Saturday, March 19, 2016

Trusting God in Tough Times

If we live long enough, we will all have them; those times when life deals us heartless and brutal blows.  We struggle with the tasks and obstacles facing us and don't know how to maneuver them successfully.  We doubt if God is still in control or if He is even aware of our present trouble.  We wonder if perhaps this hardship slipped past Him unnoticed?  We question His wisdom arguing, "Is God really working all things together for good in THIS situation? Really?  Really God???"  Doubt can be a frequent hurdle Christians have to overcome as they run the course set before them.

Caution is needed here; please know that  I don't believe God causes our suffering.  I STRONGLY reject that notion.  Suffering is not part of God's perfect plan for us.  Man sinned and rebelled against God's perfect plan and thus we are now living with the natural consequences of those choices.  God is the source of all life, to rebel against Him is to choose death; thus sin=death.  Thankfully we have a loving and merciful God who cares for us and who sacrificially gave Himself so that we now have a hope and a future--eternal life in God's Kingdom.  Since the fullness of God's Kingdom has not yet been established on earth we struggle to wade through the thick muck and junk of life in a sinful world.  This is a challenging endeavor to say the least.

My heart breaks at the tragic stories of loss and suffering that are so prevalent in the world today.  The casualties of sin are numerous and no one is immune.  Just last week I read a Facebook post written by a mother grappling with the imminent death of her infant daughter due to brain cancer.  Her baby girl had undergone months of hospital stays, chemo, and treatments which were apparently unsuccessful.  At the time of her writting Sophia was alive but no longer conscious or responsive and there seemed to be no hope for recovery.  The mother writes: 

I miss the Sophia I know. I miss her smile, her laugh, her little personality. I look at pictures, I watch videos...and I cry. Her body is here, but oh! I feel like she went away and I didn't get to say goodbye. 
I want to memorize every detail. I don't want to forget anything. Her hair as it grows back, soft and curly and brown. So much lighter than it was. Her stinky little feet that she used to stick in my face. My heart melts each time I change her socks...I could stare at her perfect little feet forever. Maybe only another mother would understand that feeling. Her perfect little nails, her chubby little cheeks, her pudgy little thigh rolls. She's here...but she's not here. 
We both told her today, "It's ok. Sophia, if you're tired you can go. We'll be ok. Don't fight for us. Don't stay for us. We want you to be happy. A new, perfect body. You won't have to fight to breathe. You'll run and play. You won't be tired. You'll be better off. No more pain. No more cancer. You'll be in His arms. In the best arms. He'll take care of you better than we can. We won't forget you, Sophia. We'll tell your brothers and sisters about you. They'll know about their brave, strong sister. It's ok, Sophia. If you're tired, you can stop fighting. Mommy and daddy love you."

I ache for this family.  The tears stream down my face as I consider their loss, the grief they will carry, and the agony they have lived through.  In these situations, I can't help, but marvel at God's incredible restraint.  I can't help but wonder, "How does He do it?  How can He endure even one more day of suffering for His children?" If I hurt so much for this family, how much more must God hurt as He witnesses the suffering of His children globally!?!  This family represents only one of many similarly tragic stories; yet, God sees them all, knows every person intimately, and loves each one infinitely.  Given that He could end all the suffering today, I wonder, "What is He waiting for?  How can He stand it any longer?" 

Because God IS perfect love, I believe that no one hates sin more, is hurts more by sin's consequences, or has a greater longing to end suffering than God does.  Yet, we wait.  I believe that it is out of His very nature--love--that He acquires the patience to wait one more year, one more month, and/or one more day.  Love is patient and God has been very patient with mankind and the disastrous consequences of sin.  Out of His great love for us He waits in order to give opportunity for all, that will, to come to Him in repentance.  2 Peter 21:4 says, "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness.  Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."   

So for now we wait and endure. We run battered and bruised with tear stained faces and heavy hearts, but we "Run on!" knowing that God is love, God is patient, and God will keep all of His promises to us. I admire how Sophia's mother so clearly clings to God's promises in her struggle.  Though the situation is completely out of her control, she knows it isn't outside of God's reach.  She clearly trusts that weather Sophia lives or dies presently, God holds her eternal future securely in His hands.  Isaiah 59:1 says, "Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear to dull to hear." 

I don't know what hurdles and/or obstacles block your path as you seek to run your race, but I do know hardships and difficulties are a universal reality in this world.  However rocky  your path may be (or may have been), those difficulties don't define you and they certainly don't disqualify you for the race!    Yes, they beat you up, knock you down, and may leave you hobbling or even crawling to the finish, but no matter your circumstances the choice to finish the race is yours!  You can "Run on!"--bumps, bruises, scars, and all.  Keep running, holding fast to your faith, trusting God in ALL things, and never ceasing to place one foot after the other.  

God does not promise a perfect life here and now.  He doesn't even promise an easier road.  However, He does promise to be with us always, that nothing can separate us from His love, and that one day He personally will reach out to us and wipe away all of our tears.  Also, "There will be no more death, crying, mourning, or pain for the old order of things (sin and all of it's ugly consequences) has passed away (Revelation 21:4)."  In that day, we will know what running was meant to feel like, "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint."  Though I am eager for that day for the sake of all those who suffer presently, I will endure patiently knowing that God's timing is perfect and that there is much rejoicing in heaven over even one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7)!   

Helpful Bible Texts

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

1 Peter 5:7  Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. 

Psalm 34:18  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those who spirits are crushed. 

John 16:33  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.
Mathew 28:20 And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Romans 8:31-39 Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?  (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.  And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Revelation 21:4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

God's Masterpiece

In my previous post, God's Power is Perfect in Weakness, I discussed the idea that God's grace is sufficient for you and me.  When we are discouraged by our failings and our unworthiness we need to remember it's not our righteousness that counts, but Christ's alone.  Thankfully, we do not EARN salvation; all our good deeds apart from Christ are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).  All our attempts at being righteous can achieve for us nothing because we just don't have it in us.  "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Mathew 7:17). There is no way we, being sinful and wicked, can be pure and righteous unless God intervenes.  We simply cannot produce good works out of an evil heart.

I was recently reading the book "The Power of Empathy."  Several chapters are dedicated to the eight characteristics of empathetic people--honesty, humility, acceptance, tolerance, gratitude, faith, hope, and forgiveness.  I love these characteristics; they are so spiritual in nature and seemingly accessible.  They share many similar qualities with the definition of love given in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 which states, "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.  Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance."  

I was excited about reading the book and discovering how I could apply these empathetic principles in my life, but was sadly disappointed.  I began reading with high hopes and expectations, but was deflated and descouraged when I finished because it's one thing to KNOW what is right and it's another thing to actually DO what is right.  For example, it's one thing to deeply desire to be a forgiving, but its entirely other to actually do it.  What are the first steps? Where do I dig within myself to find forgiveness? How do I produce it out of inherently unforgiving nature? There are no magic words; it doesn't happen with a flick of a switch or even with a serious desire to change.  I cannot bring from within myself characteristics which I do not poses anymore than a zebra can erase it's stripes. I must look outside of myself and go to the source in order to be changed. 

So the question arises, where is the source of perfect goodness and love? Or better yet, whom is the source?  My thoughts quickly turn to Genesis which reads, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them... God saw all that he had made and it was VERY GOOD!"  God is, was, and always will be the source of goodness. As we read the Bible and discover more about His character we learn that He IS the very definition of perfect love (1 John 4:8).  If you are seeking positive change in your life, there is no better source!  

Similarly, David's famous prayer in Psalm 51 is a call for God's purifying, cleansing, and transforming work in his heart.  At rock bottom David sought God in a spirit of repentance, humility, and surrender.  He knew his depravity and utter helplessness and he turned to God crying, "Create in me a clean heart, Oh God; and renue a right spirit within me." Doesn't it just make sense that the God who created the universe and our very being is the only one who can restore us and heal our brokenness?  

I think the temptation is to take matters into our own hands.  We become convicted of sin, recognize that there is a  better way to live, and then struggle to obtain it; but if we aren't depending on the Holy Spirit for wisdom, strength, and re-creative power we either fail and get descouraged or "succeed" and become proud; neither of which are desirable outcomes.  I am convinced that the only true means for change is in selfsurrender.  As the saying goes, "let go and let God!"  The work is not ours to do; it's God's work.  It's His creative power, or Spirit, working in us that enables us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). 

This is a claim that doesn't often sit well with us.  We feel that we need to do something!  However, out greatest need is to get out of the way so that God can do something.  When He creates the results are perfect!  In Galatians 5:22 Paul states "the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Notice that these qualities are not referred to as "the fruits of our hard labor" or "the fruits of our willpower", but rather the "fruits of the spirit".  Without the Spirit there is no fruit. 

There are quite a few Bible texts that illustrate this point. I will list a few below.  Please share in the comments section if you know of more!  I hope you find encouragement in knowing that the creator of the universe is working on you.  When He's done you'll be a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.  As you "Run On!" remember "We are God's masterpiece.  He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago" (Ephesians 2:10). 

  • T2 Corinthians 5:17--Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:The old has gone, the new is here!
  • 1 Corinthians 6:11--But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
  • Psalm 23:3--He restores my soul.
  • Psalm 51--Read the whole thing! It's so good!
  • Ephesians 2:9-- Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:23--Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Philippians 1:6--And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
  • John 15:1-4--I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

Monday, March 7, 2016

God's Power is Perfect in Weakness

In the previous post, The Ultimate Race, I mentioned how training for and running a race is difficult and how there are many moments during any given hard run when I can't wait to cross the finish line.  The difficulty of the race produces a longing for the finish.  I become fixated on it and knowing that it's out there and that I'm approaching it with every step keeps me placing one foot in front of the other.  I count down the miles, the minutes, and the second. The sooner I cross the finish the better! 

How about in the Christian life? If the finish is God's Kingdom being established on earth and all sin and sorrow being swept away, do I yearn for it? Do I seek it, thirst for it, and push on towards it? There are moments where I can't wait to finish! When I hear the news about the day's horrific events and tragedies I sense a longing for God's Kingdom.  When the tragedies strikes closer to home I echo the saints in Revelation as they cry out, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?" (Revelation 6:10).  When I open my heart to all the hurt, pain, and suffering in the world, then I thirst for justice and the establishment of God's eternal kingdom.

However, in all honesty, I am many times fearful, for my own sake, of God's return.  I wonder if I will be amongst the saved and question if I ran the race well enough? Did I do all the good I could? Will I be judged guilty? Will I fall short?  Will I be among those whom Jesus spoke of when he said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). These self-doubts hardly produce a burning desire to speed towards the finish, but more importantly they reveal that my focus has been diverted from Jesus the author and finisher of my faith. 

Satan is the father of lies and the enemy of the saints.  Revelation 12:10 tells us that he is constantly, both day and night, accusing us before God--pointing out our sins, shortcomings, and failures and demanding that justice be served.  When we loose sight of Jesus it gives Satan ground in our heart to accuse us and discourage us regarding our worthiness for the kingdom.   His accusations are crushing because they are largely true!  We are undeserving. We are wretched. We are helpless to save ourselves.  In fact, we don't even know the real extent of our depravity.  The Bible reveals that "The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?" (Jeremiah 17:9).

So what's a runner to do? He or she is midway through the race, exhausted, feeling hopeless, and being ruthlessly heckled by the adversary.  He's utterly discouraged and ready to give up, but wait weary runner; there is hope!  Paul's advice to all runners is to fix your eyes on Jesus! There is victory in Jesus!  "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5: 6-8). Christ knows our weakness, He knows our sin, and even so, He hasn't given up on us.  He didn't come to judge us, but to save us and cleans us from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9).

When we look to Jesus we see a beautiful picture of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Contrary to Satan, Christ came not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).  While Satan seeks to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), God seeks to freely give, save, and re-create.  Our job as faithful runners is to believe in His love, forgiveness, and restorative power.  Though we are spiritually wretched, naked, poor, and blind God's grace is sufficient for all our needs.  

Thankfully, when it comes to the finish line, our merits and our worthiness are not the matter in question.  Paul reminds us that "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago" (Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT).  

The accuser is often at work in my mind, so for me it is a constant daily task to find peace and forgivenss in Christ.  His gift does seem almost too good to be true, hard to believe, and just out of reach, yet God has promised that "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Thus, as we "Run On!" may we always acknowledge our weakness and find strength in the promise that His grace is sufficient. 

My upcoming post will elaborate on the theme of God's masterpiece.  Stay tuned and please feel free to share additional thoughts and comments below.  I would love to hear from you! 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Ultimate Race

Two of my passions are running and Bible study.  One of my favorites texts is Hebrews 12:1-2 which reads "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off ever weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.  And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith."NLT

I enjoy running as part of my weekly routine, but racing is much more of a challenge.  It takes a significant amount of time, focus, dedication, and determination.  When I go for a casual run it's relatively easy, but when I race, or do speed work, it's really hard!  I never reach a point where it becomes easy.  Though I become stronger and faster, it's never easier, because otherwise I wouldn't be giving it my all.  There are times when I feel I can't continue on, but I do; and when I push through and achieve my goal it's really rewarding.

Similarly, in our Christian race intentionality, dedication, determination, and focus are vital.  However, I feel the temptation to "quit" is more subtle.  We don't recognize it.  We slowly drift off course becoming distracted by life's other pressing issues. We are likely still running, perhaps even racing, but we've lost sight of Jesus and are no longer running the race God has set before us.  Since Jesus is the champion who has gone before us, is  the only one who was (and is) victorious over sin and death, and He initiates and perfects our faith, we are completely dependent on Him. 

I am dedicating this blog to all my fellow runners who are running the ultimate race, seeking victory in their struggle against sin.  I hope you will find the content inspiring, challenging, thought provoking, and most of all encouraging as you seek to fix your eyes on Jesus and run the race set before you.  Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 9:25-26  that "All athletes are disciplined in their training.  They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.  So I run with purpose in every step." 

I read for the first time very recently the poem "The Race".  I won't quote it here, but I hope you will click on the link above and check it out. It's a really awesome poem about getting up each time you fall down and finishing the race you've started.  My prayer for you is that you may "Run on!" rising each time you fall and never give up the pursuit of the finish.