The Meaning of Sacrifice

So I’ve arranged the babysitter, pumped the milk, dragged the gear, set up the port-a-crib, mentally prepared for a rough night if the baby doesn’t like being shuffled around, and made it to home church, and only ten minutes late! Now what? In the midst of the monumental task of showing up, have I thought about how to serve someone, what to contribute? Have I thought about how to make all that sacrifice count for something? Having a baby and doing “hard” things, such as not staying home and going to bed at 9pm every night, has given me a new sense of urgency. My first time back at the high school group after Simon’s birth, I thought: I’m here, I’m awake, I have a sitter, I have to make this count.

Everyone says having a kid teaches you a whole new level of sacrifice. This has proved true for me, but not exactly in the way I thought it would. As a disclaimer I should say, I have it easy. I’m a stay-at-home mom with one happy, healthy baby, and I have a supportive and helpful husband, parents, and group of friends. I don’t claim to be making any huge or unusual sacrifices but here’s what I’m learning.

I thought the big sacrifices of having a newborn would be the sleepless nights, crying baby, restricted freedom, changing diapers, and being flabby. Four out of five came true and are challenging, but it’s not really the hard part. First of all, you don’t have a choice. When your baby’s hungry in the middle of the night you don’t decide if you’re going to sacrifice for him or her. You just get up and feed the baby. Secondly, although you’d rather be sleeping than up at 3am, you are happy in a general sense, if not at the moment, to be taking care of your baby. I like taking care of Simon. I wanted to have a baby and take care of him.

What’s really harder for me is choosing to go out and sacrifice for others, when I already have Simon’s needs to tend to. Changing his diaper isn’t that hard and isn’t optional anyway, but making the conscious choice and all the effort to go help a friend with their mess is hard to me. Because to go serve someone else means what? I have to be awake. This feels like a huge sacrifice when you have a newborn! (I don’t know what I’ll do when I have a second kid. Drink more coffee I think.) And maybe Simon’s nap will get messed up. And I have to pack up him and myself and the pack and play and stroller and whatever else, and get somewhere on time. And it means I can’t clean my house or catch up on the laundry. And  ideally I should think and pray about this person before I show up so I have something more to offer than, “I’m tired.”

Even now that I’m out of newborn zombie mode, I find myself learning more about what it means to sacrifice. Which is a nicer way of saying I’m learning how selfish I am. Take, for example, my first night volunteering in the church nursery. It was a small group of babies and everyone was good. But it was during Simon’s catnap and he couldn’t sleep. By the time we left he was clearly over-tired, a state Simon didn’t handle well (see previous blogs). I tried to put him to sleep at my friend’s house so I could hang out with a few other moms, but he cried for an hour. He went to bed at home but woke throughout the night and was cranky the whole next day.

“I never want to go to CT again!” I whined to myself while nursing cranky pants the next day. “What was even the point? I didn’t talk to a single person.” (Not true, I talked to the other parents and nursery volunteers.) Then in a moment of sanity I remembered that every week other people miss out to watch my baby, while I get to attend the Bible study and socialize.

I also realized something slightly less obvious: we sacrifice not only for our kids, but for the community we want to raise our kids in. In the end, it’s not so much a sacrifice as an investment. I know in the end I’ll lose nothing compared to what I gain. It really does take a village, and I have an invaluable group of friends who want to raise our kids to love God and others. Simon will have a second family, a group of people to turn to when he won’t listen to me, or when I don’t know the answers.

It’s not just a down-the-road hope, either. Simon already loves being with his friends and seeing new people and places. It’s great that he’s learning to be flexible. Our recent camping trip to Florida raised more than a few eyebrows, i.e., who in their right mind takes a baby camping for vacation? Well, Simon proved all the naysayers wrong by having the happiest week of his life. Camping with a baby had its challenges but I did a thorough analysis of the fun-to-effort ratio and we’re going back next year. (I really need to stop auditing my fun, but that’s a topic for another blog.)




Slumdog Love Ethics

I just saw Slumdog Millionare for the second time and was struck by a scene depicting how real love works. When Jamal finds the grown-up Latika, married to a selfish, chauvinistic man who obviously doesn’t cherish her, he tries to convince Latika to run away with him. But she’s too scared. She’s an orphan who was forced to beg by a cruel overlord who sold her into this marriage. But at least now she’s relatively safe, living in a mansion with servants and some semblance of security. Certainly she can survive her husband’s rude and angry behavior if she is at least clean, clothed, and fed.

Like Latika, we feel safe in our sin. Whether it’s the decision to start a relationship with Christ or to take a new step of faith in walking with Him, the old way seems so much safer. It’s difficult to leave our pet sins, and even harder to leave the world of familiarity in order to follow Christ for the first time. Being rescued from slavery sounds nice, but will it really happen? And what awaits us on the other side of freedom?

Jamal longs to redeem Latika so he confides, “I love you.” But such effusions bear little relevance to her situation so she coldly responds, “So what?” She is hardened enough by the world to know romantic love alone cannot save her. But then Jamal demonstrates a different type of love when he promises, “I’ll wait for you at the train station every day at five, until you come.” He is expressing sacrificial, victorious love.

Jamal tells Latika what he will do, and how he hopes she will respond. But his act of sacrifice and hope does not depend on her actions. He will love her by waiting for her everyday whether or not she comes. He’s really saying, I will be there for you, no matter what you do.

Jamal’s sacrifice is no doubt mixed with his own interest in the beautiful Latika, and his power to save her is nearly non-existent. Yet his demonstration of love is similar to Jesus, who in essence says, “Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to die on the cross for your sins. I’m going to offer you this free gift of forgiveness, a relationship, and eternal life. And all you have to do is ask for it.” He died for all everyone’s sin, knowing that most people would not accept His grace. But that didn’t change His decision to sacrifice for us.

So often I am too afraid to speak the truth to someone, or too selfish to love someone when it costs too much. I’m afraid of what the other person will do, or that they won’t do anything at all. But sometimes I’ve chosen to take the approach of Jesus and Jamal by letting someone know, either explicitly or through my actions, “I love you, and here’s how I’m going to show that. Here’s how I’m going to sacrifice for you.” Maybe it’s as simple as, “I’ll call you again next week.” Sometimes it’s setting boundaries: “I will hang up the phone if you continue this inappropriate behavior.” Other times it’s just being there, or broaching a difficult but necessary topic.

This is what 1 Corinthians 13 means when it says “love never fails.” It means love always wins. Victory isn’t getting someone else to do what you want. Winning occurs when we learn to love another, regardless of the person’s response. And so often God uses our acts of love to bring redemption in another person’s life. But that depends in part on the person’s free will, which is why Romans 13:10 says, “As far as it is up to you, be at peace with all people.” When we are willing to let God mold our hearts, we will experience the victory and power of real love.

Real Zeal

Love: how can we understand it? Let alone live it? It is the greatest commandment, the summary of the Law, the New Testament ethic, and the measure of a Christian’s maturity. Just when I thought I was getting my minds around love ethics, we started studying worship. But when it comes to worship, what’s love got to do with it?

Worship results in Zeal, which leads to Significance, which equals Victorious Love. (With joy as essential to worship.)

Revelations 5:9-14 is the perfect picture of worship: “Worthy is the lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (v. 12). The heavenly beings in this passage as gushing about God’s greatness, because they’ve experienced it first-hand. We also personally know God’s glory through love relationship.

When we worship God we recognize and respond to God’s zealous love for us. Zeal is essential to understanding love, and it goes beyond the normal “love is a choice” formulation. God didn’t grit His teeth when He decided to love us, as we often do when we obediently and mechanically “serve” others without zeal. Rather, God went out of His way and stopped at nothing to redeem and reach us, so that we might experience His love in a personal, intimate way.

As a result, we can joyfully give our hearts to Him in gratitude and awe, seeking an ever-deepening love relationship with Him. When our heart worships God, rather than submitting out of sheer obedience, we experience joy as we delight in knowing God, His salvation, and His lavish provisions. Zeal is the natural outgrowth of joy: as we rejoice in God’s zealous love for us, He gives us the desire and zeal to love others. This is what it means that “We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Zeal is how we gain significance in people’s lives because it results in victorious love output. When I get functional and just go through the motions with people, even if I’ve thought about “what is best for them,” I don’t have zeal. And then I’m not loving victoriously, but half-heartedly or worse. Zeal isn’t about drumming up a bunch of sanguine excitement and warm fuzzies toward people. Rather, it means fighting for people’s good out of a heart-felt, God-given desire to love others. Zealous love is determined passion, and it will seek God’s will through prayer, the Word, godly counsel, and spiritual training so that we can love victoriously. When we have zeal for people we will become significant to them, and to be significant is to love and feel loved.

There are so many good verses about zeal, and I particularly like 2 Corinthians as a study of zealous love, which Paul expresses for the Corinthian believers. Perhaps it’s a little easier to get my mind around Paul’s zeal, although it’s invaluable to reflect on God’s zeal for us, especially as demonstrated through Christ’s ministry.

Paul refers to his first letter to the Corinthians, which included some much-needed rebuke, in 2 Cor. 2:4: “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.” Zeal includes the willingness to offend others when necessary for their good, but always “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), just as Paul did here. He wasn’t malicious or self-righteous about confronting them. He was emotional about writing words he knew would grieve them, but he hoped they would see it as the mark of his zealous love.

Zealous love is expressed in both actions and words. Sometimes we need to affirm our love for people, as Paul does in 2 Cor. 11:11: “Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” He is zealous for them to know that He loves them. When we put so much emotional and sacrificial effort into loving people, we want them to feel loved. But so often I avoid emotional statements about how significant a relationship is and how much I love someone because I’m afraid to be vulnerable.
Our actions demonstrate zeal when we sacrifice substantially for others and thus become significant to them. “For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Zeal means living for the people you love, rather than for yourself. Paul lived for the sake of the churches and lost people. He was zealous to bring more people to worship and thank God for His grace. And it took an offering of his whole being. He was willing to suffer anything for their good; no cost was too high. That’s real zeal.

The all-consuming nature of zeal is described again in 2 Cor. 5:13-15: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” He is overcome by God’s love and consumed by the zeal that results from worship. He gives up control to become a bond-servant, willing to live for others, acting either sane or insane, whatever love requires.

We see again the sacrificial nature of zeal in 2 Cor. 12:15: “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” Zeal will lead us to a level of sacrifice only limited by what is beneficial for the other person. And this offering of self is joyful, as Paul says he is glad to do it. He’s willing to sacrifice for them even if they resent it. People don’t always understand our zeal for them and may not respond as we hoped, but victory lies not in their reaction, but our active love for them.

Then he gets even more personal in a beautiful, heart-wrenching verse, 2 Cor. 7:3, 4: “I do not speak to condemn you, for I have said before that you are in our hearts to die together and to live together. Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf. I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.” Zeal produces an overwhelming sense of unity, emotional bonding, and spiritual significance. It is the eternal heart-connection of brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s like the parent-child relationship he uses to illustrate his zeal for the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7, 11). He gains so much joy and comfort and pride from the Corinthians’ victories because he is significant to them, and as a result of his zeal they are learning to be significant to others.

I experienced this idea of someone being in my heart when Jen and Yana left our fellowship and friendships. Zealous love opens the opportunity for profound hurt because once someone is in our hearts to live and die together, an external severing of the bond is so painful. I feel like a part of my heart was ripped out with them leaving, and yet at the same time they are still in my heart. I was significant to them and their leaving doesn’t change that. But we shouldn’t need a tragedy to feel the eternal, intimate bond we have with our friends. There are so many more people who are forever united with me
through the bond of Christian love relationships.

And there is an opportunity for great joy in such friendships. We rejoice when those we are zealous for gain their own zeal and significance, as in 2 Cor. 7:7: “and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.” Such an outcome produces joy upon joy. And as a disciple’s character grows, so does their worship and thus their zeal. 2 Cor. 7:11, 12 says, “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the offender nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God.” Paul’s zeal for the Corinthians led to their repentance and righteous handling of wrong, and this led their hearts to deeper worship of God.

Here is what we all hope for our disciples: 2 Cor. 7:16: “I rejoice that in everything I have confidence in you.” But do we work zealously toward this goal of victorious love output? Can we say, as Paul did in 2 Cor. 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin”? God is jealous of us because we are rightfully His! He has substantially sacrificed for us; He is unquestionably significant to us. And when we lead someone to worship God, we betroth them to Christ as part of His church. Like parents betrothing their child, we should be jealous and zealous (both from Greek zelo, to burn with passion), to present our spiritual offspring as a pure virgin to Christ.

When we zealously love a disciple or someone else, their welfare becomes more important than ours (Philippians 2:3, 4). “For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete” (2 Cor. 13:9). Zeal takes a high emotional toll on us; it is simultaneously wearying and energizing to love victoriously. We may feel weak as a result of sacrifice or sin, but we still rejoice and worship God, motivated by the spiritual power growing in our disciples. This leads us to pray earnestly that God will mature and “complete” them as a result of their worship.

There are so many more verses about zeal, but one I especially like is 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” The zeal I’ve just described from 2 Corinthians is a goal to strive for as we worship God and let Him transform our hearts. I fall so far short of zealous sacrificial love, and yet by God’s grace I’m still building significance in people’s lives. God is most interested in our heart attitude of zeal for others. Our sin will always get in the way of perfect execution. But this verse is a beautiful and reassuring promise that if we let God grow zealous love in our hearts, He can work around and through our sinful blunders. And that brings us back to one more reason to worship and rejoice in Him.

The Write Way to Pray

I’ve never been much of a prayer warrior. I find it virtually impossible to concentrate during silent, prolonged prayer, and by prolonged I mean more than two minutes. My attempts often sound something like this: “God, thank you for Your grace….I wonder what I should make for dinner…” Such prayers are far from Paul’s exhortations to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). In reality I’m more likely to cease without praying.

With my involvement in ministry there was no way I could survive spiritually on lightning-speed prayers alone. If Jesus spent long periods talking with the Father (Luke 5:16), surely I need to do the same. Over time my desperate need to pray increased, yet I still felt defeated in this most foundational area of my relationship with God.

I explored other forms of prayer to compensate for my weakness. Praying aloud with others helped me focus on what I was saying to God. But corporate prayer is meant to supplement one-on-one time with God and it didn’t solve the problem when I was alone. So I tried praying aloud on my own, but still found myself trailing off as my mind wandered. Prayer lists also held limited effectiveness because my distractibility kept my praises and requests superficial. Though I was disciplined in many other areas, my prayer life continually frustrated and baffled me.

So I prayed about prayer: “God, please teach me to pray.” This short request was all I was capable of, but God answered. He showed me how to use one of my strengths to compensate for my shortcomings in prayer. I’ve always enjoyed writing; in fact, I express myself best this way. “So why not converse with Me through written language?” God subtly suggested. Once He revealed this idea I started a prayer journal, where once a day I write out my prayers word-for-word.

God knew I would be distractible when it came to prayer and He graciously provided a way for me to communicate. But even if prayer isn’t particularly difficult for you or writing isn’t your gift, a prayer journal can benefit your relationship with God. Educators agree that writing clarifies thinking—often people don’t know exactly what they think about a topic until they write about it. So writing about our gratitude, emotions, requests, and questions to God can help us see His insights about ourselves, His character, and His will. For example, it wasn’t until I saw my thoughts about trying harder and doing better in black and white that I realized I wasn’t really trusting God to transform my character.

If you’d like to try writing in a prayer journal then consider the following suggestions. There’s no one right way to write to God, but these ideas can help you get started.

1. Choose your medium. After a few days of writing my prayers on paper, I knew this method could work for me. I was expressing myself more clearly and fully to God and my mind didn’t wander much at all. But the medium wasn’t ideal. I had so much to talk to God about but my hand cramped as it tried to keep up with my thoughts. So I switched to typing in a word-processing program, which allowed me to pour out my heart to God before I forgot what I wanted to say. If you try a prayer journal, choose the form which makes it easiest for you to commune with your Creator.

2. Start each entry with gratitude for God. Ephesians 5:20 says we should be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A prayer journal is a good place to foster such a grateful attitude by reflecting on God’s goodness. My gratitude grows as I spend time each day thanking God for who He is, what He’s done throughout history, and/or what He’s currently doing in my life and ministry. In your prayer journal you might consider praying through a Psalm of thanksgiving, reflecting on one of God’s attributes, or listing ways His grace is evident in your life.

3. Intercede with interaction. Using my prayer journal transformed my intercessory prayer into a dynamic interaction with God. In the past I might’ve prayed, “God, please lead Jane into a saving relationship with You.” The content of the prayer was biblical but I wasn’t listening for godly wisdom and discernment. Now I would add to the request above, “Please show me how You want to use me to help Jane know You.” Often God shows me specific steps such as broaching the topic of eternity with Jane, asking a more mature Christian for advice about the situation, or reading a relevant passage of Scripture.

Philippians 4:6 offers pointers regarding intercessory prayer: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Prayer should be our antidote to worry because we can trust God. Relying on God is a challenge for me as I’m a nasty combination of control-freak and worrywart. But when I’m anxious I can pray through a situation and express my dependence on God, affirming my desire to do His will and my belief in His trustworthiness.

This verse also says we should express gratitude as we petition God, meaning our thanksgiving doesn’t stop after the first paragraph in an entry. For example, when praying about a conflict I might thank God for His forgiveness, which is my basis for forgiving others and thus resolving arguments.

Through the more detailed intercession my prayer journal made possible, I’m able to spell out my thoughts and feelings about a situation to God, and then ask questions, write down possible answers, and wait for His wisdom. I encourage you to try the same in your prayer journal. Feel free to brainstorm ideas and ask God which are from Him. Try to determine whether your entry reflects what you know of God’s will.

4. Organize your prayer requests. Even with the speed of typing I still found it difficult to present my requests to God without my prayer journal resembling a to-do list. I didn’t want to approach God as if He was Santa Claus, just there to give me the items on my wish list. At the same time I longed to lift up many people’s needs to him. So I wrote a list and assigned different topics to different days of the week. Afterward my daily prayer list contained about four topics, which gave me room to add more as they arose. You can organize your prayer requests however you want: by urgency, importance, frequency, or another method. Just remember to approach writing in your journal as a relational time with God. Don’t pressure yourself to make it through a catalog of requests, especially when a different concern is weighing on your heart.

5. Review older entries. Rereading old journal entries is an encouraging way to see how God answers prayer. Remembering what God has done cultivates gratitude and reminds us of prayer’s role in God accomplishing His will. Sometimes our prayers aren’t answered, or not as we hoped. God can give us wisdom as we reflect on unanswered prayer. Perhaps we weren’t persistent in prayer, the request went against God’s will, or a person’s free choice prevented it from happening. As you mourn a petition not granted, allow God to comfort you and help you understand His wisdom.

One of the unexpected benefits I experienced from typing my prayer journal was the search function of my text editor. If I want to know what I prayed about Jane’s salvation I can find every instance of the word “Jane” and review what I wrote. This is another opportunity to remember how God led me. Sometimes I remember old insights or convictions which move me to take a different approach with a person or situation. For example, after my friend struggled spiritually for months, I wasn’t sure how else to help her. So I looked back on old entries and noticed a pattern: her priorities were all mixed up. Instead of continuing to address the problem one case at a time, I was able to present the big picture which God showed me.

As writing offered me a newfound ability to focus on talking with God, I established a deeper prayer life than I ever experienced before. I still struggle to continue the day with an attitude of prayer after closing my journal, but it’s helped my prayer life grow immeasurably. I’m learning to depend on God more by praying about difficult situations. My gratitude for Him is growing as I spend time in thanksgiving. As my thoughts become more concrete on paper I’m better able to pray within His will and I’m gaining discernment by asking questions and listening for answers. Starting a prayer journal revolutionized my spiritual life, and it can do the same for yours. There’s no one right way to pray, but I hope you’ll try the write way.

What Not to Wear

I’m no fashion expert. But lately I’ve realized I need a wardrobe change when it comes to my attitude. Luckily the Bible tells us what not to wear and what’s spiritually in style instead. Consider Ephesians 4:22-24:

“that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted according to the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God is being created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”

What not to wear is our old self, Paul’s term for the person we were before the Holy Spirit indwelt us. This doesn’t mean we abandon our personalities and adopt goody-goody fakery. The difference lies in the fact that the old man is a slave, unable to break out of the habits and attitudes that go against God’s design for us. The new man is freed from the slavery and addiction to sin and released into the radical freedom of God’s grace. Instead of laboring to break bad habits or follow religious rules, the heart of the new man is transformed by the power of God’s love as we allow Him to work.
So as believers, we ought to take off the outfit of the old self: the selfishness, defeat, and dissatisfaction with life. Instead we should wear the new self which looks like God because we have His Son’s righteousness, holiness, and truth as a result of our new identity in Him. The new self is our identity as a Christian. Galatians 3:27 says,

“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We already have our Christ clothes, but we choose to put them on by knowing, believing and acting like it’s true.

The verses that follow Ephesians 4:22-24 illustrate the concept. It tells us what not to wear: lying, unresolved conflict, stealing, hurtful words, bitterness, anger, and slander. Instead we are to don truth, unity, generosity, encouragement, kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:25-32). The one that convicts me the most is verse 29:

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”

Meanness and mom jeans are fashion emergencies!

Ask any of my former roommates or my husband, and they’ll tell you I’m not the most edifying person. In fact I can be quite harsh and downright mean. If I’m cranky in general or unhappy with someone in particular I get wrapped up in negative thoughts, and these find their way out of my mouth in sharp words. “Could you please take out the trash?” becomes “You never take out the trash!” with “what a slob” added internally. And of course encouraging people becomes the furthest thing from my mind. This is the old self, and while it’s still there, it no longer has the same power over me. I can choose otherwise if I’m willing to be changed by God.

Colossians 3 also talks about our new life in Christ. Verses 8 and 9 tell us what not to wear with a list that matches Ephesians 4. Then Paul tells us what to wear instead:

“put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you . . . Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14).

How I want to operate out of a heart of compassion and love! The qualities in this passage cannot be faked for long, if at all. They are heart attitudes which only God can cultivate in us. Without Christ I am cold, mean, proud, harsh, impatient, intolerant, and unforgiving. And I still struggle to wear the clothing of my new identity in Christ. But it’s completely absurd not to put on our new selves. It’s like if a poor street orphan were adopted by Bill Gates, given the finest designer clothes, and continued to wear their filthy rags. How ridiculous! But sometimes I prefer to wallow in the mud of my old self than slip into an Oscar de la Renta gown!

Oscar de la Renta, my favorite designer

Speaking of finery, 1 Peter 3:3,4 says,

“Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”

While Christians have formulated all sorts of legalistic dress codes based on this verse, the idea is to pay attention to inner beauty more than outward appearances. Again, I long for “a gentle and quiet spirit.” 1Timothy 2:9 also says women should clothes themselves not with expensive garb “but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” Indeed, the Proverbs 31 wife is attractive because of her character and service to others, not her bikini bod.
The Bible speaks of another set of clothes we should put on, which goes hand-in-hand with the new self. It is the “full armor of God” described in Ephesians 6: the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:8), and the sword of the Word (Ephesians 6:11-17). Romans 13:12-14 also talks about the spiritual battle against Satan’s darkness:

“The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”

Why not lay aside the sin which destroys us and instead put on the “breastplate of faith and love” (1 Thessalonians 5:8) in which there is much victory and healing?

Perspective on Persecution: Practical Suggestions

My heart is heavy as I write, but at the same time it is buoyed up by God’s Word and His work in our midst. Although we were saddened by the signage outside CT, how much greater is the joy of two salvations in one week!

Blogging about persecution is all the rage, so I’ll piggyback off Tom’s, Dar’s, and Joe’s recent blogs. I have a few anecdotes to add, but mostly I want to suggest specific ways we can learn to handle to persecution faithfully and graciously.

First I want to share my experiences with the limitation of Christian free speech, which I would not call persecution, but which illustrate the anti-Christian atmosphere in the education system. I taught British literature and the textbook included an excerpt from the King James Bible. The parable of the prodigal son appeared along with offerings from other sacred texts, which had nothing to do with British lit. I was excited about the opportunity to teach the prodigal son since it’s a beautiful picture of God’s grace. When the kids opened their books to it, they asked, “Are we allowed to read this?” and “Can we talk about God?” The latter question came up throughout the year when there was a connection between their reading and a spiritual topic. I assured them of our right to free speech, and pointed out the parable was in the textbook, after all.

Another instance occurred in the teacher work room (the new name for the teacher’s lounge) between two teachers who often touted their liberal beliefs.

The teacher work room replaced the teacher's lounge.

The conversation went something like this:
“One of the juniors I had in government was driving me crazy today. I wish she could just go to study hall.”
“What was she doing?”
“She wanted me to come to her church fundraiser.”
The teacher’s eyes rolled. “They just don’t understand that not everyone’s interested in supporting that stuff.”
“I know. I told her no and she didn’t understand. I wanted to say, ‘Your church is nice for you, but not everyone wants to be a part of your religion.’”
“These Christians are just so clueless. They think everyone should believe as they do and worship their judgmental God. It’s so intolerant.”
“Yeah, I’ve had kids ask me to sponsor missions trips and all kinds of crap like that. Why would I want to support you going to proselytize in someone else’s culture?”
Intolerant, huh? These politically correct, Democratic educators wouldn’t speak about Jews, Muslims, blacks, or Asians that way, but they saw nothing wrong with cursing Christians in the presence of others who might (and do) follow Christ. Argument seemed fruitless so I remained quiet, but I wish they knew they insulted me under the banner of tolerance.

Second, I wanted to comment on Dar’s balanced view of American Christian persecution. We don’t suffer like those in many countries, where conversion to Christianity is a crime. But certainly we experience a degree of oppression, especially in the free speech arena. I think we need to learn about the consequences other believers face by signing up for Voice of the Martyrs free monthly newsletter. You also get a free book, Tortured for Christ, when you sign up at Here’s why I think everyone should receive and read these newsletters:

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1. We should be aware of what global persecution looks like to get a perspective on our own suffering.

2. We should pray for these fellow believers who are facing dire circumstances. Our prayers can help them to be released from jail and/or torture, comfort them in their suffering, and increase their spiritual fruit. We should just pray against persecution, but that they would remain faithful and that God will work powerfully through it.

3. We can learn so much from how they view and handle persecution. It is clear in many of the issues that Christians in other countries expect persecution and view it as completely normal. When they accept Christ they realize they will likely be beaten or imprisoned for their beliefs. And they truly “consider it all joy” despite the pain and suffering because they experience God’s love and often see more people come to know Jesus. They also pray faithfully for their persecutors, and some have been led to Christ.

Third, we need to learn what the Bible has to say about persecution. I suggest we not only become familiar with the theology of persecution, but also memorize a few verses about persecution and spiritual warfare. Dar’s blog included 1 Peter 4:1-19 and there’s a video of Keith’s recent teaching. There is almost an overwhelming amount of verses on the topic, but that just shows how normal persecution is and how important it is that we handle it correctly, as an opportunity for the gospel.

I want to share Ephesians 6:10-18 because we need to remember that our struggle is not against people—school principles, police officers, or angry parents—but Satan and his forces. Certainly the evil day is upon us and the devil’s schemes are against us. This passage reminds us to fight with righteousness, truth, faith, the gospel of salvation, the Word of God, and prayer. In a word, we battle with love:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.

My last suggestion about learning to handle persecution is to read books about missionaries. Many wrote first-hand accounts of the struggles they faced on the field. A few suggestions:

Watch this movie with a box of tissues nearby.

1. Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose. She was imprisoned and malnourished but clung to God, and He came through.

2. Through the Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot. It’s the first-hand account of the story depicted in the film End of the Spear and illustrates Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Although written by a woman, this is not a “girly” book and includes many excerpts from the husbands’ journals about their flights over the Amazon jungles.

3. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. She wasn’t a missionary but this Dutch Christian hid Jews during the Holocaust and paid the price for opposing the Nazi Germany.

4. Secret Believers by Brother Andrew. This fictionalized compilation of true stories shows the conversions, growth, and persecution of Muslim Background Believers (MBBs). It’s an eye-opening look at what Muslims face when they come to Christ.

5. Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s grandson and wife. He pioneered the Inland China missions movement of the 1800s and is the spiritual grandfather of the rapidly growing underground church movement in China. He experienced many obstacles in war-torn, third-world China and his diaries share the spiritual secret that kept him going.

6. The Peace Child by Don Richardson. He took his wife and young children to the Indonesian jungle to reach a cannibal tribe whose highest value was betrayal. The author will likely teach at the upcoming Perspectives course (

There are many more books; please post other suggestions in the comments. Reading about these ordinary people who lived William Carey’s admonition to “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” can give us the courage to enter with them into the “fellowship of Christ’s suffering” (Philippians 3:15).

I Can See Clearly Now the Sin is Gone

I only wish the title was truer for me. Last night I traveled to Columbus to hear the great Ralph Ankeman teach a Love Ethics class. After Dar called to invite me I was so excited to see this legendary figure who counseled the venerable Katey Downs, who in turn helped disciple our fearless leader, Keith McCallum. What an example of real spiritual significance.

Dr. Ankeman, a medical student-turned-missionary who now practices biblical love therapy in a secular psych ward, did not disappoint. He began on a note of wonder: “How closely the gospel of Christ fits the way human beings are,” he reflected. His teaching, at once quirky, comical, and insightful, was brimming with stories and examples illustrating the application of biblical love rules. The rule that stood out the most to me is that “I can’t make you do anything, but I can tell you what lies within my power to do.” For example, I can’t make you stop neglecting your kids, but I can call child services, as painful as that might be for me.

Keith’s teaching was equally good, if somewhat shortened for the sake of time. He’s updated the material a bit to clarify the concepts of fences and gates. But I think he’s writing an article on it, so I’ll save the details for now. I’ll just say his teaching got me thinking about what God is showing me about other people. I tend to be very negative about, well, everything, and my negatively quickly escalates into judging others. “Why can’t they just get it together?” I wonder. Keith’s teaching offered an interesting possibility. Perhaps it’s my own heart that’s getting in the way of others’ growth.

What an odd, counter-intuitive thought. And it must be rightly understood. I can’t make anyone do anything, as stated above. But if I’m seeking to help someone, and yet judging them at the same time, is it not reasonable that God would withhold insight from me regarding the other person? If I’m seeking to motivate someone’s change for impure reasons, perhaps to bolster my reputation or just because her sin annoys me, it makes sense that God would not honor my efforts. But when I sincerely want to help that person only for her own sake, it then becomes safe for God to reveal her heart to me, thus showing me how to spur her on toward love and good deeds, as Hebrews 11:24 says.

I feel like God is showing me things about “what lies beneath the surface” of my old home church and my new cell group. I don’t know exactly what to do about it; no doubt my heart needs further purifying. But I did not sleep well after my return from Columbus. I felt like God was laying burden after burden upon me. I arose this morning feeling weighed down and a bit confused. What did God want me to do with all of it? My first response is to worry, and I set right to work with an ever-hardening knot in my stomach.

But I knew this wasn’t right, or pragmatically helpful. After all, Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. As I started to trust God one worry at a time, I realized God showed me these concerns not to weigh me down, but bring treacherous undercurrents to light. I know I’m not the only one with these insights, as many of them were gathered from conversations with others. I’m not special. I’m just convicted. And my practical nature is itching to do something about it, and there will be plenty of time for that. But I won’t know what to do unless my heart is right.

And that’s the last point I wanted to comment on. Of course with all the heart-clarifying, there will always be a measure of sin this side of paradise. God in his grace grants us revelation even in our imperfection. But the clearer the heart, the clearer our spiritual eyes: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Great is Thy Faithfulness

Dennis closed the 2007 Xenos Summer Institute with a teaching called “Cultivating a Tender Heart.” It’s worth listening to ( and/or reading his paper ( by the same title. It’s been over a year since I’ve done either, but the theme strikes me as increasingly relevant: in ministry we face the paradox of loving people with the hope that God will change them, but we also know they may choose to reject God and us. Even with a disciple it’s possible to invest deeply and sacrificially for years, only to lose them to a person, a job, or a drug. It’s a painful reality and especially tempts seasoned workers to hold something back—namely, their hearts. What does that look like? The leader might give of time, knowledge, prayer, and counsel, but ultimately their efforts lack zeal because they are afraid of being hurt. The less compassion and vulnerability are developed in the friendship, the less will be lost if the person forsakes their walk with God. So the thinking goes. Yet the Bible calls for something quite different:

“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

I periodically (at least once a week) dive into the depths of my melancholy nature and revel in the misery and fear of historic and potential losses. First it was Missy, then Kay, then Jen. Now I fear the same for Yana. And I start naming a handful of people who might be next. I don’t want to care about them, I conclude. It’ll hurt too much later on.

But then I remember how much God has been hurt by humanity. Think of all the times people turned their back on God. There was the Garden of Eden incident for starters. He must have been profoundly grieved, as well as wondering, “What exactly did you think I meant by ‘If you eat of it, you will surely die?’” And He didn’t flood the earth because people were thriving spiritually. Nor did He confuse the languages at Babel because people were building a tower to honor Him. Abraham’s naughty little scheme for baby-making without his decrepit wife wasn’t exactly godly, either, but God still came through on his promise when Abraham repented. Jacob was a complete con artist but he still secured God’s blessing.

Then there’s Moses, a nasty combination of murderer and whiner, but God miraculously led the Israelites out of Egypt with him as their leader. Speaking of Israel and whiners, God’s chosen people always promptly forgot how God provided for them and bowed down to stupid wooden lawn statues instead. God repeatedly mourns their unfaithfulness, comparing them to a wife who committed adultery again and again. But He kept taking them back, picking them up and dusting them off through forgiveness and healing. David was a total macho-man idiot, what with the womanizing and husband-killing, but God used him because he was “a man after God’s own heart.” The list goes on and on, with Israel the star idiot of the Old Testament drama. But God never gave up, reneged on His promises, or withheld His love.

And then I remember how much God has been hurt by me. I’m a star idiot, too. From the sinful state I was born in to my fear and negativity, to the daily sinful thoughts and motives I’m not even aware of, He has plenty of reason to write me off. Yet He pursues me with lovingkindness just as He did with Israel. I didn’t go looking for God. He was looking out for me. He tracked me down and drew me to Himself. It had nothing to do with me or my goodness. There is nothing good about me (Isaiah 64:6), but He wants me anyway.

How heartbreaking God’s hurts must be; how agonizing to endure. And I complain when I lose a disciple or two, whom I didn’t love nearly as well as God loves me. While it’s worth mourning the loss of those friends I can’t let that change how I love the people God’s put in my life right now. I want to cultivate the tender heart He has displayed through Scripture and in my relationship with Him. It’s a heart that continues to love even in the face of betrayal and unfaithfulness. It’s a heart that loves boldly, relentlessly, tenderly, and patiently. It’s a heart that pursues, initiates, chases down the people who so desperately need Christ’s healing love. That’s what it means to “love one another as I have loved You” (John 13:34).

Batter My Heart

Have you ever prayed for brokenness, that painful process that reduces the flesh so the Spirit can shine forth? It’s a scary prayer because you know God will answer it, and it won’t feel good when He does.

I prayed for God to break me of my pride earlier this summer. I prayed I would not become a comfortable Christian. Even as I wrote the words in my prayer journal, I shuddered to think of what the answer might look like. Perhaps I would fail miserably in ministry, lose someone close to me, or be called to missions in a dangerous country. Part of me thought it would be awful if God allowed those things to happen, but at the same time I knew God was wise and loving. I struggled to accept that God is not a God of comfort, but He always knows and wants what’s best for us.

So how did He answer? For now He’s placed me in high school ministry, with a large cell group of some highly damaged girls. This certainly wasn’t the answer I expected, but the breaking has already begun. And despite my best prayer-journal intentions, I wriggled and writhed at the first sign of suffering. I cried through a couple weeks, alternating between acceptance and despair at my situation. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the girls or the ministry. But I felt overwhelmed, inadequate, and under-supported. I was shocked at my own immaturity, which hadn’t surfaced so blatantly when I was comfortable in my previous roles.

God was hammering away at my heart of pride, self-dependence, and fear. I felt awkward and uncomfortable when I stepped outside of the tribe of my old home church. God was answering my prayer, but it felt like He was hanging me out to dry, setting me up for failure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He came in with support and new plan for the girls’ cell group leadership. The work has just begun, both in ministry and in my heart. I’m sure I’ll resist the Surgeon’s healing incisions again, but hopefully I give Him enough room to work.

The process of the “breaking of the outer man for the release of the Spirit,” (Watchman Nee), reminds me of a poem called “Batter my Heart.” It’s by John Donne, the 18th-century metaphysical poet of “no man is an island” fame. I’ve updated the spelling to make it more readable:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne, my poet-hero

The imagery is startling: first Donne’s heart is like a castle door which He asks God to charge with a battering ram so he can be healed. He says if he takes a stand on his own, God should overthrow Him with force in order to make him into the new creature God wants him to be. The means he suggests—breaking, blowing, and burning—all sound painful. Donne compares his heart to a town where he’s unfairly taken control; it rightfully belongs to God. He’s trying to let God rule, but his mind struggles to believe and therefore admit the true King. And yet he knows his thinking is weak, false, and easily held captive.

Donne experiences the human tension of loving God and wanting God’s love, even as he plays the harlot with the devil. He asks God to break his bonds with the devil and make him God’s prisoner instead. Until then, Donne realizes he can’t be free, since humans by nature are not independent beings. The last line is scandalous, but rounds out the metaphysical conceit of being betrothed to the devil: he can never be pure until God has full power over him, penetrating every area of his life.

Of course the Bible has much to say on the topic of how God batters our hearts and “ravishes” us. First, He can show us our sin more clearly, thus leading us to repentance and the new and living way:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there by any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.”
-Psalm 139:23, 24

Sometimes breaking requires more than a glimpse of our sin nature. Hebrews explains that God, like any good father, disciplines in love:

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him,
For those whom the Lord loves He disciples,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.”
-Hebrews 12: 5, 6 quoting Proverbs 3:12

We are encouraged to endure God’s discipline “so that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10b). As Keith taught recently, we cannot gain substance in the Christian life until we’ve grown beyond the “American way” of comfort, rights-thinking, and instant pleasure. Like an Olympic athlete, we cannot hope to win the race Paul speaks of (2 Timothy) without serious training and endurance. Everyone knows “no pain, no gain” is true. The Bible concurs:

“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
-Hebrews 12:11

In our fallen world, suffering is inevitable. The question is not whether we’ll suffer, or even how much, but if we’ll allow God to use it for good in our lives. In the midst of intense, life-threatening persecution, Paul kept perspective on the relative values of temporal comfort versus eternal reward:

“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
-2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Paul could rejoice in physical and emotional pain because God was using it to grow his spirit, the inner man. Peter agrees earthly suffering is worthwhile in light of the substance our faith gains now, and the eternal glory of heaven:

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
-1 Peter 1:6, 7

I’m still a sissy when it comes to suffering, but I’ll continue daring to pray for brokenness.

The Secret

According to the Chicago Tribune’s feature on Christianity in China, “Christian churches, most of them underground, now have roughly 70 million members, as many as the [Communist] party itself.” Today the Chinese church is among the fastest-growing in the world, and it is safe to call this an outgrowth of Hudson Taylor’s pioneer missions work spanning the latter half of the 19th century.

Though his methods were brilliant and biblical, it was Taylor’s character that sustained his work and led to fruitfulness during continual “conflicts without, fears within.” At the heart of his maturity was his “spiritual secret.” Far from the esoteric enigmas of Gnosticism, his secret is found plainly in Scripture:

“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:37-39)

In total surrender to God, he found only one place to meet his needs. His letters describe his response to this passage:

“No matter how intricate my path, how difficult my service; no matter how sad my bereavement, how far away my loved ones; no matter how helpless I am, how deep are my soul-yearnings—Jesus can all, all, and more than meet. He not only promises me rest. . . . He not only promises me drink to alleviate my thirst. No, better than that! ‘He who trusts me (who believeth on me, takes me at my word) out of him shall flow…’”

The overflow of Taylor’s life has far outlived him as he sought fulfillment in Christ alone. But how did he experience fullness in Christ when his life was one of such difficult circumstances? His study of a Greek verb tense further revealed the secret:

“’Come unto me and drink.’ Not, come and take a hasty draught; not, come and slightly alleviate, or for a short time remove one’s thirst. No! ‘drink’ or ‘be drinking’ constantly, habitually….One coming, one drinking may refresh and comfort: but we are to be ever coming, ever drinking.”

Total surrender means total reliance on God. Like Paul, Taylor found the secret of contentment by entering God’s rest:

“How little I believed the rest and peace of heart I now enjoy were possible down here! It is heaven begun below, is it not? . . . Compared with this union with Christ, heaven or earth are unimportant accidents. . . . He is our power for service and fruit-bearing, and his bosom is our resting placing now and forever.”

His joy in Christ was so all-consuming he lived Paul’s words: “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18). During terrible trials he wrote of “the joy of knowing the living of God, of seeing the living God, of resting on the living God.”

Hope was indeed the bridge from Taylor’s faith in God to his labor of love in China. He knew with Christ carrying the yoke alongside him, his sacrifices were worthwhile and bearable. He believed God would provide in every way because of His promises and demonstration of faithfulness. And he looked forward to an eternity where Chinese believers would praise the Lamb with him.

Hudson Taylor presents a formidable example of radical dependence on God. Though I’m light-years behind him in spiritual maturity, I still want to learn the secret of entering God’s rest by continually satisfying all need in Christ. From there the rest takes care of itself, as Taylor illustrated: “If you are ever drinking at the Fountain with what will your life be running over?—Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

Osnos, Evan. “Jesus in China.” The Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2008. .