The pain of childbirth – a picture of holiness

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Consider Mary.  Pregnant with God’s glory.  (see Luke passage at the end)

Like some of you, I have given birth to two children.  As each pregnancy advanced, my growing state became more and more of a hindrance to my ‘normal’ pattern of life prior to conception.

And THEN, that final couple of days of growing and UNBELIEVABLY intense, painful contractions – it was far from pleasant.  But effective.  And new life, when fully formed and ready for THIS world, was born.

Both pregnancies acquainted me with the thickness of a normal cervix and the size of an ordinary womb of which I was only vaguely aware each month.

But pregnancy and delivery taught me new things, through suffering.  Were those experiences worth the experiences?  Without a doubt.

How does this relate to holiness?

Picture the Spirit of God who comes to take up residence inside a new believer.  As C.S. Lewis has written, this new inhabitant starts to do major renovations that a baby Christian hasn’t even asked for, let alone heard about.

Adding to Lewis’ illustration, another picture, other than ‘flipper of homes’, came to my mind this morning.  I’ve been reading John Owen and John Calvin about God’s purpose in curating suffering for our growth in sanctification.

(Recall God’s will for our lives IS sanctification – 1 Thess 4:3 and how important He considers holiness, ‘without which no one will see the Lord’ – Hebr 12:14)

These classic Christian authors prompted me to think of expanding holiness WITHIN me, akin to a baby expanding in the womb.  The more I submit to God’s will with humility, patience, and gratitude, the more the Holy Spirit, aka my doula or birthing coach, grows this new spiritual life within me.  I’m reminded of John the Baptist’s statement about Jesus as recorded in John 3:30 –  He must increase but I must decrease.

This new spiritual life IS Christ in us, the promise of future glory. (Col 1:27)  Just as a pregnant mom undergoes a growing baby stretching out her womb, making room for new life, so, too, the Holy Spirit pushes against some of the old self-centered us, crowding it out to create space for His growing presence.  Pain and suffering are part and parcel of pregnancy and childbirth.  And so are they also in our progress toward holiness.

That Holy Spirit-induced ‘new you’ is expanding and pushing against the boundaries and walls of the ‘old you’.  That thick ‘flesh’ is being thinned out, which HURTS like Hades (as my mom used to say).

That image of being ‘pregnant with God’s glory’* resonated with me this morning.  Our Father is not content to let that presence of holiness engrafted in us through the Holy Spirit remain the same size.  You and I must be glad, therefore, of His expansion plans to complete the work, He has pledged to do.  We must learn to accept suffering as from the Hand of God, lovingly intended for our good:  our holiness and thus our happiness.  After all, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.’ John 16:21

Luke 1:27b-38 (NIV): 

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

 

*pregnant with God’s glory, like Mary – a phrase I read somewhere but don’t know to whom I can attribute it.

Why do we desire pity from others?

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I don’t know where the thirst for others’ pity came from.  Mike and I married at 22 and started experiencing hardship, both in our marriage and with work.  I also struggled with bulimia; Mike’s demons came from insecurity about his intrinsic worth.

Marriage with another sinner revealed a lot to me about how my natural coping mechanisms, developed those first 20 years of life were unhelpful for dealing with the real world, filled with other people who didn’t cater to my personal preferences.  But I didn’t have any other tools.

By God’s grace, we heard the Gospel at age 24 and met some genuine Christ-followers over the next decade.  I grew spiritually in fits and starts as I read my Bible.  Yet, God’s perspective was not IN me.  Every disappointment, trouble, and struggle in our marriage, parenting, work or the battle with my body surprised me.  Although we both had said ‘Yes!’ to Jesus at that first altar call, Mike and I tended to be more consumed by life’s dissatisfactions than intent in growing in the knowledge of God.  Many idols competed for our energy, focus and desires and won out.

Introduced to the Christian circle of women, I soon started sharing these ‘heart-aches’ and felt the sweet rush of another’s pity and understanding.  But like any sugar high, not only did the anticipated response from another NOT satisfy, it left an after-taste in my mouth.  You would have thought I would learn and abandon this craving to find comfort in someone’s sympathy about ‘how bad I had it!’

What happened, is that manipulating to get my pity ‘hit’ became a habit.  It felt MORE real to talk about our/my suffering.  My thinking grew warped so that I didn’t even want to share with someone a morsel or current feast of good news in our lives, because that might erode their view of how ‘pity-deserving’ I was.  This was SICK!   But there was a payoff.  The attention.  And the reverse pride of being so ‘noble’ in my suffering.  I would lament in a way that showed off how much I was praying for this ‘good thing’ and how I didn’t know why God wouldn’t answer it.

Okay, fast forward several decades.  At 60 and 61 Mike and I have seen more suffering in the course of time, as has anyone who has reached this age.  With Biblical perspective, we understand more clearly God’s purposes for preparing individualized suffering modules.  He designs all his training programs for his sons and daughters, in order to grow their holiness and pry their grasping hands off of this world.  One of his goals in trials is to increase our desire for the ‘real’ world to come, the world with him.

Reflecting on the benefit of suffering to my soul, I now desire to change how I talk about it to others.  I attribute this reversal in goals (from wanting a pity-hit to wanting to glorify God) to the care and tutelage of my Friend, the Holy Spirit.

Let me use the metaphor of a sandwich.  My previous sandwich, let’s name it the Pity Sandwich, contained a condensed but probably a bit exaggerated version of a current trial, held together by Pity-Attracting sandwich bread.

It was all about me.  Designed that way.  And like gossip, others actually probably enjoyed sharing a bite from it.  A bit of Schadenfreude appeals to us all.  And for that ‘entertainment’ they were willing to pay the price of sympathy.

Where was God in all that? Nowhere.  It was all about me.

My NEW sandwich I offer to people ONLY when they ask:

Friend:  How are you doing with school, Maria? (there have been pockets of suffering in the past 5 years)

Me: Thanks for asking!  I’m still getting pushback from my administration about XYZ, but I see now how God has his reasons for leading me through this valley of darkness.  These hardships have shown me how much pride I was harboring. I’ve also learned to depend much more on Him.  And that is all good!

The surprise in all this is that THIS kind of sandwich satisfies me far more.  And it honors God. And it proclaims some truth about Him to another person.

As I was praying through my Prayermate feed on my iPhone this morning, I came across these prayerful affirmations that I copied from someone a while back.  It sums up what I want to be about:

  • Since the gospel is the startling, but thrilling, announcement of what God has done for us in Christ, something that we could never do for ourselves, even with his help, then let us meditate on that. 
  • Help us rehearse this gospel, more than our dashed hopes for earthly plans, at a ratio of 100 to 1. And to talk about THAT more than our fears or how poorly we carried out a duty. 

Father, work this response in us so that it becomes automatic, like breathing. For our joy, your glory and for the hope of the world. Because of Christ’s life and death on our behalf. Amen!

 

Don’t waste your disappointment

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How disappointed ARE you by life?  Have things turned out better or worse than you had hoped?

The approach you take to ponder those questions depends on your age, by and large.

Or, it depends on how you were brought up.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s.  By the time I graduated from high school in 1975 I had suffered 3 disappointments that I can recall.  All three left their imprint. The first let down occurred when I was NOT selected to join the girls’ drill team at my high school.  A step below the cheerleaders, this group choreographed routines with flags. It was the first (and last) time I tried out for something.  The ‘failure’ humiliated me initially. But what really hurt was being excluded from a group of girls I had wanted to join.  I longed for friendship and fellowship.

The next disappointment took place following one year in a French-speaking high school. Toward the end of those 9 months of 9th grade, I had arrived at the point where I finally felt at ease with the language and was on the cusp of becoming fluent.  However, my dad’s military assignment to Belgium did not satisfy him professionally and at his initiative with Army assignments back in Washington, DC we moved.  I wanted to stay, but as a 15-year-old, I had no voice in the decision.  To this day I still wish I had been given one more year in that environment.

The 3rd and more impactful pain began when I ‘fell into’ the grip of bulimia.  This was a pain FAR greater than I could handle and lasted 9 years until I was 25 and pregnant with Graham. Repercussions still continue to this day.  My journey post bulimia, all directed by God, has led me along different side paths laden with harmful and false thinking, not connected with reality.  (Anyone who has struggled with an addiction like an eating disorder understands.) I have grown spiritually, without a doubt, accompanied by much mental suffering.

As I left home at age 18 for college, I had grown skilled at living a hidden life.  My mom didn’t know anything about the binging and purging or the nightmare it was for me. This was 1975, after all, and the popular press had not yet discovered eating disorders.

Why am I sharing these 3 events?  To provide examples of how my parents did not train me to handle disappointment.  At all.  And THAT has caused more harm than the bulimia.

So how DID they raise me? What did I hear growing up?  My dad, the career military man, preached:

  • Maria, you can do ANY thing you set your mind to….. and
  • It’s merely mind over matter…and
  • Do your best….and
  • You can have a good marriage if you give 100%, none of this 50/50 stuff

My mom’s messages were:

  • Good girls don’t
  • Take time to smell the flowers

I NEVER heard:

  • Life is hard
  • Life is filled with disappointments and failures and setbacks
  • AND here is how you deal with them!

Were my parents Christian?

No, my mom was a church-goer until the middle of my junior year in high school when she became a believer. And my dad had grown up thoroughly tutored in American pragmatism and optimism, raised dirt poor in the land of opportunity. His success was due entirely to his hard work, so he told me.

Didn’t my mom’s conversion to Jesus impact me?  Not on the surface.  I have no doubt that her prayers for me will follow me the rest of my life into eternity.  But as far as verbalized, explicit teaching? Well, we all know how long it takes for God’s Word to sink in to new believers and change their thinking, let alone what comes out of their mouths!

Back to my life as I headed off to college.  Compared to my childhood, I can say that without a doubt my life after high school has been hard, filled with more disappointment and suffering.

Of course, compared to some friends of mine, it’s been ‘relatively easy’.  And when I look at global suffering, it’s been a piece of cake.  I understand that.

What I’m worked up about is NOT my pain, as little or significant as it may be, but how WE don’t teach our kids to handle disappointment and failure.  Neither in secular culture nor more significantly in the church.

I teach in a private school that prides itself in being progressive.  And whereas they do talk the latest educational trends such as ‘failing forward’, they don’t invite speakers in to exhort and equip students to know how to deal with setbacks.  Just think about graduation speakers.  You get the picture.  Our American verbalized, publicized exhortations to the young are one-directional, toward a bright and successful future.  What is the cost?  Current culture and the news provide evidence:  strewn, broken lives and a rapidly-unraveling society.

Among Christians, I don’t hear of many parents in the US or any other western countries who structure home life any differently.  How many parents deliberately allow their children to face trials, exposing them to experiences that might lead to suffering, all along providing a safety net?  We have our children for 18 years, on average.  The time to fail and learn how to deal with suffering and disappointments should be in the home, before kids launch out on their own.  The consequences leap exponentially after that.

By God’s grace, there is ONE small category of families who seem to be teaching their children well.  These are the missionary families, whose children face hardships in places around the world, some of which are dangerous by our standards.  As one mom I know writes (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘my kids know the Bible is real, because we are living that moment-by-moment kind of life, depending on Jesus for our very survival’.  Whew!  Those kids are growing up equipped to face the world as it is.

Now for some encouragement for the rest of us:

On Friday, June first, I started to read the May 2018 edition of Tabletalk Magazine.  Scroll down the website and look for the issue that looks like this:

Tabletalk - May 2018 Ligonier Ministries publishes this collection of daily devotionals and essays, organized monthly around a different theme.  The topic for May is Hope and Disappointment.

A breath of fresh air enlivened my heart when I read the first sentence in the first full article entitled, ‘The Reality of Disappointment’ by Jeremy Pierre.  He writes: “Life is one long, steady disappointment.”  He then continues to explain what he means and how the believer can see the real hope that life with God offers, an eternal hope that will not prove unsatisfactory and sterile.  The very NEXT essay by Dr. David Murray startled me into proclaiming out loud, YES!

He penned, “If our schools really wanted to prepare our children for life, they would offer classes in failure and disappointment.”

Wow!  Now isn’t that counter-cultural and brave, to point out what we all learn the hard way.  What makes accepting suffering SO difficult for many of us Americans is that our country is all about success.

  • What are YOU going to be when you grow up, little child?
  • You can be ANYbody you want to be, even the president of the country.

No…..you can’t!  What a horrible setup for disappointment.

So, what is ‘my call to action’ as blog instructors teach us writers to add at the end of a post?

I don’t know, maybe the thought that each one of us has the power to start a revolution in embracing reality.  Consider this way of framing what we teach our kids before they leave home:

  • Life IS hard, because our first parents blew it. And it’s not going to get better in our lifetime here on earth.
  • God, who created us to enjoy a perfect world WITH HIM, has wired us to long for perfection, for beauty, for happiness IN HIM.
  • There IS another world planned, a perfect world.
  • And He offers a way to enjoy that fully satisfying world with Him forever.
  • All are invited to come and claim a spot in this permanent joy and peace, but there is only ONE path to it, and that is through His Son Jesus Christ.
  • There is nothing to DO or to earn. It is all gift.
  • Anyone who longs for this gift is eligible to receive it.
  • Once you belong to Him, you are guaranteed His continual presence and supernatural help and a bright future.
  • Oh, yes, there WILL be moments of genuine gladness and joy on this earth right now. So, celebrate them as God’s previews of the true and lasting happiness when we see God face to face.

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.’

 

How God changes people

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For 9 years I struggled with bulimia; 6 years before I married Mike, followed by 3 more years.  A favorite activity of ours as young lieutenants stationed in Germany was to explore the German countryside by means of a nearby ‘Volksmarch’.  These organized 3-4 hour walks through villages and wooded beauty gave us time to talk.  I would ask Mike each week while we traipsed, “What am I going to do?  How can I manage or handle this scourge of bulimia!!?”   Poor guy!  My supportive and loving husband probably felt frustrated as he offered his comfort and solutions time and time again.

In my mind, it was all up to me to find a solution AND the motivation to implement it.  The problem was, I couldn’t trust myself to follow through, no matter how sincere my intentions were.

We were new Christians and I prayed my heart out, week in and week out.  But God didn’t give me a way to free myself from this addiction to food.  Instead, he removed the burden himself, in a creative way.  I got pregnant.

With that dramatic change in circumstances, I had a new, compelling interest and desire.   Caring for this baby growing inside of me replaced the desire to binge and purge.  Up until now, I hadn’t felt enough self-love to take care of my body. But now, for the sake of this new life growing inside of me, I WANTED to nurture myself with good foods and healthy practices.

The 7 1/2 conscious months of carrying another human being turned out to be what I needed to break the binge and purge cycle.  God be praised!

God CAN and DOES change people and we know that.  If you are a Christian, there was a time when you weren’t. Maybe you can’t remember that period if you have loved Jesus from an early age.  But many of us do recall feeling either indifferent or luke-warm about God.  And then something happened.  All of a sudden we were interested in reading our Bibles.  The things of God drew us in.  We might have attributed that newfound growing fascination as something we did. But we would be incorrect. Dead men don’t make decisions!

Paul writes to the believers in Colosse: When you were dead in your trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. (Col 2:13)

That means that any interest, any LOVE for Jesus comes from outside of us.  As Paul so bluntly argues in his letter to the Romans – ……God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:5b)

Mike, too, has experienced this ‘from the outside to the inside change of heart’ regarding cars.  After those couple of years stationed in Germany, the land of VERY fast and powerful automobiles, Mike returned stateside with a growing, almost insatiable love for cars.  About 15 years ago Mike started noticing the decreasing pull of all things automotive.  During the span of 37+ years of marriage, we have bought, owned and sold 28 cars, not counting motorcycles.

But God!  Yes, God removed the interest, the mania, the seemingly insatiable desire for new wheels.  Mike didn’t set out to change.  In fact, he didn’t think he needed to change.  God has been working on Mike’s heart and shifting his values.

When we married at 22 (we’re now 60), we were not even believers.  Over the years, what has emerged as our favorite time of the day is something we would never have imagined in the first 25 years together.  The dinner-prep time, those 90 minutes when we’re in the kitchen fixing dinner and tomorrow’s breakfasts and lunches, we talk and listen to music.  Before we sit down to dine, we each get out our notebooks where we’ve observed and written down what we noticed in the day’s Scripture reading.  Inevitably Mike will have picked up something that passed me by and vice versa.  This in-depth exchange deepens our love and appreciation for God’s holiness and his Word. In our twenties and thirties, talking about God held no place in our daily exchanges.  God has planted and cultivated this now-cherished habit.

Last year I witnessed two other new desires that ‘came up out of nowhere’. (I’ve written previously about ‘dining with my school colleagues’ and ‘wanting to continue teaching and working on my craft of helping students with Second Language Acquisition’). What I love about God is how he surprises and delights me.   Maybe that’s what my family should etch on my tombstone, “Surprised by God!”

Recently, God did it again.  The change caught me unaware.  But this time, I connected it to a pattern.  (Why had no one comforted me with the FACT that change IS possible in God’s kingdom and that it is not all up to us!?)

Here’s what happened.  As I described above God rescued me from bulimia in my mid-twenties. Although the binge-purge pattern no longer ran my life, my obsession with eating and how I looked and felt about my body still plagued me.  The scales have been a powerful idol for decades.  Gradually God has weaned me mostly away from them.  But I still don’t trust myself to stick to any resolutions.

But God!  Yes, he has changed my desire.  Visiting with Shay and Graham over Christmas prompted an unexpected change.  They have been following a plant-based way of eating for 2 years.  Whereas I have always enjoyed the occasional vegetarian meal I considered it extreme to avoid all meat and dairy.  I like meat and dairy.  But watching the documentary Forks over Knives changed me.  I happened to ask Shay a question about the smoothie she was preparing.  It was Christmas Eve and we had a block of time before heading to church.  She asked me if I wanted to see for myself what caused them to switch.  I did and I was convinced.  Plant-based eating IS healthier and CAN minimize one’s risk for disease.  For me, it was a ‘no-brainer’.

And with that, I switched.  Mike, a very good-hearted, generous and supportive husband, agreed to drop his morning yogurt and share a smoothie with me. My lunches, breakfasts, and snacks are plant-based. And I agreed to prepare an ‘every-other-night’ entré of meat.    After all, Graham and Shay have adopted a ‘reasonable’ 80 %-of-the-time- vegan lifestyle.  This allows for eating what is served them by friends, or the occasional desire to sample something not plant-based.

A few weeks into this way of life, I recognized that I no longer care what the scale says.  What I value is eating healthy.  Surprise!  When we drove down to Tampa for Christmas, this new world of plant-based cooking was not on the radar.

So here is the principle.  Don’t angst about a change you can’t seem to make for the better.  Give it to God to bring about:

  • in his perfect way
  • in his perfect timing
  • to his glory and your blessing

Psalm 37:4  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

PS:  I think the desires the Psalmist had in mind are not what WE think we want, but rather what God wants for us as his beloved children!

 

 

What do we do when life goes south?

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We all face disappointments, some minor, some crushing.  God, I have learned, does not waste our trials.  In fact, He explicitly tells us that we WILL have trouble in this life – all of us, whether Christ-follower or not.  As believers who have God’s Word,  we should expect to suffer.  I read just this morning in Acts 14: 21b – 22:  “Then they (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God, ‘ they said.” 

So how do we think when yet another blow comes?  Recently I’ve been gifted with a situation that requires me to regain my balance and ‘prepare my mind for action’, as Peter exhorts.

The elevator synopsis is this:  While enjoying my best year of teaching kids French and anticipating staying on at my current school for a while longer, the tables turned abruptly and I know I need to look for a different job for after this contract year ends in June.

Here is how I am bookending or ‘sandwiching’ these new circumstances, using God’s exhortation through Paul to me:

Philippians 4: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

The background is this:  two believing Philippian gals were upset with each other and the entire family of God was affected. Even Paul at a distance had received reports of this disruptive and sinful conflict.  By NAME, the apostle exhorts these two sisters in Christ to drop the issue and focus on the stupendous fact that both their names are written in the Book of Life.  How’s THAT for putting a dispute into context?

Paul’s thoughts then run to a myriad of OTHER reasons to find greater joy in the Lord than being right or vindicated in a disagreement.  Hence his double directive – ‘Think over all the gifts you have as a child of the Living God! Now THOSE are worth rejoicing about, over and over again, not just once!’

Philippians 4:5  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;

I think the logic goes like this:  the über-rejoicing about being in Christ should result in you being mild in temperament, easy to get along with.  Let THAT quality be what people talk about when they mention you, not that you are quarrelsome.  And if you need help with self-control, take heart – Jesus is close by, ready to enable you to build this new habit.

And if you say, ‘But what about my grievance with my sister?  It’s a real problem and still bothers me!’  Take heart, because Paul goes on to provide THE way to deal with that need and all others:

Philippians 4:6 …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

Jesus is our Lord and aims to take care of ANYthing that weighs on us.  But we have to hand it over, for good!  How?  By asking Him to take it on.  I see the thanksgiving part of this teaching as what we do each and every time we forget that the problem NOW belongs to Him.  Instead of worrying, we must say something like:

‘Oh, right, there I go again!  I have started dwelling on the fact that I need a new job.  But I have handed that problem over to You, my Lord.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are managing this for me.  Help me to NOT to take it back, as I am prone to do.’

With the abruptness last week of finding out I need to start a job search, I have succumbed several nights in bed to thinking, thinking, thinking about lots of ‘what ifs’.  That is just plain ‘ole’ sinful WORRY!  Each time I catch myself, I repent and ask for His help to do what He commands.

What carrot does God offer as an inducement to rely on Him to bring about a resolution to my situation?  Something the entire world longs for, pagan and believer alike – true and lasting peace!

Philippians 4:7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Our hearts are the seat of our longings and desires.  And our minds are a thought-generating factory.  As Christians, we need supernatural help to protect and block wrong desires and sinful ideas.  It’s no secret that our strong hankerings and thoughts fuel our actions.

I take Paul’s teaching in verse 7 to mean this:  God’s powerful peace, strong enough to shield you and me from harmful wants and musings, is ONLY given to those who STOP trying to handle their needs and manage their problems on their own.  We only get His peace if we abandon our situation entirely, 100 %, to Him.  But if you’re like me, worrying sneaks up on us unaware.  We often pretend and call it ‘being concerned and responsible’.  Phooey!  Bottom line, how bad do we want to be steadied by this promised gift of peace?  The way to HAVE and to HOLD it is by exercising God’s gift of faith – trusting in and relying on His character and His promises to provide.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Why this advice?  Paul has learned that even when he has set his mind to:

  • rejoicing a lot about all that Jesus is for Him
  • committing to His Lord and Savior all his stressful situations and those of believers he dearly loves
  • he still has mind-space to worry.

His remedy is to fix his thoughts on the many beautiful and true God-given gifts, worthy of his mental energy.  You and I are to do the same.  For instance, when I notice the cleaning lady at school treating her job with dignity, consider her example. Or when I learn about one or two honest, earnest politicians who take their responsibility seriously, I can praise God for His goodness.

But just in case, my mind has such a large capacity that I run out of ideas that are healing and safe, Paul gives us a challenge that should take up the rest of our mental energy:

Philippians 4:9  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do you know how hard it would be to copy Paul and to practice, over and over, his habits of speech and rest and trust and thinking well of others?  That’s why I say that God has given us plenty, more than enough, to fill and steady our minds and hearts.  His promise of reward is not just PEACE, but Himself as the God of peace.

Wasn’t it the bus company Greyhound who advertised:  ‘Leave the driving to us’?  One of the reasons for traveling with them was so passengers could relax and focus on the scenery and enjoy the people around them instead of stressing over the traffic.

In the same way, we are to leave the worrying to God.  We’re NOT the driver, nor the captain of our souls.  Those jobs are way beyond the abilities God in His wisdom has deemed good and safe for us.

So, this job situation, I see as another opportunity to enjoy God’s peace and practice my Uncle Paul in contentment.  How about 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)

 

 

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