Why We Can Have Christmas Cheer Amidst Loss

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I’ve been thinking about writing this post and what I would write for this entire week. It all started when I heard Casting Crowns’ rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on Pandora (Be sure to check it out! Video posted at the bottom of this post).

Given today’s (it was the same day when I started this post) events with the shooting at the elementary school in Connecticut, I thought it was only fitting to dedicate this little, measly as it is, post to those families who will be missing a little one around their tree this Christmas. I can’t even fathom that pain, even as tears stream down my cheeks.

“I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” is not among the popular Christmas carols/songs. I only heard of it as a child because the pastor, God used to lead my dad to Christ, loved it – his favorite carol. In fact, if you ever have heard this song, you may not be familiar with the story behind it. As both a lover of writing and history, I love finding what inspired people’s creations. For me, these little additions/discoveries are more exciting than a kid whose eyes light up upon opening a gift on Christmas morning.

This song was originally a poem, written on Christmas Day, 1863, by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His son, Charles, joined the Union cause in the Civil War, against his father’s wishes. Longfellow was informed his son was severely wounded in November. That, along with the recent death of his wife in an accidental fire, inspired this poem and words:

…in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth I said.

For hate is strong and mocks the song…

But then, through his pain, he rightly rejoices and see the sovereignty of God as his poem ends in hope:

God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail…

I’d like to refer to an article by Barnabas Piper, John Piper’s son, titled The tension between “God is good” and “It shouldn’t be this way” 

How are we to respond when we hear tragic news or when we experience something devastating?…It is a mix of “Why?” and “This shouldn’t have happened!” But for many of us, myself included, theology often catches up to instinct and says “Yeah, but God is sovereign” as if this is more true than out first reaction. This theological realization stands in direct opposition to the emotional response. Are we sit back and think that all is ok, then?

In these times of wracking grief it is the reality of God’s sovereignty that keeps us sane, keeps us afloat in our faith. But it is the grief itself that keeps us human and humane. These two realities exist in an inexplicable, symbiotic tension. Without knowledge of God’s goodness and sovereignty we risk a spiral of hopeless insanity. Without the reality of it-should-not-be-like-this grief we risk losing all connection to what God made us as human beings. With an over-emphasis on sovereignty we become emotionally retarded as we lose the ability to feel and acknowledge real human experience. With an over-emphasis on the emotion, the grief, we wallow in a La Brea tar pit of godless grief.

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Despite All Odds, Change Is Possible

Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:24)

Via John Piper: Christianity means change is possible. Deep, fundamental change. It is possible to become tenderhearted when once you were callous and insensitive. It is possible to stop being dominated by bitterness and anger. It is possible to become a loving person no matter what your background has been.

The Bible assumes that God is the decisive factor in making us what we should be. With wonderful bluntness, the Bible says, “Put away malice and be tenderhearted.” It does not say, “If you can…” Or: “If your parents were tender-hearted to you…” Or: “If you weren’t terribly wronged…” It says, “Be tender-hearted.”

This is wonderfully freeing. It frees us from the terrible fatalism that says change is impossible for me. It frees me from mechanistic views that make my background my destiny.

And God’s commands always come with freeing, life-changing truth to believe. For example,

  1. God adopted us as his children. We have a new Father and a new family. This breaks the fatalistic forces of our “family-of-origin.” “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for one is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).
  2. God loves us as his children. We are “loved children.” The command to imitate the love of God does not hang in the air, it comes with power: “Be imitators of God as loved children .” “Love!” is the command andbeing loved is the power.
  3. God has forgiven us in Christ. Be tender-hearted and forgiving just as God in Christ forgave you. What God did is power to change. The command to be tender-hearted has more to do with what God did for you than what your mother did to you. This kind of command means you can change.
  4. Christ loved you and gave himself up for you. “Walk in love just as Christ loved you.” The command comes with life-changing truth. “Christ loved you.” At the moment when there is a chance to love and some voice says, “You are not a loving person,” you can say, “Christ’s love for me makes me a new kind of person. His command to love is just as surely possible for me as his promise of love is true for me.

All God’s Commands Are Possible with God

Attacking Anxiety

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)

Great word from John Piper that I read today regarding various types of anxiety and doubts/fears that plague us. I know all of us struggle with some or all of these to some degree. I hope you will print out the article below or just pin up the verses somewhere (home, car, office, etc.) as a source to run to, meditate on and memorize when you’re being plagued by anxieties.

Here’s Piper:

When I am anxious about my ministry being useless and empty, I fight unbelief with the promise of Isaiah 55:11. “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

When I am anxious about being too weak to do my work, I battle unbelief with the promise of Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

When I am anxious about decisions I have to make about the future, I battle unbelief with the promise, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).

When I am anxious about facing opponents, I battle unbelief with the promise, “If God is for us, who is against us!” (Romans 8:31).

When I am anxious about the welfare of those I love, I battle unbelief with the promise that if I, being evil, know how to give good things to my children, how much more will the “Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11).

And I fight to maintain my spiritual equilibrium with the reminder that everyone who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for Christ’s sake “shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30).

When I am anxious about being sick, I battle unbelief with the promise, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:19).

And I take the promise with trembling: “Tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).

Future Grace, Multnomah Books (Colorado Springs, CO), pages 60–61

What to do if You Wake Up Feeling Fragile

“Our standing before God in Christ and our faith is not based on how we feel; much like how just because you “feel” fat doesn’t mean you’re fat. Fat is not a feeling.” – Tom Duke (my dad)

Do you ever wake up feeling especially low and unholy? I wish I could wake up every morning feeling invigorated and spiritually on fire. This morning, while waiting for my tire to be changed at Discount Tire (thank goodness they were brewing decent coffee), I was reading from my Bible reading plan “15 days in the Word with John Piper.” As I opened up the YouVersion app on my iPhone (because I’m high tech like that), the title leapt out at me; it made me do a quick double take, glance around the room and look back to once again read the title: “WHAT TO DO IF YOU WAKE UP FEELING FRAGILE” (yes, it really was in CAPS originally). My jaw hit the floor and my heart leapt with joy. I automatically asked, “Lord, how did you know? For me, Lord? Thank you!” Yes, I laughed at myself right after – duh, Rachel, He knows you needed to read this. I rejoice at precious moments like this! I was boggled, once again, by His awesomeness. Piper’s prayer and how he felt echoed my own earlier that morning, while I was still in bed. In moments when I see the nightmare of the filth of my soul and nothingness of my righteousness, I utterly despair and my insides weep with their aching. But, I am learning (too slowly) that they also should cause utter joy. “…I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Exodus 31:13). He rejoices in our efforts stemming from a heart of love for Him. And THAT should humble us gigantically, since our righteousness is like filthy rags.

C.S. Lewis appropriately refers to the process of sanctification as “the weight of glory.” These moments cause panic, like a child who wanders off from their parent and cries when they can’t find them again. These moments press on me this since of urgency and longing to know more of Christ, to taste more of His greatness, to delve further into His Word.

Here’s Piper:

There are mornings when I wake up feeling fragile. Vulnerable. It’s often vague. No single threat. No one weakness. Just an amorphous sense that something is going to go wrong and I will be responsible. It’s usually after a lot of criticism. Lots of expectations that have deadlines and that seem too big and too many.

As I look back over about 50 years of such periodic mornings, I am amazed how the Lord Jesus has preserved my life. And my ministry. The temptation to run away from the stress has never won out — not yet anyway. This is amazing. I worship him for it.

How has he done this? By desperate prayer and particular promises. I agree with Spurgeon: I love the “I wills” and the “I shalls” of God.

Instead of letting me sink into a paralysis of fear, or run to a mirage of greener grass, he has awakened a cry for help and then answered with a concrete promise.

Here’s an example. This is recent. I woke up feeling emotionally fragile. Weak. Vulnerable. I prayed: “Lord help me. I’m not even sure how to pray.”

An hour later I was reading in Zechariah, seeking the help I had cried out for. It came. The prophet heard great news from an angel about Jerusalem:

Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst. (Zechariah 2:4–5)

There will be such prosperity and growth for the people of God that Jerusalem will not be able to be walled in any more. “The multitude of people and livestock” will be so many that Jerusalem will be like many villages spreading out across the land without walls.

But walls are necessary! They are the security against lawless hordes and enemy armies. Villages are fragile, weak, vulnerable. Prosperity is nice, but what about protection?

To which God says in Zechariah 2:5, “I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord.” Yes. That’s it. That is the promise. The “I will” of God. That is what I need. And if it is true for the vulnerable villages of Jerusalem, it is true for me a child of God. God will be a “wall of fire all around me.” Yes. He will. He has been. And he will be.

And it gets better. Inside that fiery wall of protection he says, “And I will be the glory in her midst.” God is never content to give us the protection of his fire; he will give us pleasure of his presence.

This was sweet to me. This carried me for days. I took this with me to the pulpit. I took it with me to family gatherings. I took it to staff meetings. I took it to phone calls and emails.

This has been my deliverance every time since I was first marking my King James Bible at age 15. God has rescued me with cries for help and concrete promises. This time he said: “I will be to her a wall of fire all around, and I will be the glory in her midst.”

Cry out to him. Then ransack the Bible for his appointed promise. We are fragile. But he is not.

Friends Who Fail You

“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9

I stumbled across this post by John Piper on Desiring God, and it did, in fact, strike a chord with me and I know this issue impacts us all. We’ve all been on both sides of this equation. I wanted to share this with you all. Now I want to listen to his message on it. Have a wonderful day!

Piper on Friends Who Fail You:

Last Sunday’s message struck a chord with many when I spoke of Christian friends letting you down. I argued that sometimes they forsake you never to return — like Demas. He loved “the present world,” and so abandoned the great apostle who craved the Lord’s appearing more than he craved the world (2 Timothy 4:8).

And, even more relevant, we saw that many friends let you down but can and should remain your friends and your partners in ministry. Paul said that nobody from his team or from the church in Rome showed up to stand by him at his trial (2 Timothy 4:16). Nobody. Not Luke or Eubulus or Pudens or Linus or Claudia or any of “the brothers” (2 Timothy 4:21).

Nevertheless Paul graciously includes them with himself in greeting Timothy, and writes, “May it not be charged against them!” (2 Timothy 4:16). Amazing. Beautiful. Their fellowship survived this painful moment of abandonment.

After the sermon one of my own partners in ministry, Amanda Knoke, Director of Communications at Bethlehem, pointed me to C. S. Lewis’s wise words on this issue. Here’s what he said to “An American Lady.”

I think what one has to remember when people “hurt” one is that in 99 cases out of a 100 they intended to hurt very much less, or not at all, and are often quite unconscious of the whole thing. I’ve learned this from the cases in which I was the “hurter.” When I have been really wicked and angry and meant to be nasty, the other party never cared or even didn’t notice. On the other hand, when I have found out afterwards that I had deeply hurt someone, it has dearly always been quite unconscious on my part. (C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, Grand Rapids, 1967, 57)

Amanda connected this with Proverbs. 19:11, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”

Yes. And we should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who was abandoned by all 11 of his apostles, and was denied by Peter. Then he built the church on them!

We look to Jesus not only because he was the great model of holding onto friends who let him down, but also because he died and rose again to be the joyful bond of broken and restored friendships.

So keep Jesus before your eyes, and pray this into your heart: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7–8).

Whatever you do, don’t let the failure of your Christian friends become the basis for abandoning the one Friend who never fails.

Shalom,

Rachel B. Duke

Don’t Let Discouragement Choke You

 

Jon Bloom, president of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched in 1994, wrote on a topic that, as Aragorn said, “would take the heart of me.”

I especially needed to hear it today as I am about to embark on my first ever bike “race” Hotter ‘n Hell this weekend. I must confess I’m nervous for several reasons: mostly because I’ve never done it before; afraid I will get on the wrong course; someone will collide into me and something bloody happen; bonking (when you’re body is zapped of everything and you just collapse). But out of all of it there’s an underlying fear and prayer: that I won’t become frustrated and impatient with myself (it will project to others around me too) at my lack of skills/speed. I will have to fight feeling discouragement. It all boils down to faith and perspective. I need to honestly realize where I am as a beginner cyclist, and realize I have a lot to work towards. I don’t need to beat myself up that I “suck,” but take heart and realize that I can only get better with time and practice. I also need to enjoy myself and realize how I have progressed under Chris’ wonderful, patient training. Oh, and I need to fight against my stupid pride and just accept that there will ALWAYS be someone better than me, and that’s OK.

We all face discouragement and we tend to fuel it with doubts and frustration and impatience – a lack of faith. How do you cope with yours? Read Bloom’s article below:

Discouragement is a temptation “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). And in dealing with it sometimes we need tenderness and other times we need toughness. But either way discouragement is not to be tolerated or wallowed in. It’s to be fought.

If we linger in discouragement it can be costly. Its sense of defeat and hopelessness saps us of energy and vision. It can consume a lot of time. It can keep us from doing what we need to do because we don’t want to face it. And it can even be contagious, weakening others’ faith.

When we feel discouraged we want comfort, which is right to feel. But the comforts we often turn to are ways to avoid our fears rather than ways to muster our courage to face and overcome them. When this happens discouragement simply becomes sinful indulgence in unbelief, no different than indulging in lust or anger or other sins of unbelief.

Jesus does not want us to be discouraged. In fact, he commands us not to be. Listen to what Jesus says to his disciples just before what probably was the most discouraging experience of their lives — his brutal death: “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1, emphasis added).

Note Jesus’s words, “let not.” These are not merely comforting; they are commands. He knew they would be tempted to fear. Things were going to look very bad, like the whole mission was imploding. What were they to do instead of being afraid? Believe! “Believe in God; believe also in me.”

In other words, “Don’t let your hearts be ruled by what you see. Let them be ruled by what I promise you.” And that’s what he’s saying to you and me too.

What’s tempting you to discouragement today? Are you having a hard time believing that God really will work for good what looks so bad to you (Romans 8:28)?

Then it’s time to fight, not pout or shrink. Think of discouragement as your faith being choked. When you’re choking, it’s not the time to plop down in front of the TV with a plate of comfort food to medicate your melancholy. You need to dislodge the obstruction so you can breathe. You need to fight for life. You may need to get someone to give you the Heimlich.

Go get encouragement — faith-fueled courage. Don’t let discouragement choke you. It’s dislodged by believing promises. God gave us the Bible so that “through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). It says amazing things like:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35,37)

Don’t let your heart be ruled by what you see. Let it be ruled by what Jesus promises you.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Shalom,

Rachel B. Duke

Instant Gratification vs. Eternal Satisfaction

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.” “That is because you are older, little one,” answered he. “Not because you are?” “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” – Prince Caspian (C.S. Lewis)

So often (sadly) we fail to see the big picture. Why? The simple answer is because we rely and look to our human instincts and ergo, we’re limited. Think of it this way: Ninety percent of a glacier is underwater. That’s a TON of ice you can’t see. Is it there even though you can’t see the full glacier? Absolutely.

Even in reading through Scripture we can view Bible stories and characters as individual happenings. We fail to see the overarching theme that weaves them all together and how God is continually pointing to His glory and the gospel (the cross of Christ and the coming of His eternal kingdom). We can never be guilty of giving God too much glory, but the old man in us is fighting to make God small and to fit him in a box where we can bring him down to our level of understanding.

Because we fail to acutely feel the weight of how we grieve Christ and the eternal implications of our actions, we aim for instant gratification, much like Esau who sold his birthright to Jacob to fill his belly or like the prodigal son who didn’t want to wait for his inheritance. We look at them, but do we see them in our own hearts in how we act or think? Sure, what they did seems big to our minds if we compare them to us and we might even be tempted to think, “Ha, how stupid was Esau. Seriously? I’d never do something that foolish.” In reality, your “little” failings are no less sinful than what Esau did.

That’s why I love the analogy Paul gives of the athlete. Who’s excited about the Olympics? It is right around the corner and it only happens every four years. These men and women have trained rigorously and sacrificed so much. They have a goal. “I press on toward the goal for the upward prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3: 14-15). There’s a lot of discipline involved. If you workout, bike, run, etc. — you have to eat a certain way to get certain results, you have to push your body and there are times where you want to quit or just rest or do anything but.

So, how do we see the big picture, have the eyes of our hearts opened and grow so that Christ becomes bigger and we become smaller? The direct answer: Faith. Faith IS seeing. How do we get more faith? I’d encourage you and myself to continue to pray for more of the Holy Spirit, diligently reading His Word, hiding it in our hearts, disciplining (“beating our bodies black and blue,” as Paul the apostle says) our hearts and minds. Old habits die hard and new habits are even harder to form. Prayer, a spiritual mentor/friend and diving into the Bible are so vital in making our hearts more aware of our secret sins.

I love what Matt Chandler, head pastor at the Village Church says in his recent book on the gospel:

The gospel of Jesus is epic. When Jesus says he saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky, he is saying that the gospel is about the overthrow of evil itself, not just about our sinful behavior. When Jesus casts out demons, he is saying that the gospel is about his authority and God’s sovereignty. When Jesus heals the sick and the lame, he is saying that the gospel is about the eradication of physical brokenness. When Jesus feeds the five thousand, he is saying that the gospel is about God’s abundant provision through Christ to a world of hunger. When Jesus walks on water or calms the storm, he is saying that the gospel is about his lordship over the chaos of fallen creation. When Jesus confounds the religious leaders, overturns table, tells rich people it will be hard for them, renders unto Caesar, enters the city on a jackass, predicts the temple’s destruction, and stands silent before the political rulers, he is saying the gospel has profound effects on our systems. When Jesus forgives sin and raises the dead, he is saying the gospel is about individuals being born again, but he’s also saying that the gospel is about his conquest of sin and death.

– Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel

Do we see the bigger overarching theme? As Chandler pointed out, there’s a deeper more poignant theme running through what often we treat as individual stories or messages. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re powerful and God-glorifying in themselves, but how much more so when we realize what they all point to and are about: the cross and his kingdom. In both the chaos and tragedy, the victories and laughter, he is in and glorified through it all. As John Piper says, God is not an ambulance. Nothing takes him by surprise. The shooting in Aurora, Colorado didn’t. Was he grieved? Absolutely. Was he glorified? Absolutely. You might have this question at the back of your head: Why does God allow bad things to happen? (click the hyperlink to go to my blog on this topic). Tim Keller also has a fabulous sermon on that very question: Suffering: If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?

Let me end with these closing questions. Which perspective do you look at your circumstances and base your decisions? Temporal or eternal? Which do you find infinitely more gratifying and full of hope and peace?

Shalom,

Rachel B. Duke