Fill ‘er Up

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.” Colossians 1:24-26

Right after I got married, I gave up computer software updates and PC troubleshooting for something a bit more… down to earth, you could say. I needed work in my new hometown, and since employers weren’t tracking me down and forcing jobs on me, I gravitated toward the only available option: construction. With a booming housing market at the time, finding enough to do wasn’t a problem.

But finding motivation was a problem. Going from a specialized, higher paying job in computers, where I mostly sat at my desk all day, to cleaning up cinder blocks, wrestling with insulation, and scrubbing windows—that was quite the humbling thing. Honestly, I’d never had to do any real manual labor in my life before that. (Yes, I was coddled.) The heat and pain and bloodied hands were all new to me.

The first few weeks, after a particularly arduous day of gophering around the jobsites, I’d come home and crash on the living room floor. My muscles weren’t used to the beating they took, and they made sure I knew about it.

Slowly, however, with all the wood slinging and nail pounding and putty slapping, things changed. The nights of carpet collapses became less frequent, and my hands didn’t split open nearly as often (unless you count the numerous times I stabbed myself with a chisel). In fact, I came to enjoy the process of seeing something come together, seeing a house take shape.

My spiritual growth has come in a similar fashion—just without the splinters. At first, the failures dragged me down and beat me up. The rejections when I tried to share my newfound faith stung. The transformation cut deep. But as I grew and as God worked in me, something changed. The pain still stings and the transformation still cuts (that never stops), yet I began to see the pain as an important part of the overall process. Christ is building something in me—and in His Church.

As humans, we all suffer. But as Christians, we fill up on suffering. Sounds bad, but the point is that instead of us letting the suffering go to waste, God uses it for the good of other believers (and our own). He takes the pain and makes it passion, passion that spills out as love for our brothers and sisters.

We each serve as a breathing example of the gospel played out in real life. Our pain and restoration make us a family like nothing else can.

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Why Paul Wasn’t a Zombie

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Colossians 1:28-29

Worn out. Exhausted. Please oh please oh please be Friday. Those words probably describe many of our weeks—often by Monday afternoon. The surge of the weekday tide sucks us under and spins us around and strips away our energy by making us swim to the surface over and over again. Gasp. Bills. Gasp. Long meeting. Gasp. Kids biting each other.

What more can we give than that? What else can God expect from us than just trying to keep from drowning in the mess of life?

Paul says everything and more. Yep, you read that right. We’re supposed to slap down every last ounce of ourselves to the cause of Christ. We’re supposed to surrender every modicum of ourselves to the purpose of “proclaiming Him” with our joy-filled words and our peace-in-the-midst-of-this-hurricane-called-life actions.

Everything. Every single bit. For Him.

Feeling tired yet? I hope you don’t. You see, there’s something in here that we too often overlook. It does take energy—loads of it—to live a life of surrender. We wouldn’t expect anything less from being a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). That means using all that we are to make all that He is known to all. But even with all those alls, you won’t be using up your energy.

Look again at what Paul says here: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” He doesn’t say, “I did it all myself until I burned out and crashed into the dirt and hated my life and decided it was just too hard to do anything and wanted to move to Alaska forever and hide in a cave.” Instead, he tells us that the source of his oomph is Christ.

Christ didn’t save us so that we could barely keep going, dragging our way like zombies down the road of life. Instead, we’re operating with power—His. He jump-started our lives with a spirit of power (2 Timothy 1:7), cranking up the juice through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). After all, like Paul, we’re wrestling with the tasks God’s called us to do. We aren’t supposed to do this by tapping into our own reserves. God takes these fragile clay pots that we are and supplies His power so that He gets the glory (2 Corinthians 4:7). He adds the zing, and His zing is potent.

When you try to make it all work on your own guts and grit, you’ll eventually drain down and sputter out. Instead, take Him up on His “by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6) thing—that is, not your own strength. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get tired or weary. You will. But you can be sure that He specializes in renewing the worn out and exhausted (Isaiah 40:30-31).

There’s a Title for That

Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of who Jesus is:

  • The Word: He pitched His tent with us and put flesh on God’s promises (John 1)
  • Son of God: He’s got the whole world in His hands (Matthew 16:16)
  • Son of Man: He knows our sorrows up close and personal (Matthew 17:12)
  • Son of David: He loved His people, even if they didn’t recognize Him (Matthew 1:1; John 1)
  • Teacher: He tells us exactly what we need, even if it’s not what we want to hear (John 3:2)
  • Prophet: He told us what would and will happen (Deuteronomy 18:15; Matthew 13:57)
  • Provider: He can make a little go a long way (Mark 6:30-44)
  • Mediator: He’s right in the middle of our struggles and pleading our case (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15)
  • Suffering Servant: He got busted up for us (Isaiah 53)
  • Lamb of God: He put sin in a full-nelson and made death cry uncle (John 1:29)
  • Lion of Judah: He can take care of His enemies with just His roar (Revelation 5:5, 19:21)
  • Counselor: He’s the cure for our addictions and struggles (Isaiah 9:6)
  • Prince of Peace: He signed—in blood—the peace treaty between God and us (Isaiah 9:6)
  • Immanuel: He never gets tired of being with us (Isaiah 7:14)
  • King of Kings: He’s got the power (Revelation 17:14)
  • The Way: He ain’t got no time for wishy-washy “all roads” arguments; He’s it (John 14:6)
  • The Truth: He puts the lie in our “true for you” follies (John 14:6)
  • The Life: He resuscitates hearts that were hardened by sin (John 14:6, 20:31)
  • Good Shepherd: He patiently and lovingly tracks down His runaways (Luke 15:4; John 10:11)
  • True Vine: He nurtures us to fruitfulness (John 15:4-5; Romans 7:4)
  • Friend of Sinners: He offers grace to those stumbling around in darkness (Matthew 11:9)
  • Balm of Gilead: He binds up our wounds by the scars on His back (Jeremiah 8:22; Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24)
  • Giver of the Spirit: He sent the One who makes the journey alongside us and leads us into truth (John 14)
  • Light of the World: He sends photons to those who’ve been blinded by the god of this age (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 2 Corinthians 4:4)
  • Intercessor: He never stops praying for us (Isaiah 53:12; John 17)
  • Great High Priest: He took care of all the Temple work (Hebrews 7)
  • The Bread/Water of Life: He’s our daily nutritional requirement for a spiritually balanced life (John 6; Revelation 21:6)
  • Alpha and Omega: He gets the first and last word… always (Revelation 22:13)
  • Lord of Glory: He makes angels belt out never-ending praises (Psalm 24, 103:20; James 2:1)
  • Firstborn among the Dead: He paved the path that leads to His place (Colossians 1:18)

Jesus has so many titles because He fulfills all our needs. Wherever you are in life, whatever you need, He’s got it covered. As my father-in-law sometimes says, “Jesus picked up His cross and said, ‘Hang on to Me. We’re going through.’”

My Alien Brain

“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” Colossians 1:21-22

The first migraine hit me in middle school. While wrapping up some pre-algebra problems, a fuzzy, white spot kept covering up the numbers. I’d blink and rub my eyes and try to work around it, but the spot hovered there for most of the class. Being the well-reasoned adolescent that I was, I naturally assumed what seemed logical: I was about to die of a massive stroke.

I obviously didn’t die. But when the spot finally did go away, I wished it had stayed.

Stomach-curling, fist-clenching, world-bending pain plopped down into my cranium and threw some sort of headache party. After an hour or so, I couldn’t take it anymore. I told the skeptical school nurse that I thought I had a “migration headache,” which didn’t ease her skepticism. Still, she let me go home.

Just to complete the headache humiliation, I got sick right outside the school (so that all the classes on that side of the building could watch), fell asleep as soon as I got home, and woke up with a throbbing head. Migraines don’t like to go without a fight. They kick and scream into that good night.

My own head revolted against me for several years after that. If I didn’t get enough sleep or got hit with too much stress, the spot would make a comeback. I did learn to lessen the pain sometimes by closing my eyes as soon as the fuzz sprang into view, but that didn’t always work.

Truthfully, the migraines were the least of my problems. My un-reconciled brain, the one that had no understanding of Christ, had revolted from God. Instead of fuzzy spots as warning signs, there were evil deeds, as Paul calls them. I played on others’ emotions to get my way, used girlfriends as my personal trophy case, spent hours and hours on the kinds of websites that wouldn’t make it through a work Internet filter, and generally wasted my gifts. The pain that resulted from those “spots” wasn’t just inwardly focused—it left quite the burning trail in its wake.

My alien brain knew nothing else then. It wanted nothing better. It was pretty much dead.

That’s exactly the reason Christ’s reconciling, restoring death still astounds me. This gray matter, so unresponsive to anything spiritual, came to life with God’s preceding grace. He kept hitting me and kept hitting me until I finally gave up, followed His Son, and stopped being an alien.

What You Should Do

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:10-12)

Hundreds of times I’ve found myself bemoaning some predicament or difficult decision. Often, I’m on the floor and staring up at the ceiling. Although the words may vary somewhat, they all pretty much amount to this:

“God, can’t you just tell me what to do?”

I’m a planner. So, what I really mean is this: “If You could just spell out every step for the next few months—or years—that’d be great. Maybe a detailed list?”

What I keep forgetting is that God already did that. He even put it all in a list for me in Colossians. Sure, it isn’t exactly a step-by-step guide, but close enough. His planner for our daily life goes like this:

Bearing fruit in every good work: Since He’s prepared good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), that makes this one even more straightforward. But how can we identify these? By…

Growing in the knowledge of God: He’s the one who prepared these good works. So, He’s the one we should cozy up to and learn from through His Word and consistent communication. And when we do, we get some boom to go with it…

Being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might: God is radioactive. As we walk in those good works by getting to know Him, His power rubs off. True, we don’t get the X-Men glowing face like Moses, but we can still put on quite the light show (Matthew 5:16). You get that power…

So that you may have great endurance and patience: When good works flow from our knowledge of God and His strength, we suddenly care a lot less about those worries that used to drag us down. We can endure because God’s Kingdom is present in our life right now (Matthew 6:33). With such a focus, that means we should be…

Joyfully giving thanks to the Father: Rolling in those pre-prepared good works with God-strength and God-focus makes us want to do the God-is-good electric slide (your results and dance moves may vary). We just can’t keep our mouths shut because He…

Has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light: In fact, that’s the biggest, boldest thing on our God-given to-do list. We do the good works He’s planned with His strength and our eyes on Him, all because He qualified us.

So many times I want God to spell things out for me each step of the way. And sometimes He does. But most often, He points me—gently or not so gently—back to Colossians. I’ve been given instructions for the day-to-day race that will one day end with Him. Faith means leaving the details in His hands.

No Empty Labor

On the surface, Ecclesiastes paints a pretty morbid picture about human labor. Here’s ol’ Solomon’s pep rally:

What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (1:3)

So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (2:20)

And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (4:4)

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. (5:15)

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun–all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (9:9)

I’m sure you can relate. Day by day, you swim through a tidal wave of emails, swing a hammer, or stare at the same spot in the assembly line you’ve been looking at for months. You’re glad to have the work, of course, but no matter how much you get done, it’s as if you never really make any progress at all. Tomorrow, those emails will be there, nails will still need to be smacked in, and the assembly line will keep churning along.

Sometimes, all you can really think is this: The job pays for the car that you need to get to the job. “Chasing after the wind,” indeed.

In some sense, nothing brings us more face to face with the Fall of humanity than work. In toil we see how the earth no longer produces like it once did (Genesis 3). In bitterness we see how “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16) can get us stuck on an endless uphill treadmill. In sorrow we can easily get burned (and burned out) by life “under the sun.” If our eyes can see no farther than “this world,” our work has nothing to offer beyond a paycheck.

But under the Son, labor takes on a completely different dimension—a Kingdom dimension. No, that doesn’t mean work suddenly becomes always awesome. It means that we recognize work as part of our calling, our marching orders to make Jesus-followers wherever we are. The true labor isn’t in email or hammers or assembly lines; it’s in throwing out nets and harvesting grain. We are where we are as a sliver of light to those around us.

Christ answered Solomon’s questions from all those years before. Carpenters, fishermen, tentmakers, shepherds, clothiers, tax collectors, soldiers, priests, and beggars, all found what gain there is in labor. It’s not empty toiling under the sun at all. It’s Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

Captain Lazy Eye

 “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” Colossians 1:6

My right eye decided to be lazy as a child. While the left eye absorbed light rays and churned out superb images in my brain, the right one kicked back, yawned, and took most days off. In an attempt to correct the imbalance, my optometrist had me wear a patch each evening that forced my right eye to pitch in. So, as you might imagine, I ran around the house being a pirate—even though the patch looked more like an oversized bandage than something a scallywag might wear.

But the Captain John routine didn’t fix the problem. My amblyopia—or lazy eye—mutinied and refused to work harder. A thick lens in my glasses didn’t do it either, and contacts weren’t an option, since I can’t stand anything getting close to my corneas. To this day, I can’t really make out those nifty 3D effects in posters or movies, and when I’m tired, I sometimes see two overlapping images of the same person—one clear, one blurry.

I’ve lived with the lazy eye for so long that I don’t really notice it now. The left eye keeps on doing the heavy lifting without a hiccup, and unless I close it, I see just fine. But when the left eye gets blurry for some reason, that’s when things get ugly. At least, they look that way to my much-impaired vision.

How I view global Christianity is just about as lazy as my right eye. You see, I’ve had this naïve assumption for much of my life that as American (or even local) faith goes, so goes the gospel around the world. I see the local scene clearly enough, but everything else comes in blurry—if I even look at all. “Persecution” means being talked to meanly or not getting the result in a court case that I wanted. “Worship” means a Sunday morning experience with a building that needs to be just the right temperature. “Fellowship” means getting stuffed with a potluck array of meats, veggies, and 30 kinds of banana pudding.

Meanwhile, the gospel flourishes happily in Asia and Africa and even Europe without one whit of similarity to my own local preferences. Thousands cram into much-too-hot buildings, laugh, shout, and dance on the way up to the offering basket. Others break bread and eat inside the ruins of a burned out church building. Some whisper praises and prayers so that they won’t be overheard. And they all worship the same Christ I do.

“All over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing,” Paul said. Unlike me, his eyes weren’t lazy. He could see that God kept moving the good news express from one place to another, kept transforming lives, kept ripping people out of the kingdom of darkness.

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Colossians 1:13-14