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?

 

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)

 

 

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!

Don’t be discouraged by James’ marriage of faith & works

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Patrick has been continuing to preach on that often controversial passage in James 2 about how faith and works relate.  Yes, we are saved by grace through the gift of faith.  But the changes in our thoughts, words and deeds (‘works’) that follow our conversion offer proof of the genuine nature of our new faith.

James 2:14 – What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?

Having just finished Michael Crichton’s novel – State of Fear, a fast-paced thriller about stopping some extreme eco-terrorists, I easily recalled a perfect example of this faith needing works to be legit.

State of Fear

Toward the end of the race to save America from an induced natural disaster, the main character is challenging the claims of both a housewife and a TV actor that the environment is their primo cause that motivates them.  Their testimony or profession crumbles with each pointed question:

  • Why is it that your main residence has 10,000 square feet?
  • How do you also justify maintaining an apartment in NYC and a vacation home to which you travel?
  • Why is it that you jet here and there to environmental conferences?
  • Why do you live so far away from your husband’s office that he commutes daily by vehicle, thus adding to carbon emissions?
  • Why is it that you think that those eking out an existence in ‘natural’ jungles in the 3rd world are content and we should all return to the wild?
  • Why haven’t YOU given up living in a 1st world country, then?

It is not enough to claim you believe something without proof that your convictions have changed the way you live.  As James points out so pointedly,

James 2:19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.

This morning I was reading in 1 Samuel 11 about the terrorized people of Jabesh Gilead whose village was besieged by the Ammonites.  They sent word to Saul and Samuel who through the Holy Spirit united all of Israel to come to their rescue.  See if you can discern how faith and works are coupled in this next verse: 

1 Samuel 11:9 They (the mustered Israelite army) said to the messengers who had come, “You shall say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you will have help [against the Ammonites].’” So the messengers came and reported this to the men of Jabesh; and they were overjoyed.

That last word, ‘overjoyed’ is evidence of the Jabeshites’ faith in the messengers’ news. Anxiety and fear fled when they trusted the communiqué. How do we know?  Look at how they rejoiced – not just a little, but with exUBERance.

Their demeanor and response backed up their profession that they believed the messengers. There was no longer a ‘need’ to fret.

Works don’t have to always be big actions.  Our settled feelings, our resting in God prove our faith.

Are these kinds of works easy? No!  I have to sometimes fight the fear and anxiety when facing a situation for which I have no answer and see no solution.

Just this week God has gifted us with a new opportunity to prove our faith.  An old enemy, a bodily response to worry sprang up suddenly, attacking my husband 3 days ago.  This condition had not plagued him for 4 1/2 years, so the return was a shock.  You know how the fear works, the well-worn pattern of thinking and ‘what-if-ing’ that accompanies these situations.

Immediately I pulled out my go-to weapon of choice, Psalm 84:11 NO good thing does the Lord withhold from those whose way is upright.

I have to conclude, by reason, that if God has seen fit to allow this old enemy to plague us, then He has only good in mind.  By His grace, Mike and I ARE stronger and more practiced at trusting and wielding the sword of the Spirit.

Yes, it’s hard and continual, but I trust our good and loving Father.  And I want the spiritual forces of darkness AND my Christian brothers and sisters AND the unbelieving world to witness what faith in God looks like in a Christian.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, YET I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

Stay tuned for how God brings us through this excursion into the valley.

 

 

Provisions for the day

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Pill containers

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. – Phil 4:19

Give us today our daily bread. – Luke 11:3  (Keep us alive with three square meals – The Message paraphrase)

I’m getting ready to take students to Québec for a French class ‘field trip’.  Planning ahead for the 6 day absence, I bought this pill container so I can leave Mike’s vitamins and meds for him clearly marked and safe from the cats.

Each color-coded plastic mini box will supply what he needs for a specific period of time. The clear markings and different colors broadcast sufficiency and timeliness. It would not make sense nor be healthy for my husband to take from other than the scheduled provision.

God provides the same way, by giving us enough grace (strength, wisdom, money, work, SLEEP, knowledge, whatever we need) for the moment. If I worry about ‘later’, I’m actually stealing from future stockpiled grace.  (Our cousin calls it – ‘stepping out of the circle of God’s grace.’) Just like I will set out pills for Mike before I depart, so God has furnished supplies for our future needs.  The verb to pro-vide, if you break it into component parts, means:

  • in advance
  • seeing

God sees what will sustain us, minute by minute, our entire life, that is –  in advance of NOW. And we know that our God is loving, good and personal.  So it’s not like He is going to peer into the future, observe our needs and then shrug, “Hope they can handle THAT event. Good luck to them!”

Here’s the point.  Just like Mike is going to trust me that I’ve pre-positioned the requisite pills he requires for the appropriate segment of the day, so too we Christians should trust our Father in heaven to do the same. In the 35 years of our marriage, Mike has learned to place his confidence in me, assured that I will do him good and not harm.  Can’t we at least trust God THAT much?

During the past 2 months of ‘health issues’ (2 unexceptional little words that pack a punch), we’ve seen God come through time and time again.  My daily mantra has become:  ‘Manna for the day; Grace for this moment’ and I’ve clung to Psalm 84:11 – ‘No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.’ 

I’m ashamed to admit, that for me, it is STILL a fight, to trust God in those scary moments when I SEE no provision.  It’s then, more than at any other time, that I have to speak Words of Truth to me!  So I recite out loud as many of His promises as I can, those assurances that He IS in fact caring for me and supplying what I need. I think it was Martin Luther who taught that we must daily preach the good news, the Gospel, first and foremost to ourselves!

As Jeremiah himself learned and then turned and comforted the exiled –

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”  Jeremiah 3:22-24

 

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?

 

 

 

 

More peace? Less anxiety?

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Would you like to FEEL at peace more and more each day?

Who wouldn’t!  Personal circumstances and problems as well as complex world situations seem to conspire to keep even the most placid in a state of agitation. Add to the warp and woof of 21st century life the seeming random as well as intentional violence! Just a glance at one’s iPhone in the morning is enough to draw up the covers and stay in bed!

stay in bed cat

Hear the promise of the Lord, however!

You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you: because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3

The last 2 days I have whiffed peace.  God has been working in me for years as I grow to understand and love the FACT that He is sovereign and in control of everything that happens to you and me.  Just that knowledge has eased my anxiety about:

  • traffic delays
  • alarm clock malfunctions
  • minor and major wounds from other people
  • accidents or chronic physical conditions (constipation that dogs me!)
  • the pain of my own chosen sin (‘there I go again, blurting out something hurtful’/ ‘there I go again, overeating’/ ‘there I go again, choosing to indulge in self-pity’ / ‘there I go again, lying to look good’ / ‘there I go again, divulging a confidence’ / ‘there I go again, saying something negative about a friend or family member AND enjoying it!’ )

Coupled with a deeper appreciation for what it means for God to ordain/plan/send/prescribe/allow every event has been a growing understanding of God’s will for the lives of His children.

And you know that I’m talking about our growth in holiness, also translated as ‘sanctification’.   1 Thess 4:3a – For it is God’s will that you should be holy:

A very precious friend has played a significant role in my spiritual maturing.  Last October, she mailed me William Gurnall’s 800-page book called The Christian in Complete Armour. Eleven months later I am on page 422 of collected sermons.  It’s so rich that when I dip into it on weekends, I chew slowly, sucking out this English pastor’s exposition of Ephesians 6.  His 17th-century perspective is refreshingly deep.

Across recent pages Gurnall has been talking about the benefits of holiness.  Today, I read this quote:

“….perfect rest depends on perfect holiness….”

Okay – we will NEVER attain to perfect holiness until we SEE Jesus face to face.  But don’t you think it follows from the above premise that:

As we grow in holiness, we grow in rest and peace

What I wrote in my journal this morning was that ‘I should seek holiness and be GRATEFUL for all the circumstances God has planned for me THIS DAY……

  • if it is true that God works all things for the GOOD of those who love Him, who are called according to His purposes  (Romans 8:28)
  • if it is true that NO ‘GOOD’ thing does He withhold from those who are righteous  (Ps 84:11)
  • if it is true that God’s design to do us ‘good’ means to grow and shape us to think, act, react and feel more and more like His beloved Son’

If I take God at His Word, then it follows logically that I should see every event as bearing an opportunity for growth in my holiness or sanctification.  Yes, events can be evil and there is suffering and pain, but each circumstance is packed with holiness-making practical exercises.

And if the more I grow in holiness, the more PEACE I will feel, then why should I fear?  And if God allows/sends/ordains/plans good out of this next event then I SHOULD be able to relax, to rest if I truly trust Him.

Go back to that Isaiah quote and see for yourself.  The taking God at His word lies at the end of that promise…’because he trusts in You.’

Why is this a big deal for me?  Why do I care so much about growing my ability to rest and be at peace and be free from anxiety?  Because I live with fear – a lot of fear!

Some people fear the whole getting old and dying process.

Others fear not having enough money to take them through those final years on earth.

Existentially, I fear something happening to my kids and grandkids.  On a day-to-day basis, I fear not having enough time to get my work done (so I can READ and RELAX).  And in my profession, I fear that I won’t be able to be creative enough to sustain the interest of my students.

So, YES, I AM interested in TRUE and LASTING inner peace that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

And what the Holy Spirit is teaching me through His Word and writers like William Gurnall is that it is in my own personal best interests to see holiness.  I’ll close with a quote of his, taken from page 422:

“There is only perfect rest, because (of) perfect holiness.  Whence those frights and fears which make them a….terror about? (These) make men discontented in every condition.  They neither can relish the sweetness of their enjoyments, nor bear the bitter taste of their afflictions.”

What I am left with is this question:

Maria – why should you fear tomorrow if God promises to use every thing that happens in order to work MORE holiness in you, replacing what is unholy and selfish and destructive?

Just think!  If we could allow this thought to permeate our conscious, waking thoughts, maybe it would begin to seep down into the realm of the unconscious.

What do we have to lose?

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