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Archive for May, 2012

“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”

Psalm 55:6-8

I have heard people say, “If I could just get over this health issue,” or “If only I had more money.” If only I had less stress, more help, less pain, more support, etc, etc.

 

Have you ever been there?

If only . . .

If I could just . . .

 

Between these words, I hear a cry for relief. Not only relief from difficult circumstances, but also from hopelessness. What if I become so sick or anxious or overwhelmed or so deeply in debt that I can’t function? What if my circumstances never change? What if it gets worse?

 

Thanks to our Adamic inheritance, we live in a fallen world, full of sin, disease, dysfunction, injustice, abuse, brokenness—the list is endless. You may be dealing with something that could wreak more damage than a hurricane. Whether from external circumstances or personal struggles within, the weight of constant suffering can be unbearable and make us hopeless for a way out, no end in sight. No hope for relief.

 

I am blown away by my pastor. For too many reasons to list here, but for one in particular: He suffers terrible migraines. These are horribly painful to the point of making him physically sick. He can’t think or do anything but lie still. With a family and a loaded plate of pastoral responsibilities, he doesn’t have time to be sick, and yet he somehow presses on, with the diligence of a faithful, caring shepherd. He asks God for healing and asks others to pray, and yet the headaches continue. When a migraine strikes on a Sunday, we’ve seen God answer prayer many times by giving Pastor enough strength and relief to deliver his sermon. What amazes me is that in spite of this suffering, this man is absolutely unwavering in his faith in Christ. His life is an inspiring example of steadfast confidence in and obedience to God. The fact that God has not yet healed him doesn’t stop him from serving the Lord with his whole heart, with truth and grace, every minute of every day.

 

He continues to ask God for healing. And we should keep asking God to relieve us and others of suffering. I know he can. And many times, he does. But what if immediate relief isn’t part of his plan for us right now? What if God is more interested in how we weather a storm (or an entire hurricane season) than he is in rescuing us from it?

 

The Apostle Paul talked about his “thorn in the flesh.” I think Paul came to terms with the fact that relief for him would not be coming. I also think he became grateful for the thorn, because it drove him closer Jesus.

 

How does being closer to Jesus help when we face difficult circumstances?

 

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.

It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-8

So I’ll never fail to bear fruit. Awesome. But what good is fruit when I’m suffering?

When we turn our lives over to Christ, his Spirit moves in and begins the work of making us more like him. God’s word and presence feed, sustain, and transform us. This transforming work is evident by such “fruit” as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not a pretense pulled down over us like a goody-hoody, but a God-kind of gentleness and peace that springs from the place in our soul where Jesus lives and works on us. This fruit not only lets others see God in us, it reminds and assures us of his sanctifying power and love. This assurance comes from experiencing God in a way that teaches us we can trust in his goodness, his provision, and his constant faithfulness.

 

If storms feel endless and unbearable, maybe we need to stretch our roots deeper in God’s stream. When we make him our Source, nothing can destroy us. No drought, famine, wildfire, (debt, depression, cancer) can steal our love, joy and peace when we are nourished by The Stream. Yes, storms may shred our bark, and our fruit might be knocked off and crushed, but we will never wither. We will sprout new leaves and blossom again. What tremendous hope we have!

 

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Romans 8:35-39

We might be battered for a season, but God will be our strength and sustenance. If he is allowing us to go through difficulty, he will provide what we need. And he won’t let us weather a storm alone! He is a “friend who sticks closer than a brother” and will stay beside us all the way to the other side, whatever that may be. He will never leave or forsake us!

 

Sometimes, the response we get to “If only” or “If I could just” isn’t the relief we desperately want. I know, not very comforting, I’m sorry. Relief from suffering may come soon, later on, or it may not come at all—in this life. But even if we suffer the sting of some particular thorn for the rest of our lives, we won’t suffer forever. An entire earthly lifetime doesn’t even compare to forever. It may feel like eternity, but no matter how long our suffering lasts, God promises us it will not last forever. He also promises to be with us, strengthening and providing. Let’s set our hope in him, and look forward to a joyful forever yet to come, where all difficulty, sorrow, and suffering will be forgotten.

 

Paul could say this with full assurance, thorn and all.

 

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing
with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Romans 8:18

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

 

Are you in a season of suffering? Can you share a time when circumstances felt too unbearable? Have you “reached your roots” into the stream of God’s provision and strength?

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Last week, I shared the story of how my ability to forgive an offender required an uncomfortable lesson in praying for him. No. I don’t mean praying for an eighteen-wheeler to accidentally park on his head, but praying for good. Sincere, eternal good.

But forgiving one long-held grudge hasn’t made me a graduate of the school of forgiveness. Since we don’t live under a rock (or perhaps I should speak for myself), the offenses and frustrating behaviors of others will continue to affect our lives. From injuries that wound so deeply they leave twisted scars that forever alter us, to the feather-ruffling annoyances that pass soon enough, to those repeat offenses that scratch the skin just enough to draw little beads of blood, day after day.

Recognize any of those?

And yet, I know I’m not perfect. I may live in a fantasy world sometimes (it’s okay, I’m a novelist) but I’m not delusional. I am well aware that I have my moments. What polite name should we give them? Hiccups? Bad hair days? Stress?

It’s important for me to be honest about this stuff, because once in a while, my temptation to hold a grudge over an offense is coupled with a humbling reminder that I’m no one to judge. I am guilty of making mistakes. I sometimes act thoughtlessly. Speak critically.

Offend.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32) 

Just as.

Over the years, I’ve studied and pondered this line Jesus gave us in The Lord’s Prayer,

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors . . .”

I’ve found myself challenged by a little blink-and-you-miss-it two-letter word:

As.

What if that phrase “forgive us as we have forgiven” doesn’t mean while, as I’d always assumed, but in the same way? What if God were to only forgive me of my mistakes and sins in the same way and in the same measure that I forgive others?

“But some people are such jerks,” you mutter beneath your breath. (Don’t deny it, I heard you.) I completely agree! I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without being abused or disrespected or belittled. Or scammed. Cut off in traffic. Cheated. Lied about. Hurt.

I have the right to protect myself from harm.

I have rights!

But Jesus (if you’ve been around a bit, you knew a “But God” was coming) had rights too—full rights to the very throne of heaven as the Son of God, Prince of Peace, King of Kings. He had the right to be honored and revered and adored, to receive loyalty and total allegiance.

Yet he gave up those rights and walked resolutely through our decaying world of sin, pain, evil, suffering, abuse, offense—the worst those jerks we could throw down. Turning the other cheek. Enduring the scourging. Taking the nails. Because he had a single, unwavering purpose in mind.

Grace.

To demonstrate through both his life and his death the beauty of God’s immense, holy grace.

And I need that grace just as much as—

No. I was going to say “as much as the next person,” but who am I to judge?

A group of guys in John 8 were so offended at one woman’s sin that they gathered rocks intending to stone her to death. Justice was called for, according to the law, and they were prepared to deliver. Until Jesus interrupted them and said,

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Then, after he wrote something in the sand that sent each of her accusers running:

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

I don’t know what Jesus wrote in the sand, but I do know I have no business throwing stones. Am I without sin? Maybe I’m not guilty of the same evil as the one offending me, but can I honestly stand with stone in hand ready to demand justice as though I have never been guilty of offending my gracious Lord?

The double barrels of Judgment and Justice that I aim at an offender could spin a one-eighty and aim their sights on me. I’d best not even pick it up. Besides, vigilante justice (bitterness, criticalness, grudge-holding) taken into my own hands never satisfies any laws; it just creates more sin.

It’s not easy, yet I must leave justice with God, in whose hands I find no grudge-holding, no stones for exacting justice, only the grace and mercy in Christ that I need.

. . . because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)

Gracious Lord, please fill my hands to overflowing with your grace until there’s no room left for stones.

Which is harder: Forgiving the offenses of others, or admitting your own?

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A few years ago, I caught myself using the term “Step Dork” to describe an ex-stepdad.

If you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard some of the more colorful nicknames I’d coined for him during his reign in my life. But after I became a Christian, I worked hard to curb the toxic snark that had long flowed fluently from my tongue. The kind of stuff I’d learned from him, actually.

Poetic justice and all.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t forgiven the man. Jesus says to forgive, so, obedient young saint that I was, I did. (That muffled coughing sound you just heard was the chuckle of an older, wiser, grace-saved sinner.) Being the bigger person, I Let It Go. Of course, I never wanted to see his face again. Ever. Forgiving your enemies doesn’t mean you have to like them.

Because that’d be pushing it.

During his time in my life, I ricocheted between hating him and hating myself. Later, as a new Christian, I understood forgiveness to mean giving no more thought or credence to the guy who had shattered my already wobbly self-esteem. At “dismissal” forgiveness, I had succeeded. But, since I’d come so far, I figured I deserved to indulge in a little harmless sarcasm once in a while. It kept the memories from bubbling up.

And yet, using the term “Step-Dork” decades later made me realize I had neither forgiven nor forgotten. I still hated him. Any time his name came up, I responded with scathing remarks that trickled from my stagnant reservoir of bitterness. No matter what I professed in my well-meant but foundering attempts at obedience, anyone could see that I had not forgiven him at all.

The Spirit of Christ nudged me to do something about it. So I prayed for help and looked to God’s word for guidance. The Bible says to forgive as God forgives us. It says to not only forgive those who offend us, but also to pray for our enemies.

Fabulous.

So I began to pray for him. Things like, “Lord, I hope he’s not being a creep to anyone else now.” And, “Make him know how much he hurt me, how I needed a good dad and how he totally let me down.” Okay, maybe a checklist of his sins and all the ways he needed to change wasn’t exactly what God wanted from me, but I wasn’t about to ask God to bless him—that would be like rewarding evil. God surely didn’t expect me to pray blessings on someone who didn’t deserve them.

I kept bungling along, continuing to pray for him. “God, cure his alcoholism,” or “Heal whatever is inside that makes him such a bully.”

After a while, I felt the Lord nudging me to pray for something truly good for him, something significant, and more importantly, that my request be sincere.

Right. How could I sincerely want anything good for someone who had wounded me so deeply?

But God patiently reminded me it isn’t always about my wants. I needed to want what God wanted for him—what he wants for everyone who is lost and without him. Like me, the man was an immortal soul who would spend eternity somewhere. I needed to pray he would spend eternity with an amazing, loving God.

My eternity. My amazing, loving God.

It wasn’t easy at first, but I knew it was right. “Lord, please help him know your love, peace and forgiveness. Help him do whatever it takes to be right with you.” This became my regular prayer.

It wasn’t until later that I realized something in me had changed as a result of those prayers. When his name came up, no caustic wisecrack surfaced, no snarky remark burst from my lips. By praying sincerely for his soul, my heart had changed. My hate-tank was empty. The desire to verbally lash out and wound him had vanished.

Praying for my enemy gave me the ability to forgive him.

I’ve said I never want to see his face again. So what would I do if ran into him now?

I’d like to think I would ask him if he’s found God’s grace, and if he hasn’t, I’d ask him if I can share some of mine. Because I remember I’ve fallen prey to addiction, just as he has. We all battle the demons that aim for those particular weaknesses and footholds in each of our lives. We are all hopeless without Christ and in desperate need of God’s grace and help.

I don’t know if my prayers for him have been answered. What I do know is whether or not God changed him, praying for him changed me. All I feel for the man I had long held in contempt is compassion.

I believe praying sincerely for another eternal soul yields significant results, whether seen or unseen. At the very least, it draws us closer to the heart of God, from where his immeasurable love for each of us flows.

Question (which you don’t have to answer!): Do you ever catch yourself making bitter remarks about someone you thought you’d forgiven?

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I confess. I would’ve liked to have been called somebody’s “Princess.”

As a very little girl, of course. Long before the black eyeliner, Army coat, and bag of weed in my pocket.

Sometimes, I wince inwardly when a dad talks about making sure his daughter knows she’s his princess. Every father should make sure his daughter feels beautiful and special and loved, absolutely. But girls like me never saw ourselves this way. I have never felt like princess material. I may have even gone out of my way (with the Army coat and the weed) to make sure no one suspected me of wishing to be anyone’s princess. That way no one can mock you for failing.

When I was four, my parents divorced and my dad left the country. It’s hard for a kid not to take abandonment like that personally. Hard to ignore the inner voice whispering you aren’t lovable or he would have stayed. Hard to ignore the nagging sense there’s a gaping hole at your feet and there’s no one to catch you if you fall.

By the time I was 15, I’d learned that fathers (and their replacements) were deserters and bullies who were critical, perverted, self-serving, or unappeasable.  After years of receiving conflicting and demoralizing answers about who (and whose) I was, I no longer pined for a daddy. That ache had been thoroughly cured.

And I sure didn’t feel like anybody’s little princess.

When I was 17, my mom and I were both brand new Christians, on our own again and trying to start our lives over. Then mom said she was getting married. Again.

Wonderful. My first thought was to leave the new couple to their blessed new life and go my own way. I was of course so grown up. So I told the new man in Mom’s life I was happy for them and would be moving out shortly. The guy burst out laughing. Not exactly the reaction I expected. And he kept on laughing until he turned red. Once Robert composed himself, he somehow talked me into staying a little while longer.

It didn’t take long to realize my mom had married a psycho. He’d often say things to me like, “HI, HONEY!!!” (Robert doesn’t have a low setting on his volume control.) And “You’re so NEAT!” And “You’re such a pretty girl.” Okay, great. Another perv.

And my favorite: “I SURE LOVE YOU!” To which I wanted to reply Whatever, man. There’s no need to butter me up, she already married you. Save your breath because I’m not buying it. And don’t be getting any ideas that I need to hear that stuff, because I don’t.

(Sorry, yes, I was a jerk. Holey hearts have a way of growing thick, ugly shells.)

But the guy just wouldn’t stop. No matter how much I stiff-armed him, Robert kept telling me I was pretty. Neat. Special. And that he loved me.

You know, a rock hard heart can only take so much of that.

When I accepted Christ at age 16, I understood that Jesus died for me out of love, but I struggled hard with the whole Father God thing. God the Father was certainly far away—like in another country. Maybe he was like my dad who only thought about his kids every five years with a postcard bearing foreign postage and stamped “Airmail.”

But in time, Robert’s persistence finally wore down the shell around my heart. Not only did I begin to accept his love, I found myself needing it. And eventually, that persistent love helped me grasp a life-changing, heart-healing truth about the huge, persistent Father heart of God:

There is a Father whose love never fails.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! 1 John 3:1

Do you know without a doubt that you are God’s beloved child? If not, I encourage you to let the truth and grace of his word pour over you. I’m praying he will show you without a doubt. You are a son or daughter of the King of Kings! And so am I.

Hey! I guess that makes me somebody’s princess after all.

And thanks, Dad. I love you too.

For a similar Along The Banks post, see: What Would You Say To Little You?

Special Treat: Interested in a powerful story of hope after pain? Check out the newly released novel Wildflowers From Winter  (Waterbrook Press) by Christian Author Katie Ganshert. Also, Katie’s blog today is loaded with several “hope after pain” stories like mine.

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