As most people know, Jesus was born in a stable, a lowly place fit for animals, not humans (Luke 2:1-7). He grew up poor, without privilege or comfort. His family and all the Jewish people lived in a land occupied by Roman soldiers, who could be heartless, cruel, and brutal at times. At one point, they even had to flee to Egypt to save Jesus’s life, when one of the Jewish collaborators, King Herod, sought to kill all the Jewish children two years old and under (Matt. 2:16-20). Yet, this poor, underprivileged, at-risk Jewish boy, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas day, rose to become the Savior of the world for all those who put their faith in him.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:8-12 (NRSV)
It’s truly an amazing turn of events. As author Fulton Oursler put it years ago, Jesus’s life is the greatest story ever told. His poverty wasn’t bad karma. And his rise wasn’t good luck. Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection were all one big demonstration of the incredible love and power of God to save the world. Jesus’s story, his teaching, and the Gospel he preached shouted out, “God sees you in your pain, suffering, and struggle! No matter how poor, disadvantaged, or marginalized you might be, God loves you. Repent of your sins and put your faith in God’s son, Jesus, and you will know the full measure of God’s grace and forgiveness.” (John 3:16; Luke 24:47) And once you enter into this new relationship with God through faith in Jesus, nothing will ever be able to separate you from God’s love, in this life or the next. (Romans 8:31-39)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
John 3:16-17 (NRSV)
This is the true meaning of Christmas. It’s not about power, privilege, material possessions, glitter, or parties. It’s not something just for a few ethnic minority groups or people in the West. It’s about Jesus. And it’s about what Jesus did for the whole world by giving hope to even the most hopeless people in the most hopeless of circumstances.
As such, Christmas is rightly a time of great celebration. It’s a wonderful time to eat special foods, give and receive gifts, laugh and enjoy the love and friendship of those we hold most dear. But Christians do not party at Christmas time to forget their troubles, or look for life in material things, food, and drink, as some may be doing over the holidays. No, followers of Jesus celebrate joyfully because he has given us something precious that no one can take away from us. Through faith, believers have entered into a loving, grace-filled, hopeful relationship with God that will last for eternity.
This is what makes Jesus and Christmas so special for me. I hope this is true for you, too. It can be, if you will put your faith in God’s love and in Jesus for yourself.
The four-step restorative process that we have been discussing in successive weeks—See, Accept, Appreciate, and Delight—is simple in theory, but often takes a fair amount of work and patience to move through all the steps fruitfully. Are you seeing progress? If not, go back to the earlier steps, and spend more time thinking, praying, and processing until you feel ready to move forward to the next step.
No matter how much you may still be struggling with one or more steps, the way forward will surely include thinking positively, prayer, and applying your faith in concrete ways. Paul’s teaching to the Philippians speaks directly to this spiritual truth.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice….
Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
And the God of peace will fill your hearts and minds
with the peace that surpasses all understanding.
Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble,
whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable
—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me,
or seen in me—put it into practice.
And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:4, 6-9, NIV
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, he was in in prison for his faith, facing the possibility of execution. Yet, amazingly, he was able to be at peace and find joy in the midst of his suffering. He accepted his difficult circumstances and appreciated the opportunities they gave him to serve Christ and the Gospel ministry. He gave his heart to those in whom he delighted, and he laser-focused his mind on all the good and beauty he could see and perceive in the world and in others.
Such positive thinking and faith will not spare any of us from loss, unfair treatment, and suffering. You will struggle with many painful things throughout your life, just as I do every day. Yet, when I focus on what I’ve lost or can’t have or do, I get grumpy or depressed. When I focus on trying to please myself, I may feel happier for a while, but the feeling doesn’t last or doesn’t satisfy. However, when I delight in my relationship with God, in loving my family, friends, and neighbors, in thinking more about what I could give than what I could get, and in all the beauty and goodness in this amazing world, my life is often delight-full. And peace and joy are frequent companions.
What step are you ready to take next? See? Accept? Appreciate? Or, Delight?
Find a quiet place where you can sit and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Detach yourself from whatever emotional turmoil you might be feeling and quietly observe yourself. Then, depending on where you are in the restorative process, choose one or more of the following steps to take.
Step 1: Name the unwanted change or loss in your life that is troubling you. Ask God for help by praying, “Loving God, please help me to see what I need to see. Give me courage to face the truth, and wisdom and strength to act on whatever you reveal.” Then, when you feel ready, tell yourself, “I can face this. I will face this. I want to be able to go on with my life.”
Step 2: When you can clearly see the troubling turn of events that you cannot change, take a deep breath, exhale loudly, saying, “The truth[CK2] is clear. This is the way things are now. It’s not what I wanted, but I can accept it.” Repeat these sentences until you can express them with conviction and power in your voice.
Step 3: When you feel that you’ve let go of most of the emotional charge you’ve been carrying, turn your attention to your blessings and opportunities. Say aloud, “There’s more to my life than what I lost. I’m ready to start counting my blessings and looking for the opportunities that God may give me. I’m ready to move forward with my life.” The first few times you try to say these words, you may choke up or break down in tears. If moving on were easy, you would have done it a long time ago. Don’t give up. Keep saying these words until you believe them and feel your energy start to shift.
Step 4: Give yourself permission to enjoy your life again. Pray, “Loving Creator, please help me to delight in you more than in anyone or anything else. Please enable me to love what you love, to enjoy what you have given me to enjoy and to do, and to order my life by what you most desire.” Then, make a date with yourself. Perhaps it’s as simple as taking a day off or spending time in the garden. Maybe it’s sitting at the piano, singing a song, holding a baby, playing a game, or going for a walk. It’s time to laugh and love.
Bottom Line: Think positively and keep your eyes on your Creator and on Jesus. In life, there will always be so much that you cannot control, and so much suffering that you cannot avoid, but the more you focus your mind on and open your heart to whatever is good, beautiful, admirable, and life-giving, the better. The more you put your anxieties and grief in God’s hands, the sooner you will know the peace that surpasses understanding and the joy your heart longs for.
“Loving God, I want to experience greater peace and joy, and I want to be the kind of person who brings more peace, joy, and love into the lives of others. Please draw me closer to you and lead me out of all those places where I feel stuck emotionally. Help me to see, accept, appreciate, and delight more and more in you and all the good you have for me to experience and to do. Thank you. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.”
We’ve been talking about a four-step restorative process to help you cope better with unwanted change or loss in your life. Once you can see and accept what you’ve lost or cannot change (Steps 1-2) and have started to appreciate your remaining blessings and opportunities (Step 3), you will experience more peace and joy. But there’s still another step.
Step 4: “Delight”
Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Psalm 37:3-4 (NIV)
What do you take delight in? What are the desires of your heart?
For me, I love my birthday, which I just celebrated last week. As usual, I took the day off from work to do whatever I felt like doing, all day long. I went out for breakfast, spent hours interacting with well-wishers on Facebook, reflected on my life and future, read something I was very interested in, celebrated with my family, and, of course, ate ice cream!
But birthday delights, holidays, Friday night dates, lazy Sunday afternoons, and other special times are the spice of life for me, not the main course. In the right measure, the little (or big) treats in life bring me a lot of joy. Too much of them, and they lose their specialness. If I try to take too much from them, they can become like idols—alluring and wonderfully distracting from weights and responsibilities, but lacking sufficient nutrition for my psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If my delights become addictions, they become my masters and can even slowly destroy my life or the lives of others.
From Scripture, we learn that God gave us many wonderful things in nature, in our beloved relationships, in our vocations, and in many other aspects of our lives. They are God’s gifts to us, and key ingredients to living fully and joyfully. God wants us to delight in them, providing that our greatest love is for our Creator God. If we keep this relationship first in our hearts, then then rest of our desires, delights, and loves will fall into their proper places, in the right proportions.
When I was teenager, I thought that these verses in Psalm 37 meant that if you put God first in your life (“delight in the LORD”), then God would give you whatever you most want (“the desires of your heart”)—perhaps a lovely spouse, riches, property, good friends, fun experiences, etc. etc. But one day it dawned on me that there may be a more profound way to view this promise. Instead of interpreting these verses as describing something transactional (if you do this, then God will do that), the process may actually be transformational (if you do this, then your heart and mind will be changed, leading to an entirely new set of desired outcomes).
When the Psalmist says, “delight in the LORD,” he is not talking about saying or doing something just to try to win God’s favor to get something from God. Rather, he’s saying, genuinely take pleasure in your relationship with God, just as Jesus taught us to do when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Then, the more your heart’s desire is genuinely to know, love, and serve God with all your being, the more you will want what God wants for you, i.e., to live righteously (or justly) and to do good, or in Jesus’ words, to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:38). Delighting in your Creator God leads to delighting in fulfilling God’s good purposes for your life. And when you think and feel this way, the greatest joy and privilege God could ever give you would be to enable you to know, love, and serve God even better, and to receive more opportunities to let God love others through you.
For me, delighting in God includes taking time to appreciate all that God has done in creation and in my life. As a minister and professor, it also translates to spending most days happily teaching, researching, writing, coaching, praying for or with others, mentoring, and trying to help or encourage those who cross my path. As a married man with children, delighting in God and God’s calling on my life also means loving my wife and family as best I can.
I’m deeply grateful for the life that God has given me and for the ways Christ has inspired and called me to worship, serve, and love. Even with all the suffering, loss, and difficulties I and my family have had to endure over the years, putting God and Christ at the center of my heart and priorities has given me great meaning, purpose, peace, and joy, which I could not have found in the same way otherwise.
For you, delighting in God first may look different than it does for me, because you have your own relationship with God and Christ, and unique calling. But the spiritual principle is true for all those who can accept it, and the result of ordering your life in this way (greater peace and joy) will be the same: When you choose to delight in God and let God transform your heart’s desires to match God’s desires, God will surely give you the desires of your heart.
By now, you should be experiencing the fruit of working through the first three steps: See, Accept, and Appreciate. But don’t stop there. Make a conscious decision to move toward finding and doing more things that delight you. And start with God.
If you’re ready to take the fourth step, reflect on the following questions.
Where are you looking for pleasure, peace, and joy from day to day?
How well does what you delight in line up with what God wants you to delight in?
What would it look like for you if you delighted more in God and God’s good purposes for your life?
If your heart’s desire matched God’s desire for you more closely, how would you order your life differently? What would you be praying for?
Bottom line: You can make a lot of progress toward greater peace and joy in your life by seeing, accepting, and appreciating. But the most important step of them all is Step 4: “Delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Suggested prayer: “Loving God, I want what you want for me and my life. Please teach me to delight in you, and transform the desires of my heart to match yours.”
Next week: The conclusion to this series of articles with more practical suggestions for how to move through the four steps to greater peace and joy in your life
By now, if you’ve been working through Steps 1 and 2, you know how hard it can be sometimes to face the truth about something you don’t want to be true. Even when you think you’ve accepted whatever you’ve lost or the burden you must carry, sometimes the old feelings of resentment, anger, or sadness can come surging back without notice. At such times, you may wonder if you’re ever going to heal or be able to let it go. This kind of regression is fairly common in my experience, but over time, the pain will diminish, and new life will begin to bud and then blossom once again.
Taking Step 3 can help.
Step 3: “Appreciate”
Then Jesus said to [Bartimaeus], “What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Mark 10:51-52, NRSV
The story of Bartimaeus is about seeing one’s need, reaching out to Jesus for help, experiencing healing and transformation, and setting out on a new path. It’s not a formula for how to experience a miracle, but a testimony about someone who lived in blindness and despair whose faith led to regaining his sight and infusing his life with new meaning and purpose. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.”
As I struggled with accepting that the doors had slammed shut for me to return to Myanmar, I didn’t want to get over it, at first. I felt sorry for myself, and I didn’t want to imagine a new life or start a new ministry. I wanted the old one back. Yet, over time, as I began to accept reality more and more, I became less willing to stay stuck in my misery and more ready to notice and appreciate what I had gained in place of what I had lost.
For example, I began to see that not being able to travel abroad due to safety concerns was giving me more time with my family, and I loved it. Since I was now stationed in Minneapolis, I was now free to regularly conduct webinars on multiple continents, in Asia, Africa, and North America, sometimes all in the same week. Meanwhile, the crises brought a demand for me to write articles and a book, which were eventually translated into several languages for distribution in several countries. My point is, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been forced to stop traveling abroad, and if I hadn’t been willing to look for, notice, and appreciate the silver linings, blessings, and new opportunities that were coming my way.
I am not suggesting that acceptance implies being thankful for every loss or unwanted change. Some things in life are so painful or downright evil that you can only grieve them. What I’m saying is that the restorative process requires not only opening your eyes to see the truth about your situation (Step 1). It also entails accepting what you can’t change (Step 2) while simultaneously opening your eyes to see beyond what you’ve lost to appreciate how God is still at work in your life for good (Step 3).
According to the dictionary, the word “appreciate” means “recognizing the full worth of” something or someone. When you allow yourself to stay consumed with your negative emotional reactions to your circumstances or to annoying or burdensome people, there won’t be much room for peace and joy in your life. If instead, you open your eyes to appreciate (“recognize the full worth of) all the love, resources, opportunities, and gifts that are also part of your life, then you will experience a positive shift in your attitude and feelings.
However, to move from acceptance to appreciation, sometimes we need help. Bartimaeus asked Jesus to open his eyes, because he knew he was blind and that he couldn’t restore his sight on his own. Likewise, you may have reached the point where you want to believe there is hope for your future, but you just can’t see any. Here’s where good friends, pastors, counselors, and prayer can be immensely helpful. You don’t have to heal yourself on your own. You need to want to move forward and to be willing to get the help you need. You need to keep believing that God has not abandoned you and keep asking the Holy Spirit to help you to see what you cannot see (or appreciate) on your own.
Since experiencing your loss or unwanted change…
Who has come into your life or is contributing to your life in a new way?
How have you changed (in your heart, attitude, values, or priorities), for the better, because of how you have suffered?
What new clarity has emerged or is emerging?
What doors have opened to you (new opportunities)?
How do you sense God leading or calling you to something you highly value?
Bottom line: Self-pity or endless grief will only increase your sense of isolation, loss, or burden, while simultaneously blinding you to the very people and resources that you most need and value. Focus, instead, on what God is doing in your life for good and see where that takes you.
Suggested prayer: “Loving God, open my eyes that I may see all the good that you’re doing in me, and want to do through me.”
“Open My Eyes that I May See”
(Hymn by Clara Scott)
Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for thee,
Ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me,
Next week, Step 4: “Delight.” Peace and joy are real possibilities for those who learn to delight in God’s blessings once again.
To help you cope better with unwanted loss, change, or burden in your life, the four steps in this restorative process provide a road map to greater peace and joy. The timetable can range from minutes, days, months, to even years in some cases. Don’t try to rush the process. If your head and heart can move in concert with one other, the process will work better.
In Step 1, we looked at the importance of fully seeing the truth about whatever you’re going through. Feel your feelings. Assess and name what is real about your circumstances. Let yourself grieve, as ancient Israel did when forced into exile to Babylon. Then it’s time for acceptance.
Step 2: “Accept”
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles
whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters;
…multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Jeremiah 29:4-7, NRSV
In these verses, Jeremiah is telling the exiles to accept that they were not going to go back to their homeland any time soon, and to start acting accordingly. They should build houses, have children, plant gardens, and even pray for the well-being of their new city (no doubt on the theory that if their new city prospered, so would they). It was time to move on, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and to start rebuilding their lives in their new location. This is what true acceptance looks like in practice. We let go of the emotional weight we’ve been carrying and controlled by, and start acting in ways that enable us to create a better future for ourselves.
As I was grappling with the shock and trauma from what was happening in Myanmar, I had to accept that there was nothing I could do to protect my students, colleagues, and friends there. I had to accept that frustrating, substandard, online courses (due to terrible internet issues) was the new normal for education there, at least for now, and that something was better than nothing for the young people feeling hopeless about their future. I also needed to let go of many of the relationships that had been important to me when I lived in country. It just hasn’t been possible to keep them going, long distance. And then my church, where I often preached twice a month, closed permanently. I will never preach, teach, or serve that congregation again. In fact, I might never be able to return to Myanmar in person, ever.
All this loss was hard to see, let alone accept, at first. Yet, accepting what I could not change was critical to my ability to preserving my sanity and redirecting my attention to something more constructive. I focused my attention and channeled my energy into my writing and online webinars. I consciously let go of my irrational belief that I had to stay in emotional turmoil to be supportive, and accepted my new circumstances. While I did not choose to be in this place of trying to serve Myanmar from thousands of miles away, the more I accepted the change as something outside my control and focused on what I could realistically accomplish, the more peace I felt. It was freeing and energizing at the same time.
What truth have you known for a while, but now need to accept? What might open to you, if you let go of your preoccupation with what you’ve lost and cannot recover?
Acceptance doesn’t mean denying, minimizing, or rushing past your pain and distress. Whatever anger, resentment, bitterness, frustration, self-pity, or any other emotional reaction that has been consuming you takes time to work through. But the more you see these reactions as holding you back rather than helping you cope, the sooner you may be ready to let them go. Somewhere in the process, acceptance also means admitting to yourself that sometimes you cannot undo or fix something that is lost or broken. It’s not necessarily a weakness or failure on your part to accept your limitations. It’s actually a strength. When you find the courage to face and accept whatever truth you need to face, you will naturally shift your focus to what you can do, as opposed to what you cannot. You will start to see the opportunities that are present for you, and your motivation to pursue them will start to rise.
This week’s questions for reflection are these:
What troublesome turn of events, inconvenient truth, or unwanted change do you need to accept as a fact?
What would acceptance look like for you, in action? That is, if you really said goodbye to what was lost, what would you do differently? How would you invest your thinking, energy, and time?
How could you move toward building your home, developing new relationships, planting a garden, and blessing your new circumstances, as Jeremiah instructed the ancient Israelites to do?
Bottom line: Acceptance means letting go of your emotional turmoil related to your unwanted circumstances and looking forward once again.
Suggested Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” (Reinhold Niebuhr)
Next week, Step 3: “Appreciate.” Accepting what you cannot change sets the stage for moving to the next step, where you will discover many possibilities for experiencing greater joy and satisfaction.
What unwanted change is wreaking havoc in your life right now? Maybe it’s a significant loss—you were fired, someone you loved died or left you, or you’re grappling with an unexpected financial setback or liability. Maybe you received a frightening diagnosis, or you are struggling with an ongoing illness or disability. Maybe it’s an upsetting situation (or person) that you can’t avoid, such as an unreasonable boss, a troublesome neighbor, or a forced move and undesirable change of location. Whatever it may be, how are you handling it?
I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of person. I believe in the power of positive thinking. Yet, how can you be upbeat when your life suddenly changes dramatically for the worse? How can you get past all the inner turmoil when you’ve lost so much or continually have to deal with a person or situation that you hate but can’t get away from?
In this multi-part series, I’m going to share four steps that have been very helpful to me when I have felt heart-broken, frustrated, disappointed, sorry for myself, or any number of other negative emotions due to some unwanted change, circumstance, or person in my life. These insights first came to me many years ago when wrestling with painful relational issues when my family and I walked across northern Spain on the Camino in 2006. Over time, I’ve come to see that the same “4 Steps to Loving A Hard to Love Person” (See, Accept, Appreciate, and Delight) also provide a pathway to coping better with any unwanted change in my life. These steps may take a great deal of time to work through, but when taken thoughtfully and prayerfully, they have proven very helpful in getting unstuck mentally and emotionally in a wide variety of difficult situations. In this post, we’ll look at just the first step in this process.
Step 1: “See”
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
Psalm 137:1 (NRSV)
When ancient Israel suddenly found themselves as captives in Babylon in 586 BC, they had to grapple with incredible losses—the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Zion), their forced exile from their home country, and the collapse of their lives as they knew them. We can’t go back to reconstruct all the ways they handled this tragedy, but can infer from the text that, instead of putting their heads in the sand (e.g., by believing false prophets who tried to give them false hope of returning to Judah), the exiles saw the situation for what it was, faced the awful truth, and let themselves feel the emotional weight of their losses. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept….” Such grief was bitter, but it was also an important step toward moving forward.
However, for many of us, when we experience great loss or are suddenly forced to cope with frightening or overwhelming burdens, instead of facing the truth as the Israelites did, we get stuck in nonproductive, emotional turmoil. We may walk around in a daze or even in denial of what’s happened, or our fight-flight-freeze instincts may trigger an intense emotional response that either ties us up in knots on the inside or pushes us to act in unhelpful or even hurtful ways.
That’s what was happening to me for much of 2021. After 13 years of (in-person) teaching in Myanmar, the doors suddenly slammed shut in my face, when the military seized power in a coup-d’état on February 1. My school suspended all classes, the country began its ongoing slide into disarray, and it became no longer safe for me to return. Then there was the daily trauma from continual reports of imprisonment, beatings, or killing of protestors, doctors, journalists, political opponents of the regime, and even some of my students. Houses were burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands fled to the jungles to survive.
All this felt overwhelming and too difficult to fully face. For months, I felt almost panicky about my powerlessness to help them. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more, yet I could never identify what I could do differently. And so, instead of coming to grips with reality, I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety on their behalf, as if sharing their distress and desperation would somehow prove that I wasn’t abandoning them in their hour of need. The truth was, I was so caught up in my unexamined, emotional reaction that I couldn’t realistically assess the situation. I was stuck in my emotional turmoil, carrying a burden that wasn’t helpful to me or anyone else.
How about you? Where are you being held prisoner by your emotional reactions? What do you need to see more clearly about whatever you’re grappling with?
What did you lose or what burden has been placed on your shoulders that you did not choose and do not want?
What is the clearest, most accurate, description of what happened or is happening?
If you could name it, in a word or two, what would you call what happened to you?
How is this [unwanted situation] affecting you emotionally, physically, relationally, and spiritually?
What is your best realistic assessment of the implications of this change for your future?
Even if it takes more time than you’d like to be able to answer these questions clearly, don’t give up until you get enough emotional distance to accurately assess your situation. Be patient with yourself, but don’t give up. The goal is to be able to make good decisions about your future based on the truth instead of being held prisoner to your emotional reactions or a distorted picture of reality.
Here is one short prayer that I created many years ago continues to be helpful to me whenever I’m in emotional turmoil and can’t seem to see clearly. Perhaps it will help you, too.
“Loving God, please help me to see whatever I need to see. Give me courage to face the truth, and wisdom and strength to act on whatever you reveal.”
Next week, Step 2: “Accept,” the next critical step toward recovering your inner peace and joy.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
From Psalm 121
These are amazing words of inspiration and hope, but are they true? What does such faith mean for those who are traumatized and brutalized by others, such as the people of Myanmar, where thousands of people have had to flee for their lives into the jungle since the political upheaval began in 2021? How does the psalmist’s confidence apply to those whose homes have been burned to the ground? What sense do these assurances make to the families of those who have been beaten, tortured, or killed?
For years I struggled with such broad promises of the LORD’s protection and help in the face of so much exploitation and abuse of the vulnerable around the world. To trust in God’s deliverance sometimes seems ridiculous when so many suffer and die at the hands of evil doers. I’ve heard many testimonies of people who have experienced God’s miraculous help, yet other people of faith are never rescued by God.
At the same time, in spite of gut-wrenching experiences and unanswered questions, my faith in God has been indispensable and life-giving to me. God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness have provided a powerful source of self-acceptance and daily hope. Jesus Christ’s resurrection gives me hope that someday there will be justice, if not in this life then in the next. God’s presence in my life motivates me to become the kind of man God wants me to be for my family and for my community. My experience of God’s love and grace fills me with more compassion and mercy for those who are weak and vulnerable, people who need to experience the light of Jesus Christ and the love of God through a fellow human being. Even though I can’t fully understand why God allows so many to suffer so horribly, I am deeply grateful for all that God has done in my life and in the lives of so many other people who have similarly reached out to God and put their faith In Jesus.
So how should we interpret assurances of God’s help and deliverance like we find in Psalm 121? Was every Israelite saved from evil, as the Psalmist declared? Certainly not. But the Hebrew writer was not a fool. He knew that even those with great faith in the LORD sometimes fall victim to evil and injustice. Everyone suffers in some way, and some day, each of us will die, no matter how many times we might be saved from a premature demise.
Yet, the psalmist is not offering words that are out of touch with reality, but ones that offer hope in the midst of our suffering. He provides guidance not so that we can live in denial or flee into fantasy, but so that we might find spiritual resources to face and cope with whatever is overwhelming us. He speaks in hyperbole and metaphor to inspire the people to lift their eyes from focusing on their troubles so that they might see what God sees and reach out for what only God can provide.
I cannot prove to you that God cares, and I cannot make sense of the gross disparities in the world and all the senseless violence and heart-breaking tragedies. Yet, I do know that hope and strength do not come from denial, fear or faithlessness. We will not be stronger or better by allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by cynicism, hatred, or vengefulness. If we focus on evil, we will be consumed by it.
If, instead, we focus on God, we will find the perspective and strength we need to face and overcome it. If you let go of questions about the prevalence of evil that no one can answer, and if you drop your resistance to that inner voice that is calling you to put your faith in your Creator and in Jesus Christ, you will find relief, acceptance, forgiveness, inner peace, and hope as never before. This kind of hope cannot be extinguished even in death. And the love that comes from God is more valuable, enduring, and powerful than anything else in all creation, for it is not based on your own accomplishment or worthiness, but on the character and power of God.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, lift your eyes to gaze on the beauty and majesty of creation and of your Creator. “The LORD who made heaven and earth” has done amazing things in nature and for people of faith from the beginning of time. Lift your eyes to Jesus Christ to contemplate God’s character and intention to save you from yourself and from all those forces within you and in the world that you cannot overcome in your own strength, including death itself. Choose to trust that your Creator loves you and is active in your life for good. Lift your eyes up to your Redeemer–not necessarily to rescue you from all your troubles, but to provide strength to keep your head high, to follow Jesus Christ confidently, to serve God’s purposes faithfully, and to continue to reflect God’s light and love in the midst of so much darkness, hatred, and evil.
He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
How can you answer troubling questions about God that have no easy answers? How can you talk about God’s love to traumatized people in a war zone, when God seems so distant and disengaged from their suffering? During my weekly Bible study that I conduct for a group of 20-30 doctors (pictured below) in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I’m often asked, “What should we say to our patients, whose family, friends, or neighbors have been driven from their homes or brutally murdered?” In Eastern Congo, some six million people have died due to violence, starvation, and disease over the past 25 years. Their nightmare has raised earnest questions about God that are difficult to answer, such as, “Does God care?” and “Why didn’t God protect us?”
Meanwhile, in Europe, Russian troops are wreaking havoc across Ukraine, thousands are being injured or killed, and over three million people have been forced to flee the country in a matter of a few weeks so far. In Asia, as you well know, the crisis in Myanmar continues unabated and the suffering keeps multiplying. Everywhere there is great suffering from injustice and violence, the same kinds of questions keep arising among Christians. Even my Burmeses theological students want to know, “Are we suffering because God is punishing us?” “Is God ignoring us?” “Should we expect any help from God?”
In my role as seminary professor and Bible teacher in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia over the past 15 years, I’ve been asked these kinds of questions repeatedly by people who are being traumatized by genocide, war, or oppression. However, rather than try to make up answers to unanswerable questions or offer up false hope, it’s been far more helpful to admit the limitations of human understanding about God and to focus practically and realistically on how we know that God works in the midst of great evil.
As I have struggled with my own understanding of what to expect from God, I have longed ceased to put my hope in God’s sudden appearance out of nowhere to save the people. I’d be delighted for any miraculous intervention God may choose to make, and I pray for God’s help and deliverance daily. But most of my hope rests on how God works in, among, and through those who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.
I have never had a vision of Jesus, but I see Jesus in his body of believers all the time—in their compassionate acts of kindness, self-sacrificial service, hospitality, and generosity. They are riddled with all sorts of imperfections and failings, yet they treasure their relationship with God. They keep drawing from the well of God’s love and grace for light and life in the midst of their darkness. They love Jesus, and they genuinely want to share Jesus’ love with others. And do so, sometimes even at great personal cost.
It’s been inspiring to me to see the outpouring of support for those who are suffering in all the places where I serve— including, Ukraine, Myanmar, and the Congo—both from faithful followers of Christ within the countries and from a wide variety of caring people internationally. This is surely part of God’s plan to minister to those who call upon the name of the Lord in their distress.
There are no easy answers to the cries and confusion of people in a war zone. Nevertheless, when we, as the body of Christ, fulfill our purpose to be the heart, voice, hands, and feet of Jesus, the world will know that there is a God who cares. The power, presence, and love of God will be evident for others to experience through us. And we who serve in Jesus’ name will be less overwhelmed by the evil all around us, because our eyes will be focused more on what we can do and less on what we can’t; on what God is doing through us, and not on just on what we hope and pray that God will do for us.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
When my mother slowly lost her mind due to dementia (Alzheimer’s disease), I was heartbroken. Then, I was angry. As the months turned into years, I started to become resentful and bitter toward God. Why didn’t God spare her and us from so much suffering? Why did he fail us?
In the final chapter of my book, What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times, I tell my own personal story of grief over many losses in my life, including my mother’s heart-wrenching demise. During those years, I almost lost my faith. But one day, something surprising happened that saved my relationship with God. I understood that I needed to make a choice, a very important choice, with huge potential consequences.
In short, I finally understood what Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, meant when he wrote about his “leap to faith.” As a thinking-oriented person, ironically mired in resentment and bitterness, I had just about lost all hope for healing and renewal. But, what happened that day, and the decision I made, turned out to be a huge turning point in my life, for which I will always be grateful.
If you’ve been struggling with your faith, or feel resentful or even bitter toward God for something God did or didn’t do when you were suffering, I hope that something in this chapter will be life-giving and healing for you.
What’s your strategy for dealing with anxiety? Do you have a good one? Is it working?
In this chapter, I talk about my own experience with anxiety and some of what I have learned that has been most helpful to me over the years. For example, when I face my anxieties directly, they lose some of their power over me. When I use a practical tool that I developed to help me whenever I feel overwhelmed with anxiety (which I explain in detail in the video), I feel more peace and am better able to redirect my energy in positive directions. When a situation is completely outside of my control, I get strength by waiting on God. Most of the examples pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I hope the application to the current political and social crises will be obvious.
I know that there is a lot to be concerned about in these troubled times. I pray that the teaching in this chapter will be practical and helpful for you. As you put your faith into action and apply this spiritual wisdom when you feel anxious, you will see the difference. You will grow in many ways, be more useful to yourself and others, and God will give you greater peace, strength, and confidence to face all that you must face and endure.
When we are so cruelly mistreated or suffer tragedy, or whose lives and hopes have been severely disrupted by abusers or threatening forces, we will naturally experience the typical symptoms of grief (shock, bargaining, anger, depression). Consequently, it is no surprise that the people who are writing to me from Myanmar this week are stunned, angry, confused, discouraged, or simply terrified over the wanton destruction in Chin State and elsewhere in Myanmar.
Just a week ago, one of my former students, Pastor Cung Biak Hum, was shot to death as he rode his motorcycle into the town of Thantlang (Chin State, Myanmar) to help families whose homes were being burned to the ground by occupying forces. Any death is painful, but senseless, cruel, and brutal killings of those who are trying to help others in their time of need, and who leave behind a loving spouse and small children, are especially distressing. He’s now an inspiration and hero to many, but he will greatly missed.
Right now, you may be feeling the same way about suffering or oppression in your own life or about someone you care about. You may be nearly out of your mind with distress, worry and fear. You’re wondering, what’s going to happen next? How should you be praying? If God is not going to spare you from suffering, why should you pray at all? What are some practical ways to deal with fear and anxiety about the future?
In this week’s chapter, the spiritual truth addresses these questions. Though it was originally written to help readers to deal with their anxiety over COVID-19, the spiritual truth in it applies to all kinds of fears and worries.
I cannot fully answer why God is allowing you to suffer as you are. But I can assure you of Jesus’ love and care for you, and of his desire to minister to you in your time of loss and suffering. After I finish reading the chapter, I offer some additional, personal words of encouragement, especially for those suffering in Myanmar right now.
It’s such a disturbing and frightening time in so many other places around the world right now. The past weeks have been especially terrifying for the Burmese people in Myanmar. More brutality. More death. More uncertainty. More and more displaced people are on the run, fleeing for their lives. The spiritual question on the minds of many is, what is the relevance of faith and one’s relationship with God in the face of such horrors and challenges? What is the role of prayer when we all we are experiencing is oppression, deprivation, and suffering?
This week, in the chapter I’m reading from my book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times,” I share some biblical answers to these extremely important questions. In it, I talk about how the Apostle Paul encouraged other followers of Christ who were facing great suffering, deprivation, and even death in their day. His teaching is both reassuring and practical for all those who looking for more strength, courage, and confidence to sustain them throughout their long dark night, whenever and wherever it comes.
Though you may experience much suffering in this life, nothing can separate you from the love of God which comes to you through Jesus Christ. This kind of love is nothing less than God’s presence with you through his Holy Spirit, who consoles you in your suffering and enables you to live, to love, and to experience the love and support from other brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s enduring love and presence also guarantees that no matter what happens in your life, suffering and death are not the final chapters for followers of Christ. Once this life is finished, you will spend eternity in God’s loving presence.
Suffering. It’s so often unfair, unjust, and wretched. No one wants to suffer–ever! Yet, everyone suffers, and suffering is nothing new, particularly for those who seek to honor God and serve him faithfully. Jesus himself suffered horribly in order to fulfill his mission.
As hard as it is to hear or accept, suffering was promised to all his followers, as well. But here is our hope: so was his glory.
In this chapter, I talk about the promise that those who share in Jesus Christ’s sufferings will also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17). So many questions arise from this simple statement. For example, what kind of suffering did Paul have in mind? What did he mean that followers of Jesus will share in Christ’s’ glory? Why is this message so important for all followers of Christ, especially for those facing persecution, oppression, disease and possible death?
Not all questions can be answered definitively, nor is it clear how normal human suffering relates to suffering for Christ. Yet, the witness of the New Testament is clear that suffering is a certainty in life, greater suffering awaits those who follow Christ faithfully, and our great hope lies in trusting God to make all things right one day and to reward those who choose to live by their faith in the midst of their suffering.
My prayer is that God will speak to you through this video to give you more hope, strength, and courage to face whatever you must face in these very difficult days.
In this third chapter, I talk about three types of responses to the COVID-19 crisis: there are the
• positive-thinkers, and
• overwhelmed observers.
Which type of person best describes you? Which kind of person do you want to be?
On your own, you may feel very weak and afraid sometimes, especially when you are suffering so much. Yet, the biblical writers teach that if you put your faith in God’s working in your life, you can expect God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and restore your hope through your suffering. God will bring good out of your experiences, which God defines as our becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
In times of crisis, many of us instinctively respond with a Fight, Flee or Freeze response, which can lead to poor decisions and ineffective leadership. So, how can we go beyond these instincts to make good decisions, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit?
In this second chapter of my book, I talk about my struggle to discern the will of God when I was conducting leadership workshops for ministers in Myanmar, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, back in March 2020. Through this difficult time, and in many situations since then, I have seen the wisdom and effectiveness of a “both-and” approach to decision-making, which I explain in the video.
I pray that each one of these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day, and that God will use these videos to strengthen and encourage you in many ways to live better by faith in the midst of your hardships and suffering.
NEW VIDEO SERIES ON TRUSTING GOD IN TROUBLED TIMES!
(Produced in ENGLISH with BURMESE subtitles)
I’m very happy to now be able to share with you my most recent book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times.” I originally wrote the book to offer a biblically-based perspective on how to live by faith in the COVID-19 crisis, but the spiritual truths are relevant in any time of uncertainty, hardship, and suffering. In this eight-part video series, I will be reading the entire book, chapter by chapter, as well as offering some additional words of encouragement each week.
In this first video in the series, I read Chapter One and talk about the impossibility of understanding all of God’s ways with our limited human minds. However, when Jesus opens our eyes, we can see God’s presence among us, and we can reach out to receive and benefit from all that God offers to us. I hope these videos will strengthen and encourage you in many ways. I pray that these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day.
This video was inspired by conversations with Burmese people inside of Myanmar, who feel powerless to stop the oppression, to keep their country from becoming a completely failed state, and now, to stem the advance of COVID-19, which has recently begun to spiral out of control. Hundreds of people are dying every day in Yangon alone, and COVID has spread to 90% of the townships throughout the country. The junta is increasingly shutting off access to oxygen and pharmacies for the people. Many are just waiting for someone in their family to get sick and die.
No one knows how long these crises will last or how much suffering they must endure, just as many others throughout the world live under the constant threat of abuse, exploitation, or unbearable hardship. While many are praying, watching, and waiting to see how God may intervene to help, at times it is easy to feel hopeless. It’s precisely in such moments that Jesus’ offer to help carry our burdens is so relevant and needed. Jesus’ presence, in and among us, is God’s great gift to comfort, strengthen, and encourage all those who follow him, especially when there seems to be so little hope for our circumstances to change.
Ahlone, mingalarbar. I’m Dr. Tim Geoffrion, a biblical professor with another spiritual word of encouragement for my friends in Myanmar.
This is a horrible time for all of you. I know very well that your suffering is great. As I listen to the news and talk to so many of you, I know that many of you feel very frustrated and are discouraged. Every day is a living nightmare. You may be praying to God for help, but the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. More and more people don’t have enough food to eat. Just today, I got another message that more and more people are dying due to COVID. It’s hard not to feel hopeless sometimes.
If that’s how you’re feeling, Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew are especially for you today. As Jesus was spreading the Gospel and teaching people about God’s love and God’s ways, at one point, he turns to the crowd and says,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
As you know, out in the villages, you can easily find carts being pulled by animals. When there are two animals, they are usually joined together by a common yoke—which is often a wooden frame that goes over the necks of both animals. By being yoked as one, they move together and work together, and the result is that their work is easier than if just one of them had to pull the cart by itself.
The spiritual meaning or image is clear. Jesus knows very well how heavy our loads can be and how tired we can get trying to carry them. And so his message is a word of encouragement for those who believe him and who put their trust in him. If we will take on his yoke, then we don’t have to carry our load by ourselves anymore. He will always be with us, and his presence will be an abiding source of strength for us. And furthermore, compared to trying to go through life without God or trying to handle all our stresses and problems in our own strength, Jesus’ yoke is “easy and light.” Life is not easy and light, but putting Jesus’ yoke on us, submitting to his ways, trusting him, following his ways make it easier for us to find our ways through this life and to handle the darkness when we come into it and have to face it. He also said that he is “gentle and humble of heart,” he says, and if we are willing to learn from him, we will find rest for our souls.
For me, my relationship with God through Jesus, is my absolute lifeline. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious, which is in the past five or so months has been pretty much every day, the best thing I can do is to reach out to God, not just to ask for deliverance from my enemies and problems, but to simply connect with the Source of my life. I may get away by myself to pray or meditate on Scripture, or I’ll step out into Nature or look at the stars at night, just to remind me that I have a Creator and that there is still some beauty left in the universe.
Another way that I like to experience Jesus’ presence is by meeting with other followers of Christ. The idea is this, as Jesus is in me, so he is in them, so that when we gather together in Jesus’ name, his Spirit truly is present among us. And that’s what I experience.
This past week, for example, I joined a dozen colleagues from Myanmar for a prayer service online. We read Psalm 143 together, and each person shared how the psalm had spoken to them and had given them encouragement. We listened to one another and prayed together. And at the end, even though on the outside, things were still very dark and dangerous throughout Myanmar, everyone who was there felt stronger and encouraged because of our time together. And that was just one experience of the week. Every day, I’ve had many other such experiences with brothers and sisters in Christ who are going through tough times; but what we all have in common is that we share the yoke of Jesus Christ. We look to Jesus for guidance. We look to God for help, not just to solve our problems but to be our source of strength to face our problems.
The spiritual truth from these verses is this: When so much has been lost and the future is frightening and uncertain, you still have a hope that cannot be taken away from you. In the midst of so much that you can’t control or change, the presence of God through the Spirit of Jesus is the one solid rock you can stand on. Keep praying for God’s deliverance and intervention, but in your time of watching and waiting to see what will happen, don’t forget to also keep reaching out to Jesus. He’s the one abiding source of peace and strength that you can draw on to help you through the night.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day, as I have been.
ကိုယ့်ကိုယ်ကို ဂရုစိုက်ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
In this short video, I talk about where I see God’s light shining amid the darkness in Myanmar’s current crisis. The darkness is great, but the power of God’s love is inspiring and very encouraging, as lives are being nourished, strengthened, and changed among those who are actively seeking to reflect the light and love of Jesus Christ.
Ahlone. Mingalarbar. I’m so glad you are watching this week’s video. I’m Dr. Tim Geoffrion, a biblical professor and a friend to the people of Myanmar. I’m particularly looking forward to sharing something with you that has been really encouraging to me this week.
But first, in case you haven’t been following the news, the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate. Since just February 1, there are now some 175,000 newly Internally Displaced People (IDP’s). This is on top of the 370,000 IDP’s that were already living in camps or church yards or makeshift structures prior to the current crisis. Many of these new IDP’s are running for their lives. They have become extremely vulnerable, living in the jungles, in caves, and small villages, some of them just waiting to die. As the rainy season begins, many of these people will not have adequate shelter, food, or medicine.
Some of the stories I hear are horrifying and very frightening. And every day, I’m terrified thinking about will one of my students or colleagues or acquaintances be arrested, beaten, imprisoned for years, or even killed. These are indeed dark and difficult days for all those who live in Myanmar, and it’s that way for all those of us who love the Burmese people.
In this video, as I suggested at the beginning, my purpose is not just to update you on all the darkness, but also to talk to you about where I am seeing God’s light, shining in the darkness, and why I feel so encouraged.
Every day, I keep hearing new stories about individuals and groups of people, all over the country, who are providing rice, advocating for the defenseless, praying with the broken-hearted, helping people escape from danger, listening to one another’s stories, visiting the sick, and so much more. The love is coming from so many different places and going out in so many different directions. As a result, many people are surviving who would not otherwise; many people are finding some strength, and encouragement that would just not be available if it were not for those reaching out to them; and, among those who are giving so generously of themselves, even at great personal risk, I’m seeing more smiles on their faces, energy in their voices, pride, satisfaction, and inner strength. It’s really beautiful, and very encouraging, because it says to me, God is present, and God is at work. There is hope.
From a spiritual point of view, what I’m talking about is what happens when we accept God’s call to be a conduit of his love to those around us. By letting God’s love flow to us and through us, we experience the abundant life that Christ came to give us. We rediscover the hope that the Holy Spirit wants to breathe into our hearts. We find meaning and purpose, because we are taking our eyes off ourselves and giving our lives to serve others, just as Jesus taught us to do and showed us how to do by his amazing example (Mark 10:45)
I like the way the Apostle John explained it when he said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; whoever loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
This past week, I was particularly encouraged by hearing about one young seminarian, a person who chose to become an instrument of God’s love and light to some fellow refugees. He, himself, had recently barely escaped after a dozen rocket propelled grenades were fired into his home, in a compound where he lived. After moving from place to place, just to survive, he finally settled in a place, at least for now, and he got the idea one night of holding “family devotions,” something he experienced as a child growing up. But he did it with nine other refugees, who weren’t actually related, but in those circumstances, they were a small family, victims of the same catastrophe, huddled together, so far away from home, facing the same fears and dangers. Under this young man’s leadership, they spent time reading Scripture, praying, and just talking and listening to one another about their fears and experiences with one another. By his own account, he didn’t have much to offer them, but he gave them what he could. And that was something really precious, in that moment, for that day, in that hour, when people in need needed to experience Jesus, and needed to experience God’s love.
So, it’s stories like this one that are encouraging me so much this week. This is where I see the power of God’s light and love sustaining and changing lives, in the midst of so much darkness and evil.
Until the next time, let God’s love flow through you. I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့်ကိုယ်ကို ဂရုစိုက်ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
မြန်မာပြည်အမြန် ငြိမ်းချမ်းပါစေ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
Today, I’m going to talk about a spiritual practice that has been very helpful to me when I feel so powerless and angry, especially in those situations where someone I care about is being treated unjustly or being mistreated, and when I feel so limited in my ability to help. This is the second short video (6 minutes) in the current series, “Light in the Darkness.” I’m creating these videos in support of the Burmese people who have been suffering greatly in Myanmar as a result of a political coup on February 1, 2021. (Video is in English with Burmese subtitles.)
I’m not there in Myanmar facing danger every day, the way that so many of you are, but every time I hear about another killing, or that one of my students is fleeing through the jungles to escape capture, or that refugees don’t have enough food or medicine, I want to do something to help. But, in so many cases, there’s nothing I can do. I feel so frustrated, frustrated. I feel angry. I feel helpless.
At such times, I’ve learned how important it is to be willing to accept my powerlessness, to lament, and to reach out to God for comfort and help.
In Psalm 137, we find a great biblical example of lament. The ancient Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonian army and forced to live in a foreign country. It was miserable for them. They hated it, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And we get this picture of masses of exiles, sitting down by a river, just weeping with sorrow, and shaking with rage.
Listen to just a couple of the verses from this psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion [their homeland]. … O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
I used to wonder, how could such violent words be in the Bible? But after all that’s been happening lately in Myanmar and in many other places around the world, I think I understand better now. The Israelites had to get all all their sorrow and grief and rage out of their system. And they had to reach out to God to help them, and to reach out from a place of emotional honesty.
When Mindat was under attack, recently, I was so upset and angry. I kept looking for ways to do something, anything that I could to help. Yet, it seemed like there was nothing I could do. I had watch helplessly as people were being hurt and people were fleeing for their lives. I could feel myself almost getting frantic in my desperation, but then I remembered what I’m supposed to do when I feel this way.
So, I found a quiet place. I took a deep breath. As painful as it was, I let myself feel my powerlessness. I didn’t stop caring, but I reminded myself that I have to accept my limitations. I have to wait until God shows me what I can do; and until then, I have to rely on God or someone else to do what I cannot.
Well, as I began to let go of what I could not control or do, I began to feel more peace. And with greater peace, I began to feel more strength. And little by little, I didn’t feel so powerless anymore.
The spiritual truth behind this practice is this: When we feel so much distress and pain, and our lives have been so wounded, and when we feel so overwhelmed and consumed with fear or despair, we need God. We need God’s help. We can’t face these things on our own. And so, we need to cry out to our Creator, who is the Source of our life. We need to cry out to the one who can renew our life when we feel as if we are about to lose it. We need to sit with our power-lessness. We need to lament, and we need to wait for God’s power-fullness, which comes to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
As the Apostle Peter said, “Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God, so that he may life you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7, NRSV) Amen.
Trust this. Let go of your powerlessness. Lament. And then reach out to God, reach out to Jesus Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the life that you can’t get in your own power.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့္ ကိုယ္ ကို ဂရုစိုက္ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
ျမန္မာျပည္အျမန္ ျငိမ္း ခ်မ္းပါ ေစ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
I’m in the process of creating a series of short videos to support and encourage the Burmese people and all those who need and want God’s help in the midst of their suffering. Each video focuses on one spiritual truth, based on the teaching of the Bible, my faith journey as a Christian, and decades of experience as a minister and professor of New Testament and Christian Spirituality. Though the immediate context for this video series is the attempted military coup in Myanmar, the spiritual truths discussed are applicable for all those who are facing overwhelmingly difficult times and who are looking to Christ for guidance, strength, and courage to face their darkness. (This video includes Burmese subtitles.)
Today, I want to talk with you about where we can find some light in the midst of this present darkness. And I wish I could tell you when this nightmare is going to be over, but I can’t. Instead, I want to share with you something that I’ve learned, which helps me in difficult times.
There’s a well-known story in the Bible that explains how our Creator reached out to us to shine light into our darkness. When I reread that story this week, I realized again that this is not just a story for history, this teaching expresses a spiritual reality that is relevant today, especially in times of great evil.
You know the story. It’s about Jesus and the life that comes to all those who put their faith in him. The Apostle John put it this way. He said: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5, NRSV). That’s the critical point. The darkness, did not, does not, and will not overcome the light of God.
You see, when all we can see around us is darkness, we need to remember God has not abandoned us in our suffering; and through Jesus, we have a continual source of light, strength, and courage to face whatever it is we have to face, because he helps us to know that there is something more than the darkness. Through the Holy Spirit of Jesus, we have a deep source of love that we can draw on, love from God for ourselves and also love that that we can draw on to spread his light and love to other people.
Now, it’s true, evil-doers are going to do whatever they can to try to swallow us up in their darkness. But they will not succeed. Oppressors can suppress and try to control us; but, they cannot force us to believe a lie. Darkness cannot overcome the light. Once we have seen the light of God, we will never accept the darkness as truth. Once we have seen the light of Jesus, nothing can extinguish the hope that he brings, not now and not for eternity.
Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He didn’t say that there wouldn’t be darkness. There’s a lot of darkness all around us. Rather, he’s saying that in the midst of the darkness, through himself, through Jesus, we will always have light to guide us and to comfort us.
Think about how helpful it is to have a flashlight, or, some kind of light on your phone or from a candle, to shine into the darkness when we have to be outside at night, or when all the lights are off inside the house. The darker it is, the more valuable and precious is the light. If everything is light around us, we don’t need a flashlight. But that’s not our situation now, and that’s certainly not the situation in Myanmar. Right now the night is very, very dark these days, we need Christ’s light more than ever.
Friends, I don’t know how much darker things will get in Myanmar or how long until we see light at the end of the tunnel. But I do know this: There’s light that comes from our Creator God that is available to you right now, and this light can shine faith, hope, and love into your hearts. There’s life that comes through Jesus, which can give you strength and courage, peace and even joy, such as when you are with the people you love. Or when I sometimes experience the most joy is when I stop focusing on my problems and take time to share God’s love with others by caring for them in their distress and need.
This is our Creator’s plan for how we may encourage one another. This is how Christ shines his light in the darkness. So, look to Jesus as the Light of the world; and keep bringing his light and love to one another, and see what a difference that will make.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day.
There’s a lot of screaming going on right now. Emotions are running high, political opinions are polarized, and each side is predicting the end of democracy if the other candidate wins. November 3 is the official, designated Election Day, but who knows when all the votes will be counted and the country as a whole will agree who has been chosen as the next President of the United States. And Christians are in the thick of the debates, consternation, and furor.
Discerning the will of God
Disagreement among Christians is nothing new. In the early church in Jerusalem, there were “sharp disputes” among the leaders when it came to the right interpretation of the Gospel in various contexts (e.g., Acts 15:1-21). Paul and Barnabas disagreed, on at least one occasion, on the best candidate to accompany them on their missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). Christians disagreed on lifestyle matters and religious freedoms, and they were prone to judge those who believed differently than themselves (e.g., Romans 14:1-5). At times, there was even inadvertent discrimination against various ethnic groups and leaders were charged with neglecting certain minorities, causing an uproar in the church (e.g., Acts 6:1). So, it should not surprise us today that sincere Christians would, at times, vehemently disagree with one another. There simply is not just one correct Christian view on community values, priorities, freedoms, policies, treatment of immigrants and minorities, etc.
The challenge for Christians does not come from the fact that we are disputing with one another and have sharp disagreements. No, the real issue is how do we do so in ways that honor Christ, glorify God, and truly lead to constructive outcomes. The Bible does not give a clear formula for how a church or society can always discern God’s will for the community. Rather, the biblical ideal calls Christians to learn how to listen to one another and seek God’s leading and will together. As individuals, we are called to submit ourselves to God, offer our lives as “living sacrifice” in the service of God and others, and to seek personal transformation by renewing our minds, so that we can discern the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2).
Of course, most biblical teaching refers to the Christian community and not the secular state. Furthermore, the political situation was different then from what it is today in the USA. Though the United States is republic, as was ancient Rome, prior to the empire, most early Christians would not have been Roman citizens or have had the right to vote. Yet, we can extrapolate from the teachings and examples in the New Testament to draw the following, simple guidelines at election time.
Biblically-based guidelines for making a responsible decision
Take your status as a member of society seriously and fulfill your responsibilities. Biblical writers taught Christians to be good (moral, responsible), participating members of society to the extent that was available to them (e.g., Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).
Be prayerful, discuss issues with other believers, and seek wisdom from God (e.g., Acts 15:6; James 1:4-7).
Listen to your conscience, have the courage to have your own opinion, and then act in faith. Whatever your position, Paul says, “Be fully convinced in your own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
Don’t judge those who take a different position or who choose to vote differently than you (Rom. 14:1-4).
Whatever you say or do, be thankful in your heart for your privilege and opportunity to vote as a citizen in a free society, and always seek to bring glory to God by your actions (Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:31).
Trust God to work for good in your individual life as well as in the nation, regardless of the outcome of the election (e.g., Romans 8:28-30).
In other words, in the secular context, in America, when it comes to voting for a particular presidential candidate, discerning the will of God mostly comes down tobecoming well-informed, being prayerful, staying open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to change your heart and mind when need be, making the best decision you can, and then filling in the little circle in front of your chosen candidate’s name on the ballot in time for your vote to be counted.
The upcoming election: Our choices
While most of us are going to choose (or have already chosen) between Trump and Biden on Election Day (rather than a third party candidate), the positions people take are more complicated than just being for or against a particular candidate. As I see it, there are roughly six different clusters into which we could group ourselves as well as other people. The first three clusters of citizens would likely vote for Biden, the second group of three for Trump.
Identifying the various groups helps me understand myself better–where I fit, how I may still differ from others who are voting the same way, and how I might be able to explain my choice more easily to others who are voting differently. It also helps me better understand someone else who is making a different decision, and to realize that, when a friend or family member votes for a candidate I’m not choosing, it doesn’t mean that he or she has lost all sensibilities, values, or faith!
Cluster 1: Extreme left. Variously defined, they will include socialists, communists, antifa, anarchists, et al. They will vote for Biden (or some third-party candidate) because he is far closer to their views than is Trump.
Cluster 2: Genuine supporters of Biden, who generally embrace the Democratic platform (e.g., universal health care, reform criminal justice system, special emphasis on protecting civil rights widely, etc.). They are not extremists but are proudly liberal on many issues.
Cluster 3: Those left-leaning independents, moderate Democrats, or disaffected Republicans, whose greatest concern is the potential negative effect of four more years of a Trump presidency. These folks may even favor some of the Republican platform policies but consider Trump and his leadership to be a bigger threat to the future of America than a Democratic president and Congress.
Cluster 4: Those right-leaning independents and moderate Republicans, who appreciate many of Trump’s accomplishments and actions taken as president, though they may be critical of his undesirable characteristics and behavior. For these folks, the Republican policies and platform are more important than how well they like the individual candidate.
Cluster 5: Those who both embrace the Republican platform and greatly appreciate and admire Donald Trump as an individual. They view him positively, possibly even the political, social, and religious (rights) savior of America and champion of Christian causes (most notably, pro-life/anti-abortion). They are conservative and probably very religious.
Cluster 6: Extreme right wing. Variously defined, they include libertarians, white supremacists, white nationalists, and Ku Klux Klan. These folks will vote for Trump (or some third-party libertarian) either because they discern that he is more or less secretly one of them or because Trump will lend support to their causes far better than Biden ever will.
So, which cluster is most suitable for a Christian? For whom should Christians vote on or before Election Day?
The answer is, there is no “right” answer–that is, one that is right for everyone. The decision is up to you. If you’ve done your homework, if you’ve been prayerful and open throughout the discernment process, if you have been willing to think for yourself, and if you are willing to act according to your own faith and conscience, then your decision is the right answer for you.
You may not like your choices (few of us do). You may be afraid of making a mistake or of being criticized by others for your choice. But, don’t let any of that hold you back. This is what comes with taking your responsibility as a citizen seriously. Please vote for someone of your choosing. It’s what you can do.
The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they [do something they don’t believe in], because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
On October 10, 2020, I had the privilege of preaching at the marriage ceremony of the son of close family friends and his fiancée, both of whom I have come to know and love over the past several years. The following Charge to the Couple was edited both to protect their privacy and to make it applicable to anyone who wants more love and grace in their marriage.
The marriage day is one of the most important days of your life. It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day of commitment. And it’s a day of testimony to your love and intention to spend the rest of your lives together as husband and wife.
And yet, today is obviously not the beginning of your love and relationship. Today is a highpoint to be sure, but it is just one day, albeit one very special day, in a long flow that began when you first fell in love. So, for a few minutes, I’m going to talk about what you’ve been creating and what’s going to help you successfully continue on this path of mutual love and commitment, which we call marriage.
Live in love
To begin, it’s worth stating the obvious that we’re here today because of love. But, what’s not so obvious to everyone is that there are several different kinds of love, each of which has an important purpose in our relationships, and especially in marriage. C.S. Lewis famously wrote about each one in his book, The Four Loves. To make your marriage strong and enduring, commit yourselves to living in love and by love.
First of all, there is family love. This kind of love isn’t exactly the same for everyone, given that each of us has unique experiences growing up. For many it’s that special bond and affection that they feel for their family of origin. But for others, especially those who have had a painful childhood or been alienated from family members, family love may be felt for a group of people they have identified as their family members, whether they are actually related to them or not. No matter how we may define it, “family” is really important for most of us, because family love, at its best, is what gives us an emotional place of belonging, a place where we can experience unconditional love, and a place we can always return to in order to find people who accept us and want to be with us. What you’re doing today is creating a new family, and inheriting new, extended family members. Don’t take this love for granted. Commit yourself now to doing the hard work to nurture and develop family love as deeply and broadly as possible.
There is also the love between close friends. This kind of love enables you to be each other’s best friend—not only on date nights, but on Monday mornings when you don’t feel like going back to work, on Wednesday evenings when you’re having a hard time getting through the week, and on those long, cold days when there’s nothing to do and all you have is each other. No matter what you might have to face in the years to come, hold on to each other as best friends, and keep cultivating your friendship with one another at deeper and deeper levels.
Then, for a married couple, there is the love of mutual attraction, or what the ancient Greeks called, eros. This kind of love is God’s way of binding a man and a woman together in a unique way, creating a bond that is intended to last for a lifetime within the context of marriage. Celebrate it, thoroughly enjoy it, and carefully protect it. Reserve this level of intimacy for each other and no one else; and enjoy the special closeness that comes from it.
And then, finally, there is agape love. This is the kind of love that the Apostle Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape love is “patient and kind. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In other words, agape love goes beyond constantly changing moods and feelings, and expresses a commitment to do what is in the best interest of the other person, even when it requires personal sacrifice.
This is the kind of love God shows us, and the kind of love he wants us to show toward one another, regardless of attraction, friendship or family relations. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus to sacrifice his own comfort and personal agenda to stand up for others, and ultimately to give his life to demonstrate the unimaginable extent of God’s love.
One of my favorite stories in the Gospels actually started out on a sad note. Jesus’ cousin and close friend, John the Baptist, had just been killed. Jesus, shocked and heart-broken, gathered his disciples together to get away by themselves for a little while. They got in a boat and intended to get some rest and time alone, away from the demands of ministry, at their “lake home.” However, we read in Matthew (14:13-14) that when Jesus got to the other side of the lake, a crowd was already there, looking for him. When he saw them, he had compassion on them, because, in his perception, they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he gave up his vacation plans and began to heal and teach them many things.
In marriage, there are going to be those times when your spouse is going to need something from you that you’d rather not give. Maybe you just sat down in your favorite chair with a book or turned on the TV to watch a show or game. Maybe you’re tired and just want some time to yourself. Maybe your annoyed or have lost patience. But you’re going to have to make a decision. Will you stop what you’re doing, or give up whatever you’d rather be doing, in order to care for your spouse? The degree to which you make these hard, self-sacrificial decisions will greatly determine how much love there will be in your marriage.
I know this is the kind of love you want to have in your marriage and in your family. It’s a noble ideal; but to live it out you’re going to need to help. And that leads us to the subject of God’s love and grace.
Be filled with grace
Your ability to be loving toward others is directly linked to your experience of being loved, especially by God. When you experience the kind of gracious love that God offers—unconditional, generous love, without strings attached—you develop your capacity to be loving and gracious toward others.
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 unlimited capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst.
We read in Romans chapter two, that God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. In other words, God often chooses to be patient, kind, and merciful toward us, not because he’s soft or doesn’t care, but because he knows that mercy is more powerful than judgment. He knows that the real goal: changing our hearts, producing lasting change, and cultivating love for him will rarely come from harsh judgment and punishment. Changes in the heart come from experiencing agape love, mercy and grace.
In marriage, if you want, you can judge and punish one another when the other person fails you. You have a right to do so. But it’s not the better way. And it won’t make the other person love you more. It simply can’t produce the heart change and the love you truly long for from one another. Kindness, mercy, and grace is what your partner needs when they are trying to get back on their feet and have no right to ask for anything from you.
In other words, grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than on what’s wrong. Grace accepts the other person as they are, and it forgives when necessary. Grace believes in the other person, even when he or she cannot believe in him- or herself.
Put Christ at the center
When Jill and I got married 38 years ago, we had no idea what we were getting into! We loved each other very much and had become each other’s best friend, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves, let alone the other person. We had so much growing up still to do. Sometimes, in our immaturity, frustration, and disappointment, we hurt each other, and said or did things we now regret.
Yet, God’s love and grace gave us the ability to forgive each other when need be. And our common commitment to Christ helped us to rise above ourselves to find direction and purpose that was bigger than our own self-centered instincts. 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; he’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to reorient ourselves and figure out which direction to go. And he’s been our common root, which nourishes, renews, and empowers us from day to day. In other words, Christ is at the center of our relationship and we depend on him to lead and guide and empower our marriage.
To use the well-known metaphor of the cross, we have been seeking to cultivate both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our relationship with God. The vertical dimension represents our personal relationship with God. It’s grounded in God’s love for us and in Jesus’ sacrificial act of love in dying for us. We respond by putting our trust in God’s grace and mercy and by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. Then, in the horizontal dimension, we express our faith in Christ by extending God’s love and grace toward others. This Christ-centered, multi-dimensional spirituality is God’s will for our lives.
So, on this wedding day, fill your relationship with every kind of love, but especially agape love. Put Christ at the center of your marriage and family, and learn how to draw more and more on Christ’s Spirit so that you can offer God’s agape love and grace freely and generously to each other and to others around you.
If you will do these things, you’re going to make it. But far more than just make it, alongside all the mundane and difficult moments, your life together will flourish. It will be full of joy, meaning, and purpose in more ways than you can even imagine now. It will never be perfect, but there will be love, and there will be grace. May this be your marriage story now and for the rest of your lives. Amen.
Are you the victim of mistreatment and unjust oppression? Are you feeling hopeless? Are you wondering why God is allowing you to suffer so unfairly?
In this 29 minute presentation, in English with Burmese subtitles and photos from the present Myanmar context, I address the following four questions.
1. “Why us?”
2. “Why is God so silent?”
3. “Where can we find God?”
4. “What hope is there?”
When we suffer unjustly, we all want deliverance from our suffering. But when God does not spare us, we often want answers to questions like these. Now, some of these questions cannot be fully answered, given our limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. However, at the same time, the Bible has a lot to say about each one, and the experience of millions of followers of Christ shows that there truly is hope for those who live in seemingly hopeless circumstances. The key is to understand what kind of hope is available to us when there seems no way to stop those who are mistreating us or to escape our painful situation.
Coping with oppression and trauma is complicated and often requires therapy, pastoral counseling, and/or a lot of help from others. In this video, I do not try to address all of these issues comprehensively, but rather focus on the great spiritual resources that believers have in Jesus Christ and in the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The more you learn how to draw on the Spirit’s support and encouragement, they more you will experience inner peace, inspiration, and hope to enable you to face whatever you must face in this life with greater strength and hope. Never do I suggest that suffering from mistreatment or oppression is easy, but I do know how much help comes from leaning on the Lord Jesus Christ at such times.
The original context for this video was a special talk for faculty and theological students at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, in Yangon, Myanmar. I welcome your comments and questions, as this is a topic for ongoing reflection, prayer, and discussion for the people in Myanmar and for all those who suffer unjustly.