Friday, February 27, 2015

When you meet trials of various kinds

One thing I love about James and the book of the Bible that bears his name: he pulls no punches. James is a straight shooter and I like that. In fact, I am currently teaching through the book and I told my class this past week that sometimes I feel as if he's explained himself so very plainly that all I need to do as a teacher is read the text and conclude with "Yeah; what he said."

I don't, of course. But sometimes I feel like I could, what with all James' plain speech.

Consider how he begins his letter. Barely two verses in and already he is tenderly admonishing his brothers and sisters in Christ to "count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds." See how straightforward he is? How realistic? Trials are not an "if" in James' economy; they are a "when." He knows life is hard and struggles will come and he doesn't shy away from that truth.

In fact, he acknowledges that these difficulties can be varied. Naturally our minds turn to the "big" trials--the heartbreaks, the diagnoses, the losses. But we will endure trials of various kinds, the seemingly big as well as the seemingly small, and regardless of how big or small we may consider their relative importance we are to count them all joy.

All joy. Count it all joy when these sure and varied struggles come to you, James encourages us, and were he to stop there we would have to respond with either disciplined stoicism (clinch your teeth and just get through it) or Pollyannish denial (what trials?).

But James tells us exactly why we can count it joy: "for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness..." In other words, count it joy because there is a purpose and that purpose is for the testing of your faith through these varied trials to produce steadfastness in you.

How does this work? Some difficulty arises, big or small, and I am faced with the testing of my faith: "Is God there? Does He hear me? Is He good?" As I wrestle with these questions, how will steadfastness have its full effect in me?

There is not time or space here for a full theology of suffering but here are three truths that feed my endurance when faced with trials, big or small:

1. How I react to the trial reflects what I really care about. This is an ugly truth, but one worth considering with great soberness. Whether it is a sudden devastation or a lingering irritation, what I value will be exposed by my reactions and most often this will require confession and repentance as I work through the sin and idols that are exposed.

2. The Lord is my only true hope and comfort. This truth is closely related to #1. As my false comforts and selfish desires are exposed, I must rehearse to myself the sufficiency of the Lord. Whatever it is I think I want or need I will find it in the Lord!

3. The Lord was faithful yesterday, He is faithful today, and He will be faithful tomorrow. How easily I forget the countless ways He delivers me and sustains me! Rehearsing His past faithfulness fuels my trust in Him.

So when the trial comes, searching my reaction will expose my true desires and my false idols. Confession and repentance call me to cast myself on the truth that my only true hope and lasting comfort is the Lord alone who is always, eternally faithful despite my feelings or questions. I remind myself of the gospel, of Jesus who died to save me a sinner, and of the grace and freedom that is mine as His child. My faith may be tested but I can endure as I trust Him in the sufficiency of His grace.

Life is hard. These varied trials may be big, they may be small, they may last for a short time, they may not cease until the Lord calls you home. But we can count it all joy, all of it, all joy, because we trust our good and gracious God.

That's straight-shooting, plain gospel truth. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Standing on the Promises

Due to a series of unexpected events, the book review I planned will have to wait a few more weeks. Today's entry was posted on my personal blog earlier this month.

Something came out of the blue this week-end which left me feeling anxious in a way I hadn't felt in a long time. I knew I shouldn't worry, but my stomach twisted itself into a big knot. I had taken all the necessary steps I could at the moment. I knew I should trust God, but it was so hard to overcome that sinking feeling. In the past, I tried to get relief by listening to sentimental Christian-ish songs to drum up a different set of emotions, but it never lasted. Dealing on an emotional plane only addressed the surface problem, not the root.

I tried to fight the internal churning but didn't hide it very well. My daughter gave me that look which said, "I know you're worrying. It's not good. Do you need to talk about it?" So I confessed my worries and fears to her. In turn, she reminded me of the gospel and paraphrased Romans 8:32. If God chose to save me, if Jesus died to make that happen, did I really think He didn't care or wasn't big enough to handle this current situation? Obviously not, but how quickly I forgot.

To take my mind off the situation, I vacuumed. As I vacuumed, I prayed and began to rehearse the gospel which led me to 1 John 2:1 and back to Romans 8. Jesus Christ was my advocate before God the Father. God in his holy and righteous wrath without any intermediary is the worst thing any human being could face, but the wrath that I deserved was placed on Christ. I receive mercy and forgiveness. Instead of being outcast now and forever, I am His child and part of the bride of Christ. God is for me. Who can be against me? God loves me. What can separate me from that? The more I dwelt on the truth, the knot began to untie in my stomach. The more I focused on the facts of Christ's work and its ongoing and far-reaching effects on my behalf, the worry began to lift.

To cap it off, during my pastor's sermon on Genesis 22, the significance of God's promises clicked perhaps for the first time in my 40+ years as a Christian. They aren't just inspirational snippets from the Bible, a heavenly Hallmark greeting to make me feel better about myself and my situation. God's promises are declarations of His commitment to His purpose and to His people based upon His character. His promises are sure because He is sure. His faithfulness to keep those promises can be traced through history from creation, to the Cross, and up to today, which includes me. I am one of those grains of sands promised to Abraham in Genesis 22:17 and confirmed by Paul in Galatians 3:7-9. So I don't have to wonder whether I am outside of God's care. My salvation is proof that He keeps His promise from Genesis to the present and until time gives way to eternity.

So when in fear, skip the sentimental songs and the pithy platitudes. Their flimsy emotionalism will not support me. I can cast myself, burdens, doubts, and all, on the sure foundation of God's promises.

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. Hebrews 6:13-18.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Not Just for Scholars

I had been a Christian for years and participated in many Bible studies before I studied one book of the Bible from start to finish. Doing so changed the way I read the Scriptures. Instead of cherry-picking verses and passages, I found myself interested in the author's intent and and message. Later I would wonder how each particular book fit into God's narrative of redemption. But first I had to learn to navigate the murky waters of context and archaic language. Even though a study Bible was a tremendous tool, the brief notes didn't provide as much insight into passages or their application as I wanted. Then I noticed several friends were reading commentaries.

Perhaps you're having the same thought I had when I first heard about commentaries - I'm no Bible scholar. Why do I want a commentary? Granted, many Bible commentaries are written for the academics, far beyond any intellectual capabilities I may have. Some are just plain dry, filled with Greek lexicons and syntax. Would I be bored out of my skull?

The Reformed Expository Commentary Series put my fears to rest. I began with Esther and Ruth. Since then I have added several others, including Philippians and Acts. One of the latest volumes, Ecclesiastes, also adorns my bookshelf. Every one I've read is simple and concise enough for an armchair theologian, yet insightful enough for the most learned pastor.

 From the Series Introduction:
In every generation there is a fresh need for the faithful exposition of God's Word in the church. At the same time, the church must constantly do the work of theology: reflecting the teaching of Scripture, confessing its doctrines of the Christian faith, and applying them to contemporary culture. We believe that these two tasks - the expositional and the theological - are interdependent. Our doctrine must derive from the biblical text, and our understanding of any particular passage of Scripture must arise from the doctrine taught in Scripture as a whole.
 The chapters can be managed as extended devotional reading each day. For instance, all but one chapter in Ecclesiastes are under 15 pages. Douglas Sean O'Donnell's conversational style reads like a thoughtful sermon; he explains the passages and often uses cultural examples to make application of his point.

I've found the Reformed Expository Commentary Series has helped me understand and apply Scripture in my life far more than I ever thought possible.

Friday, February 20, 2015

He Is Present There

“And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God art present there.”

—Isaac Watts in his children’s hymn I Sing the Mighty Power of God

In him we live and move and have our being.
“Where is God?” The best I could do when my small children asked this question was answer, “He’s everywhere, but you can’t see him or touch him or hear him.” This, of course, leads to more questions: How can a being exist that we can’t see or touch or hear? And how can something be everywhere? (I have no child-sized answers to those questions. I’m not sure I have adult-sized answers, either. How could a finite mind hope to explain the infinite and incomprehensible?)

When an adult asks where God is, they’re usually asking in relation to a specific injustice they see in the world. I had a friend who asked this question because she wanted to know how a good God could stand by (so to speak) while her son endured months of excruciating pain after he was severely burned. She searched for an answer and settled for a god1 who created the world but then left everything to run on its own. He wasn’t present in his creation, at least not in an active way. He was simply watching from afar as history unfolded.

The biblical answer to the question of where God is—both the child’s and the adult’s—is that all that he is exists always everywhere in creation and beyond. Just as God is infinite in relation to time (eternality), knowledge (omniscience), and power (omnipotence), he is infinite in relation to space (omnipresence).

God Is Everywhere

Psalm 139 has a well-known description of God’s omnipresence:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10 ESV)
There is no “going from” or “fleeing” God, because he is everywhere. He doesn’t just see into every place, but his being exists there. If God’s power—his “hand”—is in every place, then the whole of God’s essence exists in every space, since his power is one aspect of his indivisible essence. All that God is can be found in all places. 

God Is Not Contained in Space

Scripture also tells us that while God is everywhere present, he is not contained in space. King Solomon prayed:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27 ESV)
The universe cannot hold our God; the boundaries of the highest heaven can’t encompass him. This is not just because there is nothing big enough to contain him, but because God is not spatial. As pure spirit, he has no physical dimensions. And as creator of space itself, God existed as all that he is when there was no space.

So all that God is in every place but God is not contained in space. Charles Spurgeon puts it this way: “His circumference is nowhere, but his center is everywhere.”
God Is Our Place

Paul told the Athenians that all people “live and move and have [their] being” in God (Acts 17:28). His statement makes me think of fish in a fish tank, living and swimming and existing within the environment of the tank.2 Just as fish are contained in the waters of the tank, swimming everywhere but never leaving its presence, we are contained within God’s presence. Wherever we are, he is there, “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

God Is Always With Us

If we belong to God, understanding his omnipresence is a great comfort. If an insignificant sparrow does not die apart from God, how much more does everything that happens to us take place in his presence? Every circumstance in our life is a time and place where the omnipresent God is. In all our trials, he is beside us and in us and around us with His guiding hand to lead us and hold us. He is present to help, either to rescue or give courage to endure.

Even when we confront death, we should fear no evil, for he is with us (Psalm 23:4). The death of a saint is precious in God’s sight (Psalm 116: 15), and he is not watching it from a distance, but sitting beside us while we wait, carrying us when we go, and welcoming us when we arrive. Because everywhere that we can be, our God is present there.

1] I can’t bring myself to capitalize this.

2] Like any illustration—and maybe more than most—this one has its limitations. For one, the whole essence of the fish tank doesn’t exist in every spot a fish does. A fish needs to move from one place to another to experience all the fish tank can offer it, yet all of God—all of what he is for us—is in every place we are. Second, the fish tank ends right beyond where the fish can go. The fish tank is contained in space, just like the fish are, only in a little more space; but there is nothing “containing” God.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Praying for Aging Parents

One of the inescapable facts of growing older is that my parents have grown older, too. In my mind's eye, I picture them frozen in time in their prime, but the clock hasn't stopped ticking. Thus my mental image doesn't quite match reality like it used to.

When I left home for college, my parents would check up on me during our many phone conversations. "Are you eating enough? Are you getting enough protein? Make sure you get enough sleep and don't work too hard. Be careful driving."

Now it's my turn. "How are you feeling? How are you sleeping? Are you eating enough? Have you seen the doctor? Are you taking your meds? Perhaps someone can give you a ride instead." This is uncharted territory now that the roles seem to be slowly reversing, and it's a little scary.

I wish I could give you a list that covers every aspect of caring for aging parents. Wouldn't that be nice? I'd like that same list, too, but life is never as simple as a checklist. Our families are different, and each circumstance has its own set of challenges. Our parents may live with us, down the street, or multiple states away. They may be as strong as Caleb entering the Promised Land,  or they may be facing a wide variety of medical conditions. We may have solid relationships with them, or the brokenness of life may have taken its toll. Our parents may be running the final leg of the race set before them, or we may be beseeching the Lord that this would be their day of salvation. 

There are also times when I am at a loss to know what to do. I want to help and yet not overstep my bounds because they're still my parents. I also want to make the most of the time I have with them whether it is calling or visiting and loving them as much as I can. But there is something else I can do. I can pray. 

God is never at a loss. He knows the concerns I have for my parents, and He knows better than I do what they need. I can lift up their health and mental faculties to the One who made them. I can pray for grace as they deal with the day-to-day frustrations of aging because He has numbered the hairs on their heads as well as their days. And I can pray for wisdom to know how to honor my father and mother in word and deed in this season of their lives. 

My parents entrusted me to the Lord when I spread my wings and left the nest. It probably wasn't easy, but they believed He would be faithful. Surely, I can do the same for them by committing them through prayer into His loving and compassionate hands.

Monday, February 9, 2015

That We May Disciple Others

It started with Jane Austen. I don't remember how old I was when I first read Pride and Prejudice, but I was a goner after that. Suddenly, the, um, junk I was reading was totally unappealing. Good books will ruin you for bad ones.

Fast forward a few years to my conversion. A people-pleasing personality, a reading addiction, and an immature faith make a dangerous cocktail. I was easily prey to the temptations of emotionalism that were sweeping across the evangelical church at that time (and still, for that matter). I was the woman Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:6-7:  For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

By the grace of God, someone - and I believe it was our very own Lisa - recommended Paul Miller's A Praying Life. That lead to a Bible study written by Nancy Guthrie, which lead to books written by Mark Dever, Michael Horton, and Martin Lloyd-Jones. The list continues to this day. Good books will ruin you for bad ones.

In the last five years, my theological reading - and my understanding of God -  has grown much deeper than I ever would have imagined. As I've grown, so has my passion for women to read sound theological books. When I learn a friend is reading the latest "Christian" best seller, I am saddened. The same is true when I hear a friend say she's never heard of Nancy Guthrie. It seems quite often the most doctrinally sound writers and publishers are the least concerned with marketing ploys. Many deep, rich, and gospel-centered books remain unheard of, unread. (I recognize this is not always the case.)

The evangelical publishing landscape is fraught with sinkholes. Bad books abound, and they're selling like hotcakes. Perhaps, as Kim suggests, it's because we're looking to books instead of living, breathing godly counsel. I believe the explosion of social media also plays a part. Everyone has an opinion on everything, and we're supposed to consider them all to be equally valid. Suddenly, we are bombarded with any number of people who are authorities on any number of subjects. Links, site hits, and retweets - not truth - are the standard. The celebrity culture - to which evangelicalism is certainly not immune - has invaded our thought processes. As Mike Leake points out in his wonderful article, When A Christian Buys a Bad Book Who is to Blame?, "...try pastoring in a church of 200 people and telling your starry-eyed congregant that Pastor Joel with his 43000 member church is wrong."

I was recently lamenting the bad book dilema to my pastor's wife.  She reminded me that bringing women to good books is a process. A slow process. She is so often a model of graciousness to me, so I mulled over her words carefully. I began pondering a gracious, God-glorifying approach to this problem.

While I believe there's a time for calling out false teachers, I wonder if the Don't read this! tactic is always helpful and effective. By and large, the women who read the latest Christian best-seller love the Lord; they want to know Him and serve Him. I know, because I walked in their shoes. My husband's attempts to warn me against a particular false teacher were met with disdain; my emotional attachment to her was so strong that I immediately rose to her defense without a thought. It wasn't until a wise and discerning friend brought a different sort of book to my attention that my eyes were opened to the solid teaching I had been missing.

I know each of my cohorts here at Out of the Ordinary wants to encourage women to read theologically sound books. If you are a regular visitor to our corner of the internet, I imagine you want the same. Maybe you've got a friend who's reading the latest Christian best-seller. You're unsure how to address it, or if you even should. There's a more gracious way than making her feel she's chosen a book you wouldn't be caught dead reading. Instead, acknowledge her interest in the subject and present her with a suggestion for supplemental reading. Don't try to be the Holy Spirit; he does the job quite well on his own. Please know I'm not casting stones. This is something I desperately need to put into practice in my own life.

However, being an avid reader doesn't guarantee that I will have a solid recommendation for a friend. I have a perpetual stack of unread books and an Amazon wish list a mile long. I will not read every book I'd like to; there will be many, many good books I'll never even lay eyes on.

And so I have a new undertaking. My aim is to not so much to encourage you to read good books, but rather to equip you to offer theologically sound choices. There will be no name-calling or judgments. In fact, there will be no criticism of any sort. I don't have the qualifications nor the desire to be a discernment blogger.  Likewise, there will be no you're not a serious Christian if you don't read this. I don't want to create a must read frenzy. I will simply offer summaries of books I've read or am currently reading, with the hope that I'm giving you a helpful tool to disciple others. And since we can't conceivably read every book out there, I'll be inviting you to suggest other resources.

Yes, teaching women to read good books is a process, but perhaps by joining together it won't be as slow as we might think.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Think Small

Look at the birds of the air . . . . (Matthew 6:26 ESV)

A few weeks ago, Kim asked you to tell us what you thought were the most pressing issues facing older women—and you did. A list of issues made from the post and comments would be long: health trouble, family problems, loved ones lost, and more. This confirms something I've observed: While every age has it's difficulties, as we we age, our troubles often multiply.

I can't address most of the difficulties listed from the perspective of someone who has gone through them, but I've experienced a few hard providences. Here are two strategies—bibilical ones, I think—that helped me keep on believing and keep on going during difficult times.

Focus on the present.

Why borrow tomorrow's (or next year's) potential troubles and pile them up with the difficulties we face for certain right now? Jesus instructed his disciple to "not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matthew 6: 34). He didn't say his disciples would have no future hardship, just that each day has enough trouble all by itself, so it's foolish to add from what's yet to come. Face today, Jesus says, and don't think about what might happen eventually, knowing that our heavenly Father will take care of your future in the same way he's providing, right now, for today. 

What do you need today, or if you can't think even that far ahead, what do you need in the next minutes or hours? Ask your heavenly Father for it, since he's promised to provide everything you need (Matthew 6:25-34). What do you need to do right now? Ask for strength to do it. Trust God to give you all you really need, including strength to do what you need to do, minute by minute, hour by hour, for all of today. Trust him to carry you through whatever trial he brings into your life. And if you can't trust God (I've been there; it happens.), ask him to give you faith to rely on him to keep his promises.

Look for small mercies. 

By small mercies I mean little gifts from God, gifts so commonplace they may be overlooked. When our circumstances are dark, when God isn't answering our big requests with a "yes," we may feel abandoned by him. Noticing his care in the everyday things—the tasty meal, the car that runs, the friends who love us—reminds us that he is still there holding our little world together "by the word of his power," just as he holds the big world together "by the word of his power" (Hebrews 1:3). The ordinary gifts come from the same One and by the same means as the big answers to our big requests do—or would, if he were to grant them.

Acknowledging the small mercies reminds us that God is with us in darkness as well as light. What's more, it's one way to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18), especially when we can't bring ourselves to be thankful for our circumstances. 

Small things are a big deal for remaining faithful when life is hard.