Tag Archives: doubting God’s goodness

The “Who am I to God?” of Abuse—From Pawn to Power through the Path of the Cross

IMG_3865I saw another one today. As I passed by on my morning run, she stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus, freshly groomed and tastefully dressed for going out into public. But the beautiful hair and clothes failed to hide her hideously disfigured face, bearing the characteristic pulverized look of someone whose features have been dissolved by acid. What this woman’s story is and how she has survived such a vicious attack on her womanhood I cannot say, but she bears the scars (quite literally) of her abuse for the whole world to see and never forget.

Somehow the sight of her grotesquely marred beauty reminds me of the high-powered civil rights attorney whom I met over dinner in a neighboring country last week. Her scars may not be visible to the human eye, but the lingering effects of childhood abuse continue to haunt her as she bravely battles for a relationship with the God who didn’t protect her. Beyond the ongoing fear of the same thing (or the next disaster) occurring again, she wrestles with the question of God’s involvement in her torment. Was He absent, uncaring, or simply using her distress to create a better story for her to testify to His grace? Even with the last option, she is left with a god who is little different from her abuser, callously using her for his purposes despite the damage it would cause her.

Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive.
For this is what the LORD says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”
Isaiah 52:1-3

As I wrestle again with the deep theological angst to which abuse gives rise, I can’t escape the story of Jesus’ abuse and the way Scripture repeatedly weaves it through the stories of other abused individuals (and cities, as the case may be). Isaiah calls out to Jerusalem, referring to her in terms of a woman who has been penetrated, defiled, and held captive in fear and shame. He picks up the refrain of her lament (echoed in Psalm 44:11-12), acknowledging that she was tossed out and sold for nothing but also echoing the promise that her redemption will occur in an equally baffling manner.

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.
Isaiah 52:7,9

And what is this good news that the evangel’s feet so eagerly carry to the bruised, battered woman sitting abandoned in exile? Your God still reigns. He is neither bound by the helplessness that overwhelms you nor heartless towards the tears you are too numb to shed. He is still in control and His reign is one of both sovereign power and of tender compassion.

But how does that news help the one whom He seemed to abandon?

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— so he will sprinkle many nations,and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living…

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death…
Isaiah 52:14-15; 53:3-4, 8, 11-12

Isaiah leaps straight from this hope-inspiring call into a gut-wrenching description of the depths of abuse and abandonment that God’s Righteous One would experience. His face would be pulverized beyond recognition; His body stripped, beaten, flayed, and pierced until it could hardly be compared to a human form, much less the glorious image of the invisible God. The wrongness of what would be done to Him would not be protested by His contemporaries. Rather, He would suffer this abuse in silence, betrayed by His friends, ignored or despised by the public, and ultimately feeling forsaken by God.

And yet Isaiah’s description doesn’t stop there. It points forward to the fruit of this Victim’s suffering, the deeply satisfying vindication and glorification that would come as a result of all that He had endured. Perhaps most amazingly of all, that fruit would involve not just His exaltation to the throne of God and the adoringly bent knees of kings and angels en masse, but it would also include the healing, consolation, and exaltation of the broken woman spoken of in Isaiah’s earlier chapter.

By His stripes she would be healed. His suffering would be God’s reply to her agonized questions of who she was to Him. Far from the insignificant pawn or the castoff slave girl that her experience had led her to believe she was, she was the one for whom He would give Himself. He would personally shoulder her grief and take her abuse on Himself. But he would not stop there, leaving her permanently bowed at the foot of the cross having received forgiveness from her sins but still broken by the sins of others.

“Sing, barren woman… “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes… “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise,your foundations with lapis lazuli. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.

…no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1-4, 11, 17

Isaiah casts the spotlight back on the desolate woman, calling her forth to sing, to expand her sphere of influence, and to step up into the powerful position that God is preparing for her, too. Just as He will resurrect the Suffering Servant and exalt Him to a position of power and glory, He will turn the woman’s shame into glory, personally vindicating her before her abusers and rebuilding her to a level of beauty and status greater than she ever knew before.

As I zoom out again to the myriad of men and women who have suffered abuse in this world, Isaiah’s powerful prophetic words (many of which have already been so poignantly fulfilled) grip me with a new level of hope and vision. They confront the small-minded comfort to which I have clung, raising my eyes to the vision of empowered enthronement that God has for all of His beleaguered sons and daughters. His goal is not just His glory at our expense. Nor is it a warm blanket tenderly wrapped around trembling survivors. He responds to the pain of our past, the terror of our present, and the despair of our future by personally blazing a path through the same circumstances, but which ends in a radically different destination than human experience would teach us to expect.

IMG_3864 (1)

As we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings even as He entered into ours, this path leads us to the splendor and strength that Isaiah called broken Jerusalem to rise up and embrace. This is who we are to God, and this is the destiny for which He has been preparing His suffering servants all along.

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Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but 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 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 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.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

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.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

Running on Empty

gas guageAs a child, George Mueller stories struck me as particularly romantic and exciting. I dreamed of living that amazing, edge-of-your-seat kind of life, constantly getting stuck in crises and then watching God show up with His miraculous deliverance.

But living the stories on a daily basis is radically different from listening to them from a comfy couch. For those whose lives are defined by constantly wondering where the money is going to come from to pay each pending bill or by surviving one crisis only to face another, this lifestyle is far from the exhilarating rush that many imagine. It is an exhausting way to live.

Faith is an exhausting way to live.

I suspect that at times, Jesus’ disciples reached the point where they would have gladly traded their adventures for a couch, the opportunity to sit and listen to other people’s exciting stories rather than endure yet another grueling test of faith. Being sent out without an expense account probably got old after a while, and healing one town-full of sick people only to face the next was hardly rejuvenating.

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Mark 6:30-31

Exhausted and empty, they came to Jesus for some much needed refueling. Hopefully with Him around they wouldn’t have to bear the weight of constant responsibility for themselves and for everyone else. But the crowds were inescapable and the needs incessant.

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32-34

Even Jesus’ attempts to get away for some R&R were perpetually frustrated. True to His teachings, Jesus never relieved Himself of the responsibility to love the many “neighbors” who kept tracking Him down. And faithful to their Master, His disciples never took a day off from following in His footsteps.

By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Mark 6:35-36

But when their own resources were so completely depleted, how could they possibly keep giving out? The hour was late, their stomachs were empty, and their emotional wells had long-since run dry. Surely it was reasonable to ask the crowds to sort themselves out for a while. What else could Jesus possibly expect of them?

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages ! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
Mark 6:37

Just when they felt fully within their rights to take a sabbatical from the whole Good Samaritan business, Jesus upped the stakes. He pushed them beyond the limits of their carefully hoarded resources, calling them to cater for a hungry crowd big enough to make Martha cry. And who would bear the financial burden for such a massive undertaking? Jesus sent them to take an inventory of their own impossibly meager stash.

“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.”

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.
Mark 6:38-39

In their poverty and exhaustion, all the disciples could see was what they didn’t have. But Jesus called them to count the resources already provided for them. Sure that child-sized lunch would only put a drop in the bucket of their need, but like the widows’ last handful of grain in Elijah’s time, it was the seed form of the multiplying miracle that Jesus was about to do. All that they needed had already been provided.

Our tanks may be on empty,
but His never run dry.

Of course from a human standpoint, their needs were far from supplied. Counting those tiny loaves and fish while eyeing a crowd of five thousand was almost laughable. But what the disciples forgot to count was the vast storehouses of the One who was asking so much of them. In their slavish worry over how they would accomplish the impossible, they forgot that with Him all things are.

So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
Mark 6:40-43

Nevertheless, in obedient faith they set the table, raising the expectations of those around them and risking that they all might be disappointed. Piece by piece they kept handing out whatever Jesus handed them, never knowing when the stream of bread would dry up. And moment by moment, God faithfully supplied the manna for each person under their care.

In the most backhanded way imaginable, Jesus was refueling His disciples’ faith tank. Rather than relieving them of responsibility or offering them a spiritual retreat, He supplied them with the opportunity to witness Him at work through them. Their step-by-step faith was an integral part of the miracle that He gradually unfolded before their eyes, one they never could have foreseen and yet in retrospect would love to retell.

Like the disciples, we want the comfort of seeing God’s provision in advance. We get tired of feeling forever on the edge of physical and emotional bankruptcy. But so much of our feeling of emptiness comes from looking at what we don’t have, worrying over where tomorrow’s provision will come from. Instead, Jesus calls us to look back at what He has already supplied. With Him at our right hand, those negligible scraps become the basis for all we need and more.

The most amazing of His miracles come through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit.

Our tanks may be on empty, but His never run dry. The most amazing of His miracles don’t come with a sudden bang, but rather through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit. Only at the end of each day will we be able to look back and see how all of our needs have been supplied, with basketfuls of leftovers to share.

Don’t forget to count them.

When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “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 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Yours truly.

attachmentWho am I to God?

The question lurked beneath the surface of our long-distance phone conversation. I looked out at the breakers pounding the shore, eroding age-old stone into flimsy particles of sand. That same question again, the one that rarely gets spoken, yet the one that lies just beneath the consciousness of those who are being slammed by wave after wave of suffering.

Am I the apple of His eye or am I simply collateral damage?

Am I the apple of His eye,
or am I simply collateral damage?

I listened to my friend on the other end of the line, trying to make sense of God’s seeming inactivity in the face of his devastating losses. Sure, he had pounded on heaven’s doors begging God to intervene and the worst had still happened. But that didn’t mean that God didn’t care about him. Or did it?

Actually, he was trying to avoid the question, not wanting to run the risk of putting God on the spot. Instead he attempted to appease himself with reminders of the many other godly people who have suffered over the ages: hundreds of parents whose babies were massacred under Pharaoh and Herod, thousands of faithful Israelites who were tortured and killed by wicked kings, and countless other believers who have suffered the loss of homes, children, dignity, and safety throughout the vast story of humanity. God did not rescue them from their suffering. He let it happen as a part of His bigger plan of redemption for the world.

What makes me any more special than the rest of them?

I listened to my friend trying to let God off the hook. It is one thing to talk about His individualized care for each sparrow while perched comfortably within the safe shelter of a family nest. It is another to grapple with His goodness while lying broken-winged and abandoned on the ground.

Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question.
It confirms it.

But as he tried to chalk his sufferings up to being the necessary by-products of a messed-up world which God is still in the process of putting right, my heart broke. Seeing it that way would relegate him to the utterly insignificant category of collateral damage, deemed not important enough to warrant God’s altering “the plan” in order to save.

Who am I to expect any better than this?

O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”
Psalm 3:1-2

Who indeed? Is this all that we are to God? That is certainly the message that the enemy has whispered in my ear, a thousand times over. “You aren’t important enough. He won’t bother.” It slips in nicely alongside the truth that the world does not revolve around me. But before we lower our expectations and slink away from God’s front door, it may be helpful to first ask His opinion.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers… what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 8:3-5

Who am I to You? Why would You care about me? You are so big and important—why would You notice my suffering and bother Yourself with my mess?

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? …Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD will hear when I call to him.
But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad… Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Psalm 4:2-3; 3:3; 5:11

God’s reply?

A cross-shaped hug.

Adoption papers.

And a personal comforter, the Spirit who wraps Himself around us the way Boaz covered Ruth.

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.
Romans 8:16-17

This is the Spirit who prays for us when we don’t have the words. He reassures us that we really are God’s children, as cherished by Him as His only begotten Son. And He reminds us that the Father is treating us no differently than He did our older Brother. Being left to suffer doesn’t call our special position with Him into question. It confirms it.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
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 8:31-32, 35-37

Like those merciless waves, trouble and hardship and insecurity and loss pound the self-confidence right out of us. But they also open opportunities for God to prove just how much we mean to Him. Our older Brother’s suffering is the crucible in which the Father proved His love for us. And our suffering is the means through which He persistently prepares us to share in the family heritage.

Far from being the unfortunate side-effect of a barely-controlled cosmic rescue mission, my friend’s trial is the carefully wielded sculpting tool of a master Craftsman. God is wearing down everything that stands in the way of His life-giving love. Of course the process is devastating. Of course it causes him to question who he is to God.

But God’s resounding answer comes back, roaring over the power of the waves:

You are Mine.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12504286
But now, this is what the LORD says–
he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
Isaiah 43:1–5

Inhabiting No Mans’ Land

attachment-e1430302595774I’m caught in an evangelistic no man’s land.

I will exalt you, my God the King…
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations…
Psalm 145:1-2,13

On one side of me I see my glorious King, risen and reigning over heaven and earth. I see multitudes of saints and angels around His throne, caught up in the ecstasy of white-hot worship. And I feel myself drawn into their number, ready to abandon all inhibition and join in their joyous, unfettered proclamation of Jesus as King.

One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. ..They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
Psalm 145:3-7

But then I look in the other direction. There I see sidewalks full of regular folks, going about their everyday business with little or no reference to this supposed King. Where is He when their paycheck runs short or their partner walks out? What mighty deeds or miraculous intervention can they speak of? Life is hard and, in their estimation, the only one looking out for them is Number 1.

The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Psalm 145:20

When I look at the proclamation of God as King through these eyes, it suddenly loses its luster. It begins to sound like a taunt instead of a tender. Aren’t His benefits only available to those who are already members of the club? Isn’t He the God who threatens to destroy those outside the club, the “wicked”? I can see how the good news that I so desperately want to proclaim would come across as slightly less than appealing.

And this is how I find myself stuck, marooned between two radically different perspectives. In this no man’s land I fall silent, relegating my worship to my private life and proclaiming God’s goodness only within the confines of the clubhouse.

…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 145:13-16

But when I go back to the bold, unapologetic claims of my spiritual predecessors in the Psalms, I realize that I have missed something. Those outside the “holy club” may feel like God has done nothing for them, but that doesn’t mean He hasn’t. Their very existence is testimony to His proactive love. When they were oblivious to their own existence, He formed them in their mother’s womb. When they felt vulnerable and alone, He was watching over their every step. Even though they haven’t looked to Him for food, He has repeatedly handed them both their bodies’ needs and their hearts’ desires.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Psalm 145:17-18

The point is that God doesn’t just take care of the people who are in His club. He actively relates to every person He has made, showering them with daily expressions of His love whether or not they return the favor. Even better, He promises to get more involved in their lives if they will turn around and ask for it.

I’m not stuck in the gap;
I’ve been called to stand in the gap.

I confess that I too often stand helplessly in the space between these two camps, wondering why God doesn’t do more to make Himself known to those who live apart from Him. How can they know to turn around and call out to Him if they don’t even know that He is there and that He cares?

The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

And then I realize the ridiculousness of my self-imposed predicament. I’m not stuck in the gap; I’ve been called to stand in the gap. I wonder at God’s seeming apathy towards the suffering of the world while blindly neglecting my role in bringing the news of His deliverance. I’m the one who doesn’t adequately care. I’ve been trying to pass the world off as God’s problem when all along He keeps calling me to be part of the solution.

All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Psalm 145:10-12

My role is to take His praise to the streets, not in a rubbing-it-in-your-face sort of way but with all the boldness and compassion of one who has been sent with a life-altering report. My awareness of people’s perspective should not neutralize my message. Rather it should compel me to raise their awareness of God’s reality.

No man’s land is the place where the prophets lived, the expanse that Jesus bridged, the gap that we are now called to fill.

I guess it’s not such a bad place to inhabit, after all.

Deserted or Delivered?

IMG_8608The space between the grief of Good Friday and celebration of Resurrection Sunday is always such an awkward time for me. I have cried myself dry meditating on the incredible suffering that Jesus endured through the course of His endless trials, beatings, and hours on the cross. His pain is finally over, but the time for celebrating His triumph has not yet come. In the between space, I am stuck with the classic mourner’s question of how to make sense of the events that led to this loss.

Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Psalm 22:16-20

In the lead-up to Jesus’ death, there seems to be this mounting anticipation that God would show up and deliver Him. Isn’t that what Jesus was begging Him for during those agonized midnight prayers in the garden? Isn’t that what He consoled His disciples with when they wanted to fight in His defense? God could show up any time with His armies of angels to deliver His Son. But He didn’t.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Psalm 22:6-8

Through the insane marathon of accusations and trials, Jesus remained eerily silent. Why? He had no need to defend Himself and set the record straight. He trusted God to do that. But God’s silence was even more deafening than Jesus’. As question after mocking question chipped away at His identity, He stood and later hung with His eyes on heaven. Surely God would answer. Even one of those thundering voices and descending doves would do. Surely the Father would speak up for His Son. But He didn’t.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:14-15

As the telltale signs of death slowly stole over Jesus’ body, His confidence began to waver. Where were those signs of God’s goodness, those affirmations that He would indeed honor and deliver His beloved Son? Jesus’ throttled body bore evidence against the glorious promise that God would send His angels to protect the one He loved. The crushing weight in His chest made a mockery of the biblical assurances that God would deliver His soul from death. The worst had come, and God hadn’t intervened.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Was this really how things would end?

Jesus cried out what His mind knew wasn’t true but His heart couldn’t help but feel: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me!?!”

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
Psalm 22:11-13

He knew how the story would end. He had rehearsed it with His disciples a million times. He would die but He would rise again. This wasn’t the end, but it sure felt like it. In the moment, all Hell was breaking loose. His disciples had scattered. The demonic hordes had gathered, hovering in the air all around Him and enjoying every moment of His distress. But through the roar of their taunting voices, Jesus tuned His interpretation of reality into the still whisper of the Spirit within.

For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

Even as the dark shadows of death stole over His vision, Jesus clung to the sweet comfort of God with Him. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore. The worst had already happened. The storm still howled all around, but God was within. He had never left. And even now His Spirit was bearing testimony to Jesus’ Spirit that this was not how it would end.

The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him– may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.
Psalm 22:26-28

God would deliver Jesus from the grave. He would raise Him up to a position of glory and honor greater than He had lost in the first place. He would cause the knees that had marched against Him to bow in worship before Him. He would cause the tongues that had mocked Him to testify that He is Lord. And because of God’s faithfulness to deliver Jesus, He would prove Himself faithful to deliver all others who put their hope in Him.

What feels like yesterday’s desertion
will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance.

This is the outcome that I cling to in the in-between spaces of my own life. When God seems to have turned His back on me, when He has already allowed the worst to happen, this is the version of reality that I turn to. What feels like yesterday’s desertion will turn out to be tomorrow’s deliverance. What others may have intended for my harm will turn out for my good.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn– for he has done it.
Psalm 22:30-31

Why? Because that is the way God works. He sets up the greatest crises to put on display His greater deliverance. He is the God who delights in unexpected twists and surprise endings. He is writing my story along the same plot lines as He did Christ’s. Of course it will turn out good. He is the One doing it.

The Road from Broken

attachment“He didn’t show up.”

I listened to the hum of my friend’s tires through the crackle of our phone connection, speechless in response to his overwhelming grief. The crack in his voice tore at my heart.

“My back was to the wall. I kept crying out for God to rescue me. I kept waiting to see what He would do, trusting that He would intervene.

“But He didn’t.”

Images flashed through my mind, memories of the times my spirit has broken under the crushing blow of God’s unresponsiveness. The unborn children that I had pled with Him to save. The violent attacks that I had begged Him to rescue me from. And more recently, the tiny niece whom I had persistently called on Him to heal.

But He didn’t.

When God lets our worst nightmare come true, how can we ever rest in His arms again?

When God allows our worst nightmare to unfold in front of our eyes, what can we say? What comfort is possible after He brings the darkest night of our soul? The sun may still rise, new mornings may come, but how can we raise our eyes to their hope-filled rays without remembering the dashed expectations of this night?

As I prayed through Psalm 89 this morning, God once again walked me through the arduous path from the valley of the shadow back into the land of the living. Ethan’s psalm is one of those conversations which suddenly takes an unexpected left turn, the sort of song that begins with pitch-perfect worship and ends with dissonant lament. But reading the beginning in light of the end shows me the way forward through the valley of despair.

I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
Psalm 89:1-2

At the moments when I have felt most let down by God, the hardest thing to do is to look Him in the eye. In an effort to preserve my sanity and my faith, I am tempted to look away, to settle for “Well, He is God and I am not. Who am I to expect any better than this?” But on the other side of disappointment, the psalmist undertakes the daring venture of repeating what he had based his world on before it fell apart. God’s unfailing love. His firm faithfulness.

…You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it. …Your arm is endued with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.
Psalm 89:8-13

And having driven his stake firmly back into that rock, the psalmist faces head on the one excuse that might explain away a loving God who lets nightmares come true. Could it be that God just wasn’t big enough to handle this situation? Was His arm bound or this situation somehow beyond His reach? That would be convenient to believe. It would certainly let God off the hook. But the psalmist refuses to settle for a smaller deity, an emasculated, toned-down version of God. Instead he boldly reiterates God’s history of overcoming much greater forces than the one He just seemingly gave in to.

So God is loving and God is strong. Then why did He stand back and let this happen? How can I reconcile what I have heard Him say about Himself with what I have just seen with my eyes? The evidence seems to mount against Him.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant,’I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’
“No enemy will subject him to tribute; no wicked man will oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted.

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice. You have turned back the edge of his sword and have not supported him in battle. You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:3, 22-24 38-39, 42-45

At this point my courage falters. I am tempted to escape the conflict by switching into dissociative worship, gazing on God’s heavenly goodness while blocking out my earthly pain. But the psalmist takes the risky step of bringing the two together in the same room, laying side by side the specific promises God has made and the contradicting realities he has experienced. He refuses to deny, downplay, or excuse either of them until they have somehow been reconciled.

The tension builds until it is almost unbearable. The unspoken question hangs in the air: “Why have you let me down?” But the psalmist won’t say it. He doesn’t want to pass judgment on God prematurely.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life…
Psalm 89:46-47

And that’s when the element of time finally enters the room, allowing us all space to breathe again. The story isn’t over. The worst may have already happened, but God isn’t finished.

The worst may have already happened,
but the story isn’t over.

The babies may have died. The brutal act may have been completed. The contract may have been terminated. The relationship may be over. But that isn’t the end.

In God’s story, death ends in resurrection. Sorrow ends in comfort. Shame ends in glory. Brokenness ends in renewal. And suffering ends in redemption.

And so as I stand in the midst of the valley with my friend, my backward-looking questions of “why” give way to forward-reaching cries of “how long?” Like the “Are we there yet?” conversations that inevitably occur in the backseat of a seemingly eternal road trip, I switch from disappointment to anticipation. God’s “No” compels me to cry out in faith: “Then how much longer?”

He didn’t show up. But He will.

It is only a matter of time.

When God Proves Himself Good

The news of the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls last May rocked my confidence in God’s goodness.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. … Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Matthew 10:28-30

If God really cared so much about their lives, why would He allow such a horrible thing to happen to these vulnerable, courageous young women? Why wouldn’t He show up and deliver them from such a tortuous fate? His inactivity seemed to reinforce the message of their terrorist captors: these girls were neither worth educating nor saving.

How can kidnapping and torture
turn out for anyone’s good?

One part of me clung to the belief that God did love them and would somehow work all this for their good, but another part of me cynically wondered how. Even if they were rescued or managed to escape, their lives would never be the same. What welcome would they receive back in their home communities? Who would be willing and able to walk with them through the fallout of their trauma? What future could there possibly be for girls who had been defiled by their captors and ruined for traditional married life at home in a village?

Little did I know that God would allow me to meet the answer to my skeptical prayers.

Today as I was wrapping up the third day of the Spiritual Formation course I am teaching in Nigeria this week, the most senior member of the class raised his hand to comment. This gentleman, a 71-year-old Muslim-background believer, has been displaced by Boko Haram from his homeland in the northeast. He has dedicated his retirement years to public service and to pursuing this master’s degree. I had already heard bits and pieces of his story, enough to know that he lost his two teenaged girls in a car accident. He had assured me, though, that he has been consoled by the many spiritual children God brings into his life.

What I didn’t know was that four of those children are girls who escaped from Boko Haram.

So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.
Matthew 10:31-32

Today he told me one their stories with all the pride of a true father. This girl had boldly professed her identity as Christ’s to her Boko Haram captors, refusing to renounce Him even as they threw her to the ground, pressing their feet on her neck and their guns to her head. When told they would shoot her if she didn’t change her answer, she responded, “Even if you kill me, so what. I am still Christian.”

Through God’s unexpected intervention, the terrorist standing nearby decided it would be better to let her go than to allow her to influence the other girls. So he told her to start running and not to stop, or he would shoot her. After a nightlong flight through the mountainous jungle, she collapsed unconscious. Fearing the worst, the villagers who discovered her the next day prodded her awake and eventually helped her get to safety.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law–a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 10:34-39

But God did not simply rescue her and then leave her to sort out the rest. He sent her and two other escapees into the care of a compassionate, fatherly man, wisened by his own experience of trauma and loss. Under the shelter of his wings, they received physical and emotional refuge. When their own families protested that they shouldn’t receive any special treatment, he advocated for them. When international workers pushed for them to be quickly extracted, he protected them from further trauma.

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. … And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Matthew 10:40-42

In the months that followed, he stuck with these terrorized girls like only a father could, stabilizing with them his unflinching love. And when they were finally ready, he accompanied them to the U.S., navigating the visa process, settling them into a safe place, and leaving them only when they felt secure enough to let go of him.

I judged God’s goodness by my standards.
He proved Himself good by to His own.

I put my hand over my mouth in humble amazement. All the complex problems that I had assumed God would not take care of, He has. I cannot speak for the rest of the girls, but I now see how He has come through for these four. He has not let these precious sparrows fall to the ground unnoticed. Nor has He allowed this godly man’s arms to remain empty.

I judged God’s goodness by my own set of expectations. Parents that get to keep their children. Children that get to stay with their parents.

God shows His goodness in the most unexpected ways. A Father who loses His child to save other children. Girls who lose their families to gain a new kind of father.

But in God’s mixed-up, unexpected-twists-in-the-plot story, He always comes out good in the end. Not a one of the details falls to the ground. Not a one of our tears goes unnoticed.

Be at rest once more, my soul. The Lord has been good to her.

Reconciling Justice

“The truth is I hate them and find it hard to forgive them with all of my heart…”

My heart wrenched as I listened to the frank testimony of one of my African students. A mature, dedicated servant of Christ, he lives with the perpetual torment of visually reliving the night of his parents murder.

Soft lights. Gentle laughter. A family relaxes together after their evening meal.

Harsh intruders. Vicious blades. Screaming husband and wife fall beneath relentless blows. A terrified child hides in the corner, helplessly watching his parents being hacked to death.

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. …
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Psalm 73:4-12

Run for safety. An eyewitness report to the police. Appeal for justice. But the murderous neighbors walk free. Laughing. Gloating. Powerful. Prospering.

Forty years later and they still walk free. Free of trouble, free of worry, free of justice.
Have they really gotten away with this? Is there no justice for those slaughtered parents, no consequences for their heartless butchers? Is there no healing resolution for this wounded man, living with the fallout of traumatic memories and agonized questions?

We can pity our enemies because
we know the outcome of their story.

How is he supposed to feel toward his parents’ unpunished, unrepentant murderers? What does it look like to love these neighbors?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

As a Christian leader, he has devoted his life to reconciliation, beginning with his own humble, repentant posture before God. He has tirelessly ministered to others, shepherding them towards reconciliation with God and mediating their conflicts with each other. Overflowing with compassion and mercy, this gentle man of God has faced more than his share of cheek-turning opportunities as he leads the church, demonstrating in each situation his commitment to love and his trust in God’s justice.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:2-3, 21-22

But in this case, that justice seems to have failed. From where he stands, God seems to have blessed the wicked and punished the righteous. It doesn’t fit with what God says about Himself, but how else is he supposed to make sense of what is happening? He struggles to keep trusting God’s goodness, but the pressure of his ongoing experience is driving a wedge between them.

We can put down the burden of revenge because we trust God to carry the weight of justice.statue of justice

Listening to this African brother’s story has added to the burden I feel over all the unresolved injustice in our world. I feel caught along with him in the contradiction of faith and sight. What about the countless stories of unavenged victims and expansive oppressors that swirl through our history books and across our newsfeeds? What justice is there for the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

I am tempted to question God’s justice, to be swallowed up by my own conflicting emotions of love and hate, of forgiveness and revenge. What we both need is a heavenly glimpse, the opportunity to see these gut-wrenchingly wrong situations without the earthly limitations of time and space.

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
Psalm 73:18-20

Viewed from the heavenly courtroom, the scene looks completely different. We see those once intimidating oppressors cowering in terror before the throne of God, their formerly invincible strength melting like wax before the Almighty. We see the illusion of their carefree control evaporate before the reality of God’s righteous justice. And we are satisfied.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26

Our hearts can once again rest in the goodness of God. Our minds can once again be reconciled to His just work in an unjust world. What is lacking is not His commitment to intervene or His faithfulness to follow through. It is our ability to see the complete picture of what He is doing.

Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Psalm 73:27-28

The assurance of God’s justice forms the basis of our reconciliation. We can put down the burden of vengeance because we know He will carry it to completion. We can pity our enemies because we know the outcome of their story. And we can draw near to God in full assurance of faith, knowing that He who promised is faithful.