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How to NOT Figure Life Out

 quite puzzling by cayusa via flickr

Life is pretty mixed up at times.  It’s easy to conclude that the only solution to the anxiety and frustration we feel is to somehow “figure life out.”  Until we find THE ANSWER to the question life is posing us, we often find no rest for our souls.

I remember twenty years ago, when I was vexed with not knowing whether I should ask a particular young woman out for a date.  I wanted to BE SURE I was making the “right” decision.  But try as I might, I couldn’t seem to come to an answer that I thought was definitive.

After several months drug by (yes, I was a sad case), I showed my roommate at the time an extensive logic table I had drawn up, showing the various advantages and disadvantages of deciding to ask this woman out vs. not ask her out vs. delaying a decision.  He looked at me with his “What planet did you come from?” expression and said, “JUST ASK HER OUT!”

I had tried to resolve my frustration at not being able to figure life out by, uh, trying to figure life out.  Well, all that got me then, and all it ever gets me now, is just more frustration.  There are some things that just can’t be figured out about life.  Sometimes you just have to live it out.

Today I read a quote from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.    — ”Letters to a Young Poet”

Ask yourself: Is the thing troubling me really something that I can answer today?  If not, let it go, and spend your life living instead of trying to figure life out.

Embracing God’s Purposes in Our Trials

Trials.

What trials are you facing right now in your life?

It could be just a ”small” trial like an irritating coworker.  Or you could be running a  ”marathon” trial such as a chronic illness that saps your health and your joy.  Or you may be facing a “crushing” trial of a failed marriage or financial collapse where you feel there is no escape from the unrelenting pressure.

Why is this happening?  When will it end?  How can I make it through? How can good ever come from this?  Will I ever come out of this?

Do those questions sound familiar?

The Bible does not leave us without answers to our heart’s questions about trials. In fact, our answers are found in embracing God’s purposes in our trials. In James chapter 1 we read God’s perspective about trials:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

On first read, those are hardly comforting words to a soul under siege.  They’re confusing words, a schizophrenic perspective that makes no sense at all. We read those verses and the question immediately forms in our mind:

What is he talking about? Joy? Joy? Joy in the midst of this pain I am facing?

Yes, the word is “joy.” And not just any “joy” either— this is the same Greek word as in the familiar response of the wise men “when they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” (Matthew 2:10)  And just for good measure, I love that James uses the Greek word for “meet” trials that means “to fall so as to be swallowed up”— it’s the same word used in the story of the Good Samaritan where the man “met” his trial with the thieves who stole him blind and left him a half-dead bloody pulp on the ground.

So you’re telling me I’m supposed to have joy about this misery in my life? I’m supposed to be happy about it?  Are you crazy?

To which James replies, “Yes, have joy, embrace the trial, because God is at work to make you perfect and complete, lacking nothing.  Have joy as you look toward the end in sight, that this awful trial will result in you lacking nothing in what God has designed you to be.”

How is that possible?  How can I embrace God’s purpose in the midst of this pain?

Here’s the bottom line: embracing God’s purposes in our trials isn’t easy.  It requires several radical shifts in perspective that can only come through the study of the Bible, prayer, and the action of the Holy Spirit.  Only then will we be able to see through God’s eyes and genuinely have joy in the midst of a painful trial.

Where do we start?  According to James, the first profound paradigm shift that we must embrace in the midst of every trial is: what really matters in this trial is the testing of my faith. 

What does it mean to “test my faith?” First, we must be clear about what kind of “test” this is. It’s not like some “qualifying test” set up to see if we can “make the cut” with God. No, this test is like putting gold through fire, a test to make it clear that our faith is genuine and precious. 1 Peter 1:6-9 states:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Second, we need to know what kind of “faith” God wants to see in us.  It’s not what we often want to have “faith” in: that my marriage will survive, that I will get the job transfer, that my cancer will be healed, that the trial will somehow “turn out all right.”  Those “good” outcomes in our hopes & prayers God may or may not grant to us, but they are not what the Bible defines as faith.  In fact, Hebrews 11 clearly tells us that people of faith sometimes experience God’s miraculous deliverance from a trial but sometimes die in great suffering in a trial.

If a “good outcome” is not what we are to have faith in, then what is the faith that is being tested in a trial?  The passage in 1 Peter 1 tells us it is our faith in the revelation of Jesus: faith that He loves us, that He is in control, and that we can love Him and glorify Him and rejoice in Him even in the midst of our trial.  Peter calls this faith “more precious than gold.”

If we are to do well in this testing of our faith in Jesus, we must ask ourselves, “What is the enemy of my faith in a trial? What am I battling against?”  The answer lies in looking at what James tells us that faith produces: steadfastness, endurance, patience.  In the midst of a trial faith tells us, “God is good! God loves you! Wait! Endure! Have patience!Continue to do what is right!”

The lie that comes against us in the trial says, “God has abandoned you! God doesn’t care! God may not even exist! Do whatever it takes to get out of this pain, this problem, this predicament!”  The Bible is full of examples of men who listened to this lie.  Peter, afraid of being arrested, folded under pressure and lied in Mark 14:66-72.  King Saul in 1 Samuel 15 decided to do what was politically expedient instead of obeying God.  Esau let his stomach rule over his head and gave up his birthright in Genesis 25.  Whatever the trial or temptation, our daily choice is always whether we will continue to endure the trial looking in faith to God, or try to fix or escape the trial on our own terms.

That is how we must frame every trial: that this trial is not a test of how wise I am, or how I can solve this problem or escape this burden or engineer what works out best for me; this trial is a test of my faith that God loves me and that I will joyfully follow Him.

And what is the end result of our endurance, of our holding fast to God day after day, maybe year after year through the trial? James encourages us to keep enduring, keep being steadfast, so that this steadfastness can have its “full effect” (more literally “perfect work”) on our souls.  What is this perfect work? That our souls will develop the complete, perfect maturity of character that God intends for us (Romans 5:4).

Here is the final paradigm shift to truly see what the trial is accomplishing in our eternal souls.  Stop focusing on the pain and perplexity that the trial brings, but rejoice to see that this trial is testing your faith to set your gaze on the God who loves you (Psalm 141:8). Rejoice to see that through it God is teaching you endurance as a lesson to a beloved child (Hebrews 12:3-11). And finally, rejoice to see that endurance is forming your character into Christlikeness as you daily embrace Christ & reject that which is wrong (Romans 8:18-30).

Study these great truths from the Scriptures and pray for the Holy Spirit to open your eyes so you can truly embrace this trial before you in faith and endurance, becoming perfect and complete in Christ.

Grace & Patience

Note: The following is article #14 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.  

Chapter 13 of Future Grace talks about patience.  Piper starts with a definition:

Patience is a deepening, ripening, peaceful willingness to wait for God in the unplanned place of obedience, and to walk with God at the unplanned pace of obedience— to wait in His place, and go at His pace.

All of us struggle with events in our lives that do not go as we plan— both small and large, with time frames that range from momentary to lifelong.  The long checkout line frustrates us daily & immediately, while the promotion that never seems to come or the wayward child that you have prayed for years to return home can become a immovable weight of despair or a raging fire of bitterness & anger.

How do we overcome these threats to our soul? By faith in God’s future grace. The apostle James admonishes us in his epistle:

Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.  The Judge is standing at the door.  Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.  You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.  (James 5:7-11)

We have to continually take hold of the faith that God is “full of compassion and mercy” to His children, regardless of “the face of suffering” we may have to endure. God promises that He can strengthen us “according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.” (Colossians 1:11)

But when the difficulty stretches out over time, patience becomes harder.  Here especially we must remember that God’s grace extends beyond our death into eternity, and that the treasures and glories of heaven will be well worth the patience of this life.

The most gripping story in the chapter is one of a young man whom God gave an opportunity for patience that most of us will never experience. At the age of 25 he married, and during his honeymoon his wife was struck by lightning and paralyzed.  He had great dreams for his marriage and career, but every day for 39 years he grew in the grace of patience as he cared for her, rarely leaving her side for more than a few hours at a time until the day she died.  What if he had refused the Spirit’s gift of patience?  What if he had become impatient, despairing, angry, or bitter?  Then we would not have had B. B. Warfield, the Princeton theologian who was one of the great architects that preserved Biblical Christianity at the turn of the 20th century.  Living a life of patience by grace enabled Warfield to write:

A life of self-sacrificing unselfishness is the most divinely beautiful life that man can lead… not in lowness but in lowliness, not degrade ourselves but forget ourselves, and seek every man not his own things but those of others.

Patience is not optional; if we are to live a life of joy & peace that pleases God we must cultivate this gift, which only comes from God’s strength through faith in His future grace in our lives. The 18th century pastor Charles Simeon knew patience well, and on his deathbed he spoke about this grace:

Infinite wisdom has arranged the whole (of my life) with infinite love; and infinite power enables me— to rest upon that love.  I am in a dear Father’s hands— all is secure.  When I look to Him, I see nothing but faithfulness— and immutability— and truth; and I have the sweetest peace— I cannot have more peace.

Living Art

I admire bonsai.  Their beauty, shaped over many years, is the result of patience, wisdom, nurturing, and pruning.  At first, they look fairly ordinary as seedlings, but gradually they become a work of art.  Their glory does not reflect upon themselves, but upon the wise master gardener who has carefully seen his vision come into reality.

 IMG_2052.JPG

This bonsai at The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum was started in 1626.  Its beauty has been four centuries in the making.

Is this not the way of God with us?  As a wise master gardener, as described in John 15, God nurtures and prunes us.  For what purpose?  That the art of our life may reflect His glory.

For all of my pictures from The National Bonsai Museum click here.

Ten Steps for Walking Through the Tough Times with God

So, have you ever been through a tough time?

I thought so.

As the saying goes, you have either been through a tough time, going through a tough time, or preparing to go through a tough time. So wherever you are now, here are ten steps to help you walk through any tough time with God.

One caution before we start: these steps are only for those who have been adopted by God as His children through acknowledging Jesus Christ as the Lord of the universe and the Lord of their lives. God does not care if you are a “good person” or “believe in the right thing” or “been baptized” or “pray & go to church” or “wouldn’t have made it this far without Him” or even “deacon for forty years”—none of those things matter one bit to God unless He has already adopted you into His family.

1. Yes, You Can Ask God “Why?”

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. (John 9:1-3 NKJV)

Joseph said to his brothers, “…You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good”. (Genesis 50:19-20 NKJV)

This passage from John clearly states that it is ok to ask God why you are going through a trial. God wants us to tell Him all that is within our heart. Sometimes, like the disciples questioning Jesus, we will get an immediate answer. Sometimes, like Joseph, we will get an answer, but only years later when we look back with hindsight. Sometimes, like Job, our only answer is that God is God, and we are not. Regardless, we can ask any question of our loving heavenly Father.

Ultimately, we must keep our heart focused on what the Westminster catechism teaches: What is the chief purpose of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. And so, we must realize that everything in our lives, including our trials, is “for God’s glory and our good.”

2. Go Ahead and Grieve

Now as Jesus drew near, He saw the city Jerusalem and wept over it, (knowing it would be sacked by Rome in 35 years for its unbelief) (Luke 19:41).

So often we feel it is more spiritual to put on our “happy face,” to say that since God is good that the bad things that happen don’t matter. Well, baloney, life still sucks sometimes! I have people almost every day breaking down in my exam rooms and crying and almost always apologizing for crying. They have the mistaken notion that weeping over a dead parent or a failed marriage or a wayward child is some lack of moral strength. I remind them that Jesus was a “man of sorrows, and well acquainted with grief.” Grief is not sinful. Go ahead and grieve.

3. Acknowledge God as Sovereign Lord

Jesus prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42).

God is the ruler of this universe and we must submit to His rule over our lives. It’s not wrong to pray that God restore a marriage or heal a loved one or mend a broken heart, but we must pray for something deeper as well: that God be God, and that He be glorified and that His will be done whatever the outcome. Acknowledging that God’s glory is more important than our comfort is the only path to peace in our lives.

4. Trust God’s Love for His Children

For You are my hope, O Lord GOD; You are my trust from my youth. (Psalm 71:5)

Once we cry out to God, grieve, and acknowledge His rule over all, only then can we be in a position to trust His love. Trust is sometimes so hard when the storm winds are furiosly blowing around you, but, then, that’s why they call it TRUST.

Sometime my little heart can’t understand
What’s in Your will, what’s in Your plan
So many times I’m tempted to ask You “Why?”
But I can never forget it for long
Lord what You do could not be wrong
So I believe You even when I must cry
Do I trust You, Lord, does the river flow?
Do I trust You, Lord, does the north wind blow?
You can read my heart, You can know my mind
And You’ve got to know I would rather die
Then to lose my faith in the One I love.
Do I trust You?

I will trust You, Lord, when I don’t know why
I will trust You, Lord, till the day I die
I will trust You, Lord, when I’m blind with pain
You were God before, and You’ll never change
I will trust You, Lord.
—Twila Paris

5. Ask God for Wisdom

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5).

God earnestly desires to help us in our trial; He promises to give us the wisdom we need. Often we need to take some type of action in the midst of a trial, but we don’t know what to do. God is not some mean-spirited deity who is watching to see if we take the wrong step; He is our loving Father who wants to guide us. Ask Him for wisdom.

6. Be Patient with God’s Timetable

knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:3).

God specifically chooses not to solve all our problems immediately. He wants us to learn trust & patience through that magical thing called WAITING. If we try to get ahead of God’s timetable, we will pay the penalty.

Moses wanted justice for His people, but he did not wait for God. He ended up taking matters into his own hands & killed an Egyptian, and had to wait on the sidelines for forty years. Jesus had to wait until he was thirty years old before he started His ministry. The Bible is filled with people who tried to hurry up God’s timetable with disastrous results, and of people who waited patiently for God to move and were blessed.

7. Praise God

And Job said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” (job 1:21).

Here is Job, a man who had lost everything, and what does He do? He praises God, after everything is lost, after He is confused, in pain, and totally abandoned. To bless the name of the LORD, to praise Him, even when we don’t feel like it, is both a commandment and a comfort.

8. Give thanks even for the trial

In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1thessalonians 5:18)

How can we give thanks? By knowing & trusting our loving Father, by ackowledging His rule, by living in all of the previous seven steps.

9. Rejoice in All Things

In this(knowing you have an inheritance in heaven) you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials. (1 Peter 1:6).

We can rejoice in adversity, looking to our certain future with God. There are many stories in the early church of Christians laughing, singing, rejoicing while being burned alive and tortured, knowing that although their body could be killed, that nothing could separate them from the love of God. Hidden in Christ, we too can rejoice in all things.

10. Remember God’s wonderful works in your life

Praise the LORD!
I will praise the LORD with my whole heart,
In the assembly of the upright and in the congregation.
The works of the LORD are great,
Studied by all who have pleasure in them.
His work is honorable and glorious,
And His righteousness endures forever.
He has made His wonderful works to be remembered;
The LORD is gracious and full of compassion.
He has given food to those who fear Him;
He will ever be mindful of His covenant. (psalms 111:1-5).

Look for God to work, and when He does, remember it. Write it down, talk about it, share it, pray it back to God, make it part of your life. As we remember how God has been mighty to save us in the past, it strengthens and enables us to do all the other steps, to trust, to pray, to rejoice, to acknowledge, to live a life well-pleasing to God as we walk with Him though the trials of this life.