Jesus & Our Struggles

Jesus walking on the water captivates our imagination. It captivated me as a young boy. When I was 4 or 5, my Dad took me to see Superman 2. The three criminals from Krypton land in the water, levitate, and start walking on the water. I shouted out in the theater in amazement, “Dad! They’re walking on the water like Jesus!”

As an adult, it still captures my imagination.

In Mark 6, there are two aspects of this account that get my interest. The first is that Jesus is on land and sees the disciples straining at the oars.

This reminds me that even when I’m struggling, Jesus sees me. He doesn’t immediately relieve my difficulties. He allows me to struggle. There will be struggles in this life, and Jesus will allow me to go through them.

The second thing is that when He walks on the water, the text tells us that “He was about to pass by them . . .” He wasn’t going to fix their situation. He wasn’t going to relieve their difficulty. He was going to make His presence known to them and then pass by.

They responded with utter terror like the narrator in the Credence Clearwater Revival song.

Jesus responded simply: “It is I! Don’t be afraid.”

And He still does that for us. What if in the midst of my anxieties and fears, I could feel Jesus’ presence and hear Him saying, “It is I. Don’t be afraid”?

Will Someone Take Care of Me?

Mosaic of Fish and Loaves at the Church of Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel
Jesus’ miracle in multiplying the loaves and the fish is one of the most well-known in the Bible. There is so much fruit for reflection in this event.

The accounts of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish bring us face to face with the most basic question of our existence: how will we be provided for? In spite of all our advances in technology, we still fear interruption of our provision for our lives and well-being.

Even if we are not afraid of having bread and fish, we worry that we will not have jobs, good family relationships, safety, security from foreign enemies, continued freedom, freedom from discrimination, and a good place to live.

On a daily basis, we worry about retirement funds, having enough money to get the things for our children that we need, besides being able to provide for ourselves good things to enjoy like vacations, entertainment, and so on.

There are three different perspectives from which we can view these issues.

The Disciples and Jesus
The first is Jesus and the disciples. The disciples have just returned from a preaching and ministry tour of Israel. When they get back, things are as busy as ever, and they don’t even have time to eat.

At this point, Jesus says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (v. 31). I love this passage because I imagine Jesus saying this to me at times, and I take comfort in the fact that He cares about that.

When they actually go to rest, the crowds find Jesus and ministry work immediately begins again. How do you react when God interrupts your day, especially a day you planned for rest? If you’re like me, probably not that well.

Do I ever get a break? We might think.

Notice the end of the story, though. Jesus gives them rest: there were 12 baskets left over. Jesus still cares about our rest, even when He interrupts it.

The Disciples and the Crowd
The second perspective is the disciples and the crowd.

At the end of the day, the disciples start to worry. “This is a remote place . . . and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat” (35–36).

They seek to solve the problem for Jesus because of their own worry. Do you ever seek to solve the problems of someone else, even Jesus, when you worry?

Since they want to take the problem, Jesus gives it over to them. He says something very interesting, “You give them something to eat.”

Why does He say that? Does he actually want them to perform a miracle? Does He want them to see their own inability? Is he being playful to calm their anxiety? Difficult to say.

At any rate, as they contemplate the magnitude of the problem, they will have to look to Jesus.

That’s what we’ll often find in life. Our resources are totally incapable of accomplishing what they need to.

What do they need to do in such circumstances? Follow Jesus’ instructions, and something amazing will happen.

Jesus and the Crowd
The problem with Jesus is that He is so perfect that we might wonder if we can even go to Him. We all have shame that makes us want to hide. We all have things that make us unworthy.

The crowd approaches Jesus in the midst of His time with His disciples. What will He do? Mark says that He has compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Luke says, “He welcomed them.”

And He will welcome us, whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done.

And through this miracles where He provides for the crowd by multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand, He shows that He will provide for us.

In Jesus, we have everything we need, and He will welcome us. “I am the bread of life,” He says. “Whoever comes to Me will never hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35). In Jesus, we have someone who will satisfy all the deepest longings of our soul.

Jesus has compassion on us, but He also challenges us. He may call us to work when we’re ready to rest. He may not enter into our worry. He may put us in impossible situations.

But that doesn’t mean He doesn’t care. He cares, and He will provide. He will provide for us what we need and do amazing things that we thought could never be done.

There is someone who will take care of us, and He lays down the challenge for us to trust Him when we don’t know where our provision will come from.

That’s the comfort and challenge of Jesus.

The Comfort and Challenge of Jesus

“Comfort! Comfort!” These are the words announcing Christmas, the coming of the long-promised Messiah in Isaiah 40.

Isaiah declares immediately after that every mountain needs to be leveled and every valley filled in. The coming of God brings comfort, but it also presents a challenge. Our lives will have to adjust to fit the new reign of God.

It’s not surprising, then, that when we meet Jesus in the Gospels that we find a person who brings amazing comfort but who also presents significant challenges.

He is His own person, has His own goals, is willing to challenge people at almost any time, and is unwilling to get caught up in the torrent of our emotions. But He also stays connected; welcomes everybody; and provides help, blessing, and comfort beyond our wildest expectation.

The account of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4 is an illustration of the comfort and challenge of Jesus.

After a long day of teaching, Jesus is tired and enters a boat with His disciples to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Mark reports, “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped” (v. 37). This was no small or imagined problem. Their lives were in mortal danger.

And what was Jesus doing? “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion” (v. 38). As followers of Jesus, we will often feel like we are in mortal danger, and we will wonder, why isn’t Jesus more concerned about this?

When we feel anxious about a situation, we generally want others to feel the same way. It’s not easy to tolerate a calm presence when we are filled with anxiety. So, what do we do? We’ll try to pull people in, and we’ve got a lot of ways of doing this.

One way we try to bring people into our anxiety is through accusatory questions. The disciples seek to pull Jesus into this situation by waking and asking Him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

This is just the sort of question that is designed to awaken our anxieties as parents, pastors, bosses, and leaders. Our response is generally to defend ourselves, to reassure, or to argue.

But that’s not what Jesus does. He actually doesn’t address that issue at all. In essence, He says, “I’m not going to get into that with you, but here’s what I’d like to talk about: why are you so afraid, and where is your faith?”

This is the sort of question that would probably deeply disturb and annoy us. Here we are, we might say, in serious trouble, and you want to challenge our emotions and our faith!

It’s frustrating! Here’s a serious issue, and Jesus is telling us that we should not be afraid and have faith. A real challenge!

The fact is, though, that Jesus does care about them and us, and He is willing to help them. He stands up and responds to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” –

Remember that at this point the disciples are just beginning to understand who Jesus is. So, they are terrified. The Greek adjective is mega. They are terrified with a mega-fear. They are in total disbelief at what has just happend.

Who is this? They ask. And that’s a great question for us to consider this Christmas. Who is this man? What kind of person is He?

In calming the storm, He not only solves their problems but gives them the key to controlling their anxiety and fear in every situation. Instead of seeing the storm, they need to see Jesus who is Lord above all storms. If they can understand that, then they will have a foundation for faith that can give them peace in the midst of every storm.

That’s why the question that Jesus asks is so crucial. Jesus has compassion on us but doesn’t enter into our anxious responses. He challenges us to have a faith that is the antidote to every anxious response.

So, where are you feeling anxiety this week? What are you anxious about? If you could see Jesus as for you and Lord over the totality of those events that you are worried about, wouldn’t that make a big difference? Wouldn’t that calm our anxious nerves?

But it’s hard to let go. It’s a real act of faith to say that we’ll let go of our own anxious responses and trust Jesus and His solutions.

That’s the comfort and the challenge of Jesus.

Learning to Accept Loss

How do we make sense of loss?

Last year, wildfires came down from the Smoky Mountains and consumed Gatlinburg, killing 14, leaving hundreds displaced and thousands of buildings destroyed.

How do we make sense of such losses? How can we learn to live with the loss of a spouse or child or the losses caused by abuse?

It’s not easy, but we can come to a place where we accept the losses we have experienced.

However, it’s important to recognize that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss is something that takes time. We should not rush it. We need to be patient.

The case of Joseph is instructive. Several decades after experiencing abuse and human trafficking at the hands of his brothers, he was able to accept what had occurred and even see some good in it. He told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

But this didn’t happen overnight. He had a long road to walk. His experience at the hands of his brothers was a very traumatic one. The trauma was so bad that his brothers continually feared that the guilt of it caused them to continually fear that something bad was going to happen to them, “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” (Gen. 42:21).

They did not take Joseph’s life. Instead, they sold him as a slave to Egypt. Potiphar purchased him, but he was falsely accused of adultery by Potiphar’s wife. This landed him in prison, and he had no clear timetable of when or if he would get out.

Finally, he saw a light. He was able to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, and he thought that one of them would take his plight before Pharaoh and get him out of prison. But two full years passed before the cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh. Two more years of Joseph in prison!

During all that time, I imagine it was very difficult for Joseph to accept the loss of his family and get past what his brothers had done to him.

Joseph was released from prison because Pharaoh dreamed two disturbing dreams which none of Pharaoh’s servants could explain. At that moment, the cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph was able to explain that the dream was a declaration of the future: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph took the opportunity to suggest how Pharaoh could deal with the famine.

Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom that he put him in charge of carrying out the plan. Now, at last Joseph might begin to think, maybe God brought all this about for a purpose. If I had not been sold, I would not be in a position to do good, he might have thought

The seven years of plenty passed, and the famine arrived. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers showed up. They come to Egypt to buy grain because it was the only place that had an abundance of food.

I can imagine that Joseph’s thinking crystallizes at this point. He realized he had an opportunity not only to save Egypt but his family.

Joseph initiated a series of tests to see if he could trust his brothers. He wanted to see them not only provided with food but also restored as a family. The result is that his brothers did show their repentance, and family trust was restored.

But after the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers got nervous. They started to think that now Joseph would get even with them.

At this point, Joseph wept. I believe he wept because it brought back all the pain he had experienced. The trauma he had experienced many years earlier had left a scar on his soul that would never fully heal in this life.

At the same time, he had come to accept the loss. He could say with conviction: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Over time, Joseph had learned to accept the loss.

Joseph is not the only biblical example of learning to accept loss. Here are a couple more from Scripture:

1. David experienced that affliction had helped me return to the Lord: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67).

2. Solomon learned that hardships could be discipline from the Lord that would train him. So, he told his son: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Prov. 3:11–12).

3. The Apostle Paul struggled with some “thorn in the flesh” that he asked God to remove. He came to accept that God’s grace was sufficient for him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8).

4. James learned to recognize that suffering could even be a joy because it could ultimately shape us into what God wanted us to be. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).

5. Peter, who had rebuked Jesus for saying that He would suffer, came to recognize the importance of suffering and see it as walking the way of Christ: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

6. Jesus Himself had to learn to accept His own suffering. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). He recognized that his death would mean suffering but that it would be the salvation of the world: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32).

The important thing to recognize is that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss does come. It just takes time.

If we are struggling with accepting loss, we should enter into the grieving process (for an explanation of this process, see my post here). We should not expect to be able to accept the loss right away. It will take time and grieving.

For those who are helping others grieve, let me encourage you to let others come to their own way of accepting loss. Do not be like Job’s friends who talked and talked trying to explain his loss. They were all wrong in the end. Job eventually did come to his own way of accepting the loss and to healing, but his friends had been more of a hindrance than a help.

I find it very common for Christians to want to give quick explanations for loss. We don’t need to do this. We just need to be there to help someone grieve and be a loving presence. Acceptance will come with time.

As we walk through the grieving process, listen for our own and others way of accepting loss. Let that be the way you help yourself or someone process it.

Throughout the Bible, there are a variety of ways of making sense of suffering. We don’t have to use a one-size-fits-all method.

The good news is that we can come to accept the loss. It may be dark all around you, but the light will dawn. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:10).

Understanding the Grieving Process

A depiction of an ancient Egyptian funeral procession

The Apostle Paul calls God “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).

One way that we see God as the God of all comfort is the fact that His Word, the Bible, has so many descriptions of grieving people and funerals.

This shows us that God comes alongside us at these times and is with us.

Ultimately, it points us to Jesus who is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:1). He knows what it is to grieve as we we are reminded when He stood before the tomb of Lazarus: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

In the many funerals of the Bible, God teaches us what it means to grieve. He teaches us about the grieving process which is a process that He has created for human beings to recover from loss.

A funeral for a loved one isn’t the only time we enter into the grieving process. We may need the grieving process for all sorts of losses: when loved ones move away, when we lose a job or a dream is shattered, when opportunities are lost, or when we experience trauma. However, funerals represent one of the strongest forms of grief, so they are particularly helpful in teaching us about grieving for all sorts of loss.

One example of a funeral in the Bible is the funeral for Jacob in Genesis 50. There are several important points about this funeral:

  1. They expressed their emotions. “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1). Later, they spent a whole week expressing their emotion at the loss (v. 11).
  2. They took time. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob for 70 days (50:3).
  3. They talked about it. They didn’t hide it. They openly shared that they were dealing with struggles, and Joseph even asked Pharaoh for a leave of absence so he could process the grief (50:4–6).
  4. They got support. Joseph and his brothers didn’t do this alone. They took along those who cared about them and were a part of their lives (50:7–8).
  5. They used rituals. This whole section of Scripture involves detailed rituals that the Bible and ancient wisdom recognized as a good means for walking through the grieving process and recovering from loss.

This same pattern can still be used today. The grieving process is what God has created for human beings to recover from loss.

When I say that it is a process, I do not mean that these five points are a checklist such that once you’ve checked off all these things from your list, you are done grieving. No. These five things are just the sorts of things that we must do in order to walk through the grieving process.

We also cannot say for certain how long or how often we will have to walk through these things in order to recover. As Scott Floyd writes: “Grief allows no timetable” (Crisis Counseling: A Guide for Pastors and Professionals [Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008]).

Indeed, there is a sense in which recovery is never complete. There is real and substantial recovery in this life but rarely a perfect one. As C.S. Lewis explained: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop” (cited in Floyd, Crisis Counseling, 79). In other words, sorrow becomes part of our lives and is incorporated into it, even when we find substantial healing.

The continuing presence of an element of sorrow in our lives causes us to look forward to the life to come when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).

Our culture is the culture of the quick fix, but the human soul is not designed for a quick fix. If we follow the Bible’s wisdom, we can help people enter into the grieving process that God has created for recovery from loss and teach people what it means to mourn as those who have hope (1 Thess. 4:12).

Reformation, Part 1: Why Works Won’t Work

The central protest of the Protestant Church is that justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law.

When it comes to our standing before God, works won’t work.

Why? Because the law says that we’re guilty. When the law speaks, we become aware of our sin and are held guilty before the law (Rom. 3:19 & 20).

Martin Luther, whom God raised up to begin a Reformation of the Church 500 years ago this month, saw this very clearly.

Martin Luther believed that he could be justified by his works. He tried very hard to be declared righteous on the basis of what he did.

He also saw that he had sin, so he would spend two hours confessing his sins, walk away, and realize he had committed more sins that he had forgotten. This led him to adopt very strict practices and even to inflict pain on himself as a way of paying for his sin.

The more he worked, the more he saw the futility of it.

He realized that no one would be justified by the law because all have sinned, and all stand condemned and guilty before God.

Now, most people don’t take that approach. Most people aren’t trying that hard to do what’s right.
Most people get around the weight of their sin by bringing the law down to their level.

We can do this in a variety of ways. Most of the time, we think we’re OK with God because we’re not that bad, perhaps go to church, and don’t do anything society considers really bad.

Sometimes, people avoid the law by focusing on a few moral issues. However, usually that morality does not touch our heart. It’s external things that we can easily avoid and look down on others for. “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t run with boys who do” (see Mt. 23:23).

Sometimes, we can make religious knowledge or awareness the basis of our standing before God. I know these doctrines, so I’m OK. Those who don’t are not in the club.

Sometimes, even grace can become a sort of club. I’m better than others because I get grace!

Wherever we tend to view ourselves highly and look down on contempt on others is a place where we are tending to rely on as our righteousness before God.

But none of these will work. They’re actually a distraction from the real issue.

They won’t work because God’s holiness demands that we obey His law, all His law, to be declared righteous.

And we haven’t. We’ve all sinned. So, we’re in trouble.

We all stand guilty and condemned before a holy God.

So, where does that lead us? To Luther’s glorious insight. We stand guilty and condemned before God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift because of what Jesus has done.

“All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

That’s justification by grace alone through faith alone. This is what the Reformation is all about. This is what the Bible is all about.

We all stand guilty before God, but God accepts us a free gift to be received by faith alone because of what Jesus has done.

That’s a rallying point. Think about it. Meditate on it. Live it. Let it transform you. Let it transform your churches. Let it soften your heart.

Works won’t work, but the Gospel will.

Questions & Answers on Leadership Issues

This month, I’ve preached on the topic of leadership. I’ve preached it on because I believe that in the Bible, after the Bible, in leadership positions and without leadership positions, God uses leaders. If we see a problem in the world, we should pray for our leaders, pray that God will raise up leaders, and consider leading.

Anyone can be a leader. We just need a vision of what needs to be done and the wisdom to explain it to people, do the hard things that are necessary to get there, meet people where they are, and remember that it’s a process.

In all of this, we can be assured of God’s great promise to those whom He calls to lead, “I will be with you.”

Several people in my congregation asked me questions about leadership. You can listen to some of the questions and my replies here. You can read the questions and replies below.

What do you when people won’t follow you?
First, always ask first, what’s wrong with my leadership? before you ask, what’s wrong with my followers? Second, there are sometimes that we can’t lead people forward, and we have to recognize our own human limitations and give up. Third, there are some people we have to lead that are difficult to lead. Don’t give up. Keep praying, loving, and looking for ways to move the ball down the field. You never know when God may give a breakthrough!

What is leadership success?
You can look at leadership success in a couple of different ways. You can see success in terms of an objective, e.g., did I get people to the church to clean it before Sunday? In terms of the objective, sometimes you fail. It’s important to see that our value is not based on what we accomplish but on God’s value of us and desires to use us. That doesn’t change, even if we fail. Continue reading “Questions & Answers on Leadership Issues”

What the Bible Says About Leading Well

God is leading. He is bringing redemption and restoration to the world.

And God leads through leaders. He gives them a vision to lead people from where they are to where they could and should be.

So, the first question in leading is, where do I want to lead people? The next question is, how do I get them there?

One of my favorite summaries of the principles of leadership is in the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Here’s what it says: “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

This passage teaches us three crucial leadership principles for leading well. In the diagram above, these are principles for moving people along the arrow to where the “there.”

1. The leader needs to do the hard thing.
The word translated “idle and disruptive” refers to someone who has gotten out of line in a military formation. The leader has to confront those persons and things that are keeping people from moving in the right direction. Continue reading “What the Bible Says About Leading Well”

To Lead–Know Where You Are Going

When I pull up my Google Maps app, Google can usually tell me the best way to go. All it needs to know is where I want to go, then it shows me several routes, including the one that it estimates will be the fastest. I can then quickly make a selection.

The hard thing is knowing where I want to go. I try to use Friday’s as a day with my family. I always want to go somewhere and do a significant activity.

However, I’ve come up to many Friday’s and had nothing. I realized not too long ago that I need to make a list of things I want to do with the family: the Knoxville Zoo, ice skating at Ober Gatlinburg, a day trip to the Cumberland Gap. Once I’ve selected my destination, then it’s fairly easy to figure out a plan to get there.

I think life and leadership is like that. The hard part is often figuring out what we really want to go. I remember asking a woman not too long ago, if you had a week without kids and any responsibilities, what would you do? She answered, “I have no idea.”

She’s like me. I’m often not even clear on what I want. How am I going to have clarity on what is best for other people? How can I lead?

This past week, I was having lunch with another Pastor from our presbytery (a regional group of churches). I asked him, what if all the churches said, “we’ll appoint you pope for a day, and anything you ask us to change, we’ll change in our churches”? What would you tell them to change? It was a hard question to answer. Continue reading “To Lead–Know Where You Are Going”

We Were Made to Lead

God did not create human beings to sit around.

He wanted them to take leadership and do something.

Here’s what God said: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28).

In other words, don’t leave things the way you see them. Take leadership to do significant things that bless yourselves and others and glorify God. Continue reading “We Were Made to Lead”