Life’s Hard Classroom

Hard classroom shutterstock_689327416

Adult life is filled with illusions that die hard.

As a younger person, I somehow got the idea adults had it all together. I assumed that by a certain age, (probably 40 or so) you knew what to do, had what you needed, and had life all figured out.

If a wry smile comes to your face because of my naivete, I don’t blame you.

It’s likely I was shielded (or simply oblivious) to the sufferings and trials experienced by my parents and other adults around me. And that’s probably God’s mercy.

But then came the time (the first of many!) when I realized it’s not like that at all. Life is hard, a puzzle, an adventure, a roller coaster, a disaster (at times) and all together uncertain and unpredictable.

There are many amazing blessings in life, to be sure. But if we expect to figure life out and get everything “all settled,” we’re in for huge letdown. If we tie our hopes and security to this thing called “earthly existence,” we are in for devastating shocks and crushing disappointments.

One of the most constructive responses to a hard time is to learn from it. We can ask questions like: What is this teaching about myself in terms of my expectations, inner strength, and readiness? About others? About life in this broken world? About God?

There are some situations, however, where we will never find the answers in this life. Especially to the question, “Why?” But there is a way to find strength to press on.

During one tough season I confessed to the Lord that I was tired of “learning lessons.” Enough already! And as I was journaling, it was like the Lord said to me, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me as your Master Teacher to tutor and train you step by step by step.”

That led me to search the Scriptures for passages with the word “instruct.” Here are a few that encourage me greatly.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8 NIV).

God is a compassionate instructor. “With my loving eye on you” reassures us that the Lord does not scorn us for our lack of understanding. Instead, the Lord renews our minds and directs our steps (Proverbs 3:5-6), often in the very moment.

“I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7 NIV).

God meets us in our sleepless nights. When we can’t sleep, we can pray. And we can learn to listen. Don’t dismiss those encouraging thoughts that come, those insights, those memories and scriptures. I often get out of bed for a moment to write them down. I then consider them more carefully in the light of day.

“Good and upright is the Lord; therefore, he instructs sinners in his ways” (Psalm 25:8 NIV)

God does not require we be perfect in order to receive his teaching. He teaches us in the midst of our sin and brokenness, leading us to life.

When we live as disciples (a word meaning “students”) of the Lord in all that life brings, we discover a growing resilience, a deepening wisdom, a more realistic set of expectations, and, above all, the peace and power of God within that pass all understanding.

“So do not fear, for I am with you;

    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

Consider this again, as if the Lord is speaking to you, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me, the Lord your God, as your Master Teacher. I will tutor and train you step by step by step.”

May it be so, Lord, may it be so.

God Hates Death

picture of eiffel tower
Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

Your Cross to Bear?

Cross and Thorns_shutterstock_604789439

Definitions matter, especially in theology and spiritual formation.

A common example of an incorrect definition and misuse of a term is in the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” When most people speak of “a cross to bear,” they are referring to suffering or a trial they have to endure: like an illness, or caring for a difficult relative, or putting up with a challenging supervisor at work.

This phrase is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, “Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”

A thoughtful examination of this passage reveals that the cross is not merely an affliction to be tolerated or endured. The cross is Jesus’ place of mission, the place of his ultimate purpose, the place of judgement and redemptive sacrifice. Read the passage again, this time with verse 24 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’”

The cross is about losing your life– to save it. As Jesus’ followers, the cross is our place of mission where we open wide our arms as part of Jesus’ life-spending, life-giving mission in this world. The focus of the cross is always on others.

So what about suffering? What about that particular problem that nags you, wears on you and challenges your “cope”? The biblical image that best fits that situation is the “thorn.”

Paul spoke of his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. After experiencing a vision of the third heaven and paradise, Paul wrote, “…. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Paul never specifically defined his thorn. Some scholars think it was a significant eye problem (based on Galatians 4:13-16), but the most important lesson is God’s message to Paul about the thorn.

But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Spiritually speaking, a thorn is an affliction, weakness, struggle that drives us to depend on the Lord. (Don’t focus on the ‘messenger from Satan’ right now! That’s material for another time.) Paul spoke of the thorn in the context of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and other difficulties. A thorn humbles us, in the best sense of the word. It exposes our humanity so that our need for God becomes clearly inescapable and undeniable. We come to the end of our resources and make a new beginning with God’s strength.

Both the cross and the thorn express important, valid, yet different dimension of our calling in Christ.

Bear your cross as part of Jesus’ continuing mission in this world.

Take your thorn to the Lord and discover his strength in your weakness.

And remember, Jesus both bore the cross and endured the (crown of) thorns.

Pain Check

Back X Ray shutterstock_142567207

It felt like I’d been stabbed or cut across my back. Searing pain and a shot of burning that, literally, took my breath away. Like when I fell off the Monkey Bars in elementary school—that knocked-the-wind-out-of-you feeling. The word ‘excruciating’ seemed to be the best description—and this on the day after Palm Sunday, heading into Good Friday.

I had been reaching for a basket of dirty shirts from a small pantry off our laundry room, and that’s when the back spasm hit and wouldn’t let go. Ridiculous, right? Not a very brag-able injury…but it’s what happened.

And then something else happened. It’s what I’m calling the “Pain Check.” I became aware of an almost-instantaneous eruption of questions, concerns, fears, and anxieties that so often cluster around significant pain and illness. Pain triggers strong emotional dynamics. In addition to hurting the body, it can tear a hole in your soul—and it can offer opportunities for clarity and growth.

I’ll give my Pain Check List in a moment, but you might want to stop and make your own list. What do you tell yourself or ask yourself when you’re sick or hurting?

So here’s my basic list:

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!” (In this case, the back spasms continued unabated through Easter. I got through the Holy Week services with prayer, over-the-counter medication, rest, and adrenaline. Finally, I saw an orthopedic specialist—but that’s a story for the next blog).

And then there’s the “If only… If only… If only…”

You get the idea.

The “Pain Check” begins as a negative experience of self-accusation and usually moves into God-accusation. The physical pain often makes us turn against ourselves and even against God. But it doesn’t get stuck there.

We aren’t powerless. We don’t have to be victims or victimize ourselves. C. S. Lewis offered his famous insight into pain that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain). We can use these experiences to identify and challenge our negative self-talk. We can “freeze” the eruption of questions and respond to them in ways that make us stronger, in ways that are more reasonable and accurate. One way to think of this process is to frame it as a conversation with a dear friend or loved one. How would you respond to a friend who asked these questions?

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

My initial response can be pretty self-depreciating as I castigate myself for being inept, careless, thoughtless and so on. Actually, I wasn’t careless. I was simply doing something I needed to do and this happened. Things happen. No need wasting energy on self-blame. A more helpful response is: ‘I haven’t deliberately done anything to myself. This sort of thing happens. I need to use my energy figuring out how to cope and get better.’

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

Now that’s a complex question! The “Why? Question” doesn’t help much because a particular problem can be the direct consequence of an action, and/or the indirect consequence of an action, and/or simply the consequence of living a fallen world with a failing, mortal body. And even if we could answer the question, that would not change our current predicament.

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

Many of us tend to “catastrophize,” (as cognitive therapists call it) plunging into ‘worst-case scenario’ mode and forecasting a bleak future. In the vast majority of situations the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” may seem small solace, but can spark hope and perspective.

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!”

I am just going to say that God gets far, far too much blame for what happens. We live in a world that has rejected God and surrendered to the powers of the world, the flesh and the forces of evil. God is not the source of the problem, but God is the key to the solution.

I offer the Pain Check as a modest remedy for your soul. The Pain Check is the practice of naming your questions, fears and anxieties so you can address them with a renewed mind.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5 NLT).

Please understand I am not addressing the dynamics of chronic pain, nor the psychological depths of our reactions in crisis. It will often help to have the support of a wise, caring friend and even a skilled counselor and/ or spiritual director to relieve the soul distress in the midst of physical pain. But I hope the Pain Check can be a significant step to coping.