God is Not On “Our Side”

Tomorrow is Election Day in the United States. It is a “mid-term” election. We will not be electing a national president, but we will be electing (or re-electing) all 435 federal Representatives to our national legislature, several Senators, some state Governors, and many state legislators. Some towns and cities will be electing mayors and council members; many school districts will be electing board members. There will also be many proposals on the ballots– in my own state, we will be voting on whether or not to change our constitution to legalize abortion, whether to change our voting laws, and whether to amend our statute on term limits for state officials.

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Pundits and worried voters will tell you that there is a lot at stake tomorrow. They will make it sound as though the world will end if “their” side doesn’t win–if their proposals don’t pass or their party’s candidates lose the vote count. While there IS a lot at stake in the vote, there is also a lot of hope, regardless of the outcome. No matter who “wins” or what proposals get passed, God is still on His Throne. It is God who forms nations, raises up rulers, or puts them down, and who sees the hearts and minds of all people.

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God is not an American. He is not a Democrat or Republican. God is Sovereign over all the Earth. He does not “take sides,” in any way that we would understand. God, who promised to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– who promised to lead them to a land He would show them, and to establish their nation–is the same God who raised up Nebuchadnezzar to rule the Israelites during their exile. He is the same God who raised up Pharaoh, who enslaved the people of Israel, and used Pharaoh’s own stubbornness to reveal His power during the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. God uses unlikely people to accomplish His purposes, NOT our agenda.

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I believe that Christians have a clear duty to vote and to participate in civic matters. And I believe that Christians should be informed and critical voters, not rubber-stamping a candidate or agenda just because s/he/it “looks good.” But I also believe that Christians are to be honest people of integrity and honor, regardless of the outcome of a particular election cycle. That doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out against injustice, corruption, or deceptive campaign ads; nor does it mean that we can’t be conflicted about imperfect laws and candidates. In the final analysis, our ultimate allegiance and our ultimate trust must be found in God and in His Word. We are citizens of God’s Kingdom first, and our nation after that.

Groups, whether political or social groups, must be very careful about claiming that “God is on our side.” We must be far more concerned with whether or not WE are on GOD’S side! As individuals, are WE humble, honest, obedient, and committed to the truth? Are we working to build up our neighborhoods? Are we caring for the poor, the widows, and the fatherless among us? Are we turning a blind eye to evil in our midst, or worse, winking at corruption or excusing those in power when they abuse it in “our” favor?

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God promises never to leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He promises to be by our side, all the way, all the time. But He never promised to be ON our side. It may be His will to bring judgment to our nation, our state, or our city, in the form of corruption and even failure. It may be His will to lead us through a time of hardship, chaos, and persecution. It may be His will to bring swift correction and justice where we have felt comfort and let our own moral standards grow lax. God’s will is always for us to grow, to improve, to become more disciplined in our own lives and more compassionate toward others around us. And His will is more important than our own comfort or being proved “right” over our political rivals.

Whatever God’s will is; whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s election, I pray that I will be a good citizen of His Kingdom, and a good citizen of my country. Of course, I hope that good measures and Godly candidates will prevail, but I know I can trust my Savior more than I can trust a ballot box. And His reign has no term limits!

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Why Should I Pray for My Enemy?

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Matthew 5:44 (ESV)

The obvious answer to the question in the title is that Jesus commands it. But what practical and spiritual reasons are there for such a counter-intuitive action? Jesus himself continues:

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

Matthew 5:43-47 (The Message)
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If we are following Christ and asking His Spirit to help us grow in Godliness, we should be acting– and reacting– like God. God makes the sun shine and the rain to fall on everyone. He is Mercy and Grace personified. That takes away nothing from His ability to exact justice. But His true desire is to show mercy– and that includes mercy THROUGH us!

But there are other good (and related) reasons to pray for our enemies.

  • Such prayers put things in perspective. If I focus on the injustices that my enemies have done (or continue to do), they become larger than God’s power to restore and redeem. If I focus on God’s power, the injustices, while still real, take their proper place. God is bigger; God is greater; God is wiser; God is Sovereign.
  • Such prayers remind me that I am not immune from causing pain and distress to others. It is natural for us to see our enemies as completely different from ourselves. “They” are evil, callous, and deserving of punishment. But, if we are honest– we are also deserving of punishment. We, too, have been callous, careless, selfish, angry, or bitter with someone, somewhere, at some time. God has dealt with us mercifully. How can we be grateful for His mercy and fail to pray for others who need it?
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  • Praying for our enemies may not change them, but it will change US. Praying for my enemies forces me to release my anger and bitterness, so that I don’t become trapped in a cycle of letting my enemy become my obsession or even my role model. I say this from negative experience; NOT praying for someone I considered my enemy led to me say and do things that were unkind and vicious– because I thought she “deserved” the same treatment she had given me and others. One day I woke up and realized that I was slowly becoming like her– letting her behavior determine who I was in return: suspicious, hard-hearted, critical, and vindictive.
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  • Praying for others reminds us that our true enemies are not other people. Once again, it is easy and natural to create a monster out of the person who is our “enemy.” They have often caused very real and very intense pain and suffering– personal, physical, psychological, emotional, financial, and sometimes chronic and catastrophic–sometimes, they show no remorse; sometimes, they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. God knows all this. He sees all this. He aches for our pain– and for their rebellion. But the root cause is not a person– no matter how involved they are in delivering the pain. The real cause is Sin and Brokenness. That’s why WE can’t fix it. That’s why WE don’t have the power or authority to administer righteous judgment over it. And that also means–
  • Such prayers can free us of the burden of guilt, shame, bitterness, and hurt of the past. That doesn’t mean that we must deny the very real hurt we have felt. But we no longer have to be bound and shackled by it. When we can lift up our enemies and our past, and give them to God– really let go and give them to Him–He will carry that load, and let us run the race before us.
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One caveat here. Loving your enemy; praying for them– these are not the same as believing their lies or consenting to their abuse. There may be people in your life that you must pray for– from a distance! You can love someone, and still set clear boundaries to protect yourself and others. God will never abandon us. But He doesn’t call us to enable others in their evil actions. This is especially true in cases of domestic violence. Love your enemy, but get help and healing. And continue to pray!

Holy, Majestic, Awesome God!

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message) (emphasis added)
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I think one of the hallmarks of a Christian is not knowledge about God, but personal experience of God. And one of the signs of such experience is a reverent wonder– an overwhelming AWE– of God. Of who He is and how He works, what He has done, and what He has promised to do. As we grow in faith, good character, understanding, discipline, and patience, we are ready to absorb the absolute WONDER of this majestic, mighty, amazing God we serve. We revel in our own personal experience of Salvation, but we also begin to see the magnitude of God’s Grace, His Power, His Wisdom and His Holiness.

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Many of the ancient prophets tried to describe their encounters with God’s presence. Daniel and the Apostle John were paralyzed and prostrate when visited by angels. Paul was blinded by the light. Moses’ face had to be covered after being in God’s presence. because his face was so radiant. Isaiah was struck dumb. The list goes on… We may not experience the presence of angels or receive prophecies like they did, but we can experience a sense of ecstasy in contemplating our marvelous Lord and Savior.

One prophet who had such an experience was Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in perilous and evil times. His nation was in rebellion toward God’s law, and its citizens, from the leaders and priests to the farmers and townspeople, were paying lip-service to God while prostrating themselves to foreign gods and foreign countries. The leaders lived in splendor, while many of their own people starved, or were sold into slavery. Habakkuk, in frustration, prayed to God, pleading for relief from evil, and judgment for the righteous. He had faith, was of good character, understood the law, had developed discipline, and had a passionate patience– but his patience was mixed with frustration. “How long must I wait to see justice and reform?” “How long will my people keep seeking help from wicked foreigners?” “When will we be free of oppression?”

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Habakkuk was not just whining. He had a heart for his own people, and wanted to see what God would do. God’s answer was not what Habakkuk was expecting. God promised justice and redemption– but only after invasion, more oppression, and exile! God was sending a vast and merciless army to crush not only His own people, but all the wicked nations in whom they had placed their trust. God was going to “pull the rug out” from under the entire region. But then, He would punish the invaders, wiping out their power and restoring His people to their own land.

What was Habakkuk’s reaction to such news? At first, he was stunned; then confused. But in a very short time, his horror turned to worship. He resolved to stand at his watch; to station himself on the ramparts to see God at work. And as he waited, his perspective changed. God DID see the injustice and wickedness; the violence, lies, and betrayal. God had a plan– a plan so much grander and glorious in scope– a plan that had been in place from long before Habakkuk was born; long before his complaint. It was a plan that would not leave wickedness unpunished, but would bring justice in its proper time, and allow for redemption, restoration and renewal.

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Habakkuk’s prayer (chapter 3) is a marvel of praise and worship:
“His glory covered the heavens, and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand where his power was hidden…” (v. 3b-4)
“You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear… (v.9b-11)
“I heard and my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines; though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food; though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to go on the heights.” (v. 16-19a NIV)

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How often does my heart pound and my lips quiver as I contemplate our Awesome God? How often am I joyful in God my Savior– especially in the midst of expected hardship and continuing evil around me? How often do I limit my sight to what is immediately before my eyes, instead of looking up at the one who holds every moment of the past and future; who controls the vastness of millions of galaxies, yet also sees each individual hair on 7 billions human heads, knows every grain of sand in the desert, and every drop of water in all the oceans; who tracks every molecule in the universe, but knows me by name?!

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May today be a day filled with reverent wonder, as we consider the Holy, Majestic, and Awesome God who has the power to redeem, inspire, and strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.

Suing God

I have a friend who wants to sue God. She’s not entirely serious, but she has a lot of anger toward God. She feels that God “owes” her an explanation for her life circumstances, as well as a general justification for war, famine, and other evils that she reads about in the paper or sees on the news. She believes He (or She or S/he or It– my friend isn’t sure that God exists, but cavils at the idea of calling God “Father” or “He”–she finds it sexist) is being unfair in a thousand different ways.

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My friend doesn’t read the Bible, and is only vaguely familiar with the story of Job. Job wanted to take God to court. His life had crumbled around him, and he wanted God to explain why, especially as he didn’t “deserve” the circumstances he faced. Amazingly, in the Biblical account, we learn that Job was “right.” He didn’t deserve to lose his family, wealth, and health. He had done nothing “wrong.” That doesn’t mean that he was sinless. But he confessed any sins, made atonement– he even sacrificed to make atonement for any sins his children might have committed. Job was a “righteous dude!” My friend– not so much. Like most of us, she would probably be ready to admit that she’s made some mistakes here and there, though she doesn’t feel that they are particularly heinous. She’s more than willing to “let bygones by bygones” for herself and others– shouldn’t God do the same, without making us confess and humble ourselves? Who does God think He is, anyway?!

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But this is the point. God is GOD–He is not a man, or even a superman, that He is compelled to explain Himself to us; to seek our approval or accommodate our whims, wishes, or plans. In the story of Job, God never gives Job the explanation he’s looking for (again, amazingly, WE the readers are given a “behind the scenes” look and told exactly why Job is being tested and allowed to suffer). Nor does God justify Job’s circumstances or spell out his list his “rights.” Instead, He presents Job with a few keen questions to remind Job (and us!) of who God is, and who Job is not!

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Like my friend, I am often disturbed, puzzled, and saddened by some of life’s circumstances, and by the evils I see around me. But when I begin to question why, the Bible reminds me to ask a few keen questions: Did I create the world? Do I have the power or authority to re-create or re-order the world around me? Can I change my own circumstances, or those of others? Can I change nature, weather, geography, biology? Can I make times and seasons obey my instructions? Can I see a thousand years into the future, or remember a thousand years in the past? Am I immortal? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Holy?

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But more than that, I have to ask: If God never gives me answers or explanations for what has happened or is happening, or will happen– what will change? If God answers all my questions– what can I say or do about it? Can I teach God how to oversee the Universe? Can I explain to God what He already knows better than I do? Job’s ultimate response was worship. I have a choice to rage against my creator, or I can trust Him with my past, present, and future. I can worship God right now, in my “not-knowing,” or I can rebel against the one who gives me life and breath– the one who created everything around me, before me, behind me, under and over me– the one who is sovereign over the entire universe.

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My friend wants to sue God– or at least demand answers from Him. I hope she will consider pur-suing Him, instead. He is big enough to meet our anger and our questions, and He is big enough to handle all the things we don’t know or understand.

Do You Not Know? Have You Not Heard?

Within the last couple of weeks, several major news stories have broken in the United States, where I live. The Supreme Court has ruled on several major cases, with “game-changing” results. Important national issues, such as gun control, abortion, and freedom of religious expression were involved, and many Americans are either elated or upset by the decisions that were rendered.

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My husband and I don’t have television; no 24-hour news channels, or opinionated talk shows, or even late-night comedian commentators reminding us of the “big news” of the day. But we have internet, and radio, and we talk to people who have access to TV. We would have to live under a rock to be uninformed of what has been happening. Yet we find that many people who have access to “news” have little or no understanding of what these decisions actually mean for our nation or its citizens. The Supreme Court did not “abolish” abortion; it did not eliminate gun controls or restrictions. It did not “bring prayer back into the schools.” What we “know” and what we have heard are not always the same.

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The prophet Isaiah, writing to the people of Jerusalem (Judah), repeats the phrase, “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” The Jewish people were supposed to know God’s eternal character. They were supposed to have heard His laws, and heard the stories of His faithfulness throughout the years. But the message had become garbled, distorted, and even lost. The people were going to be disciplined– they would go into exile; yet God would bring them comfort and forgiveness and restoration. Isaiah reminds his readers and listeners of God’s timeless character– His power and authority; His compassion and healing; His care and His discipline for those He loves.

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21 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
    and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
    and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
    and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
    no sooner are they sown,
    no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
    and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 “To whom will you compare me?
    Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
    Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
    not one of them is missing.

27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
    Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
    my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:21-31 NIV

It’s not that Isaiah’s fellow citizens had never heard about God; it’s not that they had no knowledge of God’s laws or of His character. But they had become complacent; they had knowledge, but no understanding; no insight. They knew about God; they no longer KNEW God.

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How often do we hear a bit of news and react without understanding all of its implications? How often do we jump to conclusions about what God is like, or what His will might be? How many times do we assume that what we think or feel comes from the Bible, without consulting it? How often do we pray, not that God’s will should be done, but that God should do our will?

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Violence (including shootings), abortion, religious intolerance and persecution– all have been around for centuries. Human laws and justice have a long history of being twisted, ignored, amended, rewritten, forgotten, and supplanted. Supreme Court rulings can be overturned; laws can be rewritten or struck down; cultural expectations and trends will change. While I may feel cause to celebrate some of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, or be discouraged by others, now or in the future, I cannot put my hope and trust in them. But I can put my hope and trust in the power and authority of God! God’s rulings are absolute and eternal.

And if I hear nothing else today; if I know nothing else for certain– I can rely on His truth and His faithfulness forever!

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No Greater Love…

This coming Monday we will be celebrating Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a day to remember those who gave their lives in battle, defending our nation, our people, and our way of life over the course of almost 250 years. We decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags and plaques honoring their sacrifices. It is a strange sort of “holiday.” We don’t like to think of wars and battles– we ache for those who are terrorized by wars in the current days. We don’t celebrate war and violence– our highest goal is to achieve and preserve peace and safety. And it can seem somewhat morbid to “celebrate” the fallen soldiers of bygone days.

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But we are not celebrating their deaths. We are celebrating the causes for which they fought and died. We celebrate freedom, and justice; the rights of individuals to pursue liberty and fulfill their dreams. These are causes worth fighting for, and yes, even dying for. We mourn the loss of life, and we grieve the necessity of fighting and struggling to preserve basic rights. But we are grateful for and humbled by the examples of those who have shown the courage and strength to give their all. We honor these sacrifices when we decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, or hold services and memorials at cemeteries. It is not meant to be a time of joyful celebration, but a time of solemn reflection and humble gratitude.

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But Memorial Day can also be a time of reflecting on an empty grave– that of Jesus Christ, who gave His all for a cause even greater than liberty and justice in a particular nation or time or for a particular group of people. Jesus gave His life to reconcile an unholy human race with a Holy and Righteous God. He fought against Sin and Death, and conquered them both. And we cannot decorate a grave to honor His sacrifice, because, unlike all the soldiers we honor next week, Jesus did not just preserve a cause or a way of life– He became Life for us. His grave is empty as a symbol of Death’s defeat!

It was Jesus Himself who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NASB) Soldiers who lay down their lives often do so to save the lives of their comrades at arms– their friends and fellow warriors– as well as their countrymen and women, their neighbors, and their families. And it isn’t just soldiers who give their lives. Recent news stories tell of teachers, police officers, and other individuals who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of innocent shoppers, students, and neighbors. Such sacrifices are tragic, but they are also heroic, and deserving of our acknowledgement.

We take time to honor those who died for a cause. How much more should we honor the One who died to bring eternal freedom and life to each one of us! And how much more should we be willing to give our lives for the sake His Kingdom! There is no greater love that we can show.

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When You Get What You Pray For…

We’ve all heard stories of people who wish for something, only to get a very different result… One story goes like this: An older man, recently retired, grew bored with his new life, particularly as he now spent all day with his aging wife, who complained about her arthritis and all the extra housework. He wanted to be spontaneous and enjoy his new-found freedom, but she never wanted to go anywhere. One day, a genie offered him one wish– anything he wanted! So the man wished for a wife who was 30 years younger than him. The next day, he awoke to find the same aging wife asleep by his side. Discouraged, because he thought his wish had not been granted, he got up to use the bathroom. As he entered the bathroom and saw his reflection in the mirror, he was shocked to notice that he had aged 30 years overnight!

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Many people are convinced that God is like the genie in that story. We pray for something good, and God will send us something unpleasant, instead. We say that God is good, but often, it seems like He delights in sending us obstacles, struggles, and even grief. Why would He do such a thing? Of course, the man in the story was not asking for something noble or righteous, but we feel that God will somehow “twist our words” and give us something “less” than the good that we pray for. We want complete and rapid healing, not a lengthy struggle or a slow degeneration. We want “that” dream job, not being stuck with a dead-end job (or waiting for any job to come along). We want justice and an end to oppression–now– not waiting in silence for God to act.

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Habakkuk struggled with just such a situation. His nation was in decline. Justice was being perverted and denied, people were suffering in the midst of violence and wickedness, and God seemed to be ignoring it all. He had prayed for God to restore justice and rescue his people from wicked leaders. But God’s answer, when it finally came, was stunning. God was raising up another nation– one known for its incredible power and cruelty–to conquer the land of Judah and execute harsh justice. There would be no easy escape. Judah would be invaded and conquered. But God’s shocking answer also contained promises. First, “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (or “the just shall live by faith” Habakkuk 2:4) a promise echoed by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of Romans. In other words, even in times of incredible injustice and trouble, God will take care of those who are faithful. Even when He seems silent, God is watching over those who put their trust in Him. He has not forgotten the innocent or the oppressed. They can trust Him even in the worst of circumstances. Secondly, God promises that the arrogant and wicked will be punished– including the invaders who are coming to conquer Judah.

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God is sovereign and all-powerful. We are not. God is not a genie in a bottle–obligated to grant our every wish. Even when we pray sincerely for good things, God does not always answer in our time frame or in the way we imagine He will. But God is faithful and good. He does not pull a “bait and switch”– listening to our prayers and giving us something harmful or shabby in place of something better. God’s best for us may not look easy or pleasant from this side of things. But God can be trusted to see us through to the other side– where we can see the wisdom and glory of His plan. In the meantime, our choice is the same as Habakkuk’s– we can continue to complain, or we can wait and watch to see God’s solution unfolding.

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I needed to review Habakkuk’s story this week. It seems as though wicked forces have the upper hand in our world today. Whether it’s the lingering effects of COVID, or the wars raging in various parts of the world, high inflation and skyrocketing prices, or corruption in high places, things look pretty grim. It is tempting to complain, or to let anger and frustration cloud my thinking, or push me into inappropriate actions. There ARE things I should be doing–praying (!), helping others, and living a life of integrity and courage. But most of all, I need to trust God to be sovereign and good– through the easy times, and through the trying times.

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I will never wake up to find that I have aged 30 years overnight (though it may feel that way some mornings!). And I will never wake up to a world where God is not in control, or where justice and mercy are no more! I can pray with confidence that God will answer, and that His answer is better and wiser than what I can imagine. And that is a very encouraging thought for today. So my prayer is that I would have the courage to stand at the watchtower, anticipating and expecting God’s movement– even if…

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

Habakkuk 3:17-19a (NIV)

Blessed Are the Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Am I merciful when I pray? That’s not a question I normally ask, but I’m looking at the Beatitudes, and how they relate to my pursuit of prayer. I pray for justice; I pray for healing; I pray to be more Christlike, but do I specifically pray about mercy? Certainly, I thank God for HIS mercy toward me, and I hope I show mercy to others, but does it enter my prayer life?

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It’s easy to pray for mercy for ourselves, when we know we deserve justice (and punishment). It’s easy to ask for mercy for our loved ones. But do I pray to become more merciful? Do I pray for a greater love of Mercy? In Micah 6:8, we are told that God requires three things– to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. Often, it is easier to love justice, do mercy (when it suits us) and walk in our own way, asking God to follow US as we go through the day– bless me, bless my work, bless my travels, etc..

Mercy requires a knowledge of justice and a humble acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Justice is NOT whatever we think is “fair” or “equitable” in a certain set of circumstances. Justice is defined by God, and the only way to “do justice” is to obey His will. We will not “love mercy” until we experience it at God’s hands.

That’s really what this Holy Week is all about–God’s justice, God’s Mercy, and His Victory and Lordship. As we go through this week, in preparation for Easter, it is vital to meditate on what Jesus DID for justice to be satisfied, the depth of His Love that caused Him to suffer and die to provide, not just mercy, but Unspeakable Grace, and the humility He demonstrated in His time on earth– serving, sacrificing, even dying the painful and humiliating death on a cross–all for me; all for you.

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And we must be careful about making Mercy all about us and all about the here and now. We live in a culture of “instant gratification.” We want God’s mercy to “fix” the immediate problems we see around us. Those who are merciful WILL be shown mercy– but we may not see instant ease and comfort in a situation where others hold a grudge, or where the natural consequences of our sin still exist. We have been justified before God– He will not count those sins against us–but we still live in the fallen world where sin leads to death and destruction. God will redeem all things in His time, and we can trust that His mercy will triumph over even the worst of circumstances, but we may still have to endure suffering for a season.

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When we come to God in prayer, we have no right to withhold mercy– either from those who may have offended us, or from ourselves for things we did in the past. Mercy is a gift– one we cannot give without having received it, and one we cannot hold on to without sharing it freely. When we pray for our enemies, we must pray with a heart of mercy– not because they deserve it, but because God’s sovereignty demands it.

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Peace on Earth?

I’ve been exploring some of the themes related to the Advent. But what happened afterwards? There is a curious and violent story related to the visit of the Wise Men– before they found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they visited the palace of the ruling King of the Jews, Herod. Herod was intensely curious about the baby– when and where the prophets said Messiah should be born. But unlike the worshipful wise men, Herod wanted to destroy this heaven-sent King; one who could pose a threat to his own power and rule.

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Jesus escaped Herod’s plot. Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. The Wise Men, also warned in a dream, had failed to report back to Herod the information he wanted. In his anger and fear, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in the region, up to two years old. This “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as the event is known, seems to come in direct repudiation of the message of the angels at Christ’s birth. There was no peace in Bethlehem as soldiers dragged innocent babies from their mothers’ arms and killed them. There was wailing and anguish, instead.

How could a loving and wise God allow this to happen? It was no unforeseen accident, either. This event had been predicted by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened, just the same as the prophecies about Jesus’ birth. God could have sent angels to protect Jesus from this slaughter; He could have confounded Herod’s plans and stopped the soldiers from reaching Bethlehem; He could have struck Herod dead before the plot could be carried out…so why did He let it all happen?

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I can share some opinions, based on what I’ve learned of God’s character. I don’t think God was in any way indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this tragedy. But I think there are a few lessons we can take from this strange and disturbing incident:

  • First, Jesus came to share a very human fate. Jesus was not spared the indignity of being born in a cattle shed and laid in a manger. His life was not supernaturally easy or safe or comfortable. It was God’s perfect will that Jesus was vulnerable to attack, and in need of protection– even when it meant fleeing His home.
  • At the same time, He WAS fully God, and as such, posed a danger to men like Herod. Jesus, even from birth, had an authority greater than any king or emperor who ever lived. But He did not come to earth to exercise that power over other people. Instead, He came to serve and to pour out His life for others. It was not His mission to overthrow the existing government, or to challenge rulers like Herod. It was His mission to fulfill the Law, set an example of obedience, preach the Gospel, and offer Himself as atonement for Sin.
  • Herod had the earthly power to do good or evil as a ruler. He had the unique opportunity to join the Wise Men in worshiping the arrival of God’s chosen one– an event that had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Yes, God could have forced Herod to bow before the Newborn King, but Herod could also have chosen wisdom over fear. We have the same opportunity to welcome Jesus as our Savior– or to wage war against Him. Jesus invites us to follow Him, but He doesn’t stop us from making the same destructive choices that Herod made.
  • Jesus did not come to bring a worldly peace, but an eternal “Peace that passes understanding.” Even now, after His death and resurrection, there is still war and slaughter, crime and injustice in our world. But, because of all Jesus did, and is doing in and through those who follow Him, we see that tragedies can be redeemed; hope can survive where there seems to be no hope; and death is not the final victor. I don’t understand why these particular families had to face the tragic consequences of Herod’s rage and fear and ambition. But I understand that God is bigger than Herod; and more powerful than all the chaos and pain that he caused.
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The world is not at peace today. Innocent people– even babies–are hurt and killed in our world. God knows. He aches for our grief and pain. But He also knows His plans. He knows how the story ends– He knows all that has happened, and all that is happening, and all that will happen. Even in the glory of Christmas, He wants us to know that reality. Someday, Jesus will return in all of His authority and power. He won’t just end the reign of evil rulers like Herod– He will render their legacies useless. He will redeem injustices– even genocide and slaughter–and wipe out even the memory of their grief and terror.

Praying From the Ash Heap

Last week about this time, I was miserable. Feverish, achy, somewhat nauseous, and doubting my own sanity. I had chosen, along with my husband, to get the COVID vaccine– even though we already had the disease earlier this year! We should have a built-up immunity, and medically, there is no compelling reason to get the vaccine and take the risk of suffering all the symptoms I suffered last week.

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Fever and pain have a way of making people cranky, impatient, and rebellious. Especially when they come as a result of trying to do “the right thing.” I was reminded of the Biblical character of Job, who suffered intense pain and suffering through no fault of his own. While my suffering was nothing compared to his– or to many of those who have suffered worse from COVID than I did– it brought some of the same thoughts and complaints. “What did I do to deserve this?” “Why me?” “Don’t you care about my suffering?” “How much longer must I be in pain?” “Wouldn’t it be better if I could just escape this fever and achiness?”

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Most of us are not “good patients.” No one likes to suffer, even for a short while. And it can be easy to let our pain determine our prayer life. Our focus narrows to our own circumstances, and how we wish them to change. We tend to go to God with indignation–how could He let us suffer like this?! And yet, even in his indignation and self-centered moaning, Job never lost sight of God’s essential goodness and justice.

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Job’s friends started out with a sincere desire to offer help and comfort. They heard of his sufferings, left their homes and traveled to visit and comfort their friend. When they arrived, they wept, tore their clothes, and sat, silent and supportive, for seven whole days! (Job 2:11-13) This is in contrast to Job’s embittered wife, who told him to “curse God, and die!” There is no other mention of her throughout all of Job’s suffering–which may have been one of the unheralded mercies of God!

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Job’s conversation with his friends may not sound much like prayer, but we see into Job’s heart and mind through these conversations. As his friends remind Job that God is Just, and that He punishes those who are wicked and rebellious, Job defends himself. But he also defends God–God IS Just; but He is also merciful and loving. What is happening to Job is not consistent with all that Job has experienced of God. In fact, it seems capricious and unfair. Job’s confusion and his questioning are not only coming from his pain and suffering, but from his surprise at God’s silence and seeming absence. Job’s friends see Job’s circumstances as confirmation of his sin. But though Job is confused by sudden change of circumstances, he is convinced that God will continue to be Just– that He will hear Job’s complaint, even if He has decided against Job for reasons Job may never understand. In fact, Job is still convinced of God’s goodness, declaring that “I know my redeemer lives…I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me..” (Job 19:25-27), and that “the fear of the Lord–that is wisdom”(Job 28:28)

When we face the “ash heap” of despair, pain, grief, and doubt, whether we are isolated or surrounded by well-meaning friends, we have a choice in our response. We can praise God from the ashes, we can bring Him our doubts and questions. Or we can “curse God and die”– choosing to see only our circumstances and losing sight of who God is (and always has been).

The same God who brought David and I through our bout with COVID brought us through last week’s reaction to the vaccine. He is the same God who has comforted families who lost loved ones to this disease, and who has kept still others healthy throughout this crisis. I don’t know why or how we got sick back in February; I don’t know why I had such a bad reaction last week. I don’t know what the future holds, or what other pains and struggles we may face in the weeks and months ahead. The same God who finally appeared to Job–even though He never answered Job’s questions!–is the same God who holds the universe in His hand. He is the same God who never lost sight of Job. He is the same God who parted the Red Sea, healed lepers and kings, raised the dead, and promises everlasting life with Him.

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So I may not know what troubles I will face tomorrow, and I may not have the answers to all my questions. But, like Job, I know that my redeemer lives! I know that whatever happens, God will remain Faithful, Good, Just, and Holy. And one day, “I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me”!

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