Which is harder to believe?

That was a question I asked in the study guide we are using for the Old Testament Survey class. It refers to whether we find it harder to believe the Law— “I am not guilty of that!” or to believe the Gospel— “What do you mean I am free? How can that be?”

We had read the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50). Jacob the father loved Joseph more than his other 10 sons. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, even hating him, enough so that they sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. There Joseph experienced the the ups and downs of life, rising to prominent position in Potiphar’s house, then being falsely accused and thrown into prison. That is followed by his rise within the prison system  because of his work to help people. He interprets dreams for two fellow prisoners, with the promise that they would remember him when they were released, but they did not. Finally he rises to the second highest position in Egypt.

A famine causes his brothers to come to Egypt for food. While Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. And so Joseph begins speaking Law to them, trying to draw them out and admit their sin from many years earlier. Eventually through the trips back and forth to Jacob and torment of soul, they finally confess to their sins. It was a torturous affair for them. But ultimately they believed the Law, that they had indeed sinned.

But then after having been crushed by the Law, they find it hard to believe the Gospel (forgiveness). Joseph reminded them, “And now don’t be worried or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5 HCSB). After their father, Jacob, dies they still are fearful that Joseph will bring revenge on them. So Joseph repeats his statement.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21 HCSB)

It appears that the Gospel is harder for them to believe.

So, how about each of us. Do we find it hard to believe that God really is condemning me for sin under the Law? Or do we find it even harder to believe that someone like me, crushed, worthless, unable to do anything, is given everything freely because of what Jesus has done?

Which is harder to believe?

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Prayer at the deep end

Prayer

What is your prayer life like? I mean at the worst of times? Is it leisurely talking with God or gasping for air?

Over the years I had read about other peoples’ prayer lives. I marveled because they are startling in their depth, power, life, scaling the heights of heaven itself or so it seemed. While I admired them for their prayer life and prayers, inwardly I cringed. My prayers and prayer life did not match up well with others.

Long retreats, quiet and serene sights, away from the tired routines, away from distractions, gentle nudging by the Holy Spirit…

Never happened for me! Not. one. time.

Gasping for air

During the past 34 years, my prayer life has been more like gasping for air as I am pulled under water, much like when I nearly drowned twice in my youth. So why did I think I could make it in the Navy Flight program (1973)??? But I applied and was accepted.

For me, prayer is closer to the imagery of survival, grasping, gasping, struggling. Like my attempt at passing all the swim/water/survival tests in Navy Flight School in Pensacola (which I did accomplish, BTW!). You know, when they had you jump off the tower in a flight suit and swim the full length of the pool underwater. Tread water without hands for 5 minutes, and then 30 additional minutes while in a flight suit. Swim a mile in a flight suit, which I didn’t complete the first time because I had severe leg cramps, but a few days later I passed with 2 minutes to spare!

The parachute drag where your harness is clipped to a drag line, and you release and swim to the edge of the pool—easy. Except my release was broken, and instead of being released, I was dragged the full length of the pool, then dragged back the other way—well, except the line is now wrapped around my neck and I can’t breathe! I am drowning again! They had to pull me from the pool. I should have known that the next day would not go well!

The Dilbert Dunker, a cage mockup of the cockpit of a plane situated on the (very) deep end of the pool. Getting strapped into the Dilbert Dunker, the person is plunged to the bottom of the pool, rotated upside down. Then the person has to reorient himself, unbuckle, and swim to the top. Most guys went through it easily. Except, when I unbuckled, and swam to the top, my harness got hooked on the dunker! And there I stayed, my mouth two inches below the water line. I was drowning —again!

Now what?? I knew what I needed—that air! I was panicked enough without this little additional problem. So I swam harder! And harder! But there were two divers in the pool coming directly to me to help. But they had to pull me back down further into the water. You have got to be kidding me!!?? I fought against them with all my strength. I knew where the air was. What were they doing??

Actually they were saving my life. It didn’t feel like it. My mind rebelled, my body rebelled. And yet, they eventually pulled me down so that that hook was released and they brought me to the surface. Saved! And gasping for air!!

Gasping in Prayer

Prayer is much like that for me. I pray, thinking I have things figured out. But then I get thrown into the deep end of the pool of life without warning, without any familiar guideposts, without a sense of the “quiet prayer life” that I kept hearing about and reading about. I don’t want to be here! This is too dangerous, too unsettling, too HARD! As I struggle to spit out one word, the Holy Spirit is there, pulling me in directions I can’t see, feel, understand, or utter on my own! What is happening? I feel like I am drowning!

In my agony, I cannot even get my hands folded…

Somehow, my prayer life at that point may be similar to the apostle Paul. He wrote:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NAS95)

Like those two divers, they had the better perspective. My feeble attempts at gasping for air gave way to those who could bring me to the air. So the Holy Spirit has the perfect perspective. When my heart is overwhelmed to the point of not even being able to form words to express the depths of my heart ache, my hurt, my inabilities, there the Spirit is.

The Spirit intercedes for me, when words fail me. My hurt is given perfect expression by the Holy Spirit. My short-sightedness in prayer gives way to the will of God, perfectly. Not because of me, but the Holy Spirit intercedes according to the will of God.

My gasping gives way to breathing and to life. At the end of my ability to breath or pray, I give up. And there the promise of God at work is made evident. It is hard, every time I am thrown into the deep end of the pool of life. But God is faithfully with me, no matter what happens. No matter how frightening, no matter how lonely, no matter how discouraging it might be.

And I gasp for one more breathe of air. And I pray!

The real world meets Law and Gospel

The real world makes it a little harder to properly distinguish and apply Law and Gospel. How would you respond in this scenario? First, let’s look at a passage about forgiveness.

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NAS)

Clearly this is a statement of Law… “If you forgive… then…” and “if you do not forgive …then …” With that as background, let’s take one example about whether we should apply Law or Gospel.

“I will NEVER forgive him!”

Parents come to talk, but they are not sure how to start. Fear, anger, despair. They are disturbed to the extreme. Their teen daughter had been raped and murdered. And both expressed their anger to the one who did it, in this way: “I will never forgive him!”

So the question is: do they need to hear Law (Matthew 6:15) or Gospel?

When I raise this in Bible classes, the responses are usually split 50% on Law, 50% on Gospel. We usually have a lively exchange, discussing the advantages, etc.

So what is the answer? We don’t know enough yet about the people to determine whether they need to hear Law or Gospel.

If they speak these words from the stand point of hardened hearts, then that puts them on the Law side of the diagram, trying to justify themselves. And they need Law, for instance, Matthew 6:15.

However, if they speak these identical words from anger, confusion, despair, anguish, because they are now at the very bottom of the Law scale, and have nothing more to offer, give, even the capacity to forgive. Then it may be that the same desperate words require the Gospel. But not just that Jesus died for them.

The Gospel needs to be more specific: Jesus forgives your inability to forgive; but even more Jesus forgives that murderer in your place, even when you are not able to forgive. For you see, the Gospel is more than just Jesus taking our sins on himself, which is the negative side of our failure to meet the demands of the Law. The Gospel also includes Jesus’ positive fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). That means in every instance he fulfilled all requirements, including forgiving when we cannot. And because he did it perfectly, his righteousness is credited to us. That righteousness includes forgiving in our place.

But the key here is that we do an injustice to the person if we rush to judgment. We often assume we know what the underlying problem is. We assume that we can diagnose it correctly with only a fleeting glimpse into the person’s pain. Sadly, if we start giving our diagnosis to the person, we see three things happen: 1) the person clams up, and may not hear anything we say; 2) we move forward thinking that the person is so messed up “they couldn’t even listen to my Christian advice,” 3) and we miss an opportunity to bring Jesus to the person and the person to Jesus.

As I look back on my life and ministry I can see times when I rushed to judgment, where I thought I had it all figured out. And missed it completely. We fail in this task. Thank God, that he forgives even my inabilities in this area. I do not give up, though. For the reward of applying Law and Gospel appropriately is so great. To see a person in bondage to despair over not being able to fulfill a demand of the Law and who finally hears the extent of the Gospel and specifically applied to her or him is to see one move from death to life, from the crush of the Law to the sweetness of the Gospel, from despair with no hope to confident hope in Jesus Christ.

My desire is that we all see how critical the proper distinction and application of Law and Gospel is for the Christian life, for the Church, for our mission. This is not about church politics, not about worship wars, not about a church with factions. This is about life, life on the raw edge, life filled with sin, and all its ugliness. This is about life redeemed, saved, renewed, refreshed.

No wonder Martin Luther noted that if someone can rightly distinguish Law and Gospel and apply them appropriately, then the person should be given a doctor of theology degree.

We may not get a doctor’s degree in theology, but we can speak God’s appropriate Word into peoples’ lives. And that is what God has called us to do.

Living in Light of the Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb

Holy Week climaxes with the four day observance/celebration from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. We follow the events of the last day of Jesus’ life, His death, and His resurrection as He finishes the work His Father sent Him to do. On Maundy Thursday He celebrates the Passover as expected of all 1st century Jews. Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. Even more He institutes the Lord’s Supper, as the new covenant, which becomes effective upon His death. Good Friday brings before the world the extent of God’s love, when Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). The great reversal of history comes with the shock of the stone rolled away, and the empty tomb.

How do we live in light of those events? In a sense, we live through each of them every week. Our lives as Christians in this world are still covered with the reality of death, suffering, pain, separation, what we commonly call the theology of the cross. As Christians we experience the effects of sin, destruction, and death. But we also know that Jesus’ victory over death means that the glory of heaven awaits us when we die, true glory, our future reality.

Unfortunately some expect, and even demand, that we have all of the future glory now. “If you are sick or not healed, it is because you don’t have enough faith.” “If you do not experience wealth in this life, then there is something wrong with you.” This approach has been called the theology of glory. Sounds wonderful, except real life intrudes into that kind of wishful thinking. Persecution and suffering for the Christian is to be expected in this life, as we wait the true glory of heaven upon our death or Jesus’ return at the end of time.

Consider these passages from the New Testament related to this topic (there are many others in the New Testament):

[Jesus said:] “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

[Paul writes:] “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Philippians 1:29)

But we understand our current life of trials and suffering from the perspective of the empty tomb. As Paul wrote:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4)

And the mystery of the Lord’s Supper by which we receive the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins sustains us in the deepest valleys of suffering. We celebrate with it being a foretaste of the feast to come in the final glory of heaven. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb…” (Revelation 19:9).

May we always live in light of the four days from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday.

Words of hope in the midst of…

For my devotional reading this morning, I once again was refreshed with Psalm 34:18

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

“Crushed in spirit”— (דַּכְּאֵי־ר֥וּחַ). What a description of our lives! That word “crushed” is the same word used in Isaiah 53:10 when describing the Suffering Servant’s work: “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him…” In other words, the Suffering Servant (Jesus) knows exactly what it is like to be crushed in spirit. He was—for us.

So, the LORD (יְ֭הוָה Yahweh) is near to the brokenhearted, for the purpose of saving them. And He identifies with them perfectly. He identifies with me, perfectly. And yet, in my weakness I fail to remember that truth. I seem to think God has moved away from me. The truth is that He is near to me, a brokenhearted sinner.

This verse seems particularly important for those of us who struggle with depression. But it is much broader than even that (perhaps a good Lenten theme sometime in the future). Under the Law, we are all crushed in spirit. Only Yahweh (LORD) can save us (Gospel). And thank God He does!

And the battle with depression

…continues. I traveled this past week with all day (and evening) meetings, so little chance to post. I appreciate everyone’s responses (mostly offline) to the posts on depression; many people have emailed and others have spoken to me face-to-face about their own trials and struggles with depression. If even one person is helped by what I have written, I am glad that I could help. Paul’s encouragement of 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 is right on target.

It is amazing that some of the things I wrote about in the posts have come back again in real life (triggers that surprise!). So, the challenge and battle of depression is a constant reminder of how much we are dependent on God’s grace and not our own strength. I am doing better than I was 3-4 weeks ago. Thanks, also, for my wife and a couple friends who are supportive and good listeners.

For those struggling with this, I pray that God will bring the right person at the right time with the right words to speak words of hope and comfort in Jesus Christ.

Have you hugged your porcupine today?

Odd title, huh? Actually it is appropriate for today’s blog: the two sides of living with depression. One side involves the person who is depressed, the other side involves the people who live with the person who is depressed. And the porcupine imagery catches some of the tension and difficulty in living on either side of depression.

English: Photograph of two North American porc...
Hugged a porcupine lately?

One who struggles with depression is acutely aware of pain, suffering, woundedness, etc. When some one close wants to help, through words, or hugs, or just listening, the quills of the porcupine make it painful even for the helper. Often unknowingly the one helping may trigger some reaction (see Depression and Triggers) in the depressed person. It may bring back memories (see Depression and Memory) that cause further pain. The quills are getting sharper.

At the same time, for the depressed person, the quills pointing inward feel much larger, much sharper, and much more focused on the areas of pain. Thus, the helper is reaching out and getting stuck with quills, and may withdraw. Meanwhile, the depressed person is hurting more, and tends to withdraw. It is a catch-22, the depressed person needs more companionship in the best sense of that word, yet the encounter can be painful and self-defeating.

It doesn’t take long for the porcupine effect to close doors rather than open them. Thus, for the depressed person every event becomes intensified. Rejection is more acute, a sense of abandonment lurks behind every relationship. Not a winning combination.

For the person who is depressed, it really comes down to having a few people who will faithfully walk with you, not pressuring, not demanding, but to be there for you. In the darkest days, God was drawing me, even when I wasn’t aware of it. In the flesh, I was blessed with my wife, our son and daughter-in-law, and three elders and their wives. They stuck by me in the very worst of times. I marvel at their patience, their willingness to “put up with me.” And they did so for several years. Always supportive, always listening, always loving.

As I look back, I can see how difficult I was to live with. In the worst days they needed to direct me to do things, every day things that we most often take for granted. If someone has not been down that dark road of depression, it might seem silly to need help with simple tasks. My close circle of family and friends never once gave that impression. They demonstrated Christian fellowship in the best way possible.

Another aspect of companionship is to realize that I as the depressed person wanted to be around some people, but not necessarily participating in their discussion. It sounds odd, but for me I wanted to be a wall flower, listening and seeing others respond, but I didn’t want to speak or interact. It was almost as if I had to learn how to interact with people all over. And I didn’t trust myself on what or how I said things.

I have found that dialog was hard for me. In the slide down and coming out the other side of the depression valley (for me a 4-5 year process for the actual diagnosed depression), I sometimes would speak, but not appropriately. I don’t mean vulgar or filthy talk, but it was if I couldn’t see how my remarks affected others. Even now when the depression battle rages, I have to be careful on what I say; when I forget about that, it can have negative repercussions. Of course, that plunges me further into the recrimination of despair.

There were always two questions people would ask me: 1. Are you okay? 2.What can I do to help? I couldn’t tell whether I was okay, because I had been out of kilter for so many years. And I didn’t know enough about myself to ask for help, or even what kind of help I needed or wanted. The questions showed concern, but as a depressed person I wasn’t capable of providing even an intelligible response. That made me feel bad for a long time. As years have passed, I realize that neither I nor the other person knew what to say… And I am okay with not really answering. Those who care also can accept the lack of answers. Their love and presence spoke more than their questions, and more than any answer I could give.

For me the ultimate place to be with people and yet not be part of it was in worship. The liturgical worship service provides the environment to welcome, embrace, and lead people who are hurting. Confession: I was good at internally… I could beat myself up quite well, thank you. But confession before God exposed the shallowness of my beating myself up. It wasn’t only words and attitude towards others, but towards God that I needed to hear, to face, to confess—most often in my heart, the words not actually forming on my lips. But it was confession nevertheless. I could never tire of hearing that my sins were forgiven for Jesus’ sake.

For me some Sundays I couldn’t sing the hymn of praise (“This is the feast…”). But inwardly I liked being around people who could. The creeds brought me reassurance that not even this congregation was my world; they drew me into the “cloud of witnesses” throughout the ages. The Lord’s Supper likewise reaffirmed the eternity of this reality, being in God’s presence, receiving His gifts. Once again the body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The beauty of family, close friends, and worship comes together to bring about God’s work of pulling a person through even the deepest valleys.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7)

Ten times “comfort” is used in the passage. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And now God has given me the grace and comfort to embrace other porcupines… Been there, done that, and yes, porcupines can be loved. And God wins!