfection, there will be trials yet ahead I am certain and times I will fail. But I’ve found a treasure hidden in the field of suffering, and He’s worth everything to me.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
(from the hymn, Be Thou My Vision)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Seminary Life: Take 2

I’m still alive! Just kidding, I’m doing fine! We’re about 4 weeks into classes. Fall is here, but it’s been just in the last week that it’s gotten chilly. It was in the early 70’s still this week though!

                                                      View of campus from one side.

Classes are interesting and I'm loving it. A few of them are little “slow” at times for me just because I’ve learned some of the things before, but I'm making friends and enjoying it! I’m being indoctrinated with Covenant Theology…. which for some people is OK, but I just don't agree with it. I’ll have to to pay attention that I put the “right” answers down for mid-terms/finals. It has been a bit frustrating at times, because it’s so clear to me that they are contradicting themselves… but whatever! (If you don’t know what I’m talking about sorry, forgive the rant!) Anyway, I love LOVE my counseling coursework! CCEF is really solid Biblically, but sees people so holistically. It's very complex and deep; I’ve learned so much and have had to think about things deeper that I have before! So much insight! I’ve read I don’t know how many books (partial or whole) but I am still ahead on assignments so that’s super! Assignments often feel daunting at first, but once I get into it, I am learning a lot!

                                         My desk in my room.... I spend a lot of time there!

I’ve gotten a little job at a church nearby, watching 3 year-old's during a Bible Study. It’s just about 2 hours a week so not much, but gives me something to do outside of schoolwork and a bit of money. I’ve also settled on a church that I really like. It’s in northeast Philadelphia and there’s a discipleship group every other Sunday night that I’ll be going to so that’s nice! It’s a Sovereign Grace church, there's some great preaching, delightful worship times and I’m really enjoying it.

Tomorrow I’m heading HOME for weekend so that will be lovely! Next weekend I’ll be heading down to Virginia Beach for CCEF’s national conference.  I’m really looking forward to going; there are some great sessions and workshops lined up!

Thanks so much to those of you who are praying, it makes a difference! 

With love,