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Category Archives: Struggles

Every follower of Jesus faces challenges and struggles. Although it is a joy and delight to follow him, their is a cross-bearing that is part of “followership.”

Paul is inviting his friend, Philemon, into a journey in grace. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, ran away, fleeing his servitude and ended up in Rome. There, in Rome, Onesimus ended up meeting Paul, who himself was in Rome in prison. The details of their meetings are not clear, but the outcome is.

Through their encounter, Onesimus came to know Jesus, Paul having been instrumental in leading Onesimus to faith. Having learned from Onesimus his story, Paul is now sending this run-away slave back to his master, Philemon. This return being the occasion for the letter.

Quite a confluence of events. Paul’s original unlawful detention in Israel. His subsequent long imprisonment in Philippi before being sent to Rome. Paul’s extended imprisonment in Rome. Onesimus’ flight from slavery far from Rome, only to end up in his travels in Rome. The surprising encounter with Paul. Onesimus’ subsequent conversion. In the midst of the massive kingdom that is the Roman Empire, these two–Paul, a friend of Philemon, and Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves–happen to bump into each other in crowded city of Rome.

It would be easy to think that this was all some cosmic coincidence, some highly unlikely but marvelously fortunate accident. But that isn’t how Paul sees it.

For perhaps [Onesimus] was for this reason separated from you [, Philemon] for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother (Philemon 15-16).

Paul is not insistent, but he is offering Philemon a way of understanding what has happened. Can Paul says for certain that what has happened–his own imprisonment, his prolonged detention, Onesimus’ flight, his subsequent arrival in Rome, and both Paul’s and Onesimus’ relational connection with Philemon–is playing out exactly as God intended? He doesn’t go quite that far. But Paul does provide a different way of viewing the situation.

Perhaps God has a reason for how this has been playing out. Paul is making an appeal. “Philemon, is it possible for you to look at what has happened from a different perspective? Rather than focus on how Onesimus has wronged you, could you perhaps catch a glimpse of something God Himself might be doing in all of this?”

And that kind of perspective is worth embracing . . . particularly when we feel that life is not playing out the way we thing it should.

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Augustine, in The Confessions, addresses a profound and simply prayer to God: “O God, command what you will, and give what you command.”

I think what he captures in that short cry is becoming increasingly more important to my understanding of how God intends to draw us into a full and rich experience of intimate life. And I think it is when I miss the simple insight of Augustine’s short petition that keeps me faltering in my journey with Jesus.

Where do I see this? In the response that arises in my soul when I hear Jesus speak–through his Word, by his Spirit, to my soul. For example.

Jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-22; Mark 11:25). And I hear those words. I know what Jesus is calling me to. And I often respond, “I can’t do that! I don’t feel ‘forgiving’ toward that person. That’s not in my heart.” And I act as if Jesus is commanding something that he is not or will not or cannot also provide. He calls me to forgive and I resist.

Jesus calls husbands to love their wives and wives to respect and value their husbands (Ephesians 5:33; Titus 2:4; 1 Peter 3:7). And we hear those words. I know what Jesus is calling me into in my marriage. But it is easy to respond, “But she (or he) isn’t loving me. I’m not getting from my spouse what I deserve. It doesn’t feel right to just love without reciprocation. I just can’t do that.” And I act as if Jesus is commanding something of me that he is not or will not or cannot also provide. He calls me to my role as spouse and I resist.

And behind all such resistance is the thinking that something has to happen in me before I give into the call. And it is there that my thinking might just be a bit off.

Maybe Jesus issues such calls and extends such commands because it is in the command that the empowerment comes. In other words, it is because it isn’t me to live that way–it isn’t in me to love or forgive the way he intends–that Jesus commands it. He commands what he does in our lives so as to make possible our living the way he wants us to. For apart from the command it just won’t ever happen.

Perhaps we can picture it this way.

Why does Jesus command Lazarus to arise and come out of the tomb? Yes, Lazarus is dead. But why the command? Jesus is not suggesting Lazarus consider “becoming alive.” Jesus is commanding what Lazarus needs. Lazarus needs to live, so Jesus commands, “Lazarus, arise!”

Why does Jesus call the man with the withered hand to stretch out his hand? Because the man’s hand is withered. Jesus is not suggesting that the man think about whether he wants his hand restored. Jesus is commanding what the man needs. In such instances, Jesus commands what cannot happen apart from his command–the very command is Jesus’ means of bringing about the end he intends.

Maybe it is in hearing and responding to Jesus’ call that the very thing I think I lack will be found. Maybe it is in the giving in to the call of Jesus that I will discover that what he is commanding he is also providing. Maybe it is in the inclining of my heart to affirm what he is calling for that I will realize that the reason he commands such seemingly impossible things in my life is that without the command I will never be different.

 

Last night, in exchanges with a friend, we touched on some life issues he was having to face. Like all of us, there are family and relationship and work and church issues. We shared in broad terms about the concerns and his feelings. And I affirmed I would be praying.

And then it came home to me. When I thought about “praying for him” I really was only thinking in broad terms. And that is often how I pray. Someone shares a concern, shares some need, and I pray generic kinds of prayer: “Lord, please be with my friend. Please, help my friend.”

I wouldn’t suggest that such prayers are without some value. Anytime we talk with the Lord about another, I think it matters. But when I stop and think about prayer, I wonder if the reason I see so little significant answers to prayer is because I so often pray such generic, shallow kinds of prayers.

When Simon Peter was going to be facing trouble at the time of Jesus’ arrest and betrayal, Jesus told Peter that he had prayed for him.

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Jesus had thought well about what Peter would be facing. He asked something more specific than “Father, please be with Peter” (something that would already have been true and certain). He had a particular outcome in mind. Jesus didn’t pray a generic kind of prayer for his friend in need.

When the community of believers in Jerusalem was confronted with their first real trouble with the religious authorities, they gathered for prayer. They prayed:

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that your bond-servants may speak your word with all confidence, while you extend your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30)

The church mentioned the threats they had heard. They asked for something more specific than, “Lord, please be with us in this hard time.” They had particular things in mind that they longed to see happen in response to their prayers. They didn’t pray a generic, casual kind of prayer.

So all this nudges me to ask my friend for more details–not because I am nosy but because I want to pray particular petitions. I want to pray specific, not generic. I want to ask Jesus to do some strategic kinds of things . . . and then watch to see what he does.

I catch myself in the middle of the day realizing that I am disappointed or feeling some anger towards someone else because they haven’t responded to me “the right way.” And when the Spirit calls my attention to that, I am forced to reflect on just what kind of reciprocation I was expecting. (For, after all, if I did not expect any reciprocation and if I had not expectation of “payback,” then I would not be bothered at all by not being responded to “the right way.”)

Previous posts explored this idea of non-reciprocal living. And I am still thinking it through, trying to embrace this Biblical call (anchored in Jesus’ words in Luke 6:27-36). Although I do catch glimpses of this kind of life, I am still seeking to fully lean into living non-reciprocally.

Peter helps me with my thinking, reflecting on what he wrote in his first epistle. In describing how servants are to live, he offers some insight into the foundation for all non-reciprocal living:

This finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps,  who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth, and while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting himself to [God] who judges righteously.  (1 Peter 2:19-23)

There are a number of things that leap out of this passage, calling for my attention. And all seem to point to this non-reciprocal kind of life.

  • Suffering in life might just be unjust, unwarranted. If we expect to be treated well because we are seeking to live well, we will be disappointed when we are not reciprocated.
  • Suffering unjustly when doing what is right “finds favor with God.” This doesn’t mean that our suffering is meritorious; that we earn or merit favor with God. But is does mean that God is glad for our living well in the midst of suffering. (It makes him look good, because we are saying by our living well that we value life with him over being treated by others the way we expect they should treat us.)
  • When I revile (that is, speak disparagingly of another) or when I threaten (affirming my desire to get even, to get back at someone), it is an indication that I am more interested in being reciprocated than I am with living Christ-like. Those response are like gauges on my soul that can show me what I really am living for.
  • Our calling in Christ is not a call to be treated well by others, but a call to suffer along with Jesus. (Why didn’t someone tell me that when I first responded to the Gospel? I thought the invitation in the Gospel was an invitation to get life on my terms with God’s help. Seriously–and sadly–some do seem to think that the invitation Jesus extends to us to participate in his life is an invitation to ease and comfort and increased admiration by others. But this is clearly not the case.)
  • The way forward in living non-reciprocally with others is to entrust ourselves to the one who judges righteously. Like Jesus, we can rest in the certainty that the Father above is watching, discerning, determining, weighing, and he will ensure that the outcome of our lives, our loving, and our suffering will be “judged” appropriately. We do not have to fight to have others see it, reciprocate us, or even affirm us.

It’s hard not to approach prayer that way. As if the substance of prayer is my getting my words out, telling the Lord what is on my heart, spiritually “venting” what’s in me to God. I’m not suggesting that there is not a place for that in my praying. Any reading through the Psalms will give substantial support for thinking of prayer as a God-directed cathartic experience. We pour out our hearts to God. So, I’m not suggesting that we stop doing that.

I’m just thinking about what else could or should or might be part of my experience of prayer. I keep thinking how wonderful it is to have moments of prayer that are not just monologue–that prayer might actually be more two-way communication between two individuals. A real dialogue between me and God.

In his short epistle, James calls attention to Elijah who, as a “man with a nature like ours,” prayed and the sky withheld its rain for three-and-a-half years, and then he prayed and the sky poured rain (James 5:17). (That’s how we pray, huh? Ha! I don’t see such answers to my prayers!) So what are we to make of this pray-er? How are we to follow his example?

If you go back to 1 Kings 18, you get in on the story of Elijah’s well-known prayer. When it comes down to praying for rain, Elijah’s on a mountain and sends his servant to see if there is any evidence of rain on the way on the horizon. There is none. And Elijah sends his servant seven times to check. (Personally, I might have hung in there for a round or two of praying and looking, but seven times? Really?) Finally, the rain does come (18:42-45).

What are we to make of this? Did Elijah just wear God down? Did he prevail over the Almighty? Did Elijah’s monologue finally exasperate God so much that the Lord just had to give in? I doubt it.

What leads me to think differently is what we find in 1 Kings 18:1. There God tells Elijah that he is going to send rain. This means that Elijah’s praying on the mountain was part of an ongoing dialogue. Elijah was not trying to get God to listen to him through a prolonged monologue, but Elijah was participating with God through an extended dialogue.

Elijah’s praying was Elijah’s way of joining God in what God wanted to do in light of what the Lord had already communicated to him. Elijah’s effective praying was woven into and flowed out of a dialogue.

I just wonder what kinds of things might happen in the world around us if we approached prayer not so much as a monologue directed at God but a dialogue with God.

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