My Suffering Has Not Defined Me

A strange thing happened when word first spread that I had stage III breast cancer: I began receiving all things pink. Pink quilts, teddy bears, and t-shirts covered with breast-cancer symbols. Even letters written with pink ink on rosy paper. Each gift welcomed me into a special club. The sisterhood of cancer warriors.

Long after my surgery and treatment, whenever I encountered other Christians in the sisterhood, they immediately connected with me as their fellow cancer survivor. If other women were among us, I sensed they had to stand outside our intimate circle of shared suffering. I congratulated these survivors for being cancer-free, but I’d glance at their breast-cancer pins and think, Are you ever going to move on? Is there no better topic of discussion than, “Have you had your annual breast exam?”

Hear me: my intention is not to disparage anyone who has survived the tough rigors of breast cancer. But I wonder if some of these Christian women are longing for security and significance that’s more touchable than a faith whose substance is merely hoped for and frustratingly unseen — longing to be a part of something that actualizes one’s identity. Although they would never discount their Savior, they want something more tangible than their name written in an invisible book of life: Who am I? My backdrop is a Christian, but I’m a warrior, a cancer survivor. Know and respect me by that.

In Christ Alone

In a way, I understand the struggle. My quadriplegia constantly clamors for my undivided attention: empty leg bag, deal with pain, arrange for help, adjust corset, charge wheelchair, look for access, and grab that handicap parking spot before someone else does. It’s my world. Then again, it is definitively not.

My world, my breath and very being — my identity — is in Christ and Christ alone. I am not my own; I was bought with the price of God’s blood (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Satan hates that. He will do everything he can — use my wheelchair, my notoriety, ministry, whatever — to focus me away from Christ.

So, I heed the warning of Deuteronomy 11:16: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them.” Am I saying that my ministry to people with disabilities or your precious Shih Tzu with her tiny bow is an idol? If they compete for our singular devotion to Christ, then yes.

Putting Things in Their Proper Place

It takes the fight and fire of God’s Spirit to not be enticed away by these things. The apostle Peter says to make no provision for the flesh, for these things “wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). To find your identity, worth, and value in anything other than Jesus Christ is to believe that your distinguished career, your prized pet, your parenting skills, your valiant victory over cancer and quadriplegia, or your sin itself makes life more meaningful, rich, or fulfilling. But Christian, your identity must never be in things that compete for space in your heart. Don’t diminish the price paid for you or minimize God’s adoption of you.

Only in Christ do we find breathlessly fulfilling joy, peace, and meaning. When we live like we died in Christ, our career finds its balance, our pet finds its place, our children benefit unbelievably, and our victories over trials become reasons to make God famous and happily laud him before others.

Since Christ is the source of peace, joy, strength, and rest, and in him we live and move and have our very being, we can be secure and feel significant when we see ourselves “in Christ.” Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare. Why would we supplant him with anything lesser?

Who Are You?

Do you want to know who you are? “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). It’s like those hand-painted Russian dolls that twist open to reveal — surprise! — another doll inside. Take out that one, open it, and there’s another. This is fun, you discover. Every time you reach in and pull out a new one, you are sure it’ll be the last. But not by a long shot — the joy continues as you relish one delight after another over all that’s hidden inside.

It’s a vivid picture of unfolding and delighting in your identity. Who are you? You are in Jesus and he is in the Father. So, start opening up Christ and — voilà — there you will find yourself. As you reach inside the layers of Jesus, you see more of yourself, transformed by the very discipline of knowing him better. “The Bible does tell us who we are and what we should do, but it does so through the lens of who God is. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of self always go hand in hand,” says Jen Wilkin.

Follow the mandate of Colossians 3:2–3, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Every day get actively engaged with the Holy Spirit in knowing Christ better, in discovering “what’s inside.” The more you look, the more you will be enthralled by his beauty, captivated by his love, and overcome by the excellencies of his mercy and grace.

Boast in your identity in Jesus, and lead someone else to Calvary, like he would. Lay your life down for others as he did. Cherish God’s word as he does. Carry your cross daily in the manner he would. Pray the way he does. Worship the Father like he does. Most of all, ask the Spirit to expose your sins that killed him. He lost his life so that you might find yours, so begin each day asking God to show you the “you” he designed you to be. For you are a treasure, hidden in him.

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Imperfections Make Sundays More Beautiful

Why are church meetings often so clumsy?

A Scripture reader turns to the wrong page and stumbles over a long list of Hebrew names he hadn’t prepared to pronounce. The PowerPoint slide gets stuck — again. An unusually enthusiastic congregant with an unusually loud voice holds out the last note of each song longer than everyone else, a brief solo that makes some folks giggle nervously. Others cringe. The bassist starts a hymn in the wrong key, and everyone knows it because the song leader turns to give him “The Look.”

I’ll admit it: these human quirks and errors sometimes exasperate me. I’m here to focus on the Lord! Your awkwardness is distracting me from worship! So mutters my self-righteous heart. Perhaps the real problem isn’t with the clumsiness of others, but with our expectations for corporate worship.

Deprogramming Consumer Intuitions

We live in an age of production. We’ve learned to value and expect polished professionalism from the various interactions that make up our daily lives, from the television shows we watch to our “customer experience” at the local Starbucks.

I call these expectations “consumer intuitions.” They’re not necessarily bad or wrong. But we must beware lest we let these intuitions dictate how we approach church gatherings. We attend church not primarily as consumers to experience a product, but as worshipers to exalt God and edify his people.

The church at Corinth was at risk of overvaluing polished production. Their culture applauded speakers marked by rhetorical flourish and artful presentation. Paul adopted a different approach: “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). No “lofty speech or wisdom” here (1 Corinthians 2:1). Paul rejected the man-centered “wisdom of this age” with its superficial focus on outward presentation, and instead heralded the “secret and hidden wisdom of God”: Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:6–7).

In other words, Paul understood that our hearts are easily drawn astray by outward appearances. What we need is not a distraction-free “experience” that wows us, but an encounter with the truth that transforms us. Slickness in presentation calls our attention to the human messenger. A more modest approach — one that is okay with a little human awkwardness — allows the spotlight to shine on the supernatural message of the gospel.

Christians Are Delightfully Imperfect

Paul also reminds the Corinthians who they are:

Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:26–27)

In worldly terms, these believers had nothing in which to boast. They weren’t “professionals” — and neither are we.

This means that we can expect church services to be a bit unpolished according to the standards of modern media. After all, Paul goes on later in the letter to instruct this young congregation about what they should prioritize in their Lord’s Day gathering:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Their meeting wasn’t a production, but a sacred opportunity to glorify God through mutual edification. Churches who can afford to do so should pay their preachers (1 Timothy 5:17; Galatians 6:6). But laypeople will facilitate many, if not most, of the activities in your average Protestant service — singing, praying, reading, serving the Supper. Why would we be surprised if volunteers sometimes make an amateur mistake?

In fact, Paul instructs us to show special honor to those members of the body who lack worldly credentials and strength (1 Corinthians 12:22–23). We need one another — including, and even especially, “awkward” believers. (The “awkward” is in quotes, of course, because awkwardness is often in the eye of the beholder anyway.) Rather than feeling exasperated that someone tripped up while leading a prayer or a song, we should rejoice that the church is for imperfect people. This isn’t a show. It’s a family.

What About Excellence?

Of course, I’m not saying that we should aim for mediocrity in our church services, or that pastors should encourage members to serve in areas in which they’re obviously not gifted. My point is not for us to pursue clumsiness, but merely to embrace it when it occurs.

And I’m not against “excellence” per se. It simply depends on what we mean by excellence. Yes, it honors God to serve him with our whole heart. Doing all things for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) means stewarding our God-given gifts as well as we can. It means resisting sloppiness. Church musicians would do well to emulate the Levitical singers who were renowned for being “skillful” (1 Chronicles 25:7).

Pursuing excellence in serving, facilitating, and accompanying the worship of God’s people is one thing. But if by “excellence” we mean professional-level production quality, I fear it reveals that our consumer intuitions have snuck into our churches.

Embracing Awkwardness

God knows what we really need — not a slick service, free of distraction, led by seemingly perfect people. We need to gather with his family, a community of weak and error-prone people, to be reminded that we are all imperfect. We need to learn to love those who make mistakes and value them because they are in Christ, not because of how well they “perform.”

The only perfect worship service is the one envisioned in Revelation, where God’s redeemed people praise him in the new creation. Until then, God in his wisdom grants clumsy mistakes and awkward moments to occur in our gatherings — precisely because it’s for our good.

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