All posts by John and Stephanie

Loving Jesus and making our way in this world

Dealing with Pastoral Depression; 6 simple thoughts.

I have long debated whether or not to share my personal struggles with depression or anxiety. As a pastor, I am aware that many people will cling to my testimony as a balm for their own struggles. It is common for people to latch on to another person’s struggles in an effort to find hope. Yet our struggles are our own. They are often unique to circumstance and personal character. Still, I know the hope that can be birthed in the soul when someone else shares their struggles. So, I hope this short-expression might bring you a modicum of hope, and more than that, I pray it will drive you to seek hard after Christ.

Last week was a difficult week for me. The weight of depression landed heavily on me. The stress of counseling, sharing the burdens of others, and isolation due to a pandemic, coincided with painful memories and feelings of personal failure. Add to that the recent rash of Christian pastors succumbing to depression, and the climate was right for me to hit a wall. So, I found myself laboring in that all too familiar space of exhausted depression. You may know how this feels… It’s not uncommon, particularly in those of us who spend a large amount of time listening to others and struggling with them through their own difficulties.

Often the physical reactions to depression set in first. You find yourself staring off into the middle distance, not really thinking about anything. Then a sigh rises from your chest and you blink slowly. Your arms feel heavy. Not the good heavy – as if you just exercised. No, this is the kind of heavy that is produced from nervousness. It is a heaviness as if you are about to fight with someone or walk into a meeting in which you are uncertain of the outcome. Then come the feelings. You sit down to try and control yourself and find that all you want to do is cry. Sometimes you do, but only for a moment when no one is looking.  Other times you get a phone call (extremely common for pastors) and someone else has a need or issue that requires your attention. You push down your own feelings and get back to work.

The past months have been interesting, to say the least. We had a continent on fire for a while, a global pandemic that forced most of us to remote worship and teaching (an area in which none of us have confidence), and now… well, we are in an interesting time, are we not? Many are clamoring for justice and reform. That’s a good thing! Some are waging war. War is always bad because people die in war and life is precious. In our current climate, it is understandable that many pastors are exhausted and worn thin. Combine that with some personal difficulties, reminders of past failures, constant barrage of enemy attacks, and this is a recipe for a spiral into a depressive slump.

So, here are some things I remember and things I do when struggling with depression. Maybe what I do will encourage you.

  1. Remember God gave us the Gospel. Just reflect for a moment on this idea: The God of the Universe decided to give you the gospel of Jesus Christ! He entrusted you with it and He provided redemption for you! How awesome is that? Unworthy me!? Pitiful, selfish, arrogant me!? He sought me out and saved me from my sin, then gave me life and seated me with Him, giving me a position as a child of God. How beautiful! How wonderful! When I’m depressed, I try to remind myself of this. I open my Bible and remember the beauty of redemption! (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Ephesians 2:1-9; 2 Timothy 1)
  2. Remember God is present. For me, depression comes often with a side of loneliness. So I must work hard to remind myself that God never leaves. When I was about 15 years old, my Dad passed away suddenly. In the wake of his passing, I dealt with heavy depression. In the midst of overwhelming emotion, I was drawn to remember my dad’s favorite book of the Bible – Job. In the story, Job loses everything. In the midst of his pain (and with some horrible advice from his friends) Job cries out to God essentially asking God, “where are you!?” God responds from the whirlwind by showing Job that He has never left. He is in the cosmos and He is in minutia. He is in the joy of life and He is in the pain. So, God is with us. Jesus now, even more tangibly with us than Job! He walks through life with us, comforting and protecting us. He is present. He feels your pain and difficulty. He knows your tears because He shares them. He weeps with you and cheers with you. He is here. Trust Him! (John 1:1, 14; Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5-6; 1 Peter 5:7)
  3. Do cartwheels! I read a lot of “old dead guy books.” When you read a lot of ODG books, you begin to see that they had many of the same struggles as us. One of my favorites is Francis of Assisi. Cool guy. He struggled with depression as well and his followers often recounted him randomly doing cartwheels or just being extremely goofy. One of his brothers once recounted that he realized that Francis was trying to overcome a depressive attack. He’d run, jump, click his heels together, do cartwheels, sing silly songs, etc… whatever he could do to combat the heavy weight he felt. It seems like Paul would urge the same kind of reckless rejoicing in Philippians. Just go read it and see… he constantly urges the Philippians to rejoice. So… I do the same. I crack jokes, run around my house, sing a happy song, pillow-fight my six-year-old son, attempt cartwheels, make my kids laugh and laugh along, etc… Goofiness is not a solution, but it certainly is a nice reprieve.
  4. Turn on all the lights and clean the room. There is no Scriptural mandate for this one. Only a general sense that the Psalmist found joy in sunshine. Sometimes depression can be debilitating and the environment can do much to change that! When I feel anxious, depressed, or just heavy, I turn on all the lights, open the window shades, and clean the room where I am. Sometimes I even rearrange the furniture. This action allows me to accomplish something simple and removes the depressive weight for just a little bit. Sometimes a little bit is all we need to process. Sometimes all we need is a breath. Picking up the room and turning on the lights and opening the windows to accomplish a simple task like picking up the toys can grant you that breath. A breath may be all you need to process. So take one.
  5. Call a buddy and eat something together. God gave us community so we could walk together through trouble. I have a few brothers that I call to go out to lunch with when I am exhausted. They listen well and offer little to no advice. This is great! When I’m depressed, I don’t need advice. I need someone who will sit with me while I process it. Often they’ll just say, “that stinks, I’m sorry about that.” Then we’ll talk about superheroes, books, or movies. These dear brothers don’t give particularly profound wisdom. But in their silent commiseration, there is a wisdom that even the greatest philosopher cannot capture. Plus… who can stay depressed when eating good Tex-Mex with a brother! (Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:2; 1 Cor. 12:25-27; Romans 12:4-5; Mt. 18:20)
  6. Pray! I put this one at the end because it seems cliché and you all already know you’re supposed to do it. It should really be at the front. Alas, I did not want you to skip over it so I put it here at the end. A simple read of Scripture urges us to pray. Psalm 55:22, 1 Peter 5:7, Hebrews 4:16 all call us to take our concerns to the Lord. Oh Christian, when we are in the throes of battle, we MUST pray.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are numerous other things I do to deal with depression and anxiety. Art, poetry, and good literature are some other areas of engagement for me. Working to accomplish something with your hands is another – e.g. building something or creating artwork. What are some additional things you do to deal with the weight of ministry? put them in comments to encourage one another.

4 things to emulate from Habakkuk

When Habakkuk cries out to the Lord over injustice and violence that rages among the people of God, God answers with a mix of hope and terror. Habakkuk opens his complaint to God by asking, “Why is there so much injustice and violence?” When he cries out to God about the violence that is present in the land, God seems to be silent and does not come to save. He asks The Lord why sin and iniquity are so prevalent. Why can Habakkuk not live in ignorance of these things!? Why must HE see it? Further, he wonders why the legal system that is supposed to protect and provide for the lame and the broken is so corrupt. “Justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted” (1:4).

The similarities between the cries of Habakkuk and many of our own cries in this moment of history is remarkable. We wonder why we see so much evil in the world. We wonder why people are murdered and God seems to say nothing. We wonder at the apparent inability of our legal system to accomplish justice. We ask, “how long!?” How long until our Lord rends the sky and makes it right?

God provides a partial answer to Habakkuk in 1:5-11.

First Habakkuk is urged to look further than his own circumstances to see where the Lord is moving. Habakkuk can see the people who live around him. The Lord says, “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded” (v.5). Habakkuk is called to look further away. Strive for a perspective that is further down the road. A perspective that not only cries out to God but actually takes the time and effort to see where He is working and what He is bringing about. In essence, the call on Habakkuk is to strive to gain a greater perspective. A perspective that sees beyond the immediate circumstance and trusts in the Lord’s response.

Second, God states that He is bringing the Chaldeans (or Babylonians) to come and be His tool for justice against the wicked of Israel and Judah. In describing them God says they “come for violence” (v.9) and that “their justice and dignity (otherwise known as “law”) go forth from themselves” (v.7). In other words – To answer Habakkuk’s complaint against violence and lawlessness, the Lord is going to send violence and lawlessness upon them. Mankind reaps the reward of his own sin. Again, it is difficult not to see the parallels in our western society at this moment.

Finally, God assures Habakkuk that the punishment will be swift. “Then they sweep by like the wind and go on…” (v.11). God is well aware that the Babylonians are wicked. He is aware of the injustice that lands on the earth. Indeed, He feels injustice at a deeper level than any of His creation possibly could for a few reasons. First, He created the world and knows what it is SUPPOSED to be like. He knows exactly why it is wrong for brother to kill brother and He hears the blood of the slain cry out from the ground! Second, He is perfectly holy. There is no wrong or injustice with God. As a result, even our slight indiscretions are major offenses in the economy of God’s law. Third, it is His law that is violated! Every dismissal or corruption of the law is a rejection of Him and His character. Yet, God is merciful. The judgment will be swift and He will keep the Babylonians in check as He identifies them as “guilty men” (v.11).

Habakkuk, slightly shocked at God’s response, levels a second complaint.

Habakkuk begins with Hope. “We shall not die” (v.12). In this declaration, Habakkuk is asserting that His life is found in God, the eternal from whom Habakkuk derives his own holiness. When we face a wave of death, we must be reminded that our God is eternal and there is no death for those who rest in Him! So Habakkuk declares life because God is eternal and God is the one who establishes justice. Such peace is attainable for you as well! Trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as your savior and you will be saved from the punishment of sin.

Then Habakkuk raises his difficult question. He asks how a pure and holy God could stand to watch wickedness reign among His people unanswered. (Spoiler for those who don’t read the Bible… He doesn’t leave it unanswered.) Moreover, how could God, who is perfect, use such an unholy and imperfect tool to judge unholiness and imperfection? Why is the punishment for sin accomplished by a party of greater wickedness?

Seriously, why do the wicked prosper!? This is a question that resonates on so many levels for us. One cannot help but see our world and ask why God has not obliterated us from the planet. Why do the wicked prosper is a popular question… until we recognize that we are the same as the wicked. Romans 3 states very plainly that all mankind is wicked and NO ONE does what is right. No. One. Is. Righteous. “By the works of the law, no man will be justified” (Romans 3:20). We need something other than the law to save us. If we rely on the law, we will be in Habakkuk’s place crying out as the law is perverted and distorted until the terrifying judgment of God comes down upon us all. Yet, if we recognize our own sinfulness and cry out for mercy, we can be saved from the wrath of God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25). It is here, in this recognition of our need, that our plea becomes, “Lord forgive me. How can I help in rescuing others as You have rescued me?”

Habakkuk’s complaint ends in obedience. God calls him to broaden his view and see what God is doing in the world. So Habakkuk climbs the wall and stands sentry on the tower, awaiting the response from God. Striving to see beyond his immediate circumstance, he looks to the hills and waits on the Lord for an answer. Likewise, we must obey. If we are to call out to God over the injustice in our society, we must be willing to obey His commands. If we wish to see the answer, then we cannot overlook and forget about our minor infractions, decrying the injustice done elsewhere. Habakkuk waits for the Lord to answer, and so must we. Our eyes must see beyond our circumstances and be prepared to hear the Lord answer us.

So like Habakkuk, in this time of great wickedness, let us be reminded:

  1. To look beyond our immediate circumstances to God’s coming mercies.
  2. Of the life we have in Jesus Christ
  3. That God is sovereign over even the wicked in this life
  4. It is our commission to stand and watch for our Lord to return while we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Brief Thoughts: Galatians 3:19-22

19Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made and it was put in place through the angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

21 is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

If the Law does not supersede the covenant previously established and does not save the soul of those who are placed under it, then why does it exist? Why would God put in place a regulation that does nothing other than reveal sin? It is precisely for that reason that God put the law in place. For revelation. God put the law in place to reveal our sinfulness.

The law of God was given because sin exists. The law is merely a lens by which we are able to see and acknowledge that we have sinned against the perfect and holy God. Without the law, we would remain ignorant of our folly and persist in death, not recognizing our inabilities and inadequacies. Yet God, in His infinite mercy, gives mankind a law so that we would be aware of our transgression. In other words, the law exists to give name to sin. It is an identifier, a name tag. It proclaims aloud what is implicit in nature. The law reveals and exposes our desperate state and need for redemption.

The redemption from the law comes when Jesus, “the offspring,” comes and claims the promise mentioned in the covenant with Abraham. In essence, Paul is arguing that salvation is provided by Jesus who fulfills the original covenant with Abraham AND does so without transgression. So, when Jesus comes, the law is fulfilled and the promise of blessing and salvation are met and manifest in Him by His work. His life provides the fulfillment of the law, not the nullification. Indeed, the law is not nullified because it is merely a lens by which to see what already exists. Jesus does not nullify the lens, but lives perfectly within it (1 Peter 2:22; 2 Cor. 5:21; and Heb. 4:15). As the perfect intermediary, He then claims the promises previously established.

The beauty of grace is that it requires only God to arbitrate and mediate. There is only one intermediary. That intermediary is Jesus. When a law is established, there are always two parties. Both parties must keep the terms of the law. If one breaks the law, the contract is undone. Such is the nature of law. But Jesus comes by promise, not law. A promise only depends on one party to keep. God is one! God keeps His promises and Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.

Consider this great truth, Christian. No amount of sin or wretchedness can nullify the promise of God because the promise does not depend on you or your works. It is totally dependant on His character… What a wonderful character that is! Perfectly holy! Completely loving! Absolutely sovereign! Unshakably constant! This the God upon whom grace is dependent! He will not fail and His promises are sure! You cannot undo it, because you didn’t commission the promise. You cannot fail to achieve it because He has already achieved it for you. You cannot lose it because He has already secured it! In Jesus, we are granted grace by a perfect mediator who fulfills the law and then secures the promise! Praise God for such mercy!

Reading of such an overwhelming grace, one would expect the answer in response to be that Grace is contrary to the law. Yet Paul answers, “Certainly not!” (v. 21). The law has a different function than grace, but not incompatible. Indeed, the law exists to drive everyone to see their need for grace. The law points all mankind to their desperate need for grace and mercy in Christ. The law recorded in the Scripture imprisoned everything so that the promise of Jesus could be secured to all who would believe.

Would you believe? Would you in this moment as you read, surrender to the truth that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world and He will save you if you trust in Him and the security of His promises.

Galatians 3:15-18 pt. 1; Brief Thoughts

15To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Old Testament covenants were permanent. They were not simply laid in place until something else came along. Covenants were not easily amended and they were certainly not annulled once they had been confirmed or applied.[1] When one party made a covenant with another, the covenant was confirmed by an action. In the covenant between Johnathan and David, Johnathan confirms the covenant by giving David his armor and robe (1 Sam 18:3-4). The Elders of Hebron confirmed their covenant with David by anointing him with oil (2 Sam 5:3). When God makes His covenant with Noah, he hangs floods the earth to confirm it and then hangs His bow in the sky (Gen. 6 and Gen. 9:8-17)! Further, the nature of the covenant was secured by the character of the strongest party involve. Pause for a moment and consider the implications of God’s character on the security of the covenants He has made. There is no greater name by which a promise can be secure. The God who holds all things together has covenanted with you. The God in whom we live and move and have our being has come down from Heaven and covenanted with people. There is no greater character by which your promises are secure.

The specific covenant Paul references here in this passage is found in Genesis 12. Abram is called by God to go to a new land that God will show him. He is told that God will give his offspring that land and Abram builds an altar in worship to God for the promise (Gen 12:4-7). Three chapters later, God ratifies his covenant with Abram through one of the most beautiful symbols of all Scripture. He has Abram kill and cut in half multiple animals and then line them up with a path through the middle of the split animals. Then Abram has a vision/dream of a torch and smoking pot going through the two halves of the animals.

In the vision, God is represented by the torch and the smoking pot. Abram is watching from the side. In essence, God establishes that He alone is the keeper of the covenant. In this act, God declares if either party breaks the covenant, may He be torn in two like these animals. And so, when humanity breaks the covenant with God, Jesus is rent in two in order to pay the price of the covenant! The ratification of the covenant of Abram is fulfilled and completed in Jesus. God maintains the covenant with those who have faith by dying for us. Oh What a great God who holds us together and lays down His life for our salvation!

So this is the covenant that Paul references in Galatians 3. This is separate from the covenant of Circumcision given to the Jewish people in Genesis 17. That covenant is a covenant based on the behavior of the Jewish people. It requires adherence to the law of God. God is still gracious and offers mercy through the law, but there is no righteousness gained through law. The Law serves only to show man’s sin. The only way to be righteous is to trust in Christ, who tore Himself in two for your salvation! Repent from your sin and confess to Christ that you need Him to save you! The blessing of Abraham is secure for those who have faith in the work of Jesus Christ – The Offspring! He owns the land of salvation! So, when we trust in Christ, we become “fellow heirs” with Jesus and receive the promise of salvation and presence with God (Eph. 3:6; c.f. Romans 8:16-17).

 

[1] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Covenant. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 531). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Galatians 3:10-14; Brief thoughts

10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – 14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

There are many who earn their positions of status on earth. They labor and toil to achieve some station of prestige and notoriety. It is the common refrain of humanity to cheer when a man or woman has labored to achieve something. Forcing one’s will by discipline is admirable and garners the praise of man for certain. It is this predisposition to honor merit that makes Paul’s words in Galatians 3:10-14 so difficult to accept. Where the natural response of mankind is to look at the law and strive to be good enough to satisfy it, Paul reminds us that we will not satisfy the law. Then he further explains, if one desires to be righteous by the law, then they must answer the curse.

All mankind is cursed by sin (Rom. 3:23). Sin is pervasive and infects everyone. The curse that results from sin is expounded on in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve are cast from the garden and doomed to die. So, now, every person suffers under the curse of the law. Indeed, each individual is judged by the law and they must adhere to that law perfectly or suffer the punishment for breaking the law. What a weight to bear up under! For who can be perfect? Who can satisfy every aspect of the Law and be completely holy? Indeed, it is no wonder that those who rely on the law are under a curse. Anyone who attempts to be righteous by their own works must be perfect.

Perfection according to the law is a tricky thing. It demands perfect obedience, past, present, and future. There can be no mistake. This sounds extreme. However, God’s justice is never without mercy. Within the code of the Law, God made provision for sacrifices that could cleanse, albeit temporarily, one from sins. Even in the Law, God expresses His kindness and mercy and reveals His love for those who wish to know Him. However great the mercy and provision of God is, the Law still cannot save. The Law exists to show humanity where we have failed, and oh how great that failure! The Law can only show us where we do not measure up and, thereby, the Law condemns. While making provision for us, even the provisions display our failure and we remain under the curse of sin and death.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). The law demands perfection, so Christ satisfied that need on our behalf. He lived a perfect life, took our sin upon Himself, and suffered the wrath of judgment on our behalf. Therefore, it is those who trust in Jesus that are redeemed from the curse. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Jesus has taken the curse of the law upon Himself!

Consider for a moment the implications of such a Savior. Jesus does not merely make a temporary atonement for your sin in one moment. He does so much more! The curse of the law was the result of sin and was followed by a permanent death sentence. Sin brought a curse of separation, toil, death, and division. Jesus takes upon himself the curse of the law, becoming that curse on our behalf. This is so much more than just taking the blame for you. He actually becomes that curse and defeats the result of your sin bringing life where death reigned. This means you are no longer bound to sin. This means you are free from death. This means where hate and wickedness reigned, now you have been made anew! How tremendous is the freedom wrought in Jesus Christ! Oh, Christian, you are no longer restricted to sin and wickedness! You have been freed from death and raised to walk a new life.

Now live! Live as one who is free from sin and death! Live in grace, led by the Spirit of God. For the presence and connection of God is the blessing of Abraham! Through faith in Christ Jesus, God provides for those on the outside of the camp of Israel to receive the blessing of Abraham. The promise that God will walk with those who are His. The promise of salvation and God’s presence eternally. God fulfills this promise to the Jews and extends it to Gentiles through faith.

If you have not yet trusted in Jesus’ righteousness, I do not know for what you are waiting. He has taken your sin upon himself and you need only turn from trying to be good enough on your own and trust in His goodness. You cannot white knuckle your way into heaven. You must surrender to Him in order to find life. Trust in Him. Make Him your Lord and be rescued from the curse that weighs you down.

Living in the “Afters” of Life

It is difficult living in the “after.” Those most common moments that punctuate our lives seem to dominate our story-telling. We remember the moments and seldom revel in the “after.” Sometimes its tragedy like a death, sometimes it’s a climax like a championship, and sometimes it is a simple moment like a realization on a Tuesday over coffee. We remember the moments. We remember peaks and valleys. It is why men and women speak so openly about days gone by. There is something comforting in the nostalgia of history. A soft blanket of remembrance that allows us to push off whatever troubles we may persist in at this moment. We can be paralyzed by the weight of the past. We can revel in victories of yesteryear. Or, we can push forward and learn to live in the “after.” It is more difficult to learn to live in the after.

Some of our “afters” are filled with despair. Perhaps that is the reason many of us do not strive to live in the after of tragedy? I can remember the months that followed my own father’s passing. I was in high school and I struggled to process. Each day I’d wake with the anticipation that perhaps it was all just a bad dream. Reality would set in quickly and I’d be left again missing my dad. I’d slowly come to grips with the reality that he was gone. Living in the after meant living without the man who had taught me how to live well. It meant accepting the loss, no… it meant embracing the loss. Acceptance merely means that I understood what had happened as a real event. I needed to embrace that event. To move past simple acknowledgment. I needed to learn to live. It took some time to learn to live in the after of death. I accepted it pretty quickly, but it has taken years to learn to embrace it – to derive some semblance of definition from the tragedy. The loss of my dad needed to shape me into something more than I once was… indeed, it has. Living well in the after requires that we embrace the change that has been wrought.

Some of our “afters” come in the wake of success. We win a contest, or graduate a program, or reach a milestone of some sort. Then we stand in the after. The applause has died down, we have a sense of accomplishment, and we return to the mundane. Only now, something has changed. We have become something else, yet we remain the same as we once were. In this “after” we must learn to keep going. No greater picture of this exists than middle-aged men talking about high school sports. That championship they won back in their youth. They remember it like it was yesterday! The sad truth is, often these men have not learned to live in the after. Living in the after means embracing what has happened and then moving on to something greater. The people who live well move on from their successes. Each day presents a new opportunity to grow and learn. Living in the after means we strive to do that. We celebrate successes passed and press forward to future goals. Living in the after means we acknowledge our success, give sufficient time for celebration, then move on to other things.

There will be times when the after seems like too much. Recognizing the truth is difficult and sometimes unbearable. Still, we must learn to live well in the after and that takes legitimate emotional and psychological effort. To live in the after does not mean that you forget the past. Rather, having embraced what has occurred and moved forward, living well requires us to process what has happened and that sometimes takes a great deal more work. In order to accomplish this, we need to seek help in three ways. First, we need a confidant – someone who can listen to us. A person who can offer an ear to our meandering with the occasional comment. Second, we need a community that knows our past and will walk with us into our future. This needs to be a community that will overlook failures and celebrate success. Third, we need someone to push us. No one likes to be pushed, though everyone likes the result. We all need someone who can encourage us to run further or faster and, in the afters of life, we need just that. Living well in the after is accomplished best in community.

At my church, we are a congregation striving to live in afters. We struggle together and press forward. It is difficult but worth it. If you don’t have a community that will walk through your afters with you, come join us as we all struggle together. For more information about the church go here: sgfbrazoria.org

Difficult Passages? 3 Questions to Ask

Can we agree that the Bible has some weird stories? Is that fair to say? I mean really… there is a story of an ax head that falls into a river and the prophet of God makes it float by throwing a stick into the water (2 Kings 6:1-7). There is another about a patriarch who refuses to give his youngest son in marriage to his widowed daughter-in-law… she pretends to be a prostitute and the patriarch impregnates her (Genesis 38). Yet another, the prophet Elisha is mocked by some teenagers because he is bald… so he calls bears from the wilderness to EAT THEM (2 Kings 2:23-25). There are tons more weird stories in the Bible. Each story bears its own unique difficulties. Sometimes theological, sometimes pragmatic, always frustrating.

As I grew in the Lord and began to read my Bible with greater regularity I began to ask the question, “Why is this in the Bible?” I would find myself reading a story like the aforementioned ax head story and laugh saying to myself, “well, that’s interesting?” I’d struggle to answer the question of, “why does this story matter?” I know that every story has a purpose. God preserved these particular stories to tell us something. Indeed, in the words of the Storybook Bible, I read to my kids, “Every story whispers His name.” Sometimes those are obvious and sometimes they are not so obvious.

Embracing this struggle to understand is the first step in grasping the text of Scripture. Sometimes God lays the answer before us in “bull-horn moments” and sometimes understanding takes a little work on our behalf. As a simple man who strives to hear the voice of God in the pages of Scripture, I’ve developed some questions that help me to hear Him. Maybe you struggle too? If you do, maybe these will help:

  1. What does God do in this story?

Shortly after graduating from seminary, I remember reading a particular passage and asking this question. I sought the insight of some of my former professors on the matter and found their answers helpful. Though all the professors offered insights that I had missed, the best answer came in the form of a question – “What does God do in this story?” On the surface, this question seems simple and easy to answer. But what about the stories where He is not mentioned or does not speak? Genesis 34? The book of Esther? Multiple Judges? But, the Bible’s main character is God. So, He is the chief actor in the story of the Bible. We must seek to see what God is doing. Even in His silence, He is present and active.

  1. What does this passage tell me about the character of God?

In Sunday school as a child, I was taught to think about the Bible in moral terms. What was the Bible saying that I should or shouldn’t do? Now don’t get me wrong, the Bible has something to say about morality and does guide you to what you should do and should not do. Yet, when we moralize the stories of Scripture before asking this question, we inadvertently neglect the primary purpose of the text. The purpose is to teach us about God and His character. It is not a list of right and wrongs, but a guide to knowing God. So, a good question to ask is, “What does this passage say about God?” Your answer should never be, “nothing.” You may have to think heavy and hard about it but the fruit of that labor will be magnificent.

  1. What do other passages say about this one?

“Scripture interprets Scripture!” the professor almost yelled in fervor. His jaw clenched as he decried people who would interpret Scripture by their own experience. If Jesus says a passage in the Old Testament means something, then that is what it means. If Paul applies a text to the church, then that text is to be applied to the church. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it. It says what it says. If the Gospels say that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, then Israel is NOT the suffering servant, that title is claimed by the Messiah! This question takes some digging. Get yourself a good cross-reference Bible and dig in. Put in the work, you won’t regret it.

Galatians 3:7-9; Brief Thoughts

7Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

In Scripture, Abraham is counted righteous before he is given the law of circumcision. Effectively, he is granted righteousness through faith before he becomes the patriarch of Israel. In Genesis 12, God promises to be Abraham’s shield, give him reward, and offspring (Gen. 12:1, 5). It is in this moment that the Bible makes the declarative statement that, “Abraham believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 12:6). Following this statement, God makes a covenant with Abraham. This is a covenant based on faith, not law. It is a covenant that guarantees salvation for those who believe! Two chapters later, God gives Abraham the covenant of circumcision. Here is a law, two chapters later. Faith saves in chapter 15, the law is given later. The law does not save, it simply sets God’s people apart from the world. Another way to put it – God’s people believe differently than the world and therefore live by a different morality.

The law cannot save, however beautiful it may be. The law serves to point men to their need for Christ. As a person strives to be righteous by the law, they will inevitably find an inability to save themselves. Thus, it is those who believe the LORD and live in subsequent faith that are recipients of the promise of a better land and offspring of Abraham. Romans 4:13-25 explains that it is not those who strive to be righteous by the law, but those who have faith in Jesus’s righteousness who receive salvation. So here Paul echoes the same truth – that those who believe in Christ are those who are saved. Those that claim some sort of racial or legal right hold no claim to salvation. It is those who trust in Jesus that share in the faith of Abraham.

Paul further explains that Scripture has always testified to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture saw ahead of time that God was going to extend salvation beyond one people group. In His infinite mercy, God has always sought out people who would trust Him for salvation. The message of the Gospel and the forgiveness of God is prevalent from the beginning of the Scriptural record. It has always been the plan to redeem all who have faith through Jesus. How wonderful it is to consider that the faithful have always been in God’s eyes! He has always had in His heart to bless the nations. Indeed, even in choosing a single people group to be His own, God has blessed the nations.

Consider the ramifications of such a truth. God chose a people that would spread His glory, in order that those who were not of that particular group might become chosen. He has set His affections on the faithful from before they could be faithful. His goal has always been to bless the nations through faith. What a tremendous God! He does not depend on your pedigree or your works. Rather, He determines to save those whom He so desires through faith. Faith is the pedigree of salvation. Faith is the identifying mark that allows access. Faith is the entry pass into the Kingdom. By faith, we are called heirs of Abraham’s promise!

Oh Christian, can you see how beautiful this is? God made a way of salvation and then guarded it, keeping it safe for you to access it. He laid down a law that would point to that way of salvation, and He walked in front of you for the glory of His name and the purpose of Salvation. So, when you doubt you are held by the Most High God, remember this great truth – God set forth the promise for you in Abraham. You are a child of God, not because you earned it or have been born into it. You are a child of God because He has chosen you through faith!

Walking with Pain, part 2

(This is part 2 of a 2 part posting about living with chronic pain. A brief description of my own struggle is at the end of this article.)

Recently a dear friend asked again, “you doing ok? Are you in pain?” I thought for a moment and responded softly, “I’m always in pain. Today is just a normal day though, thanks for checking on me.” I am grateful for my brothers and sisters who walk life with me and ask in general concern after my well-being. They are concerned and express that concern with love and compassion. I hope you have friends like mine. I hope you are aware of their struggles. I hope you know believers who will walk with you in an understanding way. My community of faith has loved me in ways unimaginable. IN order to encourage you to love others well, I’d like to share some of those ways below.

  1. They forgive my stubbornness and, at times, let me sit in my stubbornness. People who live with pain are often stubborn. We will not admit we need help and will frequently make things worse when we are struggling. That is why we need people around us who will overlook our stubbornness and on occasion, just let us be stubborn. I can remember a dear friend watching me struggle to work on a minor construction site. This brother simply told me, “Hey, you can sit down. We got this.” I responded by rolling my eyes and pushing through the pain. My friend chuckled to himself and just kept working alongside me until we finished. No judgment, no confrontation, just patiently waiting for me to recognize the absurdity of the entire scenario. Finally, I recognized my own foolishness and said, “thanks for working alongside me, bro. And thanks for looking out for me.” He didn’t hold my stubbornness against me, though it probably slowed him down. He forgave it and simply let me sit in my stubbornness until I was willing to admit my weakness.
  2. They are silent when it’s obvious that I’m hurting. As I said in part one, no one asks if you’re in pain when you’re curled up in a fetal position. They simply acknowledge the pain they see. However, my community does more than this. They remain silent when I am hurting and sit with me in the pain. As Job’s friends sat with him before speaking, so my community sits with me. They commiserate with me by simply being. A healthy community mourns together in times of despair, rejoices together in times of triumph, and engages in the trial of life together.
  3. They help without asking. As mentioned above, people who live with some sort of chronic pain tend to not ask for help. Pain is normative, so, in some weird way, it seems inappropriate to ask for help. My community simply sees the need and answers it. When members of the church have had difficult weeks our community rallies around them without asking permission. We take meals to one another, offer rides, and sometimes just bring a treat to the afflicted brother or sister. It’s beautiful. I remember one specifically difficult week when a church member, aware of my difficulties, just called and said, “Hey, can I come to get your older two kids and take them out for ice-cream?” The member saw my need, saw I was stressed and hurting, and then answered that need. I hope you have such a family of faith.
  4. They check on me regularly. I meet with several brothers one on one and in group settings each week. We ask one another how we are doing and how we can encourage each other. This is a basic reality of the Christian community. Often these brothers will intentionally ask how my foot, head, or hands have been lately. They want to know so that they can be in prayer for me, but they also want to know because they want to help where they can. They are prepared for me to mention a need or a struggle. They check in regularly because they know I will probably not mention anything. In doing this, they encourage me to be open and honest with my struggles and delight in the community.
  5. They treat me as though I am strong and allow me to be weak. My church family deals with me as though I am strong enough to overcome almost anything… but they understand that I cannot. They respect me as a leader and friend, so they let me lead and they do not challenge my every decision. Yet, when I am struggling they come alongside and offer aid without insisting on it. In this way they show me they believe in me. They inadvertently cheer me on. Their actions proclaim, “We know you can do it!” While simultaneously offering, “We are here if you need us!”
  6. They worship with me and point me to Christ. This is the most important gift my church gives me. They worship with me. They stand alongside me and sing, pray, preach, and disciple each other. They offer grace to one another. They care for one another. My community does not expect me to do all the work of ministry. They work right alongside me to serve others and spread the gospel.

If you struggle with chronic pain, what are some things your community does to help you? Put it in the comments.

A brief description of what I deal with:

I have a disease called “scleroderma.” Before you go googling, my type is called “Crest” and it is not systemic. At least not yet. Right now it is manifested primarily in my left foot and left sinus cavity/nostril.

The normal state of my ailment: On my foot, the skin is cracked, hardened, and dry. The nerve endings are especially sensitive, and I have a constant sense of strain in my foot. It feels a bit like a constant foot cramp in the toes and arch. In my nose/sinus, there is a constant hardened blister that occasionally pops and bleeds. I have a pretty consistent and normative mild head-ache. It feels like I was hit in the face thirty minutes ago. You know… not as bad as when you’re hit right away, but a residual ache. My left-hand doesn’t close like it should, I have difficulty gripping things or opening bottles, and it occassionally (rarely) hurts.

When I have a “flare-up” – in my foot, I limp and have what feels like shooting nerve pain. In my nose/sinus, I will get a severe migraine and won’t be able to focus (I’m told I preach really well when I have one of these! I’m pretty good at hiding when I don’t feel good.)

So that’s me… I wanted to be clear, this is not the same kind of debilitating pain that some struggle with. It is not cancer, I am not near death. It is not as difficult as my friends who struggle with spinal issues, MS, cancers, and the like. They deal with much more pain than I do. So please, encourage them. For me, though this thing hurts, I am not crushed by it as some people are by greater afflictions. Thanks for listening. Now, go and encourage the people in your life who struggle with chronic pain.

Walking with Pain, part 1

(This blog is in two parts. The first, below, makes three observations about pain in the life of a believer. The second will comment on how my community encourages me to live and worship well in the midst of my pain. Spoiler, they’re awesome at it!)

It happened again. Another dear friend or family member asked if I was in pain. It always perplexes me how to respond to this. You see, I have a disease (scleroderma) that comes with some odd side-effects. The side-effects are not debilitating, just mildly painful and irritating. They’re simple. A lack of mobility in my limbs, pretty regular sinus blisters on the inside of my nose and sinuses, and a pretty constant sense of dry, tight, and cracked skin on my left foot. So… in one sense, I’m always in pain… but that’s normal. Is that what this compassionate friend is asking? Maybe. Then there are days when a sinus blister pops and bleeds, or my foot flares up in severe pain and I can’t walk without a limp, or I can’t grip anything in my hands and keep dropping things, or I’m laid up with a massive migraine and feel as though I can’t move. Those days are painful and the answer would most certainly be, “wha? Can you turn off the lights? Can I just cease to exist until this passes?” Typically, people don’t ask if you’re in pain when they see you writhing on the floor or wincing in pain. They ask if you’re in pain when your left eye doesn’t open quite as far as your right one. They ask if you’re in pain when you struggle to keep up in a conversation. They ask when they feel as though you’re not yourself… I am often not myself.

Having dealt with a kind of chronic pain for the last 8 years, I’ve come to some simple realizations I’d like to share. These are by no means exhaustive. They are generalizations and might not ALWAYS fit the circumstantial suffering of everyone. But, here goes:

  1. For the believer, pain is good.
  2. For the cripple, pain is normal.
  3. Pain is annoying, but not defeating.

1. For the believer, pain is a good thing. I have heard many preachers cry out that God does not intend for believers to go through pain or painful circumstances. These declarations seem grounded in Scripture as they often follow a verse like Jeremiah 29:11. However, verses such as this can be misconstrued as saying that there will be no suffering for those who live right or those who simply have enough faith. Yet, this interpretation rips these powerful statements from their context and avoids the equally prevalent promises of Jesus such as John 16:33, which promises “tribulation” or “suffering.” The reality is not that we are removed from pain and suffering. Rather, we are placed above it. 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 explains that though we suffer, we are not overcome by that suffering. Indeed, pain is natural and Christians are to use it to our benefit. There are many benefits to suffering/pain… below are three of them.

  1. Suffering drives us to community. In Galatians, Paul reminds us to cling to community during our suffering (Gal. 6:2).
  2. Suffering makes us long for glory. (Romans 8:18-25)
  3. Suffering matures us. (Romans 5:3-5)

2. For the Cripple, pain is normal. I once sat with a godly man who has cerebral palsy. He told me about how often people will apologize to him for his condition and attempt to sympathize with his struggle. He tilted his head and said, “I don’t understand, this is just normal for me.” People who struggle with chronic pain and disease often are simply living in a new normal. While they may occasionally lament the pain, they are existing in a new normal. For the cripple, this is just life. Thus, it is a difficult question to answer when someone asks about pain. Do we say that we are always in pain? Do we suggest that we are not in pain? Are they asking if we are normal right now, or are we especially different at this moment or are they asking about our normal state?

3. Pain is annoying, but not defeating. Chronic pain is annoying but it does not defeat the Christian. While the first point in suffering may lead to our maturity, do not assume that all pain is somehow purposeful. We live in a sin-filled world and sometimes pain just is. Pain is simply a reality of life. It does not require a purpose to exist… It needs no permission from you… Sin exists and therefore suffering exists. Annoying and present, but not victorious. One of the most profound sentiments about suffering was articulated best when a man said, “God does not always take you out of suffering. Often, He places you on a rock ABOVE it!” You see, the suffering is still present. The circumstances are still there, but you have been made to live above the circumstances. Consider Job, who sat in ashes suffering for a great deal of time while waiting on the Lord. Consider the New Testament saints who endured suffering with much rejoicing in the “sharing of Christ’s suffering” (2 Cor. 1:5). Consider further the saints who came after the New Testament, the faithful martyrs of the faith and even the pastors in your own life experience. Pain is not ALWAYS purposeful, but the Christian will always strive to grow through pain.