Finding Hope Through Grace Part II: A Relevant Co-Sufferer

hope

Pain and hopelessness are feelings that are common to everyone. It is a good possibility that one of the earliest memories of your childhood includes a “crisis” that brought on significant amount of pain. The fact that we live in a broken world with broken relationships assures us we will not walk very far into life without experience a significant amount of pain. Even in scripture we see pages after pages of lives that are filled with pain. Take Job for instance, or King David. They were true men of God yet their lives were full of intense pain. How did they find hope to carry them through their suffering?

In Part 1 we talked about the importance of perspective and how it can change our outlook on a situation. Balaam was angry at his donkey for not moving forward, until God opened Balaam’s eyes (Numbers 22).  Balaam’s anger quickly turns to remorse and gratitude for God’s grace in sparing his life.  I can frequently respond in anger because of painful situations that occur in my life or I may become anxious and feel hopeless when my life does not seem to be going the way I want it to. However God has to frequently enlarge my perspective to understand what He is doing in my life.

The psalms frequently display this larger perspective that is given by God. In Psalm 142 we see David crying out to God about his troubles in a very personal and direct way (1-4). He asks God to come into the midst of His suffering and acknowledges that only God can truly rescue him (5-6). Another interesting point about this Psalm is that his desire is to praise and worship God and not simply to relieve his symptoms. Even though the Psalm ends in the midst of the suffering experience with no response from God, there is a sense of hope. David is comforted not by God taking away his present suffering, but by reflecting on the person of God, “for you will deal bountifully with me”.

There is no person or thing that can provide more comfort than leaning into the arms of a gracious God. I know I am saved by God’s grace and I am daily reminded that I need God’s grace to continue in life, but the Grace that gives me the most hope is the Grace that I look forward to. As God’s children we have been promised every spiritual blessing in “heavenly places” through the person of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3).

God often has to remind me that here on earth I am to expect suffering because sin has left its thumbprint on the earth I walk on, the body I live in, and the relationships I interact with. God is in the process of restoring me to Himself and at times that means suffering, but I have a confident hope that one day I will see Him face to face and finally experience the full Grace of God. Then I will see clearly as all my suffering is put into perspective by HIS GRACE which He has LAVISHED upon me (Eph. 1:7-8). If you want to know the hope God provides through the riches of His Grace cry out to Him and invite Him into your suffering.

Psalm 142

You Are My Refuge

A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.

 1 With my voice I cry out to the Lord;

with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.

I pour out my complaint before him;

I tell my trouble before him.

When my spirit faints within me,

you know my way!

In the path where I walk

they have hidden a trap for me.

Look to the right and see:

there is none who takes notice of me;

no refuge remains to me;

no one cares for my soul.

I cry to you, O Lord;

I say, “You are my refuge,

my portion in the land of the living.”

Attend to my cry,

for I am brought very low!

Deliver me from my persecutors,

for they are too strong for me!

Bring me out of prison,

that I may give thanks to your name!

The righteous will surround me,

for you will deal bountifully with me.

Christ-Reflecting Biblical Counseling: Part 1

bibleIn preparing for a Biblical Counseling Conference, I stumbled upon a blog from a woman who had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian Church.  In reading her experiences as well as some experiences of others who have been raised in a fundamentalist church, I am grieved by how many people who are “put off” by supposed “Biblical counseling” and even moreso grieved at the misuse and abuse of God’s Word, especially by fundamentalism Christianity.  Let me share a few thoughts on how, I believe, true Biblical Counseling reflects Christ:

1. True Biblical Counseling is administered by humble individuals who are willing to come alongside the sufferer as a fellow sufferer.  Philippians  2 reminds us how Christ humbled himself, became like us, and walked with us on our level.  He did not stand above us to condemn us (even though we deserve this), but came along side of us, even becoming a servant and considering us better than himself.  In humility, there is listening more than advising.  In humility, there is love for the person and not judgment over the person.  In humility, there is a willingness to enter the person’s world.  In humility, there is also biblical instruction, but the instruction is always clothed in love.

2. True Biblical Counseling is about counseling God’s Word as it is intended.  God’s Word is not a set of rules and standards in which we must  live so that God will be pleased with us.  Therefore we must not use God’s Word in such a way (the 10 Commandments were to show how salvation can only come from God and not from obedience to the law).  The Scriptures are God’s inerrant & inspired Word that share how a holy, loving, and righteous God demonstrates His grace (unmerited favor) on us through Christ.  That through faith, we may have a relationship with Him.  Though we pursue Christ-likeness, this can only be achieved by Him working in us through His grace and Spirit, and not through heart-less actions of obedience.  God’s Word must be used in Biblical Counseling, but it must not be used as a book of standards to force upon people, but as God’s book which reveals His holy character and abundant love to us so that we may be in relationship to Him through grace, by faith.

3. True Biblical Counseling is not simply about sharing God’s Word, but it is about the manner in which it is shared.  When we look at the life of Christ and his interactions with people and sufferers, we see several things: 1) His interactions with those who were seeking God (Zaccheus, Peter, Mary (who washed his feet), etc.), involved in sin (Woman at the Well) and even those who have been caught in sin (woman caught in adultery) as compassionate and loving.  Yet, at the same time, 2) though Jesus made himself available to the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, and He even ate with them at times, his harshest words were for them…for the self-righteous who were not compassionate and loving towards others and who saw His Word as a Law to uphold to earn the favor of God.  In counseling, most people who enter our offices or churches are those who are involved in sin.  Yet they are also seeking God (Why else would they come to a biblical counselor?).  Therefore, our counsel must be clothed in compassion & love.

These are only some thoughts on how Biblical Counseling must also be Christ-reflecting.  Stay tuned for Christ-Reflecting Biblical Counseling: Part 2 for more thoughts.   What would you add or challenge to these thoughts?

Deny Yourself = No Fun. Right?

“Christianity is no fun.” “To be a Christian is to be a ‘stick in the mud.'”  “All Christians are ‘goody two-shoes.'”  Have you heard these accusations (or similar ones) before?  Perhaps you have even thought them yourself.  To follow Christ, seemingly, is to say no to friends, fun, and freedom.  Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  So, are these statements true?  Are Christians really supposed to say “no” to friends, fun, and freedom?mud

The answer is…well…maybe, perhaps, and definitely not.  To get to the answer, we really need to know what Jesus means when he says to “deny”  ourselves.    I remember one time while speaking at a training for mentors, one person asked me what it meant to “deny yourself.”   But when asked, it was with a scowl and a tone of anger.  Her understanding of denying ourselves was for us to think less of ourselves, to put all of our wants and “rights” aside, and to let people walk all over us – in essence, to be a punching bag for others.  This is not exactly what Jesus means.

This woman was correct in thinking that denying ourselves is to put our wants and “rights” aside, however the wants and rights we are to put aside are those that cause us to drift or separate ourselves from God.  The wants and desires that stem from our sinful nature and pride are the “selves” that we are to deny.  Does this make us Christians “sticks in the mud?”  Well, perhaps it does…to the world.  So, are we as believers supposed to say no to friends?  Well, yes, we may have to say “no” to friends who are following their sinful hearts because we choose instead to follow Jesus.  But if our friends are choosing activities that are morally neutral (bowling, rock climbing, etc.) or helping others, than we certainly can say “yes” to these things.

Does this mean we must say “no” to fun?  If fun is defined by following our sinful nature, then we must, but not because we have to, but because we want to.  To choose to “do the right thing” because we have to is be faithful to the law.  To “do the right thing” because you want to love the Lord and follow Him is to be faithful to Him.  Sin is fun.  If sin was not fun, it would not be as tempting.  But in saying this, we must also say that not all fun is sin.  We can certainly enjoy ourselves and should enjoy ourselves in this life.  Enjoyment in the pleasures of life are a gift from God so long as these enjoyments do not become more important than our relationship with Him.

Does denying myself mean I must give up my freedom?  Definitely not.  The world (or is it our hearts?) will say to give in to your wants and desires and to do so is to be free.  It is the law and religion that makes you a slave to its desires.  Freedom is to do what you want and when you want to do it.  I would argue, however, that the act of denying ourselves is not to give up our freedoms, but to exercise them and experience the freedom from which Christ set us free.  To give in to the sinful nature ultimately results in being a slave to whom we gave in.  For example, giving in to excessive alcohol will eventually lead to becoming a slave to alcohol.  Giving in to video games will eventually lead to becoming a slave to video games.  Giving in to pornography will eventually lead to becoming a slave to pornography and other sexual sins.  Giving in to our pride will result in broken relationships and the need to protect ourselves from hurt – resulting in pride as we protect ourselves by blaming others, etc..  Giving in to ice cream will result in making us fatter, which can lead to feeling down, which can lead to more ice cream.  Romans 7 & 8 talk about this: how our sin nature desires and demands more and more and how flesh gives birth to flesh.

Denying ourselves leads to more freedom, not less. It is a spiritual act of self-control that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Galatians 6).  Christ died to set us free.  Freedom from sin, freedom from death, freedom from slavery, etc. are essential so that we might be free to love.  Denying ourselves is a decision we make and it is made in our freedom to do so.  It results in freedom for our lives.  In our freedom we experience joy.  And we may share our joy with friends.

Is Christianity a “stick in the mud” religion?  Only to those who are stuck in the mud of their own making.  For more on how to deny yourself, check out this blog!

A Grace-Based Marriage

Two gold rings - reflected candlesIs your marriage based on works or on grace? Let’s be real, shall we? You are married to a sinful person. Your partner is not only imperfect, but they can be self-centered, lazy, forgetful, vindictive, make poor decisions, and well, fill in the blank. Now let’s get more real. You’re not the picture of perfection either, are you? For some reason, that seems far less of a concern because your spouse is worse, or at least, “causes” these…imperfections to come out in you.

Throughout the Scriptures, there are several common and related themes mentioned in the Old Testament and New Testament alike. First, we (believers in Christ) are the Bride of Christ and He is the Bridegroom. Second, our marriages are a reflection of the greater marriage between Christ and the Church. Third, our relationship with God is characterized or built upon grace and not upon works. Therefore, if our marriages are to reflect the greater marriage, than our marriages must also be built upon grace, and not upon works.
How do we have a marriage that reflects God’s grace and not upon works? Let me offer one question to ask yourself:

Do you have expectations for your spouse?  Are you focusing on what your spouse is doing or not doing?  If so, you are focusing on their works.  You set up standards for them (law of works) and your attention is drawn to whether they met them or not.  If they fail, they will be punished (by you) based on their failure (being yelled at, dirty look, no sex, etc.).

Then, is it wrong to have expectations for your spouse?  No, not necessarily.  Obviously, it is appropriate to have certain expectations for your spouse.  For example, you should expect them to be faithful, to treat you with kindness and respect, to love you, etc.  However, there are standards and expectations that may be placed so high that they become idols in your heart.  In these situations, you become high king or queen of the home and your spouse becomes your subject that must meet your expectations.  Your focus then is placed from yourself and then onto them and their actions.

Instead of focusing on what they are doing or not doing (and whether they meet your standards/law), focus on 1) how gracious God is to you by forgiving your sins (or you not measuring up to His standards); 2) ask His help to love your spouse as He loves you (not based on your actions); and 3) give your spouse the grace (the unmerited favor) He has given you.  Unmerited favor is just that – favor, mercy, or love that is not based on what they have done, but on who they are (at minimum, being created in His image or being a child of God).  Though you may find this difficult to do, seek the Help of His Wonderful Counselor.

May the God of grace empower you to do as He wills through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Happiness Trap

Happy Birthday! Happy Halloween! Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Anniversary! Happy Kwanzaa! Such exclamations flow from our good intentioned hearts as we send greetings and good-byes with our well wishes of happiness towards others.  As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the rights that we possess and which have been given to us by our Creator.  To pursue happiness in our lives would therefore seem like God-given task that we should try hard to accomplish…after all, God wants us to be happy, right?

This is an interesting question.  To answer “no” would lead us to ask the follow-up question, “So, then does God want us to be miserable?”  Of course, the answer would be “no.”  To answer the question with a “yes” would then give us license to do as we want when we want so that we might be happy.  Of course, we would say that there are limits to that.  In other words, we would probably agree that removing someone from our lives that make us miserable through murder would go past that line.  But really, what are those limits and lines and where are they drawn?  Different people would come to different conclusions.

The trap of happiness is this:  happiness, to many, is the goal to achieve rather than a result that is achieved.  To pursue happiness (as defined by me) can itself be an idol.  It is the idol of self-centeredness.  “What do I need to be happy?” “What can I do that will meet my need for joy?”  These are some questions that are typically asked. Often, for those who believe in God, they justify their actions by saying, “God wants me to be happy,” so they follow through with their action to meet their idol’s need. When this occurs, it is easier to do it over and over again.  In our goal to be happy, what we often find is that we don’t receive liberty, but we become slaves of our own idol of happiness.

Though it is true God does not want us to be miserable, I would argue that God does want us to be happy.   But the happiness that God wants us to have comes as a result of obedience, gratefulness, and a life lived in relationship with Him, through Christ.  When we pursue happiness, we pursue self.  When we pursue God, the results of happiness come as a blessing to self (Mt 6:33).  Happiness is a gift from God, not a goal to achieve.

This sounds simple, but it is not.  Pursuing  God may seem like it is a trivial thing to do amidst the life circumstances.  You may say, “Yes, it’s a good thing to do.  But how is that going to help me be happy in life?”  Please remember, happiness is the by-product and not the goal.  The goal, instead, is to pursue God.  Focus on His love for you.  Focus on the cross.  A person who seeks to understand God’s love for them, who seeks to understand what Christ did for them on the cross and what He saved them from will grow in love, compassion, gratitude, peace, and happiness, because their joy is found in Christ and not in the circumstances surrounding them.

Friends, seek Him first above all things, and do not put any other thing above Him.  The results will be astounding!

The Marriage Trap

When I was a kid, I enjoyed watching the movie, The Parent Trap. A story of twins separated at birth who met each other at a camp, switched places, and worked hard to reunite their parents. They plotted to “trap” their parents into getting together and rekindling their romance. And, of course, it worked and they’re all one big happy family.

Often, there are many people who feel trapped in marriage. As a counselor, I meet with people regularly who correctly cite Scripture in saying “God hates divorce” and believe that God would rather them be miserably trapped in marriage. “My husband is a jerk. He treats the dog better than me. If God hates divorce, then I am trapped in this miserable marriage. I guess this is God’s will for me.”

Sadly, many experience poor treatment by their spouses who do not treat them as God would desire. These spouses often tolerate a lot of negative comments, blaming, criticism, etc.   The spouse on the receiving end often feels emotionally empty…and trapped.  This often leads to an “either/or” thinking.  Either I remain trapped, or I find new life outside the marriage and get my “needs” met elsewhere.

Does God leave us trapped in a miserable marriage? Is this really his will? Are the “either/or” choices all there are?

Here are some points to consider:

1. What are your greatest emotional needs? Our spouses are not supposed to meet our deepest emotional needs of love, worth, and forgiveness. Though God has called husbands to love their wives (as Christ loved the church), these greatest needs must first be met in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Though God has called wives to respect their husbands, ultimately husbands must first recognize the honor received through Christ, in that he died for them because he honors them (men & women) above all living things. It is right to desire love and respect from spouses, because that is what we should do, but when we seek them from our spouses apart from God, we place too much on our spouses. Again, we are to find these things ultimately from God first.

2. What are your greatest physical needs? Is your life in danger due to your spouses actions? Do you need to be physically safe? If so, this may certainly warrant leaving a home (though not necessarily a marriage) for safety. Even Jesus and Paul ran when people picked up stones to throw at him.

3. What are some other options besides a) leaving, and b) being trapped and miserable? What actions are you doing (or not doing) that are contributing to this cycle? Are your actions enabling (not causing) your spouse’s actions? If you change…the relationship will change.

4. What godly help are you seeking? Are you speaking with your pastor or a counselor? Even if your spouse is unwilling to go, you can go and seek godly wisdom and learn to be confident in who you are (through Christ) and begin to change inside.

This list is just to get you started and thinking that a struggling marriage is not a trap that God has you in to be miserable. His desire for you is to first find your fulfillment in Him. When you find fulfillment in Him, your life takes on meaning and direction. God will give you the wisdom and strength to alter the direction of your marriage in a way that honors him.  For more on this, read The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick.

Don’t give in to The Happiness Trap, that is, “God doesn’t want me to be miserable, but God wants me to be happy. So, I’ll leave my marriage so I can be happy.”  When you seek Him with all your heart, you will find Him.  Happiness is found in relationship to Him and not due to circumstances or relationships with others.  More on this in The Happiness Trap (next blog).

Playing Possum

I love the new Geico commercial where the father gets his children a new pet…a possum (or opossum).  He was trying to save money and this option was cheaper than a dog.  The possum is seen being stared at by the children who think it’s dead.  The father declares to the children that it is not dead, just “playing possum.”  At such time the possum ‘awakens’ and hisses at the children.  Maybe a possum is not the greatest, child-friendly pet.

When a possum sees that it is in danger, it plays dead.  It knows the danger is there, but if it can deceive the prey into believing that it is dead, the prey may go away or let its guard down so the possum can soon escape.

In Romans 6:11, Paul says “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  What does this mean, exactly?  In the context of Romans 6, Paul is sharing with believers that we are threatened by sin (within and without).  He is telling the believers in Rome that even though they are saved by grace, they are not saved from choosing to sin.  Instead, they have been saved from being slaves of sin through Christ, who died for our sins.  Since he died for our sins, and we believe this, then we also died with Christ.  If we died with Christ, then we are dead to sin.  Sin has no mastery over us.

As believers, we are tempted to follow the flesh and to sin.  Here, Paul is essentially telling us to “play possum.”  We know the dangers around us and it threatens our very existence and peace.  When we are tempted to sin, we are to “consider ourselves dead“…we are to “play possum.”    Tempted to lash out in anger?  Tell yourself, “I am dead to revenge (sin)” and let the predatory nature of the temptation leave.  Tempted to cheat on taxes? Say, “I am dead to lying (sin)” and stick with truth.  Tempted to take something that does not belong to you?  Consider these words, “I am dead to theft (sin)” and will work for what I need.  Tempted to lust?  Repeat, “I am dead to lust (sin)” and focus on what you have through Christ.

But the verse doesn’t end with being dead to sin.  We are also “alive to God in Jesus Christ.”  If we are dead to sin (through Christ), we are therefore alive to God (through Christ).  If we are dead to one, we are alive in the other.  When we are alive to God, we are his “instruments of righteousness” (v. 13).  We have purpose.  We have direction.  We have freedom.  We have life!

When sin is knocking at your door and you are tempted, play possum.  You can say “I am dead to you!”  And if you are dead to sin, you cannot respond to its lure.  It may nudge you to see if you are indeed dead to it, but as long as you remain dead to it, it will not have mastery over you.  Put off the sin (death) and put on Christ (life).