Letters from the Front Lines

Last weekend I received a letter from the front lines. It came from a man who is separated from his wife on their anniversary, who is missing out on the little milestones in his children’s lives, and who lives with a daily threat to his life as he helps to ensure legal justice in an area full of hostile militants. And yet his letter was full of gratitude for the privilege of serving his country. He considered spending the Memorial Day holiday in a war zone an honor, because it allowed him to participate closely in the sacrifice of those who have died serving their country. My eyes filled with tears over the strength of this man’s character and the depth of his devotion.

He loves his country much because he has given up much for its sake.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. … He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.
2 Corinthians 1:8-11

Paul wrote his friends a similar letter from the front lines. Things had gotten really tough on his last assignment in Ephesus, so much so that he had often wondered if he would make it out alive. He was exhausted, shaken, and still reeling from the intensity of battle. But his letter contained no hint of self-pity or suggestion of retreat. Rather, he wrote about how hard things had been so that he could convey the depth of his commitment and gratitude in being counted worthy to continue serving the cause.

Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger … with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on … beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:4-10

That isn’t to say that it had been easy. Actually, things had been downright rotten. But the more Paul lost for the kingdom, the more personally invested he became in seeing it through. He began to count his hardships as proof of its worth, his trials as identification badges. Through combat and trauma, Paul’s identity as a servant of God was being forged deep within. It would become impossible for him to see himself as a regular civilian again. He would always identify himself as servant of the gospel, whether on the front lines or back at home.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 11:23-27; 12:9

By suffering with and for God, Paul’s love for His kingdom grew to the point where it exceeded the bounds of reason. At times he sounded out of his mind, rambling on about the many horrors he had endured as if suffering were a good thing. And yet, in Paul’s mind, it was. Suffering made him weak. His weakness made way for God to show up and be the Hero, rescuing Paul and accomplishing impossible missions through him.

He loved the kingdom much because he had suffered much for its sake.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 2:7-11

This past weekend I also had the privilege of visiting with another brother of mine, one who is in the process of giving up much for the sake of God’s kingdom. I listened as he and his wife counted the cost of taking their toddler and unborn child to go serve the indigenous church in a country where local pastors have been beheaded for their faith. My heart wrenches with fear on their behalf, knowing from personal experience the trials and losses that they will face. And yet I also know from experience the privilege of serving the kingdom, of participating closely in the sufferings of Him who gave His life serving on the front lines.

I wouldn’t trade my losses for anything. They have gained for me a greater share in what I love the most.

Advertisements

The Gospel for the Abused

What is the good news for a world full of battered women and traumatized men, molested girls and bullied boys? Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins reassures us that one important problem has been taken care of, but what about our other pressing needs? Every day we grapple with our desperate need to be rescued and sheltered, comforted and healed. Does the gospel cover that, too?

“I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” …
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:6, 11-12

At first glance, the idea of a king coming to conquer and rule doesn’t seem very reassuring. After all, we have already experienced what powerful people do. The mess we are currently in has been caused by their selfish ambition and arrogant oppression. How is one more violent, controlling leader going to solve our problems?

This ruler measures the glory of His kingdom by the way He cares for its weakest members.

Somehow the less intimidating images of God as a tender shepherd or a sheltering hen seem more comforting. We latch on to the idea of Him holding us close, wiping away our tears and whispering sweet words of love into our ears. And indeed, this is precisely what He does with His wounded children. But that is not all that He does, because that is not all that He is.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

The news that Jesus is King may not initially strike us as good, because our experience of corrupt, abusive leaders has left us broken and terrified. But considering the kind of king that He is, it is the best news we could hear.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7, 9-10

For Jewish captives living under the cruel, tyrannical rule of the Babylonians, this news gave cause to lift their heads in hope. Despite their oppressors’ ruthless power, despite their own trembling helplessness, they had a King who was coming to rescue them. His military might was not limited. His political clout was not inhibited. He had heard their cry and was determined to do whatever it took to take down their abusers and to set them free.

But what would He do with them after that? Become yet another domineering, self-promoting leader who used them up to accomplish His own empire-building ends?
How could they know that He would use His power for their good instead of just His own?

Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. …
All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
Psalm 72:1, 11-14

God reassured His people of the kind of King He would be. Sensitive to the needs of His people. Tuned in to the silent cries of the abused. He would use His power to rescue and defend them because He valued them. He would be strong enough to protect, loving enough to care, and faithful enough to follow through.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:1, 13-16

And when Jesus finally showed up to establish His kingdom on earth, He fulfilled every one of those promises. He rode a gentle donkey instead of a raging stallion. He confronted the corrupt religious leaders who marginalized His messy people. He exerted His power to drive out spiritual oppressors and to restore traumatized victims. He focused His eyes on the needs of His people. He extended His hands to feed and heal, touch and wash them. And in an ultimate act of servant leadership, He laid His life down to lift their lives up.

As terrifying as it can be to come under the leadership of a powerful king, this King makes it easy. He measures the glory of His kingdom by the way He cares for its weakest members. He satisfies the desires of each of His people because He delights us. In the face of cruel abusers and terrorizing bullies, His superior strength becomes our sure hope. We may feel powerless, but the good news is that our God reigns!

The Gain in Pain

“What is the benefit of my having this cancer?” My mother voices the question we have both been struggling with over the past few days together. I look over at her weak, post-operative body and wonder why she has to go through this. What is being accomplished through her pain? Where is the value in her suffering, or for that matter, in the suffering of the abused, the poor, the sick, or the relationally miserable?

Suffering deepens our bonds with God and with each other.

When I consider the suffering of the young concubine who was tossed out the door by her cowardly husband, gang-raped to death by a violent mob, and then carved up and distributed to the twelve tribes of Israel, I want to shake my head in disgust over such horrific, unnecessary suffering. What was the point of her going through all that? And yet God’s response to her suffering compels me to take a second look at its significance.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 22:7, 15-16

Jesus entered into her experience. Hundreds of years later He completed her story, walking through the same experiences of rejection, betrayal, physical and sexual abuse, and brutal, unjust death. But the night before He was slaughtered as the Passover Lamb, He explained the significance of His own death with a ritual that re-enacted hers.

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” …
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials.”
Luke 22:19-20, 28

Body broken into pieces and distributed to the twelve. Blood poured out in the place of others’. A solemn charge to remember His sufferings. A sacred call to walk with Him through them.

Jesus communed with that unloved woman by sharing in her suffering. In turn, He invites us to commune with Him by sharing in His sufferings.

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:26
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…
Philippians 3:10

Each time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we relive His experience, and in so doing we enter into deeper relationship with Him. Each time we ourselves suffer, we are afforded the opportunity to walk a mile in His shoes, to be further bonded to Him through shared experience.

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
2 Corinthians 1:5, 7

Temptation. Exhaustion. Loneliness. Rejection. Physical pain. Emotional distress. Each time we experience these, another layer is pulled back in our understanding of Jesus, in our ability to truly know Him. And as His sufferings overflow into our lives, so does the comfort of increasing intimacy with Him. We share in His sufferings and He communes with us in ours. But the cycle of fellowship doesn’t stop there.

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
Colossians 1:24

Our suffering becomes a bridge that spans time and space, connecting Jesus’ past ordeals with others’ current misery. As we live out His experiences, we incarnate Him before the people around us. Through us they witness His sufferings on their behalf, and through us they receive His comforting love. And in the process we bond with each other in a deep, meaningful relationship, one that we will share with Him and each other for eternity.

So as I watch my mother hunched in pain, as I witness the scars on her body, I see a bitter-sweet story playing out in front of me. Pain leading to comfort. Agony leading to glory. Her suffering is connecting her to Christ. His suffering is being completed through her. This doesn’t downplay her struggle or alleviate her pain, but it does infuse it with a profound significance. Her suffering is allowing her to participate in the divine, to be brought into perfect unity with God. Sacred suffering. Holy communion.

Voiceless.

Pleading hands stretch out on a wooden doorframe. Crimson blood stains its lintel. A woman’s life slips silently away as the members of the household sleep in peace, safe on the other side of the door. Do they not care that she has spent the night in indescribable torture? Does it not matter to them that she has been raped and beaten beyond recognition? But they sleep on, undisturbed by her plight. And she breathes her last, voiceless in life as in death.

In those days Israel had no king. Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, Judah.
Judges 19:1-2

What voice did she have in leaving home and becoming a concubine? Bethlehem was her birthplace, and yet her father had handed her over to this hill-country Levite to be his second-rate wife, a sex servant with benefits. But even concubines had the right to leave their husbands and go back home if they were being mistreated. And for whatever reason, that was exactly what she chose to do.

After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. … She took him into her father’s house, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. …so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there. … But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.
Judges 19:3-4, 10

Who asked her if she wanted to return to her husband? Four months later when he turned up at her doorstep, she took him in. But the next four days were full of her husband and her father eating, drinking, and partying together while she stood silently by. In the end she was packed off along with the servant and the donkeys, little more than a possession to be claimed and controlled by the men in her life.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”
The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. …Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish…”
But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.
At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer.
Judges 19:22-28

What choice was she given in being shoved out the door into an angry mob of violent, degenerate men? Her husband had made the choice to leave late and to stay overnight in this town. Their host had made the offer of sex with his unmarried daughter and herself to the locals who were after her Levite husband. And her husband had sent her out to them, sacrificing her body in place of his own.

Cruel blows. Ruthless piercing. Throughout the night she was tossed from man to man, used and abused as her husband and their host had given permission. When they were finally finished with her, she crept back to the house she had been thrown out of and fell down outside the door, a heap of discarded leftovers.

As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.
Psalm 123:2

The woman’s hands said what her voice could not. They reached for the threshold of the doorway, grasping hold of it in a silent plea for sanctuary. Upturned eyes implored to be noticed. Outstretched hands begged to be received. Silent screams pled for mercy.

The night remained silent. The door remained shut. And her life ended.

The abused may be voiceless, but we are not forgotten. We may be silent, but we are heard.

But her story didn’t. The voice that went un-heard by men was compassionately listened to by God. The life that had been trashed by men was tenderly honored by God. And though He took His time in doing so, He came down to personally enter into her suffering.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions…
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53:3-5, 7

Pleading hands stretched out on a wooden cross-frame. Crimson blood staining the beams. The Bethlehem-born Son of God, rejected by His family and tossed out by the Levites to an angry mob. Beaten, molested, pierced, and marred beyond recognition. Silent voice. Upturned eyes. A sacrificial lamb, life laid down in the place of others.

But God did not abandon Him there. Nor did He abandon her, or the many others like her. As gruesome as her story is, it is still being experienced by countless women who live at the mercy of merciless men. Social systems may silence them. Men may ruthlessly control or selfishly use them. But God hears their cry and draws near. And the end of His story brings hope into theirs. He will not leave them in this hell. Resurrection is coming!

Abused but cherished. Isolated but not alone. Voiceless but heard.

I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave…
Psalm 16:8-10

When God Doesn’t Show Up on Time

If you are the defender of the oppressed, then where are you now?

“Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.
Psalm 12:5-6

I love that you are a God who cares about each of your creatures, who takes special notice of the ones whom others belittle and degrade. I love how you commit yourself to the abused, to listen to them and stick close by their side. I believe your promises to protect the vulnerable and rescue the victim. So what are you going to do about these 200 abducted girls in Nigeria?

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off ? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims. …His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”
Psalm 10:1-2, 8-11

Why do you hang back and not take action? Why do you allow evil men to use their power to terrorize, brutalize, and take advantage of women and children? Because of your inactivity, they think that they can get away with this. Because of your silence, they act like you don’t notice their ruthless methods or care about their devastated victims.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:21-22

Like the sisters at Lazarus’ graveside and the disciples in the storm-tossed boat, we cry out the question that burns on all our hearts: Lord, where were you? If you would have been here, this wouldn’t have happened! If you would have shown up sooner, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Don’t you care that these girl’s lives are being destroyed?

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Mark 4:38-40

And as you did in reply to them, you gently call us to a greater level of faith. You bring us face-to-face with the impossibility of our circumstances: the overpowering force of renegade seas, the irreversible damage of death, the life-altering trauma of kidnapping, captivity, and violent, sexual assault. As we stare into the hopelessness, you call us to hope. As we weather our worst storms, you ask us if we trust you.

Your intervention is not a matter of if, but when.

I am tempted to withhold my trust until you prove yourself faithful, to doubt you until you come through for these girls. But you don’t afford me that luxury. You won’t let me off the hook of true faith. You leave me no choice but to either walk away from you in disbelief, or to turn towards you in desperate expectation.

I believe. Help my unbelief.

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”? But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits (herself) to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.
Psalm 10:12-15

I’m asking you to intervene on their behalf, because I believe you are who you say you are. You are the God who sees what is happening to them, who feels what is being done to their bodies, who weeps over what is being done to their souls. You are the God who calls evil men to account, who snatches their victims out of their hands and breaks their regime of terror.

The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
Psalm 10:16-18

So come on! Do your God-thing! Tame the sea. Raise the dead. Rescue these girls! Send in your ambassadors to fight for them. Go yourself and protect them. Hold them close under the shadow of your wings, that they may experience your peace in the midst of trauma, your safety in the midst of danger, your love in the midst of abuse. Show their captors what you do when people think they can treat your cherished image-bearers however they like. Show all the others like them that you don’t tolerate terror and abuse.

You might not handle things according to our expectations or show up according to our timetable, but you will act. We believe that you are strong enough and that you care enough. We believe that you can turn this hell into a haven, this crisis into a miracle. We watch to see what you will do for these girls, trusting that your intervention is not a matter of if, but when.

We take you at your word. Prove us right.

A Healing Friend

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need you to believe me. My experience is real. It has redefined my life. I feel alone, because no one else sees it. I feel rejected, because no one else will risk facing it. I need you to take me seriously. I need you to walk this with me.”

David was still struggling to believe it himself. Saul, his beloved mentor, his idolized king, was also his manipulative abuser. After years of living in Saul’s home, fighting his battles, comforting his spirit, and being part of his family, the realization was just starting to sink in that David’s perception of their entire relationship had been a lie. Saul didn’t love him. Saul didn’t care two wits about him. Saul had only kept him close so that could control him, use him, and when that was finished, eliminate him.

A friend’s denial of abuse adds insult to injury.
The blow of not being believed re-opens the wounds of abuse.

This was such a radical paradigm shift that David was still wrestling with his own voice of denial. Hearing the same doubts reflected in his best friend’s voice sent him into an emotional tailspin.

Then David fled from Naioth at Ramah and went to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to take my life?”
1 Samuel 20:1

As soon as possible, he had come to Jonathan for support. He always felt safe with Jonathan, secure in their friendship and confident that they saw eye-to-eye. In fact, Jonathan was the one who had first warned him that things weren’t right with Saul. If anyone would believe him about just how bad it was and be willing to stand with him through the mess ahead, it would be Jonathan.

“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without confiding in me. Why would he hide this from me? It’s not so!”
1 Samuel 20:2

Jonathan’s quick denial caught David off-guard. It was the last thing he had expected. Then again, everything in David’s life was turning out to be the opposite of what he had expected. Had Jonathan’s friendship been a lie, too? How could he not see what was now so painfully obvious to David? And yet David recognized his friend’s predicament. The abuser that he was naming was Jonathan’s father. For Jonathan, believing his friend would cost him his father. Accepting David’s veracity would mean affirming his father’s depravity.

But David took an oath and said, “Your father knows very well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he has said to himself, ‘Jonathan must not know this or he will be grieved.’ Yet as surely as the LORD lives and as you live, there is only a step between me and death.”
1 Samuel 20:3

David could hardly control the hysteria rising in his voice. This was a matter of life and death. He had never imagined that his best friend would doubt his word. The wound of being unbelieved would only add to the agony of the wounds from his abuse.

If I am guilty, then kill me yourself ! Why hand me over to your father?”
“Never!” Jonathan said. “If I had the least inkling that my father was determined to harm you, wouldn’t I tell you?”
1 Samuel 20:8-11

Jonathan was uncertain. He knew his father wasn’t perfect, but it was hard to believe that he was capable of such atrocity. Surely there was some other explanation, some other way to reconcile David’s testimony with his father’s. But he recognized that if he really loved his friend, he would have to consider the possibility that his painful story was true. To deny David’s experience would be to deny their friendship.

Then Jonathan said to David: “By the LORD, the God of Israel, I will surely sound out my father by this time the day after tomorrow! … But if my father is inclined to harm you, may the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not let you know and send you away safely. May the LORD be with you as he has been with my father.
1 Samuel 20:12-13

Jonathan started listening to David. He quit trying to smooth things over, quit trying to explain them away, and started seriously listening to David’s terrified, trembling report. He would do whatever it took to verify David’s claims. He would help however he could to get David out of danger, despite the cost to himself.

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!”
“Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father.
But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him.
1 Samuel 20:30-33

And, as Jonathan would soon experience, uncovering the truth about David’s abuser would cost him greatly. Probing deeper into his father’s relationship with David would reveal the true nature of his father’s relationship with himself. Manipulative accusations. Violent reactions. Now it was Jonathan’s turn to experience pain, terror, and disillusionment. The solidarity of Jonathan’s love for his friend deepened as he shared in his sufferings.

So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.
1 Samuel 20:16-17

David was blessed to have a true friend like Jonathan who would walk with him through the messy aftermath of abuse. So many friendships fail to survive this difficult test, disintegrating at the very moment when they are most needed. But a friend who recommits his love in the midst of crisis is a healing friend.

Healing love manifests itself through willingness to share in the sufferings of an abused friend.

True love manifests itself through willingness to share in the sufferings of an abused friend. But when friends and family fail to step up and acknowledge the full horror of abuse, then where else can a desperate, trembling survivor turn?

…but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24

His name is Jesus.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
You are my friends, if you do what I command. John 15:13-14

When Kingdoms Collide

“Oh, I already know how this story is going to turn out.” My all-knowing seven year old leans back from our history lesson with an air of exaggerated patience, rolls her eyes, and rattles it off. “The guy becomes king, conquers all the other kings around him, builds a big empire, and dies all of sudden. Then everyone argues about who should be in charge and the kingdom falls apart. Then another king takes over.”

And, when I look at it, she’s right. With a major exception.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:10-11

Jesus came to earth to establish His kingdom. Forerunners prepared the way. A messenger told the people to get ready for their new king. And after Jesus’ grand entry before the crowd at the Jordan, God Himself anointed Him, pouring down His Spirit and thundering out Heaven’s affirmation that Jesus had every right to be king.

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Luke 4:5-6

But this King had competition. The kingdom He was claiming was already ruled by a prince and his legions of allies. Jesus’ first step toward conquest was a trip to the wilderness for a face-to-face confrontation with their overlord. Grueling test. Proven strength. Trick questions. Overcoming answers. The negotiation ended and Jesus left the room triumphant, but His opponent wasn’t going to quit that easily. He would wait for a more opportune time.

Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”
The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”
Mark 1:23-24; 3:11

As Jesus moved about the territory He was claiming, He constantly ran into His opposition, legions of smaller, local tyrants who oppressed their subjects and resisted His reign. When He entered a synagogue, they screamed out their terrified questions about what He planned to do with them. When He walked through the countryside, they fell at His feet in resistant obeisance. And when He stepped off the boat into a new region, they stormed at Him, first threatening to drive Him out and finally begging Him for permission to stay.

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. …
Then he rebukes them in his anger… saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance…
Psalm 2:2-8

Jesus slowly but surely spread the kingdom of God, confronting the renegade rulers of the earth with His words and with His very presence. He was the Son of God come to reclaim His inheritance, and they knew it. But that didn’t mean that they would give up without a fight.

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. … He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
4:37-39

Raging fevers and deathly pallor. Shrieking voices and shaking frames. Lashing winds and violent waves. Wherever Jesus turned His enemies opposed Him. But at His rebuke, they had no choice but surrender. Convulsing bodies gave way to perfect calm. Writhing seas settled back into life-sustaining eco-systems.

“If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? … But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.”
Matthew 12:26-29

Driving out demons and healing the sick were at the core of what Jesus had come to do. With each oppressed captive that He liberated, He was transferring one more subject out of the kingdom of Satan and into the kingdom of God. His method of conquest matched the mustard-seed growth curve of His kingdom: slow but sure, small but unstoppable.

Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me. … Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:12-16

Each confrontation ended in victory for Jesus, in one more person or bit of space added to His growing kingdom. But His enemies didn’t quit. They rallied to turn one of His own disciples against Him. And when they actually succeeded in nailing Jesus to the cross, all Hell broke loose to torment their vanquished foe.

The surprise twist in the story is us.

For a brief moment in cosmic history, it looked like Jesus’ kingdom would go the way of all others. Shepherd struck. Sheep scattered. After all, fierce competition had always plagued Jesus’ disciples. Who was the greatest? Who would inherit His kingdom?

…he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church…
Ephesians 1:20-23

But God intervened in this story. He resurrected the King, raised Him off the earth, and gave Him an even higher throne. Enemies scattered. Lost sheep gathered. A kingdom without end. Heaven and earth brought in line under His righteous reign… almost.

…you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:2, 6-7, 10

The surprise twist in the story is us. Jesus handed over the keys of His kingdom to His Church, delegating to us the role of finishing what He started on earth. Through the power of His Spirit, He has called us to continue His work. Liberating political and spiritual captives. Healing the physically sick, emotionally wounded, and mentally ill. Preaching the kingdom. Loving our fellow heirs of the kingdom. Advancing His kingdom where darkness still reigns.

And there is the rub. The battle for God’s kingdom isn’t over. His enemies are still at work, and we are an active threat to their power. We all know who wins in the end, but the end hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, we fight His battle, exchanging blows with the powers of darkness. And this will be our lot until every knee in heaven and on earth bows in its rightful place before the throne of Jesus the King.

What Can Wash Away My Shame?

“How can I go on living in this defiled body? If my body is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit, how can He bear to dwell in it, either? I am ruined, and I can’t escape. My dwelling place is tainted, but I can’t leave it. So here I am, desolate, defiled, and trapped. Is there no way out of this perpetual nightmare for me?

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
Psalm 79:1

Strangely enough, the cries of the Israelites following the invasion of Jerusalem mirror the cries of the raped or sexually violated following the invasion of their bodies. Their city had been their holy refuge, the place where they could freely meet with God. They had guarded its purity and celebrated its beauty. But now it lay in ruins, devastated by forces that they had been unable to resist.

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
Psalm 74:4-7

With their status so fundamentally altered, they were left with no other recourse but to cry out to God, narrating the details of just how awful it had been. Enemies had invaded their sacred space. Dirty men had come pushing in, taking what they wanted and leaving behind nothing but a desecrated wreck. Their beauty was tarnished. Their purity was ruined. Their glory was gone. And there was nothing they could do to bring it back.

We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
Psalm 74:9

Could God even want them anymore? Would the Holy One turn His back on His spoiled inheritance? How long would they be left like this, a ruined, has-been heap?

God doesn’t plan to restore our former glory.
He is at work to increase it.

But God’s unconditional love was not repulsed by their ugliness. His great compassion was not hindered by their impurity. He didn’t pretend like everything was fine, nor did He cast them off as tainted goods. Instead, He acknowledged their desolate condition and came near to restore them.

“Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. …You will forget the shame of your youth …
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.
Isaiah 54:4, 10-12

In time He moved the hearts of foreign kings to help them rebuild their city and its temple. The healing process was long and arduous, with plenty of setbacks and obstacles along the way, but with God’s help they persevered. Brick by brick the walls took shape. Stone by stone the temple rose out its rubble. But even with their external beauty restored, their internal glory was still missing.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Isaiah 61:2-3

Finally, God Himself showed up. For years His defiled city had carried on, physically functional but spiritually a shell of her former glory. Now it was time for His Spirit to return, to cleanse her of her shame and to fill her with glory greater than she had to start with. He entered her gates riding on a donkey. He cleansed her temple with zealous intensity. He healed her wounded, comforted her mourners, purified her unclean, and honored her despised. And in the end, He gave Himself as a cleansing sacrifice, His blood as a purifying flood.

You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah 62:3- 5

Though that city has been remodeled as the Kingdom of God and its temple rebuilt with the living stones of His Church, it stands as a testimony of hope for all who have experienced the desolation of sexual defilement. The story does not end with us in a ruined heap, desecrated, broken, and abandoned. Though the healing process is long, painful, and at times so slow that it seems to be moving backward, God is at work increasing our glory. He is purifying our desecrated bodies and rebuilding our devastated souls. As hard as it is to believe at times, He will one day rejoice over us as an integral part of His beautiful bride. Where we end up will be better than where we started.

Beauty for ashes. Robes of righteousness for rags of shame. This is our inheritance, because He is our God.

It Isn’t Finished

Wait a minute. I thought everything was supposed to be under Your feet! So how could a curse placed on me actually be effective?

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Ephesians 1:19-23

The gears in my mind ground to a halt, my paradigm attempting to shift without the prerequisite clutch. For years I had been banking on the fact that Jesus is the victor over all the powers of darkness, that His resurrection and enthronement had broken their ability to directly harm His people. After all, was He not now seated on the throne of heaven, ruling over every creature in the world, both seen and unseen? Was I not seated there with Him, too, endowed with every spiritual blessing because I was His adopted child?

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:6-7

These truths had become the core of my faith as I lived and worked in a spiritually hostile environment. They gave me the confidence to persevere through the graphic demonic nightmares and intense spiritual struggle that were our constant companions. And they were the ready response that I gave to local friends who warned me that I should be careful not to incite the anger of the gods and spirits who inhabited that place.

I had been so confident that powers of evil couldn’t touch me. It never occurred to me that a curse could cause the illness that threatened my life and the lingering effects that redefined it for a long time after. So years later, when our pastor prayed that any curses on me would be broken and those symptoms abruptly lifted, I was left with some major questions.

Our frail bodies are the means through which God is putting all things under Jesus’ feet.

If Jesus has already defeated the spirits that stand in opposition to Him, then how could they still have that sort of power over me? If all things have already been placed under His feet, then by what authority could they dictate what happened in my body?

You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” … Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
Hebrews 2:8

But as I revisited the claims of Scripture, I realized that I had assumed wrongly. Jesus is seated on the throne of Heaven, but all things have not yet been put under His feet. He is the victor, but the battle still rages.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ephesians 3:10-11

And we are the battlefield. Our hearts, minds, and bodies are the places in which His enemies seek to spite Him. And our hearts, minds, and bodies are the places in which He will finish what He started with His death and resurrection.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:10-12

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we run into those subtle, well-laid traps of temptation deep within our hearts. We should expect those deadly arrows of doubt and lies to go flying through our minds. And of course messengers of Satan can place strategic thorns in our flesh, all in an attempt to rob us of our blessed position in Christ, to separate us from His love and to hold us under the curse.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand…. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:14-18

There is absolutely nothing fair about this battle! We can’t even see our enemy as they duck about laying landmines in our least expected, most vulnerable places. How are we to win a cosmic war for the preeminence of Christ with handicapped spirits, besieged minds, and mortal bodies?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21

The point is that we can’t, but He can. From within our weak bodies, our willing spirits receive strength from His Spirit, the power that delivered Jesus’ weak body from death. Our faith may be thin, but His armor is impenetrable. We may take hits along the way, but He will succeed in winning the battle in and through us.

The battle is far from finished. All things will be eventually put in their rightful place under Jesus’ feet, but we are the means through which God is accomplishing that end goal. We are the weak vessels through which His strength is being proven.

And when it is finally finished, His troops will have every cause to cheer.

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. Your troops will be willing on your day of battle.
Psalm 110:1-3