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Category: Failure

Claiming “Christ Alone” from the bottom of the stupid ditch

There’s a funny video going around social media showing a boy pulling a sheep out of a tight ditch. When the boy finally frees the sheep, the sheep excitedly bounds away and, possessing the average intelligence of a sheep, leaps into the same ditch. Often the caption is attached: “Some days when Jesus shepherds me.”

I am having one of those moments.

The last couple of weeks have not been my most stellar. I have not felt on my “A” game. In fact, I have felt I urge to be relegated back to the Peewee League of life.

Many nights, I have laid in bed this week, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “I am a grown man. How did I miss this?”

I couldn’t even ask what I was thinking because clearly I wasn’t thinking.

What has been the most frustrating part was that I did nothing rebellious or intentional, just—well—stupid.

I have felt like the more I try to focus, the more thoughtless I have become. The more fires I try to put out, the more fires are started by my own hand.

If I was in the Bible, I would have been Uzzah walking alongside the ark of the covenant on its return to Jerusalem. I see it tip, reach out my hand to steady it, then–zap–I am remembered for my thoughtless blunder for all eternity.

That’s the kind week its been.

We all have times like this. Some of us have no trouble making amends, rectifying the mistake(s), and moving on.

Unfortunately, even after successfully doing the first two steps, I often have trouble with the last part–“moving on.” My tendency is instead to make sure I take ample opportunity to beat the crap out of myself for committing such a faux pax in the first place.

How could I let [insert latest faux pax here] happen? I question my abilities and even doubt my calling. I demand to know how I could be so stupid, or how I neglected to catch something so obvious.

Then I spiral.

Into full-blown depression.

It’s kind of the way I am wired.

This morning, I shuffled into church when I clearly would have rather crawled under a rock. A cloud of self-condemnation hung  over my head. Up to the point of actually entering the church, I entertained the thought of not even going this morning and just taking a drive to anywhere but here.

I crept in after the service started and found the furthest corner to sulk in.

I was pretty sure this would be a waste of time. I avoided eye contact as best I could. I didn’t want to worship today. I didn’t want to hear from God. I just wanted to beat myself up.

My attitude was sour. My filters were down.

Then Jesus pushed himself in.

It came through the second worship song:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name[1]

These words derailed my self-loathing. For the last several days, my entire focus has been on me: my stupid mistakes, my shortcomings, my self-pity. In other words,  the more I condemned myself for my stupid mistakes, the more I removed my focus from the Shepherd.

Of course I am going to be depressed.

The first line of this song, however, tore my focus from self and back onto Jesus.

Jesus alone has to be our source of hope. I have to place my hope in him and not in my performance and accomplishments.

Christ alone, Cornerstone
Weak made strong in the Saviour’s love
Through the storm, He is Lord
Lord of all.

Christ alone.

It’s an easy claim to make when life is rosy and lush.

However, it is another thing when you’re uttering those words ensconced head-first in the bottom of a ditch.

Through the storm. Lord of all.

I think when we beat ourselves up over our mistakes, bad decisions, and just plain carelessness, we are implying that life is not about Jesus but about ourselves. The world is all about me — my successes, my failures, my achievements, and my mistakes. Truthfully, though, the one who benefits the most from this kind of self-condemnation is the enemy.

Instead, Jesus sticks his head into the ditch next to my stuck body, says, “I got ya,” before pulling me out by the leg.

The truth is, I am likely going to wind up in that ditch again. I wish I could say otherwise. But that’s what it means to be human.

However, real discipleship occurs not by boasting how we can avoid the ditch but by how we can utter the words “Christ alone” while head-first within it.

Whether it’s the first time we’re there or when we stupidly find ourselves there again.

[1] “Cornerstone,” Hillsong Worship

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Fifteen years later – a new perspective of when my life imploded

It’s been just over fifteen years since my life imploded, sending me into an unexpected and dark trajectory.

Fifteen years.

February 17, 2008, in the British Midlands, I walked out of an academic office after an hour of two examiners thrashing my thesis to a pulp.

My supervisor was confident of success. After all, of his 150 previous postgraduates that he supervised, only one had been rejected.

I was number two.

I so vividly remember the numbness and fog walking off that campus for the last time.

My wife had been planning a big celebration the day after I returned home. I remember the pain of calling my —the middle of the night back home—to tell her it didn’t go well.

So much time wasted—years, money, effort—up in smoke.

I haven’t looked at my thesis since. Honestly, I don’t even know where it currently is. Perhaps it didn’t make it with our move from Oregon to Montana, so it very could be rotting in a dump somewhere.

The ultimate objective of a postgraduate degree is to show the world that you are the expert in your respective field of study.

My dream was to settle into a comfy college setting and travel the world, armed with my expertise, and teach.

That dream couldn’t have suffered a more painful death.

The fall from potential academic to loser is a hard fall.

It sent me into arguably the darkest time in my life, a darkness that would last nearly ten years.

This darkness fluctuated between two grievances: why would God provide everything to lead me to pursue this degree in England only to rip it away? And how could God pull such a cruel bait-and-switch?

Many walk away from God as a result of these questions.

Thankfully, I never did.

I honestly thought I would not receive an answer this side of heaven. I will just have to live with this failure as I coast to the grave.

Now, fast-forward fifteen years.

A decade and a half.

From the perspective of time, can I see why God sent me on such a painful trajectory?
Strangely enough, I think I am beginning to see.

Ironically, I spent seven years right after that fall teaching in a college as an adjunct professor—a fun and wonderful experience.

But that’s not the reason.

Likewise, my book Losers Like Us was published by David C. Cook in 2014. Instead of an academic thesis sitting on a remote shelf in an the dusty basement of an academic library never to be seen again, I wrote a book that has sold thousands of copies, which might not be a big deal against best-selling authors, but to an obscure nobody, I’ll take it.

However, I don’t think that is the reason either.

Instead, I am beginning to see that God might have actually saved me from a life in post-secondary academia.

Over the last ten years, public education has been a dumpster fire.

Colleges have seen a dramatic decline in enrollment in the last several years. And, in an incredible lack of self-awareness, experts insist the decline had to do with Covid or the ridiculously high cost of getting a degree that often has no value.

Perhaps that has something to do with it. However, I am willing to bet the pathological sanitizing of and indoctrination in education is more likely the culprit.

It is more likely that parents and high school grades are seeing a higher education is worthless. Colleges have become bastions of lower standards at a higher costs.

These institutions no longer teach critical thinking, but rather indoctrination and Orwellian language games, such as using preferred pronouns or calling women birthing persons. The DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) administrator seems to have become the most powerful person on campus, requiring diversity seminars and even promoting punishments outcomes that could cost an individual his or her career. In addition, the standards for college admission have falling to the level of the mere detection of a pulse.

More and more, I realized that I would never want to be a part of that. I more than likely wouldn’t last a semester in academia. I would be crushed before my career began. I couldn’t or wouldn’t play the game required of me, where the goal-posts are moved, the rules are changed by the players, and justice is arbitrary and without due process. It’s not in me.

Currently, I am finishing my fifth year as a high school teacher at a Christian school in Montana’s capital city. I am surrounded by a wonderful community of faculty and administrators. I absolutely love the people I work with. Further, I live in a peaceful, rural neighborhood on a dirt road. People aren’t as stressed as they are in the big city.

Even during the most stressful times typical of education and life, I feel content.

I truly don’t think I would have what I currently have were it not for God tearing a Ph. D away from me.

This realization doesn’t answer all the questions about the events fifteen years ago, such as why he sent me to England to pursue the degree in the first place.

But I feel God has given me the best of both worlds: I get to teach which I was created to do, yet he also saved me from working in higher education which would have led me to burnout.

Of course, I am completely aware that there are Christ-followers who are called to and can navigate the academic clown show and be quite successful. God bless them. I pray for them always.

I, however, realized I am not one of them.

God knew that in 2008.

It was I who had to come to that conclusion in 2023.


Betraying Jesus

An excerpt from the chapter “The Betrayer” from my book Losers Like Us

Was Judas Iscariot predetermined to betray Jesus? Was he placed on this earth solely for the purpose of selling Jesus out? After all, as the syllogism goes: Jesus is God; God is omniscient; therefore Jesus is omniscient. At some point, Jesus had to know that Judas would betray him, so it appears safe to assume that Judas lived only to betray the Messiah and, if so, that he also stood beyond redemption.

But that doesn’t ring true either. It seems to fly in the face of God’s character and of Jesus’s mission. Although I have no qualifications to judge such things, this smacks of injustice to me.

Another difficult question is, why did Judas do what he did? Was it his inescapable fate? Scripture says he did it because “Satan entered into him” (John 13:27). Similarly, Jesus at one point said directly to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). If both Judas and Peter experienced being taken over by Satan, then why did Peter go on to become a powerful follower of Christ, while Judas went on (as is traditionally assumed) to eternal damnation?

Why did Judas betray Jesus? Was it jealousy? Judas was not part of Jesus’s inner circle, made up of Peter, James, and John. Perhaps he thought he should be.

Did he just not connect with the others? Judas was from Kerioth in Judah; he was the only disciple who was not a Galilean. Perhaps he felt subtly excluded or persecuted. Perhaps three years of feeling like an outsider was enough to provoke him.

Did he betray Jesus because of his own guilt? Scripture says that Judas, as treasurer, was stealing from the ministry (John 12:4–6). Guilty people often act defensively and heap blame on innocent bystanders to deflect attention away from their own wrongdoing.

Or maybe, like the other disciples, he truly believed Jesus was the Messiah and just couldn’t understand why Jesus wasn’t setting up his earthly kingdom. Maybe he called in the authorities to force Jesus to “make his move,” either in the garden (perhaps with some supernatural display of power) or in open court.

Scripture says:

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt. 27:3–5)

The strong implication is that Judas was truly shocked by Jesus’s sentencing. I think Judas expected that Jesus would somehow rise up and vanquish his accusers, rather than receive a death sentence that, for reasons unknown, he chose not to fight.

This possibility is not so far-fetched. Simon the Zealot probably had similar hopes of revolution in following Jesus, and even Peter used swordplay to fight Jesus’s enemies (John 18:10). Maybe, like virtually all Jews at that time, Judas fully expected that the Messiah would lead a revolution and was just trying to help it along.

Judas’s true motivation for betraying Jesus is a mystery known only to Judas and to God. At any rate, when Jesus is condemned, Judas is “seized with remorse” and kills himself. And with remorse like that, surely there is hope for repentance.

Isn’t there?

For some, it’s a very tricky issue.

Maybe this is why we prefer the simplistic, one-dimensional interpretation of Judas: it’s just easier. Digging deeper opens a tangle of theological questions that can polarize the body of Christ. And while this chapter might seem to be doing just that, it is not my intention. Instead, my purpose is to reflect on the life of Judas Iscariot, chosen personally by Jesus to be his disciple.

It is strange to think of Judas as a disciple when he is seen solely as Jesus’s betrayer. The gospel writers seldom mention Judas outside of his betrayal and never mention anything positive that Judas might have done.

In a way, this makes sense: the gospel story centers on Jesus. The gospel writers couldn’t possibly include everything that happened in those three years, so they focused on what mattered concerning Jesus. And what mattered concerning him with Judas was that Judas betrayed him.

But what else do we know of their relationship during the rest of Jesus’s ministry on earth? Was it a purely professional relationship, with Jesus needing Judas strictly for his leadership abilities and accounting skills as treasurer for the disciples, or for some other assets not named in Scripture?

I don’t think so. I can’t imagine Jesus limiting his interaction with Judas to financial reports given during occasional business meetings.

Remember that Judas—and I can’t repeat this enough—received a personal call from Jesus to join the disciples. When Judas first answered that call, he was not a traitor. He traveled with Jesus and observed Jesus’s ministry. He watched Jesus heal cripples, cure lepers, subdue demons, and even overcome death. He saw Jesus calm a violent storm. He saw thousands flock to Jesus, and he helped distribute a miraculous meal to them from one small boy’s lunch. He walked with Jesus for three years, talked and laughed with him, prayed with him, and listened to him teach. Even after Judas conspired with the religious leaders to betray Jesus, he sat with the disciples at the Last Supper as Jesus washed their feet in a silent act of service. He was just as much a recipient of grace as Peter, James, and the rest.

And I believe he was just as much a friend to Jesus as they. I believe that Judas and Jesus loved each other. After all, the Gospels say that Judas betrayed Christ—not sabotaged or tricked him, but betrayed him. Betrayal is unexpected treachery from a trusted friend. That is what makes it so painful: it is committed by someone close to you, someone into whom you have poured your heart, your life, your love.

In the movie Braveheart, the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, Wallace finds his army being slaughtered by the English. Frantically, he signals his reinforcements to come help him, but instead they desert the battlefield before his eyes. In desperation, he breaks away, commandeers a horse, and gives chase to the king of England.

But a knight cuts him off.

Wallace, knife in hand, overpowers the knight and rips off his helmet.

It is Robert the Bruce, Wallace’s close associate and fellow freedom fighter. He has turned against Wallace to support the English.

At the moment Wallace realizes that he has been betrayed, the light drains from his eyes.

He rolls back on his haunches and lies down as if to die.

The king’s guards quickly surround and arrest Wallace, who offers no resistance. The fight, the passion is gone.

This is betrayal. This is what Jesus experienced. Unlike Wallace, he never gave up, because he knew how the story would end; but even knowing that could not lessen the pain of betrayal.

Did Jesus know in advance that Judas would betray him? He certainly knew at the Last Supper because in Scripture, when the disciples ask who will betray him, Jesus says it is the one to whom he gives the bread and then gives it to Judas (John 13:21–26).

Yet at the same time, several factors here indicate that Jesus is reaching out, encouraging Judas to turn from his treacherous plan and be restored.

First, tradition says that during the Last Supper, Jesus, acting as host, seated Judas at his right—a place reserved for the guest of honor. It may be only tradition, but tradition often is based on ancient knowledge that has since been lost to us.

Second, during the Last Supper, Jesus performs an extremely intimate act of love and service by washing the feet of his disciples (vv. 3–5). Scripture says that all of the disciples were together at this time, so Jesus must have washed Judas’s feet too.

Third, though Jesus announces openly to all the disciples that he will be betrayed, the subsequent dialogue between Peter, John, and Jesus appears to be more private:

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. (vv. 21–30)

Scripture does not reveal whether the other disciples heard Jesus say that he would give the bread to his betrayer. However, I believe they did not. The reason I believe this is that John, reclining against Jesus, asked his question in an intimate way, and I believe Jesus answered it intimately as well. It is possible that only the disciples nearest Jesus, such as Peter and John, heard Jesus’s remark. I believe Jesus kept this conversation semiprivate, so as not to alienate Judas from the group. Remember, Peter betrayed Jesus not once, but three times—yet he was restored. If Judas were to turn back to Jesus later, as Peter did, then Judas would need the other disciples for healing, forgiveness, and accountability.

Fourth, in the midst of Judas’s betrayal in the garden, right after the fatal kiss that told the Romans whom to arrest, Jesus says to Judas, “Do what you came for, friend” (Matt. 26:50). Jesus calls Judas “friend.” I am certain this was not a sarcastic dig to exacerbate Judas’s guilt, but rather a tiny glimpse into Jesus’s immense love and grace for Judas, even in mid-betrayal.

Thus, in these examples—inviting Judas to the place of honor at the table, washing Judas’s feet, keeping the revelation of Judas’s betrayal semiprivate, and addressing Judas as “friend”—Jesus is showing grace to the one who has already sold him out.

I wonder what kind of eye contact might have occurred between Jesus and Judas that night, as Jesus washed Judas’s feet, handed him the Passover bread, and received his treacherous kiss. Did Jesus extend a look of grace, communicating that the Son of Man had come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)? Did Judas look away in shame?

I hope so. He handed over my Savior to be tortured and killed, so I hope he suffered crushing regret. And according to Scripture, he did. That’s why he went out to an empty field and committed suicide.

Sometimes I feel a macabre pleasure in imagining Judas’s worthless carcass rotting in a lonely place. But then I think, how many times have I, like Judas, greeted Jesus with a symbolic kiss of betrayal? How many times have I betrayed my Savior?

Well, that’s just silly: of course I’ve never betrayed Jesus.

Then again, I’ve never been in a position where I was tempted to do so. I think once in grade school I got cold feet and denied being a Christian. Except for that, I have lived pretty openly about my relationship with Jesus. Acknowledging Christ in public has never been a matter that could possibly end my life, as it was for the disciples that night.

And yet …

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his listeners that the law of Moses says don’t murder. Now most people, throughout history, have had little trouble obeying that law. I can honestly proclaim (rather proudly, too) that I have never killed anyone. Ever.

But then Jesus closes the trap: If anyone is angry with another in his heart, he is guilty of murder. And if anyone thinks lustful thoughts, he is guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:22, 28).

This teaching blurs the line between murder and not-murder, or adultery and not-adultery.

Or betrayal and not-betrayal.

So, if you do x in your heart, you have betrayed Christ. But what is x?

It might be different things to different people. Though I am totally open about my Christian faith, I realize that there are times when I still betray Jesus.

If I keep others from seeing Jesus in me by not being Jesus to them, isn’t that a form of betrayal? Yes. I betray Jesus when I refuse to show him to others, when I avoid loving the “least of these” (Matt. 25:44–45), when I fail to pick up my cross and follow him (Luke 14:27). Therefore I am just as treacherous as Judas Iscariot.

I think we all are.

Judas did not commit the unpardonable sin, and he was not the only betrayer. Peter openly denied Christ three times, and the remaining disciples—all but John—abandoned Christ during his trial and hid while the brutal sentence was carried out. They all deserted him when he needed them most.

This too is betrayal.

So why single Judas out as the villain? Is it because his actions, unlike theirs, led to Jesus’s death? Or is it because Judas killed himself before the resurrection—before Jesus could physically say, “I forgive you” and restore him to fellowship?

Does Judas’s suicide disqualify him from redemption?

Does this mean there are limits to God’s grace?

Asking such questions, instead of merely accepting the one-dimensional view of Judas, may stir up controversies, disrupt doctrines, and tear dogma to shreds.

It’s easier to accept the “passion play” Judas and make Judas the unequivocal bad guy. Problem solved.

But the standard passion play scenarios, in replacing Jesus’s true archenemy (Satan) with a human substitute, inadvertently create an impassible chasm between the sin of betrayal, which we all commit to some degree, and the saving grace of Jesus. And if Scripture truly shows Judas as an irredeemable villain, lost beyond hope, then I am beyond hope as well. I desperately need to know that God’s grace is greater than all my sin—even if I, like Judas, die at the wrong time, before God has a chance to extend it properly.

I guess I am tipping my hand here by giving Judas the benefit of the doubt. I would like to think that I will see him in heaven, restored by Jesus and reconciled to the other disciples.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, and I can already hear the theological debaters spooling up to launch their standard arguments.

However, such debate misses my point.

The ugliness and severity of Judas’s act only forces us to ask: Do we truly believe that God’s grace is deeper even than this? Do we truly believe that forgiveness is available to all sinners who earnestly desire it? Do we truly believe the gospel?

The other disciples, betrayers all, apparently regretted their sins, found forgiveness, and were restored.

Judging from his suicide, Judas apparently regretted his sin as well. Was he forgiven and restored also?

We don’t know that he was.

But we don’t know that he wasn’t, either.

I can’t reflect on Judas without also reflecting on the power of grace. Grace and Judas are inseparably intertwined in my mind.

Strange as it sounds, only after writing about Judas did I realize just how much I needed him.

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When Another Receives the Blessing, I Need the Grace

On a recent frigid afternoon, I had completed my weekly grocery run and headed for the parking lot exit. It was a cold, snowy Saturday in November, and I felt chilly on the outside and pretty frosty on the inside too.

I was irritable because I was downright exhausted.

The preceding week had been one of those “perfect storms.” It was just a long week. Every night was a late night. There was no time to turn off my introverted brain before it was time to wake up from a restless night to start the whole thing over again.

By my Saturday morning grocery run, I was what doctors might call “brain dead.” It was solely by the grace of God that the mass between my ears could generate enough willpower to put one foot in front of the other.

And I had yet another commitment later that evening.

My filters were down, and it wouldn’t take much to set me off.

As I navigated my car toward the exit, I fell in behind a white SUV. When it came to the intersection, its windows came down so the passenger could hand some cash to a homeless person standing there with a sign. The sign promised divine blessing.

The homeless person trudged through the snow to collect the money from the vehicle, which sported a fish symbol and a sticker of two nails, intersecting to form a cross.

I was impatient to get home, but as a fellow Christ-follower, I felt I could cut the SUV’s occupants some slack because they were giving to “the least of these.”

We started moving again, but eventually came to a stop at a traffic light. Once again the SUV’s window went down and the passenger held out money for another individual holding another sign, again promising divine blessing.

And the light was green!

A green light is the perfect way to avoid both guilt and eye contact by looking left — you know, “to check for traffic.” Easy-peasy.

Whatever was left of my filters crumbled. The absolute audacity of these people to hold me up for a homeless person. Didn’t those do-gooders in the SUV realize that I had someplace to be?! Even though it was just to be home resting my exhausted brain?!

After making the right turn—carefully “checking for traffic” on my left—I fell in behind the SUV with a hearty scowl and a heart of venom, only then to spot the wide smile on the SUV passenger’s face.

The wind came out of my self-righteous sail.

She gave to “the least of these” in the name of Jesus—twice! She saw a need and responded the way Jesus would have. As a result, she experienced great blessing.

I, on the other hand, did not.

I was turned inward, withdrawn, and focused only on my own stresses. I thought only of my own needs and comforts.

I had a chance to do something for two individuals in need, and I did not. Instead, I complained inside about those who did. I felt horrible. I heard the condemnation of a thousand voices, taunting me in my failure—Satan’s default response when a Christ-follower blows it.

This did not help my day get any better.

Yet, through the cacophony of condemnation, one voice broke through. It was a soft, single voice—a whisper no less—uttering, “I love you.”

I love you.

I — who did nothing to help the least of these, and who clearly sinned by putting my own needs above others’ — had been reminded in that moment that I am loved.

Those in the SUV got a wonderful blessing, but I was the one who needed a reminder of grace.

At that specific moment, God knew I needed grace more than I needed blessing.

John 21 tells the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Once Peter recognizes Jesus, he impulsively jumps from his boat and swims to shore.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, with growing frustration, “You know I love you.”

Then Jesus commands, “Go feed my sheep.”

Some days before this dialogue, on the night before Jesus was crucified, Peter had commited one of the most horrible acts of betrayal: three times, he had denied he even knew Jesus.

Peter basically commits the same atrocity as Judas, times three. Though the outcomes were different, Peter had to have felt the same sting of guilt as Judas.

Yet on that beach, Jesus faces Peter, suffering from the worst kind of guilt, and pours grace upon him, restoring him completely.

Jesus finds Peter and forgives him because at that moment, Peter needs grace more than he needs blessing.

Alone in my car that frigid Saturday afternoon, I experienced grace from a loving Savior who saw me in my self-centeredness and forgave me anyway.

Divine blessings are great, don’t get me wrong — but sometimes, being human, we just need a touch of grace.

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Battling demons and finding God on the ash heap

2017 finally comes to a close, and I am ringing in the new year firmly ensconced upon a pile of ashes.

This is definitely not the place others flock to when welcoming in a new year. Dusty, bleak, a place of exile and uncertainty. You don’t count down the final seconds of 2017 on the ash heap; instead, you wrestle with endless questions about how you got there with a God who seems more interested in the annual ball drop in Times Square. You wait, trying to understand the rationale of another who is infinitely above your pay-grade.

Kind of like Job after the Accuser chopped him off at the ankles. As part of what looks like a mysterious cosmic bet, Job loses his children, his livestock, his wealth, and eventually his health over a short period of time. He retreats to the mound of ashes where he sits quietly with friends, saying nothing for a week. Then the characters engage in a misguided debate about the cause of suffering and its relation to sin before God himself finally enters the discussion with one of the most beautiful and frustrating responses to humanity’s suffering in the entire Bible.

Most of the book of Job takes place on this gray, arid mountain of ash.

Admittedly, the events that brought me to my ash heap were nowhere near as dramatic as Job’s suffering. In most ways, my crisis pales to those others face. Shortly before the holidays my wife and I were informed that, due to cutbacks, our primary means of household income was coming to an end after a ten-year run. At our age, this can be especially disconcerting as Human Resource Departments seem more interested in terms like “fresh” and “new” over others like “skilled” and “experienced.”

So, at the start of 2018 our household sits upon an ash heap of uncertainty, caught in a strange vortex between the present and the not-yet. I am not sure what the next year will look like, or where. I can only be certain it will be different. Perhaps better, maybe worse, but definitely different.

Living in limbo is a life of distraction. It is difficult to concentrate on just about everything. We hold our breath, waiting to see if or how all those promises in the Bible will work out in our lives. Lacking focus or energy, everything seems on hold. The speed of life hits a wall. The world runs in slow motion. Nothing seems important.

Unfortunately, this includes even my writing, or more accurately, trying to maintain my fledging writing career. This has been my first attempt to write something since Thanksgiving. I’ve got all kinds of ideas swirling around in my head as my wife and I work our way through the uncertainty. But the words don’t come. My mind cannot generate more than a sentence or two before being distracted by the next shiny thing. Maybe it is simply because the heart is not there or anxiety crowds out the passion.

However, not only do I sit upon an ash heap of uncertainty but also one of self-condemnation. Questions about my lack of any marketable skills and abilities that haunted me years ago suddenly return with a fiery vengeance. The Accuser whispers in my ear words that reignite feelings of self-loathing that I had wrestled with a long time ago: worthlessness, failure, washout. At times, the Accuser’s words seem terribly convincing. Too convincing. My heart knows these words are untrue, but my head isn’t so sure.

It becomes yet another throw-down between my spirit and my flesh. My spirit reminds me that my value comes from God and his love for me. However, my flesh counters, nobody cares about that on a resume. God thinks I have worth isn’t a very marketable skill. My spirit won’t answer that point. Not because it has no answer, but because it stands solely on its initial premise and doesn’t see any need to repeat itself.

Finally, my ash heap is built on distrust. Not necessarily toward others, but specifically toward God. I want Jesus to come and move in my life, yet I also hopes he doesn’t. I never liked my life’s direction, but that doesn’t mean I would like to change it either. Then the realization hits me that even after decades of direct evidence to trust God, I still don’t really trust him. At times, I am not sure he has my back. Is he really looking out for me? Does he want what is best for me, or does he merely want to teach me yet another lesson I will never understand? Has my life used up its quota for miracles? Am I going to be truly thankful for the ending of my current ordeal?

Silly questions for a “mature” Christ-follower.

Oh how I wish I could be a Super-Christian. Heck, at this point, I would be happy just being Super-Christian’s clueless comic sidekick.

So, I watch the world’s new chapter from the dusty mountain of ashes. It’s a place of boredom and discomfort, of uncertainty and fear. It’s a place to battle my personal demons.

But it also seems to be the usual place for God to enter into my story. Like he did for Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19). Or Jonah in the desert (Jonah 4). Or the shepherds in the chill of a night (Luke 2). Or Peter in the dungeon (Acts 5). Or Job on the ash heap (Job 38).

The ash heap—built upon uncertainty, self-condemnation, and distrust—is where my spirit battles my flesh, but it is also where I am sure God will once again enter into my story.

God’s objective is not to bless my household with wealth or certainty or even courage. He comes to the ash heap to remind me exactly who is in charge of the universe as well as who is really charge of, and thus responsible, for my life.

On the ash heap, God throws out a list of questions that point only to his power and sovereignty as the correct answer (Read those questions for yourself in Job 38-41 and see if you can answer them any differently). God’s objective is not to get me or my wife a good job. It is to get me to once again admit what is truly important.

So, as 2018 begins, I will find myself still ensconced on a pile of ashes.

However, this year also begins with Job’s final confession ringing in my ears and filling my mind and heart:

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:4-6)

I pray Job’s confession remains on my—as well as your—lips and heart all year long, whether in a new location or career or even while continuing to grieve on the pile of ashes. Whatever new challenges or chapters that come our way, God wants us to know that he is the one in control of the universe and that he is the one who controls our lives.

No what matter what ash heap we find ourselves on, that is the only outcome God wants.


Nine years later, the pain remains, but God is still good

Today marks one of the two worse days of my life. Nine years ago this morning, in a span of one hour, my postgraduate dreams and career in academia evaporated and my life cartwheeled into a world that was–and somewhat remains–unclear, unknown, and undefined.

This was the day I sat across from my doctoral examiners and was told in no uncertain terms how much they hated my dissertation. I remember vividly the final walk of humiliation–barely able to breathe–down the path and out of the university, the phone call home telling my wife it didn’t go well, and the day I left England for the last time only to return to word weeks later that a contract for a job I loved would not be renewed.

The first couple of years were the darkest. I was numb, lost, and filled with self-loathing. I couldn’t sleep, my blood pressure skyrocketed, and my whole body ached. I had frequent anxiety attacks. Yes, there were times I prayed that my heart would mercifully stop beating or that my brakes would fail just before my car slammed into a retaining wall. As time crept on, I started writing, saw a counselor, and tried to somehow move on from the complete mess that had become my life.

Nine years later, with a book published and hopefully at least another couple to follow, I have gained some perspective. Time doesn’t heal, but it can serve as a buffer. This year, however, the emotions flooded back with more intensity. This ninth anniversary is the first I had to face at the age of 50. I still wonder what God is doing with my life. And I certainly don’t have a career or a ministry at this point that would carry my wife and I into retirement (which seems ominously closer at 50 than it does at 49). In many ways, my life’s trajectory remains uncertain.

As of now, writing is the only thing I have got. I am so thankful for the publication of Losers Like Us (from a real life publisher no less)–that truly was a miracle. And I truly am thankful for every sale to this day. But rarely does writing make a sustaining career. It offers no guarantees. Yet it remains the only path God has shown me.

The future continues to look uncertain. Not bleak, just uncertain. I would be lying if I said I have not grown weary of the uncertainty. I truly wish God would reveal his plans even just a little. But God is not obligated to fulfill my wishes like a genie freed from a lamp. He is a big God. And he is good.

Like a single candle flickering in the darkness a thousand feet a way, I have hope. I hope that my life has clarity even though I myself might not see it, that we will be somehow taken care of as the days march on, and that my wife’s sacrifices caused by her husband’s chaotic life will be honored.

Nine years after the horrible day in England, I can say I have hope in this big, good God.

But I still feel the pain.

As good as God is, I will always feel the pain.

2002, my first visit to the British University for my postgraduate studies.
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Giving the devil his due: the art of the lie

As I stood at the top of the staircase in the academic building at my august British university, the voices began: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.”

I had just experienced what was, and remains, the most awkward, humiliating moment of my life. In the final hour of my seven years of effort, my two oral examiners had just rejected my PhD work. After hearing the news, I had to stand up in front of them, cram my useless 400-page paper into my briefcase, and exit the room in heavy silence. One of them had simply stared at me without expression; the other never made eye contact.

Classes were letting out, and the atrium below bustled with throngs of students, chattering and laughing. Their journey of chasing their dreams was just coming to birth, whereas mine had just died.

Carefully I descended the stairs—ashen, weak, almost too stunned to breathe—out of the building, down the path, and through the front gate, never to set foot on that campus again.

And the voices followed me: “Screwup. Moron. Misfit.”

I flew home to my dream job as a Christian high school teacher and soon learned that, for reasons I still do not know, my contract would not be renewed. So – on the last day of school there – I exited in shame from that campus too, never to return again.

And the voices continued: “Worthless. Washout. Idiot.”

Those voices would continue in my head for many years after that disastrous winter of 2008. I heard them in the quiet of solitude, whenever I was alone. I heard them in the dark while falling asleep, and again upon waking in the night. I heard them in the shower and while walking the dogs. And I heard them in waiting areas before job interviews. (Interviewer: “What would you bring to this organization?” Me: “I don’t know…a pulse?”)

I was so devastated by my losses that I figured there must be some truth to these voices. They became extremely hard to ignore.

Further, I truly believed (and still believe) that God had led me to that PhD program and that dream job, both of which began well but ended in disaster. And for a long time afterward, this belief led to even more accusations: “God tricked you; he led you into a trap. You have a right to be bitter toward the university, your advisors, your examiners, your boss, and even your God. Go ahead, curse them.” In an odd way, I am grateful that I was too numb, too paralyzed to act on those voices. But I still had to hear them.

Since that painful year, and the death of my life dreams, I continue to get questions from caring people who can’t understand why it all happened, but they try. The most frequent theory is that Satan caused me to fail because he was threatened by what I might have accomplished If I had succeeded.devil's horn

Yet to me this explanation doesn’t wash, because it makes God and Satan sound almost like equals. You know, thrust and parry: God tries to advance his plans, and Satan counters to thwart them. Superhero vs. arch-villain. But this view gives too much credit to Satan, and far too little to God.

True, Scripture teaches that Satan is very real and powerful, and that he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8, NIV). But it also teaches that God alone is almighty, and Satan is simply one of God’s created beings. He can only do what God allows; he is not capable of creating obstacles or countermeasures which can successfully thwart God’s will.

In fact, Satan is not nearly powerful enough to do most of what we attribute to him. Even the trials of Job are credited not to Satan but to human attackers (vv. 14-15, 17) and freakish acts of nature (vv. 16, 18-19) – except for the trial of painful sores, with which Job is “afflicted” by Satan (Job 2:7, NIV). Still, Scripture consistently teaches that Satan’s power is limited, both in scope and in nature, and that even the limited power he does have is further limited by what God allows.

apple-and-snake_1280x1024_2988But Satan does not need to have power over circumstances to stop us. Instead, his weapon is words. Everyone takes a beanball to the head now and then, and Satan doesn’t necessarily throw the ball; he just messes with our minds after it happens. In fact, the primary power attributed to him in the Bible is the power to deceive. Jesus calls him “the father of lies” (John 8:44, NIV). His first words in Genesis are a lie: “You will not certainly die…” (Genesis 3:4, NIV).

And when he goes out roaming around, “looking for someone to devour,” his roar is dressed as a whisper.

He whispers to a lonely spouse, “Have an affair – what’s the harm?” He whispers to a depressed elder, “Go ahead, swallow the pills; everyone will be better off.” He whispers to a bullied teen, “Kill them all – they deserve it!”

He coaxes unsuspecting people to do his dirty work for him, causing waste and destruction in our own lives and in the lives of others.

And he whispers to all of us:



“Waste of oxygen.”

Which brings me back to the words in my own head: “Stupid. Nobody. LOSER.” When I was smashed into the canvas by a series of deadly blows to the head, Satan did not deliver the blows. No, instead he was the one kneeling over me, sneering, “Stay down, you piece of trash.”

His attacks were—are—just words. Powerful, persuasive words.

For me, sometimes those words were almost persuasive enough to make me slam my car into a retaining wall on some desolate highway.

But lies are just that: lies. They are not truth. And truth is the greatest defense against them.

So if Satan’s weapon is lying, and he’s very skilled at it, how do we win against it?

As with everything else, Jesus shows us how.

temptAfter Jesus fasts and prays for forty days in the wilderness, Satan comes to him (Matthew 4:1-11) – but again, not as a peer, like a strong villain overcoming Superman with kryptonite. No, Jesus is God, and Satan can’t match him head-to-head. So, true to form, Satan fights him with lies alone.

And Jesus responds not with lightning bolts or heavenly armies, but simply with truth. Of course, it helps that Jesus is truth (John 14:6). But that same Jesus – the Word of truth – lives in us as we are guided, counseled, and comforted by the Holy Spirit. So we have direct access to God’s pure truth.

The key is listening through the din of lies to find that truth, which is often much quieter – like the still, small voice heard by Elijah (I Kings 19:11). And learning to hear it usually happens over time.

When I was nearly overcome by Satan’s deceptions, even in my numbness I had the presence of mind to surround myself with truth. While I did almost everything I could to withdraw from the world, I also joined a home community – a small group of believers who shared their own brokenness and stepped into mine. I went to church. I read scripture. And I started to write. As I typed Satan’s lies and saw them onscreen, their falseness was exposed in the light of truth.

The truth of redemption is woven throughout the entire Bible story, which shows ordinary, broken, sinful people being loved, rescued, and used by God. As I studied how gently and persistently he worked with them, I began to trust that he is constantly doing the same with me.

So, over time, I am being rescued from lies by Christ Jesus, who himself is the truth (John 14:6), the Word of God (John 1:1). This Word created me, loves me, and came not to condemn me but to save me (John 3:17).

Gradually, over a period of years, he is giving me new words. Words of truth.

I hear the words: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.” But God’s Word says: “Failure isn’t the end; I have a future for you” (Jeremiah 29:11).

I hear the words: “Screwup. Moron. Misfit” and “Worthless. Washout. Idiot.” But God’s Word says: “My grace covers every misstep, every sin” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I hear the words: “Guilty. Garbage. Waste of oxygen.” But God’s Word says: “I love you, and I died to forgive you and bring your life meaning” (Romans 5:8).

And finally, I hear the words: “Stupid. Nobody. LOSER.” But God’s Word says: “Precious. Beloved. Child of God!”

This truth is life-changing. And we are not meant to experience it in parsimonious sips, like wine-tasters. We’re meant to dive into it, bathe in it, gorge on it—fully baptised in it, heart and soul.

Satan’s power is the power of lies. And our weapon against him is truth.

In truth, one heals.

In truth, lies are silenced.

In truth, Satan is defeated.­

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Can we be sinners but not losers?

Since the release of my book, Losers Like Us, I have argued that the Bible does nothing to hide the sins, flaws, and blemishes of the people within. They are too clueless, too full of themselves, and too ordinary to be considered spiritual giants. So I have used the term “losers” to describe them—and also to describe all the rest of us who, each in our own stumbling way, try to follow the Lord just as they tried.

But many people have objected to the “loser” label by saying: “Yes, I am a sinner—but not a loser!”

Loser-Sinner1This response shows just how much people hate being labeled as “losers.” I think they mean that in Christ, we are winners, and I agree with that. Yet I see the sinner/loser distinction differently.

I began studying the Bible characters when I went through a time of darkness and failure in my own life, because I was desperate to see how God could or would use a failure like me for his kingdom. As I studied them, they became more to me than the flat, one-dimensional flannel-graph characters I remembered from Sunday School; they became real, fallible people – just like me. So I began to use the term “losers” to describe them, because their failures and ordinariness gave me hope. I figured that if God could use them in his kingdom, maybe he could use a loser like me too.

I know the word “loser” can sound like an insult, but it is not; it is simply an observation.

Allow me to explain.

 To me, except in the case of Jesus, “loser” and “sinner” are synonymous.

The word “sinner” and the word “loser” have similar definitions. Both mean someone who comes up short, misses the mark, fails to fulfill the standard of perfection. In this sense, only Jesus was not a loser. He alone lived a perfect, sinless life, and compared to him, everyone else is indeed a loser (Isaiah 53:6, Heb. 4:15). After all, there can be only one “winner.” In the real world, not everybody gets a trophy.

This truth is affirmed throughout the Bible. Quoting the Old Testament (Ps. 14:1-3, Ps. 53:1-3, Ecclesiastes 7:20), Paul writes in the New:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one….

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

(Romans 3:10-12, 23)

So according to scripture, every person except Jesus is a sinner—and therefore, to me, a loser too.

 If “loser” and “sinner” are not synonyms, I’d rather be the first one.

Saying “I’m a sinner, but not a loser!” implies that being a loser is worse. 

But I see things the other way around. I think being a sinner is worse, because “loser” is just a human value judgment. “Sinner,” on the other hand, is a heart issue that keeps us from the presence of God.

However, neither sinners nor losers are beyond God’s grace; both are fully redeemable by him. 

And on the subject of grace…

The wonderful mystery of grace makes each of us a sinner and a saint at the same time.  We Christ-followers often misinterpret grace in binary terms, with sinners on one side, Christ’s grace in the middle, and saints (saved people) on the other side. We believe that once we move from sin through grace to salvation, we are no longer sinners.

But in truth, even after we are saved by grace, we still sin sometimes. For example, even David—“a man after God’s own heart” (I Sam. 13:14)—is shown to be a deceiver (I Sam. 21:13); polygamist (I Sam. 25:42-44, 2 Sam. 3:2); adulterer (2 Sam. 11:2-4); and cold-blooded killer (2 Sam. 12:9)—and all of these sins were committed after David’s life was dedicated to God. In fact, even in the New Testament, after receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter sinned by fearing the opinion of men more than the opinion of God—and Paul had to call him out (Gal. 2:11-21).

So even though we are forgiven and redeemed, sin is still with us.

Salvation is an ongoing process. Jesus works every day to chisel away our faults and sins as we submit to him, because following Christ is not about achieving perfection; it is about admitting our brokenness, and then being as obedient as we can so that God can build his kingdom through us anyway.

That’s why I argue that we are all sinners, and by default, losers. I can see why some might say that in Christ we are “winners”—but I say that Christ is the only winner. Compared to him, everyone else comes in dead last.

What is so amazing is that Jesus invites us into the winner’s circle to celebrate, party, and identity with him. 



Life on the altar

Contrary to the popular saying, time does not heal all wounds. Instead, it brings perspective.

February is the month when, seven years ago, I flew to England to defend my final doctoral thesis – only to watch it vaporize in less than an hour.

Since then, for the last seven years, February has always felt dark and heavy. I thought my sadness would dissipate, little by little, with each passing year, but it hasn’t. You don’t get over loss; you come to terms with it. I’m still trying to come to terms with why God led me into that doctoral program, only to let it blow up in my face.

Many people have tried to explain this mystery. Some have suggested that maybe I didn’t hear God correctly, or maybe I didn’t even listen – maybe my prayers for guidance were only a token gesture, seeking a rubber stamp on what I had already decided to do.

I have wrestled with this possibility, and have tried to discern whether it could be even partly true.

However, to this day, despite the rotten outcome, I still believe with all my heart that God led me into that particular program, and provided the funds. (Fortunately, I didn’t go into debt to pay for it—I paid as I went along.) Yes, I have erred and even sinned in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. But the same can be said of all the students who earned their degrees before me, as well as all those who did so after.

Sometimes when we can’t understand something, we “fill in the blank” with easy answers. And “maybe you didn’t hear God” is the easiest answer. It’s similar to Job’s friends concluding that his suffering was caused by sin – a conclusion later rebutted by God (Job 38-42).

No, there’s something more to this catastrophe than the possibility that I was just unwilling or unable (too rebellious or dense) to hear and obey God’s direction for my life.

* * *

In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to go to a certain mountain and sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise – the son who, miraculously born to Sarah at age 90, God has promised to bless with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

In Genesis terms, to “sacrifice” Isaac means to kill him—that is, to ritualistically place him on an altar, slit his throat, and burn his body.

I won’t lie to you: that is a disturbing command.

Sure, we know the ending: Abraham lays Isaac on the altar to kill him, but at the last second an angel prevents the killing. God’s command turns out to be just a test of Abraham’s faith, and Abraham passes the test. At least, that’s our confident Sunday school interpretation of this story.

But the story has perhaps less to do with faith than with sheer obedience. Metaphorically speaking, the life on the altar is really Abraham’s – not Isaac’s.

titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtIn this story, Abraham cannot possibly know the ending. He only knows that God – the very God who initiated Isaac’s miraculous birth and promised Isaac’s descendants will be too numerous to count – now commands the killing of that same Isaac.

God is asking Abraham to kill his own future – his dream.

Apparently God never intended to let Abraham go through with it, because after the surreal almost-sacrifice of Isaac, a ram is provided to be sacrificed instead (v. 13).

But Abraham still lost something – something very precious. His obedience had to change the father-son dynamic.

I mean, come on – there’s Dad standing over you, holding a knife to your throat. That’ll stick with you.

The hike back down the mountain must have been filled with awkward silences and suspicious glances.

And imagine the dinner conversation that night…

Sarah: “So how was your trip?”

Isaac: “Dad tried to kill me.”

Abraham’s actions must have destroyed Isaac’s trust for a good long while, maybe even forever. Scripture doesn’t indicate whether he eventually came to understand Abraham’s shocking attack against him, so we really don’t know.

Yet like a kamikaze, Abraham went all in.

That’s life on the altar.

* * *

Like Abraham, I feel that my own life is on the altar. I still believe God led me into that doctoral program – and then chose to take it as a sacrifice when it went up in smoke, so to speak.

In relationship to God, we all are in the position of Isaac – a living sacrifice on the altar. And though God, my father, seemed to kill me – my future and my dreams – ultimately it’s about continuing to trust him, no matter what.

It appears that God’s plan for me is not a full-time career in academia, as I envisioned, but rather a kind of ministry of encouragement to others who have suffered painful, humiliating losses or failures like mine. Since the publication of my book, Losers Like Us, I have been able to share my story with others who have experienced such losses or have questioned their purpose in life, as I have. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I do feel an intimate connection with their pain. That connection would not exist if my PhD effort had passed.

Time does not heal the wound. But it does widen and deepen my perspective. As painful as it was, my story—seven years of time, money, and hope, sacrificed on the altar—is not about me; it is about obeying God just because he is God.

Even when a sacrifice has to die.

You can read more about wrestling with God and his grace in my book, Losers Like Us – Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure. For details, see my book page.

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Meaningless sunshine

Photo by Daniel HochhalterEver since I first read Ecclesiastes, I have been intrigued by this mysterious book. Though I have always struggled with its meaning, I have also been intrigued by and even drawn to its words. I hope that this has nothing to do with a naturally pessimistic temperament, though it could very well be.

Ecclesiastes a small poem hidden in the shadow of the much larger and more-often-quoted book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers more certainty, is more formulaic in its maxims: Righteousness leads to good results; wickedness leads to bad ones. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is far less certain. It speaks of a teacher who spends his entire life seeking—and achieving—wisdom, and experiencing many of the benefits of Proverbs, but still finds everything “under the sun…meaningless.”

But, we silently wonder, everything under the sun was created by Almighty God – so how can it all be meaningless? It seems like a big, theological contradiction. It doesn’t quite fit the narrative of evangelism: “God loves you and has a wonderful [read: meaningful] plan for your life.” It’s troublesome. So we avoid it.

However, the whole point of Ecclesiastes, first introduced in Ecclesiastes 1:9, is that “there is nothing new under the sun”:

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11

The phrase “under the sun ” – repeated over and over in Ecclesiastes – is an umbrella statement that includes anything and everything that is, well, under the sun. But in the repetition lies a hidden clue, a subtle implication that this meaninglessness does not include that which is above the sun. Would this mean stars or planets then? No. I am not referring to above the sun in spacial terms, but in hierarchical terms.

The teacher in Ecclesiastes gives an answer to his own clue. After examining the vast empire he has built and declaring it all meaningless, he concludes with:

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them” (Ecc 12:1)

And there it is. Meaning is found only above the sun, in God alone.

Recently this was brought home to me in a new way through a sermon I heard on Ecclesiastes, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.

All my life, I have been an attention-seeker. In junior high I was somewhat of a reject, so I went out of my way to compensate. As I matured, my attention-seeking evolved into the pursuit of a meaningful life. I needed my life to be important, to have meaning. I sought avenues that I thought might provide that meaning: ministry, education, jobs, etc. I looked down on—or avoided altogether—some simple tasks or duties as “meaningless.” My hope—like pretty much everyone else’s—has been to have purpose and meaning in this life.

My book, Losers Like Us, is set to be released in the coming days. The recent teaching I heard on Ecclesiastes shone a brilliant light into yet another dark place in my heart: do I see this book release as another possible path to meaning? In this exciting season of my life, am I seeking meaning through sales figures or other forms of attention that might come from publication?

I pray not. Because—just like everything else under the sun—this season is temporary and ultimately meaningless. Ecclesiastes serves as a powerful reminder that nothing “under the sun” can bring meaning—not an educational degree, not a career, not wealth, not ministry, and not the publication of books. All of it is meaningless.

To look for meaning under the sun will only bring frustration and defeat. Instead I must look above the sun to the one who created it all.

Meaning lies in God alone. Only in God himself—the great I AM, the Creator of all—will we ever find the meaning we so desperately want and need.

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