I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.
He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.
Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help. He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.
He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall.
He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;
We may call it a crisis, but the Lord calls it an opportunity. From His perspective it is an opportunity to bring a deeper consolation to our souls so that we can find ourselves more satisfied in Him; so we can experience the God who is Enough for us! But we are only transformed to this deeper place of Christ as our sole satisfier if our false rests and pseudo-saviors breakdown. This is at the heart of the disorientation of midlife. Through our 20s and 30s our souls find temporary satisfaction in relationships, roles and results. But as we approach our 40s all the way through to almost our mid- 50s, those relationships, roles and results begin to disintegrate or drain of their power to fulfill. This becomes a catalyst to expose our exaggerated needs for security, control and affirmation creating anxiety, disorientation and anger. And though we search to resolve our new undefined feelings in many places sometimes creating even greater problems, the solution is a spiritual one.
Midlife reveals to many of us that we have not allowed our initial introduction to Jesus to deepen into a deep intimate knowing. We talk about having a personal relationship with God, but the reality is that many of us have less knowledge of God than we have of our casual acquaintances. J.I. Packer says, “a little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about Him.” Too easily we have settled for knowing about God which is not a substitute for deep personal knowing. So midlife becomes the opportunity to step out into vulnerability and uncertainty and be met by the Lord who wants to satisfy your deepest needs and answer your most personal queries. So….
When We Ask: Who am I? “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”
He Answers: “You’re my Child. You belong to me. I have taken away your shame and given you a new identity filled with eternal value and dignity! Talk to me.”
When We ask: “Where am I?” “Will I have to face the future alone?” “Will everyone abandon me?”
He Answers: “I have a plan for you, and I will go with you into a certain future to provide comfort and courage to you. You will never be alone! Just hang onto me and trust me.”
When We ask: How am I doing? Why aren’t my strategies to control working? Why do I feel so angry and resentful?
He Answers: Because I have conquered death and hell, life is no longer a struggle to be won. The battle has been won and the enemy has been defeated! So, do you really have any right to be angry? I’m in control, I’ve got this! Nothing in your life is wasted and all will be redeemed for your benefit.
Why is it that the middle of everything is the most difficult? The beginning is usually filled with excitement, anticipation and expectation and the adrenaline usually carries you for a while. While the end has its own celebration of patience, endurance and perseverance and the satisfaction of a job well done! It is the middle where all of the battles are fought, all of the decisions are made and challenges, obstacles and hurdles are faced. And some of these take us off guard, surprising even the most prepared among us.
The middle presents us with questions we were never forced to entertain before. Questions like “Now what?” and “What does all of this mean?” In the beginning we entered with certainty and confidence, but the middle throws us for a loop and we experience uncertainty, fear, frustration, disappointment anger, shame, and doubt. From the initial perspective in the beginning, the future was always bright, but the middle is ruled by the dankness of the mundane and ordinary. This sometimes produces disorientation in identity and direction and we wonder internally, “Is this all there is?” or “Has my life been a waste?” In the middle, we interact with our own thoughts asking deeper questions about ourselves and our lives while rarely admitting them aloud:
Who am I?
In the beginning, I thought I knew who I was. I was able to define myself based on the job I performed, the important role I played, or the special relationship I had. But in the middle, I don’t feel as valuable and worthwhile as I once did by defining myself as I did. Things have changed. Now I wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” and “Why am I talking to myself?”
Where am I?
In the beginning, the future seemed clear, secure and filled with exciting probabilities. But in the middle, the support system that once provided security hasn’t proven reliable. Now I’m left to find a safe way forward to a uncertain future. As I try to figure things out in my head thinking up strategies to be safe, I’m filled with anxiety and dread. Now I wonder, “Will I have to face the future alone?” “Will everyone abandon me?”
How am I doing?
In the beginning, life felt like a struggle to be won and my efforts to control relationships and circumstances through my own strategies helped me to stay on top. Fixating on my assessment and judgment of things has helped me to prevent being dominated, tainted or upset. But in the middle I’ve exhausted my abilities to be able to control everything and everyone in my life and now I’m just resentful or angry. At who? At everybody!
The Middle is part of a Divine Conspiracy
In the middle, all of our exaggerated needs are exposed, the sinful passions that have always ruled our lives fail us and our shallow heart commitment to the Lord is exposed. But the middle sets us up for a deeper encounter with Christ to have our deeper personal questions of identity, significance and direction answered and to experience God’s goodness and favor at a level never before grasped. The middle is the opportunity for the Lord to impart hope to our souls as we learn to be satisfied in Him. In the middle we learn that God is Enough!
What is being a Christian all about? Sometimes even Christians imagine that being a Christian means to have a certain ideology which contains a political or social agenda that would solve the country’s problems. Others consider Christianity the best way to attain Your Best Life Now as if believing certain Christian-like truths will make them more successful, more popular and give them more control over their lives. Some think that being a Christian gives them an intellectual upper-hand that they can enjoy because it makes them feel smarter than everyone else. While others find Christianity as the pathway to financial independence and wealth so that they don’t have to ever rely on anyone else.
But the Scriptures teach a different substance and meaning of the Christian Life that does not consist in a political agenda, an economic solution, nor does it impart a pathway to success, popularity or financial independence. And it certainly is not the way to put you more in control of your life or to give you power over others. So then what does it mean to be a Christian? Being a Christian is about an ongoing intimate encounter with The Risen Savior who will progressively intertwine your heart with His so that you love what He Loves and grieve over what grieves Him. Jesus Christ is about making “little Christs” (Christians) whose hearts are so captured by the grace of the gospel that Christ becomes their who? what? where? when? and why? For Jesus the meaning of being a Christian is that He would become your identity, significance, destination, direction, and motivation. He becomes your Everything.
So if you’re looking for Peace with the Righteous Judge of the Universe, if you want to be washed of your guilt, and given a new identity to replace your shame, if you’re willing to live dependently passing the control of your life to another, and if you want to live forever in the full enjoyment of God for all eternity, then Christianity is for you!
If Christianity was illegal and you were accused of being a disciple of Christ, how would you plead? If admitting to the accusations would cost you something that you hold dear: your life, your freedom, your job, your reputation, your savings, how would you plead? Secondly, If you were accused of being a follower of Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict you in a court of law? Could the prosecution find enough evidence to support their case and bring the jury to the place of rendering a guilty verdict?
The prosecution would seek to convince a jury of the truth of the accusation that you are a True Christian by proving its certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. http://www.lectlaw.com defines reasonable doubt as:
The level of certainty a juror must have to find a defendant guilty of a crime. A real doubt, based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence, or lack of evidence, in a case. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, is proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs. However, it does not mean an absolute certainty.
What kind of evidence would they present to prove you are a Christian? Evidence would be produced which could prove the affections of your heart: your love for Christ, your love for His Church and your love for people along with evidence that would prove your Christian virtue, morality and theological beliefs. They would present bank accounts, credit card statements, charitable giving records, personal calendars, travel and cell phone logs and even internet history. But weighing heaviest in such a case would be the witnesses they would present (remember the prosecution is seeking to prove that you are a Christian.)
Taking the stand to provide testimony would be people who knew you best: relatives, neighbors, friends, fellow church members, employers, employees and those with whom you have conducted business (your spouse can’t be forced to testify against you and it is highly unlikely that your children would be mandated- do these realities help your case or not?) To establish the credibility of a witness several criteria would be used:
- Is the witness honest?
- Is the witness able to give testimony to what he had actually seen?
- How many witnesses are there?
- Is there consistency in their testimony?
- Does the circumstantial evidence fit their claims?
- Does the witness have a bias or partiality?
But there is another type of witness who if produced, could give the prosecution the strongest case possible: Your Enemy! Your enemy is a person who hates you, he’s your #1 critic, your personal adversary, he magnifies and exaggerates your weakness, foibles and inconsistencies. He continually and cynically questions your motives. If your enemy told the whole truth and nothing but the truth about you what would he say about you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the lack of depth and experience in our personal relationships as well as the lack of experience in our relationship with God. Evangelicals have basically coined the phrase, “personal relationship with God,” but when pressed further about its experiential meaning, the answers merely revolve around the forensic (legal) language of substitution, atonement, imputation and propitiation (all of which I hold firmly). I understand that Christianity has been a battle for ideas, especially in the early years and during the time of the Reformation but we have become polemicists (masters of disputation and debaters of ideas) instead of children of God who deeply experience our Heavenly Father and so there is no one there for our hearts. So, because our leaders and teachers are great at defining the battle over the ideas of the gospel, we have learned and followed but the results have been that we have largely missed the God of the Gospel. Oh how easy it is so easy to accept ideas about God as a replacement for an experience of Him. Even the language of the Scriptures is rich with experiential language calling us to koinonos (an intimate companion, mutual sharer and partaker) and its derivative, koinonia (communion by intimate participation) with Him.
Listen to and experience the intimate language of John’s first epistle,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and indeed our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Earlier this week, I heard from a missionary friend overseas who privately commented regarding my blogposts from Monday and Tuesday. With his permission, I will relate some of our conversation. He said that he has seen that particularly the generation of younger 20’s and early 30’s seem to be struggling with an inability to build true relationships with others. He and his team felt that young people are substituting social networking for real relationships and that because of this they lacked the real ability and skills to connect with each other on a personal basis. The effect of this substitution is that so many more young people are feeling lonely and isolated. He also said that the irony seems to be that this generation craves community but they turn to social media as their source of community which is no real community at all and they are left wanting.
This is not to completely debunk the social media phenomenon which has great potential to connect people in ways that we were never connected before. (i.e. – my friend reads my blog from a link on a social media website and sends me a message about it via the same social media.) But my friend and I agree that social media is not intended to replace normal relationship building and emotional bonding. It is not the primary way to connect us to others, it is only an add-on or a layer of connection.
I love technology and I love social media. They are not the problem. The problem is that our hearts turn these media into a counterfeit for koinonia so when we look to facebook to be our relationships, we miss the real thing. Could it be that once again our own hearts are our downfall and that we are naturally moving to lesser desires not greater ones? Could it be that we are becoming satisfied with the “relational connections” and “friendships” that social media provides and we are losing our appetites for the real thing? Likely this is one more example of what CS Lewis said in His Weight of Glory address,
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Today I am more connected than ever before. You can contact me via my three phone numbers, my four email addresses, instant messenger and my skype account. Did I mention that you can also facebook me, send me a tweet, or even comment on my blog? Oh, and I am also available for lunch today. But while there is this 360° communication field about me that is available 24 hours of every day and there is more information about me, the way I think and my preferences available for public consumption than ever before (just google john estorge or request me as a friend on facebook) I struggle more to be truly known and to truly know others than previous generations. Could it be that my virtual connectedness has become a substitute, even an unrecognizable counterfeit for true connectedness to others and to God?
As I talk and counsel with folks in their forties down to their teens, what lies behind all of their struggles is a lack of healthy inter-connectedness to God, self and others. What is missing is an experiential knowledge of God, self and others. A.W. Tozer comments, “We have substituted theological ideas for an arresting encounter; we are full of religious notions but our great weakness is that for our hearts there is no one there.” While I may know facts about God, do I really know Him? And when I need Him, which should be daily if I really knew myself, does my heart even know how to find Him? Once again in our relationship with God and others we have substituted the knowledge of ideas and facts for true experiential knowledge. Maybe I’m weaker than most, but my heart can’t survive in a world where ideas are substituted for experience. Johann Arndt adds, “There are many who suppose that Theology is merely a science, or an art of words, whereas it is a living experience and practical exercise. Every one now aims at acquiring eminence and distinction in the world; but no one is willing to learn how to be devout.”
My heart longs for a greater inter-connectedness and mutual experience of koinonia with God and others. I desire to participate with God and others in genuine, experiential ways. To have communion by intimate participation, to know and be known by God and others. This is what He desires for us. This is what is wrapped up in koinonia. And I’m afraid we’ve settled for less.
We translate the greek word, koinonia using words that have become almost meaningless to us today. We use words like “fellowship” “participation” or even “partaking.” Sometimes we will use an even more ambiguous word, “communion” These words don’t really do justice to the meaning. I have attempted in the past to draw attention to the word and even attempt to re-define it as “communion by intimate participation,” which might temporarily arrest us to look again but I admit that my definition has only minimal impact on how we could view our connection with God and each other.
But the Biblical writers intended a greater inter-connectedness and mutual experience for us in the use of this word. And to a world that experiences life, relationship, connection and even church from behind a firewall, grasping the intended experience of koinonia with God and each other is crucial lest we continue down a path to a surrogate society of isolation where we are only virtually connected to God, church and others. We are living in a reductionist society of ideas and virtual realities and while we can explain our realities better than we ever could we have a lesser experience of them.
Julie Canlis in her book Calvin’s Ladder cites Owen Barfield in saying,
“When a Greek person living in the classical world experienced the world around him, he did not do so via a system of ideas about his experience but instead felt an “extra-sensory link” between what he saw and his own self… The participation of the ordinary man was a livelier and more immediate experience… . This was due to the koinonia-consciousness of the classical world (which persisted in varying forms right up until the scientific revolution).”
To the Greek world of the first century, Koinonia was the way to experience the world now. Koinonia was originally understood in the context of a historical setting when individuality and the boundaries of self were not harshly drawn and we cared more about what we experienced than merely about the ideas that described our experience. George Hunsinger underscores the importance and elusiveness of koinonia for us today.
“Koinonia means that we are not related to God or to one another like ball bearings in a bucket, though a system of external relations. We are rather, something like relational fields that interpret, form, and participate in each other in countless real though often elusive ways. Koinonia both as a tern and as a reality, is remarkable for its range and flexibility and inexhaustible depth.”
On Sunday, February 20, 2011, I was officially installed as Senior Pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Winterville, NC. On that Lord’s day morning, a friend and fellow soldier in the work of the ministry, Cole McLaughlin delivered a charge to me which was very encouraging to me and others present. Below is a transcript of that charge:
John, my friend, my brother in the gospel, it is now my privilege to give you a solemn charge to persevere in your duties as pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church. To do so I want to give you three simple exhortations. The first is this: John, as you minister to the congregation of Christ Presbyterian Church, Be Unshakably Confident. Now, confidence will sometimes come fairly easily to you. You have a sharp mind, a pithy tongue, and, let’s face it—you even have great hair. But those things don’t bring unshakeable confidence. Because sometimes that sharp mind will get confused, or that eloquent tongue will be tied. And sometimes, criticism will come. And during those times, especially, it will be easy to doubt, to be discouraged. In those times you’ll need to remember, especially that Jesus didn’t come for you because you are a great preacher, or a perfect husband, or the pastor of the year. Jesus came for you because you, like me, are a great sinner. A great sinner who in Christ, is more deeply loved than he can even imagine. In Christ, John, you have God’s highest approval. In Christ is all the confidence that you will ever need. So be strong in his favor. Be strong in his love. Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Be unshakably confident.
Secondly, Be Uncomfortably Honest. John, we Christians don’t always like the truth, but we need you to tell us the truth. I remember you gently rebuking me a few years ago, as I complained about some people who I felt were causing problems for me. You said, “Cole, those people are a problem, yes. But they are not your biggest problem. Your biggest problem is your sinful heart, and that is what God, by his grace, wants to change.” It was honest. It was uncomfortable. It was what I needed to hear. As you minister, be uncomfortably honest. Tell people the truth about their sin. And tell them the truth about Jesus. And I think you find that when you do, they’ll desperately run to Him.
Finally, John, Be Unapologetically Limited. John, you can’t do everything. People will ask you to. But you can’t do it all. Even you, the man with more capacity for work than perhaps anyone else I know. Even you, the master of multi-tasking, who can write a great sermon, have a meaningful phone conversation, coach a little league team, and eat 10 of the hottest habenero hot wings known to man, all in one afternoon—even you cannot do it all. So you will need to say no. A LOT. You will need to sleep. You will need to rest. So do it. Say no. Say no a lot. And know that as you say no, the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ Presbyterian Church, because the Lord, not John, is the one who is tasked with bringing to completion the good work he’s started here. Remember that, and say no. Be unapologetically limited. So there it is, John. Be confident in Christ, tell the truth, and recognize your limits. That is my charge to you as you carry on this work. I look forward to watching as the Lord empowers you to do it well.
– Rev. Cole McLaughlin is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and serves the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ as Director at Duke University.