Called from Isolation

CC Vincepal, Flickr
CC Vincepal, Flickr

What is it that halts you from serving God? I mean, the way you know you’re called? Maybe you’re already walking in your calling, and that’s great; but many people aren’t. Can we be honest and admit that sometimes there are areas in our lives that keep us struggling at fulfilling God’s purpose for us?

Am I qualified? Will I fail? What if others learn this about me? How do I overcome this sin? Is God pleased with me?

Let me share a text with you that the Lord shows me when this pattern forms in my head.

Jesus and the Lepers

Luke 17 features the account of ten lepers who encounter Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. It’s a popular passage because of the one leper who returns to thank Jesus and perhaps for the amazing level of faith that characterizes both Jesus and the lepers.

The Law of Moses imposed several requirements on the leprous (Lev. 13-14). They include procedures for diagnosing and confirming healing, instructions on ceremonial cleansing and reintroduction into society, as well as rules for confinement. For instance, lepers were required to: 1) tear their clothes and leave their hair uncombed; 2) cover their mouths and call out “Unclean!”; and 3) live in isolation outside of their villages as long as the disease remained (13:45-46).

Leprosy upended a person’s life in every conceivable way physically, emotionally, and socially.

Verses 12 and 13 say, “They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’”. We gather that their band was perhaps travelling toward Jesus and his disciples and, removing themselves to maintain the required distance, recognized him and made their desperate plea.

God’s Unrelenting Call

CC Dan Grogan, Flickr
CC Dan Grogan, Flickr

This is where I always discover myself. They stood at a distance—because parts of them were not normal and unacceptable and sick and putrid. And people often correctly surmise this about areas of their character, morality, or actions. It doesn’t mean they are not fully clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but the unwholesome areas of their lives are nothing less than a festering sore that continually antagonizes the call of God in their lives.

In their minds the distance between them and engaging God’s call is a canyon of woe.

I pause to praise the God who sees us right where we are, knows how we hurt, and understands our desire to please him even when we aren’t everything we should be. David wrote, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me…you are familiar with all my ways” (Ps. 139:1, 3).

When Jesus saw them, he matter-of-factly stated, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” This meant they would have to walk for about a week and nearly 70 miles south to Jerusalem to show evidence of their wellbeing, which they did not yet possess and that Jesus did not expressly communicate (read my Crazy Faith).

What leaps out and pierces my heart here—especially when I’m assailed by “Me questions”—is the character of Jesus’s compassion toward these folk. He sends them on their way with only an expectation, one hinged on their obedience. He doesn’t heal them outright or interact much with them; and whether they murmured as Naaman had hundreds of years before is inconsequential; they obeyed. They clung to his word and the certitude that by the time they reached the priests, they would be whole.

This is how the Lord reassures me and quiets my fears, calling me out of the shadows: he tells me to keep moving forward, that his purpose for me remains, that my hang ups don’t disqualify me. He promises me that there is hope for what I don’t have the ability and strength to heal. And he asks for my obedience and trust, for he will heal me as I go, following his commands.

The Provisions of Process

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck…I am worn out calling for help.” (Ps. 69:1, 3)

While driving across town I meditated on an assurance the Lord had given me the day before about a problem I faced. Then, there came a familiar shoulder tap.

“Invite me into this area of your life.”

It took me by surprise. I thought, You mean with all the prayer, begging, and pleading I’ve done about this, I have never invited you? And again:

“You are seeking my intervention. But I desire to give you process.”

The Spiritual Life

Simon & His Camera, Flickr

What God had already taught me about lifelong spiritual process was in that moment scaled down to the very practical areas of my life that I may have always quickly blessed with a prayer and continued to struggle with on my own. After all, those areas are not “spiritual”, as spiritual goes, although he is concerned, right?

Wrong. All of life is spiritual. It is difficult for us to comprehend God’s ability to see in one moment our lives from beginning to ending, including all we’ll ever face, and how he will providentially add and subtract people, opportunities, and events and dispel evil plans—let alone know what role our own choices will play—all in making us who we are and are becoming.

So we err when we compartmentalize our lives and relegate God and his sovereignty to certain corners of our thinking and practice.

Things We Cannot See

I realized that although God has heard my every prayer and cry for help, there is something deeper he desires to make me see. I couldn’t help but feel that despite all my praying, begging, and pleading, I may have never truly trusted God with my case.

We all know that a wounded dog is a difficult one to help because it is actively engaged in protecting its wound. We can be like that dog: “God, I need your help! But don’t touch me here because I hurt. If you touch me and make me feel more pain, I’m going to bite you! So, just let me alone; I’ll deal with it by myself.”

In our devoutness we’d like to believe that we’re fully open to God’s dealings in our lives. Theoretically, yes, we usually are open to him. But practically it quickly becomes a different story—because it’s not pretty and easy when he starts touching and cleaning those wounds.

Flickr - Roots
Tal-Paz Fridman, Flickr

We cannot see what he can. He understands far better than we that a problem, whether a sin, a personal flaw, or a troubling practical matter, is not always a self-contained issue. Sometimes what we are demanding be quickly remedied, as if plucking a weed from the ground, has grown tendrils and affected other areas of our lives. For instance, once I pulled a growing root off an old house only to find that it grew from the house into the ground and the full length of the yard onto another property; where I severed it wasn’t half the distance to the source.

So, when we ask for God’s help, he may ask us for something deeper—an invite. It’s as if he says, “Are you sure? Do you trust me? Because to heal this might hurt a little in other ways.”

Process: A Holistic Approach

But what a grace it is! It is a holistic approach to dealing with our lives. Sure, he’s God and he could think problems out of our lives in an instant. But we’re not automatons; we don’t need to be fixed. We’re humans in need of healing. A holistic approach considers and respects the spirit-soul-body makeup he gave us; and it is rare that something affecting one part of us will not also affect another.

A holistic approach also harmonizes with that defining characteristic of God: his redeeming nature. Consider the gods of mythology and some religions today: when the deity is not pleased or mortals are wayward, what is the response? Rage. Vindication. Death. Such is not the nature of God, but rather he takes pleasure in renewal, renovation, refashioning. He glorifies. He begs the attention of a watching world that the irascible, mangy, emaciated, flea-ridden hound you see now will soon be the gorgeous, healthy, and devoted dog it was designed to be.

Getting More Than You Expected

God’s desire is to heal and deliver us, but he wants our cooperation to learn what he needs to teach us about ourselves. He wishes to show us how our emotions may be leading us astray or how our attitude is wrong. He cares to let us see how undisciplined we may be, keeping ourselves defeated. He hopes to uncover sensitive areas of our lives and administer inner healing and release. He must show us how we may be working ourselves into Satan’s hold. And on and on…

Texas Finn, Flickr

This is what “I desire to give you process” means.

I don’t mean to be unloving here, but stop waiting on a miracle because it probably won’t happen. Remember the first part—“You are seeking my intervention”? As we’ve experienced them, miracles are uncommon. God seems to prefer process because it engages and perfects us.

At this point the wrong approach is to run away, fleeing further pain, which is something to be considered. How many times has God made a promise to you about a matter and you celebrated and were confident in his answer only to see the situation seemingly crash and burn—and then you had to go through an extended process to discover the true victory he described to you? But in the end, were you not grateful and better off for taking the long way around? The experience worked more in you than you gaining the quick fix you sought.

Let me encourage you not to grow weary when after inviting God your life becomes even more topsy-turvy. It is God positioning you for the answer. He’s not hurting you; he’s blessing you. He’s renovating the house, gutting what’s outdated and useless to start anew and give you what you’ve only dreamed of and never thought could be yours.

Learning to Do The Tough Things Well

Parker Anderson, ND

Let’s have a moment of silence for the end of the 2014-15 football season. (Thank you.) Before we let it go completely, however, I need to raise the point of something we witnessed at its very end: Cam Newton’s display at his post-game press conference.

Now I’m not picking on Cam because I like him, although I cheered for the Broncos. I love his talent and style; I appreciate his attitude and goodwill. I think he rightly deserves to be MVP. But what we saw of him during that press conference was beneath him and opposite the persona he’s created for himself–the one being an awesome role model to kids, hurling the biggest smiles in football, and dabbing all over the place.

I know it can’t be easy losing the Super Bowl. Losing is just an all-around sucky thing; and when you’re a true competitor, you have to eat, sleep, and breathe it, just like when winning. Yet Newton knew he had to face reporters; it’s part of the package. And already having detractors, it would’ve been better to have seen him come out with at least a half-smile and explain how proud he was of his team, congratulate the Broncos, and stoke the Panther Nation about next year.

Instead, he let his emotions get the best of him, displayed an awful attitude, and walked out. What’s more, he offered a poor excuse explaining his behavior.

Training Matters

I drew a lesson from this. In 2 Peter 1:3-11, the apostle explains how God has granted us the privilege of being partakers of his divine nature–and the corollary of seizing on that by perfecting ourselves through spiritual discipline.

Partly a lesson on assurance and the Spirit’s work of bringing us to lasting godliness, Peter also implies that such regimen guarantees that we’ll meet God’s expectations of us when hardship comes (Ch. 2). It’s easy for a parent to know how their child will act under pressure when over the years they watch them perfect their character. Ask any previous coach of Cam’s–or Newton himself–and they’ll tell you that his prowess and success now are no surprise. He did the tough work until it became easy all along the way and never betrayed those lessons.

It’s no different spiritually. I don’t need to wonder how I might respond if I’m told to recant Jesus or repudiate truth if I’ve consistently trained myself in godliness. It’s like strengthening a muscle until it’s rock-hard and reliable. But a weak faith cannot expect to be strong in the day of trouble.

Closing the Gaps

There’s no doubt that Cam Newton is a remarkable athlete and has the future by the neck. He’s where he is today because he’s rigorously prepared himself for football greatness.

But his press conference partly showed us an integrity not as proven under pressure as his physical ability. Many of Newton’s peers stated at the time that there’s more growth for him, mainly in learning how to be a complete success, which includes losing.

Losing can be winning. But letting competition get the best of us and make us shortsighted can cause us to miss valuable lessons. Always abounding in life doesn’t mean always winning; it just might mean losing gracefully when the stakes are high.

A Prayer for All Travelers

CC BY-NC, le calmar, Flickr

God, give me the courage I need to learn the lessons I must know to be the person you desire, because the lessons will not be near as glorious as I shall be made by them.

God, make me discerning of the opportunities that present themselves, to read open doors carefully, for not every one is from you; some are traps only leading to great trouble.

Lord, let me never forget humility, to always be more interested in others and their needs than in myself and my own, to be kind and civil, righteous and godly as becoming of you.

Calculating Change

CC BY-NC-ND, Giampaolo Macorig, Flickr

I know what change looks like. I have been fairly good at producing it. Something I know about personal change is that there is often a visceral prompt about it that spurs action and precedes any logistics.

Every New Year people make their rounds up Resolution Hill. We’ve all done it. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to enhance at the start of a year because it really can be the beginning of something life-changing. I marched off that hill years ago, however, and never looked back. I got tired of making promises I was not going to keep because I was not ready to keep them.

Parable of the Pounds

I watch people. I listen to them. And I’ve learn to tell if they’ll really change the way they hope. In business, laying out a plan or strategy for change is standard practice. An organization that fails to draft important next steps could ruin itself for a small oversight. Planning is helpful for personal change as well, although it may not require the extensive planning a business might. Plans are good, but remember I mentioned a visceral element as the impetus to much change? Let me help you understand what I mean by that. I’ll use weight loss as an example and two fictionalized people–Stacy and Brenda.

Stacy is excited about losing weight. January 1 is closing in and she’s already purchased a gym membership, athletic wear, and an array of diet products and appliances. She’s even convinced a neighbor to take the plunge with her. On New Year’s Day, she’ll be the first one knocking down the gym door because the time for change has come.

Brenda, however, has been frustrated and concerned about her weight. For months now she’s been altering the way she eats little-by-little and getting to the track for extended walks. She finally stopped by the gym today and committed, purchasing a membership so she could have access to the weight machines. Her chagrin has morphed into enthusiasm about her slow but steady progress.

Now, who goes the distance–Stacy or Brenda? If you said Stacy, then you’d better rethink it.

Here’s my point: There is little run-up to genuine personal change. Deliberation will always kill the tough thing to do. The people that change really are the ones who are ‘tired of being sick and tired’, and they make moves. Brenda couldn’t have cared less about new clothes and even the gym membership at first. The time for change for her could wait no longer, not for a date, not for ideal accessories. It was now or never.

Tired, Weak, and Worn

Jesus seems to tap into this same urgency in Matthew 11:28. He beckons, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens…I will give you rest” (NLT). Not only is he drawing religious contrast between following the Law of Moses and himself, but he is also prodding their spiritual discomfort with sin and limited grace.

“Aren’t you tired of this rigmarole?” he asks. “It’s time for better.” It’s the same tone we hear in Lady Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Jesus shows us already in Matthew 11 the ones who change. He says, “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it” (v. 12). He speaks of those in the press. Those who just won’t do without. Those who are mad about it. They are those who will lay hold on the change they seek.

The Human Element

CC Jean-Daniel Pauget
CC Jean-Daniel Pauget

Dark times can subtly creep upon us. Sometimes Satan is merely the one who capitalizes on other things happening with us. When I say dark times I don’t mean sickness, although that’s certainly nothing to be happy about; I don’t mean attack by an enemy. I simply mean unexpected emotional hardship in response to life experiences. It’s our own hearts taking us by surprise.

I’ve always referred to this as the ‘human element’. The phrase is rudimentary, lacking eloquence, and in need of explanation. Let me share two stories from my life to help you see what I mean.

Story 1: The Summer Burn-Out

CC Mer Chau
CC Mer Chau

I went to college in Oklahoma, so I didn’t often return home on the East Coast during holidays and summers. Instead, I would remain on campus and work. The school year had ended and my routine remained largely the same besides no study and working full-time to care for myself. I was to begin my junior year that fall and take some long-awaited major courses. But by the time classes started I was mentally fatigued, having never rested. By the end of that semester, my grades plummeted and I nearly failed two important courses.

Story 2: The Derailed Trainman

Christian, Flickr
Christian, Flickr

I once worked as a railroad conductor. One sunny day after our last move before returning to the hub, my engineer and I were halted. I had been secretly watched by an official and hassled for a trivial infraction; the fallout caused a very serious error minutes later. It landed both of us out of work on a 10-month probation that ruined me financially. I lost everything and had to rely on others. Outwardly I seemed fine, but I was emotionally devastated by my loss. When the time came to return to the job, I resigned despite offers of help from family.

From Stasis to Chaos

When I speak of the human element, I’m talking about unanticipated disconsolation, depression, or vices resultant of continual emotional wear or emotionally depleting events or results. It is elicited by both positive and negative experiences. One day life is swell—the family is fine, work is good, money is flowing, dreams are coming true; but the next moment we are emotionally blindsided and don’t know why.

It is the response of the heart that is atypical. Pain hurts and you cried; you were elated by your success—but there was more that was incited.

I speak of the subtle trajectories of the heart, the unexpected drawings and cravings certain experiences arouse and that point back to emotional flaws or deficiencies needing special attention. This is a poignant matter in our driven, innovative culture where we suppose we can continually be on the go and have every experience without proper solace and emotional reflection and repair; it only leads to breakdown.

SA, Dave Gingrich
SA, Dave Gingrich

We cannot always calculate how we will react to our experiences. There is no autopilot for our emotions; they change and must be managed. Have you ever been happy for a friend’s success and then for weeks battled your own feelings of failure? Have we not all observed the successful business person or celebrity, a rising star but a life spinning out of control. They cope with their success by drinking, through addictions and riotous living, and even suicide.

How we deal with life events, the good and bad, is plethora and accomplished in healthy and unhealthy ways. Importantly, we should closely monitor how certain experiences stimulate our emotional needs and carefully plan our responses. Being unaware or not fully honest about serious inner issues is risky.

And before you give me a gospel spiel, I understand what it means to live in the Spirit, to have strong faith, and to make Christ Lord of every part of me. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that godly folk wrestle with their emotions and become depressed. If you need evidence, the biggest book in the Bible is full of people who have shared these very stories and watched God bring them back from the brink. Our emotional reaction is one thing; a mindful and godly response is another—but we can have emotional struggles.

I offer no quips or solutions. I just think it’s important to know that the events of our lives affect us in more ways than are apparent, emotionally so; and that being attentive to our souls and how we handle life matters is vital to our emotional well-being—Christian or not.

Lectio Divina: Psalms 13 – Despair and Hope

SA Lloyd Morgan
SA Lloyd Morgan

Psalm 13 presents the complaint of one waiting for God’s intervention. The writer, David, is clearly under some type of oppression from people he deems enemies. He has been patiently waiting for God’s action, but it seems that it will never come; now he struggles with despair.

When meditating on this divine reading, notice in Verses 1 and 2 the four vexations of the writer: the sense that he is 1-2) forgotten and avoided by God; 3) shamed and left to figure out his own escape plan; and 4) oppressed by the ungodly.

Verse 1 (ESV)

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

Every believer walking with Christ will face trial, and every believer will have to wait for God’s deliverance. How we wait makes all the difference. We can wait trusting God’s promise to deliver us or we can wait begrudgingly and wondering why he doesn’t help us. But what about when we are patient, even longsuffering, but God seems to never come?

This is the writer’s foremost trouble: God has forgotten him. We sense that he is a godly man, has guarded his heart from bitterness, and endured much trouble while waiting for God’s vindication and deliverance. But the tenor of his words reveals that despair has seeped into his heart.

“How long will you hide your face from me?”

CC Marc Bruneke
CC Marc Bruneke

He charges the all-seeing God with the notion that he is avoiding him. Haven’t we all felt this way? We are confident that we belong to God and rightly understand that we will suffer, just as Christ himself suffered. We endure our pain with our minds focused on God and his Word but grow perplexed when he doesn’t make the pain go away fast enough.

Is God avoiding us? We can indeed feel this way. We all know what it feels like for a person we consider a friend to evade us; it doesn’t feel good. This is what troubles the writer. Satan will also attempt to confuse us and bring guilt. We’ll begin to ask, “What have I done that is pushing God away from me?”

Verse 2

“How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”

Have you ever gotten frustrated because you waited on God? You trusted the Lord, but, when his aid took forever, you felt that you would’ve never had trouble if you had only used your own head to solve your problem. This is the writer’s quandary. God gives us a mind, so we should use it; but when does our rationale interfere with God’s plan? And are there some trials he needs us to experience for our own making such that we could never think our way out of them?

The writer’s agony in this verse is his feeling embarrassed by God’s absence, that the Lord has left him to his own devices to fix his troubles when he has been doing what he’s always known to do, which is wait on God. What was right: to wait on the Lord or to tunnel his own way out? Not knowing what to do, he becomes depressed.

“How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

 Here is our clue that the writer has been afflicted by someone. So to add insult to real injury—“God, are you going to let my enemy rule me, your child?” How long will he allow those who scoff at religion to vex a believer?

NC-ND, Ferran Jorda
NC-ND, Ferran Jorda

It is not a charge against the writer here, but it’s a good place to deal with the topic. It is our human thinking, even for the Christian, that personal righteousness is to be rewarded by God. God has told us this in no uncertain terms (Matt. 20:4), but it is not our place to decide what is rewarded and when. Job was indeed righteous, but we notice pride in his attitude toward his suffering, which always has a profound way of making us see what’s in our hearts. Our thinking is off. Living godly is its own reward and only the Spirit and Heaven itself can prove this to us. God owes us nothing; we owe him everything.

Verse 3 and 4

“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.

Could it be that the writer is antagonized due to his faith and because they understand his modus operandi is to trust his God? He pleads with God to prove his fame, for the man’s faithful witness and the credibility of his religion depend on God’s response. He has been a bulwark of conviction to this point; but now he’s in his prayer place wondering if God will ever come. He asks for light, here so symbolic of hope or a sign, lest depression consumes his very life.

Verse 5

“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”

Suddenly, as though the light prayed for has come, the writer’s strength of heart returns. He remembers the kindnesses and the favor of God shown to him in the past, assurances that he has not forsaken him now, for God is constant. And with that look toward the future, he grows joyful at the prospect of God’s imminent deliverance. Trouble couldn’t last forever, but hope would steady the heart until the answer came.

Verse 6

“I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

CC Pol Sifter
CC Pol Sifter

We should praise the Lord for his mercy toward us. He knows our frailty and that we don’t always understand his dealings with us. He can also see where the strength of our faith weakens; and first not letting us be overcome by any trial, he draws close to us in hardship to let us know that he will answer.

Think in your own life how once you may have despaired and thought you’d never be happy again, at least not until the problem was solved. But the Spirit came and lifted your heart ever so lovingly; before you knew it, your confidence had returned though the problem lingered.

David remembers the character of God and sings his praise: “He has been good to me!” It all comes down to this—his kindness, his love, his faithfulness, his justice, his incredible goodness toward us. They are our assurances that God is present and coming to our rescue.