Musings on Christianity 35

Musings on Christianity 35

What Holds Some People Back?

What is Heaven like? I’m actually reading a book about that right now. Oddly enough, you can read several accounts on near death experiences, but the Bible should be viewed as the authority on Heaven. This isn’t actually a chapter about Heaven. It’s just a question I want readers to ponder. If you’re like I was when I was younger, you pictured a world where you only did the things you liked doing here on Earth. Maybe Heaven is where you do nothing but watch football. Maybe Heaven is just a never ending feast with all your friends and family. Maybe Heaven is a giant party. None of those theories about Heaven are anywhere near correct, but I’m building to a point, so please bare with me.

While this isn’t a chapter about Heaven, I will tell you one thing I know without any reservation. Whatever you imagine Heaven is, Heaven is greater. The problem is that humans only know this broken, sinful Earth. Sure, there are fun things on Earth. But when we become fixated on the things of this world and start imagining Heaven as anything like this place, we’re not giving Heaven enough credit.

Imagine the best day of your life to this date. Imagine the happiest you’ve ever been. One second of Heaven will make that day seem worthless by comparison.

So why, then, would anyone not want to go to Heaven? Why, then, would anyone not seek the path to such a place?

The things that hold people back from believing are often tied to the pleasures of this Earth. God, our loving Father who gives us such wonderful things, blessed this world with so many wonderful things. One thing I feel happens though is that we start to see the gifts as God rather than the God who made the things we enjoy so much.

These gifts, which in and of themselves may not be sinful, become idols, which makes the action sinful. I’ve mentioned previously that anything you’re willing to sin to obtain or sin because you don’t get is an idol. One should look at their lives and consider those things. Time is a wonderful thing, and I struggle mightily with “my time.” The second I consider it mine, I’ve placed myself and the thing on which I want to spend my time on God’s throne.

These idols hold us back from the Kingdom because we’ve made that activity or action the ideal in our mind. However, Heaven is so much greater than anything you could do here on Earth. This is why Christians should be fixated on getting there. Maybe rather than imagine Heaven as a place where we can only do things we do here, we should imagine Heaven as a place where no matter how fun what we’re doing right now is, being in Heaven will be that much better.

Another thing that holds people back is money. Of course we want good things. Of course we want to provide for our family and ensure we have a comfortable retirement. It’s not sinful to have money. What is sinful is to make money God. God, who created the heavens and the earth; God, who created the world and the fullness therein, doesn’t need money. When you’re with him, you won’t either. His very presence and person is light and joy.

The concept of wealth is something I wonder about sometimes. Why do we need money? To buy stuff. What stuff? Food. People can plant food and raise animals for food. Sure, you’d have to buy the animals, but it could be done. This world has done an amazing job of convincing us that we “need” so many things. When you think about it though, humans don’t really need a lot to survive. Yet the quality of that survival is dependent upon amenities that span beyond survival. Sure, feed me some slop, shelter me from the elements, and provide me water, and I will continue to exist. However, we thrive as we have more.

So we’ve developed the thought that money is the need when money was literally invented as an exchange for the goods we actually need to sustain ourselves or thrive. Even in this world, money isn’t the need. At best, money is the means by which we obtain those needs. But Biblically, that’s not the way it really works. The way we obtain our needs is seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness. If we do these things, our Father, who is in Heaven, will add to us all these other things (Matthew 6:33).

How will God provide? He’s God! He’ll do it however he wants. But if he can arrange for the survival of wild animals and plants, he can absolutely ensure the survival of the race he created last, humanity, who are worth so much more than birds and plants.

So is money really sinful? Not in and of itself. Solomon was the wealthiest, wisest man of all time. Daniel was a king. Joseph was second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. These are all saints. None of them were perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but they had good times. They also had bad times. David was chased throughout Israel. He had to live in caves and beg priests for food (1 Samuel). Joseph was sold into slavery and then thrown into prison (Genesis). Solomon wrote an entire book of the Bible speaking about how he’d gone chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes).

It’s hard for people with money to enter the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:23).

I’m of the opinion that this is true because we start to worship the money rather than the God who blessed us with such wealth to begin with.

One who sees the kingdom of Heaven rightly, as so much better than all the wealth of the earth, wouldn’t covet that money so much.

That doesn’t mean we should be foolish or unwise with the money God entrusted to us. It just means we need to remember that this, too, is a gift from God, and we should worship the creator, not the creation.

It’s hard for me not to think about money sometimes. I have to remind myself that it’s not money I need, it’s God, the creator of all things who can give me everything I need. Like anyone, I work hard to earn a living. I aspire to earn more as an author. I wish I could send my sons to a Christian school. I want to pay cash for college for my sons. I never want to be in debt again. The trick is focusing on God rather than money.

There is a trick to being content in all situations (Philippians 4:11-13). It’s being focused on God.

We get held back because we blind ourselves with the things of this world. If our hard times become an opportunity to glorify God and seek Him and be grateful to Him for all He does, all will be well. If in our abundance we praise God and use what he entrusted to us to do His will, all will be well.

Maybe we think Heaven isn’t so great because some people we love won’t be there. Have you ever heard the phrase, “All my friends are in Hell”?

This one baffles me as a person. I’ve been through some hard times. And while the people we love can help us through these times, that doesn’t make them any less hard does it? Think about the Holocaust. Let’s imagine Hell as an eternal Holocaust (it isn’t; it’s so much worse, but it’s the closest analogy I know on this earth). If I promised you that every person you ever even liked a little bit would be there, would you really want to go there? Is there any amount of friends and family being beside you that would make such a horrid existence something you’d willingly go to?

Wouldn’t you instead do everything in your power to avoid such a fate and help those you love to do the same? Welcome to evangelism!

There isn’t a single person on this earth, no matter what he or she may have done to me, who I’d wish to experience that sort of thing. Sure, I’ve been angry and wanted justice or even vengeance, but even just based on the two or so books I’ve read about the Holocaust, I wouldn’t put anyone through that.

Instead, I want to go to Heaven. I want to go there so much I’m willing to give whatever I have to. But what we must give isn’t a sacrifice or offering. Instead, we must accept Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). We must believe He lived a perfect life. We must believe He died for our sins. We must believe He was resurrected on the third day, and we must pick up our cross and follow Him.

That means letting go of the things that turn us from him, and we all have work to do that. I know I do, but it’s worth it. We talk sometimes about Heaven and Hell. There are people who believe in Heaven, but they don’t believe in Hell. I’d argue that even if Hell weren’t a real place (it is), that any place not Heaven is Hell. That’s how great Heaven is. There are people who believe in Hell and not Heaven. Neither of these groups of people make a ton of sense to me, but they’re out there. I’d do anything to avoid Hell and keep those I love from going there.

Please look closely at your life and the things you fixate on. Believers, fixate on Christ. I know you have children to care for and a wife to love (and God commands us to do so). I know you have to provide for your live,s and I promise I understand the need for rest and the desire to pursue goals. I simply beg you, make getting closer to God your primary goal. Consider anything that takes you from Him antithetical to your overall mission.

For our panel: Are you willing to discuss an idol in your life that you struggled to turn away from? What are some other things that hold us back from the kingdom? What do we do when we recognize an idol, but still covet it even though we know it’s wrong? What is Heaven really like? What is Hell really like?

Musings on Christianity 13

Musings on Christianity 13

How Can I Hold My Faith In Times of Sorrow?

I was barely in junior high when my family was divorced. My biological father did something terrible. He was abusive in several senses. His verbal insults to me were cruel. Name calling and slapping were common things. He’d flick middle and ring finger at my lips for speaking against him. He did more, and he did worse, but the worst thing he did wasn’t to me, so it isn’t for me to speak about.

What he did broke my family for a very long time. I wish I could tell you we moved away, and everything got better, but it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of love and laughter, but it seemed those times were interrupted with abuse that struck generation after generation. From the time I was a boy until now, I felt like a failure as a man because I couldn’t protect my family from the harm that came their way.

I constantly wondered why. You see, I have always believed in God. So I constantly asked why did this happen? Then came 2013. Yet another member of my family faced an abusive past. To say I was struggling at work would be a drastic understatement. It felt as if I couldn’t do anything right.

I spoke to a coworker a few times that I was tempted to even deny God’s existence, but I couldn’t. I knew he was there. I just couldn’t understand why I felt such pain. I couldn’t understand why I felt such helplessness.

A lot of things started happening then. In that conversation with my coworker, I said that I understood there was a reason, I just didn’t know what it was.

This is a brief story on the truth that there is a reason. His plan is perfect.

It started, with a dog. My sister Rosa and I spent pretty much every evening together with her daughter watching television. I’d hang out with my niece while she worked on an online college course. I let her dogs out, and realized at nine or ten at night that one dog was gone. The time I had with my sister and niece was perhaps the only place I had at that point in my life where I truly felt I was “right.” I felt as though I was competent. I felt as though every decision I made wasn’t some sort of epic failure, and then I lost my sister’s dog.

I told her, “I’m going to find her.” I wandered around in the rain, calling out her name, and, in between calling her, praying. “God, please reunite Rosa with her dog.” I was careful with the prayer. I wasn’t looking for God necessarily to make me look good. Instead, I was just asking God to reunite a person with her beloved pet. For perhaps a few hours I searched. The rain pounded me, but I held onto my faith. I desperately needed to see something.

Then I heard a voice, “You’re looking for that little white dog aren’t you?”

Standing outside in the pouring rain was a man smoking a cigarette. I wasn’t even sure how he was doing it. This was a real man. My sister knew him. They’d spoken. But there he was standing outside in the rain at that moment, at that time. So I called that little white dog the Miracle Dog.

In a lifetime filled with the abuse of so many people I loved, that little answered prayer (we found the dog a few minutes later) was this sip of water when I had felt like I was dying of thirst.

Perhaps you’re wondering how that one little thing could make up for at least four different instances of abuse in my family? Readers, that was a preview. It was God showing me, “Look how carefully I place people. Look how minute the details of my plans are.”

You see, he had to put me in a house I really didn’t have any business being in. He had to place me with a family that didn’t need to accept me. Rosa isn’t my sister by blood. We adopted each other. There wasn’t really a reason. It just happened. But there I was. Then he had to have a lost dog. I think the rain might have been just a flash of dramatic effect, but who am I to question God. Then he placed that guy outside at that exact moment just when I looked in that exact area to tell me something he’d briefly noticed hours before.

“Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways,” Romans 11:33.

The Bible is full of these stories of faith paying off. The birth of Isaac. Abraham’s testing with Isaac. But the one that sticks out to me the most, the story that I affiliate a bit more with now than I had previously, is the story of Joseph in Genesis. He was sold to slavery, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, forgotten in prison, and then, just when it was time, made the second most powerful man in Egypt.

There really are several stories of what some may call coincidence, and one might feel the Bible can have those because it was written to give faith. I’m not actually ready to present my case for why the Bible is real, though there are several books out there that address that question. All I need you to see is that the Bible has these stories. But I’d never thought in all my days that something like that would happen for me.

But that was just a dog. I mean, you keep looking long enough and you’ll find anything, right? Right! But why? Why keep looking. Why not give up? I had something to hold onto. Christ. It’s hard to explain the concept to you. There is no physical thing keeping me from denying Christ. Nothing is stoping me from turning away or letting him go. Nothing physical at least. Any non-believer could say, “Oh, just watch. If his life gets bad enough, he’ll turn away.”

Again, I was tempted. But that silly dog was the exact amount of encouragement I needed to begin a journey that strengthened me for even stronger trails, particularly the death of my mother.

But today is about how meticulous God’s plan is. Here I was, a man who was surrounded by horrid examples of what a father was, constantly feeling like he was failing his nieces and nephew. Here I was, a man helping to raise children that were never his. “Why!?” I wondered.

Then I met Julie, and then I met my sons. Three wonderful boys who fill my life with love and joy, and they needed me. I wrote that correctly. They didn’t need someone. They needed me! This isn’t arrogance. You see, my sons are struggling with their own feelings of loss and confusion. They’re struggling with a divorce of their own and trying to understand. I lived a life where I saw so many perfect examples of the worst a father could be, but I was also shown so many wonderful examples of what a father should be. The man who raised me. The comic shop owner who literally caught me trying to steal from him, and then forgave me, and then allowed me to take care of his shop when he went to get lunch. 

I met those boys and saw their need, and never felt more certain that I’d perfectly understood a very important verse of the Bible.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today,” Genesis 50:20

God’s plan is perfect. In that moment I realized that every trial I faced and every hardship I encountered wasn’t necessarily punishment. I was unworked metal that needed forging for His use.

I was custom forged to be the father my sons so desperately wanted and needed, and now, looking back, I wouldn’t wish those I love to go through what they faced, for it was far harder than my own struggles, but if I could go through it alone, if I had to feel that pain again, I’d do it in a heartbeat if it would make me a fraction of a better father than the clumsy, well-meaning man I am now.

When we hold onto our faith, when we trust in His plan, in time, in His time, we understand why. The incident with the Miracle Dog was years before I met Julie, but God knew I needed just the smallest bit of light. I needed to find a stupid dog lost in the rain. I needed to see His perfect plan in that moment, just to get me by for a few more years until I could truly get it.

I have to tell you that not every suffering is made to forge you, but it can. It can prepare you. It can sanctify you. It can focus you. It can rebuke you. When you endure that suffering and maintain your faith, that comfort does a lot. But when you come out of the other side of the trial, I can tell you the blessings are far greater than the suffering was painful. One hug from my sons, and all of that pain and abuse just melted away. One smile from my sons, and I feel like the most blessed man in the world. One “I love you” from my sons, and I feel like the most loved man on earth.

And to think, it almost never happened. I could have chosen what many called, the wiser path. I could have stayed in the Navy. I could have gotten back into the Navy when I learned I’d been selected to be promoted to chief petty officer. I might have stayed in if the job at DINFOS wasn’t available. You see, even there is the meticulous work of our God. I wanted a job there as a civilian, but there weren’t any openings, not until a dear friend of mine got promoted, right when my time in the Navy was ending.

When we focus on all the bad that happens to us, we will only ever see our suffering. This is how we become convinced we’re alone. We’re looking at the punishment rather than our offense, or we’re looking at the fire rather than the blacksmith. But when you choose to focus on God, no matter what, you see the hope. At least, I did.

It might take hours, while you’re looking for a little dog in the rain. It might take years, while you’re working on getting a book published. It might take decades, while you’re looking at abuse and hate and hoping you’d get the chance to show love and compassion. The time it takes forges you. And when it all comes together, it’s more wonderful than you could imagine.

I’m still alive, so my trials aren’t over. I’ve had this time of joy in my life, and I mean to enjoy it. I mean to praise God for every minute of it. In times of need he is there. In times of plenty, He is there. Those times of need are when I know, after these days I’ve had, I can lean on Him harder. He is the secret to being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).

For our panel: What else does suffering do for us? What other value might there be in holding on to Christ?  How, can we hold on to Christ when we feel lost? Would you be willing to share a story in which you felt lost, and holding onto Christ helped you? How does holding on to Christ help us in the moment of suffering, before the relief comes?