Whatever Doesn’t Kill You…

 

When I went through a rather traumatic experience recently, I found myself reflecting on a commonly held maxim of today’s pop culture: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Depending on your taste in music, you can find this statement in recent songs by Kanye West or Kelly Clarkson.

I’ll have to admit, there’s something rather uplifting about this premise. It’s great to hear that you can be made stronger, instead of weaker, during the storms of life.

But is this axiom truly Biblical, or just wishful thinking?

It turns out that the originator of the “Whatever doesn’t kill you…” statement appears to be nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He is more famous—or infamous—for launching the “God Is Dead” movement. But that alone doesn’t mean we should totally dismiss his view that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.

As I’ve pondered this, I’ve concluded that Nietzsche’s statement is a half-truth, something that can be either true or false depending on other factors. Let me explain…

There’s no guarantee that you will be strengthened by the traumas of life. We’ve all known people who experienced traumas and didn’t end up stronger—they just ended up traumatized. However, I bet you also can point to people who truly did become stronger as they overcame adversity.

You see, the evidence is pretty clear: Some people become BITTER when dealing with adversity, while others grow BETTER.

So what causes this stark difference in outcomes? Basically, the key is how we respond to the trauma. When faced with hardship, we have a fantastic opportunity to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:1). Instead of being destroyed by our trials, we can “go from strength to strength” (Psalm 84:7). When the flood waters come, they can lift us higher instead of drown us.

However, there’s nothing automatic about this. It’s a choice. A lifestyle. A recognition that God’s strength can be revealed amid our human weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Jacob wrestled with God one night and ended up limping as a result (Genesis 32:24-31). Was he stronger after that experience? Certainly not physically stronger.

But spiritually Jacob was infinitely stronger after this divine wrestling match. The transformation was so great that his whole identity shifted from “Jacob” (the scoundrel and deceiver) to “Israel” (a prince with God).

Ironically, the traumas of life ARE supposed to “kill” us, in a sense. But this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll immediately exit this world for heaven. Rather, it means we’ll increasingly die to ourselves and then experience more of God’s resurrection power.

The apostle Paul said it this way: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). You can’t get any stronger than that.

I don’t know what you’re going through today. But I DO know this: God is faithful. He has a good plan for you (Jeremiah 29:11). And if you look to Him in your adversity and weakness, He will fill you with His supernatural strength.

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Speeding Up Your Recovery

Although I’m grateful for all the good accomplished through the Recovery Movement over the years, I get perturbed by its tendency to assign people to long-term victimhood. The philosophy seems to be, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” even if God has transformed your life and you’ve been sober for decades.

And things aren’t much better if you attend a recovery group for grief, divorce, overeating, codependency, or some other trauma in your life. It’s as if they hand out scarlet letters at the door, reminding you of your past.

When a friend recently attended a divorce recovery group, the leader told him that for every year of marriage, it generally takes several years to recover after a divorce. This is nonsensical, of course. My friend had been married for more than 30 years, so it would take him at least 60 years to recover based on the group leader’s formula. The leader’s prognosis was pretty disheartening to say the least.

And then the divorce group leader made another misguided statement: “There is absolutely nothing you can do to speed up your recovery. You just have to endure the pain until it subsides.”

Okay, I know what he means. You can’t take shortcuts. For every trauma in life, there will be some pain that simply must be endured. But does that mean there’s nothing we can do to speed the recovery? That’s both ludicrous and unscriptural.

We’ve all met people who are so full of unforgiveness and bitterness after a trauma like divorce that they’re prolonging their recovery. In fact, I’ve known people who will never recover in this life, because they won’t let go of their offense. Instead of the initial wound killing such people, their life is undermined by the infection they allowed to set in.

Just as we can do things to hinder our recovery, I believe we can position ourselves for faster and more complete healing.

Isaiah 58:8 describes this in a context of fasting, seeking God, repenting of wickedness, and serving the poor: “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily.” Isn’t that good news? Yes, healing is a process that may take some time. But when you take the right steps, “your healing shall spring forth speedily.”

Years ago, the Lord showed me that discipleship is basically a matter of 5 Connections: God, People, Truth, Character, and Service. Remarkably, these same five components can speed along our emotional healing and recovery from difficult situations:

Connection with GOD: In His presence is healing balm and fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). That’s the ultimate key to any kind of positive transformation we seek (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Connection with PEOPLE: Even though most emotional traumas are caused by other people, it’s also likely that God will use our relationships with people as an important component of our recovery. It’s an indisputable fact of life that positive, truth-speaking, encouraging people can help to speed our recovery, while negative, cynical people will just prolong our pain and foster more toxicity.

Connection with TRUTH: When we’ve gone through a life-altering situation, we must be careful to remain grounded in the truth of God’s Word rather than our transitory and misleading feelings. Satan uses our emotional traumas as opportunities to speak his lies, so it becomes more important than ever to cling to the truth about who God is and how much He loves us.

Connection with CHARACTER: Too often, people who are hurting try to self-medicate their pain through alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, toxic relationships, or other destructive activities. Such things are a great way to go from the frying pan into the fire. Instead, we should use any emotional trauma as a time for God to expose and heal any wicked or hurtful areas of our heart (Psalm 139:24). We also must carefully monitor our lives and take preventative action if we see some kind of bad fruit developing.

Connection with SERVICE: One of the greatest ways for us to receive healing is to reach out to heal the pain of others. Like the man who had a shriveled hand in Mark 3:1-5, our disability can be healed when we stretch out our hand in obedience to the Lord.

Those of us from a charismatic or Pentecostal background might prefer to think that all emotional healing should come from a supernatural, instantaneous touch from God. Just come to the altar for prayer, and everything will be alright.

While that kind of immediate remedy is surely possible, the Lord often prefers to take us through the process of healing. Why? Probably because the 5 connections in the healing process are the very same connections we need to become more like Christ. Just as sanctification and discipleship aren’t instantaneous propositions, emotional healing may take more than a single prayer.

If you’ve been struggling to break free from some kind of traumatic experience or relationship, don’t despair. God has a plan for your recovery—and it doesn’t have to take as long as you’ve thought.

Make a decision today to forgive and release those who have wronged you. Then engage in the 5 connections in the Lord’s unfailing process of recovery and transformation.

 

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Keeping Up Appearances

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Yes, it provides a convenient way to keep up with my friends and let them know what I’m up to. And occasionally someone posts an interesting video clip or news item that I find profitable.

However, I’ve concluded that for many people, Facebook is all about “keeping up appearances.” If you spend all your time in the unreality world of Facebook, you’ve probably concluded that every one of your friends is living the perfect life. Awesome spouse. Incredible kids. Fantastic vacations. One fun experience after another.

In the world of Facebook friends, there is seemingly no pain…loneliness…or depression. No one posts anything about marriage struggles or rebellious children or trouble with their boss. In fact, people seem to feel obliged to write a post on their anniversary that says something like, “Thirty years ago I married my soul mate, and we’ve had one glorious year after another ever since.”

The problem is, there’s quite a difference between the digital lives of my Facebook friends and the actual lives of the friends I know in the real world. Maybe I’ve been hanging out with too many losers, but some of my friends have been divorced…have lost jobs…have gone bankrupt…have had bouts with depression…or have gone through agonizing situations with their children.

Of course, I would never have known any of these things about my friends through their Facebook posts. No, I had to spend time with them, face to face, looking them squarely in the eyes. And I had to share my own struggles, so they could trust me enough to share their struggles.

The tendency for people to “keep up appearances” is certainly not a new phenomenon. The Bible is filled with descriptions about the common human tendency to fall into “play acting” or “hypocrisy,” especially for us religious folks.

Amazingly, Jesus was compassionate toward prostitutes and drunkards, yet very severe to people who played religious games for the sake of keeping up their appearance:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28).

If I had nothing better to do, I think I should start a Facebook alternative for people who want to be honest about their lives. Maybe I could call it Heartbook, or something like that. It would be the no-spin zone of social media sites.

The theme verse of my new Heartbook initiative would be 1 Samuel 16:7: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” There would be a strict policy against sharing your selfies unless you also shared the condition of your heart.

You see, 1 John 1:7 says the only way we can have true friendship and fellowship is to “walk in the light.” In other words, transparency and openness are prerequisites for genuine relationships.

That’s why I frankly don’t care how many Facebook friends you have. Heartbook will trump the Facebook any day. (Watch out, Mark Zuckerberg!)

So the real question isn’t your number of Facebook friends, but whether you have any friends you can be real with. You need people who see beyond your appearance to your heart…people who love you unconditionally, no matter how you are doing or what you are going through.

A true friend is worth thousands of people whose goal in life is to keep up their appearance. Don’t settle for anything less.

 

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Getting Rid of Your Scarlet Letters

Of all the novels I read in high school and college, perhaps the one that impacted me the most was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, the book tells the story of Hester Prynne, who is required to forever wear the letter “A” on her dress after she is discovered to be an adulteress.

Think of what it would be like if this kind of punishment was enforced today. What if everyone who has engaged in sex outside of marriage was required to wear a scarlet “A” for Adultery or “S” for Shame?

But many of us deal with different kinds of scarlet letters. Perhaps it’s a scarlet “F” for Failure or Fat, “R” for Rejected, “I” for Inferior, “U” for Unemployed, or “D” for Depressed or Divorced.

You get the picture. Life’s scarlet letters can be customized to fit your personal situations. If we’re not careful, our negative experiences can become our identity.

Yes, many people—even many Christians—are carrying around internal guilt, inferiority, and shame that are not much different than Hester Prynne’s cruel punishment. Unable to believe God has truly forgiven them, they still are wallowing in their past mistakes.

I love the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it’s a message of redemption and happy endings. No matter how you’ve messed up your life with poor decisions in the past, God can set you free and give you a glorious future.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the story of Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho. This woman had a history far worse than Hester Prynne. She undoubtedly had engaged in sexual relations with hundreds of men, if not thousands. Rahab must have been seen as one of Jericho’s most notorious home-wreckers.

Yet this Canaanite harlot end up in the Hall of Fame of Faith (Hebrews 11:31) and even in the family line of both King David and Jesus (Matthew 1:5). What an amazing turnaround!

Despite growing up in a pagan environment, Rahab had heard of the God of Israel, and faith grew in her heart that He was the true God. So when Joshua sent two spies to scout out the fortified city of Jericho, she hid them on her roof and lied to the king’s soldiers about the spies’ whereabouts.

Quite the opposite of wearing a scarlet letter for her sordid past, Rahab ended up being saved by scarlet of a different kind. The spies agree to spare her life if she hung a scarlet cord from her window so the Israelites could find and protect her (Joshua 2:17-21).

Do you see what a beautiful picture this is? The scarlet cord represents the blood of Jesus that later would be shed on the cross for the sins of the world (John 1:29). Like Rahab, none of us can stand before God on the basis of our own good deeds or righteousness. As the old hymn by Robert Lowry says:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

So there’s no need for any of us to keep wearing a scarlet letter of guilt and shame for things we’ve done in the past. This is a new day. When the devil comes to condemn you, you can hang the scarlet cord from your window and tell him the blood of Jesus has cleansed you, just as if you had never sinned.

By taking a step of faith, Rahab changed the whole trajectory of her life. Not only was her own life transformed, but her legacy has now impacted countless generations.

I’m believing God for the same kind of transformation to happen in your life. But first you must ask Him to show you whether you’ve been carrying around some kind of scarlet letter because of past mistakes or traumas. If so, the good news is that you can claim the promise of Isaiah 1:18, cleansed of your sins and made “white as snow.”

And be clear on this: Your Heavenly Father doesn’t just tolerate you or begrudgingly accept you. He wholeheartedly LOVES you and offers you an incredible new identity:

The Lord will hold you in his hand for all to see—
a splendid crown in the hand of God.
Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City”
or “The Desolate Land.”
Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight”
and “The Bride of God,”
for the Lord delights in you
and will claim you as his bride
(Isaiah 62:3-4).

Amazing love, isn’t it? You are “God’s Delight,” and He beckons you to live your life as His beloved bride. You can throw away your scarlet letters, once and for all.

 

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President Obama and the Cherry Tree

As a kid, one of my favorite stories was the one about George Washington cutting down his father’s favorite cherry tree. According to the famous legend, when George was about six years old he wielded his new hatchet to enthusiastically chop down just about anything in sight.

His biggest accomplishment was chopping down a beautiful cherry tree, much to his father’s dismay. When confronted about this, young George hesitated but said, “I cannot tell a lie. I’m the one who cut down your cherry tree.”

Rather than punishing George for destroying the cherished tree, his father said his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees. The story displayed a lesson in integrity and accountability, showing the virtues of our nation’s first President.

I still love the story, even though most historians think it is sheer fiction. And I’ve been reflecting on the cherry tree story lately as I see how President Obama and other national leaders respond when confronted with scandals or the negative outcomes of their policies.

When something goes awry with the IRS or the Secret Service, officials often say, “I take full responsibility.” Of course, if such apologies actually meant anything, the officials would immediately resign or be fired. But that seldom happens.

And it seems President Obama is the least accountable person in our nation’s capital. After six years in office, administration officials still give the impression that the country’s economic malaise is the fault of George W. Bush or the Republicans in Congress.

And when Syria and Iraq were overrun with ISIS terrorists he once likened to Al Qaeda’s “JV team,” did President Obama take any responsibility? Not at all. Instead of shouldering any blame for the fiasco, the President explained Iraq’s downfall as the fault of National Intelligence Director James Clapper.

Not surprisingly, the intelligence community didn’t like being thrown under the bus by the President. As more of the facts came out, it became clear that Obama had been warned about the rise of ISIS for over a year. Yet he chose to ignore the warnings until there was a public outcry when ISIS started beheading people on video.

Do you see why I’ve been reflecting on the old cherry tree story? If it had been Barack Obama cutting down the cherry tree instead of George Washington, what would his response have been when confronted with the evidence?

“I cannot tell a lie,” Obama might begin. “It was James Clapper who cut down the cherry tree.”

Although the story about George Washington might be a fabrication, it reflected a commonly held view about his honesty and accountability. However, it’s hard to imagine any legends like this developing about our current President. Nothing is ever his fault. He is never the one to blame. There is always some explanation to let him off the hook and blame someone else.

But before we get too agitated about the lack of character in the oval office today, we each need to reflect on our own lives. Are we more like George Washington or Barack Obama?

If we are more like President Obama, we will want to take any credit, but never any blame. Yet that’s not true leadership. We need greater integrity than that—first in our own lives, and then in our national leaders.

 

 

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It’s Time for the Church to Put ‘Boots on the Ground’

If you’re like me and watch too much TV news, you are probably getting quite tired of the phrase “boots on the ground.” In nearly every speech the past few months, President Obama mentions this. He takes pains to assure the American people and the world that he has no intention of committing “boots on the ground” to fight the horrific ISIS terrorists who’ve taken over large portions of Syria and Iraq.

Instead of boots on the ground, the President has decided to simply “degrade” the ISIS forces through a bombing campaign. His calculation is that a war-weary nation would much rather send stealth bombers and cruise missiles into the conflict than risk American troops in another ground war.

I’m certainly not a big fan of sending ground troops either, but it’s interesting that practically every former military general and strategic analyst says ISIS will never be defeated through bombing alone. Although their rapid advance may be slowed, these military experts say ISIS will never be fully uprooted without ground troops—yes, “boots on the ground.”

All of this holds some powerful applications for the church today:

  1. We are in a war. Although President Obama and his advisers have been downplaying the global Islamic threat for years, the recent slaughter of Christians and beheading of journalists has finally blown the lid off of this naiveté or cover-up. In the same way, many pastors and churches have chosen to ignore our unseen spiritual war and our increasingly alarming cultural war. It’s time to get our heads out of the sand and face the facts.
  2. Staying aloof is not an option. Like the bombers sent to engage ISIS from thousands of feet in the air, the church has preferred to remain detached from where the real battles are taking place. We huddle together in our Sunday church services, while the world is quickly going to hell. It’s said that the Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned,” but perhaps the American church has been guilty of gleefully singing our praise choruses while ignoring the fact that our nation is going up in smoke.
  3. Political correctness is a prescription for defeat. President Obama has repeatedly said, “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” Well, that sounds very noble of him, doesn’t it? However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that much of Islam is at war with us. In the same way, many church leaders have opted for the world’s “coexist” philosophy—the notion that all faiths are relatively equal and we should all “go along to get along.” How foolish! When the church is no longer willing to confront sin, injustice, and false beliefs, we are choosing the pathway of impotence and eventual extinction.
  4. From the beginning, God created the church for “boots on the ground.” Chinese Bible teacher Watchman Nee explained this well in his book Sit, Walk, Stand, pointing out that the book of Ephesians can be broken up into three distinct sections. In the first few chapters, Paul focuses on our heavenly position, seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, far above all earthly or demonic powers or authorities (1:3, 1:15-23). But in Ephesians 4:1 the focus dramatically shifts, and Paul begins a new section on how to “walk” worthy of our calling as believers. Notice the difference: From the “heavenly places” you can engage in a detached bombing campaign, but “walking” means you are putting your feet on the ground. This includes such things as learning to love your fellow Christians, being a good witness to the watching world, and displaying Christ-like character in your family.

The final section of Ephesians focuses even more directly on the military metaphor of “boots on the ground”: “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (6:13). You see, the church wasn’t designed just for the heavenly realms or for a happy life on earth. No, we were also designed for combat.

However, there’s usually little combat with the enemy when we’re content to stay secluded in our “stained-glass ghettos” of church and family life. The fierce warfare doesn’t break out until we truly put our boots on the ground and start taking back territory from the devil.

With ISIS, if we don’t defeat them now, we will have to defeat them later, in even larger form. The same is true of the church. It’s time to put on our spiritual boots and engage in the moral issues of our day.

 

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