Thursday, October 31, 2013

Perfection...or Joy?

I heard someone ask recently how we can be joyful when we keep messing up, when we keep sinning...when we struggle with perfectionism.

What an astute question!

Does joy depend on our ability to do things perfectly?  And if we could do that...would it truly give us joy?

Why do we make perfection a goal?  I can't speak for others, but in myself, I think one root is pride. Sometimes I don't even realize perfection is a goal of mine, until I experience that disappointment of sin or failure again. Then I see that expectation I had to be perfect. 

Another root is self-reliance. As a young Christian, I can remember thinking that one day I wouldn't mess up so much--maybe not even at all.  Although I can recognize the error in my thoughts now, I didn't see it then--but what I was really thinking was that one day I really wouldn't need Jesus. It sounds ludicrous to say such a thing! But that was the logical end of my train of thought.

I think part of the problem is that we don't fully embrace what we have in Christ. I used to come to the Lord's table with shame and guilt...I messed up again...repent, decide to do better.  I didn't come to commune with Christ (isn't that ironic--we call it communion but my focus was on me!).  I didn't come for my soul to be fed and nourished and strengthened. I didn't experience Christ's joy--the joy of the Lord is my strength! I didn't experience him rejoicing over me with singing. I didn't savor his undying love for me or revel in his boundless grace and mercy. 

I had moments of doing these things in my daily walk, but when I messed up, I didn't experience the fullness Christ has for us. I took my sin to the foot of the cross, and then I picked up the burden of perfecting myself as I left--instead of learning to live each moment in complete reliance on God, instead of digging deeper into his grace and love, instead of fully embracing how wide and deep and long and high and immeasurable his love and grace and mercy are.  I think we undervalue and underestimate what Christ has done, is doing, and will do in our lives in giving himself up for us and in living in us.

Our joy isn't in what we can do.  It's in our union with Christ. We "rejoice in the Lord," not in ourselves. In his glory, in his presence, with thanksgiving, with overwhelming awe, in his sovereignty, in his wisdom, in his power, in his love, in his mercy, in his forgiveness.

So when my eyes are on myself, on how I've sinned, how I've messed up...I take it to the Lord, I repent...but then I revel in Him. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

From Despair to Hope and Rest

Today I was reminded of a newsletter I sent nearly ten years ago now (May 2004), that has never made it to my new site here--so I thought I would repost tonight. Who knew Milne and Martin Luther could work so well together?

From Despair to Hope and Rest

By the time it came to the edge of the Forest, the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly.  For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, “There is no hurry.  We shall get there some day.”

—A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner 

On the first warm day of spring this year, I went out to my favorite forest preserve for some quiet reflection.  I followed the bark-chip-laden path, winding through the almost bare trees.  Here and there signs of spring dared to poke through the damp brown: a little green on the forest floor, a few buds, and patches of bright, happy blue-bells heralding the coming of warmer days.  I hiked around the bend when the brown gave way to a great grassy expanse that took my breath away: a new, spring green, a fresh-after-the-storm green, a glowing with dew-jewels green.  Draped around it the quiet stream beckoned.  “There is no hurry,” it seemed to whisper.

It reminded me of Pooh’s river, which draws a beautiful picture of growing up—and also a picture of our faith growing up, of trusting in God, of learning to rest in Him.  But I find many times that I am more like the “little streams higher up in the Forest, [going] this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it [is] too late.”  I fight, I wrestle, I wonder why God doesn’t act sooner. Often, I reject His rest.  It is not the gift that I want.  I want change!  I want action!  I want it now! God offers instead the power, the strength to weather the storm, the deep rest of abiding in Him.

Martin Luther said,
“it’s not by reading or writing or speculating that one becomes a theologian; it is rather living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian.”  

I find in his words someone who understands the constant struggle, the testing of life, the questions that come, and the relief of knowing I’m not the only one.  This is the truth he realized when he read Psalm 22:1, later quoted by Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When I struggle, I often feel as Paul did, hard pressed on every side.  I read the stories of Jesus healing so many, yet live with a husband God has chosen not to heal.  And then my children—how do you read story after story, “Jesus healed…Jesus healed…” and not feel slammed into the wall by the daily “no” you face when your chronic illness is not healed?  Do you hope God’s answer is “not yet?”  Do you wish for the relief of death?  Do you resignedly accept your “fate,” or do you continue to allow yourself to be emotionally beat up by unanswered prayers, hoping this time…  What kind of hope carries you through, carries you beyond?

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8,
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.”   And he wrote this only 3 chapters to the verse after proclaiming in 1:8, “ We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” 

How did Paul go from a deeply despairing man to one who did not despair, who was not crushed, who knew he was not abandoned, and that destruction was not his end?  He continues, “Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers…”

Paul had good reason to despair, who wouldn’t?  He was imprisoned, flogged, and
“exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…”  2 Corinthians 11:23-28. 

He despaired—and then he relied on God, gained strength to go on, and found he did not despair.  This is the comfort we pass on one to another.  When we find a God so reliable, so trustworthy, so unmistakably loving and sovereign that we can turn to Him in the most severe trouble, fix our eyes and our purpose on Him, and believe Him when circumstances deny His existence, then we have found the secret of comfort.  And in our prayers and in our love, we can carry a battle-weary brother or sister into the presence of the God who heals us by His wounds.

The Psalmist cries out,
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?

And Isaiah calls back,
“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God’?  Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” —Isa 40:27-31

You can almost feel the river growing, gaining strength as the Psalmist continues,
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, "I have overcome him,"
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me. —Psalm 13

Winter is sometimes very long.  But spring is coming, and the love of our great and sovereign Lord is unfailing.  We know where we are going.  And there is no hurry when we rest beside the quiet stream, where He restores our souls.

Hoping in Him, Merry