Can Faith Say OUCH? (2 Corinthians 4:6-10)

A few months ago I had the honor of officiating a memorial service for an Air Force Major. His widow is a woman of tenacious and vibrant faith, and yet I watched powerful spasms of grief slam into her and physically shake her. I arrived home from that Monday funeral and read a Facebook message from a friend I used to pastor. The year had been a succession of unanticipated and ferocious crises. His faith is alive, and yet he was staggering from this ruthless pummeling.

In my interactions with both of these people, I experienced the raw honesty of their faith as holy and humbling, because that authentically rough texture of faith is too rare these days. Most of us prefer our faith to appear smooth and unruffled.

It’s a shame when faith becomes stoic. We are pestered by this illusion that we always have to project a veneer of implacable fortitude, like nothing ever gets to us because we follow Christ. When spiritual formation deteriorates into appearance management, God’s people do neither themselves nor God any favors.

I highly regard what Paul said in 2nd Corinthians 4:6-10. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in fragile and broken clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

In verse 6, Paul reaches all the way back to Genesis 1:3, where God spoke light into being. Paul then informs us that this exact same God indwells us in the person of Christ, the Light of the world (John 8:12). Paul uses the word “face” to describe the light, which means it could not be more personal. What we have here is internal face-time with Jesus. That’s how close Paul tells us we can be with the indwelling Christ, the eternal One Who spoke light into existence.

In verse 7, Paul makes an abrupt turn, attested in the New Revised Standard Version by the conjunction “but.” Paul and his companions were in the heat of the battle, and they had no time or energy for appearance management. Paul was letting his readers see them sweat. In order to communicate the intensity of their trials and to place those trials in perspective, Paul uses the analogy of an ordinary household pot. That’s what we are. The Light of the world shines through common vessels, chips and all..

We discover that the same God Who caused light to pierce the darkness at the dawn of creation lights us up from the inside out, and then we discover that we are crackpots.

Oh well.

Here’s the thing. When we refuse to accept our fragility and our brokenness, it’s as if we are scotch taping together the cracks in our human vessels. People cannot see Jesus, the Light of the World, as clearly in us. Or they can see the shoddy scotch tape work and they decide we are hypocrites. So Paul proposes a God-induced balancing act. We are afflicted like everybody else is, BUT NOT crushed. We become perplexed like everybody else does, BUT NOT driven to despair. We may be persecuted, BUT NOT forsaken by God. We are sometimes struck down by life like everybody else is, BUT NOT destroyed.

This “BUT NOT” life of faith is a product of how we carry ourselves. Paul says we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus, which sounds so weird it needs an explanation. Saying “yes” to Jesus with our lives involves a daily choice to deny ourselves (we aren’t in charge anymore), take up the cross of Christ (His love as our way of life is in charge), and follow Him (we aspire to live as He lived in this world). We become more identified with Christ than we are identified with ourselves, anything, or anybody else. When we are suffering, or when we are at our wit’s end, or when we are being bullied, or when we are knocked down by life, we deal with these adversities as people whose lives are in solidarity with the Man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). So everything that happens to us happens in the larger context of who we are in union with Christ. He is our derived identity.

The indwelling Christ can be a closer reality than our adversity, whatever that adversity is and however savagely the adversity affects us.

What better way to keep our hardships and issues in perspective? Regardless of what happens to us, we will never have to endure even a tiny fraction of what Jesus willingly endured on our behalf. Intentionally carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus is the ultimate attitude adjustment. It pulls us out of self pity or drama about our circumstances, and it puts us in a self-giving mode, like Jesus was during His incarnation.

Did you catch the cause-and-effect in verse 10? We are always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus SO THAT the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. Grammatically speaking, “so that” is a purpose clause. It tells us Christ can fulfill His purpose in us through everything we encounter. Nothing is wasted.

When we are carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus, we are no longer the main characters in the stories of our lives. No matter how shaken we are, we can be rock solid about the reality that Christ has overcome it all and Christ indwells us, which means indestructible and irrepressible Life is abundantly and eternally ours.

When we live this way, people cannot help but see the Light of the world shining through the cracks. This is no less true of us when we are struggling, sobbing, confused, battered, or aching. The surprise is that living this way takes a load off. It’s a relief. We do not have to pretend. Having a “but-not so-that” faith means we can trust Jesus Christ and be real at the same time, like my two friends were on that Monday. That’s what the people around us need from us.

In his song “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen wrote these lyrics. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul says the opposite. There is a crack in everything. That’s how The Light shines out.

Yes, faith can say ouch. Sometimes it must say ouch.

  • Have you invited the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, to indwell you and to bring Light into your darkness?
  • What are the names of the cracks in your vessel (your life)? Write them down.
  • In this passage, honest faith means we can say so when we are afflicted (under pressure) or perplexed (confused) or persecuted (mistreated) or struck down (in crisis). On a scale of 0-10, with 0 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, how honest is your faith these days? Why did you assign a particular number to yourself? Ask God to reveal to you how to move up to the next number on the scale this week, so that your faith is more honest. Do you have a faith brother or a faith sister or a group, somebody who can be safe or some place that can be safe? The Christ following life thrives in redeemed community.
  • Study the four “but not” phrases in verses 8 and 9. 1) “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;” 2) we are “perplexed, but not driven to despair;” 3) we are “persecuted, but not forsaken;” 4) we are “struck down, but not destroyed…” In each of the four, circle or mark which one describes you.
  • Study verse 10 – “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” Remember from the article above that verse 10 tells us to say “YES” to Jesus with our lives, so much so that the indwelling Christ is a closer reality than the adversity. How would you say this ultimate attitude adjustment strengthens us to not be crushed or driven to despair or forsaken or destroyed?

Grace and peace,

Rick Jordan (rickjordankcmo@gmail.com, www.rickcarlajordan.com)

 

“Powering Up God’s Way” (Isaiah 40:27-31)

What kinds of strength or power does the world recognize and reward?

  • Physical power
  • Military power
  • Athletic power
  • Persuasive power
  • Glamorous power
  • Attractive power
  • Prestigious power
  • Seductive power
  • Intimidating power
  • Charismatic power
  • Racial/ ethnic power
  • Sizable power
  • Political power
  • Financial power
  • Intellectual power
  • Social power
  • Manipulative power
  • ???

Some of these powers are intrinsically good and helpful. Some of these powers are intrinsically evil and harmful. Some of these powers are neutral – the way we use them determines their morality.

God’s power is incomparably greater than every conceivable form of human power, but human powers are more tangible and more sensory, aren’t  they? Because God’s power functions subversively we can miss it, especially when we feel powerless in this world.

Isaiah wrote this prophecy to exiles, people whose nation had been swallowed up by the dominant empire of that day – Babylon. From Israel’s desolate and conquered perspective God was disregarding their troubles and ignoring their rights (Isaiah 40:27).

It’s easy to read God that way when our faith is in a weakened condition.

In the passage, God argues otherwise. Isaiah 40:28 says God is Almighty whether we see it or not. God’s resources are never exhausted. God’s perceptiveness never dims.

Isaiah 40:29 is one of the most encouraging verses in the Bible. According to this verse, we qualify for God’s strength when we own our weakness! This reminds me of the first three steps in the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

BRILLIANT!!! We own our weakness, we choose to believe in God, and we entrust ourselves to God.

Isaiah 40:30 gives us valuable information about people who epitomize humanity at its dynamic peak. That strength eventually declines. At our very best and even with our technologically advanced powers, we cannot compete with God’s power.

Isaiah 40:31 continues that line of reasoning by presenting the alternative. “But those who wait on (hope in, trust in) the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not get weary. They will walk and not faint.”

What does it mean to wait on the Lord? We identify primarily with passive waiting, like standing in line or being put on hold. But “wait” in verse 31 refers to active waiting. We entrust ourselves to God moment by moment, wrapping ourselves around God and tenaciously leaning against the wind into the solid hope that God is still faithful to His promises and is still capable, no matter what powers in this life have destabilized us or enfeebled us.

People who live in such intentional and trusting hope “gain new strength.” This means far more than God supplying a boost or a power surge to what we already have going for us. Rather, we come to an end of ourselves and we exchange our failing strength for God’s sustainable power (verses 29 and 30).

God’s strength manifests itself in three scenarios. In the first scenario we soar high on wings like eagles. There are seasons in life when we are effortlessly and transcendently gliding. In this scenario it is all good.

In the second scenario we run without getting weary. There are seasons when life is challenging and there is resistance (like hills during a marathon), but we are making progress. We hit our pace and keep moving. In this scenario it is not all good but we are okay.

In the third scenario we walk without fainting. There are seasons when life stinks, when faith wobbles, when we are disillusioned or discouraged or deflated, and the best we can manage is to shuffle one 5,000 pound leg forward and then move the other leg in generally the same direction or in no direction we can detect. In this scenario it is not all good and we are not okay but by God’s grace we are still standing. Success is defined as not totally shutting down and giving up.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could choose which scenario or season characterizes us? The faith journey does not work that way. We do, however, get to choose the source of our strength. We do not have to settle for human strength or power that is ultimately inadequate. We can own our weakness and exchange our ebbing strength for God’s strength.

God most emphatically demonstrates divine strength in the weakness of the crucified Christ. On the cross, worldly powers were broken from the top down and humble love secured our redemption from the bottom up. God offers us that kind of strength.

Are you soaring? Are you running? Are you walking? Are you collapsing? In the grace of the Gospel we come as we are, not as we should be.

May you and I exchange our powerlessness for God’s enduring and adaptable strength.

Grace and peace,

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)

 

“When God Says NO in Light of a Better YES” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

Parents in every culture can relate to this common sequence…

  1. The child makes an urgent and impassioned request.
  2. Due to the experience and perspective gained by higher mileage on planet earth, the parent knows that what the child is requesting is not in the child’s best interest.
  3. The parent says NO to the request, disappointing and frustrating the child.
  4. The child pushes back.
  5. If the relationship is functional, the parent uses this NO to guide the child into a better alternative, a better YES. In effect, the parent is saying, “No, but….”
  6. The child usually cannot appreciate the wisdom of this “No, but…” response until the child becomes a parent and must dance to the same tune.

God goes through this sequence with us all the time.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 finds Paul the apostle defending himself. Paul spent years of his life traveling throughout the Roman Empire, introducing Christ to a diverse mixture of  people who had no exposure to the Gospel. They also were not Jewish. During these journeys Paul was at odds with a group of people called legalists. Legalism is the name for any brand of Christianity that decides God’s grace and our faith are not enough, that a surplus of do’s and don’ts must be added to the life of faith in order for that life to pass inspection. The legalists, of course, are the self-appointed inspectors.

A pack of these legalists (called Judaizers) followed Paul from place to place. When the Judaizers entered a town or city Paul had just left, they would locate the brand new Christians and ask them what Paul had taught them. When the brand new Christians answered by describing the breathtaking simplicity of relationship with Jesus, the Judaizers would sadly shake their heads and tell them Paul had left out some important information. In order to follow Christ, these brand new Christian also had to start living by Jewish laws. Grace and faith were not enough. The Judaizers tried to convince these new Christ-followers that Paul was a fake and that Paul had no authority to be doing what he was doing. These legalistic Judaizers had come in the nick of time. They had come, in fact, to help the new Christians become more like Jesus AND become more like them.

Yikes.

In 2 Corinthians chapters 10 through 12, Paul defended himself and his calling from these opponents. Toward the end of this defense, Paul enhanced his credibility by recalling an ecstatic spiritual experience. Years earlier Paul found himself swept into the highest heaven, in the very presence of Almighty God. During this heavenly encounter, God confided in Paul! In order to counterbalance this ecstatic experience and in order to prevent Paul from developing an over-inflated ego, Paul wrote that he was given what he called “a thorn in the flesh,” a chronic and harassing attack from Satan. It might have been poor eyesight. It might have been recurring malaria or epilepsy. It might have been the residual effects of being stoned to death and surviving. The passage’s context tells us it most certainly included the people problems referenced earlier.

God would not remove this thorn even though Paul begged God on three occasions to remove it. In essence, God responded by saying, “No, but….” The chronic condition (the thorn) was going to remain in Paul’s life because God had something better than relief in mind. God’s grace was more than enough for Paul. In fact, God’s power would show up best in and would even be fulfilled in Paul’s chronic weaknesses.

The Wuest translation renders 2 Corinthians 12:8 this way – “My grace is enough for you, for My power is moment by moment coming to its full energy and complete operation in the sphere of weakness.”

Ever the extremist, Paul reacted to this answer from God by becoming a fan of his chronic condition, boasting that when he was weak he was actually strong. Carla showed me 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 in The Voice Translation, which says, “So ask me about my thorn, inquire about my weaknesses, and I will gladly go on and on – I would rather stake my claim in these weaknesses and have the power of the Anointed One (Jesus) at home within me. I am at peace and even take pleasure in any weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and afflictions for the sake of the Anointed (Jesus) because when I am at my weakest, He makes me strong.”

Many of us contend with something I call a theology of evacuation. We come to believe God’s primary role in our lives is relief, that God is obligated to always say YES to us by getting us out of unpleasantries or by getting unpleasantries out of us. Eavesdrop in on your prayer life and you may catch yourself in the act. But with God, evacuation is more the exception than the rule. God loves us too much to give in to our emotionally charged appeals for relief. Instead of removing the hardship, God may leave the hardship in us or God may leave us in the hardship. Why? Because it is the ideal environment for God to become our strength. The sufficiency of God’s grace is the BETTER YES. With the thorn still imbedded, we discover that God’s grace is more than enough.

Isn’t Jesus Himself the ultimate example of this truth? In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus writhed on the ground praying for evacuation three times. The Father said “NO, but….” Jesus emerged from the garden strong and proceeded to become vulnerable and helpless, all the way to an unspeakably brutal death.

God’s power was more than enough to raise Jesus from the dead. That being the case, is there any chance God might have what it takes to be more than enough for us in our area of greatest weakness?

Catholic author and speaker Brennan Manning (1934-2013) once said, “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.” (The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, page 1330)

Brennan Manning also said, “…the question no longer is: Can I do it? Am I able? Can I overcome my moodiness, my laziness, my sensuality, my grudges and my resentments? The only question is: Is Jesus Christ able? Can my Savior, the Lord of my life, revive my drooping spirit and transform me?” (The NIV Ragamuffin Bible, page 1331)

What are your strengths?

What are your weaknesses (or challenges)?

How do you typically handle a “no” answer?

What is your “thorn in the flesh?” Do you have more than one “thorn in the flesh?”

When has God answered your prayer with “no” in favor of a better “yes?”

What would it look like for Christ to show up strong in your greatest weakness?

What would it look like for Christ’s grace to be perfected (fulfilled) in your weaknesses?

Are you willing to embrace the miracle you were not seeking, the miracle where God gives you more grace instead of less discomfort?

Grace and peace,

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)  

 

 

About Faith and Courage and Letting Go

Consider these Scripture passages. What do they have in common?

  • Then Jesus told them what they could expect for themselves: “Any of you who want to be My follower must deny yourselves (set aside your own self-interests), take up your cross daily (take up My self-giving way of life), and follow Me (let Me lead). For if you choose self-sacrifice, giving up your soul-lives for My glory, you will embark on a discovery of more and more true life. But if you choose to keep your soul-lives for yourselves, you will lose what you try to keep.” (Luke 9:23-24)
  • Therefore, in response to all of these mercies God has shown you, I beg you, brothers and sisters, to make a decisive once-and-for-all dedication of your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and devoted and acceptable to God. This response to all of these mercies God has shown you is your only reasonable act of worship. (Romans 12:1)
  • Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God. (Romans 6:13-14 in The Message)
  • For it is Christ’s love that fuels our passion and motivates us, because we are absolutely convinced that He has given His life for all of us. This means all died with Him, so that those who live should no longer live self-absorbed lives but lives that are poured out for Him—the One who died for us and now lives again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 in The Passion Translation)
  • “My old identity has been co-crucified with Messiah and no longer lives; for the nails of His cross crucified me with Him. And now the essence of this new life is no longer mine, for the Anointed One lives His life through me—we live in union as one! My new life is empowered by the faith of the Son of God Who loves me so much that He gave Himself for me, and dispenses His life into mine! (Galatians 2:20 in The Passion Translation)

Now consider these imaginary scenes.

  • Scene #1 – Imagine that you are standing on the bank of a river. You have a glass in your hand. You kneel at the river, place the glass in the river, and then draw the glass out, full of river water. It would now be accurate to say you have the river (or at least some river water). You can take the river with you wherever you go. The river water is static and safe. You have the river water contained and controlled. You can go anywhere you want to go with it.
  • Scene #2 – Imagine that you are standing on the bank of a river. You have a glass in your hand. You place the glass on the ground next to you, take a deep breath, and jump into the river. It would now be accurate to say the river has you. The river’s current can take you wherever it is going. The river is wild and dynamic and risky and you are not in control, but you certainly are being taken somewhere.
  • Scene #3 – Imagine that you are standing on the bank of a river. You have a glass in your hand. You place the glass on the ground next to you and you tentatively approach the river. You step in just enough that your feet are in the water. After a while, you move a little deeper into the river, so that the water is up to your knees. This process continues, back and forth. Sometimes more of you is wet than dry. Sometimes more of you is dry than wet.

Questions:

  • Which scene best describes your relationship with Christ right now?
  • Which scene do you want describing your relationship with Christ?
  • How confident is your trust in Christ?
  • What is your next step?

Blessings,

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)

Romans 12:1-2 Part 2

Here is Romans 12:1-2 from The Message. “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

What is one area in your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—that most obviously needs to be placed before God as an offering?

Clue #1 – Look for that part of you that is unmanageable or out of control. It might be something in your thoughts. It might be a behavior. It might be words. It might be a habit. It might be an irresistible urge. No matter how hard you try to control or manage this part of you, it keeps squirming free. Every day for seven days, offer this resistant part of your self to God as a living sacrifice.

Clue #2 – Look for that part of you that easily caves into cultural pressure, that part of you that comfortably gives into self-indulgent or self-gratifying influences around you. It’s that part of you that conforms to the world because – let’s face it – it’s easier to live from the outside-in than from the inside-out. Every day for seven days, offer that part of you to God as a living sacrifice.

If sacrifices could speak, they would tell us that becoming a sacrifice is a 100% proposition. So why is Romans 12:1-2 worth it? Why is this self-sacrificing life such a good idea? My answer is that the One calling you into this self-sacrificing life…

…is the same One Who made you,

…is the same One Who knows what is best for you,

…is the same One Who loves you more than anybody else ever does or ever could love you,

…is the same One Who willingly gave ALL for you.

Grace and peace,

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)

 

Romans 12:1-2 Part 1

“Therefore, in response to all of these mercies God has shown you, I beg you, brothers and sisters, to make a decisive once-and-for-all dedication of your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and devoted and acceptable to God. This response is your only reasonable act of worship. Stop mindlessly living in conformity to the customs of the prevailing culture around you, but by the new ideals that shape your minds continue to let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will find and follow God’s good, well-pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

Have you ever found yourself on both sides of a conflict or a competition, where it became necessary for you to once-and-for-all declare which side you are on? We can be guilty of dual spiritual allegiance. We try to follow Christ while also pleasing the world, which is like trying to take off in two directions at once. In Romans 12:1-2, God is telling us to decisively choose the One Who pours out mercy on us constantly. We know verse one contains a decisive command because the image in verse one has us climbing onto a sacrificial altar AND STAYING THERE.

There is no getting around the reality that faith in Christ is radical and extreme, but relationship with Christ is worth whatever our faith costs us. If we are spiritually climbing onto this altar and staying there, it can only mean we have FOR SURE chosen Christ, the same Christ Who in the ultimate act of mercy sacrificed Himself all the way for us.

When we stay on the altar of devotion to Christ, peer pressure loses its power over us because what’s happening up there on the altar is a better life in every way.

When we stay on this altar of devotion to Christ, materialism loses its power over us because what’s happening up there on the altar is a better life in every way.

When we stay on this altar of devotion to Christ, obsession and addiction lose their power over us because what’s happening up there on the altar is a better life in every way.

Faith exercises:

  1. How has God had mercy on you? How does God have mercy on you? Make a list. See if you can come up with at least a dozen ways God has been merciful to you. Examples – Did God wake you up this morning? Did God keep your heart beating all day? Did God provide food for you to eat, clothing for you to wear, shelter, transportation, friends, oxygen? Acts 17:28 says, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Fact is, God does sustain us. Every moment we have is a gift.
  2. What are we doing with these gifts of mercy? In light of God’s mercies, we are given three commands. 1) We offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices. Because we are so grateful to Jesus for having mercy on us, we offer everything about ourselves to Jesus, letting Him be completely in charge of us. 2) We stop going along with whatever the world says and we stop letting the world around us drag us down. 3) We allow God to miraculously replace our stinking thinking with a renewed mind that willingly gravitates toward God thoughts. These thoughts help us love people around us and be a blessing to people around us. When we are obeying these three commands, we are making ourselves available for God to bring out God’s very best in us, which beats anything we can come up with on our own. Only God knows who your best “you” is, and only God knows how to get you there.

Grace and peace to you as you study these verses, pray these verses, and obey these verses.

Rick Jordan (www.rickcarlajordan.com, rickjordankcmo@gmail.com)