Intimacy with God, Part 1
The Security of Knowing God Intimately
A Terrifying Development in the Ashland Area
Earlier this week, a disturbing article appeared in an area newspaper. The Sunday Akron Beacon Journal’s headline article was, “Akron Children’s
Hospital opens Center for Gender Affirming Medicine.” The article was upbeat and featured photos of smiling staff members. No cause for worry here. At this time, according to the article, the Center practices only counseling. The truth is more sinister. “Gender affirming medicine” is literally inside the hospital doors. How long will it be before it takes the inevitable step to include sex-change procedures? The moral barrier between “counseling” and carrying out irreversible sexual mutilation on our youth is about as thick as a shower curtain.
We who stand on the faith recognize that what comes from God is orderly. For us, the understanding that truth is absolute is unquestionable. Over the past fifty years—a blink of an eye historically—Western culture has rejected that idea. When I attended college in the 1970s, the idea was academic, the subject of philosophers. A few years later, however, the academic notions filtered into our schools with the teaching tolerance. Tolerance told our children that in areas of religion and opinion, “knowledge” amounts to nothing more than personal preference. What one believes is true for him, and what another believes is true for her. No one is right, because the idea of moral absolutes might offend others. Now, the subjectivity that ruled religious notions has invaded biology. At last count, the LGBTQ+ movement claims to have discovered thirty-six genders, none of which has anything to do with biology. On many college campuses, biologists who defend biological male- and femaleness find themselves driven from the building.
Finding Our Identities in God
Where can we go? Psalm 139 gives us the anchor that the world has rejected. The psalm is a meditation on David’s relationship to his God, and it sings of grounding. David knows who he is because he knows his God. And he knows his God because he sees God’s intimate care for him at every point in his life. The opening of the psalm begins with three observations on his relationship with God.
The First Stanza: The Comfort of being Known by the All-knowing God, (verses 1-6)
The sense of wonder in these verses rings throughout the text.
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thought from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways….
This is just the first two verses. Even in these introductory words, God’s knowledge of our being is astounding. The word for known in the first line does not refer only to factual knowledge. It also expresses intimacy. The same word occurs in Genesis 4:1, “And Adam knew his wife and she conceived….” God knows us completely. Notice also that God searches us. His knowledge is purposeful. His knowledge of us is not just a remote corner in his infinitely large collection of facts about the universe and history. He has chosen to enter into a relationship with us, and he wants us to know him in the same way.
He knows our sitting and rising—that is, our habits. He knows our thoughts, and he is altogether up on the things that drive us to be who we are. A few verses later, David writes, “You hem me in, behind and before, / and lay your hand upon me” (verse 5). Our identities are tethered in God. He saves us from the tyranny of casting about trying to find something from our thoughts to make us unique.
The Second Stanza: Secure in God’s Presence, (verses 7-12)
The second stanza of the psalm begins in verse 7 and speaks of God’s omnipresence, or his being everywhere. The language intensifies.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!...
One of the wonders for David is God’s inescapability. David’s words represent a truth that began in the creation account in Genesis and permeates the rest of the Bible. From the beginning, God’s presence has been the foundation for our dignity as human beings created in God’s image.
The Third Stanza: Created Purposefully and Well, (verses 13-16)
The third stanza stands as a defense against the now-popular notion that we are undefined beings whose greatest aspiration in life is to become whatever we think.
According to the psalm, we are completed works of art. Here is a short sample of the third section.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
From these verses, we can make the following conclusions.
First, God has created well, and his craftsmanship is evident if we only search for it. He is praiseworthy for his work in creation, and that means that he has done rightly. Second, God’s process for bringing us into being is both evident and secret. On the one hand, David knew that he was fearfully and wonderfully made. In the modern age, the have revealed many of God’s marvels invisible to David. In this sense, his work is intricate, deep, and obvious.
On the other hand, it is also mysterious. We will continue to learn much in biochemistry, but God’s ultimate understanding of his creation will remain his alone.
Third, God’s work is purposeful. David concludes the section with these words:
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
This does not mean that our days are mechanically fixed. Our purpose is clear, however. We are to adore God for his handiwork and grace.
The Moral of the Story
God’s desire for us is to relish the relationship that we have with him as the God who created us, redeemed us, and loves us. The beauty of knowing God does not lie in our intelligence. It lies in the fact that God has chosen to know us. In the desert of confusion, Psalm 139 is an oasis. Knowing God becomes a deepening awareness of God’s encompassing knowledge of us. That truth defines us. It drives us to worship our Creator rather than ourselves. It In the end, it stands as the only hope for humanity to be humanity.
 “Akron Children’s Hospital opens Center for Gender Affirming Medicine,” Akron Beacon Journal, Sunday, July 28, 2019, A1, A4-A5.
Intimacy with God, Part 2
What Does It Mean To Know God?
Gaining a Reputation while Missing the Target
From the earliest days I can remember, I spent my life as a Christian counterfeiter. In children’s Sunday school, I learned how to sit and listen to the lessons. My teachers loved me, and I became proud of my imagined faith. When I grew into my teenage years, I made sure I stayed out of obvious trouble. After all, that was what good Christian young men were supposed to do. In public, I made a good showing. After I finished high school, the military draft called my name, and I joined the Air Force. My duties left a lot of free time, and I discovered an interest in the Bible. I buried my nose in it. Soon, the guys in my unit recognized me as the go-to guy for anyone who had questions on the Bible. Surely a budding Bible expert must be a Christian.
Following my Air Force and college, I amped my Bible studies into high gear. My goal was to master the Bible, and I approached it with that aim in mind. All my reading focused on content. I could not afford to go to seminary, but I was committed to becoming the best scholar that I could. My church loved me. I taught the adult class and drove it like a college professor. My reputation as a student of the Word spread outside the church. Everything I did fed my need to be the best in my field. In my mind, I had hit the bulls’ eye. Actually, I had missed the target altogether. I ignored my family’s spiritual needs. My personal studies were only joyless scratching for the next intellectual nugget. I was blind to my own blindness.
The God who Knew Me
This ruse went on until I was 37 years old. Then, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s term, the Hound of Heaven caught up with me. As he pealed back the layers of my life, he showed me that my disguised devotion actually was rebellion. I tried even more desperately to run from him, but by this time, my self-contradiction walled me in. On one side, I saw my pride for the tentacled cancer that it had become. Terror surrounded me. The reality of my future in hell stunned me. On the other, the prospect of going to my church and confessing my counterfeit life was equally dreadful. I realized that I was ready to accept hell if I could maintain my false identity before the church. I was unable to choose between the two prospects. For days, I walked in solitude, begging God not to let me go. Jesus’ words from John 6:37 became my only lifeline. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” I did not think about where the words came from. They had entered my mind, and I begged God to hold onto me.
Through my ordeal, God began to heal my mind. I realized that all my thinking had become so corrupted that it was futile to depend on it. I abandoned everything I had believed and began again. Day by day, I worked through three questions in turn. First, what did conviction mean? I needed to know whether my ordeal was leading me to the truth. Was God behind my conviction? Next, what did repentance mean? How could I know that my turning was even going in the right direction and not on another tangent? Finally, what did faith mean? In spirt of all my studies, I had yet to understand that concept. On the third day, the breakthrough came. Faith simply meant trust in Jesus. At that instant, a rushing sense of joy overtook me. The emotion was unlike anything I had felt in my life. A sense of light engulfed me, and I became settled in peace.
Real changes followed. First, my fear of confession vanished. I could not wait to tell my church what God had done for me. I wanted to shout God’s praise from the housetops. Second, for the Bible began to speak to me when I read it. I can still remember the sense of wonder at the first realization, “These are my promises!” Finally, I became aware of my family. I called for after-supper devotions with my wife and three daughters. Those times became a regular part of our family life until the girls’ school functions made them impossible.
What made the difference? The answer is simple. For the first time in my life, I knew God. Knowing did not come from my efforts. He sought me and created my faith. Later, I came to a deeper realization about the verse that had become my lifeline during the time that I came to the truth concerning myself. Jesus’ words, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out,” were true. I held them throughout my journey from condemnation to salvation. What remained unknown to me during the ordeal was the rest of the truth. God held the other end of the line. The whole sentence from Jesus reads, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37, emphasis added). My salvation was never in doubt, because my heavenly Father knew me from eternity. I came to know him when Jesus claimed his own.
The Reality of Being Known
Jesus’ words reflect the Lord’s promise to Jeremiah the prophet in the Old Testament.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The Jeremiah passage reflects centuries of God’s heartbreak over a people did not know how to know their God. In the new covenant—the covenant that Jesus secured on the cross—we enter a more intimate relationship than we can imagine. Notice the last part of the promise. “For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Knowing God intimately does not come from super devotion. Intimacy is God knowing us, and it begins when we experience forgiveness from God.
Intimacy with God, Part 3
Knowing the Nature of Truth
Practicing Faith in Faith-forbidden Zones
As a nonathletic kid, I had to develop interests outside the usual fare. I discovered the sciences, particularly the study of fossils. Ashland turned out to be a fossil goldmine, and I spent hundreds of weekends perusing the creek beds. That interest followed me into adulthood. Now, though, it was not enough to collect. I began to identify and classify my fossils. I wanted to build a serious collection. Of course, this involved a good deal of reading about paleontology. During that time, I worked on a university campus, so I sought out the geology faculty. Inevitably, they threw evolution at me. Science just knew all about the past. For a while, I tried to straddle the evolutionary fence. Of course, that failed. I had to remind myself that neither the evolutionist nor the creationist can go back to the past. The question of origins is a religious question first. No matter how we conduct science, we begin with a faith belief in our respective system.
This is all very abstract. A short passage in Isaiah hit me like a freight train and made my choice a simple one. Isaiah forced the idols of his day to go head to head against the Creator. He wrote,
Isaiah 41:21-24 (ESV)
21 Set forth your case, says the LORD;bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
22 Let them bring them,and tell us what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome;or declare to us the things to come.
23 Tell us what is to come hereafter,that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,that we may be dismayed and terrified.
24 Behold, you are nothing,and your work is less than nothing;an abomination is he who chooses you.
Here is the issue. Evolution is a God contender, and this passage offers three concrete challenges to the God contenders. As simple as they are, they paint a bull’s eye on the heart of the issue. The first challenge to the would-be gods is to explain the past (verse 22). Our understanding of the past is critical to all thinking because it determines who we are. The second challenge is to declare the future (verse 23a). This may seem like a trivial challenge at first, but the future is as important as the past. For the Christian, future hope waits for the time when righteousness will reign. If the idols are incapable of telling us the future, they certainly have no ability to settle moral issues at the end of history. Finally, Isaiah calls for the idols to do something significant (verse 23b). In his words, they are called to “do good or do harm.” After all, if they are as powerful as they claim to be, they should be able to perform wonders.
Verse 22 calls for the idols to do something “…that we may know you are gods…that we may be dismayed and terrified.” In other words, if they really are gods, then they should be able to act the part.
My Encounter with Isaiah’s Challenge
When I encountered the passage, I understood that it spoke directly to evolution. Like any other idol, evolution claims to explain the past, to work wonders, and to guide us into an ever-better future. In Isaiah’s day, idols were tangible objects—carved or cast images that carried god weight and claimed to do great things. The Idols’ cheerleaders told their stories and hoped the people were gullible enough to accept them. Evolution does exactly that. It begins with nature, mindless and without purpose. Yet through some amazing (and ultimately unexplained) process, random cosmic events have worked together over unimaginably long periods of time to produce order out of chaos, life out of non-living materials, and intelligence out of senselessness.
When I realized that evolution was doing the idol thing, the Lord stripped away my blinders. I saw my hesitation to take the biblical accounts seriously as a form of idolatry. I determined that I would trust the biblical the creation account alone. If anyone challenged my stand, I would challenge them with the argument from Isaiah.
The Challenge in Real Life
An opportunity came just a few weeks later, when I was involved with a university-sponsored dig in Wayne county. A couple of students from the university had heard I was a creationist. I told them that I was, and they immediately attacked my position. After we had talked for a few minutes, I was able to bring the dialogue to the evolution of reptiles to birds, one of the pillars of modern evolution. I asked, “Explain how that happened.” They said, “Oh, that’s adaptive radiation,” and walked away. At first, I thought they had won. Then I realized that “adaptive radiation” was their story element. The story said, “Things adapt because they are made to adapt.” It explained nothing because it argued in a circle. The students walked away because their idol failed them.
The Relationship between Knowing Truth and Knowing God
I do not claim a victory here, because it was never mine. I did not even recognize it until later. Once the significance of the truth finally sunk in, I realized an important lesson in this encounter. Knowing God involves two distinct elements—commitment and awareness. Commitment involves exclusivity. The choice to know God has nothing to do with degree. God is not the best God among the field of contenders. He is the only God. Commitment then leads to awareness. If the truth is true, then its opposite cannot be true. Stated another way, if God alone is God, then the idols are liars. They are powerless noisemakers. Genuine knowledge of God awakens our awareness. When we know the truth, we can recognize what is false. Later in the passage, Isaiah writes in positive words,
“I, I am the LORD,and besides me there is no savior.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,when there was no strange god among you;and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.”
God is not the best thing to know among all the desirable idols of the world. He is the only God we can know. To know him is to know that all the other gods are false.
Intimacy with God, Part 4
Knowing the Caring God
The Traditional Case for a Dispassionate God
I must be careful when I say this, but sometimes I believe we let our pet teachings dictate the way we understand the word of God, rather than letting the Scripture guide our teachings. Here is where I am going. From the earliest days of the church, Christian theology has followed ancient Greek philosophy in separating reason from emotion. With few exceptions, we have come to believe that passion is the enemy of thoughtfulness. Just as an emotional person cannot be reasonable, a reasonable person has reined in his emotions. Historically, Western thought has continued to associate passion with loss of control. From the earliest centuries, Christian theology has taught that God rules his creation with an even hand. Even the Westminster Confession, one of the greatest statements on faith ever written, reads that God is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter II, sec. 1, emphasis added).
Opening the Gap too Far
I do not want to criticize this document lightly, so I must be careful to interpret the phrase, “without passions” accurately. The phrase does not mean that God is incapable of feelings toward his creation. Rather, the phrase means that God, who is infinite in power, knowledge, and glory, cannot be affected by a finite creation. In his commentary on the Confession, Kevin Craig explains the statement’s reasoning this way:
To say that God is without passions is to say that God cannot be acted upon by an external agent. There is nothing in the universe powerful enough to change God from what God wants to be or from what God is by His very nature. Nor would we want there to be an external agent more powerful than God, nor would we want God to change.
The Bible also says God knows the end from the beginning. Everything that exists was created by God. It was created the way God wanted it to be created, because God is perfect, and because there is nothing powerful enough to prevent God from creating things the way He wants them to be. ( Kevin Craig, “‘Without Passions,’” Westminster Standards in 180 Days, http://westminster180.blogspot.com/2009/11/without-passions.html, accessed January 11, 2017.)
An Overstated Case?
The case for a God without passions ultimately hangs on the way we understand God’s separation from us. When the commentator writes, “God cannot be acted upon by an external agent,” he means it absolutely. The infinite must be altogether separate from the finite. From this perspective, God is immovable by his creatures. That declaration may look good on paper, but it leaves a critical question unanswered. Is he moved? To put the question another way, can he care? Suppose someone slanders our character in public, or our business collapses, or a loved one dies unexpectedly, or we suffer any of a hundred other tragedies. Do we want a God who has created an Erector Set creation, or do we want a God who acts in real time? We need more than someone telling us, “Buck up, dude. Remember, God had that incident planned from eternity, so quit your complaining.” We need to know that God cares, and we need to know that fact with certainty.
Our Need for a Relationship
Here is the good news. The Scripture shows clearly that God has connected with his creation and his people, and he continues to do so moment by moment. What we do and what we feel matters to him. One of my favorite expressions of God’s particular care for his people appears in Psalm 18. The psalm is a hymn of praise that celebrates God’s deliverance of David from a crisis. Toward the beginning of the psalm, David recalls his prior distress.
Psalm 18:4-6 (ESV)
4 The cords of death encompassed me;the torrents of destruction assailed me;
5 the cords of Sheol entangled me;the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the LORD;to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,and my cry to him reached his ears.
David’s words here are more than a recitation of his past. “Here’s what happened…” The psalms of praise always remember the lament that has driven the writers to cry out to God. They celebrate the victory of God’s compassion over their conflict. This is the reason why the psalmists can recall the lament without embarrassment. They know that God is intervened for them. Notice David’s comment in the second half of verse 6. “From his temple he heard my voice, / and my cry to him reached his ears.” God has heard David’s voice among the myriad sea of earthly cries for help. David matters.
The Glory of Deliverance
In the deliverance section, the words leap off the page. Here is a small portion of David’s description of the rescue.
Psalm 18:7-12 (ESV)
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked;the foundations also of the mountains trembledand quaked, because he was angry.
8 Smoke went up from his nostrils,and devouring fire from his mouth;glowing coals flamed forth from him.
9 He bowed the heavens and came down;thick darkness was under his feet.
10 He rode on a cherub and flew;he came swiftly on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him,thick clouds dark with water.
12 Out of the brightness before himhailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds.
Hardly the dispassionate God who preplanned David’s crisis and rescue simply because he could.
Understanding the Difference between Passion and Pathos
What makes the difference? On the one hand, God is Creator and we are not. In that sense, he is separate from his creation. But he has made himself approachable. He has created us for relationship. He experiences the same joy and pain that we do, and that is the essence of intimacy. God is moved by our distress. He cares. He must be, or our relationship to him would mean nothing.
Intimacy with God, Part 5
Why Personal Lament is Important in Knowing God
What Lament Is
Last week in my college class, when I mentioned lament among the Old Testament prophets, one of my students asked what lament is. The question made me realize that when I use the word, I assume that everyone knows what I am talking about. For clarity’s sake, then, let me describe lament in terms of grief and mourning. In broad terms, grief is the reaction that occurs when loss or tragedy hits. Grief sends us into a spiral of depression. Whether we acknowledge it or attempt to ignore it, it remains a force that overflows and often overwhelms us. Grief carries us along as passive, unwilling passengers.
When we mourn, we practice grief out loud. Mourning may be voluntary or involuntary, but it is an active expression of grief. Lament is the act of taking our grief to God. It is a complaint that says, “Here is what is wrong, Lord. I need you to do something about it.”
The Importance of Lament
Believers need lament. First, lament allows us to admit that we have a problem. This is a big deal in our contemporary Christian culture. Our unwritten rule says that real Christians should not have problems, and if you do, something must be wrong with your faith. Lament shatters our denial of reality. It acknowledges that God knows about our situation and wants to do something about it . Second, lament is worship. When we direct our prayers to God as laments, we acknowledge his care for our lives. Lament allows us to worship God when we are hurting or even when we are angry at him.
The Wizard-of-Oz God
Third, lament allows us to ask the difficult questions. Recently, a young man who encountered multiple life-shattering tragedies asked a dangerous question. “When good things happen, we praise God. But when bad things happen, why are we not allowed to blame God?” He is right. What kind of god takes credit for the good but cowers in the face of evil? A god like this looks like the Wizard of Oz. In the movie version, the hopeful quartet—Dorothy, the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow—buy into the popular praise. “We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was.” When they finally meet the Wizard, they encounter a terrifying specter who sends them on a journey virtually guaranteed to fail. Against all odds, they complete their mission, only to discover the sham behind the apparent glory. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Oz, Great and Terrible, turns out to be a scam artist who is so consumed with his self-image that he is willing to send innocent devotees to their deaths in order to preserve his status. For too many, this looks like the God that churches across the country praise every Sunday. “You have entered a complaint-free zone. Praise him for all the good things and shut up about the rest.”
The Bigger God of the Psalms
This is why I love the Psalms. The God there is not only big enough to handle our problems, but he is also big enough to handle our complaints. Psalm 13 is a lament of David, stripped to its barest essentials. In a mere six verses, we watch David journey from terror to resolution. The psalm falls into three parts of two verses each.
Part 1: David’s Address and Lament, (Verses 1-2)
In the first, David presents his case.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
David uses his voice freely. His repeated cries of “How long” show that his side of his relationship with God matters. There is no embarrassment over his predicament. The fourth line tells us why he is in anguish. An enemy threatens to destroy him. Almost all the personal laments mention an enemy. The psalmists never believed in a me-and-God-outside-the-world relationship. Their God led them into the real world, with all its hostilities. One Bible commentator writes,
One of the acts of the enemy is what they say....The enemy mocks the lamenter, rejoices at his stumbling and falling, revels in his or her misfortune....Almost all these statements are characterized by two interrelated concerns: (1) The speech of the enemy seeks the destruction of the lamenter. (2) The enemy’s actual intention is hidden behind lies and false accusations.”
(Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1965), 189, 190.)
Part 2: David’s Petition to God, (verses 3-4)
The second stanza contains David’s prayer to God, with a comment on the consequences if God fails to answer. The prayer takes place in the first two lines: “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; / light up my eyes...” (Ps. 13:3). The metaphor’s meaning spans centuries. The picture that David has in mind is, “Restore my vitality.” If God does not fulfill David’s request, the consequences will be dire:
...lest I sleep the sleep of death.
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
Part 3: David’s Confession of Trust and Vow of Praise, (verses 5-6)
The last stanza depicts an abrupt and absolute change of mood. After his petition against his enemy, David bursts into a song of praise.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”
This is neither an emotional sleight of hand, nor the song of a super-spiritual Christian who has developed the ability to compartmentalize his problems and then ignore them. David’s words reveal a genuine realization that God has his back. This kind of reversal does not occur in every lament, but it appears often enough to tell us that it is real. Having received divine confirmation that God will work on his behalf, David concludes the psalm with a triumphal note:
I will sing to the LORD,because he has dealt bountifully with me.
This section marks the vow of praise, a promise to perform a public retelling of what God has done. Biblical praise understands that God works in real situations. It is genuine, active, and concrete.
Laments are critical for us to maintain a meaningful relationship with God, because they allow for meaningful praise. When we can voice our complaint, our later praise will carry much more weight. More importantly, laments protect our framework of faith. Both the issue and the answer matter. When we are disallowed to take our complaints to God, soon they begin to morph into complaints about God. Too often, these complaints become an outright denial of God’s existence.
Intimacy with God, Part 6
Loss of Possessions and Their Relationship to Intimacy
A Spiritual Cheap Shot
Some incidents may be small relative to the scheme of things, but they stay with us. During my young adult years, I played in a church softball league. On the drive home after one of our games, one of my friends realized he had left a ring at the game. It was not a wedding band, but he was shaken anyway. The four of us agreed to go back to look for it. We scoured the area around the infield for about an hour. Finally, our friend agreed that the prospect was hopeless, and we got back into the car. Everyone was quiet for the first part of the drive back. I could tell that our friend grieved the loss of his ring. Then one of the guys said, “You know, when something like this happens to me, I try to think about what kind of lessons I can draw from it.” We took the cue, and one by one began to invoke little points of forced application. I added my own. My actions felt like a betrayal. Our words told our friend, “Your loss lacks significance unless we can attach some kind of symbolic spiritual value to it.” We might as well have said, “Real Christians shouldn’t be so attached to their things.”
The Real Meaning of Loss
In his letter to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul resorts to language that reveals a deep attachment to personal loss. The church at Philippi came about because of his work, and it became his closest fellowship (see Acts 16:6-40). For that reason, Philippians reads more like a personal letter than a teaching document. A lot of detail that was obvious to Paul and the church remains unstated, and we are left to fill in the blanks. One of these blanks occurs in chapter 3, where Paul calls the church to look out for dogs who mutilate the flesh (Philippians 3:2-3). Obviously, he refers to Jews who practice circumcision, but beyond that, we have little hard information. We know that Judaism was tolerated by the empire. As a matter of conjecture, some of the Christians in the church may have considered becoming proselyte Jews to avoid persecution by Rome. Paul sees their plans as spiritual compromise. The term he uses—three times in Philippians 3:3-4—is “confidence in the flesh.” Their anticipated circumcision will diminish the value of their faith by lessening the cost of discipleship. The tactic that he uses is to show them what his stand has cost. He builds a three-part argument. First, he lists his boasting points from his former Jewish faith. Second, he shows that he had lost everything for his stand in Christ. And third, he unveils the gains that Christ has given him. In verses 5-6, Paul lists seven points of confidence in the flesh, the marks of pride that he once had treasured. The first four hearken back to his pedigree as a Jew:
· Circumcised on the eighth day
· Of the people of Israel, that is, one who could prove his Jewish heritage
· Of the tribe of Benjamin, a prominent tribe in Israel
· A Hebrew of the Hebrews, in other words, one of the pure Hebrews
In other words, his pedigree was impeccable. Following these, he added three points of accomplishment:
· As to zeal, a persecutor of the church
· As to the law, a Pharisee, one who practiced the law codes scrupulously
· As to the righteousness of the law, blameless
The Value of Being
These seven points summarize everything that he valued before he became a believer. Notice two qualities about them. One, they have to do with self-identity. They are the points of definition that once defined his being as a man. Two, they are history. He has lost every single one. Ss deliberately as he defined his cultural manhood, he gave them up equally deliberately when he came to faith.
The Cost of Loss
The cost of his faith becomes clear in the second section of this passage. He describes his losses in accountant’s terms:
Philippians 3:7-8 (ESV)7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…
Many have considered this part of the passage to be triumphal, the words of the indomitable apostle who can mock his past. I do not think this is the case. For one, the cost accounting language alone denies the notion. When Paul declares “everything as loss,” he means that his losses are real. Additionally, if we make Paul’s language out to be triumphal rather than a statement of grief, we deny him the value of his relationship with Christ. Notice that he says, “…in order that I may gain Christ.” Without genuine loss, his gains would have no meaning. The third section will show exactly what he means gaining Christ.
The Value of his Gain
Paul’s gains in Christ form a mirror image of the things he has lost—that is, three points of Christ’s accomplishment for him, and four points of position in Christ. Verse 9 shows what Christ has given him, in contrast to what he had accomplished on his own in the past:
· To be found in Christ
· Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law
· To have the righteousness from God that depends on faith
Then, in contrast to his earlier four points of pedigree, verses 10-11focus on points of intimacy with Christ:
· That he may know Christ
· That he may know the power of his resurrection
· That he may share Christ’s sufferings
· That he may become like him in his death in order to obtain the resurrection from the dead
Paul’s life of faith began when his personal glory was stripped from him. He could come to Christ only with empty heart and hands. But now he is filled to overflowing. How could that be anything but infinite worth?
Intimacy with God, Part 7
Sharing in Christ's Sufferings
Grief among a Sea of Happy Faces
Contemporary Christianity has come to insist on a single-item diet—all praise all the time. Our faith culture insists that we praise God in every situation, regardless of how difficult the situation may be. The virtually unanimous thinking among contemporary Christians demands that we offer praise in any and every circumstance. If you do not feel like praising, do so anyway. On the surface, the practice appears to reflect good discipline. The ability to acknowledge God’s sovereign care for us during difficult times is a mark of maturity. And praise reflects our faith. The truth is more sinister. We do not know what to do with those who suffer. In the face of grief, most Christians either walk away or try to fix the problem. In the end, when complaint becomes outlawed and the only acceptable utterance is praise language, two changes take place. One, the music becomes hollow. Praise degenerates to a denial of pain, a collection of voices from desperate Christians waiting for the Lord to earn the praise that they offer. Like someone whistling in the dark, we keep repeating the mantra, “See, I’m praising!”. Two, those who suffer find themselves without a voice. They drown in a sea of happy faces.
The Reality of Suffering in the Christian Life
The truth is simpler. Suffering is real. Further, God uses it to accomplish things that endless praise could not. In the previous segment, I wrote about the losses that Paul had to accept from his previous life in order to gain Christ. On the human scale, all of his “gains” involved loss, suffering, or both. In his final statement about his life with Christ, Paul lists four goals for which he strives. Here is a breakdown of Paul’s goals as he describes them in Philippians 3:10:
· “…that I may know him…
· “…and the power of his resurrection…
· “…and may share his sufferings…
· “…becoming like him in his death…”
For Paul, suffering is not just a compulsory component of life. It is something that he considers essential to his development as a Christian. Why suffering tempers us. It builds maturity in a way that nothing else can. Here are a few of the ways that suffering deepens our walk with Christ.
Suffering’s ability to deepen Personal Impact
Suffering sensitizes us to others’ needs. This fact alone should make us consider its value seriously. When the doctor tells us that our wife has cancer, none of us looks for the guy who has been the life of the party for the past five years. We look for the man who has endured similar difficulties because we know instinctively that that man will stand beside us. Show me someone who is generous to others, who listens to them when they are in pain, and who is willing to stand with his brothers, and I will show you a man who has learned empathy through suffering. This is such a critical life lesson that God required even Jesus to learn it. The author of Hebrews writes, “Although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him,” (Hebrews 5;8-9). Wait, wasn’t Jesus already perfect? He was, as the Son of God. In this context, however, perfect means complete. Jesus’ suffering enabled him to share our experiences firsthand so that he could complete the work of salvation to perfection. We benefit in the same manner. Those who have lived easy lives throw out answers. Those who have suffered offer compassion. We cannot minister effectively until we have learned how to offer compassion through suffering.
Suffering’s Ability to Focus our Hope on Future Glory
To be a believer is to live a future-oriented life. The Bible is clear throughout that nothing of any certainty exists on the earth for a Christian. The old chorus, “This World is not my Home,” is more than a cliché. It is the truth. Romans 8:18-25 teaches that suffering defines our time on earth. Only when we realize that joy is incomplete during our lifetimes, can we can orient ourselves for our eternal hope, what Paul calls “hope for what we do not see” (Romans 8:25). One of the fruits that comes from this realization is steadiness. Believing that all good things will come to us during our lifetime will lead to frustration. Suffering reorients us toward eternity. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4-5).
Suffering’s Ability to Produce Self-awareness
Several years ago, I worked with a man who had been brought up in what his group called “Word of Faith” theology. His training had convinced him that the primary purpose for Christ’s suffering was to eliminate all suffering in his believers. If they had enough faith, health, wealth, and productive life would be theirs. He was one of the most obnoxious people I ever knew. No one could reason with him. No one could convince him from the Scriptures on any other view. He was so convinced that he had the final hold on biblical truth that he listened to no one. He was not even heedful of his own contradictions. He had no idea how heedless he was. On the other hand, the self-aware person is a breath of fresh air. One of my favorite biblical passages in this regard is Psalm 73, a meditation of Asaph, David’s chief musician. The psalm is a confession of a time when Asaph had become jealous of the successful wicked. With brutal honesty, he lays out his descent into envy—all the way to the point where he was ready to abandon his faith. Finally, he recognizes God’s purpose in his difficulties, and he begins to correct his thinking. Toward the end of the psalm, he makes this admission:
Psalm 73:21-22 (ESV)
21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.
Whenever I read this verse, I picture a wild animal threshing about in a cage, oblivious to the injuries it causes to itself. It takes a real man to admit something this personal. This form of humility grows out of suffering.
Intimacy with God, Part 8
Sharing in Christ's Sufferings
Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings
In his letter to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul reveals that his lifetime goal is that he might “know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis added). Why is he so fixed on sharing in Christ’s sufferings?
For anyone experienced in the faith, the answer is clear. He knows that suffering builds Christian character in ways that no amount of good feelings can touch. We could go on at length about the tangible ways that suffering builds the faith, but I will conclude this section with two.
Suffering’s Ability to Prove our Faith
In Romans 5, Paul talks about the fruits that grow in the believer’s life from justification by faith, namely, that we obtain peace with God, we obtain access in the grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-2). All these qualities describe the immediate benefits that we commonly call fellowship with our Lord. They are positive, upward-looking qualities. Paul does not stop with these, however. He continues, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” (Romans 5:3-4). Let’s walk through the steps. First, suffering produces endurance. This principle does not require deep spiritual thinking to understand. Any athlete knows the adage, “No pain, no gain.” Suffering is the soil in which endurance grows. Second, Paul says, “Endurance produces character.” In other words, the fruits of our endurance generate greater internal depth. Think about those who have life easy. They may have a lot of stuff, but they lack the inner qualities that make them attractive as a person. On the other hand, those who have had to endure difficulties show build a deeper character. Finally, character produces hope. Hope is forward-looking thinking, the assurance that God will fulfill his word. These qualities work together to prove our faith. They are the tangible test by which we know that our faith is real. Let me give you an example. When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, he said, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct…my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, which persecutions I endured…” (2 Timothy 3:10, 11). This letter was the last correspondence of Paul’s life. He was in prison, waiting to be executed. Yet the persecutions to which he referred occurred at the very beginning of his ministry (Acts 13:13 – 14:28). The persecutions had proven him. They remained his personal lifetime litmus test of his faith. Now, they gave him the courage to stand maintain his last faith stand.
Suffering’s Ability to add Weight to our Intimacy with God
Finally, suffering is uniquely qualified to add weight to our intimacy with God. Let me share my personal journey to this realization. I began seminary studies four years after my first wife Marie’s death to cancer. Her death had driven me to the Scripture, but I realized that my Bible knowledge had begun to plateau. I had learned as much as I could without systematic training. The need to deepen my biblical foundations had become irresistible.
During this time, a single verse caught my attention and would not let me go. In Philippians 3:8, Paul wrote that he had lost “suffered the loss of all things” for Christ. I wondered whether my loss qualified me to claim those words as well. Providentially, the seminary offered a class on Philippians during my first quarter. I jumped on the class and wrote my term paper on Philippians 3:2-11. Both the class and the paper went well. I claimed Philippians 3:8 for myself. In the exploration of the text, though, Paul’s words two verses later about sharing in Christ’s sufferings left me blank. Try as I might, I could not pull their meaning from the text.
The Moment of Understanding
The answer eluded me until a couple of years later. One weekend, a late wave of grief hit and drove me into an unshakable depression. That Sunday, I told my wife Patty that I hoped we had some hymns on the worship schedule because I needed something with content and written harmony. We walked into youth Sunday. There was no more hope of singing a hymn than seeing the Cleveland Browns in the Super Bowl. The first number was a song about trading our sorrow and shame for the joy of the Lord. The underlying message was clear. Sad is bad. Happy is good. And we are not going to tolerate any sadness. Mentally, I dug my heels. I refused to sing. I remember thinking, “I will not discard my sorrows for a cheap version of joy that will prove to be counterfeit in twenty-four hours. I will keep my grief until I can place it at Jesus’ feet and receive the eternal joy that only he can bring.” In that moment the meaning of sharing Christ’s sufferings fused into my Christian armor. Suffering moves us to the deepest level of intimacy with Jesus. When we suffer, his presence eclipses everything else. Suddenly, my history of grief became my treasure because it was the gateway through which God brought me to a deeply intimate relationship with him. That is not all, though. The twentieth-century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis makes a profound observation on personal intimacy. He writes,
“What can be more a man’s own than this new name which even in eternity remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely, that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?”
(C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996). 154.)
Think about that. Ours is no cookie-cutter relationship. God calls each of us to know him uniquely. Knowledge of this depth cannot arise out of happy masks. It grows in sorrow. Pain is not a disorder to be numbed or laughed away. It is God’s gateway to intimacy. Pain allows him to visit our deepest corners and create spaces that we share with him alone.