Walking Through Hard.

I can always tell when a blog post is churning. These threads float around in my head and I know when I sit down that they will somehow come together as I write. It feels like straining at those pictures that eventually jump out at you, and often for me I finish the blog with comfort that I desperately needed as I began to write.

This week I keep thinking about what we do when things are hard, or confusing. The world has the perspective that hard = bad, especially in this comfort-seeking society we live in.

But we as Believers in Christ know that our reality is different. For us, hard can often mean right. (Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24)

For example, let’s take the topic of having children. When it comes to children, our society seems to have the perspective that children are expensive and time-consuming, and they limit your freedom. I read an article written by Ben Stein for CNN Money, that I couldn’t believe wasn’t satire, that talked about the diminishing return of investment in children, and how that is justification for the declining birth rate in our nation. Let that sink in for a second. If you don’t think that has major implications and explains where we are as a society, you are wrong.

But it plays out on a micro level as well as a macro level. I have had people treat us like the Duggars for our 3 children, and when I’ve mentioned that we want to adopt more a person rather close to me said, “Why would you adopt when you can’t even take care of your own three?” I guess in her mind since we don’t live extravagant lives and our children don’t get everything they want, we aren’t caring for them. Like living in our home is worse than whatever orphanage those kids currently occupy. It was a bizarre moment for me.

Because a Biblical world view doesn’t see children as too hard to take on. As a Christian, valuing children based on their benefit to our lives isn’t an option. They aren’t just an investment that we can measure on a graph. A Christian values children because God told us to. We take the Bible seriously when it says “Children are a blessing and a gift” (Psalm 127:3).

I look at each of my girls and tears press against my eyes as I see their value. There is no limit to how precious they are. Yes, parenting three children is HARD. One is climbing up me now as I type this (so blame her for any and all typos). When we adopt it will be HARD. Some days, marriage is HARD. Ministry is HARD. Faith is HARD. Eating well is HARD. Friendship is HARD. Taking time for Sabbath is HARD. But that doesn’t mean any of it is wrong.

Every year there is a lesson that the Lord seems to teach me over and over. I think this year’s message is this:

Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it is wrong, or I am bad at it.

If I’ve learned anything in 25+ years of faith and 15+ years in ministry, it’s how complicated and confusing and downright hard the Christian life can be. And all the clichés about faith that I’ve heard most of my life are patently false.

God won’t give you more than you can handle. False.

God wants to bless you because He wants you to be happy. Nope.

Those are sweet ideas. They make excellent crocheted pillows. But they aren’t the Christian life.

The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray and sweated blood before his crucifixion.

The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray  before his crucifixion.

Maybe you’re like me, and things are just hard in life now. And even the options to get out of where you are seem hard. It can feel pretty lonely in that place, and pretty forgotten.

But we serve a God who gets it. He took the path through Gethsemane, He gave up the comforts of heaven, He was spit on and mocked and beaten and whipped and eventually killed.

It was hard, but it was also good. Jesus saved humanity when He faithfully walked through the hard. And he asks us to follow him, keep walking, and trust him.

Keep walking. Try to trust. Turn to Him. Sometimes that is all we can do. And I have to believe God will redeem it.

Lord, you know well I am a self-reliant, pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps kind of person. I hate to fail. I hate when things are hard. And lately, there’s been all kinds of hard. I fail daily. And I confess anger toward you sometimes over how hard things are. Sometimes I feel abandoned. But I know those feelings are not the end of the story. I know you have not forgotten us or abandoned us. Please forgive me for all the times I’ve doubted you because it’s hard. Forgive me for all the times I’ve doubted me when it is hard. I trust you. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know a way out. But I trust you. We need you – and I know that is good. I’m thankful that you never leave or forsake me. Thank you for doing the impossibly hard work of purchasing my redemption. Thank you for every single thing in our world that is hard. I know you have a purpose in every moment, and I wait for you. Please be near to us even in the hard circumstances of our lives. 

The Substitute.

I have a friend who is in the middle of a long, long, intense struggle. One that not many of us are strong enough to endure for a season, much less for years. My friend sees herself as weak, but I’ve watched her in this struggle, and I greatly admire her strength and courage in the face of difficulty.

But like all of us, she is human, and has days where her struggle seems overwhelming.

During one of her moments of weakness, another friend called her and gave her a simple yet profound offer…

She offered to hope for her for a while.  She offered to pray with faith and expectation about this struggle for my friend, as if the trial had just begun.

What an incredible offer.  It has impacted me for weeks as I’ve processed it.  What a gift.

Growing up, I was a soccer player (actually a pretty good one). And there were days, when I was playing someone extraordinarily fast, when I’d motion to my coach that I needed a sub. I loved the game, so I usually only came out when I was about to fall over, but when I was at the end of myself I would sub-out. And as I exited, someone, clothed in a fresh white uniform, well hydrated, with the energy that I had depleted 45 minutes ago, would pass by me, give me a high-five, take my position, and kick butt.

This is what this girl offered my friend.  A substitution.

If you’ve never faced a trial for a long time there is a truth you need to know:  Hope is hard to maintain.  At first, you have this shiny, beautiful hope. You hope for resolution, you hope for restoration, you hope for God to do the extraordinary before your eyes. You’re begging for miracles and you are ready because you know miracles are coming. So you wait and watch to see what God does, all the while praying about this situation that is truly difficult. And nothing happens. So you wait, and you pray, and you hope despite all evidence to the contrary. Over time, that hope can get tattered. Your eyes can get tired of watching (especially when the tears are pressing against them). Your heart can get weary of wanting something so bad you ache. It feels, on your weak days, like hope has betrayed you – like you are the most gullible chump on the planet for actually believing that good is still coming. Praying is hard in that place. You can manage “Jesus, please” a thousand times a day, but you don’t pray like you did at the beginning when you were confident that this was all going to turn out good. You are tired. Tired of feeling weak. Tired of disappointment. Tired of hope.

Now the super holy people will want to jump in here and say “Well, your hope clearly is in a thing and not in the Lord.” And they’d be cold and kinda self-righteous :), but partially right. On my bad days I’ll admit that some of my hope is misplaced, and I’m sure my friend would do the same. But Proverbs 13 says that “Hope deferred makes a heart sick, but a promise fulfilled is a tree of life.” We are made to hope. It is why we pray. It is why we strive. We are often called to so much more than our current situation holds and I think the Lord sometimes puts us in places where we need to rely on Him to rescue us.

So back to my friend. She has hoped and prayed for many years. And into this hurt and exhaustion comes this woman and she offers to, with faith that God can do what He’s said He will do, pray expectantly. She offers to sub-in for a while with fresh hope, fresh perspective, and fresh energy.

My friend was blessed. Heck – she was blown away.

It has really opened my eyes and showed me how much I can do this for people around me.

I want to be the substitute on the “playing field” of someone else’s struggle. I can believe for my friends. I can pray for their situations with hope and faith. I can come beside them when they feel like giving up and I can tell them that I still believe.

I can sub-in.

It has even stretched into my thoughts about finances. How can we sub-in for people in need? One of my Compassion kids suffers from a severe learning disability, and I recently found out that she cannot continue in school because she can’t keep up and her family can’t afford the special school she needs. She wrote me a letter apologizing for her failure (sweet girl – it broke my heart that she worried I’d be upset with her). What she didn’t know was that her letter wouldn’t find me disappointed in her or giving up on her – it would find me believing in her when she has given up on herself. I can sub-in on believing she is valuable. She lives in a slum in India, so money goes a long way there (much further than here in the States). So Justin and I, although we don’t have a ton, may have enough to sub-in for this family and help. So we prayerfully gave a gift and we are asking the Lord to multiply it and use it to substitute for her family to provide schooling for sweet Yohani. They have educated her for 13 years and taken care of her – with God’s grace we can step in for a bit and help take some pressure off. I can’t wait to see what the Lord does.

I love this idea. It excites me. It feels like the church being the family we were intended to be.  So if you are tired of waiting, tired of hoping, tired of praying – I want you to know that I am available as a substitute. It is so appropriate as we head into Easter this weekend.

Because that’s pretty much what this season is about – substitution. He took our pain, took our sin, took our death, and gave us His life. What a substitution. And because of that – we can love each other, hope for each other, pray for each other, and give to each other.

Paper on the Book of Job

For my History and Lit of the Bible class – I had to write a paper on this question:  In your opinion, which of the Wisdom books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job) most speaks to the meaning of life?
I have LOVED taking a class like this at a secular university because all of the papers are done publicly on a Group Discussion Board and people read the papers and comment on them.  So it forces me to speak and analyze in “unreligious” ways and to keep it short and personal, instead of long and formal like most papers.  And faith, although a part of the argument, cannot be the entirety.  My answers cannot be “I believe because I believe.”  My classes are filled with people in all arenas of faith – and so it is an interesting exercise in thinking through the “why” of my belief system and responding to theirs as well.  So, here goes, for those who dig these kind of things.  My analysis of the Book of Job.
Of the three books of wisdom literature, in my opinion, the book of Job most accurately portrays the meaning of life.  And it’s unfortunate and difficult to come to grips with, because it removes the meaning of life from our control, and even our context, onto a plane in which we are powerless and seemingly insignificant.
Of all of the books of the Bible, the one I most have personally struggled with was Job.  Initially, as a child, I learned that Job was a story of a righteous man with judgmental friends, being tested by God.  But upon my personal study, the arguments of the friends seemed not judgmental but entirely logical, and God seemed far and uncaring.  So I had to work through what I thought about it and align my mind with what I knew to be true as I processed this basic question:   How could a God who was loving allow the death of so many people in some test of a righteous man’s faith?  
Only upon maturity in the faith, and an ability to disconnect from taking the relative insignificance of humankind personally, did I come to peace with the Book of Job.  As an adult it has given me comfort that the we cannot find “the meaning of life” in the world that we live in.  It is obvious from looking at the world around us that the moral law found in the Sinai Covenant of  “God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked” is at best terribly misunderstood and at worst, fundamentally false (Hauer, 185).  The righteous contract cancer.  They lose their homes.  They see their children die in horrific accidents.   Meanwhile, the wicked seem to thrive.
This seeming violation of the moral law does one of two things – it denies the power and goodness of a Creator or it forces me to accept the reality that God’s ways are not my ways and His judgment of the world is not equal to my judgment.
I have often wondered who I would be in this story.  Would I be Job, “willing to accept good and evil from the Lord without question”?  (Hauer, 184).  Or would I be the friends, confident in a misguided truth?  And if I were one of those people, would I reject God once things got really bad?  Is my faith strong enough to withstand ultimate testing?
The story of Job forces me to relate to God not based on a reward system, summed up well in our textbook, “So, in the final analysis, the Book of Job dramatizes two quite different roads to the basic truth that faith in God cannot be a conditioned response to the expectation of reward or the fear of punishment.”
The Book of Job confirms that I am not the center of the universe and that my understanding is miniscule compared to God’s understanding.  It also forces me to judge failure and thriving by something entirely separate – the nearness of God.  If I see the nearness of God as my good, instead of health, wealth, and happiness, then I see with the eyes of faith that the righteous do get rewarded.  Even in the story of Job, when Job was questioning God with a vigor that bordered on recklessness, God appeared.  And God yelled.  And God put Job in his place.  But He appeared.
Job was granted an audience with the Most High God.  God cared enough to speak into the life of a mortal.  Even more, God answered the questions of a disrespectful man. 
So the meaning of life, according to Job, is that life is not about us.  It isn’t even about this planet.  It is about the glory and purpose of a God greater than us.  And the most we can hope for is a part in that glory and purpose, even if that part is horrifically painful for us to play.  And the ultimate reward if we are incredibly blessed and if He so chooses is a glimpse of the God we are serving.  
So is that a fun, easy concept to grasp?  No.  Do I wish that the meaning of life could be found in a moral law so simple as the righteous succeed while the wicked fail in a blaze of glory?  Sometimes.  But in the final analysis I think I, like Job, have grown confident in a God who is bigger than my understanding.
I think the book speaks tremendous truth when it says “Humankind must learn to accept what seems like temporary injustice, secure in the knowledge that there is divine justice that will ultimately prevail.” (Hauer, 189)  And that justice will be in God’s terms and His timing – and not mine.

The bottom line, for me, is that I have come to trust the heart of God, even when the things I see with my eyes seem confusing and upside-down.  And I have come to rely on the truth that this world is not our home – and that the pain and struggle we face here will somehow have purpose at least in the next life.  At the end of Job, in Chapter 42, is my all-time favorite Bible verse.

Then Job replied to the LORD:
 “I know that you can do all things;
   no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
   Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me to know.

 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
   I will question you,
   and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
   but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
   and repent in dust and ashes.”

After Job’s trial, he knew God more, and trusted Him more.  He said “I know now that You can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted” and then later affirmed “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.”  If the nearness of God is our good, then this trial was good for Job.

Let the light of Your face shine on us.

There is much on my heart to say these days – suddenly.  (So David, you’ll be happy to see me blogging again!  You were sweet to notice my absence).  I had an amazing dinner last night with heart friends.  It was funny, we all talked about the difficulty of recent years, and yet we all rejoiced with each other at God’s revelation of truth and our subsequent growth through that difficulty.  Both of my friends’ families are breaking through walls that have held them in – and we all rejoiced at what the Lord is doing.  I loved it.

Last night in the middle of our discussion, as we confessed the HARD things we are facing, I said to my friends, “Isn’t this harder sometimes than you expected?  Do you ever feel unprotected?”

There it was – out on the table.  The big question.  Even as I voiced the thought I was afraid.

In that moment, I was questioning our circumstances.  They are often hard to understand.  But I was also questioning the Lord.  I was, in essence, saying, “I read all of these promises in the Bible that the righteous will inherit the land while the wicked are cast off – yet I look around and that is not what I see.  It seems like the wicked are prospering.  So what’s the deal with that?  Doesn’t God care?  Shouldn’t there be some “blessing bubble” we are in that protects us from all of this since at least we are TRYING to live righteous lives?”

It’s funny to write it out – but that was my thought – I was questioning my Father, and my friends knew it.  And like the precious women they are, they didn’t judge me – they helped me see.

One friend gracefully responded, “But Jen this was promised to us.  Read the Word, things do get worse and worse until He comes.  You need to adjust your expectations and expect this.  There is mercy available – but we also need to be aware that we are in a battle.”

In that moment, I saw she was right, but I continued, “But I don’t feel attacked from the world most of the time.  I feel attacked by the church, by fellow Believers.  Isn’t that wrong?  Why do we attack each other?  Where is all of this fear and lying and division coming from in the church?”

Again she countered, “Look at Revelation. These aren’t just symbolic churches.  These are real churches.  Seven distinct churches with their doors closed to each other.  This division is prophesied.”

And suddenly, I felt the Spirit of the Lord say to my heart, “Sweet girl – the church turned against me too.  The Pharisees called for my death.  I understand your feelings of frustration.  But none of this surprises me.  Even this I can use for my glory.  I win this war in the end – so focus on me – and count even this as joy.”

Today Justin and I read Psalm 3 and 4 and quickly noted something.  David was surrounded, he was being attacked.  His life was in danger.  He was overwhelmed.  His own son was actually attacking him, trying to take his life and his throne.  The circumstances in David’s life were terrifying.  Those circumstances were real.  It was terrible.

And yet he wasn’t focused on all of that.  He says, “Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?”  Let the light of your face shine on us.  Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.  In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD make me dwell in safety.”

Our circumstances are real and are difficult.  And the measure of my “success” in this trial isn’t the prosperity, or the promised land, or even the fulfillment of these promises that I feel are from Him.  The important thing is the light of God’s face shining on us.  It is the immeasurable joy and assurance that comes even in the midst of the storm because He is near.  I have hope today because His nearness is my good, despite all that seems to stand against me.