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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Voices of Despair

I have a beloved friend who, for several years now, has kept reminding me that I should not listen to the voices of despair which discourage me, take the wind out of my sails, speak without trying to understand intentions, limit, squelch, squash, overpower, doubt, and so on. I am so very susceptible to those powerful voices, and they have dealt me many crushing blows over the years or directed me away from actual Truth for a time, thin-skinned people-pleaser that I am.

I have another beloved friend who doesn't live near me now and so doesn't know the specifics of my life's challenges like she once did, but she still speaks truth when she has the chance, to help drown out or identify those voices of despair for others. She knows how powerful they can be. She posts things on Facebook to encourage. Here's an example of the kind of content she often shares:
God’s Voice Satan’s Voice
Stills You Rushes You
Leads You Pushes You
Reassures You Frightens You
Enlightens You Confuses You
Encourages You Discourages You
Comforts You Worries You
Calms You Obsesses You
Convicts You Condemns You

Today, I think maybe, if I can keep remembering this, those voices got an identification which takes away a lot of the power.

There's an oft-misused, taken out of context Bible verse that keeps getting bounced around when people feel the need to warn other believers against really living their faith in the power of God. It's probably second only to the mistranslated, taken out of context, and misapplied colloquialism of American Christian culture that's generally spoken as "Avoid the appearance of evil" in its misuse and potential damage (that one is one of this blog's Top 10 most-read entries; revealing the error in the usage of it generated in another fatigued and over-burdened Christian friend a robust and joy-filled response: "You've broken through the very foundation of Christian Fake-itude!"). The verse that's the topic of this blog post is: Your adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

This is typically used as if it is a warning that your foot might slip and you might fall into some sin you could have avoided if only you'd been more cautious--built your fences higher, avoided interacting with people, kept your happy mask on. It's usually used when your action or lifestyle or personality is making someone else uncomfortable. And it's a misuse of that verse to use it as such.

The verse is from 1 Peter 5. 1 Peter is one of those favorite books for me. It is so full and rich that I've underlined almost the whole thing in my Bible. And yet as many times as I've read through it, cried over it, prayed along with it and quoted it to encourage others who were struggling in their trials, I never before this morning saw what that verse really means. I've always heard it used that way above: Be careful or you'll accidentally slip into sin. I've heard it so many times that even though it seemed so oddly out of place (if that was what it meant) in the book of 1 Peter, I didn't know what to do with that until now.

I realized this morning that that verse really isn't just randomly placed there in the passage, like some schizophrenic non sequitur. Let's take a look at this book: Peter is talking to the believers who have been scattered. They are living among unbelievers. They are largely Jews but there are Gentile believers in the mix now too because the church is growing, the gospel spreading. Peter personally knows so well how essential it is--God spoke it to him directly as a rebuke--that the church be inclusive in loving all believers, all who have been made clean by the Holy Spirit. Exclusion and division are simply NOT of God's plan for those whom he has made clean. Peter makes sure we hear from the start of the letter that we who abide in the Word have been purified and cannot lose that purification, THEREFORE, love one another sincerely from the heart with a deep brotherly affection.

He goes on to acknowledge all the hardships there are that would keep us from living that faith. Wives are being abused by husbands. Slaves are being mistreated by masters, rulers are of questionable intent (and Nero is coming). We're going to be tempted to return evil for evil. We're going to be tempted to shrink away and not call attention to our faith, to hide our fellowship with other believers. But it is supernatural power in us that lets us respond to evil with kindness, and to keep doing good for one another, to keep BEING the church to one another (remember Peter heard Jesus pray to God in front of the disciples that the world would be changed only by seeing God in THEM and in US--the supernatural unity of believers is how unbelievers know that God is in us and how they are challenged to know him too--John 17; Want to reduce persecution? Violence against other people? Be the visible church MORE, not less. They will know you by your love.). It is supernatural power, the power they first believed in, the power that raises the dead and purifies human hearts, that enables them to act with love to one another despite their fear and to act with respect to those who harm them. This setup of the supernatural nature of God's involvement in their lives is essential to the letter. It's essential to the Christian faith.

Peter then addresses suffering and persecution. Jesus suffered. We will too. But God will call to account those who persecute. The end is near. Do not lose heart. But (4:7 and forward) be clear minded and self-controlled. Why? So that we don't accidentally sin? That's what we tend to assume. We assume that we must be clear minded and self-controlled so that we can keep controlling that dark heart of ours. Now that's not at all bad advice, and there are places in the Bible where, even after the indwelling of the Spirit, people are still sinning and it needs to be addressed and stopped. But that is not what he's talking about here in this letter. That's not even on his mind. We are to be clear minded and self-controlled so that we can pray. Stay close to God. This is absolutely essential too. Pray, be in communication with the one who is empowering you and doing this work in you. And now that you are clear minded and self-controlled and praying and close to God, what are we to do ABOVE ALL ELSE?

Above all else, Peter says, do this: "Love one another deeply, because love covers [not causes] a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality without grumbling." This is what we are to do Above All Else. Next he says Use your gifts. If your gift is speaking, then speak. If it is serving, then serve. Do it with ALL THE STRENGTH GOD PROVIDES. (i.e. Live it out loud!) As an exuberant, cheerleader type personality who is sometimes squelched by those who are made uneasy by enthusiasm, a passage like this brings me to life. It reminds me that my design is from my Creator, and he takes delight in seeing me live fully, abundantly, in relationship the way he designed me to be. Through this, God will be praised for the glory and the power for ever.

Now that he's called us to this kind of action, without any excuse for ceasing, Peter hits us again with the suffering part. It's as if he has to weave this together: Love one another deeply. You're going to suffer for it. But love one another anyway, above all else. Use your gifts even when you're being suppressed. But remember, you will suffer: Don't be surprised by the fiery trial. You knew there'd be a cost.

What's really noteworthy here is that it isn't for sin that they are suffering. It's because they're being the church, to one another and to the community. They're living it for real, and it's hard and it takes perseverance, but that's the Christian's calling. So then suffer, he says, and while suffering, continue to do good.

Up to this point, Peter has been talking to the laypeople but here he shifts to the elders: Elders, show them how! As shepherds, you are to be an example of all this--how to love and continue on in the midst of the persecution. Don't let your zeal for the brotherhood fizzle out. Don't let the smoldering wick be snuffed out (to borrow from another place in scripture). Elders are to model for the flock how to keep loving earnestly, deeply, using gifts for one another's good, in the midst of persecution, naysayers, social and political opposition, family and work struggles.

Then again, after calling the elders to lead by example, Peter speaks to all of us: Humble yourselves. What does this mean? Beat ourselves up with self pity? Grovel before God? No, it means don't try to do this on your own--it's not your strength, no matter how good you are or how high your fences are, but remember you are "under God's mighty hand." Don't worry. Don't fret. Don't freeze either. Cast your anxiety on him. Again he says to be self-controlled and alert. Again, is this so that we won't slip into some sin? Again that answer is No. Taking this verse out of context misses the real point, which is so much more important. We are to be self-controlled and alert so that we can see what the enemy is up to, and here it is: The prowling adversary, the roaring lion, is seeking someone to devour. What is the lion roaring about? These are the voices of despair! What is the goal? Not a one-time slip into sin, but the complete renunciation of our faith and our calling to live that faith in this world!

The adversary is trying to bring us down from the faith that empowers loving action in the face of hardship and in the power of God to love in all purity because we have been purified by God's Word and because we are under his mighty hand. The adversary is the persecutor, the againster, the doubter, the skeptic--all the loud voices trying to quench the Spirit in the active believer. The adversary is the voice of fear that says God doesn't really change hearts, doesn't make new creations, isn't powerful enough, isn't greater than our hearts (to borrow from John). The adversary roars when he creates doubts, and roars to devour when he communicates that it is up to you, and not your Savior, to keep you on the straight and narrow, to deliver you over at the end of your days to God's favor.

Resist him, Peter says, standing firm in the faith. The faith. Which faith? The faith that says this grace is the gift of God and not of ourselves. This faith that says nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Losing that faith, denying that strength, the "mighty hands" that have you: that's the devouring the adversary is after. Don't lose your faith because of the critical ones who don't want you to live it. This verse is about withstanding persecution. To reinforce that this is about persecution (and not just the possibility of sin you might encounter in your life if you walk too confidently in God), Peter reminds them of the brothers throughout the world who are undergoing the same thing. It is a known fact. Christians will be called to recant the power of God.

And this understanding is what brought me freedom this morning, from those powerful voices of discouragement and despair. The roaring lion is about persecution! It is the voice that says "Don't believe what you say you believe about God." But it is the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ (the risen conqueror!). After you have suffered a little while, he will restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. It's HIS power and not my own that enables me (or anyone else) to be the church.

And now I know. Voices of despair are the voices of the roaring lion, trying to limit and suppress and hold back the Holy Spirit because of this very fragile jar of clay. Naming the voices that claim this much wrongly applied verse, and seeing this verse here, written for me and my weakness as a people-pleaser more than a God-pleaser, has taken away a lot of the power that has so effectively crushed me over and over again. That in itself is a biblical principle: To name something is to take dominion over it.

I feel stronger and happier today than I remember in a long time. It is for freedom believers have been set free. Do not return again to the chains that once bound you. Don't throw off that saving faith and all it calls you to when the going gets rough. Never use your freedom as a license to sin, because it is the power of the one who cannot be defiled that dwells in you now. But use that freedom, knowing you are safe in your Father's mighty hands, to resist the evil one, reject his roaring lies, and live fully, confidently, and joyfully in loving relationship with the brothers and sisters in the faith--the gift of the Church which was established even before the indwelling of the Spirit, for the mutual building up of one another to persevere. Live! Imperishable. You cannot lose your standing of righteousness if you have claimed Christ. May the voices of despair drown themselves out. Let the lion starve. There's nothing to satisfy him here.

Oh, getting to a point of clarity and contentment in God's word always means another blow is right around the corner, but maybe this time I will recognize the roaring and face it down with the Power not of myself that is within me.

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