Not my plan, not my life, not my worry

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It started like this.  We were reading about King Jehosophat and his God-ward response to the imminent attack by hordes of Moabites and Ammonites.  At the time, I was praying for someone enduring a long-term trial.

Each time I ‘revisit’ the reign of King J, I draw encouragement to turn over ‘impossible’ situations to our Father.  While in 2 Chronicles this time around, I shared with Cousin Terry my ongoing prayer.  She immediately pointed out what happened AFTER the Judean king humbled himself in his public prayer about the approaching enemy.  Opening up to chapter 20 of 2 Chronicles I found this in verses 4-6a:

And the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly.  And he said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.  Tomorrow go……..”

Seeing in print God’s encouraging direction NOT to fear, but to trust God and to fight in the Lord’s battle shifted something in my mind.

Subsequently, when I found myself wondering how God would come through to answer this top-of-my-list petition, I stopped and confessed to day-dreaming. I redirected my thoughts and recited out loud:

  • not my battle
  • not my plan
  • not my rescue

Next, I would turn my thoughts toward HIM, the one true God who is imminently qualified and powerful, and motivated to make his name known as Rescuer.

You might push back and say: ‘What’s wrong with indulging in a little speculation about how God is going to act?”

For me, it’s sin.  Because I derive more pleasure from fantasizing through possible outcomes God might choose than from thinking about what awaits me in heaven or about all the privileges I have now as a follower of Jesus.

Three weeks later, the ‘not my plan’ response has grown roots as my # 1 weapon (when I catch myself) against WORRYING, FEARING, FANTASIZING, ENVYING OR…. today, DREADING.  I added ‘dreading’ this morning when I realized that only one week of summer break remains.  Past years have found me dreading the rev-up of the school year that lessens leisure time at home.  Today God enabled me quickly to direct my thoughts this way.

First here is my assumption as a rock-solid foundation:

I believe that God sovereignly directs all things in this universe “……according to the purpose of the One working all things according to the counsel of His will.” Ephesians 1:11.

And then this premise:

It must follow logically that my good Father has a plan for me today along with the provisioning grace needed for each happening event.  Since God only plans what will be ETERNALLY ‘good’ for me as his child, I can relax.  I trust him.

Freed from all that mess of anxiety and fear, what do I do?  At my Father’s disposal, I do the next thing that seems good to me, keeping my eyes on him for a change in direction.

How comforting, these 3 words.

How do you combat the sin of worry and fear?

 

 

 

 

My empty pot

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I had a pot, a pretty little pot.

I filled it with good soil, rich in minerals, fertilizer, and lots of organic nutrients.

I planted a seedling of my dream in that pot.

It took rooted and grew, a little.  Then withered.

‘Something must have been wrong with that plant.’ I thought.  ‘Can’t be the soil!’

I pulled out the plant and tried a different kind.  Same story.  It grew a while, this time larger.  But didn’t bear fruit before it, too, dried up and died.

Not to be discouraged, I researched on-line ‘Best plants to grow in a pot’.  There were all sorts of suggestions and stories of how so-in-so, who shared the same dream I held close to my heart, had found success with this kind of plant or that.  I selected the one with the most likes and tried that.  This time, it bore fruit!  It grew and grew and started to flower.  I was excited.

But then, something got to it.  And it too withered.  I was beginning to feel a bit discouraged.

Not one to give up easily, I prayed to God.  And tried again.  Following yet another suggestion.  I was not willing to abandon my dream. After all, if I try hard enough and use the best materials and practices, surely I can make it happen!

Each time I tried something new, the results were the same – a variation of my one-flower plant.  And then it died.

Successive plantings produced pitiful little plants.

And these shoots that seemed to take root ended up looking worse and worse.  I began to feel embarrassed that I had told anyone about my dream.  They would ask me from time to time about it.  And I would explain my latest attempt.  And they would listen with sympathy and interest and pat my back and encourage me to keep trying.  “You’re doing all the right things!  And your soil is so good,” they would exclaim.

Then one day, before I even got to plant the new seedling I had purchased, it died.  Yes! This different variety, this potential little wisp of a potential little flowering plant, actually withered and died in the car, on the way home. Even before I could transplant it into my good soil.

‘Father, what are you telling me?’  No, answer.

It seemed that the Father was closing this door.  If I’m honest, I can look back and see how He had begun to push the door to my dream shut, moving it on its hinges.  I had ignored that, persevering to the day, not wanting to abandon my dream.

But now I could see, that my pretty little pot with its good soil was not going to accept any plant I placed in it.  For reasons unknown to me, but totally in the sovereign and good will of my Father.

Once home, I threw the plant in the garbage.  And shifted my focus away from my pretty little pot. I turned to God’s Word and comforted myself.  It happened that the appointed reading for that day was in 2 Chronicles about King Jehosophat and his desperate situation.  His humble and transparent honesty encouraged me as he knelt and prayed. Here was a king in front of his people admitting his strong need for wisdom, direction, and help in the face of an approaching enemy:

2 Chron 20:12 “……We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

So, I took my pot and emptied out that fine, rich, organic soil.  And set it empty, on a shelf in the sunroom.  And I prayed:

“Father, here’s my pot.  Please fill it with what YOU want.  And if it be Your will to keep my pretty little pot empty, then blessed be Your name.  After all, You are the One who owns this pot. And I, as well, I belong to You.  In fact, right now, I yield both me and my pretty little pot to You.  Have your way, dear God. Amen!”

Amen.

How to understand suffering – some of the ways

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A friend applies for job after job, only to make it to the final interview and be rejected. Not just once, but discouragingly, a number of times.

Another gal miscarries, yet again. The hope of carrying a baby to term erodes with each pregnancy.

Then there is an older sister in the faith who has been through so many cancer treatments, from chemo to radiation to surgery to enduring experimental drugs in clinical trials.  Nothing seems to work.

One more example, a brother who struggles wholeheartedly to save his marriage through prayer, fasting and pursuing counseling.  Alone.  Nonetheless, his wife wants no part in an attempt to reconcile and files for divorce.

These are 4 standout examples of suffering that quickly came to mind.  We all can enumerate such cases and more.

How about the more mundane types of painful struggle like trying to give up drinking, one more time? Or losing that weight, over and over?  Or attempting to engage in conversation your silent, sullen teen?

Do you ever feel like you keep praying, even quoting scripture BACK to God yet nothing changes?

I have significant unanswered prayers in my own life and have…. and am walking through similar suffering in the lives of friends and family in the faith.

Now at age 60, I’m recognizing some of the reasons that God seems sovereignly to ordain such circumstances.  I’ll mention a few, but as John Piper has taught me over the years of listening to his sermons, (and I’ll paraphrase): ‘God is doing 1000 things at one time in any event and we might only be able to spot two or three.’

(If you don’t yet know what to do with evidence in the Bible that God CAUSES suffering, here is one verse to illustrate that fact: Psalm 88:8 ‘You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out’

Here are the reasons that I’ve seen in the past year or so that God might be saying ‘No’ to the sincere and fervent prayers of a righteous Christian:

  • What you are praying for is not ‘good’ per God.  For if something IS good, then He doesn’t withhold it:  Ps 84:11  ‘no good thing does he withhold from those whose way is upright’
  • The way you are choosing to go and asking for his permission does not showcase God’s righteousness.  Ps 23: 3 ‘He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.’
  • Per Anne Graham Lotz, our Father sometimes repeatedly shuts doors to a work until he has refined our purpose FOR the project.
  • Since God has created us to showcase his value as explained in Isaiah 43:6-7  ‘Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’ then in some cases God blocks ways and projects that work counter to his purposes.

The other morning I was listening to an archived John Piper Sermon about joy.  And what I realized is this:

IF God’s purpose in creating us is to showcase how much we treasure HIM above anything he has created, then it is possible he is ordaining our circumstances in the optimal manner to fulfill this purpose.

Recall that God fashions, calls and redeems a particular group of people for his glory, that is for us to showcase just how much we esteem HIM above anything else in the universe.  If this is so, then how does the world figure out that we consider God OUR MOST valuable possession?

Yes, by taking away other sources of contentment and pleasure. For if we have ‘earthly success’ but actually treasure God more than that success, what would be the evidence to the non-believer that the Triune God is more precious to us than gold or good health or a happy family or fame?

How will my non-believing neighbor see that knowing God makes me supremely happy?

I think you can figure out where I’m going with this.  Perhaps the most striking example of a Christian being content with Christ is when something normal and important is removed.  Or everything is stripped away:

  • think of Paul beaten and confined in prison
  • or Stephen stoned to death
  • or heroes of the faith burned at the stake for their beliefs
  • or a Columbine High School teen standing up and identifying herself as a follower of Jesus
  • or the Amish families who ministered to the widow and children of the murderer of their girls

That kind of faith doesn’t make sense to the world, but it sure does make God look good.

Is this why you are suffering? why God seems to be keeping doors shut or saying no?

I don’t presume to say.  I will say, though, that the longer I live, pray with friends and read my Bible I see more redemptive reasons for suffering for Christ’s sake.

If the above examples leave you depressed, here are two other reasons that will lift your spirits:

  • Joseph was sold into slavery, slandered and forgotten for years in Egypt before God’s good plan was revealed – Genesis 50:20  ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’
  • Job’s suffering – at the time, he likely did not know about or understand God’s purpose in giving Satan almost free reign to harm him. But over the centuries thousands of Jews and Christians have found help and strength to endure their own painful trials and losses.

Let’s allow God the final word:

1 Peter 4:19 ‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’

 

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)

 

 

The ball and chain of craving results

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How do you measure your day, your work, your life?  If you’re American, chances are you think only about measurable results.

What’s wrong with that?  Why would you do something if you didn’t desire a specific outcome?

This is the month when New Year’s resolutions are grasped with intensity and then discarded with quiet disappointment. Yet hope seems to re-sprout with each new beginning, whether that of a school year, a budget cycle, calendar year or sports season.

Recently I have discarded my lifelong focus on outcomes.  I had become a slave to working for a specific result.

As a professional French teacher, I long to see students achieve skill AND enjoyment in the language.  Nothing inherently wrong with that.  Except my approach has been to hand over far too much power to my students to grant me the ‘success’ or even the ‘peace’ that I crave.

Yes, ‘crave’.  In fact, I now see a pattern that has emerged in my life. As I approach the end of my 6th decade, I find it easier to see themes and responses to life that I, by my actions, have crafted, either consciously or subconsciously.  Finally, I’m gaining the courage to give myself permission to STOP.

Is anyone else like me, in measuring their day by how well people react?  You might be a kindred sister or brother if you are a doer/performer like a musician, stand-up comedian, speech-giver, writer, film maker or even a skill coach.  Or maybe you’re one of the moms at home who teach their own children and are anxious to see growth.  Or among evangelists sharing the Gospel and discipling new Christian believers.

Despair and insecurity probably haunt more people than I realize.  Will it ever end, this never feeling like we measure up?  And I’m not talking about meeting OTHER people’s standards or expectations;I’m talking about the SELF-imposed high bars?  Let’s be real and call them what they are – prison sentences!

Recently, a ray of real hope broke through this burden I pick up every day illuminating a path of escape to a more fragrant and lighter world.

My daughter-in-law, who battles the home-school version of  ‘you’re not enough’, shared a verbal picture of what another mom explained as her daily task with her children. It was SO simple and SO doable.  Boiled down, the advice is this:

  • Each day, your job is to spread an age-appropriate feast before your children of that, which is true, beautiful and good.  In such a way that they can TASTE and SEE that the Lord is GOOD. (from Psalm 34:8)

Period.  That’s it.  She is not responsible for the OUTPUT, just for the INPUT.

Light-bulb explosion.  Isn’t that also my job as a language teacher?  to provide compelling and interesting and appropriate comprehensible input to my French students?

I am NOT responsible for their output.  That is an impossible assignment.  I can’t control them.  But I CAN control what I feed them.

And is this not also applicable to missionaries, both foreign and domestic, wherever God has assigned them (and us)?  We’ve all heard stories of years of labor before even one convert results.  The heart-warming account below is just one of many such examples. Missionary who thought he had failed.

What really convinced me of the sin of prideful expectations for Maria was a quote from CRU’s last print magazine, dated Sep/Oct 2016.  To wit: “We focus excessively on our output, because we want to be judged according to our effort, not our ability to remain dependent on someone else’s finished work.”

I am seeing this new insight transform my responsibilities.  I neither DO nor CAN control results. But I AM accountable in all my relationships for what I do and say and perform per the strength that God gives.

This lessened burden seems almost too good to be true, but I am proceeding as though it is and trusting our God to keep guiding me in all truth.  To Him be the glory for to Him belongs the power.

What God does by setting our boundaries

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The boundary/inheritance lines have fallen for me in pleasures….Psalm 16:6  (literal meaning from Blue Letter Bible)

Fences

We normally recite Psalm 16:6 with the phrase ‘pleasant places’ as describing the boundary lines.  So ‘pleasures’ should have jarred the ear a bit.  But that phrase happens to refer just as often to ‘pleasures’ and to ‘sweet things’ as it does to ‘pleasant places’.

If you’ve journeyed long enough in your life to reach your 30s, then surely you’ve accumulated your personal list of disappointments and closed doors.  Whether prom date rejections, cuts from the cast or team, wait listing at your first choice college or job terminations, sorrow is part of life.

For a while I have recognized that dead ends and startling abrupt turns are God’s intentional means to direct His children along the paths He has chosen. We, of course, don’t see all of his reasons and certainly God has many purposes. But one goal of God’s that I now understand more clearly is that, as my good Father, He is determined to maximize my enjoyment of Him.  He arranges my circumstances and structures my days to include ‘lessons’ (trials and suffering) that will increase my holiness.  I’m learning that as my holiness expands, so does my pleasure and joy in God.

This day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength – Nehemiah 8:9

Nehemiah exhorted the people to put an end to their sincere sorrow over past sins and move on to holy happiness in God.  He knew that their repentance was real  – a prerequisite to being cleansed or made holy. Now it was time to enjoy God and experience genuine joy and receive divine strength.

What is NOT explicit, but is built into the text is the understanding that AS we are increasingly sanctified or made more holy (more like God), THEN we enjoy Him more and more.

  • Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

A recent revelation has startled me:  All those disappointments, which I might lament, MAYBE they have been expressly for my joy.  Maybe had God allowed me to fulfill my dreams, I would have been ‘ruined’ for the real kind of joy.  It’s like a child who first eats sugar is ‘ruined’ for the taste and delight of fresh fruit and vegetables.

So maybe all the closed doors and thwarted plans, which have set my boundaries, (THIS far and no further!) have been sovereignly arranged with the EXPRESS purpose of maximizing my joy in God.  Could it be? Well, I wouldn’t put it past Him!

A further insight settled on me last week as I was listening to a secular colleague share his story of desires and closed doors.  His dreams of being a film producer had led nowhere and with mounting debt and a family to support, he finally came to grips with putting that career goal to bed and applied for a teaching job out of state.  He now teaches in the classroom next to me.  We’ve talked about God before and he’s easy to talk with but doesn’t seem to have any divine stirrings…yet!

But if God shuts doors and redirects my plans to maximize my enjoyment of Him, might this gentleman’s blocked efforts to move into another career along with desperation over increasing debt have God’s fingerprints all over?  Would it be unlike God to place him at this school in MY sphere to hear life-saving news?

I’m now praying for a soft heart on his part and alertness to know when to speak up.

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