There Will Be Pain


If you are not prepared to see setbacks, you are not prepared to see the Christian life.  

If, however, you are simply not prepared to withstand setbacks, then you actually have one of the ingredients necessary for the Christian life:  Broken, incapable humanity.   

One thing you must not be able to do if you are to be a Christian is survive on your own.  There are no Clint Eastwoods among this species.  None of us have a rugged, mysterious self-determination.  We are His, and He has rescued us from what we would have drowned in.  

You must know that this life He makes for us, this thing we call Christianity, is thoroughly laced with pains, because He uses pains to grow us.  Not all of them are agonizing; some of them are like the surprisingly pleasurable muscle pain the day after a good workout.  But some are agonizing.  Some are like a car wreck you only just barely survived from.  If you are a Christian and have never thought anything like, “Please, Father, I’m not sure how much more I can take, please be tender with me tomorrow,” then I can tell you you almost certainly will.  And it will be a blessing, though it probably won’t feel like one.  The moments I think I can’t slog on anymore, not one more step, are the moments I feel least like someone who is trying to be a Christian and most like someone who needs to be a Christian.   If I can do some word play, the moments of intense pain and doubt are the ones when I feel least like a Christian and most like a Christian.  

One of God’s prophets, an anointed and faithful minister of the Word of God named Jeremiah, wrote this through the moving of the Holy Spirit:

Cursed be the day on which I was born!  The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!  Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, ‘A son is born to you,’ making him very glad.  Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great.  Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame? 

Jeremiah 20:14-18

Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?

If you do not want to see setbacks or pain, do not begin the Christian life.  It is threaded with them.  But it’s important to know first that it is threaded with them the way a tapestry is interwoven with grays and blacks an browns in order to highlight the brilliant yellows and the bright azure.  The pain is designed, in other words.  It is a part of the story being told.  It is purposed.  It is not an end unto itself.  

I have been a part of churches dying, I have seen family members die, I have had bills I could not seemingly pay.  My wife and I have had our cars break down, health scares in our little ones, and we have been wounded by Christians very close to our hearts.  We have seen Satan assault the church and our family, people reject the love of Christ, beloved families torn apart by selfishness or sexual sin, and been sapped of all our earthly strength.  But we have never been abandoned.   I have always had the Spirit of Christ to strengthen me, the promises of Christ to give me hope, and the love of Christ to remind me of who God says I am.  

Be prepared to see setbacks and feel pain and stumble in your own clumsy, self-centered, shortsighted way, Christian brother or sister.  It is a part of the life we have chosen and that chose us.  And if you are considering Christ for the first time, count the cost.  Because there is a cost.  

But take heart.   If you trust in Jesus Christ, you will never have to stand merely on your own two feet.  Despite all the pain, all the isolation, all the falls, you will never be a man wholly unto yourself. 

You will never be abandoned. 

This God always finishes what He starts.  

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

1 Corinthians 1:4-9

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I Know, Brother and Sister


If you’ve ever been at a crossroads where you felt like the choices were to let yourself drown or to dig in and cling to Christ and just be a Christian, I know how you feel.  

I know what it feels like to be dead certain that if you keep going in the way that God commends, if you keep trying to live the Christian life, you’re going to have the snot beat out of you.  Life is going to just grind you to bits.  I know.  

And I know what it’s like to think there’s just no way you can keep going.  You just can’t.  The depression, the anxiety, the fear, the self-hatred, the anger that hollows you out and eats away at the relationships that should be most important to you; these things have all made just being awake unbearable.  They’ve turned you into something you never expected:  A tired, tired believer.  

Here’s my Friday evening, Dunkin’ Donuts fueled blog version of an outstretched hand to you:  Cling to Him and don’t let go.  Grab Jesus, and drop everything else as you do.  Drop your hopes for being a great employee, the mirage sketch you had in your head of a perfect family life, your impossibly high standards for yourself and for others; let them all go and grab Jesus Christ with both hands.  

I know how searing, life-changing pain feels.  But I’m telling you from the deepest parts of my soul:  You really can trust this man.  He will be here for you.  

That’s it.  No cliches; I’m going to go carve pumpkins with my wife and kids now and I don’t have time to try and be pithy.  But I mean this from my heart:  Trust Jesus.  

I can’t promise you what’s coming down your pike.  But here’s what I can promise you:  He will not abandon you.  

Two Deep Things


I can think of two things deep wounds and deep joy have in common.

One is that they’re both very hard to express. How do you communicate to another person that a single sentence or facial expression can strike you at your core? How a joke about your appearance or a raised eyebrow that reminds you of an abuser can devastate you inside, even though you might retain your composure until you’re alone? Or, on the other side, that the smell of tea or the sound of Christmas music can instantly transport you to the happiest moment of your life? How can you get across to another person the sheer weight of what you’re feeling at the moment that that scar or that joy is tapped into?

The other is that they both, in their own ways, point to eternity. Because nothing purely worldly can honestly bind those deep wounds. And nothing flush with sin (as even the best of this world is) can replicate those deep joys, not even (as C.S. Lewis said) the moments themselves, should we be able to re-live them; after all, it was the longing for some permanence like the grandmother’s embrace or the Christmas morning that made our hearts sing. It was the longing, not the smell or the sensation or the sound itself. These wounds and joys are signposts. 

The pains of my innermost heart, the insecurities I can’t even express and fears that strike me like a hot iron in the middle of the night, can’t be fully resolved by anything but the triune God. And the happinesses I most want to taste, the ones merely echoed in the cleanest, brightest moments of my childhood or most momentous occasions of my adulthood, aren’t going to be completely realized on this side of the eschaton. Pain won’t be fully left behind and joy won’t be fully consummated until the Lamb of Israel and Lion of Judah returns.  

Incommunicability and pointing to eternity: Two qualities our deepest pains and joys share.  

Two notes they both sing well, though on different sides of the shadow.   

He Doesn’t Control Some Things

  
That’s right.  He controls all things.  

Is a trumpet blown in a city,and the people are not afraid?  Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? 

Amos 3:6

Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?  Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? 

Lamentations 3:37-39

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

Acts 4:27-28

And this is very, very Good News.  

The greatest comfort I can give a child of God, and I can only give it to a child of God (meaning someone who has been adopted by God through faith in Jesus Christ), is that God is in total, absolute control of your pain.   And the reason why that’s comforting for the Christian is that God promises to work all things together for the good of His elect.  

This is a God whose hand predestined the worst sin in history for His people’s rescue.  

He does no evil, but neither is He perplexed or surprised by any evil.  And He will work all things together for His good purposes.  

From the other side of Christ’s return, there will not be one moment of history, from Eden’s tree to Calvary’s Cross to Hitler’s Holocaust to Hell’s shut doors, where Satan will be able to say, “Well, at least He didn’t get to work that one out for His purposes.”  When all is said and done, God’s glory and beauty and His people’s good will be pulled from every page of history, even the bloody and awful and scary ones.  And the greatest proof of that is Christ’s bloody and awful Cross.  

Some of you who are born again and in chaos or agony need to internalize this.  

What is frustrating to the unbelieving heart is peace to believing one:  There is no sovereign but God.  

I am telling you to pray to the God who will roll up the sky like a blanket, who set the Milky Way spinning as though it were a top, who fashioned all our souls from His own creative heart.  This is not a God who will win at the last second on a Hail Mary.  I am here to tell you there is a King in the Heavens.  A King.  God is not a powerful figure with good intentions who can only do so much.  This is the King of all creation, and He is taking audiences with all who will call upon Him in faith.  

There is nothing that befalls us that is not ordained by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Keep all your gods, America.  I have met the only One who can save a man like me.  

This God is in control.

How Do You Deal With Pain?

 Let me generalize, here.  I’m going to say, for brevity’s sake, that there are 4 ways people deal with pain:  By pretending, by dwelling in it, by running, and by trusting. 

Cue drum roll. 

  • Pretending

Maybe you’ve tried this one.  You might pretend that you are beyond pain’s grasp (no one is), or that you’re too strong for it (nope), or that because of your winning smile and sense of humor you are impervious to suffering.  You might drift off into a fantasy world.  Video games, TV shows, alcohol, and shopping can all serve as bubbles to slip yourself into, pretending as though guilt or grief or fear or anger aren’t really out there on your doorstep.  The problem?  Well, there are probably several, but here’s one:  Even if your pretense does lessen the sting, whatever was causing the pain is still there.  And if it was harmful before you started trying to pretend it away, your pretending hasn’t done a darn thing to change that fact.  If in response to the pain of your crumbling marriage you decided to binge watch NetFlix to pretend the sting away, your marriage will still be in the same mess it was once season 2 of Homeland is over.

  • Dwelling

You might re-play your hurt in your mind over and over and over (and over).  Live in it.  You might always be savoring the bittersweet flavor of whatever hurt (or is hurting) you, like some kind of poisonous piece of candy.  This “strategy” for dealing with pain is the default method for a lot of hearts.  Some just fall into it unconsciously, like breathing.  Whatever pain befalls them will become the soundtrack of their day, their week, their decade.  And the harder and harder that sort of a heart gets, the more difficult it is to shatter the lie that this posture is (usually) built on.  Oh, and what lie is that?  Glad you asked.  The lie that you are owed something better than what you have.  You’re not.  And neither am I.   The Gospel involves the News that sinners who are owed nothing but Hell are offered everything including Heaven.  The Gospel cannot jive with choosing to dwell in or choosing to mentally replay and replay pain.  Or with the bitterness it produces.  

  • Abandoning

You might run from whatever is causing your pain, without weighing the cost of doing so.  Now of course if you have weighed the cost, and certainly if the thing causing the pain is sin, running is good.  But that’s not what I’m categorizing as “abandoning.”  That kind of running would actually fall into my “trusting” category below.  It would be gutsy running.  But to leave a marriage, a job, a relationship, a church, a neighborhood without Biblical reasons or without carefully and prayerfully considering not leaving is the sort of fleeing hurt or hardship that we don’t even want our children to exhibit on the baseball diamond or at the homework table.  Christians should want to do what’s right, not what’s easy.  Certainly the right thing isn’t always the very hardest thing, but it’s almost always hard, and so if we train ourselves to run simply because something hurts, we are training ourselves for everything but righteousness.  The life of the man who has truly trusted in Jesus will be a life that involves, at some point and in some measure, persecution and hardship.  If we’re used to abandoning ship at the first hot stab of pain, we won’t be able to confirm our election and see the face of God.  

  • Trusting

And here we are.  You knew I’d get to the good one.  

There is a kind of person who can know that the God who created and sustains and governs the universe is for him.  A kind of person who is free to live without fear of death or condemnation or abandonment.  It’s the person who has trusted in the God of the Cross.  Pain cannot paralyze or destroy someone who knows the One in control of it is working all things together for the good of the family he’s been made a part of.  

We all have people or things we trust when the water is rising up around our necks, but the sanity of that trust is measured by the ability of the one we’re trusting in to deliver what we’re hoping in them for.  If I trust my mom to be able to deliver on a tuna salad sandwich, I have a reasonable trust; if I expect her to win a Stanley Cup, I do not.  And there is only One who is worthy of our deep, uniquely human hope for deliverance.  There is only One who can give what we most long for.  In the throes of suffering, it’s not ultimately and finally helpful to trust your spouse or your positive thinking schtick to be able rescue you for good and for all.  Only Christ can do that.  

And there’s another thing about trusting Christ:  He is the prize.  Knowing Jesus and the power of His resurrection is the most beautiful thing any human soul could ever enjoy.  It will eclipse any and every pain we could ever experience.  The grace, power, beauty, holiness, and majesty of God are indescribably greater than our hurts here on the old earth.  

When we truly trust God, we’ll enjoy Him, and when we enjoy Him we’ll be better equipped for the world’s stiffest pains.

So how do you deal with pain?  I know I’ve probably done all four in the very recent past.  But if you’re stuck in trying to pretend your pain away, dwelling in it, or abandoning ship, I can commend to you with all my heart that trusting Jesus of Nazareth is the only way to really successfully and finally deal with pain.  

He is the King.  The only wise God.  And in Him all our sufferings become a little less agonizing and a little more meaningful.  

    Stifter once said, ‘Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men have become greater than through all joys of the world.’  It must be so and I tell this to myself in my present position over and over again – the pain of longing which often can be felt even physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away.  But it needs to be overcome every time and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, and that is the one of joy in God.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing to his fiancé from Nazi imprisonment 

    I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me…  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 

    Philippians 4:12-13, 23

      For 3:  Contemporary False “Christian” Teachings

        
      1) Prosperity Theology

      I grew up around this one.  Its sheen is appealing, right?  Come on, who doesn’t want to have money?  Who doesn’t want to be healthy?  Who doesn’t want to avoid rigorous Bible study and prayer and instead simply think positive thoughts and smile a lot?

      Prosperity theology is prevalent in the inner city, which is where I currently worship and serve.  The promises of physical healing and financial reward (in return for faith and donations) are very attractive to people in chaotic or desperate situations.  Single moms, people who haven’t seen their grown children in years, people who hear voices or can’t stop shooting heroin.  A man or woman on TV offering health and wealth will usually be well-received in those settings.  But the New Testament does not tell us God is building a financially prosperous people who can cast out cancer like Jesus cast out Legion or create wealth with positive speech and thoughts.  The New Testament tells us we have inherited eternal life, and all things in the Heavens, and will be raised to live with and enjoy Him forever, but that we will also have trouble in this life.  It tells us some of us will be persecuted, and then encourages us to hold fast.  It tells us that though some of us are outwardly poor, we are in inwardly rich.  It tells us that Stephen and James and Antipas were murdered for faith in Christ, but were faithful through that pain and unto death.  

      God does sometimes bless us financially and physically.  And God does sometimes allow us to undergo intense financial and physical pain.  But He also tells us why He does both, and everything else He ever does anywhere else in Creation:  To work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes, conforming each of them to the image of His Son.  

      To tell people God definitely wants them to be wealthy or well is to speak with a certainty the Bible doesn’t authorize.  You don’t know God wants them to wealthy or well.  And neither do I.  I know He wants them saved and confirmed to the image of His Son, though, and I’ll shout that from the rooftops.  

      And to seduce them to crave wealth or wellness is lure them into a trap that has snared souls for centuries.  

      Beware this theology.  

      But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 

      1 Timothy 6:9

      2) The Sin-Free Gospel

      It seems to me that it shocks people in some circles to say that we are not owed love or salvation from God; that the only thing we are owed is judgment.  

      That’s an incredibly sad thing when it’s a Christian circle, because the fact that we, in our own rights, deserve God’s wrath, not His grace, is basic Gospel doctrine.  It’s also common sense, considering the Bible wouldn’t call it “grace” if we deserved it.  

      But I see the presupposition, both implicit and explicit in certain Christian materials and conversations:  We are not moral rebels against God but merely neutral or perhaps even flawed but basically good people.  

      It’s false, it’s spiritually deadly, and it tries to rob the Cross of Christ of its power.  Other than that, no big deal.  

      The Bible is clear that each and every human being not named Jesus of Nazareth is a spiritually dead sinner who, until he or she is justified by grace, is under the wrath of God.  To leave out that truth is to leave out the Gospel.  To let people think they’re not sinners is to let people think they don’t need a Savior.  

      If you encourage people to think that they’re flawed but good you are encouraging them to believe the lie that what they need is to trust themselves, not the tortured and risen Messiah who died and rose to ransom wretches.  

      There is no salvation apart from the Gospel of Christ, and part of that Gospel message is that human beings are each sinners.  If you leave out sin, you leave out salvation.  

      If you won’t diagnose the disease, you’ll end up showing the patient the door without ever ever offering the remedy.  

      And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

      Ephesians 2:1-5

      3) Misidentifying the Kingdom You’re In

      My primary identity is not American.  

      My primary identity is not white.  

      I am not first a Cincinnatian or Republican or Democrat or middle class.  Before any other such identity I am in Christ.  I am a member of His body, a citizen of His eternal and ever-advancing Kingdom.  

      With some potential qualifications, I can say that in this particular conversation (thanks for pulling up a chair and talking, by the way), I don’t much care who you voted for.  But I witnessed a Christian or two in this past election excuse awful moral behavior from a candidate because the candidate was the representative of the Christian’s political party of choice.  I didn’t say I saw them vote for the candidate despite the behavior; whether or not I agree with that conclusion, I can sympathize with it.  I said I saw them excuse the behavior.  And what that tells me is that the kingdom most at rule in the person’s heart, at least in that moment and context, was not the Kingdom of God.  When you are willing to adjust what you call sinful based on the political persuasion of the perpetrator, politics is more important to you than the Author of right and wrong.  

      We are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom first, not Rachel Maddow’s, Sean Hannity’s, Jon Stewart’s, or Donald Trump’s.  If we have trusted in Jesus and are true Christians, then our actions and philosophies and spending habits and leisure time, all our beliefs and actions and priorities, should be run through the rubric of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.  The question shouldn’t first be “is this conservative” or “is this liberal” or “is this what _______ would say” but “is this pleasing to my King?”

      We should not mortgage our faith or our faithfulness for any other kingdom’s victory.  If I get my candidate elected or my culture back at the expense of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I’ve leveraged what should be most important to me for a smaller prize.  

      A Christian is a stakeholder in the only eternal Kingdom.  He does both God and himself a disservice to think he’s anything else first

      For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

      Galatians 3:27-29

      Parting shot: The church is the buttress of truth, the fortress where what the world needs is guarded and administered and celebrated.  Here is where we guard the antidote to the world’s most deadly pandemic:  Sin. 

      I hope all of us stay more mindful about what it is the world needs than what it wants.  

      Truth in love.  

      Good motto for 2017 : )

      Two Deep Things


      I can think of two things deep wounds and deep joy have in common.

      One is that they’re both very hard to express.  How do you communicate to another person that a single sentence or facial expression can strike you at your core?  How a joke about your appearance or a raised eyebrow that reminds you of an abuser can devastate you inside, even though you might retain your composure until you’re alone?  Or, on the other side, that the smell of tea or the sound of Christmas music can instantly transport you to the happiest moment of your life?  How can you get across to another person the sheer weight of what you’re feeling at the moment that that scar or that joy is tapped into?

      The other is that they both, in their own ways, point to eternity.  Because nothing purely worldly can honestly bind those deep wounds.  And nothing flush with sin (as even the best of this world is) can replicate those deep joys, not even (as C.S. Lewis said) the moments themselves, should we be able to re-live them; after all, it was the longing for some permanence like the grandmother’s embrace or the Christmas morning that made our hearts sing.  It was the longing, not the smell or the sensation or the sound itself.  These wounds and joys are signposts. 

      The pains of my innermost heart, the insecurities I can’t even express and fears that strike me like a hot iron in the middle of the night, can’t be fully resolved by anything but the triune God.  And the happinesses I most want to taste, the ones merely echoed in the cleanest, brightest moments of my childhood or most momentous occasions of my adulthood, aren’t going to be completely realized on this side of the eschaton.  Pain won’t be fully left behind and joy won’t be fully consummated until the Lamb of Israel and Lion of Judah returns.  

      Incommunicability and pointing to eternity:  Two qualities our deepest pains and joys share.  

      Two notes the both sing well, though on different sides of the shadow.