Posts Tagged ‘Laura Story’

Advent Devotional Day 16: “Mercies in Disguise”

December 16, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:42, 45, 48

The first chapter of Luke tells us in many ways that Mary is “blessed” by God. But what a strange kind of blessing it was! Blessed to be pregnant out of wedlock—with all the scandalous gossip and innuendo that came with it! Blessed to have an incredibly difficult conversation with her fiancé, who doesn’t at first believe her when she tells him she didn’t cheat on him. Blessed to have to flee for her life to a foreign land with Joseph and Jesus in order to escape the murderous clutches of King Herod. Blessed with the heartache of losing her son for three days while he was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Blessed to watch her son grow up and face opposition and hostility—even from the people he grew up with.[1] Blessed to stand at the foot of the cross and watch him die! Blessed for those three days between his death and resurrection.

To say the least, God’s idea of “blessing” is often different from our own. To be blessed by God doesn’t mean to be free from trouble or pain.

Singer-songwriter Laura Story captures this truth in her song “Blessings.” It includes these words:

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
‘Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

When we experience trouble and pain in this life, it’s often because God loves us too much to let us settle for the “lesser things” that we want.

Do you trust that God knows what we need more than we do? Can you name an experience in which your trials were God’s “mercies in disguise”? Do you agree with this statement by C.S. Lewis? “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Why or why not?

1. Matthew 13:55-57

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 15: Mercies in Disguise

December 15, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:42, 45, 48

glory_cover_finalThe first chapter of Luke tells us in many ways that Mary is “blessed” by God. But what a strange kind of blessing it was! Blessed to be pregnant out of wedlock—with all the scandalous gossip and innuendo that came with it! Blessed to have an incredibly difficult conversation with her fiancé, who doesn’t at first believe her when she tells him she didn’t cheat on him. Blessed to have to flee for her life to a foreign land with Joseph and Jesus in order to escape the murderous clutches of King Herod. Blessed with the heartache of losing her son for three days while he was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Blessed to watch her son grow up and face opposition and hostility—even from the people he grew up with. Blessed to stand at the foot of the cross and watch him die! Blessed for those three days between his death and resurrection.

To say the least, God’s idea of “blessing” is often different from our own. To be blessed by God doesn’t mean to be free from trouble or pain.

Singer-songwriter Laura Story captures this truth in her song “Blessings.” It includes these words:

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
‘Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

When we experience trouble and pain in this life, it’s often because God loves us too much to let us settle for the “lesser things” that we want.

Do you trust that God knows what we need more than we do? Can you name an experience in which your trials were God’s “mercies in disguise”? Do you agree with this statement by C.S. Lewis? “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Why or why not?

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 12: Blessings in Disguise

December 11, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:39-45

In his book The Journey, Adam Hamilton writes:

Imagine Mary’s feelings as she heard Elizabeth’s words. It had been at least ten days since Gabriel had appeared to Mary with his confusing announcement. She had spent the last nine days traveling with her secret, uncertain, afraid, and wondering how any of this could be true. But then, before she could even tell Elizabeth what had happened, Elizabeth showed that she knew Mary’s secret, and Elizabeth was filled with joy on Mary’s behalf. Elizabeth went on to say, in essence, “Listen, child, you don’t have to be afraid. You’ve been blessed. Blessed! Don’t you see it? You’ve been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.[1]

Elizabeth tells Mary three times that she’s blessed. But what does it mean to be blessed?

Not usually what we think it means—especially during this Christmas shopping season when non-stop television and radio commercials convince us that our blessings are things we can own and touch!

God’s blessings are different: For one thing, they often come with pain and suffering. It was certainly true in Mary’s case! Her blessings even came with a “sword,” as the prophet Simeon told her shortly after Jesus’ birth: “A sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35), likely a reference to watching her son die on the cross.

I’m reminded of this profound song by singer-songwriter Laura Story, called “Blessings.” It includes these words:

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
‘Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

God wants to give us more than the “lesser things” that we so often think we want.

Do you trust that God knows what we need more than we do? Can you name an experience in which your trials were God’s “mercies in disguise”? Do you agree with this statement by C.S. Lewis? “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Why or why not?

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 66.

What’s right with “everything happens for a reason”?

October 28, 2015

This blog post, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” is making the social media rounds this week. The blogger, Tim Lawrence, is only the latest to attack the oft-repeated aphorism “everything happens for a reason.” Like a good politician, I’ve been both against it and for it—not the expression itself (which, like all platitudes, should be used sparingly if ever) but the meaning underneath it. Do you remember when I attacked Laura Story’s song “Blessings” before deciding, a year later, that it was profoundly good?

Isn’t that funny? What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

Regardless, with proper qualification, I now endorse the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” I believe it’s an inescapable consequence of God’s sovereignty, it accords perfectly well with the witness of scripture, and, personally, I find it immensely comforting, as I’ve blogged and preached several times before (including here). For my fellow Christians, I always recommend three books on the topic: C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Timothy Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

If you want to know why I changed my mind on the subject, start with those three books. They blew me away. They exposed how shallow my thinking on the subject of suffering and God’s providence and sovereignty had been.

Would they make any sense to someone who isn’t already a Christian? I don’t know. (Frankl was a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His is a “secular,” non-sectarian book, but, in my opinion, it’s premised upon a God who must be there to give meaning to our suffering.)

With that in mind, I don’t know if Lawrence is a Christian, or even a religious person. He uses the language of blessing, as you see below, which is religious language. I read in his bio that he suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His blog aims to encourage people who are experiencing pain and suffering.

He writes:

I now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

His own loss, he says, has not in and of itself made him a better person.

That seems right, as far as it goes: No loss, no suffering, no pain, in and of themselves, can make us better people. As Frankl observed from his experience in the death camps, the suffering that his fellow inmates endured often did destroy their souls. But—and here’s the key point—he didn’t believe that even the most intense amount of suffering necessarily would. As he writes:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[1]

Lawrence, by contrast, is unwilling to put the responsibility of that decision on the person who is suffering. Ever. He’s indignant at the suggestion:

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

While I sympathize, one consequence of Lawrence’s thinking is that the suffering person can only ever be a victim, or, as Frankl puts it, a “plaything of circumstance.” Does Lawrence want that to be the case?

I don’t. Although I recognize that wanting something to be otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Still, if Lawrence is right, let’s concede that much of what the Bible tells us about suffering is also nonsense. I’m thinking, for example, of Joseph’s profound words to his brothers after their reunion in Genesis 50: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Or Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: This thorn, whatever it is, is both a “messenger from Satan sent to torment” Paul and a gift that “was given” by God (notice the divine passive) to keep Paul from “becoming conceited.”

In both Joseph’s and Paul’s cases, therefore, we see God transforming a genuinely evil event or circumstance into something good for them and for the world.

Does God work like this all the time? Is their experience universal?

I think so, at least for us Christians. I’m thinking of the apostle James’s words about the trials we endure, in James 1:2-4, and how they are for our good: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness…” Or Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Even Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “give thanks in all circumstances” only makes sense if God is working providentially through everything. It’s also worth noting that when Paul wrote his “epistle of joy” to the Philippians, telling them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice,” he was enduring a brutal imprisonment that he wasn’t sure he would even survive.

My point is, while it’s true that pain and suffering in and of themselves can’t make us better people or the world a better place, the good news is that we don’t experience anything in the world in and of itself! There’s no corner of the universe untouched by God’s grace. There’s no place in this world where the Holy Spirit isn’t actively at work. There’s no evil more powerful than God’s redemptive love.

If God can take the greatest evil imaginable—the cross of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good imaginable, can he or will he not do the same with lesser evils in our own lives?

Lawrence replaces one aphorism (“Everything happens for a reason”) with another: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

That’s true, although we can trust the Lord that whatever we’re “carrying,” we’re carrying because God wants us to, that it’s good for us, and that we’ll receive the grace we need to do so.

1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

When it comes to suffering, my heart hasn’t caught up to my head

November 4, 2013

keller_bookYesterday I preached a sermon based on Philippians 1:12-26  whose main point was that God redeems suffering in our lives and uses it for our good. The apostle Paul was suffering in prison. From an outsider’s perspective—even from the perspective of members of the church at Philippi—Paul’s situation looked bleak. Paul, however, saw how God was using these dire circumstances to accomplish many good things. I saw a parallel in Joseph’s story in Genesis and his words to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” God always does this sort of thing, I said, citing my favorite verse about God’s providence, Romans 8:28.

It was a difficult sermon for me to preach. I worry about sounding glib about suffering. I worry about trivializing pain. And I’m painfully aware of something C.S. Lewis said of himself in his book The Problem of Pain: I’m a coward. Even if it’s good for me, I certainly don’t want to suffer. And I don’t want to watch people I love suffer, either.

But what Christian alternative do we have, other than to believe that God allows our suffering for a reason? Every time we suffer, after all, God could have intervened to prevent it if he chose to. Sometimes God does; sometimes God doesn’t. If God doesn’t, we can trust that he has good reasons not to.

Think about it: We Christians believe that prayer is effective. If we are praying regularly as we ought to, nearly every occasion of suffering (of which there are many, obviously) is a petition to God that God hasn’t granted. Does this mean that God is capricious? Of course not. God has his reasons for allowing us to suffer. Sometimes, we can catch a glimpse of God’s reasons (as Paul himself did in yesterday’s scripture), but often we can’t.

As Tim Keller writes in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, this is as it should be. As an analogy he discusses chaos theory and the famous “butterfly effect”: that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] No one except God, that is.

Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about. The history-butterfly effect means that “only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward… provisioned [good] goals… Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.”[2]

Exactly! We aren’t in a position to judge. But through the eyes of faith we can say, “Even though I don’t understand why this is happening, God does know why, God is ultimately in control, and God knows best.”

At the end of yesterday’s sermon, I quoted the Laura Story song “Blessings.”

Not that I expect anyone to remember this, but just over a year ago I blogged about my disagreement with the song’s theology after I heard it performed at a child’s funeral. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

The first verse sounds promising:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering

That’s certainly true. But listen to the verse’s turnaround (emphasis mine): “All the while, you hear each spoken need/ Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.”

Lesser things”—you know, like healing, comfort, protection, and peace. Apparently, for Story, the greater things God would rather give us—for our own good, mind you—may include terminal illnesses, war, genocide—pick any evil, natural or human. We may pray against evil, as our Lord himself taught us to do, but if we receive evil in spite of our prayers, we should thank God because even these bad things—as Story implies in the song’s chorus—”are your mercies in disguise.” In other words, they aren’t really evil at all.

If Ms. Story ever reads this blog, I owe her an apology. I was wrong. As I now understand, she isn’t saying that evil is really good “in disguise.” Rather, given that evil happens—evil which God does not cause—we should expect that an all-loving, all-wise, and all-powerful God can and will transform the consequences of that evil into something good—good for us, good for our loved ones, good for the world.

In order for modern Christians to buy into this idea, we have to reject our modern assumption that suffering and death are the worst things ever; that they automatically rob life of meaning. If our life’s meaning is rooted in Christ, as Paul’s was, then suffering and even death are part of what give life its meaning. As Paul writes, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Let me say again: I’m a coward. I’m not quite where Paul was when he wrote those words. I agree with him intellectually, but my heart hasn’t caught up to my head. But that’s my problem. One day, I hope and believe it will.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

Can we have some humility about suffering, Ms. Story?

August 30, 2012

Today, for the first time, I heard (or at least paid close attention to) a popular contemporary Christian song called “Blessings,” written by a prominent contemporary Christian singer-songwriter and worship leader named Laura Story. According to Wikipedia, the song was a hit in 2011 and recently won a Grammy award. As I listened to it, I thought it was nearly a great song, bravely tackling the difficult subject of faith and suffering—not a frequent theme in the happy-clappy world of most contemporary Christian music.

Upon further reflection, however, I hate it. If people in the midst of suffering and grief find comfort in it, as apparently Story herself did when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, to God be the glory. But I couldn’t stand beside a deathbed and share these sentiments with either a dying person or the loved ones who are left behind. I hope I’d lose my credentials as a United Methodist pastor!

The first verse sounds promising:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering

That’s certainly true. But listen to the verse’s turnaround (emphasis mine): “All the while, you hear each spoken need/ Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.”

Lesser things”—you know, like healing, comfort, protection, and peace. Apparently, for Story, the greater things God would rather give us—for our own good, mind you—may include terminal illnesses, war, genocide—pick any evil, natural or human. We may pray against evil, as our Lord himself taught us to do, but if we receive evil in spite of our prayers, we should thank God because even these bad things—as Story implies in the song’s chorus—”are your mercies in disguise.” In other words, they aren’t really evil at all.

Didn’t I just complain yesterday about how John Piper’s hyper-Calvinist vision of God’s sovereignty attributes human sin and evil to God’s authorship—because even sin and evil serve his (at times) inscrutable purposes. How is Laura Story not saying the same thing?

Does your spouse, for example, have a brain tumor? According to the song’s theology, God gave it to him or her. Remember: If God wanted to give someone a “lesser” thing like a healthy brain, he would do so. God’s motives for giving someone cancer are blameless: “What if a thousand sleepless nights/ Are what it takes to know you’re near?/ What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?” In other words, you needed this bad thing to happen; therefore, our merciful God obliged by giving it to you. God will do “what it takes.”

To make matters worse, if the suffering person to whom Story directs these words doubts the hard truth of what she’s saying—and isn’t completely comfortable with the idea that God constantly sends evil-disguised “mercies” our way—we can be sure that God himself “longs” that “we’d have faith to believe.” Here, she says, doubt isn’t faith’s necessary correlate, as classic Christianity teaches, but is instead the opposite of faith. I should throw out every sermon I’ve preached on “doubting Thomas,” that’s for sure!

Am I being too hard on the song? After all, she asks, “What if?” As if she’s wondering aloud. But listen to the song and tell me that she means it as an open question. The most charitable reading is that Story got a bit sloppy with her words and meant to say, simply, that God takes all these bad things—including sin and evil—and uses them for his good purposes; or that God is continually bringing good out of suffering; or that God is incredibly merciful in the midst of suffering. That’s what I would like the song to say. In which case I would agree wholeheartedly! In C.S. Lewis’s masterful book The Problem of Pain, he writes that God is “mercenary” about using suffering for our good. But using suffering isn’t the same as causing it, especially when doing so makes God complicit in sin or evil.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not even arguing that God never sends suffering our way. That wouldn’t be biblical. I haven’t changed my mind since last week, when I wrote the following:

The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.

What I’m arguing is that when it comes to human suffering, there are things we can say with theological certainty—based on the Bible and two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject. But there is also a great deal of mystery, especially as it relates to God’s involvement and agency in suffering. We owe it to those who suffer to speak with circumspection and humility. Unfortunately, this song fails to do that.