Monday, December 30, 2019

Old Lessons on Faith for Our New Circumstances

The last few years have involved constant change and uncertainty. This, however, has molded me, brought rich blessings, and increased my faith. My experiences are far from unique, but they have taught me these lessons. They are timeless lessons, and they still apply to our changing lives as they did to the people in these Bible stories.

The formations of this post began this summer in the house church I attend from something the Spirit revealed to me while we were discussing faith. I then drew out that and two other stories in the first few weeks of a Cru community group I lead for graduate and professional students at Ohio State with my friend Chelsea.

During Jesus’s public ministry, He sent His disciples across the Sea of Galilee ahead of Him. A storm came while the boat was in the middle of the sea, and in the midst of the storm Jesus shows His presence, as He always does. While His disciples were fighting the storm they may have forgotten He knew what they were going through, but He reminded them He was there.

So, Jesus comes walking on the water, and has to tell his disciples it is Him because they think He is a ghost. He tells them not to be afraid. Then this is where Peter steps out in faith:

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” –Matthew 14:28-31

Now a lot of people like to criticize Peter and use him as an example of faithlessness, but we should remember that he was the one of the twelve that stepped out of the boat. He knew great works could be done through Jesus.

And he does walk on water. Peter is able to look at Jesus and do what was thought impossible for a human to do. His actions show an immense amount of faith in who Jesus is and what He can do.

Peter’s problems begin when he looks away from Jesus and at the storm. “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink…” In what would normally be a scary situation (not just on a boat in the middle of the sea in a storm, but outside the boat in the middle of the sea in a storm), Peter did not feel fear in Jesus’s presence. But when he forgets about Jesus being there, he becomes fearful. When he looks at the situation around him instead of Jesus, he begins to sink.

What’s the lesson? In the midst of a storm we can be okay—and see incredible things done—if we look at Jesus instead of the circumstances.

Jacob was raised with everything. He was the grandchild of Abraham, who was very wealthy, and son to Isaac who inherited and furthered that wealth. His family had status and respect. He was the favorite of his mother, Rebekah, and she helped deceive his father, giving Jacob the blessing of the firstborn instead of Esau. But this created a problem.

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah. So she sent and called Jacob her younger son and said to him, “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself about you by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice. Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran… –Genesis 27:41-43

Rebekah sends Jacob away. That night, for the first time in his life, Jacob is all alone. The man who had everything finds himself alone, in an unfamiliar place, without any of the comforts or securities he was accustomed to.

Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” –Genesis 28:10-17

This was a story particularly pertinent to my community group, as people who had just moved to a new city and university, away from home and friend groups, in a demanding program, with everything changing and everything uncertain. But this can be true of many situations. We all face these times in our lives.

While everything changes around him, driven from home, his life in jeopardy, journeying to an unfamiliar place, Jacob lays down to sleep with a rock as a pillow. And there, in that place, God meets him. God comes to him in a dream and shows him angels ascending and descending between Heaven and Earth—which Jesus says in John 1:51 is our prayers going up and answers coming down, with Him interceding for us. God tells Jacob He will fulfill His promises and He isn’t going anywhere.

Jacob is fleeing for his life and leaving everything he had known, and God reveals Himself. “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” In the middle of his difficult circumstances, Jacob almost misses that God was there all along. And God would be there for whatever would happen in the days ahead.

When everything is upside down, changing, and uncertain, we serve an unchanging and certain God who meets us in that place.

Abraham had waited decades to see God’s promise fulfilled. God had told him that he, though his wife Sarah was barren, would have a descendant, and that all the Earth would be blessed through him:

God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him….But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” –Genesis 17:19, 21

God says His promise will be fulfilled and promises that it will be fulfilled through Isaac.

After many years of waiting (and some lapses in faith), God gives them Isaac. Thirty more years pass. Isaac is grown but he is not married and has no children. Abraham still has no descendant through Isaac. Then God makes an odd command:

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” –Genesis 22:1-2

Abraham obeys without any recorded questioning:

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. –Genesis 22:3-4

He builds the altar and raises the knife to kill Isaac (vv. 9-10) before the Angel of the LORD stops him (vv. 11-12).

Now Abraham had to think through his obedience in this situation. God was commanding something unusual in light of what He had said. But Abraham knew one thing: God had made a promise. God promised him that he would have a son, Isaac, that his descendants would come through Isaac, and all the Earth would be blessed through Isaac. That meant that whatever God had planned in commanding the sacrifice, Isaac was going to come out of it because God hadn’t fulfilled His promise yet. And Abraham knew better than anyone that God always fulfilled His promises.

We learn more about Abraham’s mindset in Hebrews:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. –Hebrews 11:17-19 (emphasis added)

Abraham trusted God to fulfill His promise so much that he figured God would just have to resurrect Isaac after he was sacrificed. This is even crazier because there was no record of anyone being raised from the dead before this point. Abraham believed God would do something unprecedented rather than believe that God would fail to keep a promise.

Many would not have blamed Abraham for refusing to follow a command that didn’t make sense, or at least questioning God. God’s plan seemed to go against His promise. How could Isaac be sacrificed when he is supposed to have descendants? It took tremendous faith for Abraham to trust God when it looked like God Himself took a sure promise and commanded its failure. But Abraham knew a way had to be made, because God is faithful. Faith is trusting God when His plans seem to run contrary to His promises.

These lessons were learned thousands of years ago, but we’re still facing the same circumstances. There are still storms. There are still changes and uncertain circumstances. There are still times when God’s plans seem to run contrary to His promises. But we serve a faithful God who always fulfills His promises, even if not in the way we expect or want. Let His faithfulness be the driving force of our faith in Him. Let faith arise in the storm. Let faith arise in the change and uncertainty. Let faith arise when God’s plans don’t make sense in light of His promises. And may we see the impossible done as we follow Him into all He has planned for us.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Resurrection at the Requiem: A Call to Christian Graduate and Professional Students

It’s a message that has been continually on my heart for the last two years. I’ve explained to some friends that it feels like I’ve unlocked something that few others have. But I so want them to have it. 

It’s not always that fun to be a graduate or professional student. You work full-time hours but pay instead of get paid. A lot of your friends your age have a salary and not homework. You feel weird because you’re in your mid-twenties but still a student. You have increasingly more responsibility but the benefits don’t seem to match. 

But in the annoyances and difficulty my faith has been elevated to a reckless level. I’ve spent the last two years trudging through law school, never knowing what my next year will look like until the current one is almost over. Every year is spent trying to figure out the next.

And when the uncertainty is maximized, faith is maximized. And it’s such a freeing place to be.

As I thought about how I could articulate my life and what I desire in others’ lives, God placed the word “requiem” on my mind. 

I was scarcely familiar with the term, and when I double-checked its meaning I didn’t understand why it was that word, of all words. But I prayed and was instantly given clarity. Here it is: 


(especially in the Roman Catholic Church) a Mass for the repose of the souls of the dead 

My heart is grieved when I look around at the death in the lives of graduate and professional students. I’ve heard people talk about the best places to have mental breakdowns. I’ve seen excessive drinking in an attempt to relieve pressure and insecurity. 

But the hopelessness is widespread. Eternal hope isn’t found apart from Jesus, so we should expect that there will be people who don’t know Him who are struggling with their identity and unable to find peace. But this is something I see in Christians just as much. 

Maybe there isn’t alcohol or drug abuse, but the hopelessness is there. Christian students are falling victim to pessimism. They’re falling victim to insecurity and struggling with their identity. They have fear of the future because it is uncertain. So many are in misery and doubt.

There is so much more for us. Jesus didn’t go to the cross for us to live like that.  

So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. –Galatians 4:31-5:1 

Yes, that’s talking about freedom from sin. But lack of trust in God is sin. He calls us to trust Him. 

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. –Joshua 1:9 

For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries. –Psalm 112:6-8 

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?  And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. –Matthew 6:25-34 

And He gives us every reason to trust Him. 

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. –Hebrews 13:8 

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. –John 14:26-27 

God sent His Spirit to remind us who we are and whose we are. And I think a lot of Christian students will comfort themselves with these words, but it’s a momentary thing. Then back to worrying. Then it's time to take our eyes off Jesus and look at the storm and the waves.

No. We’ve been set free from that.

Lord I come to tell You I love You. To tell You I need You. To tell You there's no better place for me than in Your arms. To tell you I'm sorry for running in circles, for placing my focus on the waves, not on Your face. You're the only one who brings me peace.

If God never did one thing for us apart from redemption, all His goodness and faithfulness would still be wrapped up in that. But He doesn’t just stop there. He heaps on grace. He gives strength in weakness, and light in darkness, and life from death. Why do we run back to the grave? In our flesh it might seem more comfortable, but it’s not where we belong anymore. We aren’t who we were. We’ve been completely remade. 

I faced this battle for a while. I was coming off what still might be the best year of my life, though the last year has rivaled it. My senior year of college was crazy, and the summer after crazier, but it was so full of growth and joy. I left my home of four years to continue school for another three in a different place. Placed on that was everything else I was bringing in and adjusting to the expectations and workload of a professional program. I felt lost at times. But I’m found in Jesus. In that time I learned to trust Him on a level I’d yet to experience. 

A friend had a vision that nearly brought me to tears not that long ago. Deep in the woods was a cottage, which he said was a place of comfort and refuge, and when he knocked on the door, I answered. I said, “Hello, come in, how can I help you?” He asked, “How do you live out here alone?” I responded, “I’m not alone. The Lord is with me.” 

That same night, God brought me back to a place He’s brought me often. I’m on the edge of a cliff, unable to see what is beneath due to fog. But Jesus is there with me and tells me to jump. The first time I was there I questioned Him. I didn’t know what was below or what was going to happen. But I knew He was leaping with me, and that was enough. The next thing I saw was a person on a foggy street. Only one streetlight could be seen, but when she arrived there another could be seen. She never knew what was at the end of the street, but the path immediately before her was illuminated. 

God guides in short lengths. That’s where faith is the strongest. I’ve learned there is so much freedom in not knowing the future but knowing the God who knows the future. 

We’re talking about the God who raises the dead. The God who predicted events hundreds of years before they occurred. The God who parted waters. The God who sent His Spirit in power to move in the church age. Do you think He can’t handle your crazy life? 

It really is possible to gain such a trust in God that you do not worry about your future career, or your exam grade, or your unexpected expenses. Faith is more than belief. It’s a gift given to every believer that allows us to trust when it looks stupid to others. It’s not blissful ignorance. It’s believing God’s track record and that He’ll do again what He’s done before.

Some of us have attended the requiem of our lives. The requiem of our social lives, the requiem of our free time, the requiem of the control of our futures, the requiem of hope, the requiem of confidence. The only requiem we need to attend is that of our will and our skewed view of ourselves, because that died when we took up our crosses. Jesus has resurrected us, and we’ll never be the same.