Christian Coercion: Why Talking People Into Jesus is a Bad Idea

We live in a society where someone tries to sell us something every time we turn around. App ads on our cell phones, telemarketers calling during dinner, people knocking on our front door despite the “no soliciting” sign…it’s a never-ending endeavor to get us to believe in an concept or a product that we supposedly can’t live without. It’s a poorly disguised attempt to garner our money, our support, or our belief.

Tragically, in many cases, the sharing of Christian faith looks no different. 

I’m not talking about heart-level sharing of beliefs here. I’m talking about manipulating unbelievers into saying the sinner’s prayer. I’m referring to the ugly practice of using guilt, fear, intimidation or even promises of success, health, or healing to get someone to jump on the Jesus train.

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Photo by Adam Bornstein as seen on Flickr

In my opinion these are despicable practices. They aren’t loving. They don’t please God. Many times they are based on a sick need to prove someone’s Christian prowess or a sick belief that if someone half-heartedly mumbles the sinner’s prayer it will somehow count for eternity.

Coming into a life-changing, eternity-impacting relationship with God requires more than just empty words. Saving faith is a lot more than just putting a quick spiritual band-aid over our shame, fixing our fears about eternity, or desiring to make the Man Upstairs our genie.

Accepting Christ as our Savior means humbly acknowledging that we need saving and being willing to let God save us (every day, over and over) from the blunt blows of our poor choices and our feeble attempts to lead our own lives. In short, salvation is unconditional surrender. It’s death of the false self and all of its pride and plans.

Ladies and gentlemen, people don’t do this sort of thing on a whim! It’s not like deciding to give Netflix a try for a month. It’s a lifetime commitment to walking with Christ, reveling in His love, living for the joy of connection with Him, and allowing Him to lead our lives. It’s an all consuming, life-changing decision. It can’t and shouldn’t be made without counting the cost.

If people do make a spur-of-the-moment, empty decision for Christ based entirely on some charismatic person’s convincing words, time will wear those words thin. Prayers for salvation that were merely spoken as insurance against the possibility of hell or an attempt to quickly escape the discomfort of the discussion do not lead to life-changing faith. Nothing of eternal value is accomplished if a person’s heart isn’t involved.

True faith is not just a theological concept. Not an ideal to frame and hang on the wall. It’s so much more. It’s a relationship with God that requires the same two ingredients as a human relationship…love and choice.

When we try to force someone into faith, it’s no different than a shot-gun wedding. We may get a person and God together for a brief ceremony, but that ceremony is useless and meaningless without love and commitment on the part of those involved. People who feel coerced into marriage often hate their spouse and resent the fact that they had no choice. Do we really expect people who are coerced in Christian belief to feel any differently?

Decisions for Christ that are made to save face, impress a friend, create the illusion of compliance, gain God’s favor, or avoid His wrath don’t go deep enough to hold fast when the storms of life, the pride of life, and the worries of life come along. These types of decisions are quickly wiped away.

Consider Jesus’s explanation of the parable of the Sower that he told to make this very point in Matthew 13: 18-23:

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:  When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” 

If a person’s faith is going to be deep, meaningful, and transformative, it must come from a sincere heart (a place of trust, need and devotion) and that cannot be faked. It cannot be bought. It cannot be coerced.

If all we care about is the number of bodies occupying the pews of our church, or the number of people we can brag that we have “brought to Jesus” then our tactics don’t really matter. We can be as ruthless and manipulative as some door-to-door salesmen or telemarketers. We can attempt to get a YES without caring whether that person actually wants or needs the item we are hocking.

But if we are interested in truly loving people as Christ did, we will quietly and humbly live our faith. We will listen to their pain and protests. We will answer their questions. We will speak the truth in love.

But we will NEVER manhandle someone into faith. We will never override their free-will choice. We will never disrespect their journey and talk down their thinking. If we do these things, any faith they embrace likely won’t be authentic enough to last.

  • Faith in Christ requires love for Christ, and that cannot be manipulated or manufactured.
  • Faith in Christ requires trust in Christ, and that cannot be manipulated or manufactured.
  • Faith in Christ requires surrender to Christ, and that cannot be manipulated or manufactured.

We are agents of truth, not connivers and convincers. The Holy Spirit is more than capable of bringing a person to a place of love, trust, and surrender…of meaningful connection to God. Our place is to share truth and experience as another person is willing or wanting to hear. Period.

Even if the Spirit leads us to challenge another’s thinking, it must come from a place of respect and understanding. If we insist on strong-arming people into religious belief, we may fill our churches or increase the number of people who would check the “christian” box if asked about their faith, but we won’t inspire life-changing, world-changing belief. We will only inspire more legalism or more empty theology.

When it comes to converts, we need to stop preferring quantity over quality. It accomplishes nothing to inspire heartless, empty confessions of faith. Coercive, manipulative witnessing doesn’t produce authentic followers of Christ. It produces another generation of shallow believers and fruitless hypocrites whose faith is merely words, bereft of love or power.

 

Featured image by Jeremy Brooks as seen on Flickr

 

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Who Gets to See the Real You?

Don’t you admire people who can laugh at themselves? Who can quickly identify a mistake and make an adjustment without berating themselves? Who are easy to relate to because they are just “real”?

I do.

I spent most of my life covering up my imperfections, believing that people probably didn’t want to know my problems or see my personal mess. The truth is that I was the one who was uncomfortable with my flaws. I felt ashamed of the parts of me and my life that didn’t exactly say, “I have it all together.”

To a degree, I think we all share that tendency. We hide what we believe is unlovable or unacceptable about ourselves. In so doing, we lose authenticity.

  • We disconnect from reality.
  • We leave behind parts of ourselves that make us who we are.
  • We lose the ability to connect to the hurting, imperfect parts of others.
  • We stop really living and settle for pretending.

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Photo by Bart as seen on Flickr

Our problems and character flaws aren’t useless junk we should keep in the shed out back. They keep us humble. They make us human.

When we stubbornly dedicate ourselves to hiding our less-than-perfect parts, the costs are high. We lose connection to “the real us”…and we lose connection to people we love. Both hinge on transparency and honesty.

Rather than choose authenticity, we use our energy to create a facade, an “acceptable” version of who we are, to share with the world. Our facade simultaneously keeps people happy with us and far from our hurts. Only our facade receives admiration and acceptance, while the “real us” remains silent…unknown and unloved.

In order to maintain the illusion that we are perfect, we are forced to lie, manipulate, and deny in order to cover our mistakes and appear flawless. We don’t own our mistakes, we don’t apologize, and we never, ever change because we don’t admit we need to.

We think appearing flawless will prevent rejection. Ironically, it guarantees it.

People would be fine with most of our flaws if we were humble enough to admit them. It’s the self-righteous denial that drives them away. It’s the irrational defensiveness. It’s the silence we offer instead of a heartfelt apology. People can’t relate to us when there’s nothing to relate to but a fictitious, empty shell.

When we hate our imperfections so much that we can’t be real with people, we won’t have authentic relationships. People won’t have a chance at getting to know us because our walls are always up to cover our flaws and prevent rejection. People will get frustrated in relationship with us because they just want us, and instead, they get smoke and mirrors.

Often, we hide our flaws to avoid being alone because we assume if people really knew us, they would abandon us. Ironically and unintentionally, we create the “aloneness” we fear by allowing the “real us” to go AWAL, giving people nothing and no one to relate to.

When our priority is to live in denial of our imperfections, we can stop being willing to hear that we are wrong. So sometimes we push away people who love us enough to tell us the truth and remind us we need to grow. This is yet another nail in our relationship coffin.

EVERYONE ON THE PLANET IS FLAWED! WE ALL HAVE PROBLEMS!

We are all in the same imperfect boat. The only difference is whether or not we are willing to get real about problems and defects and deal with them directly. Some people admit their shortcomings and some people cover them.

I took a huge step away from perfectionism and toward authenticity in my life when I started to see my mistakes and problems as:

  • A chance to learn and grow
  • A connection point to the problems and imperfections of others
  • A chance to develop authentic relationships with others who wanted to change
  • An opportunity to embrace humility
  • A chance to model to my children how to be real and deal in reality

As Christ-followers, the worst habit we can develop is to deny our imperfections. We mistakenly assume our merit as Christians depends on our ability to perform perfectly. So we hide, and the world looks at our lives, unimpressed with our facade.

We are forgiven. We are loved completely. What reasons do we have to project a false image? To cover ourselves in shame?

Every time we humbly admit our defects, welcome constructive criticism, and chose to walk in authenticity, we become more enjoyable, more relaxed, and more of who we really are. We cultivate the closeness and love we long for instead of driving people away. We grow and learn.

If we want something real in a world of fakes, we must embrace authenticity.

Feature Image by mliu92 as seen on Flickr

Self-Sufficiency: Set-Up For A Let-Down

I was a pretty idealistic kid…passionate about what I believed and looking for a meaningful way to live it. I believed I had what it took to make my mark and change the world. My attitude was literally, “Bring in on, God.” Was that a good thing?

Well, yes. And no.

So much of parenting and education is aimed at teaching kids to believe in themselves and trust their own capability. I think that’s important. Self-doubt keeps us from ever getting off the starting line and must be overcome if we are to accomplish anything of value.

But there is another equally important lesson that I believe must be taught in conjunction with the ideology of “YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES

Here it is… “SOMETIMES YOU WON’T HAVE WHAT IT TAKES.”

Before you start making a mental list of your objections and composing hate mail, hear me out. I am not hocking negativity nor suggesting that we indoctrinate our kids with self-doubt. I am suggesting we adequately prepare our children to face those unavoidable realities which ask more from them than they have.

Everyone who walks far enough along life’s path reaches that point where the pain and difficulty of their circumstances exceeds their ability to cope. Significant trauma occurs as a normal part of our existence. Death, diseases, and disasters touch us all. No one is immune.

When the pain is deep enough (and it will be), our own determination, maturity, and intelligence alone won’t carry us to the other side of the trauma with our compassion, hope, and sanity intact. If we walk alone through our pain, we will come out the other side fearful, disillusioned, and hardened. We may survive, but we will never be the same.

alone

Image by Kate Russel as seen on Flickr.

If we want to do more than just survive a significant crisis, we must keep in mind the whole picture: we have what it takes AND we don’t have what it takes. What am I saying?

I’m saying that we are capable of successfully dealing with difficulty, BUT we will not do so alone, under our own steam.

Life has a way of teaching us that despite our dedication, capability, and resolve, we’ll eventually be dealt a bad hand. We’ll get a curve ball we can’t hit…a crisis so offensive, so unfair, so insurmountable that it has the potential to wipe us out. In these moments, our passion crumbles into fear. Our ideology succumbs to doubt. Our willpower fades into exhaustion.

Eventually, all of us reach that moment of truth…when we realize we cannot stand alone against the onslaught of life. We are forced to reach for something outside of ourselves for strength. If we know ahead of time that there are certain difficulties in life that cannot be overcome alone, we will not hesitate to reach out for the support and help we need.

If we are taught the doctrine of self-sufficiency as a child and are told that we are enough…that we can handle anything life hands us…we will face life’s tragedies bravely but we will be massively unprepared for the the shock of pain and its devastating impacts. Without knowing that there is a natural limit to our own strength, we will attempt to face pain alone.

  • We won’t acknowledge or admit our legitimate needs.
  • We won’t ask for the support or comfort of others.
  • We won’t seek professional help when necessary.

We inevitably reach outside of ourselves for strength when pain has eclipsed our ability to cope. If we believe asking for help indicates weakness, we may choose to reach for pleasure big enough to numb the pain. Rather than seek the help of others to grieve, process, and get back on our feet, we pretend the pain doesn’t exist or cover it up. We may numb our torment with substances or activities, but in this state we aren’t really living. We are just surviving.

If order to overcome and really make it through a tragedy, we need love. We need hope. We need to find our way back to joy. Those things happen only in the context of relationship.

Some people prefer to trust themselves and only themselves. They are comfortable dealing with life completely inside the parameters of their own strength and wisdom. In my opinion, they either haven’t experienced a tragedy that exceeds their ability to cope, or they have found ways to cope with tragedies which don’t require relationship. Either way, anything they reach for to give them the strength to face another day is an unspoken admission of their inability to deal with life’s difficulties alone.

We can reach for something besides the strength and comfort of love, but if we do, we are likely to become dependent upon things which are destructive or addictive. Whatever predictably numbs our pain eventually becomes our god.

Yes, we may be strong. Yes, we may be capable. Resourceful. Resilient. Street-smart. But when our dreams are shattered, or our loved-one is ripped away, or we become the victim of extremely unjust suffering, those things won’t carry us through. Only love will.

I walked a long way down life’s path before hitting that wall where my capabilities weren’t enough. I battled life’s difficulties fiercely, bravely, until my strength gave out. For a moment, I believed I was a failure. Eventually, I realized that my inadequacy wasn’t unique. Everyone was struggling to cope. The only difference was what type of coping mechanism people were using.

When we experience significant suffering, we are very blessed if we have people around us who can walk beside us and encourage us and comfort us. Unfortunately, many people aren’t in close relationship with people who know how to support them or care to try. That’s when the question, “Why do I need God?” becomes so vital and relevant.

God never leaves us. God never stops loving us. Our pain is never too much for Him. His strength never expires. His love experienced through people is also effective at helping us traverse life’s terrain.

Either way, love is the only thing in the world strong enough to offset life’s pain. If we only teach our children to trust in themselves and depend upon themselves, we are setting them up to for bewilderment when they realize that what’s inside of them is insufficient. It’s not enough.

Who or what they reach for to find relief in those moments will determine whether they come through life’s difficulties more mature and empathetic or more cynical and empty.

Autonomy and dependence are both important lessons to teach our children. One without the other leaves us crippled in the face of pain. Believing that we don’t need anyone or anything is just as ludicrous as believing we can’t accomplish anything on our own.

The truth is that our level of capability depends upon our level of humility. When life gets tough, when we aren’t up to the task before us, will we stand alone or will we reach outside of ourselves for strength?

More importantly, who or what will we reach for?

Featured image by Tom Blackwell as seen on Flickr

Why We Lie

lies

Whether it’s little white lies or whoppers, we all engage in less than truthful communication. We can whitewash our deceptions, telling ourselves we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or that we can’t handle someone’s angry responses, or we can’t afford what the truth will cost us. While half-truths might grant us temporary safety or respite, they will end up costing us more than we can afford.

The lies we tell ourselves are just as damaging. Our purposeful denial, our misconceptions, and our grandiose excuses are all aimed at keeping us from having to deal with the realities we find unpleasant. However, reality stands whether or not we appreciate it. The more we shrink back from its demands, the more passive we become.

We think lies keep us safe and keep others happy with us, when they actually just prevent us from growing past the discomfort of truth-telling. They keep us from experiencing the intimacy that results from honest sharing. They keep us locked in a fantasy world where reality can’t check our denial. In short, they shelter us from the pain of growing.

(This is a really uncomfortable topic, no?)

Here are a few reasons we choose not be be 100% honest in our dealings with people and ourselves:

  • We prefer a happy lie over the sad truth. If we are committed to feeling good, the truth won’t always appeal to us. Many times, the truth is difficult and admitting it may require that we face harsh circumstances,  process negative emotions, or make tough choices.
  • The truth threatens our warped version of reality.  Sometimes when we feel overwhelmed or anxious, we re-frame negative events so they seem less bothersome. But lying to ourselves about our circumstances or choosing to live in a fantasy world guarantees that those difficulties will continue on indefinitely. We need the truth to motivate us to deal with the things we avoid.
  • We are too ashamed to admit the truth. Dishonesty often springs from broken places inside of us that we are ashamed of. We like to pretend we are fine, so we avoid admitting our errors. We let embarrassment about our inner condition dictate our transparency.
  • We are afraid people won’t love us if they knew the truth. It’s easy to tell our loved ones what they want to hear when we’re afraid of their rejection, especially when we learn at an early age that mistakes won’t be tolerated. Ironically, we are creating what we fear because the lies themselves create the distance we are trying so hard to prevent.
  • We don’t want to upset people or hurt their feelings. Of course we prefer to keep people happy with us and thinking the best of us. But if their approval is based on a lie, the “real us” never receives acceptance. We aren’t really protecting the other person…we’re protecting ourselves.
  • We don’t want to face what the truth requires from us. Sometimes our honest admissions will require something from us that we don’t feel equipped to give. We may need to apologize. Or make difficult choices about a relationship. Or risk losing something we value.

It takes courage to look at the heart-level issues behind our decision to sugar-coat or embellish the truth. Rather than be embarrassed, we need to roll up our sleeves and dig into the WHY.

Why aren’t we completely honest? What prevents us from “saying it like it is”?

The answers to those questions can tell us so much about our heart: where it’s been damaged and where it still needs healing.

Rather than seeing lies simply as something we shouldn’t do, maybe we should see them as windows into our soul—opportunities to get to the bottom of our own dysfunction.

In order to look that closely at ourselves, we need courage and fortitude. We must thumb our nose at shame, ignore the desire to appear “fine”, and take God’s Spirit with us into the dark places. That is where He does His best work.

Whatever His Spirit reveals to us in our search will be the truth. We can bank on it. We can rest in the certainty of it. We can replace the lies we believe with it.

May God assist us in our efforts to become Seekers and Speakers of truth.

 

Featured Image by Ella A as shown on Flickr

 

 

 

 

Finding an Elusive God

Ever wonder why God doesn’t make His existence a little more obvious?

elusive2

Photo by IIaria Franzese as seen on Flickr

Pretend for a moment that you are a perfect human specimen. Flawless in every way. So pleasing and desirable in face and form that people are mesmerized, drinking in your appearance like water in a desert. Paparazzi stalk you. Movie producers, modeling agencies, and magazine publishers clamor for your photo, your smile, your life story. Everyone wants you. Everyone wishes they were you.

Although that would be great for a short time, eventually the hero-worship and adulation would get old. Imagine the loneliness of not knowing if anyone really loved you for you. You would doubt the motivation behind everyone’s kindness or interest.

  • Do they enjoy you…or do they just enjoy being seen with you?
  • Do they listen to you to understand you…or do they listen to manipulate you?
  • Do they care about what you want…or are they using you to get what they want?

You’d wonder if people would treat you the same if you looked like an average Joe. You might decide to get plastic surgery…or pose as a nobody…or live behind a screen name just to get a glimpse of what it felt like to be admired and enjoyed for your personality, your character and your thoughts.

Eventually, you might become a recluse to avoid the constant barrage of stalkers, gold-diggers and shallow admirers. Ironically,  the attractiveness that drives so many to seek you will leave you feeling unknown. The cost of your perfection is isolation. 

Now imagine being God. You are perfect in every way. You have infinite power. Your beauty and strength are irresistible. If a human being saw you and experienced you in all your glory, their free will would be overcome. They couldn’t help but fall to their knees in worship.

That would be great if all you wanted, as God, was to be in charge and be worshiped.

But what if you wanted more?

What if you actually desired to have a relationship with human beings?

  • To seek and be sought out.
  • To know and be known.
  • To enjoy and be enjoyed.
  • To choose and be chosen.
  • To love and be loved.

What if you wanted intimacy, vulnerability, and authenticity? All the things that characterize a deep, loving relationship?

  • You might have to hide yourself so that only those who sought you determinedly would find you.
  • You might have to limit your gift-gifting so that people would look at your face rather than just your hand.
  • You might have to be silent at times so that only those who truly long to hear your voice will continue to converse with you.

Maybe then you could distinguish between those who seek you only for what you can give from those who seek you to know and love you.

I’ve always wondered why God doesn’t make Himself more plain. Why He doesn’t just show up in all His glory and end all doubt about His existence. While He’s at it, He could put a stop to all the godless non-sense going on. I mean, come on, He could shout the truth from the rooftops. Write it in the sky. Yet He chooses to remain somewhat anonymous. Here you go, my beloved. Enjoy this stunning creation I planned for you, and hear the whispers of my affection in the wind, the sunsets, and the vistas. 

Why does He not come roaring down from heaven and reveal His glory?

God knows better. He knows that would interfere with what He desires the most: a real, authentic love-relationship with us.

Why?

He created us, so he understands that at our core, we are selfish. We are looking to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want, and God is the ultimate means to an end. We surround ourselves with those who make us feel how we want to feel and look how we want to look. We form unhealthy attachments to anyone who predictably numbs our pain.

God knows that if He showed up in person, we would likely forego getting to know Him and preoccupy ourselves with learning how to get Him to act like our personal genie. In human terms, He would become our “drug of choice”, our shelter from whatever we don’t want to face, and the muscle behind our personal agendas.

Ladies and gentlemen…that’s not love.

So how does a God who longs for love…who IS love…go about cultivating honest-to-goodness loving relationships with such human beings? He can’t exactly show up on the world scene wearing a “Let Me Love You” T-shirt for a planet full of people who don’t really know how to give love or receive love.

I believe that’s why He chose to demonstrate His love to and through a particular chosen group of people called the Israelites…so that the world could see how meaningful and life-changing being loved by Almighty was. The stark contrast between the “loved” and “unloved” was supposed to show the world what God was like and what love was like.

But in order to avoid being loved by the Israelites only for His gifts and His power, God made a point of being mysterious and erratic. He rarely responded the same way twice to people or situations. Sometimes He showed up in a big way or spoke clearly. Other times He was silent and seemed withdrawn. He was completely and maddeningly unpredictable.

He still is.

Because God values our free will choice and desires not to become the object of our selfishness or obsession, He remains somewhat hidden. As scripture puts it in Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

God’s way are not our ways. We can’t nail Him down. We can’t understand  Him. We can’t predict His next move. Our minds are simply too small and our imaginations too dull to grasp His nature. Our jaded desire to harness His power and make Him a slave to our whims takes us on a path away from His heart.

Let’s stop stalking God for what he can give us and focus on the miracle of who He is. He is only elusive to those seeking to use Him for their own ends.

Deuteronomy tell us, “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

 

Featured Photo by Georgie Pauwels as seen on Flickr

Angry At Almighty?

I’d had it! I could no longer deal with life’s continual onslaught, and it was time to tell God how I really felt about it!  I grabbed a jacket and water bottle, and left my camper to go find a solitary place to pour out my anger at God. I walked in the general direction of the lake, aimlessly letting my feet pick a random path, seeking enough solitude that I could yell for awhile if necessary.

As I plodded forward, I let my mind replay difficult scenes from the past, fueling my anger further. I’d patiently endured so much over the years, including a difficult marriage and divorce, my child’s cancer treatment, and my own cancer treatment. But now my son had a mysterious illness that no doctor could unravel, and there was no sign of his chronic muscle pain ending any time soon. Did he have a debilitating disease that would steal away his strength and turn him into a vegetable?

I felt like a play-thing of the Enemy. It seemed there was no shelter for me and my kids. I had nothing left inside to cope with another illness…to helplessly watch another child suffer….to try again to make sense out of the senseless.

Many people had stopped talking to me altogether over the years because they just didn’t know what to say anymore. Others had blamed me for my family’s struggles with health, saying my lack of faith and impotent prayers were the cause. I had no more patience with people. No more patience with life. No more patience with God.

ENOUGH!!!

I looked up and spotted a path that broke off from the main road and meandered up a large hill. There was no one in sight, so I headed in that direction. Maybe if I got to higher ground, God would hear me better. And boy did I have some things to say!

As I approached the top of the hill, I began to mentally back-pedal. How dare I question God? How could I tell the Creator of the Universe He was wrong? That He had failed me? That He was not a fair God or a loving God? I considered turning back.

But I knew what lay behind me. Years of stuffing my emotions. Years of not feeling anything because I didn’t want to feel angry with God or feel the yawning chasm of my own despair and anxiety. Years of watching my relationship with God slowly gain distance because I couldn’t be real with Him about my frustration while maintaining the kind of positive attitude I felt I should have.

As much as I loved God and as much as I’d grown in my faith, I struggled to be authentic in His presence because I’d spent so many years performing to keep Him happy with me. I needed to give myself permission to be real and to bring all of myself (even my rage) to Him for healing. Maybe God wouldn’t like it if I told Him how angry I was…but at least our relationship wouldn’t be based on pretense.

As I approached the top of the hill, my breath caught in my throat. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The outline of a massive heart lay on the ground. It was about 10 feet long and 7 feet wide, built of very large stones. In the exact center of this heart grew a clump of large, red Indian Paintbrush flowers.

Here’s a picture my daughter took before we left our campsite a few days later:

myheart

I blinked and glanced around me. This seemed a bit surreal. I’d come up here to rant at God and His love was here long before I arrived…waiting to embrace me. What were the chances of this happening?

Inside I felt so dark, but I was surrounded by bright sunlight, mountainous glory, and fresh breezes. And, of course, that huge symbol of love was planted squarely at my feet. How was I supposed to be angry when I had to look at it?

I sat down beside the heart, chewing on the inside of my cheek, trying to figure out what to do.  My eyes fell upon the red flowers at the center of the heart. God spoke softly, “I love you, Audrey. At the center of my love is pain. I have suffered alongside you. I bled when you were cut.”

All these things I knew, but this was a huge picture of that reality. How could I argue? I was a side-swiped by His next statement:

“Audrey, pick up 3 pebbles…one for you, one for Aspen, and one for Isaac. I want you place each one under the flower and leave them there. By so doing, you relinquish yourself and your children into my care.”

A simple request. Poignant and meaningful.

I found a 3 little colorful pebbles, each unique and distinguishable. The thought of placing them under the flower seemed easy, but as I contemplated the action, a rush of intense protest surfaced. How could I put myself and my kids into His care after all He’d allowed to happen to us?

Then the anger came pouring out. I spent an hour crying out to God. It wasn’t pretty. But it was a holy time. I connected parts of myself to God that had been hiding in the background, starving for their Maker for so long. And the whole time, I was keenly aware that the heart, God’s love, was the backdrop for my ranting. No matter how I felt or what I said, God’s love wouldn’t change or be moved.

Eventually, I was able to put all 3 pebbles under the flower. It took hours of resisting and praying and ranting. But at last my heart and mind and soul relented. His love wore my anger down until it was gone. And in its place was a profound trust and peace.

I am not a magical thinker. I don’t believe for a moment that the heart appeared out of nowhere. It had clearly been built long ago by some person for some obscure purpose. Or maybe no purpose at all. But Someone had guided my steps to that place because He knew I would need to be convinced of His love and His acceptance of me in that moment of honesty.

Those pebbles are still there, lying on the ground at the center of that massive heart. Every time I’m tempted to start obsessively worrying about the health of one of my family, I mentally travel back to that place and remember the decision I came to that day. I remember my fear and my anger, and I remember what trust felt like.

Job also ranted at God and questioned God’s judgment and His fairness. But God corrected his thinking and then restored him. Then God had Job pray for his friends, whom He wasn’t pleased with. What was the difference between Job and Job’s friends?

As the bible puts it in Job 42:7 (The Message) “After God had finished addressing Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, “I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up! You haven’t been honest either with me or about me—not the way my friend Job has.” 

God appreciated and respected Job’s honesty because relationships don’t thrive when people aren’t real with each other. An angry wife, for instance, may rant and rave at her husband, but as long as she’s bringing her anger to her husband, it has a chance to be resolved and healed. It’s only when she chooses to hide her anger and let it fester that her relationship suffers.

God is big enough to handle our anger. In fact, He prefers it over our insincere lip-service. May we have the courage to be authentic with God. In the light of His inextinguishable love, we are safe to be real.

 

Feature Imagine by Jason Jacobs as seen on Flickr

 

Miracles We Choose To Ignore

Our opinions about what God should be doing sometimes blind us to the miracle of what He is doing.

God’s own people failed to recognize Messiah because He didn’t do what they expected Him to do. They assumed that if God-in-the-flesh showed up, He’d obviously deal with their most pressing issue: Roman oppression and taxation. In their minds, there was nothing they needed more from God.

When Jesus went to the cross rather than lead a rebellion, many refused to believe He was the Christ. How could God ignore their desperate situation?

While Jesus had compassion for the their plight, He was focused on solving a much bigger problem:

  • He came to end the anguish of their sin.
  • He came to make it possible for them to have a relationship with the Restorer.
  • He came to make a way where there was no way.

Have my perceptions of my needs blinded me to a greater need God may want to address?

Have I refused to appreciate what God is doing on my behalf because I am too busy complaining about what he isn’t doing?

Guilty as charged.

I remained silent during much of my daughter’s 2.5 year leukemia treatment. I depended on my sister to keep people updated through Aspen’s Facebook support page. I was in survival mode and couldn’t bear the thought of trying to explain to people the nightmare we were living through.

As a single mom of 3, I worried about my sick daughter as well as my other children who were parent-less during the countless chemo treatments and hospitalizations.

medicine

I had no words for caring people who kept asking, “How’s it going?” I didn’t trust my interpretation of events because I was so crushed and confused by what God was allowing. I struggled to keep the horror of my daughter’s treatment in perspective so that I could be strong enough for her to lean on.

Over the years, God performed countless miracles to keep my daughter alive and on the path to recovery. I made a mental note of those miracles, but didn’t really let them hit my heart. I didn’t revel in them or spread the word. Why?

I wanted God to heal her, and honestly, anything less just seemed trivial. God keeping her alive seemed cruel in some way because her treatment was so torturous. I struggled to be thankful when she was wracked with pain and misery.

I couldn’t fully appreciate God’s attentive involvement or trust Him with the outcome because by allowing her to get sick, He’d already done the unthinkable in my sight.

People thoughtlessly threw out trite phrases like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” and “Just pray and everything will be alright.” I was so angry at their lack of empathy. I was also angry at God, but at the same time I realized there was no way I was going to make it through this crisis without Him. So I kept holding His hand.

I had a lot of growing to do in my faith in order to see and appreciate His involvement.

Let me tell you the story of one incredible miracle God performed on her behalf…

About one week after her diagnosis and port placement, Aspen was still in the hospital. She wasn’t responding well to chemo. I’d told the doctors repeatedly that she had severe allergies to chemicals, but they had dismissed that as nonsense.

As the treatment progressed, she developed psychosis and eventually became comatose. She didn’t open her eyes, speak, or respond in any way for days.

The doctors had never seen anything like it and decided to do a scan to see if she was brain-dead. She wasn’t, but they couldn’t explain her reaction and didn’t have any idea how to stop it from progressing.

I felt like there was no way she would live…either the cancer would kill her or the chemo would.

That night, I told my dad I felt like God was telling me He would make a way where there was no way—like how he parted the Red Sea to save the Israelites from the Egyptian army. This was not a result of stellar faith on my part…it was simply an idea that resonated in my spirit and refused to be squashed, like God’s voice often does.

My dad held a straw (the only object in the room that resembled Moses’ staff) over Aspen’s bed and prayed for that miracle.

The next morning, her eyes were open and she spoke. The day after that, they said she could go home.

Amazingly, when we told this story to Aspen a year later, she said she remembered seeing Papa holding the straw and hearing him pray….even though she was still comatose during that event. There was no physical way for her to see or hear it.

It was an incredible miracle, one that I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time because I was taking home a daughter with an infected gall bladder, liver and kidney damage, intense leg pains, and temporary diabetes from the steroid treatment. She could barely walk. She couldn’t even turn the pages of a book because the nerve damage to her hands was so bad. Sadly, she would need me to constantly administer more poison, which would keep her alive to suffer another day.

Aspen’s type of acute leukemia required the longest chemo regimen of any cancer, and because she had been diagnosed after age 10 and was extremely high risk, she got twice the chemo a younger child would receive.

Genetic testing later showed she carried mutations in about 80% of the genes responsible for detoxifying chemicals, so she wasn’t able to rid herself of the chemo like a normal person. She never should have survived treatment by medical standards, but God had other plans.

Looking back, I am amazed and thankful that God did the impossible to preserve her life. I am thankful that He walked with us through every terrifying moment of that first two weeks. I am beyond grateful that she is still with me today.

I confess that I downplayed this miracle because I was drowning in the anguish and uncertainty of the circumstances. I admit I did not give God the glory He deserved for intervening on my daughter’s behalf. I missed the joy of His work because I was too focused on what I thought He should be doing.

As time passes, I am just starting to recognize some of the incredible things that God accomplished as a direct result of Aspen’s illness. While it’s still a huge stretch for me to say that any benefit could ever be worth what she went through, I can finally admit that if God didn’t heal her, He had His reasons. Good reasons. He loves my daughter far more than I do, so I know He was dealing with her most pressing needs first, whether or not I will ever understand what that means during this lifetime. Whatever He allowed her to suffer was somehow critical to her becoming the person she was meant to be.

Of this I am sure: God will redeem and restore all her years of pain and anguish. He has already begun. 

May God expand our vision.

May He open our eyes to see the bigger picture of His plan.

May we learn to trust His heart even when we can’t understand or accept what He’s doing.

 

Feature Image by Sybren Stuvel as seen on Flickr

Honest Rants Regarding Suffering

Many times, I’ve raged against the suffering that God allowed in my life. I’ve ranted about how I had more than my fair share. How I didn’t deserve it. I asked how a loving God could stand by and watch without making it stop, though I pleaded every day.

Are you uncomfortable with my honesty? Let me make you a bit more uncomfortable.

  • I was outraged that God didn’t change my husband like I asked, which made a divorce necessary to ensure the safety of my children.
  • I was stunned that He allowed my innocent daughter to get leukemia once I became a single mom. Hadn’t my children and I suffered enough?
  • I was shocked that He allowed me to get cancer while I was struggling to take care of my sick child. After all, I was all she had.

Satan was in my ear, each and every day, telling me lies that sounded so very true:

  • God hates you and is punishing you
  • You don’t deserve anything good
  • God doesn’t hear your prayers
  • You are cursed
  • You have no protection from God
  • God is the one inflicting pain on you and your children
  • God doesn’t care that you are hurting
  • You’ve been a good person, and THIS is what you get as thanks from God?

But in the midst of all my ranting and all the lies, God found me. My heart sought the truth, and God was more than happy to show it to me.

No matter how indignant or angry I was about my suffering, at the end of the day I had to make my complaints to a God who’d once hung, bloody and torn, on a cross. If I felt the need to whine about the intensity and unfairness of my suffering, I had to look into the eyes of One who’d submitted to the horror of crucifixion in order to secure my rescue, and prevent my punishment.

christ

Photo by Pinoy Traveller as seen on Flickr

It’s unthinkable that I’ve questioned His love for me, and yet I have.

Jesus totally gets unjust suffering. He understands pain that exceeds our capacity to cope. He suffered far more than we ever have or probably ever will. He was a Man of Sorrows, the Lamb of God, slain before the creation of the world.

Knowing that, how can I justify my  petulant demands for a happy life? My entitled expectation that I should have the all the best of what life has to offer and none of the worst?

Like the crowds that followed Jesus around after he fed the 5000, looking for nothing more than another free meal, was my pursuit of God motivated by what I thought I could get from Him if I followed His requirements?

My suffering forced me to examine my faith up close and ask myself the tough questions: Did I believe that God was my genie, and His job was make sure I got everything I wanted and nothing I didn’t? If God didn’t give me a happy, healthy existence, would I still love Him? Would I still serve Him? Was He still a God that I could worship?

In all those moments of fear and agony, wondering if my daughter was going to die, wondering if I was going to die before I could make sure she was well, I had to push past my surface-level faith and grab hold of something more substantial in order to cope. As I relinquished my demand that God do what I thought a loving God should do, the blinders fell from my eyes, allowing me to see a God who cared far more than I knew and who was doing far more than I understood. 

During these times, I experienced His hand holding me up when I had no more strength to endure. I saw Him do the miraculous time and again, although they often weren’t the miracles I was praying for. It brought me to my knees, to place where I could finally say: “You are God. Let it be done to me as you determine.”

My worship of God, pre-suffering, was a mental exercise of a logical faith. My worship of God, post-suffering, was a heart exercise of an experiential faith.

I learned to see my God as a God who suffered alongside me every day, not as a God who sat above all the suffering, contentedly withdrawn and unaffected.

When I’m tempted now to ask the question “what kind of loving God allows innocent suffering?” I have a suitable answer: the kind who agonizes over our pain. The kind who allowed Himself to be tortured to death to provide a remedy for our greatest suffering. The kind who dedicates His existence to redeeming and restoring our pain if we let Him. The kind who sits at the bedside of the dying and the lonely. The kind who immerses Himself in our suffering so that He can be close to us even while we’re cursing Him for His lack of involvement.

Will you allow God to show Himself to you in the midst of your suffering?

 

Feature image by Vincent Bozzo as seen on Flickr

Does Gaming Cause Kids to Disengage From Real Life?

I have a teenage son who loves video games. He can beat me at Mario Cart with the controller on the floor, playing with his toes. With the controller upside-down. No…I’m not kidding. He actually did that once.

While my son doesn’t have an unhealthy dependence upon the games, I’ve noticed something about the teenagers at the high school where I teach every day. With each passing year, they seem more and more shut down. Disengaged. Apathetic.

This isn’t just true of the school environment. More and more teens are waiting to get their driver’s license until they are 17 or 18. They aren’t eager to leave home after they graduate. They are reluctant to become independent. They seem to be opting out of the game of life.

I’d like to explore the question of WHY? Is there a possibility it might be connected to the electronic age and all its gadgets and games?

gamers

Image by Amy Windsor as seen on Flickr

Consider these extreme differences between the gaming world and the real world:

  • Game players have a purpose…some clear objective to meet in order to beat the game.  Life’s purpose is often unclear. Many times, we aren’t sure why we exist, and we don’t know what’s expected of us or what direction to head.
  • Game players have a chance to quickly develop all the necessary skills needed to accomplish the objective. However, the skills needed to be successful at life require a lot of time and persistence to develop. Serious effort is required to become mature and capable.
  • The gaming platform is predictable and intuitive. The controls make sense and are dependable. Game players can feel confidently in control of their actions in the game and know exactly what effects their actions will have. Life is highly unpredictable. Actions we take may or may not have the desired results. Many times we have way no control over things that affect us greatly.
  • If game players become frustrated by a puzzle or challenge, the internet provides instant hints, cheats, and walk-throughs that allow the gamer to advance instantly whether or not the challenge was met legitimately. If life becomes frustrating or confusing, there are no instant fixes or answers. We can’t advance past a life challenge without dealing with it directly. Avoidance is costly.
  • For game players, mistakes have no serious consequences. If you lose energy, you can power up. If you die, you can start over from a saved point. In real life, mistakes can be catastrophic.  Our choices can literally kill us. We can experience the consequences of our choices for years to come. Fear of failure can be debilitating.
  • Boredom is non-existent for game players. The have the luxury of skipping over routine, mundane aspects of existing in the gaming environment. They don’t need to engage in any meaningless, trivial behavior. They can focus on doing what really matters each moment. In real life, boredom is normal. Much of life is drudgery and details. Waiting in line. Sitting in traffic. Going to work day after day. Life is filled with routine and responsibility. Few things are fast or efficient.
  • Game players experience non-stop action and adventure. There is always a pressing goal to accomplish, mystery to solve, or challenge to overcome. In the real world, entertainment and adventure occur infrequently and usually require planning. Recreation is secondary to responsibility.
  • Game players feel powerful and capable. The game is built to be conquered. There is nothing standing in the way of winning. They are guaranteed success. Every puzzle has a solution. Every question has an answer. Real life can make us feel impotent and vulnerable. Obstacles abound, and there are no easy wins. Mysteries often go unsolved, and challenges often defeat us, which is no fun at all.

Imagine existing for 4-8 hours a day in a world where you feel satisfied, capable, and entertained and then being asked to engage in a world fraught with difficulty, uncertainty and responsibility.

I don’t have any answers here. I’m just asking some questions.

Are teenage brains being conditioned to expect reality to mimic the gaming environment? When it doesn’t, do they simply decide not to play?

Do today’s teens opt out of life because they expect it to be purposeful, predictable, entertaining, and easy? Are they taken aback by life’s challenges and frustrations?  Do they feel like they don’t have what it takes to succeed?

Games are clean. Life is messy.

What do you think?

Featured image by Rafa Castillo as seen on Flickr

Does God Hate Sinners?

Many Christians would say God feels nothing but hatred and wrath for sinners. I’d like to debunk this twisted philosophy because I believe it’s an insult to the character and heart of the God that I love and serve.

The most fundamental biblical truth is that God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and that his very nature and identity is love (John 4:16).  All scripture must be seen through this lens or else its interpretation and application will be flawed.

Arthur Pink, a popular author and Calvinist from the early 1900’s, is often quoted in defense of the idea that God hates sinners. He wrote, “[some] say God loves the sinner though He hates the sin. But that is a meaningless distinction. What is there in a sinner but sin?” I would retort that within every sinner is a heart that God created and loved enough to die for.

hate the sin

Unaltered photo by A. Shazly as seen on flickr

Here are some verses commonly used to support the idea that God feels nothing but hatred and wrath toward unbelievers:

  1. PSALM 11:5 “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
  2. JOHN 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”

The assumption is that because God feels anger and wrath toward those who choose to practice sin and refuse His gift of forgiveness, He cannot possibly love them. Many proponents of this philosophy also believe that those whom God hates are predestined for hell and, therefore, can never be (and will never be) recipients of God’s mercy, love, or forgiveness.

Here are my arguments:

  • God Is Not One-Dimensional.  God feels hatred and wrath toward those who are hurting themselves and others with their willful rebellion and sin. That makes sense. No one loves more deeply than God, so no one is capable of the kind of indignation and outrage that He is. He gets pretty upset when the Hitlers and Ted Bundys of the world do their thing. He wouldn’t be a just God or trustworthy judge if he winked at such atrocities and flippantly excused those who committed them. But God’s need for justice isn’t His only attribute…and anger isn’t His only emotion. He is love, and we are made in His image. When someone we love chooses to engage in hurtful, destructive behavior that damages them or others, we get upset. Right? Maybe we even get a bit wrathful. Of course we do.  But we don’t stop loving them just because we are justifiably angry. Neither does God.

 

  • God’s Anger and Wrath are Balanced by His Mercy and Love. Like us, God is capable of experiencing more than one emotion at a time. Remember, God’s identity is love. If He’s angry, it’s grounded in love and balanced by love. Consider Nineveh, the city that God was so angry with that He was ready to destroy it. Was God totally consumed by His righteous wrath? No. In fact, he lovingly sent Jonah (who went begrudgingly to say the least) to warn them so they would have a chance to repent. And repent they did. When Jonah threw a fit over God’s mercy, He responded with these loving words: “…should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” 

 

  • The Bible in its Entirety Tells the Complete Story of God’s Character. Extremists refuse to balance the verses that describe God’s hatred for sinners with other scriptures that describe His love and compassion for sinners. In other words, they take the verses literally and do not view them in the light of the entire counsel of scripture. This results in massive deformities of scriptural meaning. For example, in Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” If you’ve read the entire bible, you know for a fact that Jesus is not advocating for the hatred of loved ones here. Most of us can read that verse in all of its metaphorical glory, and realize Jesus is using hyperbole to make a profound point: that our love for God should supersede our love for our fellow man to such an extent that we shouldn’t even use the same word (love) to describe them both.

 

  • God in Human Flesh Made Sinners His Friends. Twice in scripture, Jesus is accused of being a friend of sinners. (Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34) If God truly feels nothing but hatred and wrath toward sinners, why would God in human flesh spend so much time hanging out with prostitutes, thieves, and tax collectors? Why would He listen to their stories and offer them His wisdom and compassion? Why on earth would He die for them? The answer is that God loved them. Pure and Simple. There is no other explanation. Was He angry toward them for their godless and destructive actions? Yes. Did He rightfully feel wrath toward them? Yes. But God is love. And love finds a way around anger and hatred in order to be close to the object of its affection.

 

I don’t care how many degrees in divinity a person has, if he or she cannot acknowledge God’s love for the unrighteous, they simply do not know the God that I know.

Because He is a just God, he feels wrath toward our sinful state. Because He is an omniscient God, He can see beyond our sinful state. Because He is a loving God, He made a way for us to escape His rightful condemnation.

Thank you, God, that you loved me enough to die for me while I was yet a sinner…

 

 

Featured Image by K-Screen Shots as seen on Flickr