Tag Archives: eternal perspective

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 is 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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Fight for joy…

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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.

Yet…

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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.

 

Shepherds gather, wolves scatter.

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The Bible doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about wolves – or more precisely, people who are described as wolves.

 

Zephaniah and Ezekiel both describe Israel in her stubborn, defiant rebellion as being like wolves who devour and leave nothing behind.

 

Isaiah describes them as inhabiting the desolate places with jackals and hyenas.

 

Jesus told his disciples to be on guard because he was sending his disciples out like lambs among wolves – and we all know what happens to little lambs in the clenching jaws of wolves.

 

The people who are wolves in our lives have voracious appetites to destroy.  They don’t just want to take us out of commission.  Their desire is not to make us simply limp, or waver, or even just to shut us up.  They want to take us out completely.

 

And the first thing that happens with every wolf attack is that he (or she) bounds into and scatters the flock seeking out the target and going for blood.

 

Such a lovely picture, eh?

 

So why would I be thinking about wolves on New Year’s Day?

 

Because they’re everywhere, and if Jesus thought it was important to warn his disciples against them, then it must be important to remind every generation about them, too.

 

Most of us are pretty naturally on the lookout for the wolves “out there.”  We are on guard against the atheist aunty to loves to come to family gatherings and openly mock our faith.  We pray for wisdom and discernment in dealing with the militant co-worker who wants to goad us into a religious argument just to try to make us look like the racist-homophobic-intolerant-judgmental-bigot he’s already declared all believers to be.  We are even on guard against the Hollywood machine that wants to pound your faith into the ground with production after production of buffoonish portrayals of weak-minded “Christians” who are idiotic in their approach to…everything.

 

Those things are real, and we need to guard against them, but I don’t really think they are the wolves in our lives.  Those are the things meant to embarrass, insult, and maybe even injure – but they don’t destroy.  If anything, they (hopefully!) sharpen our defense of the hope that is within us and motivate us to live above the fray in a manner worthy of our callings – worthy of the Name by whic we are called.  “Christians” mean we belong to Jesus the Christ after all.

 

But wolves are much more dangerous than any of these things.  Wolves are malicious, calculating, and cruel.

 

Wolves destroy marriages, friendships, mother-child bonds. Wolves split churches and denominations. Wolves tear down and never build up.  Wolves target godly reputations, fruitful ministries, and long records of good works to twist and distort them by making them appear prideful or weak or wanton.  Wolves target the good and want to rip it to shreds.  

 

We’ve all seen it happen and so we might be duped into thinking that we would quickly recognize when a wolf has crept into our sheepfold, but we don’t.

 

There is another passage that is chilling when you know how brutal wolves can be.

 

Matthew 7:15 states, “Beware the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

 

They’re in the sheep pen folks.  They look like sheep and sound like sheep.  They quote Scripture and tell testimonies and teach your Sunday School classes.  They are not the cartoonish wolf with a sheepskin badly slung over it’s back with wolf claws and jaws sticking out so you can immediately sound the alarm bells and put everyone on high alert.  They’re good at looking like sheep.

 

In fact, they’re so good at it that Jesus then gives us instruction for how to recognize them – he says, “you will recognize them by their fruits.”  Thorn bushes don’t grow grapes and thistles don’t grow figs.  And ultimately, though they might fake it for a good long while, wolves don’t grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, or self-control.  Only the Holy Spirit can produce that kind of fruit.  Wolves seek to destroy all that.

 

The remainder of Matthew 7 describes other ways that we will be able to recognize those wolves who pretend to be sheep – they will produce diseased fruit, they will do many things, “in Jesus’ name,” and they will be fools who build on shifting foundations.

 

It is often very, very difficult to recognize a wolf.  It is especially difficult because each and every one of us can have wolf-like fangs of sinfulness that we bear if we feel threatened or claws that take swipes at our fellow sheep.  Knowing the difference between a sheep behaving badly and a true wolf is exceedingly difficult, but Jesus told us to beware of them so it must also be true that he will give us the wise discernment we need to learn to do tell the difference.

 

In recent years I’ve had my spiritual eyes opened a bit to this and have begun to learn what it means to “beware the wolves among you.”  A few patterns have emerged, and in my observations, it has been particularly helpful to note the stark contrast between wolves and shepherds.  Jesus, our ultimate Good Shepherd, is also our ultimate standard.  Of course, no earthly shepherd is as all-Good as Jesus, but in general terms, the shepherds among us demonstrate some characteristics that are in notable opposition to those of wolves.  Comparing the truly good with the truly evil makes the differences easier to see and recognize.

 

So here are ten comparisons that have been particularly helpful to me:

 

  1. Wolves tend to themselves – Shepherds tend to the flock.  
  2. Wolves use people for their own purposes – Shepherds use themselves up for the good of others.
  3. Wolves make much of their willingness to stand against evil – Shepherds make much of God and how He enables them to stand against it, especially through their weakness.
  4. Wolves like to keep things secret and in the dark – Shepherds know that the light of truth clears away the darkness.
  5. Wolves call goodness, truth, and beauty into question – Shepherds praise these things.
  6. Wolves impugn motives without knowing enough – Shepherds are slow to judge motives, knowing that they usually don’t know enough.
  7. Wolves say harsh things to cut down and destroy – Shepherds say hard things in order to build up and restore.
  8. Wolves seek attention, praise, and status even at the cost of others – Shepherds deflect attention, praise, and status especially to bless others.
  9. Wolves skillfully gossip, malign, and covertly discuss the situations of others – Shepherds hold confidences even at great cost to themselves.
  10. Wolves drive people apart – Shepherds draw people together.

 

Again, any one of us can display wolf-like sinfulness.  But these wolf-characteristics cannot be generally true of a sheep.  The two cannot co-exist in one person.  In short, Shepherds gather, wolves scatter.

 

Near the end of Matthew 7 Jesus says that the wise man will be able to withstand the storms and the floods and the wind that seek to destroy because his foundation is Jesus – the rock.  It doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that the wolves he spoke of in the previous verses might be some of the storms and floods and wind.

 

As this new year emerges it presents us with untold billions of things to be talking to God about.  One major theme in all of these is the increased persecution of the church around the world.  Those persecutions could take the form of mass executions, imprisonments, or torture.  Or it could come walking into our fellowships – our sacred families of believers – and sit down among us and eat with us and pray with us and then seek to devour and utterly destroy everything good it can sink its greedy jaws into.
Beware the wolves among us, but don’t fear them.  Because the Good Shepherd continues to care for his sheep and has already laid down his life for them!  Ultimately, we can rest in the knowledge that He will deal justly with the wolves even as He gathers His sheep to Himself.

When we focus on the problem rather than the promise…

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I read again this morning the account of Joshua and Caleb and the other 10 guys.  You know, the 12 who were sent into Canaan to spy out the land… that God has promised to give to them.

 

After reading I asked my husband, “Would you have been a Joshua or Caleb, or would you have been one of the other guys?”  I know we can never really know what we would do in someone else’s circumstances, but it is good to play “what if…” now and then.

 

We’ve been talking about “risk” lately – when it’s right to take risks and when it isn’t.  And as I heard the story of the 12 spies again this morning a connection was made:  we are not willing to risk when we ought to be eager to do so when we are focusing on the problem in front of us rather than the promises given to us – or more precisely, Promise-Maker who has given them.

 

Example 1:  The Israelites had just left their 400-year slavery in Egypt.  They walked right out from under Pharoh’s nose because God made it possible.  But they encountered a road-block – the Red Sea stretched out before them, and Pharoh’s army was not in hot pursuit to get their slaves back.

 

Admittedly, this was a big problem.  But they had just witnessed their deliverance from the 10 Plagues – including the Angel of Death!!!  They had seen the pillar of cloud that day and the pillar of fire last night that had protected and guided them!  Had they forgotten already?   I mean, we’re talking hours at most here.  Were their memories really that short?  I don’t think so.  But their faith was really that small.  Moses saw the problem for what it was, too, but focused on his great God, who had already proven Himself to be a Great Promise-keeper, instead.

 

Example 2:  The Israelite army was at a stand-still, being held hostage by the taunts and derision of a surly, stupid, bragadocious bully (named Goliath).  He was an oaf, but a huge one, and apparently big enough to send a whole army of God’s men to the other side of the valley to quake in their boots.

 

So, OK, Goliath set the terms for a potentially bad deal.  But the Philistines had invaded Israel’s land that God Himself had given to them.  Every single Jewish boy or girl grew up from infancy knowing that God had given them this land as an inheritance.  It didn’t get lost in history but was central to their identity as a people!  Saul’s army of capable, trained warriors knew it, too.  But they were focusing on the problem of Goliath.  Youthful David, (aka shepherd boy who had just been named King) saw the problem, too, but focused on the Great God who was also the Promiser of the Land (and ultimately their securety) instead.

 

Example 3:  Jesus had begun his ministry and had gathered his 12 specially chosen, closest disciples.  The word had gotten out about Jesus and he was attracting multitudes of men, women, and children who wanted to hear for themselves what great things this teacher was saying.  They had gone out to the countryside and the spent the entire day traveling and then listening to Jesus’ every word.  When the day was waning Jesus told his 12, very special, hand-selected, closest followers to feed these hungry people on whom he had compassion.  Their reaction?  They looked at their relatively empty hands, then at each other, then at Jesus and said, “Umm…With what?!?”

 

OK – there was a lot of people – 5,000 men, plus women and children.  And OK – they didn’t have much to work with – five loaves of bread and two fish.  The problem wasn’t the situation – the problem was that the disciples were focused on the PROBLEM and not the Promiser.

 

So we’re clear here, these guys – these 12 close students of Jesus who followed him everywhere he went – had just seen and heard Jesus do amazing things.  They had just heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount, they had just seen him heal a woman with a long-standing bleeding disorder that no one else could fix.  They had just seen him deliver a man from a demon, heal the Centurion’s soldier without even touching him, raise a little girl from the dead, and oh yeah, calm the storm that the seasoned, hardened fishermen thought they were going to die in.  We’re talking just seen and heard these things!!!  

 

Jesus, however, knew well the Father he served and knew that He would supply all their needs.

 

It seems, folks, that we might want to pay attention to the typical, human responses here.  We are prone to doubt.  We are prone to lose sight and forget.  We are prone to focusing on the problems rather than the promises.

 

We don’t do ourselves any favors by reading these accounts and thinking that we’d be the first to line up to take the land, watch for the sea to part, fight the giant, or figure out how to feed the crowd.  We probably would be with the group that said, “We’d be better off dead than in this predicament!”  But if you’re at all like me your heart leaps at the prospect of being with Joshua and Caleb, David, and Jesus instead!

 

The key in all of these accounts is to KNOW THE GOD WE SERVE.

 

We do not have to fear natural or man-made disasters when we know the One who holds every molecule in his hands.

 

We do not have to fear those who can hurt – or even kill – us when we know the One who has already numbered our days before one of them ever came to be.

 

We do not have to fear the challenges that we face that seem impossible when we know the One who shall supply all our needs – and give us abundantly more than we could ask for or imagine according to his riches in glory because He loves us and takes care of us.

 

How do we know God?  It’s really, really, really simple:  read his love letter to you.  Open up the pages of Romans and John and Isaiah and Genesis and all of it and soak it up as your personal love letter to you from your Dad.  Then, read it again because there are layers and layers and layers of love and goodness there that you can never fully plumb the depths of.  And share it with someone who really needs to know God, too.
*You can read the fuller stories of the examples above in Numbers 13-14; Exodus 14; 1 Samuel 17; and Luke 9.  But I would encourage you to also read the surrounding chapters (and books!).

When Loving Seems Risky…

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image-of-broken-heart-e1438801033741“Risk is right,” or so says John Piper.  And David Platt.  And my pastor, and a bunch of other people I respect and admire.  I’ve heard risk loosely defined as, “an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury.”

 

Well, sometimes that word “possibility” is a little misleading…

 

We take risks all the time (unless we live in a hole somewhere).  We consider the “pros” and “cons” of a situation – and what that often really means is:  If I do this what could I gain compared to what it will cost me?  We are willing to take risks because there is a chance – often a good chance – that it will pay off and bring us great rewards.  We take a new job, we move to a different house, we go to grad school, we get married, we start businesses all because the possibility of reward is worth any loss that we might have to face.  We risk, because we’ve measured and concluded that there is a reward to be had – here, now.  A tangible, definable, measurable reward.

 

But there is one area of our lives that doesn’t – or really shouldn’t – work that way.

 

Love.

 

Let me try to explain first by way of example.

 

When you have a child, an odd (but wonderful) thing happens – to many of us for the first time.  We love another being more than we could have ever imagined being capable of loving without that creature being able to return that love – or anything – at all.

 

Mothers and fathers the world over know this from their experience.  If you’re not a parent you will just have to imagine, and trust that what I’m telling you is the truth.

 

That tiny lump of flesh and bones is precious in your sight despite the blood, the mess, the strange color, and the frantic, self-absorbed screaming coming out of it.  You don’t care about any of that.  You love that little baby with more than all your heart – your capacity to love swells immeasurably and no matter what, you find yourself full to the brim and overflowing with love for that wee creature.

 

They make you crazy.  They suck your energy dry.  They bleed your bank account faster than leeches draw blood.  They are relentlessly demanding, and selfish, and hungry, and needy…

 

Yet, you love them – simply because they are ours.

 

Now we may derive some joy out of caring for them, and we may build relationships that teach them to love us, too – but that is not why we love them.

 

And we know that if something were to happen to them – or if something already has – that would forever prevent them from being able to love us in return, we would still love them with all of our hearts – because our love for them was never based on what they could or couldn’t do for us.  It’s a one-way street from beginning to end, whether or not they ever love us in return.

 

Trust me, I’m thrilled beyond measure that every single one of my kids loves me.  My heart would be broken and full of a terrible sorrow if they didn’t…

 

But I would still love my children if they didn’t love me – and so would you.

 

We feel as if there isn’t a great risk in this kind of one-way love.  Pretty much everyone (unless there are unnatural problems involved) loves their kids.  We know that the normal course of events is that when we love someone, they love us back.  

 

But what do you do when it isn’t that way?  We’re not called to only love our children, are we?  What do you do when the risk of loving is terribly high because you know it will be painful and sorrowful and hard no matter what you do when you try to love a neighbor, relative – or even a spouse who doesn’t love you?  We want a good return on this love-investment.  We want riches and plenty – compound interest on our principle deposits of care and concern.  We’ll settle for equal contributions to these transactions but we’re all hoping for dividends instead.  Who keeps investing in something that never gives any kind of increase or accumulation in return?  It’s just foolish to keep throwing good love, after bad, isn’t it?

 

Actually…. No.  It isn’t.

 

Loving the unlovely – the selfish, the stubborn, the mean, the angry….  This is exactly what we are called to do.   It is exactly what Jesus did.  Loving those who insulted, ridiculed, slandered, maligned, persecuted, and even abused him  – this is what he did.  With compassion he looked at the ones who were crucifying Him and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”! 

 

I know, I know – there are caveats and disclaimers that always need to go in right about here. I don’t have time to go into the differences between lovingly standing against sin and sinfully letting it go (that’s another post someday).  But let’s not use the exceptions – the extreme cases of horrifying evil and abusive sin – as excuses to keep the rest of us from doing the hard work of loving the unlovely.

 

We all have people in our lives who are truly difficult to love – I do, too.  We have neighbors, relatives, and family members who are so caught up in their own lives that they seem incapable of empathy, much less selfless love.  All hopes of mutually loving relationships have probably vanished long, long ago.  But here’s the thing:  We have to learn to choose to love them anyway.  We have to learn to choose to love them even though there will be little – if anything – given in return.  We have to learn to be willing to risk being hurt – again – by them, because we love them because of who Jesus is and what He has done – not them.

 

“Why?” you ask?….  For the sake of the Gospel.  Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:10 both tell us the same thing… God demonstrated and proved His love for us in that while we were still sinners – selfish, mean, hard-hearted beasts – Christ died for us.  Did you catch that?  He laid down his life for us – you and me – when we were still nasty, biting, ill-tempered sinners.  He didn’t love us because we loved him back.  He loved us in spite of the fact that we didn’t.  As every good father does, he loves us simply because we are His.

 

What a beautiful portrayal of Christ-like love our journeys can be when others can marvel at the love we give when it looks like this, and know that it comes from a supernatural Source!

 What a loud, unmistakable testimony our lives become when we say from our hearts, “Lord – I can’t do this without you!  I cannot love this person – I don’t even want to – but I love YOU and I know that is what you want me to do.  Help me to be willing to risk the hurt, the pain – all the messiness of this risky, one-way love.   Help me, please to love the way that you have loved me,” and he does all that you ask.

The world notices, and when they do we can point them to Jesus when they ask – “HOW do you do it??” 

But even if they never do – even if they never notice or ask or admire or appreciate this risky, selfless, one-way love you give, God does.  And that is worth far more than we will ever lose in these costly love transactions.  Our returns will be a hundred-fold – and that is a promise from God Himself.  So you see, this kind of “risky” love isn’t really risky after all.  It’s a sure-fire investment given by the One who manages the Books.

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!