How To Fortify Your Faith (Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16)

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday….

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.” (English Standard Version)

Continual Use

Reading and praying the psalms over and over again is a major way of fortifying faith for a lifetime of handling adversity. 

Psalms are meant to be constantly viewed and used, like watching a good movie several times. Lines from the film become etched in our thinking and vocabulary, not because we sought to memorize them, but because of the many viewings. 

Psalm 91 is a good psalm – one we can read and pray so many times that its theology and message are internalized. It can serve as a rock in times of trouble. Security, safety, and confidence eventually replace fear, worry, and insecurity. Let the divine words of the psalter become part of a routine regimen of facing down the troubles of life.

The Church’s Prayer Book

Historically, the Old Testament Psalms have been the church’s prayer book. The medieval church so valued constant prayer that many people in the middle ages made substantial donations to monasteries so that monks and nuns, largely freed from manual labor, could become “professional” pray-ers on behalf of the rest of society.

Many of them lived a complete life of prayer, praying day and night. Most Benedictine monks and nuns chanted all 150 psalms once a week in a cycle of seven daily “hours.” One of the first tasks required of novices was to memorize the Psalms – all of them – which took anywhere from six months to two years.

In the New Testament book of Acts, when the original apostles needed to clarify their most sacred obligations, they decided to give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The New Testament writers pray and quote the Psalms more than any other book of the Old Testament.

Praying the Psalms

The best introduction there is to the Psalms is to begin praying them because the psalms teach us how to pray. Learning the Psalms means praying the Psalms, and praying the Psalms means praying them repeatedly.

If you are not yet convinced why we ought to pray the Psalms, let me offer some more reasons:

1. We learn the promises of God and how to pray relying on those promises. It is both appropriate and necessary to acknowledge God’s promises, remind God of those promises, and look for God to fulfill them.

2. We pick up how to pray together as a community, and not just as individuals.

3. We discover that our hearts need some help with prayer.

“The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Our hearts can sometimes deceive us. Yet, if we can be mindful to tether our hearts to God’s Word, we can focus on what God has promised – and not simply on what we want or expect.

What’s more, by only following our hearts, we may only pray when we feel like it. 

A common temptation is to give up reading Scripture and praying whenever our enjoyment is gone. If we only do things when we feel like it, most of us would never get up in the morning. Prayer and Bible reading are important spiritual disciplines, even on the days we are not inspired to do so.

In truth, to enjoy the Word of God, we must continue to read it; and the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying. The less we read, the less we desire to read; and the less we pray, the less we desire to pray.

4. We attain confidence and joy in speaking with God, just like a small child boldly asking for what she wants in wonderful anticipation of getting it.

5. We unearth direction and guidance for our lives; the Psalms are the GPS for our souls.

6. We join a praise and prayer team that has been going on for thousands of years by believers across the ages in all kinds of cultures. Our spiritual forebears serve as a great cloud of witnesses testifying to the power of God to sustain and grow our faith, hope, and love.

7. We realize the heart of God and adopt that heart as our own heart. In praying, we get to know who God is, and we discover the prayers the Lord delights to answer.

In summary, we bring our own situations and experiences to the Psalms and permit the psalter to reshape our thoughts and our prayers. 

This mentality and discipline forms us into God’s people by re-directing our lives with God’s promises and plans. 

The Psalms are meant to transform us. Repeated exposure to Holy Scripture and daily praying through the psalms will change the way we live our lives and our perspective on the world.

May the Lord Jesus Christ guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, the assaults of evil spirits, the wrath of the wicked, the sinful nature, and the fear of both the known and unknown.

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

Overwhelming Victory in Overcoming Suffering (Romans 8:31-39)

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New Living Translation)

There is a way to overcome suffering; there’s a path you can follow, leading to the overcoming of your struggle.

That struggle with suffering comes in many forms:

  • Wrestling with guilt and shame;
  • Dealing with the meanness of others
  • Chronic physical pain
  • Continual financial trouble
  • Ongoing estranged relationships
  • Past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present
  • Constant feelings of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems
  • A crippling Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression)

These and a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world can discourage and debilitate us.

I invite you to consider that the road ahead will likely be counter-intuitive to how you may currently be thinking about overcoming suffering. In fact, it might be so far off your radar that you might simply discard what I’m about to say to you.

But before I get to that, I’ll say first, that suffering is endemic to the human condition. Everyone suffers. Since we live in a fallen world, there is not one person who hasn’t suffered in some way, whether it is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional. 

None of us will ever be immune to affliction. There is no way to insulate yourself from pain. If you are not currently suffering in some way, it means that you are either coming off a time of hardship or are about to enter a new period of distress.

Holiness and godliness don’t keep suffering at bay. Just the opposite. The Lord Jesus promised us that following him will involve suffering: 

“While you are in this world, you will have to suffer.” (John 16:33)

The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand the reality of suffering. Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Lord.  If Christ suffered, his followers shall suffer, as well.

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered.” (1 Peter 4:12-13, CEV) 

James, the Lord’s brother, wisely discerned that suffering could become a teacher for the Christian; all the adversity the believer faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.

“My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested.” (James 1:2-3, CEV) 

The Apostle Paul was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus; he continually faced terrible circumstances. His reflections on the matter are sage and true:

“Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others.” (2 Timothy 3:12, CEV) 

“Suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5, CEV)

“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29, NIV)

The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it. Although suffering is a part of being in the world, yet Jesus said:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV)

Now, let’s wheel back around to the overcoming of suffering. Here is the truth and the practice we must adopt when it comes to suffering: 

The truth about overcoming suffering comes not from us, but through Christ; and the practice of overcoming suffering doesn’t come from fighting against it but by sitting with it and learning from it.

Stated a different way: Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross, he absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone. Your suffering, then, may hurt and it might be senseless; yet no matter it’s source, that suffering will always rule over you unless you invite it to take a seat with you and have a conversation with it.

More pointedly: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.

Your suffering is trying to tell you something. 

If you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you. You can’t beat suffering. You can only learn from it. And you’ll only learn from it, even overcome it, when you embrace it. 

So, here’s the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural practice that you might not like and might think I’m off my rocker for suggesting: Submit to suffering.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles or trauma. Evil is evil, and no amount of saying otherwise will change the leopard’s spots. However, only through submitting to the process of what suffering teaches us will we ever have power over it.

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Let’s liken suffering to encountering a bear in the wilderness. The National Park Service gives us this advice if facing a bear while out hiking:

“Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, these strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating:”

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do not run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.

Fighting suffering is about as useful as taking on a bear. Both bears and suffering can be dangerous. We don’t blame bears if they act like bears. Likewise, we ought not be surprised when suffering hurts. But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for its large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.

Face suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble. Calmly identify yourself. Talk in low tones to your suffering. Speak to it. Remember who you are. You belong to God. Treat suffering as if it is curious about you. Stay calm. Freaking-out only encourages suffering to attack. 

If you’re alone, that’s not good. Walking with others in Christian community is one of the best practices of the Christian life. Suffering is intimidated by groups of people encouraging one another and showing hospitality to each other. Keep your eye on suffering. Don’t ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there. 

Don’t run. The Lord is with you. Face suffering. Keep it in front of you. It will pass, but you must be patient and calm. Once it is gone, then you can reflect on what happened and debrief with others about the experience.

The path to overcoming suffering is to acknowledge it, respect it, submit to it, and let it pass. Then, you will be able to consider it joy whenever you face various struggles, knowing that your faith is being exercised, and perseverance developed. (James 1:2-4)

Stop fighting. Stop going it alone. Don’t be a martyr. Be silent. Listen. Change suffering from an adversary to fight to a companion to learn from.

You and I have nothing to lose. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

1 Timothy 4:6-16 – Train Yourself to Be Godly

If you explain these things to the brothers and sisters, Timothy, you will be a worthy servant of Christ Jesus, one who is nourished by the message of faith and the good teaching you have followed. Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas and old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself to be godly. “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it. This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers.

Teach these things and insist that everyone learn them. Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.

Do not neglect the spiritual gift you received through the prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you. Give your complete attention to these matters. Throw yourself into your tasks so that everyone will see your progress. Keep a close watch on how you live and on your teaching. Stay true to what is right for the sake of your own salvation and the salvation of those who hear you. (New Living Translation)

There are several metaphors throughout the New Testament illustrating the nature of the Christian life and Christian community.

God’s people are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the house where the Lord dwells; the Body of Christ, a group working together and strengthening one another in faith; the army of the Lord, advancing with the shared purpose of proclaiming good news and extending God’s benevolent rule – just to name a few.

All the metaphors are embedded with the need for training, for spiritual disciplines and practices which strengthen faith and promote spiritual health.

Just as an army of recruits needs intense basic training and ongoing discipline; and just as the body needs hourly movement and daily exercise of its muscles; so, Christian communities require spiritual development with a variety of forms and functions to elicit and establish a solid godly life.

The curriculum in the school of faith; the liturgy within the spiritual temple; the boot camp for the Lord’s soldier; and the repetitions for Christ’s Body, all involve reading and listening to Holy Scripture. And furthermore, to do so with rhythms of personal and corporate integrity, confident faith, steadfast love, encouraging words, and virtuous behavior.

If we dedicate ourselves to these things, there will be no room for entertaining wacky stories which have no basis in truth. Instead, there will be lush spiritual growth, teachable spirits, humble service, supportive beliefs, compassionate ministry, and open fellowship.

The high values of the worthy servant of Christ need to be both used and guarded. With all of our treasured earthly possessions, whatever they may be, we handle them appropriately and carefully – keeping them in a secure place when not used – and using them with care when out.

Our faith, our life and doctrine, is both a precious possession to be guarded, as well as a necessary tool to do the will of God.

Just as our bodies have physical muscles, so the Body of Christ has spiritual muscles.

Faith is a muscle which needs to be stretched, exercised, rested, and supplied with plenty of protein and necessary nutrients. Overtaxed muscles will fatigue and can be damaged through too much exertion. And underused muscles will wither and atrophy, unable to handle even the smallest of strain when we need them.

So, it is best to have proper spiritual hygiene and exercise through a regimen of tried and true practices designed to improve and maintain healthy faith. If you want to build your faith, consider the following 10 ways:

  1. Increase your amount of reading. There is no substitute for daily repetitions of reading the Bible. Supporting a growing faith will require more voluminous reading.
  2. Focus on listening to the biblical text. Reading is only as good as our listening skills. For the Christian, paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s gentle whispers is a must.
  3. Decrease your media time. For all the good stuff out there, a lot of media information is based in myth, half-truths, and opinions masked as facts – not to mention all the hack and huckster preachers.
  4. Pray more. In fact, pray continually.
  5. Practice gratitude – not complaining. Need I say more?
  6. Snack on good spiritual reading. Consuming a good book before bed keeps the faith muscle fed longer.
  7. Rest! When God created and instituted seven days, the first day was a day of rest; the workdays came after. Don’t flip-flop the divine order.
  8. Supplement with good spiritual conversation. Half-baked theological ideas come from remaining in one’s own cave-like head. Consultation, collaboration, and fellowship help create a rich and full faith.
  9. Don’t overtrain. Good idea: Read the Bible in a year. Bad idea: Read the Bible in a month. Good idea: Digest the contents of ecumenical Creeds and church Confessions. Bad idea: Stuff a bunch of knowledge down your gullet without any love to wash it down. Savor the meal. Don’t be a pig.
  10. Don’t lift too heavy for your faith muscle. The ancient desert fathers spent years developing their faith and could do incredible feats of spiritual strength. Christianity isn’t a competition of keeping up with the Francis of Assisi’s and Martin Luther’s of history. Use the measure of faith given to you and focus on those small daily decisions of trust.

Christianity is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. We persevere to the end, not flame out after taxing ourselves with expectations and responsibilities God never gave us.

Be safe. Be strong. Be smart. Be spiritual. We are all in this together.

Gracious God, fill your Church with truth, the truth with peace, and the peace with love. Where our faith is weak, make it strong; where it is misguided and in error, correct and direct it; where it is amiss, reform it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.

Hebrews 12:3-17 – Don’t Let Bitterness Take Over

Think about Jesus, who endured opposition from sinners, so that you don’t become tired and give up.

You struggle against sin, but your struggles haven’t killed you. You have forgotten the encouraging words that God speaks to you as his children:

“My child, pay attention when the Lord disciplines you.
Don’t give up when he corrects you.
The Lord disciplines everyone he loves.
He severely disciplines everyone he accepts as his child.”

Endure your discipline. God corrects you as a father corrects his children. All children are disciplined by their fathers. If you aren’t disciplined like the other children, you aren’t part of the family. On earth we have fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them. Shouldn’t we place ourselves under the authority of God, the father of spirits, so that we will live? For a short time, our fathers disciplined us as they thought best.

Yet, God disciplines us for our own good so that we can become holy like him. We don’t enjoy being disciplined. It always seems to cause more pain than joy. But later on, those who learn from that discipline have peace that comes from doing what is right.

Strengthen your tired arms and weak knees. Keep walking along straight paths so that your injured leg won’t get worse. Instead, let it heal.

Try to live peacefully with everyone, and try to live holy lives, because if you don’t, you will not see the Lord. Make sure that everyone has kindness  from God so that bitterness doesn’t take root and grow up to cause trouble that corrupts many of you. 

Make sure that no one commits sexual sin or is as concerned about earthly things as Esau was. He sold his rights as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterwards, when he wanted to receive the blessing that the firstborn son was to receive, he was rejected. Even though he begged and cried for the blessing, he couldn’t do anything to change what had happened. (God’s Word Translation)

Bitterness begins with a seed of resentful anger…

it steadily grows within the soil of antagonism…

then, buds of hostility pop out…

and a devastating crop of corruption, injustice, chaos, and trouble feeds the community with death.

A bitter spirit doesn’t appear overnight.

Something happens, an event for which a person neither wanted nor expected.

And life becomes more difficult and sad.

A change or a loss occurred. It could be anything: a spouse walks out and asks for divorce; a job transfer or termination happens without any warning or discussion; estrangement occurs between friends; the house burns down; a bankruptcy looms in the near future; it’s hard to make ends meet; items are stolen; assault, abuse, and ridicule violate a person, family, or community.

These and a thousand other events happen in this old fallen world. It makes us angry, and rightly so. And yet, if that anger stews within us for too long, and grudges are nursed and coddled, it turns eventually into the bitterness which gives us gangrene of the soul. Then, like a nasty weed, the bitterness spreads and takes over the garden.

Don’t let bitterness take over your garden.

The ancient Hebrew Christians were in danger of losing their resolve and reneging on their commitment to Christ. Their circumstances had been so adverse, for so long, that they just did not have any more fight in them to keep going. 

The believers were losing their faith. They began holding onto grudges and letting go of their spiritual commitment; instead of holding fast to perseverance and discarding their resentments toward others, and even God.

Yes, life was a challenge. But, no, it wasn’t because God didn’t love them or was in some way just mean or capricious. The struggling believers were invited to see their adversity as education by correction in the school of hard knocks. It was a class in faith formation, and many of them were failing it.

God loves us enough to not always make everything a bowl of Cap’n Crunch or a plate full of bacon. The Lord is going to dish up some broccoli and brussels sprouts and expects us to eat it – even if we don’t like it or don’t want to. We aren’t going to have a healthy faith apart from it, and God is just being a good Father.

It isn’t what happens to us that matters; it’s how we interpret what happened to us that makes all the difference.

Hard unwanted circumstances will either make us bitter, or better. They will never leave us the same.

The path to perseverance, healthy interpretations, and keeping the seed of bitterness away is through keeping our minds on Jesus and being kind to one another. Antagonism cannot grow in the soil of grace and mercy.

Sometimes we might forget that Jesus didn’t have it so easy on this earth. He faced ridicule, insults, hardship, and was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Eventually, he was tortured and killed, having done nothing wrong and everything right. And there was absolutely no bitterness in his heart about any of it.

If that was the path for our Lord, then it is silly to think that, as Christ’s followers, we should avoid suffering and hardship. 

So, think about Jesus.

Consider him who endured suffering without resentment.

Don’t give up.

Keep your head and your heart in the game.

Feelings of resentful anger, giving up, and getting back at others only brings self-harm and makes life unnecessarily difficult for everyone. Whenever such feelings arise, it is our inner person’s warning that it is time to retreat with God and get a divine perspective on your situation.

Jesus, you are the Suffering Servant who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell. In the scope of eternity, it is a small thing for me to live for you and face any kind of ridicule and hardship it might bring to me. I only ask to be in solidarity with you in all things. Amen.