Pain: Finding Hope in Suffering

“…but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” – Romans 5:3-4 ESV

Pain.

I’ve always said, “The only reason it hurts so bad is because it’s yours and not somebody else’s,” but my hope for this blog is to provide a structure for thinking about the concept of pain, mainly if you believe in God, in order to provide some clarity to the pain in your life. What this blog will not do is provide specific answers to the unique, deeply personal pain you may be wrestling with; rather, it will provide some tools in order to help you process the pain you have experienced, are experiencing, and inevitably will experience.

First, the pain itself we experience isn’t the issue, it’s our interpretation of pain which induces our suffering.[1] Interpreting pain involves two things, which I call the Why Questions and the Character of God. Now, before I continue, there have no doubt been mountains of literature written on the problem of pain and the goodness of God by far more qualified thinkers than me, and I in no way pretend that I can reduce such a topic down to a few words in a blog. But vigorously philosophizing and theologizing about someone else’s pain has the tendency to be impersonal, and I wanted to eliminate that as much as possible, so I took the approach of not only sharing what I’ve learned about pain and suffering through my own journey, but also from the life of a friend. With that said— “Why?”

“Why did this happen?” Haven’t you asked yourself that question about suffering you’ve experienced? Or maybe you’ve asked that question about the suffering you’ve witnessed in the world. Does any of it makes sense, especially if you believe in God? Why does God allow such suffering, and if there are justifiable reasons to the unique deeply personal suffering we’ve experienced, then why, so often, does God not explain but instead leave us in a cloud of mystery?

We tend to believe that if we know the reasons behind the suffering we experience we’ll have peace. The problem is most of our painful experiences include things we cannot know; we are quite literally incapable of knowing certain things, and that, in turn, gives rise to another problem—  pride. If we’re honest, we believe that we have a right to know things that only God can know. This isn’t new—there’s actually an account of someone who was deceived into believing that if they knew what God knows they’d be better off.[2] And so the mystery of Why? ignites in us pride, and any time we become prideful we begin to believe God is someone who He isn’t.

Our Why Questions will eventually lead us to a question about God’s character. For some, the very existence of suffering thwarts their belief in God because they believe that if God did exist then there would be no suffering, so since people do suffer then God cannot exist. An even more dangerous route is believing that God does exist but concluding that He’s someone who He isn’t, which is really why some give up their belief in Him altogether. I’m convinced that at the heart of someone’s unbelief in God is an inexplicable pain they’ve experienced that has yet to be resolved.

During an immense time of mental and emotional suffering of my own, I searched out answers to Why Questions in the Bible and in the writings of some of history’s most colossal intellects, but none of it gave me answers to the specific suffering I was experiencing.  All of the answers were written in generalities, so I was never satisfied—even with the answers I found in the very Word of God. How could I trust someone’s word who allowed me to suffer and not explain why? Until one day while I was sitting quietly, thinking, a thought as if not my own entered my mind and removed all doubt in God’s goodness. This thought, exactly as I heard it, is the first tool I offer to you:

If God is not good, then nothing is good; there is no hope.

If God is not good, then there is no reason to live.

But there are good things, there are reasons to live; there is hope. And just like that the prideful rage of desiring answers to things only God can know was put out like a soft blow to a candle. Even though I didn’t receive specific answers to my suffering, I came to believe that God is good without them. Perhaps that’s only what I needed to hear in that moment, maybe it doesn’t help you, maybe it doesn’t make sense yet, but think about it long and hard then consider the second tool I offer which assists the first:

                        There are people who have experienced horrific suffering

                        and afterwards maintain the belief that God is good.

Can you imagine being 13 and suddenly being woken up at 3am from a deep sleep to the frightful screams of your younger brother and sister, then rushing to the kitchen to see your mother glistening in snow white skin only to realize that she had doused herself in kerosene and lit herself on fire in attempt to take her own life? In an instant she had realized her mistake and tried to put the fire out herself but it was only your little brother who awoke first in confusion to her screams and was somehow able to suffocate the fire with a blanket. Frantically, you rush your dying mother to the hospital on a motor bike; nearly 24 hours later, unable to say goodbye or to ask her why she did it, she would succumb to her wounds.

When a friend of mine first told me that story and how he and his siblings lied to the police and to their father—who had been away for business—saying that their mother caught fire by accident, I didn’t know how to respond. You see, Indian culture is a culture deeply rooted in shame and honor, and even though they were a Christian family, they didn’t want to bring shame upon their family name. So the three of them kept the secret about what really happened for 9 years. My friend described how after that horrific night his life was riddled with questions of Why? and anger; anger towards his mom, anger towards his father who had been harsh towards his mother, anger towards himself, and anger towards God. Eventually, his anger took the form of unbelief in God because he didn’t see the sense of someone else ruling his own life anymore.  In the midst of his loneliness he, too, tried to take his own life by an overdose of pills; he figured if he took them he’d just fall asleep peacefully and never wake up, but miraculously he survived. Then one night alone in his room something happened.

The Bible says that “God is love,”[3] and alone in his room that night, my friend experienced the presence of God so powerfully he said it was like “feeling love for the first time.” You know how he responded? “[God] I know you are good.” He also went on to describe how in that moment he knew that “Jesus’s pain [on the cross] absorb[s] my pain.” But the most shocking thing he shared with me was in that moment he said to God, “Thank you that my mother died.” My friend wasn’t thankful to God for the death of his mother but that through her death he was able to experience God’s love. How could a love be so powerful to cover something so painful?

Years later, through a series of family audio tapes he had discovered, my friend learned that his mother had been bitter towards his father because of how harshly he had treated her, but when his father became a Christian and tried to heal their marriage, his mother chose to reject God out of her bitterness. Now, I don’t know what was said between her and the Lord those 24 hours she was alive in excruciating pain, if anything at all, but I do know that discovering those audio tapes brought peace to my friend; the answers had been there the whole time—he just had to wait for them. If someone can come out the other side of extreme suffering still believing that God is good, even thanking Him for it, that’s no evidence to the contrary.

The third tool I offer before I conclude is this:

                        Be honest.

It’s a simple tool, but you’d be surprised at how many people aren’t honest with themselves about their suffering.  They’ll try and cover it up, ignore it, and put on a mask; even more surprising is how many people aren’t honest to God about how angry they are at Him for allowing their suffering.  In their anger, coupled with their pride, they ignore Him. It’s better to be angry at God and honestly tell Him how you feel than to not tell Him at all. That’s exactly what I did through my suffering. I told God exactly what I was feeling and what I was thinking I didn’t hold anything back, and to be honest it wasn’t always in the most reverent way. But you know what? Through my honesty with God He revealed His love, His mercy, His patience, His kindness— His goodness. But don’t just take my word for it…there was a King named David who screamed at God in fear, despair, loneliness, depression, betrayal, anxiety, loss, confusion, complaint, pain— in his suffering. And every time, God revealed His goodness to David.

In conclusion, the pain you are feeling isn’t the issue, it’s your interpretation of your pain that makes up your suffering. Why has God allowed you to suffer? Wading through that mystery, you have to answer a question about God’s character. God’s character and whether or not you truly believe that He is good is the crux of the matter. Do you believe He is good? If you choose to believe that God is not good, then ultimately nothing is good; you have no hope in your suffering, no real reason to live. But there is hope, and there are people who have gone through immense suffering and afterwards still believe that God is good and even thank Him for their suffering. It wasn’t until I believed God is good that I could trust His word and wait patiently through things I don’t understand. Patience is something that you do through and during a period of time, and being patient is contingent on trust, and trust is the continual assertion of a belief, and through suffering your hope is contingent on the belief in the true character of God— His goodness. God knows your suffering. He knows there is injustice. That’s why Jesus had to be crucified for the sins of the world, to be buried, that’s why he rose from the dead to set what has been wronged right; to ‘absorb our pain’ and give us hope in our suffering.

Chavo Frederico, New City Stories Guest Writer


[1] Dr. James Thobaben, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

[2] Holy Bible, Genesis chapter 3

[3] The Holy Bible, 1 John chapter 4 verse 8

What Faith?

What faith do we have,
If we’ve declared our next step
And the way we’ll get there too?

What faith do we have
If we don’t look to you?

What faith do we have,
If we’re safe because of fear;
We don’t risk, we don’t give.

What faith do we have,
If we don’t boldly live?

What faith do we have,
If troubles and doubts come
And we cry out to you?

What faith do we have,
If we don’t rejoice too?

What faith do we have,
If above angels and demons you sit,
With a work finished and assurance to bring?

What a faith we do have,
In you Jesus, our King.

*Inspired by the book of Hebrews*

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

Little Sabbath: A Reflection on Rest

It’s kind of like a short deep sleep. The kind where you wake up feeling like your body is in peace. A wakeful rest.

Opposed to this, however, the first half of Isaiah 49:4 regularly defines how I feel about life:

“In spite of my hard work, I feel as if I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve used up all of my strength. It seems as if everything I’ve done is worthless.”

Life seems like a never ending fight. The finish line just as tangible as fog. I want more but I can’t grasp it. I can’t attain it. But I strive to. I run the race. I scratch at success.

There’s something I’ve found that contradicts all of that. Something pulls me out. Each morning there’s a moment. It’s defined by a discipline but it’s made up of a thing called grace. And there, a little bit each day, the verse I mentioned above is finished:

“But the Lord will give me what I should receive. My God will reward me.”

Do I practice this time with Jesus every single day? Nope. (I wish I did). Do I sometimes avoid it? Yes. Is it always amazing and delightful? Nope.

But there’s something hidden inside the little daily Sabbaths. Rest. A reminder that it’s not just my strength that’s not nearly sufficient, it’s not just my striving for success that’s undeniably inadequate. In fact, I actually have a strength that doesn’t come from me at all. And if I am weak, that strength never dissipates. In fact, success and failure were both demolished on my behalf by a helpless death followed by a triumphant resurrection.

In fact, the finish line is broken behind me. And, I find I was not the runner, but the cherished prize.

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Guest Writer

Advent Week 3: The Hope of “God with Us”

Flames from the candles cause light to flash and dance on the faces of my family sitting around the table.  I listen to half a sentence my father reads but then my imagination whisks me off to a rocky hillside in Bethlehem.  The light of angels’ flash and dance on the weathered faces of the shepherds showing shock and disbelief.  They shuffle down the hill towards the dark buildings in the valley.  I look up and see my mother shaking her head at me as my hands mess with the wax of the candle.  Even as a distracted and fidgety child, celebrating advent was a time for slowing down and joining creation in mindful waiting.  

Matthew begins his story of the Messiah highlighting some interesting people in the genealogy of Jesus.  Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery.  Tamar pretended to be a prostitute. Rahab was a prostitute.  David killed a man for his wife.   It is through this bloodline that a baby is born to a girl betrothed to a carpenter.  Uneducated and unkempt men crowd in the small space to see this baby.  Polytheist Persian Astrologists discover a new celestial object that guides them to this young Judean family.  The paranoid King Herod kills his own sons and even attempts to murder other children as he scrambles to secure his power and control.  Bethlehem was a city full of Jews who desired to be independent of the Roman Empire.  This is a story full of the lowly of society.  It is full of desperate people in dark and unjust situations who are longing for change.  

Then a baby enters this world.  A baby named Immanuel.  God with us.

However, we tend to clean up this story of “God with us”  when we skip over the sexual sins, murder, and betrayal found in Jesus’ family history, instead diving into the story of a young innocent girl; when we clean up the surroundings, concluding that the excruciating birth by a virgin teenage girl produces a baby who doesn’t cry; when Mary isn’t a sleep deprived new mother who is learning how to nurse her baby for the first time; when the shepherds aren’t men accustomed to being on the outskirts of society; when a narcissistic and paranoid leader is never someone we would follow; when we brush over the fact that God uses astrology to guide the Magi to the Christ child.

We clean it up, and then hurry to invite God with us.  Immanuel, God with us, but only when we polish up our story.  

But maybe it’s God with us in the process.  Maybe God with us isn’t the immediate gratification that comes after presenting a refined outside.  Jesus comes from a line of murderers, adulterers, unloved and unlikely people.  He is born into an environment that lacks wealth and is among a people who are subject to a foreign empire.  He is surrounded by those who would never surround a King.  He begins his life on earth as a human; an undeveloped, helpless baby who relies on the guidance and assistance from a teenage mother and carpenter father.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:12-13

It is in this process that Immanuel invites us into hope for the restoration of a messy world, reconciliation for broken people, redemption for sinners, and the righting of an unjust system.  Immanuel brings us a hope that calls us to action–action that brings the world back to how it was originally intended to be. Hope for our personal lives, for our immediate community and hope for a better world, a new world.

Faith in this “God with us” motivates us to work towards what we hope for and through love we introduce this hope to our world.  When the darkness in the world is all we can see, let us remind ourselves of this hope and that light has entered and will come back fully into this world.  Let us love like Jesus loved.  Let us be Immanuel to others.  In this season of reflection and slowing down to remember the story, let us join in creation’s hope for the here and the now and the not yet.

Nilah MacLean, New City Stories Contributor 

Advent Week Two: Reflection

If you haven’t yet been able to watch a video of this weeks candle lighting liturgy led by Zach and Michael as well as a devotional from pastor Rogerio, we encourage you to do so this weekend as we close out the second week of Advent.  You can find that video here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDV8zuNB620

This weeks theme for Advent is expectancy.  You might be thinking to yourself “Isn’t the whole of the Christian life supposed to be expectant?  Why are themes like expectancy, longing, and preparation so prevalent during Advent? Shouldn’t we be expecting God to move in our lives at all time?”  Well, to put it simply, YES! However, Advent is a season within the Church calendar that specifically reminds us of these qualities of our faith and provides a powerful entry point into the Christian story.  Think of it this way:  When you and your spouse find out that you are pregnant and expecting a child, the whole nine months are full of preparation with appointments, baby showers, getting the nursery ready, and so much more.  But when you are a few weeks out and you know that child could come at any time, the expectancy and longing to meet your new baby is heightened and you are doing everything you can to prepare for that beautiful moment to happen.  Advent is like those few weeks before meeting your new child; it is full of preparation, longing, and eager expectancy.  

This quite literally was the case for Mary, who was both waiting for her child and for her savior.  Can you imagine the kinds of feelings Mary and Joseph were experiencing on their long journey to Bethlehem? Can you imagine the total dependency that would had on the Lord during that season?  Can you imagine the intense spiritual preparation they did in order to become both  parents and worshipers of Christ? 

Mary has two primary responses during this time of longing and expectation:

  • ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38 NRSV) 
  • “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1: 46-47) 

Mary, as she was in this intense time of waiting in the unknown and of expectation for what is yet to come, responds in faith. She prepares her heart by giving it away and then worships the one she gives it to.  Mary believed that what the Lord said would take place, despite being in a period of intense waiting.  Let us be like Mary, church.

As we close out this second week of Advent, let us enter Mary’s situation and imagine all of the intense feelings of expectancy and longing she was experiencing as she waited for both her son and her Savior.  Then, let us reflect on her responses to that expectancy.  As we do so, consider these questions: 

  • Have you given all of the expectancy in your heart to the Father?  Are you still trying to manipulate outcomes, or can you say, with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” ?
  •  What, specifically, are you expecting in this season and what can you do to prepare for it?
  • Despite all of the longing and intense expectation brimming from your heart, is your soul still able to “magnify the Lord”? Are you too preoccupied with what has been promised that you have forgotten the One who given the promises? 

Come Lord Jesus, Come. 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Advent Week One Devotional Questions

Let us, as a church family, reflect on these questions as we end the first week of Advent.  Our prayer is that we, both as individuals and as a family, “prepare the way” in our hearts for Christ himself.
These questions are based off of Jordan’s sermon this past Sunday, which you can listen to here.
  1.  What words or phrases would you use to describe the season of life you are in now?
  2. In what ways does our identity as an “exile” or “alien” appeal to you? What is itchy about it? Are there any areas that you do not feel like we separate from the world?  Do you feel like you are “waiting” for another world to come?
  3.  What in this coming season are you grateful for? How can this gratitude prepare your heart for Christ himself?
  4.  What in this season are you longing for or desiring? In what ways can you invite Christ into this longing?
  5.  What would it look like to “set up an altar” in this season of your life, just like Abraham “set up an altar” in the wilderness (Gen 12:7)
New City Teaching Team

The Gift of Gratitude

“…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 ESV

I’ve never been good at writing thank-you notes.

As a kid, I would procrastinate writing them after birthdays and holidays because the task seemed a little daunting—just looking at the stack of cards waiting to be filled with ink would make my hand cramp. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for the gifts. I simply would rather spend time playing with those new gifts than thanking the people who gave them to me.

I know that’s horrible…but an honest 10-year-old Rachel would have told you the same thing.

However, something switched in me when I actually practiced enough discipline to sit down and write those notes. I realized as I wrote them not only how grateful I was for the gift, but also how glad I was for the relationship from which it came. I realized how much effort might have gone into choosing the gift, the money that went into buying the gift, and the anticipation with which the gift was sent and the response anticipated. If I had failed to sit down and spend time thanking people, I would have missed out on a lot of humbling gladness.

Physically practicing thanks and gratitude made me far more grateful and glad for the gifts I’d been given and the people who gave them to me. The gratitude in and of itself was a gift. Without it, I would have missed out on realizing the significance behind these gifts, though it had been there the whole time. I’ve realized lately practicing gratitude to God lands me in a similar place.

God provides for us in ways we could never deserve. He gives us gifts far better than what we could ever expect or even ask from Him. His gifts, whether they come through moments of sheer happiness or through trials, through practical provision or human relationships, through emotional comfort or spiritual growth, often abound regardless of our acknowledgment of them. When we practice acknowledging his gifts, what changes is not the fact that God is good, but our increased awareness of how good He is to us.

A few weeks ago, Zach preached that gratefulness results in gladness, which in turn spurs more notice of God’s goodness. It’s an upward spiral of thankfulness that enlightens our view of God

and heightens our awareness of the gifts he’s made available for us, from our salvation to our relationships to the cappuccino I just finished.

As Thanksgiving has come and gone, I pray we may remember gratitude is not seasonal, but a gift always available to practice and receive from God. Finding concrete ways to thank God, whether by journaling his gifts, reflecting on them with a small group, or simply saying a short prayer in the moments we notice God’s abundant generosity in our lives, allows God space to remind us of his faithfulness and goodness. Gratitude is the gift of recognizing the rest of his gifts. I pray we together seek to offer God our thanks this season and in the coming seasons, always giving him the space to remind us of the blessed perspective in which we get to live, thanks to his generosity.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

Thankful for God’s Word

“12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12 & 13

The Word of God is living….

The Word of God is active…

The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword…

The Word of God discerns the thoughts and intentions of our heart…

The Word of God exposes us, naked, to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account…

This is what this season has been for our community and I. We have allowed the intensity of James to lay us bare in front of God to examine our lives. If you didn’t jump on board that train, it’s not too late…all aboard! This last weekend we were able to hear from multiple voices that call New City home. Every person who shared had a word that pierced my heart in different ways. Our brother Chavo shared that “Competency kills! Familiarity breeds laziness.”  Noah shared how the Lord challenged him with the image from James 3:11-12 that fresh water and salt water can never come from the same spout.  Soccer in Noah’s life has brought some of the greatest fruit (“fresh water”) but also has brought about intense frustrations, which at times lead to “colorful” metaphors (“salt water”). We heard a sweet word from Thomas inviting us to receive the promise that when we draw near to God, He will draw near to us every time.

Many voices declared and demonstrated the reality of Hebrews 4:12 and 13. James had served their spirituality through acting as a double edged sword and exposing them bare in front of the Lord. I don’t know about you but in my flesh, the reality that Hebrews 4:12 and 13 invites us into does not always breed thankfulness. But what if we leaned in and allowed the Word of God to do its job? I am so grateful for the power of God’s Word and my prayer is that in this season our community would grow deeper in our thankfulness for it.

What would this gratitude for Scripture do for your intimacy with Jesus? How would this impact your walk with the Lord? How could a deep gratitude for God’s Word transform your journey with Him? When I am deeply grateful for something, I treat it differently. My desire is that through thankfulness for His Word (not for a great podcast, sermon off YouTube, or book) we would see a deeper sense of intimacy and allowance for the Spirit to move in our lives. I believe deeply that His Word will bear fruit in our lives if we receive it fully. Isaiah 55 declares a promise about His Word…

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55 and Hebrews 4 teach us that we can anticipate transformation, not only from a sermon series through James at church but anytime we open, address, and allow the Word of God to interact with us. I believe as we grow in thankfulness for His Word we will be more postured to receive It’s ministry. As we continue as a community diving into Scripture together, lets pray for a greater appreciation for it.=

As you meditate on this during your week, here are some questions….

  • How have you experienced the Word of God in the ways Hebrews 4 describes?
  • How could you position yourself to experience God’s Word in a deeper, more intimate way?
  • Do you see Scripture as a a means of our Spirituality or as a generous gift from God?
    • How would our life look different if we saw it as a gift and not just a “means to an end”?

What promises or stories in Scripture are you thankful for?

 

Zach Meerkreebs, Head Planter and New City Stories Contributor

What are We Counting On?: Reflection on James 5

Although James 5 seems to offer several disjointed topics, James actually presents two images for how we live. The first image is of a self-indulgent rich person and the second is of a patient farmer. While these two people are not seeking the same end result, they are living out the same question: “What am I counting on?” In other words, “Where do I put my hope?”

In James 5:1-6, James warns the rich about storing up rotting treasures, and gold and silver that will corrode. This warning sounds familiar to Jesus’s words in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

This is not only a warning to the rich, but to anyone storing up earthly possessions.  Just because we might not consider ourselves living in luxury does not mean we can count ourselves out of this warning. Rather, if we find ourselves “liv[ing] on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence,” then we see that this warning is for us. Both James 5 and Matthew 6 comment on the consequences of counting on treasures. Jesus goes on in Matthew 6 to warn against being anxious about daily needs, focusing instead on how our Good Father provides for the lillies and the sparrows and James says the laborers of the rich will cry out against them. Where does this “rich person” put their hope and what are they counting on? By making life comfortable, predictable, and safe, they are counting on finances, materials, and self-sufficiency.  The consequence of relying on ourselves and material riches not only makes us anxious, but it leads to our neglecting of the others around us.  What are we counting on?

Next, James says, “Be patient, therefore brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” and this is where we start to wonder if this all connects. James then presents us with a counter image to how the rich person lived, a farmer who waits for the fruit of his fields. The farmer plows and plants and then waits for the rains to come. The farmer relies on the rain to produce good crops. James says this is how we should wait for the coming of the Lord. Waiting with expectation and with patience. Rather than focusing on storing up earthly things at all costs, James says to have a heavenly focus that waits expectantly for God because that is Who we are counting on.

More than this, James says to count on God even in suffering. He points to the prophets and to Job as biblical examples of people who suffered yet remained reliant on the Lord. The prophets experienced resistance and rebuke of others, and Job experienced unprecedented loss and tragedy. The reason for counting on God even in suffering is because it points others to the purposes and characteristics of God: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).

When reading the prophets and Job, we see that another reason to count on God is that God can be counted on. After Job hears from his friends, the Lord speaks to Job, asking him questions like, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) and, “Who sends the rain to satisfy the parched ground and makes the tender grass spring up?” (Job 39:27). The Lord shows Job that as humans we are not all-knowing, all-present, or all-powerful and then for two chapters the Lord shows Job that He is all-knowing, all-present, and-all powerful. The Lord can be counted on, even in times of suffering.

While we are waiting on the Lord, like the farmer waiting for the rain, James reminds us to be present and committed to where we are: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (James 5:12). The coming of the Lord is our great hope and Christ’s second return is why we wait expectantly. Until that time, however, the coming of the Lord in our daily lives is when we are not sure how something will work out and yet the Lord comes through in His own way, each and every time.

James concludes his letter by driving home the call to count on the Lord. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray” (James 5:13-14). In other words, if life is in the valleys right now, then go to God; if life is exciting, then go to God; if this physical life is difficult to live in, go to God. James says faithful prayer will save us. After reading the rest of James 5, we can see that faithful prayer does not work only because we pray with faith, but because the Lord to whom we pray is faithful. That is why we can pray during suffering and praise during celebration, and why we can seek healing.

Lastly, even in our sin we can count on God. Adam and Eve counted on their ability to hide from God and fashioned clothes to cover themselves–we can easily count on our good works to save us. However, James again points us back to God: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). We can confess our sins to God and to each other because our God is the Redeemer. If we use the paradigm given by Zach’s teaching on James 1, we see that because God is Redeemer He convicts, and because we are convicted we respond and are sanctified.  In other words, we confess and we receive grace. We do not have to hide ashamed of our sins. God is Redeemer, so we can go to Him and receive both conviction and mercy. We can count on God despite our sins.

The final image in James takes us back to the farmer waiting on the rain. However, this time it is Elijah who prays fervently for rain. James even says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (5:17). Elijah’s prayer was not heard because he was outstanding, but he was heard  because he counted on God to send rain.  God was faithful.

James begins the final chapters of his letter with an image of what it looks like when we count on ourselves and what we can manufacture. Then James shows us what it looks like to count on God, why it is worth counting on God, and what happens when God has all of our lives.

“So friends, everyday do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love somebody who does not deserve it

…Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts

…Practice resurrection”

– Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

 

 

Grace Upon Grace: How James 4 Changed My Life

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4: 8-10 NRSV

James has been a book of healing for me. It may seem odd to hear that because so many people say, “Oh, James is so intense,” or, “That is a Catholic book because it talks so much about works.” I want to offer a different way to read James, one that I will share through my own personal testimony.

I attended a Christian music school for my undergrad, and when I got there, I had two goals: to learn guitar and to know Jesus for myself. I am a pastor’s kid, and at the end of high school I realized that I had been coasting through life on my parent’s faith. My desire to know Jesus for myself was real, but looking back, I lost view of that second goal pretty quickly. My first goal started to morph into obtaining a certain status with my gifting. I began to idolize individuals who were on stage, and I wanted to be like them. I would follow them on Facebook and Instagram, dress like them, buy the same guitar gear as them, and spend my time trying to obtain what they had accomplished. My heart was set to be that person on stage after I graduated. I set my life vision on that goal and planned on being there for the rest of my life thinking that THAT was what the Lord had led me to. At the time I didn’t know that I had a problem, but I did know I was tired and discouraged, and that I wasn’t excelling to that level of musicianship and status that I had idolized.

My senior year, I was in a worship class and we were praying individually during the class one day. I was tired, discouraged, and becoming angry at myself and, honestly, at the Lord. Why would He lead me to this school to set me up for failure? It was then when I felt Him speak to me. It wasn’t audible or said by someone near me, but I knew the thought or phrase wasn’t my own. He said to me, “Thomas. I didn’t create you to be ‘Adam.’ I don’t need another ‘Adam.’”  At that moment I realized that I was trying to be someone I wasn’t meant to be. I was striving and performing to earn a title, a status, and a reputation that the Lord didn’t design me to have.

This was freeing and heartbreaking at the same time. Four years of trying to be someone I wasn’t–gone. My life plans were crumbling in front of me. I felt lost in my calling, I felt lost in my friendships, and I didn’t know what the Lord was calling me to.  During that season, I found this little book near the end of the Bible named James. As I read this book, I felt like someone had articulated my frustrations, sins, and answers into five sweet chapters. Focusing on chapter 4 for time’s sake, I will share with you what the Lord has been speaking to me.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1. As I read through this book and this chapter, I felt as though I was laying on a counseling couch and the Lord was speaking directly to me. My whole undergrad, my heart was warring with what I could obtain rather than seeking what God wanted me to be. I desired (v.2a) to be something I wasn’t made to be. I coveted (v.2b) what others had, whether that was materials or status. I wanted it to be my identity. I didn’t ask (v.2c) the Lord for what His plans were because I thought I knew them already; however, when I asked (v.3) for these things (talent, ability, and giftedness), I never asked if they were what the Lord had for me.

In the first three verses of chapter four, James listed my sins one by one. I was like, “Oops, guilty of that. Wow, that one too. I hope there is an answer!” And there was an answer in verses 5-10. “God yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” James isn’t referring to the Holy Spirit in this passage; he is talking about the human spirit that we all were created with–our passions, our desires, and our thoughts. James is also not saying God is jealous of us. He is the creator God and the sustainer of life. He doesn’t need anything because He created all things. He is jealous FOR us. His wants us to turn to Him. He wants our passions to be His passions. He wants our desires to be for Him. He wants our thoughts to be of Him. I was desiring to earn something that I wasn’t created to be, and God’s desire was only for me to realize I had nothing to earn. I only needed to realize that everything He had for me was in Himself. I can rest in Him. I can rest by acknowledging and accepting that He is God and He has a purpose for me.

It has taken grace upon grace for me to realize that all I need to do is simply rest in Him. Thankfully, there is grace. Verse 6 says that “He gives more grace.” All I needed to do was to receive it. All I needed to do was submit myself to His love and grace. “Humble yourselves before God and He will exalt you,” says verse 10. “He gives grace to the humble,” states verse 6. All you need to do is draw near to Him. He doesn’t want to stay at arm’s length from you. His desire is to walk with you through life. If He needs to carry you through some seasons, let Him. Don’t fall into the trap that I did. I boasted about who I was going to be and what I was going to do, but it was not what the Lord had for me. God has been so patient with me as I have walked through these past couple of years. I can now see His hand in my life so clearly. Though I am still on a journey toward finding out what the Lord has for me, I feel as though He has calmed the storm in my heart and I am no longer “lost at sea”; rather, His grace has been the wind in my sails, and His heart is my compass toward His will for me.  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” says verse 8. This is my testimony. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

 

Thomas Hickey, New City Stories Guest Writer