I once told a friend of a recurring temptation of mine. Over the next month, he shared my secret with a dozen other friends, spicing up the tale with the fib that I had yielded to the temptation—even though I hadn’t. His betrayal shocked me. I skipped several lunch and dinner appointments, unsure who had heard and what they thought.

His disclosure also angered me. I obsessed over his treachery: How could he have divulged my secret temptation? And why worsen my shame with the sneering proclamation I had done it! I would never have betrayed a friend like that.

One day, as I fumed over his relational-adultery, I sensed God’s voice speak into my seething self-pity: Sam, why are you so angry? I thought the answer obvious: My friend had stabbed me in the back! Then I remembered a verse:

“I tell you, when one sinner repents, there is joy among the angels of God.” (Luke 15:10)

I thought, Sure, I suppose there would be joy in heaven if this jerk (I mean, friend) repented. His public confession might even bring me a bit of joy here on earth.

And I sensed God say, “I’m not talking about his sin; I’m talking about yours.”

But we hate to admit our own wrongs

What’s so bad about what I did? My friend actively told people of my faults, I onlythought about his.

But my thinking was equally active. I wholeheartedly imagined friends discovering his duplicity, and I visualized his humiliation. I poked pins in my mental image of him, and I caricaturized him: he hadn’t just broken faith, he was faithless; he hadn’t just lied, he was a liar.

Imagining his crimes was like enjoying a feast. I savored every mental morsel. I relished each thought. The very idea of his eventual discovery tasted like desert.

A recent Facebook post claimed that Christians no longer need to repent. The writer said, “We have already died to sin [Rom. 6:2]. So how can a dead man repent?”

But when we reject personal repentance, we reject a chance to hear God’s voice.

What does God’s voice sound like when we sin?

We tend to think God speaks only to the Mother Teresa’s of this world. But that notion is just false. Think of Adam and Eve’s first sin of all time. Every evil you’ve ever seen or experienced—every rape, betrayal, ethnic-cleansing, and marginalization—resulted from their action.

But God didn’t send an avenging angel to wipe them out. He didn’t stew over their betrayal nor simmer in his wrath. Instead, God came to the Garden for conversation.

Before that first sin, we see God speaking to himself (“Let us make man in our image”) and giving direction (“You can eat of any tree but one”). After their world-changing sin, we see God initiating conversation with a question: “Adam and Eve, where are you?” It’s the pattern of God, pursuing the lost us with kind questions:

  • He asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” after Cain murdered Abel;
  • He asks Job, “Where were you when I formed the earth?” after Job doubts God’s justice;
  • And he asks Jonah, “Are you right to be so angry?” as he smoldered in self-pity.

What does God’s voice sound like when we sin? Invitational. He seeks a divine dialogue with us even when we stumble.

We hear his voice then join the party

Jesus tells of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to look for the one stupid sheep that ran away. He concludes: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

Our repentance ignites a feast of celebration in heaven.

We don’t need to wait for personal perfection before we hear God’s voice. We need only be willing to listen as God ask us, “Where are you?” and “Why are you so angry?”

When we admit, “I’m stewing on the wrongs of others,” and “I care more for the world’s praise than yours,” we begin to participate in this divine dialogue, and we sit down to a divine dinner.

Maybe we’ll see that friend who wronged us; together we can toast to our own stupidity.

Sam

I had a high school friend whose life overflowed with compassion. The rest of us were obsessed with college-prep, extra-curricular activities, and jobs. But he, like a lion, could sniff out a wounded schoolmate from a thousand yards. And like a lamb, he sat with them in their grief.

One day we heard a lecture on handling pain. Most of the class was indifferent—bored even—but my friend listened quietly with fixed attention. My preppy class asked how to deal with a poor score on a college-entry exam; my friend wondered how he could cheer a suicidal sibling.

My friend suffered from cerebral palsy. Everyday his infirmity slapped him in the face, and every night throbbing muscles threatened his sleep.

His walk was awkward, his dialog at times incomprehensible, his body wracked with pain; while his mind remained sharp. But mid-day waiters asked me what “he” wanted for lunch; classmates overlooked him for team sports; and the difficulty of his spastic speech meant few people invited him for an evening dinner. Yet he always sought out others in  sorrow.

Oswald Chambers observed that, “Suffering burns up a lot of shallowness in a person.”

Why do we resent it?

We all know a few of our “foibles”: we are easily offended when corrected, we talk more than we listen, we barely know how to spell “joy” (much less live it), and past conversations consume us: “If only I had said ‘X’ instead of ‘Y.’”

We wrestle with our anxiety, condescension, and insensitivity. And they pin us to the mat. We chase self-improvement mostly to avoid the humiliation of looking stupid, uncaring, and high-maintenance. Failures drive us to avoid more sorrow at any cost.

We want healing from suffering; but Scripture says we get healing only throughsuffering.

God uses sorrows as spiritual chemotherapy, poisoning cancerous cells so that healthy cells can thrive. “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity” (Job 36:15).

We avoid passages like that.

To live a dying life

Jesus is called a man of sorrows, and to follow him is a walk of sorrows. Through them, we meet God. The way of Jesus is the road to Calvary, planting daily our crosses, as little by little the cancerous cells perish, and as little by little his life in us takes root. In our sorrows, we begin to discover true joy.

The way of Jesus is to live a dying life.

Each new sunrise screams of brutalities, ethnic cleansing, sexual carnage, heartbreaking divorce, rejection, and loneliness. What kind of God do we want? A God indifferent to suffering, exempt and untouched? Or a God so moved with compassion at the slaughter of his people that he enters creation to absorb into himself the anguish of a heartbroken world?

God’s voice in our affliction

Our experiences of loneliness and pain leave us feeling barren and empty, joyless and wasted; but it is precisely in times of wounded-ness that God speaks to us:

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone. (Edward Shillito)

Rather than flee agonies, let’s seek his voice in the heartbreaks of our sorrows; if we are rejected, hear him whisper that he was discarded so we can be cherished; in our loneliness, hear his pledge that he was forgotten so we will be treasured; in the aches of our withering bodies, hear his shout that we are nearly home.

The same sun that hardens clay also softens wax. Which will we be? Will the sufferings of life turn us callous and harsh, or will we let the blood-soaked lashes of Jesus speak to our wounds?

Like my high school friend, let us stumble awkwardly into a world of anguish, anointing the griefs of others with the balm of a wounded God. Let us live a dying life.

Sam

Thirty-three years ago I took a woman to a Gilbert and Sullivan play as a first date. Before the evening of our get-together, I had a collection of facts about her: she was a farmer’s daughter, she was a Social Worker, and she was cute. After the evening of our get-together, I told my parents that I had just met the woman I would marry.

What happened during those few, short hours? I had known she wanted to be a missionary, but over a glass of wine, she told me of her longing to help internationals. And I fell in love. I didn’t get new information; somehow, something I already knew became real.

She breathed life into the facts I already possessed. A personal connection trumped my data.

Western nations—Americans in particular—are information junkies. The Self-Improvement market guzzles ten billion dollars a year as we gather more info on health, personal finances, and relational well-being. Yet we remain over-weight, under-saved, and highly-divorced.

Christians likewise are data collectors. We download hundreds of sermons, stockpile libraries of books, frequent retreats, and memorize verses. Yet we remain anxious, timid, and lonely.

We don’t need more information; we need what we already know to become real.

We’re hoping in the wrong solutions

Our biggest problem—at this moment—is that God is not real to us. We think our greatest need is for good advice or different circumstances: “What must I do to achieve a healthy marriage?” or “If only I had a better boss”. But more data or better jobs won’t heal our aches.

Jesus said the Bible is written so we can meet God personally; not just know about him but know him; not just encounter cold facts but encounter a warm person; not just to change our settings but to be transformed by a relationship:

You search the Scriptures because you think you will find rich life in them; yet they are talking about me. You refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

Our single greatest need in all the world right now is for God to become more real to us.

So … how do we do that?

When we read the Bible, we see … but do not see, and we hear but do not understand. We read Scripture to find guidance (a change of circumstances) or to affirm what we already know (one more data point to collect). Jesus says we should come to meet him.

One day a piano tuner told me that if I sang the right note into a piano, the corresponding string would vibrate. She struck the middle “A” so I could get the right pitch, dampened it, and I then sang “Ahhh” into the piano. And the string reverberated. Though it took me a couple tries.

When we read Scripture, we have the “A” strings of information, like that God loves us enough to call us his children. But it isn’t enough. We are seeing without seeing. We need something more. We need the resonance of God’s Spirit.

That’s why Paul tells us that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). God begins to sing his word into our hearts and soon the information we have begins to resonate. Information about God is trumped by God himself.

It’s really all we need

The book of Job overflows with Job seeking God for information (“Why, God, are you doing this?”) or a change in circumstances (“God, let me die”). Instead, simply, God reveals himself.

When Job meets God, he responds, “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you” (Job 42:5). And he is completely satisfied. Notice: God has not told Job why all this is happening, nor has God changed the circumstances. Yet Job says he got all that he really wanted.

Scripture says that no one “knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him. So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). Our need is for the Spirit of God to speak his words into our lives—to hear the living God himself—and we’ll be satisfied.

Instead of asking God for new data, let’s just ask God for a date; and let our knowledge of him resonate as he sings his song into our hearts.

Sam