Posts Categorized as: suffering
Caveat: This is a complicated post and might be boring to some readers…. fair warning.
It can be discouraging times for a Bible-believing Christian if you look around at all. The Charleston massacre, racism, the vitriol about Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner’s issues, the decision by SCOTUS on gay marriage, the Pope and ISIS. If you are like me, you might be wondering, “how in the world will we ever be a nation that pleases God?” If you look around a little further, you’ll see the church at odds with itself. Facebook abounds with lazy, ad hominem attacks on why the church has failed (x) demographic and how it has missed (x) teaching of Jesus. I have some smart Christian friends who are avidly anti-gun and other smart Christians who are equally pro-second-amendment. Even the Christians who are trying to do some good tend to take shots at each other regarding justice, poverty, loving your neighbor etc. And, if you’re like most people, this discussion goes at the national or regional level even if you have never met the people involved, or researched the issue at hand. We have, at times, become a church at the mercy of the media. The only vetted purveyors of truth are those self-proclaimed prophets with the fastest internet or the shrillest voices.
Now, in all fairness, this is nothing new in principle. Gossip, rumor, personal attacks and intentional misinformation have been around since the dawn of mankind (e.g. Adam and Eve’s deflection of blame in the Garden). Empires, both old and new, have used these techniques. Mussolini’s first weapon was the newspaper he owned; Hitler had Goebbels. And, while the press has also been a force for truth, freedom and democracy, the issue here is that we have a new platform (internet and social media) but the dangers involved are the same. The biggest change with the new platform?—no editors and no pushback. Anyone can throw out anything they want and escalate things as fast as they like. Passions flare, calls to action abound and clear thinking becomes difficult.
This tends to create camps, groups, and labels. Negative attribution begins to thrive and we start developing a strong sense of who our enemies are. A former student of mine has announced that he’s become “a champion of justice and a defender of gay rights.” according to a social media post. Regardless of your beliefs on gay rights, this person has set up everyone who is not on his side as an enemy. Against whom is he actually fighting? We have turned into a society that demands that you endorse our opinions and feelings. If you don’t, you’re a bigot and,…well, you better watch out because my righteous team is against your evil team. This kind of emotional pain makes us myopic. Our own pain (real, imagined or borrowed) makes us stop thinking about anything other than our wounds. Our “camp” becomes our form of communal sharing of pain. And, when we feel our camp might be threatened, we all tend to get defensive and a little aggressive.
What pathway do we take to find hope for ourselves and assist in healing? How do we engage the suffering we see around us, actually love our enemy (esp if we’ve never met them personally) and do good work in the world today? How do we address racism and white privilege without separating into camps? How do we love the gay community and still pursue holiness? Who can show us how to address poverty, terrorism, domestic violence and hyper-capitalism?
John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (NASB95). Grace and truth—here is our secret and hope.
Some of us err on the side of grace—we say that there is no room for the church to judge anyone, ever. If we’re not careful, sentimentality becomes our new standard. Statements like “love has no labels” creep into our dialogue. Feelings tend to become the indicators of rightness and anything that hurts emotionally becomes the work of the evil one. We can also err on the side of truth and simply let broken people go on their way and smugly judge them. We fight hard to address things as they really are (e.g. love really actually does have labels) and then let the bodies fall where they may. Over the last few years as a teacher, leader and pastor, I have seen most of my students gravitate toward one side or the other. It is very difficult to walk in both grace and truth. It’s a very, very messy pathway. But I’d like to suggest that the grace-and-truth-way gives us several forms of leverage for the world we live in.
- Canceling Revenge: Grace, together with truth stops the revenge cycle. Here’s what I mean—It’s easy to say “you should forgive” if you’re not the one who feels hurt. This is part of the issue of the racism arguments. Truth calls out the evil, the sin, the injustice and takes the brokenness out into the sunlight where we have to address it. However, left by itself, the truth demands action—usually punitive. Our problem is that we all tend to think that we are the judge of what equality should look like. Grace allows us to let God be the judge. We get the chance to forgive, to extend to others the grace that was extended to us. Grace without truth in this situation is a terrible option…we expect people to “get over it” and just decide they shouldn’t be hurt anymore. This just escalates the hurt and the sense of injustice. Grace and truth together give us the chance to address the “Stockdale Paradox”* and still choose to not be chained to revenge. Only then can we move forward. Grace accepts the true debt owed and then cancels it; there is no more need for revenge.
- Thinking Clearly: The combination of Grace and Truth helps us to stop and think a bit. Revenge will scream at us but truth tends to whisper. Allowing ourselves to step back from the issue and think a bit gives us a chance to practice Covey’s habit of “seeking first to understand…” Proverbs 18:17 is applicable here. There are two sides to every issue (or more) and truth helps us see clearly what’s going on while Grace allows us to resist judging motives or intentions. When we stop for even a moment, we can start to see that there are more opinions than just ours. This helps us not be afraid. The Gospel turned Rome upside down and has flourished in far worse civilizations. When we think clearly, we see that God is still in control and we have to pay attention to him.
- Humility: This awareness of the power and sovereignty of God allows us to genuinely manifest humility. We all tend to think we’re geniuses and prophets. Everyone seems to think the answers are obvious. But grace and truth allows us to partially remove our biases, address our weakness and ignorance (and we are all of us, very ignorant indeed) and see that we are both part of the problem and part of the healing. Very few people belong to actual hate groups. Most of us are just weak and afraid. When we humbly admit our fears as well as our bias, we can look for truth, through a lens of love for others that cannot come outside of Jesus. Truth tells us that we are not the judges or creators; we are derived from the One who can see all things. Grace shows us that while we are limited, we are loved and cared for. That’s what humility looks like.
- Courage: When God told Jesus “no” in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was forced to trust God through the worst things imaginable. He was forced to walk through the hatred and violence. He had to trust that God the Father was going to repay him (Heb 12:2). He was an example of suffering unjustly (I Peter 2:21) that we can follow. Trust in God starts with picking up your cross…your death to self. This has never been easy and will not get easy until we have practiced it over and over (Luke 9:23). Courage comes from knowing what really is happening and realizing we can love the messy people around us anyway. And, when action is finally required, we know that grace and truth accompany us as we go.
Grace and truth is what came through Jesus into this world. Law was the option before Jesus and most people are still trying to live by law…only they set themselves or their “community” up as the arbiters of that law. Woe unto those who break their law…
If you would live a life of both Grace and Truth, there are a couple of suggestions I have that might be of help.
First, read a chapter of Proverbs every day and try to think clearly about what’s going on in the text. You’ll begin to see parallels immediately in the culture around you and this will give you a rubric to think more clearly about our issues. I’m not kidding about this one… if you want to think well, you need a teacher. Start here.
Second, take a season and stop listening to social media about the issues and get involved in serving locally. I suspect you’ll find that there are plenty of complicated issues right next door to you that require grace and truth. We all tend to want to have our voices matter on the national (or global) stage but the truth is that what makes the news is probably our local context writ large. If you ask God to open your eyes to the needs around you, he is faithful and will do so.
Next, read wisely. Read Stephan Bauman, or Jud Wilhite, or John Perkins, or Eric Metaxas, or Thomas Sowell or Dallas Willard or… well, you get the idea. Read good history. Read widely—especially books that have been vetted by other thought leaders. What you’ll find as you read really wise books is that our generation is addressing the same problems that have faced humanity since the first day.
Lastly, work through Matthew 5, Habakuk and I Peter to think about how we love those who are against us. Think deeply about what it means to suffer unjustly and yet be pleasing to God in spite of our pain. It doesn’t take much to love the people who look like you or agree with you. It takes nothing less than grace and truth to love your enemies. In fact, you should practice this with the people you work with daily. Let them win….
It can be extremely discouraging if you pay too much attention to the world today. But take heart! God has not left us! The response from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the shooting in Charleston has garnered the amazement of millions—grace and truth is being manifested in power. Thanks be to God, grace and truth still are being made real every day. We can be honored that we have a role to play in this era! You can be part of that same power and process.
*I refer here to what Jim Collins discusses in his book “Good to Great.”
As I write this post, Easter is right around the corner. I love Easter! The resurrection is the single most important historical fact in the world. I rejoice every year that sin has been broken and light came into the world! Through the Pascual Event the redemption of the world began. While I deeply rejoice during this season, I am always tempered in heart by the injustice and suffering I see around our world today. The experience of Easter has still not come for many people in the world today. For the last 20+ years I have had the privilege and sorrow of trying to be part of the solution to this issue. And, as mission practitioner and professor I am always looking for wise ways to help people to engage in being part of what God is doing for those who are most vulnerable. Over these decades I have gone through several iterations of trying to be helpful: Prophet (I’m not very good at that), Activist (exhausting and unproductive for me), Systems-guy (lacking passion) and even scholar (more or less). I have read mountains of books and articles to try to understand what the wise way of engaging this problem is. I’m happy to say that my friend, Stephan Bauman* has written a wonderful book to help people begin the process of standing with the vulnerable.
When I call this book “wise,” it’s a high compliment for me. I know lots of people who become single-issue activists. There are rafts of folks trying to point out where the church is off-base and there are oodles of impassioned pleas for some kind of radical steps. Seldom do you hear voices advocating a way that is both possible, wise, honest and sustainable. So, let me tell you some things that you might need as a caveat before reading this book:
First—this is not an explanation of injustice or an exegesis of poverty. For you analytical folks, the book does not go into macro-economics or the theologically variant positions held by those searching for a true antibody to the global causes of evil. Rather, it is a book that calls us personally to get involved at a whole-life level.
Secondly, for the passionate side of the room, this book is not the common “rah-rah” about how the corrupt American church has abandoned the true gospel and how the tears of a thousand victims accuse us from the yada yada yada. This book is an invitation to get involved with what is hurtful to God. So, for those of you who tend to drop a book at the first hint of passion—keep reading. While the book starts out with an impassioned plea from Stephan, it gets more practical and helpful as you continue to read. And, for those of you who will start to get bogged down in the logic behind a sustainable pathway to wise engagmement—keep reading! The end of the book is a wonderful reminder of what we can do!
Here are some things that I like the book:
- I know Stephan. He is both a remarkably gifted leader (on a truly global scale) but he also a poet, a great Dad and a faithful husband. He is smart, gifted and yet surprisingly humble. Do he and I disagree? Probably. But I would never start there. He and Belinda show the fruit of the Spirit and my wife and I just simply love them—we always want to be closer to Jesus when we’re around them. That says a lot to me.
- The book is a catalyst rather than an explanation. Poverty and Injustice are categories that are excruciatingly hard to explain. Categorically, for many people there are no words to explain the horrors of the LRA in Uganda or the DR Congo. Sex-trafficking and starvation are not like biological categories—they tend to be protean and inhabited with evil. Even that statement is hard to understand unless you’ve seen and felt it. “Possible” is a book that says that while we may not understand it, we can be part of the solution.
- In the book, the central character is God. I love this. Some people sell books or a media empire based on their own personality. Stephan constantly points back to the fact that God is the agent and we are the participants! It is God who holds the responsibility for the movement and the success. He is the standard of what is just.
- The stories Stephan uses are people and situations that he personally is familiar with. Almost anyone can use data or stories from others to prove almost any point they like, but Stephan has lived and walked with the people he discusses in the book. That’s pretty rare.
- The appendices are extremely helpful. Stephan took some very complicated theories and practices and made them accessible for anyone willing to simply take the time to work a little bit.
I have two small critiques of the book from my experience as a missionary and as a teacher. First, the book doesn’t address the nature and effect of the spiritual powers that are involved in systematic evils. Second, there isn’t a section on the character formation needed to sustain a lifetime of involvement with injustice and outreach. But, those things being said, no one book can be all things to all people. Stephan’s point was not specifically to explain but to catalyze. In this department he succeeds admirably. If nothing else, read the list of endorsements in the front pages from some of Christianity’s most influential leaders and you’ll understand that this is a book you’ll want to read.
Stephan, thanks for writing. Reader, I hope you’ll take the time to at least give the book a chance. Happy Easter!
*Stephan is the President of World Relief. For more information on World Relief, please visit their website soon. For more of his poetry and writing, check out stephanbauman.com. And, just for anyone wondering, Neither Stephan nor the publisher asked me to write this review. I just wanted to share.
When I was attending Ozark Christian College I took several extra music classes because they interested me and I hoped they would help my career. One of my assignments was to do some arranging of a previously published song. The task was to do a different arrangement without altering the melody so I chose an old hymn that was new to me—Come Thou Fount. As I labored, guitar in hand, over the notes and the score, I arranged the song for a duet between me and my girlfriend, Shannon. She actually changed what I wrote and made it better. Over many years now she (now wife) and I have sung that song together in public and, in some of our darkest times, in private. There is so much of that song I enjoy but there is a phrase at the end that has rung true for me since I heard it for the first time, “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.” As a farm boy, the idea of fetters made good sense to me and I instantly saw the wisdom of that phrase.
A hobble or a fetter for a horse (or milk cow) is something you put on their legs that allows them to walk slowly, but not to run or kick. Prisons use fetters on people for the same purpose. When I heard that song for the first time, I sang those lyrics as a prayer because of my severe temptations to not just fall into sin but to run after it! I need to see that God’s goodness is what I really want in life. It is His kindness that leads to repentance, after all. Since then, I have broadened that prayer to include my own struggle with wanting new jobs, different scenery or less responsibility. Sometimes it was a prayer that was needed to curb my desire for a new adventure! Lately, it even has meant asking God to put fetters on my heart that I might not get out of step with Him in my present location. In fact, asking God to help me by fettering me with His goodness has become a spiritual discipline I use. The truth is I really need it.
I need this because no matter how hard I try, something (I know who) is always trying to creep into my heart and mind to say that my desires, wants, dreams and perceived needs are, well… important! And everyone I know has this same issue but it seems to be manifested in different ways. Some people want health at all costs. Others want to be near family no matter what. Some want to know what’s coming around the corner. Regardless of the ways that we display it, in the end what happens is that this life, this world, these feelings and these hopes begin to seem like what is most real. God, despite his immanence, can easily be pushed into the shadows by what we want or think we deserve. What happens is that I begin to equate the status of my existence with the quality or quantity of God’s love for me. Whether I like it or not, my culturally-shaped understanding of love (CS Lewis is listening) has taught me that if someone loves me, they want me to be happy. When life is hard there is a sly voice that whines out a sense of doubt regarding God’s love. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned more about the way God loves us through those seasons of hurt.
For me, the moments that are most immediately jarring in this respect is when our family has had to move from one location/ministry to another. That process usually reveals a great deal of what I might have been putting my hope in. Moving is always a mixture of hope and loss. Losing networks, rhythms, homes (that carry memories and experience) and friends can sometimes trump the hope of God’s call on our lives. Part of this for me is that as I get older, I know that when God leads people in mission, it usually hurts for a while. David, Nehemiah, Abraham, Jesus, Paul, Thomas, the Church Fathers, Wycliff, Zinzendorf, J. H. Taylor, Lillias Trotter etc…all had to live a life where they learned to love God while on some kind of pilgrimage. And it hurts, and its great—at the same time.
When we first moved to the middle of Illinois, we did not really know anyone. As soon as we arrived Brian, Chantell, Ryder, Rylee and Regan Mills adopted us into their lives. They showed us around town, invited us to church (where we still attend) and helped us ease the reverse culture shock of moving from Mexico City (35 million) to Lincoln, IL (15,000). Like us, they had no local family and, as time went on, we became family for each other. Brian and I worked together. We camped together, we served our community together and did short-term relief work together. Shannon became a favorite of Regan and we spent a lot of time at the hospital together. When sweet Regs went to be with Jesus, we were blessed to be together. I will never forget the words of the Psalms that knit our lives and hearts together that day. They are friends who became like family.
God has called Brian to be the Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Springfield IL (good for them, tough for us) and so the Mills are moving. We love that God is giving them new opportunities to serve and a new place to live, decorate and create memories. We will (for sure) see them as often as we are able. But, we know it won’t be exactly the same. When they moved out of their house in Lincoln, we made sure to come ready to tote, lift, laugh and eat. As we were moving, I happened to grab a piece of artwork that was made for Chantell by one of the girls she has discipled. I put it in my suburban without thinking. As I came back with another armful of stuff, I suddenly noticed what a poignant and hopeful picture this was for me.
I was reminded that all along my journey in life God has used that same phrase to call me to Himself. History and experience shows that when His presence is with His people, every house or prison cell can be a palace; every road trip can be home and each transition is a chance to re-establish our anchor in the presence and love of God. For me, this photo op was a moment that helped me joyously ask again for fetters.
Our family has moved many times. I suspect we’ll probably have to move some more. There is no permanent rest here. What this picture reminds me to do is to practice making the goodness of God my anchor and home. Please don’t misunderstand or imagine I don’t value my community or neighborhood. The more I love God’s will for my life, the more I see my surroundings with love and hope. This photo was a holy moment for me. The Mills family is a holy community for us. All of it is permeated by one: Jesus.
My prayer for you today is that you would look to Jesus and find your joy there, regardless of your station on the journey. May God give peace and love to you.