Must Christians Doubt?

self-doubt

I have some doubts in life. I doubt I will ever be wealthy, because of the career path I have chosen (indeed I would prefer to not be). I doubt I will ever win the Iron Man Triathlon, though I would love to race in it someday. I doubt I will ever travel to space, though my imagination resides there 85% of the time.

There are also some things in life about which I have assurance. I am sure that I love my family deeply. I am sure that I will one day die. I am sure that any difficulty I am currently experiencing with eventually pass. And I am sure that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord, that he died for me, and that I am a child of God.

But my assurance of that last sentence was not always so.

This morning on the radio I heard a song that talks about how God comforts us when we doubt. As I began thinking about the words, I realized that a lot of our contemporary Christian music talks about doubt and grief in on way or another, and I think this is so because so many of us do wrestle with doubt. We sometimes doubt that God’s promises are true, we doubt that we are freed from sin through Christ, we doubt that our situations will ever improve, and we doubt that God really loves us, no matter that John 3:16 says.

Notice here that we are talking about professing believers in Jesus Christ, not the unsaved. For those who have not yet come to know Jesus as Lord, doubt holds much bigger sway, and with much more significant implications. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to talk about that in another post.

For now, why do you suppose that it is so hard for many Christians to believe, without some trace of doubt? Maybe it will help if we first define what doubt in the life of a Christian is, and what it is not. Let’s start with what doubt is not.

 

What doubt is not

Doubt is not sin. There will be some who tell you that to doubt is to lack faith, and to lack faith is to sin. This can not be farther from the truth. Many of the Church’s faithful have experienced moments of doubt in their lives. Sometimes this is the result of life situations, sometimes it is dues to an inquisitive mind seeking to more fully understand God’s truth and mystery. What is important to remember is that doubt does not equal lack of faith. Doubt is not itself sin, unless we allow it to persist to the extent that it becomes a barrier between us and God.

Doubt is not a sign of weakness. I know that when I have wrestled with doubt, I have tended to view this as some weakness in my character. I have wondered at times why other people don’t seem to struggle with questions of faith the way I have at times, and for a long time I assumed there was a problem with me. But doubting does not make a person weak, unless it takes control and becomes the primary way of viewing life. It is one thing to have doubts. It is another thing entirely to become a doubter, for whom all things are suspect or unreliable.

Doubt does not mean you aren’t a child of God. One of my biggest fears earlier in life coincided with one of my biggest doubts – that I was truly a child of God. For much of my early adult life I struggled with assurance of my salvation. This was due in part to factors we will discuss below of sin, broken promises, and a misplaced desire for independence. But sometimes people lack assurance for other reasons.

John Wesley, the subject of my doctoral research, early on thought that those who were “born again” received immediate assurance of their standing with God. It was something he taught as an expectation for all believers…until he learned that this isn’t always the case. When confronted with testimonies from many people who had come to faith in Christ, but who did not receive assurance until later (sometimes much later), he modified his teaching and recognized that God gives the gift of assurance in different ways.

Just because you are wrestling with doubt (of assurance or anything else), it doesn’t mean you aren’t a child of God. If you profess Jesus Christ and your Savior and Lord, believe that he died for your sins and rose again from the grave, and have confessed your sins to him, you are a heir of God and co-heir with Christ. Doubting sometimes can’t take away this glorious gift of God. If your doubts are in Jesus and his sacrifice, then you aren’t a Christian to begin with. Christians are by definition those who believe in and follow Christ.

Now that we have identified some things that doubt is not. Let’s talk about what doubt is.

 

What doubt is

Doubt is the result of broken promises. Most doubt is grounded upon past experiences of unfulfilled promises. Think about it, if everyone you ever know had always told you the truth and kept their promises to you, what basis would you have for doubting that what someone else tells you is reliable? Unfortunately, for most of us this is not our experience. We have all experienced hurt, and loss, and broken promises. All of these things contribute to our skepticism. They make us prone to doubt.

The Bible tells us that God is not only truthful, but that he is truth itself. Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life for all those who believe in him. God does not give false witness, and he does not make false promises. His word is reliable. How do we know this? When God raised Jesus from the dead he confirmed everything that Jesus said about himself.

Though we may be prone to doubt, we must learn to echo the words of the apostle Paul, who said “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Doubt arises out of the guilt of sin. Though I found this hard to admit for a long time, part of the reason I doubted my own salvation and doubted in the promises of God was because I was living in sin. I came to faith in Jesus at an early age, and for most of my youth I lived what might be called a “good” existence. I made mostly good choices, I mostly avoided evil, I went to church, I thought I loved God, and I asked for forgiveness from him when I committed sins. But I remained a baby in faith. I didn’t grow spiritually, because I didn’t spend time with God, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t pray regularly, and I feared more than loved God.

When I became a young adult, my sins increased and so did my doubts. I doubted in God’s promises, because I doubted that I could inherit them as I was. I doubted in my salvation, because I knew that I should be living differently. I was calling Jesus Lord, but that was really just lip service. I believed in Jesus, but not enough to change the way I lived.

With sin comes doubt. This is partly because all sins separate us from God, and it is difficult to trust in someone you don’t know. This is partly because we experience guilt from our sins, which causes shame and leads us to hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden.

If you are wrestling with doubt, I would encourage you to examine your life and ask God if any sin remains in you. He has promised us not only that we will have freedom from the guilt of sin, but that we can also experience freedom from the power of sin in our lives. Through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. We can choose to not sin.

Doubt is the product of a misplaced desire for independence. Another factor contributing to my doubts was my desire to be self- sufficient. We have been told a huge lie, particularly in the West. We have been told that people make their own success. We have been told that people have to learn to pick themselves up and become self-reliant to make it in this world. We have been told that the only person we can trust is ourselves.

Scripture tells us that we are to be dependent on God and rely on him for all that we have and are and do. He is the source of life as our Creator, and he both loves and sustains us. When Jesus told his disciples to not worry in Matthew 6, he did so on the basis that God knows what we need better than we do, and that he loves us. We don’t need to be independent. Independence isolates, it creates fear and doubt. Dependence, on the other hand, is inclusive, and it creates joy and peace.

Doubt is the result of misinformation. Let’s be brutally honest here. One of the greatest causes of doubt for Christians is a lack of knowledge. We are often ignorant of God’s truth. We don’t know him and we don’t understand his promises. When I wrestled with doubt I was treating God like a long-distance friendship. I went to him with my needs, and occasionally said hi, but most of the time I acted as though he wasn’t anywhere nearby.

Christians, we have to stop living this way. God has condescended to teach us his truths and to demonstrate his love through Jesus Christ. He has given us his scripture and he speaks to us in prayer. If you were in desperate need for help and there was a phone sitting net to you, would you ignore it, doubting that anyone would pick up on the other end, or would to call 911 with the expectation, the hope that someone would hear your cries for help and come running to you?

Why then do so many of us fail to spend regular time in God’s word and in prayer? He has given us these means of spending time with him and communicating with him. We have a direct line to the Living God through his Son Jesus. Why on earth would we choose to push aside such incredible gifts? And yet many of us do (notice I include myself here).

When we do not live on the word of God, we cannot know or understand his promises and truth. When we do not know him it becomes much easier to doubt him.

The truth is that many Christians experience doubt at some point in their lives. Equally important to understanding doubt is to recognize what we must not allow doubt to become.

 

What doubt should not become

Doubt should not be allowed to develop into fear. From cover to cover, scripture tells us that we are not to fear. Fear cripples us and leads us into sin. The antidote to fear is belief. So what do you do when you lack faith and are having trouble believing? Ask God to increase your faith, and he will be “faithful” to do so. Faith is a gift of God. It is not something we gain by our own work, but something that is freely given. Do you fear? Ask God for a greater measure of faith, and you will be amazed by the peace that comes with reliance upon God.

Doubt should not produce hopelessness, but rather its opposite. When doubt has become so prevalent that it becomes a default mode, it can quickly turn into hopelessness. It is nearly impossible to maintain a sense of hope when nothing around us appears trustworthy. The Bible tells us that God’s promises are true and that he has plans for us. We have been promised that those who trust in Jesus will have eternal life with God and that we will experience the resurrection. These are the content of Christian hope. But how can one hope in something when doubt reigns?

Doubt should not become persistent. As I have said several times before, it is common for Christians to experience doubt at some point in life. However, we must not allow those moments of doubt to persist. When doubting persists, it produces fear and hopelessness, and ultimately leads to sin. And sin separates us from God.

 

So, must Christians doubt?

I have heard some people say that, until a person has wrestled with his/her faith, it isn’t a vibrant faith. I completely disagree with this. I have known those to whom God has given a lively, vibrant faith, and yet have not wrestled with doubt the way that I have. I think some personalities are more prone to doubt, but I also think that some people accept God’s gift of faith as just that, a gift that doesn’t need to be dissected or pulled apart and reassembled in order to be enjoyed.

This is the essence of a childlike faith. It is by no means an immature faith, but a true faith that rests in the promises of God, seeing them as what they are.

I did not possess this type of faith at first. For many years, I wrestled with doubt. I didn’t doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, or that he truly died on a cross as an atonement for sin, or that he was raised again from the grave. I didn’t doubt that God has promised eternal life for those who place their trust in him through Jesus. What I did doubt was that he could ever forgive someone as awful as me. I had no doubts that he could save me, but I had doubts that he had saved me.

But just because I did doubt, it doesn’t follow that I must doubt. Nor does it follow that all Christians must doubt. The Bible is full of God’s promises to humanity. Because he is trustworthy, I know his promises are true, and my hope rests in those promises. But here is the rub. No one can prove to you that God is reliable but God himself. He has shown his trustworthiness in that he raised Jesus from the dead. He has demonstrated his faithfulness throughout history, and we can read about this in his word. But until a person experiences God’s faithfulness personally, all of this other evidence is anecdotal.

So far, I have been talking to Christians, those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But I want to take a brief moment to talk to everyone else. If you have not yet experienced God’s faithfulness for yourself. If you have doubts about all of this Christianity stuff. If you just don’t feel like you have the strength to believe, there is hope for you too.

The Bible tells us in 1 John, chapter 1 that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Do you hear that? It doesn’t say that when we confess our sins, God looks down on us and condemns us. It says that he forgives us AND purifies us from all unrighteousness. He makes us clean, and new. He fulfills his promises IN US.

If you want to experience a new life, free from a myriad of doubts, then turn to Jesus Christ. Place your trust in him, in his death on a cross for your sins and his resurrection from the dead, confess your sins to God, and ask him to make you new. He will be faithful to do so as a free gift of grace.

 

What to do as a Christian when you doubt

So what about those Christians who are experiencing doubt? Fortunately for us, the Bible is loaded with people who doubted. First and foremost were Jesus’ disciples (not just Thomas), who doubted that Jesus’ way of ushering in God’s kingdom was the right way, and who doubted in Jesus after his death, and before they saw him resurrected. Fortunately, the road that leads from doubt to assurance is well-worn and straight as an arrow.

Repent of your sins. If you are wrestling with doubt, first examine yourself and ask God if there is any sin that remains in you which might be contributing to your guilt, your shame, and your doubt. If so, confess your sins to God and he will be faithful to forgive you and wash you clean from all unrighteousness. This is the first step toward trusting in God’s promises for you.

Press into the promises of God. Then press into those promises. What I mean by this is to lean on, to rest on the promises God has made to us in this life and the next.

Remember that faith is a gift from God. Next, remember that faith (the antithesis of doubt) is a free gift from God. You cannot earn your faith. You cannot create it on your own. But if you ask God to give you faith, he will do so.

Ask God to give you assurance. And finally, ask God to give you assurance that you are his child. As a father, I know that my children need to hear that I love them regularly. As a son, I know that my security rested in knowing that my father loved and cared for me. God is our heavenly Father, and he loves his children. If you ask him to give you assurance that you belong to him, and you have repented of any sin that separates you from him, then he will lavishly bestow that gift of grace that only he can give. Right now, you can receive the greatest gift that a child can ever receive – the assurance that:

“This is my Son [or daughter], whom I love; with him [her] I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

 

Don’t doubt. Only believe.

The Bride is Beautiful

It has become popular for Christians to bash the church. Especially by well-educated, well-off individuals in the West. Maybe it is because I live in the immediate context of a seminary and Christian university, maybe its because I am a research student and so many of the things that I read (even online) are written by other professionally trained theologian types, but it seems to me that I see far more criticism than praise lately. And I am beginning to question why this is so.

There can be no doubt that many of the criticisms I see have a good dose of truth to them. Especially in America, we are plagued with examples of privatized, Jesus is my boyfriend and wants to give me presents sort of Chriastian-ese. Sometimes, we have leaders who go off the deep end and create a following of people who look less like Christ and more like a cult.

Often, even in you average, small, local church we get things terribly wrong. We forget to tell people about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We forget to love other people as God first loved us. We forget to offer a huge helping of grace in place of judgment. And we too often turn inward, forgetting that we are to be the light of the world, not hiding under a basket, but shining from the hilltops.

But the trend of criticism I have seen of late would suggest a much darker picture than this. That the church is completely broken. That there are only tiny glimmers of light and hope that just occasionally peak through the darkness. That we are all getting it wrong, and that we are all (Americans anyway, so it would seem) a bunch of self-seeking, self-serving gluttons using our privilege and power to either a) create a version of Christianity that places no demands on us or b) oppress our people with endless fundamentalist mandates and suck the fun out of their lives.

I have leveled my fair share of criticism where I felt criticism was due. And let’s face it, criticism should come from within the church. We must continually look at ourselves and seek out those places that we have not yet surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But there is more to the church than brokenness and failure. When I look at the church, with all of its problems, all of its worries, all of its helplessness, all of its messed up, wonderful people, I also see its beauty.

Here are 3 reasons why we should remember and talk about the beauty of the church. There are many other reasons to consider, but with all the negative things being highlighted, maybe it would do us well to just start with these.

1. The church is the bride of Christ

A bride on her wedding day is cherished and loved. She is worthy of the groom’s dedication, because he sees no faults in her. She is beautiful in his eyes, and he honors her for her purity, her grace, and the love she returns to him. Likewise, the church is the bride of Christ. Though our sins are many, he has forgiven us and knitted us together into one body. When we approach the throne of grace in worship, we come before him as an unblemished bride, not because we are sinless, but because his blood has covered over all our sins. The church us worthy, because Jesus is worthy. The bride is beautiful, because Jesus died to make her so.

2. The church has been the single greatest agent of good in the world throughout history

Detractors, especially Atheists with a revisionist history, love to point out that Christians are responsible for such atrocities as the Crusades, and are therefore just as evil as anyone else. Anything done in the name of God that does not convey his character is tragic and evil and a false teaching. The Crusades and other terrible acts committed by the church are the results of sinful men and women living out that brokenness. They are not the work of the church, Christ’s body. And they are not the dominant activity tied to the name Christian.

In fact, throughout the history of the Christianity, the church has been the greatest agent of good throughout the world. The church and her extension ministries have been responsible for bringing to many parts of the world such things as education, hospitals, orphanages, and organizations to help those in need. Many of the modern versions of these things started as Christian initiatives.

For the last two-thousand years, the church has clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited prisoners, healed the sick, protected the weak, and loved the unloved.

If you question the positive impact the church has had in the world, go read a book on world history. I’ve read several, and they all say the same thing.

3. The church is God’s chosen vehicle for spreading the good news of salvation

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave this command to his disciples, the church.

Then Jesus came to them and said,  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This command is still being answered all over the world today. It is happening in America, Korea, and the UK, in Swaziland, in India, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across every continent and in every nation the church is faithfully preaching the good news and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians who live in places where they are persecuted for their faith are willing to (and often do) die for their membership in the church. In many parts of the world, people will walk miles, endure untold hardships, and give up everything to be called God’s church. If you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, then you too are a part of this body. Scripture tells us that when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. But do you not also see that when one lost sheep is found, we all rejoice?

God is still using his church to find lost sheep and bring them into the fold. He is ever working within and through the church to call us to himself and send us out in the name of his Son Jesus to set the captives free in him, and to bring reconciliation to a world that has rejected him.

When the church follows God where he is leading, she becomes a light shining on a hill for all to see. She is the bride of Christ. She is a picture of beauty that draws all eyes to the one who has made her beautiful. 

Remember. We are the church.

Remember. We are the bride of Christ.

Remember. Christ loves his church, and so should we.

Conquering Minor Depression Like a Boss

Image from npr.org

Image from npr.org

Please note: I understand that severe forms of depression, such as clinical depression, often require significant treatment after diagnosis. I do not intend this post to make light of such very real psychological disorders, but to highlight that many of us deal with periodic bouts of minor depression which, if left unchecked, can easily spiral into something much more debilitating. If you are struggling with depression, and don’t see a way forward, please seek help from a qualified medical professional.

As I was reading through a few of the early Psalms this morning, I was struck by something that I hadn’t considered before (though I’m sure others have). It is entirely possible that David, to whom the Psalms are (largely) attributed, struggled with periodic depression.

The Psalms are full of both communal and individual laments in which the psalmist cries out to God in despair, asking when the Lord’s justice will come to earth, begging for God’s direction and presence, and weeping in misery at the feeling that God is distant. While we often read these Psalms (rightly) as an response of God’s people to injustice in the world, we would be missing something if we don’t also note that there is very personal distress inherent in many of these Psalms.

It is no wonder that we see such things from the pen of someone like David. After all, his road to the throne of Israel is a crazy one full of ups and downs. You can read the full story in 1 Samuel, and I recommend that you do. With all that he endured, I am not at all surprised to see him wrestling with being down in the dumps on occasion. If anything, it gives me hope.

My path has been nowhere as tough as David’s, but I sometimes find myself in the dumps as well. Life is  tough. Just because we are Christians, it doesn’t mean we won’t struggle in life. In fact, Jesus and Paul both sort of guarantee that we will. In my own experience, as I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the life of a PhD student is often a very lonely one, full of doubt and hidden dangers. Coupled with the daily struggle to take care of my family, give of our time and talents to the Church, and navigate this too busy life, the burden can sometimes be overwhelming. Tack on a predisposition to introspection and self-criticism, and BOOM! I find myself, on occasion, slipping into a minor depression, a funk where everything seems a bit dimmer than it should be, and where I struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in life’s treasures.

So when I read about David’s struggles in the Bible I am encouraged. You see, God once called David a man after his own heart (Acts 13:22). If David was ‘like God’ and yet still struggled with depression, then there is hope for someone like me as well. Maybe there is something we can learn from his example. Like David, we can follow three steps that have the power to draw us up out of the dumps, and give us encouragement and hope.

3 Steps to Dealing with Minor Depression Like a Boss

1. Admit there is a problem

Just like dealing with doubt, one can never make steps toward recovery until there is an admission of a problem. Too often, when I get down I try to pretend that everything is fine. My wife will ask me if something is wrong (it is obvious that there is), but I will respond that I am fine. If I was fine, it wouldn’t be written on my face.

When David starts to get down, his response is to immediately call on the Lord for help.

I call out to the  Lord ,  and he answers me from his holy mountain. (Psalm 3:4)

He doesn’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. He doesn’t attempt to overcome it on his own. He asks for help, and he seeks that help from the only one he knows can truly help him. We would do well to follow David’s example. I find that when I am starting to get down about something and turn to God, he is quick to respond.

2. Rest in God’s grace and mercy

After crying out for help from God, David then allows himself to rest in the Lord.

I lie down and sleep;  I wake again, because the  Lord  sustains me. (Psalm 3:5)

I don’t know about you, but I can only rest when I feel totally safe, at ease with my surroundings. I can only sleep in a car if I completely trust the driver. I can only sleep in my house when I know that it is secure and all of my loved ones are soundly asleep. Likewise, we can only truly rest in God when we trust him. The wise man/woman recognizes that we live and breathe only because of God’s grace and mercy. Like the child who trusts in the power of a parent to protect and nurture them, we do well when we trust in God’s demonstrated love for us, and allow him to protect and nurture us as well.

3. Give thanks to God for hearing your needs

David wraps up Psalm 3 with the following:

From the  Lord  comes deliverance.  May your blessing be on your people. (Psalm 3:8)

Though it doesn’t take the normal form of “Thank you” David is clearly giving thanks to God for hearing his cry for help. He does this with a declaration that God (the one to whom he took his burden) is the only one who can deliver him from his troubles. He follows this by declaring a blessing from God on his people, saying essentially “may it be so”. But why in the world was David giving thanks when nothing was going his way?

Thanksgiving in the midst of suffering is a sign of spiritual maturity and the quickest route from depression to joy. Thanksgiving doesn’t ignore the reality that there is trouble, it recognizes that there is a greater reality in which God is sovereign, that he loves us, and that our hope lies not in temporal comfort, but in the blood of Jesus Christ, by which the entire world is being reconciled to God.

Thanksgiving sees the big picture of things. It shows total abandon to self, and complete dependence on God for all good things. And thanksgiving demonstrates a “sure trust and confidence” in the promises of God, and in his ability to deliver on those promises.

In short, thanksgiving is a faithful response to God in times of plenty and in times of trial. It is the essence of faith. When we are thankful, even in the midst of suffering, we turn this fallen world on its head and allow the kingdom of God to take a firmer foothold through us.

So, the next time you feel yourself getting down in the dumps, the next time you begin to have trouble seeing light in the darkness, remember David’s example. Admit there is a problem for which you need help. Ask for help from the only one who can deliver you from it. And then trust him to do so, with thanksgiving in your heart and the knowledge that God is one who delivers on his promises, and as such, is worthy of our love, devotion, and praise.

Blessings to you on the journey.

Costly Grace

Dietrich BonhoefferI was struck hard by an article I read this morning over at The American Jesus. The author, Zack, talks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap versus costly grace and the call to radical transformation for those who would be disciples of Jesus Christ.

As I read Bonhoeffer’s words, not for the first time, I was again struck by just how merciful and loving is our God, and yet how holy and awe-inspiring. I am reminded that I sometimes cheapen God’s grace through my actions or inaction. God’s grace is freely given to all, but it has been purchased at a great price ‘with the most precious blood that ever flowed through human veins’ (P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ).

Bonhoeffer:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing…

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Of Hobbits, Mangers, and the Savior of the World

mangerThere was a time when I didn’t look forward to the Christmas season, when I felt I had little to celebrate and felt the chill of the weather far more than the warmth of the holidays. It was a time of great sorrow for me, long before I met my beautiful wife and we had our amazing kids. I was not sorrowful because I was lonely, though that was true at times. I was sorrowful, because I felt like I had lost something dear to me and couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that was lost. I had become a weary wanderer, slogging through life in the aimless pursuit of something better.

The problem with Christmas was that I had no understanding of Advent. I had no expectation and, therefore, I had no hope.

I have said before on here how thankful I am that God relentlessly pursues people, that he is in the business of saving lives. If not for his great mercy and grace I would still be slogging through life. That thing, that person, that I was looking for was Jesus. I had known him intimately as a youth and then somewhere along the way I had allowed the pressures of life to get a grip on me, distracting and dragging me away to world of hopeless oblivion and loss of memory (http://bible.us/112/mat.13.7.niv84). It wasn’t until I stopped running away from my pursuer that I finally began to see that he was pursuing me so that I might finally live.

I was living in the in-between, unaware that a hero was there to rescue me, unable to hope.

I love to read epic fiction. Like so many others I have enjoyed the story of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I am eagerly awaiting the movies. What I love most about this sweeping story and other like it isn’t the larger-than-life scenes of battle and the struggle to overcome hardship. It isn’t the fantastic worlds defined and communicated to my imagination. It isn’t the love stories, amazing creatures, or mysteries that appeal to me most. I love all of these things, of course, but what pulls me into a story most is that the hero is never quite who or what I expect. It isn’t the valiant dwarves, powerful wizards, or armies of elves that win the day. It is the small, portly, unassuming hobbit who steps into the light at the critical moment and offers the only thing he really has to offer – himself.

My problem with living in the in-between was that I was looking in the wrong place for a hero. I knew there was a deep longing in my soul for something more, and intellectually I knew that I should be looking to Jesus to supply my need. I was expecting some sort of dramatic rescue from my misery, a sudden event when I would be forcefully removed from the muck and mire I had allowed my life to become. But though I knew Jesus is the Christ, I had forgotten that in God’s grand epic the hero didn’t come as a conqueror leading an army into battle. He didn’t win the war by force. He came as a baby boy born in a manger, the very Son of God enfleshed, who became a man, who suffered a willing humiliation and death on a cross for me, and who was raised again to the right hand of God the Father.

It wasn’t until God showed me that Jesus came as the most unexpected of heroes that I realized my rescue couldn’t begin with an incursion. It had to begin with an Incarnation.

By the blood of Jesus Christ I have been saved, and by his resurrection I have gained a sure trust and hope in his promises. This hope has transformed Christmas for me, from a season of dreaded slogging into a season of expectation. The season of Advent helps us to live into this expectation as we both remember the coming of our Savior and Lord in the Incarnation and look forward with anticipation to his return. It is a season of active waiting. It is a season where my soul whispers ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come…’. And I can hardly wait.

Are you ready?

God’s Mighty Hand

I have always had a tendency to see the book of Exodus as both a beautiful story of hope and faithfulness and also one full of troubling scenes that I can’t readily, or easily, reconcile with the God of love and grace I know through Jesus. I suspect that, like many people, I have read past some of the more difficult passages and dismissed them with an understanding that God was steadily revealing himself to Israel and so somehow his mercy and love, while present, were not yet as manifest as his justice and holiness.

This has always bothered me, though, because God is both holy and loving, both judging and merciful. It is in this perfect tension that God’s majesty has been manifest in the person of Jesus Christ as our savior and judge.

But if this has always been true, and it must be given that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then how should we go about reading scenes from Exodus where God seems unmerciful? In particular I am referring to the early chapters of Exodus, where God calls Moses and Aaron to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Let’s take at Exodus 1 to get started.

At the beginning of the book we learn that Joseph’s family, which joined him in Egypt after he had become regent, multiplied and were prosperous. They grew into a numerous people. But for some reason God, who had acted mightily through Joseph and whom Pharaoh had come to fear, became an unknown in Egypt.

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. (Exodus 1:8 NIV84)

The implication here is that, if Pharaoh did not know Joseph he did not know the Lord either and no longer feared him. Because the new Pharaoh did not fear The Lord he forced the Israelites into slavery. This went on for many years and Exodus recounts the story of Moses’ birth, exile, and calling in the midst of this slavery. Exodus 5 catches up with Moses and Aaron as they confront Pharaoh for the first time and seek to have him free Israel. This is the message God gave Moses and Pharaoh’s response.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’ ”

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1, 2 NIV84)

It is clear here that Pharaoh still does not know or fear God and is unwilling to waiver in his cruel enslavement of Israel. In fact, he takes this request as a personal affront and increases his harsh treatment of the Hebrew slaves.

It is at this point that God unveils his plan for what is to come next, and this is the part that has always troubled me a bit.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. (Exodus 7:1-4 NIV84)

At first glance this passage reads for me as a judgment on Egypt as a result of their enslaving Israel. But while they may have deserved this judgment, I have be left wondering where in all of this God’s mercy can be found. And then today I re-read verse 5 and God’s love and grace became so evident to me I’m not sure how I ever missed it before.

And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.” (Exodus 7:5 NIV84)

In the very act of judging Egypt for their transgressions against God and his people, God was also extending them mercy by revealing himself to the Egyptians as he is revealing himself to Israel. He was giving a people who once knew and feared him an opportunity to do so again.

God’s greatest acts of love and grace come to us when he reveals himself as he has done through Jesus Christ. While he is a holy God who seeks justice, he also loves mercy. And while his judgment comes swiftly to those who turn away from him, we know that this judgment is always just, because it is enacted in the midst of his grace.

Confession

The season of Lent provides those of us in the Church a great opportunity to reflect, not only on the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also on our sinfulness that necessitated such a sacrifice. It is a time for self-reflection, a time for drawing closer to God through the practices of fasting, prayer, and acts of mercy. It is difficult to talk about things like sorrow, sin, repentance, and the like, but there is more to the Lenten season than guilt; there is also an opportunity to receive the peace of Christ.

Confession

1 John 1:9 tells us that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ (NIV) This is a promise of God to his children, and one that we should cling to tightly. But what exactly does it mean to confess our sins? Does it simply mean to tell someone about the things we feel guilt for? Is it the act of visiting a pastor or parish priest and telling them about the last time you sinned? Or is it something more?

I am indebted to my pastor for pointing out in his sermon yesterday that the Greek word ὁμολογῶμεν (homologōmen), which is used in the verse above to convey the idea of confession more literally means ‘we should agree in [our] word(s)’. So, when we confess our sins, what we are doing is not rattling off a list of things that we think we should be sorry for, rather we are agreeing with the word of God what are our sins.  Instead of making a list of things we think we should bring before God in repentance, we should be asking God to show us where any wickedness remains in us.

Psalm 139:23-24 says ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’

This is a call for God to search out the sin that remains in us and bring us to agree with him (confess) that we are indeed guilty of these transgressions. Only then can we experience true freedom.

And here is the best part. As 1 John tells us, when we agree with God about our sins and repent, ‘he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.‘ He brings about our reconciliation with himself, the result of which is peace, even the peace of Christ.

I have experienced no greater joy in life than when praying to God that he will root out any remaining sin in me, and receiving the following from him: ‘You are mine! You belong to me. And I delight in you.’ This peace and confirmation comes through confession, through continually seeking the face of God, through becoming less that he might make me more.

I urge you to carve out time this Lenten season to reflect on your life and to ask God to root out any sin that remains in you, to confess (agree with him) about the things he shows you, to repent of your wickedness, and to seek the peace of Christ that comes from knowing you are a child of God and he delights in you.