Monthly Archives: July 2015

You Are Not Your Past

1 Corinthians 15:9-10 reads “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”

The Apostle Paul is a man with a past, one he probably would have loved to forget if he could. He’s a man who made mistakes, big mistakes, just like we all do. Paul’s past, though, doesn’t define him. The important thing for us to see is what does define him. Does your past define who you are…? What, or who, gets to tell Paul who he is…?

1 Corinthians is the letter that Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth. They had issues in their lives that Paul had concerns with, and he spent the first fourteen chapters of his letter dealing with these issues, trying to correct them. In chapter 15 he defends his authority to say the things he said. The Church in Corinth would most likely have known what was in his past (bad news travels fast, right?), and they may have questioned his authority because of that when they received the letter.  As a result, Paul has to defend his authority to them to make sure he is heard.

So what was in Paul’s past…? Violence, and lots of it. Before he came to Christ, he was Saul, the Pharisee. Saul is the guy who you find in the Book of Acts as the “chief persecutor” of Christians. He’s the guy locking up men, women and children for their beliefs, the guy “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), and the guy who gave his consent to the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1). While Stephen was stoned to death, Paul just stood there, doing nothing.

Not exactly Apostle material, right…? If there’s anybody who you would think should be excluded from the Church, and especially from a position of authority in it, it’s a guy with a past like that. And Paul agrees with you, but only to a point. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15:9, he says, “Yep. That was me. I did that.” But then comes the really important part, where he disagrees. He says, “But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Paul accepts his past, but it doesn’t define who he is. You can’t count him out as an apostle of the Church just because of his past.

So if Paul’s past doesn’t define him what, or who, does…? It’s not his work, that’s for sure. As a leader in the church he could easily point to what he does and say, “That makes me who I am.” But he doesn’t. Yes, he’s done great things as an apostle, and he says so himself, but he admits he’s only done those things because of Christ. Look at what he just said, and what he says next. “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.” Paul tells the Corinthians, and us, straight up, “I’m not who I was, and Christ is why.” Christ makes Paul who he is, and Christ didn’t make a mistake.

“In vain” means useless, something that misses the point. If you work really hard in math class, pass all your tests and then fail the final exam and the entire course, your work has been in vain. You wasted your time. Christ didn’t waste his time when he chose Paul to be an apostle. He didn’t make a mistake taking a guy who worked hard at locking up Christians and turning him into one of the leaders of the Church.  In the end, because Christ makes him who he is, Paul is exactly who he needed to be at exactly the right time. He is enough, even with his past.

And now Paul’s not ashamed of his past anymore. Yes he made mistakes and he hurt people but because of Christ he’s forgiven and that’s not who he is anymore and that’s that, as far as he’s concerned. As an apostle, he can take issue with their issues all he wants.

Next question…so what? What does all this mean to you and me today…? We all have pasts, and we’ve all hurt people and been hurt, and we’ve all done things we’re not proud of, just like Paul. And we might think that those things keep us from Christ and from all that’s good in life. It’s easy to think, for example, that because of things you’ve done, or because of what happened to you, you’re never going to be any different than you are right now. Your past screams out that you’ll always be this way. Maybe there’s a moment that defines how you think of yourself, a time when you got hurt really bad or you did something you regret or something bad happened that you couldn’t control. A moment that tore your world apart, and now you think it will never be the same again.

And the “So what?” is that that’s not true. When you come to Christ, those moments don’t get to define you anymore. They become a part of you, yes, a part of your story, but they don’t get to be the whole story anymore. They stop being something to hide behind, to make excuses for, and they become something that happened to you once that you learned from, or that you grew through, and that made you a better person. You are enough right now, in Christ’s eyes, even with those moments, and you don’t have to hide from those moments or let them define who you are.

If you don’t know Jesus, you may be tempted to just dismiss this entirely, but I would say that I do not believe such transformation is possible without Him. I don’t say this to guilt trip anyone, but rather as an encouragement. Jesus did this for Paul, and I can say from my own life experience that he has done, and is still doing this, for me. If you need to come to terms with your own past, He can help you with that, too.

 

A Crazy, Holy Vulnerability

So I have been racking my brain, praying, and pondering about what else from life and my studies God can use to speak here (as a seminary grad there is no shortage of topics on my mind, not all of them helpful), but this topic has been on my mind since I stumbled across a passage in Luke a few weeks ago.

My wife and I are not-so-slowly working our way through season 4 of Castle (no spoilers, please; the writer in me knows this is about to get really good), and there’s an episode where Det. Beckett has to work through emotional fall-out from an event at the close of last season. What caught my attention in the episode, and what prompted this post, is that she doesn’t want to deal with it. She’s the tough, smart cop, and it’s a weakness. In short, she doesn’t want to be vulnerable.

Aren’t we all like that at one time or another? Dictionary.com defines “vulnerable” as “capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt,” and that is something we don’t like to be. We don’t like to hurt, whether that be from emotional or physical pain. We want to protect ourselves, to make sure we’ll be alright. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when you know not to go walking through the wrong side of town after dark, but sometimes it’s not healthy, like when it involves our relationships with others or with God or with parts of our lives that we don’t like to acknowledge. (If you’ve found your way here and you don’t believe in God and you’re still reading this, I hope you’ll bear with me through this. You might find something worthwhile by the end. 🙂 )

In Luke 6:27-36, Jesus gives some perspective on being vulnerable in a healthy way, and that’s what I want to look at in this post. In the English Standard Version, this passage reads as follows:

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

As a bit of general background, this passage is from a larger chunk of Luke called the Sermon on the Plain, which covers many of the same topics as the better-known Sermon on the Mount. The general focus here is on overcoming evil with good, but this is not an outward, religious appearance sort of thing. As we’ll see, it goes much deeper than that.

If you’ve been around a church, or been around those who have been around a church, there are parts of this passage that are likely familiar to you. “Turn the other cheek,” in verse 29, is a concept that now has a lot of baggage attached to it, and verse 31 is the “Golden Rule.” What I want to do here is try to get past some of that baggage and see more clearly what Jesus is getting at. The best way to do that is through a word study. The Bible was not originally written in English. The Book of Luke, among others, was originally written in Greek, and a word study simply means going back to the Greek to better understand some of the key words in a given passage. (You don’t have to read Greek to pull this off. I can’t read it at all, so I make use of a biblical Greek dictionary to make this possible.) My apologies if this seems a little tedious, but it’s well worth the effort.

There are 5 different phrases/words worth looking at here. They are as follows:

1. “Love your enemies,” in verse 27. The love referenced here is not a plastic, outward, “do nice things for people” kind of love. Rather, the Greek word translated here as “love” is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “beloved.” Beloved brings to mind images of an intimate, romantic sort of relationship. A lavish, generous love. It is a love that has nothing to do with any good in the one whom it loves, and it’s not something we can produce ourselves. It’s a product of God living in us as believers. Keep all of this in mind as we move through the rest of this.

2. “Offer,” in verse 29. The sense in the Greek here is of freely giving something to someone else for their use with no strings attached.

3. “Withhold,” in verse 29. The Greek word translated here means “to hinder, restrain, forbid. This word carries the sense of refusing to let go of something, and the sentence it’s in implies that this is a bad thing. (There seems to be a theme building here.)

4. “Give” and “demand,” in verse 30. The Greek word here translated as “give” means “to yield,” which carries the same sense as “offer” in verse 29. (See the theme yet?) “Demand” carries the sense of one asking something of someone who is in a higher position than the one doing the asking. If we yield something to those who ask us for it, as the verse says, we put them in that higher position relative to ourselves.

5. “Receive,” in verse 34. The sense here is of getting back what one is due. Your just rewards, so to speak. In the context of the verse, this is a fair recompense for what one has previously lent out.

So what is the point of all that tediousness? If you noticed the theme in looking closely at this passage, what Jesus has in mind here is not “being a wimpy doormat.” This is not a call to divine helplessness. You’re not to let others walk all over you. Rather, this is a conscious, deliberate choice to be vulnerable. This is insane vulnerability (or extreme vulnerability, if you like that better), something that is so far beyond what we would normally be willing to do or even inclined to do. It’s a choice to open yourself up, to risk rejection, pain, and heartache. A choice to not demand your own, to not protect yourself.

But what is the point to that observation? Is this something we’re just supposed to will ourselves into doing, even when we really don’t feel like it, and then pat ourselves on the back at how religious we are? I realize being that vulnerable will sometimes go against the grain, but as I said at the beginning, this is not a performance thing. It’s not about completing some religious check-list. It goes deeper than that.

Look again at verses 35 and 36 above. “You will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” This is how Jesus is towards us. Think about it. How often is Jesus rejected? If you’re a believer, how many times did you push Him away before you said yes? If you’re not a believer, how many times have you turned Him down? (I ask this question to make you think, not to start a guilt-trip, so please take it for what it’s worth.) Think back to the times you were rejected by another, like when you asked the pretty girl next door out on a date and she turned your down, or when you were afraid your boyfriend would never propose. Rejection hurts. Period. Yet Jesus opens Himself up to it again and again and again and again. He loves us enough to take that rejection and still want us. He doesn’t walk away.

Think of the cross. Matthew 26:53 tells us that Jesus could have stopped His crucifixion if He’d wanted to. He could have done so at any point, yet He went through with it all the way through to His death. That’s the ultimate vulnerability, and He did it because He wanted to be with you and with me.

So here’s the question. Can you be this vulnerable? This is not meant as a religious, outward question, but rather as one that’s deeply personal. After all, being vulnerable with others ultimately includes being vulnerable with God. Think about it. Is Jesus trustworthy enough for you to trust Him that He’ll look out you for you when you’re this vulnerable? Is He trustworthy enough for you to give up something that really mattered if He were to ask you to? I mean, we all have things that we hold on to, things we think we need, that may or may not be healthy for us. And it’s OK if your answer’s no. This isn’t meant to provoke shame. We’ve all walked different roads in life, and we’re all at different places with Him, and as a result the answers to those questions will differ for everyone. And that’s OK. This is something you have to work through for yourself. (I’ve been kicking this subject around for 3 weeks now, and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it.)

That’s really the ultimate question, isn’t it? He is vulnerable with us every day. Can we be that vulnerable with Him?

Where is God when it hurts?

This post is adapted from a sermon I had the privilege to preach back in October 2014. It’s a little on the long side, and the fact that it’s based on a sermon may put you off, but I hope you’ll take time to read it all the way through. It’s worth it. 🙂

In this post, I want to look at the question of “Where is God when it hurts?” but I want you to know right from the start that this isn’t just an intellectual exercise. I’m not going to tell you that bad things that happen in our lives are God’s plan and then leave it at that. It’s not that that answer isn’t true, it’s just that it speaks to the head and not to the heart and when we’re hurting it doesn’t really do much to answer the questions that we have. When my wife and I were married in May 2011, I was still in Canada, in the military, and health issues and uncertainty kept us apart for the next three years. We were waiting for an answer that never seemed to come, and let me tell you that’s not an easy thing to do. I had a lot of questions for God. Why is this happening? Why won’t you deal with this? Did I make a mistake? Well-meaning people told me it was God’s plan, and I knew that, but it did not nothing to deal with the hurt inside. I can remember not wanting to go to sleep at night because that meant having to wake up and deal with it all over again the next day. Those are the sort of questions I want to look at here.

A good place to begin with these kinds of questions is the book of Job in the Old Testament. You see, Job is a man who knew what it was like to hurt. Some of you reading this have lost your whole world. The very people who were supposed to love and protect you didn’t, or they hurt you, or they failed to accept you. I don’t know what that feels like, but Job does. Job Chapters 1 and 2 tells us that he lost his whole world in a single day. His wealth, his family, all of it, all gone in a day. It also tells us that Job had done nothing wrong. God allowed it, for reasons we don’t get to know, but Job had done nothing wrong. The main passage I want to look at is Job 38:1-2, which reads in the King James Version, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” I want you to remember that, because it’s our clue as to where God is when it hurts. Before we come back to that, however, we need to look in a few other places, places where you might expect to find God but don’t. (And for anyone who’s curious, I am not using the King James Version because I think it’s better than other translations. I just like how it reads like poetry.)

Job was a good man. According to Job 1:1, he was “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” He had done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve what he got, but as Chapter 2 tells us, God allowed Satan to take what Job had in order to show what was in Job’s heart. Even after Job had lost everything, he still did not curse God. This leads us to the first place we look for God when it hurts. You see, Job had three friends, who when they heard what had happened, came to comfort him. His friend Eliphaz says to him, in Chapter 4:7-8, “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? Or where were the righteous cut off? Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.” Eliphaz points out that bad things don’t happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people, and as something bad has happened to Job, he must have done something wrong. And we follow that logic, right? It makes sense to us. Here’s the thing, though. We know from Job Chapters 1 and 2 that Job hasn’t done anything wrong. And Job knows it, too. He says in 6:24, “Teach me and I will hold my tongue: and cause me to understand wherein I have erred.” He wants them to point out his wrongdoing, because he knows there isn’t any.

I’m not trying to take away from the fact that sometimes we do wrong things and there are consequences for those actions. All I’m saying is that this is not true here. This is the first stop on our scavenger hunt, and God is not here. We know that Job has done nothing wrong, which means that God is not in the “bad things only happen to bad people” answer.

Stop #2 on our scavenger hunt is Job 11:13-15, which says, “If thou prepare thine heart, and stretch out thine hands toward him; if inequity be in thine hand, put it far away, and let not wickedness dwell in thy tabernacles. For then shalt thou lift up thy face without spot; yea, thou shalt be steadfast, and shalt not fear.” Here Job’s friend Zophar takes a similar approach to what we saw in Stop #1. Job has clearly done something wrong, and if he repents things will be better. And again, we find it hard to argue with the logic, don’t we? If you make a mistake, if you wrong someone, you make it right and everything’s better, right? But again we have the same problem. Job hasn’t done anything wrong. Job says in 16:2-3, “I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. Shall vain words have an end? Or what emboldeneth thee that thou answerest?” Job’s response is simple. “You think you know? You don’t. I have done nothing wrong.” Again, I’m not trying to take away from the fact that repentance is necessary after we make mistakes. All I’m saying is that it’s not true here because Job hasn’t made any mistakes to deserve what’s happened to him. So, in Stop #2 on our scavenger hunt, we don’t find God, either.

To answer our question of where God is when it hurts, we have to look elsewhere, and that brings us to stop #3, our main Scripture passage in 38:1-2. Remember how I said this gave us our clue? Let’s look at this passage some more and see what we can find out about where God is when it hurts. Most of the book of Job is a back and forth between Job and his friends. “You’ve screwed up.” “No, I haven’t.” “You’ve screwed up.” “No, I haven’t.” And on and on it goes. God is silent throughout this. In Chapter 38, however, God shows up. Surprisingly, instead of answer Job’s questions, God starts asking questions of His own. This passage continues in verse 3, “Gird up now thy loins like a main, for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures therefore, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it?” The questions go on like this for two more chapters. You see, in knowing that he has done nothing wrong, Job has come to believe God has made a mistake, and God very quickly puts Job in his place. God knows far more than Job does, and He doesn’t make mistakes, which means that Stop #3 comes up empty for us, too. God does not make mistakes, which means that God is not in this place, either.

So where, then, is God when it hurts? Turns out He has been right before us all along. Remember what God says in 38:2, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” Job’s friends have been speaking about things they don’t understand, and God knows it. Now think about that for a minute, and don’t miss the significance of it. Setting aside, for the moment, that God is omniscient and therefore knows everything, how would God know what Job’s friends have been saying unless He had been there all along? Where is God when it hurts? He is right there with us. Right there with us. Right there with YOU.

I don’t know why bad things happen in our lives. Each one of us has things in our lives we have questions about. Things that we don’t understand. I don’t know that we’ll ever get answers to our questions, at least not this side of eternity. At the very least, Job never did. And knowing that God is right there with you may not take away the hurt. I honestly don’t know of anything that ever will take that away, again at least not this side of eternity. All I can tell you is that He knows how much it hurts, and He is right there in the middle of it with you, going through it with you. He knows how it feels. He understands, more than any other person ever will, and He above anybody else is trustworthy.

Having said all that, so what? Knowing that God is right there with us when it hurts, what does it mean for you and me? In Job 23, Job accuses of God of having done wrong. In allowing what has happened to Job, God has made a mistake. Now as we’ve said, God responds to this and puts job in his place, but follow me one last time to Job 42:7. Here God says of Job’s friends, “My wrath is kindled against thee . . . for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” Think about that. Job was angry with God, and accused him of screwing up, but he said what was right. Now we know that God didn’t make a mistake, so that wasn’t right, but what was right was how Job felt and what he did with those feelings. He was miserable, he was very vocal with his complaints, and he didn’t try to hide how he felt. In the end he did trust God, but he did not hold back his anger with God. The “so what?” is that we don’t have to, either. It’s OK to be angry with God when it hurts, and it’s OK to tell Him that. He can take it. It is OK to feel that way, and to let it out. Just don’t stay there too long.

Hello world!

My name is Mike Shewfelt. I am a pure-blooded Canadian who is settling in in the South with my beautiful wife, and I have a passion for ministering to the hearts of hurting people. God has blessed me with opportunities to preach in local churches, and I hope and pray He will use this site to minister to the hearts of people I might never meet otherwise. This site is intended for all, those who have been in church for years and know Him well and those who maybe have never set foot in a church. So feel free to browse around, and I hope you find what it is that He has here for you! Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing messages, devotional thoughts, and other little nuggets, so check back soon!