from contentment and celebration to complaining and despair

photo from zionsvillelutheran.org

photo from zionsvillelutheran.org

Isn’t it always like this? Our grandest moments of life, faith, work, are closely followed by our biggest days of struggle. I think about Jonah after he experienced an epic personal rescue from the belly of a big fish, and watched God convert an entire city (Nineveh) through his preaching. The book ends with a story of the prophet’s suicidal despair because a worm ate a vine that was sheltering him from heat. It’s ridiculous. Crazy, really. And then there’s Elijah. After he watches God send fire from heaven to consume a flood-drenched sacrifice on Mount Carmel in front of a crowd of frenzied Baal-worshipers, he sits under a broom tree in the desert to die. His exact words?

“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4)

What happened to his bold faith glimpsed just two paragraphs earlier in this prayer?

“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)

What happened is that Elijah and Jonah, like you and me, are human. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love,” the old familiar hymn goes (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”). I should not be surprised that on the heels of such celebration at the end of last week with the news of Crossway’s acceptance of my book proposal, this week has felt like a battle against petty disappointment and despair. The things I have complained (bitterly) about include:

  • Our coffeemaker that broke on Monday morning [MONDAY morning, of all days?!!]
  • Twins who whine and squabble with each other over silly things, like who gets the red marker [typical for 4-year-olds, although not desirable]
  • Antibiotics that didn’t work as quickly as I wanted them to in healing a bad case of strep from last Thursday
  • A husband’s very long work day, leaving me with more-than-desired solo-parenting duties for my quickly-waning-parental-patience
  • Credit card fraud – at a random WalMart in Tennessee, of all places, for 5 consecutive purchases of $28.77. This alerted our awesome card company, who called right away. But then you have the *hassle* of switching automatic payments, waiting for the new card in the mail/etc etc

All of these could fall under the hashtag #firstworldproblems , or better, #whinymomproblems. Really they’re symptomatic of a heart fixated on self, who feels entitled to comfort and ease all the time. Diagnosing my problems yesterday didn’t really help much. In fact, it probably made it worse. Then I was better able to articulate (and unload in frustration) to my husband why he, somehow, was at fault for all of my frustration.

Ugh. (There’s a poetic word for you.) I have been blind to grace. Blinded to mercy all around me, and worse still, unable to help myself. Feeling paralyzed from taking hold in my own heart of the gospel-hope I can articulate for others through writing and counseling. Enter grace in the form of the impulse to text a friend for prayer this morning when I awoke still seething with frustration and venting it unfairly to my daughters. She then called after we dropped our kids off at preschool (thank God for this common grace!), and we talked each other through our similar frustrating moments, reminding each other of the grace we know is there. I hung up the phone feeling the slightest turn in my heart towards hope again. Hope not that things will get better, or that circumstances will change, but hope that God’s love hasn’t turned away from me in the midst of my sin and struggle and that his grace is yet deeper than my need for it. Amen?

when God’s wrath becomes beautiful

Yesterday I taught our women’s Bible study on the passage of Romans 1:18-32. It’s a tough passage. Nothing easy or pleasant or (at first glance) comforting here. The theme is God’s wrath revealed against human sin. And yet it comes not in fire and brimstone but in a gradual giving over to what our hearts desire. That’s what’s terrifying about it. There are four stages of this “sin anatomy” found here:

1. Worship exchange (verses 18-22) – Although evidence of God’s beauty exists around us in creation and within us in the form of eternal longings that can’t be satisfied by the world and a conscience, we suppress this and worship Beauty rather than its Author.

2. Truth exchange (verses 24-25) – Unmoored from a relationship with God, it’s easy to believe lies rather than truth. And it’s the only way my idolatrous worship can be supported – that I believe lies that arise from empty/futile/pointless thinking and a darkened heart. The darkness supports the lies and the lies build the darkness. To the point that I call evil good and good evil. It’s also evidenced in my guilt dysfunction – I feel guilty for what I shouldn’t, but fail to feel guilty for what I should.

3. Relationship exchange (verses 24, 26-27) – Inevitably, this leads me into using people around me to get what my heart craves (and worships) rather than lovingly serving them as fellow made-in-God’s-image beings. Sexual sin is a vivid example of this, and Paul does not skirt around this issue in Romans. Lest we begin to think we can judge another because “I don’t struggle with that …

4. Identity exchange – This is the deepest descent, the natural place we end up when first starting with exchanging God’s glory for creature and creation glory. I become what I practice, and the sin I dabbled in now owns and defines me. “Murder” is listed side by side with what follows, and all of us are caught in the net of practicing the unrighteousness that justly deserves God’s wrath:

  • gossips
  • slanderers
  • God-haters
  • insolent
  • haughty
  • boastful
  • inventors of evil
  • disobedient to parents
  • foolish
  • faithless
  • heartless
  • ruthless

When honest, we are left in despair by the end of this chapter in Romans. Where is the hope for any of us or for the world? And what do you do with this? Apparently, one common temptation would be to (still) try to self-justify and use this chapter to judge others, for Paul launches into the following warning at the beginning of chapter 2:

Therefore, you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

But, thanks be to God, Romans doesn’t end with chapter 1, or even after chapter 2, or 3. [It gets more bleak before it gets better.]

For what all of this is leading to is the beauty of the great gospel exchange. In which God loved us so much that he was willing to enter into our messy world, messy because of us – corrupted by our fall from created intent – sent his very own Son, Jesus, to do the unthinkable. To exchange HIS holiness for our sin; to exchange HIS righteousness for our unrighteousness; to exchange HIS perfect record as the holy and beloved Son of God for our record stained with sinful idolatry – and pay what we deserve. The price of God’s wrath, which he alone experienced in all its furor on the cross. And the good news doesn’t stop there. Not only is God’s wrath paid for, but we are given Jesus’ life in exchange for our own – his beauty for our shame. And this is what we have been craving all along. All of our attempts to exchange glory for idols are merely attempts to run away from/cover/hide/escape the gaze of the all-knowing God, from whom we cower in fear because we know we aren’t worthy. But God, even in revealing his wrath, provides hope for rescue.

And this is how God’s wrath becomes beautiful for the one who is hidden in Christ through faith. This is the only way I could teach on such a topic yesterday and not leave in despair and hopelessness. I know that there is good news; but the good news implies that there is bad news. God’s wrath is real, but as a Christian, I will never have to feel its reality because Jesus took it all. This makes me weep for the mercy I’ve found … and this invites me away day after day after day to worship the Beautiful One instead of his gifts.