Pastor Joel's Top 10 Books of 2018

Around this time of year, many "Top 10" lists are published, recapping the best of the best of the previous year.  My favorite version of these lists is a top 10 list of books.  Several authors, bloggers, writers, and preachers and pastors release such lists, and I confess that I get almost all of my reading material for the coming year from such lists.  Not to be outdone, I figured I'd produce my own Top 10 list of books that I read that were influential in my thinking, or challenged me in some way, or that I simply enjoyed. This isn't the first time I've produced a list like this (click here for my favorite books from 2017).  For some reason, in 2018 I felt compelled to keep a spread sheet of the books I read, and this year I read 28 books in their entirety. Some were just for fun, some were recommended, some focused on spiritual things, and others were just fiction. While in this post I'll be focusing on books that enhanced my spiritual walk, I'll be making a more diverse list over on my personal blog.  

Before checking out my list below, there are a few things you should be aware of:

1. My favorite genres of literature are biography, memoir, history, and other non-fiction.  In fact (and surprisingly to me), there is no fiction on this year's list.  I did read some fiction in 2018, but apparently none of it struck me too much because no works of fiction appear on this list.  

2. Some of these books are included in Riverview's library.  I'll note their inclusion when appropriate.

3. I realize that not all of these books were published in 2018.  But nevertheless, it was 2018 by the time I got around to reading them.  So although this is a list of some of my favorite books of 2018, the "2018" qualifier only refers to when I actually read them.

4. I don't have a lot of time to read.  I'm a busy guy with a full time job, a marriage to nurture, and two young kids to raise.  I don't have a lot of extra time.  For this reason, I rely a lot on recommendations.  So if you have a good book worth sharing, let me know.  

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10. The Imperfect Disciple by Jared Wilson (available in the Riverview Library).  Let’s face it: the Christian life is messy. This book acknowledges this fact and plays off it to accentuate the grace that accompanies Christian life and growth. If you feel sometimes that the Christian life is hard, and even so hard as to be impossible, take a look at this book and be encouraged. If nothing else, it’s a great reminder of the daily gospel grace in which Christians live, and a challenge to recognize it every day.

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9. Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill Perry. I’ve appreciated Jackie for a while now. She has a unique artistic talent, and has been a great voice in the reformed world for some time now. In this book she tells the story of her life, focusing on the formative experiences of her younger years which ultimately drew her into a homosexual lifestyle. But, as Perry notes, these experiences weren’t the only reasons. She also recounts her eventual conversion, and in the process conveys what is truly an almost one of a kind look at homosexuality and faith. This is a book worth reading for Christians who are wanting to engage in the conversation on homosexuality and faith, where the two meet, and God’s love for people and their response. There’s a lot to think about with this book.

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8. Jonathan Edwards: A Short Life by George M. Marsden. I have a confession to make: until this year, I’ve never read a Jonathan Edwards biography, and the one I did read was relatively short. Being a Christian who holds to reformed theology, this is almost unheard of. Nevertheless, it was true of me. For those (like me) who have never ventured into an Edwards biography, this is a great place to start. It’s always interesting to me to learn about how those who have gone before have lived out their faith. This is especially true for Edwards, who many consider to be the most influential Christian in American history. Edwards had his flaws, to be sure, and it is also interesting to read about his struggles.

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7. The Fisherman's Tomb by John O’Neill. My son recently got to watch the Indiana Jones movies, which, of course, tell of Dr Jones’ adventures as he raids ancient tombs and discovers priceless relics. If you like that storyline, you’ll love this book, except unlike Indiana Jones, this story is true. This book tells the story of the archaeological excavations that took place which led to the ultimate discovery of what is believed to be the tomb(s) of Peter (yes, that Peter). The book is written from a Catholic perspective, so there’s a bit of that to wade through, but the explanations of the excavations, the drama that ripped through the Vatican as a result of the digs, and the ultimate discovery and characters involved is fascinating and fast paced.

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6. For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton. When I was very young I saw the movie Chariots of Fire, which told the story of Eric Liddell. I remember the main musical theme from the movie, of course, but not much about the story itself. It was a great experience to pick up this book and read about Liddell’s olympic accomplishments, his faith, and his ultimate service and death on the mission field. There’s a lot to inspire Christians in this book, both in giving their all and their best to God no matter what they endeavor to do, and in being willing to follow him where he leads no matter the cost.

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5. Educated by Tara Westover. This book was probably the most difficult on this list. It took a lot of reflection on the content to really digest what was happening and what was being communicated by the author. The book functions as a memoir of the author, a woman who recounts her experiences being raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household by parents who seem to have some degree of mental illness. As you might expect, her childhood and teenage years were troubled, at best, until she eventually left the house against the wishes of her parents to attend college. It was in her education that she found her freedom and the ability to put her life, family, and faith into context. The challenging parts about this book have to do with religious extremism, and the ideas of victimhood and privilege, although probably not in the way those ideas are thought about in our culture in general. Reader beware: there are disturbing accounts of abuse in this book and a significant amount of foul language.

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4. 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson. Jordan Peterson might be one of the most talked about people on the internet this year, and for good reason. The man is absolutely brilliant, can think on his feet, and speaks with a bluntness that is absolutely refreshing. For these reasons I wandered into his newly released book. Peterson, to me, is a conundrum: he is overflowing with what could be categorized as biblical wisdom, yet the man is not a Christian (although he says that he lives his life as though God does exist, whatever that means). For this reason, the reader should be aware: what Peterson espouses as truth sounds biblical, but finds its root in secular psychology and evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, all truth is God’s truth (even when it comes from the mouth of a mule), and Peterson speaks a lot of truth in this book. But at the end of the day, the best that Peterson offers is behavior modification with no real heart change. While his “rules” might be wise, they are devoid of supernatural power.

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3. Letters to the Church by Francis Chan. This book challenged me. Actually anytime I hear Francis Chan preach or read something he has written, I come away challenged. Chan is obviously zealous, and I have a desire to emulate his zeal, which is good. This book tells of his experiences in organizing what is essentially a house church movement in the San Francisco area, and along the way he makes applications from his experiences to the modern church in America, most of which are poignant and convicting. If you’ve never read or heard Chan before and you decide to pick up this book, be ready for an “all or nothing” approach to the Christian life. Again, Chan’s zeal is evident and worthy of emulation, but I sometimes fear that he takes some ideas to extremes, which become a detriment to his ideas in general. That being said, I appreciated this book a lot.

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2. The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield (available in the Riverview Library). When I got convicted by this book during the Introduction, I knew I was in for a spiritually challenging read, and I was right. If you’re not familiar with Rosaria Butterfield, she’s a former lesbian, feminist college professor who was converted to Christianity and is now a pastor’s wife, homeschooling mother. Her first book tells the story of how she came to faith primarily through the ministry of Christian hospitality. In this book she lays out a plan of action for all Christians to be able to show this kind of hospitality, and the wonderful fruit it produces when practiced regularly in the church. Not only are the lost brought in, but the church is built up in a myriad of ways you would never think. All Christians should read this book and learn about how they can serve God and participate in the change of others in “radically ordinary” ways.

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1. Out of a Far Country by Christopher Yuan (available in the Riverview Library). This book, by far, was the most moving book I read all year. Christopher Yuan is a former homosexual and convicted drug dealer (who spent significant time in prison) who came to faith primarily through the prayer and persistent ministry of his mother. To be sure, the story of Christopher’s life prior to his conversion is dramatic and the story is fast paced and engaging. But what I found to be most provocative was his mother’s love and concern and how she communicated it to him. It was her Christ-like love (about the most Christ-like love I’ve ever heard of in my life) that God used to bring him to faith. This book, like others on this list, is a wonderful instruction about how to engage the issue of homosexuality, and is even better for those parents who have wayward children of their own. This book will show you an example of how to love your prodigal and show them Christ.

Does Baptism Save?

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The book of 1 Peter has several "tricky bits."  In fact, in my estimation, there aren't too many other books of the New Testament with more tricky bits than Peter's first letter.  It's ironic that Peter describes Paul's writings as "hard to understand" when, in my opinion, Peter is easily more confusing than Paul!

There are two "tricky bits" in just three verses of 1 Peter 3 that have confused Christians for centuries, and have even been used as a justification for division between Christian denominations. In my last post I answered a question about whether or not Jesus went to hell in the interim between his death and his resurrection. In this post I’d like to address another tricky bit from this section about baptism: does Peter teach that baptism saves a person?

Before I address this question, my personal belief is that the observable pattern in the New Testament is that baptism follows a profession of faith. That is, baptism is to be reserved for those who are already saved by grace through faith, and is a means of professing that faith publicly. I further affirm that the Bible teaches that baptism does not bestow grace upon the baptized. In other words, there is no additional saving grace administered by God upon those who have been baptized. There are numerous passages in the New Testament that speak to the issue of baptism, and these passages are debated frequently. I don’t plan to address any of these other passages in this post, but instead will focus exclusively on 1 Peter 3.18-22, especially since these verses seem to contradict my stated beliefs about baptism.

In 1 Peter 3.18-22 we learn that Christ suffered for sins by being put to death in the body. He was made alive in the spirit and went and preached to people who were imprisoned by sin. Then Peter makes a comparison between Jesus and Noah, who also went and proclaimed freedom to people who did not obey God. Noah is described in the Bible as a preacher of righteousness, and through his preaching God provided a means of salvation - the ark! That ark was the certainty of God’s salvation for Noah and his family. And now, Peter says that we also formerly did not obey God, so Jesus came and proclaimed freedom to us while we were prisoners of sin. And, like Noah, we have the certainty of God’s salvation through water - through baptism. Peter says, “Baptism…now saves you.”

Wait, what? We have God’s salvation through baptism? I thought that Baptists believed that baptism was just a symbol of what has taken place in our hearts? I thought that we were the people who said that baptism doesn’t save, and that’s one reason why we don’t baptize infants? That’s true, as Baptists, we believe those things. Thankfully, so does Peter! Then what does he mean by saying that baptism saves us?

Peter is not saying that the act of baptism is what saves a person, but rather that it is an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection. The whole verse reads, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” He says that baptism does nothing to remove the stains that cover our bodies. Simple, physical water can do nothing to clean us up.

Yesterday I went to vote in the local, state, and federal elections. When I arrived at my polling place I showed them my driver’s license and they had me sign my name in a record book, indicating that I had voted. My signature was a sign that I had participated in the election; it symbolized my appropriation of my civic duty to vote. Peter is saying something very similar about baptism.

Christians believe that Jesus died as a payment to God for their sins, and that his resurrection has conquered the grave and the eternal effects of sin in our lives. Peter believes this too, and he is saying that baptism acts as a sign and seal of the truth of this belief in a Christian’s life. In other words, baptism isn’t what saves us - it’s a sign that we are saved. And for those who have made a profession of faith and have undergone the process of baptism, it is a symbol of the salvation that God has brought about in their lives; a sign that I am trusting in Christ for my ultimate salvation. It’s an appeal to God that I have a clean conscience, because all of my sin has been paid for by Christ, and all of his righteousness has been given to me, and he has conquered death and hell through his resurrection, and baptism is the symbol that I have claimed that victory for my own by grace through faith in Christ.

Peter’s point is that baptism serves as an external sign that no matter what happens in my life, I can have the assurance that my salvation is secure. Peter says that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Put simply, your baptism should remind you that your salvation is in the hand of the one who rules over all others. Could there be a greater assurance of our salvation than that?

Sometimes life beats us down and we can have doubts and discouragement. Peter’s original readers were being persecuted and losing their jobs, families, and even lives because of their faith in Jesus. Imagine the doubts that plagued their hearts. Perhaps they thought that they weren’t actually saved because they were suffering so much; perhaps they thought that God was angry with them or punishing them for something. Peter is saying none of those things are true, and their baptism proves it. Their baptism is a sign that their salvation has been, is, and forever will be secure.

The same is true for us. We should not look at baptism as something that has saved us, but as a sign that we are saved. If you are experiencing doubts and difficulty in your journey of faith, look back at your baptism and appeal to it for a clean conscience; let it remind you that Jesus died for all of your sins and that he defeated death so that you can live forever in victory. This is Peter’s message in these verses. Not that baptism saves, but that it shows that we have been saved, and that we can take courage from that reality.

And, if you haven’t been baptized, you should be (presuming, of course, that you are trusting in Christ)! Be baptized, and use the event of your baptism “as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”

Did Jesus Go To Hell?

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When my kids were young, they watched the wonderful "What's in the Bible?" series created by Phil Vischer.  One of the segments that was featured in the show was called "Tricky Bits with Buck Denver."  Buck Denver was one of the puppets on the show and he would explain some of the harder parts of the Bible to understand.

The book of 1 Peter has several "tricky bits."  In fact, in my estimation, there aren't too many other books of the New Testament with more tricky bits than Peter's first letter.  It's ironic that Peter describes Paul's writings as "hard to understand" when, in my opinion, Peter is easily more confusing than Paul!

There are two "tricky bits" in just three verses of 1 Peter 3 that have confused Christians for centuries, and have even been used as a justification for division between Christian denominations (just Google "Did Jesus go to hell?" and you will find dozens of answers and explanations!).  The goal of this post, and the following post, will be to try to give an explanation for these tricky bits.

The first tricky bit from 1 Peter 3 comes in verses 18-19: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison..."  These verses make it sound as though after his death, Jesus went somewhere - a "prison" - and spent at least a bit of time preaching to people who were incarcerated in such a prison.  In the very next chapter, Peter also says that the gospel is preached to those who are dead.  Could this mean after his death, Jesus preached the gospel to dead souls presently in hell?  Seemingly in support of this notion, Paul says in Ephesians 4.9 that Jesus "descended into the lower parts of the earth."

These passages and one or two others have led some to believe that, after his death, Jesus spent at least some time in hell, doing something, although what exactly it was he was doing is still up for debate.  This idea became so prevalent that even the Apostle's Creed, embraced and recited in churches around the world, says, "...he was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell..." 

So did Jesus go to hell and do something during the three days when he was "dead?"  That's definitely a "tricky bit," and we'll try to answer that question now, although it should be noted that the answer I'm going to give is my own, based on my personal study, and is by no means definitive or authoritative.  You are free to disagree.  Just make sure that scripture carries your thinking.  Also, note that this is far from a comprehensive study.  I'm only addressing the two sections of 1 Peter that speak to this question.

First, let's be clear that the Bible never explicitly teaches that Jesus went "to hell."  It might appear to imply or suggest it here and there, but it is never explicitly said.  

Second, there are words used in the verses noted above that are frequently used in a variety of ways in scripture.  Knowing how those words are translated and understood in the context of the passages they are in will determine our interpretation of these verses and help us to answer the question. 

That being said, no, I don't believe Jesus ever went to hell.  Let's look at the two verses we've already noted. 

1 Peter 3.18-19 - In these verses Peter notes Christ's death and resurrection, and seems to imply that in the interim he went and preached to "the spirits in prison."  In order to understand this verse, we need to know what Peter means by the words "spirits" and "prison."  It seems unlikely that the "spirits" mentioned in this verse refers to disembodied souls in hell, or even in a "place of the dead" such as the oft-mentioned Sheol, because of what verse 20 says: "...because they formerly did not obey..."  The idea of there being a second chance to hear and believe the gospel after death is contrary to every other teaching of scripture (see, for instance, Luke 16.19-31).  Scripture is clear that the time that we have to hear and respond to the gospel is the time between our natural birth and natural death.  The Bible never tells us that there is a second chance to hear and believe the gospel.  If this is what Jesus did for spirits that were imprisoned in hell, it would be in contradiction with the rest of scripture. 

Rather, because of Peter's comparison of what Jesus did to what Noah did, it seems more likely that the "spirits in prison" refer to human beings alive at the time of Peter's writing.  The Bible describes Noah as a preacher of righteousness who preached God's judgment and salvation.  Noah's audience were "spirits in prison" (of sin) who "did not obey."  Jesus similarly came to preach God's judgment and salvation to "spirits in prison" who "did not obey" (us).  And Just as Noah was saved from God's judgment by the ark, we are saved from God's judgment by the Ark of God's Son.  Peter's readers were to see themselves as the people to whom Noah went and preached, and to see the ark that rescued Noah as the Ark that rescued them. 

1 Peter 4.6 - In the next chapter, Peter says, "For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does."  Many have understood this to mean that Jesus traveled to hell to preach the gospel to its dead inhabitants.  Here again, we need to know what Peter means by the word "dead."  The Bible frequently refers to human beings as "dead" even though they are very much alive.  The implication is that the word "dead" describes their spiritual condition.  For example, Ephesians 2.1 describes unregenerate human beings as being "dead in...trespasses and sins..."  Paul clearly doesn't mean that we were dead and in hell in trespasses and sins, and we know that because he goes on to say that God made us spiritually alive.  So it is unlikely that when Peter says that "the gospel was preached even to those who are dead" that he is referring to actual dead people who are in hell.  Rather, it seems much more likely that Peter is referring to the dead spiritual condition of those to whom the gospel has been preached. 

It is also possible that Peter is merely referring to a temporal distinction between those who are alive presently, and those who were alive in the past but are now dead.  The previous verses indicate that God is the judge of "the living an the dead."  The "living" certainly can hear the gospel presently, but the dead cannot.  That is why "the gospel was preached even to those who are dead," meaning that, when they were alive, the gospel was preached to them, but now they are dead an cannot hear the gospel.  It's just a temporal indication, not meaning that they were preached to while physically dead. 

Does it really matter if Jesus went to hell or not?  

It is possible for Christians with differing opinions on this question to have unity with one another.  We need not separate ourselves over whether or not we believe that Jesus went to hell between his death and resurrection.  In fact, those who argue that Jesus did  go to hell have wonderful an gospel-affirming reasons for doing so.  It is my opinion, however, that the Bible simply does not support Jesus going to hell during the time of his death. 

Apart from that, we can be encouraged that Jesus experienced everything that we have or will experience - including death.  And, like him, at our time of death, we will leave our bodies and join him in paradise, absent from the body but present with the Lord.  As Jesus cried out on the cross: "It is finished!"  There is no need for us to fear death or hell.  We can live in confidence that he has paid the price for our salvation in full, and we can live each one of our days with confidence in his victory over death.

My Bibles

About a month ago my wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary.  It has been my practice to follow the "traditional" anniversary gifts for my gifts to her.  This means that for our 15th anniversary I got her a crystal vase with our names engraved into it.  It was very nice, if I do say so myself.  

But then, on the way to meet her at the restaurant to celebrate, I dropped the vase on the concrete sidewalk and it broke into a million pieces.  So much for that.  

My anniversary gift for my wife didn't work out, but she got me a gift too: a new Bible.  It's a compact, yet large print, ESV Bible with my wife's nickname for me ("Hubbz") imprinted in gold on the front cover.  I was excited to receive it, and immediately moved my previous "go-to" Bible from its spot on my desk to a retirement position on my bookshelf.  It had gotten worn out over the past 10 years or so that I've had it, and it was time for a new one anyway.  

That got me to thinking about the Bibles I've owned through different seasons of my life, all of which I still have in my possession.  Each one of those Bibles tells a story about my life at the time I was using it.  

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The first Bible I ever wanted for myself was a King James Version.  For some reason I don't recall, my friend and I were fascinated with the old-times feel of King James english so I asked my mom to get me a copy, and she did.  I was probably about 12 years old at the time.  It was a large print King James, with the words of Christ in red (which I don't recommend).  At the time I got this Bible, I wasn't a Christian, and the King James english proved to be more challenging than I thought it would be.  This Bible is still in great shape because it was almost never read.  

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The second Bible I remember having was given to me at some point in time when I was a teenager.  I don't remember who or why it was given to me, but it was.  This one was a NIV Student Bible.  Inside of this Bible are little explanatory notes that help the reader understand the context of scripture.  This is a special Bible to me.  In high school, I used to bring this Bible with me to school and place it on the top of the chest-high lockers in the school and read it before class started in the mornings.  As you can see from the picture, there are plenty of teenage indicators on the Bible: stickers, duct tape, and lots of highlighting and underlining and drawings in the margins (I don't highlight or underline anything in my Bibles anymore - you can, but it's not something that helps me).  This Bible is also special to me because it is the Bible I used when I read the Bible from cover to cover for the first time in my life.  According to a note I put in the margin, I finished my first read-through on August 4, 2002.  This Bible - by far - is the most-used one I've ever owned.  It went with me through my teenage years and also through college, and its pages are stuffed with notes, cards, and other mementos from that time in my life. 

After I got married, I bought my next Bible: a New King James Version of the John MacArthur Study Bible.  This Bible got me through my first years of vocational ministry, and helped me immensely as a budding preacher in his mid-twenties.  MacArthur's commentary is wonderful, and the New King James translation is solid.  One of the significant factors of this Bible was the price tag, a hefty $70.00, which was a big deal for a newly married couple.  I remember that when I got home with it, I plopped into a hammock we had hanging outside and began to read.  These days the cover is frayed and torn a bit, and the bookmark was somehow cut off, but overall, it's still in good shape.  

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My next regular Bible is the one that I've just retired.  I've been using it regularly for about 10 years or so.  This is the Bible that could tell the most stories about ministry.  It's been to hospital rooms, to the bedside of the sick and dying, in broken homes, and and through many counseling sessions.  As I said earlier, I don't like to write in my Bibles, but this Bible has some writing in it.  But the writing all has to do with counseling sessions I've used it in.  If there is something underlined or written in it, it was done in order to show someone else what it was saying.  One of my favorite things about this Bible is the single-column text, which seems to be a rarity in Bibles these days.  I really love having the text in a single column for some reason.  I think it makes it easier to read.  There are some torn pages, and as you can see in the picture, the cover is well worn.  

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Finally, here's the new Bible my wife got me as an anniversary present.  It's a compact, large print (as large as it can be for a compact size, at least) ESV.  At this moment it is sitting on the corner of my desk, ready for use at a moment's notice.  Who knows where I'll go with it, or where it will take me.  Just as God used and directed my use of his word in and throughout the seasons of my life, I know that he will do so again as I look to the future of studying and applying his word.  Truly, there is no greater gift than a new Bible.  

The Healing Power of Lament

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It's hard for us to admit that things aren't going well in our lives.  When we see a friend or neighbor, they ask, "How's it going?" and we instinctively answer "Great!" without giving it a moment's thought, even if things in our lives aren't actually that great.  There's an unspoken cultural pressure for us to put on a front that our lives are happy, successful, and fun. 

But often that's just not the case. 

One of the common themes we see throughout the pages of scripture is that of lament.  A lament is an emotional and visceral response to the often sad state of reality in our lives.  Of the 150 psalms in the Bible, dozens of them are classified as "lament psalms," in which the author of the psalm mourns the ever present reality of living in a fallen world where difficult things happen.  The author asks big questions, like "Why did this bad thing happen, God?" and "Do you even still love me?  Do you care about me?  Are you really watching over me?  Because sometimes it doesn't seem like it."  In our society (and especially in the church) there's an unspoken pressure to come off as a happy, successful, fulfilled person, in which there isn't much room for lament.

But the reality is that bad things do happen, and we do have big questions about life and God and how he orders things because, sometimes, it just seems unfair and even malicious.  I was visited by a friend recently and he expressed to me that he was questioning God's love for him, because lately in his life, it sure didn't seem like God actually did love him.  He had been through the wringer, to put it mildly, and he was lamenting his circumstances.  He was lamenting that it seemed like God's love had been cut off from him, and that God's mercies weren't actually new every morning, as scripture says.  It was a difficult conversation, but I was so glad that he felt able to come and express these feelings to me.  Even though we all have questions and feelings like these, I think it's common for most of us to bottle them up and put on our happy face (especially when we go to church) and pretend that everything is great.  Lament allows us to put down our guard, admit that the smile we put on when we come to church is phony, to be open and honest with each other and with God. 

We need to make room in our Christian lives for lament, because when we lament we ask good and deep questions about God and life.  Some people are afraid of asking those hard questions, because they feel that to ask them is to expose doubts in their hearts.  But the writers of scripture knew that God was big enough to handle their questions, their complaints, and even their doubts, and so they laid them all before God.  We should learn to do the same.  And in the process, we will discover that lament can be a healthy and even healing thing in our lives because, when we ask deep questions, we find satisfying answers in God's word. 

A year or so ago, my friend Pam died of cancer.  She had been diagnosed a year previous, and went through the usual treatments and the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy.  She was miserable.  About a week before she passed away, she told me she had some questions for me and would like to talk, so I went to see her.  As we talked, she very honestly lamented to me, "Why me?  Why did God give me this cancer?" 

Have you ever been asked that question?  It's not an easy one to answer. 

All I could do was reaffirm to her what scripture tells us: We don't know the exact reason why God does what he does, but the Bible tells us that he is wise, kind and good.  It tells us that he watches over us, both in our best times and in our worst times.  It tells us that he cares for us, and he uses all things - even cancer - to make us more like Jesus. 

Pam rejoiced and found peace in this answer.  To be clear, this wasn't my answer to her question, but it was the answer that God gives us through his word.  And in this answer, Pam found her hope.  She had lamented that it seemed that God was far from her, but in turning to scripture she could stand firm on the truth, even in the face of death.  We ended our visit together by singing her favorite worship song, "He Will Hold Me Fast," which she sang loudly and with a newfound confidence in her God.  A confidence which she may not have had, had she not brought before the Lord her lament.  We need to make room in our Christian lives for this kind of lament because it can lead us to truth and healing. 

My favorite biblical example of the healing power of lament is in Psalm 77.  The first nine verses of this psalm are the author's lament.  In these verses he says things like, "I remembered you, God, and I groaned" (wow!), and "Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again?" and "Has God forgotten to be merciful?"  Those are pretty serious complaints.  Obviously the author of this psalm has been through something difficult, and he feels that God just simply doesn't care.  And so he honestly, openly, offers his lament. 

But the psalm doesn't end there.  The psalmist's lament leads him to the healing truth of the testimony of what God has done.  In response to the deep and significant questions the psalmist has about life and God, he turns to the record of the testimony of what God has done: "Then I thought, 'To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.'  Your ways, God are holy.  What god is as great as our God?  You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples." 

The answer to the psalmist's deep questions was the truth of God's word.  The healing to his pain came in the knowledge of what God has said and done throughout history, and the faith that he would act again. 

It's OK to be sad.  It's OK to have questions.  It's OK to be angry (as long as your anger doesn't lead you into sin).  It's OK to lament.  And not only is it OK, but it's a good and healthy Christian practice.  So make room in your Christian life to lament.  Maybe the next time someone asks you how you're doing, instead of the usual "Great!" answer you can lament, and use that as a way to be a witness of how God has been working in your life.  Or maybe instead of wearing the typical "Perfect Christian Smile" the next time you go to church, share about the difficulties you've been struggling with.  Lament.  And be healed.