What does the promise mean that “God works in all things for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose”? The good I want is for the pain to be over. But, what is God’s good for us? Is it different? Let’s explore this together.
When tragedy strikes, we have lots of doubts, fears, and questions. We ask “Why?” “How long?” “Where are you God?” “How could God allow…?” There is a question that is asked of you and me. That question comes from Satan to God, “Will a person serve God for nothing?” What will be your answer?
I have used may different prayer frameworks over the years in my walk with God. The A.C.T.S. framework is a mainstay in my life. “A” stands for Adoration, “C” for Confession, “T” for Thanksgiving, and “S” for Supplication. This may be a bit formal for you. So, I want to share a framework that I just recently have learned. You might want to try:
- “Good morning, Lord. It’s me.”
- “This is my situation.”
- This is how I’m feeling.
- This is how I need your help.
- What should I do?”
- Then I’m just silent and I listen for thoughts that can come from God.
- “I’m concerned about them because of [whatever the reason is]. What should I do?”
- Then again silence and just listen.
- “Lord, guide me in…” Every day I’ll have meetings or problems or situations. I’ll ask for guidance and wisdom.
- Then be silent and just listen
- “Thanks, Lord, for listening. I am counting on you.”
I think it’s a wonderful really simple way to pray. If this doesn’t work for you, find a way that does. No framework is perfect. This framework misses out on praise and confession. So, it has its weaknesses. But, it has its strengths. Share with my readers and me what you find helpful.
As suburbanites, we can try to do life alone. The alone life has its advantages. You don’t have to mess with relationships other than family and even that can be limited. Besides as Americans, we applaud the Lone Rangers and the radical individualists. But, what if God has a different plan for us?
I’ve come from a family of independent introverts. I’m the outlier. I generally like people, but I do enjoy being alone. And if I’m not careful, I could just make life about me, my, and mine. Yet, what if God designed you and me to live IN a shared life? What if even those of us who tend to be loners would do life better IN a shared life than an alone life?
I would like to give you 5 reasons why everyone should live IN a shared life:
- You are made for the shared life
When God created the universe, he declared everything, “Good.” But, then he said that one thing was not good. “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone'” (Genesis 2:18). Even in the Garden where everything was perfect, something could be better. Humans could live a shared life rather than an alone life. The indispensable condition to a healthy, stable life is the assurance that somebody else loves me, is on my side, pays attention to me, and watches over me.
- You grow in the shared life
We don’t grow in isolation. We grow in the shared life. The apostle Paul said to the church in Ephesus, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Growing up requires community. When I’m alone I can deceive myself. I can read, “Love one another,” and think, “Well, I agree with that. I’m pro-love. I’m all for love,” and I give myself credit for maturity on the love scale. Then I run into actual people, and it gets scary.
- You find acceptance in a shared life
Paul writes this to the church at Rome: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). Question: How does Christ accept you? Does he ask what race you are? Does he ask whether you’re rich or poor? Does he ask if you’re smart or dumb? Does he ask whether you’re male or female, or beautiful or homely, whether you’re married or single or divorced, whether you’re charming or awkward, whether you’re athletic or uncoordinated? No. Jesus’ only question is, “Do you want my love?”
- You serve in a shared life
Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). What is this manifestation of the Spirit? God’s Spirit gives each Christian a spiritual gift or a spiritual talent to share with other parts of the church. The shared life is always built on mutual servanthood. In a marriage there are two people. If one of them is doing all the work – all the cooking and cleaning, all the shopping, and all the errands – we call that person codependent. And we call the other person an enabler. We serve the one near us in a mutual way. But, it does not mean everyone does the same thing. The person who is a strong communicator should communicate. The one who is a strong editor, edits. The one who is really good at compassion, demonstrates compassion. When everybody does what he or she is good at everyone is served and everyone serves.
- You heal in a shared life
James, the half-brother of Jesus, writes this: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Back in the Wild West, the wagon master would yell out “circle the wagons” not just when there was danger – but when he could see that the animals and the people were spent – drained. And the circle that was formed offered protection and time to rest and recover so the journey could continue.
You will never heal in isolation. It will not happen. The shared life requires more than just forming circles. It requires vulnerability, and that takes courage. This goes deep to what it means to be human. Whenever I have to step into the light, it’s embarrassing to me. But every time, I heal a little bit. I’m moving toward the light. If we reach that place with each other where there’s no image management and we’re all moving toward the light, there will be healing.
The reality is people are becoming more and more isolated, especially here where we live. A 1985 study asked folks if they had someone to talk to about important matters. Ten percent of people responded, “I have no one to talk to about important matters.” By 2010 the number had risen to 25 percent.
If you’re not in a shared life, get in a shared life.
At Lincolnway Christian Church, we will be starting a number of new growth groups this fall. These are small groups of 5-12 people who gather to grow, find acceptance, serve, and heal. Prepare your life to become a shared life, and join a growth group. More information will be at www.lincolnway.org.
At a high school graduation service at an inner city church, the old African-American preacher began with: “Some day you’re going to die! Some day they are going to put you in a box, take you to the cemetery, put you in the ground, throw dirt on your face, and then they will go back to the church and eat potato salad.”
Six times, I have worn a cap and gown. That is if you count graduating from kindergarten and the ninth grade. In all those ceremonies, I have never heard anyone give that kind of talk. The speakers at my graduations always said that graduation was a beginning in life, not the end of life. Yet, does not it make sense to live with the end in mind, not just tomorrow? The reality is someday we are going to die, but, then what? Is there life after death? When we die do we “graduate” to something, or is it just the end? Can we reasonably believe that one’s death is not one’s expiration day, but one’s graduation day?
I want to share one reason I believe that heaven does exist. There is something in us that desires a life after death, a heaven where there will be justice and peace. Does desiring something make it exist? I might desire that elephants fly, but elephants don’t fly. May Dumbo forgive me!
There are desires that humans have that may not be quite universal, but seem to be quite normal. We hunger for nutrition; there is food to meet that desire. We thirst; there is water to drink. We desire sex; there is sexual activity. With all these normal desires, we have a way for those desires to be met. It seems strange to me that we would desire a life after death in a place of justice and peace, and that there would be no corresponding place like what we call heaven to graduate to.
Another old preacher wrote this: “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he [God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”—Ecclesiastes 3:11 (ESV)
Could it be that God has really put eternity into our hearts? Could it be that someday we are going to die, and that day will be our graduation day to heaven? And if we can graduate to heaven, can we prepare for that graduation day?
“You can’t get ‘there’ from ‘here,’” said the old New Englander after I had asked for directions. I thought to myself, “Why not? Both “here” and “there” is on the map, you have to be able to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ somehow.
When you’re trying to get from “here” to “there”, you need to know where “here” is and where “there” is. Since each person comes with their own “here”, it will take a discerning heart to know where to start. Therefore, the “here” is person dependent.
However, we can know the “there” that God wants us to help one another get to. There is a life change that God desires for all His people, those in the church and outside the church.
As the pastor of Lincolnway Christian Church, our vision is to create environments where life change is probable. Our mission is to connect people to Jesus and to one another for life change. There is a life change that God wants for every person within driving distance of us to experience. God wants each person to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is where Jesus is the teacher of life, and we are his students.
So what is the life changed that God desires for His human creatures? Let’s look at three aspects where God wants to see life change happen in everyone.
- First, God wants a life change where there is a past that is forgiven, healed, and renewed. In order for some one to experience forgiveness, healing, and renewal, he or she must connect to Jesus Christ. In connecting to Jesus Christ, our sins are washed away. In connecting with Jesus, our wounds begin to heal. And in connecting with Jesus Christ, our lives become new.
- Second, God wants a life change where our future is secured in heaven and in the resurrection from the dead. By connecting to Jesus Christ, our heavenly home is secured until that day of the Lord when the dead in Christ shall rise. (See N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope).
- Third, God wants a life change where our present is empowered, equipped, and encouraged. This is where we don’t simply connect to Jesus, we must also connect to one another. The early church came together consistently. In Acts 2:42 we read: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV). In order for the early church to experience life change that comes from being a disciple of Jesus, they were required to devote themselves to each other as well as to Jesus.
The life change that God wants for each of us is all-encompassing. Jesus did not simply come to give us a way to heaven and to forgive our sins. Jesus has a “there” for us that is for “here and now.” Jesus came to transform us into his disciples, to become like Him. Dallas Willard wrote:
“Disciples of Jesus are those who are with him, learning to be like him. That is, they are learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.” (Renovation of the Heart, 241).
If Jesus was a wife and mother, living in the 21st century, how would he live that life? If Jesus was a single African-American man, how would Jesus live that life?If Jesus was a middle aged pastor with a wife and four adult children, how would Jesus live that life? If Jesus were you, how would he live the life that you are living?
I would love to hear from you. How are you getting from your “here” to Jesus’ “there” in your life?
The greatest challenge to the Christian faith is the fact of suffering. They have done surveys and asked people, “What is it that keeps you from believing in God?” The number one answer that comes up repeatedly is the problem of pain. Let’s look at some realities about the problem of pain
The problem of pain is the #1 Problem
Great suffering like the Holocaust or smaller disappointments like losing your job, or having a loved one who despite all your prayers remains unhealed is a significant challenge to our faith.
“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart”—Psalm 73:1
The Problem of Pain is the Problem for Theology 101
Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to reaping and sowing. Sometimes life hits us in a way that challenges the idea that God is good.
So, Asaph looks at his life and life around him and he almost falls into unbelief or at least despair.
“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold”— Psalm 73:2.
Why is Asaph’s foot almost slipping?
13 Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning”—Psalm 73:13-14.
Now, Asaph does not tell us the nature of his problem. Maybe he had a chronic illness, a pain that kept him up all night. Whatever it is there is a problem.
If you are in pain, or you have a child or a parent or a spouse or some other loved one who is in pain, please know that throughout the history of the Christian church we read of many wonderful men and women, men and women who love God and who followed him more closely than any of their contemporaries, who suffered with great bodily pain.
Here is the real issue: There is this is Basic Theology 101.
“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart”—Psalm 73:1
But, my basic experience is:
“Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence”—Psalm 73:13
He is the struggle. It does not seem to matter what I do. It does not seem to matter if I pray or not. If I seek God’s face or not. If I obey or not. So why bother? I love the brutal honesty of Asaph
The problem of pain is a problem for everyone.
Blind evolution is naturalistic evolution that pain has no rhyme or reason behind it. That natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak then pain and suffering should not be a problem for them. But, in reality pain is still a problem for everyone.
Asaph also looks at the successful people around:
3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?”—Psalm 73:3-11
The psalmist sees the successful, ungodly person so well. He sees their wickedness and the “good stuff” that goes his or her way.
And the psalmist says: “What gives, God? These folks spit in your face. They blaspheme you. They deny your knowledge. They deny your existence. They deny your judgment. They abuse your people. They hate your people. They make movies about your people. And yet, you seem to bless them.”
The bottom line – this normal man does not understand what he sees.
“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me”—Psalm 73:16
The problem of pain is the problem of understanding
Asaph doesn’t understand his pain in light of the what “good stuff” is going to the evil. We want to understand our pain. We want to understand God.
When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny”—Psalm 73:16-17.
Where does Asaph go to understand his pain? The study, the university library, the hang-out with my friend, the bar?
The problem of pain is a problem that is helped in the sanctuary
Asaph goes to the temple where heaven and earth come together. He goes to church to hear from God and to hear God’s Word and His Will proclaimed with others.
- In the sanctuary, I discover that God is just.
Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies”—Psalm 73:18-20.
God will judge and even the score. His justly may move slower than I want but it will move forward.
- In the sanctuary, I discovered that my feelings are not final
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
What I discovered is that I don’t know all that God is doing. I can allow myself to become so embittered that I cannot see what God is doing around me”—Psalm 73:21-22.
- In the sanctuary, I discover that Jesus is present
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you”—Psalm 73:23-28
- In the sanctuary, I discover that God is good.
But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds—Psalm 73:26.
Because Jesus is with me and for me, I know that God is good.
When we get dressed; we clothe ourselves; we cover ourselves with the cloth. The cloth can be made of different kinds of material: wool, cotton, and polyester, even lotus fibers. This cloth can be all kinds of patterns or no patterns. The cloth can be any color. Peter calls us to clothe ourselves not with cloth but a characteristic of Christ.
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another”— 1 Peter 5:5 (ESV)
What is humility? Humility is not thinking that you are worthless. It is not thinking of yourself as useless? It is not devaluing yourself. Rather, humility is as you really are especially in light of being a sinner in need of a savior and as a creature with a creator.
How do we get humility? How do we put on humility?
Peter gives us three hints to putting on humility in the context of commanding us to clothe ourselves with humility.
- Give help to others
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away”— 1 Peter 5:1–4 (NIV84)
Peter calls elders to serve their flock as overseers and to be eager to serve them. When a person serves others and gives help, that person puts on humility.
When Jesus was on earth, he gave help to others.
- Get help from God (and from others)
See what Peter says on the other side of clothing yourself with humility:
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you”— 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV84)
I have heard some people say they pray but they don’t pray for themselves. They see that not praying for themselves as a virtue. However, Jesus prayed when he wanted help from His heavenly Father. He prayed before He chose the twelve and before he went to the cross.
Asking for help from God is one way to show dependency upon God and humility before God. Also, asking for help from others grows our humility.
- Get tough with the devil
Look at what Peter says next:
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings”— 1 Peter 5:8–9 (NIV84)
He tells us to resist the devil. One of the ways to resist the devil is to realize that he often works to fill us with pride. In the garden of Eden, Satan’s first strategy is to get Eve to doubt God’s goodness and secondly to stir up her pride with 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”—Genesis 3:5). Satan wants you to take off humility and put on pride.
As we resist the devil, we resist pride, and we get dressed with humility.
So as you get dress, don’t forget to put on humility.
How have you tried to dress yourself with humility?
When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was Clue. You might have played it. The idea was to gather up the CLUES so that you could figure out who murdered the victim. Was it Mr. Green in the library with the candlestick? Or was it Miss Scarlet in the Kitchen with the knife.
I want to run through what you might think of as clues that point to God, but more importantly, I want to get to the best clue for believing in God. It’s as close as your heart. We’ll start with this: What are some clues that point toward God?
Clue 1: The universe exists.
Then the universe had a beginning. It was not, and then it was.
Now here’s why that idea points to something like God. Everything that has a beginning has a cause. Nothing just magically pops into being. That’s a clue of God right there, isn’t it?
What’s the alternative? The alternative is that something can come from nothing
For the atheist, the existence of the Big Bang is what might be thought of as an inconvenient truth. Something or someone had to begin the universe. I believe that someone is God.
“For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made”—Romans 1:20
So the existence of the universe is a clue for believing, but it’s not the best one.
Clue 2: The universe supports life.
Tim Keller calls “The Cosmic Welcome Mat.” Now The Cosmic Welcome Mat refers to an oddity about our universe that physicists, secular or religious, have come to call the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is that it seems that the universe was made to sustain human life.
There are a striking number of conditions in biology and physics that would have to be just right for life to arise from the universe.
Clue 3: We have a hunger for meaning.
This fact that we hunger for meaning—for worth—does not prove that meaning exists. But we have a hunger for food. It would be a very strange world if no such thing as food existed. We have a thirst for water. It would be a very strange world if no such thing as water existed. We have an appetite for sex. It would be a very strange universe if no such thing as sexual activity existed. We have a hunger for meaning. It strikes me that it would be strange to have a hunger for meaning in a meaningless universe. So a hunger for meaning is a clue to believe, but it’s not the best clue.
Clue 4: We believe there is a moral standard.
C.S. Lewis wrote wonderfully about arguing in his book Mere Christianity. When people are arguing, you almost never here them say, “Do what I want because I’m stronger and I can make you do it.” When we argue we actually say things like, “But it’s not fair. But it’s not right. But it’s not just.” In other words, when we argue we betray the truth that we believe there is a moral standard, and it exists quite independently of our own preferences.
If there is an “ought’ from which we argue, where do we get this “ought”? Paul says, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them”— Romans 2:15 (NIV).
The fact that our knowing right and wrong is baked into our universe is a very powerful clue for believing in God, but it is not the clue reason.
Clue 5: The explosion of the early church
Another clue that points to God is what we might call the second Big Bang: the explosion of the early church in the first century. How do you account for the explosion of the early church? There were many messianic movements in Israel around Jesus’ time. In every case, the would-be messiahs were executed by Rome, and that was the end of the movement. Yet as a matter of historical reality, a massive community of a radically different nature springs up virtually overnight. How do you account for that? How did a group of deeply monotheistic Jews come to worship a human being as divine virtually overnight? How did Christianity explode so rapidly with such power as to overtake the Roman Empire in such a short period of time?
Virtually all the disciples and early leaders in the early church died for their faith that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he rose from the dead. People simply do not die for what they know to be a lie. They might try to profit from a lie. They don’t sacrifice their lives for it. So the explosion of the early church is a powerful clue to believe in God, but it’s not the best clue.
Clue 6 (the best Clue): Jesus shines through into our world.
The best reason to believe in God’s existence—the main reason—is not an argument; it’s a Person. I don’t have a better way of putting it than this: Jesus comes shining through in strange places and unexpected ways.
It happened one day to a murderous, self-righteous Pharisee named Saul; to a scandalized, isolated tax collector named Zacchaeus; to a humiliated lawyer named Charles Colson; to a humble, little activist named Mother Teresa; to a little boy named Dallas Willard, who lost his mother when he was two years old; to a janitor with Tourette syndrome named Carman. Jesus comes shining through. In places of enormous human despair, gloom, and loneliness, through the unmatched beauty of Jesus’ life, through the unrivaled brilliance of his teaching, the Man on the Cross calls out for us to join him once more. The Man of Sorrows meets people in their tears in ways no one else can. In the strangest places and most unexpected ways, the best reason to believe in God has a face and a name. Jesus comes shining through.
Impact of Jesus
How do you explain the impact of Jesus’ life on this world? Sometimes he comes through Christianity; sometimes he comes in spite of Christianity.
When we think of Christians, we often think of a religion or a subculture or organizations or certain beliefs, but knowing Jesus is entering into the reality of an interactive relationship with a living God. Anyone can have this. Having an actual relationship with Jesus begins with humbling yourself. This is what God said through the prophet Isaiah:
“But this is the One to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit who trembles at my Word”—Isaiah 66:2
How have you humbled yourself because you believe God exists?
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