One-Way Outrage

Like millions of Americans, I tuned in to the Super Bowl halftime show, and I saw exactly what you saw: The scantily-clad pop stars. The bumping and grinding bordering on the pornographic. The obscene onstage contrast between a stripper pole and young children.

As a Christian and as a member of the human race, I was grieved by the blatant hypocrisy on full display; a #metoo culture glorifying the very objectification of women it purports to stand against.

DISCLAIMER: At this point some might want to categorically dismiss my voice as that of another un-woke white male, ignorant of the plight of women & minorities. Please do not misunderstand. The purpose of this article is not to critique the performers themselves (though no culture, even the marginalized ones, are ever beyond critique). Rather it is to point out what the collective Christian reaction to their performance indicates about the human heart. Praise God for the beautiful and too-often-marginalized cross-section of humanity that we saw on-stage and rarely get the chance to celebrate! But this article is not about that. It’s about you and I, not J. Lo & Shakira.  

Scrolling through my social media feed in the opening minutes of the second half of the Super Bowl, I encountered post after angry post, people outraged at the performance they had just witnessed. And all of this outrage was directed one way: Outward.

But here’s what I didn’t see. I didn’t see outrage directed at the root of the problem: Inward. I saw no one outraged at the sin in their own heart. I saw no one beating their breast and repenting of their lustful thoughts and desires, the very thing that made such an event possible. I saw no one in sackcloth and ashes confessing sorrow at their own brokenness. I saw no one posting, “Father, forgive me for my tendency to chase after forbidden fruit; to seek that which is not freely given and is not mine to have. I am utterly outraged at my own objectifying heart, and I am truly sorry.”

What a Super Bowl halftime show like this reveals—and what no one wants to talk about—is that our own hearts are, as Jeremiah puts it (Jeremiah 17:9), “deceitful above all things and desperately sick, who can understand [them]?” It is all too easy to ignore the inconvenient truth that the reason scantily clad women will parade across a stage is because of the desires within our own hearts. Perhaps the reason we get so outraged at these kinds of public spectacles is because they remind us that we, too, are complicit. If the human heart were not so inwardly warped and hell-bent on satisfying its own carnal cravings, there would be no audience for such displays. If sin wasn’t so appealing, it wouldn’t be in such high demand.

In the deepest cracks and crevices of our hearts, the places we’re too scared to explore, the terrifying truth is lurking: We actually want to take a bite of the apple. It’s shiny. It’s beautiful. And it looks so good. But rather than direct our attention INWARD, at the real problem, we’d rather direct it OUTWARD. It’s much easier to crucify others than to confess our own desperate need for forgiveness, and we’d rather do anything than admit that the default, out-of-the-box condition of our own hearts is no different than those we see on the big screen. We all stand, every moment, equally in need of grace.

Outrage at sin is always proper, and if we ever cease to be astounded at the path of destruction it continually leaves in its wake, we have surely lost our way. But outrage has to work both ways: INWARD as well as OUTWARD. If I’m not as outraged by my own failings as I am by those of my neighbor, then something is deeply wrong. In fact, Jesus had a special word for people like that: Hypocrites. Here’s what He says in Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Directing all of our outrage at the problems “out there” allows us to ignore the problem “in here”—in our own hearts. We’re good. They’re bad. End of story. And that means we don’t have to do the hard and painful work of looking unflinchingly into the mirror. Because if we did, the haunted, pock-marked reflection staring back at us would look eerily similar to those we are always so ready to demonize.

Our outrage at the culture around us should always be overshadowed by our outrage at the darkness within us. And ultimately, only an outrage of another kind is able to overcome the darkness; the outrage of grace. Grace is—in a very real sense—utterly outrageous, because grace comes only to those who deserve wrath and punishment and condemnation. That is to say, it only comes to sinners. In other words, being a sinner is a prerequisite to God’s grace. Grace comes only to those lost and dead in their trespasses, unable to save themselves, and it comes purely in the form of a gift. And it is precisely this “gift” nature that is so utterly outrageous to our human sensibilities, which always demand a pound of flesh and insist that people pay for their sins. But grace says that we don’t have to pay. In fact, the only currency acceptable is the blood of another, paid in full and on our behalf. 1 Peter 1:18-19 says it this way: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

Grace, as Philip Yancey says, “like water, flows to the lowest part.”[1]

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anything more outrageous than that.

[1] Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 20.

In Defense of Gifts

“There is something in us that is always suspicious of or rebels against the gift.”

– Gerhard Forde

Sometimes I feel like my entire life has been a war against grace, and so far I’ve lost every battle. Round after round I’ve gotten into the ring and been knocked down, but again and again I rise to fight tooth and nail against the gift and the gift-giver who has the audacity to think I can’t pay for something myself. “Over my dead body,” I say as I stagger to my feet again, “Let’s go double or nothing.”

One story in particular keeps returning to me.

When I was in high school, I mowed the lawn at my dad’s feed plant. At the time, the only mower available was an old push mower. It was big. It was heavy. And it took an ungodly effort just to get the wheels in motion. I pushed and shoved and sweat and strained for all I was worth, forcing that behemoth to do my bidding. It felt good to do a hard day’s labor and to have something to show for it. About halfway through the summer, though, Dad casually mentioned to me, “By the way, you know that mower is self-propelled, right?” Translation: No more pushing required! Over the next few weeks, my life was radically transformed as I allowed the machine to perform the work I had previously been doing with my own two hands. It felt glorious! The burden was lifted! I was free! But there was one problem. After a while, I began to feel guilty. “This is way too easy,” I thought. “I’m not sweating enough. I’m not working hard enough. I haven’t really earned my paycheck.” So, from time to time—when no one was looking—I switched the self-propelled feature OFF and went back to my old ways of pushing and shoving. I chaffed under the weight of NOT having a load to bear. The free gift was just too much for me to take.

With every bone in our bodies, we declare war on grace. We declare war on the gift. We may speak of grace in glowing terms, but our attitude shifts when we realize that we too must become its recipient. Sure, it may be more blessed to give than to receive, but it takes so much more humility be on the receiving end of a transaction. In a world with no free lunches, we feel the need to continually prove we can stand on our own to legs. “Don’t worry,” we say. “I’ve got this.” But we clearly don’t.

Recently, I served Communion to an elderly, bed-ridden shut-in who has suffered from various health issues for decades. “This is the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for you,” I said as I placed the cup in his hands. He grasped it shakily, and started to bring it toward his lips. His wife, foreseeing how far the cup had yet to traverse, graciously reached her hand forward and offered, “Here, let me help you.” He immediately rebuffed her off with a brusque, “No. I’ve got this.” But he didn’t. The cup continued to tip, the liquid making its way toward the edge until finally—with a deep sigh—he surrendered and allowed his wife to intercede, bringing the cup the final few inches to his lips. Any objective observer would have perceived this as a beautiful picture of grace, but what he felt was  personal defeat; he couldn’t do it himself. Even at the Communion rail, we feel we have something to prove.

What Robert Capon calls “the divine lark of grace” is foreign to human nature. It’s not in our blood. It’s contrary to reason. In fact, it’s utterly scandalous. What’s all this nonsense about “free-ness?” We’re supposed to have to pay our own way. We’re supposed to have to earn it. And we—not someone else—are supposed to be the ones doing the earning! The default paradigm of the human heart has no category for gifts given; only wages earned. Whether it’s grace directly from the Heavenly Banquet or grace in earthly relationships, the thought of a gift makes us very, very nervous.

Being a new Father has done little to quell those nerves. God has blessed me with an immensely wise & godly wife, and in the dark watches of the night when she awakes to feed the baby, I often slumber right on through. Yet, the next day I am wracked with feelings of guilt and immediately seeking pardon. Shouldn’t I at least have gotten up with her? She’s tired, so shouldn’t I be tired too? I should be feeling more pain. It’s too easy for me. And even hearing the “absolution” pronounced from her lips (“Honey, there’s no sense in both of us being exhausted. I hold nothing against you,”) doesn’t always bring the peace I’m after. The free gift of a good night’s sleep is just too much for me to take.

The divine lark continues to evade me.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. What is the answer? What is the cure for a disease that’s in every capillary, vein, & molecule of our blood? How do we call a cease-fire on our battle with grace?

I’m not sure. At least, not entirely.

But maybe the answer isn’t the same one we give to everything else: Try harder. Try harder to receive grace. Try harder to take the gift. Try harder to soften your own heart toward God.

Maybe our obsession with trying harder is at the root of the problem. Maybe grace is the one thing in the world that precludes any human trying at all. And maybe that’s the best news we could ever imagine. This is why the Apostle Paul says in Romans 9:16 (ESV), “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

Grace is not something we do. It’s something we believe. It’s something we trust, as Paul says earlier in Romans 4:4-5 (ESV): “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

So, no—maybe we’ll never capture the divine lark of grace. But maybe we can learn to fight it less. And maybe we can learn to be people who embody it more.

After all, who knows?

Maybe—just maybe—we might discover that we actually enjoy the gift.

The Secret to Happiness

Everything sucks. Might as well find something to smile about.

Thus spoke the great 21st-century skeptic philosopher Gregory House in Episode 16, Season 2 of House, entitled “Safe.”

Although the connection between his two statements is tenuous at best (one could just as easily say “Everything sucks. So, why smile about anything at all?”), we can give him some credit. Dr. House still finds life worth living.

House is not known for his cheery disposition. In fact, his bedside manner is atrocious. He lies to his boss. He deceives his co-workers. And he’s a jerk to his patients. They’re puzzles to be solved rather than people to be healed, and he’s more interested in diagnosing than curing them. But he’s brilliant. He’s the guy you’d want working your case, though he’s not going to hold your hand through it and pretend everything will be all right. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s got some scars. And his fine-tuned B.S.-meter won’t let you get away with anything even remotely Polyanna-esque. Dr. House is not a pessimist. He’s a realist, and he knows how elusive that great white whale we call “happiness” truly is.

Happiness is a slippery term. We all want it. We’re all supposed to pursue it. But nobody seems to know how to obtain it.

Here’s something worth asking, though: Does “the pursuit of happiness” have any place in the life of a believer, or is it an innately selfish endeavor? That’s a tricky question, and it depends on how we define happiness. If happiness is nothing more than a quest for our own personal fulfillment, then YES—that is selfishness by definition, because there is no room for our neighbor in such a scheme. When my own singular, purpose-driven pursuits are the sole objective, loving my neighbor becomes at best a drudgery and at worst an impossibility.

But, what if we asked the question a different way: Does God want me to flourish as a human being? And to that question, the Bible unequivocally answers “Yes.” So, perhaps a more Biblical definition of happiness would be the following: Being content with our lot in life.

Ironically, one of the most pessimistic books of the Bible–Ecclesiastes—has some profound insight into this. Like Dr. House, the author of this book (Qoheleth) has been around the block a few times. He’s seen some stuff. A wise, grizzled Grandfather sitting in his rocking chair, he spits into his tobacco can, beckons his grandkids toward him and says, “Gather round, kids. Listen up. Your grandpa has something to tell you.” And then our cynical, curmudgeonly old Grandpa says something quite unexpected:

“There is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil–this is the gift of God…so I commend the enjoyment of life.”

In case you’re wondering, YES, this is the exact same man who begins and ends his book with this uplifting little diddy: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!”

But it makes sense. Because he’s tried it all. He’s pursued everything “under the sun:” Wisdom, possessions, riches, power, sex. And he’s found that none of it has lasting value. Qoheleth knows what DOESN’T bring fulfillment, so he of all people is uniquely-qualified to speak to us about happiness. And he offers us more than a few pearls of wisdom. Here are three of them:

  1. Stop Trying So Hard. Seriously! Stop trying so hard to be happy. The harder you try, the less likely it is that you’ll actually find any sort of contentment in life. The more we pursue happiness, the more it slips through our fingers. Chasing happiness is like trying to herd the wind; it’s an exercise in futility. It’s like falling asleep: The more you try, the less likely you’ll actually get to sleep. Happiness is a byproduct, rather than an “end” in and of itself. In Ecclesiastes 3, immediately after listing the various “times and seasons”—good and bad—which befall us in life, Qoheleth laments, but “what do workers gain from their toil?” (Ecclesiastes 3:9). He’s frustrated and anxious that the payoff is not always proportional to the effort. However much blood and sweat and tears we pour into our endeavors, there are no guarantees that things will pan out for us. More elbow grease does not equal more control over the times and seasons in a broken world. They appointed by God, and our ceaseless striving gets us no closer to living our best life now.
  2. Enjoy The Little Things. Ecclesiastes 2:24: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.”  Food. Family. A good bottle of wine. Our God is not utilitarian, but actually basks in the glow of His creation. And He calls it all “good!” He is a God of stuff, and He wants us to take joy in that stuff. Why did God create sunsets, for instance? Have you ever thought of that? Functionally, they don’t serve a purpose. God could have made the transition from day to night instant, like flipping a light switch. But there’s something about a sunset that He deems good and beautiful and worth lingering over. Christians, of all people then, should eat and drink and be merry. Not “for tomorrow we die,” but “for tomorrow we will live forever.” Life eternal gives us the boldness to find enjoyment in God’s good, earthy gifts in the here-and-now.
  3. Remember: You’re Gonna Die. Depressing, right? Why would anyone—especially someone in the glow of youth—ever want to ponder their own death? Death is the last thing we prefer to think about, and this advice strikes us as odd. But wait…it gets even ODDer (Ecclesiastes 7:2): “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone. The living should take this to heart.” In other words, a funeral is more honest than a frat party, because it doesn’t try to escape the reality that we’re not invincible. Qoheleth says there is great value in regularly contemplating our mortality, because, in the midst of all of life’s Uncertainties, death is the one certain thing. The graveyard is the common destiny of everyone, and coming to grips with that truth helps put things in perspective. Life is short. We don’t get to be here all that long. The sooner we let this reality sink in, the better. And this is actually freeing because it reveals that not as much rides on us or our accomplishments as we think. In the cosmic scheme of things, we tend to overestimate our own importance. We are dust, and to dust we will return.

This side of Heaven, happiness will always remain fragmentary, fractured, and fleeting. In the shadow of the Cross, we are never afforded more than glimpses of the “good life.” Yet it is precisely here at the Cross that all human pursuits, including the pursuit of happiness, are brought to an end; where we become the “pursued” rather than the “pursuer.” And it is here that we discover that the ultimate joy is not ours at all, but His (Hebrews 12:2): “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the JOY set before him, endured the Cross, scorning it’s shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

For the joy set before Him, Christ pursued us to death. And it is in Christ alone—our Sabbath—that true rest from our endless quest for happiness lies.

Or, in the enduring words of St Augustine:

This is the happy life, and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you, Lord. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else.






Christus Victor Saved My Life

I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember.

This two-headed beast has taken many forms throughout my life. Sometimes it’s intense and raging. Other times it decrescendos to a pulsing throb. There are peaks and there are valleys. But it’s always there, lurking just below the surface.

One of my most distinct memories from childhood involves me lying in bed, terrified out of my mind after a recent panic attack, while members from my parents’ Bible study gathered around, laid hands on me and prayed for God to deliver me from my anxiety.

And, miraculously, it worked…for about two days.

But the anxious thoughts crept back. The sleepless nights crept back. They always seemed to creep back. The two-headed beast would never loose its grip.

Throughout my entire high school career, I never slept for more than three hours the night before any sporting event. I was up until the early hours tossing and turning and sweating through my sheets, hot tears streaming down my confused and tortured adolescent face. It wasn’t so much performance anxiety. Rather, it was the fear of not being able to fall asleep at all. Slowly but surely, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforced by night after gut-wrenching night of existential crises. A well-meaning but exasperated friend once blurted out, “You know, if you can’t handle this kind of stress, how are you going to handle it when REAL life-problems come your way?”

I roamed the halls of my home long past midnight, calling out to a God who never seemed to answer, praying for my parents to wake up just so I could find consolation in the presence of another human being. For years this continued. It was hell. And I remember promising myself that, if this same anxiety followed me into adulthood, I’d end it all. Plain and simple. This much suffering simply made life not worth living.

Fast forward into my college years. The anxiety has not lessened. In fact, it’s increased, and it’s to the point that I seek out medical help. The doctor puts me on Paxil, which seems to do the trick. In fact, it seems to do something miraculous. I don’t know how to describe it other than that, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m going through life “without gloves on.” WITH gloves on, you can only feel the GENERAL contours of a thing. You can sense the hardness of a piece of wood. You can sense the roundness of a kiwi. But you can’t feel the individual grains of the wood. You can’t feel the fur of the kiwi. You can’t sense the wood in all of its “wood-ness” or the kiwi in all of its “kiwi-ness.” That’s what happened to my senses on antidepressants–it was like the gloves came off for the first time, and I could finally experience life in all of its fullness. I could speak up in class without my voice shaking. I could talk to a professor without feeling self-conscious. I could attend social functions and actually enjoy–rather than dread–interaction with other human beings. For about three years, the drug was a godsend. But there were side-effects, and right around college graduation, when I was entering the workforce for the first time, I went off it for good.

The anxiety and depression returned full-force, and this time the beast dug its talons in–deep. I was far from home, living in a new town in a new state with no trusted friends. A girlfriend nearing “finance-status” ended things the night before my birthday. And it was right around this time that I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the Paxil–notoriously one of the worst drugs to come off of. My anxiety, which was never far below the surface, now became painfully obvious for all to see. Social gatherings of any kind were too agonizing to attend. I stopped engaging in church. I stopped going to Bible study. It just hurt too much to be around people. Even leaving the apartment for my weekly grocery run pushed me out of my comfort zone. I sought counseling from multiple therapists. Eventually, I took a job closer to home, hoping this would provide the silver bullet I needed to put my anxiety out of its misery. Therapy continued. But the beast never ceased to hound me every step of the way, and it was all I could do to get through my days. I often spent morning and afternoon break-time alone in the bathroom stall, doing deep-breathing exercises and seeking some kind of relief from the general sense of unease I ceaselessly felt. I distinctly remember the continual sense of anxiety I sensed sitting in my cubicle, eyes darting this way and that, gut perpetually churning, just waiting for my boss to poke his head over my shoulder and give me some new task I was incapable of doing and inducing the next panic attack. Sometimes I’d just call in sick. Other days, I’d go home and cry.

Ironically, though, it was partly this same sense of restlessness and anxiety that God used to drive me OUT of that particular vocation and INto a new one: ministry. Weirdly, I feel less anxious in a pulpit than I do in a cubicle. This isn’t to say the anxiety is gone. It’s not. Far from it. It’s always there. Usually there’s a knot in my gut. I still toss and turn the night before the “big event;”  I’ve preached sermons on zero hours of sleep. The beast never slumbers–though it does seem to go into hibernation more frequently. I have learned to cope. And YES, I would even go so far as to say that it has gotten better.

Reflecting on my battle with anxiety and depression thus far, the question I’ve wrestled with more than anything is this: Is it MY FAULT? Am I anxious and depressed because it’s in my blood (in which I can let myself off the hook), or is it something that, with enough muscle and enough positive thinking and enough “can-do” Tony Robbins-style “suck-it-up-and-power-through-it-ness,” I can pull myself out of (in which case I AM fault, and what does that say about my many hours of fruitless therapy)?

In theological terms, this question is known as “culpability.” In other words, who is to blame? Who is responsible?

And the short answer I received–almost universally from my well-intentioned friends and intelligent Christian counselors–was this: “YOU are. YOU are responsible. YOU are culpable. It’s on YOU. It’s YOUR fault if you’re not making progress, and if you just applied a little more elbow grease you’d be able to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Now, I don’t mean to imply that they lacked compassion. Most were extremely compassionate and cared deeply for my well-being. But the solutions they offered always seemed to be nothing more than a long list of instructions: “DO this. TRY this. TAKE these steps. And if you DO, things will improve. Your anxiety and depression IS within your power to change. You can DO it!” This is exactly what most popular CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) teaches: With the right methodology, with the right thinking patterns and enough positive self-talk, you can do it. You can pull yourself out of that rut.

Here’s the thing, though…what if I can’t? What if the sin at the root of my anxiety and depression isn’t just something I can white-knuckle my way through with right thinking or behavior modification? What if–no matter how many times I try to re-train my brain to think more correctly and truthfully–what if things don’t get better? What if the powers of evil and sin and darkness and pain and brokenness–both IN my own heart and OUTSIDE of it–what if they’re actually a lot more powerful and clever than that? What if this enemy holds us in bondage and won’t set us free and won’t be outtalked…no matter how much clever CBT-jargon we throw his way? What if we’re actually–as Scripture says–pinned down by “rulers and authorities”  stronger than us (Col 2:15)? What if we’re captives in chains who need to be set free (Luke 4:18)? What if the forces of evil at work in this world are a lot stronger than we want to believe (Heb 2:14)? And what if we actually need a someone ELSE to overpower the “strong man” who has bound and gagged us and thrown us in the basement (Luke 11:22), to rescue us, and to bring us out of darkness and into the light (John 8:12)? In short, what if we re-claimed Christus Victor?

Christus Victor views the Atonement as “the act of God through Christ, in which the powers of sin, death, and the devil are overcome and the world reconciled to God.” This is to be distinguished from the Penal view of the Atonement, which views Christ’s act as one in which He is punished (penal-ized) for the sake of sinners by taking their place on the Cross in order to satisfy God’s righteous requirements. Both of these views are true. Both are Biblical. Both are necessary for us to grasp the full implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Penal, however, places the accent on the individual’s guilt. In other words, culpability rests squarely on the shoulders of the sinner. Christus Victor, however, recognizes a third party–the Evil one–who is also complicit in the brokenness of our world, and it recognizes that there are some things that happen in life for which we should NOT hold ourselves accountable. In other words, Christus Victor says that we are VICTIMS as well as PERPETRATORS.

Think, for example of a woman raped in a back alley. Should she be held accountable because, in Adam, all (including her), sinned (Rom 5:12), and therefore she is complicit in the actions of her assailant? Or how about someone who commits suicide. While murder (even self-murder) must be called out as sin, is there not also the sense in which we can speak of this person as being a victim of forces too strong for him to overcome? Or what about someone who ends up in an N.A. program? Having grown up in an area of the country that knew nothing but poverty and after witnessing only failure and apathy in her own family, how much of that person’s situation is due to her own personal decisions and how much of it is due to circumstances outside of her control?

The question of culpability, it turns out, is more complex than we think. The primary difficulty with Penal when it comes to anxiety and depression is that its fixation on personal repentance and individual guilt puts an undue burden on consciences already overburdened by the weight of their own anxiety and guilt.

In an article for Mockingbird, Bonnie Zahl highlights this truth:

In my many years of speaking with people who are angry at God, I have never met a person who told me that what they needed was a reminder how to think correctly about their situation. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest the opposite: studies show that if people are made to feel judged, ashamed, or guilty about feeling angry at God, they are more likely to continue feeling angry at God, to reject God, and to use alcohol and other substances to cope.

In short, telling a depressed person that they are “guilty” and need to “repent” of their depression can cause undue harm. Culpability does not rest solely and squarely on the victim’s shoulders, and placing such a load on an already-broken back can be soul-crushing.

Instead, what we often need to hear more than anything are those four simple words Robin Williams spoke to Matt Damon in that classic scene from Good Will Hunting: “It’s not your fault.” In other words, I don’t need to blame myself for having insufficient serotonin in my brain any more than I would blame myself for being born into an abusive family . Many people who struggle with anxiety and depression do so because of factors outside of their control. Some experienced precipitating traumatic events during childhood which contribute to their anxious temperaments. Others are simply born with a biochemical imbalance in their serotonin or norepinephrine levels.

In a world absolutely shattered by the Fall, we are unavoidably VICTIMS as well as PERPETRATORS; guilty of wrongdoing yet also keenly feeling hurts and pains for which we are not culpable. We are all pinned down by forces stronger than us, unable to free ourselves, and we need a rescuer. We don’t just need someone to bear our guilt and die for us. We also need someone to defeat all of the forces of sin and darkness and anxiety and depression that overwhelm us. There is the sin within our own hearts which surely must be dealt with. But there is also the sin and death outside of ourselves for which we are not culpable–a whole world “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom 8:22).

I recently had my own Good Will Hunting-type moment as well. As I was sifting through some of my past with a mentor-friend, I suddenly experienced the most freeing breakthrough I’ve had in all of my years of wrestling with anxiety and depression, and the reality began to dawn on me: It’s actually NOT all my fault! I don’t have to go around feeling guilty and endlessly flagellating myself and shouldering the blame for factors outside of my control! I am in bondage. I can’t free myself. And I need a rescuer. Hallelujah!

In Jesus Christ, God has provided that rescuer, and He has provided a rescue in the shape of a Cross.

A Cross where forgiveness of my sins occurs–YES.

A Cross where my guilt is blotted out by the blood of Christ and I am credited with His righteousness–ABSOLUTELY.

But even more than that, A Cross where the forces of Sin, Death, Evil, Anxiety, & Depression are crushed once and for all–FOR YOU. And FOR ME.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

In the marvelous words of that hymn from Samuel Gandy:

His be the Victor’s Name

Who fought the fight alone;

Triumphant saints no honor claim;

Their conquest was his own.


By weakness and defeat

He won the glorious crown;

Trod all his foes beneath his feet

By being trodden down.

Christus Victor saved my life.

















Toasting to the End of Ourselves

“Excuse me. If I could have everyone’s attention please.

Thank you, one and all for gathering here to celebrate with me tonight. It’s been a long year, filled with ups and downs. We’ve all had our share of challenges. We’ve had victories. We’ve had defeats. Reasons to laugh. Reasons to cry.

But this year, it’s going to be different. This is the year everything comes together for us. This–my friends–will be OUR year!

So please, raise your glasses with me, and let’s toast: TO THE END OF OURSELVES!”

(Muffled silence. Barely audible clinking. Murmurs of confusion. Toastmaster slowly makes his way around the outside of the table.)

“You see, my friends, this new year comes brimful with opportunities. A clean slate. A chance to start anew. This is the time for muscular endeavors and conquering new frontiers and striving to summit new peaks. The siren-song of perfection beckons us ever-upward, drawing us nearer and nearer the top. ‘Onward and upward!’ is the battle cry of the human heart. So we dig in our heels, slam down our pick-axes and continue our journey up the mountain. The ascent is hypnotic. The battle is in our blood. And you and I shall soon stand atop that peak, beacons of human potential, head and shoulders above the rest! The lofty heights–ahh, yess–that is a mark worthy of such red-blooded attempts as ours.”

(Belted out at full volume, while stomping the floor): “Ladies and gentlemen all: Let us therefore storm that perch!”

(Silence. Guests now transfixed. A brief pause ensues while the toastmaster refills his brandy. After a momentary pause at the fireplace, he lights a cigar and continues making his way around the room.)

(Thoughtfully): “But why–if I may be so bold as to ask–why is  UPWARD considered the more noble direction? Why is SELF-reliance considered a virtue? It may seem criminal or even downright–God forbid–un-American to raise a question like this. After all, as we gaze into the endless potential of 2019, a myriad of possibilities unfold before us. And it is OUR OWN strength, OUR OWN stamina, OUR OWN blood and sweat and tears that will power us forward and allow us to persevere. WE must strive. WE must succeed. And WE must reach deep into the recesses of our own souls to make it happen. What this New Year really needs, then, is more of US!”



(Toastmaster looks around the room, locking eyes with each guest in turn).

“But there are–in fact–other directions that we might traverse the mountain–directions other than up. Directions that don’t require MORE–but actually LESS of us. Life, we think, is for the strong and powerful. It is upward-thrusting, not downward-thrusting, and that is why we must grasp toward the Heavens if we hope to live life to its fullest. After all…YOLO!”

(A few chuckles resound.)

(Toastmaster thoughtfully swirls his glass and then continues, gesturing vehemently).

“But I must protest quite loudly here, my friends, for everyone knows that life is not always drawn skyward! In fact, it is in the deep crevasses and soiled blackness below the earth that life actually begins. Roots–the life-giving foundation of all plant life–grow downward…deeper and deeper…to support the stalk. And, in fact, for such life to thrive, death must occur! After all, where do seeds come from? A great man once said it like this:

Truly, truly, I say to you: Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it bears many seeds.

My point, dear friends, is this: Maybe, just maybe, what we DON’T need in 2019 is to live more, but to die more. To die to ourselves. To die to our own aspirations and self-justifying attempts at profit and gain. To die to our selfish attempts at greatness masked in “can do” piety.

Maybe, rather than heeding the upward-calling siren song of the mountain peak, we–like Ulysses–must lash ourselves to the mast, plug our ears, and die a little. You see, it actually takes more strength NOT to heed that song. It takes more strength to die to ourselves than to live for ourselves.

And isn’t that a more noble goal? A more worthy New Year’s resolution? On January 1st, that shiny new treadmill might look like the solution to all of your problems; the key to the good life. But on January 2nd you’ll quickly realize it’s not. Because it doesn’t stop. It’s endless. Insatiable. And at some point, that endless treadmill will beat you. Your muscles will atrophy. And that mountain peak will fade into the clouds.

So, maybe in 2019, we don’t actually need MORE, but LESS of ourselves. And maybe the end of all self-reliance is actually the best place we could possibly be, because it brings us to the doorstep of another.

As another great man has wisely said:

The end of our rope is the door to God’s office.

(Toastmaster again seats himself at the head of the table and refills his glass. He looks up, grins, and with a twinkle in his eyes, he raises it high and bellows): “A toast, brothers and sisters: To the end of ourselves!”

(Everyone heartily responds): “To the end of ourselves!”

(All drain glasses to the dregs.)

Swiping Through Life

Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not original enough. Too contrived. Too air-brushed. Too personal. Too conservative. Too liberal.

Like. Dislike. Love. Swipe and continue.

It’s 7am, I’m still in bed and I’ve already passed judgment on at least thirty people. I’ve looked at them, I’ve examined them, and I’ve found them wanting. Some of them are friends. Some are family. But some are people I’ve never met in person. Yet I’ve judged them. Through the power of the almighty swipe I’ve pounded down the gavel and dismissed them from my courtroom. But it’s OK. I’ve got a full docket today. And as new photos and stories fill my feed I continually render judgment, deciding who is and who is not worthy of my time, and upon whom I will deign to reach down and bestow the power of the holy grail: The elusive LIKE. Many are called but the chosen are few, and if you want validation from me then you better WOW me. Otherwise I’ll simply reach down, and with a flick of the finger make my determination: Not good enough. Next.


We all crave it. We all want it. We all seek it like crazy. Deeply-woven into the fabric of every human being is a desire to be appraised and valued by our peers. We crave the approval of others, and we’ll spend hours photo-shopping and curating our social media accounts to get it. We hit POST…and then we wait. How many people will read my article? How many people will appreciate that clever turn of phrase? How many people will LIKE my video? And when the number isn’t quite as high as we’d hoped–what happens then? When our Facebook approval rating plummets and our value as human beings drops proportionally,  there’s clearly a lot more at stake here than we thought. This is the darker side of social media. What was once a game has turned into a sinister, insatiable quest for the approval of others. We must continually defend ourselves in order to justify our existence and prove our worth as human beings.

This quest is exhausting. It’s an endless treadmill. And it leaves us bankrupt every single time. When your identity and worth as a human being is tied up in the judgment of others–you’re in deep, deep trouble. Because, however well-curated and photo-shopped you life may be, sooner or later someone is going to look at you, they’ll swipe, and they’ll move on. Verdict rendered. Approval lost.

But what if there was another way? A way that didn’t involve this endless treadmill? A way that didn’t require the approval of others at all?

The Apostle Paul says this:

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).

This is bold. What he’s touching on is that it’s literally impossible to please every human being. Not just hard. Not just difficult. IMPOSSIBLE. Completely and utterly impossible. And not only that, but it’s impossible to seek the approval of God and human beings at the same time. You can’t simultaneously be a people-pleaser and a God-pleaser. If you spend your life chasing after the holy grail of the LIKE and you sacrifice your blood, sweat, and tears to the god of human approval, then you’re going to miss out on something important. Something key. Something astounding.

The only reason Paul can stake his claim so boldly is that he knows a truth that the rest of us often forget: The only approval we need–the only approval we’ve ever needed–we already have. In Christ Jesus, God appraises you and He finds you well-pleasing. And His verdict is ironclad. It doesn’t apply only when you behave. Like when you happen to have a pretty good day and you remembered to make your wife a cup of coffee and you didn’t mouth off to your boss and you didn’t overindulge at the office party. No. God is NOW and ALWAYS will be well-pleased with you. His approval of you is not conditional upon how well-coiffed and perfectly-curated and morally-upright your life is. God isn’t looking down from Heaven with his binoculars, giving you a round of applause on your “good days” and booing through His megaphone on your “bad days.” No. His approval of you is UNconditional, based not on your performance but upon the perfect performance of His Son. And you need to hear that. Nothing in the world could cause God’s approval rating to drop. He rejoices over you. He can’t stop smiling. He can’t stop applauding. And He couldn’t be prouder.

That is the power of a verdict. Most of us fear the word “judgment,” imagining chains and prisons and anguish. But for the one declared “innocent and free,” there is no sweeter sound in the world than the dropping of the gavel!

“It is finished.” Judgment has been rendered. The gavel has dropped.

And one day, my friends–soon, very soon–all swiping will cease. Lord haste the day!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and see how many people have LIKED this post.


Let There Be Silence!

When was the last time you experienced quiet in your life? Not a quiet moment scrolling through your Facebook feed. Not a quiet night in with your hubby and some Netflix. Not a quiet evening enjoying nature while you livestream that beautiful sunset.

I’m talking about genuine, extended silence. The kind of silence where you can hear yourself think. The kind of silence where you actually (God forbid) pause to smell the roses. The kind of silence when you STOP–really STOP–long enough to recognize that you are a human BEING and not a human DOING.

Been a while, huh?

Ours is an age of distraction, and it’s no surprise that, with the ever-growing cacophony of voices out there, silence is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. We’re constantly on the move, constantly stimulated, and constantly looking for ways to fill even the thirty spare seconds in line at the grocery aisle. We’ll do anything to avoid being alone with our own thoughts…but why?

What does our utter inability to be alone with our own thoughts say about the condition of our souls?

What does our insatiable desire for constant digital distraction indicate about our hearts?

What is our need to be endlessly entertained doing to us and–more specifically–what is it doing to our ability to hear God’s Word?

Here’s what Kierkegaard says in Provocations:

In observing the present state of affairs and of life in general, from a Christian point of view one would have to say: It is a disease. And if I were a physician and someone asked me, “What do you think should be done?” I would answer, “Create silence, bring about silence.” God’s Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy means, then it is not God’s Word; create silence!

This was over 150 years ago. Just think what he would say today.

Weaponizing diversions to ward off the harsher realities of life is nothing new. Writing two hundred years earlier than this, Blaise Pascal pinpointed the insidious underbelly of our need for constant distraction. Pascal recognized that filling our lives with noise is just another way to keep from thinking about how empty and painful life is. Here’s how he puts it in Pensees:

If our condition were truly happy we should feel no need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.

What both of these guys recognized is that our distractedness is actually just a symptom of a deeper spiritual malaise. When our greatest fear is spending five minutes alone with our own thoughts–without Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat or any of the countless other diversions to take our mind off of the present moment–we have a serious problem. We demand complete sensory overload, 24/7, and without it we feel lost.

We’re addicted to the noise, and in the midst of the hullabaloo, we cannot hear God’s voice.

As a kid I attended Bible Camp. I loved learning about God. I loved digging deep into the Scriptures. And my self-conscious, introverted self even came out of its turtle-shell to make a few friends here and there. Heck, I remember returning home from Bible camp in 3rd grade to boldly dump my “girlfriend” (named Chelsey) for another girl I’d seen across the baseball field at Bible Camp (also named Chelsey)–but whom I had yet to talk to (and never did). Bible Camp was a wonderful, magical place. What I did NOT look forward to, though, was the hype. Every year, as the car pulled up the long, windy drive and I saw the wide-eyed, uber-exuberant counselors holding up signs and frothing at the mouth with love for Jesus, I started to get a little nervous. Add to that the typical camp shenanigans, enough mandatory fist-pumping and cheering to rival an NFL locker room, and the all-around screaming and yelling that I just assumed was inseparable from the Gospel, and you get a taste of what I mean. Why–I remember wondering as a kid–is all of this noise necessary? And what in the world does it have to do with the God of Scripture? I apparently failed to see the obvious connection between loving my neighbor and diving headfirst down a slip-n-slide filled with whipped cream.

Why do we find silence so terrifying? Why do we feel the need to fill every waking minute with more and more noise and then–if there’s NOT noise–to manufacture it?

The very things we think will give us rest actually fill our hearts with restlessness. The things that are supposed to divert us and entertain us and relieve the tension of the moment actually fill us with anxiety. And yet we pursue the noise, knowing full well it will never satisfy. We’ll do anything to avert the silence…to avoid the terrifying prospect of genuine reflection. We’re DOers. And to not DO, but just BE–even for a moment–is death.

That is partly what Augustine meant when he said, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.”

And, as another a wise man once said, “Only ONE thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). And that one thing doesn’t require you to do anything.

Are you weary, today? Weary of the noise? Weary of this overstimulated and diversion-obsessed world which tells you that to stop is to die?

What if I told you that the doing was DONE? What if I told you that it truly is finished (John 19:28)? And what if I told you that there is someone in whom you can find rest from all of the noise?

So how about you reach over to that endless treadmill you’ve been running on…flip the power switch…breathe deep…and stay a while? How about you kneel down at the feet of Jesus and hear His words to you today, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And how about you–just this once–pull out your earphones, turn off the noise, and step into the silence.

Who knows? It might not be as bad as you think.







The Myth of the Liminal

There’s a pernicious lie that’s made its way into our hearts, homes, and churches. Like all effective lies, it comes disguised as piety, cloaked in self-righteousness, and topped with a bright shiny bow. And, oh yeah—it looks great on bumper stickers!

The lie is this: God’s Got a Plan for Your Life.

Now, first of all, let’s put all of our cards on the table.

Yes, God loves you (John 3:16). Yes, he has ordained all of your days (Psalm 139:16). And yes, he has even prepared good works in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10).

And there is also, of course, a sense in which God’s hand is sovereignly at work, guiding everything toward his saving purposes and making all things new. His end game is clear, and he is continually working to restore and redeem a lost and broken world through the shed blood of His Son. That is “THE” Plan, and there’s nothing secret about it.

But that’s not what we typically mean when we use the word “plan.” What we’re talking about is a personalized blueprint on which every square inch of our life is mapped out. Every decision. Every job. Every dating relationship. It’s all there, and—by God—we better follow that blueprint to a “T” if we don’t want the whole house of cards to come crashing down! So we sweat and we pray and we tread water as the tides of anxiety rise, hoping against hope that our Architect God will step out of His air-conditioned office long enough to affirm that we’re following His plans correctly.

That’s a lot of pressure!

Consider Jeremiah 29:11, possibly the most oft-quoted (and misquoted) passage of Scripture in the entire Bible:  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

What we so conveniently forget is that Jeremiah’s listeners are captives in a foreign land, some of whom will never got to see the “future” or “hope” that the prophet speaks of—the return to their homeland.

So what were God’s plans for them?

What are God’s plans for us? The exiles. The ones who wait. The ones caught in some in-between, transitional stage of life.

Where is God in these liminal spaces?

Transition is the new norm in our day-and-age. According to a recent survey, the average millennial expects to stay at their job less than three years. That adds up to 15-20 jobs over the course of a lifetime! That’s a lot of in-between. That’s a lot of liminal.

Whether it’s hunting for a job, waiting on test results, or once again setting an extra place at the table as we wait for the return of our Prodigal, these in-between seasons are all too familiar. Often they’re painful. Sometimes they’re tedious and last longer than we think we can bear. Yet we know God has a plan, and so we endure.

But what if this “plan” that we’re waiting for God to unfold…this “plan” that we’re hoping he’ll soon reveal…this “plan” that he’s going to eventually put into action…what if this waiting room that we think of as “liminal” or “transitory” or “in-between” WAS the plan? What if the hope that the prophet promises isn’t just a flickering flame at the end of the tunnel, but is here and now in THIS moment—not just future tense, but present? What if God isn’t just preparing us for the next thing? What if this IS the thing? How would that matter?

The ones who need plans are those who don’t know what to do next. The offense looks to the quarterback for the game plan when they need to know the next play. The students look to their teacher to provide a daily lesson plan. The patient looks to their doctor to prescribe treatment plan—because they’re utterly clueless as to what steps they should take next.

But God hasn’t left us without a clue. In fact, he has revealed—quite clearly—what we are to do. Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

 What is God’s plan for your life? It’s this, plain, simple, and clear. How exactly you go about doing it—that’s up to you. That’s what Christian Freedom is all about.  That’s what friends and family are for. And that’s why He gives us the gift of godly wisdom.

Not the answer you were looking for? Maybe not.

Boring? Possibly.

But that’s what typically happens when sinful, finite human beings blurt out our childish mumblings to an omniscient, omnipotent God. We don’t get the answers we want because we don’t even know what questions to ask! Like Job, we sift through the dirt while God answers us from the whirlwind (Job 38:2): “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

We’re like two-year olds, waddling around in diapers and trying to do calculus.

And while were kicking and screaming and demanding to see beyond the veil, God quietly, humbly came down from Heaven and provided another way. A scandalous way. A way that we would never in a million years expect or accept or fathom.

This is a different kind of God. A God who works through reversals and scandals and wrestlings and whales and spit and clay. A God who gives an answer we don’t want to a problem we don’t think we have in a shape we don’t like: The Cross.

But it is here at the Cross that all of our questions are finally answered. Not in the form we want. Not in the form we like. But in the form we need. And it is here in the Liminal—as He hangs between Heaven & Earth—that the Liminal itself is finally brought to an end.

The curtain is torn.

The way to the Father is bridged.

And you and I—dear brothers and sisters—have a past, present, and future that is secure as the Cross itself.

That’s the plan, and I’m sticking to it.

When Bad Guys Win

If you still haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War, do yourself a favor right now: Close your browser, buy a ticket, and head over to your local movie theater. You can thank me later.

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead)

Infinity War isn’t your average superhero movie, namely because the villain isn’t your average villain. His name is Thanos, and he’s out to conquer the universe. This isn’t some street thug jeopardizing the safety of Peter Parker’s beloved Queens. He’s not trying to oust Tony Stark from his billionaire playboy throne. And he’s not here to bury the hatchet over an old grudge with Cap’. This is serious stuff. Playtime is over. Thanos has his sights set much higher. His quest for the Infinity Stones is driven by an insatiable desire for power, and he won’t take NO for an answer. His maniacal, psychopathic behavior is a force to be reckoned with, and we feel the weight of it bearing down on us with each passing minute of the film. The stakes here are incredibly high, and it takes the combined efforts of every last superhero and then some to attenuate the onslaught.

Following the formulaic Marvel plot, the forces of GOOD and BAD clash in one epic, climactic battle for the soul of the universe. And then, just when all hope seems lost…just when it seems like the Bad Guy might win…he does. Thanos acquires the last Infinity Stone, snaps his fingers, and—just like that—half of every life form in the universe is snuffed out. And that includes the Avengers.

In one particularly moving scene, we see Tony Stark cradling a young Peter Parker in his arms as the boy cries out to him, “Please, Mr. Stark, I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”

The movie ends. The credits roll. And you’re left in stunned silence.

There will be no deus ex machina today.

What are we to make of this? This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down. What happened to “Good always beats evil,” or “Light always pierces the darkness?”

Infinity War forces us to come to grips with an uncomfortable reality: Sometimes, the Bad Guys really DO win.

Now, of course there are ways around this. There are ways we can console ourselves. Movie buffs know that you should never leave a Marvel film without sticking around for the closing credits, because there’s usually some hidden gem that reveals what’s coming next. So, it is possible to find some comfort in the fact that we know this isn’t the end of the story.

But here’s the thing: The Avengers don’t know that. The people of earth who just lost their loved ones don’t know that. For them, in that awful moment of horrific pain and confusion, the Bad Guy really did win. They don’t have the luxury of knowing that another movie is just around the corner, and that some of the wrongs will (in all likelihood) be made right.

In life as in the movies, sometimes the Bad Guys really DO win, and it’s important to affirm this.

Sometimes cancer really does kill, robbing a young wife and child of the husband and father they assumed they’d spend a lifetime with. And in the grief and loss and utter bewilderment of the moment, try as they might, they cannot see beyond the veil. The bad guy won.

Sometimes divorce really does happen, violently tearing asunder the lives of two people that God seemed to have so intricately woven together. Another victim lies on roadside from Jerusalem to Jericho, naked, robbed, and broken—with no Good Samaritan in sight. The bad guy won.

Sometimes layoffs occur. Sometimes prodigals don’t return. Sometimes depression and anxiety come back, and the joy is sucked from our marrow.

This side of Heaven, sometimes the Bad Guys really DO win.

And when these moments arrive, it’s tempting for us to jump over them.  It’s tempting for us to say, “I know things may be rough right now, but trust me—God’s got a plan for all of this!”

The problem, though, is that when we tell someone in the midst of such a situation, “Look, I know it may feel this way right now, but…” (fill in the blank with your favorite Bible verse or platitude), what we’re actually tell them is, “It’s not REALLY this way right now.” We’re telling them we know better. We’re saying that, as big and scary as the Bad Guy might seem to them—he’s really not all that bad. And by the way, don’t worry, because there’s a sequel coming! In short, we’re trying to tell them that the Bad Guy did NOT win when, in fact, he actually did.

When we ask people to think canonically (big-picture) about their pain, it belittles the suffering of the present moment, and it severs the vocal cords of the prophet crying in the wilderness, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

Those in the tumult of pain don’t have the luxury of knowing what’s coming next, and we shouldn’t presume to know either.

In our efforts to get to the joy of Easter, it’s important that we not skip over the fear and trembling of Holy Saturday. The disciples sure didn’t! They didn’t have the luxury of cracking open their NIV’s to see exactly what was coming in the next chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, because they were living in the midst of it! They didn’t get to say, “Wow. This sure sucks now. But hey, at least Easter is coming, right guys?!”

Sometimes we’d rather quote the end of the story than enter into the middle of a chapter someone might be struggling through—and we often do this more for ourselves than for the good of the one who is suffering. It’s just easier to keep that level of pain at arms-length, and in doing so we can escape the brutal reality of the moment.

It’s easy, for example, to quote Isaiah 40:31 (But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint) to someone in the throes of despair.

But—as well-intentioned and even Biblical as such attempts may be—they can actually do great damage. Because what such an attitude conveys is that the Bad Guy isn’t really as bad as he seems. Sometimes words intended to be hopeful, then, actually spring from selfish motives. We’ll do anything to avoid entering into the pain with them.

Of course, we know we’re called to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), but the prescribed time for that season of mourning is about thirty seconds or so—right? Anything longer is just excruciating.

We’ll go to the greatest of lengths to avoid chalking up an actual win to the bad guy.

But if things truly aren’t all that bad and are instead just little roadbumps on the way to our glorious destination, then there’s no need for a rescue…is there? If Thanos didn’t really win, what need would there be for a sequel?

It’s at this point that the Cross must be allowed to speak, because only the Cross provides a framework big enough to support the pain of the moment. At the Cross we join our “Why’s” with those of Jesus, who too cried out in the midst of His pain and confusion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the crucible of suffering, our voices merge with those of the Crucified One and spiral upward in a Heaven-rending cacophony to the Father—a Father who manifested His infinite love in the most foolish shape imaginable: A Cross. And it is in this very Cross—which seemed at the time to be an instrument of torture—that we ultimately find salvation.

In the Cross, we discover the skeleton key which unlocks the hidden dimensions of our Heavenly Father’s loving heart. Our hurt is his hurt. Our loss is His loss. Our grief is His grief. As it says in Hebrews 4:15a: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses.

The Cross might not provide the personal meaning we were hoping to find in our pain. It might not give sense to the sheer senselessness of the moment. And it might not tell us that something good is always just around the corner.

But it does tell us that we are not alone. And not only that, but we have an Advocate who fights for us, and who will never leave us nor forsake us.

Sometimes the Bad Guy really does win.

But when we see things through Cross-shaped lenses, we see them differently. Now we know that the Bad Guy winning is NOT a sign that God has abandoned us. When the Bad Guy thrusts his spear into the heart of the Good Guy on the Cross…the Good Guy really is killed. But remember: This Good Guy is for you, and ultimately, YES, He will overpower the Bad Guy.

But for now, he walks beside you. He reminds you of His promises. And He reminds you that the pain you’re feeling right now…He’s felt it too.

You have an advocate. You are not alone. You are loved unconditionally. And that is enough.

Plus, without the Bad Guys winning, we wouldn’t yearn for that sequel, would we?

And of course, as we all know, everyone loves a good sequel.

Confessions of a Shepherd-in-Training

Shepherding sounds romantic, doesn’t it?

You commune with nature, spend your nights camping under the stars, and fill the rest of your glorious hours on grassy hillsides, keeping an eye on your docile sheep and—in your spare time—writing poetry and taking naps. There’s nothing to harry the life of a shepherd. You don’t have the hustle and bustle of an anxious world to crowd out your thoughts. It’s just you, your sheep, and the wide open countryside. What could possibly go wrong?

I recently made the vocational switch to pastor (a.k.a. a spiritual “shepherd”) and I must admit, I found those greener pastures particularly enticing.

The vocation of a shepherd seems straightforward enough. You care for your sheep. You feed them. You watch over them. You keep the wolves at bay. You bring back the strays. And to do all of this, the shepherd has his two trusty tools: The rod and the staff. The rod is a short club that he keeps at his waist, while the staff is a longer instrument with a circular “crook” on the end. When a sheep is stubborn and endangers the flock, the shepherd uses the force of the rod, so the rod is an instrument of discipline. But if a sheep is wandering, the shepherd uses the staff to gently guide them home, or he might apply the crook to lift them free of a small gully. The staff, then, is an instrument of rescue.

Two instruments; two distinct purposes. You’d THINK it would be obvious which one is required for each situation. Is the sheep trapped in a ravine? Grab your staff. Is the sheep leading the flock astray? That’s what the rod is for. Easy-peasy…right?

Perhaps for a more experienced shepherd that may be the case. But for a shepherd-in-training who has yet to learn how to properly wield his tools—not so much.

Sometimes a sheep needs gentle guidance, but instead of providing support, the shepherd-in-training pulls out his rod and roughly raps them over the head. Or maybe the situation is reversed. There might be a genuine danger which calls for the use of some force, but the shepherd is more comfortable gently trying to guide the sheep with his staff.

The right tool is needed for the job, but for the shepherd-in-training, this decision is not always obvious. And that makes the learning process painful for the sheep, who have to patiently wait by while the shepherd-in-training learns how to properly do his job, accidentally leading the flock into dry pasture, forgetting to watch for predators, and bonking perfectly good sheep over the head for no reason at all. The struggle is real!

My wife and I recently acquired a shepherd-in-training of our very own—a miniature Australian shepherd, to be more precise. Pilgrim is a year-and-a-half old now, and he recently began training to become a therapy dog. Any illusions we may have harbored for an easy training process, however, were quickly shattered. To be fair, there ARE a few things he consistently does well; namely sitting and eating. But beyond this, he’s pretty much a loose cannon. Sometimes he comes when we call his name—but not always. Sometimes he drops the pieces of trash that he swipes from the garbage when we tell him to do so—but only if he feels like it. Sometimes he sounds the alarm when the UPS man arrives (a useful habit), and other times he barks at absolutely nothing (a particularly UN-useful and annoying habit). We’re praying that his future therapy “patients” will at least have a sense of humor. In the meantime, our shepherd-in-training ambles around the house completely unruffled, chest held high, having no clue how far he has to go.

But there is grace here. There is grace for the shepherd-in-training. Because, when he makes a mess, there’s always a second chance…and a third…and a fourth. There’s always forgiveness. When he tears a sock to shreds, his trainers are always there to clean up the mess and give him a fresh start. And within thirty seconds he’s happily trotting around again like nothing happened in the first place.

That’s what grace does. It bestows forgiveness when none is deserved. It wipes the slate clean. And it doesn’t count our sins against us.

Grace does not distinguish between deserving and undeserving. It is poured out equally and lavishly on all.

There is grace for the sheep.

There is grace for the shepherd.

And thanks be to God that there is even enough grace left for the shepherd-in-training.

For that, I am eternally thankful.