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.

find the good

We know that all things work together for good[u] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

First of all, we’re prone, at least some of us, to find the problem and become focused and caught in that. So that it is not only a problem in itself, but something which puts us on edge, and potentially over the edge. It can become something which is not only disruptive to us, but changing us especially over time in a number of ways which are not healthy.

There’s certainly no shortage of problems and what is not good in the world. We don’t have to look any further than what’s in front of us and around us. And we can get turned inside out, upside down when we consider world affairs, politics, tragedy, ongoing issues, etc. There’s no end to it. I’m not at all advocating in this post that we should simply ignore the bad, or even try to avoid it. There’s really no escape from it, and if we’re lovers of God and people, then we’ll be concerned for justice and mercy anywhere and everywhere. Not that we should try to take the world on our shoulders. We need too to realize our limitations.

But the point of this post is simply that we need to look for the good that could come out of what is bad, or at least perceived by us not to be good. As we see in the above passage of Scripture, God is involved in this. Yes, for all who love God and are called according to God’s purpose. But just as God’s people are blessed to be a blessing to the world, so God’s intent is to bring good to all, to the world, as we see as we read through to the end all of Scripture.

So we need to find at least in our hopefully sanctified imaginations, and in answer to prayer, what good might come out of any and every situation. God is at work, and no matter what it is that might trouble us, or actually be trouble, God can work in it for good, or somehow it all works together for good, God certainly being in the details.

Something which should be part of our psyche impacting our thoughts, attitudes, words and deeds. In and through Jesus.

better days are coming

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

One of my favorite pastors used to say, “The best is yet to come!” And that’s true in God’s world. In the world in which we live, which in the end is also God’s world we see trouble piled on trouble, no end of it. If it isn’t one thing it’s another and another and then the next problem. There’s always something. And it’s not just problems we might solve, but issues far beyond us. And we can thank only ourselves collectively as well as individually for much of the mess we’re in.

But God’s promise in Jesus is that better days are coming. God can’t wait to forgive and pour out God’s love on us. This does require repentance of sins, of our own foolish ways. All we have to be is honest to God, to others. God will take care of everything in the end. In the meantime God helps us, setting us on a course to be a part of solution the world needs, nothing short of God’s kingdom and that kingdom come in Jesus.

But we can take solace and even find relief with the thought that good days are ahead. That the problem or problems, troubles and trials which weigh in on us will someday be a thing of the past. It will all be gone. This can help us in the present, not to ignore hard reality, but not be suffocated in it, either. God will help us now as we look forward to the day when it will all be gone. In and through Jesus.

focus on God

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me.

John 14:1

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

I’ve been enjoying the new hymnbook entitled Voices Together. Reading through new hymns and new songs (to me), as well as familiar hymns. And readings in the back, including morning, evening, and night liturgy, with prayers. Other than a Bible, this is the book I have in hand now every day.

What I’ve found is that it helps me get my focus on God, the same way Scripture does. Well, it’s meant to do that, as we raise our voice in songs, hymns and spiritual songs. With helpful readings and prayers in the back. The present day liturgy of the denominations Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.

On the eve of his crucifixion Jesus was telling his disciples some quite heavy things, not only more than they could wrap their heads around, but more than their hearts could bear. But he told them to believe in God, to believe in him. And to realize that in the midst of their troubles, he had overcome the world.

Scripture is replete with this theme. Trouble real and imagined. There is no end to that. But God wants us to lift our eyes up, off our troubles and onto God and God’s promises. We’re to be transfixed there. We can be either looking at our problems, or at God, one of the two, not both. I am speaking of focus here. It’s not like we’re oblivious to reality. But that’s not where we’re to live. We’re instead to live in God.

God will take care of it. Christ has won. What that means for us is that God wants us to learn to live above circumstances, so to speak. Still owning proper responsibility, but doing so in a way which puts God front and center. A matter of both perspective and expectation. Seeing everything more as God does, and finding God’s priority as well as God’s help. Learning to live in that. In and through Jesus.

wait for God’s answer

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Matthew 7:7-8

Jesus tells us here to ask, seek and knock. In other words not to let go until we have God’s answer. We need to look to God for answers to problems we have, as to how we’ll go about them. And wait until we get God’s answer. And then proceed accordingly. With the answer will come God’s peace. And we’ll need to continue to look to God in prayer as we go about resolving the issue, what to do, and what not to do. God will help us as we do that. In and through Jesus.

facing the uncertainties and dangers of life

Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.

Job 14:1

If there’s one thing that’s certain in this life, it’s that you’re going to have trouble of one sort or another. I remember a professor telling us that he saw life as basically problem solving, from one situation to the next. Yellow flags should come up when anyone suggests otherwise, say in a sales pitch or whatever.

Troubles will come. It’s what we do with our troubles that matter, and can even make or break us. Job in this story was certainly head over heels, literally from his head to his toes in trouble, and then some. Job couldn’t sweep his troubles under the rug. He was living in it.

For us, they might be “first world problems,” but nevertheless we have to face them with the goal and passion of being true to God’s call to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We need to leave no stone unturned in doing the best we can so that others will not be harmed, but blessed. Insofar as that’s possible.

And it seems to me that we do so with much prayer, seeking to be as responsible as we possibly can. But also realizing that even our best efforts are not foolproof. This life has built in trouble to it. Along with the realization that we can’t avoid uncertainty and danger. It happens, and it will happen again. God will help us in answer to prayer to apply wisdom. But some needed wisdom is to simply realize that instead of relieving us from trouble in this life, God promises to be with us in that trouble. To see us through that trouble. And there will be the other side. To some extent in this life, as we see in the story of Job. The worst of his trouble did come and go. But completely and forever only in the eternal life to come. In and through Jesus.

cheerfulness, regardless

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; MSG

I am finding Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible interesting and helpful, even illuminating, though I still don’t really get well the instructions in regard to the tabernacle and priestly things, etc., in the Old/First Testament. But I get a new sense even of those things.

I found particularly helpful lately the rendering above that we’re to be cheerful no matter what. I never really connected well with the idea of rejoice always, since I’m not really a celebratory, high five kind of person. I would rather sit huddled with a book, listening to classical music, then be at a modern day praise and worship service, though admittedly in the past, I have enjoyed some of that. But rejoicing just isn’t much in either my vocabulary, or makeup. 

But cheerfulness, or at least refusing to be dour and down in the mouth about something, now that makes plenty of sense to me. When Paul tells us to be cheerful no matter what, okay, I can take that home, even if such an idea seems far fetched, just not what I do in every circumstance. 

I take cheerfulness as both an attitude and action here. It is an expression of faith, and part of how we’re to live. I like too the way The Message renders that thought, because that probably gets closer to what Paul actually means than the way I took it in the past: More or less something we’re almost swept up into in our life in Christ Jesus. Instead this brings out the necessary thought that it’s up to us to do it. We have to do it, although yes, the Spirit will help us.

So we don’t live as those left to ourselves with our normal often unhealthy, unhelpful reactions to all the difficulties and problems which come our way. Instead we want to take the way God has for us. To be cheerful no matter what, pray all the time, and thank God no matter what happens. Yes, something we do. Of course in response to what God has done, is doing, and will do for us in and through Jesus. 

 

heart to heart honesty

An honest answer
is like a warm hug.

Proverbs 24:26; MSG

An honest answer presupposes a question. More often than not, I would suppose that questions would have to do with problems. Whatever the case, what’s called for here is honesty. And what’s most fully honest is heart to heart.

This is about telling the truth in grace, that is with kindness. And also with wisdom. How we say it is as important as what we say. And just what is said, also. Honesty doesn’t mean dumping all we perceive to be the truth on them. They might not be ready for that. Honesty means the answer at least points them in the right direction.

A truly honest answer also involves humility. We don’t pretend we’re above the fray, beyond the struggle they face. We have our own struggles, and even if it’s not precisely what they face, it will be helpful to them for us to acknowledge such.

Honesty involves not only telling the truth about the problem, possibly gently pointing out a fault. But honesty also truthfully encourages. We point out the good we see in them, give them the praise they deserve, and thank God together for God’s grace in helping them and us in our struggles. Of course sharing how God has and is helping us through our own difficulties.

Yes, an honest answer is what’s needed. That ends up being heart to heart, and like a warm hug as the Scripture says. What we all need to receive and be open to give.

getting over worry(?)

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7; NLT

Years, even decades ago I called in to a radio program on a local Christian station to talk to a wise man, Herb Vander Lugt. I was frustrated over my lifelong problem of worry. I asked him something like what if I just made the commitment not to worry, period. Would that work? With whatever else I had in mind, maybe just a firm resolution that direction. As I recall he chuckled, and then gave his wise mature pastoral advice from Scripture. Not sure what my response was. Except that I really didn’t learn to apply Scripture well in the way he said. Sure, there were times when I applied the above passage and experienced God’s answer, probably a fairly good number of times. But too often, sadly more than not, I would get hung up really badly on some point, and when that was over it wouldn’t be long until my next anxiety bout hit. This didn’t really amount to panic attacks, nor anything I couldn’t live with. But it did put me under a cloud of gloom, or contributed to that, where I lived far too much of the time.

Fast forward to now. I think I manage my worry issue better than I used to, seeking to apply Scripture, and trusting, no matter what my experience. But lately it’s amped up again. And unfortunately having been conditioned so long in this, it’s like the bottom drops out so that almost as soon as the next worry hits, I can be sure to experience a huge down drag. 

Today I was working on some house project, and realizing that a nagging worry about this and that was taking hold. The thought came, yes, I basically worry about everything. What if instead I refused to worry about anything? Of course resolutions won’t help, that is if it’s just self-effort. But resolve is not altogether bad, certainly not wrong in itself. It is good to say no, I won’t worry about anything, but rather pray about everything because of what we’re told in the above Scripture.

We need to think of all of Scripture, and of life itself. Worry and anxiety are something of an act, but a condition as well. Some of us all too easily are anxious about this and that, often overcome by worry. Googling can help, but it can also hinder. The more you know, the more you wonder. And can remain uncertain about so many things.

It would help us if we would simply realize that bad things do happen in this world. And that even with our best efforts, we just don’t know it all. And this life is certain to be full of problems. But at the same time, remembering God and God’s promises, that God has it, God knows and is able, and we’re at best limited and dependent.

We ought to do the best we can especially in concern for others, as well as taking care of responsibilities. We should keep working at that, knowing it will never end. And that even our best efforts may not prevent what we want to avoid. 

I think it is important to practice what Paul tells us above. Then regardless of what happens, God’s peace will see us through, guarding our hearts and minds. Better than getting what we want, and in view of the reality that often won’t happen anyhow.

first things first

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

I too often have the experience of getting through one thing or another that troubles me, finding inward peace with the freedom to think beyond troubles, only to be assailed by a new problem. I think there’s some serious wisdom in seeking kind of a monastic existence apart from the cares of this world. In my case it would be a married monastery. Yet in having to go through the extra difficulties one can grow in faith and wisdom. I suppose if I were to choose, unblinkingly I would take the former. But I am stuck in the latter, at least for now.

There’s a good word for us from Paul that relates to this, I think. Paul had plenty of serious concerns, but they were all more or less related directly to the kingdom of God. He filled his mind with good things, which is more than evident in his writings. And remember when he said in what is allegedly his last letter that he wanted the parchments and the scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13). He was a reader, or he had someone read to him due to what seems to have been an eye condition. At any rate, he kept himself occupied with truth, knowledge and beauty both from God’s revelation of Scripture, and from other sources as well, evident in the terms used here.

For me that means I need to major on what is major, do my best to take care of the rest, but not let go of what’s most essential. In fact even in addressing problems, we can do so hopefully through ways which will actually add to our well being, instead of tearing us down. While we don’t let go of what is helpful and edifying, from Scripture, and from other sources, all part of God’s revelation, as we sift though those things.

And we must act. Paul says to look at his life, and do what he does, to follow him as he follows Christ. That is so important. We need people who have learned, or at least are learning to walk the walk. To learn from them over time, just to be around them. Sadly the way it is, church life is hardly church life at all in so many good places. You have to really take initiative in looking for small groups, maybe even a house church, and develop relationships. I’ve gained a lot from that in recent years, even though it has been limited in the numbering of gatherings. Faithfulness to Christ in love for God and for others in God’s grace must be lived out, yes in our imperfect sometimes broken ways. But that must be our priority, indeed passion.

So we need both commitments: To occupy our minds with good things. And to live in the faith God gives us, following the good example of others, that we might in turn be an example. In and through Jesus.