Tag Archives: Spirit of God

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.

Galatians 1:10; Brief Thoughts

10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Many modern church leaders seek fame and publicity. They persist in ensuring that their names are known and exalted in this life. In effort to secure the praise of men, many compromise the message of the gospel. Some diminish the gospel by omitting difficult parts and others choose to emphasize one aspect at the cost of the whole gospel. Seeking the praise of men, these leaders steal the glory due to God and proudly place crowns on their own heads. These men are to be pitied and mourned over, they will one day answer to the God of glory, whom they have stolen from.

Paul was accused of such a theft. The men who accused Paul of this robbery of God’s glory were guilty of the very crime of which they claimed Paul was complicit. Seeking the praise of men, they postured themselves as holy leaders of the church. Still Paul, honestly presenting his own testimony, insists that he is not seeking the praise of men. Indeed, if Paul were seeking such accolade from mortal men, then the letter to the Galatians would never have been written. Such a testimony of Jesus’ glory and righteousness does not serve to make Paul great. Rather, as Paul will soon testify, his former success as a righteous Jewish Pharisee amounts to no value in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any glory he once tried to attain for himself is now counted as nothing and has resulted in scorn and accusation from men, but will result in honor from God.

A man cannot be a servant of Christ if he strives for the praise of men. Further, it is the motive that determines the position. Paul states that he “would not be a servant of Christ, if [he was] still trying to please man.” If Paul’s motive is to please men, then he proves himself to be a servant of men and not of God. Likewise, those who profess Jesus as King and then serve motives to enhance their own glory are not serving Jesus, but their own self-interests. So, Paul calls into question the accusation itself. “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man?” The answer is obvious that Paul is not attempting to please men.

Paul will later explain that he has seen what it means to please men. He has stood among the apostles and rebuked them for showing deference to the Jews over the Gentiles believers. He has challenged Peter and defended the truth of Jesus in the face of radical hatred. Paul is acquainted with the reality of preference. He knows what it looks like and he has scorned it. He has surrendered prestige and honor for the sake of Christ.

Grace extends beyond me. If praise lands on me and not Christ, then I have cheapened grace. You see, if I matter more than Christ or if I am concerned about praise that I received, then I have brought the value of grace to my level. Here is a story that may serve as an example of what I mean:

I was once eating with an old friend from high school who was asking me about what I do for a living. My friend was of another religion. As a pastor, I have a few answers to this question, I reached into my bag-o-answers and said, “I spend a lot of time counseling people and helping them to live a full life. I walk alongside people whose marriages and lives are in turmoil and help them to understand a better way to live. I teach people what life is and help them to live it to the fullest.” My friend nodded sympathetically and said, “You are a great man who is really making a difference in this world.” At that moment I realized I had failed to exalt Christ. In my attempt to explain what I did, I soften the message of the gospel. I took the Gospel of salvation and explained it as if I was the message. Sorrow filled my heart the moment I heard him say this. The Gospel is so much greater than me. Though I may do some good things, Christ actually forgives sin and changes the souls of believers to give them life! He is the gospel, not me! Yet I had reduced the ministry of the gospel to my work! Needless to say, I no longer answer that way. Now my answer is, “I teach people about one true God, Jesus Christ!” It’s a much more awkward answer, but it is true.

When we seek the praises of men, we drag the Gospel down to the dirt and cover up the real message. Let the Gospel stand exalted in Heaven! That way it will save people and lift believers up to Heaven!

In evaluating our own understanding of grace and exaltation of the Gospel, there are some questions we can ask ourselves.

  1. When I am called by God to say or do something, am I pausing to consider the reactions of men?
  2. When Scripture is plain, am I softening what it says in order to make it more palatable to those around me?
  3. When I meet someone for the first time, am I honest and transparent about the gospel or am I attempting to please the other person?
  4. When I see injustice, do I answer with the gospel or do I hesitate because of the other people around me?

 

When Someone Claims Divine Authority

moses_with_tabletsThe conversation began with the typical spiritual overtones I’d come to expect from this particular friend: “I have a word from the Lord for you.” I was in my first years of college, and this was a common refrain among many of my friends. Over the years, I have heard people make statements like this many times. Occasionally, the “word” they offered was productive and clearly from God. However, more often than not, what followed the opening claim to divine inspiration fell into two categories.

Let us call the first category: “Vague allusion.”

This is when the word that follows the claim is vague and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The “word” they deliver is guised as having highly specific undertones, but the specifics don’t match any particular interpretation. I can remember when a well-meaning brother told me he had a vision for me! I excitedly sat to hear the vision as I had respect for this particular brother. He told me that I was standing before a blue background… that was it. The whole “vision.” On another occasion I was told that the “word” the Lord had for me was “peace.” No explanation… no attempt to understand the circumstances surrounding the supposed prophecy. Just, “peace.” Ok. So extrapolation and interpretation fall squarely on my shoulders. In Scripture this is the opposite of prophecy. Think about the prophet Daniel. He received the interpretation of the dreams, and that is what made him a prophet. Unexplained vague allusions are not prophecy.

Now don’t get me wrong. These are well meaning brothers and sisters who genuinely feel as though they are acting in obedience to the Lord. The trouble is in claiming the divine authority in connection with vague, easily misinterpreted statements. God is not vague. When we read prophecies in Scripture, they are not vague. And though Jesus speaks in parables, he frequently expected them to be understood by His disciples and if they were not, He often labored to explain them. Though the prophecies in Scripture may be complex and we may have difficulty understanding them, they are not vague. In fact they are often extremely specific!

The second common category is “Passively addressing offense.”

weneedtotalkIt was late and I was tired. I had been working long hours and had exhausted my mental reserves studying for various exams. My friend contacted me and told me that he had a “word” for me. He had been laboring over this for weeks and simply could not hold onto it any longer. “Brother, when you said that two weeks ago, the Lord was angered.” I can remember being mortified! I was literally trembling at the idea that I had displeased my Lord, so I asked for clarification. What was wrong with what I had said, specifically!? Can you point me to Scripture so I can know what not to do again? This was important! I asked what Scriptures I had particularly violated so that I might have some sense of clarity. None was offered. So I apologized for any offense and spent the next months in nervous fits. That is, until I realized what had actually happened. I had offended a brother and he felt the need to claim some divine authority in order to address his offense.

I spent months dealing with this particular offense. I wrestled and labored to discover my failing before God. The most difficult thing for me to understand was why God had not spoken to me, but had determined that I needed someone else’s voice.

Now consider for a moment: I’m a brash personality and I am naturally insensitive to the feelings of others. Couple that with the position of teaching the Bible, and I am a model example of how to offend people without really trying. So, it is not uncommon for me to have to explain myself to others. I don’t intend to offend, but sometimes I do. The trouble with the above example was where my friend had placed the offense. It is one thing to offend a brother. You can explain yourself and apologize and deal with the issue, but when you have offended the Lord, that is a different issue altogether. Offending the Lord requires repentance and knowledge of your own sin. In contrast to the above confrontation, The Lord is quite clear about the specifics of our sin against Him. There is no ambiguity with The Lord when He deals with sin. Consider when Nathan confronts David in 2 Samuel 12. After drawing David’s attention to the heinousness of sin, Nathan speaks directly and clearly to David. Likewise, God speaks plainly and His word cuts to the heart.

To be fair, there are times when people offer a “word” and it is actually consistent with Scripture and is legitimate. Apply those times appropriately. However, for those other times here are three things to look for.

Look for Scripture.

I’ve become inoculated to the claim to divine authority that is not accompanied by Scripture. You see, the Bible is the Word of God and He speaks to us through it. He is quite clear. So, if someone comes to me with a “word from the Lord,” I will strive to listen for Scripture or Scriptural validation of their claim. In the absence of that, I have learned to thank them for their voice, apply what is useful and dismiss what is not. It is important to remember that people who deliver “a word” to you are well-meaning, if sometimes misguided. The Lord speaks through Scripture. Test everything by the word of God (1 Thess. 5:21).

Look for specifics and clarity.

God is not vague. He is extremely direct. He does not muddy understanding of His intentions but clarifies it. When God speaks, He always brings clarity to confusion. When Nathan confronted David in 2 Sam. 12, there is no confusion. When Moses delivers the Word of God in Exodus 32-34, God’s voice is clear. When Isaiah speaks to Hezekiah, there is no confusion in His prophecy (Isaiah 37-38). Take a look at all the notable times when God’s prophets confront various kings in the Old Testament. Every time God’s prophets bring a prophecy, they bring clarity into a situation that is confusing. The voice of the Lord is no different in the New Testament. Consider when Philip was told to approach the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), or when Ananias receives a vision about Saul and argues with God about it (Acts 9:10-19), or when God tells Paul no after he asks for the thorn to be removed (2 Cor. 12:7-10). So, if someone claims to speak from the Lord, then clarity should follow. Further, when God addresses sin, He deals with specifics. The address of sin is always clear and the guilt is always obvious. He gave an entire law to His people and frequently names the specific sins and the manner in which they are committing them. So, when someone claims a word from God, look for specifics.

Look for opportunity to be holy.

The prophecies that are given to the people of God always have one thing in common: an urging to righteousness. God calls His people to repent from sin and obey Him. More than that, He equips them through His word to do so. The call of God on His people has not changed. If you believe in Jesus, He calls you to live righteously. (1 Peter 1:15)

Finally, be gracious to those who claim to speak from the authority of God. They seldom know the danger they bring upon their souls if they are found to misrepresent God. Be loving, honest, and extremely careful.