continuing on in weakness

This is the third time I am coming to you. “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not be lenient— since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

2 Corinthians 13:1-4; NRSVue

Paul ran up against some of the expectations out there today. Charismatic, flashy, powerful preaching in a way that somehow is appealing. Let’s add to that a kind of personality that just draws people in and with always the right word. I doubt myself that Paul had much of any of that. It seems like instead that he was characterized by weakness. There’s the thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him which we find in the previous chapter. He was a person who not only was looked on by others as weak, but who lived out a felt weakness. And learned to do so, even delighting in that, since Christ’s power became evident in that.

But did that make it easy for Paul? Or was he not tempted to wish such would be removed. Yes, I think at least early on such was probably the case, that he indeed still would have wished the weakness to be removed. But later on, I’m guessing that he had learned to live that way as simply part of his identity, who he was in and with Christ. That he was sharing our Lord’s weakness in a cruciform way, and thus sharing in the resurrection power and life accompanying that.

For me, I really would rather not feel weak and even oppressed at times. But that’s where I live so much of the time. That doesn’t come without trial, and too often feeling on edge, so that I can be edgy myself. But because of that I am much more in prayer than what I would be otherwise, at least in prayers of weakness. I don’t think people have to feel this to be people of prayer. But I also think in some measure that this is meant to be the experience of all who follow Christ, who take the way of the cross. And that helps me to go on, believing that God is with us in a peculiar, saving way for ourselves and others in that weakness. In and through Jesus.

prayers matter and often make the needed difference

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

I think we often underrate just how important prayer is. Both the prayers prayed for us as well as the prayers we pray for others. And I’m not just talking about prayers that feel inspired, which I think or at least I can say in my own experience seem relatively rare. I’m referring mainly to the prayers that we continue to pray, regularly for others, as well as during times of special need. Usually I feel little or no inspiration at all, and am simply plodding along, lifting the person up to God, and going on to the next person and persons.

I do know by experience the difference prayer can make when others are praying for me. I’ll send out an SOS asking for prayer, and often immediately feel and sense, as well as eventually see results.

Paul did this, and it was in the context of his apostolic service with those who served with him. The prayers of the church made a needed difference. Paul himself was dependent on the prayers of the believers, of the faithful. Certainly true of us as well.

That’s the way God has made it. God makes us interdependent, in a certain sense depending on each other. While our full dependence is on God, expressed in prayer for ourselves and for others. In and through Jesus.

just keep on trusting

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

“Keep on trucking” is an idiom to encourage people to go on with what they’re doing. Or a friend tells me and I think others at times: “Press on.” Here’s perhaps a more difficult one, because while we need to do it, our dependence is not on ourselves.

We’re told to trust in the Lord, to trust in God with all our heart. What does that mean? What does that look like? I think it means through thick and thin, whatever we’re experiencing, however down we may feel, whatever challenges we’re encountering, whatever discouraging thoughts come our way, we’re to trust, trust, and just keep on trusting in the Lord. Trusting in God’s words to us in Scripture. When we sense God’s voice speaking into our lives.

What does it mean to do this with all one’s heart? Who doesn’t love it when emotions rise, and we’re moved to do such and such? Depending on what it is, at least being moved means that we’re deeply touched, maybe to the core of our beings, perhaps entering into the suffering of others, or feeling the evil of injustice, anger rising in us. But feelings come and go. I doubt that such really effects much change.

How I prefer to see trusting in the Lord with all one’s heart is the idea of putting one’s self entirely into something. Not halfway, not three-quarters of the way. All the way, no holding back. What does that look like in terms of trust, and specifically, trusting God? I’m not sure. It involves experience, yes, but has to go deeper than that. It has to become a habit of our lives, what we do, and work into our very beings, so that is becoming more and more who we are. People who trust in God with no reservations. The Lord will help us. Remember the plea in the gospels: “Lord, I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24).

Part of what we aspire to in and through Jesus.

how do we grow? trials

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

I recently heard a pastor say essentially that we don’t grow except through trials. I don’t know if that’s an overstatement. They have been in the ministry a good number of years and are older than many of us themselves, and I know they have far more wisdom through that pastoral experience and in their lives than I do. It seems to me we might mount an argument from passages like 2 Peter 1 to say that growth can occur apart from trials. But it does seem true to a significant extent as we consider our own lives and the lives of others. It’s so easy to drift, which results in actually diminishing in our spiritual life. We probably don’t just remain the same. We are probably growing or losing ground. Well, that’s some speculation.

But we’re clearly told here at the beginning of this letter how we’re to approach trials of any kind. That we’re to consider such as nothing but joy. That is not easy to swallow, but that is to be our mindset and attitude. It is sadly easier to wallow in fear, despair and grief. Instead we’re to approach each in an active faith, as well as passive in the correct sense, that of receiving from God. And we’re to look at life that way, all the problems and troubles we face, and again, whatever kind they might be. No exceptions.

I find this so helpful myself. There are many reasons left to ourselves to be down in the mouth and simply wanting to escape. But God wants us to meet all of life head on, but in full dependence on the Lord, along with interdependence on each other. But finding our way so that we can stand on our own, but only because of God, along with the help of others along the way. What God has for each one of us. In and through Jesus.

it takes a community

I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.

Romans 15:14

While this is pulling a passage out of context, nevertheless the main point Paul made from this verse is true: We in Christ are in this together, and we all need each other. And each and everyone of us has our part to play. It’s a matter of learning to discern together what the Spirit of Christ is saying to us, and what the Spirit is doing. This is not a lone ranger faith, but one in which we are dependent on God and interdependent on each other.

Other places make it clear that God gives leaders to help the body grow and who are responsible for oversight (Ephesians 4; Hebrews 13). But though they have their special role, they too are blessed by the give and take in the body of Christ, in community.

This needs to be emphasized in a culture in which the individual largely takes priority over community. That is a flaw. Each of us are valued as individuals in community. Yes, God values each of us individually, but we find our true life, even ourselves in community, along with others. We fit together as one, learning to settle into our God-given place, giving and receiving. In and through Jesus.

gentleness born of wisdom

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

James 3:13

You can’t manufacture or make up godliness. That comes from God through Jesus by the Holy Spirit. And as it grows in us, it will be characterized by gentleness. The more we live in God’s grace in Jesus, the more gentleness will characterize all we do, even when we’re up against it.

It’s a sure sign we’re off track, spiraling somewhere else when we’re not gentle, but rough, coarse, maybe even violent in our speech and behavior. That’s when we need to get back to the basics: confession of sin, repentance, renewed dependence on God. And the gentleness that comes from God by the Spirit in Jesus will again help us and make us gentle ourselves. In and through Jesus.

what is needed in this wilderness

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[a]

Deuteronomy 8:2-3

Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth.

Deuteronomy 8:2-3; MSG

We live in a wilderness in this life. We’ve not reached the Promised Land yet. In Christ we’ve stepped into something of the experience of God’s promise, but certainly not into its fullness and completion.

So what are we left with here, yes in this wilderness? Nothing less than God’s word. What do I mean by God’s word? Certainly Scripture is included in this thought, both in general, and specifically all that is meant. Again God’s promises along with God’s directives, commands, warnings, encouragements, blessing, etc., etc., etc. Karl Barth surely had a point that God’s word to us is how God actually speaks to us through the pages of Scripture (if I’m understanding that correctly).

So we have to hold on to God’s word. We live in the wilderness, and as the passage above makes clear, it isn’t easy. But God wants to help us through, to teach us a lot, all of that from our complete dependence on God. Of course we have to learn complete dependence as well, more and more living in that, deepening ourselves in it.

Again this doesn’t come easy. Just consider the story of God’s children under Moses’s leadership, Moses’s own struggles. But God offer’s God’s presence and all that we need as we remain in prayer, seeking to hear God speak to us especially through the words of Scripture. In and through Jesus.

a believing faith(?)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:1-8

The title, “a believing faith” may seem redundant. Isn’t faith enough? The fact of the matter though is that our faith can be exceedingly weak. What James seems to be even railing against here is not the weakness of faith so much, as a lack of commitment to trusting God. Eugene Peterson’s rendering is helpful here:

People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

James 1:6b-8; MSG

We might struggle, even with doubt, some of us more than others. In spite of that we need to press on with the desire to be committed to faith in God, looking to God for the help we need in any given situation. I included the entire passage above, because though there may be and sometimes is value in taking a verse out of context, it’s always best seen, understood and applied in context, with the full intent of the passage in view.

So what we’re looking at here are the trials of life, any trial, which we’re to consider nothing but joy because of the endurance God wants to work in us through it, for our maturity toward full development as Christ followers. We are so prone to old default practices like taking matters in our own hands, hardly if at all looking to God. Trying to solve the problem ourselves, even if we pray to God to bless our efforts.

Instead God wants us to take what for us is the radical commitment of complete trust in God. In the words of Proverbs:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

What God would be after here in part, it seems to me, is an entire renovation of heart, mind and practice. Much more for us than just trying to manage the next crisis, barely holding on, sometimes the wheels clearly falling off. No, God wants to change us over time. James does make it more abrupt than that, so that evidently, and quite frankly I think, we need that word. We’re so inclined to excuse ourselves, rationalize, and not change at all.

What we need to do is look past the present difficulty, be willing to walk through that instead of trying to escape on our own terms. And thus find God’s help, all the help we need in the process. Not only short term, but medium and long term as well. Toward the maturity God wants for us. In and through Jesus.

God’s protection

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

Psalm 116:5-7

This entire psalm is a testament to God’s protection in faithfully taking care of God’s people. The protection goes down to the last details, but when we think about it, it doesn’t mean that God’s people might not experience all that befalls humanity and worse. Somehow in the midst of all of that, God’s protection is present for us.

I like the thought that God protects the simple. The NET says it refers to those who are in formative learning stages. Even though that’s long past for me, I still am quite “simple” in a number of ways. Still learning, something which will go on until the end of life. So this applies to all with an open heart to learn from God directly and indirectly.

God’s ongoing protection makes little sense in a world where random accidents and worse go on (consider Job). People take advantage of others and worse. And Christ followers are not exempt from that. We must never forget that nothing in our experience can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ (Romans 8:35-39). We can rest assured in that. No matter what our experience or what we’re going through, God will see us through. We must hold on to that, not let go of God. God won’t let go of us. We will receive all the help we need to bring glory to God. In and through Jesus.

in praise of being lowly (and my change in my main Bible translation)

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

James 1:9-11; NRSV

At first when reading this from the NRSV, I disliked the rendering “lowly.” I preferred the NIV‘s “the believer in humble circumstances” which after all, I’m quite used to. And a side note here: I am switching for the time being anyhow, to the NRSV as my own main translation. All of my opinions are gathered from experts. And I especially appreciate discernment formed within community. The NIV is great at what it does, both accurate and clear, good English basically accessible to all. The NRSV seems to be very good at what it does. But not good English and that’s because it gives us more exactly the way it was said, maybe the more precise meaning without trying to put it into the way we might say it today like the NIV attempts to do and I think does quite well. The NIV has been my main Bible the vast majority of my years (now decades) as a Christian. So I do grieve over the change, though I still always can and will at times refer to it. The NIV and especially the 2011 revision (in part from the TNIV, which used to be my favorite) is quite good. This seems to me to be a good take on a few current Bible translations: Choosing a Bible Translation.  We surely have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to English Bible translations. But now back to the main point of this post.

Lowly at first came across to me poorly, like an outcast within different cultures. It’s not necessarily more accurate than “in humble circumstances,” or the way the CEB translates it, “Brothers and sisters who are poor…” Maybe the last two more precisely catch what the issue is: those in need compared to those who have more than enough. But lowly also captures something of the twist James makes, that such are raised up or exalted. It is interesting how many of the poor have faith, whereas many of the rich struggle with faith, or so it seems. We see this in life, and it’s noted on the pages of Scripture, our Lord himself making that clear. So lowly here probably does mean those who struggle in this life, either not having enough, or just scraping through to make it day after day.

I like the term “lowly” because it seems to me that this can be a benefit for those of us who for one reason or another, probably a number of reasons are not well set compared to others. When compared with the rest of the world, like someone wisely said, those of us living here, at least the vast majority of us have won the lottery. So it’s relative of course. But the sense of being lowly is surely a blessing. It speaks of dependence on God, healthy interdependence in a give and take relationship with others, and the realization that all is a gift from God. In and through Jesus.