God alone knows how to humble you without humiliating you, and how to exalt you without flattering you.
E. M. Blakelock
This is at once a simple and extremely profound statement. God knows us so well, He knows exactly those areas where we tend toward pride and disobedience. But unlike our accuser, Satan, God doesn’t stand around saying, “AHA! AHA!” and pointing out our faults with glee. His loving discipline will cause us to be confronted with our errors–and our own pride and failure to obey may cause us to be humiliated by others–but God’s purpose is to bring us to repentance and transformation, not shame and dishonor. God wants us to learn from our mistakes, not be imprisoned by them.
In the same way, God knows our strengths and glories in our wise use of His gifts. But He loves us far to much to flatter us and lead us to improper pride. If we go there, we do so led by our own temptation. God may choose to do great things around us, for us, even through us– but they are God’s great deeds, and we are blessed to be part of the process.
One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we must be “like God”– knowing good and evil, and able to always choose the right course in our own power and wisdom. Such thinking leads us to wonder if God will be unable or unwilling to forgive us– that we must never falter, totter, or doubt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23 NIV). But THAT is not the Good News of the Gospel– merely the reality of our lost state. Guilt without remedy is hopeless and dead! Such a picture places God in the place of prosecutor. But God is both our just judge (rather than an unforgiving one), and our faithful advocate! The Good News is that “…God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV) We can be “like God”– not through our own efforts, or by our own self-delusion– through the blood of Christ! God knows us; He knows every mistake we’ve ever made, and every good deed we’ve ever attempted, regardless of our motive or our success or failure. And HE makes it possible for us to have abundant, eternal life with Him.
God WILL humble us; and He WILL exalt us according to His wisdom. But God is more concerned about our ultimate well-being and redemption than in our temporary feelings, or our standing in human society. He is not a superficial God. His healing is deep, and His discipline brings life. “He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. ” (Matthew 5:45 CEB) God isn’t impressed by any show of self-righteousness or claims of victimhood. “You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.” (Roman 2:4 The Message)
My prayer for today is two-fold– first, that I would seek God’s opinion and His just judgment, so that I can confess, repent, and adjust my heart accordingly. Second, I would pray that I might seek to see others as God does; that my love for others would cause me to encourage and admonish with pure love, and not selfish ambition or spite.
As I write this, my mom is dying. We don’t know how much longer she has, but we’ve asked for prayers as she takes this journey toward death and resurrection. These are sometimes difficult prayers to make. We don’t like to see Mom suffering, but we don’t like the thought of separation through death, either. Our initial prayer would be for complete healing. But that’s not realistic, given that Mom has heart failure and is almost 90 years old. That doesn’t mean that God cannot or would not grant total healing. But we aren’t expecting that kind of miracle when we pray today.
For some people, our prayers seem meaningless. One of my classmates from school reacted to my request for prayer by saying, “I just wish that prayer DID something…” I take this to mean that if we don’t get a miraculous outcome, she believes our prayers are wasted. I hope I’m misinterpreting here, but I know that this is a common criticism of prayer in tough times. It seems that every time there is a natural disaster, or a mass shooting, people who offer “thoughts and prayers” are roundly criticized for praying “instead” of “doing.” As though the two are mutually exclusive. As though prayer is an empty gesture in the face of disaster and distress. As though there is no hope, no comfort, and no help in praying.
There are others who will assert with complete confidence their belief that God will answer any prayer for a miracle, simply because they ask it “in Jesus’ Name” or because many people are praying for the same outcome. I call these kinds of prayers, and attitudes about prayer, “Vending Machine Prayers.” It is the belief that prayer must produce an immediate and positive outcome, or it is “broken” or invalid. If you don’t get what you were expecting, you must have prayed “wrong,” or didn’t have “enough” faith. Or your prayer just didn’t “work.” When someone puts money into a vending machine, and presses a button or punches in a code or pulls a knob, and they don’t get the expected item, some of them will kick the machine, or curse. Or they will try again, carefully trying to get the “right” result. Vending machines are inanimate objects designed to give a satisfactory consumer experience. If the coins or bills “jam,” if the knobs or buttons malfunction, if the product gets “stuck,” or isn’t available, the consumer feels cheated. Sometimes, they can get their money returned, but most often, they go away angry and unfulfilled.
God is not a vending machine. He is not “designed” to serve us or give us satisfaction. There is nothing we can “insert” in our relationship with God –even sincere prayer–that obligates Him to give us what we desire. God chooses to answer prayers in whatever way He knows is best for our eternal and overall well-being. God still gives miracles. I’ve seen it and experienced it. In fact, we could have lost Mom several years ago, when her heart failure put her in a similar state. God provided a miracle in the form of heart valve replacement surgery–and a cancellation that moved her surgery schedule forward before her condition was too far gone. I’ve seen people healed of cancer– and people whose prayers for healing ended in their rapid decline and death. But none of those prayers were wasted. Not one. God was working– sometimes on the sidelines, strengthening family members to deal with grief; sometimes providing testimonies to those with doubts and questions; sometimes planting seeds that would bear fruit years later in the lives of those left behind–sometimes God was working “sideways,” as He did with Mom years ago to give her several more years of life, even though she wasn’t completely healed, to grow and prepare for this next step and testify to God’s sustaining power.
God is not apathetic, and He certainly isn’t “happy” about Mom’s decline and her impending death. He shares our sufferings and our sorrows. But God knows and sees the “rest of the story!” Jesus wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, even though He knew that Lazarus would be raised back to life. Jesus was sharing the deep grief over the loss and sorrow felt by all of His friends, just as He rejoiced with them as Lazarus walked home from the tomb! (See John 11 for the whole story.) God doesn’t delight in death. He is the author of LIFE. But He is very present through every stage of life– even that last bitter taste of death we all must experience. And just as we pray for God’s miraculous presence, we pray for His guiding, comforting, and hopeful presence in ALL situations.
Prayer DOES something! Even if we don’t see immediate changes in situations; prayer changes US. It changes OTHERS. It changes our priorities and perspectives. It draws us close– to each other and to the One whose Love is Eternal and unchanging.
116 I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications.
2 Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.
3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
4 Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.
6 The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me.
7 Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
8 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
10 I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:
11 I said in my haste, All men are liars.
12 What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?
13 I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.
14 I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
16 O Lord, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people.
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the Lord.
Psalm 116 KJV (emphasis added)
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people praying for my Mom (and all of us who love her so very much). And probably, there are some “vending machine” prayers among them. That’s ok. God hears them all. And I am so very blessed by them all. Because prayers DO SOMETHING AMAZING. They rise to a God who sees, who hears, and who LOVES unconditionally, eternally, and perfectly! We’re actively trying to do what we can do to make Mom comfortable and seeking treatment that will ease her last days, but we depend on God’s touch, His healing, His timing, and His good will to see us all through and keep us in perfect peace.
Back in the 1960s, Pete Seeger “wrote” a new folk song, later recorded by a group called The Byrds. All but the title and the last six words of the song were taken directly (though the word order was changed) from the book of Ecclesiastes. Essentially, Pete Seeger wrote seven words and some music; the rest was written by King Solomon almost three thousand years ago! Learn more about the song here…
When God created the world, he instituted times and seasons– day and night; winter and summer; weeks and months. We are bound by time while we live here. Sunlight and darkness help determine when we are active or sleeping (less so since the advent of electric lighting); summer and winter (or rainy/dry seasons) determine when we plant or harvest, what we wear, how we travel, and what activities we plan.
But Solomon reminds us that there are also “seasons” that don’t depend on the weather or the amount of light filling the horizon. There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time for laughter and a time for weeping; a time for war and a time for peace. Our world is not static– it is filled with changes, and times for turning away from one thing and facing another.
3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (ESV)
Our prayers will change with these seasons– prayers of wonder and prayers of wondering why; prayers of great boldness and reluctant, halting prayers; prayers that come from joy, and those that come with wracking grief. There will be seasons of chaotic busyness, and seasons of loneliness and long hours; seasons when we help lift the burdens of others before our own, and seasons where others help us lift burdens we cannot bear alone. There will be seasons of fierce, pounding spiritual warfare, and seasons of relative peace and rest.
Solomon lays out the concept, but I like Pete Seeger’s addition of the phrase, “turn, turn, turn.” It reminds me that the seasons of my life will change, but I need to change as well. I need to turn, first of all, to see where God is working in my life and the lives of others– that’s where I need to be and where I need to be focused. God will never leave me nor forsake me, but He loves me too much to “leave” me in a rut– He needs me to move on and finish the race He has set out for me. Change can be difficult, but without it, there is no growth!
Second, I need to turn from habits and activities that are “out of season”–young parents will have a completely different way of mapping out their time, including time for prayer and Bible study, than empty-nesters. People in mourning will have a different approach to prayer and worship than those who are in a season of celebration. There is a season to break down–to end bad relationships and turn from bad habits–and a time to build up healthy relationships and habits. There is a time to speak– to share prayer requests and spend time in corporate prayer; to ask questions and persist in our requests. But there is also a time to stay silent– to meditate and listen more than we talk; to be still and know, instead of pace and ponder. I don’t wear a heavy coat in the middle of summer or run barefoot in the snow– I need to turn in alignment with the season I am passing through.
Finally, I need to turn away from temptation and sin. God gives me the power, through His Spirit, to turn and walk away from the quicksand of complaisance, the tidal waves of desire, the live wire of unchecked rage, or the bottomless pit of envy, but I must turn away from them.
This life is full of seasons and change– some good, some dangerous. But God is outside of time and seasons. He provides endless variety, but He never changes His essential nature. No matter where we turn, He can be found!
I really enjoy going to church. I love our church family. I love the sanctuary. I love singing and worship. I love the teaching from the Bible each week. I always feel welcome and comfortable and inspired. Well…almost always.
Have you ever visited a new or unfamiliar group? It need not be a church– any group that is already established, where you are visiting for the first time? It can be a very uncomfortable experience, even if the other members make an effort to be welcoming. There may be group dynamics with which you are unfamiliar; maybe there are rituals or responses that are new to you, as well. Where should you sit? Are you taking “someone else’s” spot? Are you expected to participate? At what level? Should you introduce yourself, or will you be asked to do so at some point? Will others introduce themselves?
I was thinking about all this in relation to church because of Easter service last week. As we entered, several people greeted us with “He is Risen!”, to which we responded, “He is Risen, Indeed!” But not everyone responded– some were confused. As the service started, a husband and wife introduced this phrase as a tradition, explaining the call and the expected response. They welcomed any newcomers, then they invited us to say it as a congregation. This helped make it a more comfortable experience for any visitors.
I have visited many churches over the years, and some congregations work hard to make everyone feel welcome, and even comfortable. But there is a difference between welcome and comfort. I have visited some churches where I feel welcome, but not very comfortable. The people are nice, the music is upbeat, but there is a restlessness– sometimes inside my own conscience–that makes me squirm. This can be a good thing– a movement of the Holy Spirit. But it can also be a warning that something is “off” in the worship– the focus is not on God, or the message is not true to Scripture, or there is a tension between members of the group that needs to be resolved.
I have also visited churches where I felt comfortable enough, but I did not feel welcome. I knew all the right phrases to say or the words to all the songs and hymns; the seating was soft, and the room was neither too hot nor too chilly. But I felt closed out by the other worshippers. They did not notice that I was there, and they (probably) never noticed that I did not return. No one introduced themselves or made an effort to reach out, nor did they respond when I tried to reach out to them.
How does any of this relate to prayer? Prayer can sometimes be uncomfortable– confession, supplication, confusion, and even doubt. God is not in the business of making us comfortable at the expense of our own good. Sometimes we need to be made uncomfortable in order to take needed steps to change or move ahead. Sometimes, we need to recognize our discomfort as a warning to look around and reevaluate. And sometimes, we need to be patient in our discomfort, as it is only temporary, and stretches our Faith.
But we should never feel unwelcome in the presence of God. God longs to meet with us, even in our discomfort– even at our worst! Jesus modeled this attitude throughout His ministry. He made many people uncomfortable (particularly the Pharisees!), but all were welcome to come, to listen, and to speak to Him. He took time to talk to people that were often seen as outcasts, but He was just as likely to talk to people who thought of themselves as very important. Jesus SAW people. He acknowledged them, and He valued them. As followers of Jesus, we can feel welcome, AND comforted when we come into His presence.
But even more, we should follow the example of Christ when reaching out to others. We are Christ’s ambassadors, and if we make people feel unwelcome and unwanted, they may never understand how wide and deep and immense God’s love for them really is. At the same time, we need to be reminded that others may still feel uncomfortable for their own reasons. We should make every effort to be welcoming, but we should allow for the Holy Spirit’s work as well. We should not push people away, but we should be prepared that some will choose to walk away from uncomfortable truth.
Recently, I found out that I have developed diabetes. One of the ways to lower my glucose count and mitigate the effects of diabetes is to lose weight– something I’ve been trying to do over many years with little success!
Weight loss can be a tricky thing– the harder I try, the less I seem to lose. In fact, sometimes, I gain weight instead! Part of the process is not to think of it as weight loss, but as a change of attitude and lifestyle. It is easy to get fixated on numbers– calories, carbs, ounces, serving sizes, etc.. But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. It’s not just what I eat, or the amount, but when, and how, and why. Am I skipping meals? Do I fry my vegetables in butter, or drown them in cream sauces? Do I eat because I am bored, or stressed? Do I exercise? Do I drink enough water?
Prayer can be a tricky thing, as well. It shouldn’t be complicated or stressful, but I can add all kinds of expectations and structures to my prayer life that actually get in the way. I can stress about whether I am praying enough, or too little; whether I am forgetting to pray for someone, or if I’m praying selfishly for a certain situation; whether I am too distracted or tired; the list seems endless.
One of the biggest barriers to prayer comes when we carry the extra “weight” of subtle sins like guilt, fear, doubt, or pride. And just like physical weight loss, the harder we try to deal with it using our own willpower and our own wisdom, the less likely we are to “lose” it. The only way to lose this kind of weight is to confess it– asking God to take it and replace it with a new way of thinking and a new attitude. Instead of focusing on what I need to lose, I need to start focusing on what I will GAIN as I change my eating habits.
My current weight-loss goal is to lose between 15-20 lbs. over the next three months (in time for summer). But my REAL goal is to change my way of cooking and eating, such that I am living a healthier lifestyle going forward. My current prayer goal is to spend more time in prayer (an hour each day). But my REAL goal is to develop prayer habits that further my relationship with God– to continue to draw closer to Him. It’s worth losing old habits and attitudes to gain so much more!
In just a few hours, we will begin a new year. And, while the calendar will change, and some of us will make resolutions to change habits or behaviors, most things around us will stay pretty much the same. I will look in the mirror and see the same wrinkles, find the same clothes in my closet, the same food in my refrigerator, and the same bills waiting to be paid.
But there will come a day when all things will be new–new heaven, new earth– no more bills or wrinkles or failed resolutions. No more calendars! No more regrets or missed deadlines; no unfinished projects waiting to be done; no more dirty laundry waiting to be washed; no leftovers to be eaten; no apologies to make; no pain or sorrow to “deal with” as we go through another day. So many things will be different, and so many wonderful things will be even better–better understanding; better relationships; better bodies; better nature; better “future”– eternity!
It can be exciting to imagine what that “all thing new” will be like. And it can be frustrating to look around and see all that remains “wrong” with our current situation. But God is ALREADY making things new– He is working in and around and even through us! When we follow Him, we are already becoming who we are meant to be for eternity.
In this “new” year, we can trust in God’s ability to transform us from the inside-out– to begin changing our outlook, our attitude, and our thinking to align with His. May we look forward to this new vision as we watch the days unfold.
I have several friends who are really great at photography– some have made it their profession. One of the hallmarks of a great photograph is “framing.” I’m not talking about choosing a frame for a printed photograph, but choosing natural elements that draw the eye to a focal point. It include perspective, focus, lighting, and even composition– which elements make it into the picture, and which ones are excluded. After all, photos, by their very nature, only show part of the whole reality. Even a panoramic picture cannot show everything at once, and the photographer chooses where s/he wants to place the focus and framing.
We have a tendency to “frame” our lives in a similar way. We focus on only part of the whole reality of life. We choose to “frame” our present situations, our past memories, and our future hopes– even when they are out of focus! We can do this in both positive and negative ways. At one point in my life, I felt I had found “the perfect job” as a youth services librarian at a local public library. It was pleasant work that made use of my skills, talents, and interests. It included a mixture of social interaction and self-directed projects. I loved the job, my co-workers, our patrons, the work environment–it was a pleasure and an honor to work there.
But I was viewing my job (and myself in that job) through a frame. There was more happening in the wider picture of my life and development. After more than a dozen years there, things had changed. I still loved the work, and while some co-workers retired or moved, and the staff changed a bit, the work environment was still mostly peaceful and friendly. I still found the job challenging and rewarding, and I had gotten to know people in the community over the years who truly felt like family. But, as my role changed, so did some of the relationships. As new leadership came, so did new directions and new priorities. And I had become “comfortable”– and somewhat complacent as well.
In time, it became clear that my “perfect” job was not only not perfect, but becoming a source of frustration, stress, and unhappiness. And there were other things happening that demanded my focus. I was preparing to become a wife, and move to a new community. My mother’s health was deteriorating, demanding more of my time and energy (though my Mom remains feisty and independent in most matters!). My future husband wanted to open a shop– someone would have to work there, and we couldn’t afford to hire anyone, even part-time. That meant working a second job at the shop while trying to maintain my efforts at the library.
As the “frame” of my life shifted, I felt confused, even angry, with God. Why would He allow something so good to turn sour? Why did I feel like I was losing myself? Didn’t He want me to be happy and fulfilled? Didn’t He want me to use my talents to help others?
Now, after a few years’ perspective, I can see some of the “rest” of the picture. I had begun to see myself through the lens of my job, and I was depending on that vision, rather than focusing on what God was doing in, around, and through my life. There was nothing “wrong” with my job, per se, but God needed me to be willing to let go and move in new directions.
I write all this, knowing that there are people going through much more traumatic “shifts” in their lives– the loss of a job, and a change of career is a disappointment, but it is not the same as the loss of a spouse or child; or the sudden loss of a home to fire; or an unexpected diagnosis of cancer or other health issue. But the principle is not so different. God’s ways are eternal. Sometimes, we see the trauma in front of us, or surrounding us, and it becomes a frame for all of our thinking and emotions. But the “picture” is much bigger than just our immediate situation. God calls us to trust Him in all circumstances, knowing that His love for us is not just for this life, but for all eternity. Whatever we (or our loved ones) go through here is but a snapshot– one of millions that God will put together in a Glorious and Perfect collage.
Moreover, God gives us the privilege of listening to us when we call out to Him. We need not be afraid to ask, “Why this?” or “Why now?” or even “Why me?” But when we ask, we need to be willing to shift our focus, and remember where our Hope is Built– On Christ the Solid Rock. Even the sweetest “frame”– our career, our relationships, our identity, our happiness in this life– cannot compare with His faithfulness and eternal Sovereignty.
Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!
It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?
Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.
I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!
God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.
My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!
There is an old comedy/vaudeville gag, where a character enters a stately home, or an office, or arrives at an important event. They are greeted by a “straight man” character, who tells them to “walk this way”. The “straight man” then turns and begins walking in a manner that uses exaggerated mannerisms. The comedic character doesn’t just follow in the general direction of the other character– s/he imitates the exaggerated mannerisms as well.
In the last of three prayers from the song, “Day by Day” (see last Friday and Saturday), I want to explore how to “follow Thee more nearly.”
I have this quibble with the song lyrics– I know that “nearly” rhymes with “clearly” and “dearly”, but it is not grammatically correct, as it implies that I almost, not quite, but nearly want to follow Jesus, instead of saying that I want to follow Him more closely, or become a better reflection of His character. That said, I sometimes think that I fall into the comedic trap of thinking that “walk this way” merely means following Christ with exaggerated mannerisms– I follow “more nearly” when I should be following more closely.
Years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I read a book called “God On a Harley” (Review and summary here) It is a fable, and an interesting read. I don’t recommend it for theological content (the Christ it presents is more of a New-Age life coach, not a Messiah), but I’m glad I read it for two reasons: It challenged my conventional view of Jesus, and it challenged the way I thought about discipleship. At the time I was reading the book, I was also considering making some big changes in my life– changing careers, moving away from my home town, and trusting God to be “sufficient” in my singleness and lack of guaranteed income.
When we talk or think about Jesus’ time on Earth, we generally focus on His birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection. We don’t usually think of His everyday life…where He ate or slept or how He lived. If He were to walk among us today, He wouldn’t appear like the paintings we see– flowing long blond hair (which has always been inaccurate), white robe and sandals. He might wear a T-shirt and jeans, ride the bus or subway train, and hang out at Starbucks or the corner convenience store. Jesus didn’t live in a “holy huddle.” And, though He famously walked on water, He mostly walked the streets. He lived and walked and ate and spent His days among ordinary people–in fact, it was His willingness to eat with and talk to the marginalized, the forgotten, the ostracized people of Him time, that got Him in trouble with the religious leaders and those in power.
I don’t think Jesus in our time would be a tattooed, beer swilling, biker– but I’m convinced that He would be found sharing a story or a pizza with one; and with the kinds of people many of His “followers” would shun. The Jesus I want to follow “more nearly” is Holy, but He is not “Holier-than-thou.” I can’t follow Jesus more nearly if I’m following an image that only exists in a picture or my self-righteous imagination. In my youth, I had a picture of what “following Christ” looked like– but it was more about following expectations and selfish desires– successful career, marriage, giving to the “right” charities, becoming a pillar of the community. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but if God calls me to serve in humble (even humiliating) ways, doing thankless tasks, and spending time, not helping the needy at my convenience, but truly serving– pouring out my time and my heart until only His strength keeps me going–I have learned the joy and honor that transcends anything I once imagined.
I’m not a biker, but I love the image of Jesus on a motorcycle, asking me to come along for a ride. If I want to follow Him “more nearly,” I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor. If Jesus came and asked me to ride off with Him on a Harley, several things would happen that relate to discipleship:
First, I have to commit. You can’t “sort of” ride along — you either get on the bike or you stay behind. You might know all about the motor, you might know how to ride, you might know the traffic laws, you might even watch a video of someone riding, but you won’t experience the horsepower under you, the wind in your face, the road slipping away behind you. The same is true of the Christian life. You can know about God; own a Bible– even memorize it; you can sing God’s praises, all without experiencing a relationship with Him. But you’ll never know the full power of His grace and acceptance until you commit.
Part of that commitment is to be willing to go when and where He’s going…you can’t go on the ride and stay at home. You can’t go two hours after He does. And that brings me to–
Trust! You won’t get on the bike if you don’t trust His ability to drive and His wisdom in knowing how and where to go. Once you’re on the bike, hanging on from behind, you can’t see all of the road ahead. You can’t steer or hit the brakes. In my own experience, I ended up leaving teaching after seven years with no “safety net.” I had no job waiting in the wings, no money saved up, and no “plan” other than to take whatever honest work I could find and follow God’s leading. I learned by experience that I can trust God’s ways to be better than mine; better than my expectations!
Riding together takes teamwork. Just because God is doing the driving and steering doesn’t mean that I just sit back and watch the scenery (though I can do a lot of that, too). If I’m not paying attention at curves, intersections, stops, turns, etc., I can throw everything off-balance.
Riding together, with my arms wrapped around Him is the closest I can “follow” Jesus. It’s not about what I know, or what I can “do” for God– it’s choosing to be in a deepening relationship with Him. As I live with Him, listen to Him, and trust Him, the knowing and doing will come naturally.
I want to follow with abandon– not just to walk several steps behind, or wander in His general direction, or watch what He’s doing from a distance. I want to hang on and share the adventure. That’s the way I want to “walk” with Him. That’s my prayer, “Day by Day.”
Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.
Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will? While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.
Isaiah 55:8-9English Standard Version (ESV)
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper
It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible. God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable. God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will. It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.” But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either. God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.
So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers? Here are a few guiding principles:
God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal. He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK. If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer. Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone. I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer. But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons. That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM! Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!
God may use time to answer your prayer. I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46. Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you! There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
Don’t give up! God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway. Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along. In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband. Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God. That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
Do the next right thing. Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere. Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere. God wants our trust and our obedience. As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do. This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn. So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad). I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian. I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people. I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home). I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it. I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along. I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us. In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God. I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one. I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider. I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things. Yet I felt compelled to leave. I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan. There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling. But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me. I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said. But this is another caveat (see above). We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit. In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will. In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life. God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed. God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage. I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap. That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts. He WILL direct our paths when we do that.
Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing! Won’t God DO IT!