“Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” These are the infamous words of Peter. Words I’m sure he rolled over and over in his mind after he did, in fact, deny Jesus.
Earlier in the day, Jesus had warned the disciples of the events that were about to happen. With swelling love for His Savior, Peter declared,
“Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” (Matthew 26:33-34 NLT)
Peter then became emphatic:
“No!” Peter insisted. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you! …” (Matthew 26:35)
How many times have we done the same (in word or deed)? How many times have we uttered such declarations to the Lord in a moment of great, swelling love for the One who saved us — only to fall short of our promises?
As He predicted, Jesus was arrested and His disciples scattered in fear. The scriptures only mention Peter during this period:
Meanwhile, Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant girl came over and said to him, “You were one of those with Jesus the Galilean.” But Peter denied it in front of everyone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Later, out by the gate, another servant girl noticed him and said to those standing around, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again Peter denied it, this time with an oath. “I don’t even know the man,” he said. A little later some of the other bystanders came over to Peter and said, “You must be one of them; we can tell by your Galilean accent.” Peter swore, “A curse on me if I’m lying—I don’t know the man!” And immediately the rooster crowed. Suddenly, Jesus’ words flashed through Peter’s mind: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” And he went away, weeping bitterly (Matthew 26:69-75 NLT).
There should be no doubt Peter loved Jesus. Yet in a moment of uncertainty and fear, Peter did the unthinkable. He denied and disowned the One he promised to die for. At the revelation and impact at what he’d done, Peter wept bitterly. I wonder if, in his anguish, he remembered something else the Lord once said to him and the others.
“Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.
“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. There is a great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all well worth it in the end. It is not success you are after in such times but survival. Be survivors! Before you’ve run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.
“A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?
Don’t be intimidated. Eventually, everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.
What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries.
“Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven. If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?” (Matthew 10:17-33 MSG)
Jesus in fact said these words:
“…whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33 NKJV)
The very thought of Jesus denying me crushes my heart. I can only imagine how Peter felt. Jesus had warned them they would be bullied. He told them what to do and who to fear. Yet Peter had feared man more than God. Broken and remorseful, he wept bitterly.
King David once wept bitterly also. He said,
“Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight— That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.” (Psalm 51:4 NKJV).
David was guilty of adultery, murder, and deception. In great anguish, he begged the Lord,
“Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit.” (Psalm 51:11-12 NKJV)
David acknowledged his sin, both in brokenness and repentance. And God did restore David and Peter. Why?
“The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:17, NLT).
In His mercy, God will not reject, deny or disown the one who recognizes their failure and sin. David is remembered as a man after God’s own heart and Peter became one of the most powerful evangelists of his time, winning over 3,000 to the Lord on the day of Pentecost. In a moment of weakness, they each denied the Lord. Yet in a separate moment of broken humbleness, they were restored. The unthinkable is the inconceivable and unimaginable — that our God is merciful and His mercy endures forever.
Learning to Love the Good But Hard Life
FEBRUARY 12, 2020
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides.” James 1:2 (MSG)
No matter what chaos the day holds, my family can count on one constant: our bedtime routine.
To clarify, I don’t mean precious hours of bonding over bath time, book reading, teeth brushing and storytelling. We have two young boys, so hygiene and calm often go by the wayside, and at the end of most full days, we can barely manage wrestling them into their pajamas and tossing them in bed.
Yet, over the years, we have wired their brains and ours to expect every night to end with us praying together as a family, one by one. Though our boys have experienced challenges and been exposed to hard stories, they often revert to the prayer that lies just below the surface of most every human heart: “Dear God, thank You for giving me a GOOD day today. Please help me to have a GOOD day tomorrow.”
If the “good/good” prayer happens to be recited on a given night, we usually then pray over them: “And God, no matter what kind of day today was, or what kind of day tomorrow might be, give us courage to keep showing up, because we know You are with us, God, and You always give us everything we need.”
For good measure, we may throw in this final charge as they drift off: “James and John, God made you to do the HARD things in the GOOD story He is writing for your lives.”
Honestly, we’re giving that charge to our own hearts, too.
The Bible writer James says, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4).
This way of viewing our hardships feels so unnatural, if not impossible. How could we view our suffering, our unmet expectations, our losses as a gift? Most anyone who has lived a little bit of life knows that storms come with the territory. It’s an unavoidable reality in this world. So, if we cannot change it or even pray it away, what can we do?
Well, for a start, we can redefine how we view goodness.
The “good life” isn’t one that lacks hardship, but rather, one that requires it. As James teaches, we will be incomplete and immature if we don’t go through challenges. And that truth doesn’t have to make us afraid.
So much of our mental energy is spent fearing what might happen in the future or staying stuck in shame and regret for what has happened in the past. What if we chose to view our inevitable hardships as the path to experience the goodness of God even more powerfully? As the avenue to our healing? As the truly abundant life?
The good and the hard things in life aren’t mutually exclusive. We hold them in bittersweet tension together because the good/hard life offers a depth to our experience with God and our compassion with others that we can’t get any other way.
This redefining leads to our refining. It won’t happen overnight. And it won’t happen unless we open our hands, releasing control over what we thought our life should be in order to receive God more fully.
In this process, we can find gratitude and even joy because we know a new kind of perseverance, character and hope will be ours.
There’s a madness to our moment, and we need to name it for the lunacy it is. Because it’s taking our lives hostage.
First, there’s the blistering pace of life.
I texted friends an announcement that was really important to me; they replied with little thumbs-up emojis. I think to myself, That’s it—you can’t even answer a text with a text? Email felt so efficient when it replaced the letter; texting seemed like rocket fuel when it came along. But it didn’t make our lives more spacious; we simply had to keep up. Now we’re living at the speed of the swipe and the “like,” moving so fast through our days that typing a single sentence feels cumbersome. Everyone I talk to says they feel busier than ever. My musician friends aren’t playing much anymore; my gardening friends don’t have time to plant; I currently have eight books I’ve started to read, and I haven’t made it past the first chapter in any of them.
We’ve been sucked into a pace of life nobody’s enjoying.
Then there’s the deluge of media coming at us in a sort of mesmerizing digital spell.
We’re spending three hours a day using apps on our phones, ten hours viewing media, consuming enough information each week to crash a laptop (!).1 We talk about unplugging, but we’re enchanted—by the endless social media circus of love and hatred, the vapid, alarming, sensational, and unforgivable. We’re snagged by every new notification. And while we’ve always had our individual struggles and heartbreaks to deal with, now we have the tragedies of the entire world delivered to us hourly on our mobile devices.
This is all very hard on the soul. Traumatizing, in fact. Exposure to traumatic events can traumatize us, and we’re getting lots of it in our feed.2 It’s like we’ve been swept into the gravitational field of a digital black hole that is sucking our lives from us.
So there’s all that. But everybody’s talking about that. What got my attention was what was happening to me as a person.
I found myself flinching when a friend texted and asked for some time. I didn’t want to open email for fear of the demands I’d find there. I had a shorter and shorter fuse in traffic. I felt numb to tragic news reports. It made me wonder — am I becoming a less-loving person? I had little capacity for relationships and the things that bring me life — a walk in the woods, dinner with friends, a cold plunge in a mountain lake. When I did steal a moment for something life-giving, I was so distracted I couldn’t enjoy it.
Then I realized — it wasn’t a failure of love or compassion. These were symptoms of a soul pushed too hard, strung out, haggard, fried. My soul just can’t do life at the speed of smartphones. But I was asking it to; everybody’s asking theirs to.
I’m guessing you’ve experienced something similar. It’s likely why you’ve picked up this book — your soul is looking for something. Are you aware of what it is? How would you score your soul these days:
Are you happy most of the time?
How often do you feel lighthearted?
Are you excited about your future?
Do you feel deeply loved?
When was the last time you felt carefree?
I know, it’s not even fair to ask. Our souls are bleary, seared, smeared. Still able to love, yes; still able to hope and dream. But at the end of any given day, most people come home in a state of exhaustion. Numb on our good days, fried more often than we admit. “I feel all thin, sort of stretched,” as Bilbo Baggins said, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”3
The world has gone completely mad, and it’s trying to take our souls with it.
Now, if we had more of God, that would really help. We could draw upon His love and strength, His wisdom and resilience. After all, God is the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9). If we had more of His lavish life bubbling up in us, it would be a rescue in this soul-scorching hour.
But this frantic, volatile world constantly wilts the soul, dries it out like a raisin, making it almost impossible to receive the life God is pouring forth.
That’s called a double bind.
I tried to find more of God, knowing if I only had a greater measure of His life in me, I’d be able to navigate this rough terrain. I was practicing the usual stuff — prayer, worship, scripture, sacrament. But still I felt… I don’t know… shallow somehow. Sipping God with teaspoons, not drinking great gulps; wading, not swimming. My soul felt like a shallow rain puddle. But I know the soul isn’t a shallow puddle at all; it’s deep and vast, capable of symphonies and heroic courage. I wanted to be living from those deep places, but I felt trapped in the shoals.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most important books on our world, and what technology is doing to us, is called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. We’re losing our ability to focus and pay attention longer than a few moments. We live at the depth of the text, the swipe, the “like.”4 This isn’t just an intellectual problem; it’s a spiritual crisis. It’s pretty hard to hear “deep calling unto deep”5 when we’re forced into the shallows of our own hearts and souls by this frenetic world.
Jesus heard even my surface prayers; He came to my rescue and began to lead me into a number of helps and practices, what I would call graces. Simple things, like a One Minute Pause, that were accessible and surprising in their power to restore. Learning “benevolent detachment” — the ability to let things go. Allowing for some transition in my day, instead of just blasting from one thing to the next. Drinking in the beauty God was providing in quiet moments. My soul began to recover, feel better, do better — however you want to describe it. I began to enjoy my life with God so much more; I was finally experiencing the “more” of Him I’d been wanting so much. I began to get my life back.
Then I connected the dots….
God wants to come to us and restore our lives. He really does. But if our soul is not well, it’s almost impossible to receive Him. Dry, scorched ground can’t absorb the very rain it needs.
As C. S. Lewis explained in the Problem of Pain, “The soul is but a hollow which God fills.”6 In place of hollow I like the word vessel, something beautiful and artistic. Our souls are exquisite vessels created by God for Him to saturate. I picture the round, curved basin at the top of an elegant fountain, with water spilling down all sides, running over with unceasing life. Wasn’t that the promise? “As Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38).
And so it follows that if we can receive help for restoring and renewing our weary, besieged souls, we’ll enjoy the fruits (which are many and wonderful) of happy souls and also be able to receive more of God (which is even more wonderful). We’ll find the vibrancy and resiliency we crave as human beings, living waters welling up from deep within. And then — we’ll get our lives back!
But the process needs to be accessible and sustainable. We’ve all tried exercise, diets, Bible study programs that began with vim and verve but over time got shoved to the side, lost in the chaos. I have a gym membership; I rarely use it. There are those books I haven’t finished, loads of podcasts too. Rest assured — the graces I am offering here are within reach of a normal life. I think you’ll find them simple, sustainable, and refreshing.
God wants to strengthen and renew your soul; Jesus longs to give you more of Himself. Come, you weary and heavy laden. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life … and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message). You can get your life back; you can live freely and lightly. The world may be harsh, but God is gentle; He knows what your life is like. What we need to do is put ourselves in places that allow us to receive His help. Let me show you how.
Streams in the Desert – February 12
Times have changed, but life’s hard times haven’t
Your heavenly Father knoweth (Matthew 6:32).
A visitor at a school for the deaf and dumb was writing questions on the blackboard for the children. By and by he wrote this sentence: “Why has God made me to hear and speak, and made you deaf and dumb?”
The awful sentence fell upon the little ones like a fierce blow in the face. They sat palsied before that dreadful “Why?” And then a little girl arose.
Her lip was trembling. Her eyes were swimming with tears. Straight to the board she walked, and, picking up the crayon, wrote with firm hand these precious words: “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight!” What a reply! It reaches up and lays hold of an eternal truth upon which the maturest believer as well as the youngest child of God may alike securely rest — the truth that God is your Father.
Do you mean that? Do you really and fully believe that? When you do, then your dove of faith will no longer wander in weary unrest, but will settle down forever in its eternal resting place of peace. “Your Father!”
I can still believe that a day comes for all of us, however far off it may be, when we shall understand; when these tragedies, that now blacken and darken the very air of heaven for us, will sink into their places in a scheme so august, so magnificent, so joyful, that we shall laugh for wonder and delight.
–Arthur Christopher Bacon
No chance hath brought this ill to me;
‘Tis God’s own hand, so let it be,
He seeth what I cannot see.
There is a need-be for each pain,
And He one day will make it plain
That earthly loss is heavenly gain.
Like as a piece of tapestry
Viewed from the back appears to be
Naught but threads tangled hopelessly;
But in the front a picture fair
Rewards the worker for his care,
Proving his skill and patience rare.
Thou art the Workman, I the frame.
Lord, for the glory of Thy Name,
Perfect Thine image on the same.