Monday, May 31, 2010

If You're Down With P(erseverance)...

My pastor used the word "perseverance" in his sermon a few weeks ago and I started singing this song in my head. I missed the following point he made, but in that time I began to think about the topic of this essay.

Since writing on Deuteronomy 8, I have put much thought into God's motives for trials. My initial response says God does everything to glorify Himself. Lately, I considered another motive for testing. God allows trial in our lives to produce endurance demonstrated through perseverance. According to my dictionary in MS Word, endurance is "the ability or power to bear prolonged exertion, pain, or hardship." But we can make endurance a passive action, like waiting out a storm. "Perseverance", on the other hand, describes "steady and continued action or belief, usually over a long period and especially despite difficulties or setbacks." It's not enough to sit there and take the pain. God wants us to seek Him, build His kingdom, and keep moving forward.

Trials come to our lives in many different forms. Some must wait for God to rescue them or fulfill a promise like Jonah and Joseph. Others experience loss of material possessions or loved ones like Moses and David. Then there are those who go through long periods of suffering like Job. I have talked in the past how nothing surprises God. According to John Piper, God is incapable of risk because He knows the outcome of every action.

When God put these men through their particular hardships, He did so with purpose. God put Jonah in danger to change his attitude and turn him in the right direction. Joseph may have been sold into slavery and put in prison on false charges, but scripture says he worked diligently and gained favor everywhere he went. God used all those circumstances to train him for the day he would oversee Egypt and save many lives. Moses lost all the material benefits of a prince but God used him to liberate His people. David had his own wilderness experience when Saul chased him into the desert. Cut off from his family and loved ones, David wrote many psalms rejoicing in God. The king needed to know who truly rules over men. Job's story stands as a sober reminder of God's goodness and supremacy. He suffered all kinds of loss and illness to learn these lessons before God restored everything. God could give these men responsibility because they learned to trust His character and promise. They looked to the truth above the circumstances.

Scripture talks about the benefits of perseverance. Starting with Deuteronomy 8:11-19, Moses tells the people, "Look, God needed to put you through all the hardships of the desert. You needed to learn how to depend on Him while enduring blinding heat, venomous snakes, and scorpions. He sustained you while you lived out there and you were able to see it because of your obvious need. Remember this! No matter where you live or how good your quality of life, God alone sustains you. Follow Him." The actual text tells the Israelites the trials came to do them good, even if they felt like hell sometimes. Moses explains how God used these lessons to keep them from proud and lukewarm hearts.

In Stern's translation, 1 Peter 1:5-7 speaks of another value in perseverance. "Meanwhile, through trusting, you are being protected by God's power for a deliverance ready to be revealed at the Last Time. Rejoice in this, even though for a little while you may have to experience grief in various trials. Even gold is tested for genuineness by fire. The purpose of these trials is so that your trust's genuineness, which is far more valuable than perishable gold, will be judged worthy of praise, glory and honor at the revealing of Jesus the Messiah." Stern uses the word "trust" where many translators use the word "faith". Trials test the genuineness of our faith. I have talked with some people in the church who wonder about the authenticity of their faith. How do they know that they know they are saved? According to Peter, it seems perseverance is a good indicator.

Whether to keep us from sin, prepare us for responsibility, or remind us of our faith's genuineness, we should listen to Peter, James, and Paul when they tell believers to rejoice in trials. Yes, the situations themselves might suck but we can thank God for the Holy Spirit working in our lives. Be encouraged, my friends. Jesus didn't only save us from sin, He gave us the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit to live through hardships in ways that glorify the Father and do us good.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who Do You Love When You Love Yourself?

Self-hate, I think we can agree, is a less than positive trait. Some might regard it as harmless, maybe ignorable, because it doesn't seem to affect anyone else. But self-hate isn't merely a trait and it is far from harmless. Self-hate is sin and it causes nothing but damage.

Most kids have their worst horror stories from jr. or sr. high. My stories began in elementary school. During my five years in public school, the other kids picked on me, harassed me, or beat me up three times a week. At least, that's my conservative guess. It didn't take long for me to develop a poor self-image. I know it sounds like the usual formative years tragedy - nobody picking me for the basketball team, sitting by myself at lunch, having five kids beat me unconscious - so I won't go into all of it. One story in particular can sum up the five years of emotional wreckage leading to a lifestyle of self-hate.

After the last day of fifth grade, a few kids invited me to a tree house. When we got there, they had fireworks and sodas. I couldn't believe other kids wanted to have me join in their fun. Then another classmate came with a stack of dirty magazines. Dirty in every sense. Like, grimy and torn, but with content that even today makes me sad to recall. Immediately, I felt a mixture of embarrassment and nausea. I told the other kids I didn't want to look. They laughed and asked in mocking tones, "What's the matter?" One kid held me down and tried forcing me to look. I closed my eyes and kept them clenched despite his attempts to pry them open. Another kid began to read aloud the story surrounding the pictures. I clapped my hands to my ears and felt them pulled away. Eventually, the kids let me go and I walked home dazed. I didn't talk to my parents when I reached my home.

I realized many years later how I allowed this sort of treatment to birth an attitude of powerlessness in me. If I ever looked at porn again, I had this tiny reminder of the time I couldn't escape. Maybe, I would subconsciously tell myself, I should just let it happen and avoid the fight. The feeling of powerlessness quickly eroded my security. Any love I had for myself crumbled. I looked for ways to pretend confidence, to feel loved, to look cool. Smoking, gateway drugs, chasing (but seldom catching) girls, applause, academic achievements, heavy drinking - none of it rid me of those nagging feelings of powerlessness. I tried to enhance my identity so much I began to wonder if it made me a fraud. This only made me feel worse about myself and I redoubled my efforts in what I thought would fulfill me, only increasing the damage.

Of course, I still went to church. I studied my Bible. I prayed and even heard from God during this period. If anyone asked, I could tell them the two greatest commands as Jesus taught them in Matthew 22:34-40. Love God and love your neighbor. It appeared as if I love loved God. Maybe not the way Deuteronomy 6:5 instructs, what with my whole heart, soul, and might. I tried to be nice to other people, an attempt at following the command to love my neighbor. But if pushed by anybody, I would defer, cower, explain, or flee. I didn't show kindness. I showed niceness - the pleasant and non-combative behavior of a castrated church-goer.

It wasn't until my early twenties when I finally agreed to talk with someone about these issues. A pastor friend of mine, someone I could trust to challenge me, made two major points as we talked about my history. Genesis 1:26-27 tells how God created man in His image. First, my friend said this truth gives us dignity. We are image-bearers of God, special in this way from all creation. In hating myself, I despised His image and questioned His goodness. This led to my friend's second point when he asked, "Do you really love God when you hate His image? How is it possible to love your neighbor when you hate yourself?"

At first I wondered vainly if I had to love myself before I could love God or neighbors, as if it were a prerequisite. But reading more into scripture, I realized how loving God first allows me to love myself. To truly love God, I have to know Him. To know Him, I have to know something about Him. God tells of Himself in the Bible and while it doesn't exhaustively reveal Him, it does truly reveal Him. It was easy in my Baptist upbringing to understand God as perfect, righteous, and just (Deuteronomy 32:4), creator of the world, (Genesis 1), deserving all glory, honor, and praise (1 Peter 1:7). I wondered how such a magnificent being could care about a cowardly, sinful person like me. But when I read in the Bible how I am hidden in Christ (Galatians 2:20), how God cleanses me from my filth (Zechariah 3:3), and sees me as holy and blameless when i put my trust in Jesus (Colossians 1:21-23), I must believe these things are also true.

1 Peter 1:3-7 ties these passages all together. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade - kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." But then verses 8 and 9 explain what this truth should do to us. "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are reveiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls."

The truth of God's nature and the salvation He offers fills me with joy. It shows me His love for me. 1 John 4:19 says, "We love, because He first loved us." I received the love He offered and it allowed me to love Him in return. If I love Him and trust His word in the Bible, then I have to believe He created me in His image and sent Jesus to die for me. I find a great measure of worth in this. 1 John 4:20, however, makes a very serious statement. "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother who he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." Is it possible to substitute the word "brother" here and replace it with "myself"? Am I a liar if I say I love God but hate myself?

Earlier, I referred to Zechariah 3. In that passage, the prophet sees the High Priest wearing filthy clothes and standing before God's throne. Satan stands to the side accusing the priest until an angel of the Lord rebukes him. I believed all sorts of lies about myself thinking I was powerless, unlovable, and a fake. But when I put my trust in Jesus, I was cleansed and dressed in clean clothes like the priest. What would it mean if I were to find myself cleared of charges but then protest and agree with the accuser? If someone takes my trashed second-hand clothing that smells like another person's B.O. and offers me a tailored suit, how would my benefactor feel when I refuse to wear it because I don't consider myself worthy? It makes me think that self-hate, for the Christian, especially displeases God because it shows contempt for the salvation He offers. It makes me wonder if a person can receive salvation if they insist on showing it contempt. If you say you love God but hate yourself, then you're in danger of having God judge you as a liar.

Just wear the suit and let the Judge acquit you already.