Reading the news and knowing vs. believing

Theology for the Pandemic

Reading the news has become a torturous practice. I ride the fire tornado of the struggling economy and the presidential race, get swept into the hurricane of COVID numbers, and dragged through protests and police brutality all in a few flicks of a finger. These are anxious times. But undergirding the troubling events of this year is the challenge of questioning what I know and what I believe. 

We find ourselves in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Each day brings new knowledge, understanding, and questions. But how are we supposed to sift and sort through the competing truths? Who am I supposed to believe? And what do I really know? 

In Jesus’ day, people wrestled with the same questions of knowledge and belief. But the controversy was not over protests or the environment, it was over the identity and teaching of this man from Galilee, Jesus, the son of Joseph. One day he is a carpenter, the next he is performing miracles and claiming God as his Father. Who is he? And should I believe him? 

Centuries later the question is still alive in the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians alike, but knowing facts about Jesus does not mean we believe. In a cosmic Venn diagram, Christians must find themselves in the overlapping edge of knowing and believing in Jesus. You may have heard about Jesus, but do you believe him? The answer to this question is the most important thing about us.

And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And they told him, John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” -Mark 8:27-29

Who do you say that I am? Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ requires knowledge. Though knowledge and belief will always be connected– one rarely says they know something without putting some trust in that knowledge–Peter’s knowledge of Jesus’ identity is based on what he has seen. The disciples have seen Jesus casting out demons, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf– all actions that hearken back to the promised and prophesied Messiah (Isaiah 35:5, 42:7). Peter and the disciples knew these prophecies, held tightly to them with expectation, and now before their very eyes, they watch Jesus fulfilling them. Though opinions are tossed around, Peter knew something; he knew that Jesus was the Christ. 

But knowledge and belief form a complicated relationship. I might say I know that God loves me, but do I believe it? For most Christians, there is a gap between what we know and what we believe. This distance between knowing and believing is the distance between abundant life in Christ and faithlessness. We are, after all, believers. So what are we if we claim to know Jesus but do not believe the things he says? 

To know in Greek (ginōskō) means to gain knowledge of or to become acquainted with. To believe in Greek (pisteuō) means to think to be true, to be persuaded of, or to place confidence in. I may be acquainted with the person of Jesus, familiar with some of his sayings and the miracles he performed. But knowing the facts about him does not mean that I am persuaded that what he says is true. I often find myself living in ways that reveal my belief to be less than full confidence and trust. I know in my head the teachings of scripture– my sins are forgiven, I am reconciled to God, I am loved, and yet my heart fails to believe and internalize them. This is the place of discipleship. This is the place that God wants to work in my (and your) life to bring the truths I know about God into alignment with the truths I believe.

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:66-69

Knowing and believing. We have believed and have come to know. When Jesus starts saying some weird things about being the bread of life and that people will need to feast on his body and drink his blood, he starts to lose some of his followers. But Peter demonstrates his belief through his words (you are the Holy One of Israel- a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah), but also through his actions: he stays. He keeps following Jesus. He continues to walk by his side because he knows the character of Jesus and he believes that only Jesus can bring them into eternal life and true fellowship with God. When we believe Jesus is who he says he is, we start acting like it. James says that faith without works (action) is dead (Jas 2:17)–it is no faith at all. So if our faith does not lead us into actions that reflect what we believe, we need to ask ourselves why. 

Closing the gap. What is it you need to know and believe about Jesus today? Peter’s life is a rollercoaster of knowing and confusion, doubt and belief, and this ought to encourage us. Life is not a linear line of continuous growth, but a rolling path with unexpected valleys and turns. But as we walk with Jesus, we accumulate experience with God and his promises. The longer we walk with him, the more experience and trust we build. This trust shapes what we expect from him in the future, and it is this faith that we must put into action.

Today, what is it you need to know and believe about Jesus? Where are you not believing in the work of Christ or the promised and ongoing work of his Spirit? Has your hope faded? Have your prayers stopped? Today, ask yourself how and why are you living like you don’t believe. Ask the Lord to “strengthen you with the power of his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:16-19

Daily discipleship

Theology for the Pandemic

Six months ago when the stay at home orders began my social media feeds exploded with two modes of thinking. The first was the kind of person (probably type A personalities) who immediately programmed an indefinite self-improvement plan including exercise, diet, reading one thousand books, and starting a blog. The second was those (probably worn out moms) who declared that they were quitting—a burn my jeans and bra, double-down on sweatpants, take-out, and streaming services because this is just too much to handle right now response. But six months later, both of these tactics feel foolish. Maybe there have been self-improvements, and maybe chasing comfort was a warm place to start, but neither the voracious appetite for self-bettering nor an exhausted denial of reality can be the way of the Christian. No, the way of Christ is daily discipleship. 

The thing that caught my attention about how people respond to unusual circumstances was their desire to speed up growth or to cease altogether. Scripture presents a very different way. Following Christ as a lifestyle, not a fad. Choosing the good, not the easy. Slow growth that does not depend on external circumstances. Trees, not weeds. It is easy to see why this is unattractive. I can barely wait for cookies to fully cook in the oven. I want them now. We as humans want things now. Eugene Peterson said 40 years ago, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” Discipleship is “patient acquisition of virtue,” and “a long apprenticeship” in following Christ. And it is exactly what we see in Psalm 1. 

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind blows away. -Psalm 1:1-3

Blessed is the one who finds contentment in God’s law and nourishment in being rooted in Him.  Blessed here means happy. Happy is the person who positions themselves quietly abiding in the word and law of God rather than placing their body in the path of sinners, scoffers, or the wicked. This posture is quiet and slow, a humble lifestyle bereft of flashing lights and trendy posts. But all else is worthless. This way of thinking is at the heart of discipleship– it is a blessing to become more like Christ in his holiness, mercy, and righteousness. A slow digestion of the word and law of God that leads to a happy fullness. 

When I first married my husband, who is a pastor, I felt an internal pressure to not be a dull pastor’s wife. Even though most women married to pastors are anything but dull, it was a trope in my mind that should be avoided. I wanted to be a “cool” pastor’s wife (cue the mom in Mean Girls). Silly, I know, but seven years in, I have firmly accepted that coolness is never worth pursuing. Coolness does not last. If I want anything I want to pursue the beauty of Christ. I want to be known for knowing and loving his word. I want to be a holy wife. That is a work of God. And it is the path of discipleship. Trading cool for holy. Delighting in the ways of God rather than the ways of the world.

The second image provides my favorite image of Christian discipleship: a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit, fully alive. This is in contrast to the chaff that is blown away by the wind, dead, dry and gone. Yielding fruit is an image we see throughout scripture, most notably when Jesus speaks about good trees bearing good fruit and being known for what they produce (Luke 6:43-45). People will be known for the fruit they produce. It will either be good fruit — the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, gentleness, goodness), or bad fruit– the fruit that comes from sin and wickedness. The tree planted in the rivers of God will always bear good fruit. 

My favorite trees are usually large trees. Old trees. My parents backyard is lined with ancient cottonwoods that have been there since before I existed. They grow out of the bank of a small irrigation ditch that only flows for a handful of months a year. But they have grown and grown, towering over our yard, providing shade for our swing set and sandbox, a home for owls and branches for our cats to climb. It’s hard to imagine, but one day they were small and meager. But today they are a testament to decades of slow growth, decades of being shaped by their environment and depending upon their water source. 

This is the way of Christian growth. Bearing good fruit that blesses others, remaining connected to the source of life, confident even in the winter months, sure of a new season ahead. Most days seem small, but as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, the way we spend our lives.” 

Friend of God, when you question your growth, if you look at all different than you did last season, only ask yourself if you remain rooted in the word of God. If you do, your discipleship–your becoming like Christ, is happening. Quiet as the tree grows, you will become more like your savior. 

Zoom calls and identity exposure

Theology for the Pandemic

Though Zoom has become a necessary evil during the pandemic, it has also provided an unsolicited view into one’s home life. Perhaps you take the Zoom mullet approach– business on top and party (pajamas) on bottom like my husband, or you embrace jumping on a video call after a lunchtime run (not me), Zoom has created a virtual gateway from your work life into your home life. 

While the videos of little kids crashing their dad’s meeting are entertaining, they are also exposing. I feel exposed when I have two kids fighting over who gets to wear the box on their head outside of my office door. I feel exposed when their antics reveal my impatience and lack of graciousness. We tend to keep certain parts of ourselves tucked away, hidden from the view of our coworkers, friends, even a spouse. But now, a portal into your real self has been opened and everyone is peeking through. We find ourselves exposed; you are not always who you present yourself to be. A dual identity, no matter how slight, has emerged, and maybe you aren’t quite who you thought you were. 

If you are a Christian, you have probably felt this tension before. Being a Christian affords a unique kind of identity paradox, a particular kind of exposure. I claim to be a saint, a new creation, holy, imitator of God. And yet, at the same time, neatly disguised, I am sinful, selfish, unloving, driven by desires, hard-hearted. The paradoxical identity of wholly redeemed crashes against the rocks of sinner-in-need-of-grace every single day. Who am I to call myself holy when I sin? Who am I to declare myself accepted by God? Am I really who God says I am? 

Paul presents and explores the Christian identity in Romans 6 and says some drastic things about who we are. We are dead to sin (11). Our old self was crucified and we walk in newness of life (6). We are no longer slaves to sin but have been set free to be slaves to righteousness (16). We live in obedience to God from the heart (17). 

Is this how you describe yourself? After teaching Romans to college students a few times, the response I heard most was, absolutely not. I think most of us vacillate between overconfidence in our holiness and self-condemnation in our sin. But Romans is a direct challenge to this kind of living, an ode to the depths of Christ’s righteousness and grace that supersedes all else. It is here, in the righteousness of Jesus, that we must understand our identity.

Changing the Zoom background. One of the strange things we do on Zoom is to change the background. I’ve met with people in massive libraries, on sunny beaches, even in Times Square. Changing the background is the easiest way to pretend we are somewhere or someone we are not, but in Christ, we don’t have to. Romans 6 (and 7 and 8) are all about our relationship with Jesus (union with Christ) and how this relationship allows us to stop pretending.  

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:3-5, 8, 11 (emphasis added)

Christians don’t need to pretend to be righteous because our righteousness comes from our union with Christ. Union with Christ means that we participate in Jesus’ death by dying to our sin, and are resurrected–made alive– to God in Christ Jesus. In Christ, we are presented before the Father as accepted, forgiven, and righteous children of God. Union is a legal status change that allows us to be adopted as children of God because of Christ. 

Paul goes on in chapter 7 to compare the death of our sin and new life in Christ to a woman whose husband died (sin) and she married a new person (Jesus and his righteousness). She was once legally bound to sin, but now she is now freed from that relationship and legally united to Christ. The illustration of marriage also reminds us that marriage is not dependent upon the bride’s perfection, only her willingness to love her husband (Jesus) and to remain in their union. If you ask my husband if I am perfect in our marriage, he will laugh and say no. But perfection is not the groundwork of Biblical marriage–covenant is. A promise between husband and wife to be faithful and to love one another. It is founded on promise and grace, and this is the relationship we enter into with Jesus.

Seeing the whole picture, embracing imperfection. On the other side of being exposed is finding out you are loved in the midst of imperfection and mess. Though exposure is uncomfortable, it forces us to develop an integrated view of ourselves–the view that God already has of us. Romans 8 tells us that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. John reiterates the same concept when he says in 1 John 3:20, “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” There is no condemnation for those who abide in Christ’s righteousness, and when we feel condemned by our hearts, God is greater than that feeling. God knows us perfectly and sees everything. He sees the impatience and anger and greed in my heart, and he still loves me. He remains faithful to his covenant with me. 

It is in this reality that we are freed to embrace the paradoxical identity of being both sinful and righteous. We don’t have to pretend we are one or the other. We don’t have to hide our sin or put on false righteousness. Our sin and our righteousness are not opposing forces, we are both. I am both righteous on the basis of Christ as I am united to Him, and I am sinful as an imperfect human. And as I live in this relationship day by day, he promises grace and forgiveness, but also that he himself will undertake my sanctification. Our gracious Savior provides everything we need to be reconciled to God and to grow into people who look more like him. So the next time you feel like a fraud, exposed, or like your sin defines you, remember that your identity is not founded on your actions; it is rooted in the righteousness of Christ and his grace is without end. 

Cutting my husband’s hair– proof of sanctification

Theology for the Pandemic

Yesterday was the day. We pulled out the metal folding chair, broom and dustpan, clippers, and comb, and I got to work cutting my husband’s hair. From our back deck, I have witnessed the neighbors on both sides of us nervously trimming, husbands walking away with slightly flat cuts, uneven sideburns. It is one of the new rhythms that many have adopted during the pandemic. A quiet marker that another six to eight weeks have passed. A sure sign that we are not living in groundhog day. A small reminder that we too have grown a little bit. But not all growth is simple and expected like my husband’s hair. The most important growth usually involves the uncomfortable but perfect pruning of a loving God. 

Perhaps the pandemic has presented an opportunity for you to examine yourself in new ways. Once the enthusiasm for self-improvement wore off a few months into staying at home, it seems like a lot of people are on a path of self-discovery that is less than flattering. The pandemic has exposed unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and sins that were easy to ignore in the busyness of everyday life. But this exposing of our hearts is actually a work of God. As unpleasant as it is to realize that you are not as effective or kind or disciplined or patient as you thought you were, whatever is being uncovered holds the promise of sanctification–the quiet and guaranteed work of the Holy Spirit.

To be sanctified is to be set apart for holy service to God. It is a work that the Holy Spirit begins after one confesses faith in Jesus and is justified (made right) by his life, death, and resurrection (Heb 10:10, Rom 5:1, 1 Cor 6:11). Sanctification is a lifelong process of being changed to look like Christ. When we believe in Jesus we are not just affirming that he is good and holy and God (2 Cor 3:18). When we believe we are also adopted by God to be brothers and sisters with Christ, co-heirs to his kingdom and participants (co-laborers) in his work (Rom 8:17, Gal 3:29). God does not call Jesus to one mission and the church to another. The call and the life of Christ become the call and the work of the church (2 Pet 1:2-4). The Christian life is full participation with Christ in his work, his suffering, his ministry and mission, and ultimately, his glory. 

But how is this sinful mess ever supposed to do the work of God? I still sin and I will sin for the rest of my life. Behold, the promise and work of sanctification; God indwelling his people with his spirit and promising to grow us in holiness. Promising to grow us into people who sound like Jesus, show grace like Jesus, forgive like Jesus. Promising to change us from one degree of glory to another. 

When I think about the past six months, it is easy to think of the ways I have struggled. But perhaps these struggles are also the trail markers of God’s sanctifying work. When God exposes things in us, we can find hope in knowing we are on the right path. We don’t know how far we have to go, we’ve never walked this particular trail before, but the revealing of our sin is always a work of the Spirit–the first work of the spirit. The second is to redeem and sanctify–make holy–those lost parts of ourselves. And as the Spirit sanctifies us, we can be sure that we will grow in humility and grace empowered obedience. 

Sanctification is the way of humility. JI Packer says, “Real spiritual growth is always growth downward, so to speak, into profounder humility, which in healthy souls will become more and more apparent as they age.” As we grow in our sanctification, we grow in humility. The more that God reveals my true nature to myself and his perfect splendor, the more humble I become. There is nothing more humbling than standing in the presence of a perfectly holy God. Paul in Philippians says that Jesus was the truly humble one–he was fully God and yet he humbled himself to the point of death (2:8). As God reveals unhealth and sin in your life, remember that the promise of sanctification is to make you more like Christ–to make you humble.

Sanctification leads us to grace-filled obedience. As the spirit grows us in humility, he also grows us in obedience (2 Cor 7:1). Obedience can be a weighty word that for many sounds like trying to prove your holiness through your actions. And yet this is not biblical obedience. Jesus was the obedient one. He perfectly obeyed the will of the Father at all times in his life, even when it meant denying himself. Being transformed into the likeness of Jesus means growing in obedience to the word and commands of God. As sanctification leads us first into a life of humility, knowing ourselves rightly before a perfect God, it also reveals greater depths of God’s perfect love and grace for us in spite of our sinfulness. Grace. He extends love, mercy, and compassion to us while we are still sinners (Rom 5:8). Grace is the fuel of obedience. As the Spirit sanctifies me, knowing that I don’t have to perform perfectly enables joy-filled obedience to Christ. 

So the next time you cut your hair, take a moment to consider the slow, uneventful, quiet growth that has occurred and remember God’s promises to grow you. Today, if the Lord is revealing your weakness, trust that his Spirit is bringing to completion the good work he has started (Phil 1:6), transforming you into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18).

(Un)quiet Time

Theology for the pandemic

Almost every morning for the past twelve years has started the same way. Wake up, make coffee, sit down in my designated spot, and spend time reading the Bible and journaling. Maybe it was walking past my Dad every morning on my way to the kitchen and seeing him with his hands folded in his lap and eyes closed in prayer, or the fact that I love rhythm and routine, but having a quiet time in the morning has been a sacred space for me for almost half of my life. 

But in the past few months, this time has been a battleground. Blame the pandemic, the small house, or the two two-year-olds shrieking as they chase one another down the hall, but “time with God” has mostly ended with me feeling angry at my children (or husband for not making them be quieter human beings), frustrated that I wasn’t more focused, and bitter that I couldn’t start the day exactly how I wanted. Ah, the hypocrisy of spending time in God’s word and emerging as an angry and impatient mother.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you should have done without neglecting the others.” -Matthew 23:23 

Jesus condemns the religious leaders of Israel for doing certain religious tasks (tithing fancy spices) but neglecting the most important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Though the things we do certainly matter, when they are devoid of love they are worthless. The Pharisees performed religious tasks thinking that would delight the Lord, but they missed the most important matters of the law. Jesus calls them the weightier matters, which basically means the burdensome matters. It is much easier to tithe than it is to pursue justice or have compassion. But more than that, their reason for performative religion was all about them. They wanted to be seen as people who were righteous and holy, they wanted to justify themselves with their actions.

Just like the Pharisees, I need to examine my spiritual activity. Quiet time should be a place of communing with God, remembering his promises, and being encouraged by his word. Time with God is supposed to train you to act more like him. So if the fruit I bear is selfishness and irritability– not mercy and faithfulness and justice, I must ask myself if this discipline of having quiet time is really about God or about me? Do I come to the word each morning to be in his presence or am I simply trying to justify myself by spiritual productivity? 

The Lord wants to grow us out of me-centered time with him and teach us anew what it means to pursue him, what it means to worship, and what communing with him really looks like.

Put to death the idol of spiritual productivity. Time with God is good and necessary for all believers, but spiritual performances are not something God desires. Awesome quiet times do not make us righteous, and really nice prayers do not justify us before God. So when we treat quiet time as a stamp in our spiritual passport to heaven, we are trying to prove our righteousness through what we are able to do rather than depending on the salvation of Christ. We need to let the idol of spiritual productivity die. Notice, however, that Jesus says the Pharisees should have done these (tithing spices) without neglecting the others (loving people). We need to hear Jesus’ rebuke of prioritizing religious tasks over love of God and neighbor and then pursue a life animated by the gospel in both my pursuit of him and love of our family.

Broaden your scope of what it means to worship. Because quiet time can become a primary place of worship, we can ignore how the Lord might be inviting us into worship throughout the day. Anything we do unto the Lord can be worship. We can worship him through folding the laundry with a cheerful heart, through reading and re-reading our kids favorite book, by listening attentively to a friend, by cooking dinner. God cares about our hearts more than our tasks. So when our heart is desiring to honor and serve the Lord, any task can become a place of worship. When we relegate worship to the confines of our designated God-time, we fail to see the Kingdom of God that breaking in all around us.

The weightier matters of God start with loving those around you. Though I have long seen quiet time as a place of communing with God, it is only part of the puzzle. Communion is relationship language, so perhaps communion with God really looks like sacrificially loving my family. We commune with God by participating in Him. To think that participation with God is something we can achieve in solitude is to disregard the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Communion with God happens by loving and serving other people in addition to growing in devotion to him through scripture and prayer. May our pursuit of Jesus be abundant as we pursue justice, show mercy and live faithfully with others. 

Rejoice together, weep together, repeat

Have you ever heard the news about something good happening to a friend of yours– an engagement, a new job or promotion, an exciting vacation, a pregnancy–and rather than being excited and celebrating with her, you found yourself comparing successes, counting personal victories, saddened that you weren’t in the same position, or generally wanting what she has? It seems pretty common, and unfortunately, it was my mindset this week. It is an ugly place to be. Comparison, competition, envy, self-condemnation. Not much love for a sister. Not much willingness to be for her. Not much thinking about anyone but myself.

Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Ironically, this has been a verse that I have championed throughout my time in ministry and in my friendships. I love this verse because it captures the nature of true Christian community. Christian friendships should be marked by the fullness of life– climbing into the pit of despair with one another and delighting together when there is good news. These relationships are for-each-other relationships. When my sister hurts, I hurt. When she rejoices, my heart is gladdened. Christian friendships bear the beauty mark of other-centeredness, and this other-centeredness is always the result of finding an identity that is not in what you have or accomplish or do. 

The context of this command to weep and rejoice together in Romans 12 is worship, and Paul is arguing that worship is always a communal act. The place you present your body as a sacrifice is in relationships with real people in everyday life, this is the rational response to the gospel. Paul exhorts believers to celebrate their different giftings (12:3-8), to love one another genuinely and full with affection (12:9-10), to outdo one another in showing honor (12:10), to care for the needy, to show hospitality (12:13), and to live in harmony (12:16). Paul is nailing down that Christian worship happens in community, not just in personal time with God. So when you find yourself in my situation of not wanting to love your sister or brother genuinely and with affection (12:9-10) and celebrate their God-given gifts (12:4), you, and I, first and foremost have a worship problem. 

Rejoicing with those who rejoice, worshipping the Lord together

When a good friend of mine got engaged, I was ecstatic. It was such an exciting time. But I remember after eating dinner together, talking through all the details of how he proposed and dreaming about a wedding, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for being excited with me.” 

Rejoicing is an act of worship. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). True rejoicing is always about God because every good and perfect thing comes from him (James 1:17). Rejoicing is worship because even when it’s about an engagement, we can praise God that he brought the couple together, we can praise him for his gift of marriage, we can praise him for the joy that he is giving. When my friend got engaged I didn’t pat her on the back and tell her good job for her accomplishment. No, we celebrated what God had done and was doing. 

But imagine my friend hadn’t told me about her engagement (which would be weird). She would actually be preventing her friend from worshipping with her. She would be withholding the joy that God has given her and withholding an opportunity for her friend to see what God was doing. Sometimes we withhold because we think that another person won’t be able to see beyond themselves and rejoice on behalf of what God is doing. Sometimes we withhold because we feel like it is selfish to ask people to celebrate with us. But perhaps what is selfish is thinking that our successes are our own, and forgetting that God wants to bring himself glory through the good things he gives us. In gospel communities, we are able to rejoice with one another because our accomplishments, our good news, our victories are never really about us. They are always about what God is doing. 

Suffering with those who suffer, being Christ to them

Just like rejoicing bears witness to what God is doing, sharing our suffering and weeping together is also a critical element of community and worship. My default for difficult things is to not talk about them. I would much rather walk around smiling like everything is fine than share about my pains and struggles. Fortunately, my husband is the exact opposite, and he is slowly breaking me of my bad habit. When something hard happens he reaches out to family, friends, and co-workers asking for prayer, asking for meals, asking for people to be in this with us. He understands gospel community better than I do.

Several years ago I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. My husband at the time was leading a mission trip in Ethiopia, so I found out the news alone with no way to contact him and it forced me to depend on my community. A friend drove me to the ER, sat with me while I decided on emergency surgery, or another method of terminating my non-viable pregnancy, stayed up all night while I got injections. Another drove me to follow-up appointments, another brought me food, another sat with me while I was sick in the aftermath of medications, another checked in every single day. I was weeping and my community showed up to weep with me. 

When we don’t share our hardships we prevent the body from serving us, from being able to be Christ to us, and from being able to worship by cooking meals and being present. Furthermore, not letting community into the deep furrows of sorrow and despair prevents them from ever rejoicing with you when the Lord uses your pain in ways only he can. It refuses the chance for others to see how God has provided for you, grown you, healed you, and even blessed you. God wants all his work and his glory to be on full display. Eugene Peterson says that all prayers end in praise. All prayers, all weeping, all sorrow, will one day be turned into praise. So when we don’t let other people join us in our sorrow, we will keep them from ever praising God for the work he has chosen to do through it. 

Those months of recovery after my ectopic were painful and dark, but they were the months I have felt the most loved and cared for by my church community. And more than that, they taught me how to suffer with others. I know most of us fear that we will burden people with our problems or pain. The reality is, we are also called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). It is part of our practical worship of God. Jesus bore our burdens for us, and bearing others burdens is one way we grow in imitating Him. The beautiful thing is that when we love someone in their pain and suffering, they get a taste of gospel community and will want to extend it to others. When we weep with those who weep, we participate in the work of Christ, our suffering King who wept with his friends.

Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy set before him that Christ endured the suffering of the cross. It was the joy of knowing that his people would be freed to love others more deeply than themselves that led Jesus to suffer. It was the joy of knowing that his Spirit would empower his people to worship him rightly that led Jesus to the cross. And it was the joy of knowing that one day He would wipe every tear and rejoice with his people in perfect worship at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 21:4). But until then, it is for the joy set before us, that we might be conformed into his image, that we might weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice for the glory and worship of our good king.

In the Shadow of His Wings

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. -Psalm 91:1-6

My parents’ neighbors have chickens. Over Christmas, my dad, my twin daughters and I would walk up the street, past the ditch, and into their yard to watch the spectacle of hens chasing one another, a rooster crowing out of turn, and my daughters gasping with delight. Like most animals, chickens have a way of protecting their young, and as a mother of two-year old twins, I can relate. 

Have you ever watched someone trying to chase two children who are not quite old enough to listen and obey? It’s a frantic shuttle sprint. Grabbing one ungracefully under the armpits, I take  off in the opposite direction to collect the other staggering toddler from face planting on a hill. I have heard, more often than I like, the words, “Well, you have your hands full!”  Indeed. I am aware. I also need a more effective method of gathering my chicks. 

Mother hens know what they’re doing. They don’t run around, desperately trying to gather their seven babies. They stop, spread their wings, and, if their chicks want to survive, they better run to their mama and take shelter in the shadow of her wings.

Psalm 91 is an invitation to come in close, to run to your Father’s side and hide under his wings. Come, take refuge in the mighty fortress. At His side we will not fear. His faithfulness will be our protection. 

Standing in the middle of God’s redemptive plan, this Psalm holds together the metaphor of God as a mother hen that we see first in the Song of Moses, and later in Jesus’ own words as he weeps over Jerusalem. More broadly, the image of God carrying his people on his wings is seen throughout scripture as a portrait of deliverance. We find such language in Exodus 19, and, although God has delivered Israel from Egypt, they quickly wander away from his outstretched wings. This seems to be woven under the invitation that Psalm 91 offers us. We have to choose to abide, to stay put in God’s presence. Other things will tempt us to take refuge in them. In the face of a pandemic, Information or preparation might seem to promise security, but they often only lead to fear and anxiety as we wonder if our plans will endure. We must choose, daily, to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, to abide in the shadow (Presence) of the Almighty. 

Yet still, we don’t. I wake up, have time in the Word, pray, and by lunchtime I am consumed by the news and wondering if I need more toilet paper. This is our reality. None of us abides perfectly and permanently even when we know we need to. Jesus experienced this in Matthew 23, when he weeps because his people have not come to him. They have not put their trust in him. They have sought their safety elsewhere. And he weeps. 

But the covenant faithfulness of God is not dependent upon us. In Exodus, Israel has already broken the covenant, but God is faithful and gives the law again. In Psalm 91, the author remembers that the same God, who delivered Israel and invites sinful people to be in the presence of the holy God, longs for us to be near him. And Jesus, though he wept over Jerusalem for rejecting him, spread his wings on the cross in order that his people might dwell in his presence forever by the upholding and renewing power of his Spirit. In the shadow of the cross, we find our place of refuge.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)

Fearing man more than God

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. — Matthew 10:16-23

Persecution is frightening. Jesus warns his followers that they will be flogged, sent out like animals to be hunted, and experience division and betrayal from those closest to them over the gospel. Even more, Jesus promises that we will face persecution, forcing believers to ask themselves when that time comes, not if, how will I respond? Will I respond in fear of man rather than God and, like Peter before the crucifixion, try to evade confrontation? Or will I entrust myself to a sufficient savior who in love prepares us to face the persecution he promises? Here are three things that Jesus teaches us about persecution in Matthew 10.

I am sending you. Believers must remember that they are sent in the same manner that Jesus was sent. When we are in Christ, we are called to follow him in all of his life, to walk the same paths that Jesus walked, teach the same gospel that he taught, heal the sick, care for the poor–the mission and work of Christ become ours. Jesus warns and prepares his disciples that their ministry will look a lot like his, full of betrayal and persecution. But these troubles will happen so that they can bear witness to the gentiles. Persecution is a place of evangelism, and Christians are sent out to bear witness to Christ. When you experience persecution, remember your sent-ness. Remember that Jesus is inviting you to walk in the same ways that he did on his road to glory.

Do not be anxious. In the midst of persecution, do not be anxious. The last time I experienced persecution I was very anxious. Our ministry was being publicly shamed, my name was in the newspaper attached to a lot of half-truths. I was anxious. But here we are reminded that in persecution God’s Spirit is with us, proceeding from the Father, empowering our speech and actions, and enabling us to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel. God promises his providing presence that will give us exactly what we need in our moments of need so that we can bring glory to Christ.

The one who endures to the end will be saved. You will be hated by all for the name of Christ, but the one who endures to the end will be saved (10:23). When you are persecuted, hold fast to the promises of God. Hold fast to your fear of the one who can destroy both the body and the soul (Matt 10:28). Endure persecution knowing that your inheritance is in heaven (1 Pet 1:4), your labors are not in vain (1 Cor 15:58), and one day you will give account for your actions (Rom 14:12). These words of Jesus remind us that we really do have a goal worth striving towards–salvation–and this is where we must keep our eyes fixed. Our savior has gone before us in a persecuting world. Our savior has endured to the end. And our savior reminds us to take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Lord, I repent of my fear of persecution. I repent of my fear of man that can be greater than my fear of God. Empower me today to walk in obedience into the places you are calling me to bear witness to your name. Thank you for your empowering Spirit that enables me to walk in faith and provides for my every need. Remind me today that you alone are worthy of my worship and you alone ought to be revered. Give me the endurance to follow you in the midst of a persecuting world keeping my eyes fixed on Christ. Amen.