Hope When It’s Hard

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We must regain a redemptive view of hardship in the West. There’s a subtle, pernicious lie in western Christianity that if you are pleasing to God, you will not suffer.  In fact, God will give you wealth, health, and prosperity if you just follow Him. With this view, as soon as life doesn’t go our way, we do stupid, rebellious stuff because “God let us down,” or we think this is punishment for our past and miss the point. I want to share with you a few thoughts I have found myself contemplating when life gets hard, and if you’re not going through a hard time now, tuck this away in a safe place. You’re gonna need it!

Hardship Has a Purpose

I remember struggling with God during a difficult season. I kept asking, “Why? What was I doing wrong?” It’s usually a bad assumption—“I’m suffering because I’m doing something wrong.” If suffering is not a direct consequence of some willful disobedience, this is usually not the reason. Then what’s the point of hardship? “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18). Suffering and hardship, done right, produces something eternal that far exceeds our earthly rewards.

 

As I was out weeding an overgrown part of my yard, asking God “Why?” My finger got poked by one of the many thorns growing up against my will—it bled.  I sensed God asking me, “If my own Son suffered in this evil world, why do you think following Him means you will never suffer?” In fact, all throughout scripture we get reminded that suffering and hardship comes to all humanity, it’s part of living in a world gone astray. But in Christ, our suffering can be redeemed—traded in for something of great value—a share in His glory to come.

Maybe instead of punishment, it’s a privilege we should make the most of: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). When hardship, trials, suffering comes our way, we usually expend most of our energy trying to get out of it. This is not wrong to alleviate suffering or hardship, but sometimes we can’t get out of it. If you can’t get out of it, get into it.  Make something of it.  Here’s how:

 

I Can Be Faithful

You might not be able to change your circumstances, but you can be faithful to God through it—and that redeems what you’re enduring (makes something of value of it). Usually when we suffer, we also get tempted: “See, God doesn’t care about you—you deserve some relief” (ie. some sinful escape to temporarily feel better and do you more harm in the long run). Instead, realize that God is with you to help you through this, and as you seek Him and trust Him to do the next right thing, He sees and He will reward with a glory greater than anything you could aspire to in this life.

Jesus addressed a church of people about to suffer, and promised that their faithfulness counts: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Revelation 2:10, italics mine).  You can be faithful in this hardship, you can seek Him, trust Him, stay faithful to Him and not turn away—that redeems suffering.

 

I Can Love Well

You might not be able to change the people around you (who might be causing the most pain), but you can love well—and that redeems your suffering.  Jesus made this really clear: “I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven…If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much” (Matthew 5:44-46).  Truth be told, it may be easier to love our enemies when suffering than it is to love those closest to us.  When hardship hits, we take out our frustrations and disappointments on those closest to us.  Don’t waste this opportunity—when you love when it’s hard—it counts.  When you lean into God’s strength and ask Him to fill you with a supernatural ability to love those around you—it will be rewarded.

I Will Not Be Disappointed

“And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:2-5).  There hope when it’s hard—not that you can change the circumstance or the people—but you can be faithful, you can love well, and for this you will not be disappointed.

Nobody Stands Alone

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“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.”-Robin Williams

I talked this weekend on Exchanging Loneliness for knowing we’re Never Alone, and it struck me again how important it is for churches to be places where Nobody Stands Alone. Robin Williams was not the only lonely soul, hurting and despairing and feeling nobody really cared—there’s a world full of people feeling that way.

God desires that his church change that, but to do so requires reminders and effort.  “Seeing the people, [Jesus] felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36). We must develop compassion. Our default is to find our “peeps” and then to forget about everyone else. For some reason, we all hate that feeling of being on the outside looking in, but once we feel included, it’s really difficult to remember that others might be feeling the same way and need us to help them connect.

I like to remind our volunteer leaders and core volunteers, “You are Gateway’s secret—it’s not the relevant biblical message or the great music or video or creativity that will keep someone coming and growing—it’s you. If someone sits alone 3-4 weeks in a row, and never feels connected, they won’t stay and they won’t grow to fully follow Christ. But when you reach out and connect someone, they’ll stay and grow with others in community.”

So it takes everyone who follows Christ to create the culture where Nobody Stands Alone. Where we both respect those who seem to want to stay in the shadows (sometimes people need time and space), but also make sure to welcome, include, and connect those ready to get involved.  Here are a few ideas of how you can help us (or whatever church you attend) create a Nobody Stands Alone culture.

Live Connected Yourself

To really connect others, you have to live connected yourself. Get involved in a Lifegroup (4-15 people growing spiritually together) or plug into a serving team. As you meet others, introduce them to your friends who are connected, and help them take next steps toward meeting new people.

Join the 4th-Quarter Club

In the early days, Nate Echelberger started our 4th Quarter Club based on the idea that a game is often won or lost in the last quarter. On Sundays, if you think about the morning in quarters, the first quarter is the 15-30 minutes before the service, 2nd and 3rd quarters are the service, the 4th quarter is 15-30 minutes after the service. Really the first 5 minutes of the 4th quarter is the time to meet new people and introduce them to your friends, then socialize the next 20-30 minutes—that can make a HUGE difference making sure Nobody Stands Alone.

 Follow Through to Connection

If you meet someone, and they want to plug into community, then tell them you’d love to help them. Get their contact info and follow up until they get connected. Even if they don’t get into your Lifegroup, you can help them find another group or place of service, or just help them navigate how to meet others.  You may not be able to connect 1000s, but you can connect one, then another.  If we all did that, think of how many 1000s feeling what Robin Williams felt might have a chance to walk in loving community with others following the way of Christ! Let’s do it.

Heart Scan – Part 3

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The real danger of unhealed wounds is not the wound itself, but what it makes us susceptible to believe. In the last two entries, I talked through identifying wounds and allowing God’s healing. Really, identifying evil agreements we’ve accidentally made should be done simultaneously. I’ve listed resources to help with this down below.

What are evil agreements?

First, they’re deceptive—which means we usually agree with them because we honestly think they are the truth, but they’re not! Jesus told us, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). By contrast, Jesus gives insight into the way the evil one works, “…not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

Second, agreements give permission. There’s a way we can come under evil’s influence even when we’ve done nothing wrong! This is something I had not considered—and that’s why I fell prey to it. Satan and his fallen angels are terrorists–very smart terrorists. Paul warns the Corinthians to forgive “…in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11). If you are unaware, you’re susceptible.

Evil can wound us through the intentional or unintentional sins of others. If that wound, or those wounds go unhealed, he can suggest a lie that seems true (and remember the best lie is 90% true). He doesn’t fight fair—often evil inflicted on young, tender hearts can be the most effective stronghold for an evil agreement: “Don’t trust anyone—they’ll all hurt you.” “You’re worthless, you’ll never amount to anything.” “You’re flawed, that’s why people leave you.” “Your body is not your own—you’re dirty, evil.”

So we start to react and act out of fear, protection, desire to control in order to not feel the pain of those unhealed wounds—and before you know it, we are living out of agreements that get us sinning against God and others, wounding others, and get this—not believing we’re wounding others—just like those who wounded us didn’t see the deception clouding their own judgment.

So abused boys grow up to be harsh, abusive fathers because they act or react out of unhealed wounds. Sexually abused women end up using their bodies to make money in porn, yet help create more lust-driven, porn-addicted men who will treat other women as objects to be used. Spiritual leaders act or react out of wounds and sin against others, which Satan can use to drive many further away from God.

But thank God—Jesus has given us authority to overcome ALL the power of the evil one. We can break the cycle through Christ. So how do we break these agreements?

1). Write down agreements. List agreements that you may have believed (or still believe).  Often they are accusations, condemnations, fear-motivated thoughts, self-protective (as opposed to God-protected) inclinations, lies about your identity that do not line up with what God says is true about us if we have taken Jesus as forgiver and leader (go read Ephesians chapter 1 and 2 substituting personal pronouns “I” or “Me” to hear your true identity and nature in Christ).

2). Write down God’s truth. What does God say is true according about this in the scriptures (so you can soak your mind in the truth and be set free of this lie)? Use www.Biblegateway.com to search topically, or ask spiritually wise people who know the Bible to help you. You may find it helpful to personalize it (Instead of “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” “nothing can separate me from the love of God”).  Download the Next Steps PDF from the Heart Scan message on 8-24-14 www.gatewaychurch.com/podcast.

3). Renounce the lie.  Tell God out loud that you renounce this lie (say what it is), and you agree with His truth (say what He says).

4). Make a list of Daily Beliefs. This is something Michael Warden suggested to me, and it’s been very helpful.  I wrote down 5 Daily Beliefs (based on God’s truth that opposes evil agreements), and I say them every day to renew and transform my mind in accordance with God’s truth (Rom. 12:1-2). “Today, I CAN and WILL hear Your Spirit and follow Your will. Even if circumstances look bleak and all I see ahead is suffering and a cross—You are guiding me as I stay willing and obedient.” That’s one example.

What are some of the agreements you’ve fallen prey to, and what’s the Truth? Share some of them in the comments, so that others can see they’re not alone—we can all stand and fight together with spiritual weapons.

OTHER RESOURCES:

Waking the Dead, John Eldredge

Victory over the Darkness, Neil Anderson

21-Day Brain Detox – I’m going to post a separate blog on this resource developed by Dr. Caroline Leaf, a Ph.D. in Neuropsychology and a devoted Christ-follower. Many of my friends say it’s really helped actually clean out the negative thinking and lies.

How to Detox – Your Brain?

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I asked my friend Sheeri Mitchell to do a post on a program that really helped her with those evil agreements I blogged and spoke about last week.  Enjoy…she’s an excellent writer.

As the advantages of maintaining a fit lifestyle at every age move closer and closer to the forefront of western consciousness, many people have come to appreciate the value of a good cleanse or (as they’re called more often than not) a detox. Although it can take many forms, detoxifying the body is not only a fairly simple concept but a pretty straightforward process as well. Concept: your body is full of – well – crap – literally. You must get rid of it. Process: You drink, eat, take something or submit to a procedure to flush out the crap. Your crap-free body is healthier, better able to absorb needed nutrients, fight off disease, and function more efficiently, resulting in a happier you. From a non-threatening cup of dieter’s tea, to the dreaded and highly invasive colonic irrigation, untold number of methods, products, and services avail themselves to modern westerners, methods, products, and services that can clean out nearly any system in the human body in order to restore it to a high state of functionality.

As obsessed as westerners are becoming with having clean colons and consuming organic/non-GMO foods, a surprising number of us never pay any attention to all the crap we put into or that we’ve left floating around in our minds.  We stumble through our days wounded, broken, insecure, having made evil agreements (“All men cheat. All women are gold diggers.”)and unholy vows (“I will never marry. I will never be able to quit smoking.”), birthed out of legitimate angst from real wounds inflicted upon us anywhere from childhood up to last night. To cover our pain, to prove our worth, or to better our position in the world, we engage in behavior as dangerous as intravenous drug use and engaging  pornography and as socially acceptable as overworking or getting yet another degree. As a culture we spend billions of dollars a year* on counseling, therapy, or other forms of treatment to help us figure out how to manage our confusion, stress, and ennui. We are a tangle of mixed messages, dashed hopes, and failed attempts to thrive.

With all the voices that assail the minds of modern man with their many conflicting and often harmful messages, the charge to renew our minds so that we can be transformed into the best versions of ourselves instead of molded into culture-consuming drones, has never been more pressing. But how can a person renew his mind? How can he expel the garbage so as to make room for the good? And then, once the good is in, how does he keep it from leaking out?

In other words, how can you detox your brain?

Noted neuro scientist, researcher, and author, Dr. Caroline Leaf, has the answer. In 2009, I was introduced to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s work through a friend who had been a student of Dr. Leaf’s the year prior. At the time, I had begun to suffer increasingly severe panic attacks and was plagued by thoughts of the death of my spouse and feelings of overwhelming dread, whenever he had to fly out of town on business. I should explain that when I was a sophomore in college, my oldest brother, an executive at a Fortune 500 company at the time, a husband of 9 years and a father of two children, ages two years and 9 months at the time, boarded a typical commuter flight out of Los Angeles headed for San Jose. His plane never landed. Hours after he should have checked in, my very tearful mother called me to inform me that neither she nor my sister-in-law had heard from him; that the airline representatives were “behaving suspiciously,” refusing to answer questions over the phone; and that I should keep an eye on the news. In the pre-social media era of the mid-‘80’s, I dutifully scoured the 11:00 news, hoping that my brother had somehow missed his flight or gotten caught up in meetings and forgotten to call. As I watched the report in my dorm room with several of my closest friends, I learned that my brother’s plane had crashed and every person on board had died. For those of us watching, the station issued a rolling roster of the names from the manifest. Halfway through, I read my brother’s name and dissolved. He was 35 years old.

In the following days leading up to Christmas, it would come to light that a disgruntled employee had executed both pilots on my brother’s flight and had deliberately crashed the plane into the side of a mountain in a small California town called Paso Robles.  The pain of the crash was difficult enough to bear – to learn that it had been a deliberate, malicious act of unjustifiable revenge would test my faith at the deepest, most personal level.

Fast forward over a decade. I have effectively grieved and healed from my brother’s death. I have worked through forgiving the man responsible. I am at peace once again with God, but also a little bit wiser about the world which I inhabit. I am married to a wonderful, newly promoted, hard-working executive. We have four children of our own, living out the suburban life of playdates, carpools, school and club sports. We own a minivan. We are a young family on the upswing, the picture of stability – except for one thing – my panic attacks and dark moods surrounding hubby’s out of town trips, and the unrelenting thoughts of his death that plague me whenever he flies.

I should add that at this point in my life, I have fully embraced a biblical world view and have a committed, vibrant relationship with Christ. I study and meditate upon God’s word daily. I pray, and am planted in a bible teaching church where I am establishing life-giving relationships. I am growing and serving and thriving – except for the panic attacks and dark moods surrounding my husband’s travels and the persistent thoughts of his imminent death. Seeking prayer before one of hubby’s trips, I explain to my friend the problems I’m facing. Having known me for well over ten years, she immediately understands the gravity of my situation and that it is steadily worsening with each trip. We both agree that these attacks are certainly connected to my brother’s death and most importantly that they are spiritual in nature. She then explains to me what I would come to know and experience as Dr. Leaf’s 5-Step Detox Process and promises, that if I follow it, I will steadily gain victory over the attacks.

Desperate for relief, I rigorously began the process, which my friend assured me was not only scientifically proven, based upon decades of Dr. Leaf’s own research on the human brain, but biblically and spiritually sound – no hocus pocus or dubious dabbling in the dark arts.

The most crucial part of detoxing required that every time I recognized the intrusion of an unholy thought, I was to execute what Dr. Leaf calls an “Active Reach” an action that counters the lying thought and replaces it with Truth. At first I was performing an Active Reach literally hundreds of times a day. Little by little though, the fearful, oppressive thoughts stopped coming. The negative feelings dissipated, so much so, that six months after my worst panic attack, the one that had moved me to call my friend in the first place, I actually forgot one evening that my husband was flying out the next day! The day of his flight, I took him to the airport personally. Our drive was cheerful and light. We prayed in the car and kissed curbside. On the drive home, I found myself looking forward to his call as he settled in for the night. I thanked God for him and prayed for the success of his trip. I was free! I have never been plagued by those attacks, dark moods, or persistent thoughts of death ever again. Whenever I recognize concern growing, I go through the detox steps outlined by Dr. Leaf, and cut down the lie before it can grow.

With the success of conquering my panic attacks and the surrounding thoughts, I was motivated to read every book Dr. Leaf had written. To my utter delight, last year she came out with an app that walks the user through a 21 Day Brain Detox Program, where under her daily direction, the user repeats the 5-Step Detox Process, focusing on dismantling one toxic thought for the entire cycle. I have systematically and persistently gone after one toxic thought, evil agreement, or unholy vow every cycle. By detoxing my brain, I have learned how to “take every thought captive.” In as much as I am faithful to renew my mind daily, I am being transformed and increasingly reclaiming my original design as an image bearer of Christ. My personality is healthier, my default disposition more joyful, my attitude more hopeful, my faith more resilient and resolute.  My mind is becoming more and more “crap-free.” And you know what? It is truly a beautiful thing.

Sheeri Mitchell is a wife, mother of four, editor and published author, and member of Gateway Community Church, who serves in several ministries.

For more information on the 21 Day Detox, visit www.21daybraindetox.com

Heart Scan – Part 2

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You have been wounded! It happens to us all. “By his wounds we are healed”—but how? (Isaiah 53:5). God wants to heal us, but we must cooperate. Jesus said, “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them. (Matt. 13:15)  What does a callous come from? From being rubbed wrong—a callous is protection against further wounding.

Our hearts become calloused when instead of turning to the Lord for healing, we turn away and do sinful, protective, reactive things. Perhaps it’s motivated by fear of being hurt, or pride over not wanting to admit we’re wounded, or an inability to slow down and listen—who knows. But if we keep doing this long enough, our wounded hearts get so hard we can’t spiritually see or hear from God.  But don’t miss this, all it takes is “understand with your hearts and turn,” and look at what Jesus does—He heals us. He heals our wounded, calloused hearts.

So assuming you made your list from the last blog post, Heart Scan Part 1, now…

1. Carve out solitude time. Make time and find a place to be alone and uninterrupted. I spent 3 hours one Saturday just listing all possible wounds (what we talked about last blog). This next part took me a whole day. It may not take you as long, but set time aside.

2. Pray for a whole, healed heart. “Jesus I want my whole heart back. Come and heal me in my inner being so that Your Joy and Love can flow through me again.” “Heal me, 0 LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise” (Jeremiah 17:14).

3. Go through one wound at a time slowly. Give Him permission to go to that memory or situation with you and show you what’s going on. Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…” (Rev. 3:20). Go slowly. Ask Him questions. Do not be afraid for “perfect love casts out all fear,” so let His love shine into the darkness. It’s really important not to run away from emotion—emotions tell us something about our hearts. If you really “go there” with the Lord to that memory, you may feel uncontrollable fear, or overwhelming sadness, or intense anger, or other strong emotions.  Don’t run away! Running keeps the wound unhealed—turning away to busyness, achievement, eating, drinking, trying harder. You’re not alone. He’s with You to heal you.

PRAY: Jesus, come and lead me in healing this brokenness in my heart. Speak to me here, Lord. What are you saying to me? Give me ears to hear and eyes to see what you are revealing. Let no other voice speak but you.  (from John Eldredge, Waking the Dead)

4. Ask and listen Ask the Lord to show you what’s going on and what He says about that situation. If you’ve never learned to really listen to the Lord, read Soul Revolution or Hearing God by Dallas Willard. Often Lies will be attached to wounds, especially childhood wounds. A parent was abusive and we heard the lie “It’s your fault—if you didn’t screw up so much he wouldn’t have to hit you.” Now there’s intense fear of failure, or a driven perfectionism running over all our relationships. You need to hear His Voice—His Truth about what happened and what He wanted you to hear.  Ask and listen deeply. He will often bring loving, kind, comforting thoughts—DON’T reject them—let them replace the accusing, condemning, shameful thoughts. Accept His Truth—renounce the lie outloud—speak the truth. (If you don’t know His Word well, ask someone who does to help you know what God might say about that lie or situation).

PRAY:  Lord, what is this fear, sadness, hurt, anger, etc. really about? Search my heart and know me—show me what’s going on. What lies did I believe about You or about me or life because of this? What’s Your truth You want me to hear, Lord.  I renounce the lies. I agree with Your Truth. Now I give You permission to remove this fear, this sadness, this bitterness, this anger. You are in control, so I will trust in Your control, not my ability to protect or control. Take this away and heal my heart.

5. Ask for forgiveness.  When we run from our wounds, we almost always turn to wrong things for distraction or comfort or to temporarily feel good–like food, illicit sex, pornography, buying stuff, cutting ourselves, over-achievement, even religious do-gooding and judging. And when we’re hurt, we often hurt others. If we have done these things, Jesus will bring that to our minds. Confess them, receive forgiveness, and turn from those old ways and He promises to cleanse them (1 John 1:5-9).

PRAY: Jesus, forgive me for the ways I’ve mishandled my brokenness. You alone make me dwell in safety. Forgive me for all my self-protection and self-redemption, and for all my false comforters. (You’ll want to renounce specific sins you are aware of here.) Cleanse my heart of every sin by your shed blood. (Waking the Dead).

6. Forgive and release. What often keeps us acting and reacting out of wounds is our unwillingness to forgive our offender. Anger held onto (Eph. 4:25-27), resentment and bitterness (Heb. 12:15), and especially unforgiveness gives evil a foothold in our lives. Jesus likened holding onto grudges or unwillingness to release someone from the debt we feel they owe us as giving the evil one permission to torture us. We aren’t punishing our offender, we’re giving ourselves over to spiritual torment and torture (read Matthew 18).

Forgiving is not forgetting.  God says He will remember our sins no more, but God can’t forget. What this means is that God will not use the past against us (Heb. 10:17, Ps. 103:12). When we bring up the past against someone, we have not forgiven from the heart—we have not released them. But it’s not the offender still tied with a noose to that wound—it’s you! Forgiveness is a choice. A crisis of the will. As Neil Anderson says, “To let them off your hook. But they are never off God’s hook.” That’s why forgiveness and release is an act of trusting God. Trusting that God is the just judge who will forgive and or bring justice (Rom. 12:19).  Thank God He pays the debts of all who realize they need His forgiveness.

PRAY: God, I trust You to be both the loving, forgiving God I need, and to be the righteous, just, judge who will make sure justice is done.  Lord, I forgive and release (name) into Your hands for (name the specific offense or offenses).

7. Go make amends. Ask God for your assignment related to this incident. We are told to do all we can to live at peace with all people—that’s what keeps that bitter root from poisoning us and others (Heb. 12:14-15).  Ask Him, “Is there anything I need to do to live at peace with this person?”  Write it down, and go do it.  What will follow is His peace, joy, and a love that’s not logical, but amazing!  It took me four months to do all my “live at peace” assignments. But I believe my obedience brought God’s joy back into my life. I want that for you too!

Post your comments on what questions or concerns or insights you get that may help others.