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 titled 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.

Pollyanna, Debbie Downer, and Grace

Living as a Christian in this world is a strange thing. There is stunning beauty in this world, and there is mind-blowing tragedy and evil. There are seasons of joyful anticipation that make us want to jump out of bed in the morning, and there are seasons of deep griefs and sorrows that make us want to never leave the house. People respond to life differently, whether believers or unbelievers. From a personality standpoint, there are your classic “optimists” and “pessimists.” But what is a Christian supposed to look like in this world? Who is a better representation of the reality of the gospel in our lives: Pollyanna or Debbie Downer? Should the presence of good things make us Pollyannas? Or should the realities of horrendous evil make us Debbie Downers? And as you may suspect, I believe that the answer is neither. Let’s see what’s wrong with both approaches, and explore a biblical “third” way…

Pollyanna sees all the good and either ignores or is blind to the evil. There’s an unreality to this approach that makes it either naïve or overly simplistic. While Pollyanna may always see the bright side, she doesn’t honestly acknowledge the reality of sin and suffering. Perhaps she leads a relatively charmed life and is not exposed to the suffering of others. Perhaps it’s hard for her to face the reality of evil. Or perhaps she thinks it’s wrong or ungodly to acknowledge all that’s wrong with us and with the world. Whatever her reasoning and motivations, the Pollyanna approach is not a biblical view of reality. It is unbalanced. It precludes her from “weeping with those who weep” and being able to minister to those who are hurting. After all, we know that Jesus Himself was a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53).

On the other hand, Debbie Downer has the opposite problem. She sees all the bad and either ignores or is blind to the good. There is a distortion of perspective in this approach that reminds me of the incident in Numbers 13-14. As my professor Dr. Stuart Scott once taught me, the reason that the spies had a “bad report” about the land of Canaan is not that there weren’t difficulties to be faced. Rather, they were telling the story and not including God’s presence, His power, and His previous promises to them that they would inherit the land. Like Peter, Debbie loses sight of Jesus because all she can see is the wind of the sea storm (Matthew 14).

Enter “Grace.” Grace knows the truth and sees the world with biblical clarity. She is aware that the Fall in Genesis 3 has radically altered the DNA of the universe. Sin is everywhere, Satan is the god of this world, and our flesh is fallen. The creation was subjected to futility, it groans, and as God’s child, Grace groans as she waits eagerly for her adoption and the redemption of her body (Romans 8:18-25). Because Grace belongs to the body of Christ, she lives not one life, but a thousand, as she is joined to the joys and sorrows of every other believer. Whatever is happening in her own life circumstances, there will (and should) always be a part of her that is sad and weeping, because someone in the body of Christ is always sad and weeping, and she joins together with them (Romans 12:15). Yet Grace also knows that there is more to the story, and that reality is bigger than what her eyes can see. Grace believes that the One who would crush the serpent’s head has come, and that He is coming again once and for all. Grace knows that the ultimate Passover lamb has been sacrificed and that the debt of her sin before God has been paid in full forever. Grace knows that a new heavens and new earth is coming and that she will be a part of it. Grace rejoices with those who rejoice, and sets her mind on what is lovely (Philippians 4).

One of the strangest and most hauntingly beautiful meteorological events (in my opinion) is when it sprinkles rain while the sun is shining. It’s a paradox: normally it’s either all sunny, or all cloudy and rainy. But sunshine rain is rare and uniquely beautiful to all who behold it, much like Grace. And as we live in this way, perhaps a world of Pollyannas and Debbie Downers will stop and take notice of something other-worldly, and desire to know the Jesus of Grace, who in Himself has known both deepest sorrow and deepest joy.

Useless Pens and Unspoken Praise

I was frustrated. My pastor had just begun a teaching series on Genesis, and I was listening to the first sermon, wanting to record his words on my sermon notes sheet. However, the pen I normally keep in my purse had gone AWOL, and I had to grab an old, lesser-quality pen out of my car on my way into church. It worked ok for a while. Not great, mind you, but it was getting the job done for about 5 minutes. And then, it just stopped working. I guess the ink had mostly dried up, but I tried to extract every last bit by pressing hard, trying to make squiggles to loosen up the flow, and rotating the tip of the pen at every possible angle. It was largely an exercise in futility. Meanwhile, I’m missing wonderful things from the sermon that I wanted to write down for later reflection. My most desperate moment was when I reached into my purse and decided to start using lip liner as a pen. The color on the page was pretty, no doubt. But I quickly realized that lip liners and pens are not interchangeable.

Of course, the sovereign irony in the whole incident was how the context of my situation served as a vivid metaphor for the content of the sermon (at least, the points that the Holy Spirit caused to stand out in my mind). My pastor was talking about how humans are created in the image of God, bearing the Imago Dei, and as such, are meant to reflect His glory. That is our purpose…to praise God’s glory and to reflect God’s glory. If I’m not doing that, I’m just as broken as my pen, not serving the purpose for which I was created. Jesus Himself gave vivid pictures of this truth when He said that Christians are salt and light (Matthew 5). But if the salt loses its saltiness, or the light is put under a basket, then what’s the use? They’re no longer fulfilling the purpose for which they were made.

Thankfully, because God does not leave, abandon, or cast aside His children, I will never be cast away like my worthless pen. However, it does serve as a good reminder as to what I should really be about day to day…praising and imaging. These are things we all know in our heads, but sometimes this clear purpose becomes hazy in the midst of doing laundry, getting oil changes, going to the grocery store, or spending hours on the phone with the insurance company. Psalm 145 says, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised.” Yet so often, I let many praiseworthy moments go by. Praising God for a blue sky, a great meal, a safe journey, endurance in the faith, people who care about me, a warm bed, the chirp of a bird, a gentle breeze. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). All too often, they do a much better job of that than I do.

On two occasions in the gospels, the Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes are angered at the praise being given to Jesus. In Matthew 21:15-17, the children were crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Jesus responds to their indignation by quoting Psalm 8:2, that out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies, God has prepared praise for Himself. On another occasion in Luke 19:35-40, they are upset again when the people are praising Jesus in what is known as The Triumphal Entry. When the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke His disciples for saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”, Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

The point I’m making in bringing up these two passages is this: I wonder how many times God ends up using infants and rocks to bring praise to Himself because I don’t. It’s a sobering thought. My praise of God’s glory is weak, and my imaging of God’s glorious character is weak. Yet there is great hope, for these moments of spiritual sight make way for change and growth. Conviction of sin is always a reflection of God’s mercy to His children, paving the way for a new hope of becoming a better worshiper and image bearer by the work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Jesus Christ. And our ultimate hope is that one day, the image will be completely restored. The tarnished silver will become sparkling, the foggy mirrors will become clear. And when we see Him one day as He is, we will become like Him (1 John 3:2), perfectly bearing the image of God, as what was lost in Eden is restored by Jesus, who is making all things new (Rev 21:5).

Are You Convinced?

Lately I’ve been thinking about passages of Scripture that involve the idea of being “convinced” about something. I started thinking about this theme while pondering Romans 8:31-39. In verse 38, Paul says three incredibly powerful words: “I AM SURE.” It made me wonder where I possess or lack that kind of certainty in my own beliefs. Far too often, my faith wavers. On a good day, my faith in God’s character and promises may be strong. On a bad day, it may become woefully weak. I’m not sure what had to happen to make Paul utterly sure and convinced of the love of God in Christ Jesus no matter what, but I am sure that I’d like to be as convinced as he was.

This thread of conviction is further seen in 2 Timothy 1:12 where Paul says, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am CONVINCED that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” Later in this letter, he alludes to Timothy’s own conviction by saying, “continue in what you have learned and have FIRMLY BELIEVED (2 Timothy 3:14). So Paul had conviction, he modeled conviction, he taught and discipled conviction. We see more evidence of conviction in his life and ministry in Philippians 1:24-25, where he says, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. CONVINCED of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”

So often, our concept of “conviction” is reduced to issues like whether or not we abstain from alcohol, what type of movies we watch, or how we spend Sundays. These are all important, to be sure. Yet it seems as though biblical conviction is so much more. Something we should all be striving for and praying that the Spirit of God would work into our hearts. I want to be someone who is CONVINCED, SURE, and FIRMLY BELIEVES what God says about Himself in Scripture so that it manifests in my daily life. I want to grow in this by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

What would you like to be convinced of? What is an attribute of God, or truth in His Word, or circumstance in your life where you want God to CONVINCE you of His truth?

Most wonderful of all, we see in the book of Hebrews that God Himself desires to convince His people of truth. In Hebrews 6:17-18, we read, “So when God desired to show more CONVINCINGLY to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” So then, our desire for growing conviction is rooted in the hope that God Himself desires that we be convinced of His every truth and promise as spoken in His Word. Verse 19 goes on to speak of the surety of God’s Word as an anchor of the soul, and indeed, that’s exactly what conviction provides—a firm resolve and anchoring in the midst of trials, confusion, and discouragement.

The Apostle Paul’s life was an exceedingly difficult one, and I wonder if in many ways, the things he was convinced of gave him the fortitude, courage, and joy to press on in serving the Lord and laboring for His kingdom. And though Paul and I are different in gender, and seemingly very different in personality and temperament, his conviction is one way that I’d like to follow his call to “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

An Open Letter to Churches on Mother’s Day

Dear Churches,

Please allow me to share some observations with you before your church service on Mother’s Day. Holidays are a wonderful idea. It is good to celebrate what is lovely and right in the world, and it’s especially good to thank mothers. I’m glad to be able to celebrate my own mother, grandmother, and my friends who are mothers. But I fear that sometimes the way churches celebrate on Sunday morning is less than helpful, and can sometimes be downright hurtful. You see, in Christian circles, marriage and family are the “norm.” And I’m grateful for godly families! This is good! Yet there are many women who actually don’t fit into this box of married with children. Many women are infertile, many have lost children. And a good many women are still single well past the age they thought they’d get married, and wonder if they’ll ever have a family at all.

Romans 12:15 calls believers to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” We usually see these commands as involving different and distinct events, but an interesting dynamic takes place when one and the same event can cause two different reactions. This is poignantly described in Ezra 3:11-13. The Babylonian exile has ended, and the Jews have started to rebuild the temple. The younger generation, who had not seen the first temple, was wild with excitement and joy at the foundation of the temple being laid, and they shouted aloud for joy. But the older generation, who had seen and remembered the glory of Solomon’s temple, wept with loud voices when they saw how small and lackluster the new construction was in comparison with the former glory. Same event, two different reactions. And though the context is different, the same dynamic occurs on holidays in the body of Christ. As some rejoice, others mourn as they grieve what used to be and is no more, or perhaps grieve what may never be.

So how can we both rejoice with rejoicers and weep with weepers? How can churches seek to minister to ALL of their members on Mother’s Day? A few thoughts come to mind:

  1. Acknowledge mothers, but be thoughtful about how you acknowledge them. It may not be the most helpful idea to have all of the mothers stand up for a round of applause. Though we don’t want to take away from the opportunity to thank and bless these women, I fear how it will hurt and further alienate my dear friends who desperately long to be mothers and have been providentially hindered from doing so. Even worse (in my opinion), is the practice of giving a rose or flower to every mother on Sunday morning. It only cultivates an obvious visual gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
  1. Maintain biblical accuracy in your sermon. I have to believe that pastors are well-meaning when they say things like “a woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother,” but this is completely biblically inaccurate! A woman’s highest calling is to know and obey Jesus Christ, whether married, single, mother, or childless! Please, please, do not say such things.
  1. Acknowledge hurting mothers and non-mothers. Honestly, little things can go a long way. Just having your pastor acknowledge that some people do not experience Mother’s Day as a day of joy can accomplish so much. It helps the non-mothers feel like they belong in the body of Christ even on Mother’s Day. It helps the mothers remember that some of their sisters in Christ may be struggling. And the acknowledgement helps strengthen the non-mothers to rejoice with those who are rejoicing (as we are all called to do, despite our own personal pain and sorrows).

Again, I think it is good and right to acknowledge mothers with gratitude. We dare not miss the opportunity to thank and encourage mothers! But if rejoicing with those who rejoice leaves no room for weeping with those who weep, then we may need to reconsider what ministry to ALL of the flock could look like. So I hope and pray that this Mother’s Day your church will minister to each woman in a manner that is worthy of the gospel, with the tenderness and compassion of Christ. After all, the physical family is temporal, but the spiritual family of God is eternal!

Clean Food and our Craving for Control

It was an object lesson if ever there was one. Due to ongoing health struggles, I had recently converted to a gluten-free, no refined sugars, “whole” foods way of life. Countless hours of internet research had uncovered the dastardly dangers of processed foods, and I was doing my utmost to “purify my plate,” so to speak. My meats and produce were organic, my milk and eggs were from a local farm, and I was convinced that my culinary diligence would purify and protect me from a toxic world. And perhaps without realizing it or ever saying so, there was a fair bit of judgmentalism toward anyone who would deign to eat chicken cooked in industrial seed oils or pop pesticide-covered strawberries into their mouths. That is, until one day when I got a letter in the mail from Costco.

As I walked back from the mailbox, I opened the letter to find some dismaying news. The two pound bag of organic berries I had purchased was being recalled. For what, you might ask? Hepatitis A. Yep. The letter instructed me to cease and desist from all further consumption, throw out the bag, and visit my local Costco for a refund. I was also instructed to immediately visit my doctor to receive testing for Hepatitis. I was horrified. Here I was, working so hard to make pure choices in a toxic world, and just because a food-handling employee didn’t wash his hands after using the restroom, my pristine organic berries were tainted, and I had potentially contracted a disease.

To be completely honest, I was more than horrified…I was angry. As the Lord does with His children, this little debacle was His means of exposing my heart to His penetrating purity and light. Why was I angry? Well, I was angry because I thought I didn’t deserve to have something bad happen to my health because of my superb food and health law-keeping (my own law, of course, not God’s). In my flawed way of thinking, I had developed the idea that if I did the hard work of eating clean, then I would be shielded from the sickness and health consequences incurred by those who wash down their Twinkies and French fries with a Diet Coke. They deserved it, not me.

I was angry because I thought that safety and wellness was my due reward for my diligence. The thought that I might get ill, not because of poor choices, but ironically, precisely due to healthy choices, violated my sense of justice and revealed my control-seeking tactics. I had unwittingly made a silent agreement with God that went something like this: If I make good choices, then You need to honor those choices so that I can exert control in a scary and threatening world and shield myself from danger.

In His mercy, God was at work. He was showing me that my choices are not ultimately definitive. Yes, I must seek to make wise choices as a means of worshiping Him and loving others. Yes, I will continue to eat clean foods as much as I can. But I cannot deceive myself into thinking that my life ultimately rests in the control of my own choices, even when they are good choices. If my best efforts end up being the very means of my undoing, and that reality makes me angry as though I don’t deserve it, then my motives were not worship of God, but rather, worship of control, safety, and protection.

The good news is that God is at work in our hearts and lives. He aims to expose and uproot the harmful ways in us, enabling us to bring greater glory to Him as the Ultimate Controller of all things. Where has God exposed this craving to control in your own heart, and how will you respond to His light? After all, He can use the most mundane shopping trip at Costco to reveal His truth and grace, if only we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

The Sinister Artwork of Satan

Did you know that Satan is an artist? Make no mistake, he sits before the easel with palette and brush in hand. His subject? God Himself. No doubt you’ve seen his work, though perhaps at the time you didn’t recognize him as the artist. No doubt you’ve bought a few of his paintings, only to find out later that they were fakes.

He’s had a long time to perfect his craft. He knows what will induce people to buy his artistic renderings. He’s smart, shrewd, and sinister. And he has a very specific agenda: dishonoring God and destroying people.

God is holy, but he paints God as indifferent about sin. God forgives sinners, but he paints God as a chronically angry judge. God is good, but he paints God as cruel and uncaring. God is close to His children, but he paints God as distant. God desires our best, but he paints God as desiring our worst. God gives good gifts, but he paints God as withholding good gifts. God ordains and causes grief and pain, but he paints God as delighting in our pain and motivated by a desire to see us suffer. God is powerful, but he paints God as impotent. God is compassionate, but he paints God as harsh. God’s ways are worth obeying, but he paints God’s ways as foolish and unsatisfying.

Each of us are tempted to gravitate toward certain sketches he offers, based on our life circumstances, our innate strengths and weaknesses, and the particular sins and idolatries in our hearts. He knows what to sell and how to sell it with specificity that is alarming. And without exception, every single one of his paintings is a fake, a fraud, and a fib. As soon as he can get you to define God’s character based on your own opinions, your painful circumstances, or the opinions of the world, he’s got you where he wants you. And friends, that is where none of us want to be.

The Son of God came to destroy the works of Satan. DESTROY them! As Martin Luther wrote, “His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” And until his final doom occurs on the day of the Lord, he can be felled by the Word of God written and the Word of God incarnate. Only the Word of God has the power to reveal his paintings as the heinous caricatures of God that they truly are. More than that, we not only have God’s Words to enable us to see the true picture of God’s character, but the very face of God and person of God in human form, the God-man Jesus Christ. What is God really like? Look at Jesus. He is the exact representation of God’s nature (Hebrews 1).

Not only must we fight in our own souls not to buy his work, but we must help each other not to buy his work. Or if we have, to get it out of the house of our hearts and throw it in the dumpster. His artwork has no place in our homes, and no place in the homes of our brothers and sisters. May we not be outwitted by him nor ignorant of his designs (2 Corinthians 2:11), but rather, may the pure light of God’s Word utterly expose him and enable us to see God for who He truly is.