Category Archives: Suffering

Context

DSC00080This is Rudy. Obviously, he was ecstatic to have his picture taken. I have always enjoyed photography but recently my interest has narrowed to focus more on street photography. Since I will be doing more traveling in the near future, I wanted to learn how to creatively capture the people, culture, architecture, landscape and even animals that I encounter. I am definitely not a professional but have enjoyed learning a new technique and creative perspective. One of my favorite street photo blogs is by Eric Kim. He has a depth of knowledge and shares it in a down-to-earth way.

Classic photojournalism is shot from a 35mm perspective. There is a reason the old film rangefinders would come standard with a fixed 35mm lens often with a max 1.8 aperture. It was unassuming, fast and able to capture people in the context of their natural environment. I am currently using a 30mm f2.8 pancake lens attached to a compact mirrorless body for my street photography. It’s the closest I could come to a small 35mm given my limited parameters of size and budget.

It’s easy to get caught up with the equipment but in the end it always comes down to the image. How can you capture your environment in a way that is both accurate and memorable? For a very brief time, I was interested in shooting landscapes but lost interest in capturing backdrops without people. After having children, I was interested in shooting close-ups and portraits. But again, over time I lost interest because cute faces are nice but eventually I wanted to remember the circumstances surrounding the photo. What makes street photography unique is that it records people in context. Context is vitally important. Without it, we fail to capture the moment because life doesn’t unfold in a vacuum.

Take for example, Rudy. His face is very ordinary but captured in full context, it makes for a more meaningful picture. He’s tightly tethered to his owner’s chair on a busy street where no one’s paying attention to him. No wonder he looks that way!

RudyContext is key not only for photography but also for growing in love. Love always has a context. This may not sound profound, but it is for me. Subconsciously, I assumed growing in love happened instantly and quietly, almost in private. That if I simply asked God to make me more loving, he would somehow pour “love juice” in me and “tada!,” I’d be instantly compassionate. But love rarely develops that way. It forms within a tapestry of people and relationships. More specifically, it mushrooms in the tension and conflict of these relationships.

If a tender heart is my prayerful desire, then the Father will often allow me to be in relationships where love is not natural or easy. This is not limited to my enemies but most often includes my closest friends. No matter how good the relationship is, eventually there will be tension. Suffering in relationships is love’s context. At times, my contexts have included, adoption, marriage, fatherhood, pastoring, sonship, brotherhood and friendship.

This paradox makes love feel awkward. The harder things get, the more I realize how loving I am not. The more I realize this, the more discouraged I get. The more discouraged I get, the more frustrated I get that God is apparently not answering my prayer. Yet, it is when I finally come to the end of myself that I truly begin to beg for God’s love to flow through me. Owning my inability is an invitation for God’s love to slowly fill the deep voids of my heart with that which I lack desperately. Surprisingly, it’s just when I think my heart is hopelessly wilted that God’s love sprouts from the ashes of my scarcity.

This shouldn’t surprise us. God’s love for us was not sealed in a Heavenly vacuum. The context of the Father’s love was the pain of this broken world. God became flesh and dwelt among us. He lived with us. He suffered like us. He died for us. So if we want to love like He does, then why wouldn’t our path be similar to his? Why wouldn’t it include suffering, sacrifice and surrender? This is the way of the gospel. It is the shape of love.

What I appreciate about street photography is that every day life is the backdrop. Rather than a clouded studio background, street photography captures people in everyday settings. While it is nice to have photos of birthdays, weddings and trips to Disneyland, those moments are not what fills out most of life. Street photography forces us to stop and remember the unique gifts of the ordinary in life. In that case, every moment can be a special occasion worth capturing.

Because love bubbles up in the affairs of daily irritations and annoying conflicts, growth can happen anywhere and anytime. All of life can be the context for God’s love to grow in you. In fact, in the most trying seasons, growth can be subversively continuous. No wonder it’s so exhausting! If you’re currently in one of those seasons, remember what may feel like a problem may very well be God’s answer to your prayers. Rather than fight it, instead embrace it. It might be the context of love God has tailored just for you.

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Learning to Lament

A few more thoughts on the book of Ruth…

While Ruth is the primary focus, in many ways her mother-in-law, Naomi, is actually the one many of us can relate to. Naomi suffered great loss. She lost her husband and then she lost her two sons. This was devastating. The family name, land ownership and personal inheritance was carried on through the males in the family. So in a matter of a few years or less, Naomi lost her entire family, her housing, her financial security and her social security. She was utterly ruined.

If Naomi’s story feels familiar, it’s because we all know that tragedy is real. We see it everyday in the news and experience it personally on small and large scales. Ruin, loss and suffering is part of life. As Christians, we live in a broken world but we still have hope that God is in control. At times, this can be comforting but often times, it can create tension. How do we respond to a sovereign and loving God when we live in a world of ruin?

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The Crucible of Love

james-tissot-ruth-gleaning

At our church, I am currently preaching through the book of Ruth. It is primarily a love story but not just about any kind of love. It’s all about the Hebrew concept of hesed. OT scholar, Daniel Block, defines hesed this way,

A strong relational term that wraps up in itself an entire cluster of concepts, all the positive attributes of God-love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, covenant faithfulness; in short, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.

Deep down inside, don’t we all long to experience and express this kind of love? This is something that I’ve been asking the Father for in my own heart. But, little did I know what I was getting myself into! For some reason, I naively thought it would be a simple and pain-free process. I thought it wouldn’t take long. That somehow, I could just swallow a “love pill” and God would instantly produce compassionate feelings within me. But that’s not how it works.

“Suffering is the crucible for love,” says Paul Miller, author of The Loving Life. Love is not created in a vacuum. It always has a context and most often that context is pain. Ruth’s story of love is spread across a landscape of suffering. Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, both lose everything, literally everything (Ruth 1:1-5). They lose their husbands. They lose their families. They lose their financial security. They lose their hope for the future. Yet, it’s within this real-life tragedy that hesed begins to take root and blossom. Out of the ashes rises God’s love for two widows and Ruth’s love for Naomi.

The way of love is the way of the gospel. If the cross of Christ was the crucible for God’s love to be revealed, why would the pattern be any different in our own lives as followers of Jesus? Ever since I started asking God to make me more loving, life has gotten harder rather than easier. Relationships have become more prickly than pleasant. My comfort has been disrupted and my confidence has faded. I am trusting that this is the context for hesed to be produced in my life.

Why is love produced out of tension? Because suffering reveals the log in my own eye that blocks compassion. Because pain highlights that apart from the love of God, I don’t have what it takes to truly love others. Because tension forces me to anchor my love in the riches of God’s covenant faithfulness rather than the fair-weather intentions of my waning feelings.

Naturally, most of us are adverse to suffering and seek to avoid it at all costs. But in doing so, we might miss the opportunity to grow in love. Yes, we avoid the sting of pain but we also miss out on the joy of love. After all, it’s through the valley of the shadow death, not apart from it, that God’s love is with us. I am slowly learning this lesson in my own life. It’s slow and at times, I wonder if anything is really changing. But by faith, I am learning to follow Jesus through the desert to learn to love like he does.

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From Gory to Glory

For the past few months, I often get asked, “How’s it (adjusting post-adoption) going?” My generic answer is “Overall, things are going extremely well. On a day-to-day basis, it’s a lot of hard work.” Most people are satisfied with that answer and I am usually glad to give it. It’s not only truthful but brief since most people are simply making small talk.

Learning to be family, post-adoption, is glorious. God is definitely at work. But, it’s also a lot of hard work. Most people don’t want to hear about the gory details. Glorious highlights, yes. Gory details, no. Quite frankly, I’m reluctant to share the gory details partly because I don’t want people to think adoption is a bad idea. It’s not a bad idea because it’s God’s idea. But, I’m afraid that sharing the challenges of post-adoption will lead people to believe that they shouldn’t adopt because it’s too hard. Some may even wonder if it’s truly a blessing to adopt. After all, how can adoption be a blessing if it leads to difficulty and personal stress?

This thinking was reflected in a recent conversation I had with my son, Evan. We were having a private, disciplinary talk because he was acting out in jealousy and sin against his new sister. This is how the tail end of the conversation went:

Evan: “Dad, do you think God knew it was going to be this hard to adopt?”

Me: “Yes.”

Evan: “Then why did he still call us to do it?”

How would you have answered him? Before I share what I said, let me address a subtle lie that most Christians believe inherent in Evan’s question. Put simply, the lie is, “Blessings from God are easy and painless.” Glory, yes. Gory, no.

We have subtly bought into the contrasting, black and white world of the prosperity gospel. A world where everything painful and difficult is bad and not of God and only things that are pleasurable and easy are blessings from God. This is obviously another gospel. The cross of calvary transpired in a “gray” world where the gory suffering of the cross led to the glorious miracle of the resurrection. So while pain and suffering are not good in and of themselves, they can still be considered blessings because God’s work in the world is always redemptive. He works out all things, good and bad, unto his glory and in that, is our blessing.

Romans 8:17-18 reveals that glory shares a close, purposeful relationship with suffering. Suffering and glory are not only connected but in many ways suffering is the way that often leads to glory. Renown biblical scholar, FF Bruce writes, “It is not merely that the glory is a compensation for the suffering; it actually grows out of the suffering. There is an organic relationship between the two for the believer as surely as there was for his Lord.”

The health-and-wealth gospel is not only bad theology but disconnected from our personal reality. For most of us, redemptive suffering that leads to blessing is cognitively difficult to accept but, experientially, it’s received all of the time. Think about the greatest blessings and truly fulfilling moments in your life. Weren’t the majority of them preceded by testing, challenge, suffering and/or pain? Childbirth is a great example. How about a job promotion? Purchasing a new house. Having adult children who walk with the Lord. Owning a chiseled body with little fat. No pain, no gain.

So, how did I answer Evan? I said, “It’s because God loves us. He knew that our sins of jealousy and selfishness were so deep and unnoticed that he was willing to let us experience things that would bring them all to the surface. He wants us to see our sins so we can repent, be cleansed and be blessed. Adopting Eden is for our blessing because it will make us more like Him.”

Some may falsely conclude that adopting an older child from a foreign country is what makes everything so unnecessarily difficult but the problem is not Eden. The problem is not adoption. The problem is my sin and it was always there long before Eden ever arrived. It was just unnoticed, buried deep or self-justified. Adopting Eden and learning to be family happened to be the occasion that God used to expose Evan’s folly and mine so that he might complete the good work that he began in each of us.

My Father loves me too much to let me continue in my sin. He knows it causes pain inside of me and outside to those around me. He knows it ultimately leads down a road toward destruction rather than blessing. So, rather than sit idly by and watch me grow in my sin, my Father intervenes. He allows friction in my life because it’s under heat, especially intense heat, that the dross melts away and my heart is purified. A pure heart is the fruit of a tested heart and the promises for the pure of heart are profound. God is good to the pure in heart (Psalm 73:1) and of course, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:3). If this is all true then the converse must also be true. Those who are not pure in heart will not experience God’s goodness or see Him at work in their lives.

Without a pure heart, it is impossible to truly experience blessing. But a pure heart usually requires trial and suffering. Thus, true blessing often comes through difficulty. It has to be this way, not because God is callous but because we are stubborn and prideful. God’s love is fearless and relentless, doing whatever is necessary to bring us to himself that we might become like him. It’s not always easy. It’s not always fun. But, oh, how I am learning to appreciate the gory details of my sanctification as they lead to God’s glory perfected through Christ in me!

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Friday is Truly Good

Recently, dear friends of mine have been suffering immensely and my heart has felt very heavy for them. As I prayed for them, the Lord reminded me that today is Good Friday which means that our suffering is not pointless. The Father uses all things, including suffering, for his glory (Rom. 8:28). And while this may not be fun while we’re in the midst of it, Scripture promises that he never withholds good from his children (Jer. 32:36-41).

Sometimes it’s difficult for us to believe that we are God’s children because we expect our Father to protect to us from every harm but he doesn’t do that. In fact Romans 8:17 promises, that as God’s children, we will not only share in Christ’s glory but also in his suffering. Scripture not only recognizes the reality of our suffering, but says it is to be expected. You don’t suffer despite being a Christian. In many, ways you will suffer because you are a Christian.

This sounds pretty discouraging but there is still good news because in God’s economy, suffering is not the end of the story. For the suffering of God’s children always leads to God’s glory. Under the sovereign hand of the Father, suffering and glory share a close but purposeful relationship. This is clear in life in general, isn’t it? Wasn’t every significant, enjoyable moment in your life preceded by challenge, trial and/or pain? A healthy body is preceded by exercise and eating green, leafy stuff. Childbirth is preceded by painful labor. Character development and spiritual maturity flows from trial and tribulation. The greatest example of this is Christ’s glorious resurrection and the hope for eternal life that was preceded by his torture and excruciating execution. Renown biblical scholar, FF Bruce writes, “It is not merely that the glory is a compensation for the suffering; it actually grows out of the suffering. There is an organic relationship between the two for the believer as surely as there was for his Lord.”

The cross and the empty tomb is God’s ultimate answer to all of our suffering. He not only displayed how suffering leads to glory, he embodied it from Good Friday to Easter Sunday and beyond. So while I walk “low” with my friends in their valley of the shadow of death, I also hope and pray “high” knowing that the Father is achieving his glorious and loving purposes for them. May this Friday be truly “good” especially to those of you who are in a chapter of suffering in God’s great story for your life.

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