Yesterday was a roller-coaster ride–pain, annoying interruptions, difficult encounters, successful ventures, bad moods, beautiful skies. And I almost forgot to write this post. It was just one of “those” days.
I am comforted by three things, though:
God’s love is never a roller-coaster. It is steady, eternal, and extravagant. Even on days when I can’t feel it or turn my back on it, God’s love surrounds me. No matter what the circumstances; no matter what I’ve done or what’s been done to me, God’s love never changes– it never falters, it never diminishes. He loves me just as much as he would on a perfect day; just as much as He has on my “better” days. God’s love is not based on what kind of day I might be having. It is based on WHO HE IS!
Jesus had days like this, too– he KNOWS what I’m going through. He knew pain, frustration, misunderstandings, betrayal, loneliness, grief, joy, struggle, success, and even “failure” (at least in the eyes of those around him). Some days, it feels like no one understands; that no one wants to listen. Jesus was a great listener during his time here; better than any of his friends or family. And when no one wanted to listen to Jesus, he simply found time to get away and talk with the Father. What a great example for us to follow. Better yet, Jesus is always on call to listen and advocate FOR us to the Father. And the Holy Spirit gets involved, too, helping us find words and expressions when we pray. God made us. He understands our weaknesses. He doesn’t condemn– He stands ready to help!
God is Alpha and Omega. He is eternal, and He is God of the Past, Present, and Future. Today may be an awful day– or a wonderful day. Tomorrow is a mystery to us. Yesterday tends to haunt us. But God is present in all three times at once. Nothing takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wallow in worry or regret. And that should give us courage to live in the present (even if it seems chaotic or frustrating), knowing that God’s plans and timing are for our Good. Even if we “mess up” in the present, God has the power to redeem and renew our future– if we let Him.
My wise Mama told me there would be days like this–she knows from experience. And she also knows all the ways God is ever-present and ever-ready to give wisdom, courage, and comfort. Today, I want to pass along a little of that wisdom– just like she passed it on to me. I hope your day is not the kind of roller-coaster I had yesterday. But even if it is: God Loves you, He knows what you’re going through, and He is eternally present and powerful to give you all that you need to get through.
Do you ever feel invisible? One of the common complaints among depressed people is that they feel as if no one sees them. “No one would notice if I just disappeared..” “No one really notices me…I just fade into the background.” “I always get passed over; pushed aside; ignored…” “Everyone just seems to look right through me. It’s like I don’t even exist.”
Hundreds of years ago, Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, believed herself to be abandoned and alone. She had been used by her mistress as a pawn in a scheme to give Abraham a son. Hagar was able to do what Sarah could not (get pregnant by Abraham), and she let it go to her head. But she was still a slave. When Sarah complained to her husband, Abraham reminded her that she still had power over Hagar. Sarah used that power to mistreat Hagar, causing her to run away into the wilderness. But God was watching. The “angel of the Lord” not only saw Hagar– he found her beside a spring and called out to her by name. He asked why she was in the wilderness, and then gave her a promise– that her descendants would become too numerous to count! In response, she gave God a name– El-Roi– “the god who sees me.”
The Bible is filled with stories of people–sometimes warriors and kings, but often ordinary, even lowly, people: slaves, younger siblings, nameless servants–who are seen and chosen by God for His Glory, to play a special role in history. God sees them all; He knows them all by name (even if their names are not recorded in the Bible!) He knows each person’s strengths and weaknesses; He knows everyone who will cross their path, how their story began, and how their story will end.
We can take great comfort in knowing that God sees us. There is nothing hidden from Him– when we are slighted or mistreated; when we are the ones wronging others…He knows our thoughts and emotions. He knows our strengths and weaknesses (better than we know ourselves!) He understands– even when we don’t–what’s happening in and around us. God sees us exactly as we are– and He already knows all that we can become! Hagar could see that she was a pawn. She could see herself giving Abraham a child when Sarah had not. But God didn’t see her as “just” a slave girl or “just” a pregnant woman. He saw her her as a young woman in distress; as a woman with unique hopes and dreams, aches and disappointments; and as the ancestress of millions upon millions of people– unique people, each one loved and seen and known intimately by their creator. He saw her as someone worthy of being found and called and reassured. And even though God sent her back into a difficult situation, He kept His eyes on her, and came to her rescue again years later.
On days when you feel invisible, or forgotten– when it seems that no one would notice your absence– remember Hagar’s experience with El-Roi– “The God who Sees.”
There is a saying–“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” In other words, if your life circumstances are “sour,” you should look for ways to make your circumstances into something sweeter.
Often, it seems like God gives us lemons–even when we pray and do what we know is “right,” it seems like our circumstances get no better. In fact, sometimes, they get annoyingly, frustratingly worse. But God does not abandon us; He doesn’t sit back and laugh at our frustration, or leave us to flounder in chaos with no hope. Sometimes, our circumstances are opportunities for God to make lemonade.
When God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He did not lead them directly to the Promised Land. Instead, He led them through the wilderness and to the shores of the Red Sea. There, they were trapped by the Egyptian army, complete with horses and chariots and trained warriors. But God’s plans were bigger than the armies of Egypt, and bigger than the sea. God made a path of escape through the sea, and used the very same sea to drown the enemy!
What a miracle! But it wasn’t long before the people began complaining about “lemons” from God–the complained about the food, the journey, the scenery, and their leader, Moses. Even when God did many more miracles– bread from Heaven, meat from the sky, water from the rock, divine intervention in battles– the Israelites were still complaining about all the “lemons” in their life, and longing to go back to Egypt and slavery!
There are seasons in life when it seems like God is giving us lemons–a job loss, an unexpected illness, a wayward daughter, a house fire, civil unrest… Struggles and pain will come into our lives; we should not pretend otherwise, or seek to deny them when they come. And God does not expect us to “make lemonade” all on our own. But He may allow us to be squeezed a bit; He may send the lemons today, and sugar next Monday. He may not give us a fancy carafe and cute little teacups. But He will give us all we need to make lemonade if we are prepared for the task. And usually, He will give us more than enough to set up a lemonade stand and serve others!
Several years ago (2005), I had the opportunity to visit a settlement of Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. Multiple mission groups had banded together to provide basic needs– shelter, basic medical services, toilets and showers, etc. Service teams from Canada and the U.S. had come in to build two-room houses and set up a small clinic and school. Donations had come in– clothing, bedding, toothbrushes… Thousands of Haitians had been displaced after a bad hurricane season and massive flooding, and this refugee camp was home to nearly 150 families. Even with the donations, there were shortages– there was running water, but it wasn’t potable. There was rice, but few vegetables and very little meat. Aspirin and antibiotics were rationed, and most of the children were thin, and sad, half-clothed in rags and bare-foot.
In the midst of all this, there was a miraculous donation– of flip-flops! Literally thousands of pairs of flip-flops–brand new overruns: different sizes, but all the same colors and style–more than enough for every person to have a pair. God had given the people of this settlement a LOT of lemons. Shoes were well and good, but the people needed water… The shoes were distributed– there were even a few left over. But about a week later, it was observed that most of the people were still walking around bare-footed. What had happened to the donated flip-flops? Were the people ungrateful? Were they too proud to use the new shoes? Too fearful?
Not at all! These amazing people trusted that God could help them turn lemons into lemonade. They loaded the flip-flops into large bags, carried them (bare-footed) on their backs into town (the nearest town was nearly 10 miles away, but it was on the coast and attracted many tourists), pooled what little money they had to rent a booth at the beach, and SOLD the flip-flops. The money they made from the sale of the flip-flops purchased five-gallon jugs of drinking water. The jugs were carried back from town and shared among the members of this growing community. As they continued to sell the donated flip-flops, they purchased other small items– packets of laundry detergent, fly swatters, plastic dishes and cups–and established a small colmado (local store) within their own community. When I was able to visit again a couple of years later, the refugee camp was a thriving community– many of the houses had been painted, and had gardens and picket fences, on which clothes were drying in the sun. And while some children were still running in bare feet, many others had shoes. Some of the shoes were ragged and some were mismatched, but the children were happy and healthy. In the middle of the community, there was a beautiful church. Inside, there was a woman sweeping and singing songs of praise.
I share this story because it both encourages me and shames me. In this season of “lemons”– COVID-19 and violent unrest in my country– I have a choice. I can complain like the children of Israel. I can pray for God to take away the lemons; I can beg for Him to send me lemonade. Or I can look around for opportunities to use what He has provided– graciously provided– and sing His praises as I make lemonade.
God, grant me the eyes to see your provision amid whatever challenges I face today. THANK YOU for the lemons you have given me today, and, when I am squeezed, help me to become a sweet and refreshing reminder to others of YOUR Grace and Joy.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my Soul. (It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)
…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)
Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.
Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.
It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.
Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?
Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.
This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.
I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.
“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.
Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.
I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!
Movies and Television shows are breeding grounds for popular phrases that enter the culture and resonate with millions of people. Just utter the phrase, and nearly everyone in the group “gets” the reference. A recent American sitcom has made the phrase “Wait for it..” an iconic reference to comedic timing. It’s often the anticipation of a punchline, a pratfall, an ironic twist, that makes it memorable or noteworthy, and a clever person will use the timing to maximize the humor in a joke or prank.
We have an innate desire to see “what happens” next in life– “Where will I be in five years?” “Will I get the job?” “When will the baby come?” “Will she say ‘Yes’?” “Will the tests come back negative?” The last thing we want at such times is a clever, smug comedian sitting back and using our anticipation for his own entertainment.
Some people imagine God sitting in Heaven, smug and distant, pointing at us and laughing, “Wait for it..” Every time they face disappointment, frustration, oppression, they raise their fists to Heaven and blame their creator for everything they haven’t gotten, every missed opportunity, every setback, every heartache. “If God really loved me, he would not let me be hurt/sad/poor…”
But, when God says “Wait for it…”, he’s not talking about a punchline or an ironic twist of fate. He knows that bad things will happen, but he’s not asking us to wait for those things. And he certainly isn’t sitting back laughing at our pain and disappointment. He’s asking us to wait for something better. Something we cannot even begin to imagine. A restoration of all things– the dead brought back to life, the sick completely healed, the love we long for lavishly poured out in its fullness.
Anticipation is not part of a joke; hope is not corny or naive– it is built into the very soul of each person. We long for what we have never experienced, but what we know is “out there”. In this world, we will be left anticipating, because NOTHING can measure up to what God has in store. Even the best of relationships, the best of comforts, the best of experiences, will leave us wanting something more. And this is a gift, even though it can leave us disappointed, restless, and even hurt. In light of what’s coming, there is no loss or setback so great as to cancel out the hope and the promise that stirs within.
It’s because of this that we can pray with confidence in the midst of our struggles, and with abandon in times of frustration and pain. We live in the finished work of the cross, but the unfinished and ongoing work of renewal and restoration.
“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.
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.
I’ve been reading in the Psalms lately, and one that has really spoken to me this week has been Psalm 3
Psalm 3English Standard Version (ESV)
Save Me, O My God
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
3 O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; 2 many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah[a]
3 But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. 4 I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
5 I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. 6 I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
7 Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
8 Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah
Psalm 3:2The meaning of the Hebrew word Selah, used frequently in the Psalms, is uncertain. It may be a musical or liturgical direction
Everyone has foes– no matter how hard we try to get along with everyone or do right by everyone. And if those foes are people who should be or used to be close to you, it hurts deeper and more profoundly. King David’s own son tried to take the throne and have him murdered. David, who had slain Goliath, feigned madness to escape from his own father-in-law’s murderous plots, and united a kingdom, still fled in terror from his arrogant and foolish son. Even when God rescued him from this foe, David wept and mourned for his rebellious son– to the point of discouraging the very men who had come to his aid!
But, as David did so well and so often, in the midst of his trouble, he turned first to the Lord who ruled his heart. I love the names he gives God in this Psalm—You (Thou), O Lord are a Shield about me, My Glory, and the Lifter of My Head (v. 3– emphasis mine).
David’s God is powerful, majestic, awesome– but He is not distant or unfeeling. Thou (used in the King James and other older English translations) is a term unfamiliar to many modern speakers of English, but it is the familiar form of the second person singular. Many other languages still use this form. It connotes an intimate relationship, such as a family member or beloved friend. David knew his God better than he knew his own son. He loved God whole-heartedly, devotedly, and without reservation.
Lord recognizes God’s position of authority and omnipotence. As close as David was to God, he never lost the awe and wonder of God’s holiness, His majesty, His power, and His wisdom. God raised David from shepherd boy to king. David wasn’t perfect in his obedience, but he was quick repent of his failures, and quick to give God the credit for his successes.
A Shield— God fights alongside David, protecting him, not patronizing him or removing him from the struggle. God doesn’t remove us from our battles; but neither does He leave us alone and unprotected, waiting on the sidelines for us to be slaughtered.* Yesterday, I felt clobbered by circumstances. I felt crushed and battered emotionally, and I wanted a couch, far from the noise of battle. But God knows that no one wins a battle from the couch; no one grows stronger, learns to persevere, builds character, or gains compassion from a couch. God didn’t take me out of the battle, but He was (and continues to be) a shield, protecting me from the real arrows of the enemy– despair, rage, isolation, arrogance, self-destruction–I still feel the force of the blows, and sometimes, I get wounded, but I’m still in the fight, and He’s there with me. *(One caveat– God is a shield to those who trust in Him. He does not promise that we won’t be hurt, won’t fail sometimes, or won’t face death because of our faith. However, He promises a comforter and counselor–the Holy Spirit. There are many who lead so-called “charmed” lives– lives untouched by trials or spiritual battles…Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the same thing as being “shielded”– shields are meant for battle– charms are meant to bring luck)
My Glory— I get chills trying to wrap myself around that thought. That God, the almighty, the all-glorious light of a million galaxies worth of stars, would notice me– let alone that He would number the hairs on my head, provide for my needs, heed my call for help, and fight alongside me–would create me in His image, so that I am an exact reflection of even the teeniest part of His Glory…that He invites me to know Him in all His Glory after all my failures, and broken promises, and shortcomings, and bad moods, and thoughtless words and actions, my bad hair days and dandruff days and runny nose days, and other inglorious ugliness that I cannot hide… But the best of all, I think is the last…
The Lifter of My Head–What a picture of God’s compassion! Think of picking up a newborn baby; how carefully we lift up and support that tiny head– how longingly we cup and shield that fragile face. That’s our God! Imagine on the battlefield, a soldier, wounded, parched, having his head lifted gently by a comrade who comes to tend to his wounds and share a drink of water. Or the prodigal son, who cannot meet his father’s eyes, but finds his chin gently tilted to meet undeserved but merciful smile of his loving Dad. God lifts our head so that we can see beyond the battle; beyond the pain; beyond the grief, and gaze at the Glory only He can share.
If you don’t know this God–He is only a prayer away. If you feel distant from God– call out and ask Him to lift up your head. If you are struggling (as I have been lately), let this be a reminder to seek God by all His glorious names— He will reveal Himself to you for who He is as you call out to Him.
15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Praise is an essential part of prayer– God is worthy of our continual praise and worship. He is eternally good and thoroughly righteous; all-powerful and all-wise. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are to offer a sacrifice of praise–continually– to God.
This is more than just a simple “Praise the Lord” uttered when we are at church or surrounded by fellow believers. A “sacrifice” of praise implies more than just a gift or even an acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and majesty. It implies cost, and hardship; a giving up of something precious in the act of worship.
Sometimes, the sacrifice is small–giving up our right to take credit for God’s mercies; being thankful (instead of jealous) of our neighbor’s success. Other times, the sacrifice is painful– praising God in the aftermath of a daughter’s rape, or a spouse’s betrayal, or acknowledging God’s goodness after a diagnosis of cancer or dementia.
God isn’t looking for false and empty worship–He wants us to be real. Sometimes, the sacrifice isn’t eloquent, polished, or “pretty”; it comes with tears, tormenting questions, and anguish. Sacrifices are poured out, broken, or burned up– dreams that have been dashed, hopes and plans that have been abandoned, heartaches that crush the soul.
God wants these sacrifices– but not because He is a cruel God who wants to see us crushed and hopeless. God wants these sacrifices because only when we are ready to put them on the altar can He make the exchange– Beauty for ashes; eternal hope for temporary dreams; trust and security for our doubts and fears.
In the same verse (Hebrews 13:15), the author describes the sacrifice of praise as the “fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” The Hebrews to whom he was writing were making a huge sacrifice in just uttering the name of Jesus. They were beset on all sides– from the Jews who did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah; to the Romans who were using them as scapegoats for troubles within their Empire. In the midst of their troubles, God did not ask them to slaughter their enemies, or to create a separate society and live only to themselves. He didn’t ask for impossible deeds of daring–though many endured persecution and became martyrs for the Cross of Christ. God asked for the sacrifice of praise. God’s ways are not our ways– his weapons are not our weapons, and his words are not our words– God’s words are more powerful than any weapon or plan that we could ever imagine.
The practice of praying the various names of God and titles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit– Almighty, Father, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Counselor, I AM, Savior, Redeemer, etc.–is the essence of praise. In times of trouble, God’s attributes may seem hidden, but when we acknowledge what we do not see, we are harvesting the fruit of our faith and putting it on the altar.
Stand back– God has been known to set both the sacrifice and the altar on fire!
It can be a dog-eat-dog kind of world out there. Every day, I hear of people who are facing difficult and trying circumstances– health issues, loss of a job or home, loss of a family member or close friend, depression, oppression, harassment, rebellious or estranged children, abuse, academic failures, exhaustion from being provider, caregiver, etc.– even just daily stress. It can really take a toll. But it becomes even more difficult when we isolate ourselves.
When I get stressed, I tend to withdraw. I don’t want others to think of me as a failure, or to think less of me in my struggles. But this is one of the worst things I can do. First, it means more worry and stress because I’m bearing the burden alone! Second, it forces me to cover up my level of anxiety or depression be pretending that things are fine then they aren’t. That would all be bad enough, but it gets worse. Isolating means my focus turns inward– my problems become bigger, not smaller; I’m so close to the problem, I’m not able to “look outside the box” for solutions, because my box keeps closing in on me. I can’t see beyond my circumstances to understand if they are temporary, or if they necessitate some life changes on the other side of whatever crisis I’m dealing with. And, worst of all, the only voice I listen to is my own, rehearsing and reminding me of the difficulties or failures I’m facing.
We all need an encouraging word now and then; a voice telling us that we are not alone; that all is not lost; that there is hope. I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who are great about encouraging me, even when I try to shut them out or pretend that everything is grand. Sometimes that encouragement comes through conversation; sometimes a card or text message or a shared piece of scripture; sometimes it comes through prayer. I may not even know who prayed, or what words they used until days or weeks later, but their faithfulness in praying has become a lifeline when I feel isolated and overwhelmed.
This does not negate my need to pray and ask God for wisdom, healing, or strength for myself, nor does it suggest that God doesn’t answer my prayers. Instead, it shows a pattern– God often answers our prayers by incorporating and using those around us. God’s goodness and his love are shown best in teamwork. We run the race to win, but we race together as teammates, not competitors. We share sorrows, struggles, and joys. We come alongside; we lift others up, and they lift us up in return.
Encouragement does so much, we sometimes underestimate its power. In a world of sniping, criticism, name-calling, and finger-pointing, encouragement does the following:
It lets someone know that they are seen and heard– that they are being noticed, thought of, and valued. This shouldn’t be uncommon, but in a world where we are connected to so many be technology, and to so few face-to-face, it is HUGE!
It give us perspective to realize that we are not alone in our problems and not unique in facing difficulties.
It reminds us that hope and help are gifts to be shared, not something we must earn.
It gives us a purpose and a mission to be part of God’s redemptive work– Jesus gave encouragement and hope to those who needed it most, not to those who “deserved” it.
It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there, but we are not dogs. We are children of the King. Let’s send out some encouraging words today!
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11 (ESV)
Also see James 5:13-16 on praying for one another.