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Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma

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Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma

When I was little, I ran to Psalm 23 because in it, God promised to provide for me – The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

When I became a young mother, I ran to Psalm 23 because God promised to give me rest – He makes me lie down in green pastures.

In turbulent times and sleepless nights (whether from toddlers or teenagers), I ran to it because God promised still waters and a restored soul and assured me that I had no need to fear any evil even though I had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

But last year, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before.  Last year I revisited Psalm 23 and looked at it through the lens of trauma.  I made a profound discovery and realized that all the things promised – the provision, the care, the stillness and the restoration, the feast set before me and the defense against evil – all of it happens in the valley of the shadow of death – the very place where trauma resides.

I’d always read “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” as if it said, “even when I walk…” as if the peace of the still waters and green pastures were in one place but the valley of the shadow of death was someplace else.  A place, in fact, to be gotten through as quickly as possible to get back to the green pastures and still waters.  But it doesn’t say that.  It says “though” – it could read, “even though I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death” – which can place the whole psalm in the valley.  The first three verses make sense this way, too – pastures are greenest and most abundant – most nutritious and life-sustaining –  not at the wind-blown mountain tops, but in the valleys.  

Still waters are not found on tops of mountains or even the sides of hills – but at the bottoms, in the valley.  Sheep can’t drink from turbulent waters, but they will drink their fill on still waters.  Without water they quickly die, and without enough of it, they have many ailments.  Water is essential for their survival, but plenty of water is essential for a sheep’s health and vitality.  Plenty can only be had in still waters.  The still waters are mainly in the valley.  

And a path is needed because the rocks and trees and debris from all the washing down from the high places settle in the valleys.  The valleys can be treacherous, and they can provide lots of places for snakes and coyotes and leg-breaking-crevices to lurk.  The shepherd must lead the way through the valley.  The deepest shadows, toughest obstacles, and craftiest adversaries are there Open pastures that are smooth or rolling don’t have paths – they aren’t necessary.  It’s easy to see where you’re going.  The path of righteousness that he leads us on goes through the valley.

It is in the valley that he provides for us, gives us rest, restores our souls.  Think about how profound that really is.  In the darkest times – when the stench of death is overshadowing us – his rod and staff – tools of guidance and correction – comfort us.  But again – where would a rod of defense be more needed than in the valley?  And where else would we be more prone to go the wrong way and need to be brought back to the safety of the path that is for our good, but in the difficult terrain of the valley?

 The place to hide from enemies is up in the hills – in the nooks and crannies of rocks and outcroppings.  But he is spreading a feast out for us in a breathtakingly shocking way by doing it in the presence of our enemies!  Right out in the open – in the vulnerable place of the valley where we’re easy targets! – he sets up a grand feast.  Who could relax enough to eat a meal in the presence of someone trying to destroy you except that you’re utterly confident of being perfectly protected?  It’s as if he’s showing us off to the whole army of enemies saying, “See these sheep – they’re mine, and you can’t have them.”  Even in presence of enemies in the valley, we can rest in his care.

This Good Shepherd lavishes on soothing, cleansing oil – he knows how hard the valley is for us – and welcomes us as guests he is pleased to have with him at this feast.  He provides more than we can possibly consume – he his neither stingy nor begrudging.  Those kindnesses are most precious to us when we walk through the valley.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.  Stubborn grace will hound me, chase after me, pursue me.  All the days of my life – all the days – not only when things appear good and full of mercy, but also in the valley.

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.  This is what good shepherd’s do – they get their sheep home.  They might feed them and water them and protect and guide them out in the pastures, beside the still waters, and through the paths in the valley, but the goal is to bring them home.  

I think I’ve missed the strength of this Psalm all these years.  This is not a Psalm that talks about the highs of peace and provision and then also the lows of threats and fearsome hardships.  It’s about abundant peace and protection in very the presence of threats and fearsome hardships.

It’s not that God is not in the peaceful times of ease and comfort.  He is.  But it seems to me that the real power expressed here lies in the truth that all these things are true for us in the valley, too.  None of the pleasantness of peace, or abundance of his provision, or his rock solid protection can be diminished by walking through the valley of the shadow of death, for we walk through it with him there beside us.  Through trauma we may realize more fully how treacherous the valley is and the unspeakable evil the enemy uses to try to destroy us.  But when we learn to see who this Good Shepherd really is, and how capable he is to protect and provide for us, we can rest in his mercy and care and follow him – joyfully – all the way home, even though we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

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Wise… and gentle

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Wise …and gentle

As would be wholly expected, there is a growing swell of backlash and criticism of those using #MeToo and #ChurchToo to draw attention to sexual misconduct in our culture.  I get it.  I even agree with some of it.

There is little doubt that there are those who are (ironically) abusing it for personal gain or even vendetta.  False reports of sexual assault are rare, but every false allegation is wrong and should be dealt with accordingly.

Additionally, within the ranks of Christendom, we tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to anything with origins in the secular mainstream.  There are some angry, foul-mouthed, inarticulate, illogical voices in the #MeToo choir, but as both a leader in the body and a victim, I’m asking the church to listen anyway – to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

The problem is messy … really messy

Like trauma, #MeToo and #ChurchToo are messy.  It makes sense that this dam of silence would break open with a wild, reckless torrent that is slicing through society.  Whatever you think about all of this, one thing is sure – this involves a lot of people.  This is not a movement being led by anyone – it’s a phenomenon of individuals publicly declaring that they have been the victims of everything from unwanted sexual advances to gang rape and childhood sexual abuse – and that they have been largely silenced by the very systems of power perpetuating the abuses.  Also like trauma, it is a confusing deluge of stories that will take time to sort out and make sense of.

It’s going to take patience and wisdom, and a great deal of truth-seeking, but I contend that all sexual misconduct is inherently wrong, and it is, therefore, worth wading through the mess in order to pursue righteousness.  I also contend that despite the inarticulateness and offensiveness of some of the voices connected to #MeToo and #ChurchToo, that we should listen discerningly.  Any problems associated with the way things are coming out are worth sifting through to seek to understand what victims are trying to say.  Someone angry about their abuse should not be chastened because of their anger – they should be listened to in spite of it.  It will require godly insight for hearers to get past the bitterness and hurt and listen to the message behind it.

I’ve heard men complain that they are afraid of being wrongly accused no matter what they do or don’t do.  I’ve heard them complain that harmless flirting is now being called sexual harassment, and that they are afraid to help children in distress for fear of being labeled a pedophile.  I’ve listened to concerns that believing victims without due process will lead to witch hunts.  And though sexual misconduct is almost never committed publicly, I’ve even heard it (absurdly) suggested that allegations not be taken seriously unless there are at least two witnesses.  Brothers, I understand these concerns – they spring from rational objections and need to be taken seriously, too.  I’m not advocating that your concerns be dismissed, but you may need to get used to feeling uncomfortable with some of this process.  It may actually be the means God uses to increase your compassion for those who have been treated so unjustly and insensitively.  These things are worth working through with reason and compassion – wisely and gently.

The problem is massive

We have a massive and, until recently, largely unaddressed problem.  The church has the problem, too.  Until we address it with honesty and humility we will effectively continue to contribute to it rather than offer any real solutions.  None of the concerns that men have – no matter how valid they might be (and they are) – should be used to dismiss or silence the women crying out for justice.

No arbitrary “grading system” of severity – with unwelcome sexual advances being at one end of the continuum and violent sexual assault being at the other – should be used to dismiss anything on that continuum.  They are all wrong and no one should be pressured into tolerating any of them.  Not all of these offenses result in trauma, but all of them are inappropriate and unacceptable – and they have been rampant.  The lumping of all the offenses on the spectrum together into one complaint might be confusing, but the reason for this is actually pretty straightforward:  all of these offenses involve the abuse of power for sexual gain.  Period.  And no Christian anywhere can make a case for this being acceptable – ever.  In fact, we absolutely must say just the opposite.  But we can do it with wisdom and gentleness.

This is going to be incredibly difficult for a long time

I know that listening to story after story of sexual abuse is wearisome.  But it is necessary because defending the vulnerable is right, and we cannot begin to understand the magnitude of both the offenses and their impact without listening to those affected.  It might be helpful to remember that the weariness in listening to the stories – even thousands of them – cannot compare to the agonizing burden being borne by the ones living them.

Jesus told his disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16)  Snakes sense danger coming a long way off.  They constantly monitor their surroundings for the approach of predators and effectively ward off both stealthy and brazen attacks with decisive and effective offensive abilities.  I can’t help but think that this is an appropriate choice of analogies when considering confronting sexual predators hiding in sheep’s clothing.

Likewise, at the same time, we are to be gentle – innocent, harmless – as doves.  Also an apt analogy when considering caring for the abused.

Jesus really can redeem this

There is an answer to this.  This is not hopeless.  The evil involved in this is incomprehensible – but greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.  Beloved church, let’s not be dismissive or fearful of a messy – but necessary – call to attend to the scourge of sexual misconduct, crimes, and abuses in our midst.  There are many things that need tending to in this – calling perpetrators (and the complicit) to  account, tending to the wounded who have been violated, addressing the larger issues of systemic power imbalances, and looking for ways to teach little boys and girls, teens, and adults how to interact with one another in ways that honor God and his image-bearing likeness we all share, are just a few.  But please don’t let the enormity of the problems tempt you to try to ignore that they exist.  Jesus does provide answers for all of us – victims, perpetrators, and those on the sidelines whose heads are spinning because of the confusion and overwhelming size of it all.  He will give us wisdom when we ask for it.

Let’s help one another be wise… and gentle.

Fight for joy…

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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.

God is doing more through your circumstances than you can possibly know…

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debashis-biswas-197401 (1)You cannot know all that God is doing…

There are events and circumstances being woven together in and around and through your life that you cannot possibly fathom.  That is the truth.  Encounters, trials, illnesses, conversations, music, traffic and every single little thing that happens is purposeful in setting things up to be as they must be in order for other things to happen.

These are the kinds of thoughts that can make our heads spin, but it’s important to give them consideration, at least for a little while every now and then.

I’ve been thinking about this lately – mostly because there is so much in my life, and in the world around me that is not the way it ought to be.  Sin – my own and the sin of others – ruins things.  It distorts and twists into unrecognizable forms the beautiful, good, and true.

We need to see the design – we need to see past the distortions and defects.  In Jon Bloom’s excellent book, Don’t Follow Your Heart (see ch 3) he lays out 46 sovereignly appointed details that were necessary for the “saving of many” through Joseph’s life described in Genesis.  He helpfully demonstrates how seemingly inconsequential details – like the forgetfulness of Pharaoh’s cupbearer – each had monumental impact on the lives of millions of people.

But Joseph didn’t know any of that.  And he couldn’t have known any of it.  He grieved painful losses, endured unimaginable cruelty, languished in unjust slavery and imprisonment, and on and on.  I’m certain (because Joseph was a human being) that he cried out for his circumstances to change.  But they did not.  The reasons they did not are myriad, but most importantly, they are good.

Consider Rahab, too.  Joshua tells us that she was a prostitute in Jericho.  Stop and let that sink in.  No child – regardless of how poor or uneducated – grows up thinking, “I’d like to be a prostitute when I grow up.”  What happened in Rahab’s life that got her to a place where she felt like that was her only option?  Who let her down?  Who failed to protect and provide for her?  Who profited by her misfortune?  How many took advantage of her vulnerability in life?  And what did all of that really look like?

I’m certain that she, too, cried out for her circumstances to change.  But they didn’t either…

And yet, we learn that neither Joseph’s nor Rahab’s circumstances are pointless wastes of human suffering.  God had immeasurably good purposes for them.

Through the tapestry of millions of details working together at just the right time and just the right way, Joseph was used to save the lives of millions of people.  And in doing so, he was used to preserve God’s chosen people to ultimately bring salvation to the world.

Similarly, the same tapestry of woven details intertwined and looped together to not only bring Rahab into the world of prostitution, but also into understanding of the world around her, to keen perception into the intricacies of human nature and behavior, and to equip her with the wisdom necessary to do the right thing in the face of incredible risk.  God used a prostitute to accomplish his plan for his people – but God also orchestrated the millions of details in every moment of her life leading up to the moment she hid Joshua’s spies… including all the painful life circumstances that drove her to prostitution.

It’s hard – so hard – to see the goodness of God in painful circumstances.  We rail against them, and in our pain and anguish, we beg for God to take them away.  But if we can step back a bit, and see the character of God in the midst of our suffering, we catch glimpses of the possibilities of the good that he is weaving together in this tapestry of human history and divine purposes.  Romans 8:28 is often thrown out as a “band-aid” verse at suffering and sufferers, which is unhelpful and, truthfully, unkind.  But there is truth there that is worth getting past this tactic for.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to right the wrongs around us.  We should.  But when we have done everything, and our circumstances persist, we can trust that God has good for us through them.  How do we know that all things will work out for our good?  Because we get a glimpse into God’s character by seeing how he worked it for good for the likes of Joseph and Rahab.  And he is the same yesterday, today, and forever more.

Joseph saved his people from starvation, and through that preservation, God significantly shaped the people he was calling to himself.

Rahab, a prostitute, gave Joshua’s army victory over Jericho… and through aligning with God’s people she became the great-grandmother of David.  And out of the house and lineage of David a Savior was born, who is Immanuel – God with us.

We can praise God for the circumstances in Joseph’s life that led him to saving God’s people from starvation.  We can praise God for the circumstances in Rahab’s life that led her to being a prostitute who hid spies, which then led her to being part of Jesus’ family tree.  And because the story isn’t finished yet, and we are part of that story, we can praise God for our circumstances, knowing that even though we cannot possibly know all that God is doing in them, or through them, he will work them out for our good.

Be encouraged.  Don’t give up.  He is doing more through your circumstances than you can possibly know.

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.

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!

 

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.