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.

What are you dreading?

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Dreading I have to admit that when I think about a very busy week ahead with what ‘looks like’ too much, given the time available, I start to dread the days ahead.

My version of dreading events is probably mild compared to those who at the other end of the spectrum fall prey to panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms.  But my projected unhappiness feels heavy and it does sap the joy and energy right out of me – ahead of time!

Since January, however, I have begun to reject the ‘automatic dread response‘ that has accompanied me since high school days.

What happened to cause this unexpected change in mindset?  Walking through a dark valley with Mike from November through the New Year, that’s what!

This flavor of suffering focused my theology like nothing else since our marriage floundered and almost broke up on the rocky shoals of individual selfishness in 2000.

Trials tend to focus one’s attention on what is important.  As Mike and I dealt with his heart-related sleep and anxiety issues, I came to trust God’s promise in Psalm 84:11:

No good thing does He withhold from him whose way is blameless*

Jesus also taught me through the onslaught of what I call ‘pop quizzes’ or opportunities to put His Word to the test, that His presence truly was my one and only good.

So when that first Sunday in January landed and I thought about school resuming the next day after 2 weeks off for Christmas, I started to dread the constricted daily schedule.

But all of a sudden the Holy Spirit applied Psalm 84:11 to this new situation, reduced time and increased tasks.  Another way to phrase ‘no good thing withheld’ is ‘all good things provided‘.  Logically then, if God’s provision of X hours and Y minutes is what He deems good, and if I only get done 5 of 8 tasks for the day in the time He provides, then THAT is exactly what He deems ‘good’ for me this day.

That may seem like a small change, but that incremental adjustment has produced an out-of-proportion effect on my outlook.

Zech 4:10a – Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin….

I think I had begun to make a move in that direction last fall with my evening reading. Some nights Mike and I catch up with each other and dine later than other nights. After tidying up the kitchen 20 minutes might remain to read.  Other nights during the school week I relax with 45 minutes.  After fighting resentment the previous 2 years, the Holy Spirit had already begun to help me accept that whatever God gave me was ‘good’.

The ‘health issues’ sped up the process.

And let me tell you, this unforeseen silver lining of the suffering is a gift.  If I START to dread tomorrow’s schedule, which might include an anticipated burden like:

  • shepherding a group of 7th graders during an outing to cook lunch for 60 women at a shelter
  • missing a planning period due to an assembly
  • an evaluative observation by my principal
  • having to make sub plans AND do my regular planning and fearing not enough time for either
  • a meeting at night  which will interfere with relaxing with Mike
  • a difficult phone call with a parent or about a large bill
  • a doctor’s appointment whose outcome is uncertain

It doesn’t take long, now, to recall one or all of these FACTS:

  • I’m only looking at the anticipated circumstances as I see them from my vantage point and I could be mistaken
  • I have NO idea of God’s planned provision
  • I might actually find something surprisingly delightful and of great worth in what ‘looks’ like an unpleasant event

VERY recently, the HS has also reminded me that it’s pretty arrogant (i.e. sinful) of me to THINK I know what is best for me.

So now, when I do indeed ONLY accomplish 5 of the 8 tasks I had for the day I can say with a light freedom:

  • I guess it was God’s will for me ONLY to complete the 5 items on my ‘to do’ list. 

After all, am I in charge?  Am I the Creator of the entire universe, the Creator of time itself?

Actually, I’m very glad I’m not in charge!  I just want to report for duty with a joyous sense of anticipation about the day and leave the results to my Master.  If I please Him in the HOW and the WHAT I accomplish in HIS empowerment and resources, then it’s a good day.

One last encouragement.  Not only have I ‘lost’ the dreading, but I am finding out that the events that I call my ‘mighta dreaded‘ ones sometimes actually provide unexpected nuggets of unforeseen joy.  Isn’t that in keeping with a loving and good God and Father!

What do you brag about?

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Some women my age trot out pictures of their grandkids or others of their prized pooches.  Then there are those who boast about the good deals they secured on Black Friday or their completion of a holiday decorating schema for home and yard.

But Paul exhorts us to boast in our weaknesses.

  • “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Cor 12:9

I’d like to offer a case for broadening the term ‘weakness’ to mean any limitation or need that one cannot personally overcome or fulfill. Part of maturity is a coming to terms with the fact that, EVEN THOUGH THIS IS AMERICA, one CANNOT do anything one sets his or her mind to.

Adult to skinny child:  What are you going to be when you grow up, little boy?

skinny boy

 

Child: I’m going to be an NFL linebacker!

Linebacker

Dishonest Adult:  Good for you, little boy! You can achieve anything you set your mind to.

So how does getting real with our limitations apply to us, no matter our age?  And can that little boy truly grow up to be an NFL linebacker?

My husband and I have longings and unmet desires that we admit to one another once in a while.  They tend to be activities or situations we think would meet some deep needs of personal fulfillment.   One of those longings popped up last night. Mike was playing some hauntingly beautiful, classical choral music as part of his Christmas play list.  When Emma Kirkby, the British soprano, began her ‘Who may abide the day of His coming?’ solo, tears from that deep place in Mike’s soul welled up. He has sung that exact piece (it’s also written for baritone) with some fine choral groups.  God has given him both a voice for and love of good music. But by our moving to Western North Carolina to a gorgeous spot in the Smoky Mountains in the ‘boonies’ we have cut ourselves off from that kind of music, both by geography and our choice to join a Bible-teaching church.

The conversation then turned to a time we had lived in England for 18 months.  During the one Christmas season we celebrated, we had season tickets to a series of classical concerts in one of the Oxford college chapels. The acoustics of that ancient holy space and the men and boys’ choir were ethereal and soul-satisfying.

That remembrance of time past led me to think of the few times, now so long ago, when we lived in Europe.  And my yearnings for another occasion such as those, to plug into the life and community of a different culture and (if in France or Germany) to speak the local language flooded my heart.

Both intense feelings of longing are real AND they do not mean we are unhappy living here.  The desires are part of who God made us.  Mike is gifted musically and I’m gifted with a curiosity for different people and love of languages.

Yet….in our present circumstances, I don’t see how either can or could be fulfilled.

But here’s the more significant point.  We humans see XYZ as possible remedies or solutions or ways to meet a godly desire.  But God is the Infinite, Eternal One who created ALL there is, including us.  And as Isaiah reminds us:

  • “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. Isaiah 55:8

So, let me remind both my heart and Mike’s heart: “Hearts, listen up! Don’t despair.  Yes, God has given you these gifts, desires, interests and longings.  And He WILL meet those yearnings. It probably won’t be in a way you can even picture.  But longings don’t go unfulfilled.  The satisfaction might come in this life or in the next, but it will come. Trust the one who says:

  • No good thing do I withhold from the one who walks blameless, in my path. (paraphrase of Psalm 84:11)”

So I will practice contentment like David models for us:

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

Returning to my initial question about what you boast in, I started by proposing that these ‘current limitations’ or ‘needs’ are included in Paul’s description of ‘weaknesses’.  Could it be that God actually BLOCKS our way to fulfilling some of these desires ourselves?  Might He also use these unmet needs to teach us to be dependent on Him? And what about God employing them….

….also as a means for pointing the cynically jaded, bored, and despairing world to marvel at such a God as ours who does “EXCEEDINGLY ABUNDANTLY more than we can ask or imagine.” Ephesians 3:20?

I do believe God will satisfy those yearnings or He will replace them with something better.  Our challenge as God’s children is to show the world who our God is and why He is enough.  It is by our BOASTING in our inability to meet our own needs along with our reliance on the God who CAN be enough when we are weak and insufficient, that we show the unbelieving world the one and only path to abundant life. Be assured, the Christian is no fool. He trusts in the God who promises that ‘in His presence is fullness of joy and pleasures evermore’.  

Are you willing to be the arena for the tired world to see how wonder-filled our God is?

 

 

 

 

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