pain

The Consuming Fire of Love

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by Linda Rex

At our group discussion last Wednesday night we were talking about how misdirected anger can ruin relationships. On the one hand, we dump our anger in violent and hurtful ways, and on the other, we stuff and deny our anger in many ways which are ultimately self-destructive. Neither use of our anger is healthy, nor do they serve the real purpose for us experiencing anger in the first place.

We misdirect our anger. We may be angry at one person, and tell others all about it, but never deal directly with the person who is the cause of our anger. Some of us deny our anger and bury it, but the anger which demands expression manifests itself in psychosomatic illnesses, passive-aggressive behavior, and/or depression. Sometimes we are angry about something someone has done to us or said to us, and we begin to behave in ways which are painful and destructive toward people we love and value.

I’ve heard so many stories in recent times about people expressing a deep-seated anger through violence. For example, when some people are frustrated about their inter-racial issues, they express that anger by destroying and looting businesses. I’m always nervous about having ticked someone off in traffic, because I don’t know if they will pull out a gun and shoot me! These expressions of anger are nonproductive and destructive—they don’t solve anything. They only create more problems and more misery.

So much of our anger is retributive. In other words, our anger is a response to a violation of some kind in which we judge that person worthy of punishment or destruction. We seek vengeance—to give them what we believe they deserve. We condemn them and pour out our anger on them in destructive ways.

Some of us realize this is a wrong response, but we still feel in our heart of hearts we want them to “get what they deserve”—to reap what they have sown. We might even be angry with God when he doesn’t bring down the wrath of heaven on this person who so deserves to be punished with eternal fire.

Whether we realize it or not, it is this way of thinking and this belief system which influences how we read what is written in God’s word. We assume God is just like us—that he’s just hanging out in heaven looking for opportunities to crush anyone who misbehaves. When we read “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), we think we are being told this very thing—that God’s anger is going to consume anyone who violates God’s holy standards.

But the reality is, if God’s anger were going to consume any and every person who violates God’s holy standards, we would all have been wiped off the face of the earth millennia ago. This isn’t who God is. He’s not that type of Being. God’s anger doesn’t annihilate and destroy—it refines, renews, and restores. The truest expression of God’s wrath is not against human beings, but against the evil which infests their souls and twists their lives, and expresses itself in so many hurtful ways in our world.

The truest expression God’s wrath against sin and evil was in the Person and Presence of his Son Jesus Christ. First of all, the Son of God the Word took on our human flesh—he entered our darkness. Jesus encountered evil face-to-face within himself and forged for us a humanity unbound by sin and evil. He willingly limited himself to living as a human being, dependent fully upon his Father and the Spirit, and allowed himself to be rejected, tormented, and crucified.

Secondly, he permitted us as human beings to pour out on him all of our fear of a Punishing God, and all of our anger against this God, and all of our refusal to repent of our determination to be God in God’s place. Humanity’s response to whatever God they have worshipped so often has been a fearful “expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire.” We realize even turning our back on Jesus and what he has done for us means we deserve an even greater punishment and destruction. But no matter what we may believe about God and his feelings about our sin and sinful rejection of him, the truth is manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ: we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved. And we can’t seem to get our minds around that.

God’s wrath, his anger, is not so much aroused against each of us as it is against the evil and sin which consume us. His judgment of you and me and every other person who lives is that we are worthy of love, and we need to be rescued from sin, evil, and death. He has done a major part of the work by coming himself in Jesus, taking on our humanity, and allowing himself to be crucifed, and by wonderfully rising from the dead after sharing our death. He is busily working out the other part by his Holy Spirit as we embrace his presence in our world and in our hearts and lives.

Quite honestly, falling into the hands of the living God may be a terrifying thing to us, but it is the best possible thing which could happen. Being judged by the Lord means he goes to work to remove anything which is holding us captive, or causing us and others pain. It means we allow God to begin to transform our hearts and lives as we surrender to his will and his ways. We begin to acknowledge and live within the truth of the reality we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light.

But this is so hard for us. When God goes to work, we abdicate our insistence we are the lord of the universe. We surrender to his lordship and begin to do things his way rather than our way. He becomes the purpose for our lives rather than our selfish desires or opinions. And this is why we resist the Spirit and his work in our hearts and lives. Submitting to the living Lord who submitted himself to us and our rejection of him over two thousand years ago doesn’t come naturally.

Considering the reality of how God deals with our sin and our anger against him, it is worth reflecting on how we respond to evil and how we deal with the anger we feel when we are violated in some way. Jesus took all evil and anger upon himself centuries ago, and what is left is our need to forgive, accept and love. Jesus is the truest expression of grace and truth—and this is what we need in our relationships with one another: grace and truth.

If and when we feel angry, we look with the eyes of Jesus. We start with, in what way have I or others been violated? This is a place of truth and truth-telling. We need to face ourselves and others with integrity—who am I angry with? And why?

If we are angry with God, that’s okay. He can take it. We just need to be honest about it and engage him in face-to-face ongoing conversation about our anger against him. It is not a sin to be angry with God—sin arises when we try to deny or suppress or misdirect our anger.

Another question we need to ask ourselves is, what about this situation am I able to change? And how to I go about changing it? Once we have our answer, we need to go do it, or get help doing it. We need to go have that difficult conversation with that difficult person and quit putting it off or triangulating to others. We need to place and enforce those healthy boundaries which have been missing in our relationship with someone, or we need to end an unhealthy, destructive relationship which is causing us harm. We need to use our anger as a springboard to change, healing and wholeness.

And we also ask ourselves, what about this situation must be surrendered to the grace of God in Christ? And how to I go about forgiving and accepting this wrong which has been done? And we begin to do the hard work of forgiveness and acceptance. This doesn’t let the person who has hurt us off the hook so much as it releases them to God’s work of transformation in their lives, and relieves us of the twisting of our soul which comes through resentment and bitterness.

These are all positive, healing ways of dealing with our anger which reflect the inner life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit. Living in this way better reflects the truth of Who God is and who we are in him. It creates a healthier, more joyful society in which to live. This is what God is, in his wrath against sin and in his judgment, preparing us for. This is God’s heart for us as his beloved children, and it is what we were destined to enjoy forever in God’s presence through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit.

Abba, thank you for loving and forgiving us. Thank you for judging us worthy of love and grace rather than destruction and rejection. Finish what you have begun in us through Jesus by your Holy Spirit. You are an awesome, amazing God, and we love you. Amen.

“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Heb 10:26–31 NASB

God’s Freedom to Say No

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By Linda Rex

I think one of the most difficult things for us as human beings to accept is God’s freedom to tell us “no.” For those of us with boundary issues, it can be even more difficult to accept, especially when we see no human reason why he should not say “yes” to what we may be wanting from him. If God is a good God, then why doesn’t he say “yes” to our requests, especially when they are important and good requests? Why do people suffer injustice, pain, loss, and other tragedies when God could so easily protect us all from evil and suffering?

There is something so tragic about someone who is caught due to circumstances beyond their control in a situation in which they must suffer loss, pain and/or grief which is overwhelming and debilitating. The human condition is such we face these type of events in our lives whether we like it or not. We cannot escape them, even when we want to. Some of us may try to find ways to escape the pain and suffering of life through addictions and distractions. But at some point, we all have to come face to face with the reality God sometimes says “no” to all our pleas for relief and deliverance.

The past few weeks in our Wednesday night small group we have been talking about boundaries, and how healthy and unhealthy ones are formed in the early years of life. Parents play a crucial role in a child’s development of boundaries which will enable them as adults to handle interpersonal and relational issues in heathy ways.

Our modern business world is looking for people with a high EQ or EI (emotional intelligence) rather than just a high IQ or intelligence, because business leaders understand the need for workers to be able to interact in healthy ways with their boss and their peers as well as with the customers they serve. So, teaching a child and a teen to respect other people’s boundaries as well as their own is important work to be done in their lives by a loving parent.

Every parent knows, if they are honest, there are times when they have to tell their child “no” but they really don’t want to. When a parent loves a child too much to tell them “yes” and tells them the “no” they need to hear but don’t want to hear, the parent may struggle with this process. How is it possible to tell a child “no” when it seems to cause them such suffering? Wouldn’t it be better to just let them have what they want?

The obvious answer, of course, is “no,” but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier for the parent to stand their ground. But stand their ground they must. And yet, there is always room for grace. Every parent needs to learn to listen to their child and to come to know their child’s heart.

Sometimes a child says “no” for really good reasons. And sometimes a child has a really good reason to ask their parent for something. This is where the parent can offer his or her child the opportunity to experience what it is like to have their healthy boundaries respected and honored. The critical piece here is the intimate relationship between the parent and the child.

What we see in action in this whole process is something called mutual submission. This is the mutual submission we see at work in the Triune relationship between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. C. Baxter Kruger explains their relationship in this way:

“Jesus lives by relating to God as his Father, by seeking him and knowing him as Father and loving him with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. His life is not really his at all, it is sonship. He never lives on his own, doing his own thing, following his own agenda. He has no self-interest. ‘Not what I will, but what you will be done (Mark 14:36); is not just the prayer in Gethsemane; it is the prayer of his whole life. …The Father is utterly riveted to his Son’s every move; he is the beloved Son. And the Son is in tune with his Father’s heart and filled with joyous passion for its pleasure. …This is a relationship of the deepest affections of the soul. There is no dead ritual, no façade or shame or hiding or reticence. The Jesus of the New Testament is so aware of God’s presence, so aware of the present God as his Father, and so confident in his relationship with him; and in turn his Father has such earnest joy in him and affection for him, that they share everything and live in utmost fellowship. The formula ‘Thou art my beloved Son’ and ‘Abba, Father,’ signals a living, personal, and active relationship of profound love and togetherness, a rich and blessed communion in which all things are shared.”

We tend to overlook the reality the Father submits to the Son in the same way the Son submits to his Abba. God, who is Judge over all, defers all judgment to his Son. Our heavenly Father, who created all things, created them through the Word in the Spirit. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity, but there is a Father-Son relationship in which there is mutual respect and submission. Jesus illustrated for us and lived out in our humanity the obedience each of us was created for—an obedience held in the midst of a loving, warm fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit as our Triune God of love.

The thing is, Jesus in his humanity, did not tell the Father “no” even when he was faced with the horrors of the crucifixion. He did ask the Father, but he did so in submission to the love and wisdom of his Abba, allowing him to say “no” to what he in his humanity desired. Jesus was invited by the Father to participate in humanity’s rescue from sin and death, and Jesus was free to say “no” to his Father. But his relationship with his Abba was such, he would not say “no”—his free choice was to join us in our humanity and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, even though it cost him suffering and death.

One of the most difficult things for a loving parent to do is to watch their child suffer. Abba did not turn from his Son when he went through this suffering, but was “in Christ” when he suffered (2 Cor. 5:19). This event of Holy Week from beginning to end was a shared experience with the Father and his Son in the Spirit. There was no separation at all.

So, God’s “no” is never something which disassociates him from us. When we must live in the midst of whatever “no” we may think God has given us, God is present, going through it with us. When evil seems to be holding sway, understand the God who makes things right will indeed do so when the time is right. He sees what we cannot see, and understands the full ramifications of what is going on, and knows the end from the beginning. There is nothing too hard for him to set right. In Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in his gift of the Spirit, we have this assurance.

It boils down to this: Will we trust him? Will we allow God the freedom to do as he wills in our lives, believing he will make all things right in the end, and has our best interests at heart? Will we respect God’s freedom to do what he will in our situation, trusting he is a good God, a loving and faithful God, who will never leave us or forsake us?

Abba, thank you for your patient and faithful love. Grant us in Jesus and by your Spirit, the will and power to believe you are who you really are—good, loving, and gracious. Hold us in the midst of our suffering, pain, and struggles, and enable us to experience a deepening in our relationship with you. Let us know you are near, through Jesus our Lord, and in your Spirit. Amen.

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails; …” 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 NASB

An Anxious Heart

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by Linda Rex

I’ve notice in the past few weeks as I have been making a transition in my life there is sometimes a sense of underlying anxiety in my heart. This creeps in here and there as I am facing the changes and decisions which come with the closing of one church and the need to move closer to the other.

It is easy to get caught up in the decision-making and the concerns about what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. And to get caught up in it to the place where I become anxious or worried about what to do next, or whether everything is going to be all right. When I feed this anxiety, it can get to the place where I’m afraid it is all going to fall apart and I’m going to be left destitute and on the streets. This isn’t healthy.

This anxiety never presumes God isn’t there in the midst of my problems. But I do believe there is a subtle unbelief which drives it, which says, “I know God is love and all that, but he doesn’t really care about these little details in my life.” It questions God’s heart—does he really love me? Does he really care that I am struggling or that things are getting hard for me? Does he know and understand my heart and my feelings?

We are instructed in the Word of God to take all our anxieties to God and to rest in him. Peter, who wrote this passage, instructs us at the same time to be on our guard, for the evil one seeks out the weak and the stragglers, hoping to find someone to prey upon. This is why it is so dangerous to feed our anxieties rather than casting them upon God.

Focusing on our anxieties rather than turning them over to God keeps us in that place of unbelief where Satan would like us to stay. Staying in unbelief, in not trusting God to care for us and to love us, in believing God’s heart is evil and not good toward us, opens the door for Satan to go to work in our hearts and lives, twisting us into tighter and tighter knots of anxiety, despair and unbelief. We can even get to the place where we stop trusting in God at all because we no longer see God for who he really is, the God who loves us and wants what’s best for us.

The thing is, we sometimes expect God to be a person who only does fun, happy things in our lives. We figure if he’s a good God, then he never allows bad things to happen. Our God-concepts are a little immature, I believe. At least, I find mine often are. I want a god who does everything I want him to do when and how I want it done. And that’s not Who the Triune God is. He is not my flunky who waits on me hand and foot and gives me everything I want when I want it. And my carnal humanity doesn’t like that.

The writers of the New Testament over and over remind us there will be suffering in this life, especially for those who choose to follow Christ. Bad things will and do happen. Life can be quite difficult and painful at times. But none of these things alter Who God is. And none of these things alter God’s love and care for us in the midst of what we are going through in our lives.

What these struggles and difficulties in our life provide are opportunities to trust God. These are opportunities to once again believe the truth about Who God is and how much he loves and cares for us. These are opportunities as we trust and walk with Christ by the Spirit through them for God to form Christ in us, to transform our hearts by faith. These struggles and difficulties become opportunities for God to be glorified by healing, restoring, renewing, or just sustaining us in the midst of them. God loves us through our struggles and pain.

I think this is why Satan looks for people to prey upon when they are at their lowest. He knows when we trust God in the midst of difficulty, struggles, and pain our relationship with God deepens. We end up closer to God than when we began. And we grow in our Christ-likeness. And those are the things the evil one seeks to destroy—relationship, community, love, and the restoration of humanity in the image of God in which he was made.

So as anxiety is creeping around the corners of my mind and heart, I keep turning to Christ. He is the one who holds in my place, and in yours, the perfected peace and trust we need in the midst of all these things which are happening in our lives. We can cast all our anxiety upon God, because God in Christ came and shared in our humanity, and knows and understands all we are going through. God knows our hearts and cares for us. His heart toward us is good.

As we turn to Christ in the midst of all we are going through, God works to perfect us, to restore our true humanity, to strengthen us and plant us with a firm foundation in Jesus Christ. God draws us closer and closer to himself into deeper relationship with him.

And God also works in community to strengthen and help us. God places us within a spiritual community, the body of Christ, so there are others to come alongside and help us through our difficulties, whether through prayer, support, encouragement, or physical help.

One of the greatest blessings for me has been the gift of a new family here in middle Tennessee through the churches I have been blessed to pastor. I am comforted by those who pray for me and my family. And I am encouraged by all those who have offered physical help and support. This reflects the Triune life and love in our humanity, and demonstrates God’s unconditional love in tangible ways in my life. And this also helps to ease the anxiety which is a natural part of our human response to change.

It is good we are learning how to show love to one another in healthier and more tangible ways as the body of Christ. It is through this loving one another in the midst of difficult times we demonstrate the love of God, and enable others to experience a taste of the Triune life and love. May we continue to grow in Christ by the Spirit so others can experience God’s love and grace more and more as time g

oes on.

Abba, thank you for your gracious love and grace. Thank you we can turn to you in all our anxiety and distress, and you care for us and lift us up. Grant us the grace to turn to you and to trust you in the midst of every difficulty, struggle and joy, and to provide support and love to one another as well. We give you praise and thanksgiving for your faithful and abundant love, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:6–10 NASB

Face to Face

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by Linda Rex

One of the hazards of a long-distance relationship is the inability engage a person in face-to-face conversation. Communication tools such as Skype™ and Vsee™ make video-chats possible now, and I love the way we are able to see someone while we talk with them without having to make a long trip somewhere in order to do so. A conversation via computer may not be the same as having a face-to-face conversation, but it is much better than simply having one on the phone.

Face-to-face conversations have the advantage of enabling us to see the body language and facial expressions of the person talking with us. We are able, if we are good at it, to sense the sincerity and intent behind what is being said. Often we can determine a person’s mood, their hostility or friendliness, just by how they respond as they talk.

To some limited extent we can have meaningful and deep conversations over the phone. But in order to have an honest and open relationship, we really need to meet with someone face-to-face. We need to be able to meet with them in person. If we want get to know someone in a deeper way than just an ordinary, casual conversation, we’ll want to get them by themselves, and spend time just talking, face-to-face.

I love the way God made the effort to engage Moses in these kinds of conversations. In Exodus we read about the relationship God built with Moses over time, and how the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” As time passed, their relationship grew to where they conversed just like we do when we are talking with a close friend.

We may think to ourselves, that’s just Moses. God doesn’t have those kinds of conversations with ordinary people like you or me. After all, he is God. He has much more important things to do than talk to all the people in the world individually. We can kind of grasp the idea of everyone praying to God, but God replying and having a conversation with each person? Now that’s a different story entirely.

And yet, this is what each of us was created for. When God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the garden, it was a prelude to what he had in mind for each of us. He created you and me for relationship—with him and with one another. He did not intend for us to live independently of him, or of one another. We are created for interdependence, for intimate relationship.

And when I say intimate relationship, I’m not talking about a sexual or romantic relationship. I’m talking about sharing the deep parts of our minds, hearts and souls with another person—sharing life and being at a very deep level.

I believe the current obsession with sexual and romantic relationships of every kind has short-circuited our capacity for true, deep relationships—the kind we were created for with God and one another. Our ability to use social media for relationships is great, but we need to be careful not to let this keep us from building deep, meaningful relationships with the people in our lives through face-to-face interactions. It is very easy to keep people, and God, on the fringes of our lives and never really engage anyone at any kind of a deep level. And this is not healthy.

Going deep with people and with God in this way means becoming vulnerable and facing up to the mess inside ourselves. We don’t want to expose our deepest hurts and brokenness to others, much less to God. And yet, this is the path to healing.

Opening up these wounds to others, to us, or to God, means facing things we don’t want to face. We may have to change or deal with things we don’t want to have to deal with. We may have to do the dirty work of dealing with family dysfunctions or grieving our losses. Sadly, we often prefer taking painkillers and finding other ways to numb our pain rather than facing our issues. But we weren’t created to ignore our pain or to try to hide it—we were created to engage it, and through sharing it with God and others in healthy ways, find comfort and renewal.

Face-to-face sharing is an important part of the process of healing. Getting real with someone about what’s going on at a deep level in our hearts and minds is essential to our mental, emotional and spiritual health and our physical health as well. We need to drop our facades, and our false selves, and just be real with God and one another. And this is not easy to do, much less safe. Not everyone can be trusted with our secrets.

But God understands our need for face-to-face, conversations at this deep level. This face-to-face sharing is so important to God, he came himself to share in our humanity. He became one of us—the Word in human flesh. He experienced what it was like to be born of a woman, grow up as a child, be baptized and live as an adult, and he shared every part of our human existence. God came and met with us face-to-face in an even more personal way than how he met with Moses centuries before.

God wanted to share every part of our existence and be included in it. This was so important to him, he was willing to take on our humanity and share all we experience as human beings, including death and suffering. But he did much more than that.

He brought our human existence to a new level by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, and by sending his Spirit to dwell in human hearts. God’s Spirit in you and me means God dwells in humanity—he meets with us face-to-face within our own human hearts. Nothing can be more intimate than that!

In fact, we cannot escape him now—no matter how much we try. Eventually he will open our inner eyes to see, we have Christ in us, the hope of glory. We have God in us—Immanuel. Better than any Skype™ conversation—we can converse with God in our hearts and have a dialogue in which, by the Spirit, God knows us intimately and we can know God’s heart and mind as well. Our conversations with God can be just as deep and wonderful as those Moses had because God calls you and me friend, and speaks to us in our hearts.

You may say, “How can this be? God doesn’t speak to me. And that’s kind of creepy, you know—someone talking to me in my heart.” Well, perhaps it’s not that God hasn’t been speaking, but rather, that we haven’t been listening.

I was taught to be afraid of that inner voice who spoke in my heart and so I never listened. I ignored it and pushed it away. But when I did finally talk with God and invite him to speak to me and to help me to hear and discern what was his voice (and not the other unhealthy voices), I discovered he was speaking words of love and grace to me all along. I found that God really does want to walk and talk with us, and share all of life with us. And this has been the experience of many others who have sought a deeper walk with Jesus.

God has brought each and every one of us through Jesus and by the Spirit to a place where we are able to have a deep, intimate, face-to-face relationship with him. In growing in our relationship with him, we will find ourselves growing in our ability and desire to have deep, meaningful relationships with one another. And we will be living out who we really are—human beings, created for loving relationship with God and one another.

Father, thank you, through your Son and by your Spirit, you have brought us into deep, intimate relationship with yourself. Thank you for making it possible for us to have close, intimate relationships with one another as well. Grant us the grace to set aside time and space to listen and talk with you and one another face-to-face, for this is what we were created for. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. … And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’” Exodus 33:11a, 14 NASB

Tomorrow Still Comes

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Colorful pumpkins and mums--fall's here!
Colorful pumpkins and mums–fall’s here!

By Linda Rex

This morning my pastor friend Carrie and I were driving up I-65 as the sun was coming up. As the sky turned glorious colors of gold, orange and blue streaked with purple and gray clouds, I felt God’s presence and peace in the wonder of a new day dawning.

I thought about the conversations I had had recently with Mom when we talked about what it would be like to live in the new world God has for us beyond death. We talked about how Mom would be able to garden to her heart’s content and not have to worry about the weather and the weeds.

For me, saying goodbye to her these past few days was so much like saying, “See you in the morning!” There is the momentary sense of the loss of immediate companionship. But then there is this delightful sense of expectancy, as the mind and heart begin to look forward to a renewal of the relationship and the opportunity to spend more time together doing things we love.

There is an assurance of a future time when we will share sweet companionship together again. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Indeed, we have a great hope through Jesus Christ. He has purchased eternity for us, establishing a new humanity through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

But what about the loss? Doesn’t it hurt?

Yes, actually it does. And how much it hurts and how we deal with that hurt is unique to each of us. For we each grieve our losses and experience our relationships in our own particular ways. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process.

And how our losses occur and what those losses actually are in our lives is specific to each person in each situation. That means that for some people grieving a significant loss may be a simple and easy process, where others may grieve in a very complex and difficult way because of grief over unresolved losses in the past, or because of complications in the relationship in the past. To compare oneself to another person in how we are affected by our losses is not a wise thing to do.

Sometimes complications in our lives hinder the grieving process. There may be difficult circumstances surrounding our loss of a dear one that may prevent us from being able to deal with our feelings about the loss right away. It may be much later—days or weeks or even years—before we are able to come to the place where we can face the truth of the pain and begin to allow ourselves to feel it, grieve our loss and begin to heal.

As friends and families of those who have experienced a great loss, it is important for us not to be afraid to engage the suffering one in a healthy relationship of comfort, compassion and companionship. What a person who is grieving needs is not instruction, criticism or indifference. The one who has suffered a loss needs to know that they are loved, and that others are sharing in their grief and loss with them. It is important to come alongside them and to offer them our love and support, even if it means just sitting silently with them in the midst of their pain.

I have been very blessed to have family and friends join me and my children in the midst of our loss. I am grateful God brought my mother and me back together after life had taken us away from each other. He redeemed the difficult situations in our home and now I have happy memories to carry with me until I see Mom again. There is much reason for gratitude in the midst of this loss.

So rather than having a great sorrow about losing Mom, right now I am feeling comfort and peace. Perhaps that will change later when life slows down and I can truly grieve the loss of the mother who invested so much in my life. Meanwhile I am looking forward to that new morning when the sky will be even more glorious than anything I saw today. May it come soon!

Heavenly Dad, I am grateful that we are not alone in the midst of our losses, but we have you and each other to carry us through. Thank you that in the Spirit, you and Jesus join with us in our suffering, offering us comfort, peace and hope. Lord, lift us up. Enable us to find and live out the new life you have in mind for us as we let go of the past and our loved ones, and move on into the future. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB

The Relationship Factor

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by Linda Rex

If I were to summarize the programs currently available on my cable television, I would say that the majority have something to do with either crime and murder investigation, magic and the supernatural, or broken and confused relationships of some kind. If I work at it, I can occasionally find something uplifting and educational, but it seems that any more, movies rarely have community at their core.

Yesterday I was reading an article posted by a family member which showed that tests on mice indicate that the best antidote for drug addiction is healthy relationships with family and community, and meaningful things to do with one’s life. (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html) This did not come as a surprise to me, since I’ve been told in the past as a parent that the best way to keep my kids off of drugs is to build a strong, loving relationship with them. There is something powerful and significant about relationships based on love and grace.

I believe that society’s current obsession with materialist consumerism, as James Torrance calls it, contributes to the prevalence of addictions in just about every form imaginable. We are preoccupied with taking care of our needs, wants and desires. If we are barely scraping by financially, we can begin to see the world through the lens of how we are going to take care of our needs—food on the table, gas for the car, paying our growing medical bills. Even if we are comfortable financially, we may often still struggle, because we see the world through the lens of desire, passion and loneliness.

In either situation, our focus is inward, toward ourselves. We are preoccupied with taking care of what we believe needs to be taken care of. Taking care of our needs is indeed an important thing to do, but the way we go about meeting those needs is significant. Too many people are trying to meet the needs of their body, soul and spirit on their own, without any faith, hope or love in their lives. So many of us are living as isolated human beings, without meaningful, loving relationships with others.

I saw this many times when I served doing intake at Greenhouse Ministries. When a person or family came in with catastrophic circumstances in their life, they were often at a place of dire need. Those who had some form of relational support, especially those who had a personal relationship with God and with a community of faith, would approach their circumstances with serious optimism and hope. They were just looking for a little help to get over the hump.

Others who had none of these things were often overcome by despair, desperation and could only think about getting their next meal or a place to stay. When asked about a relationship with God, they thought of it only in terms of making it to church, which for many of them would have been problematic, seeing that they probably would not have been warmly welcomed even if they had shown up at church on Sunday. It’s not hard to see how many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol so that they don’t have to deal with the pain of loss, loneliness and despair.

I believe God is calling the church today to open up our hearts and doors to people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and cultures. He is calling us all back into loving, intimate relationships with him and with others—he’s calling us into Christian community. He never meant for any of us to go through the struggles of life alone.

When we seek first to build authentic, wholesome relationships with others that are centered around a common love and devotion to the God who made us and sent us his Son Jesus Christ and his Spirit of love, we will find that all the rest will fall into place in new ways.

The early church had many of the same struggles with poverty and need that we do today, and they met those needs through sharing and caring. It was that loving community which bore witness to the love and care of God for each and every one of us which he demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is what is meant by the kingdom of God or universal church. It is a community of faith, hope and love centered in Jesus Christ.

We, as followers of Jesus Christ, have a lot of repenting to do, and a lot of growing as well. It is God’s love and grace given in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit which has been so transformational for us. We dare not try to keep it to ourselves, but rather must begin to open it wide to the world around us which is in such desperate longing for faith, hope and love expressed through relationships. To feed the hungry, visit the lonely and imprisoned—this is more than just meeting physical needs—it is meeting the deep hunger of the human heart for relationship with God and with others that we were created for. It is being truly human.

Thank you, Father, that you have given yourself to us in Jesus and through the Spirit, opening yourself up to us in a relationship of love and grace. Impart to us your heart of faith, hope and love, and pour out from us into others your Spirit so that they may join together with us in Christian community. Bind us together in love and grace. Through Jesus, our Lord and in your Spirit. Amen.

“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:31–33 NASB

“Is It Love or Is It Magic?”

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Fall in Arkansas

by Linda Rex

I was watching an old classic TV series recently called “Nanny and the Professor.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this show, it is about a nanny who helps a professor care for his three children. She has a Mary Poppins-type knack for knowing exactly what is needed in every situation. She always seems to know who’s at the door before they knock or who’s on the phone before it rings. At the beginning of each show, we hear the question being asked about all the amazing things Phoebe Figalilly does: “Is it Love or is It Magic?” And it is left up to the audience to decide.

I think sometimes that the current interest in all types of spirituality blurs the lines for us between what is magic and what is love. Whether we like it or not, our view of God and spirituality is influenced by our culture and all that we see and hear in the media. What we believe about love and being loving is also affected.

The apostle John wrote: “God is love.” That, I believe, is a true statement. But what does it mean?

Does “God is love” mean that love is God? No. Love is a relational property, something expressed. Love in itself is not a being. God is a being, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, who lives in love—love describes his being. It describes how he lives in mutual submission, caring and oneness—in perichoresis.

So if God is love, does that mean that God has to always do nice things for us? I mean, if God is love, how come there are so many nasty things going on in the world—so many hurt people, ruined lives—so much rampant evil? How can God be love and let that happen?

Well, no, God isn’t Phoebe Figalilly who’s going to make everything wonderful for us all the time. And he’s not obligated to do that, even if he is love. Love doesn’t equate automatically with being nice all the time.

And love doesn’t equate with God giving us what we want all the time. That’s a magical God that we can control and use. Magic is something we use to try to manipulate spiritual realities.

But God doesn’t work that way. God is completely free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. He’s totally free, but he’s also totally love. And he loves us enough that he does not allow us to control, manipulate or use him. He does, rather, allow us to influence him as a child may influence a parent to say yes to his request for a new puppy.

God teaches us, through Jesus, that real love is serving, sacrificial and never works in opposition to what is right, pure, holy and true. Real love is relational in a heavenly way. Real love calls out the best in people—raising them up to be all that God intended them to be when he created them in the first place—a true reflection of himself. Sometimes this means saying “No” or putting boundaries in a relationship. Sometimes real love hurts, causing or experiencing suffering, in order to help and heal.

Much of the evil and suffering we see and experience is the result of our own choices and our own stubborn willfulness. We inflict it on one another, even sometimes without realizing we are doing it. Sometimes love allows people to feel the full impact of the consequence of their choices—not to hurt them, but to motivate them to repent and change. God does this with us.

I think there is a huge difference between magic and love, one that God demonstrates to us through his Son Jesus Christ. Real love can be seen and experienced in a personal relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit. Real love can be seen and experienced as we reflect God in Christ by the Spirit in our relationships with one another.

But God isn’t interested in our magic incantations, our self-help programs, or worship rituals that we use to try to somehow get God to do what we want—to try to fix problems or heal people. God can do that all by himself and often does do that without any of our help. He likes to include us in his miracles—but only as participants, not as magicians. It’s not about magic—it’s all about love.

“Holy God, forgive us, please, for all the times and ways in which we try to manipulate, control and use you. Forgive us for seeing you as something to fix things with rather than as a person to relate to in love. Thank you that your great love goes beyond anything we can ask or imagine, and that you have our best interests at heart all the time. Perfect us in your holy love in Jesus. In your name, Father, Son and Spirit—you who alone are God. Amen.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jn 13:34–35

When God Gives Us More Than We Can Handle…

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By Linda Rex

It never seems to fail that when someone I know is suffering through a really bad experience and is finding it impossible to bear any more suffering, that a well-meaning soul will say, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I cringe inside because I’ve experienced the reality that sometimes God does give us more than we can bear. So when I hear that phrase, everything inside of me wants to scream out, “He does too!”

This is an unfortunate reading of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which actually talks about temptation to sin, not about suffering or affliction in general. In the NASB it reads:

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”

The context of this verse, then, focuses on temptations rather than afflictions or trials. In my opinion, overwhelming trials and afflictions are not what Paul is talking about here.

When reading Paul’s epistles, we see that he talks a lot about trials, afflictions and sufferings that are beyond our ability to bear. He talks about participating in Jesus’s sufferings and death so that we can share in his life. We learn from Jesus and his apostles that it is in dying that we live. It’s all about death and resurrection.

And suffering and grief are not just random events that have no purpose or value. They may be tools of the darkness and be designed to defeat and destroy, but the Light has come in Jesus. All these things must submit to the lordship of Christ, and fulfill the will and purposes of Almighty God. As the scripture says, we overwhelmingly conquer in Jesus.

The point is that God has in mind our perfection, our full reflection of his image. He also has in mind the renewal of all things. We don’t see the things God sees, nor can we fully understand his purposes or his methods. Our view is severely impacted by the pain and sorrow and suffering we may be going through at the moment and we may be unable to see that God does redeem and heal and restore in the end. Our humanity limits our ability to grasp the significance and purpose of all we experience in our lives.

God does indeed allow us to be “burdened excessively, beyond our strength”, even to the point where we despair of life. We are constantly “delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake”, but for a reason. God is refining us “as silver is refined.” He is teaching us to quit trusting in ourselves and to start trusting him completely. He is teaching us to die to ourselves so that he may fully live in us and through us. He is reminding us that we are the clay pots in which his divine Presence dwells.

The key to it all is what we believe about God and about Jesus Christ. Do we believe, really believe, that Jesus is who he said he is—the Son of God and the Son of man, and that he lived, died and rose again in our place? Because in the end, death is destined to end in resurrection. Just as Jesus died and rose again, so we too will have times when death seems certain, if not preferable, but which will in the end result in God raising us up to new life.

There is healing after loss, after divorce, after abuse. There is restoration after brokenness and destruction. We don’t always experience it immediately or completely, but God has declared it done and complete in Jesus Christ. He is our assurance that there is never anything he won’t go through with us, in us and for us. He said that nothing can separate us from the love he has for us in Christ.

So when God gives us more than we can bear, we can ask him for the grace to bear it. We have the opportunity to trust Christ to be for us in the Spirit all that we need in our moments of despair, struggle and grief. God doesn’t always take away the difficulty—we may have to go through it completely from one end to the other. But he will never fail to bring us in the end to the glorious result he had in mind from the beginning. So don’t lose heart. Don’t lose faith. Because Jesus is a risen Lord and God is faithful and he is love.

Dear God, in the midst of our struggle, loss, despair and grief, remind us that you have given us a risen Savior, a resurrected Lord, who has brought us, is bringing us, and will bring us, to new life in himself in the Spirit. Grant us the grace trust you to do what is best in every situation and to carry us through to a glorious and joyful end in your presence forever. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“For You have tried us, O God; you have refined us as silver is refined. You brought us into the net; you laid an oppressive burden upon our loins. You made men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water, yet You brought us out into a place of abundance.” Psalm 66:10-12 NASB

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us,…” 2 Cor. 1:8–10 NASB

“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”
1 Pet. 5:10

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” 2 Cor. 4:7–11

Course Correction

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By Linda Rex

Recently, just for the fun of it, I’ve been watching some old episodes of Lost in Space. Since these were made back in the 1960’s, it’s amusing for me to see what was considered science fiction back then—reel to reel tapes and punch card computers, dials and buttons. The clothing and hairs styles of course are very 1960ish. And all these space adventures took place in the 1990’s and 2000’s (We aren’t even doing manned intergalactic space travel yet and it’s 2014!).

The ongoing pain-in-the-neck on the Robinson family’s space voyage is Dr. Zachary Smith. He seems to be the picture of every worst human trait—greed, dishonesty, laziness, and so on. He’s always finding a way to get out of having to work and spends his time getting himself and everyone else into dangerous predicaments. Whenever there is the slightest issue or problem, he goes into a despairing decline: “Oh, the pain…”

Vainly the Robinson family tries to reform him, but to no avail. Over and over, they swear they’re going to cast him adrift or abandon him to his fate because he deserves it. But once again, they choose love and grace over giving Dr. Smith what he deserves.

One night as I was working on a project and watching another episode of the series it occurred to me that in many ways, this whole thing was like a picture of the divine perichoretic relationship and us as humans. How often we are like Dr. Smith—annoying and offensive and downright diabolical. And yet, the Father, Son and Spirit continue to make room for us in their relationship of love and unity. We deserve to be cast adrift, to receive the full consequences for our choices, our unloving and corrupt behavior, but once again, God covers us with grace in Christ and brings us home.

Sadly, like Dr. Smith, we can receive warnings, corrections, and even the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and yet keep returning to our old, comfortable way of doing things. We can have a mirror held up and be shown our shortcomings and yet keep on following our destructive path.

But this isn’t how it needs to be. Because we have a God who is committed to us becoming all that he created us to be in Christ. He has formed us in his own image and will not cease to work toward that end in conforming us to the image of Christ.

One way in which we participate in this process is by choosing to allow the difficulties, strains and struggles of life to be used by God to transform us. We allow God to use sorrow and pain as a means of discipline—not punishment, but rather as a training tool. We let the strong winds of suffering build spiritual muscle in us.

We permit God to make changes in the way we think, believe, and act by responding to his Spirit and filling our minds with his Word. We choose to do the hard work of growing up in Christ rather than making every excuse in the book to keep from having to face the truth about ourselves. We, for the moment, choose sorrow over laughter—taking seriously God’s call to follow Christ wherever he leads on whichever path he chooses to take.

Unlike Zachary Smith, we don’t have to spend endless space miles caught in the corruption of human sin and depravity. When God goes to work, we become new people. It takes time—our whole life. But as we willingly participate in what God is doing to transform us—turning to Christ daily, trusting in his grace—change will come. Who we are at the beginning is not who we will be in the end. We have God’s word on that.

Thank you, Lord, that you have promised to perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish us. You have given us the privilege of sharing in your eternal glory in Christ. We trust you will finish what you have begun, in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

“Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” James 4:9

“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:10–11

Mourning in a ‘Pain-Free’ Society

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By Linda Rex

I love reading. I have a stack of books that I gathered while doing my thesis that I wanted to read but didn’t have the time to enjoy. Now that my schoolwork doesn’t take up all my down time, I’ve begun reading some of these, a few chapters each day.

This morning I was reading a chapter in the book “Authentic Faith” by Gary L. Thomas. This book is an interesting overview of certain spiritual disciplines that we as the Christian church in America sometimes overlook. I feel that learning and practicing spiritual disciplines as a means of putting ourselves in the presence of God and opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit to work is an essential part of our spiritual formation or growing up in Christ.

So, as I started to say, I came across the spiritual discipline of mourning. Now I would have to assume that mourning is not something we as human beings would naturally choose to do. If anything, I’m thinking that most of us do everything we can to avoid feeling pain or having to deal with difficult situations, horror or suffering. Taking painkillers for pain is considered normal behavior in our society. So much so that they are often abused. And many people use other forms of dealing with pain that are not always healthy—alcohol and drug abuse for example.

Unfortunately, the reality is that pain, suffering and grief are a part of our natural human condition. I believe one of the reasons such suffering, evil and pain are a part of our world today is because we as human beings do not practice the spiritual discipline of mourning. When an evil is perpetrated against another human being—we may make that a big news story in the media or on the Web, but how does it affect us personally? Do we feel the pain that goes along with the evil? Do we weep at the injustice and groan inwardly at the carnage? Are we then motivated by our sorrow to right the injustice or to heal the hurt? Rarely.

I don’t know about you, but too often I find my own self turning away from the story because I can’t bear the pain. I turn away and miss God’s invitation to mourn with him over the suffering in his world. I fail to participate in Christ’s suffering by refusing the opportunity to weep and sorrow over the injustice and depravity I witness. I too often am blind to the grief of others or am insensitive and thoughtless in responding to their suffering.

This week many Christians the world over participated in the observance of Ash Wednesday. The observance of this day marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which precedes the Easter celebrations marking the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent is typically the season in which Christians practice penitence, fasting from certain foods or items in acknowledgement of their need for and appreciation of God’s grace.

One of the things I think we can overlook as we consider the concept of mourning evil, grieving losses, and practicing penitence, is that these things are not something we as Christians have to do all on our own as though they are something we owe God, ourselves or each other. Rather, we practice penitence, repentance, grief, and mourning as a participation in Christ’s grief, penitence, repentance and mourning. It’s never something we do on our own—we are joined with God in Christ by the Spirit, and we share in his grief, his suffering, his mourning over loss, sin, evil, pain and injustice.

Just as Jesus obeyed God’s call through John the Baptizer by being baptized on behalf of all humanity for the remission of sins, so also did he obey the will of the Spirit who led, or drove, him out into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. In the midst of Jesus’ penitence on our behalf, he came face to face with evil. And he did not look away.

He did not give up his penitence to stifle the hunger in his stomach. The devil was right that Jesus could have made the stones into bread, but Jesus never used his divinity to serve himself. He only used it to serve others and to serve us.

Jesus did not give up his penitence, his identifying himself with us in our humanity and sinfulness, even to prove his identity as the Son of God. Nor did he pursue his own shortcut to glory by submitting to evil and turning his back on humanity. He chose the path of humility and humanity, of being the Servant Messiah even when it meant he would be treated like a common criminal, rejected, crucified and murdered by those he came to rescue.

Jesus went all the way with us and for us. And as the perfect reflection of God, he demonstrated to the core of his being that God is for us and against evil in any shape and form. If God in Jesus was willing to choose to do this so that we could be and would be free from the clutches of evil, how can we do any less ourselves?

Significantly, after Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to the adoring cries of “Hosanna”, one of the first things he did was to weep over the city who refused to repent and receive the Messiah God had sent them. He grieved over the pain, the suffering, and the evil. He mourned.

Even though we can have great joy that God in Christ has once and for all triumphed over evil, we also are privileged to suffer and grieve with God over, and in the midst of, the pain, injustice and evil of this broken world. God has given us eternal hope in Jesus and we can, in the midst of all that breaks our heart, point suffering and grieving people to the One who suffers and grieves with them and for them. We can, in Christ, participate in God’s work to relieve the suffering and right the injustices in the world. In the perichoretic life and love of Father, Son and Spirit, there is room for the depths of grief and suffering, the struggle against evil and injustice, just as there is room for the fullness of joy everlasting. For this we live in gratitude.

Lord, we are grateful for your grace, for the reality that we are never alone in our grief and sorrow. You grant us the privilege of participating in your suffering just as you, Jesus, took on our humanity with all its weakness, suffering and brokenness. Grant us the grace to cease our efforts to kill the pain, and to begin to just walk in the midst of it with you, allowing you to redeem all that is evil, hurtful and unjust, and to cause it to serve your purposes rather than the purposes of the evil one. For you, God, will and do have the last word in all these things, and we trust you to love us and do what is best for us no matter what. Gratefully, in your precious name, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

“For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.” Romans 8:16–18 NLT