The Green-Eyed Monster: Putting Jealousy in its Place

catmouseYou don’t send a mouse to check on a group of cats. But that’s exactly what Jacob did. He sent Joseph, saying, “See if it is well with your brothers and with the flock,” (Genesis 37:14). Oh, sure, not a problem. I mean, if you ignore the brothers’ hatred against Joseph because he was their father’s pet; if you’re oblivious to the fact that the brothers despised Joseph even more when he relayed two dreams of his whole family bowing down to him; if you are so clueless about human nature as not to realize that the green-eyed monster of jealousy mocks the meat it feeds on (as Shakespeare puts it), then by all means send the mouse Joseph to check on the ten fraternal cats who were hungry for a pound of their little brother’s flesh.

What happened, horrible though it be, is hardly a surprise. Since Joseph was so high and mighty, the brothers decided to teach him humility by tossing him into a pit. Since he was their dad’s favorite, they faked his death and duped their dad into believing a beast had ripped him to shreds. Since he had dreams of superiority, they turned his life into a nightmare of exile and slavery. The cats did what cats do: they toyed with the mouse. These green-eyed monsters mocked the meat they fed on.

Jealousy: it’s one of those forces within us that can manifest itself as protector or destroyer. Jealousy can be good—a “divine jealousy,” Paul calls it (2 Corinthians 11:2). It compels us to shield our loved ones from outside forces that seek to lure them into destruction and ruin. So the Lord our God is a jealous God, for He will have all of us—all our love and fidelity—and not share us with a soul-destroying idol. So my wife is a jealous wife, for she will have all of me—all my love and fidelity—and not share me with a marriage-destroying adulteress. Yes, jealousy can be good, when, prompted by love, it zealously protects the beloved from evil.

But jealousy, far more commonly, is a kissing cousin to envy and covetousness. It is the hand that’s attached to the arm of narcissism, snatching at what the self-lover yearns to have as his own. It is the jealousy of brothers who want what Joseph has. It is the jealousy of husbands who demand a slave they can control rather than a wife they can love and trust. It is the jealousy of coworkers, who, rather than rejoicing when their fellow employee climbs the ladder of success, secretly despise him for faring better than they are. In the case of Joseph, jealousy conceived hatred, which was born as rage, which, when fully-grown, became murderous, deceitful, family-destroying violence. Jealousy, like all vices, never crashes a party alone; it brings along its gang of hellish friends.

It’ll eat you alive, won’t it? We begin to think we’re victims, as if the whole world is conspiring against us to deprive us of what we deserve. How come she married such a good guy and I’m stuck with this pig? How come mom and dad always take his side and dote on him, while all they do is criticize me? Why can’t I ever seem to get ahead, and my neighbors never seem to fall behind? I’m a victim of fate, a victim of the bad choices others make, victimized by my family, victimized by the universe. On and on it goes, as jealousy makes a meal of our soul.

Let me tell you a better way. This better way does not involve you doing something to become a better person. This better way has no five or ten or fifty steps you can follow to become a happy, satisfied child or spouse or coworker. Rather, it’s a way of putting jealousy in its place, of watching as it sinks down into a wet grave to die the death it deserves. For if there’s anything cats hate, it’s water, and that’s exactly what this green-eyed monster needs: to be grabbed by the neck and held under the water until its lungs fill with liquid and its body grows limp. What jealousy needs is a swim from which it will never return.

Baptism is not just a one-time cleansing to which we can never return. The font becomes our daily companion. And into that fountain of water Christ Jesus daily plunges everything in us that is contrary to Him. He takes us, filthy with jealousy, stained by envy, smeared with covetousness, and shoves us down into those waters and brings us up again clean with holiness, spotless with gratitude, flawless with love. In other words, daily Christ creates us anew, daily fashions a clean heart within us that rejoices with those who prosper, thanks God for what we have, enjoys a life in which we are not victims but victors through Him who overwhelmingly conquered for us on the cross.

The solution to jealousy is not “don’t be jealous.” The solution is a Savior—a Savior who zealously pursued us, even to the point of crucifixion, that He might claim us as His brothers and sister, fellow children of our heavenly Father. He indeed has that divine jealousy, that saving zeal to have us exclusively as His own. And so He does. In His eyes you will spot no green, but rather the warm glow of love. It is a love that saves us from ourselves, that saves us from every vice, that saves us for a life in which Christ lives through us as a new and greater Joseph, delivered up out of jealousy to be the Savior of the whole world.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

Honest Parenting: Tell Children the “Dreadful Beauty” of Painful Truths

truthNo one knew that she was a woman, let alone expecting a child, except her husband. They were Chinese indentured servants, clearing terrain and shoveling tunnels through the California mountains for the coming railroads. She had disguised herself so that she could be with him whom she loved. There, side by side, they worked, she growing weaker as her time drew near. The labor pangs came early, when she was surrounded by men—gangs of men who had not even seen a woman, much less been with a woman, in months. Her husband, his leg recently broken in an accident, shattered the bone again running to her, trying to get to her before the men did. By the time he drug himself up the slope of shale to where she lay, his wife was able only to mutter a few last words. From the tattered body of his dying wife, he clawed out their living child with his fingernails.

That child, Lee, told this story of his mother and father, and his own nightmarish entrance into this world of evil and lust and redemption, to Adam, in John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. Even when he was a little boy, his father had not hidden the truth from him. As he told Lee the story, he would say, “There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar,” (Chapter 28).

I read that passage years ago, and for some reason it remained lodged deep in my memory. Never did I dream then that I would think of it when it came time to talk to my own child, to my daughter, about a chapter from our common past that is punctuated with pain. Unlike Lee, it has nothing to do with my child’s entrance into this world, but rather with the entrance of rebellion into my own life—a rebellion that left her world, my world, and the world of my whole family shattered. It was a personal war, of me against God, but such fights are never merely personal. They always result in collateral damage, as the carnage of destroyed innocence and shredded families tearfully attests.

My daughter’s honest, pointed question of “Why?” not only desired an answer; it deserved and demanded the “dreadful beauty” of an honest response. There is always the temptation to “twist life”, especially when the truth unveils the monster of egocentricity whose filthy lair is in the human heart. The temptation is doubled because it is so easy to tell ourselves that we withhold the truth to protect the innocent, all the while knowing it is only ourselves we strive to protect. To plumb the unfathomable depths of human selfishness is perhaps the most frightening exploration possible for man. It is, and will ever remain, the “last frontier”, into which we rarely, and barely, set foot, for none of us truly wants to discover what is there.

There is, of course, room for debate about what is appropriate to tell children, and at what age. I recognize the need for wisdom and prudence, even when it comes to honesty. Certainly not everyone would have chosen the way of Lee’s father. Nor, perhaps, would they have chosen the way of my daughter’s father. I can tell you, however, that I am intimately acquainted with the world of half-truths, and full-blown lies, and it is not a world I will live in again.

The storytellers at the city gate, who teach nothing, cure nothing, nor let the heart soar, may make life look sweet, but they sugar-coat poison. The truth will always emerge, and when it is does, the liar is not only made to look the fool; he is often despised for fooling others. The way of truth is always the way of the wise. It is the way of our Father above, and so it is the way of fathers here, even when the truth is dreadful.

I would rather rear a child in the desert of truth, then raise a fool in the paradise of a lie.

ChristAloneCoverIf you have a minute, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

The Runaway Bunny and the Runaway Serpent: How Far Will God Go to Get Us Back?

runawaybunnyMy daughter was on my left, my son on my right, as I began to read. “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.”

How was I to know that I was reading my future to my children that day?

The story continued. “So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’”

I didn’t even bother to tell my Father that I was running away. I just did. Packed up my things, wrote no note, left the door hanging wide open. Never looked back. How was I to know that my Father said, “I will run after you”?

My daughter and son listen as I read on. “‘If you run after me,” said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’ ‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.’”

If God ran after me, He wouldn’t like what he found. He’d have to go slumming, poking around in the gutter, digging through the dunghill to find his runaway boy. And God wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t go that far. I didn’t mean that much to him.

I turned page after page. The little bunny became a rock high on a mountain, so the mother became a mountain climber. The bunny became a crocus in a hidden garden, so the mother became a gardener. The bunny became a bird, so the mother became a tree that her little bird could come home to.

I was beginning to think I’d never outrun God. To my surprise, and disappointment, I couldn’t seem to get away from him. I became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man, but every place I went, soon I’d look over my shoulder and see Him bearing down on me, in hot pursuit.

Finally the little boy says that he will become a boy and run into a house. And the mother responds, “If you become a little boy and run into a house, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.” To which he responds, “Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

But it was too late for me. I had already left. This was no cute conversation between me and my Father in heaven. Some what-if scenario. I had turned from being a little boy into being a serpent. Crawling on my belly in the dust. Slithering from sin to sin. Poison on my lips. A bite that could wound and kill. I was coiled in anger, looking through two slit eyes that saw the world from the perspective of prey and predator.

And I knew that pursue me though He might, God would never stoop so low as to become a serpent. No, not even to find and bring home his lost little boy. God wouldn’t go that far.

And then one day I heard these words, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life,” (John 3:14-15). And my mind drifted back to the story of Moses, how God told that old man to make a bronze serpent and fasten it to a pole, so that all the Israelites who were bitten by the fiery serpents might look to that bronze serpent and be healed.

And I wept, a serpent of a man shedding tears in the dust that I had made my home. I looked up at the cross and saw what God had become to bring me home. He had become what I was. He who knew no sin became sin that in Him I might become the righteousness of God. Jesus became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man—He became all of me on the cross, all of what was wrong with me, all of what was wrong with our fallen race. He became a serpent, and was lifted up, that He might draw all men to Himself.

We meant that much to Him. He would go that far. He would go into the gutter to find us and bring us home, transformed back into His children.

Now, every night, my heavenly Father tucks me into bed, kisses me on the forehead, and says, “You’re home again. My son, my child, you’re home again.”

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

The Polygamous, Incestuous, Murderous Collection of Screw-ups God Called the Holy Family

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy

dysfunctionalfamilyThere is a uniqueness to unhappiness, as Tolstoy rightly observed, a sad fingerprint left by each family that is like no other. And it’s rarely as simplistic as outsiders usually assume. “Oh, it’s that alcoholic father who’s ruined that family.” Or, “Yeah, it’s that cheatin’ wife of his.” Or, “it’s them dope-smoking kids.” Maybe the husband turns to alcohol as an escape because his wife nags him, belittles him, and makes him feel worthless. Maybe the wife sleeps with other men because they give her the illusion of attraction, while her husband says she’s fat, never touches her, and makes her feel as undesirable as a wrinkled whore. And this merely scratches the surface. Dig down deep into any unhappy family, and you’re likely to unearth layer upon layer of manipulation, abuse, neglect, grudges, and horrors which have no name.

Joseph came from a family like that. His dad, Jacob, was married to two women, having sex with two more, and fathering children by them all. I don’t need to tell you that, in a household where four women are sleeping with one man, jealousy was thick. Each wife was trying to out-pregnant the other, and even enlisted their maid-servants as sexual pinch hitters to try and make even more babies. To add to the mess, Joseph’s brother, Reuben, slept with one of those maid-servants as well, father and son sowing their seed in the same womb, brother sleeping with his other brothers’ mom. Still more, after one of the daughters was raped in a nearby town, the sons rose to avenge their sister with bloodshed, all the while incensed at their father who didn’t want to ruffle any feathers over the incident. And, finally, the jealousy of the wives filtered down to the sons, especially when Jacob made it abundantly clear that Joseph, the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachel, was his favorite son and the one who would inherit his blessing. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then Joseph’s family had plenty of ways of breeding more unhappiness.

Some of you reading this come from an unhappy family, or you’re living in that unhappy family right now. Maybe you’re wondering if there’s any possible way God could glue back together the shards of your shattered family unity. Maybe you suspect things are so bad that God has washed His hands of your marriage and children. Or maybe you’ve simply given up hope; you feel defeated; you’re tired of pushing that boulder uphill, only to watch it roll down again. The pains and disappointments in life are teaching you the hard truth that God has a warm place in His heart for happy families, while unhappy ones are left shivering through winter after winter of divine absence.

If so, consider this: Joseph’s family—that polygamous, incestuous, jealous, murderous, motley crew of screw-ups—was in fact the holy family that God chose and dearly loved. This family was the foundation of the church of the Old Testament. Those twelve brothers, reared by one deceitful father and four bickering mothers, who were constantly fighting amongst themselves, were the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. This microcosm of humanity, in which just about every evil and sin was exemplified, was nevertheless beloved of God and chosen by Him to carry forward the promise of redemption. This was the family whose DNA would eventually find its way into a baby boy born to a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. The Savior of the world would come from Joseph’s family; indeed, his foster father would bear that patriarch’s name. From this unhappy family would arise the one whose coming would prompt the church to sing, “Joy to the world!”

So is God interested only in happy families? No, if anything, He seems to be the patron God of lost causes. For him, there is no family, no family member, who is beyond hope. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost lamb. He is the father who dashes from his house and runs like a madman to throw his loving arms around the prodigal son. He is the Christ who suffers with you through every family fight, holds you when you cry yourself to sleep in a lonely bed, sits beside you in divorce court, visits your child with you when she’s in rehab. He has bound Himself to you and your family. That doesn’t mean He approves of the evil that takes place; what it means is that He is not a God who runs away when things get ugly. He might even get ugly Himself sometimes, show tough love to those who need it, but behind that divine scowl of reproof is a heart of love that beats with a ferocious compassion. He will not give up on you or your family. Inked into God’s skin is the name of every person in your family. He bears your family in His own body.

Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but no family is beyond redemption, beyond the recovery of joy, beyond the love of the heavenly Father. Because every unhappy family is the family for whom Jesus Christ died. For Joseph’s family, for your family, the Son of God came from His Father, was born of a mother, was raised by a foster father, that He might redeem every member of your family, and make them members of an everlasting family known as the church. With Jesus Christ, no family is a lost cause.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

When Your Own Family Betrays You

josephpitWhen your life has come to a disastrous halt, part of you feels mocked by a world that keeps on moving. You’re sitting alone at home, grieving the loss of someone you love, while down the street a family parties it up on their daughter’s wedding day. While you’re getting ready for yet another dead-end job interview, your neighbors get in their cars and drive to work every morning. And as irrational at it seems, you can’t help but think, “Don’t they know, don’t they care, what I’m going through?” In such times of darkness, even the sunrise seems a slap in the face. Give me a night, or an eclipse, or at least a cloudy day. How can the planet keep on spinning when my life has slammed into a brick wall?

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is when people kick us where it hurts, grind our face in the dirt, and go on with their lives as if they’ve done nothing wrong, while we’re left writhing in our own blood. The happier and more successful they become, the more the knife twists that they’ve planted in our backs. It happens all the time in divorces. It happens at school. It happens in the workplace and, yes, in the church. And deeper are the wounds when they’re inflicted by those we trusted, even loved, and whom we thought loved us.

Joseph could tell you all about this. His father had sent him to check on his brothers and the flocks they were shepherding. But inside the hearts of these brother-shepherds the wolf of jealousy howled and growled. “Joseph, our father’s pet. Joseph, and his coat of many colors. Joseph, and his despicable dreams of all of us one day bowing down to him. Let’s give this dreamer a taste of reality.” So there lay Joseph, naked, bruised, crying for mercy, at the bottom of the pit into which his own family had tossed him like a piece of garbage.

And what did the brothers do? They sat down to eat a meal. While the echoes of their brother’s cries from within the earth sounded forth? Yes. While their own flesh and blood lay bleeding in the bottom of a pit? Yes. For Joseph, it was like a twisted version of Psalm 23, in which Thou didst prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, but it was my enemies who ate, indeed, who devoured my life, while I tasted only tears. This teenager, beloved of his father, chosen by God, on that day learned in the school of suffering just how callous people can be, including members of our own family.

What Joseph did not know, what he could not have known at the time, was that this was merely the beginning of the strange work of God in his life. From this time forward, and for many years to come, all evidence would point to the fact that the Lord had abandoned Joseph. Being thrown in the pit was but one of the many smoking guns that the prosecutor could bring forth as evidence in the court of Joseph’s heart that God was no longer active in his life, no longer loved him, no longer was with him, no longer cared one iota for him.

We’ve all had our Joseph-like days, or months, or even years. Some of you reading this are going through it right now. While you’re in a deep, dark pit the world above you goes on its merry way, enjoys its meals, has its parties, maybe even mocks your sufferings or says that you’re getting what you deserve. Not only do you feel the absence of God; it may seem to you that heaven has become your enemy.

As odd as this may sound, the one that you think has become your enemy is the only one in creation who knows perfectly how you feel. Because the very God you think has forsaken you is the person who once felt forsaken by God. When Jesus, the Son of the Father, was in the deepest, darkest throes of His own suffering, He gave voice to the ultimate cry of the human heart, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest,” (Psalm 22:1-2). Like Joseph lay in the pit while his brothers ate their meal; like you’re in your own pit while the world goes on as if nothing happened; so Jesus hung on His cross while the soldiers gambled beneath Him, His closest friends fled in fear, His enemies mocked Him, and His heavenly Father forsook Him. The Son of God dove headfirst into the pit of human suffering, lay bloody and bruised with us as we hit bottom, and joins His voice of lament to ours as we bewail our grief and loss.

But you do not only have a God who can sympathize with you, who is bound up with you in the midst of your sufferings; you have the same God as Joseph, the God who will lift you out of the pit, out of the prison, out of the gutter. He is the one who wiped the graveyard dust from His feet on a Sunday morning, who made that evidence of mortality the smoking gun of death’s demise. You have a resurrection God, who will not rest until you rest in life and hope once more. He raised Joseph from the pit, from the Egyptian jail, to newness of life. He raised Jacob from the sorrow of Sheol to joy in life once more when he was told Joseph was alive in Egypt. He is an Good Friday God, to be sure, a God whose strange work involves putting to death that in us which is contrary to Him. But He is also an Easter God, whose loving work is sustaining us, healing us, raising us up.

The life of Joseph is understood only within the life of Jesus. And your life is no different. Joseph and you and me, we’re all part of a larger story, the story of the God who became one of us, became intimately acquainted with our griefs and sorrows and losses, redeemed us to be His own by the most cruel death imaginable, then raised up on the third day to a life that will not, and cannot, end. Our lives—full of ups and downs, gains and losses, births and funerals—are hidden within the life of Christ, who suffers with us, rises with us, and goes to hell and back to make sure we make it to heaven with Him.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

False Guilt: Where Do I Turn When I Feel Guilty for Doing Nothing Wrong?

falseguiltHe never saw the pickup coming. The few years of life he’d experienced hadn’t taught him enough about being safe, about looking both ways before running across the street, about what a moving ton of steel can do to a little boy’s body. The driver was leaving a construction sight in the back of the neighborhood. He wasn’t speeding. He wasn’t texting. And he wasn’t omniscient; he didn’t know the boy was going to come out of nowhere. The driver was innocent. He did nothing wrong. Yet now, about a year later, I’d wager that the guilt he feels over that child’s death is the first thing he feels every morning, the last thing he feels every night.

And he is not alone. I suspect that child’s parents beat themselves up for not protecting their child, even though there was no way they could have prevented the accident. His older siblings feel guilty for not being there to watch over him. On and on the false guilt spreads. Only if I had been a better parent, only if I had been there, only if I had offered to play with him that day, only if I had driven a little slower, only if I had worked late that day. Everyone involved feels guilty over something in which they did nothing wrong.

It is a strange fact of human nature that false guilt very often plagues us more than true guilt. Children think they’re to blame for their parents’ divorce. Husbands think they’re to blame for their wife’s suicide. Parents think they’re to blame for the bad choices their children make. There’s plenty of true sins for which we feel true guilt, but it’s the false guilt over non-sins that frequently keep us awake at night, playing the “only if I had done ______” game of self-torture.

Now I could try to convince you that your feelings of guilt are misplaced, that because you did nothing wrong, you are not to blame. Things happen over which you have no control. There’s no way you could have seen that child coming. There’s no way you could have prevented your parents’ marital strife. People make their own decisions. We can’t control them. We can only control our reaction to them. I could tell you these things. But, honestly, I tell myself these same things on a regular basis, and they wind up providing little comfort. The truth is that I am flawed beyond the reach of psychological reasoning.

We are a tiny part of a deeply flawed world. And the tiny part of the world that we are is just as deeply flawed. There are cracks in my soul, flaws in the core of my being, that are deeper and broader than the Grand Canyon. They are full of true and false guilt, addictions and angers, regrets and shame, horrors over what I’ve done and what’s been done to me. I have old, old wounds on my heart that still ooze pus. And they’re not all self-inflicted. Others have hurt me, even those I loved dearly. And I even feel guilt over them hurting me, as if somehow I’m to blame for their loveless treatment of me. I am a man of flaws that are deeper and broader and full of more pain that any reasoning or counseling can fully cure.

We are right to say that Jesus paid the price for our sins, that He takes our guilt away. But the truth is that I need more than a Savior from my own sin. I also need a Savior from other people’s sins against me. I need a God who can heal me of true guilt and false guilt. I need a Christ who not only removes the shame I feel for what I’ve done, but who washes away the shame that others have smeared upon me. I need a Jesus who doesn’t just fix the parts of me that are broken, but who totally remakes me into a new creature.

And that’s the Savior I have. “Look, I am making all things new,” He says (Rev 21:5). Did you hear that? All. Things. New. Not most things. Not just the things you feel true guilt over. Not just the shame over what you’ve done wrong. I am making all things new. He makes all of me new, all of you new. The cracks in our souls, those deep and broad flaws in the core of our being, He fills with Himself. The Grand Canyon within us, full of guilts and fears and shames and regrets and horrors unspeakable, He fills with His forgiveness and healing and love and compassion. And when fissures begin to show again, He fills them once more.

“It is finished,” Jesus said right before He died. And He meant it. He finished the work of making us new by being made all that is wrong with the world and with us. There is a true Savior for false guilt. There is a true Savior for all flaws, all pains, all that’s wrong with us and the world in which we live. He is one who makes all things new.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

The Illusion of Control

The highway was a spectacular sheet of ice. I was the seventeen-year-old behind the wheel. And I had pretty much everything in life figured out. I was that good.

Here’s what you do. First, you put weight in the back of the truck. So early that morning I loaded several bales of alfalfa hay in the bed of my Ford. Bingo. That’d do the trick. Next, when you’re driving on ice, you take your sweet time. So I did, crawling along the shiny sheet of asphalt like grandma on a Sunday drive. Next, if you must hit the brakes, you just tap them. Don’t lock them down or you’ll find yourself on winter’s version of a slip-and-slide.

See, I knew what to do: weigh the truck down, drive slow, tap brakes. Simple. It may have been a nasty day in the Texas panhandle, but I was in control of the situation.

And then there came this hill. The hill with a menacing 45 degree curve at the bottom. The hill I had no choice but to slow down for. So ever so lightly I tapped my brakes. And, in a heartbeat, my drive to school became a carnival ride. Down the hill I went, the Ford suddenly an automotive ballerina, spinning round and round. I blacked out or freaked out or both. The next thing I remember was blinking at my driver’s side window, for I all saw were frozen blades of grass, and out of the passenger’s window only a grayish morning sky. There I lay, my truck on its side, in the ditch, after I’d done everything right. I was seventeen years old. And I was learning a very important lesson about the illusion of control.

I escaped unscathed that day, though my Ford was pretty beat up. But that was one of many lessons I’ve learned about control and its illusory appeal. In some of my other lessons, things didn’t end nearly so well. They didn’t kill me, but I stumbled away with injuries to the heart and soul from which I will never completely recover. And given what I know about myself, perhaps that’s best. Like Jacob, maybe I need to limp. Like Paul, maybe I need a thorn in the flesh. Some of us need scars, inward as well as outward, as a constant reminder that we are not in control.

spinningIt’s one thing for your life to spin out of control when you’re flagrantly breaking every law God ever made, but what about when you’re really trying to do God’s will? The day I wrecked my truck, I followed all the right steps. Then came the icy hill and my illusion of control was shattered. And so it goes in life. You do everything you can think of to be a good wife, to make your husband happy, but he still prefers bars and blondes over evenings with you. You take your children to church and Sunday School; teach them good manners and a hard work ethic and chastity; warn them over and over about the dangers of drugs and alcohol; and still they end up sleeping with God knows who, snorting God knows what, and basically wrecking their lives. You hit the gym, eat right, take your vitamins, avoid cigarettes, still look pretty darn good in a swimsuit, then find out in your mid-40’s that you’ve got stage four cancer. You discover—as a spouse, a parent, a child of this world—that you were in control of nothing. It was all an illusion.

Some well-meaning friend will likely tell you, Don’t worry. God’s in control. Like that’s supposed to help. So, you’ll think, God is the one who orchestrated my husband’s infidelities? God is the one in control of my child who’s strung out on cocaine? God is the one who caused my cancer? The Lord is the sadist behind all this pain and disappointment and heartache and loss and grief? He’s in control? Well, now, isn’t that a relief, to know that heaven itself has made my life a living hell.

Know this: it’s not a matter of who’s in control in this life—you, God, some nameless power in the universe, or none of the above. Focus on control and you’ll end up with nothing but confusion and frustration and disappointment. It’s not about who’s in control in this life but whose you are in this life. It’s about the Christ who claims you as His own, who has promised to be with you every step of the way in a life that often spins seemingly out of control.

Jesus knows a thing or two about a life that’s full of more downs than ups, about a life punctuated by physical and emotional disasters, about friends who’d rather sleep than help Him in His greatest time of need, about the forked tongues of foes who parade around spreading slander, about family members who think He’s gone off the deep end, about pains of body and soul that just keep getting worse. He’s walked that walk. If anyone has been in your shoes, Jesus has.

But He’s not just able to sympathize with you, to tell you He knows how you feel. That’s fine and dandy, but you need more. And He gives you more. He says, “Listen, you can’t do this alone. I’m going to merge the two of us into one, so that whatever you suffer, I suffer; whoever trashtalks you, trashtalks me; whenever it feels like you’re freefalling into the yawning pits of a hellish depression from which you’ll never recover, I’ll be there to hold you and help you through it until you emerge from that pit into the light of hope once more. I’m not a halfass God. I’m in this with you, for you, in you totally. I sunk you into me in those baptismal waters. I found you in the font and you found me. I made you mine and me yours. Hell can rage all it wants, but it can’t pry you from my grasp. I’ve got your back and your front, your heart and your soul, all the way down to the inner core of your being. I am yours and you are mine. Nothing and no one can separate us.”

You see, everything good that belongs to Jesus belongs to you, and everything bad about you belongs to Jesus. Not just your sins and shortcomings, but your sufferings, your losses, your rebellious children, your cheating husband, your backstabbing brethren, your cancer, your everything. Forget control; you’ve got Christ. And He’s not about control but about saving you, loving you, holding you when your life spins out of control.

And that’s no illusion. That’s the real thing, the real promise, from the real Christ.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

 

“You Can Get Used to Damn Near Any Stink”: Acclimating to Evil

When the door swung open, the odor surged out and slammed into me. It was so raw and rank I could taste it. A laborer shadowed the doorway, his hardhat cocked back, overalls stained. ”Can I help you?,” he asked, then asked again, because I was trying too hard not to vomit to give him an immediate answer. ”Um, yeah,” I finally managed to mutter, ”I’m here to pick up some freight?” It was more question than statement since I really hoped I had the wrong address. “Yep, got something for you,” he said. We stepped inside, into a dank room, generators roaring around us, pipes running every direction I looked. ”What is this place?” I asked, as I filled out the paperwork. ”It’s a water treatment plant,” said Mr. Overalls. ”That smell,” I asked, ”how in the hell do you work around that all day?” He gave me half a smile, and answered, ”Well, believe it or not, after you’ve been here a while, you hardly smell it anymore.” Then he added, ”You know, Mister, you can get used to damn near any stink.”

I never thought of prophets clad in overalls, but I expect I encountered one that day. For the truth he spoke concerning the nose is equally true of the whole being of man.

you_stinkHave you ever found yourself looking back on a time in your life when you were thoroughly enmeshed in something wrong, and now you hardly recognize the person you were then? I certainly do. I’ve been there. At the time, there was only the illicit pleasure afforded by evil. Little by little you sink into it, until, like quicksand, it swallows you whole. It permeates every aspect of who you are. Perhaps, at first, there is the smell of immorality, but it is soon overpowered by the sweet scent of passion or pleasure or power or any other of a whole host of hell’s perfumes. The stink of evil remains, it never lessens or dissipates, but you cease to smell it. It becomes the new olfactory norm. If you are engrossed in something wrong long enough, you can get used to damn near any stink.

When you find yourself in this situation, the Lord almost always employs the same method to bring you back to your senses: he sends someone to tell you that you stink. A friend, family member, sometimes a complete stranger. They may be blunt, they may beat around the bush, but, however they choose to say it, they are the Spirit’s mouth, breathing the aroma of truth back into your life. You’ll probably hate it at first, might even hate them. For what you crave is affirmation, that faux love masquerading as friendship, the kind that tells the man in the coffin how good he’s looking. But the language of love is always the language of truth. And sometimes the most loving act is to tell a friend that there is a decomposing soul within him.

But love doesn’t stop there. God’s love didn’t stop there, and neither can those who call him Father. I’ve had plenty of ”friends” who, directly or indirectly, pointed out the decomposing soul within me. And many of them then walked away, leaving me for dead. But some cared, some truly loved me, and for them I thank God.

These children of God imitated their Father. They loved me as I struggled through to acknowledge that I was solely to blame for the mess I’d made of my life. They loved me as the Lord of Easter exhumed me from my self-dug grave and breathed life back into my bones. They loved me as He bathed away my filth, anointed me with the oil of joy, and clothed me in the garments of Jesus, that I might smell like his Son, who brings with Him the aroma of life everlasting.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

God, You Lied to Me: A Pastor’s Struggle

priestcollarIt happens to almost every pastor at some point in his ministry. He may not even realize that his words and actions indicate that he is working with this assumption. And if he becomes aware of it, he is probably too afraid even to admit it to himself, much less to accuse God of it. Some may even get so angry as to directly accuse the Lord of it. But voiced or assumed, felt or confessed, the pastor begins to think that God has been lying to him.

Why would a pastor, of all people, think this? Because the man in the pulpit is the man within whom the devil erects his own pulpit. The Rev. Lucifer preaches sermons all day, and all night, to the pastor from this inner pulpit. They are homilies that praise the life of freedom enjoyed by those who aren’t encumbered with the crosses peculiar to his ministerial office. They are sermons about the stinginess of some of the people whom he serves, how spiteful some of his parishioners are to him, and how ungrateful they are for all that he is forced to do even when he is so overworked and underpaid. But these are the simple, everyday homilies.

The Rev. Lucifer saves his most eloquent, and most dangerous, sermons for those occasions when the pastor is at his lowest. These are the homilies from hell that depict God as the Grand Deceiver. God promises that the Word which goes forth from His mouth will not return to Him void. “Indeed, He does,” the devil proclaims, “but look at the attendance over the last few months and years. More and more pews are empty, offerings are way down, and everyone is whispering that maybe…possibly… probably it’s the pastor’s fault.” God promises that the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, but, though the pastor has preached the Gospel till he’s blue in the face, it seems to make absolutely no impact on his people. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more Gospel he preaches, the worse people become, the more people attack him, the lonelier he feels. God promises all these great and wonderful things, but his ministry is anything but great and wonderful. It’s squeezing the life out of him. He feels isolated, a failure, and—worst of all—like the Lord whom he serves has lied to him. His God makes promises that He doesn’t keep.

These inner pastoral struggles are nothing new. Jeremiah the prophet struggled with the same temptation. At first all was well in his ministry. He says to God, “Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts,” (15:16). So it is with most pastors when they begin in the ministry. But, over time, after doors are slammed in his face, brothers in the ministry betray him, his salary is cut, or the pews get emptier and emptier, he joins Jeremiah in lamenting, “I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you become to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” (15:17-18). That last sentence says it all, for behind that question is an assumption based upon real doubt. “Will you become to me like a deceitful brook—one that promises water but pours a cupful of hot sand on my cracked lips? Because, dear God, I’m dying of thirst down here and the river of joy and hope you once were to me has run bone dry.”

At this point it looks like all those sermons that the devil has preached have finally reached their climactic Amen. For surely when the pastor voices this lamentation—questioning God’s honestly if not outright calling Him a liar—the Lord will smite him. So all the devils are on their feet, like fans during the last few seconds of a game, ready to whoop and cheer for one more victory.

But instead of raining down fire and brimstone upon this called and ordained and doubting man; instead of unleashing His fury at this servant who dares call His integrity into question, the God whom we call Father addresses His child as only a Father can. “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before Me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as My mouth,” (Jeremiah 15:19). In other words, our Father calls His son back to Himself. He has wandered away into the darkness of his doubting, got lost in his grief, confused by the pains he’s suffered. It happens. Shepherds sometimes become lost sheep as well. So the Shepherd of shepherds seeks them out. He bids them remove such worthless doubts from their mouths and once more find His words and eat them, so that those divine words became the joy and the delight of His heart (15:16).

But that’s not all. The Lord casts Satan out from that inner pulpit. He takes a hammer and crowbar and goes to work dismantling that pulpit within which the father of lies spewed forth his deceptive sermons. And in its place the Lord preaches His own sermon. He declares, “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless,” (15:21). I can just hear the Lord pausing to say these words more slowly, more emphatically, than all the others, “I. Am. With. You. To. Save. You.” Seven words that contains a week’s worth, nay, a life’s worth, of promise. What are these words to Jeremiah, to pastors, indeed, to all people, but the promise embedded in two of our Lord’s names. “I am with you,” for He is Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” And “to save you,” for He is Jesus, which in Hebrew is the name Joshua, which means, “the LORD saves.” I am with you to save you for I am Emmanuel Jesus, the saving, being-with-you God.

Emmanuel Jesus never lies. He is as true to His word as He is true to you. He has poured forth His truth in the crimson colors of love, baptizing you in the red sea of His cross, washing you in the Jordan of His compassion. He is no deceptive stream. He will bring forth water from the rock when the time is right. Indeed, He already has. The staff of justice struck that Rock and split it open, so that waters gushed forth from Golgotha—waters within which you were baptized, in which you quench you thirst, which desalinate the dead sea of doubts within you. God is not lying to you. He is the God who is with you to save you and deliver you. And He will. His promise is as certain as the scars that betoken His love for you.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

God, Don’t You Care That I’m Dying?

anguishThere are times when it seems our Father, who is in heaven, is a dead-beat dad. Truth be known, sometimes it seems He’s even worse. He’s not just a father who skips town to leave us to fend for ourselves. No, He’s right there in our living room, sprawled in an easy chair, asleep, while we’re screaming our heads off, begging for mercy, but all in vain as Dad snores on. Those are the times when it’s easy to pray with the psalmist, “Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression?” (Psalm 44:23f). “Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He never be favorable again? Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise failed forevermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? I said in my grief, that the right hand of the most high has changed” (77:7-10). When one psalm praises God for finally coming to the people’s aid, the poet compares Him to a hung-over soldier who finally shook Himself awake to save His people (78:65).

These are not the prayers of blasphemers but of sufferers, of children who cry, “Father, are you awake? Are You in Your celestial easy chair, catching some Z’s while I’m down here catching shrapnel, catching sickness, catching hell? Do you not care? Have you retired from your job as rescuer? Do you have Alzheimer’s, living in the past, as if the world is still a trouble-free paradise, forgetting who you are, where you are, who your children are, ignoring their prayers?”

Call me blasphemous if you want, but then you must say the same about David and Job and millions of other believers whose voices join this choir of the oppressed. But what do we do? We soft-pedal with God, as if we’re abused children who must soften our voices and lower our eyes, worried lest a fist should fall from the clouds to blacken our eyes. We’re hiding nothing from God. Do you think He’s happy to hear us sugarcoat our prayers when we really want to cast bitter cries into the heavens? Do you suppose He’d rather us put a cork on our pain, plaster smiles on our faces, and pretend as if nothing is really bothering us? Does the God of truth desire prayers that amount to lies?

I am not advocating that we cuss out God just because we’re in a foul mood. I’m not saying that we ought to do more screaming than praying. I am saying, however, that when we are depressed or happy, scared to death or bubbling over with life, that we ought not to pretend the opposite while down on our knees. David didn’t. Job didn’t. Jesus didn’t. From the cross, He didn’t cry, “My God, my God, why have you blessed me with such a great privilege as to hang here suffering for these dear children of Thine?” No, but rather, He cried out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

Witness when the disciples were with Jesus in that storm-tossed boat. Peter is petrified; Thomas is terrified; the rest of them have their hearts stuck in their throats. The wind is wailing, the sea vomits wave after wave into the boat, darkness bares its blackened teeth, the lake whips these sailors about in a game of cat-and-mouse, the watery feline putting off her fatal bite until she’s bored with such sadistic fun. Thoughts of their soon-to-be widows flash through the men’s minds; their fatherless sons and daughters; how the cold water will feel as it rushes into their lungs and squeezes out every bubble of oxygen; their bloated corpses floating up onto the beach at sunrise. It is the midnight of the soul for these men, their lives unraveling before their very eyes.

And, where, pray tell is their Savior in this dark hour? “Where are you, O Prince of Peace, as our friends wage this watery war? Oh, there you are, in the stern, your head lying on a pillow, sleeping. Sleeping! How in God’s name could you be dozing while we’re about to drown, Jesus? Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Ah, that did it. Those words “don’t you care” were like the beep-beep-beep of Jesus’ alarm clock. Or perhaps more like three violent shakes. His eyes open, He stands, looks through the darkness at the storm and answers His disciples’ three words with three of His own: “Peace, be still.” It was as if, with those words, He flipped the storm-switch from “on” to “off.” For just like that, the wind ceased and there was great calm. The wailing wind voiceless; the vomiting sea all better; the blackened teeth of the storm now only showing a dreamy grin. Great calm, indeed.

Well, not quite. For now that the storm has been muted, Jesus has a few words to say to us: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” They cut deep, words such as these, don’t they? For they unmask our real problem. And that real promise is not so much that we fear storms, fear sickness, fear failure, fear shame, but that we don’t really fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Our faith is not a mountain but a grain of sand, not pure gold but gilded plaster. And all it takes is a few nicks and scratches to reveal its shallowness. All it takes is financial woes, a marriage on the rocks, rebellious teens, you name the storm—all it takes is a storm like these to reveal where our trust really lies: in ourselves and in what we have managed to make or to accomplish for ourselves. Put us on a boat in the middle of a mad storm and we’ll soon show the gods in whom we really trust. Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?

Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief. That is our table prayer, our bedside prayer, our office prayer, our going-to-the-movies prayer, our 24/7 petition. Lord, I do believe, but I also don’t believe. I am a cocktail of contradictions: double-hearted, forked-tongued, pulled heavenward and hellward every step I take. I fear you but I also fear failure. I trust you but I also trust myself. I love you but I also love the limelight. Lord, I am a saint and a sinner, your bride and the devil’s whore. Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.

But the Lord doesn’t help. No, He does far more. He forgives. He takes everything from your screaming to your belly-aching, everything your throw His way while He’s sleeping—He takes all this and pours it into His cup, as it were. He takes all your doubting and unbelieving, all your genuflecting before the idols in whom you really trust, all your double-speaking and double-heartedness—He takes all this and pours it into His cup, too. And He even takes your less-than-fully-sincere repentance, your less-than-fully-honest confession, and all the anger He ought to pour out on you—He takes all this as well to add to the poison that brims ever closer to the rim of His cup.

He extends His arms east and west, stretching them out as if to embrace the world. He lets the soldiers do their hammering and nailing, lets the crowds do their jeering and taunting, lets the demons do their shrieking and mocking. And opening His lips, He says, “Give me the cup, Father.” The chalice presses against His mouth, the bottom slowly tilts upward, and the poison of all our doubts and unbelief and the grossest of the gross sins of which we are guilty, all that liquid toxin goes barreling down His throat until the last drop is drunk and the deed is done. Then He closes His eyes, says, “It is finished,” and truly goes to sleep, into the sleep of death itself.

No, the Lord doesn’t help. He does far more. He drains the cup brimming with all the poison which would send us from this messed up world to a world of suffering that would never end. He drinks dry the storm of our sins. He doesn’t help our unbelief; He destroys it by letting it destroy Him.

That is the kind of God, the kind of Savior, you have. He only seems asleep. Trust me. Or, rather, trust Him. He who made the sea and its waves knows full well when storms rage. And if it seems God is asleep, then get some shut-eye yourself, for it’s better to snore with the Savior than remain awake with the father of unbelief and lies. When the time is right, He will do what must be done. He knows best. No dead-beat dad is He. No dead dad either. But a living, loving father, savior, and friend. All for you.

ChristAloneCoverIf this meditation on our suffering and God’s response was comforting to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

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