What is a Useless Life?

Cancer confined a friend of mine to a hospital bed for what proved to be her last few weeks on earth. Even though I knew the possible outcome, it surprised me when she said she was afraid. “Afraid of what?” I asked, knowing she had a deep and peaceful confidence of Heaven.

“Of lying here like this for weeks and weeks,” she replied.

Useless

And that is exactly what happened. She lay in the same bed for many weeks, suffering the indignities of hospital life, enduring a painful season until she was set free from her body. However, she was not afraid of the pain. She was afraid of becoming useless, serving no one, a drain on others. I heard my elderly in-laws express much the same sentiment as they looked toward the possibility of a slow decline.

What about God?

What, then, shall we say about God? Has the Lord forgotten one little corner of the world? Does His sovereignty stop at the foot of the sick-bed? Of course not. His control extends to the depths of the sea and to the outer edges of the galaxy. The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all (Ps. 103:19). All the ‘useless’ places are as centered in His good will as the places we deem so ‘useful.’

The Apostle Paul spent many years in various prisons. He might easily have felt that he had been shunted to the side-yard, uselessly awaiting the scrap heap of life. But this same Apostle wrote about the joy of sharing in the sufferings of Christ, glorifying God in his weakness, and the privilege of praising Him in chains. Paul knew that God is glorified wherever men love Him, including the slave compound, the prison yard and the hospital wards.

Something important

Many of us want the chance to do something ‘important’ for God. We’d like to show the depth of our love and exercise our unique gifts. But the greatest thing we can do for our God is to pour out our hearts to Him in the places He has ordained for us. Could any work be more important than the work we have sovereignly been given to do? Could any circumstances be more right than the circumstances which come directly from His hand? There is a folly of pride in thinking that some other work, some other life, would be a better way of serving God.

God alone is the audience of One whose applause echoes in eternity. He is just as present in the lonely hospital room as He is in the televised pulpits of the world, perhaps more so. You do not know but when you see Him face to face, it will be that one hour you suffered, those weeks that you lay still and cried out to Him in faith, the years your life went unnoticed by the world that made the angels catch their breath, that honored Your King most of all.


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The Beautiful, Anxious Heart of a Teenage Girl – And How You Can Help

Evolving beauty and painful anxiety are two of the most basic characteristics of a teen girl’s heart. These years can feel like the blossoming of a flower, but also like the opening of a wound. I have the distinct memory of suddenly realizing I was a person at the age of 12. Developmentally, it’s an indispensable part of becoming the men and women God created us to be. But like everything else, the process isn’t perfect. In particular today, I want to address the anxiety that many teen and preteen girls feel and suggest a few ways you can help.

New emotions

Powered by adolescent hormones, teen emotions are new and intense. Girls at this stage also begin to be aware of the expectations of others and of their own conflicting thoughts. God intends girls to sort through possibilities, searching for their own passions, personality traits, and gifts. But the world is trying to sell them many standards of perfection, and no one can meet them all. It’s hard to hold the excitement of exploration in one hand and the fear of failure in the other.

Peer pressure

Friends and teen culture become vitally important during these years, too. Girls who have felt secure in a family environment are now drawn into wider spheres, including online friendships and social media. Teens and preteens may try out different modes of dress, switch friend groups or test out new activities, searching both for themselves and for connections to the world around them. Possible fulfillment and possible rejection lie around every corner.

How can you help?

Those who love a teenage girl may be tempted to ask, “How can I protect her?” But I’d like to suggest she is doing what God created her to do. A better question might be, “How can I help her?” Can I help her explore life in healthy ways? Could I help her become everything God dreamed for her? How can I help her with these new emotions – and especially how can I help with the anxiety we are both feeling right now?

Here are several important suggestions for helping a teen girl (and maybe yourself) through the anxiety of these years.

1. Talk about it.

Anxiety is normal, but when all your feelings are new, they can seem overwhelming. As a mentor, one way to help is to talk about your own experience of anxiety. Describe what anxiety feels like to you, tell stories about your growing-up years. And ask good questions. When and how does your teenager experience her fears (e.g., before a test, in social situations, online, or in bed at night)? Just talking about it, and knowing she can talk about it, will help.

2. Help her take some control.

When your thoughts first start running wild, it’s easy to believe you have no control over them. But it’s not true. Everyone can get better at controlling their anxiety with practice. If you have a technique you use, share it. But there are plenty of good suggestions around – prayer, meditation, and healthy distractions are three you could try with your teen. I will include a few resources to help you below this post.

3. Physical activity

Most of us could profit from a little more physical activity. But those struggling with anxiety get a special benefit. Research has shown that exercise actually changes your brain chemistry in ways that decrease anxiety, both long- and short-term. So, adopting some form of exercise, and then doing it regularly, can make a big difference. Perhaps the teen in your life would like to learn to play tennis or golf or basketball. Perhaps they could join the cross-country team, a dance team, or just join you on a bike ride. Helping the anxious teen you love find some exercise they will practice is one of the best things you can do for them.

4. Prayer journaling.

God tells all of us to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Giving God our worries is a lifelong skill and spiritual practice. And it can be especially meaningful to teen girls who are struggling with anxiety. One way to do that is to keep a prayer journal, hearing from God’s word and responding to it. The things we read and write about ‘stick’ better than those we merely read. If you are looking for a journaling guide for your preteen or teen girl, you can look at mine here. Teens can make their own, too, using just a spiral notebook and some fun markers. It’s even possible to journal on your phone or tablet, but I’ve found the physical act of writing out my prayers both slows me down and connects me to my own words.

As you and your teenager work through the challenges of adolescence, I hope you also find the precious gold being forged through her experiences. The beauty of her heart will last into eternity. Her anxiety will not. May you find meaningful ways of helping her navigate this beautiful, anxious time of life, and may both of you be richly blessed.


Resources:

Prayer journal

Sample prayers. https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/prayers-for-anxiety-when-youre-heart-is-overwhelmed.html

Finding healthy distractions. https://ibpf.org/articles/18-ways-to-distract-from-anxiety/

Christian Meditation.

Exercise. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P01602

Justice and Mercy: What are they?

This is the first post in a three-part series on Justice, Mercy, and the Gospel.

The word, “justice” is getting some strong reactions these days, but do we actually know what it means? How it is related to mercy and where does it fit as we live out the Gospel of Christ? Most of us would agree justice is one of God’s characteristics and a significant part of the Gospel message. We would probably also be able to recognize an injustice done to us. But when it comes to practicing justice in the world, it can be confusing. How necessary is justice to our Christian walk? What does it look like to “do justice” in everyday life? And doesn’t mercy replace justice in the New Testament? Sometimes we use the words “mercy” and “justice” interchangeably, and sometimes they seem to be opposites. What does Scripture have to say about these important concepts and the ways they relate to the Gospel?

Justice defined

First, let’s take a look at justice. There are two words generally translated as “justice” in Scripture. The first means a correct, legal decision, and the second is the personal quality of righteousness. So, to do justice and to be just. As a highly qualified, sitting judge once told me, justice is “the right response,” whether for punishment or restitution, guilt or innocence. Justice is a quality of wisdom, the product of discernment and a righteous mind. Justice is an outcome that is, humanly speaking, deserved. For a few examples, see Exodus 23:2, Deuteronomy 24:17, or Luke 18:3.

I Kings 3:16-28 famously demonstrates Biblical justice. King Solomon devises an ingenious test to determine the parentage of a disputed child. Because of his wisdom, he is able to determine guilt from innocence and truth from deception. In the end, he gives each applicant what she deserves. Solomon’s wisdom is a divine gift to help him enact the justice of God on earth.

A modern example of justice comes from Bryan Stevenson of The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). In His book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of Walter McMillian who was sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit. After decades in prison, EJI conclusively proved his innocence, and he was released. He sued the law enforcement agencies responsible and received an undisclosed amount of restitution, becoming the catalyst for Alabama’s current compensation statute. Although no one could return the years he spent behind bars, the injustice done to McMillan was corrected as far as humanly possible. This is the backward-looking justice referred to in passages of Scripture like Leviticus 6:2-5 or Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Mercy defined

What, then, is mercy? In the Bible, there are multiple words that can be translated as “mercy,” with alternate meanings of compassion, kindness, atonement, love, or grace. Although it is sometimes, mistakenly in my view, referred to as a subset of justice, mercy is, by definition, undeserved. It is always something more generous than what has been earned (props to Skye Jethani‘s writings for this idea). In the negative, mercy reduces or eliminates a deserved punishment. In the positive, mercy means unmerited, over-flowing blessings. Note, too, that mercy arises primarily from the heart rather than the head. For a few examples, see Exodus 33:19, Matthew 18:33, and Ephesians 2:4.

Psalm 51 is David’s plea for mercy after he has committed adultery and murder. Spiritually and humanly speaking, he cannot appeal to justice, having no right to ask anything of God or man. So, he asks for mercy and forgiveness for his heinous crimes. This kind of mercy is not a subset of justice; it is a different animal entirely.

Here’s a small but real example from culture today. Tipping big and anonymously has become a viral trend recently (gotta love a positive, viral trend!). Some tippers are going above and beyond, leaving tips in thousands of dollars for a café lunch for one. This is a great, human example of forward-looking, undeserved and over-flowing favor which falls squarely into the category of mercy.

Biblical justice and mercy

In summary, we can say biblical justice is deserved and biblical mercy is undeserved. In addition, justice is primarily a quality of the mind, while mercy springs from a heart of pity and compassion. Both justice and mercy have a backward-looking application to things that have already occurred. Justice corrects a wrong, supplying the dignity and fairness which was missing in a specific situation. Mercy applies compassion, producing joy and abundance where abundance was never deserved or anticipated. And both have a forward-looking face. Justice brings about a right and equitable result for the future, while mercy produces over-flowing blessings.

In short, justice makes a person whole. Mercy makes a person new.

Join me again next time when we examine these concepts as they meet at the cross.


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