The Only Answer that Satisfies


Seems like whenever you bring up the story of Job, everyone is quick to criticize his wife and his friends. Maybe it’s because the whole story is so disturbing to us, and it’s kind of a relief to be able to assign blame somewhere. The question of human suffering and how God is involved in it has plagued us since the beginning– the very fact that the book of Job was recorded attests to that, and the story does not come to the tidy conclusions we might wish for.  And we all struggle with knowing what to say when someone we care about is going through a hard time. So yeah, maybe we tend to single out the less complicated characters for their faults, so we don’t have to think about Job sitting in the ash heap.

The one woman who speaks in the story rarely even gets a vote of sympathy, despite the fact that she is the one who brought those seven sons and three daughters into the world (the ones that were tragically crushed in hurricane winds– what mother can stand such devastation?). Not to mention that she is suffering the loss of possessions and her husband’s health, right alongside him. She can be forgiven for being a little out of her mind. When she tells Job to “curse God and die” she is doing what the Enemy predicted they would do– and he was probably rubbing his hands together gleefully at the prospect of winning his wager. The Enemy felt sure that humans only worship God for what they can get out of Him, and when the blessings stop flowing, so does the sacrifice and praise. She kind of felt the same way. She wasn’t wishing her husband were dead, or abandoning him…only stating the obvious horror, that if God is displeased with you, you’re beyond help, so you may as well give up on serving Him and make a quick and merciful end to it at least.

But Job hangs on stubborn to his convictions, and chides her for losing faith: God is either worthy of praise or He is not, regardless of the circumstances. (To her credit, she sticks around through the whole miserable affair and then goes on to bear another ten children– sturdy woman that she is.) Enter Job’s friends, who are coming to sit with him in mourning, according to middle-eastern custom. We point to them as poor friends because they failed to comfort him. After all, we know what it feels like to have friends let us down when we are hurting and in need…and we often feel so awkward ourselves, in knowing how to comfort others. These guys believe in tough love, and take it as their duty to help get their failing friend back on track. In their theology, you reap what you sow, and it’s somewhere between naivety and arrogance to protest that you planted something different, when the crops are standing right there in full bloom. They have no idea that they are only promoting a religious variation on the Enemy’s theme. Their intentions are good, at least.

And here’s the interesting thing: we judge these people as lacking in sympathy and practical help, in a situation of horrendous loss, and end up missing the point as much as they do. Job’s grief is heart-rending, but it is God’s glory that is on trial, and Job is His chief witness. God criticizes the men not because they failed to comfort, but because they did not know Him the way Job did. Job was wrestling honestly with his experience; he was awash with raw emotion, and the God he served seemed distant… but he was not giving up. He still believed that God was ruling over all things, and worthy of worship, regardless of his experiences. Rightly then, God’s answer to Job’s suffering has nothing to do with explanations or comfort–He shows up personally to reveal His glory to this wreck of a man sitting in the ashes with his neighbors.

And that is what we need to see in times of great pain, when our focus tends to narrow down, to channel all our energy into coping with our circumstances and our feelings; what we really need is a bigger perspective. As much as we look for answers to all the why? questions, realistically speaking there is nothing that will take away the pain of our loss…not even replacing what was taken away. And as valuable as the comfort and sympathy of others is to us in those times, there is still no short-cut or remedy for grief except to go through it one day at a time. But what if we could look at our circumstances through a different lens altogether?

God’s answer to suffering is to reveal His own power and wisdom and authority. If you can’t manage the entire created universe in all of its intricacy and splendor, then you simply are not qualified to handle the lives of men. And if you don’t understand God’s ways and thoughts and plans, then what makes you think you can judge His affairs? What we tend to lose sight of in the midst of life’s circumstances is that God and His glory are at the center of all things, and it is His business to rule all things well. If we worship Him, and love and serve one another through the temporary joys and sorrows of this world, that is plenty enough to keep us busy.

The book of Job is Theology 101: He is God and we are not. There is more to the world than what we can see. There are forces at work which we don’t understand. Our emotions and thoughts do not define what is true…or even what is real. The Creator’s care for all that He has made is sheer Grace. It was an answer big enough to make Job repent and worship, while the friends realized their presumption in deciding who was worthy of God’s blessing. And God Himself suggested that Job show them what grace looked like. “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.” (Job 42:8)

God’s answer to human suffering remains the same– that He is intimately and powerfully involved in His creation, and He is with us in our pain, redeeming all things for our good and His glory. It’s what our hurting hearts most desperately need to know. And if we have any doubts, we can look to the cross where He laid bare His heart and suffered for all of us….where He silenced the accusations of the Enemy once and for all with the illogic of grace.

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For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:15-16

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There’s a place where mercy reigns
And never dies;
There’s a place where streams of grace
Flow deep and wide;
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood,
Comes flowing down…
At the cross, at the cross,
I surrender my life–
I’m in awe of You.

At The Cross, Chris Tomlin

Badge of Courage

**Originally posted May 2017.

As we talk about discontent and acceptance, and the faith that enables us to handle both well, I keep thinking about the circumstances in life that are outside our control. The things that refuse to bend to your influence, no matter how hard you try. Those unyielding parameters of life are hard to accept when they make life difficult or just plain miserable. And they tend to shape you. It can be anything from the color of your hair, to the strength of your body, to the family you were born into, or the consequences of choices made a long time ago….at some point you have to just say “it is what it is” (if only for the sake of your mental health) and figure out how to live in that place, no matter how it chafes. Paradoxically, in the very act of surrendering your will and accepting things you can not control, you often find the power to change yourself and your surroundings in unexpected ways.

It takes a special kind of courage to live one day after another in a place you’d rather not be. To persevere in countless small acts of service. To take up the cross that will put Self to death, and follow Jesus day in and day out for the span of your life. If we are honest, many of us would rather make a grand noble gesture and be done. But there is a bravery that runs deeper, that is in for the long haul– the kind of unwavering faith that hangs in there, and doesn’t give up, in spite of the pain. Courage that can count the good gifts of the Creator, even through the tears of this world’s wounds, and can keep on believing that God “exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6) It is here that the Spirit-breathed promises become very real and precious to the heart: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3)…“do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. ” (Isaiah 41:10)…”Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed” (Isaiah 54:10)….Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

Like Leah, who was overlooked for her beautiful lively younger sister and then married off to the eager suitor anyway in an elaborate plot that involved swapping out veiled brides and keeping the lights turned low. No one was happy about the outcome of that night, except for the father, who took care of both daughters at once and gained a hard-working son-in-law who also happened to be blessed by the Lord– handy fellow to have in the family. And although Leah may have rejoiced for the moment at the prospect of home and husband and position, still there remained the small fact that her husband was in love with her very own sister, who was everything Leah was not. Hard place for a young woman to live, day after day, but what else could she do? And in bending herself to those hard things, a beauty that is all her own begins to emerge.

I see unwanted Leah naming her sons as constant reminders of God’s presence in the midst of her unhappy marriage. I can imagine her finding joy in their baby smiles and warm sturdy bodies held close, taking comfort in the fact that God in heaven sees her and stoops to her need. It takes courage to stare down the circumstances you’ve been given and give thanks when your heart is broken; it takes both humility and strength to accept what is out of your control and focus on God’s provision for you in the wilderness. She may have been as delicate and weak as the gazelle for which she was named, but in longing for the love of a husband, Leah found the Love that never fails and became a mother of the tribes of Israel.

And when you’ve accepted where you are, and begin to see God’s provision for you there, gratitude bubbles up naturally from the person you are becoming. Giving thanks is one more act of bravery, a chin-lifting resolution that refuses to give in to either self-pity or despair, regardless of the way things look. Not because you are so tough or so capable, but because you know Who really moves the universe. I may feel helpless in the face of circumstances, but I can count on the God who says He is working all things together for good in my story. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning…” (Psalm 130:5-6) 

Gratitude is like a badge of courage to wear in the visible Everyday, proclaiming our hope and steadfast faith in the unseen Eternal. I don’t know what color gratitude is, but I see how it reflects the light of heaven’s glory.

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When trouble, restless fears, anxious fretfulness, strive to overpower the soul, our safety is in saying, ‘My God, I believe in Thy perfect goodness and wisdom and mercy. What Thou doest I cannot now understand; but I shall one day see it all plainly. Meanwhile I accept Thy will, whatever it may be, unquestioning, without reserve.’

H.L. Sidney Lear

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The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:17-18

On Saying Yes to Difficult Things

We talk about acceptance of circumstances as if it were a polite invitation sent to the door, which you could consider, and to which you could give a thoughtful response. In reality, unlooked-for circumstances generally drop in like a pipe-bomb over your garden wall, blowing all your careful cultivation to bits. Any talk of acceptance then, becomes more a question of what you will do in the face of upheaval, and sometimes it feels like nothing more than surviving. But how you cope with both the bearable and the unbearable in life has life-changing consequences– it is shaping the very heart of you, whether you realize it or not.

Unfortunately, it’s usually a matter of trial and error, because in this world the uncertain and unexpected are going to crash in upon you again and again as you grow, and you will have to figure out what to do with those many things outside your circle of influence. Most of us struggle all our lives with acceptance of circumstances. Of what there is. Of what there is not. Of what may be. Of what has already been. I am pretty sure I still have a lot to learn on the subject, but I can at least look back and put words to what I’ve already tried and found wanting.

I know that acceptance is not the same as resignation, dull passivity to what cannot be escaped. You might be going through the motions on the outside, but inside your spirit will be crying out “in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) That way is a desert you could wander in for the rest of your journey, losing all sense of direction– losing hope. You can see the wilderness in a person’s eyes when she has given up to her circumstances.

I have also found that acceptance is more than a determination that rises to the occasion, a gritting of teeth resolved to do what must be done. There will always come a day when you cannot possibly be strong enough, good enough, smart enough to make it work. Self-sufficiency feels empowering and meaningful for awhile, but this world is enough to wear down the hardiest spirits, and when you run out of sheer will to live, how will you deal with the next thing then?

And acceptance is more than saying the right words and doing the right things on the outside. That way might feel like peace, seems like a path that will lead in the right direction. But you can cover up a pile of resentment and pain with a pretty-face mask; surely you know that the volcano will spew eventually, and the truth will out.

Since I have so far in life mostly succeeded in wrestling around with all the wrong ideas, these days I am trying to frame more positive words to describe what acceptance is. And I see how there is an acceptance that takes all circumstances as from the hands of a Creator who has every right to rule over what He has made, and every power to do it well. An acceptance that doubts neither the love nor the goodness of the One who does so, but looks upward with the innocent trust of a child. At some point you have to stop trying to figure out what you can do, and rest in Someone Else. Acceptance gives up the fight to be in charge, and bows to the Maker of heaven and earth…and discovers a surprising relief.

Not only does it set your soul at peace, to stop fighting everything, but it opens your heart and mind to new ways of doing things. Paul the Church Planter said it like this: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) I am used to hearing the importance of the first part of that verse– of changing and being changed– and until recently the last part just kind of slid on by. But don’t miss that the end result of transformation is to finally understand and accept God’s will as your own. This is the Kingdom of God becoming real in me, when what He wants done, gets done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)– and the only way that happens is by the power of the Holy Spirit working in me.

Acceptance of God’s plans means letting go of my personal declaration of independence and capability; it means relinquishing my very-patriotic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for the sake of following Christ, wherever He leads. Acceptance is not anything I can muster up on my own, which kind of explains all the wrestling with it. Acceptance comes with the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence and my surrender to Him. And then I begin to see God’s plan at work in my life, and can recognize it for what it is….good and just the right thing for me, regardless of whether the circumstances make sense to my head. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) I can hear His whispers of love, and sense His guiding hand through the situation. It’s like finding riches in a secret place.

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Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, nd I trust Him.

Psalm 91:1-2

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Thank You for the wilderness,
Where I learned to thirst for Your presence;
If I’d never known that place
How could I have known You are better?
Thank You for the lonely times,
When I learned to live in the silence;
As the other voices fade
I can hear You calling me, Jesus,
And it’s worth it all just to know You more.
You’ve done great things–
Jesus, Your love never fails me.
My soul will sing ‘You have done great things.’
Thank You for the scars I bear;
They declare that You are my healer.
How could I have seen your strength,
If You never showed me my weakness?
And it’s worth it all, just to know You more.

Great Things, Elevation Worship

Hope-Full

**Originally posted August, 2017.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I chose the word at the beginning of the year and wrote down Hope in curving letters on the page. But I can say that when I asked God what He wanted to do in my life this year, the answer came back quietly, persistently: Hope. It seemed like a good way to begin the year: new beginnings and bright horizons and all that, so I hung it up where I could see it, to remind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but surely, we of all people should be people of hope, because of our God who can do all things.

I was most definitely not thinking that it would be the one word we would be needing most. Hope. When you are facing one impossible thing after another, and the gale-winds just won’t stop blowing, Hope seems like a ridiculously flimsy flag to wave in the air. Yet there it hangs like a banner flying brave across my shelves, every time I walk into the room– a silent reminder and a promise. And somehow, as days turn into weeks, turn into the months of a year, Hope is being redefined into a most sturdy anchor for the soul. Because hope has nothing to do with what is going on around us, and everything to do with what is happening inside of us. And the promise is not that we will get what we are longing for, but that we will get Himself, and He will be enough.  In Jesus, God fulfills all His promises. He comes to us, and says over and over again, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified …for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Sometimes it is really hard to know what to hope for, especially when the future seems so uncertain and the world is going crazy all around you. But this I do know: about the time you stop hanging onto the good things you want God to do for you, and start hanging onto Him alone, as the One who is mighty to save, you begin to notice what He is doing deep in your heart. Instead of grasping at straws for your own way out of the mess you are in, so you can survive, you just start taking one step at a time in the simple knowledge that God is walking with you and you will be okay whatever happens.

Hope is looking at what is going on around you, and believing there is a whole lot more that you cannot see. Hope is acting on that faith in everyday relationships and everyday decisions, because you know God is good and He is accomplishing something worthwhile.  Hope isn’t afraid to lean on others, or to admit that sometimes life hurts unbearably– it simply refuses to give up under the load. Hope knows that “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1) And is this not following in the footsteps of our Savior, being willing to bear intolerable things with childlike trust in the Father’s plan?

The Musician-King didn’t believe in pretending to be all right when he was not; he was an honest shepherd who loved God with all his might, and poured out his soul in his songs to the Lord: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord…hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy….I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my hope…” (Psalm 130:1-2, 5) When you finally want the Giver more than anything He can give–then you have found a hope you can hold onto.

A thousand years later, the Church-Planter agreed, and added his own triumphant proof to the matter: “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) This is the hope that God wants to give us– a certain-sure hope that reaches beyond the temporary happenings of this world and embraces the reality of the next. We have all the hope we need, because we have all of Him.

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For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ…

Titus 2:11-13

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Doesn’t matter what I feel
Doesn’t matter what I see
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me

Your Promises, Elevation Worship

No Fear in Love

We keep coming back to the fact that relationship with God is the essential context for prayer. Jesus put the two together in the word picture of the vine and branches: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7) He is speaking to His closest disciples– not just anyone on the street, but those who know Him and love Him, and who will follow Him to the cross and beyond. He is describing a prayer life that pours out of living in His presence….flows from our understanding of His written words and Himself, the very Word of God. The prayers are a conversation between our spirits and our Heavenly Father, a result of our connection with Him and our delight in Him.

It reminds me of the mutual absorption and delight of new lovers, gazing into each other’s eyes with so much to say and never enough time to say it all, when every turn of the head and every sentence is a new revelation of the Beloved. There is nothing we could not ask of that person. Why is it then, that we tend to measure our relationship with God by the response we receive from Him, as if prayer were a loves-me-loves-me-not test of cosmic proportion? As if His love for me were measured in His Yes to my desires, when God has already answered my deepest needs with His great and precious promises in Christ. When we truly see the deep everlasting love of God at the cross– grab onto it with both hands for our very lives– there is no need for uncertainty in our relationship with Him. This is how John can say that love-without-fear will be a defining mark of the person abiding in Christ: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us…..There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:17-18)

Spurgeon articulates well how this loving relationship affects both the nature of our prayers and the fruit they bear: “I see clearly why the branch gets all it wants while it abides in the stem, since all it wants is already in the stem and placed there for the sake of the branch….in such a man as that there is a predominance of grace that causes him to have a renewed will, which is according to the will of God.” (The Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life) In other words, a person who walks and talks with Jesus constantly and naturally in everyday life trusts the heart of the One in whom he abides, because he knows Him well. And even if he desires something with all his heart, yet he will hesitate in thinking he knows best or is qualified to judge in the matter, and will gladly defer to the decision of the Branch in Whom he lives and breathes and has his being. No wonder Jesus can promise that our hearts’ desires will be accomplished for us, when He describes that kind of relationship with people who follow Him.

In the same way, abiding helps us understand the answers we receive from God. If our hearts are delighting in Him and pursuing deeper knowledge of the Beloved One, then every answer He gives is a means to that end…not only when our desires are affirmed and granted, but also when He counsels us to wait or gives us only the answer of His presence and peace. Regardless of the answer, still we are learning to know Him.

I listen to the older-and-wiser saints who have learned to live in vital connection to the Vine, and see their serene understanding that everything He does is an expression of His everlasting love and kindness, no matter how it feels or appears in the moment. “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all– how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) It’s one thing to believe this in our heads, but as we practice abiding, and grow in our close relationship with the Savior, we begin to rest in this truth with our whole hearts. We taste and see for ourselves that His ways are good. And we begin to see how all His answers are nothing but grace and love poured out on us, even when it hurts or we do not understand.

Lord Jesus, heal the wounded places that have left us un-trusting and un-resting. Straighten the bent spirits, the handicaps that cause us to struggle to love, fully and unafraid. Strengthen the despairing hearts, the weary and the broken, that we may be able to hope for all good things from Your hand. Restore us and make us new– enable us to live in relationship with You, moment by moment, as Your creatures were meant to live from the Beginning. This is our prayer.

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Prayer is not begging God to do something for us that He doesn’t know about, or begging God to do something for us that He is reluctant to do, or begging God to do something that He hasn’t time for. In prayer we persistently, faithfully, trustingly come before God, submitting ourselves to His sovereignty, confident that He is acting, right now, on our behalf.

Eugene Peterson

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Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened

Matthew 7:7-8

 

All of Him Is More Than Enough

**Originally published June 5, 2015.

The news alert pulled up a random piece of tragedy about an old friend, a few weeks ago. Someone I hadn’t thought of in years, a friend from my original Thursday Morning Bible Study a couple decades ago, in another city. We were pregnant at the same time, had our second children in the same hospital a few months apart, both girls. Hers died unexpectedly, a few weekends ago. I remember her little one vaguely, in the mix of all our kids, but I know where my own girl is and who she has become. I think of all the years of growing up that we have shared since then, and my heart is pierced at the thought of losing her suddenly, and I pray for my long-ago friend whose heart is surely stabbed clean through. I wonder if she has stayed close to the Truth she was searching out, all those years ago, and if she knows Who to cling to.

The other day a more recent friend sent an email about the health problems her girl is facing, fall-out from drugs she was taking to help. Only the doctor didn’t warn her about the long-term effects. It’s a lot for a teenager to deal with, we agreed– as if growing up isn’t hard enough when you are all awkward in-between. There are valuable lessons for her to learn here, a mother knows, if a young girl can grab onto them. And we older women know how life disappoints and twists in unexpected ways, how you can end up in places you never expected, and how fear looms large in the face of all the things you cannot control, cannot fix in this world. But we also know the One who says “It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order.” (Isaiah 48:13) So we ask Him to guard a growing girl’s heart and make her strong in relying on Him.

And I think of the mother who is teaching her adopted child what love means, and the mother who is waiting for a C-section and hoping for a healthy baby, and the mother who visits her tiny one every day in the neo-natal unit, and the one who is wondering if she will ever get to be a mother….all our fragile hopes and fears in this world with no guarantees of happy endings. But we have this promise, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) We know God and we know His heart of love for us, and we choose to believe that His plans are good, whether or not the process feels that way in the moment we are in. Because trusting Him is the commitment we have made, and He promises to be faithful to us.

Sometimes you read what another person has written and the words leap from the page to your heart, startling in their simplicity and clarity. This writer hit home with her honest assessment of life and faith:

“Being a Christian does not safeguard you from a world of hurt. Jesus Himself promises trials and sorrows. And Jesus Himself hurt. So the big question is, what then is the value of having a relationship with God? If we’re all going to get hit with the same awfulness, all feel the same dark pain, why be in a relationship with God at all?
I guess the answer would be, so you can be in a relationship with God.” (Susie Davis)

And I think I am beginning to see, finally, that a relationship with Him was always the end-goal from His perspective, even though I may have come at it backwards. Through all the American Dreams I have chased down, He was pursuing me; and for every one of life’s let-downs and melt-downs, He was there to wipe my tears and listen to my heart pouring out; and with each disappointment, He offered something deeper, stronger. Patiently, relentlessly, fiercely loving me until I got it. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Solomon 6:3) Maybe I needed to see how easily everything-that-looks-real can be shaken, in order to recognize how invisible things can stand: Every bent branch of life that disappoints, and wounds, and leaves us empty and dry… meant to point the way to the Living Water that makes us whole. Every failure and dissatisfaction and longing… meant to push us towards the One whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5), towards Him who said “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:16)

 And the thing is, it was never a Plan B– the safety net just in case life went sideways; the consolation prize for the broken-hearted. It was His entire Plan from the Beginning to give us Himself and satisfy our hearts. He doesn’t even try to hide it: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.” (Jeremiah 31:3) The question was only ever how long it would take for us to reach out for Him, and to realize that if we have Him, we have Enough.

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And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness–secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.

Isaiah 45:3

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I’ll set You as a seal upon my heart, as a seal upon my arm,
For there is love that is as strong as death–
Jealousy, demanding as the grave;
And many waters cannot quench this love.
You won’t relent until You have it all;
My heart is Yours.

Jesus Culture

Mind The Gap

See, there’s often this space between the inner life of the soul– what we as Christ-followers believe and accept as true– and the everyday experience of interacting with the life around us. The beliefs we confess with our mouths and hang around our necks as labels often are not the things we stand on when life gets difficult…and sometimes we hardly even seem to notice the gap between. But that is precisely what the spotlight of unexpected difficulties is for, to rivet our attention on the fact that we are not real good at putting into practice what we believe.

I hear Jesus say “…your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matthew 6:8) And I believe that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, will give me what I need. But when the unexpected collides with what I am pretty sure I need, my emotions and reactions point out just how far my life is from what my head believes. When you are looking right at concrete facts saying one thing, it is hard to fix your eyes on the unseen Truth that sounds so contradictory. But it’s there in the gap that you get the chance to grow, have the opportunity to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), because it is either change what you believe, or change what you will do about it.

Again, I know this is the Word of God: “Do not fear or be in dread… for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) This I believe, and I can even feel it on most days. But when giants loom large and all I have are a few small stones, reason speaks louder than faith and there is that gap again. It is surprisingly difficult to believe Someone you cannot see or touch over the ogre right in front of you– hard for us to set aside the sensory evidence we have accepted as reality since we were born here. But this is what faith is all about. Paul explains it this way: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) In the gap between what we believe and what we experience, this is where faith lives and grows.

And I can read Paul’s declaration and hang on tight to its usefulness: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) But watching someone you love struggle with an illness seems like it must be in a different category of Things than Paul is talking about; what I am feeling and dealing with seems much bigger and miles away from that one simple sentence.  And in the gap I find myself wondering how much strength is actually available, and could it be that it means exactly what it says? I can do even this through Christ’s limitless power?

It appears that the gap is more a shortfall in my faith, in my perspectives…and while my spirit can make that leap into eternal matters, my senses still stick in the mud of this earth. And I hear Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) The question lingers…Do I believe this?…And how will I then live?

So we are back again to God’s plan: to grow us into the likeness of His Son and prepare us to live in His Kingdom forever, and in the gap is one very real way that we are called to be partners in the process. We can expect to be brought up short time and again, by that gap between the way this world works and the ways of His kingdom. ” For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

When life reveals to us the gap between what is true and the way we live, it is a call to go deeper, step out of the familiar and sensible and come “higher up and further in” (as CS Lewis used to say), till there is no gap at all but only the presence of God. This is growing in maturity as a Christ-follower, and this is the faith-journey that is leading us Home.

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When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:11-12

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The way may at times seem dark, but light will arise, if thou trust in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him. That light may sometimes show hard things to be required, but do not be distressed if thy heart should rebel; bring thy unwillingness and disobedience to Him, in the faith that He will give thee power to overcome, for He cannot fail. ‘Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world,’ so keep close to Him, and the victory will be won. But do not, I beseech thee, neglect anything that is required, for disobedience brings darkness; and do not reason or delay, but simply follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit, and He will guide thee into all peace.

Elizabeth T. King

 

Of Walls and Fears and Learning to Trust

We have been talking about surrender again, in small groups and conversations….this same topic coming up again and again in different ways until even the most unobservant could see the theme weaving into our growth. And we wonder why it is so difficult to just give up the reins and let God lead us, as we shake our heads over the murky depths of our hearts.

It is maybe too simplistic to say that hearts are just hard and stubborn, or that we want to do things ourselves. No, it’s not that black and white at all. It’s more a complex shade of survival instinct laced through with gray disappointments, and feeling instinctively our smallness in a universe we cannot control. We can’t seem to help ourselves in building hedges of self-protection….If I am the only one I can trust to pursue my own good, then goodness knows I would build a whole kingdom to protect me and mine..

Like this random unimportant soldier in the battle of Jericho, who clearly heard God’s instructions to give all the precious metals to Him and destroy the rest. The God who had been leading them in one miraculous way after another was now giving them a whole new land to live in, and everything they needed, in abundance. It was an exciting, jaw-dropping time to be alive and walking by faith. And all God asked for was their obedience. But no, this one man– who walked through the Jordan River on dry ground while the water piled up on either side, mind you, and then walked miles around the city of Jericho until the walls just fell in on themselves– this man looked at the beautiful treasures within the city and couldn’t bring himself to give them up.

So Achan grabbed all the riches he could carry, and scurried home to hide them… buried it all in the ground beneath his tent, a shiny secret that separated him from his friends and neighbors with its weight. I can be scornful of his careless disobedience until I remember that he was, after all, a child of the desert wanderings. Child of slaves who died homeless, with nothing beyond what they could carry, and depending on the mercy of God for their daily bread new every morning, and no way to store up for future needs. Achan had grown up a nomad in the wilderness, waiting for the promise of home and prosperity to come true.

And can I fault him for grabbing onto what he could do for himself, when the allure of abundance was finally within reach? I can almost feel that clutching insecurity in his chest, and the fierce determination that he and his would never be needy again. How am I any different when I grasp onto whatever is beautiful right in front of me, the sure provision for the fears that I feel? It’s really not a matter of hard-headed rebellion, so much as a scarcity of trust.

Strange how it’s sometimes easier to depend on God in a crisis, when you know you haven’t got what it takes to conquer a city or cross a raging river. Maybe that’s when you know for sure that you need some supernatural help to make it through? Yet at the next unexpected situation you find that trust comes hard, and it can be so easy to reach out and take what you want for yourself against the insecurity of an uncertain future. Trust was damaged irrevocably in the Fall, our hearts wounded by the lie that it’s all up to us, and since then we’ve discovered that fear is a relentless slavedriver. Surrendering our sense of control in life is the last thing we want to do in the everyday, with the Enemy’s whispers still targeting our deepest fears: Did God really say that? What if He is holding you back from something good?

But the same God that makes a way through the high waters is the One who Hagar named “El Roi– the God who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13) God knew Achan…had been there at every birth in his household, knew how many mouths there were to feed. God had watched over Achan and his brothers and cousins and sons as they went to battle their enemies, and had brought them safe home each time. And the Lord God who made the fortified walls of Jericho fall in on a shout, says “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matthew 6:8) The Creator who made the sun stand still at Joshua’s request, keeps His eye on the daisies and the sparrows and gives them what they need. Achan could trust God’s promise to bless them in that land and make them prosper. And I need to remember what God has done and trust Him for the needs in my life, too. Surrender only becomes difficult when we listen to the wrong voices and forget who God is.

It’s beginning to crystallize that the more we know Him, the more we can trust Him, and the easier it is to surrender to His rule. And knowing Him grows from the time we spend with Him. The more often I encounter God in the pages of His Story, and see Him working out His plans, the more I understand His heart. The more I hear His words and read His promises and plans for me, the more I experience his hope and encouragement. And when I honestly pour out my own heart to Him, and feel His presence, see Him at work in my life, trust grows naturally. It is easy to surrender to Someone that you love more than life.

The security that answers fear is found in relationship: knowing the One who takes care of me, and being so sure of His goodness, faithfulness, and ability to provide that nothing can shake me.

**You can read the story of Achan’s disobedience in Joshua 7:10-25.

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What if every circumstance—every part of your journey with Christ—was meant to do more than set you up for future “success”?…God really is after our hearts. He cares more about us knowing who He is than how easy or comfortable our journey is.

Ruth Chou-Simons

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The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

PSALM 121:5-8

 

Of Grace and Second Chances

Sometimes the circumstances of the past invade the Now before we even realize, padding in on the heels of a story, a song, a dream in the night, and suddenly the pain of yesterday is large as life right here, as if the clock had turned back when we weren’t looking. And what is there to do with something that can’t be changed and still cuts as deep as the day it was carved into our hearts?

One precious young sister said it quiet this week on the phone; “I try not to think about it, and maybe it will go away”– except I could hear in her voice that it doesn’t, and all the sweeping-under-the-rug just makes very large lumps in the Everyday. It made me ache with wanting to take that away for her, wash her slate clean for good….and I know how my own slate is marked up with things I keep erasing, until they surface again when least expected. It’s Grace that washes the past away, I told her, because Jesus came to carry that weight of shame, all our not-good-enough, that guilt over bad choices, the regrets that make us long for a do-over, only there isn’t one. And we don’t have to be stuck in our failures, with Jesus there, because He can make our hearts new.

Another friend wondered if she had made a mistake with her children, burdening them too hard with the stuff of life, and how do you even know until you’ve already seen the marks and it’s too late? My heart felt the weight of my own mistakes in mothering, all the things I wish I had understood sooner, and the trying so many wrong paths before I found better ways to do it. It’s Grace that works in our children where we can’t see it, I told her; Grace that makes up for our lack and fills in all the gaps in our understanding, and even if we never get it right, He is making all things good and right for our children in His own way.

Someone in small group shared the emotions she didn’t want to feel, said she had been carrying them long and was looking for something better. I fingered my own scars and it whispered through my heart again, that refrain of Grace taking up our past and all our ugly, Someone big enough to carry it Himself so we could be healed. It’s what He does, I told her– heals us on the inside where only He can see, and He knows what you are going through…it’s why He came for us. “Yet it was our weaknesses He carried; it was our sorrows that weighed Him down….He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) 

All this Easter week we hold up our weak and hurting places to You, God… our past and our secret places…all our fears and what-ifs, and the things we can’t quite forget or fix…we offer these to You and lay them down at the cross where Grace and Love pour out to make us clean and make us whole. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.'” (Jeremiah 29:11)  This is Grace healing everything broken and bent, because Jesus was willing to be broken for us. And there’s always a future and a hope where He is.

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By nature, God is always either creating or recreating.
He’s making something out of nothing, or He’s restoring what was broken. 

That is who He is. That is what He does. Forever and ever.

Sarah Bourns Crosby

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Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.

John 11:25-26

Endings and Beginnings

As always, this change of seasons from Winter to Spring reminds me of the realities of life and death. Of the fact that Life has conquered Death and there is no more fear– just a change. It reads like a song: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)…. just a change from one season to the next, like the way the bulb’s green shoots struggle up through hardened dark earth into the sunshine of Spring. So death turns into life before our eyes in this one season, and we realize what a miracle Easter Sunday is, all over again. We need that reminder as we face the future, and hard seasons yet to come…that it is only one more change and then another, until at last it all turns into Glory.

I talk to the children upstairs in church about the holiday that is coming, and they tell me that what makes it special is candy and hunting for eggs. I loved that about Easter too, when I was four and seven. And the new hat and dress, and carrying the little matching purse. Big family dinner at Grandma’s house, and hunting for the baskets she had hidden for us that were full of candy. Mama’s hyacinths and daffodils lining up along the yard. All that is still Easter in my best memories. But now I am searching for words to explain why we celebrate Easter, and they don’t even know how much it means to have death swallowed up in Life, and grief turned to joy. For now they will have to accept “Easter is the most important day” as yet another mysterious grown-up declaration.

But those of us with older eyes watch the bulbs push their way skyward, and breathe in the scents of a world awaking into life, and we know it is a promise unfolding before us: death is not the end but only a change. Like the Church-planter wrote in one of his letters, “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44) It is a declaration of victory that all this dust can change, become something new and better. Spring is our yearly reminder of the most important Easter Day, when Jesus showed us that Winter’s death was no match for God’s resurrection power, and He can bring life to all our dead places.

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When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

1 Corinthians 15:54

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All around,
Hope is springing up from this old ground;
Out of chaos life is being found in You.
You make beautiful things;
You make beautiful things out of the dust…

BEAUTIFUL THINGS, GUNGOR