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Feb 21, 2011

Stretched For Our Own Good

My pastor’s recent sermons on trials and suffering, taken from the book of James, reminded me of another way I’ve been stretched, literally, for my own eventual good. I’ve had years of karate training and before every class we began with stretching exercises. It’s every martial artist’s goal to eventually get into a full split with your legs. Not all of us reach that goal, but every serious student will at least try to stretch themselves to their greatest potential.

The interesting thing about stretching is how it accomplishes its goal. When you stretch your muscles to their limit, and a little beyond, the muscles fibers actually tear slightly. Of course, this causes pain. Yes, being stretched to your limits can hurt. But when the muscles recover, they grow stronger and more flexible. Over time, you find that you can stretch farther and more easily, but only after you go through the pain of pushing yourself to the breaking point.

So why would any sane person willingly stretch themselves like this every week for years? Likewise, why does God often stretch us through trials? For the same reason, to reach a necessary goal in our own growth and development. In karate, the physical goal of stretching muscles is to develop the ability to kick higher and stronger and to avoid injury. James 1:2-4 tells us the spiritual goal of God stretching us through ”trials of many kinds” and “the testing of [our] faith” is perseverance, which when finished, will make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” In both cases, we can learn two important truths which should inspire and comfort us. First, the pain has a purpose. What we go through, while painful, has a goal of accomplishing something in us for our ultimate good. Second, we can’t reach these goals without being torn, tested, and stretched. No black belt ever develops the ability to throw a kick to the head without hours and hours of laborious stretching and other difficult training. But no Christian will be ready to handle the difficulties of this life in a fallen world without God developing and sanctifying us through the perseverance of trails.

One other thing I learned through stretching in karate might also apply to our Christian walk, especially when we’re really being put to the test. In stretching exercises, we were taught to push ourselves to the point of discomfort and then hold in that position for 30 seconds. At first, this could be painful and difficult. I remember trying my hardest to get my legs just a little farther apart, sweating and having to focus and control my breathing just to stay in position that long. But sure enough, by the end of the 30 second count, my legs would be relaxed, even stretched as far as they had been. We would then push a little farther out and hold our new position again for 30 seconds. After several rounds of pushing, holding, and relaxing, we found that we had actually stretched much further than we ever could have when we first began.

I remember this lesson when I go through a tough emotional or spiritual test. Just hold on through the initial pain, try to relax and control yourself, pray, and after a little while, the pain will subside and you’ll suddenly find that you’re able to be stretched even a little more. God graciously gives us the strength to endure any trial or test he puts us through (1 Cor 10:13) and as Paul encouraged the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

James tells us that God is stretching us towards the goals of spiritual maturity and wisdom. Paul also reminds us in his letters that, like any athlete who trains toward a goal, our strength to persevere won’t come without effort and even some pain. Perhaps when we remember that there is purpose in our suffering, that God is lovingly using our trials to perfect us, we can embrace and better appreciate the necessary pain that comes with it.

Feb 7, 2011

House of Mourning Better Than House of Feasting

In our small group we are studying Ecclesiastes, a book packed full of wisdom relevant to our daily lives, even in this generation. We recently read an interesting passage which has caused me to reflect.
"The house of mourning is better than the house of feasting." – Ecclesiastes 7:2
The idea, as we discussed this, is that times of mourning and sadness are more valuable than times of feasting or celebration because they cause us to reflect on what’s really important in life. Think about the wisdom there. We all love celebrations, whether birthday parties, graduations, holidays, or family reunions. These are enjoyable times where we relax, feast, celebrate accomplishments, and sometimes even give thanks. But there are other times in our lives without joy or gladness, like funerals, hospital visits, layoffs, and separations. The author of Ecclesiastes suggests that the latter events are somehow “better.” If we consider this, I think we’ll agree with God’s perspective here.

When I was in high school, one of my teammates was killed by a drunk driver. He was hit in a crosswalk on his way to the mall on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But on the two days before that, we had all been together at a regional water polo tournament. Although our team wasn’t typically very good, on this weekend we rallied together and won the whole tournament. We celebrated this rare victory together on Saturday. On Monday morning, I expected to come to school, riding the high of our accomplishment, eager to have the good news announced in every classroom on the PA system. Instead, when I showed up in the weight room before school on Monday morning, I saw every head drooped low as the team sat in stunned silence. We learned that our 15-year old friend had been killed the day before, less than 24 hours since we had last seen him celebrating our big win.

A few days later, our whole team attended his funeral and one by one, hugged his mom and shook his dad’s hand after the service. I think everyone of us reflected on our lives at that point and the elation of our tournament victory suddenly seemed insignificant. I know I valued my life a little more after that. I better appreciated my parents’ love for me after seeing the grief on the faces of my friend’s mom and dad. And after that, I think I appreciated all the happy times in my life a little more, never knowing if they would be the last time I could share a celebration with someone close to me.

When we face sickness or death, we better appreciate the gift of our own lives. We face our mortality in these moments, but hopefully also consider what’s important in our lives and sometimes even make changes as a result. That may be why times of mourning can be considered better.

The last funeral I attended was for my father-in-law. As many funerals are, it was both a time of celebration and of mourning. His life was celebrated by those who loved him, including my wife and step-daughter who gave a moving speech about their wonderful memories with him.

I also sat next to my youngest son who was with us that day. In the middle of the service I noticed my son crying. I asked him what was wrong, only because he hadn’t had a chance to know my wife’s father very well and I was a little surprised at his emotions. He told me he was crying because he was picturing me “up there” in the casket and was scared of losing his dad too. I put my arm around him and reassured him again that I loved him and that I wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Today, I wish my son would remember that honest moment of love and emotion he felt in the “house of mourning”. Through the emotional consideration which comes at a funeral, he felt the love he had for his own father and was overwhelmed. I hope that my promise to him will come true, that I will be around for a while, giving us time to reconcile and restore our relationship. But there are no guarantees with our lives. We all need to appreciate the days we are given, value the relationships and time we share with each other, and resolve to forgive and love one another now while we still have the chance.

Most of all, for anyone who doesn’t know Christ as their personal savior, facing sickness and death should awaken them to their own mortality and their spiritual condition as a helpless sinner facing a holy God. Coming to grips with this reality should drive us to our knees to beg forgiveness. We are all like the thief on the cross, facing certain death but with salvation waiting right next to us.

Yes, the “house of mourning” is better, but only when we reflect and learn from the wisdom that we should find there. Thank God today, not just for times of celebration, but of mourning as well. Consider what you should learn from them so that your life will be better.

Feb 4, 2011

Gird Up Your Loins

Late one evening when my little sister was about two years old, she swallowed a penny and began to choke. With the penny partially lodged in her windpipe, she was able to breathe but there was risk of it coming lose any second and completely blocking her airway. So my parents decided to rush her to the hospital as quickly as possible. My dad stormed into my bedroom and told me to get dressed so we could go to the hospital. I threw on some pants, a shirt, and my shoes and ran into the living room just as everyone else was about to rush out the front door. But then I looked down and realized I had forgotten to put on my belt, and I wasn’t about to go anywhere without my belt.

Only eight years old at the time, I was apparently more concerned about leaving home without my belt than even my sister’s medical emergency. I told my dad to hang on, that I had to go back and put on my belt. He told me no, that we had to leave right away to get my sister to the hospital. I pleaded again, “Please dad, I need to put my belt on first.” Frustrated with me and concerned for my sister, my dad barked back at me “Forget your belt, I’ll hold up your d*%$ pants!” And with that, he grabbed me by the back of my jeans and literally tossed me out the front door like one of the many bales of hay he had stacked back on the farm.

I don’t know why, but to this day I still have to wear a belt with anything other than sweat pants or a swim suit (and only because those don’t come with belt loops, or else I probably would). On the rare days I ever forget my belt, I feel off kilter the whole day. Maybe that’s why I’ve always understood God’s command to Job to “Gird up your loins like a man”, which today would loosely translate to “Put a belt on!” When I read his command to Job, as God warns him “I will question you, and you shall answer me”, I think, “Yeah, Job, you better have your belt on for this!”

The idea behind girding up your loins is to prepare for an impending challenge. To gird up your loins referred to pulling up your robe between your legs and tucking it in under your belt so you could run or fight. Job 38:3 can be translated as “Prepare yourself like a man” (NKJV), “Brace yourself like a man" (NIV), “Dress for action like a man” (ESV), or in the King James, “Gird up now thy loins like a man.” Christian comic Mark Stine paraphrases it as, “Put a cup on!”

In a more general sense in the Bible, “girding your loins” means to be prepared for whatever challenge lies ahead, and not just physically. In 1 Peter 1:13, we’re also instructed to “gird up the loins of your mind.” As men of God, we need to be prepared for whatever physical, mental, or spiritual challenges we may face.

In a previous article, I encouraged men to Prepare for Your Calling. I laid out the how, when, and why of being prepared in life. I’d like to expand on that suggestion now by listing some specific things we should prepare for; in other words, the ‘what’ to be prepared for.

Disclaimer: I am failing at many of these suggestions myself, so this is a list for me as much as anyone else.

Spiritual / Theological

Are you prepared to give an intellectual defense of why you believe in God, why you believe that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to salvation, and how you know the Bible is true and trustworthy?

Do you have at least a basic understanding of other religions and beliefs so that you can debate intelligently with others you encounter, who may even be trying to convert you? Have you studied other belief systems so that you have something to discuss with the next Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness who knocks on your front door?


Are you taking care of yourself physically so that your body will last as long as God needs you to take care of your family? Are you doing what is required to help ensure that you won’t be an unnecessary burden on others with your physical needs? Are you physically prepared for a foreign missions trip, or the next church work day, or an emergency in your home or on the road?


Are you spiritually and emotionally prepared to deal with loss in life, with changes in circumstances that may challenge you, with situations which may test your faith? How are you stretching your faith now in the happy times to prepare for times of trial? Do you deal with your emotions in a healthy and productive way, so that you have emotional reserves to handle the unexpected?


Are you following sound Biblical principles to prepare for tough financial times (perhaps even worse than what we’re seeing today)? Would you be prepared to handle a financial collapse in our economy, loss of your job, or major unexpected expenses? If not, what can you do today to be better prepared?


What are you doing to continue to grow in every important area of your life? Don’t think that God is going to leave you alone to rest on your current abilities. He most likely has even greater challenges ahead for you in the future. What can you do today as a man to prepare to be a better husband, father, church leader, employee, evangelist, citizen, and disciple? What are your goals in these areas and what are you doing to reach them?

This is far from a complete list, but rather just a few suggestions of the type of responsibilities we should be preparing ourselves for. The problem with lists is that they often lead to guilt and frustration, as just another reminder of what we haven’t done. I pray that this won’t be the case here. God understands that we all have limited time and energy and that much of life is about prioritization and balance. But please use this as another reminder to be prepared for whatever may be ahead in your future. Don’t waste your time being complacent with where you are today. Gird your loins for what God may need you to do next.