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?

 

Why we run away from trials and suffering and why we shouldn’t

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I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous,
and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Psalm 119:75

Seems that every other archived sermon I listen from my iTunes feed of daily John Piper ‘past sermons’ is about suffering and the benefits.  But he’s not the only one proclaiming that uncomfortable message.  Another pastor Mike and I follow has started a series on the Book of James, written by Jesus’ half-brother.  You know how he starts at the beginning of his letter, that invitation to join the ‘Pure Joy Club’?

Count it pure or all joy, my brothers when you fall into trials of many kinds….

And then there is my hero in the faith, George Mueller, the 19th century British pastor who prayed about the idea, then planned for and ran orphanages that eventually housed 3000 parent-less children over 40-50 years.  Not once did he publish outside of the handful of praying partners the financial needs to support what he undertook.  And God directed daily bread (literally and also metaphorically, referring to all their needs) Mueller’s way.

But it was not easy. Most often the forthcoming provision was obscured until the last minute.  After decades of practice at banking on the Father to meet all their needs, Mueller concluded that the good and ever-present God:

  • gives us problems and difficulties, so that we are led to exercise prayer and faith and grow stronger

Yet, we’re human.  It’s a no-brainer to choose comfort and ease and visible provision.  But could we be wrong in what we cherish, in what we think is due us, what we conclude will best serve us?

One doesn’t have to look far to see that whereas EVERYONE suffers in life, the pain and problems are disproportionately distributed. Does that seem fair to you?

No!, but…..caveat coming:  Pursuing that question of ‘rightness’, going down THAT path will NOT lead to any SATISFYING answer that quiets all our questions. Just ask Job.

So of course the uneven assigning of pain doesn’t seem fair.  But don’t let us therefore conclude that God is neither in charge NOR good.

Yes, the world is messed up.  And always has been since our primal parents opted for their own wisdom, rather than God’s.

But that doesn’t mean that suffering and problems are gratuitous.

Here’s what one language scholar from Blue Letter Bible wrote in explaining the word ‘afflicted’

  • Jehovah depressed/ consumed my strength that was in the way

Why would God do that?  Well, plenty of Bible contributors have explained that:

  • Before you made me suffer, I used to wander off, but now I hold on to your word. Ps 119:67
  • My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. Job 42:6
  • God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. James 4:6

Looking at that last verse snippet, let’s ask this question: To whom does God give His supernatural power and wisdom and favor?  only to the humble.  How does God humble us?  Well, you tell me!

Okay, so this makes sense on paper.  What about LIFE?

In this current season in my late 50s, what I struggle with is still….. willling and eager worship of my self-created version of ‘feeling good’.

And it seems that the more lessons He plans for me, the worse my situation, my sin grows. It happens in 3 ways:

  • I understand more clearly the evil of idolatry
  • I feel more helpless to deal with it
  • I cling to it all the more

As Paul bluntly cried out to his scribe, (and I paraphrase) Miserable, self-absorbed wretch that I am, who can rescue me from this mess?  Romans 7:24

I know everyone can identify when they think of that one (at LEAST one) on-going, dogged sin that we both despise and cherish in some sick way because it’s familiar.

Permit me to share some hope that I recently received during an episode of God’s ‘attentiveness’:

  • First – from Blue Letter Bible, again about the term ‘affliction’

The simple basic verb ‘to be afflicted’ means ‘occupied with/ busied with.  So when we are blind-sided with suffering, whether brought on BY ourselves or BY another, God is at work in us, concentrating ON us.

So we can’t say, “Where is God???!!!!”  He absolutely IS with us, is busying Himself with us.

  • Second – in a sermon Pastor Steve Brown entitled, ‘Don’t Waste Your Sin’, I learned something new.  When Jesus died on the cross with our sins attributed to or assigned to Him, He paid for them, right?  A synonym for ‘paid for’ is ‘purchased’.  Jesus BOUGHT our sins for us, so in one sense, we ‘own’ them. Brown counsels us to put them (the cancelled sins) to constructive use.  What does he mean?  Think of the woman at the well who, once she was saved, happily and boldly proclaimed to her fellow villagers, “This man told me ALL about myself!”  And she was joyful.  She made GOOD use of her sins, that SHE committed, that she chose time and time again, but that Jesus had forgiven.

So, if I apply those ideas to myself, then each time (and there will be more, I don’t doubt) I struggle with investing importance in my particular ‘something’, which is created, rather than the creator I hope I remember:

God is doing something ON me for my good.

Jesus bought this sin, so how can I use it to bless someone else?

For starters, no point in covering it up!  May I boldly share how God never tires of restructuring the same ole’/same ole’ lesson to conform me to His Son. And if He keeps forgiving AND using even THIS stupid sin in my life, then He will do the same for you!

What makes you happy is a clue to who you are

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Matthew 16:26 – What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

“I need to get an A on my Psych test this week!”

  • Why?

“It’ll make me happy!”

  • Why?

“If I do well in my major, then I can get into a good grad program.”

  • Why do you want that?

“So I can have a career as a clinical psychologist”

  • Why?

“I think I’ll be happy in that profession and find it rewarding!”

  • Why?

“When I was a child, my family and I were greatly helped through some sessions with a counselor.  I think that I’d be happy assisting people the same way.”

The pastor who shared this scenario did not go any deeper with his questioning of the college student.  But had he probed closer, a possible subsequent question might have been:

  • Why does it make you happy to help people?

I think the truthful answer to that question is key to revealing the source of our hope, joy, value, identity, purpose – in a word, our VERY essence.

Here is why it matters.  If our hope, our happiness-source is anything but Jesus, we have engaged in a DOOMED quest for 2 reasons:

1) we’ll never be satisfied the way we are wired to be

2) we can lose THAT which we might gain

This reality came to a head for me on Friday.  I started my day at 4:20 am with my ritual worship at the alter of MY WEIGHT, aka the bathroom scale.  Talk about God’s sovereignty – He controls my body to such a degree for His good purposes, that just like previous days and weeks, I was stuck 5 pounds higher than I want to be…..a fact painful to me since November when I realized that I had added to Maria’s substance.

I KNEW that this moment was crucial, that I was battling idolatry and who and what was most important in my life.  I wrestled with this truth on my morning walk, recognizing the approaching ‘line in the sand’.

Line in the sand

Was I going to worship MY happiness or submit to God as Lord of my life?

So once again, I decided to abandon this morning ritual. (I don’t need the scales to help me eat in the manner that provides me with the most energy – we’re talking about something SICK in my soul, an obsession with the scales and a numeral!)  This time, I pray, the decision stays final.  (cynics or realists might rightly ask, “Where have I heard THAT resolve before?!”

Listening to John Piper’s sermon in the car on the way to school and applying his line of probative questions to what I describe as that which makes me happy, I saw the foolishness and futility of imbuing 5 pounds with THAT much power over me.

For MY bottom line with the weight idol is this: If I weigh X lbs, I’ll be happy.

That’s stupid!  Our lives are just a vapor,

As James says in chapter 4, verse 4- ….You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Why should you or I allocate that many resources of mind, heart and strength to the shell, the temporary? Where is my concern with the main part of me that will last eon upon eon of time?  And if, as the Bible teaches, we are going to be completely changed upon seeing Jesus face to face, why am I angsting over what will drop off and decay?

As our pastor Patrick quipped this morning: When we die, the nut that we were leaves behind the withered shell of our body. (That got me pondering: Am I a peanut, a chestnut, a walnut, a pistachio????)   I’m 57 years old.  This weight issue is OH,SO temporary and 40 years from now I won’t be even thinking about it.  So why waste my earthly energy TODAY worshipping the outer casing that is going to disintegrate?

Back to the title of this reflection:

Who are you?  Who am I?  Are we our own god?  or are we worshippers and lovers of the only true and living God?  Truth is – we have souls. We were created and wired only to be satisfied by the best – God, Himself.  Why waste our happiness on junk when we can experience a partial joy NOW learning about and savoring God, all along knowing that ‘fullness of joy‘ awaits us. (Psalm 16:11)

PS:  One final thought about the student who might have answered that her idea of happiness was helping others.  If we help others to FEEL good about ourselves, that is sin.  If we help others to PLEASE our heavenly Father and do that work in His strength, honoring Him in the process, that is what the Bible calls ‘good’.  Inner motivation DOES matter. The Pharisees sought man’s approval and esteem through outward ‘righteous’ behavior.  (Read again Jesus’ words in Luke 18:9-14)

 

A dangerous question

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“Mike, what would you say is my most precious, cherished sin?”

It took him a moment.  Not to think of the sin, but to be sure I was serious about asking for that level of honesty.

The answer didn’t surprise me, but it still produced an ‘Ouch!’ because it rolled so easily off his tongue:

  • Your obsessive routines of eating, exercise, sleep and reading!

Let me set the scene, so you can see WHY this is such a squirm-producing topic.

My friend Regina gifted me with a weighty tome by puritan William Gurnall  – Here’s the link on Amazon

William Gurnall's book

 

 

 

 

Gurnall wastes no time in getting down to business.  He reminds his readers of Abraham’s ‘Let’s get real about whom and what you love most’ test administered by God as recorded in Genesis 22:2 –

  • Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Gurnall modified it to fit us!

  • Then God said, “Take your favorite sin, your most cherished sin, which you love  – X – and sacrifice it on the altar”

I’m aware of how often I sin, but to identify my FAVORITE sin, my go-to sin was hard.  So I asked the person who knows me best.

So there I was, face to face with THE QUESTION:

  •  Do I WANT to give up my routines that bring me such comfort?

Immediately the voice offered some reasonable words…

  • “Eating healthy, sleeping enough, exercising daily, READING….those are all good things!  Don’t be extreme”

The problem was, that wasn’t God’s voice.

Isaac bound on the altar

I read on in Gurnall.  In the very next paragraph he warned me that unlike Isaac who did NOT resist his dad’s securing him to the altar, OUR sacrifices will tend to crawl off the altar.

Satan facilitates the escape of the victim with a one-two soft punch:

  • What you do is not THAT bad…!

and the 2nd blow is….

  • Don’t rush or be too hasty.  Wait awhile.  Maybe you heard wrong.  Maybe your husband is just jealous of your self-discipline!

I talked this subject of idols over with one of my sons and his wife who is a true Christian sister to me. What we came away with was that prioritization is key.

  • Yes, it so happens that my habits of choice are healthy ones
  • But they can also become cherished control mechanisms for my ‘happy’ life now
  • It’s not an either/or situation that requires me to jettison them, but something easier to see but challenging to implement.

Jesus boiled down the Law to the 2-dimensional Law of Love

Love God, Love People

When my food, exercise, sleep and reading habits DON’T take away from concretely loving God and loving others, I can pursue them.  But loving God comes first and loving people is a way of loving God.

 

Practically it looks like this (I think!):

Priorities:

#1 – first part of my day I spend in Bible reading, prayer and medication on God’s truth – to get myself happy in God, which is my duty

  • Ps 32:11 – Be glad in the Lord and rejoice….
  • 1 Thess 5:16 – Rejoice always…
  • Phil 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

#2 – whenever a person comes into my presence or NEEDS to be in my presence, spend time with her or him as appropriate (yes, we all have work to do, but work can become an idol as well!)  For me…..

  • that means remembering that my husband is my covenant partner AND BEST FRIEND
  • that means phone calls to family and close friends are more important than reading
  • that means that neighbors, students, colleagues and people along my daily path at the grocery store, in line at the PO at coffee hour at church are more important than reading something on my iPhone

The leftover time is what I get to invest in God-honoring ways.  If I choose to spend that time cooking or reading or walking or browsing Twitter and Instagram, I am free to do so.

 

Question:  Whom would you ask to help you see your most cherished sin?  And how painful would it be to keep sacrificing it in order to make room for more of God?  If this Gurnall book blasts away within the first 5 pages, I wonder what else is in store for me!

I’ll keep you posted.

 

Envy – that invisible sin

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Envying a bigger fish

 

 

 

It snuck up on me awares. First one friend’s good news, then another’s and finally a third – all in the space of 2 days.  Before I knew it, my coveting was in full bloom!  Thankfully , the Holy Spirit was on duty and drew my attention to what this was;  pure and simple – ugly SIN!

Funny how men are quick to confess their struggle against lust and women their indulgence in gossip.  But covetousness? envy?  – who admits that?  But you know that it must be a biggie, to have made it on God’s Top Ten List.

10 Commandments

 

 

 

What we wish we had that we don’t is also an indicator of our idols – the things we worship.  I’ve heard it said that the act of worship bookends the commandments – at the outset, the proper and exclusive worship of God, the Creator and at the end, the prohibition of worshipping the created.

So what did I do, a forgiven sinner who was forced to look her sin straight in the face?  I repented.  And again each time the longings flooded or floated back. Finally, when I had time to examine at length these desires full-on, God led me to a helpful way to put them into perspective.

If we are Christians, then we have been invited and vetted to permanently partake of the eternal heavenly feast, hosted by Jesus in His Father’s Kingdom.  That experience which will go on forever will literally be out-of-this-world in its magnitude and ability to satisfy and provide multi-dimensional joy the likes of which we can hardly begin to imagine.

Heavenly Feast

 

 

 

 

So whatever it is that I long for HERE on this earth is piddly in comparison.  The image that came to mind (thank you, Holy Spirit!) was of someone complaining about their snack in comparison to a friend’s snack, when all along we will both soon be dining at Buckingham Palace or the Biltmore Estate.

Biltmore

 

 

 

Envy is damaging because it destroys our contentment in God.  It keeps our focus OFF of God and on to lesser stuff.  It sets us up for the corrosive thought that we DESERVE something.  When all along as a pastor friend of mine likes to say, “What we deserve is Hell!  The fact that God offers us a pardon is astounding enough.  Everything else we get is a gift.  And that’s a lot of gifts!”

So maybe I’ll have some of my fleshly heart’s desires satisfied here on earth and maybe I won’t.  But the time spent here is a blink of the eye.  I love the way CS Lewis contrasts the length and satisfaction of life on earth to that of eternal life with the Father:

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
― C.S. LewisThe Last Battle  

Dream has ended CS Lewis

 

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