Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Staying with the Herd

We love to watch the DVD series “Earth” and “Life”. Have you seen those? If you haven’t, you should. They are an amazing testimony to our infinitely creative Maker. I had no idea some of these creatures even existed. And, the way God made them to survive their specific environments…well, it is simply awesome. Learning about the diversity and complexity of the universe (at least the part we know about) humbles me. It makes me look small and God look really big.

Though the millions of animal species are so very different, there is one thing they have in common: danger. Almost every animal has a predator. My kids and I have learned to squint and prepare for the worst when we see a baby animal who stumbles away from its mother. We know this spells disaster. Likely, this little guy is in for a terrible surprise. Most animals are made for their packs. They need to stay with their herds. This is how they survive. It isn’t just the baby animals, either. Going it alone just isn’t smart. So it is with the Christian life.

If we want to survive, we need to stick together. Like the rest of the animal kingdom, we humans have a predator. He is just waiting for someone to devour. When we separate ourselves from other Christians, suddenly we find ourselves in the crosshairs. Can Satan take away our salvation? No. But, mark my words, he can take away everything else unless God says “no”. Let’s put it this way: He will do his level best to destroy us. He can steal our relationships, our witness, our effectiveness for Christ, our motivation, our passion, our joy, our peace, and our hope. He can make our life on this earth a wasteland. What could bring him more pleasure? If he cannot get our souls, he takes aim at the rest of our earthly life. Nothing is off limits. If we want to protect ourselves, we need to stay in the herd.

What does “staying in the herd” actually look like? Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This passage is typically used to advocate church membership and attendance. I’m not disagreeing with that. But, I think it means much, much more. This is especially true if going to church means getting up on Sunday morning, putting on our best clothes, putting on our best self, greeting one another with a “hello, how are you?” without giving an honest answer, and arguing with our family all the way home. I know I’m not the only one who has occasionally experienced this kind of “church”.

I think the writer of Hebrews knew a little about human nature, the fallen world, and God’s call to holiness. I think he knew what a challenge it would be to engage the enemy alone. I don’t believe he meant that walking into a church building and hearing a sermon would be enough. I think when he said, “don’t give up meeting together”, he implied our need for close relationship with other believers—through thick and thin. Look at the context. Read all of Hebrews 10. The writer points out that sacrifice is no longer the way to atone for sin since Jesus has become the living sacrifice to pay for it once and for all. But, while we still live in a sinful world, we need to remind each other to hold tight to the hope we confess (v. 23), we need encouragement to spur us on toward love and good deeds (v. 24), we need to stand side by side as we face persecution (v. 32-34), and we need to remember the way we first came to faith so that we can confidently persevere (v. 32-39).

This “herd mentality” is a concept I’m warming up to as I mature in my walk with Christ. I imagine I’m not alone. Group living is, quite honestly, exhausting. Just keeping up with the life of the family who lives under my roof is complicated. Why in the world would I want to invest myself in other people and their problems and open up myself, my family, and my internal life to public scrutiny? Because God says I need it. And, I am seeing the truth in that, especially as I press on to really put Christ in the center of what I do…especially as I aim to make my perspective an eternal one. The enemy HATES it. If I want to do anything for Christ that is of consequence, I need my Christian brothers and sisters.

Making the decision to join a church family is step one. No church is perfect. But, church can consistently feed you with Truth, and it can connect you with like-minded individuals and families who are on the same journey. Step two is developing deep and lasting friendships with a select few with whom you are totally honest about your life. In my opinion, this is where protection from the enemy is to be found. I’m not necessarily talking about an “accountability partner” who questions you constantly about whether or not you’ve had your quiet time (though, that is not an entirely bad idea). I’m talking about people who know all of your stuff and love you anyway. I’m talking about people you can watch football with, worship with, throw birthday parties with, and pray with. I’m talking about people you admit your mistakes to. People you allow to see you mess up—big time. People you can call when you don’t have it all together. People who won’t let you make a big decision you’ll later regret. People who won’t let you give up on your marriage and other commitments. People who don’t want to see you compromise and people who don’t want to see you hurt. People who will give you Scripture when you need encouragement and people who will pray earnestly when the last thing you want to hear is Scripture. People who know WHAT you believe and WHOM you believe. People who won’t let you leave the herd. People who genuinely care to see God finish the good work he began in you.

Hebrews 10:25 says that we need to meet with these kinds of friends “all the more as we see the Day approaching.” I believe that God is calling us to increasingly deeper relationships with other Christians because Satan knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12). There are certainly challenges that come with investing in a “herd”. It takes time, it can be painful. But, there is no other way to protect ourselves. We need encouragement so that we can persevere.

I am so grateful for the “herd” God has given Bryan and me. So much has happened in my herd in the last few weeks that I can’t even begin to list it here. It makes me tired. But, it also inspires me. The leaders of our herd are not spring chickens any more. We may be slow learners, but we are grabbing hold of God’s promise to protect us when we stick together. We are learning to fight for each other in prayer, encourage one another, laugh with one another, and practically help one another. I am witnessing victories—big ones and little ones—as we deepen our ability to be real with each other, especially amongst the men.

Men, I’m going to call you out, here. I think it is unnatural in some respects for you to engage the herd. After all, some animal species don’t tolerate more than one male. Hippos, for example. I think one of the “Life” DVD’s shows hippo males fighting for the rights to all of the other females. The one that loses out has to leave the vicinity. Sorry, dude, find some other hippo group to conquer and rule! Hear me: I’m not being trite or condescending. Bryan reminds me all the time, “Sarah, I’m not a woman.” And, I’ve gotta tell you, I’m relieved. What I’m saying is that with respect to our need for each other, God does not discriminate. I think men and women alike need the encouragement of friends. And, men, if you want to be the leaders I know you desire to be, you can’t do it alone. It is too hard. I’ll plead with you on behalf of the wives I know…Please reach out to each other! Please don’t let each other go! Please don’t forsake meeting together! Please fight for each other’s families! Please don’t let the enemy corner your friends!

Brother, sister: Have you decided that being part of the herd is just too vulnerable? Have you decided it is too much trouble? Have you forsaken the safety of the herd? If so, you are in the crosshairs of the enemy. Going it alone just isn’t smart. Find a friend or two who knows WHAT you believe and WHOM you believe, and dive into a deep, real, and lasting friendship. Meet together often. There is safety in numbers.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Myth of the Fireproof Suit

I have often wondered in the last few years what people do without Christ. The suffering I have endured has been intense, and I honestly have questioned how I would still be standing up each day without knowing—really knowing—that what God promises us in the Bible is true. Jesus has saved me from the depths of despair time and again. He continues to pick me up out of bed each day, give me purpose, and give me hope. But, the road I have walked down has been hellish. I don’t claim I have suffered more than anyone else. I just know it has been hard. So hard…even with Christ.

Every day, all over the world, terrible things happen to people. Sin and death wreak havoc. And, they are not respecters of people—Christians and non-Christians alike suffer. In fact, suffering is one of God’s lesser known promises. It is all over the New Testament. Check it out. It is sobering. “In this world you will have trouble…” John 16:33.

Sometimes suffering surprises Christians. We can get a false idea that believing God and trusting Him means we will be protected from suffering—at least the really bad stuff. I don’t know if I ever consciously believed that. But, I sat at Audrey’s bedside every night, sang Jesus Loves Me with her, and prayed for her safety just like every “good” Christian mom does. I wouldn’t have asserted that my prayers would have kept her from all harm, but I did think they might help a little. I have learned so much since then about what it means to trust God…and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to me—even really bad things.

Maybe you are beyond that place, well-aware that trusting God doesn’t spare you from suffering. But, there is another false belief many of us unknowingly hold that I think can be just as problematic. We believe that when we suffer, we will somehow be spared the pain of the process—the grief, the fear, the anger, the uncertainty, the sadness, and the time it takes to deal with it all. I don’t know exactly how that belief has crept into our doctrine, but I think it can cause a lot of unnecessary guilt.

A dear friend of mine who is a strong believer just found out she is pregnant. The first two weeks were terrible for her. There was a lot of confusion at her doctor’s office concerning the health of the pregnancy—and actually about its mere existence. It was stressful enough to cause the best of us to go crazy. She experienced severe anxiety during the uncertainty. After her hormone levels were proved inconclusive, she spent the better part of a week and a weekend wondering. On Monday, after an ultrasound, she was told there was no baby. She grieved. Then, four days later, on Friday, she was told that there was, in fact, a baby—and it looked perfectly healthy. She celebrated and praised God for a miracle. On Saturday, once the worst had apparently passed, she was still crying. Her husband was baffled. She also felt confused by her fear and her sadness, especially after she was given good news.

My friend spent two straight weeks on her knees, faithfully calling on God to give her peace. And, she felt it. But, she also experienced every other emotion known to man. And, I think she would admit to feeling guilty about that. I think she would admit that she thought—even if just for a minute—that if she just prayed harder or trusted more that she would not feel the negative emotions.

I’ve been there. Not in the same circumstances. But, I’ve been there. Here is some truth, Christian sister: Faith—even a deep, dynamic, personal, relationship with Christ—does not spare us from all of the natural, human consequences of suffering. Expecting otherwise is like expecting to walk through fire and not get burned. Our faith is not like a fireproof suit! We cannot tumble off of a motorcycle, slide through flames, and come out unscathed on the other side. That only happens in the stunt show at Disney World.

Our faith helps us in many ways, but it does not shield us from all of the pain in life. One woman who lost a child describes it this way, “Our faith keeps us from being swallowed up by despair. But I don’t think it makes our loss hurt any less.” (from God is Good, Alcorn). Randy Alcorn goes on to explain that the family’s faith, “kept their pain from incapacitating them…God stood with them in their pain, but God did not remove their pain.”

While that may sound like bad news, I really mean it to be encouraging. We can quit feeling guilty when we cannot experience our own suffering without flinching. Speaking of his wife’s battle with cancer, C.S. Lewis once said, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

When we lean into suffering instead of trying to avoid it or be immune to it, I think there are real spiritual treasures to be found. It is in the process of working out our faith, particularly in suffering, that we find out who God really is and are transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Many of us have Romans 8:28 memorized (“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”). But, do you know what Romans 8:29 says? It says that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son.” In other words, God’s purpose for my suffering is Christlikeness. It means that God defines “good” in terms of what makes me more like Jesus.

This is freeing for me. God is interested in using each part of my life—including my sufferings—to make me more like Jesus. He knows changing me isn’t going to be pretty. He knows that I will go through the fire, and I will get burned. But, he is there, refining me, meeting me at each turn, reaching into my fear, my doubt, my sadness, and my anger. And, he is long-suffering. He is not going to give up on me, even if it takes a lifetime. He is there to make my suffering count for something. He will be there cheering me on when, broken and bloody from this life, I cross the finish line.

Are you hurting today? Feeling guilty because your faith isn’t “strong enough” to keep you from doubting, feeling loss, being disappointed, or getting angry? Cut yourself some slack. You aren’t wearing a fireproof suit. Lean into your suffering. Feel it all. Take each pain to God. He is more than able to make what he wills of it. And, he promises it will work out for your good in the end.