Words of Lament: How 3 Of Our Children Died In 3 Days

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On July 15th of this year, my wife Whitney was urgently rushed to a hospital in Detroit, Michigan. At the time, she was 20 weeks pregnant with triplets. Doctors informed us that her cervix had opened, that there was a bulging sac and that the babies were going to be delivered far too premature that evening. 

I stayed the night at the hospital with Whit and no babies were delivered. We call that an answered prayer. 

The next morning I read through Proverbs chapter 16 where the first line says, 

We can make our own plans, but the Lord gives the right answer. 

Our plans, our dreams, as a married couple, was to have my wife become pregnant, experience pregnancy and give birth. It had been a desire on her heart for most of her life. 

Unable to conceive naturally, years into our marriage we have pursued in-vitro fertilization via embryo adoption four times. 

Attempt #1: Chemical pregnancy (false positive)

Attempt #2: Chemical pregnancy (false positive)

Attempt #3: Conception (miscarriage at 9 weeks)

Attempt #4: Conception (pregnant with 3 fetuses)

With each attempt there are mountains of paperwork, finances, medication, injections and prayer. But the dream we had to expand our family and love on another child was all worth it without a question. 

This past April was when we found out Whit was pregnant with triplets, and we were ecstatic. Not only was there hope of a baby coming, but it was threefold. The magnanimity overshadowing this attempt was that we were told this would be the last chance at pregnancy after three previous unsuccessful ones. 

Sure there was a pandemic starting, and school was canceled, and our family was moving out of state, but we couldn’t stop praising God for an answered prayer as Whit’s pregnancy prolonged through the first trimester with three healthy babies. 

When she was 19 weeks pregnant, we announced the exciting news to social media. Five days later she was a high risk patient in the hospital with doctors telling us the babies were coming too early and there wasn’t much they could do. 

Five days after that, her water broke. The doctors told us the babies were going to be born any minute, yet for the next 12 days no babies were born. We call that an answered prayer. 

On July 31, at 1:39AM, 16 days after Whit was first put on bed rest in the hospital, a child was delivered. A baby girl was born at 22 weeks and 2 days. She came out still born and we were able to hold her and cry and thank God for her. 

The concern at that point was that Whit would get infected. If she showed signs of fever or a high white blood cell count, the other two babies would have to be induced because at that point the situation would be life-threatening to Whit. Her health was primary to us. 

Later on July 31st, her fever spiked to 102.9° and she started having chills. At that point it was a no brainer, Whit was given medication to give birth to the other two babies. 

On August 1st, the other two babies were delivered. At 4:20pm another baby girl was born at 22 weeks and 3 days. She came out and gave one exhale and eventually within minutes had no heart rate. We were able to hold her and cry and thank God for her. 

11 minutes later a son was born. He had a heart rate and had low oxygen levels but came alive out of the womb. He was rushed to the NICU immediately. His weight was just under 1 pound. 

Over the first hours of his life he was put on a ventilator, and then another ventilator and a third ventilator. He was given two blood transfusions, given sugar, caffeine, hydrochloride, saline and multiple doses of dopamine. 

He was considered by the nurse first in charge of his care to be a fighter and ended up fighting for 17 hours, dying at 9:40AM, August 2nd. The last moments of his life Whit and I were able to hold our son and cry and thank God for him in our lives. 

Sometimes God blesses parents to love their kids for a lifetime, sometimes for a day.

Three babies, all three dead on three different days due to being too early in birth. During our time in the hospital, we were constantly educated that if the babies could make it in the womb until 23-25 weeks, there was a good chance at their survival. That was our prayer, and our three children almost made it to that goal.   

We can make our own plans, but the Lord gives the right answer. (Proverbs 16:1)

Hadassah Lynne, born and dead July 31. Her name means: One who brings joy, of the church. 

Beatrix Tyler, born and dead August 1. Her name means: One who brings happiness, home builder. 

Samuel Dominic, born August 1, dead August 2. His name means: The Lord heard, of the Lord. 

The most amazing moment happened on Samuel’s first and only night on this earth. While in the incubator, his heart rate was dramatically dropping around 11:30pm. The doctors were doing everything they could but things looked grim. They asked me to go get Whit since she hadn’t seen or met him yet. 

When Whit got to the NICU, she asked if she could touch Samuel. With her two hands around his tiny head and chest, over the course of an hour, his heart rate, blood oxygen level and pulse all went up to the best they ever would be during his 17 hours of life. The doctors were amazed. We call that an answered prayer. 

There is a lot of confusion, loss and sadness right now, but rather than focus on those things at this time, let me give you the other answered prayers we were able to experience: 

  • Our dream was for Whit to get pregnant, to experience pregnancy, to go into labor and all of those things occurred. 
  • Being in love with having daughters, I had prayed for a son to see what that was like. Out of the three babies who died, our son survived birth as we were able to know him and hold him.
  • Each day Whit was on bedrest, with each healthy ultrasound given, the doctors kept telling us that something beyond science was happening. Again, they said on July 15th the babies were coming and to see Whit be prayed for and to watch her fight for the chance at life was beyond anything they had seen. We like it when faith and science work together and medical professionals noticed. 
  • My wife and I have been a praying couple in our marriage, but at no other time in our relationship had we prayed together, cried out to God together more than these past few weeks. It’s an intimate thing to pray with your spouse. We were able to tangibly feel God’s care for us by doing so. 
  • Our church stepped up to love on us practically during the 18 days of bedrest. They made meals for our family, mowed our yard, took care of our kids, sent flowers, gave gifts and kept checking in letting us know we were prayed for. 
  • Our witness for Christ was known throughout the entire hospital by nurses, doctors and administrative workers. With all of the sorrow, tears and loss, the hugs given to us came with comments like “We have never seen a couple with more resolve, faith and gratitude than you two.” Every new nurse that came in to care for Whit, they had already known about Whit’s joyous and kind spirit even while going through the scariest trial of her life. My faith in God grew and my love for her increased just by watching her character in hardship.  

During Whit’s time in the hospital, she would write in her gratitude journal, listing things she was grateful for to God rather than worrying about the future in the worst way. She would write thank you cards to express her gratitude to others while they were serving us in this time. She would read her Bible, listen to worship songs, read a book about anxiety, write encouraging notes for our two older daughters and always would uplift the spirit of the nurses and doctors checking on her. 

To see her be bedridden enduring all the IV’s and blood tests and morphine and pain and the bed pans and the lack of showering and the inability to sleep a full night and the concerns of a dream dying, to know the pressure she felt even though none of what occurred was anything she did or didn’t do, to know this was her last attempt at IVF, with all that going on, those able to witness her faith in God completely floored them. 

I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. (Philippians 1:12)

Since Hadassah’s death, I have been walking a little slower. 

Walking around the hospital God brought to mind a memory of my father that expressed the emotions I was having. 

When I was in the 6th grade, my father, a pastor, came into my bedroom the week before Christmas. He was wearing a suit and tie and he asked me to get dressed up. It was 10AM and I argued with him stating I wanted to stay home in my scrub clothes and watch TV. He kept asking me to get dressed. I finally gave in as I came downstairs in wrinkled khakis and a sweater. We got into his Chevy Blazer and drove off. 

My dad didn’t tell me where we were going even though I kept asking. 30 minutes later we pulled into a hospital. My dad grabbed his Bible from the back seat, and he and I walked into the cancer wing of a Cincinnati hospital. 

Over the next hour I witnessed my father officiate a wedding inside a hospital room. The patient, a dad with cancer, had the dream of walking his daughter down the aisle. His daughter was engaged to be married in six months, in June. Plans changed when the father had been told earlier that week that he only had days to live. 

So this dad could see his daughter be married and get to be a part of one of the biggest, joy-filled days of her life, my father showed up to the hospital room in December to officiate, as tears mixed with sadness by all were falling in the room. 

Had I remained lazy and whiney at home earlier that day, I would’ve not of only missed out on the emotion I felt that day, but also what my dad said when we got back into the car. 

My dad said, with tears in his eyes, “Z……I hate death……..but I love you and I love Jesus.” 

Twenty years later, on his own deathbed due to cancer, after he had walked his daughter down the aisle just two months before, I said to my father, “Dad, I hate death, but I love you and I love Jesus.” 

And with the death of three children in three days, it’s the exact sentiment I have. 

I hate death. I hate it. 

As people are unsure how to respond to our pain currently, we have heard that this is part of God’s plan. Our 8 year old, after initially hearing her siblings are dead, cried out to us, “How could something this horrible be part of God’s plan? I thought God is loving?”  

He is loving, but I had no words for her in the moment. Yes, it could be viewed as God’s plan for our family, a purpose we may never visually realize going forward, but there is also an evil side to this. There is an unseen but not unfelt wicked presence in our world. The devil’s only obsession each and every day is to hurt God by hurting us. 

I don’t understand how people go through the brokenness in this world without Jesus. How do people do it without His love and without a longing for heaven, a place where there is no pain or sadness?

Yes, I hate death. But still, I love people and I love Jesus so much. 

Thanks for reading and I thank you for prayers for my wife and myself as we move forward in grief and gratitude. 

Z

How Change Happens In Culture (What You Can Do And Not Do To Help)

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Indulge me for a moment because this might not make sense until I explain it a bit. 

Many Christians don’t know how to change the culture around them. We get frustrated because we feel helpless and overwhelmed and confused. We say, I don’t like the way the world is, I wish it was different. But what can I do? 

What Christians unwisely do is they react to culture by dividing it into sides. 

They say, We have the Christians over here on my side, the Christians are the good guys, they wear white hats, God loves them more. And on the opposite side we’ve got the non-Christians, the sinful people, the bad people, they wear the black hats.

The Christians declare a cultural war on the non-Christians. 

But the Bible doesn’t teach that. Your spiritual beliefs and your church home shouldn’t buy into the good guys verses the bad guys. 

There’s only one good Guy, His name is Jesus. The rest of us, we’re all bad guys. There is one white hat in the entire Bible, it’s worn by Jesus. One Person rides the white horse, and it’s Jesus. 

Every other person is bad. Most bad people die without Jesus, some bad people are forgiven and will live forever with Jesus. 

The church believes in equal rights, meaning, everyone is with sin. Everyone. You, me, your church elders, your grandma, Tim Tebow, the Duggars, the Trumps, Duck Dynasty, Desperate Housewives, the Pope, Dave Ramsey – all stained by sin. All loved by God. And only a few trust in Jesus as Lord and are cleansed. 

Not everything has to be an upstream battle. I don’t see any evidence in the book of Acts, when the first century Christians are being arrested and beaten and killed for loving Jesus, there’s not one meeting where a revolt is planned against Caesar. 

So today, yes, prayer will be taken out of schools and God will be taken out of the pledge of allegiance and abortions will remain legalized and people will be arrested for feeding the homeless and same-sex marriages will be law and no-fault divorce is easy and Islam is growing fast on college campuses and the racial discord in our country is horrific. Somewhere there’s a Christian fighting all of these issues.

In the latter part of the book of Genesis, when Joseph gets to Egypt, God is with him. He looks around and there is plenty to be unhappy about. There is plenty to be disappointed and angry about. Rather than being discussed and declaring war on Egypt in the name of his God, he serves people and blesses them. That’s what the early church does too. They didn’t attack the Roman government. They trusted God was in control and served the people around them. 

Historically, in our country’s history, if people are going to go upstream and change something in culture, they’ll have a march. The Civil Rights movement was very effective. The church, not so much.

The church is like, Everyone is sleeping with everyone. They’re all perverted. Abortions and divorce and same-sex relations and cohabitation is running rampant. We’re going on a walk to change things. We will make poster board signs and bring megaphones and gather all the other people who are angry like us. 

And the Christians walk, walk, walk for Jesus. March for Jesus. Sign the petition for Jesus. Complain on Facebook for Jesus. 

I’m not against walking for Jesus, but the non-Christians don’t look at the Christians marching and think, Oh man, we’ve got to change the way we’re living! We’ve got to change the laws we’re instituting! We’ve got to change the music and the movies we’re making! Quick! How can we start over? They’re walking!!!!! They’re posting on social media!!!!!!!

God doesn’t need you to walk for Him. God needs you to walk with Him. 

God doesn’t want you to fight others. God wants you to love and serve others. 

We need to be in the world, not of it. Love the world, don’t fight it.

See, we turn on the radio, but we don’t get to decide what bands are signed. We turn on the TV, but we don’t get to decide which shows are on. We enjoy Thanksgiving with loved ones but we don’t get to decide which stores are open. We like to read, we don’t get to decide what gets published and what doesn’t. We don’t get to make the laws. We pay our taxes but don’t get to decide how much we’re taxed. All of those decisions are made way upstream by a select few people sitting high up in culture. 

And more recently, we can’t control much during Covid-19 except wash our hands continually. 

And more seriously, we don’t decide which police officers are hired, approved and trained. 

If we really want to change culture, it’s not going to be during big events with Christians in a big room chanting, We love Jesus, yes we do. I’m not against the marching or the big events, but we’ve got to realize that there are cultural gatekeepers who shift culture and education and laws and influence others. 

And the church yelling downstream at the people they think are wearing the black hats (while they view themselves as wearing the white hat) isn’t going to change anything for God. 

If we declare war downstream, we don’t get to move upstream. 

We’re not going to compromise on God’s law and truth, but we’re also not going to judge, hate or gossip (how many people in here slander a politician over them compared to how much they pray for them?). 

We can’t hate and gossip and judge. Instead we must love others, serve others, have integrity, be generous, pray for God to put holy people in those cultural gatekeeper chairs. 

In Genesis, Joseph has been a blessing to people and faithful to God and now God has put him upstream. Joseph decides the law, he decides all things food and property rights and taxation and education and he affects the lives and the betterment of millions of people. 

With Joseph ruling, how many God-fearing people are in Egypt? 

One. Just Joseph. 

If he had shown up and declared war and fought for everything and slandered non-Christians, he’d never be upstream. He shows up to Potiphar’s house and asks, How can I be a blessing to you? And Potiphar puts him in charge. He’s put in jail and he says, How can I be a blessing to this jail? And he’s put in charge. They give him, a prisoner, the keys to the prison. He’s brought in front of Pharaoh and he just wants to know how can he improve Pharaoh’s day, and he’s put in charge. 

Not once does he fight, or complain, or lose his temper. As a result, God guides him upstream, because he doesn’t declare war on those who are downstream. If we’re shrewd and wise and always loving and always generous and always forgiving, who knows what God could do through us. 

If we believe God has taken care of us, then we will take care of others. 

When Jesus shows up on the scene, He says, I’m a servant. Be a servant. The apostle Paul says, I serve Christ. We need to be a servant to all. It’s not that we compromise, okay, you should know I love truth more than anyone, we don’t compromise, but instead of fighting and whining, we pray, we love, we’re generous. We show God has been good to us and that He loves everyone. 

If you strongly desire to change the culture around you in a God-honoring way, serve and bless the people downstream from you (the marginalized) and pray for the people upstream (the cultural gatekeepers).

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z 

Ending Loneliness: The Power of Relational Connection

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There’s an academic peer review journal called, The Journal of Happiness Studies. Researchers for the journal are trying to figure what is it that makes a human life flourish. What produces joy? What makes a life content? 

When looking at what distinguishes very happy people from less happy people, they find that there is the one factor, one difference, that consistently separates those two groups.

What’s the one difference that distinguishes more happy from less happy people?

It’s not income.
It’s not the size of the home one lives in.
It is not health.
It’s not what kind of shape one’s body is in. 
It’s not attractiveness.
It is not IQ.
It is not career success.

What distinguishes consistently happier people from less happy people is the ongoing presence of rich, deep, meaningful relationships with other human beings.

If you look at the mission of the church, we want to connect people to Jesus, and we want to connect them to other Christians and we want to connect them to the community. At her basic core, the church’s mission is to make sure no one around us is lonely. 

The neighborhoods we live in should be a places where the word lonely doesn’t exist. Yet, loneliness is an epidemic. It’s a growing concern. 

There’s a book entitled, “Bowling Alone”. It’s written by Robert Putnam, a professor at the Harvard Business School, so we assume he knows what he’s talking about. The book is about the decline of relationships and close friendships, and the increasing rate of loneliness in the United States, over the past 25 years.

Where we all were 25 years ago is a different world today.
Some stats in this book are this:  

Family dinners are down 33%. 

Active families tend to eat without dad because he’s working a lot, or they eat food cooked by a 16 year old after ordering it through a drive-thru window and then it’s off to practice for the kids. Instead of being intentional with our evenings, we watch television while eating. We could be catching up on how our loved one’s day went. 

Having the neighbors over for dinner or dessert or coffee or for a game or for a walk, it’s down 33% than what it was 25 years ago. 

How many of us know our neighbors? Not just their name or what kind of dog they have. Not just a friendly wave. Do you know them closely? Or are they lonely because you haven’t invited them over yet? 

I was convicted a few years ago and my wife and I put our home up for sale. We had an open house that we weren’t present for but our realtor told us that the neighbors on our street came to the open house. They weren’t interested in buying our home, they were just curious to see what it looked like on the inside.

Because we had never had them over for dinner. 

Having friends over to the home just to be with one another is down 45%. 

I hope we as Christians are people who practice hospitality and enjoy the company of one another to the point that weekly we have people we love and care about over to our home just to hang out. No agenda but to check in.

Playing cards together is down 25%. 

Playing cards is not about winning, it’s about catching up and laughing and catching up with one another.

The readiness to make friends by the average American is down 33%.  

Our children are young in age, but a simple principle I am encouraging to engrave in their thoughts and habits is if they see someone at school alone – at lunch, on the playground, on the bus – that they are the ones who should initiate a conversation and befriend that child who’s alone. I want them to be includers.

People want closeness, they want friends, they want to be social, but because they’re afraid or not as confident, they become isolated and lonely from the world. 

Everyone craves to have a friend but no one wants to take the first step. Everyone deep down wants to be honest and loved for who they really are but no one wants to be vulnerable. 

In 1995 Americans had 3 close friends. Now, today, they have 2. In a matter of time they’ll have one and then it will just be them. Alone. By themselves. 

25% of Americans have no one to confide in. 

When life is hard and the stress is high and the pain is overwhelming, what happens when a person with all of that weight feels unloved and believes they have no one to go to?

If people are lonely and they’re created for relationships and they feel like they have no one to confide in, who are they going to turn to? 

All it takes for a girl to trust a guy is the fact that he listens to her, because she’s got no one to confide in. He’ll listen to her, and then take advantage of her. 

If people have no one to trust, they turn to just anyone around them and that gets them onto a dangerous path. 

Or, the lonely person with no one to share their struggle with will turn to drinking, or pornography, or binge on Netflix or take sleeping pills. 

Go to a coffee house and observe the increase of isolation in our community. Count the amount of people by themselves verses people enjoying one another’s company. More and more, coffee houses are places where you buy mediocre coffee, open up your laptop, listen to some music on your headphones and ignore the people sitting close to you. 

That’s not why coffee houses were started. They were supposed to be a place of community.

It’s also not why the church started. The church is supposed to be a place of community. 

What I’m pointing through statistics is that people are more lonely than ever. 

Some of you are lonely. You’re married, but you feel lonely. You have beautiful kids, but you’re lonely. You have a job that provides, but you’re lonely. You’re retired, and lonely. You’re broken-hearted and lonely.

And if not you, the people around you are lonely. They are close to you in proximity but they are far away from others relationally.

What is the answer to our loneliness and the loneliness of the people around us? 

It’s the power of connection.

A friend of mine was telling me about their dog and cat. The dog and the cat didn’t like each other. They seemed to fight for 10 years. Then, one year, the cat died and afterwards the dog didn’t want to eat. For 6 weeks the dog wouldn’t eat. 6 weeks after the cat died, the dog died. 

That’s the power of relational connection.

Earlier this month a couple in Michigan who were married for 70 years to each other died minutes apart.

That’s the power of relational connection.

People who are socially disconnected are between 2 and 5 times more likely to die earlier than those who have close ties to family and friend relationships. 

That’s the power of relational connection. 

People who have bad health habits like cigarette smoking, overeating, elevated blood pressure, physical inactivity, these people live longer when connected to others.  

People with bad health habits but that are connected, live longer than people who have great health habits but are disconnected and isolated.

The poster boy for this is Winston Churchill. 

Churchill was deeply connected with friends and family. He had a wonderful marriage with his wife, connected to his extended family, connected to his friends and his nation and those at his work. 

His health habits were terrible. 

His diet was awful. He smoked cigars all the time. He drank too much, had erratic sleeping habits and was completely sedentary but he lived to be ninety-one years old. 

Somebody asked him one time, “Winston Churchill, do you ever exercise? 

His response, “The only exercise I get is serving as a pallbearer for my friends who died while they were exercising. 

Now, I’m not advocating that if you have close relationships then you can smoke and eat and drink as much as you want. I am advocating that the best way to take care of yourself above eating right and sleeping right and exercising is to have close relationships.

Community takes a “don’t give up” spirit because it isn’t easy or natural. God will help us but still it is not easy. If you’re not in a little community of one anothers, for whatever reason, there are Christians around you who would love to help you move towards that connectedness. 

Putnam writes further, “As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but you decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.”

It’s’ the power of relational connection.

So, for a husband and wife, each side of the marriage needs to be vulnerable. They need to share what is stressing them out. They need to share what’s disappointing them. They need to pray together. 

For a parent-child dynamic, mom and dad need to be daily checking in with their child’s thoughts. What are they afraid of? Did something happen in the day that hurt them? How do their friendships look? Are they deep or shallow? 

For our friendships, it’s so much more than having a girls night out or playing poker with the guys. It’s one-on-one conversations where we visit with a friend and ask them questions like, Is there anything you need prayer for? Is there anything on your mind that you’d like to share? Is there something keeping you up at night? 

For our neighbors, (as Christians, we do not believe in coincidence, we live in the place we live on purpose, meaning, we live by the people we do for a reason) we need to invite these people over. 

Have them over for dinner. Have them over for a game night. Invite them to come with you to a community event. As you grow closer, ask them if you can help take care of their pet if they’ve traveling or babysit their child if they need a night away. See if there’s a talent you have that they don’t that you can help them out with (finances, yard work, cooking). Buy new neighbors a house-warming gift with a card of encouragement. Don’t let anyone in church sit alone. 

Anything little to start a loving relationship so that they don’t feel alone and you don’t either. 

Every life needs to be a part of another life. It starts with you. Overcome the fear of being rejected when you invite someone into your life or when you courageously decide to ask for help. Overcome the busyness of your schedule and the lackadaisical approach you have allowed your evenings and weekends to be, and invite people into your home. 

Your life and their life might depend on an act of kindness just to grow closer. 

Let us not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. (Hebrews 10:25)

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

Do People Who Commit Suicide Go To Heaven Or Hell?

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Suicide doesn’t have any national boundaries, or generational boundaries, or economic boundaries. It’s a phenomenon that transcends beyond any box we try to put it in. 

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
121 suicides occur in America each day. That’s 5 lives gone every hour.
For every suicide that is successful, 25 more are attempted unsuccessfully.
Men die of suicide 3 1/2 times more than women.
The highest rate of suicide is middle aged white males.
White males accounted for 7 out of 10 suicides in 2015.

When it comes to faith and eternal life, this is the question that is asked:    

Do people who commit suicide go to heaven or hell?

Suicide is a form of murder. Murder is a sin. Suicide is not an act of faith. It is an act of doubt that God still has good things in store for the individual in the future. It’s an act of disbelief that God loves them.

This is why the church must be a family that balances grace and truth. 

The more gracious people, (which can lead to shallowness), say those who commit suicide go to heaven because these people are full of love and mercy and want every to be in heaven. 

The more truthful people, (which can lean into legalism), say those who commit suicide go to hell because these people see things in black and white, that wrong is wrong and suicide is giving up on God.

If we say all are going to heaven, that might give someone suicidal permission to end their life believing they’ll be with Jesus, just wanting to leave the pain of this world. If we say all go to hell, that might depress a person even more, ushering them toward ending their life. 

In some reading I was doing earlier this year, a psychiatric professional said that there are two classifications of suicide. There is: 

Irrational Suicide
and there is
Considered Suicide

Irrational suicide is the act by someone with a serious, documented mental illness. 

Considered suicide is the act by someone with no mental illness. They’ve considered the act, they’re weighed the consequences and they still go through with the suicide. 

Does someone who kills themselves go to heaven or hell?

Just to give a couple of clarifiers: 

  1. Only people who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior go to heaven at all. 
  2. Only God truly knows who believes in His Son and who doesn’t. It is up to God who receives eternity with Him or eternity in hell.

But you think about an irrational or a considered suicide – someone who loves Jesus most of their life, serves Him and loves others for decades, becomes ill mentally or depressed along the way and in an impulsive or thought-out moment, they harm themselves and end their life  –  

Heaven or hell?

I would try to answer this question with a question: 

Are people saved eternally by faith or by their last action?

Let’s say a guy in need comes up to you on the street and asks if you’ve got any money to give to him. You say “no” but in reality your pockets are full of cash. The guy in need gets angry and shoots you. You lied to him, you’re dead, it wasn’t repented of, but you were a Christian. Heaven or hell? 

If you’re on the edge of a cliff and someone pushes you off, and on your way falling to your death, you curse the person who pushed you to death, and you’re a Christian, heaven or hell? 

If a man lusts after a woman and that excitement causes a heart attack and he dies, and he was a Christian, heaven or hell?

Is someone saved by their faith in Jesus or by their last action?

Romans 10:9 says that, If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

It’s either you believe in Jesus as Lord and believe He is alive today and can save you from your sins (heaven)  OR you don’t believe in Him (hell). The Bible doesn’t speak of the last action. God’s above time. He’s concerned about you being His child. 

Four years ago I got a call from a Christian couple in their 60’s. The husband asked me to come over because their son, at 2:00AM earlier that morning, in his parents front yard, shot himself in the head, committing suicide.

I still remember seeing the red stain of blood on the front lawn as I walked into the house. 

I had no answers. Nothing to offer. I was in the home for 3 hours and there was more silence than there was speech. The mother was a zombie in her mannerisms. The father just kept asking the same things over and over to me: Is he in heaven Zach? Is my son in heaven? 

Their son professed Jesus as Savior and Lord most of his life. He had even won national Bible competitions, had attended Bible college. Over and over the father asked, Is he in heaven, Zach?

It was a considered suicide. Only God knows what happened to his soul. God’s grace has unknown bounds. 

What were the actions daily? What was his faith like in the weeks, months leading up to his final action? Where was his heart, focused on Jesus or focused on disbelief? 

This is why we’ve got to talk with our loved ones about Jesus every day because they are bombarded with mixed messages from their friends/music/co-workers/culture itself/movies/their own temptations. Leaders, parents, teachers and those with influence have got to keep repeating this: 

Those who take a step toward Jesus find wisdom and life, and those who don’t find foolishness and ruin. 

The instinctive response when life is hurtful or confusing is to wave our finger at God and yell at Him, to ask Him where He is or why doesn’t He love us. When you hear your loved ones accuse God because of how their life is going, that is a step toward depressive illness, a step toward hurting themselves. Remind them of God’s love. Show them God’s love. Pray for them to know God’s unconditional love for them. Getting angry at God is a disservice to the full and good life He wants us to live, the life Jesus came to die and rise from death for us to have. 

God says in Proverbs 8:35 that, “Whoever finds Me finds life and receives favor.” 

God is life. As long as someone is still breathing, they can commit their all to Jesus and be freely forgiven. 

Which brings ultimate peace. 

I want everyone to experience and know the peace that comes from believing in Jesus. No more doubt. No more depressive thoughts. No more disbelief that God is against you. No more lies that no one loves you. Just Jesus. And when there is Jesus, there is life. 

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

3 Ways to Rid Envy

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Pastor Craig Groeschell says that, The fastest way to kill something special is to compare it to something else. 

At no other point in history than right now has there ever been so much opportunity to compare ourselves to others. It’s mainly because of this blessing and burden culture calls: social media. 

My ability to compare myself to others is so quick so because of social media. With one login I can see what “amazing” day everyone else is having, compared to how I am feeling at that moment. 

You log-on and see your friends out to lunch and you’re like, “Why wasn’t I invited?” 

You see pictures of people on their 4th vacation this year and you’re like, “I can’t even afford to go on a stay-cation. What are they doing on vacation number 4?”

And then there’s that classic picture of when your friend is on vacation and they’re sitting by the beach and they take a picture of their feet and the book they’re reading and they post it for all to see and you look at the picture and you’re like, “You know what, I hate those feet and I hate that book and I hate that beach.”

Envy: an evil, bitter emotion that easily rises up out of us at any moment. 

A verse in the New Testament says this: 

We’re not putting ourselves in a league with those who boast that they’re our superiors. We wouldn’t dare do that. But in all this comparing and grading and competing, they quite miss the point. (2 Corinthians 10:12)

Meaning, it’s straight up ridiculous for you to compare yourself to others, and then based on that comparison, to decide if you are good enough. 

We cannot faithfully follow Jesus if we’re always comparing ourselves to someone other than Jesus.

We’re fighting for our parents to notice us more than our siblings. We’re begging our friends or the opposite sex to notice us over others. We want our teachers and professors to see how smart and clever we are over other students. We want our boss and our co-workers to notice our our ideas successes. We want those who follow us on social media to see the great life we’re living. 

And it will never make us complete. 

To rid envy of your life, Jesus’ opinion of you has to matter more than anyone else’s. Pleasing Him has to matter more than pleasing anyone else. 

The reason why envy is damaging is when we compare ourselves to someone else, we either feel superior or we feel inferior.

Those aren’t godly emotions. 

Feeling better than someone or feeling worse than someone does not honor God (nor does it satisfy).

We look at someone and they’re not as put together or as seemingly strong and we think they don’t work as hard as we do or they’re not as likable as we are, not as smart. We think God has blessed us, not them. (We don’t say those things, but we feel them.) We feel superior. 

When we feel inferior is when we struggle with envy and jealousy. You look on instagram and someone else’s husband got them flowers or someone else’s kids made them breakfast in bed or someone else has a date or someone else got married or someone else got pregnant, again, or someone else got a promotion, someone else got to travel. We feel less than based on looking at instagram.

We go from instagram to insta-grumpy. 

Pastor Andy Stanley says, Our problem is we just want to live in the Land of “Er”.

We want to be rich-er, fast-er, bett-er, pretti-er, young-er.

And after we lived in the land of ER, we want to live in the land of “est”. Rich-est, prettiest, smartest, retweeted-est.

But neither being in the land of “Er”, or in the last of “Est”, neither feeling superior or inferior can satisfy the deep longing of our soul, nor do they enable us to live the life we were created to live. 

When the green monster of envy starts rising up in me or seeping out of me, there are a few things I do to help me focus on Jesus and stay in my lane. You can do these too.

Choose to Take a Social Media Fast

Every now and then you should take a break from social media. Some of you will go through the shakes, but it’s good to fast.

If one of the first things you do in the morning is look at facebook or instagram, you are setting yourself to have thoughts of, “I don’t have what they have”. 

I would suggest taking 3-5 days off. 40 straight days would be amazing, but at least choose a handful of days where you can recenter and pray and focus on Jesus and what He’s blessed you with.

Start and Keep a Gratitude Journal

Another thing I do is I write down what I am grateful for. 

This is a family practice. Before family dinner at night we talk about what we are grateful for that we experienced in our day. It calms our hearts after a day of being tempted to think we aren’t that good enough of a spouse, parent, child, student, worker when compared to others. We state aloud what we are sincerely grateful for. 

In addition, I have a running journal, and so does each member of my family, where we’ve written down what we am grateful for. When I am feeling envious or less-than, I go back and look through it and pray through thanking God for the things I’ve written down, even the trials. And when someone in my family is feeling envious or less-than, we get our their gratitude journal and look through what God has blessed us with.

It’s very healthy to list all the things God has given you in your life rather than assuming how much God has given everyone else in their lives that you don’t have. 

One more practice that has helped me suffocate envy in my life: 

Genuinely Celebrate the Success of Others

I have found that if I have someone in my life who pushes my buttons easily, aggravates me, or I’m jealous of them for whatever reason – when I choose to celebrate them,  all of those negative feelings toward them go away. Plus, I get to encourage them, which is a godly action. 

These things help me stay in my lane, keeping my focus on Jesus, not on the person to the left or right of me. If we’re going to compare our life to anyone, let’s make it Jesus’ and if we’re going to have an emotion toward anyone, let’s make it love, not envy.  

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

Raising Our Standard of Giving

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One of the highest ways you can love someone is to remove the obstacles in their path to following Jesus.

The highest way I can love you is to remove anything that stands between you and growing in Christ. If sin is in the way, I want to allow God to remove it by sharing truth. If worshipping a human like a child or a lover or a boss is in the way, I want to allow God to remove them in your heart by sharing Scripture. 

And if money is in the way of your spiritual growth, I desire strongly to show you from Scripture, that you will be free when you stop serving money and start serving God with your money. It’s not about using people to make money. It’s about using money to help people. 

Is money in the way between you and following Jesus more obediently?

I met with a newly married guy in the church for over a year. We met every other week when both schedules allowed it. We would catch up and go through the Bible. We met at Panera and were the only males in there every single time.

For the first 6 months, it was great learning Scripture together. The next couple of months we cranked it up a bit and not just held the other accountable to reading the Bible daily, but to also living out the Bible on a daily basis. 

I asked this question each time we got together, Is there sacrifice in your life? 

This is a good, needed, consistent question for the follower of Christ. To be Christ-like is to sacrifice, and if there’s no sacrifice in one’s life, then whatever area that comes to mind that isn’t being sacrificed, that area is still not like Jesus and it’s got to change. 

One time I asked him is, Is there sacrifice in your life – in terms of generosity and giving to God and others and the needy – is there sacrifice? 

After thinking about it and wondering if we were close enough to share some vulnerable things like money and giving, he said, No. Honestly, there’s not. God’s has blessed me and I’ve been putting $20 a month in the offering bag at church. but it’s no sacrifice. I spend more on golf balls than what I do to give back.

He then went home, talked to his wife about their casual, sporadic giving, and when we met again he said, Zach, for the sake of accountability, I want you to know I wrote a check that hurt. Since then he has been open about giving 10% of their income to their church as God continues to provide for them and since then they have chosen to support two sibling children in Haiti, and since then they have been more Christ-like than ever before.

He sent me a text a couple weeks ago that said, Zach, will you hold be accountable to consistent, sacrificial giving? Will you continue to ask me how our giving is going? And will you pray that God continues to provide as we continue to sacrifice? In a later text, he said, Will you pray I fully grasp the gift of sacrificial living? 

And I pray that for him. I pray that for my home. I pray it for you, that we understand the beauty and freedom and responsibility and gift of sacrificial living and giving.

Giving away your money is part of following Jesus. 

Chances are, there are some individuals and family units who give a good percentage of what God has given them, back to church or non-profits or those in need, but it’s not sacrificial. It doesn’t hurt. It’s easy. They barely think about it because it’s not a stretch. 

Maybe it’s time to evaluate and increase the amount and watch your faith grow.

Christian Smith wrote a book entitled, Passing the Plate in 2008. Up to today it’s the most comprehensive, eye-opening work that’s ever been done on Christians who give to the church. It’s a sociological work that set out to answer this question: Why are Christians in the U.S. so stingy? 

Smith shares a stat that says, More than 36% of American Christians give less than 2% of their income in each year.

That’s got me shaking my head.

Over 1/3 of the Christians in this country –people who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and that every word is true, who have made Jesus their Lord and Savior, Christians who agree that they will stand before God and give an account of how they used what He gave them – are giving less than 2% of all God has graciously given to them?  

A Christian’s focus should be on how to raise their standard of giving, not their standard of living. 

I know you can’t send Jesus an angry email, so please feel free to send me one if that really irks your tater. Jesus says this in His Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20).

Meaning: The only things you can keep forever are the things you have given away. 

Here are some practical steps you need to take if you call yourself a Christ-follower: 

If you are not tithing consistently, begin today.

To tithe means to give the first 10% of everything you make, to God.

You may be sponsoring needy children and supporting missionaries and non-profits, helping friends in need, good, but God gets the first 10%, and then if you want to be generous to others, it’s out of the 90% you have remaining after giving to God.

I’ll let God be stark about it:

Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions……Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need (Malachi 3:8, 10).

God says when we don’t give to Him first, we’re stealing from Him. But since this Malachi text says tithe, if we give God our first 10% – it’s a clear statement that we are showing God we truly worship Him. Simple sentence, huge life change. 

Maybe that forces you to have an honest conversation with your spouse or with your children or with God today, where you get out the budget and say, From this point forward, nothing will mean more to us, nothing will get more of our attention than giving back to God.

If you’re not tithing, begin today. Be sure you give to a church that has a godly leadership and is trustworthy.

If you are giving God 10%, move towards sacrificial generosity. 

Tithing is a great place to begin. For some of you, you need to begin at 3%, test drive it a few months, move it up to 7%, see if God still provides, and He will if you are wise. Once you get up to giving 10%, it’s not over. In the Old Testament, 10% was the minimum standard expected, you had to at least give 10% (most families in the Old Testament gave 20-25%). But in the New Testament, the word tithe isn’t mentioned, instead, giving in the early church is referred to as sacrificial generosity. 

The New Testament isn’t satisfied with just 10%. The New Testament is only  satisfied when our giving to God reflects the cross. When it hurts. When it’s generous. When it’s sacrificial. 

Mother Theresa said, We are to give until there is pain in the giving. 

For some, less than 10% hurts, or more than 10% hurts. 

Sacrifice is not measured by how much you give, but by how much you keep for yourself. 

In every area of my life I want to be sacrificial because in every area of my life I want to look like Jesus.

Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe.

If Jesus is the most generous Person to ever live, then growth in Christ would mean we would need to be generous, right? 

If you’ve been tithing for a while and it’s been a bit routine, pray about increasing your generous lifestyle until there’s sacrifice. 

Richard Foster writes,  God’s ownership of everything changes the kind of question we ask in giving. Rather than, ‘How much of my money should I give to God?’ we learn to ask, ‘How much of God’s money should I keep for myself?

I have a friend who has been open about giving with me and he’s been tithing since his marriage began. When he lost his job and had to take a new job that was half his previous income, his wife and him have up’ed their giving 4 different times. 

I know a Christian family who gave away a very nice SUV to a single, needy college student who never got a break in her life. I know a family who wants to provide money out of their savings so an infertile couple they know can adopt a beautiful little Chinese girl across the world. 

If we see everything as God’s, that it’s all his, then we’ll freely give it away. It’s those who refuse, those who hoard, those who are stingy, they still see what they hold as theirs. But it’s God’s. 

I hope you have someone close enough to you where you can show them your tax-return or year end giving, what you gave and how you lived, ask them if they see the cross of Christ demonstrated through your spending, saving, and giving.

If you’re not tithing, get there.
If you’ve tithed for a while, move to sacrificial generosity.
One more applicable challenge:

Ask Jesus to expose and eliminate any idols in your life.

An idol is anything, if Jesus said, Give it all to me – leave your job, all your money, I want your children, I want your health – if Jesus asked for it all, whatever you’d be reluctant to give Him – that’s an idol.

C.S. Lewis wrote that, History is the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

Kyle Idleman writes in his book, Not a Fan, Followers are willing to deny themselves and say, ‘I choose Jesus. I choose Jesus over my family. I choose Jesus over money. I choose Jesus over my career. I am his completely. I choose Jesus over alcohol and partying. I choose Jesus over pornography. I choose Jesus over a remodeled house. I choose Jesus over my freedom. I choose Jesus over what people think about me. A follower makes a decision every day to deny himself and choose Jesus, even if it costs everything.”

If there is anything standing between you and Jesus (and it’s probably money) just give it to Jesus in a sacrificial, consistent, cheerful way. You’ll grow your standard of living by increasing your standard of giving.  

Thanks for reading. You are loved. 

Z

What Every Parent Should Be Downloading Into Their Child (1,900 words of parenting advice)

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Back in the day when I was a pre-teen, I used to make mixtapes. Those born in 1990 or later probably don’t know what a mixtape is. A mixtape is a cassette tape (Google it) with favorite songs inserted on it to listen to. It’s an archaic Pandora playlist. It took tremendous patience and focus to make the perfect mixtape.

I would lay on my bedroom floor, next to something called a boombox (a radio that played music through speakers), I’d have my radio playing and I would wait for some of my favorite songs to come on so I could record them onto this tape. 

You had to be coordinated. You had to hit play and record at the same time, and you didn’t want the DJ’s voice on the tape, just the song. 

I had all kinds of mixtapes. I had love song mixtapes I’d give to girls I had a crush on. I’d leave the mixtape in their school locker with a creepy, cheesy note attached. For sports, I had mixtapes that would insert into my Dad’s yellow Sony Walkman to pump me up. On my sports mixtape to get me stoked I had “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, “Jump” by Van Halen, “Momma Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J and anything Michael Jackson.

I know that mixtapes are a thing of the past. With technology today, you can download any song that’s ever been recorded and you can make all kinds of playlists on your smartphone. And whether you like to listen to it while you’re in the car, or while at work or school, or exercising, or just chill’n with friends, it can’t be taken for granted what those who came before endured through in the mixtape years. 

Today my young child can grab my phone, open up my music, download new songs she  likes, delete songs she doesn’t like (my favorite songs) and make a playlist. In seconds she can do it. 

As a parent, I realize that my children are being lied to wherever they go. They are downloading lies other influences are pushing on them, and if unchecked, they will start to believe those lies as truth. One of my roles as a guide for them is to delete the lies that they download each day and replace it with truth. 

Mom, dad, grandparents, aunt, uncle, youth leader, teacher, influencers of young children and grown children, here’s what will happen if we don’t get proactive in deleting the lies this culture is pressing down on our children:  

They will be mugged by the mirror. 

We’re in the selfie generation. The reason everyone is taking selfies is to show others how they look. And maybe each time you look in the mirror, each time you take a picture of yourself, you’re asking the fairy tale question, Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? The more we invest in how we look, the more we believe the lie that we are worth the amount of how beautiful others say we are. 

In her book, I Want to be Her, author Michelle Graham writes this: “There’s nothing quite like a glance at a Victoria’s Secret catalog to invoke a flood of insecurities and feelings of disappointment.”

Graham goes onto say: 

If Barbie were a real human being, her proportions would make her anywhere from 6 feet 10 inches to 7 feet 5 inches tall. In order to achieve her perfect figure, she would need to have two ribs removed along with several major organs. Barbie has no hormonal cycle to affect her complexion and no metabolism to struggle with. This is the image that has been marketed to young girls all over the world as an inspiration to womanhood. And we eat it up. Barbie has become a $1.5 billion dollar a year industry. Don’t worry, I’m not on a Barbie-burning crusade. And I’m certainly no expert on the psychological effects of Barbie on young children. But I do know that at a very young age I bought into the idea that unless my Barbie was physically perfect, she wasn’t as good as the other Barbies on the block. In fact she embarrassed me. As I grew into adulthood, I left my Barbie behind. Unfortunately I struggled with the belief that unless I am physically perfect (a perfection that is unattainable and unrealistic) – I’m somehow not as valuable as everybody else. Barbie moved out, but Victoria moved in.”

A recent study shows that 70% of teenage girls and women feel depressed, sad or guilty when they look through a fashion magazine for more than 3 minutes.

Americans spend 20 billion dollars a year on cosmetics and 74 billion dollars a year on diet foods.

Just flip the remote control and the TV will tell you that outer appearance is what’s most important. It’s why you post more pictures of yourself online than you do Bible verses.

Because I’m a father of girls, I have a passion for all young girls to find their purpose in God and not in what others think of them. Girls, you may not know this, but an average woman in our culture is 5 foot 4 and weighs 170 pounds. An average model on the runway 5 foot 11 and they weigh 108 pounds and their body mass index is borderline malnutrition. 

Because of photoshop and airbrushing, what we look at in magazines and on the big screen is a fake. It’s not real. It’s all a lie. Delete the lie that external beauty is all there is.

Let’s download the truth that God loves you no matter what you look like. God created you the way He wanted to and to get where God wants you to go to love on who God wants you to love on (which includes yourself). You’re beautiful.

If they listen to the wrong voice, not only will they be mugged by the mirror, but: 

They will be pick-pocketed by the past. 

Your child failed the test. They stole what they shouldn’t of. They drank. They smoked. They lied to their parents. They feel responsible for their parent’s broken marriage. They succumb to sex, hurtful language, gossip, back-stabbing, anger etc. Even my own past tries to walk into each present day I have in an attempt to steal the future God has in store. 

But if you download the love of God into your child’s daily life, how much He loves you and them no matter what’s been done against Him and against others, then they’ll come to realize that our past does not define your present or your future.

You are not what you have done. Whatever it is that haunts you, whatever secret things you’ve done that no one else knows, that your close friends, your youth leaders, your parents, your siblings have no idea – and if you’ve been listening to the wrong voice about what you’ve done – then you’ve probably bought into the lie that God couldn’t love you, or God couldn’t forgive you. 

The one true God doesn’t only forgive people, He frees them. I don’t want the joy and energy and faith that my kids have as a child to be pick-pocketed by reminders of their past mistakes. Author Joanna Weaver writes:

“My deepest fear is waking up twenty years from now still the same person I am today. With the same annoying habits and petty attitudes; with the same besetting sins and false beliefs. I can’t imagine anything more terrible than getting to the end of my life only to discover that God had so much more in mind for me – more freedom, more joy, more peace, more true effectiveness. And I had missed it all, simply because I refused to believe it.” 

Don’t be mugged by the mirror and think external looks is all there is.
Don’t be pick-pocketed by the past and lose your joy in Christ. 

A third lie our children and us will download if not exposed to the truth: 

They will be robbed by relationships. 

Relationships are hard work, right? They can wear you out, make you tired. 

As if I didn’t already date myself with all the talk about mixtapes, let me talk about a woman named Louise Ciccone. Maybe you know her as Madonna. She’s sold over 300 million albums of her music worldwide. She’s worth an estimated 500 million dollars. TIME Magazine listed her as one of the 25 most powerful and influential women of the last 100 years. 

When she was a little girl, her mom died. Her dad quickly remarried and she didn’t forgive him for that. She severed all ties with him as her father and ran away. And I think the reason why Madonna, still in her 50’s, has always jumped from one man to the next is because she was robbed of a relationship she didn’t have with her father when she was young. 

After a concert in Detroit, in an interview with Vanity Fair a few years back, Madonna said: I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feelings of inadequacy. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. Again and again I go through this vicious cycle. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become somebody, I still have to prove that I’m somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.

Life doesn’t have to be that way. 

If the statistics are right, many of our teens are being robbed by a relationship with a parent. Mom and Dad haven’t or aren’t doing something for them that parents are supposed to do. I don’t know what is more tragic than a parent who doesn’t love their kid in a way God loves them, and I don’t want to downplay this possibility,  so if you’re from a broken home, if you’re in a tough home, and maybe there have been hurtful things said back and forth and maybe you’ve been more of a parent than your mom or dad has been to you. And maybe you’re angry over that.

If bitterness is a prison, forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door.

Forgive your mom. Forgive your dad. Forgive your child. Forgive your sibling. Forgive your church. Forgive your friends. Forgive your enemy. Tell them, to their face, or in a hand-written note, that you forgive them. And then trust God going forward when reminders of those painful moments start to resurface. 

All of this to say: I guess before we teach our children about external looks not providing true identity, before we teach our children that in Christ our past mistakes cannot depress us today and before we teach our children that forgiveness is what gives life to relationships and bitterness is what kills them – we have to model it to them. We have to delete the lies of our culture and download the liberating truth of God’s Word. 

Put your heart right. Reach out to God and face the world again. Then all your trouble will fade from your memory, like floods that pass and are remembered no more. Job 11:13 

Thanks for reading. No matter your looks, your past or your status of relationships today, you are loved. 

Z

5 Questions to Ask in the Midst of Suffering

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What can help  during times of stress and confusion, anger and anxiety, is trying to walk in the path of pain others are going through.

One man who has the credibility to speak to all of us on suffering, is the apostle Paul, a Christ-follower who lived during the first century.

One area Paul dearly loved was the city of Philippi. Philippi was a regional city where Paul preached the gospel to people, primarily to women, who became Christians and were part of the core group that planted the first church there. Paul cared for the Philippian church and they cared for him.

Later on in his life Paul is in prison for being a Christian. He writes a letter to the church in Philippi. At this point she is 11 years of age. It’s been four years since he’s physically been to Philippi. The church in Philippi heard that Paul was suffering in prison. They were concerned about his health, so they generously took up an offering, gave money, and sent it to Paul with a man they trusted named Epaphroditus, a deacon in the church. On his way to be with Paul, Epahphrodites becomes ill, close to death. Not only is Philippi’s founding pastor close to death, now their deacon is, and they church is waiting to see how their leaders will respond to the suffering they are going through.

In his dirty jail cell, Paul responds. He sits down and writes to the Philippians to ease their anxieties. What a privilege that God would preserve this letter centuries later of a man who writes of joy in his suffering. He writes:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)

We don’t know exactly what has happened to Paul here. Is he hungry? Is he looking for bugs to eat? Is he freezing? Does he have a blanket or does he shiver all night long? Does he have broken bones? Are his wounds infected? Is he alone?

He goes on to say:

It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.(Philippians 1:13-14)

Paul is suffering. More impactful is that he is showing us that there is a way to suffer in a way that is purposeful, not purposeless.

The old school word for this is: sanctification. Sanctification is: Through suffering/pain/mourning/loss/confusion/silence/strife, the opportunity is there to become more and more fashioned into the character of Jesus Christ.

Like the Philippian church watching Paul, those around you are waiting to see how you will respond to your suffering. Here are five questions to reflect on to see if you allow your suffering to become more like Jesus or not:

#1: Does your suffering compel you to love Jesus more? 

Some of you know what I’m talking about. In your suffering you’ve lost everyone and everything but Jesus and He is the true treasure in your life. Some have learned to love Jesus more because they realize that our God didn’t stay distant, but chose suffering and you love Him so much more because you and I would never choose to suffer for someone else in the way He did. Suffering for the Christian should never compel them to love Jesus less.

#2 Will your suffering purify your motives? 

If we are Christians, we are commanded to do all things for the glory of God. I would confess that everything I do is not for God’s glory, and it’s because my motives are mixed up a lot of the time. Even with the knowledge of Scripture, even with encouraging Christian friends, even with the Holy Spirit’s moral compass inside me, my motives can become selfish, lazy, prideful, idolatrous. In a word: impure.

Paul, beaten and alone in prison has no health, no wealth, no freedom. HE HAS NOTHING TO GAIN, and yet his motives are pure. He suffers for Jesus without complaining to God, doubting Him or accusing Him of being unreasonable.

#3 Will your suffering refocus your priority to follow Jesus daily? 

When suffering comes we can become so easily sidetracked from the mission of God and the message of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. All of the sudden we find ourselves not primarily focusing our lives on Jesus and His will for our life (to obey Him) and His mission for our existence (to share Him with others around us in word and action).

Instead of pursuing Jesus we can pursue people, and experiences and possessions and pleasure, sin, instead of Christ. It’s easy to lose sight that in every situation there is an opportunity for Jesus to do a work inside you and for Jesus to do good work through you.

In every circumstance, ESPECIALLY in times of struggle, there is an opportunity for you to know Jesus better, for you to be drawn closer to Jesus, for you to recommit your life back to Jesus and His mission of spreading the Gospel to those around you.

It would be an ideal day that when suffering comes to all of us, when the world and the church sees each one of us suffer, they would also see Jesus in our words and actions and either be drawn to Him in faith for the first time, or be matured in the faith. I want you to show people in suffering a lifestyle that would not be possible a part from Jesus being with you.

The faithful who have gone before are begging us not to waste your times and seasons of suffering. Your tears should not be in vain. Your struggle should not be in vain. It should not be wasted. It should not be neglected or abandoned or ignored. It has purpose. Your suffering should be embraced as a divine opportunity for God to grow us and use us.

#4 Will your example of suffering become an opportunity to speak of Jesus’ suffering? 

If we suffer as an example of how Jesus suffered for us and the world, we suffer well. Paul is an example to this. He is chained, literally, to another person, a soldier, who has to keep watch over Paul. He has no freedom. And in this circumstance, Paul, being focused on the gospel, assumes that it is God’s divine plan that this particular soldier is chained to him for a reason: to be saved. Paul’s mindset is, God wouldn’t chain someone to me unless they were intended to meet Jesus. He praises God for the opportunity to witness to the soldiers that come into his cell and become chained to him.

Some of you feel metaphorically chained to your desk at work, maybe a stay-at-home mom feels chained to the house. Some of you will find yourselves stuck in a hospital bed, chained to chemotherapy or treatment of a sickness. Some of you are chained to living a single life, wanting companionship. Some are chained to a relationship that God will not let you break for a reason, and in any instance of suffering we ask, God, why am I still chained here? 

Paul would say on behalf of God, You aren’t chained to these situations. They are all opportunities for God to bring people into our experiences of suffering and to speak of Him in joy, and to suffer like Him in courage and honesty to make a difference in the world. 

#5 Will people grow closer to Jesus as a result of your suffering? 

We cannot be so simple-minded to think that our suffering has nothing to do with our witness.

My wife and I are unable to conceive a child together. I have a firm faith that the heartache of being in a marriage that is infertile will lead someone else closer to Christ.

Right now for a young girl, who isn’t even close to meeting the love of her life, but she will, eventually. And in time they will get married and enjoy life together and the thrill of being best friends and growing together. And they will have friends who have babies and that will instill a desire in them to start a family one day and when that day comes, and when frustration and confusion and anger surrounds their marriage, when they receive news that they are barren – AT THAT MOMENT, God will usher them into my life, into my wife’s life, and we will lead them to closer to Christ through the suffering we are enduring right now.

Paul says, Not only are the soldiers chained to me experiencing the gospel, they’re telling everyone in his imperial guard (some Bible translations in verse 13 say Praetorium), over 9,000 soldiers. Paul’s suffering has 9,000 skilled, trained, very important men talking about Jesus. Paul is praising God in suffering because God is doing something great in his suffering, and something amazing through his suffering, leading others to Him.

The question is not, Will I suffer? You will suffer.
The question is, Will I suffer faithfully? 

Will your suffering grow you in goodness and faith, or will it kill your spirit and turn you bitter? Will your suffering be heard as complaints and selfish to those around you, or will it be used to inspire your friends and those watching to get closer to Christ?

Thanks for reading. You are loved.

Z

7 Questions for Each Gender to Ask Before Dating Someone

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Happy Valentine’s Day. For those dating, it can be romantic. For those not dating, it can be lonely. For those married, it can be forced or enjoyable. For the husbands who didn’t know today is V-day, hope the dog makes room for you.

Love is in the air around Valentines’ day and that means stupid is in our hearts. Our emotions and desires can deceive us.

Below are 7 questions every Jesus-loving male needs to ask when looking for a godly woman to marry (questions for women to ask are after these 7):

7 Questions Christian Men Need to Ask Before Dating Her: 

  1. Are you looking past a good woman already in your life?

Examples of good women who are possibly near you: widows, shy women, single mothers, older in age. Sometimes a woman’s character is as refined as gold due to the difficultly she’s had to go through.

  1. Do you you look forward to being around her?

You have to read Ecclesiastes 9:9. With stress at work jobs, expenses, with dealing with your sin and with the pain of the let downs of others, it’s a good wife that will help you enjoy your time on earth. You should like being with her and trust her more than anyone. If she’s hot but she annoys you, move on.

  1. Does she dress modestly?

A woman who dresses in a revealing way may be arousing to look at, but do you really want everyone else lusting after her? Do you really want your future/current daughters to follow her example? A wise man ready to date knows the difference between a good time with a girl and a good life with a girl (see 1 Timothy 2:9). Choose a good legacy over a momentary feeling.

  1. Will she let you lead when needed?

The Bible calls the Christ-following husband to sacrificially lead his family. The wife must agree with his Christian values, she must trust him, and she should respect the way he seeks her advice on decisions. There will be conflict if she does not naturally follow Jesus and you. There will also be conflict if she’s following Jesus and you’re not.

  1. Is her character noble?

Check out Proverbs 31:10-31 and you’ll get what I mean. You want your daughters to emulate her. You want your sons to marry someone like her. Is God approving of her thoughts/speech/actions/love? Does she fill you with joy by the way she prays, worships, serves and even how she responsibly interacts with other men?

  1. Can you provide for the standard of life she expects?

If a woman isn’t satisfied with the income you make, move on to someone who loves you more than money or possessions. Biblically, the man is responsible for the financial and material needs of the family. If you work hard, tithes well in worship, invests wisely, and saves money, then it’s perfectly fine to spend money for memory-making with your spouse (see 1 Timothy 5:8).

  1. Is she like ANY of the ungodly women God cautions against in the book of Proverbs?

Does she nag a lot? Does she embarrass herself in public because she’s loud and want attention? Does she argue a lot? Does she gossip about others? Is she a flirt? When your testosterone has calmed down, exhale and try to objectively evaluate her life. (read Proverbs 27:15, Proverbs 7:11).

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For the female perspective when seeking to date, below are 7 more questions for her to ask about him. Both of my daughters are going to be trained to ask these questions when they turn 37 years old and are given permission to date the close to alien-form species referred to as the human male:

7 Questions Christian Women Need to Ask Before Dating Him:

  1. Will you support him and join him where he’s headed?

1 Corinthians 11:9 says you are equal to your husband, designed to be his helper. If he’s in the military or in sales, to where he’s gone a lot, and you don’t want that, then he needs another career or you need another suitor. If he’s got dreams where they’ll be a lot of long hours and little pay up front, or, if his plans are perpendicular to what your goals are headed, it could be problematic.

  1. Is he courageous enough to remain strong in tough times?

I’m not sure what year it started but when did males start being born without a spine? He should be tender with you, but tough for you. When financial trouble comes, will he be a steady rock for the family that gets two jobs or cuts the budget or trusts God? Will he be there when you are ill? When there’s a tough pregnancy? When there’s tragic heartache? Too many men cower/hide/give up/freeze under hardship. You want to marry one who won’t. He will need to show his faith to you and his fear to God to be strong.

  1. Will he be responsible for the family?

If he isn’t, he’ll be an awful husband and father. He must ensure that you and his children are close to Jesus, well loved, encouraged, and prepared for adulthood. If you’re the leader of the relationship, you deserve better. Please don’t settle. Trust God, move on and pray for someone who can lead you spiritually and emotionally.

  1. Is he gentle with you and thoughtful toward you?

Any man who doesn’t ask what you think and how you feel about decisions needing to be made is selfish and inconsiderate. It’s a huge red flag if he is abusive in any way. While dating, he’s trying to impress you. If he’s bad now, it will only get worse once married (See 1 Peter 3:7)

  1. Do you believe he’ll be a godly and loving father?

Does he love children? Is he selfless daily? The only way a man can be a good father is if he’s unselfish. Does he take time to pray and read the Bible (that’s what develops selflessness)? What takes up his energy and time: living for others or living for his desires? (See Psalm 127:3-5, Ephesians 6:4)

  1. Does he have the qualities that make him a 1-woman man, committed for life?

The elders at your church must set this standard. The dude you want to date shouldn’t be the porn-guy, or the flirt-guy, or the “has lots of girls as friends”-guy, or the “dates lots of women at once”-guy. Or even the “compares you to other women”-guy. When he loves you alone, you will have his heart, his mind, his eyes, and his wallet. If you question his loyalty, he’s not fit for marriage (see 1 Timothy 3:2).

  1. Because you are precious and valuable, what will he sacrifice to be with you?

A man should fight to be with the woman he loves. Too many women make it too easy to be caught. He should overcome obstacles to be with you so you know he treasures and values you. Jacob had to work for 14 years to be with Rachel (Genesis 29:20).

It’s not my intent to cause any break-ups to happen after asking these questions, but it is my intent for godly dating to occur so healthy marriages raise healthy children who date wisely and in that way God’s kingdom can thrive as we emulate His amazing love toward others.

Thanks for reading. You are so loved.

Z

Three Areas to Fumigate in the Home

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I have a friend living in northern California who wanted to upgrade in homes after his wife gave birth to their first child. When it came time to put his home on the market to sell, he found out that before any offer on his home can become final the home has to be entirely fumigated. Before you can sell a home, the final step is to get all the people out of the home, all the clothes, all the food, all the furniture, (I recommend leaving the cat inside), then these guys come and put this huge tent over the home for sale and these ghost buster looking fumigation soldiers come in and spray inside the home and all over the property because in California there’s these little tiny termites that get into the wood of the home and if you don’t get rid of these harmful insects, the home will collapse.

Fumigation is a tough but necessary act. It’s vital to get what can be harmful out of the home.

What if God is trying to do some big things in our home but can’t move as effectively as He desires because there are some harmful things affecting our minds and the minds of our kids?

For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. (1 John 2:16)

Here’s how I would define what the Bible describes as “worldly” –

Worldly: Anything that alienates you from God

Anything – any worldview, any media or song or movie or TV show or thought or behavior or relationship or addiction – if it doesn’t drive you closer to God, it’s of the world. It’s worldly. We’ve got to fumigate that out of your life.

It’s embedded in our instinct to love the world. It’s in our natural desires. It’s what we’re comfortable. If not watched, it’s what we veer toward unconsciously.

Here are three worldly influences that I see in our homes, (This is for me too. It’s not like I’m going over your home for dinner and I’m excusing myself at the table to go look through all your worldly stuff. My family needs to fumigate as well):

1. What We View.

Movies, videos, websites, posts, all of the websites and videos we’re privately viewing. If we wrote down all the viewing pleasures we have that alienate us from God it would be pages. We’d get a hand cramp.

I wonder if we could fill a post-it note with the things we’re allowing ourselves to view that God approves.

A father informed me that his teenage daughter wanted to go see a movie that he knew was not going to help her spiritually grow closer to God. He told her calmly that she couldn’t go see it. He said to her, It’s not going to usher you closer to God and my responsibility is to love you and the best way to love you is to bring you closer to God.

She was frustrated. Said some hurtful comments. No matter how long she was steamed, we need more Christ-following parents like that who protect what their kids view, and do it not to be mean or restrictive, but because God calls you and the entire family to journey toward Him, not worldliness.

Maybe I’m off on this, but isn’t the Christian parent’s dream to see their kids following Jesus with all of their heart? If your dream as a parent is to make your kid happy in the moment and give them permission to do whatever they want, then sure, you’re not going to observe what they view. I want your dream to be bigger than making them happy. Making them happy with no boundaries could enslave them. I want your dream for them to be following Jesus with all their heart. That will free them.

The world is sewage. If a parent allows this ungodly sewage to be pumped into a child’s mind, then the characteristics of Christ cannot be formed in them. That’s on mom. That’s on dad.

I have two daughters. My primary goal is not to get them to ball practice, or to get their ACT score higher than before, or get them on a fun vacation – on and on and on – good things, just not primary. My primary responsibility is to make sure that when they leave the nest, they are sold out to Jesus, and before that, they are trying to become more like Christ each day.

Geez Zach, you have no clue. You’re so naive. Your oldest child is in Kindergarten. Raising Christian kids is tough with all that is around my child. 

I know it’s tough. I was one of the worst kids. I need moms and dads around my family to parent faithfully so when my daughters fill themselves with sewage and lose sight of Jesus, I can lean on you and see what you did to make sure your kids stayed close to God and close to their Bibles.

Here’s the 2nd area we need to be cautious of:

2. What we listen to. 

This is not me saying that Christians need to throw out all the music in the home except the Point of Grace CD’s from the 90’s, but parents, let’s not think that the music today is the same kind of message and content as the music 20 years ago. Let’s not ignorantly think that our kids like the song because they like the beat but the lyrics aren’t marinating on their developing minds. They are. The pain and lust and confusion and rage and bitterness of the world has been transferred into the sound our families voluntarily choose to listen to.

This is not a rant where I ask who wants to go move into a cave with me so we can all sing kumbaya while we pass around the baked beans until the apocalypse happens. We just need to take the time to decipher what we and our kids are listening to. Some of it is good music, good lyrics, others of what we’re listening is good music, bad lyrics, and some of it is just bad music with harmful lyrics.

Music is powerful. I can start singing half a line from a pop song in a room with teenagers in it and the teens finish the lyrics verbatim, but if I quote a commonly known Bible verse in that same room, can they finish it?

I feel like this post might come across as legalistic. That’s not my intent. That’s not who Jesus is. I just want families to get more serious about allowing their kids to watch and listen to things that bring them closer to the Lord.

Why can’t a parent walk into their kids room and tell them that the music being played isn’t honoring God and that it needs to be gone? Fumigated.

I didn’t get serious about God until I was 20. I played the Christian game for 20 years. The primary reason I was so disobedient, and rebellious, and in trouble, the primary reason I wasn’t sold out to God was because of the music I was listening to was so contrary to the life God wanted me to live. I threw all my awful music into a trash can outside on campus in college and I lit it on fire (I got in trouble for the fire, but it felt good to fumigate).

Your kids may not like the fact that you are going to fumigate the music in your home, this is what godly parenting is all about: Pain now for the long term good.

It’s how God disciplines us: Pain now for the long term good. There’s a balance. Fumigate the bad music, keep the good (and that’s not fumigate the non-Christian music, keep the Christian, there’s a balance). There’s some amazing non-Christian music. In my family, when we listen to lyrics that can be harmful in a song, we press the pause button and try to  redeem the lyrics making sure our children know what is right and what is wrong in God’s eyes.

It’s not just the music we hear, it’s the jokes amd language we hear and the gossip we are participating in, so many things we’re hearing keep us from God.

Here’s the third thing that could be keeping us from God:

3. The Public Schools.

Now everyone reading pays closer attention, right?

Let me be very clear that just as there are good things to view in TV and websites, and just as there are good things to hear, as in music, there are good things about the public school. There are also potentially harmful temptations in private and home schooling.

As a leader in the church, I am never going to take a stand on where kids should be sent to school, whether public, private, or home school. Being a leader in the church is not for me to propagand my opinion on schooling, or on politics, or whatever. I only want to help share how to make the family more Christ-like, and FYI, my children will always be attending public schools because my wife and I want to send light into darkness, and that includes sending loving, wise kids into public schools where hope and health are decreasing.

What I am saying is that if you’re sending your kid off to a public school, and you’re not paying attention to the stuff they’re learning, and you’re not paying attention to the friends they’re making and hanging out with and the types of coaches that are influencing them, if you’re just sending them off to the world day by day, having uninterrupted social time, it could be keeping them from God. Athletics is included in this. If sports and practice are keeping your kid from growing closer to God, let’s find a balance.

For you, whether you’re a parent or a kid or an in-between, the kinds of things you watch, the kind of music you hear, and the people you hang around – it is the center bulls eye kind of person you’ll become.

The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:12-14)

It’s just having some quality, intentional conversations with our family and having the wisdom and courage to fumigate what tempts us from our purpose.

Thanks for reading. You are loved.

Z