Reclaim Hope

Painful events focus our attention on everything that is wrong in our lives. Those seeking to grow hope drive back the darkness by refocusing on worthwhile activities. After tragedy strikes, they work toward reinvented goals and focus on what they can do, not their limitations (even when all they can do is pray for others). They get busy living through work and service. Surprisingly by spending energy, they regain strength.

In a perfect world, humans worked. At creation, God placed Adam and Eve in the garden to keep it. Our first parents reflected God as they cared for each other and all God entrusted to them. Their work was a life-producing gift.

However, since humanity’s fall into sin the gift of work has been cursed. “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it, all the days of your life…by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  Genesis 3:17-19

Under the curse, work is like silver. It remains precious, but it tarnishes quickly. When we forget work’s inherent value or its cursed condition, we tend to overwork or underwork to our own harm. This is especially true during seasons of suffering. Overworking contributes to living in denial. Underworking contributes to living in despair. But working rightly contributes to living with hope.

Our unique human ability for thoughtful work reflects God’s image — like the moon reflects the sun. When we work as God works, we shine brightly casting light into the darkness of our world. When our work is aligned to God’s will, the tides of suffering are bound. They are kept at bay and not permitted to flood us in despair.

For example, in the movie Shawshank Redemption, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly convicted for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Shawshank, a notoriously brutal state penitentiary. He befriends Red (Morgan Freeman) who helps him to learn the ropes of his new life in prison.

Strangely, Andy possesses an immunity to the dehumanizing process of prison life; a devolution the inmates call being institutionalized. A fully institutionalized man surrenders all hope. Andy never becomes institutionalized.

Andy’s hope empowers him to overcome persistent and grievous injustices committed against him and then devote himself to improving the lives of his friends. He builds a library. He helps inmates get their high school diploma. He magically creates moments when the prison walls all but vanish in the eyes of his fellow inmates. At one point, he gains unauthorized access to the prison’s loudspeakers. He plays Mozart’s duet from Le nozze di Figaro to the whole prison compound.

“I tell you those voices soared, higher and further than anyone in a great place dares to dream.” Red, his friend says. “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Andy’s punishment is two weeks in solitary confinement. When he returns to the general population, his friends ask him if his stunt was worth the cost. Andy replies that it was the easiest time he ever did because the music helped him forget.

“Forget?” Red asks.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there is something inside that they can’t get to. That they can’t touch. It’s yours.” Andy says.

“What are you talking about?” Red asks.

“Hope.” Andy says.

“Hope? Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. Its got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.” Red says.

“Like Brooks did.” Andy quips.

Brooks Hatlen, their friend, had become “fully institutionalized”. He lost hope. When he was freed from prison, fear ruled him; so he hanged himself.

For Andy Dufresne everything came down to a choice. “Get busy living or get busy dying!” he said. He fought for hope with all his energy. In the end, Andy was vindicated in more ways than one! (It is a must see movie.)

Hope builders take responsibility for their choices. They know there are only two options — abstaining in despair means choosing death. So, they choose life and get busy living.

Realizing there is no middle ground is the first step out of the solitary confinement of helplessness. If you refuse to abstain in despair, and choose hope, your own prison walls will begin to disappear. Like Andy Dufresne you may even give others glimpses of hope beyond the stone wall of your present confinement.

So what will you choose?

May God give you the grace to reinvent your goals, get to work, and in so doing — rediscover hope.

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The Best Teacher To Guide Us

When we face a new challenge, the first thing we often look for is an experienced teacher to guide us.  We ask: Who has already faced this? How did they handle it? 

We can learn a lot from someone who has gone ahead of us. They can guide us through the unknown because they’ve been where we are going. We can capitalize on their experience. We can avoid common mistakes and save a lot of time and frustration.

The best teachers are not only wise and experienced. They are also loving, patient and able to communicate effectively.

Jesus is the greatest teacher of all time. Without question, no figure from history compares. Unlike so many academics, Jesus did not seclude himself in an ivory tower or lecture hall. He lived the wisdom he taught and he took it to the streets —  to people’s homes and to small town synagogues. He never had to compensate for a mediocre intellect by using long sentences and a complex vocabulary. He spoke normally and used illustrations everyone could understand. When he taught at the Jerusalem temple, he confounded academics with his wisdom, even at age twelve.

Jesus even impressed his opponents who constantly tried to trap him in a logical inconsistency. At each turn they ended up with egg on their face. (For humorous examples read Matthew 21:23-27 and 22:15-22.)

The crowds were astonished at Jesus’ teaching because he taught with real authority, not like their scribes. People took off work and followed him around the rugged countryside often forgetting to eat at normal meal times. The words Jesus spoke seemed more important than food and work.

His disciples called him Rabbi (meaning teacher) at the beginning, but over time they would call him My Lord and My God. They came to recognize that he taught with the wisdom and knowledge of God Himself.

And Jesus always led by example.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Jesus said. “But I say to you, ‘Love your enemy and pray for those that persecute you.”

Jesus loved his enemies to the end. On the night he was betrayed he washed Judas’ feet just as he did for the others.  That same night he healed a soldier who attacked his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane.

“Crucify Him!” his enemies shouted at the Roman governor’s headquarters.

“He saved others but he cannot save himself.” They mocked at the cross.

“Father Forgive them.” Jesus replied. “They know not what they do.”

Jesus warned his followers about the storms to come. He told them to keep their head and trust Him through it.

“A servant is not above his master.” Jesus said.  “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. . . They will put you out of the synagogue. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”

History shows that is exactly what happened. Dark times would come but they would not last.  Like a seasoned captain facing a terrifying battle, Jesus shouted commands to his inexperienced men:

“Do not fear!”

“Follow me!”

“Listen and obey”.

“The gates of hell shall not prevail.” Jesus said.

The gates of hell would fall — first at the empty grave, then around the Roman Empire, then Europe and then the New World.  Today hell’s gates continue to fall in China, India, and Africa. And they fall each time a person lost in their addiction and despair, finds freedom and hope in Jesus.

No matter the situation Jesus can guide you through.

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The Question God Used to Free Me From Depression

I did not suffer much growing up. I endured the occasional stomach bug and the less occasional flu. My dog and cat died when I was eleven, but they were old and it was their time. Apart from a few romantic break-ups and getting cut from the varsity soccer team my sophomore year in college, I never felt like what I experienced qualified as suffering. Don’t misunderstand, I could throw a great pity party for myself during setbacks but secretly I knew I had a charmed life.

My first experience with real personal suffering came after my marriage to Marty Walker in 1998. To clarify, I am not throwing my wife under the bus. We have a great marriage. I love my wife. Humanly speaking she is the major source of my joy and sanity. I am referring to the historical context of my first battle with real suffering.

We did not want to have kids right away. During the first year of marriage we committed to simply getting used to life together. But after a year, the desire for children started tugging on our hearts. At first, we started by telling each other that, if she got pregnant we did not mind. If it happened, it happened. Another year passed. It didn’t happen. Every month we grew more disappointed and fearful.

We stopped in a mall bookstore during one of our weekly date nights to glance at books on fertility. We picked one that looked user-friendly and credible. I felt nervous and ashamed walking up to the counter to buy a book that had “INFERTILITY” written in bright red letters across the top. I worried the cashier would flash me the unbearable look intended to communicate sympathy for someone who is damaged goods.

When we returned to our apartment, we read several chapters together. It seemed we met the diagnostic measurements for the label “infertility” which now seemed written in bright red letters on us. We cried together that night.

Over the next couple of days we prayed and talked. We calmed down and decided to get tested. The testing was easy but embarrassing for me. It was hard and painful for Marty. At each stage the doctors told us things looked healthy and normal. That was really good news at first! Then over time, it proved frustrating. We realized that if you cannot identify the problem it’s difficult to know what steps to take to fix it. We felt helpless and hopeless.

We decided to pursue fertility treatments. Doctors told us we were prime candidates for success! We were cautiously hopeful. Marty suffered from side effects of the drugs. Over the long months we grew weary of all the charting, and shots and doctor’s visits especially when the tell tale signs of an empty womb mocked us month after month. We also grew poor. Fertility treatment is expensive. Our job in campus ministry does not offer a high paying salary or the kind of health care plans that cover fertility treatments.

Friends and family members started to announce their own pregnancies. Months later their bundles of joy arrived. Marty’s life was filled attending baby showers for others. She longed for her own shower, but it never came.

When the same friends and family members started to announce their second pregnancies that is when the wheels came off for us emotionally. The label INFERTILITY that I hoped wouldn’t stick seemed adhered with super glue. Somehow I’d crossed a chasm and I no longer believed I had a charmed life. I was angry.

Infertility was my first experience with real personal suffering.

After 4 years Marty and I were exhausted by our struggle with infertility. We wanted to move past the pain. We longed to “get over it” but couldn’t. We were tired of feeling depressed. We were fed up with feeling hurt by people who meant us no harm by their insensitive remarks. We wanted to bury our grief, once and for all, and move forward with the same peace and joy we had before infertility. But we felt powerless to do so.

Breakthrough came around the same time for us both. Nothing had changed in our situation. Marty did not get pregnant. She never has. We had not yet adopted. But, one question lodged in our mind and pierced our hearts.  It became the final nail in depression’s coffin.

Is Jesus enough? 

As followers of Jesus the question was unavoidable. Its simplicity and directness pierced the hopelessness in our hearts. We could not linger with indecision any longer. Either Jesus was enough or he wasn’t. Period.

If Jesus wasn’t enough we knew it was illogical to continue following him. Jesus did not merely claim to be an insufficient something (simply a prophet, teacher or friend etc.). He claimed to be the all-sufficient everything — “the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). After raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25).

Every Christian must face the same question — “Do you really believe Jesus is enough?”

The day Marty and I yielded and claimed Jesus as enough our depression died and our joy was reborn.

Are you ready to answer that question? The day you are ready to answer it affirmatively is the day you will bury your hopeless grief and deadening depression. The truth is Jesus is more, much more, than enough for you.

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Author’s note: If you are wrestling with depression do not appeal to this article as justification for not seeking medical or professional help for your depression. That would be foolish. The fall (Genesis 3) damaged every area of human life including the brain and body. Medicine and treatment can help relieve the “foggy darkness” and help you think clearly and thus hope more fully in Jesus. At the resurrection, Jesus the Great Physician, will heal our minds and bodies completely. We won’t suffer chemical imbalances, tumors, etc. Until then God provides physicians, counselors and pastors as instruments for His healing work. 

Free Book by Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and CEO of Joni and Friends, a ministry “dedicated to spreading the love and message of Jesus Christ to those affected by disability around the world”. Joni is a famous author, artist, speaker and hope-builder. I have read many of her books and recommend all of them! This incredible lady, who has lived with immense suffering, is currently offering her book Hope…the Best of Things for FREE on Kindle.

Click here to take advantage of this free book offer.

51QcEBbJhhL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_-2Here is a description of the book from Amazon:

“One thing has saved her: the heaven-sent hope found only in Christ.

If hope is scarce in your life, this special booklet will draw you-toward a fresh perspective on suffering, true scriptural encouragement, and this beloved author’s hard-won insights about the goodness of God.

In her life’s journey Joni has learned to meet suffering on God’s terms. She has learned that joy is for real. And most of all, she has learned that hope is the best of things when we give it a chance. This book powerfully communicates all these truths from someone who has lived them, so that you can live them too, no matter what you’re going through.”

Hope Builder #8: Work Thankfully, Rest Regularly

People respond differently to suffering. Some disengage from work and all activities because they find it difficult to do anything that requires effort or focus. They want space to be alone and think. Others cling to their business in an effort to distract themselves from their pain. They don’t want to think. They want to move on but then are frustrated when they can’t.

During the season of suffering both work and rest are beneficial. If your recovery has stalled, reconsider the value of each and then make adjustments.

Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” We often think work is a necessary evil. But work is a gift from God. In paradise God gave humans work so that they could uniquely reflect His work of creating.  Humans image God, and align themselves to paradise, when they work.  When we follow God’s lead and work, we are re-creating. (Notice the same prefix and root for recreation.) Without work, we will never feel renewed or refreshed.  While suffering, our hearts desperately long for recreated hope. Getting back to work will help you recover. Maybe all you can work is an hour a day. Whatever you can do… do it.  

But since humanity’s fall into sin, we must not forget that this good gift of work has been cursed.  Genesis 3:17,19 says, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it, all the days of your life…by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.”  

Under the curse, work became like silver —precious, but quickly tarnished. If we forget work’s cursed condition, we will either overwork or underwork to our own harm. This is especially true during seasons of suffering.  

Overwork contributes to living in denial. If you use work to distract yourself from your pain, it will not help you long term. Work cannot deliver you. Only God can do that. You must set aside time to struggle with God through the pain. Take hope that you are not alone. God’s special name for his people is Israel. Israel literally means: “you have struggled with God and men and have overcome” (see Genesis 32:28). Make time for God, even when you are really upset with Him.  For beginners, I recommend meditating on Psalm 77. 

Underwork contributes to living in despair. If you abandon the work God has for you and ruminate on your pain, you will not find the rest you seek. It will elude you. Your resting will feel increasingly restless. Nighttime will expand beyond the limits God sets, and wear holes in your day.  

Working rightly contributes to hope. When you start working again you will discover that light can pierce the darkness. Like the silver moon that reflects the sun, your work will reflect God’s glory and refreshing light will overcome the dark night of despair. The waves of your suffering cannot pass the boundaries God has set, but the tide can shift lower when engaging in thankful work.

If you are in doubt about the proper boundaries of work and rest, take your cues from nature. The night is for rest.  The day is for work.  Get out of bed when its time. Take one step, then the next — by faith, not sight. As you do, your pain will not disappear, it will transform into something new and energizing… hope sufficient for that day.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

The New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller has written an excellent book yet again. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is a must read 51ZvxGrNoYL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_for all seekers of hope.

Here’s the description from Amazon:

“The question of why God would allow pain and suffering in the world has vexed believers and nonbelievers for millennia. Timothy Keller, whose books have sold millions of copies to both religious and secular readers, takes on this enduring issue and shows that there is meaning and reason behind our pain and suffering, making a forceful and ground-breaking case that this essential part of the human experience can be overcome only by understanding our relationship with God.

As the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, Timothy Keller is known for his unique insights into religion and culture. Keller’s series of books has guided countless readers in their spiritual journeys. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering uses biblical wisdom and personal stories of overcoming adversity to bring a much-needed, fresh viewpoint to this important issue.”