Redeeming Pain

When history speaks, do we listen?

by Terry Powell

It’s one thing to say that God’s sovereignty redeems our pain or weakness for a greater purpose. It’s another thing altogether to see a vivid illustration of the truth.

David Brainerd (1718-1747) took the gospel of Christ to Indians in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, often living alone with sparse food rations and exposure to cold. Extremely melancholy in temperament, Brainerd endured long episodes of joylessness, often slinking into despair over awareness of his sin, or over an incapacity to feel more love for the people he was trying to reach. Physical frailty accompanied his psychological anguish. He died of tuberculosis before his thirtieth birthday.

A couple years after launching missionary work among the Indians, in 1845, God’s Spirit brought a spiritual awakening in New Jersey. Within a year, the church Brainerd started numbered 130.

Brainerd kept diaries in which he described bouts of despondency, disclosed his consciousness of sin in light of God’s holiness, and recounted efforts to evangelize the Indians. Their pages teem with honest self-disclosure as well as desperate dependence on God for physical and emotional sustenance.

Twenty-two places in his diaries he yearned for death as an escape from his misery. Yet he persisted in proclaiming Christ, even when his own temperamental makeup eclipsed his ability to experience the joy inherent in the gospel. One entry revealed his acceptance of weakness and deeply-entrenched desire to finish well: “Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God… Oh, that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey.”

After his death, the fruit of Brainerd’s life multiplied exponentially. In 1749, Jonathan Edwards, in whose home Brainerd died, took the diaries and published them as a Life of Brainerd, a book that’s never been out of print. Renown missionaries and leaders galvanized by Brainerd’s story include John Wesley, Henry Martyn, William Carey, Robert McCheyne, David Livingstone, Andrew Murray, and Jim Elliot.

The borders of Brainerd’s impact weren’t expanded in spite of his emotional and physical afflictions, but because of them.

His story resonates with so many servants over the years because when push comes to shove, they, too, wrestle with sinful propensities, episodes of despondency, and physical frailties. They believe they are candidates for the same divine grace they observe in Brainerd’s life. John Piper, himself buoyed by Brainerd’s story, offers this apt summary statement: “Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints who cry to him day and night to accomplish amazing things for his glory.”

How can God use you despite physical or emotional frailty?

For biblical indicators that God uses weak, needy people, read these texts: 1 Corinthians 1:26-29; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9-10. Resources quoted are The Life of David Brainerd, by Jonathan Edwards, and The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction on the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, by John Piper.


Terry teaches in the areas of Church Ministry and Ministry Leadership at Columbia International University in South Carolina. He has served as a Christian Education staff member for three  churches, and he’s a licensed preacher in the Presbyterian Church of America.  His current books in print are Serve Strong:  Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, and  Now That’s Good A Question!  How To Lead Quality Bible Discussions. Terry has been married for 46 years, and has two sons, a daughter-in-law, one grandson, and a dachshund.  His constant prayer is, “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am!”

Terry has a new blog at http://www.penetratingthedarkness.com. It deals with the believer’s depression and other mental issues. Please visit him and tell him “Hi” from me.

Restore the Sparkle: Psalm 13

For the choir director: A psalm of David.

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
    Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.

But I trust in your unfailing love.
    I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
    because he is good to me.

Psalm 13, NLT

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Life can get complicated really fast. David finds that sometimes there are no easy answers. If we look objectively at his life, we see the frayed ends where confusion rules. It was never meant to turn out this way.

Commentary

V. 1-2, David believes that he has been forgotten. A phrase is repeated an astounding four times, “How long?”  It does seem that impatience is a significant issue for him. Often when it gets this bad, we find ourselves turning to surrogates to fill the gap.

V. 2, “Anguish…sorrow, everyday.” Somehow David is alert enough to recognize the evil one. Everyday=no relief– constant, gnawing pain, which can be physical, emotional, or spiritual (or all three).

V. 3,  Turn and answer me, O Lord my God! Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.” (I love this version–“sparkle”). David knew that life was exceptional. And there is much more than breathing to life. He speaks of being restored. He seeks a reason to keep living.

V. 4, Also, he is quite aware that his life is being threatened. The word, “gloat” is interesting translation. It has the idea of boasting, or relishing someone else’s failure. The dark prince savors your defeat. He has been looking forward to this desperate moment.

V. 5,  But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.” The Lord has covered David with His hand. His life has been saved by a love that never falters or weakens. Never, Never!

V. 6,  Tremendous verse; it is really wonderful. When we finally get to this last verse, we see that we have “run-the-gauntlet” with David. Often good jewelers display their diamond necklaces on a black background. The darkness intensifies the brightness of the jewels. They become even more beautiful. David is singing and praising the Lord in His nearness. It really is what we were made to do.

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Little Pieces of Obedience

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“It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, 18 even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.”19 Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.”

Hebrews 11:17-19, NLT

The faith of Abraham is understood by believers everywhere. This simple man followed God to a obscure mountain in Judea. He came fervently, and yet logically to the command of the Lord. Abraham’s confident assurance would carry him to Mt. Moriah were he would sacrifice his son. He would prefigure God’s own sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His only Son.

There were many steps Abraham had to take: the knife, the rope, the firewood, the donkey. There was a dozen details to arrange. Abraham would have had to plan ahead of time to prepare. I’m relatively certain he had ample time to consider what he was doing. The enormity of it all would’ve been staggering.

Hebrews reveals that ‘faith’ was what enabled Abraham. It was faith followed by a dozen little obediences that strengthened him to follow God’s instructions. Abraham would obey God, through faith, by doing many little things. All would lead up to the ‘big thing,’ the offering up of his only son.

I believe that no act is too small. Heavy doors swing on small hinges. Tiny obediences make for big ones. And sometimes we can’t tell them apart. It seems that several times during our daily grind we face little choices that often determine a far greater meaning. I’ve been told that there are flowers in alpine valleys that no man will ever see. Their sole beauty is visible only to God. Obedience is often like this. But the Lord knows.

God meets every act of obedience to Him with a smiling grace.

Hebrews 11 is known as the believer’s ‘hall of fame’. In its verses we’re pounded by the idea that the faith is visible only through obedience. What we do is as significant as what we believe. It has always been so.

“…but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.”

Daniel 11:32, NKJV

Little obediences prepare us for big ones. If we won’t obey in the small ones, how will we in the big ones? The prophet Daniel spoke of a remnant that would do astonishing things, and that the core of their fame would come from knowing God. This is faith made visible. The ‘great exploits’ spring out of a faith in a strong God. To be regarded in this way would be wonderful, but faith needs those little obediences to be able to do the great ones. 

We must reclaim the reality that the details of our lives are not trivial.

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Come What May

Go forth today, by the help of God’s Spirit, vowing and declaring that in life – come poverty, come wealth, in death – come pain or come what may, you are and ever must be the Lord’s. For this is written on your heart, “We love Him because He first loved us,” 1 John 4:19.

–Charles Spurgeon

 

“…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua 24:15

 

 

 

 

 

Quarantined, for His Purposes

 

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Quarantines are a real possibility, even in this day. A quarantine is imposed when disease is contagious enough that it would harm a society: Measles, Smallpox, and the recent Ebola Virus  are just a few physical diseases where strict isolation must be imposed. It can be severe— an epidemic, with desperate consequences if not adhered to; in some rare cases, the use of deadly force have been authorized to maintain a quarantine until the disease is no longer communicable.

This may surprise you, but there are examples of ‘quarantines’ in the Bible. The term ‘unclean’ was used for ‘leprosy.’ Those afflicted must isolate themselves; they had to ‘announce’ their presence when in contact with society. Lepers lived in groups away from the general populace as a result of their disease.

In Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian he addresses another kind of ‘quarantine.’ The situation was dire; the church had advocated a Christian living with his father’s wife.

“I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”

1 Corinthians 5:3-5, NLT

Understanding the Principal of Usefulness

20 “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor.”

2 Timothy 2:20, NASB

Found in God’s pantry are many things. Paul writes Timothy about the ‘large house’ which is the Church inclusive. Look around Timothy, there are gold ones, and there are silver ones. They have a noble purpose fitting for such a great house. These are the ones the guests will use; they befit the significance of the Lord himself. These vessels have great value for they are made of precious metals.

There are vessels of a different category. These are the ones made of wood, and of clay. These are part of the household, make no mistake about it. But their use is one of function, they’re used in common ways. (A clay ‘bed-pan’ perhaps?!)

21 “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”

2 Timothy 2:21

Paul, the author of New Testament doctrine of grace emphasizes the place of personal holiness. We are to ‘cleanse’ ourselves to become a vessel of honor. There is good news here:

  • All are vessels in the Father’s house. Each of us belong to Him. He determines their use.
  • Things are not yet in their final state. Change in status can be experienced. Clay pots can become ‘golden.’ Silver can become ‘wood.’

Some sin is contagious. It effects other believers and the Church. Sometimes we are quarantined by the Holy Spirit until the contagion passes. I have experienced this several times in my own discipleship. These are not pleasant times. But there is no condemnation. I’m still His servant, His love for me stays outrageously constant. God waits for me.

Yes I am His servant, and I must wait out in the hall. I haven’t been faithful. So I sit in His waiting room, waiting for His call. This is for my good, and for the Church. And Father knows best.

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On Being Loved

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“The human heart is the most deceitful of all thingsand desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

Jeremiah 17:9

For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.”

Romans 8:7-8

The reality is that we are in a real fix. The grim news isn’t changed simply because we graduated from a ‘charm school’ or become Eagle Scouts. We are fundamentally flawed, our hearts throughly contaminated. Any good we try to do is a ‘freak of nature,’ and astronomically beyond our ability. The race of men has failed. (Maybe that’s why history keeps repeating itself.) Without the presence of God, we would destroy ourselves. And each other.

The word “hostile” is used. That sort of sums it all up, doesn’t it?

God’s Constant Love for You

8 “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

Romans 5:8

Although we’re in active rebellion, “God so loved the world…” His love for us is called ‘agape,’ it is a word used in the New Testament, and it’s a love marked by consistency and selflessness. God loves without any conditions or merit on our part. Agape is love undeserved. The word is full of mercy, a concept very hard for us to grasp.

God’s love for us the way the universe is run. Love is what empowers Him to save us from our sins. It is the Lord’s love that draws us to Himself. Love is like a magnet that pulls us out of darkness into the light. His love for you is infinite.

“In math, if you divide an infinite number by any number, no matter how large, you still have an infinite quotient. So Jesus’ love, being infinite, even though it is divided up for every person on earth, is still infinitely poured out on each one of us!”

  Charles Spurgeon

You can trust the Lord to be fully loving you right this minute. It is a full and constant love— there is scarcely a human parallel. The ‘prophets’ exhaust language seeking a metaphor to explain God’s love to a doubting and disobedient people. I imagine they are frustrated; they can’t explain what they’ve seen. They try, and end up explaining God’s love by type: marriage, and motherhood.

Over and over, these two metaphors are used extensively. And over and over you can see the love of God for people (flesh and blood, like you and I) for us. He loves us like a husband loves his straying wife. He loves us like a father loves his struggling child. We stray and struggle, and we will find no peace apart from His love. After all we are His, and we really can’t ‘work right” apart from His guiding presence.

Look at His heart. See His hands.

They both bear us witness of a supreme love. He loves you right now— wrecked and ravaged by your sin. I don’t know where you are at this very moment, but I do know He loves you intensely. Sin may have destroyed you, but His love never, ever vacillates. God is passionate about you— He won’t let you go. But you must risk being loved.

“See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him.”

1 John 3:1

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Esteeming His Word

Quite often, we’re intimidated by the Bible.  We all can take on a verse or two.  But that is pretty much it.

The Bible isn’t made up of singular verses, but of whole books.  I intend to go on record, to encourage you to ingest the Word.  It’s as if we went to a Chinese restaurant buffet.  There is so many delicious choices.  But we load up exclusively on the “Kung Pao Chicken.”  We make many trips, but that is all we take.  Only the Kung Pao, and that’s it.

Have we really experienced this restaurant?  Or just the chicken?  The Word is extensively diverse.  There are recipes, and there are heaping and steaming platters of things we will never personally experience, and that is a shame.  So much is there, but we pick out just one thing.

I have been reading the first few chapters of the prophet Jeremiah.  It really humbles me, and I sense I’ve been sliced open and my innards have been drug out into the streets.  It has spiritually eviscerated me. It has opened me up, with a spiritual power.  (I’m sorry, but “Moby Dick” or “Great Expectations” or other works of classical literature does nothing comparable for me.)

God’s Word has a peculiar dimension to it.  What it does is spiritually forceful.  It eagerly waits for us–this leather backed book.  At random we pick it up and start to read.  Quite quickly, it slips through our issues, and it directly ministers to us.  It has such power that it enters our thinking, and detonates, when the time is right. And we are left to pick-up the pieces. (This is good.)

You see, His presence has throughly saturated His Word.  He comes and infuses His books.  They have been dipped in His very personality and brought out for us to read and handle.  The things we discover there develop an awareness of truth and what is real.  If you study, you will hear the voice of God.

You have not arrived.  There is still a substantial work to be done.  You desperately need God’s words.  And you don’t need to become proficient or educated.  Perhaps we should just strive to be holy and kind.  Even an unorthodox approach is better than none.  Please–put down the remote, take up your heart, and apply it to your Bible.  It won’t take long, but the work is eternal.

“The Bible is alive; it speaks to me. It has feet; it runs after me. It has hands; it lays hold of me!”

 — Martin Luther

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