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.
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.)
Truth 3: Expect God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and lovingly restore your hope through your suffering
Ahhhh! When can I get out of this house? When is life going to go back to normal?!
Currently, some 95% of Americans are required to stay at home. Globally, billions are on some form of lockdown. For some people, it’s been OK. For most people, even if they welcomed a nice break from their normal life, are feeling more and more stress as the crisis continues with no end in sight. After weeks of living in close quarters 24/7, loss of work, fears of what’s to come, the pressure is mounting. Last week, protests started springing up. The people are taking to the streets. All this on top of 2.5 million (verified) people who have been infected, and over 160,000 deaths in just a few months so far.
In such times, what are Christians supposed to think, feel, and do?
Under different but equally difficult circumstances (such as beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment), the Apostle Paul famously said, “Now, these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). So, what does faith look like today? Where can we find hope? Where is love?
When I look around, I am deeply grateful for the action-takers among us. The heroism and dedication of countless doctors, medical workers, researchers, and other public servants, some of whom are literally risking their lives to save others, is humbling and inspiring. Furthermore, the creative expression from artists, musicians, and poets; the compassion and generosity of rich and poor alike; and the kind, thoughtfulness of so many individuals comforts and encourages me.
Then, there are the positive thinkers, who are refusing to be imprisoned in their hearts and minds, even if their bodies are locked down. These inspiring, glass-half-full folks are seeing opportunities everywhere and are making the most of them—more time with family, space for creativity and music, quiet and rest, reading and reflection, communication with friends, and so forth. They are learning new things and finding meaningful ways to show Christ’s love to those near and far.
However, for multiple reasons, not everyone can be an action-taker or a positive thinker. For those hit hardest by the coronavirus, lockdowns, or closure of businesses, there is a great deal of pain, fear, and loss. Some feel like Job, whose children were suddenly killed and health destroyed. All he could do was sit on the ground, weeping or calling out to God, grappling with a tragedy beyond comprehension. A growing number of people globally are grieving the unexpected death of loved ones or the shutdown of their lives and livelihood. They perceive no rhyme or reason in their suffering. They have no idea what hit them or where to go from here.
If this describes how you’re feeling, please know that, sometimes, in the midst of our suffering, we just can’t rise above our distress or despair. Sometimes, we cannot be hopeful, no matter how much we may want to be a positive thinker. And it’s OK. Faith in God doesn’t always mean being upbeat and emotionally stable. Faith in God is not just for the action-takers and positive thinkers. Faith includes trusting that he’s holding you even when you don’t have the emotional strength or wherewithal to hold on to him.
But there is hope.
Spiritual Truth 3: Expect your loving God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and restore your hope through your suffering. (Romans 5:3-5; 8:28-29; 2 Cor. 1:8-9; Lam. 3:22-24)
In the biblical book of Romans, Paul does not offer an explanation or defense of God for human suffering, but rather focuses on how a loving God works through human suffering for good. He writes:
We…glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5, NIV
Paul knew very well that when any of us suffer extensively, we can easily reach our physical and emotional limits. We may reach out to God for help, but when we’re not healed or our suffering persists, we may despair, panic, or want to abandon faith in God. But it is at just such a low point that many of us have been wonderfully surprised by God. We may unexpectedly feel peace. We may suddenly perceive his love through the kindness of those around us. We may find new motivation and power to finally put aside the sin that has been controlling our lives. We may unexpectedly see beauty in something or someone just when we may have lost hope of ever feeling that way again.
Through these kinds of surprising touches from God, our faith in God is rekindled. Our ability to persevere faithfully in the midst of our suffering increases. Our encounter with the goodness of God refines and strengthens our own moral character. Our spiritual vitality is renewed. We perceive God’s love for us in a fresh way. We see Christ’s love being expressed through us, and we feel purpose, meaning, and joy. Hope suddenly springs up within us again—now, not because we have been healed or delivered from our troubles, but because the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see God’s loving, caring presence in the midst of our circumstances. Right when we were about to give up—or actually had given up already—God touched us.
As the Holy Spirit works in our lives in the midst of our suffering, we will realize that we are not abandoned. We have somewhere and someone to go to in our darkest hours. We may weep, wail, confess sin with a broken heart, or simply shuffle along in grief, as Israel did after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem (586 BC) on their way to captivity in Bablyon. Yet, with them, we will reach a point where we also can say with Jeremiah, the prophet:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:22-24, NIV
Are you experiencing overwhelming loss, hopelessness, or fear right now? Or, if not you, then surely there is someone you’re living with or whom you care about, who is. If so, this is not an easy place to be. But there is hope. There’s a bigger reality than what you are perceiving and experiencing at the moment. God may not be delivering you from all your trouble or distress, but that doesn’t mean God is irrelevant. On the contrary, it’s in your powerlessness and despair that God can produce some good in your life that would not be possible under different circumstances.
In the context of talking about human suffering, the groaning of creation, and our sometimes inability to even know how to pray, the Apostle Paul offers these words of perspective and hope:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
Romans 8:28-29 NRSV
And what is the good God has in mind?
The “good” is not necessarily your healing, prosperity, or anything else that you be asking for in your desperation. The ultimate good that God produces through your suffering is to make you more and more like Jesus Christ, God’s son—more and more full of faith, hope, and love.
Your greatest desire will probably always be for relief from your suffering or for some miracle in your life. Mine usually is. Yet, none of us knows what God will or won’t do. Are you willing to live with that uncertainty, yet keep reaching out to God? Are you willing to let go of expecting God to act as you want him to act, and yet never quit expecting him to work through your suffering for good, according to his priorities and values? This is our faith. This is our hope.
This essay series, “What We Can Expect from God Now?” was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. It focuses on how believers can better trust God in troubled times. The essays expand on the practical suggestions offered in Chapter eight, “Trusting God,” in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.