Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Forgiveness is an Exercise in Faith

For the last two weeks I have been teaching on communication and conflict resolution in the marital relationship. Few things make me feel like a complete fraud like this subject matter. I’m hardly an expert in how to communicate effectively with my husband, or even how to resolve conflict when we have a fight. I know the principles, but putting them into practice isn’t my strongest area. I have a hard time letting things go. Actually, I have a really hard time forgiving and moving on. My vivid imagination and long-lasting memory make the process all the harder. But in reality, I’ve learned that it is actually my own selfish desires that make this biblical command extremely difficult. What I’ve learned about myself in the preparation process these last few weeks is that I hold on to the bitterness and anger because I want to continue punishing my husband (and others) for the pain they have caused me. I don’t like accepting their forgiveness because I fear that acceptance means minimizing how they made me, the pinnacle of my own universe, feel.

Now do you see why I felt like a fraud? How could I teach these biblical truths accurately while I harbored so much internal resentment and pain for past hurts? How could I explain what forgiveness is if I don’t like to forgive others?

Thankfully, God’s word penetrates sinful, stubborn hearts like my own and teaches me as I teach others. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

How did God forgive us? It’s the question I asked myself and my students. And the answer is precious every time I hear it. He forgave us abundantly and completely through the atoning death of his son, Jesus. When he sees me, he doesn’t see horrible, sinful Courtney. And not because of anything I have done, but because of the perfect righteousness of my Savior. You see, God’s forgiveness of me, and you, is not because of our own good effort. It’s based on the merit of another, the good work of Jesus. This means that even the vilest of sinners can find forgiveness at the cross because his life, death, and resurrection can pay for it all. It’s that amazing.

But it’s also our basis for forgiving others. When we forgive we aren’t forgiving someone because they are great and perfect. We aren’t even saying that their sin against us doesn’t matter. We are actually saying that it matters a great deal, especially to a holy God. But he already did everything necessary to pay for that sin, and if someone is an unbeliever, he will deal with that sin one day when he judges the sins of the world.

When I fail to forgive, I am essentially saying I don’t believe that Christ’s death for your sins is sufficient. Forgiveness is trusting in the merit of another, not the merit of the one seeking forgiveness. If we based our acceptance of forgiveness on anything but the righteous work of Christ we would be left with insufficient forgiveness. Every sin must be paid for, and the Old Testament is proof that mere words, animal sacrifices, or human effort will never be enough.

So the next time you struggle, like me, with accepting another’s forgiveness remember your Savior. He accomplished everything necessary to pay for your sin and the sin done against you. And that is good news.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Show Me the Miracles

Our pastors have been preaching through Mark for the last few weeks, and in an effort to get the most out of the study, they have encouraged us to read along in the Gospel of Mark. My husband often says that it’s good to never stray far from studying Jesus. He’s right. And every time I read the Gospel accounts I’m reminded of how right he really is. Jesus never ceases to amaze me. And the fact that he walked this earth, died a sinner’s death, defeated sin by rising again, and left us with accounts of his work so we can love him more never ceases to amaze me. This time has been no different.

In Mark 6:45-51 Jesus walks on water immediately following the feeding of the 5,000. You would think that seeing a few pieces of fish and bread multiplied by thousands would stick with a person, but it didn’t. In fact, in verse 51 Mark says that the disciples should have understood this but they didn’t because their hearts were hardened. Essentially, Mark is saying they didn’t understand that Jesus was God, they didn’t understand his deity, and they didn’t put the pieces together that his authority over the meager rations of food was actually saying something deeply profound about who he was. It’s interesting that this story is sandwiched between two stories about his miraculous works—the feeding of the 5,000 and verses 53-56 where people immediately come to him for healing and relief. Everyone wanted to be healed and restored by Jesus. Often the disciples fell into this category too, begging him to heal the people around him or perform some miracle, yet failing to grasp his deity and purpose in it all. On a number of occasions he even tells them fairly straightforwardly what he has come to do—die on a cross and rise three days later—yet they consistently fail to see it. But they have no problem asking him to show them some miracle or heal a person’s physical needs.

It’s really easy to look at the disciples and criticize and condemn them for their foolish behavior towards the Son of God, but let us check our own hearts before we start throwing rocks at Peter, James, John and the rest. We, too, so often want the benefits that Jesus brings—his healing, peace, eternal life, blessing, redemption—but we don’t easily accept the claims his authority makes on our life. We are so much like the disciples saying “show me something great, Jesus” but when it comes down to giving up the sin that entangles us or taking up our cross daily, we struggle with those implications. A good deed done in the name of Christ is a lot easier to swallow than the challenge to turn from our sin and follow this Christ.

But Jesus never separates the two. To save us, he must be Lord. There is no such thing as a Christian who receives the healing of Jesus without having his or her life radically turned upside down by his powerful authority. He always coupled his miraculous signs with a stirring exhortation—repent and believe. His healing always included forgiveness of sins and the command to “go and sin no more.” He does not arbitrarily perform miracles for the sake of show, and he will share his deity with no other. The disciples missed this because they didn’t have eyes to see it yet. They missed it because they couldn’t grasp that these miracles were a call to receive Christ as the authoritative son of God who comes to take away sins and redeem a people for himself, rather than a prelude to the Messiah’s takeover of the powers that be.

And we miss it too.

The call of the kingdom of Christ is not one of miraculous works and restoring physical health. Rather it is a simple call to repent of our sins and trust that Jesus is the holy one of God. The miracle is in the changed life, not the physical healing.

Our natural tendency is to lean towards the miraculous. To ask for a show or sign that proves our faith is genuine or even worth believing in. But Jesus doesn’t ever go there. In fact, he calls those who seek a sign foolish and then points them to the only sign he is willing to give—he will die and rise again. Let us not be like the foolish ones who couldn’t understand Jesus’ words as they continually cried “show me the miracles.” Rather, let us be like the father who wanted desperately to believe that the claims of this Jesus were true. We believe, Lord, help our unbelief.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday is for Food: Red Beans and Rice

I'm doing Community Bible Study this year and every month at our monthly group luncheons we exchange recipes with one another. It is so fun! Last month I was given (and tasted) this recipe and it is so good! I tried it myself this week and Daniel loved it. Always a plus. So here it is.

Red Beans and Rice

1 pound small, dried red beans, rinsed and sorted
3 tablespoons of bacon grease (I didn't have any so I used olive oil)
1/4 to 1 cup of chopped ham (If you have any. Again, I didn't have any of this and it tasted fine)
1 1/2 cups yellow onion, chopped
3/4 cups celery, chopped
3/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons of fresh parsley, chopped (I used dried parsley and used less)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme (1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme)
1 pound of smoked sausage cut in 1 inch pieces
1 pound of ham hocks (I didn't know what this was and didn't have time to look for it, so I didn't use it and it tasted fine)
3 tablespoons garlic, chopped
10 cups of chicken stock or water
4 cups of cooked rice (I used brown rice because I like it. But any rice would be fine)

-Soak beans covered in water in pot (8 hours or overnight). Drain and set aside
-In a large pot, heat the bacon grease (or oil) over medium high heat
-Add ham, onions, celery, and bell peppers
-Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Cook, stirring until veggies are soft
-Add bay leaves, parsley, thyme, sausage and ham hocks. Cook for 5 minutes
-Add garlic, beans, and stock or water. Bring to a boil.
-Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender and starting to thicken. About 2 hours. (If beans become too thick and dry, add more water about 1/4 cup at a time).
-Remove from heat and with the back of a heavy spoon, mash about 1/4 of the beans against the side of the pot.
-Continue to cook until the beans are tender and creamy - 15-30 minutes.
-Remove frm heat and remove bay leaves
-Serve over fresh rice. Add salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste. I don't think it needed more salt (and I love me some salt), but it's up to you.

Enjoy! It's a little involved but so worth it! I served it with some garlic bread.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Weakness Has Meaning

The ultimate purpose of God in our weakness is to glorify the kind of power that moved Christ to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. Paul said that Christ crucified was foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews, but to those who are called it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23f).

The deepest need that you and I have in weakness and adversity is not quick relief, but the well-grounded confidence that what is happening to us is part of the greatest purpose of God in the universe - the glorification of the grace and power of his Son - the grace and power that bore him to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. That's what God is building into our lives. That is the meaning of weakness, insults, hardships, persecution, calamity.

-John Piper, taken from Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God's Purpose and Provision in Suffering

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Peril of Isolation

“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” –Proverbs 18:1

No man is an island. This proverbial statement graces everything from church signs to educational material. I’ve heard it said so many times. So have you. But it’s true. Left to ourselves and our own opinions we can make anything seem right, can’t we? We can make any sinful tendency normal. We need people. We need people to provide companionship, but more importantly to provide the balance of sound judgment.

Outside input from godly friends and family provides a necessary safety net for us. When we isolate ourselves all we have is our own desire. We get what we want when we want it. We always look out for ourselves. We have our best interests at heart, don’t we? But if we are truly honest what we desire most might not always be the best thing for us. Left to the mirror of our own consciousness we can all too easily begin to see our own opinions as ultimate, and worse, our indwelling sin as minimal.

That’s what this proverb is getting at. Without the counsel, companionship, and correction of others we would spiral out of control, even to the point of spurning sound judgment. This is not a foreign concept in the Bible. In fact, it’s a common theme woven throughout the pages of Scripture. It was not good for Adam to be alone, and while this was “pre-fall,” after the arrival of sin he needed Eve all the more. The very fact that God instituted the local church, a body of redeemed sinners, to spread his glory throughout the world shows us that he never intended for it to be just me and Jesus. Let’s be honest, it’s easy to be a lone ranger. Relationships are hard. People aren’t always nice, fun to be around, or even that interesting. And sometimes we would much rather it be just us and Jesus. He’s nicer, more gracious, doesn’t ever say the wrong thing, and doesn’t get all up in our business like the people closest to us.

And that’s exactly why we need people.

The people in your local congregation are people for whom this Jesus shed his blood. Building relationships with one another is part of his perfect plan to change us and make us more like him. Sure, it’s hard work. Sure, people will hurt us, misunderstand us, and sometimes say the wrong thing to us. But that’s all part of it. They chisel us. They make us more aware and sensitive. And more importantly, they help us see sin that we didn’t even know was still there.

Regardless of your personality, the truth still stands. Even the most outgoing person can miss the principal the proverb is trying to make. We have to be willing to open our lives to people and let them see inside—even if it’s not pretty at first. Thankfully, we have a perfect example in Jesus. Of all people who could live an isolated life, he would have been the one to do it while on earth. He was God. In him was complete perfection and holiness. But he came to earth and opened his life up so we could be cleansed, forgiven, and no longer live in sinful isolation from everyone else.

So when you feel tempted to hide and live in isolation from the ones who love you and know you, remember the Savior. Not only did he obey perfectly, but he has made a way so you no longer have to live in fear of condemnation for your sins. The sound judgment you deserve was paid for by the holy, precious, and victorious Jesus. He bought you with a price and adopted you into his family.

So the saying really is true for us. In Christ, no man is an island.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday is for Fotos: Reading List

What I'm currently reading (or just recently finished).

What I want to read.

I have a lot of work to do...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For All of the Valentine's Day Haters

I used to hate Valentine's Day. In fact, my disdain for the day went so far as avoiding wearing pink or red on February 14 (and I love red!). So I understand why some people really dread this day. I was a Valentine's Day hater. Sure, when I was a little kid it was fun. Everyone got a valentine and tons of candy at school. There was no coupling and no dates. And then something happened.

Hormones blossomed and Valentine's Day moved from an excuse for an elementary school party to a day of flowers, boyfriends, and the unwelcome reality that not everyone gets to celebrate with a special someone. So what did I do? I did what any self-preserving girl would do. I loathed the day. I acted like it was no big deal that I had no valentine on Valentine's Day. I even went so far as proclaiming the day as a lame excuse for people in-love to go out and buy each other presents. Who needs Valentine's Day anyway, I thought.

And now here I am all these years later. I'm wearing red (so is my husband). I'm celebrating the day in my class today. I'm buying my husband a present. And I've honestly been looking forward to this day for weeks. You could say that I'm now a proud member of the Valentine's Day celebrator club.

What happened? How did I go from hater to lover? I now have that special someone to celebrate with. But as I look back on my years of being a Valentine's Day hater I wish I had been more honest with myself. Some people legitimately hate Valentine's Day, or are indifferent to it. There is nothing wrong with that. But I wasn't one of those people. You see, deep down I really wanted to celebrate the day. I am a hopeless romantic at heart. So instead of admitting that I really wanted a husband, I settled for being a Debbie Downer, because, let's face it, it's just a whole lot easier being a cynic than letting our true feelings show. And I wish I had been so bold. Admitting that Valentine's Day was hard for me would have opened up opportunities for people to know my heart, to know my desires, and perhaps even pray alongside me for God to grant the fulfillment of those desires.

So if you are a legitimate Valentine's Day hater, that's fine. It's not for everyone. But if your hatred for the day is really a disguise for your true desires for love, be honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that this day, like so many other holidays, can be one of great pain and longing for single people. In an often cold and loud way, it highlights what you don't have. But there is peace and contentment in recognizing what the day does for you, rather than scorning it. God knows the deepest desires of your heart anyway, so even the greatest attempts at hiding your true feelings aren't lost on him. And honestly, hating the day won't make you feel any better. Trust me, I know.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Fellowship of His Sufferings

“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” –Philippians 3:10-11

I’ve always wondered what it means to “share his sufferings.” I know that nothing we do adds to what Christ has already accomplished. I know that Jesus is perfect and I’m not anywhere close to perfection. I know that Jesus is God and, well, I’m not. So I’ve always been left wondering, how do I share in his sufferings, or as other translations say “know the fellowship of his suffering”?

I have been reading Be Still My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose and Provision in Suffering, and there is a chapter in the book that references this briefly. Here is what I have learned so far. I think that having a right perspective on my own suffering starts with understanding the suffering of Christ. No one suffered more than he did. When we are tempted to look at our own suffering as the worst anyone has ever experience, we know that we have a comforting Savior who suffered more than we could ever imagine. Understanding the suffering of Christ radicalizes my understanding of my own suffering. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, the feelings and emotions that accompany suffering are often legitimate and real. But I’m not alone in my suffering. Because I’m trusting in Christ, I’m given the benefit of beautiful fellowship with him even in the darkest night of sorrow because he has already experienced it all.

As Christians we know that our fellowship with him is not isolated to our present suffering. We get to share in his glory too. Just as our Savior was brought from sorrow, grief, and pain to heavenly glory, so we also will one day experience the same. And if we are honest with ourselves, no one has ever experienced suffering like our Christ. He was born into scandal, despised his entire adult life, and killed along with criminals. Even more than that, he faced a suffering that we as believers will never face—the judgment of the Father.

Suffering in this life is painful. Grief, loss, physical pain and discomfort, sorrow, death, and loneliness are all real and devastating. But as Christians, our suffering brings us into a fellowship with our Savior and friend, Jesus. He knows more than we even know what our trials feel like. He felt them. He gladly took them on when he didn’t deserve them. He has brought us into his fellowship of suffering as a sympathetic and caring Savior. And he is preparing a better place for us.

It is when we see our suffering as a gateway into greater fellowship with our Christ that we are able to embrace it and thank God for it. If we fight against it, grow bitter because of it, or run from it we will miss a crucial component of our sanctification. Suffering prunes us. It strips us of our sin and makes us more like Christ. But it also prepares us for greater glory yet to be realized. When we share in the sufferings of Christ, the fellowship we experience with him in the deepest pain is only a foretaste of the unending, perfect fellowship we will experience one day in glory.

And that is what we are waiting for.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Interview with Nancy Guthrie

This morning, Her.meneutics (the CT women's blog) posted an interview I did with Nancy Guthrie. She is the author of the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament bible studies that are published through Crossway. The most recent bible study (the second in the series) will be out at the end of this month, and it is as good as the first one. I have been able to review both the first and the second for The Gospel Coalition, and I loved every minute of each one.

If you aren't familiar with Nancy, you should be. She is a prolific author, having written and edited a number of books with topics ranging from Christian holidays to dealing with the death of a child. I'm currently reading Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God's Purpose and Provision in Suffering and it has ministered to me greatly. If you want to get to know her better through her most recent bible study, you can read my interview with her. And if you want a thorough Bible study that exalts Christ, then get her first two studies. You will be glad you did!

Monday, February 6, 2012

It's My Birthday, I Can Cry If I Want To

Growing up my mom always went to great lengths to ensure that our birthdays were our special day. When we were really young, we got to sit in the front seat all day. Which, if you are one of four children, is a big deal. We also were given a free pass on all chores, as well as our favorite meal for dinner. If our birthday fell on a school day, my mom would bring us lunch from McDonald's. Birthdays were a big deal in my house. As I've gotten older, February 5th has felt less and less like my birthday. My husband and my family still make me feel like a queen on that day, but as an adult I now have responsibilities that don't go away just because it's my birthday.

My brother commented on his birthday this year that as a parent he now has to remember that he can't push all responsibilities aside just because it's his birthday. His son still needs his diaper changed. His wife still needs help with the kids. And he is still the provider of his family.

The same is true for me. My husband needs me as his helper and friend just as much on February 5th as he does on February 4th and 6th (and every other day). My church still needs me as a faithful member. My friends still need me as an engaged friend. And I have responsibilities that don't end just because of my birthday.

Maybe other people don't struggle with the responsibilities of adulthood on their birthday like I do. But God had to work a ton in my heart these last few weeks to remind me that part of growing older is maturing and growing in selflessness. If the pinnacle of Christian maturity is being like our Savior, Jesus, then that means that my desires should be less and less about me and my own comfort and more about the people around me. Of course, this doesn't mean that my birthday can't be special. It just might mean that, for me, I don't get to be a baby when I don't get everything I want on my birthday.

While my mom did work hard to make our birthday special, she never allowed us to pout or cry when we didn't get the presents we wanted. As an adult, now that time and rest are the presents I want the same principle rings true. February 5th might be my birthday, but I don't have the license to cry and pout if I want to.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Be Still, My Soul

This song has been in my head all week. It's one of my favorites because the words are so rich and true. It captures the human experience so well, a daily wrestling with our own feelings and trusting in the goodness of our great God. I hope it encourages you like it does me.

Be Still, My Soul
Text: Katharina von Schlegel, 1752; trans. by Jane Borthwick, 1855

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to your God to order and provide;
in every change God faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
to guide the future, as in ages past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
the Christ who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.