God’s Presence in Our Suffering

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This past week, I was invited to speak at a monthly luncheon at Drury University where I’m a piano professor. In front of students, the university president’s wife, the school chaplain, and the dean who hired me, I stood up, took a deep breath, and shared my story…

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be part of something special that our university has to offer and for allowing me to share my story with you today.

Before I begin, I want to let you know that I’m 36 years old and I have a decade’s worth of experience teaching in higher education. I am not—as most freshmen believe upon seeing me the first time—their classmate. I tell you this so you’ll know that as I speak to you today, I’m not speaking from my youth; I’m speaking as one who has experienced life, had my ideals come crashing down, and come through on the other side to know that amid the darkness, there is good to be found in the world and that God truly is who He says He is.

Six years ago, I got a Master’s degree in piano performance—a huge feat considering I had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in both hands and wrists before I started the program. I was also a music professor at a college and I was performing across the country. I felt like my career as a pianist was beginning to take off. On top of that, my husband and I have felt a call to one day move to Japan to start a church, and everything was happening right on schedule.

But then everything changed.

I first realized something was wrong when I was preparing for a recital and noticed my hands were stiff. “Maybe I’m practicing too much. Maybe I’m stressed,” I thought.

On July 8, 2012, I wrote in my journal:

“My shoulder keeps slipping out of place and the joints in my hands are swelling. I was planning on taking a break from the pain medications [I’ve been taking for carpal tunnel and tendonitis] this summer, but instead I’m taking more pain pills that I’ve ever taken in my whole life just to function. I have some important performances coming up this month. It will take a miracle for my hands to endure the physical requirements of my pieces and make it through from start to finish. At any moment, my hands could stop, ending my music career forever. I go into every performance with a strong awareness that this could be my last one and it will happen only because God will make it happen.”

A few weeks later, on July 25, I wrote:

“Faith isn’t a surface belief but a knowing that God is doing something. I know that God keeps His promises. I know He is my healer. I know He has not sentenced me to a life of arthritis. I know He holds my future in His hands and His plans for me are good.”

Looking back, this entry makes me want to cringe. At the time, I thought these were faith-filled words, but now I see that my faith had a lot of growing to do. I still believe God is my healer, that He holds my future in His hands, and that His plans for me are good. But the prolonged, excruciating pain made me take another look at what the Bible says and reevaluate my definition of faith. Is faith just believing for miracles or can faith be bigger and deeper than that?

Over time, the stiffness turned into pain and spread all over my body to the point that I couldn’t move on my own. My husband, Daniel, had to lift my body out of bed and walk me one step at a time through my morning routine. I couldn’t even squeeze toothpaste onto my toothbrush.

It took every ounce of my strength to make it through each day.

On September 5, 2012, I wrote:

“It’s not that I’m not trusting God to take care of me and my future. I feel secure in Him. I don’t find myself doubting Him. I am full of hope and peace. But it’s the PAIN. The pain is just so much. And the new medicine the doctor gave me makes me feel worse. It makes me feel like I don’t have full control of my mind, like I’m not completely me.”

Keep in mind that I was teaching a full load at the college and this was still the beginning of the school year. On top of that, one of the professors in my department had unexpectedly passed away a couple weeks before the school year began. So not only was I a professor to these students; I was also a counselor to them as I navigated my own grief. And it was crucial that each day I came to work, I was fully present.

And that’s why a couple days later, I wrote:

“I had to make a difficult choice this morning: function in my hands and body or function in my mind. I didn’t take any pain meds last night because it was making me sleepy, dizzy, nauseous, and unable to think clearly. This morning, I woke up in extreme pain. I needed help getting out of bed, turning on the sink, getting in the shower…I didn’t know what to do. I chose to have my mind today. I am in so much pain.”

And September 17:

“The pain is getting worse. Me and Daniel are growing more exhausted. My muscles are disappearing. The doctors still have no answers. But God is sustaining me.”

As I look back, it’s crazy to me that I was able to continue teaching. There’s no way I could have done it if God hadn’t been sustaining me day by day.

It was during this time when I truly understood the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9.

“My grace is sufficient for you,

for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

All the while, I went to numerous doctors, and they did test after test and had no answers. Weeks of waiting turned into months, and the pain was too much for me. My hair started falling out until half of it was gone. And I began to wonder, “Am I dying?”

There was one time when I was laying in bed, and I asked Daniel to come to my side so I could tell him my dying wish: “Promise me that if something happens to me, you’ll still go to Japan.”

This was a scary time. I was scared of what the doctors would say. I was scared for my future. I was scared that I might be dying.

Even though I was in horrific pain, this was a beautiful time in my relationship with God. I was acutely aware of my dependence on Him. And because every movement was excruciating, I spent a lot of time lying in bed and praying to God. Early on, I couldn’t understand why God would allow me to suffer for so long (at least, what seemed long to me at the time), but I needed the wait so God could transform my heart. Looking back, I can see clearly how God was being good and wise in allowing me to wait.

Instead of allowing me to have the diagnosis the moment I wanted it, God waited until the moment I was ready to hear it.

On October 3, 2012, I wrote:

“Still no relief from the pain. I am very dependent on Daniel for a lot of basic things. I have lost almost 20 pounds since the end of July. I am exhausted. I saw 2 doctors today. They are close to having a diagnosis. Right now I’m waiting for test results…[and] I don’t like some of the words the doctors are saying. But I’m too tired to be stubborn.”

Then I wrote in capital letters:

“GOD IS BIGGER THAN ANY DIAGNOSIS.”

I wasn’t afraid anymore of death or bad news. I had hope because I had God.

Several days later, on October 8, I wrote:

“Still in pain. But God has given me a tremendous peace. I feel His presence and the support of His people. When I look around, I can still see God’s goodness in my life. In the midst of extraordinary pain, He has given me extraordinary strength.”

The very next day, the doctor called to tell me that I have lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system can’t tell the difference between a good cell and a bad cell, so it attacks anything and everything. That phone call changed my life. The months of waiting for answers were so hard, but because God waited until the perfect moment to let me have them, that phone call did not fill me with despair, but with worship. And as soon as I got off the phone, I cried happy tears and said, “Thank You, God!” I was so relieved that I finally had answers, and I could finally move forward.

That day in my journal, I wrote down a verse from Scripture:

“Because the Lord is at my right hand,

I will not be shaken.”

(Psalm 16:8)

That same day, my husband came home with a couple of trays of food from a friend with a card. On the card was written the same verse.

The past 6 years have been hard. Too often, if something is hard, we equate that with it being bad. Hard doesn’t always mean bad. Sometimes hard is bad, but sometimes hard is just hard.

I still wake up in pain every morning and I have to take medication every day just to function and survive. Every few months, I get cortisone injections in my hands so I can continue to use them and to play the piano. In October, I’ll perform a third piano recital here as a faculty member of Drury. It would be so easy to say, “This is too hard. I quit.” And to be honest, on my hardest days, that’s what’s going on in my head. But every practice session and performance is a victory and a declaration of what God has done in my life. And you know what? If the day ever comes when my hands are no longer able to play the piano, that will be hard, but God will still be good and my life will still be abundant.

The reality is my life is hard, but my life isn’t bad. Even with lupus, my life is good and God continues to be good. And with all of the struggles and obstacles I’ve faced the past six years, I can confidently say, “Because the Lord is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”

So here’s what I want you to take away from my story:

I want you to know that whatever you’re going through—no matter how dark, or hopeless, or difficult—God is bigger. He’s bigger than your circumstances, bigger than your dreams, bigger than your fears. He’s even bigger than your failures. There’s nothing and no one that is beyond what God can handle or redeem.

I want you to know that God is who He says He is. He is good, He loves you, and He is with You. What we experience in this world doesn’t change that. When we suffer, it becomes more difficult to believe those things. So do the work of theology. That’s not something that’s reserved for “theologians” and pastors; it’s something we are all called to do as Jesus followers. Over and over in Scripture, we are beckoned to know God, not just about Him, but to know Him personally and deeply. So dig into His Word and wrestle with your doubts, questions, and preconceived ideas through study, prayer, and even community. That’s what I was doing as I wrote in my journal. I was wrestling. And as I did that, God gave me what I needed to be able to face my difficult circumstances with hope and peace.

I want you to know that you don’t have to be afraid of the waiting or the silence. Just because we can’t see or hear God doesn’t mean He’s not there. There are things that God can do in the waiting and silence that are more powerful and more beautiful than we can imagine in the moment. So amidst the waiting and silence, cling to God. And when it feels impossible to cling to Him, allow Him to cling to You.

And I want you to know that it’s okay to pray ugly prayers. When I was waiting for a diagnosis, I prayed a lot of ugly prayers. They weren’t always the most reverent or refined. They were raw, and gut wrenching, and tear-soaked. And most importantly, they were honest. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God wants all of us; not just the pretty, put-together parts of us. The same Jesus who cried in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading to the Father so intensely that He sweat drops of blood—this same Jesus is not offended or shocked by our ugly prayers. In fact, he’s able to empathize with us and understand our pain. And because it’s in our ugly prayers when we’re most honest with God, those are the moments when He’s most able to speak into our hearts.

I’d like to close with a verse you’ve heard me read a couple times already, but this time from the New Living Translation. Whatever you’re going through today, let this be your anthem:

“I know the Lord is always with me.

I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.”

(Psalm 16:8, NLT)

Choose Kindness

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One day I got in trouble in my junior high Sunday school class for saying something ghastly: “Jesus wasn’t nice.”

The Sunday school teacher was horrified. “What?! How can you say something like that?!”

“He wasn’t,” I replied. “Jesus wasn’t nice when He made a whip and overturned tables in the temple. He wasn’t nice when He challenged the religious leaders. He wasn’t nice when He yelled at Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus was NOT nice!” I stood by what I said. I still do.

Jesus wasn’t nice, but He was always kind.

What’s the difference?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nice” as “pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory.”  “Kind” is defined as “having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.” Kindness goes deeper than appearances and good manners; it’s an overflow of love for our neighbor (and even our enemies).

Jesus wasn’t very good at pleasing people’s expectations, being agreeable, or doing what was satisfactory. He loved people so much that He would rather hurt feelings and egos to show love, illuminate truth, and bring out the best in people, than to let people stay the way they were. This isn’t nice; it’s kind.

He was kind when He showed compassion. He was kind when He rebuked and corrected. He was kind when He showed people the error of their ways and showed them the path to life.

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

Fred Rogers

Choose to be kind. You don’t always have to be politically correct. You don’t have to obsess over whether or not you offend someone. You don’t even have to be liked. But if you want to be a light in the world, you do need to be kind.

Be kind when you don’t feel like it, when you’re upset, hurt, sad, or just plain not in a good mood.

Be kind when someone needs help.

Be kind when you see a friend doing something destructive and they need some tough love.

Be kind when you see something you disagree with on social media.

Be kind when you’re right.

Be kind to liberals / conservatives / democrats / republicans / libertarians.

Be kind even when someone is being unkind.

Be kind to everyone.

Gazing Upon the Wonderfulness of God

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wonderful

ADJECTIVE

Inspiring delight, pleasure, or admiration; extremely good; marvelous.

(from en.oxforddictionaries.com)

“One thing have I asked of the Lord,

that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord

and to inquire in his temple.”

Psalm 27:4, ESV

 I’m going to be completely honest: I ask God for a lot, but one thing I don’t find myself asking Him for is to dwell in His house all the days of my life. There’s something strange about that request for us simply because we’re temples of the Holy Spirit—we don’t have to ask to dwell in the house of the Lord because the Lord dwells in us. But still, my longing for God is nowhere near that of the psalmist’s, and it’s far too easy for me to take the presence of God for granted.

Read More »

I Can’t Do This

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I was behind on my book writing schedule. Days of trying to write left me mentally fatigued and overwhelmed with my inability to produce something that wasn’t trash. I was at the end of myself and I broke down in tears.

God, I can’t do this, but You can.

You—whose voice can thunder and break the cedars

whispered this dream into my heart.

You—who spoke life into existence

can speak this book into being.

Amen.

On this day, these were the only words I wrote that I didn’t immediately discard, their substance making up for their small number. Words raised towards Heaven are never wasted; they’re the ones that can change everything.

I’m Writing a Book!

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“You should write a book,” people said again and again. And each time, my answer was the same:

“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”

I’m not the type of person who writes books. I’m someone who sits at a piano all day to teach and perform, or someone who gets up in front of a crowd to preach. I love journaling and blogging, but write a book? Nope. Not me.

But something changed the moment the strip on the pregnancy test did not turn blue and I had to face the realization that I would never hold a child in my arms that I once carried in my belly. In that moment, the optimism people knew me for disappeared and I became broken and empty. I woke up every morning in tears, struggling to find a reason to get out of bed. My world became dark and I was desperate for even a sliver of light.

I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t read my Bible. Even though my husband—who is on staff at a church—never pressured me to go to church, I felt obligated to go. And it was a struggle; there were Sundays when I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. And on the days when I found the strength to drag myself to church, I couldn’t sing along to the worship songs; I just sat in my pew and wept.

I couldn’t feel God, I could no longer see His hand in my life, and His overwhelming silence made me feel rejected and unwanted. But just because I couldn’t feel God didn’t mean He wasn’t there. And what I couldn’t see during this season—but I see clearly now—is that while I did a terrible job of clinging to God, God did a wonderful job at clinging to me.

Little by little, I felt God’s comfort, slivers of light quietly invading my darkness. And one day, when my broken faith was barely a small shard of what it once was, it was enough to give me the emotional strength to open my Bible and wrestle with my Creator. God answered my disappointment with comfort, hope, and purpose. In a previous post, I wrote about this moment and shared, “God drowned my wilderness and flooded me with His comfort.” What I didn’t write in that post is what He whispered after He comforted me:

“Write a book.”

I had just experienced the miracle of God’s comfort after battling months of heartache and depression and heard His beautiful voice after He stayed silent for so long, and I was overwhelmed enough. Now he was telling me to write a book? Surely He hadn’t! Surely I heard wrong! Surely I was just getting overexcited! So I walked away from that moment basking in God’s presence and comfort and I ignored the whole silliness about writing a book.

And then Sunday came. During worship, a sweet friend come to me and said she wanted to pray for me. As she started praying, she began to prophesy over me. Now, let me explain that I’m Pentecostal, but I’ve had enough people speak ridiculous “words from the Lord” over me when I was growing up to make me super cautious and wary. But this young woman didn’t shout, “Thus says the Lord…” She began to tell me the words I had cried out to God days before—words she could not have known unless she was hearing from God. She even articulated prayers I thought in my heart but never uttered with my lips. And then she said, “There is a purpose for all your suffering. God has already begun to show you. You’ve seen the light of some of it, but there’s so much more than what you can see now.” She said it again and again: “There is purpose for your suffering.”

And as she spoke, I heard God whisper a single word into my soul: “Write.”

That word didn’t sound silly anymore; it sounded beautiful. It began sounding less like something I had to do because God said so and more like an amazing, Kingdom dream that I get to do because God birthed it in my heart. Birthed. What a funny word! Something was growing inside of me. Not the baby I expected, but something just as amazing.

And as I came to grips with this beautiful dream, I became overwhelmed with its impossibility. If I did this, it would be a gargantuan leap of faith, and I was scared. I don’t know much about getting a book published, but I know enough to know that I don’t have the right connections and I’m a nobody to the publishing world. And when I would remind God of this important information, He would remind me who He is: the Creator of the world, the One who spoke life into being, the One who works miracles. I just needed to keep my eyes on Him and walk in faith.

And in time, I began to see the steps before me. No leaps, just steps. And I took them one at a time. I journaled, then started blogging again, then started reading books about writing books. Each step has led to another. And as I take each one, this dream is looking less scary and God is looking larger.

There was one morning when I came to a point where I couldn’t see any more steps in front of me. I was drowning in the bigness of this dream and exclaimed, “God, I don’t know what I’m doing! I need a writing coach!” Later that morning, I was scrolling through social media and one of my favorite authors had a bunch of videos on Instagram Stories about how she was going to open her schedule to do some coaching calls. Talk about God’s timing! He totally delivered! Oh, and that coaching call ended up being one of the most encouraging and life-giving experiences of my life. It transformed my “I can’t do this,” into, “This is going to happen! God is really going to make this happen!”

This is going to happen. I’m actually doing it. I’m writing a book!

Fifteen Years Later

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Taken in 2004 when we were still babies.

The day we got married fifteen years ago, we were babies. I was twenty-one; you were twenty-three. At the time, we thought we were so grown up, but now I see how naive we were. Our entire future lay before us: bright and overflowing with possibility. We were going to conquer the world! Not really, but it certainly felt like it.

We didn’t know that our first ministry position would be at a church plant that would fail before it fully launched, that in its final week you would become the lead pastor with the responsibility of shutting it down with dignity. You were amazing; I can’t remember if I ever told you. We didn’t know how bad the situation was until a veteran minister told us that what we went through was the worst he had ever seen. Surely not, we thought. But further corroboration came a decade later when we ran into several pastors who had seen what we went through and each told us the same thing: “We’re so happy you’re still following Jesus.”

When we were in the midst of that ministerial catastrophe, we felt like our lives were over. We had no idea our lives were just beginning.

We didn’t know that in less than a year, we would move to the Philippines and join the pastoral staff of the largest church in the country. (What a turnaround from what we had come from!) Our minds didn’t have the capacity to anticipate how much we would learn, how much we would heal, and how much we would fall in love with a people we never expected to fall in love with. When we eventually left the Philippines to follow the dream we had in our hearts since before we got married, we again felt like we could conquer the world.

We left the Philippines to move to Springfield, MO. Not really. We left the Philippines because we wanted to move to Japan to start a church, but we needed to prepare first. And God wanted us to prepare in Small City, USA. “Five years,” we said. “We’ll live in Springfield for five years and then we’ll move to Japan.” No we wouldn’t.

When we hit the two-and-a-half-year mark, we were halfway done with our gotta-do-before-we-go-to-Japan list. We were right on schedule. And then…

“Daniel, my hands hurt. Look, my fingers can barely move.” After getting a master’s degree in piano performance, we thought my hands were just tired. We had no idea our lives were about to get harder.

Months later you wouldn’t just be my husband; you would become my caretaker. Every morning, you would carry me out of bed and move my legs toward the bathroom because I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. You would lift my hands over my head to help my arms move as I would scream and cry in pain. It was torture, but it had to be done. It was the only way I would be able to shower on my own. When you weren’t at work, you were spending all your time taking care of me. I could see the exhaustion and worry on your face. Before we went to bed each night, I would cry because I knew the next day we would have to do it all again.

All of this was during your first semester of seminary. When I was in grad school, you supported me. “When you start working on your master’s,” I said, I’m going to support you.” I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep my end of the deal.

When I was diagnosed with lupus, people told me, “Your husband is amazing because he stayed.” This isn’t what you signed up for the day you married me. And yet you stayed.

“But what about Japan?” people asked us, as though God was completely shocked by my lupus diagnosis and had no idea it was coming when He placed the dream for Japan on our hearts. We didn’t know that the first time we would have a chance to minister in Japan, lupus would be the key. I would share my story of God’s goodness amidst suffering. It was Christmastime, so you would talk about Narnia, the darkness of winter, and the coming of spring. And God would do amazing things. We had no idea we would have to wait so long for this dream, but God has been good enough to let us have a little taste.

The excitement of that trip was soon overshadowed by more pain. “This is harder than the failed church plant,” I cried, “This is harder than lupus!” You nodded. You felt it, too. Finding out we couldn’t have children was devastating for both of us.

The day we got married, if I would have known the kind of suffering we would experience, I don’t know that I could have gone through it. I would have looked at all the hard stuff and walked away. But if I had, I wouldn’t have known the profound joy that has blossomed out of each painful experience.

In the months that followed the failed church plant, we found another church in Washington, D.C. where we were surrounded by people who spoke life into our hearts. In that church, God taught us to stand up again. Whenever we go back to visit D.C., I love that we always make a stop at that church’s coffeehouse as a kind of pilgrimage. How fitting that it’s called Ebenezers: “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” And as you sip your coffee and I sip my iced chai, we remember that we’re standing on holy ground, a place where God met us. And when we look back on our lives and remember all we’ve been through, we’re filled with fresh excitement for our future. God brought us this far; He’s not about to stop helping us now!

I’ve heard people say that you don’t really know what love is until you have children. But when you carried me—literally—each morning as we thought I might be dying, you showed me what love is. You showed me a capacity for love beyond what I could imagine. And as we have walked through the deep waters of chronic illness together, you have been my advocate and my champion. When I began to walk on my own again, you cheered for me and made me feel like I had conquered the world. I can’t articulate well the gratitude I feel knowing that I have such an amazing person to celebrate every victory with.

And as we walked through the wilderness of infertility, you refused to let me stop dreaming. I love what we’re doing with our lives now. We’re doing things we probably wouldn’t be able to do well if we had children. We wanted so much to be able to leave behind a legacy. We thought we needed children to do that; God showed us we don’t.

And the cherry on top: you’ve shown me how fun it can be when it’s just the two of us. Five Bookstore Friday dates, late night Waffle House runs, and spontaneous “Ooooh, what’s that? Let’s check it out!” adventures.

When we were young, we wanted so much for God to show us His plan for our lives. We know better now. We don’t really want to see all the stuff that God sees because it would terrify us. We would run the other direction and miss all the good stuff He has for us.

I don’t want to know what’s going to happen next. I just want to keep living this adventure with you.

Speak Life

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“So when are you gonna start having kids?”

“Um…I want kids, but, um…I can’t.”

I could see the wheels in their heads spinning wildly as they hurried to conjure something to say. I wished they focused more on being present and speaking life rather than just trying to make conversation. At least they were being nice, right? Or maybe they missed an opportunity to speak the words I needed to hear in that moment.

When I was diagnosed with lupus six years ago, I was inundated with people who had a lot of advice for me—both medical advice from people who had no medical degrees but vast knowledge obtained from Google, and spiritual advice from people who could quote passages of scripture but didn’t take enough time to get to know me and where I was with my faith. Early on a friend gave me some good advice that saved me a lot of frustration: “People will say things to you that are insensitive or even hurtful, but they mean well and don’t know any better. So when that happens, it’s an opportunity for you to show grace.” I don’t have the energy to dwell on the hurtful things people say, and I’ve found that when I show grace to others, I’m also saving myself from bitterness and frustration that can drain me of my limited strength.

Unfortunately, this story repeats itself many times over for those who suffer in any form. People want to help, but all too often say the wrong things. They’re trying to be nice, but they’re still missing the mark. And when I say, “people,” I mean me, too. I’m guilty of saying “nice” things that miss the mark.

When we were kids we were taught, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is great advice to teach children to not be mean.

But is that all? As followers of Jesus, when we speak, is the most important thing for us to avoid being mean or is there something more? Are we missing out on opportunities to be salt and light by being satisfied with our “nice” conversations?

When I think of the words of Jesus (and even Peter and Paul), “nice” doesn’t come to mind. Kind, powerful, honest, but not “nice.” If you removed from the Bible all the words of Jesus that didn’t follow the “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” maxim, I don’t think you’d have very much left.

So let’s change the motto: “If you don’t have anything life-giving to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Speak life. That’s what made Jesus’ words—even the ones that stung—so good. He wasn’t careless with His words. He never spoke just to fill the silence or just to get something off His chest. When He spoke, He spoke life.

I want to be the kind of person who speaks life.

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.(Ephesians 4:29 ESV)

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”  (Ephesians 4:29 NLT)

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”(Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

 
Our words should
  • build up
  • be good, helpful, and beneficial
  • encourage
  • be appropriate for the occasion and meet people where they’re at in that moment and season of their lives (which means you’ll need to listen carefully first)
  • give grace

Don’t just be nice. Don’t just say what you feel. Don’t just give advice. Speak life.

Speak life to the mom and her children who have had a rough day.

Speak life to the couple who is facing infertility.

Speak life to the woman who is struggling with chronic illness.

Speak life to the man who exhausted from working hard to provide for his family.

Speak life to the high school kid who’s struggling to get your fast-food order right.

Speak life to the one who feels like their life is falling apart and they just can’t get it together.

Speak life to the public official who has to make the decision several times a day between doing what’s easy and doing what’s right.

Speak life to the college student who is carrying heavy loads, learning to be an adult, and is reminded of the uncertainty of their future every time someone says, “So what are you doing when you graduate?”

Even speak life to the pastor who carries the burdens of the people he (or she) leads while spending unseen hours writing sermons and handling administrative duties that keep the church functioning week to week.

Speak life.

Looking at Tough Issues as Citizens of the Kingdom of God

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Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

I have a confession to make: I went to Bible college, I have a master’s degree, my husband’s in seminary and I read the books assigned for his classes…and I don’t have all the answers.

And you know what? There are topics in which the more I research and the deeper I dig into what the Bible says, the more questions I have and the more nebulous my stance becomes. Does this mean my theology is shaky? Absolutely not!

In the Christian faith, there are non-negotiables:

  • There is only One God.
  • Jesus is fully God and fully man.
  • It is only through Jesus and because of His death and resurrection we can be saved.

There are more non-negotiables, but I think you get the idea. If you call yourself a Christian—regardless of your particular flavor of Christianity—these are not gray issues. There are things all Christians can all agree on. And when it comes to non-negotiables, I’m confident that I’m prepared to give an answer for the the hope that I have (1 Peter 3:15).

But there are other topics that are a bit more, um, controversial. I’m not taking a relativistic stance and saying there’s no right and wrong, but some things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be. I won’t name any of them here because my goal at this moment isn’t to debate any issues; it’s to challenge how we deal with them. We need to rethink how we wrestle with tough issues in our minds and hearts before we ever discuss them in conversation, and especially before we type our thoughts on social media.

Many people base their opinions on the ideologies of political parties, denominational affiliations, or any other sort of shared-commonality group. I’m not trying to disparage any of these, but it’s so easy to turn our brains on auto-pilot and start believing things just because someone in our circle said that’s how we should believe. This is intellectual laziness. We need to diligently test and evaluate everything we hear (1 These 5:21).

Some people’s opinions are based on problems they have with the vocal portion of the people who sit on the other side of the issue. It’s important to remember that the most vocal do not represent everyone. Tough issues represent a wide spectrum of beliefs and opinions. In fact, I’ve often found individuals “on the other side” that I agree with more than with those on “my side of the table.”

I wish we could get rid of “sides” all together and begin looking at issues as real people with faces and hearts. Until you take the time to get to know a person, you don’t know the things they’ve experienced that have shaped how they believe. I’m not saying that if you get to know their story you’ll change what you believe, but maybe the nuances of your stance will change. And oftentimes it’s those nuances that make the difference from us being perceived as “angry Christians” to becoming the salt and light of the world. But more on that later. I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are also those who have a stance on an issue but later change it because “It’s the 21st century,” or, “It’s [insert whatever year it is].” These are not good enough reasons to alter our theology or doctrines; we shouldn’t change what we believe just to keep up with the culture. At the same time, current events have a way of bringing to light misinterpretations and misapplications of scripture. And when these issues come to light, it’s an opportunity for the Church to stop fighting to defend “the way it’s always been,” and start humbly seeking “the way it was meant to be.”This is what living as citizens of the Kingdom of God looks like.

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

(Romans 12:2a, NLT)

So how do we allow God to transform our minds and start looking at tough issues as citizens of the Kingdom of God?

keeping a high view of Scripture +  listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Keeping A High View of Scripture

Now, I’m going to say something that might sting a bit, but hear me out. Some people say they have a high view of Scripture, but when you listen closely to the words they say, it sounds more like they have a high view of their interpretation and opinions of what scripture says. This isn’t the same as a high view of scripture.

A person with a high view of scripture is someone who never stops studying, digging deep, and doing the work of theology.

What’s the point of regularly reading scripture if we don’t allow it to transform our lives? This transformation is for our words, actions, thoughts, and even our opinions. Because we’re fallible humans, we must ask ourselves, Do I have a higher view of scripture or of my opinions about scripture? This is an internal battle we must fight again and again, and as we do, we must realize that we can’t do it alone.

Listening to the Voice of the Holy Spirit

Humans get things wrong. We need the Helper, the Holy Spirit to guide us and give us wisdom as we wade through difficult issues.

Before moving on, let me be clear: God does not change and His voice will not contradict scripture. He can, however, contradict our interpretation of scripture, and this is where we need to have an open mind and heart.

I’ve learned some things over the years:

  • The Holy Spirit can speak to me.
  • Just because the Holy Spirit speaks to me doesn’t mean He tells me everything. It’s okay for me to not have all the answers. He’s God and I’m not.
  • The Holy Spirit can speak to someone else.
  • When the Holy Spirit speaks to someone else, He doesn’t have to tell me what He tells them. Again, He’s God and I’m not.

Keeping a high view of scripture and listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit are important responsibilities for citizens of the Kingdom of God. Here’s the thing: tough issues matter only because the people they represent matter. And people are complicated and messy. So if we stop at what we think and believe, then we’re not taking it far enough.

What do people need?

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

(Matthew 7:16-20, NIV)

“…for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”

(Matthew 12:33b, NIV)

The thing that marks us as Jesus followers—the salt and light kind and not the “angry Christian” kind that makes people want to run in the opposite direction—is the fruit we produce. I’m not just talking about results; I’m also talking about the fruit of the Spirit flourishing in our emotions, words, and actions.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

(Galatians 5:22-23)

If we want to change the world, then we need to be less concerned with having all the right answers and more concerned with bearing good fruit in our lives. Don’t forsake study and the work of theology, but do it in order to continuously produce good fruit. Good fruit is what builds the Kingdom of God.

When people are processing and trying to figure out where they stand on tough issues, let’s show them grace (Jude 22). God is patient with us; let’s be patient with them. And instead of tearing them down, let’s come alongside them as they find their way.

And when we disagree, let’s not fight the wrong fight. There’s evil in the world—very real evil—and we should fight it. But we must remember that we’re not fighting against flesh and blood. Our fight is not against people; it is for people—people made in the image of God, people Jesus loves so much He died on a cross for them, people God compels us to love.

Fighting evil and loving people is complicated. How do we do both in the face of injustice? I don’t have all the answers. But I’m becoming increasingly aware that the world needs good fruit more than it needs my right answers.

One last thing: There’s a big difference between discussing a tough issue in theoretical terms and looking into the eyes of a person sitting in your living room as they tell you their story, experiences, and struggles. We must wrestle with tough issues, not for the fun of debate, but because at the heart of them are real people whose lives hang in the balance.