suffering and hope

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:20)

Those who teach a Christianity that downplays suffering to near-absence in the believer’s life is not proclaiming truth. Paul teaches that “creation groans,” that believers “groan inwardly” with it, and that this turmoil is intended to draw many to God’s kingdom.

The world is restless, oppressed by sin and its deathly consequences. No matter how the ungodly deny it, a sense of wrongness pervades the earth. Something is amiss. And God’s children sense and suffer this along with the world. But our suffering, thankfully, is not without hope. In fact, it is our hope in Christ which we are called to be witnesses of to a groaning world.

Contrary to many who preach a bed-of-roses Christianity, the presence of suffering in your life is not exclusively a result of your disobedience or demonic oppression. Suffering in a believer’s life is a given. More often than not, it is a God-ordained necessity, even a gift—to refine a believer’s faith, to strengthen his hope, to rid his heart of lesser loves. All this, not for the believer’s sake, but for God’s glory.  Instead of asking, “Why am I suffering?” maybe we should ask, “How am I suffering?” and “To what end am I suffering?”

Suffering ought not to bring us to despair, but to hope—on our knees. When in suffering we pray, God’s Spirit ministers to us. When suffering’s intensity renders praying with words impossible or inadequate, God’s Spirit translates our moans and groans so that they rise to the Father as crystal-clear prayers that touch His heart.

Thank you, Father, for my suffering. May I honor You in my suffering.

_______
This devotional note was written for Scripture Union’s 2011 Quiet Time Guide,
Light to My Path Each Day. Published in the Philippines by OMF Literature, Inc.

john newton’s poem

Prayer Answered by Crosses
by John Newton

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.

‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray;
And he, I trust, has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that, in some favoured hour,
At once he’d answer my request,
And by his love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea, more, with his own hand he seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this? I trembling cried;
Wilt thou pursue this worm to death?
This is the way, the Lord replied
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I now employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.

This poem, penned by the famous writer of “Amazing Grace,” visited me this Friday morning, and it brought with it tears. Such unexpected but welcome visitors.

the story of us | part 3

(Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.)

Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been

Granted in what He ordaineth?
~Praise to the Lord the Almighty

I arrived five minutes earlier than the agreed five o’clock. It was Sunday, and the Makati restaurant famed for its shrimp dishes was populated mostly by Caucasians craving a taste of home (the restaurant is American themed and inspired by an American movie). I settled for the booth by the aisle, farthest from the entrance and nearest the rest room, a choice that would later prove inspired. From where I sat, I would be able to see her walk in. That would give me enough time to take a deep breath and prepare to give her the roses I had bought earlier.

And then Daphne arrived, extra-lovely in a black-and-white outfit.

“She’s wearing a skirt—that’s a good sign,” I thought to myself. “But black isn’t such a happy color… Uh oh.” For a strange moment the gloom of a funeral clouded my mind. But Daphne’s sunbeam smile instantly dispelled all my irrationally morbid thoughts. She eased into the booth with nonchalant grace. My heart began its pounding, and I wished that the ambulance my friends said they had prepared for me was really on standby.

“Happy birthday!” she greeted cheerily. I gave her the roses and hoped she didn’t notice the trembling hand. “I love flowers,” she beamed, and then mumbled something about a gift in her car and a cute complaint about why she’s getting roses when it wasn’t her birthday but mine. I said something in reply which I can’t now remember but I am quite sure was lame.

Daphne and I knew that that night was more than a birthday dinner celebrating my 32nd year. It was an evening of possibilities, when two stories, two journeys, two “broken roads” could intersect.

Continue reading →

the story of us | part 1

It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly
until He has hurt him deeply.

~A.W. Tozer

 

“It’s pretty complicated—you’re pretty, I’m complicated.”

That statement, unrehearsed and uttered to the maddening beat of my speeding heart, opened my confession of love to Daphne almost five years ago. We were meeting over coffee because she wanted some advice about a common friend who was beginning to show interest in her. I could tell she welcomed the possibilities with this guy. After awkwardly telling her I was not the best guy to consult because of my lack of objectivity on the matter, it was inevitable for the proverbial cat to spring out of the bag. And so I ended up disclosing my romantic feelings for her. Daphne put both hands over her mouth—ala beauty pageant contestant—more in disbelief than elation. (It could have been horror, I’m not sure.)

The love triangle I had unwittingly formed was short-lived, promptly disbanded by the power of a woman’s choice. “I think I’m falling in love with him,” she gently declared one December evening. I fought back tears, hoping that the growing lump in my throat would not develop into public embarrassment of epic proportions. After a prayer, a hug, and a final “Goodbye,” we parted ways—she to nurturing a new love, I to nursing a broken heart. Weeks later I got the official text announcement of their relationship.

I couldn’t blame Daphne for her choice. How could I, I was the Johnny-come-lately; the buddy who suddenly dropped the romance bomb on her in the middle of a budding relationship with another friend; the guy without a plan who owned up to nothing but quasi-love. When I ‘fessed up, I was still trying to understand how this amazing girl with the dancing eyes had stolen my well-guarded heart. Somewhere between the endless talks about books, the after-office discussions on life, love, and God, the bantering and goofing around with friends, she with the mysterious mind, crackling laughter, and Godly heart had captivated me. But my nascent affections had been dashed before they could grow into something beautiful, never to see maturity or fulfillment.  Or so I thought.

I had resolved to neither escape nor deny the pain of unrequited love, but instead go through it with as much grace and integrity as I could muster—until God in His time would grant healing. In my grief, I wrote in my journal feverishly, churned out poems in record time, laid claim to all the heartbreak songs ever written, prayed until I ran out of words and relied only on the Spirit’s ministry of interpreting my moans and groans. “The pain is the healing,” I wrote about my heartbreak.

The three of us worked in the same office, and seeing them as a couple was heart-rending for me. Thankfully, the emotions soon became manageable; God had granted us the grace to be able to work together with little discomfort. I made sure I kept a healthy distance, intentionally avoiding any information about how their relationship was doing. It was good enough for me that Daphne was happy. But Daphne was a fierce friend; she made it clear that she did not reject my friendship, only my preludes to romance. Almost one year after they became a couple, I wrote the following in my journal:

After a year, I can say it to myself: I lost you. In foolishness I let you slip away. Fumbling hands didn’t hold you or grasp you enough to feel if you would shake me off or linger in my presence. I was afraid to uncover the truth behind the disarming smiles, the unabashed laughter, and the profound conversations. Was there any hope of romance behind them?

Have I moved on? I don’t know. If I palpate my heart now I’m sure my fingers will brush through the scars you left. But scars are good. Having them means the wounds have closed. No more real pain, only remembered pain. But who is to say that remembered pain is less searing, less affecting?

Thankfully, the pain was not the ending. It was merely the dark backdrop that would provide the contrast for the blinding light of God’s grace to shine.

(To be continued)

joseph

“As far as I am concerned, God turned into good what you meant for evil. He brought me to the high position I have today so I could save the lives of many people.” ~Genesis 50:20

Yesterday my Bible reading plan took me towards the end of Joseph’s story in Genesis. Years after his dramatic reconciliation with the brothers who had betrayed him, Joseph was now burying their father in Canaan. With Jacob’s death the brothers feared Joseph’s vengeful wrath. So they pleaded with Joseph to be merciful to them, to impose slavery on them instead of death.

Joseph, the tenderhearted leader and brother that he was, wept. And said, “God turned into good what you meant for evil. He brought me to the high position I have today so I could save the lives of many people.” (Genesis 50:20 / NLT). He assured them once again that all was well.

What a perspective! Joseph chose to see God’s hand working in their lives and did not let bitterness or vengeance take over. He had a very clear understanding of his high position’s purpose — to save many lives.

There is great assurance in knowing that God’s plans are not thwarted by evil, that an act motivated by wickedness can, in the hands of Sovereign God, result in something immeasurably good that brings honor to God and joy to those who obey.

Drop your novel, skip that movie. For real gripping drama, read the Old Testament. Only take with you fresh eyes and an open spirit.

take two

Train me, God, to walk straight;
then I’ll follow your true path.
Put me together, one heart and mind;
then, undivided, I’ll worship in joyful fear.

~Psalm 86:11 (The Message)

This morning I’m pondering two thoughts from this prayer by David (perhaps written when he was being pursued by Saul’s men in order to destroy him).

First, the word “train.” It implies a long process that entails commitment, perseverance, falling and getting up again, pain, suffering a setback and then fighting to get back on track,  progress in small increments. Waking up an hour ago, I felt my muscles aching from my late-night workout and early-morning swim yesterday. I want a flat, ripped tummy, a don’t-mess-with-me chest, and Arnold biceps… well, probably not that monstrous. More than that, I want to feel like I have control over this glob of biological matter, unfettered by premature aches, shortness of breath, and lethargy resulting from neglect. But a fit body isn’t FedExed to me overnight after a few clicks on a website. I have to train myself — to workout even if I don’t feel like doing so most times; to self-talk in a way that puts some sense into my couch-potato head; to not give up when I slip into a no-workout week (like last week).

I want to be trained “to walk straight” in life, not as someone who doesn’t know his way, mindlessly turning at every corner. A friend of mine who runs marathons says that running has helped him gain insight into the spiritual life. I assume working out regularly — training myself physically — will also yield a similar enlightenment; or at least a better insight into my spirit’s need for obedience training, even if it’s the kind that’s infinitely more difficult than bicycle crunches and bicep curls. But considering the rewards — life! — it’s worth the spiritual sweat.

Second, “put me together, one heart and mind.” I claim this prayer as my own. I desire unity within myself. Like all Christ-followers, I am waging an internal war, as if I were “two men entrenched in a battle,” as the dcTalk song goes. When I made the decision at the start of the year to get serious about putting to death self and all its selfish pursuits, I had very little idea how much of a battle Self will put up. Daily, I become more conscious of this intense, unseen battle and how important the stakes are. And daily I come face to face with a deeper sense of how utterly weak I am and how I can so easily switch sides: from Team Life to Team Self. It’s crazy!

Many times I break the heart of God with my choices; I am swayed by the deceitfulness of the Enemy and my sinful nature. And so with David I pray for the Great Physician to perform the complicated surgery of “put(ting) me together, one heart and mind.” For Team Life to take the upper hand more and more, until Team Self is contained and eventually vanquished. For wisdom to see that I am only as strong as my weakness and faith in the finished work of Christ.

I take comfort in the truth that ultimately the war has been fought and won for me in Christ. Father, grant me faith to train faithfully and submit wholeheartedly to Your work of uniting the inner man for Your use and glory. This is my worship.

the job of humanity

“How frail is humanity! How short is life, and how full of trouble! Like a flower, we blossom for a moment and then wither. Like the shadow of a passing cloud, we quickly disappear.” ~ Job 14:1-2

Beset with all sorts of suffering imaginable (aggravated by insensitive words of friends), Job sees clearly what many of us refuse or have difficulty understanding: our frail, full-of-trouble, and fleeting humanity. Now what to do with this blink-of-an-eye existence, this tumultuous bleep in eternity? Moses, another ancient man of God who also was not a stranger to suffering, prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright, so we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Father, guide and be glorified with this one life.


first 2010 post

I am forcing myself to blog today.

I sense a full heart that is dying to write its contents down, but is held back by a sluggish mind and rusty writing skills. It is frustrating to not be able to match heart stuff with the right words. The trip from heart to typing fingers is bumpy today.

But still I force myself to let it out. Even if in incoherent trickles.

* * *

I’m thinking about the first few days of 2010 and how the 2009 year-end holidays already feel like an eternity ago. I spent my holidays in Davao with my family. And what a roller-coaster ride it was — with its ups and downs and all the extreme emotions in between that just made me realize all the more how much I love my family. Speaking of home,  this morning I was going through my journal entries from last year (they’re scattered all over my computer, tucked away in all sorts of folders and applications) and came across the following entry written sometime in July when I was in Davao for a few days.

While I was getting dressed one morning in the big room that is now Kuya Bong’s room, I asked myself, “When did this house stop being home?” Not that I no longer have fond memories of this place; or that I have stopped longing to come to it every now and then; but, for some reason, this familiar place of my childhood has ceased being home. Should I feel ashamed? If this isn’t home anymore, then where is home now?

Where, indeed, is my home now? Maybe for now it is not a physical place. Or maybe, in its truest sense, home is never really just a physical place. “Home is where the heart is,” says the cliche. So I guess the deepr question is, Where is my heart now?

* * *

During the holidays, God dealt with me in a tender and yet powerful way. As I think about it now, there is a lump in my throat and my eyes mist. I am overwhelmed by the Heavenly Father’s relentless love in stark contrast with my unfaithfulness. There are no words to explain it — the feeling is a mixture of both the familiar (“God loves me.”) and the mysterious (“How could God love me?!”).

“This year I die,” I wrote on FaceBook. Death to self is  life in Christ. Quoting a line from the song Seasons of Love, I posted on FaceBook on New Year’s Eve: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes. How do you measure a year?” A missionary friend answered in one word: Obedience. Wow. I looked back at 2009 and found to my shame that I have lived more for self than for Christ. “My only hope is full surrender, so with each borrowed breath, I inhale the Spirit’s will for me to die a deeper death.” I thank God for whoever penned the words to that Steve Green song. God has used this song to convict me many times.

But even death to self is not the ultimate pursuit. Yesterday I met with two men whom I love dearly and trust deeply, and I shared with them in halting sentences what God is doing in my heart; that His invitation to me is not to strive harder, or be more disciplined, or do more for Him and His kingdom. The invitation, extended ever so lovingly and tenderly, is to know Him. Now I sense an inexplicable desire to know this Person whom I call Lord and Savior. And I pray that this desire will burn and consume me so that every day I wake up like a child on Christmas morning wondering what gifts of knowing my gracious Father await me.

The year is long, and—the Lord willing—this life longer still. I am aware that this fiery desire can and will be tested. I write this on my blog so that when those days come, I can return to these words and remind myself of that tender invitation and the blazing fire it has set in my heart.

Oh to know the pow’r of Your risen life;
And to know You in your suffering;
To become like You in Your death, my Lord,
So with You to live and never die.

Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)

topped

It took a few months since moving in before I discovered the rooftop of the  building where I now live. Tonight, after bringing out the trash, I boarded the lift all the way to the topmost floor, went out the fire exit, and took a few flights of stairs to the open-air rooftop.

The cold December wind greeted me. I acknowledged her welcome with a smile. Now thirty-two stories above smoggy EDSA, it seemed safe and sensible to take deep breaths and let the cool air wash over me. The relentless cold wind tousled my hair and dried my lips. I felt my face tingle as it started to grow numb, a good kind of numb.

Looking down, things transformed. Highways and streets became winding veins and arteries traversed by a two-way stream of blood. But instead of red, this blood was golden, created by the yellow headlights. If you squinted just right, the traffic below blurred into a yellow worm that seemed to be going somewhere and nowhere at the same time.

It’s amazing what vertical distance can do. I could shout and not care about being heard. I could sing at the top of my lungs without fear of troubling anyone. I could look up and see stars. I could look within and see myself, away from the cares of life below. I could remind myself that no distance — height, depth, nor breadth — can ever separate me from the One whose love for me knows no space.

Obviously, even at this height, the heavens are still infinitely higher.

Wherever I run, wherever I go,
You will be there, never to let me go.
(No Mount Too High)