Through the waves, we grow.
In the struggles, we are forged.
Harder paths yield more.
…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile — Mark 7:15, NRSV
I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.
We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.
We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…
It’s never our fault.
I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.
We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.
Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “ ” (Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.
Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.
When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.
For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.
Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.
Peace be with you!
“See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” — Isaiah 48:10, NRSV
In a previous post, we talked about the fact that adversity is a guarantee in life. Struggle, as you probably know, happens to everyone at one point or another. The intensity, causes, and manifestations of struggle may change, but the fact is adversity is a companion we should get used to. This leaves us with those two all-important questions: how will we face it and how will we surface on the other side?
For me, one of the most adverse experiences that I have been faced with is the loss of my job and calling, all in the span of a few months. After being let go from working at my appointed church, I was eager to get back into ministry elsewhere. The problem was, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to go back. Don’t get me wrong, we have been attending churches and I have still kept my Christian spiritual life in tact. I also want to get involved at whatever church we join, teaching classes, serving in missions, etc. However, I want to do those things for free, not tethered to the institutional church. There are some who are called to that and who do amazing work in professional ministry. My personal sense of integrity, idealism, and faith keep me from being one of those people. Others may be called to use these gifts in professional ministry, but I have learned it is not my way.
On one hand, this was a good realization. It is just as much a blessing to know when one is not called to something as knowing when one is called to something. I fostered a lot of resentment in my time in professional ministry, mostly toward other clergy who had a sense of belonging that I never experienced. I also had major issues with a necessary component to church in the United States, which is keeping the right people content. To me, if something is true or in need of being presented, it needs to be presented, regardless of the implications for a person’s spiritual life. If their spiritual life is selfishly constructed, what are we even doing?
Anyway, I won’t go much further down that road.
On the other hand, this one hurt. I was planning to spend my life in ministry. I wanted to be important in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God. I wanted my life to matter for the cause of Christ.
I should say that being fired was actually a bit of a blessing. I had issues with that placement. I was bad at keeping boundaries that protected me, my relationships, and the amazing congregation of youth and adults I love. Being let go and having the opportunity to face those ugly truths has actually made me a better man, and it also allowed me the chance to see what I should (and shouldn’t) be doing with my life. All in all, I’m happier now than I have been in a long time, and I have God and my amazing wife, family, and friends to thank for that. However, this is not the only result that could have come.
You see, adversity like this is not strange or uncommon. Whether it is brought on by chance, our own doings, or the doings of others, we are all going to face the ugly side of life and free will at many points throughout our brief existence on this earth. With that in mind, we need to answer those two all-important questions.
I submit that we look at adversity as divine testing. Now, before my more progressive friends close this window, and before my theologically… assertive (Calvinist?) brothers and sisters jump sky-high with delight, let me expand on what I mean by “divine testing.” When most of us think about the idea of God testing us, we look at it in academic terms. Just as the teacher is the one who hands us the blue book or scan-tron, we imagine God is the one who engineers the particular circumstance by which we are tested. God hands it to us, and we are expected to do our best to pass it.
For some of us, this may be comforting, but it isn’t for me. It makes God seem a bit cruel. However, I do believe we are tested in that God watches how we respond to certain things. God gives us freedom and the tools to make choices, even gives us the means of making the right choices, however, it is up to us to complete that act, and God is watching, prepared to give revelation in either an affirming or corrective manner.
This is a middle road opinion, to be sure, but I find it to be the most Scriptural of the available options. For example, take a look at the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. A situation of adversity comes up (4:5), God warns and encourages Cain (4:6-7), a regrettable choice is made (4:8), and God responds accordingly (4:10-12). The same happens with everyone, from the heroes of faith (like Moses and David) to the entire nation of Israel and the body of Christian believers. All are tested, but not because God puts them in crappy situations. Rather, we are all tested when we face adversity that is common to all, specific to our situation, and has the potential to cause us to act unfaithfully.
If you look at the Scripture at the beginning of this post, you’ll find that it is a quote from a context in which Isaiah is making note of the times Israel failed their tests. This failure led to their conquest and exile as a natural out working of their violation of God’s covenant. There are many tests that we have failed or will fail. However, the grace of God in Christ is relentless. While we may fail, God calls us to repent (to change our ways and move in a different direction). If we do this, and if we continue to put in efforts to better ourselves and stay connected to God, we will eventually see a change in how adversity affects us. What once drove us to sin, anger, bitterness, addiction, and other negative actions can actually be an opportunity to live in faith, kindness, compassion, and honesty. When we move from the former to the latter, it is the grace of God working within us, refining us, and making us more whole.
I have responded to the recent tests in both positive and negative ways. I have been hurt, angry, and resentful. However, I have also gotten help for those things, and a result, I have grown closer to God, my wife, my friends, and my family. I have also gained more understanding regarding what kind of life I want to have in order to serve God and others best. In the end, I hope you will pray for me that I may come through this process refined and improved. I will also pray for you in that regard, dear reader.
Go forth in hope, knowing that every day, we are being tested. Every situation presents us with an opportunity to do good or evil, and we must choose. Remember that God is always with you, no matter what, and rise to the occasion the next inevitable time adversity comes to meet you. By the grace of God, I know that we can overcome.
Peace be with you!
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