Taking Away the Sting of Affliction

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Only two types people can be content in the midst of affliction:

Monkish types who wear chafing robes and seek to overcome pain by annihilating their desires

and

Christians who have found their contentment in something, or more specifically someone, other than their circumstances.

Jeremiah Burroughs puts is this way:

There is a power of grace to turn this affliction into good; it takes away the sting and poison of it.

How can we find contentment in suffering? By going to Christ, who gives grace to take away the sting and poison of our affliction.

Where do you go in the midst of affliction?

+photo by h.koppeldelaney

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How To Make Little Pharisees

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A dad once told me, “I get angry with my kids so they know I’m serious.  It’s good for them to be afraid of me, at least a little bit.”

So often we resort to anger as a way to get people to do what we want.  Parents yell at their kids to try to get them to obey.  Bosses intimidate employees to motivate them.  Husbands speak harshly to their wives to try to change them.

But God’s Word says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1.19-20).

Catch that?  Anger won’t produce righteousness – in our children or anyone else.  Anger will often produce something else, though – the fear of man.  Oh, our children may obey us out of fear.  But our anger will produce little Pharisees, who obey on the outside but not from the heart*.

God doesn’t use anger to produce his righteousness in us.  His wrath doesn’t move those in hell to love him.  God imputes to us Christ’s righteousness, then moves us to obey out of gratitude.  We love because he first loved us, not because he first intimidated us.

*I’d like to credit the person I learned this from, but I can’t recall who it was.

photo by Eric Rice

Things That Should Probably Be Illegal

Just for fun.

  • Any movie featuring both Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal.
  • Any more “Chicken Soup for the [insert person, such as astronaut] Soul books.
  • Letting George Lucas anywhere near a camera.
  • Attaching the word “extreme” to something that isn’t, specifically deodorant or shampoo.
  • Bible covers with any of the following on the front: Bald Eagle, very caucasian looking Jesus, the praying hands.
  • Talking loudly on a cellphone, as if you were communicating with someone in space [I think I do this sometimes].
  • Air quotes, except in extreme circumstances.
  • The phrase “it’s not so much the heat, but the humidity that gets you”.
  • Letting Stephen ride a scooter.
  • Letting Stephen do these silly lists.

Many more things need to be made illegal. What would you add?

You Are What You Tweet

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The things I can do on and Facebook and Twitter are incredible.

I can let you know exactly what I’m doing at 2:01 P.M. on Tuesday afternoon (drinking my third cup of coffee). I can post that goofy picture of me and my buddy sporting our sweetest 80′s clothes. I can take a quiz that helps me identify which ‘The Princess Bride’ character I’m most like. I can catch up with my high school friends.

Yet in the midst of all this, something strange can begin to take place. I can feel as though the things I say and post on Facebook and Twitter don’t really matter. As if, somehow, the things I say and do online are separate from the real me. Come on, it’s just Facebook, right?

Wrong. In Matthew 15:19 Jesus said:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.

So what does this mean? It means that our status updates, photo uploads, wall posts, and online chats are a visible display of what is taking place in our hearts.

Posting flirtatious comments on someone’s picture isn’t “just what happens on Facebook”. Uploading an inappropriate photo isn’t just for fun. Relentlessly mocking someone isn’t what happens online. It’s the overflow of the heart. And it’s sin. What we do online is the real us. It doesn’t matter that we’re safely behind a computer screen.

And the sobering thing is, every action that takes place online has effects that last into eternity. Jesus said:

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak… (Matt. 12:36)

Let’s put that verse into online terms. On the day of judgment people will give an account for every careless Tweet they post. Every inappropriate status update. Every sinful picture. Wall post. Chat.

On the final day, I don’t want to regret the things I said in cyber space. So for now, I need to watch what I Tweet, upload, and wall post. Because I am what I Tweet.

Here are some questions to get us thinking. Parents, Facebook and Twitter provide excellent conversation topics. Use these questions as starting points.

  • Do I ever say anything on Facebook or Twitter that is impure or unedifying? (Ephesians 4:29)
  • Am I communicating with anyone online that I wouldn’t want my spouse/parents/friends to know about? (1 John 1:6-7)
  • What do my pictures, wall posts, status updates, and “friends” show about my heart?

Here’s the bad news: we’ve all sinned in this area. The good news is that Jesus Christ died for Facebook sinners like me. In light of this good news, let’s use Facebook and Twitter for the glory of God.

Note: This idea of the online me is the real me was first introduced to me by a pastor named Steve Whitacre. Thanks for your wisdom Steve!

A Nudge From The Shepherd’s Staff

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Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me  (PS 23.4).

In college I watched the movie Wait Until Dark, a spine-tingler about a blind woman terrorized in her home by a murderer.  In one scene, he suddenly lunges at her out of the darkness with a dagger.  It so startled me I shot back in my seat, and smashed my funny bone on the armrest.  Darkness is scary.

A sheep in the desert would dread the darkness.  Predators lurk in the dark.  Pitfalls lie unseen in the inky blackness.

All Christians will trudge through deep valleys of the shadow of death from time to time.  The darkness of depression or the gloom of loneliness.  The overcast days of caring for a sick child or raising a rebellious teen.  Pitch-black places where we can’t see the next step.

But God promises that even in the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil.

No matter what kind of darkness you are experiencing, if you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, there’s a reason you need not fear – your Shepherd is with you.  Your Great Shepherd who is stronger than all your enemies.  The One to whom night is as bright as day.  The one who conquered Satan, demons, sin and death itself on the cross.   Because he is with you, you need not fear.

How do we know he is with us?  First of all, because he’s promised never to leave us nor forsake us.

But his rod and his staff also remind us he’s there.

His rod and staff comfort us by reminding us that our Shepherd is with us.  In the darkness he taps us with his rod and nudges us with his staff.  Jesus gently pokes me with his staff when a brother exhorts me.  He says, “Mark, I’m here,” when a friend sends a note of appreciation.  He prods me with his rod when my wife asks heart-searching questions.

Jesus wants to use you to be his “staff” to comfort a brother or sister in the darkness.

“The most subtle use of the staff is to ‘be in touch’ with someone who may just need a word of encouragement or a hug.  These are ways of saying, ‘Everything will be OK’ or ‘I’m right beside you.’  These statements echo two of the most common messages God speaks to people in the Bible: ‘Do not be afraid’ and ‘I am with you.’  The staff represents these messages.  A post-it note on the computer screen.  A treat left in the lunch bag.  A surprise party… A call on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.  A passage of Scripture read at someone’s bedside.” – Timothy S. Laniak, While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks

How does God nudge you with his staff in the darkness?  How does he make you aware he is with you?

photo by Reza Vaziri

I’m a Greedy, Discontented Pig

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Discontentment does funny things to me. Like turn me into a greedy, ungrateful pig.

Point in case: my budget. There are times when money is a teensy bit on the tight side. My bank account starts running thin, and the McDonald’s value menu starts to look like a little bit of heaven. You’ve all been there.

You would think that when things get tight I would become more grateful for the things that I already have. But that’s not what happens. Instead, my discontented heart latches on to the one or two things I can’t buy because of budget restrictions.

I’m living in a wonderful house. I’ve got the best wife, baby girl, mom and dad, brothers and sister, and dogs (okay scratch the dogs) in the world. I have ten Bibles in my house. I have enough money to keep my daughter full of nutritious food. I have clean water. Above anything else, I have the gospel. Salvation. Fellowship with the living God.

But in the heat of discontentment, I don’t give a rip about any of these things. Instead, I become fixated on the one or two things I can’t have. Instead of bursting with gratefulness to God, I’m shriveling up with self-centered discontent.

Thomas Watson put it well when he said:

…our hearts are more discontented at one loss than thankful for a hundred mercies. God has plucked one branch of grapes from you, but how many precious clusters are left behind?

So what’s the solution for my mutinous, discontented heart? I need to spend time pondering the mercies of God. To reflect on the gospel and all the blessings that I’ve received in the gospel. To give thanks for all that I have received.

Discontentment doesn’t grow well in the soil of thankfulness. Let’s cultivate the soil of thankfulness today.

What about you? Can you relate to my discontented frenzy?

+photo by jere-me

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How Can Pain Be Good?

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PS 119.71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.

Pain bad.  Comfort good.  I don’t know about you, but when I smash my thumb with a hammer, my first impulse isn’t to jump for joy shouting, “Yes!  That felt great!  I think I’ll smash the other one!”  I don’t like to suffer.  I want an easy life.

Yet the author of Psalm 119 says it was good that he suffered.  Was he some kind of masochist?

He doesn’t say he enjoyed suffering, he says it is good for him that he suffered.

Looking back, he says of his experience, “It is good for me that I was afflicted.”  It is good for me (NOW) that I was afflicted (THEN).  In other words, at the time, I might not have thought the affliction was good, but I can see now that in reality it was good – I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s good that I went through it.  I have something in my life now that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t suffered then.

Suffering drives us to the Word

He says it is good he was afflicted “that I might learn your statutes.”  Pain has a way of driving us to God’s Word.  A way of impelling us to trust and obey.  Impelling us to trust God’s promises and pray that he’ll fulfill them.  Impelling us to obey God’s commands and walk in his ways.

Affliction tutors us to believe God will provide, protect, revive, comfort and direct us.

Trouble instructs us to obey God’s commands to delight in him, to walk in his ways, to flee evil, and to do all he commands.

In the classroom of adversity we learn to cling to the truth of God’s steadfast and unchanging love and obey his statutes with fear and trembling.

Speak in the present tense

If the Psalmist can say, “It is good that I WAS afflicted” because his pain bore good fruit, then we should say, “It is good that I AM afflicted” – present tense – knowing the great Vine Dresser is pruning us today to produce fruit tomorrow.  Our loving Father is disciplining us as his children to produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

We don’t deny the reality of pain.  We can honestly say, “I’m suffering and it hurts a lot but it is good that I’m afflicted.   I’m grieving and oppressed, but it is good that I’m afflicted, because God is good.”

photo by Burwash Calligrapher

The Only Safe Rule For Giving

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In his commentary on Luke,  R. Kent Hughes quotes C.S. Lewis in reference to the widow’s sacrificial gift of 2 copper coins, which was all she had to live on (LK 21).  Unfortunately, I read the quote before I realized how convicting it would be.  By then it was too late to escape.  But you still have time to turn back…

“I do not believe one can settle on how much we ought to give.  I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.  In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.  If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.  There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.” – C.S. Lewis

Great quote, huh?  Convicted?  I tried to warn you.

When we read this quote we should be able to think of things we’ve denied ourselves because of our giving.  If we can’t think of a single purchase or pleasure we’ve forgone for the sake of the church or the poor, the Lord wants to convict and inspire us.

I know I’ve never given as sacrificially as I should.  That’s why I’m grateful for Jesus’ blood and obedience.  His blood to cover my sins, and his obedience to count as my obedience before the Father.  Jesus’ all-out sacrifice is mine.  His total self-emptying counts for me as if I had poured out all I had.  I’ve failed to sacrifice as I should, but Jesus’ sacrifice is totally sufficient for me and all his children combined.

Not only do I need mercy for my giving failures, I need grace to change.  I need the power of the Holy Spirit to make me willing to give more than I can spare, to change my heart so I give till it pinches.  To make me content to deny myself things I’d like to do or have for the sake of the kingdom.  I’m glad he gives this grace.

Come Holy Spirit, and make us like Jesus!

If you’d like a great charity to give to, consider Covenant Mercies.

photo by emmyboop

Some People Have to Learn the Hard Way

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If only…

You complete the sentence. If only my mom was in better health. If only I wasn’t drowning in housework. If only I could get a job that paid me what I’m worth. If only I could get rid of these constant headaches. If only I could get married, buy a car, own my house.

Then I’d be happy. Complete. Content.

But that’s not how things work. In God’s economy, contentment is learned. In Philippians 4:11, Paul writes:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need…

Paul learned to be content in lowness. How? By being brought low.

He knew how to be content when he was rolling in the Benjamin’s. How? By facing plenty and abundance.

Paul wasn’t simply a hyper mellow guy. In each unique set of circumstances, God taught Paul how to be content.

The truth is, true contentment can’t be gained any other way. It must be learned. In headaches and housework. In boom and bust. In singleness and marriage. The Lord desires to teach us contentment in every season and circumstance.

Thomas Watson puts it this way:

The motion of the soul heavenward is a violent motion; it must therefore be learned.

Where do you find yourself saying, “If only…”? Consider changing your words to, “Lord teach me.”

+photo by JB photographer

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Tough Times Call For Abundant Grace

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On May 24, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled, “Charities: Tough Times Call for Smarter Giving.”

The author, Jonnelle Marte states: “When wallets get lean, checkbooks tend to stay closed — and checks to charity become rarer.”

“Amid the recession and stock-market losses, philanthropy consultants say all donors are re-evaluating their giving. Those who would normally give new charities a chance are sticking with groups they know. Some are giving smaller gifts or none at all. Over the past year, a number of corporations have ended or trimmed their matching-gift programs.”

Seems natural right? When times get tight, give less. Tighten our belts. Circle the wagons. Give less. Who would expect someone to give more when they’re poor? That would be unnatural.

But Christians aren’t natural. We’re supernatural. We operate by grace.

Grace empties itself and pours itself out for others. In his grace, God gave up his precious Son to die to make sinners rich. In his grace Jesus impoverished himself, took on flesh, and sacrificed himself for his sheep.

Similarly, grace produces in us the impulse to impoverish ourselves for the sake of others:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord…” (2 CO 8.1 – 3)

Extreme poverty should have made the Macedonians close their wallets and re-evaluate their giving. Instead God’s grace caused the Macedonians to overflow in a wealth of generosity. Grace produced graciousness. Grace made them like the Giver of grace.

How we need God’s grace in these tough times. We can’t make our selfish hearts be generous. But God’s grace can. Grace moved Zacchaeus to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back 4 times those he’d cheated (LK 19). Grace moved a poor widow to give all she had to live on to God (LK 21)

Generosity in good times doesn’t take much grace. But lavishness in lean times springs from great grace and brings great glory to God.  Tough times don’t call for smarter giving.  They call for abundant grace.

photo by Jeff Keen