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.

rome3

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.

rome5

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)

 

From surviving to THRIVING!

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to THRIVE; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style” ― Maya Angelou (American poet, actress and activist in the American Civil Rights Movement).

Reading through the gospel John, one cannot escape the promise of LIFE, of flourishing and thriving, in Jesus.  Over and over Jesus promises that “I have come that you may have LIFE… and that you may have it in overflow” (eg John 10:10).  In fact, the over-arching identity and mission of Jesus (at least from John’ Gospel) is one of LIFE-GIVER.

Jesus is LIFE.  He said I am THE BREAD OF LIFE (John 6:35), “I am THE LIGHT OF LIFE (John 8:12), “I AM THE DOOR” for the preservation of life and access to life (John 10:9), “I am THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who lays down his life for the sheep, that they may have life (John 10:11), the “I am THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live(John 11:25), “I am THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE (John 14:6) and lastly “I am THE VINE” though whom we have access to and power for life, for “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I share Mark Hall’s philosophy on this video of Casting Crown’s album THRIVE:

THRIVE in spite of hardships

This promise of LIFE is not defined as an easy life, overflowing with worldly goods and void of suffering.  Jesus did not promise his followers a life void of pain, suffering and difficulty; rather, he promises “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33). 

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The apostles echoed his words when they wrote to the suffering churches “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12) and “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12).  In essence, the New Testament says “don’t just SURVIVE hardships – THRIVE in spite of it!”  The LIFE Jesus promised is not snuffed out through suffering.

This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.
This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.

THRIVE in spite of lack

It is difficult for us to think that it is possible to THRIVE in spite of financial difficulty. Yet it is true that most of the New Testament Church was really poor, being marginalized and persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Yet the church had power and grew rapidly; they knew to be true what Jesus taught: “life does not consist in the wealth of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

thrive_not_money

Just like some plants flourish in the harsh conditions in a dessert, so a LIFE OF THRIVING is not dependent on abundance of wealth or material success.  In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul nor the other apostles had much possessions.

The dessert is full of life and beauty.
The dessert is full of life and beauty.

THRIVE in spite of imperfections

Just as a THRIVING plant may not be void of imperfections, so a THRIVING life is not a perfect, faultless life either.  Paul likened the full LIFE of Christ contained in human imperfections to a fire shining through the cracks of a clay pot that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Our imperfections shows God's glorious life.
Our imperfections shows God’s glorious life.

Thriving therefore is not dependent on worldly comfort, prosperity or perfection.  So, Biblically speaking, how does one move from a life of mere SURVIVING to THRIVING?

  1. A Place to Belong: LIFE flows through receiving and giving love

Using the metaphoric language of a tree, the Psalmist writes “They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”  To THRIVE, one needs to be “planted in the house of the Lord” – to find your space in church community which one calls “home”, a place of belonging.  To THRIVE one has to open your heart to people, and be received into theirs.

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“like a tree planted next to water…”

It’s common to not feel part of a community, to feel like an outside.  But Paul writes that – regardless of our background – Jesus has “made us accepted” into Christ’s beloved community through adoption (Ephesians 1:5-6).  If this remains “cognitive truth” at best we will SURVIVE; but once this adoption and acceptance becomes “realized or incarnated truth”, once we experience the blessedness of unconditional acceptance in the community of love we THRIVE in life.  We thrive in a community where love is evident both in our giving and receiving of one another.

Jesus refers to this THRIVING as the GLORY we share in wherever we living in unity, in harmonious, Christ-centered community. He said to his followers that THRIVING LIFE or GLORY will set us apart from the world, so that we will be recognized as Christ’s followers, sharing in his LIFE (John 17: 21-23).

Thriving in belonging.
Thriving in belonging.

Thriving happens in Christ’s community, in God’s family (Ephesians 3:14-19) within the security of unconditional love and acceptance, and space to grow and be yourself.  A place where there is no need for presence, where we can live in truth.

  1. Community of Truth: LIFE flows where the LIGHT shines

David observed that it is not financial prosperity that causes one to be blessed but rather by “delight in the law of the LORD” leading to a life devoted to its perpetual study and mediation.  He concludes this person “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:1-3).   As trees flourish and bear fruit next to a flowing stream, so humans THRIVE in a life devoted to the way God intended – a life directed by “the Law of the Lord”.  The “Law of God” or “Truth” is the manual for how God has ordained life, and the pursuit thereof promises a THRIVING LIFE (James 1:25), although not without opposition or difficulty.

One thing that the “Law of God” (or “Word of God”) does for the sincere reader is to search one’s heart and show what is true and what is false (Hebrews 4:12).  This shows what is dynamic and of God (truth), what is destructive and of the sinful self (selfish ambition), or deceptive and from Satan himself (a lie).  That which is from God causes eternal THRIVING LIFE in self and others; that which is from self or Satan causes death and destruction (James 1:13-17).  The Word of God brings to light the veracity of motives, thoughts and feelings.  It causes one to LIVE in Truth.

Thrive in the Light of Truth.
Thrive in the Light of Truth.

One prospers in the Truth: an environment of honesty without deception, of sincerity without pretense.  Such a community that embrace truth in love cultivates tremendous vigor – it leads to THRIVING LIFE.  Where there is freedom in unconditional acceptance to either confess faithlessness or failure, or to lovingly confront and correct destructive behavior or beliefs so that one’s life may be directed in Truth and be set free to THRIVE (Romans 8:32).

  1. Hope – a reason to LIVE on

As mentioned earlier, a THRIVING LIFE is not void of trials, tribulation or temptation, but rather this resilient life THRIVES in spite of hardships because of hope – the confident expectation that good will come.  Like the tree shoots out its roots, even splitting open solid rock because it follows the scent of water beyond it, so THRIVING in hard times requires the hope of reward.  There must be a reason to push on.  There must be a promise of THRIVING life beyond this hardship.

Press on in hope.
Press on in hope.

Paul was a man that endured much: “imprisoned frequently, in [danger of] death often… five times I received forty stripes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  But he did not give up, and he did not just settle to SURVIVE, but pressed on to THRIVE in spite of these hardships.  How?   Through hope!  He writes “we do not lose heart… For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  Paul always kept his eye on the promise of ETERNAL LIFE, not being phased with temporal hardships.  Paul THRIVED on hope.

His life philosophy was that “all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28), and reasoned that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-5). He stressed the fact that this hope is not an empty dream, because already the Holy Spirit is living in the believer as a guarantee of ETERNAL LIFE (Ephesians 1:14) and what he calls “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) – the promise to share in the GLORIOUS LIFE in Christ.  Therefore Paul rejoices in these hardships, because it helps him produce godly character and reminds him long for a life without sin and suffering in Christ’s Kingdom.  He does not want to forfeit that prize by giving up now!

THRIVING amidst hardships means we push on in hardships in faithfulness to God, because we know “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23) – our perseverance has promise of the prize.  Although itit is much more costly!  To hold on, to break through, to push forward in hope leads to a better LIFE.   THRIVING in hardships requires hope – a clear picture of what the reward for perseverance is.

David writes on hope: “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” and concludes “wait in the Lord; be of good courage and he will give strength to your heart” (Psalm 27:13-14).

  1. Jesus – the source of LIFE

Earlier we wrote that Jesus us the SOURCE of ENDURING LIFE: He called Himself “THE BREAD OF LIFE” (John 6:35), “THE LIGHT OF LIFE” (John 8:12), “THE DOOR” to LIFE (John 10:9), “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who preserves and leads us on in LIFE (John 10:11), ” THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” (John 11:25),  ” THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE” (John 14:6) and “THE [LIFE-GIVING] VINE” (John 15:5).

Jesus is the source of LIFE.  This thriving life is found in Him.  He told his followers to “Abide in me… for apart from me you could do nothing” (John 15:5).  How do we “live” and THRIVE in him?  Simple

Jesus said came that we “may have life abundantly” (John 10:10) – not just life to survive but LIFE in overflow, in excess: THRIVING LIFE.  This LIFE is found as we “abide” or live in Him (John 15:5) – in communion and prayer with Him; as we study his will and live in obedience to his Word (John 15:7); and as we participate and share in his loving community (John 15:12).

thriving_6

To walk by faith

The Apostle’s Creed starts with the words “I believe in God.”  This is probably the boldest statement one can make, with the greatest consequence.  It sets believers aside from non-believers, and distinguishes between those who live with God and hope, and those “without hope and without God in this world” (Ephesians 2:12).  This statement makes all the difference – in this life and the next.

In the New Testament the church is called a “household of faith” (Galatians 6:1) comprised of “believers” (Acts 5:14) or more specifically “believers in God” (1 Peter 1:21), those who have been “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28).  The writing of the apostles urge the church to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), to “live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, quoted 5x in New Testament), to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22), to “believe in God” (John 14:1) or “trust in the Lord” (Philippians 2:24, 8x in Psalms).  Throughout the New Testament, we read the many promises of faith including “all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23) and also that every faith-filled decree will be accomplished and every faith-filled prayer will be answered (Mark 11:23-24).

The Gospel writers record a few unsuspecting individuals whom Jesus commended for having “great faith”: the Canaanite woman whose daughter were possessed (Matthew 15:28), the men who lowered their paralytic friend to Jesus through the roof (Matthew 9:2) as well as the Roman Centurion whose servant was ill (Matthew 8:10).

In contrast, the Gospels writers frequently emphasized the failures of the disciples due to their “little faith” (which became their nick-name of sorts).  For instance, related to their fear of poverty (Matthew 6:30), when Jesus calmed the storm (Matthew 8:26), when the disciples could not drive out a demon from a young boy (Matthew 17:20), and when Peter started drowning after initially walking on water (Matthew 14:31).

What does it mean to “have faith in God”?

The term "faith" has very little to do with God in our contemporary world.
The term “faith” has very little to do with God in our contemporary world.

In our secular world, the word “faith” is used frequently in songs, writings and conversation, but it rarely has any reference to God.  This creates confusion regarding the Biblical use of the term faith. So what is Biblical faith?  And what is it not?

Faith is not mental ascent, or mere human knowledge.  James challenged the church that mere agreement with the truth of is God is insufficient for saving faith – “even the demons believe that, and they shudder!” (James 2:19)  That faith does not save, as it is merely mental ascent, just cognitive in nature (James 2:14).  Similarly, to merely agree with the historical truth that Jesus lived, was crucified, died, resurrected and ascended to heaven is not salvific in nature either.  The fact that you “know” and “agree” with truth does not save you, just like agreeing a parachute will save you from a certain death in a falling aircraft – you have to put it on yourself.

For faith to be saving faith, one needs to believe that Christ’s life, death and resurrection was a substitution for ours (or a “propitiation”, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 1:2, 4:10).  Saving faith requires you to trust that Christ became “sin for [me] so that [I] might become the righteousness for God in Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Saving faith is personal.  One receives the gift of salvation “by grace” (Ephesians 2:8-9) through personal trust in Christ – that his life, death and resurrection was enough for me.  One trusts him so much that – if you are wrong or if he is not enough – you will perish without him.  It means you bank on Christ only; there is nothing you can add or take away from the completed work of Christ.  Your human effort is useless in this regard.  Christ is your only hope (Colossians 1:27; cf Ephesians 2:12).

A good example of saving faith

Charles Blondin - French tightrope walker famous for crossing the Niagara Falls first on 30 June 1859.
Charles Blondin – French tightrope walker famous for crossing the Niagara Falls first on 30 June 1859.

On June 30 1859 Charles Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet) became the first person to cross over the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  The 340m walk was witnessed by 25’000 awestruck (paying) spectators.  The stunt took 42 minutes, elevating him 49m above the raging waters where about 1million m3 rushed by every second.

To understand the risk he took, watch this short video of Nik Wallanda who crossed over the same falls in June 2012.

Over the next few months Blondin repeated the stunt several times with variation: he crossed over the rope (8cm in diameter) on stilts; he did it blindfolded; he did it in a sack; he pushed a wheelbarrow over; he carried a chair, stopping half-way to stand with one leg of the chair balancing on the rope.  Once he even sat down in the middle and cooked an omelet, enjoyed his breakfast, and only then walked on!

One of his most memorable moments was when, after another crossing on September 15 1860, he asked the crowd whether they believed he could cross the falls again.  “Yes!” was the confident cheer.  “Do you believe I could cross the falls carrying a man on my back?”  After witnessing his previous stunts, they cheered expectantly “Yes!” Blondin leaned in, asking “Who will volunteer?”  Silence.  After a moment Blondin pointed to an onlooker “Will you trust me?”  “No!  I can’t risk my life like that!”  No one would volunteered, so Blondin turned to his manager Harry Colcord.  “Harry, do you believe I can carry you across?”  “Yes”, said Harry, “I know you can.”  “Then climb on!”  And Harry became the only man who was ever carried across the raging Niagara falls by his friend since he was the only man with real faith in Blondin.

Charles Blondin carrying his manager Mark C accross the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  An image of real faith.
Charles Blondin carrying his manager Harry Colcord across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. An image of real faith.

Faith in action

Our faith here on earth is not only effective to secure our eternal salvation, although that conversion is primary (John 11:26).   The eleventh chapter of Hebrew recalls a few momentous instances of faith in Jewish history, and therein we learn of what faith can do on earth: it leads to our obedience by which we can escape dangers on earth (v7) or secure an inheritance (v8-9).  Through faith we receive power to do the impossible (v10), we speak powerful blessings (v21) and future prophesies (v22).  Faith prevents us from giving in to fear (v23) or temptation (v24), and gives protection from death and destruction (v28,31).  Through faith we can to do the impossible (v29-30), “conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench the power of fire, escape the edge of the sword, [be] made strong out of weakness, [become] mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight… receive [children] back their dead by resurrection…” (v33-35).  This list is a recording of what believers had accomplished in faith in the past – you can do the same, and more.  Indeed, Jesus promised that “those who believe in [him] will do greater works” than what he had done (John 14:12).

How do we put our faith to work?

keep-calm-and-believe-god-8

Firstly, our faith is in God, not in our faithGod is the object of our faith; we trust in him to do that which we cannot do. He has the Divine power to do what we cannot do, and the Fatherly goodness and generosity to do it for us.  Thus our trust in not in our powerful faith or skillful prayer to conjure up appropriate faith for the need.  No, the burden is off our shoulders – we trust in God, not our ability.  When we say we “believe in God”, we mean to say that we trust God’s power to do what we cannot do, we trust in God’s person (his benevolent, faithful character) to help us in our weakness, and we trust in God’s promises (the reliability of his word – both written and spoken to us) to be true and certain.  That is the faith that Abraham had (Romans 4:18-22).

God's promise to Abraham was very tangible: every day he felt the sand beneath his feet, and every night he saw the stars in the sky above. His hope was kept alive daily.
God’s promise to Abraham was very tangible: every day he felt the sand beneath his feet, and every night he saw the stars in the sky above. His hope was kept alive daily.

Secondly, faith in action requires a goal, or in the definition of the author of Hebrews “faith is the subject of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1).  Elsewhere Paul writes that “our faith rests in the hope of eternal life…” (Titus 1:2).  In other words, hope is the subject of our faith.  Faith follows the hope we have, as Abraham’s tangible promise of “offspring as many as the stars in the sky and grains of sand beneath your feet” illustrate (see Genesis 15:5).  For you to wield your faith, there must be some hope, some definable, clear, certain outcome.  Something you can work towards and can hold onto.  This can be a promise of God, a dream, a goal.  And the more certain and more defined your hope, the stronger the faith which you work to make this hope a reality.

Faith is from the mouth.
Faith is from the mouth.

Thirdly, our faith is from the heart, through the mouthLuke records how Jesus’ disciples woke him in the night, afraid to drown in the stormy sea.  “[Jesus] awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’” (Luke 8:22-25).  By implication Jesus said “My faith has effect when I speak it – why did you not do it?”  In another instance he taught the same principle, after cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:14).  When Peter was amazed the following day by the effect of Jesus’ words, the Master replied “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24).  The principle is clear: for faith to have effect, it has to be spoken. For the impossible obstacles (“mountains”) to be removed, or the unwanted things to die in our hearts and lives (“fig tree”) the words of faith must be decreed, or the prayer by faith must be prayed “not doubting” (James 1:6-8).  After all, “The power of life and death in in the tongue” and those who live by it will profit from it (Proverbs 18:20-21).

Obedience is faith in action.
Obedience is faith in action.

Lastly, our faith require action, or obedience.  If hope is the house-plan we desire, faith is the progressive activities to realize that plan.  Therefore James wrote “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  Noah’s hope was being preserved from the flood, so in faith he chopped the wood, assembled the ark and loaded his family and animals and all the while warned the people of the coming flood.  Joseph’s hope was the preservation from the great famine, so in faith he constructed silos to store the coming abundance.  Moses’ hope was the deliverance of God’s people from slavery and secure in their Promised Land; his faith was standing before mighty Pharaoh saying “Let God’s people go!” and announcing the ten plagues, and later leading the people Home.   David’s hope was deliverance from the Philistine oppression, specifically Goliath; his faith was picking up five stones and standing before the giant, announcing his immanent death and scattering of the Philistine army.  Hope is the goal; faith is the (inadequate) effort we take while expecting God’s miraculous intervention.

We are believers, called to be a household of faith, those who live by faith and are called to walk by faith.  We have Jesus’ promises that “nothing is impossible for those who believe”.  So what do you believe?  How do you exercise your faith?  Write your hope today.  Speak it today.  Take certain steps towards it today – while you trust in God today.

When you walk through the fire

It’s the beginning of a new year, and we are reminded often of the good plans God has for us – “plans to prosper and not to harm us, to give you a future and hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11).  But what do we do when God’s plans include walking through the fire?

i_believe_in_God“I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” This first line of the Apostolic Creed is fundamental to the Christian faith (Hebrews 11:6): the belief in a God for whom nothing is impossible, and God who is a loving Father who has our best interests in heart.  In this God we trust.

Yet this great truth is the problem for many devout believers who sincerely trust in God for something – healing, provision, breakthrough at work, peace in a relationship – but God does not come through.   Over and over we affirm that God is almighty and good, and that he hears our cries and answers our prayers – but then a loved one dies, your company folds and finances dwindle or marriage ends in divorce court.  Or your desires are unmet in spite of all the promises you received, and you start another year lonely, or childless, or frustrated at work.  What do we make of these situations?  How do we relate to a loving, Almighty Father that allows for the suffering of his children?


 The cause of suffering

As mentioned in a previous post Suffer Well, suffering has two basic behavioral consequences in a believer.

"Introspection" - bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)
“Introspection” – bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)

Firstly, he/she may gravitate towards doubt of self, leading to unhealthy introspection, believing that the suffering is either a result of God’s punishment for sin or some “open door” through which Satan has access to hurt us.  Job’s friends believed this and accused him of secret sin. (Yes, “sin leads to death” (James 1:15) and yes, our God “disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6), but like a good father he warns beforehand and makes it clear what you are being corrected of – his aim is correction)).

Accusing God.
Accusing God.

Secondly, the one suffering may doubt God’s character or ability, leading to accusation, that either God is unjust (as Job did) or unable to save. This can escalate to agnosticism or even atheism.

However, the Bible contains a myriad of godly characters who has undergone suffering – neither because of their sin or God’s unfaithfulness.  These accounts were recorded during times of hardship “for our learning… encouragement… [and] hope (Romans 15:4) during similar circumstances.  One such helpful recording is of Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down and worship a statue which emperor Nebuchadnezzar erected (see Daniel 3:14-30).  By their own declaration these godly men believed “our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand…” (v17).  Yet they ended up in the fire; God did not prevent them from suffering.  What can we learn from this account of the three Jews in Babylonian exile 530BC?  How does it encourage us or give us hope in our own suffering?

"The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace" -  3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome
“The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace” – 3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

God is not the author of suffering and death

In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sikcness, no enmity.
In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sickness, no enmity.

As illustrated in this account, God is not the one who initiates suffering and death – the pagan king was.  God’s character and desire for his creation is clear in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1 and 2) – there was no death, sickness or suffering until the fall.  We see this also in the promised re-creation of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 20 and 21) where again death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4). God is the author of life; Satan is the author of death and destruction (John 10:10). Since the fall of creation sin in our hearts and our world will result in pain, suffering, sickness, and death.  This is exactly why Jesus came – “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) so that mankind may again have life more abundantly” (John 10:10).  God is not the author of suffering, but he is drawn to our suffering to redeem mankind from it.

A good life does not save us from suffering.

As seen in our text, a good moral life does not prevent us from suffering.  In fact, even a devout godly life does not protect us from all harm as we see in this account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship idols, and yet were thrown in the fire.  A casual glance at Biblical and church history will assure you that good people suffer – in spite of their godliness and often because of their devotion to God.

Consequently, suffering is not always the result of our sinfulness or imperfection.  Our suffering many times is the result of other people’s cooperation with evil (as in this case – the idolatry and oppression of Nebuchadnezzar), or simply the result of the fallen world infested with genetic imperfections, diseases and natural disasters.  Our righteousness does not always exclude us from these hardships.

God enters into our fire.

God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)
God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)

Suffering believers often feel abandoned by God.  The question asked many times “Where is God when it hurts?” is clearly answered in this account of Daniel’s friends: God enters the fire to be with his people in their suffering and strengthen them.  This is clearly demonstrated by Christ’s incarnation: Jesus became man to identify with us in our suffering (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Hebrews 4:15) and to ultimately bring an end to the suffering brought about by sin and Satan (Revelations 21:2-5).

And still today Jesus is “Emmanuel – God with us” (Isaiah 7:14) who will “never leave us or forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5).  Especially during hardship the Psalmists sings “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).   No amount of suffering, pain, death or loss – “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:38).  God enters our fire – we never suffer alone.

Our suffering has purpose

Why does a loving God then allow suffering? If he is with us in our suffering, why does he not simply save us from it?  The mocking Jewish elite asked this same question to Jesus hanging on the cross 2000 years ago (Matthew 27:41-44), but Jesus endured it because he knew there was purpose to his suffering (Hebrews 12:2) – the salvation of the world!

Our text shows us that the suffering of the three righteous men at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar also had purpose, and we find hope that our suffering has the same three benefits.

Firstly, we note that their suffering lead to their immediate promotion (Daniel 3:v30).  This is a pattern in the Bible – the one who suffers well is promoted directly after his/her suffering.  Think of Job who was double as wealthy after his loss (Job 42:10), Joseph who became ruler over Egypt after his imprisonment (Genesis 41:41-44), David who was crowned king after his persecution (2 Samuel 5:3), Peter who became leader of the early church after his “shaking” (Luke 22:31-32 and Acts 2:14), and Jesus who earned the title “King of kings, Lord of lords” through his obedient suffering (Philippians 2:8-11 and Revelations 19:6).

As mentioned in a previous post Suffering your good tutor we can rest in the truth that “Nothing irredeemable can happen to a Christian” – or as Paul said it “all things work together for the good…” (Romans 8:28).  For the Christian who hold onto God in Christ, regardless of what you are going through, you are better off afterwards – both in this life and the life to come.  Suffering well always lead to promotion.  Nothing we encounter can put you back – God can turn every situation around for your good and his good.

Secondly, the suffering of the three friends of Daniel functions as an amplifier of their witness of and faith in God, so that everyone knew them and was attracted to them after the suffering to hear and investigate their story (Daniel 3:27; refer Philippians 1:13).  Their faith in God and faithfulness to him drew the attention of the king and his governors.  Furthermore, because of God’s preservation and presence in the fire, the king issued a decree that no one may “speak anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Daniel 3:29) for fear of their life. Effectively, their faithful, hopeful suffering lead to the honoring of Israel’s God throughout the vast Babylonian Empire, by the King’s decree.  Because they suffered well, the name of God was known and held in honour throughout the fast Babylonian empire; in other words, their suffering was part of God’s plan of salvation of the world. Joseph discovered the same after his imprisonment and promotion – what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for the preservation of millions of souls from widespread famine (Genesis 45:5-8).

Throughout the ages, the blood of the saints has been the seed of the church.  In other words, the faithful, hopeful suffering of God’s people has lead to the salvation of millions of souls throughout the ages.  Likewise your suffering amplifies the witness of your faith in God and lends credence to your message of hope in God – if you suffer while trusting God and remaining faithful to him.

Thirdly, as in the case of the godly martyrs who endured Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, suffering helps one grow in the knowledge of both yourself and God.  Trying times helps one discover the end of yourself and you realize how much you need the Lord’s grace to survive the fiery ordeal, as Paul realized (2 Corinthians 12:9). This produces a beautiful humility.

But suffering also helps one grow in intimacy with God like never before, as we see in this rich example of the three Jewish martyrs who experienced Jesus “walking in the midst of their fire” with them (Daniel 3:25).  Suffering forces one to draw near to God with no pretense, and the result is an honest perception of who God is, as Job discovered (Job 42:5).    This intimacy with God leads to uncharacterized confidence to pursue the impossible, because you have come to know the power and faithfulness of God through your hardships.

Taking it home

In closing, there are three take-home messages from this story in Daniel 3.

We find comfort in the truth that God will never forsake us – especially not during hardship!  “I am with you when you go through the fire… you shall not be burned, the flame shall not consume you…” says the Lord (Isaiah 43:1-2). But don’t isolate yourself, don’t walk through the fire alone – “God is among His people” (Revelation 21:3).

We find hope that our suffering has meaning, it has purpose – God makes “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  You will be better off after this suffering than you were before it!

Lastly, this story makes us consider and prepare our hearts: can we say with these three godly men “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but even if not… we will not serve your gods… (Daniel 3:17-18).  They knew God could save them, but God said no.  Jesus pleaded his Father to make a way around the cross, but God said no (Matthew 26:39, 42).  Paul pleaded the Lord to save him from his torment, but the Lord said no (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).  David trusted his Shepherd to lead him “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) – will you?  Will you serve God when the he says no and you must walk through the fire?

flames
Will you trust God to follow him into the fire?

Never give in!

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him.  They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies.  After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days.  On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.

Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected.  Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.

Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice

The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce.  On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again.  The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.

The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds.  The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest.  They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.

Boats on Elephant Island
Boats on Elephant Island

Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird  and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!)  After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted.  This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.

Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia

The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island.  To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia  – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget.  During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening.  The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.

Panoramic view of South Georgia
Panoramic view of South Georgia

Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself.  They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts  to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.

The Chillean steamer Yelcho
The Chillean steamer Yelcho

 

This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together.  Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible.  He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.

Football on ice
Football on ice
Gramophone for the penguins
Gramophone for the penguins

Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence.  Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?

(1) Comfort of Scripture

As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they.  Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.

New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God.  Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11).  The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3).  Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.

The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve,  and that he is willing and able to save.   Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.

(2) Companionship in community

Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community.   That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together.  These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times.  He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive.  If no-one gives up, the group endures.

In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”   For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.

(3) Celebration of life

Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.

Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant.  Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  (Matthew 6:22-23).  Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.

Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances.  This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.

Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).  By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

(4) Continuing in hope

Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up.  They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow.  In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England.  He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance.  If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on.  But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.

The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.

Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).  In another place he records “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  How did he endure these hardships?  He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24).   Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord.  He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.

(5) Courage from God

Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up.  I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations.  With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.

Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).   Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God.  From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us.  Strength is found in God’s community.

Making it personal

If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12).  Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19).  He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).

And in the words of Paul: Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).  “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).

It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914.  Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years.  On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners.  Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!