I want God to stop the coronavirus immediately. I’m worried for myself and especially for all the people I love and care about. I pray for God to protect me, my family, and everyone everywhere. But as the numbers of sick and dying keep increasing, along with dire forecasts for the coming weeks, so does my anxiety. I’m obviously not alone in this.
What if God doesn’t help? Already, thousands have died and many more will. Given our experience so far, is it even reasonable to expect that God will do anything in midst of this COVID-19, global crisis? If so, what?
Spiritually, many of us are at the “Help me, God!” stage. We’re reaching out to God for whatever help we can get. Others of us are wrestling with profound theological questions right now as well: “Where is God? Does God care about our suffering? Why doesn’t God do more to help? If God won’t stop the onslaught, what can we expect from God?”
These questions have been and continue to be very relevant to me, personally. Ever since our first child died in a miscarriage; my mother began a long, debilitating, losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease; and I learned that I contracted a terminal disease the day after my first son was born, I have been asking more and more questions like these. Bottom line, I simply want to know, “Can I trust God? And if so, for what?”
I feel the urgency of these questions more in times of crisis, but ask them regularly in Myanmar, where I serve six months a year, where human suffering is so visible to me every day. In fact, the questions are always with me, because there are no answers that fully satisfy me intellectually or that completely assuage my grief and angst. There is so much we wish we understood about God, but just can’t. Yet, what we believe and how we act on our faith still makes a huge difference in our ability to cope with adversity and an uncertain future.
Over the coming weeks, I will be talking about seven spiritual truths for trusting God in troubled times.
Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers.
Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you.
Expect God to build character and faith out of your experiences of suffering.
Take encouragement from opportunities to share in the sufferings of Christ.
Cling to Jesus Christ, who promises to never forsake you.
Replace anxiety with prayer and thanksgiving.
Never forget, trust is a choice. (My personal story)
This series of essays does not attempt to answer all the questions any of us might have right now in the midst of the COVID-19 threat. Instead, they offer spiritual truths that so many have found helpful in any and all times of crisis and distress. They are insights that grow out of the Bible and have been validated in my own experience and by the experience of millions of Christians over the years. They are truths, not because anyone can prove them to be true by scientific testing. They are true because of how they have qualitatively improved the minds, hearts, and lives of those who believe and live by them. I hope you find them meaningful and helpful, and will share your own perspective, comments, and questions with the rest of us, each week.
What are your top priorities for your growth and development as a Christian? If you are a parent, what are you emphasizing to your children to guide them into adulthood? If you are a youth group leader or mentor, what spiritual guidance are you offering to ground and direct those under your care. If you were on the Board of Trustees for a Christian college or seminary, apart from emphasizing education and developing skills, what would you most want the students to learn and to gain from their education at your school? In other words, how should we be preparing ourselves and the next generation of Christian leaders to make significant contributions in our troubled and needy world? Are our priorities right?
Recently, I was given the opportunity to answer these questions for the sake of the school where I teach, the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). The school theme that I proposed for the academic year, “Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service,” was chosen by the MIT faculty members as particularly fitting for our 1200+ students. What follows below is the Bible study that I prepared to present this theme to the student body and all of our constituents. While the context is clearly a particular Christian college and seminary in Southeast Asia, this teaching applies to Christians everywhere. The writers of the New Testament insist over and over again that we need to keep our spiritual priorities straight—in our personal lives, families, churches, youth groups, and Christian schools. So much is at stake.
“Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service”
This year’s theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, is intended to concisely articulate the core theological and spiritual foundation of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and to remind us all of why MIT primarily exists. In other words, the primary purpose of this theme is to encourage MIT Liberal Arts Program (LAP) and Theology students, faculty, and staff to focus on developing their relationship with Christ as their first priority, and to humbly dedicate themselves to serving Christ, church, and country with greater knowledge, skills, and spiritual vitality.
Drawing largely on Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commands and on Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel, we can say that the primary purpose for every human being is to know, love, and serve God, who is revealed preeminently in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. For Christians, this life purpose is not simply a matter of doctrine; it cannot be fulfilled just by believing or by being baptized. Rather, it requires growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ all our lives. Our vocation—that is, our unique work in the world—flows from this relationship into a lifetime of service, no matter what our particular position, assignment, or activity may be. We may be called to serve primarily in the Church, the broader society, or simply at home with our families, but every Christian has the same general vocation to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said of himself, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life…for many” (Mark 10:45). In short, then, our theme, Growing in Christ, Preparing for Service, draws our attention to our top spiritual priority of knowing and loving God in Christ more and more, and to MIT’s chief responsibility from a biblical point of view to prepare men and women to serve Christ and the Church in a wide variety of ways upon graduation.
Our Bible study will take Paul’s teaching on the purpose of the Church and the significance of growing in Christ as our point of departure. We will then look how Peter contextualized Paul’s ecclesiology, teaching marginalized and persecuted Christians how they should live and serve Christ in a religiously pluralistic world, and what kind of preparation is needed to do so. Finally, a few comments will be offered on the relevance of this biblical teaching and theme to MIT.
The priority of growing in Christ according to Paul
The Church was established by the preaching of the Gospel, the working of the Holy Spirit through its proclamation, and the common faith of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation. According to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, believers in the Christian Gospel become members of the body of Christ, and together form the universal Church (1 Cor. 12). Further, God gave spiritual gifts to every member of the body of Christ (12:7). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul focuses on a subset of the body to emphasize particular gifts given to those who are in positions of leadership—namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, in order both to identify these leadership gifts and to discuss the purpose for which they were given.
In general, Paul taught that God gives spiritual gifts among the members of the body of Christ in order that they may minister to, serve, and build up one another. In 1 Corinthians, Paul simply says that the gifts are given for “the common good” (12:7), meaning the good of the body of Christ (the Church). All believers in Christ have the responsibility to serve in ways that strengthen the body. Leaders have the additional duty “to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-12). To be built up means that all the members of the body of Christ would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). When the body of Christ is mature, they “will no longer be infants,” liable to being misled and confused by false teaching (4:14). Instead of being crippled by instability and division, they would “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (4:15, emphasis added), as the whole body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:16, emphasis added).
In Paul’s vision for the Church, everyone is expected to keep growing in Christ and to be actively serving one another for the common good and the upbuilding of the whole Church. If we have accurately summed up the priorities for the body of Christ as a whole, how much more important is growing in Christ, preparing for service for the Church’s future leaders.
The necessity of growing in Christ as preparation for service according to Peter
When we turn to the Apostle Peter’s teaching, we see how he contextualizes Paul’s teaching on growing in Christ for Christians who were marginalized by the broader, religiously pluralistic society and sometimes even persecuted for their faith. In the face of such hardship and danger, he urged Christian believers to go deeper into their own relationship with God in Christ, to strengthen their self-understanding as the people of God, and to prepare themselves intellectually as well as spiritually, morally, and behaviorally, so that their witness to their largely nonChristian neighbors would be more clear, vibrant and persuasive. They were not to shy away from suffering for Christ. Yet, at the same time, they should avoid unnecessary persecution (that which comes from outright rebellion or immoral behavior) and live exemplary lives for all to see. He urged them to “live such good lives among the pagans though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12).
To live up to our calling and to the demands of serving Christ requires ongoing spiritual growth and development. So, Peter says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:2-3, NIV, emphasis added). Peter writes elsewhere, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18, NIV, emphasis added). He knows well that his readers already have experienced the grace of God and know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, he also knows that the Christian faith calls us to keep growing in our knowledge and experience of God in ever-new and more meaningful ways.
Throughout his letters, Peter gives many practical teachings on what it means to grow spiritually and prepare better for Christian service. In one place, Peter urged his readers, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15a, NIV). Acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord, or leader, is not something a believer does just once at baptism. Rather, surrendering to the lordship of Christ is ongoing struggle and process that continues throughout our lifetimes. This, too, is an important part of growing in Christ. According to New Testament writers, accepting Christ as our Savior and Lord is an essential turning point in our spiritual journey, but it is only that—a significant turning point (not, endpoint). Bending our knee to Christ as Lord repositions us to eagerly pursue a fuller and more significant relationship with Christ on an ever-deepening basis. Then, as we grow, Peter tells his readers, “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15b, NIV). Here Peter calls Christians to keep growing intellectually and to develop communication skills to talk about their faith (and not hide or minimize it) with those who don’t know Jesus Christ. And so forth.
In sum, Peter teaches Christians how they should think of themselves and respond to nonChristians in the face of marginalization, misunderstanding, ignorance, and even persecution in a religiously pluralistic context. They are to neither hide from nor belligerently fight against those who oppose or mistreat them. He didn’t advise them to change their theology or view themselves as inferior to the majority and the powerful. Instead, they should sharpen their self-understanding as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [they] may declare the praises of him who called [them] out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once [they] were not a people, but now [they] are the people of God; once [they] had not received mercy, but now [they] have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Then they should learn how to better reflect their faith, hope, and love to the nonChristians surrounding them in intelligent and positive ways. In short, the best response for Christians in a hostile, religiously pluralistic setting is to keep growing in Christ and to prepare themselves to serve both within the Church and within the broader society.
Conclusion: Implications for MIT
So, how does this Bible study apply to MIT? Just this. For MIT to fulfill its duty to Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) and the churches it serves, we must be diligent to teach our students how to grow in Christ. We must adequately prepare them for a lifetime of service. And, since many MIT graduates will be given significant opportunities to lead in the Church and society, we must also teach them how to lead and how to help others to grow in Christ and to be humble, faithful servants of Christ.
You may be wondering, does this Bible study suggest that growing in Christ should come at the expense of academic excellence, sharing the Gospel, participating in inter-faith dialogue, or working to address societal ills and needs? No, not at all. All these endeavors and missions remain important objectives for Christians, and especially for MIT students and graduates. Yet, growing in Christ is the mostimportant priority, and is the pre-requisite for all our intellectual, academic, mission, and societal activities. Why? Because Jesus taught that the only way we can hope to bear fruit in our lives is by maintaining a close (“abiding”) relationship with him (John 15). Paul and Peter taught the same thing, as we have briefly seen in this Bible study. They only added that our personal relationship with God in Christ needs to keep growing and deepening as well. They taught that we must become more and more like Christ and learn how to relate better to nonChristians in a religiously pluralistic world.
The implications of this Bible study for MIT, as well as for the broader Church in Myanmar, seem obvious. The Church’s current leaders (including MIT faculty and staff) would teach, preach, and model the importance of growing in Christ as the top priority for Christians and the essential pre-requisite for everything we want to do in the name of Christ. Throughout the school year, MIT would actively promote the spiritual life of students, faculty, and staff (helping each one to grow in Christ) while organizing the school’s curriculum and student activities with the ultimate purpose of a MIT education in mind, namely, to prepare future leaders to serve Christ faithfully and fruitfully in their various leadership roles. Future leaders (including MIT students) would embrace these priorities for themselves and take personal responsibility to pursue them in every way they can.
May God bless MIT and all the churches that support and are served by MIT as, together, we keep growing in Christ, preparing for service.
At age 36, I already felt like a failure. I had accomplished a lot by earning multiple graduate degrees, taking important roles of responsibility as a pastor, and impressing others in various ways. I had an amazing wife and two beautiful children. But in my heart of hearts, my achievements meant little to me. I didn’t feel very valuable as a person. Instead, I kept thinking about being unemployed. Worse, I was plagued by shame over how far short my life fell from what I wanted it to be—and from what I believed God wanted it to be. Not only was I keenly aware of all the “bad” things I had done in my life; I felt like I, myself, was “bad”.
By the grace of God, I was given an opportunity to attend a seminar on the subject of breaking the silence of shame. I learned that what was going on inside of me was far more serious than I had realized. Feeling guilty about our sins and failures from time to time is normal and healthy, and can even motivate us to make needed changes in our lives. What I was feeling was something insidious. I felt ashamed of myself at the core of my being, and when unhealed shame remains in the soil of our hearts, it becomes toxic.
Such shame often produces “weeds,” easily recognizable as products of feeling so poorly about ourselves. For example, our lives may be marked by persistently negative attitudes, highly visible sins, or other self-defeating, destructive behavior. Surprisingly, though, toxic shame can also produce seemingly “good fruit.”
Sometimes, when we believe that we are bad or fundamentally flawed, we try to “fix” ourselves by whatever means possible. We may even succeed at accomplishing much or creating something beautiful. We may hold a highly responsible position. We may serve others regularly and give generously. Perhaps we go to great lengths to make ourselves physically attractive, or to develop extraordinary skills. To us and everyone around us, our lives may appear to be very successful and fruitful.
However, when our efforts are driven by toxic shame (i.e., desperate attempts to do something in order to feel good about ourselves) and not by the Spirit of God, all our striving will ultimately be unsatisfying. At some point, we may give up out of frustration or discouragement. We may keep pushing and driving ourselves to exhaustion. Or, in spite of convincing everyone else that we are truly extraordinary individuals, we still fail to convince ourselves.
When I heard this teaching, the message pierced my heart. I realized that I could never do enough to truly feel good about myself. I am not ever going to find the solution to toxic shame in my own accomplishments. Instead of putting my trust in what I could do for myself, I needed to trust in God’s love and acceptance of me, despite all my shortcomings.
The image of my holding my firstborn son suddenly flashed through my mind. We were in the hospital, the day he was born. My heart was full, and words gushed out of my mouth that I didn’t anticipate. I looked at him tenderly and said, “Son, there is nothing you could ever do that would make me not love you.” As I basked in the warmth of that precious memory, the same kind of love I felt for my son began flowing within me, filling the lonely, raw, frightened, and empty spaces that were etched as scars throughout my soul.
Our Creator loves us simply because we are his children. He sees all our faults and limitations, and He still loves and accepts us. We belong to Him. And, yes, our moral failures and resistance to God create serious problems that can hurt our relationship with God. Yet, God’s love is so great that He not only reaches out to us with loving acceptance, he also graciously provides a solution for our sin that we could not produce on our own.
With new joy, I recalled the words of the Apostle Paul on this very subject. He explained to the Roman Christians that God’s love precedes all of our attempts to establish our own worthiness. What Jesus did by giving his life for us on the cross shows us how far God will go to to keep us safely in His care forever. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (i.e. before we even showed any interest in knowing, loving, or serving God), Christ died for us.” (2)
In that wonderful moment of awakening, my brokenness was healed. My eyes were opened. My heart was touched. I could hold my head high once again. God’s extraordinary love and grace had replaced shame in the soil of my soul. I now had a healthy, life-giving source of strength for my life—firmly rooted in God’s view of me, and not in my view of myself, or in my ability to earn or prove my worthiness. I was given a solid foundation of love to stand upon that does not crumble every time I stumble, or whenever I fall short of my ideals, fail, or feel rejected.
Several years later, someone who knew me well, asked me, “Who are you? “I hesitated for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question. But suddenly, I knew my answer.
Who am I? I am loved.
(1) Today’s post is a revised, English version of my recent post in French, “Je suis aimé!” (April 20, 2015). The original text was in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015. On May 3, an earlier English version was published on The Full Light website, which offers hope and healing words for those suffering from abuse of various kinds, under the same title, “I am loved!“
(2) Romans 5: 8, NIV. I added the words in italics to clarify the meaning of the verse.
Le suivant essai vient de mon petit témoignage pendant la Retraite Cathédrale, 19 avril 2015.
[A note to English speaking readers: Today’s post recalls a life-changing experience of mine in 1993, when I was profoundly touched by the love and grace of God during a seminar on breaking the bonds of shame. The foundation for my self-image was radically altered, and my reflection on my experience has become the theological cornerstone for my teaching and preaching ever since. The text is in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015.]
Un moment est arrivé dans ma vie où j’étais très découragé. J’avais bien servi comme pasteur.
J’avais obtenu un doctorat. J’avais une belle femme et deux beaux enfants. Mais après la soutenance de ma thèse doctorale, je n’ai pas pu trouver d’emploi. Pas dans l’église. Pas à l’Université. Pas dans un séminaire. Alors ma famille et moi nous nous sommes déplacés de Chicago à Minneapolis, près de la famille de Jill. Nous avons considéré qu’il était indifférent d’être au chômage à Minneapolis ou à Chicago.
J’étais une personne brisée. Sans emploi, vivant près de la famille de Jill, dans laquelle depuis plusieurs générations les affaires avaient réussi et je me suis vu tout petit et sans importance. Je me suis vu dans une situation d’échec. Pire, chaque jour je pensais à tous les péchés commis et mon cœur était plein de honte. Je veux dire que j’ai pensé que je n’avais pas seulement fait de mauvaises choses, comme il arrive à tout le monde, c’est le sentiment universel de la culpabilité personnelle. Non, j’ai aussi éprouvé le sentiment que j’étais, en moi-même, mauvais.
Qu’est-ce-que j’aurais dû faire ? Qu’est-ce-que je pourrais faire ?
Par la grâce de Dieu, j’ai pu participé à un séminaire sur le sentiment de honte de soi. Ainsi j’ai appris que si la honte est enracinée dans notre cœur, elle est toxique. Elle est le terrain favorable pour les mauvaises herbes. Par exemple des attitudes négatives, des péchés très visibles ou des choix destructeurs, qui apparaissent à l’évidence devant les autres personnes. Mais en même temps la honte peut produire un autre fruit bien différent, qui naît de cette honte toxique. Parfois la même personne qui se croit mauvaise, voire malfaisante, peut produire de belles choses. Elle peut accomplir de grandes choses. Peut-être a-t-elle un poste de hautes responsabilités. Ou bien elle exerce des actes de service par sa contribution à diverses actions caritatives. Cette personne met tout en œuvre pour se prouver à elle-même ou aux autres qu’elle est réellement une bonne personne. Il est impossible de se tromper sur ce point.
Après avoir entendu cet enseignement, mon cœur en fut transpercé. J’avais accompli beaucoup de choses en obtenant des diplômes universitaires, j’avais occupé des postes de responsabilité comme pasteur, par exemple, en essayant de laisser mon empreinte sur les autres. A ce moment–là de ma vie, je ne pouvais pas penser à ce que j’avais accompli. La seule chose à laquelle je pensais était : mes fautes, mes péchés, mes échecs.
A ce moment-là je me suis rendu compte que je ne pourrais jamais trouver la paix par mes seuls efforts. Il n’y a qu’une solution à la honte toxique, qu’un seul espoir. Au lieu de mettre ma confiance en moi, je dois la mettre en Dieu.
Nous sommes aimés par le Créateur parce que nous sommes ses créatures, ses enfants. Il voit toutes nos limites et toutes nos fautes, mais il continue à nous aimer. Il peut nous accepter et nous pardonner parce que nous lui appartenons et parce que son Fils, Jésus-Christ, est mort pour effacer nos péchés. Je me suis rappelé les mots de l’apôtre Paul qui a parlé de l’amour magnifique de Dieu : « Or, la preuve que Dieu nous aime, c’est que le Christ est mort pour nous, alors que nous étions encore pécheurs. (Romains 5, 8)
A ce moment extraordinaire, je me suis trouvé libéré. D’un seul coup je me suis rendu compte que je pouvais vivre, je pouvais expérimenter la paix et la joie, je pouvais garder la tête haute, je pouvais me reposer dans la présence de Dieu parce que mon identité est affermie en lui et non en moi. Son amour m’a donné ce que je ne peux jamais obtenir par mes seuls efforts et par mes seules actions.
Des années plus tard quelqu’un qui m’a bien connu m’a demandé : « Qui es-tu ? » J’ai hésité un instant, étonné par cette question inattendue. Puis j’ai trouvé la réponse : « Qui suis-je ? … Je suis aimé. »
Merci à Jill Geoffrion pour les photos au-dessus: 1) La guérison de l’aveugle (The healing of the blind man, Chartres Cathedral, France) 2) An arc-en-ciel capturé à Bora Bora, Polynésie (Rainbow captured, Bora Bora, French Polynesia)
Ever had to try to explain to a 15 year old why glue sniffing is a bad idea? I have. Now, imagine trying to do so when he doesn’t speak much English, lives on the street without parents, has been glue sniffing regularly for four years, and loves doing so because it makes him happy! I wondered, how in the world am I going to get through to this kid? I needed to find a simple but effective way to talk about the risks and consequences of drug abuse, while acknowledging that he may indeed feel happier when he uses glue in the moment. As I thrashed about considering various strategies, the concept of “good happy” versus “bad happy” emerged out of prayer one morning. Chances are, you have never been tempted to sniff glue, and never will be. However, you probably know what it’s like to seek out or settle for a “bad happy”–enjoying a “feel good” in the moment that you later regretted or caused suffering for others. Think about the times, for example, that you made an impulsive purchase on your credit card, took one too many drinks at the party, got something off your chest in a cruel or thoughtless way, betrayed a friendship by passing on juicy gossip, looked for comfort or satisfaction from the wrong kind of entertainment, or indulged in some other self-gratifying behavior that threatened to destroy or undermine something or some relationship you really cared about. Maybe you did feel happy or happier for awhile, but, if you’re honest, you will also admit that it wasn’t a “good happy”. Your experience wasn’t something that left a clean, joyful feeling that nourished your soul and enriched your storehouse of memories. Whatever you did wound up hurting you or someone else, and the fallout from your actions was anything but happy. If you’re struggling with making poor choices that wind up being a “bad happy”, there are some things you can do to turn your life around.
Think about the choices you’re making. What did it cost you last time you gave in to your impulse or desire, and what is it costing you to live this way?
Make a conscious decision. Instead of just going with your feeling or desire in the moment, force yourself to deliberately choose a course of action, and explain to yourself why you are deciding as you are. When you hear yourself talk, do you buy your rationale? If someone else came to you with the same line of reasoning, what would you say to him or her?
Get ahead of the temptation, and make alternative plans. When tempted to go for the “bad happy” choice, ask yourself if there is another way, a healthier way, for you to have your needs met. What else could you do to bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart that you won’t regret later?
Structure your life differently. What could you do to re-structure your life to provide more support for the good decisions you want to make? Perhaps you need to find new places to go in your free time, new friends, new forms of recreation, a small group, accountability partners, or something or someone else who can help you to stay on track more consistently. In the case of the glue-sniffing street kid that we were trying to help, we found him a job, a new place to live with a caring family, and provided regular check-ins with caring adults, new routines and structures that are minimizing his opportunities for drug abuse and are helping to meet many of his needs in healthy ways.
Focus on giving rather than receiving. Of course, you want to feel the warmth and joy of being loved, but when you focus mostly on loving others first, so much of what you thought you were looking for from someone else is likely to come to you in the giving. The more you focus on loving without expectation of return, the more you can avoid much of the disappointment, frustration, conflict, and even anger that floods you—and often sets you up to seek a “bad happy”—when others don’t give to you what you were hoping for.
“Good Happy” Holidays Whether your holidays are times of high expectations for joy and love for you, a dreaded time of loneliness and conflict, or something in the middle between these two extremes, it is a particularly good time to think about “good happy” versus “bad happy” as you make your plans for the holidays. For me, the best happy I know comes when I have spent sufficient time just talking to God about my life, my desires, my questions, my longing, and all the people and all that matters most to me. Sometimes I will simply focus on how much God loves me or on what it means that God took the form of a human being in Jesus, and that he gave his life so generously to others, even to the point of dying for us. When I genuinely seek to be close to God, alone or amid others, I feel something deeper than “happy”. Sometimes it is pure joy. Other times I feel at peace and content, and the drive to seek “bad happy” dissipates. Sometimes I find this place of peace and joy through silence and solitude in prayer. Sometimes, it’s worship that re-orients me and frees me to let go of selfishness and wrong-headed behavior. Other times, it’s doing something for someone else with no other expectation than inner satisfaction for doing good, or maybe hoping to see a smile cross their face or light up their eyes. You have heard it said many times, “Let’s not forget the reason for the season,” and “Be sure to keep Christ in your Christmas.” These are not just clichés. These words are wise counsel to help you lift your eyes off of yourself to the one whose life, death, and resurrection have given us an opportunity to experience life in ways not possible otherwise. You have to find for yourself what spiritual practices and lifestyle choices produce the “good happy” your heart most desires and that fits with Christ’s calling on your life. But before you plunge headlong into the holiday activities, pause for a moment. Think about what you can learn from your life experience. Make conscious decisions about how you want to go forward. Find good alternatives to the poor choices you are likely to be tempted to make. Structure your life in supportive ways. Focus on giving rather than receiving. Above all, seek to be as close to God as possible, as often as possible, and in every way possible. Take time, multiple times, to focus on Jesus this Christmas, so that your heart and mind will be nurtured by the only enduring Source of life, love, and contentment—the best possible “good happy” you could ever experience. [Jesus said,] Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, 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.(Matthew 11:28) I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10, NIV)
What important decision lies before you right now? How are you going to decide what you’re going to do, and how willing are you to step out of your comfort zone to reach for what you really want or feel called to pursue? If you’re considering a major life change, John Wesley’s four-legged stool is still a very valuable guideline for any discernment process. This model seeks to balance input from Scripture, reason, tradition, and your Christian experience. You would ask yourself: “What does Scripture say about this idea or issue? What wisdom can I draw from my elders and tradition? What makes sense when I think the matter all the way through? What have I learned from my experience that might inform me now, especially as it relates to trying to listen and cooperate with the Holy Spirit?  Then, without neglecting the standard guidelines, often you will still need to venture beyond what you can know from Scripture, reason, tradition, and past experience. Every situation is unique, and important life-affecting decisions often require “real time” assessment of all the variables involved (who’s affected, cost to you, resources available, opportunities, priorities, capability, motivation, support, etc.). Sometimes, the Spirit may prompt you to do something unheard of or completely creative, not found in Scripture, not tried in your tradition, and perhaps quite unreasonable to reasonable folks. If the proposed idea doesn’t “make sense” by your way of thinking, ask yourself, are there compelling reasons to step into uncharted territory anyway? Without killing your enthusiasm, what safeguards need to be put into place that will limit the risks but will not undermine the new venture? A Risky Venture When I decided to leave my role as Executive Director of Family Hope Services (TreeHouse) to develop a global teaching ministry, I didn’t know if I was following a calling, a dream, or a fantasy. I was pretty sure that I needed to get back to teaching and more direct ministry, but what was the best way to do so? I didn’t want to go backwards to a conventional teaching role just because it seemed a safer route. But, how could I be sure that my being creative and taking a risk was truly going forward and not actually running away from the demands of my current position? Would others judge me courageous or foolish?
So many questions and self-doubts swirled in my head, but I was willing to take all the risks if I could just be sure that the Spirit was guiding me. Yet, such confirmation did not come before I had to make a decision. I knew I had to make a change, and I was willing to strike out on my own. I finally concluded that even if I could not answer all my questions with certainty, I would have to trust that God would guide me as I explored and experimented along the way.
However, at the same time, my move was not a blind leap. I had already made three trips to Bulgaria where I taught pastors and spouses and did some leadership coaching with very positive results. Over the previous decade I had developed numerous workshops, courses, and written resources. I sought the counsel of others, and conducted two more experimental mission trips, one to Myanmar and the other to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Finally, the enthusiastic response we received from each venture, combined with affirmation and support from our home church, prompted us to take the next major step.
In 2008, we created Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries (www.fhlglobal.org), a 501(c)(3) non-profit ministry as a vehicle for sending us and providing accountability, and we ventured forth. Over the past five years there have been many ups and downs and surprises, but as time goes on our step of faith has been confirmed repeatedly as we have now taught and ministered in Rwanda, the Congo, Ukraine, France, Vietnam, and Myanmar. So, on we go, more and more sure of our calling, and yet never knowing for sure if the decision we are making at any given point is from the Spirit or not.
Don’t Be Afraid
When it comes to stepping out in faith, how willing are you to get out of the box to try something new, creative, or otherwise unheard of and unexpected? Truly, discerning the will of God can be a complex subject, requiring a lot of thought and prayer. In seeking to learn how to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit, you should expect to stumble, get confused, make mistakes, and sometimes be completely fooled at times. If you’re self-aware and honest enough, you may never have complete assurance that what you’re thinking or feeling is truly from God, or whether the decision you made came from the Spirit or from some other source. Nevertheless, at some point you have to make a decision. You have to take some action. You have to take a chance. No matter how thorough your discernment process may be, there will always come a point when you have to step out in faith without sure and certain knowledge of what God wants you to do. This is where you need to have some guts so that you don’t just take the safe option or choose a path with a small vision, and miss out on the full and fruitful life God intends for you. Is something holding you back from stepping out in faith in some important aspect of your life? If you haven’t done your homework, do that first. But if you’re just waiting for more signs or more certainty, you may never take action. Don’t be afraid. Be brave. Take the next step as best as you can discern it, and see what happens. David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work … of the LORD is finished. (1 Chronicles 28:20, NIV)
 Many good books have been written on the subject of discerning the will of God, such as Elizabeth Liebert’s, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (2008).
In its most simple form, Spirit-led living is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and then cooperating as fully and quickly as possible. Listen and cooperate, listen and cooperate, in one situation after another. Step by step, a long string of saying, “Yes,” to the Holy Spirit becomes a Spirit-led life. The concept of “cooperation” with God, normally emphasized by the Catholics (to describe the proper use of a regenerated human will) is sometimes shunned by Protestants (to some, it sounds too much like works-righteousness). Yet, in using the concept here, I am not talking about relying on ourselves to do the will of God in our own strength, but rather utilizing our human faculties to “go with the flow” of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul teaches that our wanting and having the capacity to do what pleases God—our ability to cooperate—is not from ourselves but actually comes from God (Philippians 2:13). Yet, in our experience, our cooperation feels like dropping our resistance, submitting to God, or actively embracing whatever the Holy Spirit is putting before us. Spirit-led living, then, means taking the action that flows naturally from whatever you hear the Spirit say. A simple model to grasp, to be sure, but not so simple or easy when it comes to putting it into practice. Why? But first you have to be listening, and to listen, you have to be in a state of mind that is truly open and ready to hear what the Spirit wants to say. Learning to get your own self out of the way, to quiet the competing voices in your head, to be willing to stop and change course, to be patient to wait for the voice of the Spirit, or to be willing to step out of your comfort zone is hard work. You may feel uncomfortable or unsure of yourself when it comes to listening to the Spirit. You may not be sure what is the voice of the Spirit and what is your own voice. But you can learn.
Lately, my workshop for learning how to better listen and cooperate has been on the streets of Yangon. Talk about challenges and the need for the Spirit. I work with at-risk youth when I’m not teaching seminarians or doing leadership training, and I frequently find myself over my head. Between being overwhelmed by their physical needs—extreme poverty, hunger, and stressful living conditions—and trying to navigate all the lying and manipulation, my head is often swimming. I often don’t know what to believe or what to think, let alone what to do. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have been critical to my ability to truly make a difference in the lives of these kids, not to mention preserve my sanity. When I start to get frustrated and uptight, sometimes I hear, “Relax. Just enjoy the kids. Let them experience God’s love through you.” Or, “Listen to their stories. See their hopelessness and desperation. What would you do if you were in their place?” My heart opens again, and I feel God’s compassion surging through me.
Not infrequently, when everything seems to be deteriorating or going backwards, I suddenly realize that we’re in the midst of a teachable moment. Yesterday’s disappointment, frustration, and discouragement have laid the groundwork for having a meaningful conversation today about responsibility, values, or relationships. The Spirit helps me to see that it is not only appropriate to confront them, but doing so turns out to be the most loving and constructive thing I could offer them. I look around and see some people getting taken in and used by these kids. Others who have been trying to help them over the years have become so disappointed and burned that they want to walk away. Listening to and cooperating with the Spirit have helped me to avoid the extremes of naivety and cynicism. The Spirit helps me to stay calm, to be willing to step back when I have no idea what to do, and to wait until I can see more clearly what is needed; but to not lose heart or give up.
I’m always praying, “Spirit, what should I do now?” I don’t usually get immediate answers, but living in a continual state of prayer, acknowledging my dependence on God’s leading and working, keeps me humble and keeps me listening. My desperation and distress have forced me to my knees on many occasions. There, the Spirit often reminds me to put the kids in God’s hands and to stop thinking that their well-being is all on my shoulders. When I listen, I become more peaceful. Cooperation here means letting go of what I cannot control, and waiting for the Spirit to open the door when it’s time for me to say or to do something that will be truly helpful. Where’s your workshop for learning to listen to and cooperate with the Spirit? The simple path of Spirit-led living is meant for everyone. What’s the Spirit saying to you? What’s your next step? But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)