When Saying Goodbye is Hard

Text: Acts 20:13-38

“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” —Acts 20:24

Last week we had to say goodbye to our 13-year old Doberman. Samson lived a relatively long life for his breed, and even though we were prepared for the loss of a family pet that our children have known their entire lives, it still wasn’t easy.

The longer we live on this earth, the more seasons of goodbyes we will experience—it’s an unavoidable part of the journey. Some goodbyes might be temporary, others permanent. Whether it’s moving to another town, graduating and heading off to college, a job change, a church or ministry transition, a deployment for a military or missional assignment, or the grief of laying a dear loved one to rest, goodbyes are rarely easy.

Winnie The Pooh seems to be quite the optimist when he says:

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

In Acts 20, we find Paul saying goodbye to his friends and church leaders in Ephesus. Compelled by the Spirit, he was on his way to Jerusalem not knowing what would happen to him when he got there. Yet he was certain it would involve prison and hardships. He was also convinced that this would be the last time his friends would ever see him, making this farewell even more sentimental. But this didn’t deter him from following the Lord’s lead. His “only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24 NIV)

Though Paul’s noble goal in life was to spread the gospel as far and wide as the Lord commissioned him, getting on that boat and waving goodbye must’ve been painful. He did it because, in the words of Charles Spurgeon, he preached a gospel worth dying for, but not before warning them to be on guard for “savage wolves” and false prophets. He charged them to remain brave in their journey and faithful to the Lord.

Paul’s key to being able to move forward in such a hard transition and emotional moment is found in verse 32: Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace.”

This is our comfort in any season of farewell. It may not make the moment easier, but it does sanctify the moment. Entrusting our loved ones and the circumstances to God in the goodbye times is a way of bringing Jesus and his sustaining grace into the very center of our lives. This is the faith demonstration of trusting God as the Keeper and Guardian over everything, especially in those times of separation.

The next time you are faced with a difficult farewell, think about how Paul entrusted this deeply emotional moment to God’s safekeeping, and the grace that flows from that place of surrender.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, it is often hard to say goodbye. Transitions are not easy. Separation and loss are painful. But you are a loving Father who can be trusted in seasons of farewell. Help me to lean into your grace in those difficult seasons—trusting you as the Keeper of this life and entrusting to you every circumstance and every dear loved one. You are faithful. Help me to be faithful when it is time to say goodbye. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. What has been one of your most difficult “goodbye” seasons?
  2. If you knew that this would be your last day with your loved ones, what would you want to say to them?
  3. How does Paul’s life and mission challenge you?
  4. What does it mean to commit someone else to God?
  5. Is the gospel you live and proclaim worth dying for? How does that directly affect the way you live?

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Don’t Forget Your True Identity

Text: James 1:1-27

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” —James 1:23-24

My daughter recently wrote a paper for her college class on the dangers of “Method Acting.” Stephanie’s thesis is that Method Acting can be emotionally and psychologically harmful to actors and performers because they can get so into role-play that it affects one’s capacity to separate the act from real life. One of the well-known examples of this peril was Heath Ledger’s role in playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Many people believe that his obsession with that role affected his mental health and may have contributed to sleep disorders, which fatally led to his overdose.

“Any time a person plays with their true identity,” she said, “looking inward and changing and reconstructing their unique self, they risk sacrificing parts of their original DNA.”

Actors aren’t the only ones who struggle with this contradiction between the act and their real identity. Sometimes Christians find themselves in a similar tension—a place where spiritual identity gets left behind in the daily theater of our practical lives.

In today’s devotional text, the Epistle of James describes this as looking intently at your face in a mirror, and then walking away forgetting what you looked like. In verse 21, the writer instructs the readers to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Then he gives an admonition about the danger of hearing God’s word without actually doing it, which leads to self-deception (vv.22-27).

God’s “perfect law, the law of liberty” reveals our true identity. But it’s all too easy to forget that identity in the stress of our days and the noise of this world. Life has a way of hitting us so hard that we sometimes forget what is in that mirror.

James identifies various things that can push back on our true identity—the trials of life (v.2), a deficiency of wisdom (v.5), double-mindedness, which leads to instability (vv.6-8), the lure of sinful temptations (vv.13-15), being quick to anger (vv.19-20). All of these can cause you to forget who you are when you walk away from that mirror.

If we could summarize James’ thesis, it might be something like this: God doesn’t want us fleshing out a role in life that is contrary to, or inconsistent with, our true identity in Christ.

Through repentance and faith in Christ, we have been given a new identity to live from. As we reflect on God’s law of liberty, we should be mindful of what we see in that mirror in front of us. We see a person chosen by God and adopted into His everlasting family (John 15:16, Romans 8:14-15). We see a person forgiven and redeemed of every sin and failure (Ephesians 1:7-8, Psalm 103:12). We see a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We see freedom from guilt and condemnation (John 8:36, Romans 8:1). We see a person clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Galatians 3:27). We see not just a survivor, but a victor (Romans 8:37, 1 John 5:4). We see a person who can be strong and courageous, unafraid, because God “will never leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

God doesn’t want us fleshing out a role in life that is contrary to, or inconsistent with, our true identity in Christ. Click To Tweet

You don’t have to get sucked into a role that isn’t you! You don’t have to forget who you are in the throes of this life. By abiding in God’s perfect law of liberty you can remember your true identity in a world full of confusion. Resolve to live from that identity no matter what the world might be throwing at you this week.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, thank you for dying a death you did not deserve so that I could live a life I did not deserve. Your sinless blood shed on Calvary’s cross was wholly sufficient to wash away all of my sins and give me new birth. Revelation 12 reveals that a day is promised in which you will cast down the “accuser of our brothers and sisters” and the enemy will be defeated once and for all. Until that glorious day and grand finale of redemption, teach me how to live each day from my true identity that you have given me through spiritual adoption into your royal family. Amen!

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When people fail to find their identity in their Creator, what alternate things in the world do people draw from to form their identity?
  2. In what ways can worldly identities lead to superficiality, instability, or even divisiveness?
  3. What have been some of the personal challenges in your life that push back on your ability to live from your real identity in Christ?
  4. The word of God is also like a mirror that exposes the blemishes in our lives, revealing to us the very thoughts and intents of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). Is there something in your life right now that warrants repentance and confession?
  5. Is there something you can do this week that will help you stay more in character with the real you—being not just a ‘hearer’ of God’s word, but also a ‘doer’?

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A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

Text: Mark 3:1-35

“And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” —Mark 3:25

“A house divided against itself”—I often see this engraved on license plates, especially here in the south, along with two rival college football teams’ logos on each side of the plate. It’s how many married couples like to brandish their loyalties and show off their opposing allegiances to sports teams.

This famed proverb “a house divided against itself cannot stand” has been used in political arenas as well. Abraham Lincoln used it as the basis of a speech he gave after he had accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination as that state’s US senator in 1858. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin was quoted as saying: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The “house divided” phrase originated with Jesus, as seen in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12:22–32; Luke 11:14–23; Mark 3:22–29). All three instances of this statement were spoken in response to the Pharisee’s accusation that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Satan—a blasphemy that Jesus said would not be forgiven them.

In the third chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is having quite a battle with the powers that be. Things are getting a bit testy on the mission front. After Jesus healed a man of a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees held a “counsel” with the Herodians to discuss how they might destroy him. Jesus continued to heal many who had diseases and unclean spirits, as demons even cried outright: “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:11). So the scribes accused Him of being possessed by Beelzebul, that is, Satan. They said, “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22). To which Jesus replied:

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3:23–25)

Jesus’ response to the incendiary accusations of these prominent and power-obsessed figures was completely logical: Any “household” cankered by infighting will rip itself apart. Kingdoms infiltrated with such opposing cross-purposes will ultimately fall. It’s impossible for Jesus to be in a league with Satan while He is casting out Satan’s own minions. Their attack wasn’t rational. But when you are blanketed with hatred, you are blind to logic.

The principle Jesus is illustrating is the fact that sustainability relies on congruency. Disunity is a cancer to living cells. Division obstructs growth and progress. It’s something we see in every sphere of life and civilization. Whether it is a business, a sports team, a government, or a marriage, there must be harmony for success and survival. Without a unified soul, organizations and entities are weakened and vulnerable to attack. They inevitably collapse, wither, and die. It’s only a matter of time.

The principle Jesus is illustrating is the fact that sustainability relies on congruency. Disunity is a cancer to living cells. Click To Tweet

The Word of God clearly warns about the instability of division—even in the hidden chambers of one’s own soul. “An inconsistent life, I say, is a sure token of a divided heart,” Charles Spurgeon noted. We see that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Perhaps that’s why the psalmist prayed, “Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11).

Paul appealed to the churches that there be no divisions among them, and to avoid people who cause such disunions (1 Corinthians 1:10, Romans 16:17). The world may get accustomed to the hostility that comes from divisiveness—even feeding off of it—but God has a different mind for His family: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).

At the end of Mark chapter 3, Jesus redefined his “family” as those who “do the will of God.” It is good to be reminded that Jesus Christ is building His church and it will not be overcome (Matthew 16:18). His “house” will stand forever—“his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end” (Daniel 6:26). Being fully convinced of this, we should strive to live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16) and, as far as it depends on us, “make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14).

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, we live in a divisive culture. And sometimes a divisive culture lives in us. Help us to learn how to be counter-cultural in the manner of your kingdom. We pray like the psalmist, dear Lord, unite our hearts to walk in your truth. Give us a sound mind to be stable in all of our ways. Help us foster unity and reconciliation where it is needed. And for the glory and fame of Jesus in our generation, help us to overcome this world’s toxic divisiveness and demonstrate a better hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. How do you feel when good is attributed to evil, or righteousness gets demonized?
  2. In your experience, when has faithfulness to a cause or person led to conflict with others?
  3. The Bible says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). How do you think this verse applies to the times we are living in now? How should this be practically fleshed out?
  4. What can you do this week to restore a relationship that strains your unity with other believers, neighbors, or coworkers?
  5. What is something you can do to help strengthen the unity of the Church?

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Have You Passed By the Other Side of the Gospel?

Text: Luke 10:25-37

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” 1 John 3:17

Everything in our society is screaming at us to pick a side. Choose one over the other. Go right, go left. Love one side, hate the other. Acrimony is the norm. Sadly, this form of divisiveness has also crept into the church. The latest reprising of an age-old debate seems to be drawing lines of partition among Christians. The debate is fueled by this questiohttps://www.jimmylarche.com/wp-admin/edit.php?post_type=pagen: Is the gospel mere proclamation or is it acts of compassion and charity?

Oddly enough, proponents on one side or the other dichotomize what was meant to be biblically harmonious—making a division between two things Jesus has united in Himself. In Christ’s teachings and in his holistic example of fleshing out kingdom compassion, the voice of truth was never divorced from the hands and feet of mercy.

Oddly enough, we make a division between two things Jesus unites in Himself. Click To Tweet

In today’s text we read a very familiar story that Jesus told. It was in response to a question that a scribe asked in a self-serving effort to justify his own theological views. Jesus spoke of a man who traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho, and while on his journey was robbed, beaten down, and left in dire straits. Two devotedly religious characters passed him by, as they turned a deaf ear to his plight. Interestingly enough, the passage says that these men passed by on “the other side.” They chose their “side,” and it was the other side of the street, a safe distance away from the bleeding man. To this day many religious people are still choosing to walk on the “other side”—very far from those societal margins where hurting people are in distress.

The next character, a Samaritan, was the least likely to have shown compassion, due to the prejudices that Jews and Samaritans had for each other. But he spent his own money in taking care of the man, nursing him back to dignity. The scribe (also known as an expert lawyer or theologian) was told to “go and do likewise,” implying that he shouldn’t divorce his orthodox beliefs, or his verbal creed, from his practical responsibilities of fleshing out compassion in society.

Jesus’ point was loud and clear. Don’t separate what should be integrated.

In the very same context, the same gospel that has graced us with unmerited salvation tells us that we are God’s workmanship for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10)—works that Jesus tells us should be demonstrated as light shining in a dark world (Matthew 5:16). The same Bible that compels us to proclaim God’s truth with boldness (2 Timothy 4:2, Ephesians 6:19-20) also commands us to “open” our mouths for the “rights of all who are destitute,” to “judge righteously” in defending “the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). God has promised: “And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:10).

It’s been said that if you cut out every Bible verse that is related to poverty and social justice, you will have removed over 2,000 texts from God’s sacred book. While it is vital that the blood-stained cross, the empty tomb, and the “go and preach” directives never get jettisoned on the waves of a Christ-less social gospel, it would be equally reckless to throw out compassion and acts of mercy in favor of mere Christian rhetoric—as seen stigmatized in the characters of the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

We shouldn’t have to choose between proclaiming the good news of salvation and practicing our charity in serving society’s distressed and downtrodden. Truth-bearing and mercy-giving should not be pitted against each other. In Jesus they are always both-and, never either-or. If we try to choose one or the other, we leave a giant, gaping hole in the beautifully redemptive gospel we have been entrusted with—a gospel we need to be taking to the very ends of the earth. It’s what we are still here for.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, help us to never divide what you have united in Christ. Help us to identify prejudices that have been rooted in fear, which may unknowingly be affecting how we flesh out the gospel. Help us to never add or take away from your Word, but take the whole counsel of God into consideration. Keep us from unnecessary and divisive arguments with other believers, and help us to live out our faith in a divided and hurting world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. What legitimate concerns are there in addressing social justice issues while abandoning the proclamation of biblical truth?
  2. What legitimate concerns are there in adopting a “proclamation only” approach to the gospel, which often neglects practicing compassion and fleshing out acts of mercy in society?
  3. How did the scribe redefine the word “neighbor” after he heard the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:37)?
  4. How do you define the word “neighbor” and why is that definition important to the redemptive work of the gospel in our world today?
  5. What did Jesus command the scribe to do in response to the parable, and how should this parable affect the faith of those who desire to follow Jesus in this generation?

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Don’t Let Your Heart Get Weighed Down

Text: Luke 21:20-36, Matthew 25:1-13

“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” —Luke 21:34

I recently returned from a seven-week mission trip to Europe, where our mission teams facilitated five baseball camps in three countries (Italy, Ireland, Germany), for the purpose of sharing the gospel with youth and children. We are seeing countless lives transformed through these ministries.

One of the things we talk about a lot on a baseball field is the emphasis of being “baseball ready”. If you are not in a ready or attentive position when a line drive comes at you, a really bad play can unfold, or worse, a physical injury might be sustained.

The gospels are replete with the idea of readiness.

Near the end of his life, Jesus had been teaching about the “distress of nations” that would one day come upon the earth. This would be a time when people’s hearts are “fainting with fear.” He told them the parable of the fig tree, illustrating a lesson of what is to come—the ultimate end of the age and Christ’s glorious return—redemption drawing near.

The disciples must recognize the signs of the times and watch closely, or guard their hearts vigilantly, that they be not “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness of the cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” They must stay awake and not be lulled to sleep by the trappings of the world.

The picture that Jesus gives us is one of readiness. “Dissipation” here, an antithesis of readiness, may refer to any form of overconsumption—drunkenness, excessive eating, debauchery (indulgence in sensual pleasures), or even being satiated with an impaired state of complacency. I find it interesting that dissipation and the worries of life are bundled together here. Their relationship is built on codependency. Anxiety causes people to self-medicate with intemperance, which only breeds more worry. While overindulgence may be billed as pleasure for many, after the hangover, they might agree with Nietzsche that, “the mother of dissipation is not joy but joylessness.”

When we lack the joy of the Lord in our heart, we pursue the dissipation of earthly pleasures and worldly affinities. We may then binge on carnal pleasures, selfish ambition, lust, recognition, the social spotlight, or greed. It becomes a form of escapism, a refusal to face reality—most notably the reality that Christ is not at the center of our lives, and that his kingdom is not our primary appeal. It also conveys a spiritual blindness of what is to come. We should take heed.

When we lack the joy of the Lord in our heart, we pursue the dissipation of earthly pleasures and worldly affinities. Click To Tweet

Jesus warned his followers to stay awake at all times (v.36). Paul alerted the believers in Rome to “wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). God doesn’t want the cares of this life weighing us down with distracting heaviness—He wants us alive! He wants us filled with the joy of the Lord. He wants us to be like the five wise virgins who had oil in their lamps—burning with expectancy in their hearts at the coming of the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13).

Jesus wants our hearts seduced with only one passion—the ravishing charm and gratifying allurement of his coming kingdom. This is what it means to be ready for His imminent return—on our toes for what He is up to in this season of our lives.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, help us to have your lamp burning in our souls. In the field of everyday life, may we be found in a position of readiness and alertness for how your kingdom is breaking through in our world. May our joy be fulfilled in being fully alive in our fellowship with you, and our hearts filled with expectancy at your coming. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

    1. When have you ever been caught off guard by something?
    2. What signs will usher in the end of the age (Luke 21:23-26)?
    3. Why do you think Christ’s return has been likened to a “thief in the night” (Matthew 24:43, 1 Thessalonians 5:2)?
    4. Why do you think Jesus revealed to us these prophecies about the last days?
    5. In what way can you align your heart with the kingdom of God this week—so that your heart will not be weighed down by the cares of this life?

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Has The Prime of Life Passed You By?

Text: Job 29:1-25, Psalm 56:8-13

“I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was upon my tent.” —Job 29:4

The word “prime” has many connotations. It can speak of that which is the principal thing or foremost importance, as in prime concern. It can refer to that which is of the highest quality, as in prime beef or prime real estate. It is also used to describe a state or time of greatest strength, vigor, or success in a person’s life, such as the range of seasons that an athlete may perform at his or her highest level of potential.

Every time I play basketball with the younger guys, my body has a painfully nagging way of reminding me that my prime on the court has long passed!

In today’s text, Job laments that the prime of life seems to have passed him by—a time when the friendship of God—His intimacy and blessing—had been strong upon his life (v.4). It was a season when “the Almighty was yet with me, when my children were all around me” (v.5). It was a season when Job elicited favor in his relationships with people (vv.6-11), a time of godly influence with the poor and needy (vv.12-17), and years spent in fruitfulness of service to others (vv.19-20)—a time before his “prosperity passed away like a cloud” (Job 30:15).

“I was in my prime,” Job reminisced, but now those days looked like frayed pages in an old and worn out history book.

Job’s deepest regret is in the feeling that, in some way, and for some unknown reason, God no longer “watched over” him. He recalls a time when it seemed that God was for him rather than against him—longing not only for the days before he lost his children and health and wealth, but especially the days before he lost his sense of God’s closeness. The once familiar “lamp” of God had given way to spiritual darkness—a crisis of the soul.

If only Job knew in chapters 29-30 how God will show up in chapters 38-42, his song might sound a bit different. He will eventually see that His Redeemer lives—that though it has been many dark nights of the soul, the God of his prime hasn’t abandoned him, but has faithfully “bottled up” every one of Job’s tears and is indeed still very much for him (Psalm 56:8-9).

Too often people give up because they think their greatest days are behind them. The God of their prime seems to have moved on to more successful people or to the next generation. Yet one of the beauties of the Bible is that it is a book that reminds us that every chapter matters to God—not just those chapters about victories, successes, and redemption, but also those seasons of loss, pain, and brokenness. The Bible doesn’t hold back, it never covers up the seasons of darkness. Rather, it speaks of God’s faithfulness in every season of our lives—from the vigor of youthfulness to the maturity of agedness.

God isn’t interested in merely creating a highlight reel of your life, edited only to show those glamorous shots (the kind of stuff we like to fill our social media profiles with!). He’s up to something much bigger. He’s writing a redemption story that includes all of your deepest struggles and darkest moments. He’s even bottling up every tear for something only He knows—because He understands in His infinite wisdom that your highlight reel doesn’t do anything for this broken world, but your full and unfiltered redemption story does.

God is still writing your story, Beloved. And whatever season you find yourself in at this moment, it has great importance to the final and unabridged version. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, help us to remember that with you there is no prime season in life—every season is equally important. The ups and downs, the highs and lows, the blessing and the bleeding—‘tis all part of a larger and unfiltered redemption story. Help us to sing and worship as a people who understand you are so much bigger than a mere highlight reel. You are worthy—in every chapter, in every valley, and on every mountaintop—of our highest praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. If you had to choose a season as “the prime of your life,” what would it be and how would you describe that season?
  2. If you knew how Job’s story came to fruition at the end of the book, and you found yourself as one of his friends in chapters 29 and 30 with this knowledge, what would you say to him?
  3. When have you felt the closest to God? What does friendship with God mean to you?
  4. Have you ever had a crisis of the soul like that of Job’s profound sense of darkness in these chapters? Explain.
  5. Knowing that God isn’t only interested in the highlight reel of your life, what does that evoke in you? What do you think God is looking for the most right now in your life?

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The Cave of Depression

Text: Psalm 142:1-7, 1 John 5:1-5

“When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” —Psalm 142:3

At 15-years old, I found myself in a cave of utter depression. The feelings of helplessness and purposelessness caused me to lose all hope, as I inevitably became a prisoner of impulse. I came to a place where I didn’t want to live any longer. A desperate suicide attempt left me in a Baltimore intensive care unit for many days. I survived, undoubtedly, only by the mercy of God—and even though I found a new hope in Christ a year later while locked up in a juvenile center, the depression didn’t go away over night. I battled with it for many years.

Many who wrestle with depression often feel alone in their struggle. I certainly did. More than three decades later, I’ve often thought of what I would say if I were to write a letter to that suicidal 15-year old self. What might I say? Would it be received? Could I convince that hurting and despairing kid that there truly is a “living hope” and that overcoming stories are REAL? (1 Peter 1:3, 1 John 5:4-5)

I can’t say for sure, but one thing I do know: if it were not for the grace of God, I would’ve never lived to see so many redemption stories in my life—including marrying an amazing woman and fathering three children who flood my heart with pride and joy every day. We have heard countless testimonies of readers who have found healing and renewed hope from my book, 13 Foot Coffins, as well as stories of young people who have overcome unimaginable despair through the ministry of Breakaway Outreach.

One of the aspects of the Bible that has always comforted me is the fact that it is filled not only with the overcoming narrative, but also with the transparency of the struggle.

Joseph was unjustly imprisoned before becoming second in command over Egypt. He appeared to be forgotten for a season. Moses was in an obscure desert place for forty years before leading Israel out of slavery. Rahab was stuck in a dignity-robbing prostitution ring before finding her redemptive place in Christ’s genealogy. Jeremiah had a lonely pit. Daniel was surrounded by flesh-eating lions. Esther dealt with the trauma of being orphaned before she became a saving queen. Even Jesus had his wilderness to overcome.

In Psalm 142, David is in a cave. A narcissistic madman is hunting his life. Like the spiritual enemy of every child of God, this dignity-thief has come to steal, kill, and destroy. David is lonely—“there is none who takes notice of me… no one cares for my soul” (v.4). He feels cornered and powerless. His spirit faints. He is separated from every form of dependence, until all that is left is God himself. He is broken down in order to be built up. The cave is not the end for David, it’s just part of the process—a few years later he will be dancing immodestly and unembarrassingly in the streets of Jerusalem, celebrating all that God has done to redeem this story and establish his kingdom. (2 Samuel 6:12-15)

David’s vulnerability in the cave reminds us that the struggle is real, but that’s what makes his dancing so special. He doesn’t dance that way if you take the cave out of the story. God must’ve seemed idle to David while he was in the cave. The silence alone was vexing. But the story didn’t end there. Neither does yours!

David’s vulnerability in the cave reminds us that the struggle is real, but that’s what makes his dancing so special. He doesn’t dance that way if you take the cave out of the story. Click To Tweet

A celebration is coming, my friend. A victory is looming. It is inevitable! The struggle is real, but so is the overcoming life. Through Christ’s redemption, we will all one day be able to sing, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy.” (Psalm 30:11)

PRAYER

God, help us to be reminded that you have never—ever—left any of your children in the cave. You’ve never abandoned your own. Remind us that our dance is surely coming—and it will be glorious and shameless in your presence. For you will deal bountifully with your children. This I believe, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. How would you describe some of the cave experiences in your life?
  2. What would you say is the main theme of David’s prayer? (Psalm 142)
  3. How did David feel about his own ability to save himself? (v.6)
  4. How did David promise to respond to God’s deliverance? (v.7)
  5. In what specific areas of your life could you depend on the Lord more?

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Help My Unbelief!

Text: Mark 9:14-29 

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” —Mark 9:24

Every year, Breakaway Outreach facilitates a summer camp for under-served children and youth facing adversity in East Tennessee. This year’s Bible theme centers on the book of Exodus and the leadership of Moses. In one of our small group discussions, a leader used a soft sponge and a hard rock to contrast the difference between hearts that are sensitive to God and those that are calloused, stimulating an interesting response from one of our campers.

“S” is a camper whose mother is in prison. She’s been dealt a pretty difficult hand early in life—a hand I believe she is going to play with great resilience, to overcome the odds stacked against her. She took the sponge from the object lesson, wrapped it around the rock and told the group leader:

“Sometimes God wraps His love around our hard hearts.”

In Mark 9, a troubled father appears to be dealing with a heart crisis. His son had been seized by an unclean spirit, which left him mute. He asked the disciples of Jesus to cast it out though they were unsuccessful. Then Jesus came down from the mountain and the man pleads with him, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and uttered one of the most authentic prayers of the Bible: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The man seemed unsure if this miracle worker could do anything to help his son, but according to Jesus’ response, the “if” wasn’t contingent to what Jesus could do, the “if” was conditional to the man’s faith. The distressed father was challenged by Jesus’ appeal for faith. He had his beliefs and doubts, and what made his prayer so authentic is that he acknowledged them both. Thus he ruefully pleads with Jesus: I believe; help my unbelief! Jesus answered and the boy was healed.

A prayer of faith isn’t necessarily one void of fear or unbelief, but one that knows what to do with these crippling feelings. Sometimes the most powerful prayers of faith are those that, despite being mixed with feelings of trepidation, express trust in a God Who isn’t intimidated by our weaknesses—a God Who is fully capable of helping our unbelief.

“Help my unbelief” is something a person can only say by faith. As Charles Spurgeon said:

“While men have no faith, they are unconscious of their unbelief; but, as soon as they get a little faith, then they begin to be conscious of the greatness of their unbelief.”

It’s comforting to know that we don’t have to cloak our weaknesses when we are with God in prayer. It’s when we are transparent about those weaknesses that God wraps Himself around those places in our hearts that are getting jaded by our doubts and unbelief. Help my unbelief is a prayer we can all pray when it feels like our hearts are getting a little stony.

Think about that as you abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, help us to remember that the most powerful prayers are free of masquerades. We don’t have to pretend that our weaknesses, doubts, or fears don’t exist. We can boldly bring them to you and cry out in our time of need: Lord, help my unbelief! Teach us how to pray authentically like the man in this story prayed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When was the last time you were overcome by feelings of inadequacy?
  2. Why were the disciples unable to cast the demon out of the boy? (Mark 9:18-19, 28-29)
  3. How should we pray when we feel inadequate?
  4. In what ways has God helped you to overcome unbelief in the past?
  5. Why do you think it is important to God that we pray authentically, and not with masquerading or long and pretentious words? (Matthew 6:5-8)

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Are You Stuck in a “Shame” Narrative?

Text: John 8:1-11, Mark 7:1-9

“Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” —Isaiah 2:22

After the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, analysts have been in constant debate about LeBron James’ legacy. The sports gurus love to argue over who is the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Former NBA player Kobe Bryant had some advice for LeBron, whose team lost in the Finals for the third time in four years:

“You got to figure out a way to win. It’s not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out.”

While winning championships assuredly includes a lot more factors than just figuring out a way to win, Kobe is on to something about the subject of narrative. Though the narrative is what analysts, commentators, and sports fans thrive on from the television studio to the water cooler, it will always be subjective. It’s never the final word.

In the realm of politics, pundits try to control the narrative to advance their own agenda. This was no different with the party of the Pharisees back in the first century. In their self-righteous sanctity, they brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. The narrative is about shame and condemnation. But Jesus silences the morality analysts by saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” After they all walk away and the woman is left alone, Jesus tells her to leave the shame narrative behind, saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:1-11).

In another chance encounter with those pesky scribes and finger-pointing Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples are scathed for eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:1-9). The tradition analysts go crazy. These legalists shape the narrative to smear and degrade the disciples. But Jesus rebukes them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” The disciples learn a valuable lesson—it’s not about the outward “appearances” narrative so often propagated by the religious elite; it’s about the inward condition of the heart.

It’s not about narrative. The narrative might be the stuff people love to talk about, but it’s typically biased and superficial. It fuels preconceived notions, the misreading of others, false judgments, and gossip; it leads to divisiveness, strife, and contentions. It also leads to the fear of man, especially when we long for the narrative about our personhood to be esteemed, or liked.

Whether it’s been one of defeat, disappointment, failure, embarrassment, shame, or smear, Isaiah has a firm admonishment for those stuck in the narrative: “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22)

Jesus doesn’t want us worrying about the human narrative. He doesn’t want us consumed with what others are saying or thinking about us. He wants the unfettered devotion of our heart focused on Him. Craving human praise is a cistern that can never hold water. So we don’t play to the applause or chagrin of others. We don’t play to be liked, celebrated, or applauded at the human level. We play for the pleasure of One—the glory of our coming King. “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him,” says Paul (2 Corinthians 5:9).

Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, your word tells us that the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Teach us to focus less on the narrative of man, and more on the glory of our Creator. For it is in You that we live and move and have our being. Help us to live and serve for Your pleasure above all. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Why do we like to debate who is the greatest this or that?
  2. What kind of narratives have you found yourself stuck in at times?
  3. Why do you think Jesus freely associated with so many people of scandalous reputations, knowing it didn’t fit the Pharisees’ narrative?
  4. In what ways does the fear of man lay a snare? (Proverbs 29:25)
  5. What can you do this week to help someone else break free from a “shame” narrative in his or her life?

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God’s Enduring Word, Unfailing Love

Text: Isaiah 40:1-8

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” —Isaiah 40:8

They referred to it as “miraculous,” and “divine intervention”—after a driver and his Bible survived a fiery car crash on State Route 385 in Memphis, Tennessee. A Jeep Laredo veered off the road after being swiped by another vehicle, then crashed into a metal post and burst into flames. Several good Samaritans came to the rescue, pulling the trapped driver from the vehicle just before it exploded. Later, a Bible was recovered from the car, unscathed by the fire and ashes, though the car ended up a total loss.

Anita Irby, witness to the crash, wrote “I just saw GOD on 385… I’m always in (awe) of his wonders but today just blew my mind.”

Isaiah 40 offers great comfort for God’s people. We are assured, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (v.5), and though the natural elements may wither and fade, “the word of our God will stand forever” (v.8). Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

God’s Word can be trusted because God’s Word has been tested—over and over again throughout the annals of history. Bernard Ramm noted:

“A thousand times over, the death knell of the Bible has been sounded, the funeral procession formed, the inscription cut on the tombstone, and committal read. But somehow the corpse never stays put.”

In contrast to the frailty and fleeting glory of man, the word of our God stands forever—His glory untouchable. His enduring Word assures us of His unfailing love. No man can thwart God’s imperishable Word just as no sinner can extinguish His unrelenting love—it’s what theologians refer to as God’s immutability.

As we face fiery trials, we can lean into the unchanging nature of God. We can trust Him in times of distress. God will never abandon us to our circumstances; therefore our heart song can rise to the tune of hope—one of endless praise to His glory, because “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). His DNA is in you!

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, thank You for the gift of Your Word. Thank You for its truth, its timelessness, and the guidance You give us by that Word. Help us believe and trust everything You speak into our circumstances. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. Have you ever witnessed a miracle? Explain.
  2. When have you ever endured a situation you didn’t think you would? What did that produce in you?
  3. In what ways do you think people are weak, weary, or fatigued today?
  4. How can meditating on the immutable nature of God be comforting and sustaining?
  5. Which of Isaiah’s portrayals of God’s power over nature speaks most clearly to you?

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