Category Archives: Christianity

The Painful Journey from Happiness to Joy

There’s this place in the Gospels where Jesus tells people that if they want what He’s offering, then they will have to deny themselves.

Of all of the ideas intrinsic to the Gospel message, I don’t know of any more offensive to contemporary culture than the call to deny oneself.  It brings to mind notions of austere asceticism and images of self-flagellation.  It says to us, “Give up who you think you are.  Stop assuming the things you assume.  Reject that which you believe will make you happy.”

I think that last one is the hardest for me to do; to reject the things that I think will make me happy.  I don’t know that I could stop pursuing my own happiness even if I tried.  And so I think, in His strange grace, God gifted it to me.

Happiness has always been my True North.  At the end of the day, if all is going well, the evidence will be that I am happy.  Am I happy?  Then all is well.  Am I unhappy?  Then something is wrong.  My pursuit of happiness was the avenue by which I traveled.  Never stray too far, lest you lose your way back.

And I didn’t stray.  Rather, the path disappeared from beneath my feet.


When you lose your path, you panic.  You look for anything that resembles your familiar route. I can recall, during the darkest days of depression, going to bed thinking, “Maybe I will wake up happy tomorrow.”  In the morning I would wake, and the first question on my mind would be, “Am I happy now?”  The answer always came back: “No.”  I thought that every night and every morning for months.  The path never re-materialized.

I never would have left the path of happiness on my own.  I simply do not have the bravery or emotional/spiritual fortitude necessary to take Jesus seriously in His call to deny myself.  So in a strange act of grace (acts of divine grace tend to be strange) God removed the path.  He removed my happiness.  He gave me depression.

Now, not being a theologian, I suppose I ought to confess my ignorance.  Did God actually give me depression?  Or did He merely allow it?  I have no idea.  I’m comfortable with either option.  What I do know, though, is that spending many months in the absence of happiness forced me to consider a substitute.  What could take the place of happiness?  What could possibly direct my life the way my instinctive sense of “this will make me happy” did?

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but eventually I discovered another path.  It was not happiness.  It was something different.  Familiar but substantively better in every way.  It was a different type of path, but it took me places happiness never could have.  It showed me sweeping vistas from which I could look down on the old path of happiness and see its meandering circling course.  And happiness seemed kind of quaint and unimportant from these new vantages.

So what was this new path?  In a word: Joy.  More specifically, the joy of the Lord.  The joy that belongs exclusively to the Father Himself.  The Joy that He is utterly delighted to share, if only we will deny the things we presently expect to fulfill us.

Lest you think I’m not happy any more, let me assure you that I am often quite happy.  But happiness has a new and less profound role in my life.  Happiness now is submissive to joy.  When I am happy, it functions as a vague foretaste of the main course: joy.  And lest you think that I have utterly conquered depression, let me assure you that I have not.  But depression too has a new and less profound role in my life.  Depression too is now submissive to joy.  When I am depressed, it functions as a signal that I may be straying from the path of joy – perhaps looking for my old routes of happiness.

It’s a strange thing to be able to reflect on depression as a gift.  I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became thankful for that season of estrangement from happiness.  It allowed me to put happiness in it’s proper place.  And while the season of stumbling through the brush between happiness and joy was painful and certainly left some scars, the path of joy – the joy of the Lord – delivers things that happiness could only promise.


Two Songs – Reflections on Depression

Only two voices have ever sung songs of certainty to my heart. Songs so strong and profound that I could not deny them if I tried. The first song my heart ever knew to be undeniably true was the rich and full choral canticle of the Gospel of God’s grace. The second was the dirge of depression.

These two songs are impossibly irreconcilable. The Gospel song is the good news of endless hope and boundless embrace in the warmth of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And I have known it to be true.

The song of depression, on the other hand, is a droning hum that promises no hope, no embrace, no warmth, and no mercy or forgiveness. The song of depression is the promise of blackness and nothingness – pure oblivion. And with the same confidence that I have known the Gospel to be true, so have I known this hopelessness.

The Gospel is pure freedom. It is a song that makes you dance and weep and invite others in all at once. It is rare enough to treasure as your prize, but plentiful enough to distribute without partiality. It removes the strain and stress of labor and performance and replaces it with the unremitting acceptance of a mother’s arms. There is liberty because the war is over, and the labor can cease. And all remaining activity is a celebratory parade en route to the courts of the victorious and merciful King. And it can be experienced with unwavering certainty.

Depression is slavery. It is a song so hideous and horrible that its listeners must curl up and cover their ears, shutting out all other voices with it. There is not merely a lack of objects to which hope can be attached, but a realization that hope never existed to begin with. It is a stone around your neck in the sea. Every breath becomes a desperate and panicked gasp for survival. It is the promise that there is no King or kingdom; no mother with her arms wide open; no treasure to share, and no parade to dance in. There is only nothing. God is dead. And contrary to the insistence of the intelligentsia, when God dies, all hope and order and goodness die with Him. The only thing this bleak and desperate landscape has in common with the Gospel is that it too can be experienced with unwavering certainty.

So here I stand. Two bands playing two songs at full volume, one on either side of me. Both played with such conviction that one would be foolish to dismiss either. To which song do I sing along? Which tune is true? Which do I hum in my head without realizing?

The truth is, I sing them both. There are days when the funeral march of depression is too loud to ignore. I find myself tapping my toe as an act of resignation, confident that the hopeless tune is true. I stomp along with the rhythm like a slog to the gallows. I hate these days. These days are thieves, and they rob me of everything I love. I long to forget the song that plays on these days.

But then there are days when the Gospel tune pours in and drowns out the hopelessness with its bright and sanguine melody. The hope of eternity fills my ears and lifts me up off the ground before I can even muster the strength to stand myself upright. The face of my Savior is smiling and sympathetic, willing to embrace me despite my habitual absence from the parade. And not content to allow me to merely hear the song, He hands me an instrument and joyfully insists that I am part of the band, and that the song sounds best when I join in. And so I do. And I forget the notes, and I am flat or sharp at times, but He insists that it’s OK because the song we are playing is true, and good, and the Composer is pleased to hear it. I love these days. These days are gifts, and they fill me to overflowing with all I need. I ache to commit to memory every note of the song that plays on these days.

So I struggle. I hear two tunes, both claiming exclusive rights to truth. And I sing them both. I dream of the day when I will sing only one. But in the interim, I choose to allow one to ring slightly truer than the other. I hope in it, because I suspect it is the song my ears were made to hear. And at times, I get to join the band and play along.

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It’s a Good Thing

I have been told that I ought to be a good person.
But I know that I am not a very good person.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being a good person.

I have been told that I ought to be generous.
But I am selfish to my core.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being generous.

I have been told that I ought to work hard.
But I am lazy enough to consider it one of my defining characteristics.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by working hard.

I have been told that I ought to have courage.
But I am afraid more often than not.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by having courage.

I have been told that I ought to show kindness to strangers.
But I often find strangers to be…strange.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by showing kindness to strangers.

I have been told that I ought to believe in myself.
But I think that is a stupid idea.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by believing in myself.

I have been told that I ought to be an outstanding husband.
But…just ask my wife.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being an outstanding husband.

I have been told that I ought to be religious.
But I don’t really understand what religion is all about, and I’m not sure I’d like it if I did.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by being religious.

I have been told that I ought to have good theology and doctrine.
But I’m pretty sure I don’t.
So it is a good thing that I am not saved by having good theology and doctrine.

I have been told that I ought to have grace.
But I have withheld grace from those most desperately in need of it.
So it is a good thing that I am saved by grace.

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Learning How to Hate

Alright, get ready to witness a conversion…of sorts.

If you know me at all, or if you’ve read this previous blog, you are probably aware of my longstanding hatred for all things Apple.  I could try to persuade  you to agree with me, as I have so many times in the past, but that would be counter productive to the intent of this post.  Because I am hereby renouncing my hatred of Apple.

Snicker if you must.  For you, this might seem kind of goofy.  But if you know me, you’ll know that this is actually kind of a big deal.  It comes as the result of some soul searching and conviction by the Holy Spirit; and it goes beyond my preference for consumer electronics vendors.

Here’s the story:

The other day I was reading this article about people who are beaten, raped, and killed as they attempt to escape sub-Saharan Africa to find freedom in Israel.  I got about half-way through the article and…I don’t know…maybe I got bored.  Maybe I just didn’t want to make my mind go there.  Maybe the whole issue was just too real for me.  Whatever the reason, I closed that tab, and opened this one, which is a video making fun of the iPhone.  Because, man do I hate the iPhone!

Ok.  Let’s think about this for a second…what do I hate?  I hate a cell phone.  I hate a brand.  I hate a consumer electronics corporation.  This is where I  chose to expend my hatred.  Because let’s be honest, you can’t hate everything.  We’ve only got so much hate to give.  And I use much of mine up on this:

Why does this logo get my hatred, while people being bought and sold, abused, raped, objectified, and murdered in their pursuit of freedom gets…me to close a tab on my browser?

Hatred, I think, gets a bad wrap.  Because it is so frequently used improperly, people assume that hatred is always a bad thing.  But it’s not.  In fact, hatred is commended in Scripture (see Proverbs 13:5 and Romans 12:9, for example), but only when we hate the right things.  When we hate injustice, we hate well.  When we hate wickedness, we hate properly.  When we hate pride and lust and greed and selfishness and deceit and murder and malice and slander and objectification and all forms of evil, we use hate the way God intended us to.

But when I hate Apple, I substitute something ultimately neutral for the things that are crying out for my hatred; the things that the Holy Spirit is demanding I turn my wrath against.

And so, I repent.

I repent of the hours I have spent bickering with people about their digital choices.  I repent of the times I have self-righteously explained to someone why they should not patronize Apple Inc.  I repent of my upturned nose at my brothers and sisters who have made different, albeit ultimately insignificant choices.  I repent.  And I move on to hate the things I am called to hate.  The great injustices in the world and the small injustices in my world.  The sins of mankind and my own sins.  I will be a better steward of my time, my energy, and my hatred.

Let us not swear off hatred itself.  But let us swear off hatred of the things which matter so little.  And let us turn our hatred toward the things that stand against the Kingdom of Love.


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My Real Life Experience With Demonic Possessions

I guess I’ve never really said it our loud before, but I’ve dealt with demonic possessions on and off since I was in middle school. The thing about a demonic possession is that you usually don’t realize it’s evil until it’s already in control of you. It’s scary for other people to watch. But I generally just thought, “What’s the big deal? They’re my possessions. Mind your own business.”

My first demonic possession was a gift: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the Sony Playstation. If I remember correctly, my parents gave it to me and my brother as a reward for getting good grades. We started off innocently enough, playing video games like two adolescent brothers do. But eventually my brother’s interests took him elsewhere. But not me. I literally played that game until I had the outline of Playstation controls imprinted on my thumbs. At what point the possession became demonic is hard to discern. But I know that before long I was rushing through meals and homework just to get back to my game. If I had to guess, I’d say the point where it became demonic was when I began to chose my video game over time with my friends and family, and time with God. Eventually I got past the video game. I suppose the demons grew tired. But before long, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was out, and the while cycle started again.

A simple possession taking on demonic properties. Robbing me of time with my family, my friends, and my savior. I haven’t played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in years, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have the same effect on me that it once did. I’ve moved on to new possessions; fancier ones. Ones that have far more potential to become demonic because of their capacity to appear useful. I’m talking, of course, about my precious mobile devices.


Exhibit A


Exhibit B

Anyone who has spent time reading CS Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters knows that demons are crafty. They will seldom show up in a red suit with horns and a tail and say, “Boo! I’m a demon!” We wouldn’t likely be duped by such a thin disguise.


Probably not a demon

Instead, they show up in genuinely good and useful things. My smart phone is a good thing. It has proven time and time again to be helpful and worthwhile, not only for myself but for others. But equally as many times it has shown itself to be downright demonic; providing me an instant and ever-present escape from the more immediate and infinitely more valuable task of interacting with human beings and listening for the still small voice of the Spirit.

This became painfully evident to me this weekend as I was visiting my family. My little nephew just turned one, and has learned to crawl and stand since last I saw him. So as I’m visiting, I purposelessly yet instinctively reached for my tablet computer. I honestly don’t know why. Perhaps the demonic voices pointed out just how empty my hands feel without a piece of electronics in them. Regardless, while my nephew was showing me his newly learned feats of humanity, I spent 20 minutes trying to connect to a wi-fi network.

20 minutes.

20 minutes I could have spent enjoying the God-given gift of family, and relishing in the wonder of my amazing nephew’s newfound mobility. Certainly my possessions had become demonic.

So how do I cast out the demons? What exorcist do I call upon? Do I dash my electronics against the rocks?

I’ll need to counter the demonic possessions from two angles. First, I will need to submit my possessions to God, allowing them to be possessions of the Holy Spirit an none other. This means being consciously aware of my time, place, and setting, and then asking God, “Is this an appropriate time to utilize my possessions? Will it help people and bring You glory? Will it speak of my love (and Yours) for other people? Or will it build walls? Will it be an escape from the beautiful, if sometimes difficult, task of interacting with other human beings? Guide me, Lord.”

Secondly, I will rely on the wisdom and watchfulness of my brothers and sisters in Christ (that means you). If you catch me hiding behind a screen, a text, a call, a status update, or any of an infinite number of other potentially evil uses for my possessions, I am calling on you (and giving you the authority) to treat it for what it is: a demonic possession. Grab my phone, tablet, game controller, or whatever it is out of my hands and refuse to give it back to me until I realize just how much I don’t need it. With such brash acts, you will be ministering to my spirit.

So, probably these aren’t the type of demonic possessions you expected to be reading about. But they probably come far closer to the reality you know and live every day. I encourage you to take an inventory of your life and identify the possessions that have become demonic. When you discover what they are, submit them to the King and to the authority of your brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. And may we find that relationship with those we have submitted to is far greater than anything the evil spirits have convinced us our possessions could possibly bring.


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The Amazing Story of the 27-Year-Old Youth Pastor Who Lives a Perfectly Consistent Life

This might come as a shock to you, but I have never acted inconsistently with my beliefs.


Never have I ever once done anything that goes against my core beliefs.

Want to hear something equally crazy?  Neither have you.

Now you might say to me, “Wait just a moment, Tim.  I’ve heard you describe yourself a conscientious consumer; someone who works hard to buy fair-trade items and avoids supporting sweatshop labor.  But aren’t you wearing a Hanes T-shirt?” (Hanes was listed in the 2010 “Sweatshop Hall of Shame” by the International Labor Rights Forum).

“Why, yes I am indeed.”  I would reply.

“Well, isn’t that inconsistent with your beliefs?” you might ask?

“Apparently not,” I would reply.

Because, you see, if I did believe that sweatshop labor was wrong, I would live differently, wouldn’t I?  So when you heard me describe myself as a conscientious consumer, evidently I was being dishonest.

You remember that old saying, “Actions speak louder than words”?  What if that was…you know…true?  Better yet, just imagine yourself living as a mute.  Add to that the inability to write, or sign, or pantomime, or otherwise convey your thoughts.  All you can do is live.  What will people conclude that you believe after watching you for a day?  A month?  A year?  A decade?  A lifetime?

Here is a list of shameful things you might conclude about me if you just watched me live for a while:

  • I don’t care much where products come from before they get to me.
  • I think my own leisure is more important than people.
  • It’s OK to say something hurtful, as long as the person you’re hurting isn’t listening.
  • I’d rather eat deliciously than eat ethically and healthfully.
  • I think most people are stupider than me.
  • Lust, anger, pride, and selfishness…really aren’t all that bad.

Apparently these are things I believe from time to time.  Someone might comfort me by saying, “Those aren’t things you believe, they’re just areas that you struggle to be consistent in.”  Well, I respectfully disagree.  I think I am consistent.  I think I live the way I believe.  Perhaps the only thing that is inconsistent in my life are the words I use to describe my beliefs.  Because when I call myself a “conscientious consumer,” yet buy sweatshop-produced items, I don’t live inconsistently; I describe myself inconsistently.  Let me give you an example from earlier in my life.

When I was in high school, I was punk-rock through-and-through.  Mowhawk, tattoos, piercings, chains and patches…the whole bit.  And of course, along with the punk-rock ethos, came the rallying cry of the punk-rocker: “I don’t care what people think about me.”

I used to love saying that, because it was “proof” that I was unaffected by mainstream society.  Only problem was that after making that statement, I would spend an hour (or more) in front of the mirror getting my hair to do this:

I wasn’t about to let the tuxedo take away my street cred.

But I wasn’t living inconsistently.  I was simply describing myself dishonestly.  I did care what people thought about me, and I lived in a way that proved that.  But I described myself as someone who didn’t. The inconsistency was in my description of myself.

Our actions will never be inconsistent with our beliefs.  Because our actions will always reflect what is going on in the depths of our hearts.  Consider what Jesus says:

“If you grow a healthy tree, you’ll pick healthy fruit.  If you grow a diseased tree, you’ll pick worm-eaten fruit.  The fruit tells you about the tree.

You have minds like a snake pit!  How do you suppose what you say is worth anything when you are so foul-minded?  It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words.  A good person produces good deeds and words season after season.  An evil person is a blight on the orchard.”

Matthew 12:33-35 (The Message)

Nobody lives inconsistently.  People only describe themselves inconsistently.  Jesus says here, in essence, that the things we say about ourselves don’t matter much when compared to the way we live our lives.

So, here’s where the rubber meets the road spiritually.  Watch this clip from thinker/theologian/activist/heretic Peter Rollins.  Skip straight to 1:41:

Make no mistake: your actions are your beliefs.  The way you live today will tell of your adherence to the doctrine of resurrection (among others).  Your words merely describe you either correctly or incorrectly.

Now, it could be easy for us to walk away from this devastated and hopelessly aware of our inability to reach any level of real holiness.  To this I say two things:

First of all, good!  It is only in these hopeless moments of clarity that we are made aware of the depth of our sin and our need for a savior.  Use the feeling of hopelessness to propel you into the arms of the One who offers hope!

Second of all, don’t get angry or discouraged without getting honest.

Live honestly.

Live your beliefs.

Let us become the people Christ calls us to be on the inside so that we no longer need to hide behind our faulty descriptions of ourselves; so that we no longer need to masquerade as people of good standing.  And, when our lives display that we believe counter to the Gospel, may we have the courage to say the words that will ring consistently with our brokenness.  Have the courage to say, “Today, I denied the resurrection.”

And then go out tomorrow, and refuse to deny it again.


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Christian Pastors Should Suffer

If you’ve stuck with me for a while, you know that I’ve been obsessing about the idea of suffering.  It’s a word that God put in my head a few months ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since then.  But, I promise that this will be my last post about suffering for some time.  Maybe I’ll move on to some happier topic soon (ponies anyone?)

But today at the church office I was going through an old binder full of students’ medical release forms that have accumulated over the past few years.  As I flipped through the binder, I passed the names and medical details of numerous students who are pursuing Christ and are making great strides in their faith, and I found myself encouraged by the lives and faiths represented by those names, birthdates, and medical policy numbers.  But the longer I spent flipping through that binder, the more names I noticed that belong to students who I knew well, but who are no longer actively pursuing Christ in community.  I don’t speak out of an arrogant assumption that just because they don’t show up to church every week it must mean they are off worshiping the devil.  I speak from the knowledge I have through my passing interactions with them and their friends.  I speak as an observer, witnessing their lives unfold via social media (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)  I feel my heart ache a bit every time I see evidence against the Spirit of God guiding their decisions.  I want so badly to see them re-enter the fold of their faith; to return from a prodigal journey all the wiser to the rich love and grace they nearly walked away from.  I ache.  I hurt.  I suffer.

Now a confession, and a plea for forgiveness.  I have been accused (rightly so) of being too pushy at times.  My zeal to see students embrace the call of Christ has often taken on an unintentionally forceful tone, and my eyes are being opened to the fact that this may serve to push more people away than it draws in.  And so I ask for forgiveness from anyone who has felt cornered or harassed by me.  Please have grace with me.  I beg you to bless me with the room I need to grow.  And I beg you to try to see what is at the core of my “pushiness”: a desire to see the Church grow and Christ transform.

So, back to suffering.  Today, I suffered.  I experienced the suffering that is perhaps only shared by pastors and parents; the suffering that comes from seeing someone you have nurtured make a series of decisions that you believe will bring them harm.  It is an awful feeling.  I hate it.  I don’t wish it on anyone…

…Except for every Christian pastor in the world.

A little while back, I was having lunch with a pastor friend/mentor.  He imparted some important wisdom to me regarding the role of a pastor.  “A pastor,” he said, “must be comfortable feeling like a victim.  Being hurt.  Suffering.”  What a job description, huh?  Who in their right mind would sign up for this?  But as he expanded on the idea, my eyes were opened to the truth and beauty that exists within the call for a pastor to be constantly willing to suffer, and to expect it every day around every corner and in every situation.

There are two types of pastors out there, I suppose: those who are willing to suffer, and those who are not.  And within the subcategory of those who are not willing to suffer, I suspect that there are two reasons that pastors do not suffer:
1. Because their church community is made up of perfect people (never mind, this doesn’t exist).
2. Because their hearts are not willing to be hurt by the losses they must necessarily witness regularly in ministry.  They are either calloused or they are blind to the the people in their community who are attempting to wriggle free of the Father’s grasp. 

As our culture grows progressively…”flexible” (I suppose that’s a nice way to put it), I suspect that we will see more and more people walk away from Christ when it becomes boring, inconvenient, offensive, or difficult.  Any pastor who ministers in a church made up of human beings will experienced this from time to time, and will be forced to stand by and watch, feeling helpless, attempting to encourage and convict, but witnessing some people drift (or sometimes run) further and further from the God who loves them so deeply.  The time to suffer has arrived.

A suffering pastor is, paradoxically, a healthy pastor.  The moment I begin to feel completely content in the health of my ministry and my flock, I must be quick to check if my contentment is based on true health, or if it is a result of the fact that I have stopped caring for those who are lost, hiding, hurting, and/or escaping. 

I want every Christian pastor to suffer, because suffering means that they are tuned in to their community; they see how many people are forfeiting their lives to gods other than Christ, and they are unwilling to let them go without a fight.  And so they fight.  And they suffer.

So may our pastors suffer, suffer badly, suffer long, and suffer well.  But never stop suffering.  Because when pastors stop suffering, they have closed their eyes to those who most desperately need a pair of loving eyes to rest upon them.


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Airplanes and God’s Unwillingness

I don’t like airplanes.  Call me crazy, but there’s something about 400 tons of steel, suitcases, and human flesh that leads me to believe that it doesn’t belong in the sky.  Even though I’m growing gradually more willing to fly (thanks in large part to this book) it’s still difficult for me to feel comfortable on an airplane.  The door swings shut, my ears pop, and scenes from countless films involving air disasters flood my mind.  Remember that Uruguayan rugby team that had to eat each other to survive after their plane crashed?  That’s the kind of stuff I think about when I get in an airplane.

Pictured: My worst nightmare.
Suspiciously not pictured: People freaking the hell out.

I just returned from an 11 day trip to Chile with the high school students from our church, and I somehow survived the twelve-hour flights (each way, plus an hour layover in Lima, Peru.  It was a long freaking time to be in an airplane.)  But as is my ritual, I spent some time with God the day before our flight left.  I asked Him humbly to protect our flight and to bless our trip, and to get us to and from our destination safely.  As I was wrapping up my time of prayer, I snuck in a request, hoping to receive a quick response to put my uneasy spirit at rest.  “God,” I asked, “Can you please give me the assurance that the flights will be safe, and that I will return home in one piece?”  I shuffled from my seat, ready to wrap up my prayer time, when suddenly the voice in my head that I frequently attribute to God came back to me clear as day.

“No,” it said.

Wait.  What?  Why not?

Lately I’ve been asking God this question a lot: “God, if you’re so big and powerful, then why won’t you just _______?”  It sounds like a childish question for a pastor to ask, but it’s a question that rings in my head every time something doesn’t happen the way I want it to.  So, if God is so big and powerful, then why wouldn’t He just tell me things would be ok?  Looking at this situation retrospectively, I see now that I am indeed alive and well, and that my plane did not go down in a horrifying ball of flames like I had feared.

So why wouldn’t God just let me in on that?  All I needed was a little, “You’ll be fine,” and I would have been content.

But I got no such thing.

I thought about this for a while that night, and I pondered the possibility that I might die on tomorrow’s flight (statistically laughable, I know.  But a lingering fear for many nonetheless).  Why does it seem like God rarely gives me the assurance that I am looking for?

If you’ve been following me blog (or talking with me face-to-face) lately, you’ll know that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the idea of suffering.  It’s an infuriating mystery to me.  Why must we suffer and, perhaps more importantly, why are followers of Christ called to suffer?  If we are called to suffer, you’d hope that God would at least give us a heads-up when we’re not going to suffer so that we can have peace of mind.

But maybe there’s something to learn about God here.

It came to my attention, in asking God for assurance, that He was unwilling to give me any.  I don’t mean this to say that God was arbitrarily opposed to giving me information or comfort.  I mean that my having this specific information and comfort was counter to His will.  He did not desire that I should have it.  His desire was that I face uncertainty head-on.

One of my favorite songs of all time is The Self-Employed Chemist by Norma Jean.  Towards the end of the song, there is a haunting refrain in which vocalist Cory Putman asks, “What if I have to lose?  What if I have to suffer?”  This is a question I return to often, and the very question God forces us to ask when He refuses to give us the assurance we so desire.

Anxiety is a longing to avoid uncertainty.  Perhaps herein lies our love affair with logically repeatable experiments and predictable outcomes.  While certainly not altogether bad, such desires for the repeatable are perhaps symptomatic of a deeper fear of the unknown.  We want to see the same sort of predictable outcomes in our lives.  But it doesn’t always work that way.  And apparently God doesn’t want it to.

We face uncertainty everyday, provided we chose to go on living for one more day.  Will I slip and fall in the shower?  Will I experience something embarrassing today?  Will I lose my job?  Will a loved one die unexpectedly?  Will I die unexpectedly?  Will I go to heaven when I die?  Is there a heaven at all?  Is there a God at all?  Do I really exist?

What do we chose to do in the face of the necessary uncertainty of life?  This is the question that defines the type of people we are; the type of Christians we are.  God’s desire, it seems, is not that we be certain about anything, but that we be faithful in everything.

I was forced to answer whether or not I would heed the call to lead students to serve God in Chile even if it meant that I may die en route.  I asked God, “Will I die in a plane crash on the way to Chile?”  God responded, “What if you do?”

What if I have to lose?

What if I have to suffer?

Every day is an agonizing opportunity to answer these questions.  Do we continue to progress, to move, to wake up, to love, and to hope in the face of potential loss?  If we truly want to live, we must.  And, perhaps, the more uncertainty we face, the more we truly live.


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Go To Heaven and Suffer for All Eternity

For the past week or so, the word “suffering” has been on my mind.  If ever a paradox existed in the Christian worldview, “suffering” is its name.

Suffering is something that Jesus seems equally set on removing from some and promising for others.  It’s something that we’re called to address and correct, and something that we’re called to embrace.  It’s something that is an integral part of the life of a Christ-follower, and something we’re promised ultimate escape from.  How are we, as Christians, supposed to make sense of this?

While Scripture provides a number of paradoxical ideas concerning suffering, perhaps the most troubling conflict for me involves questions of suffering’s place in the Kingdom of God.  I am of the theological persuasion that the Kingdom of God is not only to be found in the life after this one (i.e. “Heaven”) but is also present in what God is doing here and now. And our role as followers of Christ is to prepare ourselves and the earth for the eternal reign of Christ. Essentially, we’re called to bring Heaven to earth as best we can.

In light of this, many of the things we are called to do as heralds of the Kingdom make perfect sense. We are called to make peace, which is something that we would hope to see for eternity in Christ’s kingdom. We are called to live a life of love which is something else we would hope to see exist eternally in the Kingdom. We are called to rejoice and worship which we would expect to see play huge roles in the Kingdom. And then, among the list of things that we would expect to be present in an eternal utopia, we find the peculiar call to suffer. It is relatively simple for us to see the purpose that suffering has on this side of the grave (Romans 5:3-4 makes the benefits of earthly suffering explicit ).  But what role does suffering play in the eternal Kingdom? More precisely, why are we being trained to suffer if we are promised ultimate and eternal escape from it?

These questions have weighed heavily on me recently as I have reflected on the call to suffer. I only barely understand what that means and how it ought to affect the direction my life takes. I have quite a ways to go in terms of comprehending the role and purpose of suffering. But, if you will indulge me, I have a theory concerning the role suffering plays in the eternal destiny of Christ-followers.

Let me reiterate that this is a theory. It is not something that I can explicitly back up with Scripture, and I’m not sure that it’s even something that fits well with God’s nature. I recognize the possibility probability that I am wrong, and I am open to correction and dialogue. But so far this is the best way I can figure to reconcile our call to suffer with the promise of the eternal Kingdom. So consider this an exercise in theoretical theology. Here goes…

Consider the following statement: “To be in the presence of God is to suffer.” Is that statement true? I have no idea. But what if it was? What if God is so excruciatingly holy and righteous and good that we could not stand to be in His presence without encountering unfathomable suffering? Consider God’s comment to Moses that no one can see Him and live (Exodus 22:30). This is the same God who reigns in the Kingdom. If to merely experience Him by sight is to face certain death, then what would it be like to exist fully in His presence? I imagine it to be unimaginable.

Could we someday find ourselves on the shores of eternity anticipating an island getaway only to be faced with a raging volcano? And could we learn to be content with this situation? Could we discover that the volcano is ever more beautiful and worthy of our eternity than any beach-front paradise could have promised to be? To enter into the full presence of God will be a beautiful thing, but I suspect it will be a difficult transition. The rusty and raw cog of humanity grinding up against a grand and glorious gear of God. I suspect that there will be friction. And how much more there would be, were the whole beautiful machine not lubricated with the blood of Christ!

Lest you think that I have neglected the role of the Spotless Lamb in all of this, Christ plays two large and indispensable roles in this theoretical framework. First, it is by His righteousness alone that we are even welcomed into the presence of God. Without His work, we would find ourselves hopelessly unwelcome in this eternal Kingdom. Second, Christ serves as our guide and our advocate as we experience the suffering that is necessitated by the collision of a holy God with a most unholy people. Without His taking our hand and leading us into the presence of God, we would find it unbearable and ultimately un-beautiful. But by His leadership we find a way to understand this suffering for what it truly is: an incredible intersection between God and ourselves. Until, perhaps, the day arrives when we become so overwhelmed by the presence of God that we learn to experience the suffering in a new way – in a way that draws us closer to God. And just as a deep tissue massage hurts in the beginning only to become enjoyable in the end, we may find that, by Christ’s guidance, we begin to appreciate what we would have first described as suffering. The sensation has not changed, but our perception of it has; in the same way that we are called to reimagine suffering on earth and see it as the refining tool that it is, we may come to reimagine the suffering that we experience in God’s presence. We may come to appreciate it. We may come to enjoy it. We may wish to spend eternity in it.

So, if Heaven is suffering, what then is Hell? Eternal bliss? In a way. But a bliss that people are not willing to embrace. In C.S. Lewis’s wonderful parable The Great Divorce, Lewis gives us a picture of Heaven as a place where the grass is too real for some people to walk on; it cuts their feet like razor blades because they are unprepared to engage the reality of Heaven. It is common to hear people say that Hell is the absence of God. But what if it was the opposite? What if Hell was the full presence of God without the welcoming embrace of Christ and without His guidance and advocacy? What if Hell is to attempt to experience the full suffering that God’s presence brings about, but to attempt to do so without the help and hope of Christ? Surely, this would be hellish. I imagine we might describe God’s presence here as “wrath.”

Parenthetically, I recognize that 2 Thessalonians 1:9 defines eternal punishment as exile from God’s presence, but I also take into account verses like Romans 2:8 (among others) that define punishment as the presence of God’s wrath. How is it that God can manifest His wrath without being present? I do not say this to disregard the verse in 2 Thessalonians, rather I say it to suggest that we not formulate an entire theology based on one description among many.

So then, what role does suffering play in preparing us for an eternal Kingdom? Perhaps it serves to ready us for our encounter with the divine. An encounter so real that it causes us to experience unparalleled suffering as we are overcome by its unparalleled beauty. An experience so unfamiliar and uncomfortable that can only be endured by the power of Christ, and to attempt to do so without Him would be…hellish.


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I Shall Not Want Want

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.

Behind John 3:16, this is likely the second most memorized verse in the Bible.  If not, it’s at least one of the most popular.  Just go to Google and type in “Psalm” and see which Psalm is suggested to you first.  (Spoiler: it’s this one.)

But if you would indulge me, I’d like you to consider how two words, appropriately affixed to this verse, can alter the way that we think about “wanting.”  Consider how your perspective changes when you read the verse like this:

If the LORD is my shepherd,
Then I shall not want.

If, in our mind’s eye, we allow this verse to become a conditional statement, it may challenge us to consider the relationship between our connection to God, and our desire for…desire.

Let me explain how this came about for me.

Last night I was laying on my couch, watching the news out of the corner of my eye, aimlessly fiddling with my cell phone, sitting next to my wife, and I slowly realized that I wanted something.  Food?  No, I had just eaten recently.  Water?  No, I wasn’t thirsty.  Did I have to go to the bathroom?  No, I just went.  Did I need to say something to my wife?  No, we had already debriefed our days with one another and were now winding down for the evening.  So what was it?  What did I want?  I looked at the TV, I looked at my phone, I looked at my wife, and it occurred to me that I was waiting for each of them to tell me what I wanted.  That’s what I wanted; something new to want.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  Consider the annual announcement of the newest iPhone.  (By the way, I don’t own a single Apple product, something that has on occasion called into question my eligibility to youth pastorship. But I digress.)  Every year bloggers, news sources, and technophiles speculate and prophecy about the upgrades and updates that will come along with the next “revolutionary” device.  For those of you not paying attention, the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S are…pretty much the same thing.

(Primary difference? The letter “S”.)


Nevertheless, every year the press line up to get a glimpse of the latest piece of hardware.  But why?  There’s usually a considerable delay between the announcement and the actual release, so it’s not as if anyone is going to walk out of there with a new iPhone in hand.  It seems as if people aren’t  lining up to get what they want as much as they’re lining up to be told what to want.  The desire is no longer the desire for something, but a desire for desire itself.  Perhaps the best business model in the world is not to create a great product, but to create a great desire.  (On a side note, I find it highly bizarre that the late Steve Jobs was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which teaches that the desire for material things leads to suffering.  Ok, I’m done ripping on Apple now, I promise.)

It’s Pavlovian in a sense.  We like to hear the bell because we know that it means food is on the way.  But unlike dogs, we soon find ourselves more enamored with the sound of the bell than with the food itself.

But lest you think I’m unfairly critical of Apple fans, I readily and shamefully admit to my own ever insatiable maw of want.  So I as I’m laying on my couch analyzing the desire for desire I sense inside, I begin to question my standing before the LORD.  Is He my shepherd?  If He is, then why do I so often find myself wanting something new to want?  Why do I make it a part of my daily ritual to check certain blogs and websites that try to sell me the idea that I need something?  Why do I watch the Superbowl on mute only to turn the volume up when the commercials come on?  Why does my heart race during the “Coming Attractions” before a film?  Why do I wander aimlessly around Best Buy looking for something that I didn’t even know existed so that I can hope to own it?  Am I addicted to desire?

Lest my rejection of desire sound too spiritually “Eastern,” I want to pause to recognize the importance that desire plays in the Christian faith.  Understanding God’s desire for us is paramount to any type of Christ-centered spirituality.  And our desire for Him is central to a theology of worship.  Human desire for relationship is a key component to Christian community.  Other examples could be given as well, but these shall suffice to show that desire is not wholly evil.

But western culture at large is hardly in danger of eschewing desire to the point of calling these truths into question.  Quite the opposite.  We are in love with our desire.  We celebrate it at every turn.  We allow it to dictate our identity.  So what is the call to the Christ-follower in a culture oversaturated with manufactured need?

The call, as I see it stated in Psalm 23, is to allow our desire for desire to set off a warning signal that we may be wandering just beyond our Shepherd’s immediate reach.  He is making us lay in green pastures and leading us beside quiet waters (which, in keeping with the shepherd/sheep motif leads invariably to a full belly!)  If we are near Him, what else is there for us to want?

If the LORD is our shepherd, then I suspect that we will find ourselves wanting less.  And as we walk with our Shepherd, we will find our needs largely met (always spiritually, and often materially) and we will certainly find that we have a decreasing desire to desire desire or want want.

So let us frequently fast from our desires long enough to discern what desires lead us in the way of our Shepherd and which lead us to more meaningless wanting.  And may we find that desire has a role in our spirituality; but it is not as central a role as our culture might have us believe.


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