Introduction to a new essay series on trusting God in troubled times.
I want God to stop the coronavirus immediately. I’m worried for myself and especially for all the people I love and care about. I pray for God to protect me, my family, and everyone everywhere. But as the numbers of sick and dying keep increasing, along with dire forecasts for the coming weeks, so does my anxiety. I’m obviously not alone in this.
What if God doesn’t help? Already, thousands have died and many more will. Given our experience so far, is it even reasonable to expect that God will do anything in midst of this COVID-19, global crisis? If so, what?
Spiritually, many of us are at the “Help me, God!” stage. We’re reaching out to God for whatever help we can get. Others of us are wrestling with profound theological questions right now as well: “Where is God? Does God care about our suffering? Why doesn’t God do more to help? If God won’t stop the onslaught, what can we expect from God?”
These questions have been and continue to be very relevant to me, personally. Ever since our first child died in a miscarriage; my mother began a long, debilitating, losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease; and I learned that I contracted a terminal disease the day after my first son was born, I have been asking more and more questions like these. Bottom line, I simply want to know, “Can I trust God? And if so, for what?”
I feel the urgency of these questions more in times of crisis, but ask them regularly in Myanmar, where I serve six months a year, where human suffering is so visible to me every day. In fact, the questions are always with me, because there are no answers that fully satisfy me intellectually or that completely assuage my grief and angst. There is so much we wish we understood about God, but just can’t. Yet, what we believe and how we act on our faith still makes a huge difference in our ability to cope with adversity and an uncertain future.
Over the coming weeks, I will be talking about seven spiritual truths for trusting God in troubled times.
Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers.
Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you.
Expect God to build character and faith out of your experiences of suffering.
Take encouragement from opportunities to share in the sufferings of Christ.
Cling to Jesus Christ, who promises to never forsake you.
Replace anxiety with prayer and thanksgiving.
Never forget, trust is a choice. (My personal story)
This series of essays does not attempt to answer all the questions any of us might have right now in the midst of the COVID-19 threat. Instead, they offer spiritual truths that so many have found helpful in any and all times of crisis and distress. They are insights that grow out of the Bible and have been validated in my own experience and by the experience of millions of Christians over the years. They are truths, not because anyone can prove them to be true by scientific testing. They are true because of how they have qualitatively improved the minds, hearts, and lives of those who believe and live by them. I hope you find them meaningful and helpful, and will share your own perspective, comments, and questions with the rest of us, each week.
What are your top priorities for your growth and development as a Christian? If you are a parent, what are you emphasizing to your children to guide them into adulthood? If you are a youth group leader or mentor, what spiritual guidance are you offering to ground and direct those under your care. If you were on the Board of Trustees for a Christian college or seminary, apart from emphasizing education and developing skills, what would you most want the students to learn and to gain from their education at your school? In other words, how should we be preparing ourselves and the next generation of Christian leaders to make significant contributions in our troubled and needy world? Are our priorities right?
Recently, I was given the opportunity to answer these questions for the sake of the school where I teach, the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The school theme that I proposed for the academic year, “Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service,” was chosen by the MIT faculty members as particularly fitting for our 1200+ students. What follows below is the Bible study that I prepared to present this theme to the student body and all of our constituents. While the context is clearly a particular Christian college and seminary in Southeast Asia, this teaching applies to Christians everywhere. The writers of the New Testament insist over and over again that we need to keep our spiritual priorities straight—in our personal lives, families, churches, youth groups, and Christian schools. So much is at stake.
“Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service”
This year’s theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, is intended to concisely articulate the core theological and spiritual foundation of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and to remind us all of why MIT primarily exists. In other words, the primary purpose of this theme is to encourage MIT Liberal Arts Program (LAP) and Theology students, faculty, and staff to focus on developing their relationship with Christ as their first priority, and to humbly dedicate themselves to serving Christ, church, and country with greater knowledge, skills, and spiritual vitality.
Drawing largely on Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commands and on Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel, we can say that the primary purpose for every human being is to know, love, and serve God, who is revealed preeminently in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. For Christians, this life purpose is not simply a matter of doctrine; it cannot be fulfilled just by believing or by being baptized. Rather, it requires growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ all our lives. Our vocation—that is, our unique work in the world—flows from this relationship into a lifetime of service, no matter what our particular position, assignment, or activity may be. We may be called to serve primarily in the Church, the broader society, or simply at home with our families, but every Christian has the same general vocation to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life…for many” (Mark 10:45). In short, then, our theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, draws our attention to our top spiritual priority of knowing and loving God in Christ more and more, and to MIT’s chief responsibility from a biblical point of view to prepare men and women to serve Christ and the Church in a wide variety of ways upon graduation.
Our Bible study will take Paul’s teaching on the purpose of the Church and the significance of growing in Christ as our point of departure. We will then look how Peter contextualized Paul’s ecclesiology, teaching marginalized and persecuted Christians how they should live and serve Christ in a religiously pluralistic world, and what kind of preparation is needed to do so. Finally, a few comments will be offered on the relevance of this biblical teaching and theme to MIT.
The priority of growing in Christ according to Paul
The Church was established by the preaching of the Gospel, the working of the Holy Spirit through its proclamation, and the common faith of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation. According to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, believers in the Christian Gospel become members of the body of Christ, and together form the universal Church (1 Cor. 12). Further, God gave spiritual gifts to every member of the body of Christ (12:7). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul focuses on a subset of the body to emphasize particular gifts given to those who are in positions of leadership—namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, in order both to identify these leadership gifts and to discuss the purpose for which they were given.
In general, Paul taught that God gives spiritual gifts among the members of the body of Christ in order that they may minister to, serve, and build up one another. In 1 Corinthians, Paul simply says that the gifts are given for “the common good” (12:7), meaning the good of the body of Christ (the Church). All believers in Christ have the responsibility to serve in ways that strengthen the body. Leaders have the additional duty “to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-12). To be built up means that all the members of the body of Christ would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). When the body of Christ is mature, they “will no longer be infants,” liable to being misled and confused by false teaching (4:14). Instead of being crippled by instability and division, they would “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15, emphasis added), as the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:16, emphasis added).
In Paul’s vision for the Church, everyone is expected to keep growing in Christ and to be actively serving one another for the common good and the upbuilding of the whole Church. If we have accurately summed up the priorities for the body of Christ as a whole, how much more important is growing in Christ, preparing for service for the Church’s future leaders.
The necessity of growing in Christ as preparation for service according to Peter
When we turn to the Apostle Peter’s teaching, we see how he contextualizes Paul’s teaching on growing in Christ for Christians who were marginalized by the broader, religiously pluralistic society and sometimes even persecuted for their faith. In the face of such hardship and danger, he urged Christian believers to go deeper into their own relationship with God in Christ, to strengthen their self-understanding as the people of God, and to prepare themselves intellectually as well as spiritually, morally, and behaviorally, so that their witness to their largely nonChristian neighbors would be more clear, vibrant and persuasive. They were not to shy away from suffering for Christ. Yet, at the same time, they should avoid unnecessary persecution (that which comes from outright rebellion or immoral behavior) and live exemplary lives for all to see. He urged them to “live such good lives among the pagans though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).
To live up to our calling and to the demands of serving Christ requires ongoing spiritual growth and development. So, Peter says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:2-3, NIV, emphasis added). Peter writes elsewhere, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18, NIV, emphasis added). He knows well that his readers already have experienced the grace of God and know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, he also knows that the Christian faith calls us to keep growing in our knowledge and experience of God in ever-new and more meaningful ways.
Throughout his letters, Peter gives many practical teachings on what it means to grow spiritually and prepare better for Christian service. In one place, Peter urged his readers, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15a, NIV). Acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord, or leader, is not something a believer does just once at baptism. Rather, surrendering to the lordship of Christ is ongoing struggle and process that continues throughout our lifetimes. This, too, is an important part of growing in Christ. According to New Testament writers, accepting Christ as our Savior and Lord is an essential turning point in our spiritual journey, but it is only that—a significant turning point (not, endpoint). Bending our knee to Christ as Lord repositions us to eagerly pursue a fuller and more significant relationship with Christ on an ever-deepening basis. Then, as we grow, Peter tells his readers, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15b, NIV). Here Peter calls Christians to keep growing intellectually and to develop communication skills to talk about their faith (and not hide or minimize it) with those who don’t know Jesus Christ. And so forth.
In sum, Peter teaches Christians how they should think of themselves and respond to nonChristians in the face of marginalization, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even persecution in a religiously pluralistic context. They are to neither hide from nor belligerently fight against those who oppose or mistreat them. He didn’t advise them to change their theology or view themselves as inferior to the majority and the powerful. Instead, they should sharpen their self-understanding as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [they] may declare the praises of him who called [them] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are the people of God; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Then they should learn how to better reflect their faith, hope, and love to the nonChristians surrounding them in intelligent and positive ways. In short, the best response for Christians in a hostile, religiously pluralistic setting is to keep growing in Christ and to prepare themselves to serve both within the Church and within the broader society.
Conclusion: Implications for MIT
So, how does this Bible study apply to MIT? Just this. For MIT to fulfill its duty to Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) and the churches it serves, we must be diligent to teach our students how to grow in Christ. We must adequately prepare them for a lifetime of service. And, since many MIT graduates will be given significant opportunities to lead in the Church and society, we must also teach them how to lead and how to help others to grow in Christ and to be humble, faithful servants of Christ.
You may be wondering, does this Bible study suggest that growing in Christ should come at the expense of academic excellence, sharing the Gospel, participating in inter-faith dialogue, or working to address societal ills and needs? No, not at all. All these endeavors and missions remain important objectives for Christians, and especially for MIT students and graduates. Yet, growing in Christ is the mostimportant priority, and is the pre-requisite for all our intellectual, academic, mission, and societal activities. Why? Because Jesus taught that the only way we can hope to bear fruit in our lives is by maintaining a close (“abiding”) relationship with him (John 15). Paul and Peter taught the same thing, as we have briefly seen in this Bible study. They only added that our personal relationship with God in Christ needs to keep growing and deepening as well. They taught that we must become more and more like Christ and learn how to relate better to nonChristians in a religiously pluralistic world.
The implications of this Bible study for MIT, as well as for the broader Church in Myanmar, seem obvious. The Church’s current leaders (including MIT faculty and staff) would teach, preach, and model the importance of growing in Christ as the top priority for Christians and the essential pre-requisite for everything we want to do in the name of Christ. Throughout the school year, MIT would actively promote the spiritual life of students, faculty, and staff (helping each one to grow in Christ) while organizing the school’s curriculum and student activities with the ultimate purpose of a MIT education in mind, namely, to prepare future leaders to serve Christ faithfully and fruitfully in their various leadership roles. Future leaders (including MIT students) would embrace these priorities for themselves and take personal responsibility to pursue them in every way they can.
May God bless MIT and all the churches that support and are served by MIT as, together, we keep growing in Christ, preparing for service.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your lives. Even though you have been in love for some time, today you are making a lifelong commitment to one another.
You’re in love. You are committed to each other. You’re excited. You have spent a lot of time planning not only for this day, but for your future together.
You’re ready to get married. Probably more than ready. So, the question for today is not, will you commit yourself to each other. You’re already ready to do that. No, the real question going forward is, what are you going to do to stay committed? What do you need to do to keep your love alive and growing?
Everything I’m going to say, you’ve probably heard before, but now is a very good time to remind you of what you simply must remember going forward, if you want your marriage not only to survive but to also thrive and be all that God intends for you.
In short, a marriage that both survives and thrives is one in which there is rock solid commitment. There’s a lot of grace. And God is clearly at the center of everything.
Let’s talk first about commitment. What kind of commitment is needed in marriage? Well, the minimum level is a commitment to stay together, come what may. In a few moments, you are going to promise to take each other as your spouse, and to hold on to each other throughout your lives…for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health…until death. I think that’s pretty clear. Come what may, you will be promising to stand by each other until the end of your lives.
That’s the minimum. But our commitment should go deeper and further than the minimum.
The kind of commitment that helps a marriage do more than just survive is also a commitment to do all you can to work things out when things get rough or rocky. You have to keep talking, and be willing to face things in yourself and issues you might prefer to avoid.
It’s also commitment to keep growing as individuals, and as a couple, so that you have more and more to offer one another.
It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other when loving seems really hard or when you get preoccupied with other interests or concerns.
It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other as God love us—as much as that’s possible.
The biblical definition of godly love, also known as agape, comes down to putting the interests of others ahead of your own. Agape means acting in ways that are truly in the other’s best interest, even when it costs you something to do so. Even if you’re not getting all of what you want in the relationship.
Agape is the kind of love that led Jesus Christ to give up his life to bring salvation to the world. He didn’t do it because he felt all warm and tingling inside all the time. He did it the people he loved had a great need, and he alone could do something about it. He did it because he wasn’t thinking only about what was best for him. He was thinking about what was best for us.
In a word, agape is unselfish commitment. It’s not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to each other, commitment to treating each other in the right ways, commitment to believing the best things about each other, commitment to being there for each other.
Agape simply does not give up on the other person. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does. You need to focus more on what it is right than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.
Full of grace
The second ingredient in a marriage that both survives and thrives is grace. Be sure there’s a lot of grace in your marriage.
You know about grace because you’ve experienced it from God for yourselves. God’s standard for our lives and relationships doesn’t waver, but he continually remembers our frailty and limitations. He knows all our failings and weaknesses, but he loves us anyway.
God treasures and values us so highly, that even when (not if) we fail to be the kind of person he calls us to be, he is there to offer forgiveness if we turn back to him. And he’s there to help us to get back on our feet again, when we need a helping hand.
When I got married 35 years ago, Jill and I had no idea what we were getting into! Some things we knew, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves and each other. We had so much growing up still to do. And then, there was so much that life brought to us that we never could have imagined. Sometimes we were ready for the unexpected, and sometimes we were completely caught off guard. Sometimes, we handled challenges really well. And sometimes, we fell flat on our faces.
Yet, in the midst all our weaknesses, limitations, failings, and missteps, what’s helped us through has been grace. Commitment, to be sure; but also grace.
Grace accepts the other person as they are. Grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace forgives when necessary, and chooses to be patient and kind. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than what’s wrong. Grace believes in the other person, even when your spouse cannot believe in him- or herself.
In short, grace offers what the other person does not deserve, because the other person’s worthiness is not the point. Grace offers what love chooses to give. And once again, God is our example.
God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst. We find in Scripture several places where the writer praises God by saying, “You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15).
That’s the kind of God we have. And he is our example…
Rock solid commitment and willingness to show grace to each other are critical ingredients to a successful marriage. But there’s something else even more important.
Keep God at the center of everything.
No matter what your intentions may be today, you cannot fulfill your commitment or become all of what God intends for you to be in your own strength or by just focusing on each other. Your love, as great as it is, is limited. Your relationship, as special as it is, cannot be everything. It can’t even be the main thing.
From a Christian perspective, what makes a marriage and a family thrive is God. God is the author of love. And it’s only by tapping into God’s incredible love that you are going to be able to keep loving each other in the face of all the demands and pressures ahead.
All this means that you need to build a strong relationship with God, and to make that relationship a high priority. As Christians, you also need to put Christ at the center of your lives, at the center of your marriage, and at the center of everything. It’s only when Christ becomes the reason for your lives, and God becomes the source and strength of your lives, that you can hope to experience all of what God intends for you. …that you could hope to experience the kind of marriage that God intends for you.
So many times in my marriage, I have noticed that it’s been our common commitment to Christ and our relationship with God that have helped us through the rough spots.
Individually, we each gave our lives to Christ, and that common spiritual commitment has given us a common language and purpose in life.
When we’ve been tempted to just focus on ourselves and what we want, our common faith has helped us to remember that we are here to serve God and others. Marriage is never just about the lives of the husband and wife. When we remember that we are here not to just serve ourselves, but to serve Christ in the world, that outward focus has kept us from turning inward and collapsing on ourselves.
And when we did not have the strength to face a particular trial, our common habits of prayer and seeking God’s help have led us over and over again to fresh perspective and strength to not give up.
We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; and it’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to know which direction to go. It’s been our common root, from which we both can grow.
If you continually pursue this kind of Christ-centered, agape filled, gracious and purposeful marriage, not only will your marriage survive when many others are failing; your marriage will thrive. You will see God use you to bless others in more ways than you can imagine now.
May God bless you both with this kind of marriage—grounded in a rock solid commitment, full of grace, and centered on God through Christ.
The test of democracy is not simply about how well we follow the rules in selecting our leaders and participate in the process as citizens. The real test is in how we handle the results—and in how we treat the other side going forward.
No matter if our candidate won or lost, we need to find ways to work together with those who think differently than we do. It’s not going to be easy, but we have to get past thinking about politics as a win-lose endeavor. Especially as Christians, win or lose, we are called to think about the common good and the interests of others, not just our own. (Philippians 2:4)
If our candidate won, we don’t gloat but we keep trying to engage in respectful dialogue with those who think and vote differently. We think broadly, and seek to create policies that serve as many people as possible, not just “our own.” If our candidate lost, we don’t pour contempt on the winner, sulk, or withdraw. We roll up our sleeves and do whatever is still in our power to work for a better nation, doing whatever we can to represent our views to decision-makers.
What does this mean practically? It means the same thing it has meant for the past eight years under Barak Obama, for the two terms Bush served in the same office, and for the past two hundred forty years since the beginning of our republic. Each of us has a voice, and each of us has the privilege and responsibility to participate and contribute wherever we can.
We work for good on the local level. We advocate for our views on the state and national levels. We try to build bridges to those who see things differently. We work even harder to present and express our views to those who don’t understand or accept them. We contribute to charitable organizations and political activist groups we believe in. We even protest loudly and visibly, when need be, but without violence or malicious actions that only cause further damage or alienation.
In other words, there are right ways to participate in a democracy, and there are wrong ways. There are constructive options, and there are destructive ones. Especially at this time in the USA, after such an ugly and offensive campaign season, our country needs to find ways to pull together.
The Apostle Paul taught us to use the freedoms that we cherish so much to build up and not destroy (Ephesians 4:29-5:1). When teaching Christians how to conduct themselves both in the church and in society, the Apostle Peter said, “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). And then later on in the same letter, he commanded his readers, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16-17). In other words, we are expected to live what we preach. We are charged to model what we say we believe about human rights, dignity, tolerance, and decency.
Going forward, some of us will be in position to be political or social game-changers. If you can do something big, by all means, do it. Most of us, though, will find our greatest opportunities to contribute simply by trying to be our best selves in our families, at work, at church, and in our local communities. We will make a difference by relentlessly seeking to be Christ-centered and Spirit-led in every possible dimension of our lives, no matter how others behave or react toward us.
The day after the election Hillary Clinton quoted the Apostle Paul to encourage her supporters to stay engaged in society, even though they lost the election. It’s a good verse for all of us, no matter who you voted for. Paul said, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
Each of us can choose our attitude going forward, and each of us always has options for taking action. Nothing can stop us from contributing if we are determined to do so. The question is never, “if” we can do something, but “what,” “how,” and “when”?
This fall, I’ve been far away from the United States, teaching seminary students and other Christian leaders in Myanmar. I voted by absentee-ballot, but otherwise could only observe the American political and social scene from a distance. I continue to be distressed and embarrassed by the name calling and hostility back and forth between opposing sides. I am anxious about how the new leadership will conduct itself. I worry about the fallout from the ongoing culture wars in America . But I’m choosing to not to focus on what is outside of my power to control. Instead I’m focusing on what kind of person God is calling me to be and the opportunities he’s giving me to make a difference.
At the very least, I pray that Christ’s love and light will shine through me in all my dealings with others. I will keep asking the Spirit to empower me to live by my values, to be the best husband and father I can be, to serve well in all my responsibilities, to keep working to build a stronger global church, to do my part to be hospitable to foreigners and marginalized people in my own country, and to promote better international relationships when I am teaching and ministering abroad. Beyond that, I plan to stay alert to whoever may be negatively affected by governmental policy changes, especially those who cannot advocate for themselves, and to use whatever power I have to stand with those who have less power.
This is what it means to me to serve Christ and to be led by the Spirit in the real world, with so much conflict, distress, uncertainty, and suffering. No politician, governmental policy, or authority figure can take these possibilities for doing good away from me, from you, or from us as we keep working together. Some of our goals and efforts may be opposed or thwarted, but if our cause is right, God will work for good in some way through us.
Whether your candidates won or lost, may God enable you to stay rooted and grounded in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the leading the Holy Spirit. May God give you eyes to see all the open doors before you to work for the common good, and give you strength to not grow weary in doing all you can for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.
Pleased as punch, snapping photos and cheering them on, their mother and I relished each moment with our sons. We couldn’t have been prouder. Both sons were graduating from business schools within weeks of each other. Both had earned exceptional grades and accolades from professors and peers. We heaped praise on them. We told them repeatedly how thrilled we were with their accomplishments. I even posted a tribute to each one on Facebook. The more “likes” the posts received, the happier and prouder I felt.
Yet, in retrospect, something was missing. Not in my sons, but in me…and from me.
In addition to celebrating their well-deserved accomplishments, I wish I had also said:
I hope you know how deeply you are loved, regardless of the level of your success, or lack thereof. You never have to question your worth. There is absolutely nothing you could do to make God love you any more than he already does–and I feel the same way. My admiration and respect for you is certainly going to grow over time, but you can’t earn my love. It’s been firmly established in my heart from the day you were born. Being so deeply loved and treasured, you have all you need to genuinely love and accept yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t keep growing and looking for ways to contribute to society. I am trying say, What matters most is not what you accomplish or how much others praise or admire you. What counts more is the love you have known and the love you can give. You must take your self worth from God’s view of you and from what Christ does in you and through you that brings God glory and serves his good purposes.
In saying all this, I certainly wouldn’t want to take the wind out of their sails or somehow make them ashamed that they feel proud of their accomplishments. No, I simply want to keep their success in the right frame. I wish I had said:
Be thrilled about all you have been able to do, accomplish, and experience, but not from a “Look how great I am” or “See, I really am superior to others” or “Man, I have it made” perspective. Rather, humbly get on your knees with gratitude. Pray that God would not let your achievements distract you from him and his will for your life. Celebrate all that God has given you as opportunities to learn, grow, and serve Christ in unique and fruitful ways.
In other words, success without a personal relationship with God and character is shallow at best, and dangerous at worst. Don’t measure the quality of your life simply in terms of career, status, or wealth acquired. Instead, be a lover of God and keep putting Jesus Christ at the center of your life and relationships. Always desire to become a better person as well. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how you can best serve with what God has given you. Continually seek to be wise, humble, and overflowing with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22-23). That’s the life worth pursuing with your whole heart!
Now, having grown up in our home, both of my sons would have already heard most if not all the things I wish I had said at their graduations. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t they who needed to be reminded of these truths, it was I.
I was the one who was tempted to glory in their achievements in a puffed up sort of way. I was the one who wanted to throw my shoulders back and feel just a little bit superior to other parents. I was the one who relished feeling powerful by vicariously identifying with their newly acquired status. I was the one who needed help to keep the right perspective.
I wish I had told them, I’m struggling this weekend. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to live by what I believe and know to be good, right, and true. The Christian life is a humbling journey. I embrace certain ideals and values only to stumble as I face my limitations, resist what I know is right, and outright rebel when I’d rather serve myself. It’s only by God’s grace that I am able to get my head straight again, put my heart back in the right place, and correct my course when I find myself drifting or distracted.
I hope that my experience will help you to see that you, too, are utterly dependent on God’s love, mercy, and grace. You must surrender your will to God’s and keep looking to Christ to do in you what you simply cannot do on your own. This is not something you do once. It is a spiritual program for your daily life. In other words, the real power of the Christian life does not come from you, it comes from your relationship with God, and the extent to which you are willing to throw yourself into knowing Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit in every way imaginable. This is the life you were created to have. This is the life most worth celebrating.
That’s what I wish I had said to my sons.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).
At age 36, I already felt like a failure. I had accomplished a lot by earning multiple graduate degrees, taking important roles of responsibility as a pastor, and impressing others in various ways. I had an amazing wife and two beautiful children. But in my heart of hearts, my achievements meant little to me. I didn’t feel very valuable as a person. Instead, I kept thinking about being unemployed. Worse, I was plagued by shame over how far short my life fell from what I wanted it to be—and from what I believed God wanted it to be. Not only was I keenly aware of all the “bad” things I had done in my life; I felt like I, myself, was “bad”.
By the grace of God, I was given an opportunity to attend a seminar on the subject of breaking the silence of shame. I learned that what was going on inside of me was far more serious than I had realized. Feeling guilty about our sins and failures from time to time is normal and healthy, and can even motivate us to make needed changes in our lives. What I was feeling was something insidious. I felt ashamed of myself at the core of my being, and when unhealed shame remains in the soil of our hearts, it becomes toxic.
Such shame often produces “weeds,” easily recognizable as products of feeling so poorly about ourselves. For example, our lives may be marked by persistently negative attitudes, highly visible sins, or other self-defeating, destructive behavior. Surprisingly, though, toxic shame can also produce seemingly “good fruit.”
Sometimes, when we believe that we are bad or fundamentally flawed, we try to “fix” ourselves by whatever means possible. We may even succeed at accomplishing much or creating something beautiful. We may hold a highly responsible position. We may serve others regularly and give generously. Perhaps we go to great lengths to make ourselves physically attractive, or to develop extraordinary skills. To us and everyone around us, our lives may appear to be very successful and fruitful.
However, when our efforts are driven by toxic shame (i.e., desperate attempts to do something in order to feel good about ourselves) and not by the Spirit of God, all our striving will ultimately be unsatisfying. At some point, we may give up out of frustration or discouragement. We may keep pushing and driving ourselves to exhaustion. Or, in spite of convincing everyone else that we are truly extraordinary individuals, we still fail to convince ourselves.
When I heard this teaching, the message pierced my heart. I realized that I could never do enough to truly feel good about myself. I am not ever going to find the solution to toxic shame in my own accomplishments. Instead of putting my trust in what I could do for myself, I needed to trust in God’s love and acceptance of me, despite all my shortcomings.
The image of my holding my firstborn son suddenly flashed through my mind. We were in the hospital, the day he was born. My heart was full, and words gushed out of my mouth that I didn’t anticipate. I looked at him tenderly and said, “Son, there is nothing you could ever do that would make me not love you.” As I basked in the warmth of that precious memory, the same kind of love I felt for my son began flowing within me, filling the lonely, raw, frightened, and empty spaces that were etched as scars throughout my soul.
Our Creator loves us simply because we are his children. He sees all our faults and limitations, and He still loves and accepts us. We belong to Him. And, yes, our moral failures and resistance to God create serious problems that can hurt our relationship with God. Yet, God’s love is so great that He not only reaches out to us with loving acceptance, he also graciously provides a solution for our sin that we could not produce on our own.
With new joy, I recalled the words of the Apostle Paul on this very subject. He explained to the Roman Christians that God’s love precedes all of our attempts to establish our own worthiness. What Jesus did by giving his life for us on the cross shows us how far God will go to to keep us safely in His care forever. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (i.e. before we even showed any interest in knowing, loving, or serving God), Christ died for us.” (2)
In that wonderful moment of awakening, my brokenness was healed. My eyes were opened. My heart was touched. I could hold my head high once again. God’s extraordinary love and grace had replaced shame in the soil of my soul. I now had a healthy, life-giving source of strength for my life—firmly rooted in God’s view of me, and not in my view of myself, or in my ability to earn or prove my worthiness. I was given a solid foundation of love to stand upon that does not crumble every time I stumble, or whenever I fall short of my ideals, fail, or feel rejected.
Several years later, someone who knew me well, asked me, “Who are you? “I hesitated for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question. But suddenly, I knew my answer.
Who am I? I am loved.
(1) Today’s post is a revised, English version of my recent post in French, “Je suis aimé!” (April 20, 2015). The original text was in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015. On May 3, an earlier English version was published on The Full Light website, which offers hope and healing words for those suffering from abuse of various kinds, under the same title, “I am loved!“
(2) Romans 5: 8, NIV. I added the words in italics to clarify the meaning of the verse.
Le suivant essai vient de mon petit témoignage pendant la Retraite Cathédrale, 19 avril 2015.
[A note to English speaking readers: Today’s post recalls a life-changing experience of mine in 1993, when I was profoundly touched by the love and grace of God during a seminar on breaking the bonds of shame. The foundation for my self-image was radically altered, and my reflection on my experience has become the theological cornerstone for my teaching and preaching ever since. The text is in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015.]
Un moment est arrivé dans ma vie où j’étais très découragé. J’avais bien servi comme pasteur.
J’avais obtenu un doctorat. J’avais une belle femme et deux beaux enfants. Mais après la soutenance de ma thèse doctorale, je n’ai pas pu trouver d’emploi. Pas dans l’église. Pas à l’Université. Pas dans un séminaire. Alors ma famille et moi nous nous sommes déplacés de Chicago à Minneapolis, près de la famille de Jill. Nous avons considéré qu’il était indifférent d’être au chômage à Minneapolis ou à Chicago.
J’étais une personne brisée. Sans emploi, vivant près de la famille de Jill, dans laquelle depuis plusieurs générations les affaires avaient réussi et je me suis vu tout petit et sans importance. Je me suis vu dans une situation d’échec. Pire, chaque jour je pensais à tous les péchés commis et mon cœur était plein de honte. Je veux dire que j’ai pensé que je n’avais pas seulement fait de mauvaises choses, comme il arrive à tout le monde, c’est le sentiment universel de la culpabilité personnelle. Non, j’ai aussi éprouvé le sentiment que j’étais, en moi-même, mauvais.
Qu’est-ce-que j’aurais dû faire ? Qu’est-ce-que je pourrais faire ?
Par la grâce de Dieu, j’ai pu participé à un séminaire sur le sentiment de honte de soi. Ainsi j’ai appris que si la honte est enracinée dans notre cœur, elle est toxique. Elle est le terrain favorable pour les mauvaises herbes. Par exemple des attitudes négatives, des péchés très visibles ou des choix destructeurs, qui apparaissent à l’évidence devant les autres personnes. Mais en même temps la honte peut produire un autre fruit bien différent, qui naît de cette honte toxique. Parfois la même personne qui se croit mauvaise, voire malfaisante, peut produire de belles choses. Elle peut accomplir de grandes choses. Peut-être a-t-elle un poste de hautes responsabilités. Ou bien elle exerce des actes de service par sa contribution à diverses actions caritatives. Cette personne met tout en œuvre pour se prouver à elle-même ou aux autres qu’elle est réellement une bonne personne. Il est impossible de se tromper sur ce point.
Après avoir entendu cet enseignement, mon cœur en fut transpercé. J’avais accompli beaucoup de choses en obtenant des diplômes universitaires, j’avais occupé des postes de responsabilité comme pasteur, par exemple, en essayant de laisser mon empreinte sur les autres. A ce moment–là de ma vie, je ne pouvais pas penser à ce que j’avais accompli. La seule chose à laquelle je pensais était : mes fautes, mes péchés, mes échecs.
A ce moment-là je me suis rendu compte que je ne pourrais jamais trouver la paix par mes seuls efforts. Il n’y a qu’une solution à la honte toxique, qu’un seul espoir. Au lieu de mettre ma confiance en moi, je dois la mettre en Dieu.
Nous sommes aimés par le Créateur parce que nous sommes ses créatures, ses enfants. Il voit toutes nos limites et toutes nos fautes, mais il continue à nous aimer. Il peut nous accepter et nous pardonner parce que nous lui appartenons et parce que son Fils, Jésus-Christ, est mort pour effacer nos péchés. Je me suis rappelé les mots de l’apôtre Paul qui a parlé de l’amour magnifique de Dieu : « Or, la preuve que Dieu nous aime, c’est que le Christ est mort pour nous, alors que nous étions encore pécheurs. (Romains 5, 8)
A ce moment extraordinaire, je me suis trouvé libéré. D’un seul coup je me suis rendu compte que je pouvais vivre, je pouvais expérimenter la paix et la joie, je pouvais garder la tête haute, je pouvais me reposer dans la présence de Dieu parce que mon identité est affermie en lui et non en moi. Son amour m’a donné ce que je ne peux jamais obtenir par mes seuls efforts et par mes seules actions.
Des années plus tard quelqu’un qui m’a bien connu m’a demandé : « Qui es-tu ? » J’ai hésité un instant, étonné par cette question inattendue. Puis j’ai trouvé la réponse : « Qui suis-je ? … Je suis aimé. »
Merci à Jill Geoffrion pour les photos au-dessus: 1) La guérison de l’aveugle (The healing of the blind man, Chartres Cathedral, France) 2) An arc-en-ciel capturé à Bora Bora, Polynésie (Rainbow captured, Bora Bora, French Polynesia)