Comfort is Contagious

In 2 Corinthians 1:7, Paul connects hope with suffering: “Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” Because Paul believes that God comforts us not only for our own well-being but also so that we can pass that comfort on to others (2 Cor 1:4), then he does not fall apart when those he loves experience suffering. Instead, he rejoices in hope, knowing–from his own experience–that God’s comfort will come to his brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering. And in fact, Paul knows that there is a depth of comfort that only comes to those who are suffering.

Those who are comfortable need no comfort. Thus to some extent, when we avoid suffering at all cost, we miss out on experiencing a particular depth of comfort that only comes to those who suffer. I don’t believe this means we are to seek out suffering in a reckless manner. But I do believe that the reality of God’s presence and comfort means that we can obey Him in faith, even in areas that will likely lead to some degree of suffering. We can obey, knowing that in our suffering we will surely experience the mercy and comfort of Christ, and through His comfort we will be enabled to offer greater comfort to others.

I’m not much of a poet, but I was reflecting on this passage at a recent time of solitude, and God brought the title of this post to mind and then prompted me to make this attempt at expressing what I’m learning:

When suffering comes my way, God’s comfort will surely abound;

Thus suffering can be a gift, for in it true comfort is found.

When mere comfortableness is my goal, God’s comfort will not astound;

But when God’s comfort meets my suffering, then that comfort is spread around.

So God, in my suffering,

        let Your comfort to me

                 spread contagiously

                           so that others may see        

                                    Your all-sufficiency.

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Strength for today–Hope for tomorrow

I love the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness (by Thomas Chisholm). This weekend I was at two different gatherings of ministries who were celebrating major milestones and we sang this hymn at both events. Even though it is an old and familiar hymn, as I sang it again tears came unbidden to my eyes. God used one line in particular to minister deeply to my heart in that moment, primarily because of how that line connects with my own story, but also because it connected with the stories of the ministries we were celebrating.

This great hymn praises God for His faithfulness, while expounding many of the ways we as His people experience that faithfulness. In the third stanza, the fruit of God’s faithfulness that grabbed my heart was the line “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Strength is not something I must muster up or produce, but it comes because God is indeed faithful. And hope is not merely an elusive emotion that comes and goes with the circumstances–it is a solid and constant reality because God’s faithfulness is solid and constant.

Life with a child with developmental disabilities quickly drains today’s strength and clouds tomorrow’s hope. And the more todays and tomorrows that come and go with seemingly little change can make it very hard to recover strength for yet another day, or to keep hope alive for yet another tomorrow. Add to that the ongoing battle with the sin of my heart, and strength and hope threaten to disappear altogether.

It’s one thing to sing that line in the hymn when you are feeling strong and when hope abounds–then you sing with great enthusiasm. It’s quite another thing to sing that line when your strength is failing and your hope is fading–then you sing with a deep gratitude borne out of desperation because you know that apart from the faithfulness of God, you will not be able to keep going.

And yet, God is truly faithful! In Him there IS strength for yet another day, and there IS hope that all these todays are not the end. Therefore I can sing (and so can you):

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
  Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
    “Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!”

Intentionally Indirect

There is a difference between training and trying.

Trying is a direct attempt to produce some kind of result. Take knee surgery, for example.  If your knee is injured in some way, then surgery is a direct attempt to repair the injury. Surgery is a way of trying a specific methodology that has good potential to produce a positive result.

Training is very different from trying. Training may be aimed at the same end goal, but it is an indirect means of getting there. If your knee is injured, you could opt for a training regimen in place of surgery. The stretches or exercises you do may not be directly producing repair in your knee, but they are creating conducive conditions for repair to happen.

Christian, you are called to “Train yourself for Godliness” (I Timothy 4:7), not to “Try to be more Godly.” There is a big difference in this as well.

None of us can produce Godliness simply by our own fortitude and effort. Rather, Godliness is only produced by God as He forms our character to be more like Christ. So when we tell ourselves (or demand of others) “Just try harder!” or “Tsk, tsk, next time try to be more loving,” we are attempting to do the impossible.

Rather than trying to muster up will-power to somehow produce a change in our hearts, we need to learn how to be intentionally indirect. And that means training, not trying, for Godliness. Unlike knee surgery, we cannot directly operate on our heart spiritually and remove the cancerous anger or replace the longsuffering “ligament.” Instead we train our heart to worship Christ (not “getting my way”) as our greatest treasure. We train our heart to “Count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We train our heart to share honestly with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive their encouragement and prayer or even rebuke.

Sinful anger is not overcome by directly trying not to get angry. (I could tell you firsthand how effective that is!) No, sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my heart of worship increases through training. Sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my confidence in God’s goodness grows through training. And sinful anger is overcome indirectly as its power is diffused in grace-filled community through training.

Training is not aimed at producing change, but at opening our hearts to the change that God alone can produce.

Does God’s Anger Explain His Love?

Good & Angry is a book with a bright red cover, written by Professor and Biblical counselor David Powlison. In chapter 10, Powlison makes the startling statement: “You can’t understand God’s love if you don’t understand his anger.” God’s anger and his love are two different but complementary expressions of his goodness. It is precisely because God loves so deeply that he has to be angry at anything that harms the ones he loves.

In the chapter, Powlison spells out four ways in which God expresses his love for his children through his anger:

  1. “In love, the anger that your sin deserves fell on Jesus, not on you.”
  2. “In love, God’s anger works to disarm the power of your sin.”
  3. “God’s anger will deliver you from the pain of other people’s sins.”
  4. “God’s anger serves as a warning and check to protect us from returning to a lifestyle of sin.”

For the Christian, these four aspects of God’s anger and love serve to comfort different aspects of our human struggle. In our fearfulness or self-condemnation, we can remember that Jesus took God’s anger against our sin. In our discouragement and weakness, we can remember that God’s anger works within us against what is wrong with us. In our feeling overwhelmed by aloneness or the unkindness of others toward us, we can remember that God’s anger will one day destroy every cause of pain and sorrow, and he will defend us. In our despair and temptation, we can remember that God’s anger will discipline the ones he loves, including us, so that we might share in his holiness.

In this season of my life, I especially resonate with this reality that in my discouragement over my weakness and regular failure to love my daughter rightly, God’s anger is working to right what is wrong within me. He is not angry with me or disappointed in me, but his anger is aimed at breaking the sin that still clings so closely to me and that keeps me from experiencing the fullness of life in him. To have a God who merely “accepts me as I am” would not be comforting–it would eventually lead to despair–but to have a God whose deep love for me is committed to making me holy, that is truly a comfort, even in the uncomfortableness of wrestling with my habitual sin. God’s anger that works to rid me of my sin explains his love as something far deeper than niceness or tolerance. The love of God expressed in his anger is a holy love…and a love that gives all to make the beloved holy also.

Powlison concludes: “God’s wrath is your hope. God’s wrath is my hope… Wrath is our hope because love masters anger. God’s loving anger resolves the entire problem of evil in a way that brings him inexpressible glory and brings us inexpressible blessing. The God who is love justly condemns evil, severs the power of remnant evil, brings relief from suffering, and protects us from ourselves.”  [pg. 121]

May you–and may I–experience the hope that comes through the loving anger of our righteous and good God.

Is Discipleship Different than Psychotherapy?

In his paradigm-shifting book called Connecting, Christian psychotherapist Dr. Larry Crabb comes to the conclusion that “we have made a terrible mistake.” What is that mistake? He writes: “For most of the twentieth century, we have wrongly defined soul wounds as psychological disorder and delegated their treatment to trained specialists.”

From that mistaken definition and delegation, Crabb identifies three significant implications for the church. One of those implications especially catches my eye because it has to do with discipleship:

The work of discipling has been wrongly defined as less than and different from psychotherapy and counseling. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe discipleship, defined properly as caring for the soul, is the reality, and psychotherapy is the imitation. Perhaps husbands and wives should be discipling each other; perhaps parents should be discipling their children, and friends should be discipling their friends. Maybe they can, and maybe discipling (or shepherding) was designed to do what we think only therapists should tackle.    [pg. 201]

I’m not sure that I would define discipleship solely as “caring for the soul” (though soul-care may be a part of discipleship), but even with a more robust definition (such as this one from discipleship.org: “helping people to trust and follow Jesus”) I do agree that a shift in understanding is needed. We tend to think of discipleship only in academic terms of teaching Biblical truths to a new Christian, but miss the vital aspect of walking alongside one another to help each other trust and follow Jesus in all of life. And maybe, as Dr. Crabb is suggesting, that kind of connecting with one another not only applies in something “spiritual” like learning to pray, but also in something “psychological” like addictions or narcissism or anxiety.

This is not a simplistic solution that promises a cure-all by just throwing Bible verses at a person, but it recognizes that what is actually helpful in therapy is often simply the opportunity to share deeply and be understood and loved in the midst of great struggle. And that mercy is something that Christians are uniquely equipped to offer to one another because that is what we ourselves have received from Christ. Trained therapists may be able to offer a certain level of grace and love to a needy person, but God demonstrates His astounding love to us by extending an even greater love and mercy through Christ, and doing so “while we were yet sinners” and enemies of God (Romans 5:8). Because that is how God has loved us, we are enabled to “encourage one another every day…so that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

A Prayer in the Valley of Shadow

In The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), the great lion Aslan gives Jill some signs by which she and Eustace are to find the lost prince. But then Aslan warns her, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly; I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”

We also speak of “mountaintop experiences” in which God’s voice seems so clear and our perspective is sharpened. Prayer on the mountaintop feels easy because God feels so close. But we don’t live on the mountaintop.

We live in the valley, where the air is “thick,” where our senses are dulled by the noise and our sight is dimmed by the shadows. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death,” as the psalmist put it, and prayer in the valley doesn’t feel so easy or exciting.

My favorite collection of prayers is a little volume of Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. The first prayer (from which the volume gets its title) is a prayer out of the depths of the valley, but in this case, the valley–because of its darkness–becomes a place of clear vision if one looks up to see the brightness of God’s stars above. Whatever valley you may find yourself in, may this prayer lift your eyes to the One who is far above you holding all things together, and yet is even now with you in the valley.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty
thy glory in my valley.

Is Freud Right?

Heath Lambert, in his book The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, says that a part of Sigmund Freud’s impetus to develop psychotherapy was that he believed the church had failed in the task of “helping people with life’s problems.” Because the church was not providing this needed care for souls, Freud sought to develop a class of professional, non-religious workers to carry it out. Ironically though, Freud called this class of counselors “secular pastoral workers,” by which he seems to be acknowledging that at its core, counseling is a pastoral role.

Many psychoanalytic theories—and theorists—have come and gone since Freud, but the question posed by his indictment of the church still remains: Is the care and cure of souls a uniquely pastoral role, and if so, has the church indeed failed by handing over this role to professional psychologists?

A present-day psychologist named Larry Crabb asks a similar question in his paradigm-shifting book Becoming a True Spiritual Community. This is what Dr. Crabb writes:

If that [i.e. a desperate determination toward autonomy from God] is what needs therapeutic attention, and if attention that is therapeutic is a relationship of love, wisdom, and integrity, then successful therapy consists of a kind of relationship a spiritual community is uniquely and intentionally gifted to provide. Why, then, do we turn to professionals?

Crabb’s answer to his own question—“Spiritual community is rare. That’s why we have professionals.”—sounds like he is coming to a similar conclusion as Freud. But rather than turning to the psychotherapy he had been trained in and practiced, Crabb started NewWay Ministries to train lay people in the art of spiritual direction. According to a CT article, Crabb “turned his back on diagnostic counseling methods in order to care for people’s souls in an unpredictable, unprofessional, fickle, and, in his opinion, most useful context: caring relationships. He now believes that there’s no better psychotherapy than friendships fashioned after the everlasting friendship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Spiritual community is rare. Therefore we as God’s people must rise to the challenge and learn to love one another in redemptive and healing ways, in order that one day perhaps Freud’s indictment of the church may be proved wrong.