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THE OTHER SIDE OF UGLY

My wife and I spend a lot of time with our granddaughter, and I often ponder the sort of world she will have to grow up in. I think of how much has changed in just ten years and shudder at her future. Thankfully the role I can have as a grandfather is joining her parents in raising her to love Jesus and ultimately live in His Kingdom, a kingdom far different than the one we live in during these brief years. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 

WRONG ASSUMPTIONS

I find those struggling in ministry face the same challenge.  Many of them struggle because of a bad assumption that they deserve a better world than the one they’ve been given. It’s why I’m meeting with them. Their assumption that their context must improve before they can ever experience health and joy again is false. I try to help them understand that faith in something larger provides a path that allows us, invites us to live an ordered, healthy and even joyful life despite what is happening to us or around us. It happened to me some years ago.

My wife, Elaine, and I found ourselves in a ministry that I can only describe as deeply disappointing leading us to take a three day retreat to get our bearing.  It was there, following some professional counseling and after reading a great book appropriately titled, Before You Quit, by Blaine Allen, that my head and heart did clear. I was reminded especially by the book that throughout scripture God’s servants faced deep hardships. Their world was harsh, but their souls could withstand that harshness because their flag was planted on another kingdom, one they could trust. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

WHAT JOY! 

They knew this life, this context, even this ministry God called them to was not perfect, was messy and full of ugliness. I found from this time away that it was possible to live a quiet, purposful life in an uncertain world full of trouble. I returned  to ministry with a new, fresh perspective.

Interestingly the context I returned to did not improve. Things actually got harder, but we survived because we did not need it to get better. Our health, the state of our minds and the quality of our faith did not depend on this ministry being healthy. What anchors us soundly to this perspective is the story of Jesus best seen in his dying moment on the cross. “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame….” (Hebrews 12:2)

For the joy set before him, he endured… What joy? It was his knowing the cross, the symbol of cruelty, built by ugly men with ugly hearts would be the means to express the deepest love imaginable, a love extended even to those who crucified him. Even to us, culpable in his death. That joy! The same joy available to me following a cruel church meeting where the ugly hearts of church people burst wide open in a place meant for worship. That same joy offered to the pastor who wants to quit because he feels abandoned by the sheep he hoped to lead. The same joy provided to the shattered missionary forced home by team members he’d hoped would have helped him reach the lost around them.

It’s the joy of knowing that on the other side of the ugly, stands God Himself with wide open arms. The door to that embrace is the ugly-rugged-despised cross.

While I cannot guarantee that Anora, my granddaughter, will grow up in a better world than ours, I can be assured that by trusting Jesus she can survive and thrive in this world knowing her real place, her real home is with Jesus. And the same can be said of all of us who long for his return.

“As outfitted soldiers of God, standing firm, we can say the same thing, … Satan may kill the body, but he cannot touch the soul. He may take all that we have, but he cannot have all that we are. God’s child may lose everything, but he will be known forever as the one who got it all.” – Blaine Allen Before You Quit

My Healthy Struggle with Healing

I remember once preaching a really good sermon on healing. It contained all the ring of truth and was received with enthusiasm and praise. I felt good about myself after that sermon because I had wonderfully exposited on a difficult issue. I would not be able to preach on healing with such confidence and polished skill if I were asked to do so now. I do not assert here that I no longer believe that God heals; on the contrary, I believe firmly that God is able to heal. I am simply and honestly uncertain why it so rarely happens. My belief seems to clash with what I observe. I have prayed for God to fully heal my wife who has suffered now for over eighteen years from the impact of a brain tumor, and later, when my son Travis was dying, we prayed fervently for his healing. For his own reasons, God chose to not heal my son, and for his own gracious reasons he’s provided Elaine the courage and joy to press on without the benefit of full healing. 

My first real encounter with the struggle of healing occurred in the early months of my ministry when I was a youth pastor in North Carolina. Shortly after we arrived, Don, the pastor, took me aside one day and shared that his wife had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was saddened, but confident that God was going to display His power in the church through her healing. I tried to affirm this hope, but deep inside I was attempting in vain to drown out the skeptical voice suggesting it wasn’t all that easy. I had seen many people pump themselves with faith, convinced that somehow enough scripture, and sufficient claims of healing would convince God to move on someone’s behalf. I was new to the ministry, and so I desired to join Don in prayer and believe with him that God would do this healing.

Some weeks later, we met with the pastor’s wife, the elders, and the deacons. I felt like a bystander, being called upon to join these spiritual giants in claiming a healing from God. Would my lack of faith or my skepticism put a damper on the Spirit’s power, I wondered nervously? The room grew quiet as attention was placed upon the fragile figure of the pastor’s wife, who struggled to keep herself propped up in her wheel chair. For a moment, the silence seemed sacred as she shared with deep conviction that God had told her she would be healed.

Wow! I thought. Something is going to happen here.

She quoted the famous words from Psalm 6:5: “‘Who praises you from the grave?’ I am no good in the grave,” she concluded. “God wants me well so my life can be a testimony for Him.”

The elders and the deacons closed in on that dying figure. They offered a prayer in faith and dabbed the oil on her forehead. I left that place with a deep certainty that God would heal her.

He did not.

She died a few months later.

Today, I am less confused about healing. What I mean is that I am more at peace with unanswered questions. I have also come to believe that God seems able to accomplish just as much – or more – through someone’s suffering than He does through a testimony of healing. Like Paul’s chains in Philippians 1:12 our chains actually serve to advance the gospel. I’ve only heard of people being healed; I’ve never been a first-hand witness to a genuine healing-miracle. When I say a genuine healing, I am referring to a serious/terminal ailment that is completely and visibly reversed with no possible human explanation. * Toward the end of my son’s life, the doctors admitted that nothing more could be done for him. Now, if he had been miraculously healed from this, the miracle would have shocked the medical world. No recovery has been recorded for the sort of cancer that he had.

I believe that God chooses in this dispensation to glorify Himself through the suffering of His servants more than He does through their healing. Western culture denies pain, so God uses it to confront us. We do what we can to run from suffering, so He crosses our paths with it. People identify with pain; therefore, the strength and the resolve that they observe in someone who suffers and remains true and faithful to Christ has a deep and penetrating effect on their lives. I will never stop praying for healing, and neither will I cease to believe in the power of God to heal. I base my confidence in God more on the evidence of Scripture than on the experiences and observations in my life. The testimony of God’s power over death and sickness is well documented and anchored in the Scriptures. My confidence that God is able to heal is well grounded, but so is my conviction that He can work just as powerfully when we suffer and are asked to continue suffering. The same God who gives grace to those who are hurting is the same God who heals sicknesses. In either case, God is the One at work doing what He wants and what seems best to Him. I can live with that assurance: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Phil 2:13).

In short, I do not need another miracle to believe in Him or to prove His love for me. The greatest miracle of all history is the miracle of the cross, where, interestingly, God did not intervene. He let Jesus die! However, three days later God’s power brought Jesus from the dead. Therein lies my hope. Not that God will, at my demand, intervene in my sickness, but that one day when I, too, will die I can die with the promise that death is not the end.  God lets us die. Sickness must run its course and the effect of sin, death, itself, must transpire. Our hope rests not in the guarantee that God will run interference every time we ask it of him, but in his promise that, thankfully, we will not have to live in this “body of death,” but rather we groan, waiting for our redemption. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!.” (Romans 7:24-25)

* Of course, God uses modern medicine to bring about healing. I do not at all discount this as healing, but for the sake of this blog, I am comfortable defining and distinguishing a healing miracle from the cures that come through many wonderful means of intervention today. I choose here to lean on CS Lewis’ definition of a miracle/healing as, “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” (CS Lewis, Miracles)

I believe God can heal, God can do anything He wants to do. I do not believe the gift of healing is for today because it was to authenticate the Biblical message and messenger. That is in place; it needs no more authentication then the authentication given to it by the Spirit of God to the heart of the reader, but I do believe that God may in His grace choose to heal, and we have every right to pray for that, at the same time seek the finest medical help that we can because the Lord desires us to do that as well. – John MacArthur (https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-60/does-god-still-heal)

I’m Not Impressed with Your Faith!

I woke up early this morning, when it was still dark. I quietly walked across the room, found the door, opened it and remembered Elaine telling me the hinges squeak. Walking softly doesn’t make much difference when the doors squeak, she’ll be sure to tell me again. My right hand skims across the surface of the dining room wall and stops at the feel of the light switch. The flip of the tan lever floods the room with light. From there on it’s all routine. Coffee. Devotions. Prayer. Then, an hour or so later, a cup of coffee, two ice cubes to cool it for Elaine. 

Going back for a second to that flipping of the switch. It’s such a simple routine, I thought little of it until today. Maybe because I was thinking about faith and how it’s so much like my trust in that switch. It’s an easy task, but one that comes with amazing response. If something was wrong with my house, with the wiring or with Hart Electric, our power provider, I would think about it. When something doesn’t work, you tend to notice it more. But I trust the system and design of this house. Rarely has Hart Electric disappointed us. This is not like a third world country where you can expect an outage several times a day. Those in such circumstances live with uncertain, wavering faith. Because of my faith in the construct of this home, from wiring to lightbulb,  and knowing the electric company is solid,  it takes little thought on my part to flip a switch and know the lights will come on. I never take credit for the light coming on because I did such a good job gliding my hand across the wall, and with great skill flipped that little lever. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the object of my trust, the perfectly structured system and company that provides the electricity I need.

I get the impression, sometimes, the way faith is talked about, that we should be impressed with ourselves. Yet faith is nothing apart from a trustworthy Savior. Faith requires an object. A subject, and yes, he’s Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). An emphasis on our faith is always a misplaced emphasis. The more I trust Jesus, the more I believe in him, understand him and his claim and work, the more my faith in him grows, requiring little effort or thought. It’s a given.  That is really solid faith, because Jesus is so worthy of trust. When Jesus commended the centurion’s faith whose servant was sick, the emphasis was not really on the man’s faith, but on his confidence in Jesus and his ability alone to heal the ailing servant. When pastors preach on this story, I tense up when the focus is on the centurion’s faith, not on the object of his faith. When Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” (Luke 7:9) you have to ask, faith in what? When we boast about our faith, or someone else’s faith, that question is necessary. Faith in what? Someone we know might have GREAT faith, or BIG faith, but in what? Is his faith great, or is the person he places his faith in great, so trustworthy, so competent to deliver, because of that he’ll risk everything for him. Is it ever right to be impressed with someone’s faith?

Any story about faith in the Bible is about Jesus.

Imagine sitting in an airplane, your seatbelt securely fastened, and the flight attendant says something like this, “We’re sorry ladies and gentlemen. We are unable to take off today because some of you don’t have faith in this airplane. Two of you in this plane don’t trust our pilot, and five of you are afraid of flying, and until that changes, well, we’ll have to sit here on the tarmac.” Our trust and confidence in the pilot and the airplane makes no difference in whether that plane will fly. It might determine your anxiety level, but not the performance of the plane. The plane doing what we assume it will do doesn’t depend on our faith.

I lived for five years three miles from Lake Michigan in Cedarburg, WI where most winters, the lake’s edges would freeze. Had I decided to walk on the ice, a lot of faith would’ve made no difference were the ice thin. Conversely, a little faith would’ve mattered little if the ice were one foot thick.

It’s never about my faith. It’s about the thickness of the ice.

Spiritually, it’s always about the object of my faith … Jesus.

I struggle a lot with faith, but in the end it’s my confidence in Jesus that lands me in a good place. When my two sons suffered through cancer, mustering up enough faith wore me out. Eventually, I gave up and ended up collapsing on the Rock himself. I found him to be so worthy, so faithful, so good and kind. Often, still, I grasp through the dark, find a wall and with little strength my fingers find a verse or two that remind me that he is reliable. The room of my heart lights up with the love of my savior.

Next time someone talks to you about your faith, or theirs, ask them, “Faith in what?” Then the conversation can go to talking about Jesus, not you and your faith. The more you know Jesus and what he came to do for you in forgiving you of your sins and promising you eternal life, faith will be a no-brainer reality. It will be as simple as flipping a switch and seeing your life illuminated by the reality of the gospel.

When I think of CH Spurgeon, the 19th century Prince-of-Preachers, I think less about his faith in Jesus and more about his descriptions of his wonderful savior. Spurgeon, during his last sermon before dying, did not talk about his rich faith, but rather, he talked about the one in whom he’d placed his entire life and trust. Here is what he said about Jesus on June 7, 1891:

“Those who have no master are slaves to themselves. Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ, either self or the Saviour. You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters; but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains.

“There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him. These 40 years and more have I served him, blessed be his name! and I have had nothing but love from him. I would be glad to continue yet another 40 years in the same dear service here below if so it pleased him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter on it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen.”

Reading the Bible With Jesus in Mind (Part II)

Part I from August 2016 can be found here.

There are two ways to read the Bible. To see what it says about us, or what it says about Jesus. Reading the Bible with you in mind leads to a self-centered, empty and meaningless pursuit. Some refer to this as narcissistic eisegesis. (Eisegesis reads yourself into the text while exegesis seeks to read what’s out of the text.) Reading the Bible with Jesus in mind is selfless and comes with unimaginable gain, Jesus Himself. Michael Horton claims that the Bible is not about us, it’s for us. The Bible is the story of Jesus, for us. God’s revelation of Himself through the pages of scripture is an invitation to know Him, and by knowing Him, discover ourselves. You discover yourself best when you seek to know Him first. The only way to truly discover yourself, sinful and in need of a savior, is to begin with Jesus. 

There are plenty of preachers, too many, who approach the Bible looking to see what it offers to make life better and easier.  Bryan Wolfmueller in his book, Has American Christianity Failed? refers to this as a moral reading of the Bible. Many take passages meant to relate a historic story, or serve as a type and shadow of Christ, and allegorize for today, thus promoting a theology for now never intended in the text. This is as futile as looking at a road map to try to understand what’s wrong with your car. We are not David, and Goliath is not our financial giant, easily knocked down by one stone called faith, or a second stone called prayer, a third stone call trust, a fourth named hope or that fifth called patience. (Yes, I actually heard it preached like that once.) The Bible was not written to help you lead a better, healthier more fulfilling life. It was written to know God, His commands, and by consequence to understand our problem, that we are hopelessly sinful and in need of a Savior. And in scripture God has revealed to us that Savior. 

A right view of self leads to an encounter with Jesus on every page of scripture. 

Several years ago I decided to read the Old Testament looking for Jesus in every story. The scriptures came alive. I’m not just permitted to do this, but instructed to. You remember Jesus walked with two men who seemed perplexed by all the events surrounding his resurrection. When their eyes were finally opened, Jesus took the rest of the journey, explaining to them how all scriptures prepared for and pointed to him. And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27) Think about it. Every story and every event in the Old Testament either was about Jesus, or pointed to him. Consider, too, these words from John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (Note the contrast between using scripture for your own end – eternal life – instead of knowing him –bear witness about me.

If the Bible is about Jesus, we should read it with him in mind, not us. If you read scripture as a way to live better, you’ll end up in a dark place, for the Bible paints a pretty dismal picture of man. If you really want to look for yourself in scripture, here’s what you find; “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18). Clearly, to read the Bible looking for encouragement and personal affirmation, outside of Christ the Savior, is a pretty disappointing exercise. 

It’s tempting, for example, and on the surface, logical, to go to passages where barren women received the provisions of a miracle birth and take that to mean God will meet you in all your equally barren situations. However, God put those stories in the Old Testament to point us to the most amazing, unbelievable miracle of  all history; the impossible birth of Jesus to a virgin. Those stories, where barren women get pregnant, were meant to point us to the birth of Jesus, not to promise us that each time life gives us a short end of the stick, he will deliver. (Pun intended).

Recently, a famous female speaker used the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in Mark 6 and took every point of the narrative to show what God will do if we give him the little we have, like the boy gave Jesus all he had. This story, though, has nothing to do with that. The moment the attention shifted away from Jesus to the boy, his two fish and five loaves, the speaker stepped onto a narcissistic, self-indulging path, and the story bogged down completely in a muddy and sluggish trap where we, not Jesus, become what the story is about. It’s a pitiful place to walk. It completely misses the whole point of the story, which Jesus quite clearly explains as the narrative expands. 

A thorough and complete reading of this story tells us what this miracle was meant to teach, and it’s a story for us, not about us. Later in John 6:35 he explains that he is the bread of life.  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” The whole miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was to teach that truth. Sandwiched in this story is another, often misunderstood and misapplied wonder work of Jesus. When the disciples left Jesus following the feeding, and were alone in a boat, a fierce  and unexpected storm swept over them. In their panic they saw what they thought was a ghost, but it was in fact Jesus. That part of the story is not a place for us to turn when financial or health or relationship storms rock our world. This is a story about Jesus and his power over nature and his demand that we acknowledge him to be God, like Peter did. But it was also when the storm calmed that Jesus referred to the miracle of the feeding, pointing to their lack of faith in both instances. for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”  And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded,  for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:50-53) So the miracle of the feeding did two things: showed them their hardness of heart, their sin, and revealed himself to them as the bread of life, the one who came to save them by offering eternal life.  This grand story was written to show his disciples that he is God, they are not – they are sinners – and that he came to offer eternal life. And his provision to the 5,000, and his great display of power over sin showed that he had the authority to offer that promise of eternal life. 

The point of both stories, the feeding and the storm, was to prove that Jesus is the bread of life who promises eternal life to those who take him in (eat his bread) and that he has the power over death (calming the storm.) 

The beauty of this approach is once we truly meet Jesus in this way, by making the Bible about him, not us, we get to bring ourselves, our problems and all life’s challenges to someone who is bigger than us, sovereign, just, good and fully in control. There is no guarantee he will resolve our current problem, but I didn’t go looking for that. I came looking for him and meeting him in the scriptures is enough. 

When my son Travis was dying of cancer I rushed often to the story of Jairus who in Mark 5 pleaded for Jesus to heal his daughter. Now, I did not run to Jairus with my need, I ran with Jairus to Jesus. Honestly I never expected Jesus to heal Travis like he healed Jarius’s daughter. I simply went to this passage to meet again the same Jesus who looks with compassion on his children and whom I trust has the right authority, the appropriate power and who can sovereignly give me, what he wants and bring me to that place where whatever the outcome, I will love him all the more. And I do.

There is great value in reading the Bible with Jesus in mind. You might not get what you want for this life, but it’s the way to truly meet him. 

Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord;
Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word.
Once His gifts I wanted, Now the Giver own;
Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone. A.B. Simpson HIMSELF 

Marriage, The Great Platform to Tell the Gospel! 

Yesterday I officiated at my niece’s wedding. My brother’s daughter and the man she married are a wonderful couple. During our pre-marriage sessions, we talked a lot about the purpose of marriage, how it’s meant to model God’s perfect and wonderful relationship with us. I talked about that during the ceremony. As the sun pushed back dark, threatening clouds, the outdoor crowd responded in delight as the couple stood in front of an archway framing a beautiful lake set below the valley. I always tell couples before the ceremony to focus on the vows. “You will only do this once,” I encourage, “so listen carefully. Take it all seriously.” I spoke for a moment, saying again, this time before witnesses, that marriage is designed by God to reflect his relationship with us. Paul, in Ephesians 5, calls it a mystery, but not because it’s hard to understand; it’s not that kind of mystery. It’s a mystery in the sense that this is awesome. Full of intrigue and deep with profound truths, and rich parallels. Notice the comparisons between the way Jesus loved us and the way the husband should love his wife. Notice, too, the parallels with how the church responds to that love and how the wife responds to her husband’s love. This is deep and full. A mystery in the sense that the deeper you dig into it the more amazing it is. Look for yourself. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:22-28)

The way the husband shows his love for Jesus is by loving his wife. The claim to love gets legs. The wife, too, shows her love for Jesus by the way she leans on her husband, and responds to his love for her.

It gets better.

Deep in the ground of this mystery is the profound suggestion that marriage, by design, is one of the greatest platforms to show the world what Jesus did for us and how he now relates to us, and wants us to relate to him. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. There is something about the way the husband cherishes his wife that tells another story, a greater truth. When he sacrifices for her, giving up his own desires and impulses, puts her first over his own needs, it’s more than a reminder of what Jesus did by giving up himself for us, his bride. This selfless love, that other-centered devotion, is an infusion of sorts of Jesus and his love for us. The world sees this and can say, “Ah, so that is what Jesus did for me.” When the wife eagerly submits to her husband, the world can say, “Oh, I get it. So that is what Jesus did for his church, and that is how the church should be to him.” Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

We pastors, somewhere in the ceremony, will state that marriage is the most sacred institution created by God. It best displays the harmony in the Trinity, and the nature and character of that relationship with us.

No wonder, then, that it’s the one institution most under attack!

No wonder the enemy tries to blur the lines of distinction between man and woman!

Take away our uniqueness as male and female, and you take away the very thing God meant to model his love for us. Marriage! I said so during the ceremony. “Because marriage is the most sacred institution given to us by God, it will be the one place the devil will most attack. Remove that witness, marriage, and you’ve discarded the one platform meant to most effectively portray the gospel. 

I love to encourage couples; relating to each other is more than about good communication and a motivation to get along well. There’s something deeper going on.

A mystery.

Spiritual.

Marriage is a stage to rehearse, again, the story of the gospel. Of our Husband, Jesus, going all out to save us from our sin. Seeing our helplessness, he entered this sinful world where we were held captive and set us free, but he did more. He claimed us as his bride. Made us his own and declared his deep love for us and demanded our allegiance for him. And in the background, through the arches of this covenant rests the beautiful view of the cross, more stunning than the lake view in the background of the wedding last week.

Perhaps the greatest way their children will one day understand the redemptive work of Jesus is by watching what goes on between mom and dad.

Heavenly Minded, Earthly Good! 

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded where this is all heading, and why as followers of Jesus we do what we do. Otherwise we’re left gazing at a shrunken and desperately limited horizon.

There is an end-game to all this. One day, Jesus is coming back to take us home. He will then place us on a very real, new earth, and that will be our home, forever. 

And ever!

Our new home will be a real place, absent of sin, with Jesus as King. That’s what we are working and waiting for.

I hope to encourage you and motivate you with this blog, by reminding you of where this is all heading and why you are doing what you’re doing. The two are connected.

This is all heading somewhere.

And it’s good!

And we’re not left guessing where that is.

The scriptures are so clear, and the stories of the men and women within its pages model for us a life full of expectation, putting up with so much here because their vision rests on eternity. Hebrews 11:16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Sadly, I hear less and less about the afterlife as a motivation to come to Jesus and as a motivation to live faithfully for him on this journey. Years ago I attended a two week evangelism training called Evangelism Explosion (E.E.). E.E. helped me tremendously in my interaction with unbelievers. The premise, or assumption of this methodology, rested on the notion that we are eternal beings, heading for one of only two destinies.

Heaven, or hell.

The conversation-starter penetrated into what happens after death, on what is transcendent. If you were to die today, do you know for sure you would go to heaven? This diagnostic question exposes what the recipient truly believes and what I, the messenger, needs to offer from the gospel to point to the right eternal destiny through our Savior Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on  the cross. And then offering an invitation to acknowledge sin, confess those sins to God and embrace what Jesus did when He took the penalty of sin for all mankind. About ten years ago, a shift took place. I attended another training, produced by the same ministry organization, but this time the underlying motivation, the focus of conversation, closed in on having purpose for this life. Here, the diagnostic question stated, On a scale of 1-10 how fulfilling is your life?The transcendent, the then and there, was replaced by immanence, the here and now. Based on the hearer’s response, I, the messenger, would offer Jesus the Savior as a gap-filler for a better life here, now.

I meet with a neighbor each Tuesday morning to discuss the Bible and pray together. Two weeks ago we talked about eternity, life after death. I can’t shake a comment he made. Mitch, the last sermon I heard on the topic of hell was 24 years ago. 

I agreed with him that there is little emphasis on the afterlife in our preaching. Most of our preaching today presents Jesus, offers the gospel, that we might live a better life, and that is it. Your best-life-now does nothing more than diminish the scope and reach of hope. If this is the best it gets, we’re a sorry bunch. One Christian radio host boldly goes where few would go when he says, If this is your best life now, you’re heading to hell. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:10) 

No, it’s gonna be a lot better than this, folks.

The best is yet to come, and we need to talk about it more, think about it more than we do. Yes, I want to see healthy relationship here and now, but only so that couple can live with hope that after this life they’ll enter, finally and fully into a deeper lasting relationship with Jesus. And with each other. And out of their healthy relationship they have so influenced their children to also enter that rest. What good does it do to see a healthy marriage  that renders itself meaningless after this life? Sure, I want to see the hungry fed, and poor clothed, but fed and clothed with a longing that one day they will be fully wrapped by the righteous garments of Jesus. No, of course I don’t want to see families struggle financially, but I long more for them to prosper eternally, having placed their hope in an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you ..(1 Peter 1:4)

The gospel offers life now and for eternity. To present the gospel only for this life is like offering life insurance to a dead man. It’s meaningless.

Here’s the irony, or paradox. Talking and thinking about eternity makes life purposeful now. Yes, the way to be of earthly good is to be heavenly minded. You want purpose and fulfillment? Think of tomorrow, about heaven, and eternity and being with Jesus forever. That puts pain into perspective. It’s a motivation to say no to sin and avoid the mess that comes with it. It provides value to patient suffering. It’s a motivation to work on your marriage, to know that one day you’ll stand before God, and he’ll say well done good and faithful servant, you hung in there when it was tough. You did not give in. You thought about me, and how being faithful would one day be rewarded. You put the other as more important than yourself because you knew one day you would be standing here before me. And I would be pleased. And I am pleased. 

Pastors, preach about heaven and hell. It’s the best news ever. No one ever has to go to hell because Jesus came and took the punishment for us. How will people ever know if you don’t tell them?

Heresy is not just preaching what is false, it’s also withholding what is true, even if it’s just portions of truth that are being held back.

Missionary, what you are going through, what you’ve said goodbye to, all you’ve given up to do what you’re doing is worth it, because heaven exists. Because following this world and this life, is a new life in a new, lasting, permanent world. You are where you are, ultimately to tell lost people about that. I know, it sounds so old school, so passé, but it’s a promise still full of hope.

Believer, live today serving others at work and at home, setting your heart and mind on things above, not just on earthly things. (Colossians 4:1-2) See those around you as spiritual beings facing an eternal destiny. Let that both bother you and excite you.

Are you not a follower of Jesus? I do mean to scare you with this, and I love you too much to not say it. This month the news is dominated by a suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester, England. I lived only twenty miles from there, and have been to that area often. I would not be surprised if I hear that I know people who knew people who were there. No one who died knew this would happen to them. Some were small, young children.

Life cut so short.

It could be us, at any moment.

Unexpected.

Real.

Traumatic.

Where will you go when you die? Do you know? If not, I have the best news ever, which far surpasses anything I can offer you for this life. And it comes straight from the Bible.  Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.. (1 Corinthians 15:1-14)

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

Trading What You Want, For What Jesus Wants!

As a counselor and life-coach I’m responsible to help people move from asking, “What do you want?” to “What does Jesus want?” Better yet, progress is made when what you want lines up with what Jesus wants. That only happens by obedience to his will.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a struggling couple push aside their own interests for the interests of Jesus. That exchange is well worth the sacrifice. In time, the interests of Jesus become what drives the interests of the couple. 

I’ve yet seen a marriage heal from one spouse convincing the other of his or her point of view. It is when one gives up his or her rights that the gospel can begin to infiltrate the marriage and create new life. Sure, it’s a process, and often a long, hard one, but well worth the work.

I spoke to Tim yesterday, who admitted his and Tina’s marriage hung by a single thread. * He called because that thread was about to snap. Tim’s suspicion that Tina cheated on him years ago, despite all her denials, angered Tim and now nearly hardened him. The last vestiges of love rested on that one thread. In moments like this, once I’ve understood all the dynamics and contributing factors, I can do very little other than talk about Jesus and how he accepted us and died for us, even though we were/are sinners. And how in Ephesians 5 God commands the husband to love his wife just as Christ loved the church, died for her and gave himself up for her when she least deserved it. Husbands are commanded to show that kind of love to their wives. Marriage becomes the closest place for us, the nearest stage, to act out that kind of love that reconciled sinners to God, and reconciles us to each other – especially in marriage. The script that narrates this kind of story is when the husband moves toward his wife, motivated by the love of Jesus. Moved by other-centeredness and her promotion over his own. Where his interests are surrendered to hers. By asking, “What does Jesus want me to do even if it goes against all my own impulses?” 

All this, and more, I shared with Tim. 

Tim was quiet. I sensed these thoughts were fighting for a place to settle within his shaken framework. So I I threw Tim a thought I later saw would become his last lifeline. The last thread holding his marriage would snap as this chord would take its place. His marriage could now heal.  I said this to Tim. Tim if  this marriage breaks apart, let it be because of her disobedience, not yours.

I could not see Tim swallow hard, but I heard it. Wow, he shot back. You’re putting a lot on my shoulders. 

Yes, indeed I was. Jesus died while we were yet sinners. What happened at the cross was not a concession, a meeting in the middle. It was an all-out, one-sided sacrifice of love. 

Undeserved. 

And unearned. 

Tim, if you want what Jesus wants, that is it my friend. I hope your marriage will be restored, but if it isn’t, at least let it be said, that you did what you could. Show her the sacrificial, all-out-giving-up-self love that Jesus showed to both of you.

Tim and I closed our time praying. In my prayer I asked Jesus to help both of them be obedient to a kind of love Jesus calls for when two people are not getting along. The only miracle I’ve ever seen in broken marriages is when two people, and it requires both, are able to say, “Jesus what do you want us to do?” Outside of infidelity, or abuse, although that should not disqualify anyone from the miracle of healing, there is really no reason any broken relationship cannot be restored. 

That is the power of the gospel.

In the past month a good friend (and someone I serve with) and I had a rather sharp disagreement over a matter. It was not a major issue, but big enough where if ignored it could have severely affected our relationship. If either of us held to our right to be heard, and clung to our own positions, a drifting threatened the relationship. I noticed that both of us were deeply sensitive to what this was doing to the other, and both of us went out of our way, immediately and with urgency, to make sure the other was okay. We cleared the air; both admitted how we contributed to the problem, expressed our love for each other and we moved on, eager to keep serving together. It was beautiful. 

It is that kind of eagerness to obey Jesus when faced with tension in relationships I long for in families, marriages and Christian communities. 

To have the impulse to ask, “What does Jesus want me to do?” 

In my ministry I meet ineffective pastors and unproductive missionaries who tolerate others because of unresolved tension, rather than serving together because they’ve laid their burdens of sin at the foot of the cross. They’ve failed to ask what it is Jesus wants. 

I often begin a conversation in counseling by asking two questions: 1. What do you want? 2. What does Jesus want? Initially the answer differs. My goal is to end the session by hearing the same answer to both questions. 

Husbands, it could be that the closest your wife will ever understand and experience the extent of Christ’s love for her is by the self-sacrificial demonstration of that kind of love from you to her. 

Wives, it could be the closest your husband will ever understand and experience the joy of what Christ did on the cross for both of you is by receiving and embracing the sacrificial love he longs to give you. 

* Names and some details have been changed to protect identities. 

Trust, but Verify

In December of 1987 Ronald Reagan, in his attempt to build a cautious relationship with Russia, coined the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” The Russians, who particularly loved proverbs, understood that Reagan would work with them, but only in so much as the Russians could back up their end of a deal through honesty and credibility. And that would need proof. I wonder if we ever, even unconsciously, deal with God in that way. I think I have. “God I trust you, but I need you to verify in some way that you will live up to your end of the bargain.” And so we look for some kind of proof, verification of sorts, that He will do what he promised he would do. Like Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6) and Moses’ staff (Exodus 3) or Peter’s water-walking, (Matthew 14.)  

In 1999, the year our son was dying, I submerged into what I call the dark side of faith. It’s easy to trust God when things are going your way. Faith, in those moments, is riding the wave, skimming the surface with no effort needed on your part because the wind kindly and boldly pushed you across the water’s wakes. Trusting God when the wind dies, and you fall into hard cold water is another thing all together. This other side, the beneath-side of faith, absent of wind and light, and all you seem to have is your own effort, can be frightening. During those ten months, as our son’s condition worsened, and death seemed inevitable, I trusted God with little verification. 

But I trusted – 

And that was it –

No promise, no vision of what it would be like when the wind’s final wisp settled and ended in death. 

I tried once asking God to prove to me that I’d be okay on the other side of this loss when it came, but my words got lost in the darkness. 

I heard nothing. 

And so I  went back to what I knew to be true of him from scripture. Certain things I believed; my theology, doctrine, suddenly mattered. And that was my answer to asking God if I would be okay. When I resurfaced from this dark pool, I’d fallen in love with His character, and nature and redemptive work. 

In loss, doctrine matters most. 

God said it. I believe it. That settles it. 

Since then – and friends who know me well are nodding incessantly right now – I’m a cynic to all sorts of claims carried on the back of faith. A sign in the sky, a prophetic word from someone, a vision, a dream or word of knowledge I hear as unnecessary ways to get God to verify, while we trust. Why do we need all that when we have all his promises in the scriptures? I’ll mutter. The proof of how good, and involved and caring he is, is all recorded. And so we hear people like David, while looking only at the dark side of faith in Psalm 13, who can still say by verse 6, but I will trust in your unfailing/steadfast love. 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

 

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;

light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” 

lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

because he has dealt bountifully with me. Psalm 13

In this world where God-things happen to so many, I feel left alone sometimes, in my own world where all I seem to have is the silence of God. 

Oh, and trust… in his unfailing love.

Oh, and obedience to what he’s told me to do and how to live especially when walking in the valley of the shadow of death. 

That seems to be when I am strongest. Not when God shows up, but when I find that God-given strength, that gift, to obey what he told me to do, in suffering, in loss, in the chaos, and even in the lack of answers. 

Trust and Obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. 

I spoke to someone hurting last week about this kind of faith. He’s got little vestiges of faith left, a strand or two, but that’s it. I asked him to define faith for me and he told me it was something like believing in God. But believe him for what? I asked. He wasn’t sure, so I explained. 

Faith has to have an object, and that object is Jesus. We put our trust in Jesus. In who he is, and what he came to do. Once we capture the essence of the gospel, that Jesus tore into this sin-full world and rescued sinners, but left them, us, here for awhile until he comes back, we learn to just trust him. (Maybe that is why we are left here, to learn to trust him more deeply.) In my darkest moments, I just knew it would be okay because I know him. The friend I was talking to really doesn’t. And so, rather than talking him into having greater, or BIG faith, and trying to match his insatiable appetite and lust for evidence and proof with clever answers and stronger arguments, I just kept telling him more about Jesus, and what he’s like and what he came to do, for us, sinners, who outside of him would have no future other than hell. 

Whatever verification we need from him, is there for us, at the cross. An empty cross and an empty grave and an occupied throne is proof enough that we can trust him. If I never hear from Him again, that is all the verifying I need. 

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will, He abides with us still,

And with all who will trust and obey. – John H. Sammis, 1887

Marriage, a Showcase for the Gospel! 

I’ve had the privilege in the last months to provide premarital counseling to five young couples. We cover together dozens of topics. One, and primary to me is the biblistagecal basis of marriage, or, what I refer to as the gospel in marriage. So, all sessions begin with a thorough and foundational biblical overview of marriage. By the time the couple stands before the minister, embedded deeply into their hearts, and seared deeply into their minds, is this notion that marriage is more than two people hooking up for life. It’s about two people living out, in relationship, a kind of love that led Jesus to come here to purchase his bride and to present that bride to his Father. During this session, I talk in depth about what that kind of love looks like, how it’s played out in their day-to-day interactions, and even rubbing against the common daily frictions that will seek to roughen the edges of their relationship. Halfway through this particular session, I hand out a sheet with the bold title hovering over the top that reads, Mitch’s Three Pillars for a Healthy Marriage. While three pillars provide a bad and shaky design for a physical building, they are essential for the foundation to a strong, solid, lasting marriage. I go through them carefully because they are so ess
ential.

Pillar One: It’s not about you. (Ephesians 5)

Pillar Two: The other is always more important than you. (Phil. 2:4-5)

Pillar Three: Humility trumps pride, always! (Matt. 20:26)

My voice is full of conviction and excitement as we walk around these pillars, discussing their place and value to the building of this home, this family. I all but guarantee that building from this foundation assures a vibrant, love-filled, lasting and secure relationship. Free of tensions and conflicts? Not at all, but the motivation to always place the other before yourself leads the couple past tense corridors, to a room absent of anger or even the memory of what was said or done that might have caused the tension. This room, full of I Corinthians 13 is where love keeps no record of wrong, is kind, does not envy or boast, nor is it rude. It never insists on its own way, not irritable or resentful, never rejoices in wrong doing. And according to Philippians 2:4-5 this love seeks and longs for the best for the other. So, as we complete the tour around each pillar, I Pillarsinsist to the couple that building the marriage on these three pillars will bring about a lasting life-full relationship, the kind that shows the world the kind of love, a kind of love that God demonstrated to us when he sent his Son to redeem us, restore us and include us in his family. What happens in marriage can be proof that that kind of love is real. 

Any and every marriage will be healed and strengthened when humility, other-centeredness and self-sacrifice is the drive. If you are on the receiving end of a husband’s anger, or tired of your wife’s demands, your posture matters. Unless you are in danger, the drive to give back the very antithesis of what you are receiving could reverse the course of your marriage. Love back when the other hurls hate. Break down a criticism by affirming. Take the air out of gossip by praying. Proverbs 15:1 promises that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”. Respond with a warm hand over an accusing finger. Sling an arrow tipped with patience at the heart of impatience. Laugh rather than defend. Acknowledge your vulnerability over refusing to see your own sin. Biblical love has the power to bring hate to ashes and on that heap see a new life, a marriage restored. I all but guarantee it will. It’s proven. Proven best at the cross.

At a recent wedding I reminded the doting couple before me that what Jesus did on the cross for his Father displays the kind of love that gets to be played out, lived out in their relationship. Their marriage, should they accept the privilege and challenge, gets to be a stage to show that kind of self-sacrifice-all-out-other-centered-love played out for a lifetime. Their legacy, I told them, the narrative spoken about them for generations, will be of a marriage, two people who sought all their lives to outdo each other with love.

And it will be said of them, “Now, that right there is an example of the very thing Jesus came to do for us”.

Order my new booklet DID I SAY THE RIGHT THING? here

This resource is perfect for pastors, church leaders and all Christians who seek to be purposeful and intentional in reaching out to those who suffer. 

An excerpt:  “Many who suffer loss never come to the place of wholeness and restored usefulness, because others do not give them permission to grieve and mourn openly. They walk among friends who treat them as strangers. They learn to put a lid over their pain and come to assume that speaking of it is taboo.”

The Miracle I’m Waiting For 

I love healing stories, even though I do struggle with why God often doesn’t heal. When pastoring, we often celebrated with those who gave Jesus the glory for his obvious touch in restoring them to health. My wife nearly died 18 years ago. Today she’s far exceeded all our  expectations. I still remember the surgeon following the surgery telling me there was a chance she would never speak again. If you know Elaine, you rejoice with us how God graciously gave her back her speech and so much more. healingOur family rejoices often over our youngest son’s victory in his battle with lymphoma cancer. Having lost our oldest son to brain cancer, Brett’s healing is so much more precious to us. I also recognize that had God not intervened I would have struggled with life-long depression that began in middle school and stayed with me all through high school.

There is no doubt God intervenes in our lives.

I am one, though, who lives with a tension when it comes to healing. Claims of healing-miracles often make me uneasy. Sometimes I feel guilty for my skeptical reaction to purported healings. I’m often left cynical, not convinced that a genuine, truly remarkable, no-other-explanation-than-Jesus miracle has taken place. Too much about it leaves me unsure. My most recent struggle came after viewing a video where a short-term mission team to South America, while on mission in a village, recorded the miracle of a young boy with deformed legs walking for the first time. I honestly rejoiced, but part of me remained confused as the video showed him walking, but his legs still severely deformed. I tried in vain to ignore that voice that came from deep in my spirit, where cynicism dwells, which protested, wait! If a true miracle had taken place, yes he’d be walking, but his legs would have also been restored. Straight. Not completely twisted and bent.

I have some people very close to me who even though God spared them, strokes and brain tumors have left a lasting mark. They are not fully healed.  Others, also close to me, will more easily than I, refer to their progress as a true healing-miracle. On a few occasions I will say, no, what you are seeing is evidence of God’s grace and mercy, his measuring strength given in weakness, but no, don’t call that a miracle. Call it a miracle when all disabilities have been replaced by the abilities that existed prior to the injury. 

So, I live in tension. I love the stories. I praise God with others and even for how good he’s been to me and my family, but I long for more. And I long to understand why the healings I see and hear about are sparse and dare I say, not all that impressive when placed in the light of the gospels.

My struggle has been really good for my faith. It should be for yours, too. Think about it. The fact that God doesn’t always heal, or for me, hasn’t fully healed, pushes me to long for heaven, for an eternity and life with God where sufferings will have ceased and sicknesses will be a distant memory, if even memorable at all. I can’t accept that God is a God of half-jobs. I prefer he would invade into our tragedy and reverse a condition that has no other possible explanation, and what he does would be so complete and full, and thorough, we are left in jaw-dropping-awe. A God who does better than removing backaches and headaches. While I believe there are places and times even today when he does all this, they are rare and distant from us. Usually they come to me by third or fourth hand stories, not something I have personally witnessed. Often from remote regions where the gospel has yet to penetrate.  I would love to see the kind of healing-miracles like we see in the Gospels when Jesus healed every possible condition, or in The Acts of the Apostles when the Apostles touched and spoke sickness and death away.

But we don’t. Not now. Not yet.

Again, my struggle over healing miracles has actually been good for my faith. It makes me long for more than what we see around us. The fact that God doesn’t heal as much today as we see in the Gospel period, or rarely heals, (some say, never heals) reminds me that sin has to run its course. Even the healings we read about in scripture were not lasting. The man brought to Jesus by four friends did later fall again to weakness and eventually died. The ten lepers touched by Jesus, while cured of leprosy succumbed later to another sickness that caused death. Furthermore, and a comfortable explanation for me to accept that healing is less prevalent today than it was in the Gospels, is that all of Jesus’s miracles were both tokens of his authority over death, and his way of establishing his credential to perform a greater, more lasting miracle, that of forgiving sins. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven. Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone? Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man,“I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2: 5-12)

Today we have sufficient testimony and record of God’s power over sin in the gospels themselves to point people to that same power over death, and authority to forgive sins. I guess what I am saying is, perhaps one reason we see far fewer healing miracles today is because they are not needed as proof of God’s power over death and authority to forgive sin, because the story of Jesus and what he did on the cross is enough. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts …(2 Peter 1:19)

I ache deeply for the several people very near me who await their full healing. I agonize with them over the day to day struggles, and sometimes come short of truly understanding the depth of their pain. I live daily with the promise unmet of seeing full healing. That ache barely touches what I know is a deeper burden they carry. Yet, we long for the day, that day, when finally, because God has power over death, and because he has authority to forgive sin we will be fully healed. What we will experience, all of us, will be more than a token gesture by Jesus to affirm he is who he claimed to be. The gospel makes me long for full restoration. In the meantime that same gospel does not promise healing, but it proves and promises that God has authority over death and the power over sin. The proof is not even in the healings Jesus performed, but ironically, in his willingness to face death and to take on himself the full penalty of our sin. The proof is in the cross. And the resurrection – something we now get to wait for. Well, actually, I can hardly wait.

Come Lord Jesus, Come!