Sunday, June 7, 2015

Stand Firm in Eternal Comfort

In the wake of warning about the “man of lawlessness” who would come, and of the influence already then at work (2 Thessalonians 2:7), Paul notes that some people in this world choose to live in darkness. Such people are “perishing, because they refused to love the truth and be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). And because they steadfastly set themselves against the truth, God hands them over to their desires. All they have to do is “love the truth,” and they'd be saved. But they won't: they're “a band of ruffians” who “don't set [the LORD] before them” (Psalm 86:14). Some people don't love the truth. Given a choice between the honest-to-God truth and “wicked deception,” their choice is consistently for the second option. And so, in the end, God lets them chase down that trail to its end. Because God doesn't coerce us, he doesn't force us to “love the truth.” He sets the truth in front of us, he sends his Spirit with prevenient grace, but he lets us pick how to react to it. We can love the truth, or we can invite “a powerful delusion” and “take pleasure in unrighteousness” instead (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

Doesn't that ring true today as much as then? Take the case that has the media's attention for this moment. You might have heard of Bruce Jenner. Decades ago, he set a world record and won an Olympic gold medal in the 1976 men's decathlon. He was called the “world's greatest athlete” and an American hero for winning the medal back from the Soviets. But all that time, Jenner never felt comfortable as a man – he described himself as “lonely” and “totally empty inside” – so he's now gone through cosmetic surgeries and hormone treatments to portray himself to the world as a woman, just as he felt he always was – he has “the soul of a female,” he said. And now Jenner is a very public face – and, with praise from the president and awards from ESPN and television specials and endorsement deals, a very well-compensated face – for what it means to be, as they call it, “transgender,” joining others like the upcoming Pennsylvania Physician General.

It would be easy to just give in and live by the motto, “Whatever floats your boat” – whatever you personally want to do with your body, whatever you personally want to claim to be, we'll accept you as the final authority and play along and yell at anyone who disagrees. That would be the easy road, and many take it. Many in America today demand that we all agree that this man Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, a woman in all ways that count. Many in America today insist that we accept one of two versions of the story. One is that the body doesn't matter; that the true you is who you feel like you are, that the true 'you' is your feelings or brainwave patterns and not your body, and that if the body doesn't fit, then it just has to be fixed. How you feel is the 'real' you, and being honest and authentic is just asserting your feelings as the final arbiter of truth. The other version is that 'man' and 'woman', 'male' and 'female' – these are just phases, dealing with inward chemical and outward form, that doctors can change through the triumph of science, dominating nature like a potter molding clay (cf. Isaiah 29:16). In this version, 'male' and 'female' are our playthings to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct to our whim and pleasure. As an eminent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins lamented, “Without any fixed position on what is given in human nature, any manipulation of it can be defended as legitimate.” These surgical efforts, he said, are simply “collaborating with madness.”

That's because neither of those popular stories is the truth of the matter. Both are a “deception for those who are perishing” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). The truth is that we are not just our spirits, nor are we just our bodies. We are living souls, meaning that we're body and spirit, not one without the other or one over against the other: “Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). The truth is that “from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female” (Mark 10:6), that “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The truth is that no amount of surgery or chemicals can replicate the unique history of growing from a boy into a man or a girl into a woman, with all the aches and pains and experiences that bind together all men and all women as partakers in a common experience. The powers of Mammon cannot buy true womanhood for a man, as if it were some trinket that could be obtained for a price or appropriated through sheer self-will and autonomous choice. Being a man, being a woman – these are gifts from God; and in the first century, a magician named Simon learned a hard lesson from Peter about trying to buy the gift of God with money (Acts 8:20), nor can this gift of God be appropriated by works, even medical or pharmaceutical works (Romans 4:4). Many today don't love the truth. Instead of the popular, easy road, we “walk in [God's] truth” (Psalm 86:11).

It would be easy to pretend we can buy the gift of God with money or works, and it would be easy to pretend that we weren't made essentially male and essentially female from our very start. But it would also be easy to turn to mockery. In the professing Christian media, some have taken the easy road of labeling Jenner “a freak,” “a monstrosity,” “sick,” “disturbed,” and so on. It's easy to shake our heads and wonder what this world is coming to. It's easy to just sigh a sigh of disgust and wish that celebrity news would go away, but this speaks to our culture. This athlete, this celebrity, this reality TV star, is a man made in God's image; he is meant for so much more than this. Yet this man is a man in a fallen world, a world where plenty can go wrong with our body or brain development or psychology; a world where we're all full of disordered desires and desperate doubts, not just him.

I can't even begin to imagine what it might be like to live with gender dysphoria, the exceedingly rare conviction that your body is the wrong sex. At National Conference, we put off a suggestion to address this issue directly in our Discipline, because it's just too complex a situation to answer fully, fairly, and graciously without a lot of preparation. Gender dysphoria must be an unimaginable pain, and yet the procedures some men go through in their covetous yearnings to possess feminine allure as their own are, at their best, only a desperate attempt to be freed from an inner turmoil – and it doesn't work. An estimated 41% of them later attempt suicide anyway – which Jenner said he'd already considered. And there are plenty of testimonies from people like Walt Heyer who went through it and then repented and reverted years later, and they tell us that it can't alleviate the inner estrangement between body and soul. It may give relief for a time, but it can't produce joy. Only the gospel can heal – though it may take a lifetime of struggle, and though God may bring healing through therapy and counseling and medications alongside the ministry of the Word and the Spirit.

Just the same, I cannot imagine what it's like to live with body integrity identity disorder, a very real condition where someone experiences a body part as so foreign that they want to have it amputated or want to become paralyzed. And some do just that, and some fringe doctors are even willing to help those people become “transabled,” just as some doctors are willing to help people with gender dysphoria become “transgendered.” Nor can I imagine what it's like to live with species dysphoria, just like gender dysphoria but with discomfort, not over male or female, but over a human body itself. I once had a chance to talk with some people who suffer species dysphoria, and it was one of the most perplexing experiences of my life. Neither of those conditions have met with mainstream applause – yet.

These must all be painful conditions, so it's easy to pretend that any surgery that gives surface relief must be okay. And these are certainly unusual conditions, so it's also easy to ridicule and mock and denounce and demonize. But neither path is open to us if we want to follow Jesus. If we listen charitably, Jenner's story is one of pain, one of sorrow, one of confusion and self-doubt. He and others like him deserve our compassion and our love, and Jesus insists that we give it. When we condone, we lose sight of the truth; but when we mock or scoff, we lose sight of love. And neither condoning or mocking does any good to someone in pain or sorrow, nor to any of the silent sufferers watching from the sidelines and wondering if anyone has an answer or if anyone can love them through their shame and their longing.

It's easy to pretend we're better. It's easy to point the finger and say Jenner has crossed the line, the line whose good side we're safely on. But “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All of us are past the line. All of us are broken. We all experience the world as broken – not just the world outside, but the world within, the inner sanctuary of the soul, which turns out to be desecrated and no safe haven. Gender dysphoria, species dysphoria, body integrity identity disorder – those are just specific ways in which the shattered pieces of a shattered world cut some. But we all bear the wounds and scars.

All of us are alienated, not just from God, but within ourselves. We all have shame, we all have doubt, we all have confusion. Jenner and others like him may experience the effects of the Fall in some different ways, as well as in many of the same ways, but a different set of struggles doesn't make him worse than us. In Adam, we're all “sick.” In Adam, we're all “disturbed.” In Adam, we – no less than Bruce Jenner – feel the dysphoria between our “inmost self” and “this body of death,” and we know that our members house “the law of sin” that holds us captive and makes war with “the law of [our] mind” (Romans 7:22-24). No hormone injections can reconcile the two; no surgery can assign us back to righteousness. In our most honest moments, in our confrontation with our loneliness and fear and shame, our smallness in the face of the pervasive power of lawlessness even within ourselves, we look in the mirror and see a “wretched man,” just like Jenner did and maybe does, and ask “who will deliver [us] from this body of death” (Romans 7:24).

I can't imagine life with gender dysphoria or species dysphoria or body integrity identity disorder or same-sex attraction. I can't imagine life with alcoholism or heroin addiction or schizophrenia. But I do know what it's like to lose sight of the light. I do know what it's like to lose all hope and fall to pieces. I have known what it's like to feel completely alone, what it's like to feel like I've got something to prove, what it's like to feel mismatched and full of shame, what it's like to feel out of control and in a free-fall toward self-destruction. In the years of even my short life, I've spent time in the darkness, listening to the voices of self-doubt and of my demons – not all the metaphorical kind, either. And so I may not be able to relate to Jenner's specific struggle, and the gospel forbids me from condoning his actions, but I also can't stand as judge, jury, and executioner. Finding alienation within his own self, finding his mind and his body, his spirit and his flesh at odds, Jenner grasped for a solution. Finding other kinds of alienation within my own self, I've also cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). And if I were a betting man, I'd bet that you can relate to at least some part of that. I've cried out that prayer, I've felt that pain, I've reached for any way to cope, any solution – but even when my back was turned, the Solution was reaching out for me.

What do we need? We need “eternal comfort and good hope.” And who can give it to us? “Our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father” (2 Thessalonians 2:16) – so “who will rescue [us] from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)! The world can give us passing comfort at best. In worldly ways, we can gain temporary catharsis, dulling our inner pain for a moment through ultimately self-destructive coping mechanisms. We can shield ourselves from the full brunt of our burdens that way, but at what cost and for how long? That's the question for every addict, those who get trapped in cycles of chemical escape to handle the loneliness and desperation. But that's the question for all of us. In the First Adam, we're all sin-addicts. Only in the Last Adam is there freedom that lasts. Only in the Last Adam is there eternal comfort made available, to return to again and again. Only in the Last Adam is there hope that's good.

The same Jesus who cast out demons at Gadara still pierces the darkness today (Luke 8:26-33) – I know it's true! The same Jesus who prayed for Peter still prays for us today (Luke 22:32; Hebrews 7:25) – I know it's true! The same Jesus who calmed the wind and the waves still “speaks peace to his people” as the risen Lord (Psalm 29:11) – we know it's true! And the same Jesus still offers “eternal comfort and good hope” through his love and grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16). He offers it to you, and he offers it to me. Jesus came down and went up to send us the Holy Spirit as another Comforter to work real peace, real wholeness, real shalom within our hearts and souls. He listens to our griefs and our sorrows, our pains and our insecurities, and he will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes (Revelation 21:4).  We've seen him work wonders already in this assembly called together by God.

We were called by God – how? “Through our proclamation of the good news” (2 Thessalonians 2:14), Paul and Silas and Timothy write. We are chosen by God as the fruit of God's saving work (2 Thessalonians 2:13) – how? By grace, the same grace that gives eternal comfort (2 Thessalonians 2:16). And how do we recognize the grace? Two ways. One is “belief in the truth,” the truth of Jesus Christ. Christians are called to “love the truth,” to walk in the truth, but do we? That truth is that Jesus died on the cross to destroy our sin, and that Jesus rose from the dead to give new life, and that Jesus ascended to heaven to pour out his blessings, and that Jesus is our living Lord who will return again. The truth is that Jesus is the Creator who, from the very start, made a universe where two complementary things are meant to unite in harmony: heaven in harmony with earth, land in harmony with sea, man united in harmony with woman – each engaged in a distinctive kind of self-giving. The truth of confession is that we broke them all and sent them spinning and crashing. The truth is that Jesus is the Redeemer who wants to bring heaven back into holy unity with earth, land into holy unity with sea, man into holy unity with woman as one flesh, mirroring the eternal distinction and intimacy between himself and his holy nation, the Church, whose God is the LORD (Psalm 33:12; 1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 5:25-33).

And, Paul says, we're chosen as the fruit of God's saving work “through sanctification by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13), the same Spirit who inspired the scriptures that minister comfort unto hope in “the God of steadfastness and comfort” (Romans 15:4-5), the same Spirit whom Jesus called “the Comforter” (John 14:26) and who guides us into the truth we're called to believe and love (John 16:13) and who brings “life and peace” for sure (Romans 8:6). We're chosen by being made holy, we're chosen by being set apart, we're chosen through the Spirit of Eternal Comfort, who changes and transforms us and leads us through the valley of the shadow of death but teaches us step by step not to fear (Psalm 23:4).

Why has God chosen us? Why has God given us eternal comfort? For what purpose? “To obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us,” and to be made strong in “every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:14-17). On the one hand, we aren't to hold loosely to what the apostles handed down. Many churches do hold them loosely, very loosely, refusing to keep a solid grasp on what the apostles taught about faith, or about money, or about sexuality, or about human life, or about the reality of God and the lordship of the risen Christ or about the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. But we're meant to have a strong grip on these things. “Stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” in the face of this world's challenges (1 Corinthians 16:13). Are we “standing firm in one spirit, striving side-by-side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,” being “in no way intimidated” by those who try to shout us down (Philippians 1:27-28)? Can we see that opposition, if it's because we're standing for the truth and not because we're being jerks in the truth's name, is a “privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1:29)?

At the same time, we were chosen and gifted with eternal comfort to be made strong in “every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:14-17). Our faith, our hope, our comfort – it isn't a gift for our own private reserve. That isn't what God is doing. It's meant to minister to others within the church and to the world around us with good deeds and good words. What words are good words? How about “sound speech that cannot be censured” so that “any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us” (Titus 2:8)? How about words that are “always gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6)? How about an answer about our good hope, made “with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear” (1 Peter 3:15-16)? When we talk about celebrities and politicians, are our words “always gracious”? When we discuss issues of serious sin, both inside and outside the church – because Bruce Jenner isn't just a political conservative but even a professing Christian – is all our talk both “sound speech” and “always gracious”? Is it well-seasoned through biblical wisdom and experience before we grumble or accuse? Are we truly “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19)? “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Proverbs 10:19). Do we show, by our willingness to listen and our gentleness in bringing Scripture to bear on the situation, that we're inviting all people into Christ's love, the love where we turn for comfort from the storms and senselessness of our very souls? Does our character imitate the “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15)?

Does our church look like God's mercy seat? Is our church a community where Jenner could “fervently kneel,” could “bring his wounded heart, tell his anguish,” and find that “earth has no sorrow that heaven can't heal”? Can others bring their wounded hearts and tell their anguish and sorrow here, in the presence of heaven's healing? If we're holy, are we also an embracing space where sinners can come and meet that healing, find and approach that eternal comfort in the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Is it true that this church is a hospital for [all] sinners and not a museum for saints? Can people come to our church and find comfort for their ailing bodies and hope for their despairing souls, and reconciliation between the two? Can people come and find loving hearts to seek them relentlessly through all their shame hearts with love that, like Jesus, will “love through every changing scene,” in spite of any wanderings, any relapses, any agonies to overcome? Do we offer the bread of life and the “waters flowing / forth from the throne of God, pure from above”? Because there's eternal comfort and good hope in the name of Jesus Christ! Neither sin nor hell can turn that eternal love and comfort away.  Does it flow through us also? Are we known for “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)? But to share that love, God first had to love us (1 John 4:19). When we open our arms wide for each other, when we open our hearts to one another to share our hurts and our fears and our loneliness and our doubts, we do it in the name of the LORD who first “helped [us] and comforted [us]” (Psalm 86:17). “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25)!

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