Acquainted with Grief

Art can give us a window into the soul in a deeper way than words alone can do. For that reason, I’m tremendously grateful for my daughter’s recent photography exhibition–it allowed those who viewed it to understand our family’s pain in ways that our words cannot fully communicate. Her final piece was a self-portrait that zeroed in on a theme of her exhibit: Grief is not an easy fix. In our discomfort over other’s grief, we often seek to merely gloss over it with Christian platitudes like Romans 8:28, but in doing so we miss the deeper connection of entering in to one another’s sorrows.

Romans 8:28 is certainly true, but when we are in the midst of a grief that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon, being told that God works all things together for our good sounds more trite than comforting. And so in those places of deep grief in which “working together for good” seems very far off, I am thankful for the way Isaiah 53:3-4 describes our Savior.

He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows…

A man of sorrows who was well-acquainted with grief. This is our sympathetic High Priest, who knows us not just as a far-off all-knowing deity but as One who has suffered sorrow and grief even deeper than our own and therefore truly understands us. And in fact, not only does Jesus understand our grief and sorrow, but he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. He not only bore His own grief on that cross, but the grief of all we for whom He died. He not only carried His own sorrows of being rejected and despised in His earthly life, but He carried all of our sorrows as well.

And as the One who ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25), Jesus bears our griefs even now, and carries our sorrows until He carries us into His very presence for all eternity and wipes every tear away.

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Building Frames

hanging framesI’m really proud of my daughter. Her senior thesis exhibition of her photography is on display this week at the Biola Art Gallery, and she has done an excellent job! (Not that I’m a biased dad or anything.) She has captured so much of the rawness and pain of our family’s adoption journey through her photos and her art.

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A month or so ago, as she planned out her exhibit, my daughter asked if I could help her build some huge frames for a few of the images that are in the exhibit. Since I enjoy custom woodworking projects, especially when it’s being made for someone I love, I agreed to build the frames. We worked together on them for one weekend, then I finished them up in the following weekends and helped her install them in the gallery prior to her show. It was a lot of work, but I was really pleased with how they turned out.

As I watched people contemplate my daughter’s artwork on the opening night of the exhibition, the thought struck me that those frames I built are a pretty good metaphor of the life and ministry God has called me to. With the exception of a couple people who knew that I had built the frames, nobody commented on the frames at all. In fact, I would venture to say that hardly anyone even noticed the frames. And that’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

The whole point of picture frames is to frame the pictures within them. So a good frame doesn’t call attention to itself but to the artwork that is displayed between its four corners. That is why the only time a frame is noticed is when there is a defect in it or it is not hung properly. But when the frame is well-made and rightly hung, it directs all the viewer’s attention to the artwork.

God has called me to be a frame builder. Not primarily to construct giant frames out of wood, but to create space for individuals or small groups to enjoy God and grow in Him. If I do my job well, then what people notice and make much of is the beauty and goodness of God. Occasionally, someone might notice and appreciate the structure that has been created and how that structure facilitates deepening relationship with God, but for the most part, the structure remains unseen in the background.

If building frames is the good work that God has prepared in advance for me as His workmanship to carry out (see Ephesians 2:10), then I can work at it with all my heart, trusting that the very One whose beauty is being displayed by my “frames” is the One who sees and rewards all my unseen labor to create that space for others.

The Essence of Prayer

Jesus’ disciple Peter is known for both his raw honesty and his impetuous action. Both of those characteristics are on display in the account of Peter’s brief stroll across the waves to get to Jesus (in Matthew 14:22-33). The disciples are making a middle of the night voyage across the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus is alone praying to His Father after an intense time of ministry and a painful experience of loss. In the wee hours of the morning, before it is light, Jesus comes to the disciples as they are straining at the oars to make headway against the wind.

Multiple factors contribute to the freaked-out response of the disciples when Jesus materializes out of the darkness, walking on the water. One, they had no idea He was coming–there was no text message with an ETA to let them know He was on the way. Two, it was still pitch dark, before the sun had risen. Three, they must have been exhausted by that point, and imaginations can do weird things when people are overly tired. And fourth, humans walking on top of water was certainly not an everyday occurrence that these disciples would have experienced.

So when they see a shadowy figure coming toward them over the waves, the disciples cry out with terror, thinking it is a ghost. Jesus speaks to them to calm their fears, though it’s interesting that He doesn’t say “It’s Jesus” but simply “It is I,” trusting that the disciples will in fact know His voice and be comforted. This is where Peter’s true colors come out–he spontaneously throws out this crazy test to verify that this shadowy figure is in fact Jesus: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Where did he come up with that?!!) And Jesus, perhaps with a wry smile that Peter couldn’t see in the darkness, says “Come.”

For all his bluster and blunders, Peter does one thing really well–He obeys. He doesn’t sit there and calculate the risks and possibilities, He simply obeys and steps out of the boat. And for a few seconds, he too is walking on top of the waves! But then with a splash of cold water across the face, reality sinks in, and obedient, impetuous Peter is going down. In that moment of sinking realization, Peter utters what I think is the essence of prayer: “Lord, save me!”

Lord, save me. Three simple words. But this is the essence of prayer. Prayer calls out to the Lord. It is an act of humility and dependence on God–it is a recognition that we cannot save ourselves, that in fact we need Someone outside of ourselves to do what we cannot bring about. Prayer pleads “Save!” We are asking for deliverance, for rescue, for salvation, in one way or another. And prayer expresses what is needed for me. It is not merely theoretical or theological, but personal.

Certainly there is a place for rehearsing the truth of the Gospel in our prayers, but when Peter finds himself starting to sink in the waves and I find myself sinking in despair, “Lord, save me!” is just as appropriate a prayer (and in a simpler way is actually rehearsing the Gospel as well). Certainly there is a time to express fully our adoration of God, to confess our sin, to give Him thanks, and to bring our supplications to Him (as the A.C.T.S. acronym reminds us), but when the winds of fear are blowing and the waves of sorrow are crashing, “Lord, save me!” should be constantly on our lips and in our hearts.

Jesus responded immediately to Peter’s simple prayer–He reached out His hand and took hold of Peter. And Jesus will respond to our cries as well when we utter this simple prayer “Lord, save me!”

Conversational Ministry

What do you say when your two boys are squabbling for the third time in the past twenty minutes?

What will you say when a friend who is single shares with you about her loneliness and despair?

What advice will you give when your wife is overwhelmed with caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s?

How will you respond to your co-worker who just got divorced?

What comes out of our mouths in these situations–and a million more–is counseling. We are always counseling, though we rarely think of it in those terms. But in all of these situations, we are imparting information with the intent to help or encourage one another.

We tend to equate counseling with professional therapy, therefore unless we have a degree in psychology and an office with a couch, we don’t think we could actually counsel anyone. And yet we do so every day.

I’m currently enrolled in a training course that my church is hosting, called Gospel-Centered Counseling. The goal of the course is to equip us as Christians for this kind of everyday, conversational ministry to one another. This model of counseling can also be called Biblical counseling, since it seeks to apply the truth of God’s Word to the sins and sorrows of our lives and relationships.

So what sets Biblical counseling apart from other models? How is it distinct from other forms of Christian counseling? Here are a couple distinctives…

As I understand it, the two main distinctives of Biblical counseling are these: 1) it has as its foundation and starting point a Biblical understanding of people and of change, and 2) it is carried out in conversational ministry with one another as Christians. To the extent that professional Christian counseling starts with a humanistic psychological theory (which implies a humanistic anthropology) and then seeks to apply it through a Christian lens, to that extent it differs from Biblical counseling. And to the extent that Christian counseling is carried out only by a professional expert helping a needy client, to that extent also it differs from Biblical counseling.

According to CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation), Biblical counseling is “a God-centered understanding of people and a Christ-centered understanding of how God redeems people.” In other words, seeing Christians as created by God, ruined by sin, saved by grace, and destined for eternity with God makes a huge difference in understanding our primary problem and our basic need. And seeing transformation into Christ’s likeness as a Spirit-empowered process that happens through the community of the local church, where every child of God is both needy and needed, levels the playing field—we all counsel one another and we all need others’ counsel.

Biblical counseling allows for the reality that some Christians are specially gifted by God and equipped with more extensive training in counseling, and that some may in fact pursue a ministry of counseling as their primary vocation. However, even those who take on that role in a manner similar to a professional therapist do so with a different mindset—they see the counselee as a fellow-struggler whose primary need is no different than their own, namely to grow in dependent relationship with Christ.

Granted, there are those who call what they do “Biblical counseling” but do it so poorly that it creates an inaccurate caricature of what Biblical counseling is meant to be (just as surely as there are those who call what they do “Christian counseling” but also do it poorly and give that honorable discipline a bad name). So it is vital that we consider carefully the definitions and distinctives of each particular branch of counseling in order to avoid caricatures and misrepresentations.

Will your directives to your sons, or your comfort to your friend, or your advice to your wife, or your response to your co-worker truly offer help and hope? Remember, you and I are always counseling–will we give an accurate diagnosis of their greatest problem, and will we point them to the only One who can bring lasting change?

[For more resources & information about Biblical counseling, I highly recommend the ministry of CCEF. Lighthouse Community Church also has some great resources.]