Monday, March 30, 2020

Not Enough Belief to Have Faith?

Whether it’s the Coronavirus (COVID-19, if you prefer), a major weather event, financial upheaval, an unexpected health reversal, or some other form of adversity, we all hate a crisis. We like things to be going smoothly, when we feel in control, when changes come about only by our own choosing. But we detest when “control” is suddenly wrested from our grip and we find ourselves at the mercy of our circumstances.

But there’s one benefit from going through a crisis: It reveals where our trust, our confidence, our faith truly lie.

There have been times when I’ve gotten into spiritual discussions with friends and family members and, after a while, they say something like, “Hey, I believe in God. Let’s leave it at that!” At other times, on TV or in a movie, we watch a key character going through a difficult time be advised, “You just have to have faith.”

So, is that all we need? Simply believing in God – whoever that happens to be to you? What about faith? Exactly what is it we’re supposed to have faith in – fate, good luck, serendipity, karma? Faith in…faith?

I believe this parasail could take me
aloft, but I wouldn't have enough
faith to get into it.
Because as we see in the Bible, belief doesn’t necessarily equate to saving, transforming faith. For instance, the apostle James wrote, “You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:19, Berean Study Bible). In other words the apostle was cautioning his readers, “You claim to believe in God. Big deal! The workers of evil believe in Him, too, but you won’t be seeing any of them in heaven!”

I think of someone years ago who seemed to think I was being judgmental, even intolerant, when her claim to believe in God didn’t cause me to stop talking about Jesus Christ and the necessity to receive Him as Savior and Lord. I wasn’t judging, but as James pointed out, simple intellectual acceptance that God exists doesn’t amount to faith.

In the same passage, he wrote, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do…. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (James 2:18-20). Then James proceeded to cite biblical examples of people who acted upon their faith in the Lord, even in seemingly impossible situations: Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar, and a prostitute named Rahab, of all people, who concealed Israelite spies scouting out the city of Jericho. Both Abraham and Rahab didn’t just believe – they possessed faith that drove them to action.

Look at it this way: We all know that airplanes can fly, even if we don’t fully understand how. We might even go to an airport, where planes fly in and out. There’s no problem believing that, even if we’ve never flown personally. But suppose, once we get to the airport, someone says, “Here, I’ve bought you a ticket. I want you to fly with me to Boston (or Chicago, or Dallas).” 

Suddenly, there’s a test – is there enough belief to become faith by actually boarding the plane? Because, whether those of us who are familiar with flying realize it or not, this requires an act of faith: Trusting implicitly in the integrity of the aircraft’s design and construction, the skill of the crew, even that the plane has been properly maintained and fueled for the trip.

What if the novice flyer said, “No way! I’m not getting on that plane!” “But you do believe it can fly, don’t you?” “Well, yeah, but you’re not getting me on that thing to go anywhere!” “Why not?” “It could crash!”

In a similar way – but far more profound – at one point or another, we must decide whether “I believe in God” will become, “I am committing my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in Him to guide my life, working in my life and making me into the person He wants me to be.”

Getting back to the crisis, staring at the chaos and realizing we don’t understand what’s happening, or what can be done to fix it, we’re challenged to dig deep and determine where our faith lies. Do we feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, our emotions surging to the brink of panic? Or do we turn to the Lord, not just in intellectual belief but also with faith, the confident assurance and expectation that He is faithful and will fulfill His promises for His children?

The Scriptures remind us of this in many places, but I particularly like what we read in the eighth chapter of Romans. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:18-25). 

In times of crisis and uncertainty, do we turn to the God of the Bible with hope and expectation, even though we don’t know how He’s going to work through our circumstances, or do we succumb to worry, fear and desperation? Every once in a while, it’s good to re-examine ourselves by taking this test. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What It Takes to Be Truly, Bountifully Blessed

Do you consider yourself blessed? If you think that you are, what does that mean to you – to be blessed?

The word “blessed” is bandied about quite a lot, and it seems to mean different things to different people. Usually it’s attached to good things, like a new job, a new house, a new car, having good health, marking important achievements. High school athletes receiving scholarship opportunities often post on social media stating they are “blessed” by XYZ University’s offer.

But is that what it means to be truly blessed – having good things happen to us? What about when things aren’t going particularly well? Does that mean we’re not blessed?

Recently I came across a poem that I thought offered a little bit different, refreshing look at this subject. The late William Arthur Ward, who was a writer and poet, is credited with this concise, but powerful description of what it means to be blessed:
“Blessed is the man…
For whom a good woman lives,
To whom his work is a pleasure,
By whom his friends are encouraged, 
With whom all are comfortable,
In whom a clear conscience abides, and
Through whom his children see God”

I don’t know about you, but I like his point of view. It doesn’t focus on “stuff,” but rather one’s character and the relationships we have, including with God. Ultimately, those are the things that will last; we might enjoy the material things we have, but as we’re often reminded, when our days on earth have come to an end, we can’t take them with us.

His perspective seems to echo what we find in the Scriptures, where we find hundreds of references to blessings and what God thinks about them.

One familiar passage tells us, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night…” (Psalm 1:1-2). It goes on, but basically we’re told it’s a blessing to concentrate on God and His teachings, and to avoid hanging out with people who can influence us in the wrong ways.

The subject of blessings recurs in the Psalms. For instance, we’re told, “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart” (Psalm 119:1-2). After describing people who pursue God as their “fortress, stronghold and deliverer,” David declared, “Blessed are the people of whom this is true; blessed are the people whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 144:15).

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus Christ opened His message by explaining what it means to be blessed in an eternal sense: 
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:3-12).

We could cite numerous other passages, but it’s clear that the Lord views being blessed very differently from the way we typically look at it. We live in a temporary, tangible world, but we are admonished to train our focus on forever.

As the apostle Paul explains, “while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

So, let me ask again: Do you consider yourself blessed?

Monday, March 23, 2020

If You’re Unhappy, Did You Know You Have a Choice?

Even though I’m not an expert, it seems there are a lot of unhappy people in the world around us. Maybe you’re one of them.

Whenever I feel like I’m suffering from an overdose of happiness, all I have to turn on the morning or evening news and voila, problem solved. The sky is falling! (Just as it was yesterday, and the day before that.) At least as far as we can tell by the incessant, fear-mongering news reporting. Chicken Little, along with the little boy who always cried wolf, would feel right at home in our day and age.

What happens when we succumb and start feeling overcome by fear? We start feeling unhappy. The calm, serene, predictable world we loved so much is stripped away, and we’re not pleased about it one tiny bit. 

Lest we blame the news media for pervasive unhappiness, let’s be honest. It’s not all their fault. We also have social media, where a bunch of angry, miserable people relish their daily opportunities to rant on whatever seems to be stuck in their craw. Misery loves company, they say, so if you’re miserable, why not try sharing your angst with others? It’s nice to share, right?

But even if we somehow manage to filter out the news, and social media, we can still find more than enough reasons for unhappiness. We don’t like our marriage. We don’t like our family. We don’t like our job. We don’t like our house – or our car. We don’t like the clothes in our bulging closets. Need I go on?

So, are we captives of unhappiness? Is misery destined to be our constant companion? Well, I want to let you in on a secret: You don’t have to be unhappy.

Years ago, I came across a book called Happiness Is A Choice. I don’t recall the author offhand, but just the title alone was profound. Because we can't control our circumstances, and we can’t control the world around us, but we can control our response to them. If you Google “happiness is a choice,” you’ll find that science and modern psychology confirm that indeed, we can decide to be happy. Even if the environment around us isn't happy, happy, happy.

I’ve written in the past about the commands from Romans 5 and James 1, stating we’re to rejoice or “count it all joy” when we encounter the inevitable challenges and trials of life. But the apostle Paul gave very specific instructions about how we’re to choose happiness, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves. It’s not all that complicated, he said:
“Finally, brothers, 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” (Philippians 4:8).

He wasn’t saying that everything was “peachy keen,” or whatever the saying was back then. He was writing this letter to the believers in Philippi while in prison, so Paul certainly wasn’t being idealistic or delusional. No one called him “Pollyanna Paul.” He was simply pointing out the choice we have. We can focus on the bad stuff and let it consume our thoughts, dragging them downward. Or we can concentrate on the good, positive and redeeming things we can discover even at the worst of times – if only we’re willing to look for them.

Even in the midst of severe health problems, financial struggles and workplace challenges, we can choose to be happy and shed the mantle of misery. The best way to do that is never forgetting that we’re not journeying through this life alone, that the Lord is always with us and He wants what’s best for us even more than we do.

This is why we’re told, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2). Paul told Christ followers in ancient Rome, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

I remember the words from the old Tony Bennett song, “Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face.” Because they always have – and they always will. And since it doesn’t take any less energy to maintain a frown than to make a smile, why not choose the latter?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

It’s Important to Remember: We’re Not Home Yet

After traveling – whether on a business trip, a vacation, or a visit with family – have you ever thought about the words of the old song: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home”? 

Believe it or not, that tune is nearly 200 years old. According to my favorite library substitute, Wikipedia, it was adapted from an 1823 opera by American actor and dramatist John Howard Payne. Of course, in “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, utters the unforgettable words, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

Most of us can relate. Home is where we feel most comfortable, where we feel we belong. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to stay at some plush hotels and resorts, but they never had the relaxing, welcoming feeling of “home.”

But have you ever stayed long enough somewhere that it started to feel like a second home? My freshman year of college, instead of staying on campus I lived with my uncle, aunt and cousins. For about nine months, their home did seem like my own. I took part in family activities and household chores; I had my own room, and could come and go as needed. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t really “home.”

I’m thinking about this because of another familiar song I heard recently, “Not Home Yet,” by Steven Curtis Chapman. In many respects, this world into which we were born and have lived for so many years seems like home. When changes occur to our “home” we don’t favor, we feel unsettled. It’s almost like a stranger coming into our house and rearranging the furniture, painting the walls a different color, and making other changes. “Hey, what are you doing to my home?!” we would shout. 

However, as the lyrics to Chapman’s song remind us, “We are not home yet. Keep looking ahead. Let our hearts not forget. We are not home yet.”

That’s not a thought original to him, of course. The Scriptures remind us of this repeatedly. Writing to believers in ancient Corinth, the apostle Paul gave them the assurance,“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Even as familiar as we’ve become with life on earth, in essence he’s telling us, “You ain’t seen nothin' yet!”

As the day of His crucifixion was nearing, Jesus Christ offered His closest followers these words of promise: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms…. I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come take and take me with you that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).

We can find those words comforting as we observe a world that seems increasingly chaotic and out of control. “What are we to do?” we wonder as we wring our hands in frustration and fear. Our biblical ancestors probably felt much the same at times. For them, it was essential to remember their real eternal home – and that this wasn’t it.

Citing numerous examples of men and women of great faith, Hebrews 11:13 says, they acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” There’s been a great debate in our country over illegal aliens, about who’s entitled to live here and who’s not. Although we’re not residing on this earthly orb illegally, as God’s children we’re still “stranger and exiles.”

In 1 Chronicles 29:15, as he was preparing to pass along the kingship of Israel to his son, Solomon, King David declared, “We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow….”

Another passage points to the same reality. In reminding believers living in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia that they were “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” the apostle Peter exhorted, “I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

He then explained why this is so crucial: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:-12).

I’m as guilty as anyone of forgetting this, but we’re not to become so immersed in this world we can see, touch, hear, smell and taste that we lose sight of where – as children of God – home really is. Because, as another adage tells us, “Home is where the heart is.”

Monday, March 16, 2020

Fear From Within Worse Than Fear From Without

Typically I write my blog posts two or more weeks in advance, but with news about the Coronavirus developing so quickly, I thought offering a more immediate view might be helpful. I’m not disputing the urgency and seriousness of the situation that has public institutions, schools, workplaces, sporting events, and many other places shuttering their doors until the emergency passes. (Not to mention the growing shortage of toilet paper – the connection for which is yet to be determined.) But panic definitely is not the right form of response.

Last week my friend, Ken Korkow, a man who has shared godly wisdom with me on numerous occasions, offered the following perspective:
“I have compiled a short history of fears, with my personal greatest concern at the very bottom:

As a kid in grade school, we watched the 1950s animated film, 'Duck and Cover,' which showed us safety techniques for the dangers of Russian nuclear attacks. In case of an attack, the film taught us to be like Bert the Turtle, a cartoon character: duck under tables or desks, or next to walls, and tightly cover the back of our necks and faces.

Then there was the so-called 'Y2K bug,' also called the Year 2000 bug or Millennium Bug, which concerned a problem in the coding of computerized systems that was projected to create havoc in computers and computer networks around the world at the beginning of the year 2000 (in metric measurements, 2K). After more than a year of international alarm, feverish preparations, hoarding and programming corrections, few significant failures occurred in the transition from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000.

Since then we have had other much-feared international calamities, including:
2002 – West Nile virus
2004 – SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome)
2005 – Bird flu
2009 – Swine flu
2014 – Ebola virus
2016 – Zika virus
2020 – Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Along the way we have added ‘Active Shooter Drills’ in our schools.

But my biggest challenge is not the junk on the outside. It's the junk on my inside. 

Please consider Mark 7:14 - 23: "When He (Jesus) had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, 'Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!' When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, 'Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?' And He said, 'What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.'"

At some point, each one of us is going to die – and then comes eternal judgment. Therefore, my biggest wish/challenge/concern is that I would never sin again. But I continue to do so. Amazingly, God continues to love me anyway. And He loves you, too. A quick understanding of God’s grace can be found in the GRACE acronym: 
God's Riches At Christ's Expense

Paul Tripp, a pastor, author and conference speaker, has nailed it: ‘The stuff outside you, no matter how troubling, is not as dangerous as the mess inside you, and for that you have the grace of Jesus.’ So what is the solution? Marinate in God’s holy Word to know and live His truth and be actively involved in His purposes.”

My friend is not diminishing the seriousness and concern over the Coronavirus. Only weeks ago, most of us have never heard of it; now daily we’re receiving new revelations and warnings about it. But despite its gravity, we dare not lose sight of God’s sovereignty in this and every situation we face. And what we face within us is a far greater challenge than anything outside of us.

As 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us, For God has not given us a spirit of timidity (fear), but of power and love and discipline.” Another passage provides this assurance: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). If we look away from God, fear can overwhelm us. But if we look to Him and trust in Him, fear can’t defeat us.

The Lord was with us in the past, through a variety of dangerous flus and viruses, as well as many other calamities. Thousands of years ago He made this promise: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). And that promise holds true for the present Coronavirus crisis, and for whatever else will follow. As certainly something will.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Caution: If You Follow Your Heart, Where Will It Take You?

Watch any romance movie, especially those of the happily-ever-after Hallmark genre, and somewhere along the way one of the central characters is sure to receive this well-worn advice: “Follow your heart.” Sounds great, right? This fits along with the ever-popular, “If it feels good, do it!”

But is this really good advice? Can we always trust our hearts – essentially, our emotions – for guiding us to wise, well-considered decisions? If we’re to believe what the Scriptures say, and I am among those who do, that’s not always a good idea.

Talking about the heart, as it frequently does, the Bible isn’t referring to that amazing pumping muscle that sends blood coursing through our veins non-stop, minute after minute, year after year. It speaks of the emotional dimension of the brain, where fickle feelings govern love, anger, envy, jealousy, and all manner of other emotional responses to our circumstances past, present and future.

I can remember a few times when my “heart” told me to quit my job because I was unhappy with how things were going. Random thoughts popped up: “You’re better than this!” “They don’t appreciate you!” “You don’t have to put up with this!” Fortunately, rather than letting the whims of my heart rule, I chose to follow reason and logic instead, and realized how foolish and unproductive quitting would have been. Because I didn’t “follow my heart,” things worked out far better than I could have anticipated.

Many marriages have ended because one or both spouses decided to follow their heart, causing irreparable damage to their families. And often leaving a trail of regret and remorse. It might have been because their mate didn’t meet their expectations, they somehow “fell out of love,” or found someone else more appealing. Regardless, the result was typically more “heart trouble” than they imagined.

One of the worst times to simply follow your heart is when considering a costly purchase, whether it’s a house, a car, or even a major appliance. Even if “it feels so right,” it’s advisable to give yourself a cooling off period, allowing time for your head to catch up with your heart and bring facts and level-headed thinking into the equation. Sometimes you’ll arrive at the same decision – but sometimes you won’t.

It's useful to consider some of the things God says about the heart and why it’s so unpredictable and unreliable. For instance, sometimes we can fool ourselves and fail to comprehend why we’re so set on doing – or not doing – something. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

The heart – our innermost emotions – serves as the seat for our motivations, the rationale for our thoughts and actions. We can justify what we intend to do, but according to the Scriptures, God is as concerned about why we’re doing something as He is about what we’re actually doing. This is a truth Proverbs states repeatedly:
“All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).
“All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 4:23).
“The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3).

In reformed theology, one of the central principles is called “total depravity,” meaning everything we think and do is tainted by sin, just as a single drop of poison would taint a glass filled with our favorite beverage. So it’s wise to be wary of impulsive, emotion-based decisions. “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9).

Knowing the fallibility of our hearts and our motives, the Scriptures warn us to safeguard our attitudes and thinking, seeking to ward off words and actions we would later regret, sometimes bringing about devastating results. If we don’t fling open the door to temptation, it’s less likely we’ll succumb to the sins that follow. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

What I’ve learned over the years is before determining to “follow my heart,” it’s best to pause first and pray about it, seeking to determine whether my heart is aligned with God’s will. As my life verses often remind me, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). 

Monday, March 9, 2020

Scars Can Be Badges of Honor, Rather Than Marks of Despair

For some reason I’ve been thinking about scars. They’re not a common conversation topic, but we all have them – whether they’re visible or not. What kind do you have? 

Even though I haven’t had a “hard life,” I’ve managed to accumulate my share of scars. On both hands, behind my index fingers, I have nearly identical scars. I remember “earning” one many years ago when my right hand scraped the sharp edge of a metal door as I carried something out of a retail store. I have no recollection, however, of where the other one came from.

I’m not a “sickly” person, but have had a number of surgeries during my lifetime, and some have helped to expand my scar collection. I have the vertical “zipper” from my open-heart surgery more than 13 years ago. (One of the first things people who have undergone such procedures hear in recovery is, “Welcome to the zipper club!”) I have a small scar from having a torn meniscus repaired on my left knee, and “souvenirs” from a few other surgical procedures. I could have auditioned for the role of “Scar” in “The Lion King,” but I didn’t have the “lion eyes” they were looking for.

You might also bear marks from past operations. Even if you don’t, undoubtedly you carry other types of scars that hearken to various life experiences, maybe even from early childhood: A banged-up knee from a playground outing; an injury sustained while competing in a sport; a cut incurred during a carpentry project, or even stretch marks from significant weight loss, or a pregnancy. 

Many scars can’t be seen with our eyes: Harsh, insensitive words still resonating in our memories. Household conflicts hard for our young minds to understand. Abuse – physical or verbal – suffered through unhealthy relationships. Disappointments and failures we won’t forget.

A whole segment of people carry psychological and emotional scars classified as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder): Veterans who fought in various wars; first responders to horrendous events like 9/11 or fatal traffic accidents; law enforcement officers forced to use lethal force. 

By definition, physical scars are marks left where fibrous connective tissue has developed as wounds, burns or sores were healing. Scarring is a natural part of the healing process, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. The question is, what do we do with our scars? Even if they serve as reminders of difficulties from our past, they don’t need to define us.

A surgical scar, for instance, often serves as visible proof of not just surviving, but overcoming some type of physical pain or struggle. A mark remains, but we’re still here. What about invisible scars of emotional pain? They remain as memories, but needn’t shape our future.

Recently I heard a praise song in which the vocalist sang he was “thankful for the scars.” This reminds me of Scripture passages that speak of how adversity can prove to be a growing experience. For instance, “…we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

Similarly, the apostle James offered these words of admonition: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

Romans 8:28 reminds us, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Not all, but some of those “things” leave scars, even when we can discern how the Lord has used them for our good.

When I think of positive effect scars can provide, what stands out foremost are those Jesus Christ carried from the cross. John 20 tells about Jesus showing them to Thomas as proof of His resurrection; those scars remain as an eternal memorial to what He has done for us all: and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed“ (1 Peter 2:24). 

Yes, even though we might have disliked the processes that brought them to us, we can truly be thankful for the scars.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Comforting Others With the Comfort We’ve Received

One of the recurring questions we hear when we consider life’s realities concerns pain and suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Countless books have been written on the subject, suggesting many possible answers. But the problem remains.

I certainly don’t have any definitive answers or solutions, but I think we find one of the reasons at the opening of one of the apostle Paul’s New Testament letters. He wrote: 
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

The passage goes on to explain how we can both share in one another’s sufferings and in the comfort we experience as we go through them. We dare not underestimate the importance and power of being able to comfort others with the comfort we have received while going through similar trials. 

A year after undergoing open-heart surgery in 2006, when I returned to the hospital to celebrate my “anniversary,” someone asked if I would consider becoming a “cardiac volunteer.” I would visit with patients who recently had also undergone open-heart surgery. I agreed to do so, and for about five years I dedicated one evening a week talking with folks who had gone through procedures similar to mine. 

I couldn’t take away their pain, but was able to share from my own experience, my recuperation process, and by my own example, offer encouragement that better days were ahead for them. Many of them – and family members who were there for my visits – expressed how reassuring it was to hear my perspectives and suggestions for their recovery.

Recently I heard about an even more vivid example of what it means to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” I have a friend, a veteran of the Vietnam war, who heads an organization dedicated to serving military veterans suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), as well as physical wounds from combat, especially those returning from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battle fronts in the Middle East.

Having suffered severe wounds himself, along with the psychological trauma of combat, my friend can identify with the many struggles and challenges returning veterans are confronting. His organization provides a place where these men and women can gather for rest, recreation, nice accommodations and good meals – along with opportunities to interact with people who can offer the hope and comfort that come from a genuine, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

My friend told about one veteran who had lost an arm and both legs from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion in the Middle East. Most of us can’t begin to imagine what that must be like. But during a weekend retreat, which includes a variety of competitions and even hunting, the recovering veteran was able to shoot his first pheasant. The joy he showed was palpable.

Many veterans, even those who have not suffered physical wounds, return home in despair, struggling to reacclimate themselves to civilian life. The suicide rate among this group of heroic people is staggering. So the power of receiving comfort from those who themselves have been comforted is immeasurable.

We might not be able to relate to this particular form of pain, but we all have endured suffering in one way or another. Sometimes the problems were eventually resolved; but often the aftermath continues. Either way, we have the capacity – and privilege – of being able to draw from the comfort God has provided to us and extending it to others. 

Even if the problem can’t be “fixed,” as is usually the case, we can’t put a price on the value of having someone willing to say and demonstrate, “I care” or “I understand.” 

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Wedge That Divides – Or Unites. It’s Our Choice

A friend recently sent me a wedge. Actually, it’s a shim – a thin piece of wood used in construction to fill a space, push things together, or keep them apart. I remember the builders using wedges/shims when they were installing a granite countertop in our kitchen.

The reason my friend sent the shim was to serve as a reminder of how a wedge can either force things closer together – or separate them. We see the positive and negative effects of wedges every day in our society. Unfortunately, for the most part they’re not being utilized to bring people closer. 

We see it in the news and entertainment media, as well as politics – influencers determined to accentuate our differences, to the point of conflict, rather than remind us of things we share in common. As a result, we live in a world perhaps more polarized than ever. Civil conversations between differing parties have become nearly impossible. The social wedge-makers seem to be succeeding in their objectives to push us apart.

But they’re not the only ones using wedges. We see them at work in churches, where rifts over even the most inconsequential things can create great divisions. In the work world, where people teaming up together generally can accomplish the most good, wedges instead can cause strife and dissension, reducing performance and productivity. 

It’s fair to say Jesus Christ viewed Himself as a “Wedge” of sorts, in both senses of the word. He spoke about there being a time for separating people, as well as a time to seeking to bring them together. 

In addressing people who wanted to follow Him, Jesus was uncompromising. His assertions might have caused many to wonder if they were hearing Him correctly. “Say what?” For instance, the Lord declared that His followers had to be all in; no room for the half-hearted or double-minded: 
“If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else – your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27, NLT).

Jesus wasn’t demanding that His followers literally despise those close to them, but He required total commitment, even to the point of putting Him ahead of their own desires and ambitions. "And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me’” (Luke 9:23). 

Undoubtedly, those were hard words for many to accept. However, this “wedge” of separation would ultimately serve to bring His people together. Which is why Jesus told them, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

The apostle Paul wrote about how mutual devotion to the Lord could serve as the kind of wedge that brings accord. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).

But there was one more area where Jesus instructed His followers about the “wedge principle,” one that sounds just as unorthodox and counterintuitive today as it did then. With political parties – and candidates – seemingly bent on destroying one another through a war of words, as well as combative actions, Jesus insisted we’re to do just the opposite.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). Love our enemies? We’re tempted to respond, “Are You kidding me?” 

But Jesus wasn’t being misquoted; He emphatically said it more than once, just in case we missed it the first time:
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27,35-36).

This might have sounded like a new, revolutionary concept, but actually was reflective of a principle introduced in the Old Testament. We find it in Proverbs 25:21-22, which says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

Similar to what we find today, the society in which Jesus ministered consisted of people at odds with one another, ranging from the Roman government to religious leaders to ethnic groups. No wonder many recoiled at the notion of loving their enemies. Nonetheless, Jesus didn’t waver.

While serving as President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln came to the same conclusion. He expressed it another way: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” As Jesus did, Abe understood the same wedge utilized to divide people could also be used to unite them.