It Might Be Time to Stop Learning Lessons

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Have you ever experienced some difficulty in your life and one of your first thoughts is, there must be a lesson I’m supposed to learn?  Often we think that God brings calamity, or allows it – depending on your theology – for the purpose of teaching us something.  The hope is that once we learn it, everything will find resolution.  The problem will be conquered and we will walk away as better people for it.  Once this all happens, we will celebrate and say, “Thank you God, for bringing something good out of all this hard stuff.”  If all goes well, we will have a story to tell others, we may write blogs, or even craft books about the lesson we learned and how it changed our life.

But what if there is no resolution? What if the pain is persistent? We are left alone questioning the justice and mercy of God, or at the least questioning our connection to Him.  There must be something wrong with God, or us. Either the lesson can’t be learned, or I am just not getting it.

Look at this passage a bit with me.  This is one of my favorite passages to hate.  Hate may be too strong a word…  let’s read.  “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, ESV)

Paul seems to be talking about some physical burden he endured.  It played a significant role in his life.  It kept him humbled before God.  We see that he asked God three times to remove it.  Then Jesus spoke those famous words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This sounds like a lesson Paul needed to learn.  It sounds like a lesson we all need to learn.  At least that’s how I’ve preached it before.

And he learned it.  All was well, we assume.  But wait.  All was not well.  There is no relief!  There is no indication in this passage, or any other that God removed this from him.  God doesn’t say, “Now that you’ve learned your lesson, I’ll make you whole again.”  The thorn, pain, limitation didn’t go away.  God didn’t give healing.  What did happen is that Paul stopped asking.  And it seems the hardships kept coming. He lists them: weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities.  Why?  Because Christ wasn’t inviting Paul to learn a lesson!  He invited Paul to a life!

Faith in Christ is not a list of lessons to learn.  Faith in Christ is an invitation to life with Him.  Paul, in his weakness wasn’t being taught about the power of Christ in weakness.  He was being encouraged to live in the power of Christ in His weakness.  When we understand this is the invitation we are given, the permanence of our weakness becomes irrelevant.  Real resolution is found when we live the life Christ provides to us through His presence, grace and strength.  Faith is not a problem-solution formula that allows us to live our best life now.  Faith is a response to an invitation by the God of Creation, the Savior of the World, the Lord of God’s Kingdom; to truly live with Him and in Him.

Next time you are tempted to try and figure out the lesson God wants you to learn, instead ask Him to give you a clearer understanding of the life He’s inviting you to live with Him.  When we do that, our pains and difficulties stop feeling like punishments and they instead become invitations to know what life with Christ means.

As always, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!

NOTE:  And don’t forget to subscribe!  I’ve begun working on a new book about the journey with Christ through hard times and how that forms us.  I want to involve all those who subscribe to my blog through email.  So, don’t be left out!  Subscribe and let’s do this together! – Blessings, Jim

 

Suffering Makes Space for God, pt. 2

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Here is part 2, to the challenge my friend gave me for a Sunday School class session, “explain how your heart issues have had bearing on your Christian journey especially in terms of making space for God in your life.”  If you want to read more about my journey, you can read Part 1 here.  You can also read something about this process that I’ve written earlier on this blog, here.

I tend to be a pretty self-sufficient guy.  At least I’ve tried to appear that way through the years.  Remember the old commercial tag line, “never let them see you sweat”?  That’s what one of my interior voices said to me often.  Because of this, one thing I’ve been horrible at all my life is asking for help.  I always figured in the end I would figure it out.  As I get older, I realize that I could have increased my impact, if only I would have asked more for input, advice, coaching and even correction.

But age alone didn’t get me to this kind of openness, incapacity did.  As I pastored a church, during my health struggles, there were days I just couldn’t.  I remember a couple of weeks after surgery, I decided to attend worship, just to let everyone know I was alive.  I couldn’t make it through one song without sitting down and giving in to inwardly whispering the words as a prayer.  This is something I never experienced before.  And I wanted to get over it as quickly as I could.  But with repeated trips to the hospital over the next few years, a word kept being said to me, “chronic.”  That usually means you wont’ be getting over it any time soon.

What would I do?  How would I serve, when sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, I had to lay down on the couch in my office for a 30 minute nap?  That’s not strength.  That’s not leadership.  That’s not what God called me to do.  Or did He?  I think now, He did.  But why?  He was creating space in my life for Him to work in a new way.  It wouldn’t be Jim’s ability or ingenuity (even if God-given) that would accomplish the work of His kingdom.

It would be Him and His power.  I found that people were actually being impacted and changed more in my weakened condition, than they had been in the years before.  How could that be?  I found that the weaker I became, the more space there was for the power of God.  I think that is exactly what the Apostle Paul experienced too.  He wrestled with God over a weakness.  He called it his “thorn in the flesh.”  He also referred to it as a “messenger of Satan.”  In other words, it was not a pleasant thing.  And he wanted the freedom of relief, so he could go about his ministry – God’s business.

And then he wrote, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).”

In the beginning of my struggle, these words had little impact except to frustrate me.  Because in them, I saw no promise of deliverance.  I heard no encouragement that life would get better.  Instead, I was confronted with the fact that this is the stuff that God has given me.  Just like for Paul, the thorn of pain was transformed into a crown of glory.  Why?  How?  Because the human weakness made space for the power of Christ.  That’s grace!

When we suffer a weakness, especially a long-term weakness, our misconceptions of self-sufficiency are ripped wide open and laid bare.  And when those ideas are thoroughly dispelled, God’s power is free to flow into every area of our lives and ministries.  We become acutely aware that this is not me.  When I stand before a group of people, hardly feeling able to finish the message – at some points, having to sit on a stool – not to be cool, but because I just can’t stand, and lives are changed, it is because God’s power is free to work in a new way.

This has happened in my marriage, in my relationship with my kids, in my ministry with other pastors.  My weakness has freed God’s power to move in ways I could never have dreamed.  That, my friend is GRACE!  And that is a source for real joy.  So, now when my heart is right and I’m in tune with God, I rejoice in my weakness because there is now room for God’s power to show itself!

Let me share one more way God has made his power known.  As I’ve needed people to minister to me, God has displayed his grace and power through them.  More is done for the Kingdom, His grace is displayed and His glory is magnified.

Can you thank God today for every weakness that makes room for His power?  If not yet, or not again, I encourage you to prayerfully consider how this weakness has really made space for Him to work in ways you wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Thanks for reading… hold on for the final installment to come!

Why We Shouldn’t Try to Write Our Own Life Story

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Today, we’re encouraged to write our own story!  We are told to set course for a destiny of our making.  We are urged to take control and make something of our lives that counts.  That’s a lot of pressure!

I think we should understand our lives a little differently.  We aren’t the author of our lives.  We are the main character of our lives.  God is the author.  He is writing our story.  Why?  Because if we wrote our own stories, we would miss out on so much.

Think with me for a moment about Job.  Job is that guy in the Old Testament that got a whole book written about his story.  And most of us might remember that it’s not a happy-go-lucky story.  It is a story about struggle, suffering and hardship.  Job and his story is the source of the phrase “patience of Job.”  And we all know that we don’t need patience unless things are going wrong.

So, if Job wrote his own story, how would his story have been different?
* His children wouldn’t have been crushed to death by a building that fell over in a storm.
* His flocks wouldn’t have been plundered by marauders.
* His body wouldn’t have collapsed into a scab-covered mass of oozing flesh on a pile of ash.
* His wife wouldn’t have told him to give up and die.
* His friends wouldn’t have spent all their time arguing with him about how bad he must be for God to do this to him.

I’m convinced that Job, like me would never choose these things for himself. But, if Job had written the story, there are a few things he would have missed out on.
* He wouldn’t have experienced a face-to-face intimacy with the Creator of the Universe.
* He wouldn’t have understood God’s greatness.
* He wouldn’t have come to understand that God’s blessings are gifts of grace, they’re not earned by human effort.
* He wouldn’t have known the joy of complete transformation and restoration.

And if God hadn’t written Job’s story for us?
* We wouldn’t know that He will comfort us in hardship.
* We wouldn’t know that God never leaves us when things go wrong.
* We wouldn’t know that God is up to something big when things are impossible for us.
* We wouldn’t know that sometimes things go bad for good people.
* We wouldn’t know that we can always have the hope of transformation and restoration.

I think after all was said and done, Job was just fine with God writing his story.  We should be too.  Are you letting God write your story?  Let’s just be a character who is faithful to the rich, life-giving script of a loving and gracious Author.

How is God writing your story? What events would you have omitted? Please comment to encourage others. And as always, please “share” this if it’s been an encouragement to you. Thanks!