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)

 

 

Sanctification through novels

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Stepping Heavenward I downloaded the Kindle version of this book a few weeks ago.  It’s the last reading I do before turning out the light.  My bedtime routine is to check Instagram, read John Piper’s Solid Joys on my phone and then close out my waking thoughts with a few minutes in a Christian book.  God increasingly seems to make good use of those final 2 activities.

Twice now, the journal entries of this 19th century fictional gal have chided me gently, as though I were she, a Christian who is growing in fits and starts.   Most recently ‘Katy’ detailed the frustrations of a day filled with unexpected interruptions.

Annoying visitors, an incompetent kitchen maid, boisterous children and fatigue battle for her peace of mind.  Her goal this particular day is to prepare a special dessert for her overworked doctor husband.

Almost abandoning the dessert because distractions have eaten away most of the day, the Holy Spirit gently redirects her thoughts from self-pity and complaining to persevering. A grateful, loving and very tired husband rewards her sweetly when he finally arrives home to enjoy dinner and dessert.  As she reflects on all the frustrations, the Holy Spirit reveals to her just how He uses these precise types of circumstances to grow her more like Jesus.

As I read through this particular journal entry the Holy Spirit immediately opened my eyes to see the same thing in my life. So often I complain à la ‘Martha’ who wanted her sister Mary to relieve the burden of hosting Jesus.  I indulge a feeling of being overwhelmed by all there is to do and the seeming inadequate time to accomplish them (and have some Maria-time left over, truth be told!).

But that night in bed, the yeast of insight began to work its way into my conscious thoughts as I fell asleep. The Holy Spirit continued the process the next morning while listening to a John Piper sermon.

My teaching days that feel so packed are exactly what the Great Physician has prescribed.  I KNOW He desires me to REST in the assurance of His provisioning grace for all the good works He calls me to do.  And if I do them my own way, depending on my own resources, I usually start to tighten up and feel burdened.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

But like Katy in this novel, I sometimes have to learn the hard way.  And because our Father is wise as well as loving, He lets me ‘kick against’ the burdens on my own.  But not for too long.

If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it.  It’s charming AND sanctifying.

The cost of trusting God

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Charles Spurgeon: “(do) You want to see….how (affliction) can bring good to the soul; you must believe it.  Honor God by trusting him.” (as tweeted by Randy Alcorn, 20 Mar 2017)

So many friends waiting, waiting, waiting.

There’s D, whose husband got let go from his job at age 61.  It’s been 3 months and he’s gone through two REALLY promising and lengthy job interviews.  Only to hear back in emails, ‘Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to go with someone else.”

In addition to my friend D, several other friends pray for, search and await jobs.

And then there is J who holds on for a solution to a leak in her roof.  It’s not like she and her husband have oodles of money in savings, available to try first one remedy or another. That’s part of the problem.  The house has turned into a money pit, drawing from their retirement funds. They believe they should sell it to protect their savings.  But they can’t list the house until the leak is repaired.  Biding their time, they communicate, encourage and remind contractors, hopeful that each successive remedy will be THE one.

My other friend has endured countless medical procedures and tests and been the subject of panels of medical boards convening to seek the best way forward for an aggressive cancer.  Chosen routes have revealed dead ends.  Patience, while suffering, is her familiar journey partner.

Trying, painful situations hit believers and non-believers alike. We could despair, were it not for knowing the Truth.  For as Jesus teaches, “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  John 8:32  

What is that truth that blocks our natural response to fall into a gloomy permanent pit? That God loves us and that the suffering has a good purpose!  That He has planned each trial to conform us to our older brother, Jesus.  To avail ourselves of that truth, God has given us FAITH to believe the manifold and rich promises that are the rightful property or resource of all who ‘love God and are called by Him, according to His purposeful plan.’ (Romans 8:28)

Just as we have been given physical muscles to exercise in daily life, so too have Christians been given the spiritual muscle of faith.  But the gift of believing God comes with a concomitant responsibility.  We have to use faith, to move out, do what is good in the moment, depending on the invisible but real promises that God will come through just as His word says. We have to exercise or actively depend on God’s written pledge to provide, protect, guide, comfort us.

How do we do that?  By deciding to ‘believe (sight unseen) every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt 4:4).  And that FEELS costly and painful at times.

Who doesn’t suffer the pains of temptation to despair over circumstances that seem to be perpetual?  Yet God commands us to not look at the way things appear, but to see through the circumstances to the God who promises good to those who believe Him and cling to the truth of His promises.

The other night as we were discussing the day’s Bible readings, Mike and I pondered the the connection between trusting…..believing…..expecting…..waiting ….hoping…exercising patience……  All these actions sparkle as many sides of the one diamond called FAITH in God.  But what do those actions LOOK like?  How do you DO expecting, waiting, hoping….?

An insight has recently enriched my mind, an answer to a dilemma. I’ve often struggled to grasp how to live out Jesus’ command, in a self-deflecting, God-glorifying way: “…. let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Matt 5:16    I’ve gotten hung up on the concept, ‘your light’.  How can I have any light in myself?  The answer: this ‘light’ is the gift God has given me to BELIEVE Him.  My responsibility is to show the world in a visible way (light) how much I treasure this invisible but precious reality of relying on and belonging to Jesus. God calls that way ‘patience’ or ‘trust in God’.

Given that He commands me to make visible this divine, inner light, I pray daily to WANT to do just that (and follow through) a – to live in such a way that the world (my colleagues, family and friends) sees my Godward trust, hope-filled expectations, and patient waiting and be STUNNED and chalk it up to God!  (that Maria is so patient during suffering.  She must REALLY love her God and be satisfied by Him!!!)

Patience is a virtue recognized in the western world.  Yet most joke about it and cavalierly let themselves off the hook by admitting they have little.

When I feel strong, I affirm this fact:  God is kind to give me multiple occasions to practice and improve this muscle of contented waiting on Him.  Yet, I seem often to succumb to despair, sometimes multiple times in a week.

But what other choice do you and I have? We can either face the sufferings in life kicking and screaming, or we can submit to the wise and loving hand of the potter who keeps us on His wheel and won’t stop until we are beautifully fashioned into the family likeness.

Potters' Hands

This last truth stunned me this morning when I heard it again: Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4

Burdens and what to do with them

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What is your inheritance as a Christian?  If you are a born-from-above new creation, then God HAS granted and assigned you a share in His heavenly Kingdom.  This is your allotment or LOT in life. What exactly IS a ‘lot’?   To gain some insight, let’s look at how legacies and shares in wealth were distributed in the Old Testament.

Joshua 14:2 Their inheritances were assigned by lot to the nine-and-a-half tribes, as the LORD had commanded through Moses.

Sometimes these apportioned inheritances bring hardships. Life’s trials and problems may at times feel like ‘crushing weights’.   David, out of one such bitter experience, cried: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! Then would I fly away, and be at rest” (Ps. 55:6). But before he finished this meditation he seems to have realized that his need for the relief that wings would bring could be met in a different way. For he writes a few verses later, exhorting himself AND us, “Cast thy burden upon Jehovah, and he will sustain thee.(Ps 55:22)

Read this commentary quoted by Streams in the Desert: “The word “burden” is translated in the Bible margin, ‘what he (Jehovah) hath given thee.’ The saints’ burdens are God-given; they lead him to ‘wait upon Jehovah,’ and when that is done, in the magic of trust, the ‘burden’ is metamorphosed into a pair of wings, and the weighted one ‘mounts up with wings as eagles.'”
Sunday School Times

Do you find David’s example depressing or encouraging?  For me, the new thought that our burdens are given to us BY God and we are meant to give them BACK to God is a RELIEF! For the implicit conclusion is that we are NOT meant to carry/handle these burdens ourselves.  So why does God ‘gift’ us with trials?  Because they are necessary to the completion of our faith.  This ‘faith’ is part of our inheritance and the Holy Spirit strengthens us through the vehicle of our faith.  So our faith must be fully kitted out and made complete.  Trials are God’s means to do just that kind of perfecting of our faith.

See how the apostle Peter writes about trials in his letter to wobbly believers:

These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return. 1 Peter 1:7

Take heart, dear brother and sister.  God knows what He is doing.  And we can trust Him.

 

The danger of NOT being needy

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A friend unburdened herself to me last month that she was scared to find herself in the midst of a dry spell with God.  She doesn’t sense His presence any more.  He seems distant.   When she reads her Bible, she feels nothing.  She once felt alive to God, close to Him.

Now she finds herself going through the motions.  When I gently probed about what brought on this change, she didn’t know.  She couldn’t pinpoint exactly when her intimacy with God, her excitement of belonging to Him had waned.  She had woken up one day, all of a sudden aware that He ‘was gone’, as she explained it.

She asked me what she could do to get the old feelings back.  We talked about the external behaviors of Christian discipleship such as prayer, worshipping with other believers, thanking God, regular Bible reading, journeying.  She admitted that although she still attended church most Sundays, she had stopped both reading her Bible on a daily basis and pursuing regular time with God in prayer.  She felt hypocritical and mechanical in doing them.  Doubt about the efficacy of our prayers had crept into her mind.

As we were brainstorming and thinking about the practices of believers, God suddenly brought to mind what I think is the key to a close relationship with God.  Neediness.

I feel needy EVERY DAY and many times throughout the day.  I could chalk it up to my age and growing awareness of the fragility and incertitude of life’s circumstances. Or maybe I simply have no more qualms in admitting that in my own strength and resources I can’t do much of anything well, I’m just plain NEEDY!

Stop a moment!  Isn’t ‘neediness’ the very essence of being a created being?  But God as Creator, what does He need?  Not one thing!   To be God is to be self-sufficient.  To be creature is to be needy.

O, the happiness of being in want! That neediness keeps me begging God, scouring my Bible for His sure promises of provision, guidance and wisdom.  Daily, I journal about what I find in Scripture.  Likewise, I talk about the truth of God with my husband, other family and many friends.  I pepper emails with encouragement from God because when I point to God and His greatness, I FEEL renewed and strengthened.  All through the day, I thank Him as I see His provision.  When I start to dread tomorrow, I’m learning to rehearse why I don’t need to be afraid.  When I catch myself worrying, I repent of my unbelief and ask my husband to pray for me to trust God. I’m in constant dialogue with God because I live out of the insufficiency of Maria.

Yes, His mercies are new every morning, because my needs are new every morning!

Financial and health needs, relationship challenges, work problems, decision conundrums and other suffering have turned out to be God’s greatest gifts to me. I knew that at one level. But listening to all my friend is suffering and trying to DO to regain her once close relationship with the happy Triune, all-powerful God of the universe scares me.  I don’t EVER want to lose that.

Nothing compares to knowing God.

Where I used to begrudge any circumstance of neediness, I now THANK Him specifically.

Here’s how I have reworded Paul’s description in 2 Cor 12:10

Original: For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

My version:  For the sake of a close relationship with Christ, then, I am content and thankful to be given weaknesses, neediness, hardships and problems.  For when I am needy, I am strong in the Lord.

For…..The fear of (losing) God is the beginning of wisdom” Proverbs 9:10

Are you discouraged by the times?

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Many Christians grow more alarmed, daily. Violence at home and abroad, coupled with upside-down moral values in government and society, create fear and anxiety. I am not immune. But God’s Word gives me hope. We are most definitely NOT the first body of believers to have been marginalized or persecuted.  Nevertheless, I think some of us ‘moderns’ FEEL caught by surprise by the times.

For months, I have tried to imagine the conversations among the faithful German remnant of believing Christians who must have prayed unceasingly during the Hitler years. How did they fight the darkness of monstrous and barbaric Nazi rule? What were their heart to hearts with God like?

  • “God – what is up with this on-going nightmare? How long, O Lord, must we endure this evil Führer and his henchmen? Why are you allowing Hitler to live? Why have you not permitted the assassination attempts to succeed?  Can’t you see that we’d be better off without him?  Do you realize what has happened to your church here in Germany?”

And what is God’s word throughout every generation, to peoples swept up in the plots of vile men?

  • Psalm 37:1 Fret not because of those who are evil…
  • Psalm 49: 5 – Why should I fear when evil comes, when enemies surround me? And verse 15 – But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.

Clearly, for German Christians to keep happy in God, they had to preach truth to themselves. Truth about what God promised to do and be for His children.

But theirs was not the only horrific era. Jewish believers during the rule of King Manasseh (he lived from 709 to 642 BC) had 55 years to hang on to God’s promises by faith. This descendent of David was the most evil and long-lasting King of Judah. How did those faithful, God-following men, women and children cope? What did they talk about when news from the royal court included reports of the King sacrificing his own sons to false gods? And when prophets like Isaiah emboldened by God to preach Truth were murdered, how must they have feared and cried out to God!

I am learning to think biblically and that keeps the despair away. Nowhere in the Bible does God guarantee his children physical safety or a type of heaven on earth. ‘Au contraire!’ – what he does promise is that those who put their whole trust in him will have their souls saved. Maybe our bodies will be sawn in half or burned in a fiery furnace like what was intended for Meschach, Shadrach and Abednego. But for eternity, we will be with God in physically resurrected bodies. Jesus said so. And he came back and showed his followers proof – himself.

Even Job knew this and declared as reported in Job 13:15 – Even though he kills me, I’ll continue to hope in him. At least I’ll be able to argue my case to his face!

So, physical deliverance is not something I can count on, but that does not mean I should not petition God, asking him to be a refuge, to bring me out to an open space, to rescue me. Furthermore, I together with all of you, my brothers and sisters in the Lord, need to PRAY for our church to grow more holy.

I used to think that if the Church were purified, then we as a body might have a salvific effect on society.  But I’m beginning to see otherwise.

Pastor John Piper mentioned in a sermon, posted on his website that, “we must be very careful not to assume that the degeneration of culture at the end of the age is owing to the failure of the church to be holy. There is no promise in the Bible that the holiness of the church will guarantee the transformation of culture.

That startled me!

So why be holy?  Why work to purify the church?  I think it’s so that we, the faithful, may see Christ more clearly.

That’s it?

Seeing Christ more clearly sounds so….lame!

Not so.  We are not to despise the little things.  Seeing Jesus as he is, now that is the very source of our happiness and our strength.

If we don’t keep our eyes on God, His promises, His past actions and the unchanging character of the Holy and Happy Triune God, we will look at circumstances, society, ourselves and be depressed.  And impotent.

May we follow the example and join the ranks of our believing Fathers and Mothers, hanging on to God by faith and with tenacity, good cheer and solid hope through however many dark days He has ordained is best.

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