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!

What a Waste!

(The following is an updated post from a couple of years ago..)

The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.

In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but only lives to see a brief span of it. What a waste! What a tragedy!

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So what are we to do?

First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Life itself is not a waste– but the things we do can waste the precious (and brief!) life we have been given. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.

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Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!

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Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he seems to have lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in his faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to Israel in earlier years.

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Solomon reaches a final conclusion. One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–but God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

My prayer today is that we would not waste a single minute! And that we would see that even in the wasted moments and foolish mistakes of our past, there is redemption, hope, and renewal. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted!

Spiritual Understanding

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message– emphasis added)
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“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
and your ways are not my ways.”
This is the Lord’s declaration.
“For as heaven is higher than earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8-9 (Christian Standard Bible)

I do not understand God’s ways. If I try to work it out with human understanding, I will never make sense of how God works. I don’t have His wisdom or omniscience; I don’t have His eternal perspective or omnipotence. God will never answer all of my questions; He will never reveal all of His plans or reasoning to me. He calls me to walk in Faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) This is a stumbling block to many. It is especially frustrating for those who think they already DO know (almost) everything, and believe that they should be able to speak to God as a peer, even to be able to consult Him! I knew of a man (a convicted felon) who refused to repent of his actions. He admitted that he had done wrong, and that his prison sentence was deserved, but when challenged with how he would answer before God, he simply said–“God and I will come to an understanding.” He simply felt that if he explained “his side of the story,” God would change his immutable commandments and make an exception.

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God doesn’t need anyone to “explain” anything to Him. Nor does He “owe” any of His creation an explanation for His actions or seeming inactions. I will never understand why certain injustices are allowed to happen, and seem to go unpunished in my lifetime. I don’t understand God’s timing in my life– why my father died when he did, or why I had to wait so long to be married. But I am learning to trust that God knows every injustice, every need, every situation we face, and that He WILL make all things “right” in HIS time and in His perfect way.

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Spiritual Understanding has to come from the Spirit. It cannot come through our own wisdom or learning. It has to be built, not just on Faith, but on acting in Faith and walking humbly in conformity to our Good Shepherd’s example. We must become, not just “fans” of Christ, or even just students of Christ, but disciples of Christ, if we want to begin to have greater understanding. Like the apprentice, who must learn by doing, so we must learn through practice of God’s Word. We must also ASK for wisdom and understanding. (James 1:5) They are gifts, just like Salvation. We don’t earn understanding; we are granted it as we walk in obedience and faith.

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Today, my prayer is that I would receive insight as I learn to trust, and I would trust that God will give the wisdom I need for the day ahead– no more or less, and not a moment too late or too soon. And experience confirms that He is faithful to do just that!

I Will Arise and Go To Jesus

Prayer is a pursuit. It is a lifestyle. It is a practice. But it is, sadly, a last resort for some people. And for others, it is a habit, but one among several others.

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What happens when we substitute other habits for prayer? When we turn to other sources first for our comfort or answers?

I know something of this from a brief but bitter experience– as a medium.

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It started out as a bit of fun. I never planned to dabble in the occult. In fact, I was repulsed by Ouija boards and Tarot cards and Palmistry. But the mother of a friend of mine taught some of us a “party trick.” Using an ordinary deck of playing cards, she showed us how we could “tell fortunes.” And it wasn’t full of “spiritual” or “mystic” symbolism at all. It was like making up a story. Certain cards would “represent” certain things– face cards represented men or women; a certain number card might represent communications, another finances, and another travel. The other person did all the “work”– they cut the cards, picked one pile, cut again, chose another pile (until it was small enough to tell a story without too many elements); they even laid the cards out in a random pattern, face up. All I did was the initial shuffle, and the “fortune telling/storytelling” at the end.

I had almost forgotten about this “trick.” I hadn’t seen it done in years. But when I was in college, and we were bored one night, I told my friends, and they wanted to try it. I never took it seriously; I never depended on cards to shape my own future, and I never thought of it as being any kind of substitute for prayer or trust in God. But it was “fun” to see what stories I could make from the cards. “You will soon receive a phone call from an old friend. They will invite you to take a short trip/run some errands with them. It will be costly.” All the details very vague– no names or dates, no specific locations or consequences–and I didn’t advise anyone what to do. My friends got in on the act, suggesting possible “stories” from the cards and their arrangements. Most were silly and had a positive tone.

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But then, something changed. A friend of a friend stopped by as we were “telling fortunes.” I explained that it wasn’t “real,” and she seemed to understand. But she went and got some more “friends.” And one of her “friends” took it very seriously. He wanted to know what he “should do” about an upcoming event…could I tell him whether he should go or not? Could I help him find out if his girlfriend was “the right one?” I explained that I couldn’t tell him anything like that, and nor could the playing cards– all I did was make up stories for fun. He pushed for awhile, and I refused to do another “reading” for him. He was disappointed and confused. Why wouldn’t I tell him what he needed to know? Why didn’t I help him?” I was a little angry at his insistence and I made an excuse to ask everyone to leave for the night– I had to study for a test; it was getting late–I just wanted it to end.

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But after he left, I began to shudder. This young man wanted ME to tell him what to do about situations about which I knew nothing. He was willing to place his hope and his future in the turn of a few ordinary playing cards and MY made-up story. I had never met him, but he assumed that I had knowledge about his future and the wisdom to guide him through it. And all I had offered him was a parlor trick. I hadn’t talked to him about his worries or offered to pray for him, or even asked if I could pray. I have no idea what his spiritual condition was, but he was eager to find easy answers from a stranger. And what if I had “made up” more stories for him? What if he acted on them? What harm might have come from a “harmless” parlor trick?

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I have never done the “fortune telling trick” since that night. But I often think about all the many “games” I see that offer to “tell” me about my past, or my inner self, or my future. How often have I been tempted to “play?” How often have I, even in “fun,” allowed a stranger or an algorithm to “reveal” secrets or predict outcomes? And how often have I failed to bring my thoughts, questions, worries, or attitudes to the One who knows everything? How often have I neglected to put my whole trust in Him?

I know people may say it is “harmless” to consult a Horoscope, or play games involving the future, but it is not wise. There are dozens of Biblical warnings against such activities. We are to seek God first and foremost, and trust His will for our lives.

I hope that today, we are eager to arise from whatever tasks or worries we may face, and find in Jesus all the “charms” that we can never find in anyone or anything else!

Running the Race

I am NOT a runner. If you ever see me running, I’ve either just encountered a snake, or there’s a wild animal chasing me. So I don’t know a lot about running a marathon, or even a 5-or 10-K race. Even in my daily life as a Christian, I prefer to use the term “Christian Walk!” But the Bible uses the imagery of a race to describe the Christian life. In our pursuit of Christ-likeness, including our pursuit of prayer, we need to think like a runner.

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For those of us who don’t run, this may pose a bit of a challenge, but the Bible gives us clear principles that provide good guidance.

  • Keep moving forward: “12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (Philippians 3:12-14 The Message) Runners don’t worry about what is behind them. They are focused on the goal– reaching the finish line. We need to stop focusing on our past, or the anxieties about the road ahead, and keep our focus on the ultimate goal.
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  • Travel light/Get rid of the baggage: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us..” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV) What is weighing me down, that I need to let go of, if I want to keep running with endurance? I wrote earlier this month about the expectations attached to the “model” woman in Proverbs 31. Expectations, guilt, unforgiveness, shame, wanting to please other people, even our own self-talk can weigh us down, slow us down, and wear us out. It’s time to let go!
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  • Run with the pack: Running alone can be good for meditation, but we need the challenge and the encouragement of others if we want to train and grow stronger. Reconsider the passage I quoted above in its larger context: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV–emphasis added) We need to surround ourselves with companions, role models, teachers, friends, and others who can encourage, sharpen, comfort, and help us in our pursuit. And we need to remember that NO challenge or opposition we face is unknown to Christ. He is our ultimate role model, and, along with the Holy Spirit, our greatest coach!
  • Run/train with purpose: “25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26 NIV) I know many people who “know” a lot about the Bible; they’ve grown up in the church or attended seminary; they’ve memorized scripture or studied theology– only to leave the church and their faith. I know many others who have a “faith” that bears little resemblance to the Bible’s teaching– it is based mostly on their “feelings” about God and a “truth” that is relative to their circumstances and changing emotions. Pursuing the Christian life involves discipline– being a disciple–and that involves all areas of life– studying the Bible, and putting it into practice. It’s not enough to “know” about doctrine or to “feel” like a Christian. We must pursue Christ-likeness in our words, prayers, habits, relationships, etc..
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  • Don’t run on “no fuel.” “29 He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. 30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, 31 But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:29-31 NKJV). It is tempting to run on an empty stomach (see traveling light above), or to start running without stretching or warming up. Anything we do in our own wisdom and power– even “good” things like prayer and Bible study, can leave us empty and worn out. We need to come back to our source of wisdom and power–(See Hebrews 12: 2-3 again!)
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Running a race isn’t easy. Walking through life is a challenge, too. Pursuing Christ-likeness in our habits, including our prayer life, takes dedication, discipline, guidance, and endurance. But God is faithful to provide all that we need to finish the race and gain the prize!

Intelligent Fools

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

Psalm 14:1 (ESV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Iron Sharpens Iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17
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Do you have a friend who “sharpens” you? Someone who keeps you honest? Someone who challenges you? Someone who holds you accountable? The Bible has much to say about relationships that we form– and some of it may surprise us. Earlier in Proverbs 27, the writer says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (v.5 NIV) and, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (v. 6 NKJV).

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I don’t know about you, but I want friends who encourage, friends who make me feel good about myself; friends who make life more pleasant and uncomplicated. I don’t enjoy hearing criticism, or having my beliefs and ideas challenged. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I tend to avoid it whenever possible. However, I also know the truth of verse 6 from experience–I can trust the constructive criticism of a good friend, even when it stings in the moment. A loving friend will take the risk of saying what needs to be said, and not just what I want to hear.

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There are three points that struck me recently as I came across these verses:

  • “Iron sharpens iron”–nothing gets sharpened by a marshmallow, and an iron blade that is left unsharpened will either lose its edge over time, or rust from disuse. We may not like conflict. But we need to be disciplined, and that means that we need to be held accountable. We need to be challenged and sharpened, or we will grow dull or rusty. God can use the “fire” of circumstances to soften our hard hearts, but He often uses other people to “spark” us into action. Left to my own devices, I can grow rusty and useless. I can feel sorry about a bad or sinful habit– I can confess it, and make plans to change. But I am more likely to grow and develop positive habits and actions if there is someone keeping me honest. I can have good ideas; I can know what the Bible says– but I can also fall into deception, lazy thinking, and pride. A good friend can help keep me “sharp” in both actions and thinking. We are not meant to do life alone, and God does not want “Holy Hermits.” He also does not want us to be so timid and accepting that we fail to sharpen others. It is really hard to risk a friendship by speaking the truth–but NOT speaking is sometimes more damaging to the friendship– and to our friends!
  • “Iron” is what sharpens “Iron”–We need to seek out truth and wisdom, and that’s what we need to offer others, as well. We should not waste time on petty disagreements, trying to “win” every point in an argument, or pointing out every minor fault. We also need to have mutual respect; being willing to listen, willing to let a few sparks fly, and willing to respect another’s strengths as we develop our own. This verse is not about letting someone else dominate you or shut down your voice, just as it is not about dominating or “fixing” someone else by forcing your opinions (even if grounded in the truth) down their throat.
  • “So one person sharpens another.” Notice it doesn’t say whether the person is a believer, a dear, personal friend, or a relative. Any person can “sharpen” us. I may disagree with another person– a coworker, a peer, a neighbor–and still respect that their ideas, their words, even their criticism.
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How does this tie into our pursuit of prayer? Conflict and testing can make us better or bitter–in this analogy, it can make us humble or it can make us brittle. A humble person will be shaped and sharpened. A brittle person will snap or break.

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When I am challenged or criticized, do I take it to God or do I take it to heart? Do I ask God to reveal truth or have I already decided what I want to believe? Not all criticism is constructive; not all challenges are meant to sharpen us. Do I react in anger? Do I become sullen? Do I crumble into a puddle of doubt? Or do I see it as an opportunity to become sharper, to change course, or to refine my thinking? Conflict and criticism do not happen in a vacuum–God is as close as a prayer, and willing to give wisdom, discernment, and strength!

How do I react to the other person? Do I become bitter toward them? Do I seek for ways to repay them with criticism or prove myself to them? Do I pray for THEM to change, without looking at my own responsibility? Do I appreciate the risk they may have taken to speak up? (Or do I appreciate the reasons they may have for feeling or thinking as they do, even if I am convinced they are in error?) Can I offer thanks to God for the way He may be using that person to sharpen me–even if that is not their intent? Can I pray for God to bless and strengthen them, even if we don’t agree?

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This is all easier to write than to put into practice. But I can say from experience that God has often used the most unlikely people to “sharpen” me in unlikely ways and unlikely moments, and I am so grateful for the “faithful” (and temporary!) wounds of friends. I am also grateful for others who challenge me to defend the Faith, and who open their hearts to me– even when we clash sometimes.

Two Ears

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak!”

Epictetus
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I write about prayer–how I pray, when I pray, how other people pray, what the Bible says about prayer– but prayer is a two-way street. God desires to hear from us. But He also desires that we should listen. In fact, there is really nothing that we can “tell” God that He doesn’t already know. But there is much that we can learn when our mouth is shut and our eyes and ears are attuned to what God is telling us!

God rarely speaks to us directly, as another human would. God spoke to Moses face-to-face (see Exodus 33), and Jesus spoke directly to hundreds of people during His earthly life and ministry. He also spoke directly to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, though not face-to-face (see Acts 9). But most of us never hear the actual voice of God. Yet He is constantly sending us messages– if we are listening.

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Often, He sends messages through His word. When we read the Bible, or hear it read aloud, a certain passage or phrase will suddenly stand out, offering comfort, conviction, or insight as we need it. Sometimes, it is the gentle prick of our conscience, or an urgent “sense” that we are to do something (or NOT do something). It may even sound like a voice in our head– our own or someone else’s–urging us to do something out of the ordinary or out of our comfort zone. Sometimes, He speaks to us through the wisdom and insight of someone else–a neighbor, a friend, a family member; sometimes even a stranger–and we get a sense that what we are hearing is “bigger” or more important than just words. And sometimes, God “speaks” through our other senses– in the beauty of a sunset, or the cool breeze at the end of a hot day; through the wordless songs of a bird or a rippling brook; the smell of warm bread–His way of reminding us that He is present, and He is Good.

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We need to listen for such moments and messages. But we also need to listen carefully. Not all “feelings” are from God; not all “wisdom” is inspired. God will NEVER send us messages that are in conflict with His character. He may call us to do things that seem impossible, uncomfortable, “strange,” or even potentially “dangerous,” but He will not tell us to do something that contradicts His own word. God may nudge you to leave a toxic relationship, or move to another city or country to spread the Gospel. He may urge you to speak to a stranger on a bus, or give something away to a friend without knowing why. He may ask you to befriend someone who is homeless, or mentor a child, or volunteer your time in ways or places you never imagined. But God will never suggest (or send someone else to suggest) that you cheat on your spouse, or abuse the trust of a child, or mislead your neighbor, or steal from a stranger– NEVER.

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It isn’t just that God gave us two ears (and two eyes!) so that we can look and listen twice as much as we speak– we NEED to listen twice as much and twice as closely.

How will I listen today? How will God speak? When will I close my mouth, so that I can open my ears? Will I watch as well as listen? Lord, help me to hear You. Help me to discern your voice above the noise and busyness around me today.

Look-alike Morals

It is Morel season in my home state of Michigan. Morels are mushrooms that only grow in mid-Spring. They are usually found in or near wooded areas, and they are delicious! Thousands of eager hunters search woods, roadsides, forests, orchards, and glades looking for the elusive spores each year. While morels can be “grown,” they are not easy to cultivate. Finding them is like a treasure hunt in all the freshness of spring’s new growth!

Morel mushroom

But there are several look-alike mushrooms– some of which are dangerous and even poisonous– growing now, too. It takes a good eye and some knowledge to tell the difference. False morels may have a similar shape, but they usually are slightly different in color and texture. Some false morels will appear brown, reddish, or even slightly purple, while true morels range from yellow, yellow-gray, or gray-black. False morels may be “puffier” or “spongier” than true morels. And while true morel “caps” attach to their stems, false ones may be detached or flared. It is important to know the difference and to be cautious when collecting the elusive morel.

false morel–gyromitra esculenta

The same is true of morals–there are plenty of people masquerading as men and women of integrity. They are polite, clean, charming; many are even respected members of the community. They may volunteer, give to charities, attend a local church, run for public office, hold a job requiring responsibility and trust. They look and act like honest, kind people. But they may be dangerous– even poisonous. They may even rise to positions in the church, destroying faith and trust among members of their flock, or spreading distrust and confusion among neighbors and even families.

So how do we “spot” the difference? Just as importantly, how do know which type we are!?

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There are a few principles in the Bible that we can use to identify “false prophets” and those with “look-alike morals.”

  • First, we need to study what a true “Christ-follower” should look like. It is vital that we take the time to study for ourselves what the Bible says. Asking “what would Jesus do?” does us no good if we don’t know what He actually did and said! Putting all our trust in a role model or a dynamic leader is like choosing a mushroom because it “looks tasty–it could be a morel…”
  • Second, we need to look for people who try to “color” or “shade” the truth to look “tastier.” All the way back in the Garden of Eden, Satan used this trick with Eve– twisting God’s words, adding supposedly “hidden” knowledge, and dismissing the severity of God’s warning:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:2-5 (NIV)
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  • Closely related to this, we need to look for people who use words to spread division or discontent–including constant critics and complainers. It is tempting to get caught up in arguments about certain traditions, worship styles, external standards, new practices, personal revelation, etc.. But we must avoid such poison, and avoid spreading it! One poisonous mushroom can poison the whole “batch!”
    • Beware of those who arrogantly claim to have “new knowledge” or “new interpretations”– God does NOT change; nor does His Word. New insights and deeper or personal understanding should stand up under testing. Someone who is not willing to be questioned or asked to explain themselves may have a bad reason for their unwillingness. Just because something is traditional, or “old” doesn’t mean it must change.
    • Also beware those who are dismissive toward others in the church, whether they are critical of the teaching, the music, certain ministry programs, or individuals who serve. We are commanded to build one another up, not pass judgment based on personal prefrerences.
  • Look (and listen) closely to make sure we are still “attached” to our stem– the Living Word of God. Many Christians will quote “moral” sayings that are found nowhere in the Bible:
    • “God helps those who help themselves.”
    • “The devil made me do it.”
    • “There are many paths to God.”
    • “All you need is love.”
    • “God just wants us to be happy.”
    • “God will never give you more than you can handle..”
  • Finally, we need to look at the person’s “fruit.” Someone can have an impressive outward show of morals, yet miss out on “bearing fruit.” Such people may display all the trappings of earthly success, yet they seen to have no peace, or their lives seem joyless or filled with discontent or intemperence. In my own life, am I demonstrating Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control? (see Galatians 5:22-23) Am I humble? Or am I impatient, unkind, judgmental, fickle, reckless, complaining, bitter, envious, angry, dissatisfied, greedy, worried, and prone to mock others– especially those in the church?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
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When we find true followers of Christ, we should be able to recognize the treasure of a life redeemed and transformed. While none of us is perfect while we remain in our present bodies, we should be producing a harvest of good fruit that sets us apart from “look-alikes” who are merely outwardly moral.

What Is It Worth?

My husband and I own a small shop. It’s actually a two-part shop, with used items, antiques and collectibles in the front, and amateur radio gear in the back. We have a few “new” radios, books, and other items, but most of our items are second-hand. This sometimes creates a problem in pricing.

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New items usually come with a manufacturer’s recommended price, based on what the item costs from the factory or warehouse. Sometimes, price is based on what we pay at a wholesaler. But used items aren’t coming from a wholesaler or a factory warehouse. Often, we pick up pieces from an estate sale or another shop like ours. Sometimes, we are selling items that were salvaged or even donated.

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So how do we determine a price on a used item? For that matter, how are prices determined for some of the new items that we sell? Of course there are a few guidelines:

  • Basic costs– what did it cost to produce the item (or procure the item)? How much for the materials? Labor? Shipping? Packaging? Also, what are the basic costs of running the store– will the sales of these items be enough to cover expenses like the light bill and rent and miscellaneous supplies as well as covering the cost to replace them?
  • Supply and Demand– how rare is this item? How easily can someone find a similar item at a similar price? How easily can we find more of this item (or something similar)? Do we have “too many” of the same item? Which items are selling “too fast” at a lower price?
  • Quality– some items involve more craftsmanship. Some contain sturdier or more expensive materials–real copper wiring, metal gears instead of plastic, silver v. silver-plate, hand-carved instead of mass-produced, etc.
  • “Aesthetics”–Antiques are often valued for their condition. But it varies from one piece or type of piece to another. Glass and ceramics are more valuable if they are unchipped. Old magazine ads carefully cut out and attractively framed can be more valuable than the entire magazine from which they came. Certain colors of glass are worth more than others. Wooden items that have been repainted, repaired, or refinished can actually lose value over those left in their original condition. Some items sell better with a “patina,” while others do better if they are polished and clean.
  • Ultimately, however, the items in our store are “worth” only what we decide, and what our customers are willing to pay for them. If we are “wrong” about the worth of an item, it may sit on the shelf collecting dust– either because we have priced it too high, or because the price is so low that a customer mistrusts our judgement about the quality of the product.
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Why am I writing about this on a blog about prayer?

We have a tendency to place values on people and situations, as well as items. Sometimes, we think it “isn’t worth it” to pray about a minor problem that we face, or someone we don’t know very well, or don’t think of very highly. Perhaps we think that our requests are too ordinary, or too small, or too chronic to bring before God. Lost keys; that lingering pain in the elbow; the barking dog that keeps us up at night; the sibling that hasn’t spoken to us in 15 years–we wonder if they are worth making the effort (or continuing to make the effort).

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But, in God’s economy, every person–and each moment in each person’s day–is of enormous value! God uses the small things of life to make a big impact. Every prayer that is lifted to God from a sincere heart and with even the tiniest grain of faith can have unbelievable consequences. There are hundreds of examples throughout the Bible, and hundreds of thousands of other testimonies to illustrate this truth The same is true for “big” prayers– the impossible situations– that plague us. War, famine, disease, corruption and injustice are NOT too big for God to handle. Just because they are too big for us to solve (or even understand) does not make them too big for us to pray about, or our prayers too little to make a difference.

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I was reading in 2 Samuel 16 the other day. King David faced betrayal– from his son, Absolem, and also from one of his counselors, Ahitophel. David prayed– almost as an afterthought– that Ahitophel would give Absolem bad advice. And he did! But God also prompted David to send another counselor, Hushai, as a secret agent. At first, Absolem followed the advice of Ahitophel without question, and it seemed to work in his favor. But at a crucial moment, Absolem hesitated and asked for a second opinion. Ahitophel’s advice, according to the writer of 2 Samuel, was actually the better advice. But Absolem chose to follow the clever but ineffective advice of Hushai instead! David’s prayer was answered, and even when it seemed that David’s prayer “wasn’t enough,” God protected David, frustrated Ahitophel, and brought judgment and punishment to Absolem, ending in his death. There is no record of either Absolem or Ahitophel praying at all during the rebellion.

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God won’t judge the quantity or quality of what we pray for, or who we pray for, or how we pray– He values it all. Prayer is truly “priceless!”

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