Category Archives: Biblical Reflection

Finding hope in a hopeless world


The world has always been falling apart. Well, at least since Genesis 3. But there are times when we are far more aware of just how busted up we are in this world. This is one of those times. Those of us who work in the social services get a front-row seat at seeing individual, family, community, and society level brokenness.

Frankly, this vantage point tempts me to become cynical, skeptical, and in despair. Listen in on some of the thoughts we Christian counselors might have: people don’t change; leaders serve themselves; God doesn’t care… Out of this experiences, counselors may find themselves becoming complacent, settling for palliative care only (vs. recovery), or worse, using clients to sate their own appetites.

So, where do you find hope in an otherwise hopeless world?

Cynicism and skepticism illustrate conclusions we have made about our world. file-nov-28-5-16-13-pmThey illustrate that we have stopped looking for other data. Consider instead these three activities as a reminder and cultivator of the hope available to us:

  1. Waiting and lamenting. I’ve written on this quite a bit over the years. This post was my most recent, but this one and this one may be of use as well. You might wonder whether lamenting leads to more cynicism. But notice that the goal is to actively wait on God for an answer. When we lament in front of God we talk to him about the state of our soul or the state of the world. Waiting requires that we prepare to listen to God’s heart on these same things.
  2. Waiting and looking. This is the season of Advent, of remembering the birth of Jesus, the messiah. †Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist had stopped looking for God to show up. Who can blame him, God hadn’t seemed to show up for a mere 400 years or so. It took being struck silent by an angelic messenger to wake him from his disbelief. Where are you no longer looking for God’s hand in your life? In the world? Look to your present. Ask your friends to tell you where they notice God’s activity. Look to your future, imagine yourself as a child waiting eagerly for Christmas morning. Be like that child and keep talking to God, “Is it Christmas yet?” Look even to the past. See what God has done in your life in the past and let that remind you that he is at work in your present and future. Read Hebrews 11 as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to his people.
  3. Waiting and loving. While we wait, we are not passive! We move and act in love, even when it seems the good we do will not change the outcome. That loving may be acts of palliative care, or it may be an act of planting a dormant seed that one day springs to life and full bloom. This act of loving others grows out of Jeremiah’s lament (Lam 3:21f): because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed. Therefore we recognize that our minuscule capacity to love, to care, even to call others to repentance are all signposts of God’s ongoing love for his people.

Is it crazy to hope in this world? Absolutely. But the signs of birth are around you if you look. Notice in Luke 1 how Zechariah sings of present-tense salvation and redemption, even though Jesus is merely in utero. How much more ought we to be able to hope as we live in the age of the Resurrection.†

†I got these ideas from a sermon preached by Marc Davis on 11/27/16.

 

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Filed under Advent, Biblical Reflection, Despair, suffering, Uncategorized

Lament During Thanksgiving?


First published November 2013 at www.biblical.edu, this continues to be my primary experience today and so I offer you it again, slightly revised.

Thanksgiving is that time of year when we get together with family to enjoy good food, maybe a football game, and to be thankful for God’s provision during the past year. Sometimes, though, we don’t feel all that thankful. Yes, we recognize that God indeed has given us many good things, things like food, water, salary, housing, and the like. We acknowledge that we have no rights to demand these things. We acknowledge that there are many who are far worse off. Given recent events, we can imagine how much more blessed we are than those who refugees from civil wars in the Middle East.

And yet, despite our knowledge of grace and mercy, there are times when all we notice are the broken things in our lives—our bodies, our families, our communities.

I confess this is my state this Thanksgiving. I won’t bore you with the details but I struggle to stay focused on the many good things God has given me.

But it might surprise you that though I am noticing a lot of brokenness, I am not embittered or angry with God. I am full of lament. I lament the length of time it is taking God to act in some matters. I lament how much active and passive hatred for the other is present, even in there is in our Christian communities! Have we not lost love for those we consider outsiders? I lament that Jesus has not returned and ended death and suffering.

I am thankful for lament

Here’s what I am thankful for. We serve a God who has encouraged us to lament to him. Laments are cries of our heart where we question God (sometimes even accuse as in Psalmfile-nov-19-7-46-37-am 89), cry out for relief, ask for understanding, and grieve over sins done by self and others. Think about this for a moment: what King in all the earth not only invites such communication but even writes words for his subjects? He is not afraid of our questions or our complaints. Giving him such can be an act of worship.

Enter Isaiah 64. Isaiah is a book of confrontation of sin, call for holiness, prediction of judgment, and vision of restoration. In addition, we find windows of Isaiah’s lament for what is going to unfold for Israel. Listen to portions of his lament and some of my commentary:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.

Ok Lord, act already. Do it! What are you waiting for?

But when we continued to sin against them [the vulnerable, the righteous], you were angry…all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…no one calls on your name…you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.

We so deserve your wrath Lord, but we are wasting away here Lord, if you don’t help us!

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure O Lord…Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are your people.

Lord, we know you are our creator. We deserve no special recognition. Yet, remember we are your image bearers. Oh Lord, shape us, don’t destroy us.

Thankful I can vacillate?

Notice how Isaiah 64 and other laments (e.g., Psalm 42-43; Habakkuk, the book of Lamentations) bounce between recalling God’s goodness, questioning his plans, grieving own sin, yet imploring God to vindicate. Are these writers wishy-washy?

I don’t think so. Too often we think the best theology is all neat and tidy:

Problem + Victorious God = No Problem

While this will be true one day, it isn’t yet. And so we lament in vacillating and non-linear ways. Even as we proclaim God’s sovereign power, we also acknowledge that we are in great turmoil. These laments give us examples of how to hold on to our faith even as we have no answer for the moment. We are not required to end on a happy note. Look back at Psalms 42-3. See how the Psalmist cries out in despair, recalls better times, enjoins himself to hope in God, but then again remembers that he is great pain. Notice that neither Lamentations nor Habakkuk end in victory for the “good guys.” Lamentations, like Isaiah 64, ends with a question mark—“if you haven’t forgotten us already?” Habakkuk acknowledges the victory of being able to praise God in a terrible famine, but that doesn’t remove suffering or the reason for the lament in the first place (ongoing sin by Israel and her destruction by a pagan nation).

So, I’m thankful this season that we worship a great God capable of holding our laments and recording our tears. I am thankful that I do not have to pretend all is well for fear God will strike me down. He knows my pain. He has suffered in every way and so is a High Priest who can relate to my feelings of abandonment. And he is working for our future Good. But for now, I can lament that it (victory) hasn’t arrived in its fullest form and take comfort in a more realistic equation:

Problem + Presence of God = I Lament and am Not Alone

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, Christianity, Meditations, suffering, Uncategorized

Does trusting God remove anxiety?


Over the years of doing therapy with Christians I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If only I could trust God more…I say I believe he is good but clearly I don’t trust him because I can’t stop being anxious.” Still others express distress that their faith in God does not change their feelings of hurt over past relational wounds and fears it will never get better.

It seems we believe this maxim: If I really trust in God, I will be at peace. I will not struggle with the brokenness around me or with the unknown future.

Is this true? Is it possible to trust God fully and experience chronic negative emotion?

Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a couple of Psalms.

Because I trust God completely, I bring him my angst again and again.

At the recent #CCEF16 conference on emotions, David Powlison referred to Psalm 62:8a, Trust in him at all times, O people; He noted that this assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? David pointed us to the next line (8b) Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.

Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder

  1. He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
  2. He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
  3. He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
  4. He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
  5. He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong AND loving. You will remain righteous in your dealings with us.

While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.

This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a far better picture of the reality of life hidden in Christ than the false stoic (or Zen) image of being unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust (as much to remind ourselves as in bold assertion), we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.

You can see this pattern also in Psalm 42 and 43 with slight variations: Remember when I used to be out in front leading the worship but now my tears are my only food. Why am I like this? I hope in God. But I am downcast. Day and night God is loving…but it seems you have forgotten me in my oppression? Vindicate me. You are my stronghold so why is this not getting better? Free me so I can worship you…yet I am still in despair even as I hope in you.

If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.

So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your angst, might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?

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Filed under Anxiety, Biblical Reflection, CCEF, christian counseling, counseling, Uncategorized

Why the Christmas story?


Why does Jesus enter the world as he does? His entry into the theodrama is both obscure and dramatic at the same time—obscure in that save but a few shepherds and angels no one witnessed or knew the significance of his first days. Yet his entry into the world could not be more dramatic and shocking. God is either a crazy, histrionic, attention-seeking God…or God wants us to see something he is willing to pull out the stops to ensure we pay attention.

His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

Truthfully, Jesus could have entered our world any way he wanted. He could have ridden an asteroid; he could have just appeared in the temple and shocked Zechariah out of his robes; at least he could have been born to royalty. But no, Jesus comes through a virgin teen girl from Galilee—about as nobody as you can get.

Impossibly dramatic. But there’s more drama to come.

Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

This bit of Scripture is more unbelievable than a virgin birth. Mary should have been stoned to death. Joseph should have been the first to accuse in order to clear his family name from everlasting dishonor and shame. If he did not, he could have risked being stoned himself, because who would have believed him when he said, “it’s not my child”? Yet, he did not choose the path of his culture and even the path of the Law. Rather he chose first to be discreet and second to consider his dream to be from God. And if you think this is not dramatic enough, notice that Joseph not only got a quickie marriage to protect his wife but he also chose not to pursue certain marital privileges until after the birth of Jesus—more signs that God wants to show us something dramatic is taking place.

Impossibly dramatic. But wait, there is more to come.

Whether to escape local gossips or out of desire to comply with a command from a distant Roman emperor, Joseph decides to take pregnant Mary and travel about 100 hundred miles south to Bethlehem. There Jesus is born, not in the safe and warmer confines of a house but in some shelter designed for animals.

She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Laid in a trough. If you’ve ever been in an active barn…consider the smell! Impossibly dramatic.

Surely now, the story can follow a straight line. King Jesus is on earth and soon will take his rightful place, recognized by all. No, we are not quite there yet. A bit more drama is coming.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream…”take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.”

Virgin birth, unusually protective fiancé, musty stable, and now we add to the story this: refugees fleeing in the middle of the night to former enslaving Egypt to avoid certain death. Can it get more dramatic? Frankly, it did. Imagine travelling on foot or donkey to Egypt from Bethlehem today, even with our helpful gadgets. It would be most dramatic, worthy of a best-seller!

So, why does Jesus enter the world like this? 

It seems to me that God is trying to tell us at least two things.

  1. My love for you is so deep that it requires a dramatic entry. I will arrange the stars, bring wise and simple to worship; cause the rich to part with their wealth, put a ruler (Herod) on notice, impregnate a virgin, and miracle above miracle, move a man to ignore the blight to his own name and to take a publicly tarnished woman as his wife. I, God, will not wait for you to come to me. I will move heaven and earth to pursue you.
  2. My love for you is so deep that it requires that I experience your weakness and struggle. You have a high priest who sympathizes with your suffering. I will know poverty; I will know rejection; I will know obscurity; I will know what it is to be a refugee. I will take on your pain and one day, I will extinguish it forever.

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Love your neighbor? Love your enemies? What does this mean today? 


The greatest two commands for all christians: Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). As Jesus says, “there is no greater command than these.”

Not hard, right? 

Wrong.

The Luke version of this story tells us that the one questioning Jesus about keeping the law follows up with a self-justification question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Like him, we want to know just who we have to love. But of course, just a few verses before (6:27, 35) Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to do good to them who hate us. So, whether enemies or neighbors, we are called to love both.

Let’s admit that some neighbors are pretty easy to love. Tomorrow I am leaving for Rwanda to love my Rwandan neighbors. But you know what, it isn’t a hard thing to do. Besides the 23 hours of travel to get there and being away from my family, I can’t say it is much sacrifice. I’m given far more honor there than I deserve. The weather, food, and company are hard to match. If love is a sacrifice, this is hardly love.  

Some neighbors are hard to love. They don’t treat us with the honor we think we deserve. They ask for things and don’t give back. Even worse, some neighbors hate us and seek to harm us.

Think for a minute: who do you find it hard to love? Is it a near (actual neighbor) person? A far person (a politician or person who represents an ideology you hate)? Have them in mind yet? Now think about what it means to love them. Since love is both doing things for someone and NOT doing evil to them, consider both the positive and the negative sides of your love. 

Here’s some examples: What does it mean to love ISIS fighters? Do we pray for them even as we highlight victim stories? What does it mean to love Barack Obama (if you are opposed to his presidency) or Donald Trump (if you are opposed to his desire to be president? Do we gloat at their failures? Getting closer to home, what does it mean to love a person on the other side of you in the Same Sex Marriage Supreme Court ruling or in the race debates? What does it mean to love the person who swooped in and took your parking spot? 

A Few Thoughts on What Love Means

Some might think that “love your neighbor/enemy” means never speaking up when wronged, never seeking justice, never making a stink. It does not. period. You can love your enemy even as you seek justice. Speaking the truth can happen…IF…it is done in love. So, what does speak the truth in love mean? 

  • Making sure that truth spoken is really true. Not exaggerating the flaws of the other; not engaging in slipperly slope argumentation. Straw men and exaggerations are not true. 
  • Making sure that love is the agenda for the truth. Speaking up for the sake of destroying a person’s career is not love. Though, speaking up to protect victims is love and to stop a person’s sinful behavior is also love.

Loving your enemy means being willing to forgive even before the forgiveness is sought. Of course, seeking and offering forgiveness does not mean justice and consequences for evil are not felt. But it does mean that I do not participate in an “eye for an eye” or vengence. As we remember, vengence is God’s to wield. 

Finally, loving your enemy is not merely avoiding revenge but requires us to “do good.” How do we seek the welfare and the peace of a city (or a person) who does not consider our needs or treat us fairly? 

Hard questions, but let us seek to be a community of people known for insane love of victims and perpetrators, willing to tell the truth and to see the prosperity of those who do not love us in return. 

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Does spiritual maturity reduce spiritual distress?


I’ve posted another blog over at the BTS faculty blog site musing whether spiritual maturity leads to less or more spiritual distress. See if you agree. Post here.

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Whose eyes do you see when you look at the suffering?


A friend of mine has written the most exquisite Lenten devotional based on the passage in Mark about the evening of anguish spend alone in the garden.

I commend it to you here.

Why do we suffer? Why is it not removed? This we cannot say. But we can say, as Josh says, that in suffering we see the eyes of Jesus. It is difficult to keep both the depth of our suffering and a sovereign God in sight at the same time. But Josh shows us how without fancy theological argument.

Read it.

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The Power Behind Domestic and Political Dictatorships


The quote by Anjan Sundaram in Stringer continues to rattle in my head. I mentioned him here when I spoke about the power of small-time tyranny–that it lasts only when those close to the dictator look the other way.

Here’s the quote as he talks about being the victim of the dictator’s myth:

It startles me how steadfastly I believed, growing up, that our dictator was just, good and wise. I was never told anything to the contrary. … the indoctrination that holds up the dictator as a savior, a sage, as all-powerful. Until recently this myth usually invoked God, a divine right to power. These days dictators have less need for mysticism: they us the tools of liberty–elections, business, schools, art, the media. The successful dictator creates at once a terror of his presence and a fear of his loss. (p. 61-2)

Terror of presence, fear of absence. Sounds similar to the experience of victims of domestic abuse. Afraid of being hit, afraid of being abandoned. In order to have someone excuse violent and abusive behavior of a dictator, you have to believe that you need them, that what they do is necessary or acceptable in light of a worse outcome. While Sundaram may be right that dictators speak less of divine right, I suspect many religious abusive husbands use a variant on divine right to excuse lording it over their wives. And abusive wives can claim that their husband’s (supposed) failure to lead gives rights to engage in verbal abuse.

What is the power behind a dictator? Myth. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. 

True power does not grasp its right but willingly gives up power for the sake of others.  Philippians 2 gives us this clear picture.

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New book of meditations for counselors by Diane Langberg


In our Lives FirstI want to point out and recommend a new collection of meditations designed for counselors and written by Dr. Diane Langberg. This ebook In Our Lives First: Meditations for Counselors (Kindle version first, Nook version to follow) consists of 40 meditations, each with quotes from some of Dr. Langberg’s favorite authors and with questions for you to ponder.

Dr. Diane Langberg (pictured above in the banner of this blog) is a practicing as a psychologist for the past 4 decades. Regular readers of this blog will know her as one of the leading experts in all things related to PTSD, trauma recovery, and christian counseling. For years she has been writing books and articles as well as speaking around the world on matters near and dear to her heart. For those of you familiar with Dr. Langberg, you may recognize some of the stories and ideas in the meditations. Many of these have appeared in some form in her Christian Counseling Today column or in her lectures.

If you are a people helper (professional or lay; clinical or ministerial) and have ever felt burned out by the work you do, I highly recommend these meditations. As Dr. Langberg tells us, the work must be in us first.

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Bias alert: I helped edit this volume. I do not gain any monetary benefit from sales. 

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Filed under biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Meditations

Dealing with controversies amongst believers? Does Acts 15 give us any help?


Find 3 Christians and you will likely hear 4 passionate opinions! And give it time, and they’ll probably start 5 different denominations. Joking aside, since the beginning of the Church, Christians struggle to know how to handle differences in theology and the key questions of each era.

The World Reformed Fellowship has posted a blog I wrote on the question of how we are to handle significant differences in doctrines.

Ever wonder how the arguments might have sounded when the Council of Jerusalem took up the issue of circumcision and whether those uncircumcised (namely Gentiles) could be part of the new church?

“It has always been taught this way since God covenanted with our father Abraham. How can we reject such a central tenet of our faith? Did not God command circumcision for every Jew and every foreigner in our house? And did he not call it an ‘everlasting’ covenant (Gen 17:13)? How can we just drop something like this?”
While such debates are not surprising, I find the council’s response to be quite so.

Check out the res of the post here.

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