Uprooted | Nostalgic | Homesick

How often do you catch yourself reliving the best days of your life, your “Summer of 69”? Do you miss your old home, “watching the sunset over the Castle on the Hill”?  Listening  to songs such as these can evoke feelings of nostalgia.

The term was fist coined by 17th century Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, combining two Greek words: nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain) .  He was alarmed at the number of Swiss mercenaries deployed in the lowlands of Italy and France who became sick, longing for home.  Symptoms included insomnia, fatigue, indigestion, stomach aches, etc.  Some doctors suggested this “Swiss ailment” was a neurological disease caused by brain and inner ear damage due to the constant clanging of cow bells in their Alpine homeland.

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Today we know that everyone becomes nostalgic at times, that painful pleasure of remembering the good times. Anyone can get homesick. (Apparently 7 out of 10 adults still think of “home” as the one they grew up in!)  This longing for a particular time or place leaves a sense of being uprooted, the loss of stability and security, relationship and belonging.  And we all instinctively long for love, protection and comfort – feelings we normally associate with home and our childhood days.

How we relate to the past – the degree to which we indulge in or suppress nostalgia – can be helpful or hurtful.  For example, remembering the good old days during difficult times of transitioning reminds us that we are loved, cherished and valuable, increasing confidence and drive to push through the hardship of resettling in a new community or company.  In this way nostalgia is helpful to cope with the stress of change.

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But, as John Piper points out, our relation to the past can be hurtful in two extremes: both the neglect of the past (never going there) and the obsession with the past (constantly longing for it) can wreck your life.

Not surprisingly, Jewish composers also wrote a number of Psalms during spouts of nostalgia, later canonized for reflection and instruction.  One such example is Psalm 137, written by exiled Jews after 586 BC, deported as slaves into Babylon.  This song gives us insight into the unhealthy obsession of living in the past.

Psalm 137 opens with passionate unveiling of the emotional state of these uprooted people.  “1  By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2  On the willows there we hung up our lyres (harps).” They were heart-broken, defeated, without joy and unaware of the surrounding beauty.

But their hung harps were more than a sign of sadness.  The sense of uprootedness left these exiles with a loss of identity as captured in the fourth verse: “4  How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”  This central theme is the profound theological question these exiles battled with.  As the offspring of Abraham, they increased as God had promised, had possessed their own land, and was blessed to be a blessing to other nations.   How are they still God’s special people here as slaves in a pagan country?  Could these oppressed indeed God’s blessed? How can they be a blessing here in a foreign land?  Feeling uprooted left these Jews with a lack of confidence with who they are (identity) and what their role is in this world (purpose).

The Psalm goes on (verses 5-6) to expound the emotional state of these sad slaves, showing their obsessive longing for Jerusalem their (previous) home. Indeed, the writers pronounce a curse over themselves, should they ever let go of the joyful memories they had back home.  Jerusalem should always remain “my highest joy” (verse 6).  In these verses the exiles reveal what they truly feel: they would never again have goodness and pleasure as they enjoyed in Jerusalem.  They believed that those days were the good days, but now it is forever gone.  They will never enjoy life like that again.  These slaves were without a hope for a good future; all they expected was darkness and gloom.

Not only were the hopeless, but as the Psalm continues, we see that these exiles were angry and full of hateful vengeance.  They wished death and destruction for their Babylonians captors in the most violent ways (verses 8-9).  They also prayed disaster upon their Edomite neighbours who did not help them in their day of trouble but cheered at their destruction (verse 7).   In short, they were angry and bitter at these nations who caused the end of their “good life”.  “Our joyful and peace is gone, and it is all their fault!”

But God had not left his people; he never does.  To these uprooted people, heartbroken and hopeless, the Lord spoke through faithful Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 29:4-7

4  “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

 

God impressed on them that they were not there by some demonic triumph, a cosmic coincidence, or even God’s rejection.   No, they are there by Sovereign design; the LORD of Heaven’s Armies had sent them there.  The Babylonians are merely his servants.
5  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. And what should they do as exiles in Babylon?  Build, live, plant, marry, increase. Don’t just survive and wait out the 70 years (verse 10) – thrive here! Do what God had commanded mankind to do: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, have dominion (Gen 1:27-28).  Prosper and live life to the utmost, even here.
7  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

 

More specifically, even though you were brought here as slaves, seek the Shalom – that welfare and peace and joy that you experienced in Jerusalem – seek and expect the same here in Babylon.

God’s invitation to these uprooted Jews affirms the truth that shalom (the fullness of joy, peace and prosperity) is not locked up in a time or place.  His sovereign providence leads us in his purpose through the changing seasons, but in every season he invites us to share in his shalomn.

Can you identify with these uprooted, homesick and nostalgic exiles?  Do you have a longing for the good old days, fearing that those days are forever lost? I have good news for you: every story in the Bible shows that the best is yet to come as we hold on to God!

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How do I deal with feeling Uprooted?

  1. Allow your nostalgia to overflow in thanks.

Psalm 136 calls Jewish worshipers to reflect on God’s faithfulness, reaffirming 26 times “His love endures forever”.  As these uprooted Jews would think back on the defining moments in their history through this song, thanking God for his faithful acts of deliverance and provision, their repeated thanks would affirm the truth that, again here in this present exile crisis, “His love endures forever.”

This is the power of thanksgiving: it reminds us of the loving care and persistent presence of God in our lives.  This truth gives us confidence for today, knowing we can bank on his love and goodness here, now – although we have been uprooted.

  1. Allow your nostalgia to overflow in grieving.

Nostalgia is a sense of loss of that which was good: the painful loss of a pleasant period in a peaceful place with precious people.  You remember the good times, but now it is no more.  From there the bitter-sweet sensation of nostalgia.

For my heart to be healed, I need to mourn this loss.  Neither suppression of the past, nor the obsession with the past will help me to move on. The process of grieving or lamenting allows the wounded heart to acknowledge the pain and trauma of loss, to work through the emotions and consequences of the loss.

I find it significant that more than half of the 150 psalms canonized in the Bible are songs of lamenting.  I find it equally significant that the prophet Jeremiah was able to help these Jews find meaning in their displacement, inviting them to shoot new roots and expect shalom even in exile – after he himself had wrestled through his Lamentation, also canonized in the Bible.  Once he found healing he could not only move on, but he could also help others grieve their losses.

Grief has many stages, but prayers like Psalm 43 and 137 are good examples of how Biblical authors have poured out their emotions of loss, expressing their emotions of shock, sadness and even anger in their prayers to God.

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  1. Don’t let nostalgia blind you to the beauty of God’s provision and presence: praise Him!

The homesick exiles were blinded by their nostalgia to the beauty of their new homeland.  Their belief that the good life was in Jerusalem and is now forever over made them miss the goodness and provision of God around them.

Indeed, every season has serves God’s purpose, He made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  There is bliss and beauty in today, and the discipline of praise brings it out and lightens our eyes to see God at work where we are.

  1. Let nostalgia stir your hope that the best is yet to come.

As for the heart-broken exiles of Psalm 137, the trauma of loss can snuff out our flame of hope, so that we may not expect any good to come.  But nostalgia is a reminder that in this life, amidst its pain and trauma, goodness has come.  Nostalgia is our way of holding on to the belief that there is goodness, joy, peace, belonging and love in this broken world.  And because God had given that in the past, He can do it again.

The Bible is filled with accounts of hopeless situations where people cried out to God, and the Lord turned the situation around for good.  It follows the lives of everyday people, often oppressed, who held unto the belief of God’s goodness and power, resulting in the most incredible and inspirational turnaround of events.

These teachings invite uprooted people to believe that the best is yet to come. Like Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Ester, Daniel and his friends and countless other uprooted people in the Bible we can know that God makes all things work together for your good (Rom. 8:28).  God still has great plans for you – a hope and a future secure (Jer. 29:11). And even through the troubling times, God leads us on in victory upon victory (2 Cor. 2:14).  You might feel uprooted now, but watch this space: God is always at work.

Feeling uprooted?  Feel like hanging up your harp for good? 

Don’t lose heart!  Embrace your place.  Live as though God had sent you there.  Let those painfully-pleasant memories of nostalgia remind you of the reality of God’s goodness, and thank him for it.  Allow the pain of loss of that place and its people to pour through prayers of grief for your healing.  But don’t live locked in the past – open your eyes and praise God for his beautiful provision in your life today.  And let the memories of happiness remind you that indeed, there is goodness in God’s gift of life – and the best is yet to come! Watch as He makes all things new (Rev 21:5).

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Greater still – the best is yet to come

If in this life we hope only in ourselves, in the best that we can dream up, delve up or deliver, then we have reason to be dreadful and live on in despair.  If our fate rests on the fullness of our faculty and fidelity then yes, we have reason to be frantic and fear the future.  Mankind is a mess.

But Christians have cause for hope, a reason to look up and expect the good.  Our surety of survival is in God, the eternally good and ever strong God.  Our security for today and faith for the future is not based on nature’s mood, on man’s motive or my own mojo.  We are hopeful because Our God Reigns!  And his arm is not too short to save, his ear not too deaf to ear.[i]  Our God is near, and He hears.

There is no place for hopelessness or defeatism in the heart and mind of a Christian.  Like the elder said to despairing John imprisoned on Patmos, God is saying to the church today “WEEP NO MORE!”[ii] Christ has triumphed and is already unfolding His universal reign of peace!”  Yes, Christ has come to reclaim God’s rightful reign and to redeem all of creation to Himself.  God is up to something great!

Because of God’s generous, faithful character and expanding reign, I believe that the best is yet to come!  Your tomorrow is better than today; expect to thrive and not only survive.  You can be sure that God’s reign is always expanding, his grace is always abounding, his glory ever more visible.  In God, your future is looking brighter still. The best is yet to come!

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Your best life is yet to come.  Ageing does not mean fading; your best years are still ahead.  The psalmist recorded that “he who is planted in the house of the Lord will bear fruit in old age, he will be fresh and flourishing to declare that God is righteous!”[iii]  Our Lord Jesus always keeps the best wine for the last, and makes the latter glory outshine the former.[iv]

Is your life miserable now?  Then smile – in Christ, you can always expect better!  No matter what this life throws at you, God makes ALL THINGS work together for your good.[v]  That is your confidence of a good tomorrow!

Regardless where you are at in life, look up!  God’s plans are for better welfare, a better hope, a better future.[vi]  He has more and better plans prepared for you to walk in.[vii]  He had already written your book, prepared all your days[viii] – your life story is not over yet, but we know it ends in glory!  Come on, God is leading you upward, onward.  Can you recall some of the surprises he has showered over your path in the past?  Prepare your heart for more – your next leg is already littered with love. The best is yet to come!

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The best you is yet to come.  When you look at the mirror, do you like what you see? Do you love whom you’ve become?  Cheer up – the best version of you is still being formed.   God has started weaving you in your mother’s womb,[ix] but He is not done with you yet!  You’re still “under construction” because God is ALWAYS at work in you shaping your character, growing your competence.[x]  The resurrection Spirit is EVEN NOW giving life to your body,[xi] transforming you for gory to glory – just keep your eyes fixed on Him![xii]  He is the not done with you yet – what He has started he will complete in you;[xiii] he is the Author and Perfecter of your faith.  Christ, your hope of glory, is alive and at work in you.[xiv]  The best is yet to come!

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Your best victory is yet to come.  God always leads us on in victory, from glory to glory until we win our last fight in Christ by overcoming death.[xv]  I wrote previously that every scar is a reminder of a victory we have won in Christ, of our faith that has been tested, purified and approved.  “What does not kill you makes you stronger” is true for every Christian.  In all things we are more than overcomers in Christ![xvi]

You are stronger than you were before.  David first conquered the lion, then the bear, then Goliath, and later the Philistine armies.  Likewise, God is leading us through progressive victories.  Do not fear these future fights – in God’s providential wisdom you will not be tested beyond what you can bear.[xvii]  And for everything you face, His grace is sufficient and His strength is perfected.[xviii]  Heads up!  Your greatest victory is yet to come!

Another year is over.  Another year of God’s faithful love and preserving grace.  Another chapter in your book declaring “Thus far the Lord has brought us”.[xix]  But the story is not done yet: there are grander adventures to live through, more glorious victories to be won, greater love to enjoy. The path of your purpose is prepared with plentiful provisions and pleasures.   Look up! Be strong! Take courage! Nothing you will face tomorrow is impossible for God.  You are growing from glory to glory.  His mercies are new for every day, his grace sufficient for every challenge.  With God, the best is yet to come.  God is up to something great.

 

[i] Isaiah 57:1.

[ii] Revelation 5:4.

[iii] Psalm 92:13-15.

[iv] John 2:10.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] Jeremiah 29:11.

[vii] Ephesians 2:13.

[viii] Psalm 139:16.

[ix] Psalm 139:13.

[x] Philippians 2:13.

[xi] Romans 8:11.

[xii] 2 Coronthians 3:18.

[xiii] Philippians 1:6.

[xiv] Colossians 1:27.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 14:14; 1 Corinthians 15:57.

[xvi] Romans 8:37.

[xvii] 1 Corinthians 10:13.

[xviii] 2 Corinthians 12:9.

[xix] 2 Samuel 7:12.

Known by your scars

On a recent trip to the East I had to declare all the identification marks or scars on my body during my visa application process.  It reminded me of a humorous incident when I was 17 years old.   My brother and I both applied for an engineering scholarship in the Navy which required a full medical check-up. During the check-up the Naval doctor asked me about my scar on my upper right arm, and also inquired about my hand which had been broken before.  Embarrassed I had to tell confess that the scar was caused when my brother “accidentally” stabbed my during a dish-washing washing incident. “And about the hand?” I blushed.  “Well… my brother ducked and I hit the wall instead…” (Three teenage brothers… these things happen!)

A few weeks later I found myself neatly dressed in a Naval board room, facing several officers of the selection committee.  Very intimidating for a teenager! Near the end of the interview (which I thought went quite well up this point!) the one captain – introduced as a psychologist – asked me about my relationship with my older brother (who was interviewed by this committee just before me).  “Very good!” I answered truthfully.  “Are the two of you competitive with one another? Would there be striving if both of you are selected for the training?”  “Not at all!  We are very close … really no issues between us!” I assured the captain.  He smiled knowingly and asked: “Ross, will you tell us how you got the scar on your upper right arm?  And how did you break your hand?”  I blushed… apparently the Naval doctor made very thorough notes of my medical exam.  We all had a good laugh as I retold the stories of my scars, and the day ended with both my brother and I being selected for the Naval training program.

As I previously wrote, the rings and marks of a tree reveal much of the events that literally shaped the tree.  We can discern much of the climatic and environmental events such as wet and dry seasons, forest competition, sickness or pestilence, animal damage, forest fires and even major earth quakes it lived through.  We can never see the trauma the tree encountered – only the tree’s growth response to the events.  We only see the rings and the scars – how the tree grew and healed through its encounters.  These scars latterly tell the story of life of the tree – what the tree endured and survived.

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Our scars – visible and invisible – tell a similar story.  My experience is that people want to hide and even forget their scars, being ashamed of the imperfections and afraid of the memories.  In contrast, the apostle Paul boasted about his scars[i] and listed the events which caused these scars (inside and outside) with gratitude and dignity, claiming that these scars are something to be cherished, even honoured. [ii]  Why?  How could our pain and the scars it left be something to be thankful for, something to be cherished and even paraded?  What can we learn from Paul about our scars and the trauma which caused it?

Firstly, my scars are a witness to my weaknesses, and therefore they are signs of grace.  Paul boasted in all his weaknesses[iii] because during these weaknesses and the sufferings which revealed the end of his strength, he experienced the grateful strength and intervention of God.  These traumatic events scarred Paul’s body because of violence and accidents; it scarred his soul because of betrayal and abandonment; and it scarred his spirit due to accusations and torment.  Yet these scars were cherished by Paul because each scar – visible and invisible – reminded him of God’s sustaining grace.  Without God’s grace Paul would have died, given up, or turned back from God’s call for his life.

Like the rings and marks on a tree, our scars are reminders of God’s faithful care, intervention and sustaining power during each situation that left its mark.  The scar says “If it had not been for the Lord,[iv] this would have been my end… but God carried me through and restored me!”   As such these scars bring me daily comfort that God is always with me, and can turn anything and everything I face today for my good.[v]  Whenever my strength fails, I can be sure of His strength.[vi]  When fear wants to overwhelm me, my scars remind me that stronger is He that is in me than what I may face in the world today.[vii]  I never face anything alone.[viii]

Secondly, my scars are witness to tests I have passed.  Like the marks that give character to the tree, every scar – visible or invisible – tells the story of pain that I endured, of hardship that I was not spared.  And therefore, as a believer in Christ, these scars are signs of faith that remind me that I was tested and purified as through fire. [ix]  In spite of the troubles I kept on believing that God is good and a rewarder of those who diligently serve Him[x].  Through the pain, loss, or shame I kept on trusted God, believing that he has overcome the world.[xi]  My faith was proven and found to be real because I have come to trust God’s character more than my experience.

Looking at my scars as marks of faith bring me daily confidence.  My scars remind me that nothing can separate me from God’s love, and that in every hardship I endure I am more than a conqueror through Christ who gives me strength.[xii]  In this sense each scar is an affirmation of my faith, each adding confidence in the face of adversity.

Thirdly, my scars are witness to a fading, fallible world.   We only get scars on earth because the rule of sin and its decaying effect is limited to this fallen world of ours.  Our scars are caused by things like violence, sickness, calamity – and these have temporal freedom here.  The driving forces that brings the pain and leave scars are often hatred, jealousy, greed, betrayal, or abuse – and these are only at work here and now.  But when Christ returns to reign there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more calamity[xiii] – there will be no new scars in heaven.

our scars

Every scar reminds me that our world is fallen, and it stirs my longing for the day when Christ will come to make all things new.[xiv]  As such our scars are signs of hope, reminders that Christ will bring an end to sin and suffering and establish His reign of shalom. Looking at my scars in this light brings me joyful endurance, knowing that whatever I might face is today temporal; it cannot compare to the eternal glory that awaits me.[xv]

Lastly, our scars are reminders of Christ’s scars on his body.  CHRIST HAS SCARS BECAUSE WE HAVE SCARS. Moved by love the Eternal Perfect One exchanged his pain-free heaven for our pain-stricken existence.  He vicariously suffered everything mankind endures to redeem us to Himself.[xvi]  This sacrificial love left the Eternal Perfect One scarred forever – as a Lamb having been slain.[xvii]

Our scars point us to His scars, a visceral reminder that we are greatly loved.  My scars are signs of love.  He was scarred in body, soul and spirit for our healing, peace and forgiveness.[xviii]  In this – His scars – His love for us is demonstrated.[xix]  O, how He loves us!  Looking at my scars in this way stirs my gratitude and devotion to Christ.

Through what did you grow this year?   What scars did the past year leave in your body, soul and spirit?[xx]  How do you feel looking at the marks life left on you?  Like the rings and scars in a tree, we our character is shaped by our response to what life throws at us.  We too are known by our scars.  How you relate to your scars shape your reality, relationships and ultimately your destiny.

Reframing how you view your scars will realign your reality, relationships and your destiny.  Ask yourself: How do these scars remind you of God’s sustaining grace? Can you see the scars as affirmation of real faith? Do the scars stir your hope in Christ’s return? And do the scars remind you of God’s immense love?  How does all this make you feel at the prospect of another year? Comforted? Confident? Joyful?

Now you too can look at your scars and say with Paul: “We we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. These light afflictions, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” [xxi]

[i] Galatians 6:17.

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-33, 12:8-10.

[iii] See above.

[iv] Psalm 124:1.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

[vii] 1 John 4:4.

[viii] Isaiah 43:2.

[ix] 1 Peter 1:6-7.

[x] Hebrews 11:6.

[xi] John 16:33.

[xii] Romans 8:35-37.

[xiii] Revelation 21:4.

[xiv] Revelation 21:5.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[xvi] Revelation 5:9.

[xvii] Revelation 5:6.

[xviii] Isaiah 53:4-6.

[xix] Romans 5:8.

[xx] If you read ‘spirit’ in this sense, it is helpful to think of identity, as well as your relational ability to love, hope and trust.

[xxi] 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.

Dreaming of a life together

Post by guest author Joanne Eksteen.

Every so often it happens that I meet someone whose presence lingers in my thought processes for a while. The time afforded to them depends on the impact that they had on my mind and emotions to start off with. When they inspire me they usually stay for some time.

One such an individual in particular has stood her ground. She inspires me as someone that is able to deeply connect with others on all levels but also practices supreme boundaries and ambition. I imagine her as a competitive corporate giant and a most attentive and loving wife and mother. On paper she is brilliant and in life her personality brings out the best in those around her. She is successful on multiple levels. She inspires me. She is my pedestal person (well at least one of them).

A little while ago I mentioned to her that I would be travelling abroad. She was excited and explained (obviously having seen the entire world herself!) that the people of the country I would be visiting and their manner of being, still lingers in her mind to this day. She talked further of contentment and how very different her own life experience has been. Her experience in life articulated that regardless of what one does, one should be able to do it better. Her mind was still reaching, contentment a foreigner in another country.

I felt many things in that moment, mostly confused, a deep sense of sadness and then relief. How could she not see herself?? My pedestal person was a human being much like myself.

My mind wandered to hers. I wondered about her thoughts, emotions and behaviour. If she had felt that she had never been good enough, why continually strive? Why not give up? If what we assess is not up to standard, how then can we still move on successfully? Or maybe that is exactly what has always driven her?

Yet there in that moment my pedestal person had revealed a tender and vulnerable part of herself that overflowed with honesty and insight. Her revelation, although shockingly new to me, was not new to her. Her identity was right there in the midst of our conversation and she was quite aware of it.

It led me to consider sonship, the term we often hear in church but one I wonder whether we fully understand. It means that we will as sons of God, understand in oneness with Our Father, who we are and where we are going. To me, understanding who we are with all of our good parts, bad parts and in spirit opens up the doors to enlighten us to the paths He created for us.

As married couples we are one. We have spent four weeks looking at what God says our marriages should be and do, barriers to intimacy and finally we started to vulnerably explore our identities as individuals and how it impacts on what our marriages are at present. Not only did this process create an opportunity for greater intimacy with our spouses but it should also mean that in exploring our identities we can have hope. Hope that we are going somewhere. Hope in our purpose as an individual and as a couple. Surety that we are not married to wear a bling ring, have a housemate, be a Mrs or expect a plate of cooked food every evening, but surety that our marriages are meant to mean something to this broken world. Surety that there hope to reach contentment and joy in finding our purpose as a married couple.

My pedestal person is not free from struggles. She is a person just like me and she knows this. Her understanding of herself allows her to move onto the path created for her, her life is evidence of this and I realised in that moment, this is why she does not lose hope and continues on.

With the idea in mind that we want to pursue our purpose and destiny as a couple in order to honour God, continue to explore the identity of each individual in the group. Look at shame, selfishness, fear, self-esteem, self-doubt and in general, identity. May we all become pedestal couples!

Reflection question: how does selfishness, shame, poor self-esteem, or fear affect your marriage and you as an individual?

Post and reflection questions by Joanne Eksteen.  Joanne is wife, a mother and a clinical psychologist with a passion to help people grow in healthy identity and relationships.

Expecting the miracle in your marriage – hope for tomorrow

What do you do when your relationship is lifeless, communication is strained, interaction is difficult? Your partner feels like an estranged friend, someone you once shared life with, but now there is nothing left to share. There has been too many disappointments, too much pain.  Hearts have become hardened and the passion is long gone.  In fact, the affections are directed elsewhere. The marriage is on the rocks. All the signs are there: there is no coming back from this; it is THE END.  You are beyond hope.

Really?

What is hope? And why bother? 

Hope, simply put, is the anticipation of good. Hope, or vision, or a dream, is something desirable that you believe to be possible for you – those “plans to prosper… a good future” (Jeremiah 29:11).  It is best captured by the imagination, illustrated in a picture, or envisioned in a story.  It is an end-state that draws your affections and invites you to dream with.  We have seen the power of phrases such as “offspring as many as the stars above you and sand below you” and “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Genesis 15:1; Exodus 33:3).  Hope is powerful.

Hope is the attitude that looks up and dares to believe that this journey I am on is leading to something beautiful, something desirable, something worthwhile. That the best is yet to come!

Hope is like the architects drawing of the beautiful house in which you will have your kids and the two of you can grow old together, sitting on the veranda as the sun sets peacefully.  Although the house is not built yet, these lines on the paper is the catalyst of desire which will make you build the house.  But more, this picture (hope) is also the reason and clear direction for every inch of effort that will go into making that drawing into your dream home. (Refer to Hebrews 11:1). Indeed, hope is very powerful.

Why is hope powerful?

Hope makes hard times bearable, because as you hold onto the belief in a good future you understand these troubles are temporal, and the hope you long for gives meaning to the things you suffer on the way there.  A lack of confidence of a good future (or hope) is the cause for companies to close their doors, marathon athletes exit the race and couples end up in divorce court. We give up when we loose hope.  Conversely, hope gives athletes strength to endure pain in order to gain the reward, what makes the soldier survive his wounds to see his wife again, and what causes the mother with cancer to keep on fighting and see her children grow up.  Hope, the confident expectation of a beautiful future together, is the reason to endure hard times and helps to see meaning in the daily grind. (See Romans 8:28).

Secondly this hope (a clear vision of a good future) helps us to navigate life’s challenges because it sets priorities in our activities and the direction of our efforts – in both good times and in bad.  We know that the Christian hope of eternal life builds resistance to temptation, is the standard for our relational growth and gives strength to push through endure hard times. Similarly the marital hope of our beautiful and meaningful life together keeps us faithful, helps us grow closer and helps us overcome obstacles together.

Why can I have hope?

If everything in your relationship point to failure and hopelessness, why could you trust that all will be well soon? How could you be persuaded of a joyful, meaningful future together?  Indeed a fair question.  If one has tried everything to keep the relationship alive and nothing seemed to work, you have come to the end of yourself, allowing a sense of hopelessness to set in.

But for the Christian, the end of oneself is not the end of a matter. With God there is always hope: our success or failure does not depend on our efforts alone, but we hope in God (or “trust in God”) as the Psalmists frequently sing (eg Psalm 39:7; 62:5; see Ephesians 2:13-14). When nothing seems to help we are confident of a good outcome because of God’s character, his love for us and his ability. To say “I hope in God” means to trust that God is indeed merciful, trustworthy and powerful enough to help me, and that he is certain to hear my pleas and help me from this seemingly hopeless situation.  We further hope in God because of the hope intrinsic in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, showing that no situation is every truly hopeless to God who brings even the dead to lifer. No situation is ever too late, too hopeless, because “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27)

How does hope work in practice?

Hope works best in pictures and stories – something you can look at or recall in your imagination. Something that best illustrates the good future you desire.

So find or draw a picture like the stars above Abraham and the sand beneath his feet which reminded him daily of God’s promise that “so will your offspring be.”  What he saw reassured him that his will have offspring – and many.  These visual depictions of God’s promise motivated him to be intimate with his wife, reminded him daily that God was at work in his daily actions, and comforted them both every month Sarah discovered she was not pregnant. It also intended to prevent them from giving up altogether from the hope of a child together by finding other women to provide offspring.   You need a picture like this – it can even be a picture of your wedding day or honeymoon when you were happy together.

Stories are also powerful sources of hope – the Bible is filled with those for a reason!  If you marriage is in a tough spot, then consider finding the story of a couple who were about to give up and God turned it all around beautifully.  Stories are very potent because you can identify with their suffering, and wish to share in their success.  Look for these people, talk or write to them.  Read their blogs and buy their books.  Go to their seminars and workshops where you can listen to their stories, cry about their pain, celebrate their restoration and gain hope!  Ask them to encourage you and pray for you.  Because what God has done for the he will do for you. These stories are filled with hope because these people live the dreams you have – these people embody the hope you need.

These images and stories stir our imagination, and our God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). So, like Abraham was invited to picture his offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the dessert sand between his sandals – so image your marriage in it’s prime. Imagine the greatest marital bliss, joy filled home, carefree moments of intimate pleasure, sweet companionship and potent partnership.  Imagine what God can make of your marriage – with all his wisdom and all his might – what could God do in and through the two of you.  What type of marital relationship between you and your spouse would bring God glory, would showcase his loving goodness to the world? Picture that!

I encourage you to “write out the vision and make it clear” as God told Habakkuk (2:2). Talk to your spouse about it, pray about it.  Tell your friends what you dream about. The challenge is to allow the hope (confidence of your good future) to overpower your anxieties (fearful expectation of failure and pain).  Deliberately dwell on the good of your spouse and what you have in your marriage, while you also pray about what makes you anxious or sad, “casting your cares on the Lord, for he cares for you” (Philippians 4:6-8; 1 Peter 5:7).

If you really cannot see a future because you are so aware of the challenges and pain, do what Elisha did when his servant was only aware of the Syrian army surrounding them. ’Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ’Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:14-17). Then the servant was not intimidated by the challenge they faced, because he was aware of The Lord of Heavens Armies who was right there with them.

You are never walk alone – God is right here with you in your marital crisis. And he is in the business of saving!

Let this be a reminder today that although your relational journey might be laden with disappointments, miscommunication and frustration that left you both hurt and hopeless, with God there is always hope. Nothing is too hard for him (Jeremiah 32:17)! He is close to all who call on him, and look – picture it – he makes all things new! (Revelation 21:5)

So what is the most ideal picture of your marriage? What could your story be? What is your hope?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When intimacy hurts

Recent studies show an alarming increase in “sexless marriages” – in fact, The Times reported that more than 21’000 people search help on this monthly via Google, outnumbering searches such as “unhappy marriage” and “loveless marriage”. The phrase “sexless marriage” refers to couples having sex less than once a month.

But who cares?  A survey by psychotherapist Abby Rodman says 75% of those couples do! They had healthy sexual relationships, but claim that having children(!), stress and fatigue, health reasons or simply time had dried up all the romantic passion.  In fact, this matter so much that half the respondents stated they would not have married their spouses had they known their married life would be sexless. (Although 75% said that they would not end the marriage because of the lack of sexual intimacy).

(Not making) love hurts

Why do they feel so strong?  Because constant sexual rejection in a marriage hurts. A lot.  Reading through articles, blogs, and recalling phrases I have listened to during counselling sessions, the following statements best capture the pain of spouses in sexless marriages.

  • I feel unloved, unwanted.
  • I feel unattractive, ugly.
  • I feel hurt. I sometimes hide in the bathroom and cry.
  • I feel so ashamed – what about me is so despicable?
  • I feel angry and cheated because I explained my desires, yet he/she ignores my pleas.
  • I feel ignored, my needs and desires are simply not important to my spouse.
  • I feel so worthless because he/she has time and energy for everything else but not me.
  • I feel so alone. I lie next to him/her in bed and yet feel so far away.

Sexual rejection by a spouse hurts much because it denies the means and expression of intimacy reserved exclusively for each other.  Especially in relationships where there was at some point much sexual arousal, the onset of habitual sexual rejection communicates not just “I don’t want sex” but rather “I don’t want you.”  Simply put, long-term sexual denial feels like rejection of the person.

Something’s gotta give

Marriage by definition is companionship, a means to obtain intimacy.  When sexual relations within marriage is rejected over a long period it not only impedes the relationship but also has devastating effects on the identity and emotional health of the rejected partner.  The following statements give good insight into the effects of such long-term sexual rejection.

  • I feel so disconnected from with my spouse. We live like house-mates, nothing more.
  • I find myself to be very irritable; small things make me act out in anger.
  • I have lost confidence – not just at home. I am not the strong man/ woman I used to be.
  • I feel resentful; my heart is really hard towards my spouse.
  • I feel attracted to the attention of others; the rejection has made me vulnerable to emotional and physical affairs.
  • I have grown tired of being rejected so I have stopped making efforts for the relationship.
  • I am very suspicious – I hate admitting this but I think my spouse is interested or in relationship with someone else. 
  • I am so depressed; the one person that I love does not want me.
  • I have suppressed every sexual desire, because not feeling anything is less painful than being rejected.
  • I am addicted to porn and masturbation. I know it is wrong but I can’t stop it (and I honestly don’t care anymore).
  • I don’t have hope for our marriage anymore. Things will always be this cold between us.

These phrases capture much pain. Looking at the two lists of statements above I feel so much sympathy for anyone in a sexless marriage. And I understand why Paul would write so strongly about not denying your spouse sexually intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:3-7).  Yet every marriage goes through ups and downs, and therefore the challenge of married life is to continue “cleaving to your [spouse]” to remain “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Never stop pursuing intimacy with your spouse!

couple-not-talking

Helpful, hurting and hopeful

Over the years I have noticed three general responses of people suffering from long-term sexual rejection.  The first group harbors anger, visible in hostility and frustration – typically accusation.  It is as though these people subconsciously want to hurt their spouses to share in their pain of rejection.  This is not helpful.  Yet anger and hostility hinders any form of intimacy, which requires safe space to open up.  So this response pushes the couple further apart.

The second group has become passive, apathetic.  Escaping the torment of perpetual rejection, they have given up on any hope for intimacy and suffocated their own desires for intimacy.  Marriage has become a cold, platonic friendship.  This is indeed a very lonely place – especially within marriage. This is not necessary: there is hope!

The third group has embraced vulnerability to allow for intimacy, enduring the hurtful rejection towards the other’s heart. It simply means to forgive the other in order not to close one’s heart.  They strive for connection beyond fear. These spouses talk about their hurts – but with open hearts – and intentionally create an environment of affection, warmth and encouragement.  They never lose hope that they will regain the romance and intimacy which they once enjoyed.  And they see the fruit.  Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)

To the rejecting spouse I don’t think I need to write any further advice, except to ask your partner whether he or she feels the same as the statements recorded above, and strive to understand his/her needs for intimacy.  Then share your feelings to identify the barriers to intimacy, whatever they may be, and seek help as a couple. Do it today!

My counsel to you, the rejected spouse, is take courage, and embrace vulnerability to graciously and patiently explain your feelings to your spouse, but do so in gentleness and love, not angry, and not nagging.  Express your love and attraction for him/her.  Affirm your affections and approval of him/her.  And with of without your spouse, seek help – your journey need not be so lonely.  But never lose hope!

You might not be able to fix this, but nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:37) Ask him to make a garden in your wilderness! (Isaiah 51:3)

couple-talking-in-bed

Growing in Spiritual Intimacy

“Some say they have been married for 20 years, but truthfully they have been married twenty times the same year.” This statement by pastoral psychologist Jannie Botha has been ringing in my head ever since I have heard him say it few years ago.  It’s true: just because we have been together for long does not mean we have grown together strong.  Growth requires deliberate discipline (1 Timothy 4:7).

From the offset of our relationship my wife and I had a good spiritual partnership.  We went to church together, did Bible School together, served in a student ministry together and even planted a church together before we got married.  But although we shared some amazing times of worship together over the years, and although we pray together daily, we have not found a model for frequent devotional time together that worked well for the two of us. She has her way of spending time with God and I have mine.

Yes, we occasionally share what we read in the Bible and what God says to us, but we have always desired to grow spiritually together through a structured couples devotional time.  Especially now that we have kids we longed some format of a family devotional time that they may grow into more and more as they grow older.  And after more than a decade’s marriage I think we found something which works for us!

A Devotional Model for Couples

In his series Creating and Intimate Marriage Jim Burns shares that he and his wife Cathy also have their own devotional time, but that once a week they would come together and have a devotional time where share on spiritually with each other and spend time in prayer together, especially regarding their marriage and family.

They would begin their devotional time together by sharing from their Bibles and journals the most significant thing(s) that that God revealed to them personally, and discuss this with each other.  They would share what they have read, why it touched them and what it made them think and feel, and possibly how it would impact their current or future attitudes and actions.  This is a time of spiritual discussion and reflection.

Thereafter they share their greatest joy, greatest struggle, and greatest desire of the past week.  This can be a simple as “my greatest desire of the week is a weekend away from everything” or as deep and honest as “my greatest struggle of this week was you, Jim!”

This is followed by a time of affirmation – where they would encourage one another by stating how they positively perceived one another during the week.  Because they are committed to create an atmosphere of A.W.E. (affection, warmth and encouragement) in their home, they schedule these times of affirmation. This would lead to a time of accountability for physical goals they set for one another, and I think any form of accountability is healthy in such a session.  And eventually these sharing with one another would lead to a time of prayer for one another, their relationship and their family.

growing_spirtually

Overcoming spiritual barriers to intimacy

It is important to note that the biggest barriers to intimacy include a lack of priority to meet together in such deliberate and disciplined ways – which these devotional times in themselves will overcome.  But furthermore relational issues such as unforgiveness, anger, and guilt, are all spiritual conditions which these times of sharing and praying should address.  These are the things that couples need to pray about together, asking God for love and grace to grow beyond.

The aim of this devotional time is to deliberately and systematically grow together spiritually as “draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8) and so doing to  grow in deeper intimacy.

This couples devotional method works for me – perhaps you and your spouse can try this and see if it works for you?

 

You never walk alone

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  – Genesis 1:1, The Bible

God Created

This powerful opening line of the Bible brings such comfort, assuring the reader, with the fundamental assurance that “GOD IS” and that “GOD CREATED.”  These records of creation do not intend to prove the existence of God but rather assumes God’s existence, his power and design in the creation of the World.  He was there in the beginning, and he has been there from the beginning – he is eternal, enduring, unchanging.  God exists, he lives and he is the source of all that exists and lives.  He predates creation and he is the cause and creator of all things.

These opening words of the Bible changes your outlook on and experience of life dramatically.

“GOD IS”

alone_beach

Because “God is” you are never alone.  Wherever you go God is there. This truth moved David to sing Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” [i]  In the “highest heavens [or] deepest ocean”, even in death[ii] (Hebrews “Sheol”).  David knew God is present.  Even in his moments of “great darkness”[iii] David knew God is present and ready to help.

Elsewhere David wrote that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted”[iv] meaning the Lord relates to and supports those who suffers emotional pain. Often one hurting feels alone even in among friends because he or she feels   David knew you never suffer alone because the Lord is compassionate[v]he identifies and feels with you.  That’s a primary reason why Jesus came to earth, why he “became flesh and walked among us”[vi]: to be tested and to suffer in every possible way in which you could suffer.[vii]

Because GOD IS, you are never without help, never without hope.  There is a God who exists and is “near to all who call upon him”.[viii]  In the beginning there was nothing, but there was God, and He created beautiful and vibrant life out of nothing.  Where God is there is hope.  David sang “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side… then they would have swallowed us up alive… the flood would have swept us away… [But] our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth![ix]

And because GOD IS – the Almighty, All-Knowing, Omnipresent, Unchanging Godyou will never face anything too big, too powerful, or too difficult. There is never anything insurmountable, because he us the God who he created everything, including “all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers… And He ranks before all things, and in Him all things consist.” [x]  He created all these things[xi]  – nothing is out of his control nothing is beyond his reach.  God said to Jeremiah “Look, I’m the LORD, the God of all flesh; is there anything too difficult for me?”[xii]

Because God is near, you never need to be intimidated by any person, group or situation, as David sang “Though an army may encamp against me, My heart shall not fear.”[xiii] and elsewhere “For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.”[xiv] The security of God’s presence brings peace in a fallen world filled with violence and terrorism, infested with disease and sickness, characterized brokenness and uncertainty.[xv]  With God I am never intimidated, never on the back-foot, never caught off guard. With the Psalmist we can confidently declare The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”[xvi] Therefore you are you are never outplayed, never outweighed, never outwitted and never outnumbered.

“GOD CREATED”

choices_1

This opening line of the Bible also reminds you that God created you and therefore you are never without direction, never without a purpose and never without a future.  God, your Father, knew you and consecrated you for his purpose and pleasure even before he “knit [you] together in [your] mother’s womb”.[xvii]  Regardless of how you might have missed God’s purpose, regardless where you might have derailed from His path – still He has “plans of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope[xviii] for you. With God, your journey has not ended!

Because God created you, you are not left to your own plans for the future and you are never abandoned to solve your own problems.  Your preservation or prosperity does not depend on your own powers, plans or possessions.   Even if your own foolishness or sinfulness left you stuck in mud, you can like David cry for help and be delivered and restored to His praise.[xix] God, your creator, knows your purpose, knows your circumstance, and still knows the way to the “future and hope” he planned for you!  So “trust in the LORD with all your heart… and he will make straight your paths.”[xx]  Our God has made “a road in the sea… and a way in the wilderness” [xxi] before – he will make a way for you where there seems to be no way.

God created you in his image.[xxii] You are not a misfit, not a mistake. You are never insignificant, never unnoticed.    It is not your [supposed] success that makes you significant to God, and neither does you lack of performance make you insignificant to him.  Your significance rests in your image: “indeed, we are His offspring” [xxiii] and therefore bear his image.  That is what David marveled of in his song O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” [xxiv]  You are significant because you are related to God: created in God’s image for relationship with him and reigning with him.[xxv]  You are invaluable and precious to God, uniquely crafted in his image. He has not forgotten you nor forsaken you; He cannot because “your name is engraved in the palms of his hands” and like breastfeeding mother has her baby continually in her thoughts, God has you in his heart and mind.[xxvi]

How does Genesis 1:1 arm the believer in the face of uncertain and difficult times?  This opening line of the Bible brings hope: GOD IS – the transcended God who is almighty, all-knowing, ever-present, everlasting and unchanging.  Nothing that you face will be too big for him – you are safe in his presence!  But not just his transcendence (God’s unfathomable bigness), also his immanence (God’s nearness and relatedness) brings great comfort: GOD CREATED you in his presence to relate to him and reign with him.  Thus he also relates to you and has compassion on you; he is near and ready to grant mercy and grace on all who approach him boldly.[xxvii]  You are never alone, never without help, never without hope.

Spring weather May 7th
A man look up at a starry night at Kielder Water, Northumberland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday May 7, 2013. Photo credit should read: Tom White/PA Wire

[i] Psalm 139:7

[ii] Psalm 139:8

[iii] Psalm 139:12

[iv] Psalm 34:18

[v] Psalm 145:8, compare Exodus 22:27

[vi] John 1:14

[vii] Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15-16

[viii] Psalm 145:18

[ix] Psalm 124:1-8

[x] Colossians 1:16-17

[xi] John 1:3

[xii] Jeremiah 32:27

[xiii] Psalm 27:1,3

[xiv] Psalm 18:29

[xv] Psalm 91:3-9

[xvi] Psalm 118:6

[xvii] Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:13

[xviii] Jeremiah 29:11

[xix] Psalm 40:1-4; compare Romans 10:13

[xx] Proverbs 3:5-6

[xxi] Isaiah 43:16-19

[xxii] Genesis 1:26-28

[xxiii] Acts 17:28

[xxiv] Psalm 8:1,4

[xxv] See Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8:3-6; Psalm 115:16; Romans 5:17 and 2 Timothy 2:12

[xxvi] Isaiah 49:15

[xxvii] Hebrews 4:15-16

A call to courage

Our world is scared, and increasingly so. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US today according to the National Institute of Mental Health affecting one third of the North American population, with a staggering 37% and 50% increase in occurrence among children (ages 4-10 and 11—19) over the last decade. It is estimated that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, nearly one third of the country’s total mental health bill.

But the cost of anxiety is not limited to medical bills.  The fear of terrorism has caused an arming 114 percent increase in the US defense budget in the last 13 years, which would total about $586.5 billion in 2016 (by far the greatest in the world). In addition the global security technology and services market which is expected to total $86 billion this year.

Our world is a scary place.  Our society is characterized by a sense of anxiety and vulnerability, daily fueled by images of terror and rumors of impending disaster. But we are not the first generation passing through these shadows of uncertainty, uproars and unrests. Like the generations before us we need to overcome the urge to panic.

This is a call to courage. It’s not the time to be anxious, to be intimidated, to succumb to terror. As we see the climate is changing, the shadows drawing longer, we need to look back and find courage from the accounts of others that have navigated similar moments in history. During Nero’s reign Paul urged the anxious, persecuted believers to look into the the Scriptures for “learning… encouragement… comfort… [and] hope” (Romans 15:4). And what examples of courage does the Scripture not have!

A Call to Courage

Abraham left all he knew for promise from God in his spirit.  Later he pursued five kings with their armies to save his nephew Lot from slavery. Noah, a preacher of righteousness had courage to confront a perverse generation and build the ark amidst their mockery for 120 years. Young David stood up to Goliath the giant.  Joshua and Caleb were not intimidated by the giants in walled cities and trained armies that occupied their Promised Land, patiently waited forty years and in their old age lead the nation to possess this land.  Daniel walked into a den of lions, and his three friends into the fiery oven because they would refused to bow to another god.  He did falter to fear but told Darius straight-up “God found you too light!” Moses confronted the terrifying Pharaoh demanding release of all his slaves, and then led the entire nation into.  Queen Ester risked her life when she approached the Persian king to save her generation from annihilation.  Nehemiah did the same to rebuild the holy city.  Gideon and his small army walked unarmed into a Midianite camp with 15’000 soldiers. Samson single-handedly took on 1’000 Philistine warriors. Jehoshaphat led the whole nation into the dessert against three massive armies. Elisha was besieged by the entire Syrian army but walked right up to them and led them into siege.  Elijah challenged all the Baal prophets to a public showdown asking “Who is the real God?!”  Jonah walked into the most violent city of his day as a foreigner, demanding repentance and submission to his God.  Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Amos, Hosea, Nathan and John the Baptist willingly chose a life of mockery, poverty and pain as they confronted kings, rebuked hypocrisy, and exposed the injustice of the day.

Jesus, son of God, left the comfort of heaven, the honor of the throne, the worship of the angels and the power of divinity to enter a life of pain, poverty and persecution – ultimately to suffer brutally and die shamefully. All because “God so loved the world.”  And his courage set the pattern for his followers, as we see in the first beatings of Peter and John, the first martyr Stephen, the hardships of the Apostle Paul history of the church throughout the ages.

How do we grow in courage?

In Joshua 1:1-9 we see the Lord giving a pep-talk to the new leader called to lead the Hebrews to occupy their land inhabited by Giants in secure cities.  We learn much from this instruction about how to “take heart” when times are tough.[i]

Courage must rise in the face of fear.  There is no need for courage when everything is plain sailing, when all is as it should be.  But in the threat of pain of discomfort, loss or death, when the natural inclination is to hide or run away, that’s the que to take heart!  The Lord told Joshua to be courageous because the situation was terrifying.  A sense of fear must trigger the response to courage.

Courage has a cause.  When there is no need, no urgency, no mandate, there is no need for courage.  When one puts his hand into a lit furnace for no reason he is rightly labelled a fool.  But a woman who runs into a burning house to save her daughter is a hero.  Joshua had to be courageous to fulfill his mandate.  Bravery is called upon when the fight is worth it.  Courage is needed to uphold the righteous purposes of God.

Courage is gained in the knowledge of God.  Joshua was told to not forget “The Book of the Law” which Moses left Israel.  Today we have it as the first five books in our Bible. Why would that help Joshua to grow in courage?  Because it records – from Creation to Exodus – the accounts of God’s wisdom, power and loving faithfulness with his people. Joshua would be “encouraged” every time he reads how faithfully and powerfully God had preserved and delivered his people in desperate times past.  Thus courage is gained as we become convinced and get reminded of God’s power and might – that truly “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).  Courage grows as we learn from these accounts who God is: that God is good, righteous, faithful and merciful.  This revelation of God’s power and character is preserved in Scripture as records of his interaction and decrees, so we get to know God and are encouraged as we read these accounts of divine intervention (Romans 15:4).  Indeed, but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.” (Daniel 11:32)

Courage is gained in the assurance of God’s presence.  The Lord encouraged Joshua with the promises of his personal presence.  More specifically “as I was with Moses” – thus Joshua was promised the same intimacy with the Lord, the same faithfulness in preservation and the same powerful interventions which Moses experienced as he lead these people.  What an encouraging promise!  The Lord made that same promise of companionship his ascension (Matthew 28:20), and that companionship we experience in the empowering presence of His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:11). We grow in courage as we grow in revelation of the Lord’s personal presence, declaring with David The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

Courage is infectious. The Lord encouraged Joshua.  Before these words of encouragement Joshua was intimidated and anxious.  But the words of encouragement put the necessary strength into his heart to go on and fulfill his mission. That’s why we are repeatedly called to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) – literally “put courage and strength into the heart of another”.  We get encouraged through deliberate effort to be built up, but also indirectly as we see others or hear their stories as they continue courageously amidst hardship, thinking “If another can do it, so can I.”  Courage is infectious, as we can see in this video

Read here how to Encourage One Another (https://walklikejesus.net/2015/09/10/encourage-one-another/)

Courage is a choice. The Lord’s repeated commands of courage implies a choice to succumb to fear and intimidation or to take heart and continue with his commission.  We either choose to allow fear to dictate our actions, or we choose to allow courage to reign in our hearts. So Jesus told his disciples – as he is saying to us today “Let not your heart be troubled…believe in me” because “In the world you will have trouble. But TAKE HEART; I have overcome the world.” (John 14:1; 16:33)  These exhortations from the Lord demand a response, a resolve to not allow fearful situations to “trouble your heart” and dictate your actions. So when there’s a choice to fight or flight, choose to fight and persevere.

Add courage to your faith

Life in the kingdom of God is not for the faint-hearted – it never was, it never will be. The kingdom suffers violence” said Jesus (Matthew 11:12). Our world is unfriendly and uncertain. But so it was in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Their society was oppressed by the Roman army and heavily taxed by Caesar, plagued by perpetual civil unrest and terrorism, divided by extreme classism. For that reason Peter exhorted the church to add to your faith COURAGE (2 Peter 1:5). Mere saving faith does not make you fit or fruitful to fulfill your mandate. Our mandate is clear: peacemakers, Kingdom-bringers, heralds of the Good News.

So “don’t be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt 6:34), don’t live a life pacified by fear or paralyzed by what can go wrong. Fear steals your joy and taps your strength.  Reflect on this truth: if God is for us, who can be against us!?  Then look up, shape up, sign up and step up. TAKE HEART, finish the job, then we can go Home.

[i] Note the incredible similarity in form of the appeals to courage to complete the divine mandate with assurance of the Lord’s power and presence in the following texts: Solomon’s charge to build the temple (1 Chronicles 28:20), Joshua’s command for conquest (Joshua 1:1-9), the disciple’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the angel’s warning about Paul’s shipwreck and appointment with Cesar (Acts 27:24-26) and the Corinthian’s church charge to not fear death but continue in their faith (1 Corinthians 15:57-8).

 

 

Enduring Nero’s fire

How to remain true to God amidst suffering.

Writing to a congregation of predominantly Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign, the author of Hebrews repeatedly exhorted believers to not renounce Christ in fear of the mounting persecution.  And that is necessary, because suffering moves one to re-evaluate what you believe.  At some point in life we all walk through the fire – but how do you remain faithful to God amidst suffering? How do you endure the fires of life.

Brief background to and outline of Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers (1:1 “spoken to our fathers”) probably in Rome (13:24 “those from Italy greet you”).  After hearing the gospel confirmed with signs and miracles (2:4), they were converted (3:16), were baptized and had partaken of the Holy Spirit (6:1-5).  This was a long-established church (5:12) whose members have lived exemplary lives of faith and good works (6:10), and have experienced persecution, imprisonment (13:3) and the loss of property (10:32-33), but have not yet suffered martyrdom (12:4).  The congregation were capable of charity and hospitality (13:2,16), and previously had great teachers and leaders (13:7) who grounded them in foundational Christian teaching in the Jewish Scriptures (6:1-2).

But their faith had been outlawed and these ostracized believers became discontent and discouraged and longed for earthly property and a sense of belonging in their society (13:5, 14).  So they started questioning their beliefs, considering other avenues to God so they could be reintegrated into society; they were on the verge of walking away from their Christian convictions.  In response the author of Hebrews wrote this “word of exhortation” (13:22) to bolster the faith and perseverance of this wavering Christian community, reminding them how to correctly “draw near…” (10:23) to God.

The recipients seems to have been influenced by the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria who mixed Judaism with Greek philosophy and wrote that there were several ways for sinful man to approach God.  He mentioned the Logos (elsewhere “the word or reason of God”), Sophia (elsewhere “the wisdom of God”), the angels, Moses, Melchizedek the high priest and the Jewish sacramental system were all avenues (or mediators) to bridge the divide between man and God.  Reading Hebrews, it appears that the first recipients of this letter were considering these alternative avenues to avoid persecution, yet still worship God.[1]  In response to their searching the author writes how Jesus Christ is better than Philo’s Logos and Sophia (1:1-3), better than the angels (1:4-2:18) and Moses (3:1-6), and better than the Aaronic priesthood (7:1-24), presenting a better offering (9:14) in better place (8:2).  Jesus has also secured a better, eternal covenant by his sacrifice “once for all” (10:14) that he can guarantee fulfillment on behalf of both man and God (7:22).  Our author shows this superiority to deter readers from turning to these “alternative mediators” to escape the pressures of persecution and to exhort readers to hold fast to their confession if faith in him amidst difficult times.

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Faithful in the fire

How does this 2000 year old letter to Jewish believers suffering under Nero’s persecution help us today to “hold fast to your confession” (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23) in the midst of our own hardship and suffering? How can we be prepared to remain faithful in the fire and joyfully endure the suffering as these early believers who remained true to Christ through Nero’s fires?

The answer lies in the pivotal point of this letter, Hebrews 10:19, where the author moves from orthodoxy (or correct thinking) to orthopraxy (or correct living)Here the epistle shifts from theory to practice, with the transition Therefore” meaning “based on our argument up to here” and then follows with three powerful exhortations that appeal to the required response of the hearers.  These three exhortations contain the keys that will help the readers through the mounting persecution they feared.  The author encourages readers to “draw near… in faith” (v22), “hold fast to … hope” (v23) and “to stir one another in love” (v24-25).  Then he unpacks real faith in chapter 11, hope for endurance in chapter 12 and love in practice in chapter 13.  Like so many times in the letter he again reminds them that they need to remain faithful to Jesus, because of the coming judgment of Christ (v25-31).

These three exhortations to continue in faith, hope and love apply as much to us during times of hardships today.

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Draw near in faith

These wavering believers were graciously encouraged to “draw near in full assurance of faith” (v22).  Even although they considered renouncing Christ they were encouraged to “have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace through the blood” (4:16; cf 10:19).  God has not written them off!  Amidst their suffering and wavering they can be assured that their confidence before God was not based on their track record, but based on Jesus’ shed blood (v19).  This also implies that their suffering was also not due to their failures.  Rather they were encouraged that Jesus, their perfect High Priest has also “suffered when tempted, [and is therefore] able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18). He “is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15-16) – so draw near to get help!

Hold on to hope

Poor and pushed aside, mocked and outlawed, their current circumstances were very uncomfortable.  And their immediate future looked even bleaker as the Roman persecution was escalating.  Therefore the author encouraged these fragile believers to hold onto their Lord who promises their share in his eternal inheritance! He is their “forerunner” (6:20) who went to announce their coming and the High Priest who secured their confidence before God (6:20). There is no room for doubt: Jesus secured their access and inheritance in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. And “this hope is the anchor of the soul” (6:19) – it settles the emotions and keeps the believer on course to, not swept away by the circumstance. So the believer is encouraged to endure suffering the way their Lord did – joyfully anticipating his reward (12:1-2).  This hope is the reason to remain faithful amidst the fire; their endurance will be rewarded!

Assemble to grow in love

Thirdly the author exhorts this congregation, fearful of being hurt or ostracized, to not neglect their assemblies (10:25). In effect he tells this fragile congregation “I know that you are afraid of being identified as a Christian, and I know that you will suffer and might even die when you are seen to gather with other believers – but do it!”  Why the urgency?  Why should they assemble?  Could they not practice their faith in private?

The author motivates that their primary purpose of assembly is to “stir one another to love and good works” – to grow in godly character and excel in good works (10:24).  More specifically, each congregant should make it their goal to think about how to help another excel in character and good works.  As he did earlier in the letter he encourages them to continue love and service for the saints (6:10-12).

Enduring the fire today

How do we endure suffering?  What was true for the Hebrew congregation in Rome suffering under Nero’s reign is true for me and you.  First, hold on to your faith: you are loved by God, approved by God, sanctified by God and preserved by God ford God.  Not the suffering nor your doubts or fears can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39).  So boldly approach of throne of grace to receive help in time of need! (Hebrews 4:16).

Second, let hope stir your joy and calm your fears, motivate you to continue in faith, work for your reward and find purpose in all you do.  God rewards faithfulness!

Thirdly, “never walk alone!” Join in the assembly to grow others “in love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), and see how you are strengthen and encouraged yourself.  Indeed, “it is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 10:35)

References for understanding the letter to the Hebrews

  1. Nash R.H., The Notion of Mediator in Alexandrian Judaism and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 40 (1977), p89-115.
  2. Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1998).
  3. Gutrie D., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Hebrews (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).
  4. Schenck K., Understanding The Book Of Hebrews (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003)