New Identity – New Destiny

Yesterday was Gotcha Day for our adopted daughter–not her birthday, but the day of her birth into our family. And out of all the Gotcha Days we’ve celebrated since she joined our family, yesterday felt more momentous. Anah Joy was 7 years old when the five of us traveled from southern California to southern China to become a family of six. Now Anah is 14 years old, which means she’s been in our family (almost) as long as she was in the orphanage in China.

Aside from the celebratory ice cream that we all enjoyed (Anah’s favorite treat), two things were really significant to me on this 7th Gotcha Day. One was the time of prayer that we had together as a family, to bless Anah. It has become increasingly clear that God’s intent in bringing Anah into our family was not only to care for her, but also to grow our hearts in Christ. So listening to each family member pray honestly and deeply for Anah, and for us as a family, I was encouraged to see how God is bringing that growth about. These 7 years have been a long, hard road–a road in which the finish line is nowhere in sight–but in the struggle, God as the Surgeon of our souls is patiently, graciously cutting away the cancer of self-will and autonomy that infiltrates our hearts. Just as we would like to see faster progress in Anah’s development, we think that we should be further along in our growth toward maturity in Christ, but both will be a lifelong process of struggle and trust.

The other thing that stood out on this Gotcha Day #7 was the song we sang together in our family worship time. Anah loves music, and we picked a song that she knows and enjoys tremendously. Her ability to speak is still very limited, but the “O” sound is one she can make clearly and easily, so she delights to sing along (in her caterwauling way) with any songs that have a stretch of “Ohhh…” In the Bethel song “No Longer Slaves,” there is a long segment of “Ohhh”s (about 3:30 in the lyric video, if you’re not familiar with the song) and Anah loves that part of the song. So we sang that together, and she joined in with a big smile on her face.

But as we sang, the lyrics of the second verse stabbed my heart:

From my mother’s womb
You have chosen me
Love has called my name
I’ve been born again, into a family
Your blood flows through my veins

I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God

Anah does not know the mother whose womb carried her and gave birth to her. Yet even from that point, God had ordained that she would be born into a second family on the other side of the world. And our deepest hope is that through us, her adoptive family, she would one day be able to also say, though maybe not in words we can understand, “I am a child of God.” Human adoption has given her a new name, and with that a new destiny. How much more is given in the new identity–and new destiny–that comes as a child of God!

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”  – Romans 8:15-17

 

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What’s Your No-Exit Strategy?

The retirement of my senior pastor a few months ago came as the culmination of a long-anticipated and well-planned exit strategy that he had been implementing for many years. Not surprisingly, that transition has been happening about as smoothly as a transition of that magnitude could go.

There is much wisdom in a well-thought-out exit strategy like my senior pastor executed. I’m glad he walked in such wisdom and faith. But some things in the Christian life call for endurance rather than a smooth exit. When we are called to love others as Christ has loved us, God’s call to us is to put into motion a no-exit strategy–to trust Him enough to remain and persevere in the circumstances He has given to us.

Author Paul Miller pictures the suffering we encounter as a desert–a dry and desolate place between hope and reality. According to Miller, God customizes this desert experience for each of us, for the purpose of sanctifying our hearts.

A desert can be almost anything. It can be a child who has gone astray, a difficult boss, or even your own sin or foolishness. Maybe you married your desert.

God customizes deserts for each of us. Joseph’s desert is being betrayed and forgotten in an Egyptian jail. Moses lives in the Midian desert as an outcast for forty years. The Israelites live in the desert for forty years. David runs from Saul in the desert. All of them hold on to the hope of God’s Word yet face the reality of their situations.

The Father turning his face against you is the heart of the desert experience. Life has ended. It no longer has any point. It’s very tempting to survive the desert by taking the bread of bitterness offered by Satan—to maintain a wry, cynical detachment from life, finding a perverse enjoyment in mocking those who still hope.

God takes everyone he loves through a desert. It is his cure for our wandering hearts, restlessly searching for a new Eden. Here’s how it works.

The first thing that happens is we slowly give up the fight. Our wills are broken by the reality of our circumstances. The things that brought us life gradually die. Our idols die for lack of food.

Suffering burns away the false selves created by cynicism or pride or lust. You stop caring about what people think of you. The desert is God’s best hope for the creation of an authentic self.

[Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life, © 2009 NavPress, pp. 181, 183, 184-185.]

When God brings us into a desert of suffering, our natural inclination is to start designing an exit strategy. Yet if the desert is truly God’s primary tool to form Christ in our hearts, we dare not run or exit too quickly. Instead we must endure, trusting that the resurrection God brings out of the death of our false self is far better than the flimsy life to which we were clinging.

The Hopefulness of Hopelessness

When Frodo first encounters Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn asks Frodo, “Are you frightened?” In response to Frodo’s timid “Yes,” Aragorn shoots back: “Not nearly frightened enough–I know what hunts you.” Frodo’s low level of fear betrays his complete ignorance of the gravity of the danger he faces.

Similarly, if you were in a situation that felt hopeless, and someone’s response to your despair was “You’re not nearly hopeless enough,” what would you think? It would probably come across as a pretty insensitive thing to say. While I’m certainly not recommending that as a standard response to a hopeless person, I do think there is value in coming to the end of ourselves and facing the reality of our human inability to effect certain kinds of change. Hopelessness can open the door to a hope that is not based on human effort or ability, but on God’s power alone.

But hopelessness is not a comfortable place to be. I know–I’ve been there…often.

So I was intrigued–and a bit perturbed–by a recent blog post by Ed Welch of CCEF. Welch writes: “…in your hopelessness, you are at the end of yourselves and need divine intervention. Such humility is both attractive and hopeful.” Hopelessness can actually be a hopeful place? How does that work?

Welch ends his blog by saying: “You should be encouraged that hopelessness is a small step from spiritual neediness, which is the foundation of all change.” Ahh…that makes sense! As long as I think I can make something happen on my own, I will not depend on God but on the limited resources of my flesh. But when I come to a place of despairing of my own ability (i.e. hopelessness), I am forced to depend more fully on God (i.e. spiritual neediness), and God is certainly able to bring about that which is beyond my capacity to accomplish. So hopelessness is not the bitter end, but can actually be the seedbed for significant change.

Back to Frodo and Aragorn–if I am not hopeless enough, I will be more likely to insist on trying to fix things in the power of my own flesh. And because the resources of my flesh are vastly inferior to the resources of the Almighty God, retaining that bit of hope ends up putting me in a more hopeless condition than if I am completely at the end of myself.

All that may make sense theoretically, and yet when hopelessness threatens to swallow me up, I instinctively push back against it. I don’t like being hopeless. Which is to say, I don’t like being needy. But if neediness is truly the foundation of change, maybe there is hopefulness in my very hopelessness…if, in my hopelessness, I am learning a deeper dependence on God alone to bring change.

A Christian’s Unique Ministry

Praying with and for a fellow struggler is one of the most typical, everyday forms of ministry that Christians engage in. But in contrast to the kind of care that is typically given in the helping professions, praying with another stands out as quite unique.

David Powlison writes convincingly that God’s call to care for peoples’ souls is a call to the impossible and at the same time a call to something so simple that any Christian can do it. It is a call to the impossible, in that God alone can rescue a person from their sin and bring lasting change in their heart and life. You and I as mere Christians cannot produce that kind of transformation. Yet it is a call to a kind of comfort and care that any Christian can provide. Powlison quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century pastor-theologian (whose father was a psychiatrist):

The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.  [Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, p. 115.]

Both of these realities point to the need of prayer and the purpose of praying together. Because God alone can change a human heart–including my own–I must pray. In Christ, I have been granted access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), and I come with confidence that my prayers are not only heard but acted on, by the One whose Spirit has power to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all I can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). God calls me to a work that is humanly impossible, but He unites me to Christ, whose power to bring change knows no limit.

Because praying together is something that any Christian can do, we must pray. We have a unique ministry to bring, a ministry that the psychotherapeutic profession will not provide. Pay attention to David Powlison’s wise words:

[The lack of prayer in psychotherapists’ practice] signifies that they believe no outside help is needed, wanted, or available. They and those they counsel presumably possess everything they might need for making sense of problems and choosing to live fruitfully. The answers lie within the individual, combined with a supportive, insightful, and practical therapist, perhaps with a boost from psychoactive medication.

You as a pastor do not believe that an explanation and cure of human difficulties can leave out the active, intentional heart that is always loving either the true God or something else. Only an outside agent can turn a wandering heart into an attentive heart. A true cure of the soul can’t ignore the active malice of the deceiver, enemy, and slavemaster of souls. In the fog of war, who will help you see clearly? Wisdom does not suppress knowledge of the living God. Who will deliver us from evil? When you and those you counsel lack wisdom, who will give what is needed? You need and want available help. Therefore, you pray with and for others…. You pray because people need forgiveness for their sins–you cannot grant that. They need a Shepherd who will never leave them–you are not that person. They need the power that raised Jesus from the dead–so do you. They need the hope of the resurrection, that one day all tears will be wiped away and all sins washed away–you share the same necessity. They need faith-working-through-love to become truer in their lives, to run deeper, to take hold of everything. 

This is so for every Christian. If you seek to love wisely, you will as a matter of course learn to pray well for and with others in their real need.  [Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling: Volume 26, Number 1, pp. 35-36.]

If Christ is in you, and you are in Christ, you have a unique ministry to offer, a ministry that you are likely already engaged in–the ministry of praying well for and with others. Go and put that ministry into practice.

 

Love to the End

In John 13:1, we are told that Jesus not only loved His own, but “He loved them to the end.” His love–to the end–moved Him to do the unthinkably humiliating task of washing the feet of His students. Never did a superior wash the feet of those beneath him–Jesus’ act of humble service was shocking to His disciples. But washing dirty feet with water was not the extent of Jesus’ love. His love–to the end–also moved Him to endure the torture and shame of the cross, though He Himself was innocent. Rarely will anyone die for one they love–never will one die for their enemies. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

The world around us does not love to the end. The world loves only as long as there is some kind of return on that love. As long as the romance continues, as long as the feelings last, as long as the affection is reciprocated–but romance and feelings and reciprocal affection do not last long. They certainly do not last long enough to carry our love to the end.

If I’m honest, I know I do not have it in me to love to the end. I may start out loving well, but when that love is put to the test, my tendency is to turn inward in self-pity or self-protection, rather than outward in self-sacrifice. When my love is not noticed or appreciated, when it is misunderstood or outright rejected, my internal response is to detach, to shut down emotionally. In my own strength, I certainly cannot love to the end.

Paul Miller writes that love opens the door to suffering: “Typically, we define love as the love we choose, not realizing that the love we choose almost always draws us into love we don’t choose.” [Paul Miller, J-Curve, p. 122] It is this harder, un-chosen love that God grows in our hearts as we depend on Him to love to the end.

My own struggle to love to the end is focused around my adopted daughter with special needs. Initially, the love I chose (and my family chose) was the love to bring her into our family through adoption. That was not easy–there was much involved in that choice to love–but it was a sacrifice of love that we freely chose to make. Now that we are almost seven years into the adoption, though, we see clearly that our initial choice to love has ushered us into a daily struggle to love in ways that we did not choose (and often do not want).

I had expected that our daughter would be further down the road in basic self-care by now. I had hoped that she would be bathing on her own several years ago. I thought that there would be a jump in comprehension and communication the longer she was with us. When she started into school full-time, I was anticipating that there would be a corresponding increase in her functional skills.

None of those have happened. With the disappointment–and disillusionment–I feel, God is stretching and challenging my love. Will I love this little girl as she is, or only as I hoped she would be? Will I give to her simply because she is my daughter, or will I demand that there is change in her before I can give to her fully? Will I sacrifice for her as a person, and not just for the sake of training her?

This is not the love I chose when I walked through the long, tedious paperwork process to adopt her. That was only the beginning. Now God is bringing me down low, into humility and death, in order to deepen my love and make it a love that will endure to the end. Love has opened the door to suffering, and now suffering is opening the door to an enduring love–love to the end.

 

Suffering–on Repeat

Repeat-album-or-playlistI like the “Repeat” button, when playing music. But when God puts suffering on “Repeat” in my life, I’m not real excited about it. However, there is a purpose–a good purpose-for ongoing, repeated suffering. Suffering–on “Repeat”–is one of God’s most effective instruments of sanctification.

Ed Welch, a counselor and writer for CCEF, says this:
“Suffering feels like our biggest problem and avoiding it like our greatest need—but we know that there is something more. Sin is actually our biggest problem, and rescue from it is our greatest need.

“There is a link between the two. Suffering exposes the sin in our hearts in a way that few things can. When our lives are trouble-free, we can confuse personal satisfaction for faith. We can think that God is good, and we are pleased with him, though we might be pleased less with him than we are with the ease of our lives. Then, when life is hard—especially when life remains hard—the allegiances of our hearts become more apparent. Suffering will reveal sin that still “clings so closely” to us (Heb. 12:1)…”
[Edward T. Welch, Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love, © 2015 Crossway, p. 43.]

Suffering reveals sin. Repeated suffering relentlessly uncovers sin in our hearts that may otherwise remain hidden and unacknowledged. But repeated suffering does more than reveal sin. Ongoing suffering is a tool that God uses to deliver us from sin.

Referring to the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), Paul Miller writes that Jesus’ promise of sufficient grace (v. 9) is essentially saying, “I’m going to deliver you from evil by not delivering you from the thorn. I’m going to use outside evil (the thorn) to deliver you from inside evil (conceit).” [Paul E. Miller, J-Curve, (c) 2019 Crossway, p. 102.]

Miller examines Paul’s thorn through the lens of the J-Curve (the continual re-enacting of the dying and rising of Jesus–which is the shape of the normal Christian life):

  1. Paul faces the danger of conceit (2 Cor. 12:7a).
  2. Jesus gives Paul a thorn that draws him into a mini-death (v. 7b).
  3. Pride is stripped from Paul down at the bottom of the J-Curve. He becomes weak (v. 9a).
  4. Paul experiences resurrection power in his life and ministry (v. 9b).
    [Miller, J-Curve, p. 103.]

However, the problem is that “as Paul experiences resurrection power, his old nemesis, pride, returns, but just in time, the thorn reasserts itself, bringing him down again into death–and the cycle begins again.” [Miller, J-Curve, p. 102.]

We might think of repeated suffering as a consequence of our repeated sin struggles, and it certainly can be that. However, what we can learn from the Apostle Paul’s thorn is that repeated suffering is also the means of deliverance from repeated sin.

Our flesh is continuously pulling us toward autonomy from God–toward living in the power of our own resources. The resurrection power that we experience in a victory over one area of our flesh can open the door to independence and pride in that very area, and thus the suffering and weakness repeats in order to combat the repeating drive toward fleshly autonomy.

I do not like it when my life remains hard–when suffering repeats over and over. But if dying and rising like Christ is what the normal Christian life is to look like, my perspective on suffering needs to change. And even more importantly, if repeated suffering is the tool God uses to combat my flesh and grow my heart toward maturity in Christ, then suffering is not merely something to avoid or endure, but to welcome and embrace, even boast in.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9b-10

Not Yet

Road trips are fun. But road trips can also be very long. Especially when you’ve been on the road for hours, and there are hours still to go, and the child in the back seat (or the adult in the front seat) asks for the thirty-seventh time, “How much longer?”

As a teenager, I had a very wise youth leader who knew how to deal with impatient teens on long road trips. Every time someone asked “How much longer?” he gave the same reply: “Ten more minutes!” It didn’t matter whether we had just left the church or whether we were hours down the road, the answer was always: “Ten more minutes!” After awhile we just stopped asking.

Road trips can feel very long. But the very fact that we ask “How much longer?” says that we know sooner or later the road will end. We will reach our destination. And the anticipation of that arrival helps us hang in there on the long, long road.

I’ve been enjoying a song lately from CityAlight, called Christ is Mine Forevermore. I love the poetry and the flow of the lyrics, acknowledging the reality of pain and struggle, yet holding tightly to the anchor of hope. The second verse has the structure of lament, and captures the tension between sorrow and hope that we who are in Christ live with day by day:
    Mine are tears in times of sorrow
    Darkness not yet understood
    Through the valley I must travel
    Where I see no earthly good
    But mine is peace that flows from heaven
    And the strength in times of need
    I know my pain will not be wasted
    Christ completes his work in me.

Do you see that second line? Darkness not yet understood. There is a world of difference between “darkness not understood” and “darkness not yet understood.” It is the difference between despair and hope–between a road trip going nowhere and a road trip with a much-anticipated destination. In this life there are tears. There is sorrow. Darkness abounds. And often we are not given understanding–the pain does not make sense nor seem to have a good purpose.

But in Christ we believe that one day we will understand. One day we will see. One day we will know fully, even as we are fully known (I Corinthians 13:12). That day is not yet. But it is coming. Of that we can be sure. The valley of tears feels unending. The pain feels overwhelming. But the tears and the pain will not be wasted–Christ will complete the good work He has begun in you and in me (Philippians 1:6).

One day we will see and understand, not only that God redeems our pain and works it together for good, but that the pain is actually an indispensable tool in His skilled and gentle hands, forming us more and more into His likeness. Here and now, we give thanks for the pain only by faith (and probably through gritted teeth); one day we will overflow with a depth of gratitude when we see the fullness and beauty of God’s good work that could come about in no other way than through the pain we are now experiencing.

If you find yourself in a valley of tears right now, and you see no earthly good in the pain you are facing, may the peace–and the strength–of Christ be yours in abundance, and may you hold tightly to the hope that this road does have a glorious destination. “Tears may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Ten more minutes!