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?

When the Pursuit of Wisdom Disappoints

I recently taught through the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The class sparked lively discussion about life’s most troubling experiences and unsettling questions. When asked for their initial impression after listening to the book read aloud, people repeated the words: Confused, Frustrated…Disillusioned.

Ecclesiastes’ sobering introduction decries, “Meaningless! Meaningless…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2). When a teenager bursts out with similar sentiments we wonder if adolescent hormones are to blame. But when a seasoned sage declares it, we are deeply troubled. Ecclesiastes was written by an elder statesman — “the teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” Traditional scholarship credits Solomon as its author.¹

God offered Solomon anything he wanted (2 Chronicles 1:7) and praised Solomon when he did not ask for wealth or honor. Instead, Solomon heeded the advice of his father, King David, who taught him, “My son…get wisdom… never forget wisdom… wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom! (Proverbs 4:1,5-7)

When Solomon asked for wisdom God gave it abundantly! Royal court officials and foreign dignitaries marveled at Solomon’s wisdom. “[Everyone] perceived that God’s wisdom was in him.” (1 Kings 3:28). Though Solomon never asked for wealth and honor; wisdom landed him on top of the world — financially, politically, and socially!

It’s remarkable that the person most qualified to sing Wisdom’s praises instead warned us about its limitations. Solomon wrote, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business… a striving after the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13,17-18)

Wisdom’s limitations present unsettling news for hope seekers. I saw it on the faces of people in my class.

The mentors in my life taught me to get wisdom, just as David taught Solomon. I have enjoyed the benefits of pursuing wisdom as well as suffered the pain of ignoring it.

When I discovered wisdom offered me exceptionally valuable things, I’ve wrongly assumed certainty was part of the offer. Unfortunately living wisely will not guarantee: a healthy marriage, faithful children, financial security, vocational advancement, or good health. Those who confuse absolute guarantees with general principles are prone to misjudge the benefits of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 22:6 has paralyzed faithful parents with false shame after an adult child has gone off the rails. But Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart”) is not a guarantee. It is a proverb, not a law. It is generally true but there are exceptions. Many factors outside of bad parenting can cause people to ruin their lives.

When people ignore the limits of wisdom and grab for certainty, they cause wounds that even the best of intentions cannot salve. They will be exposed as naive, self-righteous or just plain wrong — like Job’s friends.

As a young adult, a few people tried to warn me about wisdom’s limitations. When they suggested my search for understanding might lead to frustrated uncertainty, I thought them jaded or faithless. But then life’s unexpected twists and turns led me to the precipice of my vain assurance and I fell to humbler ground. I realized I might never understand why certain bad things happen. Soon afterward, Solomon became my empathetic friend. He shared my sense of futility — “Meaningless, Meaningless…utterly meaningless!” 

Unexpected comfort comes when we realize the Bible doesn’t conveniently dismiss life’s most troubling dilemmas. In fact it often silences those offering easy answers to allow space for frustrated voices to wail. Even Jesus wailed, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus’ suffering and death proved there were no easy answers for life’s most disturbing troubles. The solutions we need could not be delivered through a book. But, they could be incarnated in a person. So God sent Jesus. He is the person of exceptional wisdom² who entered our troubled darkness, absorbed it, and conquered it. In Jesus, God crushed despair and meaninglessness and replaced it with resurrected hope!

Jesus may not explain your darkness away, but he has shared it. Eventually he will pierce it again and bring you into new light. Trust Him, even when your best efforts to understand things leave you disillusioned. Though frustration and despair rage, wait on him. He is powerful to deliver!

¹ Strictly speaking the writer of Ecclesiastes is anonymous since no personal name is attached, but the evidence strongly indicates Solomon is the author. 

² See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

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When Terminal Cancer Hits Home

My dad started losing weight in October. Initially he felt proud because he needed to lose the extra pounds. But he grew concerned when his energy dropped precipitously. At the family Christmas party we encouraged him to see a doctor as soon as possible.

One visit to the doctor turned into many. At each stage my dad braced for the worst, yet hoped for the best. Then on Thursday, February 4, 2016, surrounded by his wife and three children, my dad was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. His cancer is clearly aggressive and terminal.

Kieffer_James_Family-2016Sometimes clarity is a most unwelcome friend. But this friend helps you focus. I now know how I want to spend the next several months with my dad. I’ve made notes to myself about conversations I want to have with him — conversations about God, his childhood, our family history, and our relationship.

We’ve already started to talk about things my dad would like to do during his last days. Unfortunately it probably won’t include a cruise or long distance travel since he feels too ill.

There will be hard days ahead. Doctors will shoot toxic chemicals through dad’s veins hoping to slow the cancer and improve his quality of life. Thankfully my dad has a peace about him. It surprises me given his bent toward anxiety — something I reflect to my own chagrin. I believe God has given my dad a foretaste of divine peace — a calm that “transcends understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I pray that God’s grace, as well as his family’s love, will strengthen dad for the fierce storm now making landfall.

I am so thankful for the doctors and nurses of oncology at GBMC (Greater Baltimore Medical Center). They care deeply for people and want to help.

Hope has many definitions.” Dr. Donegan leveled with us.  “Sometimes it means being cured. Sometimes it means managing the symptoms until The Good Lord takes us home.”

I wish hope had one definition.

Thankfully Jesus promised, that someday, hope will have a singular definition. It will mean “a full and complete recovery”.  When we reach glory, the earlier definitions of hope will seem crude, like the word nice which used to mean “silly, foolish or simple” — far from the compliment it is today.

Jesus spelled out God’s ultimate definition of hope. When He walked on earth Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the leper, forgave sinners, restored the outcast and raised the dead. Jesus healed in every possible way: spiritually, relationally, physiologically, and physically. Through Jesus, God still plans to fully recover what has been damaged by sin and death.

At least in this life, my dad’s time will end sooner than we wanted. Yet at 75 years old, whether you live an extra six months or ten years; both seem right around the corner! Knowing your time is short focuses the mind. The central question becomes, “How will you prepare for what’s next?”

Jesus told us how to prepare as he faced his own imminent death. He said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me.” (John 14:1-3).

Jesus asks us to remember what He did on His first trip to earth and then trust him to return and finish the job. When God finally restores this broken creation it will be better than new. Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the “first-fruits” of a new and glorious harvest — a transformed cosmos.  Heaven will be no disembodied consolation prize but a vibrant, sensual and incorruptible material reality. God shall walk on earth with man yet again; just as He once did in the Garden of Eden.

This singular hope means cancer’s victory is only short term. It will be conquered, once and for all, at the resurrection!

Come, Lord Jesus!

Sing About Your Unsung Heroes!

Who would you rather be — king David or his friend Jonathan, the natural heir to the throne? Both were blessed as chosen members of God’s royal family. But David received more — much more!

Everyone knows about king David. Few know about Jonathan. David left a dynasty that will last forever. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem the multitudes proclaimed Him the Son of David, not the Son of Jonathan.

David lived to be an old man. In his last days, the most beautiful virgin in all the land, Abishag the Shunammite, “comforted” David in his bed. Jonathan died in his prime — a faithful soldier of Israel. He paid the ultimate price for his Father’s sin, not his own.

So why does David get all the glory?

The scriptures call David “a man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). But was David’s devotion to God distinctive from Jonathan’s? We have every reason to believe Jonathan was just as much a man after God’s heart. He was loving and faithful toward Yahweh. Unlike David who committed adultery and then murdered his faithful captain Uriah; there is no record of any grievous sin Jonathan committed. David’s son, Solomon, born by Uriah’s wife, became the richest, most powerful king of Israel. Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, became a cripple.

The scriptures show David as courageous in battle and zealous for the LORD’s reputation.  But Jonathan was just as zealous and courageous. It was Jonathan who first demonstrated that “nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:6) He defeated a fortified Philistine garrison almost single handedly. It seems David followed Jonathan’s example when he later went up against the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17).

God passed over Jonathan, as the next king, simply to discipline his father Saul. Yet, Jonathan submitted joyfully to God even at great cost to his own status, safety and reputation. Like David, Jonathan never raised his hand against God’s anointed. Instead he chose to bless both David and Saul. He loved them more than himself. He risked his life for David and then died for his father Saul. Unlike David, Jonathan lost everything by loving faithfully.

David foreshadowed Jesus as a king.  But Jonathan foreshadowed Jesus as a faithful brother and dying prince — the one who “humbled himself to the point of death” and was pierced for another’s transgression.

History overflows with unsung heroes like Jonathan. For every David there are dozens of Jonathans. We must celebrate unsung heroes or we will distort the ones we normally sing about. I am thankful the Bible retains the stories of unsung heroes like Jonathan, Ruth, Boaz, and Barnabas.

Who are the unsung heroes in your life? Is it your spouse, a grandparent, a child, a teacher, a coach, a co-worker, a sibling, a neighbor, a babysitter, a counselor, a soldier…? Take notice of the unsung heroes in your life. Others will not sing their praises but you can. So sing loudly! Celebrate them, encourage them, brag about them.

Often, they are the heroes that reflect Jesus most clearly.

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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. 

True Christian Hope: Beyond Positive Thinking

Too many people confuse Christian hope with the power of positive thinking.

This past April a friend from Baltimore asked me, “Do you think the Orioles will win the World Series?” Like The Little Engine that Could I repeated, “I think they can!” I pointed to players’ statistics, team dynamics, coaching ability, and a recent winning record. The trouble was my evidence wasn’t all that compelling. By September, my optimism proved vain. 

sun_754-400What if, instead, someone had asked me, “Do you think the sun will rise every day until the World Series?” Philosophically, no one can prove beyond all conceivable doubts that the sun will continue to rise, but as little orphan Annie sang you can bet your bottom dollar the sun will come out tomorrow!”

Christian hope is not merely historically verifiable, like baseball statistics, but overwhelmingly compelling – like the sunrise. When Jesus defeated death on Easter morning, he wasn’t simply batting above average. Jesus’ victory over death didn’t merely make him a probable winner against future opponents – it makes him the definite winner. Jesus proved he was capable of pitching the perfect game, once and for all, and against all odds. He went against the reigning champion, death itself, who had never lost in a match. Jesus won! In fact, Jesus won every time death, and his teammates (sickness, blindness, deafness, etc.) took the field.

When John the baptist wavered in his hope he sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” Jesus responded with compelling facts, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up.” (Luke 7:22)

The apostle Paul was crystal clear about the basis of Christian hope. He writes, “If Christ has not been raised [from the dead], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)Paul knew that real hope was rooted in facts – not feelings, intentions, aspirations, or probabilities. The resurrected Jesus Christ shined like the sun upon Paul’s eyes and transformed his skepticism into enduring hope.

Big faith has little to do with the size of your belief but everything to do with the object you believe in. If the object of your faith is big and reliable, your faith is strong — no matter how much doubt is mixed in. Jesus said we only need “faith the size of a mustard seed.” (Luke 17:6) Even the smallest, weakest faith in Him is strong because He is strong.

Christian hope is based on what Jesus accomplished — not our feelings. There is a huge difference between placing faith in Jesus and placing faith in your faith.

  • Do you struggle to trust God has forgiven you? Do not base your confidence on feeling sufficiently sorry or proving earnestness to yourself. Rest instead on what Jesus did. He paid your debt on the cross so you may be fully forgiven, no matter your failure.
  • Do you want assurance that you can change. . . that your character flaws are redeemable and your addictions are conquerable? Look not in the mirror. There you will only find a flawed person barely capable of short lived victories. Look beyond the mirror to, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Jesus reflects the image of God perfectly and is working by His Spirit to restore you to look as glorious…someday!
  • Are you worried the best things in life may pass you bye? You can strive hard after them, but to what end? Even the best things under the sun will leave you hungering and thirsting for more. Then death will rob them all away. Strive instead after the one who defeated death, and offers Himself. The one who came to give us life to the full, now, and forevermore.

By all means think positively. But if you want a hope that never fails, look to Jesus.

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