The Kindest Surgeon

God is intent on transforming His children into the likeness of Christ.

We who are His children long for that transformation. But transformation into Christ’s likeness is never an instantaneous zap. Rather, it is a long, slow, and often painful process in which our tendencies toward sin and autonomy are stripped away, and new habits of godliness are forged. Maturity in Christ comes not from the “Poof!” of a magic wand, but from the rod and staff of the Shepherd as He leads us in paths of righteousness.

I recently read through a little book by C.S. Lewis called A Grief Observed, which is a compilation of his journal entries in response to the death of his beloved wife. In these raw yet thoughtful expressions of his deep grief, Lewis wrestled with God as he tried to make sense of the dark valley he was walking through. While he cried out to God to be gracious and tender, he also began to recognize that perhaps the pain actually pointed to the kindness of God. This is what he wrote:

The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed–might grow tired of his vile sport–might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t. [C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pp. 55-56]

God is the kindest and most conscientious of surgeons, and because He is intent on our transformation, we can expect that pain will come in the process. But the dark valleys we walk through are not the punishments of a sadistic deity; rather they are the skillful surgeries of our Kind Physician as He inexorably cuts the sin from our hearts and removes all that is dead and diseased in our character.

Trust Him!

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No Guarantees

Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” – Jesus (Mark 8:35)

Following Jesus is costly, and there are no guarantees that the results (in this life) will be happy. In fact, the only thing that is guaranteed is that “In the world [we] will have tribulation.” (John 16:33) But followers of Jesus are not living for happiness in this world, but for joy in the Life to come.

My sister has five biological children, and the youngest has Down Syndrome. Training a child with Down Syndrome is not an easy road, as anyone who has loved such a precious one knows. But my sister and brother-in-law did not turn inward to self-pity or self-protection even though the road was hard. Instead, as my nephew grew and his abilities increased, they opened their hearts and their home to foster, and then adopt, two brothers who had been in the foster care system for most of their young lives.

In many ways, parenting those two boys has been an even more difficult road than caring for a child with developmental disabilities, because of the immense amount of baggage they bring with them from their formational years in the foster care system. But Christ’s sacrificial love for my sister fuels her love for her adopted sons, and her deepest desire is that they also would love and follow Christ.

Even costly obedience–like my sister’s sacrifice of fostering-to-adopt–comes with no guarantee that all will go well. Several years after the adoption was completed, she found out that the older of the adopted sons was sexually abusing her son with Down Syndrome. That resulted in the adopted son being removed from their home into the juvenile justice system–heartache upon heartache, and grief upon grief!

Because my sister’s family knows the ugliness of their own sin against a holy God, and because they know what it cost Christ to forgive their sin, they eventually came to forgive their adopted son and brother for his horrendous, sinful acts (though certainly not without much struggle and pain). Even their son who had most directly been sinned against and deeply hurt, also chose to forgive and love, in his own simple way. So for the past few years, they have continued to visit and care for their adopted son (in the detention facility), desperately praying that God would have mercy on his soul.

But even the costly obedience of forgiveness carries no guarantee that the one forgiven will repent or change. At the beginning of December my sister received a call from the county coroner’s office informing her that her delinquent son had committed suicide. So the fun and joy of the Christmas season was clouded by the deep grief of not only the death of an adopted son but the devastating reality of his rejection of Christ and thus eternity apart from Him.

For me, the moment that brought the most tears to my eyes during the small burial service last weekend, was seeing my nephew walk forward to place a rose on the casket of the brother who had harmed him. He wasn’t merely doing his duty as a part of a line of family members filing past; he had no prompting from his mom or dad; he just got up on his own initiative after a few others had placed their flowers, and walked alone with his awkward gait to gently drop his red rose on the casket. His costly forgiveness in that small act was such a beautiful picture of the Gospel to all of us who were watching.

Adoption is good. I believe that with all my heart. My sister believes that with all her heart. But doing the good and right thing doesn’t guarantee that all will go well. After all, we are following in the footsteps of a Savior who gave up His life for we who were His enemies, who suffered and died in our place though He Himself had no sin. Even Jesus had no guarantee that His costly obedience would turn out well–and from a merely human perspective, it didn’t. The sinless Son of God was put to death on a cruel cross. But Jesus also was not living for happiness in this world but for the joy of the Life to come.

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

Training for a New Year

What’s ahead in this new year for you? Are there changes on the horizon–or events coming up–that you are excitedly anticipating? Are there things you’re looking ahead to with a bit of trepidation? Are you stressed about all the unknowns that are looming in front of you?

How do you prepare for all that’s ahead, for both the known and the unknown, the joy and the heartache that will inevitably come your way?

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.   [I Timothy 4:7-8, emphasis added]

If you are a Christian, training yourself for godliness is the best way you can prepare for the new year that’s beginning.

Godliness doesn’t just mean performing good deeds, but doing everyday life in ways that are centered around God. A godly person is one who is aware of God wherever they are, focused on God rather than wrapped up in self or in other pursuits, and devoted to God above all else. In contrast, according to author Jerry Bridges, an ungodly person lives their “everyday life with little or no thought of God, or of God’s will, or of God’s glory, or of one’s dependence on God…. They may even attend church for an hour or so each week but then live the remainder of the week as if God doesn’t exist.”

Growth in godliness is not automatic. The bent of our hearts from birth is not God-centered but self-centered. The essence of our sin is that we are against God; we want to be our own god and make life work with our own resources. Training in godliness is not possible apart from God’s gracious work to rescue us out of our self-centered rebellion and make us into sons and daughters of the King. So if your confidence is in your own ability to live an upright or moral life, you are not growing in godliness. Instead, put your confidence in God, in the rescue that Jesus has provided for you through His life, death, and resurrection–that is the beginning of godliness.

But when our trust is anchored in Christ, then God’s call to us is to train ourselves to center our lives more and more around Him and His glory. How does that training happen? We train ourselves in godliness by developing habits of dependence on God. The activities that we intentionally engage in, which open our hearts to God’s work of change and growth in us–that is the training we are to do. Spiritual disciplines (or habits of grace) do not cause or produce growth in our lives, rather they put us in a posture of openness and dependence on God, who alone causes that growth to happen. So our training in godliness is a training in trust and dependence on God.

We may know a few things that will be coming our way in 2019, but there will inevitably be unexpected trials and struggles as well. Thus training in godliness is vital preparation if we are to remain devoted to God and focused on Him no matter what comes our way this year. How will you train yourself for godliness? What disciplines will you engage in this year that will foster a deeper dependence on God? What habits of grace will you begin, in order to open your heart to God’s gracious work of growth in you?

The Promise of Presence

Emmanuel—God with us. The King…with us. The King draws near, and gives us the promise of His presence.

But when the King draws near to His subjects, there is trepidation before there is comfort.

When the Holy King draws near—the Holy King above all kings, the Creator and Sustainer of all—when that King draws near, we cannot help but tremble.

All the earth trembles before Him in the splendor of His holiness (Psalm 96:9). “If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3) No one. No one! If the King kept count of our sins, no one could stand. There is no one who is righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).

On a human level, we feel some trepidation—minimally we feel uncomfortable or awkward—when we are in the presence of a person of great importance or power or wealth, right? If you work for a huge company like Disney and your CEO walked into the office where you’re working, how would you respond? If we tremble in the presence of fellow human beings who have power or status much greater than ours, how much more should we tremble in the presence of Almighty God.

Why does the presence of the Holy King prompt trembling in us? Why is trembling a right response to His presence? Because in the presence of the King we see our sin, we see our weakness, and we see our need so clearly. The pure light of His holiness shines into the dark corners of our hearts and reveals the sin that clings so closely to us. The infinite nature of His strength makes our weakness stand out all the clearer. The beauty of His perfection highlights our inability and need. When God the King draws near, we tremble because we see so clearly that we are not God.

When Jesus the Son of God put on human flesh to be born to a courageous teenage girl, not everyone was excited at the presence of God-with-us. The incarnation was jarring, intrusive, unsettling. Self-righteous, religious folk were angered by this seeming upstart who saw through their veneer of goodness and called them out when their lives didn’t match up to their teaching. Self-righteous, religious folk today still get angry when the presence of the Holy King disrupts our comfortable complacency and shines a spotlight on our sin and weakness and need. The nearness of holiness prompts trembling in we who are not holy.

In the presence of the King, we see our sin, our weakness, and our need…and we rightfully tremble. But it is the sinner who owns their sinfulness, it is the weak who acknowledges their weakness, and it is the needy who does not hide from their neediness—it is this kind of person who is then able to rest most fully in the presence of the King. Because the King has not drawn near to condemn us, but to be condemned in our place. Emmanuel has not come to save the righteous, but the sinner.

Emmanuel has come—the King has drawn near—that in the light of His presence we might see our sin in all its ugliness, SO that we could then see the mercy of our God in all its beauty. The irony of the incarnation is that God-with-us is jarring before it is comforting—indeed that we cannot be truly comforted by God’s nearness unless we are first frightened by it. But the promise of presence is that the God who draws near and makes our knees knock is the very One who makes frightened, repentant sinners into sons and daughters of the King.

Emmanuel—God with us. Tremble before Him.

not-so-Final Exams

It’s final exam season, and Sanctuary Coffee (where I like to hang out and work) has been crowded with stressed students cramming (and caffeinating) for their exams. I was relieved that my Talbot class this semester had no written final exam, but I know all too well the pressure of late-night (or all-night) study sessions. No one likes finals.

As stressful as academic final exams are, they serve the significant purpose of revealing the progress of the student and confirming whether or not he or she has mastered the content and skills of the course they are taking. You would much prefer that the doctor preparing to perform surgery on your knee is not guessing on the location of the ligaments he is supposed to repair, but that his knowledge and skill has been vigorously tested and approved before his knife touches your knee. No one likes going through final exams, but we do definitely appreciate the fruit of them.

James 1:2-4 speaks of trials that test our faith and bring growth toward maturity in Christ. These “trials of various kinds” are God’s version of final exams–they reveal our progress in godliness and allow us to see areas of proficiency (fruit of the Spirit) and deficiency (sin and struggle) in our hearts and lives. Unlike academic final exams, though, these trials that test us don’t only come a couple times a year, but can show up at any time in the midst of daily life. They are not-so-final exams.

The late Dallas Willard, philosophy professor and writer, identifies these exams as “ordinary events of life” and places them as a foundational element of the sanctification process in his “Golden Triangle of spiritual growth.” This broadens our understanding of trials to include not only negative, painful suffering, but also positive, exciting opportunities. The longed-for birth of a child tests our faith just as surely as the loss of a job. The daily frustrations and joys that we encounter–traffic jams, ice cream, deep conversations, or runny noses–may not seem as momentous as an academic final exam, but they accomplish the same purpose of revealing where our hearts are growing in Christ and where maturity is lacking.

What are the not-so-final exams you and I are facing today? How is our faith being tested and revealed in the ordinary events and struggles of day-to-day life? Are we preparing as diligently as the students pulling all-nighters? God delights to use these everyday trials as tools to form His good character in us. Happy studying!

Growing toward Dependence

How do you measure maturity in Christ?

The Bible compares spiritual growth with the process of growth biologically–Christians are to grow up and eat meat rather than living on milk only (Hebrews 5:12-14); we are to no longer be infants but grow up in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4:14-15), with the goal of reaching “mature manhood” (Ephesians 5:13). So biological maturity can give us a picture of what spiritual maturity entails. 

But there is at least one significant difference between how we measure maturity biologically and how we measure spiritual maturity. Biological maturity is usually marked by a growth in independence. Spiritual maturity, while certainly implying an increasing independence in some areas, should be primarily marked by a growth in dependence on God. 

The problem is that we as human beings hate dependence. Especially in Western culture where autonomy is prized so highly and being a self-made woman or man is the epitome of success, dependence is scorned as weak and undesirable. Think about it: what is the opposite of autonomy? There are plenty of synonyms for autonomy, and they are all words we would think of as positive–freedom, independence, liberty, self-determination, choice, etc. But look at the antonyms–coercion, compulsion, enslavement, subjugation, dependence (and even “unfreedom”–I didn’t know that word existed!). Those are terms we hold as negative–even evil–and certainly not desirable.

As parents, we celebrate increasing independence in our children. Learning to walk is a major milestone, and successful potty training is even more exciting! Driving, graduating from college, landing a good job and living on their own are all marks of maturity that we equip our children to attain. Thus when my special daughter, as a teenager now, continues to wait for people to tell her what to do next (or to do it for her), I feel immense frustration. I know she won’t attain anywhere near the same degree of independence that my other three children will, but her seeming delight in remaining completely dependent runs counter to everything I have been conditioned to value and aim for in my parenting. 

Author Jerry Bridges defines ungodliness in this way: “living one’s everyday life with little or no thought of God…or of one’s dependence on God.” An ungodly person, according to this definition, “may even attend church for an hour or so each week but then live the remainder of the week as if God doesn’t exist” (from Bridges’ excellent book, Respectable Sins, page 48). Godliness, then–spiritual maturity–is not only doing godly actions, but at a more foundational level it is a relational awareness of God and dependence on God in all aspects of a person’s life. 

Perhaps God has something to teach me through my daughter’s delight in dependence. What would it look like for me to joyfully accept my human limitations and to cease striving so hard to make life work with my own resources? How can my moment-by-moment awareness of God’s presence and power grow, that I would look to Him as naturally and expectantly as my daughter looks to me? And what will it take for my mindset to shift from shunning dependence as weakness to embracing it as the foundation of spiritual maturity? 

Infinite Perspective

One Sunday I was standing in back during the service (true confession: I was sleepy, and standing helps me stay awake), and I noticed a young mom with her toddler daughter walking toward their seats. The mom bent down to pick up her daughter, but as she did so, the child accidentally dropped something that had been clutched in her chubby little fist. Mom was unaware of the treasure that had dropped, and for just a moment the toddler kicked and struggled in her mom’s arms, trying to get down to retrieve her fallen treasure.

I wasn’t close enough to see the expression on the mother’s face when her daughter squirmed and kicked, but I’m sure that even if she was bothered by that behavior, she was gentle and gracious with her toddler. But it prompted a moment of introspection–if that had been me and my toddler, my response as a parent would have been to scold and correct what I perceived as disobedience.

In that little scenario, my vantage point allowed me to see something that the mom was unaware of, and it made me wonder how often I miss things like the mom did, simply because my perspective is limited. In fact, I know that happens often with my special daughter. She is essentially nonverbal–she can say words but rarely initiates any meaningful communication. So we have to guess what she’s feeling or what she needs, because she won’t tell us.

Recently our whole family was on a little outing to take our Christmas family photo, and after we’d been on our feet for awhile, surprisingly our daughter signed “Sit”! We were walking back to the car, so we just brushed it off as her usual resistance to doing much walking. Later that evening we discovered that she had a fever and was coming down with a cold. Then–long after the fact–it made sense why she had told us she wanted to sit down. She wasn’t just being ornery and refusing to walk, she was actually sick and could have been feeling dizzy or weak or uncomfortable. My perspective was limited, and I completely missed what she was trying to communicate.

Bumping up against the limits of my finite perspective, and seeing the fallout that can come from it, makes me even more grateful that God’s perspective is infinite. He never misses the toddler’s dropped treasure. He never misinterprets the sick daughter’s need to rest. Psalm 103:14 says, “He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.” The NASB adds “but” and highlights God’s mercy even more: “He remembers that we are but dust.” The One who has formed us from dust remembers that reality, and He does not treat us as if we shared His infinite perspective. His understanding of our frailty doesn’t excuse us from sin, but His mercy extends even to our sinfulness: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him…” (Psalm 103:10-11)

My finite perspective means I often miss the needs of those around me, or misinterpret what others are communicating to me, and thus end up hurting those I love. And the finite perspective of those who love me means that I too am often missed and misunderstood, and end up hurt or frustrated. But God, in His infinite perspective, not only sees and covers that which I miss in others, but also sees and understands the ways in which I am unseen and misunderstood. His mercy ministers to my need, and that same mercy covers my finite frailty. He remembers that I am but dust. What a peace that brings!