Four Life-Changing Challenges for Christians

I confess that many times I’d prefer to take an easy road. The secular culture shouts its “follow your heart” mantra and honestly, my heart generally prefers the path of least resistance. It’s a smoother ride to go with the flow than it is to paddle upstream against everything the world says makes sense. But this isn’t the healthiest approach, because the only way to build true strength is to successfully endure struggle. Experience confirms that when little is required of me, I am less likely to grow in a way that benefits myself, my children, the church, or the world in which I live. Our world desperately needs a fleet of lifeboats powered by followers of Christ who have the perseverance to face difficulties on the stormy seas of life. I’d like to suggest four challenges that are worth accepting right now as Christians.

ACTIVELY CULTIVATE A RESILIENT FAITH. Authors Brown, Phillips, and Stonestreet write in their book, Making Sense of Your World, “For the Christian, the Bible is not merely a book to be looked at, it is also a lens to be looked through.” Unfortunately, Bible literacy is at an all-time low and recent studies indicate that only six percent of American adults hold to a Biblical worldview. The only way for Christians to withstand the pounding cultural waves that come against us is by diligently studying and meditating on Scripture in conjunction with doctrinally sound resources. This requires more than just reading a Bible verse or two out of context followed by whatever a popular influencer has to say about it. We need to engage in deep and consistent thinking about God’s Word by appreciating the multifaceted way it reveals Him to us rather than placing ourselves at the center of it. As we engage in study methods that help us dig beneath the surface of the Biblical text, we will begin consuming meat rather than just milk. This healthy diet helps us fortify our shields of faith to repel the fiery darts that the enemy relentlessly launches against us. It also prepares us to go on the attack and skillfully wield the sword of the Spirit.  As Paul prayed for the recipients of his letter to the church at Philippi, we should desire to grow in knowledge and discernment so that we may be pure, blameless, and filled with the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:9-11). Additionally, we should remember to test all things against Scripture and hold only onto what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21) by being alert to any message that is emotionally manipulative, me-centered, or simply uses Scripture to proof-text a desired application.

ENTHUSIASTICALLY ENGAGE WITH YOUNGER GENERATIONS. Research overwhelmingly confirms that as the number of adult believers a child or student has investing in their lives increases, the chances of them walking away from church when they leave home decreases. We need to be willing to step out of our comfort zones on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are younger in the faith. Scripture repeatedly tells us that God is the defender of the weak and vulnerable and He commands us to vigorously protect His spiritual children in the same way. We should strengthen our resolve to disciple those within our spheres of influence in the truth of His Word so that they are not tempted to look to the culture for answers. When we have the courage to answer hard questions and doubts without turning blind eyes or deaf ears, we protect susceptible young believers by arming them with the superior answers found in the Biblical worldview. It takes effort to develop clear critical thinking required to understand the deceptive ideologies that lurk in the world and to help younger generations recognize the danger in falling prey to them. It’s more important than ever for seasoned believers to put our own self-interests aside and equip younger generations to resist the temptation to be conformed to the world. In a culture that is actively catechizing our children to devalue life, look out for number one, and redefine identity, it’s up to mature followers of Christ to offer something counter-cultural.

SELF-SACRIFICIALLY SERVE THE BODY OF CHRIST. Our world has a consumer mentality that caters to pleasure, entertainment, and seeking out whatever makes us happy as individuals, but being part of a church family often requires that we set aside our own preferences for the benefit of the body as a whole. God calls us to humbly demonstrate deference to our brothers and sisters in Christ even when it isn’t convenient or comfortable for us. Scripture says that as each individual part works together in cooperation out of love, and is led by Christ, the entire body will be healthier (Ephesians 4:16). The church can only be an effective force for good in the world if each individual fulfills a precise role while utilizing the unique gift with which God has equipped them. I believe that God has put my church family together to serve Him in a specific way in this exact time and place, so it will not promote the health of the church if I neglect my own role or step into someone else’s. First Corinthians 12:4-7 says, Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit.There are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different activities, but the same God works all of them in each person. A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.” Christ’s body was broken and bled for His bride, the church, so the least we can do is offer ourselves as a living sacrifice for her. As each member of the body supports the ministries of the local church through our consistent presence, persistent prayers, affirming words, and self-sacrificial deeds, we will be able to function as a healthy part of the body of Christ, our love will be evident to all, and He will be glorified.

COURAGEOUSLY SHARE THE TRUTH IN LOVE. Truth-telling is not in vogue today and is often met with considerable pushback in a world where truth is redefined according to individual preferences. While it can be uncomfortable at times, as Christians we are called to speak things that comport with reality and to do so in the most loving way possible. First Corinthians 13:6 says, “Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth.” I’m not loving my neighbor if I don’t speak the truth based on objective and knowable reality. As we share true things, our interactions should be defined by gracious, well-seasoned speech and marked by wisdom in how we answer difficult questions (Colossians 4:6). The enemy of each human soul sets a trap with lies designed to steal, kill, and destroy. As believers we know the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life…the One who is the only sure source of our identity…the One who grants each human life value, dignity, and worth. May we not be fearful of what man may do to us but be bold as we endeavor to set captives free by sharing truth so they may experience abundant life in Christ.

In a world that tempts us to do easy things like flaunt our authentic selves, look out for number one, despise our neighbors, and accept redefinitions of truth, I pray that we would have the courage to accept life-changing challenges with grace. We can be thankful that God promises to never leave us or forsake us, especially in the middle of difficult circumstances. We can place our trust completely in Him as we set our personal agendas aside to see His kingdom advance. The maker of the winds and the waves won’t abandon us as we set sail and do hard things for His glory.

Three Lenses To Help Make Sense of Suffering

As I think back to painful times in my life, the weight often feels very fresh. Emotions rise to the surface and memories replay in technicolor hues. Because the good world God created is now broken, each of us has a unique lived experience of this brokenness. While God has graciously spared me from agonizing physical suffering, I have at times felt the crushing blows of mental and emotional anguish. During those times, God felt very distant, and it was perplexingly difficult to understand why He chose to leave me in my circumstances. I knew without a doubt that He could reach down, pluck me up, and rescue me if He wanted to, so why didn’t He? I’ve watched friends and loved ones experience tragedy that made no sense to me. Lives cut short, jobs lost, property devastated by natural disaster, bodies ravaged by disease. Why would people who were serving others, loving God, and making His name known be subjected to such pain and sorrow? Why are innocent lives destroyed through no fault of their own? Why does God allow injustice to continue? Why doesn’t He choose to immediately wipe away every tear and eliminate all pain? Isaiah 55:8-13 provides the clearest yet still difficult to grasp answer, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.’ This is the Lord’s declaration.‘For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”

Wise theologians and brilliant philosophers have attempted to solve the problem of evil with its subsequent suffering and pain since the beginning of time. C.S. Lewis famously said in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God does tend to awaken something in us through suffering. Difficult experiences in my life make more sense to me as I think about them in terms of a visual metaphor and view them through three different lenses: a magnifying glass, a projector, and a telescope. The first helps me look inward to see how sanctification is God’s end goal for me. The second directs my view outward and illuminates the fallenness of the world. The third casts my gaze upward and makes me long for the sweetness of eternity in heaven.

Personal suffering often leads me to focus on myself. My pain can cause me to become introspective and engage in self-examination, reminiscent of how a magnifying glass functions. This type of convex lens causes light rays to be refracted inward in order to enlarge things that may be difficult to see with the naked eye. The Psalmist says in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” God can use painful experiences to help me see my own heart more clearly and understand better how my sin contributes to the fallenness in the world. In his book Why Does God Allow Evil, Clay Jones says that as we encounter evil on earth, we are learning lessons about the stupidity of sin that will benefit us in eternity. If I suffer well through the inescapable consequences of my own sin and the sin in the world around me, God can use these experiences to sanctify me. His ultimate purpose is to prepare me to live in eternity with Him and be free from the repercussions of evil. While they may seem unbearable at times, we can be certain that our light and momentary afflictions are serving God’s greater purposes in our lives as He prepares us to be participants in His eternal kingdom (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

When I think about the fallenness all around me, I’m reminded of how a projector works by using a concave lens to cause light rays to diverge out into the distance. It takes images that start out small and makes them bigger. Looking through this lens, I see how brokenness is not only present in my own heart but is broadcast out into the world. I become acutely aware of the universal problem of sin that infects every person. God’s perfect and good creation was marred by the fateful choice to elevate the will of the creature above that of the Creator (Genesis 3). The effects of that single decision have roared like a riptide through human history ever since, causing unspeakable atrocities among fellow image bearers. Dr. Thaddeus Williams says in his book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth that this longing to elevate ourselves above God is the root cause of all other injustices in the world. When we fail to give God His due first, the dominoes topple over and we quickly fall short in treating those who bear His image with kindness and dignity. Even the natural world experiences the effects of the fall. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:22-23, “For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. Not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits—we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” While we inhabit this earthly realm we will experience the results of brokenness both through our interactions with other people and in the natural world through disaster and disease, but praise God for the redemption and hope we are promised in Christ.

Suffering also functions like a telescope for me. Telescopes have a narrow, but extremely focused field of view. They work by collecting light rays from a distant object and bringing them together into a precisely defined point. As we are sanctified and suffer well through the inevitable consequences of the world’s fallenness, God’s character and His eternal purposes come sharply into focus like brilliant light from a far away star. We experience attributes in Him that sustain us no matter the circumstance. Through suffering I can see more clearly that He is:

  • All-powerful, so I don’t need to wonder whether or not He can handle the pain in my life. Oh, Lord God! You yourself made the heavens and earth by your great power and with your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for you! (Jeremiah 32:17)
  • Good, so I know that He has my eternal benefit in mind, even in suffering. You are good, and you do what is good; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:68)
  • Just, so I am assured that evil and wrongdoing will be punished when He sees fit. When I choose a time, I will judge fairly. When the earth and all its inhabitants shake, I am the one who steadies its pillars. (Psalm 75:2-3)
  • All-knowing, so I am confident that nothing escapes His notice. Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up; you understand my thoughts from far away. You observe my travels and my rest; you are aware of all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know all about it, Lord. You have encircled me; you have placed your hand on me. This wondrous knowledge is beyond me. It is lofty; I am unable to reach it (Psalm 139:1-6)
  • Ever-present, so I am comforted to know that He is with me in whatever circumstance I may face. Where can I go to escape your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I fly on the wings of the dawn and settle down on the western horizon, even there your hand will lead me; your right hand will hold on to me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will be night”— even the darkness is not dark to you. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

Speaking to His disciples before He was betrayed and arrested, Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) Pain is promised as we struggle against the spiritual forces of evil that surround us, the sin that resides within our hearts, and the fallenness of the world around us. As followers of Christ, we can be assured that our sovereign and faithful Heavenly Father does not waste even one second of it, but uses it to sanctify, comfort, and prepare us for an eternity with Him.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

I’m a product of the crazy eighties, you know, the decade of parachute pants, big hair, Boy George, and a variety of weird cultural trends. The decade when I came of age also produced music with some very misguided definitions of love. In her 1984 hit, Tina Turner inquired, “What’s love got to do with it?” Exploring the question further, she concluded that love is simply “a secondhand emotion.” Whitney Houston asserted in 1985 that “the greatest love of all” is not only easy to achieve, but is found inside each one of us. Phil Colins threw in his two cents when he sang about a “groovy kind of love” in 1988. The pop singers of the eighties definitely thought they had it all figured out.

There’s no doubt that people have always loved to talk about love, especially when led to believe that it’s no more complicated than the lyrics of a pop song. But love is not that simple, and the world has eviscerated its true definition. Hillary Ferrer calls this redefinition of words by our culture “linguistic theft” in her book Mama Bear Apologetics. She says, “Love used to be defined as ‘to will the good of another.’…Anything that makes someone uncomfortable is now deemed unloving. Today, to love someone means to blindly accept whatever that person believes, even if his or her belief contradicts reality.” But to knowingly allow someone to walk in untruth is anything but loving. In fact, 1 Corinthians 13:6 tells us that real love rejoices in the truth.

To define love correctly, we must go back to the source of love. Our Creator God possesses love as one of His essential attributes (1 John 4:8). It isn’t just something that He does, it’s something that He is, and so it’s impossible for Him to be anything other than loving. Defined correctly, love means that I truly want what is in the best interest of another person, even if that means it is not what is most accepted by the world around me. God’s love would not allow Him to look the other way when His chosen people, the nation of Israel, sinned against Him despite repeated warnings. He knew that their prideful and idolatrous rebellion would only hurt them by taking their eyes off of Him and causing them to gaze at themselves. Their sin came at tremendous cost, and ours does, too. Because of His great self-sacrificial love for them and for us, the incredible gospel story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration unfolded in history.

The greatest commandment instructs us to love God first; however, scripture tells us that there is something “of first importance” that comes before we are able to obey the greatest commandment. The gospel, or good news, is summarized in what is thought to be the earliest Christian creed. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” His death on our behalf met the demands of God’s justice, paid for our sins, and reconciled us to God. This singular event in history makes it possible for us, through an act of the will, to accept God’s gracious gift of salvation. “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14) Jesus’ love sent Him to the cross for us, and compels us to follow His commands.

The order is of utmost importance. Attempting to love without first receiving the life-giving gift of the gospel perpetuates a never-ending cycle of self-justification. Thaddeus J. Williams says in Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, “Without the gospel first, we become graceless in our truth telling, cheerless in our giving, and our neighborly love turns into self-righteous showmanship.” Because we have the moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15), we know we ought to do good, but have nothing on which to ground this obligation. We look to the world for validation and become accountable to our fellow humans rather than the One who formed us all. Thaddeus J. Williams continues, “Today people are terror-stricken less before the Creator and more before creatures.” We exist in a perpetual state of trying to satisfy the demands of the culture that surrounds us, knowing we will never quite measure up. So once we have the order right, gospel first followed by love for God and others, we have a workable definition of love that enables us to carry out the greatest commandment and the other commands that flow from it.

Returning to Tina Turner’s definition, a mere second hand emotion does not compel me to behave in the self-sacrificial manner that Christ exemplified on the cross. It takes much more than the world’s definition of love for me to look someone straight in the eyes with whom I disagree ideologically, and decide that I want what is best for them and not what would make me feel vindicated in the short term. Should we believe, like Whitney Houston, that all we need to do is learn to love ourselves better in order to find the source of love within our own hearts? I know myself too well to believe that to be true. I know that within myself is a deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9) that left to its own devices wants what it wants. Only by looking to an external standard, God and His Word, can I truly know how to love others correctly.

Real love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Patient, kind, humble, truthful, self-sacrificial love is the standard to which God’s Word holds us as Christ followers. It may not always feel groovy, but it is what God commands.