Your Distance from God is a Picture of Hell

There are some days when I feel incredibly distant from God, days marked with depression and a seeming inability to control my thoughts. Today was one of those days, and coming off the cusp of it, I was hit hard:

Today was a picture of hell.

Not because it was particularly painful, or because I felt burned or bruised, but because I felt a chasmic distance from God. That’s what makes hell so hellish – and I’m the one who chose it.

In the past, when I struggled with despair to a much greater degree, it was chapters of Scripture like Psalm 88 or 42 that were there to commiserate with me, reminding me that I’m not the only one who has struggled with the belief that God is near.

Despair would drive me to agree with the Korahites, singing “My life is filled with troubles, and I am ready to enter the grave.” Psalm 88 paints a discouraging picture of hell on earth: “I am like a helpless man, adrift among the dead, like corpses lying in the grave, whom you remember no more, and who are cut off from your power.”  They continue with, “Your anger bears down on me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.”

Drowning in the anger of God.

Drowning in the overwhelming sadness or despair of life is a feeling you might be able to relate to; I sure do. But you or I have never been drowning in the anger of God. And thank God for that. But it’s coming.

While today has been a picture of hell for me, painting a vivid picture of what life might be like without God, it’s only a picture. We are seeing through a glass darkly now, soon to see God face to face. While us believers rejoice in this, this will be terrifying for an incredible number of people.

We see hell through a glass darkly now, but perhaps one day we’ll see it face to face.

Psalm 88 ends with a similar minor note, tinged with sadness: “Those who know me leave me in darkness.”

Prior to this conclusion, the singers asked God, “Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead? Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave, or your faithfulness in the place of the dead? Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region, or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?”

And no answer is given. At the end of the song, they’re left alone.

But we know the answer: Jesus has risen. God accomplished amazing things in His Son who did die, proclaiming His loyal love even in the grave, showing His faithfulness in the place of the dead. Jesus has risen, proclaiming deliverance throughout the whole of the universe, from the grave, throughout the earth and even into heaven.

Our little pictures of hell experienced through distance from God should remind us of a possible eternity, yes. But more than that, they should remind us that Jesus has defeated death, allowing those who believe to be saved, truly delivered from drowning in the anger of God.

Jesus has risen, God is near.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Psalm 42:11

Beware the Selfishness of Your Prayers

I’ve been reading through the fantastic book, “Praying with Paul”, by D.A. Carson lately, and it’s been incredibly enlightening, especially for someone who’s struggled with prayer for a long time. That’s a great thing, because prayer, aside from being one of the ways that we actively and consistently commune with our Creator, is a formative and changing thing that we should be engaging in throughout the whole day.

Even though I know in my bones that I should be doing this more often than the fleeting one-liner prayers I utter when I remember a need, it’s a struggle to set aside time, even for a few minutes, to simply talk with the God who has given me the greatest gift, and blesses me daily. If you took a glance at my life, more often that not you’d be hard-pressed to see our relationship as anything other than one-sided. It’s a weakness that, by the grace of God, I want to see changed, and Dr. Carson’s book has been quite a help.

In it, he talks about the danger of praying from a selfish heart: 

“There is a school of thought that treats prayer as a discipline in which to excel, without consideration for the focus prayer ought to have on people.” 

He writes, “It encourages prayer because prayer is thought to do a great deal for the person who is praying and devotes little thought to those for whom the prayer is offered. Or it encourages meditative, contemplative, worshipful prayer, on the grounds that prayer is rightly directed to God. However, this thinking does not consider our attitude toward people or think through the place of intercession for others.”

Notice the subtle danger here; this person’s heart is oriented towards himself, under the guise of spiritual discipline. The focus has shifted from praying for others onto prayer itself, preferring ‘meditative, contemplative, worshipful prayer’ over intercessory prayer. It’s devoting more precious time towards working on your skill in prayer, than in actually praying for others. It builds yourself up, while accidentally forgetting the power of prayer; the reality that prayer can change the course of history, as it were.

It makes me think of one of my favorite Charles Spurgeon quotes: “It has been objected about prayer that it is not possible for prayer to be answered because the laws of nature are unalterable, and they must and will go on whether men pray or not. To us [Christians] it does not seem necessary to prove that the laws of nature are disturbed. God can work miracles, and He may work them yet again as He has done in times long past. However, it is no part of the Christian faith that God must work miracles in order to answer the prayers of His servants. When a man has to disarrange all his affairs and, so to speak, stop all his machinery in order to fulfill a promise, it proves he is but a man and that his wisdom and power are limited.”

He continues, “However, He is God indeed who, without reversing the engine or removing a single cog from a wheel, fulfills the desires of His people as they come up before Him. The Lord is so omnipotent that He can work results tantamount to miracles without in the slightest degree suspending any one of His laws.”

God wants you to pray for others, and you’re taking part in His plan when you do so – and it’s true as well to say that if you don’t, some good things might not happen. Meditation, contemplation, and worship all have their place in prayer, absolutely. But when they dominate your time with God, your heart might not be in the right place, and we should often examine ourselves and our prayers to see how selfish we really are.

Let your prayers be dominated with your heartfelt prayers for others, as those are the sorts of prayers that change your heart towards others, and make you more like Christ. Your prayers can and do work for the good in their lives. 

So stop and pray, right now, for those around you. It’s the best thing for them and for you.

Flawsome Isn’t Far Enough

Chances are, if you’ve spent a little while on social media, you’ve seen a teen girl post a picture with the hashtag ‘flawsome’. The term was coined from the idea that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our flaws, but instead embrace them as what makes us beautiful and awesome, hence ‘flawsome’. At its heart, the idea gets it right: we are all flawed and broken. But it doesn’t go far enough.

When the world uses this term, usually they’re using it to refer to external flaws (gapped teeth, pimples, a crooked nose, etc.), and if that’s as far as it goes, then that’s all well and good. Surface beauty has nothing to do with your eternal salvation, after all. But we know that our flaws are not just skin deep: we’re deeply broken people, due to our sin. The first man fell, and we with him, since the beginning of time. The world snapped under the weight of our sin, and we still live with the subsequent curse.

But God loved the world in such a way as to send His Son to the world, to die so that we may live, lifting the curse of sin for those that believe.

This work is awesome, and while every Christian still has flaws, flawsome doesn’t go far enough for us. Enter the Apostle Paul, a man healing from a seared conscience, years after he experienced salvation: 

“But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

In context, Paul was praying to God for Him to remove a ‘thorn in his flesh’, something either spiritually or physically taxing, – a flaw – and God said no, to save Paul from his arrogance. God denied his request because He wanted to give Paul something better, albeit something not more comfortable. God made it known to him that His grace was sufficient, and that His power was made perfect in the apostle’s weaknesses.

Paul goes on to say that, bafflingly, he is content with his weaknesses, boasting gladly about them so that the power of Christ may reside in him. Like the flawsome hashtag, he’s boasting about his weaknesses, but also going the necessary next step: he’s doing it to show the power of Christ.

Your weakness doesn’t make you awesome, nor does it make you unique. If that’s as far as you go, then your message evaporates into positive self-talk, which does as much good for you as slapping a bandaid on yourself in hopes stopping your heart attack; it means well, but it doesn’t get to the deeper issue. If we’ve been saved, we have been remade with the desire to live a life holy to God. In the words of Bryan “Braille” Winchester, “In our weakness is where the Gospel meets us, the beauty of redemption revealed in our broken pieces.” Your flaws show the power of God, because He has saved you in spite of them.

God created you with weakness for a purpose, and that purpose is to glorify Him through them. God makes His power perfect in your weaknesses, as instruments for His glory. Think of Moses and his trouble speaking, chosen to deliver God’s people, and David, the youngest in his family, chosen to become a great leader of Israel. God chooses the weak to shame those that rely on their own strength, by showing them His own strength through the lowly and unremarkable.

And that’s something wonderful to boast about. 

But if you’re boasting about your flaws, make sure it’s because of the work that Christ has accomplished, and that God is doing through you now.

It’s more than flawsome: God is revealed through your flaws. Instead of pointing to yourself, point others to Christ through your weaknesses. While that might not fit in a hashtag, it’s still the truth that we should be living our lives by.

Let us be content in our many weaknesses, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.

If You Have a Gift, Use It

I remember hearing the thought (and thinking it myself) that, if I could just figure out what God wants me to be doing, my life would be all figured out. I’d feel fulfilled, I’d be on the road to monetary stability, and I’d get the girl… all the things that I want. The thought comes from the idea that God’s will isn’t something that we find ourselves in, but something that we seek to figure out, like some sort of secret knowledge.

Now I know that’s not the case. The will of God is going to be worked out in your life regardless of your activity, seek it or no, and it will be for the good of the believers (because His good is our good). This is the Decretive Will of the Sovereign God, or the ultimate plan of God. (Romans 8:28, Acts 4:27-28)

But there is also what’s called the ‘Will of Command’, where we can do the will of God, or fail to. (Matt. 7:21) It is God’s will that commands you, for example, not to commit sexual immorality, and you can choose to follow His will, or to break it. No matter what, His Decretive Will remains sovereign. 

All of this means that you have a purpose, and that while God is sovereign, you have a command to carry that purpose out, and follow the will of God in your actions.

If you have a gift from God, then you have an obligation to use it for the glory of God. Doing that means using your gift in the opportunities around you. The ultimate plan of God is being done through you, even in this moment as you’re reading this, and God is bringing opportunities into your life to carry His will out. But you must act to follow His command.

To see this practically, and to get out of this heady territory, imagine that you have a gift working with children. Your church has a nursery that’s shorthanded, and there’s the opportunity for you to help out once in a while. You take the opportunity, and you bless your church through it. By doing that, you’re following God’s will for your life. God sovereignly decreed that the nursery would be shorthanded, and you chose to follow God’s command to serve. This is the will of God for your life, in this scenario.

It’s that simple.

I have heard many say something like, ‘I don’t want to quench the Spirit by not doing something I shouldn’t be doing’, and they don’t mean sin, they mean not taking a certain job, or not dating a certain guy, or not doing something good for the sake of waiting to do something better. I know this because I used to run with the same crowd, and even though it’s years later now, this crowd is getting bigger and bigger. It’s frightening.

The truth of the matter is, if you’re not doing what is clearly God’s will, then you’re ‘quenching the Spirit’. God’s will has been revealed clearly in His Word, namely in His commands for you to love God and love your neighbor. Following these commands can mean doing a variety of things, but it’s always doing the will of God. It means taking every opportunity available to you to serve God and serve others.

The Apostle Peter puts it well: 

“Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.”

1 Peter 4:10-11

His words are frank. If you have a gift, use it, knowing that they are gifts from God Himself, to be used for the glory of God through Jesus Christ. He divides all gifts into two categories, speaking and serving, but regardless which one you fall into, he charges us to use our gift to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God.

This means we should be looking for ways to serve, knowing that God has decreed the need, and He gave us the gift to meet that need.

So, don’t pass up on meeting the needs of the short-handed nursery, even when you ‘feel led’ to work with the already-full-up teen ministry. Or, if a pastor approaches you with an opportunity because they see a gift in you, and it’s something outside of your comfort zone, or something that’s really not that glamorous, take it. Be on the lookout for opportunities to serve God, be it something you’ve always wanted to do, or something you’re good at. It won’t always be both, but no matter what, take the opportunity.

It’s God’s will for your life.

If You Love God and Hate People, You’re a Liar

“We love because he loved us first. If anyone says “I love God” and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And the commandment we have from him is this: that the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too.”

1 John 4:19-21

You are loved.

If you are saved, then God has smiled upon you and granted you the ability to believe, through the regeneration of your soul. You have passed from death into life, and you have experienced the greatest love of God.

For this reason, the Apostle John in his first epistle says that if you do not love your fellow Christian, you not only do not love God; you cannot love God.

That is not to say that loving people is the pathway to loving God, for then the order would be wrong. We do not love man to love God. Instead, John means that to see if someone loves God, you must look to see if he loves his brothers and sisters in Christ. Or, to make it personal, if you do not love the people around you, you don’t love God. If someone proclaims love for God, yet acts constantly and continuously in unloving behavior toward his fellow believers, this is proof that he, in fact, does not love God and is not saved.

John says, ‘we love because he loved us first’, which begs the question, What kind of love is this? Earlier in the epistle, in verse 7 of chapter 4, John says, ‘…and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God’. This is a special love, which comes only from God’s indwelling in His sons and daughters. 

F.F. Bruce wrote: “The love which the New Testament enjoins involves a consuming passion for the well-being of others, and this love has its wellspring in God.”

This ‘consuming passion for the well-being of others’ is just the sort of love that the Apostle John is talking of here, and the absence of it is evidence that a person is not in an intimate relationship with God. This means that the closer one is to God, the more that he loves, and in so doing the man loves God all the more. But the source of this love is in God alone, as a result of His indwelling in you at the advent of your salvation.

John, in this epistle, is echoing Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:

“Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?’ Then he will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’”

Matthew 25:44-45

Your actions will reflect what you believe, and if you love God, you will love others, and Jesus here says that if you are not acting in love toward ‘the least of these’, then you are not acting in love towards the greatest of these, namely, the Lord. For those of you who know the chapter well, you’ll know that the consequences for the absence of this love is eternal punishment.

Scary.

How then do we love others, in a practical way? Serve them.

One of the best ways to know if you love others is to examine how you react to their needs. If you react begrudgingly to their needs, maybe in a cynical, ‘they could get by fine on their own’ sort of way, then perhaps you don’t love them. Maybe you mask your absence of love with false humility, imagining that the help you could give isn’t effective, or perhaps unwanted; you’re making excuses to be unloving.

If we are to have a love that is passionate for the well-being of others, then our lives will be characterized by service. You know the words of Jesus: “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). One of the indicators of your faith is in the love that you have for others.

We are not perfect in our faith, and we will fail to love others all the time. If you are saved, no one can pluck you from the hand of God, and you have assurance of salvation. If you have confessed Jesus as Lord, you have been granted salvation, and God will grant you the strength to endure to the end. Do not imagine that failure is evidence of your lack of regeneration, but instead repent of (or ‘turn from’) your lack of love, and seek to become more like Christ.

God is love, and He loves you, and so you must love each other. Perhaps a way to think about it is that He overflows you with love, for you to pour love into others. He causes you to love your brothers and sisters, and He is a faithful God.

God loves you. So love others.

Get in the Habit of Pointing

I bet you can remember your parents telling you that it’s rude to point.

We learned pretty early, I hope, that using your index finger to point out people isn’t always the best use for it, but for the Christian, it’s one of the most important things we should be doing.

We should be continually pointing out our Lord to all those around us.

But what does pointing out Christ even mean? It’s really just another term for witnessing.

Think of it in an example: you’re around your coworkers, and you do something nice for someone, and one of them comes up to you and says something like, ‘you’re such a nice person, I love seeing that in people’. You might hear a variation of this phrase in your walk as a Christian, because God calls us to live moral lives. But when you hear it, is your first thought one focused on yourself, or one focused on the One who causes the good in you?

If I were to answer that question, more often than not, I’d answer with ‘myself’. It’s natural to take a passing comment about your kindness as a compliment, instead of as an opportunity. We don’t want to seem like the crazy Christians who are always talking about their God, and never taking a compliment for themselves. It can be frustrating for them, and we don’t want to be ‘offensive’. But why?

If we have a commission to go out into the world and preach the good news, then this extends beyond our mission trips, our comfort and the boundaries the world sets up to keep the good news out of their lives. If we don’t take every chance we get to witness, we aren’t taking this commission seriously. We must think eternally, with heaven and hell in view, because truthfully, it could be right around the corner for our coworker, neighbor, or good friend. If you don’t think this way, then you’re in good company; I never think this way, but I want to change this.

I want to get in the habit of pointing.

So help me out: what are some ways that you point others to Christ?

Your Christian Art Needn’t be Clean, but it Must be Honest

Kings_Kaleidoscope_Graphic-800x520

Back in 2016, Kings Kaleidoscope, a Christian and currently six-piece band hailing from Seattle, released two versions of their 13-song album called ‘Beyond Control’. Why two versions? Well, one song off the record, ‘A Prayer’, included two F-bombs.

As you can imagine, it sparked a good deal of controversy, with some calling their authenticity as a ‘Christian band’ in question. To me, though, this is one of the key identifiers that they are what makes up a true Christian band: they’re honest.

Now, you could counter that anyone, saved or no, could make honest art, and it could still be littered with profanity and vulgarities galore, and I think I’d agree with you to a point. The point where I’d disagree is in their motives. Anyone who’s set themselves to creating something understands the process of creation, and how with a big project – especially a public one, like producing an album of songs – you must take every little detail into account.

The best works of art are the ones not born from whatever the artist felt in the moment, they’re created from the weaving together of many feelings, many thoughts, and many intentions. It’s hard to imagine an artist who hasn’t given any thought to the question of why he’s creating what he is. Your creative self-expression can be a great method of exploring yourself, especially in examining where you’re at with God.

If you’re a Christian, you’re called to a life of intentionality. It’s a never-ending process of putting sin to death, and to do so, you must know when you are sinning. We seem to have the big ones down: stealing, murder, rampant adultery, or any other giant evil. But, true to His character, Jesus called to attention the amount of evil happening every day in our hearts, namely that to hate a brother is to murder him, and to lust after someone is to commit adultery with them. While those can sound extreme, Jesus’ words here remind us of our depravity, the severity of sin and God’s hatred of it, our desperate need for a Savior, and our incessant need for repentance. We must be intentional to self-reflect, and to pray for God to help us to identify and eliminate our sin. I know that in my experience with sin, the sin happening in my heart can often slip past my radar if I’m not prayerfully examining myself, in light of God’s commands and the redemptive work of His Son.

We must be intentional about killing sin, which goes hand in hand with our necessity to be intentional to glorify God in everything we do. This means that we must be mindful of how we create art, to be sure that every detail is killing sin, and glorifying God. Here I think of the hymns of old: they’re careful, but incredibly rich in their theology, requiring those singing to reflect on the often dense wording to get at what truths their author is communicating about God. I also think of Kings Kaleidoscope, and the incredible honesty that they put into their music.

Chad Gardner, the multi-instrumentalist frontman of King’s Kaleidoscope, who handles a majority of the producing, and writes a lion’s share of the lyrics, has had a few interviews on his song, ‘A Prayer’. Chad and the band began as the worship team for Mars Hill Church, before leaving to form Kings Kaleidoscope. They’ve featured many hymns among their original songs, fusing them with their own musical spin while retaining the timeless lyrics, and capturing the worshipful heart behind them. In fact, they’re known for this, as each of their albums could be aptly described as music that you can worship God to.

And part of what serves to bring me closer to God in their music is Chad’s honesty about his own life, in his struggles, emotions, and trials.

From an interview with Spirit You All, Chad talks about ‘A Prayer’: 

“The short answer is, that song comes from the deepest part of my gut and my being, and the fear that I face throughout my life – I’ve had really severe anxiety disorder my whole life, and that’s been a major part of my struggle and story.” He goes on, “[A Prayer] is about the fear of running from God or that God will turn his back on me and I will end up apart from him in hell. And the actual lyric is something that is from my journal – I don’t know how everyone else has conversations with God, but I have very vulnerable conversations, and God already knows how afraid I am. I usually figure it’s good for me to pour out my soul to him, and that’s what that song is.”

It’s an outpouring of his soul, in a fashion akin to a ‘dark night of the soul’, but it doesn’t stop there:

“So [A Prayer] is there for people who have felt like me. And I know fear and Satan and death – the voice of all of that is not poetic, it’s not thoughtful, it’s not patient. It’s aggressive and demanding and terrifying. And that’s what came out of my heart because that’s what I was hearing, and so that’s what I chose to leave it in the song. It was to say, look, this is the reality of how we feel sometimes, and this is the reality of how God responds to that. And I just want people to know that that is life. It is freaking scary, and God talks to that and he speaks to us right where we are.”

The song is one of the most honest songs I’ve ever heard, and one that I can relate to in a deep way, that resonates in my own struggles with feelings that betray my desires, and ultimately brings me closer to God. For Chad, including the original version of the song, instead of the edited and ‘clean’ version was not an easy decision to make:

“The choice to keep that original version, which is straight from off the top of my head, really, as well as the edited one… It took me a long time, and I really sought counsel and had a lot of conversations with pastor friends of mine and family.” 

He continues, “So I came to my label and said, “Okay, I think that I want to release a version of a song with an f-bomb in it. I want to do it in the most respectful way possible.” They were like, “What in the world?” Because most artists are trying to do shock jock or something, but there’s none of that vibe for me. I’d say, I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about it or convince anyone of anything. I’m just trying to be honest and vulnerable. I think that’s important in art, and important as a Christian. If there’s any place that I can share my story and my testimony for what it really is, it should be the church at large. And that’s what I’m doing.”

The song is an honest reflection of this truth: 

We desperately need God, and He is there to meet us in our desperate need.

Your art, as a Christian, should reflect this honest truth as well.