Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Perseverance AKA "The Hard Lesson"

Heh. This is simply going to be one of those posts, then, isn't it? No, I'm not going to start Bible thumping or hurling proverbial lightning bolts, but the reader just can't appreciate how scatterbrained I am over here. If I wanted any semblance of authority, I'd aim for a lot more transparency and delete this paragraph. But I need this one. This is my launching pad. I'd suggest I've gotten sick of watching a blinking cursor, but the fact is my gaze has long drifted from the screen. Not only am I in a season where my commitment is being tested daily, I'm finding that the narrow margins by which I scrape by are seeping into my ability to write about the very subject that is both plaguing and rewarding me in ways I couldn't begin to articulate.

Earlier tonight, I alluded in conversation to the first couple months of my Christian walk. The response I got was very insightful and accurate: it's like a honeymoon, only with the Creator of the universe. No arguments here, but my poor articulation really glossed over the point I was trying to make, which was not that I was on fire for God, but that it was made pretty darned easy to be that way. As it happened, my job situation was absurdly flexible--so flexible, in fact, that many consecutive days afforded me enough time to read anywhere from 30 to 60 (yes, 60) pages of Scripture.

Believe me, if you want to test whether there's any validity to God's existence, commit yourself to sincerely reading the Bible and tell me if you find yourself addicted to any of your old vices. The crux is in approaching it without bias, but I assure you the result will be a strange but genuine release from the bondage of your innermost stumbling blocks. Maybe Scripture was the whole "secret" to my early success. Maybe I should make that point and end this post, resign myself to reading the Bible in every spare moment I have, and perhaps that way I can avoid some of the tests to which I've been subjected lately. But it doesn't seem that I am presently in such a season of life.

I have to note the above point, that I was so invested in my new life that I really tore through the Instruction Manual. It probably sounds like I'm boasting, which is not my intention, but let me here burst my own bubble in case there are any sets of eyes rolling backward out there. My focus has been sorely lacking, and I read significantly less. Even on my "good days." Now then, finally getting to my point, I'm starting to feel that I've lost the reason for it all. I'm starting to feel like life is utterly dragging its feet about getting a move on, and I don't think it's a coincidence. God doesn't desire fickle servants, and even in the moments when I wouldn't [necessarily] consider myself a victim of spiritual attacks, I find life really lacks a certain...magic. In other words, now that God has called me to exhibit patience--or extreme patience, as it feels to me--will I prove faithful?

The honest to goodness truth is this: while I have hardly been at risk of renouncing my faith, I have been very lackadaisical about it. Often. It seemed in my earliest months of belief that I was not only feeling a rejuvenated spirit but that I had been suddenly bestowed with an absolute mastery over my vices. There were entire chunks of times, consecutive days and weeks, when I was hardly tempted at all. Sure, we all sin in our minds, but my self-control was impeccable for remarkable (for me) stretches. Now, daily, it feels like I'm being utterly drilled. It's gotten so exhausting that I often feel like succumbing to my sinful desires just so I can steal a bit of rest. As I said in an earlier post, fighting this battle is a daily challenge. It was very unchallenging in the early days. It spoiled me.

But I suppose God needed to protect me then. Heck, for all I know, He does the same thing for all new believers. And then you enter into a new season when He has to up the ante. I don't know what the common reaction is, but mine could be expressed in these terms: "What the heck changed? Why am I fighting this alone now?" I think I also mentioned this in an earlier post, but my recent jaunt through the New Testament made me feel really uncomfortable. Too often did I see it mentioned that God calls us to not only persevere, but to be thankful in the process. Thankful? It feels like I'm drowning here. Like all people, I need to feel there's a point to it. As mature believers already know, there is. The problem with it is not that the reward isn't breathtakingly amazing; it's that the reward for perseverance is an even more challenging test that threatens with greater force to knock the faith right out of you. When I was a new believer, I might have scoffed at this:

James 1:4
Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Some of you have noticed that I glossed over one of the most, erm, unsettling verses in the Bible. You know, the part about considering it pure joy and all that. In my Christian circle, I've heard this corny joke more than once: "The book of James; that's your book!" Or something to that effect. (And for the record, no one tells cornier Bible jokes than I do.)

Moving along, I'd like to respond earnestly to something spoken in jest. I would not have written that book unless God explicitly wrote it through me. I guess it's the same thing for all the prophets and Biblical authors. Every one who contributed to the Bible's 66 books had to write about ideals they couldn't, and didn't, achieve. This one in particular makes me uncomfortable. As much as I struggle with perseverance, it is much easier to persevere than to enjoy the process of persevering. Those are two entirely different machines; aren't they?

So the point I'd like to make in closing is this: Not that it functions as an excuse, and not that I'd like to salt any wounds that James the brother of Jesus might have felt, but isn't it easy to forget that he once embodied the antithetic principle? He certainly antagonized Jesus prior to the resurrection. However, it doesn't mean we shouldn't consider his words as credible, nor should we consider him a less than credible authority on this subject. He suffered for his ministry, and the Bible is utterly clear that to be a Christ follower one must not only deny himself but suffer in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the gospel and for Him.

As for me, I don't feel much satisfaction in venting here. I still feel that life is dragging and wearing at me like the waves erode the shoreline. But if I am the least bit closer to being complete, I need to celebrate that. Again, I'm not boasting here, because I don't feel like I've really accomplished anything. It feels more like I'm staving off death and indulging in life. It feels like I have heavy chains around my feet as I try to move forward. But I still want to be made complete. I've stumbled many times on the way, but I haven't fallen. It ain't time to raise any banners yet, but it ain't time to burn them either.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Forging On (Again)

I don't know who all prayed for me, but it worked. Thank you, and may the Lord bless you richly.

I had a remarkable visit with a tremendous man of God, erm, yesterday now (it's just past midnight). I was also reminded today of something the Lord asked me to do several months ago, which I rationalized my way out of.

I should probably quote Scripture here, but I'll use the words of Matt Redman instead, as they profoundly resonate with me. Also, it might be a pride thing, but I find it easier to hold onto human words in times of crisis. Clearly, this will have to change if I'm to persevere in my walk. It's funny, though, how I try to be permissive with myself, how I try to justify my stumbling with humanness. Sometimes I take a very docetic approach to worship, i.e. assume that I can't relate to Christ because of who He is. The problem in doing this is that it assumes that because Christ is God that He suffered nothing on the cross--none of the loneliness and agony and humiliation--because of a falsely assumed bulletproof trait. The honesty of the situation is that, in spite of everything being His footstool at present, He felt the sting of death. But He knew what His lot was: eternal life. Just because He bore our sins with limitless faith, it doesn't mean they failed to pierce Him in the moment. If this had been the equivalent of an alcohol swab, not the biggest needle in history, how could we think of it as any kind of sacrifice?

And so, we share the good and the bad with He who ransomed us. That's one of the not so subtle points that escapes nonbelievers: if we truly belonged to ourselves, if we could truly govern our lives in independent ignorance, our inescapable end would be the wrath of God. Hence, He who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for Christ will be saved. Not save himself, but be saved. (The wording in the Gospels suggest that we can save ourselves, but on the testimony of the Spirit in me, I will go out on a limb and declare that we have no more power to save ourselves than we do to roll up the heavens like a carpet.) And so, as Redman notes, in addressing God:

"Blessed be Your Name on the road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering. Blessed be Your Name."

If you know anything about my past, particularly my snobby side, it ought to make your head spin that I have worship music in my car. And in my heart. Hah! Maybe I should use that little nugget to prove just how real God is when chatting with some of my nerdier friends. ;-)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Rather Inescapable Truth

Preamble: This may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it should be understood that my previous post was written a few weeks ago and doesn't entirely reflect my current bump in the road. I could censor this blog, but what's the point of journaling if I filter half my thoughts. Hence, the following was written by hand in the wee hours. Saturday sucked.

Christianity is kind of like a chess match. You storm out of the gates on fire for God, just as chess players can perform the first few moves quite swiftly. There are a few opening options that lend themselves to vulnerability, but I suspect it would be sufficient to read one chapter on the subject of chess to discern that the real game begins once a few pawns have been shifted. Similarly, Christianity rewards newcomers, even the hopelessly sinful, with such an inviting spirit. As for me, I've used this analogy in the past, but when I checked all my preconceptions at the door and strove for an honest reading of the Bible, it felt like a million Christmases. I was so happy. Back to chess, when you only have a few pieces off their default tiles--am I using anything near proper terminology?--it's easy to review the entire board, and certainly your own options. You haven't much reason to self-doubt. A few moves later, you've accomplished the equivalent of praying out loud for the first time or touching someone's hand and having the Holy Spirit pour through them, and it's like a confirmation that, even though you're inexperienced, you might have just enough logic on your side to get through this thing. Before long, though, things get kind of muddled. A new analogy becomes more adequate after a few months of Christian living.

Christianity is kind of like a spiritual tug-of-war. The breakdown is as follows:

Team A: Satan, who pulls hardest;
The rope: you;
Team B: God, who would pull if He could touch you, but as a sinful rope is incompatible with His nature, He places a Spirit of truth in you that some of us hear quite adequately.

Please understand that teams were listed as such to illustrate a point, not because Satan has intrinsic right to top billing. Moving along...

Last night, as I was trying to kill a mosquito, a futile endeavour, but such was my Saturday, it occurred to me. I think it was there the whole time, and I also think I mentioned it in one of my recent testimonies, but it hadn't dawned on me that this one little nugget posed such a tremendous threat to my salvation. Before I disclose it, a few disclaimers.

1) I love the Holy Spirit and the law by which it governs. The absolute best moments of my life, isolated and temporary though they were, were Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.

2) God loves me. More than ever. He's placed more wisdom in me since October than I was able to accumulate by/for myself over 27 years. And I tried to define myself by the stuff.

But wisdom is a double-edged sword. Wisdom is the kind of revealer that articulates the implications and repercussions of choices. It seems now that I can't turn a corner without understanding that my most natural instincts are wrong. Not just that, I have a decent grasp on how wrong they are. And although I want to see the right thing accomplished, although I want to promote the Law of the Spirit, I don't honestly care whether I succeed at it so much as I want to see it done. Now, it should here be stated that I will continue to endeavour to do God's will. But the reason I think my Christian walk will end in self-tragedy is because, in spite of all the things I've tried, for all the connections I've made and paths I've crossed, I still don't, at all, care for myself. Being self-aware of my sin doesn't help the issue. See, it just so happens that I've engrained self-loathing so completely into my being, that I needed to justify in my mind why I felt so outcast (even as "a sinner" among "sinners"), that this is as natural to me as breathing. For the most elementary of believers, the problem becomes evident: I will be convicted of hating one of God's servants, whom He loves. Namely, me.

I have said that I feel like I'm being pulled by two forces. I've also said that I want God to win. These are sincere statements. But it's as if God, who cannot touch sin and understandably can't pull me from His end, also refuses to communicate with me through the aforementioned Spirit to the point that I would have a clue in the world how I'm to proceed here. An the catch 22 is that I don't love myself enough to want it, even though it's what I most crave. And so, as is the nature of this game, Satan has an edge here.

I suffer considerable backslides when I knowingly sin. If I were inclined to forgive myself, as seems to be God's inclinations, I could repent like the average believer does. Even when I string together decent streaks of good behaviour, I end up collecting new insight into the Christian faith during these periods, and thus I find myself in a greater position to condemn myself when I inevitably stumble. Considering the tense nature of the good-evil struggle, I find myself reaching a point of extreme exhaustion, to say the least. It all came to a head yesterday. It saddens me, also, that I could probably handle a crisis with a fair bit of composure, but when enough consecutive little things go wrong, when I have a day of sheer frustration and missteps, it kind of detonates something in me. C.S. Lewis once described Christianity as a "fighting religion," and I feel very much like I've run out of fight. Because of the above points, I lack a certain objective or goal in all this: I want my body to be used in a Christ-like form of service, but I don't want it to receive any of the rewards and blessings God offers such a person--and yet, secretly I do want that, but if I could only hear that stinking friggin' Spirit's voice! (This, I will here acknowledge, could be the entire source of the problem, and my poor self-image could be the barrier. I know some people in my inner circle will likely make this point, but it does little good unless it can seep into my innermost being.)

A summary statement of the previous paragraph could be this: I pit myself against myself, and therefore I progress rather slowly in my walk with Christ. The result is a predictable pattern of increment success and failure, and it might even be argued that the best of my good behaviour lacks sincerity or heart. And at this point, I would like to consider God's feelings in all this.

As I have already noted, God loves me. I must, therefore, in my service for Him, act as if I love myself. By default. Yet I can't help but feel on occasion that if God truly loved me as the Scriptures claim, I would actually perceive His instructions for my life. If, on the other hand, God has determined that for the present season I am to work a 9-5 job that discourages me, bury myself in theological readings, and spend a whopping amount of time by my lonesome, where Satan finds me and jabs his megaphone into my ears with instructions that I would like to tempt myself into thinking are of God, then what precisely is God doing to help me out of my present circumstance? I won't lie here; I'm sick of this back and forth, this tension between good and evil. I would really love to just stop the fighting and rest. I truly hope it's just a temporary rut, but right now I feel entirely willing to step out of the reality that is this struggle and let the good and evil forces fight for possession of me. Ironically, even though God is the stronger contender, my understanding suggests the devil would get me by default. But what is an eternity of damnation to someone that doesn't care for himself at the lowest level of his consciousness? Again, I have reason to indulge sin, but for my unshakable desire to do the will of the Holy Spirit. And that, my friends, is my present conundrum.

Why is it that, if God dwells inside me and Satan calls to me from a distance, it feels like the opposite is true? Or maybe I was just plain right when I said I would be content to forget yesterday ever happpened. Anyway, prayers welcome. I don't actually want to fail here. It just feels like it would be so natural is all.


1 Samuel 1 (whole chapter)

When Peninnah tormented Hannah, causing her to weep bitterly on account of her infertility, I do not believe that was of God. If it was God's intent to test or punish her, her barrenness was enough. There are many examples in Scripture of God opening the wombs of women who conceive children so that His divine plan may come to fruition, just as there are cases, such as this one, in which God closes a woman's womb. It is what it is: one of His methods. But as to vocal taunting, that's of the world. I don't want to overstep here, don't want to prompt the Lord to pull the spiritual choke chain on me, but I just don't think He's in the business of teasing. Teaching? Yes. Disciplining those He loves? Absolutely. Mocking? No! I won't believe such a thing.

So, then, we know Hannah was barren and downcast. It's interesting to note, however, that she was blessed with virtually all the earthly comforts she could have had in her day—and some were quite uncommon. Elkanah loved her dearly. He gave her a double portion of meat on the day of sacrifice to the Lord. He spoke lovingly of her. His intent was clearly for heart's content. She wouldn't know until later, but Elkanah would even submit to her when she would eventually seek to give Samuel over to the Lord, even though the custom dictated that men call the shots. Of course, who would Elkanah have been to scoff at God's plan? And yet, in spite of all this, Hannah determined that happiness hinged on having a child, and it seemed at the beginning that she was just as concerned with social status as with motherhood. In other words, as I suspect would be inherent with polygamy, Hannah wanted to shut the vile mouth of "the other woman." Then something changed.

As soon as Hannah sought God's will for her life, it was set into motion. Clearly, God was not averse to blessing her with children, but God closed up her womb until her perspective changed. Once she accepted the idea that having a child would not be for her own stature or whim, but so she might contribute to God's kingdom, she submitted her will to God's. God, in turn, gave her the desires of her heart. Not because He's inconsistent but because He had placed said desires there in the first place. She knew the plan, but she wanted to chart her own map.

Hannah started praying openly to God. She cried out to Him, in faith, in such a dramatic fashion that Eli the priest thought she had drunk too much wine or beer. Again, with her new perspective it didn't matter how the world looked upon her; she wanted God to look down and see her devotion. Where previously she submitted to Peninnah's taunts, she now surrendered herself as a vessel of God's creation, and God made her a vessel for His creation.

Sometimes we examine our situations, take inventory of what we have, and we make judgments about where we are in life. It doesn't matter if we find ourselves in a state of wealth or poverty, as true riches don't come from gold mines or oil sands or strip malls—they come from the Lord. Ever heard it said that we should honour our mother and father? How much more honour could a mother receive than to know her child not only seeks God but was born for His purpose? By God's direction, Samuel appointed Israel's first two kings. He prophesied throughout his life. What more could Hannah of asked for? But that's key: she didn't just ask; that was a dead ender. Hannah had prayed for many years. It's not always about the asking, though the Bible says that many have not because they ask not. But in Hannah's case, she didn't just ask, she offered. Her prayers of requesting were denied, but her prayers of offering were found righteous in God's sight.

I've been researching material for a Sunday school class about cravings. In that process, I made a shocking discovery: it's good to crave. Don't misunderstand me; it's not good that we lack. It's not good that we deny God or that we, as a race, have broken and cursed the world by inviting sin into it. That's not what I'm saying. But isn't it wonderful that God placed within us a spirit that pines for His presence? It's true that many of us miss the big picture and try to feed our cravings with sustenance that sustains nothing, but when we acknowledge how we need God, when we earnestly seek Him, we have an awareness of what we lack. We catch glimpses of our purpose and the life God envisions for us—if we'd only accept it. When we crave, it's the soul's way of inviting God to be our Sovereign. It's an unspoken prayer every time we yearn for God to touch our lives. If unbelievers didn't crave, they wouldn't know that God was missing in their lives. What would motivate them to seek Him?

I've concluded that craving is not a sign of weakness. It's an act of wisdom. To crave is to care, to care that God wants a relationship with us. Hannah had intimacy with God through her prayers. Her life was blessed with meaning when she conceived Samuel for God's purpose. She fulfilled her destiny when she acted in faith and gave him over to God for temple service. He became a great prophet who lived in the faith and became her legacy. God is faithful to those who love Him.

That's why God can NEVER remove your craving from you when you try to satisfy it with things that will destroy you. Craving is a good thing. It's only by craving that we can stop craving, because it will never be taken away until God occupies the vacancies of your heart. Then, and only then, will you know the kind of peace Hannah did when she lived in obedience.

I've been sitting on this post for a few weeks now, but since the course is done, I thought I might share it. End transmission.