embracing the hard places

With a here we go again attitutde, we can shortchange the changes God wants to make in our lives. There are problems, places, and let’s admit it, people, who at times along with us can be challenging, disappointing, and downright irritating. And it doesn’t help when we might be tired, and a bit battered and bruised from what life has brought our way to begin with. While it is true that we as humans are made in no less than the image of God, it is also true that we are dust.

In all of this, of course, we need grace. We need to wait on God so to speak, even in the midst of the flow of life. We should have a sense of expectation in waiting on God to work everything out according to his purpose for us and for others, as well as just his purpose in general, in Jesus. That takes both time and faith. We need to hold on, as it were.

And by faith, we should learn to embrace the hard places with outstretched arms as a kind of sign of the cross as part of a cruciform, cross-shaped life. We do this, not because we want to, or because that is the place we would ever go, but because we do want to follow Jesus in all of life, the one who taught us a good number of hard sayings and teachings (see Matthew 5-7, and read the rest of the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

Of course we will and do fail along the way. We have forgiveness already in terms of salvation, but we do need to continue to confess our sins to God, and when appropriate at times to others, and walk in the light God gives us to maintain fellowship and communion with God and with each other through Jesus’s blood cleansing us from all sin (1 John).

Embracing the hard places is most certainly an act of faith. We do so believing that good will come out of it from God, as well as to avoid the evil and the problems which come out of our refusal to accept such things. A part of the maturing process which is ours together in Jesus.

a monk at heart

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.

Philippians 4

I am not sure to what extent I’m an ascetic, although what that precisely means in practice varies in monastic orders, but in some ways I see myself as a monk at heart. All in Jesus are called to be separate from the world system, since in Jesus we’re not of the world anymore than he is (John 17). How Christians live that out can vary as well. It is not a sin to happen to make a lot of money, and have worldly wealth, and surely a kind of built in monkish, or monastic discipline ought to accompany that.

Unfortunately in too many of our Christian traditions, to live simply on purpose for Christ and the gospel is not a focus, and not taught in our churches, I’m afraid. We don’t necessarily buy into the vision of the American dream, in fact, in many ways we may repudiate it. But we all too often live in the default of what we know, not realizing there may be other options, or ways to live, which may avoid much of the unnecessary overhead imposed on our society. Of course the American economic system is built on people buying more and more things they don’t need.

Paul was a model to the people of his day of one who followed Christ, and we should learn what we can from his example found in scripture to do the same. And a big part of that was contentedness, no matter what his lot. I’m sure when the extra money came in, while he may have not been averse to living it up a little, or enjoying this or that which otherwise he couldn’t have, by and large he used what extra he had to meet needs of others, to help the poor, a big priority for Christianity, prominent in the New Testament (and throughout the Bible, for that matter).

I don’t see my life as a good model for all of this, however I have awakened in later years to understand what it takes to live out what I actually originally set out to do. Yet failed to some extent, due to the influence of the world. Now, while it’s too late to change water that’s gone under the bridge, I can say that I’m more content than ever with simplicity, and the routine the Lord has given me with my wife and family, and with the job I have. As long as I can have a scripture in hand with a cup of coffee, and hopefully do good works and pray, and have my nose in a good book along the way, I’m happy. The extra frills, like a glass of wine, or a nice vacation trip are certainly good as well. We in Jesus learn to receive all of life as a gift from God, including the more difficult times. It is something we are to continue to work at and grow in, and as Paul indicates, true of his own experience, it’s an acquired discipline, one might even say an acquired taste. So that more and more this is the rhythm and pattern in how we live with others in the way of Jesus.

living on the edge (in the life of faith)

Some have seemed to commend living life on the edge of sin, seeing how close one can get to it without stepping over the line, I suppose. Something I would call careless, and not to be commended. Though one’s focus can be unduly in an unhelpful way on sin. What I’m referring to in this post is the fact that it seems to me that faith by its very nature in this life always involve risk and at least an implicit trust in God, and in Jesus and the gospel.

We would like a life where trust was easy, where problems were taken care of once and for all, where, yes with God’s help, we could at last arrive to a state of peace with no more difficulties. Except for brief respites as in breaks in which we’re led beside still waters, with our souls refreshed and restored (Psalm 23), that’s simply not going to happen in this life.

Faith involves risk in the sense that against so much, sometimes it seems against most everything (cf. Abraham), we are taking God at his naked word. And we’re learning to live in and as if that word is true. Not out of imagination, although God may help us to some good sanctified imagining. But because God is behind it all, and helping us to grow in the difficult process.

By nature we are unfinished in this life, and of course the world is unfinished as well, since all awaits the full redemmption to come in the new creation in Jesus. And so we need to learn to rest in God, in the Sabbath rest in Christ, even in the midst of the restless sea of this world, with all the problems this life brings. We do so, understanding that God is at work for our good in making us more and more into the likeness of his Son. As we share God’s love to all through his grace to us in Christ.

 

what does God’s grace look like in our lives?

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2

When we think of God’s grace, we often think of experience, and to some extent rightly so, because even in the midst of suffering, God’s love is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:1-5). The peace with God through being justified, mentioned in this passage surely opens us up to the peace of God which surpasses, or transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:6-7).

Above anything else, God’s grace in Jesus for believers, enables us to live the new life in which we’re forgiven and cleansed from our former sins, with ongoing cleansing as we walk in the light, and regularly confess our sins. God’s grace in Jesus puts those who have faith in a new sphere. So that no matter what we’re going through, we approach life differently than before, with a new focus which puts everything else in a different perspective, of course on the one Lord through the Father by the Spirit.

God’s grace is at work in our lives, in and through Jesus, no matter what we’re going through. During hard, difficult times, it may seem to be lacking, and even absent, as a buoyancy is replaced with a heaviness, a rest with an unsettledness. There are those times of deepest darkness (Psalm 23), called “the dark night of the soul.” They are not easy to live in, much less maneuver through. Like Paul, whose experience is surely the extreme example of this, we may want to bail out, at least ask the Lord to remove it, as Paul did. It is interesting the prominent place God’s grace plays in that passage:

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12

This is surely a passage to meditate on, in this regard. For me, being weighed down into depths of trouble seems to have been more or less the norm, particularly in earlier years as a Christian, but recently again. Those are not easy places to live, because it seems like the cushion to the heart is withdrawn, so that one is more sensitive to pain and trouble. But that’s where the different, perhaps revised understanding of God’s grace at work in our lives can make the difference, in this case the Lord’s grace being sufficient, since his strength is made perfect in our weakness.

God’s grace at work in our lives, is certainly about growing in holiness, in Christ-likeness, and in being zealous to do good works, as the Titus passage quoted above, tells us. It enables us to continue on, no matter what, giving us the help we need through the Spirit. Above all, it animates us to carry on in love. It is not about experience, but about living in love, doing good works out of love, acting and refusing to act and react, out of love.

It’s a new orientation, not welcomed by me. I would rather relatively feel good most of the time. I need to learn to live better in this new place, I suppose. Learning better the new way of living out God’s grace, even as I look forward to the day when every burden will be lifted, and the stress will be gone.

seeing more, going deeper

There are posts which are taken up with the end, and most posts with something of the end and the means. This post is more than less taken up with the means. They say more than half the joy is the journey before the arrival.

I have noticed that when I get into those relatively infrequent times when there seems to be an impasse, and no breakthrough, or what breakthrough finally does happen seems to be withdrawn a bit at a certain juncture, those are the times I pay particularly close attention to God’s word both in terms of the written text, and what God might be saying through that.

Usually when I experience a trial of some sort, in the course of a day or less, the problem seems resolved, and there is once again grace and peace from God. But I refer here to those times which seem to linger, even day after day, and in which I seem to be battered, maybe broken in some way, and baffled, not seeming to make any headway.

Maybe such times are akin to our Lord’s counsel to his disciples that such come out only through prayer and fasting (or at least, prayer). What I do think is certain is that these are times during which we can see in some way what we missed before, and descend deeper into depths, and higher into heights, not previously attained, or frankly, sought after, probably unimagined.

Somehow one has to not only accept, but become accustomed to the sense of having not arrived to the goal (Philippians 3). All too often in Evangelical Christianity (I might be able to criticize, since I myself am part of that tradition), there is an emphasis, which while right in its time and place, can lend itself to making us rather shallow, with little heart. Although I don’t think such an emphasis has to leave anyone that way. The Roman Catholics have a point when they say life in Christ is a continual conversion. Yes, we’re converted, and translated from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the Son God loves. Therefore, we are in a process of sanctification, in being made holy, which won’t be completed until we see Jesus at his return.

And so, it’s with this solace that I enter into another day, not only sensing, but feeling my own great need. And wanting to gather from the gospel, and through the church what scripture tells me I need and is available to us in Christ. Even while I continue to look into that word, hopefully seeing clearer and more deeply by the Spirit, what the Spirit is saying to me, to us in Jesus, to the churches. As I look forward to the day when we will finally have arrived at the goal, the completeness in Christ in which we stand now having finished its work on us, in the new world in him.

 

replacing old habits with new characteristics through the new life in Christ

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed,which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:1-17

Even for those of us who have entered into the new life in Christ, there can be old habits which cling to us, and even though destructive, we can cling to them. As Pastor Jeff Manion has been pointing out recently in the series on Colossians, a new life in Christ doesn’t mean that the old habits automatically go away. In fact, it would seem quite the opposite, when you consider what the word here and in other places says.

There is no doubt that we often fall into habits from attitudes which are less than helpful. The good thing about this is that it can expose us in helping us see the dead-end and even destructiveness of what we’re doing. So that hopefully, in the words of Paul in Colossians, as graphically displayed by Jeff Manion with shirts on hangers, we’re to put off the old clothes, and put on the new, in keeping with the new life in Christ.

This can involve a radical change for us. The lists in Colossians are pretty stark, the two major categories being sexually immoral sins, and sins of anger and rage. These by themselves in some form make up something of the struggle for most all of us at one time or another. But there can be other sins we cling to, and which cling to us, as well. Because of our new life in Christ, we can take off and get rid of those sins, and in their place, put on Christ-like characteristics which will point others to him.

And we’re in this together in Jesus. It’s not an individualistic, self-help program. In fact the list of virtues we’re to put on, culminating with love can be understood only, or at least best in the context of relationships, and specifically relationships with our fellow Christian sisters and brothers. In a certain sense extending beyond that out into the world, but established and at work in the body, the church.

And so we need not despair, or simply give in to old habits which are eating away at us, and actually directly or indirectly destructive or unhelpful to others. In Christ together we have the answers toward a radical change which involves a life-long process, as we continue to take off the old, and put on the new, in and through Christ our Lord.

fleeing sexual immorality

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10

This is not a soft and cuddly passage, and you won’t find every passage even from our Lord in the gospels to be what people would call soft and cuddly. There are of course what are called, “the hard sayings of Jesus.” But life isn’t soft and cuddly, either. It is hard for everyone, and it seems, harder for some more than for others. And for many reasons, mirroring the complexity of life and being human in all its wonder and brokenness.

Paul doesn’t mince words and makes no bones about what he’s getting at, nor does he flinch from making the First/Old Testament scripture to have some kind of normative sense for today. He says what is written in them is written to us as examples and for our warning. Ironically, I think that since “Today” is the day of salvation, it is Christians God holds accountable now, withholding the removal of those who are not Christian which ultimately awaits the final Day of Judgment to come.

I won’t echo the words of the passage quoted above. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a popular kind of precious promise verse, but everyone who has memorized that verse would do well to memorize or just as good, probably better, simply meditate on that entire passage, cited above.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

1 Corinthians 6

This is earlier in the same letter, Paul warning believers to flee from sexual immorality. Quite a bit is said in the passage just quoted above, some of it at least a bit hard to understand, but the point I would like to hammer home some, is that sexual intercourse is much more than just a physical act, though it is certainly that. It is perhaps first and foremost an expression of oneness with each other, the climax and in a sense fulfillment of being one, but carried over into all of life. That is why adultery is so utterly devastating. The oneness in the marriage union is broken. It is little wonder to me that Paul followed up those thoughts with the next passage on marriage, which I will quote only in part.

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”  But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.  The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.  Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  I say this as a concession, not as a command.  I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

1 Corinthians 7

This is not rocket science, yet at the same time involves all the complexities of the wonder and brokenness of our humanity. So that we need God’s grace to follow through and work on these things, and to do so in a way that is honoring to the Lord and a witness to the world.

One of the problems which is a part of our culture (or sub-culture) is the false idea that sex itself is dirty, which comes from the false idea that the body is somehow morally dirty, or less than the ideal or goal of creation. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I think it continues to plague many Christians, and too often there’s a backlash from the culture into a mindset and practice that anything goes.

Last, but not least, we need to adopt the attitude and practice of the Apostle Paul. Even though he was single himself (probably once married, in that he was a Pharisee, and all Pharisees had to be married, but perhaps his wife was deceased), and according to his thoughts in 1 Corinthians 7 (click hyperlink above, to read that), had a gift from God so that he could live happily without a wife, yet Paul himself had to exercise strict self-control, and yes, over his body.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9

Yes, the body is good, and meant for the Lord, and for the right and natural use of it from creation, but no, we can’t allow whatever circumstances we face, or temptations, to detour us from God’s will. That is to be our passion, our drive, so that when necessary, we put the brakes to the inclinations, or strong desires which may come our way. We do so with God’s full revelation in Christ in mind, with the fact that God makes a way of escape for us. Indeed we must, in the words of scripture, flee from sexual immorality.