A Savior To Rescue Us

Jesus is the best teacher to guide us and truest friend who comforts us. But to make it through life’s hardships we need more. We need a savior to rescue us.

According to popular opinion, God promises not to give us more than we can handle. While Hallmark may promise this, the Bible does not. As strange as it may sound, this should come as a relief to you. First, history and experience vividly illustrate that God does give us more than we can handle. Imagine giving the Hallmark promise to a Jew in Auschwitz, or a parent who just lost their only child, or a person with stage four pancreatic cancer. Who wouldn’t be tempted to punch a person for giving such encouragement? Second, it should relieve you that the Bible is for people clobbered by reality, not just those so sheltered that they naively fall prey to sentimental well wishing. Third, identifying this promise as false will help you more easily recognize the real Jesus. He came to earth precisely because we’ve failed to handle what God has already given us.

So yes, God gives us more than we can handle.

In fact, Jesus seemed intent on putting his disciples in impossible situations to teach the most important lesson — to rely on Him, not themselves.

“Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side. . . [the boat was] beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them and in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass them by.” (Read the full event in Matthew 14:22-25 and Mark 6: 45-52)

When a dangerous storm hits, where is the last place you want to be? Flailing about the sea in a tiny fishing boat might qualify. Yet, that is exactly where Jesus sent Peter and the disciples after they helped him feed 5,000 hungry people. Why would Jesus send his exhausted friends into a devastating storm? Jesus even lingers on the shore until the last watch of the night before He walks by their sinking boat. Yes, you heard me correctly. Jesus intended to pass them by.

Children’s Bibles gloss over these details. As a child, that’s probably why I confused Mr. Rogers and Jesus. Mr. Rogers would never give us more than we could handle. But the real Jesus is not so tame or predictable.

He seems fine overwhelming us with more than we can handle so that we see our need for Him.

Think about Peter’s experience with Jesus in just one day. After working all day, Jesus asked him to feed five thousand people. With what? Five loaves, and two fish! Really? Then Jesus sent him into an unyielding storm. Peter strained at the oars all night long, unable to bring his boat to safe harbor.

When Peter realized he could not handle his situation, something dawned on him. He cried out to Jesus in desperation and Jesus responded. He enabled Peter to walk on water. But Peter, habitually self-reliant, turned his gaze from Jesus. As Peter sank into the depths, Jesus grabbed him.

Even in Peter’s best moment, he was clearly in over his head.

In a specific situation, we may never completely understand why God gives us more than we can handle. We will feel frustrated and terrified when it happens. But God will use it to replace our self-reliance with a fuller reliance on Him.

Having a teacher and friend are helpful but not sufficient for lasting hope. So many things can go wrong which we cannot fix or even understand. They are simply beyond our comprehension and our abilities.

But they are not beyond God’s wisdom or power. God understands the nature of every poison that ruins, as well as the nature of every antidote that heals. He alone can provide the healing we require.

Most often, antidotes are developed from the same poison that kills. So in order to heal us Jesus Christ consumed every toxin known to bleed humanity of life: betrayal, mockery, loss, cruelty, abandonment, loneliness, sickness, pain, and death. He drank the poison during his life and emptied the bottle at his death. Through consuming the poison he has rescued us and also developed the only elixir capable to heal — his saving blood.

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(This is an edited version of my post from August 2015 titled Does God Give Us More Than We Can Handle?

You Always Have A Choice (Part Two)

In Part One, I argued that we always have a choice in how we respond to terrible situations simply because, as humans, we are created in God’s image. We are not brute beasts, so we can choose to transcend our condition and our conditioning. We have “response-ability” — meaning the ability to choose our response. As Steven Covey wrote, “Our unique human endowment lifts us above the animal world. The extent to which we exercise and develop these endowments empowers us to fulfill our uniquely human potential.” 

If we are moral and rational creatures capable of making choices, and not merely animals limited by instinct; why do we often feel helpless to make the choices we should? Jealousy, anger, resentment, addiction and depression seem unconquerable. They hold us down like a lion devouring its victim.

To understand our sense of helplessness we must go back to the beginning. At creation we reflected God’s image perfectly, like a mirror. But after humanity’s fall into sin that reflection was fractured. Now when we look at ourselves, in the shattered mirror of sin, God’s image is distorted. We see heartbreaking brokenness and feel helpless.

Our capabilities appear totally ruined, and yet our responsibility remains. When God appeared to Cain after rejecting his offering God said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6) God explained to Cain that sin is a ravaging beast; crouching at the door, desiring to consume. He warned Cain not to give into this inner beast (jealous anger) but to rule over it.

Did God ask Cain to do the impossible? No, He asked Cain to claim his identity as a man, made in God’s image; responsible to reflect God’s goodness, wisdom and truth. He warned Cain not to let rage devour his humanity. God implored Cain to exercise reason and trust his Maker, not his anger. Cain chose poorly. His jealousy ravaged him, so he murdered his brother. The beast prevailed.

We always have a choice how we will respond to situations we don’t like. However, we must be careful how we define this ability.

On the one hand, if we over-estimate our ability by failing to account for the devastating effects of sin; we will wrongly assume we don’t need God’s help to see clearly and respond wisely. Like a person who has only looked into a shattered mirror, we are prevented from seeing ourselves accurately. Arrogance keeps us from seeing our sinful ugliness and we think ourselves more beautiful than we are. Any choice we make will appear justified, simply because it is our choice. On the other hand, if we downplay our ability to choose our response; we neglect the common grace God still provides all people. Even after the fall, we retain God’s image. Like God, we evaluate, reason, problem solve, and apply solutions. But ignorance about common grace emboldens excuse making. Like a man pleading insanity, we think we’re beyond judgement because “I can’t help myself” seems a credible excuse. But we are still culpable.

After the fall, human nature was corrupted comprehensively. Everyone’s core shifted from a God focus to a self-focus. We became by nature: self-reliant, self-righteous, and selfish. Our loves and desires, even our fears, shifted from godly to ungodly. Of course, sin hasn’t turned most people into criminals. Most sinners haven’t committed felonies, abused children or raped women. But history proves, again and again, that when God’s providential care is blocked by war, famine and ignorance even the noblest people devolve to brutality.

Yet common grace enables us to still recognize God’s image in all humans. Though the reflection is shattered by sin, every person maintains shards of God’s image. So Christians should not be surprised when they meet non-Christians who are: more thoughtful as friends; more patient as parents; or more generous as neighbors. An aspect of God’s common grace is that He gives good gifts to the godly and ungodly alike. Some people are simply born with better temperaments.

Common grace may be sufficient to enable people to respond well in bad circumstances. But its sufficiency is limited by time and degree because God’s image remains fractured in every living human. Common grace will only keep the shards of the mirror from tearing away from its backing and crashing to the floor in this life.  But in the next life, those who ultimately reject God will lose this restraining grace. Then their beastly nature will roam freely.

Thankfully Jesus offers special grace. He came to restore the broken shards so that God’s image will be reflected perfectly in His people again.

He began our restoration by imaging God perfectly. No matter how bad the situation, Jesus always responded well. Religious leaders collaborated against him. Soldiers beat and mocked him. Disciples betrayed and abandoned him. Yet Jesus responded from the cross with courage and love as He cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34).

He continues our restoration by giving us His power. When we choose Jesus, His Spirit enters our lives and we are doubly empowered with grace (common and special) to respond well no matter the situation. The remarkable thing about special grace is that it is never limited by time, nor degree because it is God’s Spirit working in us! So the same power that flowed in Jesus — enabling him to overcome betrayal with forgiveness and vice with virtue — flows in us.

So choose how you will respond! By God’s grace may it be with hope!

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(Personal Note: I took a break from blogging to be with my family after my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer on April 28, 2016. Lord willing, I hope to return to posting bi-weekly.)

What’s Better Than Being Remembered?

I recently posted about my dad’s diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer in When Terminal Cancer Hits Home. The post was read far and wide. People wrote back their prayers, expressed their sympathy, and often shared their own family’s struggles with cancer. I have been overwhelmed by people’s openness and tenderness.

A friend of my dad’s from childhood, who Dad hadn’t spoken to for over 50 years, called to see how he was doing. After hanging up the phone Dad turned to me with a disbelieving smile and said, “You don’t know how much people really care about you until something like this happens.”

On Thursdays, we sit together for hours and Dad tells me about his childhood. Growing up in Chesterown, Maryland my dad can share a lot about his mother’s side (the Kirby family) but not his father’s side from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I asked him if we could drive together around Chambersburg so he could show me some sites. Dad is not up for traveling so I turned to google. Within five minutes, I was able to find my paternal great-grandparent’s grave while sitting comfortably in Dad’s living room. It was nicely indexed online, alongside several other family members.

On the way home from Dad’s, I phoned friends from Gettysburg who, years ago, shared they had information about the Kieffer family from the Chambersburg area. Until recently, I had been too preoccupied to look into it. The next day my friends delivered a book, five inches thick, about the earliest families that settled around Chambersburg. Apparently the Kieffer family (also spelled Keefer and Kuffer) goes way back and our surname means “barrel maker”.  Who knew!

I registered on ancestry.com hoping to make a family tree for my dad. In six hours I was able to trace our paternal roots back to Johan Nicolaus Kieffer who was born in Germany (1734) and died near Chambersburg (1818). I assembled digital files of death certificates, census registrations, probate ledgers, and gravestone pictures. I can’t wait to show my dad.

After I stayed up researching until midnight, my wife asked me at breakfast, “Why are you suddenly so curious about your ancestry?”

As an adoptive parent I care less about biological connections than most people. But I care deeply about real connections. My curiosity about our roots was rekindled as I’ve talked with Dad about his father, Jack Kieffer. I only knew my grandfather as a fun-loving Chestertown socialite who couldn’t resist stopping to talk to nearly every person we passed on the street. My grandfather loved golf, drank scotch, and told great stories. My grandfather’s dad died when was six so he barely remembered him. He told us his dad’s legal name was Crist — the name on his tombstone. Online I found Crist’s death certificate. It turns out Crist was a nickname for Christian. I don’t know how my grandfather never realized this. But, I wonder how my dad, James Crist, and my brother, Jonathan Crist, will feel about it.

Researching my ancestry has put some things into perspective. Not only was I ignorant of little things. I didn’t know the big things. Until this month, I couldn’t name my eight great-grandparents. People who lived, loved and dreamed about their future only 100 years ago.  I wouldn’t exist without them and yet I know almost nothing about them.

My great-grandkids will likely know as little about me.

Ecclesiastes warns, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:11)

The sobering reality is that you will soon be forgotten. Chances are your great-grand children won’t even know your name. If you want to be remembered you must place your hope elsewhere.

God says, “Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. I have engraved your name on the palm of my hands.” Isaiah 49:15-16. The image of engraved flesh is dramatic — bloody, painful, and permanently scaring. What kind of person scars himself like that?

Only a crazy lover determined to prove His love.

After Jesus died, the grieving disciples beheld this crazy love when Jesus showed them his nail scarred hands. Jesus’ scars surpassed those Isaiah spoke about. His scars promise redemption not mere remembrance. The good news of Isaiah is God will never forget us. The better news of Jesus outshines mere remembrance. It announces resurrected life!

Pain in Hindsight

 “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews: 12:1-2)

Crossing the Finish Line

Dawn Pinkchick, 2015, Creative Commons

Life’s struggles turn precious over time.

I ran a 12 mile race called The Fun Run with college students. To me the name sounded like something out of a George Orwell novel. The run was not fun and my pace never exceeded a jog.

The race was more difficult and painful than I expected. I grew impatient to pass each new mile stone.  At times, I doubted I could make it to the next one.  But after the race, a strange thing happened almost immediately – my perspective changed.

The heat, the cramps, the thirst – so vivid in my experience became hazy in my reflections.  I asked the other runners, “Were there two long hills or three?”  It was hard for me to remember.  Everything blended together and I nearly forgot about a hill that seemed indomitable only hours earlier.  The Fun Run, it turned out, wasn’t that bad after all.  In fact, the race went surprisingly well.

The glory of finishing the race had worked backwards transforming my experience.  It replaced doubts with confidence and complaints with joyful reminiscing.  Strangely, days later, the race had earned its name.

What race are you running? Is it for: health, beauty, moral excellence, status, security, freedom?  Have you exhausted yourself yet?

What if your race was already over and the goal was achieved? The hope of Christianity is that the race is already over.  Jesus ran the race for us.  He declared on the cross, “It is finished!”

He ran an amazing race against sin and death – and he won.  His victory restores glowing health, lasting beauty, absolute purity, incomparable status, eternal security, and real freedom.  He currently sits at the Father’s right hand in the winners circle.  He waits for us to join him.  His Spirit strengthens us toward the only possible outcome – victory.

Jesus’ accomplishment changes everything. Not only is sin and death defeated, but we will ultimately view all our suffering and pain from the perspective of His total victory.  The glowing health and lasting beauty of our resurrected bodies will make it hard to remember our present blemishes and limitations.  Our hearts, purified by His love, will forget what it was to fear.  Our status as members of Jesus’ royal family will drown out the inferiority complex that currently deafens us.  The security of heaven will make our daily worrying look nearly insane.  The freedom of holiness will permanently break any concerns of being trapped against our will.

Rear-view rainbow

Aaron Landry, 2007, Creative Commons

When we understand Jesus finished the race for us; hope replaces fear, peace replaces anxiety, and trust replaces resentment. Only then can we run through today’s pain, with the attitude of winners – confident and sure that victory is ours.

And looking back on our journey, we may even unexpectedly find beauty in our pain – like spotting a rainbow in the rear-view mirror where only dark clouds lingered.