Is God’s Love with Us Even in Trials?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

We all experience seasons of difficulty and challenge in our lives. As a pastor I have walked alongside many who have endured great trials in their lives. I am sure many of us reading this right now may be walking through our own difficulties. This is the unavoidable reality of living in a sinful and imperfect world alongside sinful and imperfect people as sinful and imperfect selves.

The Apostle Paul is not so naive to think such seasons will not come. He has walked through them himself, as we know from his autobiographical description: “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). He does not inflict trite aphorisms or slap bumper sticker theology on the lives of other disciples.

No, in this passage Paul addresses the real, gritty experiences we all encounter that bring difficulty and suffering into our lives: spiritual warfare, physical suffering and death, our finite viewpoints, powers beyond our control, physical expanses of creation, other people, ourselves, and more. Even with all this, Paul writes, we are still “more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Why? Because nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Why? Because Jesus has gone through the utter extremity of human experience in His death on the Cross, endured its shame and the weight of judgment, and through that has brought us salvation and reconciliation with God.

Can physical death separate us from God’s love? No. Can spiritual warfare? No. Can our present realities or unknown future? Not at all. Can trouble or hardship? No. Can the utter lack of basic needs in famine or nakedness? No, it cannot. Can conflict with others in words or swords? Not at all. Can any powers or the expanse of creation? No. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

That bond given by God’s grace through faith the work of Christ is unbreakable and inseparable. We are held and sustained by God through Christ and the Cross. Even if everything falls apart and everyone walks away from us, nothing can separate us from God’s love and it is because of this that we are more than conquerors, even in the ruins. So be encouraged no matter where you are today that if you have faith in Jesus Christ, the Living God and King of all Creation holds you firmly in His loving and gracious grasp.

The Slippery Slope of Peacemaking: a resource for understanding conflict resolution by Ken Sande

As we walk through a series on unity, I was reminded of a message I gave several years ago about working through conflict in relationships. I utilized a resource developed by Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker and Resolving Everyday Conflict, called “the slippery slope of peacemaking.” I still find this to be a helpful resource, so I thought I’d share it again here.

There are a variety of ways we can respond to conflict in our lives. Sande highlights a spectrum of dealing with conflict and seeking peace. The the top of the slope is where we want to be in proactively dealing with conflict by making peace. The extremes are the tendencies we move toward as we slip off the path of pursuing peace in our conflicts.

slope

I summarized Sande’s “slippery slope” around three ideas:

1. Peace-faking by avoiding or escaping conflict. This is typified in the life of Jacob who steals his brother’s birthright, deceives his father and then flees from the conflict by hiding with his uncle, Laban (see Genesis 28). The problem with avoiding or escaping from conflict is that, except in extreme circumstances, it puts us into greater difficulties than before and we still have to deal with the conflict in the end.

2. Peace-breaking by attacking others in response to conflict. We find this in brunt reality when Cain is incensed by God’s favor toward his brother Abel. In rage, he kills his brother Abel instead of actually trying to work through the tensions with Abel or with God (see Genesis 4).

3. Peace-making by choosing a pathway toward resolving conflict and bringing deep peace. This happens when we live into the realities of the gospel of peace (see Ephesians 2) and make the statement of James our motto: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” ( (James 3:18).

You can read a much more detailed description of the slippery slope at Ken Sande’s web-site here.

Preach the Gospel to Yourself Daily

sunset

Recently, I was talking with someone about what we most need in our lives for growth and I was reminded of the simple truth that we need to take in the message of the Gospel in Jesus Christ everyday. Wherever we are and whomever we are, the highest priority is that we preach the simple message of good news to ourselves daily. In simplicity that message is as follows:

  • we are sinners who were lost in the death of sin and brokenness of evil
  • God reached out to us in Jesus Christ apart from anything we have done (or will do)
  • God has forgiven all our sin through Christ’s sacrifice, reconciled us to Himself, defeated the powers of evil, and showered upon us His grace and truth
  • God has given us a place of belonging with Him by making us part of His family through the sufficient work of Christ both for now and eternity

There are so many things in our daily lives push back against the gospel. People come to us with all sorts of messages about who we are and who we’re not, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done. We may hear words like this: “you’re a failure,” “you’re a loser,” “you’re too prideful,” “you’re too weak,” or more. If we are honest, many of these things are true. Yes, we are sinners who always need forgiveness. Yes, we are broken in many ways and always need the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to remake us.

The gospel overpowers us with a message different from those that come to us from others or even from ourselves.. That message centers us within the reality that we are loved, saved, and forgiven by God through Jesus Christ. We are trophies of His grace and held in the divine embrace both now and forever with God!

We all need to take in that message daily. One good way to do that is to slowly read portions of Scripture which rehearse those fundamental truths with us. One of my favorites is Ephesians 2:1-10, where Paul summarizes the gospel in very basic form. Let me encourage you to read it every day for the next week to remind us of the basic gospel message we always need.

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

How Important is the Gospel to Us?

Rembrandt Paul

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible….I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23)

How important is the gospel to us? Does it save us only or does it shape every aspect of our lives. The Apostle Paul is motivated to sacrifice his freedom and autonomy for the sake of his gospel ministry. His goal is that more might be saved by all means available.

We do not see in Paul a half-hearted love for God and the gospel, but a wholehearted dedication. He surrenders all he is and has to God that God might use all of Paul for His purposes. Every aspect of Paul’s life is surrendered to God for His purposes: His freedom, his cultural frameworks, his preferences, his will, his strength, his comfort—everything.

What about us? Are we the sort of people who are completely surrendered to God for His purposes? Have we given every aspect of our lives into the hands of God or is there something that we have held back? Our response to these questions may reveal how important the gospel really is to us. May God give us strength to surrender everything to Him.

Spiritual Freedom and Religious Captivity: thoughts from Galatians 5

prison

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery….You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Galatians 5:1, 13)

Here we find a core lie the Galatians had bought into: that we can earn our way to God through religious activity or add something to God’s grace by doing the right actions.

Paul knows that this is a dead end. In fact, he dramatically says this in Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ” (5:4). This has been a theme of the letter, and Paul is telling them that this lie will lead them off track. You cannot earn your way to God and you cannot add to the sufficiency of Christ. So, Paul writes at the beginning of this section of the letter: “Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

On August 23, 1973, Jan Erik Olsson, attempted to hold up a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. When the police showed up, Olsson took four people as hostages and a stand-off with police followed, lasting six days. At one point during the standoff, Olsson called Sweden’s Prime Minister to say that he would kill the hostages. He put one of the hostages on the phone and she said to the prime minister, “I am very disappointed in you…I think you are sitting here playing with lives.” Despite Olsson’s threats, many of the hostages decided they felt safer with the bad guy than with the police. Some hostages actually resisted rescue attempts and later refused to testify against their captor. Now, whenever you hear news of a hostage who identifies more with their captors than their rescuers that condition is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome. Many years afterwards, one of the hostages said, “It’s some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have, change in some way.”

Sometimes this happens to us as we consider life in Jesus Christ. We get so confused about what is freedom and what is captivity that we live in a lie. We begin to think, “It cannot be so simple that God takes upon Himself all the cost. I must do something to earn His grace. I must add something to the work of Christ.” But this is just a spiritual version of the Stockholm syndrome.

We have been set free at great cost, and we do not need to return to captivity to find life. Instead, we must face into this core lie if we are going to live the free life that God intends through Jesus Christ.