When God Uses a “Wasted” Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20/20 Vision, Blind Faith, and Prayer

As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.

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The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.

But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.

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Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.

If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV via http://www.biblegateway.com)

This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here:
https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.

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The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.

Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.

When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.

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As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!

Nought Be All Else to Me…

“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my Heart;
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou Art.”

 

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:7-14 (NIV)

Have you spent time recently with someone who is young and “in love” for the first time?  You may spend time with them, but their time, their thoughts, their energy, their conversation– all revolves around their loved one.  All the other things in life are secondary, and life is lived on auto-pilot.  They forget to eat; forget to do even the most ordinary tasks, and daydream through whatever tasks they do manage to complete.  What time is it?  What are they wearing?  Is the snowing?  Raining?  Have they spoken to their parents today?  They don’t know!  They don’t care.  But they can tell you how long it has been since they’ve spoken to “that” person.  They remember what they wore, what they ate last night, what they said two days ago, and how their hair reflected the moonlight…

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God is not so foolishly forgetful as we are, but he loves us with that same kind of abandon…he knows the very hairs on our head.  He knows our thoughts and every joy and hurt in our heart.  He loves the sound of our name, and the sound of our voice as we call to him.  He longs for the same ardent love from us.

When we sing a line like “nought be all else to me, save that Thou art,”  or we read the Apostle Paul talk about everything else in his life being rubbish or garbage, we are not literally saying that everything is worthless, or that we would rather sit alone in a darkened room than to live our lives in the world and interact with those around us.  God has not called us to be hermits who pray in locked rooms on our knees for 20 hours a day.  He does not call us to fast to the point of starvation, or shun all human contact.  Jesus himself did not despise food or rest or people.

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But He did say some startling things about the importance of God in relation to all the things of this world.  God gave us wonderful gifts– sunlight, water, food, blue sky, grass and trees, families and friends.  God wants us to enjoy them–AS GIFTS.  Never should we love the gift more than the giver.  Never should we take the gifts for granted or forget that they are gifts– not earned, not the work of our own hands.  If we are not careful, they can become idols and distractions.  Suddenly, we are torn in our affections.  God wants us to love our neighbor, but not to worship her/him.  God wants us to nurture our families, but he wants to be part of that process, not left on the sidelines.  God wants us to use our talents and our gifts to benefit others.  And God’s gifts, while always “good” are not always pleasant or easy.  Loving others can be risky and exhausting.  Putting God first often means sacrifice and ridicule.  And some of God’s gifts may be wrapped in hardship.  When we experience tragedy, like a house fire, that is not a “gift” from God.  But God will send us gifts even in times of grief or stress– an understanding friend, a temporary shelter, a renewed sense of purpose–in the midst of our darkest moments.

Young love, while ardent and intense, often burns itself out.  TV shows and football games become more “important” than deep conversation and longing looks.  “He makes me laugh,” turns into, “he never takes anything seriously.”  “She walks in beauty like the night,” becomes, “She snores like a pig!”  Worse, we take for granted that we know each other “well enough.”  God knows this– he warns us that the same thing can happen to us in our relationship with Him.  We can easily be pulled away or lulled into a false sense that “all is well” even as we drift off course.  We need reminders of God’s rightful place in the center of our attention– our focus and vision fixed on Him.

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“Nought be all else to me”  isn’t about the things of this life disappearing or being worthless; it’s about them being “worth” less than the one who rules over all things.

Be Thou My Vision

One of my favorite old hymns is the ancient Irish tune, “Be Thou My Vision.”  I have heard it jokingly referred to as “the optometrist’s hymn.”  But there’s a lot more to unpack in the title than just a plug for good eye care.

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God’s word is full of references to sight, seeing, blindness, light, lamps, darkness, night, day, visions and dreams, foresight and prophecy, images and reflections, and much more.  God is both the source of our sight, and of our insight.  God sheds light on our deepest secrets of the past, and provides a lamp allowing us to see the obstacles ahead more clearly.  Jesus came to be the Light of the World, and bring sight to the blind, both physically blind and spiritually blind.

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Many times, we pray for answers– we want a quick solution to our circumstances, or a definitive direction for our next step.  But God sometimes wants to show us a bigger picture.  Sometimes, he wants to show us more intricate details.  Instead of asking for what we want God to give us, we need to ask for God to give us the vision HE has for our future.  He may not reveal every detail– or he may only reveal the next detailed step.  But God’s vision is clearer and bigger, and more glorious than we will ever know if we aren’t willing to look with His eyes to see.

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We also need to ask God to BE our vision– that we would see him more clearly for Who He Is!  Whatever is in our focus will appear bigger and clearer than things in the periphery.  When we allow Him to be our vision, we start to see things from His perspective, which makes all the difference.  What we see on our own is often an optical illusion– problems look bigger than they really are, hurts and grievances grow larger,  and people become distorted by the lenses or mirrors we use to view them.  And we lose sight of God’s glory, wisdom, majesty, power, and everlasting love.  But God restores our focus and our perspective, so that we see problems in the light of His power to overcome; we see people who are made in His likeness and image– people who are loved by God, even if they are in rebellion against Him.  We see the glory of God’s creation as it was meant to be, even as we see the wreckage of pollution, corruption, disease and disaster.  We see God’s mercy as lives are transformed and families are mended and justice is finally achieved.  And we see the rays of hope in God’s promises fulfilled and those yet to be fulfilled.

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Behold!

Matthew 6:22-23 English Standard Version (ESV)

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

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O be careful little eyes what you see

O be careful little eyes what you see

There’s a Father up above

And He’s looking down in love

So, be careful little eyes what you see

whole song text here

 

This little light of mine–I’m gonna let it shine!

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Both the scripture text and the children’s song above are often used in the context of watching pornography or violent images, and their negative effects.  It is true that if we fill our sight with negative and sinful images, we will be impacted negatively.  We become desensitized to violence and evil; we become addicted to images that shock or excite us.

But I think there is more going on in this text, and I think it has a bearing on our prayer life.  What we choose to see also involves what we choose NOT to see. We talk a lot about what we shouldn’t be watching or seeing, but there are some things– even unpleasant things– that we MUST see if we are to be the light of the world.  Not only must we see such things, we must shine a light on them and cause others to see them.  Injustice, corruption, dishonesty– we must be careful to see them for what they are.

We live in a world of optical illusions, and it can be very difficult to see clearly.  But that is what we are called to do.  If our eyes are good/healthy, we will let in the light of truth, so that shadows and illusions will become stand out.  If our eyes are bad/unhealthy, the shadows and illusions will trick us.  We will see only what can be seen in a glance, and miss the bigger picture.

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John the Baptist had excellent “vision.”  As he was out in the hot sun glinting off the Jordan, he looked up to see hundreds of people waiting to be baptized.  But his eyes were searching the horizon, seeing all the others, but seeking one face.  And when he saw it, he drew everyone’s attention to it– “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (John 1:29)  Our eyes, like those of John, should be looking with purpose and hope.

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Throughout the Bible, God looks at people with love and compassion.  Several times in the gospels, Jesus looks upon or takes note of people (some of whom are seeking him, and others who know nothing of him) and has compassion on them.  Our eyes, like those of our Father, should be looking in love.  Love sees things as they really are– it sees sin, pain, disease, betrayal, war, hatred, greed.  But love sees beyond to people who need salvation, healing, restoration, peace, compassion, and hope.

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I need to give careful consideration to what I allow myself to see– do I see all the negative, hateful, sinful things going on around me?  Do I see such things with a sense of purpose and with compassion?  Or do I ignore them and turn my gaze inward, shutting out the hurt and need all around me?  Do I see all the shadows and illusions and let my own light grow dim?  Or do I see the Light of the World, ready to shine (even through me), with hope and redemption?  Will I pray with my eyes closed and shuttered, or wide open?

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