Transition, Difficulties, and God’s Will

After our transition plans were announced Lourene and I were overwhelmed with encouragement and loving care from our brothers and sisters. People asked us many questions we couldn’t answer: Where are you moving?  Do you have another church? Have you sold your house? Is Lourene leaving her job, too? You will both be looking for work?

Several well-meaning people reacted to our answers to the above question with a statement that went something like this: “Well, we know you are seeking God’s will so it’s all just going to fall into place. You’ll quickly find jobs and sell your house.”  As I said, these words were spoken with the good intention of encouraging us.  But I have to tell you that I think an underlying flawed understanding of discipleship may have been revealed in these otherwise sweet words of comfort.

Finally a dear friend made a statement similar to the one above. And because it was a good friend, I responded without trying to nuance my words: “You do remember Paul was shipwrecked, don’t you? Wasn’t he following the will of God?  And don’t forget, our Jesus was crucified on a cross. He was following the will of God, too.”

Where do we get that idea that if you are doing God’s will, everything will work out with minimal difficulty? Some even judge whether a person is living “in the will of God” by how few challenges or difficulties that person faces. If the person is facing difficulties, some wonder if they have “missed” the will of God.

Such reasoning, popular among some (including Job’s friends), was not accepted by either Job or the apostle Paul.

There’s a verse from Luke’s account of Paul’s mission journey that I have been chewing on for years. Paul is traveling to Rome. The section of the journey that has captured my attention involves Paul’s setting sail from Sidon. Here are two translations of Luke’s account of what happened as recorded in Acts 27:4.

“Putting out to sea from there, we encountered strong headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland” (NLT).

“From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us” (NIV).

Very strong headwinds.

The winds were against us.

I find great significance in these words. Paul was serving God with all of his heart, but the winds were against him.  Imagine how very different the story would have been if living in God’s will meant an absence of difficulties.

Very strong tailwinds.

The winds were behind us.

And as if these words about the winds were not enough to drive home the point, there is a perfect storm and shipwreck in the later verses of this chapter. And this event is just one of the many difficulties Paul faced as he lived out the will of God.  A long list of these trials is recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. And then there is the whole thing of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12.

There is nothing comfortable about those days when we face “very strong headwinds.” There is nothing comfortable about spending “a night and a day in the open sea” following a shipwreck. But the truth is, those experiences in my life have been the times of greatest growth.

What about your story?  Have you ever faced very strong headwinds? How have those experiences strengthened your faith and your character?

Super Apostle or Clay Pot?

We rarely get a response to our assemblies being broadcast on television, but when we do, it’s often memorable. Such was the case this week, when a lady left a long, rambling voicemail message about her dislike for the sermon.

Now I’m not exactly sure which sermon she was reacting to, but if I had to guess, I would guess that it was the sermon I preached based on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12. Among the points of her critique: it didn’t excite her, it sounded like you had to go to heaven to be blessed, and “I want my blessings right here and now.”

And that’s precisely the problem with 2 Corinthians. As I mentioned a number of times as I preached and taught this letter, much of what 2 Corinthians has to say, preachers don’t want to preach and churches don’t want to hear. And what’s more, the message of 2 Corinthians directly contradicts much of the preaching that is popular today.

  • We want our Paul to be on a perpetual spiritual high. He’s not; instead, he’s is despair.
  • We want our Paul to calm the storm so the ship can safely sail. He doesn’t; instead, he’s shipwrecked, three times.
  • We want our Paul to strike blind bandits and render speechless the critics. He doesn’t; instead, he faces the danger.
  • We want our Paul to “have a hedge of protection around him.” I have no doubt God protected him, yet he had been sleepless, hungry, thirsty, and cold.
  • We want our Paul to have his thorn removed the moment he prays. But instead, he prays and the thorn remains. He prays again and again. The thorn remains. And as a result, Paul experiences God’s sufficient grace.
  • What we want is our Paul to be a super-apostle; but instead, he’s a clay pot.

God our Father,
Help us hear Your voice above all the noise.
Help us trust You.
Help us rely on You rather than ourselves.
May we experience Your sufficient grace.
May we learn the power of weakness.
May our self-awareness include being a clay pot.
May we learn to love You more than the stuff You give us.
In Jesus’ name,
AMEN.

Pondering in My Heart

2 Corinthians 12:7-10
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I wanted to share a few of the things I have been pondering in my heart as I have reflected on 2 Corinthians chapter 12.

Paul is a Spirit-filled apostle of Jesus Christ. He prayed, repeatedly, for a thorn in the flesh to be removed. It was not.

How does this fit with your understanding of prayer?

Have you ever repeatedly prayed for something, only to receive an answer of “No,” “Not yet,” or just silence? How does that make you feel?

Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just take away whatever might hurt us? What possible answers does the text suggest?

Have you ever been through a trial that you prayed you would not ever have to go through and reached the point where the only thing that kept you going was God’s grace?

How can a “thorn in the flesh” experience work to strengthen your trust?

Readings for 2 Corinthians

Someone asked me for resources that might be helpful in a continued study in 2 Corinthians. Here are a few that I have found especially helpful over the last few months.

Paul for Everyone 2 Corinthians by Tom Wright

The Message of 2 Corinthians Power in Weakness by Paul Barnett

II Corinthians A Commentary by Frank J. Matera

Conflict and Community in Corinth A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington III

God Knows I Do

“Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” 2 Corinthians 11:11

Paul’s critics might question his love for the people of the church in Corinth, but Paul loved them none the less. And it seems clear that Paul took great delight in his awareness that God knows what is in his heart.

Sunday as I preached on this passage of scripture I shared The Merton Prayer in which Thomas Merton acknowledged God’s awareness of the desires of his heart. Several have asked me to share that prayer. Here it is.

“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

If you would like to know more about Merton, check out The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living.

Preaching Without Masks


2 Corinthians 11:11 (NIV)
“Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”

The sermon I preached yesterday about Paul’s dealing with his critics reminded me of these words with which Chris Erdman opened his book, Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare to Preach.

_________________________

“Those of us who preach know how tempted we are to be someone else, wear masks, and live inside our own skin in ways that are not altogether authentic. The demands of pastoral ministry are many and diverse, and while tending the souls of others and the life of a congregation it’s not hard to betray our own selves. We stand up on Sunday mornings in a place that can often feel more like a place of danger than a sanctuary. Conflict over a decision of the board, the pain of a family in crisis, the desires of those who hope you’ll tilt the church in the direction of their hopes and dreams, your own lingering mistakes and self-doubts and private cravings load the room where you stand to preach; it’s little wonder we wear masks.

It’s possible to preach in such a way that we keep these masks intact. But I don’t think we can keep them intact and preach Christianly. Christian preaching is, among other things, an announcement of the new creation, a whole new humanity in Jesus Christ, a liberation from old captives. When we wear masks, preaching becomes more about technique and the arts of rhetoric and oratory–managing those masks with greater skill–than it is about entering God’s new world made real through preaching. And preaching, if it is to be Christian, requires real humanness–God’s own in Jesus Christ, and ours as his witnesses, as scandalous as that may be.”

_________________________

Paul’s critics were all about style over substance. Paul would have none of that, seeking instead to focus on the power of the gospel message. Rather than wear masks, Paul was open and honest about his suffering and hardships, even if his critics used them to discredit him.

Most encouraging to me is the line from 2 Corinthians 11:11 that I quoted above. What helps Paul take off his masks and minister with honesty and authenticity was knowing that while people might impugn his motives, God knew the love in his heart.

When I love, God knows; so I can just take off my mask and preach!

Chewing All Week

Several have asked for the list of questions I shared Sunday that I have used to meditate on 2 Corinthians 6:140-7:16. Here it is —

1. What does this passage say to us about our comfort in the culture?

2. How does “being God’s temple” change our self-awareness and behavior?

3. What does this passage say to us about our “yokes?”

4. How do we live in the tension of being “in the world” but not “of the world?”

5. Are we progressing in our holiness and faith?

6. Are we thinking critically about teachers and teaching?

7. Where are we in the seasons of Christian living — joy, sorrow, or repentance?

That Smell

Reflections on 2 Corinthians 2 and 3

What’s that smell?

There was a time when the church at Corinth was reluctant to deal with the sin among them. In a previous letter Paul pointed out an example of sin in the church that was being overlooked and ignored. It was the kind of sin that would make people blush even if they didn’t go to church. It was an episode of the Jerry Springer show unfolding within the church: a man had his father’s wife. And the church reacted not with grief but with pride. Paul said, “This should have torn you up, filled you with grief and sorrow, but instead, you are just letting this go.”

Have you ever been in a church that just seemed to ignore obvious sin? Why do you think that happens?

Somewhere between that other letter Paul wrote them and this letter that we are reading today, the people woke up. They began to see the sin for what it was — an affront to God and a disgrace to the church. They began to experience the grief that Paul told them was an appropriate response to sin.

And as a church they united to deal with the sin.

  • No more sweeping it under the carpet.
  • No more, “Well, we are just humans.”
  • No more, “Well, God is going to forgive us; we can just keep on sinning.”
  • No more, “Look at us, we don’t worry about that sin stuff.”

Instead, they dealt with it. They came together as a church family and dealt with the sin in their midst. You know, it is a powerful testimony when a church family gets real – when they stop spending all their time pointing out the sins of everybody else while acting as though they are perfect — and start spending time addressing their own sins.

In Paul’s previous letter he told them it wasn’t right to just ignore the sin in the church. Sin like this ought to bother them, a lot. The church ought to come together and address the problem. So they did. And as Paul writes this subsequent letter he has to another problem to deal with.

Now they were all filled with grief and had dealt with the sin in their church family, but they were having trouble forgiving and the sinner. So Paul writes to say, you are not finished dealing with this sin until you have forgiven the sinner. It’s time to comfort him.
Don’t let his sorrow destroy him.

The church needs to unite again, this time to reaffirm their love for the sinner. He needs to know that his actions were wrong, sure. But he also needs to know that he is forgiven and loved in the church.

Have you ever been in a church that had no trouble pointing out sin, but really struggled when it came to forgiving sinners?

So Paul is writing a church that at one point is having trouble taking sin seriously — and at another point it is having trouble taking forgiveness seriously. It’s like there is a pendulum swinging in this congregation – swinging from reluctance to deal with sin to reluctance to forgive.

Does that sound anything like us?

Paul tells them to forgive because of what Jesus has done. And he tells them to forgive because of what Satan is trying to do.

  • Satan wants to destroy the church.
  • Satan will try to get the church to ignore sin, take it lightly.
  • Satan will try to get the church to become hypersensitive to sin and insensitive to the sinner.
  • Satan will try to confuse the church on what is and what is not sin.
  • Satan is trying to outwit us.

But we are God’s people. And God is leading a victorious procession. As a victorious army returned from battle they were led by the general in a victory parade. Behind the general would be his loyal troops and those they had taken into captivity. Incense would be burning. That incense was the smell of life to the victorious, but the smell of death to the captives. God leads the procession – this is His show. We are following Him. Are we following Him as part of the victorious army or are we following Him as conquered slaves?

God is leading us in a procession of forgiveness. To some it smells like life. To others, it smells like death. Paul says, who can possibly do this? To teach both holiness and forgiveness is a difficult task. How do you live in the tension of holiness and forgiveness? Paul lets them know that this balance is not found because he is such a great man and talented preacher – it is because God is at work. God is leading this parade!

This message of forgiveness is all about God, what He has done in Jesus and what He is doing by His Holy Spirit. The preaching is effective because it about God.The people are transformed because of God.

So what do you tell a church that at one point is reluctant to address sin and at another is reluctant to forgive sinners?

You tell them God wants to have a relationship through Jesus.

  • You explain that relationship gives forgiveness and new life – it makes us right with God and, gives us boldness and confidence with God.
  • You tell them about God’s glory (13 times) and how we are to reflect that glory.
  • You watch the transformation take place. Little by little you see more of God and less of you.
  • You look for continued growth as the Holy Spirit fills your heart and transforms you to be like God

The church is a community of faith where we are honest about our sin, where we come together to help one another recognize and address our sin where we forgive one another. All this happens — not because we have some super-elders or ministers; this happens not because we are just really good people; This kind of community happens because God is present and active. God is living in our hearts!

You smell that?

That’s honesty. That’s unity. That’s forgiveness. That’s love.

That smell—is the aroma of Christ!

Control Freaks

Several months ago I had some terribly frustrating encounters with a control freak. And when I say “control freak” I’m not talking about someone who is merely outspoken or opinionated or strong willed. I’m talking about someone who wants to take control over the lives of other people — thinking for them, talking for them, and doing for them.

I did not want to respond to the person in a fleshly way. Instead I wanted to be able to bear with, accept, even love that person. I spent some time reflecting on the good qualities of the controller. I tried to understand life from the controller’s perspective. The experience led me to do quite a bit of reading about control freaks: what makes them tick and how to relate with them.

Most of the sources I read suggested fear is a major contributing factor to a person’s compulsion to control.

That was helpful in developing some patience for dealing with the control freak I was encountering. It wasn’t difficult to see a possible source from which this controller’s urges grew. When a controller is experiencing something that makes them fear losing control, it can trigger an outburst of controlling behavior. So, if a controller is losing control in one area of his or her life, they can be very determined to take control of something or someone to help them cope with the fear.

Somehow, forcefully controlling someone or something, even if that someone or something is not even related to the other area or person where they have lost control, seems to restore some sense of equilibrium in the controller’s life. So let’s say a controller is experiencing difficulties in some area of his or her life and is frustrated by his or her lack of ability to control the situation. Rather than accept the fact that some things are beyond his or her control, the person must find a way to feel better. So they seize control of something, or someone. Sometimes the person who is seized has no comprehension of the big picture of why they have been seized.

As a minister, I have often laid before God my motivations for interpersonal relationships. Specifically, how can I help a person grow in their relationship with God while at the same time respecting that person’s free will? How can I walk alongside someone as a mentor, counselor, teacher, or spiritual director without seizing control of that person? How do I encourage someone’s spiritual growth without trying to make all their decisions for them?

As a church leader I want to lead the flock by example and moral authority, not by “lording it over” them. I want to respect free will, even if that means a person chooses to walk away from me. I want to respect free will, even if that means allowing a person to walk away from God. Didn’t Jesus let people walk away, didn’t he reject trying to force people to be followers? I cannot force someone to have a relationship with God anymore than I can force them to have a relationship with me.

Paul seemingly wrestled with this same issue. I love the way Eugene Peterson’s translation allows these words to come alive.

2 Corinthians 1:24 (MSG)
“We’re not in charge of how you live out the faith, looking over your shoulders, suspiciously critical. We’re partners, working alongside you, joyfully expectant. I know that you stand by your own faith, not by ours.”

What a relief it is when I reach the self-awareness that I am not God and therefore, am not in control of the universe. It does me good to freely confess right along with John the Baptist, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20). I hope the aforementioned control freak comes to that realization. Maybe I need to formulate a strategy to make that freak give up control. . .or maybe not.