He Came to Himself

In a hot mess of inarticulate father-love, I sputtered, “But you love Jesus!” My son had been explaining how he wasn’t sure he was still a Christian. I had been challenging him to return to Jesus. My declaration felt pathetic.

I understand the aching heart from which these words flowed, but only now am beginning to understand what I meant. After all, Jesus said if you love him, you will obey his commands. This kid wasn’t. And who was I to tell one my son who he loved? Was this another annoying example of parental over-reach? Maybe not.

Re-reading the parable of the prodigal son in the gospel of Luke has helped me figure out what I meant. After the prodigal son had wasted his inheritance and descended into poverty, he looked with longing at the pig food. In the King James Version (Luke 15:17), we are then told: “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?’” Other translations begin with “But when he came to his senses” (NIV, NASB). However, “to himself” is closer to the original Greek.

The phrase “to himself” helps me understand what was moving in my spirit when I told my son he loved Jesus. I want my son, like the prodigal, to come back to himself—to the person God’s Word declares, he was created to be. My sons were made to love God and be loved by Him. “To come to himself” isn’t just a turn back to who he once was; it is a step forward to the person God created him to be.

After coming to himself, the prodigal’s mind turns to his father because who we are is always defined by relationship. We are not ourselves apart from relationship with God. The idea we must escape God, run from our father, in order to be ourselves is one of Satan’s most terrible and yet popular lies. It is a promise of freedom that ends in slavery to sin and our own flesh. The son’s journey home is a journey back to relationship with his father.

Even though the prodigal son declares himself no longer worthy to be his father’s son, his father runs down the road, wraps his arms around his son, kisses him and gives him the robe and ring of sonship. In other words, the father ignores the son’s own despairing definition of himself and declares the prodigal, “My son!” With exuberant love the father completes his prodigal son’s “coming to himself”—a beloved son wrapped in His Father’s arms.

This is what was bursting in my heart when I exclaimed, “But you love Jesus!” And in many ways, it is what should be said to every young believer who is hurt or bored with the Church. Yes, Christians are a wounded and wounding bunch of people, “But you love Jesus!” Yes, earthly fathers and mothers are flawed and fail us in many ways, “But you love Jesus!” Yes, there are many intellectual questions about our faith that need answers, “But you love Jesus!”

Sometimes the revelation that we love Jesus is as important as the revelation God loves us. This is part of the what was pouring out of my heart to my son. How can one know of Jesus and not love him? I love his goodness, wisdom, gentleness, and boldness. I can’t read one of the gospels and not fall in love with Him, desire to follow Him, and hope to become like Him. I wasn’t merely informing my son that he loved Jesus—I was declaring Jesus worthy to be loved. How can we be honest with God and heaven and not love Jesus?

We can pray that every prodigal son and daughter will come “to themselves”. We can pray they will remember the relationship with their Father who is already making a cloud of dust as He runs down the road. Because, really, they love Jesus!

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When the Light Goes Out

Few things are sadder than seeing the light of God’s Spirit go out in the eyes of your child. The moment it happens is easy to miss. There are natural rhythms of wandering and return in the lives of most Christian kids. And during troubled teens years, it is hard to tell the difference between a mood swing and the extinguishing of faith.

In some kids the light never goes out. My mother was this way. She couldn’t remember a time she wasn’t a Christian. She had vague memories of giving her heart to Jesus when she was four, but told me, “I already felt like a Christian and loved Jesus.” It sometimes bothered her that she had no dramatic story of when she got saved, but I think her story delightful. The light of Jesus shone brightly in her eyes even on her death bed, hooked to a feeding tube, barely able to speak because of a stroke. Her eyes said everything. They said, “Jesus!”

But I think my mom’s story unusual. Too many parents have had that moment when they looked across the room at their son or daughter and noticed the light was gone. Their eyes are dead. Joy and hope have fled. They may not be a monster of any kind, but like a zombie—they are still your child, but not the same—not who God created them to be and not the child you knew. Sometimes you see fear and bondage—the sadness of a chained animal.

I am not going to speculate as to what the light going out means theologically regarding a kid’s salvation. I just know it is heart-breaking.

What snuffed out the light? For each Christian kid, it can be different. Often it is simply their surrender to sin or their decision to embrace the values of the world instead of God. It usually isn’t a sin that smothers the light; it is steady rain (or reign) of darkness that comes sin by sin.

Sometimes a kid is wounded by someone in the church, or deeply disappointed by God in some way. The resulting bitterness can violently put out the light of God. To get back at God, their parents, or the church, they run as far from God as they can. Their eyes are not filled with the emptiness of those who have feasted on sin. In their eyes you can see flashes of anger and resentment toward God—their imagined enemy.

What can help turn the lights back on? Sometimes captives in Babylon need to remember the milk and honey of the promised land. God can bring to their memory the joy of being clean before God. The Holy Spirit, as we pray for our kids, can make them aware of the weight of sin and the burden of sin’s consequences. God can reveal to them that one from whom they are running and rebelling is the only One who can heal, restore, and save them eternally.

As parents and grandparents, the most important thing we can do is be steadfast in our declaration that God is good. We must be the real deal. Our life should say that God can be trusted. Any shred of hypocrisy in us, will be used to fuel the wandering child’s rebellion. This doesn’t mean being perfect; it just means being humble and honest about our own failings. We must model the long art of turning and returning to God.

I also believe every good childhood memory we create is part of the honey of the promised land that reminds the wandering of God’s love and goodness. It was remembering the goodness of life with His father that made the prodigal son reject his misery and head home. Here too there is no burden to give Christian kids perfect childhoods. Israel, for all her faults and failings, was still the home about which the exiles in Babylon sang with longing.

It is also true that God can powerfully use the birth of a child to turn the light back on in the hearts of our kids. When our sons or daughters look into the sparkling eyes of their baby, they often want to see the light of God in their baby’s eyes. At that moment, a parent may decide they need the light of Jesus turned back on. It is not just a newborn that is helpless—it is the parents who desperately need God’s help to raise the child.

Even when kids grow into young adults, their parents often carry in their heart a picture of their child when his or her eyes still shone with the light of Jesus When parents remember the beauty of God’s light in their child’s eyes, they fall on their knees and cry out to God—the only one who knows how to rekindle the flame of faith.

There are few joys sharper or more glorious than seeing the light of Jesus come back into the eyes of your children. I know some parents who have not seen it this side of the grave, but many pour out their heart in prayer hoping to see the light in their eyes before they die. There are few things that draw us closer to the heart of the Father than prayers for our kids to come home to God—the perfect Father who through Jesus has made a way. In these prayers my heart and God’s heart beat as one.

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Open Flowers

Sometimes the Holy Spirit draws my attention to a phrase in Scripture and blows a trumpet. This happened recently with the phrase “open flowers” in the description of the temple Solomon built. Usually I would blow right past this phrase, even though it is used four times in chapter six of I Kings. We are told that carved into the cedar walls (v.18) and the olive wood doors (v. 32) are cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.

Throughout Scripture and especially in Ezekiel, the cherubim represent the awesome power of God: both his omniscience and omnipotence. The palm tree in the middle east represents rest, water, and if a date palm, even food. The sight of palm trees indicates the presence of fruitfulness, water, and shade.

What intrigued me were the open flowers. Israel is famous for its wildflowers—thus the honey that flows in this land. But spring is short, and the heat quickly withers the flowers. Psalm 103:15 uses the flowers to express the brevity of life: “As for man, his days are like grass—he blooms like a flower of the field; when the wind passes over, it vanishes and its place remembers it no more.” As I age and spend more time reading my friends’ obituaries, the swift passage of life is always present. There is a wintry melancholy as I contemplate all that is lost and all that is gone. Grandchildren sprout up, things you just painted need repainting, memories fade, and so much is unfinished.  

Yet in the presence of God we are forever open flowers.  In His presence nothing that is truly good fades. God remembers every expression of love for Him and others—nothing is forgotten, nothing lost. Like the flowers carved in the cedar walls of the temple, we are golden.

It is significant that here in God’s presence, the flowers are open. Here it is safe to bloom. We can open ourselves to God. We can just be and leave behind all worries as to whether we have done enough or become enough. All the competing narratives surrounding our identity and value are silenced.

We value flowers for their beauty and joy, not their utility. The Spirit’s invitation to be an open flower before God is an invitation to enter God’s sabbath rest and to walk with God in the cool of day.  Here I need only bloom, not calculate how useful or useless I have been to God.

In God’s presence, I am perfectly known, understood, and loved. Because we are created in God’s image, and recreated by the lavish grace of Christ, we are open flowers—full of beauty and goodness. In God’s presence we not only open our hearts in praise and adoration, we bask in His love and delight in us. We receive the gentle rain of His Spirit and the radiance of His glory.

Yes, in His temple there are powerful cherubim and useful palm trees. But I am grateful God included the open flowers. These too are the glory of God. As David declared (Psalm 29:9): In His temple everything says, “Glory!”

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This word broke my heart. I had been slogging through the sad stories of the kings of Israel and Judah. Again and again they rejected God and worshiped idols. Sometimes they even brought the idols into the temple. Some kings began to sacrifice children, making Israel more depraved than the nations it had replaced. Most of the stories in Kings and Chronicles are not encouraging.

Like many, I have been slogging through the trials of life that can break your heart and weary your soul. I have been committed to the long-haul work of the kingdom: praying for lost family members, praying and working for community transforming revival, hoping and praying for those with addictions to be set free, interceding for the healing of families and relationships. Honestly, the stories of one sinful king after another discouraged me. Why hope for any good in this life?

But then comes the story of King Hezekiah and all he did to restore the worship of the Lord. He cleansed the land of idols. He then reestablished the priesthood and the Levites. In Jerusalem the song of the Lord was sung again. We are told, “And Hezekiah rejoiced, and all the people, that God had prepared the people: for the thing was done suddenly” (II Chronicles 29:36).

“Suddenly” brought me to tears. I was surprised at how deeply I long for “suddenly.” This year I have grimly embraced the call to be patient, steadfast and persevering in prayer. Yet, I hunger for the sudden answer to prayer that ambushes my heart with joy.

I dutifully pray for the healing and salvation of those I love and am fully committed to keep praying until I, or they, die. God’s Word is indeed filled with exhortations to patiently believe and trust in God’s promises. Endurance and perseverance are essential. But because I had stopped hoping for anything “sudden,” my spirit had grown gray and joyless. My hope was set only on the day when we behold the returning Christ and are in “the twinkling of an eye” changed into His likeness. This “suddenly” is comforting but does not provide much hope for next week, month, or year. It left me faithful but joyless. I was haunted by the possibility that my prayers might never, if ever, be answered.

I wept at the hope and joy expressed by the “suddenly” in this verse. God had brought a quick and unexpected turn-around for the people in Jerusalem. The very suddenness of the return to the Lord was a source of delight. Centuries later after all the years of prayers for the Messiah, there did come a day when Jesus suddenly appeared in the temple. On that day Simeon, who for years waited for the consolation of Israel, held the baby Messiah in his arms (Luke 2:28). Anna, a woman of night and day fasting and prayer, also saw Jesus and prophesied over him. Here perseverance and endurance collided with God’s “suddenly.”

And there is the “suddenly” of Pentecost when the rag-tag beaten down apostles and followers of Jesus became, in a couple days, an army of thousands empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is true, we really are called to endure, persevere in prayer, and hold on to our faith in the face of all kinds of distress and opposition. But it is also true that we pray to a God of the “suddenly”.

Without faith in God’s power and desire to work suddenly, we despair and labor in prayer out of duty instead of joy and hope. Nothing is too difficult, too far gone, or too lost for Him. Every day we need to pray and obey with endurance. But we need to hope for the “suddenly” and with grim joy declare “Today is the day of salvation!”

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More Spiritual than God Part Three: Too Spiritual to Pray

Many who approve of prayers of adoration begin to squirm when we talk about petitionary prayers or prayers that intercede for others. For some, rejecting petitionary prayer is a way of exalting the sovereignty of God. If God is in control of all things through his meticulous providence, why pray for Him to do something specific? After all, we can’t suggest something God hasn’t considered. And if God is in control of all things, can’t we just let His plan unfold? Yes, it may look like some possible outcomes are evil or at least unwanted, but who are we to question the will of God by asking God for something else? Our prayers, some would say, should just be prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God governing all things according to his sovereign will.

Others object to intercessory prayer to exalt the love of God. God is love, so will our prayers for someone else move God to love them more? Will God do some loving thing for someone just because we prayed? Will God withhold a loving act of help or healing just because we didn’t pray? It is God’s essence to love, so how can our prayers make Him love or do more? If we really trust in God’s love, why pray?

Sometimes people express the idea this way: “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us”. Prayer certainly does change us and the character of God is certainly unchanging, but the idea that God does not act in response to our prayers is simply unbiblical. Even the idea that prayer changes us can be problematic if we think God is sovereignly at work in shaping our character. Do we dare suggest that God needs us to pray so that His will is done within our spiritual growth? Can’t God simply do in us what He wills?

Isn’t it more spiritual to simply surrender to the sovereignty of God and accept all things as from his hand? Well, no. This is the opposite of what Jesus taught about prayer. Again and again, he tells his disciples to ask. In the parable of the widow and judge (Luke 18), Jesus emphasizes being persistent in petitionary prayer. And of course, Paul prayed for God to do things for each of the churches addressed in his epistles. Paul also asked the churches to pray for him. Asking seems to matter.

However, a responsive God leaves us with the uncomfortable reality that some things will not happen unless we or others pray. This can be, in some ways, terrifying and other ways exhilarating. God, it seems, wants to partner with us in the work of the kingdom. God seeks our help because in our prayers we become more like Jesus. Petitionary prayer keeps us in relationship with a loving God who seeks to work with and through His people. Like a loving Father teaching a child how to do chores, God patiently uses our prayers and our obedience to accomplish HIs purposes. Like the good father, God does not need our help. This partnership with us in the labors of the kingdom is one of God’s most important goals—a goal He can achieve only if He chooses not to do everything apart from our prayers. We co-labor now with God so that we are trustworthy and equipped to reign with Him in the age to come.

Many of Paul’s exhortations to pray and stay alert are in response to us having a very real enemy who seeks to destroy us. Intercessory prayer can be entered before God as evidence and as an argument for mercy. Satan is the “accuser of the brethren,” and demands God judge sin. In response to intercession God will sometimes show mercy. After Moses interceded for Israel, we are told, “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Exodus 32:14). Many have a hard time with this verse and inject a lot of explanation to avoid the obvious meaning. Was God just “kidding” when said he would destroy them? Was God just testing Moses to see if Moses would intercede? Or maybe God is relational and actually responded to the intercession of Moses—like the verses say.

Yes, a life not burdened with petitionary and intercessory prayer would be easier—and can be passed off as more spiritual. Prayer wears me out. I get disappointed and frustrated when my prayers aren’t answered when and how I desire. And many of the prayers involve people who, it appears, have the free-will to resist God and break my heart. So I pray for people, not certain how much my prayer helps.

I wish in one lovely prayer I could give all things into God’s hands and stop asking Him to save people, heal people, protect people, and help people. But God’s Word and His Spirit won’t let me. They have conspired to make me live like Jesus who once said to Peter, “I have prayed for you” (Luke 22:32).

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More Spiritual than God Part Two: Too Spiritual for the Gifts

Believers come up with several very spiritual sounding reasons for not caring about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of the most spiritual sounding is “I am seeking the Giver, not the gifts.” It wrongly suggests that we can do one without doing the other. Both the salvation and the Holy Spirit are called gifts. Imagine refusing these gifts because you cared more about the giver! The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the result of the indwelling presence of God himself through the Spirit. To restrict the presence of the Holy Spirit with an apathetic approach to His gifts is an insult to both the gifts and the giver.

Some declare that they care more about fruit of the Spirit than the gifts of the Spirit. This certainly sounds humble and noble, but is misunderstanding (often willfully) a multiple-choice question. The real answer is all-of-the-above. The Holy Spirit can give us the mind of Christ through wisdom, the character of Christ through the fruit of the Spirit, and the ministry of Christ through the gifts. It is both/and—not either/or. God’s people are meant to walk in both the power and purity of the Holy Spirit. If the enemy can’t get us to reject, the Holy Spirit completely, he will make us think we must choose between all the Spirit offers.

Another very spiritual objection to the gifts of the Spirit is that we do not need the supernatural, signs and wonders to support our faith. “Thank God,” some say, “that my faith is strong enough to survive without seeing God heal people or do the miraculous.” I actually heard a fellow professor at a Christian college give this as the reason she didn’t want to have the gift of healing. She completely missed Paul’s point about all the gifts being for the edification of others. The gift of healing is for those who need to be healed—not to build the faith of the gifted. Ultimately, apathy about the gifts is a failure to love those who could be encouraged, healed, or guided by those exercising the gifts in love.

The last spiritual reason for ignoring the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a passive surrender to the sovereignty of God. It is expressed this way: “I am open to God giving me the gifts of the Spirit anytime He sovereignly decides to impart them to me.” We would not, however, accept this logic when applied to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Instead we would exhort believers to grow in holiness by nourishing the presence of the Holy Spirit with all the help of the spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, Scripture, fellowship and radical obedience. Paul’s own transition from chapter thirteen to chapter fourteen of I Corinthians shows we need not choose between love and the gifts of the Holy Spirit: “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Love should nourish our desire for the gifts.

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More Spiritual Than God (Part One)

Of course, we can’t be more spiritual than God. We can, however, in the pretense of being spiritual reject solid Biblical truths about God and God’s ways. We sometimes clothe these rejections in humility, but this hyper-spirituality robs us of all the spiritual fruit that these truths ought to bear in our lives. Thinking ourselves spiritually rich, we impoverish ourselves.

Part One: Too Spiritual to Care about Heavenly Reward?

I have often heard people say, “I don’t care about heavenly reward; I will be happy if I just make it into heaven. Just being with Jesus will be enough.” This sounds very humble and spiritual, right?

Yet, Jesus tells his followers again and again that they should care about heavenly reward—so much so that when persecuted they can rejoice because their “reward in heaven is great” (Matthew 5:12). When explaining why we should love our enemies, Jesus points out that we have no reward if we love only those who love us (Matthew 5:46). Jesus also warns that those who serve God to be seen have their reward in full, but those who serve God secretly will be repaid by God. In same part of Matthew 6, Jesus urges believers to lay up treasures for themselves in heaven. Why would Jesus tell us to seek after heavenly reward if doing so makes us less spiritual?

Paul also cared intensely about heavenly reward and speaks of the importance of work that can pass the test of fire and be revealed as having eternal value (I Corinthians 3:13). Paul says that after fighting the good fight, he will be awarded a crown of righteousness that has been laid up for him (II Timothy 4:8). In his letter to the Philippians Paul declares that he presses on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). It is silly to think not caring about heavenly reward can make us more spiritual than Paul.

What is heavenly reward? In the parables of Jesus (the talents and minas), Jesus declares that those who are faithful in little will be entrusted with much. In Matthew it says the faithful will be trusted with many things (25:22). In Luke’s version of the parable those who were faithful were put in charge of cities (19:17). In both parables the servant who failed to invest and use the money given him was called worthless and lazy. Our crown of glory is having become a servant that God can trust with big things because in this life we have been faithful in little things. Our reward will be reigning with Christ over a new heaven and new earth.  Pretty cool! Much better than sitting on clouds with harps.

Many believers, however, never think about heavenly reward. Heavenly reward should be so real that we rejoice in persecution and are set free to love even our enemies. Too many churches are looking for only the rewards in the here and now–all the accepted signs of success. An eye toward heavenly reward should free the church from an idolatry of results and the tyranny of cost/benefit analysis.

When our treasure is in heaven we are free to invest in people and causes that will never pay-off in the economy of earth. The practical result of caring about heavenly reward is gritty faithfulness and trustworthiness. It is extravagant generosity with our time and resources toward those who can never pay us back. We must be heavenly-minded enough to be of some earthly good.

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Down with Bottoms!

We have probably all heard, especially regarding addicts, “They just need to hit rock bottom before they will get better.” Often, this idea is applied to people more generally. Sometimes we say of young people, “They are just sowing their wild oats.” Or we say, “They are enrolled in the school of hard knocks.”

Sometimes these ideas become reasons for not helping people and thereby guaranteeing they reach the bottom sooner. I am against any line of thinking that encourages people to hit the bottom before turning away from sin, bondage, and selfishness. I also oppose letting people hit rock bottom when it is in our power to help, intercede, and love. Yes, there will always be people who will not flee the house of sin until it is on fire, but I will always be banging on their doors and catching them when they jump from the windows.

First, we must admit that rock bottom for some, especially addicts, is fatal. In 2017 over 70,000 people in the United States died of over-doses. If we withhold help until they have hit rock bottom, it may simply be too late. No addict is bouncing back from the bottom of a grave.

But even if not fatal, hitting the bottom can be terrible, filled with irreversible consequences. The bottom can be prison and a felony record. It can mean the loss of children put into foster care. The end of family. Some hit rock bottom and live there for years—sleeping under bridges after spending each day panhandling.

True, some people clamp onto sin like a pit-bull with a bone. They will not let go until consequences hit them up the side of the head with a bat. But I think it arrogance for us to think we know who these people are or exactly what constitutes rock bottom for them. I believe that is best left to God. Often the addiction is not the disease but the symptom of rejection and pain. Letting them hit the bottom hard may cure their addiction for a while but not address the disease best treated by a revelation of Jesus’ love, sacrifice, and acceptance. I think this is why rehab often fails to help so many addicts.

I don’t, however, ever want my help to enable a person to stay in their addiction or continue down a sinful path of destructive behavior. I can’t and shouldn’t remove every speed-bump God puts on the road to hell. On this road, I want a role somewhere between roadkill and spectator. I will put on the orange vest, grab a flashlight, set out some cones, and direct people to the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus. However, too often our fear of enabling is just an excuse for not giving or loving in a way that makes us vulnerable.

Life is short. The devil is a liar. Sin hurts everyone—and teaches us nothing God can’t teach us better with love, gentleness, and grace. Love intercedes without enabling and keeps pointing to Jesus. At any and every moment we must say, “Jesus saves us and sets us free.”

We need a case of holy “carpe diem”. Down with bottoms! Let’s seize the day for Christ. Today, before we hit the bottom, is the day of salvation. Down with getting our act together before we come to Christ.

Up with grace. Up with the steadfast, inexhaustible lovingkindness of God that leads us to repentance before we hit the bottom.

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I’m Sad, But That’s Okay

I have been sad for months. My sadness has made me impatient with worship songs that insist I be happy. I heartily sing, and believe, the songs that celebrate all that God has given me: forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. These are mine through the lavish grace of Jesus. Yet, I recently found it hard to declare, “It is well with my soul.”

It is, of course, well with my soul. And if all my happiness depended only on me and the condition of my soul, I could sing. But I am broken and fragile. I have seen a brother in Christ fall back into drugs, sin, and now prison. People I love are self-destructing. I have seen relationships and marriages blow apart—dreams shatter. My community is full of drug abuse, domestic abuse, theft, and broken families. Our church limps along even though longing to have an impact on the community. I should be sad.

It is a weird and ironic truth that I would be a more joyful Christian if I cared less about others. This may not be saying much, but I am probably as spiritually strong as I have ever been. I am abiding in God’s Word and consistent in prayer. But I have never shed so many tears. All this, however, does not fit the standard description of the victorious Christian life.

My response to a lot of contemporary Christian songs about God keeping us through the storm is, “Yes, yes, I know, but it’s not all about me and my salvation.” What about my family and friends that are not saved? Can we talk about them—their current misery and eternal fate? What about the suffering of kids whose parents are incarcerated for selling meth? By the way, the band Offspring has a song titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright” that perfectly expresses many of the sources of my sorrow. What about believers who have fallen away?

Of course, some well-intentioned friend will clobber me with Paul’s words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:1). This is, however, the same Paul who said, ” Telling you the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience is bearing witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish myself accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul is so sad he would give up his own salvation if it would bring his fellow Jews to faith in Christ. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was described in Isaiah 53 as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. One of our least understood beatitudes may be, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The promise is comfort—strength that comes alongside—not the removal of the things we mourn.

So what is the outcome? We are indeed to rejoice always—but in the Lord. Paul rejoiced always while having unceasing grief for others. In Jesus Christ I am wonderfully and eternally blessed, and I can declare Jesus worthy of all praise, glory, and honor. But in this broken world, I will weep and intercede for others.

Yes, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” and are “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). But this does not mean all things are good; it means only that God is able to bring good from even truly evil things. God may use a woman’s sexual assault to equip her to help other women find healing—but this in no way means we shouldn’t mourn or regret her assault. A lifetime of abusing drugs can be used by God as a testimony to God’s ability to save and restore the most damaged life, but we can still mourn that the addict didn’t raise his or her children and wasted years in sin and prison.

Yes, both Jesus and James talk about rejoicing when faced with persecution and various tests of our faith. Jesus says, “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” Matthew 5:12. James echoes this, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Some will cite these verses as evidence we should be happy about all things. But I believe Jesus and James are both talking about persecution for the sake of Christ.  Paul speaks of the privilege of being counted worthy to suffer for Christ. There are, however, some things we should mourn rather than celebrate.

We should not “consider it all joy” when those we love say no to the light and yes to the darkness, and walk away from Jesus. We should not rejoice in the suffering of the innocent. We should not rejoice over injustice to others. We should not rejoice in the destruction of marriages and families that leave so many wounded for so much of their lives. We should not rejoice that the church in many places has little impact on their communities and is being abandoned by many believers. The healing ministry of Jesus suggests we should not rejoice over sickness, but rather seek God’s healing touch. We can rejoice in strife that poisons and divides the Church. However, we should always find joy in the love of God.

In fact, the more joyful our own experience of Jesus, the deeper our sorrow for those who refuse to find rest, peace, and healing in His arms. It is our joy and security in God that empowers us to look steadily at the misery of the world and weep over it with the tears of God. We need not escape this sorrow through shallow religious clichés about God being in control. God does not always get his way. The Bible says God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” II Peter 3:9. Unless we are universalists that believe in the end all are saved, we must confess that God is not going to get what he desires—some will refuse to repent and be lost. This is sad.

The dangers and consequences of sin are real—the choices are real. Jesus says of Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold your house is being left to you desolate.” Notice it is not God that was unwilling.

Paul greatly feared that people would forsake the gospel and it might turn out that all his labor was in vain. A failure to bear fruit should worry and sadden us—and drive us to repentance and intercession. Jeremiah wept over the coming judgment and exile of God’s people. Daniel wept over the captivity of Israel. Nehemiah wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. Loving God’s people means weeping for them.

I suspect the call to be simultaneously filled with sorrow and joy is  merely a call to maturity.  It is humbling, and honestly, embarrassing that only now I am realizing I must do both at the same time and not ride the emotional roller-coaster from joy to sorrow. It is a call to live in the midst of a spiritual and emotional paradox. It is, I think, a call to be like Jesus.

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Peter, Jesus, and Church Kids

The story of Peter and Jesus breaks my heart and gives me hope. Peter, like a lot of church kids, was full of promise. Jesus spoke a prophetic word over him, proclaiming that he would become a fisher of men. Peter had several other spiritual high points. When asked who he thought Jesus was, he nailed it: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus then told Peter he was blessed because the Father had revealed this to him and that upon this confession, he would build His church.

Peter, along with James and John, were on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured into a glorious vision of the triumphant Christ. Peter saw Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah. He knew what it was like to be in the inner circle and to be intimate with God.

These promises and blessings make Peter’s denial of Jesus all the more heartbreaking. He betrayed Jesus with eyes wide-open. He had seen the glory of Jesus, and the Father had blessed him with a revelation of Jesus as the Christ—the Messiah. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied Jesus three times. Throughout Scripture saying something three times proves you really mean it and will stand by what you say. Peter’s denials were not a slip of the tongue.

As a church kid and preacher’s kid, I get this. When I chose to sin, it was deliberate—and in the face of God. And like Peter, I was without excuse. My mother and father were the real deal—not perfect, but genuine Christians who lived out the Word of God daily. In them, I found no hypocrisy or meanness to fuel my rebellion. Even worse, for my rebellion at least, I had often experienced the touch and presence of God—holy stuff I could not explain away. Like Peter, I was without excuse when I chose my sin over Jesus.

After he denied Christ the third time, Peter, we are told, went out and wept bitterly. No self-deception or rationalizations could protect Peter’s heart from what he had done. Peter had not only denied who Jesus was, he had denied who he was. To deny Jesus is to deny our true selves—the person God has created and called us to be.

The story of Peter doesn’t end here. In the last chapter of John, we have a story of the resurrected Christ appearing on the shore of Galilee. He once again directs Peter and the other disciples where to cast their nets. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing, but assuming this guy on the shore could see what they couldn’t, they cast their nets one more time. The catch is huge, and Peter knows it is Jesus.

I am sure that there is a danger in reading to much into the disciples fishing all night and getting nothing. But their empty nets speak of the emptiness of life apart from Christ and a life that forsakes God’s call upon our lives. They really were meant to be fishing for men. Only Jesus fills our nets.

When Peter realizes it is Jesus, he throws himself into the sea and makes his way to the shore. He left it to the other disciples to bring in the fish. For those who have denied Jesus and are filled with failure, regret, and shame, the only answer is to throw yourself at Jesus. Peter, once again, left his nets for Jesus. But he also left behind his shame and overwhelming sense of disqualification. The pride that made him boast that he would never deny Jesus was gone. So was the shame of having denied him. He also had left behind all concerns about what the other disciples thought of him—the one that had denied Christ so openly. Only Jesus mattered.

After fixing breakfast for the disciples, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three time, “Do you love me?” Three times, the same number of times he denied Jesus, Peter declares, “Yes Lord; you know I love you.” Peter was right. He stood before the Son of God who knew his heart. Perhaps Jesus asked the question partly so that Peter would recognize how deeply he loved Jesus.

I am certainly not saying our wild love of Jesus saves us. Our love is only a response to God’s. We are saved by the free gift of salvation. I do believe, however, that a wild throw-yourself-in-the-sea love for Jesus is the best way for the wayward church kid to find his way out of shame and empty nets.

After each of Peter’s declarations of love, Jesus tells Peter to feed or shepherd His sheep. This command was Jesus’ gentle way of restoring Peter to himself and his true calling. It was an invitation for Peter to come home and to be himself.

Almost 29 years ago, a nurse at the San Bernardino County Hospital put a little boy in my arms. He was the baby God had clearly led Teckla and I to adopt. When he opened his eyes, I said to my son, Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

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