Trying to get back to ‘pleasant’ or ‘normal’?

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 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.  John 16:33

For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved. 2 Cor 2:15

Where do we get the idea that problems and crises are NOT the norm?  That when they occur, top priority is solving them, getting through them, so we can ‘get back to normal’? What IS normal? And why do we view life without suffering and hardship as the norm?

I grew up believing that ‘a pleasant, mostly problem-free live IS natural, to be expected‘. That ‘fact’ formed part of the bedrock of my heart. Ever since my early teens,  I have been pushing back against all those OBTRUSIVE trials and painful interruptions and sufferings as though they were something to get through, to get solved, to get over with SO THAT life can ‘get back to normal’.

The other morning as I was reflecting and journaling,  John Piper’s advice to adopt a ‘war-time mentality’ popped into my head.  The ”war’ he refers to is the one against the very real and vicious, dark, murderous, evil spiritual forces operating in our fallen world.

The reference to war brought to mind an historical novel I read last month about French resistance workers during WW2.  The main character risked her life, time and time again. Even when she was hurt and wounded, she still carried out dangerous missions.

Up until now,  I have applied Piper’s message to how I view money, how I think about and allocate disposable time, and how I pray.  But yesterday the image of this courageous young woman began to guide my understanding of our present ‘wartime’. As I was praying through some current suffering affecting Mike and me, I began to realize, that being wounded oneself doesn’t mean I can’t serve as God’s covert worker behind ‘enemy lines’.

In fact, I started realizing that suffering is part of the war in this ‘present darkness’ on our post-Edenic planet.  Physical and metaphorical bombs befall us; we step on ‘landmines’ that rain pain and destruction; snipers take aim at our loved ones.  None of this trouble is outside of God’s sovereign reign.  All of these events are part and parcel of the trouble that Jesus announced we would encounter in this world.  Our enemy MEANS them to destroy us, but God MEANS them for our good and the good of others.

But THE question for me, what has stayed with me this week is this:

Maria, YOUR sufferings and those inflicting your family and friends, must they hinder you from giving aid and encouragement to fellow, but wounded image bearers?

Hearkening back to the dangerous work of resistance workers in Nazi-occupied France, I ask myself, can I not offer material and spiritual bread and water to the hurt?  Even as one of the wounded, can I still GIVE in the midst of this war?

Yes!

  • whether I am operating on little sleep,
  • whether I, myself, am crippled by my own sin or suffering,
  • whether my heart sorrows over the many cares of those I love,

Yes, I CAN be a giver of comfort, of encouragement.

Spies in EVERY war have carefully learned how to maneuver around and through enemy forces.  Now is no different. Warfare IS normal life, here on earth.  The good news is that there is a definite endpoint when the war will be past. Final victory has been legally declared by Jesus, the ‘Lamb who was Slain before the Creation of the World’ and He is coming back to claim His own.

In the meantime, as a crushed servant in the Lord’s Good News army, let me be a giver of cheer and comfort and leave a fragrant, lingering aroma of a Christ-filled servant.

 

 

 

Hope – picturing a different cause or future

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We live and die by hope.  Without it, the people perish.

Wait a second, didn’t Solomon dictate that truth a bit differently, as you & I have read numerous times in Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish“?

Well what does a vision do but paint a picture of a future.  A bright, encouraging in-color action scene, personalized to include you births energy-producing HOPE.

The opposite picture or vision, what I call ‘DIS-hope‘, automatically siphons off any happy expectation of good.  Without hope, we quickly plummet, weighed down by that heavy, ominous, foreboding vision of gloom. That sort of picture immediately births those dangerous twins, Dread and Discouragement.

This week through written texts I’ve read, podcasts I’ve heard, YouTube interviews I’ve watched and scripture I’ve pondered, I have noticed examples of the leveraging potential of a new idea. The empowering influence of a new suggestion or previously unconsidered FACT can throw open the door to possibilities.  Light streams into the mind, instantly transforming one of those gray ‘Bunyanian’ sloughs of despair into a light and airy garden of color where flowers delight the senses.  This shift can happen in an instant.

I predict that my recent experiences this month won’t surprise you.  Most of us have felt uplifted by good news about changing circumstances, such as an email notifying your teenager of the awarding of scholarship money to attend college after all. Suddenly, his and your vision of the future shifts.  What brought about this sudden change? NEWS!

News is not confined to events that have already taken place, as in the decision announced by a scholarship committee.  News that paints any hopeful picture with YOU in it, births energy just from a single THOUGHT.

The most potent provider of this kind of new thought is the Holy Spirit.  At least this is MY recent discovery, for He gifted me twice this way in the past two weeks.

Let me explain.  May 2019 presented me with numerous skirmishes with a couple of my worst enemies:  Mr. Worry and Mrs. Fretting.

I’ll share the first occasion where the Holy Spirit came to the rescue with a new thought, a thought that ended a severe 48-hour battle.  My last visit to the ophthalmologist before moving to Alabama left me with startling news.  Apparently, the pressures in my eyes were creeping upward toward the Glaucoma range. He recommended that as soon as I settled into life in Huntsville, I should make an appointment to be seen. The earliest I could schedule was for August.

One day last month, however, I realized that my right eye felt different, as though there were a light layer, a sort of fine haze covering it.  Barely perceptible and not noticeably affecting my vision, the feeling persisted.

Suddenly aware, I fell into worry about the Glaucoma pressures in my eyes and the long wait to see a professional.  I could NOT drop this anxiety.  It pestered me without ceasing. No matter how many times I cast it on Him, repented, fixed my thoughts on the Lord, recalled all that was beautiful and excellent and praiseworthy, the worry kept coming back. I fought and succumbed numerous times on day 1 and into day 2. Sometimes during Day 2 I’d find myself distracted and realized I hadn’t worried for 15 minutes.  But that night, lying in bed, without anything to occupy my mind BUT worry, enemy forces attacked as soon as I lay my head on the pillow.  Night # 2 felt relentless.  I couldn’t shake the thought of my worsening eye. I eventually fell asleep in the early morning hours. Drained, I awoke on Day 3 – a Sunday.

I prayed, asking God to unite my heart just to worship Him, at least during the Sunday service. Unbidden at the moment and totally unexpectantly, relief came! No, it wasn’t from a spoken prayer or any of the sung hymns or even the preached Word. A simple thought broke through.

  • “What if this ‘haze’ is actually a protective layer that God has placed on your eye?”

Oh!  You mean that a reason OTHER than degradation of vision was possible?  I had never considered anything but something negative and scary, something that portended worsening vision.

Now, it could very well be that my eye is in more danger.  But the very idea that an alternative reality was possible halted my incessant, debilitating worry.  RELIEF!

God repeated this experience just a few days ago when I was battling once again, in a different matter.  Another one of those independent, and very liberating thoughts ‘popped’ into my mind. Thank you, Holy Spirit.

So that is my recent experience.  You know what they say, two times in a row makes a habit.  Mike and I currently battle fear and anxiety regarding something else in our life these days.  And I am expecting God to prompt another one of those liberating thoughts to break through into our conscious minds and bring relief.

I thank God that His Word daily feeds and strengthens me to trust Him. I pray and try to bank ALL on His wisdom, goodness, power and intention to work this ‘suffering’ for our good.

AND I am asking our loving and merciful Father, in His sovereign time (but hurry up, please!) to give my husband that new idea, that new perspective, that kaleidoscopic thought or realization that will shift what he is thinking to something new and life-producing.  This slight but empowering change will be such that his subconscious feelings will immediately move out of the pit of despair and gratefully sink into the cool, relieving pool of hope.

British Anglican pastor and author W.H. Vanstone captures this explosive power of a new thought in his book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense – the Response of Being to the Love of God. This very seismic shift in thinking and then feeling happened to him.  He describes it on page 16 of his book:

  • The clarity with which I saw this (in his situation, the possible BENEFICIAL role of a new church plant in a community pleasantly indifferent to its presence) was an intellectual clarity.  I knew that I was not simply experiencing a change of feeling, but was seeing something that justified a change of feeling.

What about your experiences?  Have you been blessed by a small but powerful kaleidoscopic shift in your thinking?  Please share!

A reluctant child – a lesson about God’s love

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I was that reluctant child who complained about where God planted me.  Six years ago when we moved to western NC, God opened ONE door to teach French, all the way in Asheville, a 50-minute each-way commute. Within 6 weeks, I didn’t want to be there.  School was difficult.   An experienced French teacher (and filled with pride, I found out), I had come from a supportive Christian classical school. My principal liked me.  Parents were pleased with me.  I enjoyed good rapport with my students.

But at this new school disgruntled parents complained to my principal about their unhappy children.  I was stunned.  Parents didn’t talk to me, but went right to my principal.  By January, I was on an ‘informal’ probation.  This brutal first year humbled me. I even went so far as to contemplating cleaning houses as an alternative source of income.

But God!  Amazingly He got me through year 1 with a contract for another term.  I didn’t want to go back.  Despite job hunting that summer, He kept all other doors shut. I had no choice but to go back for year 2.  And year 3.  And year 4.

Something happened by the end of year 4.  By then I had enjoyed many hours getting to know my middle-school colleagues. I also grew professionally in how I coached kids to acquire French.  The school invested in me by funding further world-language training up in Boston where I was exposed to new ideas about teaching French with comprehensible input.  I was grateful.

In essence, though I did not want to be at this school for a number of reasons, I grew personally and professionally, in the midst of suffering and difficulties.  Working where God so clearly intended me to be remained hard, every day.

One shift in thinking did help somewhat. I’ve always wanted to use my French skills to teach others about the greatness of God. When I realized that I would not think it strange to encounter hardship on the mission field, I tried to stop whining to God.  Thinking about this teaching assignment as ministry helped.  Suddenly I could see that while teaching French was my official duty, being present to my colleagues, their parents and students was my primary calling.

It’s easy for me to get to know people. God has given me a real interest in people’s stories and problems.  I found that by inquiring and listening well, I could encourage both secular colleagues and those with a knowledge of God.  I offered to pray for both groups.  Gradually some opened up to me, sensing that they were safe in unburdening themselves. My heart was drawn even more towards them.  Each day I prayed for openings to say something true, beautiful and good about God.

Fast forward to a painful 2018 for Mike.  Vocationally and spiritually he had been struggling for 4 years after a honeymoon first year.  Setbacks and closed doors humbled him.  Spiraling into depression he found a biblical counselor.  By the end of November, only 4 months ago, God suddenly revealed the ‘unthinkable’:  Mike needed to look for  full-time work and we should put the house on the market. 

Now at the end of March 2019, God has sold our house, moved us to Huntsville, Alabama and Mike starts work on Monday, 1 April 2019.  And I no longer teach at my school. The other ‘unthinkable’ was that I did not finish out the school year.  I left teaching French with 8 weeks remaining in the school year.

Now for the good part!  Here is how God poured out love on this reluctant, often whiny child:

  • As soon as my principal informed parents that Madame Cochrane would be leaving to accompany her husband on a new adventure, parents wrote me and students swarmed me.  I heard how much everyone loved me and how sad they were that I was departing.  Students shared how much French they had acquired and what a loving, caring advisor I had been.
  • My sixth-grade team of teachers fêted me with Keto-snacks and tickets to the botanical gardens in Huntsville.  I heard from some teachers how much they appreciated my personal interest in their lives. ‘Who is going to ask me about my family?’ lamented the art teacher.
  • My last day some of my students gave me gifts, sang a song in French, hugged me A LOT, made a good-bye poster in French, hugged me more.
  • That same last day, colleagues shared lunch with me and gave me personalized book suggestions, a cross-stitch of my favorite Bible verse and a gift card for books!
  • Three hours later at a faculty meeting I did not attend, since it was my last day, the head of the school announced that 7 full-time teachers and 4 full-time staff were having their contracts for next year revoked, due to lower enrollment.

God’s timing floored me as much as the early-complaining parents caught me by surprise.  He providentially arranged for me to leave this school on a high note with a love-filled sendoff before my colleagues knew about the falling ax of some job losses.

Since my final school day ten days ago, here’s what I have concluded:

Proverbs 11:25 Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.

None of us embraces suffering willingly – it’s too painful. We like comfort and ease. However, in God’s hands, suffering brings rich blessings to the child of God.

Mike and I prayed over and planned the move to western North Carolina.  God clearly opened the doors for that transition, leading us to an amazing house on 10 acres in the Smokies and a well-paying French job for me. We reveled in the beauty.  Easy access to hiking was the main reason we chose this spot.  I also grew very close to Christian sisters, both in the community and at our church – a major gift from a loving Father.

Yet I suffered. And God worked through me in ways I had not anticipated.  As John Piper says:  Don’t waste your suffering!  By God’s grace I didn’t.  Nor did Mike.

Although this post is mostly about me, I will say that Mike was equally flabbergasted at the outpouring of feelings and gratitude and love from our church family AND from the beneficiaries of reporting he had done for World News Group. An equally reluctant worker, he would occasionally lament: “I never wanted to be a journalist!”. Yet God blessed that sometimes complaining tech reporter and church member.

Bottom line conclusion.  Our Father DOES know what is best, for us and for others. Sometimes where God has us is NOT about us, but for the blessing of others.

The pain of childbirth – a picture of holiness

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Consider Mary.  Pregnant with God’s glory.  (see Luke passage at the end)

Like some of you, I have given birth to two children.  As each pregnancy advanced, my growing state became more and more of a hindrance to my ‘normal’ pattern of life prior to conception.

And THEN, that final couple of days of growing and UNBELIEVABLY intense, painful contractions – it was far from pleasant.  But effective.  And new life, when fully formed and ready for THIS world, was born.

Both pregnancies acquainted me with the thickness of a normal cervix and the size of an ordinary womb of which I was only vaguely aware each month.

But pregnancy and delivery taught me new things, through suffering.  Were those experiences worth the experiences?  Without a doubt.

How does this relate to holiness?

Picture the Spirit of God who comes to take up residence inside a new believer.  As C.S. Lewis has written, this new inhabitant starts to do major renovations that a baby Christian hasn’t even asked for, let alone heard about.

Adding to Lewis’ illustration, another picture, other than ‘flipper of homes’, came to my mind this morning.  I’ve been reading John Owen and John Calvin about God’s purpose in curating suffering for our growth in sanctification.

(Recall God’s will for our lives IS sanctification – 1 Thess 4:3 and how important He considers holiness, ‘without which no one will see the Lord’ – Hebr 12:14)

These classic Christian authors prompted me to think of expanding holiness WITHIN me, akin to a baby expanding in the womb.  The more I submit to God’s will with humility, patience, and gratitude, the more the Holy Spirit, aka my doula or birthing coach, grows this new spiritual life within me.  I’m reminded of John the Baptist’s statement about Jesus as recorded in John 3:30 –  He must increase but I must decrease.

This new spiritual life IS Christ in us, the promise of future glory. (Col 1:27)  Just as a pregnant mom undergoes a growing baby stretching out her womb, making room for new life, so, too, the Holy Spirit pushes against some of the old self-centered us, crowding it out to create space for His growing presence.  Pain and suffering are part and parcel of pregnancy and childbirth.  And so are they also in our progress toward holiness.

That Holy Spirit-induced ‘new you’ is expanding and pushing against the boundaries and walls of the ‘old you’.  That thick ‘flesh’ is being thinned out, which HURTS like Hades (as my mom used to say).

That image of being ‘pregnant with God’s glory’* resonated with me this morning.  Our Father is not content to let that presence of holiness engrafted in us through the Holy Spirit remain the same size.  You and I must be glad, therefore, of His expansion plans to complete the work, He has pledged to do.  We must learn to accept suffering as from the Hand of God, lovingly intended for our good:  our holiness and thus our happiness.  After all, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.’ John 16:21

Luke 1:27b-38 (NIV): 

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

 

*pregnant with God’s glory, like Mary – a phrase I read somewhere but don’t know to whom I can attribute it.

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.’

 

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