God’s Will is like Tacking into the Wind

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Many times God’s plan for our lives doesn’t seem very efficient. Rarely do we travel directly from A to B by the quickest, most direct route. There appear to be many detours.

It’s fascinating to read the Bible in light of God’s timing in individual lives. Here are a few highlights to consider:

Noah. How long did it take to build the ark? Considering Genesis 6:3 and 1 Peter 3:20, it could have been up to 120 years.

Abraham. How long was it between God’s promise of a child for Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac? Genesis 12:4 says Abraham was 75 when given the promise, and Genesis 17:17 tells us he would be 100 when his covenant child was born.

Moses. How long was Moses exiled in the wilderness after killing an Egyptian before returning to lead God’s people out of Egypt? Acts 7:23 says, “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites.” Exodus 7:7 says Moses was 80 years old when he first spoke to Pharaoh. Based on these scriptures, it was 40 years.

Jesus. How long from birth until he began his ministry? Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23).

We could also consider Joseph’s long experience as a slave and prisoner (Genesis 37-41) and David’s delay from Samuel’s anointing him as king and his actually becoming king (1 Samuel 16- 2 Samuel 5). And, of course, there was Israel’s long awaited anticipation of the coming Messiah.

We could find these illustrations disheartening and be tempted to lose hope. When we read each person’s whole story, however, we learn that God was working in a variety of ways both to prepare people for their situations and to prepare the situations for his people.

One Scripture that has always fascinated me (and I’ve never seen on a calendar or in a book of quotes!) is Deuteronomy 7:22:

“The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you” (Revised Standard Version).

Little by little? Why not all at once? The unintended consequences of Israel’s immediate conquest of the Promised Land would have been vulnerability caused by a population explosion of predatory beasts. I did not anticipate that.

One quote of mine you may read in a calendar (I’m serious) is a statement I made in my baccalaureate message at my seminary graduation and later published in my article “What to Expect of a Seminary Graduate” in Christianity Today: “Full-grown oaks are not produced in 3 years; neither are servants of God.”

Spiritual maturity is not instant. God shapes and prepares us one step at a time. And that “SoulShaping” takes time. Detours may be better interpreted as times to grow, times to be seasoned and tempered, times to learn additional truths about God, ourselves and others. Primarily, I see apparent delays as times to nurture our love for God over our desires for what we want from God.

The sailboat moving into the wind overcomes resistance by tacking. Tacking is the process of sailing sideways, perpendicular to the wind, instead of sailing straight ahead. In the process, as the sailboat covers more of the lake, sea, or ocean, it also provides different perspectives. Above it, the adverse wind does not halt progress. In fact, knowing how to tack enables progress.

As I said at the outset, many times God’s plan for our lives doesn’t seem very efficient. There appear to be many detours—until we look back from the perspective of time and experience. Sail into the wind with hope, trusting God for progress.

 

God Hates Death

picture of eiffel tower
Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

A Prayer to Make Easter Real in Our Lives Now

Garden Tomb
The traditional Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

For Jesus’ followers, Easter is the defining moment in the history of the world and in our personal history. But it is so easy to lose sight of the Easter Reality. Scottish preacher James Stewart spoke truth when he said we too often live on the wrong side of Easter.

Too often in our churches we are still on the wrong side of Easter. We are like the groping, fumbling disciples between Good Friday and the Resurrection. How our congregations would worship, with what joy and eagerness and abandon the sacrifice of praise would rise to God, if all worshipers knew themselves in very truth to be sons and daughters of the Resurrection! (from his book Heralds of God, pp.92-93).

An Easter spirituality means living in the unwavering confidence that Life, not death (in all its manifestations), has the last word.  The Apostle Paul calls us to see life through what I call “resurrection eyes.”

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6 NLT).

To help me live into the right side of Easter and to see life with “resurrection eyes,” I have written a number of prayers in my journal. Here’s one that I’ve written and am praying daily now. (By the way, this prayer is titled to reflect the new life we have in Christ now as we await the consummation of history and the bodily resurrection from death promised to all who believe. The best is yet to be!).

AN EASTER PRAYER: We are risen!

Lord, I believe you are risen!
Make me alive in you!
Strike down the guards of this world who try to keep me in the grave of lifeless worldliness.
Lift me up from the stone slab of this world’s false comforts and deceptive promises.
Unwrap me from the grave clothes of my past failures,
from the bondage of regret,
from all that keeps me from you.
Roll away the stone others have put over my life,
sealing me in the darkness of loneliness.
Lord, set me free, and let me shout, ‘Hallelujah!’
Christ is risen!
He is risen Indeed!
Christ is risen,
and I am risen with Him — Today!

If Angels Could Envy

 

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I have been fascinated by the thought that our faith, in and of itself, glorifies God. This shouldn’t surprise us when we think about the way a person’s faith in us expresses affirmation and inspires our best effort. When someone says, “I know you can handle this,” that faith itself energizes us.

The rest of the “spiritual world” — angels and the “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12)– knows “by experience” the reality of God. James affirms that even the demons believe. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19 RSV).

We alone, humanity created in God’s image, experience God by faith. We alone “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Why? I think it is, in part, to glorify God in the eyes of the rest of the spiritual world. When the angels see our faith, they give glory to God. When the powers of darkness see our faith, they are baffled and discouraged. Our trust now honors God in a way unlike those who experience God “directly” in the spiritual world.

The first seeds of this thought were planted by a quote from Forbes Robinson in a book I often read for soul nourishment. It’s advice to a young pastor that easily applies to all of Jesus’ followers.

I think I have told you of my father’s words spoken during his last illness: “If I had a thousand lives I would give them all, all to the ministry.” You will not regret your decision.  If angels could envy, how they would envy us our splendid chance, to be able, in a world where everything unseen must be taken on sheer faith, in a world where the contest between the flesh and the spirit is being decided for the universe, not only to win the battle ourselves but also to win it for others!  To help a brother [or sister] up the mountain while you yourself are only just able to keep your foothold, to struggle through the mist together, that surely is better than to stand at the summit and beckon.

Forbes Robinson quoted in John W. Doberstein, Minister’s Prayer Book (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press, 1986), 203-04.

Jesus affirmed this in his post-resurrection encounter with “doubting Thomas”:

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:27-29 RSV).

So what? Glorifying God is more than praise and worship. We glorify and honor God when we show the world that God is able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21).

I am learning to say to myself over and over again, “God’s got this.”

Worried about your job? “God’s got this.”

Concerned about your future? “God’s got this.”

Caught in a conflict? “God’s got this.”

Waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for an answer to your prayer? “God’s got this.”

Faith is not simply what you believe. It is believing now, trusting now, resting confidently on God’s grace and wisdom and ultimate goodness now.

So here’s a prayer to awaken your faith, “Lord, help me bring glory to you by trusting you now. You got this! Amen!”

 

 

How can I know God cares?

Bedford Baptist Church
First Baptist Church of Bedford, Massachusetts

I think most of us have a hard time believing God really cares, really loves us, and is really watching what goes on in our lives. Then you have one of those experiences that makes it clear.

During my first two years of seminary I served as an intern at First Baptist Church in Bedford, Massachusetts. Of the many special people there, Paul and Elsa had become dear friends. They were a couple in their early sixties who knew and shared the joy of the Lord. Paul was a school teacher and Elsa was a nurse who worked in order to provide the financial means necessary to care for their developmentally-disabled grown daughter.

On my last day there Paul and Elsa arrived early, before the evening service. They asked to speak to Sarah and me privately. They shared how much they had enjoyed our two years with their congregation. They handed us a card but said, “Now before you open it, we need to tell a story.”

“Elsa and I have been praying for you two daily for the past few weeks,” began Paul. “One morning the Lord impressed on my heart that we were to give you something special. I was a bit surprised by what he seemed to want, but I prayed about it and decided to talk it over with Elsa.”

“What Paul didn’t know,” chimed in Elsa, with a sparkle in her eyes, “was that the Lord was saying the same thing to me.”

When they discussed it together they were pleasantly surprised to find that God had put the same idea on the their hearts at the same time!

“God wants you to have this! So go ahead and open the card!”

I opened it, and out fell a check.

“We had each written down the amount the Lord told us on a piece of paper, traded papers and opened them at the same time— and it was the same amount.”

It was a check for $500! From this dear couple who had little “extra” to share.

“We felt the Lord wanted you to have this as you start your family.”

I was speechless. Sarah and I both were moved to tears. How could Paul and Elsa have known that we had been praying about starting our family? The gift of money itself was amazing, but their sense of the purpose for the money showed God’s care in a way I had never seen it before. The Lord moved through others to supply a need we hadn’t shared with another soul. (I told this story in my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988, p. 234-235.)

I have never been able to share that story without tears welling up in my eyes. God is so good. Worry denies or distracts us from the evidence that God takes care of us every single day– even if we don’t notice it.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).

The Lord used Paul and Elsa to convince us, as we stood poised on the brink of ministry, that he literally knows our needs before we even ask him. Bless the Lord– and bless his people who listen and are part of his provision.

“For we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NIV)

Now some of you may not have a dramatic story like this to share. Or it could be that you may have forgotten that time (or those times) God truly showed his grace and mercy. We walk by faith, not by sight—but always watch to see God’s hand at work. When God works, write it down in your journal—and go back to it often to fuel your faith and gratitude.

 

“Lord, you have a problem here…”

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I was talking with a friend who had experienced a remarkable healing from cancer. It was hard to distinguish between the effectiveness of medicine and the power of prayer, but my friend, Laura, gave God the glory. Then after a number of years the cancer returned.

“I’ve told everyone God healed me. Now what?” she asked through tears.

“So what are your prayers like now?” I asked.

She said, with a smile breaking through the tears, “I’ve been saying, ‘Lord, you have a problem here!’”

I never thought of a prayer like that. At first it seemed a bit presumptuous to me, as if God were obligated to help her for the sake of his own reputation. But her spirit was humble. She was trusting God, not testing God. So I continued exploring Scripture with her prayer in mind.

You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:2-3 NIV).

Laura was not being selfish. She truly wanted people to be encouraged to trust God because of her story.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? 10 Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! 11 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11 NLT).

Countless scriptures call us to pray based on God’s love for us as cherished children. God wants to be part of our lives and for us to be equipped for his work.

I began to realize I often limited my prayers to my own imagination. If I couldn’t see a practical, reasonable answer, then I wasn’t sure how to pray. Laura released her concern to the Lord, without any need to “filter” her request through questions like, “What’s really possible now?” or “Lord, how could you ever do this?”

I experienced a breakthrough in prayer when I realized I didn’t have the figure out the answer to my prayer. I could just lay the problem at the Lord’s feet—and let go. It wasn’t up to me to solve it. I learned to say, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Don’t try to tell God how to make it happen.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).

I hope you understand what I mean when I say I think God enjoys “showing off” sometimes. Not to build God’s ego—that’s ridiculous. But to delight us with the wonder of it all.

Think about God’s creativity

…with Abraham and Sarah giving birth to a child, Isaac, when they were far past child-bearing capabilities (Genesis 18);

…with Gideon doing battle with an army of 300 instead of 30,000 (Judges 7);

…with Elijah and the widow of Zerephath experiencing the miracle of God providing flour and oil for months during a time of famine (1 Kings 17).

Then there is the experience of King Jehoshaphat facing the invasion of three armies coming against Judah. He prayed, O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). The next morning, they gathered with the choir ahead of the army and began to worship.

22 And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 23 For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, devoting them to destruction, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another (2 Chronicles 20:22-23 ESV).

My faith grows when I see God work in ways I could never imagine. I love it when I look around and say, “Wow! I never saw that coming!”

If I could figure it out, I wouldn’t depend on God.

Don’t prescribe, just describe. And watch our creative God work!

 

Dusty People

Dry Earth_Dusty People

People outside the faith have no idea that we who want to follow Jesus live in constant tension. It’s the tension between the ideal of trying to live the way Jesus calls us to live and the reality that we are, most often, just like everybody else. We struggle and fail and refuse to do what we know God wants us to do. It can be a life of constant frustration and deep discouragement as we experience the reality of the traditional prayer of confession:

…We have done those things we ought not to have done

And left undone those we ought to have done

And there is no health in us.

The disillusion and failure have taken many people away from faith. Facing this reality, however, can actually deepen our understanding of grace and our gratitude to God. It can also reshape our unbiblical expectations.

The starting point is learning, in humility, to accept the fact that we are works in progress. We are not “struck perfect” simply by expressing faith in Christ. Faith is a both an act and a process:

It is an act of commitment—like a wedding,

and a process of becoming—like a marriage.

It is like the birth of a child

and the process of that child growing to mature adulthood.

Second, it helps to realize God is not surprised by our failures. That doesn’t excuse them, but it does give us hope. As I wrote in a recent blog, “Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.”

My “trigger phrase” to awaken humility and gratitude at the same time is that we are “dusty people.” I take this concept from Psalm 103…

As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

    he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14 NIV).

God knows our limitations. God knows our personality faults and the deep scars of our experience. God knows we don’t have– and cannot get— it all together. God knows we are dust. Mortal, wounded… and redeemed by grace to be resurrected in glory.

In his book, Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly frequently recognizes our imperfection and provides guidance for those who are likely to be overwhelmed by failure.

“The first days and weeks and months of offering total self to God are awkward and painful, but enormously rewarding. Awkward, because it takes constant vigilance and effort and reassertions of the will, at the first level. Painful, because our lapses are so frequent, the intervals when we forget Him so long. Rewarding, because we have begun to live. But these weeks and months and perhaps even years must be passed through before He gives us greater and easier stayedness upon Himself.

“Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are. Offer this broken worship up to Him and say: ‘This is what I am except Thou aid me.’ Admit no discouragement, but ever return quietly to Him and wait in His Presence.” (p. 39)

The First Letter of John reminds us,

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 1:8-2:1 NIV).

Realistically, we will fail God daily– and often fail to recognize most of our sins. (And that’s a mercy, in and of itself!). God does not want us to punish ourselves with guilt and shame as the way of “self-atonement.” Instead, we cast ourselves on God’s mercy. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about faith embracing God’s grace.

 

 

Advice for a really bad day OR New Year’s Day Every Day

What do you do when you’ve had a really bad day? I’m not talking about a bad day when you’ve  experience all kinds of hassles and problems that are not necessarily of your own making. I’m talking about those bad days when you’ve really messed up:

When you’ve said or done something that you really regret;

When you’ve fallen into that thing that makes you ashamed;

Or when you’ve missed an opportunity because you lacked the courage or wisdom to act.

Bad days are part of life. The question is: what do we do about them– especially when we’ve created our own problems??

New Year’s Day is when the world gets a powerful hint of grace. It’s one of the most vivid experiences of God’s “common grace.” Common grace is a theological term for God’s continuing mercy extending to all creatures, as described by Jesus in Matthew 5:45-46:

…For [the Father] gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.

In this case, on the first day of a new year, those who have minimal belief in God get a sense of what Jesus promises in faith, hope, grace and love. It’s a fresh start. New Year’s Day is typically the season when we try to put frustrations and failures behind us so we can move forward in positive, constructive—and dare I say redemptive—directions. We have hope that we can make the coming days different. There’s a sense of wiping the slate clean. What a great celebration! The problem is January 2 and 3 and 4…

Resolutions are rarely sustainable unless something happens in the heart.

Our hearts are changed when we accept by faith God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sin upon himself as the ultimate expression of grace. He gives us that fresh start of being right with God, being released from regret and shame, and entering into the freedom God intends for us.

Take heart in this: Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.

The wonder of God’s grace is that it lasts, and it lasts, and it lasts. One of the most encouraging passages of Scripture that testifies to God’s continuing mercy and forgiveness is Lamentations 3:22-23,

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness (New International Version NIV).

The Book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, is a compilation of five prayers in the form of “dirge poetry” or “funeral songs” written during Judah’s judgment and exile. Even in the midst of God’s people experiencing the consequences of their sin and rebellion, Jeremiah proclaimed and celebrated the blessings of God’s mercy and faithfulness. The time of consequences will not last. God’s mercy triumphs.

This verse inspired the well-known hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” written by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960). Chisholm was born in Franklin, Kentucky in a log cabin and became a teacher at age sixteen. He had a powerful to conversion to Christ at age twenty-seven during a revival. He served as a Methodist minister for one year before resigning due to poor health. In 1909 Chisholm began his career as a life insurance agent. In 1923, at age fifty-seven, Chisholm wrote this popular hymn.

This hymn describes God’s faithfulness being demonstrated in God’s character, (“There is no shadow of turning (or change) with thee…), in God’s creation, seen in the consistency of nature (“Summer and winter…”), and, ultimately, in God’s redemption, described in the third stanza which says,

Pardon for Sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

We cling to God’s faithfulness when it appears God has let us down– and especially when we have let God down.

If God’s mercies are present at times of our unfaithfulness, how much more will they be present when we recognize our failure and truly seek the Lord in humility and brokenness?!

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:17 NIV).

When you’ve had a really bad day—do what we are called to do every other day: Trust God’s faithfulness not your own performance.