Thanking God For Difficult Circumstances? Part Two

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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.

[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true”]Christianity isn’t meant to be a cruel religion demanding a plastic grin frozen on every face all the time. [/tweetthis]

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

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

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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.

[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true”]Flashback Friday: “Warning!” #Poem Hi My name is Prejudice. You’d better beware of me. #racismsucks [/tweetthis]

The Parable of the Computer

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Brothers and sisters in Christ, forgiveness is plentiful and free. Grace and mercy are equally extended from the Lord to all. All we must do to receive it is humbly acknowledge we need it. As God’s children, we all know this well. So why do we ever pridefully insist God is wrong and any number of pet sins are right actions for us?

Look at the machines we have made. What computer program would dare say to its coder, “You have coded me wrong. I will ignore your instructions and do what is right in my own eyes”? Today’s machines have no ability to disobey us even when we have erred and don’t want them to do exactly what we told them to faithfully. Aside from user error, when it does stop performing as expected, its buggy, broken, corrupted, fragmented, hacked, infected by a virus, etc. and it is in need of repair, cleansing, or to be thrown away and replaced.

Brothers and sister, don’t we know God is to humanity a “user” who never errs? Don’t we know we are corrupt and buggy? Aren’t we grateful God will never throw us out, that instead God’s in the process of repairing and cleansing us? Don’t we know God is working for our good, not our ill? In any area, are we resisting the process?

Would it be right for a bride to tell her bridegroom to change who he is, deny his character and alter his personality and what he believes and loathes to please the will of a controlling person who will not love him for who he is? This is what we’re doing to God when we act as if we’re God and hence are the experts on who we truly are, as if our creator does not have the right to decide what his creations are.

How God designed us to operate is a reflection of his very nature. When we question God’s judgment on what is sin and make ourselves the determiners of right and wrong, we’re remaking God in our images.

Be alert, brothers and sisters. The enemy attacks our mind with lies and half-truths to provoke doubt in God and pride in ourselves and to convince us an issue in our lives that is particularly difficult to overcome is a crucial, integral part of how God designed us to be.

No matter how much we struggle in the flesh, no matter how weak we are, whatever we’re battling is not any part of who we are in Christ. Phil 1:6 promises God has began debugging us and the latest that he will get around to delivering us from this battle is Heaven.

To the one who’d ask, “Isn’t it unloving (and therefore against God’s character) to say behaviors we deem integral to our identity are sin?” Beloved, this question assumes we have a right to self-determination that God must lovingly respect. We don’t, not with God at least. Demanding it is us being unloving and rebellious towards God. Look again at our machines. Many of us fear machines gaining the ability to rise up and rebel against us. At the first rational sign of such a thing coming about, wouldn’t we at once judge them and seek to either forcibly bend them back to our will or else destroy them?

God is love, though, so God is slow to wrath and patient, giving us undeserved blessings and benefits. He seeks to show us he is worthy of the trusting, obedient, faith our computers mistakenly have in us. He even sent his own son to pay the penalty for our wrongdoing and enable us to be reconciled to him and function again as he designed us to. And our creator does let us choose for ourselves whether we’re staying as-is but going in a rather hot trash can or whether God will be performing a system-wide restoration. It is a generous, strong act of love for our creator to give us that choice and the choice whether to obey or rebel, considering humanity tends to give its creations (our machines) no free choices at all.

Let’s each freely choose this day to not contend with our maker, but to confess our sin, humbly ask God’s forgiveness, be reconciled to the Lord our God and Father, and worship in spirit and in truth.

Original draft written on Nov 22, 2011

[tweetthis]The Parable of the Computer[/tweetthis]

Judging Righteous Judgment

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“If you feel someone is judging you, feel free to judge them back and punish them until your wrath has been fully satisfied.” These words do not appear anywhere in the Bible. Yet how often do we, God’s people, behave like God said that? Who among us has never responded tit for perceived tat? We may do this based on assumptions founded on past experience or based on how we felt in response to something someone said.

To begin with, the past isn’t a reliable predictor of the present and future, and the hurt we feel in response to someone’s words isn’t an innately reliable indicator of whether the person intended any judgment. Our flesh’s pain and fear responses are ways of warning us of danger, but let’s remember our flesh’s warning system is broken. Galatians 5:17 (ESV) puts it, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” So let’s practice resisting our flesh in how we respond.

Especially if we’ve been abused, there’s a risk our negative feelings reflect our own self-condemnation. If we stew, thinking how dare they judge us, we are vulnerable to the trap of transferring onto someone else our heart’s self-condemnation. When that happens, we commit the hypocritical kind of judgment that Christ forbid. What I mean by that is, we’re judging them as judging us, judging them for it, and we feel entitled to judge them because we’ve judged them as judging.

Such circular reasoning is illogical and dangerous for our soul. However, I’ve known people who quote Mathew 7:1 out of the biblical context. Sometimes I wonder if some folks consciously think Mathew 7:1-5 justifies them in going off on anyone who admits to trusting God’s judgment when the Bible says God has judged X behavior that they admit to doing to be a sin.

Why would God say “don’t judge” the way the world says “don’t judge”? God does reserve for God alone the right to judge what is right and what is wrong. However, in the dominant culture today, people “don’t judge” because people have assumed God’s right: “You judge what’s right for you, and I’ll judge what’s right for me, and we’d better leave each other alone ‘cuz it’s Mutually Assured Destruction if we don’t.” That is the world’s way, brothers and sisters, not Christ’s.

If we’re still not sure the Bible doesn’t sanction us for judging someone if you feel judged by them, such behavior also violates the law of love, turn the other cheek, forsake wrath, answer softly, forgive one another, be respectful to one another, etc, etc.

To make the irony of the world’s abuse of Mathew 7:1 complete, the Lord was not saying to ignore God’s judgment of behavior that someone admits to. 1 Cor. 5: 12 does say, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” Let’s leave unbelievers alone unless they ask, a situation arises where we feel a need to explain why we can’t join them in sin, or we feel a strong urging to warn them that we are certain is from God.

However, most of 1 Cor:5 consists of Apostle Paul rebuking a “non-judgmental, loving” church for boasting about not disciplining a brother for unrepentantly engaging in sexual sin. The citizens of the Kingdom of God don’t get to follow God when we feel like it and do things the world’s way when we don’t feel like it. We need to choose. Are we going to follow Christ or not?

Don’t get me wrong. Making that decision doesn’t mean we won’t ever be weak, loose our footing, and stumble into the ways of our flesh. It doesn’t mean we won’t have blind spots or that we will always win our battles with sin. We are saved by grace, through faith in Christ’s full atonement on the cross, not by works, not by our obedience. God wants us to obey God out of sheer gratitude, trust, and love, not out of the fear of Hell. We all fail; We all give in to sin, we all fail to see the true nature of what we’re doing and how it breaks God’s heart. Thank God for grace.

All I’m saying it is dangerous to walk in sin because we’ve flat out ignored God’s judgement. That is self-idolatry. We set ourselves up as our own god when we judge what God’s word says is wrong as right for us. That robs us of a close relationship with God, it hinders us from operating in our spiritual gifts, and it stifles our spiritual fruits. It makes us vulnerable to the enemy influencing us by phone: getting us thinking down is up and that up is down, provoking us to hate Christians who haven’t also been taken captive by the enemy, and using us against the God we love and against God’s people.

I am not writing to this to condemn anyone. The goal is to open our blind eyes so we’ll seek deliverance from bondage. While I hope I never fall as far into self-idolatry as I’ve just described, I’ve struggled to some extent with such tendencies as we all do.

When we see others in the grip of what I’ve warned us about, let’s remember we too struggle with self-idolatry and deal with us first, then we may see clearly to offer our brother help.

Lord, help us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Give us supernatural power to react to verbal abuse not in the flesh’s wrath but to respond in a loving, kind respectful tone as we explain calmly how their words hurt and why they offended. When our hearts condemn us, help us to remember the words of 1 John 3:19-24

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

[tweetthis]#Jesusneversaid “If you feel someone is judging you, feel free to judge them back.”[/tweetthis]

Give Daddy Your Fake Pearls

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If you haven’t read the modern parable the title alludes to, it’s here: What Are You Hanging Onto?

Would you ever look at a sobbing child who is being bullied at school and yell at her for crying, telling her that’s why no one likes her? Would you ever say those words to a child you love dearly and have authority over? A child who respects you and looks to you for guidance, protection, and comfort?

I was that sobbing child. The person who uttered those words never remembers saying and doing such hurtful things, but those words were uttered, for they burned deep into my heart and soul. The message drilled into me repeatedly was if you’re not happy, fake it. If you’re not perfect, fake it. You’re not likable let alone lovable unless you’re happy and have it all together. I tried my best to obey this teaching, but I wasn’t even good enough at faking it. Fake is too contrary to the nature God’s given me.

And I wonder why God saw me as a child forsaken and wrapped his invisible arms around the child I once was and comforted her and loved on her and faithfully there for her through it all. He showed me truth and he showed me mercy. It’s taken God years of showing me loving-kindness to bring me as far as I’ve come. The process has often involved letting enemy assaults bring me to the point of tears, to the point of being so overwhelmed, I can’t hold the pain in anymore and I pour it out before God, often while prostrate, on my knees, or in the fetal position.
That’s when something amazing happens. God sees me at my worst, my ugliest, my most broken and vulnerable. He doesn’t despise me. He doesn’t yell at me. He doesn’t kick me where it will hurt most when I’m already in distress. He is there, quietly listening, quietly hurting with me. Still loving me, still seeing everything good that he can make me into and do through me.

When I feel ugly, God calls me beautiful. When I feel inconsistent, God calls me faithful (to him, he doesn’t pretend I don’t struggle in the flesh.) When I feel unlovable, God calls me beloved. When I feel like a failure, God calls me forgiven. Not only that, he gently encourages me to get up and keep going. We’ll keep working on it together.

God does not play favorites with his children. What he does for me, he’ll do for you, too.

If you’ve been taught to fake it, and are better at it than me, if you ever want the real thing, you need to confess this bad habit to God and learn the right way to take our thoughts captive. The way Christians with dysfunctional backgrounds try to do that only serves to release not only bad thoughts, but negative emotions into the wilds of our subconscious. Instead, stare the tiger in the eye, admit you feel/think it, and give it over to God. Ask God to show you what hides in your heart and get it out in the open between you, where he can begin the work of healing you. Give up your fake joy and fake perfection so he can begin giving you real joy and continue the work he’s begun of truly perfecting you.

Which person do you like more? Someone who seems to always be happy and seems to always have it all together, or someone who is honest, humble, and strong enough to show their weaknesses? While humans do prefer confidence to insecurity and hopeful outlooks to negative outlooks, we prefer humble to prideful and honest to dishonest. Further, the closer we come to perfection, the more painfully aware of our imperfections we are, and fake perfect people rarely are perfect at showing God’s grace. So I suspect most of us in truth stand to be more likable by being real. If nothing else, hiding our struggles denies God glory when Christ brings us through those fires and gives us real peace and true joy.