When Misery Becomes Ministry

“Lord, why do I have to go through this? It is awful. It is painful. It is scary. Why?” Ever thought that? Yeah, me too. More than once. And recently. I’ve also wiped tears from someone’s face who said much the same. The question looms large in our minds: “Is there a purpose for all this pain?” Let me encourage you friend – I believe there is. Paul put it this way, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).

Alcoholics Anonymous understands that a recovering alcoholic is uniquely qualified to help another find sobriety. Bosom Buddies brings a breast cancer survivor alongside one who is newly diagnosed. I have a dear friend who has a powerful ministry to post-abortive women because she made that same choice years ago. Because of my past experiences, I can sit across the table from a someone dealing with childhood bullying, sexual abuse, divorce, rejection, ridicule, depression, self-esteem issues, financial failure, a wayward child, uncertainty, and the fallout of their own sinful and foolish choices and say, “Been there, done that, and let me tell you how God got me through it.”

Paul continued his thought saying: “For just as the suffering of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” ( 2 Cor 1:5). It’s like that old game of “Barrel of Monkeys,” where you link the arms of plastic monkeys to see how many you can pull out of the barrel in a conjoined string. All these things I’ve been through make me uniquely qualified to link arms with another and help them out of the barrel. In the end, we hopefully become a long string of survivors pulling more and more people out of despair, depression, and hopelessness.

One thing of which I am certain to the marrow of my bones: God wants to take your misery and turn it into ministry. He wants to use you and your story and your scars to speak hope and life into another suffering soul. You can sit and stew in your pain or you can help Him pull monkeys out of the barrel. Beloved, which will it be?

When the Heat is On

A woman read in the Bible that God refines His people like silver and gold so she visited a silversmith and asked about the process of refining the precious elements. The smithy said he put the silver in a kettle and exposed it to extremely high heat that caused the dross, or impure elements, to rise to the surface where he could scoop it out. This process took intense heat and so she asked, “how do you keep from burning it?” The man replied, “I lean in very closely to the kettle and watch it carefully, using only as much heat as necessary until it is just as I want it.” She asked, “How do you know when it’s ready to be removed from the heat?” The smithy answered, “When I can see my reflection.”

You and I are called to be the reflection of Jesus Christ to the world and that image must be pure. God uses all sorts of “heat” – financial struggles, relational heartache, health problems, emotions, culture, rejection, persecution, consequences, and yes, often spiritual heat to bring the impurities in us to the surface where they can be removed. How do I know this? He’s been cooking some junk out of me for a while. Why would He do that to me? Because, like His friend Peter, some things in me need to be removed before God can use me for His Kingdom and His glory. Remember in Luke 22:31-32 how Jesus allowed His friend to be sifted by satan? He let His disciple go through the crucible of intense suffering to remove what was marring His image in Peter (Luke 22:54-62). Afterward, Peter became a mighty Apostle and preached the first Gospel message after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:14-41. The Lord used a humble Peter mightily in the birth and growth of His church.

None of us welcome the seasons of suffering and pain in our lives but know that God is at work, purifying your faith and refining you to be His witness to the world. And you can be assured that in this time of intense heat, He is leaning in close and carefully watching over you, allowing just enough heat to accomplish His purpose – to see His Son reflected in you. And don’t forget that Jesus is praying for you (Luke 22:32). In the end you, Beloved, will come forth a beautiful vessel for His glory.

Morning Prayer

Sharing my prayer this morning. I invite you to pray with me:

Holy Father,

This is the day that You have made, and I will be glad and rejoice in it (Ps 118:24).

Your name is exalted high above the earth and the heavens. You are great and worthy of praise. You are mighty, glorious, wonderful, awesome, good, righteous, gracious, compassionate, eternal, and faithful (Psalm 145). You are my fortress, my stronghold, and my deliverer (Psalm 144:2).

I have awakened to new opportunities and new mercies (Lam. 3:23). Yesterday’s failures are buried. Today is a new slate, bright and clean.

I do not face this day alone; You are present with me (Matt. 28:20).

You are my Shepherd (Ps. 23:1).

You are my Father (Matt. 20:17).

You are my Peace (Heb. 13:20).

My Comfort (2 Cor. 1:3)

My Rock (Ps 18:2).

My Strength (Ps 19:14).

My Shield (Deut. 33:29).

Lord, when my heart and mind are focused on You, the worries of my life seem small because You are so great. Oh, help me keep my eyes fixed on You all through the day.

Gracious, mighty, sovereign God what an extraordinary thing that You sang me to sleep last night (Zep. 3:17) and You sent me word this morning of Your unfailing love (Ps. 143:8).

I make one plea in this early hour – the angels declare that the whole earth is full of Your glory. (Isaiah 6:3). Give me eyes to see Your glory all around me today.

I give You thanks O Lord because Your love endures forever (Psalm 136).  My hope is in You and in Your Word (Psalm 130:5, 7). One day I will see Your face (Revelation 22:4). Until then I will wait and trust. I will watch the skies and listen for the sound of trumpets (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

In the mighty and holy and perfect name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. Amen

God of Mercy

For many years I carried a picture in my mind of God. He sat on His throne with a fly swatter in His hand and a scowl on His face. Every time I sinned – which was often – He would slap me down and tell me I was a disappointment to Him. I would ask for forgiveness and He would give it begrudgingly – and always with a warning to straighten up because He was losing patience with me.

Then I began to really study His Word and a different picture of God emerged when I read the Old Testament prophet Micah: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgressions . . . You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).

I saw a God who was patient, gentle, and forgave without limit. I saw a God – the God that Micah saw – who “delights to show mercy.” I realized two things: God doesn’t expect me to be perfect – that is flawless – on my own. If that were possible – and it’s not – He wouldn’t have sent his Son to die for my sins. It is only by His Son that I can be made perfect – that is complete in Christ. I don’t know about you, but that is a huge relief to me.

The second thing I realized is it gives God great pleasure to forgive me. And there is much to forgive. He delights in being merciful. Let me be clear, He doesn’t take please in my sinfulness. He takes pleasure in my dependence on Him for salvation. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .” (Matt 5:3) meaning those who realize their wretched state and come to the only One who redeems wretches. Like me.

I don’t know what you’ve done Beloved, but I know that it would delight God to take all your sin away and show you mercy. There is no scowl on His face when He looks at you – only love. He does not have a fly swatter in His hands – but He does have scars.

God, Are You Tired of Rescuing Me?

I need God’s help. I have a difficult situation – one that is bigger than I can handle on my own. I need God to rescue me. Again. I’ve had to be rescued more than once because I am prone to foolishness and get myself in trouble constantly. I come by this trait honestly because I am the descendant of two foolish, rebellious people who disobeyed God in a garden.  I often find myself in a pit that is too deep for me to climb out of.  I do the only thing I know to do. I cry out for help. Just as I did today.  I expected Him to be frustrated with me by now – after all so many people have been.  It’s human nature to grow weary of people who are always needing something. I’ve been both the needy one and needed one. Both are exhausting. So I asked Him if He was tired of rescuing me. I expected a deep sigh, followed by – “Child, when will you stop getting into trouble?” But that’s not what He told me.

He sent me searching for the word “rescue,” and highlighted one Scripture in particular, “He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delights in me” (Psalm 18:19). And then His Spirit impressed this thought on my heart – He doesn’t rescue me because I am in trouble, He rescues me because it delights Him to do so.

The enemy would have us imagine God as an exasperated parent, weary of our foolishness, ready for us to grow up and manage our own lives. That is not the God who sent His Son to die on the cross. Ours is a God who delights in rescuing His children. He knows that we will stumble, He knows that we’ll have troubles. He knows we will get in over our heads. And He is always ready and willing to come to our aid. Hear this Beloved – God doesn’t rescue you and me out of a sense of duty, but out of His extraordinary love.

Do you need to be rescued today? Cry out to the One who delights in flexing His muscles on your behalf. Your hero is on the way.

Pointing Fingers

I’m studying Job in two groups right now – I am sure by God’s provident timing. In the first two chapters of Job, satan comes before the Lord twice to give an account of what he’s been up to. I have a note jotted beside satan’s second appearance before God: “last mention of satan.” This is the last time that ugly face is seen in this book. But it’s not the last time satan himself shows up. You can bet he is the impetus behind what comes next in Job’s story.

You know the story. God gives satan permission to take all that Job has – his wealth, his children, and his health – to prove that Job will never curse the Lord. Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (v. 11). When they see him sitting on the trash heap, covered in sores and misery, “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights” and “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (v. 13). If only they had kept their mouths shut.

I said that satan’s last mention was in chapter two, but he shows up in Job’s “friends” every time they speak. They all condemn Job for what must be grievous sin in his life. Why else would God bring such harsh punishment on him? But they don’t know what God has said about Job: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8; 2:3). Satan didn’t have to show his face, he just let E, B, and Z do his dirty work. If Job’s friends truly wanted to comfort him, they should have reminded him of God’s faithfulness and love. They should have sang songs of hope, not blasted him with condemnation. Rather than comforting their friend, they added to his suffering.

Here’s my takeaway: Never assume you know a person’s heart before God and God’s reason for their situation. We are called to a ministry of “encouraging, comforting, and urging [one another] to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:12). We are not called to “straighten one another out.” I don’t want to ever be satan’s tool of misery in someone’s life, no matter how “righteous” my reasoning. Beloved, make sure you are God’s messenger of grace, not satan’s sledgehammer.

Love much

 “First Day in Heaven” by Kerolos Safwat.

Jesus is a dinner guest at the home of a man named Simon. Simon is a Pharisee – that means he is very important in the religious community and very well respected. He is also very arrogant and looks down on people who are not as “holy” as he thinks himself to be. While Jesus sits around the finely decorated table, a woman enters the house. This woman was well known in the community as a “sinful woman.” She has earned a living among men and is an outcast among the ”good” people.  The house has fallen silent as she moves among the crowd with an alabaster jar in her hands. Every eye is on her but her eyes are fixed on one person – Jesus.

As she kneels at His feet she is weeping and her tears make tracks in the dust that clings to Him until His feet have been washed clean. She reaches up and pulls away her head covering and gently wipes His feet dry with her long, cascading hair, then kisses them. Finally, she breaks open the alabaster jar and pours the costly perfume out on those clean feet.

Simon, like all who are gathered there, is shocked that Jesus has permitted such a sinful woman to touch Him. But listen! Jesus is telling Simon a story about a good man who forgave the debts that others owed him.

“Who will love him more?” He asks.

“The one who had the biggest debt canceled,” Simon answers.

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says.

Then he turns away from Simon to look at the woman. Do you see the love in His eyes? “She had done something very beautiful for me,” He says. “She loves much because she has been forgiven much.”  Then Jesus blesses her and says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)

This story is your story. You have a sinful past just as she had, but Jesus has forgiven all your sins – just as he forgave hers. You love Him much because you have been forgiven much. Listen carefully to Jesus as He looks at you with love in His eyes and tells you, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Go and fulfill the things that God is calling you to do. You have been washed in the precious blood of Jesus, Beloved. You can leave your past behind and go forward in peace.

Saints and Sinners

How should the church respond to the lost world? We seem to go to the extremes of either approving of worldliness and sin or pointing fingers and railing at those who do what we would never do. There’s a better way. Jesus was called “a friend of sinners,” and I believe He bore that title with delight rather than shame. That doesn’t mean that He joined them in their sin, but He loved them out of it. He was tender with wounded souls, gentle with the ones who didn’t understand, and kind to those who had been harassed by the enemy. And He saved His harshest words for the religious crowd who rejected the lost, the poor, the lonely, and the wounded – and Him. They were the self-righteous scholars who diligently studied the Scriptures, but missed the whole point of God’s plan. 

Paul said, “The Lord’s servant must . . . be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful,” (2 Timothy 2:24).  The goal of such kindness – that God will grant the lost repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25-26). As believers, our character should be the same as Jesus: kind, gentle, helpful, and sympathetic.  Why?  Because unbelievers have been taken captive by the devil.  They have been deceived, led astray, fooled, and fed lies to the point that they can’t recognize the truth.  They are under the influence of satan, and they deserve our compassion rather than our hate.

Christian, you have a call to be “salt and light” in the world.  Salt to make people thirsty for God and light to lead the way to the cross and redemption. Finger-pointing, harsh words, and belittling attitudes will never win anyone to Christ.  But a kind and gentle spirit can.

If you are not a Christian, let me assure you that Jesus does not look at you with hatred or disgust; He does not see you as His enemy – He died so that you could be His friend for eternity.  He loves you with an everlasting love that will never turn you away.  Please come and see for yourself that He is a gentle King and a kind Savior.

When Anxiety is Great Within Me . . .

I’m dealing with some major anxiety this week. Yes, even the Bible teacher gets overwhelmed by life sometimes just as you do. The Spirit led me to Psalm 94:19: When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought Joy to my soul.”  Yep, that’s the verse for me – it’s got anxiety and Joy. This Psalm is a lament; the psalmist is in a hard place because of “the wicked” who trample on God’s people. Hmm, I have something similar going on in my life. He calls on the Lord for help. I found it interesting that he didn’t ask God to remove him from the cause of his anxiety. Sometimes – as in my case – that is not an option. Too much is at stake. So how does he handle his anxiety and the cause of it?

First, he remembers that God is his Avenger (v. 1); he doesn’t have to seek revenge or demand his rights. He noted that even though his enemy doesn’t acknowledge God (v. 7), God knows everything that is happening to him (v. 11). He reminds himself (oh, that’s so important) that God will grant him relief (v. 13), He will not reject or forsake him (v. 14), and will be his Defender (v. 16). The Lord will help him (v. 17). He will hold him up with his love (v. 18). He will bring him comfort and Joy (v. 19) (did you hum that Christmas song?). And the Lord will be his fortress, his rock, and his refuge (v. 22). I don’t know about you, but after all that, my anxiety has decreased to near-manageable levels.

But consider this too. God never chastised him for being anxious. I know, you’re going to ask me why did Jesus say, “Do not be anxious (or worried) (Matt 6:25, 30, 34) .” Context. First, Jesus was teaching in vs. 19-24 about storing up treasures on earth vs. treasures in heaven. He was saying that wealth will not bring peace. But the Father does. In vs. 25-34 Jesus spoke of God’s goodness, care, compassion, and faithfulness. When He said “Do not be anxious,” He wasn’t barking out an order, He was reminding the people that “your Heavenly Father knows” all about the needs of His “little flock” (Luke 12:32). Those are words of tender, fatherly love.

We don’t want to walk around like tight balls of anxiety, but the struggles of this life are unavoidable, and some of them are really hard. The best way to cope is to focus on all God brings to us in our time of need. Hope. Peace. Compassion. Love. “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I need to know.”

Hebrews: And Now, a Word of Encouragement

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Parenting – and grandparenting – is not for the faint of heart or the weak of conviction. My granddaughter is 2 ½ now and is equal parts sweet and sour. She is struggling to learn how to listen and mind.  We often have to put her in “time out” because she ignores us when we tell her to stop or ask her to pick up her toys. I know it is all part and parcel of her age, but I’m pretty sure there is a familial stubborn streak there that is a mile wide and just as deep.  After a time-out session and after she has complied with my requests, I take her in my lap and thank her for (finally) minding me. I always tell her I love her and that she is still Nana’s sweet girl. I think it’s very important to follow discipline with affection and affirmation.

The writer of Hebrews followed a similar pattern. After a difficult discourse on not falling away from Christ he was careful to tell his readers, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation” (Heb 6:9). “I know you are struggling, but I love you and know you will prove faithful.” Follow the hard words with encouragement. He added, “God is not unjust; He will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him as you have helped His people and continue to help them” (v. 10).  God was well aware of the genuineness of their faith, as evidenced by their faithful work and more so by their love toward Him and fellow believers.

He returned to the theme with which he started as a gentle reminder that endurance in the Christian life requires more than just good thoughts. “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.  We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (vv. 11-12). Ah, there’s that word again – lazy. If you want to endure to the end, you cannot become lazy and apathetic. A lazy Christian is really an oxymoron. Jesus said, “My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17). If, as Paul said, we are “being transformed into the likeness of His Son, (Rom 8:29), we will always be at work.  That work involves love, diligence, faith, and patience.  But it’s worth it because God has promised us “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” (1 Peter 1:4). That, Beloved, is worth hanging onto.