5 Things That Make It Possible to Give Hard Thanks

DSC_0088Around the thanksgiving table, many people have the tradition of telling something we are thankful for.  It doesn’t take long to think of a few quick answers.  Family, the food on the table, sunshine, good health, are replies that usually show up around the table with a lot of frequency. But there are always things in our lives that we just don’t want to give thanks for.  These are the disrupters.  They are the things that have created chaos, questions, and discomfort.  This is the hard thanks to give, but give it, we can and should.

I received an email from a fellow follower of Jesus.  She had read my book, “Transformed Pain” and was struggling to accept how God was currently working in her life. As a young Mom, she is burdened with a severe, life-changing health condition.  She’s been praying and she hoped that God would have given her healing and this thing would be gone by now.  The doctors have given her little hope that this would happen.  She asked me what Scripture might help her find a renewed joy in the Lord.

My heart aches for her. I can’t imagine the pain of what she’s going through. After some reflection, this was my reply: “The Scriptural example that I thought of was God’s people Israel, in the wilderness.  And day after day, for 40 years, they gathered and ate manna.  It was a tasteless food.  Every meal was a reminder of what they had known (leeks and onions by the Nile).  I imagine, with every meal the idea of family dinners lost their attraction as their tastebuds were dying a slow death from lack of use.

They complained.  They longed.  They asked for relief.  They demanded relief. Except for one instance of judgment, God gave them no relief.  Until they reached their spiritual and physical destination.

They felt like the manna was killing them.  It wasn’t.  It was the thing God gave them to keep them alive.  It was sustaining them through the roughest journey anyone could have.  Manna wasn’t a curse, it was a blessing.  It just wasn’t the blessing they wanted.  The manna was a reminder that this wasn’t the promised land.  Our pain reminds us that this is a time of redemption, not a time of restoration.  Restoration is to come.  But until then, God is working His plan of redemption through us – even through our suffering.”

We all have things God has brought into our lives that we would rather not have. Instead of giving thanks, we would rather just ignore it, put up with it, or even fight against it. How can we experience gratitude for the hard things?  Here are a few things that might help us give hard thanks.

  1. Keep the big story in mind.  Like everyday fits into a season of the year, your life fits into the movements of history. We should expect hot days in summer and cold days in winter. We should also expect hard times in this part of God’s story. This is a wilderness world. We are traveling toward a promised land. In the wilderness, we learn, struggle, hope, and follow. We find joy in the God who is leading us toward His future.
  2. Embrace Christ as the Author of your story. Every good story has twists, turns, tensions, movement and meaning. The wilderness was filled with this and it’s a great story for the annuls of history. This is what Jesus, as the author and finisher of your faith, is writing in you.  Yours is a story that people will read for eternity.  It won’t be boring because of what God has done in and through you.
  3. See grace everywhere. Think of grace and gift as synonyms. I hate taking pills, I take 9 per day.  I hate kale, I eat it with my breakfast each morning. With my health challenges, these things are my manna. They are gifts of God’s grace. Even our challenges are gifts of God’s grace because they are the avenues by which we experience God and his transforming love.
  4. Long for Presence over circumstance. We were created to live in the presence of God.  Christ makes it possible. In the wilderness God came in a cloud and pillar of fire.  It was his presence with the people. If the choice is manna and God’s presence, or culinary delicacies and distance from God, choose manna! Prefer God’s presence over easier times.
  5. Say it aloud. Tell God, tell others your thanks.  It is true that our hearts shape our actions. But it is also true that our actions shape and reinforce our beliefs and thoughts. Think of a hard thing in your life. Reflect and recount how you’ve seen God working in that. How has it taught you about life, forgiveness, redemption, endurance, faith, people, yourself, God’s ways? Say “thank you.” Use the comment section of this blog!

In no way do I minimize the pain of hard times. But without thanksgiving, we can easily slide into resentment, bitterness and anger. We drift from the One who is with us. We let go of the One who loves us in the wilderness. There is nothing wrong with giving God easy thanks. But let’s not neglect the hard thanks.

In the comments, I’d be encouraged to read your “hard thanks.”

As always, thank you for being a reader of my Onward and Upward blog.  Feel free to comment, share and subscribe by email above.

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

 

Do you believe God is good? But, what about when… ?

Its an interesting point to note that when Jesus was addressed as “Good Teacher,” he said, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone (Lk. 18:19).”  Jesus was reminding his hearers that “goodness” is an essential characteristic of God.

When things are tough, one of the great questions we have is, “how can a good God allow all this?”  It’s a fair question.  But it presupposes that what we think is good, is actually good.  We have a perspective that is admittedly limited.  Many of us think cheeseburgers are good.  But they are not, if you want to actually nourish your body with your food.  Our definition of good has a lot to do with our value system and our over-arching purpose.

If our value system is wrapped up in the here and now, then suffering and struggling is a horrible violation of how we want to experience life now.  But if we value the eternal, growth, maturity, transformation, etc., our ideas of what is good, will be drastically changed.  Because it is in the hard times that we are formed into something new, especially when we grow through it under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

Author and theologian, Peter Kreeft, wrote in his book, “Making Sense Out of Suffering”, these words, “If we love God, we will understand that everything is grace, that Job’s sores were grace, that Job’s abandonment was grace, that even Jesus’ abandonment (‘My god, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’) was grace.  Even the delay of grace is grace.  Suffering is grace.  The cross is grace.  The grave is grace.  Even hell is made of God’s love and grace, experienced as pain by those who hate it.  There is nothing but God’s love. ‘Everything is grace.’”

When you read the word grace in the paragraph above, replace it with the words “a good gift.”  This can be a tough exercise because it confronts our idea of what is good.  But doing this teaches us that all things God gives to us are good gifts, given to accomplish His good purposes.  He can only give what is good because He is good.

Rather than judging the goodness of God by our circumstances, let’s define our circumstances by the goodness of God.  No matter what we are going through, God is good and He is bringing about His good work in our lives.  To believe this is the beginning of experiencing the goodness of God in every area and every experience of our lives.

 

Thank you for reading, for your comments, your shares and your likes.

“Taking Initiative in Tough Times”

Last Sunday, I had the joy of sharing the Word at Village Green Baptist Church, Glen Ellyn, IL.  This was the church I last pastored.  And they graciously invited me back.  It was a good Sunday of worship.

If you’re going through any difficult times, I thought my sermon might be an encouragement to you.  If there’s nothing wrong in your life, then bookmark this page because it will! 🙂

Blessings!

God Changes Our Pain

Are you struggling?  Are you being tested?  Are you looking for a way to understand and process all the pain that happens in your life and in our world?  I’ve been there and still go there from time to time.  Transformed Pain is about how God has led me through personal pain.  I invite you to check it out.  It’s available in paperback and on Kindle.

Some quotes from the book.

“God created all things with the full knowledge that we would choose a path of resistance and independence.  Because of love, He responded to the need with the plan that He had put in place for our rescue.  This is the God who meets us in our suffering with a unique and transformative plan.” p. 57

“In Christ, my suffering has been transformed.  It is the death of Christ and my response of faith that changes the very nature of the struggles I face.  When I suffer, I don’t suffer as a victim of the created order, I suffer as a participant in the work of redemption.” p. 76

“Pride keeps us in slavery to our circumstances. We are controlled by what’s happening to us because it’s happening to us.  Humility frees us from that control. This freedom gives us the ability to see the good of what we’re going through with God.  Humility frees us to surrender our will to the will of our Father.” p. 103

“I have gained a new perspective on God, His grace, His ways and His purposes.  I have new faith in His power to transform what is evil into what is good.  I have new confidence that His goodness can reshape what is ugly into something that is beautiful.  I have a new hope that He is writing a story with my life that is worth reading.” p. 121

I’ve received comments by a few who have been encouraged by the book.

From Amazon…
“This is a good book that challenged me to look at suffering in new ways. Some of the author’s comments on suffering caused me to stop and say, “why on earth had I not looked at it in that way before?” He writes from personal experience, and uses scripture throughout the book. It is easy to read, straightforward and practical for the everyday person.”

“I love the fact that this book is written very practically. By that I mean that it is not written from pie in the sky theory and with platitudes but from real life and real experience all with a strong base in true faith. It also helps that you want to hear the rest of the story and that keeps you turning the pages. Engaging, full of truth, and applicable to more of life than I have room to mention. I just purchased extra copies for some good friends of mine.”

“When I read Jim’s book, I found it to be a personal, humble, practical, and helpful perspective on suffering. This is not a sermon series put into book form. Jim’s observations are not just gleaned from Bible study. Rather they flow from his own experience with suffering as he has wrestled with God in prayer and in reflection on the Scriptures. This book will be an encouragement to all who read it.”

“In Acts chapter 9, after Sauls conversion the Lord said ” I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” There are hundreds of books written on this topic and none better than this one. It is written for us “ordinary” Christians who need a working knowledge of this subject. Everyone suffers but God works through this channel to get our attention and cause us to look up. This book gives us insight on how God makes it good as only He can do. As servants of the Lord we need to be ready to help those who are suffering. This book inspired me to do just that.”

And from a local pastor by email…
“Sooner or later we all have to come to terms with personal suffering. Transformed Pain will enable you to see your own pain in a whole new light. The fruit of a wise and seasoned pastor’s journey with chronic illness, Jim’s book unlocks the secret to finding joy despite the unanswered questions.”  

…if you’ve read it, what did you think?  What has God taught /is God teaching you in your painful times?

*NOTE:  A few of you have received copies where all the edits hadn’t been done (another one of my challenges).  I apologize.  If you’re one of those and want a “fixed” copy, please email me and we’ll get you one.  rev.jimrenke@gmail.com

Transformed Pain

Hey friends and readers,

Here are several quotes from a book I’ve written called, “Transformed Pain – How God Makes It Good.”  This is a book I’ve been working on for quite a while.  It flows from my experience and study of pain and suffering.

Here’s the deal.  If after reading this, you’d like to read more, I have a deal for you. I will send the first 20 people a free pdf copy of my book, if you will agree to write a review on Amazon.com when the book becomes available.

“The problem of pain is real and while pain hurts everyone, we experience it differently.  CS Lewis pointed out in his book The Problem of Pain, pain is only truly felt by the one on whom it is inflicted.  I can care, I can be compassionate, I can even work to alleviate pain.   I cannot feel the pain of another.  Our pain is our pain.” p. 18

“I am convinced that freedom and joy in suffering come not only when we thank God for the good results of our suffering, but also when we thank Him for our suffering itself.  I believe I can do that most fully, if I accept this suffering as an aspect of my life that has been chosen by Him and is good itself.” p.41

“So, what did God do with our suffering?  He noticed it and entered it so the work of redemption could continue until the hope of the final restoration is experienced at Christ’s return.  He continues to invite us to join Him in the work of redemption through our suffering.” p.67

“The Word of God also confirms that He is the great Redeemer.  As I’ve mentioned before, He takes the evil of the world, the greatest being the cross of Christ, and transforms it into an instrument of life.  By His grace, He transforms night into morning, sorrow into joy and despair into hope. Redemption is His mission and humanity is the object of that mission.  By faith, my life is part of that work.” p.95

If you’re interested in a free pdf copy, and are willing to write a review when it is up on Amazon, email me. Be one of the first 20 and it is yours.

As always, thanks for reading!

How to Preach through Personal Crisis

This has been a year for me! I’ve had a serious car accident, had heart bypass surgery and now have a parent who is in the last days of battling a terminal illness. All of these have impacted me and probably my preaching.

One of the tough things about preaching is that while standing in front of people proclaiming the Word of God, you have to live life. And we all know that life comes with crisis. In other vocations life can be segmented a little more. But we all know that preaching is a time when we bare our soul a little and if the soul is raw, how effective can we be?

First let me say, there may be times when you just have to take a break. Some physical struggles, or losses may be so big that we become a distraction to the message. We want to give our people a window into what we’re going through, but we don’t want to make them live through it. A sermon is not our time to make people carry our burdens. But it is a time when we can help people see how God carries our burdens.

So, how do we continue to minister this way when we feel like we need to be ministered to?

1. Make sure you have people you’re talking to. If you don’t have an outlet for the emotions and the processing of crises, you will be tempted to do it all in the pulpit. So surround yourself with people who will care for you individually.

2. Don’t let your emotions direct your preaching. Your emotions will show from time to time. People understand that and even appreciate it. But you can begin to preach toward your emotions. You can even try to use your emotions to get people to respond. That can border on manipulation and after a time, people will weary of it.

3. On a similar note, don’t shortcut your study. When things are tough, I’m tempted to get more “devotional” in my preaching. We may struggle to get deep into study. But remember, that is where the gold is found. It is in intentional study that you will find strength for yourself and others who are watching you.

4. If you have a preaching plan, which you should, stick to it. Don’t let your personal struggles become the driving force of what you should preach. We are shepherds of the whole flock. God is the shepherd of our soul.

5. Each week, let the Word of God speak to you. Let the sermon first lift you out of your struggle, put your feet on firm ground and secure you in God’s grace. And then let it do that for others. In this, your sermons will become powerful, personal and hopeful.

6. Lastly, if your crisis is too big, ask for help! You may need some time off to take care of personal needs. This can be a model for our people too. Have a trusted church leader advise you on when your personal trial may be too big for the pulpit to handle. And then listen to that advice!

My prayer is that as you serve in the midst of personal crisis, you will experience the riches of the God’s grace through His word and His people. And I pray that through our suffering, people will find the hope of Christ in their suffering.