When Things Don’t Get Better

Chances are, if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had at least one moment in your life where everything was going wrong, across the board.  You had difficulties with school, money, jobs, family, and anything else that could go wrong was indeed going wrong.

I’ve had plenty of those moments.  And I have plenty more of those moments to come.  While we don’t want to be depressingly pessimistic, we also want to be realistic and say that sometimes life just stinks.  And, as Christians, what we need to hear is not how to fix it.  What we need to hear is not “10 Steps to Financial Happiness.”  What we need to hear is not self-help.  What we need to hear is what God says about enduring through the trials of this life as believers in Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we have three struggles that we face until we go to be with the Lord: Sin, suffering and persecution.  The goal of this post is to address what God’s Word has to say to us when our fight with these struggles doesn’t seem to be getting better.  So let’s get started.

Do you ever feel like you’ll never change?  You know that Jesus is Lord and that you are forgiven through faith, but you just can’t seem to get past a certain sin?  Maybe it’s lust.  Maybe it’s greed, or pride, or gluttony.  Maybe it’s a bitter attitude.  And no matter how much you pray about it, no matter how many times you confess the sin before the Lord, as you live, day in and day out, nothing seems to change.  You turn away from sin, genuinely desiring to follow Christ, trusting Him to forgive you, only to go right back to it.  And in grief and despair, you wonder if this is ever going to get better.

Good news, friend: Jesus has promised that you will change if you are in Him.  My favorite verse in all of Scripture is Philippians 1:6.  Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, while he’s in prison, encouraging them to continue in the faith and to work for the advancement of the gospel.  And in the opening verses, he unleashes one of the greatest promises in God’s Word: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Our salvation depends on God.  When we say we have put our faith in Christ for salvation, we are saying that we depend on Jesus to save us.  That our eternal life, our righteousness, our forgiveness, our adoption as God’s children…this all depends on Jesus.

But for some reason, we have the attitude that once Jesus becomes my Lord and my Savior, it’s up to me to do all the work.  That I should be holy because that’s what makes God happy with me.  Here’s what we need to understand: You were adopted as God’s beloved child long before you obeyed any of His commands.  Coming into a relationship with Jesus transfers you from a position of being under God’s wrath to being covered by His steadfast, covenant love.  So my holiness is not an attempt to gain God’s love or acceptance.  I have been accepted through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.  Now I obey because in Christ Jesus, that’s who I am.  I have a new identity, a new Lord, a Savior who has covered me with His righteousness, and a Father who delights in me.  All of His commands are given for my joy and to bring me closer to Him.  I don’t act holy because I want God to be happy.  I act holy because, quite simply, that’s what I want to do.  I hate sin.  I love Jesus.  So, in Christ, I’m striving to be who I am.

Now, what happens when we struggle, I mean, really, really struggle to be who we already are in Christ?  If you turn over a few pages in Philippians, you’ll see Paul writing about perseverance in the Christian life.  Look at Philippians 3:12-14.  Paul writes these words:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made that own.  Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.  But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul later writes at the end of Romans 7, detailing his struggle with sin: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The writer of Hebrews exhorts in Hebrews 12 to “consider Jesus,” and to remember that we’ve been given a kingdom in Him, a kingdom that will not end, to remember that we have brothers and sisters that have run the race before us.  We find encouragement from Christ, who is the “author and perfecter of our faith.”

So what do we do?  We hold God to His promises, we submit in repentance and faith, and we confidently keep living, knowing that God is faithful.  We may fail God a million times, but He has not, and will not fail us, no, not even once!  Because God has promised to make us holy, we can get up in our failure, trust Him with unwavering faith, and pursue Him.  And when we fall down again, we can do the same thing.  Over and over, until one day, whether it be in our death or in His return, Jesus finishes what He started, making us just like Him, rescuing us eternally from the presence and power of sin.  So get up, struggler.  Fix your eyes on Jesus.  Rest in His promises. And follow Him.

Not only do we struggle with sin, but we also suffer.  Suffering affects all of us, godly and ungodly.  We’ve all experienced the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the betrayal of friends, etc.  In this world, tainted by sin, suffering is inevitable.  And as Christians, we know we will suffer.  To follow Christ is to suffer, not just in persecution (which we’ll talk about soon), but in the daily living of life.

So when everything in life seems to be going downhill, what do we do?  Once again, we fix our eyes on Jesus, and go to His Word.

James 1:2-4 says “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.”

God is able to use the most awful thing in our lives to bring us closer to Him and make us more like Christ.  Personal example: I had a “plan” of what my life would look like after graduating from Montevallo.  To put it simply: God’s plan was not my plan, and, as it always does, God’s plan won out.  It was hard!  Really hard!  I was mad at God, and I didn’t understand why things weren’t going “my” way.  I had to hear the Father remind me that He did not save me so that things could go my way, but so I could go His way, and that His way is ALWAYS best.

God cares way too much about us to allow us to live safe, comfortable, easy lives for our own glory.  Instead, in Christ, He calls us to embrace suffering, persecution, and a daily dying to self to live an unsafe, unpredictable, and hard life for His glory and the advancement of the gospel.  When we suffer for the cause of Christ, we shout, “Worthy is the Lamb!”  When we go through hard times, we can proclaim to a lost and dying world, “God is more than enough for me.”  We may say it through tears.  But we can, and we should, say it.

There are false prophets that will preach “health, wealth and prosperity” to Christians (Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, among others).  Brothers and sisters: please do not listen to them.  The idea that if you follow Christ, you will not suffer is not from God or His Word.  It is a lie from the devil Himself.  There’s nothing wrong with health, wealth or prosperity, so please don’t hear me say that if you have those things, you’re not obeying God.  However, when we start to expect those things in this life from God as the reward for following Him, or we start to idolize those things…that’s when we’ve fallen into sin.  The gospel does not declare the worth of health, wealth and prosperity…the gospel declares the worth and glory of Jesus Christ even if I have no health, no wealth and no prosperity.  If we lose everything in this life, Jesus Christ, as my Savior, Lord, and Friend, is more than enough for me, for all eternity.

This moves us into the third point: dealing with persecution.  In 2015 America, we are not yet suffering like millions of brothers and sisters around the globe.  We are not yet being put to death.  But that day could come.  And in some way, we are persecuted.  We’re told to keep our faith private (impossible).  We’re mocked, openly, even by those in government.  We’re misunderstood and harassed, and, at times, threatened with the loss of jobs and businesses.  So what do we do?

Here’s what we don’t do:  We do not pray for a Christian president.  We do not pray that “those people in Washington will come to their senses.”  We don’t ask for God to cleanse out the unbelievers under the guise of praying for revival.  We don’t pray for God to protect us from ISIS.  Our hope is not in the king who reigns, but in the one true King who will reign forever and ever.

We ask God to give us stronger backs so we can carry what will come to be a heavier cross than the one we bear now.  We ask God to give us courage to not back down or water down the truth of His Word.  We pray that God would give us the strength to stand up to evil like ISIS, to, in the face of imminent death, continue to hold fast our hope and confession: that Jesus Christ is Lord, that I am trusting Him, that He is my salvation, and nothing in this world, not ISIS, not cancer, not any government, can keep me away from Him.  We pray to have the resolve and the faith of men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in the face of evil, persecution and death, never backed down and stood up for the truth of God’s Word, with faith in Christ, with a desire to do nothing but glorify God and bring others to faith in Him, so that the gospel may advance.

We pray to have the faith of the 21 brave believers who lost their lives to ISIS last week, beheaded for believing and following Jesus Christ.  We resign ourselves to Christ, to God’s will, and to His glory, no matter what that means for us.  When we pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” we take that to mean that at whatever cost, we want God’s name to be known, not ours.

It may not get better.  Jesus never promised that it would.  But He did give us a great promise in John 15:18-19.  He tells us that if the world hates us, it’s because they hated Him (18).  He says that this persecution is a sign that we are His (19).  He says that He has chosen us out of the world (19).  And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, He promises to be with us, every step of the way.

Wrapping up, we need to know one thing:  It may not get better.  At least not here.  While we should see increasing victory over sin, we won’t know the fullness of holiness until we are with Christ.  While we enjoy and thank God for the good times of this life, we know that all of the evil and sadness won’t be wiped away until Christ’s return.  While we know that God will always have victory over His enemies, persecution will define the Christian church until Christ’s return.

But a day is coming where God will eternally overcome all sin, all suffering and all persecution.  It is His Word that gives us hope.  Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:10: “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.”

And as we wait for that day, we do so with patience, with hope, and with resolve to live for God’s glory until He comes.  We hold fast in hope, that what we have in Christ is more than enough.  We agree with Paul in Romans 8:12–“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Hold fast, brothers and sisters.  Do not give up.  Keep fighting sin.  Keep following Jesus.  Keep trusting in Him as Savior.  Keep fighting the good fight of faith.  Keep counting all your suffering all joy.  Keep proclaiming the reign of Christ and the truth of His Word in the face of persecution.  And know that whatever we experience in this life is not worth comparing to the glory that’s coming.

Father, may you grant us the grace to hold on to Jesus.  May we keep following Him, even as we struggle to obey you as we want to.  May you finish what you started in us.  May you give us the grace and the faith to keep resting in the finished work of Christ as our only hope before you.  May you give us encouragement and grace in suffering, knowing that you do use it for our holiness and your glory.  May you give us the strength and the resolve to endure persecution as faithful followers of Christ.  May you be glorified in our lives, whatever they may bring.

God bless,

Neal E.

Freedom Week–Original Story & My Thoughts

The following is a story that I wrote for a magazine writing class.  I am hoping to get this story published in Collegiate magazine, a Christian magazine run by LifeWay Christian Resources.  I will also add to this story by inserting my thoughts into the week and will add my thoughts/opinions/biblical insight/whatever you want to call it into this post.  Everything in italics comes from the original story.  All else is non-story material.  This story, this post, the video story I’ve done on this, and all that was done March 5th-9th at the University of Montevallo is for the 27 million people that are enslaved around the world.  May Christ break every chain with the power of the gospel.  Enjoy.

The mood in Palmer auditorium changes as she takes the stage at “Freedom Night.”  There is no more chatter, no more laughing.  Every pair of eyes are watching her intently as she tells her story:

“There is a circuit from Atlanta to Birmingham to Nashville to Memphis to Chattanooga, and you’re trafficked quite often.  But it’s not about transportation,” she says calmly.  Looking into the crowd of college students, she continues her story:

“I have been raped more times than I can count.  I stopped counting at 21.  My throat has been cut, and a gun has been placed at my head and the trigger pulled.  By man’s law I should not be here.”

Tajuan Lewis became a victim of sex trafficking at age 15.  She was prostituted, beaten, and raped.  It took her more than 25 years to understand what had happened to her.  She was in and out of prison until one day, her eyes were opened to the gospel, and she received Jesus as Lord and Savior.  She met her husband Kelly, and soon after, she was called to open the Well House, located in Birmingham, which serves the needs of victims of sex trafficking, caring for and helping women who have been abused.

I had the great honor of interviewing Ms. Lewis and her husband Kelly.  These people love the Lord.  At the end of the interview, I told them how refreshing it was to interview someone and talk with people who unashamedly talk about Jesus.  So many people focus on being politically correct, thus compromising the message.  Mr. and Ms. Lewis, thank you for your honesty and boldness for the name of Jesus.

Her story is just one of millions.  27 million, to be exact.  According to the U.S. State Department, there are more slaves now than in any other period of history.  The International Labor Organization reported that human trafficking generates more than $32 billion annually.

I chose not to publish more statistics here, because eventually, statistics do one of two things: They make us numb to the information, thus turning us off, or we get overloaded, and we become emotional over numbers and not over the people involved.  More statistics on human trafficking can be found by searching for the U.S. Department of State’s 2007 report on international human trafficking, or by going to ILO (International Labour Organization) website and looking up similar statistics.

Jeremy Springer of She Dances told the story of Sophia, a girl born in Honduras, who was sold by her own parents into prostitution.  She was raped, beaten, gagged, and trafficked as a child.  A child, just like your own.  She, he said, had dreams, plans, she had desires…and all of that was stripped away by the evils of human trafficking.  While I firmly believe and assert that our ultimate treasure is in heaven, and that our hope should be there….no child deserves this.  No one deserves to have a life filled with rape, torture, abuse, and slavery, for themselves or their children.  If we simply stand by and let this happen, we are the idle, the lazy, the sinful, disobedient, unfaithful, unloving people Paul, Peter, and James warn us of.  James tells us to look after orphans and widows “in their affliction.”  This is the affliction of our time.  Human trafficking seems to be the great evil of our time that we are standing up against.  More on that to come.

At the University of Montevallo, located in Montevallo, Alabama, students stepped up to make a difference during Freedom Week, held March 5-9, 2012.  The event raised money and awareness for modern day slavery and human trafficking.  A campus ministry, Ecclesia, led by Brian Fulton, sponsored the event as a result of hearing about trafficking at Passion Conference in Atlanta.

“We took a group to Passion Conference, and God had already been giving us a heart to help students find a way to be involved in providing and taking care of the poor and the oppressed.  It just made sense to do this and get involved,” Fulton said.

The goals of Freedom Week were to raise $5,000 to go toward three different organizations: The International Justice Mission, The Well House, and She Dances.

Fulton quoted Isaiah 58:6-7, which says “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

The phrase “flesh of my flesh” actually comes from Genesis, as Adam says this of Eve.  Yet, the phrase fits in with slavery.  Whether they are our earthly family or not, we should strive to show justice here in this life.  God’s justice as far as our eternal fate goes is that we all go to hell because of sin.  Jesus’ grace and salvation means we don’t have to if we trust in Him as Lord and Savior.  Now, for us, God’s justice means He was satisfied to look on Christ instead of us.  Therefore, as Christians, if we believe that humans are made in the image of God, and we believe, as Paul says, that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, and we believe in a God of justice, we seek to show justice, not for this life only, but for eternity.  We work for eternity.  We desire that no one face the wrath of God that leads to hell due to their sin.  So we work for justice here on Earth that they may see the glorious grace of God in Christ Jesus.

Let me make that clear: We do not deserve good things on Earth, we deserve hell.  No one, however, deserves to be mistreated by their fellow man.  To mistreat your fellow human is to promote yourself to the position of God, and it is sin.  Keep reading.

“My hope is that people would begin to see that we are responsible, that we owe people justice.  Humans are made with rights, and I believe, as a Christian, made in the image of God.  Therefore, we owe justice.  Justice isn’t a suggestion,” he said.

I believe two things about earthly justice, and the Christian role in regards to it.  Feel free to give me your thoughts on this: 1) While we may not deserve “good things” on Earth, no one deserves to be in bondage to someone else.  Why?  Because they are not just a victim of slavery, they’re a victim of someone else’s sin.  Only God knows why He’s allowed these evils to continue for so long, and certainly God is sovereign over it.  This, at a basic level, is a result of sin in the world.  And again, while I want to be careful saying what we do and do not deserve, I do assert this: While we may not deserve anything here….we have no right to strip whatever we, as humans, do have so that we can lord over each other.  2) I believe in a God of justice, as we stated earlier.  I also believe in God as Creator, and God who wants people to come to Him and worship Him.  How will they do that if they are in bondage to someone else?  It’s not a matter of us deserving good things, it’s a matter of freeing them from their earthly chains so that they may see Jesus, who frees them from the deep chains of sin.  That’s the beauty and the simplicity of our message.  It’s not about us, it’s about Him.  Our goal is to free them so they may see Jesus, who will truly free them.

The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14.  Almost half of all forced labor victims are under the age of 18, and more than one million children are trafficked every year.  Sexual exploitation drives almost 80 percent of all human trafficking.  The Lewis’ believe that the best thing people can do to fight these evils is to talk about it, confront it, and take the chance to be wrong.

“If you’re not willing to take a chance on being wrong, you’re not taking a chance on pulling someone out of the situation that they’re in, and they might be in bondage.  You can’t see the chains, but the bondage can be there,” Kelly Lewis said.

There are people all over the world that are dying each and every second as a result of someone else’s sin in trafficking and forced labor.  Micah calls us to do justice and walk humbly before God.  Are we doing that?  I believe if we take this to heart, we will do what Kelly Lewis calls us to do.  Take a chance to be wrong.  Ask questions.  You don’t have to probe deep, just ask what’s going on!

On the night of March 6, more than 250 students attended Freedom Night, the headline event for the week.  The event featured Jeremy Springer from She Dances, Tajuan Lewis, and Olivia Terry, a Montevallo graduate working with Make Way Partners.  After the week was over, $5,700 had been raised.

“God blew our expectations for Freedom Week out of the water. The entire campus became aware that trafficking is rampant today,” Fulton said.

Brett Roney, a member of Ecclesia, added that the week was not simply for money, but for future efforts to help those in need.

“My hope is that through Freedom Week, one student will take the week’s heart-felt purpose, duplicate it in their lives outside of school, and carry it with them into their futures so that others will also come to stand for something bigger than themselves,” Roney said.

As the students continue to listen, Tajuan, becoming emotional, continues to speak.  She explains how trafficking works, and that most victims that enter the Well House come from the state of Alabama.  She says trafficking and prostitution can happen anywhere, and is not just limited to big towns like Los Angeles or New York City.

“In March of last year, there were 40 people arrested in Fort Payne, Alabama.  Fort Payne is rolling green countryside.  It doesn’t happen there.  Or that’s what we think.”

Fort Payne, Alabama is where Tajuan was once abused.

“What’s sad, and what breaks my heart, is that 26 years later, we’re going back to the same house…in the same town,” she cries.

I wish there was a way to put her tone into this quote.  That was such a raw, emotional moment.  As I stood there, recording this, trying to put together a broadcast story, it hit me: This is so much bigger than me.  This is real.  This isn’t just another story.  And I knew that, but in that moment, it hit my heart.  Her tears became mine.  And as she boldly professed that Jesus saved her, I couldn’t help but say amen.  Under my breath of course, so you don’t hear me interfering with a poignant moment.

This night, filled with other speakers, guests, musicians, etc. was emotional, but it provided hope as Tajuan wrapped up.  Keep reading.

As she finishes her story, she ends on a positive note:

“I’m no longer a victim, and I’m no longer a survivor.  I’m an overcomer!”  She boldly proclaims that she knows Jesus saved her.

Tajuan’s story brings hope.  Hope can be such a fragile thing.  If not for the stories like Tajuan’s, the 27 million slaves around the world might not have any hope.  If not for people like her and other organizations like The Well House, hope would seem like a laughable joke, an object of wishful thinking, not a tangible reality.  This week, this event, and these students, weren’t just raising money or awareness.  They raised something else, something more powerful.  They raised hope.

That’s it.  For this part of the story.  There are still 27 million slaves around the world.  There is still work to be done.  In recent weeks, the campaign Kony2012 has picked up steam.  Despite what’s going on with Invisible Children management/finances and the disputes over Kony’s actual location, the fact remains: There are people, especially children, all over the world, being tortured, mutilated, abused, murdered, raped, and forced to kill in the case of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), and we must step up to do something. (For more information about Joseph Koney, Uganda, and Invisible Children, search for Kony 2012 on YouTube. There is a 30 min informational video).

Christians: This is a call to step up.  Not so that we can outdo the non-believers, but that we may set an example.  Oh that we would relish this opportunity to shed the stigma of hypocrisy and actually do something that matters!  The world doesn’t care about whether or not you have contemporary, super-contemporary, or old-school Baptist worship services.  Are you serving God in your community, in your country, and around the world?  Or are we content with settling on and centering our Christian lives on issues in the church that, while important, have no bearing on how the world sees Jesus.

If Jesus isn’t about it, we don’t want to be about it.  That’s what someone told me one time about a homeless shelter in Louisville.  A homeless shelter in the middle of a nice, urban city where it would be easy to fit the mold and conform.  It’s easy for us to get in our bubbles.  Break your bubble.  Stand out, stand up, and be a voice for those who don’t have one.  This is our time, our fight, not our children or our children’s children.  We can make a difference if we would only let God move through us.

May the freedom and justice we proclaim to those in bondage point to the life-changing, chain-breaking power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  May we give all that we have to this gospel.  May we sacrificially love those who cannot help themselves.  May God bless you as you go to proclaim freedom to those enslaved, both to others and to sin.  Jesus, You are the Great Redeemer, the Great Liberator.  Free us, Lord.

God bless,

Neal E

If you have any questions about Jesus, the gospel, or anything you’ve read here or in other posts, please feel free to email me, message me on Facebook, or comment here.  Feel free to share this with your friends and family.