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.)
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.
Truth 2: Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you….
[For this essay in Burmese or Mizo Chin dialect, please contact me at email@example.com or see my Facebook page later this week.]
It was early March. The COVID-19 crisis was mounting globally. No confirmed cases were yet reported in Myanmar, but the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the world and heading toward my home state in Minnesota. I was in Yangon, preparing for a month of ministry to approximately 200 pastors in three weeklong workshops, in Mandalay, Kanpetlet (Southern Chin State), and Sittwe (Rakhine State), respectively. What should I do? Should I play it safe and get out of the country immediately? What was the most loving thing to do, as a husband and father? What was the most responsible thing to do as a minister and teacher? Should I press on to conduct these workshops for the sake of these pastors, who had been counting on this training for themselves and the benefit of the churches they serve—or get home, ASAP?
In retrospect, the answers seem clearer. But at the time, as is often the case in the midst of impending crisis and uncertainty, the “right” choices were not so obvious. In this situation, for me, the values of caring for my family, protecting my own health, and fulfilling my ministry commitments and responsibilities were in raging conflict within me.
For so many of us, we pray for guidance in such circumstances, but the answers don’t always come readily. Our inner turmoil makes us feel anxious or confused. If the crisis is big enough, instead of making a Spirit-led decision, a fight-flight-(or) freeze response might kick in. That is, we may boldly ignore the danger and attack the problem head-on but may do so blindly or foolishly. Or, we may run away as fast as we can, only to discover later that we had panicked. The danger was not as great as we feared, and we missed the opportunity to serve those who were counting on us. Or, we may become so anxious that we freeze, unable to make any decision; but by our indecision we fail to make a measured, wise, timely response. Any one of these fight-flight-or freeze instincts may be quite natural to us and common, and sometimes even helpful in times of danger; but Spirit-led decision-making relies on more than impulses, intuition, or personal intelligence.
Spiritual Truth 2: Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you; and act accordingly. (Proverbs 3:5-6; James 1:5-6)
What trust in God looks like
As my wife, staff members, ministry partners and I agonized over these questions, the Holy Spirit reminded me that I needed to trust God to guide us in our decision-making. Instead of having to bearing all the weight of these unanswered questions on my shoulders, I felt relieved remembering that I was not alone in this anxious time of uncertainty. God was there to help. I needed to believe it, and act like it. Solomon put it this way nearly 3000 years ago:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own
understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV
If we rely (exclusively) on our own wisdom and understanding in times of crisis or difficult decision-making, we may easily misread the situation or jump to the wrong conclusions. The biblical path of discernment, in contrast, leans heavily on God as leader and guide. First, we are told to “acknowledge” the Lord God in all our ways—that is, we have to slow down, humble ourselves, and surrender our will to God’s. Then, we must “trust in the Lord with all our hearts,” meaning, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide as we proceed with gathering information and weighing our options. Clearly, this kind of trust is not passive. It’s involves actively reaching out to God for wisdom to see things clearly and to better perceive what cannot be seen with our eyes or minds alone. It is only through this kind of God-centered discernment process that we can hope to make the best decisions. James talks about the process this way:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.
But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
James 1:5-6 NRSV
It’s not our circumstances that make us unstable, it’s our lack of faith. In times of crisis, Spirit-led decision-makers do not abandon reliance on God, who is often more silent than they might like. Rather, they both take responsibility to assess the situation, seek help in discerning the best course of action, and then make thoughtful (not impulsive) decisions when they need to and simultaneously trust that God is very much present and active to lead and guide them, often behind the scenes, so-to-speak.
This both-and approach requires creating enough space to quiet ourselves and take time to listen for the Spirit’s voice through Scripture and prayer. We will reach out to reliable spiritual guides, pastors, mentors, co-workers, and friends for input. We will not try to push our way forward, regardless of warning signs. Neither will we run away out of fear, unless we must protect ourselves from imminent danger. We also will not get stuck, frozen, unwilling to think things through and make a rational decision in a timely manner. We will fix our eyes on Jesus, considering his example of faith and sacrificial service in setting our priorities. We will trust God with our whole heart, and then take action when as the way forward becomes clearer.
March in Myanmar reassured me again that God does indeed lead and guide amid upsetting and confusing circumstances. I had to stay fully engaged in the decision-making process, and I had to manage my fight-flight-freeze types of impulses so that they didn’t take over. Yet, the more I kept putting the workshops and decisions into God’s hands, and the more I was willing to listen for the quiet voice of the Spirit and listen to the voices of others around me, the more I was able to hear what I needed to hear and to see what I needed to see. Over time, answers emerged.
The final itinerary was different from any of the scenarios I was first considering, but the result was 12 Spirit-blessed days in Myanmar and a timely return to my family afterward. Graduation week at MIT was full of meaningful connections and ministry. Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries staff member, Saw Newton, and I conducted the Spirit-Led Leadership workshop in Mandalay, as planned. Then, when circumstances suddenly changed again (civil war and unexpected crises), it was time to go home. I arrived back into the loving arms of my wife, Jill, three weeks early. I felt grateful for how God had worked through the ministry, peaceful about letting two workshops go for now, and equally assured that home was where I now needed to be.
In the midst of needing to make difficult decisions, do not expect God to necessarily give you the answer you’re looking for right away. Instead, fully engage in the process of decision-making while trusting God to guide you along the way. Face the crisis or important decision at hand, surrender your will to God’s, release your attachments to your plans and original desires, ask for the ability to see whatever you need to see. Then, when it’s time to act, don’t be afraid to make a decision or to change plans, if need be.
No, you will not always make the “right” decision, but your judgment is much more likely to be Spirit-led with a both-and approach. And, no matter what, you will learn from the experience. As you engage in the hard work of making difficult decisions, earnestly seeking God in prayer, and trusting God with your whole heart, your faith will grow, too. You will become stronger and more capable of making good decisions in the future. Ultimately, through this kind of God-centered approach to discernment and decision-making, you will grow closer to God and will become more capable of serving as Spirit-led elders in your community when they need you the most.
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.
Truth 1: Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God….
Where is God?! Why isn’t God doing more to help us? Is God doing anything at all? If you’re asking questions like these, it’s a sign that you care deeply about what’s happening in our world right now. You believe in God and believe that he could be of great help. Yet, you’re confused or frustrated, or just scared. You’re not perceiving God’s presence or help as much as you need or expected it, and you want more.
The following short essay is the first in a seven-part series on the subject, “What can we expect from God now?” It’s a collection of biblically-based, spiritual truths for those who know, love, and serve God, who want to know how they can trust God in troubled times.
Spiritual Truth 1: Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers. (Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 24:13-22)
If we examine our expectations for God carefully, most of us we will discover that we expect God to act in ways that fit with our ideas and desires. They may be prompted by something we read in the Bible or heard a preacher say, but upon close inspection, most of us are wishing and hoping and expecting God to do what we want him to do. And what happens when God doesn’t come through for us as we hoped or expected? We are easily hurt, confused, distressed, or even become angry. So, the question becomes, is God to blame or is it our faulty expectations?
Biblical writers repeatedly tell us that we should not be so surprised when God does not meet our expectations. The reason is simple. You and I cannot know or understand the mind of God, and God is often at work in ways that are unseen and can only be discerned in retrospect.
What we need to understand
Through the prophet Isaiah, Yahweh (the Lord God) explains to Israel that God’s ways are not our ways. He writes:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV)
Isaiah is saying that we must give up trying to understand the perplexing or surprising things God does (or doesn’t do). Instead, we should focus on what we can understand and benefit from. In this particular context, Isaiah is talking about God’s desire to meet their core spiritual needs. Though Israel might not be able to grasp God’s reasoning for how he was working in the world, they could benefit from God’s love, mercy and grace, if they reached out for what God is offering. They could repent of their sins and let God satisfy their deepest spiritual needs and longings. He writes:
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
(Isaiah 55:1-3, NIV)
In times of distress, we may be so pre-occupied with our fears and desperate longing for help that we miss out on what is available. As long as we cling to trying to get what we cannot have (be it answers to unanswerable questions, guarantees of safety, assurance of health, comfort from the wrong sources, or something else that is very important to us, but out of our reach), we will remain in turmoil and unsatisfied. If, instead, we leave aside what we cannot understand and focus on reaching out for what is within our grasp, we will experience greater inner peace. We will become better prepared to face our troubles and will start to see better how God is at work in us and through us for good.
Let Jesus open your eyes
In the New Testament, we find the story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The last they knew, Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. So many of their hopes for their lives and future had suddenly, in a matter of a few days, crashed and burned. (Sound familiar?) However, what they did not know and could not see is that God was still very much at work in the midst of the crisis. Jesus had actually already been resurrected. God had inaugurated an incredible plan to bring salvation and hope to the entire world through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, they were so swallowed up in their grief that they couldn’t even recognize Jesus when he appeared to them on the road. Luke says, when Jesus asked them what they were discussing, “they stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17, NRSV).
In this time of crisis and uncertainty, beware of getting “stuck” on the road of life, stopped in your tracks with downcast faces, supposing all is lost. When life’s events just don’t make sense to you and you cannot imagine how God could be a part of what is happening, remember the limitations of your ability to grasp the God’s ways. God may be up to something that you cannot even imagine, let alone comprehend.
I am not saying that God caused COVID-19 or that everything is going to turn out OK for everyone. It’s not. But this story reminds me of what Isaiah told us. God’s ways are not our ways. God often surprises us. Over and over again in the Bible, we read that God is at work in seemingly hopeless situations to bring good out of evil, loss, disaster, and suffering. The story of the sad disciples on the road to Emmaus who could not see the risen Christ standing in front of them reminds us that we all need Jesus to open our eyes. On our part, we need to look for Christ in the midst of the crisis, in places and ways that we wouldn’t expect him to be.
By all means, pray for every need and concern on your heart, because we never know when God may choose to use our earnest prayers to bring about some healing, deliverance, provision, or some other badly needed help. But, if your prayers aren’t being answered in the ways you expected, don’t be discouraged. Don’t stop reaching out to God. Ask Jesus Christ to open your eyes to what you cannot see on your own and ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith and use you for good in the midst of the present crisis. And, no matter what happens, don’t forget to seek what you know is for sure being offered to you. Repent of your sins, let go of your attachments to what cannot satisfy or distracts you from God’s will for your life. Seek God’s grace, mercy, and spiritual food that money cannot buy. “Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live,” says your loving, merciful God (Isaiah 55:3).
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.
In response to the COVID-19 global crisis, a nine-part essay series on trusting God in troubled times.
I want God to stop the coronavirus immediately. I’m worried for myself and especially for all the people I love and care about. I pray for God to protect me, my family, and everyone everywhere. But as the numbers of sick and dying keep increasing, along with dire forecasts for the coming weeks, so does my anxiety. I’m obviously not alone in this.
What if God doesn’t help? Already, thousands have died and many more will. Given our experience so far, is it even reasonable to expect that God will do anything in midst of this COVID-19, global crisis? If so, what?
Spiritually, many of us are at the “Help me, God!” stage. We’re reaching out to God for whatever help we can get. Others of us are wrestling with profound theological questions right now as well: “Where is God? Does God care about our suffering? Why doesn’t God do more to help? If God won’t stop the onslaught, what can we expect from God?”
These questions have been and continue to be very relevant to me, personally. Ever since our first child died in a miscarriage; my mother began a long, debilitating, losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease; and I learned that I contracted a terminal disease the day after my first son was born, I have been asking more and more questions like these. Bottom line, I simply want to know, “Can I trust God? And if so, for what?”
I feel the urgency of these questions more in times of crisis, but ask them regularly in Myanmar, where I serve six months a year, where human suffering is so visible to me every day. In fact, the questions are always with me, because there are no answers that fully satisfy me intellectually or that completely assuage my grief and angst. There is so much we wish we understood about God, but just can’t. Yet, what we believe and how we act on our faith still makes a huge difference in our ability to cope with adversity and an uncertain future.
Over the coming weeks, I will be talking about seven spiritual truths for trusting God in troubled times.
Remember your limited ability to understand the will and ways of God. Take whatever God offers.
Expect God to be at work in your life, leading and guiding you.
Expect God to build your character, strengthen your faith, and lovingly restore your hope through your suffering.
Expect to share in Christ’s sufferings. Expect to share in his glory.
Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God.
Expect more peace, as you put your anxieties in God’s capable hands.
Expect to be renewed, as you accept your limitations and wait on God.
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)