Monday, February 24, 2014

what I'm reading: does God really love me?

I often doubt that God loves me - at least, not with any enthusiasm.

I have a sneaking suspicion he only loves me reluctantly, because he has to (after all, his Son died for me! He's caught now!). I know - it's illogical, and it's a lie. But it's a powerful lie.

Am I alone in this? I doubt it. Am I alone?

Packer suggests my doubts are not uncommon for those of us who are (rightly) taught to view things in terms of justification (God is a judge, his justice satisfied by Jesus' death).

But if God is only a judge whose justice has been satisfied, that can be a pretty cold relationship. 

Packer suggests we've forgotten an equally important truth: that of adoption. He says, "It is a strange fact that the truth of adoption has been little regarded in Christian history." Yet the Bible makes much of it.

When we become Christians, God becomes our Father. He welcomes us into his family. He loves us with the same love he has for his Son!

These words changed my way of seeing:
When you realize that God has taken you from the gutter, so to speak, and made you a son in his own house, your sense of God's "love beyond degree" is more than words can express. ...

The prospect before the adopted children of God is an eternity of love ... We are all loved just as fully as Jesus is loved.

It is like a fairy story - the reigning monarch adopts waifs and strays to make princes of them - but, praise God, it is not a fairy story: it is hard and solid fact ...

Everything Jesus has will some day be shared with us, for it is our inheritance no less than his ...

Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer ...

Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true.

From chapter 19 in Knowing God.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

God’s gifts in suffering (7) Two unchanging things

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy! ...
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope.
(Psalm 130:1-2, 5)
There’s something about certain Christian books on suffering that bugs me. I’m just going to come out and say it. The writer tells you how suffering deepened his feelings of closeness to God. How a sense of God’s presence never really left her. They imply, and sometimes even promise, you’ll feel the same. I’ve finished paragraphs like that with tears running down my cheeks, longing for what I’m reading about, angry at God for failing to deliver, wondering what’s missing in me.

I want to tell you the truth about suffering, and most people who have experienced pain will know this. At the time, it doesn’t often feel joyful. It doesn’t feel peaceful. It feels messy and agonizing and endless. You tumble from wave to wave. Your doubt everything: yourself, those around you, your God. There is darkness and a roaring confusion and no voice, not even a whisper, in the dark.

God’s word is more honest about this than we often dare to be. In the book of Job, Lamentations, the Psalms, we find agony and questions and a cry to God – “Why?”. The writers could be us, they know so well how we feel:
Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
(Psalm 42:7)
What will we cling to when we are tossed to and fro and there is no solid ground? When the Bible’s words about joy in suffering are a world away from what we feel?1 When every word we read about “what God did for me” seems to mock our experience?

Late last year, at the end of the hardest year, I sat at a table in a cafe and poured questions into my journal. Where were you, God? Why didn’t I feel this? Why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you come through for me?

If you could read those pages (and I’m glad you can’t!) you would come to these words, written at the moment when I grasped what I have gained:
There have been no visions, no sudden healings, no firework displays in the dark. I don’t feel like I’ve got some extra glimpse into the heart of God.

But I have learned what I can rely on – the promises of God, the bedrock truths of his word. I have dug down to them, because there was nothing else. The cross of Christ: that one inarguable fact. That he has the answers even when he doesn’t give them to me.

I may not feel it. But I know it. And I am still here, still holding on.

That is the miracle.
How often I begged for feelings! How much I longed for a miracle! And how wise God was to say "no" to my prayers! For as I wrote those words I realized that he has given me a greater gift. He has given me two unchanging things, like hands holding me:

  • God’s word. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:5). Again and again I have gone back to God’s word and reminded myself of his his character. He will never leave me or forsake me (Heb 13:5). He will bring good out of this (Rom 8:28). Nothing can separate me from his love (Rom 8:38-39). His promises are true even when I don’t felt them.
  • The cross. Jesus knew physical agony. He knew what it was to be deserted and shamed. He knew the horror of the silent sky. He is our merciful High Priest, seasoned by pain, loving with tender sympathy (Heb. 4:14-16). All the big questions about suffering find their answer in this: Jesus died for us. He isn’t indifferent to our pain. He endured suffering so he could deal with suffering. He is bringing it to an end.

At that moment in the cafe, stripped of the things I usually rely on – emotions, experience, deliverance – I came to see that these two unchanging things have been solid ground under my feet, tested and proven to be strong.

You dig. The dirt flies round your ears. You dig. It’s dark down here, the air is musty, and the ground shifts beneath your feet. You dig. Your arms jar, and there’s a ringing sound as your spade hits rock. You can’t dig any deeper. You’re not going anywhere. This rock is immoveable.

What I once saw as a curse was actually a severe mercy, for I have learned what I can rely on. Without feelings, I have been taught, instead, to trust.

1. Romans 5:3-4; James 1:2-4. I’d like to write more about these verses in a later post.

This post was first published at The Briefing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

what I'm reading - Paul: a novel

Here's a melancholy little quote that I can relate to all too well - as can anyone, I guess, who has struggled long with suffering or sin:
When the church was young, I thought of your kingdom as a garden, rich and sweet and green, fruit for the eating, grasses for running swift as gazelles, a golden air for breathing and shouting and laughing. Now I think of the kingdom as a couch in the darkness, a bed to rest on, no more pain, no more sorrow, no more tears. It used to be I thought that things would start in heaven. Now I only hope that things will end.
These words are spoken by Barnabas, from Paul: a novel by Walter Wangerin Jr.

I just finished this lovely, lengthy read, a retelling of the life of - you guessed it! - Paul the apostle. Walter Wangerin is a skilled writer, and he gives the people, conflict and times of the early church life and colour.

Paul is written in the first person, as a range of individuals - Priscilla, Barnabas, James, Seneca - give their impressions of Paul and tell his story. It's not a perfect book - there are some theological oddities - but what a wonderful characterization of Paul!

A recommended read.

Quote is from Walter Wangerin, Paul, 296.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

what I'm reading - a book for homemakers

So you're a homemaker. What book tops your homemaking list?

Or maybe you have a homemaker in your life. What book would you give them?

Until now, I didn't have a top pick. A book on biblical womanhood in the home? A book of household tips? A book on time management? They've all helped me, but more often they leave me feeling guilt-ridden and defeated.

What I really want is a book about the gospel. A book that shows the gospel peeping out of my overstocked pantry. A book that gives me grace when my kids won't stop arguing. A book that frees me to be hospitable, smudged walls and all.

Gloria Furman has written just that book: Glimpses of Grace. She says,
I used to believe that this journey of sancitification - the adventure of God working in me, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13) - would only be accomplished when I am free from the "distractions" of my life.

If I set my alarm clock to attempt to wake up before one of my babies and had my plans foileed, then I would think, "Well, there goes my communion with God today!"

I had allowed my spiritual life to be relegated to an easy chair with a cup of hot coffee in a quiet house without any moise or clutter or life.

Your spiritual life is not restricted to early mornings before the noise makers in your life wake up. If you feel that God meets with you only when the house is empty or quiet, you’ll view every noise and every noise-maker as an annoying distraction to your communion with God. ...

God fellowships with us as we are in the midst of our mundane.

I'm really enjoying reading this book. It's not hard to read - it's a dip-in, dip-out kind of book, which suits us homemakers just fine!

My guess is you'll enjoy it too.

Quote is from Gloria Furmans's Glimpses of Grace, 19, 53, 55.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

my favourite Christian reads in 2013

What were my favourite reads in 2013? I'm sure you want to know!

Or, at least, Eternity Newspaper wanted to know. So I wrote this. (You can read the whole article - with some great recommendations by others - here.)

I've added one book to the end, because I've wanted to encourage you to read it for years.

Timothy Keller King's Cross
Every year, I read a book on the cross or God's character, slowly and prayerfully, week by week, on my mornings off. This year, I enjoyed Tim Keller's King's Cross (also called Jesus the King). It bears all the hallmarks of his style: it's richly written, profoundly wise, culturally engaging, and deals with familiar themes like idolatry and the trinity. Every chapter brought me face-to-face with Jesus, to be moved, challenged and changed by him. This book deserves to become a classic. It will make a great gift for both believers and unbelievers.

Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes When God Weeps 
There's a point in suffering when you can read books on the topic again. My son has been chronically ill for several years now, and I reached that point about 6 months ago. In the pages of When God Weeps I found wisdom, solace, courage and hope. The writing is colorful and honest, with a blend of Joni's long experience and Steven's tight theology (though I didn't agree at all points). There are terrific reflections on God's character, avoiding bitterness, and hell. As I read the final chapter on heaven, I found myself in tears. This is the perfect book to give someone going through a time of trial.

David Helm One to One Bible Reading
Only 100 pages long, this is a top-of-the-list ministry resource. How does God change lives? Through his word. How can we be involved? By reading the Bible with a friend. Who could benefit? Anyone, Christian or non-Christian, mature or new to the faith. It's that simple; but it can sound intimidating. David Helm first inspires us, and then introduces tools like the Swedish method and COMA, easy-to-use methods that require only an open Bible. I've led one training seminar based on this book, and will continue to put it into the hands of those I teach and train.

Paul David Tripp Lost in the Middle
I'm tempted to review this book without the title. You don't have to be middle aged to struggle with issues like regret, disappointment, loss of identity, the collapse of dreams, and the transience of life. This book helped me at a time when I was questioning many things about myself and the direction I was going in. It's the best book I've read to come out of the biblical counselling movement; almost a handbook of the big issues we're likely to face in life. I'd like to put this book on my "top reads" for every Christian. Whatever your age, I invite you to read it: you're in for a treat.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

random reflections after a busy summer

Beach shoesHere I am, sitting down to write, and how strange it feels! The kids are back at school, but the year hasn't yet settled into shape.

We've had a bustling summer. Dusty trips to the zoo and damp trips home from the pool.

School books and shoes and pencils and calculators bought and - mostly - labelled.

Jogging along the beach with my daughter, a 10-year-old discovering he loves boogie boarding, my three sons inventing endless games.

The school holidays have left me feeling like I do at the end of a jog: sweaty and hot and tired, but also, somehow, satisfied and rested.

I did have one chance to draw breath. For two precious days, I went away with close friends and we did what women do: took our lives apart, examined them, and put them back together.

It seemed to me that my life is like a tree with too many branches. Some need to be cut out so others can grow more strongly. Two branches in particular need pruning:
  • ministry in church and uni - over the next year or so, I'd like to narrow my focus to one area, not several
  • writing - I might need to do less of some kinds, so I have time for others ...
... and that's where you come in. I know you love my online meanderings, because you've told me so. But, for the moment, I think they'll have to go.

Last year my son was very sick. He didn't have great holidays, and I'll be caring for him this year. There are few hours in the day when I'm just me, with time to make a home and see people and do my own stuff.

One of the things I want to do over the next 5 or 10 years - God willing - is write. Blog posts, articles, seminars. Maybe even a book or two. But to do that, you need to make time to get your backside on a chair and write, regularly and often.

I think 2014 might be a year for laying foundations to build on. Here are some of the oddly-shaped stones I'd like to put in place:
  • declutter our house
  • set up a writing space
  • learn New Testament Greek
  • keep jogging
  • read lots of books
  • start a new training day for women at our church
  • re-design this blog (with the help of a friend).

We do what we can with the time God gives us. I love caring for our family. I want to keep pouring time and energy into other people too. But I've also discovered that I love to write - and people tell me to keep at it - so here we are.

It's good to be back writing again, even if it's just this post.