Comfort and Affliction

“You have a subtle gift for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Dr. Dan Wilson, speaking to me. 🙂

At first I wasn’t sure how to take that statement, but it’s grown on me in the last year or so. I like it because it means that, hopefully, my ministry more and more consistently reflects the Gospel because that’s exactly what the Gospel does. It comforts and afflicts. It encourages and convicts.

Jesus was the Word personified, and He both comforted and  afflicted. He cleaned out the Temple and confronted the Pharisees, afflicting the religiously comfortable.

But He also gave the Samaritan woman a look at her hopeless life that had been afflicting her and comforted her by offering the Living Water of Himself.

The Gospel still comforts and afflicts us today. Or at least it should. It afflicts the areas of our life in which we fall into comfortable religion, challenging us back to relationship. It comforts us with grace and forgiveness when we fall one more time to our sin that so easily entangles, whatever that sin may be.

Do you allow the Gospel to both comfort and afflict you? Do you allow God to use you as an agent of both comfort and affliction in the lives of those around you?

When we speak and live the Gospel consistently, we can’t help but do both, because the Gospel made Flesh did both. As believers, Little Christs literally, we should both afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

Just make sure you allow the Word to do the same to you first. Acting in the flesh gets it backwards every time and we end up comforting the comfortable and further afflicting the afflicted. Just ask Jesus- He was the afflicted that was afflicted by the comfortable.

Instruments, Part 6

The last two chapters of the book deal with the action aspect of change in the heart of the church as a whole. While the first three parts of the personal ministry—Love, know and speak—are vital to the confrontation of people in sin, this last aspect, the doing aspect, is the key to keeping one another in a healthy state of change. “Do” is the daily process not of achieving some sort of behavioral perfection, but rather, the process of learning daily how to fulfill the commandment to “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) (239). The process of becoming instruments of change is not with a foreseeable end. As long as people are living and breathing on this planet, Tripp reminds the reader that change is possible and required. “Do trains people in the decisions, actions, relationships, and skills of Christ-centered, biblically informed living. We have a wonderful opportunity not only to teach people how to solve their problems biblically, but to turn their lives around for the long run” (243-244).

The appendices to the text of this book are full of valuable practical application information that will be vital to a successful ministry of helping others with biblical change. In the appendices, Tripp covers valuable topics, such as hindrances to the data gathering process, biblical explanations for the success of giving homework in biblical counseling, descriptions of the types of qualities a counselor should bring into the life of a counselee, and how each of these concepts fit into the overall process of counseling.

This is a solidly written book rich in biblical truths, but there is one main witness a reader should be aware of prior to reading the text. There are times when Tripp’s writing can digress into a long list of personal anecdote stories that occasionally feel as though they are filler words to meet a publisher’s page number requirement. Often, when making a point about a certain type of struggle, or in an attempt to show the universal effects of sin, he will include numerous life examples, either anonymous examples or personal examples. This issue by no means takes away from the quality of the writing as a whole, but for someone who is reading this as a more academic endeavor, entire paragraphs of applicatory examples from “real life” can begin to seem pointless and redundant.

While many books available on counseling today are geared specifically to the professionally trained counselor, Tripp remains true to his original goal of providing a way to instill change in the church as a whole. Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer is not a book full of technical jargon and psychological terms. Rather, it is an instruction manual for becoming an instrument of change in the lives of others that can be understood and appreciated by all members of the body of Christ, from the seasoned pastor to the young layperson. The strength of this writing is its readability and the effort Tripp shows to make the reader understand that this type of lifestyle is not only possible for all believers, but it is a Scriptural commandment for all believers.

Instruments, Part 5

Chapters Nine and Ten offer what is certainly the strongest accusation against the church today: “We tend to have permanently casual relationships that never grow into real intimacy. There are things we know about each other, but they fool us into thinking that we know the human being who live within the borders of those details” (163). The self-protecting anonymity of society has destroyed the concept of friendship to such a level that there are people with whom we interact on a daily basis but we have failed to grasp the intimate, spiritual details of their lives. Tripp implores the reader to consider this concept: “We must not let ourselves become comfortable with the casual, where ministry is limited to offering general principles that would fit anyone’s story. The genius of personal ministry is that it is personal…You cannot minister well to someone you do not know” (165).

To overcome this tendency to be fact-knowers instead of people-knowers, Tripp focuses specifically on the questions to ask and the key answers to look for in the process of getting to know a person and his struggles. Based on Hebrews 4:14-16, Tripp tells the reader that Christ is the greatest model for data gathering. Christ “was tempted in everyway, just as we are—yet without sin” 166). He is the one who has personally experienced any type of suffering that can be imagined—and he handled them all in sinless perfection. “For thirty-three years, he lived among us, gathering data about the nature of our experience” (167). Because of that experience, Christ has sympathy for the suffering of humanity. A sympathy, Tripp states, that all Christians are called to emulate in our relationships with one another.

Getting to know people can be a difficult process, and to aid the reader in this process, Tripp gives many practical examples of the types of questions that should be asked and the way those questions should be asked. Specifically, Tripp gives four principles for good questions:
1. Always ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
2. Ask a combination of survey and focused questions… Survey questions scan the various areas of a person’s life and look at the person as a whole… Focused questions look intensively into one area of a person’s life.
3. Remember that certain kinds of questions reveal certain kinds of information.
4. Ask a progressive line of questions, in which each question is based on information uncovered in the previous question (175-180).

Tripp concludes this section with a deeply challenging observation:
Asking good questions is vital to helping people face who they really are and what they are really doing… As sinners we all tend to recast our own history in self-serving ways… Because of this, we all need people who love us enough to ask, listen, and, having listened, to ask more. This is not being intrusive. This is helping blind people embrace their need for Christ (181).

Once a person has embraced a fellow sufferer in love and has listened with the ears and heart of Christ to the struggle in her life, Tripp states that there is a time to speak in response to the struggle. Instruments are meant to be receptors of confessions; we are called to respond, to admonish one other when the need arises. Confrontation and the speaking of truth can, at times, be the most difficult expression of love, but it is a commanded part of reaching people with the love of Christ. Tripp claims, rightly, that confrontation has become such a painful and uncomfortable subject because it is a part of the Christian life that has been all but forgotten in recent years.

This portion of instruction is based upon Leviticus 19: 15-18, which “discusses God’s intentions for this aspect of relationships and personal ministry” (200). According to Tripp, this passage describes confrontation not as an uncomfortable and unusual aspect of our relationships, but as a “constant conversation… where the daily intervention of honest rebuke is a regular part of all relationships” (205). At this point, Tripp reminds the reader that in order to be a proper minister of change in the lives of others requires a change and constant check-up concerning the condition of our own hearts. Confrontation cannot flow from a heart of anger or frustration or personal agenda. Confrontation brings someone face to face with the love and truth of God, and to be able to bring that to someone, the confronter cannot come with his own agenda in mind for the one being confronted.

Tripp tells the reader there are four steps to a biblical process of confrontation: Consideration, Confession, Commitment, and Change. While the first step to the process is the responsibility of the person who is confronting, Tripp emphasizes that true biblical change is ultimately the responsibility of the one being confronted, because the last three steps deal with the response to the speaking of truth by the one who is being confronted.

Window Shutters and Keeping up Appearances

I was sitting in my car yesterday with one of the girls from my Sunday school class. We had gone to lunch and were now waiting for her mom to get home because she had forgotten her key and couldn’t get in the house. As we were waiting, she started telling me about her neighbors. She pointed at one house and said they didn’t take very good care of their house and the shutters kept falling off. I looked at the house and, sure enough, two shutters were missing on the second floor. I wondered aloud why we even bother putting shutters on houses since we don’t actually shutter our windows anymore.

Hannah replied, “Because we all think they’re supposed to be there and it just looks wrong without them. We all know they don’t really do anything, but they used to, so we keep them. Houses without shutters just look funny.”

So we put shutters on our houses to keep up appearances. While they originally were designed to protect a home from the elements and storms, they now serve no functional purpose. This brief exchange got me thinking about how I keep up appearances in my own life. I am definitely guilty of seasons in my life when I have done the right things only because my life would look funny without them. I didn’t go to church because it was my lifeline of worship and community and spiritual growth. I went because I didn’t know what else you did on Sunday morning. And besides, if I wasn’t there, people would talk, and that would just be awkward. Just like shutters were originally meant to protect a home from the damaging elements of the weather, the disciplines of the Christian life are meant to protect us from the damaging elements of this world. We are to read Scripture because the Word brings life, not so we can check it off our “Good Christian To-Do List.” We are to go to church to participate in corporate worship and to build up and be built up by our brothers and sisters in Christ, not so that we can be seen and keep up the appearance that everything in our lives are A-Ok.

I began wondering, what disciplines have become shutters in my life? When do I go through the motions to keep up appearances? Is my Christian walk really useful and protective, or is it just decoration that will prove worthless when the times of testing arrive?

Picture two houses with shutters: one with genuine, useful shutters that will close to protect the windows in a storm, and the other with decorative shutters nailed to the house. On a cloudless, sunny day, they are identical. But put those houses through a violent storm, and they will look quite different.

Jesus gave a similar illustration in Matthew 7 about foundations. He said that those who keep up appearances, those who hear His words but don’t obey them, are like the man who builds his house on the sand. His home may look just like a house built on a rock, but when the storm comes, the house built on sand collapses.

So how would you describe your walk with Christ? Is it genuine and functional, fulfilling its purpose to make you both winsome in your walk and safe in the storm? Or is it merely window dressing you use to keep up appearances but will tragically serve no purpose when the winds of life blow around you?

Satisfaction, Security, and Priority

Haggai 1:2 Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.

3 Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, 4 Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?

5 Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.

7 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. 8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord. 9 You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.

10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.

Reading this passage this morning brought to mind the current economic and spiritual depression that is occurring around us these days. It seemed as if this passage, in which God speaks with the Israelites about their priorities and dissatisfaction, could have been written to me on a lot of days. This message is being delivered to the Israelites who have returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Captivity, where they had spent 70 years living in relative prosperity. Upon their return to Jerusalem, they did not make God and their relationship with him their first priority. While the Temple laid in ruins, they were focused on building their own homes and securing their own prosperity.

But God observes of them what can be observed in our own time—the more they made their own comfort and security their priority, the less satisfied and secure they actually became. Jesus addressed this very issue in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:19 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

In America today, even in the midst of this current economic crisis, we are more prosperous than any other civilization in history. Our treasure is firmly on this earth, our heart has followed, and our discontent is evident. We pour our time and money into our own personal happiness, security, and satisfaction and then wonder why we are more miserable than ever before. We spend our time and money building our own home while the work of the Lord is left undone. We are expending ourselves on a product that will not last, so are working in vain. Our hearts were created to work for the glory of God, and when we spend our time working for things other than His glory, we will be inherently dissatisfied.

Sometimes, we even do this under the guise of building the Lord’s house. Take a look at your church’s budget: where is the majority of your money spent? Is it on outreach? Evangelism? Church planting? Missions? Take a look at your church’s calendar: how does your congregation spend the majority of its time? Is it in visitation, counseling, evangelism? Don’t misunderstand my point: buildings and technology and discipleship are vital aspects of ministry. But when our focus is self-comfort, self-improvement and self-entertainment, when we spend more time in fellowship than service, then even serving the Lord becomes unsatisfactory. It’s unsatisfactory because we are really serving ourselves instead of truly serving Him.

I have learned the last few months that when I face times of frustration, of dissatisfaction, I can usually trace it back to somehow being disappointed with my circumstances. When I take my focus off of the Lord, when the building of His kingdom is no longer my desire, when I make my treasure here my priority, I work and find no satisfaction. I lay my heart on the alter of worldly prosperity and it is sacrificed there every time.

So what are we to do to rid ourselves of the attitude of discontentment that so easily springs up in all aspects of life? God tells the Israelites to “Consider your ways.” God tells His people that they will work but gain no prosperity, security or satisfaction as long as they work to secure those things for themselves in their own way. He is our portion and our provider. Our contentment and security are found in Him alone.

The Psalmist Asaph wrote of this problem of discontentment in Psalm 73. Asaph quit looking at the goodness of the Lord and began seeing the perceived prosperity of the wicked around him. He viewed them as healthy, happy, successful, prosperous, and this led him to ask of God, “Where’s mine?” Asaph laments that he has kept his way pure for no reason; after all, what good has clean living done for him if it is only the wicked who prosper? He says that he continued in this thinking until, “I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (v. 17). When Asaph returned his focus to eternal, kingdom matters, he remembered that while the wicked seem to prosper in this life, they will spend an eternity separated from God. Asaph remembered that the treasure that matters is the treasure of a regenerate heart, fully focused on service for God.

I pray that I will remember these instructions from God. The next time I am frustrated with the success of the wicked, when I begin to question the payout for living faithfully before the Father, when I work hard but achieve no satisfaction, I pray that the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit will being this to mind: “Consider your ways.”