Naming Abuse

“There must be some other explanation for his behavior. I am so confused. I know he loves me, so why is he treating me this way?”

The telltale signs of an abusive relationship were obvious to everyone else, but David just couldn’t see them. His friends kept warning him that something wasn’t right, but David didn’t want to believe it. Saul was his hero, the one everyone looked up to. Saul was the anointed one, the king that God had chosen to be in charge. Surely he wouldn’t be intentionally trying to hurt David. It was unthinkable to him that Saul could be that evil and conniving.

David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
1 Samuel 16:21-23

Saul was like a father to him. From the first time had been invited to Saul’s home, David had known he was special to Saul. Saul had been so pleased with him that he had begged David’s father to let him stay there and live with his family. He had rapidly promoted David through the ranks of his army, and had offered to make him his son-in-law. They were all family now! Saul’s daughter was David’s wife; his son Jonathon was David’s best friend. They ate together, laughed together, and solved the nation’s problems together.

From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father’s house. …
And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice. Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with David but had left Saul.
1 Samuel 18:2, 9-12

David had to admit that Saul had gotten extremely possessive of him. He always wanted to know where he was and what he was up to. He didn’t allow David to go home and visit his own family any more. And his eagerness to tighten their family ties had seemed a bit odd, putting David in awkward positions where he had little choice but to acquiesce to Saul’s forceful overtures. But surely David should feel grateful that Saul wanted him around, not resentful. He should feel honored, not trapped.

Now Saul’s daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. “I will give her to him,” he thought, “so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.” So Saul said to David, “Now you have a second opportunity to become my son-in-law.” …
Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’ ” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.
1 Samuel 18:20-21, 25

It also seemed a bit strange that Saul kept demanding more and more of him, sending David instead of himself to lead the army into dangerous situations. Quite frankly, some of it seemed like an unnecessary risk (like the 100 Philistine foreskins Saul wanted for his daughter’s dowry). But at the same time, Saul always acted so concerned about his safety. David would never forget that tender moment when Saul had dressed him up in his own armor before sending him out to face Goliath. Then again, why had Saul sent a boy to do a king’s job? Surely Saul cared about him. Surely he valued David’s life.

Besides, Saul needed him. Who else could take care of him when those horrible fits came over him? David had seen Saul at his most vulnerable; he had seen that wild, frightened expression and had been the only one who could protect him from the tormenting spirit and soothe his frayed nerves. Yes, those had also been the times when Saul had lunged at him in a deadly rage, but David excused his violent behavior. Saul couldn’t really mean it; it must just be the evil spirit making him act that way.

Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan was very fond of David and warned him…
Saul listened to Jonathan and took this oath: “As surely as the LORD lives, David will not be put to death.” So Jonathan called David and told him the whole conversation. He brought him to Saul, and David was with Saul as before.
1 Samuel 19 1-2, 6-7

And yet there was no denying the fact that Saul had told his friends that he wanted David dead. Even Jonathan had heard it, and had warned David. Was this for real, or should they chalk this up to his madness? After a clarifying conversation with his father, Jonathan was reassured that he had no intent to harm David. So once again, David returned to the intimacy of a relationship that felt increasingly confusing and dangerous.

Naming abuse is the first step towards healing it.

David wanted to believe the best about the man he loved, to be able to open himself to the relationship he thought they had. He sat in Saul’s presence, playing his harp and singing from his heart, but his mind was conflicted. Was this man his friend or his enemy, his father or his foe?

But an evil spirit from the LORD came upon Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the harp, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape.
1 Samuel 19:9-10

An angry shout. A violent lunge. Saul’s spear pierced the heart of the wall, bringing David face to face with the reality he had too long avoided. Saul meant to hurt him. The loving charade that Saul had carried on was unmasked, and David finally recognized his relationship for what it was: abuse.

Abuse rarely presents itself as obvious to those caught in its trap. We explain away the abuse because it is so antithetical to what we want to believe is true. And just when our excuses begin to wear thin, they are shored up by a tender act of kindness or a verbal affirmation of love from the person we had started to doubt. But flattering words don’t erase cutting remarks; extravagant gifts don’t heal deep wounds. As long as we remain oblivious to the true nature of an abusive relationship, we remain defenseless to its harm. Naming abuse is the first step towards healing it.

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Homeless but Hopeful

I hate packing. Hate is pretty strong language for such a mundane task, but the sight of jumbled piles and a deconstructed home revives unsettling memories of years of frequent moves and unexpected transitions. More than once I have awakened in the morning, knowing that my family’s belongings needed to be sorted through, packed up, and moved out before the end of the day, but not knowing where our next home would be, let alone where we would sleep that night. I have too often fought off that familiar lump of panic in my throat while paring down our possessions, making an endless series of emotionally laden, partially informed decisions about what we should hold on to and what we can give up.

Packing reminds me that I am essentially homeless. Each time I go through the process of either relinquishing or transporting the sum total of my earthly goods, I live out the reality that there is no place on earth that I can call my own. And each time I empty a place that I had cleaned, decorated, and made into a refuge for my family, I am faced with the bare truth that it was never really my home.

What happened to the blessing of being securely settled in the land, of planting gardens and still being around to enjoy their fruit? Is that sense of settled security not something that I should look for, too?

The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Displacement and homelessness have always been a reality for God’s people, transition and immigration have always been our lot in life. When God brought His people out of slavery in Egypt, He took them through forty years of homelessness, forty years of waking up each morning and wondering if this day they would have to pack and move again, forty years of going to bed each night and wondering where the next day’s food and water would come from. No continuity with their past. No security for their future. No place on earth they could claim as their own, except what God provided.

“In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble… By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone– until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by. You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance– the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.”
Exodus 15:13-17

But He did provide. Day after day He showered down food. Night after night He kept watch from the pillar of fire in their midst. He took them through harsh conditions and terrifying moments, leading them away from the only known sources of water and civilization and towards the unknown of adverse terrain and hostile people. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with gratitude at His past provision. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with fear at their future uncertainty. But at all times, God was their refuge, their safe place, their home.

“In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. …If you would but listen to me, O Israel! You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not bow down to an alien god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
Psalm 81:7-10

Like the forty days that Jesus endured in the wilderness, these forty years of insecurity and homelessness were a time of training. God was walking his people through a series of carefully crafted trials, designed to disconnect them from their former home, deconstruct their former identity, and detach them from every source of security save Himself. But through that painful weaning process, He was preparing them for a better home than the one they had left.

…They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. … If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Looking back on all they had lost, the price seemed too high: at least in Egypt they had been settled. But looking forward to the home God had promised, they had every reason to persevere, to embrace the pilgrimage on which God was leading them.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
Psalm 84:1-2, 4-7, 10

Comfortably settled in my own current dwelling, I find it easy to lose sight of the life-long pilgrimage to which God has called me. But when I raise my eyes beyond my pretty kitchen curtains to gaze on the beauty of His dwelling place, my heart churns with longing for my real home. In seasons of comfort and of distress, He has been my shelter.

Pilgrimage is not easy; frequent moves and unsettling circumstances inevitably feed our fears about whether we will survive the journey. But along the way He turns our struggles into blessing, our tears into sources of fruitfulness and beauty. The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Psalm 90:1

Confessions of an Abuser

Preying on the vulnerable, exploiting the faithful, manipulating the loyal, harming the weak: abuse in any of its many forms is utterly despicable, a violation of God’s image within His people and a frontal assault against Himself. But what happens when an abuser repents? What does it look like when someone guilty of such heinous crimes confesses their wrongs and wants to be forgiven? Incredibly, we have been given access to the personal diary of a repentant abuser.

God receives the confession of an abuser.

David was guilty of all of the above, and worse. He had done the unthinkable with one of the women in his congregation and had tried to cover it up with the “accidental” murder of her husband. Full of justice and righteous indignation, God had confronted David with his crimes and pronounced him guilty. What recourse was left for this convicted abuser? Where could he go from here?

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1–2

God had always been his refuge in times of crisis, but this time God was his judge, not his defender. This time David was the perpetrator of evil, not its victim. Turning to God would mean getting closer to his accuser. David knew how God dealt with the wicked. How often had he prayed down God’s judgment and vindication on others? Terrified. Defenseless. And yet David also knew that God was his only hope, the only one who could rescue him from himself.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Psalm 51:3–4

And so David flung himself at God’s feet, with no grounds for appeal except for God’s compassion. No excuses, no avoidance, no self-defense. He openly admitted just how wrong he had been. He grieved over how deeply he had offended God and acknowledged that God had every right to be angry with him. He affirmed God’s ruling: God was right, and he was wrong.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Psalm 51:5–6

As David examined himself in God’s presence, his understanding of himself became increasingly humble. He was deeply flawed. In fact, he came to realize that he had always been flawed; he had never been above such depths of depravity. Of course God held him to a high standard of integrity and righteousness in all of his dealings, both public and private. But that was beyond him, apart from God’s help and intervention.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Psalm 51:7–10

David lost all confidence in himself, but he gained a greater hope in God. He had blown it, but God could make it right. He was tainted, but God could make him clean. He was ruined, but God could restore him. He was faulty, but God could re-create him.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Psalm 51:11–12

God could do all that for David, but the outstanding question was: would He? David had seen what happened to Saul, his abuser, when God had confronted him in a similar way. God had stripped him of his honor, rejected him as a leader and, worst of all, removed His Spirit from him. The memory of Saul’s tormented face was fresh in David’s memory. Terrified of being abandoned by God, David begged God not to leave. All he could do was plead for God to save him, to restore him, and to keep his heart and mind in the right place from now on.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16–17

David knew he had no leverage with God, no way to obligate Him to put his inexcusable actions behind His back and restore him to leadership. He couldn’t bribe God with extravagant offerings; he couldn’t appease Him with sacrificial service. All he could bring to God were his brokenness over what he had done and his deep desire to change.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
Psalm 51:13-15

If God would accept these, if God would restore him, then David wanted nothing more than to use his failures to aid him in helping fellow sinners discover God’s redeeming grace. He would not cover up the abuses he had perpetrated; he would allow his weakness to be shown so that the incredible extent of God’s love could be put on display.

David recorded his failures and fears, his laments and longings for God and all the rest of us to hear. His prayer of confession not only models what a righteous response to personal sin looks like, it also holds out hope for all abusers who grieve over the damage they have caused others and the pain they have caused God. God receives the true confession of an abuser. He welcomes all who come to Him with a contrite heart. And as the story of David goes on to show, He uses broken leaders to build up His church.

The Hard Way

“Lord, why do we have to do this the hard way?”

Last year I set out on an ambitious Good Friday run, wanting to conclude Lent with a time to focus on Christ’s sufferings on the cross and prepare to celebrate His resurrection. The first twelve miles were bathed in glorious sunlight. My heart soared in worship to strains from Handel’s Messiah as I wound along glistening brooks and through green rolling hills. But soon heavy snow clouds rolled in and a Siberian wind whipped across the North Sea, stopping me almost dead in my tracks as I struggled to push on across the wide-open fields. For the next twelve miles I contended with the elements, my double-gloved hands coated in an inch of frozen slush and my eyes stinging from the driving sleet. This was not fun; my exuberant praise quickly faded into frustrated survival. Why was God making this so hard on me? We had been having such a great time together. Why did He have to go and complicate it with hardship?

As I survey the scope of human history, I keep coming away with the same question. Why complicate the perfection of the garden with a fruit tree that would encourage people to stumble? Why complicate the beauty of the Church by filling her with unfinished works-in-progress who hurt each other and tarnish His glory?

The hard way leads to glory.

I have a growing suspicion that God values doing things the hard way. He has certainly involved Himself in a fair share of hardship. There were easier, much more direct ways to get His people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. Instead, God led them across a sea and meandered with them through a desert for forty years. There were nicer, more comfortable ways for Jesus to connect with God and hammer out a vision for His ministry. Instead, God led Him to pass through the river and to meander in a desert for forty days. Somehow hunger and homelessness, loneliness and danger, internal wrestling and external testing were all a significant part of God’s plan for them. But what was the point? What was all that hardship supposed to accomplish?

…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.
God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:1, 7, 10–11

Any good coach knows that answer to that one. Hardship trains us; suffering perfects us. Yes, it is miserable. Yes, we gripe and complain and wish we could squirm our way out of it. But in the end, it makes us stronger and better than we were before. It sheds our excess weight. It focuses us in on what really matters. And it sets us up for success in the great contest of life.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 2:10–11; 12:2

So what is this great victory that we are training for? What gain makes all the pain worthwhile? We are being fitted for glory, qualified to live as adult kids in God’s house, to share in the inheritance of all that belongs to Him, to rule over heaven and earth along with Him. Amazingly, His firstborn Son is on board with that plan. He even subjected Himself to intensive training in order to make it possible. In the grueling race that we now run, we are merely following in His footsteps.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Romans 8:16–18

The longer I meditate on the ways of God, the more I see a pattern emerge. He is not a God of short cuts, of easy, 3-step formulas. He does sympathize with our suffering and deliver us from trial, but not in a way that makes it all go away overnight. If anything, He orchestrates complexity and hardship in our lives in order to train us for something better than we had to start with, better than we would have thought to pursue on our own.

The hard way leads to glory.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Romans 8:29–30

Abuse Exposed

Abuse is such an ugly topic; it pains me to write about it. But left unaddressed, its sinister message continues to radiate through layer after layer of its victim’s soul, damaging the very essence of the image of God within. Following my own devastating experience of abuse, I wrestled for years with gut-wrenching questions about what I was worth in light of the treatment of me that God and others seemed to deem “beneath their notice.”

They clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. … They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?”
Psalm 73:6-8, 11

Did God not see what was happening to me? Did He not hear me calling for help? I thought He was the righteous Judge of all the earth, the One who sees everything and calls the wicked to account. So why did they get away with treating me this way? Is this really how He is going to let my story end, with me a broken mess and my abusers perfectly unscathed?

The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

But that isn’t how the stories of His other abused children turned out. God saw what had happened to Bathsheba. He took note of how Uriah was handled. And He was not about to turn a blind eye to such abuse, even if it was at the hands of one of His favorites, a man after His own heart.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. … Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
2 Samuel 12:1-4

How could David live with himself? Surely he knew that his actions were wrong, and yet somehow he managed to justify them to himself. Despite his un-confessed sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, David maintained a strong sense of his own righteousness and a quick willingness to judge others. After all, he was God’s appointed leader, the one called to make sure everyone else was obeying God’s law.

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
2 Samuel 12:5-6

What David could not see in himself, he readily identified in others. So when the prophet Nathan approached him with the case of one man using his power to take advantage of another, David did not hesitate to judge such behavior as intolerably wrong, deserving of severe punishment.

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:7-9

In one of His grand reversals, God yanked the carpet out from underneath David’s royal feet, leaving him flat on his face, defenseless and exposed. Who did he think he was, taking all the privilege and position that God had given him and using it to get more? God had not given him the right to treat others however he deemed fit. He named the people David had abused, cataloguing his crimes against them. They were precious to God too, and He was here to judge the judge for their abuse.

The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants? … But suppose the servant … then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants … That servant who knows his master’s will and … does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. … From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:42-48

David was not above the law, somehow an exception to the standards that he held for others. In fact, God judged him all the more severely because David knew His standards and ignored them, because he used his position of leadership to get away with his own self-indulgence. God had entrusted him with much, and he had abused it. Did he really think that God wouldn’t notice?

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ”
2 Samuel 12:11-12

God had seen every action, heard every word, noted every detail of their mistreatment. What David had done in secret, God was going to make public. What David had thought he would get away with, God was going to repay in the sight of all. And the price was going to be high, so much so that anyone who heard of it would wince at its brutality.

For all those who have suffered at the hands of others, who have wondered if God really notices or will ever right such horrible wrongs, the story of God’s harsh retribution of David’s crimes lays our questions to rest. (If anything, it moves us to compassion on behalf of our abusers, making us want to ask God to go a little easier on them.) Yes, He will vindicate our suffering; He will expose our abuse, no matter how important or invincible our abusers may seem. This is what we are worth to God. The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

What Are We Waiting For?

Most days, the city streets of our former home in South Asia confronted me with a sharp awareness of the curse, a devastating reminder that God’s kingdom has not yet fully come. Naked, malnourished children. Deformed cripples. Emaciated animals. Chaos and filth. Poverty and oppression. The vacant stares of hope-deprived women. The overworked bodies of desperate men. The sight of their suffering revolted me, overwhelmed me, and moved me to compassion, all at the same time.

And then there was the day when I stepped out into those same streets only to encounter an eerie silence, open clean spaces where the squatters and beggars normally overflowed, white straight lines where the trash and stray animals usually cluttered. All traces of mess, misery, and squalor had been swept away overnight, and the road had been prepared for a visiting dignitary. For that one day, the scene looked right. I could walk down the road without a jarring sense of the world being horribly wrong.

But what had become of all those people? Had their wounds been tended, their bodies fed, their families sheltered, their dignity restored? This quick-fix looked really good for a moment, but what difference did it make in the long run?

But you, O LORD, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion… He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. … “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:12-20

When I look back on the world of the Old Testament, I see devastating famines and wars, cruel oppression and slavery, hunger, sickness, homelessness, and death. And I see God’s hope-inspiring promises to come and turn the curse on its head, to bring His kingdom in all its beauty and “rightness.” The pleas of the destitute would be heard and responded to. The plight of the suffering would be noticed and made right.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:18-21

With the coming of Jesus, I see God’s fulfillment of so many of those promises. He didn’t send out a brute squad to clear the rabble off of the streets to prepare a nice, tidy way for the coming King. He walked into the middle of the mess Himself and got busy unraveling the curse, one need at a time. A blind man? Healed. A bereaved mother? Given back her son. A hungry crowd? Fed their dinner. A demonically oppressed man? Delivered. A shamed woman? Protected and honored.

Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
John 15:20

Despite Jesus’ extraordinary work to break the curse in so many areas, He lived a life of hunger, homelessness, and oppression, meeting His end prematurely in a violent, unjust death. His disciples suffered political oppression and physical ailments, relational tensions and poverty just as He did. And He promised all of us who want to follow Him that we can expect plenty more of the same.

The presence of God’s Spirit reverses the curse in our lives, flowing His life into us and bearing His fruit through us.

Today I look around me at the many people I know who are abused or bereaved, sorrowing and suffering, questioning and depressed, and I wonder where that kingdom is now. Was Jesus’ life among us just a blip on the long, unending horizon of human suffering? Was it just a temporary reversal of the curse, applicable only during the short time that the Dignitary was visiting our town? He finished His job and left, going home to His pristine throne room and glorious entourage. Are we on our own again, back to the normal of life in a messed up world?

Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. … Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.
Acts 3:2-7

But just before He left, Jesus promised His followers that He would be with them, that He would send His Spirit to continue His work among them. The presence of His Spirit would reverse the curse in their lives, flowing life into them and bearing fruit through them. And just after receiving that Spirit, a few of them walked the city streets and encountered a crippled beggar. What help did they have to offer? The message of redemption for his soul, but along with that, the power to break the curse on his body.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8:35-37

Our streets are still messy, our bodies are still a shambles, our souls are still plagued with sorrow and doubt. But we have more than just hope for the life to come. We have the Spirit of God surging through us, transforming our spirits, renewing our minds, and even intervening in the curse on our physical world. Yes, we are waiting for that grand, all-encompassing day when everything will be made new. But in the meantime, the Spirit of our King is empowering us to face down trial after trial, caring for one need at a time, until His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven.

Power Plays

Uriah showed up in his pastor’s office dusty, worn, and still reeling from the intensity of battle. For weeks on end he had been in the trenches, grappling with a powerful enemy by day and constantly on high alert for an attack by night. He had stared death in the face more times than he could count, and he had watched as many a comrade in arms had fallen prey to it. But he soldiered on despite it all, believing body, mind, and spirit in the worthiness of the cause he was serving.

Being suddenly called off the front lines of battle by his leader came as quite a surprise. The job wasn’t done, his friends were still in the thick of the fight, and he was desperately needed. Nevertheless, he dropped everything and came, trusting that their leader must have some more urgent assignment for him.

So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.
2 Samuel 11:6-7

High, cedar-beamed ceilings. Pristine corridors. Ornate furnishings. A smooth, polished handshake. Have a seat? Something to drink? Uriah wasn’t really up for the small talk. His mind was still on the battle, his instincts still honed in on the urgent matters at hand. Since when had his pastor been so concerned about the details of how he and the men were getting on? Why didn’t he just get to the point of why he had taken him away from the battle? But that would have to wait.

Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him. But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.
2 Samuel 11:8-9

Before Uriah knew it, the interview was over. He was being dismissed with a casual order to take a break and “enjoy” his wife. The pastor’s secretary came after him with a fruit basket and a gift card. None of this made sense. It was so completely incongruent with the life and mentality that Uriah had been immersed in, that his pastor had preached to him time and time again. His every action was directed by a passionate commitment to serve the kingdom of God, no matter the cost. His pastor of all people knew that sleeping with his wife would make him ritually impure, disqualifying him from the spiritual battle in which they were currently engaged. Why would his pastor tell him to just forget all that and indulge in a delightful but forbidden diversion? It must be a test.

When David was told, “Uriah did not go home,” he asked him, “Haven’t you just come from a distance? Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”
2 Samuel 11:10-11

The next day Uriah was called back in to the pastor’s office. Why didn’t he go home to his wife? Wasn’t he long overdue for the pleasures of a “normal” life? Finally, he had the opportunity to speak his mind, to talk with his leader about the issues that perpetually churned in his mind and burned on his heart. Of course they shared the same values. Of course his leader would understand where he was coming from and would support him in his actions. But again Uriah left his pastor’s presence confused. Something just wasn’t right, but who was he to question his spiritual authority?

The “process” was becoming ridiculously long, and Uriah still couldn’t figure out what it was all about. Why was he here? Why were his time and energy being used up in endless, seemingly pointless meetings?

Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.
2 Samuel 11:12-13

The next evening he was invited to a nice dinner with his leader. This, too, felt like a violation of his commitment, a betrayal of his co-workers, but how could he refuse? Sumptuous food. Free-flowing wine. Uriah politely tried to turn it down, but his leader insisted. By the end of the evening he left the party reeling under the influence, but still he did not go home. He refused to compromise his purity. He refused to be corrupted.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”
2 Samuel 11:14-15

Little did Uriah know it, but that was the last straw. His incorruptible integrity threatened his leader’s corrupted agenda. His straightforward loyalty unmasked his leader’s hidden betrayal. And that just couldn’t be tolerated. The pastor’s subtle power plays had failed, so he dealt his final card.

So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.
2 Samuel 11:16-17

The pastor had to find a way to eliminate the threat while keeping his own “integrity” intact. He would never consider cold-blooded murder, but he knew someone who would do his dirty work for him. A short but to-the-point note to the church administrator: Uriah needed to be gotten rid of. A conveniently arranged accident: Uriah became a casualty of war.

David told the messenger, “Say this to Joab: ‘Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.’ Say this to encourage Joab.”
2 Samuel 11:25

“What a shame, but unfortunately, these things will happen. It’s just as well; this will work out for the greater good.”

But the thing David had done
displeased the LORD.

2 Samuel 11:27

Blessed?

“And what about you—tell me about your children?” This standard getting-to-know-you line fell flat on its face yesterday as I chatted with a woman sitting next to me at the lunch table. All around us women were enjoying the venue of a pastor’s wives conference to talk about their joys and struggles in family and ministry, but this vivacious woman, ministering in conflict-hardened Belfast, had no children to speak of. Her face fell as she spoke frankly about the deep grief of infertility, about how she has mourned the loss of being the fruitful woman she was created to be. And yet despite this gaping hole in her life, this woman considers herself blessed.

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. … Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
Psalm 127:3-5

Listening to her painful musings on living between the curse and the kingdom took me back to a season in my own life when the grim realities of life left me cynical and questioning towards the glorious promises of Scripture. I had always cherished the Psalms that spoke of the blessings that God pours out on those who love Him: long life, success in their work, good reputation, lots of kids, established home, and all that.

Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD.
Psalm 128:1-4

These happy descriptions fit perfectly with my own picture of what it looked like to be blessed by God. But the further I got into life, the more of a mockery that ideal became. When I looked around me at those who were wholeheartedly pursuing the kingdom of God, so many of their lives were full of anything but safety, security, and prosperity. Their children died of cancer, their husbands lost their jobs, their wives miscarried, their finances diminished, their health declined, their ministries failed. How could I reconcile the picture I witnessed before me with the picture described for me in the Psalms?

Our suffering now is part of our glory then.

I finally reached the point where I stopped reading the Psalms. It hurt too much to read about that fruitful woman, flourishing and happy as she placed yet another infant into the delighted arms of a proud father. My motivation in following God was not all the perks that came with the deal—I loved Him for His own sake—and yet His promises had taught me to expect more. His Word raised my hopes; my experience dashed them. As I wrestled with God over this, I began to suspect that my picture of “blessing” was missing something.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3-10
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.
1 Peter 3:14

I began to search the New Testament for the way it described blessing, but each time I encountered the word it was paired with descriptions of suffering and difficulty. How could failure and frustration, tears and infertility count as blessing? Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? And yet Jesus’ teaching was clear. In His coming kingdom, those who have it hard in this life are first in line for the good things of the life to come. And this doesn’t just mean those who have chosen to give things up for God. It covers those who have suffered under poverty, injustice, or any source of sorrow that is “not the way it is supposed to be.” In one of God’s predictably grand reversals, those who endure the effects of the curse now will be proportionately blessed then.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18, 22-23

Does that dry the tears of those who mourn or lessen the pain of those who struggle? Not at all. But it does give hope for what will come in the future and new significance to what we are experiencing now. In a way, our suffering now is part of our glory then. It is a critical part of the birthing process that all of creation is groaning under. We cry out, waiting for our bodies to be redeemed from this wretched curse, assured that they eventually will be, but struggling through the messy process nonetheless.

As I wrapped up my conversation with the woman at the lunch table, we shared in a moment of joyful celebration over the coming kingdom of God and the specific joys that it will bring us. We affirmed to each other how our earthly struggles have heightened our motivation to labor for the coming of that kingdom. And we parted ways, all the more certain of the truth that we are blessed.

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. …
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1, 17

A Lamb Exploited

For as long as she could remember, the young woman had been surrounded by people who adored her pastor. She had grown up hearing her father tell stories about the amazing things that he had said and done. Both her father and her husband had devoted themselves to full-time service under his leadership. Their work took them away for long months at a time, but they always came home full of praise for their leader and full of delight over the significant ways that he was using his great influence to change the world for God.

The woman herself was deeply moved by the things of God. Like her husband and her father, she wanted her life to be pleasing and devoted to Him. She paid great attention to keeping herself pure and clean, following the practices for godly living that she had been taught from His Word.

So one evening when she received a rather unusual message from her spiritual leader, she had little reason to question it. Her husband was away on one of his long trips, and her pastor was requesting that she come and meet him right away. It did seem a bit odd to be asked to his home after hours, but frankly, she felt honored. The men in her life were always getting summoned into his regal presence, interacting with him face-to-face and being sent on important assignments. But she was just a woman; he had never really had a reason to take note of her. She hurried to his home, wondering what he wanted with her.

She was so fully convinced of his righteousness that it never occurred to her to question his intentions.

The interaction that followed was incredibly confusing. She was so fully convinced of his righteousness that it had never occurred to her to question his intentions, but the way he was treating her made her increasingly uncomfortable. It didn’t feel right, and yet she kept telling herself that somehow it must be right. He was a godly man. Everyone respected him. Her husband trusted him with his life. The least she could do was cooperate with whatever he wanted her to do.

This man had always been so closely associated with God that being close to him felt like finally getting closer to God.

As things heated up between them, she felt increasingly torn. By now it was painfully obvious that what she was involved in was wrong, but she didn’t know how to stop it. Maybe she wasn’t completely sure she wanted to stop it.  It felt really good to be noticed by someone so important, to be the sole focus of his passionate attention. She had always craved intimacy with God. In her eyes, this man had always been so closely associated with God that being close to him felt like finally getting closer to God. At the same time, she had never felt farther from Him.

Tainted. Dirty. Guilty. The woman tried to wash away the impurity of her adulterous affair. She went back home and tried to return to her normal life. But nothing she could do now would erase what had done. She had defiled herself. She had betrayed her husband. She had sinned against God. And now, everyone was about to find out. She was pregnant.

What would everyone think of her? What would they think of their leader? His reputation would be destroyed, all because of her. This must somehow be her fault. She had led him astray. She should have known better. God must hold her responsible.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. …
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:1, 5-10

But He didn’t. Not primarily, at least. God confronted the shepherd who had abused his position of spiritual authority and relational power to take advantage of one of the sheep under his charge. His message was severe: You devoured what was yours to protect. You took what did not belong to you. You were heartless, pitiless towards those weaker than you. And in abusing them, you despised Me.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. When she had purified herself from her uncleanness,* then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
Samuel 11:2-5

The Scriptures tell this story about Bathsheba, whose father and husband were among the inner circle of mighty men who served David, the shepherd of Israel. But it could just as easily be told about any number of vulnerable women (or men) seduced into inappropriate relationships by someone they respect. In a strange twist on the way things are supposed to be, their spiritual strength is exploited by a spiritual leader, who manipulates their love for God and uses it for his own twisted purposes.  But God is not blind, either to their actions or to their deeper desires. He extends forgiveness for the wrong choices they willingly made. He extends grace to cover their confusion and hurt at how they were used. He brings healing to restore the dignity and the trust that were destroyed. And He calls to account those who indulge in such spiritual abuse.