Your Heroes Don’t Impress Me

Who are your heroes, and why are they your heroes? I’m not really the type to have heroes per se, but there are people whom I admire. And over the last year or two, life circumstances have dramatically affected who qualifies as a hero in my book.

I think that most Christians are at least aware enough to recognize that the world’s heroes aren’t necessarily real hero material. They likely wouldn’t claim Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Jeff Bezos, or Oprah as their heroes (though they might certainly, and validly, admire certain characteristics or abilities that they possess, which is different from considering them a hero). But often, it seems that Christians’ heroes are just “Christian” versions of the famous people that the world fawns over. Many Christians’ heroes tend to be Christian famous people—the common denominator being that they still share a measure of the fame, success, wealth, visibility, physical attractiveness, or power that the worldly heroes do.

Of course, I’m not saying that it’s wrong for some of our heroes to be famous Christian pastors, authors, speakers, etc. But I do find it interesting that the Christian view of success in these cases isn’t too different from the world’s view of success: visibility, a “platform,” and lots of followers. People swarming them at conferences and asking for their autographs or to take a picture with them. People paid handsome honorariums to speak at this-or-that upcoming conference and enjoy all-expense-paid study cruises as featured speakers.

These kinds of heroes likely don’t have to worry about how they will afford to pay their bills next month in order to survive. They likely don’t know what it’s like to labor and receive no recognition. They probably don’t know what it’s like to not be able to publish a really great book because the Christian publishers don’t know who they are, and they don’t have a “platform” or “following.” They don’t know what it’s like to have so much that they want to give and contribute to the world, yet be homebound due to chronic illness or disability that makes leaving the house as formidable a challenge as climbing Mt. Everest, with all their gifts seeming to shrivel and die in front of their eyes without any opportunity to use them.

And again, I’m not saying that these people who have such earthly blessings and fame are thus invalid heroes, or that they are not worthy of emulation and admiration. Some of the people in this category I would consider heroes myself. Having money and power and “success” and fame doesn’t disqualify genuine people from being heroes. What I’m saying is that that’s not WHY they should be anyone’s heroes.

And I’m also saying that our definition of hero could use some broadening. I think that in heaven, our jaws will drop when we see which people God considered “heroes” in their earthly lives, and I’m going to guess that 90% of them are probably people that no one has ever heard of. In other words, blessed are the obscure on the earth, for they will be heroes in heaven. My biggest hero at the moment, whose identity I’ll protect, is a man who runs a small Facebook group for Christians with chronic illness. I don’t know him personally or where he lives. But I do know this: he deals with chronic illness, lives alone, has no spouse, has no career, and his children are grown and gone. I’m pretty sure he struggles financially (understandable given his circumstances). And I honestly don’t know how many friends he has, or how many Christians around him are actively seeking to care for him and purposefully invite and welcome him to be a part of their own physical family and lives (a major post for another time, as I continue to be shocked at how many Christians can’t seem to open their eyes outside of their nuclear families).

Yet this man writes with courage and conviction that no matter what he has lost, no matter what he’ll never have again, no matter how many Christians around him receive earthly blessings while he receives next to none, he will not curse God. He will not give up. He will keep the faith. And he encourages this small Facebook group daily with written devotions that—in my estimation—knock the socks off of whatever sermon, conference message, Gospel Coalition article, or profound Tweet that the rest of the Christian world is spending their time praising, demonizing, or childishly debating. This man is truly a hero that most will not ever even have the opportunity to emulate, even if they wanted to, because most will never suffer the loss of all the things that he has.

And someday, I just really, really hope that I get to see this man in heaven. I can’t wait to see him be seen by all for the spiritual hero that he is. I can’t wait to see him be rewarded. I can’t wait to see the extra joy that he will have when all things are restored—a joy, I wonder, that might only be possible for those who have known depths of earthly loss and suffering that most could not conceive.

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The Things I Wish Would Die Today

Today is Easter. A cloudy, dreary Easter at that. The day when death itself dies as it’s defeated by the power of life, the power of God, the only power that can overcome the curse of death—perfect righteousness that death is not allowed to touch or taint, but only tremble at.

This cosmic triumph of life over death—inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection as a prelude and precursor to the triumph that all who belong to Him will one day experience—should be the one that matters most. It is the one that matters most. But amidst the strain, despair, and brokenness of life, it doesn’t always feel like the one that matters most on a day-to-day level.

Other deaths feel more important, more in need of resurrection. The death of lifelong hope for marriage and family. The death of a once viable career. The death of aching loneliness. The death of perpetual financial worry and instability. The death of grief over all that was hoped for in life but never even existed—aborted hopes and dreams that never even had the chance to announce their arrival with a cry of life. The death of poverty, elitism, racism, socioeconomic inequity, abuse, mistreatment, neglect, bullying, abandonment, desperation, hunger, exposure, pain, sickness, infertility, bad marriages, being misunderstood, not being able to fulfill a vision or desire for good in the world.

These are the things I want to die today, and for everything good their opposite to spring to life, like brown grass turning green overnight. Like flowers pushing up through the dirt of a freshly-dug grave.

But today is not that day. And it probably won’t be tomorrow or the next day either. It could be years, centuries, millennia, before that day comes. But this day is the promise and reminder that that day will come. Christ the Lord is risen today, but until the fulfillment of all things, we carry around inside us His life in seed form. We walk amongst and live within a sphere of death, both personally and globally. The ugliness of sin and death taints and taunts us every day.

But we’re still in the middle of the story. And it is guaranteed to have a happy ending for those who belong to Him. So while Easter is the celebration of an accomplishment, the story is still very unfinished in real time. Easter is a day not of ultimate fulfillment, but rather persistent hope. Not hoping for something that might happen, but that through Christ’s resurrection, is guaranteed to happen.

So it may be cloudy and dreary today, both meteorologically and existentially. But someday, the sun will come out and shine on a perfect world, where all the things we want to be dead will be dead forever, and all the things we want to be alive will be real and true and beautiful forever.

 

 

 

I Watched My Neighbor’s House Burn Down

The piercing tones of a fire engine interrupted me at home one afternoon. Usually, the sounds are further away, but this one sounded close. Much too close. Since there’s only one entrance into the neighborhood, I knew that they were coming to assist someone close by. As I looked out the window, I saw huge billows of dark, thick smoke ascending into the sky. And that’s when I realized it—my neighbor’s house was on fire.

In that moment, it’s a strange mental process to figure out what one should do. I don’t know any of the neighbors, but I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and see what was happening. I followed the smoke, the fire engines, and the other people walking toward the scene, until I reached the house. A large gathering of onlookers stood by. We didn’t say much—we just watched.

I stood there for at least 30 minutes, not quite sure why I was standing there, but finding myself unable to walk away. The flames, which at one point seemed under control, all of a sudden burst forth with new vigor. By the time that fire engines from surrounding cities appeared to help, the blaze was burning furiously. When it was finally under control, the house was all but destroyed.

Some people stayed standing there, while others, including myself, finally began to drift away. I felt sad and sobered for the rest of the day, and I began to reflect on why I had walked across the neighborhood to watch my neighbor’s house burn down. It wasn’t morbid curiosity. I wasn’t like the teenage boys who just wanted to witness something crazy happening. And after some reflection, I finally realized why I had done that.

There’s an unsettling truth in life that most (if not all) of us will learn at some point. And that truth is this: the rest of the world doesn’t fall apart when our personal worlds fall apart. I remember the first (but certainly not the last) time I experienced this at the age of 21. The boy who said he wanted to marry me, and with whom I’d planned to spend my life, one day just changed his mind and broke things off with no warning.

I remember going to Target the next day to buy some things, still dazed and in shock. As I roamed the aisles, wanting nothing more than to crawl into the fetal position on aisle 10, I heard people around me laughing and joking. I saw people who were happy. And I was shocked to see that the world around me kept acting as though nothing was wrong, when for me, everything was wrong. I was shocked to see that the world was still turning when my world had been shaken to the core.

And that’s why I left my house that day to stand there silently while my neighbor’s house burned down—because when we don’t stop what we’re doing to acknowledge another person’s loss and tragedy, we diminish both their humanity and our own. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the family. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do anything to help. What mattered was that someone’s life was crumbling in that moment as their home burned down, and I had to stop what I was doing to acknowledge that reality. I had to stop my own world for a moment, as though to say that I see what is happening to you, I grieve for what is happening to you, and I am sorry. And so, for just a moment, my world will stop with you.

Christmas Mourning

For those of you keeping track, I haven’t written or posted in quite a while. Without going into the details of why, suffice to say that I hope 2018 will include some new writing on the blog. In the meantime, I’m pulling an article from the archives. If Christmas seems to be more sad than joyful for you this year, or if you know someone for whom that’s the case, read on or share it with others:

There isn’t a typo in the title of this article. We are all know the phrase “Christmas Morning.” But Christmas and mourning? This is not the stuff that catchy holiday songs or Hallmark channel Christmas movies are made of. Yet to one degree or another, most of us have experienced disappointment, disillusionment, discouragement, or depression on Christmas day.

It can be tempting to laden Christmas with a weight of expectations that no day can bear. And as it buckles under the weight of our expectations, in some cases dashing them to the ground, we may begin to see more clearly that perhaps we’ve been a bit intoxicated by the Christmas “spirit” and need to revive our spiritual senses.

It is natural, understandable, and even good to want an enjoyable Christmas. After all, who wouldn’t want a day of familial harmony, joy, and togetherness? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a wonderful, home-cooked (to one degree or another!) meal? Who wouldn’t want to give and receive gifts surrounded by twinkly lights and flickering fireplaces with carols playing in the background, perhaps with a few cute children thrown in for good measure? And if any of us lack imagination as to what that day “should” look like, there is no shortage of commercials and movies around the holidays to give us warm and fuzzy images of what an ideal Christmas should look like.

But what if it all falls flat? What if the family gets together and it’s nothing but frustration and disappointment? What if sickness or serious illness makes the planned Christmas celebration impossible? What if bad weather keeps you from seeing your family and causes you to spend Christmas all alone? What if someone you love is conspicuously absent through a recent break-up, divorce, or death? From the trivial to the traumatic, we can easily become disillusioned, discouraged, or depressed, when Christmas doesn’t “deliver” the type of peace on earth and goodwill toward men that we expect (and sometimes wrongly demand) from it. The perfect day we long for ends up just like the other 364…not perfect. Somehow broken. Never immune from the curse of sin.

It is these Christmas experiences that reveal our hearts, and even how we fundamentally view the celebration of Christmas and the incarnation of Jesus Christ on the ground level of real life. Many of our Christmas expectations come from a longing for a perfect day that’s a break from the brokenness of everyday life. Yet Christmas means that Jesus left the perfect days of heaven to situate Himself right in the midst of the brokenness of this earth. We long for loving and harmonious union with friends and family. Yet Christmas means that Jesus left perfect fellowship with the Father and Holy Spirit to situate Himself in the midst of people who didn’t understand Him, tried to use Him, hated Him, betrayed Him, and abandoned Him. We long to be in a beautiful, warm, and cozy home. Yet Christmas means that Jesus left His Father’s house and came to situate Himself in the feeding trough in a barn with poor parents. There were no twinkly lights in the manger.

In different ways, we all come to Christmas (as we do in all of life), with some set of expectations. They may be small or large. They may be recognized or unrecognized. They may be fulfilled or they may be shattered. And when they are shattered and we are confronted with them, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Just as we seem to be moving further away from the meaning and celebration of Christmas by our disappointing circumstances, we may actually be moving into position to press deeper than ever before into the true meaning of Christmas, if by God’s grace we choose to step in that direction.

One Simple Question to Gauge Your Love For God

I’m well aware that no single question is the definitive litmus test for a person’s love for God. However, there is one particular area that I’ve been contemplating lately, and I’ve been noticing its absence or presence in the lives and speech of other believers. It’s something that should be a huge part of our longings and our language. Yet it sometimes seems to occupy a tiny corner space, at least here in America. I can’t speak to other nations, though I’d love to hear the thoughts of readers in other countries.

Allow me to set up the question with a scenario: imagine that you are engaged to the person you say is the love of your life. You’ve finally found him or her, dated, and are preparing for marriage. There’s one catch, though. You are living in the U.S., and your intended is living in Europe. Now, imagine that both of you are completely content with this long-distance relationship. You’ve both got jobs you enjoy, a good church, friends, and a decent place to live. You say the other person is the love of your life, but both of you are completely fine living on different continents, content to maintain your relationship via text, email, phone, and Skype. Maybe someday you’ll live in the same place, but there’s no urgency, no longing, to be face-to-face in real space and time. Truth be told, there are some things you’d like to accomplish where you are before you have to move. You’re not quite ready to leave the job, the church, the friends, or the apartment. But maybe when the excitement and activity of your current life wears off, then sure, of course you’d like to eventually live with your spouse. You’re just not in any hurry. And it really doesn’t emotionally affect you too much.

Anyone with half a brain knows that there is something seriously wrong with this relationship. Any concerned friend, parent, pastor, or counselor would tell you so. I would hope they would ask you to seriously consider whether marriage to this person is a good idea, given your relative indifference about the long-distance situation, and your lack of longing and anticipation to be with that person.

Here is the purpose of the analogy: how many Christians treat their relationship with God in basically the same manner? And now we get to the diagnostic question of this post: how eagerly do you long for, and how frequently do you pray for, the return of Jesus?

If we don’t, I might suggest that we have some things in common with the dysfunctional couple of our illustrative scenario. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t love God at all. But it may suggest that there is more worldliness at play than we realize. Oftentimes we equate “worldliness” simply with blatantly ungodly devotion to the things of the world. But really, worldliness is more subtle than that. It’s simply preferring the world and temporal things on any given day more than God and the eternal state. That’s it. It’s preferring to have the temporal gifts of God for 70 or so years before Jesus’ return. It’s wanting to get a nice earthly life first, and then being ok with Jesus’ return. Would you long for Jesus’ immediate return the night before your long-awaited wedding? The night before your big job promotion? The night before your prestigious ministry opportunity? The night before your kid’s graduation? The night before your first grandchild is born?

The Christmas season can be an interesting sociological study on a number of fronts. But one of the things that puzzles me is when people get really excited to celebrate His first coming, but have very little interest in His second coming on a day-to-day basis. They don’t long for it. They don’t feel homesick. They don’t pray every day for Jesus to return quickly to bring comfort to the afflicted, justice to the oppressed, to destroy Satan, and to set up His everlasting kingdom. So it always stands out to me when I find people who do. Like one of my former pastors, who prays every night with his family at the dinner table that Jesus would return soon. Like Joni Eareckson Tada, who lives in hope of her bodily resurrection someday, freed from her wheelchair and a crippled body. Like my current pastor, who chooses songs for us to sing about being bound for the Promised Land, and prays in our corporate gathering for Jesus to return.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the best thing we could seek to cultivate this Christmas as believers in Christ is that heart of deep and continual longing for His return. That we not be content with a long-distance relationship. That we pray to be face-to-face with Him, as we were created to be in the Garden, lost in the Fall, was reintroduced by Jesus’ first coming, and will be consummated in His second coming. Because at the end of the day, Christmas Day is Part I of the story, but we’re still waiting for Part II to arrive. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!

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Why Do We Dream? Thinking Theologically About Our Unconscious Hours

I have often wondered about dreams. Why do we dream? What do our dreams mean, if anything? And specifically, how might Christians understand dreams in a way different from the world? So today I want to share some thoughts as I’ve pondered these questions. I can’t chapter and verse my thoughts or claim absolute truth on them. I’m just thinking theologically and personally here.

I have strange dreams. It’s always been the case, for whatever reason. I dream pretty regularly, and remember a good chunk of them when I wake up. I’ll spare you the details of my Alice-in-Wonderland-like experiences, but suffice it to say, as I’ve given it a lot of consideration, I would boil down and connect my dreams to two primary theological realities.

And before we begin, let me add how I am defining “revelation.” I believe that dreams are revelatory in the sense that they can reveal, or teach us, realities about life in God’s World. However, I do NOT believe that dreams are revelatory in the sense that God is “telling” us what to do in our lives or what decisions to make through our dreams. After all, you don’t want to choose a college, a job, a marriage partner, or make any other major life decision, based on a dream that could have easily been induced by a late-night snack or whatever you were watching on Netflix before you fell asleep, and somehow attribute that to the voice of the Sovereign of the Universe.

So what are the two realities that dreams can possibly make more clear and put on display? In my experience, dreams magnify the reality of my sin, and the reality of sehnsucht.

First, I think dreams are redemptive in that they can further reveal our sinful nature. Sometimes I have dreams where I say sinful things, or do sinful deeds. Things I would (hopefully) never do in real life. I’ve woken up shocked that I could dream that. And oftentimes, I can connect it to something I have watched, or a stressful experience I’m having in real life. But the points that stick out are these: 1.) I can sin even when I’m unconscious and my body is out of commission. If anyone wants practical evidence of the soul being a distinct entity from the body, there you go. There is a functioning “inner man” always at work, even when my physical body, or “outer man,” lies dormant. The body may lie dormant in sleep, but the soul does not. It is always alive and always active. In fact, it will never die, for even when our physical bodies cease to work, our souls will immediately be either with the LORD or away from the LORD, until the day when our physical bodies and souls are reunited forever. And because of the fact that “sin never sleeps,” it means that 2.) I am in need of a Savior even when I sleep, for I can still sin when my body sleeps. Sometimes we joke around that at least we know we’re not sinning if we’re sleeping. But due to dreams, that’s actually not true. There is still that corrupt part of me that can’t be controlled when I’m unconscious, and it comes out in my dreams. I need a Savior, even when I sleep. And I believe it’s appropriate to confess to God the ungodly things that we dream, for as much as we’d like to think we’re not responsible for it, it reveals the inner corruption that remains. And perhaps dreams can remind us that we do need to be careful what our eyes and ears behold in movies and TV if they find sinful expression through our dreams. So I’m thankful for dreams, because they remind me and show with greater clarity how much I am a sinner, and how much I need the righteousness of Jesus, whether I am awake or sleeping.

Second, I think dreams reveal an entirely different aspect of life than our sinful nature. And this will be hard to write about, because the topic itself somewhat defies description, and words are poor communicators. But I would summarize it by the German word sehnsucht, which doesn’t quite have an exact English translation, but carries the idea of “yearning; wistful longing.” And again, here I tread on the borders of something so hauntingly beautiful and humanly impossible to capture that I almost hesitate to speak at all, for words are insufficient.

Every once in a while, I will have a dream that is unique. I wake up and immediately want to go back to the dream, for in it, I felt something that I do not feel in normal life. It’s often a combination of unparalled beauty, along with feeling perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, and fully alive. The dreams are hard to describe. In fact, they’re more easily described by the feelings they evoke than the actual content of the dream. Yet, I’ll try. One of the dreams is standing on the beach at night next to the ocean. In my dream, I’m supposed to be in Ventura, CA, but when I wake up, I know that Ventura does not look like that, and I’ve never felt like that there. Almost as though my real experiences in Ventura were a pale shadow of the full beauty of Dream Ventura, which brought black-and-white to brilliant color. And I stood on the shore feeling perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, childlike, and fully alive. Another dream is just a brief snippet of remembrance…something about walking around in what is supposed to be Santa Barbara in my dream, yet when I wake up, I know it wasn’t Santa Barbara. For Santa Barbara doesn’t look like that in real life, and I’ve never felt in real life the way I felt in that dream. Perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, childlike, and fully alive.

And as I try to trace that experience, that dream, back to God, I come to the concept of sehnsucht. For my dream reveals that there is a deeper beauty and homier home than anything I’ve ever experienced in this world. And when I wake up, I want to go back to where I was. There is a yearning, a wistful longing, to feel the way I felt in that dream. And that, I believe, is a glimpse of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. For a moment in my sleep, the corruption of the world and my own heart slide away, and I feel and experience something entirely other-worldly. Like going home to a home I never knew I was estranged from. Like finally feeling the way we were originally created to feel, yet lost in the Fall. Like becoming fully myself, when I didn’t realize how fragmented and partial I was. When I wake up and try to grasp for it, it eludes me like a wisp of smoke vanishing into air. My fist grabs for it and it evaporates. I’m left with fuzzy and vague shadows of what it was. It’s the itch you can never quite scratch. But even though you can’t reach it, you know it’s real, and that someday you will experience it again. And as overwhelming as it seems, you will experience it forever if you are redeemed by Christ. I say it’s overwhelming because I honestly can’t imagine what it will be like to feel that completely safe and happy and awed and whole and real and alive all the time. It would be a system overload. My current body and mind couldn’t handle it. And perhaps that’s why we’ll need glorified bodies…not only ones that are free from sin ourselves, but ones that have the capacity to experience God’s glory and overwhelming beauty and unmitigated ecstasy without melting or exploding on the spot.

So in the end, everything goes back to God, even our dreams. And in the end, dreams (at least for me), highlight the two biggest realities of life in God’s world. First, the deep and pervasive horrors of sin (the Fall), and second, the hauntingly beautiful yet currently elusive unspeakable beauties of full holiness, God’s presence, absolutely restored humanity and earth (Redemption). And I, for one, can’t wait to go to my true and real home, become my true and real self, and be with my true and real God.

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The Comparison Game: The Game You Can Never Win

What if I told you about a game that everybody plays, yet nobody ever wins? Would you want to play it? The fact is, you probably already do, or at the very least, are tempted to play it. “What game,” you might ask, “is it?” And my answer would be: The Comparison Game.

In our sinful nature, we are hard-wired to compare anything and everything in our lives to the lives of those around us, whether near or far, believer or unbeliever, friend or foe. Not only is the game broad in its potential participants, but it’s equally as broad in content. We can pretty much compare anything: spouse, lack of a spouse, job/career, lack of a job/career, children, lack of children, financial situation, opportunities, family, ministry, physical appearance, where we live, what we live in, mode of transportation, physical health, friendships, church, mental ability, physical ability, and that’s just a start. The list could literally almost never end.

Because it’s woven into fallen human nature, it’s woven into God’s Word again and again. In fact, God knew that it would be so prevalent among us that He instituted a law against it in the 10 Commandments. It’s a pretty big deal when the ONLY commandment of the 10 that deals directly with a heart issue (rather than the outward expression of a heart issue) focuses squarely on the issue of covetousness, whether it’s coveting someone’s spouse, house, or ANYTHING that belongs to him. Put comparison and sinful flesh together, and more often than not, they’ll birth the baby of covetousness.

The most “famous” example of this in the Old Testament, of course, is our friend Asaph in Psalm 73. I love this guy’s absolute honesty, and I wish more people were like that. Not the sinfulness part of course, but the honesty about it before God and man. In his case, he envied the wicked (ie: unbelievers), when he compared their lot to the lot of the righteous (ie: believers).

I appreciate what Asaph is saying, but for me, that’s never really been where comparison and covetousness gets me. I don’t look at rap stars, the Kardashians, or famous actresses, and envy them (for the most part), mostly because their lives seem so hollow and twisted, and their fate (unless they repent) is tragic. But my version of covetousness is probably even worse than Asaph’s, because I tend to do it with other believers.

For some reason, it seems like suffering as believers would be easier if we were all in it together on the same level. But quite frankly, that’s not how God has arranged it, for reasons I will never understand until glory (where He’ll either explain it, or I won’t even care anymore since it simply won’t matter). The fact of the matter is, while all believers suffer on one level or another, some suffer much less than others, and some suffer incredibly more. Some believers will have a monthly paycheck that allows them to live comfortably and not in constant anxiety for how they’ll make it through, others live hand-to-mouth in poverty. Some believers have sweet marriages; some believers have horrible ones, or perhaps the deep (and often invisible) pain of wanting one, and never having one. Some believers are healthy as a horse; other believers are sick as a dog. Some believers go on vacations; others can only find respite and escape in their dreams. I don’t understand this. It deeply disturbs me. I want it to be “fair” and for everyone to be the same.

Think about a scenario with me: we’re in Acts 1, and Judas has hung himself. Peter announces to the 120 believers that they need a replacement. The two men on the ballot: Barsabbas (Justus) and Matthias. They prayed and cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. Perhaps you’ve never wondered this, but here’s what I wonder: how did Barsabbas feel in that moment? Maybe it didn’t bother him at all. Or maybe he felt a little ashamed or embarrassed, in the presence of 120 people, having not been the one chosen. Maybe, just maybe, he went home that night and prayed, asking the Lord, “Is there something wrong with me, that I wasn’t the one chosen? What does Matthias have that I don’t have? Did I do something wrong?” I don’t know.

Consider another scenario a bit later in Acts 12: Herod is on the rampage against believers, and James and Peter are the objects of his wrath. However, things go down very differently for each of them. James (the brother of John) was killed; Peter was imprisoned and miraculously rescued by an angel of the Lord. Not a very “fair” outcome for two of the Lord’s apostles, eh? I try to imagine what I would feel like if I were James’ wife or child, mourning his death, while Peter’s family and the believers were rejoicing at his “miracle” deliverance. Again, I don’t know if anyone actually felt this way, but sometimes we forget that these were real people, with real feelings, and real griefs.

I hate the comparison game because it produces anger, envy, jealousy, depression, and a sense of isolation from other believers. None of those things are good. Yet my flesh is powerful, and only God’s grace can pierce through all that junk. And it really is pathetic, because I’m evaluating according to what I can see (which is very little), rather than what I can’t see (which is the entire picture, which ONLY God can see).

Yet I’ve saved the biggest biblical example for last: the interaction between Jesus, John, and Peter in John 21. When Jesus tells Peter he is going to die a martyr’s death, he immediately turns to John and asks, “Lord, what about this man?” In other words, Peter wants to know whether John will have the same fate as he will. Comparison 101. And the response is, I must say, CLASSIC Jesus, when He replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

So I don’t intent to wrap up this post with tidy answers or platitudes. It’s too deep, too real, and perhaps, too raw for me to do so. But at the end of the day, the focus lands squarely on the only place it rightly can: on Jesus Himself. Stop looking around and follow Me. Stop comparing what I’m doing in others’ lives to yours. You simply lack the sovereign intelligence to evaluate it. It’s not easy, and it may be a daily discipline with failures and restarts. But all we can do is choose to look at Him, look at Him, and look at Him again, and simply follow Him. As much as I’d love to change roles with some of my fellow actors in the drama of redemption, I can’t. I’d be a fool to try. I have to follow Him, and trust that the Screenwriter, Producer, and Director knows what He’s doing far more than I do, whether in my own life, the lives of friends I love, or the lives of distant sufferers I only read about or hear about on the news. I can’t see how any of it is good with my eyes, so I must believe it by faith, until faith becomes sight, God is justified, and I repent in dust and ashes.

Married to Jesus: What Did You Expect?

At the altar of conversion, there was peace, joy, and happiness at the forgiveness of sins and being united to Jesus through faith. It was for better, for richer, and in health. Yet 14 years into the marriage, things changed. A lot. Devastating loss, shattered hopes and dreams, and almost no change or improvement over time. Jesus didn’t change, but life sure did. Way back in my head, I knew He hadn’t promised a bed of roses. I knew the gospel talked about taking up a cross, and Scripture says that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer. But maybe I thought, “That was in biblical times, not now.” Maybe I thought, “That only happens to people in other countries and other time periods. Not me, not now, not in America.” After all, I’m supposed to have Jesus, a godly husband, a decent income, a nice little place to live, and a good church. Right? I mean, nobody’s life is perfect, so some trials can be sprinkled in there, too. But not too much, and not for too long. After all, that’s the Christian-American dream, others sure seem to have it, and the Declaration of Independence seems to tell me that I deserve it.

But that’s not what’s happened.

And I’m confronted with reality. A reality that the Christian bookstore isn’t likely to proclaim or even acknowledge. After all, I don’t exactly see Christian coffee mugs plastered with “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” Psalm 44:22. No, that wouldn’t sell.

In the best sermon I’ve ever heard on John the Baptist, Pastor Anthony Kidd discusses the pain of unmet expectations. http://www2.masters.edu/pulpit/files/2010/Fall-’10/20100913-AnthonyKidd-mp3 Consider John: a divine birth, staggering promises, and a fruitful ministry. Yet he ends up rotting in prison. In his moment of confrontation with reality and shattered expectations, he asks, “Are You the Messiah, or shall we look for another?” despite what he had witnessed at Jesus’ baptism. And then the greatest man born of woman gets his head cut off in a debacle with a lustful, intoxicated king, his vengeful and bitter wife, and her seductive daughter. And so John the Baptist’s headless body is buried.

And just as Paul Tripp wrote a book about human marriage entitled, “What Did You Expect?”, it’s fair to ask ourselves the question in our union with Christ, “What Did You Expect?”

We focus a lot on the cross of Christ, and how He did something there that we could not have done. And rightly so. Yet sometimes I think that we want Jesus to be the only one in the relationship bearing the cross while we coast behind on the coattails of His victory in comfort and ease.

I find myself staring my Husband in the face and confessing, “This is not what I expected.” I did not expect worse, poorer, and in sickness. I did not expect crushing pressure, overwhelming emotional pain, and at times, feeling like the walls of my world are closing in on me. I didn’t expect to feel like my life ran off the tracks and into a ditch. I didn’t expect that I would actually have to fix my hope completely on the grace that will be brought to me at the day of Jesus Christ, because there is no place in the world for my hopes to land. Just as Noah’s dove, it flew over a watery world with no place to land, and had to return to the ark.

And I need to learn that in the end, this world is a watery graveyard of unmet expectations, and I can never truly land. Jesus is the ultimate ark, saving me from the flood of God’s righteous wrath, and if I don’t fly back to Him, where else can I truly go? I know deep down in my heart, just like John did, that we should not look for Another, we cannot look for Another.

Yet in the midst of it, there is a treasure beyond compare, a truth so unbelievable. Jesus never leaves His wife. Ever. No matter what. Yes, life may be crushing, but the truth is that I am a sinner. I violate God and dishonor Him and wound Him every single day in my sin. I ask for forgiveness, and I do the same things again. And I’m probably blind to much sin that I never even seek forgiveness for. And that is where the steadfast love of God comes in, far exceeding any Disney fairy tale, far exceeding any human love, much of which is not true love anyways. He doesn’t store up my sins and use them against me. He doesn’t cast me off when the relationship doesn’t seem worth it to Him anymore, or too hard, or too inconvenient. He gives, and gives, and then gives some more. He will never, ever, ever leave me. He will never change His mind. I am absolutely secure in His absolutely unchanging love. Nothing in this world is ultimately secure and unchanging…possessions, positions, or people. And because He does not change, I am not consumed (Malachi 3:6). And because His love is steadfast, He never cuts me off (Lamentations 3:22).

So is marriage to Jesus what I expected? No, not in the temporal sense of circumstances and trials I didn’t think I’d have to experience. But it’s also not what I expected in another sense: it’s the most solid, secure, stable, true, pure, genuine, committed, loving, giving, sacrificing, forgiving, gentle, truthful, wonderful relationship I will ever know. And when you know that the very best thing you could ever have is the one thing that will always be there and never taken away, you realize that in fact, marriage to Jesus is the most wonderful thing that ever has, or ever will, happen to you. And in the end, it truly will be happily ever after.

Your Heart will be Hacked: Why God’s List is More Devastating than Ashley Madison’s

Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware of the recent Ashley Madison hack, which resulted in scores of people being exposed for pursuing adulterous activities. You’re also probably aware that some well-known individuals professing commitment to Christ have been found on the list. While much could be said (and has been said) on the issue, I’d like to take a different angle as we consider what God may be doing in the midst of it.

Matthew 10:26 says that “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” In a similar vein, Luke 8:17 says, “for nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

My heart hurts for the countless wives, husbands, children, and others whose lives are being devastated by learning of adultery. Just one sin, but innumerable wounds and implications, like a rock thrown into water whose ripple effects go on for miles.

Yet at the same time, I’ve been thinking about how the hack has had tremendous implications, while centering on just one area of sin. If so much humiliation, shame, pain, destruction, and despair can result from one sin being uncovered, that serves as just a tiny preview of the judgment that every single person will someday face before God. Revelation 20:12-15 tells us, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done…and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done…and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

It is staggering to think that just as Google keeps eerily comprehensive data on us, God is doing so infinitely more. Every thought. Every word. Every action. Every attitude. Every day. All day. Many years ago, I remember trying to teach my 7th grade Bible class about the enormity of sin. I told them to consider if they just sinned ONCE a day for their entire lives. Now, one sin a day is a GROSS understatement, but following that line of thought, a person would rack up 365 violations against God every year. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the person lived until they were 70. This would mean upon their death, they would face God as He pulls out a list of 25,550 sins, one by one, for which they must give account, for which they are responsible, and which must be paid. Staggering.

So as I search for God’s mercy and kindness on display toward mankind in the Ashley Madison hack, here’s what I see. For the unbeliever, I see the kindness of God meant to lead them to repentance. A window of opportunity through which to see that nothing is hidden that will not come to light, that judgment is real and inevitable, and that outside of Christ, it is a terrifying and damning situation they face. May many flee to Christ before their heart is completely hacked on the final day.

For the believer, I see a few truths on display. First, rather than pointing the finger at others, may we turn it around on ourselves. May we consider the areas of OUR lives that if hacked and put on display in the public arena, would bring dishonor to the name of Jesus. May we with new vigor seek to kill the sin within, remembering that true religion is to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). And second, may our hearts ignite with fresh gratitude and awe at the absolute grace of God to save us from the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the sins that we commit against Him, because Jesus Christ the righteous was found innocent and blameless. Completely above reproach. No skeletons in his closet. No deceit or uncleanness to be hacked. If every corner of Jesus’ house and every corner of Jesus’ heart was intensely scrutinized by the piercing purity of God (and it was), the search would uncover nothing but perfect obedience and submission to the Father, and perfect love for his fellow man. And because of His great love, Jesus took the shame and punishment for our hack-worthy hearts and lives, while at the same time imparting his perfect record and unhackable heart to us. One can only echo the words of the apostle Paul, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

God is Not a Gentleman

There’s a strange sentiment I’ve heard repeated many times that goes something like this: “God is a gentleman. He won’t force His way into your life, but just waits patiently for you to come to Him.” It sounds nice at face value. After all, being a gentleman is a good thing. It conveys a certain refinement, thoughtfulness, well-roundedness, skill at interpersonal relationships, and to state the obvious, someone who is “gentle” and not brash, harsh, rough, insensitive, or crass. And certainly, God IS gentle. His gentleness makes us great (Psalm 18:35), and Jesus is gentle and humble in heart to those who are crushed by the burden of trying to earn salvation or crushed by the difficulties of life in a fallen world (Matthew 11:28-30). Praise God for His gentleness!

But when it comes to salvation, I praise God that He is NOT a gentleman…at least not like the quote would have it! If God was a gentleman in that sense, we would all be lost in our sin forever and never come to a knowledge of the truth. Yes, He is patient for His people to reach repentance, and our eternal well-being depends on that patience. Yet if God sat back and just waited for us to be smart enough to see our own sin, or intelligent enough to cure our own spiritual blindness, or strong enough to overcome our own flesh, we’d all perish with that kind of “gentleman.” The Apostle Paul is probably pretty glad that God was not a “gentleman” with him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Lot is probably pretty glad that God’s angels yanked him away from Sodom when he was lingering in his desire to stay behind (Genesis 19). The disciples are probably pretty glad that Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, maybe possibly consider following Me when you’re ready and it seems like a good idea to you, because I really want to be a gentleman to you guys” but rather commanding, “Follow Me (Mark 1:17).”

And that is one of the reasons that God is so wonderful. Perfect gentleness meets perfect sovereignty and authority. Praise God that He is gentle, and praise God that He is not always a gentleman.