accepting limitations

I think Christianity and faith seems to bring with it a tendency toward an idealization in which this and that are to be just so, or at least there’s growth toward the good, what’s best. With that comes an expectation which sets one up for discouragement when it’s not met, or regularly falls short.

I think what ends up being the case is not the idea of having expectations at all, but misplaced expectations. We don’t understand God’s promises in Christ and how they work out in real life. I believe an important aspect of that ends up being our need to accept limitations. Limitations in ourselves, in others. And with that, we need to understand and accept our weaknesses along with that of others.

I want to be careful here. I’m not referring to out and out sin such as people giving into this or that which they know is wrong. Yet at the same time, if we are caught up in any sin, God’s promise in Jesus along with his promises in Scripture are for us as well.

Does this mean we expect less from God? Hopefully not. Actually it can mean that we understand better how God works. Through weakness, brokenness, even failure. Through our ongoing keen realization of our need for him. Through the way of Jesus which is the way of weakness in taking up one’s cross and following (2 Corinthians 13).

But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s anything but easy to accept weakness. And when we do so there’s always the danger of rationalizing sin, excusing ourselves when we do. What I’m referring to here is more of an existential awareness that at times, maybe much of the time for some of us, we will not be in any kind of on top of the world experience. And problems will come and sometimes mount in number and intensity.

We must not simply throw in the towel and give up. Though if we do we need to remember God is present for us then as well. All of this is the opportunity for us to push deeper into God and God’s provision for us in and through Jesus.

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to know Christ’s love

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21

I like traditional church liturgy, and even crucifixes (and I like the empty cross) because they remind me of the center of our faith: the good news in Jesus. It is through Jesus’s Incarnation, death and resurrection, and the ascension which follows with the pouring out of the Spirit, that we have forgiveness of sins and new life in him. Jesus’s death and resurrection at the heart of that. And in that we can come to know the love of God. A love that is beyond description, as the text says, surpassing knowledge. We shouldn’t neglect Jesus’s teaching and ministry during his earthly life, either, quite formative for us in this.

But where do we begin so that we can hopefully know this love in the way this text says? It began with Paul’s prayer or we could say by extension the prayers of those who follow Paul’s example, a prayer for the church. Evidently Paul had come to know this love for himself, and he was here praying that the church would know it as well.

It’s a prayer to the Father, that out of his glorious riches he would strengthen his people with power through his Spirit in their inner being, so that Christ might dwell in their hearts by faith. It seems to indicate that one’s main impulse for life is no longer themselves, but Christ (Galatians 2:20). We are still ourselves, but ourselves as God meant us to be. Of course this is not something we arrive to overnight, or fully in this life. It’s a transformation beginning now and continuing as a process in growth in Christ-likeness.

Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith is the result of the Spirit’s work in us. From that we’re rooted and established in love. By the way, in passing I want to point out that this seems by the text to be a communal matter, one might say, even endeavor. Church is at the heart of the letter to the Ephesians, we could say the universal church played out in local churches. Which is why I prefer smaller churches. But if one is part of a mega church like my wife and I are now, then you need to plug into a small group. Too often in the United States, and I would think western culture at large, especially European in its roots, we’re more than content to remain in isolation as individuals. But the spiritual life isn’t lived that way: it’s in union with Christ and therefore in the Triune communion, and therefore in union with all who are “in Christ.”

But back to the point: We’re to be rooted and established in love. We live in God’s love in Christ. That is to impact and animate us. We love, because God first loved us. That is where we begin and remain. But through that we’re to experience so much more. Or maybe better put, know so much more. We make much of experience, impacted by the romantic era in ways that are not altogether healthy. Know includes experience, but in a sense goes beyond that so that it transcends or is not dependent on our experience. Through thick and thin we’re to “know” this love of Christ which paradoxically is beyond human knowledge, a gift to us from God by the Spirit.

And the result? To know together as God’s people the fullness of Christ’s love. And Paul is descriptive (or whoever wrote the letter under Paul’s direction): it’s width, length, height, and depth. With the result that we’re filled to the measure of the fullness of God.

And then the great promise that God is able to do this beyond what we can ask or imagine. And through it he would receive glory through the church and through Jesus Christ through all ages. Good to know the context of this great promise. It is about knowing Christ’s love. The heart of our existence, and ultimately the heart of all things. Through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Something we need to be aware of and aspire to, in and through Jesus.

dial down and accept the ordinary

If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.

Psalm 119:92

I’m more and more convinced that one formidable enemy of the good is misplaced expectation. This is probably true across the board, but I’m thinking of the spiritual life of a Christian, or the spiritual lives of Christians.

I’ve lived as a Christian several decades, and from early on was inundated with “deeper life” teachings. And I’ve witnessed some of emphasis on the Spirit in individual lives and in the church. And I’ve partaken of a few unusual experiences and participated in some of that myself. And we all as Christians have experienced the closeness of the Lord, which I believe is actually something for us daily, but probably not in the way we expect.

I want to say and even emphasize that it’s of the utmost importance for us to dial down and accept the ordinary. That most of our lives are going to seem mundane, boring, lonely, difficult, etc., you fill in the blanks. As soon as we get away from ideals, immediately we’ll be better off. We’ll then and only then begin to be able to appreciate the good from God that’s right in front of us, and actually everywhere. Until then we’ll miss the good that’s right in our face.

Scripture doesn’t present an easy, feel good existence. Just begin to read on almost any page. But as the psalmist says, Scripture as God’s written word not only can keep us grounded, our feet on the ground so to speak, but can actually be our delight even in the midst of the ordinary and difficult aspects of real life.

When we realize that our expectations are simply unmet, then we’ll be able to see and accept the actual blessings God is giving us, but not until then.

Am I suggesting that God can’t bless the socks off of us, of course to not only bless us, but bless others through us? Of course not. But only as we accept the reality of our own brokenness, that the kingdom in its fullness, while present now in Jesus by the Spirit is yet to be fully present in the finished transformative way. Until then, we’re set up for disappointment and disillusionment.

Which is why we need to remain in God’s word, in Scripture, so that God’s Word, Christ himself can touch and begin to transform us now. Yes, in the midst of the ordinary and difficult. In and through Jesus.

the experience of God’s love in our hearts

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

I live in the default experience of feeling down. Some people, especially Christians, will fault me for that, or at least wonder, though many not. It’s not how you feel, but it’s about faith, and in a sense, what we do with our feelings. I wonder if it isn’t related to head injuries I’ve had. But it’s been a struggle for years.

There are ways I can get around it, or maybe past it for a time. But the best way by far seems to be when the Holy Spirit just takes over. All the negative feelings are gone, awash in the love of God through the Holy Spirit.

Note in the passage above that this love is in a process which in itself is not easy, and surely fraught with negative emotions. The peace with God spoken of here is not the peace of God experienced, but rather our standing before God through God’s justifying grace and our faith in Jesus. Suffering is part of it, and then the perseverance that follows it. And character, and then hope.

I wish I could live in that feeling and sense of well being and love all the time. It does make life so much easier. I have to remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan no less, which tormented him. But how God was in that for Paul’s good, and our blessing (2 Corinthians 12).

But that love of God is made known to us by the Spirit. Something we look forward to living in forever together with all of God’s children in and through Jesus.

feel the emotion

John 10 (and note John 9 preceding it) is an interesting example of a point made in one of John R. W. Stott’s excellent books, Christ the Controversialist. Jesus was up against it time and time again, against his Jewish opponents. Yet you can see throughout that Jesus is still humbly trying to make his appeal to them. But his words were loaded for them. Jesus noted his works which he attributed to the Father, pointing to the claim that he was in the Father and the Father in him.

John 8 is not children’s bedtime reading so to speak. Jesus is not the meek and mild fictional Jesus which is understood in society at large, and it seems even in many of our churches. Jesus doesn’t mince words, and the words said would never be put in Jesus’s mouth in popular portrayals of him. Like “you are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father, you want to do.”

But back to John 10. In our habit of marking down doctrine or precious promise passages, neither of which we should dismiss, we can easily miss context. What can help us is reading Scripture in real life, and realizing what we’re reading is couched in real life. Jesus’s opponents were emotional, but so was Jesus himself. Jesus’s following words were surely mixed with pathos in the form of grief in lament, along with perhaps something of a defensiveness, even as we was trying to defend the truth that he was from God.

I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me,is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.

John 10:25-30

 John’s entire gospel was written to underscore the truth of who Jesus is.

But watch for the real life emotion in passages. What can help us is the emotion we live with. And we need the Spirit and what the church has given us, as well. As we continue on in Scripture and in this life in and through Jesus.

breaking through “same old, same old” into new ground

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

We’re up against something that is either new, or maybe more likely something we’ve faced time and time again. And the experience of it has been nothing to write home about. Not good to say the least.

What if instead of accepting that kind of experience in the midst of trial, we determine right away to choose God’s will, specifically his promise given to us in Scripture? We do so by simply praying, looking to God in faith. We can’t expect our experience to change in an instant, but it will change.

And what can be underrated is the process itself. We are turning our face in a different direction entirely, away from the gloom and doom to God’s light. The effect of doing that will change us. And then we might be able to see some things that in the darkness we could not have possibly seen before. Persevering in endurance in that process, so that God might continue to grow us toward full maturity in and through Jesus.

fear an opportunity for faith

In this world there are endless possibilities to be anxious about something. And there are indeed many things to be concerned about. I am the kind of person that when troubled can pray and get God’s peace, but can almost immediately think of something else that troubles me. And that really never stops when you consider the nature of things in this life. What if we lived more of an anxiety-less existence in the midst of the inevitable trouble that comes our way? Scripture tells us how, and perhaps no more clearly and to the point than here.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

I think quite often our breakthroughs come when we’re in the midst of the worst of what we experience. When we’re in that kind of struggle, we need to be in prayer. And we need to go on what God gives us, the thought as well as whatever peace might come our way, of course I’m talking about inward peace. Maybe even our own thought, or so it would seem. Recently I had what I would call a major breakthrough on an issue, deciding that I was no longer going to concern myself so that I actually break that old rule and simply trust in God, come what may. We can fashion many ideas or practices simply out of fear. That’s a sign it’s not good. And as a former pastor told us, we should never act from fear.

Except that fear can oddly enough become an impetus to move us to faith. There are few things worse than living in fear. For some people they have certain phobias, fear of this or that. Or some may just live in fear of just about everything. These people need special help. Psychiatric counseling might be good; how many of us have seen a psychiatrist or psychologist? I have, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and indeed can be helpful. But what I’m getting at here is more the fear we normally encounter usually over one matter at a time. As a good Christian man who worked where I work in the past used to say: “Do your best and hang the rest.” Yes, we want to be alert and do what we can. It’s not like we just become passive in our faith. But we ought to start with prayer in faith in the midst of the worry. Keep praying. And act from there or not act at all if we are unsure of what to do. Of course we use common sense in seeking counsel (Proverbs).

In the end we bring all our fears to God. Believing he can take care of everything. Notice that the passage above says nothing about the actual outcome. The promise is that God’s peace will settle in, in a way canceling out our own understanding, certainly surpassing it (Proverbs 3:5-6). And so our fears can oddly enough become an opportunity for faith. As we keep turning to God again and again in and through Jesus.