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!

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

 

Divine Geometry – The Trinity

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Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God –  (John Wesley)

You were created by a community to exist in community made in the image of a God who has never known anything except community – (author unknown to me!)

**

I’m treading difficult waters, as you can see by the first quote.  Yet, since community is in my blood, so to speak, God wants me to grapple with this complex but real entity.

Ever since my friend shared with me an idea of how the trinity is more than just 3 dimensional, I’ve been secretly snacking on this never-ending concept.  Her point is that there’s a synergistic, multidimensional – MORE THAN THREE- nature to the trinity.  Somehow God’s math adds a mystical, multiplier affect.

Presuppositions:

1. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are 3 in one.  They are ONE God.  We are monotheistic people, yet…it’s complicated:

  • Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
  • And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:6b)
  • Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)
  • “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Is 9:6)

2. To be born again, you first have to die with Christ.  Given spiritual life, you now have a new nature.  You are forever different.

Your spiritual DNA has changed:

  • “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

3. Those who are born again, have the Holy Spirit in them permanently:

  • “And it is God who ……  has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Cor 1:21-22)
  • “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14)
  • “…..Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27)

So by means of some simple logical deductions, we can conclude that –

If you are a Christ-follower (born again child of God), then you have the Holy Spirit IN you permanently.  And since the HS is part of a triune divine spiritual being, you actually have all 3 members of the Godhead in you.  And these 3 members are FAR MORE than 3-in-1.

**

When I wake up in the morning, I used to say, “Good morning God!”…then I got more personal and offered, “Good morning, Father!”….now I am addressing a community of 3 supernatural persons  – eager to join me for my day. “Good morning, Holy Community!”  They’ve been awake and active all night (no need to sleep!) keeping the universe going and bringing about the per-determined circumstances for the day.

Just think – this is no mere 3 dimensional divine figure.  We’re talking about a joy-filled, dancing, creative, celebratory, energetic, personal, compassionate, no-limit, über-everything , multi-dimensional God inside of us. And He wants/they want to be totally involved in all that we are doing this day.

Let’s enter the joy!

Conversation with a fellow slave

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I was reading Marvin Olasky’s column in the latest issue of World Magazine (23 March 2013).  He writes on the very last page, before the cover, and I always start magazines at the back.  In his essay, ‘Remember their chains’, Marvin explored past and current ways to start the God-conversation with someone you encounter.  His final thought energized me and made me excited to talk to my next seat partner on a flight.  Boiling it down in my own words and through my filter, my future conversation goes like this (after some initial get-to-know-you chit-chat) :

Maria:  So what drives you?

Joe Blow:  What do you mean?

Me: Well, everyone is working at something, trying to impress someone, motivated to achieve, earn, make peace with something or someone important in their life.  What is that for you?

(And then I might unabashedly share my past bulimic body-image issues and how I’ve been a slave to controlling my food intake/exercise output since those days.  And how horrid a slave-master THAT has been!!   And that the ONLY way out is to know the TRUTH.)

Joe Blow:  What do you mean by truth?  What truth?  Which truth?  Whose truth?

Me:  Good question.  The God I serve promises that if we find the truth and trust the truth and obey the truth, then we will be free indeed.  (John 8:32 -…  and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free)

Joe Blow: (a bit triumphantly)  Hmmph…the truth is, I’m not a slave to anything or anyone!

Me:  That’s what we all think, because we’re modern.  But the fact is, whether we like it or not, all humans are wired to be slaves, or at least to serve and worship something or someone.   Do you consider yourself an honest person?

Joe Blow:  What do you mean by honest?

Me:  I mean, that, if you recognize something as real and true, however you define it, can you courageously admit that you’ve encountered truth?  Or are you the kind of person who has too much pride and just pretends that it isn’t so, in order to maintain the upper hand in a conversation?

Joe Blow: (a bit haughtily and acting like I might be insulting him)   I’d like to think that I have that kind of integrity you’re describing.

Me: Well, here goes: The Old Testament in the Bible recounts episode after sad account of the Hebrews serving God at times and then not.  They would drop God and switch their allegiance to the false gods of neighboring peoples. And at other times, they would move beyond religion and actually invest their hopes in stronger strategic partners to rescue them.

The histories chronicled in the Bible document NOT a single time when the Hebrews were neutral, serving no one.   They either served or obeyed God, or were slaves to different powers, whether real or demonic.

And if we move from the strategic level to the personal level, we read in the Bible all sorts of tragedies of men and women driven by their greed for power, sex or money/material things.  These untamed forces either played themselves out in brutal, blatant conquests or in the more manipulative, sinister yet secretive moves.

And lest you think times have gotten any better, the New Testament and history SINCE then don’t show any improvement in men and women. More education and ‘better’ living conditions haven’t changed our hearts. We just pretend more, even to ourselves.

So do you see why I asked you ‘What drives you?’

Joe Blow:  Yeah, I see your point, but I don’t think those behaviors describe me.  I’m pretty happy with my life.  I like my job, I’ve got some money in the bank, I’m seeing a pretty sweet gal who has her life together, too.  Life seems good. And my friends would all say I’m a fairly chill guy.

Me:  (with a playful touch of light praise) Bravo! and well done you!  You may be the one exception to nature. (By the way, did I mention that God created nature? He-he…just teasing you!)   No, in all honesty, I would probably come to the same conclusion, IF, I didn’t know myself better.  I don’t think I’m a slave to what others think of me, or to money, or to my reputation for being perfect mom or wife…but I have had struggles with meeting MY standard for how I teach French. Numerous times in the past,  I’ve allowed a ‘bad French-class day’ to  cause me to feel down.

But what God is teaching me these days is this:  I have learned (pausing slowly for effect)  that when what I treasure or value the most is taken away from me, or even threatened, I get angry.

Joe Blow:  (who is beginning to listen attentively at this point) Hmm..what is that?  …….the thing you most value?

Me:  MY time…Time for Maria, time to get my work down…so I can have time to walk and listen to podcasts…and so I can have time to relax and read ‘enough’ each day.  I am learning that ‘MY TIME’ is what I most treasure and hoard and protect.

Joe Blow:  Huh…I never looked at ‘my time’ as a possession, but I have to admit, I can identify.  So how do you get out of that mindset?

Me:  Thanks for being honest.  I think a lot of people feel that way, at least about something.  It might not be time, but it might be money or recognition.  You know that truth I mentioned? – The verse about knowing the Truth and being set free?   Well, Truth is not just a concept or a fact to know.  Truth is actually a person – Jesus Christ.  Jesus is actually God who took on the body and life of a real human being in time and space, one of us.  And He lived and died for some pretty cosmic supernatural reasons.  You know how I mentioned that we are created and wired to serve someone or something?   God did in fact fashion us to serve Him since He knew that only by making Him both our Treasure and Lord, we would be happy.   And since we have preferred OTHER things, we have piled up a whole lot of guilt.  The penalty for rebellion is death.

But the amazing news is that God the Father of Jesus, and God the Son and God the ‘power-filled’ supernatural Holy Spirit together crafted a plan even before God created the universe and us. The Bible says that by living a perfect life and being executed in our place, Jesus made a way for us both to get the credit for HIS life well lived and to be declared “Not Guilty in the capitol case, “Crimes against the Creator of the Universe”.  The ‘not guilty’ ruling is pretty amazing in that God the Father was able to maintain both the standard of justice AND show mercy to us by virtue of Jesus receiving our punishment.

So now those who receive those 2 benefits have secured a permanent spot in the family of God and an amazing inheritance, both of which far outweigh whatever earthly ‘treasure’ you or I could possibly imagine.  How I am helped is by recognizing that serving Jesus, being in whatever role you want to call it:  servant, steward, slave, ambassador, beloved child, worshipper actually liberates me.  I can’t lose that treasure.  It’s not dependent on me.

Joe Blow: (thoughtfully…) so you don’t hoard your time anymore?

Maria:  (chuckling a bit ruefully) I wish I could say yes!  But if I am T-R-U-T-H-F-U-L…I will tell you that I do forget where my true treasure is..and fall back into that hoarding frame of mind.  Fortunately, I’m getting better at spotting my anxiety and stress when they start to flair.  Then I can say, “Oh, yeah…that’s pretty stupid. It’s NOT my time”, or “Thankfully that mediocre lesson today doesn’t define me”.  I’m actually growing more relaxed to the degree that I remember and am thankful to serve such a God. I have a secure identify, purpose and destination and I belong to an amazing family.

**

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in imagining the conversation.  Where would you go from here?  It sure does seem a more natural approach.  Anxiety and stress and drivenness seem to be the norm.  After all, we have MORE people than ever on anti-depressants.  People are dying for lack of good news.  I don’t want to HOARD that!!!

 

 

What do you have in your hand?

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“Ce qui était en son pouvoir, elle l’a fait » – Marc 14 :8 

What was in her power, she did it.

I love the French version of this little fact about Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil, giving him a foot massage!

In doing a bit of internet research, I found out that this Mary is likely Lazarus’ sister, the one who had a previous foot reputation.  She would gather with the men and listen to Jesus, sitting at his feet while her sister fumed in the kitchen.

What I extract from this verse is that we all have SOMETHING, some kind of ability, gift, talent or goods.  And when we use it in a worshipful and loving way, we receive recognition, but not from men…….

There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. (verses 4, 5)

My friend and I were discussing a Latin phrase yesterday – “Laborare est orare – Orare est laborare” that is “to work is to worship – to worship is to work.”

I find the 2nd part of the motto the more interesting.  When we ascribe worth to God, we are worshipping, doing what we were meant to do.  That IS our work.

“What am I going to do with my life????”  – is the cry of my seniors where I teach.  Tomorrow is the 1st day of March.  They have 3 more months of high school and then off to college they go.  They are angsting over the first significant (so they think) decision of their lives.

But truly, our life is but a collection of moments, one after another.  All we have is:

THIS moment – this SECOND.       

How should we work in this moment?  By doing what is in our hand to do.

–      What has God given you that you can use or do right now in a way that shows the world that –  you love the eternal, infinite, unchanging only true and wise God?

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  Paul’s inspired advice to the Colossians, 3:17

The Sacrifice of Waiting

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Melissa is a friend of mine who is now on the other side of a longer-than-expected answer from God.  She and her husband prayerfully navigated the red tape and bureaucratic hoops to qualify to be adoptive parents. Shaped by tender hearts for unwanted children and already blessed with a son of their own, Melissa and Daniel had come to the strategic decision to adopt the rest of their children.  Here was a ‘good’ prayer, not a ‘self-serving’ prayer, a prayer in line with God’s will as James tells us:

James 1:27 NIV

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Once qualified by the adoption agency, Melissa and Daniel projected dates of baby # 2’s arrival. In August of 2010, they told us, “Most likely by Christmas, we’ll have our baby and Lucas will be 2 1/ 4 years old, a good age spread.”

But Christmas came and went. Several sets of their friends got pregnant with ‘Baby # 2’.  Melissa started to blog about the wait.  Said friends delivered ‘babies # 2’.  Other families on the waiting list were selected ahead of Melissa & Dan.  Our church prayed.  Melissa set a good example:  transparently sharing her disappointment but keeping on in the faith.  She set physical goals such as weight loss and running races.  Spiritual goals nurtured her wait; read through the Bible in 3 months – twice!!  “Okay, God, now I see why you have delayed our baby’s arrival, but the calendar is clear, now would be a good time!”

Not only did Melissa and Daniel have to deal with the surprising wait, they suffered disappointments too.  I don’t know how many ‘heads up’ calls or emails they received about different babies whose birth parents were considering them.  The emotional roller-coaster took its toll, almost hardening Melissa to want to not let her hopes be dashed again.

Then God surprised them with 2 sudden and newsworthy events: #1 – a call about a baby who had already been born and was to be assigned to them and  # 2 –  the news that they themselves were going to be birth parents again!  Not a scenario they would EVER have imagined!  But isn’t that just like our God!!

I’m sure Melissa has learned a lot about ‘The God of Continual Surprises’ – would that be ‘Jehovah-Hafta’ah’? (Looking up the Hebrew word I read that one yells out “hafta’ah” at a surprise party) 

What I have come to realize more profoundly praying and waiting with her and her husband is that “Waiting is a form of Worship”.  I first heard this concept at a weekend retreat about 4 years ago.  The speaker was still waiting for a grown daughter to be rescued from the Kingdom of Homosexual Darkness. During her talks she chronicled many of the lessons she had learned so far.

Not all waiting is worship-ful.  Obviously there is the anxious, nail-biting sort that the world has perfected.  This is actually more the norm than we might realize.  ‘First-world’ countries like ours and others in the West have perfected the cult of ‘now-ism’. We expect life (other people, weather and technology) to perform according to our expectations and meet our schedules.

Obviously God knew that anxiety would be a temptation.  Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:25 – “Do not worry…….”  Since this is more than a suggestion from God, we can’t ignore the sinful nature of worry and anxiety, qualities that stain much of our restless waiting.

So what transforms waiting into a worshipful gift to God?  Obviously our attitude makes the difference. I love to dig around language roots.  I’ve found that both the Hebrew and the Spanish translations of the word ‘to wait’ have the built-in meaning ‘to hope’.

As Christians, we know that God’s definition of ‘to hope’ means to know for a fact.  Our faith is not wishful thinking as in, ‘I hope it won’t rain tomorrow for the picnic’.  No, our faith is based on the assurance, the pledge and promise of a sure outcome. Remember then……. ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we don’t yet see’ (Hebrews 11:1)

We don’t wait in a vacuum, unattached to reality.  We’re pinning all our hopes (NOT on the circumstances working out according to our plan and desires, but) on God’s promises which are based on his character.  God CANNOT lie, or else he wouldn’t be God.  So if He says something, it’s as good as money in the bank.  And when we take him at his word and actually lean into, relax, rest on that promise of future grace, we show not only the world of other believers and non-believers, we are broadcasting to the spirit-world as well.

I have a theory about the frustrating exhortation in Matthew 5 about letting our light shine (vs 16) – “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Super George the pagan (i.e. non-believer) lives next door to us.  As an excellent neighbor, George is often doing for others.  But no one thinks to glorify and bless God for George’s kindnesses.  We admire George!  So the verse can’t refer to helping others, plenty of non-Christians do those compassionate works.  Here’s what I think:  if we go back to Jesus’ answer to the frustrated Jewish crowd in John – Chapter 6 (‘But what must we DO to be doing the work of the Lord’), Jesus responds by telling the people that the work they are to do is to BELIEVE GOD.  Can’t you just hear them responding incredulously, “That’s it?  There’s got to be more than that!!!”

Sounds so simple, but it’s countercultural. And here is how Melissa and Dan lived out that countercultural message for the past two years.

Melissa’s response to the unreasonable and painful wait for Levi, her now-2-month-old baby boy, was to continue to trust God, even when she did not understand the reason for it.  Her example has demonstrated for us a lovely way we can honor God and create opportunities to tell others about God’s promises.

When we don’t angst, fret, stew, manipulate, throw a tantrum, demand our way, we show the world that whereas we don’t LIKE the circumstances, we are trusting God’s promise to:

-work out all things for our good (Romans 8:28)

-withhold no good thing (Ps 37)

-be our shepherd and provide all we need so we won’t want for anything (Ps 23)

-faithfully tend to us with new mercies and compassions while we wait (Lam 3)

Our calm response in the waiting will definitely glorify our Father in heaven, because we will be demonstrating without language that God IS real, personal and all-satisfying.  And when we calmly wait, faces turned toward God, we reflect His light, like the moon reflecting the sun.  This then is ‘letting your light shine before men’ in a way that points to God.

Finally, how can we pray for each other in future periods of waiting that inevitably will come?  More than just beseeching God to grant the ‘whatever’ to our friends, how about praying Colossians 1:11 – that they be strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that they may have great endurance and patience…. ultimately glorifying God.

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