Ancient Hope for a New Year

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2016 is quickly coming to an end, and many of us couldn’t be more ecstatic.  Although a new year doesn’t necessarily change situations, the fresh start comes at a good time.  This has been a year in which the world has witnessed senseless violence, disregard for life, natural disasters, religious contention, financial emergencies, and so much more.  Some of what we’ve seen has been on a global level, but I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that much of this year’s suffering has occurred behind closed doors.

Whether 2016 held many personal highlights or several intense challenges, a quick glance at the news or a social media feed confirms what we already know: life can be indescribably tough.

Suffering is not a 21st century phenomenon.  The apostle Paul endured unthinkable hardships, and in Romans 8 he addressed the Christian perspective of the universal reality of suffering.  Paul made one of the chapter’s main points in Romans 8:18: present suffering, he claimed, is not worth comparing with future glory.  There’s no contest.  His argument is not that everything will even out in the end; it’s that future glory will be so glorious that present suffering will no longer seem noteworthy.

Paul also wrote that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  Admittedly, at first it seems like Paul is being insensitive, but what he’s doing is actually the opposite.  When a deep, legitimate sufferer like Paul speaks on the topic of pain, people usually listen.  Because of his experiences, Paul was able to make these bold statements, not to downplay the pain of suffering, but to demonstrate the gloriousness of glory.  It’s precisely because he endured the most extreme kinds of suffering that Paul was able to prove his point, namely that no matter how bad things are now, coming redemption, restoration, comfort, and glory will eternally overshadow all our earthly heartache.

In all of this, Paul doesn’t call us to turn a blind eye to suffering.  He doesn’t encourage us to deny reality or to minimize pain.  He does, however, exhort us not so dismayed by the way things are that we forget to live in light of the way things will be.

I once heard my pastor say, “God, in His sovereignty, allows us to experience suffering, in part, to keep us from falling in love with the world.”  Suffering has a way of reminding us that this world isn’t our home – we weren’t created to experience grief, loss, and pain.  It can cause us to anticipate eternity and to be eager for Jesus’ return.

Also noteworthy is that suffering is a universal reality – no one is exempt.  F.F. Bruce wrote, “‘Suffering now, glory hereafter’ is a recurring New Testament theme, and one that corresponded to the realities of early Christian life.”  Difficulties also unite us with our Savior who suffered on our behalf.  As Sinclair Ferguson once said, “Jesus came without sin, but not without suffering.”

Unfortunately, turning a page on a calendar doesn’t erase the devastation many have experienced in the previous year.  It won’t bring back loved ones or automatically end war.  It isn’t a guaranteed deposit into a bank account or assurance of improved health.  As we enter a new year, what we do know is that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).  And if that isn’t great news for the start of 2017, I don’t know what is.

The God Who Works Wonders

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“What are you most excited about as you look forward to the next year?”

David smiled as he asked the question.  It was my birthday dinner, and we have a tradition of thinking about the past year and anticipating the future each time we celebrate.  David’s expression said it all – he knew exactly how I’d answer.

Two years ago he asked me a similar question, and my answer was just as predictable that time.  On my twenty-sixth birthday, I couldn’t wait to have a baby.  I never imagined I wouldn’t be a mom by twenty-eight.

To say our struggle with infertility has been difficult would be an understatement.  It’s also not the whole story.  We’ve tasted God’s goodness in ways we hadn’t before.  We’ve had to rely on Him for strength and satisfaction.  We’ve learned how to rejoice with those who rejoice, even when we were mourning.  And we’ve found His Word to be the firm foundation we desperately needed.

The discouragement seemed interminable at times, and I often found myself pouring over Psalm 71 and Psalm 77.  These chapters in particular resonated with me and expressed emotions I didn’t know how to put into words.  I regularly used Psalm 77:14 as a one-sentence prayer and sermon to self: “You are the God who works wonders.”

Daily, I reminded myself that God’s power is limitless, and I’d pray for Him to do what felt impossible.  As I begged God to work a wonder in my womb, I had no idea He was working wonders in my heart.  While I still believe He’s able to allow me to conceive a child – and I hope He does – I can’t deny how He has already answered my prayers, albeit in ways I didn’t expect.  Just because God doesn’t do the wonders we ask for doesn’t mean He isn’t doing something wonderful.

A few days ago when David asked what I was most looking forward to next year, he smiled because the answer wasn’t a secret.  “Adopting our son,” I said, the joy on my face matching his.  The two of us are so excited about God’s leading in our lives and feel privileged at the opportunity in front of us.

When I shared with David a few months ago that I felt God leading us to prayerfully consider international adoption, I was surprised to learn he’d sensed the same direction.  In fact, he shared that over the past two years, he had been researching adoption and exploring agencies on his own.  When I asked why he never mentioned it to me, he graciously answered, “You just weren’t ready yet.”

God was working wonders.

God’s work in our lives over the past few years – and specifically in leading us to our future son – has reminded us of the greatest wonder of all.  Scripture teaches that before the foundation of the world, God decided to adopt us into His family at great cost to Himself (Ephesians 1:3-6).  Because of His sacrificial love, we’ve been raised from spiritual deadness, given a new name, and share in a heavenly inheritance.  Jesus Himself is not ashamed to call us His blood-bought siblings (Hebrews 2:11).

We are trusting God to continue working wonders as we anticipate bringing our son home in the next year.  As we imperfectly extend the love we’ve been shown, we pray that he would come to know the love of a perfect Father and would experience a better adoption into an eternal family.

What a wonder that would be.

Click here to learn more about our journey and how you can get involved.

Living by Faith When the World Shakes

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If you’ve ever played the well-known game Jenga, you know it doesn’t take long before the tower of wooden blocks is on the edge of disaster.  With one wrong move, the entire tower collapses.  The uncertainty and instability of the blocks is what makes the game fun, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable to live our lives like that shaky tower.  I don’t know about you, but all too frequently it feels like I’m on the verge of total collapse.  A bad day at work, a misunderstanding with a friend, financial challenges – it won’t take much to make me feel like my whole life has been upended.

Between personal struggles and the chaos of the world around us, it feels like a really unstable time to be alive.  But Scripture teaches us that we don’t have to live in perpetual instability.  Throughout the Bible, God is described as a rock and an anchor – our security and refuge.

Habakkuk 3:17-19 gives us a look into the life of an Old Testament prophet and how a change in perspective allowed his heart to move from the depths of despair to soaring confidence in God.  Habakkuk was a prophet at a low point in Judah’s history.  The nation was spiraling downward into complete moral depravity, and Habakkuk was appalled.  The short book is the account of his back-and-forth conversation with God in which Habakkuk quickly learned that God is most certainly working, but not in the ways we expect.  In Habakkuk’s case, the outcome of God’s activity was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the brutal Babylonian army.

In light of that news, Habakkuk’s response in 3:17-19 is startling, but it also helps us understand how to live by faith (2:4) in an unstable world.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Recognize Your Circumstances

As believers in Jesus, we don’t have to deny reality.  We can keep our heads up and honestly assess our circumstances.  Habakkuk models this in verse 17.  When considering the implications of a Babylonian invasion, Judah’s future would be bleak.  Economic disaster.  Financial ruin.  Non-existent security.

What’s going in in your life right now?  What hard things are you facing?  Is there a temptation to downplay what you’re dealing with?  Or are you tempted to put on a happy face and pretend like everything’s fine even though you feel anything but fine?  Habakkuk’s response to crisis is an example of being honest about our circumstances without being ruled by them.

Rehearse What God Has Done

The first word of verse 18 is like a hinge on a door.  It swings the prophet from acknowledging his circumstances to obsessing over his God.  “Yet” (as seen in most translations) is the key word in this passage.

As a conjunction, “yet” is essentially synonymous with words like “but”, “still”, or “nevertheless”.  Habakkuk is saying, “Yes, my circumstances are bleak.  No, I’m not sure how I’m going to make ends meet.  Nevertheless, I will still rejoice.”

How does he move from despair to joy?  If you scan the first sixteen verses of chapter three, you’ll see that Habakkuk chose to rehearse what God had done.  He looked back through history and recalled how God had worked on His people’s behalf.

If you and I are going to live with a “yet” perspective – if we’re going to live by faith and with joy in a shaky world – we’re going to have to remember what God has done.  Recalling what God has done in the past fuels faith in the present.  So what has God done for you?  How has He proven Himself throughout history?

Habakkuk recalled some of the major events in Old Testament history, and rehearsing how God worked in the past gave him tremendous confidence as he endured the present and anticipated the future.

Rest In Who God Is

In verses 18 and 19, Habakkuk focuses on God Himself.  He identifies God as His source of joy, as His Savior, and as His strength.  The character of God is the Christian’s sanity.  Who is He?  What is He like?

Because Habakkuk realized joy wasn’t found in earthly things like political stability or economic welfare, he was able to do the unthinkable.  He scanned the landscape of reality and was honest – it wasn’t pretty.  But Habakkuk didn’t stop there.  He lifted his eyes to the Lord, the God of his salvation, who couldn’t be lost in the crisis.  Therein lies what the apostle Paul later called “the secret” of contentment – that in every situation God gives His people the strength necessary to live by faith and in obedience (Phil. 4:12-13).

Conclusion

A “yet” perspective tells the world and reminds the Church that our foundation isn’t built on feelings or circumstances.  In Christ, our foundation holds up and is secure because it isn’t established on something shaky or fleeting but on the unchanging character of our God.  Because this is our hope, we can choose to rejoice even on the hardest days.

Yes, it’s tough to live with so many unknowns, yet we rest in what we do know because of God’s trustworthy character and the reliability of His Word.  Instead of living on the brink of disaster like a tower of blocks that could collapse at any moment, the Lord has given us “sure-footed confidence” in Him, like Habakkuk mentions in the chapter’s closing verse.

Several hundred years after Habakkuk’s life, there was another seemingly hopeless situation.  The Son of God was betrayed by a friend.  After a complete failure of the Roman justice system influenced by the Jewish religious leaders’ corruption, He was condemned to die.  Nailed to a cross and publicly humiliated, Jesus drew His final breath.

Yet. 

The biggest, most significant “yet” in all of history is that on the third day, Jesus came out of the grave victorious over death.

Because of that event, followers of Jesus can live with settled confidence no matter what we face.  This world is a scary place to live, yet our God sits on the throne.  We struggle with sin and are plagued by brokenness, yet our sins are forgiven on account of His name.  We face unspeakable suffering and unexpected tragedy, yet, as a song puts it, “earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal”.

Our Redeemer lives, and because He lives, we too will live.  Because He lives, we can face tomorrow full of confidence and hope because God is our joy and our strength.  As we recognize our circumstances, rehearse what God has done, and rest in who God is, you and I have everything we need to live by faith in an unstable world.

There’s No Shame in Desperation

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Desperate.

I don’t know what comes to mind when you hear that word, but it takes me back to high school when the worst of all insults was to label someone desperate for a significant other.  The word has a negative connotation as it often refers to a helpless situation.

For overachieving perfectionists like me, the last thing we want to be is desperate.  Autonomy is the name of the game and having it all together is the goal.  There’s no room for weakness within that mental framework.  Masked desperation, though, is still desperation.

Not long ago I read James 1:5 which says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  After looking up the word “reproach” to make sure I understood James’ point, the familiar verse taught me a much-needed lesson: God will never shame us for being desperate for Him.  You and I can take a deep breath.

According to James, when we ask God for wisdom, we won’t be met with disapproval or disappointment.  He won’t be upset because we can’t figure life out on our own.  Our loving Father delights in giving good gifts to His children, and He’s not surprised or repulsed by our need for Him (James 1:17).

It’s been an enriching exercise to think about how Jesus responded to desperation during His earthly ministry.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t always give us exactly what we ask for, but He always lavishes on us precisely what we need.  When He was approached by a Roman centurion whose servant was paralyzed, Jesus marveled at the officer’s faith and healed the servant (Matt. 8:5-13).  An influential ruler once bowed before Jesus and begged for his recently-deceased daughter to be raised from the dead, and Jesus granted his request (Matt. 9:18-19, 24-25).  Unable to get to Jesus because of a crowd, a group of friends removed the roof from a house and lowered a paralytic down in front of Jesus who made him well – spiritually and physically (Mark 2:1-12).  There’s also the story of the Samaritan woman whose desperation for men had ostracized her from society.  Unaware of her primary need, Jesus graciously confronted her and offered the deep satisfaction only He provides (John 4:1-42).

These events point toward Jesus’ ultimate response to humanity’s desperation.  The Apostle Paul painted the scene like this: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:1-5).

If you ever wonder how God responds to desperation, look to the cross.  Other people may look down on your helplessness, but God never does.  He won’t prey on your weakness; instead, He’ll give you His strength.  Yes, He’ll expose your sin, but He also offers full forgiveness and complete cleansing.

Desperation can be a dangerous way to live if, like the Samaritan women, we don’t recognize Who we really need.  On the other hand, desperation for God honors Him because it’s an accurate assessment of who we are and who He is.  In a sense, the story of the Bible is about God’s costly initiative to rescue humanity from the most hopeless and helpless of conditions.

There’s freedom in admitting we can’t face the ups and downs of life on our own.  It’s liberating to confess we need wisdom from God to navigate the challenges of living in a broken world.  And as recipients of His amazing grace in Jesus, we can rest assured that He will never be disappointed by our acknowledgement of how much we need Him.  In fact, He’ll be glorified by it.

Stay the Course

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I love listening to people share their favorite Bible verses.  It amazes me how particular passages leap off the page and offer precise encouragement and challenge that seems tailored to certain seasons.

For several years now I’ve claimed Philippians 3:8 as my favorite verse.  In the preceding verses, the Apostle Paul reviewed his resume and took stock of his pedigree.  Impressive as it was, he came to the conclusion that having a relationship with Jesus was the highlight of his life.  Hands down.  Knowing Jesus, in fact, was of such significance to him that it totally upended his value system.  In verse 8 he wrote, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

I love that.  Paul’s background was noteworthy – he was well-educated and extraordinarily religious – but Jesus Himself became Paul’s treasure.

It’s not surprising, then, that a few years before he penned Philippians, Paul articulated his values loud and clear.  He told church leaders in Ephesus, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

Since Paul prized knowing Jesus above all else, his singular ambition was to tell other people about what Jesus accomplished so that they could know Him too.  And it makes perfect sense.  If knowing Jesus is the goal, proclaiming Jesus is the task.

Observing Paul’s laser-like focus is helpful to me as I consider how I’m spending my life.  All it takes is a glance at social media or a couple of minutes watching the news to realize our world has a lot of need.  Innumerable people are hurting, near and far.  With so many needs and so much hurt, I often wonder what to do or where to go.  The list of worthwhile causes is extensive, and countless Jesus-loving people are serving the world well in His name.

Where I go awry is by comparing my response to the world’s need with the responses of other believers.  Sometimes I’m driven by overt pride: How can people call themselves Christians and not be concerned about this particular issue?  Other times I fall prey to backdoor arrogance – the self-depreciating attitude that still casts self as the star of the show.  I can’t believe I’m not out there doing what so-and-so is doing in response to such-and-such crisis.  In any event, when my eyes are on myself instead of Jesus, I’m either callous to others’ needs or I’m relying on my own strength to meet them.  Neither situation deepens my knowledge of Jesus or fuels a desire to make Him known.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to live an informed, engaged life.  I want to care about people and their needs because God does.  I want to be sensitive to where He may lead me or how He wants to use me.  And I want to rejoice that I’m part of a Body – a Body that functions beautifully with Jesus as the Head and each part playing its God-given role.

Paul’s ministry, as fruitful as it was, didn’t reach everybody in the Roman Empire.  His goal was to advance the knowledge of Jesus and his method was to “finish [the] course” God assigned to him.  Paul’s course looked different than Peter’s, for instance, but both had the same aim.

Likewise, God has assigned a unique course to each of us, but we share an end goal.  “To know Him and to make Him known”, as my alma mater phrased it.  Or as Paul wrote, to know Christ Jesus and to testify to the gospel.

So next time you turn on the news and your head starts spinning, pray.  When God prompts you to respond in a specific way to a particular need, do it.  And on an uneventful Tuesday, stay the course.  Treasure Jesus, and keep your eyes open for the next opportunity to share that Treasure with someone else – whether that person happens to be on the other side of the world or in the office next door.