Archive for Broken

Nov
23

Amazed by Grace

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When we were preparing our last series of weekend services under the title Broken, Brent and I quickly concluded that the best way to conclude the series would be to have Carole Plemmons come and share her testimony. In nearly 26 years of vocational ministry, I have not me anyone who has endured more adversity in life! Her story is a beautiful explanation of how God injects his grace and mercy into our lives and refines us into his likeness.

For years Carole has kept an indepth spiritual journal that chronicles her journey through a myriad of challenges. She has taken some of those entries and compiled a devotional book titled Amazed by Grace. I commend it to you and encourage you to use it as food for spiritual formation.

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“He comforts us in all our troubles…” (2 Corinthians 1:4a, NLT)

God is the source of all comfort and he comforts us in our troubles. The word Paul used to describe our troubles is thilipsis, which means pressure. It’s a word picture for a wine press that crushes the juice out of the grapes. So we might say that troubles are the crushing pressures of life. When the crushing pressures occur, God comes to our side and comforts us.

How then does God comfort us? The Bible is not specific, but allow me to offer three thoughts that will help us understand what God’s comfort looks like. First, God comforts us though his presence. We are assured that God is nearby during the crushing pressures of life. Perhaps this is the reason that Jesus referred to the coming Holy Spirit as the paraklete, the one called alongside to help.

Second, the word comfort is in the present tense, meaning that his comfort is continuous. God’s comfort is not on again and off again. His presence is steady and ongoing.

Third, his comfort is sufficient for our need. 2 Corinthians 1:5 states, “For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.” (NLT) In other words, the more we suffer, the more we recognize God’s continual presence by our side. This is perhaps why we esteem those who suffer the most to have the closest relationship with Christ. As we suffer, Christ is revealed more and more in our lives.

How does God comfort us? God comforts us by revealing his continuous and sufficient presence in our lives.

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Scars tell stories. For example, I have a scar on the palm of my hand. I got it when I was around 10 or 11 years old from a bicycle accident. My friends and I loved to ride our bikes and every time we found a patch of loose gravel we would ride as fast as we could into the loose gravel and lock up the brakes and skid the tires and spin the bikes around. It was about as wild and reckless of behavior as we could muster! One evening I took the bike out for a quick spin and as you may have guessed, crashed. As I looked at my throbbing hand I saw gravel imbedded in my palm. There was a nice open gash which resulted in the scar that I bear in my hand to this day.

As I have said, scars are a part of the story of our lives. They communicate things about our lives and inform us of the nature of life as well. Scars give evidence of that we have been wounded at some point in the past. At the same time, scars also provide evidence of healing. We don’t remain perpetually wounded, for through time and care we experience healing. Scars serve as ongoing reminders of past experiences that provide lessons that can’t be learned any other way. We are transformed through those pains from the past. After all, scars change our appearance. The story of life is developed through each one of those transitions. Obviously some of our scars are physical. But not every scar we bear can be seen. Some of our deepest scars are on our hearts, in our minds, and in our souls.

For the past several weeks I’ve been teaching on the subject of suffering and adversity. This past weekend I concluded my portion of the teaching from Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth. 2 Corinthians 1:3 says, “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.”

We learn about pain early in life. Some of our earliest memories of life are associated with pain and injury. Quite naturally we sought comfort from a parent who would care for our bumps and bruises. When my kids were very young my wife always carried Band Aids with her where ever she went. Any good mother knows that a Band Aid will do wonders to quiet a child’s tears. I believe the band aid may very well be the universal symbol of comfort. In fact, if comfort flew a flag, the symbol on the flag would be the Band Aid.

Paul states that God is the source of all comfort and that God himself is the source of any comfort we know or experience in life. That’s easy enough. So what’s the definition of the word comfort? The word Paul used for comfort is paraklesis, which is also be translated as encouragement. We know from communication dynamics that face to face is the posture used when for things like teaching or even confronting. But paraklesis is not a face to face posture. The word literally means to be “called to one’s side.” Comfort is a side by side posture. Why is that important? When you are side by side you face the same thing at the same time in the same direction. I think we can understand comfort more fully if we think of it as a posture instead of an activity. Comfort is my expression of love toward others that has been perfected by personal experience.

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“But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.” –Hebrews 12:10b-13 (NLT)

In the final section concerning discipline, the writer shares two purposes that God desires to accomplish. First, God’s loving discipline is beneficial because it produces holiness in our lives. Psalm 119:67 reads, “I used to wander off until you disciplined me; but now I closely follow your word.” Verse 71 of the same chapter continues, “My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees.” Discipline serves as a corrective and produces holiness in our lives.

Second, discipline trains us in right living that purifies our character. Hebrews 5:8 states, “Even though Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.”

In the western world parents view their objective as that of raising independent children who will be functional in the world. In the ancient world of the Bible, the goal was different. The goal of parents in Bible times was to create worthy heirs. (Think about that as you read Matthew 5:10-12 and Luke 15:11-32.) God uses discipline to create worthy heirs who inherit the Kingdom of God.

As we experience the necessary discipline to inherit the Kingdom, we must first deal with ourselves. We “take a new grip” and embrace the promised outcomes of God’s discipline. It may be painful at the time, but God doesn’t expect us to embrace the pain. He expects us to embrace the outcomes that he’s working out in our lives. As we deal with ourselves, we simultaneously must watch our influence. When we undergo God’s loving discipline we cannot forget that people are watching us and taking note of how we respond to God’s work in our lives. God is good, and he’s working out his plan for our best. Remember, it’s not what happens to us that matters. What matters most is what happens in us.

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“Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how.” –Hebrews 12:9-10a (NLT)

Since God’s discipline is an act of love that is based on our relationship to him, it seems logical for the writer to use our human fathers as an illustration of God’s function as our heavenly Father. According to the author, our earthly fathers disciplined us though they doubtless made mistakes. Some fathers discipline too much and others not enough. Some fathers discipline too heavily, while others discipline too lightly. But God makes no mistakes.

You may have had a father who disciplined you inappropriately. We live in a world where abuses of all forms are too frequent in society. Any time a parent abuses a child in any form is an injustice and should be renounced in the strongest possible manner. If that’s your story, it’s important that you not enforce that same standard of measure on God. Good fathers make favorable comparisons to God. They provide living and visible signposts to enable children to see God with clarity. But not every father is a good father. These fathers provide contrasting images to that of our heavenly father. Instead of thinking that God is like my bad father, think God is not like my bad father.

Recently my daughters were watching an episode of Jon and Kate Plus 8 on TLC. As I was in the kitchen, I heard Jon Gosselin describe to the camera the objectives of good parents. He remarked that in his opinion, good parents make sure their children are happy, healthy and safe. That’s not terrible advice, but it is certainly incomplete. A parent’s ultimate role is to enable their children to know God. Through every aspect of parenting, which includes discipline, we help our children learn how to relate to God.

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“For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child. As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by his father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all.” –Hebrews 12:6-8 (NLT)

The writer of Hebrews uses these verses to make a couple of very important points. The first is that God’s discipline is an act of love. That’s hard for us to grasp. Maybe you’ve heard a child respond to their parent’s discipline with the words, “you don’t love me!” As a parent, nothing is further from the truth. Parents discipline their children because they do love them. God’s discipline is to be considered as a sign of his affection for our lives. Love motivates God’s discipline, and love governs God’s discipline. Every expression of discipline passes through the Father’s loving heart.

The second point the writer makes in this section is that discipline is based on our existing relationship with God. A father who doesn’t discipline is being negligent. A child who escapes discipline loses out of the benefits of being related to the father. But here’s the surprise: The absence of discipline informs the relational status of the person. Discipline is so much a part of God’s way with his children that if it’s absent their status as children of God should be called into question. (On the flip side we could say that discipline is a mark of assurance of salvation.) God’s discipline proves our legitimacy as children of God. Discipline is the Lord’s acknowledgement that he claims us.

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Nov
03

When God Inflicts the Hurt

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Is what I’m facing God’s way of telling me to change something? Is God trying to get my attention? Or is it part of what comes with living in a fallen world? Can I know the difference? How can I know the difference? Those are the kinds of important questions I sometimes hear from those who suffering.

God’s discipline, like persecution, is a type of suffering that is unique to the people of God. Suffering can be a means of God’s discipline in our lives. But how do we know the difference? How can we identify it? In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscious; but shouts in our pain; it is his megaphone to arouse a deaf world.” Lewis would agree that God will sometimes introduce pain into our lives in order to get our attention. What is God’s discipline, anyway? What do we mean when we say that? God’s discipline is loving training given to amend actions and attitudes. In other words, it is correction, not punishment.

I can’t recall a time in the past 26 year of teaching and preaching that I have ever dealt with this subject or this passage in a full length sermon. It was challenging to prepare and challenging to deliver. I’m sure it was challenging to hear as well. I think it’s an important subject, especially in light of the broader context of suffering. There’s no need for Christians to speculate on matters and questions when Scripture provides insight and understanding. So over the next few days I’m going to unpack the concepts that I shared in last weekend’s message.

Hebrews 12:3-5 provides some context for the readers understanding of God’s loving discipline: “Think of all the hostility (Jesus) endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, ‘My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you.’”

Perhaps the discipline that the author has in mind is to provide help in the battle against sin. The word “struggle” comes from a wrestling metaphor and literally means “hand to hand combat.” One scholar suggested that the readers were afraid that their suffering was a result of God’s inattention to their lives or that God had abandoned them. That was not the case. They were experiencing God’s discipline and needed to identify it as such.

Just because we identify our suffering as God’s discipline does not necessarily mean that we will respond to it appropriately. It is possible to respond inappropriately to God’s discipline, and the writer gives two classic examples. First, it is possible to make light of it or to shrug it off as no big deal, not unlike a junior high kid that laughs with his friends after being sent to the principal’s office. The second response is to become so overwhelmed by the discipline that you feel like giving up or quitting the Christian race.

It’s very important that we identify God’s loving discipline when (not if) it comes and that we respond appropriately. When you accept God’s discipline in your life you are acknowledging God’s authority over your life!

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“Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
– 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Paul deliberately requested that his thorn in the flesh be removed. With each request, Christ’s response was “no.” But with the denial came an explanation. The explanation was that his weakness magnified the power of Christ in his life. The NLT misses an important turn of a phrase in verse 9. For example, the NIV renders, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” The word rest literally means “made its home” or “tabernacled,” which helps us to understand the lasting nature of Christ’s power upon Paul’s life. Paul was given a thorn, but with the thorn came the grace of God which filled every broken part of his life.

Here’s the takeaway: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

Weakness is like an Interstate superhighway that ushers the grace of God and the power of God into our lives. One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is, “Our problem is not that we are too weak. Our problem is that we are too strong.” God uses our weakness so that he receives the glory for our lives. He makes us a sort of living paradox so that his power is magnified over our talents and abilities. Think about the paradox of Paul’s life. He is a sick miracle worker that cannot heal himself. He’s a visionary with bad eyes. He’s the spokesperson for the gospel in Asia with a speech impediment. God receives glory when he’s able to accomplish through us what no one else expects, even ourselves.

One of the important lessons of this wonderful text is that it reminds us to be open to the fact that the worst thing that happens to us produces the best things that happen in us and through us. That may mean that we have to quit looking at ourselves as victims, and instead anticipate the victories that God brings to us and through us that he could accomplish no other way.

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“Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.” – 2 Corinthians 12:8 (NLT)

When suffering strikes our lives our first response is usually to try to eliminate it. It’s quite natural. After all, who among us hasn’t dropped everything when we have obtained a splinter to find the tweezers and pull it out? Paul’s thorn in the flesh was certainly more substantial than a splinter in the finger. His response, though, was the same. He asked the Lord to remove it, not once, but three times.

Reading this verse reminds me of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus asked the Father to remove the imminent suffering of the cross. He passionately asked the Father for the “cup to pass.”

Sometimes a person will ask me how they should pray when suffering invades their lives. I think it’s ok to ask God to remove it. Paul and Jesus certainly weren’t afraid to pray that direction. At the same time, we need to remember that ultimately it’s about God’s will, not ours. Nevertheless, it’s ok to ask.

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One of the clearest biblical passages that deals with the purposes that suffering works out in our lives is Paul’s autobiographical discussion of his “thorn in the flesh.” 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 states,

“This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” (NLT)

No one can say with confidence what experience Paul is referencing. The dating would have put it in the vicinity of 43 A.D. It seems that one logical possibility would have been his stoning in Lystra (cf. Acts 14:19-20). His testimony attested to being caught up into the third heaven. In Jewish cosmology, the first heaven was the abode of the birds; the second heaven was the abode of the stars; and the third heaven was the abode of God and his angels. His point is that he had greater reason to be prideful than his arrogant readers in Corinth. His visions and revelations were superior to theirs. Yet he was not going to boast in these things. He gave preference to boasting in his weakness instead (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:30). Why? In 12:6, he shares “I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life and hear in my message.”

So, to reduce or even eliminate pride in his life he received a thorn in the flesh. The word thorn is literally “stake,” similar to a stake that would be used to impale someone. This thorn (or stake) was described as a messenger from Satan that served two purposes. The first purpose was “to torment him.” The word torment means to “harass;” “fisticuff;” or “strike blows.” Every day the presence of the thorn created discomfort, as though someone repeatedly struck him in the face with their fist. The second purpose was to develop humility in his life.

So what was the thorn? Several suggestions have been offered by biblical writers. Among those suggestions are:
1. Paul had a physical ailment such as epilepsy.
2. Paul was physically short, or perhaps suffered from a speech impediment (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10).
3. Paul was prone to a particular temptation to sin.
4. Paul struggled under the heavy load of his work and the difficulty of the ministry (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
5. Paul had poor eyesight stemming from his experience in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11).
6. Paul’s thorn was not a physical challenge at all but rather an enemy that purposed to create pain in his life (2 Timothy 4:14-15).

The bottom line is that we don’t know what the thorn was. It’s a fun conversation. But it brings an important question: What is your nagging reminder to renounce pride and depend upon God? Could it be that the clearest indicator that something is wrong is that everything is right?

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