The Trimming of the Vine



“‘Rid me, good Lord, of every diverting thing.’
What prodigal waste it appears to be, to see scattered on the floor the bright green leaves, and the bare stem, bleeding in a hundred places from the sharp steel.
But with a tried and trusted husbandman, there is not a random stroke in it at all; nothing cut away which would not have been loss to keep, and gain to lose.”

-Amy Carmichael, quoted in Sinclair Ferguson’s “Maturity”.

We often get angry with God for taking away the things that we love. But why?Because losing things sucks, whether it be money, people, or health. When we grow attached to things (or people) we often get tangled up in unhealthy affections for them. When they are ripped away we feel disoriented. We feel as though a part of us has been removed.

But God knows exactly what He is doing. As the quote above states, nothing is random. God knows what we need, and when He takes away, it’s for our growth. Like I said in my last post, pain is inevitable. Pain leads to growth, and sometimes the loss of someone or something is the most painful thing we can experience. There is almost an exponential correlation between the amount of pain and the amount of growth potential.

This doesn’t mean that we go seeking pain, or that pain isn’t painful. We shouldn’t deliberately cut things off that God wouldn’t. Nor should we masochisticly relish in our pain. But we should see that our most painful moments and circumstances carry in them the promise of great fruit.

When God takes away He knows that it would have been a loss for us to keep whatever it was He took. He also knows that we will gain from losing it. For perspective, I like to invert the lyric of “When I Survey the Wonderous Cross” to say “My richest loss I count but gain.” Every loss is a gain, even if not immediately perceived.

Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes that it may bear more fruit. – John 15:2

Fruit takes time to grow, and even more time to ripen. It’s easy to grow impatient in our world of instant gratification. We want results now! But to God a thousand years is like a day. His timing almost never matches our desired speed. We must wait for fruit. We must endure the suffering of loss before we see the gain.

We may be tempted to despair when we see the leaves of the vine of our life scattered on the ground. We may have invested decades of our life in something, just to watch it get cut away. But we must remember that the vine isn’t dead. Just because it was trimmed doesn’t mean it is gone. In fact, we are assured the trimming will produce more fruit. In one way, shape, or form, the trimmed branch will regrow into something healthier and more productive.

But again, this takes time. Sometimes the first fruit of a loss is patience. If we can get past the initial pain, we can find a calm place to wait for the next fruit, whatever that may be. God’s trimmings result in multiple fruits.

Be patient, sufferers. It’s worth it.

A Hex on The Stoics

The other day, I was listening to an episode about prayer on Ligonier’s “Renewing Your Mind”. The speaker, R.C. Sproul, mentioned that prayer is a lot like a love letter. He said the even though God already knows about our life, we should be excited to pray and tell God all about it.

This made me wonder, why aren’t more people who claim to love God giving Him love letters in their prayers?

I then realized that many Christians don’t pray at all. Perhaps much of what prevents them from praying is a lack of real joy in their life.

They prefer to be stoics.

People are told so often not to let their emotions control them and dictate their actions that they often assume it’s safer not to have any feelings. They think “Don’t let your emotions rule you” really means stop having emotions at all.

Should emotions rule us and dictate everything we do or say? No, we should certainly apply logic and rational thinking when making decisions. But should emotions have some influence? Perhaps.

I think it’s unbiblical to say we shouldn’t have our emotions influence any of our actions. In the Bible there are numerous examples of people weeping, soaking their beds in tears, and rending their clothing in mourning. In the Gospels we have Jesus flipping tables. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” got angry and showed it. The people of the Bible were very emotional and their actions certainly displayed it.

I think the modern (or not so modern, honestly) tendency to stoicism is very unbiblical. We were created to feel. God Himself has emotions, and strong ones at that. Part of being created in His image is the ability to emote.

Most of Fruits of the Spirit are emotional. For example, what is joy if not happy? What is joy if not exuberant? We should let joy influence us. Especially in our prayers.

There are many out there who say that happiness is not something we should strive for. I think this is hogwash. We should feel nothing but happy knowing that the God of creation loves us, cares about us, provides for us, and even died for our sins. If nothing else, we should strive to be happy about those facts.

That happiness ought to be reflected in our prayers. We should be excited to pray because God is listening. He values and loves the prayers of His saints and wants us to come to Him with our burdens and worship. We should be glad to give Him our love letters of prayer, because his love gives us great joy.

As usual, Sproul was right.

Beside Myself

Introspection is a confusing thing. Like many practices in life it can be good or bad. I was always told not to navel gaze. It can distract us from others and turn us into selfish monsters. But I think it can help us find our faults, work on them, and serve others better.

For me, more often than not my introspection turns me not into a self-pitying puddle instead of a selfish monster . My faults are many, what use am I to the world?

For many years I hated myself for wanting anything. I considered it a major fault that I had desires. Surely, I must have been discontent, I wanted what I did not have. God gave me everything I needed, who was I to tell Him I should have more? But I was wrong. It isn’t discontent to desire. It’s only discontent to envy. That’s a very different animal.

It wasn’t introspection that uncovered this error, I learned by looking outside myself. Introspection festered my guilt. Healing was found in extrospection.

I only found the truth by seeking out what God and others had to say about contentment.

Back in those days, I was my worst critic. I lied to myself and let my lies injure me. In my woundedness I cut myself off from the love of others.

When I turn inward I become a ghost. I spend so much time beating myself up that I forget others. I disappear. Nothing comes out of me because I am pouring everything into myself. I am there but I am definitely not present.

Perhaps a better form of introspection is a form that looks at how I treat others. Does that which comes from me match what is inside me? If what comes out of me is selfish or cruel, is that reflecting what is inside of me?

Before communion we are warned to examine ourselves. We are told to heed Paul’s warning to ensure we are recognizing the body and blood of Christ. We are also sometimes warned to ensure we are in good standing with our neighbors before we commune with Christ Himself. This type of introspection is concerned not just with what is inside of us, but with how we relate to others.

If I am in conflict with others it may be a reflection of my own hard heart. I may not be letting go of a particular sin someone has committed against me. Or I may not be repentant and seeking restoration because I am too prideful or stubborn to accept my fault.

To figure out if we are guilty of a hard heart we must be introspective. This type of introspection is not concerned with “finding myself” and “loving myself”. This type is about learning how to love others and loving Christ. It is a holy type of introspection.

Of course this introspection must be accompanied by an understanding of scripture. Without a knowledge of the laws of God we are unable to know our sins, except for those written on our hearts as Natural Law. We may know not to kill naturally, but without scripture we would not know that anger and insults make us just as guilty as a murderer.

Perhaps we could call this an “extrospective introspection”? We look to scripture and the Holy Spirit to show us the truth of what is in ourselves.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. ” Psalm 139:23-24

Remake

New hat, who dis?

Sometimes life needs a giant reset button. Like that giant “Easy” button from those commercials, large and easy to just slap and make everything flash to a different plane of existence.

But life isn’t like that. Life tends to take the slow route. Nothing ever truly “resets”, it just evolves. Moment by excruciating moment our lives unfold, steadily leading us to an inevitable end. Even at death we are still waiting for that next second.

Frequently we try to hurry things along. We reinvent ourselves, try new things, move to a new place, try on a new look. We seek to break free from the dreary present and the often drearier past. But those things don’t simply topple like dominoes. They hang on. Memory is often our worst enemy, hounding us, reminding us of our failures, our broken dreams, and all the regrets of yesterday.

There is no speeding through this life. God has placed a strict speed limit on the movement of time. We must take it every second by second, allowing our natural evolution to work on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.

Sometimes we want the clock to slow. We want to savor the best minutes. Even this is futile. The best we can do is commit them to a foggy memory and hope our brain doesn’t dispose of it. Often this disposal comes at exactly the same time we need those memories to keep us going. Good is replaced by bad. Bitterness drowns out the best parts of our lives.

Why do the pivotal times have to drag on for so long? Changes can happen in a blink. Big ones. But sometimes the change takes so much time we begin to lose all hope. We begin to think it’s all pointless. Just end already, I’m ready to take the next step! We don’t count all those tiny steps and large trips along the way. We want giant steps. Even if a moment can change everything, the most important changes take place almost imperceptibly.

The way to maturity is a long and arduous road. Struggle makes us stronger. Trials and suffering build our character and keep us humble. We cannot rush through, we must endure all the way to the end, bitter or not.

I have never prayed so much. I have never clung to my faith so tightly. My current suffering has grown fruit in me and reminded me that all I truly have in life is a God who loves me and holds me in His hand. Even when others fail, even when I stumble, even when the circumstances seem stacked against me, He has me in mind.

The moments are still excruciating. Pain is constant. There seems to be absolutely no end in sight. He loves me and He knows me. He will hold me forever, no matter how much I may stray. He will save me out of my darkness, in due time. He allows all things, pain and pleasure, to work together for my good and His glory.

And what a glory it is.

Time

Sometimes you just realize that time goes on, regardless of whether you are with the program or not.

You sit and contemplate events in your life and you waste so much time trying to find some conclusion. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe God lets you suffer for no reason, like Job did. Maybe you are supposed to learn a lesson, maybe not. Maybe it’s just for His glory.

You worry for no reason. While you suffer now, you won’t suffer forever. Eventually all suffering ends. For a second at least. For most of us that suffering will continue forever, once the façade of earthly life is gone. This is the best some will ever see.

For some of us that suffering is only temporary. A brief lifetime of misery followed by an eternity of bliss.

I hate my current existence. But I know one day I will trade it for an existence beyond all imagination: eternal communion with the God of the universe.

But only through the blood of Christ will I enter this bliss.

For those not trusting in that blood this misery will last forever.

Is It Wrong To Want Things?

Sometimes you just have to scrap an entire blog. My original title for this was “Happiness As a Goal”. But I’ve renamed it and rewritten it. And then rewrote it again. And then renamed it again.

So here it is, after a ton of editing:

I have struggled with the concept of wants and needs for a while. God gives us everything we need, so everything we don’t have we don’t need, right? And if God doesn’t give it to us and we don’t need it, it’s sinful to want it, right?

For a long time I felt that contentment meant being completely satisfied with what you have. This means that any desire for something one doesn’t have is discontentment and therefore sinful.

This was my train of thought: It is a sin to be discontent, to be content means you don’t want anything, you are satisfied with what you have. Therefore to want is to be discontent, therefore to want is to sin. Furthermore, God gives us everything we need, if we don’t have it we don’t need it. If we don’t need it we just want it, and wanting anything is a sin.

From the last three paragraphs you can see why my life has become kind of messy. I have shoved down a lot of desires and drives mistaking them for sin. This has made me a bit of a limp noodle. If wants and desires are inherently sinful what’s the point of trying? After all, you’re going to get what you need.

But then I realized that the Bible clearly talks about wants.

“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:2b-3

James does not condemn his audience for asking for things.

In 1 John we read this:
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”

One only asks for things if one wants something. Since asking is not condemned, wanting is not condemned. I was wrong to think merely having wants was sinful. God clearly wants us to want things that are in accordance with His will and to ask Him for them. Asking is encouraged, and we are to do it with confidence.

Ultimately I don’t have to feel shame or guilt for wanting things (or experiences, or good feelings). But I do have to ask the question “is this in accordance with God’s will?”

Probably the easiest way to determine this is to ask the questions “Do I want this purely for selfish gain? Does my desire ultimately serve others and/or bring glory to God?” If the answer to the first is no and the answer to the second is yes then I am free to ask and to pursue what I want.

This whole train of thought has further implications, obviously. This is me after all. I can’t keep anything too simple. Keep checking back and I will try to further expound on these thoughts in other posts as I get to them.

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Killing Ourselves

“Except for rare, cult-related occasions, suicide is something done in private, outside of community, outside of immediate counsel… aside from rare situations, suicide is something that causes the actor to feel shame, regret, and sometimes anger, and to express hopelessness or helplessness.”

About a week ago, a pastor known for speaking about mental health issues committed suicide the very day he led a funeral for another suicide victim.

Of course my Facebook lit up with all sorts of polls and opinions about this topic. The quote above struck me pretty hard.

He went on to say:

“The body of Christ has to redefine what it means to live in community. My personal opinion is that community needs to be invasive. We don’t meet in homes anymore. Most protestant denominations don’t follow the example of post-reformation parish priests who spent all their daylight hours visiting everyone. The task could take weeks, and when everyone had been visited, he started over. Instead, we have church life and home life playing “hide and go seek” until someone gets volunteered for home group host…. we now face mental illnesses that could not have thrived 100 years ago, perhaps even 50 years ago. That calls for a newer, more intense level of care from the entire church community, and it calls for more genuine and invasive fellowship that cuts shame, regret, and anger off at the ankles.”

This comment got me thinking about the time I admitted having suicidal thoughts to my pastor. There wasn’t a lot of investigation into why I had these thoughts. It was just “you know you shouldn’t.” While it felt good to have someone to tell, and it slightly lessened the feelings, the thoughts never fully went away. The underlying problems were not taken care of.

There was no invasive fellowship. There were no investigations into underlying sin issues or other triggers in my life. Just an attitude of “let’s pray about it. Keep in touch.”

Community is something that I strongly long for. I believe part of the reason it is so hard to consider my home of twelve years to be “home” is that it has been difficult to find real community. Sure, it’s fairly easy to find acquaintances in such a large city. But real friends? People who will be that invasive into your life?

Pastors don’t make circuits anymore. Neither do elders or deacons for that matter. How many lay people do you have in your home any given week or month? Who do you know well enough to share your deepest darkest fears and shames?

That is the troubling thing. Suicide occurs alone, in the dark. It is an act of shame. And rightfully so, it is a tremendous act of selfishness. The times when I felt most alone in this world (and when I was behaving the most selfishly otherwise) were the times the temptation was strongest.

But reaching out is hard. Largely because it seems that no one wants to hear about your struggles. But also because it is shameful to be attacked by such temptations. Many Christians who have never experienced mental illness will just chalk it up to “not enough faith”. Or they will be like Job’s friend and assume your struggles are because of some unrepented sin in your life.

That is why we need people who know us. Really know us. People who aren’t afraid to point out sin but are also slow to blame every trouble of life on it. We need friends who will hear the good and the bad and offer love and care in both.

We are supposed to bear one another’s burdens. We are supposed to confess our sins to one another. How can we accomplish that without community? How can we accomplish that without seeing each other more than once a week, and in a more intimate environment than a large gathering?

I have yet to figure out this community thing, but at least I know what’s lacking now.

Lies, Pernicious Lies

Lies are ugly. Lies are literally everywhere around and in us. Our own hearts are deceitful. The world feeds us half truths and outright fabrications all day long. It gets so thick that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish falsehoods from reality.

I was saddened to hear about the death of Rachel Held Evans. I disagreed with her on so much, and her style was highly grating to me. But every death is a sad event, and every death should give us pause. I saw people celebrating, calling her a heretic, saying she spread lies and her young death is a judgment of God. Perhaps she did say some false things and promote some outright sinful things, perhaps she wasn’t the most orthodox of Christians, but how many of us are free of lies?

I don’t know the state of her soul. I do know she has now met the God whom she wrestled with for so long in her short time here on Earth. I hope that meeting was a good one. I know her glaring errors, but who would make it to Glory if we had to have perfect doctrine? Who would be saved if we had to know perfectly every jot and tittle of the Scriptures and exactly what each meant?

She led a lot of people astray, and I hope she repented of that before meeting her maker. But she did claim the name of Christ, there is reason to hold out hope for her eternal soul.

There are loads of false Gospels out there, and many false laws as well. The pitfalls of man’s depravity are too numerous to count. But can unorthodoxy on secondary and tertiary matters be elevated to heresy status?

If we believe in Christ crucified, buried, and risen, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on the elect then we are not believing a false Gospel.

However, if we add to it extra commands and laws and expectations of perfect sinlessness on the part of the elect, we are believing a false gospel. Modern day Judiazers are everywhere. Christians should be careful to avoid them and avoid becoming them.

I don’t know if I can judge the state of anyone’s soul based purely on how well they hold to certain laws or matters of conscience. I do know that if perfect knowledge and adherence to the Law was the only way to Heaven, I would be damned indeed.

I am grateful for a Savior who is patient and forgiving.

Not Shocked

Is man basically good? This question seems to come up a lot, particularly on job applications. The expected answer is undoubtedly “yes”. But is he really? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, why do so many people want to cling to this idea of man’s inherent goodness?

One of the most telling signs that people believe that humans are basically good is that they’re shocked when people do bad things. A lot of people seemed surprised when they hear stories on the news of people doing horrific things. They seem to think that people would never do such a thing.

I feel immune to this response because I don’t believe man is basically good. It’s totally reasonable to expect people to do horrible things. Man is totally depraved. Man is capable of doing any sort of evil imaginable.

I’m never shocked when I hear that someone did something awful. Whether it’s murder, sex trafficking, child abuse, rape, or other heinous crimes, none of it is shocking to me.

Honestly, I’m not shocked, I’m saddened. I’m saddened for the victims and their families foremost, but I’m also saddened for the perpetrator himself. I’m saddened (and frankly terrified) for the soul of the person who fell so far. I’m also well aware that I myself am capable of doing such things but for the grace of God.

Does this mean that I think that man is utterly deprived and we must live in fear of all people?

No, men are not as bad as they could be. There are even some good men on a human level. But compared to a holy God man is far from good. In fact, even the “good” things that men do are often tainted by selfish motivations. Men on their own do not do things to please God, men do things to please themselves and others. Men do things to make themselves look better, not necessarily to bring glory to God.

Even with the help of the Holy Spirit some temptations are just too hard for a man to resist. This is a terrible thought. Even I might fall into those sins. I would hate to stand before God knowing that I had done those things. This is one reason why I say that I feel sadness for the perpetrator. How scary must it be knowing that one has done something so terrible and that he will have to answer to God for it!

But with Christ all things are possible. Resistance is possible. Repentance is possible. No one is irredeemable, no matter how significant their sin. It is to Him that I cling, praying that I do not fall to temptations that others have. It is to Him that I cling, knowing that he forgives me even when I do fall to temptation, however bad they may be.

This is the hope of the Christian. Not the false hope that men can be good on their own, but the hope that they can be redeemed, repentant, and revived to a new life in which they can pursue true goodness.

Music and Art Monday, March 18, 2019: Christians And Art

Colors Chosen By A Two Year Old, Acrylic on Paper

I’ve been around a long enough time to read various Christian perspectives on art. They range from the benign to the downright vicious, especially when it comes to Modern Art.

Many Christians believe that art should be representative of the world. They believe art should copy the world and tell a story, usually moral in nature. They seem to believe that the only true art is classical art and anything that reeks of modernity is uncivilized and probably anti-Christian. Many think that art says a lot about worldview. Somehow, if you see the world as an abstract you must see the world in a nihilistic way.

Why does art have to tell a story? Why does it have to “mean” something? Why does it have to perfectly represent the subject as the subject is? If one wants a perfect copy of an object why not take a photograph?

To me, art should capture the emotion of something. Form is important, I definitely need to work on capturing form, but emotion is equally important. It is important to capture the essence of the subject, whether your medium is paint or film or clay.

Perhaps this is why I have a difficult time with seated poses. How much emotion can be conveyed by a sitting body? Maybe the emotion comes not from the subject but from the artist. The artist must project his emotions onto a subject as he would a light, and then capture the reflection, without losing the form in the process. Or maybe the reflection comes back in pieces and is copied in the abstract.

Queen, Oil on Canvas, 2018

Either way, is that capture “immoral”? Is is immoral to disassemble reality and put it back together in an imperfect way? Disassembled emotions are not nihilistic. Breaking down objects into their various parts and reassembling them in ways which do not reflect reality is not denying reality.

In fact, I would argue that perhaps it reflects reality far better than some hyper-realistic painting of an idealized subject. Reality is messy, reality is emotional, reality is imperfect. We do not live in Eden anymore. To capture our world as it really is is to show the blemishes and the oddities and at times the harshness of it all.

Sure, there is a time for capturing idealized images of beauty. There is definitely a place for “realism” and capturing form exactly as it is. I respect and admire the painter who can perfectly copy the world as it is. But without emotion is it really art?

Even playing with the reality of a photo can put a bit more emotion into it.

Christians should be the best at capturing both the world as it is and the world as it should be. We should not be shunning the opportunity to show the world reality through the lense of the Law and the Gospel. We should not fear our emotions and feelings about the world around us, instead we should embrace them and capture them with art to display them to the world. Our art should, like all of our activities, inspire people to ask us about the hope that is within us.

Christians should embrace the visual arts, and all arts, both to share the Gospel and to make this world a bit more beautiful in the process.