It is just a few days after Christmas, and my Christmas song of the year still resounds in my heart and mind. The fact that it is just as true immediately after Christmas 2013 as it was just before Christmas the year God came to earth as a baby, is wonderful to me. The anticipation we celebrate during advent is a picture for us of, and is now eclipsed by, the great anticipation we have at His second coming. I am humbled as I reflect on 2013 to realize that my time and focus points in Scripture this year mirror very closely the stanzas in this wonderful song.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
I studied 1 Peter a little this year. It seemed to keep coming up. Whether it was comfort, or insight to comfort others, in suffering, or exhortations for spiritual leadership, specifically eldership, the book stayed on my radar. But perhaps more than anything the first verse stood out the most because of its application to the great commission. 1 Peter 1:1 - "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia."
The relevance of the book of 1 Peter I find to be best explained by the ESV Study Bible notes: "The book moves in a fluid manner between two poles: the riches that believers have in Christ and the duties they need to shoulder, within the implied situation of their living in a hostile surrounding culture." This first verse is powerful to me because of the perspective it gives on geography and mission, and our existence as exiles and dispersed.
We are exiles, and dispersed. We are lonely here. And we are mourning. But! We are elect. And Emmanuel, the Son of God, is going to appear and ransom us, once and for all. What remarkable news.
O come, our Wisdom from on
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel! God lead me to the Book of Proverbs for wisdom and knowledge this year surrounding two subjects: money and productivity. We focused on money in our small group, and finances in general is something my wife and I are trying to submit to the Lord always, and approach biblically even in daily expenses. Productivity is a topic constantly on the front of my mind as I seek to work in a way that matters to God, for eternity. For those two themes, and more, I hope to be in Proverbs consistently. It is so rich. Here are some examples.
First, on generosity and diligence and its connection to money and possessions:
"One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it."
"A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich."
Then on work and productivity:
"Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer; the rock badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes in the cliffs; the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank; the lizard you can take in your hands, yet it is in the kings' palaces."
As Eric McKiddie says, it is possible to be productive without looking like a productivity guru. Probably the most productive people are those who don’t need tools, apps, etc. Don’t try to look productive. Just get your work done!
O come, O come, our Lord of
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
Much of this year, in church, small group community, and personal study, was focused on the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament. A book entirely about the Lord of might, who to the tribes of Israel in ancient times gave holy law in cloud, and in majesty, and in awe. Through the preaching of Pastor Mark Vroegop at College Park Church, we wrestled with the wonderful truths that God is a God who hears, delivers, provides, commands, is holy, and ultimately, is near. We learned the key lessons that God is supreme, that redemption is amazing to behold, that worship and obedience matter, and that God can be trusted and keeps his promises. What an amazing journey it was! Still we say, O Come Emmanuel!
O come thou Rod of Jesse free, Thine own from Satan's tyranny; From depths of hell thy people save, And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel! Our small group this year had two "theology nights" where either over a bonfire, or an indoor fireplace fire, we gathered and discussed difficult to understand theological topics of Scripture and our faith. The first was on creation and evolution, and the second was on end times. So, we covered the beginning and the end. This year, we will figure out everything in the middle! The discussion on the end times was particularly interesting, and helpful, and we all dug into the Book of Revelation trying to figure out what God desires us to know about something that specifically we will never know (for sure) until it actually happens. But, it is still good to try to know. Among other things, the passages in Revelation, and elsewhere in the New Testament, that talk about Satan being bound dominated much of our conversation. Whenever and however it happens, God actually will, in Jesus, free us from Satan's tyranny. And more than that, he will give us victory over the grave, as He did with Jesus. That victory is not just a spiritual existence in heaven someplace far off, but is (will be) actual physical bodies that will come out of the grave, meet our spirits, and form an eternal physical and spiritual being that will be recognizable as ourselves. Hash tag, mind blown.
O come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel! O come, our Dayspring from on
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
As with every year, there have been some shocking and tragic incidents of suffering in our world, in the news, and surrounding my life. There have also been some less tragic, but just as real experiences of suffering and loss. By the grace of God, my eternal perspective continues to widen and develop as I see these things around me. As I wrote about in the post Eternal Encouragement, I feel strongly that we should be encouraged and encourage others with eternal realities all the time, not just in suffering. For then, when we are actually in the trial, we will know where to look for encouragement: the only place it really exists: in the Bible, in the Gospel, and in Jesus.
The text that has been especially helpful for me is also from 1 Peter: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though for now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
What better place to end the year, and start the next year, than at the end of the Book of Revelation, specifically chapters 21 and 22. Jesus Christ is the desire of every nation and the joy of every longing heart. He is the Alpha and the Omega. He is our alpha and our omega. Tim Keller says, "If you start with yourself you'll never understand your self." And, "The things you want the most you'll never get if you want them the most. If Jesus is your means and everything else is your end, you'll get neither. If everything else is your means and Jesus is your end, you'll get both."
So still we say, O Come! Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
I am finding more and more that God, through His Spirit and His Word, connects the various topics I am interested in or focusing on at a given time. In this case, the focus on missions that originated from the spotlight event at my church, and two books I am reading on the topic, has collided with my long-standing passion for the doctrine of vocation. I have used the hashtag #workmatterstoGod to highlight this topic on Twitter and elsewhere. God intends for us to reach the world for Christ before he returns, and doing so does not just involve dropping everything and living with unreached people and sharing Christ with them. It does mean that. But it also involves day-to-day focus on the global and local spread of the gospel through the everyday work that contributes to the flourishing of the economy and provides people meaningful work. The Evangelization of the World in This Generation By John R. Mott
The early Christians preached the Gospel at every opportunity and in all places. This activity was not limited to stated times and places. Every Christian became an active witness within the sphere of his daily calling. For example, trading craftsmen and traders, like Aquila and Priscilla, went about teaching the faith. A mechanic would tell the story of what Christ had done for him to a member of the same trade, one slave to his fellow slave, one member of a family to another. This constant collision of individual souls became the most effective means for the diffusion of the knowledge of Christ.
From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker
In Labrador, Moravian missionaries supported themselves through trade, with enough money left over to provide basic necessities for needy Eskimos. They owned strips and trading posts, and through their example they interested Eskimos in productive pursuits. The effect of their ministry was not only to bring the gospel to the people but also to make an impact on the native economy and social conditions. In Surinam, the Moravians established a variety of businesses, including tailoring, watchmaking, and baking. As their economic influence grew, so did their spiritual influence, and a thriving Moravian church emerged in that country.
"The most important contribution of the Moravians," writes William Danker, "was their emphasis that every Christian is a missionary and should witness through his daily vocation. If the example of the Moravians had been studied more carefully by other Christians, it is possible that the businessman might have retained his honored place within the expanding Christian world mission, beside the preacher, teacher, and physician."
I love old books. I love them so much, that I could be tempted to never share them. God forbid! The Lord has blessed my library in a way that he calls me to be a blessing to others. So here is a gem I've been reading recently. The following is a powerful selection on the importance of a focus on foreign missions for the health of a local body of believers. It is especially relevant for me right now, as my church is concluding a spotlight on missions called REACH, under the banner of the often repeated phrase, "This is for That". This - the local church, the Sunday service - is for that - spreading the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world. And its time for that. May the obligation, urgency, and scope of this great commission both create, and stem from, the spiritual health and unity of the local church!
Title: The Evangelization of the World in This Generation Author: John R. Mott Publication Date: 1900
"Continuance in the sin of neglect and disobedience necessarily weakens the life and arrests the growth of the Church. Who can measure the loss of vitality and power that she has already suffered within our own day from her failure to do all in her power for the world's evangelization? The Christians of today need some object great enough to engage all the powers of their minds and hearts. We find just such an object in the enterprise to make Christ known to the whole world. This would call out and utilize the best energies of the Church. It would help to save her from some of her gravest perils - ease, selfishness, luxury, materialism, and low ideals. It would necessitate, and therefore greatly promote, real Christian unity, thus preventing an immense waste of force. It would act favorably on Christians countries. There is no one thing which would do so much to promote work on the behalf of the cities and neglected country districts of the home lands as a vast enlargement of the foreign missionary operations. This is not a matter of theory; for history teaches impressively that the missionary epochs have been the times of greatest activity and spiritual vigor in the life of the home church."
I have been struggling recently with how to encourage people who are hurting, or people who have someone close to them hurting, especially people in the "last third" of their life, as a friend has put it. That is, people who are nearing retirement, are empty nesters, and perhaps physically or mentally not what they used to be. First third would be childhood; second third would be higher education, marriage, building a career, and raising children; last third would be after all that, or at least past the height of all that. As a Christian, it is not a good thing to be struggling with how to encourage here. This is supposed to be what we are good at. We have the words of life. We have the link from this life to the life to come, namely, the Bible. We have the best news in the world, the gospel. We have plenty of material to encourage with, and we have the Holy Spirit himself inside us as an unending fountain of encouragement. But it is still hard. I have found that it is hard in a sense because until people are in their last third, which could be before they think, before retirement, kids out of the house, ailments, etc., we can easily be deceived into thinking the encouragement doesn't yet apply to them. How tragic!
When I started in the foam business, I began as an interim production supervisor in our local facility. It was a "baptism by fire" experience, as they say. There was a lot to learn real quickly, a lot of conflict to resolve, a lot of fires to put out, and just a lot of fast pace stress. I remember working every Saturday for two months. I remember sitting in with the Plant Manager with an employee who had brought a gun to work and told a fellow employee about it in anger. I also remember a lot of really good people who were a pleasure to work with, and made my job supervising them very easy because they were so good at what they did. They knew the customers and the parts in and out, and so all I really had to do was keep track of where things stood and make sure everyone knew their role and when they were needed for what.
One of those people was Brenda. A soft-spoken lady with a slight draw, she single-handedly for years produced the numerous and complicated parts for a very big marine customer. I remember when she went on vacation the plant faltered a bit, and the customer noticed. She was really good at her job, extremely important to the company, and very helpful for me as I was learning and attempting to supervise the day to day. After I moved out of the plant to "corporate", I loved going out to the plant randomly wandering around. Her working area was directly across the plant from the door I went out, and I would try to always pass by her and catch up. I regret I did not make these wandering trips more often. But she always had a smile and seemed really glad to see me, and it was great to chat for a few minutes. In the whole company (5 plants across the state) there really isn't another employee with whom I had or have this kind of relationship, at least from the standpoint of being around and working alongside me in my first months.
Brenda unfortunately was a smoker. Earlier this year, after 24 years working with us, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to stop working to undergo treatment. They caught it late, and it had already spread to her lymph nodes. A little more than a week ago, she suffered a heart attack. The following weekend, she passed away.
I am struck by how quick life can be taken from us. The Bible says that life is like grass; it withers. Here today and tomorrow gone. I don't think this means that our life is like grass in that it is only as important as grass, but rather, that life is like grass in that it is short and fleeting. But since it is so important, to withhold eternal encouragement from people because they don't seem to need it yet - as if old age and sickness is the only sign of needing it - is just tragic. And I really want to not withhold it anymore, or wait until it is too late.
Two days before Brenda died (Thursday), I wrote her a letter that I gave to a co-worker who was going to visit her the next day (Friday). I was going out of town with my wife's family that Thursday night. She died Saturday. At her visitation Brenda's daughter told me that she read it to her, and Brenda said it was beautiful. The timing was all very sobering for me. As my wife said to me, the word of God is not bound. O, how profound and wonderful!
In the letter I had written, I hope, were words of eternal encouragement - the only kind that matters. And the kind that is always needed, whether you are young and healthy, old and sick, or somewhere in the middle. The Bible is true and Jesus is everything. To the young and perfectly healthy, or to the middle aged with mild ailments, or the old and terminally ill, or some combination or anywhere in between, I hope these words to Brenda can give you eternal and lasting encouragement, hope, and joy:
"First, I wanted to say that I miss you around Foamcraft. I miss seeing and catching up with you when I wander out in the plant (which is still too rare!). I want to be able to encourage you, but I recognize there is very little I can say considering your very difficult situation. But I want to try! I believe that even when there is very little physical or earthly hope, there is still eternal hope. I hope you believe that also! I want you to know I've been thinking of you and praying for you often. And a couple Scripture passages have come to mind and helped me in that process, and I wanted to share with you if you don't mind.
"Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent." - Psalm 71:9
"So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again." - Psalm 71:18-21
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though for now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." - 1 Peter 1:3-7 "Brenda, I pray that this somehow can be true for you, and in turn encouragement, and even joy."
DEATH BY LIVING
I had this collection of related thoughts come to me the other day, the kind of thoughts that, at least for me, inspire a blog post. And then scanning twitter I realized that someone else recently had the exact same collection of thoughts, and wrote a book about it. Stole my thunder, he did. But, I am sure the author put a lot more time and thought into it than I would have been able to, so without reading it, I commend to you the book Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson. I am going to read it at some point because I am very intrigued by the topic, clearly, as it came to my mind without knowing about the book.
Then, an absolute tragedy occurred within a church family in my city. The type of tragedy when you hear about you want to stop thinking about, if you can, because it is so sad.
But in case you don't want to read the book, or if you haven't heard much about this event, or the way God is using it for his good, here is some of my thought process in light of these things, and certainly with the passing of Brenda, surrounding the topic of living and dying well.
We sure gravitate to extremes, don't we? In everything, I feel like many of the problems or misunderstandings we have in life result from erring on one extreme or the other, neglecting a healthy balance. Let me give you an example.
I get the impression that many people would be uncomfortable if I said that all of life was actually just preparing for eternity. Or, that our main focus should be preparing to die and being able to die well. Discomfort with this mentality is understandable, because this is an extreme. It basically assumes that the life before we die is less important than the eternity we will die into, either everlasting joy in heaven, or everlasting separation and judgment in hell. It is right in the sense that we should want to die well, and there are ways to prepare for that, namely, from the Christian perspective, treasuring Jesus Christ more than possessions, family, friends, and even your health, so that when you lose these things you will still praise Jesus knowing you can never lose him. But it is an extreme in the sense that we shouldn't only be focused on eternity after this life. Eternity is longer than our lives on earth, but that doesn't mean it is more important. And actually, eternity is already well under way, so to say a focus on eternity excludes the here and now would be wrongheaded.
So the (over)reaction to this is: instead of only preparing for eternity, or preparing to die, life should be focused solely on preparing to live. Or, that we should be maximizing the life we have now, without much, if any, concern for death or anything after death. YOLO. You only live once, the youngsters say (I am a youngster, I think).This is the other extreme. It basically assumes that there is no specific way to "die well", and if we enjoy and get the most out of every minute of our life, than we automatically will die in as well a way as possible, given the uncontrollable nature of such a thing as death. It is right in the sense that we should be very prepared, and concerned, for the way we live, and everything about our life before death is very important and matters. But it is an extreme if life here and now is focused on at the cost of neglecting things that will affect us for eternity (which is a long time), such as specific decisions for faith in Christ and repentance from sin, and biblical understandings of suffering so that when it comes we aren't surprised or hopeless.
LIVE WELL TO DIE WELL
At the end of film The Last Samurai, the young Emperor of Japan asks Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) about the death of his mentor and friend, Katsumato. He asks, "Can you tell me how he died?" To Samurai culture, and by extension to Japanese culture, even in the New World portrayed in the movie, the way someone died was a big deal. To die with honor was an important priority, even if what it meant to die with honor is different than what we would think (committing suicide before being killed, if possible). So for a great warrior like Katsumato, the way he died was always on his mind, and was important and interesting information after it actually happened. Algren answered the Emperor, "I will tell you how he lived."
Classic, epic movie line. Just fantastic. I love this movie by the way. But consider what it communicates. On the positive end, it communicates that the culture that prioritized death so highly was an extreme, especially in the sense that it neglected the detail and honor of the life of a respectable warrior and man. So in that way the emphasis on the life instead of the death is important and good. But on the negative end, Algren basically outright ignores the Emperor's actual question. Does it not still matter how he died? Not just specific to the culture, but in general. And I don't mean just physically how he died, whether the sword went through his heart or slit his throat. I mean, and I think the Emperor meant, how did he die, like did he die honorably? Was it a fitting end to a faithful life? For us, I think this matters, though differently than with Japanese Samurai. Yes, it does matter how we live. So farewell to the perspective of only caring how we die, or only preparing for death and life after death. But if that is the extreme that is most tempting to us, which I would argue for many Christians it is, let us not swing all the way to the other extreme and not consider the importance of dying well and therefore not preparing to do so. We are all going to die, you know. The less denial in this area, at any age, with whatever health, the better we are going to be able to live.
That gets me back to the discomfort I spoke of earlier. I think we are uncomfortable with the language "preparing to die". But since we need to do that, despite our discomfort, and since we now agree that we don't want to do that in a way that neglects or discounts the importance of how we live, I want to make the case that the way we prepare in both cases, and the way we encourage others who are in whatever circumstance - sick or well, young or old - is the same. We should strive to live in such a way that will inevitably prepare us to die well. Live well to die well. Ultimately, I am challenging the assumption that it is even possible to die well unless we live well, and encouraging us to live well knowing that one (maybe the most important) end result will be that it will prepare us to die well. To say it another way, and to steal the wording from the summary of the upcoming book I mentioned, "to truly live we must recognize that we are dying." That sums it up. Very profound. Think about that.
We are all dying. Whether in hospice with days to weeks, or just diagnosed with a disease with an unclear prognosis, or at home from work sick on the couch, or feeling fine with a cool drink and sand in your toes, or energetic and contributing much to your job, or physically aching and mentally strong, or mentally confused and physically strong, young with friends, old without anyone - we are dying. But of course, if you are reading this, we are all living also. Whether in the last hour of life, or the first hour of life, we are alive. And shouldn't the encouragement be the same? Yes, I think so. Live well to die well. I hope that takes away a little of the discomfort, because if this is true, I think we can really encourage elderly people who are statistically "closer" to death, without implying in our encouragement that it is only for them because they are about to die, whereas before it wouldn't have been encouragement. Of course it would have been. Does that make sense? The encouragement for someone who is older about how to live the time they have left and die well whenever that is, is the same encouragement that all the rest of us need. So to give it to someone who happens to be older, or sicker, than us, should not be insulting or awkward or uncomfortable, even if it implies that they are dying. Because so are we. Right? Perhaps even before them, if the Lord would have it that way.
So here is my encouragement. To warn you, it is not physical encouragement, like if you are sick God will definitely heal you (he might, and he can!), or earthly encouragement such as if you don't like or just lost your job, God will lead you to a better one or improve the situation where you are (but he is able!); the encouragement I have, the only encouragement I know of that is always true and always applies no matter your circumstance, is eternal.
The following is the "overview and response" from Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis to the tragic bus accident that took the life of Chad and Courtney Phelps, and their unborn baby, parents of and survived by little 2 year-old Chase; and Tonya Weindorf, wife of and survived by Charles Weindorf, and mother to and survived by five children. It is the most profound and wonderfully shocking example of biblical rejoicing in suffering I have ever read:
"On Saturday, July 27. 2013, at around 4:30 p.m., the Lord allowed a bus accident to take Pastor Chad and Courtney Phelps and their unborn baby, and Mrs. Tonya Weindorf, home to enjoy Him in His presence forever (Psalm 16:11, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Hebrews 11:13-16). Dozens of our children and teens were returning from a week at camp when the accident occurred with the teen bus. The Lord spared the lives of all 33 teenagers and 2 children on board and the bus driver, although many are still recovering from significant injuries. God's mercies in this tragedy are too many to recite (Psalm 103), and we magnify his sovereign goodness even in the moment of sorrow (Psalm 119:68, Romans 8:28-20). We believe the Biblical message of good news that God willingly and lovingly sacrificed His own son, Jesus Christ, upon the cross in order that we might be rescued from the penalty of our sins; and because that same Jesus rose from the dead, we of all people have an assured hope of eternity beyond the grave through His resurrection and life (John 10:21-27). Furthermore, we have heard of God drawing people to Himself in saving faith through this situation, and we're amazed by a God who brings beauty out of ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). For these reasons and many more, we rejoice, even as we sorrow! "Countless numbers of believers, churches, businesses, and community organizations have sent flowers, expressed prayer, posted strengthening words, and been a ministry of God's grace to our church family at this time. We cannot overstate the encouragement you have been to our church family, and we want to humbly thank you all for your loving and generous kindness, especially to those families directly affected by this accident. "God's grace is being found to be sufficient for our every need (2 Corinthians 12:9-10), and we are grateful for the rich and everlasting hope we have in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58) - since 'absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,' (2 Corinthians 5:8) we do not 'sorrow not as those who have no hope' (1 Thessalonians 4:13018), for an everlasting reunion is promised with friends and family who have gone before, and in our midst will be our accomplished and victorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Revelation 21:1-5, 22-23)."
This kind of response might be shocking, even repulsive, to you. How could God allow this kind, or any kind, of suffering to bring about good? Perhaps the reason this response is hard to stomach is because the promises included do not apply to you. By that I mean, the promises of God in Christ for forgiveness, resurrection, and enduring grace in suffering are not yours because you have never put your trust in Him to be your substitute, savior, and your Lord.
Whatever the case for you, I pray that you can delicately reflect on the Scripture passages referenced above, and patiently open your heart for the God of the universe to speak gently and profoundly to your soul. He will. If these eternal truths can be encouragement even for those who have experienced so tragic a situation as this, how much more should it to us - whose sufferings are by comparison light and momentary - be lasting and unbreakable encouragement and hope? O, I pray that it is for anyone and everyone reading! As for me, I will continue to rejoice (Philippians 1:18-26).
I think there is a misunderstanding about what it means to "give your life to Jesus". I think the misunderstanding stems from the fact that some are preoccupied with what this means will be lost, and ignore or are blind to what it means will be gained. And this preoccupation results in a resistance to do so. I think this because I know people in all the categories I am about to mention. I was myself in all of them at one time.
Some are resistant to give their life to Jesus because they fear it will mean an intellectual loss. They fear that they will have to concede to a truth that they don't believe to be possible or necessary, and in the process will surrender some amount of their intellectualism or even intelligence.
Some are resistant because they fear it will mean a behavioral loss. They fear they will have to give up or change a behavior or lifestyle that is considered immoral or not in their best interest, but that they believe is either perfectly fine or neutral.
Some are resistant because they fear it will be a literal loss of relationships or possessions. They fear that they will have to break ties with family or friends who don't follow them as they follow Jesus, or they will have to give up literal possessions as they live more sacrificially loving God and others.
Some amount of all this is true as it pertains to what giving your life to Jesus means you will lose. And I could work through that and clarify what is true, and what is more complicated than just an outright "loss" of something. But what I would rather do is fix the preoccupation. I would rather highlight what is to be gained. Large amounts of paper have been filled with explaining what the "loss" of becoming a Christian - giving your life to Jesus - really means; how it is different than you thought, or not as bad as you think, or what. But I don't believe that is the approach of Scripture. In the Word of God, we see the wonder of what is to be gained. And then when we compare the difference, it is worlds apart.
Peter tells us that after we have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. Because to him be the dominion forever and ever.
First of all - and this is difficult to say - this promise is not for those who are not in Christ, and who have not given their life to Jesus. It is difficult to say because the Bible is so helpful, but for those outside Christ, it is foolishness. And I know people outside Christ, and the only thing that I know will really help them, Scripture, is now to them foolishness. I could quote Scripture all day and without Christ it is likely going to fall on deaf ears, but by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit (that is a very big but!). Once you give your life to Jesus, the words and truth of Scripture are wonderful and helpful. So in the meantime, trusting the Holy Spirit to illuminate what would otherwise be foolishness, let me help facilitate giving your life to Jesus, or encourage you if you already have.
You have to understand who Jesus is. Then you have to understand what Jesus did, and how it applies to you. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by all things were made, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things were made through him and for him. And he is before all things and in him and all things hold together. Let me say that one again. In him all things hold together. So whatever the "cost" or "loss" of giving your life to Jesus, the gain here is incomparable. It is a fair interpretation to say the implication of this verse is that outside him all things fall apart. So the loss outside Jesus is worst case scenario. And we are still just on who Jesus is. What about what he did?
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (of whom I am the foremost, by the way). Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. God, the Father, the creator of all, made him, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him. He, Jesus, knew no sin. Yet, God made him to be sin. Why? On our behalf, so that we might have his righteousness - right standing - credited to us as we stand before a holy God who warrants justice and sacrifice for our wickedness. Jesus was put forth as a substitution for us by his blood, to absorb the wrath of God that we deserve.
That is the Jesus who commands you to give your life to him. The Jesus who is the image of the invisible God and in whom and through whom and for him and by whom all things were created and hold together. That Jesus, who came to earth, became like us in every way, yet was without sin, and died on our behalf so that we could share his perfect standing with God because of his sacrifice. And we are preoccupied with what giving our life to this Jesus will cost?! May it never be. What is to be gained is far better.
I think that all people know the authentic attitude of their heart. If you say or even pray that you have given your heart and life to Jesus, but you haven't completely, I think you will know it. We don't need to spend too much time clarifying exactly what it means to give your "whole" life to Jesus. If you haven't yet, you know it. God writes his law on our hearts, so we know. He says that if we seek to gain our life, we will lose it. If after giving our heart to Jesus, there is still some seeking for gain outside Jesus, then it will be clear to us that we have not given our whole heart and our whole life to Jesus. Let's not get bogged down in the grey area. Once you know there isn't a grey area, then it should be clear.
But I know it is not easy to surrender all that you know. I know that is it hard, seemingly impossible, to not be preoccupied with what will be lost. I know that what will, or you think will, be lost is dear to you. I know this because I am a hoarder at heart, just like you. Do you watch the show Hoarders? You should. If for nothing else, you should watch it to check your self. That's what I do. For me, not only is it convicting because without Christ, it is quite possible that I would end up like those people in regards to the amount of physical stuff I would have. Ask my wife. But also, it is generally convicting because I see in my heart the same tendency to hold on to things that seem to make my life more comfortable and familiar, but actually are just more enslaving and disastrous. And the people on that show, like me, are almost completely blind or indifferent about what will be gained if they change their life: more walking space in their house, cleanliness, joy and peace instead of anxiety, etc. They are preoccupied with what they will lose. Not that shirt! Not that old toaster! Let me just keep that old stereo (that doesn't work) and throw away the other one (which actually does)!
So knowing this, I want to encourage you with some of what you will gain by giving your whole life to Jesus, and what you will continue to gain once you have, or if you already have. That is what matters. There is more than this that will be gained. But this is a lot. The God of all grace will restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
Do you need to be restored? Do you have brokenness? Has a relationship, or a situation, or an injustice, or a mistake, or a failure, or a tragedy, led to brokenness in your life? Are you tired of temporary restoration that doesn't prevent more brokenness in the future? Are you tired of pretend restoration that is really just an act as you hide your still present brokenness? Don't you want to be restored? The God of all grace, that is, Jesus, who called us to eternal glory, will restore you. You will gain eternal restoration in Christ. That is worth any loss, is it not?
Do you need to be confirmed? Are you tired of the inconsistent, unfulfilling approvals and confirmation from others? Are you tired of the anxiety of not knowing if you are good enough, or ever will be? Are you ready to be done doubting whether God really loves you or can forgive even your sin? Do want to be confirmed, once and for all, that you are a child of God, and if a child, also an heir? Jesus has caused us to be born again, according to his great mercy, to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you! Are you ready to give your life to Jesus knowing that ultimately all that it will cost you is perishable, defiled, and fading anyway? Do you want to be confirmed in your standing, and your inheritance that is eternal?
Do you need to be strengthened? Are your physically, mentally, and emotionally tired? Do you have trouble getting up in the morning because your job is either too hard and strenuous, or too boring and seemingly meaningless, and you just can't muster the strength to go? Do you want supernatural energy to face the complexity of that conversation or situation, or intensity of that task? Are you ready to be able to have an eternal perspective in every even mundane and fleeting situation, yet also have the attention and awareness to be where you are every moment? Do you want to be able to run as fast as you used to, or hit a golf ball as far? Wouldn't you rather not have to run or just hit them straight instead of far? (I digress). In Christ, you will be able to do all things through him who strengthens you. All things? Yes! All things that matter. In Christ, you will have the strength to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ - to apply to every situation. God will strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.
Do you need to be established? Is there an unfinished nature about everything you do? Do you feel like the accomplishments and efforts in your life are in constant flux and not permanent? Are you tired of constantly working for some status or standing that seems elusive? Are you unsure if you will ever be "presented mature in Christ" and what that will even look like? Are you waiting for a moment or a sign? Are you just waiting to graduate? Will you be established just as soon as you get that job? Or get married? Or have a family? Or once your kids graduate, get a job, or get married, or have kids of their own, who graduate (on so on)? Or once you can retire? Or write that book, or finish that project? Or? Don't you need to be established? The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. It is God who establishes us in Christ, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. In Christ, you will be seen with good order and firmness of faith. If you receive Christ Jesus the Lord, and walk in him, you will be rooted and built up in him - a foundation not like sand that is washed away, but like rock, unmovable - established in the faith.
I could even be so bold to say I think it is one of the best songs written in my lifetime. I love it. Why? Well, mostly, because it makes me want to preach. Not like, it makes me want to be a preacher - that is not my gifting nor my call. But this song inspires me to want to preach. Think of it like when someone may say, that makes me want to sing (or dance)! That does not mean they want to, or think they should, become a singer or a dancer. Which is good. Those people should probably not become singers or dancers, and in the same way I shouldn't become a preacher. But just like you want to sing in the shower sometimes, I still want to preach sometimes, and may even dabble a bit, if not behind a pulpit, then behind a screen or maybe even around a table and a cup of coffee.
This very well-written, memorable but not annoying, simple but unique, delightful folk song (and video) makes me want to preach because I am very convinced about something that this songwriter seems to question, but still wrestle with, and with that I can identify. But I am so convinced that I am compelled to joyfully shout from the rooftops (or the internet) that there is a glorious reality that doesn't have to be questioned, though it rightfully warrants some wrestling. I say it warrants some wrestling, because I don't expect anyone to come to this realization free from struggle; indeed that struggle perhaps is inevitable.
What am I so convinced of?
First, there is a reason things are this way. Second, the "love that will find a way" is not a concept or an illusion, but it is a person. He has a name. I wonder if you know him?
THERE IS A REASON
Is there a reason things are this way? Or is this how they've always been and they intend to stay? Why do we say the things we say, every day? Are we gonna keep on building prisons and fill them all, and keep on building bombs and drop them all? Do we have baskets of lemons that all taste the same, and a window with a pigeon with a broken wing? Do we spend our whole life working for something, only to have it taken away? Is there chaos and commotion wherever we go? Is there a reason we live this way, every day?
I am sure you know my answer, lest you think what inspires me to want to preach is a depressing message of hopelessness. Can you imagine? You get all dressed up, get your whole family ready for church, make the 20 minute drive with children screaming, get all settled in your pew, sing a few songs, and the pastor gets up, looks you in the eye with a smile, and declares, "There is no reason or explanation for the futility and suffering in your life. There is absolutely no answer for the hard questions, and no hope for the beggar outside your door. I can't explain the reason for the way we live every day. If you stub your toe on the way out, don't say I didn't warn you. God bless you and good luck out there. Amen."
No! That is not my answer. My answer is that the pigeon's broken wing is proof that his wing is supposed to not be broken. Think about it. Have you ever thought of life in that way before? What is the big deal about a pigeon who can't fly because of a broken wing? Who cares if we can't walk because of a broken leg? Those are ridiculous questions because it is obvious to us that wings are meant to fly and legs are meant to walk, and those things not happening results in pain, and seems unnatural. God cares about pigeons, you know. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But would it really be obvious that wings are meant to fly and legs to walk if they always worked without any problem? Would we know that pain hurts if we only ever had the lack of pain? How would we know our sin if we never sinned? Or that it was bad? If things weren't this way, how would we know they shouldn't be?
This is not a mind trick (haha). I'm not necessarily arguing that "the reason" things are this way is simply to show us that they shouldn't be. The God of the Universe is more profound (and gracious) than that. I'm trying to convince you that there is, of course, a reason, and the existence of unexplainable, even painful things does not inherently mean there is not a reason for them. Of course there is. Right? We can and should question what the reason is, but good heavens, let us not settle that there isn't one!
Scripture is very helpful on this question, if not specifically to the pigeon or the existence of prisons or bombs or slavery or death, but certainly in general. Let's look at the best chapter in the Bible (Romans 8). Paul says that he considers that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. So, yes, "things are this way". There is suffering. But how tragic to only acknowledge that reality without also acknowledging the equally true reality of glory. That doesn't give us a specific reason for the suffering but it tells us first and foremost alongside the suffering is the true reality of future glory. That alone should give us a lot of comfort. A lot. Like, all we need.
But Paul helps us more. He says that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. Ok, so, still no reason. But! Our only comfort is not the acknowledgement of a coexisting reality with suffering. It is not as if God only says, take heart, I know your broken leg hurts, but know that it is supposed to not hurt. So take heart. You are right that it hurts. But also true is its supposed to feel neutral. Isn't that good news?
No! God desires us to eagerly long for it not to hurt! Not just know it is supposed to not hurt, but eagerly long for it not to! Eager longing does not give us a reason. But it does give us something to do in the meantime, and it certainly further contradicts any possibility that there isn't a reason.
Paul continues: For the creation was subjected to futility. (Duh, we already knew that). Not willingly! This was not our choice. It was not our idea to have our legs be breakable, or worse, for prisons to be necessary, or bombs exist with the sole purpose to destroy. So what's up? Why was the creation subjected to futility? Are we going to get our reason now? Because of him who subjected it. What? Who him? God? Why?
In hope! What hope? That the creation itself would be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Wait a minute.
Am I saying that God subjected the world to bad things for the sole purpose of fixing those bad things? Like, he broke my dishwasher just so he could fix it? Was he bored? Was he trying to show off?
I am getting close to blasphemy here you know. But I'm just putting words in your mouth, so actually you are getting close to blasphemy (see what I did there?). Seriously though, we need to understand the hope that Paul is talking about here. In hope. What hope? That we would be free from bondage, which we didn't choose, and that logically should have never existed if God was just going to free us from it anyway. But guess what? God is God. And we really are in bondage. And God is not to blame for our bondage. Don't go down that road. Please, for the love of God, don't lie to yourself all your life that your sin, and your captivity to things that you wish you didn't do or say, and the evil in the world, is God's fault. We know it isn't. We know! Why else would Jesus come to earth, identify with us in every way, yet not sin? If he wanted to identify with us in every way, he should have sinned also, right? Unless! Unless, God in his grace was saying, "Even though it's your fault, I am going to free you from it. I did not create it, I hate it, and I'm getting rid of it. And the reason it should be clear to you that you alone are to blame for it, and it wasn't some ironic predicament that I created for myself just so I could solve it and be amused, is because of the way I am going to free you. I am going to deliver my only Son, one with my being, over to suffering, death, and separation. For you."
I hate to break it to you, but hope is not a reason. We still, actually, aren't at a reason why things are this way. But where we are is even better. Christian hope means that whatever the reason, we know, without any shadow of a doubt, what the reason isn't. The reason isn't - couldn't! - be that God doesn't love us. He sent his Son to die. It couldn't be that he doesn't love us!
LOVE WILL SET US FREE
Do you believe? Do you know it will? Yes! And guess what? Love is not elusive. The music video above masterfully sets up the scenario with people living ordinary lives - selfishly is his implication - minding their business unaware of their surroundings or the suffering in the world. Then, in almost creepy fashion, he sets various hurting people in the exact context of these people going about their lives. Below minimum wage workers, wounded soldiers, the homeless, women and children in captivity and hungry; and the face of the hurting people is hopelessness and helplessness, and the face of the ordinary people is conviction.
But where is the love? He says he does believe that love will set us free. He says he knows it will. Yes! He says. But where is it? What is it? What are we to say to the hurting people? To ourselves?
Friends, love is not elusive. Love is God. Yes, God is love, but more than that, love is God. Love is Jesus. This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins. He made him, Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin for our sake. That in him we might become the righteousness of God.
There is a reason things are this way. But we both know and don't know that reason. We know that love will set us free. And we know that love is not a what or a why, but a who. It is Jesus. I wonder, do you know him?
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully,11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Most times, a blog post for me originates from an emotional or deep spiritual experience, maybe ever so slight, at a church service, or even listening to music and praying in the car on the way to work. God enlightens me, His Spirit is illuminated through truth in His Word, and I have something I feel worthy to be shared. Because of this, my expectation usually is that my sharing will initiate the same experience in you. I realize this is not a given. But, I believe it is worth the effort.
The song that accompanies this montage has become one of my favorites. When I listen to it, the repetition convicts me that I'm not realizing or experiencing the grace of God deeply enough. Like ok, I get it: God loves me and demonstrated that love for me in that while I was yet a sinner, he died for me. That's pretty awesome. And then the Spirit pleads: "Yes, but do you really see this??" And I say, yeah, you're right, it is not just pretty awesome, it is amazing. Amazing grace. And he says, "Yes, but! Do you really understand the amazement of this?" And I say, you're right! Its not just amazing, it is unfathomable. "Yes, but! It is not just about your understanding. Do you feel this in your heart?" And so on we go. Soon, the only appropriate reaction is falling on my knees. And the song and the Spirit continue: It covers me! It covers me! I say: thank you Lord. Thank you Lord! I am not worthy, yet you love me, and cover me with your grace. And the Spirit says, "Yes, but! Do you feel it, and are you experiencing it, in your soul? Is it transforming you minute by minute?!"
The song could be 10 minutes long with the same lyrics, and still the Spirit would be speaking and pleading with me. If I had the opportunity to exhort a group of people with this song playing in the background, I would attempt to reenact this dialogue with the Spirit I have highlighted. I would press to the most practical level, and say, "Yes, you understand the grace, yes you feel the grace, yes you are experiencing the grace as transformation...but!! This is not just a temporary experience! It should be a constant reality in the Christian life."
Do you see, feel, and experience the overflowing grace of God when you are in a meeting, and no one is on the same page as you, and their questions and interruptions make it impossible to achieve the goal set before you, and your frustration boils up? Are you able, by this grace of God, with patience and a smile, to embrace an eternal perspective and boldly yet graciously simplify, clarify, and direct in a way to bring about resolution?
Do you see, feel, and experience the overflowing grace of God when you are at home with screaming children, and a dish is pushed off the counter and juice is spilled on the carpet? Are you able, by this amazing grace of God, to patiently yet forcibly discipline in an way that is encouraging for you children?
Do you see, feel, and experience the overflowing grace of God when you are stuck in traffic, get cut off when changing lanes, and later approach that same person who cut you off? Are you able, by the transforming grace of God, to offer a smile to that person that communicates forgiveness and grace, yet a certain amount of "go and sin no more" without being judgmental?
Pick your example.
It covers me. Grace flows down and covers me. It covers me! Thank you Jesus!
The teaching, words, and ministry of many people (to be referenced and credited periodically) have contributed significantly to the thoughts and efforts of the writings posted on this site, perhaps in some cases verbatim. May God make me invisible and show me as helpless, show the people quoted and referenced as humble and anointed, and most importantly show Jesus Christ as infinitely glorious and irresistibly desirable.