Not Fair!

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We are surrounded by unfairness.

Too often, we find undeserving people are in dire situations while those who seem to deserve some misfortune strut happily along.

For some of us, it strikes so close to home, as we find ourselves voicing the proverbial “why me?”

Sometimes it hits close to home in a different way. Recently I witnessed a debilitating illness take down someone I love and respect dearly. And as I tried to grapple with reality, I caught myself thinking how really tired I was of seeing good people get sick while I still stand upright.

I share that raw moment not for sympathy, but for the sake of transparency, and because at one time or another, something similar may have gone through your mind. It’s not something we typically admit out loud.

All that aside, the bottom line is: What do we do with that unfairness? Do we rail and cry and yell “Unfair!” like a frustrated child? Do we shake our fist at God or society or the universe in general? Do we just shut down and not care anymore?

As hard as this is, and as much as it may sound like a tired old cliché, the only thing we can do with it is trust that God is in control of it.

Let’s take a look at a nearly 2,000-year-old case study.

Acts 7:58 is the first place in the Bible that we are introduced to a man named Saul. And it’s not a very good introduction.

“Then they cast him [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Saul is overseeing the unjust stoning (a.k.a., murder) of one of the most godly men of the budding Church. He’s not casting any stones himself, but he has helped to get the people stirred up, turned them loose, and taken on the role of watching their coats for them while they took care of things.

To any observer who knows the life and character of both men, Saul should have been stoned while Stephen lived a long life.

Here’s what we know of Stephen from Acts 6 and 7. He is knowledgeable, passionate, loyal to Jesus Christ and His church, a selfless and compassionate servant. He is bold, brave, and unafraid.

Contrast that to what we see of Saul (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2): hateful, hurtful, heartless, and filled with resentment. He hides behind edicts that he receives from the high priests and travels with a cohort of men to help him carry out his dastardly work.

Now, returning to Acts 7:58…who deserves to die?

But then, we read through the rest of the New Testament, and get the rest of the story (shout-out to Paul Harvey for those who still remember him). And it dawns on us that God knew precisely what He was doing.

Stephen was prepared to meet His Savior that day. He had a relationship with Jesus Christ and knew that whatever happened, eternity was laid out before him.

Stephen would be an inspiration to those in the early church, and remains an inspiration to believers.

Acts 8:1 tells us that the persecution that ensued after Stephen’s death caused the church to spread and the Gospel to reach parts of the world that it had not reached previously.

As for Saul, after Acts 9:3 he would be known as the Apostle Paul, and would turn the known world on its ear.

Paul would start churches all over the Roman empire.

Paul would stand his ground against Jewish leaders and Roman officials alike.

Paul would endure treacherous terrain, hunger, weather, assaults, shipwrecks, and unfair accusations (see 2 Cor 11:23-28).

So next time things seem so unfair, remember this: every single event or circumstance you witness is another moving part in God’s great orchestration. It may not make sense today, and it may hurt like mad, but in the long run He is doing amazing things!

 

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Cowboy

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The light fades on the prairie as he settles in. Just a dull orange glow remains on the horizon, countered somewhat by the orange glow of the campfire flames.

Close by there’s a rustle as something scurries through the brush – probably a rabbit or some small rodent.

In the distance somewhere a coyote bellows.

There’s comfort in the solitude.  No one to answer to. No one to keep up with and no one keeping up with him. He’s self-sufficient.

Community is overrated. This much he understands. Letting someone get close means responsibility, accountability, and lots of other troublesome “ility’s”.

Sure there are responsibilities out on the plain, but if he fouls something up it’s only him that has to suffer for it. No one else hurts. No one is disappointed. No one looks down on him or judges him. He can be his own person out here.

But what he doesn’t allow himself to see is that he was built for fellowship. There is this innate part of him that just doesn’t function as designed out in the wilderness. That part of him needs others to lean on. It needs the sense of accomplishment that comes from being present for others. If he messes up, there are no apparent persons to be impacted, sure. But the truth is, repercussions of his choices emanate out into the world even if he doesn’t see it. In fact, his mere absence is impacting lives.

These are the things he can’t afford to realize.

And so he just presses on. He settles in next to the fire. He thinks over his choices of the day, and wishes he had made different ones. In fact, most times he wishes he could make different ones, because the same regrettable poor decisions seem to pop up again and again to the point that he feels incapable of doing anything differently.

‘Oh well, put a lid on it and cowboy up,’ he tells himself. No time for sentimentalities.

It’s time to get some shut-eye. In the morning he’ll wake up, kick some dirt on the embers from the fire, saddle up, and move on. Whatever happens, whatever poor choices resurface, hopefully he’ll at least do some good along the way.

 

Though this might fit the loner hero in a lot of old westerns you’ve seen, that’s not really what I have in mind as I describe the scene. I’m describing everyday people – each of us – enmeshed in our private struggles.

We have this tendency to be cowboys (or cowgirls). Particularly when it comes to those private, shameful things we don’t want to admit out loud.

We long for solitude. That open plain where we can be alone seems so inviting. Sometimes even the ones who seem the most comfortable around people still spend a lot of time out on the prairie when it comes to some aspects of their lives.

But none of us were meant to be lone drifters in any part of our lives. We were created for fellowship, relationship.

When God said “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), He wasn’t just talking about a sexual partner. He wasn’t even talking exclusively about a marriage relationship. Yes, the immediate plan was to create a female companion for intimate relationship (including physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological intimacy). But we mustn’t overlook the fact that one result of that relationship was procreation, which led to multi-faceted community and a vast breadth and depth of relationship types.

It is in these relationships that we find support, accountability, encouragement, a sense of value and achievement, among other things. And though some of these things may at times seem more trouble than they’re worth, they are in the long run indispensable ingredients for personal growth.

Truth: there are people all around you who will support you. Even for your most embarrassing struggles – those private things that you are sure no one could possibly understand – God has intentionally placed people in your life who will understand, and even if they don’t understand they will still love you. Ask Him to show them to you. He will.

So come in out of the wilderness. This will take courage. Sometimes you’ll get hurt. Sometimes you’ll hurt others. But it’s better than spending your time alone; trying to convince yourself this is for the best while trudging through hopeless solitude and letting the plans God has for you stagnate.

Onslaught

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Satan never fires just one arrow and moves on. He fires volleys…salvos…relentless barrages.

Anyone who has been assaulted by the Enemy knows that it is rarely dodging one arrow and wiping our brow, like some fortunate wanderer who just happened to step into the line of fire and made it out to tell the story. It’s more like hunkering down in the bomb shelters of London or Liverpool circa 1941, hoping that the explosion that just rocked us was the last one but fearing that there’s at least one more to come.

That’s why Ephesians 6:16 doesn’t talk about using the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming arrow, but all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

I used to think the plural form referred to the accumulation of arrows over a lifetime of living our faith. But experience has taught me differently. Yes, the arrows accumulate over time, but that doesn’t mean they accumulate one at a time.

And the arrows don’t all come from the same direction. Like a good battle strategist, our Enemy wants to flank us and knock us off balance. So he varies the attack vectors to cause more confusion and uncertainty. Hence, the arrows aren’t just coming from personal temptations, or relationships, or finances, or illness, or car problems. They come from any or all of the above.

It almost seems like a mere shield isn’t enough – we need a fortress.

It just so happens, we have one:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).

He is our fortress and our deliverer. He is our strength and our shield.

There is distinct symbolism here that gives us a three-hundred-sixty-degree defense against Satan’s onslaughts.

Sometimes when the battle is heaviest, we need somewhere to take refuge. We need walls and barriers to shield us, and someone to provide cover. We need to defend and just survive. There’s nothing wrong with hunkering down and waiting out the worst of the attack. God is there to be that fortress and deliverer in those times.

Then come the times to go on the attack. No war was ever won by an army permanently entrenched in their forts. At some point, an offensive strategy is needed. We cannot attain freedom for ourselves or anyone else if we’re locked in defensive mode. That’s where the strength and shield come in. When we’re ready to step out of the fortress and take the fight to the enemy, God is there for that as well. He becomes our strength to wield the sword and our shield to quench those arrows we talked about earlier.

So when it seems like the onslaught is at its worst, remember we have options. God’s war plan is multi-faceted. The next time you feel like you’re taking heavy fire: breathe deeply, know that He has all the angles covered, and plan your strategy accordingly.

Leave It at the Cross

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“You were never meant to carry this beyond the cross.” – MercyMe, Dear Younger Me

This line strikes home for me every time I hear it. Because I look back at things that I know I shouldn’t have carried beyond the cross and see the pain it brought and the problems it caused.

I think to some extent all of us have things that we try to carry beyond the cross.

We talk about turning things over to Jesus. We nod confidently and agree there is nothing that He can’t carry for us.

But still there are things we try to carry ourselves.  We plant our feet firmly, heave it up on our shoulders, and trudge forward, one laborious step at a time.

Maybe it’s because we feel like it’s not something that’s worthy of turning over to God – it’s too trivial to bother Him with.

Or maybe it’s too ugly and we don’t want to expose it to our relationship with Him – like somehow revealing the thing (which He already knows about) will somehow taint His impression of us.

Or maybe someone has convinced us that God’s grace doesn’t quite cover that.

But Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

He didn’t say “all who labor and are heavy laden with big things.” Or “all who labor and are heavy laden unless your burden crosses this line.” He said “all.”

So no matter the size, shape, appearance, or form of your burden, bring it to Him. You were never meant to carry it beyond the cross.

Alcoholism? Bring it. Pornography? Bring it. Unwanted homosexual desires? Bring it. Bad temper? Bring it. Guilt from a painful past? Bring it. Hurt caused by someone else? Bring it. Drug problems, gambling addictions, trust issues, gossip, hate, lying, cheating, jealousy, judgmentalism – whatever form your flaw or your struggle takes…bring it to His cross.

And leave it there. Don’t carry it one step further.

When we try to carry it ourselves, bigger problems result. Struggles become addictions. Secrets become complex networks of deceit. Angry outbursts become abusive behavior. One more compulsive bet becomes financial ruin.

The scenarios are exhaustive (and exhausting!).

Trust me, carrying whatever it is ourselves and trying to keep it stuffed inside only leads to more (and deeper) hurt. I know. I’ve been there.

So make the commitment now to leave everything at the foot of the cross. Everything…and live free!

p.s. – since I mentioned it, take a listen to this song if you have time. It’s worth it.

Three Things to Consider While You Wait

Household 791Did you ever wonder about the years between the time the prodigal son took off with his inheritance and the time he returned?

We have a pretty good idea of what happened in the son’s life during that time, but virtually no insight into the father’s.

First, I wonder how hard it was for him to let go in the first place. How it must have torn his heart to hear his son say “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I’ll just take my money and move on.” What emotions did he grapple with? Confusion? Anger? Feeling like a failure? Desperation? Guilt? Resignation? All of the above?

And what went through his head while the boy was away? We don’t know how long it was, but we know it was probably years. Partying away a small fortune, living through a famine, hitting rock bottom, and entering the workforce in the most demeaning job imaginable – all of that doesn’t happen overnight.

So what about dad during this time?

Did he yearn to go out searching for him? Did he think about sending a search party or hiring a private eye? If the story were pulled into the modern age, would he try to turn on the GPS on the boy’s phone, or Google his name to see if he turned up in the news? Would he have constantly fight the urge to text or email him?

It had to be grueling, just living with the silence, not hearing any news. Thinking about the old times, choking back emotions when memories arose. Maybe wishing he had done some things differently – spent more time with him, worked less, had more patience. Maybe he made some serious mistakes that he wished he could take back, or at least have a chance to explain. Maybe he looked back on the good times and felt a twinge of hurt and anger that his son would dismiss all that good and fly from the nest.

Of course, this is all speculation. We don’t know what went on at the home-front while the prodigal was ruining his life. But some of us can draw from personal experience, and feel like we have a pretty good idea.

Which leads to my point (yes, I have one).

Maybe there’s another lesson in this parable besides the return of the prodigal. We must not lose sight of that key lesson – that just like the prodigal, we can always return home, find unconditional acceptance, and be embraced by our Heavenly Father.

But maybe for some of us there’s also the lesson of what to do if we find ourselves in the shoes of the heartbroken father.

Some of you may be there right now.  If so, here are three thoughts about the wait that may help.

First: Life goes on. We can’t allow the pain of that damaged relationship to damage the rest of the relationships in our lives. Others still need us, and we have responsibilities to them. The hurt is real, and we can’t ignore it. But to dwell on it at the expense of other, intact relationships is wrong. Take the pain to God. Find counsel if necessary (there’s no shame in getting counseling – don’t get caught by that lie). But keep loving those that are still in your life. As far as we know, the father still attended to his farm and the rest of his family in his youngest son’s absence.

Second: God is in control. No matter how bleak things seem, God never relinquishes control, and He never drops the ball. Whatever is happening, He is there. He’s not surprised, He’s not outmaneuvered, He’s not stumped. We don’t know how long the wait was, but we know this: the father was still waiting and watching expectantly right up until his son appeared on the horizon.

Third: Do what you can, and let God do what He will. You can’t control this. Relinquish the urge to try. If an opportunity comes to let them know you’re still thinking of them, take it. But trust that the love you showed them while you were together will stay with them, and that God will remind them that they can always come home. The father didn’t pursue the prodigal, but somehow the son still knew that he could return, and would find some sort of welcome (even if it was just a job as a farmhand).

And one other thing…

Keep your running shoes on so you can dash out to meet them when they return!

Duck Test

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He was the leader of the world’s only superpower. He had subdued enemies, conquered lands, captured cities, built spectacular palaces, and oversaw a thriving economy.

And then one day things went sideways. And before it was all over he could add to his accomplishments adultery, treachery, betrayal, and murder.

His name was David, King of Israel. Most people know the story: He slept with and impregnated his neighbor’s wife, and after a hastily planned scheme to cover up the consequences failed, he orchestrated her husband’s death.

You don’t have to agree with David’s actions to understand how they came about. Hopefully we’ve not been down the path that led to adultery and murder, but we’ve all been down paths where we would never have ventured with a clear head.

But here’s what I want you to see about David: When he finally came to himself, David called it like it was.

David’s prayer following the fallout from his actions is the prayer of a broken man who was done with maneuvering and making excuses.

See, we need to be honest with God in our confessions.

We need to learn to say simply, “I sinned against You.”

I didn’t ‘have a weak moment.’ I didn’t ‘make a mistake.’ I didn’t ‘falter’ or ‘stumble’ or ‘lose a battle.’

These phrases are accurate, and in proper perspective can help us press forward. Because our weaknesses combined with the barrage of influences we face, sometimes lead to bad choices. We can’t live a perfect life, and God will never give up on us (even after all this, David’s character is still immortalized as “A man after God’s own heart”).

But the duck test says “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck”

Like David, we need to learn to be raw and honest with God and say,

“For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:3-4).

When he says “against You only have I sinned,” he’s not dismissing the fact that other people were hurt by his sin.  In this case Uriah, Bathsheba, the unborn baby, and many others close to them, were hurt terribly by his choices.

But it was primarily God against whom he sinned.

Every sin is first and foremost an offense against a holy God.

So let’s be careful to maintain balance.  We can’t spend our time condemning ourselves for our mistakes, wailing and wallowing in our filth, expecting ourselves to live the perfect life and never slip up.  But we also can’t use our flawed humanity to smooth over or minimize the fact that we hurt God and others by our actions.

Living like new means constantly renewing our mind and spirit through self-inspection, confession, and trusting that God lifts the penalty for that sin from us.

It’s “Freedom 360” – freedom from excuse-making and freedom from condemnation.

It’s a package deal.

Trust Me

Level of transparency – this is something that I have debated internally many times.

It’s a valid debate. Lack of transparency inhibits being there for those that need to hear that they are not alone in their struggles. Too much transparency becomes counterproductive as we expose loved ones to unnecessary hurt, and risk inadvertently encouraging others to stay in their brokenness (“Well at least I’ve never done anything as bad as him”).

Recently, as I prepared for a church presentation which called for openness about my personal struggles, I trudged through this internal argument once again. And as it transpired, I slowly came to realize that the issue was a matter of trust.

“Can I trust people with my revelations?”

“Can I trust that they will not react harshly?”

“Can I trust that they will continue to love me and support me?”

“Can I trust that they will not jump to conclusions?”

I concluded that no matter what arguments I made regarding why I should or shouldn’t be transparent, and to what extent, underlying it all was this issue of trust. I just wasn’t sure I could fully trust everyone in my listening audience.

Then I heard it.  So subtle that I almost missed it, yet so profound that I was certain it could only be the voice of God.

I’m not asking you to trust them. I’m asking you to trust Me.”

You see, God isn’t looking for us to obey because we trust that it will sit well with other people.

He’s not asking us to do what He has called us to do because we can trust that others will support us and not judge us.

He’s asking us to serve Him because we can trust HIM to carry us through whatever comes.

Look at scripture.

In Acts 9, God calls a man named Ananias to go heal Saul of Tarsus, and Ananias essentially says “Lord, that is the craziest idea I’ve ever heard! Don’t you know that guy’s killing Christians?!” But God says “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (v 15, ESV).

God was telling Ananias “Don’t trust Paul, trust Me.”

In Exodus 4, Moses is arguing with God saying “They [the people of Israel] will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say ‘The Lord did not appear to you'” (v 1). God then proceeds to instruct him regarding a series of miracles (turning Moses’ staff into a snake, making Moses’ hand turn leprous, turning water into blood), and God says “When they see these things, they’ll believe I sent you.”

God was telling Moses “Don’t trust the Isrealites, trust Me.”

There are other examples throughout scripture and history. We don’t have time for all of them here. But believe this – God is trustworthy, and He is asking you to put your trust in Him…and not anyone else.

“So we can confidently say,’The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6)