I turned 26 last month, and my word for the new year is: Suffer

I got stuck on this post a couple months ago, and haven’t been able to write since. Thanks for your patience as I processed these thoughts. The original topic was the Great Controversy.

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.” -1 Corinthians 4:9

This verse is about glorifying God through suffering.

Everyone reading this probably comes from a country with religious freedom–at least for Christians. You won’t be fined, jailed, or harassed for praying in public, attending church events, or reading this article. Many of you are probably even in the majority (which could mean you need to watch out for those you might be unintentionally oppressing). Even though we might like to look for persecution in this ultra-free society, we’re really grasping at straws. I believe that will change in the future; but I know that hasn’t changed yet.

So then, is it impossible to glorify God in our suffering, right now? Or does religious freedom actually limit our opportunities to glorify God?

On the contrary, religious freedom exponentially increases our opportunities to glorify God, because it gives us chances to display our devotion out of our freedom, instead of under compulsion. Whether we take advantage of these opportunities or not, religious freedom puts the onus on believers to model Christ. It removes external motivators like persecution, and makes room for intrinsic motivators, like love, to manifest themselves. As awesome as faithfulness under persecution can be, faithfulness–devout faithfulness–in freedom inspires the world more.

How can this be?

Peter writes:

“But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and endure it, this is commendable before God.” (1 Peter 2:20)

John writes:

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17)

Jeremiah writes:

“But a beautiful palace does not make a great king! Why did your father, Josiah, reign so long? Because he was just and right in his dealings. That is why God blessed Him. He made sure that justice and help were given to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. ‘Isn’t that what it means to know me?’ asks the Lord.” (Jeremiah 22:15,16)

John writes again:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:16)

Without persecution, the only other thing you need to protect yourself from is the Bible, because in light of all the poverty and injustice in the world right now, a person cannot be true to these verses without giving to the point of suffering.

If you choose, in your freedom, to give of your possessions and your rights until you suffer, you can glorify God even more than you would if you were taken to court for praying in public. If you recognize that you are never the victim when you are in Christ, then you are free to look out for the rights of your neighbor instead of yourself, and glorify God in the process. If you refuse to accept the normalization of self-preservation and decide to give without regard for your own safety, God’s freedom and power become clearly evident in your life. And if you forego comfort with a smile and a prayer, deciding to give instead, you will model Christ to the world, and God will look more beautiful to somebody.

But there’s a reason why Christians can give generously. In On Christian Liberty, Martin Luther writes:

“Who then can comprehend the riches and the glory of the Christian life? It can do all things and has all things and lacks nothing. It is lord over sin, death, and hell, and yet at the same time it serves, ministers to, and benefits all men. But alas in our day this life is unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached about nor sought after; we are altogether ignorant of our own name and do not know why we are Christians or bear the name of Christians.”

We have more riches and glory through Christ than we could ever give away or give up. Just calling ourselves “Christian” is a recognition of that. Calling ourselves “Christian” means we will serve as Jesus served and give as Jesus gave; it means we’ll suffer as Jesus suffered.

Let no rationalizations get between you and your Bible, and you will suffer–even in a country with absolute freedom.

And as you suffer–and yet lack nothing–you will be a spectacle indeed.


You might already know what you need to give, but if you need ideas, here are a few programs I recommend:

Do you want to remove all doubt about your sincerity?

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” -Colossians 2:15

It seems that God likes removing doubt about sincerity. From Noah, to Job, to Abraham and Isaac, to Moses, to Jesus and the apostles, God brings people into situations that cannot be faked. Anyone without faith would give up. But when someone does not give up, then their value is made known. No one can call them insincere.

Some people think Christians are insincere. Since our faith is unbelievably good news, our motives have to be unbelievably sincere. That simultaneously puts us in a vulnerable and a powerful position. Vulnerable because anything we do that might be, or appear, insincere will draw flack. Powerful because, if we are able to remove all doubt about our sincerity, we have a hope and a joy that nothing can rival and that everyone wants. Showing our sincerity beyond all doubt is perhaps the most powerful way to bring people to belief.

We should not chase persecution, I think. But we should, absolutely, live according to the standards of justice and mercy found in the Bible without regard for negative consequences to ourselves. Rather, when we see something bad coming, we should rejoice, because God will be glorified in our suffering.

Twice this year, the choir I’m in has sung a song called “In Christ Alone” by Koch and Craig. One of the stanzas goes like this:

And now I seek no greater honor
Than just to know Him more
And to count my gains but losses
To the glory of my Lord

The last two lines have been running through my head a lot recently: “To count my gains but losses to the glory of my Lord.”

Have you ever thought that your gains–your successes, your comforts, the extended length of your life–might actually be losses to the glory of the Lord? I love that Adventists are healthy enough to live on average 10 years longer than the rest of the U.S. population. Our health can be a testament to God’s power and righteousness. But I wonder if the fact that we actually do live longer–that we take our gift of health and stay in safe places, instead of using our health to go work in the hardest places where we might die sooner–I wonder if the fact that we actually do live 10 years longer is a greater testament to God, or to human security.

Would you rather live a life without problems, or would you rather take every opportunity you can to show people that God is worth everything to you?

Jesus made a spectacle of the powers and authorities by revealing his allegiance beyond a doubt. He came in order to do that.

As Christians, why have we come? Why have you come? What will you do?

 

You’re a sinner, and God doesn’t hold that against you.

“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” -2 Corinthians 5:19a

Sometimes the gospel of the kingdom is not good news to people.

Not everyone shares my worldview from a Christian upbringing, and one of the pillars of that worldview is my sinfulness: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23,24)

And without that fundamental recognition of personal sin, the gospel is not necessarily good news.

But if you just don’t see the need for the gospel–or if you want it to be good news, but just don’t understand why–I have something for you to try, from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”

Previously, I wrote that obedience builds a connection between you and God, because it gives you the ability to understand things from God’s perspective. One thing God sees is the great sinfulness of sin, and the power of love to overcome it.

You’re a sinner, and God doesn’t hold that against you.

If you believe this, anything is possible.

“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” -Hebrews 11:3

The universe is such a crazy place. I can’t imagine the scale of things. Everything seems to get infinitely smaller the closer you look, and infinitely bigger the farther you look.

And God created it all.

In Genesis 1, and again in Hebrews 11, this is the first thing we are asked to believe about God. I think this is for a reason. If people are able to believe this one thing–that a Personality is responsible for everything around us–then hope can be found in the Bible. Without this, the Bible is an existentialist tool without inherent meaning.

If you believe this, anything is possible.

The Spirit transforms people without addiction.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” -2 Corinthians 3:17,18

People like to crave. Cravings make life easy, because they provide motivation. They make us feel alive. Even if we don’t have a good reason for doing something, a craving moves beyond that and gives us the energy to do it.

If we crave success, or intimacy, or substances, then we find it hard not to chase after those things, whether they’re good or bad for us. We want them even if we don’t know why.

I’ve heard it said that having something to love is more important than being loved. Cravings give us a kind of free love. Almost a forced love.

But the Spirit transforms people without addiction.

In the Spirit, the veil is taken away and our motives are revealed. He teaches us why we crave what we do, and he shows us the end result of that craving. Then he leaves us with one other option: God.

Almost unfortunately, though, the Lord is not addictive. He is attractive, and he can motivate, but he will not make you crave him.

Slavery to God is voluntary.

And so one of my resolutions is never to give up on God because of a craving, or an addiction. Because, although things in this life pull me back and forth and all around, those addictions are never worth my freedom. I won’t settle for an addiction, because real freedom is possible in the Spirit. And it is never a lost cause because, although God is not addictive, he does have the power to transform, and he can cause other addictions to lose their power.

Life should be powered by intelligent motivation; anything less is just commotion.

Did Jesus even care?

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” -Mark 10:42-45

What do we get when God becomes a man?

Hercules? King Solomon? President George Washington?

One of the most incredible things, to me, about Jesus’ life on earth, is how limited his impact was. He focused on just twelve people. Knowing his time was short, he didn’t even start teaching until he was thirty years old. He didn’t travel far or organize a campaign. He didn’t specifically target the change agents–the powerful or wealthy–in his society.

It’s almost as if he didn’t care.

But he cared. He cared so much he died.

When God becomes a man–or when God inspires a person–he is free to become a servant. Instead of focusing on impact, he focuses on people. Because heaven is really close–because the end is basically already here–the means are what matter. Since the results are already decided, the way of life takes precedent.

And so Jesus came and loved the people around him. He gave everything for them and lived a good life until he died. He is coming back soon, and because of that, we can be free now to live the way Jesus lived.

God, as your father, cares for you.

“Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” -Hebrews 12:9

Father describes God well.

I’m not a father, but I know quite a few. And I’ve known many thoughtful, prayerful, perhaps even pacifist, fathers who never say a harsh word, except when they talk about protecting their family. I’ve known really gentle guys who have no qualms about doing almost anything to stop someone from hurting their wife or kids.

I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of someone else’s father.

On the other hand, having a father is great.

For some reason, when it comes to God a lot of us don’t make that connection. No one wants to get on the wrong side of someone else’s father. But getting on the wrong side of your own father is not such a scary thing–at least when you’re father is filling his proper role. It might involve discipline, and maybe some hard work, but it should not be scary.

It seems people forget that God is their father. Maybe it’s the fault of Christians, who call him ours and don’t clarify how that label includes every created person. Regardless of fault, if we can get this straight–if we can clarify that God is father of all–then people should have a lot less to worry about, and a lot more reasons to love their Creator.

God is not just a father. He is your father. And he cares for you like the best father would.

 

If your vision is God, your vision is life together.

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” -1 John 1:3

Community is the essence of life, and it is at the core of the Christian experience. It is the nature of God and the foundation of the covenants. It is the present state of the church and our future vision of heaven and New Jerusalem. It is the reason why we testify. Enjoy this quotation from Charles Spurgeon, given to me by a close mentor and friend just before I left for Cambodia:

“Communion is strength; solitude is weakness. Alone, the fine old beach yields to the blast and lies prone in the meadow. In the forest, supporting each other the trees laugh at the hurricane. The sheep of Jesus, flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.”

If your vision is God, your vision is life together.

Reading the Bible completely changed my life–and it can change yours, too.

Reading the Bible completely changed my life.

In high school, I was preoccupied–to put it lightly–with clothes. American Eagle Outfitters gladly took on the responsibility of crafting my wardrobe for me, and there were days when every single item of clothing on my body came from AEO.

It wasn’t just fashion, though. I loved comfort. Indulgent comfort. Resorts, buffets, video games, beaches–I enjoyed them now, and imagined how much more I could enjoy them in the future.

One of my favorite things to read was the Rich Dad series. I was going to make millions.

Then, I made a new year’s resolution for 2007: read the Bible for half an hour every day.

And I don’t know how, but I kept it, without missing a day, all the way up until about May. Sometimes I was half asleep–reading before I’d even stepped out of bed in the morning–and sometimes I was shut in the bathroom late at night so my roommate could sleep. But whether it was early morning or late night, somehow I kept this resolution better than any I’ve ever kept before or after, up until I went on orchestra tour and forgot my Bible.

Over that time, reading became a lot more engaging. Slowly, instead of checking the clock every five minutes, I’d find myself checking it only once, and sometimes not at all. Reading straight through from Genesis, the stories started to form a cohesive timeline, and I started catching references to earlier chapters and books.

And then, as I continued reading after May, getting into the New Testament and seeing even more things come together, I almost couldn’t contain myself. For the first time, I started to understand how these stories had practical implications for people. I started to cry. I started to realize that this Book is life.

This, in addition to a few other events from high school, did two things. It inspired me, and it destroyed my ability to be comfortable.

For the last nine years, I’ve been uncomfortable. Maybe I’ll write more about that later.

The point is,

“the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” -Hebrews 4:12

Reading the Word will completely change your life.

It costs just over $1,000 for a well, and some folks will go thirsty this April if they don’t have one.

“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” -Deuteronomy 15:8

Sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.”

In the last year, I’ve learned some of the differences between a desire and a need; and I’ve realized needs are a lot fewer than I previously imagined.

Last weekend I stayed at the Takong school in northwestern Cambodia, near the Thai border. The folks there don’t have much stuff. The school has a pump, but no running water. You bathe outside in a towel. There is electricity. There is no wifi modem, but the cell phone towers give you some 3G.

Life is pretty nice out there.

If you drive an hour deeper into the country, though, things are a little tighter. We visited one Adventist family 25 kilometers away (it takes an hour because of the roads), who didn’t have a well. They get their water by carrying buckets 200 meters to the nearest creek, where the water is brown. In the driest part of the year, in April, the water sometimes doesn’t last. Life gets hard, then. They have solar panels and a DVD player. My cell phone switched to the Thai networks. One of their dogs recently produced a litter of puppies, and they asked if I wanted one. I didn’t.

If we take seriously this mandate to open our hands, until our brothers’ and sisters’ needs are met–which is what sufficient means–we should probably recognize that we need to start with the most basic needs. Or else we’ll run out really quickly.

Education and healthcare–in the most holistic sense–are these needs. Give people the capacity to make good decisions and enjoy good health–a key factor for which is clean drinking water–and the vast majority of our needs are met. You can give for wells in Cambodia here. One can usually be dug for around $1,000–maybe a little more.

Feel free to give, unless you have more pressing needs–in that case, say “Hi”, and maybe I can help.