Doubt and Faith

daysofdoubtThere are days that I have doubts…

There are days I question the goodness of God….

There are days I look around the world and wonder…

As a believer in God, a follower of Christ, and especially, as a pastor, I’m sure some think I’m not supposed to have any doubts. But the reality is that, at times, I do.

Why do we think that faithful followers of Jesus shouldn’t have doubts? We look at Peter and his faults and are encouraged that Jesus restored him and used him greatly. We admire Paul who was a persecutor (terrorist and murderer) of the church and celebrate how Jesus transformed him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). But when we consider Thomas, who doubted the physical Resurrection of Jesus until he saw Him and touched Him, we conclude that we’re not supposed to have doubts. But the reality is, we all have both believing and doubting inside us. And it’s during those days of doubting that we have a choice to make – to believe God’s Word or trust our feelings, observations, or circumstances.

Belief is only a necessity when we don’t know with certainty. Only when we have doubt is faith needed. Where there is complete knowledge, there is no need for faith. If I told you that I had a $20 bill in my pocket, would you believe me? Probably. If I showed it to you, would it still require faith? No. Seeing is not believing – seeing is knowing. When doubt is gone, so is faith.

“Faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) It’s the uncertainty of “what is not seen” (doubting) that causes us to exercise faith (believing) and grow in our faith (maturing).

what do I believe?So a crucial question to ask ourselves is, what do I really believe?  There are great beliefs, great creeds of the church, that, for centuries, people have devoted their life to studying. There are beliefs that people have defended with their lives, sacrificed over, and even died for. In Psalm 73, Asaph begins with a statement of faith, “God is indeed good to Israel, to the pure in heart.” He says that in spite of evidence to the contrary, God is good to those who are totally committed to Him. Like the psalmist, we all carry convictions about what we believe. We can talk about them in three ways:

  1. What I say I believe (publicly). These public convictions are the beliefs that I want other people to think I believe, even though I may not really believe them. For example, guys, if a certain someone asks you, “Does this dress make my hips look too large?” What you say you believe is, “No. I didn’t even know you had hips until you mentioned them.” We make such statements for “PR” purposes, regardless of whether or not we really believe them. We get frustrated with politicians for replacing truth with things that sound true, but the reality is that we all have an inner politician who puts in overtime and his main job is crafting and communicating public policies to help us look good and get what we want.
  2. What I think I believe (privately). These private convictions are the things that I sincerely think that I believe, but it turns out they may be fickle. When circumstances change, our private beliefs are revealed to be shallow. When our health, or jobs, or relationships change, what we feel causes us to behave, and believe, differently. When the going gets tough, we jump off the bandwagon for things we think we believe.
  3. What I really believe (personally). These are the convictions that really matter. Our personal beliefs are revealed by our daily actions – by what I actually do. I don’t have to wake up and say, “Today, I’m going to demonstrate my commitment to my belief in gravity.” My attitudes and actions are always the result of what I really believe. What I really believe is what I’m fully depending upon.

So we have three different kinds of beliefs, what I say I believe, what I think I believe, and what I really believe, and that’s were life happens. How do circumstances reveal what I really believe? In Psalm 73:2 Asaph wrote, “But as for me, my feet almost slipped; my steps nearly went astray.” Asaph publicly said he believed in God, but when he began to look around as his private circumstances changed, he began to have some serious doubts about God’s goodness and justice.

  1. Doubt begins with material envy. Asaph said, “For I envied the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:3). Later on he wrote, “Look at them—the wicked! They are always at ease, and they increase their wealth” (vs. 12). We see the rich getting richer. Cheaters winning. Liars are getting promoted. Everything seems to be going their way.
  2. Doubts surface with physical suffering. “They have an easy time until they die, and their bodies are well fed. They are not in trouble like others; they are not afflicted like most people.” (Psalm 73:4-5) When our wealth and then our health declines we begin to wonder, get discouraged, and doubt. Others who reject God altogether seem more care-free and don’t seem to have the same problems we have. They don’t have as much physical suffering as believers do. Their bodies are healthy and sleek (naturally—they can afford the best of everything). They escape many of the troubles and tragedies of decent people like ourselves. And even if trouble should hit them, they are heavily insured against every conceivable form of loss. Regarding the wicked, British preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, wrote in the 19th century, “They have a quiet death; gliding into eternity without a struggle”
  3. Doubts are sustained from the verbal mistreatment by others. “They mock, and they speak maliciously; they arrogantly threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues strut across the earth.” (Psalm 73:8-9) The wicked and the selfish boast proudly and act as if God doesn’t care how they live.
  4. Doubts are solidified from the personal afflictions we experience. Why do bad things happen to good people? Like the psalmist we question, “Did I purify my heart and wash my hands in innocence for nothing? For I am afflicted all day long and punished every morning.” (Psalm 73:13-14) Like Asaph we begin to wonder, “What good has it done me to live a decent, honest, respectable life?” The hours I’ve spent in prayer. The time spent in the Word. The time and money I’ve given to the Lord. The active testimony for Jesus, both public and private. All I’ve got for it has been a daily dose of suffering and punishment. Is this life of faith really worth the cost? In the face of doubts, we have a choice to make.

I believeWhy should I really believe? I believe God during days and nights of doubt because things in life are not always as they look or feel. “When I tried to understand all this, it seemed hopeless… until… I entered God’s sanctuary… then I understood their future destiny…” (Psalm 73:17-18). When we step back and get God’s perspective, then we realize the outcome of the deeds, the wickedness, the selfishness, and the faithlessness of those who reject Him. More importantly, when we step away from what’s going on and look up to God, we find He is good, He is loving, He is faithful.

Faith involves certain beliefs. Faith involves an attitude of hope and confidence. But at it’s root, faith is trusting a Person. Go back and read that again. Faith is trusting God and His Word. Only when we depend upon God and His Word can we understand life completely and know Him intimately.

Don’t miss how the psalmist repeatedly speaks directly to God with the pronouns “I” and “You” in the following verses:

When I became embittered and my innermost being was wounded, I was stupid and didn’t understand; I was an unthinking animal toward You. Yet I am always with YouYou hold my right hand. You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will take me up in glory. Who do I have in heaven but You? And I desire nothing on earth but You. (Psalm 73:21-25)

Asaph is dealing personally and directly with God. He was talking with God at the heart level. Why should we really believe in God? Consider the following:

Regardless of how we feel, God is faithful to us in our failures. Even when we have doubts, become bitter, or become totally consumed by envy of others, Jesus never leaves His followers. The Good Shepherd waits for us and often pursues us. We begin the Christian life by seeing God’s grace and love in spite of our sin. And as we try to live the Christian life, we sometimes have doubts – like the psalmist and like Thomas. When we come to our senses again, we realize in a fresh and deeper way His faithful love and forgiveness of our sin.

In spite of evidence to the contrary, God satisfies our deepest longings and supplies our greatest needs. When we’re struggling with life, the Lord wisely and tenderly lead us and blesses us. Sober reflection reminded the psalmist that God had not forgotten him but would one day provide the good things He presently withheld. God is faithful, even in times of doubt when I can’t see Him or feel Him. My heart may have doubts in the present, but God is the heartbeat of my future.

Why should we believe in God? Because He has rescued us from judgment and is our refuge from troubles. “As for me, God’s presence is my good. I have made the Lord God my refuge, so I can tell about all You do” (Psalm 73:28). We once were far from God. We once were unfaithful to Him. We once were headed for eternal punishment. But God in His mercy reached down to us with the love of His Son, Jesus, and rescued us from His judgment. Those who do not follow God faithfully will suffer eventually. However, when we depend upon Him by faith we’ll experience His blessing in the end, regardless of our present circumstances.

There are times when a decision to believe requires commitment when we don’t have complete certainty. For the most important decisions in life, this is almost always the case. When a young, naive couple vows to love and honor one another for the rest of their lives, they have no clue as to what challenges they will face. What matters is not certainty, but faithfulness. When certainty is not possible, faithfulness becomes a choice.

TrustingThis is true about the most important decisions of doubt and faith. Trusting God can lead us to deeper faith in Him and greater dependence upon Him. Contrary to how things often appear, God is indeed good to those who are pure in heart, those who are clinging to Him and His Word.

Fully devoted followers of God’s Son are not people who never doubt. We are disciples of Jesus who doubt and worship, doubt and serve, doubt and forgive, doubt and help each other with our doubts. We completely depend upon God and His Word while we wait for our doubting to – one day– turn into knowing.

Follow me… as I follow Jesus Christ.

Discouragement

Have you ever been discouraged? The days are lonely and the nights are long.

Discouragement typically comes to us because we’ve looked outward and found that our expectations of life or expectations of others have not been met. Problems, especially relational problems, tend to isolate us and discourage us. So after looking outward and becoming discouraged, we then look inward only to discover that we really can’t help ourselves either. The only solution for days of discouragement is to look upward to God. And that’s exactly what David did in Psalm 142.

The superscription of Psalm 142 identifies the time when David wrote this psalm. He did so when he was “in the cave,” evidently while Saul was pursuing him. He was not necessarily alone; 1 Sam 22:1 tells us that David “took refuge in the cave of Adullam. When David’s brothers and his father’s whole family heard, they went down and joined him there. In addition, every man who was desperate, in debt, or discontented rallied around him, and he became their leader. About 400 men were with him.”

CROWDSA cave (or a home, a cafeteria, an office,  or a church) filled with the echoes of demanding voices can be lonely. Have you ever felt alone in a crowd? It may seem a contradiction in terms, but the greater the number of people present, the more intense the feeling of loneliness can be. Psalm 142 suggests to us that even though David saw his family & friends around him, he felt alone. For David, his sense of isolation was like a knife in his heart. No one understood the depth of his emotions. No one seemed to care what he felt or how he suffered. He was discouraged.

The psalmist spoke as one who had no other hope of deliverance but the LORD God. He looked upward. He calls this prayer Maschil—a psalm of instruction, because of the good lessons he had learned in the cave, learned on his knees, which he desired to teach others. One of the reasons we wear out the pages of the psalms is that it helps us simply to know that somebody has gone before us—even thousands of years before us. We find comfort in recognizing the emotions we’re feeling here and now displayed in a man who lived so long ago. David gives us a biblical perspective for when we experience days of discouragement, too.

There are days we feel down (vs. 3) David said, “my spirit is weak within me” The Hebrew words literally mean “the muffling of my spirit.” What vivid terminology—have you ever felt a muffled spirit? David has come to a place where he has begun to distrust his powers of judgment. He is no longer certain where to turn or what course to take. Life has become a great flood rushing in upon him, and he struggles to stand firm against the current. David closes his eyes with a sinking heart. He puts his head farther down in his hands and whispers, “O Lord God, what now? What would You have me do?”

discouragedThere are days we feel deserted (vs. 4) David shared, “no one stands up for me; there is no refuge for me; no one cares about me.” This may be one of the saddest verses in the Bible. Everyone around him seems indifferent to his desperate need. No one seems to care for his life. It is really a haunting cry, “No one cares for my soul.” Have you had days like that? I know I have.

There are days we feel depressed (vs. 6) “Listen to my cry for I am very weak,” said the psalmist. Isn’t that what the condition of depression is all about? David, a man deeply loved by God, a man of profound spiritual experience and wisdom, grappled with depression throughout his life. The word that David uses for weakness is the word for indentation. He applies that condition to his soul. David is saying, “I’m suffering from an indentation in my soul. I am depressed.” All of his hope and joy were gone; his thoughts had turned inward. At one time, the problem had been a simple one—King Saul was hunting him down to kill him. But now David’s plight was something more abstract, something considerably more complex, something whose source was David’s own heart. He had allowed his circumstances to drive him inward. He had come to fall back on his own resources, and those resources were now spent; the well had run dry. There was nowhere else for David to turn. He no longer sensed the presence of God in his life. He was down, deserted, depressed and defeated.

There are days we feel defeated (vs. 6) “Rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.” There can be no doubt that discouragement defeated David. There had been a time when he had sent a stone into a giant’s head; now he was defeated in his own mind. When we put our hopes, dreams, and expectations in people, we will eventually be discouraged. So how do we overcome days of discouragement?

David gives us practical instruction. He teaches us how to depend upon God. There is no cave so dark or a hole so dark that God cannot hear us when we cry out to Him in total dependence.

Depending on God's WordWhen we depend completely upon God rather than people, we will find fellowship with His people and experience communion with Him.

We can reveal our problems to God (vv. 1-2) The repeated words and ideas throughout highlight the David’s anguish. He sees God as his only hope. “I cry aloud… I plead aloud… I pour out my complaint… I reveal my trouble.” It’s as though he was telling us how he had prayed on this occasion. He poured out what distressed him to God as one pours water out of a pot, namely fully. David reveals His problems before the Lord—not that he is angry or resentful but simply that he wants to tell the Lord all about his trouble and grief. It is comforting for him to know that when his strength is all but gone, the LORD knows what he is going through.

We can recognize our presence before God (vs. 3) David recognized that “although my spirit is weak within me, You know my way.” David says, whatever I’m going through, whatever I’m experiencing, God knows how I’m feeling, He knows the danger I’m in.”

We can realize our provision in God (vs. 5) “I cry out to You, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my shelter, my security in the land of the living.’”  See His Eye is on the Sparrow.

As we depend totally upon God, only then, we can rejoice with the people of God (vs. 7) Free from the prison of discouragement, David said, “the righteous will gather around me because of Your goodness to me.” It seems that much of our discouragement in our families, which extends to the family of God, is rooted, founded, and based upon the expectations we have of people. We are disappointed and critical of our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, because they are not giving us what we want or what we think we need. We look outward and we’re discouraged. We look inward and are depressed. But encouragement in life and in relationships isn’t grounded in what happens or what others can give us. Rather, it is grounded in what we have freely received by grace from God through Christ – encouragement flows from God when we look upward to Him and His goodness to us through Christ.

When we depend completely upon God rather than people, then we find fellowship with His people and experience communion with Him.

We can live sacrificially for each other, because we are bound together in Christ, who meets our every need. I don’t need you to fill my cup, because Christ already has and only He will. You don’t need me to fill your cup, because Christ already has. I can serve you sacrificially and you can serve me sacrificially, because we come to one another in Christ who is our all in all. “If there is any encouragement… make your attitude that of Christ Jesus…” (see Philippians 2:1-11).

looking-upwardIt’s not just the world that needs a Savior —  I need One. You need One. And at just the right time, God sent His Son, Jesus (Galatians 4:4-5). During days of discouragement, we look upward to Him and discover His abundant goodness.

Follow me…. as I follow Jesus Christ.

Who are you?

Thank You, Texas Rangers!Who am I? I work at a church as a pastor, but that’s not who I am. I am a husband and a father, but who I am is not defined by my family roles and responsibilities. I’m a huge Texas Ranger’s fan, but my identity is not wrapped up with their success or their slumps. So who am I? Good question.

Who I am is not a function of what I do. Nor is my worth determined by how I measure up in my performance as a pastor, husband, father, or fan. Who I am is not based on anything I do or how well (or poorly) I do it.

So who are you?

  • Is your identity based on what you do? A teacher, a coach, a software engineer, a student, an athlete, a musician, doctor, etc…?
  • Is your identity based on how you perform? Grades, touchdowns, home runs, skateboard tricks, musical abilities, job skills, etc…?
  • Is your identity based on where you came from? Your family, ethnicity, country, school, neighborhood, etc…?
  • Is your identity based on what you own or have? Money, computers, iTouch, video games, home, clothes, cars, physical fitness, etc…?
  • Is your identity based on who you know or hang around? Skaters, athletes, brainiacs, musicians, engineers, teachers, clubs, church, etc…?

Who are you? The problem with determining your personal identity, worth, or value from any of these is that all of them are temporary and will eventually become meaningless and will ultimately leave you feeling worthless.

In_ChristYour true worth and your greatest value in life has everything to do with who you are in Christ Jesus. Listen to what Paul says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17  “In Christ” is a phrase Paul used repeatedly to talk about a believer’s spiritual, eternal, unchanging, and unconditional relationship to Christ.

If you have trusted Jesus, the Son of God, as the One who died in your place and rose from the dead to give you new life – you are a new creation. In Christ, you have really become a new person. Your identity – who you really are – is based on your relationship with Jesus and what He has done rather than what you do, how you do it, where you came from, what you have, and who you know. Who are you? A new creation, a new person who is free to be YOU.

In Christ, you have incredible worth! The old way of living by having to doing good works, trying be good, having to perform, measure up, fit in, or win approval is O-V-E-R. The new way, the best way of living is “in Christ” because in Him you are completely loved, totally accepted, and forever valued.

Barry ZitoBarry Zito, once known as one of the most dominating pitchers in Major League baseball, explained how God had used his injury to figure out who he really was in Christ. In 2002, playing for the Oakland A’s, he won 23 games and won the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. But in 2010 he was cut from the San Francisco Giants starting roster. The next season he was plagued by injuries and poor performances. His worth as a person was so wrapped up in who he was as a pitcher that how he felt about himself was either good or bad based on how he performed. Zito said. “Sometimes you have to go through difficulty and trials to really get broken down. I realized I’d been doing it alone.”

Zito tattooBy the end of 2012, Zito had returned to his peak performance, winning his last 14 starts and leading the Giants to a World Series title over the Detroit Tigers. Before the playoffs began, Zito got a tattoo of a golden calf on the inside of his right bicep. He said, “It signifies the idolatry and value that I was putting on earthly things and human recognition.” More than being a great MLB pitcher earning millions of dollars, Zito’s greatest value is who he is in Christ.

Who are you? What is it that makes you important? Is it what you do? How you perform? Where you came from? How much money you make? Who you hang around?  In Christ, you are priceless!

God planned it for good

dog-growlingTwo boys were walking along a street when they encountered a large dog blocking the sidewalk. “Don’t be afraid,” one of the boys told his more timid friend. “Look at his tail, how it wags. When a dog wags his tail he won’t bite you.” “That may be,” admitted the other, “but look at that wild gleam in his eye and his big teeth. He looks like he wants to eat us alive. … Which end are we going to believe?” You may have felt like those two boys when you’ve had to face adversity in your life. Sometimes we aren’t quite convinced whether to believe the wagging tail of God’s promises or that wild gleam in the eye of the adversity confronting us.

In Genesis 37-50, Joseph was able to see how God planned years of adversity in his life to ultimately bring about a good result. God encourages us to “consider it all joy” when we encounter various trials (James 1:2). God promises that He is working “all things together for good to those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Still, we wonder, “What if we consider adversity a joy and it comes back to bite us?” In the end, it all comes down to trust. God’s Word assures us that we can trust Him to fulfill His promises as we demonstrate our faith in Him through all the adversities of life.

As Joseph looked back over the course of his life to see God’s loving control through his personal adversity (betrayal, false accusations, unjust imprisonment, abandonment), he could also look ahead to God’s fulfilled promise to his family by faith.

20 You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.
21 Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
22 Joseph and his father’s household remained in Egypt. Joseph lived 110 years. 23 He saw Ephraim’s sons to the third generation; the sons of Manasseh’s son Machir were recognized by Joseph. 24 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will certainly come to your aid and bring you up from this land to the land He promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 25 So Joseph made the sons of Israel take an oath: “When God comes to your aid, you are to carry my bones up from here.” 26 Joseph died at the age of 110. They embalmed him and placed him in a coffin in Egypt. Genesis 50:20–26

Joseph lived to see God’s blessing on his children’s children. He died 54 years after his father’s death when he was 110 years old. He found God to be absolutely trustworthy – through all things.

As believers in our promise-keeping God, we know that He will surely come to our aid, in spite of death and discouragement. The nature of our adversity alone does not determine its spiritual value in our lives. It is our reaction to adversity, the way we deal with it, the way we respond to God, that makes it valuable. God is extremely interested in how we respond to adversity because our response determines whether or not it is going to bring about its intended result.

Joseph shows us how to respond to God by faith through all things – especially through adversity.

1. Accept God’s perspective of adversity. When tragedy strikes or difficult times overtake us, our worldview, and our view of God, comes under attack. Questions of fear reach the surface of our consciousness. We begin to worry and doubt.

road-blockIf we are only marginally interested in maturing as followers of Jesus Christ will have a difficult time with adversity. Our tendency will be to blame God or blame others, and become bitter. Instead of seeing adversity as something God is trying to do for us, we will see it only as something He is doing to us. If our perspective of life is comfort, convenience, and pleasure, we will have very little tolerance for adversity. We will see difficulty as a road block rather than a part of God’s plan for us. But when we truly embrace God’s perspective by faith, adversity takes on a whole new meaning. We see pain as an integral part of what God is doing in our lives. Like Joseph, we begin to understand that adversity is a means to God’s greater good.

The person who has God’s perspective in this life and the life to come will always emerge victorious. Like Joseph, however, we are often forced to deal with the prolonged silence of God in the midst of grave adversity. When God is silent, you have only one reasonable option – trust Him. Hang in there, wait on Him. Yet, often He remains silent. God’s silence is always amplified by the anguish of adversity. Then more than ever we need a word from God. Joseph was able, by faith, to trust God’s perspective and plan to bring about something good through the painful years of difficulty – “the survival of many people.”

We learn from Joseph’s perspective that God’s silence is in no way indicative of His activity or involvement in our lives. God may seem far away, but He hasn’t forgotten. He may be quiet, but He hasn’t quit on you. He may be silent, but He’s not still. Trust Him.

2. Rely on God’s promises through adversity. The book of Genesis ends with the Promise yet unfulfilled, but with the expectancy of God’s deliverance. Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when they died, Joseph’s greatest concern was the fulfillment of God’s promise (cf. Genesis 24:1–7; 28:1–4; 47:29–31). Like his father before him, Joseph requested that his bones be taken out of the land of Egypt when God returns them to the Promised Land. His repeated expression “God will certainly come to your aid” guarantees that the fulfillment of God’s promises lay in the future (as Exodus 3:16–17 affirms). The Hebrew verb pāqad, “come to your aid” also translated, “visitation,” usually carries the connotation that destinies would be changed because God is faithful to His promises. Joseph expressed his complete belief that God would keep His promise to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites (vs. 24). Hundreds of years later, Moses would keep the Israelites’ oath by taking Joseph’s bones with the people into the wilderness (Exodus 13:19). Finally, Joshua would bury the bones of Joseph at Shechem after the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 24:32). The writer of Hebrews says, “Faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). What’s amazing to me is that God, through writer of Hebrews, approves Joseph for believing the wagging tail of His promises. Joseph is praised, not for his faith through adversity, but specifically for his faith in God’s promise that was not yet visible (Hebrews 11:22).

night-drivingOver the past year, I’ve had the privilege of teaching our oldest son, Michael, how to drive. Recently, while driving at night on two-lane road, I reminded him of what you have to do to keep from crashing into the oncoming vehicle – avert your eyes from the blinding light of the oncoming traffic to, instead, focus on the road ahead and the white line on the right that leads the way. In the same way, the oncoming difficulties of adversity can often blind us, but when we avert our eyes away from it and focus, instead, on the promises of God, we find He’ll lead us through the darkest nights. God keeps His promises. Trust Him.

3. Embrace God’s purposes for adversity. God planned all of Joseph’s suffering for His good purposes. Perhaps the reason so many of us struggle so intensely with adversity is that we have yet to embrace God’s purposes for it. Adversity is not just a tool that God uses. It’s God’s most effective tool for the growth and development of our spiritual lives. The circumstances and events that we see as roadblocks are oftentimes the very building blocks that lead us down roads of intense spiritual growth. God uses all things, especially adversity, even the evil of others, to bring about His ultimate purpose in our lives.

Joseph embraced God’s specific purpose for the adversity in his life: the survival of many people. In the same way, Jesus embraced the Father’s will to suffer and die to bring about the salvation of all those who trust in Him.

So what is God’s purpose for adversity? Paul makes it clear:

28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. Romans 8:28–29

God’s ultimate, goal is that we be conformed to the image of His Son – in other words, Christ-likeness. His aim for us as followers of Jesus is not to make us happy, materially prosperous, or famous, but to make us Christlike. He now uses “all things,” the sad as well as the glad, the painful as well as the pleasant, the things that perplex and disappoint as well as the things they eagerly strive and pray for, to further His eternal purpose for us. In His infinite wisdom He knows what is needed to bring about that transformation.

God’s goal for us in not that we merely imitate the behavior of Christ. His ultimate desire is that the life of Christ be lived through us.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20).

Christ-likeness is not “self” camouflaged in Christian activities. It is a lifestyle that flows from the very life of Christ Himself and His sufferings as He indwells the believer.

What does all this have to do with adversity? God is not satisfied with well-mannered, respectable “self” on the throne of our lives. He wants to remove all traces of “self” so that we can be presented to Christ holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:3-4). One way God accomplishes that is by sending adversity into our lives. Adversity stirs us up and causes us to look at life differently. We are force to deal with things on a deeper level. Nothing causes “self” to cave in like suffering. And once our religious façade begins to wear thin, God moves in and begins to teach us what real Christ-likeness is all about. “Self” is concerned with preservation. God wants the “self” life crucified. He does not want it dressed up, patched up, under control, renovated, decorated, or ordained. He wants it crucified.

Christ-likeness is not about behavior modification or self-improvement. Christ-likeness is not simply the imitation of a life – it is the impartation of new life – His life. Adversity is God’s most effective tool to make us live, think, and love like Jesus Christ.

Debbie, my wife’s sister, has had more adversity over the last year than anyone should have to endure. One year ago, she and her husband, Jeff, were working through some difficult issues in their marriage. On Veteran’s Day, November 11, they had an argument. Jeff angrily reacted by getting on his motorcycle and driving at an excessive speed on a two-lane road in rural Mississippi. He lost control and crashed. Care Flight transported him to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg where their daughter, Kaelyn, goes to college at the University of Southern Miss. At first, it seemed that God had spared Jeff’s life and that he would, over much time, recover. Our thoughts and prayers began to turn toward how his choices and the crash would impact their marriage and family. Debbie had many unanswerable questions. “Why would God allow this when their marriage seemed to be getting better?” “Why would Jeff put our family through this pain?”

Wolfe FuneralOver Thanksgiving, Jeff’s health began to decline and his body began to shut down. He died just a short time later on December 1. Debbie and Kaelyn’s grief and pain was, and continues to be, beyond measure. More questions rose to the surface. As they began putting the pieces of their lives back together, even more adversity came their way. Over Spring Break, a tornado ripped through Hattiesburg and the USM campus where Kaelyn goes to school. This summer, they discovered that someone had stolen Jeff’s identity and filed a US Tax Return under his Social Security number. The resulting financial mess, personal headaches, and continuing heartaches are very real. Yet, with all the pain and all of the adversity, something incredible, something amazing, is happening in Debbie’s life. She has responded by faith that “God is good, all the time.”

She is demonstrating heroic faith in the LORD God to fulfill His promises by conforming her to live like Christ through all these things. God’s ultimate purpose is being accomplished through her blinding adversities. There are still many questions left unanswered, but she is trusting that “God planned it for good to bring about the present result” (Gen. 50:20). Those watching Debbie and Kaelyn live and grieve can clearly see God’s ultimate good – Jesus living through them. God has been good, thru so much that has been bad, to make both of them more alive through His Son.

Whatever you’re facing today, you can choose to avert your eyes to see beyond the growling teeth of adversity confronting you to believe the wagging tail of God’s promises to transform you. Whatever your difficulty, God planned it for good. Trust Him.

Friends

A few months ago, DeeDee and I got together with some great friends before they moved to the Seattle area. This month is our anniversary, of sorts – the four of us have been friends for 20 years. As we sat and watched our growing kids play together, we reminisced. We had some time to share what the Lord was doing in our lives. We talked about how God was working through both joys and struggles to cause us to grow up in our faith and become more like Jesus Christ. We played, we laughed, and we prayed.  Most of all we just enjoyed being together – as friends.

There are some pretty amazing things that God does for us through friendships. He extends His grace to us. He teaches us the power of forgiveness. He reveals His presence to us. He encourages us. He strengthens us. He protects us. He speaks to us. He loves us. And probably much, much more than I could possibly comprehend. God tells us that “a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a difficult time” (Prov. 17:17).

Friends are the ones you think of first to share great news. Friends are the ones you call regardless of the time or time zone to share great sorrow. Friends help you discover who God made you to be. Friends help you become who God wants you to be. Friends pray for you. Friends pick you up when you fall and can’t get up. Friends spend time together and make memories together.

Several years ago, my sister and her family moved to Southern California. It was a difficult move for all of us because we’re not only family – we’re friends. Not too long after they moved, our family was able to visit them. In their bathroom, they had hung a picture with these words, “Make new friends and keep the old, One is silver the other is gold.” For whatever reason, maybe because I simply missed them, or maybe because I was very concerned about how they were doing, that picture and phrase stuck with me. Maybe it was what I needed to see in order to know that they were doing okay – making new friends. Years later, that picture helped me as our family moved away from close friends to make some new ones.

In this day and age of social media, the concept of friendship is becoming somewhat blurred.  A person can have a thousand or more friends on facebook and still be friendless. Even the new term “facebook friends” lacks a depth that comes from true friendship. Maybe “facebook acquaintances” is more accurate. How will our kids, the next generation, ever figure out what it takes to be a good friend and have good friends when most of their conversations take place on a screen?

Since friends are so important, one of the things I pray about for my kids most often is that they have good friends. Now that we have two teenagers in our home, with one more on the way, I realize how much their friendships, or lack of quality ones, can influence them. Navigating the shallow waters of immaturity and relationships can be treacherous. I praise God for the godly friends that He has brought into their lives and I pray that they become godly, influential friends to others. During these days of having all of our kids still under one roof, I’m grateful that our kids are good friends with each other and pray that continues as they become adults.

It’s been said that to have great friends, you have to be a great friend. Maybe that’s the strangest part. I don’t feel I’m really worthy of the amazing people God has placed in my life as friends, starting with my best friend, D2. I’m too selfish. I’m too impatient. I’m too insecure. I’m too loud. I’m too… well, my friends, you know my issues, and you look past those things to see who God is making me to be.

Even when God moves us or moves our friends far away, we’re still friends. I’m grateful for lifelong friends from the days of my youth. I’m grateful for friends from college scattered around the world. I’m grateful for older friends who serve a dual role as mentors and for younger friends whom I hope to encourage along the way (2 Tim. 2:2). Even though there are some friends that I don’t see or talk to as much as I would like to, we’re still friends, right?  And friends, let me remind you that you’re still being used by our Father in Heaven to make me more like His Son – a friend who is closer than a brother.

One of the most wonderful things about friendship is that our Father in heaven wants to be our friend and paid a tremendous price – He gave His Son – to make that possible. By faith, Abraham believed God’s promise and was called “the friend of God” (James 2:23). Jesus, the Son of God, said to His friends, “This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3). Jesus not only taught about friendship and modeled it, He is our friend. And as friend, He gave us what we needed the most when we deserved it the least at the greatest personal cost. What a friend we have in Jesus!

Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.