Sanctification through novels

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Stepping Heavenward I downloaded the Kindle version of this book a few weeks ago.  It’s the last reading I do before turning out the light.  My bedtime routine is to check Instagram, read John Piper’s Solid Joys on my phone and then close out my waking thoughts with a few minutes in a Christian book.  God increasingly seems to make good use of those final 2 activities.

Twice now, the journal entries of this 19th century fictional gal have chided me gently, as though I were she, a Christian who is growing in fits and starts.   Most recently ‘Katy’ detailed the frustrations of a day filled with unexpected interruptions.

Annoying visitors, an incompetent kitchen maid, boisterous children and fatigue battle for her peace of mind.  Her goal this particular day is to prepare a special dessert for her overworked doctor husband.

Almost abandoning the dessert because distractions have eaten away most of the day, the Holy Spirit gently redirects her thoughts from self-pity and complaining to persevering. A grateful, loving and very tired husband rewards her sweetly when he finally arrives home to enjoy dinner and dessert.  As she reflects on all the frustrations, the Holy Spirit reveals to her just how He uses these precise types of circumstances to grow her more like Jesus.

As I read through this particular journal entry the Holy Spirit immediately opened my eyes to see the same thing in my life. So often I complain à la ‘Martha’ who wanted her sister Mary to relieve the burden of hosting Jesus.  I indulge a feeling of being overwhelmed by all there is to do and the seeming inadequate time to accomplish them (and have some Maria-time left over, truth be told!).

But that night in bed, the yeast of insight began to work its way into my conscious thoughts as I fell asleep. The Holy Spirit continued the process the next morning while listening to a John Piper sermon.

My teaching days that feel so packed are exactly what the Great Physician has prescribed.  I KNOW He desires me to REST in the assurance of His provisioning grace for all the good works He calls me to do.  And if I do them my own way, depending on my own resources, I usually start to tighten up and feel burdened.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

But like Katy in this novel, I sometimes have to learn the hard way.  And because our Father is wise as well as loving, He lets me ‘kick against’ the burdens on my own.  But not for too long.

If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it.  It’s charming AND sanctifying.

How God is changing my will

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Philippians 2:13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

Lots of unholy churn and inward griping have colored my past 3 3/4 years teaching French to middle-schoolers.  I have prayed for God to open the door to other jobs that pay as much but

  • don’t include a commute of at least 1 hour 40 minutes on a traffic-free day
  • don’t place me in a sometimes hostile anti-Christian environment (secular school)
  • don’t require me to face the burdensome daily challenge of teaching French well and creatively to middle-schoolers

And in His good and wise providence, God has kept me in that job!  So I have prayed, very reluctantly, for Him to change my will, my desires.  Do you ever pray like this, a kind of ‘please God, but I’m not sure if I want you to‘ type request?  This is how I’ve been praying:

  • Father, if I have to continue to work THERE, then at least change my heart so that I more light-heartedly teach/work/serve at that school.  But, Father, I’m actually hesitant to ASK You to change my heart.  I don’t think I WANT to want that, to work contentedly there.  I just want OUT!

But God HAS changed my heart through a shift in my thinking that could ONLY have come about this way.

It was a combination of a Charles Spurgeon selection from his book Morning and Evening, a John Piper devotional one night, some scripture in a prayer I was praying through that my app Prayermate had fed me and a John Piper archived sermon the next morning.  All within about 11 hours.

One of my whiny refrains I kept replaying in my mind leading up to those 12 hours was, “My heart is just not in teaching French to middle-schoolers any more!  I’m tired of the burden. And besides, I’ll be 60 in a few months, maybe I don’t have what it takes to relate to them!”  I can get REAL good at excuse making.

By means of 3 verses, He had shifted my thoughts toward the end of the 11 hours (an evening, night and early morning), which gently but abruptly changed my desire:

  • Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.
  • Ephesians 6:7 Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.
  • Colossians 3:23 Whatever you are doing, let your hearts be in your work, as a thing done for the Lord and not for men.

And just like that, with the gentle Holy Spirit memory prompting, He brought those living facts and commands into my heart and mind and something occurred instantly.

In a flash, I saw how sinful AND LAME my whininess had been.  I pictured those sins as adding to the crushing weight of sin that Jesus willingly took on for me.

The next thought was:

  •  If I can’t teach whole-heartedly for THEM, those kids, I CAN do so for God.  By His power.
  •  In fact Maria, your Father created those works at this school right now for you to do as a new creation.  He has equipped and fitted you to do just that.  And that is why He has kept you there in that job.  It has been His intention all along.  He has purposes for you to serve Him in that environment.

That was a Wednesday.  I lived with new freedom and awareness throughout the day, actually enjoying myself.

Cautiously I embraced Thursday.  Same thought-altering feelings prevailed. And Friday as well.

It’s Spring Break this week.  The days are flying and soon Monday will come.  But I’m not dreading it.  With His help, I CAN do what He has willed for me, what He commands me to do.

Here’s the truth:  what God commands, He equips us to do and we have no reasonable defense to resist.  Thanks be to God!

The cost of trusting God

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Charles Spurgeon: “(do) You want to see….how (affliction) can bring good to the soul; you must believe it.  Honor God by trusting him.” (as tweeted by Randy Alcorn, 20 Mar 2017)

So many friends waiting, waiting, waiting.

There’s D, whose husband got let go from his job at age 61.  It’s been 3 months and he’s gone through two REALLY promising and lengthy job interviews.  Only to hear back in emails, ‘Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to go with someone else.”

In addition to my friend D, several other friends pray for, search and await jobs.

And then there is J who holds on for a solution to a leak in her roof.  It’s not like she and her husband have oodles of money in savings, available to try first one remedy or another. That’s part of the problem.  The house has turned into a money pit, drawing from their retirement funds. They believe they should sell it to protect their savings.  But they can’t list the house until the leak is repaired.  Biding their time, they communicate, encourage and remind contractors, hopeful that each successive remedy will be THE one.

My other friend has endured countless medical procedures and tests and been the subject of panels of medical boards convening to seek the best way forward for an aggressive cancer.  Chosen routes have revealed dead ends.  Patience, while suffering, is her familiar journey partner.

Trying, painful situations hit believers and non-believers alike. We could despair, were it not for knowing the Truth.  For as Jesus teaches, “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  John 8:32  

What is that truth that blocks our natural response to fall into a gloomy permanent pit? That God loves us and that the suffering has a good purpose!  That He has planned each trial to conform us to our older brother, Jesus.  To avail ourselves of that truth, God has given us FAITH to believe the manifold and rich promises that are the rightful property or resource of all who ‘love God and are called by Him, according to His purposeful plan.’ (Romans 8:28)

Just as we have been given physical muscles to exercise in daily life, so too have Christians been given the spiritual muscle of faith.  But the gift of believing God comes with a concomitant responsibility.  We have to use faith, to move out, do what is good in the moment, depending on the invisible but real promises that God will come through just as His word says. We have to exercise or actively depend on God’s written pledge to provide, protect, guide, comfort us.

How do we do that?  By deciding to ‘believe (sight unseen) every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt 4:4).  And that FEELS costly and painful at times.

Who doesn’t suffer the pains of temptation to despair over circumstances that seem to be perpetual?  Yet God commands us to not look at the way things appear, but to see through the circumstances to the God who promises good to those who believe Him and cling to the truth of His promises.

The other night as we were discussing the day’s Bible readings, Mike and I pondered the the connection between trusting…..believing…..expecting…..waiting ….hoping…exercising patience……  All these actions sparkle as many sides of the one diamond called FAITH in God.  But what do those actions LOOK like?  How do you DO expecting, waiting, hoping….?

An insight has recently enriched my mind, an answer to a dilemma. I’ve often struggled to grasp how to live out Jesus’ command, in a self-deflecting, God-glorifying way: “…. let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Matt 5:16    I’ve gotten hung up on the concept, ‘your light’.  How can I have any light in myself?  The answer: this ‘light’ is the gift God has given me to BELIEVE Him.  My responsibility is to show the world in a visible way (light) how much I treasure this invisible but precious reality of relying on and belonging to Jesus. God calls that way ‘patience’ or ‘trust in God’.

Given that He commands me to make visible this divine, inner light, I pray daily to WANT to do just that (and follow through) a – to live in such a way that the world (my colleagues, family and friends) sees my Godward trust, hope-filled expectations, and patient waiting and be STUNNED and chalk it up to God!  (that Maria is so patient during suffering.  She must REALLY love her God and be satisfied by Him!!!)

Patience is a virtue recognized in the western world.  Yet most joke about it and cavalierly let themselves off the hook by admitting they have little.

When I feel strong, I affirm this fact:  God is kind to give me multiple occasions to practice and improve this muscle of contented waiting on Him.  Yet, I seem often to succumb to despair, sometimes multiple times in a week.

But what other choice do you and I have? We can either face the sufferings in life kicking and screaming, or we can submit to the wise and loving hand of the potter who keeps us on His wheel and won’t stop until we are beautifully fashioned into the family likeness.

Potters' Hands

This last truth stunned me this morning when I heard it again: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4

Burdens and what to do with them

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What is your inheritance as a Christian?  If you are a born-from-above new creation, then God HAS granted and assigned you a share in His heavenly Kingdom.  This is your allotment or LOT in life. What exactly IS a ‘lot’?   To gain some insight, let’s look at how legacies and shares in wealth were distributed in the Old Testament.

Joshua 14:2 Their inheritances were assigned by lot to the nine-and-a-half tribes, as the LORD had commanded through Moses.

Sometimes these apportioned inheritances bring hardships. Life’s trials and problems may at times feel like ‘crushing weights’.   David, out of one such bitter experience, cried: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! Then would I fly away, and be at rest” (Ps. 55:6). But before he finished this meditation he seems to have realized that his need for the relief that wings would bring could be met in a different way. For he writes a few verses later, exhorting himself AND us, “Cast thy burden upon Jehovah, and he will sustain thee.(Ps 55:22)

Read this commentary quoted by Streams in the Desert: “The word “burden” is translated in the Bible margin, ‘what he (Jehovah) hath given thee.’ The saints’ burdens are God-given; they lead him to ‘wait upon Jehovah,’ and when that is done, in the magic of trust, the ‘burden’ is metamorphosed into a pair of wings, and the weighted one ‘mounts up with wings as eagles.'”
Sunday School Times

Do you find David’s example depressing or encouraging?  For me, the new thought that our burdens are given to us BY God and we are meant to give them BACK to God is a RELIEF! For the implicit conclusion is that we are NOT meant to carry/handle these burdens ourselves.  So why does God ‘gift’ us with trials?  Because they are necessary to the completion of our faith.  This ‘faith’ is part of our inheritance and the Holy Spirit strengthens us through the vehicle of our faith.  So our faith must be fully kitted out and made complete.  Trials are God’s means to do just that kind of perfecting of our faith.

See how the apostle Peter writes about trials in his letter to wobbly believers:

These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return. 1 Peter 1:7

Take heart, dear brother and sister.  God knows what He is doing.  And we can trust Him.

 

Commands & promises that simplify life

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Parents mean well, but they can unwittingly burden their children.

My father was one of those ‘can-do’ men who had reduced life’s collective wisdom to short statements meant to both encourage and teach.  Some of this military man’s words of advice were:

  • Drive on all the way (Infantry motto)
  • Your wants won’t hurt you
  • Don’t borrow trouble
  • Do your best

That last one has caused me much grief.  Why?  Because I never knew what was my best. By what objective standard did one measure one’s best?  How would I know if I had reached ‘my best’?

There was one time in my life when I obsessively worked a side business while teaching school full-time and mothering 2 sons.  I almost wrecked our marriage, so driven was I for ‘success’ in that part-time fashion venture.

One week in particular stands out.  Push-push-push!  Striving to reach a sales goal in order to be recognized and applauded at the national sales conference one month later, I drove myself nuts (and probably the rest of the family!).  My dad’s motto about one’s BEST compelled me to keep making phone calls.  My goal consumed me.  I couldn’t rest.  That target named ‘MY BEST’ kept inching further away.

This past week, 2 verses have both grabbed my heart and resurrected painful memories of drivenness.

  1. Psalm 105:4   Seek the LORD and His strength, seek His presence continually
  2. Psalm 37:3  Trust in the LORD and do good

Yesterday was a difficult day teaching.  I dreaded one of my classes.  As I was walking up the stairs to the building, praying, I affirmed over and over again: All I need are the LORD’s strength and His presence.  God has commanded me to seek and pray for these things.  He must really want me to have them!

And He came through!  (why do I doubt????)

This morning, bracing for that same first-period class and sensing the familiar creeping dread, I recalled Pop’s adage about doing my best. I prayed for God’s strength and His presence; and the above verse from Psalm 34 came to mind.  Tim Keller in his devotional on the Psalms had reflected on that psalm the previous night.  And I had been encouraged by the simple command to ‘do good’ in the context of trusting/resting in God.

Far from being burdened by having to aim for my best, I felt relief flooding me.  One’s best might be the way of the world, the mantra of certain motivational speakers, but not the path that the Triune God teaches.

Prior to any effort or work God commands from us, He assures us in numerous places what He has already accomplished FOR us. (chose, created, sought, rescued, redeemed, and saved us). And in view of THOSE mercies, we are to TRUST HIM. For hasn’t He already proven to us that He is worthy of our trust?

How that command to trust Him relieved the burden of my dreaded class was in this way:

  • I don’t know what God is doing in the interactions between my class and me.  Most of the time I FEEL ineffective with them.
  • But I willed myself to trust Him, the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign of the universe.
  • And having committed myself to trust Him this day, I resolved to DO GOOD.

But what did ‘do good’ look like? For me, this morning, I taught French to my class in a way that was sensitive to their moods, abilities and comprehension and did not fret with what they gained from the class.  I did not take personally their bored 13-year-old faces or their chattiness about other topics IN FRENCH class!   I trusted God, did ‘good’ and let it rest.

This particular crop of students is weak. Their abilities probably don’t have as much to do with my skill as a teacher as I think. But God has placed me at that school with those children for His purposes. His plans are good and I will commit to being faithful in my assignment through the power the Holy Spirit gives me.  That is all He expects.

 

 

Don’t scorn patience

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“Don’t pray for patience, or God will give you many exasperating circumstances!”

Doubtless you have heard versions of that adage.  As true as it is, the one who utters it seems to do so with a tone of frustration and resignation as though having to wait were a curse.

A quote by William Gurnall, 17th century English pastor, recently arrested my attention and transformed my view of the fruit of patience.

Here’s the context for Gurnall’s teaching on the value of patience: What are we to think when God is silent after we pray earnestly an ‘acceptable’ prayer?

(Gurnall qualifies prayers as acceptable those tied to one of God’s promises and those that are offered from a ‘clean’ heart, that is a heart that has repented of known sin among other qualities.)

This pastor labored to persuade readers (or listeners to his sermons) to appreciate God’s delay in answering our prayers.

“Be patient, and thou shalt find, the longer a mercy goes before its delivery, the more perfect it will come forth at last…(then giving an example from Abraham’s long wait for a son)….when the date of God’s bond was near expiring, and the time of the promise drew night, then God paid interest for his stay. None gain more at the throne of grace than those who trade for tie, and can forbear the payment of a mercy longest.”

180 turn

Reading that quote the other day flipped my heart 180 degrees. All of a sudden I saw this onerous, groan-worthy quality trait as a priceless treasure God desires and wills to give us. But not as in, cut open my heart and pour in high-octane patience. Were it that easy!

No, instead, He sets out to offer me many, many occasions to wait on Him.  Whether:

  • at the grocery store or
  • for someone laboriously telling a story to get to their point or
  • the arrival of a job offer after multiple interviews or
  • for rain or
  • for a diet to work or
  • for a publisher finally to say YES!

Considering the payoff for this kind of inner strength, I now see the KINDNESS of God in giving us multiple opportunities to practice the skill of waiting on Him.  For what else are delays but God’s sovereign schedule of life’s events?  And what else is Biblical faith, but a treasuring of all that God is for us and all He promises to be in the future? Doesn’t that kind of faith require PATIENCE since we don’t physically SEE what is promised?

Does this kind of waiting on something in the future seem vague and like a discipline involving self-denial?  Then maybe shifting the focus to the reward will help.  Here are just a few of the many payoffs?   Consider some staggering promises of reward:

  • face-to-face seeing God (Rev 22:4)
  • renewed strength (Is 40:31)
  • compassion from God (Is 30:18)
  • food and satisfaction for all our desires(Ps 145:15-16)
  • all the gifts from God due us (1 Cor 1:7)
  • adoption by God the Father (Rom 8:23)
  • help and protection (Ps 33:20)
  • salvation from many dangers (Gen 49:18)
  • grace that is promised when Jesus comes back (1 Peter 1:13)

And if reflecting on some of these pledges of future blessing were not enough to help one see the payoff for patience, God brought to mind James’ motto for the ‘Saints Club’. Consider it PURE JOY my brothers when you face trials of various kinds….(James 1: 2-4).  Why?  because, as this apostle explains, trials grow patient, cheerful endurance in us.  The Greek term for that character quality is hypomone. Literally it means to STAY UNDER.

I take that counsel to instruct me NOT to fight the trying circumstance but to practice patient waiting, praying for God to resolve it or for it to resolve itself or for my God-dependent efforts to have their effect.  Whatever the outward action, the inner state of a follower of Christ is calm, patient, cheerful trust in God who ordained this particular trial and circumstance.

What is ‘driving you nuts’ that God is allowing or bringing back time and time again in different forms to GIFT you with patience? 

What is love?

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Nestor Haddaway’s run-away hit posed the question in the ’90s. But it was ‘the head-bobbing, nightclubbing-addicted Butabi brothers’ that popularized the single on Saturday Night Live and later in the film Night at the Roxbury.

Love as a right, concept, ideal, and standard gets a lot of play in culture these days and it always has.  Just consider one of William Shakespeare’s many lines:

  • “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” from A Midsummer Night’s dream.

Today, however, one seems to assume the liberty to define love any ‘ole way.  But does that make it right? And speaking of rights, who gets to define such weighty matters, anyway?

Listen in on a conversation between an imaginary Cultural Cathy and me:

Cultural Cathy – I have the right to define love as I see it

Me – Really? well how do you define love? and whose standards are you using?

CC – You must not have heard me, it’s up to me.  Right now, I feel a strong bond with Denise.  What we have is the ‘real thing’.  And it feels right.  So it is right for me. I feel loved and so does Denise.

Me – But you call yourself a Christian.  Don’t you have to submit to what the Bible teaches on love?

CC – But I AM following the Bible.  It says all over the Bible that  ‘God is love’.  And I actually can quote a verse, 1 John 4:7.  It goes like this: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

Me – Good for you for knowing Scripture.  But we have to use God’s definition if we invoke His Truth.  Furthermore, it’s never enough to find and isolate one verse.  We have to see what the Author meant by looking at the context and other written evidence of what He thinks.   In this case, the Bible also teaches that God is Truth.  Do you remember how Jesus went around saying that He was the truth?  It follows then that Jesus is the standard of the truth.  And if you and I consider ourselves to be Christ-followers or Christian that implies that we stay to stay within the boundaries that Christ set.

CC – what’s truth have to do with love?

Me – good question.  Since you quoted John’s first letter – let’s just turn back a few pages to chapter 3, verse 18.  He writes: Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

CC – hmmm, so your point is??

Me – the deed part is the point.When we ‘love in deed and in truth’ we actually put God’s propositional truth (what He says and teaches, as the Bible documents) into action.  We DON’T get to choose or decide on the propositional truth that suits our temperaments.

David teaches us in one of his Psalms: Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;  Psalm 86:11

**

I don’t know what a Cultural Cathy would say in my fantasy conversation.  If we’re having this exchange at all, she likely would find a way to discount my points.

But we Christians need to know how God defines truth and love.  They are NOT relative. The world may claim authorship rights in determining definitions, but if someone calls himself a Christian, then we should at least be willing to engage with knowledge.  But as Peter exhorts us…with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

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