This world has so many problems. We try to solve those problems through political means and through our freedoms in America to protest and aggressively comment against our leaders. When we think about the problems in this country of racism, poverty, inequality, bullying and so on, it can get very overwhelming. Wouldn’t it be great if someone had a magic wand to immediately make good out of evil? Imagine if there was a young teen that had the power of one swish of that magic baton and could immediately stop racism. What if a teacher somehow found out she had the ability to whisk away poverty because she was in possession of a magic pointer? They would be celebrities. They would be heroes.
Once Upon a Time…
There was a man that had such a power, and this is not a Fairy Tale. His name was Jesus. He commanded attention everywhere he went. In Matthew 4, crowds followed him, listened to his teaching and were healed of various diseases and illnesses. In Matthew 5, the crowds were so large that he had to go onto a mountainside so everyone could hear him teach and experience his healing power. Matthew 14 tells us that the crowds were so large and constant that in trying to get some alone time, he left on a boat. Yet, people followed him on foot from many towns. Jesus was that celebrity I mentioned earlier. He had power that no one ever experienced before. He had the ability to teach in a way that no one had ever heard before. He had the power to raise his magic staff and heal the crowds in one fell swoop. What are the examples that the Gospel writers tell us of how he healed the masses?
The Gospels reference Jesus’ healing ministry over 80 times in over 30 chapters of the Gospel accounts, which comprise 33% of his entire ministry. Wow, to have his magic wand now would be priceless! The problem is, he had no magic wand. He didn’t use special fairy dust that would blow over the multitudes. So how did he heal all those people? Simply through touch. Relationship. Singular compassion on each person he saw. Personal contact. There was no fairy dust, there was no magic wand but there was the healing power of social interaction.
Imagine the lines that formed to receive healing. Also imagine the excitement when the mother was holding her daughter who needed healing and was next in line. Then she steps up to Jesus, and even though there are large crowds, Jesus is totally focused on her and her daughter. Jesus was focused on that little girl. He asked what her name was? Bending down to her, the girl looked into the eyes of a man who had authority over the angels. Those same eyes that knew the world before it was formed. And most of all, amongst the noise and confusion, she saw those eyes focused solely on her. Story after healing story, Jesus touched. He touched physically, sometimes just emotionally or verbally. He healed through personal connection.
Making It Personal
My job is to help the poor. As a leader of HOPE worldwide, we seek to help the poor as much as possible with the resources we are blessed with. In my daily walk, I try to help the poor as much as I can. I have been a disciple for over 43 years and have tried to incorporate that into my life. I have tried my best, with countless failures, to walk as Jesus walked, yet I have recently learned a lesson of helping the poor that has been very clear in the Bible I have been reading for four decades, but I missed it. How did Jesus help those in need? How would Jesus help the poor today? How would he respond to the woman at the stop light asking for money? How would he respond to the homeless living under a bridge?
HOPE worldwide has an audacious goal that is two-fold. We aspire to see all disciples regularly helping the poor as they go about their typical day. The world is full of those with unmet needs for the most basic things in life. But we also hope that through serving the poor, the server will be transformed to be more like Jesus, and that the beneficiary of that service would see and feel the love of Jesus.
When I hand out a dollar bill to that guy at the stop light, I feel good about myself, and that man is glad that he is making progress toward his daily goal, but neither of us are really transformed. When I hand the sandwich out to the homeless souls living in the cold on hard, wet concrete, I’m sure they are glad to have something to eat that day, and I feel good that I took time out of my schedule to serve because of my desire to please God. But I was not transformed, and I doubt that the person I helped was either. Begging is demeaning, reducing a person created in God’s image to be reinforced in the belief that he or she is only a beggar.
Ahh – Real Transformation
Recently I tried a different method of helping a person in need. I was coming home from one of my frequent Home Depot runs. At a small intersection near my house, a number of individuals stand at the intersection to ask for money. As usual, if I had cash in small denominations, and the traffic allowed, I would give the person a few dollars. This time I decided to practice what HOPE worldwide (and I) preach. I stopped the car alongside the road and got out of my car, then asked the gentleman if he and I could talk for a few minutes. At first, he was leery of my request, but I tried to assure him that it was cool. He then came over to find out what I wanted. I introduced myself and told him I just wanted to talk with him about his life, and if I could pray with him. I let him know that I would give him whatever money he would miss out on by talking to me instead of collecting dollar bills from passers-by.
We spoke for about 15 minutes. I asked him his story, where he came from, if he had any kids etc. It was a very heartfelt conversation, especially as he sensed that I had no hidden agenda. As he spoke more, I can tell you that for this brief moment, Isaiah felt like a man who was respected for who he was as a person. We discussed having teenage kids, his old job fixing cars, and how the Bible assures us that every human being is created in God’s image. Finally, I asked him if I could put my hand on his shoulder and pray for him. He looked shocked in a good way. We bowed our heads and I prayed. Afterward he told me with a slight tear in his eyes that no one had ever prayed for him. I offered him a twenty-dollar bill to make up for his lost revenue for the time he talked with me. He flatly refused. I told him that if he didn’t take it, I would just leave it on the street and it would just blow away. We laughed and he sheepishly took the money.
As I drove off, I realized that I had been transformed in a way that I never would have had I just opened my window and handed him some money. I want to believe that Isaiah was also transformed, at least for that moment in time. Jesus didn’t just throw out his healing powers to those that would catch them. In every healing, he personally and freely gave his power to an individual, one touch at a time. Since that experience imitating Jesus, as I read the Gospels, I am reminded of my friend Isaiah and the thousands of people Jesus touched, interpersonally, respectfully and compassionately, one person at a time. I think I hear Jesus still saying, “Go thou and do likewise.” Are we listening?
Jim McGuiggan is a friend, an old friend more than a current friend, but an important friend. Jim taught for a number of years at the Sunset School of Preaching training ministers. During some of those years, I was teaching at the Preston Road School of Preaching, a very similar training program. During that time and shortly thereafter, Jim and I spent a few very enjoyable times together, to me very memorable times. With his combination of wit and Irish brogue, I thought him to be a most captivating speaker. In fact, he was one of my favorites during those years when our lives overlapped.
I was also a fan of his books. He wrote much like he spoke, thus also in captivating ways. He delved into several genres of spiritual writing as he penned a large number of books. One, he wrote of doctrinal matters, much of it about the end times. Several of his books absolutely destroy the now popular premillennial views. One of the early promotors of this heresy was Hal Lindsey, and Jim addressed Lindsey’s teaching very directly and very effectively. Anyone willing to follow Jim’s arguments with Bible in hand would agree with my statement that he decimated the views of Lindsey and all others who followed in his steps. Just to clarify, that would include the popular “Left Behind” books and movie, based on a false doctrine of the “Rapture.” (You can read my material addressing the same issues on my website, gordonferguson.org.)
Another genre Jim pursued was that of biblical expositions. He wrote a number of commentaries on both Old Testament and New Testament books. His commentaries on the Prophets were to me invaluable. Knowing that he wasn’t going to be caught up in speculative teaching when interpreting difficult passages and books, like Ezekiel, gave me comfort when studying the prophets. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, but as is accurately said of scholars, even if you don’t end up agreeing with them on a given point, you will never look at that point in quite the same way again.
The third genre of Jim’s writing falls into the realm of devotional books. Presently, I am rereading his “The God of the Towel,” with the subtitle “Knowing the Tender Heart of God.” He has written a series of books like this one containing short chapters, most of them two or three pages each, that are almost unique in their ability to reach the heart. I begin most of my days reading one of the short chapters in one of these books. I will end this post with one of these little golden nuggets, their value lying in both the content and the way it is presented. The man is a captivating writer, at least to me. I also read similar pieces on his blog, “Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan” (https://jimmcguiggan.wordpress.com/).
Perhaps his longest book in this genre is “Celebrating the Wrath of God.” Although the title is scary, I think overly so, the book is similar to my most popular book, “The Victory of Surrender.” When I am on a personal spiritual retreat, I read several books in addition to spending much time in prayer and listening to spiritual music. I always read my own “Surrender” book and have read Jim’s “Celebration” book at least five times through the years. I obviously value the potential of its spiritual impact immensely.
In all of his writing, Jim is clearly an independent thinker. He has, and does, read very widely and quotes or references other writers of all types, an interesting number of them atheists. He is not a narrow thinker, confined within the walls of spiritual orthodoxy. Most writers in any genre are often called “Me Too” authors. In other words, they express about the same things others have already expressed. They just look for new ways to say them. Jim is decidedly not one of these types. He often goes in directions I’ve never read about or thought about, and therein lies a significant part of the value of reading JM. You are forced to keep thinking and keep learning.
There you have it – my appreciation for an old friend and his contribution to my spiritual knowledge, and more importantly, to my spiritual life. When I was young, it was his doctrinal and expositional writing that most intrigued me. Now that I am old, it is his devotional material that warms my heart. Many of the heart-warming nuggets are introduced with a sharp edge that first opens the heart to let the other in. He is a master at the technique, almost in a class by himself as far as I’m concerned.
Jim is now in his 80’s, a few years older than me. He lost his dearly loved wife, Ethel, some years back, and I suspect a part of Jim died with her. But she still lives in his writing, appearing at unsuspected times in unsuspected ways. My old friend and I are obviously in our last phase of life on planet earth. My most important pursuit in this phase of life is simply to seek the heart of God and walk with him. Jim, thank you for being such a help to me for so many decades, and especially in this present one. And now the quote from the last paragraph of a little chapter from “The God of the Towel,” entitled “More Than Pardon.”
But there is one thing we need to be clear about – it must be holiness we want and not mere pardon; it must be holiness we want and not merely the sugary sweet “love” we hear so much of. And if it is holiness we want, God will go after it in us and will not ask us if we’re happy about the way he pursues it.
NOTE: this article originated as a Facebook post on both of my FB pages.
Few sins are as disgusting as ingratitude. A study of God’s dealings with mankind would surely demonstrate how strongly God thinks that this is indeed the case. We humans agree with his assessment—as long as we are observing a lack of thankfulness in the lives of others! However, we often appear fairly unaware of the depth of this problem in our own personal lives. If we can learn to see through the eyes of God, hopefully we can be moved to a consistent repentance of this sin of ingratitude and can become people of grace and thankfulness.
The fatal plunge of the first century world into degradation and perversion began with a loss of thankfulness toward God. Romans 1:21 makes the genesis of a downward spiral into disaster very clear: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts became darkened.” I have not written an article on gratitude simply because this makes us happier people or better people; I have written it because a scarcity of gratitude will most surely lead to our missing heaven. Our failure generally to appreciate the magnitude of the subject’s importance demonstrates just how effective Satan has been in deceiving us. Had our mother Eve not lost her appreciation for God and his wondrous grace, she would not have taken the fatal bite of forbidden fruit. Let’s not underestimate for a moment the vital nature of the study of this topic. It is paramount to our spiritual growth, gracious demeanor and to our eternal destiny.
Why do we lose our gratitude so easily? Several reasons come to mind rather quickly. One, we often have a shallow grasp of our own sinfulness. A good study of Romans 1-3 should help us deepen our convictions about the magnitude of our sin. Here, Paul is the Spirit’s tool to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8). When I ponder sin, I think to myself, “The Best of Us Is a Mess.” And we really are a mess in comparison to Jesus Christ. However, we all too often measure ourselves by other people which makes us feel reasonably righteous in comparison. The more we see Jesus as he is and ourselves as we are, the more we are going to be grateful that God has reached down in mercy to such undeserving creatures.
Two, we are plagued with abysmally short memories. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle reminds us that a real understanding of God’s grace should move us to be growing continually. Peter views a failure to respond in this way as quite unnatural, no matter how common it may be: “he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” (2 Peter 1:9). The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is often true, even when the familiarity is with our Creator.
Three, ingratitude may simply trace back to a sinful heart that blocks the understanding—and therefore the appreciation—of spiritual realities. I remember times when I dealt with sin in my heart in a radical way (which for me means with much prayer, often accompanied by fasting). After such times my spiritual heart seems soft and sensitive, and the tears of appreciation flow easily. Thinking back to those moving experiences makes me marvel at how quickly the tenderness of heart can fade.
Four, a self-focused life certainly results in little thankfulness. My childhood years contributed to my self-focus. Although I was raised in a very blue-collar setting, without an abundance of money, we were comfortable, and I was given much of what I requested. In less kindly terms, I was spoiled (hopefully not permanently!). As a result, I characteristically respond to events in my life in a selfish way. When things go well for me, I think, Fine, that’s the way it should be. When things don’t go well for me, I react internally by thinking, “What is going on here?” I have served the Lord faithfully; this shouldn’t be happening to me! When I allow my sinful nature to lead me in this direction, I respond to blessings without much thankfulness and to challenges without much grace. Prayerfully, I have made lots of progress in changing these tendencies, but I must guard against them continually to avoid being an ingrate.
Five, a suspect picture of God is one of the more serious, yet subtle, culprits behind ingratitude. We develop our view of God from the most important authority figures in our lives, normally our fathers. If our fathers were beneficent, leaning toward permissiveness with us, we are likely to take God’s goodness for granted. If our fathers were distant or harsh, we are likely to view God in much the same way. And if we see him as impersonal, uncaring or demanding, we will misinterpret life’s blessings and challenges, remaining unaware of the bounty of his grace. The reality of who he is and what he does can be missed almost entirely. If we are like the one-talent man in Matthew 25, we will see him as a “hard” man (verse 24). If we are like the older brother in the Parable of the Lost Son, we will see him as a father who has done absolutely nothing for us (Luke 15:29). Astounding!
For everyone who decides to seek Jesus seriously, a study of the book of Romans is a must. When we begin to understand the God it portrays, we can be consistently motivated by gratefulness for his amazing grace. My book, “Romans: the Heart Set Free,” is a good resource for this study.
Whatever the cause of ingratitude, the cure is in taking the time to figure out life as God designed it to be, rather than life as Satan wants us to see it. Then the message will not be how soon we forget, but how often and deeply we remember the overwhelming goodness of our God. Let’s take this present season of thankfulness and truly count our blessings and live a life of genuine gratefulness and appreciation for all God has done for us.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” —Colossians 2:6-7
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” —Colossians 4:2
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” —Hebrews 12:28
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” —Colossians 3:15
Aging and death are realities of life on planet earth, and those realities are viewed by virtually all of us as negative, usually very negative. From the perspective of 1 Corinthians 15:26, death is the last enemy to be destroyed at the general resurrection of the dead. The term “enemy” pretty well sums up how we view death, right? Aging is a necessary part of the process that culminates in death. We humans don’t enjoy aging with its attendant strains and pains, and we don’t enjoy thinking about our demise. Those are facts. Yet, is there another perspective that can change how we view those facts, making them seem less negative for sure and possibly even positive? That’s a very good question to ponder, don’t you think?
In 2016, Jeanie Shaw served as an author and editor of an amazing book entitled “An Aging Grace.” Using a number of older authors, important topics related to aging are covered in very biblical and practical ways. Younger people should read the book to help them deal with their older friends and relatives, and older people should read it to help prepare themselves for the inevitabilities coming their way. In my opinion, this book should be a “must-read” for all followers of Christ.
I wrote two chapters for the book and in the first of these, here were two sentences describing my initial reaction to the request to write them. “Jeanie Shaw, whose brainchild this book is, asked me to write two chapters: one about getting old and the other about dying. (She says the topic was “heaven,” but I heard “dying.”)… My initial reaction was “What? Why me? How did I get those two articles anyway? I hate getting old and I’m afraid to die!” I think the chapters ended up being good ones and it helped me to write them. But I have continued to think about aging and death as a person now in my upper 70’s. This present article describes my most profound thoughts on the subject at this point in my life.
Our Attachment to the Physical
We are attached to this physical world and we are attached because God made us to be. We were created to enjoy life on this earth. It offers amazing possibilities – some amazingly bad and some amazingly good. David described the good part in this way:
Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12 Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 4 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Peter quoted this passage in 1 Peter 3:10-12. Loving life in this physical body and desiring to see good days, many of them, is not wrong. In fact, it would be wrong to feel otherwise. James said that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) and that includes life in this physical world. That is why we should give thanks for every one of those good gifts that we enjoy while in this body. One of those obvious delights is food, created for our enjoyment and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-5), just like all other physical things that we call good.
Further, God made us to want to remain alive as long as possible. The Bible is full of examples showing that his righteous people fought hard to remain alive. Finding anyone who wanted to die at the moment is nearly impossible to do. Those who can be found were looking for an escape from intense suffering, although Paul seemed to be an exception in Philippians 1:21-23. But a closer examination of that context shows that although he knew death was better because he could be with Christ, he went on to say that he wanted to remain alive in order to fulfil his purpose of helping others. Add to that the fact that he had seen both a resurrected Jesus and the spiritual world beyond (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). He thus was given a perspective that we have to work hard to develop and then keep – by faith, not sight.
Paul knew that his purpose was to use his life to help others know and love God. Life on earth is a preparation for heaven, and finding purpose is a large part of that preparation. Discovering the answers to the biggest questions in life is a part of the process. Three of the biggest questions are these: where did I come from; where am I going; and what am I doing here? Humans instinctively search for the answers to these questions because of our very nature. We are made in the image of God and this makes our searches for meaning inevitable, because they actually comprise our search for him.
He wants us to search for our origin, which is him. He wants us to search for our destiny, which is with him. He wants us to search for our purpose, because it is our way of having fellowship with him in his mission for saving the people on this earth. Having a purpose of representing him to those people means that we want to live and not die until he knows that our purpose has been fulfilled. Acts 13:36 nails it: “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep…” Thus, wanting to stay alive and enjoy life is our designed nature. It is not necessarily a sign of being unspiritual or too attached to this world (although it can be).
That being said, a part of the right mixture is the anticipation of heaven and an “other-worldly” absence of the fear of death. Before Christ’s death and resurrection, even spiritual people in the Old Testament era were “held in slavery by their fear of death” for their entire lives (Hebrews 4:14-15). We should now view life and death differently than those who lived before the cross. Picture it this way – imagine a person who loves their job and has a very strong assurance of job security. Although they look forward and anticipate their retirement greatly, they put their heart into their job on a daily basis and do it excellently. The faith-filled disciple of Jesus is very similar in how they view life, their purpose in it and their future. They are comfortable both with the present and comfortable anticipating the future, including death. They are in all ways quite like the child described in Psalm 131:2: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Such a person ideally accepts both aging and death with peace and not with fear or mere perseverance with gritted teeth. But just how do we reach that ideal?
The Worst Story Ever Told
We reach it by really grasping the big picture, the biggest possible, as fully as is humanly possible – the greatest story ever told. Just what do you think is the great story ever told? Common answers are good but often incomplete, such as God’s love or Jesus on the cross bearing our sins, and other variations or additions to these two. The biggest picture goes much deeper and must start at the dawn of creation.
Adam and Eve were created perfect in just about every way, and they were certainly sinless. Once sin entered the world, a slowly developing whirlpool for humanity had begun and there was no stopping it. The rate of its swirling might have seemed to have paused at times in history, but not for long. Ultimately, it would pick up speed and pull every human being into its deadly vortex. The consequences of sin are many, but death is at the center – both spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death (separation from our own bodies). Once banned from the Garden that housed the Tree of Life, the original pair began to age and head toward physical death, and that sentence of death had to include all humans from that point forward (Genesis 3:22-24). We each die spiritually because of our own sins, but we die physically because of that first sin in the Garden and banishment from its Tree of Life.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
God by his nature is both all-knowing and timeless. He sees what we call time all at once – past, present and future. Before he created the world with humans as its apex, he knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew what the pain of rebellion was going to do to mankind and do to him. His plan was clearly in place long before it was implemented. That plan was destined to become the greatest story ever told. The Creator was going to take the form of a creature in order to die and save his creatures for eternity. Who could ever have imagined such a story?
It is true that other religions have mythology that includes gods taking human forms, as shown in Acts 14:8-18, but no other religion would dare imagine that a god would die for his sinful, rebellious creatures. All religions have this in common: they teach that we should be good and do good. Christianity is totally unique in teaching that we cannot do this without Divine intervention enabling us to do it, and that intervention began with God becoming human to die for all of the sins of all humans of all time. Mind-boggling! Unbelievable! The greatest story ever imagined and the greatest story ever told!
Christianity is absolutely unique. That uniqueness explains why these two statements are true of Christ’s religion and true only of his religion:
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Once a group of theologians were discussing world religions and the question of whether Christianity was unique, and if so, why? C.S. Lewis, famous author and teacher of the last century, entered the group’s discussion late. Upon hearing the topic, he stated quickly that that the answer was simple: grace! The idea of grace is amazing, as the popular song puts it, but beyond amazing when you consider what made saving grace possible – God becoming man and dying for his creation that grace might abound! It was the only answer for the dilemma of sin and God knew it and did it.
Embracing the Near-Inconceivable!
Once I started grasping this big picture more fully, I would no longer want to eliminate my aging and death even if I somehow could. How could I possibly desire to rob the world of the greatest story ever told, which was the only way to save humanity spiritually? I believe I am now looking at that process differently than when I wrote those words in the book I mentioned back in 2016, saying that I hated aging and was afraid to die. I keep applying myself to understanding my purpose in this last part of life. I must still be alive for a reason. God is not yet done with me. A part of that reason is for me to keep trying to better understand and explain to others how to embrace life’s “end game” and all that it brings to us and to our friends and family whom we leave behind.
I have a deeper sense of peace about life’s final chapter, a sense that I could often best describe as a peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In this article, I have tried to explain what simply must be considered the greatest story ever told. I pray that it helps your understanding of why aging and death are to be embraced, even joyfully. God knows that we need to help each other through that portal into an eternity that is quite literally inconceivable until we enter into it. The famous Christian song says, “I can only imagine,” but actually, you cannot. The Great Beyond is quite greatly beyond our wildest imagination. Near the end of the Aging Grace book, I wrote these words, providing an apt way to close this article:
Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
With that, I close. I’ll see you there, maybe soon!
1 Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
In this verse, Peter gives us a command, one that is absolutely essential for spiritual and emotional health. But he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it. No doubt some approach comes to your mind as you read the verse, but more might be involved than would immediately register with you. This article describes in detail an approach that has proved invaluable to me in my decades-old walk with God. Read it and see if it can be helpful to you.
Journaling – what exactly is that? Here is the first definition found when Googling the term: “Journaling generally involves the practice of keeping a diary or journal that explores thoughts and feelings surrounding the events of your life.” As you look further at those online entries, you will find many emotional health experts describing the benefits of journaling. You will also find that a number of famous people practiced journaling as an important part of their lives. David writing his Psalms would be a familiar example. So, clearly journaling is something good and perhaps very important to us humans. But as the title suggests, doing it with God is a higher level, raising something good to something great. In this article, I want to share examples of journaling that have blessed my life and at times, helped me climb out of a deep pit spiritually and emotionally.
A Resistant Learner
My wife has journaled with God for decades, writing out her prayers on a daily basis. I resisted following her example for years, believing that I was more in touch with my emotions than she is and that prayer walks were quite sufficient to unload my burdens to God and find his solutions and directions. But eventually, my life became more complicated and the burdens overwhelming. On one memorable occasion, Theresa and I got into a spat that wasn’t pretty, and it was mostly me (nearly all me, to be totally honest). It was on day one of a three-day marriage getaway. She kept asking what was wrong with me and I honestly didn’t know. The next morning a long prayer walk didn’t put me in touch with what was eating at me, nor did the one the next day. I had two bad days, and I’m sure she must have had the same, having to put up with me.
The third day as we returned home, the first part of the trip was on a ferry from Nantucket to Cape Cod. For the two plus hours on the boat, I was typing on my laptop almost feverishly, pouring out my pain to God. That was one intense introduction to serious journaling with God. I discovered that journaling exposed my heart and soul like nothing else. We can be full of disturbing feelings and not be able to identify them, feeling terrible and not really knowing why. Times like this occur when too many different disturbances in our personal universe are crammed in together. Praying about them or talking to others about them is helpful, for it distills them down to about the size of our mouths. Writing about them (think pen and paper) distills them down to the size of a pen point. Then the minute details start to emerge, and we begin to see the issues much more clearly.
That particular day, now many years ago, I discovered the main areas of my burdens. I not only listed the areas; I gave each one a percentage of the total burden I was feeling. Something about getting it all written down and evaluating it started freeing me up and giving me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel after all! As I prayed, God started helping me see answers to each of those five areas. My world righted itself and my wife’s better husband returned! That husband discovered that his wife’s approach to journaling was a hidden treasure that would bless him for years to come. It was a memorable boat ride and the start of my journaling with God. The truth is that I am more in touch with my emotions than my wife is and most of the time my prayer walks do accomplish what I need with God. But there are times that the victory of surrender simply will not occur without journaling with God.
The Latest Version
Let me skip to my last such victory, a very recent one. I discovered a somewhat new approach that really helped. It may help you. This year (2019) has been a difficult one for me, and for us as a couple. Although our marriage is doing quite well, other aspects of life have been seriously challenging, to the point of me becoming overwhelmed (again). Thankfully, Theresa and I almost always remain very united in facing challenges and we have this year as well. I won’t share those challenges in any detail but suffice it to say that I desperately needed a victory of surrender.
I started my trek in that direction by setting aside an open-ended period of time to write at my computer. After listing a number of my burdens with which I was in touch, it became obvious that they all fit into five total categories. They were: personal concerns; family concerns; friends concerns; church concerns; and world concerns (especially those in my home country, our current society). I ended up with quite a number of entries in each of these categories. Like Abraham, I had to face the truth before I could “faith” it. For the next two days, I re-read what I had written and added to it. I didn’t want to leave any burden hidden in the deep recesses of my heart.
On the fourth day, I highlighted everything in each category and hit the delete key. I was ready to surrender it to God, to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). However, I left the category headings in place. For the next two days, I listed the most significant items under each category again that came to mind, a much smaller number than on the earlier list. Then I hit the delete button again. The next day (day 6 in the process), I found things to be thankful for in each of the five categories and listed them – the light at the end of the tunnel! I did the same on day 7. The following morning, I awoke with a feeling of complete peace and gratitude.
Receiving and Giving Back
Perhaps you are thinking, “Wow, Gordon, that’s a long process and a lot of work!” Yes, but well worth it. You may be built differently than me and maybe you don’t get as clogged up emotionally as I do. Good on you if that’s true of you, in which case your journaling can follow a shorter route (as mine does most of the time). But I know people well enough to know that many are like me – worriers who want to fix everything wrong with themselves, others and the world in general. My shorter prayer list has well over 100 individuals on it and my longer one far more than that. When I add too many personal issues to those concerns for others, it can reach the point of my being overwhelmed, especially if I am not processing my burdens effectively and consistently on pretty much a daily basis. Life does tumble in and too much of it tumbling in at once drives me to the kind of journaling process I have described.
Interestingly, this recent experience came at an important time. God is in control, always. We had scheduled some extended time (days) with a couple who is very near and dear to us. They came at a time when they were facing a similar place in their lives that I had just worked through – that overwhelmed stage. Our first time together provided the opportunity to not only listen as they shared many of their burdens but to share this approach I had just used in working through my burdens to yet another victory of surrender. Although the thought of writing down the details of painful experiences was not a positive one initially, the brother did what I recommended. I believe the writing, combined with much talking, was both cathartic and provided directions for further healing.
God is amazing – he allows us to experience hard times for at least two big reasons. One, to fight for our own spirituality and to grow though that fight. No pain, no gain. Two, to then share with others our challenges and how we found answers. We get help and we give help as a part of what the New Testament describes as “One Another Christianity.” For me, journaling with God is an essential part of his brand of Christianity. Although sharing my burdens with others is always an essential part of the process, sometimes only deep journaling with God will enable me to completely offload those burdens. I suspect the same is true for most of us.
“You unbelieving and perverse generation”, Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long will I put up with you?” – Matthew 17: 17
Addressed to Jesus’ disciples who had been following him and listening to him, Jesus expressed frustration that they were missing something important, specifically who Jesus was and faith in his power to heal. In a later private moment (verses 19-21), Jesus explains that the disciples simply lacked faith. Something was missing, and they were slow to understand.
Sometimes I carry with me a nagging sense that I am missing something. It’s almost like I don’t have my keys, phone, or wallet, but it is deeper and spiritual.
The root of this nagging is that I am aware that I am filled with biases and prejudices. I have grown up and lived in an upper middle-class family in the United States. My economic “normal” is not normal to either most of the world nor the setting of the New Testament scriptures. I am also a privileged white man, having been able to attend excellent universities and learn to read, write, think, and work using my mind. I have not experienced class, gender or race discrimination nor have I had to wear out my body with hard labor. I am healthy, spared from disability and major health challenges (so far). In lifestyle alone, I am out of touch with 99% of the real world and the audience of Jesus’ teaching and the early church.
Additionally, I am shaped by my parents, my upbringing, and my personality. I have bents and prejudices, often struggling to relate to and “get” people who are different than me.
Consequently, I fear that when I read scripture I often practice eisegesis, that is, reading into the text my upper middle class, western views, and my introverted, perfectionist personality. There are a lot of ways to get it wrong, miss the point, and simply lack faith. What is one to do?
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
Using Micah 6:8 as my guide, and speaking first to myself, I propose the following:
- Act Justly
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 10:17-19
There are several biblical teachings that are very clear: sin, repentance, forgiveness, discipleship, and evangelism. We find unity in these. There are also other very clear biblical teachings about how we should act and interact with others, specific to the imperative of Micah 6:8 to act justly. In sum, it requires compassion and others-centeredness.
In the Old Testament, acting justly primarily referred to concern and care for widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 above, Psalms 68:4-5, and many others). In the New Testament, the dominant example is the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Today, acting justly can be extended to those who are needy, suffer persecution, prejudice, and injustice. And it can be further applied to those who suffer physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Spiritually, acting justly is having eyes of compassion to see the need of others to learn and feel the love of God and to experience his kindness and grace. So many people live tortured lives, ravaged by guilt and all the unhealthy ways of masking it. It requires getting beyond myself and mere appearances to have the eyes of Jesus when he saw the crowds as harassed and helpless, and then engage all the messiness to love them and show them Jesus.
Acting justly requires compassion and others-centeredness, antidotes to the greed, comfort, and selfishness with which I struggle. My wife, Maureen, and I have adopted a child and cared for aging parents, with my dad living with us his last three years. Additionally, we strive (quite imperfectly) to live a lifestyle focused on discipleship and evangelism, desiring to love and serve others. While Maureen is an evangelistic extrovert and a natural Good Samaritan, I am not. For me it takes intentionality, self-denial, and the decision to experience emotional and mental discomfort. But it helps me to “get” people who are different from me. I am a work in progress but striving to act justly gets me beyond myself and enables me to both better read, interpret, and practice scripture and to be more compassionate. I want to be and do better.
- Love Mercy
“If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8
To love mercy is multifaceted, and my scholarly friends can do more with this, but for me it encompasses a disposition of love and forgiveness.
One way I have sinned and have observed others sin is to propagate a strength of conviction with pride and anger. As important as it is to be rooted in God’s word, hold to Jesus’ teachings, and to defend the gospel, my disposition should be one of love and forgiveness. I think of Jesus’ tenderness and clarity with the woman caught in adultery (John 8), and his amazing words on the cross of “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
I think that 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 is a major text that I can fail to understand and live. I am so self-centered and performance-oriented that I can value outcomes and my reputation over godly behavior and a spiritual disposition. I judge by mere appearances and deem that others do also, valuing personality, talent, powers of persuasion, and results over a character of love and forgiveness. I can judge myself this way, and others as well.
Ego and self-promotion, resentment and bitterness, anger and fear can all dominate my disposition and affect how I read, interpret, and practice scripture. I simply miss the example of Jesus and the most excellent way.
- Walk Humbly with Your God
“The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12
Acting justly is a lifestyle and is what I do, loving mercy is how I am, but walking humbly with my God is at the core of who I am. When I see God for who he is, and me for who I am, I am better able to read, interpret, and practice scripture. I am humble, grateful, teachable, persuadable, and ever aware of my sin and need to learn and grow.
Humility is beating my chest and acknowledging my (often hidden) sin and not looking down in judgment on others with obvious sins. Humility is a willingness to learn and be persuaded. Humility is avoiding name calling and the marginalizing of those with whom I disagree and finding ways to learn from them. Humility is saying “I don’t know” when I don’t. The older I get the more I realize that there are many issues, even biblical ones, where I am just not sure. There is mixed evidence and room for differing opinions. As I wrote above, in the major issues, I am clear on what the Bible says, but even then, I submit to God as the ultimate judge.
In the months and years ahead, we will grapple with a myriad of issues like leadership structure and function, gender roles, evolving to reach the next generation, and other issues yet to surface. We will struggle to understand God’s word in its setting and culture and then how to apply it faithfully today in our setting and culture. I propose that first we must act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Then we will have meaningful dialogue within lifestyles of service, dispositions of love and forgiveness, and strong, spiritual walks with our God, manifesting in a deep humility.
Service, love, forgiveness, and humility: in that milieu God can use us as his noble vessels and show us to the world as disciples of Jesus by the love we have for each other. Less will be missing and we can better “get” God, his word, and others.