Feeling Distant from God?

This word of encouragement is for you.

To those of you who love God but feel that He is distant, God is closer than you know. As a follower of Christ, there will be times when God will withdraw His felt presence, but that doesn't mean He isn't with you. Why would God do this? Well, sometimes He does this to give you a chance to stand on your own two feet. Just as a father or mother will remove training wheels from their child's bike, our Heavenly Father will at times remove His felt presence to help you grow. By doing this, God teaches us to follow and pursue Him on our own and cultivates within us a faith that is sincere and not dependent on emotion or hype. Sure, at times we all need an extra boost of encouragement, which is why He stills gives us His felt presence from time to time. But at the end of the day, God doesn't want your relationship with him to be dependent on feelings. He wants your relationship to be dependent on faith. So don't be discouraged if you've "felt" distant from God lately. Rather, consider it joy because God is taking your faith to the next level.

"And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on Earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'" - Matthew 28:18-20

 

Be Faithful In "Whatever"

Two weeks ago I started a new sermon series with my youth group called, “Represent.” I preached about how representing Christ is not as complicated as we sometimes make it. Growing in this area does, however, require humility and the desire to learn. This past weekend I told my students that they could represent Christ by being faithful in “whatever.”

I wasn’t the best student growing up. In fact, I was a terrible student throughout all of junior high and high school. Thankfully, there was a shift in college when I came across a bible verse. That verse would renew my perspective of school (and a world of other things) for the rest of my life. And believe it or not, it also impacted the lives of those around me.  The verse was Colossians 3:23 and it reads, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for people.”

At the time, I was feeling annoyed and burdened with a couple of things in particular: grades and chores. I was at community college taking a bunch of general ed courses that I wasn’t interested in and my dad had made a decree, making me the official dish washer of the Mendez household. When I read this verse I suddenly realized that God cares about these annoyances. If I was going to attend school and do dishes, he wanted me to do it with all of my heart. 

From then on, God began to teach me that representing Him and His son Jesus should not only occur during the seemingly big events, church activities or when I post spiritual things on Facebook. He wanted me to radiate His glory in the duties and relationships of everyday life. I now understand that this is because God cares about the little things, and though we label them as mundane or little they’re actually sacred. Furthermore, these are the areas in which we oftentimes need His help the most.

God is the God of miracles, but I am thankful that He is also the God of the day-to-day. You see, it’s easy for me to go on mission trips, but it’s difficult for me to spend time with my family and just be a good older brother and son. It’s fun preparing for an exciting speaking engagement, but I need help staying on top of my daily responsibilities. In addition, doing your best with seemingly ordinary responsibilities is important when it comes to representing Christ because who could deny a thriving personal life or blooming marriage? On the other hand, people can easily write off the more “spiritual” things you do and think, “Well, that just isn’t me. I’m not a preacher or missionary.” This is why as Christians we should invite Jesus into the mundane and work at the “whatever” things in our lives with all of our hearts. What are your “whatever” tasks? Is it your chores, homework, or your relationship with your siblings? Is it your devotional time with God?

Speaking of relationships, in the book of Colossians, Paul gave specific instructions to his audience regarding how they were to serve Christ. Wives were to submit to their husbands and husbands were to love their wives. Parents were not to provoke their children and children were to obey their parents. Masters were to be just and fair to their servants and servants were to obey their earthly masters in everything they do (Colossians 3:18-4:1). Serving the people whom God has placed in our lives is a big part of what it means to represent Christ in the little things. This is especially true for those who have authority over us, such as our bosses, parents, and teachers. It won’t always be easy, but how we interact with them can have a great impact on those who may be watching.  

Remember my story about community college and dishes? Well, at the time I had only been a Christian for about a month and I was the only active Christian in my immediate family. My dad, who had assigned me to dish duty, thought that my newfound faith was just another one of my phases. I don’t blame him. I was gothic in the 7th grade, a skater with long hair in the 8th grade, and football player and a raver in high school (yikes!). Yet over time my dad began to see that I was doing better in school, completing my chores, being more kind to my siblings, and I wasn’t even reluctant about it! As the Holy Spirit empowered me to be more faithful in the little things, my dad became convinced that my faith was authentic and started to believe in Christ as well. My older sister and two younger brothers soon followed suit. Last year, I had the privilege of baptizing my entire family. By making me faithful in my “whatever,” everyday tasks, God brought my family back to Him. 

A recurring theme in Colossians chapters 3-4 is Paul’s constant reminder that by serving one’s parents, spouse, servant, or master, they are really serving God. Paul’s audience needed to remember whom they were really working for. In other words, the secret to representing Christ in the day-to-day is to make all of your annoying and mundane responsibilities acts of worship. When we understand God's love and that all things were created by Him and for Him, we will be compelled to live every day for Him (Colossians 1:16, 21-22). We will want to surrender to Him every task, obligation, burden and breath. When I didn’t feel like doing chores or homework, the Holy Spirit reminded me whom I was working for and I made it worship. When I found the people around me annoying, the Holy Spirit helped me to remember who fashioned them so I could love them and give the glory to God. 

The little things are what God cares about and what people notice. By being steadfast in the small stuff we can represent Christ in a big way. So I want to encourage you to take your daily duties seriously. Be diligent, be on time, and do the dishes! This is what it means to make worship a lifestyle. Perhaps the first step for you is to meditate on God’s faithfulness and invite Jesus into these “whatever” areas. Once you do, I am confident that Jesus will transform your commonplace into a not-so-common testimony. 

Nothing Compares

A reflection on Romans chapter 8

This last year for me was easily one of the most difficult. I was having a hard time keeping up with school and work, I was under a lot of relational stress with many of the people I love and I often found myself too exhausted to pray and read my bible. Pain, suffering, and hardships are experiences that all humans can relate to, which is why for the last several weeks I shared on the topic of pain with my youth group. I concluded our series with a message of hope called, Nothing Compares. It was taken from Romans 8:18, in which Paul states, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” In my message I covered three main ideas: our present pain, future fulfillment and present power.  This message was a huge inspiration to both the youth and myself, and I pray it will be an inspiration to you too.

OUR PRESENT PAIN

One does not need to be religious to recognize that the world we live in is broken and full of hurt. However, as Christians, we believe that there are three main sources of hardships in this world: the sin of man, sin in the world (as a result of the sin of man) and our enemy, the devil. These things result in strife, distress, persecution, famine, weakness, peril and oppression. Even more, our familiarities with these hardships do not simply go away because we are followers of Christ. On the contrary, they are likely to increase because Christ was acquainted with many sorrows.  So keep in mind that hardships are not a sign that God is mad at you, nor are they always an indication that you are doing something wrong. When you’re enduring a season of strife, don’t let your heart be troubled. Instead, meditate on all that God has done and secured for us through his son, Jesus Christ.

OUR FUTURE FULFILLMENT

Romans 8:20 continues from verse 19, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” The word “revealed” is used for the second time in two consecutive verses. The use of this word; along with words like “future,” “waits,” and “expectation;” suggests that there is a reality yet to be experienced by those who are God’s children. The best way for me to explain this reality is through the analogy of a down payment on a house. Imagine you just found the house of your dreams. In order to secure your dream home, you contact the realtor and make a down payment. Now you have a receipt as proof of your payment and the house has been set aside just for you. The house is essentially yours, except you have not moved in yet. At this point, all you really have in your possession is a piece of paper – a receipt. Now you eagerly wait for the day you get to move in. This is kind of like our experience on Earth as God’s children. Our heavenly father has secured our future in heaven and has brought us into a loving and peaceful relationship with him. The only problem is that we are still here on Earth, enduring this broken life. Do we still get to encounter God? Yes. Do we also witness miracles and wonders on Earth? Yes. Does God still hear and answer our prayers? Yes. And yet in comparison to what the future holds, what we know now is but a receipt, a shadow of what is to come.

So what is our heavenly “house” like? I think that Romans 8:19-21, by referring to creation, tells us two things about our future home: it will be of the physical realm and it will be free of decay. When Jesus returns and establishes his reign, we will not become bodiless spirits floating around in white space. We will walk on solid ground with new, glorified bodies. Just as creation is physical now, so will creation be then – but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Our heavenly home would not be exposed to sin; thus, death and decay would also not be present. The current planet endures agony as a result of sin. Animals, just like humans, are subject to death and disease. If creation was caught in the conflict of human rebellion, how much more shall it be caught in the crossfire of God’s redeeming love? You can bet that plants, animals and all of creation will also share in the benefits of our redemption (Romans 8:21 & Isaiah 11:6).  Revelations 21:3 paints a beautiful picture of what it will be like: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Imagine that - An eternal existence without the all too familiar plagues we spend our lives avoiding and instead an eternity with our loving creator. We should ponder this future fulfillment more often, imagining the colors and beauty of a world that perfectly radiates God’s glory and goodness. This will certainly help us keep our eyes on the end goal and keep life’s lemons in perspective.

OUR PRESENT POWER

At the same time, Christians are not escapists who live in isolation until the day of our deliverance. We are called to be in the world but not of it, to represent our God even in the midst of our struggles. This is why we must also recognize that our present sufferings do not compare to the present power we have in Christ. This power comes from the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ who lives in those who believe. Thus, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, you can be confident that his Spirit is now living in you!

This comes with a plethora of incredible effects. Just imagine, the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead is now living in you and empowering you to live a godly life (Romans 8:9-11). What I find uplifting is that He helps you in your weakness (Romans 8:26). This does not mean that you won’t have moments of weakness; this means that you will have help in your weakness. Have you ever been so overwhelmed that you felt paralyzed in prayer? I certainly have. Fortunately,  the Spirit of God supports us when we are pray and find ourselves at a loss of words. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit actually prays for us! This is good news since the Holy Spirit is all knowing and therefore knows exactly what to pray for (Romans 8:26-27).

Maybe you don’t see God’s Spirit or power evident in your life. If that’s the case, remember that our emotions can be deceitful. Just because you don’t feel the Holy Spirit’s presence doesn’t mean He isn’t there. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with simply asking God to empower you through His Spirit and make you aware of Him. In fact, I would encourage it, especially in times of doubt and distress. If you are in Christ, trust that God’s Spirit is living in you.

While on the topic of power, I want to mention that it also comes from consciously placing your faith in Jesus (which the Spirit also helps us to do). Let’s reflect for a moment on the following verse from Hebrews 12:2, “We persevere by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God's throne.” Jesus has already endured the suffering, initiated the relationship, and will bring to completion our salvation. Jesus has defeated sin and death; so he is definitely qualified to defeat whatever hardships you may be facing. As we fix our eyes on Jesus we will be able to endure our “cross" as he did and run this race called life. Whatever your cross may be; whether it be the loss of a loved one, the consequences of a past mistake, financial or relational stress; fix your eyes on Jesus, rely on the power of his Spirit and trust that he is going to bring you through it.

HOLD ONTO HOPE

“For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” – Romans 8:24. There will be times when life is so trying that all you can do is hold on to this hope that we have – our future fulfillment and present power. However, it is always worth it in the end. After all, nothing compares to what God has in store for those who love him. I want to leave you with a passage that I pray will encourage you. As you reflect on all these wonderful things God has revealed to us, may He move your heart from a place of sorrow to celebration.

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:31-39.

Listen Up

How to be a better listener

A few years ago, some friends of mine attended my church’s Easter musical, Inside Out. Several days later, I got a text from one of my friends telling me he was touched by the musical’s message. He had been through a lot and wanted to learn more about Jesus. As an aspiring pastor, I was thrilled! We made plans to get lunch, and I began planning exactly how the discussion was going to play out.

Did you catch that? We had just made arrangements to meet up and I was already coming up with an agenda. I read and reread my gospel track and rehearsed how I would lead him in a salvation prayer. As you might expect, our lunch didn’t go very well—at least not for my friend.  For me, everything went according to plan. I nodded my head as he tried pouring out his life until it was my turn to talk. At the end of our lunch, I popped the question, “Do you want to give your life to Jesus? I can pray with you right now.” He agreed, so I continued on with the plan and sealed the deal. That was the last time we ever got lunch.

I don’t blame him for not reaching out to me after what happened, although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing the gospel with someone or asking him/her to receive Christ. After all, Christ commands it (Matthew 28:18-20). However, I think that God also wants us to simply listen and be a good friend to others. We are surrounded by hurting people who desperately need someone to confide in, and the last thing they would want is for us to take advantage of their vulnerability in order to serve our own agendas.

If you are a follower of Christ, you can bet that people are going to approach you when they go through strife, which is why it is so important for Christians to know how to listen. Here are four ways you can be a great listener and friend to the next person who comes to you for consolation.

1.    Listen to learn

Don’t listen only to wait for your turn to speak. It’s so easy to start thinking about your response even before the person finishes talking. Focus on what he/she is sharing and make eye contact. Reiterate what he/she is saying to communicate that you’ve been listening and that you could empathize. Basically, just let your friend know that you actually care. Even if you’re certain that you have the solution to his/her problem, no one is going to want to hear it until they know that you’re genuinely listening. There is a well-known chiasmus by John C. Maxwell that goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Listen to your friend attentively. That might be the best remedy in the moment.

2.    Communicate with care

After you’ve listened whole-heartedly, you must choose your words carefully and remember that your friend is putting him/herself in a vulnerable position by disclosing painful personal stories. One of the best things you can do to help is to put things back into perspective for your friend. Odds are, he/she is experiencing stress and, to some degree, even panic, so reminding your friend that he/she is going to get through the day can be a huge comfort. You can also help your friend to discover small steps to take towards a grounded solution. You can ask, “What is one thing you can do this week to mend the relationship?” Putting things into perspective and thinking of small steps toward a solution can relieve huge amounts of stress and anxiety. When it comes to bringing God into the discussion, be sincere. Don’t feel like you have to talk about God or quote a bible verse just because you are a Christian. In other words, don’t force a spiritual conversation. You can always encourage others with prayer. Offer to pray at the end of your talk or pray for your friend when you are by yourself. Just be mindful of how others might feel and check your heart before you decide to take action.

3.    Honor their honesty

This one is pretty straightforward; do not gossip about your intimate conversations with others. It takes a lot of courage for someone to open up to you, so disclosing his or her personal information without consent can do a lot of harm to the person and your relationship with him/her. If you decide to pray in a public setting, there is no need to get into details so that others might overhear. Gossip in the form of prayer is still gossip. Scripture has made it clear that God despises when people back bite and do harm to those who are already down (Obadiah 9-12 and James 4:11). Some might ask, “What if they broke the law or did something really bad?” Generally speaking, you are not obligated to disclose someone’s personal information unless they revealed plans to bring harm to themselves or to other people, or are have told you about an abuse situation. However, different professions have different rules of confidentiality and laws vary from state to state. You’ll have to do some additional research based on your profession and where you live. The point is that it is an honor and a privilege when someone lets us into the reality of their struggles and pain; therefore, we should honor the person and keep the conversation confidential.

4.    Build Boundaries

Lastly, you will need to establish boundaries. To be clear, establishing boundaries is not the same as putting up walls. Relational walls prevent us from experiencing intimacy, while boundaries keep our relationships safe and healthy. Both you and the individual need to understand that you are neither a 911 call nor a free personal therapist. You have a family, other obligations and a life of your own. I know from experience that a relationship with no boundaries can turn into an abusive or manipulative relationship real fast. That is not okay. If the person’s situation is serious and he/she is continually in need of help, there is nothing wrong with referring him/her to a professional who is more equipped to help. Even more, if someone of the opposite sex wants to confide in you, it would be in both of your best interests to refer the person to someone of his/her sex. Girls would understand girls much better and the same goes for guys. You also don’t want to risk getting feelings involved, because you don’t want to be his/her escape during hard times. The goal here is to bring him/her closer to Christ, not closer to you so that sparks might fly. By setting proper boundaries, you’re also giving the Holy Spirit more room to meet your friend’s needs. God through his Spirit can bring more comfort, counsel and correction than we ever could. Establish boundaries, learn to refer people to others, and trust that the person will be in God’s care.

Additionally, a good verse to keep in mind is Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Think about how you would want someone to treat you if you came to that person broken and in need of someone to talk to. What would help you get through the difficulty that you’re facing? I want to share this article because I know that there are countless people all around us going through various types of struggles and hardships. I also know that opening up about one’s situation can be just as scary as facing the situation itself. That’s why I hope that by becoming better listeners, we will see more people come out of isolation and experience the love and compassion that they need. By doing so, we would be representing our God in a way that truly honors him.