LAST RIDE WITH BIG MIKE

LAST RIDE WITH BIG MIKE

Dealing with Covid-19 has been hard on all of us, but especially those with mental health issues. Since today is the tenth anniversary of his passing, I thought I would re-post this story about my brother, who fought a great battle for his mental health and won.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb 12:1 NIV)

Nitrogen fumes from the Shell premium gas Mike burned in his Honda CBR 1100 XX drifted back to us, threading their way into our helmets along with the mountain aromas of cool granite, green laurel, and fresh-cut grass. I kept pace with Mike and his passenger, my daughter Mikeala, on a borrowed BMW, railing the tight curves and slowing to a walk on the switchbacks of Georgia SR 180 as we wound our way up Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the state.  It would be our last motorcycle ride together before he died on August 5th, 2010—and one of the best—climaxing as it did with a view of the world from 4,784 feet. He had already covered 200 of the 350 miles he would ride that day and wasn’t even tired.

My older brother Mike suffered from atypical bipolar disorder. This disease, or something like it, was not new to our family. Our aunt suffered for years before taking her own life. Our grandfather was also disabled by it. It hit Mike in his 39th year, brought on (we believe) by a reaction to a blood pressure medication that works fine for millions, but not for him.

Big Mike, his nickname in the neighborhood, was always bigger and stronger than most of my friends and me. He was also a rock when I needed him most. Watching him break into a thousand mental pieces was almost more than I could bear. But watching him climb up out of that psychological black hole, a place from which few men return, was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. We talked about writing a book on it. I’m writing this today to encourage you and anyone else that you know who has a mental disorder.

Three things marked Mike’s journey from the pit of despair back to mental health.

Humility. Mike was a proud man, a strong man that submitted himself to hospitalization under the care of competent professionals who prescribed medication and psychotherapy. Once out of the hospital, Mike took responsibility for himself and worked the program. It took years. And like many bipolar patients, along the way, Mike decided he no longer needed the meds. Stopping the meds led to a relapse and another hospital stay. But the second time was the charm. He humbled himself by taking his medicine every day and visiting a counselor every week for years. Even when he no longer needed the counselor, he stayed on the medication and visited a therapist now and then to keep a check on himself. He knew the disease too well and as strong as he was, knew he couldn’t handle it alone.

The second thing was his faith. In all the years of his suffering, Mike never turned his back on Jesus Christ. I never heard him blame God or use his illness and disappointment as an excuse to quit worshiping or neglect his devotions or stop fellowshiping with other believers. He wanted to be well, and he knew that in the end, only walking with Jesus would give him the strength to get there.

Perseverance. Sadly, many suffering people give up and let their illness define them for the rest of their days, or take their life. Mike never gave up. Even after two years of unemployment due to his disease, he kept his courage up. He was as healthy on that day at the top of the world as I have ever known him, enjoying the good gifts God gave, enjoying the ride, and discussing plans for his new business. No one knew that even though his mind had healed, his heart was diseased. He was working on a motorcycle in his garage on the day his heart stopped.

So, if you know someone who is struggling with a mental disorder, tell them about my brother. Tell them they can recover. And tell them there’s a big guy in that great cloud of witnesses, cheering them on.

LISTEN TO YOUR SQUEAKERS

LISTEN TO YOUR SQUEAKERS

“Dad,” my daughter sounded worried over the phone, “I hate to tell you this because I know you just checked, but my brake pedal just went to the floor when I was on the expressway.”

This kind of thing did not use to be a problem. As a former ASE certified service technician, I had always been able to repair the family cars, usually cheaper and faster than a local shop. But now my girl’s life was in danger because I had missed a critical diagnosis on her last visit. Not only that, but she was five hours away in a big city. What would have been a $300 job at home became a $750 repair bill. It stung my ego because I had missed the warning signs, but I was happy to pay it to make sure she was safe.

That mistake reminded me of a spiritual lesson from King Solomon that might save us all a lot of heartaches if we can hear it.

Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23 NKJ).

For many years, General Motors products equipped with disc brakes had “squeakers.” Squeakers are small flat wear indicators made of flimsy spring steel attached to one end of each inner disc brake pad in a set. When the pad wears down to within a few hundredths of an inch of the backing plate, the squeaker contacts the rotating disc and emits a high pitched squeal. When you hear the squeak, you know it’s time to replace the brake pads. If you don’t, you’ll soon have the stopping power of a greased bowling ball, and a simple $150 repair can rapidly become a $750 repair or worse, a car wreck.

King Solomon’s admonition, along with many other verses in Scripture,[1] is a reminder to pay attention to the state of our hearts, to listen to our spiritual squeakers. They’re warning us of little problems that can become big ones in a hurry. But they aren’t quite as noticeable as the ones GM uses, so I’ve listed a few below.

You know your heart is squeaking:

  • When gossip is easy, and prayer is hard.
  • When you’re spouse is annoying, but your colleague is alluring.
  • When conflict makes more sense than reconciliation.
  • When vengeance seems more logical than forbearance.
  • When fear and foreboding replace faith and courage.
  • When lust looks lovely, and purity seems pathetic.
  • When devotions are dull, but distractions are dynamic.

We could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Listen to your spiritual squeakers. Put the brakes on runaway desires and ask God, “What’s missing? Where do I need a little soul maintenance? What has dulled my relationship with Jesus Christ and made me insensitive to his warnings?” He’ll help you replace the worn-out parts and keep your spirit healthy for the long haul.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:16a; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8;

IS GOD ALWAYS ANGRY?

IS GOD ALWAYS ANGRY?

Is God angry with us all the time, or is he something we never expected?

“When the person from whom I have the right to expect nothing gives me everything.” That’s Michael Card’s working definition of the Hebrew word no one knows how to translate: HesedAnd here’s the bottom line: If you don’t know hesed, you don’t know God.

Pronounced with a hard h, hesed is the missing link in most people’s understanding of the God revealed in the Old Testament. Every bit as powerful as “holy” or “righteous” or “just,” we often miss hesed because several English words are usually required to translate it. Thus, the title of Card’s book: INEXPRESSIBLE: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness (IVP Books, 2018).

Lovingkindness, a word coined by Miles Coverdale in his 1535 translation of the scriptures and borrowed by the translators of the King James Version, comes close. But it also, as Card explains, reveals the “linguistic gravity” of hesed, its tendency to draw other words into its orbit and the necessity of using them to understand it.

Truth, mercy/compassion, covenant, justice, faithfulness, goodness, favor, righteousness are the eight words most commonly surrounding hesed and filling out its meaning. But perhaps most important is that hesed is how God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Then the LORD passed in front of him and proclaimed:

Yahweh–Yahweh, is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in hesed (covenant-loving-kindness) and truth, maintaining hesed (covenant-loving-kindness) to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7 HSCB.

Hesed became a refrain, a foundation for songs and prayers down the long centuries of the Old Testament; the reason that, despite their sin and disobedience, the Israelites could boldly ask for what they knew they did not deserve.

He revealed his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel. The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in (hesed) lovingkindness. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever.  He has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Ps. 103:7-12.

What makes the God of the Old Testament unlike any other god, is that, despite Israel’s rebellion, God keeps covenant through sheer kindness. Card traces that kindness through the Old Testament with Moses, David, the Psalms, the prophets, and that ultimate expression of human hesed, Hosea. Then, though the actual Hebrew word does not appear in the New Testament, he anchors it in the life and teaching of Jesus who was full of grace–the New Testament’s closest parallel to hesed– and truth.

“It’s difficult for us to imagine how a being who is infinite in power submerses that power in kindness,” writes Card. “But a deep realization of this aspect of God’s hesed is as revolutionary for us today as it was for Israel … It dismantles that nagging imagery of the angry God of the Old Testament. That perception simply has no place in a biblical understanding of who God is.” God does get angry with us, but anger is not what defines him. It builds slowly and recedes rapidly because he is rich in hesed.

INEXPRESSIBLE is easy to read. The chapters are brief, the stories are captivating, and for those who want to go deep, the footnotes and resource material are easy to use. If you are hungry to know more of God’s love, you need to know hesed.

DON’T SCREW UP A Father’s Day Reflection

DON’T SCREW UP A Father’s Day Reflection

Back in the ’90s, when the Christian men’s movement was booming, and books on godly masculinity were flying off the shelves, I attended a men’s conference with several well-known speakers. Among them was Steve Farrar, author of the bestseller, Point Man: How a Man Can Lead His Family.

One of the small-group exercises popular in the break-out sessions of those conferences was to develop a personal mission statement and then share it with the group. The conference speakers did the same and shared theirs from the podium.

Several leaders gave thoughtful, spiritual-sounding personal mission statements. Then Farrar walked to the mic, complimented the other guys on their profound thinking, paused a moment, and said, “Mine goes like this: Don’t screw up.”

The room exploded in laughter. I forgot the other men’s statements before I got home, but I’ve never forgotten Farrar’s.

I have three grown daughters, and I made plenty of mistakes as their father, but by the grace of God, they still love me, still walk with Christ, and are doing quite well in the world. Sunday is Father’s Day, and in the spirit of Steve Farrar, I offer the following advice on how not to screw up.

Be their father, not their friend. Project calm, resolute authority. Authority is not the same as authoritarianism, and this blog is too short to go into all that implies. (See John Rosemond’s works for that). But remember, kids feel safer and grow up healthier when a strong and kind man sets the boundaries for their lives and enforces them. Now, we are friends.

Set the spiritual example. I’m a pastor, and my wife is an educator, but it may surprise you to learn that we never, except for Advent devotionals, had family Bible studies. I know that works for some families, but for many kids, it just feels forced. My daughters saw their dad, almost every day of their lives, sitting in his chair with his Bible or some other good Christian book open, communing with his heavenly Father, and their mom, on the floor in her room, her Bible and journal in her lap doing the same.

Speak calmly when correcting. I think this was what the Apostle Paul was referring to when he wrote, “ Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”[1] Children are remarkably sensitive to the power in a man’s voice. I can’t count the number of times my daughters thought I was yelling at them when I felt I was calmly giving direction. A shouting father frightens young children and demeans older ones. Projecting authority is about the way you carry yourself, your integrity, and consistency in discipline, not about screaming at your kids.

Affirm them as often as you can and keep your criticism to a minimum. My daughters do not complain about this with me, but I cannot count the number of men who’ve told me over the years how hard it was to get their father’s approval. Constant criticism cripples’ children, even years into adulthood. It is OK to teach them to strive for excellence, but perfection belongs to God alone.

Release them to God. The hardest thing to know is when they are ready to take full responsibility for themselves. And the hardest thing to do is let them go to experience the full consequences of their choices. The trick is to start early, with little things, and work up to the big ones.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Farrar: “Satan’s strategy in the war on the family is to neutralize the man…You were appointed to be head of your family. Like it or not, you carry the responsibility. You are the point man.”

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Col 3:21). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

RECOMMENDING THE SEA

RECOMMENDING THE SEA

Turmoil. Grief. Anxiety. Are you acquainted with any of these? Of course, you are, especially during this pandemic. How do you soothe them? Where do you find solace? Allow me to recommend the sea.

Few things soothe my soul like the sea. Visiting the shore is an opportunity to engage with God through the majesty of his creation on a level that is difficult to achieve in a neighborhood crowded with houses. The sea’s voice is unmatched by any other except possibly the sky – but that is an article for another day.

Standing on the shore, facing out to sea feet planted inches from the breaking waves with the world of men behind and nothing but sun, sky, and water before, the disrupted parts of your soul begin to settle.

I think I know why. See if you agree.

The sea is expansive. It speaks of the omnipresence of God, massive, immense, all-encompassing, filling the field of view until it disappears over the horizon. The largest ships look like tiny toys across the distant waves.

The sea tells us nothing is too big for God. Nothing happens that is outside of his perception. Nothing happens in our life that is beyond his field of view.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast. [1]

The sea is constant, ever-moving yet never moved. It speaks of the unchanging God. The shore is never silent. Even on dead calm days, the quiet lapping of water on sand or rock is present. It is unchallengeable, indisputable, unchanging. On stormy days it reminds us of our storm-tossed lives. But even then, it does not change. The waves gather and curl and crash into each other and finally spill themselves onto the sand to instantly disappear, their fury spent, their conflict gone. So too our lives but the sea, the life upon which all others depend, lives on.

God is constant. God does not change. Our lives toss about, curling and crashing into one another, spending our energies in furious conflict. And then they are gone, the fury spent, the battle finished. But God remains.

The sea is mighty, often challenged, but never conquered. You can feel it, standing there at the top of the tide. Your visceral senses tell you, “this thing can go where it wants and take you along with it.” When sun and sea, pressure, and temperature meet in perfect hurricane pitch, nothing can stand in its way. Only God is more powerful. He marks the boundaries of the sea. It travels not one inch further than his will. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. (Ps 33:7 NIV)

The sea is majestic. It speaks of the omnipotent God. Nothing he has called us to do is beyond his power to help. Without his permission, nothing can reach past the boundaries he places around our lives.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty. (Ps. 93:3-4 NIV)

Turmoil, grief, anxiety, make a longer list if you want. I recommend the sea. Nothing is too big for God. Nothing changes God. Nothing is too powerful for God.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 139:7–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

MAKE EVERY EFFORT

MAKE EVERY EFFORT

 

This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence, which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work—by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is—work, work, and more work.

Those words, spoken by President Harry S. Truman, 75 years ago this week, opened his speech marking VE Day. If that last line sounds gloomy, remember, the whole world needed rebuilding, and the Japanese had not yet surrendered. The task was huge, but America met the challenge.

Just as Americans met the challenge back then, we need to meet the challenge of resuming normal life now. We have work to do. The virus is not yet wholly defeated, and much requires rebuilding. It also means that no matter what we think about the coronavirus and our various responses, we must preserve our unity.

I’ve been thinking hard about this, as we consider exactly how and when to re-open our church building and resume regular worship. Ephesians 4:1-3 primarily occupied my mind.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.[1]

“Make every effort,” sounds like Harry Truman’s exhortation, does it not?  Here’s a breakdown of what it will take to meet the challenge of maintaining our unity as we resume communal worship.

First, practice humility, the art of seeing ourselves as we are, not as higher or more important than others, but not as everyone’s doormat either. It just means, “Wake up and smell the coffee: the world doesn’t revolve around you.”

Second, practice gentleness. Meekness is the old word. An often-misunderstood concept, meekness is not “weakness,” not “milk-toast-ness.” It is not a lack of confidence or living in constant fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It is strength under control. It is the picture of a powerful horse responding to the merest nudge of his master’s knee.

I was born into a home with a big yellow tomcat named Amenhotep, “Teppy” for short. My parents bought the cat for my older brother, who was born six feet tall and 200 pounds so that he could learn how to be gentle with me.

Some of us are stronger than others. Be gentle with each other.

Third, practice patience.

A young father in a supermarket was pushing a shopping cart with his little son, who was strapped in the front. The little boy was fussing, irritable, and crying. The other shoppers gave the pair a wide berth because the child would pull cans off the shelf and throw them out of the cart. The father seemed to be very calm; as he continued down each aisle, he murmured gently: “Easy now, Donald. Keep calm, Donald. Steady, boy. It’s all right, Donald.”

A mother who was passing by was much impressed by this young father’s solicitous attitude. She said, “You certainly know how to talk to an upset child—quietly and gently.”

And then bending down to the little boy, she said, “What seems to be the trouble, Donald?”

“Oh no,” said the father. “He’s Henry. I’m Donald.”[2]

Patience is the ability to endure, putting up with things that make life a little complicated and just carrying on. Be patient with each other.

Fourth, forbearance. Patience emphasizes bearing up under a load; forbearance is about self-restraint, holding back from comments or actions which may be justifiable but ultimately undermine unity.

Everyone knows Winston Churchill, but not everyone remembers Lady Astor, the first female member of Parliament, who was also anti-Semitic and part of the appeasement crowd who opposed Churchill. The two were known for verbal jousting.

Astor is reported to have said, “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea,” to which Winston replied: “Madam if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

That might be fun, but it isn’t the way to maintain unity.

Forbearance practices courtesy, “the oil that lubricates the fine machinery of civilization.” It recognizes that each of us is a fragile, imperfect creature. Forbearance fuels unity.

“There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,”[3] wrote the apostle. Therefore, make every effort to keep that unity in the Spirit through the bond of peace.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Eph 4:1–3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] John Huffman, “The Fruit of the Spirit Is Patience,” PreachingToday.com

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Eph 4:4–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Rx For Anxiety

Rx For Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either, especially now in coronavirus times. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John described the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, was in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There was a price on his head. He washed their feet, shared the bread and the cup, and, most notably, predicts his betrayal. All were aghast. All were frightened. They were well aware of the threat they were under, the risks they were running by being in Jerusalem. Their anxiety was intense.

Into this fractious moment, Jesus spoke some of his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). Then he repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to choose fear or faith.

The physiological fact is that we can worry ourselves sick.

Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, nor-epinephrine and, others get off-kilter, it can be tough to return them to an even keel. In some cases, medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us, medicine is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place, the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose to worry, and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God, and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it is possible. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.

First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry (can you say coronavirus?) to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s idolatry. Only confession and repentance can defeat it. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in the act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more challenging to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries, and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about what to do with our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

THIS IS OUR TIME

THIS IS OUR TIME

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, hobbit hero Frodo Baggins carries a ring of great power and evil, a ring that he and he alone can destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. Depressed by the burden he carries and the evil times, he confides to his wizard friend, Gandalf:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Tolkien was a veteran of WWI that killed 20 million and wounded 21 million, as well as the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 50 million worldwide, as well as the Great Depression, and the polio epidemic that paralyzed tens of thousands. He knew a thing or two about bad times and wove what he knew about how to endure them into his stories.

The Lord of the Rings is full of perseverance and faith against all the odds.

In August of 1940, 25-30 divisions of crack Wehrmacht infantry (over 300,000 soldiers) stood poised along the coast of France. They were waiting for Reich Marshal Herman Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe to wipe the Royal Air Force from the sky and open the English Channel for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, to launch. The Germans had a three-to-one advantage in warplanes when the Battle of Britain began that July and had subdued all Western Europe in less than a year. Everyone expected them to win. Everyone that is, except Winston Churchill and the millions of British who believed him when he said, “We shall never surrender!” Londoner’s sheltered in basements, bunkers, and the subway, as the Blitz rained bombs on their city. Nazi planes indiscriminately wrecked churches, hospitals, and businesses destroyed 60% of London’s homes, wounded 87,000, and killed 32,000 people. Victims overwhelmed the hospitals, and no one knew who would “get it” next.

But by the end of October, Hitler was withdrawing his invasion force from the French coast, and canceling Operation Sea Lion.

The story of Great Britain’s ultimate victory overflows with perseverance and faith.

I take great courage from these stories of our collective past because the ultimate source of their strength was the same hope we share in a good God. He loves us no less than our ancestors and, if we ask him, will give us the strength and bravery to “keep calm and carry on,” as Londoners’ did during the Blitz, and as all God’s people are called to do in a crisis.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.

Every generation faces tests. The Corona virus is our time to meet the fury of a fallen planet with faith and perseverance.

So, look out for your loved ones. Ignore the fear mongers. Follow the instructions of our healthcare professionals. Trust God. “Keep calm and carry on.”  And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a great time to watch The Lord of the Rings

SEVEN TESTS OF TRUE FAITH

Do you ever wake up in the morning and not feel like a Christian? Wait, let me re-phrase that. Do you ever wake up and, even after your first cup of coffee, not feel like a real believer? What do we do with that?

And how about those people who attended church and sang the songs and said the prayers and served the community but whose life choices now seem totally out of sync with biblical ethics? What do we do with that? How do we come to grips with our fickle feelings and feckless friends when it comes to spiritual things? How do we know if we or anyone else is truly in the faith?

It is not a new question.

The Apostle John answered similar questions in his first letter to the churches. He gives us seven tests of faith that help us distinguish between true and false believers. They also comfort and confirm us on those days we doubt our salvation when our emotions are wiggly, and our faith is weak.

The overarching test, the one that provides the foundation and frame for the whole letter, is the Christological, or the “Christ” test. We see it in 1:3; 2:22; 4:2-3 and 5:7-12, among others. It maintains that Jesus Christ is God’s Son in the flesh who lived a real earthly life, died for our sins and rose from the dead, ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and will return to rule one day. If we do not believe that, we are not “in him.”

This belief is no mere intellectual assent or culturally acceptable confession. Ask just about anyone on the street if he believes in Jesus and, he will say yes. (OK, ask it in the South. I can’t vouch for other parts of the country). Belief, in the New Testament, means the complete acceptance of and compliance with Jesus’s claim to be Messiah, the Son of God, the only atonement for our sins and, the only hope of eternal life. It means he has our ultimate loyalties.

But as Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the tares, and as we see in the lives of Judas and other people in Scripture, it is possible to fake it. That’s why John provided six other tests.

  1. The light test, 1Jn.1:5-7. True faith lives in truth or with biblical ethics. Lives characterized by wickedness and error are in the darkness. Lives of holiness and truth are in the light.
  2. The humility test, 1Jn 1:8-10. True faith practices humility about personal sin. If we recognize and confess our sinfulness, he cleanses and purifies us. If not, “we make him out to be a liar.”
  3. The obedience test, 1Jn. 2:3-6. True faith obeys. If our lives are characterized by obedience to his commands, we “know we are in him.” If we say we are his, but our lives are characterized by disobedience to his way, we are lying to ourselves and everybody else.
  4. The love test, 1Jn. 2:9-11. True faith lives in love. Lives characterized by love for others, including those outside the faith, are in the light. If not, we remain in darkness.
  5. The worldliness test, 1Jn. 2:15-17. True faith loves the things of God. Covetousness, lust, and boastful pride belong to the world.
  6. And finally, the persistence test, 1 John 2:19-25. If we depart from the faith as it was handed down by the Apostles, we do not have the Father or the Son. But if we persist in that faith, we remain in him (v.24).

18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.[1]

Feelings will lie to us, and friends will sometimes forsake the way. But God’s word is true, and you can count on it.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (1 Jn 3:18–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

A MESSAGE FOR WOUNDED MEN

A MESSAGE FOR WOUNDED MEN

Millions of men go through life with a jagged tear in their souls. They don’t know how it got there, and they don’t know how to fix it. All they know is that they are hurting, they are angry, and they are confused. If you are one of these men or if you know one, read on.

Jepthah[1] was a mighty warrior and a wounded man. His father was Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute. He was a loser times two, the fatherless son of a despised woman, and the sole reject from a band of brothers. Imagine opening the family scrapbook to find that you aren’t there. No one took Jepthah’s picture. No one recorded his wins on the field. No one kept his report cards in a special file. He learned early that his place was on the edge, edge of the camp, edge of the table, the edge of life. A man like that has no roots, no sense of who he is and why he is here.

One day his father died, and Jepthah’s last shred of protection died with him. His brothers cornered him in the camp: “Get out! You have no place here! You have no claim on Dad’s land or money. Get out, or we’ll kill you.”

Men, you don’t have to be illegitimate to feel like a Jepthah. You can grow up in a large family or as an only child and still never know the affirmation of a father or the acceptance of brothers. You can be surrounded by peers in a room full of people and totally alone, always on edge. You might grow up in a home with two parents and never connect with a father because he doesn’t know how to connect with you, or he’s too busy doing his own thing to figure out how important it is.

Men like Jepthah grow up desperate. Desperate for the love they cannot get, desperate for affirmation they’ve never received, and desperate for belonging they’ve never known. It has various effects. But two patterns stand out.

Sometimes, they become passive. Like a two-way radio never used to transmit, these men are stuck in emotional receiver mode. The passive man cannot give of himself from a position of strength. He finds it difficult to take charge and give direction to his life or anyone else’s. He may be extremely intelligent or incredibly talented, but he cannot harness it. He cannot channel it into anything positive.

Often, he becomes aggressive. He’s the hard man, the strong man, the bull-headed man with whom no one can negotiate. People either love him or hate him, but there is no middle ground. He’s always right because he learned as a child that he had to be right to survive. He won’t depend on anybody or take anyone else’s advice. He’s tough, determined, and opinionated and usually gets his way.

He may be married but doesn’t know how to enjoy marriage or make it enjoyable. He may have children that adore him, and he may love them, but he doesn’t know how to receive their love or return it. Such men are often warriors, but combat is all they know how to do.

Jepthah was like that. It made him a successful warrior, but it cost him his daughter in the end.

If you can identify with Jepthah, I have good news. Jesus came to give us the water of life that would heal our wounds and quench our thirst for love. He came to reconcile us to our Father in heaven and give us the ministry of reconciliation with others.[2]

If you want to know his love and healing, begin by praying this prayer: “Lord, let me see myself as you see me. Help me know how much you love me and understand my place in your family. Please heal the wound my father left in my soul. And help me learn new ways of relating to my wife, my children, and my friends.” It may take months. It may take years, as it did in my life, but I promise you that is a prayer God will answer.

[1] Read his story in Judges chapters 10-12.

[2] John 7:37-38; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19;