He Comes Back to Love: A Thought from the Early Chapters of Jeremiah

For a long time, I’ve lived with the impression that when the prophets of the Old Testament spoke to the nation of Israel, they were simply speaking out of God’s displeasure, and it was all condemnation and judgment. 

I knew there were bits of hope in there. Jeremiah speaks of the “righteous Branch” of David (23:5-8), a small encouragement smashed between words of condemnation and disappointment in the people of God. But most of what I remember from my first reading of Jeremiah is the warnings and the disciplinary words.

And I get it. The book was mostly written, scholars say, after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. There’s explanation and context given for their circumstances. 

But stuck in chapter 3, early on, is one of the reasons why I love God and I love Jesus.

After talking about how Israel has “played the whore” (v. 6) and “took her whoredom so lightly” that she began “committing adultery with stone and tree” (v. 9), Yahweh, through Jeremiah, offers an escape. He tells the prophet to face north and say:

“Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the LORD your God, and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree, and have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD. Return, O faithless children, says the LORD, for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (v. 12-14)

There’s something very — as evangelicals like to say, and that’s not a criticism — “Gospel-centered” in this passage. God is saying to His people, the ones who have abandoned Him, that they’re not beyond reconciliation and saving. He doesn’t ask them to do any spectacular acts of repentance or make up for their mistakes — simply acknowledge their guilt and return.

It’s so simply powerful to me that God offers this chance at reconciliation to the people of Israel. This is a people that worshipped false gods, disobeyed the real God’s commands and abandoned the One who had given them so much. As a result, they ended up in exile in Babylon. But God says they’re not too far gone, not too far away to be saved.

So many people will speak of the God of the Old Testament as a judgmental and angry God. And I get it. There are many words even here in the first few chapters of Jeremiah that get that message across loud and clear. And there’s confusion that even I have had recently about this seeming juxtaposition between the loving and grace-filled God of the New Testament, represented best by Jesus, and the condemning and disciplinarian God of the Old Testament. 

These verses show that those versions of God actually meet in the middle. 

What the authors of the books of the Testaments report to us is that God is a complex figure, but at the end of the day, He comes back to love. He centers on it. His inclination is to love. Even if His children have disappointed Him and He has to discipline them, He comes back to love, community and togetherness. That’s His default. 

So when we speak of God, we must speak of Him faithfully, as the prophets did, as Jesus did, as Paul and Peter did — a God driven by love and welcoming, not one driven by judgment and condemnation. Yes, He has standards and desires for us, mainly one: to love others as He has loved us. 

Let that be our default as well.

Meditations on Clarity: About the Bible, the World and Being a Christian

“Sometimes you can just be in a funk creatively or, you know, as a person, and it’s like there’s a fog around you and you can’t see out of it, but that’s part of the journey.” – Andy Mineo, “Clarity”

“Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.” – Pete Holmes, Comedy Sex God

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of something being “clear” or “transparent.”

In journalism, clarity and transparency are very important. Without those two things, we can’t really do our job right. If the truth isn’t clear, it’s our responsibility to dig and ask questions and figure out what is true. Transparency is vital, and it’s one of our main goals as reporters to be both transparent ourselves and to hold others to the same standard.

For most of my life, the faith journey as a Christian has been about gaining understanding and clarity, about trying to see God as transparently as possible and know what He says and what He wants. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I learn, it seems, that things aren’t as clear as I thought they were — with the Bible, with the world, what it means to be a Christian — and life seems to be more about the journey, about working through the fog instead of getting out of it.

These are my mediations on that thought.

THE BIBLE

Growing up, the message I got on the Bible was pretty clear: it’s God’s Word, it’s all true and it’s all applicable to us today.

In fact, the Bible was God speaking to us, a love letter, a manual, “basic instructions before leaving earth,” as it were. It was direct communication from God to me, with directions for how to live as a Christian. And I spent most of my life living that and believing that. 

But in the last year or so, as I’ve dealt with more of real life and grown as a person and a reader, I’ve seen that the Bible, to my understanding, was never meant to be that. I’m choosing not to get into here what exactly led me to that, but I’m left with this uncertainty.

So when someone says something is “biblical” now, I’m left asking questions because, and I’ll throw you this bone here, the Bible is a very complex, complicated, ancient and diverse book. Its sections were written over thousands of years to several different groups of people by several different authors with varying motives, some of them clear and some of them unclear.

For example, near the end of his Gospel, John writes that “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But not every book of the Bible is that transparent in its meaning and purpose, so we’re left making well-educated, and often well-intentioned, guesses. 

What are the psalms for? In some cases, it seems to be David’s personal journal, pouring out his heart before God — and for a choir director to put to music. In other cases, it’s a recounting of who God is and what He’s done. In other cases, it’s asking God to put enemies to death and provide victory on the battlefield.

For us to look at the Psalms as a whole and say it’s all trying to say one thing would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it? A bit intellectually dishonest? Ignorant of proper literary criticism? 

Why should we not apply that method to the whole Bible? Yes, there are central themes — God, His relationship with Israel, the coming Messiah — but the whole Bible put together is not ultimately about one thing. 3 John covers hospitality and calling out one dude in the church that Gaius, the letter’s recipient, is running. Obadiah covers a prophecy from God about the land of Edom and Israel’s final triumph. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon don’t even say the word “God” in them. For us to claim the whole Bible is an instruction manual/“for us”/a love letter is at best a stretch and at most an improper appreciation for what it is.

It’s diverse. It tells different stories of different peoples at different times from us — or at least, my general perception of “us,” mostly-white America in the 21st century. The original recipients of the Bible’s sections looked nothing like us, spoke nothing like us and had a very different culture than we have. And since we didn’t live like them or experience that culture, how can we say for certain what specific things mean? 

That’s not to say there’s nothing for us. There are timeless truths and indelible wisdom throughout the Bible that we can apply to our circumstances, our lives and our situations today. The book of Proverbs is chock full of wisdom both practical and spiritual. The life of Jesus and His characteristics as shown in the Gospels are perfect and worth trying to emulate in our own context, and we can learn object lessons from the stories in Exodus, 1 Samuel and the Kings, among others. And, most importantly, we can learn how to be in relationship with a perfect and loving God and be forgiven of our sins.

But I think it’s crucial for me, at least, and for all of us to take into consideration that the Bible isn’t quite clear on everything. There are contradictions, and there are instances of historical context that undergird everything we read. We need to take that into account when we read the Bible and give ourselves and it space and time to understand and be understood.

Stephen Covey’s seven habits for highly-successful people are well-known, and one particular one sticks out to me as I meditate on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before we go and try to put our spin on the Bible, it’s vital that we take the time to really understand what’s happening in the historical background of its pages before we go making pronouncements of our opinions on it. Where that might lead us — to the disappointment of many, including me — is uncertainty and murkiness. 

And that’s so opposite what we’re taught as Christians. We are the bastions of absolute truth, of what’s real, of what’s clear. But in reality, if we take the term “biblical” at its most literal, which we should, there aren’t a lot of things that are really “biblical.” There are things that are “godly” — like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — and things we can and should “think on” — like truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence and worthiness (Philippians 4:8) — but to apply statements to the Bible as a whole, I think, is missing the point. It’s not always “clear” or “transparent.”

THE WORLD

In sixth grade, I started going to school dances, at which I’d hear the popular music of the day while standing against the wall and, every once in a while, getting a cute girl to dance with me. She wouldn’t look at me much while we were dancing, something I always thought was weird, but now I see that as “I’m just trying to be nice to you, but I’d rather be slow-dancing with somebody else.”

Sorry, this isn’t supposed to be about me re-living past trauma.

I entered sixth grade in 2004, so some of the songs I heard included great songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank (No. 6 on the Billboard Year-End chart), “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (No. 35) and “Sorry 2004” by Reuben Studdard (No. 53). Some of the other songs were a little less innocent: “Yeah!” by Usher with Lil Jon and Ludacris (No. 1), “Lean Back” by Terror Squad (No. 10) and “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz with the Ying Yang Twins (No. 70). 

That last one is particularly, well, explicit in its exploration of the artists’, well, appreciation for the female form while dancing. The popular line in the chorus — “to the window, to the wall” — would ring through my ears throughout the ride back home in my parents’ car. 

I remember one time after a dance saying that I liked the music, the instrumental background, but some of the lyrics were nasty. I still think some of them are. For real, just ugly and disturbing. 

There’s two reflections I have on this. First, I think it says more about Americans as music consumers than the artists as composers that songs like “Get Low” was that popular. It was No. 11 on the year-end Billboard chart in 2003, behind the classics “Ignition (Remix)” by the now appropriately-shamed R. Kelly (No. 2) and “Right Thurr” by Chingy (No. 7). 

I could slide in references to these songs all day, but the second reflection I have on this time was a subtle lesson I learned: the world can’t be trusted. The world has it all wrong. They’re focused on the wrong things. 

My perspective started to shift when I saw a tweet from then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. He wrote about how bad pornography is for a relationship and how it harms you. 

My mind was blown. This guy, who was an arrogant guy from all appearances, was saying something good and positive. Johnson has certainly had his off-the-field (and on-the-field, for that matter) issues before and after that tweet, but the message still stands. 

Perhaps it was my misunderstanding what the church was trying to teach me about the world in the first place, but my mind was changed. The world wasn’t all bad.

In modern Christian culture, we often use “the world” as shorthand for non-Christians, usually in a context like, “The world does this, but you shouldn’t do that. You should do this. You should be different.” That was the general reasoning given for avoiding things from R-rated movies to alcohol to cigarettes to cursing. There were other reasons, but that was the underlying motivation. Having that mindset led to me having a judgmental attitude toward friends in high school or college that would watch and love R-rated movies (particularly ones with sex in them), cuss, do physical stuff with their girlfriends and more. 

But as I got older, I learned more about why people did what they did, and I found it wasn’t so clear and obvious like I was taught. Sometimes people drink for more reasons than sin — it can be fun, and just like playing a board game or a round of golf, bonding can happen over a beer. R-rated movies can be good entertainment and even teach us lessons about life that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. 

Basically, I learned that not being a Christian didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good person, that you couldn’t make a difference, that you weren’t worth listening to and understanding and appreciating. Non-Christians shifted from a salvation project to people and friends. Not being a Christian slipped from my list of judgment-worthy qualities. To be fair, it’s a list I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place. 

It’s not clear that the world is all bad, or that it’s just something we should “be in, but not of.” I think Paul argued this point: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22). His example is stunning, as is Jesus’ as he spent time with sinners and tax collectors (many times, but particularly in Matthew 9:10). In a society where the “righteous” Jews didn’t associate with outsiders and pariahs, not only did Jesus speak to them — see the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 — He ate with them and went to their houses — like Zacchaeus in Luke 19.

The examples are endless. Jesus and Paul not only observed the world and knew about, they engaged it because they knew it wasn’t as clear as “bad.” It was usually a little more complex and complicated.

BEING A CHRISTIAN

Similar to the Bible, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of what it meant “to be a Christian” when I was growing up, and one of the major stipulations was no cursing.

One time after church, I wrote a Facebook status about how Christians who cussed were bad Christians or missed the point or something like that. A school classmate of mine commented and said something about how that’s not necessarily true, and she was offended that I had said that. I wrote something back about Proverbs 4:24 — “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (NIV). 

Looking back now, I feel like I was misguided about a couple things. First of all, I don’t know if the writer of Proverbs was talking about those four-letter words that start with certain letters. Second, where in the Bible does it say that Christians aren’t supposed to use those words? Third, I wasn’t going to win that classmate to my side with a snide Facebook comment lobbing Scripture — however wise it is — at them from the other side of a phone screen.

That story is an example of where I let the culture around me tell me what it meant to be a Christian when the reality is much different. 

Because the Bible isn’t a clear, monolithic book, to me at least, there is no one version of “Christian” today. There’s the Southern Baptist Christian, the Methodist Christian, the Episcopal Christian, the Democratic Christian, the Republican Christian, the male Christian, the female Christian. Our faith and the wisdom of the Bible affects all of us differently and leads each of us in different ways that are not necessarily bad. They might contradict at times, but that shows even more that while the Bible may be “clear” about something to one person, it’s “clear” in a different way for somebody else.

To my knowledge, the Bible only gives one or two “clear” instructions for what it means to be a Christian: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (Romans 10:9-11). Man, Romans is so good.

So what it objectively means to “be a Christian” is in one sense clear and obvious and in another a little muddier. There seems to be clear instruction for how to become a Christian, but after that, some of the practicals are up in the air.

Baptists believe in baptism after salvation. Methodists believe in infant baptism. The PCA and PCUSA, while both “Presbyterians” by denominational title, have several differences of opinion. But who am I to say that one is a Christian and the other isn’t? If they choose to follow Jesus, who am I to disqualify them for differing beliefs? 

THE FREEDOM OF CHRIST

For a long time, I didn’t quite understand the idea of freedom in Christ. After all, if we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to be restrained from doing certain things because what it means to be a Christian is quite specific? 

Speaking about the “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:1,6). 

Circumcision is a a topic in several of Paul’s letters. The Jewish Christian crowd was using it as a sign of faithfulness. Paul rebukes that idea in Romans 3:29-30 — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Here in Galatians, Paul argues, in Christ neither being circumcised nor uncircumcision means anything. The only thing that counts, he says, is faith working through love.

Being a Christian, he argues to the Galatians, is not about doing certain things or acting a certain way. It’s about faith. The Greek for working is energeó, and properly means, according to HELPS Word-studies, “working in a solution which brings it from one stage (point) to the next.” Love, Paul argues, is energizing faith. Love brings faith from one point to the next. 

Whether that’s love of God or love of others, Paul does not specify in Galatians. But as Jesus says, the two greatest commands are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). The Greek root for “love” in those verses and Galatians 5:6 is the same — agapaó, “to love.”

I think this gives us a snapshot of a framework by which we can look at the Bible and look at life. Faith, being increased and improved by love, is the guiding light. From there, we can determine what it means for us to be a Christian. Of course, we should take into account loving God and loving others; this is not a free-for-all where we define it for ourselves. The Bible shows us helpful wisdom and guidance. 

But trying to define what a Christian should act like on our own terms, without taking into account love and true wisdom, is a dangerous mission. I think it’s a lot more gray than we’d like it to be. 

That means this, even as I write this to you, is an exercise for me. I have to give you space to live the Christian life you choose just as I ask you to give me space for me. They may be different – heck, in some ways, they may be completely contradictory. But as long as it’s not sinful — the Bible and the Holy Spirit can help us understand that — it’s usually A-OK.

DOES CLARITY EXIST?

So here’s the real question: does true and clear and black-and-white clarity exist? No.  And yes.

There are some things that seem to be pretty clear. Gravity. Man as sinful — theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (the same guy that composed the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Salvation by grace through faith.

But there are a lot of things that aren’t clear. It’s dangerous, therefore, for us to paint with a broad brush, especially when we jump into conversations with other Christians. Cussing isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Voting for a Democrat who supports abortion rights isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Supporting the maintenance of Confederate monuments isn’t universally accepted as sinful.

So it’s good for us, in light of this, to carefully enter conversations and define terms. Because clarity doesn’t exist as much as we might think.

NOTE: All Bible verses quoted come from the New Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted.

I Read 2 John in 5 Minutes. Here’s 3 Takeaways.

I read 2 John this morning. It was pretty easy. I mean, it’s only 13 verses, five of them are greetings and goodbyes.

But while I read it, I came across three things that challenged me today, that inspired me and made me think.

“Some of your children walking in the truth”

First of all, the whole “walking in” phrase related to Christianity is an under-evaluated piece of Christianese. That’s for another post, I think.

Secondly, what a great thing for this to be said of the “elect lady” that is the recipient of this letter! Of course, as I look this up and do a bit of research, and apparently some say the “elect lady” is symbolic of the church. But the whole text doesn’t bear that out.

Anyway, for a mother in the church to be singled out by an apostle of Jesus for the faithful obedience of her children, that’s huge. I love two things about this.

First, there’s John’s encouragement. He takes the time to compliment this mother by acknowledging her children as being obedient to the commands of God. It’s a slight call for all of us in the church to be more adamant about encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Second: Isn’t that what we all want for our kids? I don’t have kids yet, but when I read that this morning, I was so challenged. I want my kids to be “walking in the truth.” I want my kids to be following Jesus so closely that everything they do is shaped by what God has called us to.

Loving others = following God’s commands

Loving others, John writes, means following God’s commands. Verse 6 says:

And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

2 John 6

Loving others means, among other things: telling the truth and not lying, providing hospitality, listening to other’s issues, praying for others in need. It means we do that for anyone and everyone, and that is the sign we are believers in Jesus. That is the sign of love.

And, as John writes later, “whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (v. 9b). That’s what I want.

Be careful when interacting with false teachers

The epistles and the book of Acts in particular records many instances of people twisting the message of Jesus to suit their desires, whether it be financial or popularity. In 2 John, the author warns the elect lady about those false teachers:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greetings, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked words.

2 John 10-11

I struggled with this one for a bit because it seems kind of heartless. My immediate takeaway is this: “Don’t greet or have any kind of hospitable interaction with people who preach a false gospel, because those kind of interactions signal agreement.”

I think this interpretation is a practical outworking of the common thought that goes something like this: If you don’t actively oppose, in word or deed, something or someone bad, you are implicitly endorsing it.

I think that’s simplifying it a little bit. I think there are a lot of things I’m against, but I don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to all of them. Not being active in it by using a hashtag or attending a rally doesn’t mean you don’t care. It just means you have better things to do.

Not that that’s always true per se, but I think it’s important we make that distinction.

A side note: I’m not just talking about the “social justice warrior” crowd here who say that. I’m talking also about the “evangelicals” who participate in it as well.

Anyway, I hope John’s intent here was to be hospitable to people and to be kind, but not to endorse false teaching or wish well those who preach that on their preaching. I don’t know if it was his intent, but I hope that was it.

If it was, that’s awesome. We should be hospitable to and welcoming of those with whom we disagree. We should be kind. We should be loving. But loving doesn’t mean endorsing something we believe is wrong or wishing someone well on their mission.

God Is Greater Than Satan. Duh. And We Benefit.

Image courtesy of Calvary Chapel Birmingham

I think sometimes, as Christians, we can overemphasize how much we give up to follow Jesus the way we do.

God asks us to lay down our lives for Him. It’s all over the place in the Bible. Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says. The woman who gives all she has to the offering is following God’s will, Jesus says.

That is all beautiful and significant, but we must not forget that God has given us so much in return for our faith. We have received and will receive far more than we will ever sacrifice to follow Jesus. I think of two Bible passages in particular that show me that abundantly.

The first I read just now in 1 John 4. He is writing about spirits that come into the world through false prophets, spirits that lead people astray from the true way of Christ. The right spirits, the ones you know are from God, John writes, are those that confess “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 2). They say that Jesus is God, that He was and is the image of the invisible God. Remember, at this time, Jesus’s physical presence on earth wasn’t that long ago.

John continues to write encouragement to his audience, particularly in verse 4:

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.

1 John 4:4

First of all, I love that John calls his readers “little children.” He’s done it before, in 2:28 and 3:7, and I just love it. It’s very fatherly and compassionate and wise-sounding to me.

Secondly, his emphasis is that God is greater than Satan. Duh. This seems obvious, but I don’t know if we always get it.

So often in Christian culture, I feel, we get so worried about the state of “the world” and how it will harm the church and the youth and society. While there are things in “the world” that are harmful and destructive, I think that, in those moments, we forget what God is capable of.

God is greater than Satan. Any move that Satan makes in the world, God is so much greater than Satan that not only can He match Satan’s move, He can one-up them, easily. We may not always see God’s moves the way we see Satan’s moves so often, but they’re there and they’re accessible.

Correct, they’re accessible. John says that his audience has “overcome” those false-prophet spirits because God is greater than Satan. And this leads us to our second passage.

In just one book prior, 2 Peter, the disciple of Jesus starts off his letter by explaining that as believers we have access to something very special because we are God’s children:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

2 Peter 1:3-4

God has made us “partakers of the divine nature” through His promises. What did He promise us? He promised us His Holy Spirit, by which we know how to live and be godly. He gave us His Word, Jesus, so we know how to live and be godly.

Because He’s given us this power, we can fight sin! We can choose right over wrong. We can see who is a false prophet and who is not.

We can be like God in those ways. There are many ways we can’t be like God, and thank Him for it. But we need to remember that we can access that power in moments of weakness, moments of temptation, moments of happiness.

He is there, and He is for us. And He is greater than Satan. Alleluia, amen.

God Can Handle Your Questions

As a journalist, I make my living asking questions. 

Questions are important. Questions are vital to our lives because, as limited humans, we don’t know everything we need to know, and we don’t know most of the things we want to know.

A lot of times in journalism and reporting, it’s about asking the right question, not necessarily the right amount of questions. A journalist at the White House recently got in trouble for asking the president supposedly “too many” questions, and while I won’t get into the politics here, I can see both sides’ frustrations in that issue. Sometimes you can be pesky and ask the wrong questions and be obnoxious.

Recently, I’ve been asking a lot of questions of God, particularly as it relates to the Bible, Christian culture and my personal choices and experiences in life. I won’t get into those questions here — maybe someday — but it’s caused me to think about how we in the church handle people questioning God.

For many, I believe, church isn’t the place where difficult questions can be asked safely. Questions like “How can I be saved?” and “Can I join the church?” are pretty easy to handle, I think, but there are some that we as a body of Christ don’t always do a good job responding to well, particularly when it comes to doubts over the reliability of the Bible and certain political positions.

As I’ve wrestled with questions of my own, I’ve come to one particular answer: God can handle our questions. He can handle when we doubt Him. He isn’t put off by us wondering whether or not He’s right. In fact, as we can see in a few passages of Scripture, He isn’t despondent or critical when we wonder whether or not He’s all He claims to be. He’s the exact opposite.

The Meat and the Fleece

The story of Gideon is fairly well-known if you’ve been in church for a while, but I’ll give the short version.

In Judges 6, God is shown to be pretty upset at Israel, His chosen people, so he gives them over to the military might of the Midianites and Amalekites. One day, “the angel of the LORD,” often believed to be Jesus Himself, comes to a guy named Gideon (v. 11), and tells him that he will lead the army of Israel against Midian. 

Twice, Gideon asks God to show him a sign. First, in v. 17-24, the angel of the LORD sets meat and cakes on fire via supernatural spontaneous combustion from a rock. Then in v. 36-40, God twice made a fleece wet with dew while keeping the ground around it dry.

God had spoken to Gideon and directly told him, “Hey man, you’re going to lead the army of Israel against Midian, your country’s oppressors, and I’m going to give you the victory.” 

But my man Gideon — seeing himself as “the least in (his) father’s house” and part of the “weakest” clan in his country (v. 15) — doubted. He asked God question after question, even put Him to the test with the fleece. Both times, God answered Gideon’s questions. In the next chapter, God used Gideon and 300 men to defeat a whole army of Midianites. It was the original 300.

This is not the only time in Scripture God responds to questions of those He calls. 

I think also of Moses in Exodus 3 — “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Then there’s Jeremiah in the first chapter of his eponymous book —“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 

All of these men questioned God’s call on their lives, His specific, pointed direction for their future. But instead of belittling them and ignoring them, He went a step further and spoke directly to their fears. God Himself even initiated physical contact with a man (Jeremiah 1:9) and turned a staff into a snake (Exodus 4:3), as well as His multiple interactions with Gideon.

If God can handle their questions, He can handle yours.

Are Doubters and Questioners Really That Bad?

An article on the popular evangelical website The Gospel Coalition sparked my thought process and interest in this topic.

Posted on Nov. 13, writer Alisa Childers’ “3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share” caught some flack from people on my Twitter timeline, especially for this final paragraph:

“After all, the contemporary views that many people call ‘progressive’ aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, ‘Did God really say’ (Genesis 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.”

In the piece, Childers criticized the thoughts and positions of authors like Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns and Rob Bell who have expressed doubts about the traditional understanding of the Bible. Childers’ reasoning was that doubting and questioning that understanding was one of the first steps to complete atheism. She extended that criticism to those who “may have an unresolved answer to the problem of evil” and “may affirm a culture-adapting morality.”

Along with quoting some of her targets’ work out of context — Evans’ book Inspired, which Childers quoted multiple times and I have read personally, was the most misunderstood — Childers’ article left little room for conversation, understanding and nuance. Instead of trying to really understand where people were coming from and speaking directly to their doubts and questions, she name-dropped those who don’t fall exactly in line with the traditional evangelical thinking and ignored the nuance and stories of their lives.

And here’s the final issue: by comparing these modern “progressive Christians” to the devil himself, she’s also comparing Gideon, Moses and Jeremiah to the serpent. Those men questioned God’s word to them to His face! Gideon was like, “So God, I know that you told me this, but did you really? Prove it to me.” Moses was like, “No, I mean, I know you said this, but I can’t do that. Are you sure you got it right?” Jeremiah, likewise, basically said, “Um, I can’t speak for you, I’m not good enough. You must have picked the wrong dude.”

It’s in these rough assessments like Childers’ piece of questions and those who question that we as the Church lose the skeptics. We don’t make ourselves as accessible as our God is to those who doubt and those who wonder. 

The Holes in the Hands

My new favorite story about doubt and questions is found in John 20:24-29. It’s about “Doubting Thomas,” which is really an unfortunate nickname because we tag the guy with a very small part of his life.

Jesus has recently resurrected Himself and has spent time amongst the disciples, save for the deceased Judas and Thomas. For whatever reason, the latter wasn’t with them the first time. The other disciples told him, “Hey man, we saw Jesus. It was sweet!” He responded, quite rationally, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25).

A little more than a week later, Thomas and the disciples were “inside again” — which I assume means that they were dining on some KFC and playing Boggle — and even though the doors were locked, Jesus showed up. The Scripture records that He goes to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Instantly, Thomas believes.

Jesus took some time — eight days, in fact — to answer Thomas’ doubts, but He answered them. He came to Thomas directly and said, “Hey man, here’s the answer.” Jesus, God Himself, was willing to acquiesce to the questions of man and the doubts of those who questioned Him. 

We have no right to question Thomas’ questions. Indeed, how often do we doubt something true we hear about Jesus? That He is with us in the storm? That He loves us in our sin? That He really wants what’s best for us? 

Doubt and questioning in and of itself is not sinful. Exploring those doubts and seeking answers to those questions is not sinful in and of itself. As the body of Christ, we must give the Thomases, the Moseses, the Gideons and the Jeremiahs the room to explore their doubts and questions. We must be willing to walk alongside them as they seek answers, not immediately write them off as “not believing the right thing” and certainly not comparing them to Satan. As Paul told the Areopagus in Acts 17, God made men “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him…he is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 26).

God can handle your questions. May we be a church that does the same.

When You Find Out You Have an Enemy

When I was growing up, even into high school and college, I would read psalms and other passages of Scripture and not be able to relate to when there were references to “enemies.”

I never had enemies. There was a guy that I didn’t really get along with for most of high school — God sent him to the same college as me to work that out — but other than that I didn’t have anyone that I hated and he/she hated me, or that there was tension between.

So I’d read things like this — “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28) — I wouldn’t get it. It wouldn’t make sense.

That’s changed in the last year.

About one year ago, I did a series of stories on a hot topic in Lee County — I work for a North Carolina newspaper, for those of you that don’t know me. Everything was factual, accurate, well-researched and documented. I was proud of the work I did.

Almost instantly, for the first time in my life, I received an outpouring of backlash that’s continued to this day. People started giving me affectionate nicknames, like #FakeNewsZach or #NoFactZach, saying my reporting was #FakeNewsbyZacharyHorner. I had people who used to love me and praise me begin to fuss at me, call me a liar. I would say hello to people and they’d ignore me. They attacked my family. They spread lies about me and my family.

That’s about as much detail as I’ll go into here.

It really refreshed my view of verses like Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”

When we’re attacked, when our enemies go after us, when we get maligned and lied about, it’s a chance for us to grow in righteousness. David, the writer of Psalm 5, pleads for God to lead him in righteousness because of his enemies. When we’re attacked, we have the opportunity to show others what a life filled with Christ looks like — integrity, honesty, steadfastness.

It’s not an opportunity for us to bite back, to criticize, to hold hateful attitudes. I admit freely that my heart has not always been in the right place, that I’ve said and thought rude and mean-spirited things about my “enemies.” It’s a tough thing.

But it’s my desire daily to try to kill those thoughts, those feelings. I’m trying. And that’s where Psalm 5:8 challenges me. I hope it challenges you too.

 

The Fact That Jesus ‘Reclined’ Means We’re Safe

You guys ever been in that situation when you’re with someone and you’re just completely uncomfortable?

I think of the scenarios where icebreakers were used to get to know people. First of all, I HATE icebreakers. I was an RA for a year in college and I acted like I liked them, but I couldn’t stand them. Second, I’m SUPER uncomfortable around new people. Today at work, I had to go up to random people on the street and ask them a question for tomorrow’s paper. So awkward for me.

In those situations, I don’t feel like letting my guard down with people. I have a hard time being myself. I wouldn’t sit on a sofa and prop my feet up, even if I was at my own home. The comfort level’s not there.

Jesus was never that way, and He still isn’t. Just look at the dinner table.

Carried to the Table

A good example of what “being at the table” with someone is seen in 2 Samuel 9. It’s the inspiration for the worship band Leeland’s fantastic song “Carried to the Table.”

David was king. He desired to “show…kindness” to anyone left from the “house of Saul” for “Jonathan’s sake” (v. 1). The only person left was Mephibosheth, one of Jonathan’s sons. David called for him, and Mephibosheth came before him and fell to the ground in homage. We’ll pick up the story in v. 7-10 and 13:

And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.” And (Mephibosheth) paid homage and said, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. But Mephibosheth your master’s grandson shall always eat at my table…

So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both feet.

David showed incredible mercy to the grandson of his enemy Saul, the man who had sworn to kill him, because of Mephibosheth’s relationship to Jonathan. Instead of clearing house for fear of being overthrown, David sought to be good to people, to “show the kindness of God” to them (v. 3).

And in came Mephibosheth, a crippled man, unable to move on his own. David not only welcomed him in, but allowed him to eat from his table and be part of the “family,” as it were.

Reclining by the Table

Matthew 9 shows off one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Jesus has just called Matthew, a tax collector, the worst of the worst for Jews, to be one of his disciples. Immediately after this, Jesus “reclined at table in the house” with “many tax collectors and sinners.” They “came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (v. 10).

Much has been written about the position of tax collectors in Israel. They were often Israelites who were working for the Roman government, collecting taxes, sometimes grossly unfairly. You need only look at the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 to see how these tax collectors would often take advantage of the conquered Israelites.

Not only that, but there were “sinners” in the house as well. To be with tax collectors and sinners was a no-no, and the Pharisees let him know it. They asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 11). Jesus heard what they said and responded. Verses 12-13:

But when (Jesus) heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

First of all, mic drop.

Secondly, we see Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth. He didn’t come down, God in the form of man, to hang out with all the “righteous” people, those who thought they had it all together. He came down to be with those who needed Him most. The Great Physician went to be with the sickest patients.

Safe at the Table

Both of these stories have two things in common: being at a table and mercy being shown to those in need.

Eating at a table with friends and family is one of the most intimate things we can do — as long as cell phones are put away. We’re sharing food, stories, memories, laughs and more. We’re being together.

What Jesus did with the tax collectors and sinners, both of them stated as “reclining” at the table, was unheard of. It was a prophet, a man claiming to be God, not only eating with sinners but letting His guard down with them. Relaxing. The same thing with David and Mephibosheth. The new king of Israel, letting a lame man eat at his table and blessing him with a house and land and servants. For no reason other than mercy.

And that’s the second point. Neither Mephibosheth nor the sinners and tax collectors earned their way to reclining at the table, fellowshipping with kings. If anything, they were the opposite of worthy of that privilege. It was given to them because of mercy and grace.

In the same way, we are safe at the table. Jesus sees us and says, no matter our weaknesses, injuries and illnesses, whether literal or physical or mental or emotional or figurative or spiritual, “I will recline with you. You are safe here. I came for you.”

We’re safe there. Just as Mephibosheth was safe from being destitute and poor because of his illness and his relationship to David’s former enemy, just as the tax collectors and sinners were safe from judgement as Jesus’ hand for their unrighteousness, we are just as safe despite our sinfulness because of Jesus’ grace and mercy.

Lastly, some lyrics from “Carried to the Table” by Leeland:

Wounded and forsaken, I was shattered by the fall.
Broken and forgotten, feeling lost and all alone.
Summoned by the King, into the Master’s courts.
Lifted by the Savior and cradled in His arms.

I was carried to the table, seated where I don’t belong.
Carried to the table, swept away by His love.
And I don’t see my brokenness anymore
When I’m seated at the table of the Lord.

Breaking the Lock: An In-Depth Look at Insecurity and How to Face It with Jesus

Author’s Note: This was originally written as a chapter for a book I was working on. I have decided to scrap that book idea and pursue a different direction with it, but still wanted to share this chapter. It’s a bit long, but I hope it’s helpful. The text is altered to reflect its status as a blog post and not a chapter in a book.

As I labored — and I mean labored — over how to structure and write this post, my insecurities came out.

Let me list them:

  • No one will really care what you think.
  • You’re not even qualified to do this in the first place, are you?
  • You’re not even Christian enough for this.
  • You’re just a 25-year-old guy from Sanford, North Carolina. You won’t go anywhere, and your writing certainly won’t go anywhere.

Writing, while being one of my favorite things ever, exposes many of my doubts and many of my insecurities. So it’s only fitting that, while trying to write a blog post about insecurity, they all come out.

I write now about insecurity because I know for a fact that it’s one of the major stumbling blocks in being vulnerable and being transparent with others. I write that because I’ve experienced it myself.

I’ve always struggled with completely being myself with others. Yes, that’s in the present tense. It’s very likely that, as you read this, I’m somewhere struggling to completely be myself. It’s kind of funny as I think about that, but it’s the truth.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Private School Blues

From my 5th to 12th grade years, I went to this place called The O’Neal School in Southern Pines, N.C. It was a great education. I had great teachers and I learned a ton and felt pretty prepared for college. For a place that describes itself as a “college preparatory school,” I guess they succeeded, at least with me, at least a little bit.

At O’Neal, I learned a few things about myself. Mostly: I’m kind of a nerd and I’m not super comfortable socially. These two things led me to not be the most popular kid in school. If I had to rank myself amongst my fifth-grade colleagues, I’d probably be the bottom 5 or 6 when it came to “popularity.”

And that always bugged me. It shouldn’t have, at least I don’t think so. But I was 10, 11 years old. What else was I supposed to think? I saw the kids that everyone liked (at least I thought everyone) and I was jealous. I quickly became known as one of the smart kids — if you had a problem with your homework, ask Zach! It became my thing, I guess.

As I moved into the latter years of middle school, I began to realize how much people didn’t really care for me, at least at school. A couple of girls that I liked basically rejected me. True story: one of them told me that I “kind of freaked” them out. Hard to come back from that.

As I look back now, I realize that I liked them because I thought they were pretty and that was about it. No real connection.

But that’s what you do in middle school: you “like” other people. And you get built up or torn down by that. At the time, my best friend was one of the “popular” kids who girls liked all the time. I saw him and all the girls line up to be his friend and whatever it was in middle school guys and girls did, and I was jealous.

As high school began, I started to make a few more friends, a couple of whom I still stay in touch with 10-12 years later. But I still felt like I was on the outside.

The thing about private school is that cliques, which you’ll find at any school, are exaggerated, and the differences between people are exaggerated because the numbers are smaller. I had 48 kids in my graduating class. My brother, who graduated two years later, had something around 35 students in his class. We were on the high and low ends, respectively.

If you’re on the “low end,” in this magical formula, you feel it. And I did. I felt like I was from a different planet. My junior year was especially hard. I was able to start driving to school, so I had my car on campus. During lunch and my free periods, I would go sit in my car and watch The Office on my laptop or read or do homework. By myself. I remember walking out of many rooms because I didn’t think I belonged. I legitimately thought people didn’t want me there.

There were some good things in high school! I was part of the track and field team in my sophomore and senior years, which was one of the best experiences in my early years. I was a thrower — I was “eh,” skill-wise — but it was a great time with friends and I was in good shape at the end of track season. I got half-decent at making short films for a high school kid, and I had some great teachers who taught me great lessons.

Side note: One of them told me that the best stories you can tell and the best writing you’ll ever do will come from experience. Has stuck with me ever since, in case you can’t tell. It came after I wrote a short story about secret agents on some Mission: Impossible-style mission. It was not good.

After high school, I went to Elon University. I experienced some of the same things when it came to being around people and not feeling like I fit in. I wasn’t the most comfortable socially, I was kind of nerdy and my faith and morality kept me from some of the activities that the friends I had made, especially in my first two years, participated in. I don’t regret that last part, but it definitely hindered my security among them.

When I was part of a different group, a Christian ministry during my junior and senior years, I felt the insecurity, but in a different way.Funny enough, I didn’t feel as accepted as I had my first two years.

The friends I had made as a freshman and sophomore liked me and hung out with me despite some of my differences. I eventually learned to be myself among them. My nerdiness was common among my friends, so it didn’t set me apart. Some of the insecurities remained, but I was much more comfortable.

When I basically switched friend groups, the discomfort and insecurity remained. I eventually developed new friendships within I could be myself and not give a care in the world, but among the main group, I was struggling. My insecurity was at an all-time high again, like I was in middle school.

The Ins and Outs of Insecurity

Insecurity robs you of your safety and your peace. It’s right in the word.

“Insecurity” is the combination of the prefix “in-” and the word “security.” “In-” attached to the beginning of a word means the opposite of, or “not” that word, the lack of. So “insecurity” means the lack of security. Security comes from having peace and safety. It’s why people buy security systems for their homes or their businesses. They can feel at peace in their home at night, or feel that their possessions are safe when they’re away from their business.

When you’re insecure, ironically, you’re actually locked up tight. You’re hiding things from the world because you don’t feel safe and at peace with yourself. It’s a restricting feeling. I can think of so many times in my life I didn’t make a joke or say something because I was afraid how people would react to me. I kept it inside. I might have chuckled to myself, but I kept it all inside.

There have been other times where I haven’t put myself out there or haven’t shared something I’d created for the same reason. I didn’t feel safe in doing that. I was afraid of what people would say or concerned about how they’d react, and it would prevent me from letting it go.

For instance, my first book (shameless plug) was called In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. It’s five days away from releasing on the iBooks Store as I write this. I held onto it for more than 18 months because I didn’t know what to do. Besides, if I shared it, who would read it? A couple weeks ago, I decided to just share it. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

But even still, I’m insecure about what’s going to happen. Is anyone going to read it? If they do, what will they think? Will they think I suck as a Christian? Will they think I’m a bad writer? It’s the risks that come with being a writer, but everyone experiences them in some way. When you come up with an original thought and decided to share it, you take the same risks, whether you put it out in a conversation with your best friend, share it at a party or post it on social media.

Why on earth do we doctor our Instagram photos? We want to find our best side, put on the best filter. It’s literally called a filter! Filters are used in everything from Instagram photos to air conditioning systems to cars to make sure things are produced as flawless as possible.

We try to filter out our insecurities. We hide them. We do it when we go to church just as much as when we go to work.

I’ve known just one person in my life that seemed completely free of insecurities. His name was Jimmy. He just did whatever he wanted, no matter who was watching. He’s a great guy, loves the Lord, loves other people. What some people do only when they’re drunk — sing karaoke, run in the snow in a singlet and short shorts (he was a cross country runner in high school and college), post crazy videos on Snapchat — he did completely and truly sober.

I think we talked about it once or twice, but he obviously had insights as to why and how to break the locks of insecurity on our hearts, mouths and minds. I’m not talking about doing crazy stuff all the time. That’s not for everybody. I’m talking about being honest, being open and being yourself despite any weaknesses you may have.

If it involves running in the snow in a singlet and short shorts, that’s up to you.

The Wrong Source of Security

The first thing that we have to realize is that far too often we look to the wrong place to find security, safety and peace.

In middle and high school, I looked to my classmates for security. I would hope to get a laugh out of a joke, or a smile back from a cute girl, or some type of in-class accomplishment. Maybe I had the winning answer in the day-before-the-test game that would earn my group the bonus point on the test. Maybe I hit a sweet shot on the basketball court at lunchtime that earned props from the guys I was playing with. Maybe I held a door open for a cute girl and she thanked me with a smile.

Any of those things would bring me a bit of confidence, a bit of swagger and a bit of peace in who I was. I felt like, just for a moment, that I was enough on my own! A few seconds later, though, I’d be back to where I was, searching again for that self-confidence that was gone.

What I eventually realized is that finding security in the world is fruitless. It’s not fulfilling. Scripture gives us a couple hints to that.

Is Not Life More Than Food?

In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving the “Sermon on the Mount.” Starting in verse 25, he tells the crowd to “not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.”

In middle school, shoes were the thing. Nike Shox were the biggest deal. They were basketball shoes that had four circular columns in the middle to the heel of the shoe. They were supposed to help you jump and run better, and I did play basketball in eighth grade, but I got them because they looked good. They were expensive — so my parents really got them for me — and they were hot stuff at the time. So I usually got some attention the first couple days I wore a new pair. I think Nike still makes them, but more for running now.

As I read Matthew 6 earlier this morning, those shoes came to mind, particularly for the latter part of verse 25 — “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Life is more than the things we own. Life isn’t limited to what we wear. Existence goes far beyond the Nike Shox I had in seventh grade or the new laptop I got in ninth grade or the new hoodie I wore in eleventh grade. It goes beyond the spaghetti I’d bring for lunch or the new bumper sticker on my car.

Jesus says finding security from the things we have or the attention we get from people because of the things we have is a fool’s errand because life is much more than those things.

For the Former Things Have Passed Away

Revelation 21 is pretty awesome. John is recounting what Jesus showed him about the end of time, and he’s seeing what it will be like when there’s a new heaven and new earth and God reigns over every dang thing in existence forever. In verses 3-4, a “loud voice from the throne” starts talking.

In verse 4, the voice says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the further things have passed away.” Verse 5 continues, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

At the end of time, these verses tell us, everything that causes us pain will be wiped away. The Scripture says they will “have passed away.” They’ll be gone.

Why seek security from things that will pass away? The approval of man will be gone one day. The things you (try to) find contentment in will be gone one day. The things of earth are not stable or strong enough to provide that security.

The Right Source of Security

Remember the definition of security from earlier. I’ll repeat it here: “Security comes from having peace and safety. It’s why people buy security systems for their homes or their businesses. They can feel at peace in their home at night, or feel that their possessions are safe when they’re away from their business.”

Where else would we find the most peace and safety in who we are except in the God who created us and knows us better than anyone else?

He (Literally) Is Our Peace

The latter part of Ephesians 2 dives into the relationship that Christians now have with God after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also explores what relationships between the members of the body of Christ should have.

It’s a relationship that centers around peace. Verses 14-16:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the last of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Jesus’ goal is peace. Verse 17 says that Jesus “preached peace” to those “who were far off…(and) who were near.” Isaiah 53:5 prophecies that the Messiah’s punishment by death on a cross for our sins will be “the chastisement that brought us peace.”

The verses in Ephesians 2 specifically focus on peace between the Gentiles and the Israelites, two different groups of people that viewed things completely differently. But God intervening, through Jesus Christ, was designed to create a unity around peace.

We can have peace with others and in our relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why? It removes our sinfulness before God. It doesn’t remove the fact that we sin, but it breaks down the barrier there. And it tells us that God loves us no matter what. Anything that might hold us back from being real with others doesn’t hold God back from loving us. So we can feel comfortable in who we are because God loves us as we are.

This doesn’t mean we just let sin slide, of course. We gotta fight it with all we’ve got. But we’re at peace with God, so we can relax.

God Is Our Refuge

Safety. It’s why kids wear those little arm floaties in the pool when they’re little. They can’t swim, so they need them to stay afloat.

The safety we find in God is not necessarily a physical safety from harm or danger, but an emotional safety we can turn to when we’re stressed or insecure. Psalm 46:1-3 captures the idea pretty good:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though the its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

People run to a refuge when they’re seeking safety, protection, a comfort zone. “Refugees” are people seeking safety. God is our refuge in that He is a place we can find safety. We can completely be ourselves with Him. We can shed any insecurities and unload our fears, concerns, doubts, worries and more onto Him. That comes through prayer and confession of sins.

In turn, that can help us become more vulnerable with others. It helps break the lock of insecurity by realizing we are safe and secure with Him. So even if others question us or don’t give us the reaction we want, we can feel secure with God.

As flawed human beings whose brains don’t always work, we will struggle with this idea.

Insecurity is the natural course of man in a lot of ways. In the constantly-changing atmosphere in which we live, it’s hard to stay stable. So we’re going to have weakness and we’re going to have flaws. It’s hard to think that we’ll ever get to a point where we won’t be insecure about something.

That’s where it’s best to rest in the grace and mercy of God. That same peace that we have through Christ to help with insecurity helps when we feel the weight of our sin. We’re freed from an eternity without God to an eternity with God, as one of God’s own. So freeing and refreshing, isn’t it?

I had a lot of insecurity about my sin. I’ve mentioned before in this book how my Christianity became the most important thing to me because I though that’s how others judged me. Whenever my sin becomes evident, I feel that insecurity all over again. I feel the weakness, and it feels exploited. I don’t feel strong enough to fight through it.

But then I have to lean on the grace of God. I am so much more than my sin, He says of me. He says that I’m good, that I’m set.

Let the storms come to hunt us and hurt us. They can’t take our Lord from us, bro, He got us a verdict. Not guilty, He’s with us and He stays present. Never leaves me, He even gives me stage presence. – Trip Lee, “I’m Good”

Sometimes I’m so thankful for Your loyalty. Your love, regardless of the mistakes I make, will spoil me. My confidence is, in a sense, a gift You’ve given me. And I’m satisfied to realize You’re all I’ll ever need. – Relient K, “I Am Understood?”

‘A Place to Rest’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 5

NOTE: This is the fifth preview excerpt of my book In The Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.

A Place to Rest

Late in high school and then in college, when I was struggling with my relationship anxiety, my mother shared Matthew 11:28 with me many times. It’s a crucial truth to remember for any Christian, but it speaks almost specifically to those with anxiety.

Jesus is speaking about how God has given wisdom to little children and how we can know the Father through the Son. Then, verses 28-30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus tells his audience that He is the place where rest can be found, where those who work hard can be relived of their weariness. So He tells them, “Come to me. I am the place where you will find rest.” What He asks of them, He says, is not heavy. It’s not something heavy to carry. Just listen and learn, and you’ll find rest for your souls.

That part is important. It’s rest for your soul. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that you get to be lazy and do nothing. It means a spiritual rest, a rest for your soul, a rest from fearing whether or not you were on God’s side.

The Jews he was speaking to at the time had lived for years in a spiritual state where laws had to be followed, rules had to be observed, or else you were disobeying God’s law and you were looked down upon by others. The Hebrew law was all about working your way to salvation. I don’t know about you, but if I had to work my way to salvation, I would never be at rest spiritually.

What Jesus offered them and offers to us is a spiritual rest. It’s a rest that means we don’t have to work our way to salvation or to God’s favor. We don’t have to do a certain number of things or be a certain number of things before God loves us and cares for us. We don’t have to believe all the right things all the time. There is no standard of “doing enough for Jesus” that makes Him love us any more if we reach it or any less if we don’t.

When we come to Christ, He offers us a rest that goes far beyond anything that humanity can construct on their own. He literally says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

For some of us, our souls spend so much time striving to be the “right soul,” to think and believe and do and say the right thing every single minute of every single day. But all that Jesus asks is that we come and believe and trust Him. That’s it. We’ll get all that other stuff worked out in time as we follow Jesus, as we get closer to Him.

One thing to remember is that it’s not the perfect people who come and get rest. The people who were found the most around Jesus while He was on Earth were the outcasts, lepers, rejects, drunkards, losers, gluttons, tax collectors, sinners. The lowest. The pariahs. There’s nothing preventing you from coming to Jesus and finding rest for your soul, finding relief from the anxiety and the nervous thoughts that prey on you, because, at the very least, He’s used to people like you and actually likes hanging out with people like you.

If you’re a Christian, you no longer have to work for God’s approval. You don’t have to fear. You can trust and believe. And then you can rest.

I Wanna Know What It’s Like on the Inside of Love

Can anybody tell me who Nada Surf is?

I mean, if it weren’t for Relient K’s cover of their song “Inside of Love,” I never would have heard of them. But as I listened to that song on the way to work today, one lyric in particular caught my ear.

Watching terrible TV, it kills all thought
Getting spacier than an astronaut
Making out with people I hardly know or like
I can’t believe what I do late at night

I wanna know what it’s like
On the inside of love
I’m standing at the gates
I see the beauty above

We’ve all been in places where we’re searching for something that fulfilled us, that showed us what we really needed. Perhaps one of man’s greatest needs is love.

In “Inside of Love,” the singer is searching for love. He’s been on the outside his whole life, he says, and he wants to be on the inside, he wants to see what it’s really like.

Well, my friend, there’s an answer for that.

It struck me this morning as I read Matthew 2. It’s the story of Jesus’ birth. Joseph, His earthly father, is visited in a dream. The angel quotes a prophecy that says Jesus is to be called “Immanuel,” or “God with us.”

It’s a popular idea of Christmas, but do we really sit down and think about what that means? God with us! There’s a couple things it means.

First: God is now with us. We were separated from God, distant, because of our sin. But when Jesus comes, it means we can have a relationship with God unhindered by sin’s eternal sting. We’ll still struggle in that relationship, but our eternity is secured if we confess and believe.

Second: God literally came down to earth to be with us. Jesus is God, and He came to earth to live perfectly, die and live again so that relationship we talked about in the last point could actually happen. How insane is that? I mean, seriously. Take stock of that for a minute. Do we get that? Do we get the depths of grace that exist in that reality?

That’s what it’s like to be on the inside of love, Nada Surf. It’s joy, relief, peace.