Tuesday, November 28, 2017

An Uninvited Discipline - Comfort

On the heels of the discipline of Suffering, it seems only logical to move to its opposite:  Comfort.  Whether we consider the overt and tangible places of security and stability, such as good health, relationship harmony and reconciliation, financial security or any position secured, or if we consider deep and abiding strengths, such as strong faith, victory over oppression, any overcoming of strongholds or evil, a discipline comes to keep God at the center of it rather than our own ego.  To fail to keep God at the center is to distort the comfort or miss the fullness of its blessing.

What is comfort’s purpose in our lives?  Why are some allowed a lighter load, a greater skill or a greater advantage?  When a position is gained or strength is received, some cannot rest in comfort or are baffled on what to do with it, even to the point that they cannot be comfortable with the comfort. Some people idolize certain kinds of comfort (such as financial gain) and think it the ultimate goal in life instead of a tool to be used for God.  It is faith development to operate from a position of strength and use it for good and not for evil, to use it for God and not for self.

Some people fear success and strength because inherently they know each come with responsibility.  We often settle for less in our faith development for this very reason, seen in the most insidious of ways.  We reduce the possibilities because we only engage in sin avoidance and do not look for the greater good in the possibility of maturity and purity.  While it is true that we have our weaknesses and failures, we fail to have vision for the possibilities and the process for trusting and depending on God to move from weakness to strength, from failure to success.  And while I don’t want to be a tyrant over the process and demand more from myself than God does (when perfectionism holds no grace), we often don’t give credit to the possibilities in us.

Here are the self-defeating things I hear people say: 

            “We will always be sinners.”  (You mean the Cross wasn’t effective or that I cannot mature into Christ-likeness ever?)

            “We can never be like Christ.” (This negates Bible verses which say some powerful things like, “You have the mind of Christ.”)

            “One step forward and two steps back.” (As if failure must accompany success).

            “All we can do is pray.” (As if prayer is the least and last of power that we hold instead of the first and best of our actions.”

Part of the discipline of comfort is to develop gratitude to God for the opportunity to be in a strong or favorable position.  In a fast-paced, busy world, people often do not stop long enough to reflect on the victory or opportunity to appreciate what God has done in them and through them.   “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) Small bites.  Slow chewing.  Don’t wolf down the blessings and opportunities so that you don’t experience them fully nor get the chance to look for God in them. 

As a teacher, I have seen students grasp concepts and incorporate them into right living in ways that are fulfilling, victorious and even miraculous.  To sit and relish the opportunity to do so and value the change they work to manifest is a delight.  And to give credit where credit is due to God for the deep work done by His Holy Spirit is to see the Kingdom alive and at work, and is, by definition, the basis of worship.  That kind of focused gratitude is a discipline because I might blow right through the experience or tend to turn that reflective awe on myself and put myself at the center of that success instead of God.

It is also discipline to catch God’s vision for us to have success in certain areas and want to be ready, to be strong when the task comes along.  To position myself to be strong and ready to be well-spent for the opportunities God gives is a discipline.  Many a life is vacant and wandering because it is not purposed and purposeful. When I prepare, develop a vision, seek mentors and teachers, accept critique, and be teachable, I am moving God’s gifts in  me to a place of maturity and usefulness.  Here’s my metaphor:  Learning to skateboard (or snow ski or water ski or surf) requires core strength training.  Falling down repeatedly does not  make one strong enough to stay upright.  It is a discipline to develop an inner strength needed for success.  It is a discipline to rest in and draw from a position of comfort.

Then, when we are strengthened and in right position, it is a discipline to look for the right application of that strength.  A way to test such application comes from Jesus himself: “I look to where the Father is working and I work, too.” (John 5:17) It is a discipline to keep God’s activity as the vehicle for the use of my strengths specifically in a way that causes others to be brought closer to God and into His Kingdom and not to respond to my own emotions or contrivances.  To keep God at the center of the purpose for my strengths and resultant comfort and assuredness is to bring a success that glorifies Him and not me.

Part of comfort’s discipline is to let it be a deliberate platform for the next deeper (and maybe severe) challenge.  God uses people of strength, generosity and wisdom for His advancing Kingdom, which will often have resistance, backlash, even battle.  This includes the battles for the hearts and minds of others.  The position of comfort is supposed to be a comfort for others. (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4)  You can give nothing of which you do not have yourself.  Be a strength-builder and comfort-giver in others; find people into whom you can speak strength into vocational skills, people skills, spiritual wisdom, comfort and nourishment.

Do you want to see a better world?  Do you want your family to grow in faith and practice?  Do you want more unity in community?  What you want in others must begin in you and for strength to grow and grow into success, God must be at the center for it to be a comfort.  He impacts the definition of comfort and can do that as much in our places of weakness as in our places of giftedness, in our places of failure as well as success.

It is a discipline to keep God at the center of the change I need to develop greater readiness, wisdom, full purity and greater maturity which may move me towards a humble perfection, the comfort that finally allows me to be at peace.

Friday, November 10, 2017

An Uninvited Discipline - Suffering

Suffering is surely an uninvited discipline, like no other.  We see suffering as a torment from hell, to be cursed or avoided, rather than an opportunity or a teacher.  This happens most when we put ourselves at the center of suffering, instead of God.

We protest suffering for two reasons.  The first is that we have been led to believe or have convinced ourselves that getting close to God is a guarantee of affluence, comfort or control.  We are frequently on the lookout for proof to our right for “blessing” or “good” and in the process, we mislabel comfort for blessing and ease for good.

Secondly, through advancement in medicine and technology, much of modern human suffering has been minimized.  In American/western culture, we have access to many quick escapes from suffering.  We do not have to stay thirsty or hungry for long.  Most illnesses are quickly mitigated with medicine.  We often don’t even have to walk any further than from our house to our car.  And we look upon the hungry, thirsty, the sick and those taking the bus as if they are missing the blessings of God.

As a result, we are far removed – and thankfully so – from much suffering, but when it comes, often our hope wanes, our faith falters.

What is your tendency when suffering comes?

I am going to suggest that when we suffer – if we allow it – that we would see suffering as a discipline.  This can happen when we keep God at the center of the discipline, which involves a diligent search for what is good and for where God is in the suffering.

Suffering is often the opportunity for an engaging exposure of false idols, false ideas about God and ourselves.  It first can reveal our predilection to be immovable, to resist change.  We would often rather be ruined than make any change.  When we are comfortable – settled in and unchallenged – we often have nothing to compel us forward.  We stagnate.  We even fail to seek God.

Suffering also exposes what is bad or painful in our lives – those things we often try to ignore, or try to bury, avoid, or lie to ourselves about.  Those painful things often cause us to reliably sin to get something better.  That sin can lead us to false dependencies (idols) which are blatantly bad for us – alcohol, bad relationships – or subtle, culture-rewarded behaviors – TV, food, status-building, work addiction.  No matter which, we often mistake lesser longings for greater ones, settling for popularity over influence, or material gain over belonging, or individualism over community.  Or anything over God.  We will often sacrifice the righteous to the good, missing God altogether.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance.  And endurance develops perseverance and perseverance develops our character and our dependence upon hope. Romans 5:3-5

The Greek work for suffering (“problems and trials” in this version) means “pressure.”  It metaphorically is being “hemmed in,” a narrow place, as if there are no other options (but God).  Thus, our idioms of “dire straits” or “between a rock and a hard place.”  Suffering is good when it applies pressure on us to finally come to God, where our only hope lies.  We would like to think that comfort, affluence or wellness would give us hope, but each will fail.  Illness still comes; bad weather still comes; failure and loss still exist. Only the hope from God sustains because He does not fail; his presence remains when all else collapses or abandons us.
So, how do we engage the discipline in suffering?  How do I keep God at the center and persevere?  How do I build hope, that which I need most of all?

Let God comfort you.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.  He comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.  For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. In fact, when you are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation!  2 Corinthians 1:3-6a

When I have been hemmed in by suffering, I have asked God for many things – answers, change, relief, direction…even His will.  But God wants to offer himself as the greatest comforter.  He wants to be with us even then.  Be still and let his Holy Spirit enter and speak to you, to hold you in the darkness of fear and anxiety.  Some things many never change.  A loved one dies.  A lost opportunity may never return.  One decision may impact an entire life.  Let Jesus be enough for you.  Learn to engage him in the deep recesses of the human existence.

Let God’s community absorb your grief.

Share each other’s burdens and in this way, obey the law of Christ.  Galatians 1:2

Along with the end of 2 Corinthians 1:6, we can see that the community is supposed to be there for each other.  This is a fallen world and terrible things happen.  Entering into the suffering of others allows you to be a conduit of God’s love and compassion.  The parallel meaning of “share each other’s burdens” is to let others share your burden.  Receiving other’s compassion is a discipline, too.  Isolation is inherently non-biblical.

See suffering as a chance for God to grow you.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.  For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be mature and complete, needing nothing.  James 1:2-4

It is a spiritual maturity to look into the eyes of suffering and look for an opportunity – for joy, to prove your faithfulness, to grow steady.  The “test” of your faith is a “proof” word – to demonstrate your faith – your trust for and your trust of God.  To whom do you need to prove it?  Not God.  He already knows.  Often, we need the proof ourselves.  Leaning into God, trusting His Word has often brought a subtle amazement to me.  People have asked me, “How did you get through that?”  I knew it was God.  It may not have been easy.  It wasn’t fun (i.e. comfortable), but, with God, I endured.

We are more than our problems.  I see no reason to retain labels such as “victim” or “survivor” or “I am in recovery.”  Many people keep these labels their entire lives.  The apostle Paul says you are more than that, more than a conqueror because of the love of Christ.

In all these things (trouble, calamity, persecution, hunger, danger, even death) we are more than conquerors through Christ, who loved us.  Romans 8:37

Don’t reduce your prayers to only circle around your problems.  God is more than your problem-solver.  Instead, when you suffer, seek greater things than solutions.  Suffering may be that place you learn wisdom, true self-knowledge, Christ-likeness, perseverance, your faith, God’s presence and gain the thing that gives life triumph through any battle – hope.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

An Uninvited Discipline - Grace

“Wait!” you say. “There no discipline in Grace.  It is God’s free gift.  I just accept it, right?  It’s all God.  How could there be any discipline in receiving grace?”

That is what we have been told, isn’t it?  That Grace is all God’s responsibility.  But, if we examine the cultural context of the use of the word charis (grace) we might get a different picture.

In our day, the word “grace” is used uniquely and sparingly, but in the Greco-Roman, New Testament culture, grace was an everyday word which represented the synergy between patron and benefactor, master and servant, gifter and recipient.  That culture, with a huge division between rich and poor, could not exist without it.  The poor would be devastated by deep needs; the rich would be devastated by lack of household, farm, and political support.

So, grace was not a one-way effort.  The original gift may have started with patron, master or gifter, but there was an expected response and  partnership that was a giving and taking and giving again.  It was a symbiotic relationship between each.

It was almost a dance.  Gift begat loyalty and relationship.  It was the interaction of joy and benefit for each. If you have ever given a gift to someone only to find out they didn’t use it, or offered a helping hand which was rejected, or offered your hand in a dance to be rejected, you can get a taste of the necessity of a response to a grace offer.  In the Greco-Roman world, such a rejection was almost taboo and, definitely, a disgrace.

John the Baptist sees this most clearly, trying to get us to see the gift and response to the coming Savior, “This is who I spoke of, He who comes after me is preferred before me.  And of His fulness, we will receive grace for grace.” (John 1:15, 16) In the Greek, it is “charis anti charis,” “grace against/opposite grace” or “grace for the cause of grace.”  In a dance, the dancers are across from each other, “opposite” each other, the dance incomplete without the other.  I take this to mean that effort is a companion of grace.  It is the response to grace. 

What is the grace/gift that God extends to us?  To what am I to respond?  God is extravagant with His gifts.  He gives the power of the resurrection (Eph 1:19, 20).  He gives the desire and power to obey Him (Phil 2:13).  His divine power gives me everything I need for a godly life (2 Peter 1:3) and the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).  He gives us "every spiritual blessing" (Eph 1:3)  Wow!  What generosity!

And my response?  The Bible makes it clear what is a partnered response to this grace.  Peter says to make every effort to apply those promises to my life (2 Peter 1:3-9).  Paul says to treat grace as special and trust God in what He gives (Gal 2:20,21).  Because of God’s promises, I am to clean myself up and be holy (2 Cor 7:1). My response-ability is clear and holds great promise.

What a dance that would be!  God offers all the power you need to live the holy life! You take his hand and let him lead.  You stay in step with the music and movement of grace, to accept where He may take you.  It is a discipline to let Him lead and to stay in the follower-role. 

God begins a work in us and invites us to join in the effort.  When we live under the influence of God, of which the Bible names many ways of doing so, these become elements of grace, his unmerited favor.  God makes the change possible within the context of our lives and when we catch His vision and plug into the movement of God, growth and change happen.  Life becomes different.

Keeping the dance metaphor requires that we keep God at the center of the discipline of grace.  He is the patron, the master, the gifter, the “lead” in the gift of grace.  You keep your eyes on him.  When you and God join up and dance, your life is now supernatural.  A whole lot of God (the super) and a little bit of you (the natural) makes that possible.

Have you been dancing with God?