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?

You Matter

I am just a middle-aged (moving closer to senior-adult) woman from a small community in the deep south. I live a simple life. We rent a good house – but nothing fancy. I go to work every day at a small Southern Baptist college in a small town in Florida. I drive a very modest car. I’m married to a sweet, kind man. We help to raise our granddaughter. I love to write but I haven’t published any books.  I teach the Bible to my Sunday School ladies, but I’ve never stood on a stage. I’m not well-known and that’s okay with me. I am one face among the billions of faces in the world. And I have lots of struggles and hard situations in my life.

This morning as I was reading Isaiah 40, I came to this verse: “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (v. 26). I sensed the Lord saying, “I don’t miss anything.” That’s when I realized that as insignificant as I am in the world, God hasn’t overlooked me. The Creator and King of the universe is not only aware that I exist, He cares about me and the difficulties I face. And do you want to hear something amazing? The same thing is true for you. You and I are not just part of the vast sea of humanity to God.

The Bible says that “God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son . . . to save the world” (John 3:16, 17). But He is also a very personal God; He who knows the name of every star knows your name too.  Jesus attested to that; He is the Great Shepherd who “calls His sheep by name” (John 10:3). Maybe you feel small and insignificant today like no one notices or cares about you. I understand. I feel that way sometimes too. But nothing could be farther from the truth, Beloved. You are seen and you are known. And you matter. Greatly. You need not worry that you are just a face in the crowd – God never overlooks the one He loves.

Hanging by a Thread

I was standing in the kitchen, begging the coffee maker to hurry up when my son walked in to get something to drink. I heard him behind me – “HIC!” “HIC!” “HIC!” He said, “I don’t think there’s anything worse than waking up with the hiccups.”  I answered him, “There is – waking up and being sick to your stomach is worse.” And I playfully growled at him and said, “I know from experience – and it was all your fault!” Of course, I was referring to the morning sickness I endured when I was pregnant with him. But our conversation made me think – what would be the worst thing to wake up to? I could list a lot of things – I’m sure you could too. Waking up to pain or sorrow or loss or violence or loneliness or heartache would be hard to face first thing in the morning. Then I thought, the worst thing to wake up to is hopelessness. That feeling that life is awful and it’s never going to get any better.  I’ve had seasons like that and I know that you have too. You may be there now. When all those hard things feel like permanent fixtures in our lives, we wonder if there’s any point in waking up at all.

A few thousand years ago, a prophet was waking up to the reality that all of his efforts to turn the nation of Israel back to God were useless. Jeremiah watched helplessly as the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem – under God’s judgment. He said, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord . . . my soul is downcast” (Lamentations 3:18, 19). He had hoped to save his people. He had hoped God would stop the invasion. But his hopes were not to be. He wept bitterly for the rebellious children of God.

But he did not give up. He declared “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I HAVE HOPE: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vs. 21-23, emphasis added). He still had a thread of hope that was tied securely to the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God. And that was enough. It’s enough for you too, Beloved. Tie your last thread of hope to the goodness of the Lord. He will never fail you.

Real-Life Wisdom

What do we do with the failures of our past? Now that we have survived some of the trials and struggles of life, now that we have lived through the results of our own mistakes, now that we have found that sowing wild oats doesn’t bring much of a harvest—what do we do with all that hard-earned wisdom?  Paul offers the best advice: “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 Corinthians 1:3-4).  We reach back and help someone else who is struggling in the same manner.  Why is AA so powerful? Because it is built on experience and a shared struggle.  It is one person who has found freedom from addiction walking alongside someone who is trying to break free. The best counselors (either formal or informal) are the one who have “been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it.” 

I have a lifetime of experience with the consequences of my own foolishness. But I also have a lifetime of experience with God’s faithfulness and mercy. The Lord has rescued me many, many times and now I am able to offer a hand up and a bit of wisdom and encouragement to someone else in the same kind of pit.  When God rescues us and we in turn lead others to Him for freedom, we have turned the devil’s handiwork against him.  We can say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). 

Dear friends, this is how we redeem our foolish past—we take our experiences, our failures, and our sins to the table and say to another struggling soul, “I know where you are, I understand what you’re feeling and I will take you to the One who rescued me. I will walk the whole way with you until you are free.”  Beloved, don’t let the enemy bury you in shame.  Let God use you and your scars to turn mistakes into ministry and heartbreak into hope.

The Journey

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The Spirit brought a verse to my attention this morning. “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord” (Micah 6:5b). He asked, “What’s so important about Shittim and Gilgal?” And the dig was on.

Shittim is where the Israelite men fell into sexual immorality and idolatry with the Moabite women who worshipped Baal, even bringing one of the women into the camp. This was a slap in God’s face and because of their sin, 24,000 Israelites died at Shittim (see Numbers 25).

Gilgal was the first city the Israelites came to after crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. It was here that the entire nation took a (painful) step of obedience to the Lord by circumcising all the males in the camp. This is where the Lord declared, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Joshua 5:9). This was the place of a new life for Israel. Gilgal was also where the Israelites celebrated their first Passover in the Promised Land and where the manna they had eaten for forty days finally stopped.

Shittim represents the lowest point in Israel’s history when they were captivated by sin and idolatry. Gilgal represents the redemption of God when the Israelites finally submitted to the Lord and received His blessings. This verse is your story and mine. We all have a Shittim, a place in our lives where we were held in the grip of sin. But God’s grace is the way to Gilgal, the place of surrender and obedience and blessing. The place where we find the righteousness of God.

One other word jumps out at me: “journey.” It’s 276 kilometers (170 miles) from Shittim to Gilgal. It took the Israelites 40 years to make that trek. It is a journey from the place of sin to the place of righteousness. We’ve all walked it.  But we don’t walk it alone. From the day they walked out of Egypt to the day they walked on the dry ground of the Jordan, God was with them step-by-step. And He is with you and me.

Where are you on the journey from Shittim to Gilgal, Beloved? Take one more step. And another, and another. God is with you. The saints are cheering you on. You’re going to make it. You have God’s Word on it.

Say It Again, God

“When God repeats something, He’s making a point and we need to pay attention.” My seminary professor’s words stuck with me as I sat before my Bible the next morning reading the day’s Scripture. I had been working through the Psalms for several months and was sitting in Psalm 136. You need to read this for yourself, so go grab your Bible (or look the verses up here) and read through this chapter. I’ll wait for you. What did you notice? Every verse ends with the refrain: “His love endures forever.” Twenty-six times. Do you think God is trying to make a point? Do you think you and I need to pay attention?

If there is one persistent theme in all of the Bible it is the love of God. God’s love often comes in different ways and the Psalmist points many of them out to us – His great wonders (v 4), His creation (vs. 5-9), salvation (v. 10-12), miracles (vs. 13-15), guidance (v. 16), protection (vs. 17-20), goodness (vs.  1, 21-22), faithfulness (v. 23), redemption (v. 24), and provision (v. 25).  God’s people in every generation could add to that list. God’s love is extraordinary and indescribable, through writers of books and songs and scripture (and blogs) have attempted to put it into human words. And they’ve all fallen short. There is a great old hymn, “The Love of God,” written in 1917 by Frederick. Lehman and Claudia Mays, that I think comes as close as anyone ever could. The third stanza is my favorite:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade;

To write the love of God above

Would drain the ocean dry;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

Though stretched from sky to sky.[1]

This psalm is full of beauty and majesty and wonder. But the point God was making over and over and over  – the thing that He wants you to grasp with all your heart, Beloved, is that He loves you and His love will endure forever. And that is something to repeatedly thank God for (vs. 1-3,26).


[1] The Love of God  (1917) by Frederick M. Lehman, 1917, har. by Claudia L. Mays, 1917, v. 3 by Anonymous/Unknown, copyright status is Public Domain.

Bear One Another’s Burdens

A few years ago my family was riding in the car together. My husband and son were in the front seats and I was in the back. I overheard this conversation:

Son: That truck’s tires are really low.

Dad: Well, he’s carrying a load of bricks in the back.

Son: Oh, I saw the tire, but I didn’t notice the load.

How many times do you and I notice when someone is “low” but never notice the load they are carrying?

I thought of the Israelites in their first battle on the way to the Promised Land from Egypt. Moses told Joshua to pull an army together and fight the Amalekites, while he stood atop the mountain and held “the staff of God” high above his head as a sign to the Israelite army that God was on their side. Now if you’ve ever tried to hold anything over your head for very long you understand how tiring that can be, and Moses was no exception. As long as he kept the staff raised high, the Israelite army had the advantage in the battle. When he got tired and dropped his weary arms, the tide of the battle turned and the Amalekites got the upper hand. No one else could hold up the staff – it was Moses’ God-given responsibility. But others could help him bear his burden, and a rock was placed behind him so he could sit down and “Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his arms remained steady till sunset” (Exodus 17:12). The result? “So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword” (v. 13). Joshua fought the battle, Moses held the staff, and Aaron and Hur held Moses’ arms till the enemy was defeated.

That is how the church works when it is at its best – holding one another up till the battle is over and Christ has claimed the victory. Sometimes you’re the one in the battle. Sometimes you’re the voice of encouragement to the weary warrior. Sometimes you’re the practical helper who keeps everyone else going. Everyone is crucial – every task is vital.  Do you know someone who is carrying a heavy load?  Find your place in the battle, Beloved, and “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). What is the Law of Christ? “Love one another” (John 15:17).  

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.

Hebrews: This May Make You Mad

According to Scripture, my job as a Bible teacher is to make you mad. My brothers will tell you I’ve been practicing for this my whole life. The writer of Hebrews said, “Let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). The word “spur” means “to incite, irritate, or provoke” and it comes from a root word that suggests a sharp disagreement. “But wait a minute,” you say, “I thought we were supposed to always get along and be at peace with one another.”  We are. But sometimes peace requires confrontation. The church suffers greatly because we are not willing to confront uncomfortable issues. Like what a Christian should look like. The writer pointed to two specific things: Love and good deeds. 

Jesus said that love would be the distinguishing mark of His followers (John 13:35) and you may recall that the only directive Jesus gave was when He commanded us to love one another (John 15:17). John went a step further (on someone’s toes) and said if you don’t love believers in Christ, that’s a good indication that you are not in Christ (1 John 2:9-11). Love is non-negotiable for the Christian.

We are also called to do good deeds. Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But James said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Who’s right here? Both. Salvation comes by faith in the grace of God and is evidenced by good works. No, you don’t have to go to Calcutta and join Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to prove that you are a Christian. Simple acts of love, kindness, gentleness, and compassion are good fruit in the believer’s life. Hate, harshness, rudeness, and indifference are evidence that one is not a Christ-follower. If there’s no good fruit there is no root in Christ.

Love and good deeds are the identifying marks of the Christian. If neither is present, then Christ is not present. If that makes you mad then take it up with God – He’s the one who said it first, not me. Also you might need to re-examine your relationship with Him.

The writer of wisdom said, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). Sharpening iron involves rubbing it with an abrasive stone to grind the edge. Sometimes we need kind words and other times we need a gritty whetstone. I’m called to give you both. I love you too much to not tell you the whole truth, even if it makes you mad.

Hebrews: Draw Near

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is His body and since we have a great priest over the house of God . . .” (Heb 10:19-21).

The writer of Hebrews proclaimed that the curtain that separated man and God has been removed. The priests who alone went behind the curtain have been replaced with the great priest who replaced the curtain with His own body, torn asunder. God has removed all the obstacles. Nothing prevents us from coming to the Lord now. Nothing but fear. And why are afraid? Because we are sinful people and He is a holy God. And “no one may see [Him] and live” (Ex 33:20). And because we know that God is “the One who can destroy both body and soul” (Matt 10:28). So we hide ourselves from Him, just as Adam and Eve did. I have good news for you my friend; this same God loves you with an everlasting love. A perfect love. And “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18).

Now we are invited to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith . . .” That “full assurance of faith” is the antithesis of fear.  Mind you, this is not the “pull up your bootstraps” kind of faith. This is faith that knows that “our hearts [have been] sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” and “our bodies [have been] washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22). It is faith that rests on the perfect love of God and the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood.

John also noted that “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The corollary then states that those who have been made perfect by the blood of Christ (go back to Heb 10:14) have nothing to fear.  Mind you, there is a healthy, reverent fear of the Lord that we should always have. He is, after all, the God of heaven and earth. But reverent fear and fear of punishment are two very different things. Beloved, if you have trusted in Jesus be assured that you are welcomed in the Father’s house – and in His arms.