Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Trust

It's been a while. No apologies, though. I've decided to stop feeling guilty about how much I'm not writing and to simply enjoy writing when I am in the mood. And right now, I'm in the mood.

You might be surprised to find a recent college graduate (praise God!) up at midnight tapping away at the keys of his laptop, pondering his life in front of the whole world. Doesn't work call early? you ask. Funny you should bring that up. It doesn't, because my only job right now is finding a job. Well, that's not perfectly true, either. I have a couple jobs. First is chasing Christ wholeheartedly. Always that, always first, always most. Second is building my relationships with others in a way that reflects Him - with Jaimie, with my family and hers, with friends at Wildwood, and soon with neighbors. Third is finding a job. Interestingly, I've been recognizing even more of late just how deeply tied all the other tasks of my day rely fundamentally on my walk with God. Do I put Him above all else, or do I put everything else first?

"Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil."

Prayer. It's a funny thing. God answers every single prayer we pray. People usually think God doesn't answer their prayers. That's silly. The real problem is that people expect that they're praying the right things -- that what they want is in accord with their Father's will just because it's what they want. In other words, they expect God to say yes, and if He doesn't say yes, then He hasn't answered. Which is, of course, nonsense, but rather attractive nonsense to our sinful nature. We wouldn't usually put it in those words, but it's how we operate. It is, thankfully, not how He operates: for our good and His glory, He often says no.

Oftentimes it's not difficult to see why, looking back. I look at the young women I was interested before I met Jaimie, look back and her, and thank God from the depths of my heart that He always said no before her. I ached from His noes at the time, struggling to see a reason for them, fighting to believe that His plans really were better than mine. They were, of course. They always are. Even when, unlike my example above, it's harder to see -- as it often is. Some things we may never have an answer for: God's reasons may remain ever mysterious. Are we okay with that? Are we okay waiting to see the final fulfillment of His promises, and to rest in the assurance that what He does is good?

For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create...

They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent's food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord."

A good deal of relationship is trust: trust that the other party in the relationship will be good on their word. Whether that's a business arrangement or a marriage, it's still true. There's more than an intellectual assent to the idea that the other person will uphold their side of things. Trust is as much a deep emotional commitment as it is intellectual assent, because when you trust someone with anything, you bare your soul a little bit. You leave yourself open to being hurt, betrayed, left hanging by your fingernails at the edge of a chasm.

And all the more so when it's life itself you're trusting, and God you're being called to trust it to. Faith is so easy: it's not of us, a gift of God given freely, and a good thing, too. Because faith is hard - impossibly hard, harder than any of us could ever manage. The dead infant, the slow creep of dementia, the blow of a stroke at 45. We ask why, cry out to a God we think isn't there, and get no answer. No answer we want, that is.

He does answer, of course. He tells us that it is for our good and His glory, that all things work according to His purposes.

So we come full circle. I'm looking for a job. Not finding one, either. Though I've been looking since August, looking hard since November, I've had only one interview, and it went nowhere in a hurry. I'm marrying in 53 days. I have bills to pay: rent, utilities, a car payment, and -- very soon -- a few student loans. The questions rise. Will God provide? Will He take care of me? Will He take care of us? Will the bills get paid? Will we have food to eat? When will it happen? Why is it taking so long? Why are all my efforts seemingly in vain?

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The real question? It's whether we believe Him. He's already answered.

Do I put Him first? Do I seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, trusting Him? Do I, no matter the circumstances, rest in the Truth that took on flesh, or do I flail about in a panic, relying on my own strength to accomplish these tasks?

Every task I am set is ultimately answered only in Christ. He provides, not me. He takes care of Jaimie, not me. He sets the course of my days, and no other.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A difficult faith

I have rarely in my life been as utterly exhausted as I am right now. Even less rarely has my faith been so deeply tested and challenged. It's a truism among Christian circles that one should never pray for increased patience - and I'm finding that the corollary with faith has deep grounding. I prayed for increased faith about six months ago. The intervening months have comprised the most emotionally distressing, taxing, and intense time in several years, and in some ways in all my life.

Not least because all of this is external. When last I was going through a profound shaking in my life, it was very much internal. The problems were starkly set before me and their cause my own sin: a very simple situation. The problem could be resolved by dealing with my own sinful heart, and so it went. Conviction, repentance, and slow but steady sanctification - with many an up and down along the way, to be sure.

Now, though the depth of the struggle is internal, the circumstances are not. The problem is not some single deep-seated sin issue in my heart. Nor are the circumstances within my grasp. When, two years ago, I was walking through a deep testing and refining time, God moved in my life. He changed me. Broke me and made me new again, better than before. It was beautiful, marvelous, and thoroughly life-changing. And it was me, which meant that I had to be an active participant in the process, though walking in His strength and relying on His guidance and wisdom. Not so the present. Now, I can do nothing that I have not already done. I can accomplish nothing. I am helpless to affect my circumstances beyond what I have already done.

And so we come to the crux of the matter. Real faith. It's a meaningful trust in God, or despair. It's in moments like this that faith becomes alive, rather than simply words we speak or thoughts we think. Now our "faith" becomes obedient belief, and so produces life. If it does not, it proves itself no faith at all, a dead husk that is but a cruel mockery of true life.

No other alternatives exist. There is faith, and there is despair, in whatever form it may take. One may choose pointless hedonism, utter nihilism, or any part of the range between the two: it matters not, all is pointlessness and folly if there is no God, or if He is not loving and good. There is nothing if there is no God, because what does exist is purposeless and meaningless if He does not exist. The best efforts of philosophers all fail: no middle way awaits for those who would somehow avoid the "folly" of faith or the willful ignorance of atheism. God is, or He is not. If He is, then He is Yahweh, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit - or He is not. Syncretism is nonsense, pantheism folly, Taoism in all its myriad forms but ignorance enshrined as virtue. And relativism is nihilism wearing what appears to be a pretty dress until you realize there are more holes than there is dress.

Faith, then, is the only reasonable option - but emotions rarely brook dissent from reason. What then do we say at the moment of decision between trust and despondency? How shall we be encouraged when all hope seems vanquished by the slow creep of life over our dreams like vines on a wall? When will light break over the horizon?

We must choose. To not choose is to choose: it is to choose an unending death of the soul, a death the body will catch up with in some 70 years at most. Faith, then. Faith in Christ Jesus. Faith that His word is true, that it means something.

Faith is hard right now.

God is good. He is kind. He provides everything we need, and He does so in perfect timing. He loves us. He cares for us. He is our shepherd, and He delights to save us and feed us and guard us. He is.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen... And without faith, it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He is and that He rewards those who seek Him.

- Chris

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dealing with hard questions

There is a deep tension in Christianity garbed in modernity. We struggle to find the balance between clear proclamation of truth and a heartfelt expression of love to lost people who surround us. We wrestle with the necessities of the church's engagement with culture and politics and the church's need to present the gospel in a winsome way. At the most fundamental level, we struggle with letting the good news of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection be the stumbling block that it is, while ourselves not being a stumbling block. And it is good for us to struggle with this tension.

An example (and not a pretty one, but hear me through to the end): the clear teaching of Scripture is that remarriage under nearly any circumstance is sinful. Jesus said, "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'" (Matthew 5.31-32) He followed it up some time later thus:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19.1-9)

Jesus Himself - the one we most often think of as the great voice of compassion of the Scriptures, the one who indeed is mercy and love incarnate, clearly says that remarriage under any circumstances except sexual immorality and remarries is committing adultery. Adultery is soundly condemned throughout the Scriptures - from Genesis to Revelation, and in a considerable majority of the texts. It is indeed one of the metaphors God used most frequently in the Old Testament to speak of Israel's unfaithfulness to Him. So the teaching of Scripture is that divorce is allowed because of the hardness of men's hearts and a few other circumstances - sexual immorality and abandonment being the main examples. Only in the case of divorce for sexual immorality is remarriage allowed Biblically.

With that as context, we now must face the question of how to handle that topic as the church - Christ's representatives in this age. We are left with a tension that at first seems difficult to resolve: there are people in our churches who have divorced and remarried and built new families. What do we tell them? How do we show the love of Christ to them? There is no question that we are called to pour forth love and to encourage single parents and members of blended families. At the same time, church leaders, especially teaching pastors, are responsible to clearly proclaim God's teaching on the matter and to enforce it. (I do not believe, for example, that a pastor should perform a second marriage unless the divorce was for adultery: the pastor is responsible for his sheep, and as outlined above, Scripture is clear on this issue.) At the same time, believers are commanded to love one another. We validate our discipleship to the world by the way we love one another - or invalidate it by the way we don't. We are left with a question that, in worldly terms, has no answer. Somehow we must simultaneously love with open arms those who have remarried and proclaim the sinfulness of remarriage. And there are many such questions - the most current being homosexuality or abortion and the church's response to them. It is hopeless.

But we do not operate in the wisdom of this world. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us all things - and the answer has already been given, if we but by His grace remember it.

Christ Jesus is the answer to this question, not only in His way of life but in His suffering and His victory. We may forthrightly proclaim the most difficult of Biblical doctrines because we are assured of the truth of the gospel. We may tell the broken prostitute who took up her trade because she saw no other alternative: Yes, this was sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the man who is regularly behaving unethically in his business: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to the homosexual: this is sin. And Christ has paid the price. We may say to every man alive: every lustful look was adultery. And Christ has paid the price! We may say to every person living: you have sinned, you have desecrated the image of God in you, you have rejected God Himself. And with tears in our eyes as we remember all that He has delivered us from, we may say:

Christ has paid the price!

For every sin, for every transgression, for every failure, the price has already been paid. We bring no condemnation, because in Christ there is none. In due time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Me. You. Every person living.

Therein lies the answer to the tension, to the question - to every difficult question that confronts us today. Our answer is in Jesus Christ Himself. We speak the truth clearly. All of it. We clearly declare what sin is - and then we clearly proclaim the reality of salvation in Jesus Christ. Where grace is proclaimed without the declaration of the evil of sin, people see no need for repentance. Where sin's horror is proclaimed without the saving power of Jesus Christ, condemnation reigns. Where both the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the grace of God are proclaimed, there is life.