Christ's Glory, Not Mine

Devotions, advice, and book reviews from science fiction author Andrea J. Graham

Thanking God For Difficult Circumstances? Part Two

Part One

I have little patience for debates over inconsequential matters. Too many debates on the Internet come down to questions with all the relevance of, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

At first blush, the question of whether we need to thank God for everything or in everything seems to be nitpicking about a single word. As I wrote in the previous article, we are called to thank God in every circumstance but not necessarily to thank him for literally everything that happens to us. The difference between the two is far from trivial. There are four pastoral and/or theological consequences to be considered.

1) It May Cause Believers to Stumble

Hurting people come to church in need of comfort and healing. They need to bring their hurts, their pain, and sorrow and to be met with compassion and grace.

Yet, many in the Church who share the hurts of their heart find not love but judgment. I know hurting Christians who fellow believers have corrected for not rejoicing in and being thankful for what was causing them pain.

There are a number of possible negative outcomes from this. First, the person can conclude sharing their heart’s pain was a mistake and stop doing so. This closes them off from the body of Christ and leaves them suffering in silence. This leads to a hardening of spiritual arteries, a plastic Christianity that is “smiling on the outside, dying on the inside.” Everything is fine with them, as far as you can tell. They smile at church and may go through the motions of saying what they’ve been taught to say. But inside they feel like a filthy sinner because they’re not sincerely grateful they’ve lost a loved one or a business. Then, suddenly, they’ll be gone. Maybe you’ll hear later about their divorce and wonder what happened. They always seemed fine.

It can lead to people leaving the church or walking away from the faith. For example, when the Church has taught a young woman that Christ commands her to thank God FOR a husband who beats her. Or when the Church has taught a young man that he must thank God for killing his mother with cancer. To hurting souls who accept it, this teaching renders our God an abusive monstrosity insensitive to our hurts. Fortunately, some hurting souls taught this know the Bible well enough to realize an interpretation of scripture that renders God an abusive monster is incongruous with a Christ who was a “man of sorrows acquainted with grief.”

As I said in part one, no one in the pages of scriptures was ever shown to praise God for literally everything rather than in everything. But perhaps there are people today that God gives the grace to respond in that way in the midst of the pain. That would be quite extraordinary, the way it is when a person gives a reverse tithe (90% of their income.) It is unwise to hold either practice up as the standard that everyone should follow. That imposes an extra-biblical burden on God’s people that most can’t achieve. Christ said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. (Matthew 11:30). This teaching is a yoke that is neither easy nor light.

The Holy Spirit gently guides us through our lives so we become more holy, more kind, more gracious, and more thankful. Commanding people struggling through a cloud of despair to give thanks for their suffering only brings them condemnation and discouragement.

2) It Ignores Scriptural Commands Precedents for Lament

You will never find in scripture, “Tell those who mourn to thank God for their loss and rejoice in it.” You will find scripture that says:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.-Romans 12:15,16

To tell a hurting person to thank God or otherwise rejoice violates these commands. You’re not walking in harmony with the grieving soul. You may also be haughty and wise in your own sight as you rebuke a person’s need for comfort. In fact, let’s return to the Jesus Calling devotional book in which Sarah Young writes for Jesus. She says for “Jesus” that those who don’t know Christ intimately don’t thank him for their hardships. That is a false accusation against lamenting Christians that preys upon the Church’s widespread ignorance of lament.

The Bible is full of lament. Biblical heroes from both testaments, including Christ, take their sorrows, their anger, and their frustrations to God. The psalter is packed full of lament as is the book of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Job. These people of God came to Him with their sorrows, hurts, and pains in a real raw way that makes most Christians uncomfortable.

Mind you, lament is never an end in itself. Lament is a journey of faith. It begins with us pouring out all of our pain and leaving it in God’s hands. It ends with us praising God as God turns our mourning into dancing. Some of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of praise come at the close of laments. Take this verse from Lamentations:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.-Lamentations 3:22 and 23

The passage is the basis of that great hymn of the Church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” Jeremiah only reached that point through a dark and desolate place of mourning. Just a few verses before, he wrote of God:

He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.”

How would you react if Jeremiah lived today and gave you that answer to how his life was going? Would you respect him as the highly spiritual man of God that he is? Would you honor him as a prophet on the verge of a mind-blowing insight into the goodness of God? Or would you quench the Spirit’s work in Jeremiah’s life by telling him to shut up and be thankful?

We all want to hear the praise that pours from Jeremiah. But too few of us patiently mourn with the weeping prophet as he works through his pain to get there.

Normally, “thanks for everything” means “thanks for all the good you do.” Why take the Bible’s use of it to mean to thank God literally for all things, even bad things? Perhaps it protects us from having to deal with hurting people. Perhaps it gives us an excuse to dismiss them.

3) Attributing to God what God Didn’t Send

God is sovereign, but not everything that happens in your life is God’s work. Yes, God does have a plan. Yes, God works all things together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. (Roman 8:28) No, that doesn’t mean all things that happen to us are good and thus a gift of God. Some things happen to us as the result of living in a fallen world, our sin, or the sins of others, and are thus works of the Devil who comes to “kill, steal, and destroy,” (John 10:10.)

The Devil is not all powerful and God can check the devil’s plans. Consider in the book of Job, where the Devil attacked Job. God allowed Satan to do it but limited the scope of his attack. It wouldn’t have been proper for Job to thank God for killing his children or destroying his herds, because it wasn’t God who did it, but it was the destroyer.

Sometimes our lives are messed up due to our owns sins. James is clear we should never blame God for temptation or for us falling into sin. (James 1:13-15). If overdosing on illegal drugs leaves us disabled or we end up in jail for armed robbery, we can’t thank God for the disability or for our imprisonment. They are not the result of God’s will. We can be thankful for how God will work through this, but we shouldn’t blame God in the backwards way of thanking him for it.

There are many views on this whole issue of free will and predestination within the body of Christ. You have to be a Calvinist with extreme views on predestination to conclude God is the literal ultimate cause of everything. And you need to support that conclusion before you can get to the idea that everyone needs to be thankful for everything that happens.

4) Trying to be thankful for your problems can keep you focused on your problems.

A sure way to remain focused on your problems is trying to be thankful FOR everything that happens to you. It requires you to actively work to focus on being thankful for it.

When you read Paul’s thanksgivings in his letters while he’s in prison, he’s not thanking God for imprisonment. He’s thanking God for those who are standing with them while he was there, and then he’s looking beyond his circumstances. He’s looking at how God is working through his Church and through the lives of faithful people.

However good our intentions are, forcing ourselves to thank God for our circumstances risks our becoming trapped in lies. Lament is the road that leads to sincerely casting our eyes above our troubles to see the glory of God at work in the world and praising the Lord.

We need to deal with the difficult parts of our lives, not to fixate on it all the time. Fixating can result from trying to force ourselves to be thankful for something that we need to lament.

Conclusion

Those who advocate giving thanks to God for all things have sincere, good intentions, but they are sincerely wrong. The overall effect of this false teaching is for us to stray into a shallow, inauthentic walk with Christ.

In “The Three Tools of Death,” G.K. Chesterton wrote a mystery about the death of a man who preached the need for constant happiness, a teaching that contributed to his death. Chesterton declared, “The Religion of Cheerfulness is a cruel religion. Why couldn’t they let him weep a little, like his fathers before him?”

Christianity is not meant to be a cruel religion that demands a plastic grin frozen on every face all the time.

The book of Ecclesiastes recognizes that there is time for mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:3) and that sorrow can make our heart better (Ecclesiastes 7:3) Our Lord declared that those who mourn are blessed and will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4) God knows our frame and that we are dust (Psalm 103). We have a high priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15.) God has shown in both Old and New Testament that he is big enough to handle our sorrows and laments.

At the same time, we do owe God our praise and thanksgiving even when we’re in pain. We can thank the Lord for the good things in our lives. We can thank God for salvation and for God’s unconditional love. We can thank him that he can handle our sorrow even when his people can’t. As we grieve honestly, in time, God will give us the grace to look beyond our sorrows and see the glorious picture of God at work in our lives, and others’ lives, and find a deeper gratitude.


Thanking God For Difficult Circumstances, Part One

By Adam Graham

Thankfulness is important.  We recently celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States. We have much to be thankful for, particularly those of us living in the United States. We are clothed, housed, and well-fed, with luxuries that many kings would not dream of.

Yet, there’s a trendy teaching that we need to be thankful for all things, including bad things. Yes, if we accept this, if our mothers have passed away, we must thank God that our mothers have died.

One source of this teaching is Sarah Young’s popular devotional Jesus Calling. She writes her devotional as if Jesus himself is talking to you.  She makes it sound like thanking God for our losses is a command from God. She writes for Jesus, “…I have instructed you to give thanks for everything….To people who don’t know me intimately, it can seem irrational and even impossible to thank me for heartrending hardships. Nonetheless, those who obey me in this way are invariably blessed, even though difficulties may remain.” She hangs the commandment she put in Christ’s mouth on Ephesians 5:20, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This advice is well-intended. Christ can bring us to a place of thanksgiving for many difficult life circumstances. We see in the rearview mirror how God was there. How, if we hadn’t gone through that difficulty, we never would have found God, we never would have grown as a person.

The full council of scripture does teach us to be thankful in every circumstance. The difference between that hard truth the trendy error is one word. Replacing “in” with  “for.” This one small change can have a huge impact on God’s people. The Biblical truth lovingly calls us to keep pressing on towards a sincere gratitude that rises above circumstances.  In contrast, the trendy error is a law that requires instant, rote obedience from hurting souls and promotes a life of plastic phoniness that kills true faith.

Let’s look at the scripture itself, in context.  Ephesians 5 is not addressing the challenging and hard things of life. It is part of a general series of commands for living the life of faith:

 

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.  And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

It is problematic to hang a doctrine of thanking God for bad things on a verse from a passage not written to address this. We need to examine the full council of scripture and that gives us a different picture.  Scripture teaches us to be thankful in all circumstances, not for them. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Consider the book of James 1:2,3, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” When going through trials, we can have joy and therefore give thanks because we know God will use it for our spiritual development. We can be thankful for how God is at work. , “In difficult times, we can even say “thank you for everything” to God the way we’d say it to a human who patiently had our back

We also have to look at the evidence of how Christ, the apostles, and Old Testament saints responded to difficult circumstances. I checked my concordance and found no examples of Biblical hero engaging in this super-spiritual practice of giving thanks for the bad in life. Especially not while it was going on. In Paul the Apostle’s prison letters, I never found the line, “I thank my God that I am chained to two guards and under house arrest in Rome.”  Second Timothy doesn’t begin, “I thank God for the rats in this cell.”

Paul didn’t wake up and give thanks for his imprisonment, but he gave thanks nonetheless. Paul’s typical thanksgiving from his days in prison might be paraphrased, “I thank you, Lord, for those faithful people in Ephesus. They have such love for all the saints, it fills my heart with joy. And thank you for the Church at Philippi, they have been partnering with me from the beginning, and they are still there for me even while I’m in prison. I can hardly wait to get out of prison and go see them. And I’ve heard great things about what you’re doing in  Colossae. Thank you for Epaphras, who faithfully taught them the Gospel. Oh and thank you for Philemon! I can really see how much he loves You and Your church.”

Paul waxes thankful in the midst of imprisonment, but not for being imprisoned. Rather he focuses on the majesty of God, the people who stood beside him during his imprisonment,  and on God’s work in the World. These are all principles we can apply to our life in how we can give thanks.

What about Jesus? While we may sing a chorus, “Thank you for the cross,” Jesus wasn’t singing it on the day of his crucifixion. If it is a sin not to give thanks for all things while you are going through them, then Christ sinned. He didn’t give thanks while he was being crucified. What he did cry out to God from the cross wasn’t a song of thanksgiving. It was a lament. “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

Christ did express thanks on the road to his crucifixion. In John 11: 42, he thanked God for hearing him when he prayed before Lazarus was raised. Each of the three gospels that record the last Supper mention that Christ gave thanks before the meal, knowing that it would be his last meal before he was executed. In difficult times, it can be hard enough to simply be grateful for the blessings we do have, but God calls us to do so.

Finally, let us look at Job. He learned his wealth was gone and all his children died. Only to perform one of the most profound acts of faith ever recorded:

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job didn’t praise God for the death of his children or loss of his property. It recognized God’s sovereignty and praised him because he was God and worthy to be praised. Singer/Songwriter Michael Card calls this “worthship.”  He’s worshiping and praising God because God is worthy of it because of Who God is.

Looking at the full council of scripture, it’s clear there are two types of thanksgiving that are practiced. The first is thanksgiving for the clear blessings of our lives. If we would make a habit of looking at our lives and merely thanking God for the good he brings to it, then most of us would be far ahead spiritually.

There is a second type of thanksgiving that comes in times of trouble. Rather than thanking God for the trouble, it focuses on gratitude for what God is doing. The relief God is providing. The Lord’s redemptive work. How God uses trials to make us more loving, kind, patient, and Christlike people. Or it thanks God for the work God is doing in the world or even just to thank Him for being Him, for his very nature. In the Psalms, this type of thanksgiving typically follows an honest expression to God of the Psalmist’s grief. I’ll discuss this more in the next article.

I remember when my mother-in-law died in 2014. I didn’t thank God that she died.  I wasn’t thankful for the sorrow my wife’s family began enduring. Yet, I was thankful for her life and the positive things she contributed to my life and that of my wife.

I had made a commitment to do four half marathons in five weeks as part of a fundraiser for AIDS Orphans in India. I missed the final race due to my mother-in-law’s funeral out-of-state. I could still fulfill my commitment by running a race where we were staying. After obtaining leave from my wife to do so, I registered for the race. The problem was the race on Sunday morning. We wanted to go to church, so we had to find a church that offered a Saturday night service. So we attended a local evangelical church. My mother-in-law had died shortly before All Saints Day. At the end of the service, the church honored the day and the pastor invited anyone who had lost a relative in the last year to light a candle in their honor.

It was a true moment of grace and a blessing to my wife and me in the midst of this sorrow. All Saints Day is not something most evangelical churches celebrate. Without seeking it or planning it, we found an evangelical church with a Saturday night service that ministered to us in a way Andrea needed. Probably no other church Andrea would go to would offer this service. In that, I saw God’s loving guidance, care, and provision in the midst of our sorrow and grief. For that, I give thanks.

To be concluded in part two.


Peace & Planning God’s Way

photo credit: robdonnelly Evening at Milarrochy bay via photopin (license)

Planning gets a bad wrap in some corners of Christendom, with some inferring it’s ungodly and antithetical to having the peace of God and following the Way.

This can be true, if our plans are fleshy, rigid rules. Our plans do need to be of God, faith-filled, spirit-filled, prayed-over, etc. But God is not a God of chaos but a God of order. The Bible contains many plans and scheduled events, such as the Jewish feast days that are optional for us to keep. Now, God may lead us down roads that don’t make logical sense from our vantage point, and I have NEVER known the Lord to lay out the entire plan all at once, but he totally will give us nice, orderly, planned-by-him steps to take if we commit our planning to him.

That said, plans are best made to be revised and adjusted as needed. However, Christians in my experience, are too passive, too sleepy, just sitting around waiting for God to instantly hand us what he’s promised–and I was the most guilty of all on that. God’s teaching me that we are to stand up by faith and move out by faith to claim what God has promised us by faith and with a prayed-over, spirit-led plan of action of how to carry out what God has called us to.

It’s when we make plans apart from God, in the flesh, and act in the flesh–rather than by faith, and in spirit and in truth–and when we put *fleshy* plans before God that there’s often trouble. That, plus, the fact of life is, plans change, sometimes suddenly. Learning to accept that everything is tentative with “Lord willing” attached and roll with it is as important to having peace as having a vision for moving forward through life’s storms toward obtaining what God has for us.

photo credit: God’s Motivations v17 via photopin (license)


Flashback Friday: “Warning!” Poem (Hi My name is Prejudice)

Here is my obligatory denunciation of racism, and all other forms of prejudice for that matter, left as I first wrote it at sixteen. Note as a teenager I was warning us all to beware of our own prejudices first and foremost. Change begins with ourselves.

Warning!

Hi! My name is prejudice
You better beware of me.
Because I come in every shape
And any size, you see.
You can never be exactly sure
Who I am or where I’ll be.
Red, black, white, or polka dots
It matters not to me.
As long as I’m causing irrational fear
And panic, I’m as happy as can be.
So go ahead and play your games,
All you want with me.
I don’t care, but you best beware.
Because my name is prejudice, you see
And I can be anyone and everyone
No one is safe from me.
Lock your doors & windows, if you dare.
You can’t escape from me.
I’ll find you, all the same
And you’ll never even know it was me.
What I do you want to know?
Fine, but you didn’t here it from me.
I am the king of irrational fear and panic.
I feed off of ignorance and low self esteem.
I fill your head with false truths.
And your heart with fear, you see.
I’ll take away your very soul.
Leaving a lifeless mongrel to replace.
Away I’ll fling your true friends
And leave only the other victims of me.
I’ll turn you into your worst fear.
Just another clone of me.
Hi! My name is Prejudice
And you better beware of me.