Tag Archives: wrestling with God

When My Faith Hurts My Children

IMG_1608“But what about your children?”

The question came from a concerned friend in the congregation last year as we presented our past work and our upcoming move. His well-intended question jarred a deep insecurity in me, resurrecting an unresolved tension that I have lived with since the Lord first called us to this pilgrim life as a young couple.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

I remember wrestling with the Lord over this issue seventeen years ago as my husband and I first began the process of packing up and moving to the place God was leading us to serve. As I counted the cost involved, the Spirit moved me to joyously lay down my rights, my comforts, my proximity to family, and even my life. But as I looked down at the swelling bump growing within me, my heart froze with fear. What about this little one? What if something horrible happened to her because of my choice to serve God in what we already knew would be a difficult, possibly dangerous place?

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: 6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.

The Lord’s answer to me then was something I have had to keep returning to ever since. “They are not your children. They are Mine. If this is the life to which I am calling you, then it also the life I have planned out for them. Remember that I love them more than you ever will.”

I confess that my faith in this area has been severely tried. In those early years I watched my babies burn with dengue fever and lie listlessly overcome by typhoid, driving me to cry out helplessly on their behalf. I mourned their lack of clean air, open playgrounds, and nourishing community. And yet through those years I also watched the Lord preserve their lives and nurture their growth in beautiful ways, both despite and because of the circumstances in which they were growing up.

16Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; 17 for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.

Aware of the unique challenges our children faced because of our lifestyle, my husband and I devoted ourselves to compensating for their losses. We threw ourselves into lighthearted family rituals and rigorous home education, seeking to shelter our children from the intensity and pain that constantly weighed on our bodies and souls. Of course no amount of dancing around the kitchen or bedtime tickles could cover the terror of seeing their father repeatedly carry their unconscious mother out the door in a panicked rush for the emergency room. Nor could our attempts at levity and a positive spin on things protect them from the terror of seeing their mother violently attacked, from the trauma of yet another emergency evacuation, and from the loss of yet another home and community.

18 The blameless spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever. 19 In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.

In the years that followed I mourned my own inability to be the super-mother I had prided myself on being. Though the zeal and vitality with which I had formerly engaged my children was gone, I prayed that God would compensate for my brokenness by providing for my children what I could not. As my Good Shepherd led me through the valley of darkness and back out to the green pastures of healing, I saw Him mothering my children through the other nurturing adults He brought into their lives. Mentoring aunties and uncles, proactive music teachers and prayer partners, and doting grandparents (both natural and surrogate) stepped in to guide, teach, nurture, and provide for my children. Humbling as it was, God strengthened my faith through His faithfulness to my children.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go. So when one of those nurturing adults raised the question about our return to South Asia, of course my heart sank. Were we being reckless and irresponsible as parents to take our teenagers out of the relative security they had found and back into the place where life was so uncertain? Stories filtered through my memory of embittered young adults whose faith in God and relationship with their parents were shattered by similar experiences. Were we ruining any hope our children might have of becoming healthy, well-adjusted adults by heeding our Master’s call?

Despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of our children’s hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God.

With trembling hearts my husband and I put our future on the table for family discussion. Bitterness and pain, fear and faith all reared their heads as we talked about what we felt God leading us to do. Little incentive readily presented itself for why these teens should give up their lives to follow their parent’s calling, and yet that is what they chose to do.

23 The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; 24 though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.

In the year that has followed, we have had ample opportunity to hold our breath and cry out in despair, “Lord, where is your goodness for our children? How will you reward their faith?” We have walked with them through dark valleys no child should have to endure. One has faced the traumatic rupture of the buried fear and pain from her past, bravely fighting for life itself, while another has quietly born up under the culture shock symptoms of a perpetually upset gut and an isolated social life.

25 I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26 They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.

As parents, we see our children bearing the brunt of our life calling, a cross we never intended them to have to carry. We want to step in and do whatever it takes to protect them from this pain. But despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of their hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God. The fact is that they, too, are participating in the sufferings of Christ. Whether they signed up for this or not, He has chosen them for the noblest of human callings: to know Christ both in the fellowship of His sufferings and in the power of His resurrection.

28 For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones… 34 Hope in the LORD and keep his way.

Psalm 37

While I have experienced the sweet fruit of living out this sort of radical faith and wouldn’t trade it for anything, I struggle to exercise it on behalf of my children. What if they don’t make it out the other side? What if God doesn’t come through for them as He has for me? In response to my wavering faith, the Lord once again speaks to my soul, “Be still. They are in my hands. Watch and see the good things I am doing for them. ”

And I can already testify that He is.

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Caught Between Mercy and Need

photo-on-9-7-16-at-12-20-pm-3-1“I’ve already blown it with you, and yet I need your help. How can I ask for another favor?”

For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, one of the hardest situations to be put in is that of needing help that we don’t feel we have the right to ask for. In a human economy, we intuitively know that relationships work on a system of give and take. And most of us prefer to remain primarily on the giving side, maintaining a healthy balance in our relational bank account so that we don’t have to worry about someday running in the red.

Call it pride, call it pragmatism, but deep down we know that there is a limit to how many times we can come back with the same empty cup asking for more, especially if our track record has little to show for improvement.

And though we know that things are different with God, somehow it’s hard to escape the same nagging sense that we have used up all our wishes. If we’d just won some spiritual victory we might feel more confident to ask for His help, but what about those long dry seasons when all we can look back and see is one failure after another? On what basis can we approach His throne and boldly make another request?

Once again, the Psalms show us the way forward. Compiled in exile by a nation of people who had blown it more times than they could recount, they give us prayers to pray in our moments of triumph and our moments of despair, our moments of life “as it should be” and our moments of “oh my goodness how can I even pray to you?”

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them…
Psalm 106:2-5

Psalm 106 falls firmly in the last category. After its initial statements of thanks and praise, it jumps right into the dilemma the psalmist is facing. Who is worthy to pray before God, whether in accolades of thanks and praise or (more relevantly to the psalmist’s current exilic condition) in indebting petitions for help and deliverance?

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly….
Psalm 106:6

At least the Psalmist is honest enough to go back and tell the story as bad as it really was. Most of his prayer involves detailing just how horribly he and his people have responded to God’s repeated gracious interventions in past. Listing forgetfulness, ingratitude, uncontrolled urges, envy, arrogance, breach of contract, rebellion, and downright laziness on the application form hardly seems the way to win favor from a loan officer, but this is precisely the approach the psalmist takes with God. In fact, it seems to be his strategy in convincing himself that he can again ask for help and in encouraging God to give it.

Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy.
Psalm 106:43-46

After all, the record showed that no matter how many times (or how badly) they had blown it, God always listened to their cry for mercy. Though their performance was consistently lousy, His response was consistently gracious. That didn’t mean He hadn’t taken them through some pretty tough consequences, but it did mean that He had always relented and restored them in the end. Why would this time be any different?

Where human love runs dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever.

But in addition to bolstering the psalmist’s confidence in God’s track record, praying through the history of their relationship enabled the Psalmist to remind God of what it had always been based on: God’s unfailing love, not His people’s unfailing performance. This was the leg he could stand on when all others crumbled away. This was the firm foundation on which he could base his plea for yet another miraculous intervention.

Praise the LORD.Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 106:1

Where human love would have long before run dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever. If anything, the more we draw on it, the more it replenishes. I don’t know how long it will take for this simple reality to finally permeate the way I approach Him in prayer. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my fully believing it is my own pride, insisting that our relationship include my merit as at least part of its basis.

Save us, LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.
Psalm 106:47

But when merit fails and need overwhelms me, I am driven back to my knees as the Psalmist was. Going silent or going shallow in my prayers won’t cut it. Only a full-disclosure of my failings will clear the accounts, making space for God’s amazing grace to once again give me something to sing about.

And it never fails.

What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

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.

A Saintly Sentinel: Guns or Prayers for the Nigerian Church?

IMG_8082From the time my Nigerian students first raised the issue, I have been struggling to formulate a response to the question of how the persecuted church should respond to repeated, violent attacks, especially when government does not intervene to protect it. Is it ever right for Christians to take matters into our own hands, to take up arms in defense of our families and communities?

The complexities to this question have left me in two minds, paralyzed by my ability to argue both sides of the coin. I have never been forced to choose between taking a life and passively watching a life be taken. And yet the relevance to our brothers and sisters for whom this scenario is not hypothetical demands a response. With the Nigerian elections coming up this weekend, this issue is at the forefront of thousands of Christians who may soon find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.

The following statement was written by one of my students, a respected leader in the Nigerian Christian community and a senior-ranking civil servant. I wrote earlier about Ibrahim’s involvement in rescuing some of the kidnapped Chibok girls. His gutsy faith in the face of yet another potential outbreak of violence against himself and his loved ones inspires me each time I read this. May it call us all to greater faith as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and around the world.

There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
…And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:9-13

This evening, I read the recommended passage of 1 Kings 19:9-13. My attention was caught by the last sentence: Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I stopped and a mental sheet rolled down and on it a written question: What is the future of the church in Nigeria after the 2015 Presidential election?

I said, “God, I do not know! You are all-knowing… You know what happened to the church (Christians) in Northern Nigeria after the Presidential election in 2011. You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church—burning down church buildings, houses, and properties of the Christians and in many places slaughtering Christians like rams. Perhaps it was because Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from a minority ethnic group from Southern Nigeria, won the election. My God, Christians did not know why they lost their lives and properties, including the church buildings. Your command is to love them and pray for them, to not take revenge because vengeance is yours.

You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church…

In 2015, Nigerians are still going to the poll to elect a President. The two major contenders are Jonathan from Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Muhammad from All Progressive Congress (APC). The Muslim leaders vowed in 2011 that if Jonathan wins, they would make Nigeria ungovernable. Jonathan won and Boko Haram manifested with all the subsequent attendant destructions. God, you allowed it and yet you said that I and my Christian brethren should love and pray for the Muslims.

“God, when I recall what happened to the church in North Africa and the present Turkey many years ago when the Muslims reigned, there was no freedom for the church and it was virtually destroyed there. What do you want me and the church to do in Nigeria after the election? As it looks, whether Muhammad wins or loses the church would be visited by the Muslim murderers. Should the church not prepare to defend itself from probable immediate attack by arming itself with weapons of war? God, if Muhammad wins the election, he would strengthen the Nigerian membership of Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) with the total goal of Islamizing Nigeria.

I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims.

Lord, it appears the best option to the church is to fortify itself with prayers, cast votes, and wait in your hands. We will not retaliate with carnal weapons but spiritual weapons (prayer and confession of thanks). God, I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims. The Church in Nigeria needs you today to face the task on hand – conflagration!

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

Father, I am overwhelmed with fear and sorrow. However, strengthen your church—your body. I will remain focused and faithful. My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” This refers to all Christians and to the church in Nigeria.

My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”

Finally, Lord let me go back to the question you asked me: ‘What are you doing, Ibrahim?’ Well, God, forgive me for the sin of unbelief and doubt. I realize that you are the creator and nothing happens without your knowledge and express permission.

You will win in Nigeria come 28 March, 2015. You have decided and we accept it with thanksgiving.”

by Ibrahim Bangalu

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.

Assaulted but…

If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:9-12

“I don’t know how to make sense of this. I thought You were supposed to show up, to protect me from harm. I thought that if I loved You and served You with all my heart, You wouldn’t let anything like this happen to me. I trusted You. I put myself in harm’s way for Your sake. And now look at me…”

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have … defiled his crown in the dust. You have broken through all his walls and reduced his strongholds to ruins. All who pass by have plundered him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
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 89:38-41, 44-45

Tears ran down my face as my feet pounded the pavement. The physical intensity of running released my pent up emotions, and along with them the agonized cries of my heart. How could I reconcile God’s promises of protection and honor with my experience of being beaten and violated? I didn’t doubt His strength to stop my attackers, nor did I doubt His presence with me as they threw me about and had their way with me. But that left me with a deeper, even more painful question.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?… Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!
O Lord, where is your former great love… ?
Psalm 89:46-47, 49

Who was I to God? A disposable item, designed to be used up and thrown away? I had been plundered and defiled, broken and discarded. Was that all I was worth to Him? Where was that great love that He had professed for me? I felt more like a sheep handed over to be slaughtered than like a cherished child.

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.”
Romans 8:35-36

A sacrificial lamb. That rang a bell. Jesus had been treated this way, too. Those promises of love and honor and protection had been made to Him, too. Satan had even pulled out that particular psalm to quote to Him, reminding Him that His Father would send angels to protect Him from all harm, even a stone in His path that might threaten His toes.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… 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 53:5, 7

So why didn’t He? Didn’t Jesus plead with His Father in the garden, begging Him to deliver Him from the evil that was about to happen? And yet the angels didn’t show up. God didn’t intervene. They all stood back and watched as His body was pummeled, His soul was tormented, His life was snuffed out.

The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
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?
Isaiah 50:5-6; Psalm 22:1

If anyone ever had reason to feel unloved by God, to feel completely abandoned by the Father, Jesus did. He subjected Himself to everything that God had called Him to do. He exposed Himself to danger out of loving obedience to His Father. And where did that get Him? Broken. Desecrated. Used up. Dead.

Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Isaiah 50:7-9

And yet God had repeatedly affirmed His love for Jesus in advance. A descending dove. A thundering voice. “My Son. I love Him. I delight in Him.” Jesus knew who He was to God. He knew God would stay true to their relationship, even when it was put through the ultimate test. He endangered Himself because He knew that nothing could come between them. Nothing could separate Him from His Father’s love, not trembling with fear in the garden, not being ripped to pieces by accusers in court, not crying out in abandonment on the cross, not even the silent helplessness of the grave.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Psalm 91:14-16

Jesus endured all these because He believed His story would not end there. He trusted His Father’s love, even when He felt abandoned. He clung to His Father’s promises, even when they seemed forgotten. And sure as the dawn, God came through. The angels showed up to move the stone out of His way. The Most High came down to revive His body, restore His soul, and lead Him to glory.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:37-39

Broken and trembling and messy, I basked in this unfailing love. I drank in the end of Jesus’ story like the parched soul that I was. God had not turned His back on me. And He was not finished with me. Hardship and danger, violence and contempt had certainly taken their toll on me, but they had not succeeded in separating me from His love. Sure as the dawn, God would come through for me, too. He had me by the hand, and He was leading me up the resurrection path to glory.

Romans 8:28-30

The Hard Way

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

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

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

The hard way leads to glory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hard way leads to glory.

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

What Are We Waiting For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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