Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.

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Car trouble–chastening, or a thorn?

When I am driving down the street and I smell gasoline, I immediately assume that something is wrong with my car. So long as no warning lights are shining on the dashboard and nothing else seems abnormal about the car’s handling, I try to assure myself that someone else’s car is to blame, or perhaps I am smelling a gas station nearby.

Yesterday as I drove to work, I noticed a strong odor of gasoline. Nothing lit on the dashboard, and the car handled normally, so I worked to assure myself that someone else’s car was to blame. My first candidate was the car in front of me, the one with the “WHF” license plate—certainly that car was to blame for the whiff of gasoline in the air. But when that car went through a yellow light and I stopped at the red light, the odor did not dissipate.

I got downtown, turned a corner, and stalled on the tracks. That was a frightening moment. I turned on the hazard flashers, waited a moment, and turned the key. The car started again. Then I noticed that the fuel gage needle was visibly dropping. I had left home with about five-eights of a tank of gas; a dozen miles later, I was approaching a quarter tank. With the car running, I circled around and headed back the other direction, to the mechanic’s shop where I usually take my car.

Ten to fifteen minutes of solid prayer later, I arrived at the shop, about two minutes before they were due to open. When they opened I was first in line—actually, I was the entire line—and so my car was examined right away. The mechanic found that a bolt had broken, allowing the gasoline to leak. An hour later the car was fixed (although the odor remained, filling the garage after I went home yesterday evening and seeping into the house during the night). All I had lost was an hour at work, fifty dollars for the repair, and about ten dollars of gasoline.

My counselor says that I have an over-developed sense of guilt. When things go wrong, I ask what I have done to deserve it. Somehow this sense is particularly strong when it comes to motor vehicles. Some people would say, “Well, it could have been much worse,” which is of course true. But why does trouble have to happen at all?

Some Christians might call my attention to Hebrews 12, the verses about chastening coming from the Lord because he loves us. That approach reinforces my over-developed sense of guilt. I can easily locate things I am doing that are wrong, and I can persuade myself that God is chastening me for my sins. But that approach does not match what I write and teach about the problems we all face. We live in a world polluted by sin. Sin is unfair. We do not suffer for our own sins: the wicked prosper, while the righteous suffer. If such injustice were not allowed, then Jesus could never have borne the burden for our sins, and we could not be forgiven.

Last Sunday I was teaching about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul prayed to God, asking God to remove the thorn, but God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul concluded that when he was weak, then he was strong, because his strength came from the Lord and not from himself. I added that our spiritual enemies want to use our problems to make us doubt God—his love for us, or his ability to protect us, or his willingness to take care of us even though we are sinners. When our problems remind us of the suffering of Christ, the price he paid to redeem us, then our enemies lose and we share in Christ’s victory.

My problem was relatively small and relatively easy to fix. All the same, it served to reinforce my anxiety and stir up again the impression that I deserve to suffer for my sins. I had to remind myself to practice what I preach—to permit the small inconvenience and expense of a car repair to remind me of the cross of Christ and his victory over the greatest of evil, as well as the smallest expressions of evil. J.

Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

Heavy hearted

The administration where I work discourages us from visiting Facebook while at work. Their biggest concern is not that we spend every minute while on the clock with our noses to the grindstone; their biggest concern is reserving enough bandwidth space for our patrons and our workers. Most of us cheat on this policy at least a little. I’m not going to worry about getting caught visiting Facebook briefly when I log in and see that my boss is also shown online.

Today was a bad day to glance at Facebook. One of the first posts I saw was from a close family member. Her post was personal and thoughtful, reminding me of the struggles she has been facing and the courage with which she has done so.

Right under that was a post saying that one of my friends from college has died.

I feel guilty not keeping in touch with this friend. Over the past few months he has been battling cancer, and he used Facebook to report his treatment and progress to all his friends. I regret that I never once responded with encouraging words. In fact, often I would skim his updates and then move on to someone else. (Can you spell TMI?) When I got home from work this afternoon, one of my first projects was to write a letter to his wife (also a friend from college) expressing my condolences and offering my prayers. I know this sounds odd, but I feel as though a mailed letter might atone for my lack of communication with them on Facebook.

When I first opened a Facebook account, my main reason to do so was to keep track of my children’s lives. Over time high school friends and college friends began emerging, and it was nice to be in touch. I’ve never been one to share much on Facebook, though—I’m more of a lurker, keeping tabs on other people in my life without reminding them too often of my existence.

The Big Chill was released when my friends and I were in college. We all saw the movie and speculated about the future of our friendships. Some of us were able to return to campus for Homecoming Weekend in the first years after graduation. I remember in particular one uproarious evening in a restaurant when most of the group was there. Over time, though, jobs and families made it harder for the group to assemble. If not for Facebook, by now most of us would be strangers to each other, with a few still making the effort to update one another with a letter at Christmas.

I won’t be able to make it to his funeral. I expect that most of the rest of our college group will also be missing. I feel bad about that absence, but it can’t be helped. Along with memories of past good times, I am also making sure to appreciate the people in my life today—especially the one who almost didn’t make it this far. J.

Elf on the Shelf

I recently read a review of the Elf on the Shelf with which I strongly agreed. Because I have already established my reputation as a curmudgeon, I am proud to be able to proclaim a loud “Bah, humbug” to the Elf on a Shelf.

My feelings about this Elf were formed long before the product had even been designed. Every December when I was little a wreath would appear on my bedroom door overnight, a wreath that had a plastic elf sitting on the lower part. I cannot remember now what my parents told me about that elf, but I associated it with the elves that my parents said were watching me. Not only did they make toys at the North Pole, but Santa’s elves also helped Santa keep track of which children were naughty and which children were nice. (Wild rabbits, my parents also claimed, helped keep the Easter Bunny apprised of children’s behavior in the weeks before Easter.) No wonder I found the elf in the wreath to be a sinister element of the holiday decorations.

When I was older, the elf in the wreath no longer appeared in December. However, one December when I came home from college after Finals Week, the same wreath was once again on my bedroom door. Now I was old enough to tell my parents how I felt, and I asked them to remove the wreath. When they asked why, I told them that I had always found the plastic elf to be creepy, more than a little bit disturbing.

I’ve seen pictures of the Elf on a Shelf, and he looks a lot like my childhood elf. I understand, of course, that the Elf on the Shelf involves more of a story than merely spying for Santa, but the elves are similar enough for me to put my foot down and say, “Not in this house.” When my children were little, I did not frighten them with stories about a judgmental Santa with spies hidden everywhere. What little I said about Santa—and mostly I let the songs and books tell the story—made clear that he was simply a nice man who liked to give gifts at Christmastime.

Perhaps I should discuss Santa and his elfin spies with my therapist. She has already noted that I have a bit of a problem dealing with guilt over petty and harmless matters. Christmas is stressful enough, equally for adults and for children; the last thing any of us need is a sense of guilt and judgment tied to the holiday season. The joy of Christmas is not that we have all been nice and deserve gifts from Santa; the joy of the season is that we have a Savior, Christ the Lord, who rescues us from all guilt and all judgment. Several years ago, another blogger posted a very good short story with this very theme: you can read it here.

Season’s greetings, happy holidays, and a holy Advent to you all. J.

 

“Don’t Worry,” he says

Christians know that Jesus told us not to worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-26, NIV)

Some Christians treat these words of Jesus as the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not worry. They remind each other that Jesus told us not to worry. They try to hide from themselves the fact that they sometimes worry, or else they feel guilty and confess that they have been worried. This worrying turns into a vicious spiral: first one is worried about something, then one worries about worrying, and soon one worries about worrying about worrying.

For Christians afflicted with anxiety, this vicious cycle occurs far too easily. Reminding an anxious person that Jesus says “Don’t worry” only adds to the anxiety—there’s one more thing I’m doing wrong. Telling an anxious Christian to “pray about their problems and trust God” only adds to the guilt and anxiety. As long as the words of Jesus are treated as commands, our efforts not to worry are likely to drive us deeper into anxiety and despair.

Jesus did not mean to be understood in this way. He meant his words to be a promise, not a warning. He told us not to worry because we do not need to worry. God has already solved all our problems. God is taking care of us, whether we can see his care or not. God will not abandon us to our problems, even if we do worry or do break his commands. The forgiveness of Jesus overcomes all our disobedience and all our shortcomings.

Consider this analogy: a man and woman have been married for a year or two. They both work, and they take turns fixing dinner. On the morning of his birthday, knowing that it is his wife’s turn to make dinner, he asks her, “What dinner have you planned for tonight?” She replies, “Don’t worry about it.” Do you think that she means those words as a threat? If somehow she finds out that he has been worrying about dinner, is she going to refuse to serve him dinner? Of course not. When she says “Don’t worry about it,” she is promising that she has all things under control. She will have a dinner ready for him. If she says “Don’t worry about it” instead of describing what she has planned, she probably wants to surprise him with a special dinner on his birthday.

In the same way, when Jesus says “Don’t worry,” he is not warning to punish any person he finds worrying. Of course we cannot make our lives longer by worrying; worrying probably shortens our lives. At the very least, it reduces the quality of our lives. However, worrying about worrying gets us nowhere. Jesus does not want anyone to worry about worrying. He wants us to approach life with confidence, knowing that he is in control and he will not let us down. Even if we struggle with worries and anxiety, Jesus does not give up on us. When we fall, he picks us up and puts us back on our feet. When we do wrong, he forgives us because of what Jesus has done for us. When we worry—and everybody sometimes worries—he says, “You don’t need to worry.” We can stop worrying about our worrying, because Jesus really doesn’t have a problem with our worries.

“Cast your cares on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). Again, this is a promise, not a command. God does care about each of us. He is big enough to handle all our worries, even all our anxiety. The last thing Jesus wants any of us to do is to worry about our worries.

J.