Many years ago, Margaret Hopper Taylor, who had served many years as a Presbyterian missionary to Japan, struggled through a painful and fatal illness. She wrote a piece of prose entitled “Lament” which begins with her complaints and questions:
O Ruler of the universe, there drops before me a dark curtain shutting out the light of years ahead I had hoped to spend on Your beautiful earth. The physicians say my body houses a killer disease. They have no cures. Earth’s healers cannot heal. Their treatment is painful and debilitates. This frame that has carried me where I wished to go for 60 years now totters and weakens. Physical pain and lethargy I can bear, but am I never to see the ethereal glory of the cherry trees across the sea unwrap their heavenly beauty again? Will the emerald isles of the Inland Sea not rise once more before my eyes? Is the handclasp of friends soon to be no more? How can I say goodbye to the sons of my womb and their children? Heaviest of all is the thought of the final closing of my eyes on the loved face of my life’s partner, who cares for me in my illness as gently as a father does his little child. Is this Your will, O God?
When despair sets in, when life disappoints us, when our backs are up against the wall, questions gush out of our soul: Is this Your will, O God? Where are You? Do You care about me? Are You real? Can I trust You?
Is it permissible for us to question God or to voice our doubts?
Well, Abram, one of the first great heroes in the Bible expressed such doubts and raised such questions. After journeying to a land God had promised to give to him and waiting for many years for children to inherit the land, Abram’s frustration spurts out of his soul. In verse 2 he asks, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” In verse 3 he adds to his complaint, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” In verse 8 he does it again: “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
How does God respond to Abram’s expression of doubt?
Notice first what God doesn’t do: God doesn’t strike Abram dead or injured for doubting; and God doesn’t throw Abram away; and God doesn’t even scold him. God always responds well to genuine prayers—even when those prayers are an expression of our doubt.
What God does may seem surprising to us. God tells Abram to bring some animals.
Abram understands the meaning of this. He knows that this has to do with cutting a covenant, wherein two parties walk through the blood of severed animals, proclaiming, “This covenant is now sealed with blood. May it be done to me, as it has been done to these creatures, if I should ever break the covenant we have established between us. And may it be done to you, as it has been done to these animals, if you should ever break the covenant we have established between us. If you or I should ever break this covenant, may the one who breaks the covenant pay for it with his life!”
As it turns out, though, only God walks through the blood. God takes the full weight of the demands of the covenant upon Himself.
What kind of God is this who walks through the blood of severed animals rather than demanding that of us? What kind of God is this who swears upon Himself the loss of His own life if the covenant should be broken?
This is the kind of God whom Abram can trust to keep His promise. This is the kind of God whom we can trust even in the darkest and most troublesome times of our lives. This is the kind of God who will stop at nothing in His commitment to us!
Something has gone wrong.
We, as human beings, were made from God’s love and we were made to live into God’s love. We were designed to find fulfillment and satisfaction in God’s love.
But love cannot be forced upon us. By the nature of love, love must be a choice. In his book A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser explains, “More than anything, God covets our love. But real love can never be forced. Freedom is what makes love possible in the first place. That is why God will never coerce us into a relationship. Faith allows us to chooses God in freedom.”
Sadly, Genesis 3 reveals what happens in us when we turn our backs on the love we were designed for, when we pursue satisfaction or fulfillment void of God.
Oswald Chambers remarks, “The root of all sin is the suspicion that God is not very good.” That’s what Eve and Adam struggled with in Genesis 3. Was God holding back from them the chance to have their eyes opened and to be like God? Larry Crabb puts it this way: “The serpent suggests that there is a goodness that God hasn’t made available to Eve. She reaches for that supposed goodness.”
Out of that suspicion that God was not entirely good to them, Eve and Adam chose the route of disobedience rather than obedience. They chose to pursue happiness apart from and away from God.
Did they end up with satisfaction and fulfillment?
No, they ended up falling into a cesspool of problems.
Suddenly shame became the driving force of their lives. Out of shame, they sewed fig leaves together to cover up their nakedness. Charles Darwin claims, “Shame is what distinguishes us most markedly from the animal world.” Kahlil Gibran states, “Should we all confess our sins to one another we would all laugh at one another for our lack of originality.” Gibran recognizes that all of us struggle with the same sins, but we don’t admit them to each other because we are all driven by shame.
And fear hijacked their hearts. Adam and Eve hid from God because they were afraid. Larry Crabb comments, “Fear is…the first and strongest emotion felt after Adam and Eve took it on themselves to arrange for their maximum enjoyment of life.” Ever since then all of us struggle with fear.
They fell short of the good God intended for them. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write, “In trying to become God, they became less of themselves.” In Romans 3:23, Paul summarizes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And they adopted habits of inadequate cover-ups (fig leaves are worthless as clothing, but that is what Adam and Eve use to try to cover up their shame, and we have been trying inadequate cover-ups ever since) and of blame (Adam is quick to blame Eve for giving him the fruit, and Eve is quick to blame the serpent, and we are quick to blame as well).
Yet the God who made Adam and Eve out of love and for love, still reached out to them out of love and for love. Despite their rebellion against God, and despite how desperately they try to hide from God, He still comes looking for them. Rather than walking away from them, God walks into the garden asking, “Where are you?”
No matter how much we rebel against God and try to hide from Him, God still pursues us because His love for us is permanent. In his journal, which turned into the book The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, Henri Nouwen writes, “Your love, insofar as it is from God, is permanent. You can claim the permanence of your love as a gift from God. And you can give that permanent love to others.”
Something has gone wrong in us, but God’s love carries on!
Who am I?
Edward Dahlberg once reflected, “At 19, I was a stranger to myself. At 40, I asked, ‘Who am I?’ At 50, I concluded I would never know.”
Who am I? Who are you?
The Bible begins with a reflection on that question. In Genesis 1:27 God declares that human life is made in the image of God.
What does that say about who we are? What does it mean to us that we are made in the image of God?
Essential to understanding the nature of God are 1 John 4:8 and the doctrine of the Trinity.
1 John 4:8 announces succinctly, “God is love.” The doctrine of the Trinity reveals a God who lives forever in the realm of love. Throughout eternity, the Father has loved and will continue to love Jesus and the Holy Spirit; Jesus has loved and will continue to love the Father and the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit has loved and will continue to love the Father and Jesus.
When humankind was formed in the image of God, we were formed out of God’s eternal love, and we were formed for participation in that love. We are designed to enjoy the love God has given and received since before time began! We are designed to join in this love. We are designed for a loving relationship with God!
No wonder David proclaims in Psalm 42:1-2, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God.” We find our identity and our fulfillment in relationship with God.
And, being made in the image of the God, who gave His life for this world, we are designed to love others and to be loved by others. Personal identity and fulfillment are never found apart from loving others and being loved.
In the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul wishes them grace from God: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In the closing words of this letter he prays for God’s grace for them: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
The letter begins with God’s grace and it ends with God’s grace. What fills the rest of this letter are treasures that grow out of the grace of God:
- Joy: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy” (1:4); “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!” (3:1); and “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4)
- Hope: “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6); “And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (4:19)
- Integrity: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27)
- Compassion: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (2:1-4)
- Forgiveness: Particularly in how Paul calls for the Philippians to welcome Epaphroditus back after he let them down (2:25-30)
- Peace: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7); “And the God of peace will be with you” (4:9)
- Contentment: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (4:12)
- Strength: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (4:13)
In Changes that Heal Dr. Henry Cloud describes grace as: “Grace is the unmerited favor of God toward people. Grace is something we have not earned and do not deserve. As Frederick Buechner says, ‘Grace is something that you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream.’”
In Romans 5:8 Paul explains, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Lewis Smedes adds, “The gospel of grace releases us from the guilt of failure and opens new possibilities for a new effort. Moreover, it offers a new relationship with the Commander. He who pointed us to His design for living at Mount Sinai embraces us with His love at Mount Calvary.”
God’s grace toward us is what makes possible the great treasures we find in Philippians: joy, hope, integrity, compassion, forgiveness, peace, contentment, and strength. It is grace that makes these treasures available to us, for it is grace that enables us to be filled with the God of grace.
Conflicts exist even in a church. Or perhaps we should say that conflicts exist especially in a church. According to H. Newton Maloney, that’s a good thing. He writes,
“Many persons see differences as disruptive conflicts in the life of the church. They feel that the church should be one place where peace and harmony reign. They equate brotherly love with consensus. However, conflict is of the essence of the church.”
He goes on to explain, “Conflict has been the essence of the way in which the church has purified itself from within through the years. The church councils were full of differences designed to refine the faith and define heresy…. Throughout the centuries there have been those who have challenged the rest of the church to higher dedication. This has always resulted in conflict. Thus differences have helped the church express its faith to the world and purify itself from within. In this sense, the church is stronger for its differences because without them it might have peace and harmony but little vitality.” (from a paper entitled “Making the Most of Differences”)
The key issue is not whether conflicts happen in the church; the key issue is how we deal with the conflicts.
I tend to run. I am uncomfortable with conflict. I fear it and feel incompetent to handle it well. So I run and hope for nothing more than that it will just go away. But my approach has often led to greater problems.
Wisely and bravely, the apostle Paul takes a different approach. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul addresses a conflict between two women who had reputations as leaders in the church in Philippi.
One of the women is named Euodia. Her name means, “to give a prosperous journey,” like the French phrase “Bon Voyage.” The other woman is named Syntyche. Her name means “the unexpected coinciding to two events,” like our word “Serendipity.” Paul stresses that both women had “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel,” which is what he also said about his good friend Timothy in Philippian 2:22. And he refers to them as his “fellow workers,” which is also what he wrote about Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25).
These are great women in the church at Philippi but they are involved in some kind of clash, and Paul is not going to run away from it when the unaddressed conflict could cause great damage and when resolved conflict could bring much good to the church and its witness to its neighbors.
Paul does something here that he doesn’t do in any of his other letters. He asks a “loyal yokefellow” in the church to “help these women.” The resolution of conflict between two people often requires the help of a trustworthy third party, so Paul reaches out for that help.
William Barclay states, “It is significant to see that when there was a quarrel in the Church at Philippi, Paul mobilized the whole resources of the Church to mend it. Paul thought no effort too great to maintain the peace of the Church. A quarrelling Church is not a Church at all, for a quarrelling Church is a Church from which Christ has been shut out, and to which He cannot gain access.”
An old Family Circus cartoon shows Billy saying his prayers one night: “We went to your house yesterday, but we couldn’t find you.” Paul doesn’t want that to be the experience of anyone who worships with the believers in Philippi, so he takes steps to resolve the conflict.
What will this “loyal yokefellow” need to do to resolve the conflict?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon no longer be listening to God.” One of the most important things we can do is to listen to each other. That’s the first step.
Paul offers one other bit of counsel here (in Philippians 4:2). He calls for the two women to have one mind “in the Lord.” He doesn’t require them to have the same opinion about the issue. Nor does he demand that one give in to the view of the other. But he calls for them to be of one mind in the things of the Lord that unite them. He calls to them to be united in God’s grace and in their trust in Christ. This is the real hope for Christians, not that we will all agree on every issue but that we will be united in Christ!
Many years ago Parade magazine presented what it called “A Short Course in Human Relations.” Here is what it consisted of:
The SIX Most Important Words:
“I admit I made a mistake.”
The FIVE most important words:
“You did a good job.”
The FOUR most important words:
“What is your opinion?”
The THREE most important words:
“If you please”
The TWO most important words:
The ONE most important word:
The LEAST important word:
Let’s examine this course a bit more closely.
It begins with a call to face up to one’s wrongs. One of the greatest obstacles to a healthy relationship is when a person becomes entrenched in defending or justifying himself or herself. Great injury occurs to a person’s heart when a wrong has been committed but never admitted to. In the July 1, 2002 issue of Psychology Today, Beverly Engel shares, “Apology changed my life. I believe it can change yours as well. Almost like magic, apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts…. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.”
Next is a call to encouragement. When we compliment or affirm another person, it greatly lifts that person’s spirit. Mother Teresa claims, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” Diane Gottsman stresses, “A compliment wields great possibility. It shows respect, admiration, approval, gratitude, trust, appreciation, and hope. One of the most generous things you can do in your life is to give someone else a true and meaningful compliment. I encourage you to start with the next person you encounter.”
The next couple of lessons have to do with respecting the personhood of others. These lessons invite us to take a genuine interest in others, seeking their opinion and their permission. Some of the deepest pain in life comes from being ignored, neglected, dismissed or abandoned. But every time we seek a person’s opinion or permission, we show that person how much he or she matters, we affirm their personhood, we uphold their value in our life.
Then we come to gratitude. Brother David Steindl-Rast argues, “Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy—because we will always want to have something else or something more.” Johannes A. Gaertner adds, “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”
The last two lessons address the poison of selfishness and the joy of relationships with others. St. John of the Cross remarked, “The virtuous soul that is alone…is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter.” A Jewish proverb adds, “Each life is like one letter of the alphabet. Alone it can seem utterly meaningless, but combined with others it can be part of something beautiful.”
Chuck Swindoll writes,
“I love babies…. I think it’s a delightful, enjoyable experience to watch babies grow up and to become little people…. But you and I know that there are some things about little babies that are not very attractive. We humor them because they’re babies.
“Here’s a list of things: They are dependent and demanding. They are unable to feed themselves. They are unable to stay out of messes. They love to be the center of attention. They are driven by impulses, such as hunger, pain, sleep. They’re irritated when they’re dirty, even though they made the mess, and you’ve gotta clean it up. They have no manners, no control. They have little attention span, no concern for others, no abilities or skills.
“Now these are natural things that are a part of babyhood. But when you see adults with those characteristics, something tragic has happened, something terribly unfunny. The Christian who is not interested in growing wants to be entertained. He wants a diet of milk when he cries for it. He wants his way. And he’s gonna get it, no matter how many he will have to disrupt to get it.
“You see, in order for a Christian to handle solid food, he has to have a growing, mature digestive system. He needs teeth. He needs to have an appetite that is cultivated over a period of time for deep things, for the solid things of God. Spiritual babies must grow up. Some of the most difficult people to live with in the church of Jesus Christ are those who have grown old in the Lord but haven’t grown up in Him.”
That’s the essence of the message Paul shares in the second half of Philippians 3: A Christian should grow in the faith not freeze in the faith. We should move forward with Christ rather than getting stuck in the same infantile level where we began.
In Philippians 3:12-14 Paul tells us, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Paul speaks of pressing on and of straining toward what is ahead. These phrases imply action on the part of the person who wants to grow spiritually. There is no implication here that we grow spiritually by sitting back and waiting for growth to happen to us.
If an apostle as great as Paul never reached a point where he could sit back and stop trying to grow spiritually, neither should we.
Christians need to recognize that spiritual growth does not happen in a vacuum or in a Lazy Boy chair. It happens in the crucible of daily life as we seek to live with Christ’s heart and values in everything that comes our way. It happens in the “spiritual training room” of the community around us while we practice Christ-like compassion, humbleness, and goodness in the situations we encounter. And it happens in the midst of Christian fellowship as we encourage one another in steps or growth while also picking each other up whenever we fall.
The aim of our life with Christ is growth not stagnation.