Thanking God For Difficult Circumstances, Part One

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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.

[tweetthis]Thanking God For Difficult Circumstances, Part One #guestpost by @idahoguy [/tweetthis]

By Faith, Noah Built

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noahsarkrecreation
An internet meme of unknown-to-me origin, if it came from a Christian, puts its foot in its mouth with this “clever” zinger of a sound byte: “Grace didn’t save Noah, …obedience did.”

At best, this is a half-truth (and a half-truth is usually dangerous.) Hebrews 10:38 tells “Now the just shall live by faith;” and HE 11:7 continues, “By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark for the saving of his household.”

And Genesis 6:8 (KJV) says “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” (Thanks to Alice Spencer for supplying me that verse.)

Walking in faith does mean obeying God, but in the context of being first saved by grace through faith. Grace saved Noah by God warning him of the flood, telling him how to build the ark, and providing what he needed. That is as important as the faithful response.

True, Noah had to cut down an entire forest and build the thing, but God made sure he had all the tools, literally brought all the animals to him and had them load themselves on the ark even. Noah wouldn’t have achieved anything apart from grace. What God did must come first or we are preaching man must save ourselves, exalting man over God.

I like to think that wasn’t the original author’s intent at all. Probably the person was fed up with lazy Christians expecting God’s grace to hand-deliver us everything we want instantly without ever asking anything of us. We are saved by grace through faith, and read the Hall of Faith (Heb 11) if you think all faith ever does is sit around and wait. There is a season for waiting by faith, yes, but there is also a season for acting by faith.

Trouble is, the slogan generation boils truths down into such short sound bites they’re no longer exactly true. Sometimes, in trying to be clever, we miss glaring logic errors or where we’ve denied the power of God’s grace. Ro:1:22 “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

As Cindy Koepp and Elysse Baumbach pointed out, when I was discussing this with my Facebook friends, we were never saved by works. We could never keep the law, we always needed grace. In fact, Christ died to save the Old Testament saints, too, and the coming messiah was foretold to God’s people well in advance.

Obedience means nothing unless it is done by faith through grace.

I like to optimistically hope the original meme’s author understood that and that a ton simply got lost in translating an entire sermon/devotional into a 5-second spiffy saying/meme. However, what the author hopefully meant needs at least 30 seconds to a full minute to be conveyed at all in a Biblical manner.

James said it best in his “Faith without works is dead.” speech in James 2:14-26 (suggest reading the whole thing.)

Quite a few Christians need reminded of that and encouraged to listen to the Lord and act in obedience to God by faith. However, let’s remember “Saved by grace” is as much a teaching of scripture as “faith without works is dead.” The mystery of the gospel is we’re called both to salvation by grace, Christ’s finished work on the cross, and an active faith that obeys God out of gratitude. God likes to involve us in miracles, like a father including his kids in a family project, but without Him we can do nothing.

[tweetthis display_mode=”box” remove_twitter_handles=”true”]”Obedience means nothing unless it is done by faith through grace.” @andreagraham By Faith Noah Built[/tweetthis]

God Wants Lovers, Not Lawyers

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manwomanbeachverseThe Pharisees confronted Jesus over divorce in Matthew 19 asking if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answered in part with a line that would become part of many marriage ceremonies, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:6) The Pharisees raised a reasonable legal point and asked, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”

Jesus responded, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  (Matthew 19:8) The certificate of divorce was a protection for the woman. American history shows how this “hardness of heart” could play out  many centuries later in the life of President Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel. She received a notice of divorce from her first husband and thought she was free to marry Jackson. Only later did she discover the divorce wasn’t final and her first husband used this to attack her as a bigamist. Jackson’s political opponents used the same attacks during the 1828 campaign, and she was driven to her death by them. A simple certificate of divorce protected the divorced wife.

Yet many had interpreted the ability to write the certificate of divorce as God’s blessing of the practice. If the Pharisees had paid attention to the prophets, they would have seen this was clearly not the case.

In Malachi 2, God announces that he’s not honoring people’s offerings because they’ve covered in his altars in tears and he explains how they did this:

…Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.  (Malachi 2:14-16)

The Old Testament law contained no specific prohibition against divorce. It contained a mechanism by which divorce could lawfully be obtained. Yet the men of Judah’s treatment of their wives had invited the ire of God.

foreversunsetUltimately, they made the same mistake we’ve all made. They assumed God was primarily concerned about our ability to follow all the technicalities of the rules. We can look at the commandments of the living God as if we were a corporate lawyer combing the latest pages of regulations from the Federal Register, seeking a loophole to keep our clients in good standing.

Yet God is concerned about our hearts. We often approach situations with impure motives. (ex: Is it technically adultery? Would God really punish me for this? Can I still do this and go to Heaven?) As long as our heart is focused on, ‘What can I get away with?’ we’ll be far from God.

God wants us to be faithful, loving, and kind. Jesus gave us the Great Commandments to Love God and love our neighbor. The goal of the Christian life and the cry of our heart should be for our hearts to be faithful, kind, and loving so that we would fulfill these commandments rather than hoping to find a loophole to get away with it.

[tweetthis]God Wants Lovers, Not Lawyers: Guest post by Adam Graham @idahoguy[/tweetthis][tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true”]”As long as our heart is focused on, ‘What can I get away with?’ we’ll be far from God.” Quote by @idahoguy [/tweetthis]

Impoverished Gospel, Part One

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By Adam Graham

Note from Andrea: This article begins a two-part series on prayer by a special guest blogger, my sweet, thoughtful husband. The second part will post next Thursday.

war roomThe Kendrick Brothers’ latest film, War Room, finished second at last weekend’s box office. The film focuses on the power of prayer. For many, that’s a problem. Some have accused the film of preaching a prosperity gospel that says all you have to do is pray in faith and your family’s problems will all go away.

I see the film as a mostly positive illustration of the power of prayer, but I also see how it could play into the hands of the false prosperity teachers. However, prosperity teachers aren’t the only sources of a warped view of prayer. This is important. Of all the areas where I’ve received poor teaching, none has done more harm than the variety of awful teaching I’ve received on prayer.

Growing up, the big thing was health. A popular sermon was, “Is it God’s Will to Heal Everybody?” The answer given was yes. The problem? As a child, I was often sick with bronchial infections. It recurred several times a year and hung on, time and time again, for weeks on. I begged God for relief and it never seemed to come.

When I was little, based on such teaching, I declared over my bronchial infections, “I am healed, and I was healed.” It was a nice, positive confession, but the illness continued to return to torture me round after round. As I grew older, I lost confidence that I would ever get better. Indeed, to this day, I have a bout once or twice a year with the same affliction that’s stalked me since my early days. I wasn’t alone in getting disillusioned from a lack of healing. I remember talking to a dear, sweet brother with chronic pain. He left a fellowship because he couldn’t live up to that standard of God healing him.

Thankfully, my never receiving a miraculous healing didn’t lead me to abandon God. I knew people who were healed, genuinely, absolutely, clearly miraculously healed, and only God could have done it. My conclusion was something was wrong with my faith and I couldn’t fix it. In the back of my mind was the idea maybe God didn’t love me as much as he loved others whose prayers seemed to be readily answered.

My confusion was infused with cynicism as I realized for some people, “I’ll pray about it,” meant, “I’m going to use prayer as an excuse to do nothing.”

At the first church I attended in Boise, I then heard a very clear message: God doesn’t want to hear about all your little selfish needs. “He doesn’t want to hear your selfish lists of requests.” This abusive church commanded us to only pray for others, and that’s what I did. Whole years passed where I would hardly mention my own needs to God.

It had been drilled into me that prayer was important and not doing it was bad for you. Prayer became the spiritual equivalent of an unpleasant medical exam: not fun but it’s got to be done.

I loved praying in groups because I did believe God would care about that prayer. Things that were prayed by groups had gotten God’s attention. He’d promised to move if two or three agreed. But me? Would my prayers ever change anything? Certainly not.

I did things for God and tried my best. Yet a lot of my effort was wasted. It’d be a mess or just unfruitful as I did my best to tilt at windmills and found the windmills winning.

Of course, I’d never publicly affirm that to be the case. I hardly admitted it to myself because it was too shameful to admit. But it’s had an effect on my life nonetheless. I worry too much and get way too stressed. I don’t have the peace I should have.
prayingman
I read scripture verses that I desperately wished would define my life but didn’t. They’d almost make me cry with longing for them to be true. Cast your cares upon him for he careth for you. (1 Peter 5:7) In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. (Philippians 4:6) That’d be nice, and I wanted it to be true, and to reign in my life, but it didn’t.

Instead, I carried far too much on myself. In the process of rejecting the tacky idea of the abundant life with perfect health now and everyone having a Cadillac and a boat, I’ve also missed out on experiencing what Christ meant by that phrase in the book of John.

However, God is working on me and one thing that ministered to me over the last couple of years is Diane Moody’s book Confessions of a Prayer Slacker (Second Edition). I got it free on Kindle, and it was the best free book I’ve ever gotten. It’s an honest book about how this author built her prayer life. She was honest about her struggles and the challenges she faced in doing it and it pushed me to making my prayer life a priority. And my Donna Fletcher Crow book Seasons of Prayer
has added some helpful organization.

Slowly but surely, I’ve drawn closer to God through prayer and the vast majority of days I’m remembering. I’m not where I should be, but I’m not where I was either. I sin a little less, fear a little less, and am moving closer to Him.

People who target a false doctrine often forget there’s more than one way to be wrong. For every churchgoer who thinks God owes them a BMW if they ask for it by faith in the name of Jesus, probably two or three wonder if there’s any point to praying at all. It’s this second group that War Room is meant to speak to.


Adam Graham is a follower of Christ and a contributor at PJ Media and Caffeinated Thoughts. He is the author of the novel, Tales of the Dim Knight (with his wife, Andrea) He has been an adult Sunday School teacher. He is also a former President of his local American Christian Fiction Writers Chapter. You can follow him on Twitter @idahoguy

[tweetthis]NEW! Two-part series on #prayer by special guest Adam Graham @idahoguy. #WarRoom[/tweetthis][tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true” remove_hidden_hashtags=”true” remove_hidden_urls=”true”]In targeting #falsedoctrine we forget there’s more than one way to be wrong. #prayer Impoverished Gospel[/tweetthis]

Balance

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child railroadIt’s tough to keep our balance. I have a weakness for losing my balance in the literal physical sense and metaphorically in life. I have a tendency to fall/slump to one side and this leads to pain on the other side, or in compensating I can over correct and ouch again.

So where do I get off priding myself on my balance?

On theology and general controversial issues,that’s where. When I don’t have anything better to do, I carefully study a matter of interest online, here both sides’ arguments, and find as many ways to tick off both as possible with my take. It usually is fairly easy to do in our deeply divided society. An us versus them mentality reigns today. If they take X stance, they are the enemy, so I will take Y stance, which is the exact opposite, because they are the enemy.

That isn’t the way Christians are supposed to decide where we stand. We’re supposed to prayerfully turn to the Bible for moral guidance through dark and troubled waters and seek out where Christ stands and seek strength from Christ to stand with Christ, regardless of where the rest of “our” group or the rest of “their” group happens to be, if God’s shown us from the Word, and we’re not making God our puppet and forcing the Word to okay our own sinful desires.

No doubt I am not nearly as good as that as I like to think. Like I said starting off, balance is a weak area that I struggle with a lot in the flesh in many areas. Most left of center would at a glance pin me down as a far right-wing conservative, a “legalistic nut job” who only wears skirts, would home school if God gave me children, who married my best friend after a one-week courtship that came after months of pretending my boyfriend was still only my best friend and finding dozens of ways to say “I love you” without actually saying “I love you” to get around a self-imposed definitely legalistic rule. Hey, we were young and still learning wisdom.

In this heavily divided “us” or “them” climate, I don’t expect to impress “them” or “us” with my efforts at fairness, listening to all sides and evaluating scientific facts for whether they’re actual science or mere propaganda, at showing I am in fact listening despite stubbornly staying standing on the Bible. I expect “them” to call me one of “us” and say everything they say about “us” about me anyway. I’m also braced for “us” to accuse me of being a traitor, etc.

Sometimes, I hope to be clearly a conservative Christian who isn’t stupid and knows how to think for myself rather than just repeat party lines. To be fair, my ears truthfully hear from all sides party lines being mindlessly repeated without really digging into a matter, including from some who pride themselves on being intellectuals or even free-thinkers. No doubt I have done that kind of thing myself in lazy moments where something was “obvious” at a glance.

Perhaps balance isn’t easy for anyone. Perhaps sometimes we’re stronger in weak areas when we know we’re weak and seek to overcome it. Perhaps some of us have medical conditions that give us difficulty balancing in some areas, but not in others, and the problem won’t just go away if we try hard enough. Perhaps we do all need sometimes to latch onto Christ’s hand and let him lead us. He may leave physical imbalances to remind us to stay close, but he’ll slowly bring us into spiritual balance.

[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true”]Seek to be balanced, not to impress either “us” or “them” but to be like Christ, the true center.[/tweetthis]