Words of Affirmation

I have an approval idol.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve craved the approval and validation of people to find a sense of worth, and I’m not alone in this. Many of us are enslaved by the desire to please and be praised, obsessed with what people think of us, afraid of rejection. We tend to embellish stories and paint ourselves in the most positive light. We spend an inordinate amount of time finding the right picture, the right filter, and the right caption to display on social media.

Pop-psychology and contemporary culture tell us that the answer is to just not care about what people think. “Be who you are, it doesn’t matter what people think. Believe in yourself, believe that you’re a great, beautiful person. Think positively.” Sadly, this passes off as Christian advice too.

But it doesn’t work. If I write a song, I don’t say, “I know that’s great, I don’t care what anybody says or thinks. I don’t have to ask anybody, I know it’s amazing.” Saying those words to myself doesn’t make it true, nor does it guarantee that I’ll believe it. I don’t know if it’s a good song until someone else, someone from “the outside” as Tim Keller says, validates me. I can say all day that all that matters is how I feel about myself, but until someone from the outside tells me I’m great, that I’m acceptable, I won’t believe it.

We need words, we need validation. The problem is that we try to find that validation from people. We try so hard for people to tell us that we’re valuable and worth it. Family, friends, significant others, coworkers, Instagram followers, strangers.

The Bible tells us that God the Father said over Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” If we are in Christ, the Father loves us as He loves His Son because Jesus died for us and drew us into the family of God. The work of Jesus on the cross transfers the life and righteousness of Jesus onto us so that the Father now says over us that we are His beloved children and well pleased. Romans 8:16-17 tells us that the Holy Spirit then bears witness within us that we are indeed children of God.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:16-17

If you are a Christian, you have the approval of God because of Jesus! You don’t deal with your desire to please people by being satisfied with yourself or blocking it out. You put to death the idol through prayer, through reading the Word of God, and through Christian community, hearing the Creator of the cosmos as He says, “You are my beloved child in whom I’m well pleased.” Those are words that will validate you. Those are words that will heal our deepest insecurities and satisfy every longing in our heart.

Until we hear that word from outside that tells us who we are, we’ll be trying so hard to create an identity by getting people to tell us how great we are.

The Day After Good Friday

They shifted around listlessly. Through the walls they could hear the soft sobbing and occasional wail of the women in the next room. The men would look at each other briefly before ashamedly diverting their eyes.

How could they be so wrong? Everything had seemed so right.

Peter dabbed at the corner of his eye, but even he did not have any words for the moment. He sat and ruefully ruminated on the events of the the last day. In that amount of time, he had witnessed his hope, his confidence, and his future literally die.

Thomas’ voice cut the silence. “What do we do now?”

Peter broke out of his trance and stood up. “I’m going fishing,” he said as he gathered his cloak. “You guys can sit here, but I’m going crazy staring at these walls.”

“You can’t leave!” exclaimed John, “Everyone knows we were with Him. You’ll be ridiculed by everyone who sees you! The High Priest may even be looking for us!”

“John is right,” James chimed in,  “We should lay low and stay here until the dust settles. Let everyone forget about last night, forget about us. Some new scandal or news is bound to crop up soon enough. In the meantime, we can think about what to do next.”

“Next?” retorted a bewildered Peter. “What do you mean next? The man we followed and devoted our lives to the last three years is lying in a grave. Jesus is dead. We move on, that’s what we do next! Maybe there’s a Messiah yet out there.”

I’m not altogether sure this is what happened the day after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but this is the scene that plays in my mind. A band of disheartened, broken disciples sitting around, asking themselves, what happened? How did things go wrong so fast?

Just earlier in the week, Jesus had ridden into the city heralded as a King and now He lay wrapped in strips of cloth and returning to dust. Just two days earlier, they were confident they were following the Christ, the One who was to rescue Israel and establish His throne over the earth. Now He was just another teacher, a prophet maybe, and a failed Messiah. Messiah’s don’t die before they accomplish their purpose.

We who live in the future know the outcome of the story, what happens soon enough: the glorious resurrection of Jesus and His ascension! The fulfillment of numerous prophecies, the theological implications of the death of the Son of God, and the realization of where His Kingdom was. We have 2000 years of theology and study and speculation. The original disciples did not.

The feeling of defeat is something that is familiar. We know what it means to be broken, to be disappointed, and have our dreams and hopes crushed. We set our expectations high, and down and down they tumble from their lofty place. Things don’t always turn out as we thought they would.

A lost job. Failed relationship. Disease. The death of a loved one. Natural disaster.

And hopelessly, we cry out, Why? What do I do now?

What do you do when hope has hidden herself from you and despair blankets your heart? When depression and disappointment become your late night companions? Sorrow certainly may come with the night, but sometimes joy doesn’t show up with the morning. Or the morning after.

For the disciples, “Friday night” must have been a night of shock and tears and bewilderment. But “Saturday” would have been when the reality of the death of Jesus and the heaviness of defeat sunk in. “Saturday” was when they had to face each other and figure out how to pick up the pieces of their lives.

In the darkest nights of our lives, we can press on, knowing that though we don’t know what the morning brings, God on high does. When we’re bitter and lonely, heartbroken and upset, we trust in the sovereignty and goodness of our faithful Father. And we can trust this: our sorrow is not in vain. We know that for those who love Him, God works all things, seemingly hopeless things included, for our joy and good, and His glory.

All thing. All things.

Like the murder of His innocent Son.

Our suffering, our sorrow, our valleys of the shadow of darkness of death are not without purpose in the hands of a sovereign God. It’s a lesson in patience and trust. And patience and trust are hard.

We may not know what the future brings…. but we know that the story of Good Friday does not end with Saturday.

Easter is coming.

Refugees and Neighbors

There is much so brokenness in the world. The events of last weekend hammered that home in a heartbreaking way.

One of the results of the terrorist activity in Paris is bringing a spotlight to the Syrian refugee crisis that has been going on since 2011. A small percentage of these fleeing refugees have made it to the United States, but there is a growing fear that ISIS may be sending some of their own with these refugees. There is a fear that by welcoming these refugees, we’re putting ourselves at risk for tragedy similar to Paris.

Many United States governors, mine included, have made statements saying that Syrian refugees are not welcome within their states. Citing the safety of American citizens, they’re calling for President Obama to make a similar move in halting the flow of Syrian refugees to our shores.

I understand the desire for safety and security. And the evil acts of violence against innocent civilians by ISIS terrorists should rightly be decried and stopped. But what then ensues is a shunning of the evacuees of oppression. We are closing our doors on the victims of the terrorism propagated by ISIS, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

engraved on the Statue of Liberty

Christians have risen on both sides of the issue, some with bleeding hearts, some with cold indifference. But how should we react? As people of the cross, people who now view everything in light of the cross, how should we respond?

I think we respond by welcoming the refugees with open arms. By feeding them, clothing them, befriending them, housing them, and helping situate them here.

Why? Because that’s a physical description of what has happened to us spiritually.

Jesus was once asked asked by a lawyer about how to inherit eternal life. The man knew the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” But who, asked the lawyer, was his neighbor? Jesus told a parable, the one we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. He spoke of a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jewish people, who had compassion on a beaten and bloody Jewish man in need. The Samaritan put himself at physical risk and took on the financial burden of caring for the man he found on the road. And at the end of telling this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor to the man who had fell among robbers?” The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Christian, you and I were on the side of that road. Ever since Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, we have been spiritual wanderers and exiles with no home. The Bible even describes us as enemies of God, alienated and unlovable. And then, at the right time, the Father sent the Son to reconcile us to Himself and show us perfect love and mercy. We who had no hope, no home, were welcomed by God into His household and given a hope imperishable. We who had no family have become part of the family of God because of Jesus.

 Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Ephesians 2:12-13, 19

This is our story. This is our motivation. This is the gospel. We didn’t deserve mercy, and yet God lavishly showed us mercy. Those fleeing oppressive areas may not deserve mercy, but we show it because we have been undeserving recipients ourselves. We welcome the refugee because we were spiritual refugees that God welcomed in. This reality supersedes our fear of the unknown.

Safety is important, and we should vet and screen the refugees who seek asylum in the United States. But closing our doors on those who would need our help, who need safety, isn’t part of the Christian narrative. The love of Christ compels us to sacrificially love and care for those who are in need. It allows us to give freely to those who would take from us. It gives us the grace to take risks, at the cost of our own safety, to show mercy.

It seems simple enough. But the lawyer had asked Jesus who was his neighbor. Jesus turned the question onto the lawyer and asked him who acted like a neighbor. The lawyer was trying to reduce “neighbor” into a narrow definition, but Jesus says it’s not about who they are, it’s about how you act and respond and show compassion!

I had an opportunity to visit Turkey last year and meet several Syrian refugees who had fled next door, and I was reminded of this truth: our God is described as a father to the orphan and defender of the widow, close to the brokenhearted and embracing the exile. If this is our Father, how much should we seek to be like Him!

Christ came and had compassion, even to the point of it costing His life. As a rescued and redeemed people, we have the opportunity to show compassion and love to those in need. We have the privilege of being neighbors. Let the gospel compel us to live this out.

The Heart of the Matter

It’s so easy to look at people being knuckleheads in the Bible and think, “those ignorant people! How could they not get it? I would never do that!”

My Bible reading plan has me read passages from different sections of the Bible, which is really helpful especially when you hit Numbers. Assuming you make it past the laws in Leviticus. And then you hit the genealogies in the Chronicles, and you’re tempted to just give up. Reading from different sections has been helpful because it reminds me that the Bible is one grand story of redemption, and that God uses different genres, literary styles, and authors to accomplish this.

This morning, among other sections, I read from Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In Jeremiah, the prophet mourns over his people because “they are all adulterers” (v 2), deceitful, oppressive, and evil, and it’s because of this: they have “stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals.” (v 14) They’re in open, outward, outright rebellion against God by worshiping false gods! And the Lord calls them to repentance.

In Matthew 23, Jesus famously has a rebuke-fest with the scribes and Pharisees, the super religious. They do everything right. These guys even tithed of their mint and dill and cumin! When is the last time you tithed out of your spices? And yet Jesus calls them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples’ bones and all uncleanness.” (v 27) They appeared holy and pious, but remained wicked, greedy, and self-indulgent inside.

Israel had turned to other gods to try to find pleasure and salvation. The scribes and Pharisees had turned to law-keeping to find pleasure and salvation. So here we have God calling two groups to repentance: those who do evil, and those who do good. Those who break all the rules and those who are pretty good at keeping all the rules. And interestingly, both passages show that the reason they are both far from God is because what’s on the inside hasn’t been dealt with. They have uncircumcised hearts. (Jer 9:26)

David recognized this need when he pleads to God in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God!” This “man after God’s own heart” knew of the wicked bent of his own heart; he was repenting of sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered.

The antidote to being bad is not just being good. The Pharisees knew that God was displeased with their ancestors for following other gods, so they thought they could win his favor by being really really good and keeping all of God’s laws. But they, like their ancestors, didn’t really want God. Idolatrous Israel and the hypocritical pharisees were not that different. They both have unchanged hearts.

The gospel confronts the notions that you can find fulfillment by following your own passions and that you can find fulfillment by trying really hard to mold your behavior and outer appearance. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that all the pleasures of the world are to be found in God and his love in Christ, so I don’t have to seek it elsewhere. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that Christ didn’t die for me because I was beautiful, but to make me beautiful, and so all the good works and behavioral modifications I could ever muster up don’t change that fact.

This frees me to be honest about who we really are, and to be honest about who Christ is. This truth changes our heart, when we’re faced with the overwhelming love and grace of God in Christ.

Stuck Trying to Find God’s Will

Restaurants with huge menus make me nervous because I always take the longest to order. There are usually several options that look pretty good, and I worry that I’ll regret my food selection. I’ll ask the waiter what they recommend, and then when they describe their favorites, I realize they have terrible taste buds and I’m no closer to making a decision. A restaurant with one delicious item on its menu? Now there’s something I can get on board with.

We all make many decisions every day, most of them without thinking too hard on them. What do I wear today? Which route should I take? White or wheat? But we sometimes face decisions that cause us to pause and think it through. What major should I choose? Do I accept this job or that one, or go to grad school? How much of my income should I give away? Do I marry this person?

We tend to agonize over these questions, and one of the things I hear the most is, “I wish God would just show me what I’m supposed to do! God, what’s your will in this?”

God, what’s your will for my life?

It sounds like a legitimate question! Who doesn’t want to walk in the will of God? But if we were truly honest, most of us ask the question because we have deep anxieties about the future. We fear we have one shot at every decision, and if we make the wrong one, we’ll live in regret the rest of our lives. That we will somehow be removed from the will and plan of God.

What most of us hear growing up is to seek the will of the Lord. Find out what he wants you to do, and then do it. We pray for God to open our eyes and hearts to His will. We pray for a sign to show us what decision to make, or that God would speak audibly and just tell us what He wants from us.

We believe the idea that if it is God’s will, everything will magically work out perfectly. Without resistance. The problem is, this isn’t necessarily what we find in the Bible. For the saints in Scripture, walking in obedience often meant resistance, trouble, sometimes even death. Often, the path that leads to sin and death is the one with the least resistance.

Not to say we should look for the path with the most obstacles! The truth is, sometimes God closes all doors except one. And sometimes, God leaves several doors open.

But why? Doesn’t He want me to live in his will? If He wants what’s best for me, why doesn’t He just clearly show me what’s best for me? We don’t want a God who asks us to have faith, we want an oracle, a fortune-teller to tell us exactly what to do. Right now.

God has given us the Bible as a way to know Him and what He desires of us, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tell us that He has given us, in Scripture, what we need to be equipped for every good work. For every good decision. There are truths in the Word of God that we can apply to our lives. The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly who to marry, or what profession to choose, or what car to drive, or where to live, but there are commands from the Lord, and wisdom and guidelines in its pages.

The will of God for every believer is to ultimately glorify Him. It is to seek His face, to obey Him, and to look more and more like Jesus. It is to be transformed and renewed in our minds and hearts by the Spirit of God. It’s not to guess about what we’re supposed to do, but to make informed, guided decisions that flow from our love of God and his glory.

As small and finite beings, we won’t understand the plan and purposes of a big and infinite God. But it seems that God is less concerned with us being informed and more concerned with us being transformed.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

I’ve often found that difficult decisions tend to reveal what my affections are set on, whether it’s on the temporary things of the world or on the eternal things of God. If we knew what we were supposed to do, we wouldn’t do it out of love or a transformed heart. But our hearts are what God is after.

When we’ve been transformed with a renewed mind, we love more and more what Jesus loves. Our minds are set on things that honor God, and our affections (heart) are drawn toward Him. We’re able to make decisions for the glory of God, whether it’s the career path we choose, where we live, or who we marry. And so, as Christians, our difficult decisions are meant to show us where our hearts are set. Through these “testings,” we’re able to make decisions and know the will of God. Notice Paul says that by testing, we’re able to discern what the will of God is. What is good and acceptable and perfect.

His priority isn’t that we know the future, but that we trust Him in the now. And we trust him by being obedient to His word and asking Him to transform and renew our hearts. By actually doing something and obeying. Sometimes by taking risks.

We’re free to not know the future because we know the One who holds the future. Who is already in the future. God, who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, commands us to not be anxious about tomorrow, but to trust his goodness today. We’re free to live confidently, take risks, and make decisions knowing that God is always on His throne.

And we can rest in the knowledge that our sovereign God who directs our steps is always in control.