What are you thinking?!

Have you thought about what you’re thinking about?

What thoughts run through your mind throughout each day? What are the thoughts that keep you awake at night? What’s on your mind in the in-between moments: when you’re waiting at a traffic light, when there’s a lull in your work, when you’re skimming through blog posts? What occupies your mind as you listen to a friend share with you? What distracting thoughts enter your mind as you spend time in prayer?

The Bible lets us know that our thinking is vitally important. What we think about is foundational to what we believe, what we feel, what we desire, and what we do. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul expresses concern for the dear friends to whom he is writing–he is afraid that their “thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

Paul doesn’t say that he’s afraid of their desires being led astray, or their hearts being led astray, or their actions being led astray. No, his main concern is if their thoughts are led astray–their thinking is vital.

How do our thoughts go astray? They go astray when we stop thinking about what we’re thinking about–when we stop noticing or paying attention to the thoughts running through our minds. Am I aware of how often I rehearse grievances in my mind? Are you cognizant of how often your thoughts gravitate toward internal grumbling? Do we notice when subtle questions enter our minds, like the serpent’s questions to Eve–did God really say…?

In contrast, how do we maintain a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” in our thinking? We do what Paul says earlier in his same letter to the Corinthians: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Corinthians 10:5). We must pay attention to what we’re thinking. We must intentionally direct our thoughts toward Christ. We must intentionally guard our minds from thoughts that push us toward autonomy from Christ.

Verse 5 of the hymn “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” models this intentionality by speaking to my soul and reminding me to be thinking on all that I have received from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Soul, then know thy full salvation 
Rise o’’er sin and fear and care 
Joy to find in every station, 
Something still to do or bear. 
Think what Spirit dwells within thee, 
Think what Father’’s smiles are thine, 
Think that Jesus died to win thee, 
Child of heaven, canst thou repine.

 

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The Meeting Place of Sorrow & Love

Do you think of Jesus as sorrowful? If so, do you connect His sorrow with His great love?

Sorrow and love are not usually a pair we put together in describing a person, and especially when thinking of Jesus. We might go to a verse like Hebrews 12:2, which speaks of Jesus as the one 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.” We might think of Jesus as so full of love for mankind that He could somehow bypass sorrow and happily enter into pain and sacrifice, even death.

The hymn writer Isaac Watts, when he wrote the great hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross in 1707, not only paired sorrow and love together, but also posed the question of whether such a love and sorrow had ever met as they did in the cross of Jesus. What are we to think of such a question?

While in Gethsemane, before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus said to His closest friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Pastor John Piper, commenting on this verse, says:

It is possible to become so sad, so heavy, that reality is distorted, the future seems hopeless, and action seems impossible. Perhaps you have tasted this. This is not small. Jesus’s mission is in jeopardy. He must fight against the immobilizing effects of this horrible weight of sorrow.

The Son of Man was not exempt from such a “horrible weight of sorrow.” In fact, perhaps this weight of sorrow was greatly amplified because as the sinless Son of God it was completely undeserved and yet He freely entered into it. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? We have no problem stating His love in the superlative–never has there been such a love as what He showed on the cross! But can we say the same of His sorrow–that never has there been such a sorrow as His?

Jesus truly was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), and because He experienced a greater sorrow than any of us will ever face, He can be our merciful High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses–including our sorrows–and who “is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 4:14-15 and 2:18). In His intercessory work to strengthen us who are His children in the midst of our sorrow, we find grace to help us in our time of need at this place where Jesus’ love and sorrow meet.

 

Longing for Home

If you belong to God, when have you most felt the pang of longing for your heavenly home? What is it that stirs up that longing within you?

I appreciate it when hymns (or other songs of worship) build to a crescendo of hope and joy in the final verse by speaking of all that is to come in eternity with God. Lately I’ve been enjoying a hymn called “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken“–the verses speak of the trouble and distress we often encounter in this life as we follow Christ, but the song does not end in despair. Rather, the final stanza turns the focus onto that which awaits us, and the haunting beauty of its hope-filled poetry sends a stab of longing into my weary soul.

The stanza begins with “Haste thee on from grace to glory | Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.” Right now we live in the grip of grace, but there is a weight of glory that awaits us, which is beyond all comparison! Right now we live by faith, not by sight–it is faith that arms us to fight for hope, and it is prayer that keeps us aloft and moving in the right direction.

Heaven’s eternal days before thee | God’s own hand shall guide us there.” Heaven is the promised hope awaiting us, and God Himself will ensure that we arrive. We are not left to flounder on our own, but the One who has called us is faithful–He will surely bring us home.

Soon shall close they earthly mission | Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days.” We are pilgrims far from home, on mission for the King. That mission might feel impossible and never-ending, which is why we need to be armed by faith, so that we can remind our heart that we will not always be pilgrims on mission–one day the King will bring us home and the mission will be over.

Hope shall change to glad fruition | Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.” The symmetry in these final lines is beautiful to me. Right now we are waiting–in hope–for glory, with  faith and prayer as the weapons by which we fight for that hope. But soon, when our earthly mission and pilgrim days are finished, hope will be no more because we will experience the fruition of all that we now hope for. Right now we live by faith, but soon faith also will be no longer be needed because we will see with our own eyes the One in whom we have placed our trust. Right now we pray, we lament, we plead, we cry for help, but soon prayer will be replaced by praise alone because there will be no more need to plead for help.

This song stirs up that pang of longing within me, especially the beautiful symmetry of the now and the not-yet of faith and prayer. I can understand a little better what the Apostle Paul might have been feeling when he wrote to the Philippians “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Phil. 1:23) and to the Corinthians “…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:8) Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Savoring Weakness

How do you typically respond when what is expected (or required) of you is way beyond your capacity? How do you react when you feel worn out and weak, but life doesn’t let up? What do you do when you are at your wits end, but the problem isn’t going away?

Even when we come to God in our weakness and need (which, if we’re honest, we don’t always do–often we seek to handle it on our own), even then we usually ask God to remove the problem, to make us strong. We get discouraged over our weakness, thinking that if only we were stronger maybe this wouldn’t be happening. So what would it look like to actually savor the weakness rather than trying to overcome it?

Paul teaches that God’s way of exhibiting power is altogether different from man’s way. Man tries to overcome his weakness; God is satisfied to use weakness for his own special purposes. Too many Christians become disheartened over their infirmities, thinking that only if they were stronger in themselves they could accomplish more for God. But this point of view, despite its popularity, is altogether a fallacy. God’s means of working, rightly understood, is not by making us stronger, but by making us weaker and weaker until the divine power alone is clearly manifested.  [David Alan Black, “Paulus Infirmus: The Pauline Concept of Weakness,” Grace Theological Journal, 92.]

The Apostle Paul spoke of “rejoicing in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), “boasting in our weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and even being “content with weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:10). How does that happen? For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we may be able to say the right words–even force a smile–in the midst of suffering, but to actually be internally content in weakness seems impossible!

J.I. Packer writes of how this “way of weakness” produces perseverance and eventually character within us:

It works like this. Comes the pain and the grief and the sense that this is too much for us, it is swamping us, we can’t handle it. What does the Christian then do? The Christian looks to the Lord, praying, “Lord, give me strength, give me wisdom, give me resources to handle this”–and the Lord does. So Christians who thought that they could never cope with what the Puritans called the losses and crosses that come their way find that they have in fact got through the trials, by the strength that the Lord supplies. Then the memory of that experience gives confidence for the next round of pain and grief and distress. Sufferings produce perseverance as our confidence in God grows through experience after experience of his upholding grace. The sufferings, the pains, the griefs, the time spent in hard places, are so many experiences of testing; over and over we pass the tests through the strength that the Lord gives us, and the habit of doing that is character–tested character, approved character, strong character.  [Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 217-218.]

So if you find yourself overwhelmed and swamped, and your continual lament is “God, I can’t handle this!” then take heart–God is bringing you into weakness in order to make it abundantly obvious that His strength alone carries you. And as you walk–weakly, but with God–into that impossible situation, He will bring you through and grow your faith and form your character.

Pastors Need Prayer Too

The Apostle Paul was a man of prayer. His letters to individuals and churches are filled with his prayers for them. In fact, he tells the believers at Ephesus, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers…” (Ephesians 1:16).

But this apostle and pastor who constantly prayed for others also regularly sought prayer for himself.

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints… (Romans 15:30-31)

You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.  (2 Corinthians 1:11)

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.  (Colossians 3:3-4)

Brothers, pray for us.  (1 Thessalonians 5:25)

Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men.  (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2)

At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.  (Philemon 22)

Paul was very aware that in all his life and ministry he was not wrestling against flesh and blood, but that there was (and still is!) a cosmic battle waging in the spiritual realm that we cannot see (Ephesians 6:12). But those heavenly places and spiritual forces are no less real simply because they are hidden from our eyes. And that reality moved Paul not only to pray for others but also to ask for prayer for himself (Ephesians 6:18-19).

So if you are a believer in Jesus–pray! Pray for those around you. Pray for those you love. And don’t forget to pray for your pastor as well. Your pastor is likely praying for you–as well he should be. But would you also pray for him? He may not ask you for prayer, and he may not be at liberty to share the requests that are deepest in his heart, but he needs you to pray for him.

And even if you don’t know me as your pastor, please pray for me as well. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’re likely aware of at least some of the pressures and sorrows that are heavy on my heart, but even if you have no idea what those are, please pray. Your prayers accomplish much more than you may ever know, because the One to whom you pray is powerful and good, and He delights to answer the prayers of His children.

Resurrecting

There is so much joy in singing together with hundreds of brothers and sisters in Christ–especially on Easter Sunday as we celebrate Christ’s victory over death, which opens the way for those He saves to conquer death as well! One song that we sang this Sunday stood out to me because of the uniqueness of its focus.

The song is titled Resurrecting, and this is the bridge:

By Your Spirit I will rise
From the ashes of defeat
The resurrected King
Is resurrecting me
In Your name I come alive
To declare your victory
The resurrected King
Is resurrecting me

Romans 6:5 tells us that since we have been united with Christ in His death, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. This resurrection is both already and not yet. It is my declared status before God–the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)–yet as long as I live in this body and in this world, sin and death will still fight against that resurrected status. But God is at work in me, and by His Spirit I am being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18), which is what this song is celebrating.

“The resurrected King is resurrecting me.” Little by little, day by day, choice by choice, the old me is dying and the new me–the real me–is coming alive. And one day, when my body finally gives way to death, I will be more fully alive than ever before, as that resurrecting process will be gloriously complete!

So may you find renewed hope, as I do, in the beautiful reminder from this song that the resurrection we celebrate at Easter is not merely an event in the distant past nor a sentimental wish for the future, but it is a glorious and ongoing reality today and tomorrow. Your resurrected King is carrying out a process of resurrecting you to walk increasingly “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Praise Him!

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.