Is Your Faith Based on Circumstances?

“Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Matthew Henry tells us in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, “A truly religious life is a life of constant joy” (p. 1175). Paul was a living example of this. While under house arrest, he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Although he was living at home, he was chained to a Roman guard around the clock and was not able to go anywhere. He knew his trial was likely years away. Given that God had called him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was stuck in Rome unable to plant new churches or visit with those he was nurturing by letter. Certainly, he had every right to complain. He’d been beaten, shipwrecked, and persecuted for Jesus. Instead, his letter to the church at Philippi was filled with rejoicing. He wrote, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12, NIV).

Eugene Peterson puts an amazing focus on Philippians 1. In essence, Paul is saying, “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah” (v. 12-14, MSG).

Paul essentially said his sufferings for Christ had furthered the Gospel by provoking others to zeal for Him. Paul focused on preaching the Gospel no matter the circumstances in which he found himself. He wanted nothing more than to worship God in Spirit, rejoice in Christ, deny his flesh, forge ahead toward the prize, looking only toward the Savior, striving to be an example for others. He added, “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other” (v. 22-26, MSG).

TRUST REQUIRES PATIENCE

Trusting God always requires patience, because God doesn’t work on our timetable. Patience allows us to enjoy life while we wait. No doubt this is a difficult proposition. We are, after all, only human. We measure success and failure, happiness and disappointment, in terms of emotion first and then in actual results. When we feel bad, especially when we really, truly hurt, we want a way out right away. For many, including me, that can include drugs and alcohol. I ran from hurt and pain for decades. I simply had no concept of or capacity for patience.

Quite often the reason God is requiring us to wait is simply that He is using our difficulty to work patience in us. Learning to be patient is important enough to God’s plan—for us and for those whom we will touch with our lives—that I believe he ordains everything we go through. He is not going to short-change His plans by giving us what we want the second we want it. Sadly, however, the desire for instant gratification causes many people to make snap decisions. Some get high or drunk. Some spend beyond their means. Others have sex without thinking. Some marry someone who is wrong for them because they’re not willing to wait for the right someone. The false belief that we should have instant gratification is at the root of our unwillingness to suffer through the bad times.

It’s not easy being a Christian in today’s pluralistic society where moral relativism, hatred, distrust, bigotry, and fear run rampant. There seems to be an increasing tension between Christians and non-believers. When we focus on others rather than Jesus, we see them as enemies instead of children of God worthy of our love and respect. Admittedly, culture has taken a dramatic shift recently. Religion is no longer seen as a social good. Instead, it is considered an old, awkward, worldview that is no longer relevant.

GOD’S VOICE IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

As Christians, we all want to hear from God. I’ve often dropped to my knees and begged Him to say something—anything—as long as it was aloud. I wanted to know if He was there. Was He listening to me at all? Did He care about what was happening to me? What did He want me to do? It is even more challenging to determine what God is not saying in any given situation. He spoke to the prophets in the Old Testament. He appeared before non-believers. He sent angels. He told people what to do. He even told them what not to do. And He often accompanied these directives with promises—blessings and curses. He was often extremely clear about His wishes.

Today, we tend to expect the grandiose voice of God—and sometimes God speaks that way. More often, though, His voice comes through more subtly. God often speaks to us through the quiet moments, through other people, and through life’s circumstances. It can be difficult to distinguish His voice from the chaos of our situation. In order to decipher what God is saying, it is important to know and understand His Word. Spending time in the Scriptures will help us hear His voice. He will never contradict Himself. He will never speak to us through our circumstances in a manner that goes against His written Word. The Bible must be our yard stick. And when He puts others in our path to guide us, we need to distinguish between those who practice seeking the heart of God from those whose ambition is to control and manipulate others.

It is extremely important to remember that one incident is not necessarily indicative of God’s intent for our entire life. One swallow does not a summer make. (Google it!) Never make a life-changing decision on one event or one set of circumstances because God may or may not be speaking through this particular event. We need to look over the span of months and years. It is critical that we ask ourselves, Where is God leading me? He chose us and ordained our lives even before we were formed in the womb. I met a recovered addict last summer while serving as on-site manager for a motel. He was working as an itinerant electrician at a new gas-fired power plant being built in my area. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” My ears always perk up when I hear someone say that! “God says everything you’ve been through from the moment you were born until you met me right now, all the good and the bad, was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill your calling.”

We must never put God in a box. He is much more infinite and all-knowing than we can ever grasp. No matter what the dire, dreary circumstance, God can turn each into a hopeful future. He can reverse, restore, revive, and renew. We need only look for His plans that are already in motion right now, even in the midst of our difficult time. Trust Him. He can take any circumstance and use it for our good and His glory.

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The Peacemaker (Part 3)

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Perspective on Resolving Personal Conflicts and Letting Go of Resentment.

Blessed Peacemakers Matthew 5.jpg

The goal of a peacemaker is to magnify the marvelous undeserved forgiveness that God has given to us through Christ and to inspire people to imitate such forgiveness to others. Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). As Christians, it is very important that we understand this verse correctly. Note we’re admonished to be peacemakers not peacekeepers. It would be a drastic error to misquote the Words of Jesus. Although it might sound like mere semantics, Christ urges that we make peace rather than keep the peace. The Gospel and peacemaking are interdependent. The Gospel is the very catalyst for peace. As believers, we are incapable of promoting real peace in the flesh. It requires the power of the Holy Spirit.

Peacemakers strive to make peace and attempt to reconcile things and people that are at odds with one another. Peacekeepers, on the other hand, strive to keep peace at all costs. Proverbs 10:10 says, “People who wink at wrong cause trouble, but a bold reproof promotes peace” (NTL). Peacekeepers, by not acknowledging wrongdoings in an effort to make peace, are actually winking at them. We must be about peacemaking as believers. My church contains in its bylaws language about peacemaking being part of our mission.

Speak the Truth in Love

Peacemaking does not—indeed, cannot—happen by accident. It is a purposeful act. In fact, peacemaking is a higher priority than worship. Of course, love is the underlying commandment. John 13:34-35 says, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another. By this everyone will know that you’re my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV). People should be able to catch a glimpse of the Father when they look at us.

Ephesians 4:15 says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is Christ.” Words play a key role in almost every conflict. When used properly, words promote understanding and encourage agreement. When misused, they usually aggravate conflicts and drive people further apart. If your words seem to do more harm than good when you try to resolve a disagreement, don’t give up. With God’s help you can improve your ability to communicate constructively.

Bring Hope Through the Gospel

When someone has disappointed or offended us, our human reaction is to come at them with the law, lecturing them about what they have done wrong and what they should do now to make things right. This approach generally makes people defensive and reluctant to admit their wrongs, which makes a conflict worse. The Lord is graciously working to teach us a better way to approach others about their failures. Instead of coming at them from a position of legalism, we need to bring them the Gospel. In other words, rather than dwelling on what people should do or have failed to do, we must focus primarily on what God has done and is doing for them in Christ. This is commanded throughout Scripture.

When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman, instead of hammering away at her sinful lifestyle (as many pastors sadly do today), He spent most of His time engaging her in a conversation about salvation, eternal life, true worship, and the coming of the Messiah (see John 4:7-26). The woman responded eagerly to this Gospel-focused approach, let down her defenses, and put her trust in Christ. Although Jesus changed this focus when rebuking hard-hearted Pharisees, His typical approach to bringing people to repentance was to bring them the Good News of God’s forgiveness (see Luke 19:1-10; John 8:10-11).

The apostle Paul had a similar approach, even when he had to deal with serious sin. In his first letter the Corinthians, he had to address divisions, immorality, lawsuits, food sacrificed to idols, and the misuse of the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. But before addressing these terrible sins, Paul’s gracious greeting held out hope for forgiveness and change by reminding the Corinthians of what God had already done for them through Christ. What a marvelous way to set the stage for repentance and change. Paul always kept Jesus in the center of his instruction and admonishment by first providing the believers a detailed description of God’s redemptive plan. When Paul finally got around to addressing errors in the congregation, his readers were already standing on a foundation of hope and encouragement.

Paul took the same approach with the Philippians and Colossians, who also needed correction and instruction. He begins his letters to these two churches by drawing attention to what God has done in each of them. As he continued, he frequently referred to the Gospel as he moved from issue to issue. For example, look at what Paul writes in Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Before admonishing these believers, Paul reminds them of who they are in Christ.

Be Quick to Listen

Another element of effective communication is to listen carefully to what others are actually saying. Knowing this is not in our human nature, James gave this warning: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20, NIV). Good listening is particularly important for a peacemaker. It improves your ability to understand others, it shows that you realize you do not have all the answers, and it tells the other person that you value his or her thoughts and opinions. Even if you don’t agree with what others say or do, your willingness to listen demonstrates respect and shows that you are trying to comprehend their perspective. This typically helps create an atmosphere of mutual respect that will improve communication.

Waiting…

Waiting patiently while others talk is a key listening skill that is a must for all peacemakers. Without this skill, you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict, and you may complicate matters with inappropriate reactions. As Proverbs 18:13 tells us, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (NIV). In other words, avoid jumping to premature conclusions about what others are thinking; give them time and hear them out. Discipline yourself not to interrupt others while they are speaking. Learn to be comfortable with silence and do not respond the moment there is a pause. Moreover, do not offer immediate solutions to every problem others bring to you.

Reflecting or “paraphrasing” is the process of summarizing the other person’s main points in your own words and sending them back in a constructive way. This is the very definition of active listening. Reflecting may deal with both the content of what the other person has said and the associated feelings. Reflecting does not require that you agree with what the other person says; it simply reveals whether you comprehend another person’s thoughts and feelings. Reflecting shows that you are paying attention and you are trying to understand or empathize with them. Besides, reflecting what others are saying can make them more willing to listen to what you want to say.

Engage Rather than Pronounce or Declare

One of the fastest ways to make people defensive is to abruptly announce what they have done wrong. If you launch into a direct and detailed description of their faults, they are likely to close their ears and launch a counterattack. It is wise to think carefully about how to open a conversation in a way that shows genuine concern for the other person and engages him in listening to your words without becoming defensive. If you are going to be candid—this is often doable when speaking to a close friend—you should first affirm your respect and friendship and then describe your concern in direct terms. If strong trust has not been built between you, however, or if the issue is likely to trigger defensiveness, you would be wise to broach your concern in an indirect way that engages the other person’s heart and mind without putting him instantly on guard.

Whatever approach you use, your goal should be to describe your concern in a way that captures others’ attention, appeals to their values, and gives hope that the issue can be resolved constructively. The more you engage another person’s heart and the less you declare his or her wrongs, the more likely he or she is to listen to you. Communicate clearly enough that you cannot be misunderstood. Many conflicts are caused or aggravating by misunderstandings. People may say things that are actually true or inappropriate, but because they did not choose their words carefully they leave room for others to misconstrue what they mean and take offense. Fewer factors can derail peacemaking than miscommunication.

Use the Bible Carefully

It is often helpful to refer to the Bible as a source of objective truth when you have a disagreement with another Christian. If this is not done with great care, however, it will alienate people rather than persuade them. Never quote the Bible to tear others down, but only to build them up in the Lord. Make sure to use Scripture passages for their intended purpose. Never pull a verse out of context and try to make it say something other than its clear meaning. It’s advisable to encourage others to read the passage from their own Bibles; then ask, “What do you think that means?” This typically yields far better results than imposing your interpretation on them.

It is also paramount that you know when to stop. If the other person appears to be getting irritated by your references to Scripture, it may be wise to back off and give him or her time to think about what you’ve presented to them.

Summary and Application

Effective confrontation is like a graceful dance from being supportive to assertive and back again. This dance may feel awkward at first for those who are just learning it, but perseverance pays off. With God’s help you can learn to speak the truth in love by saying only what will build others up, by listening responsibly to what others say, and by using principles of wisdom. As you practice these skills and make them a normal part of your everyday conversation, you will be well prepared to use them when conflict breaks out.  In developing the skills of loving confrontation, you can see for yourself that “the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

God bless and thanks for reading.

Join me next Monday when I wrap up this series on peacemaking. We’ll look at the importance of taking one or two others along when confronting others in the interest of peace. Matthew 18:16 says, “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.