When God Uses a “Wasted” Opportunity

God’s ways are NOT our ways. And often, we can become discouraged by things that have happened in our past or things that seem like obstacles in the present. But our vision is limited by both time and space. We can’t see things from the outside looking in, and we can’t see things unfolding before they happen. Instead, we use our imagination, which can give us a vision that is wildly out of perspective.

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Take the case of Jonah (see Jonah 1-4). Jonah was given a clear mission from God– go to the great city of Nineveh and give them a message of judgment. Jonah could not “see” the outcome, but he could imagine a lot of things that made him run in the opposite direction! Nineveh was the capital city of his arch-enemies. The Assyrian armies had swept through Jonah’s land, and had very likely killed several of his family members. They were notoriously violent and Jonah must have presumed that there would be great danger involved in traveling into Nineveh, let alone proclaiming a message of certain doom!

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Jonah didn’t just ignore God’s command– he went as far as he could in the opposite direction. He wasted the opportunity to see what God had planned, choosing instead to run away. He boarded a ship for Tarshish. He probably thought that God would have to use someone else, or that He would bring judgment upon Nineveh without any warning. At least he, Jonah, would be safe. But God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. God brought a fierce storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors were terrified, but Jonah felt the weight of his guilt. He told the sailors to throw him into the sea, and God would save them from the storm. Though the sailors probably felt they were sending Jonah to his doom, they obeyed. And they were amazed as the storm disappeared! Nothing about Jonah’s words or actions caused these sailors to see God’s glory, but see it, they did. And they worshipped

Jonah missed the opportunity to see how God worked “around” him to amaze the sailors– instead, he got another lesson in how God’s ways were not Jonah’s ways. Jonah may have expected to drown, but God sent a big fish to swallow him, instead. Jonah spent three days inside the fish, being saved from the icy waters of the sea, and transported back to land, where the obedient fish “spit” him out onto the shore.

God did not find someone else to send the message. God did not change His plans. God simply changed Jonah’s situation and gave him a second chance. This time, Jonah obeyed. And God performed another miracle. Instead of killing Jonah or ignoring his warning message from the Lord, the Ninevites believed. And they repented– from the King down to the lowest citizen. God relented and showed mercy in the face of such repentance. Jonah had the opportunity to see God’s mercy and wisdom.

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But Jonah wasted this opportunity, as well. Instead of seeing the gracious hand of God at work to change the hearts of his enemies, Jonah only saw that God had not acted with vengeance and harsh judgment. (Later, when the Ninevites returned to their old ways of life, God DID send destruction, but Jonah missed that, too.) In fact, Jonah was angry with God, and threw a temper tantrum as the Ninevites celebrated God’s kindness and mercy. Jonah was a prophet– he very likely had a long career doing God’s work. He probably had many successes, but the Biblical account we have of him tells only of his failure. In spite of that, we can see in the story of Jonah how God can use even failure to bring salvation and redemption to the lost. God’s ways are not our ways!

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Today, I want to be encouraged by Jonah’s story. So often, I get bogged down in the mistakes of my past–missed opportunities and failures, things left unsaid, or actions that can’t be undone. It is important that we acknowledge our sins and mistakes; that we do what we can to make amends, and that we repent. But we must also acknowledge God’s power to make all things work together for good (Romans 8:28) and remember that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6) Know too, that God knows the plans He has for you (Jeremiah 29:11) even though you and I cannot see the end of the story. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); they are higher and Holier. His wisdom and power are infinite, and His plans are ultimately for our Good.

“Wasted” opportunities need not lead to years of guilt and self-torture. Instead, they should be learning experiences that lead us to greater faith, quicker obedience, and greater joy!

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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The Greatest of These…

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)
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Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8;13 (NIV)
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In 2 Peter, the Apostle gives us a list of character traits that we should develop as believers in and followers of Christ. The last two seem similar, but there is a reason both are there, and both at the end. As we follow in Christ’s footsteps, we should develop traits that mark growth in our relationship with God– faith, patience, hope, etc. But we should also show growth in our relationships with other people. We should interact with others as God interacts with us– we should show compassion, forgiveness, concern, generosity, and selfless Love for others. “Brotherly kindness” is what we should be ready to show to everyone– neighbors, strangers, and even enemies, included. “Generous Love” is not just a feeling of deep affection or even good will. The Love we should develop is selfless and giving beyond what we can offer in our own hearts. It is the culmination of all the other characteristics we are developing as we seek to become more Christlike.

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“We love Him, because He first Loved us.” 1 John 4:19– It is Christ’s example of Love, coming from Himself (Father, Son, and Spirit) that teaches us what Love really is, and causes us to be able to love in truth and fullness. Christ came to serve–He did not live for His own whims and gratifications. He gave audaciously, loved lavishly, forgave freely, and lived humbly. The Apostle Paul underlines what Peter says in his letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. We should learn to have faith and hope, but in the end, Love is the greatest characteristic we can develop.

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My one-time choir director once asked us to do this exercise: Write out 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8. Now substitute the word “Jesus” for each instance of the word, “Love.” Because God is Love (1 John 4:8) this is a valid substitution. “Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind. He does not envy,” etc… Think about how Jesus demonstrated what Love is as He interacted with His disciples– including Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal– and with those in the crowds. This is our model, and our assignment– this is how we should Love. Now comes the real test…substitute Your name to see how closely your life and actions resemble those of Our Savior. Can you say that your are patient and kind? That you don’t hold grudges or become easily angered? That you always hope? Always persevere? Of course, there will be instances when we don’t live up to Christ’s example– but are we becoming more Christlike? Are we growing in Love? Type this passage out three times– in its original text, with Jesus’s name, and with your name. Print it out and hang it somewhere where you will be reminded, convicted, and encouraged to live out Christ’s Love. If someone else reads it, they should be challenged, as well.

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Bringing this Bible Study back around to prayer– are we praying through these characteristics? Do we come with faith, obedience, understanding and discipline, patience, wonder, compassion and love? Do we expect God to do OUR will, or are we eager to see His will be done? Do we believe that God rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6)? Do we rejoice in the truth, and always hope, even in the moments of pain and injustice? Our prayer life will follow our growth in all these areas. I pray that we are all growing more like Christ each day. Let today be the next step in that growth– turn from yesterday, let God take care of tomorrow, and grow in this moment.

“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:6-12 (ESV)

God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. But every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

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Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which starts out singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse. Surely God would not punish us for so small a thing…until one small thing leads to another…and another; a bigger rebellion; a numbing complacency; loss of perspective; a heart of stone; isolation; starvation; imprisonment; death.

What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey? Do I comfort myself that my rebellion is really just a matter of “preference,” and will not be consequential? That God’s Holiness is less important than my comfort or convenience?

Many people coast through life in the belief that God is SO merciful and SO loving that He can’t also be Holy and Just– that His commands are really suggestions; that His wrath is mythical; that our own wisdom is sufficient for living a “good” life and pleasing Him. But God isn’t concerned about whether we live a “good” life– He wants us to have an abundant life– filled with joy and peace, love and relationship, both now and forevermore. In fact, He would “prefer not to” punish us. He is not “willing” (i.e. desirous) that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that everyone would some to repentance. That doesn’t mean that He won’t punish those who refuse to obey Him, or those who refuse to turn from their rebellion and trust Him; only that He will continue to give us the opportunity to recognize our need for forgiveness.

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. We don’t have to respond to God as Bartleby responded to his boss– though God has the ultimate authority to demand our loyalty and obedience. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! When God gives us commands, like “Love one another,” they are still commands. But His heart is that we should trust that all of His commands are righteous, life-giving, and in our eternal best interest. But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

The “Curse” of Proverbs 31

If you are a woman who has grown up “in the church,” you are probably familiar with Proverbs 31. It is the chapter about a virtuous woman. She is the role-model that is held up for young girls and older women alike. And she is, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” She gets up before the sun, stays up late into the night–always busy, always productive; she never slows down. She never has a bad hair day, never loses her temper, never forgets to pack a lunch or fold the laundry. She never nags, never scolds, never pouts, and never has to raise her voice.

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It helps that she has serving girls to do her bidding, and has her own business. She appears to be independently wealthy and active, yet she has time to raise children who “rise up and call her blessed,” and satisfy her husband, who “lacks nothing of value.”

I would love to say that I am just like that woman. Most days, however, I feel nothing like her. I don’t have money to buy a new field. I don’t get up before the sun and my hands are not eager to work. I don’t make and sell linen garments. No one is running around calling me “blessed” or singing my praises… I can never measure up to this woman. I feel cursed.

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But a closer reading of this chapter makes me think again.

While the woman described in this chapter is a model to emulate, she is not the norm. Nor is she the standard to which I must adhere to “earn” my way into God’s good graces. Indeed, God’s Mercy is the richer and His Grace more precious for knowing that I cannot “measure up.”

Instead of using Proverbs 31 to beat myself up for not being perfect (or using it to discourage or intimidate others), I need to learn from it. Here are a few things I’m hanging on to as I read through it this week:

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  • “She brings him (her husband) good, not harm…” (v. 12) What are some ways I can bring good, not harm, into my home and marriage? How can I listen more, nag, less, be more available, and otherwise show love and care? I won’t be perfect, but I can look for ways to improve!
  • “She works with eager hands..” (v. 13) “She sets about her work vigorously…”(v. 17) I may not be spinning wool or flax in the early light; I may not have serving girls to order, but I have hands and work to do throughout the day. How can I do a better job of seeing chores as opportunities, rather than oppression and drudgery? How can I bring a greater sense of purpose to my tasks? I may not have serving girls, but I have appliances–am I “ordering” them properly by taking care of them, instead of just taking them for granted? And am I grateful for their help?
  • “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy…” (v. 20) What can I do to “give” more–donate, volunteer, provide hospitality and encouragement? How can I keep in mind that during various seasons of life the “poor” and “needy” may be in my own home and family–children or grandchildren needing nourishment and discipline; parents needing care and support…How can I be more available to those outside of my home, or during my work hours? Can I send an e-mail or make a call to offer encouragement? Can I share a recipe with a friend, or invite them to come with me shopping or to church? Can I make time to pray with a neighbor? Can I clean out a closet and donate clothes or linens?
  • “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue..” (v. 26) What a challenge!? What is “on my tongue?” Gossip? Criticism? Complaining? Idle chatter? Do I speak too much? Do I remain silent when I could offer needed instruction, encouragement, or correction? Do I speak with gentleness and compassion? With conviction and truth?
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  • “…she does not eat the bread of idleness..”(v27). Ouch! Everyone needs to rest– even the seemingly indefatigable woman of Proverbs 31! But am I becoming “fat” on leisure time? How much time to I waste on distractions and entertainment that could be put to better use?
  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised..” (v30) I may strive to be an “accomplished” woman– someone who is poised, talented, successful in business and society, with a picture-perfect house and garden, children on the dean’s list or the winning sports team; I can be will-traveled and well-educated, someone who seems to “have it all”–and still NOT be a woman of noble character. God isn’t impressed by my clothes or my achievements; He doesn’t give me credit for being “better” than my next door neighbor, or having the best kitchen on the block; God will not love me any more for being more successful or productive than anyone else. If my house is cluttered, my hair is untame-able, my kids have public melt-downs, and I don’t belong to the “in” club; if my business fails, my car is rusty (or I don’t have one), and my husband and I wear second-hand clothes, God still sees my heart. I can still be a woman who fears, trusts, and serves the Lord– one who is loved, accepted, and even “praised” by the One who matters most!
  • Finally, I can Pray to become a woman/wife of noble character (v.10), striving for good habits, rather than fretting over and wallowing in bad ones. I can trust God’s willingness and ability to transform my life and my attitudes. In fact, I am reminded of a seemingly unrelated portion of scripture from Philippians:

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message)
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I need to spend less of my time worrying about getting things “done”, than getting them done God’s way! I don’t need to fear the “curse” of Proverbs 31– failure to measure up to a model– instead, I need to see the opportunity to become a woman after God’s own heart– one who accepts God’s help and wisdom to become the woman HE wants me to be. I pray that God will give me the chance to develop–and help others–today and each new day.

Intelligent Fools

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

Psalm 14:1 (ESV)

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!

Psalm 53:1 (NLT)
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One thing that seems to surprise many intellectuals is the discovery that other intellectuals are Christians! There is a certain class of thinkers who believe that only ignorant people “need” to believe in God. Many of them posit that the concept of “god” is outdated and primitive, steeped in superstition, and unnecessary for anyone. Others claim that any belief in a supreme deity, a Sovereign God who has authority over all humankind, and all of nature, is actually dangerous

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If God could be discovered by intellect alone, this might be disturbing for those of us who are not certified “geniuses.” If mere knowledge about God could save us, we could trust intellectuals to be our “saviors” and spiritual guides. But just because someone is intelligent and learned doesn’t mean that they have attained wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of God, and it begins with acknowledging a simple fact– God exists. This does not come automatically with knowledge about God–such knowledge can be dismissed, twisted, and even lost. If God exists– not just as a concept or a long-lost myth–certain other truths must be acknowledged. Chief among these is the truth that I am NOT God.

Fools come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and intellects. There are people of limited intellectual capacity who are very wise. There are intelligent people who live as fools. Foolishness comes when we deny God– whether we deny His very existence, or His authority over our lives– and live as though we are the supreme authority in our own lives.

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“The Fool says in his HEART, ‘There is no God.'” Foolishness doesn’t begin in the brain. It begins in the heart. The more I believe that I KNOW better than others–including God–the less I will listen to instruction, advice, and wisdom. The more I will do what I want– and justify it, even if others get hurt. The Apostle Paul–no intellectual slouch himself– warns us in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “Knowledge puffs up..” Not all intellectuals are snobs, but it is easy to become hardened to others if they believe they know more or better than everyone they meet. And Paul’s warning is to believers! Just because we believe that God exists, we can be foolishly puffed up by our very knowledge of scripture, and ignore God’s sovereign call to love our neighbors! We can be foolish “Christians” who acknowledge that Christ exists, but deny His Lordship in our lives.

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There are many intelligent Atheists. Some of them lead moral lives, and do many things that we might see as “good.” They give to charities, advocate for healthful living, a clean environment, and world peace. So why does the Bible use such strong language to denounce them as fools, who are corrupt and even abominable? Doesn’t God see their good works? Doesn’t God give them “credit” for doing the “right” things (sometimes more than their Christian neighbors!)?

God sees us from a different perspective– He looks on the heart. The heart of someone who denies God is the heart of someone in rebellion. It may be a quiet rebellion; it may be vocal and even violent. But once a person denies the very one who created her/him, their heart is corrupted and opposed to giving God His proper place. Even “good” deeds done in defiance of the God of all goodness will become twisted by the selfishness and pride of the doers. The smartest among us may have many great ideas for achieving world peace, but they do not have the power to control all of humanity, nor the authority to force others to accept their “brilliant” ideas. In the end, they will either face disillusionment and despair, or they will become tyrannical in their efforts to “fix” the world’s problems according to their own plans.

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God asks us, first and foremost, to trust Him. Second, we are to obey Him. Third, we are to live with, and love, others– to share the love and wisdom He gives! Fools may know about God, but they stop short of trusting Him, obeying Him, and learning to serve others. They deny His wisdom; they deny His Grace, and their need for it. They deny themselves the joy of relationship with the God of Love. There is nothing wrong with learning and intelligence– they, too, are gifts from God–but when we depend on them ahead of leaning on God’s wisdom, we become fools.

Father, I don’t want to be a fool. Help me to acknowledge You in everything I say and do. Help me to recognize Your wisdom, and cling to it. And help me to appreciate the wisdom of Your Word in guiding my intellect and learning.

Objects In the Mirror…

“Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear…” This notice is on the side rear-view mirror of my car. It serves to remind me that I cannot judge distances by what I see– that my mirror is meant to show a wide-range view, rather than one that is precise and in-scale.

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Many things in life are similarly distorted. The actual objects in my rear-view mirror don’t appear distorted, but if I back up without considering the warning, I am likely to run into an object and “distort” my back bumper!

The Bible also warns us about distortion and mirrors. In James, chapter 1, the Apostle writes:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:22-27 (NIV)
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We can easily read what the Bible says; we can easily hear the truth; we can even recite Scripture– and still be deceived and following a distorted version of God’s Word. As I write this, I can quote James, or another passage of Scripture, and walk away from the keyboard only to spread gossip, or snap at my husband, or in some other way distort what I know to be true about myself and about God.

The Apostle Paul also references mirrors in 1 Corinthians:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13: 8-12

Even though this chapter is famously known as the “Love” chapter, it also addresses our need to be alert, humble, and committed to acting on what we know to be true. We can speak of love, even perform acts of self-sacrifice, yet distort what it actually means to practice Love. If we glance at our lives in the distorted mirrors of pride or worldly comparison, we will lose our perspective and our proper focus– and end up damaging more than just a bumper!

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This distortion can also infect our prayer life. We can pray on “auto-pilot”– looking at things in a distorted mirror, instead of focusing on God and putting things in their proper perspective. How many times have I prayed that God would help those in need, without ever considering how He might want me to DO something? Have I asked locally if there is a need I can help meet? Not just with money, but in time or service? Do I pray “globally” but ignore those right in my own back yard? Sadly, I must answer than I have been guilty of such distortion. Or how many times have I been in the one in need, praying for a miracle, while refusing the practical help that someone has offered? Have I prayed that God would “change” someone else’s attitude, without seeing that mine needs to change as well (or instead!)? Have I confessed a sin, without really repenting? There is temptation, waiting in my rear-view mirror– and much closer than it appears!–but I want absolution without discipline. I want help without humility. I want to love others– when it is convenient.

Thankfully, God WANTS us to see clearly. He gives us warnings about the mirrors we tend to use, and His Word helps us correct our focus.

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God wants us to see things as they really are– both the horror of our sin and rebellion, and the wonder of His Grace. And sometimes, that means grappling with the distortions in the mirrors of our own making.

Exceedingly, Abundantly, Above…

“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us,”

Ephesians 3:20 (KJV)
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What do I expect as I pray? What is the outcome that I hope for? Most of the time, it looks like one of the following:

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  • I expect to praise and worship God; I hope that He will hear my heart of gratitude and worship, and that He will be pleased with my words and actions
  • I expect Him to act on or through a particular circumstance, such as providing healing or guidance to someone in need
  • I expect to hear from Him, or to gain wisdom or guidance for myself
  • I expect that He will honor His promise to forgive my sins when I confess them
  • I expect to grow closer to God as I speak to Him and wait to hear from Him

But Paul reminds us in the book of Ephesians that God is able, through the power of Christ at work in us (emphasis added), to do much more than anything we can imagine or ask! What does that mean in my pursuit of prayer?

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Well, it means more than I can explain in any blog entry, but let me attempt to imagine a few outcomes that go beyond my normal expectations:

  • Prayer is a matter of choice. It is also a matter of obedience and acknowledgement. No matter how short, or faltering, or disorganized it may be, each prayer proclaims that God is GOD–worthy of praise, able to save and forgive, supremely authoritative over my life and the lives of others, and ever present to listen to every voice that calls out to Him. And it proclaims this both to the physical world (if we’re praying aloud or with others) and to an unseen and metaphysical world inhabited by spiritual beings who also owe God their worship and obedience.
  • Prayer is a partnership. In some mysterious way, God allows us to participate in His ongoing work– whether it is bringing healing, joining the chorus of angels in songs of praise, praying for God’s hand to move in global and historical affairs, or developing our personal relationship with Him–God chooses to let us “have a voice” in what He does. God is still in charge. Our prayers will not cause Him to go against His own will. But as we pray, we grow to understand God’s heart. We begin to want what He wants, and to ask for His will because it is what we want most. As we see and hear about miracles, we can know that we are “part of the team.”
  • Prayer changes things–often in ways we cannot ever see or measure. Someone may pray for years to see a relative or neighbor come to Christ– seemingly without success. What they may NOT see is how their testimony, though spurned by the object of their prayers, has brought others to Christ over the years. And each one of THOSE people has the potential to witness to others– including the one who rejected the original efforts! A prayer for healing that seems to go unanswered may inspire someone to commit their life to researching a disease of find a cure so that thousands of others may be spared the suffering you prayed to alleviate. Praying for peace or justice may not have immediate effect. But we cannot know or imagine the cumulative effect of such prayers in bringing lasting peace or more perfect justice to our children or future generations.
  • Prayer changes people– especially us! If I am praying for someone, my thoughts and actions will follow. I will take a more active interest in those for whom I pray. I will (or should!) reach out with practical efforts and partner with others who share my concerns. I will give, share, encourage, work, and advocate– not just pray and move on unchanged.
  • Prayer has substance. We imagine prayer to be ethereal and mental or spiritual. But the Apostle John, writing in Revelation 8:3-4, describes the prayers of the believers (saints) as incense. Our prayers have a pleasing odor, and they rise like smoke into the presence of God. There is nothing empty or “fake” about prayers lifted to Almighty God. Our prayer is not just an exercise in wishful thinking or the power of group-think or “positive vibes.”
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We serve an amazing, limitless, all-powerful, all-wise God! Our prayers may seem like just words–humble, inadequate, or even unintelligible– but in God’s hands, they are mighty tools, bringing Him glory in ways we can’t even begin to explain or imagine!

Look UP!

(Note: this was originally posted in September of 2019. Please enjoy…)

Psalm 121:1-2 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

121 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+121%3A1-2&version=RSV
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Genesis 22:10-14 Common English Bible (CEB)
10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”
Abraham said, “I’m here.”
12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22%3A10-14&version=CEB
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Where to we look when we’re in trouble or need answers? I worked for many years in libraries– we “looked up” all kinds of answers for people. We looked in dictionaries, thumbed through heavy reference books, and scrolled through many websites. But even though we called it “looking up”, we spent most of our time looking down!

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Many people spend hours looking down at phone screens all day, or looking ahead as they drive down the road. Very few of us spend time looking up to see the clouds, the sunset, the towering buildings or trees on the horizon. And we spend too little time “looking up” to see how God is working in, around, or through our circumstances.

Abraham set off with his son, Isaac, to make a sacrifice. He had made provisions– he brought enough food for three days’ journey (and three days back!). He brought wood, and even fire. But God had asked him to “offer” Isaac as a sacrifice, so he took no ram–but he brought a knife. God’s instructions were ambiguous–He did not tell Abraham that he must kill his son, Isaac, only that he was to take him up the mountain and “offer” him.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references this event:

Hebrews 11:17-19 New International Version (NIV)
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[a] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Footnotes:
Hebrews 11:18 Gen. 21:12

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=hebrews+11%3A17-19&version=NIV
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Abraham had looked up at the mountain; he had “looked up” how many provisions to take along; but at the crucial moment, when he looked up, he finally saw God’s provision. It was never God’s intention that Abraham actually kill his beloved son. It was God’s intention that Abraham (and Isaac) listen and act in faith. And so they did. The ram was already there– waiting for Abraham to look up!

Later, when the Israelites (Abraham’s descendents!) were wandering in the wilderness, they were faced with many trials. God sent pillars of cloud and fire to lead the people as they “looked up” and followed them. When snakes came into the camp, God had Moses make a pole with a brass snake at the top. Anyone suffering from a snake bite could “look up” at the pole and be cured. Jesus referred to this story as an illustration of us own crucifixion–saying that in just the same way, he would be “lifted up.” Those who “look up” in faith to the crucified and resurrected Jesus can be cured of their sin, and given new life! https://www.christianity.com/jesus/is-jesus-god/old-testament-prophecies/jesus-is-like-the-bronze-serpent-moses-lifted-up.html

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Let’s “look up” today in faith, knowing that God sees our circumstances; knowing that as we act in obedience, God will provide our every need.

The Lord Does Not See Us..

In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man.  From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”

Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.

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I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.

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But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.

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And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

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In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.

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God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.

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The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.

And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.

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When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.

I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.

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Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.

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