As a father

A section of a recent book I read compared a daughter’s loving relationship with her father to our relationship to the Lord. It’s an apt comparison with many parallels: resting in his love, asking freely for needs and even wants, trusting his protection, etc.

But I thought of someone to whom I had given this same book to read. Her relationship with her father was nonexistent for twenty years (by his choice) and abusive before that. I hoped this ideal father-daughter description in the book did not bring her pain.

When the word “father” comes with painful baggage, the thought of God as a father is not necessarily comforting until we learn the ways He is different.

Someone told me once that it’s impossible for a person with a poor father figure to have a right view of God as a Father. I disagree. If that were the case, none of us would have a right view of God because none of us has a perfect father. Even the very best of earthly fathers is flawed in some way, though some are certainly better than others.

However, I think we all have an ideal father in mind. As a child I had an image in my mind of a father as a kindly, soft-spoken man in a cardigan sweater and slippers carrying a newspaper and a pipe. That was not my father at all. Years later I realized that mental image came from a 1960s TV show.

C. S. Lewis once said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Similarly, I think our longing for an ideal father figure is a reflection of our need and desire for our heavenly Father.

If your father has been a gracious and godly example, thank God for that and rejoice in your father’s reflection of Him. If your earthly father fell far short of perfect, thank God that your heavenly Father never will. He always welcomes His children, loves them, corrects them, provides for them, protects them.

Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
Psalm 27:10, NIV

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
 he remembers that we are dust.


Psalm 103:11-14, ESV

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Dark Valleys and Fiery Furnaces

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My ESV Study Bible noted that “valley of the shadow of death” in Psalm 23:4 could also be translated “valley of deep darkness.” The notes explained that when people traveled through valleys, the hills or mountains on either side blocked the light, and bandits, wild animals, or who knows what could be lurking in the shadows.

I had always associated this verse just with death before. Within the larger context of Psalm 23 describing how our Shepherd cares for and accompanies us, this promised that even when death looms on the path ahead, our Shepherd remains with us and comforts us. While this verse certainly does assure of us that wonderful truth, it goes even further: He will accompany us and protect us through any scary possibility.

That doesn’t mean He will always prevent the scary possibility from happening. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced being thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, they told the king:

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18, ESV).

The same day I read the above notes concerning Psalm 23, the selection for the day in  Spectacle of Glory by Joni Eareckson Tada discussed this incident in Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were tied up and tossed into the fiery furnace. But shortly thereafter, Nebuchadnezzar saw “four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25, ESV). Nebuchadnezzar called the men out, and they were unharmed. They weren’t even singed or smelling of smoke. Joni comments:

Who was the fourth man? An Old Testament appearance of Christ. But notice this. These men were walking in the midst of the fire. We tend to think heartbreaks and tragedies will stop us dead in our tracks–and keep us from moving forward in life. But the truth is, a trial is one of the streets through which we move to reach our destiny. a road leading us deeper into the heart of Christ.

Lord, I have so often seen suffering as something to escape–a puzzle needing to be swiftly solved so I can “get back to normal.” But maybe You are inviting me to walk in the fire rather than cower in self-protection. It’s so good to know You’ll be walking with me (p. 171).

Isaiah 43:1-3a says:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I’ve always thought it interesting that the verse says when, not if. There are going to be scary moments in life that God takes us through, not around. But He promises to be with us. And that makes all the difference.

Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.
 Isaiah 50:10, ESV

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Heavenly Waze

My husband likes to use the Waze navigational app on his phone even when we know where we’re going. Waze not only tells gives you directions, it tells you when there is a traffic snarl or some kind of hazard ahead. Recently when road construction caused traffic back-ups on the way to church, Waze navigated another route for us which my husband estimated saved us at least an hour, if not more.

I’ve thought how nice it would be to have a heavenly Waze. We do in a sense. The Bible tells us some things to come and gives us commands and principles which, if we ignore, will land us in trouble.

But in God’s mercy and wisdom, He doesn’t tell us everything about our journey through life. Probably because we would want to avoid some of the troublesome paths He wants us to go through, or we’d face the future with fear.

I’ve often paused over a passage in Exodus 13:17-18a which says that when the children of Israel finally left Egypt, “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.” God took them the longer route because He knew the shorter one might be too much for them. That implies that they should have been able to trust Him for their experiences at the Red Sea. Instead, when the people were caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, they feared and complained. In fact, fear and complaining characterized the bulk of their journey to the promised land, despite all the wonders they had seen in God’s deliverance of them from Egypt. 

Why would God take them that route? One reason is mentioned in Exodus 14:4: “I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to know Who God was through how He dealt with Israel. When they finally got to Canaan, the Israelites and their God had a reputation. Rahab had come to believe on the Lord due to all she had heard.

Not to speak irreverently, but it’s almost as if God had in mind something like, “Watch this: I am going to show you something fantastic!” And eventually the Israelites did see the marvels of the Red Sea parting so they could walk through on dry ground – after complaining about the fix they were in first. It was the same story when they needed food and water and when they should have entered Canaan the first time. God knew what was ahead, He had a marvelous provision in mind, but instead of waiting in anticipation to see what He would do, they doubted Him and complained.

I can’t point my finger at them because I am too much like them. I’d use a heavenly Waze to avoid anything unpleasant. I have a tendency to complain and a love of ease and comfort. I’m not generally adventurous. I don’t usually approach problems with excitement, just waiting to see what God is going to do this time.

God takes us through rough paths to display His glory, to increase our faith, to show us His love, to manifest Himself to others through us. May God give us grace to approach hazards and delays with the eye of faith, looking forward to how our Heavenly Father is going to work things out.

If we could see, if we could know,
We often say.
But God in love a veil doth throw
Across our way.
We cannot see what lies before,
And so we cling to Him the more
He leads us till this life is o’er,
Trust and obey.

From “If We Could See Beyond Today” by Norman Clayton

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Why Isn’t God Winning?

Sometimes when I am dismayed over the state of the world or the state of a personal problem, I am tempted to think, “God, why aren’t you winning? You’re stronger than evil. You’re bigger than this problem. Why isn’t all of this taken care of? It would be nothing to You to right these things.”

The psalmists wrestled with this question in a slightly different way. In Psalm 73, Asaph struggled with not only the presence of the wicked, but the fact that they prospered. He even came to the point of thinking that his efforts to live purely have been in vain. Job’s friends’ asserted that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and therefore Job must have done something wrong to be experiencing so much trouble. One of Job’s arguments against their theory was that the wicked often prosper in this life.

But nothing in Job’s circumstances indicated that God wasn’t “winning,” that He was absent, or that He had lost control of the situation. God was with Job all along, even though Job couldn’t sense His presence. God displayed mercy and compassion to Job, even though it looked different from what we might expect. All of the physical, material blessings that God restored to Job at the end of the book are items that he once again lost at the end of his life. But through the first loss of them, God taught him eternal truths and drew Job closer to Himself. Job’s relationship with God and the spiritual truths he learned would affect the rest of his life, his relationships with others, and the afterlife. Though it might have looked like Satan was winning, God was working out His purposes.

I love the Psalms for their honest emotion. Whether the psalmists faced personal danger or lamented the seeming triumph of evil in the world, they brought their own thoughts and those of their listeners back to the truth they knew about God. Psalm 10 (ESV) starts out, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” But the psalmist reminded himself, “But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless.” He concludes back on solid ground:

 The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations perish from his land.
 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

When God seems far away, we remind ourselves of the truth we know about Him from His Word. He sees what is going on. He loves us. He will deal justly. He might be waiting to answer for a number of reasons. We ask Him to search us and show us anything that might be hindering His answer to our prayers. And we rest in His wisdom, love, righteousness, and strength.

Trusting that God has control of the situation doesn’t mean inaction on our part. Only God can take care of all the needs of the world, but He often works through people. A needy world is a call to pray and then to look for ways to help those in need. William Wilberforce and Hannah More not only prayed against the evil of slavery but fought against it. We may not be able to solve world poverty, but we can help those within our sphere of influence.

In the May 19 selection of Spectacle of Glory by Joni Eareckson Tada, she wrote:

On the whole, the good that we are able to tally in this life doesn’t seem to outweigh the bad that we observe. We keep praying, but we don’t see some of the answers closest to our hearts. Only heaven will reveal a clear picture of how the sweet fragrance of our faith in Jesus, even in times of grief and loss, influenced the lives of those around us. Only eternity will show how our fainthearted prayers changed the destinies of people on our prayer list. Great faith believes in God even when He plays His hand close to the vest, now showing all His cards. God wants to increase your “measure of faith.” He does this whenever He conceals a matter and you trust Him nevertheless (p. 156).

The Bible tells us the world will get worse before the end. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3: 14-15).

God not only wins in the end. He is winning now. He’s working out His purposes even now.

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Where Is God’s Compassion and Mercy in Job?

Image courtesy of Alex Bruda at freeimages.com

The first few times I read through Job as a young person, I was a little…dismayed,  or at least perplexed at how God responded to him near the end. I understood that God was displaying His wisdom, majesty, power, creativity, and other attributes. Job was humbled and repented and God restored him and blessed him, so the book had a happy ending. But I remember feeling that if I had been in Job’s sandals, I would have wanted an encounter with God that seemed more warm and comforting.

Then I discovered the passage in James 5 where James is encouraging Christians to be patient and stand fast in the face of suffering.

As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

I believed that God was compassionate and merciful: I had seen that in many other places in the Bible. But where did one find that in Job?

Our church has been reading through the Job together the last few weeks, and I’ve been doing my reading from the ESV Study Bible. Their study notes brought out some points I had missed.

Of chapter 38, verse 1, they say:

God reveals himself to Job in a display of both majestic power and relational presence: “the LORD” (Hebrew YHWH), the name most used to signify God’s covenant character and promises (see. Ex. 3:14-15), was used in the prologue where God describes Job’s relationship to him (see Job 1:8; 2:3); the fact that the Lord “answered Job” contrasts with what the friends…indicated he should expect (see 35:9-13)…It is a covenantal gesture when the Lord reveals his power and his presence as he speaks to Job “out of the whirlwind.” While he does not come simply to justify Job, the Lord’s presence shows that his reproof comes in the context of steadfast love toward Job and not as judgment for what the friends assumed was Job’s repudiation of the path of righteousness (p. 926).

The fact that God came to Job personally indicates His care, and the use of His covenantal name shows He is speaking to Job out of a loving relationship.

Part of what God is getting across to Job includes this:

Job had drawn conclusions about the about the nature of God’s rule from what was revealed on earth in his and others’ circumstances. However, [Job] did not account fully for what is hidden from him, and thus his words cast a shadow on the wisdom and righteousness of God’s rule. In his speech, God will question Job in order to remind him that, even in what is revealed of God’s powerful and majestic governance of the natural world and its inhabitants, much is still hidden. And if this is true for creation and its creatures, how much more is it true in relation to the wisdom and purpose of the Creator? (p. 926).

The notes point out later on that Job had experienced what it was like “to have what was hidden about him (e.g., the state of his heart before God) questioned and judged by those who had drawn wrong conclusions from what was visible in his circumstances. The Lord now questions Job for overextending his judgment of what his suffering meant about the Lord’s just governance of the world” (40:6-9) (pp. 929-30).

We don’t think of getting dressed down as a mercy, but it is if that’s what we need, isn’t it? A wise father corrects his child. He does not let his child continue in wrong thinking about God. Sometimes we need to feel our smallness contrasted with God’s immensity. When we’re questioning what God is doing in the world and our lives, we need to be reminded that He knows what he is doing, has everything under control, and has a reason for what He allows, even if we don’t know that reason.

All of those details God gives about the animals displays not only His wisdom, but His care of them. This reminds me of what Jesus said in Matthew 10:29-31: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Layton Talbert says in Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job: “The Lord is powerful and majestic and wise beyond man’s comprehension, but He is also compassionate…even towards beasts. He talks as if He has intimate knowledge of their nature and needs because He does. That’s the point” (p. 206).

God displayed compassion and mercy in many ways throughout the book:

  • His limitation of what He allowed Satan to do
  • His unseen presence with Job through everything that happened
  • His physical manifestation to Job
  • His fatherly correction of Job.
  • His vindication of Job against his friends’ accusations
  • His wisdom and care of the animal kingdom highlighted His care of Job
  • All was done within the context of God’s relationship with Job.

That last point is in fact part of what the whole book was about: that Job wasn’t serving God just for God’s blessings, that he wasn’t being “pious for pay” as Dr. Talbert put it (Beyond Suffering , p. 40).

Sometimes I think I’ll feel better if I know what God is up to and why, and sometimes He graciously shares that. But other times, as in Job’s case, comfort does not come from full disclosure of what was going on behind the scenes and why God allowed it. Job did not get all the answers he wanted, but he got God’s presence, a fuller understanding of Him, and a manifestation of His care. And he was satisfied.

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Inconvenience

I was well familiar with the story of Peter’s long night of fishing with no results. After he had come in for the day and Jesus used his boat to speak to the people, Jesus told Peter to put out his nets again. This time the catch was so large that the net broke, causing Peter to realize his sinfulness and Jesus’s power and holiness.

What I don’t remember noticing before in this story, until last Sunday in church, was the inconvenience of it all (though inconvenience wasn’t the main point of the message or the passage, that aspect provided food for thought for the next day or two). Luke 5:2 says the fishermen were out of their boats and washing their nets. They were done for the day. Then they were asked to go back out, at the “wrong” time of day, to a place that had seemed fishless just a few hours earlier.

I worked for a few years at a fabric shop, and one night just before closing a girl came in to look at fabrics for her wedding. I think all of us who worked there either slumped or looked visibly dismayed: that kind of encounter at the store could take hours, and we were all set to go home. The girl noticed our reaction and immediately turned around and left the store. I’ve always felt bad about that – not only did we lose a customer and look highly unprofessional, but we put a damper on what is usually a fun time in a girl’s wedding planning. So I can imagine a little what Peter’s feeling might have been at being told to put his nets back out after he had just come in and cleaned up his equipment.

I began to remember a few other Biblical incidents of inconvenience:

I’m sure there are multitudes of other Biblical examples.

I thought of incidences in my own life when I’ve struggled with convenience vs. obedience:

  • When I was in the middle of something, like making dinner, and my child disobeyed, and I was tempted to “let it go this time” rather than stop what I was doing to deal with him
  • When I’ve cozied up on the couch with a good book and remembered that I haven’t spent any time in the Bible yet that day
  • When I have felt an inner prompting to speak to someone about the Lord and convinced myself it wasn’t the right time or place.
  • When someone interrupted my writing time just when I was experiencing an unusual flow of thought and expression or when I wanted to get a certain amount finished before stopping

I’m sure there have been many other similar incidences here also.

Once when I was in college, a few girls became aware of a certain student’s financial need. Most of us were struggling financially ourselves and did not have any extra to give to anyone else. I can’t remember the exact details now, but I remember news of the situation was passed to about four people before someone was able to chip in and help her. At the time I wondered why God didn’t just prompt the fourth person directly about the need instead of going through such a circuitous route. I don’t know all the reasons, but surely one was that this way, more people were aware of the need and more people glorified God when the answer was provided.

In the situation with Peter, the fact that Jesus told him to put out his net in the daytime after an unsuccessful night of fishing brought more glory to Christ and showed more of His power. Even though Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law earlier, somehow this incident with the great catch of fish affected Peter much more, causing him to fall “down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.‘” I’ve heard preachers point out from this incident that God touches us not just in our area of weakness, but in our area of strength. Perhaps seeing Jesus’s abundant power and provision in what had been Peter’s area of expertise was what finally brought Peter to his knees.

For the widow of Zarephath, not only were her and her son’s needs provided for miraculously, but the very prophet who so inconveniently asked for her last food in such desperate times was the instrument through which God healed her son.

Sometimes inconveniences are just part of living in a fallen world – we don’t know why they happen, and all we can do is try to take them patiently. Sometimes they test our love, our obedience, our willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. Sometimes they show us our wrong priorities. Sometimes they remind us of our need to rely on Him. But we can see God’s hand through, in spite of, or even because of the inconveniences He allows. He inconvenienced Himself for our sakes: may we be willing to allow Him to inconvenience us for His sake.

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Rethinking Spiritual Gifts

Lately I’ve been rethinking what I thought I knew about spiritual gifts.

Spiritual gifts are those particular abilities that the Holy Spirit gives people when they are saved by which He wants to work through them to edify the body of Christ. You can find lists of them in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:9-11.

Some years ago “spiritual gift tests” were all the rage: questions and multiple choice answers recorded on “fill in the bubble” sheets which were then tabulated to reveal what your spiritual gifts were.

The idea was to help people identify their spiritual gifts so they’d know how they best fit into the ministry of the church and not waste their time frustrated and ineffective in an area where they’re not gifted. And that can be helpful. In my more trial-and error path, I’ve participated in ministries that left me frustrated, and I thought the problem was my attitude. Then when I was asked to take a different position, I felt I had found my niche, and it was a completely different experience.

But I always felt those tests were more about personality and natural aptitude. I think God does give us our personality and tendencies, but are they different from spiritual gifts?

Sometimes God drops us into a situation that we don’t feel gifted for at all: in fact, we feel totally inadequate. When Moses said, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue,” God did not contradict him. God didn’t reassure Moses that that of course Moses could speak and only needed was a little confidence. No, God said, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” God’s call for Moses had nothing to do with the natural ability which which He created Moses and everything to do with God’s enabling Moses for a task for which Moses felt totally unsuited.

Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah, and others didn’t greet God’s call on their lives with “Sounds great! That’s just the kind of opportunity I was looking for!”

That’s where I am with caregiving. Someone I knew said of their daughter, who was training to be a nurse, that she was a “natural caregiver.” Another friend who is a nurse spoke of loving to use the talents God had given her to minister to people in that way – another natural caregiver. That’s not me. I want people to be cared for, particularly my mother-in-law. But I have never been good with or felt inclined to the hands-on type of caregiving she is in need of now, except with my own children.

Yet here we are. Do I tell God, “There must be some mistake. Not only am I not gifted for this, but it’s keeping me from what I feel I am gifted for.” Probably not a good idea. Spiritual gift tests can sometimes foster a “That’s not my job” syndrome when we’re asked to do something outside of our comfort zone.

Though we need to rely on God’s help, grace, and strength even for those areas where we feel He has gifted us, there’s nothing like being totally out of our element to make us lean on Him and plea for His enabling like never before. And though the main point of caregiving isn’t about me, but rather about showing love and ministering to my mother-in-law, perhaps one reason He has allowed this opportunity is to teach me lessons about my own selfishness as well as serving and loving others in the way they most need it, not in the way I am “comfortable” showing it.

There have been other opportunities through the years for which I did not feel suited, yet did not feel the freedom of conscience to say no. I’m not talking about being a doormat and saying yes to everything I was asked to do because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m talking about seriously considering and praying over an opportunity, dreading it, locking myself in the bathroom to cry over it, yet still feeling like it was something God wanted me to do. And I have seen God turn the dread into excitement, provide ideas, enable me to my own amazement. Afterwards I have looked back and thought, “I can’t believe I did that! Only with God’s help!”

So which ones are the truly spiritual gifts? The God-given aptitudes with which we minister every day? Or the out-of-our-element opportunities that cast us on the Lord in desperate need? Maybe both in their own ways. In either case, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, ESV).

(Revised from the archives)

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See the Destined Day Arise

I shared this hymn a couple of years ago, but it is on my mind this season as we particularly remember in gratefulness Christ’s death on the cross for us. This hymn was originally written by Venantius Fortunatus in 569 and was paraphrased or translated by Richard Mant in 1837. The original lyrics are here. In the past few years it has been reworded a bit and a chorus added by Matt Merker.

See the destined day arise! See a willing sacrifice!
Jesus, to redeem our loss, hangs upon the shameful cross;
Jesus, who but You could bear wrath so great and justice fair?
Every pang and bitter throe, finishing your life of woe?

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Lamb of God for sinners slain!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Jesus Christ, we praise your name!

Who but Christ had dared to drain, steeped in gall, the cup of pain,
And with tender body bear thorns, and nails, and piercing spear?
Slain for us, the water flowed, mingled from your side with blood;
Sign to all attesting eyes of the finished sacrifice.

Holy Jesus, grant us grace in that sacrifice to place
All our trust for life renewed, pardoned sin, and promised good.
Grant us grace to sing your praise, ‘round your throne through endless days,
Ever with the sons of light: “Blessing, honor, glory, might!”

Hearing Hard Things

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The new, popular doctor has a specific trademark: he never tells anyone bad news. He never makes patients uncomfortable with invasive tests or procedures, never makes them take unpalatable medicine, never advises them to change their ways. Any physical problem can be addressed with a cheery talk and a few pills that have no unpleasant side effects. Never mind that his patients are dropping like flies. He’s just so nice, and everyone leaves his office feeling uplifted and encouraged.

Most of us recognize that as a ridiculous scenario. Such a doctor would never have a successful practice. Over the long run, this physician’s patients would realize that avoiding bad physical news and treatment is not the way to a long and happy life, no matter how pleasant it seemed in the short run.

I’ve been reading through Jeremiah and then Lamentations in the last few weeks. God’s people had ignored His warnings and pleadings, and the time had come for judgment. Jeremiah told Israel that the only right response now was to surrender to the coming Babylonians. Such pronouncements sound like treason, though, and the people either ignored him or persecuted him. They preferred to listen to pleasant prophets with seemingly better news.

“Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading” (Lamentations 2:14, ESV).

We don’t like to hear about sin, but attempting to overlook or redefine it has the same results as ignoring the tumor bulging from someone’s body. The first step in dealing with either sin or cancer is acknowledging that they are present: then something can be done about them.

“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13, ESV).

We also don’t like to hear discipleship has a high cost or hard sayings. Jesus Himself lost followers when they didn’t like what He said. People loved Him as long as He healed and fed them and kept His message positive, but the crowds dwindled after hearing about sin, change, self-denial, and the like.

Preachers and writers who don’t expose sin gain a following, but they do their hearers harm in the long run. Ministers who highlight the benefits of Christianity while never teaching about its costs and mysteries make weak and even false disciples.

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 2:3-4, ESV).

We need to be careful that the preachers, writers, and churches we follow declare the whole counsel of God. We need to read it all for ourselves, not just for the parts that make us feel good. We need to believe in God as He presents Himself in the Bible, not in our own images we make of Him.

It’s true that the Christian life is more than just avoiding sin. My husband observed at one church we attended that the primary conclusion of any message was “Don’t sin.” We rarely if ever heard about the joy in following Jesus or pursuing our relationship with Him. A family member recently told us that conversation with a certain group of friends seemed to always center on what awful sinners we all are and lacked the joy of walking in grace and forgiveness. God doesn’t want us to grovel or wallow in our sinfulness. He wants us to acknowledge our sin and come to Him for forgiveness and cleansing, yes, but then we pursue our relationship with Him and grow in love for Him. Our earthly fathers wanted us to obey them, but that was not the whole focus of our relationship: they wanted their children to enjoy their love and the rest of their interaction as well.

When we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, the sins that came between us and God are forgiven. We’re born again. When we sin afterward, we’re not unborn, just as a child born into a family will always be a part of that family. But, just as a child’s disobedience mars the fellowship he has with his parents, so our fellowship with God is not what it should be when we sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV). A good parent disciplines his child for the child’s good and growth in maturity. Our heavenly Father does the same. So sin isn’t the entire focus of the relationship, but it does affect the relationship.

The focus in our relationships with both our heavenly Father and our earthly one is love. Love does not overlook sin. But love motivates us to avoid sin or confess and forsake it when we do yield to it.

And as for hard sayings and hard-to-understand concepts in the Bible, we have the same reply Peter did when Jesus asked the disciples, “Will ye also go away?

“Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69, KJV).

We won’t understand everything, but we know Him, and we can trust Him.

“Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18, ESV).

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Tell His Story, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Writer Wednesday, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

Our trials are not just for us

Some sermons, the gist of them or a particular point or illustration, stay with us forever. One such message for me took place some 25-30 years ago. Our pastor at that time began describing some of the creatures Ezekiel saw in his vision, like the wheel within a wheel full of eyes, and went on to detail various other heavenly beings. Then he read from Ephesians 3:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:8-10, ESV).

The pastor probably brought several things out of that passage, but the one that most struck and remained with me was verse 10: somehow God teaches and displays to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (“principalities and powers” in the KJV) something about Himself through how He deals with us.

We’re going through Job in the church we’re visiting now, and we see an example of this in the first two chapters. Though the events in this book occurred before the church itself was born in Acts, the principle is the same. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6; 2:1). God’s conversations with Satan about Job seems to be before the rest of the assemblage, though they could have been private. Either way, God displayed truth to a non-human being through an earthly one.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus told His disciples:

 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father (John 14:30-31, ESV).

In this case, one reason for Jesus’s obedience to the Father’s command was that the world might know that Jesus loved the Father.

Some years after the sermon I mentioned, I read this from Elisabeth Elliot in Keep a Quiet Heart:

The disciples’ worst fears were about to be realized, yet He commanded (yes, commanded) them to be at peace. All would be well, all manner of things would be well–in the end. In a short time, however, the Prince of this world, Satan himself, was to be permitted to have his way. Not that Satan had any rights over Jesus. Far from it. Nor has he “rights” over any of God’s children… But Satan is permitted to approach. He challenges God, we know from the Book of Job, as to the validity of His children’s faith.

God allows him to make a test case from time to time. It had to be proved to Satan, in Job’s case, that there is such a thing as obedient faith which does not depend on receiving only benefits. Jesus had to show the world that He loved the Father and would, no matter what happened, do exactly what He said. The servant is not greater than his Lord. When we cry “Why, Lord?” we should ask instead, “Why not, Lord? Shall I not follow my Master in suffering as in everything else?”

Does our faith depend on having every prayer answered as we think it should be answered, or does it rest rather on the character of a sovereign Lord? We can’t really tell, can we, until we’re in real trouble.

Any trial we have undergone has probably fallen far short of what happened to Job or to Jesus. Even still, our first thought, our consuming thought is usually for relief. We want it to end, we want things to go back to normal, we want to be out from under whatever the pressure is.

First we need to ask God to help us learn what He is trying to teach us – usually something of His grace, provision, strength, and love in contrast to our limitations and our need to rely on Him. But we need to remember the bigger picture. Maybe our trial isn’t just for us. Maybe creatures in the heavenlies are learning something about God through His dealings with us. Maybe the world, or at least our children, family and friends, acquaintances, need to be shown, to see in action, genuine faith and loving obedience even in difficult and mysterious circumstances.

Elisabeth Elliot went on in the piece above to write:

I never heard more from the young woman [mentioned earlier in the piece]… But I prayed for her, asking God to enable her to show the world what genuine faith is–the kind of faith that overcomes the world because it trusts and obeys, no matter what the circumstances. The world does not want to be told. The world must be shown. Isn’t that part of the answer to the great question of why Christians suffer?

May God enable us as well.

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(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Tell His Story), Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Wise Woman, Writer Wednesday, Coffee for Your Heart, Porch Stories)