Category Archives: Joy

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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Yet…

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abigail-keenan-27297

Yet…

These familiar verses have been spoken many times to me over the years, but I have only recently begun to understand their beauty – and their weight.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls

yet

I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Habakkuk was facing no small thing – the enemies bearing down on his people were ruthless, merciless, vile perpetrators and the terror they induced was real and justified.  He was not exaggerating in his complaints to God, and it is perfectly understandable that he would want God to intervene.

He called upon the character of the God he knew – the God he served and trusted – but who seemed silent and distant in the face of unimaginable horrors and carnage advancing upon him.  You can almost hear him pleading, “I know you’re there – where are you?!?”

Mercifully, we have the record of God’s response.  But when we already know the outcome of a story, it’s hard to absorb the weight of how it unfolds.

Habakkuk is bewildered why God isn’t doing something to correct the evil of his own people – the evil God abhors and he knows needs to be corrected. Bit why, he laments, can’t God just take matters into his holy hands rather than putting them into the hands of ruthless, vicious men? Couldn’t he do something a little less destructive to call his people back to living the way they should have been living?  Why did it have to be so unbelievably severe?

God reminded Habakkuk of who he is.  He reminded Habakkuk of his character, justice, power, and might.  He reminded Habakkuk of his promises and of his faithfulness.  He validated that the desolation that Habakkuk saw coming was accurate and true.

And then he did nothing.

Absolutely nothing changed… except Habakkuk.

Like Job, Habakkuk meets the God he loves and trusts in a way that knocks him off his feet and back to his knees in wonder and praise.  Like Job, Habakkuk realizes that there are many, many things about God and his purposes that he cannot begin to fathom.  And like Job, Habakkuk shows us that we need to encounter God the same way.

The terror was real – the nation that was coming for them was despicable in every way.  The destruction of everything they knew was bearing down hard on them and there was nothing Habakkuk could do about it.  And now he realized that there was nothing God was going to do about it, either.  It would happen, as God said it would, and that was that.

But knowing the character of the God behind all the carnage made Habakkuk praise him anyway.  How could this be?  How could someone clearly see destruction and waste just ahead of him and yet… rejoice?

The answer, of course, is that he was able to rejoice in God – not in his circumstances or even in what they would produce.  Habakkuk laid out all the impact that was coming – no food, no income, no provision at all.  And said, “yet.”

I might lose everything, yet

I might be starving, yet

Everything might look hopeless and desolate, yet

I know you, God.  I trust you.  You have proven again and again that your faithfulness is unbreakable.  You love your people.  You will do right by them.  These circumstances are terrifying – they’re dire – and yet…

I will rejoice in YOU.

I will take joy in YOU.

YOU are my strength.  YOU are my provider.  YOU will offer defense.  YOU will raise me up and I will live with YOU forever.

Habakkuk got to the place of not only knowing that he should praise and rejoice in God in the midst of pain and fear, but why he could.  We all need to get to that place, because that is where we plant our feet squarely on the rock-solid foundation of faith and realize that it is strong and secure.

We are blessed when we are able to join Habakkuk (and so many other faithful saints who have gone before us) in saying,

“Even when everything around me looks utterly hopeless and there is nothing about my circumstances that points to deliverance, yet

“Even if all the gifts you’ve given are taken away, yet

“Even if I have no idea how this will all work out – or IF it will all work out, yet

will rejoice.  I will take joy – in YOU, God, who are my strength.  In YOU who are my defender.  In YOU who are my fortress and strong tower.

Even if everything around me points to destruction and desolation, if You give me YOU, all will be well, for I will have everything.

 

The Lack That Fills Us Up

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I was recently with some friends and we were sharing with one another how the hardest things in our lives – the really hard things – are the things, in the end, that we are the most deeply grateful to God for.

This was no list of “privileged” suffering – this was raw, painful stuff – abject poverty, abuse, barrenness, deaths of spouses, and real struggles that make most people uncomfortable to even acknowledge the existence of.  Yet this group, through tears even, rejoiced and expressed gratitude for what God had allowed – or perhaps, more specifically, what God had withheld.

Who among us doesn’t want food and shelter?  Who doesn’t want love and safety in their relationships?  How many of us plan to lose a spouse before we’re old?  And while I’m aware there are some exceptions, how many women do you know who don’t long to bear and raise children?  These are things so basic to our human existence that many people – most people – can’t really imagine what it is like to live without them.  And yet, there we were, without any plans to accomplish this – and to be truthful, not really having even realized all this about our little circle (it’s definitely not why we were together) – sharing how God, in his providential care, had chosen to withhold them from us in various ways.  It was an intensely beautiful time together.

There was real grief shared – painful, sorrowful, hard experiences.  And yet, all of it was accompanied with rejoicing for the deep and profound lessons – the gifts of those lessons! – that God has taught through them.  There was no sugar-coating of the realities involved – the experiences of grief and suffering can feel harsh, unrelenting, and even cruel.  But shining through the lines of story after story were beaming, glorious, wonderful realizations of the light of God’s goodness and kindness in withholding the good things that we had each longed for and providing lack instead.  

How do we learn that God is our provider if we never have to look to him for provision?  How do we learn that God cares for his children if we never know what it is like to lack care?  How do we know how long-suffering God is with our sin if we never face long-standing patterns of sin in those we love?  How can we know the sweet comfort of the Comforter if we never need to be comforted?

We can’t.

And so the truth is, God orchestrates lack into our lives in order to fill us with something infinitely better than what even those very good things can bring – Himself.  When we lack food and shelter, he is our portion and our cup – the bread of life.  He is our strong tower, our refuge and he would rather allow us to hunger and thirst for him than to have a full belly and no taste for Truth.

When we are victims to the horrible evil that dwells within men’s hearts, we find a suffering Savior who knows what that is like because he suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of the deepest evil the world has ever known, and through it demonstrates how he delights to make beauty that can only truly be appreciated through seeing and knowing and living in the ashes.

When we are devastated by tragedy and loss, we come to know the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief who would rather let us experience the searing pain of loss than let us miss out on what a Perfect Bridegroom can provide in the midst of all that pain.

And when we long for something so badly that our chests ache and our souls burn, we find the tender, compassionate Shepherd who would rather give us what he knows we ought to long for so they will shape us into a better reflection of his goodness and care, than allow us to become arrogant or proud in the fulfillment of our lesser desires.

It is so contrary to what we want!  It is so opposite of what we think!  We want good things – and they are good!  But the problem is that they are not good enough – and that is what our lack reveals to us.  Not having what we long for reveals our real needs to us.  Not having the things we want refines our tastes for the things we need.  Suffering the loss of what is precious to us helps us value the One who is most precious of all.

Our lack – especially of good things – ends up making room for the best things.  Praise God for being willing to bear our sorrow and broken hearts in order to fill us with joyful, thankful ones that know him better and love him more because of it!

 

You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is…

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So stop trying.

I know – that goes against all the things you think you’ve been taught.

Be good.

Be nice.

Be generous.

Be compassionate.

Be better.

And the implied message at the end of all those directives is, “so you make (or keep) God happy with you.”

The trouble is – it’s all wrong.  It’s a big fat lie that we actually seem to like telling ourselves and one another.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever received was this:  “You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is…”

If you are a believer – a follower of Jesus who knows for certain that you’ve been forgiven – lifted out of a filthy ocean of disgusting sin that you not only dug for yourself but filled bucket by bucket and were hopelessly flailing about in with no hope of getting yourself out of much less cleaned up from – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

If you are a disciple of the Son of God – a sinner who has repented and hates not only the sinful storehouse you built but also the fact that you are prone to building it again – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

If you are aching to know God better and love Him more because he put the desire into your heart of stone-turned-to-flesh – then God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be.

Did you catch that?  God is already as happy with you as he can possibly be!

The real question each of us must face when considering our mortality is not, “Am I at peace with God?”  Rather, it is this:  “Is God at peace with me?”

And if you’ve seen your hopeless condition and run to Jesus for rescue, because you know that his life and his death and his resurrection have satisfied all the demands God has made on us that we couldn’t satisfy – and that it has been offered to you freely – then God is at peace with you.  He is happy with you and cannot be made happier.

His delight has been made free to you – though it was enormously costly to Him – and He is happy to offer it to you.

And the glorious irony is that God is happy with us precisely because of the offer.  For when he sees you and me – sinners rescued from the miry pits of our own making, saved from destruction and an endless eternity of heartache and despair – he sees his beloved Jesus.  Period.

The exchange was so utterly complete that when Jesus became sin for us, he filled us up with himself – and that is all God sees.  Perfect, complete, clean, pure.

God is already as happy with you as He can be, because when he sees you, if you belong to him, he sees his Son in you perfectly reflected and shining in beautiful glory.

You can’t make God any happier with you than He already is, because when He sees you, He sees His Son.

But there was more to the advice.

“You cannot make God any happier with you than He already is.  And indeed, you must not try.”

I can hear you now (because, truthfully, I’ve said the same things).

What?!?  What about following the 10 Commandments?  What about all the Old Testament Commandments – or the New Testament ones??  What about all the places in the Bible that tell us to do this or not do that?  What about all the RULES?!?

Being good is good, and it can reflect that you’ve had your heart changed – but it will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

Being kind is good, and it can be an indication of Who you belong to – but it will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

Giving generously, being compassionate, showing mercy – all good, and definitely character traits of someone who loves well, but… you got it.  They will not make God any happier with you than He already is.

In fact, if that is your motive, you are believing a false Gospel.  You are, in effect, saying, “Thanks Jesus for the death on the cross and all, but I’ve got it from here.  Really.  I’m good.”

For some ridiculous reason we would rather bear the terrible burden of trying to satisfy God ourselves than trust in the freedom that Christ has provided.  How does that make sense?  And yet, I talk with more people than not who claim to know and follow Jesus who are running around trying to make God happy! 

STOP!

Think about it.  If you’re still having to work hard to earn God’s favor – what exactly did you get freed from?  If you really believe that Jesus saved you, why aren’t you living like you’re saved from the crushing burden of trying to do all that God requires?

I’m asking you the same questions I had to ask myself once.  I realized I wasn’t living like I really believed what I said I believed.  I was running around working hard to make God happy.  But you know what – I knew in my heart nothing I did could ever be good enough.  There was always something I could have – should have – done better.  There was always work left undone.  I got lazy or sloppy in my pursuit of perfection and that really messes with this whole happy God thing!  Unbelievably, I had even convinced myself that I could keep starting over with a clean slate – but that’s not true!

If Jesus’ work wasn’t enough, what hope did I have of making God happy?  If Jesus’ death and resurrection was just a starting point, what could I possibly conjure up that was better than what He had already done?

And that, my friends, is precisely the point.  I can’t.  You can’t.  No one can.  We really were hopelessly lost in our own foolish, stupid, selfish, lazy, mean-spirited, ugly, swiftly-filling, ocean-sized pit of sin.  But the rescue has already been completed, and it is spectacularly sufficient and good.  Trying to add anything to it to somehow gain God’s approval would be like doing your laundry in that cess-pool you created and offering it back to God with the hopes that He will somehow like it better than the radiant robes of righteousness that Jesus has already provided.  Just stop.

You cannot make God any happier with you than He already is.  And indeed, you must not try.  For when He sees you He sees His beloved Son, and His work is beautifully sufficient and good.  Jesus has freed you – now go and live in the joy of knowing you are free indeed!

Come Grieve With Me

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Come, grieve with me

Come grieve with me

While my heart bleeds

                                                  –  and tries to breathe again.

Come let me cry

As waves crash hard

                                                    – against my will and might.

Come be the strength

Against my pain

                                       – for heavy is the load.

Come sit with me

In silent love

                                                         – my darkness needs your light.

Come say the truth

I need to hear

                                                         – speak noble, right, pure, true.

Come stay with me

Through darkest war

                                                     – let my soul mourn tonight.

Come.  Stay.  Cry.  Be.

My heart can’t see.

                                           –  I need to know there’s hope.

Sometimes there are no answers.

Sometimes the only thing to do is grieve – and it is right and good to do so.

But so often we don’t know how.  We hate the pain that suffering brings and we rail against it – trying with every ounce of effort to hurry it up and make it go away.  Whether it is ours or someone else’s.

But pain has purpose in God’s economy – and it is worth much more than we want to believe.

Sometimes, often times, the lessons are deepest, purest, truest through the pain.

Would we value health if we never encountered disease?  Would we rejoice in commitment if we never experienced betrayal?  Would we ever be able to bask in the glory of true peace if we never knew conflict?

NO, NO, a thousand times, NO!

Could we delight in the splendor of a simple cool drink if we had never ached with thirst?  Would we treasure life and goodness if we had never suffered evil loss?  Can we bask in the ecstasy of the joy of the Lord if we never know the depravity of our souls?

NO.  No.  no.

We cannot truly know the soaring heights of good until we know the unfathomable depths of the not-good – and the deeper we go into the abyss the more glorious the light of glory will be.

Don’t be afraid to grieve, and don’t be afraid to help others do the same.  Because of and by the very things that cause our grief, we will know and experience more joy.  And because of and by the entering into another’s pain you help them do the same.  You minister to them in ways that are almost impossible to articulate, but are priceless in the end.

We need the fellowship of one another to grieve well – and grieve we all must do.