Heavy Hearts

As an educator, it could be said that we, as teachers and professors, have one of the most mentally challenging jobs, yet also significantly impactful to those that we teach. Day after day, sixth or tenth-grade students just want attention, love, grace, mercy, and compassion from those who are willing to listen. These students, whether we realize it or not, crave our stamp of approval. Not only for the work they do in class, but also for how they live their lives or inform us about how they probably shouldn’t have eaten 12 fudge bars yesterday (#ohmylanta). Though many will say that students don’t care what you think (and many students themselves will say this too), especially in public schools, deep down, they genuinely do care.  All jokes aside, we can tell this by how many times they try to interrupt class with a random question, comment, or snarky remark.

“Ms. Ginter, Can I go to the bathroom?”

“Ms. Ginter, When is your boyfriend going to propose to you?” (#WHAT?!)

“Ms. Ginter, I am getting a pet bird soon. And I wanted to tell you what happened to the kitten we found!”

“Ms. Ginter, Can you check this before I turn it in?”

“Ms. Ginter, What do you know about Ohio State?”

“Ms. Ginter, I spelled Michigan as L-O-S-E-R, do I get an A?” (well-played kiddo, well-played)

Run to Jesus

Don’t believe me yet? Think about it. When you want to tell your best friend, parent, spouse, family member about the best part of your week, or something that happened, why do you tell them? Probably because they listen, actually care, give good advice, and want the best for you. When you talk, they give you the time of day (I pray) and make you feel loved, meaningful, and valued. Isn’t that too, what these kids want deep down? To feel accepted, treasured, like they have value in this life? Absolutely. Isn’t that what Jesus wants us to run to Him for as well? To seek our validation, worth, and purpose in Him alone rather than all these other earthly things? Even if it’s merely to tell him how much you love granola? Especially if it’s just those insurmountable affairs of irrelevance to your everyday life, he wants us to trust and to seek him out in all things. 

This week, in particular, was a rough week at work. And when I say rough, I mean rough as in I had caught sinusitis and had no voice to teach with (#talkaboutaproblemforatalker). However, counting my gains instead of my losses, it was probably one of the most significant weeks of my teaching experience so far. During an exchange with one of my students, he told me that his sister had an unforeseen circumstance occur, and without another thought, I patiently listened to him, expressed concern, and told him to keep me posted as I would be praying. Later that evening, I received an email from that students’ parents thanking me for caring about their family and taking the time to have the heart of Jesus towards every student that shares their “heavy heart.”

Sitting for a full five minutes in utter disbelief of the “thank you,” I couldn’t help but smile towards Heaven and know in my heart that though I long to write full-time, this is why I am presently here. That, if even for a second, minute, day, week, month, year, I can make someone feel important, not alone, valued, loved, and worth something to Christ, then it was worth it. As the Scriptures say in Philippians 3:8-10, 

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. – Philippians 3:8-10

And you know what? Maybe that was listening to him or the girl the week before about how she ate too many desserts — or commenting on how I overeat granola (probably accurate ;)). Maybe it was taking a few extra minutes at the start of class to pray for them and ask them how they are doing? Perhaps it was not stressing out when they wasted five minutes of class asking me random questions about my food allergies and hatred towards candy bars (#truestory). But you know, if I showed them Jesus in those moments, truly listened, and loved them, then I gave them something I can never get back (time), and that is what I believe Christ calls all of us to do wherever we are.

Whether you are an attorney, teacher, preacher, writer, counselor, mechanic, you name it, Jesus Christ will use you to change lives with the ability to hold, account, and pray for those “heavy hearts.” He will strengthen you when you are weak and pour truths into you when you are down. He alone will encourage you when you are suffering, but push you to press on (like when the same kid asks you 22 times if they can go to the bathroom and you still say no). He will cover you in His constant grace, forgiveness, mercy, and love so that you have enough to receive it, but also allow it to overflow into the lives of those you touch daily.

Restoration of Heavy Hearts

Speaking of touching lives, isn’t it funny when God restores your once fragmented and broken heart by revealing a revelation of His work in you? One that you don’t notice its overwhelming impact until it rests upon you?   

Coining the term “heavy hearts,” I find it less than a mere coincidence that the boy who told me about his sister’s circumstance is a brother-in-law to the guy I had a massive crush on in high school and never thought I’d get over. At one time, that guy broke my heart so badly that I never thought I’d be able to laugh, smile, let alone, love, ever again (#someofmyfirstpostsever). Yet in some shade of healing, grace, and growth, here I am now over five years later, head over heels in “like” with my boyfriend (we haven’t said “I Love You” yet), who doesn’t pale in comparison to this old love, but undoubtedly surpasses it in colors more vibrant than the rainbow. 

That somehow, someway, God took what I thought was broken in me and replaced it with a love so much deeper than I ever knew existed- not just for my boyfriend, but for God himself. And for one of the first moments in my life, when that little boy mentioned his brother-in-law’s loss, I hurt for Him. I felt discomfort for a guy I once associated with a broken heart, who had now just experienced the grief of his own far more significant than I could ever fathom. As I prayed for him and his wife, I began to realize that maybe heartbreaks aren’t all that terrible.  

Do they hurt? Absolutely. Do I wish they didn’t exist? Without doubt. But do they push us to love again? More profound, fuller, and more abundantly in Christ than we ever knew existed in our once fragile state of shattered mentality.

So are “heavy hearts” heavy? As heavy as a cement block sinking you deeper into the ocean where no light seems to break through. And will the pain feel like you’re dying? Surely, as it will hurt more than anything you’ve ever known. 

But are they worth it? Thousand times over to know that in your compassion, heartbreak, and sorrow, you’ve not only shown the love of Christ to someone, but made them feel important, cherished, valued, loved, and of worth–even if for just that second.

To have a “heavy heart” is part of counting it all as loss for the gain of Christ. Because in giving His life for ours, isn’t that what Jesus did for us hanging from the cross? “Father, forgive them,” He cried out in torment. “For they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV).

But Jesus? He knew what He was doing for us as He breathed His last breath. He knew what heartbreak felt like, dying on a cross, taking our pain upon His shoulders, asking His Father why it had to be this way. Jesus knew that to “live is Christ, and to die is gain,” holding every incident of each “heavy heart” and sorrow we have, had, or will ever endure (Philippians 1:21, NIV).

A “heavy heart,” my friends, is perhaps worth it all in the end. 

Justified by Works? Rethinking James 2:14-26

This summer, I have had the privilege of leading and discipling incoming college freshmen who are working at Sky Ranch. Part of the curriculum is going through the book of James verse by verse. I have been very excited to teach through this book since it has been very controversial since the beginning of the Reformation. James 2:14-26 specifically has been the epicenter of the controversy. Protestants teach that we are declared righteous before by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, v. 21 says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” and v. 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This passage seems on its face to clearly refute the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, as we will see, rigorous exegesis proves otherwise.

Another interpretation that will be addressed is the interpretation that James is talking about the final judgment. There have been Protestants who believe in justification by faith alone that this passage is referring to the final judgment where God will evaluate the life of the professing Christian and will judge whether or not his or her faith was genuine. It is my contention that rigorous exegesis will prove this proposition otherwise as well. Moreover, I believe that rigorous exegesis will demonstrate that James is much more gracious than we give him credit for. This is James’ proposition in 2:14-26:

If there is no fruit in the life of the professing believer, it is evidence for the church to know the fact that person has not received the grace of God. – James 2:14-26

Or to put it more positively:

The free, abundant, steadfast grace of God will inevitably produce the fruit of holiness in the life of the Christian.

I believe this proposition can be validated by simply diving into one of James’ examples for a faith that works: the life of Abraham.

 

What is True Faith?

James is not the only place in Scripture that talks about true faith. The apostle Paul also talks about faith that saves in Romans.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23-24

True faith recognizes that there is nothing we can do on our own to be righteous before God. Faith recognizes that we have sinned against a holy God who requires perfection. The medieval saying goes like this: “God will not deny grace to those who do what is within them.” The problem is there is nothing within us. Our whole being is corrupted by sin (Romans 3:10-18). This is why our justification before God must be a free gift of God’s grace as it says in v. 24. Have you ever paid your parents back or worked for your Christmas presents? No! What did you do on Christmas Day? You merely received the gracious gifts of your parents. So faith is a receiving of the grace of God, as the hymn goes, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

Paul then goes on to say, 

And to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. – Romans 4:5

Faith and works are contrasted here. If you’re not working, what are you doing? Resting! True faith rests in the finished work of Christ. As one pastor says, “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”

On his way to face trial in Rome, a dangerous storm threatened the lives on the ship that Paul was aboard. But God revealed to him that they would all survive. Paul proclaims to the passengers aboard,

So take heart men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. – Acts 27:25

True faith has the knowledge of what God’s word says and simply takes Him at His word, despite what may seem true to our eyes. What does our God proclaim to us? 

All the Father gives to me will come to me and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. – John 6:37

Despite our eyes and hearts telling us that God only deals with us on the basis of justice, we take God at His word that He will never cast us out for anything or any sin. Our faith knows what Christ has said and we will trust it over our heart. We will be as reconciled to God on Judgment Day as we are now. It will be exactly as we have been told.

 

True Faith Produces Works

According to James, the faith that saves will produce good works, as he writes in 2:18,

But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – James 2:18

Central to James’ concern is refuting a Christianity that has “faith” but no works. Good works are evidence before others that our faith is genuine. But look closely at James’ opponents. The quotation not only lists a practice of having faith without works but also having works without faith. For James, faith and works cannot be separated. Faith produces good works. But if you put works before faith, and do rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ for salvation, you will have neither salvation nor good works. All of our good works are nothing but “splendid sins” in the eyes of God apart from the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

 

Justification by Works?

Abraham is used by James as an example of a believer that demonstrates his faith through obedience to God. But first things first. Was Abraham justified by works? No, and yes. No, in the sense that he was declared righteous before the throne of God by his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the context of James, the least infraction of God’s law renders one guilty (2:10). It doesn’t matter if one is faithful to his or her spouse, if one murders someone. You’re still a rotten sinner before the holiness and purity of God.

In the context of the entire Bible, Paul is very clear that Abraham was not justified by works. Paul writes, 

For what does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. – Romans 4:3-5

Abraham was an ungodly pagan who worshipped the gods of the Chaldeans. It was not Abraham who first came to God, but God first came to Abraham and gave him the promise to bless all nations through him, which was ultimately fulfilled when the offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ, took away the curse and blessed all who believe in Him with forgiveness and righteousness. Salvation does not come to the deserving, but to those who have done everything to deserve the wrath of God yet have rested in the One who has exhausted the wrath of God for them.

What About the Final Judgment?

Is there an initial justification based upon grace and a final justification based upon works? James is clear this is not the case. James says nothing about how Abraham’s works justified him before God in the final judgment. Instead, v. 21 says Abraham was justified when he offered up Isaac, which happened thousands of years ago. Moreover, this justification is before other believers, not before God. Verse 24 says, “You see,” not “God sees.” Finally, when we face the final judgment nothing that we have done will merit entrance into the new heaven and new earth. The only condition is having been written in the lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). God’s judgment will “Passover” those who have covered themselves in the blood of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

 

The Example of Abraham

Verse 23 says that when Abraham offered up Isaac in obedience to God’s command the “Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’” James is clear: Abraham’s good works only evidenced the fact that he was justified by faith alone. But take a closer look. Abraham’s justification before God is announced in Genesis 15. Abraham’s good works happen in Genesis 22. What happened between Genesis 15 and 22?

In Genesis 16, Abraham does not trust God’s promise to bring offspring from Sarai. Instead, he attempts to get the offspring through Hagar (16:24). Paul identifies this historical event as allegorical for attempting to be justified by works (Galatians 4:23-24) which merits no blessing of God, but the curse of God (3:10). Not only did Abraham not believe God (the greatest sin of all), he also committed adultery against his wife Sarai. And as we will know “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).

How did God respond to Abraham’s sins? He again promises that Sarah will bear him a son and that kings will come from her (Genesis 17:16). But Abraham laughed at God and offered up Ishmael, the offspring of Hagar, as a substitute for God’s plan to bless all nations. I can think of nothing more terrifying than laughing at a holy God and offering up what the Bible calls “polluted garments” to His purity (Isaiah 64:6). But God, in the very next verse, still promises Isaac will come from Sarah (Genesis 17:19).

In Genesis 18, Sarah is found laughing at God’s promise to bring offspring from her (v. 12). This is evidence of the fact that Abraham was not leading his wife well spiritually. He should have been constantly reminding her of God’s promise. But God still promises that all nations of the earth will be blessed in him (v. 18).

In Genesis 20, Abraham lied to Abimelech, king of Gerar, that Sarah was his sister and allowed Abimelech to almost sleep with her (v. 2-6). If you know your Bible, you would know that Abraham did the exact same thing in Genesis 12:10-16. Abraham lied to Pharaoh not only for his self-preservation but also for his own gain (v. 16). There is debate as to whether Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 12 when God first appeared to him or in Genesis 15 when his justification is formally announced by the author. In any case, you either have Abraham committing the same sins when he was an unbeliever or committing habitual sin as a believer. Not great for the Romanist interpretation or the Pietist interpretation.

How did God respond to Abraham’s innumerable sins in Genesis 21? The birth of Isaac. The one God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Exactly as they were told.

What happened in Genesis 22? God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up Isaac (v. 1). And he obeyed. Why did he obey? “He considered that God was able to even raise him from the dead…” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham’s trust in the grace of God and demonstrated to the world his faith by his works.

 

Takeaways

James 2:14-26 brought to mind three problems that are universal to the Christian experience:

1) We do not fully realize the grace of God in the midst of our sins as Christians. God did not revoke His grace to Abraham; neither will he from you. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

2) We do not have a realistic expectation of fruit in the life of the Christian. Abraham’s life was full of sin with good works sprinkled in. We ought not to lose heart when we look at ourselves. As Martin Luther said, “When I look to myself, I don’t see how I could be saved. But when I look to Jesus, I don’t see how I could ever be lost.”

3) We do not understand how the grace of God creates and motivates the fruit of holiness in the life of the Christian. Abraham’s life is evidence of the fact that God is “rich in mercy” and desires to lavish us with “the immeasurable riches of His grace.” It is also evidence of the fact that the richness of God’s mercy will inevitably overwhelm a believer to the point that a believer’s heart will overflow with God’s love for God and neighbor. 

 

When Hunger Pains Strike

I don’t know about you, but I probably get “hangry” a bit more often than I should, especially if it includes a lack of cereal and granola in the diet.  But all jokes regarding physical food aside, what about when we are hungry for something that food and water can’t satisfy?  Like the Sahara Desert running deep inside of our veins, what happens when we are starving for things that only God can provide?

The Need for Hunger

In the Scriptures of Psalm 107:9, the Psalmist remarks, 

For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things. Psalm 107:9

We are hungry and dependent on God to fill us up in an overflowing manner.  Just as a mother bird provides for her young, so too does God dig up our nourishment and feed it into our bodies that are often frail and weak from lack of His power within us.  Therefore, perhaps it is good to be dry and empty, perhaps starving, so that He can fill us back up with more of Him and satisfy our deepest longings.

Think about it, if your stomach clock never went off, you would never know you were hungry, and thus, you wouldn’t put vitamins, minerals, and nutrients back into your body from lack of realizing what you needed.  If we didn’t experience these hunger pains, as minimal or monumental as they might be, we would never realize our need and dependence on food and water to sustain our bodies.  In the same way, sometimes God allows us to reach a point of dryness in order to recognize our need and ultimate longing for Him.  Without experiencing this thirst, this saltwater in our lungs that seems to tickle our vocal cords until we rinse it out would never recognize a need for cleansing.

The Only One Who Can Satisfy the Hunger

Through the Scripture listed above, we accordingly learn two things: 1) God satisfies the longing soul, and 2) He fills the hungry soul with good things.  This tells us that we are hungry when we are at our wit’s end and have nothing left of ourselves to give. That is when God comes in to provide us with good things!  He never has us experience hunger unless He is going to use that hunger to bring us closer to Him and satisfy that need. With this, I ask you, what are you hungry for today?  What are you searching for in life?  What are you really starving for?  What desires are you craving that overtakes your heart, soul, and mind?

When you think about a longing soul, how do you achieve your satisfaction?  Do you hope to find it in a new job, relationship status, career, adventure?  Does your soul crave to make money and buy things, or help the poor find Jesus?  Whatever it may be, God reminds us that unless we have chosen to place Him first in our lives and seek His Will above all else, the dull and aching hunger pains inside of us will still remain.  Like young lions hunting for prey, we will “suffer want and hunger” but find no rest (Psalm 34:10a, ERV).  Yet, for those who have marked the King as their most prized possession and are living for what He wants regardless of the cost, “those who seek the Lord [will] lack no good thing” (Psalm 34:10b, ERV).  Though the lions “may roar and growl” in hunger (Job 4:10-11), God will always provide for His children as our “sun and shield” (Psalm 84:11, ERV).  Unto Him, praise the Lord who “executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:7, ERV).

God will always quench our thirst.  Even in our driest seasons and most excruciating hunger, if we come to Him and ask, “Lord, here I am, please satisfy these desires and longings in me,” He will surely provide the most delicious five-course meal that you’ve ever tasted, according to His will.  One that satisfies desires so much deeper than physical hunger but penetrates the spiritual soul.

The next time you get hungry for something, rather a meal, your next adventure, or something you know your heart doesn’t really need, think about what you are longing for and why.  At the root of your hunger, diagnose the conditions for which you desire and allow those pangs of craving to draw you closer to the one who perhaps made you hungry in the first place.  Remember, “and the hungry soul He fills with good things” (Psalm 107:9, ERV). Similarly, Mary in her hunger for a child chose to praise God for the blessing within her that would soon save the world (Jesus). 

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.Luke 1:53

God, like Mary I hunger for the promises you provide and the desires you have placed in my heart to seek you fully.  To serve you authentically with a brave heart that doesn’t question amidst the pain, but simply chooses to listen, submit, and obey.  You whisper to me in Luke 6:21 that, 

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. – Luke 6:21

Hunger for God as you wait, question, endure, and hope amidst whatever strikes.  I promise you that He will satisfy you like nothing ever has before.

Lose Control

“Did you do any homework today, babe?” My voice asked with curiosity, full of optimism. 

“Well,” his voice shook uneasiness through the crackling telephone line. 

My rage began to boil.

Deep breaths, Amber, my soul sought to comfort the anguish. 

“What about working out or seeing a mentor?” My inquiry begged for relief.

“I’ll have to see,” his age-old reply wounded the “no” I knew would soon resound. 

I am going to explode; the thoughts in my mind repeatedly swirled over that which I desperately wanted to control but couldn’t. 

“Well, I’m still proud of you,” the words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them.

Where the heck did that reply come from? I thought as arguments flooded my mind.

My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you, the Holy Spirit nudged as I slowly swallowed my pride and told loverboy I loved him, would be praying, and wished him a good night. 

The Desire to Control

I have to confess that control is something that I have struggled with since childhood, and it wasn’t until young adulthood that I realized the poison of its possession.

As a little girl, my parents often asked me if I wanted siblings. The squeamish “no” identified my desire to give orders.

In my teenage years, I attempted to rule over my guardians’ entertainment choices as if I were the leader and they were the followers. 

By young adulthood, I desired perfection and order, manipulation and inflexibility to make me and only me happy. 

In my relationship, codependency wasn’t helpful. I needed to learn to hold onto hope for people without trying to change them. 

Even in adulting and finding a career, I have sought to direct and lead in many ways, even though I know God has a purpose and place for where I’m resting stagnant at the moment. 

Losing Control

Between the smooth crevasses of the oak floor beneath my calloused knees and the palms of my clenched hands, I heard the gentle whisper to lose control, not just loosen control.

Extending my arms and releasing a death-grip on situations weighing heavy on my heart, I felt the Lord speak. I had to give it up. I had to give him up. I had to trust the promises through broken hopes and faltering dreams. I needed to surrender fully, His Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done, Here as it is in Heaven (Matt. 6:10).

Like tape sticking to a package, I peeled myself off the floor. My feet now stood on solid ground as I left the burden off my shoulders at the foot of the altar.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30, ESV

Jesus’ voice resounded from the rafters. 

Because, without realizing it, I’d been carrying around these packages of life, people, relationships, and jobs like they were from UPS for me to sign, seal, and deliver. But, at the exact moment I surrendered every ounce of control to God’s Postal System, the gifts I had been waiting to see, arrived faster than Amazon Prime Shipping. 

In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob faces a similar predicament of longing for dominance, especially amid the unknown. After stealing more than a bowl of stew from his brother Esau, Jacob fully expects all of Hell’s wrath to come blazing like a furnace. Yet, when Esau runs to embrace him in love (Genesis 33), Jacob’s anxiety is met in forgiveness. 

But that fulfillment, you see, does not come until Genesis chapter 33. 

Meanwhile, in Genesis 32, day after day, Jacob had created “what if” scenarios that I believe many of us do when we get frightened about the unknown. Searching for anything sure to hold onto, we pride ourselves on the certainty of rules, laws, and assurances, forgetting that not even tomorrow is guaranteed (Proverbs 27:1, ESV). 

Despite this turmoil of the mind, Jacob prayed and relied on God for protection and provision (Genesis 32: 1-32; Genesis 33:1-20, ESV). Alone until the breaking of day, Jacob wrestled with God (Genesis 32:22-32). He wanted to fix this mess he had made and know how the situation would turn out. He didn’t want to face tomorrow, predicting tomorrow was forecasted out of his predicament. 

We, too, often want to have our problems figured out. But in these moments of fighting and uncertainty, the Lord will restore us. Like Jacob, He will change our names, and we will be stronger from the fight.

After gaining little advantage in his confrontation, the Lord conquered Jacob and changed his name to Israel, which means God rules. I find it no coincidence that this moment was a significant turning point for him. 

Prior, Jacob’s anxiety involved fear, but now that he was alone with God, he needed to thank and remember His faithfulness. But you know what else he did? He questioned how God would now work in his life after all the sins and messes he had made. 

Through crimson roses and thorn pricked fingers, the Lord scuffled the pride and self-reliance out of a man that sought authority. Jacob tried to match God, to take control, but the Lord was stronger; He always was, and He always will be. 

Today, I believe we all try to hold onto our ways, whether they be the plans we aim to keep or people we try to boss around. For me, I struggle to trust God in the moments when I cannot see the future, or He scrambles up my plans to scrabble the fruition and beauty of His. 

In the middle of our control-freak issues, in that place, the Lord blesses us there. But it’s only when we release control that we gain true freedom. 

Surrendering Control

While I know that I have said things like this before, the day after I released this aching desire to command anything to bow to my name, God showed me the beauty of humbling myself so that everything may surrender wholly to Him. Although my innate urge for these quests seemed innocent and curious, I didn’t realize the sin of attempting to take God’s job and place it on my shoulders. Again, these were burdens and fulfillments of plans I was never meant to carry. 

In resignation, I stopped telling my boyfriend what I thought he should do and encouraged him in what he desired to pursue. 

At the foot of the cross, I bled my heart to God through mangled words.

“What’s my purpose?”

“How do I get there?”

“How do I live in the spaces between the not yet, but almost?”

“Why do I have these desires but fail to see them answered?”

“Lord, I submit these unknowns to you.”

From the corners of my messy heart, I asked friends to pray on behalf of me as I continuously walk through these struggles, especially the ones unforeseen and startling to my unplanned, neophobic soul.

Remembering that in the beauty of chaos, in unstructured days, and in releasing my powerless grip, there are unexpected blessings that pour forth in ways that only God can explain.

Lost Control

In my upcoming memoir, The Story I’ve Never Told, my memoir speaks of this fight for control. While I’ve conquered many past issues, it is obvious that our innate desire as humans is to understand what’s happening and plan for it. We like to know what to expect, and if you’re a spontaneous planner like me, ambivalence rings a void known as anxiety.

Painted in darkness, I struggle to see the light when questions fill my mind, or when I want desperately plans to follow through, so much so that I am willing to compromise anything to achieve it. But God never asked me to control this life; He asked me to live it and bring glory to His name in the process. 

A person may have many ideas concerning God’s plan for his life, but only the designs of his purpose will succeed in the end – Proverbs 19:21, TPT

Who can command things to happen without the Lord’s permission? – Lamentations 3:37, NLT 

May the words of Jeremiah be your prayer today:

I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own. We are not able to plan our own course. – Jeremiah 10:23, NLT 

In a submission of surrender, abandon yourself to God’s rhythm. Do not be surprised when unanswered prayers get answered, but not in the way you thought they would, and miracles fall from Heaven cascade as your floodgates have lost control. 

New Morning Mercies (A Review)

This is a book review on Paul David Tripp’s New Morning Mercies

As a twenty-five-year-old young adult, it can be difficult for me to remember what life was like before I met Jesus at eight years old—peering into my father’s eyes at 2:30 a.m. From that moment forward, everything I did was for the Gospel, and while I am not perfect, my relationship with Him from an early age prevented much hardship in the future.

In 2 Corinthians chapter five, Paul explains this transformation that took place in me as being made into a new creation.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here. – 2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV

The Passion Translation coins this as not only a new entity but a new spirit that starkly contrasts the old ways we leave behind, replacing them with fresh and new life. 

Now, if anyone is enfolded into Christ, he has become an entirely new person. All that is related to the old order has vanished. Behold, everything is fresh and new. – 2 Corinthians 5:17, TPT

In the same way that partaking in an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ presents newness to our lives, sometimes, we all need a fresh outlook on studying the Gospel. 

 

What is New Morning Mercies? What is the aim of this devotional?

Since I got saved and baptized at an early age, I read over one hundred different devotional books, commentaries, versions, and translations of Scripture by the time I reached early adulthood. Yet, I was still looking for something more. I was longing for something to take me deeper instead of surface-level material you will often find in juvenile literature.

When my best friend gave me New Morning Mercies for my birthday, I was ecstatic. I knew that she often felt the same way I did regarding devotionals, so I trusted her generosity. I was tired of reading things applicable for high school and college students but finding nothing that challenged my greater cognitive skills. One page into this book, and I was hooked. 

The windows of my mind expanded, and my heart began to grow. This devotional not only presented New Morning Mercies for 365 days, but every lesson offered space for reflection, questions for discussion, and supplemental paired reading for an extension. Never in my life have I read a devotional like this that cuts to the chase about Christ, but presents the Gospel in an authentic and applicable way. 

 

Where This Book Excelled

Not For the Faint of Heart

While other devotionals I have read speak gently about the Gospel, I fear that far too many tip-toe around serious topics that need to be addressed. Instead of dabbling in small and simplistic truths that are evident to most, Tripp dives deeper and isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions. 

In 1 Corinthians chapter three, Paul again says that those who are mature in the faith must challenge themselves with solid spiritual food. If we’re always running back to milk, we won’t grow. Like a weaned child learning to digest solid food so he can mature and grow, we need books like these to examine our faith and challenge us with practical steps for growth. While some are not yet ready for this food, those who are need to be willing to step out of their comfort zones to be challenged. 

I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Even now you are still not ready. – 1 Corinthians 3:2, AMP

The Message version writes it bluntly this way: 

But for right now, friends, I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You’re acting like infants in relation to Christ, capable of nothing much more than nursing at the breast. Well, then, I’ll nurse you since you don’t seem capable of anything more. As long as you grab for what makes you feel good or makes you look important, are you really much different than a babe at the breast, content only when everything’s going your way? When one of you says, “I’m on Paul’s side,” and another says, “I’m for Apollos,” aren’t you being totally childish. – 1 Corinthians 3:2, MSG

If you are ready for a challenge and devotional that will take you deeper, Tripp presents applicable lessons for late-college-aged students up to mid-level adults, but beware: it isn’t for the faint of heart! Not only will these segments push you, but they might convict you to the core. 

 

Be Open to Conviction

Unlike previous books I have read for daily devotionals, I was impressed with Tripp’s ability to speak profound truths in a way that the Holy Spirit always talked to my heart. 

Hebrews 5:12-14 reminds us to be open to this heart of conviction in our relationship with the Lord, for a spirit of stagnancy is one that we are never meant to rest within and stay. Again, this is why Paul writes in Hebrews the importance of continually maturing, challenging, and growing our faith. Reading devotionals and commentaries that do not push us is not worth our spiritual investment. We must be willing to search and do the difficult work if we want to mature in our intimacy with the Lord.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. – Hebrews 5:12-14, ESV

 

Where This Book Fell Short?

While I have nothing too critical to say about Tripp’s novel, I will note that many devotionals took me a few reads to understand. I still found the material challenging with a biblical degree because many of the lessons took quite a few reads to wrap my head around. While this could be because I was tired and not as focused in the morning, I think many sections could’ve been clarified or shortened with more straightforward explanations. 

Second, although the book is called New Morning Mercies, I often found that the lessons could be read during any time of the day, though the title would beg to differ. I would have also liked to see more questions for the application and connections to the supplemental reading. 

 

Who Should Read This Book?

Contrary to the title, anyone with a basic understanding of the Gospel would benefit from this book. While I would not recommend this devotional for new believers, I believe that those with biblical degrees or extensive knowledge of Jesus will grow from reading its contents. 

The topic is relatively simple: Every day, young or old, old Christian or new, we need to be willing to listen for how the Lord may speak in new and fresh ways. If morning is your time for that, then allow New Morning Mercies to flood over your soul, but don’t be surprised if you read it in the evening and find New Evening Mercies are possible as well. Don’t confine God to a box or restrict a book to its title. The possibilities are endless, and if you are willing, Tripp may speak truths that convict, heal, and prompt your growing soul. 

Women of the Word in the World

I grew up in a Church where women were not allowed to even read the Bible on pulpit unless her husband read first. I was taught that Bathsheba slept around and Hagar was an evil woman. I was taught that the extent of Jesus’ interactions with women remained with healing and His mother. No one taught me that Bathsheeba was a victim, who was powerless to say no to the all powerful king. I was never taught that she is the inspiration behind the Proverbs 31 women, the passage that defines a God honoring women. It wasn’t taught in Sunday School that Hagar had to do as she was told as a servant to Abraham, and paid the consequences of his disobedience by being forced into banishment from her people. It’s not common knowledge that Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus, and due to women determining the household finances, Jesus’ ministry was funded by women. God’s heart and design is for women.

If you’re like me, and unfortunately it isn’t rare, you might’ve grown up in a church with an outlook of “the division of men and women are separate and not equal.” Then when you press and ask questions about this, you are immediately shut-down with responses such as verses taken out of context, or a “it’s not in the circle of importance.”

Roles within the Circle

The roles and importance of women in the Bible may fall on the second or third most outermost circle in each individual’s lives, depending on where they are at, and who they are. For me, in order to find joy and assurance in who God has created me to be as a woman, to serve Him how I was created to, and love others fully and completely, I seek understanding on what it means to be a woman. Whereas to others they may be seeking understanding on other matters. That is why the second and third circle fluctuate depending on which believer is in their own personal relationship with the Lord and depending on the convictions placed on their hearts by the Lord.

Truth in the Bible

Specifically as it pertains to women’s roles according to the Bible, it’s important to have a humbled heart posture because we as humans can often fall to trends of culture. Remember the Bible is countercultural, it should expose hard places in our hearts, it should be convicting. This is what must be in the front of our mind as we discuss women’s roles, and I am guilty of this more than anyone else. We need to seek truth. Truth does not always align with our hearts; it aligns with the Lord’s heart.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17

The first time women are mentioned in the Bible is in the account of creation in Genesis 2. For some clarification, many theologians argue that Genesis 2 is recounting Genesis 1, and the 7-day creation. “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him,” (Gen. 2:20b). The word used here helper, does not mean what is often thought is used. Helper in this context does not mean “assistant” or “attendant”. The Hebrew word used is; עֵזֶר – ezer; which is also used throughout The Bible such as Exodus 18:4, “and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”)”. And in Psalms 33:20, “Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.” Therefore, we can conclude that women were created to come alongside men and compliment the roles of men. Just as God breathed life into men, women were created in God’s image.

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my life; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. – Genesis 2:23

Leadership

Another common question or argument presented is when The Bible describes the roles of pastor and elder. First, let’s acknowledge that pastor and leader is not a synonym used for leadership. Pastor and elder are specific roles and examples of Church leadership.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. – 1 Timothy 3:1-2

Now in all humility and honesty I struggle to understand and accept the description of men in these verses, in my pride. The reason it is not uncommon for women to struggle with the aforementioned ideas, is because this is a direct result of the curse after the original sin in the Bible. As it says in Genesis 3:16b, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” It’s really easy to fall into the way of thinking of the world we live in. Equality sounds good, and it’s actually a Biblical idea. That men and women are equal, I mean Eve was made out of Adam’s rib, taken from his side, as we are to walk alongside one another. Yet, the meaning of equality gets deluded in the language of the world. Equal does not mean exact replicas, equal means to hold the same value, to not be greater or less. Yet, we see equality as merely being the exact same, but when confronted with Biblical truth, equality means the same in value. Distinct and unique, but made with the same purpose; to enter into a relationship with God, and reflect His heart onto the world. Just as with money, there may be someone with four quarters, and another with a single dollar bill. Would anyone argue that one of those people holds more money than another? No. Though the physical appearance looks different, each holds the same value.

Called According to One’s Gifts

However, in this it’s important to recognize and understand that the roles of elder and pastor are not the only roles within the Church that are synonymous with leadership. Yes, these roles are leadership within the Church, but this does not mean in any sense that women cannot be in any leadership role. There are amazing women God has gifted who speak, write curriculum, lead worship, head ministries and non-profits, and lead those around them in a God honoring and monumentally impactful ways. Women can and should lead whenever God presents an opportunity to love Him and love His people.

This leads to another common topic surrounding women and Christianity is the question, are men and women gifted differently by God? Although this question is often not addressed or directly answered, it’s important to realize that the actions or people in the Church answer this question unintentionally. When women are not given the opportunity to lead in any capacity, the message being given is that women should not/cannot lead, which is dangerous because it takes out half of God’s beloved creation made in His image. But, when we empower women to walk in the way “worthy of the calling they’ve received,” we make room for the Holy Spirit to move through His vessels.

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. – Romans 12:6-8

Each gift was given not based on gender, but rather as a unifying factor of the people of God. Those with the gift of teaching should teach. Those with the gift of giving, should give. Regardless of gender, each person is called to serve the Lord.

This conversation derives from a serious misunderstanding. Church, please hear this: Your women are seeking clarity, and out of these mixed messages come hurt and hard hearts. Women, hear this: You are beyond loved and treasured. You have infinite worth and value and God is ready to use you and work through you. Teach those around you what the Lord is teaching you regardless of platform. Talk to the audience, the social media following, the people at the coffee shop, whoever God lays before you. We are the body, we are the bride. Who are we to limit the worth of others? Both men and women are gifted and guided. Women hold distinct and unique value as given by God.

Jesus Knew, But Judas Ate Too

Loving our enemies and those who persecute us can be difficult when those adversaries are our friends and family members. While they may not inherently be on our top list of foes to avoid at work or the grocery store, disputes between them and us can get ugly.

Although I’d like to pretend that I get along with everyone 100% of the time, Jesus would frown down on me from Heaven, I am sure. As an independent and stubborn twenty-five-year-old, I am confrontational more than I am passive. 

When it comes to problem-solving with my boyfriend, this is great. I ask if we can talk, and generally, the problem is resolved simply through listening to one another. If my mom, boyfriend, or choice friend rubs me the wrong way during “that time of the month,” however, I am all too quick to leap on impulse. The words spew from my mouth like fire, and I am immediately remorseful for my embarrassing and un-Christlike actions. 

I’ve tasted that bitterness from others, and I’m ashamed to say that I have given it as well. Painted in red splotches against my face and skin, I’m reminded of my fallenness as a sinful human on this planet. 

My heart breaks thinking of the friends who have chosen to forsake me or others at times, or the arguments that were never worth having in the first place. Anxiety reminds me of harsh expressions spoken too soon or critiques of hypocrisy given to those I love that would’ve been better applied to myself, and I weep. 

Because even in the disagreements of righteousness and all things holy, Jesus Knew, But Judas Ate Too. And I cannot even begin to fathom that kind of love.

In a moment of natural rage and disappointment, Jesus washed the feet of every man that would soon betray Him. Looking into the eyes of whom would kiss His cheek in return for a few mere pieces of silver, He said this is my body broken for you, and my blood poured out for you that you may live (Matt. 26:26-28). I am confident Jesus’ fully human-God heart felt a twinge of pain knowing the words of the Disciple that would never leave His side would fall short of their actions. 

At the end of the day, me being moody or someone not treating me right is never an excuse to not be kind. Sure, it’s good to stand up for yourself and what you believe in, especially regarding the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. However, in matters of simple disagreement, is it worth it to voice your opinion at the cost of your character? Is being right more valuable than showing Jesus to a broken and hurting world? 

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person – Col. 4:5-6

Father, forgive me

Jesus Christ was accused unfairly of blasphemy (to Himself), unrighteously condemned, and sentenced to a criminal’s death on a cross. Yet when all of this happened, the people mocked Him for staying silent. And when He did decide to speak, His words blessed those who persecuted Him. 

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. – Matthew 27:39-44, NIV 

“Save yourself,” their voices mocked. 

“Don’t you realize this is the Son of God?” a small voice inquires.

“He can’t even rescue Himself. How can He save us?” the voices grow. 

Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing – Luke 23:34 

Surely He was the Son of God,” the centurion’s faith surprised himself as Jesus breathed His last and the Temple curtain was torn – Matthew 27:54 

Not once did Jesus forsake God’s mission for Him even when those around Him treated Him like the scum of the earth. Even when He knew His friends and own Father would abandon Him on a cross, He followed through, seeing the cross as a charity to carry rather than a burden to bear. 

When Jesus Christ hung from that cross with nail-pierced hands, His heart, mind, and soul endured the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual abandonment that none of us can ever come close to experiencing. He was communicating, I know everything you’ve done and ever will do, but still, I choose you

So, friends, I think it is time we start living out that Jesus knew Judas would betray Him, but he still fed Him, too. And whether we would admit it in humbleness or not, He knew we would forsake Him time and time again, too, but still chose to break His body and shed His blood so that we may be fully satisfied in communion with Him. 

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions. – 1 Corinthians 11, NIV

Prayer for today:

Lord, today help us remember that you knew every time we would and ever will forsake you, yet you choose us anyways. In your love, allow us to show love to others no matter the cost. Please help us to bear our crosses and examine our hearts that we may be found holy and righteous in your eyes. As we face Judas of our accord, including ourselves, gently remind us that you knew, but Judas ate too. Help us to feed our enemies and those who hurt us with the grace, truth, love, mercy, and forgiveness of your spirit so that through us, they might experience the love of Christ that takes away all sin. 

I am Judas, but Jesus fed me, too.

Agape, Amber

Dependent on God, Interdependent with the Church: A Christ-Centered View on Helping Others

Mission trips. Volunteer work. Donations. Many college students and young adults try to be active members of their communities by helping out, locally and globally. It’s often inspiring to hear stories of their work. It’s often great work. Yet, sometimes, the heart behind the work gets muddled. 

I love to-do lists. I can be very type A in that way. The feeling of a checkmark is unparalleled by anything else. After all, a checkmark means so much: it means completion. It represents being a step closer to my goals. It signifies that I am being responsible. Checkmarks and to-do lists can be very helpful. However, what is on the list matters. 

Sometimes our projects and trips become nothing more than an item on one of these lists. An item on our “holiness” list. An item on our “make the world a better place” list. An item on our “Instagrammable Christian” list.  

That is not even the worst part. The people we try to help become a part of these lists. One person baptized. Check. One family joined the church. Check. One bible study group led. Check. 

At the core of this is the complex that affects every part of our Christian life: our Savior Complex. 

 

The Savior Complex and Sin

Author Paul David Tripp in his book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People In Need Of Change, writes about the creation story of Adam and Eve. After the creation of everything other than humans in Genesis 1, there is a distinct pattern. God calls His creation good and moves on. With Adam and Eve alone, God creates them, and then before calling creation “very good”, He gives Adam and Eve a command. 

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. – Genesis 1:28-30 [ESV]

Why do only Adam and Eve receive such a command? Tripp explains that:

They [Adam and Eve] were created to be dependent. God had to explain who they were and what they were to do with their lives. They did not need this help because they were sinners. They needed help because they were human.

A part of the very essence of our humanity is to be dependent on God to be God. On God to be our Savior. Yet, so often we try to go against our very nature and God’s nature and make ourselves God. When Adam and Eve did this in the garden, sin was brought into the world, and every time we do this, we perpetuate sin in the world. 

In another one of his books, Awe: Why It Matters For Everything We Think, Say, and Do, Tripp writes:

At a deep and often unnoticed level, sin replaces worship of God with worship of self…It replaces a rest in God’s sovereignty with a quest for personal control. We live for our glory.

This Savior Complex can often come to light as the crux of our sin. We attempt to be the god of our own lives, and so prioritize our desires instead of God’s desires, act in ways that make us feel good instead of in ways that give God glory, and think thoughts that are centered around ourselves instead of on God. 

Put simply, having a Savior Complex just means that we view ourselves as the saviors of the world instead of Christ. When taken into missions and our calling, this Savior Complex becomes so much more. 

 

The Savior Complex and Salvation 

In their book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … And Yourself, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write:

Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do more harm than good. I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. I am not okay, and you are not okay. But Jesus can fix us both. 

The book explores the ways in which the church tries to help people struggling in poverty without thinking of those people as, well, people. Having a Savior Complex results in us hurting the people we think we are helping. 

Even when we help someone close to us, like a friend, it is easy to look at them as someone who needs to be “fixed”. We want to fix their addictions, fix their interests, fix their language. But, do we see them as a person? 

When we take this mindset into our spaces of service whether it be our jobs, mission trips, or volunteer work, we end up ultimately dehumanizing the very people we are attempting to help. This dehumanization carries into ineffective solutions and help. 

Who is the Savior of the world? Do we really believe that it is Christ? Or, do we really rely on ourselves? These are important questions that test my heart daily. So, how does Christ as the true Savior affect my life?

 

The Savior Complex and The Savior

1. Dependent on God

First of all, as humans, we were created to be dependent on God. Not only are we dependent on Him for our daily needs, but we are also dependent on Him for salvation. Without Christ, we would never be able to save ourselves or to live in ways that reflect God. Although this may seem self-explanatory, often our lives do not show this truth. 

No to-do list comes close to being as powerful as the Holy Spirit. When God lives in us and reminds us daily of who we are and who He is, our lives reflect God without us needing to reduce our character qualities and actions to a mere checklist. Our hearts start to care about God and others because of who God shapes us into, not because of how many check marks we want to collect. 

Our to-do lists then rightfully become just another of the many tools we use in life and not something that controls our lives. We give control of our past, present, and future to the God who controls the world. It is pure freedom. 

2. Interdependent with His Church

Although Christ does give us independence and freedom in so many ways, there is no independent living with Christ. Christ calls us to humbly serve each other. In light of our dependence on God, we can stop viewing people as tasks, but start viewing them as fellow humans. All of us need God’s grace in our lives in different ways. With Christ living in us, we can extend some of His grace to those we are able to relate to. Evangelism and outreach then become an outworking of our identity instead of them defining who we are. 

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. – Galatians 5:13

I know I am often guilty of attempting to define myself by my impact and reducing the people I want to help as items on my task list. In many of my relationships, this can even be the driving force of many arguments and disagreements. I try to be someone else’s savior, a role I could never fulfill, and end up hurting them in the process. We care about our friends and family and, at times, try to fix their problems without seeing the problems in our own lives and seeing God in their life. God always humbles me. 

Instead of fixing people, I am learning to be interdependent with them. Helping them not to solve issues, but to share a bit of my Savior with them. Accepting the help they offer as we together see the Savior’s work in our lives. 

 

I hope we all can grow in being dependent on God to be our only Savior and in being interdependent with those around us, to be a community that reflects the work of grace. 

Challenging Godless Prayers: Facing Difficult Questions about Prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. – Colossians 4:2

I remember growing up in the church and singing a song about spiritual growth in pre-k. “Read your bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow,” we would sing while jumping to illustrate how much we were growing. But somewhere between pre-k and college, I seemed to forget the words. Spiritual growth took a backseat when new goals entered the scene. Suddenly, I stopped worrying about the development of my faith and started caring more about trivial, worldly things that cannot measure up. The worst part is I didn’t even realize what I was doing. If I am still familiar with Christ, still going to church, and still praying before bed at night, I’m fine, right? This was the lie I was telling myself, and it took a whole pandemic to snap me out of it. 

During the pandemic churches closed, striking out one of my sources of feel-good Christianity. Then, I realized that my nightly prayers felt empty; there was no difference between talking to God or talking to my pillow, and with a global crisis on the horizon, I really needed sovereign advice. It was easy to find a Bible reading program, and church was available online, but my individual communication with God was desperately lacking. So, for the first time in a long time, I started talking to God with great intention. It was only through total engagement in authentic, unbiased submission in prayer that I realized the sanctity of speaking to the Lord at all. Prayer is our most useful tool in identifying the voice of the Father because it is our way of holy communication. I came to understand that the vital step in reviving my spiritual growth was to change the way I looked at prayer. However, this decision was easier in theory as I had no idea how to pray when I wasn’t explicitly asking the Lord for blessings or thanking Him for the ones He had already bestowed. I found that I was leaving my prayers with as many questions as answers. It is for this reason that I have decided to share my prayer journey and present the questions I have wrestled with and the best responses I have found.

 

What even is prayer?

The first question I asked myself was: What is prayer and why is it important?

Prayer is an intimate and individualized act of worship that creates a pathway for us to speak to our Father in heaven. Yet, so often, prayer is underestimated and derives certain connotations of order and chore. However, there is no formula for prayer; it is free communication with God. Like everyone, the more you speak to God, the more familiar with Him you become. Once I began to prioritize prayer, I began to see God’s hand more, and I began to recognize Him in other people. 

 

How can I pray when I cannot pray for what I want?

Maybe your friend has an interview for a job in another state, but you want them to stay close by. It feels wrong to pray that your friend won’t get the job, but truthfully, that is what you want. Whether it’s this example, or something far larger, there are times when praying for a specific thing feels uncomfortable because it is not in accordance with God’s will. So, how do we pray about this? First, it is important to recognize that no prayer is strong enough to overrule the will of God. If God has made up His mind, our prayers cannot change it. Therefore, we can ask God to grant us peace with the outcome of our situation, and we can ask Him to appease whatever caused the desire in the first place. For example, why is it so important that our hypothetical friend stays close by rather than moving for work? Perhaps, it is because this friend serves as a source of comfort and companionship to us. Therefore, we can ask God to show us comfort and opportunity for more fellowship in our lives. It is also important to remember that our prayers are not going to offend God. If we inquire of Him, He will not reject us even if He rejects our plans. 

 

What do I do when I’m afraid of how He will answer my prayers? What if I fear what his answer will entail?

There have only been two instances in my life where I have prayed a “do whatever it takes” prayer, a prayer where I am begging God to go to any lengths to answer my cries. Most of the time our prayers are “do whatever it takes, but..”, but don’t touch my family, but don’t take my health, do whatever it takes but let me keep this one thing. But when we finally get desperate enough to pray a “whatever it takes” prayer, we can finally release control and trust fully in the power of God. God does not work according to our agenda, and He is not going to act with conditions. God provides us entirely unconditional love, and we return heavily conditional trust and call it faith. Our greatest prayers are answered when we stop trying to fit God’s plan into our own. God can work despite us, but the most miraculous events occur when we trust Him to work for us, taking our place in the battle rather than sharing the battlefield. 

 

What do I do when I am too close to a situation to pray about it at all?

This is the question that I struggled the most with. A few years ago I got sick, and it was the time in my life where I needed prayers the most. I had an entire support system of family, friends, and doctors praying for me, and yet I could not pray for myself. I didn’t have the words nor the courage. I was so consumed by my own situation that I could not face praying to a god that knew the situation even better than I did. I was faced with the challenge of how to pray when all prayer seemed lost on me. The answer I found was community. The team of family and friends praying on my behalf became my voice of prayer while I was still trying to find it. In addition, I had to keep stepping up to the throne, even if I could not address God. I made the effort, I tried to pray regardless of my feelings, and God saw. He heard the words I could not speak.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. – Romans 8:26

In 1 Samuel chapter one, a woman named Hannah is heartbroken because she is barren. She desired to have a baby more than anything in the world, and her desire was so real it consumed her, and she could not form the words to ask the Lord for a child. The bible tells us that Hannah was praying in her heart even when she could not pray with her mouth. However, God heard her wordless cries and answered her. She went on to give birth to Samuel and she dedicated his life to Christ. 

Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. – 1 Samuel 1:13

Perhaps, Hannah could not pray for a baby because it was too important to her. If she didn’t ask God, she wouldn’t get a solidified, no, and she could go on hoping. However, in her heart, she submitted to the Lord and reaped the benefits of her faith. 

When we too cannot pray, whether because we are experiencing spiritual drought or because we are too consumed by a situation to bring it to God at all, we must push forth and show up for our Lord in the best way we can manage. 

 

What do I do when I cannot find God in prayer?

Even having this information and coming as far as I have, I am still guilty of offering empty prayers to the Lord. I now admit to the Lord that I am not engaged fully in the prayer and ask for His forgiveness. I then refrain from asking Him for blessings, but rather dedicate that time to praise and thanksgiving. Prayer is not a tool that helps us unlock secret blessings, it is a way to speak to our Creator and become more familiar with who He is. Throughout this process, we consequently learn more about ourselves as His children, how to treat ourselves, and how to love others as well. Prayer is how we foster relationships and effectively love those around us. There is no purer form of love than praying for someone, asking God to provide his unfailing love where ours falters. 

Another tool I have found in prayer is that we must be willing to step out for the Lord and follow up our prayers with action. If you pray for cold weather, buy a jacket and prepare. If you ask God to give you courage, do something courageous. Even if it feels forced, God sees our efforts and acknowledges our trust. He wants to watch us be bold in His name. Prayer is submission and how we tell the Lord that we trust His plan more than our own, and we must confirm that trust by stepping out.  

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. – Mark 11:24

When I first began praying more intimately, my prayers felt like ice leaving my mouth. Everything was very uncomfortable because, for the first time, it was real. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew God was listening and eager for me to engage in real, honest prayer in the way that felt most natural for me and my heavenly Father. There is no cookie-cutter prayer or sequence of words that pleases the Lord more than any other prayer. Prayer isn’t a script or monologue, and there is no study guide or key. Prayer is meant to be a unique and beautiful experience that embodies the individual connection between God and His children who are equally unique. To grow in prayer, to grow spiritually at all, takes effort. It takes stepping out and making the first move, but that first move does not have to be extraordinary and monumental. A small baby step for God will be more life-changing than a leap in the opposite direction because God sees that we are giving Him authority over our lives and He uses that authority to accomplish grand things. Maybe this first step is praying with a friend and being vulnerable. Maybe it is purchasing a prayer book to use as a tool.  Or maybe it is a simple prayer of confession in a true form. Prayer is the most natural and effective tool at our disposal and it is vital to whatever our step for the Lord may be. 

 

Documenting my thoughts about prayer, I cannot imagine a better way to conclude than to practice with other believers, so here is my prayer for you:

Father God, I ask that you be with each individual reading this piece now. Grant them wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit so that you may be seen and admired by your children. Lord, please start a revival of prayer in each of their hearts. Hear their prayers and answer their cries, Father. Amen. 

Martin Luther on Christian Friendship

Over Christmas break, I had the privilege of sitting in the lecture hall and listening to the lectures of a dead 16th century professor. The professor’s name was Dr. Martin Luther.

It was actually me just reading Dr. Luther’s lectures to his seminary students covering Paul’s letter to the Galatians. His students transcribed his lectures using Latin shorthand. Luther read over the transcripts to make sure they were accurate. 21st century translator Haroldo Comacho translated the notes in modern day English in a way that seems like you are right there with Luther’s students listening to the latest lecture.

Luther’s lectures make you bathe in the Gospel of God’s free grace. If you wonder what it means to be “Gospel-centered” read Luther’s commentary on Galatians. For Luther, the Gospel is central to every aspect of the life of the believer—even friendship. Luther writes,

When the mind is overwhelmed with terror and feelings of sin, it cannot conceive there is hope. But hope is that God is merciful and will forgive sins on account of Christ. The mind only judges that God is angered toward sinners and that He accuses and condemns them. At this point, faith must lift up once again this afflicted and anguished conscience, as Christ said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20).

However, if there are no faithful brotherly hands to comfort such a depressed and defeated soul with and through God’s word, then hopelessness and death will follow. It is a dangerous thing for someone to be alone. “Woe to him who is alone when he falls,” says the Preacher, “and has not another to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). Therefore, those who put together the regulations for those monks who live in solitude have been the occasion for many to fall into hopelessness…

For if man separates from the companionship of others for a day or two to exercise in prayer (as we read about Christ, who sometimes would go alone into the mountain and was in prayer all night) (Luke 5:15-16), there is no danger in that. But when a person is compelled continually to live a solitary life, that’s the devil’s own device, for when someone is tempted and is found alone, that person is not able to get up on his own, no, not even at the slightest temptation. – Martin Luther

Luther’s insight is important because in every age, there is the danger of losing the Gospel—even in friendship. Think about those weekly meetings you have with close Christian friends. You call the session “Accountability.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with accountability. You will be held accountable for your sins on the Last Day (2 Corinthians 5:10). But your account before God will be dripping with the blood of Jesus. Perhaps, we should call those sessions “Absolution” since we will be gloriously reminded once again that all of our sins have been forgiven by Christ’s sake in the presence of all the redeemed. In this article, we are going to explore Luther’s idea of Christian friendship in order to reform how we think community should be.

The Danger of Being Alone

For Luther, being alone should not be the norm for a Christian. Though it is permissible to be alone in prayer or meditation for a couple of days, excessive time away from others is dangerous for one’s soul. Excessive seclusion is dangerous for two reasons according to Luther. First, the heart and mind of the believer is fallen. Due to indwelling sin, the heart and the mind fails to perfectly embrace the Gospel’s promise of eternal life through Christ. Nobody perfectly believes the Gospel. Our hearts tend to run back to the Law to justify ourselves before God. God wrote the Law on our hearts when He created us (Romans 2:14-15) unlike other creatures in order that we would glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. But after we sinned in Adam, we don’t have the ability to do that which is original sin). But our sin makes us think we can. The mind recognizes we fail and sin against God in thought, word, and deed. Then the heart falls into hopelessness and despair since we are resistant to the grace of God. The fallen heart can not conceive of a God who describes Himself as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

The second danger of being alone is the temptation of Satan.

Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. – 1 Peter 5:8

In Zechariah 3:1, Satan tries to accuse Zechariah before the throne of God. James 4:7 tells us to resist the devil in the context of how God is merciful to forgive our sins. Perhaps he tries to tempt us to think that God does not give grace to the humble (James 4:6). How Satan comes to tempt us is a mystery. But we know he wants to devour us by getting us to think God is not merciful and gracious and abounding in steadfast love for us. He wants us to think God is not good, wise, or loving in His sovereignty over our suffering. He wants us to think suffering is God’s wrath against our sins. He wants us to think our sins exceed Christ’s mercy and that no one would stay by our side if we confess our sins. We are not powerful enough on our own to defeat our sin and Satan. Depression and hopelessness will reign.

The Failure of Moralism

Luther calls out the unbiblical spiritual discipline of living in a monastery as a monk as insufficient for regaining our assurance of salvation. Luther, above all people, knew the malnourishment the monastery was to his soul. There is not enough praying, confessing, fasting, or physical punishment he could do to know he was righteous before God.

Good works can never satisfy God. There is not enough forsaking of sin we can do in order to be righteous before Him (Romans 3:20). This is why mere accountability is not enough. True friends call out each other’s sins, but they do not leave each other there lest they become “overwhelmed with excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7).

Moreover, individual spiritual disciplines cannot bring us out of hopelessness. A practice does not have that power. But Jesus does! But unfortunately, we tend to put our trust in our practices rather than Jesus because they are about our performance and not Christ’s finished work.

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians‬ ‭2:23‬

The Triumph of Absolution

As Luther says, our greatest hope is that “God is merciful and will forgive sins on account of Christ.” We cannot know the grace of God by nature. The only thing we can know individually by nature and reason is His Law. Then, when we look into the mirror of the Law, we see God’s righteousness and our sin. Reason can only testify to God’s judgement against our sins. The only way humankind can know the grace of God in Christ is by His special revelation in the Scriptures. How did you become a Christian? Someone preached to you (Romans 10:14).

Your Christian life began by someone preaching to you the forgiveness of sins that Christ offers and it continues that way. You should have Christian friends around constantly telling you how your sins are forgiven and that you should lift up your downcast soul. This is the practice of absolution.

The Biblical Basis of Absolution

Luther mentions how God blesses this practice when he quotes Matthew 18:20.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. – Matthew 18:20

While this passage is about church discipline, absolution is in view since the purpose of church discipline is to restore the brother or sister to fellowship. Moreover, what precedes this passage is the parable of the lost sheep. God desires to find and restore our wayward heart, not cast it away. He desires us to be reconciled to Him. This is why He calls us to be ambassadors of Christ and make God’s appeal to the world on His behalf (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Jesus commissioned his disciples by saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). As Protestants, we get uneasy about someone absolving another of their sins because of how Romanism abused this practice. The abuse is that Romanists require more than repentance and faith in Christ in order to be absolved. This is contrary to Scripture since it commissions us as ambassadors. A good ambassador proclaims the exact word of the king. An enemy of the king proclaims a message contrary to the king. That double agent commits treason and is worthy of death. It’s a fearful thing to abuse the practice of absolution.

The Character of the Absolver

The character of the one who absolves is this:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16

The only one worthy to absolve sin is the one who considers him or herself the chief of sinners. Moreover, it is the one who recognizes that we are all equal at the cross. He or she should not be scandalized by another’s sins since he knows that he has thought, spoken, or done worse. This person recognizes that we have all been loved by the same Love, covered with the same Blood, clothed with the same Righteousness, and have an equal inheritance with the Father.

The Message of Absolution

The medicine that the one who absolves to the wounded soul is this: “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” No matter how dark and deep your sin is and how broken you are, Jesus came to fix you. He came to overwhelm our sins by His blood and righteousness. Your sin cannot outrun the grace of God just as you cannot out run the east and the west (Psalm 103:12). Jesus cares about His glory so much that He will not allow your sin to thwart His mission:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. – John‬ ‭6:37-40‬

Christ will not fail you; He will save you since He has intimately bound His life with yours. Your suffering is not God’s wrath but what He ultimately means to produce hope in us since “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1-5). Satan can no longer accuse us since God has forgiven us all our trespasses, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians‬ ‭2:14-15‬).

This is the message that Christians should proclaim to their Christian friends. Friends do not let friends go without Christ.