Category Archives: despair

Fight for joy…

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Jim Winn winter painting image

James Winn (acrylic on paper)

Fight for joy…

I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn  – it’s one of my favorite possessions.   While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting.  Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.

Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does.  But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.

I don’t live on the Plains anymore.  In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad.  But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.

Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul.  The grass might be green, the humidity and temperatures high, and flip-flops the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it.

As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.

It’s all too easy to believe my emotions and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.

My fear of what might be, based on what has been, wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Faith is the same way.  Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.  Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:

“This will always be this way…”

“She’ll always do these things…”

“He’ll never change…”

“This is what I can look forward to…”

But faith says,

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”

I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?”   What does the Joy of the Lord look like?  Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth?  Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right?  I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?

As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle.  Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful.

The Lord’s Joy is my strength.

Think about that.  The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us.  Far from the “find it inside yourself” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!

The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us.  How much joy does God possess?  Infinite amounts.  What kind of joy does God have?  The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less.  What is he joyful about?  In a word, Christ.  And, inconceivably, that includes you and me.  We are his and he delights in us.  All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption!  That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son.   That is the great news!  We get to be there.  FOREVER.  If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?

What is meant by joy strengthening us?  If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?

Because sometimes, often times, My fear of what might be based on what has been wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.

Life can be unimaginably hard.  We have trials.  We have pain.  We have searing disappointments and heartaches.  These things can threaten to undo us.  They can cause us to want to give up.  They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will.  They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.

The Lord’s Joy is our strength.  It’s there.  It’s already been freely given.  But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.

Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us.  The world may look a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark.  But that is not the whole story.  Strength is growing under those furrows.  Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there.  Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.

And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good.  Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste.  It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love.  Perfect.  Righteous.  Pure.  And most of all, ready.   Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.

In the meantime, fight for joy.  It is already yours.

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The Incredible Gift – and Power – of Being There

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I have seldom heard such crushing news that I couldn’t bear listening to it.  I have heard many hard stories.  But this one broke my heart and almost made me run – almost.

I sat and listened as a woman told of her journey that began as a Christian physician in a worn-torn, Muslim-majority country which weaved its way through bombings, bullets, and resettlements as a refugee.  Her journey brought her to the US, where her faith in Jesus strengthened her yet again to learn English, a strange culture, and to start life over again as an adult.  It was all too much for her husband who left her with a young son to care for, so now she’s doing it on her own.

But none of this is what broke me.  None of this was new to me, and (hopefully this doesn’t sound callous) none of this surprised me.

Since she told me she was a believer, I asked if she had been able to connect with a good church here – had she found community among other believers in the US who were helping her cope with the arduous task of beginning again?  Her answer is what made me catch my breath and try (unsuccessfully) to hold back tears.

She said, “I go to a good church.  The people there – they have been kind, very kind.  The Word is preached, and they have been very generous.  They have helped me find a home and work.  They have helped me with my bills.  They have helped me figure out how to go to school and how to get needed help for my son.”

And then it came…

“But they leave me alone.”

She said, “In my country, if I was having a very hard day – 7 or 8-hour surgeries where I didn’t know if the patient would survive, babies born dead, limbs shattered because of guns – anything – I could call my brothers and sisters in Christ and they would be there.  They would dodge bullets if they needed to – THEY DID!  They would come to me and be with me.  They would let me cry and let out my anguish without running away from it.  I could endure all of that because they were always there.”

She went on, “You asked if I have found community with my church here.  Not like in my country.  People here don’t know how to sit with someone in pain, but my brothers and sisters there did.  They knew they couldn’t take your pain away, but they weren’t afraid to sit with you in it.  My church here is kind – but they run away from things that are not comfortable.  And my life – my pain – is not comfortable for anyone.  So, they leave me alone.  I am very alone.”

If that doesn’t break your heart, there is something very wrong.  I felt overcome with sadness for my new friend, but also a deep, deep sense of shame and grief for my beloved brethren here.  I know that what she said is too true.  We don’t know how to sit with people in pain.  We don’t like being uncomfortable.

I found myself asking, “What kind of suffering does it take to wake us up?”  If a refugee who has been so terribly traumatized won’t do it, what will?  If abused women and children won’t do it, what will?  If death and disease and trials that brake us won’t do it, what will?

Beloved church – dear, kind, generous church – we must wake up to the tremendous power of our presence in another’s life.  We don’t need to know the answers – most of them are unknowable!  But we do need to show up.  We need to let people cry and pour out their anguish and pain.  We need to be patient when they need to do it again and again until the storm is past.  Suffering doesn’t care about schedules, and no sufferer will trust you with their story if you can’t first sit in the presence in their pain.  We need to be there – and stay there while the storm rages.  And since the weight of suffering is so great, sufferers usually need multiple helpers.

We don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable to the discomfort of much of anything really, let alone sitting in the presence of unrelenting suffering.  None of us wants pain.  We don’t know what to do with it.  We don’t know how to just let it be.  But we’re called to bear one another’s burdens – it’s what makes us different from the world around us. It’s how we demonstrate Christ’s love.

What keeps us so distant?  Work?  Sports schedules?  School plays?  Ministries that keep us running around with zero time to spare?  These are not bad things, but none of them is good enough.  We are called to die to ourselves for the sake of the gospel.  If a brother or sister is naked or hungry, we feed them well enough, which is good.  But if one is in prison (and what sufferer wouldn’t describe intractable pain as prison?) we are told to visit thembe there. 

We all needed flesh incarnate to understand the love of God.  We see it in Jesus – Immanuel – God with us.  But we learn it from one another.  We learn it from someone demonstrating it to us.  God uses us to reveal his incarnate presence to others.  Think about the awesome privilege that is:  you, a frail and faulted human being have the honor of representing the living God in this way to a hurting soul.  This is a powerful gift to humanity.  Take it up – cheerfully, gladly, reverently.

Who is there in your life right now that you can give some of yourself to?  Who is there right now who is suffering and lonely?  Who is there who is aching for another human soul to simply show up and be there with them?

Go.  Be there.

When Ripples of Sin turn to Waves of Grace

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I’m currently drowning in a sea – one that I did not want to be swimming in let alone drown in.  I didn’t want to have the billows overwhelm me.  I didn’t want to be gasping and choking for breath.  But I am here, and I know enough to know that these billows are sovereignly appointed ones, meant for my refinement, strengthening, and cleansing.

The sea I’m taking great gulps from as I struggle to keep breath in my lungs and my head above the surface is the fallout of sin.  It’s called the Sea of Painful Consequences.  Aftermath.  Carnage.  And while I’ve made plenty of my own cesspools of filthy, disgusting, wretched piles of careless, willfully arrogant, loathsome sin, this sea isn’t my doing.  It was done to me.  I can’t fix it.  I can’t repent of it and ask Jesus to clean it up.  I can’t make amends for it or beg someone else to forgive it.  I am victim to it.  And yes, I still see it as sovereignly appointed for my ultimate good.

But I must admit that I have struggled – really struggled – with watching how the ripple effects of this mess have affected so many more people than just me.  My children, their friends, my pastor and elders and their families, my community group – my whole church has been affected.  Friends, family, co-workers – it seems there isn’t anyone my family knows who hasn’t been tainted by it.  And we know a lot of people.

I have been grieved to hear how young women who I have mentored are struggling with watching it happen.  “If it can happen to you,” they say, “it could happen to… anyone.”  I have winced as I’ve listened to precious loved ones tell of their pain and sorrow and ongoing struggles with the unanswered questions…why?  How?  What for?   I have wept at the profoundly deep and far-reaching effects that the sin of one individual has had on so many, many people.

“Lord!”  I’ve cried.  “Please stop this!  Please contain it!  Please prevent it from continuing to spill over into cup after cup after cup!  It’s one thing to have been ripped apart – I hate it, but I can bear it if that’s what you want.  But does it really have to hurt them, too?”

But that is how sin is, isn’t it?  It’s so much more vile and destructive than we ever want to think about, much less admit.  It is, admittedly, easier to see this when it’s the result of someone else’s sin.  But our sin – yes, my sin and yours – has the power to destroy life.  And every life it touches is stained and soiled by its polluting mess.  We mess our own lives up when we give into wickedness – but we mess a whole lot of other lives up as well.

It ripples and ripples and nothing stops its effects until it spends itself fully and wastes everything in its wake.  Watching it from a front-row seat has sometimes caused me to be given over to despair.

But I’ve recently learned something about God, as he’s been teaching me about the hard, ugly reality of sin.  And that is this:  where sin abounds, his grace abounds all the more.

When one of my young friends was talking to me recently, shedding tears because of the pain that this sin has caused her, I was sad – so sad –  that my mess has touched her, too.  I cried and silently prayed, “Lord, help her.  Why should this sweet young mom have to struggle like this when she has nothing whatsoever to do with what has happened?”  I told her how sorry I was that this was hard for her, and wished with all my heart that she didn’t have to bear any of this burden.

But God spoke to me in the next second when she said, “But don’t you see?  God is showing me things I never would have seen before through this.  He’s showing me how to pray in ways I didn’t know I should pray, and he’s giving me insight into sin that I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about before.  Watching you walk through this is teaching me.  Your faithfulness is encouraging me.

And I realized in that moment that this is how our good God works.  This is how grace abounds even more than the sin.  He takes our filthy, tangled sin messes and uses them to reveal to us that his mercy is greater.  He can take those ripples of sin and make waves of grace come from them.  He can use one man’s sin to reveal himself and his patient, merciful, kind, and gracious character – to many –  in greater measures than the sin can ever destroy.  He can teach and grow and strengthen and mature through it all in a way that overcomes it all.

And isn’t that exactly what he’s done?  Sin entered creation through one man.  And it has been passed on to each and every one of us, because we all sin.  But God doesn’t let that be the end of the story.  He changes the death-sentence-endings through grace and replaces them with life.  “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Grace is bigger than sin because God is bigger than sin.  Grace is more powerful than sin because God is more powerful than sin.  Grace is able to breathe life into dead things – dead people – because God delights to breathe new life into cold, dead, broken hearts.  Grace and mercy and provision and care is the end of the story – not overwhelming pain and sorrow and sadness.  They last for a while – and they are, indeed, exceedingly painful.  But they do not have the final word.  God does.

In the end, love wins because God has already won.

Love wins by turning ripples of sin into waves of grace.

Love wins.

Tempted to despair…

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Tempted to despair…

I suppose it is pretty natural to have times when each of us is tempted to despair.  Life’s trials hurt – badly.  Sometimes the pain is so bad that we begin to lose sight of any way out of it.  We begin to wish that we might die rather than go on living – enduring – what we are facing. 

We need the LIGHT of truth as desperately as we’ve ever needed it in those times, and yet, if you’re like the countless others I’ve talked with about these tunnels of darkness reading your Bible, praying, or even listening to sermons is more than your numbed mind can manage.

But what do we do when the circumstances of life seem to press in so hard that our chests ache with the heaviness of it all and there is not even a pin-point of light that gives us hope that it will soon be over?

How do we cling to the things we know to be true when nothing about our experience helps us believe them?   How do we get through in a way that glorifies God and doesn’t give in to the lies of the evil one?

I’ve been in such a time.  Recently.  As in, right now.  But I’ve been in times like this before, too.  I’ve learned a few things along the way and I’d thought I’d share them.  When my eyes are shrouded by darkness I need help to know that the light is there even though it is hidden from me.    

Below is a list I have begun for myself.  It’s still a work in progress – I keep adding to it.  It is a call from the truths of scripture to endure – knowing that even this trial is a gift from a loving heavenly Father who wants me to know him to the depths as well as to the heights.

I hope it helps you – or someone you know who is struggling.  I’d love to hear what you might add.

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When I am tempted to despair, in an effort to take every thought captive to the mind of Christ, be anxious for nothing, be thankful in all circumstances, and rejoice always I will:

    1. Remember whose I am:
      1. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought with a price.  Therefore, glorify God with your body.”  I Cor 6:19-20
      2. “Looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider him that endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you will not grow weary or fainthearted.”  Hebrews 12:2-3
    2. Remember who I am:
      1. “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?  ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the ones he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’”  Heb 12:5-6
    3. Remember how I am loved:
      1. “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Rom 5:8
      2. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are.  The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”  1 John 1:3
      3. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”  John 14:2-3
    4. Remember that I am valued:
      1. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear not, therefore; for you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Matthew 10:29-31
    5. Remember that I am not alone:
      1. “It is the LORD who goes before you.  He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you.  Do not fear or be dismayed.”  Deut 31:8
    6. Remember the faithfulness of God:
      1. “I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.  He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.”  Ps 40:1-2
    7. Expect Him to be faithful again:
      1. “Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.  Wait patiently for the Lord.  Be brave and courageous.  Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.”  Ps 27:13-14
    8. Ask for wisdom and clarity:
      1. “If any of you lacks wisdom let him ask of God and He will give it generously to all without reproach.”  James 1:5
      2. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path”  Ps 119:105
    9. Remember my blessings and how I enjoy them:
      1. “…what do you have that you have not received?…” 1 Cor 4:7
      2. “O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.  His love endures forever.” Ps 118:1
      3. “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to all mankind.  For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things…. Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”  Psalm 107:8-9, 43
    10. Remember that this is normal for the believer:
      1. “We are experiencing trouble on every side but are not crushed; we are perplexed but not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down but not destroyed, always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be visible in our body.”  2 Cor 4:8-9
    11. Remember the lessons I have learned:
    12. Praise God for His goodness and mercy:
      1. “For you are my hope, Lord God, my security since I was young.  I depended on you since birth, when you brought me from my mother’s womb. I praise you continuously.”  Ps 71:5-6
    13. Ask God to help me:
      1. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Matt 7:7
      2. “Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  Hebrews 4:16
    14. Use the tools I have been given
      1. And after I have done all of this, I will fasten on the belt of truth, put on the breastplate of righteousness, and as shoes for my feet put on the readiness of the gospel of peace.  I will take up the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, I will hold tightly the sword of the Spirit and pray in the Spirit.  

And after all of this, I will stand firm.  And when the time is right, I will do the next thing that God has set before me to do in the race that he has set me on, knowing that his good and perfect will is neither to be trifled with nor railed against.  God help me.

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