The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord,
That He may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3)
I believe those of us who are trusting in Jesus as our savior are the plantings of the Lord and that because He did the planting, it is not an exaggeration to call us oaks of righteousness. What a desirable image! An oak is the king of the forest. It is tall and resilient, having faced off with hundreds of storms and seasons of drought. I think this must be God’s vision of our inner (and eternal) man. All indications are this growth will continue even as our earthly trunks succumb to rot.
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
I have reached the age now that my family and others are looking at me and saying, “That’s not the same tree I used to know.” They see that neither the Spring nor the Fall colors are as vibrant. They know there is some rot in the trunk and stand ready (I hope) to prop me up when the wind blows. How strange that I did not see this coming, that my light affliction would include a degenerative spine that seems to drain the sap right out of me. Yet, I must recall that this shrinkage and weakening of my body is temporary and is off set by an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.
Like it or not, for a season, our bodies remain captives to an unpleasant demise. It is inevitable this affliction will cause some heartbreak at times. That’s ok. Aging is just the most recent storm and the oak that God planted will be strengthened by it. Even though the winds blow and gravity prevails over the visible tree, its spirit can remain strong and resilient because we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.
Perhaps we can borrow from the spirit of Isiah’s words and confess something like this…
The Spirit of the Lord God is in us, and has anointed us to be good news (even as aged trees) to others similarly afflicted. He has sent us to bind up each other’s broken hearts; to proclaim our liberty to each other; to proclaim that this is the favorable year of the Lord even if there is some rot in the trunk. We can comfort each other when we mourn, knowing, in Christ, we have been given the oil of gladness.
Even as our leaves fall and the branches become brittle, it is my prayer that our inner strength be magnified. I pray that our inevitable demise would not fuel our sorrow, rather it would reinforce the grain that is still forming in our inner man, all for the glory of the One who has planted us. Amen.
Brokenness. A substitute passage, Psalm 31, prompted the following reflections…
I am confident that it is God’s will on earth (as it is in heaven) that we each receive the priceless gifts of His fatherhood and friendship, yet I am aware many of us feel left out and don’t know why. We are in good company: so did David, the man after God’s own heart. Listen:
You have set my feet in a large place.
My eye is wasted away from grief,
My soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow
And my years with sighing.
My strength has failed because of my iniquity,
And my body has wasted away…
I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind;
I am like a broken vessel.
In the previous four decades, I have known some seasons like that. I trace the root cause to two heart-conditions. The first was my prodigal life style. Sin feeds the heart with momentary pleasure while it binds it to guilt and shame. A prodigal’s sense of God grows dim. The second is an elder brother life style, where good works feed the heart with self-righteousness and binds it to religion with judgment and bitterness. Elder brother’s sense of God is not just dim—it’s grossly distorted. I pray that my words, as an ex-offender, will be filled with grace, enabling us to move off of religious-high center, where we may be hung-up, spinning our wheels.
We know of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God—no doubt, a picture of our own lives. How ESPN would it be to have a move-by-move account by Jacob of his struggle? How beneficial would that be to our relationships to God? In Psalm 31, David is doing this very thing, offering color-commentary on his wrestlings with God. If you take some time in Psalm 31, you will have a front row seat at the Bethel Gardens Arena. If you observe closely, you may see yourself in the ring. And if you will stay till the last round, you will discover how this arena got its name.
When David says, “In Thee O Lord, I have taken refuge…be Thou to me my fortress,” I hear him saying, “Lord, it is You and me together in this life. I have no other plan, no other recourse. My strength is gone. I am in distress yet my times are in Your hand.”
If we will lean into our lives (again, wrestle, if you will) with the understanding that it is God with whom we have to do (Heb 4:13) and that in Him, we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28), we will eventually discover that all the give and take, all the pressures, from wherever they come, are a part of our prolonged struggle as well as our unprecedented opportunity. For those who persevere in working out their lives face-to-face with Him, God will restore their identities, enabling them to fulfill their destinies. However, we must stay in the ring. Perseverance is required to discover the all-things-work-together hold of Romans 8:28 and the count-it-all-joy hold of James 1:2.
As a (mostly) ex-offender, may I share a move I tried to put on God? For the record, all my favorites have been escape-moves. As I recall, I was perfecting my avoid-brokenness move when God showed me his broken-hip hold. This last round with God highlighted something for me—I am hard-wired to go around brokenness as opposed to going through it.
At some level, we feel our heart dysfunction. We know the pain of human impotence and incompetence, but we learn how to keep those thoughts at bay—we figure out a way to cope and make life work. The paths around our issues include busy schedules, drugs, humor, and hobbies. Anything will do really, as long as it keeps our minds away from the gnawing unresolved issues of our hearts. We elder-brother types try a host of moves. Dreaming we are pressing on to know the Lord, we read the Bible, we read other books, we attend the conferences, get the training, fast and pray, attend the church and serve it. Perhaps you hear the wheels spinning?
We elder brothers do not easily abandon our chores to attend the banquet. While we boycott the party, our disappointments can metastasize into debilitating, deeply buried and well-managed anger. We pride our selves in putting one foot in front of the other—slogging on through our slough of disappointment and despair. This is a tragedy. If we don’t go through our pain, we will just go through the motions. And, if we just go through the motions, our hearts will remain bound up in religion, alienated from God’s love. For newer readers, my working definition of religion is any system of thought or practice whereby the doing of it causes me to think I have gained the favor of God.
It is easy, very easy, to escape God in the church. In any religious subculture, we can go to work serving the Lord with the unresolved issues of our hearts acting as the driving, unseen motivations of all we do. The opportunities for elder brothers in organized religion are almost unlimited: attendance stickers, awards Bibles, social acceptance, titles, offices, tasks to keep us busy, with each substitute for God Himself, aiding and abetting our escape from the real issues of our wounded and insecure hearts.
Jesus has come to set captives free. His targeted captives are not only lost persons, who do not know Jesus as their savior; they are also found-persons, who do not yet know God as their father and friend. Jesus aspires to liberate His offspring from every lie the enemy has sown into their lives. If we are busy going through the motions (doing right things for the wrong reasons), we are captives. But, even if we are, there is tremendously good news here! In his mercy, Jesus will come into the temple of our heart and kick over the moneychangers’ tables where we are engaged in the unholy and enslaving commerce of religion.
There is irony in this. Our pain and sense of failure may feel mushy to us, but to God, they are the firm subgrade He can build upon. If we will entrust our brokenness to Him, face to face, knowing He is the one we are actually dealing with, we will eventually see something beautiful emerge. Over time, God will construct rest and confidence, the very things we have always wanted and were created for. There is more encouraging news; God wants this even more than we do, and in Christ, He has made provision. Facing-off with God, wrestling with the unholy things that drive us, is where our lasting dreams start taking shape.
I am not saying all honors afforded men within Christendom are evil. I am saying they can be if we haven’t been working through our painful core issues face-to-face with God. This is how it worked for Jacob and David and all the saints who have come to know God intimately. Pain is not evidence of His absence, as the enemy would have us believe. We have pain because we are not yet home. Pain is but a reminder. Pain is not only a frequent component to growing intimacy with God, it is also an indication of what lies we have ingested.
While it is reflexive to flee things that bring us pain, we must do something counterintuitive when we face it. We must hold onto God by letting go. (Please forgive the overused cliché.) We must intentionally entrust all that we are, however bad we think that may be, to God. Saints who follow through can look backward and see the good and strong hand of God taking the worst events of their lives and building things that will last for eternity.
Over time, just living out our lives, wrestling when necessary, our hearts will gradually prove that God is patient, powerful, loving, kind and altogether trustworthy. More irony: the heart would have never known this without the trials. Whether the trial is a test or an attack, it doesn’t really matter. If we process life, face-to-face with Jesus, we will discover Him as our life. We will have an overcomer’s account of the hope within us, which will prove out our portion of His kingdom’s coming, His will being done.
Overcomer’s are triumphant because their vision has been restored. Truth has set the captive free. There is a grand prize for those who will stay in the ring long enough to hear the bell ring and the announcer say, “God, has prevailed.” While the things of God grow dim for estranged sons, the face of God will become progressively clear to children at rest. They will discover that Jesus feeds the heart with abundant life binding it to love, liberty, rest, and joy.
FYI: Bethel means the house of God. After the bell wrung in Jacob’s match, he announced, “Surely God was in this place.” We too, if we will persevere in our losing, will see that God was intimately involved in every aspect of the contest. What a wonderfully odd kingdom, where one must loose the match to be an overcomer!
Father, thank you that today is the day of salvation! Help us to receive your love now, not at some future date when we think we will be better qualified. In the give and take of our lives help us to lay hold of that for which you laid hold of us. Even now, help us to embrace you in the midst of our circumstances. Grant us Your eternal perspective on our brokenness that we may press on to know You and to make You known. Amen.
I have located the aged apostle in a Roman prison cell. He is in both sound mind and body but has no illusions about the emperor’s plans for him. Everyone knows Nero’s systematic executions of Christians accounts for the prison’s revolving door. The guards have allowed me to enter the cell and Peter has allowed me to ask my questions.
Perhaps because of my own awe at this man whose shadow was said to have healed people, I was nervous. Peter sensed this and would not have it. His gentleness and humility disarmed me. He simply said, with a smile, “Welcome to my temporary home. Please feel free to ask me any questions you like. I love to tell people about Jesus.”
The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
“Peter, we all know about your breakdown the night Jesus was arrested so many years ago. How do you account for your cowardice and betrayal of this man you had professed your willingness to die for?”
Peter sighed. The question had pierced him deeply and he said, “I have thought about it much but spoken of it very little. Oh my… What a terrible day that was. I had argued with the other disciples in the morning about which of us was the greatest. Later, I had fallen asleep in the garden even after Jesus had instructed us to stay alert. Then the mob came for Jesus and I panicked, injuring a man with my sword. The day concluded with the incident you are referring to. While the day was a disaster, there is something about it you need to understand—it was one of the most important milestones in my relationship to Jesus.
“The amazing thing, for those of us who stayed with Jesus, is that our failures became our new beginnings—places where His grace has been able to touch us. Our disasters became the platforms on which God has been able to build most deeply. You see, in these areas, we no longer have illusions of who we are and our own greatness. In these areas we know we have nothing—so Christ Himself can become our foundational-everything. I cannot explain why, but this is how it works in His kingdom—where we are most weak, He is most strong.”
“What do you mean when you referred to illusions as to who you were?”
Peter, nodding, said, “That is an excellent question. None of us really knew what this kingdom-of-God-thing was He was always talking about. We thought the kingdom was going to be a government in the mundane sense. We all thought we were going to be chief administrators in an earthly government. On top of this, none of us knew our own hearts. We truly loved Jesus but, at the same time, each of us had been envisioning our own kingdoms within His. Jesus knew we would not finish the race well with our selfish motives and self-delusion in tact.
“That’s why the evening you’re talking about, as terrible as it was, has also become glorious to me. When Jesus turned and looked at me as the cock crowed, this was my first glimpse of something He had known all along. I was not who I thought I was. I was not the great leader of men. I was the chief of sinners. Although it is painful, my awareness of this has created a dependency that opens my heart to His righteousness, peace, and joy—the substance of His kingdom.”
I had never met anyone like this. I was taken with Peter. He was utterly transparent—very much as I imagined Jesus Himself might have been. And, intuitively, I knew he loved me. I had to ask him, “What’s your advice to me, if I wanted to follow Jesus Christ?”
He offered a wry smile and said, “My counsel is to not follow Jesus from a safe distance as I did the night we all betrayed him. Follow him very closely. Don’t attempt to blend in with those who don’t know Him as I had at the high priest’s home. Instead of saying you don’t know Him, tell the world around you that you do! Why this is so important I cannot fully explain, but I do know, we are changed as we identify ourselves with Him publicly.”
Then, as if a load had been lifted, he said, “There is something else you need to know. God is using the events of your life—literally everything that touches you, to transform you into the image of Jesus. My story is relevant because you and I are made of the same stuff. He will likely expose you just as He did with me, so that it will be Him you are really trusting and not some illusion you have of Him or yourself. There may be some terrible moments as you follow Jesus, but press on. They will become the precious chapters in the story you have been born to tell. Keep in mind, our profession is not a one-time event; it is a lifestyle of telling others about our experiences with Jesus. Having a story of our own and telling it well is our calling.”
The jailer called out, “Time!” and our conversation was over as quickly as it had begun. The old fisherman rejected my hand and, while engulfing me in a great bear hug, and said softly to me, “See you on the other side. I’ve got more stories for you.”
The apostle Peter was crucified the next day.
Father, so be it, if you must turn your gaze upon us and provoke bitter tears. Help us to honor the circumstances You are using to expose us, so that we may trust You more completely. Do the necessary work in us, such that You become our foundation. May we publicly walk in step with you in all boldness and joy. Amen.
But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:33)
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:38)
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; (2 Timothy 2:12)
I’m imagining a new magazine. It will be called, The Rational Inquirer (all copyrights reserved). It will answer the questions that need to be asked, not the ones prompted by the outer space-celebrity connection. Its articles will tell the stories of the saints, those captives Jesus is setting free. Their stories will affirm scripture and confirm that the truth is more amazing than fiction.
Sales will initially lag behind Charisma and Christianity Today but will eventually win the readership of both camps since its focus will remain on Jesus – the common denominator. Safeway and Skaggs Albertson will bolster its sales as it finds its way next to the gum, batteries, Rolling Stone and the other Inquirer. It will trump even Trump with this headliner question, the one so many have forgotten they’re asking: “Who is God and what is He like?” Ironically, our response to this question forms the foundation of who we are and what we are like. If someone came to me and asked me this question, I might say, “I’m assuming your question is in earnest, so I want to put you on the right trail. Let me suggest you read Isaiah 53, then the gospel of John. These two passages will shed light on your question. As you read, try writing down your impressions. Once you have done this, let’s get together and chat.”
If this seeker follows through, they are in for some big surprises. They might have envisioned God as powerful, but did they expect to find Him so vulnerable? While they expected a ruler, will they be surprised to find a servant? They knew kings issued decrees, but did they anticipate His silence? His questions? While a deity is supposed to be far above and beyond us, will they be shocked that He came and took a position beneath and along side us?
After reading Isaiah and John, our rational inquirer will likely conclude that the God revealed in scripture is far beyond human invention and must be a God worthy of their worship. Perhaps you or I will be that third witness, who weighs in with our story. Perhaps we are intended to be the appointed ones who introduce this person to Jesus Christ. Perhaps we will be honored to hear our inquirer’s “Yes, Abba,” the first words of their brand new language.
Father, connect us to those You are drawing to yourself. Anoint us as catalysts to stir their hearts with the wonderful news of who You are and what You are like. Amen.
Once upon a time, I viewed the Christian life as a series of customized painful experiences divined to refine my character. Brokenness was the attitude of heart required to endure this gauntlet. Brokenness was my cross to bear. The ruggedness of the cross correlated directly with the foulness of my wicked heart. From this view, the intensity of my obstacle course suggested that, in my case, God was working on a higher order of wretch.
To cross the finish line, as I aspired to do, my brokenness required an exceptionally passive (even fatalistic) kind of acceptance of each new shoe that dropped. I could tell my story of cross-bearing with zeal, but unfortunately, not very joyfully. My future looked bleak. How could I clear the health, relationship, and financial hurdles before me?
Jacob faced some hurdles as well. He was about to meet Esau, a sibling he had swindled, who would likely kill him and plunder his belongings. Just before Jacob was to encounter his estranged brother and realize his tragic end, he was left alone at the ford of the Jabbok River. It was there he entered into a physical struggle with God that lasted until sunrise.
This scene fascinates me. Jacob, whose story is similar to our own, in that his future was also uncertain, was anything but passive or fatalistic. There was no way Jacob was going to waste this much energy without a benefit! Then God said, “Let me go. For the dawn is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
This reminds me of a scene from the movie Patton. Listen to the dialogue between Patton (played by George C. Scott) and his chief aid, William Meeks:
Patton: (moody, intensely introspective): I’ve always felt that I was destined for some great achievement. What I don’t know.
Aid: Yes, sir.
Patton: (musing, with great pathos): The last great opportunity of a lifetime—an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! (With greater passion) “God will not permit this to happen! (With violent resolve) “I will be allowed to fulfill my destiny!”(With reverence, as if this has now become a settled matter in heaven): “His will be done.”
Perhaps it was.
This scene fascinates me. It mirrors a season in my life when I was expending my final reserves in a prolonged struggle with God—a long, exhausting season when I was just trying to endure the obstacle course I believed that God had laid out before me. I can’t even explain why, but something very Patton-like rose up from within me, declaring, “I will not permit this season to pass without the specific blessing of understanding God’s heart.” As egocentric as this may sound, I believed, with a peculiar certainty, that I too had a great destiny; that the last great battle was before me and that it was my destiny to contribute. This new assertive tone was unfamiliar to my own spiritual ears. It was a contradiction to my passivity and fatalism.
And God said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And God said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel: for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:27-28)
My experience, along with George Patton’s “Amen,” affirmed the idea that God approves of our steely resolve in realizing our identities and in fulfilling our destinies. I believe our identities and destinies are a big slice of our inheritance in Christ. I can hear the spirit of this in Paul’s words: “I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ.”
If we will lean into our lives (wrestle, if you will) with the understanding that it is ultimately God with whom we are wrestling (Heb 4:13) and that in Him, we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28), we will eventually discover that all the give and take, all the pressures of life, from wherever they come, is a part of our prolonged struggle as well as our unprecedented opportunity. If we will persevere in working out our lives face-to-face with God, He is going to restore our identities, lead us into our destinies, and glorify His name in the process.
I don’t view brokenness in the same light I once did. It remains with me to a degree, just as Jacob’s limp remained with him—as a revised understanding of God, myself, and the cross. Brokenness, arising from the cross, changes a heart’s orientation to God from gauntlet supervisor to Father. And, while character reform is inevitable, it is not the primary point. His higher objective is simply to reveal His love to us in Jesus—our provision of abundant life.
Father, help us to see how enjoined to and inseparable from You our live are. May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
An article I read recently, borrowing from the best sociology, made out to demonstrate that the world has not been, and never would be, changed by good theology and sincerity. It had only been changed by society’s elite: the cultural icons whose ideas find their way into the main stream, affecting group thought and ultimately human behavior. I found the article intellectually compelling but deeply troubling.
The research reveals that, in the last two millennia, neither piety nor prayer has change the world. This Christian writer was proposing that they never would. It was even implied that putting any confidence in piety and prayer might be a form of insanity. I was stunned! I wondered if the author had bothered to imagine what the world would look like without Christianity?
Another stream within the church, which also aspires to change the world, has made the same observation: that atop seven mountains of culture, dwell the mind-molders—the elites who shape the world. If Christians want to change the world, they must set their sites on these summits and begin their ascent. This presentation too was impressive yet troubling. Why? They had left Jesus at the base of the mountain: “Let him who is greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant… I am among you as the one who serves.”
This passage teaches that those with aspirations to climb, may already be hampered by altitude sickness and its symptom of fuzzy thinking: “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be the greatest.” I can almost hear the rebuttal of the world-changers: “But we have a mandate to climb. We won’t succumb to the same pride and pettiness as Jesus’ disciples.” Really?
Peter was giving a similar rebuttal as Jesus was trying to show him he had already been affected by altitude delusion and that Satan liked this arrangement. Peter’s attitude was, “No, Jesus. You don’t understand. I really can do this.” “Lord with You I am ready to go to both prison and to death!”
We know what happened next. Peter had to be broken before he could lead. He had to discover that he had grossly misjudged himself. Can you imagine the painful awakening that began for him when the cock crowed three times? This was both Peter’s lowest point and the trailhead of his revival. It was from the bottom Peter ascended to the high place of leadership in the early church.
As I watch Christian thought swirling around me, mostly free of any current of brokenness, I wonder, are we not dreaming that water flows uphill? Can one really lead without being broken? What losses within the body of Christ and to the Kingdom of God are caused by unbroken leaders?
We recall God’s original instructions to take dominion over the earth, but does that mandate equate to setting our sights directly on the summits of earthly influence? I would hate to miss it, but I have not heard any call to scale Everest. I don’t believe the scriptures direct us to change the world. I do read that we are slated for change. I believe we have been directed to build God’s kingdom by sharing in His sufferings. Perhaps after we aspirants to power are broken, we will then be equipped to serve and then ascend. “You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you [the kingdom].”
There are little t truths and big T Truths. Changing the world falls into the little t category for me. It’s real. It’s vital. It’s a worthy aspiration. However, I believe the kingdom of God is the big T reality. In its eternal nature the kingdom of God is a vast mountain range dwarfing the Seven Mountains of Society. One day God’s broken kingdom leaders will hike up and beyond the offices of this earth’s movers and shakers. From their lofty places, they will ultimately rule and judge this world (see vs. 30) with love and wisdom. Then we will see the world changed in earnest. Whether you are a world-changer or a kingdom-builder, grab a copy of Hind’s Feet on High Places (see warning below). This is Hannah Hurnard’s trail guide to climbers.
And if we are tempted to abandoned piety and prayer, just remember, Satan has requested permission to sift us too. So, as Jesus’ instructs us, “Don’t abandon prayer.”
Father, we see the winds of Your Spirit blowing. We don’t know where they are taking us, but we do know that we are to gird ourselves as You did, to love and to serve our neighbor. Help us to identify with the needs of those around us. Help us take our next steps downward that we might ascend. Amen.
Warning: Hannah Hurnard will not pass the doctrinal checkpoint. The Bible police have stopped her and will stop you, too, if you are caught with any H.H. contraband. They will show you her rap sheet and prove she was a heretic. They will reveal she drifted into universalism in her later life. They will fail to mention though that with Hinds Feet on High Places, she wrote a theologically sound allegory, describing the unlikely pathway to authentic influence.