Just When it Couldn’t Get Any Worse…

It is very discouraging to listen to the news lately…pandemics, riots, economic collapse, lock-downs and social distancing mandates…some days it seems like it can’t get any worse. And yet, if someone were to report that things will soon get better, would we believe it? Even if a prophet of God came to reassure us, would we greet her/his news with joy, or would we react with cynical disbelief?

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Such was the case hundreds of years ago in Samaria. The capital city of Israel was under siege by the Syrian King, Ben-Hadad. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Kings+6%3A24-7%3A20&version=ESV The entire city was trapped; surrounded by thousands of soldier, they were terrified, diseased, and starving. It was far worse than most of us have ever experienced. The siege had gotten so bad that the people had resorted to cannibalism–things could not get any worse. The king, desperate and helpless, sent for Elisha. And the prophet had unbelievably good news– in less than twenty-four hours, the fate of Samaria would be completely reversed. There would be food, freedom, and joy throughout the city– plenty for everyone!

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Hope! Joy! Salvation! But how could this be? The king’s messenger scoffed–“Impossible! Even if God opened up the heavens, this could not happen.” So Elisha has bad news for the messenger– he will see this prophecy fulfilled, but will not be able to enjoy it.

And it all happens just as Elisha predicted…in the middle of the night, the Syrian army panics and flees. Prompted by the Lord, they believe they hear a mighty host coming to ambush them in their tents. In their flight, they leave everything behind– food, weapons, clothing, medicine–vast resources, and enough to supply the entire city!

Alerted to this miracle by four lepers who brave the enemy camp only to find it deserted, the king and his messenger are still skeptical. But when the report is confirmed, the citizens rush out to plunder the Syrian goods, trampling over and killing the messenger in their haste.

When times are tough, it is easy to hold on to a limp and lifeless form of faith– we keep praying and reciting platitudes; we tell ourselves to be patient and bear up under pressure. And we should not lose heart or compromise the truth for a temporary sense of ease. But our faith has to be prepared to see God do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us..” (Ephesians 3:20 NKJV) Because just when things couldn’t get any worse, they may just be about to get better than we can imagine!

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Lord, may I seek your face with confidence and joy– not because of the circumstances I face, but because of my faith in Your great might and power, and in Your grace and wisdom to turn even the worst night into a glorious and victorious dawn!

The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

The Season’s Not Over, Yet!

Last Friday, I attended a high school football game in my home town.  It was homecoming, complete with floats and balloons, face paint, and screaming fans (myself included).

My hometown team is having a fantastic season so far– their record is 6 and 0, and they are winning by wide margins each week.  I’m a little biased, not only since this is my home town, but because I have a nephew and a cousin on the team!  They have already qualified for a spot in the playoffs for their division, and they have dreams of becoming state champions.

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I hope they make it.  I pray that they will play their best; that they will stay safe and healthy, too.  I want them to win, and I think they have a good chance.  But the season’s not over yet.  They still have to play a couple of tough teams in the regular season, and they will face stiff competition in the playoffs.

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As good as they have been so far, the teammates and coaches will still drill, train, and learn how to adjust the way they play based on whatever the next game throw at them.  Next week’s team may be better at passing, or rushing.  Their players may be bigger, or more agile, or more experienced than others.  The weather conditions may play a bigger role next week.

All that to say that we all go through seasons– sometimes even “winning” seasons– and each one requires that we prepare, work, train, and persevere until the season is over.  Some of us are facing a season of trials and losses–we’re waiting and hoping for the season to end.  And it will.  But the season’s not over yet.  Stay in the game– keep praying, keep training, and keep believing that there will be a new season of hope.  Some of us are in a season of victory!  That’s great, but the season’s not over yet.  Stay focused– keep training and preparing, and learning, knowing that there will come a season of trial.  Some of us are watching others in their success–but the season’s not over yet.  Stop comparing– reach out and connect.  Show respect; show compassion.

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This is true in all areas of life– there are seasons in our education, seasons in parenting and relationships, seasons in our careers and service, seasons in politics, economics, and even in our faith walk.  And in every season, God is there.  Like a proud parent or an ardent fan, He is cheering you on; like a great coach, He gives guidance and instruction; like a cherished teammate, He has your back.  In all of this, God roots for all His children– not that some will “win” and others will “lose”, but that all will learn to play their very best and become “victors”.

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No matter what kind of season we are in, or where we are in our season, we should remember a few things:

  • Life is both an individual and a team activity.  None of us can “win” on our own, nor can we expect the team to “carry” us to victory without any effort on our part.
  • We can’t see the end from the beginning (or even the middle).  But God can.  And we can trust His guidance and His timing, even if we don’t see the whole picture.
  • God goes not see “winning” and “losing” in the same way the world judges it.  What looks like “winning” to us may be superficial and false.  What feels like losing may be building a Godly character that will overshadow the temporary struggles of this season.
  • Seasons come and go, but not everyone experiences them the same way or at the same time.  In other words, don’t compare your winning swim season to someone else’s losing soccer season, or your dry summer to someone else’s monsoon season.  Instead, focus on your own season and your own growth.  Don’t close yourself off to others– you may have an opportunity to give or accept help, advice, training, and encouragement along the way–but don’t let others become more powerful (or less worthy of respect) than they really are.
  • At the end of the “season”, if we know Jesus Christ, we will share in the ultimate victory.  The celebration that occurs over each person who comes to Christ makes any celebration here on earth seem dull and timid–no amount of parade floats, lights, fireworks, screaming fans, balloons, or other excitement can compare to the joy of welcoming a lost soul into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Mercy Rule

I witnessed a blow-out high school football game last week.  The final score was 57 to 0!  Once the point differential was over 50, they invoked the “mercy rule.”  The game clock would not stop for downs; there would be no more “time out” calls– as this happened late in the game anyway, it just meant that the end came quickly and “mercifully” for the losing team.  It also meant that players were less likely to take dangerous risks in the forlorn hope of scoring big points.

High school football has a “mercy rule”  so that struggling teams don’t become victims of absolute despair.  This team deserved to lose, and they did.  They lost big; but they could’ve lost by a wider margin.  And they didn’t lose for lack of effort– they pushed hard and gave it a mighty try.  But they were not up to the challenge of a better team.

 

In life, when we come up against Sin, we can give our best effort, and still lose big.  Oh, there are certain sins that seem easily “tamed” or “defeated,” but there are others that end up crushing us– maybe it’s an addiction to porn, or a tendency to spread rumors; maybe we harbor bitterness or doubt, or we can’t control angry outbursts.

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In the end, we are all losers in the game against Sin– whether the loss seems like a close shave or a blowout, the result is the same.  But the consequences are much more dire.  The penalty for Sin is Death.  Not just a single lost game, but an eternal loss of life and hope and light and love!  We are no match for Sin, and Sin shows no mercy.  Even with a mercy rule, our situation seems hopeless.  But it is not.

Death may seem like a a harsh and undeserved judgment.  We “can’t” win.  Or, more correctly, we will always lose.  Even a “mercy rule,” while it may mean that we don’t get the death we deserve, wouldn’t keep us from being “losers.”  This is how many people see God’s offer of salvation– as some sort of mercy rule that keeps us from the fate we can’t avoid.  But even if God only offered mercy, it would be infinitely better than we can imagine.  Because God’s mercy is not just a “rule”, it is a priceless gift of restoration.  We can be free from the “loss” and penalty we deserve, no matter what the “point differential.”  Even a close “loss” to sin is wiped out by God’s mercy.

God’s offer of salvation doesn’t just stop at mercy, however.  It includes something that will never happen in a football game or anywhere else in life.  God extends His Grace– all that we don’t deserve, and never could deserve–above and beyond the already infinite and superior mercy we needed to escape the judgment of Death.  We don’t just escape the horrors of death and hell.  We are gifted with all we need to win the game– to be co-victors over Death and Sin.  God, in His mercy keeps us from losing.  In His Grace, He coaches us, plays alongside us, cheers for us, and gives us the power to become all that we need to be to play our best.  AND, He has already secured the victory.  Far from being in a position where we “can’t” win– God offers us the opportunity to be in a position where we can’t LOSE!

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It is my ongoing prayer that if you are reading this, you have already responded to God’s invitation, through Jesus Christ, to be victorious; that God’s spirit would guide me to write what will be helpful in encouraging you and strengthening your faith (as well as my own).  I pray that you will grow in faith and make the pursuit of prayer part of your daily walk in Faith.  If that is not the case, and you have not accepted both God’s mercy and His grace, I pray that you will take that opportunity today.

Don’t wait for a “mercy rule”– accept the mercy of the Ruler!

Where Am I?

Smack-dab in the center of Sin and Pride;
You could find me in Peril, Intrigue and Rebellion–
Guilt surrounded me, pain and despair held me fast.
But I was not in Repentance, Mercy, or Grace.

I had die to “I”– let it go and let the Son redeem the Sin
Trade Pride for Prayer, and Hype for Hope.

But I am no longer lost or dead– and no longer a slave to sin or pride.
I can now be found in Faith, and Charity;
I thrive in Fellowship, I have a Friend in Jesus,
A Spirit to guide me, and a vision for Eternity.
It is not “I” who lives, but “I AM” who lives in me.
Salvation, forgiveness, life, and victory are all mine;
Alive in Him, I am found in Christ– sanctified,
And never alone.

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Romans 8:1-5 King James Version (KJV)

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.

 

1 Corinthians 15:57 New International Version (NIV)

57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

  • A brief note about Scripture references and quotes:  I try to give scripture references and quotes in various translations, though I give most in the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV) or the King James or New King James versions (KJV or NKJV).  I don’t intend to cause confusion by doing this.  There are several excellent translations/versions available, and for a good comparison, there are several wonderful Bible study websites (two of my favorites are Bible Gateway and Bible Hub  ).  I simply find that there are some nuances that make for easier reading or use in the blog.  Often, one translation will have notes and cross references that are wonderful for further study, but confusing to include as part of the blog quote.  I encourage anyone to read the verses in whatever translation they have available, feel most comfortable using, or feel is most trustworthy.  I also welcome comments or corrections.

Praying to Win

Have you ever watched a sporting event–a real nail-biter–and prayed for your team to win?  Do you wonder if God is concerned about Little League or High School Basketball, or which team wins the Superbowl?  And what about the parents and coaches on both teams praying to him–one side has to “lose”–how does God answer such prayers?  DOES he answer such prayers?

While the Bible doesn’t give us a specific answer, I think there are some general principles that apply.  When teams prepare for a big game, they may talk about their desire to win, they may study their opponents, assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and give themselves pep-talks about winning, but they don’t practice winning– they practice playing their best, improving those areas where they are weakest, and working to bring their best on game day.  They don’t pray to win by default or by bad sportsmanship.

The apostle Paul uses athletic analogies for the Christian life– he talks about running the good race, fighting the good fight, and working to be worthy of the prize.  But he doesn’t direct Christians to pray that God gives us a victory.  Instead, he points out that the greatest victory– that over sin and death– has already been won!  We don’t fight the battles wondering if our victory or loss will turn the tide of the war.  We fight in the hope of strengthening our fellow warriors and bringing our victorious Savior more glory and honor.

This holds true in other areas as well.  In politics, we fight to win, but not in desperation or despair, knowing that if we lose this battle, God is not defeated or even surprised by the outcome.  Even in situations of corruption, despotism, and chaos, God can raise up leaders, topple evil powers, and bring renewal and revival.  In war, we fight to win, we fight to defend what we know to be right; but even if we lose the battles, we don’t lose faith.

God doesn’t always give us “wins.”  He doesn’t guarantee that we will never face setbacks or disappointments.  In fact, sometimes we need to “lose.”  We need to lose our selfish ambition, our pride, our drive to compare ourselves with others, our envy and greed, and our failure to submit to God’s best plan.

We pray for victory, but more than victory at any cost, we pray for God’s will to be victorious– for his strength to be shown even in and through our own weakness.  We pray for victory on God’s terms– which may mean a painful loss today, and grieving for the night, but joy that comes in the morning.  Great teams, great nations, great leaders– are not forged in continuous expectation of easy victory.  Sometimes we learn more and become greater by learning from our failures.

Let’s not just pray to win– let’s pray to be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)!

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