Hope Sufficient For The Daily Grind

Some mornings taking a pass and staying in bed seems like the better choice. As I lay in bed making a mental list of my responsibilities for the day, my motivation for the first one evaporates before my feet hit the floor. Instead of going for a run I jump in the shower. When I walk into the kitchen, I nag my zombie-faced kids to pick up the pace and blame them when I realize I am late for my first appointment. Before 8am my dream of being fatherly and fit has dissolved into ashes and I mock myself for failing the simplest goals. On my drive to work, anxious thoughts flash through my mind like shooting stars — How will my kids respect me or want a close relationship when they’re adults? Will high cholesterol leave my wife to fend for herself in this overwhelming world? Thankfully after a cup of coffee, my doubts and fears seem quite ridiculous.

My struggle is not unique. I am suspicious that failures of all shapes and sizes, not just the big ones, sideline others from living with joyful expectation. Many get caught in a death spiral of anxious worry. Regret creates insecurity. Insecurity feeds more fear and doubt. When they don’t pull out of their downward spiral they implode in helpless inaction or explode into a counterproductive frenzy.

Jesus understood people’s fears and doubts, and was a master of pulling them out of their death spiral so they could soar with joyful hope. We see this most clearly in Jesus’ interaction with the eleven disciples after his resurrection. Matthew records, “When they saw [the risen Jesus] they worshiped him, but some doubted.”  Clearly, some disciples wrestled persistently with anxious doubt even as others enjoyed spontaneous worship.

How did Jesus respond to the anxious doubters? He could have shamed them, but instead he simply reminded them of reality, called them to act on it, and promised to never leave them (Matthew 28:18-20).

  • He reminded them of reality: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Jesus wasn’t bragging. He was stating the facts verified by each miracle and established at his resurrection. He really did have authority over every part of creation, including death. When certain disciples imploded with doubt and fear, Jesus redirected their attention away from themselves and toward Himself. Similarly if you want to overcome anxiety, stop worrying about your failures, focusing on your limitations, or ruminating on your disappointments. Refocus your attention on what is real — Jesus has authority over everything in your life. Like the disciples, you may not understand what Jesus is doing but you must know he cares about you and he is up to something very good. His love and power are real even when your exhaustion, pain, or discouragement blind you from seeing it. Trust Him even on the days you are sorely tempted to take a pass and stay in bed. Jesus has already proven he has authority over everything that scares you. One day he will relieve it, end it, heal it or restore it. His full authority over everything — the heavens, the earth, your life — is just as real as the air you’re breathing.
  • He called them to action: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus calls us to act on the reality he has revealed. As we go about our lives, we are given the privilege of helping others know one transforming truth — Jesus lived, died, rose again, and will make all things new. It’s up to each person to either accept this reality and follow him or deny it and follow their own spiritual imaginations. Our call to make disciples isn’t primarily about religious duty. It’s about living aligned to reality which just so happens to be ruled by one God in three persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may never understand God’s three-in-one nature any better than we understand light’s particle-wave duality. But seekers of truth accept reality for what it is even when it exceeds the limitations of human comprehension. When we live aligned to the reality revealed by Jesus, we rediscover peace and purpose for ourselves and others.
  • He promised his presence: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus walked this planet for 33 years. Before ascending to heaven, he promised his continued presence through his Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that empowered Jesus to resist temptation and endure every hardship now lives in His people. Even now during life’s worst seasons, we have all we need to thrive spiritually. But someday, at the final resurrection, we shall thrive in every way!

Your confidence to endure life’s daily grind will rebound as you redirect your attention from your difficulties to ultimate reality — Jesus is establishing a new kingdom (even during life’s most exhausting and frustrating moments). This hope exceeds whatever limitations you bring to the day — ignorance, fear, weakness, depression, bitterness, anxiety — because it is based on the fact that God came into the world to turn back the curse and make all things new. God will continue his work through His Spirit working in His people and we will enjoy the final product when Jesus returns.

So the next time you are tempted to stay in bed, take a pass, or ridicule your efforts to hold it together; try something different. Remember the greater reality Jesus reveals, align with it, and lean on Him each step of the way. He’s always near.

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Hope Builder #15: Confess Your Sin (Psalm 51)

After 21 years in ministry, unfortunately, it is no longer easy to surprise me with grueling stories of abuse, abandonment and evil of all shapes and sizes. Horror stories are everywhere. They cross all boundaries — national, economic, racial, religious, gender — and explain much of the depression and addiction we see in society. I am more convinced then ever that all people, even religious people with impeccable moral standards, are capable of really big sin. As Christians, we should expect as much. The Bible clearly describes all humans as sinful from birth. The church has long recognized that large portions of the Bible were written by murderers and adulterers (Moses, David, Solomon, Paul) and that these writers withered in the darkness of their sin and despair until God intervened with his healing grace.

For example, King David penned Psalm 51 after his vilest sin was exposed by Nathan the prophet. David had attempted to cover up an affair with his best friend’s wife, Bathsheba. After his cover up proved futile he ordered the commander of his army to abandon his friend (Uriah) on the battlefield so that he’d be killed by the enemy. David was chivalrous enough to allow Bathsheba to morn her husband’s death, then quickly took her for a wife before anyone suspected that the child she carried was not Uriah’s.

Psalm 51 certainly warns us not to be naive for even the best of us are capable of gross immorality, but it also shows us the path to restoration and forgiveness if only we come out of the darkness and confess our deeds in the light.

  • Call To God For Mercy: David pleads, “Have Mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Notice David does not base his plea for mercy upon anything he can do to make things right. Rather he bases his hope for mercy only on God’s steadfast love. Only God can blot out his transgressions. Like a sponge that blots out a stain, David trusted that God could somehow soak up his bloodguilt. David looked to the sacrificial lamb as an object lesson to understand how God would absorb sin from a guilty party through an innocent substitute. But we see more clearly. Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who absorbed our sin on the cross and died in our place. Don’t base your confidence for receiving mercy upon anything you do — feeling crummy enough for long enough — for that will only lead to more insecurity. Place your confidence in the fact that God is merciful to sinners, and he blots out their sin by absorbing it into himself and bearing the cost of it in full.
  • Take Full Responsibility: Only when you have hope in God’s mercy will you have the courage to look your sin in the face and own it in full. David cries, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement. Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David cannot stop thinking about his sin against God. He refuses to label it a lapse of judgement. Rather, he calls his actions evil and declares God is right to judge him. He confesses that his actions flowed from a selfish heart, sinful from the beginning (from conception). His brokenness is comprehensive, not superficial. And though he sinned grievously against Uriah and Bathsheba, David states he has sinned against God alone. Far from failing to admit his offense against others, David used hyperbole to communicate that his primary offense was against God. Even if Uriah was unaware of David’s sin and Bathsheba was complicit; David’s sin grieved a Holy God.
  • Plead For Deep Cleansing and Heart Change: In verses 7-12 notice what David does and does not ask for from God. He does not ask God to relieve his circumstances or save his reputation or deliver him from consequences. Rather he asks God to: purge him, wash him, blot out his iniquity, and create a new heart in him. David doesn’t bother with situational relief. He wants deep cleansing and inside-out change. He pleads with God to not cast him away from His presence or take His Holy Spirit from him. David doesn’t seem concerned about God removing his blessings but he is concerned that God might leave him! So he pleads for God to abide with him. If you’re a big sinner like David, focus is on being restored to God, not regaining your comfort and status.
  • Recognize God’s Plans for Repentant Sinners: Big sinners often feel their life is such a mess that God can’t possibly have a use for them. But in verses 13-19, we learn how repentant sinners are useful to God and to others. They tend to be more sympathetic toward other moral failures and quick to talk about God’s grace. They’re usually raw in their worship and contagious in their joy. They model generosity by offering God their very best. If you’re a repentant sinner, take courage that God has plans to use you powerfully for his purposes.

Too many people are wilting away in despair and darkness because of unconfessed sin. If that is you, let today be the day you come into the light. God was able to work in King David’s situation. What makes you think he cannot work in yours?

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Hope For When You’re Attacked By Insiders

We expect enemies to be somewhere “out there” — a thief in a dark ally, a spy from foreign nation, or a competitor from another company. We assume enemies are easy to identify. Most of us aren’t naturally suspicious of friends or family or teammates; so when betrayal happens it is all the more shocking and painful. Being stabbed in the back causes an agony that is unrivaled.

In Psalm 3:1 King David laments “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me.” Most readers assume that the enemies David complains about are foreigners and strangers. But the subtitle of the Psalm clarifies that David wrote this Psalm after Absalom, his son, rallied Israel to turn against him. For those who are living under attack at home, like David, this Psalm provides a model for how to handle the situation.

  • Trust God As Your Shield: David’s admits he cannot fully protect himself. So he declares, “You, O LORD, are a shield about me.” (3.3) David trusts that God can protect him from attack on all sides, even when his son unexpectedly tries to stab him from behind.
  • Trust God For Your Dignity: A betrayed person is often suffocated by shame. They can feel foolish for not anticipating the betrayal or guilty for somehow having caused it. But rather than focus on regrets, David says “You, O LORD, are my glory and the lifter of my head”. (3.3) David tells us how he maintains his sense of dignity — how he’s able to hold his head high. Most kings based their glory on the wealth of their kingdom or the size of their military. But David doesn’t hold his head high because he was a great king (even though he was). Nor does David hang his head low because he was a terrible father (which was also true). Rather, David finds glory in His God. He essentially says, “Because my dignity is established by God, I can hold my head high no matter my successes or my failures!” How does this apply? After a betrayal, don’t trust in your efforts to reestablish your honor. Instead rest upon the glory already established for you by God. Only God can free you from your shame and enable you to walk with your head held high.
  • Watch for God’s Answer: After a betrayal we may wonder if God is listening to our cries for help. Will He answer us, and if so, what will He say? When David cried to God after his son betrayed him, he wrote, “[The LORD] answered me from his holy hill.” (3.4) David found his answer on Mt. Zion for on that mountain stood the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle — reminders of God’s abiding presence and faithful promises. God’s clearest answer would come later when His own Son, Jesus, would bear the cost of every betrayal on that same holy hill so that victims (and perpetrators) of betrayal could find hope. Victims would discover a sympathetic God who knew what it was like to be destroyed by those who should have loved him. Perpetrators would be moved to repentance as Jesus cried, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) How does this apply? God has also answered you from his holy hill. Look to the place where Jesus was crucified and find a God who suffers betrayal with victims and for perpetrators.
  • Pray with Hopeful Anger: How do you pray when your enemies are not outsiders but insiders… when your foes are “family”? Pray the only way you can — with pain-filled anger. But take warning, if you let your anger turn hopeless it will lead to paralyzing apathy or self-destructive bitterness. When David prays for “insider” enemies (his son and his citizens), he asks God, “Strike all my enemies on the cheek…break [their] teeth. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people!” (3.7-8) Because his enemies are God’s people (and his people) David is praying for one group of people, not two. David is not asking God to destroy these enemies, only to strike them and shut them up (break their teeth). In fact, ultimately, he wants God to restore his enemies so they can be one family and one nation again. In other words, David is asking God to cut as deeply as necessary to remove the deadly tumor of betrayal. What can we learn from David’s prayer? Bitterness and apathy are warning signs that our anger is turning hopeless. Remember, God can reach the hardest of hearts. As a great physician, God is willing to cut more deeply than we expect but never deeper than necessary. If the cross of Jesus Christ teaches anything, it tells us just how deep God will cut to restore relationships with those who have betrayed Him.

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Finding Hope When You Feel Misunderstood

Sitcoms through the decades, from Three’s Company to The Office, became popular because they humorously illustrated our human potential for misunderstanding. While amusing to watch on television, it’s not nearly as funny in real life when others get the wrong idea about us. Especially when things get personal, our tendency is not to laugh out loud but to cry foul and complain, “You don’t understand me at all!”

Unfortunately, the blame for misunderstanding cannot always be laid at other’s feet. Of course, people will misunderstand us. But we can misunderstand ourselves as well. Until we admit that we may not know ourselves as well as we think, we will feel increasingly frustrated and alienated during conflict. We must consider that other people, even our harshest critics, may be onto something significant that we do not yet perceive, and that if we listen wisely we will be better off.

Keep in mind, most of us share a sixth sense that calls into question the innocence of those who too eagerly claim the high ground in a conflict by asserting, “I feel misunderstood!” Below are examples of such attempts that I’ve heard this past week:

  • “I’m not trying to be controlling. I just like things done a certain way.”
  • “I don’t want to gossip, but I just want you to be in the know.”
  • “Okay, I yelled! But I really wasn’t angry. I was just tired.”

We feel justified claiming the high ground but unless we stand on rock solid truth, most people will feel emboldened to dismount us — and for good reason.

It is easier to recognize when we are misunderstood than it is to recognize when another person might feel the same way. We simply don’t know the mitigating circumstances behind other people’s stories, and we tend to give ourselves, not others, the benefit of the doubt. If we are not conscious of such inequities, we become sitting ducks for crippling self-pity and nauseating hypocrisy as we relate to others. Tragically, we may even start to believe that being misunderstood is our unique lot in life.

At least in private, most of us are quite comfortable sticking negative labels on others, but then resist anyone’s attempt to label us. We get defensive and say things like, “I am not controlling. My father was controlling but I am not like him.” We are understandably resistant to being labeled. Labels tend to form an identity and that terrifies us. So, we might admit that we lose our temper from time to time. But, don’t you dare suggest that I’m an angry person! I may be moody but I am no Debbie Downer.

How shall we be justified when so many negative labels fly about? The childish person fights. (“No, I’m not. You are!”) The religious person compensates. (“But look at all the good things I’ve done.”) The modern person victimizes. (“I suffer from an anxiety disorder”.) The post-modern person deconstructs. (“Is it selfish if I am just being true to myself?”) Honestly, none of these approaches address the real issues without equivocation and fear. They all resist grappling with the full truth and offer, at best, a cheap version of grace.

The gospel of Jesus Christ uniquely empowers us to receive criticism without getting defensive because it completely guts the source of fear. Remember gospel means good news, not good advice. In a court of law, lawyers can give good advice but only the judge can give good news. For the Christian, God has already ruled. His judgement is good news because it meets both the demands of justice, and our need for mercy. It is good news because, even though we are guilty, we are cleared of all charges based on what Jesus did for us. He paid our penalty and then offered us His reward. This good news means God already knows the worst about us but has not let it stick. Though our sins be exposed they don’t ultimately define us. The cross reminds us that God keeps hold of us, even at our lowest, in order to restore us higher than our noblest ideals. Such grace is rich, transforming and liberating!

Only when we know we are loved at our lowest can we have confidence to face the worst in ourselves with complete honesty and unyielding hope. So when other’s point out our faults we don’t need to fear. The gospel gives us the courage to be completely transparent about our issues, and even entertain the possibility that our blind spots are bigger than we realize.

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Why God? (Living in painful ignorance)

The broken hearted usually cry out for an answer to one question — Why God?

Why God do I have cancer?

Why God did our child die?

Why God do the wicked prosper and the godly suffer?

When God remains silent, where do we turn? If we turn to the Psalms, we learn that God’s people throughout history have shared our confusion. “Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hid your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14) Suffering doesn’t make any sense sometimes. Only God knows the reasons. We hope that, one day, all the pieces will fit together like they did for Joseph (Genesis 37-50). But we have no promises that such insight will be given in this life. As happened with Job, God may never give us an explanation.

How, then, shall we live in our painful ignorance?

  1. Trust God because of Jesus: When we cannot know God’s reason, we can know His character. The unique hope of Christianity is that God has invaded human history and revealed himself to us. We are not left to our vain imaginations. When we see Jesus, we see God. We know God weeps with those who suffer. We see Jesus provide relief and healing. In Jesus, we have proof that God cares and He plans to end all suffering someday. Until then, we see God shares our suffering. Jesus knows pain and loss — personally and extensively. God sympathizes with our suffering, walks with us through it, and promises to never leave us.
  2. Know Your Limitations: Gottfried Leibniz coined the word theodicy meaning literally a justification of God’s ways to human beings. Tim Keller explains, “A theodicy attempts to reveal the reasons and purposes of God for suffering so listeners will be satisfied that his actions regarding evil and suffering are justified…The various theodicies can account for a great deal of human suffering — each theodicy provides some plausible explanations for some of the evil in the world — but they always fall short, in the end, of explaining all suffering. It is very hard to insist that any of them show convincingly how God would be fully justified in permitting all the evil we see in the world.”¹ Alvin Plantinga makes a distinction between theodicies and a defense. He argues that a theodicy sets a very high bar and warns that, according to the book of Job, it seems both futile and inappropriate to assume that any human mind could comprehend the reasons God may have for any instance of suffering. The Bible seems to warn against constructing a “water tight” argument for why God allows what he allows. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) As Evelyn Underhill said, “If God were small enough to be understood, he wouldn’t be big enough to be worshipped.” We may never know why God allows certain instances of evil and suffering. But, that does not mean God doesn’t have a good reason which we cannot know.
  3. Embrace the Possibilities: Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) It’s understandable that Jesus’ followers, who heard his desperate cry, lost hope. Their hero, beaten beyond recognition and hung up to die, was completely forsaken by God. Most of the disciples fled the scene because they were unable to summon enough courage to watch until the bitter end. But, when the resurrected Jesus appears three days later, he conquers their despair by showing them his pierced hands, feet and side. Why did the resurrected Jesus still carry scars? Those scars proved how the suffering and evil that Jesus endured had been transformed. They served as a sign and seal of complete victory. If God can turn the darkest moment in all of human history (the cross of Jesus Christ) into a victory; can you imagine what possibilities exist for your darkest days. How might God transform your deadly scars into something that ushers in new life?
  4. Imagine God’s Glorious Resolution: The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. It means death will die, sin has been paid for, evil will be defeated, and eternal life is real. It means that heaven is not merely a consolation prize, but a restoration of all that was lost. We receive new bodies in a new cosmos! Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” (Romans 8:18,19,21)

While we may never know the exact reason we suffer, we already know what we need to know. So we can endure our painful ignorance with resolved hope.

¹ Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Riverhead books, 2013), pp. 89,95.

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Weathering the Storms of Life (Part 2)

In my previous post, I told you about the recent storm that overtook my life and how God used the story of Mark 4:35-41, to speak to me.

Recovery from my storm took an unexpectedly long time. I developed pleurisy. It took three months for the fluid to leave my lungs, so breathing was challenging and painful. It also took three months for my red blood cell counts to get close to normal, so I was severely exhausted. I would lie down after lunch and not wake up until dinner.  Then I ended up in the ER two more times with atrial fibrillation. Both times I was dehydrated from the medication I was given to rid my lungs of fluid.bonnie_dripps

During those three months the world kept spinning. People were living their lives, and the ministry of DiscipleMakers was going splendidly. But somehow, I had gotten spun off the world.  I was isolated and lonely. It was humbling to realize how dispensable I was.

I started asking myself, “Is God really enough?”

When we suffer, life implodes. We want to know there is meaning in our suffering. We want see it make a difference. So, I began to pray that God would use my suffering to minister to others and show me his bigger story. He has answered that prayer as people continue to share how God used my storm to encouraged them in their storms.

It’s been over four months since the storm first hit. I still have not recovered all my strength. I was weeding my flower bed for five minutes, and my hands began trembling. I couldn’t write for a while. I am told that it could be nine months before my strength fully returns.

So what was God’s purpose in my storm?

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that he showed me who he is more clearly than I’ve ever understood before. The Bible promises us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us” (2 Peter 1:3). My knowledge of Christ gives me all I need for a godly life.

He showed me that my storm is part of a bigger story. He is weaving together my life with the lives of those around me.

The storm tested my faith and refined it. It showed me that we really can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for he is with us.

What is your storm right now? What are you afraid of? What causes you to doubt God’s love and goodness?

When storms overtake us, we can choose faith instead of fear by remembering the cross. Jesus gave up his life to rescue us. He cares. We can remember that he is right there in the boat with us and isn’t going anywhere! We can remember that he is commanding our storms. He is in control.

For years I have had a picture of a storm on the wall of my office. Underneath the picture, I wrote a quote from How People Change by counselors and authors, Paul Tripp and Tim Lane. It says:

“When you are in the middle of (storms), you haven’t somehow gotten yourself outside the circle of God’s love and care. God is simply taking you where you don’t want to go to produce in you what you could not achieve on your own.”

Underneath this I wrote another quote: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) God is in our storms, refining us, completing us, making us like Jesus.

By his grace, we can dare to hope that we could actually join Jesus in peaceful sleep in the stern of our boat — even the midst of life’s worst storms. We only need to remember who Jesus really is.