Failing the Test

Have you ever had something you said, or worse say often, come back to haunt you? I got a little taste of that a couple of weeks ago. The statement I have made multiple times in the past is this: “Laying down my life for Christ in John 15:13-14 is obedience to Christ’s commands TODAY, not just allegiance to Christ at the point of martyrdom. If I am in the habit of dying daily through reverence and obedience to Christ, I won’t have to worry about allegiance. I’ll be well-practiced at at dying for Christ if that day ever comes.” So how am I doing at dying daily? Well friends, not very well. I failed the last test. And I didn’t just fail it, I made a royal hash of it. Here’s what happened.

A few weeks ago, my husband was diagnosed with COVID-19. This precipitated daily calls from the state health department, beginning with instructions that I needed to quarantine for 14 days from my last day of exposure to him. To get my quarantine completed as soon as possible, we were instructed to sleep in separate areas of the house, use different bathrooms, wear masks, and stay six feet apart when in the same room. We had to take our temperatures twice daily and keep a written record. I had to sign a statement that I would voluntarily quarantine and acknowledge that I would be under mandatory quarantine if I refused. Every day the health department called to ask if either of us had fever or other symptoms. All of this felt very invasive to me. Just informing us of the state guidelines would have been sufficient. We had no intention of exposing others to the virus, but it seemed like government nannies were treating us like disobedient five-year-olds. In addition, the health department ignored my husband’s statement about the onset of his symptoms and set his onset date four days after his symptoms began, which extended our quarantine period. I felt violated in my health privacy and in my own home. And I responded with anger. For several days I felt unsettled, irritated, and resentful. And my behavior was rather prickly. My sinful self was in control.

Then the Lord reminded of about my own admonition about dying daily, considering every trial as coming from the hand of God, and an opportunity for practicing faith, all the while considering it all joy as James exhorts us. Really, Lord? How did this sneak up behind me? I, the preacher of dying daily to self and being prepared to give up everything for the name of Christ Jesus, discovered I am not as prepared as I thought I was. Why did I fail to recognize this as an opportunity to practice reverence and obedience to my Lord? Two thoughts come to mind. First, my thoughts were more on my circumstances than on my Lord. And second, is the warning, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Because I wasn’t on guard, I had failed to heed the warning light of rising internal stress over the 2020 election and the future of our country, coupled with the disappointment of canceled trips to celebrate our anniversary and to visit my mom in another state, missing friends and family, and interrupted ministry due to the pandemic. I didn’t take all those stresses to the Lord, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ when they first appeared. I wasn’t tending my confidence in Jesus to keep it growing and strong. I needed to re-center my heart and mind. I needed to remember the promises of God: that though Christ’s followers would have trouble in this world, Jesus Christ has already overcome the world; promises that Jesus will never leave or forsake us; promises to provide everything we need; promises to shepherd us through our deepest valleys; and the reminder that our citizenship is in heaven, not here on earth. I also needed to remember that when I bowed my heart to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, I gave up all my rights, including the “right” to be offended.

So what to do? How could I grow my confidence in Christ and His promises? How could I be more willing to give up my “rights”? How could I move my preparations from theological theory to theologically-driven actions? After taking these questions to the Lord, I realized there are no new answers to these questions. God has already given me what I need in what are often called, “the ordinary means of grace”- the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments. The Word reminds me of God’s promises and His faithfulness to fulfill them (2 Cor. 1:20). Prayer brings me boldly before the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper remind me of my identification with both the death and the resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-5). But these ordinary means of grace must be intentionally practiced. Thinking further about turning my heart’s focus to my Lord, I have found that the music of hymns helps plant rich theology deep in my heart and then brings it to mind and tongue again and again (Eph. 5:17-20). Corporate worship and fellowship encourage me through the faith of sisters and brothers in Christ and remind me that I am not alone (Heb. 10:24-25). I can ask the Lord to help me recognize opportunities to practice death to self while waiting for His eternal kingdom, and I know that when I ask according to His will, He will give me what I ask (1 John 5:14-15). Finally I can remind myself often that nothing comes into my life without my Father’s sovereign oversight, and I can say with my Savior, “Not my will, but Yours, be done,” (Luke 22:42).

I suspect there will be many opportunities in the coming days to practice trusting Christ’s promises, opportunities to submit to government authorities without grumbling or being resentful, and opportunities for many other little daily deaths. Practice makes better. Thank You, Lord, for Your grace when I fail. Help me lay down my life today.


Rebuilding Again


An aha moment, a revelation, an epiphany, call it what you will, I had one today. It began with a rather mundane, and somewhat discouraging event, one that would not normally be something worth writing about. But since it concluded in an encouraging perspective on the Christian’s never-ending battle with sin, it merits sharing.

This morning, I decided today was the day to test my ankle. Today marks six weeks since ankle surgery, and I’m anxious to get it rehabilitated. My hope was that the ankle is healed enough to go beyond the gentle stretching, massage, and ice therapy I’ve been doing for several weeks and might be ready for a little more strenuous exercise in a controlled situation. So I got on my rowing machine and gave the ankle a gentle three-minute workout. Getting off the machine, I thought, “Wow, three whole minutes. Even if the ankle tolerates this well, (the next twenty-four hours will tell!) it’s going to take a while to build back up to my normal rowing time. And even longer to rebuild strength and flexibility in the ankle. Sigh. Rebuilding again.” You see, this is the eighth surgery on this ankle, the eighth time I’ve started over, the eighth season of rebuilding. It seems as soon as the ankle is pain-free, strong enough for moderate activity, and not interfering with daily life, something goes wrong and I’m back in surgery and starting over. Discouragement was lurking in my thoughts. It was time for some truth-telling here. Time to remind myself of what I know, of the truth that encourages and keeps me persevering and hopeful during times of rebuilding. Time to dwell on truth that evokes the gratefulness that will banish discouragement and quash self-pity.

So I reviewed the facts in my mind. Thirty years ago, prosthetic ankle joints didn’t even exist, and I am so thankful to have been accepted into the clinical trial that provided mine thirteen years ago. Without it, I would barely be able to walk by now. The Lord has blessed me with an incredible pioneering surgeon who is highly skilled, internationally acclaimed, and really cares about his patients.  My husband has become a selfless pro at caring for me through surgeries and sometimes long periods of inability to walk during recovery. He never complains. Our family has been supportive and helpful through round after round of incapacitated Mom, and always with cheerfulness. The body of Christ has come alongside us and helped in a myriad of ways by praying, bringing meals, cleaning, making the six-hour post-op trips to Dallas with me, and providing companionship during long weeks of restricted mobility. I know each surgery is correcting a problem, and I’ll be better in the long run. The downtime and rehabilitation is worth the reward of a season of improved function and reduced pain. That’s a mountain of blessing to be grateful for, and a strong antidote to discouragement.

As I countered discouragement with truth this morning, and adjusted my attitude toward rebuilding the ankle, the Aha! struck.  I realized that this process of rebuilding an ankle is not unlike the spiritual reconstruction God does in His children. Jeremiah 31:28 describes the tearing down and rebuilding of Israel, “As I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. Israel’s gracious God was speaking of wounding to heal, of tearing down to rebuild something better. God had broken down the cities of His people, Israel, due to their sin. He had plucked them up and sent them into captivity in Babylon. Physical disaster had followed their sinful spiritual disaster. Pain and discouragement had been Israel’s familiar companions in Babylon. But then God spoke of bringing them back to their land, of healing their wounds, restoring their spiritual health, rebuilding their nation, and renewing their hope and their joy. Ultimately this prophecy would find its complete fulfillment in the New Covenant, inaugurated by their long-awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. But for a time, Israel had been brought to repentance. The nation was ready to be rebuilt, replanted, and restored. And God would send the prophet Nehemiah to lead the rebuilding and to speak truth into their discouragement during the arduous task.

Our gracious heavenly Father not only performs spiritual surgery on an entire nation, He is Jehovah Rapha, The LORD Who Heals each one of His children of our sinfulness. The cutting out process is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but when we submit ourselves to the loving ministrations of the Great Physician, we can be confident that His work of reconstruction will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). I had the opportunity to undergo such spiritual surgery a few months ago. The problem was a past pattern of sin that the Lord had dealt with years ago: worship of the opinions of man. I was so thankful He had freed me from this bondage, and for many years it wasn’t a problem, but now it was back. How appalling to see it resurface! I was so dismayed and discouraged, “Lord, here I am again, dealing with the same old sin that I thought was gone. I’m so sorry. Whatever will You do with me? I feel like a hopeless case.” It was time for some truth-telling, and a review of God’s Word. Our tender healer Father doesn’t see one of His children as a hopeless case, because He has the power to change us, to sanctify us. Sanctification means to be set apart from the world, reserved for God’s purposes, and in order to do that, the Lord must rebuild us. It is a process of tearing down our old thinking and behavior patterns, constructing new thinking and a new way of living, and letting us concentrate on that for a season.  Later, there will be other issues in our lives that God will address as He sanctifies us, and we will go through the cycle again. Discipline, spiritual surgery, is a normal, expected, and good thing in the life of a Christian. Proverbs 3:11-12 tells us that discipline, or chastening, by the Lord proves His love and acceptance of us as His child, for He disciplines us as a father disciplines a child he delights in. We also learn from these verses how we are to respond to His chastening. We are not to rebel against God by rejecting, despising, or refusing His discipline. Nor are we to respond with the opposite extreme of sickening dread, loathing, or grief. In Hebrews 12:5-6, the author quotes Proverbs 3:11-12, and describes this response as “losing heart.” He goes on to explain that every true child of God receives His discipline, and we should submit to it because it is for our good, that we may share in God’s holiness. Though it seems painful at the time, God’s discipline produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:5-13). So we are not to be discouraged when we feel like we’re back to a spiritual square one. Sanctification involves tearing down in order to rebuild, and it’s a welcome process, a blessing in the life of a Christian. Chastening reminds me that I am truly the daughter of God, a sister of Christ, and dearly loved. It reminds me that my Father is working to develop holiness, righteousness, and peace in me. That, too, is a mountain of blessing to be grateful for, and a strong antidote to discouragement.

The Election Diversion

With less than 24 hours left until our nation elects a new president, there is much talk of election weariness. And no wonder, not only are we media-saturated, but our media is saturated with partisan bickering, accusations, and unthinkable rudeness. Statesmanship seems to have disappeared from the planet in the nastiest campaign season anyone can remember. More disturbing than the focus of American politics, however, is the focus of the American church, because the church is focused on politics. We seem to think our fate hangs in the balance of the presidential election of 2016, and our righteousness will be determined by how we cast our vote. Based on the number of diatribes on all forms of media, expounding why Christians must or mustn’t vote for a particular candidate, we seem to think we can determine our future by preserving our rights and controlling our circumstances. The church seems to have forgotten that God alone is the sovereign ruler of our times and circumstances, that we have surrendered our rights to Him, and now our responsibility is to trust and glorify Him in whatever circumstance He chooses for us. We are so bent on avoiding persecution and suffering that our hand-wringing rhetoric belies our declarations of faith in a loving, trustworthy, Almighty God.

Sadly, there is more to lose from a wrong perspective of suffering than our witness to the watching world. While we are working feverishly to protect our rights and reputations, influence our friends’ votes, get the “right” candidates in office, and control our uncertain future, we are failing to prepare for the one thing we know our future holds: suffering. Jesus was very clear in John 15 when He told His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” And again in the next chapter, Jesus warns of the need for patient endurance in suffering, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Please do not interpret that to mean we shouldn’t discuss the issues, pray earnestly for God’s hand to be at work in our nation, and vote. Those aren’t just rights they are privileges, given by God, and should be stewarded with the utmost care. What I am saying is that elections and issues should not distract us from being prepared to suffer, and to suffer well. What does it mean to suffer well? Let’s look at some inspiring heroes of the Scriptures.

Jesus told the apostles that they would have opportunities to share the gospel with governors and kings, and their entrance into the halls of government would be by arrest and flogging. He reassured them that when they were arrested, they had no cause to worry about what they would say because they would be given the words to say when the time came, it would not be the apostles speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Stop right there. Worry about what to say? Really? My ears would not have heard anything Jesus said after the word ‘flogged’. What I was going to say would be the furthest thing from my mind if I had just been informed that I was going to be flogged. But Jesus completely bypassed the issue of flogging and how much pain they would have to endure, because the main point was the opportunity to preach the gospel. Persecution and suffering don’t even get a mention. They’re just useful tools to get an audience.

Paul’s request for prayer from the believers in Ephesus never mentions relief from suffering. Instead, Paul asks for fearlessness and words from God that he may make known the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20). In his letter to the Philippian church Paul seeks to reassure his friends that though he is under house arrest in Rome, he is rejoicing because his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ. The entire palace guard has heard of Paul’s faith, and in spite of the obvious dangers of preaching Christ, other believers have become emboldened to fearlessly speak the Word of God. Paul seems to have no concern about his fate, only that he not fail to preach Christ with courage. Paul is also concerned for the well-being of the church. He does not once express hope that they will not suffer, rather his primary concern is how his beloved friends conduct themselves when suffering comes. He encourages them not to fear those who oppose them, but keep their focus on God’s saving hand. Paul wants them to imitate the humility of Christ in suffering while complaining about nothing, putting no confidence in human ability but looking forward to the resurrection of those who belong to Jesus Christ. He tells them they will find peace by fixing their thoughts on the truth of God, and sets the example of contentment in any and every situation.

That message is as shockingly counter-cultural, and contrary to human nature today as it was in Paul’s day. But by now, it shouldn’t be. At least not in the Church. We have had two thousand years to read, study, and digest the riches of God’s Word, and its inspiring accounts of those who were gladly willing to suffer for the advancement of the gospel and the glory of the God they so dearly loved. We have access to the biographies of countless saints who have gone before us, declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ while being tortured and martyred. The American Church should, by now, have a solid understanding of suffering to the glory of God, but we don’t.

What kind of response do you think you might receive from your Christian friends if you responded to their difficult circumstances with a promise that you would pray for them to suffer well? That’s not how we pray in America! We want suffering to end now, and that is the outcome for which we ask our friends to pray. The Church in America has such a reputation for praying to escape persecution, that our persecuted brothers and sisters in other countries sometimes fear asking Americans to pray for them. If they do ask, it is with the request that we please not pray that God would stop the persecution, but instead ask that He would give them faith, boldness, and courage to be His witnesses in the persecution. Their perspective is that the persecution is working perfectly to display the joy and peace and grace of Christ’s followers, to the glory of God. They just want to display Christ more clearly, pray for that.

The persecuted church today is gracefully following in the footsteps of the Apostles, who “went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame [and flogging!] for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42). No fear, just trust in their Lord. Are you, am I ready to gracefully join them when the opportunity comes? Let’s back up several paces from the large-looming spectacle of our national elections, and consider our lives in the canvass of the even larger picture of redemption and restoration that God is now creating through His bride, the Church. I have been convicted to do less fretting and more preparing, both for myself and those to whom I have the responsibility of guiding, teaching, and shepherding. I have some work to do, and I pray you will do the same, because the opportunity to suffer for our Lord is coming sooner than we think.