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.   


      A PSA On Suffering

        
      If you want do your heart a favor, prepare it now for where it should run when sorrow comes.  Because if you live past the age of 40, it is going to come.  

      There’s a radio PSA I hear every once in a while that uses humor to make the point that families should have plans about where to go in the event of an emergency situation.  A dad asks each of his kids where the meeting point is and what they’re supposed to do, and each kid fires back a different and increasingly ridiculous answer.  The father then praises everyone for sticking to “the plan.”  Point taken, Ad Council.  I should have a plan for where my kids should go in case there’s a tsunami.  Got it.  

      But after I’m done telling them to go the basement if and when they ever hear sirens, I’m going to sit for a second and give my heart a talking to about where it is to go when I am diagnosed with terminal cancer, or I lose a family member, or we go broke.  

      Because this side of the return of Jesus is laced with all kinds of shadows for all kinds of people.  Pain is not restricted to those who self-inflict it.  

      Good, God-believing people wrote into the book of Psalms (as they were moved by the Holy Spirit) their tears to God.  For instance, Psalm 123 (in its entirety):

      To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.

      The Psalms are threaded through and through with this sort of thing.  So is Lamentations.  And Ecclesiastes.  And Job.  The sorrows of people who love God and trust in Him, and whose hope in the middle of pain and sadness is Him and Him alone. 

      The Christian is going to suffer in this life.  Maybe not always, and maybe less than a brother or sister nearby him, but he will suffer and struggle.  At some point, God’s hand will bring about some affliction for him.  

      At some point God will allow something awful to happen to me.

      I want to plan now for where I’ll run to.  

      I don’t want to make a good thing an idol on that day.  I don’t want to just work a bunch of hours to drown out my pain, or go for a hundred hikes all over tri-state parks while praying little and worshiping less.  I don’t want to (merely) cook or write or play games.  

      I want to prepare myself now to run to my Father on that day.  

      The promises of God in the person and Gospel of Jesus Christ are the purest hope for a Christian who just found out he has brain cancer.  They are what sustained Paul awaiting his execution, what gave Peter and John boldness to proclaim the Good News though they were threatened with death by the authorities in Jerusalem, and what sent our Savior to the Cross on our behalf.  

      The promise of rescue and eternal life for all who trust in Jesus.  

      When I’m told terrible news or drowning in terrible thoughts, I want to flee to the certain promise of God that when I die I will be with King Jesus.  That when He returns, my body will be resurrected, shed of all its rust and bruises and glistening like clear dew under a new sun.  

      Sure, I might write and take a hike and learn to cook a new dish, too.  But the only thing that’ll slow my heart in the middle of the night, the background music that’ll make the worst of my sufferings less terrifying, is the promise of God in Christ.  

      After all, if Christ isn’t resurrected, then I of all men should be most pitied when that terminal diagnosis comes.  

      But praise be to God that lying is one thing this Father can’t do. 

      A Hypothetical Gun with Live Ammo

      2015/04/img_5291.jpg

      Let me paint for you a quick hypothetical picture. It’s a useful one because it could easily happen, and those are of course the most helpful sorts of hypotheticals.

      On my way home today, someone flies through a red light going 50 mph and hits me in the driver’s side. God allows my earthly life to end and so I am almost immediately after impact with Him, standing before His Son.

      Now the point of this hypothetical: What matters? With eternity now stretching out before my eyes, unfolding in front of me like a golden river at the feet of Jesus, what matters? What was meaningful in my life while living in this frail body on this fractured planet, before both of them get remade? With all of my decades on earth now looking like one grain of sand on a beach of moments stretching a million miles in either direction, what was of value?

      Whether or not I finally got the house in order? If I got to see the last episode of that TV series I was watching? How annoying it was to clean the litter boxes? Whether or not I got the raise I wanted?

      Either eternity is real or it’s not. Either Heaven and Hell exist, one of which will contain every single friend, co-worker, neighbor, and family member I have, or they don’t. Either Jesus rose from the dead and will return to judge every single soul that’s ever been woven into existence or not. And if eternity is real, and the universe really is as Jesus said it was (namely under His feet), then all my priorities have to be different from my neighbors and buddies who don’t think as such. I can’t think about raising my kids the the way they think about raising theirs. I can’t think about retirement or free time or finances or prayer or death or forgiveness the way they do. Because I am living with the certain, rock-solid awareness that every single human being will either experience unending happiness at the feet of Jesus Christ or unending misery under His wrath for their sin.

      Every thing I do here touches the silver thread of eternity. I can hide from that fact more easily in America than many other human beings can, because unlike the Christians in Nigeria, Iraq, or Cambodia I can play with electronics in my central air to the point of numbing myself to eternity. And unlike most Christians (and humans) throughout history I haven’t lost a child in infancy or early childhood. So I can, if I choose to, pretend that I won’t stand before God with a trillion moments of either incalculable joy or just, deserved agony awaiting me. I live in a time and place with the privilege of diversion (or the diversion of privilege, perhaps), and so I can pretend that this life is bigger than it is and that the grave is smaller.

      But guys, I won’t just hypothetically die. Unless King Jesus comes back in my lifetime, I will truly, honestly go to sleep and awaken to His shining face and heart-stopping glory. And I refuse to live in such a way that’ll win me the world but cause me to forfeit my soul. I want to please Him now so I can enjoy His pleasure forever.

      I plead with you to join me, and all of His true saints, in that. Let’s run together towards eternity.

      *Note: This post is adapted from an e-mail I sent to our church.