A Sickness Worse Than Ebola

afraid_eyeFor the past two weeks, my Facebook feed has been littered with updates about the Ebola virus. Some people are afraid it’s going to spread, while others are saying it won’t. Some are saying the government isn’t protecting us well enough, and a few are just cracking clever Ebola jokes.

All the angst about Ebola highlights a deeper sickness in our hearts, a sickness that can’t be cured with any antiviral drug. We are infected with a deep fear of death and paralyzed by our lack of trust in God.

“Do not worry,” Jesus said. “Who of you, by being worried, can add a single hour to his life?”

Jesus said those words for a good reason. He knew that all of us wrestle with fear. All of us lie awake at times and imagine monsters in our closet and outside our door. We see the shadow of death lurking at the threshold of our lives, and our fear turns to terror. Our terror turns us inward, to the point that all we care about is self-preservation.

Jesus warned us about fear, and his disciples repeated the warning over and over again (Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Peter 5:7; 1 John 4:18). Why? Because fear drives us to the kind of selfishness that prevents us from caring about other people. Fear focuses our attention on what we cannot control and we lose sight of what matters.

Worst of all, fear makes us forget the power of God. Fear drove Abraham to lie about his wife Sarah, even though he knew that God was stronger than Pharaoh. Fear drove Moses to argue with God, even when he saw God’s presence in the burning bush. Fear drove the Israelites to harden their hearts and worship idols, right after they saw Him part the Red Sea and drown the Egyptians.

When we allow fear to have free reign in our hearts and minds, the result is devastating to our walk with God.

I wrestle with anxiety sometimes, and on my worst days it dominates my heart and mind. All of the “what ifs” add up and threaten to drown out God’s voice. What’s terrible is that my worst fears center on things I cannot control. Fear makes me small-minded and mean. I find myself snapping at my kids and growing angry with my co-workers. Fear is a terrorist, and it’s always plotting a coup. If we allow it, fear will take over and eject God’s goodness from our hearts.

If Ebola terrifies you, I have bad news and good news. Here’s the bad news: if Jesus doesn’t come back in the next few years, we’re all going to die. Maybe we will die of Ebola. More likely it will be something else. Some other disease, or an accident, or just old age. What’s even worse news is that the United States government can’t stop it. Every American will die, just like every African and everybody everywhere. You and I are already dying because of Adam’s sin and our own.

But here’s the good news: The God who parted the Red Sea and knocked down the walls of Jericho is the same God who raised His Son from the dead. That means that death is not the last word. Even if we die from a terrible virus, death cannot win. Every person connected to Jesus through faith will rise again and reign with Him.

Christians ought to be the bravest men and women in the world. Instead of locking the doors, we’re called to open them up and share the good news. Death is overcome. No fear can destroy us forever.

Instead of praying to the government, we pray to the God who rules the universe. He alone can overcome disease and death and bring us life that never ends. Governments and doctors are helpful to a point, but they cannot ultimately stop death. Only God can do that.

What is the antidote to the fear that paralyzes our hearts? Steep yourself in the Word of God. Read and remember the stories of His power. Set up a memorial stone in your heart so that you will not forget, an ebenezer to remind you of all He’s done and all He’s yet to do. He will not abandon his people to death.

We are called to be brave. We are called to pray for those who are suffering and help them in their pain. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, knowing that He risked death and exposure to all of our troubles. He incarnated Himself and entered our mess, determined to save us. He calls us to model His incarnation, to love others and pray for them, and to refuse to be paralyzed with fear.

There is a sickness worse than Ebola, and it’s called terror. There’s also a cure, and its name is resurrection.

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What’s Harder to Say Than “I’m Sorry”?

Despite what Peter Cetera told us, it’s not really hard to say, “I’m sorry.” Those two words are easy to blurt out in the heat of an argument, as a simple attempt to diffuse somebody else’s anger. Saying, “I’m sorry” isn’t an admission of guilt as much as it’s a statement of regret.

“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” 

“I’m sorry that what I did made you angry.” 

“I’m sorry, but I did what I felt I had to do.” 

Those aren’t really apologies, and they’re unlikely to bring reconciliation to a fractured relationship. Matthew 6:26 says that King Herod was “sorry” for beheading John the Baptist. That’s awesome that he was sorry, but “sorry” and a really skilled neck surgeon would still amount to one dead prophet. Herod regretted having John’s head removed, but he did it anyway, because he wanted to save face at a party. His regret didn’t affect his behavior one iota, nor did it imply true repentance for his actions.

When our kids were very young, a friend suggested to us that instead of making them say, “I’m sorry” to each other, we try a different phrase:

“Will you forgive me for [pulling your hair, calling you a potty name, stuffing you into the toy box, etc.]?” 

Although I often fail at this, I’ve started trying to implement it in my own relationships, particularly with my wife. “I was wrong to [snap at you, eat all the cookies you made for your friends, insult Downton Abbey, etc.]. Will you please forgive me?”

Asking for forgiveness is harder — and more effective — than saying, “I’m sorry.” First, because when you ask forgiveness, you’re taking responsibility for what you did wrong. You’re acknowledging that your own sinful choices contributed to the conflict. It forces you to verbalize your own sin and confess it to somebody else. That’s painful to do, but absolutely essential. You can’t change your sinful patterns if you don’t admit them. Second, asking for forgiveness places you at the mercy of the other person. It’s an inherently humble act, in which you acknowledge that reconciliation is a two-way street. You can holler, “I’m sorry,” and then walk away before the hard work of conflict resolution is completed. You can’t do that when you ask for forgiveness. You have to wait in humility for the other person’s answer. Forgiveness can be extended in one direction — after all, that’s what God has done for us in Jesus — but relational reconciliation usually requires both parties to participate.

So the next time you find yourself in a conflict, ask this: “Am I even partially to blame?” If so, practice these words: “Will you forgive me for…?”

Yes, it’s even harder than saying, “I’m sorry.” But it’s immeasurably better.

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Control is an Illusion

Four years ago today my son was born unable to breathe. We had no indication during my wife’s pregnancy that he was anything but perfectly healthy. Since he is our third child, we really felt we had the whole labor and delivery thing down. I know it sounds ridiculous, but somehow a couple of “normal” experiences had convinced us that this would be no different.

Within seconds after his birth, I knew something was not right. I kept waiting for him to start crying, but I only heard a very small whine, almost like the mewing of a cat. He began to turn blue, and the nurses frantically tried to clear his sinus passages so he could breathe. At the risk of sharing too much, I saw copious amounts of fluid pour from his nose. No matter how much they cleared out, though, it seemed there was always more.

About five minutes later (it felt like an hour), a doctor rushed into the room and placed tubes in his nose. They whisked him away and escorted me down the hall to explain that he was headed to the NICU. For some reason, even though he was a full-term baby who weighed well over nine pounds, his lungs were not fully developed. His body lacked the ability to create a very critical soap (called surfactant) that helps control surface tension in the lungs and keeps them from collapsing on themselves.

For the next week, he was on a respirator, until we were finally able to take him home.

Every so often, we have an experience that reminds us how little we are in control of our own lives. There was literally nothing tangible I could do for my son at that moment. I had no skill to save him. I had no authority at the hospital. I was completely and utterly out of control. Our story ended happily — he’s perfectly healthy today — but I frequently remember those first few days in the hospital and the feeling of total helplessness.

While we were in that delivery room, Somebody was there who had the power to save my son. It wasn’t the doctor or one of the nurses or me. We’re grateful for advanced medical care, but God saved my son’s life. God preserves his life even now. God preserves mine, and yours, and that of everybody you know. We live because he keeps us breathing. That’s just as true now, when my son is four, as it was when he was a newborn baby. He’s still utterly dependent on God, every moment, just to stay alive.

I bring all of this up because we often like to think we’re in control of our lives. We buy into the humanistic myth that hard work, a can-do attitude, and positive moral virtue can provide us with control over our lives. We can master our own destiny, captain our own ship, and all that hogwash.

But control is an absolute illusion.

We can influence others. We can influence our circumstances. We can manage our attitudes and our own actions. In the final analysis, though, we can’t control anything of true importance. If something is small enough for me to control, it’s almost certainly too small to worry about. The really big stuff — how long my family and I live, our health, the choices of those around me, my employment status, the global economy, the weather, whether my friends and family trust Jesus — I have no control over any of it. From a statistical point of view, I suspect we have control over less than 1% of our circumstances.

That’s why Jesus said that worrying can’t add a single hour to our lives. We are utterly out of control of nearly every significant life circumstance. If you have the illusion that you’re in control, it’s only because nothing really terrible has happened to you yet.

I don’t say any of this to be fatalistic. Quite the opposite, actually. Eventually we all have to decide whether we believe God is in control of our lives. Everybody makes that decision sometime. If He is in control, then worrying is not simply futile, it’s also completely unnecessary. If He is not in control, then we’re doomed anyway. Worrying is still futile and unnecessary, but for completely different reasons.

So at the beginning of a new year, when you’ve made all your plans and resolutions and goals, ask yourself whether those things are helpful tools or whether they’re little gods. Make your plans, but don’t be too surprised if they’re busted into pieces. Not because God hates you, but because He loves you more than He loves your day planner. He insists on being in charge. He seems to think that His plan is better. And here’s the big not-so-secret: His plan is better. It’s not easier. It’s not simple and trouble-free. It’s good, though. It’s eternally and perfectly good, even when we disagree with it.

Sometime this year, you’ll come face to face with the realization that you’re not in control. Something unexpected will mess with your plans. It might be small or it might be enormous. It might be simply inconvenient, or it might be horrific. You’ll have to ask yourself whether you believe that God, who spoke this universe into being, who made you, who holds the world together, who raised His Son from the dead, is really in control. Is He good? And will you trust Him, even when you have no control?

Those moments, if we learn to trust Him, are the moments that transform us into the character of Jesus. As long as we insist on being in control, our hearts grow smaller and blinder and weaker. When we trust Him, though, He changes us, from glory to glory, into the image of His Son.

Control is an illusion, but God is real. Let’s pray for strength to trust His plan, even when our own plans fall apart.

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4 Great Substitutes for Worry

I worry a lot. I don’t even need good reasons to worry. If there’s something big to worry about, I’ll worry about that. But if I only have something small available, that’s fine too. I can worry as if it were something big. Maybe that’s why my hair is already mostly gray.

When I was younger, I worried about grades, girls, college, jobs, popularity, my height, my skin, my health, and my safety. Now that I’m older, I worry about more sophisticated stuff. Like money, the future, my kids, my wife, my health, my height (OK, not as much anymore), my safety, and my job.

I love what Jesus says about worry (Mathew 6:27): “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” Actually, some people translate the Greek to say, “Who of you by being worried can add a single cubit to his height?” As a short guy, that speaks to me. 😉 Jesus reminds us that worry is a form of mistrust — God clothes and feeds the birds and flowers, so I can trust Him to take care of me.

Despite my struggles, I have slightly improved over the years, by God’s grace. I’ve found that worry management is really a matter of worry replacement. If I can’t fix whatever I’m worried about, I just have to replace the worry with something else.

So here are a few “worry substitutions” that have served me well:

1. Prayer (Philippians 4:6). It’s sad to say, but too often I pray after I’ve wasted time worrying. When I do pray, I don’t always get the answers I want, but I almost always stop worrying — at least for the moment.  I tend to remember who’s in control. The God who raises dead people is big enough to handle whatever I’m worrying about.

2. Perspective. I was worrying recently about a potential financial setback. It wasn’t anything that would ruin me, and it wasn’t even a reality yet. But I managed to worry about it just the same (I’m quite gifted that way). Then I glanced at Facebook and saw a friend’s prayer request for a devastating personal loss. I looked at my fridge and saw the face of our Compassion child, a girl who struggles to find enough food to eat each day. Suddenly the potential future loss of a few bucks didn’t seem so huge.

3. Praise. God has given me infinitely more than I deserve, and even more than I really need. He is good and merciful to me, a sinner. He’s given me eternal life through Christ, the power of His Spirit, and a relationship with Him. He would be beyond good if I had nothing else to my name. And yet He’s given me much, much more. Dwelling on His goodness and grace keeps me from stressing out about what might happen in the murky future.

4. Patience. Worry is always about events that haven’t taken place. Often I worry because I’m trying to reach into the future and find a solution for problems that might come up later. But I can’t fix them in advance, so I become impatient and fearful. My wife has a phrase for this (she uses it a lot, mostly to me, and always correctly): “You’re borrowing trouble from tomorrow.” Jesus said that each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:27). All I can really do is wait and trust God that He will take care of tomorrow. Or, as Jesus tells us, “Tomorrow will be anxious about itself.” I’m not great at waiting, but patience is perhaps the strongest antidote to worry.

So there you have it. Next time you’re tempted to worry, consider substituting worry with one of these things instead. I’ll be in the same boat with you, doing my best to make the substitution.

If you struggle with worrying, how do you cope? Do you have other suggestions for “worry substitutions”?

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