Thursday, April 24, 2014

Are you having an identity crisis?

What defines you as a Christian? What characterizes your faith? Are you missions-minded? Are you Spirit-filled? Service-oriented? An altruist? A pro-lifer? A prayer warrior? A generous giver? A theologian? An evangelist? Or maybe a you identify yourself as a struggling believer? A doubter? A lost sheep? A failure?

Your answer to the question: what defines you as a Christian? is pivotal. And if your response doesn't flip the subject of this question from a what? to a who? you could potentially be experiencing an identity crisis...
I believe that many Christians today are losing their identity. It's a serious problem that isn't only reserved for Christians who are straying from their faith. Upstanding, well-reputed, practicing Christians can be the victim of an identity crisis. And it usually creeps in when we least expect it. 

When our identity is rooted in being a 5-point-Calvinist, an Arminian, a home-schooler, a Baptist, a Methodist, a Pentecostal, a missionary, a ministry leader, a helper of the poor, a Christian who's "in touch" with culture, ANYTHING other than in Christ, we are missing the mark. These may be good things. Some of them may indeed be crucial, biblically correct things. But they cannot replace Christ. And if they become our identity, we have a problem. We have an identity crisis.

In other words, if we define our identity by our theology, our spiritual gifts, or how we live out our faith, rather than finding it in Christ alone, we are inching down a treacherous path. This is not to say that these things are unimportant. Sound theology is an indispensable means to understanding God's Word (1 Tim 4:16). A God-honoring life should display the fruit of our faith as an essential outworking of our sanctification (Jam 2:14-26). And it is important that our spiritual gifts be used wisely for God's glory (1 Pet 4:10). But theological knowledge can become a source of pride if we get our identity wrapped up in it. We can become self-righteous and legalistic when our focus is on our own achievements rather than on God's grace to us as sinners. And we can become more self-centeredand less Christ-centeredif we get preoccupied with our spiritual gifts rather than being enthralled by the One who so graciously bestowed them on us in the first place. 

The fact is, we're all sinners and we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). It is by grace we have been saved, not by works, so no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9). Seeking our identity in the life-choices we make, like how to dress, how to educate our kids, how to spend our money, what to eat and drink, etc., can too easily lead us to become judgmental of others or to think of ourselves more highly than than we ought. These things, many of which may be meaningful, shouldn't define us.  If they do, we'll end up with a life dominated by pride, insecurity, and eventually failure.

We are all vulnerable to having an identity crisis. I speak from experience, because I've had one myself. When I had my first baby seven years ago, I experienced a text-book case of identity crisis. I had recently left my job and with it, my sense of worldly significance. I felt purposeless. Rather than using my skills and education, I now spent my days at home with our baby who slept most of the time, leaving me alone to clean up a perpetual mess of misplaced sweet-potato spoonfuls and stray Cheerios. I was having an identity crisis because even though I had been a Christian for years, I had been seeking my identity in the wrong places—in how the world viewed menot in Christ alone.

It is not only when we're struggling, but it's also when we're doing well in our Christian walk, that an identity crisis can occur; like when we've used our gifts to make a difference, when we've experienced a triumph over sin, or when we've made a remarkable accomplishment in ministry, for example. But we must be sure that we don't self-identify with our achievements—or our failurestoo readily. If we continue to give all the glory to God in our high-points and seek refuge in Him during our low-points, we will be protected from losing sight of our true identity. This might seem like Christianity 101, but simple truths like these can easily elude us if we don't stay grounded. Scripture says, "let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor 10:12). Paul is talking here about temptation. Have you ever noticed that it's often when you think you're doing pretty well in your Christian walk that you suddenly find yourself falling? You get complacent for a moment, maybe even a little arrogant, and before you know itwham!you're knocked off your feet. This isn't ultimately a bad thing. Being brought to our knees can be the most convicting reminder of our deep-seated need for God.

A hard-hitting example of this recently unfolded in the highly publicized Bill Gothard scandal. Gothard's Advanced Training Institute (ATI) conferences have been the subject of scrutiny since the many allegations of his sexual misconduct went public. ATI has been a popular gathering spot for thousands of Christian families, including the Duggar family from TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” and others from within the Quiverfull movement. But in a recent article, "Growing up Gothard," a former ATI family member, Derek, writes about the problems that come from a Christian culture that's caught up in the throws of what I believe to be a mass-identity crisis.

Derek describes how he grew up within a culture of "quarantined Christianity" in which the sinful and demonic forces of the outside world were shut out in an effort to preserve an oasis of Christian perfection within their community. The ATI culture was inwardly focused, and as a result, "the fatal flaw in the system (other than being completely contrary to the missional purpose to which we are called), is that sin was treated as an external force, rather than internal. The focus on the external resulted in a forced attempt at an appearance of godliness, while burying internal struggles." In other words, the ATI ministry promoted a cultural identity that was based on perfect Christian living. Without their identity being rooted firmly in Christ, it was possible for the ATI community to overlook Jesus' very last, and arguably His most important, commandment to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15). Furthermore, self-righteousness was rife in the community while the internal heart-problem of sin was glossed over, and in some cases completely hidden. 

To recognize that sin is an internal heart-problem necessitates our dependence on Christ and compels us to seek our identity in Himnot in any man-made system or Christian culture. Remembering that our righteousness is imparted to us in Christ, and is not achieved in our own strength, will cause us to doubt in the possibility of a man-made utopia on earth, Christian or notHowever much we shut ourselves off from the sinful world outside, sin will still be rampant in our fallen hearts and will still permeate our families and community. Bill Gothard now faces the shameful reality of his own sin despite creating a false identity for himself and his followers, which concealed it for so long.

Another concerning case of sin being brushed under the rug can be seen in the touchy-feely culture of the emerging church movementa broad, multifaceted movement that generally-speaking seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach younger generations, who have been leaving the church in droves. Rather than an insular, conservative culture like ATI that shuts out the world, though, emerging churches are outreach-focused. Within the movement, there is a general sentiment that the traditional way of doing church has failed, and that the Christian message should be repackaged to be more relevant, and to generate wider appeal, in a post-modern context

But in their attempt to hold the fleeting attention of young people, emerging churches tend to mirror the worldly culture around them rather than presenting a counter-cultural message. In this vein, polarizing truths such as black-and-white issues of right and wrong are conveniently ignored so as not to turn people off or alienate them. The word, sin, is largely avoided in this context, sometimes being replaced with more benign terms such as "mistakes." This approach, however, often fails to address the root causethe heart-problemthat is leading young people to walk away from their faith in the first place. Instead of addressing the heart-issue of sin, the tendency is to focus on emotional healing or behavior modification, which is like applying mere band-aids to expanding wounds in sinful hearts.

By glossing over the seriousness of sin in order to appeal to a worldly audience, our need for a Savior is marginalizedand a large-scale identity crisis is perpetuatedIn fact, the unoffensive message preached in many emerging churches gives seekers the impression that their existing sense of identity can remain intactbecause God loves them "just as they are." This conveniently by-passes the gospel-centered truth that God does love them, and is pursuing a relationship with them, but His love for them is exactly why He wants to make them new in Christ. This is why He doesn't want to leave them steeped in self-destructive lives of fleshly sin! Sadly, however, seekers are often encouraged, within the emerging church culture, to remain secure in their pre-existing state of identity crisis. And so, the opportunity to share the good news that they can be miraculously transformed in Christ is tragically missed.

An identity crisis is not to be taken lightly. It can have devastating, self-destructive results. For example, an identity crisis is arguably what led to Satan's downfall from Heaven. The Bible tells us that before his fall, Satan was the “anointed cherub” (Eze 28:14) and “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.” (Eze 28:12b) It is likely that Satan was one of the highest of all angels because he had enough influence to convince one third of them to join him in his rebellion (Rev 12:4). There is speculation that Satan was the leader of worship in Heaven. But what we know for sure is that Satan found his identity in the wrong places. He didn't find his identity in being an angel of God. Instead, his identity was wrapped up in being the special oneone who was exalted above others. His identity was rooted in pride. And the effects of this were catastrophic. The fact is, Satan rebelled against God despite being anointed by, and in close relationship with, Him. This sends a chilling warning to us as Christians, doesn't it? Satan's story shows us how important it is that our identity be firmly anchored in Christ. And if it isn't, it is always rooted in some form of pride. 

Satan wants us to seek our identity in prideful things, just like he does. And our fallen hearts will likely succumb to this temptation if we don't keep our eyes off ourselves and fixed on Jesus. Jesus made it clear that following Him involves denying oneself and taking up one's cross daily (Luke 9:23). Ironically, denying ourselves isn't to become enslaved; It is to become free from enslavement to our fleshly desires. (God's truth often turns human logic upside-down doesn't it?) These desires lead to death, but those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). Denying ourselves, then, actually serves to protect us from destroying ourselves.

This is a daily process. For me personally, it's a struggle to surrender my heart each day. I can easily get too busy with "immediately pressing" needs or get preoccupied with my own thoughts and activities. It's at these times that I quickly begin to lose myself to a myopic world that's all about me. It's when I'm not consciously seeking after Jesus that I find my true identity slipping away. And my thought-patterns start to reflect an internal monologue, a commentary on my self-absorbed worries and concerns, rather than a conversation with God about His will, His thoughts, and His ways. In these moments, it helps just to stop and take a deep breath. Sometimes, I do this while praying, "more of You (breathing in), less of me (breathing out)." It really works!

Paul's words are so powerful when he writes, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal 2:20). We can be encouraged to live by faith knowing that in Christ, we are a new creation. The old has passed away and behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17). Praise Him that we have a new identitya righteous identityas children of the living God! We can put off the old self, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24).

I'd rather have an identity that reflects the likeness of God than my own sinful nature any day!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How in the World Should I Live?

The perennial question, how should I live out my faith as a Christian in a world that has rejected Christ? has occupied my thoughts for many years. Living in the Washington, DC area, I have been exposed to a wide variety of interpretations of what it means to live life as a Christian. I have asked other believers for their points of view and the answers I've received have varied quite a bit. I've asked questions like, are we to be counter-cultural or culturally sensitive? Are we to be relevant to the world or radically different from it? And how much in the world can we really be without being of it? These are issues that we all have to consider, not just for our own lives, but also in our churches at large. We need to ask ourselves: Are we to be radical or relevant, or somewhere in between? 

The term "relevant" in the Christian context refers to the widespread effort over the last decade or two to make Christianity more relatable to younger generations (who are leaving the church in droves) by speaking more directly to their lives. More often than not, trying to be relevant to young people has led churches to mirror secular culture as opposed to presenting a counter-cultural worldview. 
I've also noticed that Christians who are more culturally relevant in their lifestyle share more common ground with unbelievers than Christians who live out their faith in a more radical way. The same goes for "seeker-friendly" churches that attempt to be relevant over being radical. At times, I have wondered if Christians who are more entrenched in the ways of the world are better positioned to outreach to unbelievers because they can relate to them more easily and haven't alienated themselves as much as the more radical Christians have. 

When my husband and I had children, we began to discuss the topic of how to live in the world with a renewed sense of urgency. We asked ourselves, how can we best prepare our children for adult life in a secularizing culture? How much of the world should we expose them to and how much should we protect them from? I started to worry that we would turn them into Christian kooks in a hostile world if we were too radical, or sheltered them too much, in our parenting. I worried that if we acted "too Christian," we would turn people off, and alienate ourselves. But then I would also worry that if we compromised too much on our biblical convictions, we wouldn't be helping our children build a solid foundation for a faith that endures. 

It was when I actually turned to Scripture for the answers, however, that things started to become clear. The problem is, I had been getting lost down a confusing rabbit trail of thoughts and theories of my own mental construction. I was getting bogged down in the "buts," and the "what ifs," and the "on-the-other-hands." Instead of going to God's Word first, I had been looking to the world for the answers, focusing primarily on the conflicting opinions of other people
. But God's Word has a funny way of turning human ideas upside down, doesn't it? It was one of those be-careful-what-you-ask-for kind of scenarios because going to Scripture with a surrendered heart will always provide answers...but the truth is not always easy to swallow! The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12). God's Word certainly cuts to the chase.

The first thing that struck me when I went to Scripture was quite simply that this world is not our home. The beautiful, simple truth of this penetrated my heart more deeply than ever before. We are described in Scripture as sojourners in an alien world, as "foreigners and strangers" whose "days on earth are like a shadow, without hope." (1 Chron 29:15). Our hope is not rooted in this world. And our short lives on earth are like a vapor (James 4:14). The world will tell us to "live in the moment," but the beguiling pleasures it has to offer can entrap us into losing sight of the everlasting riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). The world tells us to focus on the here-and-now, and to indulge the desires of the flesh, but Scripture tells us to live our lives in light of Eternity. This puts the temporary trials and fleeting pleasures of this world into perspective doesn't it? Rather than getting too cozy in the world, then, we are to be sojournerswanderersin the world until we are called home.

As I thought more about what it means to be "foreigners" in the world, I realized that foreigners look, act, and talk differently from the inhabitants of the alien environment around them. They stand out. They speak a different language. So then, as followers of Jesus Christwhom the world has rejectedwe should also stand out from the rest of the world, rather than seeking to blend in with it. Paul tells us not to conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). And he further explains that we, "must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph 4:17-18). Because unbelievers are alienated from God, we, as children of God, are consequently alienated from them. 

Rather than feeling pressure to fit in with contemporary culture or the worldly status quo, Paul says we should "come out and be separate from the world." (2 Cor 6:17). He explains that we should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever and what fellowship can darkness have with lightness? Because God lives in us, and we are His temple, we should come out and be separate from those who worship idols in His place (2 Cor 6:14-18). The use of the analogy of lightness and darkness to show the incompatibility of righteousness and sin is also used by John when he writes, “If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1 John 1:6). 

It is hard to break free from the deceitful patterns of this world, if we fellowship with darknessif we live life in close partnership with those who worship the things of this world. This should not be misconstrued as an excuse to retreat into a holy huddle, however. We should wholeheartedly reach out in the love of Christ to unbelievers. We are called to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt 28:19), and this can't be achieved inside a Christian bubble. For my husband and I this means we enjoy friendships with those who don't share our faith and try to witness to unbelievers. However, we live life closely with fellow Christians because we share a deeper level of intimacy and spiritual understanding that is unique to the Body of Christ. 

For me, it's all about balance. I don't think my family and I have to be outright weirdos or something...In many ways, we are a pretty average family (with a few quirks here and there for sure!). Personally, I like to follow fashion and other cultural trends within reason. But it's important to try to keep our motives pure in these things, asking ourselves: are we loving God first or loving the world first? 

The reality is, even if we try to fit in with the world and conform to its patterns, the world may reject us all the same. How many celebrities have we seen rise and fall in popularity? How many people who were once idolized have we seen plummet from fame? The world is ruthless and fickle. But the love of God endures forever. In light of this, it dawned on me with renewed clarity that as followers of Christ, we should seek to please God first, not people first, in all we do. Doing this is not often likely to win us popularity or worldly status. On the contrary; Jesus said, "You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Matt 10:22). Christians are called to believe a foolish message and live a foolish lifestyle. But, God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). Through the Cross, God exposed the wisdom of the world to be a sham (1 Cor 1:19-21). And we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the world! (John 16:33).

As a natural born people-pleaser, this is a refreshing perspective for me. When I am focused on pleasing God first and foremost, I am released from the pressure to win popular approval or to manage other people's perceptions of me. Seeking my identity in Christ is a real confidence booster! After I gave up my career (and with it the pursuit of worldly status) to stay at home with my children, for example, I didn't give up my sense of significance. This is because my significance was no longer based on how I am viewed in the world's eyes, but it is rooted in the fact that God, the Almighty Creator of the universethe Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end—loves me and thinks I am important

In light of this, when my husband and I discuss decisions on how best to raise our kids, or how to live out our faith, we try to do so in a way that honors God first by being obedient to His Word and going to Him in prayer. We no longer base our decisions on the changeable, unreliable opinions of the world, but on God's perfect and unchanging will. So, instead of building our lives on the quick-sand surface of a relativistic world, we're building our lives on the solid rock of absolute truth. Sometimes, the decisions we make may not be the most popular choice, but we can have peace knowing that pleasing God is all that really matters.

Ultimately, I believe that living an authentic life as a Christian is the best witness. Instead of trying to be like the world in order to be accepted by it, I think it's important to keep our identity firmly rooted in Christ, remembering that it's the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse our faith and tweak the gospel to make it more culturally acceptable.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

His Unmistakable Presence in the Darkness

Have you ever experienced God's unquestionable presence in the darkest moments of your life? One of my favorite contemporary Christian songs is Laura Story's "Blessings." Her words resonate deeply with me:

What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are [God's] mercies in disguise

And this line is from the chorus: "What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know [God's] near?"

Her words are so relatable because we've all been there at some point in our lives: wrestling with anxious thoughts in the middle of the night...enduring pain or fear in the darkness. But it is in the midst of our solitary moments of suffering that the presence of God can become all the more real to us. 

It was during one memorable sleepless night that I went through a few years ago that I experienced God's manifest presence in such a powerful way that I will never forget it. It was in a darkened hospital ward in a foreign country where I lay alone in the small hours of the night. I had been wheeled in from an over-crowded emergency room. Unable to speak the language, I couldn't communicate with anyone and had no idea what was happening to me or the baby I was carrying. But I knew it was touch and go.

And when the nurses left, I lay there in the darkness with nothing but the noises of heavy breathing and occasional moans from the other beds. I was petrified. I remember laying there stiff as a board, not wanting to move even the slightest inch, trying to suppress my tears and my trembling. Next to me was a set of large double doors through which came a sickly fluorescent glow. I remember staring at the ceiling tiles above me, tracing around them with my eyes. I found a cross shape in lines between them and started praying. My prayers were frantic and desperate. I wasn't singing God's praises like the Apostle Paul in the prison cell. I was silently screaming to Him. I was terrified of losing the baby so far into the pregnancy there, alone, in a dark hospital ward with my husband thousands of miles away.

But it is in our loneliest, most desperate moments that God touches us with a peace that can only come from Him. As the dark hours ticked on, I lay and I prayed. And at some point, I became aware that I was actually smiling as I lay therein fact, I was beamingand I realized that I had been doing so for quite some time. The tears were gone and the fear had slipped away without me noticing it. I didn't know what was going to happen to me or the baby, but I had the strongest, most comforting sense that someone was sitting next to me in the empty chair at my side. And I literally felt submerged in the presence of God...His lightness had chased away the darkness. The peace and strength I felt did not come from anything I had done myself; I hadn't been meditating, doing breathing exercises, or chanting. I had been panicking. The peace was all from Him. Somehow, He had turned my cries of anguish into prayers of praise, calming my soul with His unmistakable presence. 

It is in the midst of emotional turmoil and overwhelming fear that we can truly experience the peace that passes understanding, for such peace makes no logical sense and transcends our circumstances. It interrupts our frenzied thoughts. In our moments of weakness and desperation, God's strength can be powerfully realized. These experiences show us that we can truly do all things through Him who strengthens us (Phil 4:12-14). These experiences humble us.

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to suffering and desperate situations. He was imprisoned, persecuted, castigated and abandoned by fellow believers, temporarily blinded, and he suffered an ongoing affliction (some commentators have speculated that it was an eye condition resulting from his former blindness). He described his affliction as a "thorn in the flesh," which was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations he had received from God. Paul had pleaded with the Lord to take away the affliction, but God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul resolved then, for the sake of Christ, to be "content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities." (2 Cor 12:7-10).

In life, we may well face a tragedy or time of suffering that we can't handle. This is often misunderstood; have you ever heard people say that God will never allow our circumstances to be more than we can handle? It's a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which states that God "will not let you be tempted beyond your ability." But it's important to note that the verse explicitly refers to temptations, not to trials. Sometimes, God allows us to suffer beyond what we can bear because it is when we can't cope on our own that we're reminded of our dependence on Him. When we turn to Him, He equips us to endure trials in His strength. 

Scripture tells us that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, just as He rescued Lot from Sodom (2 Pet 2:7-9). We should certainly pray for deliverance from our trials. But if the answer is "no" or "not yet," we need trust God all the same, knowing that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28) and His ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:8).

Paul encourages us not to despair even when we face terrible, perplexing times of suffering, "for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison." (1 Cor 4:17). The trials of this life remind us that this world is not our home. We are encouraged, therefore, even to rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Rom 5:3-5).  And our trials point us to Christ as the source of our hope. We are encouraged to look forward to the day when the Lord "will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4).

And for now, while we wait on Him, we can rest in the knowledge that God always listens to, and answers, our prayers. He hears our cries. His loving presence is always there. He hems us in behind and before and every day ordained for us was written in His book before it comes to be (Psa 139). We can be strong and courageous, and not live in fear, because the Lord our God is with us wherever we go (Jos 1:9). As we seek our refuge in Him, He will uphold us with His righteous right hand. And we have assurance that our loving God is way bigger than any problem we will ever have to face.