Why do we desire pity from others?

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I don’t know where the thirst for others’ pity came from.  Mike and I married at 22 and started experiencing hardship, both in our marriage and with work.  I also struggled with bulimia; Mike’s demons came from insecurity about his intrinsic worth.

Marriage with another sinner revealed a lot to me about how my natural coping mechanisms, developed those first 20 years of life were unhelpful for dealing with the real world, filled with other people who didn’t cater to my personal preferences.  But I didn’t have any other tools.

By God’s grace, we heard the Gospel at age 24 and met some genuine Christ-followers over the next decade.  I grew spiritually in fits and starts as I read my Bible.  Yet, God’s perspective was not IN me.  Every disappointment, trouble, and struggle in our marriage, parenting, work or the battle with my body surprised me.  Although we both had said ‘Yes!’ to Jesus at that first altar call, Mike and I tended to be more consumed by life’s dissatisfactions than intent in growing in the knowledge of God.  Many idols competed for our energy, focus and desires and won out.

Introduced to the Christian circle of women, I soon started sharing these ‘heart-aches’ and felt the sweet rush of another’s pity and understanding.  But like any sugar high, not only did the anticipated response from another NOT satisfy, it left an after-taste in my mouth.  You would have thought I would learn and abandon this craving to find comfort in someone’s sympathy about ‘how bad I had it!’

What happened, is that manipulating to get my pity ‘hit’ became a habit.  It felt MORE real to talk about our/my suffering.  My thinking grew warped so that I didn’t even want to share with someone a morsel or current feast of good news in our lives, because that might erode their view of how ‘pity-deserving’ I was.  This was SICK!   But there was a payoff.  The attention.  And the reverse pride of being so ‘noble’ in my suffering.  I would lament in a way that showed off how much I was praying for this ‘good thing’ and how I didn’t know why God wouldn’t answer it.

Okay, fast forward several decades.  At 60 and 61 Mike and I have seen more suffering in the course of time, as has anyone who has reached this age.  With Biblical perspective, we understand more clearly God’s purposes for preparing individualized suffering modules.  He designs all his training programs for his sons and daughters, in order to grow their holiness and pry their grasping hands off of this world.  One of his goals in trials is to increase our desire for the ‘real’ world to come, the world with him.

Reflecting on the benefit of suffering to my soul, I now desire to change how I talk about it to others.  I attribute this reversal in goals (from wanting a pity-hit to wanting to glorify God) to the care and tutelage of my Friend, the Holy Spirit.

Let me use the metaphor of a sandwich.  My previous sandwich, let’s name it the Pity Sandwich, contained a condensed but probably a bit exaggerated version of a current trial, held together by Pity-Attracting sandwich bread.

It was all about me.  Designed that way.  And like gossip, others actually probably enjoyed sharing a bite from it.  A bit of Schadenfreude appeals to us all.  And for that ‘entertainment’ they were willing to pay the price of sympathy.

Where was God in all that? Nowhere.  It was all about me.

My NEW sandwich I offer to people ONLY when they ask:

Friend:  How are you doing with school, Maria? (there have been pockets of suffering in the past 5 years)

Me: Thanks for asking!  I’m still getting pushback from my administration about XYZ, but I see now how God has his reasons for leading me through this valley of darkness.  These hardships have shown me how much pride I was harboring. I’ve also learned to depend much more on Him.  And that is all good!

The surprise in all this is that THIS kind of sandwich satisfies me far more.  And it honors God. And it proclaims some truth about Him to another person.

As I was praying through my Prayermate feed on my iPhone this morning, I came across these prayerful affirmations that I copied from someone a while back.  It sums up what I want to be about:

  • Since the gospel is the startling, but thrilling, announcement of what God has done for us in Christ, something that we could never do for ourselves, even with his help, then let us meditate on that. 
  • Help us rehearse this gospel, more than our dashed hopes for earthly plans, at a ratio of 100 to 1. And to talk about THAT more than our fears or how poorly we carried out a duty. 

Father, work this response in us so that it becomes automatic, like breathing. For our joy, your glory and for the hope of the world. Because of Christ’s life and death on our behalf. Amen!

 

Don’t waste your disappointment

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How disappointed ARE you by life?  Have things turned out better or worse than you had hoped?

The approach you take to ponder those questions depends on your age, by and large.

Or, it depends on how you were brought up.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s.  By the time I graduated from high school in 1975 I had suffered 3 disappointments that I can recall.  All three left their imprint. The first let down occurred when I was NOT selected to join the girls’ drill team at my high school.  A step below the cheerleaders, this group choreographed routines with flags. It was the first (and last) time I tried out for something.  The ‘failure’ humiliated me initially. But what really hurt was being excluded from a group of girls I had wanted to join.  I longed for friendship and fellowship.

The next disappointment took place following one year in a French-speaking high school. Toward the end of those 9 months of 9th grade, I had arrived at the point where I finally felt at ease with the language and was on the cusp of becoming fluent.  However, my dad’s military assignment to Belgium did not satisfy him professionally and at his initiative with Army assignments back in Washington, DC we moved.  I wanted to stay, but as a 15-year-old, I had no voice in the decision.  To this day I still wish I had been given one more year in that environment.

The 3rd and more impactful pain began when I ‘fell into’ the grip of bulimia.  This was a pain FAR greater than I could handle and lasted 9 years until I was 25 and pregnant with Graham. Repercussions still continue to this day.  My journey post bulimia, all directed by God, has led me along different side paths laden with harmful and false thinking, not connected with reality.  (Anyone who has struggled with an addiction like an eating disorder understands.) I have grown spiritually, without a doubt, accompanied by much mental suffering.

As I left home at age 18 for college, I had grown skilled at living a hidden life.  My mom didn’t know anything about the binging and purging or the nightmare it was for me. This was 1975, after all, and the popular press had not yet discovered eating disorders.

Why am I sharing these 3 events?  To provide examples of how my parents did not train me to handle disappointment.  At all.  And THAT has caused more harm than the bulimia.

So how DID they raise me? What did I hear growing up?  My dad, the career military man, preached:

  • Maria, you can do ANY thing you set your mind to….. and
  • It’s merely mind over matter…and
  • Do your best….and
  • You can have a good marriage if you give 100%, none of this 50/50 stuff

My mom’s messages were:

  • Good girls don’t
  • Take time to smell the flowers

I NEVER heard:

  • Life is hard
  • Life is filled with disappointments and failures and setbacks
  • AND here is how you deal with them!

Were my parents Christian?

No, my mom was a church-goer until the middle of my junior year in high school when she became a believer. And my dad had grown up thoroughly tutored in American pragmatism and optimism, raised dirt poor in the land of opportunity. His success was due entirely to his hard work, so he told me.

Didn’t my mom’s conversion to Jesus impact me?  Not on the surface.  I have no doubt that her prayers for me will follow me the rest of my life into eternity.  But as far as verbalized, explicit teaching? Well, we all know how long it takes for God’s Word to sink in to new believers and change their thinking, let alone what comes out of their mouths!

Back to my life as I headed off to college.  Compared to my childhood, I can say that without a doubt my life after high school has been hard, filled with more disappointment and suffering.

Of course, compared to some friends of mine, it’s been ‘relatively easy’.  And when I look at global suffering, it’s been a piece of cake.  I understand that.

What I’m worked up about is NOT my pain, as little or significant as it may be, but how WE don’t teach our kids to handle disappointment and failure.  Neither in secular culture nor more significantly in the church.

I teach in a private school that prides itself in being progressive.  And whereas they do talk the latest educational trends such as ‘failing forward’, they don’t invite speakers in to exhort and equip students to know how to deal with setbacks.  Just think about graduation speakers.  You get the picture.  Our American verbalized, publicized exhortations to the young are one-directional, toward a bright and successful future.  What is the cost?  Current culture and the news provide evidence:  strewn, broken lives and a rapidly-unraveling society.

Among Christians, I don’t hear of many parents in the US or any other western countries who structure home life any differently.  How many parents deliberately allow their children to face trials, exposing them to experiences that might lead to suffering, all along providing a safety net?  We have our children for 18 years, on average.  The time to fail and learn how to deal with suffering and disappointments should be in the home, before kids launch out on their own.  The consequences leap exponentially after that.

By God’s grace, there is ONE small category of families who seem to be teaching their children well.  These are the missionary families, whose children face hardships in places around the world, some of which are dangerous by our standards.  As one mom I know writes (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘my kids know the Bible is real, because we are living that moment-by-moment kind of life, depending on Jesus for our very survival’.  Whew!  Those kids are growing up equipped to face the world as it is.

Now for some encouragement for the rest of us:

On Friday, June first, I started to read the May 2018 edition of Tabletalk Magazine.  Scroll down the website and look for the issue that looks like this:

Tabletalk - May 2018 Ligonier Ministries publishes this collection of daily devotionals and essays, organized monthly around a different theme.  The topic for May is Hope and Disappointment.

A breath of fresh air enlivened my heart when I read the first sentence in the first full article entitled, ‘The Reality of Disappointment’ by Jeremy Pierre.  He writes: “Life is one long, steady disappointment.”  He then continues to explain what he means and how the believer can see the real hope that life with God offers, an eternal hope that will not prove unsatisfactory and sterile.  The very NEXT essay by Dr. David Murray startled me into proclaiming out loud, YES!

He penned, “If our schools really wanted to prepare our children for life, they would offer classes in failure and disappointment.”

Wow!  Now isn’t that counter-cultural and brave, to point out what we all learn the hard way.  What makes accepting suffering SO difficult for many of us Americans is that our country is all about success.

  • What are YOU going to be when you grow up, little child?
  • You can be ANYbody you want to be, even the president of the country.

No…..you can’t!  What a horrible setup for disappointment.

So, what is ‘my call to action’ as blog instructors teach us writers to add at the end of a post?

I don’t know, maybe the thought that each one of us has the power to start a revolution in embracing reality.  Consider this way of framing what we teach our kids before they leave home:

  • Life IS hard, because our first parents blew it. And it’s not going to get better in our lifetime here on earth.
  • God, who created us to enjoy a perfect world WITH HIM, has wired us to long for perfection, for beauty, for happiness IN HIM.
  • There IS another world planned, a perfect world.
  • And He offers a way to enjoy that fully satisfying world with Him forever.
  • All are invited to come and claim a spot in this permanent joy and peace, but there is only ONE path to it, and that is through His Son Jesus Christ.
  • There is nothing to DO or to earn. It is all gift.
  • Anyone who longs for this gift is eligible to receive it.
  • Once you belong to Him, you are guaranteed His continual presence and supernatural help and a bright future.
  • Oh, yes, there WILL be moments of genuine gladness and joy on this earth right now. So, celebrate them as God’s previews of the true and lasting happiness when we see God face to face.

How to understand suffering – some of the ways

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A friend applies for job after job, only to make it to the final interview and be rejected. Not just once, but discouragingly, a number of times.

Another gal miscarries, yet again. The hope of carrying a baby to term erodes with each pregnancy.

Then there is an older sister in the faith who has been through so many cancer treatments, from chemo to radiation to surgery to enduring experimental drugs in clinical trials.  Nothing seems to work.

One more example, a brother who struggles wholeheartedly to save his marriage through prayer, fasting and pursuing counseling.  Alone.  Nonetheless, his wife wants no part in an attempt to reconcile and files for divorce.

These are 4 standout examples of suffering that quickly came to mind.  We all can enumerate such cases and more.

How about the more mundane types of painful struggle like trying to give up drinking, one more time? Or losing that weight, over and over?  Or attempting to engage in conversation your silent, sullen teen?

Do you ever feel like you keep praying, even quoting scripture BACK to God yet nothing changes?

I have significant unanswered prayers in my own life and have…. and am walking through similar suffering in the lives of friends and family in the faith.

Now at age 60, I’m recognizing some of the reasons that God seems sovereignly to ordain such circumstances.  I’ll mention a few, but as John Piper has taught me over the years of listening to his sermons, (and I’ll paraphrase): ‘God is doing 1000 things at one time in any event and we might only be able to spot two or three.’

(If you don’t yet know what to do with evidence in the Bible that God CAUSES suffering, here is one verse to illustrate that fact: Psalm 88:8 ‘You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out’

Here are the reasons that I’ve seen in the past year or so that God might be saying ‘No’ to the sincere and fervent prayers of a righteous Christian:

  • What you are praying for is not ‘good’ per God.  For if something IS good, then He doesn’t withhold it:  Ps 84:11  ‘no good thing does he withhold from those whose way is upright’
  • The way you are choosing to go and asking for his permission does not showcase God’s righteousness.  Ps 23: 3 ‘He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.’
  • Per Anne Graham Lotz, our Father sometimes repeatedly shuts doors to a work until he has refined our purpose FOR the project.
  • Since God has created us to showcase his value as explained in Isaiah 43:6-7  ‘Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’ then in some cases God blocks ways and projects that work counter to his purposes.

The other morning I was listening to an archived John Piper Sermon about joy.  And what I realized is this:

IF God’s purpose in creating us is to showcase how much we treasure HIM above anything he has created, then it is possible he is ordaining our circumstances in the optimal manner to fulfill this purpose.

Recall that God fashions, calls and redeems a particular group of people for his glory, that is for us to showcase just how much we esteem HIM above anything else in the universe.  If this is so, then how does the world figure out that we consider God OUR MOST valuable possession?

Yes, by taking away other sources of contentment and pleasure. For if we have ‘earthly success’ but actually treasure God more than that success, what would be the evidence to the non-believer that the Triune God is more precious to us than gold or good health or a happy family or fame?

How will my non-believing neighbor see that knowing God makes me supremely happy?

I think you can figure out where I’m going with this.  Perhaps the most striking example of a Christian being content with Christ is when something normal and important is removed.  Or everything is stripped away:

  • think of Paul beaten and confined in prison
  • or Stephen stoned to death
  • or heroes of the faith burned at the stake for their beliefs
  • or a Columbine High School teen standing up and identifying herself as a follower of Jesus
  • or the Amish families who ministered to the widow and children of the murderer of their girls

That kind of faith doesn’t make sense to the world, but it sure does make God look good.

Is this why you are suffering? why God seems to be keeping doors shut or saying no?

I don’t presume to say.  I will say, though, that the longer I live, pray with friends and read my Bible I see more redemptive reasons for suffering for Christ’s sake.

If the above examples leave you depressed, here are two other reasons that will lift your spirits:

  • Joseph was sold into slavery, slandered and forgotten for years in Egypt before God’s good plan was revealed – Genesis 50:20  ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’
  • Job’s suffering – at the time, he likely did not know about or understand God’s purpose in giving Satan almost free reign to harm him. But over the centuries thousands of Jews and Christians have found help and strength to endure their own painful trials and losses.

Let’s allow God the final word:

1 Peter 4:19 ‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’

 

The prophet Samuel’s scumbag sons and God’s will

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Was the prophet Samuel a bad dad?  After all, the people rejected both his sons to be the next judge because of their immoral characters.

1 Samuel 8: 1-3 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.  The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

Before today, I always concluded that Samuel, as godly a judge as he was for Israel, failed to train up his sons according to God’s word, sadly following the pattern of his predecessor and mentor, Eli.

Today I changed my mind, as I read this familiar passage.  When Samuel shares his disappointment and anger that the people don’t WANT his sons to succeed him, God says NOTHING about the character of his boys. Instead, God replies:  …..obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.

Why is Yahweh changing the routine now? Ever since Joshua died, God has raised up a new judge to rescue and guide His people.

I think it’s because the time has providentially come to set in motion a line of kings beginning with the good-looking, but weak-willed and jealous Saul all the way to the perfect King, Jesus.

God’s sovereign will trumps and overrides any action or non-action of man.

Did you get that?

Neither our GOOD actions nor our SIN determines the final outcome of events.

If we conclude that Samuel was a lousy dad and failed to train his sons properly, it is only out of speculation! The text is silent, contrary to what we read about Eli and how he fathered the other two priests, Hophni and Phinehas.  God explicitly rebukes Eli and announces severe punishment for Eli’s poor parenting.

1 Sam 3:13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them.

No such detail is given about Samuel to explain his sons’ greed and perversion of justice.  So we must beware of looking at their character and laying the blame at the Prophet’s feet. God has His reasons for each of us and each circumstance that we can only guess at.

I write this NOT to give me or you an excuse for not doing what we should.

I write this to correct our occasional false conclusions about our successes and failures.

What are you claiming is a failure in your life?  Yes, you might have exercised poor judgment or made some mistakes that led to this failure.  But could it be that God is actually directing the circumstances?  For His GOOD purposes which remain unknown to us at this time?

Likewise, we must beware of taking credit for good turns of events, what we often claim are successes due to us!  As Paul in Romans 12:6 teaches  – We have different gifts according to the grace given us.  And you can be sure that what God has given is for a specific purpose of His.

Resting in God’s sovereign control helps me both to NOT beat myself up when I fail nor to boast when I succeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stewarding our suffering

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Your suffering is not about you, primarily.

Does that statement surprise you…..offend you….or resonate with what you already know?

Just look at Psalm 23:3 – He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

David doesn’t assert that the course on which our Shepherd has us is primarily for OUR sake or our sanctification, but for His sake, for His reputation.  That means the paths are according to God’s purposes, most of which we won’t come to know in this life. It’s a given that these God-centered plans often include our suffering.

Even though the goal of this sort of suffering might be hidden from us, there is a class of personal suffering whose end is explicitly explained in the Bible.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4 how God….” comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

Who might these ‘others’ be?  There are only three categories of people as my friend Darlene Bocek explains – Christians, pre-Christians, and non-Christians.  The suffering that fellow believers undergo is meant to deliver a salutary effect on their sanctification.  Pre-Christians also receive a benefit from their pains, problems, and pits in that the suffering serves as a wake-up call to turn to God.  Well, what about the non-Christians? Does suffering benefit them? Darlene describes God’s purpose in their suffering as a warning about God’s coming judgment and an immediate indictment of their lack of gratitude for all the undeserved goodness that God showers on the world.  Non-Christians might develop compassion for others and support humanitarian impulses, but a holy or DIVINE benefit does not accrue to them.

So how do we believers steward or manage the pain we experience during trials?  One big clue is to look to Jesus.  The writer to the Hebrews in 12:2 reveals to us how Jesus handled spiritual and physical suffering. He penned, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Our troubles can cause us to grow more reflective about where our true joy lies.  Destruction, decline, deterioration, and disappointment tend to loosen our vice-like grip on the goodies of this earthly existence.  Plus, when we see pain and injustice around us, a longing for a perfect world grows more intense.  We hurt not only for ourselves but also for others.

Since most of us recognize injustice and hardships when we witness them, you might be asking, ‘Well, what exactly qualifies as suffering, for the Christian and pre-Christian?  Are we referring only to hardships and persecution received for following Jesus’ commands when we share the Gospel?”

No, not from what I read in the Bible and in the works of Puritan authors like John Owen and William Gurnall, nor from what I pick up listening to podcast sermons by Pastor John Piper. I have surmised that ALL pain, disappointment, and hardship, whether it originates in us or outside of us, is suffering appointed by God for His good purposes.

And please let us not indulge in ‘comparative suffering’ in EITHER direction.  There is no shame in undergoing suffering that is ‘lesser’ than what we see others submit to. Nor should we derive a kind of sick pride in being gifted with ‘greater’ troubles as though there were something special about us.  I believe that each trial, test, trouble is tailor-made and individualized.  A personalized lesson-plan, or in ‘eduspeak’ an IEP, individualized education program.  This God-prepared course is actually a present from the happy, holy triune God.

Recall that Paul writes in Philippians 1:29 – For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.

Did you get that?  Jesus has trusted us with His gift of customized suffering.  We undergo the training for Him, that is for HIS purposes.  Some of which benefit us and the other kind, those hardships that on the surface from our point of view do not.

So how am I dealing with my own suffering these days?

At age 60, I am RE-learning that my appointed suffering in this season is on purpose.  And that I need to first of all not complain about it or even fear it, as though something abnormal or strange were happening.  Peter brings this fact up in his letter to the churches in 1 Peter 4:12 – Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

Considering it as normal, in this life, and meant for my good and for God’s purposes is a fact I need to rehearse each day. The world tends to broadcast that suffering is NOT the norm and that given enough technology, we can avoid it.

But that is a lie.  From Satan.  May God help us to submit to His plans with humility,  gratitude, and Spirit-provided courage and endurance.  And when we balk and complain, may He give us quick repentance so we can receive His forgiveness and walk on, keeping our eyes on our Advocate who has trod this path before us.  For the joy that awaits us.

The ‘if-only’ weed – Toxic to my soul

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John Owen is nailing me!  For someone whom I’ve never met and who died 335 years ago, it’s uncanny how well this man knows my heart.

His book on how to kill your sin, Mortification of Sin in Believers, is my current weekend reading before I open my Bible.

Look at what I read yesterday, paraphrased for me:

Do I lack strength and power?  Do I lack comfort and peace? (Owen then writes parenthetically that these 4 qualities are the only ‘lacks’ worth mentioning).  If so, then their lack has been brought on through NOT mortifying my sins. Giving in to any sin (what he calls ‘exercising’ or practicing that sin) precipitates the following:

  • My soul is weakened and deprived of strength and vigor
  • My soul is darkened and deprived of comfort and peace

So what does Owen recommend?

First, he explains how we strengthen the power of sin.  Whatever we set our affections on, whatever we cherish or love we THINK about. And what we invest our thoughts in grows in power to rule us.

Owen quite unnervingly calls those affections not set on God LUSTS.  (And he is not talking just about wrong sexual desires.)  We created beings were made by God to love Him first and foremost. And if we cannot say in all sincerity to God, “You alone are my portion, my treasure,” then whatever takes God’s rightful place as first in our hearts is a lust.  No surprise that feeding and investing my thoughts, fears, desires, and hopes in this cherished but dangerous affection has a deleterious effect on my soul.

Owen describes the condition of directing our beloved and best thoughts elsewhere as ‘a drinking up the spirit and all the vigor of one’s soul’.  The result?  A dark cloud barrier between me and God, blocking all the beams of love and favor from God to me, an adopted daughter.

When I read that yesterday, I realized that one of my pet sins, a ‘péché mignon’ as the French call it, is the ‘if-only’ game. This is where I imagine a better circumstance than the one I’m ‘stuck’ in.  This is sin. And yes, it displeases God, as does all sin.  In essence, when I wish for a different scenario than the one God has given me, I am declaring:  Where you have placed me, the boundary lines you have set for me, the details of my life are NOT good, Father!  If only they were other, I would be happier or more at peace or more content.

What presumption and what a slap in the face of the all-wise and all-good God.

This is sin! This is lust and John Owen says I need to be killing it every day.  That is, if I want the vigor and comfort that are mine by rights as an adopted child of God, whom Jesus rescued and transplanted through his life and death.

These lusts grow stronger the more I fantasize about them.  My thoughts do carry energy; they are fertilizer, ‘Miracle-Gro’ to whatever I direct them.

So what are we to do practically?  How do we kill lust?

Mike and I are going through a very difficult trial.  Like a lot of suffering, we don’t understand it and in this case, don’t know yet what to do.  In our God-centered moments we think and pray like King Jehosophat when he and his people faced the imminent attack of a horde of Edomites: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12

But more than I like to admit I invest time in feeding the ‘if-only’ lust.  So as I read John Owen yesterday the Holy Spirit showed me how readily I elevate ‘fixing this situation or eliminating this suffering’ to the number one place in my life, above God.  The desire for a life without this ‘whatever’ can dominate my prayers and thoughts.

‘But isn’t that natural?’ you might say.  Yes! but just because it is natural doesn’t make it less of a sin.  As believers, we are commanded to walk or live by the Spirit, not by the flesh.

I am finding that a good remedy for this wrong thinking is our Lord’s Prayer.  After all, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He gave them this content and model.

So when I shift my thoughts UP to what really matters eternally – Praying for God to be honored and worshipped by everyone, for His will to be done everywhere and for His kingdom to come NOW those small, self-centered fantasies of peace and good I have indulged pale.  Next, as I pray through the Lord’s Prayer, I am retrained to ask for what I need this day – basic necessities, forgiveness, and protection.  Does God, my Father, NOT care about the suffering and trials He has sent and what we are to do?

Yes, He does! He commands me to trust Him and to hand them over.  He is using them for my ultimate good and will resolve them when and how He deems best.  For now, I am to get back to His priorities – Loving Him and my neighbors.

This is the weeding, the killing of sin that John Owen describes as a believer’s duty.  And not just duty, but the way to enjoy God’s favor, His strength, comfort and peace that He WANTS me to experience.

Thank you, Father, for inspiring and using these Puritans to instruct not just their contemporary flocks but generations of believers who have followed.

What do we do when life goes south?

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We all face disappointments, some minor, some crushing.  God, I have learned, does not waste our trials.  In fact, He explicitly tells us that we WILL have trouble in this life – all of us, whether Christ-follower or not.  As believers who have God’s Word,  we should expect to suffer.  I read just this morning in Acts 14: 21b – 22:  “Then they (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, ‘ they said.” 

So how do we think when yet another blow comes?  Recently I’ve been gifted with a situation that requires me to regain my balance and ‘prepare my mind for action’, as Peter exhorts.

The elevator synopsis is this:  While enjoying my best year of teaching kids French and anticipating staying on at my current school for a while longer, the tables turned abruptly and I know I need to look for a different job for after this contract year ends in June.

Here is how I am bookending or ‘sandwiching’ these new circumstances, using God’s exhortation through Paul to me:

Philippians 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

The background is this:  two believing Philippian gals were upset with each other and the entire family of God was affected. Even Paul at a distance had received reports of this disruptive and sinful conflict.  By NAME, the apostle exhorts these two sisters in Christ to drop the issue and focus on the stupendous fact that both their names are written in the Book of Life.  How’s THAT for putting a dispute into context?

Paul’s thoughts then run to a myriad of OTHER reasons to find greater joy in the Lord than being right or vindicated in a disagreement.  Hence his double directive – ‘Think over all the gifts you have as a child of the Living God! Now THOSE are worth rejoicing about, over and over again, not just once!’

Philippians 4:5  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

I think the logic goes like this:  the über-rejoicing about being in Christ should result in you being mild in temperament, easy to get along with.  Let THAT quality be what people talk about when they mention you, not that you are quarrelsome.  And if you need help with self-control, take heart – Jesus is close by, ready to enable you to build this new habit.

And if you say, ‘But what about my grievance with my sister?  It’s a real problem and still bothers me!’  Take heart, because Paul goes on to provide THE way to deal with that need and all others:

Philippians 4:6 …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

Jesus is our Lord and aims to take care of ANYthing that weighs on us.  But we have to hand it over, for good!  How?  By asking Him to take it on.  I see the thanksgiving part of this teaching as what we do each and every time we forget that the problem NOW belongs to Him.  Instead of worrying, we must say something like:

‘Oh, right, there I go again!  I have started dwelling on the fact that I need a new job.  But I have handed that problem over to You, my Lord.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are managing this for me.  Help me to NOT to take it back, as I am prone to do.’

With the abruptness last week of finding out I need to start a job search, I have succumbed several nights in bed to thinking, thinking, thinking about lots of ‘what ifs’.  That is just plain ‘ole’ sinful WORRY!  Each time I catch myself, I repent and ask for His help to do what He commands.

What carrot does God offer as an inducement to rely on Him to bring about a resolution to my situation?  Something the entire world longs for, pagan and believer alike – true and lasting peace!

Philippians 4:7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Our hearts are the seat of our longings and desires.  And our minds are a thought-generating factory.  As Christians, we need supernatural help to protect and block wrong desires and sinful ideas.  It’s no secret that our strong hankerings and thoughts fuel our actions.

I take Paul’s teaching in verse 7 to mean this:  God’s powerful peace, strong enough to shield you and me from harmful wants and musings, is ONLY given to those who STOP trying to handle their needs and manage their problems on their own.  We only get His peace if we abandon our situation entirely, 100 %, to Him.  But if you’re like me, worrying sneaks up on us unaware.  We often pretend and call it ‘being concerned and responsible’.  Phooey!  Bottom line, how bad do we want to be steadied by this promised gift of peace?  The way to HAVE and to HOLD it is by exercising God’s gift of faith – trusting in and relying on His character and His promises to provide.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Why this advice?  Paul has learned that even when he has set his mind to:

  • rejoicing a lot about all that Jesus is for Him
  • committing to His Lord and Savior all his stressful situations and those of believers he dearly loves
  • he still has mind-space to worry.

His remedy is to fix his thoughts on the many beautiful and true God-given gifts, worthy of his mental energy.  You and I are to do the same.  For instance, when I notice the cleaning lady at school treating her job with dignity, consider her example. Or when I learn about one or two honest, earnest politicians who take their responsibility seriously, I can praise God for His goodness.

But just in case, my mind has such a large capacity that I run out of ideas that are healing and safe, Paul gives us a challenge that should take up the rest of our mental energy:

Philippians 4:9  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do you know how hard it would be to copy Paul and to practice, over and over, his habits of speech and rest and trust and thinking well of others?  That’s why I say that God has given us plenty, more than enough, to fill and steady our minds and hearts.  His promise of reward is not just PEACE, but Himself as the God of peace.

Wasn’t it the bus company Greyhound who advertised:  ‘Leave the driving to us’?  One of the reasons for traveling with them was so passengers could relax and focus on the scenery and enjoy the people around them instead of stressing over the traffic.

In the same way, we are to leave the worrying to God.  We’re NOT the driver, nor the captain of our souls.  Those jobs are way beyond the abilities God in His wisdom has deemed good and safe for us.

So, this job situation, I see as another opportunity to enjoy God’s peace and practice my Uncle Paul in contentment.  How about you?

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