The Sacrament of Living

I finally finished rereading The Pursuit of God. In the last chapter, A.W. Tozer wrote about the way too many Christians divide their lives between the sacred and the secular. We have life in the Spirit but live in the natural world. The two parts of our lives may seem starkly different and separate. Tozer said that if we try to “walk the tightrope between two kingdoms,” we will not live a unified life. We will not experience internal peace.

All for the glory of God

Religious activities that Christians engage in – praying, worshiping, reading the Bible, singing songs of praise, etc. – are meaningful and satisfying because we know they are pleasing to God. As spiritual beings, we have our eyes on the kingdom of heaven and look forward to eternal life in a place where there is no evil and no suffering. But as human beings, we spend our days doing ordinary human things – working, eating, sleeping, cleaning, etc. The ordinary acts of living can seem tedious and frustrating in comparison to sacred acts of worship.

And yet, as the Apostle Paul wrote, we are to do everything – even the most ordinary acts of living – for the glory of God.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 

1 Corinthians 10:31, NIV

When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he told them to set your hearts and your minds on things above. He reminded them that as God’s chosen people, they should be kind, humble, gentle and patient. They should love and forgive others. When we work, we are to work at it as if we are working for the Lord. When we serve others, we are to serve as if we are serving Christ.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Colossians 3:23-24

Sacramental Living

The dictionary says a sacrament is “a religious ceremony or ritual regarded as imparting divine grace, such as baptism, the Eucharist and (in the Roman Catholic and many Orthodox Churches) penance and the anointing of the sick.” Tozer described a sacrament as “an external expression of an inward grace.” If we accept this truth, then we can see the ordinary acts of our lives as sacred. We can consecrate our total selves to God.

Tozer addressed a couple of issues that get in the way of sacramental everyday living. One is “the sacred-secular antithesis as applied to places.” He asks, how can anyone who has read the New Testament still believe that there is something inherently sacred about a place? In the Old Testament, God taught the people of Israel the difference between what is holy and unholy. What they should have learned is that God is holy; things or places are not holy. In the New Testament, the woman at the well told Jesus, you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus said, the time has come when true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.

A second issue that may get in the way of sacramental living is the ritualism and religious observances in which many Christians engage. Here Tozer directed criticism specifically at the Roman Catholic Church. Christians started out with two sacraments, baptism and holy communion. The Catholic church eventually came to recognize seven. Tozer believed that in adding sacraments and in observing days and times, Catholics and fundamentalists artificially divide religion from everyday life.

Am I walking a tightrope?

When I first started reading what Tozer had to say about the way Christians mistakenly divide their lives between the sacred and the secular, I immediately felt convicted but not for the reasons he laid out. There was no social media when The Pursuit of God was published (1948). In an effort to not offend or alienate nonreligious friends and family on social media, I tend to hold back on expressions of my faith. In a way, this is dividing the sacred from the secular and I am left feeling divided.

While Tozer wrote about the important truth that even laypeople can do ordinary, everyday things for the glory of God, I struggled to get to the truth I was seeking. I already know that I can honor God when I work and do ordinary things. Something was missing from his discussion. My struggle with the sacred-secular dichotomy is not the struggle he described.

At one point, Tozer wrote about sins of the body – “perversions, misuse and abuse” – but then quickly moved on. He said:

Let us think of a Christian believer in whose life the twin wonders of repentance and the new birth have been wrought. He is now living according to the will of God, as he understands it from the written word.

A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

What about those of us whose lives have the twin wonders of repentance and rebirth who still struggle with sins of the heart? It’s easy to be righteous when you’re sitting in church praising God or when you’re reading the Bible or praying. It is everyday, ordinary life that brings out the hard truth that I am still a sinner in need of God’s grace.

The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good.  So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

Romans 7:15-20, New Living Translation

I am all too human, a slave to sin. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature, I am a slave to sin. Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin? Jesus Christ.

While Tozer did not write about the fact that our very humanity separates the sacred from the secular, he acknowledged that old habits die hard. It takes practice to learn new habits. We must offer all our acts to God and pray “a thousand thought-prayers as we go about the job of living.” We must remind ourselves that Christ dwells in us. We cannot be fruitful unless we remain in Jesus and his words remain in us.

Let us believe that God is in all our simple deeds and learn to find Him there.

A.W. Tozer

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Photo by Loic Leray on Unsplash

The Gaze of the Soul

In the seventh chapter of The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer wrote about a spiritual concept that is mentioned often in the Bible but defined only once: faith. I did my own search for the word faith on BibleGateway.com and brought up 458 results from the New International Version of the Bible. What is faith? As Tozer noted, Hebrews 11 gives a functional definition of faith – explaining what faith is in action, not what it is in essence.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Hebrews 11:1

Tozer next explained a New Testament reference to an Old Testament story. In Numbers 21, we read that God sent venomous snakes after the people of Israel spoke out against Him and many of them were bitten and died. The people came to Moses and said, we have sinned. Moses prayed for the people. God then told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole. Anyone who was bitten could look at the bronze snake and live.

When Jesus explained how people can be saved, He said that it is by believing. He compared believing in Him to the story in Numbers:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.

John 3:14-15

“Looking” at the Old Testament serpent was synonymous with “believing” in the New Testament Christ! The people of Israel looked at an object with their external eyes and were saved; we believe with the heart and are saved. With this connection between looking and believing, Tozer defined what faith is in essence.

Faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.

Faith isn’t just a one-time act, it is “a continuous gaze of the heart at the triune God. Sin turns our vision toward inward and makes us think too much of ourselves. Faith causes us to turn our eyes away from the self and towards God. “Faith is a redirecting of our sight…”

Simplicity

As I continued to read chapter seven, I found myself feeling emotional about the timeliness of Tozer’s message about the simplicity of faith. We do not need special equipment or a special place or a special time to look upon a saving God! I cannot go to church on Sunday. It’s been closed by a pandemic. It doesn’t matter whether I am allowed to go to a place of worship on Palm Sunday or Easter. My soul can gaze upon my Savior any hour of any day, whether I am sitting in a pew or taking a walk down a deserted street!

Those of us who believe in the risen Jesus have found the secret of seeing God from anywhere. Something in our hearts sees God.

Heavenly Father, for the past three days, I have begun the day quietly gazing at You and giving You praise even as this nation battles the coronavirus. I lift my eyes up to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. I praise You for giving me eyes to see You! Lord, may the gaze of my soul be my inward habit, even when this storm passes. Amen.

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Praise You in This Storm (Casting Crowns)

I was sure by now, God you would have reached down
And wiped our tears away,
Stepped in and saved the day.
But once again, I say amen
That it’s still raining
As the thunder rolls
I barely hear your whisper through the rain
I’m with you
And as your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise
The God who gives and takes away

And I’ll praise you in this storm
And I will lift my hands
That you are who you are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise you in this storm

I lift my eyes unto the hills
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
The maker of heaven and earth
I lift my eyes unto the hills
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
The maker of heaven and earth

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Photo by Chetan Menaria on Unsplash

Apprehending God

The fourth chapter of The Pursuit of God is titled, Apprehending God. Clearly A.W. Tozer wasn’t using the meaning of apprehend that I am most familiar with – to arrest someone for a crime. To avoid confusion, I thought about using the word perceiving in my own title, but then I realized that the nuances of the word apprehend are perfect for the subject. To apprehend is to perceive or understand – to grasp something either physically or mentally.

apprehend – from French appréhender or Latin apprehendere, from ad- ‘towards’ + prehendere ‘lay hold of’

How many people really grasp who God is? To many people, God is unknowable. He is merely an inference or a deduction based on the evidence of creation. Others see God as an ideal or another name for that which is good. You would think that Christians would know God as well as anyone can but for millions of them, God is no more real than he is to non-believers.

Tozer wrote that the scriptures suggest that God is just as knowable as any person or thing we experience with our five senses. Taste and see that the Lord is good. My sheep listen to my voice. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. The implication is that we have the means in our hearts to perceive God just as we have the ability to experience material things with our five senses.

Jesus gives believers the ability to know God. Our spiritual faculties are awakened when we are born again! The Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6) and it is in spirit that worshipers commune with God.

God is spirit and his worshipers must worship him in Spirit and in truth.

John 4:24

Tozer asked, why then do some Christians know so little about the “habitual conscious communion with God” that is prevalent in scripture? One reason is unbelief. We are prone to doubt the reality of the hidden spiritual kingdom that is all around us. The visible, physical world continuously assaults our five senses. We tend to draw a line between material things and the invisible, spiritual world. But the spiritual is real and constantly present.

Perhaps another reason we don’t commune with God is spiritual laziness. If you want to perceive God, if you want to comprehend the heart of God, you must love and pursue him with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.

Faith enables our spiritual sense to function. Where faith is defective, the result will be inward insensibility and numbness toward spiritual things.

A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

Tozer wrote that we need to break the bad habit of ignoring the spiritual. “For the great unseen reality is God.” If we truly want to seek God, we must seek to be otherworldly. Deliberately choose the kingdom of God as the focus of your interest, even if people think you’re crazy for doing so. Don’t make the mistake of pushing the kingdom of God into the future. The kingdom of God is here and now, existing parallel to our physical world.

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Heavenly Father, thank you for the senses that allow me to experience and enjoy the material world. What a beautiful world it is! But the physical world overwhelms my five senses and when it does, I stop paying attention to my spiritual sense. I stop paying attention to you. Help me break my bad habits. Remind me to be still and know that you are God. Holy Spirit, remind me 50 times a day if you have to, that you are with me. As Francesca sings so beautifully,

Holy Spirit You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your Glory God is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your Presence Lord

Jesus, I believe. But sometimes I am a doubting Thomas. Thank you for showing me the heart of God! Thank you for showing me that the kingdom of God is here. When I have my moments of doubt, help me overcome my unbelief!

Father, Son and Spirit, even with my limited faculties, I grasp who you are. I lift my hands up to you in praise and apprehend that you are my God.

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Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash

Where is the hope?

The last time I went to my Bible study, a woman in my group handed me a book, With Her Last Breath, written by the Director of Caring Ministry at our church, Barbara M. Roberts. The book is about the suicide of Roberts’ niece Kathy and includes images of the 26-page journal that Kathy wrote in the last 36 hours or so of her life. Which each page of the journal, Roberts provides advice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and to those who walk beside them.

Another friend couldn’t bring herself to finish the book because it reminded her too much of a struggling family member. It is hard to read about people who are suicidal, but I wanted to learn how to recognize when someone needs help and how to uplift and support those who have lost all hope as Kathy did.

Hope and despair

Hope and despair are polar opposites so we may think they are mutually exclusive emotions. But as Roberts wrote, hope and despair are often intertwined. We can feel both at the same time. We all experience ups and downs in this life and it can be really hard to hold onto your hope.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40: 31-32

Kathy believed in God but her life on this earth had become so unbearable due to health issues and loneliness that she felt she had no hope – except in the promise of heaven. She believed that killing herself was against God’s will but suicide was the only way she knew to escape her pain and torment. She hoped that God would forgive her.

At the time of her death, Kathy was just a few months older than I am now. She had COPD and was living on disability benefits. She rarely left her apartment. She had lost the one person in her life who was her support system.

In leaving a journal behind, Kathy provided a glimpse into the mind of a suicidal person. She wrote that she couldn’t take it anymore. She was tired of everything being so hard. She felt like she was in a living hell. She had never felt so alone and in the dark. Each day was worse than the one before. It had become hard to just exist. She wished that she could find one good reason to live. She could hardly breathe. She wondered what God wanted of her. She wondered, if God wanted her to live, why her life had been reduced to misery and suffering.

Empathy and understanding

I have not experienced the physical suffering that made Kathy’s life intolerable. But I have been through trying situations that have nearly broken my spirit. I have experienced feelings of despair, anguish, and hopelessness. In my lowest moments, I cried out to God – I begged God – please help me! I can’t take this anymore. And in those dark moments, I even said words to my Maker that I didn’t really mean. I want to die. Thankfully, I knew that God was with me. He lifted my burdens. He pulled me through.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
   the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2

In reading Kathy’s journal, I found myself wondering why she didn’t ask God to help her. I believe that if she had asked, God would have put the right people in her life to ease her loneliness and suffering. But as Roberts wrote, “Sometimes people do not use the way out that God provides but rather choose their own solution.” Kathy didn’t ask God for a way out. She chose her own way out of suffering and knew that she could not ask God to help her commit suicide. It is easy to judge Kathy for the decision she made. But I know from my own experience, when you are really depressed, your thoughts are not the most rational.

Kathy rightly noted that no one else was qualified to judge her. No one else knew what her life, the life she described as a living hell, was doing to her. I can only imagine how hopeless I would have felt in my own struggles if I had not had a social support system, if I had not had people who depended on me, if I had not had reasons to go on.

God redeems our own times of suffering by allowing us to come alongside others in their suffering. This, of course, is based upon the assumption that others are honest about their struggles.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

Helping the hurting

I wrote a bit about my own struggles with despair. I have also struggled to be a good helper of the hurting. A few times in my 32-year marriage, my husband got very depressed and it was really, really hard for me to deal with. He isolated himself. He wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else. I felt ill equipped to help him through it. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I stayed with him and I prayed for him.

Roberts wrote that unlike other obvious injuries, the hurt of a broken heart is hidden. You don’t have to be a skilled healer or gifted counselor to help. Just being available to listen and to walk alongside the person helps the hurting.

It is an amazing gift of God’s grace that the kind of expertise needed for the broken heart comes from those God has placed in our lives whose skill set includes love, availability, listening and just simply being a fellow journeyer willing to travel with us.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

How can you be a supportive fellow journeyer in this thing called life? How can you help others find hope?

  1. Be fully present and attentive.
  2. Listen without interrupting.
  3. Communicate your caring and support.
  4. Take the person’s concerns seriously.
  5. Don’t minimize their suffering.
  6. Don’t be pushy or judgmental.
  7. Keep the person’s confidence but get help, if you are really worried.

Dear Lord, please help those who are struggling right now with feelings of despair and hopelessness. Wrap your loving arms around them. Let them know that they are not alone. Help me to be a light in the darkness. Help me to be available where I am needed, help me to listen, help me to love.

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Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Why would a loving God allow pain and suffering?

I had the opportunity to see Vince Vitale,  co-author of Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, when he visited my church. I first reflected on this challenging question a couple of years ago and was interested in how Vitale’s insights meshed with those of C.S. Lewis and others who have tackled this question.

Skeptical theism

I have a niece who is an atheist. She says that she can’t stand it when people say that bad things happen for a reason. I understand her reaction. The people who say this have good intentions but this ambiguous answer provides little comfort in the face of suffering and grief.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, he said that Christianity creates the problem of pain (in an apologetic sense). We Christians believe in an all-powerful God who is both loving and righteous and yet we live in a world where people experience great pain. How can you reconcile the reality of pain, suffering, and senseless tragedy with belief in a loving God who has the power to make life easier for us?

In Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothius asks: if evil appears to be pointless, is it? If you can’t conceive of a reason for pain and suffering, does that mean there is no reason for it? Vitale introduced me to the term skeptical theism, “the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.”

Just as a child cannot understand the reasoning of an adult, we as limited human beings cannot understand God’s reasoning. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

What kind of love is this?

Many people reject the Christian God because they question how our God can love people and yet allow them to suffer. How can our God be good if he lets people feel pain? If he is really all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something to prevent suffering? Why should anyone trust a God who lets people suffer?

Vitale asked an interesting question: if it is evil to create a world where pain and suffering exist, then how is it good to bring children into this world? We know that children will experience pain and suffering in their lives but we still choose to have them.

The love of God is analogous to the love of a father for his child. It is the love of the Creator for the created. We are an expression of God’s love and creativity. I believe he loves us more than we can fathom. He forgives us over and over again, even as we reject him. He does not enjoy seeing us in pain but he is present to guide, protect, and comfort those who love him.

Vitale writes, “The loving parent is not the one who never allows suffering in a child’s life. The loving parent is the one who is willing to suffer alongside their children. And in Christianity this is exactly what we find.”

Christians believe that God became human to redeem mankind from our sinfulness. No other religion makes this claim – that God became fully human and experienced human suffering firsthand. Jesus subjected himself to temptation, rejection, ridicule, pain and death. He understands our suffering because he experienced it himself.

The Laws of Nature Versus the Power of God

Death and destruction are part of the natural world. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of natural selection weeds out the weak. Forces of nature like floods, fires, blizzards, tornadoes, famine and drought cause pain, suffering, death and destruction. So with or without a supernatural creator, we accept the destructiveness of nature. As Groothius writes, if you believe that the natural world is full of evil, then you must have in mind a supernatural ideal as the basis for your belief.

The rejection of the Christian God based on the problem of pain presupposes that God lacks the power to make things right. For those of us who believe that God is omnipotent, we believe that God is capable of suspending the laws of nature to prevent pain. We believe in miracles and that on occasion God changes the course of events. But we don’t expect God to break the laws of nature.

If I did something dangerous like drive my car straight into the path of another vehicle, I believe that God could intervene to prevent an accident. He could instantly change the mass or velocity of the vehicles to lessen the impact. He could make my car fly over the other car and land gently on the other side. But if God interfered with natural laws, they would not be laws. We couldn’t count on nature to behave in predictable, measurable ways. If we expect God to prevent the suffering that nature and free will make inevitable, life, as we know it, would no longer exist.

Vitale challenges us to imagine living in a world where there is no suffering. Everything and everyone would change. You wouldn’t be you. Think about a great person that you admire. If you subtracted out all of the pain and suffering that this person ever experienced, they would not be the person you admire. In a world with no suffering, there would be no heroes. There would be no courage, no compassion, no empathy, no determination -qualities that make people admirable.

The Cost of Free Will

As difficult as it is to understand the cruelty of nature, it is even harder to understand the pain humans inflict on each other. As C.S. Lewis noted, we cause pain when we’re born, we inflict pain on others while we’re living (and suffer on the receiving end), and we often experience pain and suffering in death. Humans have a long record of committing crimes, abuse, and other unspeakable acts against each other. We intentionally hurt each other physically and with words. We can be extremely cruel and indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. What’s worse, because we have the ability to reason and to feel, we understand the pain we cause.

God created us as intelligent beings with the free will to choose. That free will came with a risk – the risk that we would choose evil and reject God. The biblical story of Adam and Eve describes the first sin as an act of disobedience to God – the choice to eat fruit God had specifically forbidden. This was a choice to turn away from God and turn to the self. C.S. Lewis said that as soon as we become aware of God as God and self as self, we have the option to make God or the elevated Self the center of our universe.

God’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

The apostle Paul wrote that he was given a thorn in his flesh to prevent him from exalting himself, to keep him from becoming conceited about all the amazing things that had been revealed to him. We don’t know what this affliction was but Paul pleaded with God to take it away. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul said that he was delighted in his difficulties and hardships (which included being beaten, stoned and imprisoned) because “when I am weak, then I am strong.” He knew that there is purpose in suffering. Suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Pain is God’s Megaphone

C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When things are going well, we have a tendency to push God aside and to put ourselves at the center. We live with an “illusion of self-sufficiency.” God reveals what we lack by letting our lives become more difficult. Sometimes our illusion of self-sufficiency must be shattered to save our souls.

Sometimes our surrender to God takes pain. Many people call on God when they are at their lowest point, perhaps struggling with loss, a crippling addiction, or a broken relationship. The good news is God is merciful. He has what Lewis called “divine humility.” He is not proud; he does not mind our choosing him as a last resort. His love never fails. He heals hurting souls.

As a Christian, I can see for myself that bad things happen to good people and that the world I live in is often cruel and unjust. As much as I try, I cannot fully explain the reasons for pain and suffering. But I have seen a glimpse of the purpose of pain in my own life and in the lives of others. When we look back through painful experiences, we see that they made us stronger. We see the building of character, the smoothing of our rough edges. We learn humility in our struggles. We see the light in the darkness. And we see the goodness of humanity in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Sometimes it takes the healing hands of time for us to see the big picture. When we’re in the midst of pain and suffering, we see the puzzle but we don’t necessarily see how the pieces fit together. In this life, we see only in part, but someday we will know fully.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

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Vitale’s response to the question of pain and suffering is summarized in an article he wrote on the RZIM website – If God, Why Suffering?