The Way into Suffering

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Suffering.
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It infiltrates all lives. No one is exempt.
Physical pain, grief, loneliness, fear.
At times the suffering is wholly yours, at other times you suffer by witnessing another’s pain.
Although it is common to us all (or perhaps because it is common to us all), we spend much of our time and energy attempting to avoid pain.
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When our own efforts toward that end seem doomed, we resort to prayer. We beg and plead with God to remove our pain, to rescue us from our distress.
Satan seems to know this about us. He knows that we would do almost anything to evade discomfort and he uses this knowledge to his advantage.
He certainly did with Jesus. In the wilderness, Satan’s temptations were aimed at convincing Jesus to achieve his goals any other way than God’s way of the cross. God’s way of suffering.
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Yet the cross, the way of suffering, was the purpose of the incarnation. Yes, Jesus performed miracles and taught wisely, but His mission was the cross.
Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I have come to this hour.
Jesus understood what was coming. He knew what agony was lurking. Yet He also knew His purpose.
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He did ask once to be spared. He wept in a garden and pleaded for there to be another way to heal the world from the consequence of another garden.
And in the end, He submitted. He surrendered to the way of the Cross and was made perfect by His suffering.
If Christ had to suffer to be made perfect, why in the world, why in God’s broken world do we think we can gain Jesus’ resurrection without passing through His suffering?
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I do not mean that we should seek out adversity. In this world, it will assail us soon enough.
I mean that when it does come, these pangs that are common to us all, we should lean in and allow it to do its work.
Allow your suffering, whatever it may be, to carry you toward perfection.
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This is the way of Christ. This is the way of all who follow Him. This is the way toward perfection.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. ~ James 1.2-4

Art credits: Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt; Gethsemane by Carl Bloch; tulips photograph by Kirk Sewell; all other photographs copyright 2017 by Elizabeth Giger

Layers of Meaning in Scripture

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

I am often astonished at the beauty of Scripture.
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Not only astonished at the beauty of individual books or passages, although that happens too.
What often takes me aback is the elegance of how the entire Bible fits seamlessly together, flowing in and out of itself like a river flowing into the sea.
The Old Testament points toward the New Testament, while the New Testament points back to the Old as well as forward into the future.
There are layers of meaning to everything – the personal inside the theological inside the historical – and every layer is truth.
Everything that Jesus said and did points back to what God did for Israel and forward to what He was going to do for all the nations.
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Look at the Crucifixion.
It was certainly historical and political. It happened to one man in one place on earth at one particular time, a man caught between two powers struggling for supremacy.
It was theological. When Jesus died, He took upon Himself the sins of the world to atone for them once and for all.
It was personal. Jesus paying the penalty for your own sins is about as personal as it can get.
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Look at the meeting between Jesus and the disciples after the resurrection. The one after the disciples had been out fishing and Jesus called them to shore for breakfast.
Jesus spoke to Peter and told him, If you love Me, then feed My sheep. That is a very personal calling.
A calling which is nestled inside of the layer of Jesus as the Passover Lamb and all of the theological meanings implied therein.
The theological meanings that are nestled inside the first Passover and Israel overthrowing Egypt in their escape through the Red Sea and all the historical and political pieces of those events.
Personal meaning burrowed inside theological meaning burrowed inside historical meaning.
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You see? Go look for it. Find it everywhere and be astonished.
See the Word as beautiful.

Seeking Perfection (and why that is bad)

She was being silly with her bowl and granola scattered all over the kitchen floor.
I took pride in not scattering my temper but in speaking in calm, low tones as I made her clean it up.
Not ten minutes later, my pride evaporated as I yelled in frustration over having to explain twelve divided by four yet again to her very distracted mind…
Even though I knew she had suffered a sleepless night and who can concentrate on very little sleep when you’re a supposedly mature grown-up, much less a tiny little six year old person?
I often become so frustrated with myself and my inability to love the way that I want to love. I yell and I fume, I am self-centered and harsh. I have good moments, when I am able to obey that greatest of commands, but my failings come fast and close between.
I have been on this journey of following Jesus for decades and can be hard on myself for not having improved faster. I vacillate between trying to love more fully by sheer force of will and trying to submit and let Jesus heal my heart, yet I always am impatient and I wish for Him to heal me more quickly.
Maybe, though, my progress (or lack thereof) is not the point.
David was a success story in the annals of Bible heroes. He is known as a man after God’s own heart, and God’s own Son is not ashamed to be known as the Son of David. You can’t be more successful than that.
Yet when we look at his life, we do not see perfection or even a nearing of perfection as his life moves forward. Far from it, we see instead murder and adultery, we see a warrior with an unimaginable body count to his credit, we see lying and coveting and keeping multiple wives and mistresses. In one particularly shameful moment, we see him taking back his wife Michal from her new husband Paltiel for purely political reasons and completely disregarding the pitiful Paltiel as he follows Michal, “weeping as he walked behind her”.
The story of David is not a story of what God wants us to be but a story of God working with the raw material of our lives as he finds us. ~ Eugene H. Peterson in The Jesus Way
How can a man like this be called a man after God’s heart?
The answer can only be found inside his own heart and God is gracious enough to share that with us in the Psalms.
The answer we find in the Psalms is not that he was perfect or even that he neared perfection. The answer is that he was forgiven and that he trusted that forgiveness.
The answer to my own sin and imperfections is not to try harder or to find the right training that eliminates my sin. The answer is my own confession and the forgiveness that can only come from God. No excuses, denials or justifications.
I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.  ~ Psalms 32.5
Resolves and promises to “not do it again” wear thin. True confession, however, rings true and brings deliverance in God’s love.
Being honest about my inability to rid my heart of sin and throwing myself wholeheartedly on His compassion and ability to cleanse me is what makes me whole and perfect in His sight, not becoming actually perfect…because that, I’m afraid, will never happen on this side of resurrection.
My lack of perfection is frustrating, but only to me.

Living Generous

It is often difficult to be generous.  It is hard to give freely of our time, our resources, our hearts.
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It is often difficult to trust.  It is hard to open ourselves to others, leaving ourselves vulnerable to betrayal.
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It is often difficult to see the abundance that is in God, and perhaps this is why it is so difficult to give it all away.
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The widow whom Jesus noticed giving up her last coins in the temple could see this abundance.  She saw how beautiful and full living in God’s life could be.  She saw what we must open our own eyes to see: that we can only be generous and trust God with our lives when we see that our life in God, this kingdom of God here on earth, is abounding in life and love and joy.
Yes, we live in a broken, fallen world, but we don’t have to wait for the end of all things for God’s rule on earth to begin.  Something occurred in creation when Jesus was raised from the dead.  Something began at the resurrection that begins to bring God’s new life to this earth here and now.  Paul speaks of us, among other things, as a new creation in Christ.  I am not a theologian, so I do not pretend to understand how this happens or even exactly what is occurring.
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Yet perhaps part of what this means is that we are called to bear witness to the perfect life in God, the perfect life of Genesis 1 & 2 and Revelation 21 & 22.  We are called to live life in a way that bears witness to the perfection that we as well as all of creation will become, and perhaps simply living a witness kind of life is the way in which we are right now bringing God’s kingdom to fruition in our world.
When we act, as followers of Jesus Christ in the world, as if the limitations of this world set the boundaries for how we can act, then we are…failing in our witness to the cosmic redemption that has been accomplished in Jesus Christ ~ Jonathan Wilson, author of God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation
So let us live lives full of generosity and trust, opening our eyes to the abundance of life around us.  The very same abundance that is ours in a witness life in Christ.

Art Credit: The Widow’s Mite by James Tissot

Is Grace Worth It?

I am always yearning for perfection.  I long for this battle to be done, for the result of a war won to become more evident.  I want my internal battle to be finished as well as the battle over this world of ours.  I get tired, you see, of fighting.  I want to love perfectly, to obey perfectly, to forgive perfectly.
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 I want our world to be able to quit fighting.
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 I want all of us to love perfectly, to love in a way that results in bodies getting fed, animals feeling safe, hearts being healed, trees growing tall.
I’m ready for the lion and the lamb to lie down together.
Yet if I had been born into perfection, I would never have experienced the gift that is grace.  This grace-gift of being loved at my most unlovable, of being shaped into perfection at my most imperfect.  Is it worth it?  A hard question.
If I had been perfect from the start, I wouldn’t know battle and I wouldn’t know mercy.  I would, perhaps, trust more in myself than in the One who made me.  Are heights of joy made richer by the depths carved by sorrow?
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Grace is having a commitment to – or at least an acceptance of – being ineffective and foolish.  ~ Anne Lamott
I don’t know why this is so.  I don’t know why we can only experience grace while being ineffective and foolish.  I don’t know why we must experience battle in order to grasp this gift full of beauty.  I wish it were not this way.
I do know that God does nothing by accident.  I do know that God created with a purpose of love and I do know that someday His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
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Is grace worth all of this?
There is much that I don’t know.  And there are a few things I do.

Art credit: Illustration from Luther Bible 1769