Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fighting Anger with Faith

“Cory, you need to stop being angry with God.” These were the words of advice that a mentor gave me a few months ago. Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly convinced that my mentor was right. I’ve been angry with God. I’ve begun to see how living in this anger impacts my life. And I’ve seen how crucial it is that we live not by emotions or our circumstances but by my faith in Jesus Christ.

In the movie, “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood plays a Korean War veteran who is facing life after the death of his wife. Following his wife’s death, Eastwood’s character is irritable, argumentative, blasphemous, and self-righteous. He is angry because the world is not as he thinks it should be. His wife is gone. No one can get anything right: his children and grandchildren are dishonoring; his neighborhood has become run down (or at least it has in his mind); even the priest who comforted his dying wife through her last days doesn’t have enough life experience (in his own mind) to provide him with any encouragement or counsel.

In watching this film, I was struck by how much of myself I saw in Eastwood’s character. While I haven’t acted out my anger in the same ways portrayed by Eastwood’s character, I can see in the character’s actions the intentions of my own angry heart. I’ve become angry with family and friends. Heather and I have battled self-pity since Micah’s death. Even when I know that people mean well, I have not exercised the patience necessary to give them the benefit of the doubt. Like the Eastwood character, I’ve become self-righteous and indignant about the shortcomings of others.

But for the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, I would continue in a spiral of anger and self-pity. In a discipleship journal for Campus Crusade for Christ, Ron and Della Proctor say, “Faith is believing that the Bible is true regardless of circumstances, emotions or cultural trends.” Having the gift of faith in Christ truly has significant practial implications to one's grief.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Notice what the verse does NOT say. Paul does not say “Give thanks FOR all circumstances.” He says “give thanks IN all circumstances.” We can only give thanks if the reason for our thanksgiving is completely independent from our circumstances. We are not called to thank God that Micah died; we are called, however, to thank God that he is somewhere moving, even through this terrible set of circumstances. We are called to give thanks to a sovereign God.

Among other things, this means that we must remove any self-pity from our lives. Self-pity is sinful because it shows that we love circumstances over our relationship with God. It also means that we feel that we “deserve” to find ourselves in certain circumstances, such as having children, and that God is not giving us what is “rightfully” ours. Instead, we should live lives of thanksgiving because of how God is using our circumstances to make us more like Him.

This also means that we must continually look to God, for God's help is always there, "an ever present help in times of trouble" (Psalm 46:1). Hebrews 4:12 says that the Word is “sharper than any doubled-edged sword…it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” How a person responds to deep grief demonstrates what is truly going on in their heart—that is, what a person truly values. To my dismay, I’ve found that my responses of anger and self-pity have shown how much I have valued my family, my job and my circumstances even over my relationship with God. The double-edged sword has cut through my "life motives"--and I have found that my own life motives are far too tied up in my own circumstances. If who I am is defined by my circumstances, then in many instances life would not be worth living.

But thanks be to God, for he has shown us a way, in Jesus Christ, both in life and at death. In Romans 15, Paul says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13. Praise be to God, for through the Holy Spirit's power he has made a way out of anger and self-pity.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mystery v. Absurdity

In his book, "God in the Dark," Os Guiness describes what it means to trust in God through pain.

“Christians do not say, 'I do not understand you at all, but I trust you anyway.' Rather we say, 'I do not understand you in this situation, but I understand why I trust you anyway. Therefore I can trust that you understand even though I don’t.'

If we do not know why we trust God in the beginning, then we will always need to know exactly what God is doing in order to trust him. Failing to grasp that, we may not be able to continue trusting him, for anything we do not understand may count decisively against what we are able to trust.

If, on the other hand, we do know why we trust God, we will be able to trust him in situations where we do not understand what he is doing. It may be mystery to us, but mystery is only inscrutable; what would be insufferable is absurdity. Faith does not know why in terms of the immediate, but it knows why it trusts God who knows why in terms of the ultimate.” Os Guinness, God in the Dark.

Micah's death is a mystery, but not an absurity. We must suffer through our remaining lifetime not having the answer as to why. But we can trust God with the fact that there is a reason why He called Micah home so soon. Micah did not die without purpose; he did not die in absurdity.

While we currently don't know why God allowed Micah to die, we trust God because He has shown us that He is worthy of our trust. "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who have been called according to his purpose." Romans 8:28. Time and again in our own lives, we can look back and see how God's hand was in the midst of our trials. Time and again in scripture, we see how God demonstrated his faithfulness to those who loved him.

Among the many stories of redemption in the book of Genesis is the story of Joseph. As a boy, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, who were jealous of the special attention that Joseph's father paid to him. After some significant "ups and downs" in his life, Joseph eventually became the most powerful leader in the nation of Egpypt outside of the Pharaoh himself. Many years later, when Joseph's brothers came to Egypt looking for food in the midst of a famine in their own land, Joseph was able to save his brothers. As Joseph told his brothers in Egypt, "You meant [selling me into slavery] for evil, but God meant it for good.

In this regard, the Cross of Christ is the ultimate display of God accomplishing a great ultimate objective through great suffering. No one can accuse God of handing out "the bitter pill" to others without swallowing the same bitter pill himself. In the cross, we see that Jesus, the son, and God, the Father, taste the bitter pill of death and separation. While I didn't allow my son to die, God the Father did allow His Son to die. Jesus showed us that no one can go lower than God Himself did when he sent his own son to die on the cross. As Guiness stated, "None of us can sink so low that God has not gone lower still."

God accomplished salvation through the suffering and death of his Son on the cross. His great ulimate objective was accomplished. While His purposes for Micah are still a mystery to me, we grieve the death of our son in the hope that God's purposes were in fact accomplished through Micah's little life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jesus, Bless Micah

Soon after Micah was born, Heather’s mom purchased a little ceramic cross, which we hung up in Micah’s room. The little cross reads, “Jesus, bless this little boy and keep him always in your care.”

During the first few months following Micah’s death, seeing and reading the cross occasioned a few moments of great anguish in my heart. I asked God, Was Micah really in your care? In those last moments when he could not breathe, were you, God, really caring for him? Were you, God, really blessing this little boy when his breath was stopped after so little time with his parents? Was it a blessing, God, to take him away from parents who loved him more than their own lives?

A well-meaning individual recently commented on one of my recent blog posts by leaving a poem about death and grieving. The poem intends to convey the notion that a deceased loved one, or at least our memories of them, lives on through our own sensory experiences. The poem states, in part, “I did not die…I am the sunlight on ripened grains..I am the autumn rain.” With respect, I must say that this is precisely what I DON’T take comfort in. All of my sensory experiences that I experience only bring more pain because of the fact that I am not experiencing life with Micah. If this world is all there is, there is absolutely no redeeming value to trying to remember our deceased in a positive manner because the permanency to the end of such a short-lived existence would be too great a burden for anyone to bear.

In these times of heartache, our only source for comfort is our faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who has promised to resurrect Micah. The author of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. ” Hebrews 11:1. Rather than focus on what we see (the “sunlight on the ripened grain”) or hear (“the autumn rain), we trust in a loving and sovereign God who is working in our lives in ways that we cannot see, hear or touch. By the gift of faith, Heather and I have been able to rest the promise that God is blessing us even though we can’t necessarily see or taste or touch God’s goodness to us and to Micah.

Pastor Kenny Stokes has reminded me that many of the Biblical saints had very little understanding, during times of immense trial, of how God would use their faith for His kingdom purposes. For example, when Stephen was stoned, how could he have known that his stoning would help lead to the spread of the church? Indeed, the author of Hebrews summarizes how certain individuals in the Old Testament lived by faith despite the fact that they did not see the promises of God come to fruition during their earthly lifetimes. “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:13-16.

The Apostle Paul made no secret of the fact that, for those of us who do live by faith, our sufferings will bear no comparison to the glory at the resurrection. “…This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18. C.S. Lewis, in comparing earthly suffering to heavenly glory, stated “They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” C.S. Lewis, Great Divorce, 64.

Rather than this little ceramic cross being the source of anguish, this little cross has become a reminder of God’s promises for us and for Micah. While we don’t know why He allowed this to happen, we trust that God is somehow blessing Micah and blessing us through the otherwise terrible events of the last week of July in 2009. I pray that those of us who call on the name of Christ resolve to live in the hope of the resurrection (“what is unseen”) rather than merely on what is "seen."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Strength for Each Day

About a year ago, Heather and I read the popular book, “The Shack.” The book follows the story of Mack, a middle-aged man who left home to revisit the site in the Oregon wilderness where his young daughter had been kidnapped and murdered. During his weekend with God (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), God allows Mack to see his daughter, now in Heaven. As Heather and I read the book together, we remember remarking that we could not imagine ever losing a child. We remember now discussing how such a loss would be too difficult to possibly bear.

Throughout the past 7-plus months since Micah’s death, there have been points when Heather or I (or both of us) have said to ourselves, “This is it. I can’t go on.” There are some days when we are totally exhausted; other days are easier. But regardless of the difficulty, God gets us through each day. Heather recently completed the Beth Moore study entitled ,“Stepping Up.” Moore encourages us to consider how God sustains us daily, and give us grace for each day, regardless of exactly what trials each new day brings. God has sustained us through burying our son. He sustained us through the trial of marking his 1st birthday without him. He has sustained us every day since Micah’s death.

Isaiah 40:28-31: “Have you not known. Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not be faint."

Similarly, the Psalmist praises God for the strength he gives us for each new day. Psalm 84:5 “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they grow through the valley of Baca [sorrow], they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.”

Heather and I can attest to how God seems to give us the strength we need each new day to face that particular day's new trials. Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Matthew 6:34. We have tried to apply Jesus' admonition so as to avoid projecting how difficult it will be in the years ahead to live without Micah.

Instead, we've learned to try to focus on each day. Like the Israelistes in the Desert, we are given just enough manna-just enough bread and strength each day. Not too much—otherwise we would probably become prideful in our overabundance of strength we have been provided. It seems like we are given just enough to be sustained, and to continue to trust in him for our "daily bread."

Heather and I have found that we can rest in the promises in His word that he will always give us the strength to meet each new day’s new challenges.

“Day by Day”

Day by Day, and with each passing moment, Strength I find to meet my trials here; Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, I’ve no cause for worry or for fear. He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure, Gives unto each day what He deems best. Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure, Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Every day, the Lord Himself is near me. With a special mercy for each hour; All my cares He fain would bear and cheer me, He whose name is Counselor and Power. The protection of His child and treasure Is a charge that on Himself He laid; “As thy days, they strength shall be in measure,” This is the pledge to me He made.