Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” sounds so intense, so deep — the kind of thing where you’d ask yourself, “What does that even look like? Where would I even start?”
And then Paul follows immediately with “Do everything without grumbling or arguing so that you might be … children of God.” Which is tremendously simple — “That’s it?! Just don’t grumble??”
And that’s the mystery and wonder of the gospel: deep enough to get caught up in wonder and philosophical musings, and yet so practical and tangible. Our faith is never supposed to stay in the theoretical; and sometimes the practical implications are as simple as “Don’t grumble.”
The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him.
God is good, and the Bible makes it clear that to those who are turning their backs on him, this goodness is manifested in challenge and in judgment (see yesterday’s piece: “Part 1”). But what the Bible makes even more clear is that God’s goodness means he will be present:
to those in need of help who call on him, God is good and he will rescue;
to those in trouble who put their trust in him, God is good and will be a place of safety;
to those in the midst of trial and difficulty and suffering and struggle who cry out to him, God is good and he will be with them.
We see this in the psalms:
Psalm 31:19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
Psalm 100:5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
We see this in the story of Joseph in Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers and thrown into jail for not sleeping with his master’s wife. He trusted in God, and the Bible tells us, “The Lord was with him.” And toward the end of his story, he’s able to look back and say to the same brothers who sold him into slavery, the brothers whom he has forgiven and with whom he has made peace: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
We see this in the story of Paul, the man whose life God turned around. For the sake of the gospel, to share the good news of life in Jesus, Paul endured shipwrecks and beatings, stonings and starvings, trials and tribulations. And in spite of all that, he was able to say, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
We see this most clearly in the life of Jesus, who is called Emmanuel (which means “God with us”): on paper, a plan to rescue the world by giving up your life doesn’t make sense. And yet, Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Sometimes we can fall into a mindset that says that God is good only when I’m good—in other words, God’s goodness (how good he is) is must always be reflected in the goodness of our lives (how well things are going for us). But if God is good only if things go well for me, what happens when things stop going well for me? What happens when things get difficult? What happens if I suffer? It’s common to wonder if God can be good because of how things are going in your own life:
wondering if your kid turned away from you or from God because you didn’t pray hard enough,
wondering if your loved one didn’t beat cancer because you didn’t believe hard enough.
And, in some ways, this is understandable because we think God’s goodness must translate itself into God’s goodness to us, God’s blessings on us. We have the mindset that something must be true at all times for us in order to be true at all; we can be a rather self-centered and short-sighted people sometimes!
This understanding of God’s goodness is entirely dependent on good circumstances, and specifically on your good circumstances, rather than any objective truth. And if God is good only if things go well for me, not only is the goodness of God dependent on your circumstances—which may change from day to day—it is, even more than that, dependent on your feelings—which may change from moment to moment! Take a Sunday morning as an example:
You didn’t sleep well so you woke up grumpy—God is not good.
But your husband or your roommate had a pot of coffee ready and maybe even some breakfast—God is good.
But they left a mess in the sink—God is not good.
You still got everyone, kids included, out of the house on time—God is good.
Delays on the Metro, couldn’t find parking—God is not good.
You still managed to get to church on time … ish—God is good.
The coffee wasn’t great, you hated that last song, the pastor is wearing that shirt you don’t really like—God is not good.
That’s how quickly our feelings and our circumstances can change, right? And if we’re honest, that can be how quickly our perception of God’s goodness can change. Because of our circumstances, because of how we’re feeling, it can be really hard for us to say, “God is good.”
But that doesn’t make it any less true. There are some things that hold true no matter how we feel and no matter what our circumstances, like gravityand God’s goodness. The message of Nahum—a word about God’s goodness, which afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, which challenges the sinner and offers hope in the same breath—came at a time when the people of Israel, under threat from being wiped out by the Assyrian Empire, would have felt it the least, when their circumstances didn’t lend themselves to supporting that proposition.
And while there is a lot of value in being honest with God with where you’re at and what’s going on—there’s a lot of that in Scripture—there’s also a lot of value—maybe even more value—in speaking truth over your life, whether you feel it or not, whether your circumstances support it or not. And there’s a lot of this in Scripture, too.
Jeremiah 17:7-8 says:
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Our greatest trials, our most challenging moments, our seasons of exile and drought, can be the most difficult times to trust in the goodness of God; and because of that, they are also the most important times to speak truth over your life about the goodness of God, to trust in the goodness of God. And as we trust, they can become the greatest testimonies of the goodness of God, the greatest opportunities for God to demonstrate his goodness, and they will become the greatest reminders to you of the goodness of God, so that whenever you find yourself once again anxious and fearful and uncertain, whenever you feel once again the weight of the world upon your shoulders, whenever you think that you can’t make it, that there’s no way out, that there’s nothing you can do to get yourself out of this situation, you can say to yourself, “God is good.”
There will also be times when, quite honestly, we don’t have the energy to speak the truth over our own lives, where no matter how often or how loud we say something, it doesn’t seem to change anything. This is why God gives us the gift of community; he didn’t create us to live life on our own. This is why we encourage everyone at The District Church to be involved in a small group—and over 400 people in our church are. And I’d encourage you, if you’re not connected with friends who can speak the truth of God’s goodness into your life, please get plugged in to a local church. It’s a first step to building relationships where God’s goodness can be spoken and demonstrated to one another and lived out together.
The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble;
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.
Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Story.”]
Today we’re going to talk about “Story”: about the story that we’re telling with our lives, but perhaps more importantly, about the story that God is telling in, through, and with our lives.
Story, #1: God never wastes an experience.
A mentor of mine first said this to me about ten years ago, when I could agree with it in theory but I couldn’t attest to it in experience—and maybe right now you’re where I was, but stick with me.
Let me give an example: I remember feeling for the longest time that the fact that I didn’t have one place where I could call home—I spent 16 years in Hong Kong, 8 years in England, 3 years in California, and 3 years here in DC; my parents are in Hong Kong, my best friends are in London, one brother is in California and the other is in Australia—the fact that I felt a constant sense of not-quite-fitting in, not-quite-feeling-at-peace-with-life was a deficit, something to be overcome.
But over the years, as God has continued to fine-tune my soul to his reality and his presence, he’s been showing me that this longing for home, this present discomfort—even this—is what he’s used to ground myself fully in him—that God is my home, in a way that no place ever could be.
All along, God has been weaving all the disparate and—what I thought were—mismatching threads together into a tapestry that has me here now at The District Church, doing the things I love and feel called to (theology, music, and justice)—after a long time wondering how those things would ever fit together. I’m in a place where—for my job—I get to cultivate a community that might be—even just for a few—a home away from home and a family away from family, because through my experience, I know what it’s like to not know where home really is.
God isn’t done yet, by any means, but the point is that it wasn’t until I realized what God was calling me to, less than three years ago, that I began to know in my experience—and not just in my head—that God doesn’t waste an experience. And that’s true, whether you’re in a place right now where you can see that or not.
Maybe the thing is that you’re in the middle of something right now—a degree, a job, a relationship, a chapter in your life—and you don’t actually know where it’s going, you don’t see it going anywhere, you can’t figure out how it’s connected to anything meaningful. Maybe you know what God’s called you to or what passions he’s placed within you or what kind of life he’s asking you to lead, and what you’re doing right now—well, they don’t seem to be lining up or meshing.
I wonder if the Apostle Paul, when he was a young man, learning his father’s trade as a tentmaker, wondered what on earth he was supposed to do with that craft. He already knew he loved studying the law, he knew he loved rhetoric and philosophy and debating with people; there must’ve been occasions where he thought to himself, Who needs tent-making? And yet that same skill would pay the bills for him to do just what God called him to do—though perhaps he wouldn’t see this for many years; and that’s just one—very small—way in which Paul could attest, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (8:28). In other words, in the story that he’s writing, God doesn’t waste an experience.
Story, #2: Conflict is an opportunity, not a setback.
In our day and age, we like things to be a certain way, specifically our way; we like things to be comfortable, and we do whatever it takes to keep from being uncomfortable, from facing any sort of conflict. But, as author Don Miller writes, every good story involves—indeed, needs—conflict:
Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict.
Think about it: every time you’re faced with a challenge or a hurdle or an unknown, you have a choice, either to go back to the comfort of what you knew and the way things were, or to move forward, through the discomfort, and learn a new skill, a new way of life, a new perspective, and to grow.
In American culture, we’re conditioned to avoid conflict.
We build highways that bypass poor neighborhoods so we don’t have to walk through them and be reminded that there are people in need living right among us.
We watch news channels we agree with and read books we’re pretty sure we’ll agree with and subscribe to blogs we already know we’ll agree with, so we don’t have to deal with that opposing viewpoint or how it just irritates us.
We hang out with friends we mostly agree with and we avoid those difficult conversations, those conflict moments, where we’ll realize how different we are and we’ll have to talk about why we think what we think; or maybe we don’t give our friends permission to truly love and care for us by challenging us, having difficult conversations with us, saying the things we need to hear but we really don’t want to.
In our relationships, we avoid commitment and vulnerability and genuine intimacy—not just physical or sexual intimacy because we run to those things, often using them as facades to block out genuine intimacy—so that we won’t have to deal with things like sacrifice and confrontation and tough but honest conversations, those things that are integral to the success of a healthy relationship.
And yet each of these moments could be an opportunity instead:
an opportunity to be challenged to mobilize your community to help the poor;
an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to see how God has been working in someone else’s life in a way different from how he’s been working in yours, and to experience a little more of the vastness of God;
an opportunity to see growth in your character, to become a better person, more like the person God created you to be;
an opportunity to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen, to experience genuine intimacy.
So don’t let conflict moments drag you down; don’t let difficult encounters drop your head; don’t let yourself get cynical and jaded or whiny or self-pitying; don’t simply shrug your shoulders. God wants so much more for you than that; God is capable of doing so much more in your life than that.
Instead, look through God’s eyes: how can you instead make this—whatever it may be that’s in front of you—an opportunity not just to speak out the story of what God has done in your life but to live a better story, to allow God by his Holy Spirit to tell his story in and through and with you? It’s an adventure we’re on, and we get to be a part of the best story that’s ever been written by the most imaginative and resourceful Artist that’s ever created!
BUT it’s not all sweetness and light; that’s not the world we live in. Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that one of the characteristics of a great leader is that he or she faces the brutal facts of reality, so here’s the honest truth:
Story, #3: We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.
You may have seen the amazing video, “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You,” by now. Kid President is a boy called Robbie Novak, and he actually has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta—that’s “Brittle Bone syndrome.” In his ten years of life, he’s had over seventy breaks. But Robbie hasn’t let the tough parts of his life get him down, he hasn’t seen his condition as a setback but as an opportunity—the pep talk video is actually dedicated to a two year-old girl who recently had a liver transplant. And he’s not trying to be successful—it’s not about fame or money; he’s just trying to do a little something to spread hope and joy and to encourage people to make the world more awesome and maybe to dance a little more. That’s the story he’s telling with his life. [See below for “The True Story of Kid President.]
It was actually Mother Teresa who said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” There is no guarantee that if you follow Jesus, if you seek the kingdom first, if you allow God to use every experience, and to see conflict as an opportunity rather than a setback, then you’ll immediately be wildly successful and life will be smooth sailing.
Actually, you may face more trials and more opposition, and you may be asked to give up more, to sacrifice more. One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was, “In this world you will have trouble.”
I’m sure you can attest to that; I’m sure you can see in your own experience that life is not easy, that opposition is great, that things are not as you wish they were, even when you’re trying to do what God asked you to do or what God called you to do.
God called you to love these kids, but man, couldn’t he have made them easier to deal with?
God called you to be in this city, but couldn’t he have made it a little less expensive or a little safer?
God called you to be generous with your time and with your money, but couldn’t he have made it cost a little less?
God called you to safeguard the sanctity of marriage and to value the gift of sex, but it’s hard to be faithful, even in your thoughts, and it’s hard to wait.
God calls all of us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him, but the world in which we are called to do justice is so broken and sometimes seems to be beyond redemption, and the people to whom we are called to be merciful are just so irritating and ungrateful and unworthy and sometimes just plain bad, and it’s so hard to walk with God when there are a hundred other things pressing on our time and, “Well, God, you’ve just been too quiet lately …”
But do you remember what else Jesus said to his disciples, several times just so that they wouldn’t forget it? “I am with you.”
Whenever I’ve had to make big decisions in my life—about a school or a job or a relationship or moving to another country—God has always said the same thing to me: “You choose; and whatever you choose, I am with you.”
Maybe God didn’t tell me what to do at those moments so that I couldn’t blame him if things didn’t go the way I thought they would; maybe God wanted me to grow up and take responsibility, to think through my decisions wisely, to exercise stewardship over the intellect and the relationships and the community and the connections that he had given to me—we’re not just called to be responsible with our money, after all.
That’s what faithfulness is: to do what we can, where we can, when we can, with what little knowledge and resources and time and faith we may have. If you have but a mustard seed of faith, God will use it. If you have only two pennies to give, God will use it. We’re not called to give what we can’t give; but we are called to faithfulness, trusting that God will do the rest.
Remember, as Kid President says, “You were made to be awesome,” because you were made in the image of God and our God is an awesome God. So:
What story are you telling with your life? What story are you allowing God to tell through your life?