A reluctant child – a lesson about God’s love

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I was that reluctant child who complained about where God planted me.  Six years ago when we moved to western NC, God opened ONE door to teach French, all the way in Asheville, a 50-minute each-way commute. Within 6 weeks, I didn’t want to be there.  School was difficult.   An experienced French teacher (and filled with pride, I found out), I had come from a supportive Christian classical school. My principal liked me.  Parents were pleased with me.  I enjoyed good rapport with my students.

But at this new school disgruntled parents complained to my principal about their unhappy children.  I was stunned.  Parents didn’t talk to me, but went right to my principal.  By January, I was on an ‘informal’ probation.  This brutal first year humbled me. I even went so far as to contemplating cleaning houses as an alternative source of income.

But God!  Amazingly He got me through year 1 with a contract for another term.  I didn’t want to go back.  Despite job hunting that summer, He kept all other doors shut. I had no choice but to go back for year 2.  And year 3.  And year 4.

Something happened by the end of year 4.  By then I had enjoyed many hours getting to know my middle-school colleagues. I also grew professionally in how I coached kids to acquire French.  The school invested in me by funding further world-language training up in Boston where I was exposed to new ideas about teaching French with comprehensible input.  I was grateful.

In essence, though I did not want to be at this school for a number of reasons, I grew personally and professionally, in the midst of suffering and difficulties.  Working where God so clearly intended me to be remained hard, every day.

One shift in thinking did help somewhat. I’ve always wanted to use my French skills to teach others about the greatness of God. When I realized that I would not think it strange to encounter hardship on the mission field, I tried to stop whining to God.  Thinking about this teaching assignment as ministry helped.  Suddenly I could see that while teaching French was my official duty, being present to my colleagues, their parents and students was my primary calling.

It’s easy for me to get to know people. God has given me a real interest in people’s stories and problems.  I found that by inquiring and listening well, I could encourage both secular colleagues and those with a knowledge of God.  I offered to pray for both groups.  Gradually some opened up to me, sensing that they were safe in unburdening themselves. My heart was drawn even more towards them.  Each day I prayed for openings to say something true, beautiful and good about God.

Fast forward to a painful 2018 for Mike.  Vocationally and spiritually he had been struggling for 4 years after a honeymoon first year.  Setbacks and closed doors humbled him.  Spiraling into depression he found a biblical counselor.  By the end of November, only 4 months ago, God suddenly revealed the ‘unthinkable’:  Mike needed to look for  full-time work and we should put the house on the market. 

Now at the end of March 2019, God has sold our house, moved us to Huntsville, Alabama and Mike starts work on Monday, 1 April 2019.  And I no longer teach at my school. The other ‘unthinkable’ was that I did not finish out the school year.  I left teaching French with 8 weeks remaining in the school year.

Now for the good part!  Here is how God poured out love on this reluctant, often whiny child:

  • As soon as my principal informed parents that Madame Cochrane would be leaving to accompany her husband on a new adventure, parents wrote me and students swarmed me.  I heard how much everyone loved me and how sad they were that I was departing.  Students shared how much French they had acquired and what a loving, caring advisor I had been.
  • My sixth-grade team of teachers fêted me with Keto-snacks and tickets to the botanical gardens in Huntsville.  I heard from some teachers how much they appreciated my personal interest in their lives. ‘Who is going to ask me about my family?’ lamented the art teacher.
  • My last day some of my students gave me gifts, sang a song in French, hugged me A LOT, made a good-bye poster in French, hugged me more.
  • That same last day, colleagues shared lunch with me and gave me personalized book suggestions, a cross-stitch of my favorite Bible verse and a gift card for books!
  • Three hours later at a faculty meeting I did not attend, since it was my last day, the head of the school announced that 7 full-time teachers and 4 full-time staff were having their contracts for next year revoked, due to lower enrollment.

God’s timing floored me as much as the early-complaining parents caught me by surprise.  He providentially arranged for me to leave this school on a high note with a love-filled sendoff before my colleagues knew about the falling ax of some job losses.

Since my final school day ten days ago, here’s what I have concluded:

Proverbs 11:25 Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.

None of us embraces suffering willingly – it’s too painful. We like comfort and ease. However, in God’s hands, suffering brings rich blessings to the child of God.

Mike and I prayed over and planned the move to western North Carolina.  God clearly opened the doors for that transition, leading us to an amazing house on 10 acres in the Smokies and a well-paying French job for me. We reveled in the beauty.  Easy access to hiking was the main reason we chose this spot.  I also grew very close to Christian sisters, both in the community and at our church – a major gift from a loving Father.

Yet I suffered. And God worked through me in ways I had not anticipated.  As John Piper says:  Don’t waste your suffering!  By God’s grace I didn’t.  Nor did Mike.

Although this post is mostly about me, I will say that Mike was equally flabbergasted at the outpouring of feelings and gratitude and love from our church family AND from the beneficiaries of reporting he had done for World News Group. An equally reluctant worker, he would occasionally lament: “I never wanted to be a journalist!”. Yet God blessed that sometimes complaining tech reporter and church member.

Bottom line conclusion.  Our Father DOES know what is best, for us and for others. Sometimes where God has us is NOT about us, but for the blessing of others.

Glad to be dependent on God

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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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  2 Cor 12:9

I recognize that I am needy.  I experience my inadequacy most often as a teacher.  There never FEELS like enough time to get my plans done.  And to think on my feet and change gears to meet the interest and energy level of my middle-schoolers stresses me.

So DAILY I ask God for His help.  And He comes through.  Always.  As He has done for the past 27 years of teaching.

So what’s the problem? Plain and simple, I just don’t like having to depend on God day after day.  That’s the truth of the matter.  This past Monday, God enabled me to be sharp, to sparkle, and to adjust rapidly to my students.  It was a packed day, but because of the grace He supplied, I made it successfully to the end.  My heart response after thanking Him was pathetic and belied my spoken gratitude:  “Oh no, now I have to depend on Him all over again. Tomorrow!”

Then by God’s kind providence, on my drive home I listened to a John Piper sermon.  Piper was preaching on the duty and joy of delighting in God, his favorite topic.  IN PASSING, he spoke of Paul’s personal reaction to being needy.  Linking to some recent teaching by Nancy Guthrie, I recalled how she pointed out the POWER Paul describes as a benefit to neediness. (See above verse clause highlighted in red).

I also remember previously looking up the Greek word for ‘boast’ because that English translation didn’t seem to fit the context Paul was describing.  Why use a word that means to vaunt or strut?

The Greek word is kauchaomai and it means to glory in, to take joy in, to be glad about.

There you go! Paul is glad about being needy because God’s power episkēnoō or ABIDES WITH him. 

Do you see it? Not only is it NOT a bad thing to be needy and dependent on God, but it is a gift, a BLESSING. After our salvation, awareness of our state of neediness is another advantage or aspect of our divine endowment. How so?  Our weakness or ‘poverty’ keeps us calling on Him, keeps us close by, in His shelter.  This is how we have ‘communion with God’.  Do you recall how David says, It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. (Psalm 119:71 KJV)

When we rely on God for everything, instead of depending on our ‘gifting’ or strengths,  we receive Christ’s supernatural power.  He ‘tents’ over us, descending and RESTING on us.

Just picturing God’s power hovering over me prompts connections to other facts.  For instance, James (1:2-4) exhorts us to…. Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

This morning I affirmed how good my Father is to create me to be needy, for then I cling to him.  And that is the conduit for communion with Him and power from Jesus, via the Holy Spirit.

Father, please remove that deep groove of wrong thinking that values ‘IN-dependence’ over neediness.  Carve a new and permanent default pathway in my thinking, through constant gratitude for such a mighty God like you!

 

 

‘Doing’ the armor of God

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Satan is out to kill you!“, announced our pastor as he undertook to exhort us to armor up and ready our Spirit-enlivened sword.

Two previous sermons had focused on the various defensive pieces of protection issued to each child of God as the proper daily clothing for our protection.  Patrick did not assume that we, his helpless, naïve flock of sheep, had been taken seriously the dangerous and evil nature of our enemy.

His complacency-shattering proclamation got my attention, as I opened my notebook to jot down this truth.

Patrick amplified his opening, explaining with direct language that Satan is out not to bother us, but to destroy us.  Like a vicious lion who will tear his prey to shreds, our enemy bars no holds.  Whether we consciously signed up for it or not, we live in the midst of a war.

Patrick reviewed our protective armor, before teaching on the one offensive weapon. I bet many of you can recite all the pieces:

Ephesians 6:14-17 (NIV) Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Who among Christians has NOT heard and read a lot about the armor of God?  But until our pastor highlighted the DOING role in putting on our daily uniform, I was blind. So, what was new?

I’ll boil it down like this – there is an ‘action component‘ to the defensive pieces that goes far beyond simply donning this God-commanded protection.  It is THROUGH the regular practice of DOING, carrying out these functions, that the Holy Spirit of God protects us from Satan.  Without a doubt, we must KNOW for sure certain biblical doctrinal FACTS. But simple knowledge alone falls short of offering the complete safety and security planned and designed to keep us alive.  Let’s look at each piece of battle clothing:

  • Belt of truth:  Yes, we must KNOW the truth about God, per His Word. But we substantively gain protection as we practice truth-telling ourselves.  God’s children copy Jesus.  We don’t varnish or meddle with the truth.  We exercise integrity of speech and action, in line with what we believe. Be honest, brothers and sisters.
  • Breastplate of righteousness:  Yes, our vital organs are covered by Christ’s righteousness.  But as His younger brothers and sisters, we follow His command, articulated by His prophet Micah. We do just actions among our neighbors, we value mercy, both the kind we receive and the kind we give and we walk with grateful humility in His path of holiness, relying on His accompanying Spirit. Again, God’s armor protects us as we put it into action.
  • Good news, peace footwear:  I used to think that simply knowing the Gospel was what this item of spiritual gear symbolized.  I now see that as we intentionally adopt a posture of ‘I’m on a mission to share amazing news about God’s rescue plan, intended to release POWs trapped by Satan in fear and darkness,‘ our armor actually grows in its ability to guard our soul against the evil designs of dark powers.
  • Shield of faith:  I never was really sure just how this piece was different from the others.  After Patrick’s explanation, I now see that when I PRO-actively rely on God and trust His Word, I am wielding my buckler.  Deciding to count on God’s sure but invisible promises, what pastor John Piper calls exercising faith in future grace (as described in the Bible), puts me on a ready alert, looking to smother incoming lies from Satan.  These fears and doubts FEEL like they are MY OWN thoughts.  But I’m learning that they are not.  NOT AT ALL!!!
  • Helmet of salvation: Again, I always took this to be knowing that I am saved, once and for all through Jesus’ work on my behalf.  I’m beginning to internalize that there are two kinds of knowing – one passive and one active, even what I might call aggressive!                                                                                                                          Here’s what I mean by active:  two components constitute this warfare hat – a wholehearted clinging to the FACT and TRUTH of God’s Word, in general, and the comforting and heart-steadying certainty of Jesus’ final rescue plan, scheduled for a TIME and DATE in the ‘near future’.  This is a future historical reality.  So what does DOING this helmet look like?  For Maria, it’s a rehearsing certain truths about God.  Out loud in my prayers and some written down in my journal.  My current ‘biblical mantra’ about a pressing care is this: “Not my battle, not my plan, not my rescue.”  That’s enough to get me to back off in my fantasizing and sinful worry.

I’ll leave sword skills to you and your study.  That seems pretty straightforward.  There is divine power in speaking God’s Word out loud.  Evidence?  He spoke our universe into creation.  His prophets spoke about events to come:  some prophesies have already been fulfilled. You can count on the rest coming to pass, as well.

My advice to me and to you, after digesting our pastor’s sermon:  it’s a good idea to set out our wartime clothes the night before.  There might be an early morning ‘call’ to run to battle.

 

 

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.’

 

Stewarding our suffering

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Your suffering is not about you, primarily.

Does that statement surprise you…..offend you….or resonate with what you already know?

Just look at Psalm 23:3 – He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

David doesn’t assert that the course on which our Shepherd has us is primarily for OUR sake or our sanctification, but for His sake, for His reputation.  That means the paths are according to God’s purposes, most of which we won’t come to know in this life. It’s a given that these God-centered plans often include our suffering.

Even though the goal of this sort of suffering might be hidden from us, there is a class of personal suffering whose end is explicitly explained in the Bible.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4 how God….” comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

Who might these ‘others’ be?  There are only three categories of people as my friend Darlene Bocek explains – Christians, pre-Christians, and non-Christians.  The suffering that fellow believers undergo is meant to deliver a salutary effect on their sanctification.  Pre-Christians also receive a benefit from their pains, problems, and pits in that the suffering serves as a wake-up call to turn to God.  Well, what about the non-Christians? Does suffering benefit them? Darlene describes God’s purpose in their suffering as a warning about God’s coming judgment and an immediate indictment of their lack of gratitude for all the undeserved goodness that God showers on the world.  Non-Christians might develop compassion for others and support humanitarian impulses, but a holy or DIVINE benefit does not accrue to them.

So how do we believers steward or manage the pain we experience during trials?  One big clue is to look to Jesus.  The writer to the Hebrews in 12:2 reveals to us how Jesus handled spiritual and physical suffering. He penned, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Our troubles can cause us to grow more reflective about where our true joy lies.  Destruction, decline, deterioration, and disappointment tend to loosen our vice-like grip on the goodies of this earthly existence.  Plus, when we see pain and injustice around us, a longing for a perfect world grows more intense.  We hurt not only for ourselves but also for others.

Since most of us recognize injustice and hardships when we witness them, you might be asking, ‘Well, what exactly qualifies as suffering, for the Christian and pre-Christian?  Are we referring only to hardships and persecution received for following Jesus’ commands when we share the Gospel?”

No, not from what I read in the Bible and in the works of Puritan authors like John Owen and William Gurnall, nor from what I pick up listening to podcast sermons by Pastor John Piper. I have surmised that ALL pain, disappointment, and hardship, whether it originates in us or outside of us, is suffering appointed by God for His good purposes.

And please let us not indulge in ‘comparative suffering’ in EITHER direction.  There is no shame in undergoing suffering that is ‘lesser’ than what we see others submit to. Nor should we derive a kind of sick pride in being gifted with ‘greater’ troubles as though there were something special about us.  I believe that each trial, test, trouble is tailor-made and individualized.  A personalized lesson-plan, or in ‘eduspeak’ an IEP, individualized education program.  This God-prepared course is actually a present from the happy, holy triune God.

Recall that Paul writes in Philippians 1:29 – For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.

Did you get that?  Jesus has trusted us with His gift of customized suffering.  We undergo the training for Him, that is for HIS purposes.  Some of which benefit us and the other kind, those hardships that on the surface from our point of view do not.

So how am I dealing with my own suffering these days?

At age 60, I am RE-learning that my appointed suffering in this season is on purpose.  And that I need to first of all not complain about it or even fear it, as though something abnormal or strange were happening.  Peter brings this fact up in his letter to the churches in 1 Peter 4:12 – Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

Considering it as normal, in this life, and meant for my good and for God’s purposes is a fact I need to rehearse each day. The world tends to broadcast that suffering is NOT the norm and that given enough technology, we can avoid it.

But that is a lie.  From Satan.  May God help us to submit to His plans with humility,  gratitude, and Spirit-provided courage and endurance.  And when we balk and complain, may He give us quick repentance so we can receive His forgiveness and walk on, keeping our eyes on our Advocate who has trod this path before us.  For the joy that awaits us.

Why we can trust God!

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Romans 8:32 – Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? (NLT)

I read some GREAT news this morning!  And this GREAT news is the means to provide you and me and all believers with the reason why we can trust and rely on God’s promises written in the Bible.  If we have ANY love for the Biblical Jesus (that is NOT a Jesus we have made up to fit our pleasure and needs but as the Bible presents Him), then we have been born from above.  For without the Holy Spirit in us, we can’t see anything attractive in Jesus.

And once we know that we have been born from above, then we are entitled to:

  • the rest and relief that come from being sure…
  • that we belong to God…
  • and have a place in His forever Family…
  • with Jesus as our big brother and protector…
  • and the Supernatural Divine, Holy Spirit as our counselor, comforter, and explainer of God’s Word.

Now here comes what was new to me and very reassuring, clarifying WHY I can trust God to come through on His promises, as recorded in the Bible.

John Piper, in a book about justification as the apostle Paul lays it out in Romans 9, declares that God’s unconditional election of us IS the foundation of the fulfillment of His promises.

All of a sudden, I SAW why I can trust Him when He promises protection and guidance and provision.  It’s the argument from the greater to the lesser.  If He has already chosen me, then, of course, He WILL provide!

2 Cor 1:20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him, the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (NIV)

Do we receive all of them now, in our current state?  No.  But we DO receive ‘a daily allowance ‘of what our good Father knows is necessary for us to live here and now before our Big Brother returns in glory for us.

So dear brothers and sisters in Christ.  Don’t fear.  NONE of what God promises now and later is too good to be true.  Au contraire, our future life with God, our inheritance is far better than we can even imagine!

 

 

My New Year’s Resolution in 2018

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Moses said, “Please show me your glory. – Exodus 33:18

We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:2b

Verses like the above have always startled me and caused me to think that some Christians must be VERY different from me.  I don’t even understand what that hope looks like.  Just what is it about God’s glory that others find compelling?

This theme of God’s glory as being something to be VERY happy about has birthed a growing desire to understand just what this glory is.

What tipped this quest into the ‘gotta know NOW’ category was a recent Pastor John Piper’s meditation on glory. John Piper writes about God’s glory.

Reading that, I knew that the only New Year’s resolution I wanted to set for myself was to keep my eyes open as I journey through the Bible again this year, searching for all the mentions of God’s glory.  I mean to write them down in order to grow my understanding and (I hope!) appreciation of this gift our Father holds out to His adopted sons and daughters.

And if I need a compelling example of someone else on the hunt for this kind of intimacy with God, the apostle Paul comes to mind. Beyond question, this former Pharisee had re-oriented his life toward KNOWING God’s glory.  Just read how he encouraged believers in Philippi  (chapter 3, verse 14):

  • I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  

Just what did this formidable evangelist long for that he willfully embraced hardship to hold out this prize to many?  Nothing else but seeing God face to face and experiencing His essence as much as possible.

So what is God’s glory?  In one sentence, I would say that God’s glory is the visible, physical manifestation of His holiness.  It would be akin to describing patriotism as the love of country made manifest in military service, citizen action, political representation, etc.  We can apprehend something of God’s holiness through this observable and usually physical and emotionally OVERWHELMING experience of His glory.  Beyond that, I cannot say.

What am I hoping for?  That my love for the Triune God will warm up and that I’ll long for Him more, so that I can say with all sincerity, “Come Lord Jesus”.

 

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