What God commands – impossible!

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May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors. 1 Kings 8:58 (NIV)

I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.  Psalm 119:112 (ESV)

I argued ALL day long!  Conversing with God throughout the hours, using Gospel logic. And at the end of the day, I was exhausted and still miserable and STUCK!

What was the matter?  Nothing more than not being happy with a number on a scale.

You’d say that my battle with the idol of the scales and an arbitrary weight I have self-assigned is IRRATIONAL.  And you’re right.  But I can’t seem to respond to unbiased logic.

The two-day battle took place on a Monday and a Wednesday (the one-day reprieve provided some emotional rest).

What made things worse was seeing that appealing to God’s promises and statements of Biblical fact did not appear to help.  In times of suffering, my go-to verses are these verses that I have personalized:

  • No good thing do you withhold, Lord, because I belong to you. – Ps 84:11
  • I know you do ALL things well, Jesus. Mark 7:37

Between affirming those truths, I tried to OBEY him.  Repeatedly I cast THIS care onto Him.  (1 Peter 5:7) But when no emotional or spiritual relief came, I concluded ‘it hadn’t worked’ and told my Father again, “Look, I’m casting this on you.  Help me!  I’m trying to do what you ask!”

I finally told my husband what I was struggling with, sheepish and ashamed, because we’ve been married 37 years. He has listened to me many a night pour out the same grief and pain.

Besides sharing a powerful insight that maybe this ‘thorn’ is a permanent gift from God, meant to drive me even closer to him, he offered this advice:

Maria, you can’t even begin to do what God commands, such as handing this issue over to him.  He has to help you even with this!  In fact YOUR acknowledged helplessness and powerlessness is what God wants from you, not your obedience.  He knows you are incapable of obeying.

Further tender counseling on his part revealed that I have a ways to go to think rightly about this burden.  Mike pointed out that I’ve been living and functioning as though eating and my body-care were something I could manage or control.  I realize this is a lie, an illusion that I have WANTED to believe. What betrays me is how often my prayers have been:

  • God, Father, just show me HOW to eat and WHAT to eat so I can be done with this.  I’m sick of focusing on me.  I want to be free of thinking about me.

A young friend shared recently how her days are REALLY hard and painful. She’s a young wife with a baby.  Continually she cries out to God for help.  But he doesn’t seem to respond.

Her experience and mine find company in the Psalms.  Some of those dark, hope-less accounts of David and Heman, one of his musicians, don’t end with cheer and relief from God.  Read Psalm 88, all of it.  Here are just two verses:

13  But I, O LORD, cry to you;

in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14  O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?

Why do you hide your face from me?

What I’m concluding is that God DOES care.  And if He isn’t answering me in the way I expect him too, it’s because he’s still up to something good in my life.  The story is not over yet.  I just thought that BY NOW, I’d have put THIS struggle to bed.

One byproduct of this misery is this:  I find that I am far more compassionate with some of the ongoing patterns of sin and pain other struggle with, especially the kind we bring on ourselves!

But I’m tired.

What about you? Do you feel saddled, still, with the ‘same ole, same ole’ sin?  What has helped you?

 

Unfulfilled longings

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When was the last time excitement and happy anticipation filled all your waking thoughts about the future?  Like you were on the cusp of a grand adventure?

I have 3 such vivid memories.

The first was when I was 8.  It was summer.  Mom woke me up to the day of our trip to Europe.  With a rush of happiness I dove into my clothes.  We probably spent a couple of months in Europe that summer.  But I remember no details of that trip, just those few moments waking up and knowing something good was about to happen.

The next such memory was the summer before college.  My parents, my grandmother and I took off on a cross-country road trip from Hampton, Virginia with the goal of sampling the rich variety of America.  I don’t remember any place we visited.  Just the intense longing and excitement for the début of my college experience.  That 3rd week of August could not come fast enough!

The last thrill-providing time, flavored also with a touch of carefreeness, was when Mike and I were in between Army assignments.  We had officially ‘signed out’ of our duty stations in Germany and had NO responsibilities.  We leisurely spent 10 days, all expenses paid, staying in a cute German hotel, while we completed the out-processing steps typical of a bureaucracy.  Ahead of us were 30 days of visiting family, traveling coast to coast while angling south to our next assignment at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.  We also were expecting our first child and toyed with the idea of buying our first home.  The future glittered bright.

Since then?  It sounds sad, but I can’t recall anything else that has filled me with such pure joy, as intense as that very first morning.  But I keep longing for that something.

The other night as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I wallowed in some self-pity and dread about work on the morrow.  Once again, I found myself tugging at God’s shirtsleeve and pleading for a new job to replace the one He has given me.  Yes, I am grateful for the income, but I long for something different.  Yet I fear more often than not that He only gives what is ‘hard’ and a ‘pain’ because through suffering we learn how to lean into Him. And I don’t give up asking and praying.

This morning I had my thinking tweaked in a helpful manner by John Piper.  His sermon about our inheritance as children, heirs and fellow sufferers with Christ reminded me that the way God has created this world is NOT for us to find ultimate satisfaction in earthly pleasures.

Yet He has wired us to WANT to be satisfied, to be thrilled, to be delighted and excited about the future.  So what’s up with that?  Is God a ‘cosmic kill-joy’?

May it never be thought so!  CS Lewis wrote once about unfulfilled desires when he penned:

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

So, what I concluded last night was this:  My longing for a job or SOMETHING that will thrill me is not wrong.  God put that ache in me by design.  But He never intended me to seek to satisfy it HERE on Earth with activities like: hot cars, extreme sports, binge shopping, or completing one’s bucket list.

He has told us in His Word that we ARE to stoke up our desire and longings, but not for what this world offers.  Rather we are to focus our yearnings on what He has promised and prepared for those who belong to Him.

“and we have a priceless inheritance–an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.” 1 Peter 1:4

Just knowing and meditating on the FACT that ONE DAY all those hungers will be über-fulfilled IS enough for today.  In fact, each day I live brings me one day closer to my inheritance and that forever life WITH our happy, triune God.

“….in Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” Psalm 16:11

 

Confidence in God’s word for your salvation

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Magnet  Do you ever fear that you might not be a true believer?  Do you question your salvation because you feel so discouraged by a ‘losing fight’ with sin?

The other day, we talked about this, a young believer and I.  She shared that she often wonders if she indeed is one of God’s own.  As you and I struggle with recurring sins that weigh us down, so does she.

Actually, I find the very FACT that I’m bothered by my sin as EVIDENCE that I am saved. And when my Biblical glasses are on and the Holy Spirit confronts me, the ensuing chagrin prompts me to go to my Father, yet again, for Christ-earned forgiveness and cleansing from sin.

Pouring over 1 Peter 2, my friend and I parked on a couple of truths to understand better what frightened her in the first line, highlighted in red below:

Verse 8b: They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

She fears that she might be one of those unhappy people destined for disobedience.

To give her some concrete help, we reviewed some diagnostic questions that would demonstrate that indeed she is one of God’s chosen:

  • Did she recognize that her sinful condition and sins automatically make her an enemy of God?
  • Was she trusting Jesus as the only saving means to reconcile her to God the Father?
  • Was she overjoyed that she had been redeemed, forgiven and adopted by God to be His forever and favored daughter?

With YES to all 3 conditions, we looked further in 1 Peter 2 at our status per God:

Verse 9:  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

How amazing it is that our heavenly Father chose us just to HAVE us as His people!

On my walk this morning, I stoked and warmed my heart with this fact,  that God FIRST and FOREMOST wants me to belong to Him. Full stop!

Thinking of unbelievers or fragile new Christians, I searched for an image that simplifies the entire wrath of God and atonement combo, I pictured Jesus on the Cross as:

THE GREAT SIN-WRATH MAGNET

His willing atonement or dying in our place draws and absorbs forever two substances foreign TO Himself as the God-Man:

  • our sin
  • God’s wrath 

With our sin removed and God’s justifiable wrath toward us averted or appeased, we are FREED to see Jesus as beautiful and receive His righteousness accredited to our account! I’m not a science person, but the way I imagined this exchange like the polarity in a magnetic field.  Unburdened by sin, and without God’s impending judgment, our polar attraction changes so that we are drawn NOW to Christ’s beauty and inestimable worth. Without effort or merit we fly to Him out of desire, like paper clips to a magnet.  Christ’s work on our behalf is a ‘no-brainer’, not something we decide or choose.

This conversation with my sister-in-Christ and subsequent thinking makes me realize how important the Lord’s Supper is for believers.  We need to be regularly reminded of the FACT, that because of Christ’s willing and intentional living and dying in our place, we DO belong to God, our Father.  The cross of Christ is objective proof or evidence.

 

What God means to do in your life

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I’ve been memorizing the first chapter of 1 Peter.

What I like about memorizing Scripture is that it causes me to think through and meditate on the words as I try to lock them down in my brain.  I started to memorize Bible verses when I was 48 years old. Wes, our youngest son, was a senior in high school.

One fall Sunday, a layman’s sermon delivered (not read) and peppered with Bible verses he clearly knew from heart wowed us both.  As head of the finance committee, he had been invited to the pulpit that morning to share with us the joy and experience of giving sacrificially.  After the service we both approached him to ask how he had managed to recite all that Scripture – a true feat! He told us about the Topical Memory System from the Navigators.  Wes and I were immediately sold and committed ourselves to memorizing and being able to recite all 60 key verses before he left home in June for West Point.

Since then, I have worked through entire SHORT books like Colossians and whole chapters.  I don’t work to retain these long chunks forever, for that would take constant practice and my practice sessions would expand as the months passed by.  But for the duration of the ‘work’, I am chewing on some portion of Scripture every day, often throughout the day.

The payoff is rich.

Which brings me to this morning’s ‘aha!’ moment from verse 2 of 1 Peter 1:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,
who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
I’ve put the ‘chunks’ I was meditating on in different colors.  What HIT me this morning during my walk was the ‘sanctifying WORK’ of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s how my thoughts took off:
  • Maria, the Holy Spirit is working in you ON PURPOSE.
  • His work actually probably overrides MY plans as He directs my circumstances,
  • These circumstances of my life are part of His plan to sanctify me.
  • I wouldn’t choose MOST of these ‘detours’ if I were in control of my days, months and years.
  • No wonder these trials are painful at times!!!

A few significant activities of my life FEEL HARD these days:

  • Morning exercise is HARD and I have to fight my natural feelings of reluctance and dread when I get out of bed and lace up my shoes.
  • Losing these 6 pounds is HARD.  It’s taken me 6 weeks so far to lose 2.
  • Teaching school is HARD.  It takes effort and I fight laziness and just wanting to stay home with NO expectations hanging on me.
  • Practicing NOT worrying, but entrusting family needs to God is hard.  When you love someone and they suffer, you suffer too!

What helps counter all those energy-depleting concerns that tend to occupy large parts of my mental and emotional life is the idea that these details are very much intentionally part of the Holy Spirit’s plan to sanctify.  Random suffering drains, discourages and disheartens.  Knowing that God has planned and intends ALL this for my good strengthens me to endure.

I don’t think I’ve grown enough to rejoice in the trials, yet, but I know that I need to reach that point.  As I walk these days in fellowship with the Spirit of Christ, I am learning His methods.  EVERYthing He does is for my good, to sanctify me.  I can trust Him.  I MUST trust Him, if I am to flee from fear and discouragement and enlarge my capacity to enjoy God.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matt 5:8

 

What I munch on when bad stuff happens

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Two truths are keeping me together, are feeding me these days:

Mark 7:37 – …..He does everything well! (ISV)

Ps 84:11 – …..No good thing does He withhold.(NIV)

When something ‘bad’ happens, I find myself talking to Jesus – You do EVERYTHING well!  No GOOD thing do you withhold from me!”  These two truths act as the sandwich bread bracketing/holding each particular set of circumstances.  Only with the bread in place, is it safe to draw any conclusion from the ‘bad stuff’ of suffering or evil.

This week, someone dear to me received news that she wasn’t expecting.  I know that she considers Jesus her treasure, that she is a believer.  So I know that the Psalm 84 promise belongs to her.  As I have fought back sinful worry on her behalf, I have reminded myself of these 2 promises.  And that helps me continue to pray for her, but without the worry or anxiety.

Pain and suffering are not ruled out in this fallen world.  We all know that. But they knock the wind out of us at times.  What helps me is intentionally to recall, that God has a purpose, and a good one. And reminding myself that He administers the circumstances ‘just so’, tailored for each one of His children helps dispel the fear.  The suffering and sorrow can still linger, but the fear and anxiety don’t.

  • ‘Come on, Maria, be realistic!  Do these truths work for the really awful stuff – the Sarin attacks that burn Syrian children, old grandmothers and young men alike? How can that be a ‘good’ type of suffering?’

Friends, if Christianity can’t address the toughest questions, then how is it any better than other explanations?

Here’s what I DO know.  Every worldview has to explain suffering and evil.  It’s not a solo burden meant only for Christianity.

But there are many ways to draw false conclusions about God, so we have to be careful. If we start from ourselves with what WE deem good, reasonable or right, then we have already derailed and are headed away from Truth.  The only safe and right place to start is with God.  The times I head away from God, I thank the Holy Spirit who brings back to Him (the Spirit’s job, per Jesus, is to guide us in ALL Truth – John 16:13) . Here is what grounds me in the Truth:

  • God alone created us, therefore He has every right to do what He wants with His creation.
  • God is GOOD and I can trust Him.
  • Just because I can’t see the good in this particular suffering doesn’t mean God isn’t working out good purposes.  Perhaps, one day having completed my earthly trek, I may learn what those good purposes were.
  • As a Christian, I am called to mourn with those who suffer and do all that is within my power as a fellow human indwelt by the Spirit of the all-powerful and loving God.

Coming back down from the mega-worldview to my little corner, I settle back and quiet my soul and munch on my ‘sandwich’:  ‘You do all things well and no good thing do You withhold’.  This is where I live.  This food is sweeter than honey and leaves no bitter aftertaste.

Psalm 131:2 – But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (NIV)

 

 

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!

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