Hope Sufficient For The Daily Grind
Hope Builder #15: Confess Your Sin (Psalm 51)
Hope For When You’re Attacked By Insiders
Do You Want A Good News or Good Advice Religion?

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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Do You Want A Good News or Good Advice Religion?

The term gospel literally means good news. Any news worthy of the label good must report events that make life significantly better.

Having led spiritual discussion groups on college campuses for nearly 20 years, I am convinced most people, religious and secular, instinctively misunderstand the essential nature of the Christian gospel. They believe it is primarily about following good advice in order to live righteously before God and man. While the gospel does (secondarily) help us to live well, its foundation is not built upon what we can do for God, but what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The gospel is history and declares the benefits given to those who stop relying on themselves and instead rely on Jesus.

  1. It is good news morally. Dr. Tim Keller explains, “Jesus lived the life we should live to save us from the life we have lived.” This is really good news when we are honest enough to admit that we don’t live up to our own standards of morality, let alone God’s standards. This news frees us from being tempted to deny our moral failures, or minimize them, in order to feel okay about ourselves. Neither are we paralyzed with shame because Jesus has covered it. In love, Jesus exchanged places with us. On the cross, He absorbed the cost of our moral failings and granted us the benefits of His moral perfection. As the apostle Paul said, “For our sake, [God] made [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  2. It is good news spiritually. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). All man-made religion gives good advice on how to barter with God. It offers religious systems and rituals that somehow enable us to pay down our spiritual debt and earn God’s benefits. Such religious traditions assume we each retain a sufficient amount of spiritual capital with which to barter with God. But the Bible describes the human condition as spiritually impoverished and that changes things. Real need removes any confidence a person might otherwise have in him/herself. The poor in spirit recognize that their spiritual bankruptcy makes them unable to bargain with God. They bring nothing to the table. The gospel is good news for those incapable of paying off their debt because Jesus has offered to pay that debt in full.  Even more, Jesus has covered all the expenses for living in His Kingdom. This is really good news for those who accept it. It removes all insecurity. There is no need to barter with God anymore because He is already satisfied.
  3. It is good news physically. When John the baptist sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah or not; Jesus answered, “Go 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, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). Jesus did not simply forgive people their moral failings and make them spiritually rich toward God. He healed bodily diseases and defeated death. His goal was to restore every part of creation that had been broken by the fall. It is nonsense to view Jesus’ power over sickness and death as good advice. But as good news, it changes everything.

The core of human religion is good advice, but the foundation of Christianity is good news. There is a world of difference between the two!

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Reacting To Someone Who Feels Misunderstood

How do you typically respond when a person accuses you of not understanding them?

It’s easy to make two opposite but equally disastrous mistakes – get fearful or get angry. Sometimes we get angry and snip, “I understand you completely. Actually, you don’t understand me!” Other times we get anxious and whimper, “Never mind. Sorry I brought it up.” Both silence and violence will block mutual understanding and destroy trust. But, learning to respond with grace and truth will relieve tension and enable the kind of communication that clears a path through the gridlock caused by alleged misunderstandings.

By looking to the Bible, and Jesus’ example, we can train ourselves to respond with grace and truth when someone accuses, “You don’t understand me at all!”

  1. Remember God’s patience. Adam was the first person to imply someone else did not understanding him. He believed God had it all wrong. He told God the real problem wasn’t his disobedience it was “the woman you put here with me. She gave me some fruit and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) From the beginning, God’s patience has been abundantly clear. In Exodus 34:6, God proclaimed his name saying, “I am Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” In as much as we remember God’s patient toward us, will we have the ability to be patient toward others who (rightly or wrongly) feel misunderstood.
  2. Stay curious and engaged. It’s easy to either feel provoked or to grow apathetic when your repeated attempts to address an issue are met with the counter-attack, “You don’t understand!” It’s hard to stay calmly engaged. But remember, God didn’t crush or ignore Adam. Instead He patiently asked questions, “Where are you? Have you eaten from tree I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 2:10-11) We reflect God’s ways when we respond with grace and truth. Get curious, not furious, in the conversation. For example you might say, “I am sorry you don’t feel understood. I want to hear you out. What am I missing?”
  3. Relieve the need to be right. When misunderstandings linger, often the most common cause is a perceived need to be right. The consequences of being wrong, whether real or imagined, prevent people from admitting error. This fear is relieved as people sense they will be accepted even if they admit their failures and faults. You can develop safety by taking the first step to admit how you may be wrong. Show your willingness, even contentment, to be wrong. Clarify that the goal isn’t to prove each other wrong but to learn and then to be willing to change as a result.
  4. Stubbornly nourish hope. Nothing undermines a person’s confidence to resolve a misunderstanding like the loss of hope. Take orphans for instance. Compared to other children orphans tend to be very suspicious. They constantly test other’s intentions. They stubbornly resist the very help they require. While their behavior is not difficult to understand, it is counter-productive. Without patient intervention, their learned hopelessness (evidenced in the cries “No one understands me.”) will make them increasingly bitter and isolated. Jesus responded to such hopelessness not with dismissive platitudes but with empathy. He gave up his rights as God’s son and was abandoned on the cross. But, Jesus didn’t stop at empathy. He stubbornly fought for victory over the misery caused by betrayal, suffering, evil and death. Then he promised, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). In as much as we understand this good news we will possess a hope more stubborn than anyone’s despair and we will offer it at every turn of the conversation.
  5. Be careful with “I’m sorry!”  As the causes of the misunderstanding become clear, we must not stop short of true reconciliation. Many people wrongly assume that saying “I’m sorry” is sufficient, but that may rob everyone (including themselves) of a more satisfying resolution. Saying “I’m sorry” is appropriate for uncontrollable events or unavoidable mistakes. Beyond that, we should be more circumspect. Sometimes “sorry” remains appropriate for an unintentional accident.  For example, “I’m sorry I bumped into you. I did not see you behind me.”  However, if you are in a habit of rushing about the office your apology will not suffice. You are being careless. Legitimate reconciliation usually happens when offenders confess their wrongdoing, reflect empathy, ask for forgiveness and offer appropriate recompense. To illustrate you might say, “I was rushing and not aware of my surroundings (confession of wrong) and I caused you to drop your stack of papers (reflecting empathy). Will you forgive me? (surrendering the upper hand with a humbling request) Can I help you reorganize them? (offer appropriate recompense). In the same way, don’t assume you can resolve a misunderstanding with a simple “I’m sorry”Work for a mutual understanding and a real reconciliation. The benefits will be well worth the cost.

Mastering these five principles takes practice but they will make a big difference. We can’t guarantee any particular person will feel understood, but we can create an environment where mutual understanding is the norm.

(This article is a follow up to Finding Hope When You Feel Misunderstood.)

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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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