The Light in the Darkness: Hope for Those Who Are Hurting During the Holidays

The Light in the Darkness: Hope for Those Who Are Hurting During the Holidays

What’s your favorite Christmas song? Growing up, I loved “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, because what’s better than a reindeer who saves Christmas for all the kids of the world by lighting the way with his nose? Maybe your favorite is “O Holy Night”, or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. We love Christmas songs and we love Christmas, because for many of us, it all makes us feel good.

For others, however, the holidays are not such a joy filled time. The idea of singing songs filled with joy is far from their minds during the holidays. For many, the holidays are a difficult time, and the darkness of the pain they experience due to loss, illness, or any number of other difficulties, can be almost consuming.

“Nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve”…or Does it?

My wife and I love the hit show “This is Us”. The show traces the story of a family by going back and forth between the present and their past. In the most recent episode, there was a clear theme: “Nothing bad happens on Christmas Eve.” That one phrase sums up how this family approached every Christmas, blindly believing that nothing bad would happen during the holidays and that their lives would be filled with joy and happiness. For them, and for many of us, the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year.”

But what happens when the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year? What happens when a loved one dies, or is sick, a house burns down and you lose everything, or a your company falls on hard times and is forced to let you go at the worst time of the year to lose a job?

The Bible is not ignorant of suffering, especially during the holidays. In fact, Christmas is about God himself coming to deal with the evil, sin, and suffering we experience in a fallen world.

Darkness, Light, &  Hurting During the Holidays

As Tim Keller points out, “one of the first indications of the Christmas season is the appearance of lights…this is appropriate, because December 25 follows the darkest time of the year in the Mediterranean world and Europe, where Christmas celebrations took shape. But the lights are not just decorative; they are symbolic. No matter what you want to do in a room, you have to first turn on the light, or you can’t see to do anything else. Christmas contains many spiritual truths, but it will be hard to grasp the others unless we grasp this one first. That is, that the world is a dark place, and we will never find our way or see reality unless Jesus is our Light” (pp. 5-6, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ by Timothy Keller).

Isaiah 9:2 says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Keller notes that in the Bible, darkness refers to two things: evil and ignorance (p. 6, Hidden Christmas). What this means is that in our world, there is real evil. There is real pain caused by real wrongs committed against God and against others, and there is also real suffering in a world broken by humanity’s sin. It also means that we have no idea how to solve this problem.

In my own life, I think of friends who are battling cancer this Christmas, family that is no longer here this Christmas, and even my little brothers who will spend their first Christmas without their Dad, who passed away this year. And these are just a few people I know and a small bit of the pain that some are experiencing this holiday season. If I had to guess, you probably know many in your own life who are going through similar tragedies or having a really difficult time.

Others are wrestling, not with things that have happened to them, but with sins they can’t stop committing against others. Some are wondering if their drinking will be the problem again this year at the family reunion. Some wonder if their marriage will survive the holidays, in light of the fights they can’t seem to stop having, or the wandering eyes they can’t seem to keep in check. Some are wondering if a child or a parent will forgive them for what they’ve done, and whether they’ll ever get to have a “merry Christmas” with their loved ones again.

We too, just like many of Isaiah’s original readers, are a people that have walked in deep darkness. We have been estranged from God because of our sin, or we have felt estranged because of the sins committed against us. We have walked through times and tragedies in which it is hard to imagine there being any light.

The True Light & The Hope of Christmas

But this passage of Isaiah, so famously quoted each Christmas season, says that there is a great light to be seen in the darkness, and this Light is the hope that is meant to be celebrated at Christmas, and all throughout the year, no matter what we are going through. This Light is where hope can be found for those who are hurting during the holidays, and John writes of Him:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to her witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-14, ESV)

In this passage, John writes of a God who does not remain distant, sitting on a throne and ruling, but not caring about us and our problems. No. John writes about God incarnate. John writes about a God who reveals himself to us and even becomes one of us, so that he might redeem us, and because He is victorious over the darkness, we can be as well in Him.

What John writes here is at the heart of Christmas. Christmas is about the God of all creation becoming a man, which means four things for those who are hurting during the holidays:

1. Christmas shows us that God understands us.

John writes about Jesus in this passage, and in the rest of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word, whom John says is God, and the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. This means that Jesus, God himself, lived a life as a Man in the very world we live in.

The author of Hebrews says this about Jesus: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).

What this means is that God understands us. He knows the world we live in, the life we live, and the difficulties and pain involved therein.

2. Christmas shows us that God is with us.

The word that John uses for “dwelt” could also be translated “tabernacled”, and makes the reader think of the tabernacle of the Old Testament, which was the place where God was present with his people. Christmas is all about the incarnation; about God becoming a Man and being present with his people.

In Jesus, we have God with us, which is the very meaning of the name “Immanuel”. Christmas shows us that God not only understands, but is present with us, even in our pain.

3. Christmas shows us that God is redeeming us.

John writes about two different responses people have to Jesus: rejection or reception. We respond to what God has revealed about himself, by either rejecting him or by receiving him.

As we have seen, God understands us, and is with us, and now John says that he wants to redeem us. God does not want this pain to be the end and the summary of our lives. In Jesus, true life is offered to us, life that is eternal. We are offered a new identity, should we respond by receiving this God who became a Man for us.

With Jesus first advent, or coming, we are offered life eternal and a new identity in Christ. With Jesus second coming, or second advent, He will return to bring about a final redemption, and at that point He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). God is bringing about redemption, of which Jesus’ first and second advents are a part, and we have hope because He has come and is coming.

4. Christmas shows us that God is the Light in our darkness.

Finally, God is the Light in the midst of our darkness. John says that Jesus is the true light, which gives light to everyone and came into the world. Light reveals things. As Tim Keller said, no matter what you want to do, you need light to do it. A light shows us what is around and helps us to navigate the terrain.

I remember in high school, when a friend and I tried to navigate a country road at night without our headlights. The road usually had little to no traffic, and we were young and stupid, so we tried just for the fun of it. We were actually somewhat successful, but we were not successful because we didn’t need light. We were successful because of all the times we had driven down the road in broad daylight. We had driven with such great amounts of light so often, that when it was dark, we knew how to navigate the road better.

In Jesus, God has revealed to us how to navigate the roads of life, which can sometimes be unfamiliar at best and treacherous at worst. But if we trust him, lean on him, and turn to him, then when the darkness comes, we will have hope in navigating it.

We should not try to navigate the darkness without the Light, as my friend and I tried to navigate that country road without our headlights. Hope is offered to us in the darkness, regardless of how scary or treacherous it is. Just as my friend and I could have switched on the lights, God has made available to us the Light in the darkness. Will you turn to Him?

God understands. God is present. God is bringing about redemption for us. God is the Light in the darkness. Jesus is our hope when the holidays are hard, and you can trust Him because He’s God with us, Immanuel.

Book Reviews: Between Pain & Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering

Book Reviews: Between Pain & Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering

Suffering is an experience that far too many of us know far too well. We live in a world that is broken and in need of redemption. Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer, in their book Between Pain & Grace, attempt to help Christians wrestle with what the Bible has to say about our pain.

The authors make a strong distinction between pain and suffering, early on in the book. Their claim is that pain is something everyone experiences, and that suffering is as well, but that suffering is fundamentally different than pain. The two concepts are fundamentally different to these men. Pain is an objective reality that we all experience, whereas suffering is a more subjective perception and response to the pain in our lives.

Peterman and Schmutzer attempt to point out something important with their distinctions between pain and suffering; that is the fact that human beings do not have to respond to pain in the same way. We are able to respond differently than others to the pain we experience, especially those of us who know Jesus Christ, the God who became a Man and suffered for us.

I would caution the reader to think critically of their distinction, however, as it seems that it may be a bit arbitrary to me. Suffering is not simply a subjective way of perceiving and responding to the pain in our lives. It is more than that, and I would argue that it is something that all of us experience at some point or another, regardless of how much faith or positivity we have. It is possible for Christians to suffer, and still worship God in the midst of their suffering with a kind of joy that transcends terrible circumstances.

One would be hard pressed to legitimately argue that Jesus did not suffer on the cross, or that Paul and other apostles did not suffer during their ministries. Yet, both Jesus and the apostles approach suffering with a kind of joy in the midst of it, because of the God who is redeeming His people and His creation and the calling they’ve received. Jesus and the apostles loved those they ministered to, and their perception of their pain did not eliminate our ability to legitimately call it suffering.

The authors hope to point out an important reality: Christians can respond differently to pain because of their identity in Christ. And to this I would add a hearty Amen! But, the authors go too far in their distinction between pain and suffering early on in the work, and I fear that it could minimize the experience of Jesus, the apostles, and even those who find themselves full of faith, yet suffering today. Their point that Christians have a unique hope in the midst of pain, however, is solid and incredibly true.

A real strength of the book is the topics the authors attempt to cover in such a short volume. One can read about everything from how to think about pain and suffering, to Jesus’ pain, and even the terrible experiences that some have in our world as they walk through horrific things such as sexual abuse, family difficulties, and even mental illness (which I would carefully define and qualify as a term that can only legitimately refer to actual diseases or deficiencies in the physical aspects of our bodies and brains that lead to all sorts of difficulty and pain, though I am not sure the authors would share my perspective and they may include more in their definition).

However, the book’s strengths will not have opportunity to overcome it’s weaknesses for most readers, I fear. The authors write in such a way as to make it obvious that they are academics. It was surprising to me to read a work published by Moody that seemed so geared towards intellectuals and academics in the way it was written. When I received the work, I expected it to be a treatment of what the Bible had to say about suffering geared towards the average reader. It did not turn out to be so. I had hoped the work would be a helpful book to point people to who were in the midst of much pain themselves, but the academic type treatment of suffering here will benefit such an individual only minimally at best.

However, for the reader who wants to think deeply about suffering from an intellectual standpoint, the book may we worth the read! I would not recommend it if it is one of the only books you will read on this topic, however. If you will only read one book on suffering, let it not be this one, but if you intend to read widely on the subject and think deeply, pick up a copy, as it could only help you consider a difficult topic more deeply.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher (Moody) for the purpose of this
review, as a part of their blogger review program. The thoughts here are my own honest opinions of the work, and I am grateful for the opportunity to review it as a part of Moody’s program! 

Book Reviews: Designed to Lead by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck

Book Reviews: Designed to Lead by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck

Have you ever wondered how to develop leaders in your local church? Maybe you haven’t even thought much about the importance of developing more leaders in your church? Sometimes it can seem like things are going just fine as they are. Why be concerned with developing other leaders when we are perfectly happy with the ones we have? Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck answer all of these questions and more in their newest book, Designed to Lead: The Church and Leadership Development. 

Geiger is known well for his work in books like Simple Church and Transformational Groups and is vice president of the resources division at Lifeway in addition to his service as lead pastor ofClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, TN; Peck is the lead pastor at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX (a church that trains hundreds of leaders a year), in addition to his work as Director for Emerging Regions with the Acts 29 church planting network. To say that these men know leadership and leadership development is an understatement, and in their latest work they place the importance of developing leaders in the local church front and center.

The most important argument and the foundation of everything said in the book is the large statement on the back: “God has designed his people to lead.” Beginning with this premise, the authors argue that the local church is the place and means God himself has designed to develop leaders not only for the church but for the world as well.

The authors note this important fact about discipleship: “The full extent of discipleship is the development of disciples who are able to lead and develop others, not merely people who gather together for worship once a week” (3). The Church is not designed to be a group of people who merely gather to sing songs and hear their leader(s) (singular or few in number) speak and preach. The Church is designed to be what the authors call a “leadership locus”. In other words, the Church is to be a people that develops leaders for what God has called them to, and this is not merely another thing the Church does, but is an integral part of the Church’s great mission of making disciples who make disciples. “God’s people are designed to influence others” (3).

How do the authors propose that the Church develops leaders? After all, most pastors are scrambling to find time for sermon prep and their families, with everything else that falls on their plates, and church members are used to going to the pastor to follow his leadership. How in the world are local churches to develop leaders in addition to everything else they are doing to make disciples? In short, they aren’t supposed to. They aren’t supposed to do it in addition to everything else, that is. They are to develop leaders as an integral part of everything they are already doing to make disciples (and if they aren’t making disciples, then a course correction is needed in the first place to say the least).

Local churches are to develop leaders consistently and intentionally through conviction, culture, and constructs (14). Conviction is meant to be “a God initiated passion that fuels a leader and a church…” (15) to develop leaders as a part of discipleship. “Culture is the shared beliefs and values that drive the behavior of a group of people…” (15), in this case that group of people is the church and those values have to do with developing and multiplying leaders. Then, finally, constructs are “the systems, processes, and programs developed to help develop leaders” (15). In other words, leadership development is something that the Church is all about in terms of what they believe, what they value, and what they do.

As leaders are developed and deployed, the Church grows and the world is impacted with the light of the gospel of Christ. We do this because it’s an integral part of our mission as believers and members of Christ’s body. It is a part of making disciples who make disciples.

Not only do Geiger and Peck give their readers the rationale and general structure for developing leaders, but they also give them some practical “how to” advice. This advice comes in the form of pipelines and pathways. A pipeline is something for a church as a whole. It is a part of their vision and methodology for discipling people and multiplying leaders towards that end. A pathway is an individual’s course towards leadership and development.

Success does not necessarily look like progression up the pathway or pipeline. Rather, success looks like development (197). The goal is not to get every leader to the highest levels of leadership, or even to get every member to serve in a “leadership role”. Rather, the goal is to develop leaders. Sometimes people reach their God given capacity and are rightly content with their place of service as it is what God has called them to. Our goal in the local church is to develop people to serve God in the roles he has called them to. We do this by intentionally thinking about how to develop leaders within the local church, and this occurs as we are intentional about developing a pipeline and a pathway according to biblical convictions, culture, and constructs.

If you’re a leader in the church, this book is a must read. If you care about church leadership, this book is a must read. If you want to learn more about God’s design for leadership, this book is a must read. Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck have written the best leadership book I have read yet, and though I know all things are possible with God, I’m not sure it will ever be topped in terms of what it seeks to prove and accomplish. “God has designed his people to lead!”

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from B&H publishers, as a part of their blogger review program. More information about this program, as well as B&H publishers can be found at bhbloggers.com 

Book Reviews: Be a People Person by John C. Maxwell

Maxwell & His Writing

As I read Be a People Person, I was struck by Maxwell’s ability to communicate clearly and concisely about practical leadership matters. The author has a wealth of knowledge, when it comes to practical leadership, and my copy of his book is marked up significantly with one liners and paragraphs that I hoped to remember and apply to my own leadership thought and practice.
His contribution to the leadership world is significant to say the least, and the content of Be a People Person is an illustration in itself of why he has the influence he does. Maxwell is all about people, and he believes this is one of the great secrets to leadership success. As a pastor, his thinking on leadership is clearly influenced by the Scriptures, and particularly by the second of what Jesus called the two greatest commandments (love God & love your neighbor).
As he notes, “The happiest people are those who have invested their time in others. The unhappiest people are those who wonder how the world is going to make them happy” (20). It is obvious that the heart of Maxwell’s leadership lies in his concern for others. As Jesus said, we are to love our neighbor as ourself, and Maxwell makes this everything in leadership, and he is right to do so.
This is by far the greatest strength of the book as a whole. Maxwell grounds his understanding of leading people in caring for others. As the title points out, effective leadership happens through effective relationships. In other words, we be people persons when we love others as we should, and this is the great secret to leadership success.
However, as I read Maxwell’s work, I couldn’t help but pause on some of the statements he made. While he had many one liners that I wrote down to remember, there were also some that I wish he would never have written. Why do I say this?

 

Maxwell & His Theology

Maxwell may have great insight into the practicalities of good leadership, but his skill in functional leadership wisdom does not carry over into his ability to exegete the Scriptures, or into his theology.
For example, he mentions Hebrews 10:35, which says, “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (ESV). After referring to this verse, he boldly asserts that “confidence in oneself is the cornerstone of success. It is difficult for those who do not believe in themselves to have much faith in anyone else” (48). It seems that Maxwell misinterprets this verse, and asks his readers to believe in themselves, when Hebrews 10 is about the assurance of their faith in Another.
Confidence in oneself can get one into some serious trouble. Confidence, rightly placed in God, however, can lead to success. Maxwell is right to say that confidence plays a role in success, but the confidence we should seek is not in ourselves, but in Christ himself. As the author of Hebrews states in the same chapter, “…since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…” (Hebrews 10:19 & 22a, ESV).
John Maxwell has much to offer his readers in terms of practical leadership nuggets, but I fear readers will be disappointed when they see some of his interpretation and application of Scripture, when they look carefully at what the passages say. For his leadership insights I am forever grateful, but for the reader of Maxwell, I would caution against taking his interpretations at face value without further inquiry.

Understanding The Heart: The Key to Effective Evangelism

Evangelism often seems like a scary idea to people. If we are honest, it probably frightens most of us most of the time. I believe part of the reason for this is that we just don’t have a great grasp of the way people work.

We don’t understand the human heart as it functions in daily life (to quote Dr. Jeremy Pierre’s phrase from the title of his new book, “The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life”). People confuse us. We don’t know how they will respond, and when they do, we often are surprised and not sure how to interpret their responses to our evangelistic efforts.

When considering how to train those in a church for evangelism, I have often thought of walking them through Dr. Pierre’s model of the human heart, and helping them to understand human beings and the way they function. The reason I’ve considered this for evangelism training and not simply counseling training is that I believe it can be a great evangelistic tool as well, because it’s about the human heart.

If people can gain an understanding of the heart to the degree that it’s possible, then this will eliminate a lot of fear (as it will help us understand how people respond), and make our evangelism more effective, because we will be able to apply the gospel truths that we hold to real and specific situations.

Most of our evangelism training in the church focuses on general gospel presentations, and church members rarely actually use them (if they even remember them) because they rarely, if ever, have general spiritual conversations. Most of our conversations are with real people who deal with real problems in life, and if we don’t know how to understand the heart in relation to those problems, we probably won’t know how to apply the gospel there.

Dr. Pierre’s dynamic heart model can help us understand people better so as to witness to them more effectively. We must first understand people if we are to then understand how the gospel meets them where they are and provide hope.

Unity is a Direction, the Direction of a Person.

Facebook is just depressing sometimes. When you look at your news feed, you probably have someone commenting on the election every other post, and if you decide to trudge through the garbage that is the comments section of each of those posts, that’s when you see things getting really nasty. Sadly, even Christians tear each other apart over political views, opinions, and candidates. Are we missing something?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of preaching Romans 15:1-7 at the church my wife and I are a part of. In that passage Paul urges believers to bear with one another for harmony or unity, and ultimately for the glory of God. Something we must understand about unity is that it is not unanimity. Unity and unanimity are different things. Unity allows a group of people to stand together and walk in the same direction, while still disagreeing. Unanimity is complete agreement. As believers we are called to unity, not unanimity.

A helpful analogy is to consider the very beginning of each of the “Hunger Games” from the famous trilogy. At the beginning of that terrible competition, each participant starts out in a different place, but they are all focusing in the same direction, the direction of a supply center most often. As the games begin, the participants often all run in this same direction, and as they do they are getting closer and closer to one another with each step.

Similarly, Christians can start out in completely different places, having altogether different opinions and perspectives, but as they run in the same direction, they will inevitably become closer to one another as they get closer to that which they are running towards. The Hunger Games analogy of course breaks down when we consider what happens when the contestants get to the center. Although as my wife pointed out to me, what happens at the supply center, as they beat and try to kill one another, looks an awful lot like what Christians are doing to one another on Facebook and in their political discussions.

Instead of harming one another with our words, when it comes to politics, we must strive for unity. How do we do this when so many disagree so strongly? We look to Jesus. You see, the direction that Christians must run in is actually the direction of a Person. As we run towards Jesus, we are bound to grow in our unity and harmony, no matter where we start out. The solution to all of our disagreements is not to angrily or forcefully attempt to convince others toward our position, but to run towards Jesus while inviting others to do the same.

How does running towards Jesus solve our unity problems? As we look to Jesus together, we are reminded that He is the one who is in complete control of all things. As Hebrews 2:8b-9 says: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Notice that the author of Hebrews says that everything is in subjection to Jesus, but we do not currently see it that way. Then, as we look to Jesus, we see that He is the one in control of all things because even death itself could not hold Him, and He reigns over humanity’s worst enemy. As Christians, we look to Jesus and the gospel, and we are reminded of who is really in control.

In the midst of an election that is volatile and full of tension for Christians who disagree, we can look to Jesus together, realizing that He is the one who is actually in control, not whoever wins the election tomorrow. We have confidence together, and unity, as we run in the same direction, towards a person named Jesus the Christ. All of the sudden, with Jesus in clear perspective, the disagreements we have with our neighbors are not so threatening anymore, because nothing escapes the rule and reign of King Jesus. There is no doubt that we will often disagree, but when looking to Jesus, our disagreements do not have to result in disunity.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).