What Faith Looks Like When You’re Afraid

The thing I dread most has come upon me and, I’m afraid.

Since mid-February of this year, I’ve been dealing unsuccessfully with lower back pain. I ignored it for a little while and continued to run and lift weights. One of my joys in life is meeting friends to run 10-14 miles on Saturday morning, followed by Starbucks.  When the pain got worse, I stopped all exercising and dabbled with things I’ve never done before: Seeing a chiropractor (twice) and an accupuncturist (once).

By Memorial Day weekend, I could barely walk more than a few steps at a time. I finally went to see my doctor. He’s conservative like me, and recommended trying physical therapy first. If that didn’t work, he would send me to a physiatrist to get epidural cortisone injections. Last resort: Surgery.

Three weeks of physical therapy did nothing for me. So, on I went to the Physiatrist. He ordered an MRI which revealed two herniated discs, one not-so-bad, the other really bad. My first round of coritsone injections was pretty effective at reducing my pain (procedure #1).

But, by August, the cortisone effectivenees abruptly stopped after 4 weeks. I delayed for a few weeks, and finally decided I had to give it a second go (procedure #2). This time, the effectiveness was almost nil.

Still no running. No weight lifting. But, I was building kitchen cabinets, using a stool in my workshop whenever it was too painful to stand.

Again, I delayed getting a third cortisone injection. But, by late September, I could no longer manage things. I went to see my doctor on September 30th for his advice and to get pain medication. He referred me to a surgeon, and gave me a pain prescription, the first in this months-long ordeal.

I went home and took a pill. I felt better for a little while. But that night everything fell off the cliff. I was delirious with pain, even with Percocet in my system. Dawn had to take over.

At 1 am on October 1st, two EMTs carried me out of my house, put me in an ambulance and brought me to Northside Forsythe Hospital. The ER Staff put something strong in me via IV to calm me down, and ordered another MRI. This time, things looked worse.

They admitted me immediately. The next day they operated  (procedure #3) to remove the material that had leaked out of my L4 disc and was pressing on my nerve, causing the pain. I now have a walker to help me get around the house. And I’m on short-term disability leave from work.

A week later, I saw the surgeon to follow up. I wasn’t doing well. Just getting me to the appointment was a painful ordeal, and my surgeon looked sadly disappointed. He ordered another MRI.

Four days ago, I saw the results. At first, I thought I was looking at a pre-operation image.

It wasn’t.

My post-operation disc now looked like a flat tire squeezing out under the weight of a car. My disc was so badly damaged that there was no longer enough internal material in the disc to support my weight, so now the disc itself was pressing against my nerve.

Surgery has been scheduled to fuse my L4 and L5 vertebrae together. Honestly this is about the scariest thing I’ve ever faced even though I know many people have had this surgery done successfully.

WHY I’M AFRAID

See, I’ve always had a phobia about being cut or stabbed (ironic that I took up woodworking and carpentry as a hobby). And I’ve always had a phobia about back surgeries. I think there was a time in my life when everyone I met who had back surgery had bad results and needed further surgeries. Now, here I am, 0 for 3 with procedures that were supposed to “fix” me, and with procedure #4 glaring at me with its Jack-O-Lantern eyes.

The phobia part of average Lon is trying not to think about what’s coming soon, and whether or not I’ll be “fixed.” The phobia part of average Lon is worried I’ll never experience the joy of running even 2 or 3 easy miles with my friends. The phobia part is worried I might never be quite normal again. The phobia part is worried there will have to be procedure #5, and #6, or more.

WHERE’S YOUR FAITH, LON?

What about the part of average Lon that trusts God’s providence? What about the part of me that believes wholeheartedly that God is always working for my eternal good behind the scenes of every good and bad event in my life (Romans 8:28-30)?

Those of you who are Christians know I have to reach a point where I am able to hand my fear to God. You know I need to trust Him with my phobia, trust Him with the outcome of this surgery—whether good or bad—and rest in Christ alone.

But the honest truth is, at this moment, I’m not there yet.

Because I’m average.

The usual theme running through my head (and prayers) is, “I don’t want this. I don’t want this. I don’t want this.”

So, I don’t have any counsel for you about how to get to that place of quiet rest in Jesus when you face your worst fears. All I can tell you is that it’s a process. It takes time, even when you have a solid, biblical worldview to guide you. I can tell you it will always involve prayer and Scripture. It will always require a clear understanding of who God is, and a solid trust in His purpose for your life. The support of a prayerful Christian community (e.g. a home church) will be invaluable, too.

And yet, even with all this, it may still take time. And, for me, in God’s mercy, I have until November 13th (my procedure #4).

In that time, I would appreciate it if you would pray that God will bring me to that place of peace that passes all understanding. Paul’s counsel to the Philippian church about fear and prayer and peace needs to sink deeper into my soul.

Thanks so much, Lon

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.—Philippians 4:6-7

 

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So You Call Yourself a Christian?—10 Things Jesus Said That Make Me Reconsider

I’m confused.

What does it actually mean to be a Christian? I mean, I read Christian things from Ameri-Christian culture via social-media…

And then I read the Bible.

And the differences make me wonder about myself, about American Churches, and about what I now call Ameri-Christianity.

AMERI-CHRISTIANITY

The principle growth strategy of many churches is to make it easier for people to believe in Jesus. They want to remove obstacles to Christianity, or make it sound more appealing, to make it easier for people to begin identifying themselves as Christian. People will more easily identify themselves as Christians (and join churches and give to ministries), if Christianity can just be made to sound a little easier than it really is, or a little better than it really is.

Three methods of implementing this strategy are pretty common if you look around.

1. Culture-Copying

Just make the church look and feel more familiar, more like-able, like our favorite Monday-Saturday places and experiences. Churches have music and singing; so do concerts. So, let’s make our music and singing feel more like we’re at a concert. It’ll feel more relevant, more high-powered (depending on the skill of your musicians and tech crew), and people will just, plain, feel good. They’ll show up, sit back, and enjoy.

Churches have a sermon; so do those popular (e.g. profitable) self-help, inspirational events. So, let’s make our sermons feel more like a how-to, self-help event. All we have to do is selectively use relevant parts of the Bible, like a manual, for how to have a better/fuller/xtreme life, marriage, career, kids, etc.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, people like that sort of sermonizing. In fact, if you don’t deliver, you run the risk of having church meetings which you’re not invited to.

2. Half-Gospeling

Another common way to make Christianity seem more appealing is to fudge a bit on the story about what it means to be a Christian. To make this work, all you have to do is keep on being selective about how you use the Bible in a sermon. After all, there are so many upsides to being a Christian, why not focus just on those? Just talk about the benefits; what you get. And many churches do. Still worse, I see some people directing these for-Christians-only benefits to everyone on social media, not just Christians.  There is no “If you belong to Christ…” part of the message. So, not only do people never hear the whole story, but apparently, you needn’t even be a Christian for the benefits to apply to you.

How do they succeed at this? Easy—people like it. Christians. Non-Christians. Everyone. And more importantly, fewer and fewer people who self-identify as Christians have ever read the Bible. All they know is what Pastor X tells them. So, after people start coming to church because it feels familiar to hear about all the benefits of being a Christian (and only the benefits), pretty soon they’re showing up twice a month wanting to hear more of the same.

3. Over-Promising

Believer it or not, some churches take half-gospeling even further. They reason that since Christians sometimes experience (or believe they experience) a few highly desirable benefits that hardly anyone ever experiences, why not promote those very rare, incidental benefits as the central promises of Christianity? No matter that the Bible doesn’t specifically, clearly offer these as promises.

Who does that you may ask?—Anyone who says Christians are supposed to be rich if they have enough faith. Anyone who says Christians won’t ever be sick if they have enough faith. Anyone who says God’s plan for you is to have your best life now, not in the next life.

It is true that Christians can find their financial situations improving as they give up gambling and drunkenness, as they learn moderation, frugality, and generosity. It is also true that Christians can experience full, meaningful lives as they gradually unlearn the behaviors which brought disfunction into their lives and families. But it is not true that God promised Christians would never experience injustice, poverty, heart-break, betrayal, infidelity, deadly illness, discrimination, war, or crime in this life.

Actually, calling this Over-Promising is too generous; perhaps its better to call it what it is: lying in God’s name.

JESUS’ CHRISTIANITY

Ameri-Christianity is a populist approach to religion. It figures out what people want and offers it to them. But Jesus, was no populist. And he made it hard, not easy, for people to believe in him. The Scriptures say he didn’t trust himself to people, meaning, He knew when their motives for hanging around, or even promoting Him, was driven by a self-serving agenda. Because He could see motives like you and I see mountains, it even seemed at times He was purposefully driving people away.

I lay this out for you, Reader, because you may experience the populism of Ameri-Christianity Sunday after Sunday without ever noticing. Or, maybe you feel something isn’t quite complete in the messages your hear, but you’re not sure what.

This doesn’t mean your church is of the devil, or that you’re doomed unless you leave it. But it is important for Christians (this writer included) to examine ourselves in light of what Scripture tells us.

Sometimes, when biblical light shines on our conscience, a course of action will appear obvious and necessary; but sometimes, not. Sometimes, the best thing to do is repent, and bring attention to the thing that hasn’t seen enough light for far too long. Our Christian lives and our churches are like a beautiful, yet under-exposed photograph, the darkness can hide flaws that we get used to, flaws that feel normal to us. And we never notice the gospel dimming here and there compared to how it shone when Jesus announced it for the first time.

So, here is some gospel light shining straight from the lips of Jesus. Here are ten sayings that—when I take them seriously—make me stop and reconsider, What it really costs to be a follower of Jesus? Do I really deserve the label, Christian? Does my life do credit to Him as the only One worth following?

Let us together, you and I, reconsider our lives, our Churches, and our Ameri-Christianity again in the light of these faithfully recorded words of Christ. May He give us ears to hear, and eyes to see. May He give us hearts to truly believe and obey.

For His Sake, and by His grace.

(All quotations are from the English Standard Version with verse numbers removed. Summary titles added by me.)

1. God’s Exclusive Claim on Us

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.—Matthew 6:24

2. The Priority God Expects of Us

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.—Matthew 6:33

3. What Following Jesus Will Cost Us

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.—Matthew 16:24

4. More About the Cost…

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.—Matthew 16:25

5. And More…

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.—Luke 14:27–33

6. By Nature, We are Unfit for God’s Kingdom

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”—John 3:3

7. Faith in Jesus is Our Only Escape From God’s Wrath

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.—John 3:36

8. The Demand for Repentance (And What It May Mean for Us…)

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.—Mark 1:15

9. God’s Demand for Our Radical Dependence

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.—Matthew 18:3

10. Jesus is both Our Savior and Judge

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”—Matthew 13:24–30

Thanks, so much for reading. I hope it helps you reflect more deeply on what it means to adopt the name, Christian.

Oh, and here’s something else I wrote on what it means, specifically, to believe in Jesus.

Finally, please know that I believe there is still tons right with the church in America. I believe in the work of many ministries, and receive personal, spiritual benefit from the instruction of several. I’m also a member of my local Presbyterian (PCA) congregation. If you want ideas about what to read, who to listen to, and who to avoid, send me an email at lonhetrick@gmail.com.

Evil, God, and an Atheist’s Challenge

I have been reading through the book of Job again and, as always, I find it both a fascinating story and humbling reminder of my place before my Creator.

Somewhere during the early chapters I felt inspired to tweet some of the key lessons I see in Job:

Tweet: "What I've learned from Job so far: 1) Only God is truly free 2) and merciful 3) and gives a Redeemer. Hope in Christ #Bible

I hoped a few people might read this and begin to sense the possibility of real hope. So, I was surprised to receive this response to my tweet from a self-identified atheist.

Tweet: "@averageus Would I be considered merciful if I let my enemy torture my child?"

I thought it was ironic that this atheist challenged the character of God, not his existence. So I decided to discover more about his question. Here is a bit of the tweet-conversation that ensued.

Me: No. And that’s not a rebuttal.

Him: I fail to see how what God did was any different!

Me: the msg of Job is either: God is evil and untrustworthy; or He is righteous and “though he slay me, yet I will trust him”

Him: He is clearly evil and untrustworthy. 9 million* dead children a year proves it. That’s just one example!

*I checked his facts and according to UNICEF almost 11,000,000 children under age 5 die each year. Further, almost 70% of these deaths are from medically preventable causes. Sad beyond imagination.

Our conversation continued in a respectful tone, but I’ll stop here because the atheist’s claim—that God is evil and untrustworthy—is what I want us to think about. I think we should be willing to admit that he raises a valid question.

A very important, valid question.

Since evil does exist in the world, we must ask, “Is God the cause of all the evil in the world?” In other words,

Is God evil?

Let’s use the story of Job to explore that question.

〉JOB’S SUFFERINGS

First, here’s a quick summary of the first two chapters of Job’s story.

Job was a prosperous, wealthy man and a devoted worshipper of God. God pointed this out to Satan. But Satan accused God of buying Job’s devotion with blessings, saying in effect, “Job only serves you for what you give him, he doesn’t really love you. Take it all away, and he’ll curse you to your face.”

And God accepted the challenge.

God gave Satan the opportunity to prove his point, and—think of this—Job suffered because of it. In all the categories of evil defined by both ancients and moderns, Job suffered:

Moral Evil: Raiding bands of Sabeans and Chaldeans murdered all of Job’s servants and stole all of his property, impoverishing him.

Natural Evil: A hurricane-like wind destroyed the home of Job’s oldest son, killing every one of Job’s children, leaving him without an heir. Boils and oozing sores erupted on Job’s body, leaving him in terrible pain, despairing of life, praying for death.

Spiritual Evil: Satan was the mastermind of this assault, even flinging, seemingly, “fire from God” which consumed the rest of Job’s property and servants.

And where was God in all this?

Ordaining it.

Observing it.

Letting it play out.

For our atheist friend this is pure evil, equivalent to letting a known enemy torture your child.

What about for you?

〉JOB IS EVERYMAN

In a way, the story of Job is an everyman story. No, we aren’t all fabulously wealthy. Nor do we all have Job’s integrity. But every person lives his or her own answer the great, central question posed by the book of Job.

Is God worthy of our love and trust?

Or, to put it more sharply,

Will you love and trust God if He doesn’t buy you off with prosperity?

If God is righteous, true and good, then He is worthy of our love and trust in spite of what we suffer in this life. Our sufferings must be due to a cause other than God (though he promises to make suffering serve the eternal good of his people).

On the other hand, if God is evil, and the direct cause of all evil, then our sufferings are the result of his cruelty. No one should worship such a God.

〉SUFFERING AND FAITH

It seems there could be no greater question of faith. It is the grand test given to everyman:

Will we love and trust a God who has ordained that we suffer and die?

Does such a God, a God who would allow—rather, to be intellectually honest —would ordain the horrible suffering of Job deserve my worship? (Note that ordain doesn’t mean cause, though it is a fine distinction.)

The way you answer this question all boils down to whether you believe the Bible’s account of how evil and suffering entered the world.

The Bible claims that a perfectly good, wise and powerful God created a good world and created mankind to rule over it. He created the first man and woman in such a way that they could freely choose whether God was worthy of their love and trust.

According to the Bible God is worthy of our love and trust; first, by virtue of His character and nature; second, by virtue of being our creator; third, by virtue of honoring us by making us in his image; and fourth, by virtue of giving us authority over the world. All these bespoke God’s trustworthiness, but the first man and woman made their choice, a rebel’s choice. And misery, evil, and suffering entered the world.

The atheist tells a different story, a story in which man is the hero. God (if he exists) is the demon who tortures us. And we must be rid of him.

Either way, it’s a question of what you will believe.

Like Job, we each decide what to believe about a God who is hidden by a veil of our suffering and death.

〉JOB’S HOPE

There’s one more thing the book of Job teaches us about God, evil and suffering. I mention it here only briefly, but you will see what a weighty thing it is. It has to do with Job’s confession of his ultimate hope:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God.—
Job 19:25-26

Job’s hope was that a Redeemer would one day stand on the earth in flesh and blood, a Redeemer who would intercede on his behalf before God. Centuries after Job, that Redeemer did come in flesh and blood to plead Job’s case. But little did Job understand that the Redeemer would be God himself, Immanuel, God with us. God became man and bore all the suffering and misery and death of the millennia himself to undo man’s deadly choice. He did this so that, in the Redeemer’s own words, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”—John 11:25.

We will never fully comprehend why millions of children die each year.

But, is it because God is evil?

Job didn’t believe so, though he suffered much. (Perhaps, only His Redeemer suffered more.)

Let us, like Job, place our lives in God’s good hands.

Let us say with him, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”—Job 13:15.


Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.—Hosea 6:1–2