I Don’t Know…

I spent a good portion of my adult life working in positions where my value rested in my ability to impart knowledge and answer questions. As a teacher, my job was to guide students into a base of knowledge about the English language (and especially spoken communication) so that they would be prepared to adequately speak, read, write, explain, defend, and use it. I was expected to know enough about grammar, spelling, connotations of words, nonverbal communication, sound logic (and fallacies to avoid), presentation, tone of voice, etc., to enable students to improve their communication and use language more effectively in their careers, academic endeavors, business dealings, and even in personal relationships. If they had questions about word choices, written or spoken directions, propaganda techniques, advertising tricks, euphemisms, or a hundred other topics, I was expected to have an answer– and one that would shape their ability to succeed.
When I made the transition to working in a public library, my job was to have answers– which books were at the appropriate reading level for various elementary students; where could someone find information about manatees; who wrote the Captain Underpants books (Dav Pilkey); did our library loan out encyclopedia volumes or sets of early reader books; could our library borrow a rare book from another library; what was the capital of Uganda (Kampala); did we have books that might help a child coping with the loss of a pet, or a parent struggling with toilet-training their toddler; where could someone find … the list was endless and extraordinarily varied. My job was to have an answer– or know where to find it.

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At no time was it expected that I would simply answer “I don’t know.” Even if I didn’t know in the moment, I was expected to search until I found an answer that was sufficient and satisfactory. However, in each case, I found situations where my “answer,” while satisfactory to me, and even to everyone else I had dealt with, was not enough to satisfy the person in front of me. Sometimes, I had misunderstood the question and given an answer to what I heard or assumed I had heard. I needed to listen some more, or ask for clarification before I could answer the question correctly. Sometimes, the other person was looking for an answer that didn’t exist– either they wanted confirmation of a falsehood they believed to be true, or they wanted a single, absolute answer to a question that was complex and open-ended. In rare cases, there were questions for which I could find no satisfactory answer– it doesn’t mean that there was none, but I had not found it, nor had I found someone else who could find it in the time allowed. I might find an answer that was not satisfactory, or I might find seven possible answers, but not one that stood out from the others, or I would find nothing but dead ends.


The Apostle Peter tells each follower of Christ:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3:15 & 16 (NIV via biblegateway.com)–emphasis added
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This does not mean that we must completely satisfy everyone who asks– the curious neighbor who knows nothing of the Bible and has dozens of confusing questions, or the nay-saying agnostic with a single “gotcha” question. Nor must we fight and fuss and pound the Bible until we “win” every theological and metaphysical argument–because we won’t! There are many things about the Bible, about Spiritual matters, etc., for which we will not have absolute or definitive answers–and neither will they! (That’s why they ask, sometimes.) And those things that satisfy our longings, our questions, our doubts– sometimes don’t meet the needs of the one who is asking, not because the answers are deficient, but because we are all different in our needs, and understanding, and experiences.

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Some people will listen to us merely to scoff and try to make us lose heart or make us look foolish. Others are afraid that our answer will make them feel lost or guilty. Some people have been hurt by others who have used the Bible as a cudgel or a whip– bringing shame, judgment, and contention wherever they go. We must not expect that our answers, our arguments, even our favorite scripture verses– that WE are enough to satisfy the questions, the doubts, and the spiritual needs of everyone we meet.

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What we should always have is an answer for the hope that is in us– why have we chosen to believe? Why do we choose to trust when we do not know all the answers? And our answers should be given with gentleness and respect– not arrogance and snide judgment. I don’t have hope because I know answers to tough questions. In order to have that kind of hope, I would need to know all the answers to all the questions– even those I haven’t asked or imagined! I don’t know about the future– I can’t explain why God allows evil (there are compelling arguments for some reasons, but no absolute answer that stops the question)–I don’t know how God’s Spirit moves, or why He drew me to Himself. I cannot “prove” God to someone who is determined to deny Him– not because God doesn’t exist, but because He will not force anyone to accept Him in this life, and especially not because I said a few words based on my limited understanding. My job is not to explain God–only God is big enough and wise enough to do that– but to reflect His character in a changed nature, and to explain what God has done in my life to effect that change. My hope is in the ONE I choose to trust– the ONE who does have the answers! God has not promised to answer all our “what ifs” or our “whys”– but He has promised to answer all our needs, and to BE the answer in every situation, no matter how daunting.

When God Asks a Question…

We often fear questions. We are afraid to ask questions; we are afraid of being questioned; we are afraid of asking the wrong questions or not asking the right ones. And we are often afraid of the answers, too.

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God is not afraid of our questions. In fact, He wants us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7, Jeremiah 33:3, and others). God knows the answers to our questions– He even knows our motives in asking them! God may not give us the answers we expect, or answer in the manner or time we expect. But God encourages us to ask anyway, and to trust in His ability and His desire to give us what we need in the moment we most need it.

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God also asks questions–not because He doesn’t already know the answers, but because we can learn from the questions He asks, and the answer we give. Some of God’s questions seem self-evident; others are probing. Some are rhetorical; others are anguished. Let’s take a look at just a few, and see what we might be able to learn from them:

  • In Genesis 3, God asks some very obvious questions of Adam and Eve after they hide from him. “Where are you?” Adam and Eve had not successfully hidden from God. He knew exactly where they were and even why they were hiding. But instead of storming into the Garden of Eden with condemnation and instant judgment, God asked a simple question, giving them both the opportunity to confess, and a clear reminder of their broken relationship. There had never been a need (on either side) to ask “Where are you?” After Adam responds with the excuse of being naked and ashamed, God asks his second question, “Who told you that you were naked?” God knew the answer to this, as well, but He added a third question that forced Adam to get to the heart of the matter and tell Him the truth– “Have you eaten from the tree…?” God could have asked condemning questions– “How could you disobey me like this?” “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” But God isn’t asking questions to overwhelm Adam and Eve with their guilt and shame. He’s asking for truthful acknowledgment of their disobedience, so their broken relationship can begin to be repaired. God assigns punishment, but He does not bring additional questions and condemnation
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  • In the very next chapter, God asks Cain a probing question, “Why are you angry? (And why has your countenance fallen?)” God knows the answer. He knows how Cain feels and what Cain is thinking. God knows it so well, that He challenges Cain to master his anger and turn his face upward (i.e. seek God’s counsel over his own emotions). We don’t like probing questions, because they reveal our selfish motives and dark impulses. But God actually WANTS us to be aware of our own tendencies–and our need for His wisdom and grace! God is not afraid of our darkest thought– He doesn’t want to expose them for our shame, but enlighten us for our own good!
  • In Genesis chapter 18, the Lord asks a rhetorical question, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…” (concerning the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah). God had already determined that they should be destroyed; He had no need to share this information with Abraham. But in asking the rhetorical question, God gave us a glimpse into His character (as well as a window into Abraham’s character!) God does everything with purpose. He is not willing to hide information we need, nor to waste time or energy on useless information. Imagine if we knew everything–everything!- that would happen to us for the next year? If we knew about that near miss at the intersection on May 22, or the toothache on June 2, or the “surprise” birthday party in October? But when God does choose to open a window, He gives us a chance to respond. Abraham did not choose to argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were not wicked cities, or that God had no business destroying them. His heart was driven to discover if God would destroy the innocent with the wicked. He got his answer (several times over!) And even when God did not find ten innocent people in the cities, He still offered rescue for Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family.
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  • It isn’t only God the father who asks questions. Jesus the son asked two agonizing questions in the New Testament. While He was dying on the cross, He asked the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus knew, intellectually and spiritually, why God had forsaken him; but His question echoed the one found all the way back in the Garden of Eden– “Where ARE you?” The ultimate anguish of being separated from God’s presence was felt by God himself! The agony of loneliness that comes from sin and shame and guilt– God knows it intimately from both sides!
  • Jesus also asked and anguished question of Saul of Tarsus– “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Just as God asked Cain to look carefully at his motives and emotions, so Jesus challenges Saul to reexamine his activities and ambitions. Jesus knew, of course, why Saul was hunting down those who were preaching the Good News. He knew Saul’s ambition and his zeal for the Law. He knew that it had blinded him to the truth. And in Saul’s physical blindness, Jesus could “open his eyes” to a greater ambition and zeal–to preach this same Good News to the Gentiles– the same Gospel that is opening eyes around the world to this day to see the Awesome, Eternal, Victorious, and All-Encompassing Love of God.
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Today, may we ask, seek, search out, study, cry out, knock on doors, and pursue this truth–God wants to meet with us! He wants to talk to us, to listen to us, to share closeness, to increase our Joy and be joined to us in our Grief, to lift up our countenance, end our isolation, and be the ultimate answer to our questions.

Childlike Faith

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I got to spend the day with my granddaughter earlier this week.  She’s three, and has all the energy of a firecracker, and the curiosity of a kitten.  She is learning to discern what things and which people are trustworthy (or not).  Having worked with children from infants to teens over the years, I have seen this progression in others– sometimes with good results, and sometimes ending in disaster.

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We hear about “childlike” faith–Jesus spoke of it; even praised it.  Yet we see examples of people whose simple faith puts them in danger from predators, bullies, scam artists, and other perils.  Is this really what Christ wants from us?  No!  Jesus didn’t commend foolishness; he told dozens of parables warning of foolishness and simple-mindedness.  The Apostle Paul also talks of “babies” in the faith needing to grow wiser and stronger.  There is a difference between having the faith of a child, and having the brain of a child.  Jesus doesn’t want us to be ignorant, gullible, or bratty, but He loved the willingness of children to ask questions, seek out answers, and listen with open minds and hearts.

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Most people become cynical over the years– some far earlier than others.  They trust no one and nothing but themselves, thinking they know best, or frightened to find out what they don’t know.  In many ways, they are as vulnerable (or even more so) as those who trust everyone.

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My granddaughter is still at the stage where she trusts her parents and grandparents to watch out for her, give her good advice, and answer all her many questions.  As she learns new skills, she often “consults” with us; asking our approval, wanting our input–as she meets new people, she will also take many of her cues from us.  Should she be polite, informal, respectful, quiet, reserved, loud, assertive?  She is still learning, but she still trusts us more than, say, her brothers or peers.  There will come a time when she will develop the habit of either following the examples we have set for manners, traditions, habits, and such, or looking to other models.

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Watching her, I was reminded of two very important questions I need to ask myself?

  • What does she see and hear from me?  Am I trustworthy in the way I talk to (and about!) others?  About her?  Am I giving her solid advice and good examples that will help her develop good habits and relationships?  Am I “present”– not being distracted or half-hearted in responding to her needs?  Am I teaching her wisdom about the dangers she must face in this world?  Or do I pretend they don’t exist or won’t touch her?

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  • Who am I trusting?  The obvious “right” answer is Jesus Christ, but is that the reality?  Do I lean on my own understanding, or consult with “experts” without asking for God’s wisdom or seeking His approval?  Am I seeking to learn from Him how to navigate the dangers of this world, or pretending they won’t touch me?

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Having childlike faith is not the same as having a childish faith; it’s not the same as being foolish or ignoring facts.  Smart children ask questions– lots of them!  But they listen to the answers.  Foolish children (and foolish adults) claim to know all the answers, and refuse to listen to advice.

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But I Don’t Understand…

I’m getting a double whammy this week–two Bible study groups; one studying Daniel and the other Job.  Some of you will groan just reading the first sentence.  Along with the book of Revelations, these are two of the most difficult and misunderstood books in the Bible.  And for good reason.  The book of Daniel doesn’t just contain the favorite stories of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it also contains prophetic visions that seem to foreshadow two distinct sets of events– one set that happened in the time between Daniel’s life and the birth of Christ, and another set of events yet to come.

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The book of Job is puzzling– there are no good clues as to when it took place, or exactly where, or even if it is real or a parable.  There is a curious interchange between God and Satan that is unlike any other passage in scripture.  Finally, it is filled with difficult dialogues from Job and his friends, as they try to make sense of his suffering as God stays silent.  When God finally speaks, He doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions or his friends’ misleading statements.

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What happens when I don’t understand what God is doing (or seemingly NOT doing) in my life or the lives of others?  What happens when the world doesn’t make sense, and the Bible doesn’t seem to shed any light?  What happens when I pray, but God seems silent?

I think the answer has a lot to do with where I am in my relationship with Christ:

  • I can panic, lose faith, or become angry and insolent.  If I don’t know God or don’t trust him; if I doubt his goodness or wisdom or power, I may run from his word and his presence.
  • I can lean on my own understanding.  I can substitute my own limited wisdom for God’s, and try to “explain away” all the things I don’t quite understand.  I may ignore the Bible passages I don’t understand, in favor of doubling down on the ones I think I know.  I can insist on my own interpretations of difficult or disturbing passages, even if someone points out inconsistencies in my logic, or context clues that disagree with my view.

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  • I can lean on someone else’s understanding, listening to their views without question or without reading and praying through it myself.  If someone else has an answer, shouldn’t that be enough?  Even if I still don’t fully understand, at least I have an answer…
  • I can ignore the question–after all, do I really need to know about God?  Isn’t it enough that He exists and He is good?  If I say it loud enough and often enough, won’t that make the questions go away?

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It seems that there is a better way– God never promises us easy answers or complete answers to all the questions in this life.  We can be angry or grateful for that truth, but most of all we must accept it.  God will answer many of our questions–maybe not in the time and manner we expect.  And some of them we won’t understand this side of heaven.  But the Bible is clear in calling us to pursue answers, and be honest when we don’t understand.  God may not give us a simple answer, but He promises to give us wisdom– wisdom to seek, and wisdom to wait; wisdom to trust, and wisdom to keep knocking.
Ask, Seek, Knock, Wrestle, Search, Pray, Plead, Study, and Learn.

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“Do You See Anything?”

Mark 8:22-26 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Jesus Cures a Blind Man at Bethsaida

22 And they came to Beth-sa′ida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

Have you ever wondered why certain stories and events are recorded in the Bible while others are not?  Scholars and theologians have been trying to make sense of this story for centuries.  Why did Jesus spit on the man’s eyes?  Why did He do the healing in two stages, when He had the power to heal the man instantly?  Why did He grab the man’s hand and lead him out of town?  Why did He tell the man not to enter the village on his way home?  We are left with dozens of questions and no definitive answers.

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This is not the only gospel story (or Biblical story for that matter) that raises questions and includes inexplicable elements.  In fact, many people, wanting to discredit the Bible, point to stories like this as “proof” that the Bible is not “true”; there are too many unanswered questions, inconsistencies, gaps and omissions. Why is God silent for hundreds of years between the prophets and the gospels, or why do we have no account of Jesus’ teen years?  Why are there stories of some of the Judges, and mere mentions of others?  Why did some writings become “canon” and others became apocryphal or even heretical?  For my part, I find such stories to be proof that the Bible IS inspired by God– Truth really is often stranger than fiction!

I don’t intend to try to answer all the unanswered questions, but since I think that ALL scripture is inspired by God, I’d like to look at what this passage might have to say about prayer, sight, and walking with Christ.

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First, this story comes about because, as Jesus is coming up to Bethsaida, he is approached by a group begging him to heal their blind friend.   Jesus responds by taking the blind man by the hand and leaving– taking him out of town and away from his friends.  We aren’t told why, but I think even without explanation, there are two “takeaways” here:

  • The blind man was not asking for healing– for whatever reason, his friends were the ones asking for help on his behalf.  We jump at the chance to pray for people who ask for help and prayer, but are we as eager to pray for those who do NOT?  The passage says the friends brought the blind man to Jesus– it doesn’t say if the man came willingly, grudgingly, unknowingly, or eagerly.  His friends brought him and begged for Jesus to touch/heal him.  We should have the same passion for lifting up our friends, family, neighbors, bosses, community workers, leaders, and even enemies.
  • Jesus took the man out of town to heal him.  Nowhere in the passage does it mention that his friends followed or saw the healing take place. The story includes them, and their actions, but it is not ABOUT them.  Just because we beg God for a miracle, or ask Him to help us plant a seed or make a difference, doesn’t mean that we will get to see the result.  Often, God will remove someone from our life just as they are on the verge of changes– even miracles– for which we have prayed.  That doesn’t negate our need to keep praying, nor should it diminish our joy at the ultimate result.

Next, there is the curious circumstance of the two-phase healing.  Jesus spits, touches the man’s eyes, and then asks, “Do you see anything?”  It is a unique question from Jesus.  Normally, in the healing process, Jesus doesn’t ask, he commands.. “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:11 NIV);  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43 NIV);  He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) (Mark 5:41 NIV).  Just as curious is the answer from the man.  Yes, he can see, but there is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed.  In this instance, healing did not come instantly and completely.

My point here is not to speculate, or try to find answers as to why this story is so different.  But once again, I see a couple of points to ponder:

  • Jesus often leads us to a place of questions instead of clear solutions, and it can be frustrating and uncomfortable.  But he doesn’t leave us there, alone and with no remedy (even if it feels scary in the waiting!)  Jesus did not torment the man with a hundred questions; he didn’t blame the man for not seeing clearly right away; and he didn’t leave him unable to see clearly.  Instead, he asked the man a simple question, “Do you see anything?”
    • When I am in a season of questions, am I listening for and listening TO the questions or merely itching for an easy answer?

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  • Jesus didn’t explain his question or justify his healing.  He didn’t redirect or ask a hundred clarifying questions.  He was more interested in the man’s response.  The man could have answered, “Yes, I can see,” and walked away disappointed and half-healed.  He could have answered in anger or bitterness or sarcasm and unbelief.  “How could you do this to me?.  What good is my sight if everything looks wrong?”
    • How do I answer when Jesus leads me to a place of questions?  Am I honest with myself and with Him about what I see (or don’t see clearly)?  Do I answer with the truth, or do I answer with impatience and distrust?

Lastly, we have a curious ending to story, though one more consistent with other healing events– Jesus restores the man’s sight so that he can see perfectly.  Then he directs him NOT to enter the village when he returns home.  Once again, I want to look at what I can learn and apply from this passage:

  • God wants to bring restoration and correction.  He wants me to see clearly.   He wants me to see others clearly; he wants me to see Him clearly.  It isn’t just physical sight that is important to Him.  He wants me to get insight as well.  I don’t need to have all the answers to the many questions this passage brings up to get insight and wisdom from it, but I do need to see that there IS wisdom to be gained from studying even the odd passages He has chosen to give us in His Word.

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  • God brings healing and insight, but He also gives us direction– in this case, the man was NOT to enter the village.  Once again, we are not given a reason why.  And we are not given any information as to the man’s response.  Did he obey?  It is a curious feature of many of Jesus’ healings that He commands people not to run off and tell others.  On this point, since it happens often, I will speculate..I don’t believe that God wants us to stay silent about miracles and blessings, but I do believe that there are good reasons to pause and reflect before we spread the word:
    • So often, in our elation and wonder, we trumpet “our” miracles and blessings– as though we were singled out because of who we are or what we have done or how we prayed.  We don’t do this on purpose; we’re normally not even aware of how it sounds to others…In time, the wonder sinks deeper, the humble awareness of God’s mercy and grace replaces the initial euphoria and self-congratulation.  We bring more glory to God and less attention to ourselves.  In my excitement when God sends me blessing, do I try to take some of the credit, or take pride in His gifts?
    • Related to this is the temptation to forget that others around us are still in pain or darkness.  God’s power to heal is absolute, but He doesn’t choose to remove all pain, nor does he prevent us from experiencing suffering and tragedy.  We NEED to share stories of His power, mercy, grace, and joy, but we need to do so with loving insight into the hearts and lives of others, remembering to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)  Do I spend equal time listening to others, praying for them and sharing their burdens?
    • The commands of Jesus are not arbitrary or capricious.  We may not understand why, but we should trust that they are for our good and God’s glory.  We don’t know what might have awaited the man in Bethsaida.   What we do know is that Bethsaida was singled out (along with Chorazin) as a village of unbelief and stubborn refusal to accept miracles.  When God closes a door of opportunity in my life, do I keep trying to break in?  Or do I take the next step in faith?

So I ask myself today– “Do I see anything?”  “Do I see clearly?”  and “Am I obeying Christ’s direction for the next step?”

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The Just and the Unjust

“God isn’t Fair!”  I hear this often from angry and bitter people who have suffered losses or disappointments in life.  Some of their losses are heavy and come with great pain– loss of a child, loss of a home, loss of health…these are legitimate losses, and there are no conclusive, comprehensive or comforting answers.  In fact, in many ways, God is NOT “fair”– as we usually define “fair.”  God sends life, health, happiness, sunshine and rain to both the “just” and the “unjust”; to both rich and poor, tall and short, ugly and good looking, gracious and annoying, kind and cruel…  Tragedy strikes at random, some are touched by it, others seem to be plagued by it, and still others skate through life unscathed.

God may not seem “fair”, but let’s look at it from another angle.  God sends rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust.  He sends gifts, and we use, abuse, accept, or reject them.  Circumstances and outcomes are not always pleasant, but does this mean they are “bad?”  And when they are easy, and comfortable, does this always make them “good?” Good people have to endure tragedy– this is usually what we focus on when we talk about God being “unfair.”  And we generally put ourselves in the “good” category.  Why should we have hardship and pain, while “bad” people seem to get a “pass?”    Shouldn’t bad things only happen to bad people, while good people enjoy only good things?  Sounds “fair”, doesn’t it?

But what happens when the world operates on that principle?  If “bad” people are the only ones who get sick, then they deserve to be sick– not healed.  If “bad” people are the only ones to experience poverty, then we don’t need to help the poor or the needy.  Good people should be rich and healthy.  But what if we are sometimes good, and sometimes selfish?  Do we deserve to keep all that’s good if we misuse it, or lose all that’s good if we go astray and then repent?  Is that fair?!  Where is the motivation to cure diseases, share resources, or enforce laws?  Who decides whether your “good” idea is “good” for everyone around you?  Who can ascend to heaven and tell God what is “fair?”

God created us in His image, and that means that we have a spirit that longs for justice and fairness.  It’s how we recognize evil and injustice.  But sin clouds our eyes, and poisons our world–pollution doesn’t just hurt the people who pollute; arson doesn’t just burn the arsonist; drunk drivers don’t just hurt themselves; and so on.  We don’t look at the evil or thoughtless or “unfair” things we have done or said that went unpunished or unnoticed.  And we discount all the unmerited blessings that have come our way– God is often “unfair” in our favor!  We don’t complain about that.

God is not the author of “unfairness”, though He allows it.  And, while I can’t explain away pain and suffering when they occur, I know two things:

God is Gracious– If God’s justice were not tempered by mercy, every mistake, every sin, would be unforgivable and eternally ours to bear.  Every random thoughtless action, and all its consequences, would weigh us down forever.

God is Just–Jesus’s death was about redemption and restoration– He didn’t just die to “save” you from hell– He died to restore you to the person and position for which you were created– whole, pure, unstained and uncorrupted.  This wasn’t “Plan B”– this was His eternal plan, and it includes perfect justice and perfect restoration.

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Knowing these things does not take away the pain of the present.  It does not make suffering easy; it does not erase the loss.  But it can allow us to take the next step, and the next, on our journey.  Rain or shine.

 

 

What’s Your Destination?

Recently, my husband and I took a weekend trip.  We had a destination in mind, but had to decide on a route.  Looking it up on the computer, we were given an estimated distance and travel time based on a programmed route that was found to be the “fastest.”  However, this route was not necessarily the shortest, or the most scenic, or the safest.  Knowing our destination, my husband was able to reconfigure the program to map out a route that fit our needs.  It got us to the correct destination, and allowed us to travel safely, leisurely, and confidently.

After we reached our initial destination, we decided to take a side trip.  Since we hadn’t counted on taking the side trip, we didn’t have a route.  We relied on the same technology, but, not knowing our exact destination, we typed in a general location and followed the instructions we were given.  We missed an important exit and had to reconfigure…we changed our plans and had to reconfigure…we misspelled the name of the new destination and were sent miles out of our way before we realized what had happened…we ran into an unexpected detour which sent us more miles out of our way.

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Knowing your destination, and having a good map or set of directions can make a huge difference.  We still had an enjoyable trip, but we might have been able to do more if we had planned a little better–one of the places we decided to visit had just closed by the time our reconfigured driving directions got us there!   And we might have been able to cut several miles off of the detour route if we knew the local roads better (it didn’t help that our map application wasn’t working at the critical moment, either!)

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In life, there are many “programs” that offer advice, direction, and focus to get us to a destination.  There are weight-loss programs, “life coaches,” self-help books, universities, “mindfulness” seminars, even religions that promise to guide us along a particular path.  But if we don’t have a clear destination in mind, we can end up wandering down a detour or even a dead end.  What started out with such promise becomes a maze of questions, unmet expectations, and frustrating twists and turns.

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So what is my destination in pursuing prayer?  Where do I want to end up at day’s end?  In a year?  When I face the end of my life (if God chooses to let me see the end approaching)? I want to experience the kind of prayer life that honors God, deepens my relationship with Him, and has an impact.  There are many “paths” of prayer– but they have different destinations.  Meditation, recitation, fasting and praying, praying corporately or in isolation–I need to map out a course that will get me to the goal.  And I need to rely on the guidance provided by the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and godly counselors and teachers.

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Full Disclosure

I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts.  I want answers.  So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions.  Why is this person suffering?  When will their suffering end, and how?  Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?

God stays silent.

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I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust.  That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing.  It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that).  God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion.  Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming.  Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming.  Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold.  There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.

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The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.  This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons.  But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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God loves us with a perfect love.  Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning.  So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing.  Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.

God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.

That Voice in Your Head

Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.

Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will?  While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.

Isaiah 55:8-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper

It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible.  God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable.  God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will.  It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.”  But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either.  God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.

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So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers?  Here are a few guiding principles:

  • God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
    • God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal.  He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
    • Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK.  If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
    • God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer.  Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone.  I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
  • God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer.  But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons.  That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM!  Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!

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  • God may use time to answer your prayer.  I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46.  Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you!  There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
    • Don’t give up!  God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway.  Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along.  In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband.  Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God.  That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
    • Do the next right thing.  Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere.  Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere.  God wants our trust and our obedience.  As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do.  This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn.  So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad).  I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian.  I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people.  I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home).  I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it.  I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along.  I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
  • Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us.  In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God.  I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one.  I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider.  I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things.  Yet I felt compelled to leave.  I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan.  There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling.  But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me.  I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
  • Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said.  But this is another caveat (see above).  We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit.  In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will.  In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life.  God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed.  God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap.  That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts.  He WILL direct our paths when we do that.

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  • Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing!  Won’t God DO IT!

 

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