Archive | June 2016

The Spiritual Discipline of an Aching Heart

tears

I am captivated by the passion of the Bible.

The Bible is not written like a spiritual textbook, merely explaining and analyzing life’s spiritual truths.  Nor is it some dry history record of ancient peoples and ancient beliefs.  The Bible is filled with the passion of God.  In the pages of Scripture, we find God exploding over injustices that harm those whom God cares immensely about.  And we find God weeping in solidarity with those who are in deep sorrow.  And we find God rejoicing ecstatically with those whose joy is overflowing.

In the pages of Scripture, we find Jesus, whom John describes as the One who makes known to us the invisible God (John 1:18), weeping at times, angry at other times, and sympathetic often.  At times He is even described as aching in His gut for individuals.

The Bible also stresses that the work of the Holy Spirit is to grow within us the character of God.  Therefore, we need to realize that since the Bible reveals to us that God is passionate in His care for people, as we grow in His character we should expect to find ourselves growing in passionate care for people.

I see this truth lived out in a man named Nehemiah.  While Nehemiah was living in comfort as cupbearer to the king of Persia, he receives news about how poorly his countrymen are living in his homeland of Judah.  Listen to his reaction, as recorded in Nehemiah 1:4: “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept.  For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”

It seems to me that this is a “godly reaction,” a reaction in keeping with the character of God.

It seems to me that as we grow in the character of God, we will find ourselves caring passionately about the hurts and needs and joys of others.  It seems to me that as God’s character grows in us, we will find our hearts breaking with the things that break the heart of God.  The more we grow in Christ, the more we will find that the Christian life is not an uninterrupted flow of joys and blessings filling our lives, but many times involves a broken heart for the things that break the heart of God.

Perhaps one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can put into practice is the discipline of paying attention to the aching in our hearts.  It may well be that when you find your heart aching it is because you are in touch with the heart of God that is breaking for those whom He cares about deeply.  If that’s the case, continue to pay attention to how God happens to nudge you.  He may nudge you to do as Nehemiah did.  He may nudge you to weep and to mourn and to fast and to pray.  And He may nudge you to get involved in some further way (which is exactly what God did with Nehemiah as the story continues on).

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The “Magical Surprise” of a warm greeting

hand on shoulder

One of the last commands Paul writes to believers in 1 Thessalonians is a command I have carefully ignored through all of my Christian life.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:26 we are commanded, “Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss.”

The reason I have carefully ignored this command is that I have the tendency to take the Bible literally even when the intent of the Scripture is to teach a principle instead.  I was not about to put into practice the literal command of kissing everybody at church, so I simply ignored this command.

But I now begin to see that there is a vital principle taught in this command that I should not ignore and that no follower of Christ should ignore

The broad principle here is that we should greet one another within the fellowship of believers with depth of care and with enthusiasm and integrity.

Specific applications of this verse include at least three specifics:

1: To “greet all God’s people with a holy kiss” means that I am called to extend a warm welcome and caring encouragement to my brothers and sisters.  It would be good for me to remember how much it means to me to receive a warm welcome and caring encouragement, so that I might be conscientious about extending it to others.

Charles Morgan remarks, “There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved.  It is God’s finger on man’s shoulder.”  When we extend to others a warm greeting and caring encouragement, we help them to feel God’s finger on their shoulders.  We get the opportunity to participate in such a magical moment through something as simple as a warm greeting and caring encouragement.

2: To “greet all God’s people with a holy kiss” means that I am called to greet all of my brothers and sisters with warmth and concern.

The early church was a melting pot where Jewish believers and Gentile converts were now brothers and sisters with each other, where slaves and free were equal, where distinctions of race or ethnicity or gender were tossed aside by our common unity as fellow recipients of the grace of God.  Whenever such distinctions flared up in the early church, New Testament letters (like 1 Corinthians and James) were written to call believers back to unity in Christ.  The church today is meant to be such a melting pot where our unity is in this alone: You and I desperately need God’s forgiveness for our sins and we receive it by the grace of God through Jesus’ death on the cross for us.

3: To “greet all God’s people with a holy kiss” means that my greeting of my brothers and sisters, and all of my dealings with them, must be governed by holiness and integrity.  I must not greet or deal with a brother or sister in a way that is inappropriate.  I must never take advantage of a brother or sister in anyway.

Too many people have shared with me the deep pain they have experienced from some sinful Christian leader who touched them inappropriately or who molested them or raped them.  Too many people have shared with me the pain they have experienced from some sinful Christian leader who bullied them or took advantage of them financially or in some other way abused their position.  There is no place for such behavior in the body of Christ.  It is evil and cannot be tolerated.  The emphasis on holiness here is purposeful.

I hope I can do a better job of putting into practice the principle behind this command.

The Command that Restored my Heart

rejoice always

The shortest verse in the New Testament (in the original Greek), 1 Thessalonians 5:16, gives to us a command that I understand and appreciate more deeply now than I did two years ago.

Last year I went through a very trying time.  Following the death of my mother and of a couple of good friends, I ended up dealing with some other significant challenges.  Much in my life was turned upside down.  I faced criticisms that shook me deeply, and I faced major uncertainties about my future.  In the midst of my stress and discouragement, I came to discover that the command given in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is given for a reason: My spiritual and emotional health (and perhaps my physical and mental health as well) depended upon my obedience to that command: “Rejoice always.”

The New International Version translates this verse: “Be joyful always.”  The impression I get from this translation is that I ought to be in a perpetual state of happiness.  That certainly was not the reality of my life last year.

The New American Standard Bible translates it: “Rejoice always.”  What I hear in this translation is the command to me to rejoice in God even when I am not in a happy mood.  That became my experience.  In the midst of my struggles I picked up a couple of new verses from Scripture that I recited each day to keep my mind and soul focused on God’s promise to be with me through all things and to be my strength and hope and peace through it all.  Rejoicing always did not mean that I had to feel guilty about not being happy at all times, but it meant that I had a choice to make: The choice to turn my attention to God and to cling to the truth of His love and goodness and provisions of hope and peace and strength.

I appreciate Tim Hansel’s wise words on this topic.  He wrote the book You Gotta Keep Dancin’ out of his own struggle with constant pain following a climbing mishap in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  In this book he points out: “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.  We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy.  God has given us such immense freedom that He will allow us to be as miserable as we want to be.  I know some people who spend their entire lives practicing being unhappy, diligently pursuing joylessness.  They get more mileage from having people feel sorry for them than from choosing to live out their lives in the context of joy” (p. 55).

The command to us to “rejoice always” is the soul-rescuing and life-restoring command to make that vital decision not to lock up our hearts in the realm of misery but to turn our focus to the God of hope.  As I plodded through the daily discipline of focusing my heart on God’s character and promises, I was able to suck in drips and drops of peace from above and of grace and renewal.

Henri Nouwen wrote the book The Return of the Prodigal during a time of deep pain in his own life.  In that book he stresses, “Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.”  This is, indeed, the wonderful miracle of rejoicing: Rejoicing transforms the sadness in our soul to a fertile soil for joy.  It’s the command that saved my heart.

Steps to a Healthier Soul

dunluce-stairs.jpg

I am challenged by something Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write in their book, How People Grow: “Ultimately, we are only as healthy as our ability to relate as God relates.  He is honest, loving, and forgiving, communicates well, is able to be vulnerable, and so on.  This is health.  This is righteousness.  Good relating equals good health.  So if I can be drawn into sick patterns or sick relatedness by someone else’s sick patterns, then I am not healthy at all.  I am dependent and at the mercy of whatever treatment I am receiving at the moment” (p. 226).

This challenges me because I am beginning to see how easily I get drawn into unhealthy ways of relating to others.  When my feelings are hurt I pout or withdraw or respond defensively.  When I feel threatened or insecure I shut down and lose empathy; misunderstanding takes the place of understanding.  When I am tired, I lose patience.  When others reach out to me, I fear the vulnerability; I fear it might turn around to rejection which could hurt too much, so I retreat into patterns of self-sufficiency and independence.  Sometimes my obsessive-compulsive personality disorder flares up, and I get picky about things that don’t matter, or I get stuck in ruts.

Since I am only as healthy as my “ability to relate as God relates,” I need to pay attention to what Scripture reveals about how God relates.  One brief passage that provides practical insights into how God relates is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15.

In verses 12 and 13, Paul speaks of the importance of respecting persons and holding others “in highest regard in love.”  I can think of many times when I have treated persons in a disrespectful manner and have not held persons in highest regard, but I cannot think of a time when Jesus disrespected a person or failed to hold a person in high regard.  If I want to learn to relate as God relates, this is a good place for me to begin, by asking God to help me to treat others with respect.

In verse 13, Paul counsels me to “live in peace with each other.”  How often have my words or attitude or actions broken down peace with others?  Without descending into a co-dependent effort to make everyone happy, what can I do to build peace with others in my life?

In verse 14, Paul urges us to “warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”  It seems to me that this verse addresses at least three things that I need to be careful about if I want to relate in healthy ways: I need to be responsible about the things that are, indeed, my responsibility; I need to seek to encourage those who are discouraged; and I need to practice patience in my dealings with all people.

Verse 15 challenges me to make sure that I do not pay back wrong for wrong to anyone.  In my experience, though, I find that when I am hurt or wronged, it is easy for me to justify myself in being mean right back!  However, paying back wrong with wrong is the exact thing Cloud and Townsend warn me about when they advise me not to get “drawn into sick patterns or sick relatedness by someone else’s sick patterns.”

Verse 15 also counsels me “to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”  Consistently Jesus exhibited kindness in His dealings with people, if I want to imitate His way of relating, kindness would be a great habit for me to learn.  God, help me to live out Your kindness in my dealings with others.