Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Choice in Suffering

My soul is weary with sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word
 (Ps. 119:28).

When Brittany Maynard opted to end her own life (via legal, doctor-assisted suicide) at the beginning of this month, I was going through a trial. Surprise and anger over my situation were soon replaced by sadness. Comments about Maynard’s brave choice and bold statement made me wonder: what would it feel like to have power over pain? With a heavy, metaphorical anchor on my chest, the thought seemed appealing. Momentarily, of course. But in that moment, I could empathize with Maynard’s desire and ultimate decision. She didn’t want to suffer.

The Washington Post published an article on Maynard with statistics about the motive behind most doctor-assisted suicides:

After reading this, one word came to mind: choice. Maynard was given the right to “die with dignity.” She was given the choice to prevent further suffering. Choice in suffering. Have you ever longed for it? Job certainly did:

Oh, that I might have my request,
    that God would grant what I hope for,
that God would be willing to crush me,
    to let loose his hand and cut off my life! 
(Job 6:8,9)

Like Maynard, Job wanted to die. Both had a desire to be released from pain. But while Job submitted his request to God, Maynard took a life that was not her own (1 Cor. 6:19). One recognized his position as man. The other tried to play God.

The Prospect of Hope

Job was by no means a stoic sufferer. His raw questions confirm this:

What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
    What prospects, that I should be patient? 
(Job. 6:11)

Yet he did not, despite his wife’s advice to curse God and die (Job 2:9), try to end his own life. In chapters worth of monologue about his anguish and pain, the subject of suicide never comes up. Some might explain this as having to do with the laws or cultural expectations of his day. Even Brittany Maynard had to move to Oregon, one of the four states where physician assisted suicide is legal, in order to end her life. Job’s friends and wife had pronounced him cursed and unrepentant. How much influence would “societal expectations” have had on him? No, suicide was not an option because to Job, God was the author of life and death.

Comparing Job and Maynard’s responses leads me to an important question:

Do Christians have any choice in suffering?

The overwhelming answer is yes. Studying the subject of suffering in scripture not only leads one to promises and blessings but choicesMaynard made the choice to end her earthly suffering. Christians have the opportunity to choose life in suffering. Christ in suffering! And hope in every trial. Here are some of the choices we have in our deepest valleys:

We can choose to imitate Jesus:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).

Jesus suffered more than anyone on earth ever has or will, all out of obedience to His Father and love for us. If following him includes suffering, we can count it an honor to suffer.

We can choose to rely on God’s strength:

He gives strength to the weary    
    and increases the power of the weak (Isa. 40:29).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power (Eph. 6:10). 

We are never asked to be strong without God. Despite our culture’s promotion of “inner strength” and the countless bumper stickers and Pinterest quotes  about self-sufficiency, the Christian is called to boast in weakness. For each weakness is an opportunity to point to God’s strength:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me (2 Cor. 12:9, 10).

We can choose to rejoice:

Rejoicing in pain seems unnatural. Yet the passages below provide a larger context for this joy. Trials sanctify. They make us more like Christ. This is something to celebrate:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5).

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

We can choose to anticipate the future:

The Christian knows that all suffering is temporary. We can anticipate the eternal presence of God in paradise, no matter how hard it gets on earth:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).

We can choose the crown of life:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:12).

The Choice in Suffering

There is nothing simple about loving God in suffering. Bitterness, doubt, and alienation are our natural response. To the world, Maynard's choice seems like a logical approach when suffering is certain. But it shouldn't take terminal brain cancer for a Christian to confront the certainty of pain. John 16:33 promises us that in the world you will have tribulation. It’s coming. It’s not going to be easy. It might knock the wind out of you. But you have a choice. 

Written by Rachel Watson

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Christian Millennial's Take on Homosexuality

I don’t want to give it up. 
It’s who I am. I always want to be a part of the crowd that gets to cheer for victory over injustice. But yesterday I wasn’t there, and I felt a sense of loss. 
Yesterday, Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop had a spontaneous wedding ceremony at the Tulsa County Courthouse after hearing that they won their lawsuit over the right to marry. Same-sex couples all over Oklahoma said their vows, as the Supreme Court rejected the proposed bans on gay marriage in multiple states. “My mom and stepdad couldn’t get their marriage license like they planned,” a student told me. “They had it on the calendar for weeks, but the line was too long when they got there!” People here in Tulsa are celebrating with pictures, tweets, and congratulations to the new couples. It is another step toward tolerance and equality. And I feel like I should be in on the excitement. 
This is how it feels to be a Christian Millennial living at a time and in a country where homosexual marriage is referred to simply as “marriage equality.” Who, but heartless bigots, would be against equality? For me, supporting homosexuality is something I must lay down when I take up the cross of Christ.[1] It's not easy. I desire to be a crusader for the underdog. I want people to feel valued and respected. It hurts to think about a day when I have to tell a gay friend that following Christ means giving up the person they love. I dread the inevitable scenario in which I must decide whether or not to attend a gay friend’s wedding. The thought of having to explain that what they view as exciting and beautiful is something God commands us to turn away from makes me cringe. Because, more than anything, I want to be known for my love. 
Love is of God  
What does love look like for a Christ-follower in a culture that celebrates homosexuality? Elton John believes that Christ-like love would accept same-sex relationships. He says: We live in a different time. If Jesus Christ was alive today, I cannot see him, as the Christian person that he was and the great person that he was, saying this could not happen. Are you familiar with this line of reasoning? While being in opposition to drunk driving is acceptable because our culture has deemed it illegal, dangerous, and avoidable, being opposed to the practice of homosexuality alienates me. It makes me appear old-fashioned. It seems not only unnecessary, but unloving. 
It is here that we must define the word love. This is no simple task, but the following passage provides a foundation:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).

In this passage, we see a picture of what love looks like. It looks like God loving us first—sending His perfect Son to a perverse world in order to suffer in our place. It looks like Jesus preaching a message that was an aroma of life to some, but made the rest hate him. It looks like an unseen God coming alive inside His children, empowering them to love in a way they couldn’t before. Love looks like sacrifice. It looks like selflessness. Because love is from God, it cannot faint or run out. It leads us to a well of living water, fresh and bubbling up into eternal life. It leads us to Christ. And Christ obeyed His Father: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:9, 10)

If we are to succeed in Christ-like love, we must imitate him in his obedience to God. We cannot disregard his words and commands regardless of how much our culture despises them. True love is concerned with being loving more than being perceived as loving:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa. 53:3) Jesus knew that loving rightly would be lonely, painful, and ultimately deadly. Are we willing to join him in this love?

Worth the Sacrifice
So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come (Heb. 13:13, 14).

One evening, years ago, I sat in a coffee shop with a friend. As we spoke, I felt comfortable enough to share some sadness. I told him that I was grieved over the absence of love and compassion for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. I spoke out of my own conviction, remembering a time in college when my dorm leader asked us girls to dress more modestly in the halls. Why? I wondered. It’s just girls! Why would we need to be modest in an all girls’ dorm? As if reading my thoughts, she said: Some girls might struggle with homosexual lust. This shocked me. It made me uncomfortable. I remember looking around, uneasily, at the cluster of girls, wondering which ones carried this dark, twisted secret. I did not feel sympathy, just inconvenienced. With this shameful memory in mind, I shared with my friend about my desire to see the church better love those who struggle with homosexuality. He shared my feelings and we rejoiced in the connection. But then he fell silent. I could tell that the mood had shifted but didn’t understand why. When he spoke again, it was softer and more serious. I feel like I can tell you this, after hearing your heart, he said. I knew then what was coming. For years he had fought, silently and alone, against a desire that he never intentionally inflamed or chose to endure. (See brief footnote on the "born that way" debate.)[2] He struggled with same-sex attraction.

We all have something to give up when we come to Christ. Unlike what some of our Sunday school teachers taught us, faith requires action, not just a one-time romp down the aisle. In James 2, faith is described as a verb. It is a radical shift in values, focus, and lifestyle. It requires stepping out of the boat onto raging waters. God does not tolerate lukewarm faith (Rev. 3:16) and there is no holding onto Him with one hand while the other still clings to the world. 
For my friend, following Christ means saying no to his desire for other men. It may mean never getting married or experiencing intimacy. It is truly a sacrifice, one that he is willing to make, because he believes that fellowship with God is better than anything else. When I come to the cross of Christ, I am asked to give up my desire to love people on my own terms. I am instead called to love as Christ loved and to live as He lived. This means being misunderstood sometimes, even rejected and mocked. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace. (Acts 20:24, NIV).

Same Love  
Trevin Wax, a writer for The Gospel Coalition, lamented recently that many Christians find it easier to love positions rather than people, while others believe it is impossible to love people without adopting their position. Too often, I see Christians fall into one of these two categories. I wrote this essay to the second group, to those who feel that the only way to truly love gay people is to reject, revise, or ignore what God says in His word about homosexuality. But those who find it easier to love positions rather than people can cause just as much damage to the gospel. The other day in class, my students were discussing how to treat a gay friend. One student snorted and asked incredulously: Why would I ever have a gay friend? In Mark 2, Jesus is criticized for eating dinner with Levi, a known sinner, and his friends. If Jesus had merely condemned their sins in the streets, on Facebook, and in conversations with his religious companions, the Pharisees would have had nothing to complain about. But Jesus actually entered their homes and spent time with them. In going to Levi’s house, Jesus gave us a living example of how to love sinners. Many of you spend so much time reminding the world that homosexuality is wrong that you have forgotten to remind them of the gospel. To share the gospel, we must willingly and intimately invest in the lives of sinners. This means dinner. Conversation. Compassion. If your gag reflex is hypersensitive around gay people, you need to spend time on your knees, asking God to remind you who you were before He saved you. If you have put your own sins in a different category, you need to remind yourself of Romans 3:23: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Remember how Jesus responded to the Pharisees when they complained about his dinner with Levi? He said: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17). And as my father says often from the pulpit: The worst thing they could say about Jesus is the best news a sinner can hear. 
My goal in writing this is to remind those who desire to celebrate what the world has hailed “the civil rights issue of our day” that biblical love does not always reflect the world’s definition. And to those who struggle to show compassion, love, and selflessness to those who experience same-sex attraction, you are called to sacrifice as well. Sacrifice your desire to explain them away by pronouncing them all willing perverts. Sacrifice your desire to compare their sin to your own in an effort to feel better about yourself. How do we love those who struggle with homosexuality? By calling them to struggle against it. By reminding them of the worth of knowing Christ. And by demonstrating the same love Jesus did, in obedience and sacrifice.


[1] I did not write this essay to promote or discourage the legalization of gay marriage. That topic relates to one’s view of the government and its role in legislating marriage. This post is, instead, about whether or not Christians can approve of the practice of homosexuality (whether the couple is in a dating relationship, just hooking up, or legally and faithfully married).

[2] Many Christians like to point out that no person is “born gay.” While I believe their goal is to undercut any excuse a homosexual might make to justify their sin, it isn’t accurate or loving. People experience same-sex attraction for a multitude of reasons. None of these reasons justify giving in to sin. We risk alienating those who are struggling against their same-sex attraction by telling them that “no one is born with it” and therefore their struggle must be a result of choice. Many of us struggle against temptations that we would never ask for. Let’s drop the “born this way” debate and focus on the One who broke the power of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). 

Written by Rachel Watson

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I'm Not a Single Issue Voter

The first time I voted in a presidential election I chose my candidate because he'd gone mountain climbing with a friend I made in Oxford. My friend called the candidate a nice climbing partner, and I'd heard he was pro-life. That was enough for me. I penciled in my choices and headed to my parents’ house to show my mom my sticker. I was so excited about voting for the first time that I got pulled over for distracted driving. I told the officer my story and he let me go. 

I spent the next big election and the month that preceded it in Uganda. I remember waking up on a Wednesday morning, overwhelmed by life with my new son, wondering when we'd get a visa appointment, and then hearing someone mention who our next president was. I had forgotten the election was happening. 

The week before this year’s election, I read Joe Carter’s blog post explaining why he is a single issue voter. His single issue? Human dignity. 

I agree with him completely. To be a Christian is to be a respecter of life, and our doctrine has to shape our voting. 

I began researching candidates in my state because Carter convinced me I needed to do more politically to support the dignity of the unborn. I wanted my vote to count for the pro-life cause. 

But as I began researching candidates, I realized that not every politician who was pro-life supported policies that were pro vulnerable women.

I started wondering why women choose abortion. I thought about women I know who feel like they don’t have the resources to support another child. I wondered about families where one or both parents are in prison. After all, Oklahoma has the highest rate of women incarcerated per capita in the nation, and there are too many fathers, particularly African Americans, behind bars in state prisons for nonviolent offenses.  

Are women in our state who abort their babies making that choice primarily because it is legal?

There is no question that taking abortion off the table would be better for women and their children. It would pressure fathers to step up and care for their offspring. It would encourage society to be more supportive of women who are pregnant or parenting. It would benefit our communities across the board, leading us to wiser decisions about euthanasia and immigration and rights for the disabled. 

I am adamantly pro-life. Period. Abortion should be illegal. Period

But have we have taken too simplistic of an approach in the way we confront this issue? Do we focus our attention on voting to make abortion illegal because it’s convenient for us or because better laws about abortion are the most effective way to protect the unborn? 

A few years ago, I started praying God would help me be more actively pro-life. I wanted my everyday to better reflect His heart. Over the next few months He put a pregnant fourteen year old in my path; and, eventually, He moved her into my house. 

Walking with her through her pregnancy was a privilege. But it was anything but simple. Unplanned pregnancies are always overwhelming. They can be terrifying and hard, hard, hard. It’s hard to be a pregnant teenager. Even harder to be a teenager mother. Or a single mother. Or a mother without a high school education.

On the one hand, the truth here is simple: we affirm the personhood of unborn babies. Every person matters to God, and so every person matters to us. We want every person to matter under our laws too. 

But the reasons women have abortions are complex. Their choices, like all of ours, reflect both their sinful hearts and the myriad of ways they have been sinned against- by their families, their partners, their communities, even their churches. Protecting unborn children must begin with caring for their mothers.

If the extent of our fight against abortion is voting for officials with strong pro-life scores, we may not be doing all it takes to end abortion in our state. 

I can’t tell you who to vote for in the next election, but I can tell you this. If you move towards vulnerable women in your community, towards pregnant teenagers and struggling single mothers, you will vote more wisely. 

When you know your neighbors better, you will love them better with your vote. And you may find that doing justice and loving mercy on election day is more complex than you previously realized. 

Written by Miriam Boone