It’s Not Easy

We’d really like life to be easy, wouldn’t we? I know I would. We’d like to be married to someone with telepathy who only lived to please us. We’d like to parent children who resembled cuddly robots, executing our every command and over-achieving our goals for them. We’d like to find fulfillment in excellent, creative work, accomplished in about two hours a day with a minimum of sweat and no actual frustration. We’d like to be wise without being old, to grow strong without working out and to acquire several languages in our sleep. We’d like to be loved in every relationship, fully supported and understood, without conflict or confusion or struggle. Because we live in a broken world, it just doesn’t work that way. But we know God better as a result.

Noah's ArkThe Bible story of Noah and the Ark can be found in Genesis 6-9. You will also find it illustrated in pastel colors on nursery walls everywhere. The dove has come to symbolize peace, in large part, because of this narrative. And the rainbow has been used to represent the beauty and variety of Creation in all its forms. We’d like the story to be that easy, but it just doesn’t work that way. The story of Noah is a horrific story of evil, terror and destruction. The word “peace” isn’t found in these chapters, and the rainbow is a weapon of war. The story of Noah isn’t God’s offer to live in peace with mankind. It’s God’s covenant to live at enmity with mankind.

Peace for God would mean flooding the world constantly, purging every bit of sin, suffering and rebellion from the planet. But in Genesis 8:21 He agrees not to act on His righteous impulse. God agrees that He will suffer the continued existence of evil and sin in order to save a few – hence the bow which is aimed at Heaven. The same principle is illustrated again in the Genesis 18 story of Sodom when God agrees not to destroy the city for the sake of only a few. This idea comes to full fruition in Jesus Christ. God is willing to suffer the sins of the many for the sake of the One. He is willing to live in discord with the entirety of Creation for the sake of His Son and those who find salvation in Him. What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory? (Rom. 9:22-23)

Every time we are subject to frustration and conflict, we know God a little better. Every time we forebear the difficulty of living in a broken world, we reflect His patience. Every time we cultivate the ground despite its thorns, fight for integrity in a world of deceit, love a difficult spouse, child, friend or enemy who doesn’t really appreciate us, we look a little more like God Himself. We look a little more like the Father who agreed to live in long-suffering enmity with the world in order to save some, like the Son whose work was to bear the sins of His brothers, constructing their lifeboat from His own body, and like the Holy Spirit, that peaceful dove who nests with violent, broken people that they might know His power for living. Now let’s go show that kind of love to this damaged world. It won’t be easy.

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Calling Versus Passion

Ian Charleson (foreground) and Ben Cross (left...Eric Liddell ruined the well-being of a whole generation of Christians.

If you know who Eric Liddell was, then I probably have your irate attention.  In case you don’t (and you haven’t already used Wikipedia to find out), he was also known as “the flying Scotsman,” the gold medal winner of the 400 meter race at the 1924 Summer Olympics.  He died while a missionary to China during the Second World War.  There is much more to his story, and I would encourage you to read one of the several biographies available and to watch the wonderful 1981 movie entitled Chariots of Fire.  Actually, it’s the script-writers of that movie who stole our peace, not Eric himself.  In the movie, Eric is urged by his sister to give up his running career in order to leave for the mission field.  He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose [China], but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

Somehow, the first half of that line has gotten lost, and only the second half, the part about feeling God’s pleasure, has become the motto of Western Christians trying to find their calling in life.  We now associate feelings of pleasure with God’s presence and ‘call.’  We want an assignment which will give us that sense of pleasure, achievement, blessing and satisfaction which Eric-the-actor was apparently talking about, and we have somehow assumed that it is out there for everyone if we can only find it.

The Bible uses the word ‘calling’ a bit differently.  Primarily, it uses the word to mean our salvation (Rom. 11:26, 29; Eph. 4:1; Heb. 3:1; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Peter 1:10).  Second, it uses ‘calling’ to indicate the good works which flow out of our salvation (Mark 6:7; 2 Thess. 1:11).  Finally, the same word is used twice to indicate our unchosen situation in life (1 Cor. 7:20, Heb. 5:4).  Our ‘call’ is that to which we have been called by a sovereign God – nothing more and nothing less.  There is no promise that we will like those things.  If you are married, then you have been called to love your spouse well.  If you are a parent, then you have been called to raise your children in the instruction of the Lord.  No matter your job, you have been called to do it as though you were working directly for God.  You have been called to evangelism, to serve the church, to abide in God’s word, to pursue holiness, to be a good steward of the gifts and resources God has given you.  These things ARE your calling, and they give God pleasure.  Occasionally, they may coincide with something that gives you pleasure, but often, they will be difficult and burdensome.

We have redefined ‘calling’ to mean a mission for which we have a great desire.  I think the modern word for that is ‘passion.’  Too many Christians have absorbed the idea that God will give them a mission and a passion which coincide, and until they find it, they have not found His calling for their lives; they have missed it.  That’s miserable American idolatry. 

It’s American because this country may be the first in history to give its citizens an absolute expectation of free choice in their vocation, their leisure and their relationships. Jesus was a carpenter because his father was a carpenter.  Few women had any vocation outside the home.  Jesus’ parents most likely had an arranged marriage.  The number of children they had was out of their hands.  Any leisure consisted of family gatherings and worship services.  And that was for free men, to say nothing of the many slaves who came to Christ.  In that era, it was only the Roman nobility, with their games and orgies, who had real choices about how they spent their time.  And within this rigid framework, the Apostles told the faithful that they were called to follow God’s leading, to honor and serve Him in all things.

It’s idolatry because we are looking to find our fulfillment in a thing rather than a Person.  God is pleased when we look more like Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, not when we look more like the fictional version of Eric Liddell who found an exceptional ability that he loved.  I am not saying it’s wrong to pursue something we love.  I am a counselor, and I help people discover the things that they love. We do have choices today, and if our passion happens to coincide with an exceptional ability or with a job which provides for our family, then that is an incredible blessing for which we should be eternally grateful.  However, it is neither an entitlement nor even a common occurrence.  In fact, even those things we name ‘passion’ have a way of succumbing to the Fall.

Finally, it’s miserable because so many people believe they have missed God’s direction for their lives.  Either they have failed or God has failed because they don’t have a miraculous experience of God’s pleasure in their activities.  If you do a Bible word-search on pleasure, you will find that God takes pleasure in His gospel and our obedience, and that the pleasure of man is often associated with sin (e.g., Prov. 21:17 or 2 Peter 2:13).  Please don’t use the measure of pleasure – how can you know if it’s God’s or your own? – to decide whether you are on the right path.  Do what is right and then pursue something that you love, but please don’t name that your ‘calling.’  It is only your passion. 

Instead of trying to find a passion we can make into our calling, perhaps we should spend more mental energy and prayer time making our calling into our passion.


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The Fantasy Fallacy by Shannon Ethridge

Women struggle with pornography and sexual fantasy.  There.  I said it.  It’s high time someone did.  I’ve known the truth of that statement since I was in middle school, but while there is plenty of helpful information available for men who are caught in the current epidemic of prurient sexuality, there is almost nothing for women.  Therefore, I present to you Shannon Ethridge’s intriguing analysis of the meaning behind the stories in our heads.  Written especially for women, the material could certainly be helpful to men, as well.

Beginning with the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, Ms. Ethridge notes the pervasive reality of sexual distortion in today’s entertainment, and then she discusses some of the ways that reality has invaded our churches, our homes and our thoughts.  Each of the later chapters in the book tackles a slightly different type of pornographic obsession, from bondage to multiple partners to same-sex attraction.  However, she manages to do so in a way which neither inflames imaginations nor judges strugglers, humbly numbering herself among them.  In each case Ethridge applies the Gospel as the ultimate fulfillment of every woman’s false fantasies.

My only criticism of this much–needed tool is that the author brushes rather lightly over the subject.  I felt it could have included more foundational material on the near-universality of taboo sexual fantasies and their spiritual significance.  The book left me wanting to know more about additional themes and to be given more practical tools for prevention, analysis and correction.  Perhaps those will come later in a study guide so that we women can share our struggles in support groups, the way men often do these days.  This book is a good first step, and I highly recommend it to anyone who struggles with their sexual thought-life.

If you would like more information, visit the author’s website at http://www.shannonethridge.com.

Grieving God’s Way by Margaret Brownley

This devotional book receives my highest rating, even though I hate the title.  Any time you tell me you are doing something “God’s way” I get suspicious!  However, novelist Margaret Brownley has written so beautifully and helpfully on the topic of grief that I will forgive her this once.  Her words are filled with the poignant flavor of personal experience which she gained after the death of her eldest son.  It must be this personal quest toward God in the midst of suffering which makes such a profound impact.

This is a short book which can be read quickly and returned to many times over.  In addition to the 90 days of devotional readings, Ms. Brownley provides a wealth of practical advice and creative outlets for the pain of losing a loved one.  As she succinctly notes, “the needs to change, grow, seek and create are all signs of healing” (p. 195).  They are also means to healing, and there is no lack of helpful, hopeful opportunities here.  I have used some of her suggestions already in my counseling practice, and I would recommend it for the friends of those who grieve, too.   I will be buying multiple copies to give away, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you found yourself doing the same thing.

If you would like more information, visit Margaret Brownley’s website: http://www.grievinggodsway.com/

His Desire is for Me

This is a guest-blog by Dawn Bradley, who presented this material to the women in our church recently.  I found it so interesting and encouraging, that I wanted to share it.  Enjoy!


About nine months ago I emailed a friend concerning a mission trip he was leading. My friend replied that there wasn’t enough room for me because the trip was full and I wasn’t a medical person, so I scratched it off my list and moved on.  A month later I got another email from my friend asking if I was coming on the trip!  It confused me because I thought he had told me no, but my friend said that in the same email I thought said I couldn’t go, he had asked me, not only to come on the trip, but also to help lead it! My friend even quoted from his original email stating how I would be of help. What had I done?  I had completely twisted his message. How did, “We want you,” become, “There is no room for you”? Why had I rejected the kindness and love of Christ that was being extended?

Capital from the Song of Solomon in Winchester...I realized something was unhealthy in me. It was pretty unsettling. Several months earlier I had purchased a necklace that said, “His desire is for me,” from Song of Solomon because I wanted something tangible telling me I was loved and special. So, after the email incident, I decided to read Song of Solomon every day for 30 days to create a new habit of hearing Christ’s love for me.

When I first read the whole, short book, I thought the relationship between these lovers was a fantasy, a spiritual version of a 1950’s Hollywood love story.  They are young, healthy, beautiful, madly in love, and without children. I imagined they were the married version of the Proverbs 31 woman.  Looked at this way, their relationship would never relate to me, a 52-year-old single woman.  The more I read the book, however, the more it felt real and present: plants, animals, places, and people with bodies and emotions. The man and woman are pursuing each other with desire and passion.  There is intimacy and nakedness, but also hang-ups and sin.

Next, I read Song of Solomon according to the division titles the translators assigned, which are variations of He Speaks, She Speaks, Friends Speak. First, I circled and read only her words and found she is typically female for she does most of the talking. In fact, she occasionally speaks for him! Her words reveal insecurities about how she looks (1:5-6), problems with her brothers (1:6), concern over how others perceive her, (1:7b), and on one occasion she is reluctant to go to her beloved because it’s not convenient (5:3). In 2:14 it seems she is even hiding from him. She is insecure and imperfect.

He, on the other hand, speaks only of her beauty and his desire for her. Verse 4:7 says, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” And 7:9 says, “How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights.” The only account he gives of himself is to sing her praises. Think about that; to only hear words of affirmation, adoration, appreciation, love, acceptance, encouragement. How amazing would it be to hear only that audio running in your head!  Everything else we might glean about him, we learn from her. Through her references he appears to be a shepherd, but maybe he is more than that. Maybe he is royalty.  He is rather mysterious and allusive. Sometimes he can’t be found (3:1-2) then suddenly he is present (3:4). He is far off (2:8) then close (2:9). He may be mysterious and allusive, but he loves her with abandon. If the woman represents my own imperfections and insecurities, then the man represents God’s affirming love for me.

Wisdom literature can have a reputation for teaching only right and wrong.  But Song of Solomon offers wisdom in love and relationship.  In this poetry God gives us a wisdom book which answers my deepest questions: Who am I? A woman who is beautiful and loved. Why am I here? To love and be loved. Who loves me? My beloved loves me. Does this body matter, or is the spiritual all that really matters? This body is a gift along with all its emotions and passions.

Finally, I am claiming verse 7:13, “The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my beloved.” Mandrakes are plants considered to be an aphrodisiac, a substance that increases sexual desire.  I am asking myself and loMandrakeoking for those things that make me desire my beloved more and more.  One of my mandrakes is worship on Sunday morning which has made me more intentional about playing worshipful music at home.  Fellowship is another mandrake.  Being with Christians who love and talk about Jesus makes me desire Him more.  Prayer, reading stories about missionaries and being in my garden are my mandrakes.  For you, maybe its poetry, being at the beach, playing an instrument.  Nevertheless, at OUR door is every delicacy, both NEW and OLD.  For me, the 52-year-old single woman, I want to look for, obtain, and store up mandrakes that I might desire my lover, Jesus, all the more.  Though my body grows old, I can anticipate new delicacies with my beloved.  In the end, as long as this physical body is alive and into eternity, I have a lover whose name is Jesus.  He loved me first, His desire is for me, and I am His. This is wisdom from God.  Amen.

Click below to read related material:
Union and Communion by Hudson Taylor (book can be downloaded or read online)
A Prayer about Jesus’ Desire (blog post by Scotty Smith)


What are your mandrakes?

Free Stuff

You are probably feeling skeptical already, aren’t you? Your spam box, like mine, is filled with offers for free movies, free iPads and free weight loss products. There’s plenty of free stuff out there, but some of it is stolen, a good deal of it is junk and most of it isn’t really free. I’ve been guilty of downloading material which didn’t belong to the person who made it available, and I’ve waded through mountains of internet slime while searching for that one, golden nugget. So far, I’ve avoided the phony sales pitches – but only because I’m too afraid of a computer virus. The point is, nothing’s free, right?

Wrong! In the next few weeks I’m going to give away a couple of good books, so I want to prepare your skeptical minds for that unlikely event. Today, I want to introduce you (or reacquaint you, perhaps) with an amazing Christian ministry called desiringgod.org. John Piper wrote his best seller, Desiring God, many years ago, but he has never stopped writing, teaching and preaching on practical, interesting and grace-filled topics. And he gives a lot of stuff away absolutely free. I get periodic emails from him with links to free ebooks on a variety of subjects, and many of his already-published books are available for download on the website (yes, for free). I always keep something to read on my iPad for those moments of frustrating delay unexpected quiet. Check it out, and if you’ve never read the classic, Desiring God, that would be a good place to start.

One last thought.  If you are a believer in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for your sins, then you are already familiar with the difficult struggle to accept that something valuable could really be free.  As soon as I look away, I begin trying to earn my salvation all over again (stealing what belongs to God).  Or I take it completely for granted (as though it were junk).  Or I being to doubt it (like a phony sales pitch).   For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Rom. 6:23.

What’s your favorite “free stuff” website?

Paul of Tarsus, Gold Medal Olympian

Please allow me a question and a comment before proceeding to the actual post.

Question: What day of the week would you be most likely to read a new blog post?  Are weekends better?  What time of day?  Please leave a comment below and let me know.  And if you would like to receive an email telling you whenever a new post is up, just click “Follow” in the box on the right, and enter your email address.  You won’t receive any spam – I promise!

Comment: The blog post which follows is a rerun of one of my favorites.  At least one person didn’t read it the first time around because they thought I was reporting on my vacation.  So I’ve changed the title to include a cheap reference to the Olympics, but it’s a repeat.  (I actually am on vacation, OK?)  Hope it makes you think fun thoughts.


POST:
In 2002 a luxury hotel chain began operating the world’s only residential cruise ship.  It is now possible to own or time-share an all-inclusive suite which journeys round the globe 365 days a year.  No expense has been spared in creating the beautifully appointed apartments which range from two to four bedrooms with outdoor terraces and Jacuzzi tubs.  I asked my husband whether he thought any bona fide Christians would purchase these accommodations, and he replied, “I certainly hope not!”  It occurred to me then that this is a mission field crying out for laborers – and I am ready and willing to go!

The idea of floating in luxury past the Seven Wonders of the World calls to me at a deeper level than chocolate or puppies.  I would love to see Antarctica in the sunlight.  I would love to go to bed in Alaska and wake up in Hawaii.  I want to sip tea with intimate friends and watch small countries slip past.  What is it that draws me to a prospect I would normally eschew as the ultimate in wasteful self-absorption?  Is it beauty?  Is it rest?  Is it fellowship?  Is it freedom?  Is it the desire to see more of God’s creative handiwork?  Probably it is some combination of all these factors, but whatever it is, I’m going.

No, I haven’t traded my first-born child for a cabin in steerage.  It’s just that I know, without doubt, that all the truly good things my heart yearns for are going to be realized in heaven.  There I shall find perfect beauty, perfect rest, perfect fellowship, perfect understanding.  It may not come in the form of a round-the-world cruise, but if not, then it will be something infinitely better.  Perhaps you think it’s foolish to wistfully remark, “In heaven,” for all those earth-bound wishes we – or circumstances – deny ourselves.  I don’t think so at all, because I really mean it.  I want to cultivate a mindset that expects great things for the future. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)  It is only in heaven that all the good desires of our hearts are going to be wholly fulfilled and quieted.  Do you long to be completely and unconditionally loved?  Do you wish you had some beautiful, effortless gift to offer the world?  Do you long to see or to do one completely perfect thing?  Does your heart yearn for lightness, liberty, joy, well being?  If there is something good in what you dream, you should remind yourself at every opportunity, “In heaven,” because you will find it all there, before the face of God.

In heaven I am going to drive an Audi TT convertible, and the mansion Jesus promised me will be a suite on a luxury liner. In the evening we’ll sing His praises on the back deck, and just for kicks I’m going to have a beautiful voice!  OK, heaven may not look exactly like that, but the joyous anticipation of all the best things I can imagine gives me a better flavor for my future than thoughts of clouds and harps. I know that I will not be disappointed.  The Apostle Paul, veteran of several first-century shipwrecks, preferred to use the metaphor of an athlete winning Olympic honors to express his vision of the future (I Cor. 9:24). Well, in heaven, He may climb the winner’s stand and receive his medal to the strains of the Tarsian anthem – but not me. I’m going to be cruising!