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.

 

Lured by Grumpiness

I’ve been asked before (by a child) if I smile while I’m sleeping, which is a reasonable inquiry given my generally happy disposition. What that child could not recognize from my smiley disposition, though, is that a happy face can easily cover a grumpy soul.

Paul Miller, in his book A Loving Life, says that grumpiness is universal. A cranky soul manifests itself in at least two different ways. One is the “passionate, cathartic blasting” or “self-righteous dumping” that is elevated as being “real” and “authentic” with one another, but really is a relationship-destroying “mask for enshrining my feelings, for doing my own thing.” [pg 108-109] The other is a “leaking, low-level irritability”–stewing instead of venting. Miller describes it this way:

A leaking, low-level irritability is a great temptation on a journey of love. You feel you have the right to be moody–you’ve earned it. It is a way of exacting emotional payment from a disappointing life. Grumpiness provides momentary relief, but it always involves a splitting of the self. I commit outwardly, with my hands, but not with my heart. I go through the motions of love, but anger smolders just below the surface like a simmering rant…. My will has slipped off the tracks of quiet surrender to the Master, and I’m just going through the motions. Life ceases to be fun. If left unchecked, my inner moodiness begins to distort my heart, and I can slip into cynicism, which begins a downward trajectory into bitterness. It’s not a good path. 

Self-pity, compassion turned inward, drives this downward spiral. Instead of reflecting on the wounds of Christ, I nurse my own wounds. Self-as-victim is the great narrative of our age, capturing whole cultures…. Enshrining the victim is so seductive because you have been hurt. But self-pity is just another form of self-righteousness, and like all self-righteousness it isolates and elevates. It elevates you because it says you are better than the other person; you are the victim. It isolates you because you live in and are nourished by your interior world, which can’t be criticized. [pg 109]

Can you relate? I certainly can. Self-pity seduces my heart and promises comfort for my difficult life. But it cannot deliver on that promise. So how do I escape the allurement of grumpiness? How do you escape?

The cure for a cranky soul begins by repenting, by realizing that my moodiness is a demand that my life have a certain shape. Surrendering to the life that my Father has given me always puts me under the shelter of his wings. That leaves me whole again, and surprisingly cheerful. [pg 110]

Confession and repentance can be followed up with a discipline of giving thanks. Choosing to rehearse reasons for gratitude whether I feel grateful or not may be dismissed as “fake” by the proponents of “authentic venting” (a.k.a. grumpiness), but in doing so I am reminding my soul of what is true. And what is most true is that the God who loved me–without grumpiness–while I was His enemy (Romans 5:6-8) is the same God who provides lasting comfort in my darkest valleys…lasting comfort which self-pity can never deliver.

 

Fuel for Worship

What fuels your worship of God?

Or maybe before thinking about worship of God, what fuels any kind of worship?

The fuel for worship is undivided attention, high value, affection and enjoyment, devoted seeking, and sacrificial serving (among other things). These are things that give energy and passion to our worship, whether we are worshiping God or something or someone else.

If the battle for our hearts is a battle of worship, how do we intentionally fuel our worship of God, so that all other worships pale in comparison?

I believe spiritual disciplines are the ways we fuel our worship of God. Disciplines themselves are not the fuel, but only the ways that we access the fuel. Disciplines create space for undivided attention, high value, affection and enjoyment, devoted seeking, and sacrificial serving.

In our busy, noisy world, it is difficult to give undivided attention to anything, therefore even if we know that kind of attention will fuel our worship of God, it doesn’t just happen automatically. But when we set aside a few hours (or a whole weekend) to retreat with God, that discipline creates space for us to give undivided attention to God. And in that space, our worship deepens.

A great many things compete for our affections, thus enjoyment of God doesn’t magically blossom in our hearts. But when we choose to sing with abandon and to think deeply about the truths that we’re singing, that discipline creates space for our affections for God to deepen and grow.

We gravitate toward serving God in the areas that are comfortable or beneficial to us, and shy away from anything that would require us to sacrifice, even when we know that sacrificial service invigorates our worship of God. So when we intentionally spend time with someone we find uncomfortable, that discipline creates space for us to grasp in a deeper way the sacrificial love of our Father toward us, and our heart of worship expands.

So how will you–and how will I–create space through disciplines for our worship of God to be fueled? We are fueling worship of someone or something by what we value and where we sacrifice our time and affections. If worship of God is to eclipse all other loves in our lives, we need to have intentional practices that create space for that worship to grow.

 

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!

I Can’t Do This!

God intends that our everyday struggles and suffering as Christians would first highlight, then annihilate our self-sufficiency.

The Biblical concept of “the flesh” is the natural human bent toward autonomy from God, or in other words, our bent toward self-sufficiency. It’s not just a tendency toward bad behavior (that is, toward sinful actions), but it’s a tendency toward doing even good and Godly things in our own strength or wisdom–depending on our own resources rather than on relationship with God. And that pretty much sums up self-sufficiency!

So when suffering knocks on my door, what is my automatic response to the pain? Do I immediately or primarily look to my own resources to resolve the difficulty? Do I throw a pity-party for myself because I can’t figure out how to relieve the pain? Suffering highlights our self-sufficiency when it reveals that our automatic response to pain is to turn inward to our own resources.

And when suffering pulls up a chair and settles in to stay for awhile, how do I respond? Do I sink into despair when every solution I’ve tried comes up empty? Do I explode in anger toward God’s unfairness in allowing me to experience this? Or can I pray as the psalmist “Help me O God!” or say with the Apostle Paul “that I may share in Christ’s sufferings”? Suffering not only highlights our self-sufficiency but then works to annihilate our self-sufficiency by ushering us into situations that are clearly beyond our ability to control or resolve–situations that force us to depend more deeply on Christ’s resources alone.

So when I find myself complaining to God in exasperation “I can’t do this!” what is actually being revealed in my heart is a fleshly expectation that I should be able to figure this out on my own. Of course I can’t do this. I was never meant to do this on my own. But as long as life runs fairly smoothly and I succeed in managing the bumps and bruises that come my way, I deceive myself into thinking I can do life on my own. Therefore if God is to grow my character toward greater maturity in Christ, my self-sufficiency must die–and suffering is most often the instrument that He uses to bring that painful but good purpose about.

 

Stop Scrambling

What would you say is the antithesis of rest? What keeps us from experiencing the “rest for our souls” that Jesus invites us into in Matthew 11:28-30?

Is it busyness? Stress? Work? Noise?

I read an article recently from the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care in which the author (Richard E. Averbeck) used the word “scrambling” to describe the ways we seek to escape from the effects of our sin and make life work apart from God. But since we are created to live in dependent relationship with God, this scrambling becomes the epitome of un-rest.

To understand this idea of scrambling, Averbeck outlines the dynamics of man’s fall into sin, as seen in Genesis 3. It started with the deception from the serpent, intended to raise doubt about the goodness of God and the seriousness of sin. Doubt lead to illegitimate desire, which in turn led to disobedience expressed in rebellion and sin against God. Sinful disobedience resulted in shame, and from shame came fear and a growing autonomy from God. Scrambling, then, is the response of our souls to this string of sin dynamics–we cover, we hide, we blame, we run away.

Here is how Averbeck describes scrambling:
“…rushing about in desperation, trying to handle [our]selves, each other, God, and the world. There is no “rest” here. Scrambling is the opposite of resting. It is a hard way to live a hard life, but it is so natural to us in our condition that we do it anyway.” [pg 18]

It is to us sinners, desperately scrambling on our hamster wheels of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency, that Jesus extends His invitation in Matthew 11 to come to Him, take His easy yoke, and learn from Him, in order to find rest for our souls. We live in a world that is groaning, and we ourselves groan as we wait for the redemption of our bodies and while the Spirit of God groans for us to the Father (Romans 8:18-30).

The “rest for the soul” that Jesus offered in Matthew 11:28-30 is the kind of rest we can have right in the middle of all the “groaning.” It is a rest from the yokes that others would place upon us or that we carve out for ourselves. There is a lot of striving after the wrong things in this life. It comes with being fallen and corrupt ourselves, and living in a fallen and corrupt world with others who are fallen and corrupt…. Even amid all this corruption God has instilled hope, and we can live according to it. We can look forward to the deliverance from the groaning and, in the meantime, we can have the rest that Jesus has offered us, a rest in which the soul is well even in the midst of the harshness of the world. [pg 15]

There is “hope” because God himself has subjected us and the whole creation to this “groaning.” His purpose is to drive us back to himself amid the groaning. Why would we turn to him if everything seemed to be going well? This is why Jesus turned to the ones who knew they were “weary and burdened” and offered them rest. They were the only ones who would listen. He had “hope” to offer them and a way of life to go along with it. Since the garden there have always been only two kinds of people in the world: those who run to the Lord amid the struggles and tragedies of life, and those who run away from him to their own devices–their own scrambling. [pg 19]

So in the midst of our groaning, may we heed God’s warning in Psalm 46:10 to “Cease striving”–in other words, stop scrambling to save ourselves–“and know that I am God.” Only then will we find true rest.