1 Corintians 7 1 John 1 Abandon Abraham Academic Gospel Acceptance adoptee adoption All to Us Anxiety Armenian Aslan Bitterness blind faith Branch bread of life Brokenness C.S. Lewis Cain and Abel calling Calvinist camp pendleton character Chris Tomlin Christianity Circumstances Cliffs community Conversion Covenant Culture Daily Darkness Dating Decisions Delight Dependence Desire Deuteronomy Disappointment Discipline Dying Emotions Endurance Environment Esau Eulogy Examine Exodus 16-18 Exodus 18 Exodus 3 Exodus 4 Faith Famine father father's heart Fog Free Diving Free Will Friendship Genesis 24 Genesis 32 Genesis 4 Genesis 5 George Mueller Giving Up Glass Half Full Glory God God's Glory Good Gospel Grace Growth haunted Head vs. Heart Healing Hit and Run Holiness Holy Flame that Burns Holy Spirit Hope Hurdles Idolatry Impute Influence Intimacy Isaac Israel Jacob James K.A. Smith Jesus Jethro Jewish Tradition John 12 John 14 John 5 John Piper John Young Kim Jonah 4 Leadership Light love Mark 10:25 Marriage Matthew 22 Matthew 5 Measurement mediator Mercy Me Mission Money moses Naomi Near Death Noah North Korean OCD Offering old testament Overwhelmed Pain paralyzed Past Patterns Paul Washer Philippians 3 Philippians 3:8-11 Prayer Preaching Predestination Project62 Promises Psalm 25 Psalm 44 Pushing to the End Quiet Time Quitting Rebecca Relationships Righteousness Rock Rock Climbing Romans 12 Romans 5 Romans 8 Romans 8:28 Ruth Salvation Sanctification Satan Self Dependence Singleness Sins Sovereignty Striving Suffering Surrender Tears Temptation Theology Tim Keller True Christianity Trust trust in God Undivided Heart vocation Waiting Walking with God Wealth Worry Zen

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How to Live Out Your Faith (part 2)

And He [Jesus] said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment." Matthew 22:37

I know, we've all heard this a million times if we grew up in the church, but do we understand how to truly love God?

In my previous post, I outlined some of the ways in which we atrophy from our faith. Essentially, the enemy and the flesh act like horses on harnesses trying to entice us away from the truth of the Gospel. If we cannot be enticed, it will try and throw everything at us to weigh us down as we try to go through life on our own strength as we acknowledge that God can save us, but choose not to put our full faith in Him. We become tired, weary, discouraged, and defeated as it starts to appear that the promises of God don't seem to apply to us personally. However, once we recognize some of the patterns in which the enemy, the world, and our flesh work against us, we can move to both repentance and faith - fully turning towards Jesus as our salvation and our hope even in the midst of our greatest failures toward Him.

In this post, I want to go into how we keep our faith fueled. If there are principalities and powers we are combating against as we navigate through life in this world, we must also understand that there are principles that can help us in the midst of the most exhausting trials. We put our hopes in the things we value and the things we value determine the decisions we make. My argument is that we must guard what we wrap our hearts around as the primary value in our lives. If we value success over relationships, we will always choose our careers over those we love. If we value comfort over truth, we will rarely seek out truth because laziness will settle in. If we value our emotional happiness over responsibility, we will neglect responsibility for the sake of our emotional satisfaction. As our values determine decisions, principles will define the outcomes. We must hold onto the principled truths that have been laid out to us.

When we first take a look at Matthew 22:37, we don't see a principle, but a command. After all, Jesus says that it is THE great and first command. However, if we look further into Jesus' teaching, rarely does He tell us to do something unless if it helps us get something better - that something better ALWAYS being Him. Everything in the life of Jesus pointed to His compassion, mercy, love, grace, and sufficiency. If you look through the 7 healing events laid out in the book of Luke, in every instance of healing, the answer to restoration was Jesus. Jesus was speaking to a lawyer among the Pharisees [experts in the law] who wanted rules and laws to be defined with precision. As the Pharisees tried to back Jesus into a corner by asking Him, "Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus knew not only what to communicate, but how to communicate it. He wanted to let everyone know that the Law - which was an impossible standard to achieve - was about to be fulfilled through Him. He was telling the Pharisees that they have been going about it all wrong, that as they were trying to get closer to God by observing all of the rules, they were actually distancing themselves from Him. Jesus was also saying that through Him, there was hope. By telling us to love God with our hearts, soul, and mind, he was putting into command a principle that could be digested by those who we're willing to hear. Jesus, the great communicator, was giving the Pharisees a key to ultimate joy and final salvation, which was Himself. All they needed to do was open their ears to hear.

So, how do we live out Matthew 22:37?

We skirt around too many issues these days and have a hard time drawing hardline conclusions. With some things, you can't because they are non-static issues that seem to be constantly changing. However, with other things, I think we look at the daunting task ahead of us and we quit before we even try. The reason principles are guiding instead of conquering are that they were intended to keep us on the right path as we journey through life. Sure, we can fall off the path, but principles exist to help us get back on and stay on. In Matthew 22:37 is the principle of getting to the point.

A point can be seen as many things, a threshold, the pinnacle, the apex, a crossroads. Matthew 22:37 is all of them. Most importantly, the point we get to is the convergence of three things. The point of loving God with all our hearts, souls and mind. They are to be elevated concurrently. We are not to just love God with our minds, which leads to self-righteousness, our hearts, which leads to rootless flailing, and with our souls which leads to grudging bitterness. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind simultaneously.

Getting to Delight: the point of loving God with all of our heart

George Mueller was a 19th century minister and theologian in England. As he walked with God, he realized that his duty was to get to the point of delight in God daily. Once he got to that point, he felt like it was a day well spent and would continue his work of ministry from that place. Mueller said, "The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished."

John Piper's mission in life is bring God's kingdom to earth by helping people recognize that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him. There is something about finding satisfaction in God through the redemptive workings of Christ that apparently elevates God to the correct place in our lives. If we were created to pursue fulfillment through joy, then logically, it doesn't make sense for us to jump from sinking ship to sinking ship in order to experience it. We should find the ship that never sinks and remain there to discover the great oceans without being destroyed by them. Salvation and joy seem to be synonymous through the scriptures. The source of our salvation is also the source of our joy.

Getting to delight daily is a movement of the heart. The heart when we wake up is often anxious and overwhelmed with the pressures of life. We immediately want to tackle on the days obligations or hide under our covers. What we must come to grasp is the finality of the works of Christ and what it means to us - that we do not have to strive to be loved or find self worth. It means that we come to a place where we experience that we are loved beyond what we can fathom and valued beyond our wildest dreams. The cost was clear, God smote Jesus, so he can dote on us. This is why worship is so significant - listening to, participating in, and spending time in worship is the key to getting to delight.

Getting to Acceptance: the point of loving God with all of our mind

There are two stages to acceptance. The first is knowing what we should accept and second actually accepting it.

In A Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer said "what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." It defines everything about us. Consequently, that also means that how we think about the Gospel and what we understand about it will also shape us in every way. After all, God is the Gospel.

If what comes to mind about God and the Gospel is important, then we must first think rightly about God. We must not confuse the God we perceive merely through the lens of our observations. We see how Christians are portrayed in the media, how they behave at churches, and how they have seen people misuse and abuse the name of God in their personal lives and it often times colors our understanding of God. We look at a foggy mirror and think we see a clear reflection of who God is. A.W. Tozer continues in Tozer on the Almighty God, “The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has not done deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.” In other words, many of us do not see God for who He really is. Fortunately, we can spend all of eternity seeing more of God's greatness.

The beauty of the Gospel is this. It can be awed by someone who has encountered it throughout their entire life, but understood and accepted by a five year old at the same time. The story of redemption, love, and grace is something that we were all wired to connect with - this is why I love movies (even the cheesy ones). We love the story of a hero who comes to save a helpless person and that is the Gospel with eternal stakes!

Hearing the Gospel is one thing, accepting it is another. One of the most common phrases you hear in Christianity is "I know it in my head, but I don't feel it in my heart." For many people they stay passive in this state of too far forward to return back, but not there yet for too long. There seems to be this belief that they should just sit and wait for things to come to them. The truth is, God came 100% of the way to you and keeps nudging at you. If there is any desire or a desire to desire Him, then what is required is a response. Often times, the response begins with a pursuit of Truth.

The Bible is not just a tool to be used as a manual for living, but the bread of life. We must eat from it the food that nourishes our soul. As we consider what we intake into our bodies, we must also consider what we intake into our minds and consequently, our souls. It requires more than just passively swallowing, but actively seeking out what nutrients we need and organizing our spiritual diet according to what we need so we stay healthy. It takes time to chew and digest and often times, meals are best when actually shared with others. But the fact remains, what we grasp in our minds, we live out in our lives. John Piper calls it a stupendous reality to be in Jesus Christ and lists out 13 applicable meanings of what it means to be in Christ.

Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones would always exhort people to get into the practice of preaching to themselves the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the fact that even while we were sinners, Christ came to die for us, so that we could be viewed as acceptable to God and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven to spend eternity with Him. When we preach the gospel into our lives daily and in every circumstance, two things happen: 1. we gain a proper, eternal perspective of all things and 2. we don't sweat the small stuff.

A friend of mine told me his brainiac philosophy professor would wake up every morning and review all the reasons for God's existence, then go through the veracity of the life of Jesus, His Crucifixion, and then His resurrection. This He would do to keep his mind sharp for decades, to keep the main thing the main thing, and to remember what it is that is truly important in this life. In other words, he preached the Gospel to himself daily.

Getting to Surrender: the point of loving God with all of our soul

The problem with a living sacrifice is that it is living and always trying to squirm off the alter. The bigger problem is that the living sacrifice doesn't recognize the alter is a fortress and by running off, only runs off into dangerous territory. The greatest challenge of our lives is getting to the point of surrender and then remaining there. It is not a static state of being, but depending on the external demands of our world and the internal desires of our hearts, our ability to surrender fluctuates rapidly with the times. Getting to the point of surrender then is not only the recognition that we have far less control than we think we do, but also a desire to be led by someone who will never leave us or forsake us.

Surrender's cost is humility and obedience. Our flesh will fight it, our logic will fight it, and our hearts will fight it. We live for self-preservation because we have been hurt enough times in life to know that being vulnerable (I mean fully exposed) will hurt with, but the slightest nudge. We exchange the streams of living waters for jars we can hold in our hands and control without recognizing that these jars have cracks and holes in them. They are broken, but we hold onto them as our source of life, clenching tightly, as the water drains through the cracks. We substitute the real thing for counterfeits that at best, can only satisfy for but a moment. This was sent to me as a response to one of my posts by my friend A.H. Written by C.S. Lewis, this captures the essence of our desire not to surrender.

"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I am dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
"Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls?" she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.

Surrender comes at the point we recognize that there is no other stream. Once we come to this point, we recognize that there is no other way, while simultaneously realizing that the only way is the best way. We trust because God is trustworthy, not because we don't have a choice. The outcome is that we arrange our lives to fit the current of the stream instead of trying to alter the course that it is taking us on through resistance. It is a change in posture. The beauty of God's grace is this, that He surrendered Himself in perfect humility, to be destroyed by the very people he surrendered to, so that He could give eternal life to those who surrendered to Him.

To love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, simply means to accept the reality that God loves us and came 100% of the way to us, so that He could carry us back. In this we can find rest, in this we can put our trust, and in this we can put our hope.

[How to Live Out Your Faith is a 3 part series on some of the foundational elements of our faith. It is a brief exploration of how our faith looks and the process we go through as we experience the tensions and pulls of living in this world, but not being defined by it. Part 1 discusses the patterns that hinder us in our faith. Part 2 discusses the principle of getting to the point of loving God. Part 3 discusses how faith is lived out in relationships and community.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

How to Live Out Your Faith (part 1)

How are we really supposed to live out our faith?

Faith is simultaneously easy and difficult, but how is that possible? It seems as if it should be one or the other, but when lived out, we seem to go through life in a wavelike pattern, in and out of being able to trust God. Sometimes our faith struggles come from circumstances, sometimes it is due to laziness, but most of the time, we struggle because of the dueling priorities of our lives. We seem to want contradicting things in high doses, so we shuffle through life trying to figure out how to blend oil and water.

If God exists, by definition, He is the most valuable entity. What could be more valuable than the creator of the universe? If that is true then we should value Him most, but we often don't. Something happens between us knowing and us feeling and doing.

I think the cause for our inability to recognize and submit to God comes in waves of predictable patterns that are disguised so well that we don't recognize them as such. They are undercurrents that seem to overpower us from time to time, like the frog that remains in the kettle as it begins to boil.

1. Comfort and contentment covers the truth in our lives that faith is necessary. We become self-sufficient not because we necessarily intend to - unless if we are so afraid of uncertainty that we are trying to build everything from an empire to a bomb shelter - but because we recognize that this world is a fallen world full of selfishness. If we lived in a world where people weren't selfish and there was a crystal clarity of the level of care people had for each other, we wouldn't have any need to get ahead, insure ourselves, or protect ourselves from potential harms because we know there will always be someone there to help us get up when we are down. Some people may call me a socialist nutcase at this point, but the point I am making is not a political one. If I seem like a socialist, you are only thinking of what I am saying from a zero-sum perspective with people who either add value or take value away from society in terms of production. People, although often times measured by what they produce, are not defined by it. People are more than their contributions, even if they are not recognized. When we become comfortable and content with things on this earth we lose sight of things eternal and the temporal becomes elevated to the ultimate and highest place in life.

2. All of us pursue stability and novelty, and because of this, we are constantly trying to find a place of complete security while venturing out. This is a tension recorded by Montgomery and Baxter as one of the dialectics people experience. We want to feel safe while knowing that we aren't completely confined to what is known. Comfort and contentment if placed in the right sources will drive us to an understanding that the ground we are standing on will remain stable and that the rug will not be pulled out from under us. It's not about the feelings and perceptions of stability that matter then, but the reality of it. If we stand on quicksand, we will sink. If we stand on termite infested wood, we will fall through it. If we stand on reinforced steel, the ground will not shake beneath us. All of us are willing to venture out from a place of safety into the unknown, but Christianity says that its not about where you call home that matters, but who you walk with that makes things stable and novel. The thing I look forward to about eternity with God is that we will feel the stability and security of His endless love while constantly being awed by the immeasurability of his infinite greatness. The perfect satisfaction to our pursuit of both stability and novelty.

3. The gap between God's holiness and our sin (our need for Him) seems more like a crack in the wall instead of a gorge wider than the oceans that separate the the continents. A.W. Tozer is one of those great heroes of contemporary society that nailed this on the head. He noticed that people were missing the reverential aspects of God in so many ways so he devoted much of his life making much of God's eternal bigness. When we don't see a need for God's forgiveness, we don't see a need for God. When we don't see God's holiness, we don't see that we fall infinitely short of acceptable. There is so much that goes into our desire for God and often times it boils down to the recognition that we are thirsty on the verge of collapse. However, we simply become accustomed to our thirst and consider it normal. That in turn affects how we live our lives, hoarding as much water for ourselves as we can get without recognizing our habits for hoarding because we don't recognize how thirsty we are. We live as if we never have enough. When we are able to see the gap between God's holiness and our sin, we realize that the only way to close the gap is through divine intervention. Fortunately, we don't have to wait because that intervention already took place and all we need to do is jump into the river that takes us from here into eternity.

When I lived in Palos Verdes, CA you could almost count on a fog to cover the roads as you navigated through the roads. Recently, I drove back to PV to get some time away from the world and sit on a cliff to hear the waves crash against the rocks and the clouds move across the horizon. On my drive back, a fog came down to limit my visibility to the roads. Fortunately, I made it out in tact, but it reminded me of how fogs parallel life in so many ways. When the fog settles into our lives, we forget what we are living for. We forget that just because we can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there or that it isn't important. If our vision is limited, we only focus on what is directly in front of us. Fogs try to distract you away from the destination to whatever is immediately in front of you to make whatever is visible the most important thing in life. The problem with this is not that we are paying attention to what is coming at us, but we make it the most significant thing in our lives. When the fog lifts, things become clear. What is right in front of our face is important, but not ultimately important and we learn to see things with the end in mind - the end being an eternity spent with God.

Christ came to lift the fog that prevents us from seeing His saving love. The enemy attempts at all times to drop it back down and limit our visibility. Once we recognize this pattern, we can see that knowing Christ is the equivalent of having the technology to see through the fog. Yes, life can get hazy and challenging to navigate through, but the haziness and challenges are never greater than the navigator who guides us safely to the destination.

[How to Live Out Your Faith is a 3 part series on some of the foundational elements of our faith. It is a brief exploration of how our faith looks and the process we go through as we experience the tensions and pulls of living in this world, but not being defined by it. Part 1 discusses the patterns that hinder us in our faith. Part 2 discusses the principle of getting to the point of loving God. Part 3 discusses how faith is lived out in relationships and community.]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

When you want God to leave you alone

"Is it possible to just ask God to leave you alone?"

I was asked this today while on Facebook chat. I think this is a very common experience amongst those who have grown up in the church and have been exposed to Church doctrines at an early age. Many of us (including myself) have known how our lives should look because we've learned the description of what a Christian looks like, but often times have found ourselves falling short of it. Its like describing anything really; take a Narwhal for instance, and talk about how it is a whale in the same family as the Beluga whale, that it has a long helical tusk extending from its upper left jaw, a mottled black and white pattern, and that it lives in the Arctic ocean, and once you are finished talking about it, you know whether something is a Narwhal or not based on how it matches the description. We hear what these creatures called Christians are supposed to look like and when we find ourselves a compatible as a square peg is to a round hole, we either disengage or hyper-engage from trying to fit the mold. The truth is, all these descriptions are helpful, but they are not everything. If we pursue Christian morals for the sake of earning a right standing with God, we end up becoming moral deists who believe in a god that owes them salvation and a good life because they were able to follow the rules. The thing with Christianity is that it is much more consuming than just physical and behavioral features. It affects our hearts, and when it comes to the matter of the heart, I have found that words rarely do a good job in describing the process that the heart goes through.

There is this shared reality that we have all been taught how we should live life and how our lives should look as Christians, but rarely do we see symmetry in how things are to how things should be. In fact, when we take a look at all the descriptive language for morality that seems to accompany the Christian faith, we become overwhelmed by it and either find ourselves defeated and unmotivated by how daunting it is OR we begin to quickly write out a checklist of things we must do to fit the description. In other words, we rely on our own efforts to look like Christ - as we are called to be imitators of Him.

As much as God can, and has, used this to help people experience Him, the problem with this is that it negates what Christ did on the Cross as complete. We will all work while we are on this earth, in fact, there is not one person I know (unless if they are so consumed with sloth and laziness) that doesn't like to live productively. At the very least, they want to work to survive, but everyone you talk to, if pushed, will come to a place where they express their passions and by definition, our passions produce a willingness to work. The word passion is rooted in the word suffering, thus, to be passionate about something is to be willing to suffer for something. Suffering also requires a tremendous effort and energy, and if you read my post on Romans 5, you will see that suffering and hope are very much linked together. Hope is the thing that drives us into the future and suffering is often times the motivation behind our hope. What Christ did on earth, is perfectly beautiful in every sense of the word. When we take a look at something so beautiful, we aren't appalled by it, but drawn to it. Beauty is magnetic.

So, to my friend who asked, "Is it possible to ask God to leave you alone?" I have several responses.

1. Yes, but do you know what you are really asking?
In our conversation, you said that you want to go at your own pace, but you feel like God is pushing hard against you.
Whenever someone who has nothing to gain from you wants something of you, it usually means that what he wants from you is something he sees you 1. desperately need and 2. would benefit from in more ways than you could imagine. I've seen this happen on the human level. Take mentors for example, if you are someone who has had a good mentor in your life, you will know that when a mentor pushes you to do something or go somewhere, that it isn't because they benefit from it, but because you benefit from it.

To say that you want God to slow down his invasion in your life is like a blind person asking the doctor who develops the ability to cure blindness to take their time in restoring sight. There are certain fears that exist with vision if you've been blind all your life, but the reality is, life is better if you can see where you are going, who you are talking to, and what you are experiencing. Some realities will be harder to absorb, but being able to see will change your life. When we know God, we become aware of a whole different reality that doesn't make us blind to what we already see, but helps us to see what we already see with more clarity.

2. Consider why you want God to leave you alone.
10 times out of 10, there is an idolatry in the heart that is going on when we want less of God then He wants of us. Sometimes, it is the fact that we are comfortable and don't want any disturbance in our lives that takes us off the track we are on (anything that requires straining effort and change is a bother). Other times, we are working so hard to get somewhere that we don't want anything to distract us from being able to get to that place (usually because we think that getting there will provide us with ultimate fulfillment). Often, we don't want to lose control over what is going on in our lives, we want to define what is or isn't important to us and how our lives should look (as long as we are in control, we can tolerate just about anything). Many times, we care more about what other people will think about us that prevents us from wanting to obey.

Whatever the case may be, there is usually a desire in us to define what will and won't fulfill us in life. We have this sense that we have life figured out to the best of our own abilities and that whatever someone else says cannot really grasp the complexity of our experiences, our thoughts, our emotions, and our desires. In fact, we won't admit it, but we truly believe that we know better than God (at least when it comes to our own lives). We want God to leave us alone because we think at least for now, we know ourselves better than God knows us.

When getting to know God, we often times have questions about Him that make us ask if He is "safe." In the book "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," Susan asks Mr. Beaver whether Aslan is a "safe" lion (C.S. Lewis wrote Aslan in as the character to symbolize God). To this, Mr. Beaver responds, "'Course he isn't safe, but he's good," putting to ease that although God's holiness is greater than man's comprehension, that His nature and character are good and trustworthy.

The struggle we are really going through when we want God to leave us alone is one of trust and submission. We want to know whether submitting to Him will REALLY be better than if we just lived our lives the way we think and feel we should. God is a good God, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. We must not hold onto our own notions of what may be best for our lives when the God who created the universe is looking to lead you personally. Will He lead us to where we want to go? Probably not. But where He leads us will be so much better than we could've imagined for ourselves that we will look back at what we thought we wanted and see how short sighted we were to begin with. What an honor it is to have the God that holds all things together to pursue us.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

From Suffering to Hope

Romans 5:1-5 - Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into His grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

This passage ruins me every time I read it.

Paul had been doing a blitz like ministry for over five years when the book of Romans was written. All that he understood as a Jewish religious leader and all that he had witnessed as a follower of Christ came together in the book of Romans. There was a mastery over the context as he addressed some of the foundational theological issues that both unify us in mission and divide us through a sharpening as Christians today while never losing sight of the Gospel - the essential and central purpose of everything he did. What makes Paul incredible to me is that he allowed Christ to dictate all that he believed, but spoke in a manner that was directed to the hearts and minds of those he addressed. He knew the message of the Gospel and his audience in such a way that precisely targeted the issues they dealt with most in honest grace and love. It wasn't to prove his point, but to morally persuade them that there is something so much better than what they are living for.

I think when we read the first section of Romans 5, we end up splitting it up into two separate passages. Most people I find, go directly to Romans 5:3-4, "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." Its easier to digest and simple to visualize. We immediately resonate with the process Paul takes us through, but I wonder if we get what he is really trying to say. When I read Romans 5:3-4, I quickly find an emotional road map of how life looks for everyone regardless of what they place their hope in. Whatever the reason it is that Paul rejoices in his sufferings, he is saying that suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.

To start with, I think we can all see that suffering produces a type of endurance in all of us. That endurance however, if processed in a manner that makes people more self centered and a victim of the universe, ends up turning into jadedness or a need to prove to the rest of the world that they don't need anyone. We endure in all the wrong ways trying to survive, living a life that intends to hoard as much for ourselves in experiences and resources and crutches of the emotional sort. It either manifests in isolation from the world or a type of manipulation to get what you want. Think of all the people who have gone through difficult trials in their lives - some people implode, others explode, and some (thanks to a helpful analogy from JM) absorb, digest, and then release; taking what is good from every experience, even though there is, but a tiny droplet to extract.

Imploding occurs when we just take it in because we don't want to engage in conflict and difficult conversations. Exploding occurs when we lack patience or self-control. All we want to do is get our point across and we don't listen. We have little regard for how our message gets across and how the other person feels if of no importance to us. Imploding and exploding are both self centered/absorbed models of dealing with circumstances that hurt us. Both types think they are right, both types lack humility, both types are simply trying to pursue a result that serves them. They are self centered because what goes on in the heart is either bitterness, judgement, or rage - love is not a byproduct of imploding or exploding. We all have our desires to be right, but if they become needs that become more important that the people we are hurting, ignoring, dismissing, or judging, we end up missing the point.

The other thing to consider is that suffering ultimately leads to hope. If there is something Paul understood clearly, it is that suffering produces a myriad of emotions. He also understood that hope is the marriage of emotions, a future expectation, and dependence. We see in 1 Corinthians that faith, hope, and love remain, but of these the greatest is love. That is because faith and hope will no longer be necessary once we enter into eternity. Eternity will be perfect. But while on this earth, hope is something that we are both plagued with and blessed with simultaneously. Our hope is an emotional dependence on something to occur in the future. There is always an object that the hope is placed in and through our sufferings, we either shift from shallow hope to shallow hope or to an eternal hope that can sustain us. Think of the girl that jumps from relationship to relationship in order to find prince charming - her thoughts are that if she finds the right man to marry, her life will be complete. The opposite can be true too of independence. I know many men who simply desire to be so self-sufficient that as long as they make a certain amount of money and have a certain amount of status, that they will remain in control of their destinies and from that place, they can make calculated decisions whether or not they want to take true risks in the realm of marriage or even in pursuing their dreams. In other words, the circumstances need to be right before they risk moving forward. Both parties don't trust God, even though they may pay lip service to Him.

Somehow, as we follow the path from suffering to endurance to character to hope, we see that Paul is trying to help us align ourselves with a Gospel life. Emotions are both drivers and indicators. How we process through our emotions is just as important as experiencing them. Emotions are excellent servants, but horrible masters. They are great indicators, but terrible engines unless if we harness their power. They are like wild stallions or horses that if placed in a chariot can drive us to victory, but if left unbridled, can drive us off a cliff. We must understand the place that emotions are to have in our lives, to enrich us, not to enslave us.

Both suffering and hope are states of being and emotions. Like feeling joy and being joyful or feeling depressed and being depressed have a nuance that only those who have experienced (which almost everyone to some degree has) it can describe, I think both suffering and joy are states of being and emotions. Suffering as an emotion is often times described as feeling tormented - there is always a sense of uncertainty, a hopelessness without a vision, and most importantly, something that drives people towards a victim mentality. The suffering state of being is the person that was struggling with the victim mentality to the person that lives with a victim mentality. It is the person who has given up to what the believe their lives have been relegated to and see no point in trying. They accept that circumstances won't change and can't change. They also experience suffering as a type of humming we hear coming from the refrigerator - something that exists whether we acknowledge it or not. Hope is the same way. Often times, emotional states are the waves we see crashing onto shore. We don't really know what is going on beneath the waves, but our emotions are often times tied to circumstances and our dispositions as people. What often times determines the waves however is our state of being, and what often times determines our state of being is where we place our identity.

So what ties suffering to hope?

My belief is that he bookends the process with the source of our hope. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into His grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (5:1-2). Justification is a legal term that simple means to look at in a different way. If we are justified through Christ, God sees us as innocent, not guilty. He sees us as whole, and not as a part; complete, and not incomplete; perfect, as Christ's righteousness covers all of our blemishes. He doesn't tell us what to do in order to restore our rights, but tells us what has been done on our behalf so that we can walk around with freedom. Paul takes the time to insert the Gospel - using legal terminology since he was addressing the Romans who were familiar with legal ramifications of justice - by going about it in a way where people of the time and culture would be able to grasp the significance of being able to put your final and ultimate hope in Christ.

Paul knew very well of the depressing outlook people had in life at the time. The poor, like the poor today, struggled with a daily anxiety of where their next meal would come from. Betrayal for personal advancement was common in that era and con artists were abundant as Rome kept growing as the world's center. People were struck with the same pressures of life we have today to survive, provide for family, and to get ahead in life. Like us, their hope was often times in their industriousness and luck. If they could provide a product or a service to the right people, it would make the world of a difference. The future was filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Life was quickly becoming uncontrollable as factors outside of their own abilities affected their livelihoods. It was in this context that Paul writes to the Romans, "Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into His grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (5:2)" Paul makes mention that we can stand, and not cower down at the difficulties of life. The hope we have is not of this world, but in Him who saved us.

Hope allows us to endure through trials of all sorts. The right hope, allows us to persevere through anything that life throws our way. This hope allows us to hold our heads high when we have nothing to offer and allows us to maintain gracefulness because we have been given ultimate grace. It does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (5:5). This hope directly correlates with a love that will carry us through life regardless of how difficult things get. If our hope is not rooted in things of this world and of eternity, then we must begin wondering if what we are living for is actually worth living for.

When we suffer, we get glimpses into the reality that this life is not perfect and that there is a lot more pain than there really should be. We realize that what is, can be better, and some of us, lose hope and just accept what is as what will always be where others of us come to the conclusion this life cannot be the end. In other words, there is a greater reality that we can look forward to - one where there is no weeping or sorrow, no pain or hurt, no betrayal or anxiety. This is the reality that knowing Christ can offer.

The thing with love - God's perfect love - is that it overwhelms and consumes. It puts everything into perspective and rids us of our defenses. We don't need to protect ourselves because God is our protector. We don't need to be right because our egos don't matter. We don't need to be scared because God's sovereignty rules in our lives as the author and perfecter of our faiths, as Someone who will work all things for us whom He loves. We don't worry about being rejected, feeling failure, or getting hurt because those are things God has already conquered. As my friend put it so well, no matter how much someone tries to hurt me, I can just take it all in because I know the ground I stand on - my foundation is Christ in whom I have a love that defends me as I drop all my defenses.

So what happens with suffering when we understand the Gospel? We still endure and we still think through things and we still pursue wisdom in everyday, but we don't let our trials define us because God defines us. We see things in a perspective that allows us to overcome it all, to see the small things as small and not to sweat it at all. We learn to see ourselves as God sees us and live our lives as if what the world throws at us is but vapor against our skin.