Thanksgiving this year will be different. The massive Considine clan will not gather for the first time in my adult life.
Thoughts Of Former Thanksgivings
There will not be the moment when I walk into my Uncle Nathan’s house and stunned by the dozens of beloved aunts and uncles and first cousins who are now having dozens and dozens of children whose names I can’t always remember.
There will not be those catching up down country roads with my cousins Hannah and Humility, Rachel and Kathleen.
Nor will there be the competitive-friendly, after-dinner football game with cousins and uncles from age 8 to age 58, when I count apples and rush, and sneaky cousins eavesdrop on play calls and we run and laugh—and some of us limp—until we just can’t see no more.
Then there will not be the hymn sing with Aunt Judy playing the whole hymnal by ear, while I curb my enthusiasm just enough to refrain from calling out consecutive hymns, to give others a chance to request.
No, there won’t be those.
Thanksgiving of 2020—in one way or another—will be different for all of us.
This Thanksgiving, Think Upon The Things That Are
So the annual Thanksgiving post is different. It’s not about giving thanks per se. It’s about “cleaving the faster together,” and being “friends in adversity.” It’s a theme I keep coming back to in 2020: maintain good friendships. Whatever shape they take, do not give up meeting together, as some are doing (Hebrews 10:25). Keep your friends close.
The feasting was over and the tables were cleared. Robert Cushman delivered the same advice to the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims shortly after “The First Thanksgiving” in November, 1621. In a sermon entitled, “The Sin and Dangers Of Self-Love,” Cushman warned the Pilgrims that they must not go it alone. Self-love must not cuase them to forsake the friends. His whole message can be read here.
But it’s the end of the message that prompted this post. In a fraught year when fear and unknowns make it easier to let our friendships go, the last two paragraphs are both timely and timeless (bolding mine),
And as you are a body together…labor to be jointed together and knit by flesh and sinews; away with envy at the good of others, and rejoice in his good, and sorrow for his evil. Let his joy be thy joy, and his sorrow thy sorrow: Let his sickness be thy sickness: his hunger thy hunger: his poverty thy poverty; and if you profess friendship, be friends in adversity; for then a friend is known and tried, and not before.
Lay away all thought of former things and forget them, and think upon the things that are; look not gapingly one upon other, pleading your goodness, your birth, your life you lived, your means you had and might have had; here you are by God’s providence under difficulties; be thankful to God, it is no worse, and take it in good part that which is… when Job was brought to the dung-hill, he sat down upon it, Job 2:8…consider therefore what you are now, and whose you are; say not I could have lived thus, and thus; but say thus and thus I must live: for God and natural necessity require, if your difficulties be great, you had need to cleave the faster together, and comfort and cheer up one another, laboring to make each other’s burden lighter; there is no grief so tedious as a churlish companion and nothing makes sorrows easy more than cheerful associates: bear ye therefore one another’s burden, and be not a burden one to another; avoid all factions…singularity and withdrawing, and cleave fast to the Lord, and one to another continually; so also shall you be an encouragement to many of your christian friends in your native country, to come to you, when they hear of your peace, love and kindness that is amongst you: but above all, it shall go well with your souls, when that God of peace and unity shall come to visit you with death as he hath done many of your associates, you being found of him, not in murmurings, discontent and jars, but in brotherly love, and peace, may be translated from this wandering wilderness unto that joyful and heavenly Canaan. AMEN
Robert Cushman, 1621, “THE SIN AND DANGER OF SELF-LOVE”
To these ears, Cushman’s sermon is as much for Christian pilgrims in November 2020 as it was for those who heard him deliver it in November 1621. Avoid all factions, singularity, and withdrawing. Do not forsake your friend,the proverb says.
And for those of you who are missing Thanksgiving days of yore, well, like Cushman said, Here you are by God’s providence under difficulties; be thankful to God it is no worse, and take it in good part that which is.
There won’t be the Considine multitude, the after-dinner football and cousin walks and hymn sing. But there will be other good things. Within a smaller circle, I will be thankful.
I wish you all a thankful Thanksgiving, friends. Take it in good part that which is.
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Conversely, one of the biggest deflators I face as a small group leader is deafening sound of silence. Sometimes it’s like this: I pray. Others are invited to pray. But if the people all prayed, I heard not what they said.
Admittedly, sometimes it might be that I sucked all the air out of the room. I’m working to change that.
But sometimes the silence might have to do with comparing our prayers with others.
Admittedly, my prayers can be profuse, sprawling and verbose. I’m like that in most of my close relationships. I’m seldom terse—with my human friends and my God-man friend. One praise reminds me of a second, a third request of a fourth and it’s off to the races. I’m a mouse with a muffin, if I don’t rein me in.
But I love when my concise friends pray. I love when my casual friends pray and I love when my formal friends pray.
In short, I do love to hear the saints pray. And some of them are models.
Choose Models—But Choose Them Well
Theologian D.A. Carson says there is not one best way to pray. But prayer models can help us pray. In different, good ways.
Most of us can improve our praying by carefully, thoughtfully listening to others pray. This does not mean copying everything we hear. . . Not every good model provides us with exactly the same prescription for good praying, exactly the same balance. All of them pray with great seriousness; all of them use arguments and seek goals that are already portrayed in Scripture. Some of the seem to carry you with them into the very throne room of the Almighty; others are particularly faithful in intercession, despite the most difficult circumstances in life and ministry; still others are noteworthy because of the breadth of their vision. All are characterized by a wonderful mixture of contrition and boldness in prayer.
I am learning to pray. First from Bible pray-ers, then from my friends. Cathe ends prayers with Psalm 19:14, and Jen prays with touching spontaneity; Hannah with God’s character first, and Donna ever with gentle persistence. My friend Sarah prays in earnest for the lost.
Prayer is an active exercise of a personal relationship. Our friendships are dynamic. They change and grow. How I relate to my friend Jen isn’t the exact way my friend Lisa relates to Jen. There is uniqueness, and that is as God means it.
I start with the truism that each Christian’s prayer life, like every good marriage, has in it common factors about which one can generalize and also uniquenesses which not other Christian’s pray life will quite match. You are you, and I am I, and we must each find our own way with God, and there is no recipe for prayer that can work for us like a handyman’s do-it-yourself manual or cookery book, where the claim is that if you follow the instruction you can’t go wrong.
Praying is not like carpentry or cookery. It is the active exercise of a personal relationship, a kind of friendship, with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ, and the way it goes is more under divine control that under ours. Books on praying, like marriage manuals, are not to be treated with slavish superstition, as if perfection of technique is the answer to all difficulties; their purpose, rather, is to suggest things to try.
But as in other close relationships, so in prayer: you have to find out by trial and error what is right for you, and you learn to pray by praying. Some of us talk more, others less; some some are constantly vocal, others cultivate silence before God as their way of adoration. . . Yet we may all be praying as God means us to do. The only rules are, stay within biblical guidelines and within those guidelines, as John Chapman puts it, “pray as you can and don’t try to pray as you can’t.”
J.I. Packer, In My Path of Prayer, ed. David Hanes, p. 57
In a word: pray.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
When’s the power coming back on, Mom? the 13 year-old called from somewhere down the pitch black hall.
By 8 o’clock, I hope. For Roboman from the electric company had assured me of that time when I called at 4:45.
Well, Roboman was wrong. He was off by almost a day. We did homework by candlelight, ate sandwiches by candlelight, played euchre by candlelight and by the time we brushed our teeth by flashlight, all the candles had burned out. In the morning my husband rigged up a generator to power the fridge. By noon—guess what?— the gas had run out too.
It all got me thinking as I ran along. Admittedly, I may have been thinking more since—for the first time in months— I ran without my (stone-cold dead) phone. And as I did, I grew downright glad. I was the gladdest jogger around because I have a power source that will never go out. It will never burn up, fizzle out, or run dry.
Do you tap the same source?
Our Power Source
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises… 2 Peter 1:3-4a
Our power source is a divine. Do you see that in verse 3?
Divine power is available to us through knowledge. Namely, it comes through knowing Jesus Christ, who even as I type, is upholding the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).
Have you ever stopped to think about this?
Every day God lights up the Milky Way with yottawatts of power and he never has an energy crisis. And the amazing thing is that His divine power- this power- is available to you. If you are a Christian you have power to progress. This power is available to you! Before you were a Christian you lived you lived your life in the condition of a power cut. You were powerless to please God. But now you have power to progress.
Colin Adams, The Pilgrim’s Progress
All this power is on tap for us who know Christ. And He never has an energy crisis.
No Charge, But You Must Plug In
Here’s more glad news: we don’t pay for this rich source. It is given to us. Gratis, granted. That means it’s a gift.
Knowing God and trusting his precious promises is, if you will, the electrical wire that empowers our life and growth in godliness. In case you wondered, the growth doesn’t come to us when we work like a hamster in a wheel, Kevin DeYoung explains. But neither does our growth in godliness come while we stand still as if riding up an escalator.
No, we cooperate with him. We work out because God is at work in us (Philippians 2:12-13). A vacuum won’t work unless you plug it in. A car won’t run unless you turn the key. We access, if you will, divine power through the twin outlet of our knowledge of him and our trust in his promises.
Promises like it is more blessed to give than receive, and like we will reap a harvest if we don’t stop doing good. Promises like these empower me to give and do good when I’d rather give up and receive.
So God gives the power, but we turn the switch. The car and vacuum are a gift and the outlet and gasoline are too. But to make progress in godliness, we get in the car and push the gas pedal. We make every effort to supplement our faith (2 Peter 1:5). And here’s another empowering precious promise: our effort in this struggle is productive and good.
But that’s not the point of this post. This post is simply to remind you, as I reminded myself in the dark, that we have a power source that will never go out. Oh yes, the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is power. First Peter 1:3 says that his divine power comes to us through our knowledge of Jesus. We know the gospel, that we are more sinful than we realize and God loves us more than we realize. Both. That while we were still in our sins, Christ died for us. If we know Jesus Christ we won’t be powerless. Growth is possible. Hope is possible. Change is possible.
But we won’t have this power without knowing him. So we press on to know him. In His power, we press on.
That’s why my three non-negotiables for health in any fraught—or not—days stay the same. Especially #3: Go hard after God. I mean seek His face. I mean listen to him speak in his Word. Put down your phone, turn off the news, and press on to know Him.
I have too many impoverished friends. Friends, we will never—never— experience divine power if we don’t know Jesus Christ. Oh you might be a “strong person” and carry on with lots of props. But when the cords are pulled— when your health fails, your nation fractures, and your family is all a shambles —what then?
Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He is our keeper (Psalm 121). God’s power never goes out.
But we unplug from the power of God when we leave our Bibles on the shelf. Going about life without striving to know God is like unplugging from the power source then complaining that we feel anxious and alone in the dark. Complaining about God being silent when your Bible is closed is like complaining about not getting texts when your phone is turned off.
Tim Challies puts a bow on it:Apart from this, speaking by his Son, through his Spirit, in the Bible, God does not promise that He will speak in any other way.
In other words, we can all believe that God will speak to us through the Bible. And all this JoyPrO stuff is about how God does speak and how when we listen we gain divine power when we seek.
That’s the one thing. It’s the one habit I hope I never shed. Till kingdom come, I want to keep knowing Him and his power. Because all other powers, even the sun itself, will grow dark.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? Then Peter answershis own question: You ought to live holy and godly lives.
Don’t Make Excuses
So we’d best not make excuses. First Peter 1:3 doesn’t allow it. We cannot say, “If only I had more time or more money or a better church or better family I could be more godly and have a stronger spiritual life.” There is no good excuse.
But we can’t expect God to give us what he did not promise us. He did not promise us the power to cure disease, or create world peace or even to change a child’s heart. But take his promises to the bank. If he tells us, Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you, believe it. Seek first his kingdom.
And keep seeking. His Kingdom and Himself. Don’t settle. Because Christ wants us to grow- in spiritual life and godliness.
Don’t Make The Fatal Mistake
Because God’s powerstore is always available through our knowledge of Him and of his precious promises, we can’t slack. I’ll leave you with C.S. Lewis.
I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not put it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say ‘I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.’ And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble.
But this is the fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us.
Fraught is the word of the week. As in headlines like, “How is TV news going to cover the weirdest, most fraught election in US history?” Or, “How to talk to kids about the election and fraught politics.” Fraught, fraught, fraught. Fraught.
Election or not, our lives are fraught.
So just what is “fraught”? It’s an adjective and its strong synonym is UNEASY. The word worked its way to us from the Middle Dutch noun vracht, which meant “load” and which is also the source of the word freight. As in baggage, burden and load.
Merriam-Webster defines fraught as,
1: full of or accompanied by something specified —used with with a situation fraught with danger; The paper was poorly researched and is fraught with errors.
2: causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension : a fraught relationship
I’m writing this post to reassure my fraught self and your fraught self that God strikes with severe mercy—he shakes our sense of security and sends moths to devour our treasures—because our Lord God will not share his glory with another or his praise with idols (Isaiah 42:8). In his grace, our Lord will not permit us to have stability apart from Himself.
In other words, I’m here to say that God sends these fraught days.
God Sends Fraught Days
Why? James answered well: “that you may be perfect [mature] and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.4).
That’s good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be mature and complete lacking nothing?
But what if those only come at the cost of days fraught?
Our current trials may be discipline. Covid-19, the political scene, and our increasingly tense relationships could be God’s moths. He might bring these circumstances so that we tighten our grip on him or he could be bringing it to loosen our grip on our treasures. But in both cases God is working in and through these fraught days to make himself our chief treasure.
Consider the Psalmist in Psalm 39. He believed that what he was enduring was a result of divine discipline for sin.
Erik Raymond explains,
In other words, God sends the discipline and the circumstances act as a divinely dispatch moth to consume his treasure! This is good because in sin we are, like Achan, hiding treasures in our tent (Josh. 7.22). God intends to unfasten us from these fleeting treasures and to refasten us, wholly and completely upon himself.
Regardless of whether our specific sin prompted these fraught Trump v. Biden post-election days or if God’s more general goal that his children grow in holiness was the cause (Hebrews 12:10), we can rest assured. For we know that if we are patient and trained by our trials, these fraught days will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
Therefore, we should not be too taken aback.
We Should Not Be Too Taken Aback…
I, for one, do not want to miss the forest for the trees in these fraught days. God’s ultimate purpose is that we trust in Him (Psalm 37:4-7, Isaiah 26:3-4, Proverbs 3:5-6). Our work, Jesus said, to believe in the One He has sent (John 6:29). To trust him.
We tend to feel like our times are more fraught than times past; as if Noah and Job, Joseph and Moses had fewer reasons for discouragement and unease. So I’ve come back to this bit by J.I. Packer a few times in the past couple fraught days.
The same wisdom which ordered the paths which God’s saints trod in Bible times orders the Christian’s life today. We should not, therefore, be too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Why simply that God in His wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly.
Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humour, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult conditions. Perhaps He has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Or perhaps He wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to Himself in conscious communion with Him…
J.I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press, 1973, p. 86
Free From Fraught
As I write this votes are being recounted in my hyper-divided swing state of Wisconsin. Our nation is on a razor edge. The tension is tangible, this fraught-ness that is new. Oh sure, I’ve been disappointed before.
But this is gloom goes far beyond the two men atop hundreds of thousands of contested ballots in light blue and pink states. As much as I spout hoping in God, I’ve been more skim milk than real cream since election night. Kind of weak. Rather fraught.
But I know there is a good design in it all of this. To quote from a Puritan named Thomas Boston,
It speaks comfort to the afflicted children of God to consider that whatever the crook in your lot is, it is of God’s making and therefore you may look upon it kindly since it is your Father who made it for you. Question not but that there is a favorable design in it toward you.
By some miracle of grace, that is what saints do. We trust that there is a favorable design in our fraught days. I am drawing near. He is drawing me near. And I’m more aware of the treasure it is to commune with Him.
We trust, and we watch for the divinely dispatched moths. They might fly in with coronavirus closures and kids stuck at home. Or they might appear in the mail with late arriving ballots or on the wings of a Twitter bird that does not tweet away.
We trust that God in His wisdom sends moths to eat away our idol hopes and make something of us which we have not attained yet. Yes, we trust that God is at work. Perhaps simply to draw us closer to Himself.
We have to be push-backers, Abigail. Truth demands it.That from a recent email from a friend-who-shall-go-unnamed. This post is that: a little pushback. It is not a call to civil disobedience, to wear a mask or to take it off, or even to vote.
It is a call to not live by lies—a call to be courageous and walk in the truth in love and in truth. Both. John Stott wrote, Our love grows softif it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love; John the Beloved, Let us not love in word or talk but in action and in truth. They belong together. Believers love truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
So when the world calls evil good, bitter sweet, and darkness light (Isaiah 5:20), those of the truth refuse. They refuse to drift along or succumb to self-righteous masquerade. Rather, because they love the truth, they push back against pretense.
They live not by lies.
1. Are You A Push-Backer?
Do you ever push back for truth? Or only ever go along?
I’m not (naturally) a push-backer and I don’t (generally) like to rock the boat. But sometimes a shift is too important to ignore. When it comes at you on multiple sides you can’t let it slide out of mind. You’d be a fool not to take note. I don’t want to be a fool.
So I took notes and now I share them. Because my friend is right. We must be push-backers. Truth demands it. Since Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), as his follower I must walk in truth. The Father commanded (2 John 4) and the Spirit guides this walk (John 14:16-17).
In fact, did you know truth is the reason Christ came into the world?For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). And, at some point, everyone who is of the truth will push back for truth.
2. Do You Trust God’s Truth And Doubt Your Deceitful Heart?
Culture makes it hard. For one thing, our culture cherishes moral ambiguity as an end in itself, as an intrinsically good thing; theologian D.A. Carson notes. Humble Christians trust God to be true (Isaiah 66:2) and doubt their deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).
But the world does the reverse. Be true to your heart, it shouts. How can you be so sure, it taunts. If you trust God—if you “stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E” and believe the sum of his word is truth (Psalm 119:160)— now that, it sneers, is most virulent form of pride.
This reversal is nothing new. G.K. Chesterton described it a century ago, when he wrote,
[W]hat we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.
Do you see? We should doubt ourselves—our feelings, desires, and ‘needs’— not God’s truth.
But believing a truth and speaking it are two different things. Gabi taught me that.
3. Do You Speak Up For Truth?
It was a Friday night in July. Maybe it was pushback to even be where we were. I’m not sure. But the after-dinner mood was light and Gabi was right across the table from me. We’d only met the hour before, but I sensed my new friend from the Czech Republic wouldn’t mind if I asked.
So what was it liketo live under communism?
Gabi was in middle school in 1989, when the Wall fell. Almost overnight, she replied.
That’s how fast her teachers went from denouncing democracy to decrying communism. Her school dumped the pro-communism for pro-republic curricula—taught by the very same teachers who’d spouted the party line mere months before.
How could they do that? I asked, incredulous. What do you think they really believed?
I think there was relief when communism fell and they could teach the truth. They taught what they were told to keep their jobs.
Since statue toppling and painting was big in the news, I pressed on.
So what about all these statues toppled and defaced?
Without blinking, Oh, yes. That happened in Czechoslovakia shortly before Soviet rule.
My stomach churned with the same tension I’d felt a lot in 2020 when I felt torn to like a friend’s post or affirm her position—even if it didn’t sit right. Gabi was insightful and wise, and still across the table from me. So I asked the burning question.
When do I just go along when and when do I speak up for truth?
I think—here Gabi paused and took a deep breath—you must be true to your conscience.If your conscience says it’s wrong, do not go along.
4. Do You Lower Your Voice And Close The Door?
Rod Dreher said the same thing Gabi did in Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents. The title comes from an essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, dated February 12, 1974 —the same day Russian secret police broke into his apartment and arrested him. He was exiled to West Germany the next day. Live Not By Lies, the essay and the book, are clarion calls to courage for those who are of the truth.
But courage to push back against lies doesn’t mean we refuse all compromise. Daily life requires assessing which fights are worth having. Choose your battles. Though one must guard against rationalization, prudence is not the same thing as cowardice. (p. 105)
Sometimes silence is an act of resistance.My refusal to like a popular post or parrot a trendy mantra is choosing to live not by lies.Judit Pastor, whose father was arrested for vocally opposing Ceausescu in 1968 was arrested and his life destroyed in a Romanian prison. She says, Keeping silent when you aren’t expected to be silent is also pushing back.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed the restrictions, “soft” restrictions, I now feel on freedom of speech. I am loath to admit that I close more doors and look over my shoulder far more often when I speak in public places. I wonder, “Can I trust her with this? Should I say that in front of him?”
This is new. It’s a shift. I never used to wonder like this.
A Primer On “Soft” Totalitarianism
I don’t fear arrest by government police. That happened in Soviet era where compliance to the Party’s demands were enforced by the state. That’s not what we’ve got. The totalitarianism we face is “softer.” It demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs… It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings or “victims.” I’m not worried about arrest as much as Facebook nixing my post, or a “fact-checker” blocking a link. I have, by the way, experienced both.
Compliance within soft totalitarianism, Dreher explains, is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations, that thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit. (p. 8-9)Anyone else second guessing your open invitation to Echo and Alexa?
But no, this is not a copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, gulags, and strict censorship. Which is precisely the problem, according to the many émigrés Dreher interviewed who had experienced “hard” totalitarianism. One Czech émigré, a professor in the Midwest, told Dreher about the shift he feels: friends would lower their voices and look over their shoulders when expressing conservative views. I grew up like this, he said, but it was not supposed to happen here. (p. xiii)
I agree with Dreher: it’s hard for us who’ve never lived through such “idealogical fog” to recognize what’s happening.
But don’t forget the frog in the pot.
Silence Doesn’t Save Us, It Corrodes Us
Part of the reason it all feels so foggy is that language is changing. Newspeak, here Dreher borrows from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the Party’s word for the jargon it imposes on society—it controls the categories in which people think. “Freedom” is slavery, “truth” is falsehood, and so forth. Doublethink—”holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”—is how people learn to submit their minds to the Party’s ideology. If the Party says 2+2=5, then 2+2=5. (p. 14)
We might see through the lies, but will we speak up? But if we never do, our silence will not save us but corrode us. So says Czeslaw Milosz. He would know. Milosz was exiled from his native Poland as an anti-communist dissident in 1951.
To dissent costs more these days. To even post this blog gives me pause. But walking in truth constrains me to write and encourage you to live not by lies. Because when you see someone acting courageously, you will act courageously as well. (p. 170)
5. Do You Prefer the ‘Peace’ of Conformity to the Tension of Liberty?
Dreher interviewed Vladimir Grygorenko, an immigrant from the Ukraine. He expressed concern over polls showing waning support for the First Amendment. Grygorenko sees this as a sign of a society that prefers the false peace of conformity to the tensions of liberty. He added, To grow indifferent, even hostile, to free speech is suicidal for free people. (p. 104)
I walked and talked and ached with a friend over our difference this morning. I bear witness: tension, discomfort, and hurt feelings are the price our free expression. But wouldn’t your rather bear the tension of our differences, as our Founding Fathers did, than enjoy a false peace of conformity? Wouldn’t you?
What I did with my friend—imperfectly as I apologized twice in 20 minutes for raising my voice—we must all do. We must speak up. We must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19), but we must “truth it in love” and grow up (Ephesians 4:15).
You have to live in a world of lies, Dreher concludes, but it’s our choice as to whether that world of lies lives in you. (p. 105)
The Greengrocer Breaks The Rules
One of the most gripping sections in the book was the Greengrocer story.
The grocer posts a sign in his shop bearing the well-known slogan from the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!” But the grocer doesn’t believe in it. He hangs it in the store to signal conformity. He just wants to be left alone.
But his action is not meaningless. As Dreher explains, the grocer’s act, “not only confirms that this is what is expected of one in a communist society but also perpetuates the belief that this is what it means to be a good citizen.” Then he quotes Vaclav Havel, one time Czech political prisoner who became the Czech Republic’s first President.
Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really things at political meetings. And he even finds the strength to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game…His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. (p. 98)
And Shatters the World of Appearances
But this act is costly. He loses his shop, his salary is cut, and he can’t travel abroad. Maybe his children can’t get into college. People mock him. If not because they disagree with him, then to keep the authorities off their back. By refusing to mouth a lie, the man suffers.
But there is a deeper meaning to his gesture,
By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. The grocer has…demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie…He has said that the emperor is naked…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. (p. 99)
Maybe you’re shaking your head, saying, Get off it, Abigail. Lighten up.
Last year I would have agreed. But now I say, The kind of Christians we will be in the time of testing depends on the kind of Christians we are today. (p. 204)
What are you willing to risk—to sacrifice—for the sake of truth?
6. Will You Choose Comfort Over Your Soul’s Health?
Because if you live by lies and never push back for truth, your spiritual health will suffer. A person who lives only for his own comfort, said Havel,who is willing to live within a lie to protect that is a demoralized person. (p. 99)
Havel’s words remind me of something J.I. Packer wrote. Packer sets up the analogy by describing first how our bodies are like machines, that need the right routine of food, rest, and exercise to run efficiently. Conversely, if they’re filled up with “the wrong fuel—alcohol, drugs, poison—they lose physical health and ultimately ‘seize up’ in death.”
Then, to our point,
What we are, perhaps, slower to grasp is that God wishes us to thing of our souls in a similar way. As rational persons, we were made to bear God’s moral image—that is, our souls were made to ‘run’ on the practice of worship, law-keeping, truthfulness, honesty, discipline, self-control, and service to God and our fellows. If we abandon these practices, not only do we incur guilt before God; we also progressively destroy our souls. Conscience atrophies, the sense of shame dries up, one’s capacity for truthfulness, loyalty, and honesty is eaten away, one’s character disintegrates. One not only becomes desperately miserable; one is steadily being de-humanised.
J.I., Packer, KNOWING GOD, 102-103
Simply put, believing one thing and doing another will ruin your spiritual health. Living by lies will enslave your soul. It might seem like a liar is strong, and his lie is a victory over his victim. But in reality, a lie is an enslaving act.
Because, as Ayn Rand wrote, one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked.
Maria Wittner said, We live in a world of lies, whether we want it or not. But you shouldn’t accommodate to it. She would know. Her refusal to go along with the Party lies landed in a Hungarian prison. It’s an individual decision if you want to live in the freedom of the soul. If your soul is free, then your thoughts are free, and then your words are going to be free.
Refusing to live by lies isn’t always comfortable, but comfort is overrated. The idol of comfort will disappoint. C.S. Lewis observed,If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
If you refuse to live by the lie, whatever it costs you, you will gain a spiritual victory. And this is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith. (1 John 5:4) But God doesn’t mean for us to conquer alone.
I read it and I agree. It’s hopeful because it says we are not without options and because it is a call to be alert.
That call to be alert and watchful so we’re ready for the Bridegroom is not new. Jesus urged us, Peter urged us, Paul urged us: be alert, stay awake, be watchful (Matt. 24:42, 1 Pet. 1:13, Eph.6:18).
Christian community helps us does that. That came through loud and clear in all of Dreher’s interviews with Christians who kept the faith under communism. To stay alert and remind ourselves of truth, Dreher prescribes the Christian dissident form small cells with fellow believers with whom she can pray, sing, study Scripture… (p. 18)
Rod Dreher wasn’t the first to note the connection between living in loving relationships with other believers and being alert. John praises his readers for “walking in the truth” (2 John 4), then reminded them “to love one another” (v. 5), expressed by “walking according to his commandments” (v. 6). Those words probably don’t surprise us: truth, obedience, love.
But it’s the connection in verse 7 that grabbed me, the reason we must not let our love grow cold (Mtt. 24:12). Love one another, John writes, For many deceivers have gone out into the world. Walking with others in love is a protection against deception.
When we walk side by side we gain strength to live not by lies.
The Final Word: Touchstone For Truth
None of this is easy. Lies aren’t always obvious. The conscience is pricked at different points. But the Christian, as J.I Packer described, is the one, who acknowledges and lives under the word of God. She says with the Psalmist, The sum of your word is truth.
He submits without reserve to the word of God written in ‘the Scripture of truth’ (Dan. 10:21)…since the Scriptures tell him that all things work together for his good, the thought of God ordering his circumstances brings him only joy. He is an independent fellow, for he uses the word of God as a touchstone by which to test the various views that are put to him, and he will not touch anything which he is not sure that Scripture sanctions.
J.I., Packer, KNOWING GOD, p. 104-105
But we need to the Spirit to illumine and help us apply the word. I feel my need acutely. My sin is ever before me.
Solzhenitsyn, for all his calls to resist totalitarian rule, knew well his own sinful heart: “the greatest totalitarian ruler of all—myself.” We are not gods. We never will be gods. But we can know the true God.
For only when we know him can the truth set us free— free from slavery to deadly self-rule and free to live not by lies.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
1 John 5:20
AFTERWARD: If You’re Still Wondering What It Means to Live Not By Lies
Even if, Solzhenitsyn wrote, we do not march into the squares and shout the truth out loud… let us refuse to say what we do not think…let us each make a choice: whether to remain consciously a servant of falsehood…or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect from one’s children and contemporaries.
Such a person, Solzhenitsyn wrote, will not:
sign, write or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth;
utter such a phrase neither in private conversation nor in public, neither on his own behalf nor at the prompting of someone else, neither in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, nor as an actor;
depict, foster or broadcast a single idea in which he can see a distortion of the truth, whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science or music;
cite out of context, either orally or in writing, a single quotation to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not completely share the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue;
allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations and meetings if they are contrary to his desire;
remain in a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda;
subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.
While these are not “all possible and necessary ways of avoiding lies,” wrote Solzhenitsyn, “whoever begins to cleanse himself will easily apply the cleansing pattern to other cases.” Learn more in John Stonestreet’s probing 4-minute Breakpoint podcast.
How will you resolve to live not by lies? I’d love to read your comment.
Holding Out for a Hero is back on my playlist. This election season gets me belting it out with Bonnie Tyler. Where have all the good men gone? Isn’t there a white knight on a fiery steed?
Trump & Biden: Not My Heroes
Admittedly, this might feel like a bait and switch. Because you thought I’d back a candidate here and now. In fact, I did vote today. And if you’re still on the fence, here’s a voter guide.
But I’ll tell you the end at the beginning: my hope and my joy are not in a President. Why? Because the LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our King. He will save us (Isaiah 33:22).
That’s the main reason I’m not holding out for an earthly hero. But there’s another reason: I’m already blessed by heroes I know.
Heroes Among Us
And for the record, my heroes do need to be strong— and humble and joyful and meek. Even if public heroes are in short supply, they are out there. They share common traits. May I describe them to you?
You can recognize them both by what they do and what they don’t do.
Heroes Don’t Write Their Own Stories
Your eyes saw my unformed body; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were not one of them. Psalm 139:16
Heroes don’t write their own scripts. They don’t star in their stories. But with courage and grace, they play parts in stories they didn’t write. And they don’t begrudge the author.
Heroes are the ones who play their assigned part even when it is so hard. My heroes are Julia and Barb, Shari and Kate—but not Bill.
My heroes are the ones who go with good cheer to places they never planned. They have touched the bottom of the deep and can assure me, It is sound. These are my heroes. Not the ones who swimmingly make their way.
Real heroes embrace their place in Someone Else’s story. Often it’s a waiting stage. Like the string of Bible heroes from Noah’s ark stage to Moses’ wilderness stage and Daniel’s Babylon stage and Esther’s Persian stage. Not one of those heroes picked his stage. Sometimes it’s a moving stage. Moses speaks for them when he asks God, “Who am I that I should go?” (Ex. 3:11).
But real heroes stay or go depending on what’s written in the book, in the script. Real heroes play their parts.
Before his fall from grace, I remember Bill Cosby saying of his- to date, storybook- life- It’s as if I’ve written the script myself.Hold out past the ones who live their dreams and follow the script they wrote.
But search high and low for heroes who embrace parts they didn’t write on stages they didn’t select.
Barb is 60-something, a friend of our family’s from way back. We reconnected at Grandma’s funeral. Barb’s got way more pep and way less gray than this 45 year-old has got. Not for a second does she seem senior.
But when Barb’s husband suffered a brain injury a few years ago, they sold their home and moved to Oak Park Place Senior Living. She explained, He needs some extra help plus he loves to visit with all the neighbors. He’s so social. Barb blesses the 90 year-olds that are now her neighbors. She shares Jesus’ love and calls them friends.
She doesn’t begrudge this change in setting in the story she did not write. For that, Barb is my hero.
*Note: Since writing the original post four years ago, Barb’s husband went home to be with Jesus. Like Job, Barb worshiped.
She’s a whiz with words and super-savvy with people and works for a Fortune 500 company. Julia always dreamed of being a wife and mother. Julia never married, never bore children. She wouldn’t have written her script that way. But she says it’s okay.
Aunt Julia is the most generous, most nurturing aunt her nephews could ever have. Two live with Aunt Julia half the week. She takes them to church and shows them Jesus better than their mom and dad have. And her nurturing love overflows way beyond those two nephews.
*Note: After 20+ years at that Fortune 500 company, Julia was laid off in February of 2020. She begins a new lower-paying job next week, and says, “Now I trust God (not money) to open up ways for me to live on this salary.”
Julia didn’t select single status or job loss as a character in this story. But she has trusts God still. For that, Julia’s my hero.
Kate’s in her thirties. Kate’s calm, patient presence speaks volumes of the Refuge she’s got. You see, before Kate turned thirty, her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Treatments and seizures and surgeries left John disabled, and Kate with the lion’s share of raising four kids under eight.
But Kate’s strengthened by his glorious power for all endurance and patience with joy. She’s got a heavy load, helping care for four kids and a husband with fragile health.
*Note: In the four years since I wrote this, John has been in and out of hospitals and other heartache has come Kate’s way. But last week Kate said, “I wouldn’t have chosen this. But the intimacy I have with John and God, well—I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kate didn’t pick the twist in their love story when she married John 20 years ago, but she embraces the story, her husband and God. For that, Kate’s my hero.
Shari was pillar in our church. She was the Christian education director who wrote curriculum that was a smashing success year after year for a decade. Shari wrote plays and painted sets and designed stunning graphics and fun games to draw others to Jesus. Thousands were nourished with the fruit of Shari’s lips and scripts and pens.
Then, Shari’s story took a turn. Things at the church changed and Shari’s husband lost his job. Now Shari sells insurance. Who’d have thought? she said the other day. She’s still awaiting His timing for her writing.
*Note: Shari was diagnosed with a serious cancer last summer. Because it was so rare, treatment decisions were excruciating. But Shari trusted God through. She’s the one who said, you can’t ride two horses with one heinie. Anxiety and gratitude can’t coexist.
Shari didn’t write the job change or the cancer into her story. But with incredible grace she plays this part. For that, Shari is my hero.
Maybe as you read about some of these heroes you were wishing you had more courage, or strength or greater faith to believe the story you find yourself in will actually turn out okay.
Please take heart. Every single thread in God’s story will come together. In His hands, nothing is wasted. Every line in the script is crafted with the glorious end in mind. Blogger Jean Williams is one of my heroes who’s felt the bottom and knows that it is sound.
Heroes Do Get Caught Up in a Bigger Story
Jean’s blog breathes strength and courage. She too has felt the bottom and calls back to us on shore, Fear not, it is sound.
God is a far better author than I could ever be. I wouldn’t have written so much hardship into the recent pages of our life. But as I look back, the suffering has…helped me see just how weak I am, and driven me to rely on God’s strength.
Better than that, this author hasn’t stayed outside the story, an omniscient, removed narrator; he has become a character on its pages…For in the end, this isn’t my story at all. Not only am I not the author of my story, I’m not the hero either. My part in this narrative serves to do one thing: highlight and direct attention to Jesus. He is the hero of this story, not me.
So forget me being the author of my story. The real Author is far more skilled than I am. Forget me being the hero of my story. Jesus is front and centre on all its pages. Forget this being my story. It’s God’s story, and it’s moving towards the glory of his Son. We’re all caught up in a bigger story, you and I, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Heroes forget about being heroes.And that’s exactly the way it should be. Because they don’t want to be front and center, eclipsing God’s glory, starring in their own little dream stories.
Oh, no—real heroes want a larger than life, overcoming hero front and center.
Holding Out for a (larger than life)Hero
These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have troubles, but take courage; I have overcome the world. –Jesus, in John 16:33
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said decades ago.
Courage is declining in 2020, I think. Fear of Covid, fear of the future, and fear of losing control of our stories chokes some of us. Opening our hands to release the scripts we wrote and embracing roles we didn’t seek is scary. It takes faith and courage.
We need more courage. That’s why we need more heroes. Because real heroes- overcoming, faithful heroes- bring it. If their names are not on our ballots, they are still among us- real world heroes like Kate and Barb and Julia and Shari. Let’s not forget the heroes bursting forth in God’s Word. Read about Abram and Deborah, Moses and Joseph, Esther and Daniel and Paul. Read and take courage. Be encouraged by the way they play their parts.
But worship only One. And hold out for Him: the Hero who overcomes. Because Bonnie Tyler had that right: He’s gotta be larger than life. He is larger than life because he swallowed up death.
And He will come again on a fiery white steed. I am holding out for Him.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
The recent loosening of stay-at-home orders has ramped up fear of missing out for countless Americans. Friends agonize on a high wire between fear of death on the one hand and fear of missing out on life on the other. It’s FOMO on steroids. Many lack conviction.
Apart from the temptation to let fear dominate us are these others Lewis described: To say the things are bad (wearing masks, singing in church) or that the people who practice- or don’t practice these- are unloving or bad. That quote has been heavy on my mind as our country opens up.
The purpose of this post is not to persuade you to eat inside or make it a picnic, to go out or to stay home, to wear a mask or not wear a mask.
My purpose is to share a bold, jarring truth, a truth Paul proclaimed to those with strong, and opposing, convictions in the Roman church to- get this- promote peace.
Disputable Matters & Conviction
Opposing behaviors in disputable matters may both glorify God.
Before I back that bombshell up, we must define disputable matters.
Disputable matters are subjects on which the Bible does not prescribe the right way. In the church of Rome, some Christians felt they could not eat meat, drink wine, or celebrate certain holidays. Those were disputable.
However, adultery and pride, lying and stealing, gossip and envy, to name a few, are not disputable. They are never right. God has spoken on those. And he does not change his mind. (Numbers 23:19)
Jack Arnold offers this background Romans 14. What he calls “doubtful practices” are also called “disputable matters,” or “non-essentials.”
A weaker brother in Romans 14 was one who insisted that because they held the conviction that something was wrong it must be wrong for everyone else. Note: They were not weak because they did not practice these doubtful things, but because they judged others who did. So Paul told them not to judge or condemn others who held opposite convictions.
Which is, as Lewis wrote, a marks of a certain type of bad man.
3 Bad Attitudes about (Coronavirus) Conviction
When you throw mud at others you not only get dirty, you lose a lot of ground. –Ravi Zacharias
C.S. Lewis talked about the badness of “looking down his nose” at someone who feels more free to do a thing than we. There are also these three:
1. Irritation. Impatient annoyance gets us nowhere. However much we may disagree, we must try to see the other person’s point of view.
2. Ridicule. No one remains unwounded when that which he thinks precious is laughed at. No one has a right to laugh at what another holds sacred.
3. Contempt. To scorn and disdain is unloving. William Barclay notes, Of all attitudes towards our fellow man the most unchristian is contempt.
The point: Have your convictions. Make them motivated by love and faith, to the glory of God. But recognize that there are many paths to the same end. My husband and I take different routes to town. I take Johnson Road and he takes Potter. My route is steeper, his his longer. But, both roads get us there.
Paul’s plea is that the common goal should unite us and the differing routes should not divide.
Each One Should Be Fully Convinced
Romans 14:5 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Note well: Paul does not say “lighten up,” or “let it be.” He says, “Where you see things differently- be fully convinced.” This is not what we would expect.
He is not saying as a kind of concession, Each one can have his own conviction. He is saying, Each one should have his own conviction. It’s a command, not a permission: “Let each one be fully persuaded in his own mind.”…It’s the same idea that we find in Romans 14:23, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” In other words, minor matters do not call for mushy faith or flimsy convictions. They call for clear faith and full conviction.
Romans 14 says that Christians who disagree on non-essential things like these can do opposite things to the glory of God.
Shocking as it may sound, dinner with friends or takeout at home, can both be done by faith, with conviction, to the glory of God.
“Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” If God has convicted you that something is wrong- that wearing a mask or dinner with friends is wrong- then you must not do it, but this does not mean that this same act is wrong for another Christian in the area of doubtful things.
But, whatever is not from faith is sin.
Whatever is Not from Faith is Sin
Romans 14:23 says, Whatever is not from faith is sin. And without faith it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6) Faith looks forward to the promises of God, believing that He will keep his word.
In a message on Romans 14:23- 40 years before all this COVID-19 chaos- John Piper said, Coming to church may be sin, staying home may be sin. Eating steak might be a sin, not eating steak might be a sin…Sin is not a list.
Because faith is not a list.
Conviction Comes To You Of Little Faith
To you who still feel anxious and panicky and just not convinced, Jesus loves you. You say, Abigail, easy for you. You’re healthy as a horse and don’t have a family member with fragile health. We just don’t know what’s coming.
But guess what? No one but the Good Lord knows what’s coming. My choices must be borne of faith as much as yours. I don’t know if there’ll be another spike in COVID-19 deaths. We don’t know if we’ll get sick from having friend over for dinner or singing maskless at church. You don’t know if you are hugging a friend who is an asymptomatic carrier or if that hug might might do more harm to your body or good for your soul.
We just don’t know.
Exactly. That’s what faith must be: the conviction of things unseen.Unseen.
But, as Paul says in Romans 14, be fully convinced. Do your research and say your prayers and believe that God will care of you through whatever decisions you make, come what may. Have your conviction and carry on.
Let’s not be those who drown in information and starve for wisdom. The research– for and against– is ever new and at our fingertips. What seems obviously good and loving to one person is not so clear to another.
But whoever said love always looks the same?
We don’t need the CDC to tell us that ten out of ten people will die. And still no evil shall befall you. Christians are united by faith to the One whose own death broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15) It’s not just that Christians aren’t afraid of rejection or affliction- it’s that they are free from the fear of death!
Finally, I offer this advice to you who have moved forward in faith with conviction but love someone who is afraid: The best response to fear is to live free of it. And be as gracious as you can be. (Douglas Wilson’s to C.W.’s “Letter to the Editor“)
Back to Romans 14. As if to prove the point that opposite extremes can both glorify God, Paul adds in verse 8: If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Talk about taking an argument to its logical end. Living and dying. Both can glorify God. I write this on Memorial Day. All gave some and some gave all. In God’s providence, some faithful soldiers lived to ripe old ages and some died on beaches. Life and death- BOTH to the glory of God.
And if God would ordain some live to his glory and some die to his glory, might he ordain that some don masks by faith, to his glory and some don’t, also by faith to his glory ?
That’s it, folks-Romans 14, Memorial Day, and COVID-19 together. Here’s the end of all three: Live free from fear. Be fully convinced.
And be as gracious as you can be.
Whatever you do, whether you eat or whether you drink, do all to the glory of God.
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
What One Ought To Do
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,Benjamin Franklin wrote.
A nation’s soul can’t be stronger or more free than the sum, or soul, of its parts. And without individual ability to self-govern, without willpower, national government has no hope. A nation of souls enslaved to their sinful ways will not a free nation make.
Michael Novak explains that true freedom is not being able to do what what desires at the moment or is impelled by passion to do.
To be free as a human being ought to be is to be able to discern, not only what one desires to do or is impelled by passion to do, but also, and even more clearly, what one ought to do…In short, in “the American ideal”… is not the capacity to do what one wishes but the capacity to do what one ought. It is, in short, to be capable of self-government, self-mastery, and self-control.
Paul knew this too.
For he knew that true freedom is not found in following our hearts and acting out our selfish desires. Rather, it is found in subverting our desires to serve one another. Paul knew how easy it was stay slaves to sin:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Strong (Joyful) Souls Are No Accident
Add to the self-control mix, this common refrain I keep hearing as I talk with strong Christian friends. Can you hear the repeating theme?
Believe me, I could definitely down that whole pan of brownies tonight. I could. That’s why I can’t even sneak a bite. I’ll share them Friday.
It’s hard to get to bed by 11. There’s so much I can do when the kids are asleep. But when I stay up so late I overeat. Then I’m short and grumpy come morning.
It seems a little over the top, I know, but I add my husband whenever I text or email another man. It’s just a safeguard. I’ve watched affairs start.
I try to practice giving others the last word, especially when we disagree. It’s hard to bridle my tongue and resist setting the record right. But it’s good.
In short, my faithful, fruitful Christian friends didn’t get that way by accident. They had all learned to exercise self-control.
No One Drifts Toward Self-Control
There was quite a lot of Spirit-powered, self-control happening behind the scenes. They don’t toot their own horns, but day after day, they discipline themselves. Oh, sure, they stumble and fall sometimes. Then they get back up because they know the joy of self-control.
Do you know that joy? The joy of going to bed on a hungry stomach? Or of leaving a well-deserved zinger unsaid?
It’s counter-intuitive, the joy of self-control. Because the pleasure of Spirit borne fruit is way deeper than the fleeting joys of giving in to sin.Knowing that you didn’t cave, but by grace overcame- now that feels great.
Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Like a city with walls broken down
Like a city with its walls broken down is man who lacks self-control.Proverbs 25:28
Cities with broken down walls will crumble. They are open to enemies and become slaves to invaders.
A person without self-control is like an unprotected city. When we don’t exercise self-control, when we don’t say yes when we should and no when we shouldn’t, we are vulnerable to our soul’s enemies. In time, our city-souls will crumble.
Self-control matters. In this age of distraction and endless temptation to drift online and through social media, we so need self-control.
America will never be destroyed from the outside.If we falter and lose our freedoms, President Lincoln said, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
Soul-strength or city strength depends on walls of self-control. When we lack-self control we destroy our city from the inside, as individual and as nations. But exercising self-control confirms and bolsters the soul.
When Paul was called to explain the Christian faith to the Roman Governor Felix, he summed up the Christian gospel and worldview as “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). He didn’t tack on peace or patience or kindness with Felix. He talked about self-control.
Not surprisingly Sir Secular Felix didn’t drop to his knees and convert. No- he was alarmed. “Go away for the present,” he said. Self-control is not flashy or flamboyant or fun. In the moment, anyway.
Author David Mathis describes self-control as not terribly attractive, but, frank and functional. And difficult.
It doesn’t turn heads or grab headlines. It can be as seemingly small as saying no to another Oreo, French fry, or milkshake — or another half hour on Netflix or Facebook — or it can feel as significant as living out a resounding yes to sobriety and sexual purity. This is the height of Christian virtue in a fallen world, and its exercise is quite simply one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do.
But even then- I won’t kid you- it’s still a fight. Reining in my tongue, my stomach, my controlling appetites.
By the grace of God, self-control is possible.
And America, you listening? God has shed his grace on thee.
But America? The grace God shed on us is one and the same as the grace that confirms our souls in self-control, our liberty in law.
So, yes, America: Happy Independence Day!
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL
O beautiful for pilgrim feet, Whose stern, impassioned stress A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!
The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.
The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.
At least for a rascal like me. It’s so easy to say I love the world or a major subset of it. But when it gets down to it, I’ve got my hands full loving the people right in front of me.
I am right there with Brother D. Some of the same petty things that disturbed him, disturb me. The brother who picks at his food and the sister who sniffles, the brother who doesn’t clean up his dog’s doo and the sister who speaks in high-pitch- that these little things can annoy me reveals a sin-sick heart. Not to mention the deadlies, like my envy and pride.
If I- sometime difficult, irritating sister- cannot love my sometime difficult, irritating brother – then Houston, we have a problem.
Because how can I love the God I cannot see if I cannot love the realio, trulio people in right in front of me?
Or, to borrow the Beloved Apostle’s words, If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Why am I writing this now?
First, because I need to hear it. I want this chaos to breed clarity. And love. As always, I’m writing first to me.
Second, because I want you to be free from false guilt you might feel for not having a feeling of love for people you don’t know. We cannot love what we do not know.
Third, because our world is being shaken. And when things are shaken we must anchor on truth. Since the murder of George Floyd the world wants change. One thing I know about change- about good, gospel change- is that it happens one sinful heart at a time. Racism and all other forms of selfish, sinful, setting ourselves above others only ends when Christ comes to rule our hearts.
This is not to say we ought to be content with the state of our love. As if we could say, “I’ve loved enough. I’m done.” No way. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another (Romans 13:8). Be zealous to love and do good (Titus 2:14, Romans 12:11).
But we can’t let our love for “humanity in general” or our zealous words on social media substitute for patient, kind love for the real people in our lives.
Talk Is Cheap
The course of thy life will speak more for thee than the discourse of thy lips. Puritan George Swinnock wrote those words 400 years ago.
But Apostle John said way before that, Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
We say we love God. We celebrate his love for us. But there is in us irritation and impatience and jealousy and greed and selfishness with respect to the people that God has placed nearest to us.
Brothers and sisters, should we say this gospel contradiction is okay? It’s easy to say, ‘I love God.’ Surely it’s much easier to claim allegiance to a God who I can’t see than to live in self-sacrificing love toward the people that we live the nearest to.
It is so easy to say we love people we don’t know. To hashtag my #love for the world is cheap. But to show patience with a sister who’s annoying me is much more costly. It costs my time and energy.
To forgive a neighbor who mows down my flowers, to rejoice with a sister who gets what I want or forbear a brother whose words wound- those can be harder than loving the world.
God Loves The World
The past two weeks have tapped me dry. In large part, because I have passionate and caring friends and family on “both sides” of these vital issues. I want to love them well.
I’ve searched my heart and sought peace as the Spirit leads. I’ve read uncomfortable words and wept for the heavy burden of sins. I’ve reached out to black brothers, albeit awkwardly, to to express my imperfect love.
But I haven’t loved the world. By grace, and for Christ’s sake, I am trying hard to love my neighbor. The one I met yesterday on the way to the mailbox, the friends I listened to last night, and the three who share this house with me.
It sounds glorious to say I love the world. But I cannot love the world. Only God is big enough and pure enough and loving enough to love the whole wide world.
Let Us Love Our Neighbors
Which is as He intended. Correct me if I’m wrong, but God never called me- called us- to “love the world.” That’s God’s job. Almighty God alone is equal to that task (John 3:16).
In point of fact, we are called not to love the world. (See 1 John 2:15.*) We are called to do something much harder than loving the whole world. We are called to love one another (John 13:34), to love our neighbor as ourself (Mark 12:30-31) and to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). And loving those I see, who hurt or disagree with me, is far harder than loving the world.
So in these days when love-talk for humanity abounds, our challenge is first to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind and to love our neighbor as ourself. (Matthew 22:34-40)
But there is another challenge.
Let us rest in the unfailing love of God who alone can and -Hallelujah!- does love the whole wide world.
We love because he first loved us.
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4:19-21
*In Scripture and in John’s writing, the word world has multiple meanings- from the created physical universe to the people who dwell on earth, to a particular subset of them. This article helps explain. For the purpose of this post, I’m using world in the sense of “all humanity.”
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’
Meg’ll like that, I thought, tucking in a gift card with the note. Meg is my friend’s daughter. She was turning 10.
But as I sealed the envelope, the old unfair bee stung. Even if she never remembers us on our birthdays.
The Word For Weary Givers
Don’t grow weary in doing good. For at the right time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. -Galatians 6:9
Why am I always the giver, the initiator, the one who remembers? I love to give, but why does it feel like I give more than I get?
It might be partly a love language thing. Words and gifts might be more my native tongue than, say, service or touch. When I start begrudging giving, that might play a wee little part. But language isn’t the main thing.
I know that because almost instantly the living, dividing Word moved in. It shoved me off the dark horse racing off to Self-Pity Land. I’ll tell you what God said.
Shut Your Mouth, Girl. And Open Your Eyes.
I am unworthy- how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. -Job 40:4
See the health and peace you’ve had all these COVID-19 days. See the family who loves on your sons. Give thanks that you and Jim have jobs. Remember your friends. Rejoice at the rhododendrons and rhubarb.
God didn’t audibly say those words, but through his Word he called to me. Give thanks, my Girl. Open your eyes. I’ve given you so many gifts.
Because we’re all givers and takers.
We’re All Givers And Takers
You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.-2 Corinthians 9:11
Paraphrased: We are receivers so that we can be givers. God gives us gifts- financial, spiritual, uncanny memories for birthdays and anniversaries-so that we can channel those gifts to others. But there’s more.
Christians are given grace and give grace so that God will get thanked. God made us to get and then give, so that he will be praised. What’s deadly is to let his love flow into your life without finding an outlet in love for others. Receiving is not bad. It’s not- getting is also a blessing. It’s just that Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Jesus, who came to earth to give his life (Mark 10:45) and told his disciples, Freely you have received, freely give (Matt. 10:8).
Which brings me to a big reason giving is more blessed.
Why Giving Is More Blessed
From his abundance we have all received one blessing after another.-John 1:16
Giving reminds me that I live by the grace of a giving God.The God who so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son. When we give we are blessed because it we are becoming more like our giving God.
Talk about perspective. Selfish me says, Why put yourself out for them? Why initiate and spend your time on them? They don’t bother with you.
That’s sin talking. Sin does something terrible to me. Sin turns me in on myself,Paul Tripp says. It makes me obsessed with my wants, my needs, my feelings. I want, I want, I want, I want, I want. Sin turns me inside out. Focusing on how much we give and how little we get is a sin (1 Thess. 5:18, Phil. 2:14).
When you give- forget, when you receive- remember. That’s a truth.
And the truth of a giving God’s turns us right-side out again. It did last week after I sent Meg’s birthday card. So next time giving feels more like sting than blessing, let’s remember God’s truth.
It really is more blessed to give.
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
I could go right down Proverbs 31 line by line and apply each virtue to Mom. It would be easy. Because my mom is easy to praise. In fact, that’s how this post started (See me later for that draft, Mom.)
But one bit of wisdom mom has given from me is: Short and sweet, Girl. Get past the curse of knowledge.
So I’ll try that. I won’t assume background knowledge. I’ll be short and sweet.
Here’s one more reason I praise my mom.
Mom Doesn’t Meddle
Meddling means interfering. Not minding your business. Sometimes I struggle with that. Not meddling isn’t among the virtues hailed in Proverbs 31. But it’s between the lines. Because children don’t rise up and call a meddling mom blessed. And because meddling flies in the face of laughing at the days to come (31:25), nor is it wise (31:26).
In fact, the word meddle isn’t used much in the Bible. But the one time that jumps to mind is 1 Peter 4:15. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler. Yes, meddler. Peter lists it right there with murderer and thief as behaviors that bring suffering down on us. Mom knows this.
I can count on one hand- maybe on 1 finger, maybe none!- the number of times in my adult life that Mom has given unwanted advice. She uses her words with restraint (Proverbs 17:27) and knows that holding her tongue is wise (Proverbs 10:19).
When I share my own mom struggles with my mom her MO is to 1. listen well, 2. purse her lips, 3. nod her head, then maybe ask, 4. Want my advice, Babe?
Such restraint. Such wisdom. What a gift from my non-meddlesome mom.
Not Meddling Does Not Mean Un-Involved
Which is not at all to say Mom’s hands-off or uninvolved. In fact, those words couldn’t be further from the truth. Mom is in our lives in so many kind, daily ways.
Hardly a day goes by without a happy text or punny picture. Yesterday was “Two Canadian guests at our lakeside property.” The pic-fowl swimming in their flooded garden puddle.
During garden season, we await mom’s weekly, post-farmer’s market calls: Hi Babe, here’s what we’ve got.
Then she lists what’s left- seasonal, of course- radishes, peas, lettuce, asparagus, and a fresh bouquet for you.Just tell me what you want and we’ll bring it.
But she doesn’t force it on us or ask why we don’t take turnips (a private matter between Jim and me).
A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.
But my friend Cathe is the one who called me up after reading a post one summer dayand said, “Abigail, there’s something wrong.”
I braced for the worst. Because one thing I love about Cathe is that she speaks the truth. She’s gracious and discrete. And direct and sincere.
So I prepared to hear, “You’re too long-winded, dear. Your message gets lost in your words.” Both true, still true.
But that’s not what I head. Instead Cathe said, “That post you just wrote was good. More people need should see this. I think you need a website.”
But my friend didn’t stop there. Cathe hooked me up with her website host, then took time from her writing with real deadlines to walk me through the nuts and bolts of my little website design.
Proverbs 27 says, Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. It’s true.
As we were loading in the van last night Cathe leaned in- not to talk to me but to my 15-year-old son. “Sam,” she started, “I have some advice about girls. Mind if I share?” We both stared at Cathe, rapt.
Find a girl with a cheerful disposition, she said. I like that. Because the moodier seem to grow moodier still. Sage advice, and kind.
You can see, Cathe doesn’t waste words. She uses them kindly and well.
The Sweetness of a Friend
It was Cathe who broke the ice after a month of estrangement from church, and asked, “Abigail, want to join the Thursday group?” I did. And with 3 week old Gabe in tow I joined the ladies in Cathe’s home over Cathe’s magic carrot nut muffins and spicy sweet tea.
Now 13 years later, I lead “the Thursday group.” It goes on with new faces and a handful of good old, including Cathe, though lately we meet via Zoom.
But after 20 years in our local life, as I write, Cathe is moving away. Last night, Jim, the boys and I got to help fill the U-Haul to its squid-ly brim. Totes, bins, washer, dryer and (Yes, Pat.) even the big brown sofa fit in.
Cathe is candid with herself too. I heard that last night. When she looked toward the sunset, maybe a little wistfully, and said,
Because Cathe is a country girl, even more than me. So as my friend makes her way to a big city in Minnesota today, I’m back in the country thanking God for her- a friend who goes and chokes me up when she moves.
My tears come, in part and probably a selfish part, because I realize that Cathe is a keeper of my story. She has a valuable perspective on my life that I don’t have. She sees me in a way I can’t.
Friends, the Keepers of Our Stories
While Cathe is a gifted weaver of made-up story threads, she took a few minutes away from loading bins last night to tell some of my own real story threads. Threads that can get all tangled up in my head.
Like the one about how we came for dinner almost 20 years ago. After dinner, her tween son who knew that Jim and had been married a while and still didn’t have kids, leaned in and asked,
“Hey mom, are you sure the Wallace’s know how?”
But Cathe also remembers the Sunday in November 2005 when we walked in to church holding our son, fresh from Korea. And how on a Sunday one year later, there was a collective, congregational gasp as my sister announced, “Abigail is expecting in June.”
Then, next June when Gabe was just a baby, Cathe broke silence and breached a tender subject. She broke that ice and welcomed me to the ladies’ study that met in her home.
Cathe has shared some of her precious story threads with me. They’re not mine to tell. But I do want to say, Cathe, that watching you endure with joy spurs me to do the same.
You Have Been My Friend
You know I’ll miss your real hugs and earnest counsel and practical kindness. And, as a keeper of my story, I will miss you because you know- and keep- my story so well.
Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being a keeper of my story the last two decades. I’ll miss you on Sundays and Thursdays and I’m excited to see how God writes this next chapter in yours.
Cathe, you have been my friend. That, in itself, is a tremendous thing.
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
Something bad happened, Mom. You don’t want to know.
So ended our easy Saturday morning.
I do want to know, Gabe, I assured, kneeling before him.
Then my seven year-old showed me two of the most obscene gestures I’d ever seen. The sun went dark.
But ever the prisoner of hope, I thought: Maybe they’re only meaningless motions to him. Innocent-like when he’d use his third digit to point.
Alas: This one means a boy is…And that other one is what a girl does…
Test positive. Gabe was infected.
The boy who watches G was exposed to X, or R at least. The son with the sensitive eyes- the son who won’t watch Wallace and Gromit for “weirdness,” and who covers his ears to block the voice of a Talking White Rabbit-this son saw that. He heard that.
My heart crashed into my gut. Then, in the hush I asked,
Gabe, where did you learn that? Who showed you that?
Wide blue eyes to mine. Earnest, sober voice to me:
It was Evan, Mom, on the bus. I shouldn’t be his friend anymore. And a big boy-he showed Evan. He told me what it meant. But I don’t know his name. He doesn’t go to my school.
That’s how Gabe got infected and his tender mind was tainted. It’s how his innocence was lost.
Actually, Gabe’s innocence wasn’t lost by the vile words and vulgar gestures of a big boy on the bus. It actually happened way before that.
Because neither Gabe, nor any of us, has ever been truly been innocent. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, Israel’s sweet, sin-stained, Psalmist wrote. Babies aren’t blank slates and children aren’t cherubs.
Apostle Paul knew and in our heart of hearts, we it too: we’re all infected with sin’s dread disease. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned(Romans 5:12).
We’re all carriers and one day we’ll all die of it. Sin is a bad infection.
But there is another kind.
In Mere Christianity(Book IV, Chapter 4) C.S. Lewis wrote about infections. Not all infections, he asserts, are bad.
Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them…
Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ…We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has–by what I call ‘good infection’. Every Christian infected is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.
This is the good infection- that we may share the life of Christ. That we may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).
And we ‘little Christs’ can spread this good infection, this loving life of Christ, to those infected with the bad.
Prayers For Carriers
That exposure came 5 years ago. A couple years later there was that online scare with the 12 year-old. And just this morning there were texts too ugly to show my husband. Contamination, exposure, infection. So we pray.
We pray that, though both sons were exposed and, like their parents carry the bad infection, God will keep keep them largely symptom-free. We pray they won’t infect others with this brand of the sin disease, and that they’ll be able to be sensitive to the Spirit and to resolve each day not to set of before their eyes any worthless thing (Psalm 101:3); that they will be wise to what is good and innocent to evil (Romans 16:19-20). We pray that this disease won’t keep spreading, that it’ll stay in remission.
And today when I jogged by Evan’s house I prayed for him too. For Evan and the big boy on the bus who infected him all those years ago. I prayed that they will know Jesus so that they too can be healed.
Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who infect us with theirs. Please use us to spread your “good infection,” too. Help us to live in love like you. Amen.
For in Adam all die, so also in Christ will all be made alive.
Good Friday turned great just before midnight. That’s when my pride died.
Again. This side of heaven, it won’t stay dead.
I can’t tell you the details. It would not be right. But I can tell you that it happened after a good friend confronted me about my wounding words.
Before Pride Died
But before pride died. I want you to know that the words I write do rattle around in my head. By them, I will be justified, or condemned. If I know the truth and ignore it, I’m worse than hot air. I’m a hypocrite.
Maybe especially last night, because Good Friday is so good.
Why Good Friday Is Good
Good Friday is good because “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), and because, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And it’s good because “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
I read and re-read my friend’s words. They stung. But I knew there was a kernel of truth in them, because I know there is sin in me. So I confessed, not was she accused, but what I knew was true.
That layer removed, I thought of other sins of which my friend had no clue. And just before midnight, I went to bed and paged to the prayer called “The Grace of the Cross.”
O My Saviour,
I thank thee from the depths of my being
for thy wondrous grace and love
in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.
May thy cross be to me
as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs…
I got that far before the bitter tears began to flow. Bitter, in Hebrew, is marah. The Israelites found water too bitter to drink and called the place Marah (Exodus 15:22-27). Then the Lord showed Moses “a piece of wood.” He threw it in the water and the water turned sweet.
Wood turned bitter water sweet. I remember when I taught the story to my Sunday school class. Millie and Michaela and Audrie got it. They saw the cross of Christ.
They understood it was wood that makes our bitter water sweet.
But then sobbing like a hot mess in bed, the bitterness became sweet. I knew I was forgiven by my crucified King.
Christ died for this.
Feeling that was how Good Friday turned great. The cross makes our confessed sins, even our most embarrassing and ugly and bitter sins, sweet. Because, Who confesses and forsakes finds mercy (Prov. 28:13).
That is when bitter turns sweet, and good becomes great. We stand forgiven at the cross. We remember and we celebrate:
Christ died for this.
I saw my sin loud and clear last night. But I also saw the cross and confessed and found mercy and grace.
And that is how Marah became sweet and Good Friday turned great.
In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross…
The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life.
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge- no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
Psalm 91:3-6, 9-10
President recommends Americans wear masks in public.That’s the headline of the day.
Fear is at fever pitch. There were more Google searches for prayer in March than in the last 5 years that comparison data has been available. People are afraid.
No Evil Shall Befall You
He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence. Those words from Psalm 91 sound like a perfect fit for these COVID-19 days, don’t they?
People recite it when they wash their hands or as they go to the grocery store. Many are clinging to these verses for health- and for life. The words, for some, are like a Christian incantation, a hex on the deadly coronavirus.
And that makes me very uneasy.
But the Psalm does say, No evil shall befall you, no plague will come near your tent.
So what does that mean? Does it mean that if I have faith, or better yet, if I have faith and wear a mask and wash my hands and self-quarantine I- and those in my tent- won’t get COVID-19?
Is that what Psalm 91 really means?
Faith, by cheering the heart, keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself…
Charles H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 91:3
Abby, I’m really scared. My caregiver does not wear a mask. That’s how my friend Jean started our call. Jean is physically fragile and homebound. She paused, then added, I feel guilty for being scared because I believe in God.
Jean, about the guilt: You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair. You can’t stop the fear that tenses your gut. But you can keep fear from nesting in your head. She liked that. I went on.
May I share two things I try to do when I’m really scared?She agreed.
Here’s what I told Jean.
Reality Therapy for Real Fear
What is the worst thing that could possibly happen if my worst fear comes true? I try to ask myself that the moment fear springs up. Whether I hear a bump in the night or I feel a lump in my chest- I ask, what it the absolute worst thing that could happen? Then I sit with that answer a while. And usually, Jean, if I’m honest, my worst fear is death.
How can you be so sure, Miss Abigail? That’s what you’re thinking, right? Because faithful Christians will die of COVID-19. Pestilence and plague will befall us. Death will come near our tents.
They may have done everything right and may have even prayed Psalm 91 each night.
What Does Psalm 91 Mean?
Not to burst your bubble, but unless Jesus returns first, you and will die. We’re mortal. We must.
So what does, No evil will befall you mean? We’ve got to understand rescue the right way or we’ll be greatly shaken when good folks get sick or when we have to look death in the eye.
Charles Spurgeon ministered through a deadly cholera epidemic in London. He explained “no evil” like this:
It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward…Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honour, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him,for everything is overruled for good.
Let that thought nest. Actually, go you rest under his wings.
Because one way or another, God will deliver all his children. He will rescue us from the fangs of COVID-19 and bring us safely into his kingdom.
One way or another, in life or in death, he will.
God does not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil.-Thomas Watson.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. These are some of the very last words Paul spoke. They’re at the end of the last chapter of the last book he penned in prison shortly before he died, probably by beheading at the hands of evil Nero.
He had just mentioned Alexander the coppersmith who did him much evil and he knew his days were short. What most of us would call evil was “befalling” Paul. Then in 2 Timothy 4:18, he writes,
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.
We must understand this to understand what Psalm 91 really means. Real evil was is that Paul’s faith would wither. Real rescue was being brought safely home to Jesus.
That is it! If we make the Lord our refuge, then fear won’t cripple us- because we know that the worst- even disease and dying- brings the best.
Because real rescue means God bringing us safely into his kingdom.
When Death Sounds the Retreat
Faith is endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger, someone said. If there’s an upside to COVID-19, this is it.
I know the Puritans paint a rosier picture of death than we’re used to. But tell me this isn’t true:
Friend, if you were prepared, death would be to you a change from a prison to a place, from sorrows to solace, from pain to pleasure, from heaviness to happiness. All your sins and sorrows would be buried in your grave and the ship of your soul…and you would arrive at a blessed and everlasting harbor. Death would sound the retreat, and call you out of the battlefield- where the bullets fly thick in your combat with the flesh, world and wicked one- to receive your crown of life.
George Swinnock, The Fading of the Flesh and Flourishing of Faith, 1662
We are under his wings. Evil cannot touch us there!
And, if it seems to, as John Piper wrote, there must be a glorious deliverance we can’t see. What else can we conclude when we put these two Psalms together:
Psalm 44:22 – “For thy sake we are slain all day long.” Psalm 34:19 – “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
Remember how Jesus talked to his disciples this way?
Luke 21:16 – “…some of you they will put to death.” Luke 21:18 – “But not a hair of your head will perish.”
Jesus doesn’t tell lies and he doesn’t speak out of both sides of his mouth. He speaks truth. He is the truth.
So Jean, this all means that you might- I might- get infected with COVID-19 and Psalm 91 is still true.
No evil will befall us.
What is our hope in life and death? Christ alone, Christ alone What is our only confidence? That our souls to him belong Who holds our days within his hand? What comes, apart from his command? And what will keep us to the end? The love of Christ, in which we stand
Words and Music by Keith Getty, Matt Boswell, Jordan Kauflin, Matt Merker, Matt Papa
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’ll share those three healthy, stabilizing habits in a minute.
But the first and last word on health has got to be grace.
For in Him we live and move and have our being. Because He is our life and the length of our days. And His word has given us life. (Acts 17:28, Deuteronomy 30:20, Psalm 119:50)
Because any measure of health is a gift from God.
Because the LORD forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases, redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with steadfast love and mercy. He satisfies me with good so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:3-4)
So what are we to do when the foundations are shaken? How do we live in these confusing COVID-19 days?
Well, our God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33). So here are my three: three means of grace to find the health and peace we so crave in these turbulent days.
Move your body. Exercise- outside if you can. Because God made our bodies and he made them to move. And- guess what?-he made them to feel good when they do. We weren’t made to stay put, even during these shelter-at-home days.
With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, and the smartphone in 2007, many of us are still coming to grips with how sedentary human life has become. But this has not always been so. God made us to move, and to do so vigorously. And he wired our brains to need it, reward it, and reinforce it. Exercise makes happier humans, and God made humans to be happy — in him — with bodily movement being an assistant, rather than adversary, to our joy.
Regular human movement has been assumed throughout history, but the innovations and seeming progress of modern life have made a sedentary lifestyle more normal than ever before. Perhaps we’ve never needed to state the obvious about regular bodily movement and “bodily training” as much as we do today.
We get this- the dogs of the world are making out like bandits with all our extra walks. Still, I predict Weight-Watchers will go gangbusters. Because many of us have never had so much food stored up. Nor, I suspect, has the temptation to emotional eating ever been greater.
But getting physical doesn’t just mean walking or biking. My husband’s job is “non-essential” these days. He’s cleaned the garage and chopped lots of wood. Friends are cleaning drawers and sanding tables. That’s work-moving the body. It counts.
Let us…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. –Hebrews 10: 25
No joke: I’ve phone-called and Face-timed more in the last week than in the six months combined. Yesterday was extra-social: 2 phone dates, 1 Zoom Lifegroup, 1 FaceTime call and 2 6-foot distant visits with my neighbors.
Every single contact was encouraging. And all provided much needed perspective. Each one was a real time was to give and receive love.
Rhythms For Quarantine
Justin Whitmel Earley provides Spiritual Rhythms For Quarantine, four habits that create household patterns of stability and hope in a time of distraction, upheaval and fear.
About Gather Safely, he writes,
Friendship is the lifeblood of the soul. We were made for community, and without it, we wither.
Christian community is the primary place where we process our anxieties and preach the good news of Jesus to each other. While now is a time where we absolutely must significantly alter the way we meet, we must not give up small and safe gatherings, even if that means we have to connect by digital means. These times will either be some of the most rich because of the ways we lean into community, or they will be some of the most despairing because…we fail to [meet].
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” –Luke 10: 42
Social distancing does not apply to God. COVID days or not, God’s call to us is the same: Draw near (Hebrews 4:16, 7:25, 10:22). Christ calls us to come to him every single day.
Honestly, this non-negotiable is the one I negotiate the most. It’s the one most likely to get squeezed out. Exercise and the friendship have immediate effects- endorphins from exercise and encouragement from friends. They make me feel good in the moment.
But of spending time with my Father who is unseen takes faith. Because I don’t always feel the perks right away. But blessed are those who hear these words of mine and obey them (Luke 11:28).
As if to drive that point home, it just so happened that Mary and Martha were in my daily reading today. Remember them?
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better thing, which will not be taken away from her.”
Am I the only one these days tempted to keep checking the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 interactive map? I’ve checked it twice since I sat down to write. The numbers are still going up: 116,505 confirmed cases in the US and 8 deaths in Milwaukee.
And Martha was anxious and distracted by many things too.
Choose The Better Thing
So if we need any reminder of non-negotiable #3- enter Mary. Mary, who chose the better thing that cannot be taken from her. She could have been distracted by the same things Martha was, but Mary chose the better thing.
The better thing was sitting and listening to the Lord Jesus, caring for her soul. Yes, I’m naturally Martha. But by grace these days, I’m becoming Mary – choosing the better thing. Seeking God in the Word and prayer: that is healthy habit #3.
A while back, my friend Jen gave me some good advice about parenting our new teen. Her words have been echoing in my ears: Teach him to care for himself. Don’t tell him what to do. Instead, ask him how he can care for his physical, social and spiritual health each day.
Will you take her advice? Care for your body, your friends, and your soul. Make those non-negotiables.
If you do, you won’t waste these COVID-19 days. Or any days.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
Recommended and Related:
Author Amanda Barratt wrote a thoughtful piece about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even though his social distance was kept in a Nazi prison camp, his non-negotiables were the same. Care for your body, your neighbor, your soul.
For the most part, his days were spent alone. He organized his time, dividing it between reading, writing letters, working on various writing projects, and exercising, both in his cell and for a half hour every day in the prison courtyard.
He said it last summer as I helped haul hay from the wagon to the mow. That wasn’t the only, but it’s the last time I recall.
Today’s my good dad’s 70th birthday. Let me tell you a few things about him. But in some big ways, if you know me, you already know my dad. For I am my father’s daughter.
A Dad Of Contrast
Let’s start last Sunday. With COVID-19, we worshiped at home. At 9:30 AM, Mom and Dad and my sister showed up with 4 hymnals. Hymnals. Dad and I love singing hymns. We started with Rise Up, O Man Of God. Man, not church, let the record reflect. But dad’s not a musical snob. Not at all.
He loves him some foot-tappin’ Gospel and strong-strummin’ folk. Besides playing the bagpipes- he recorded Danny Boy at dawn on St. Patrick’s Day for my sister to share with her 2nd grade class- he picked up some tin whistle too. He could probably play in a pinch at a session.
It’s like that with cooking too. He’ll whip up the most elaborate, marinate all day, ingredient list the length of spatula, simmer all afternoon with fresh rosemary and thyme from his garden dish you’ve ever tried. Then he’ll go a few days on vegetables with bread and cheese or just plain cabbage soup.
Teaches And Learns
Dad’s at home with the most intellectual. He’s reading a new book on redemption from a Greek Orthodox position- and did I mention how he popped open his Greek New Testament on Sunday to show us that the beyond in 2 Cor. 4:17 is hyperbole in Greek.
Dad’s a thinker. But he’s also a teacher and a lifelong learner.
In fact, he’s taught our boys most of the finer points in etiquette and mending relationships with Laurel & Hardy,What About Bob? and Ernest Goes To Africa. Just ask Gabe- or don’t- who taught him to lick last bit of ice cream from his bowl.
Dad’s always reading the farm journals to improve his horticulture. Currently, he’s learning be a champion broccoli sprouter. He’s already taught us how blowing fans on his tender sprouts toughens them for big gusts outside of the house.
Laughs and Serves
Dad can go toe-to-toe with a gifted theologian, and nose-to-nose with a baby. Dad pastored for decades and now he serves with mom in the little church nursery. I wouldn’t say the nursery is his passion, but I think being there brings him joy. Dad knows a real servant does what needs to be done.
I’ve got a lot to learn about being a servant, but what I’ve learned is mostly from watching Dad. Servants are humble. Dad isn’t all wrapped up in himself. For the Christian, that’s called maturity. Others’ focus is spiritual health.
I first remember thinking that about Dad when I was five or six. No kidding. We’d stopped off at a park 10 minutes from home. The park had a tunnel slide and Dad carried my down in his lap. I probably had begged him to go. But when we got off, I looked at him and burst into tears. Because blood ran from the top of his head down his face.
Dad was balding even then and the top of his head had scraped the tunnel and I thought he’d soon drop dead. But instead he laughed and grabbed his handkerchief. That was that.
Now fast forward to my 7th grade year. Dad was my science substitute teacher. I don’t remember anything about it except that Brian whispered, in range of my sensitive ears, “He’s a chrome dome.” Aaron laughed. And I about died of embarrassment- for my dad.
Somehow it came out at dinner that night- the outrageous, shaming slur- and guess what? He just laughed and said, Don’t let that bother you, Ab.
Dad Loves His Friends
Dad definitely loves his family. I’ve never doubted that for a second. But Dad also loves his friends.
For almost two decades now, Dad gets together with his friend Tom early Wednesday mornings, I think, to study and pray over coffee. Sometimes with Baileys Irish Cream. He used to do that with dear Mike, his literary friend.
Then there’s Paul and Robin their movie-swapping, ag-chat friends and Bob and Jane their all-thing-Irish friends. And for decades, until last year, there was Patsy and Jim. And on Tuesday nights, Lord willing, there’s sweet time with Jen and Tim.
My Dad loves his friends. I have a hunch that watching Dad love his friends has made my friendships second nature. We all need friends, and all different sorts of friends.
A Good Dad
But the best thing Dad did is make it easy for his kids to come to Jesus. I’m sorry some of you don’t have a dad like mine. Some fathers make it hard. They lay stumbling blocks instead of sowing gospel seeds.
But a good father lays down his life for his kids. He goes low to love his own. Dad feeds his kids what his sweat has grown, potatoes and berries and beans. He laughs with his grandkids, sings hymns with his kids, and, for love, serves us all in love. Where once he preached in the pulpit, now he plays in the nursery. That’s my Dad.
I have good dad. That’s in large part because he has an even better Father. So I’ll leave off with this song my father loves.
It’s about his Father whose name is love.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
My family celebrated St. Patrick today, but capped at 10 only. Dad read from the Confessions and we sang St. Patrick’s Breastplate. I wore my green Irish sweater and made mashed potatoes. It’s St. Patrick’s day.
But it’s also the day that all the schools in my town locked up and the library shut down- while the librarians wore plastic gloves. Culver’s is takeout only and the Wellness Center is closed.
Some of us are tempted to anxiety, some to pride. Many are tempted to find security in hoarding supplies and as many are tempted to arrogance because we don’t.
Some of us grow harsh trying control to our little kingdoms– Virtual school starts at 8:45 sharp. Go wash your hands again- sing Happy Birthday two times. Go outside! You need 30 minutes of exercise.- in a world that feels out of order.
Some of us are so overwhelmed that we’re letting go of any semblance of self-control- Sure, wear your PJ’s all day. I’ve lost two hours scrolling the news feed.- and tempted to dulling sloth.
Coping Skills Or Just Rats?
We might try to excuse it by saying, We didn’t see this coming, and We’ve never lived through anything like this before. But don’t take it. What we might call our coping methods C.S. Lewis just calls rats.
…Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth?
If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.
Coronavirus hit us fast and hard. The rats had no time to take cover.
I’ve had my heart laid bare and humbled. My desire for order turned surfaced and turned into bossing the boys. I didn’t buy extra toilet paper, but I did hit the grocery store three days in a row.
The last few days, I acquired lots of peanut butter. And, I pray, more humility toward those who don’t see things just like me.
But today is a new day, and time for a new confession from one of my favorite saints. (You can read all 62 confessions here.) Confession #34 (C 34) is a confession about acceptance- acceptance of good or bad– and gratitude.
Here’s where I connect Patrick, me and COVID-19. In big ways Patrick’s day wasn’t so different from our COVID-19 day. Patrick lived on the ragged edges of the Roman empire where “there was a sense of impending chaos, if not a very real experience of it.”*
Rather like our day.
The Time of Our Temptation
In the face of that wild world, living at the edge of western civilization, with high anxiety (C. 27), almost perishing (C. 28), very real threats to his life (C. 35, and actually running out of food (C. 22), here’s what Patrick said,
I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation… He is the one who defended me in all my difficulties. I can say: Who am I, Lord, or what is my calling, that you have worked with me with such divine presence? This is how I come to praise and magnify your name among the nations all the time, wherever I am, not only in good times but in the difficult times too. Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God. He has shown me that I can put my faith in him without wavering and without end...
God is able to keep us faithful in the time of our temptation. For many of us, this is the time. Whether it’s pride or anxiety, control or sloth, the rats that live in our hearts come out.
But If Not, He’s Still Good
We all fear the unknown. Some days, we fret. Honestly, some of our worst fears may come true. I might wish I had bought more toilet paper and peanut butter or not gone out at all. I don’t know. But I do know this: God will provide all that we need for our souls to prosper.
Not a single one of us- the CDC or otherwise- knows what the future holds. But we know who holds the future. And he is good.
Nooo! I am so embarrassed! I half shouted, half cried. Why didn’t you guys tell me? Didn’t you see this spot?
Death By Chocolate Spot
No one has ever died of embarrassment. And I’ve lived through other wardrobe malfunctions. But, my oh my, how they hurt my pride.
Parent-teacher conferences were last night. I’d sat across from not one, not three, not five, but seven- SEVEN!- of my son’s 9th grade teachers. I was close. Close enough to see the fray on his collar and the stain on his tooth and to compliment the Spanish teacher on her Jerusalem cross pendant.
They must have all seen the spot. How could they not?
That is the shirt pictured above. But, for the record, that is not the spot. Oh, no. It was much bigger and far darker and way more chocolatey than that. Because the spot that mortified me was a caked-on splatter of chocolate cookie dough, whence those dark beauties came.
4 Takeaways from the Spot
I’m always looking for a lesson. So without (way) overthinking the chocolate spot, here are four quick takeaways:
1. Look in the mirror before you head out the door.
Literally. Check for spots, check your teeth. But also spiritually. There are blindspots we don’t see in our lives and we won’t see without the mirror of God’s Word before us. So look in the mirror.
2. Friends tell friends when they see spots.
When a friend mentions the spinach in my teeth or the cows coming out, that’s a gift. Better a second of awkward than an hour of public display. And remember, faithful are the wounds of a friend. Friends tell friends.
3. A little embarrassment humbles me.
And that’s good because God embraces the humble, embarrassed. Embarrassment means failure- big or small. I failed to look in the mirror before dashing out the door. But failure isn’t the end of the world. God still loves me.
4. ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down to where I ought to be. I know this: when you’re low you don’t have to fear falling. Someone’s even said that creativity only comes when you feel at ease with embarrassment.
That might be a stretch. But here I am sharing my spot story with you. Being vulnerable about my own failure might help you grow. Or at least help lighten the mood if you’re feeling low.
To See Ourselves As Others See Us
Speaking of low, I’ll close with that Robert Burns’ poem, “To A Louse.” He’s a few pews behind fancy Miss Jeany, who is oblivious to the “ugly, creepin, blastit” fellas hopping beneath her bonnet and tossing her hair about.
The last stanza comes to mind as I munch on a cookie and think on the spot.
O wad some Power the giftie give us To see ourselves as others see us! It wad free many a blunder free us, An’ foolish notion: What airs in dress an’ gait would lea’e us, And ev’n devotion!
My laden flowers? A few quiet hours alone with my man on Friday night. That was my plan.
How My Friday Night Plans Fell Through
6:15 pm– I plopped the groceries on the counter, set the oven and kicked off my shoes. I’d gone straight from work to fetch the boys and a friend, then to settle them in at the waterpark. Now came the sigh.
And the ringtone.
Mom, you have to come get us! Sam’s really sick. He’s just sitting here with his down and I don’t feel so good either.
Weary Mama rolled her eyes. Why don’t you get some fresh air and take it easy and we’ll come get you in 2 hours.Good-bye.
6:23 pm– Undeterred, I rubbed the salmon, poked the potatoes and set them baking. I was tearing greens when the phone rang again.
Hi Mom. He’s really sick. You need to come get us now. Please.
This wasn’t my plan. I hadn’t even sat down. You can last an hour. Besides, $50 is a lot a money for one hour of fun.
Hanging up sounds heartless, I know. But that son can be Chicken Little, and the caring adults were all around.
6:35 pm– Jim got home and the salmon was done and my phone dinged again. My sister, also at the waterpark,
Can I bring the boys home? Sam looks pretty sick.
Jim called back. I filled our plates, lit a candle and sat down.
And Why I’m Glad
I wasn’t glad. I was grumpy and mad and starved for a quiet dinner alone with Jim, who was calm on the phone as I sat stabbed at my salmon.
They’re on their way. Your sister’s bringing them home.
We were eating our last bites as in they walked in smiling. All better. Their friend Andy wanted to stay and play games. So we cleared the plates and set out Codenames. And in between obscure teen-ager clues, they introduced us to their music and soon Andy had Sam at the piano plunking out tunes.
I wasn’t so blind to miss those. Those answers to prayers I pray almost every day. That the boys would enjoy using the gifts they’ve been given, make and be good friends, and that we’d have more fun as a family.
It all boils down to trust issues, again. I need a consistent trust. I trust God to wake me each morning and bring me safely to heaven, but I can’t trust him with my dinner plans?
This is not to say we shouldn’t make plans. Only that we should hold them loosely. James wrote, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). So sit loose. As we make our plans for tonight remember that God may have different and better plans than ours.
My plans have come crashing down before. And I’m starting to understand that when, in infinite wisdom and matchless love, God ruins my plans, he’s really wanting me to trust him. Because,
God knows infinitely more than we do, and can do infinitely more than we can — should we be surprised in the least when he has planned differently than we have? Plan on it. He has, and he will…Disruptions become welcome reminders that God is real, that he is almighty, and that his plans always prove wiser than ours.
The disruption of my Friday night was God’s kind reminder that he is wiser than me. If I’d have had my quiet night, I’d have missed His better plan.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.
I’m not content with my discontent. In fact, I’m downright discontent when my soul is not at rest.
Which is, I think, as it ought to be.
Easy To Please
I’ve always been drawn to “low maintenance” types. The friends who take a 30 minutes to fix their hair and another 20 for makeup aren’t *naturally my type. Out of bed and off in 10 is more my style.
Christians ought to be the most easy to please people on the planet. We ought to be the most sit-loose people around, with our joy independent of our circumstances. I ought to be as as happy in my house in the woods as in a sunny mansion on the hilltop, as thankful with a can of Campbell’s tomato as with gourmet lobster bisque.
We ought to be. Because in Christ all things are ours (1 Cor. 3:22).
Paul penned these staggering words to the Philippians from his prison cell: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
Contentment is not natural. It must be learned. The good news is, it can be learned. It can be or we wouldn’t be called to be content (Heb. 13:5).
I have stilled and quieted my soul, the Psalmist wrote. Contentment is the goal. I agree, I aspire, I press on. Joyfully often. Woefully sometimes. But I want contentment to mark me. I don’t want to be the high maintenance one who needs this food or that praise or those props to put my soul at rest. I want to be easily pleased.
Because God is my portion. And because I want to grow. But contentment doesn’t have to mean I’m always satisfied.
Hard To Satisfy
Because self- dissatisfaction promotes spiritual growth. It does for me and I think Paul might agree. Growth starts with realizing that I am not yet what I want to be. Philippians 3:12 is about that, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Paul was content with his outward circumstances. Yet he wanted to know Christ more.
While we are to be content physically– with our circumstances and possessions (Phil. 2:12, Heb. 13:5), we don’t want to be satisfied spiritually. Because blessed discontent often begins spiritual growth.
It’s when we feel satisfied spiritually, that we can get proud and complacent and that is dangerous. Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 4:15), Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. In other words, don’t loiter.
Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.
Have you heard of David Brainerd? He said that. That quote appears weekly on my iPhone reminders. Because I need it.
David Brainerd lived his short life this way. He was a missionary to the native and died in 1747 at the age of 29. His drive for more holiness and more usefulness, while enduring all manner of physical hardship, was a dissatisfied contentment. His love for Christ and the native people drove him.
Brainerd wrote, “When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable . . . Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! And oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God . . . Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.”
He was gripped with by the apostolic admonition: “Redeem the time for the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) He embodied the counsel: “Let us not grow weary in well doing, for in due time we shall reap if we do not faint” (Galatians 6:9). He strove to be, as Paul says, “abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).”
We press on. We thirst for Christ and grow thirstier still. With Paul we forget what is behind and press on for the prize. We fight the good fight.
Learned to be Content
C.H. Spurgeon cautioned, Do not indulge, any of you, the silly notion that you can be contented without learning, or learn without discipline. We grow strong in the Lord and the strength of his might.
You cannot learn contentment merely by living in difficult places. But you cannot learn contentment merely by living in happy places. You learn contentment by living in both places. And by discounting your joy as being dependent on either place.
So the formula for contentment for us as it was for Paul: look through the circumstances to the God who’s using them to shape me for good. Expect if you’re on top of the world today, he may drop you low tomorrow. I know what it is to abound and I know what it is brought low. Trust that he’ll keep us going from high to low to keep us depending on him. So we don’t get smug when all goes as planned or despair when nothing does.
I’ll share this to keep it real: this week, after 5 weeks of a sugar fast, my scale went up. That was not the plan. Weight-loss wasn’t the goal, but neither was gaining weight. So I’m at the end of myself today. In his strength, trusting God with that. My weight going up is my being brought low. It’s my proving ground for contentment.
When we are truly content, and enduring all in God’s strength, we neither grow proud in success, nor are we crushed by failure. It’s a freeing place to be.
But there are two places we should not be content.
When We Should Be Discontent
You’ve already heard about the first.
1. Complacency about my own spiritual condition. It’s not: I am what I am what I am, but I am what I am and his grace was not without effect to me. No, I worked harder than the rest (1 Cor. 15:10). One James McIntosh said, It is right to be contented with what we have, never with what we are. Paul was not content to stand still in his faith. He struggled with all Christ’s energy.
2. Apathy over others’ suffering. John Piper calls that “dissatisfied contentment.” He explains, “When Paul writes in Romans 12:15, Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, he shows that the contentment of the believer is not a static, Buddha-like serenity unmovable by the hurts of others. When Christian joy perceives grief, it becomes “dissatisfied contentment.” It senses a lack and a need… Thus, Christian joy starts to expand in love to fill that lack.
But we turn these upside down. We get content with the state of our souls and stand off from the hurting people in our circles. At the same time we grow discontent with our circumstances and possessions, which are precisely where we’re told to rest content.
But there is another reason why we must get this right.
Content and Dissatisfied
Because, in a word, our contentment adorns our Lord. But so does pressing on to know him, eager to grow.
When my life isn’t marked by staggering success at work or ministry or children excelling at school or on the court and I still smile– well, that shines on a satisfying Savior. A gracious quiet spirit reflects the good Giver who supplies all our needs (Ph. 4:19).
And when we ignore our phones and create sacred space to know Christ more, that makes him look good too. Because, Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition (Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment).
We do have a good Father- the very best. So we both rest content with the things of this world and press on discontent, until we see him face to face.
Burroughs can close.
My brethren, the reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them. That is not the reason. But the reason is because they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God Himself.
For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.
-Teresa of Avila
Even if you’ve never said it, you’ve probably felt it. St. Teresa’s words can stab us when we’re suffering. After all, aren’t we friends of Christ and Children of God? (Ps. 25:14, John 15:15, 1 John 3:1)
Because, is this how friends treat friends? Or how good parents love their kids?
We desperately need truth to counterattack the lie that a loving God wouldn’t let his children suffer. Because Satan would love to sift the faith right out of us. And he does a lot of sifting with just that lie.
He even tried it on Jesus.
If You Are The Son Of God…
Those sneaky words are bookends: If you are the Son of God. Christ’s ministry begins and ends with those words being hurled at him.
Bookend 1: After 40 days of fasting Jesus was hungry. And the tempter came and said, If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread. (Matt. 4:1-4)
Bookend 2: Fast forward three years to the cross. Hear the crowds abuse the Christ on the cross. They use the same exact words: If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross… (Matt. 27:40)
Between the bookends (Matt. 16:21-23), Peter does it too. Jesus had just explained how that he must,
…suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed.” At that, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mtt. 16:21-22)
I probably would have said the same: Assert your beloved son status. You shouldn’t have to hunger or suffer like this. Maybe God won’t really provide.
Because being a beloved son or daughter of the King seems like it ought to bring some big perks. Like, say, not having to suffer this way.
Away From Me, Satan!
Suffer many things and be killed doesn’t sound the least bit loving. But Jesus stood on truth.
He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” (Matt. 16:23)
To bypass that suffering would have been nothing short of satanic. Because God’s interests demanded that His beloved Son suffer (Mtt. 3:17). For us and for our salvation he suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God. All of God’s interests are good (Ps. 119:68).
But that can be pretty hard to hear when life gets hard.
So the first and last temptations of Christ and Peter’s words in the middle have this lie at the core: If you suffer, God must not love you. End your hunger pangs: Turn these stones to bread. End your suffering: Come down off the cross. Satan loves to plant this seed of doubt that: suffering = unloved.
But Jesus would have none if it. To Peter, he said: “Get behind me Satan.” Which sounds an awful lot like what he said at the end of his wilderness temptation (Matt. 4:10), “Away from me Satan.”
Spare Me, Or Not
Kill that doubt! Don’t buy the lie that God spares his children suffering. Kill the doubt by looking first to Christ. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered (Heb. 2:10).
If for the Firstborn, so for the other sons and daughters. If for the Shepherd, so for the sheep.
There was a fitness of suffering for the Author of our faith and there is a fitness for the faithful. Jesus knew this. Thank God he knew this. But Satan got it too, so he twisted and abused it. Peter didn’t get it and the crowds at the cross didn’t either.
Do you get it? Do I?
Suffering takes countless forms. What’s hard for me, might not be for you. Lately my “trials” -if I can even call them that- have been mental, taking the form of dashed hopes. This week, one son’s first semester grades brought my little dream of a four generation, top-of-the-class, streak to a screeching halt. High hopes from 13 years ago of another sort are also grinding down.
This suffering is meager and weak. It’s just layers of selfish dragon skin being peeled off bit by bit. It has to come off before heaven anyway. And it’s not worth comparing to heartache, cancer, and decades of pain that friends of mine face. But that little stuff, when I’m feeling weak, is enough to give a twinge of doubt.
Because we just don’t get it. Try as we might, we just don’t. We think:
We don’t think:
We misunderstand his love.
Don’t Misunderstand Suffering
It was misunderstood then- by Peter, the rulers, the soldiers, and a criminal on the cross: He trusts in God; let God deliver him, if he delights in him. For he said, ‘I am the son of God,’ (Matt. 17:43). In other words, If God really loved you, he’d spare you from this.
In our heart of hearts, we misunderstand too. If he delighted in me, he’d spare me this_____________ (Insert your loneliness, illness, loss, heartache, temptation, or pain). If God really loved me, he’d see that my mama longings are all fulfilled.
If we are children of God, glory awaits. We are heirs of eternal life. But guess what comes before glory?
Suffering With Him
Paul tells us in Romans 8:16-17. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Provided we suffer with him. Suffer. With. Him. He did. We do. He does with us. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)
But be ready. Because the same taunt that was hurled at Jesus tempts us today: If you are a child of God, you wouldn’t have to deal with this. If you were loved, he’d spare you. But we know that’s a lie from the pit of you know where.
Because Jesus Christ suffered and died and was raised to life to prove God’s love. Because God did not spare his beloved Son.
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?
When was the last time you were thirsty? I mean lips-parched, throat-ablaze, tongue-stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth thirsty. I mean all- consuming, dying–for-a-drink thirsty?
Have you ever been that thirsty?
Thirsty For Water
One day last July I came close.
I had a good podcast to feed my mind and green fields my eyes. I pedaled away as was my custom on hot summer days. A few miles out, I grabbed my water bottle. Groped, actually. Because I had no water bottle.
How could I forget?I chided myself. Should I head back? But the glutton for punishment part of me said, Finish the 18-mile course.How bad it be? I kept on.
When I felt the thirst, I’d swallow hard and lick my lips. That worked for a few miles- until cottonmouth hit and my tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Strange, I thought, how fierce thirst and sheer force of habit have me groping again and again for a water bottle that’s not here.
Before long I grew deaf to podcast and blind to the scenery. All I could think of was water, maybe a lick from that trickle in the ditch. I was consumed with thirst. The last kick up the driveway was more glorious an ending for me than ever a Tour de France win could be.
But in this CamelBak-Contigo-HydroFlask crazed culture, that kind of thirst is unfamiliar to most of us. My thirst was partly self-imposed. I could have turned around and been thirsty for the 3 miles rather than 15.
But I’m glad for that thirst. Because it taught me a lot about thirst.
Thirsty For God
O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1
Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and thirsty soul too. Every single one of us is thirsty for love and searching for significance. Each soul longs to feel its worth. But the thirst for God himself is a thirst is peculiar to Christians.
Blessed are they who know where the fountain is…and can go on to say, ‘My soul thirsts for God!’ That is religion. There is a great deal more in Christianity than longing, but there is no Christianity worth the name without it...
Dear friends! if you have found out that God is your supreme good, see to it that you live in the good, see to it that you live in the constant attitude of longing for more of that good which alone will slake [satisfy] your appetite.
See to it. Long for that good. Quench your thirst and thirst again.
Cultivate The Thirst
We can cultivate the thirst. In fact, to stay thirsty, we must cultivate the thirst for God and suppress lesser desires. If we don’t, MacLaren says, the desire will break off into a thousand little channels. We won’t feel thirsty.
But, dear friends! let us not forget that these higher aspirations after the uncreated and personal good which is God have to be cultivated… with great persistence, throughout all our changing lives, or they will soon die out, and leave us…
A man who lets all his longings go unchecked and untamed after earthly good has none left towards heaven. If you break up a river into a multitude of channels, and lead off much of it to irrigate many little gardens, there will be no force in its current…and it will never reach the great ocean…
So, if we fritter away and divide up our desires among all the.. partial blessings of earth, then we shall but feebly long, and feebly longing, shall but faintly enjoy, the cool, clear, exhaustless gush from the fountain of life-’My soul thirsts for God!’
The soul who thirst for God and his righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Then that self-same soul immediately renews its quest.
At once he is thirsty for God and satisfied in Him.
Thirsty and Satisfied…
I’m at Day 25 of a 40-day sugar fast. It’s helped me see how sugar is like a drug. A brownie sliver from the edge of the pan can become a slab and then a whole pan. A little is not enough. For better and worse, we crave more.
MacLaren again, on how a thirsting for God is like that, but different:
You have to increase the dose of the narcotic, and as you increase the dose, it loses its power, and the less you can do without it the less it does for you. But to drink into the one God slakes all thirsts, and because He is infinite, and our capacity for receiving Him may be indefinitely expanded;therefore…the more we have of God, the more we long for Him, and the more we long for Him the more we possess Him.
That helps me understand Psalm 63. It helps me wrap my mind around the thirsty soul in verse 1 which is the satisfied soul in verse 5. My soul thirsts for you. My soul is satisfied with you, the Psalmist cries to God.
The more we have of him, the more we long for Him. But really, isn’t this how it is with the best of lovers and friends?
…And Thirstier Still
Can’t we can spend time with loved ones and both be satisfied and have be “thirstier” for more sweet times together? To be with best of friends both quenches and kindles, satisfies and makes us thirst for more.
When will we get together again? is how time with my best friends ends. That helps me “get” what David felt for God on the run in the wilderness. He thirsted for God and God quenched his thirst so that his soul was more satisfied than even the most lavish feast. What then?
David grew thirstier still. Beg your pardon for quoting MacLaren one last time,
The two things come together, longing and fruition [satisfaction] … Fruition begets longing, and there is swift and blessed alternation, or rather co-existence of the two.
This is a blessed back and forth of thirst and satisfaction, a co-existence of the two.
God in his great mercy by every conceivable means is going to set to work in our souls to set us thirsting after him. Sometimes that may mean…depriving you of the comforts and blessings of life sometimes even a conscious awareness of his blessing upon you, as with David. You might find yourself brought into a desert place, barren, wilderness.
But you know the one thing you can keep hold on and be absolutely certain of is that God intends to keep you thirsting for his glory.
David wrote Psalm 63 when he was in the wilderness fleeing for his life from a rebellious son who would take his life and steal his kingdom. And it was there that David’s soul thirsted so.
They teach us both to want most and to seek most what we need most. This is a painful gift of priceless worth, because it drives us like nothing else to the only fountain that will quench our soul-thirst.
Water and water only could satisfy my thirst that July day. Our loving Lord wants us desperate and thirsty for him. For him alone.
But he might take us into a wilderness to get us thirsty for him.
Are You In The Wilderness?
For months, a dear friend has had some serious sleep trouble. She sleeps for 2 or 3 hours and then she’s awake the rest of the night. She’s tried all the secrets. But still- 2 or 3 hours. She told me how hard it is to be a good mom and a good wife and wondered, Why wouldn’t God grant me sleep for them?
I don’t know why.
But we prayed and after Amen, with wet eyes and head bowed low, she said, Maybe better than a rested mom, God wants me here. Dependent and desperate for him.
The wilderness is not comfortable. But God sends his dear children to the dry, barren place. His Beloved Son with whom he was well pleased? Off to the wilderness (Mark 1:11-12).
Adulterous Israel? Off to the wilderness. Hosea 2:14: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
Judah, his people, the apple of his eye? Exiled in Babylon. But, they found grace in the wilderness (Jeremiah 31:2). I think he also means for us to feel his goodness in the dry, sleepless wilderness.
Being thirsty isn’t comfortable. My hot summer ride drove that home. It’s a desperate place. But comfort is overrated, so that’s good. Because God wants us thirsty. Desperately thirsty for Him.
Once upon a time Jesus said, “I thirst.” And he was in excruciating pain when he did. But he drank the cup of God’s wrath that we can have eternal, thirst quenching relationship with him. As Isaiah wrote, Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.
That is our Suffering Servant. Because he thirsted and was satisfied, we too thirst and are satisfied. And grow thirstier still.
Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine; Oh, languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth; Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine — For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”
Today is day 14 of the 40-day sugar fast. The last post explained why I’m fasting. This post is about how.
Fasting By Faith & For Faith
Yesterday a friend who’s fasting with me asked, What’s one thing you’re learning? In typical Abigail fashion, I proceeded to give her five. Then I thought of two more. They’re not profound or super-spiritual, nor are they universal. They may not be true for you. But still I’d like to share.
Because this fast was borne of faith. Faith that God does indeed satisfy the hungry soul with good things (Psalm 107:9). And that whoever comes to Jesus will not hunger, and whoever believes in him will not thirst (John 6:35). But that sugar sates my flesh so my spirit doesn’t hunger, and that I go to sweets (and salty treats and Facebook feeds) to fill hunger that Christ wants to fill and he alone can satisfy.
This fast was from faith, but pray it also leads to greater faith. I’m sharing these with so that you will be encouraged that God can use the loaves and fish you offer up- our desserts and sweets- to nourish others. That we may be strengthened and mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:12).
So, please consider sharing your experience, whether mundane or triumphant. Your comment is most welcome.
7 Lessons, 14 Days In
1. It’s easier to fast when food is out of reach.
The word *easier makes me wince a little because fasting isn’t supposed to be easy. Maybe possible is the right word. Because the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Therefore watch and pray. (Matthew 26:41)
Some temptations we fight head on. We take up the shield of faith and wield the sword of the Word. But other passions- we flee. The end of 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. Purging chocolate from the house has made this easier possible. It’s been a way out. So don’t expect to see me at Dairy Queen in the next few weeks.
2. Old habits die hard.
I knew this. But I’m learning it in a new way, a really physical way. When a surprise batch of my mother-in-law’s frosted sugar cookies appeared in front of me last week, I grabbed one and on autopilot, took a bite, completely forgetting I was on Day 10 of a sugar fast.
The second the frosting hit my tongue, I remembered, humbled. Romans 7:15 popped into my head, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Not at all that I hate the cookies- the opposite is true. But it’s not the season. Only that my response to seeing them was to take and eat, without thought, and without thanks. But there is grace for that.
3. Substitutes don’t force me to deal with my heart.
And my heart is what this fast is all about. I think we know this, about substitutes. Because we trade obsessions, and compulsive eating is more common than we may think.
I just heard about a heroin addict who broke free of that evil and got hooked on cupcakes and candy instead. He never learned to handle the pain inside and now all the sugar is ballooning his waistline and seriously hurting his heart. That’s why I won’t let Stevia sweetened pecans replace my dark chocolate almonds. But truth be told, peanuts and popcorn keep trying to fill void. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, or with sugar. All things are lawful, but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Cor. 6:12). I get trading obsessions. But I need to take my hungry hollowness to God.
4. I anticipate the feast more because of the fast.
For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven, the Teacher said and the Byrds sang. Jesus Christ did both. He explained in Matthew 9:15 that while his disciples weren’t fasting when he was with them, they would fast when He, the Bridegroom, was taken away.
It is time for a 40-day sugar fast, but the season for feasting will come. And when it does, it will be that much more of a treat. I admit, I’m really looking forward to breaking fast on February 10th. How much more we should we be looking to the return of Bridegroom and the marriage supper of the Lamb?
5. Rich food is more satisfying.
Jim and I redeemed a gift certificate last week to a local bistro. It was more gourmet than our dining out norm. Roasted olives, sourdough with salted butter, lobster bisque, and blackened salmon hit the spot.
Usually I crave ice cream after a dinner out, but the richness of our meal made the sweetness- and the after-dinner snacking- easy to forgo. That made me think of a fighter verse my friend quotes when she’s tempted by food, My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. When we fill up on the rich food, we won’t crave fillers as much.
6. Hunger pangs can be pleasant pain.
Romans 12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Part of our mind renewal, I think, is to learn to reframe the pain. Because we know that to grow strong- physically or spiritually- we must recognize good pain, by which I mean productive pain. Hunger pains become good pains when I face them with faith that God is producing good in me through them.
Here’s what I mean: Not caving to my sugar craving tears down the idol of food as comforter. It makes space that the God of all comfort will fill (2 Cor 1:3). Then He gets the glory. But when ice cream soothed my after-dinner unease or chocolate bars got me through writing difficult IEP’s, ice cream and chocolate got the credit, the glory. Sweets were my refuge and retreat.
7. Fasting from sugar helps me pray.
I’ve written before about how prayer can be more like a spare tire than a steering wheel. I don’t want it to be. Fasting helps me this way.
When that emptiness or antsy-ness or hunger pains come and I go to God first and say, Fill me, help me, He does. When that happens the Giver, Living Bread, and the God of Comfort get the glory. That’s what I meant, in #6 by pleasant pain: hunger pangs can be productive.
So how’s this 40-day sugar fast going?
There are still 25 days to go. But this morning I did something new when my stomach growled at me. Two weeks ago I would have grabbed a few chocolate almonds and last week some peanuts. But today, I let the rumbling be a quiet call to pray.
I didn’t drop to my knees or fall prostrate. I just closed my eyes for five seconds and prayed, Lord, I want to know you more. Please fill me.
That’s it. Then I did the laundry. But I did it a little more full of Christ and a little more happy in Jesus.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
“Why you putting all that chocolate in there, Mom? That was from Christmas. You like that stuff,” Gabe wondered aloud as he watched me pack it all in the little plastic bin.
“I’m not eating sweets for 40 days, Bud. Because I want to be more hungry for God.”
He shrugged and then begged for the York peppermint patties tucked at the bottom. I surrendered them to the mint loving son. Tomorrow Jim will take the little bin to his office in town, a safe place away, for 40 days.
This Much, O God, I Want You
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast: “This much, O God, I want you.”
John Piper, A Hunger For God
For the next 40 days, from January 1- February 9, the online Bible study group I facilitate (Wonders of the Word) will focus on key Bible verses about hunger, fasting, and the satisfaction found in God.
Along with this Scripture focus, I will be going on a 40-day “sugar fast” and I invite you to join me. I’m committed to saying no to foods with added sugars. No sugary snacks or desserts, sweet lattes, cocoa or candy. It will mean forgoing some of my go-to, feel-good treats: ice cream and dark chocolate.
A few of you are already gung-ho, but most of you are probably wondering why. So I’ll share 3 NON-REASONS for this 40-Day Sugar fast and then 3 of most compelling REASONS to try.
My NOT 3 Reasons for a 40-Day Sugar Fast
To lose weight. There are plenty of good physical reasons for fasting and I’d be glad to share them some other time. Intermittent fasting is part of my life. But physical health is NOT the reason for this fast.
To impress God (or you) with my discipline or devotion. This is big. Huge. In fact, after reading what Jesus said in Matthew 6 about fasting for show, I almost skipped this altogether. But, the benefits outweighed the risks. We’ll do this 40 days with smiles, by grace.
To escape evil, wicked sugar. It’s not. Everything God created is good and is meant to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:4). God made sugar cane.
By definition, Christian fasting is voluntarily and temporarily giving up a good gift to express our need for something greater, namely God and his work in our lives.
Why Fasting Magnifies Christ
Maybe you’re saying to yourself what I said to myself, “Well, I can eat my chocolate and ice cream and give thanks and it’s all good.” You’re right. It is all good. But maybe it- maybe your love and hunger for God- could be better. That’s what I’m banking on.
I love how John Piper explains this, how fasting and feasting can both exalt Christ, the Bread of Life:
Hunger and thirst were created for the glory of Christ. And fasting was created for the glory of Christ. Which means that bread magnifies Christ in two ways: by being eaten with gratitude for his goodness, and by being forfeited out of hunger for God himself. When we eat, we taste the emblem of our heavenly food—the Bread of Life. And when we fast we say, “I love the Reality above the emblem.” In the heart of the saint both eating and fasting are worship. Both magnify Christ.”
John Piper, A Hunger For God
Emblems are tasty. Chocolate covered almonds and Ghirardelli Intense Dark and Almond Joy ice cream are sweet emblems. I love those tastes.
But I want to love the Reality more.
L’appétit ient en mangeant
I don’t speak French, but I know this proverb. Appetite comes with eating. It fits. The more we feast on Christ and his Word, the hungrier we get.
One might think that those who feast most often on communion with God are least hungry. They turn often from the innocent pleasures of the world to linger more directly in the presence of God through the revelation of his Word. Paradoxically, it is not so that they are the least hungry saints…The strongest, most mature Christians I have ever met are the hungriest for God. It might seem that those who eat most would be least hungry. But that’s not the way it works with an inexhaustible fountain, and an infinite feast, and a glorious Lord.
So, that’s why. That’s why this 40-Day sugar fast. Because appetite comes with eating. Eat more Word of God, crave more Word of God.
My TOP 3 Reasons for a 40-Day Sugar Fast
Because I want to taste more of God’s goodness. I don’t taste it as much when the sweetness of sugar is on my tongue. I want Christ to fill my craving soul, even as my body craves the sugar. He satisfies the hungry with good things. Psalm 107:9
Because I want to use my yearning for sugar as a cue to consume more of God’s Word. I want to crave pure spiritual milk, so to grow up in my salvation. Because I don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 1 Peter 2:3, Deuteronomy 8:3
Because I want to master the appetites that would master me. Sugar, for the record, is far from the only one. Fasting can reveal what’s in us and how much a thing dominates us. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12
So I ask: Will you commit to 40 days of fasting from a good thing in order to increase your taste for God and his nourishing Word? Will you put your stomach where your heart is and say, “Lord, you’re more important to me than sugar?” Can you give up a good thing for a better thing?
Whether or not you decide to fast-from sugar or another food or an activity that lessens your hunger for God- I invite you to join the WOW crew as we seek more fullness in Christ, the Living Word and the Bread of Life.
Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and they will fast.
Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Luke 2:19
Do you ever ponder? I mean, do you take time to think about and reflect on a thing, what Miriam-Webster defines as, “to weigh in the mind”?
Pondering isn’t the same as drifting. It’s not the same as what occupies your mind those 90 seconds that come around every other fifth month when you’re alone for the night and your phone is off. That’s not pondering. Pondering means prolonged, intentional thinking over. It may start as a wisp, but when it comes, you hold it in a mind and weigh it a while.
Pondering is effortful for some of us. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as, say, to my husband. He is content to drive for hours with no music, no screens, no talk- content with just his thoughts. Just pondering.
Which is precisely what Mary did after the shepherds returned to their sheep that first Christmas night. Mary pondered.
What Mary Pondered
What did Mary ponder?
All these things. Yes, you appalled English teachers, Mary pondered things. The Greek cuts it a tad tighter with the word rhēma, which refers to a thing spoken. And that “thing” is probably the message announced to the shepherds, recorded in Luke 2:10-11,
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
So the shepherds probably told those things to Mary who treasured them up as precious things. Maybe Mary sang again. But certainly she pondered.
Taking cues from the Blessed Mother, I’ve been pondering pondering lately. In Greek, it’s symballō. It means to throw together or to bring together in one’s mind, to confer with one’s self.
It is formed from sum- with, ballo- to put into. Symballō is used five other time in the New Testament. It’s used in Luke 14:31, when Jesus asks, What king, going out to meet another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate? It’s what the Jewish leaders did after they forced Peter and John to leave the council in Acts 4:15, they conferred with one another. And it’s what happened in Acts 20:14, when Paul met the ship at Assos, and went aboard.
We don’t ponder enough these days. We don’t let thoughts meet up and confer with them. Maybe because we’re out of practice; to reflect and meditate and think long on the same thing is hard work. So distractedly we drift and rush. Screens train our brains this way.
So with the culture, we wade in the shallows.
If Mary, How Much More I?
But we’re not off the hook. If anyone could have been exempted from taking time to ponder the reality of her Savior Son, it would have been Mary. She nursed him, held him, bathed him. And pondered him.
No one can absolve himself from the duty of spiritual thought... Shall we, with our restless, distracted lives, with our feeble and imperfect grasp on Truth, be content to repeat with indolent assent a traditional confession? Can we suppose that the highest knowledge alone… is to be gained without effort, without preparation, without discipline? Is it credible that the law of our nature, which adds capacity to experience and joy to quest, is suddenly suspended when we reach the loftiest field of man’s activity?
Westcott’s words challenge, maybe even incriminate us. Because we know that the more we learn about an artist, the more we savor the art and that the more we read a good writer, the more we enjoy his work,
If in all other realms this is true, then why- when it comes to knowing Jesus- do we think that if we’ve sung a few carols and prayed a few prayers, “we’re good”?
Why would we think that knowing him and enjoying him a little is enough?
Let your intellect be exercised concerning the Lord Jesus. Turn over and over by meditation what you read. Do not…stop at the surface; dive into the depths! Be not as the swallow, which touches the brook with her wing, but as the fish, which penetrates the lowest wave. Drink deep draughts of love; do not sip and go away, but dwell at the well…
Ponder him. Think on him. Let your intellect be exercised. Come to think of it, that happens to be what Christ himself called “the first and greatest commandment“: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
And the command is not without promise. Because the more you do, the more you’ll love him and the more you’ll know his love. Spurgeon again: Certain persons are best esteemed at a distance, but not the Savior; when you shall have known Him to the very fullest, then shall you love Him with the love which passes knowledge…
We can’t love, trust, or adore someone we hardly know. If we’re content to ponder the Lord Jesus for a few minutes on Christmas Eve by candlelight we won’t know his love, or love him, well. For that we must ponder.
Ponder like Mary pondered.
Ponder the “Complex Beauty” of Christ
I don’t ponder enough. I’m so often running and doing. But I can take more time in 2020 to keep Christ in mind, to ponder Jesus, strong and kind.
I may ponder the complex beauty that John Piper describes as “coming together in one person of the perfect balance of extremely diverse qualities.” It’s like what we see in a man with bulging biceps cradling a baby in his hands and gentle woman standing immovable for the cause of truth.
That’s our Lord Jesus. He is tough and tender, lion and lamb, mighty and meek. He held the children in his arms and put his fingers into the deaf man’s ears and sat to chat with the woman who’d had five husbands and lived with another who wasn’t. Jesus, who spoke to the raging sea and it was still and wept before he raised his friend Lazarus to life. The Savior, who spoke to his disciples, O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe and to us, He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
I’ve pondered this- this beautiful, complex Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.
On Us To Know Him More
We sing about the beautiful name of Jesus, but to see more of his beauty, we must know him more. In her humility and trust, Mary somehow got that.
[She] grasped what much more sophisticated people have often failed to understand: that Jesus is to be treasured and pondered… that there is something so deep and wonderful about the person of Jesus that a lifetime of pondering will not suffice. We can both know him deeply and marvel that we cannot comprehend him totally.
Christopher Ash, “Repeat the Sounding Joy,” p. 109
But it’s on us to ponder these things. Because to us also a Child was born, to us also a Son was given.
And to us also comes thenews: a Savior has been born and he is Christ the Lord.
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee! Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee; Ponder anew what the Almighty can do If with His love He befriend thee.
Even though no zig-zagged, half-heart BFF charm has ever graced my neck, I really love my friends. I’ve been given some great ones. Lately, I’ve been thinking how much my friends fit me.
I mean how they shape, form, fit and transform me. I’m learning.
Truth #1: No one likes jealous, clingy friends. Enjoy a bunch of (imperfect) friends.
My jealous bone came out in 6th grade when my friend Jill spent the night at Teresa’s without me. I pouted. Then Mom’s sage advice clicked: being clingy will drive friends away.
If you think of yourself as a needy, leaky love tank waiting to be filled, you’ll probably stay that way. You won’t have many friends. Mom’s advice made sense and I stopped pouting and soon Jill – and Teresa- were both my friends.
But I still try to take mom’s advice to heart. I get it about how if you love someone, set them free and if they come back they’re yours and if they don’t they never were. That.
But I’m not too proud to say I need friends. A bunch of friends. Because no one soul can bear the load of me, and no one friend can meet all my needs. Friendships flourish when we don’t expect all from one.
Paul knew this too. He had a big bunch of imperfect friends.
Truth #2: No one outgrows the need for (imperfect) friends. Not even saints.
For the last month, I’ve been studying the last half of the last chapter of the last epistle that Saint Paul wrote. Paul who wrote the magnificent theology of Romans 8 and set the doctrinal record straight.
But do you know what was on Paul’s mind at the end of his life? His friends. His fickle, deserting, imperfect friends.
Paul ends his second letter to Timothy with mention of no fewer than 17 friends (18 if you count Timothy and 20+ if you count “the brothers”). Verses earlier, Paul wrote those triumphant words, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. He spoke about the crown of life that the Lord would award him. You’d think that would be the end.
But it wasn’t.
Paul eagerly- desperately?-wanted to see his friends. Do your best to come to me soon…Luke alone is with me (4:9,11). Paul was a spiritual guy. He’d already been caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). He knew what it was to set his mind on things above and not on earthly things (Col. 3:2).
And Paul really wanted to see his friends: Jesus- soon, Timothy- now.
Truth #3: You can love Jesus and (imperfect) friends. It makes both loves sweeter.
John Stott explains how these two desires, to be with Jesus and to be with our friends, are not incompatible.
One sometimes meets super-spiritual people who claim that they never eel lonely and have no need for friends, for the companionship of Christ satisfies all their needs. But human friendship is the loving provision of God for mankind. (John Stott, Message, 120)
In other words, if you say you’re beyond the need for human friends- maybe because you’ve been burned by friends- you’re beyond the Bible. Paul had been burned. Paul was deserted by his friends at his first defense in Rome, but said, “May it not be counted against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16)
(Have I mentioned yet that our friends won’t be perfect? That they will fail us even as we fail them. They will hurt us and we will hurt them. Count on it. There will be the giving and taking of wounds. But that needn’t end our friendships. It’s par for the course. In fact Jesus made Peter- as in Peter denied the Lord and cried Peter- his Rock to build his church.)
Don’t feel you must choose between the supreme love and delight you have in Jesus and the pleasures of Christian friends… The joy of a Christ-centered friendship is meant to magnify the worth of Christ as the common treasure of the friendship and this deepens the sweetness of the friendship.
Because maybe behind our choices, it’s God who chooses our friends. And because He does use (imperfect) friends who fail us to shape us into Christ’s faithful friends.
Truth #4: God shapes us through our (imperfect) friends. Welcome the rub.
We are the friends we keep: the faithful and the unfaithful, the timid and the bold, the new and the old. We need them all. Failing friends, failing kids, failing wives can still be our friends- our sweet friends, John Piper says. God brings them into our lives and they all play a part in the people we become.
God works in us through the friends he gives us.
A few weeks ago a friend told me how she’d asked another friend if there were any “blind spots” in her. That question is not for the faint of heart. But, if she could do it, I could too, and an hour later I asked her the same of me. What she said is another post and I’m not recommending you do the same. But I am suggesting that you have you’re close enough to others to feel loves frets and rubs– divine sandpaper on our rough spots, if you will.
Sometimes that hurts, but it need not be painful. Being with a soft-spoken friend helps me to speak more gently. Time with a big-hearted friend makes me want to be more generous. Being with a self-controlled friend makes it easier to skip bedtime snacks. Sanding me smooth.
But most spiritual growth is slow. Sometimes we don’t recognize the tools. We might even ask, God, how are you actually working in me?
In Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives this memorable answer.
…[It] is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways...He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences…
Now here’s the kicker:
But above all, He works on us through each other… Men are mirrors, or ‘carriers’ of Christ to other men… That is why the Church, the whole body of Christians showing Him to one another, is so important.
We need friends because they are one of God’s choice tools to transform us to be like Jesus.
Truth #5: (Imperfect) Friends fit us for heaven. And we are fit with them.
But this year, as I shop and bake and wrap and read it’s dawning on me that Someone else is doing the lion’s share of preparing. For all the thoughtful stocking stuffing and gift wrapping he does, I don’t mean Jim.
All this while, Christ is preparing us, fitting us. He is rebuilding our ramshackle houses, transforming our stinky stables, and sanding our rough trim to make a fit throne room for the King.
The last line in Away in a Mangernails it:And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.
It strikes me that He might just be doing that through (imperfect) friends.
In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Because I know- not just in my head but in my heart- that giving thanks is as close to a silver bullet to joy as there possibly could be. While we cannot force thankfulness, the feeling; we can coerce the action.Even if we don’t feel thankful, we can give thanks.
And if we do, if we force ourselves to be thanks-givers, I say this from experience, the thankful, joyful feeling follows. It works like this: I wake up and feel the discontent not gratitude oozing out of me. But if I make myself thank God for five things before I roll out of bed, I hit the ground happier, and more thankful. Because I forced the issue. I talked to myself instead of listening to myself. I grabbed the reins and took myself in hand.
It works. Every. Single. Time. When I feel discontent because of what my husband didn’t do, I can thank him for what he did do. When I feel envious about a girlfriend’s gift, I can thank God that she is my friend. And when I’m grumpy about a sink full of dirty dishes, I can thank God for mouths to feed. One or the other: grumble or give thanks.
Because you can’t ride two horses with one heinie.
You Can’t Ride Two Horses
You simply can’t feel thankful and entitled at once. You can’t ride the I-Deserve and the All-Grace thoroughbreds together. You just can’t. I can’t. And believe me, I’ve tried.
I’ve tried to ride the Thankful bay and the Self-pitying painttogether and it never works. But sometimes I still try to saddle up the Envy pony right alongside the Gratitude gray and climb up.
But no matter how hard I try I cannot ride both. Because I’ve only got one heinie.
Ride The Thankful Horse
How it went down yesterday: I started saddling up my Envy pony after hearing opportunities for friendship and ministry that some friends of mine have because they don’t work outside the home. I had one foot in the stirrup before I came to my senses and climbed on Gratitude Gray. God’s got me at this job for his good reasons and I’m thankful- YES THANKFUL!- for the ways He’s using it to grow and shape me.
That was yesterday. Today when I was tempted to mount the Comparison mare and let it gallop off again with my old dreams for a quiver full of kids- the Spirit counseled me off her back and onto the strong Thankful stallion. The Father promised He’d provide all your needs. So if you don’t have it, you don’t need it. No good thing does he withhold.
Those were Spirit-wrought victories. Other days I ride too long on the wrong horse’s saddle. I climbed on the I-Didn’t-Choose-This chestnut and let him get the best of me. He charged off to You-Deserve-Better Land. And if I spend any time at all there, I return quarrelsome and harsh with my family.
All because I got on the wrong horse and let it take me for a ride.
Defeat The Dark Horse: Give Thanks
The best way to drive out my self-focused, self-pitying, envious grumps is to be a thanks-giver. Gratitude, John Piper explains, is the song that defeats the enemy. Suppose, he says, that you discover that there is a song which the enemy and their sympathizers cannot tolerate or approach. Whenever they hear it, they pull back and run the other direction.
Isn’t it certain that you would want to learn this song? And after you learned it, you would sing it when you went to bed at night and when you got up in the morning. You would sing it on the way to work, and among strangers… Others would see and hear and learn the song from you. And in the end you would conquer the enemy.
The enemy rides a dark horse. He steals our joy and deceives us with lies. We play right into his hand when we compare and complain. One of his most convincing, joy stealing lies starts like this, But you deserve.
And the song that drives the dark horse and his lying rider away is thanksgiving.
Sing the Song of Thanks
You can give thanks or you can grumble. One will drive out the other.
The note said without saying, Thanks for holding your ground, Mom. You were right not to give in to me. And I love you so much.
It was taped to the coffeepot Saturday morning. He said he put it there because he knew I’d find it.
Now I’m putting it here so you don’t give up or give in.
Because the night before I found the note, Tall One and I were in a tussle and I almost quit.
Strong Ones Don’t Give Up
Aw, Mom, why can’t we just play Brawl Stars?He brought his iPad too. C’mon. That’s what we want!
We had very different ideas about how our Friday fun night should look. When a new 6th grade boy visited, Tall One pushed hard for screen time, alone. Mom held out for tacos at the table and real games- board games- after dinner, together.
And I asked myself what I sometimes ask my husband, Why am I surprised parenting is so strenuous and effortful and just plain hard ?
Unlimited screentime would have been so much easier.
Strong Ones Stand On Promises
Honestly, had it not been for these verses swirling around my mind, I’d have given in.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.Hebrews 10:36
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58
They’re a few of my go-to, keep-on promises from God. And you know what they say about what makes strong ones strong, don’t you?
They stand on the promises. They don’t sit on the premises.
Strong Ones Endure
Strength can be measured, physically and spiritually, by what will make us stop. What will make us throw in the towel, cry “Uncle!” or just be done?
But God strengthened me with his promises that night. I endured Tall One’s onslaught and stood my ground when the 12 year-old lashed out against the good. This mom endured that pain.
Because I’m learning that strong ones reframe their pain and so renew their minds (Romans 12:2). Strong ones know that it’s trials and pain that build endurance- the ability to stand up under a burden (picture big dudes gripping bendy barbells)- and that it’s endurance that makes them mature and complete, lacking nothing (James 1:2-4).
Add that to your go-to promises.
Strong Ones Rest
But, to be sure, strong ones rest. Athletes build rest days into their training plans. God rested the seventh day and commanded that we rest, for our good. You might even say, so that we can better endure.
I love how Timothy Keller explains this, and, fair warning, if you’re a driver like me, this might be hard to read:
Anyone who cannot obey God’s command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don’t have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom. It means you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities… In the long run, of course, a deeply rested people are far more productive.
Yes, rest. In freedom, rest. By grace through faith, rest in the God who supplies all our needs (Philippians 4:19) and freely gives us all things (Romans 8:32).
Let the record reflect that three games of Mexican Train, twelve hands of Apples to Apples (Tall One’s friend wanted more!) and five dirty taco bowls later, I did rest.
Strong Ones Know Their Real Home
But in this pilgrim life, rest is not the norm. The norm is work and work out. The norm is get up and press on. Strong ones know that comfort is overrated and don’t expect full satisfaction this side of heaven. They know that expecting comfort and ease now tends toward anxiety and disappointment and, well, being dissatisfied.
Knowing that truth is the only reason that this weary mom could hold her ground against Tall One’s barrage coming home Friday night after a very long work week.
Because even Friday night at home, I’m learning, is not really home.
The settled happiness and security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Strong ones know their real home. They know they are pilgrims on a narrow way. They enjoy fun times but they know such times are just “pleasant inns.” And they don’t demand the inn every Friday night.
The Strong Know God Knows
Pilgrims were sturdy souls. They were focused and strong. The hundred who settled Plymouth 400 years ago had every reason to quit.
But they were strong ones and strong ones don’t look for excuses because they know spiritual strength comes from endurance, and endurance must finish its work. So they push back against pressure to quit because their eyes are on the prize (James 1:12), even when it’s invisible to naked eyes (2 Corinthians 4:18). Oh, yes! Strong ones see that victor’s crown that awaits enduring saints and jubilate.
So whether your pressure is long term or short term, whether a difficult job or a strong-willed kid, whether it’s aches in your body or strains on your mind- please keep on. Will you join me and stand on the promises? Our labor is not in vain, we will reap and there will come God’s reward. God will strengthen us (1 Peter 5:10) to endure.
You might not be gifted with a note from a Tall One taped to your coffeepot like I was.
But you can know that God knows when you bear up for his sake. So keep on.
I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
Not all quotes can make the cut. This one didn’t quite.
So you won’t hear me share it as I speak at the first annual Empowered Women’s Retreat, but boy, did it speak to my heart. I hope it encourages you too.
It’s from a chapter called, “These Inward Trials,” in J.I. Packer’s, KNOWING GOD (IVP, 1973). Spacing, bolding and italics mine.
What is grace?
In the New Testament grace means God’s love in action towards people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves. Grace means God sending His only Son to descend into hell on the cross so that we guilty one might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. “(God) made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
What is the purpose of grace?
Primarily, it is to restore man’s relationship with God. When God lays the foundation of this restored relationship, by forgiving our sins as we trust His Son, He does so in order that henceforth we and He may live in fellowship, and what He does in renewing our nature is intended to make us capable of, and actually to lead us into, the exercise of love, trust, delight, hope and obedience Godward- those acts which from our side, made of the reality of fellowship with God, who is constantly making Himself known to us. This is what all the work of grace aims at- an even deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself.
How does grace prosecute [go about] this purpose?
Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from the burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor by shielding us from the troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all those things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to Him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another- it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.
The reason why the Bible spends so much time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defence, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of His time bringing to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road. When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him.
Why is life rough and perplexing?
And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing so that we may learn thankfully to lean on Him. Therefore He takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in Himself- in the classical biblical phrase for the secret of the godly man’s life, “to wait on the Lord.”
One of the most startling applications of this truth is that God actually uses our sins and mistakes to this end. He employs the educative discipline of failures and mistakes very frequently. It is striking to see how much of the Bible deals with men of God making mistakes, and God chastening them for it. Abraham losing patience and begets Ishmael… Moses killing an Egyptian…David seducing Bathsheba and getting Uriah killed… Jonah running away from God’s call… So we might go on.
But the point to stress is that the human mistake, and the immediate divine displeasure was in no case the end of the story…God can bring good out of the extremes of our folly; God can restore the years that the locust has eaten.
You know what they say about those who never make mistakes?
They say that those who never make mistakes never make anything; certainly these men made mistakes, but through their mistakes God taught them to know His grace, and to cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise.
Is your trouble a sense of failure? The knowledge of having made some horrible mistake? Go to God, his restoring grace waits for you.
By the way, ladies, if you’re in the Waterford, WI area this weekend, I’d love to meet you at the retreat. It’s about how to count it all joy.
And, guess what? It goes right back to knowing our good God.
If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
What I mean by the first is this: I want my readers and friends to know that struggling with bad stuff is good. That struggle with sin is both normal and good.
In fact, I expect and solemnly hope that there’s some fight in me until the day I die. Because my sin is ever before me and I know too well my proneness to pride and impatience, to gluttony and envy– to name a few.
And because there is a “mean, violent streak” in every vibrant Christian life. In one of those sermons I keep going back to, John Piper explains that this violence is never against other people. Rather,
It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. A violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality. It’s a violence against all lust in ourselves, and enslaving desires for food or… alcohol or pornography or money or the praise of men and the approval of others or power or fame…
Christianity is not a settle-in-and-live-at-peace-with-this-world-the-way-it-is kind of religion. If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.
Recently I spent some time exploring what Paul meant in Romans 8:37 when he called us “more than conquerors.” Because to be a conqueror is one thing, but to be a “superconquerors”- well, in this tempted and tried flesh of mine, that is, to quote from The Princess Bride, nearly “inconceivable.”
The word in Greek that is translated “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 is only used once in the whole Bible. It’s one compound Greek word that takes two- super conquerors– or three of ours- more than conquerors– to express.
Albert Barnes explains what this strong man term means.
That is, they have not power to subdue us; to alienate our love and confidence; to make us lose our faith. We are the victors, not they. Our faith is not destroyed, our love is not diminished, our hope is not blasted.
But it is not simple victory; … it is more than simple triumph; it augments our faith, increases our strength, expands our love to Christ.
Think of it this way: borne by faith, the weight of trials and temptations are transformed from burdens slumping our backs to CrossFit bars squaring our shoulders. Same weight, different results.
This is more than simple triumph.
But Not Without Struggle
In, “The Law of Antagonism,” Oswald Chambers explains that super-conqueror status doesn’t come without struggle.
Life without war is impossible either in nature or in grace. The basis of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism. This is the open fact of life.
Health…is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside…Things which keep me going when I am alive, disintegrate me when I am dead. If I have enough fighting power, I produce the balance of health.
The same is true of the mental life. If I want to maintain a vigorous mental life, I have to fight, and in that way the mental balance called thought is produced. Morally it is the same… No man is virtuous because he cannot help it; virtue is acquired.
And spiritually it is the same. Jesus said — “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” i.e., everything that is not spiritual makes for my undoing, but — “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
I have to learn to score off the things that come against me, and in that way produce the balance of holiness; then it becomes a delight to meet opposition.
No man, or woman, is spiritually strong because he cannot help it. Strength is acquired. Strength only comes through struggle.
Why It Matters
You must know beyond the shadow of a doubt that struggle is normal, healthy, and good for you, Christian. This knowledge matters immensely because too many Christians think something is wrong with them- or worse, that God does not love them- when they’re tempted – and fall- again and again. That if they were “really a Christian,” struggle and temptation would be done.
It matters because, honestly, if you see struggle with as the exception rather than the rule for the saint, “as if something strange were happening to you,” it will weaken you. I’ve seen too many friends give up, give in and quit.
I don’t know where that idea comes from, but it is definitely not from God’s Word. The Bible says the opposite. Over and over, we read that the Christian life is effortful and vigorous and full of struggle.
Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13, “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” And Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
We must know this or the next time we crave the other sleeve of cookies, or another glass of wine or feel the urge to look at something we shouldn’t or the say words we’ll wish we wouldn’t have- because if we’re not prepared for the struggle, we’ll probably succumb.
And over time, giving in is demoralizing. Seeing the empty jar or empty sleeve or reliving the words that wounded or that image on the screen can sap the life right out of you.
Struggling (With Help) Makes You Strong
But when you know that struggle is normal and, in fact, the exact means God has chosen to grow you up and make you strong, well, then, you’ll be more likely to rise to the challenge and less likely to give in to temptation.
You’ll be more likely to plug in to a very great and precious promise to escape the temptation (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). You’ll be more likely to send out an SOS to your comrades in arms. That is what should be normal.
Texting a friend to say: Please pray that I’ll be self-controlled and satisfied in God and listen well at the party tonight. I know I’ll be tempted to overeat.
Or messaging your prayer warriors at 12:45 am to ask, What promise can I cling to right now when fear is freezing me out? I can’t latch onto a single truth to break in on my catastrophizing dreams.
Or calling a sister to say, Can we please talk NOW? I am feeling paralyzed by anxiety and I need help.
We’re Needed and Needy (Both)
Those are real. Those came through from faithful struggling saints last week. Real people. And God’s grace was strong to meet their needs.
But remember that God uses means. He uses us- his needed and needy children- to strengthen his other needed and needy children.
So why does knowing that struggle is normal matter so much? That, in fact, if you didn’t struggle against besetting sins, that would be a problem.
It matters because if you don’t know that trials will come, you might be overcome. You might end up like seed sown on rocky ground, that sprang up fast but wilted away as soon as tribulation came (Mark 4:12). Do not be surprised,Peter wrote, when fiery trials come to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
No, struggle is not strange. It’s normal.
And Grace Is Strong
“Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul told Timothy. Since God designed the good fight of faith to be normal till the day we die, it makes sense that he gives more grace. “Grace,” John Piper says, “is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to work for holiness.”
Grace is strong. Good struggle and strong grace go hand in hand. Do you see that?
Grace, I think, is less a safety net for hang-loose living, than the stabilizing bar that helps us cross the wire.
Biblical grace is also more than the gift of the kids sleeping in on a rainy days and picking strawberries on sunny days and the power that keeps illness away. Grace is that- unmerited favor. But it’s so much more. It’s power.
God’s undeserved favor also comes in the form of strength to call out for help, and power to fight. To take up the struggle like a strongman hoists a barbell.
This also is grace.
Daily Struggle + Strong Grace = Freedom
Freedom is not so much a destination that we reach as it is a daily choice that we make by our actions. Matt Fradd, author of The Porn Myth, said that in an interview with Janet Parshall.
The freedom Fradd mentioned doesn’t only apply to the porn problem. It applies to struggles with other temptations. Fradd says,
We need to think of struggle as a daily battle. Whether it’s losing our temper or eating too much, succumbing to anxious thoughts or shutting off our screens, it’s not realistic to simply say, I’m done. I’ll never do that again. Rather than thinking of it as an all or nothing battle, we should think of it as a daily battle. Rather than think of this as one and done, we need to think of it as a daily decision to live free.
Struggle is a daily battle- many daily decisions- to live free. And the struggle is made possible only by God’s strong grace. Strong enough to help you bear up under every single struggle you face. And not just somehow, but victoriously.
Having a free will, John Piper says, means doing what you want to do and not regretting it in a thousand years.
Such freedom, I think, will only come as we see struggle as good and embrace God’s strong grace.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.
-Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:10
When through fiery trials our pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be your supply.
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
Perfectionism paralyzes. For perfectionists, the perfect is the enemy of the good. According to productivity gurus, it’s also the enemy of the done.
Because perfectionism is crippling. When the project looked great on Pinterest, but then the drive to make it match the pin made you freeze? Like when I a blog post and feel so overwhelmed by the thought of knocking it out of the park that I grab a bowl of popcorn and pour a cup of tea and dust those cobwebs in the corner and grab another snack and… well- the post never gets started, much less done.
We’ve all been there. In fact, I just left my last stop there about an hour ago. Now I’m soaking in the wisdom of just doing something. Namely, of imperfectly writing this.
Because when it comes right down to it, I agree with G.K. Chesterton that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And, honestly, as D.L. Moody once told a critic, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
Or as I often remark, “Something is better than nothing.”
Perfectionism Stifles Growth
But we’d best define terms. I’ll borrow Jon Bloom’s definitions of both perfectionism and excellence. They’re not the same.
What we call perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence, though sometimes the lines can blur. When we pursue excellence, we’re determined to do something as well as possible within a given set of talent, resource, and time limits. But perfectionism is a pride- or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all — both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things.
His clarification is important. Children of the King are called to excellence, to working “wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23). The focus is God. But that is entirely different from a self-focused orientation that insists on flawless, likely motivated by fear or pride to win others’ approval.
In one area or another we all have an inner drive to excel. Whether running a faster mile, proofreading before sending, or becoming a better listener- we strive to do well.
Making good resolves is a healthy way to grow.
Perfectionism Or Healthy Striving?
But perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. Those who strive for excellence- and, dare I say for *perfection?– in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards.
I do this when I strive to make a batch of chewy chocolate chip cookies or teach a lesson that drives a point home or write in a compelling way that makes you want to read it. I enjoy this sort of striving. But perfectionism does not promote joy. Instead, it leads to discouragement, self-pity, and fear.
Though not overtly “Christian,” this article is insightful on the distinctions between paralyzing perfectionism and healthy striving.
Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
Reacting positively to helpful criticism
Do you see the difference? Are you more of a perfectionist or a healthy striver? Your focus probably determines your answer.
Focusing on Christ leads to freedom. Fixation on self enslaves.
Be Freed From Perfectionism
I struggle to rest in God’s grace when I am so aware of my failure, a friend confided. I can relate. I suspect every Christian who struggles with perfectionism can.
Can you rest in the grace of God when you miss the mark? In other words, can you know God’s love when your life is an imperfect mess?
The answer is a resounding YES! But only if our focus is right. Jon Bloom again,
God has something far better for us to strive toward than our idealized imaginations of perfection, which only end up enslaving us.
Perfectionism’s subtle, but great danger is its self-orientation. Since it is a fear- or pride-fueled effort to win approval for the self, its primary focus is de facto on self, not God or others. In other words, perfectionism, even in the battle against sin, is not motivated by love or faith. And “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom.14:23).
But God wants us to be free — free from the tyranny of pride and fear. He wants us to live in the freedom of knowing that he has our past, present, and future perfection issues completely covered.
Do you want to be freed from perfectionism?
Look For Growth
In our ongoing battles with failure and sin, we must know that God is not looking for perfect, externally performed behavior. He is looking for us to look to Him. He is looking for faith that works through love (Gal. 5:6) and for us to trust in his love (Psalm 147:11).
Remember, growth implies we haven’t arrived. If we were already perfect, there wouldn’t be room for growth. But God’s call for us to grow also means we shouldn’t be not stagnant and stuck. Or paralyzed by perfectionism.
Because when God commands a thing, he also enables it. The God who calls us to grow, gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). And that God calls us to grow also means he knows that there’s room for growth. He knows.
Can you rest there?
There’s Grace For That
A friend and I tag that on a lot when we talk, and confess our sins to each other. “There’s grace for that,” we say. For my being late, again; for her overeating, again; for my hasty words that cut, again.
That’s why He died. That is the gospel, my friends. If we were already perfect, Christ wouldn’t have died for us. He loved us and gave himself for us when we were dead in our sins. Perfectly dead.
That truth knocks the perfectionist breath right out of me.
Because Scripture is clear: “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions— it is by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:4-5). This is true.
This truth has power to demolish the lie that you can only please God and know his love if you are perfect. It is both humbling and exalting.
Because, as Timothy Keller so poignantly put it,
We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.
Maybe we recovering perfectionists ought to write that out and tape it to our bathroom mirrors. Then maybe we should to take a tour through the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11.
Commended for Faith, not Perfection
I did that with my Sunday school class yesterday. And it was so refreshing to see the very imperfect saints on the walls in there.
There’s Rahab the prostitute and Samson the proud who loved a prostitute, Jephthah the reckless and Abraham the liar, there’s Noah the drunk, David the adulterer, and Moses the murderer– just to name a few.
And all these, though commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:39). Do you see? These were not commended for being perfect. They were commended for their faith.
But perfection will come. In fact, the very next verse tells us when perfection will come. It will for the ancient saints when it comes for us (Heb. 11:40). We will be made perfect together in glory, when we see see Jesus face to face.
Until then, we press on in faith and love. But we do so with our gaze on the God who loves us so and has already made us his own.
And with Him in focus, and his grace, we can be freed from perfectionism.
Not that I’ve already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.
Do you have trust issues?
I do. But my trust issues aren’t so much with trusting others so much as with others trusting me.
I don’t mean trusting me to decorate a cake or back a semi-trailer into a loading dock or entertain a two-year old. I don’t even trust me to do those things well.
No, my trust issues come when people don’t trust me to do what I said I’d do. I mean, trust me to keep my word and come through without micromanaging or second guessing me. That kind of carte blanche trust means the world.
Trust, I know, is built on trustworthiness, tested-ness, character. We trust others because we know something about their character. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
And I am thrilled to the depths of my firstborn, take-charge, competence seeking soul when people trust me with a task. I still glow to think about the affirmation a leader gave me when I proposed a project a few years ago. “Abigail’s got this,” he said to the team. “Best thing we can do is let her run with it.”
This got me thinking about trusting God (more than the GPS Girl) and how our lack of trust- our little faith- must displease him. Could it be that our fear and anxiety and grieve God for at least some of the same reasons that others’ mistrust grieves us?
At the heart of this hurt, I think, is the fact that others’ lack of trust in me betrays the truth that people don’t really know me as well as I thought they did. Mistrust can betray a lack of intimate knowledge.
I know it borders on audacious to compare my sin-twinged reactions to distrust with our Holy God’s. But I dare.
Because if it hurts my puny fail-and-drop-the-ball-selfhow much moreit must grieve the faithful God’s heart when His people don’t trust Him. Like the disciples in the boat, with the waves splashing in on them (Matthew 8:23-27). Can you hear Jesus saying, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
“O ye of little faith!” What a pang must have shot through the disciples — “Missed it again!” And what a pang will go through us when we suddenly realize that we might have produced down right joy in the heart of Jesus by remaining absolutely confident in Him, no matter what was ahead.
At rock bottom, our anxiety and distrust reveal that we don’t trust God. Which means we really don’t know him as well as he wants us to know him.
Trust Him Wholly
So trust God. I know- easier said than done. So I’ll let you in on a little secret. It will be way easier to trust God more if you know him better. So get to know God. Seek him where he is to be found. Read his self-revelation. There are 66 books of the Bible all about him. He wrote them because he wants you to know him.
And He wants you to trust him. Because He is faithful to all his promises. God always keeps his word. Because, as the old hymn reminds us, those who trust him wholly, find him wholly true.
God is the only one worthy of our complete trust. Even the best of friends will sometimes disappoint us. But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 145:13. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. Faithful and loving. Could there be a better pair of traits to gain our trust?
If he gave you breakfast this morning, and he’s given you life everlasting, can you not trust him with what comes in between? If he has demonstrated his love and his concern by even dying on a cross to give you life everlasting can you not trust him with your concerns?
Still it’s hard. Trusting an unseen God with our hopes and our hurts and our very lives is hard. I feel the tension to trust him or to go my own way every day.
But I can assure you of this. Often sooner and for sure later, it’s way more sweet to trust in Jesus. And it makes God glad.
The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who trust in his unfailing love.
For our heart is glad in him, for we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
Whatever you do, don’t breathe a word of this post to Gabe. He has no idea I took these pictures. He’d be mortified if he knew you knew that he did battle with a dragon yesterday.
Gabe started sixth grade last week and Gabe still works hard at his play. At imagination. And as much as I pray his imagination thrives until the day he dies, I’m aware that there probably won’t be too many more dragon battles.
That’s why I had wet eyes.
Never Laugh at a Live Dragon
I don’t laugh at dragons. Yesterday I almost cried, but I wouldn’t dare laugh. The full quote is “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool! he said to himself and it became favorite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb.” If you haven’t guessed, it’s from The Hobbit.
Saturday night Gabe said he couldn’t put his figures away because he hadn’t finished the battle. He’d assembled the Playmobil warriors Friday morning. Then life took over, the fair and friends came, and the army waited, helmets on, swords in hand- for 48 hours on the couch in the back room.
Until Gabe woke early Sunday morning to do the great work of imagination: to make dragon and men do battle.
Too many of us grow up and we forget about imagination. We forget that we still need imagination to grow spiritually. Reality can be beaten, G.K. Chesterton said, with imagination. I still believe it.
So last night when Gabe asked, not really out of the blue, “Mom do you think there really were dragons, that even breathed fire?” I paused.
“Gabe, I think maybe there were.”
Not Too Old Too Imagine
You’re not too old. A sixth-grader is not too old to fight a dragon battle and you’re not too old to set your mind on things unseen. You are not too old to imagine. In fact, you might say, that’s part of your “calling” if you’re a Christian. It’s what we’re supposed to do.
Because imagination is not mere pretending. Merriam-Webster says it is the power of the mind to form images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved. Imagination is the ability to form an image in the mind, to see in the mind’s eye what is not present to the physical eye. To these ears, that sounds remarkably Pauline!
As in 2 Corinthians 4:18: Look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Or Ephesians 1:18: Having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.
And Colossians 3:2: Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
You are not too old for this.
Narnia’s No Dream
One of my first and favorite JoyPrO posts was about imagination. It started with a 4 year old Sam making a face out of flower petals. But it ended with one of my favorite scenes in all of the chronicles of Narnia.
Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum the lanky, languid Marshwiggle are closing in on their rescue of Prince Rilian. The Prince had been captured and held hostage by the evil Queen of the Underworld who had him under her spell, believing there was no other world.
…steady, monotonous thrumming…you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. This also made it hard to think.
Narnia, said the witch thrumming, is all a dream. There is no sun. The lamp is the real thing, the rest is a children’s tale. And Aslan? Why, he’s only a big, make-believe cat. (The Silver Chair, p. 182)
Then, just as the enchantment was almost complete, Puddleglum did a very courageous thing. He stomped his webbed Marshwiggle foot in the Queen’s enchanted fire. And there’s nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.
Live Like A Narnian
Puddleglum’s mind became perfectly clear, and this is what he said:
Suppose we have made it up. All I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seems a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. (p. 190-191).
If you’re “into” Narnia, maybe you’ve already adopted this as your battle cry: Live like a Narnian!
That is labor! Some of the most effortful work I do happens the first few minutes after my alarm clock goes off.
Do Battle (For Joy) Every Morning
Exertion is just as necessary for us as it was for Puddleglum if we’re to break free from the evil enchantment of the Underworld. We need to exert our minds to form images of what we can’t see right now. Imagination can break the spell of worldliness.
Gabe did battle with dragon Sunday morning. Every morning I have to do my own battle.
Most often it’s against discouragement, selfishness, and the pervasive pride of self-pity. If you wage war in bed first thing in the morning, you’re in good company.
John Piper explains the fight of faith as a fight for joy in the Lord; a battle “to continually recognize, see, savor, receive Jesus as more valuable” than anything in this world.
I get up every morning and fight that fight. Every morning, that’s my war. Am I wanting to look at Twitter before I look at Jesus? Sounds stupid. That’s how stupid sin is. So every morning, there’s war in the Piper household. It’s not against my family; it’s against me, and my old man that I have to reckon dead over and over again (Ephesians 4:22) and pray that the Holy Spirit that would poured out on me, that my eyes would be opened; I would see and savor Christ as supreme. That’s war. That’s called the life of faith. Faith is seeing, savoring, the supreme treasure of Christ.
Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you…But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls happy in God Himself…Day by day, seek to make this the most important business of your life.
It’s effortful. Other things will press upon you. But God’s grace has been teaching me to make this my first labor each day. So, I thank God- sometimes I force my selfish self- to thank God for 5 things before I roll out of bed.
That’s usually how my battle with the joy-stealing dragon begins.
Labor Each Day: Imagine Dragons. Fight For Joy.
G. K. Chesterton had a way with words. Some of my favorite quotes come from him, including this one: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
I did some digging and the quote is not exact. But it seems to be based on this bit from his essay “The Red Angel“:
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Gabe was St. George on Sunday. Defeating the evil and the ugly. I was him this Labor Day- fighting evil and ugly- and pray I’ll be everyday.
But defeating an evil dragon is work. It’s noisy work sometimes.
Can You Handle The Noise?
After I snapped the pictures yesterday, I walked in, Bible and journal in hand,
Gabe, would you mind if I sit out here and read for a little while?
I was ready to leave and give him battle space, the pause was so long. Then the shrug,
Well mom, if you can handle the noise, it’s okay.
I sighed the happiest of sighs. Doing dragon battle is noisy, but Gabe wasn’t ashamed.
Oh yeah, Gabe, I can handle the noise.
In fact, I love the noise. Because it’s the noise of real life.
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.
Atop the empty grandstand, amid dust kicked up by the Massey hauling plow for the rodeo that night, Hyunjin slapped me one exultant high five.
Because with 30 minutes of a month to spare, he- we actually- finished HELLO UNIVERSE.
For the record, I don’t recommend HELLO UNIVERSE. The universe with its bright crystals and stars are gods. But it’s a book I’m glad I read because it gave me precious side-by-side time with Hyunjin.
The young-adult fiction was assigned by Hyunjin’s English teacher in Korea. With 320 pages, it was Hyunjin’s daunting summer read.
But heaviness turned to joy in the top row of the grandstand.
Joys Doubled, Twice
Two years ago today, I posted about Kibum. I told you how our joys were doubled and our hearts were wrung by our first Korean exchange son. Wet eyes still come when I think about Kibum. Now they also come reliving the month with Hyunjin.
Which brings me to one of those sweet memories. Most nights before bed, I’d check in with Hyunjin about the next day’s events. That was the drill. So I walked into his room, calendar in hand.
Nine days left, I said.
Nine days? he repeated with urgency and scrambled for paper and pen. Then he did some long division: 238 divided by 9.
Oh! 31 pages, he exclaimed, eyebrows high.
Then I got it. He had nine days to finish an epic-long book written in a foreign language and he had barely begun. I knew what I had to do.
I read with you each day, okay Hyunjin? We sit together and read. We will get it done.
He smiled and sighed and for the last nine days, we did. We sat side by side on the sofa and read. And he taught me snake is pem and cat is goyang-i and I taught him that Prank is different from Frank and Birgil is not how we say Virgil. We learned and laughed.
And it was all joy.
Joy Shared, Joy Doubled
I’ve learned this pretty well, but sometimes I slip back into thinking I’ll be happier if I keep my little joys private. But I know better. Remember, love seeks not its own. Joy shared isn’t halved, it’s doubled!
Seeing our humdrum lives through Hyunjin’s fresh eyes proved it again: Joy shared is joy doubled.
Hyunjin helped us enjoy common things more: round-robin basketball in the driveway, dashing around in the van (sans flat tires), meals together, after breakfast reading and then turtle feeding, after lunch chess and playing with goyang-i, after dinner Monopoly Deal or even better slap-jack with dad.
In four weeks the boys played more chess, solved more cubes, took more bike rides and we all rolled our eyes at goofy-sounding words and our Korean mispronunciations and laughed more than in the whole year before.
There were more visits with family and friends and more lingering after dinner and, I admit, probably more home-cooked dishes than the other 11 months of the year.
To be sure, there was also more junk food in the bedrooms, more Dude Perfect flips, more multi-player video Brawl Stars and more goofy talk.
(Hyun-Jin, you know what we call that in America? Gabe would ask Hyunjin. Gooch. To mix it up, sometimes he’d say, equally ad nauseam by week three, Saucy.)
Go ahead, roll your eyes. Sometimes good friends do.
Hyunjin, like Kibum, brought out our best and smoothed out our worst. I like to think we grew a little more gentle and courteous last month too. Maybe we became a slightly less American and a slightly more Korean?
We do miss Hyunjin. But there’s one more thing I miss: I miss what we were when he was with us. Hyunjin brought out something in each of us that wasn’t expressed fully without him.
C.S. Lewis writes about that in The Four Loves. He describes the way he missed his friend Charles Williams, and how that one friend changed the “dynamics” of the group of friends called the “Inklings.”
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth…They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, “Here comes one who will augment our loves.” For in this love “to divide is not to take away.”
Adding One Multiplies
Adding Hyunjin to our family didn’t divide our love. His presence multiplied it.
Hyunjin brought out sides of Sam and Gabe that only a middle brother like Hyunjin could bring out.
Gabe cracked more and sometimes funny “Gucci-gooch” jokes and Sam played hard for chess Grandmaster. Hyunjin won the last game they played, for a 7-6 series lead. Sam says, “He’s lucky.” Gabe says, “gooch.”
Hyunjin also brought out fun sides of Jim I don’t get to see so much and, I suppose, more gentle, domestic sides of me.
His fresh kind eyes brought out our best and reminded us of the gift of each day.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, we say. We ventured, we gained. We opened our hearts and home, and- you’ve loved- you know what comes.
C.S. Lewis again, from The Four Loves,
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Kamsahamnida, 현진. (Thank you, Hyunjin.)
So fast. Our days together went slow but the month went by fast.
Not too fast though. God’s timing is perfect and our times are in His hands. It’s like that Hangul printed artwork you made for us, and explained when I asked you what it said that it’s kind of hard to translate, but what it means is, Today also is a gift.
So kamsahamnida, Hyunjin. Thank you. Thank you for bringing out our best and doubling our joy as a son and brother and friend. Thank you for opening your courteous, gentle, Korean heart to us oft-times wild and willful Wallaces. Thank you for being so kind that your absence left a hole in our hearts. You humbled us in the best of ways.
And I’m really glad we read that book together, about crystals and stars and Virgil and Valencia and the pem. But the universe deserves no thanks for bringing us together.
My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I have notlearned the secret to being content. My 44 year-old soul still gets restless and worked up and sometimes I fret. Paul learned to be content (Philippians 4:11-13). I am learning.
But I had no plan to write about contentment. Until God about knocked me out with his word on a sunset walk.
So here goes.
My Restless Soul
It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. C.H. Spurgeon said that about Psalm 131. He’s right.
I spent a lot of time focused on the three verses of Psalm 131 last week, the first of which is:
My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with things too great or too wonderful for me.
It’s the second half that grabbed me- not that I’ve got the pride thing all under control- only that I struggled with the meaning of too wonderful. Other versions use the phrase, too profound, or too high. It means “things that are extraordinary; things that are miraculous or astonishing; things that are beyond the bounds of human powers or understanding; inaccessible wonders; things we can’t possibly figure out.”
Reasons my reason can’t grasp.
Old-time Bible commentator Matthew Henry helped me here. He wrote,
It is our wisdom, and will be our praise, to keep within our sphere, and not to intrude into things which we have not seen, or meddle with that which does not belong to us.
I’ll admit, my soul has been a bit vexed and stirred up this week because of a decision made that does concern me but that I was uninvolved in making. I was not content. The reasons for the choice did not sit well with me.
But to decide was not “within my sphere.” I was not on that team.
Not Consulted and Not Content
Can you relate? Can you think of a time when you were not consulted and you certainly would have consulted you? A time when you felt put out that your sage insight was not sought out?
You have? You’re in good company, because I think this trigger to discontent is universal. It goes back at least as far as Job, who experts say may have lived around 2000 BC. So we’re talking 6,000 years of ruffled, restless spirits wanting to meddle outside their spheres.
Granted, Job had a lion’s share of loss. I won’t rehash that, only to say that even patient Job wasn’t perfect. His soul got stirred up.
Job started with a calm heart, but then he began to ask God and his friends the questions that come flooding in. Why questions like:
Why me, why this, why now, why?
Things Too Wonderful
But, to the point of this post, after God challenged Job with no less than 55 rapid-fire, questions to put Job back in his “sphere,” he uses the same word- wonderful– to confess and repent of his restless discontent.
It’s in the final chapter of Job, chapter 42, verse 3:
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
If Job could say this after his children and wealth and health were taken from him, surely I can say it in lesser things. Surely after I’ve thought and prayed and researched and called the proper authority- who graciously heard me out and explained why “we’re moving in a different direction” -surely, I can rest, right?
Squawking Like A Fussy Child
Wrong. My soul was not at rest. It was not, to quote verse 2, “like a weaned child with its mother.” It was more like a squawky, squirmy 10 month-old year old, rooting and restless in his mother’s lap. I was not free from what “nagging self-seeking.”
Because our minds- or at least my mind- dials back. I wondered why my opinion wasn’t sought? Because I wasn’t on the team. But then I wondered why I wasn’t on the team that decided? Why, why, why?
I won’t tell you how far I dialed back, but it was more than five cause-effect loops deep.
Then, as is my custom, I went for a walk. It wasn’t till the home stretch they I stowed my phone and recited Psalm 131. And listened. At the last line of that first verse, the Good Lord stopped me cold.
Hold up, Abigail. Listen to my word you quote. Listen. Stop squirming. You’ve made your case. It’s not your concern. This issue is too wonderful for you. I have my reasons. Let it be.
God has his reasons. Be meek. Look past the “second causes,” the human decision makers- I told myself– and let it be.
Hoping When You Don’t Know Why
Ten years ago next month my niece Hope was born. By the time my sister began to labor, Hope was already with Jesus. Grief comes in waves and life is never the same. My nieces and nephew talk about their sister Hope who’s in heaven. It still hurts.
But Danielle and Andy know. They know that the LORD will swallow up death forever and wipe away tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8). They know that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4). And they know– intimately and in real life and real time know- the God of hope (Romans 15:13).
But there’s one big thing they don’t know.
Contentment: When You Don’t Know Why
They don’t know why. God didn’t consult them 10 years ago, and I don’t believe he’s told them since. But they rest content.
Vaneetha Risner isn’t a personal friend, but she’s endured “unspeakable, unexpected, and preventable,” loss. And she has learned contentment.
While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.
God is infinitely more purposeful than any of us. And he always has a reason. He’s probably got many, because, He alone knows all the facts.
John Piper says, God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.
By faith, we believe there are reasons. Good reasons. Believing there are good reasons for thwarted plans and for huge, unspeakable losses tends toward contentment.
We must trust that they are simply too wonderful for us. Even if we can’t name a single one.
Thy Will Be Done
Someone once said, God’s will is what you’d want if you knew all the facts. I like that. In the months and years since Hope’s birth, my sister and her husband did wonder why. We all wondered why. No test or doctor could explain why they couldn’t know Hope this side of heaven. Too wonderful, I guess.
Andy and Danielle learned contentment. They stilled and quieted their souls. They’re are not “concerned” with things too high, or wonderful for them. They released the need to know why baby Hope died, the “nagging self-seeking, and said “Thy will be done.”
For instance, when you wish, and by every means endeavor, to be well, and yet remain ill, – then say, “Thy will be done.” When you undertake something and your undertaking does not succeed, say, “Thy will be done.” When you do good to others, and they repay you with evil, say, “Thy will be done.” Or when you would like to sleep and are overtaken by sleeplessness, say, “Thy will be done.” In general, do not become irritated when anything is not done in accordance with your will, but learn to submit in everything to the Will of the Heavenly Father.” (Father John, JOY AND STRENGTH, 7/21)
Thy will be done. In great trials, and with my “small potatoes.”
I’ve had my say and, unless I’m asked to explain, I will rest my case. Rest content and hope in the LORD.
Contentment Means Hope in the Lord
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever. That’s how Psalm 131 ends. And this side of heaven I think that’s how most of our restless stories end and how contentment is restored: Hope in the Lord.
Scripture is clear on this: Those who hope in the Lord will not be disappointed(Rom. 52-5: Is. 49:23, Ps. 25:3). In the meantime, we train ourselves to stay in our lanes and our spheres, and not to concern ourselves with things too great or wonderful.
God told Job, and God told me as I recited Psalm 131, quit trying to understand. Learn contentment instead.
[It’s] foolish to try to know all the reasons of Divine Providence—why this affliction was sent and why that, Spurgeon wrote.
When we begin asking, “Why? Oh why? Why?” what an endless task we have before us! If we become like a weaned child we shall not ask “why?” but just believe that in our heavenly Father’s dispensations there is a wisdom too deep for us to fathom.
A wisdom too deep to fathom. Too wonderful for me.
Weaned Children Stop Asking “Why?”
I picked the picture at the top because it’s the best one I could find of me holding a freshly weaned son. Gabe was 14-months old. He was weaned when I was on jury duty, two weeks before.
Psalm 131:2 says, I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child with his mother. Weaned means being calm in God’s presence, trusting His wisdom and power and love. Weaned child = contentment.
As much as it hurts a no-pretense, country girl like me to admit it, they do. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, optics means how a thing looks to an outsider. The word is often applied in the worlds of politics and business. A politician playing golf as his home state is declared a disaster or a Starbucks barista holding a Dunkin’ mug, as examples, would create bad optics.
Image, if not everything, means a lot. It can make or break a cause. And I don’t just mean on Wall Street or in Washington.
I mean for you Christian, driving along in your automobile.
Elizabeth’s “Smile & Drive Challenge”
My friend Elizabeth has got a thing for joy. And for smiling while she drives. I’ve seen it. We’ve passed in Burlington’s streets and parking lots and it’s striking.
Elizabeth has a gorgeous smile to begin with, then add to it that she sports it while weaving her black, 12-person van around the one-ways in our town and she stands out.
Let me tell you how the challenge came about. Our ladies’ group was discussing what more than conquerors and “not somehow, but victoriously” mean and how sometimes it’s all we can do to crack a smile.
Which is when Lizz looked at us with a twinkle in her eye and began:
So, I’ve been trying to smile while I drive. Even when I stop for a red light or a train.
Then she threw down the gauntlet:
I challenge you. Smile while you drive.
I don’t know if that sounds easy to you. But I ca. assure you, it does not feel natural. Smiling while I drive feels odd.
So why does Elizabeth do this?
Elizabeth cares about optics. That’s why.
Or, to be precise, Elizabeth wants to attract unbelievers to Jesus. And there’s nothing like a radiant smile to attract people.
As much as I’d like to believe that it’s virtuous to be authentic and let it all hang out so no one can charge me with hypocrisy, it’s not. If we want to influence others for Christ, we must dress up.
Because, as Steven Cole has said, Our job as believers is to give good press to our good God, not by spinning or bending the truth, but by conveying by our demeanor and words how excellent He truly is.
Or again, reflecting on Psalm 67:1, John Piper asks, How can you say to the nations, “Be glad in God!” if you are not glad in God?
Optics and gladness and good press for a good God. That’s why I took Elizabeth’s challenge.
Smile: Make God Look Good
I love Alexander MacLaren’s description of adorning the gospel, of making God look good. Even though he wrote it 150 years ago, it sounds like he was describing optics.
[M]en do quite rightly and legitimately, judge of systems by their followers...It is just as fair, when a creed comes before our notice which assumes to influence men’s conduct, to say: ‘Well, I should like to see it working…”
So when we Christians stand up and say, ‘We have a faith which is able to deaden men’s minds to the world; which is able to make them unselfish; that is able to lift them up above cares and sorrows; which is able to take men and transform their whole nature, and put new desires and hopes and joys into them’; it is quite fair for the world to say:
‘Have you? Does it? Does it do so with you? Can you produce your lives as working models of Christianity?
So, dear friends, this possibility does lie before all Christians, that they may by their lives conciliate prejudices, prepare people to listen… to the message of God’s love, win over men…and make them say: ‘Well, after all, there is something in that Christianity.’
The Smile & Drive Challenge is a cheap way to improve optics. Smiling while wait for in the pick-up line after practice now this is a “working model of Christianity.”
Smile: Make Yourself Feel Good
The goal of the Smile & Drive Challenge is to make God look good. People may see you smiling as you drive and put 2 and 2 together and think, “She’s a Christian and she’s smiling. Her faith must make her happy.” Smiling Christians are more likely to draw others to Christ than grumpy Christians.
But God is so good that he made us with creature features to promote our own health. Smiling is one of those. Mother Teresa said, We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.
Intentional smiling can improve not only your mood but your body’s stress response. Think of smiling as free therapy. Apart from the stress release, smiling has been found to lower blood pressure and improve immune function. Truly, a joyful heart is good medicine (Prov. 17:22).
Joy will bring out our smiles, but smiling can also bring out joy. Even if you’re not feeling the joy, do what joy to would do. It might just be enough to ignite the spark of joy so that you feel it too. (Read this for 10 more reasons to smile.)
Good Press Or Bad Press?
But the biggest reason to smile is because our God is good. Psalm 100 is a call to make a joyful noise and give thanks and be glad and the last verse tells why. It’s a good one to memorize if your joy well is dry:
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
I’ve asked myself and I ask you: Does your life give God good press or bad press? If you’re doubting His goodness and grumbling about your trials, it’s not good. Why would onlookers be interested in your God?
But if those around you notice your joy and glad submission to God, they just might be drawn to the Lord who whose joy is your strength; who is so good that you smile while you drive.
That can be hard.
Smiling Through Spilled Gazpacho
God wants to keep me honest so he has me write. You see, when I started writing this post earlier this week, life was peachy. Literally peachy. My friend Jen had just brought me a box of those juicy Georgia peaches and, my, were they sweet.
But two days later a few got bruised, a son got grumpy and a row with Jim ensued. The rats in the cellar all broke loose. To top it off, en route to dinner group, the precious peach gazpacho spilled.
My smile was AWOL until two miles west of the gazpacho spill. That’s where the Spirit called to mind the words in this half-finished post. And you know: Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
So quick as a ripe Georgia peach disappears, my frown turned upside down.
When Your Smile Is Worth Double
Peach gazpacho cleans up in a jiffy, but some of you face troubles that won’t go away. But here’s the good news: your smile is worth more.
I recently read a story about unconverted John Wesley. A conversation with the the luggage handler at his college impressed Wesley deeply. Somehow Wesley had learned that the porter had only one coat and had not enough money for that day’s food. But the man overflowed with praise. Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and no bed to lie upon! What else do you thank Him for?”
“I thank Him, answered the porter, “that He has given me my life and being, and a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.” (A. Skevington Wood, The Inextinguishable Blaze [Eerdmans], p. 100.)
That poor man gave his good God good press and God used it to bring John Wesley to saving faith. Steven Cole concludes, God is good, so we who belong to Him should give Him good press by being people of exuberant joy, glad submission, and thankful praise.
In other words, optics matter.
Will You Take the “Smile & Drive Challenge”
If you’re still on the fence about taking Elizabeth’s challenge, consider this: God’s reputation and honor are at stake.
“If we do not rejoice — if God is not our treasure and our delight and our satisfaction, John Piper says, then he his dishonored. His glory is belittled. His reputation is tarnished. Therefore, God commands our joy both for our good and for his glory.” Optics matter.
I know that smiling and joy are not the same. But I also know- I mean from experience know- that I cannot smile without feeling honest to goodness joy in the Lord.
So, if you happen to see me driving around town and I’m not smiling, please honk.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Where do the saints get their joy from? If we did not know some saints, we would say– “Oh, he, or she, has nothing to bear.” Lift the veil. The fact that the peace and the joy of God are there is proof that the burden is there too. The burden God places squeezes the grapes out and out comes the wine; most of us see the wine only..If you have the whine in you, kick it out ruthlessly. It is a positive crime to be weak in God’s strength.
Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other. Nehemiah 4:17b
It was incidental and mentioned merely in passing. It wasn’t the point.
But on the heals of that weekend, smarting from that blast from a friend and that hideous snarl from my mouth, the pastor’s almost throwaway line was the point.
When The Enemy’s Up To Something
Because I was thinking of hanging up my work clothes and throwing down the trowel.
Because even though I’d confessed, I felt like a fraud. Like I’d disqualified myself from ministry. Lead that life group in the afternoon? Share my faith with younger believers? Expand God’s kingdom? I wasn’t equal. The Accuser had me right where he wanted me.
Since the Fall, the enemy has tried to bait us with lies and lure us into sin. He does this because we are God’s witnesses to the world. He does this to keep us from carrying out the Great Commission, from making disciples. That’s why he seeks to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8).
Chuck Lawless explains: The enemy wants us to mess up (fall into sin), give up (get discouraged), get puffed up (live in arrogance), split up (divide), or shut up (quit evangelizing).
To mess up, give up, get puffed up, split up, or shut up- that’s what the enemy’s up to.
Stand Tall, In His Strength
But God calls us- which means He also enables us- to stand against the enemy (Eph. 6:11, 13, 14). Paul is our precedent. He kept on with kingdom work in the face of opposition. Pray that I may proclaim the gospel boldly. That was Paul’s prison request. (Eph. 6:18–20).
“Standing” -sword in one hand, trowel in the other- meant that he would keep preaching if it cost him his life. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18a), Paul wrote. He knew, sorely opposed saints must know, that no one is strong enough-or weak enough- to fall away while God is resolved to hold us.
Lawless explains, We put on the full armor of God not so we can defend ourselves, but so we can…do the work of the Great Commission.
Which brings me right back to that sermon last Sunday.
Don’t Let Opposition Stop You
The sermon was not about Nehemiah and Co. rebuilding the wall. It was about Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28. But when I paged back to Nehemiah 4 and the opposition I faced suddenly paled.
First, the enemy fire:
Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? They won’t finish up in a day. Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
Then came friendly fire, from fellow Jews:
In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”…At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”
But all that opposition didn’t stop Nehemiah and the Jerusalem wall building crew.
If You’re Doing God’s Work, Never, Never, Never Give Up
The point was: Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the trowel. Opposition is not a license to quit. Nehemiah didn’t.
When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail…Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.
They kept building God’s kingdom in the face of opposition, with trowels and swords. We must do the same when we face opposition.
Including opposition from our flesh that wages war within.
A Violent Streak
Nehemiah’s wall builders carried swords to fight enemies outside the wall, but we do battle with the enemy inside our skin.
Which reminds me of a John Piper quote that comes to mind again and again, when I fail again and again. It reassures me that battling my indwelling sin is par for the course.
There is a mean, violent streak in the true Christian life! But violence against whom, or what? Not other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality…
If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.
That’s why I need a sword.
Sword And Trowel
But I also need a trowel. Because building the spiritual kingdom- making disciples- is the Christian’s call.
So it’s no stigma to carry a sword with your trowel. In fact, it’s just hearing Paul’s call to “take heed” (1 Cor. 10:12, 16:13) and Christ’s call to “be on guard” (Mk. 8:15, Luke 12:15). In Nehemiah 4:9, we read that after the enemy showed itself, “We prayed to our God and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.” And by grace, the work continued.
Battle sin, build God’s kingdom. Sword in one hand, trowel in the other. That’s how we build God’s kingdom. We can’t let opposition stop us.
We cannot use the excuse that we haven’t arrived to disengage from the work. My ugly outburst discouraged me. But, thanks to Pastor Matthew’s mid-message nod to Nehemiah, it did not disqualify me from serving.
It did not keep me from teaching truth on Sunday or listening to a hurting friend on Monday or taking Sunday school girls out for smoothies on Tuesday.
It could have, but God spoke straight to my discouraged heart in that quick mention of “trowel in one hand, sword in the other,” Sunday morning.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.Psalm 32:9
A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. They’re said to be more hardy than horses and more intelligent than donkeys.
Still, being likened to a mule isn’t exactly a compliment.
My uncle owned a mule named Petey. Petey was both strong and headstrong. Life on the farm was good for Petey the Mule.
But one day, which happened to be manure hauling day, “Petey decided he no longer liked his ears touched. This caused problems putting on his halter and bridle,” Uncle John posted. “He developed some escape routes which included trying to run Farmer John over; thankfully this isn’t Farmer John’s first rodeo.”
Thankfully, God can relates to mules too. He’s familiar with beasts that charge and beasts that avoid.
But, biblically, what is it that makes mules so mulish?
Hint: It’s what our kids do when they refuse to come and confess that he stole the candy or broke the lamp or lost his Fitbit, again.
That is, they refuse to come to us until after they’re busted outright or the guilt gets so heavy they simply can’t bear it. That’s mulish.
About The Most Happy-Making Thing You Can Do
In Psalm 32, this is the behavior in view: Refusing to come and confess to the one who freely forgives.
Staying away from God when we sin is irrational-without understanding. Because confessing to the God who already knows and freely forgives is one of the most happy-making things we can ever do.
In fact, that’s how David begins Psalm 32, with a double-whammy description, and prescription, for happiness:
Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
The way to be happy and blessed is to go and confess.
Why Mulish Is Foolish
Which is exactly why the next two verses in Psalm 32 contrast this path to happiness:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Pity the fool, the mule, who does that- who stays silent and far away from the Master.
But mules do. They are silent, slow and stubborn. Mules need pressure applied to come to the master. They must be curbed with bit and bridle. That’s why God’s hand feels heavy on us sometimes, like Farmer John’s did on Petey the Mule that day.
I put pressure on you when you were sinning and neglecting me, our Master might explain, so that you’d come back to me. But I wish you’d just come freely. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.
Not Confessing Is Irrational
In case you missed it, avoiding the master is irrational. It is not acting in accord with the truth that repentance brings refreshment and confession clears the conscience. It is living as if estranged relationships and hidden sin are to be preferred over restored relationships and forgiveness. That is foolish. Mulish.
Like when son-who-shall-not-be-named confesses to eating my prized Dove Dark only after I show him the wrapper I found under his bed and not a moment before.
To be human rather than horse or mule, is to be rational. To be rational is to realize that we will be happier when our sin is confessed and covered by God.
And that when we cover it, he will not, but that when we uncover our sin before God, he will cover it (Psalm 32)
Life on the Farm
Mules live on farms. Here John Piper expands the image for us:
Maybe we should try to picture God’s people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule…
God likes to get his animals to the barn for food and shelter by simply calling them.
Or even with a look.
Steered With a Look, or a Bit?
Psalm 32:8 says, “I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”
My Mom says that I was disciplined with a look as a child. All it took was the look, and I’d usually come around. I’d curb my tongue or knock it off or change my tune.
If only the grown-up Abigail was always so sensitive to God’s eye.
But sometimes I’m a mule. Sometimes God has to put the bridle of suffering on me and drag me from danger. I completely agree with John Piper that,
A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.
Piper continues the barnyard analogy, “So God gets in his pickup truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule’s mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.”
But we’d be better off and so much happier if we just came with a look or a call.
Repentance Brings Refreshment
But isn’t all this come and confess talk very gloomy? you ask.
C.S. Lewis answers that question like this,
It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.
C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121.
I bear witness: confessing is happy-making. In the moment, it’s humbling and hard and it hurts. But, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.”
In fact, isn’t being forgiven about the most lightening and relieving, soul-healing and refreshing gift a sinful soul can ever receive?
In Acts 3, Peter preached just that:Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins mat be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.
Repentance brings refreshment.
How Not to be a Mule
Sometimes it is the bit of affliction and the bridle of suffering that makes us come to him. Or, to borrow David’s words, to stay near him.
It is much to be deplored that we so often need to be severely chastened before we will obey. We ought to be as a feather in the wind, wafted readily in the breath of the Holy Spirit, but alas! we lie like motionless logs, and stir not with heaven itself in view. Those cutting bits of affliction show how hard mouthed we are, those bridles of infirmity manifest our headstrong and willful manners. We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much of the ass about us. If we will be fractious, we must expect to be kept in with a tight rein. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly…
In summary, not being a mule means staying near God without being forced. It means praying to God before his hand is heavy on you. It means confessing your sins to Him straightaway. Before you’re busted.
That is how NOT to be a mule.
And when I do come to him and confess, he will freely forgive. He will tenderly take my chin in his hand and lift my humbled head.
My unbridled, forgiven head.
You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.
Have you heard that the pope changed the Lord’s prayer?
You know that line about temptation?
For centuries English-speaking Christians have been reciting the same Our Father. I pray it with Catholics at my sons’ parochial school and with perfect (Protestant) strangers when I’m in a new church. Young and old, at home and away, we say it together.
But this month, Pope Francis approved a revision. Rather than, “Lead us not into temptation,” Catholics may now pray, “Do not let us fall into temptation.”
“I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation. That’s his department.”
The pope was worried that the words “Lead us into temptation” might confuse us. They might cause us to think that the Father who calls us to be holy might also lure us off the narrow way.
So we no longer pray in unison.
A Less Confusing Translation?
Pope Francis is absolutely correct in saying that we are the ones who fall, that Satan is the one who tempts us, and that our Holy Heavenly Father does not seduce his children to sin.
Those are not in question. The Greek word eisenenkēs is the word in question. It’s the word that he changed. It means “lead into” or “bring into.” The same word is used in Luke 5:18; 12:11; Acts 17:20; 1 Timothy 6:7; Hebrews 13:11, as in “They will bring you before the synagogues.”
But, to avoid confusion, the pope approved the revision. Do not let us fall into temptation, is easier to wrap our brains around.
But Is It Accurate?
While the saints have long wrestled with the implications of the words-going back at least as far as Tertullian in the third century- they’ve agreed that Lead us not into temptation is the most accurate translation.
Ancient translations like the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta preserve this meaning, as do classic reformation translations like those of Luther and Tyndale…Translators across cultures, centuries, languages, and theological perspectives have all grasped the Greek here the same basic way: we are to pray that God would not lead us into temptation.
So we agree. The traditional wording is the most accurate.
But I understand the pope’s concern. Asking God not to lead us into temptation implies that rather than lead us in paths of righteousness, he might draw us off the way.
Does God Tempt Us To Sin?
Scripture is clear. God does not tempt us to stray.
“Let no one say, when he is tempted,” James wrote, “‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14).
In this Look at the Book episode, John Piper helps explain from James 1 how innocent desire can cross the line into sin. Suffice to say, our Good Father has nothing to do with it.
What Good Fathers Don’t Do
Now back to the pope. Here’s why he approved the change: “A father doesn’t [lead his children into temptation]. A father helps you to get up immediately.” So says the pope.
John Piper argues that this approach to the Bible is upside down.
God is a good father to his children. A perfect father. And since he is God, and not a mere human, his perfections should not be forced into the mold of our fallible views of what good fathers do. Having perfect wisdom, and knowing all things, our heavenly Father does things no human father should do.
A prime example is Isaiah 53:4: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. . . . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.”
No human father should take the life of his child as a sacrifice for others. Yet that is precisely what God did to his beloved Son. There are other examples, but the takeaway is this,
We should learn whether he does or not from Scripture, not from our prior notions of what good fathers do. Our notions are finite, and distorted by sin and culture. We must continually refine them by what the Bible teaches.
Since lead means lead and temptation means temptation maybe we shift the focus to the word into. Which may change our focus as we pray this way:
Do for us, dear Father, what you did for Jesus, when you “led (!) him by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). You filled him with the word of God and, though he was led to the crisis of temptation by your Spirit, he did not get sucked into sin, but triumphed by your word (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). For this same grace, in all your leadings, we earnestly pray. Amen.
What does “Lead us not into temptation mean?”
This is what you’ve been waiting for, what I’ve been puzzling over for the last three weeks since the pope changed the Lord’s Prayer.
When we pray Lead us not into temptation,
We are asking that we should never be led into a situation where we are liable to be tempted by Satan…into positions where we are liable to fall. This is what our Lord meant when He said to His disciples at the end, ‘Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.’ There are situations which will be dangerous to you; watch and pray, always be on guard lest you fall into temptation.
God does test His children, and we must never presume to tell God what He is or is not to do. He knows that we need much training in our preparation for glory.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Volume 2, “Prayer: Petition”
In other words, as Paul warned, Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
Take Heed Lest You Fall
George Whitefield, an 18th century evangelist, said, My brethren, if you were left to yourselves, you would be overcome by every temptation with which you are beset.
What this “confusing” last petition in the Lord’s Prayer teaches me is to take heed. To not ever think I’ve grown so much that in my faith that I can’t fall. I can. We can. We must see the weakness of our flesh.
This is not a contest in which we are being tested and tried to prove ourselves,Al Mohler suggested. The reality is we are being tested and tried in order to prove God. To prove his faithfulness. To prove God’s strong grace triumphant in our self-control. And to prove that we need the Lord.
Because at the end of the day, we are not up to this. But for the power of God, we will cave in, we will grow faint, and fail.
Christ’s Chosen Words
Of all the words the Lord could have used, he chose those.
When one of Christ’s disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1), Christ answered, “When you pray, say . . . ” (Luke 11:2).
Lead us not into temptation. Those are Christ’s chosen words.
On the one hand, there is a Father whom we must ask not to carry us into evil. On the other hand, there is a Shepherd who suffers unspeakable agony in his triumph over evil. From Job to C. S. Lewis, Christianity has a rich spiritual and intellectual history of reflecting on God’s relation to evil. We could let the words of the Our Father continue to prompt the faithful in this consideration.
Or we could whitewash all the timeless tensions in Scripture and play master over Christ’s words.
I’ve been pondering this for the last few weeks and my head is still spinning. I feel this “timeless tension” of Scripture. But I’ve landed on this.
As with all of our petitions, the requests we make in the Lord’s prayer are not meant to bring things to God’s attention that He doesn’t already know. As Jesus says before offering the model prayer, “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him,” (Matthew 6:8).
To pray is to admit we need help- help to do God’s will and help to want to His will. We don’t so much aim to change God’s mind as transform our own.
So in the Lord’s Prayer. The other requests contained in it make that plain. Praying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” reminds us that we need to forgive. Praying, “give us this day our daily bread,” reminds us to be content and trust God to provide. And praying, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” reminds us that, with God’s power, we can resist temptation and stay on the narrow path where God leads us.
We pray about these things because we need God’s help. We are weak and cannot do them alone. As we pray about them, we make them priorities. Prayer is a means God uses to conform our will to His will.
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Today we will face countless temptations. We’ll stare down multiple desires that could conceive and give birth to sin. But, our Father in heaven, forbid that we would give in. Deliver us from evil.
Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Jesus, in Gethsemane, quoted in Matthew 26:41
EXTRA (aka: More good stuff that would have made the real post way, way, WAY too long.)
The Greek word translated temptation is the same word for trial or testing (see Acts 20:19. Heb. 3:8, James 1:2,12, 1 Peter 1:6, 4:12, Rev. 3:10). Lead us not into temptation-or trial or testing.
In Hebrews 2:10 it says that it was fitting that the author of our salvation be perfected through suffering. If it was true for Christ, how much more true for us. Therefore, there is a fittingness to our trials. Temptation, testing, and trials are necessary for our spiritual growth and strength.
And good fathers and mothers do test their children. In part, at least, we give tests to help our children learn and succeed. So with our Heavenly Father. He puts us in the fire to strengthen our faith, not to see us fall.
God doesn’t tempt us. But he does test us.
Need some evidence?
Exhibit 1: Abraham.
See Genesis 22. Abraham was told to offer Isaac, his child of promise, as a sacrifice. He was tested. God the Father tested his son Abraham to see if he believed the promises of God of not. Abraham was asked to offer up the child of promise. He reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead. He passed the test.
Exhibit 2: Job.
See Job 1 and 2. Does Job fear God for nothing? Satan asked. Then Job was tested- he lost his children, his wealth, his health. God’s purpose was not that Job would fall, but that he would stand. And we have heard of Job’s patience and have seen the Lord’s aim: to show that he is compassionate and merciful.
Exhibit 3: The Israelites.
See Exodus 20. God had just given the 10 Commandments. Then came came some audio-visual effects sent by God to mark the day. Then the Israelites trembled with fear and stayed away. That’s when Moses told them , Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.
Exhibit 4: Philip.
See John 6. It’s just before the feeding of 5000. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Jesus tested his disciple Philip.
Exhibit 5: Jesus.
See Matthew 4 (& 26). Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This is the strongest evidence. It was the Father’s good pleasure that his dearly loved Son be tempted. Jesus was tempted in every way as we were yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). With crimson colors, Jesus passed this test.
Should we bother to pray about the little things? You know, for lost cats and clear skies and skinned knees?
Why should we pray for things that don’t seem to have a tight connection to spiritual growth, which we know is our greatest goal. Because, after all, great praying saints like Paul prayed far more for big things like inner strength than for relief from little circumstantial things.
So why would we pray for little things like broken dishwashers and dirty dishes?
The party was over, the guests had gone home. The table was cleared and the counters were clean. And the dishwasher was filled to the gill with table service for 13.
But then, at 10:45 Friday night, with a rinse barely long enough to loosen shreds of beef and traces of greens, it stopped. A red OE showed up and it did its little dingy thing and five minutes into the cycle it quit. Barely into its fourth run, our brand new dishwasher was done.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
Well, I read the owner’s manual. OE, it said, means “Not Draining Error.” So I opened the door and, sure enough, gray water surrounded the drain.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
Rinse the filter was the obvious first step. But the stagnant pool remained. So it wouldn’t wash because it it wouldn’t drain.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
I read the next steps: Clean the disposal or air gap. Inspect the drain hoses for kinks. I sighed. We have no disposal and where’s the air gap? And how would an out-of-sight hose suddenly kink?
Still, I turned the kitchen sink faucet off and on and on and off and swished the dirty dishwasher for good measure. Then I closed the door and pressed start, again. It didn’t.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
Hon? I called to Jim, The dishwasher won’t drain. I know you can fix it. Will you please try? By now it was after 11. I trusted my handyman husband, and I went to bed.
Morning broke bright but the dishes were still dirty and gray water was still undrained.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
I hurried out for my jog before a track meet that would mean a full day away. When we got home, I beelined to the dishwasher. But I knew- the nose knows- even before I opened the door that Jim couldn’t fix it.
What’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
He got home and after we ate, I unleashed my best pep talk: You can fix anything, Hon. You’re so good at figuring these things out. Can you please try again?
What’s a Girl to Do?
But Jim was weary- he had a lot on his plate. More, in fact, than those ripening in the dishwasher: a broken kitchen sink faucet he’d already replaced twice this month, an air conditioner that wouldn’t cool, and plugged gutters to boot.
He sighed and opened the manual, again. Then he took out the filter, again. And sighed, again- and walked away. I did those dinner dishes by hand.
After all, what’s a girl to do when the dishwasher won’t wash? (Pray?)
The smell of the that load filled the kitchen each time the door was opened. And I knew these greasy old dishes were truly small potatoes. But it sure would be a gift this new dishwasher of ours could make them clean.
Then I knew- what a girl’s to do when the dishwasher won’t wash.
Jim was sitting at the table sorting through his mail and the boys were already in bed when I walked over. Hon, I announced, I think we need to pray.
So pray we did. Father God, would you please help Jim figure this out? Would you please give him insight to drain that water so the dishes can get washed? Please open his eyes to see what’s wrong. And we’ll give you all the thanks and all the glory. Amen.
Then I went to bed with a broken dishwasher full of dirty, stinking dishes.
I started the coffee Sunday morning, then walked three steps to the dishwasher. I winced as I pulled open the dishwasher.
The dishes were clean. The water was drained. God had fixed the dishwasher. And I had never been happier to unload a dishwasher.
How the Dishes got Washed
So that’s how the dishes got washed. I prayed, God answered. In a way the details don’t matter, but in a way they do. God fixed it. But he did so by answering my prayer, by giving Jim insight late Saturday night.
Turns out that the drain stop in the kitchen sink needs to be lifted to run this new dishwasher. If it’s down, the water won’t drain and in seconds the dishwasher quits. Jim was just poking around and, on a lark, pulled up the drain stop in the little sink. And that was the fix.
But, would God have done it anyway? I mean, if I hadn’t prayed on Saturday night, would Jim have had the insight to lift the drain in the little left side sink? Maybe. Or would we have paid a repairman to tell us to lift the drain stop sinks full of dishes later? We’ll never know.
But I do know I’m glad I prayed for this little thing.
Steering Wheel Or Spare Tire?
I do know that, once again, I called, he answered, and my strength of soul he increased (Psalm 138:3). I do know that I called to him in the night of trouble, and he delivered me(Psalm 51:15). And I know I will cast my cares on him because he really does care for me (1 Peter 5:7).
A woman once approached the British preacher G. Campbell Morgan and asked, “Do you think we should pray for even the little things in our lives, or just the big things?” He answered, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?”
That’s answer #1. Because really is there any truly “big” thing with God? With the God who spoke and the worlds came to be, for whom the nations are like a drop in the bucket, who enabled a virgin to conceive?
Now here are reasons #2 and #3- We pray for “even the little things” because it opens us up to a double grace. God gets the glory and thanks, because the giver gets the glory. And, we get the joy of feeling as if we had a role in it. God instituted prayer, Pascal said, in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.
(Not) Impossible, So Pray
God gets us into impossible situations- situations we can’t fix by ourselves- take Abraham and Sarah, or the Exodus from Egypt, or Elisha surrounded by the enemy, even little things like dishwashers that won’t drain- to display his power and goodness. In other words, to reveal his glory.
So pray. Pray, pray, pray, pray. For big things and little things, pray. For his glory. And because our God cares about little things.
Because just maybe, to Him, all things are little things. And because He is able.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
You have the rare ability to see both sides at once. The glass is half empty and half full to you, lauded Mr. Baughn. You see shades of gray.
Mark Twain quipped that he could live off a good compliment for two months. That’s a gross underestimate in my case. Because those words from Mr. Baughn- senior year, English Lit- go back 25 years.
The reason I mention them now isn’t (mainly) to hail the power of praise or to encourage shades of gray. I bring them up, because they help explain why this pity thing keeps surfacing.
The Good Side Of Pity
Sympathy is good and it’s bad. In fact, if you don’t have pity at the right times, not to overstate, but you might be a cold-blooded psychopath. And the Bible commands us to have sympathy (1 Peter 3:8).
Rightly placed pity is godlike and divine. Jesus Christ had pity (Matt. 9:36, 20:34, Luke 7:12-15). We are to be like Christ. We are to have pity.
The Pitfalls Of Pity
But the glass is also half-empty. While we are to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15b)- we are to express our pity with discretion.
Being overly empathic, leading with our hearts not our heads- as when we don’t consider the long term and get lost in emotion- can hurt us and those close to us. Too much pity- or what this post is about, pity misapplied- might actually be harmful. Like when we know that our disappointment is clearly God’s appointment. Or if you always cave when your five-year old cries at bedtime, and decide he can stay up.
Pity is good. Like many good gifts it can be misapplied. And lately I’ve seen a lot of misdirected pity.
Here are four ways I think our pity may get misdirected.
1. Pity is misdirected when it is self-focused.
Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for his purpose in the world. –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest
Self-pity– the kind defined as a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes- would land squarely in the first category.
I’ve written about this again and again. I suppose it’s because I’m too sensitive- that sensitive – and self-pity is one of my besetting sins. Time and time again this line from C.S. Lewis rings in my head: Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearance in ourselves.
Merciless. Like we were to the carpenter ants that bored their way through the ceiling and dropped onto our living room floor. They were destructive. We showed them no mercy.
Be intolerant of your own self-pity. Strike it at its roots. Distract yourself if you must-write a letter or wash the floor like I did Sunday afternoon.
But show no mercy to pity directed toward yourself.
2. Pity is misdirected when it is used to hold joy captive.
I’ve been re-reading The Great Divorce. It’s C.S. Lewis’ imaginative, instructive tale of a bus ride through heaven and hell. Near the end, we meet Sarah Smith in heaven where she’s reunited with her (shrinking) husband Frank, fresh off the tourbus from Hell.
In this scene, Frank is bemoaning the fact that her joy- both on earth and now in heaven-is not contingent on his.
You who can be happy without me, forgetting me! You don’t want even to hear of my sufferings. Don’t, you say. Don’t make you unhappy. And this is the reward–
Stop it at once, she said.
Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity. You see I know now. Even as a child, you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic. Because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, “I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.” You used their pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end.
Those who choose to focus on their own misery will not be allowed “to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy.”
Pity must never be directed so as to hold joy- ours or others’- captive.
3. Pity is misdirected if it never spurs us on to action.
Let us not love in word or tongue but in action and with truth. –John the Apostle
So there’s pity and there’s pity. And we must distinguish between the two. Because only the pure, active one will endure.
Continuing from The Great Divorce,
The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth… that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.
‘And what is the other kind- the action?’
It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good.
Pity in this “passion” sense is not necessarily noble. It might just be a knee-jerk response or a veiled way of rejoicing that I am exempt from that particular suffering. That I am healthy, my husband has a job, my boys get decent grades. My pity may simply be an expression of my joy in not suffering that way.
Clearly the, “add-a-sad-emoji-and-be-glad-it’s-not-me” expression of pity is not a crowning virtue. This “pity” demands nothing from us and may just be an expression of underlying selfishness. It is certainly not heroic.
To add a sad emoji can be a kindness. But if out pity always stops there and doesn’t leap to bring healing and joy, it’s merely sentimental.
But if it’s never action and truth, it’s not enough.
4. Pity is misdirected if it doesn’t reflect God’s just mercy.
Virtuous pity, or what Thomas Aquinas calls ‘misercordia’, is married to justice, regulated by reason, and structured by doctrine. –Joshua Hren, “The Problem of Pity”
Joshua Hren’s Touchstone magazine article is super insightful. In it, he draws from Dante’s Inferno to explain why we must discriminate among pities, and “learn to measure our mercy against the just mercy of God.”
Hren cites a scene in Canto V, where in the circle of the carnal, Dante meets Pauolo and Francesca. As a result of their illicit affair, “these lovers glide through Hell’s whirl like grotesque mating doves.”
When Francesca sees Dante, she recognizes his pity- and, Hren writes, “pounces on it, telling her own ‘piteous tale.'” As she explains her sob story of “how love had led them there,” Paolo stands beside her as both of them weep. Seeing them, Dante felt, “my sense reel / and faint away with anguish.”
With that, he begins his descent into the Inferno, prepared “to face the double war / of the journey and pity.” In other words, Dante realized, misplaced pity is, in a certain sense, the enemy.
Hren, and Dante long before him, recognize that many (wrongly) think that pity should be indiscriminately expressed toward the other, whether that person has cancer or a married friend confides that keeping a secret life is so trying.
Hren concludes, “we ought not to pity the sinner to the point that we try to rearrange the architecture of Hell.”
Jesus Hurt Peter
The germ for this post came on Easter Sunday as I sat reading just past our pastor’s sermon text.
My eyes stopped at John 21:15. It’s in the context of the conversation that Jesus had with Peter after the bread and fish breakfast on the beach.
Here’s the part that arrested me:
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Knowing all things, Jesus could have said, “I’m sorry Bud, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” But our Lord, who was moved with compassion at times, didn’t pull his punches. He said, for the third time, “Feed my sheep.”
But there’s more: Jesus’ next words to Peter explained how he would die a martyr’s death. No mention of pity here.
But we know Peter loved Jesus. And Jesus loved Peter.
Therefore, pity must not equal love.
Break My Heart For What Breaks Yours
For the record, midway through the writing of this post, my husband loved me without showing an ounce of pity. Jim knows the tell-tale signs of my self-pity and they were starting to ooze Sunday afternoon. So, in love, he showed no mercy. Don’t go there, he simply said.
Sometimes pity’s a beautiful thing. Other times it’s ugly. And I only know one way to determine which it is: Break my heart for what breaks yours, is how the song goes.
But maybe the flip side is, don’t let my heart break for what does not break yours. Or at least, don’t hold back from speaking truth in love even if it hurts. Like Jesus did to Peter.
By the way, only an abounding, discerning love can do this. With so many shades of gray, that kind of love is the only way to avoid the pitfalls of pity.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.
And there was one question I was not ready for.
Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?
I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.
But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.
But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls itspiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feelthat genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change.
A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.
How’s your soil?
“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.
With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow.
Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasing– note: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good.
Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield,wild, or dry?
The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.
Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.
What about contaminated soil?
What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those?
Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this.
Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots?
What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?
The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.
Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.
Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.
To go back to the garden metaphor, it meansif you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.
Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.
But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.
Change what you can change.
We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.
But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.
We cannot escape the downers around us, but we can nourish friendships that bringrefreshment and joy.
We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.
It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.
All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit.
But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.They will see his face…
It’s a strange feeling that comes when you must pay for what is already yours; when you must buy back to keep what you own.
There’s a story about that with a boy and boat. But I’m going to tell a different one, about how Milky the cat came back.
I admit: it was my brainiac idea to take Milky and Oreo back to their barn of origin while our family vacationed in Florida. So a month ago, we carted the cats back to the farm, to Mom and Dad’s.
Mom thought crating them a day or two in the barn would be good. They could re-acclimate to their former home that way.
I didn’t think that’d be necessary. Milky and Oreo wouldn’t need that. They’d remember their old kitten haunts and the smell of the sheep and the hay and their cousins.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Stray Cat Dirge
The second the boys left the van, was the second the cats exploded in a mad dash from their hands. Milky south through the corn field, Oreo north through the garden. Like spooked cheetah cubs escaping a lion, they ran.
Gabe raced after Milky a few steps, but in the dusky light they were instantly out of sight. And as he burst into tears, Sam shook his head.
It’s all your fault Mom. You ruined vacation.
I miss my cats. They’ll never come back.
Those were the words to the song. The dirge that Sam and Gabe sang as I packed the van for a sunny spring break away.
They sang them again ten nights later, upon our catless return.
Fast forward 20 days from the day the cats escaped.
Your cat has been found. Please contact Lakeland Animal Shelter at 262-741-1000.
That was on the answering machine after work. So I called.
A trucker found the cat at a rest stop [10 miles from Mom and Dad’s] and picked him up. He felt convicted that it might be someone’s pet so he took him to a shelter in Milwaukee. They read his chip and called us and the trucker brought him back down. So your cat is here.
And just so you know, it’ll be a $20 handling fee and a $25 repeat occurrence fee when you pick him up. (Yes, repeat. But I’ll save that story for another time.)
Worth The Fee
Jim redeemed Milky from the shelter an hour later at a cost of $45. Our “free barn cat” was worth much more now than he was when the boys found him behind between bales in the haymow last fall.
Milky was our cat. But he had strayed. Milky needed to be redeemed. And the cost to buy him back was infinitely- any amount is infinite from zero- more than the cost to own.
But now he was ours. Because we loved him. Milky was worth it.
And you, Christian, you are worth it too. The way you’ve been redeemed is proof.
Redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb
The Greek word for redeemed in Titus 2:14 and 1 Peter 1:18 is “lutroo.” It means “free by paying a ransom, redeem…set free…rescue.”
Titus 2:14 shows Jesus’ death has rescued us from a life of slavery to sin: “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from lawlessness and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good work.”
The same word is used in 1 Peter 1, “knowing that you were redeemed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things such as silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish” (1:18-19).
We redeemed Milky with an infinitetesimally smaller price. Jesus gave himself for us. Himself. As a lamb without spot or blemish. He gave himself.
We only gave 45 perishable, measly little dollars for Milky the cat.
What’s your secret? How do you stay so healthy? my friend asked, noting I hadn’t been sick all winter.
Ooh. Right into my wheelhouse. Because health and fitness are some of my favorite topics and I do have a few secrets. None of which, incidentally, involve dietary supplements, protein powder or organic juicing; some of which involve intermittent fasting, everyday friendship, and every other day push-ups.
And since today is my “golden birthday” -44 on 4/4- I’ll take full advantage to tell you one of my “secrets.” One the pathways to the good health I’ve enjoyed to this ripe old middle age.
But before I do, I must give credit where credit is due.
Because the first and last word on health has got to be grace.
It is in Him we live and move and have our being. Because He is our life and the length of our days. And His word has given us life. (Acts 17:28, Deuteronomy 30:20, Psalm 119:50)
Any measure of health is a gift from God.
Because the LORD forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases, redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with steadfast love and mercy. He satisfies me with good so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:3-4).
Means To Health
Not to guarantee it, but to go to places where God’s grace flows. You’re more likely to get sunshine on Sanibel Island than in Seattle. God has revealed certain channels through which he regularly pours out his favor, David Mathis writes. And we’re foolish not to take his word on it.
Just like we can’t force electricity or water to flow our direction, we can’t force health. But God has given us circuits to connect and pipes to open and trails to hike. Pathways to power, water and health should he send them.
Our God is lavish in his grace, often liberally dispensing his favor without even the least bit of cooperation and preparation on our part. But he also has his regular channels. And we can routinely avail ourselves of these revealed paths of blessing, or neglect them to our detriment.
Health is a blessing. And going outside avails us of that blessing.
The Secret: Vitamin Sea (or just a walk around the block)
Physical health and spiritual health are closely intertwined. Very closely. A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).
So when I talk about this secret to health, I am talking about both. This pathway is a means to spiritual and physical health.
“Have you been outside today?” is subtitled, “The Spiritual cost of Isolation from Creation.” In it, John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris hail the spiritual benefits of basking in the great outdoors.
Hear them make the case in the rest of this post.
Have you had your nature fix today?
One of the defining features of God’s Word is how often it points us to God’s world.Much of Scripture, in fact, assumes a level of understanding about nature. So, it would seem, if we fail to go outdoors, if we fail to experience and engage in God’s creation, our faith could suffer.
Nearly every book of the Bible is bursting with references to creation, chronicling in soaring prose the making of the universe, identifying God’s covenant promise with colors in the sky, and inviting us to gaze with Father Abraham at the starry hosts, where an even greater promise was written.
The psalmist compares the longing of his soul for God with the thirst of a deer running to water, fully expecting his readers to get the word picture! He sings of the heavens’ divine declaration, he praises the Lord for making mankind ruler of “all flocks and herds…animals of the wild…birds of the sky, and the fish of the sea…”
John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris
The Birds And Beasts Will Teach You
“Ask the beasts, and they will teach you,” exclaims Job, “the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”
The Bible at length promises that the consummation of history, like its beginning, will take place in a garden-city atop a mountain, with a river of life and trees whose leaves are to heal the nations….
Faced with this forest of references, it’s hard to see how someone who never spends time outside could fully grasp things the Scripture wants us to. Today, the benefits of modern technology have effectively cut us off from the natural world and the general revelation of God that it offers, perhaps more than ever before in history.
John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris
There are costs to this insulation. Last May, the Washington Post reported that children today spend less time in unstructured outdoor play than any prior generation which, research indicates, results in worse school performance, less creativity, higher levels of obesity, fewer friends, and increased rates of depression and hyperactivity. Even more critically, the world kids experience today bears little resemblance to the backdrop of the Bible.
Writing at The Gospel Coalition, Scott Martin calls this modern isolation from creation not only physically, but spiritually dangerous. Citing studies demonstrating how time in nature reshapes our brains, he suggests that our manmade worlds of concrete and climate control rob us not only of the practical vocabulary to understand Scripture, but actually make unbelief easier.
Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: Go outside!
John Stonestreet and G. Shane Morris
Path To Life
Now I realize I’m a privileged, living in the SE Wisconsin countryside and richly blessed to take a holiday at the sea every couple of years.
But even if you live the city or go to the sea, you can go out and look at the sky. You can be intentional. You can rouse yourself and gaze at creation. For your health, don’t isolate yourself inside.
He’s shown us the path of life. He has given us means to health and grace.
One just might be to see His work outside. So go take a hike.
We’re closing in on Sanibel. Of 1,408 miles from home, only 148 remain. Twenty hours down, two to go. Unless traffic suddenly comes to a dead stop on I-75 en route to Florida for spring break as it’s liable to do.
Unless that happens and I don’t take the reroute.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That’s how the writer of the book of Hebrews describes faith in chapter 11. Faith means trusting God when we can’t see the road ahead.
It’s been two years since we walked these beaches and soaked in this island sun and two years since that little stop off the causeway got me wondering if others can see how much we’ve grown.
I don’t know if others can. But in this one way, I think I’ve grown: I’m learning to embrace life’s reroutes faster.
I’m getting better at accepting changes in my plans. I mean, I’m learning to accept them gratefully like the reroutes that suddenly pop up on my screen.
If you use GPS or Google Maps, you know just what I mean.
Just shy of Chattanooga last night, that calm female voice broke in to say, “There is a delay on I-24 two miles ahead. Exit on state road 11 and save 37 minutes. Press yes to accept this reroute.”
I did. In a heartbeat I did. I gladly accepted that reroute.
Because I trust that the GPS Girl knows best. I trust Google’s eagle eye view of the roads. So I trust her completely with the way our van takes.
But sometimes I question whether God’s got my best route figured out. Sometimes I get thinking that interruptions in my time and deviations from my plans are beyond His view.
As if they could halt his plan. The Lord will perfect that which concerns me, Psalm 138:8 says. As if accidents and wrong turns and lost jobs ever catch God by surprise.
After 24 years with the same employer, my husband’s job ends next month. After giving thousands of eye exams, the optical is in bankruptcy and this job is over. Paycheck ends, insurance ends, this stability ends.
We don’t know what’s next. The road ahead is unknown.
We all like stability. We like to know the route, the plan.It’s the uncertainty that’s killing me, we say as we await a lab result or a call back. It’s this not knowing what’s ahead that’s hard.
[A]nd he will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge, the fear of the Lord is Zion’s treasure. That’s the comfort the prophet Isaiah provides God’s afflicted children (33:6).
Here’s where my relationship the GPS Girl helps me trust God. When make a wrong turn or the road gets blocked ahead, the GPS Girl doesn’t get mad. She doesn’t yell at me or go silent. She provides stability.
If we have ears to hear, we’ll hear her say in that same calm, composed way: Recalculating.
In her steady, calm way, she reassures, It’ll take a little longer, but I’ll get you there. Wrong turn, missed exit, accident- no matter, I’ll still get you there.
But the analogy between the GPS Girl and God breaks down here, because God never has to recalculate. He knew your days before you were born.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. That’s where Asaph lands at the end of Psalm 73, after he envied the prosperity of the wicked. Like when I envied the drivers that zipped along on the right shoulder while we waited at a dead stop north of Nashville.
Nevertheless. I love that nevertheless. Because I make wrong turns and because other people’s accidents affect my travel. They change my plans and slow me down.
Nevertheless…I guide you. Like the GPS Girl. She doesn’t get mad at me when wrong turns and accidents happen. She doesn’t give up either. We hear her say,Re-calculating.
And we hear God say: Trust me. I’ll guide you. There is another way.
That’s why Corrie ten Boom’s words makes sense, Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.
Faith sees God’s hand everywhere, unbelief sees God’s hand nowhere; not in big things or in small, everyday things.
If we see God’s hand we realize that we are dependent on him. This is maturity- to realize we need him.
I believe and help my unbelief. Because, truth be told, sometimes I trust the GPS Girl more than the Almighty God. I wonder about the route to Jim’s next job. But instantly I press accept and off we go on a scenic detour of Lookout Mountain outside Chattanooga.
I want to trust God like this, because he sees the road ahead better, and he’s got my best interest in heart. We cannot always trace God’s hand,Spurgeon said, but we can always trust God’s heart. I want to rest in that.
Because He knows the way I take. And he knows all the roads in front of me more than the GPS Girl.
So how could I trust him less?
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Two friends recently gifted me with these. Then came the rush.
Do you know this rush?
The Joy of being Known
It’s the same rush I felt when my friend Jen nailed my game clue. “Fleeting” wasn’t too veiled for Jen, because she knows how much I love sunsets.
It doesn’t matter if you know the game. What matters is someone else playing the game knows you. When that happens, there’s that rush.
It’s the surge of joy, of feeling loved, that comes from being known. I felt it last night, too when my friend Jen guessed my card right, in a Dixit game where it pays to be known.
But there’s a flip side.
The Pain of being Unknown
Back to gifts for a minute. My favorite gifts are not the ones that cost most. They’re the ones that show that the giver of the gift knows me. I mean knows me.
Which probably has something to do with the fact that most of the gifts I give are far from a perfect fit. I’ve given plenty of duds: whole-bean coffee to friends with no grinder or who don’t even drink coffee and milk chocolate to those who much prefer dark. Then there are the musical mismatches I’ve made. Just because I like I folksy, hymnsy doesn’t mean my friends do.
Recalling those poorly chosen gifts makes me cringe because I know how some gifts I’ve received have hurt my own fragile little feelings. I won’t tell you which ones. Let’s just say how I felt opening them was probably how someone with a deadly nut allergy would feel if a good friend made him a very special peanut-butter cup birthday cake.
But it’s not only gifts. Questions sometimes do this too.
When Questions Miss the Mark, or the Heart
We all long to be really known and truly loved.
I think the reason misfit gifts hurt us is that they reveal that we are not really known, at least not as much as we thought, or wish, we were.
But sometimes gifts show us that we’re not and sometimes well-intentioned questions miss the mark. They miss our hearts.
Like when a friend asks about your work but it’s your kids that are heavy on your heart. Or when she inquires about your sore knee, but really it’s a trouble at work that that’s got you losing sleep.
Failure to read minds is no fault. Credit goes to any friend who gives a gift or cares enough to ask.
Still, when gifts and questions miss, we’re disappointed. Because deep down we want to be known and the misses show we’re not. And since we can’t love something we don’t know, feeling unknown often leaves us feeling unloved.
But maybe you’ve got secrets that you don’t want known, because if they really knew you, they wouldn’t love you.
The One Who Matters Most Knows Most
Maybe it’s not so much that you want to be known as that you’re afraid that if you really are- if you stop hiding- you won’t know love. And you’ve been hiding your “stuff” from everyone.
But Jesus sees it. Which is actually a good thing.
The person who matters most knows most. The person whose judgment about you is all important knows all. Let that sink in. You are totally known. Totally. There is not the slightest part of your heart unknown to Jesus, at this hour, and every hour.
Therefore, there is always at least one person you must relate to who knows everything about you. You may be able to look at others in the face and know that they do not know certain things about you. This shapes your relationship. But there is one who when you look him in the face sees totally through you. If you relate to him at all, you relate as one utterly laid bare. Utterly known. What an amazing relationship!
There is one, and only one, who actually and totally knows you. Nobody else even comes close. Your spouse’s knowledge of you, or your best friend’s knowledge of you, compares to Jesus’s knowledge of you is like first-grade math to quantum mechanics. You are fully known by one person — Jesus Christ.
John Piper sermon, “He Knew What was in a Man,” bolding added.
Yes, do. Let that truth sink in.
Known By God
This truth grips me: that my God knows me. I am known infinitely better than even my husband and best friends know me.
Here’s some proof:
“But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” (1 Cor. 8:3)
“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matt. 7:22–23)
“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal. 4:9)
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12)
It blows my mind to think we can know the Holy, Almighty God. It blows my mind more to think that He wants to know me.
Which might suggest that He loves me.
What Matters Supremely
J.I. Packer wrote Knowing God two years before I was born, but I missed it till now. I’ll close with this wise man’s wise words.
What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me.
I am graven on the palms of his hands [Isa. 49:16].
I am never out of his mind.
All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me.
I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me.
He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.
This is momentous knowledge.
There is unspeakable comfort—the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates—in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good.
There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.
Certainly, there is great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see (and I am glad!), and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which, in all conscience, is enough).
There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realise this purpose.
Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 36-37, emphasis added.
Do you feel the rush now? I hope you do. Because you are fully known and deeply loved by the One who matters most. You are never out of his mind.
In fact, He even wants you as His friend.
The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.
Maybe it’s a high hope that came smashing down with an injury, a breakup, a loss. Or maybe it was a noble dream- for healing, for children, for peace- that has slowly fizzled out.
I had some disappointment last week when some grand plans I had for myself and my family didn’t pan out. The details don’t matter. What matters infinitely more is that I learn to do disappointment well.
But the third is new- or maybe it’s just a new spin on the first two.
See God’s Hand in the Crooked Path
In my disappointment, Ecclesiastes 7:14 gives me pause: Consider the work of God, for who can make straight what God has made crooked?
Thomas Boston wrote a book on that one verse. It’s called The Crook in the Lot. Crook is short for crooked and lot is as in one’s “lot in life.”
I am now meeting only what has been determined by his eternal plan. I know not what is the “reason” why it was appointed; but I see that God had resolved to do it, and that it is vain to resist him.”
When we are disappointed, can we say the same thing? That it’s not by chance or accident, but by His appointment?
It is much, when we are afflicted, to be able to make this reflection. I had rather be afflicted, feeling that it is “the appointment of God,” than feeling that it is “by chance” or “hap-hazard.”
It speaks comfort to the afflicted children of God to consider that whatever the crook in your lot is, it is of God’s making and therefore you may look upon it kindly since it is your Father who made it for you. Question not but that there is a favorable design in it toward you.
And by some miracle of grace, that’s what saints do with their disappointment. They trust that there is a favorable design in their disappointment.
Because God makes no mistakes.
Too Wise and Too Loving to Err
John Paton and his pregnant wife Mary left Scotland to be missionaries to the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific on April 16, 1858. They arrived on November 5th. In March 1859, his wife and newborn son died.
Talk about a bitter taste and a crook in the lot.
After Paton buried his beloved wife and infant son, he said,
I felt her loss beyond all conception or description, in that dark land. It was very difficult to be resigned, left alone, and in sorrowful circumstances; but feeling immovably assured that my God and father was too wise and loving to err in anything that he does or permits, I looked up to the Lord for help, and struggled on in His work…
I do not pretend to see through the mystery of such visitations – wherein God calls away the young, the promising, and those sorely needed for his service here; but this I do know and feel, that, in the light of such dispensations, it becomes us all to love and serve our blessed Lord Jesus so that we may be ready at his call for death and eternity.
It does. In our disappointment, it becomes us all to rest assured of our God’s wisdom and love.
Love Leads in the Opposite Direction
I’ve been camping in the land Exodus lately and was greatly impacted by Tim Keller’s sermon on chapter 19.
The Israelites are three months out of Egypt but further from the Promised Land than they were before they left.
God, for kind reasons of his own (Ex. 13:17), led the people in nearly the opposite direction of their destination and he took them into a desert. A mountainous, barren desert. A land far worse than Egypt.
I love how Keller explains this “history of grace,”
God says I’m going to take you over here, but I’m going to take you by way of a place that is farther from Egypt and a land that is worse than Egypt.And that’s where he meets them. And it is often so…
If you admit it, you’re further away from the the things you thought God would be giving you than you were when you trusted him and it seems like God is taking you in the opposite direction.
So often the history of grace in our lives follows this same path. God seems to be taking us away from where we thought we were going, but he’s still leading us to the Promised Land.
In other words, our disappointment is God’s appointment. That’s how God’s grace often comes.
Disappointment, His Appointment
It just so happens that the very same day I wept myself dry, I ran across this poem.
“Disappointment — His Appointment” Change one letter, then I see
That the thwarting of my purpose
Is God’s better choice for me.
His appointment must be blessing,
Tho’ it may come in disguise,
For the end from the beginning
Open to His wisdom lies.
“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Whose? The Lord, who loves me best,
Understands and knows me fully,
Who my faith and love would test;
For, like loving earthly parent,
He rejoices when He knows
That His child accepts, UNQUESTIONED,
All that from His wisdom flows.
“Disappointment — His Appointment”
“No good thing will He withhold,”
From denials oft we gather
Treasures of His love untold,
Well He knows each broken purpose
Leads to fuller, deeper trust,
And the end of all His dealings
Proves our God is wise and just.
“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Lord, I take it, then, as such.
Like the clay in hands of potter,
Yielding wholly to Thy touch.
All my life’s plan in Thy moulding,
Not one single choice be mine;
Let me answer, unrepining —
“Father, not my will, but Thine.”
-Edith Lillian Young
No sugarcoating: “doing” disappointment this way is both a bitter pill and a sweet remedy. I cried hard last week. Coping with disappointment this way hurts my flesh. But as it does, it heals my soul.
Even when I don’t know why, I’m learning to change that one letter and see that His appointment is a better choice for me.
Patience, kindness and humility served Lincoln- and our united nation- well. Since I’ve already written about them, I thought I might forgo the Lincoln post this year.
Then I heard what Stanton said.
Edwin, “Mars,” Stanton was President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Stanton was a sharp, biting critic of Lincoln early in the war.
He called Lincoln a “gorilla.”
Yes. He did.
Stanton publicly declared that it was foolish to go to Africa in search of a gorilla when “the original gorilla” could be found in Springfield, Illinois! Then, six months before he was appointed to the Lincoln’s Cabinet, Stanton wrote former President Buchanan:
“The dreadful disaster of Sunday [Battle of Bull Run] can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this administration has culminated in that catastrophe, and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”
Scathing words, those.
But somehow Stanton transformed into a strong supporter of the President.
If Stanton Said I Was…
But Lincoln took this “gorilla warfare” all in stride, and, because he felt that Stanton was the most qualified for the office, and in 1862 appointed him Secretary of War.
This proves that overcomers aren’t enslaved by what others say about them and that they’re not above correction. Overcomers look long and hard for the kernel of truth in the criticism, even if it’s stuck on a cob of misunderstanding or lies. And once they find it, they don’t let pride prevent them from changing course and turning.
This exchange came after some “Western men,” led by Congressman Lovejoy, procured an order from Lincoln to switch out their soldiers for eastern soldiers.
When Lovejoy explained the plan to Secretary of War Stanton, it was rejected.
‘But we have the President’s order sir,’ said Lovejoy.
‘Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?’ said Stanton.
‘He did, sir.’
‘Then he is a d—d fool,’ said the irate Secretary.
“Do you mean to say the President is a d—d fool?’ asked Lovejoy, in amazement.
‘Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that.’
The bewildered Congressman from Illinois betook himself at once to the President, and related the result of his conference.
‘Did Stanton say I was a d–d fool?’ asked Lincoln at the end of the recital.
‘He did, sir; and repeated it.’
After a moment’s pause, and looking up, the President said: ‘If Stanton said I was a d–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.’
And so our meek President did not retaliate. Instead he deferred to the same one who called his administration imbecilic and himself a gorilla.
Not Overcome By Evil
Lincoln’s response to Lovejoy reminds me of 18th-century, British preacher George Whitefield. In response to a vicious, accusatory letter to him, Whitefield wrote,
I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.
With love in Christ,
Lincoln could have penned those words just as well as Whitefield. It was Lincoln’s meekness and restraint in returning good for evil that proved too great a weapon for Stanton.
Do I not destroy my enemies, Lincoln asked, when I make them my friends?
Lincoln Would Have Worn Nikes
Had they been invented a hundred years earlier, he’d have worn them. Not because he was 6’4″ and headed for the court, but because Lincoln was an overcomer.
Turns out the Greek word translated “overcomer” is from the word nikao (níke) and it means to get the victory, overcome, conquer or subdue. Overcomers wear Nikes.
And they don’t return evil for evil. Any fool can do that. But to return good for evil is supernatural. Overcomers aren’t enslaved by others’ evil. They don’t take revenge. They have One Lord and Master and are, “disciples of him, who died for his enemies.”
George Washington Carver once said, “I will never let another man ruin my life by making me hate him.” Empowered by the Spirit, Carver would not allow evil to conquer him. Instead he lived out Romans 12:21, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the context, coming right after saying be good to your enemy, I think he means “Don’t let your enemy’s hostility produce hostility in you. But let your love triumph over his hostility.” Don’t be overcome by evil means, Don’t be overcome by his evil…
Don’t let another person’s evil provoke you to evil thoughts or evil attitudes or evil deeds. Don’t give them that kind of power. You don’t have to. Christ is your king. Jesus Christ is your leader, your champion, your treasure. Christ governs your life, not those who do evil.
Lincoln was not overcome by evil. He didn’t let the evil of his enemies control him. He returned good for evil and that makes friends of enemies.
It was Stanton who organized the response to Lincoln’s assassination, the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, and the prosecution of the assassination conspiracists. It was Stanton who wept bitter tears beside the bed as Lincoln breathed his last.
And it was Stanton who, according to eyewitnesses, announced: “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.”
Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote this in a letter to Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death. “Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you, and how vain were all efforts to shake that trust and confidence, not lightly given and never withdrawn.”
And as Lincoln to Stanton, even more our Lord Jesus to us.
His love for us will never be withdrawn. Through faith in Him we overcome.
Everyone born of God overcomes the world.
This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.
Sometimes I just shake my head and laugh. At myself. I think yesterday the good Lord may have had a little chuckle too.
Because I have this uncanny knack for acting as if doing big, grand things are no big deal. As if–my latest grandiose conception–adopting teen siblings is no big deal. As if we could pull that off like we pull off hosting a birthday party.
[7/21/20 Happy Update: These siblings were adopted one year after the original post by a loving Wisconsin couple.]
Big And Small Things, Upside-Down
That I could embrace something as life-changing as the thought of taking two children into our family for life and in the same 24 hours balk at taking one needy young man into our van for two hours may be comical. It is, for sure, inconsistent and upside-down.
And balk I did when the doorbell ring at 8:15 on Saturday morning. I was eager for a mother-son date with Gabe after his game. I resented this surprise arrival.
That’s upside-down: embracing the big and grand and tripping over the little and mundane.
But we know it’s the small things- thoughts and acts- that form habits and character. And if you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength. But we are those who rejoice in the day of small things.
Still, some of us would polar plunge into Lake Michigan for any number of reasons, but can keep we our tongues from grumbling when the shower suddenly goes cold?
Now that’s hard.
Choosing What We Did Not Choose
It might have something to do with choice. Chafing at the little stuff while embracing the big things might have something to do with our struggle to choose what we did not choose.
When we decide on a life-changing course of action and we decide to take the plunge, well- that’s different from when God decides a thing for us. Like, say, when he says be kind and take the kid who needs a ride and do all things– including taking a cold shower- without grumbling or complaining.
Maybe little things are so hard because they weren’t in our master plan. Because who chooses a cold shower in February in Wisconsin?
Or maybe we just prefer the drama.
He Would Have Done Any Great Thing
While I was laughing at my own inconsistency, Naaman popped to mind. His story is recorded in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was commander of the Syrian army. When he contracted leprosy, he sought help from Elisha, the famed healer and prophet of God.
Elisha’s prescription was not grand. So it’s no wonder proud Naaman didn’t like it: Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored, Elisha’s messenger said.
The muddy, little Jordan River, Naaman thought then ran off in a rage.
Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not the Abana and Pharpar the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?
Naaman expected the exceptional and desired a grand cure– like the mighty prophet working his wonders and waving his hands. Washing in the dinky, little muddy river was demeaning. So Naaman wanted nothing to do with Elisha.
He would have done any great thingto be cured. Naaman had already traveled miles and miles and offered a vast treasure.
But a commonplace, mundane cure? Never.
Supernatural Grace (for the Mundane)
Maybe Oswald Chambers felt this strange inversion in himself, too. Maybe he know what it was to embrace a great cause and balk at the everyday.
Maybe he shared the impulsive boldness that I share with Naaman and with Peter, I’ll-die-with-you-after-I-deny-you Peter, too. Big-talking, water-walking Peter, who had grand ideas but stumbled on the mundane.
Discipleship is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God. Walking on water is easy to someone with impulsive boldness, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is something altogether different. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he “followed Him at a distance” on dry land (Mark 14:54)…
It does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint, going through drudgery, and living an ordinary, unnoticed, and ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God- but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people- and this is not learned in five minutes.
Disciples of Christ aim to be exceptional in the ordinary and love the ones they’re with.
Loving Our Neighbor Is Harder
Our duty is to love our neighbor not the mass of nameless humanity. GK Chesterton nails that: We have to love our neighbour because he is here… He is the sample of humanity which is actually given to us.
My heart had grand adoption plans. If God had made it clear us that we’re to adopt the siblings, I’d do that big thing in a heartbeat.
But when the doorbell rang at 8 AM it wasn’t an “if”. It was God’s clear call for me to forgo my plan and love this little 5th-grade “neighbor.” He was here.
We don’t have to do exceptional things for God, we have to be exceptional–and I take that for faithful and obedient–among ordinary 10-year-old boys.
That’s hard. Learning to live in that supernatural grace is not learned in five minutes.
“If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
This is Dave. He’s a friend, even though Dave can’t remember my name.
But Dave doesn’t take his memory problems lying down. Which is why we might all take a few memory tips from Dave.
Because I, for one, know that I have memory problems too. Spiritual amnesia, mine’s called. You know, when you forget what you should remember and remember what you’d best forget
Take Care Lest You Forget
Dave was in a motorcycle accident 20 years ago, give or take. He can’t remember the date. But he knows his memory hasn’t been the same.
So Dave always carries a notepad. Always. He’ll pull it out, scratch out a line or two, then tuck it back in his pocket.
Because Dave knows he needs reminding.
1. Remember Your Commitments
Why do you keep you so many notes, Dave? I asked between services.
I can recall this, he said, holding up his little green 3×5 spiral. At the end of the day I look back to see if I have to follow through on any commitments.
Dave is vigilant to remember. He explained how he transfers his notes from his little green spiral to a larger book at home, I don’t want to disappoint them and let them down. I don’t want to commit something to the Lord and forget about it.
But the problem, Dave said with a grin, is remembering to look back at the dumb notes.
In the Old Testament book of Numbers (15:38-40), the Lord told Moses to have the Israelites make tassels for the corners of their garments, “and a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them.”
Little green notepad or corner blue tassel or iPhone reminder, no matter- just so we don’t forget our commitments. We just have to remember to look.
2. Remember Who You Were
Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. This command to remember who they were- slaves, namely- is repeated over and over after the exodus (Deuteronomy 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22). In these texts, the reason for bringing up former slave status seems to be either to urge generosity and compassion toward those who are impoverished like they were, or to encourage thankful celebration under God for who they are.
Because we can take that for granted. And when we fail to remember that we were once slaves to sin (Romans 6:16), we can more easily fall back to slavery. Would-be-slaves, I called this once.
This idea is in the New Testament, too: Remember that at one time you Gentiles . . . were without Christ…having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11, 12).
Remembering who we were without Christ is so important because it can intensify our love and deepen our devotion to the God who saved us. When we remember our life would be without him, we can cherish his forgiveness.
Dave had to relearn even his own name after the accident. He thinks it took months. But he’s got it down now. And another thing he’s got down- without consulting his notepad- is his testimony.
He remembers who he was. He remembers his testimony. In fact, he says rehearses his testimony while he’s at his “1200 pieces a day, assembly job.” And he told me how before that day in 1970 he wasn’t born-again, and then after it he was.
In other words, Dave remembers being a slave in Egypt and hopeless.
3. Remember The Lord
God’s people have historically had a bad memory. They had selective memory right out of Egypt, remembering-and grumbling about- the “free food,” but forgetting who they were- the slave status bit. The food may have been free, but they were not. That’s in Numbers 11.
Then, at the end of Judges 8, after strong judge Gideon had died, spiritual amnesia set in again. The people did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side
But apart from selective memory, and probably worse, is this third memory problem: not remembering their God. In Deuteronomy 6:12 the God’s people are told, take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
They should have been taking notes. Papyrus pads anyone?
Dave told me that one of things he tries to remember while at his work center is- I quote- “the work of God. I consult my notebook to remember things of this sort.”
There are practical steps we can all take to overcome our spiritual amnesia- our forgetfulness of how God has been at work. Ben Reoach describes seven here. And guess what? One of his suggestions is keeping a journal.
Like I said, Dave definitely knows what he’s doing.
I Shall Remember
I don’t know all of Dave’s story but I that it’s not all rosy. Apart from the physical and mental impact of the accident, I gather that close relationships have been strained. I’ve had some nasty times, he sighed. But even there Dave sees the silver lining, “A blessing of having a bad memory is that when someone treats me like poop, I forget and when I see them again I treat them real nice.”
Which brings us to Psalm 77:7-9, where the Psalmist ponders: Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favorable again-Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious, Or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion?
Dave could ask those same questions. Maybe you could too. Living in the group home around the corner from the church wasn’t Dave’s dream. And despite years of prayers for his memory to be restored, he still can’t remember names without his notepad.
But Dave does what the Psalmist did, right after he wondered if His lovingkindness had ceased forever.
Remembering Is Effortful
I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God?
John Piper says that this remembering is intentional and effortful.
The central Biblical strategy for coming out of darkness and discouragement and doubt is a conscious effort of the mind. Notice these strong words of intentionality: “I shall remember . . . Surely I will remember” (verse 11); “I will meditate . . . and [I will] muse” (verse 12). These are conscious acts that he chooses to do. This is the fight of faith. This is the fight for delight. It is the opposite of passivity and resignation. This is a strategy of life.
This is what Dave does, what he consciously chooses to do. He carries that notepad and jots it down and gets it out. He makes sure to keep his commitments. And he rehearses over and over his testimony and who he was- not before the accident- but before he came to faith. And Dave remembers the Lord. He ponders the ways of his God.
Who Remember You In Your Ways
This morning and last Sunday, I asked Dave if I could take his picture and tell about him and his memory trouble and how he still remembers. Of course, he said. God gave this to me. That’s what it means to be a Christian.
And then, at the end of both little interviews, he chimed in, because he’s put it to memory, probably by writing it over and over and over in his little notepads, then transcribing it at home into his bigger book, Romans 8:28.
All things work together for good, he quoted. No matter how nasty it gets- it all works together for good if you love God.
So as Dave waits for the Day when he’ll again remember his friends’ names, he clearly remembers God’s ways.
And there’s a promise or two in Isaiah 64 for my friend Dave.
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.
Hey, look at this! I just found a $50 dollar bill,” Ted yelled, waving it overhead.
We’re all dumbfounded.
From the giddy third graders to the sensible adult leaders, no one can make heads or tails of it.
Big bucks- $5’s and $10’s and $20’s and, last night a $50- have been mysteriously tucked in church Bibles. They’ve been showing up Wednesday nights at AWANA. No notes, not envelopes, no rhyme or reason- just fresh, dreamy cash.
The first $5 was laid bare a couple months ago during the group devotion. Lucky little Dominick got that one. It happens like this: kids crack the Bible to lookup a verse and, lo and behold, there appears cash. Every Wednesday, a $5 or $10 or $20 shows up.
Last night, it was a $50 bill.
Expectation, Hope and a Sense of Urgency
Part of me wishes I was the Mystery Bill Filler who tucks big bucks into pew Bibles.
Because those hidden bills are making kids open the God’s Word with glee. With expectation and hope and a sense of urgency.
I know, I know. The third grade treasure hunters scrambling over, under, around and through the pews last night were not desiring the pure milk of the Word. They just wanted the cash.
But the sight of those kids practically somersaulting over pews to open the Word show us how all God’s children should go after the Bible.
“The Bible,” Patrick Henry said, “is worth all other books which have ever been printed.” That’s because in it, God reveals God. The Creator shows himself to the creation for what he is a glorious, good God.
And calls us to seek Him- for forgiveness and life and fullness of joy- just to name a few (Isaiah 55:6-7, Psalm 17:3, Psalm 16:11). And we find Him by seeking him in his Word.
The bills in the Bibles – and the way the kids raced to get to a Bible and open it up to find the bills- make a spiritual truth plain: God’s word is “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold,” (Psalm 19:10).
Last night, the leaders made Ted put the $50 bill in the offering box. But I pray that one day Teddy and the others will remember back. Back to third grade when all those big bills mysteriously appeared and that when they do, they’ll rejoice.
Because in that day, they’ll realize that the Word of God is all that.
And so much more.
“….My heart stands in awe of your words. I rejoice at your Word like one who finds a great spoil.”
Psalm 119: 161-162
“I want to know one thing, the way to heaven: how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He has written it down in a book! Oh, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be: “A man of one book.”
The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination! —C.S. Lewis
That quote exploded my big-plan, little-margin life when I first read it years ago. Sometimes I still chafe when my plans are interrupted and I have to wait.
But He’s changing me. I know that because when the red line that suddenly popped up on my Google map had me praying just now, not grumbling, while our van crawled along for miles. And when my day-off plans were quick shortchanged by a call from the school nurse, I could count that “trial” right.
Because waiting for the green line and tending a sick son are precisely the “real” life God is sending me.
Count It All Joy
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4
We will be interrupted and we will be tried. Which is why James wrote when you meet trials, not if. And that means we need to commit before they hit to count our interruptions and trials as-you guessed it- joy.
So trials are inevitable and they often come on us suddenly, like interruptions.
Which explains why James used a word that means “meet” or “fall into.” It’s the same word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan when a man fell among robbers, and in Acts 27 when the ship Paul was on struck a reef. The word emphasizes the surprise nature of trials.
Trials can come on suddenly. But all trials- internal and external- are tests by God intended to make us strong and mature and complete.
But you know what happens when we’re not tested?
There’s a striking illustration of that in Jeremiah 48. “Moab has been at ease since his youth,” the prophet wrote. Moab was a neighboring people to Israel. They’d lived an easy life; undisturbed and at ease.
John MacArthur closed a sermon on James 1:2-4 with an explanation of that Jeremiah text. It has to do with wine-making. With dregs. Verse 12 says, “Neither has he been emptied from vessel to vessel, nor has he gone into exile. Therefore he retains his flavor and his aroma has not changed.”
When wine is fermented initially it is a combination of what is sweet and what is bitter. The liquid was poured into a skin and left for a long time. Eventually, the bitter part would fall to the bottom and become what we call the dregs.
After a period of time what was on the surface was then poured into another skin and another passage of time would yield more dregs. After some time it would be poured into another skin and a few more dregs until finally it could be poured into a skin and there would be no dregs at all because all of that had been removed in that process.
What you had at the end was the pure wine.
Sweet, Pure Wine
We want to be pure wine.. We don’t want to retain a bitter flavor and musty aroma.
But without trials- trials counted joy- we’ll stay bitter and musty. Moab’s problem was that he was never poured from trial to trial to trial. Moab’s sinful, bitter dregs never went out.
That’s why maybe we don’t always pray for smooth and ease. Why, by grace, we don’t fall apart when trials and delays come our way. Why we can say, If God needs to pour me from vessel to vessel, and trial to trial to so the sinful dregs of my life can fall to the bottom and pure, sweet wine of righteousness remains, then bring on the trials.
And, somehow, to count them all joy. Which means we learn to choose what we didn’t choose.
Choose What You Didn’t Choose
Choose to see the interruptions as sent by God for our good. See the sickness that keeps us home and flat tires that slow us down, infertility that blocks a dream and relationships that break our hearts as for our good. That we might be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
Christian joy is grounded in our union with Jesus, and that union, not our plans coming to pass is the fountain for our joy, which sounds and is supernatural. Murray M’Cheyne’s words, “It is always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.”
But that sure grates against our 21st century plan-oriented sensibility, doesn’t it?
Despite the autonomy and self-determination we have, much of life consists of things we didn’t choose. And as one friend just reflected- most of her life’s greatest joys were unplanned. Is that true for you?
Control is an illusion anyway, but we can choose joy.
Because saint’s trials are purposeful. They come to test our faith. The boot box says waterproof, but we don’t know till we hike in the rain. We say we trust God, but we don’t know till trials come our way. Alistair Begg makes it plain, Faith is a muscle. Test it and it grows. Leave it alone and it atrophies.
The pressure builds endurance. Kind of like boiling eggs. But if we pull the egg out before the pressure’s done, the good won’t come. If you don’t leave the egg in hot water long enough, it’ll be a useless mess.
Let perseverance finish its work, James 1:4 says. Get ‘er done, mama says. Finish the work. Don’t pull out of the pot before the pressure’s done.
South African pastor Andrew Murray shares four truths that helped him to joyfully endure trials:
I am here (in this trial) by God’s appointment. It’s not haphazard.
Choose what you didn’t choose. Count it all joy. If we’re going to be spiritual adults we can’t be dodging his purposes.
Let the egg boil already.
Alistair Begg says, trials responded to properly are always fruitful. That’s Begg’s code, I think, for Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose.
We accept that life is change and until the day day we die there will choices made for us that we did not choose. And we can resent the choices we didn’t make for ourselves or we can choose joy.
This is the day that the Lord has made. Don’t waste it. Choose what you didn’t choose. Choose joy. Because Someone who knows the beginning and the end sees it all and steers it all and loves you more than you can fully know, let those trials meet you.
Tim Keller said it this way, God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
The fullness of the Christian life is available where you are now. You don’t need a dreamy husband or cuddly kids. You can be full and complete without a great church that sings the songs you like and work and ministry you crave. I can be full and complete without a bigger blog or a published book.
Which is not to say, don’t change your circumstances if you can (see 1 Corinthians 7:20-31). But it is to say, don’t buy the lie you can’t be full and complete until you do. In Christ, you can (see Colossians 2:9-12).