Why Celebrate?

My daughter Anna struggles with depression and anxiety because of her Non Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD). She was hospitalized eight times within a two year period. It was hard, real hard. Basically every three months she was in a hospital or C-BAT unit. But after that, because of her hard work and the prayers of many friends she started to make significant strides in learning to cope with her NVLD. When we came to the one year anniversary of her being free of self harm and hospitalization we had a celebration going to her favorite restaurant, the China Buffet. When she made it two years, we had a party with family and friends to celebrate her accomplishment.

But three months after the two year celebration, she hurt herself again and ended up back in a C-BAT unit.

The question has come up: what is the point of celebrating such milestones of recovery when there is no certainty that the recovery will continue without times when we fall? Does the fact that she fell again say that our celebration premature?

The reason for celebrating is not about what you are going to do tomorrow. It is acknowledging the work that was done in the past. She worked hard. She accomplished a lot. That was worth celebrating. We weren’t celebrating the expectation that she would never fall down again, we were celebrating the fact that she had gone so long without failing down again.

And you know what? She had a much easier time getting back on her feet this time. She is not the same person she was four and a half years ago. She is in not in the same place she was either. She is stronger, wiser, and more resilient. And so are we and the rest of her support system. Celebrating her milestones is about building her up, giving her hope, and acknowledging her work on her journey, not setting expectations for perfection in the future. She knows that.

I say, yes, it was worth celebrating. It was not a mistake. It was not premature. If I had the chance to do it over again, I would. And when we get to a year from her latest trip, we will all celebrate again. Love drives us to celebrate these milestones with her, no less than it drives us help her up when she falls.

Walking in the Valley of the Shadow, Part 5

This is an old post. But I have been recently helping some people who reminded me of it. Dealing with people who are hurting is part of the Christian life because it is life. We need to do this well. Unfortunately, too often we don’t. I leave the post as I wrote it better than three years ago.

In conclusion to this series of posts on what I have been learning about how to (and how not to) walk with people who are deep in the valley of suffering, I want to focus on this thought: when someone shares with you that they are in a great darkness of soul, I have been learning that there are some things you should just not say, no matter how true they may be. In a way, I guess this might well be an expansion on the need for discretion.

Often times, when we meet with people who are dealing with serious pain (i.e., divorce, abuse, a friend who committed suicide, a son who died from drug addiction, rape, addiction to alcohol, drugs, porn, etc…), we (especially we pastors and particularly us Reformed pastors) are tempted to respond by delivering loads of truth instead of loads of grace.

“But isn’t the truth good? Don’t they need to hear it?” Yes it is. And yes they do. But what truth do they need at that moment? It may well not be the truth you are thinking of sharing! I don’t know about you, but when someone comes up to me and says, “I need to tell you something in Christian love,” what follows is usually neither Christian nor loving! The truth is, we can do a lot of damage in the name of “truth.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV),

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Often we Christians run right to verse 6, Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth, and assume the loving thing to do is always to highlight and expose sin, bad theology, and bad habits that may have led to or be adding to the pain the person is experiencing.

I submit that in light of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, if the “truth” you intend to share does not exhibit God’s patience and kindness, it isn’t loving to share it. If the “truth” you want to share comes from pride in your own spirituality, it isn’t loving to share it. If it dishonors them instead of encouraging and respecting them as God’s son or daughter, or at least as a man or woman made in His image, it isn’t loving to share it. If it is born out of the response of a quick anger, it isn’t loving to share it. If it reaches back into the past and rehashes past mistakes, sins, or poor choices all over again, it isn’t loving to share it. If it intends to hurt them (i.e., delights in evil), it isn’t loving to share it. If it is not from a motivation to protect them, to build trust, and to increase their hope in God, it isn’t loving to share it. And if it isn’t loving, you should not say it, no matter how true it is (or you think it is). Oswald Chambers was right when he said,

The average Christian is the most piercingly critical individual known. Criticism is one of the ordinary activities of people, but in the spiritual realm nothing is accomplished by it. The effect of criticism is the dividing up of the strengths of the one being criticized. The Holy Spirit is the only one in the proper position to criticize, and He alone is able to show what is wrong without hurting and wounding.

If we correctly understand the truth of Scripture, we will be living it out ourselves; and if we would be people who are living out the truth, we will be full of grace, because that is what the truth teaches. 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV) says, Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. God does not jump on us every time we sin or do something stupid. We should give the same grace to others. Let God deal with the convicting of sin; that’s His job, not ours. Be willing to work with people where they are at, instead of insisting that they come up to where you are at (or think you are at!). Focus on being a gracious presence to them. You will be surprised how quickly the things you are concerned about get addressed when you focus on caring for them instead of fixing them.

Controlling the Tongue

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).

The Hebrew word that is translated “pierce” is the same word for running a person through with a sword. What a vivid image of the power of words! We sometimes use words like daggers or swords. You know what I am talking about. We have all been on the receiving end of a verbal assault that cut right through us. And, if we are honest, I suspect we have all let the arrows fly from our tongues as well. Words are, I have been learning, are the most underestimated of weapons.

Words can pierce like a sword but they can also bring healing. The Hebrew behind the words “brings healing” literally means “an effective medicine or cure.” Words can be the most precious of gifts. All of us have, I hope, experienced this as well: words from a family member or friend that were so well chosen and well-timed that they seemed to breathe new life and energy into your soul: “I forgive you,” “I believe in you,” “There’s nothing you could do or say that would make me stop loving you.”

Words are very powerful things. They can bring life, or they can bring death. How we speak has a definite and profound impact not only on ourselves but the people around us.

Our words need to be life-giving and not life-draining. This attribute of speaking well of others is clearly expected of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments.

Proverbs 4:24: Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.

Ephesians 4:29: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

James 1:26: If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

I don’t know about you, but when I read passages like those, I get two very distinct sensations: First, God makes it very clear that I am supposed to keep a tight reign on my words and make sure that when I speak I am bringing life into the person or persons I am speaking to. And second, I am very joyfully humbled at God’s forgiveness because I am guilty of wounding many people with my words.

  1. When this attribute of speaking well of others is absent, God withholds His blessings. Consider Jesus’ own words in Matthew 12:36-37:

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

God has not forgotten even the least hurtful word you or I have spoken. You say, “Pastor Dan, I thought we were justified by faith, not by works. How can we be saved or condemned by how we speak?”

When you have the Spirit of God living inside you, He reveals Himself through what you say and do. Speaking well of others does not earn you forgiveness. Earned grace is a contradiction in terms. But speaking well of others is a sign that you do have God’s Spirit living inside you. Speaking well of others does not earn forgiveness but God’s forgiveness always works to produce the habit of speaking well of others.

When we do not work with God’s Spirit by learning this habit, we are inviting certain things to happen:

First, by not making the effort to speak well of each other we are breaking the cardinal rule of human relations: people thrive under praise and deteriorate under criticism. When we are not in control of our tongues, we are literally inviting stress into our lives and the lives of those around us. We limit our effectiveness in our relationships and influence with others. We stunt our ability to lead and to work together. We are inviting God’s discipline because we are basically saying that we don’t believe God when He says:

Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.

Proverbs 16:27 A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends.

Matthew 5:8 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.

I have said before that when someone comes up to me and says, “Brother, I need to share something with you in Christian love,” what follows is usually neither Christian nor loving! This is because sometimes we get so caught up in “truth” that we forget about “grace.” We sometimes adopt this “the end justifies the means” mentality when we talk to each other. We are so driven by the conviction that “they need to hear the truth,” that we don’t stop and think about the cost our words come with.

It doesn’t matter how right you think you are, or how wrong you think someone else is, if you speak to them without a double dose of grace and mercy, you will almost certainly make things worse instead of better.

Speaking well of others means…

  1. Thinking before speaking. Proverbs 10:19, When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. We all give lip service to this truth but we often give ourselves a pass from following it ourselves. I remember a few years back when I was in the middle of publishing my first book, Finding Freedom in Forgiveness,  I received an endorsement for my book from a nationally known author and speaker. As soon as I got it I sent it to my managing editor at Harvest House and asked them to let me know if I could use it. I did not hear back from her right away, as I usually did. I started to get annoyed. After a week I was beginning to feel ignored. As I was thinking about writing something to find out what was going on, I thought about how I was not the only project she had and I should be patient. I decided not to write anything and wait a while longer. About three weeks after my original email I got a response. She apologized for not getting back to me. She had not been in much in the last three weeks because her oldest sister died three weeks ago and her mother died last week. Boy, was I glad I held my tongue. She did not need to hear from a high-strung, want-to-be-author, she needed love and support. Think, really think, before you speak.
  2. Choosing words to build others up rather than words to break them down. 1 Thessalonians 5:11, encourage one another and build each other up. Easy to say, hard to do. Yes. But God is concerned about what is best for the people we are in relationship with, not what is easiest for us. The Holy Spirit’s job is to correct and convict. When we do that, we are putting ourselves in His place. Our job is to encourage and build each other up. That saying in AA is very good Scriptural advice, “Let go and let God.”
  3. Focusing on what is good and positive. Philippians 4:8, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things. Look for the good in others and praise them for it. We are masters as catching people in the wrong. We need to be twice as proficient at catching people doing right. Everyone is a sinner. No one is perfect. But everyone has good qualities that we can highlight. Everyone has talents and gifts that we should admire and thank God for. I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, well you don’t know so-and-so, and the sooner God takes them out of my life or out of my church, or out of my business the better.” Bah! That is foolishness! They are made in the image of God, that alone is praiseworthy. Every person you meet God placed in your life for a reason. And chances are, one of those reasons is so that you can be learning to love and appreciate them.

(Edited and expanded from a post back in  December 8, 2013).

Lessons from Foggy Nights

Image result for foggy road

Last night as I was driving home I had a hard time seeing where I was going. It had been one of those damp days when condensation gets everywhere. I turned on the defroster and tapped the windshield washers. To my surprise, not much changed. The difficulty was not with my windshield, the problem was a really thick fog. Combine that with being on a strange, busy main street at night. At times it was hard to see anything at all. Once I even missed my turn. I was glad for my GPS that helped me get back on track and for its giving me a sense of when and where the road turned. I was glad to get home.

Sometimes life is like that. When things get foggy and dark our first instinct is to think we might be the problem. Sometimes that is true. But like my difficulty seeing where I was going was not the result of anything I had done or could change, sometimes the dark and difficult places we find ourselves traveling in are not because we haven’t been keeping our spiritual windshield clean, but are because of things that are outside of us. Sometimes we come to dark places not because we have gone spiritually wrong, but because we have been going right.

In times like that we need to trust that God is not leading us wrong. Like I trusted that my GPS was giving me correct information about the road I was on, its twists and turns, and where I needed to turn to get home, even when I could hardly see it myself, we need to trust that God knows what He is doing, where He is going, and will get us Home.

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal (Isaiah 26:3-4, NIV).

Lessons from Hugs

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV).

One of my favorite times of the day is when my daughters come home from school. When they walk in the door, they come and find me and give me a big hug. It is truly awesome. I am well aware that the day may soon come when they are too cool to hug daddy so much, so I am soaking it all up while I can get it!

And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there have been days I really needed it. This has been a very stressful year. There have been more than a few days in the last twelve months where it was one of those hugs that kept me going.

Of course, that kind of love makes you start thinking about things I could do for them. One of the things I did for each of my girls (and Mandi too) was to write each of them a short note telling them something I loved about them. I took the ABC route, coming up with a new thing each day in alphabetical order. Believe it or not, it wasn’t too hard. That quickly became a hit, and if I ever missed a day…well let’s just say they noticed.

One of the things I have been learning is that it is important to be paying attention to the promptings of the Spirit regarding encouraging one another. Encouragement need not be costly, complicated, or time consuming. You don’t even need to speak. A hug at the right time can say more than a thousand words. I am sure you have experienced that truth yourself.

Who is Jesus prompting you to encourage today?

TV Dinner Faith

TV dinners… They commonly consist of meat, potatoes, veggies, and maybe a brownie to satisfy our hunger for sweet things. They are quick, easy, low commitment dinners. You don’t have to think much about getting them ready. And when you’re done you can throw out the tray they came in as well, no clean up. But let’s face it; these are more the appearance of healthy foods than healthy foods themselves. The meat is processed. The thing has been sitting for months in your grocer’s freezer, away from the air. Then we nuke it, probably killing the last visages of healthy stuff in it.

If we were honest I would say this is where many Christians are at today. Their investment into their relationship with Jesus is similar to the amount of time and effort you put into a TV dinner. We want simple low commitment packaged spirituality that comes in 15 minutes a day or less. We love the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, 30 Days to spiritual blessing, and quick 90-second devotionals we can read with our morning coffee.

I am not against reading 15 minutes a day or 90-second devotionals. I give away copies of My Utmost for His Highest and Morning and Evening all the time. But you are only going to get so far spiritually speaking if that is all you are ever eating. How many of you can honestly tell me that you could eat TV dinners every day for 10 years and not have some serious heath issues? Many Christians have been doing that spiritually and are wondering why you don’t feel right.

A.W. is right, there are no shortcuts to a healthy and vibrant spiritual life. It takes time and effort. Time and effort in the Scriptures so that you can learn about who He is; time and effort in prayer so you can spend time with Him; and time sand effort to be learning to live the Great Commandment and Great Commission in all of your work, roles, and relationships.

I know saying that is nothing new, or profound, or clever. But the good news is, that it is that simple. Its not easy, but it is simple. Take the time. Make the time. You’ll be glad you did.