When Little Trials Give Us Big Trouble

IMG_1154

Sometimes it seems easier to trust the Lord for the big trials of life rather than the little irritations.

When a major crisis comes my way, I realize it’s too big for me. I’m acutely aware of my need for God’s grace and strength. I feel myself sinking, like Peter, and cry out for help almost instinctively.

But when I encounter some smaller provocation — when someone interrupts what I am doing; when my computer acts up; when I am running late to an appointment and hit every red light along the way; when another driver cuts me off; when I am in a hurry at the grocery store and the customer in front of me has some time-consuming problem; when I give dinner a quick stir and slosh red sauce over the side of the pan and onto the stove, the floor, and/or myself — then too often I react with simmering impatience, carnal anger, unloving harshness, discouragement or depression.

Amy Carmichael once wrote:

The hardest thing is to keep cheerful (and loving) under little things that come from uncongenial surroundings, the very insignificance of which adds to their power to annoy, because they must be wrestled with, and overcome, as in the case of larger hurts. Some disagreeable habit in one to whom we may owe respect and duty, and which is a constant irritation or our sense of the fitness of things, may demand of us a greater moral force to keep the spirit serene than an absolute wrong committed against us. (1)

“Well, I was provoked.”

Love…is not easily provoked. I Corinthians 13:5

“I’m only human.”

Yes. That’s the problem, not an excuse. With the exception of One, all humans have a sinful nature. Our natural reaction is likely to be a selfish one. As Christians we’re called to have a supernatural reaction.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Galatians 5:22-23.

Even on the highway or in a check-out line.

Thank God there is forgiveness with Him, His mercies are new every morning, and if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness(I John 1:9).

But how can I get the victory over wrong reactions to little provocations and react in a right manner the next time?

  • First of all, instead excusing it, recognize it as sin and confess it to Him.
  • Carefully evaluate and use my time better, such as such as stopping whatever I am doing early enough for an appointment so that a few red lights will not cause me to be late (or agitated), slowing down and take the necessary time to accomplish something so haste doesn’t create more problems, etc.
  • Fix the issue, if possible. Find out if there is something wrong with the computer, gently ask the other person to refrain from or change whatever they are doing, etc.
  • Put it into perspective. A little thing is just a little thing. Being a Christian doesn’t mean every little bump in the road is going to be removed.
  • Relinquish control of my life and time and schedule into the Lord’s hands will help me to handle interruptions better. Have you ever studied the life of Christ with an eye toward how much He was interrupted? It’s enlightening. Even when He was interrupted during prayer or on his way to perform a miracle, He never reacted harshly or impatiently.
  • Relinquish the “I” factor as well. Some of the agitation I experience is simply my thwarted desire for things to go my way. I mentioned in an earlier post that another of Amy Carmichael’s experiences that helped me was when she felt the “I” “rising hotly” in her toward one who was unfair and dominating, and she realized that moment was a chance to die to self. “See in this which seems to stir up all you most wish were not stirred up — see in it a chance to die to self in every form. Accept it as just that – a chance to die.” (1)
  • Do unto others as I would have them do unto me. I need to remember that I’m probably unwittingly irritating someone else sometimes who is graciously (I hope) being forbearing with me. I need to handle the irritations that come from other people as graciously as I would want them to handle mine. Instead of focusing on the irritant, I need to focus on that person as another child of the Father whom He loves every bit as much as He loves me and seek ways to serve him or her.
  • Forbear. A former pastor used to say forbearing was just good old-fashioned putting up with each other. In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Not just forbearing, but forbearing in love. “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins,” (I Peter 4:8). Colossians 3:12-14 says, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”
  • Remember that my testimony before others is at stake. “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:25). I sometimes think of Satan standing before God and accusing that Job only served God because God blessed him, but let Satan take away Job’s blessings, and he would curse God. I envision Satan saying of me, “Yes, she acts like a nice Christian at church, but let me trip her up here and there and see how she reacts.” We’re not only a testimony to others in our homes and at check-out lines, but we forget that our testimonies are as far-reaching as heaven. Rosalind Goforth was a missionary wife to China during years when the Chinese were quite suspicious of and disdainful toward “foreign devils.” To try to alleviate those feelings and establish relationships with the Chinese, the Goforths would allow crowds of the curious into their home to look around and to talk with them. This resulted in some agitation and disruption as well as theft of some of their belongings, but overall they felt it was worth it. Of one particular day, Rosalind writes:

The day had been an unusually strenuous one, and I was really very tired. Toward evening, a crowd of women burst through the living room door and came trooping in before I had time to meet them outside. One woman set herself out to make things unpleasant. She was rough and repulsive and– well, just indescribably filthy. I paid no attention to her except to treat her as courteously as the rest. But when she put both hands to her nose, saying loudly, “Oh, these foreign devils, the smell of their home is unbearable!” my temper rose in a flash and, turning on her with anger, I said, “How dare you speak like that? Leave the room!” The crowd, sensing a “storm,” fled. I heard one say, “That foreign devil woman has a temper just like ours!”

Now, I had not noticed that the door of my husband’s study was ajar, not did I know that he was inside, until, as the last woman disappeared, the door opened and he came forward, looking solemn and stern. “Rose, how could you so forget yourself?” he said. “Do you realize that just one such incident may undo months of self-sacrificing, loving service?”

“But Jonathan” I returned, “you don’t know how she — “

But he interrupted. “Yes, I do; I heard all. You certainly had reason to be annoyed; but were you justified, with all that is hanging in the balance and God’s grace to keep you patient?”

As he turned to re-enter his study, he said, “All I can say is I am disappointed!

Oh, how that last word cut me! I deserved it, yes, but, oh, I did so want to reach up to the high ideals he had. A tempestuous time followed alone in our inner room with my Lord. as I look back now, it was all just one farther step up the rocky hillside of life — just climbing! (2)*

One time when I posted Rosalind’s experience, a commenter took offense at Jonathan’s response to his wife, thinking he should have been a little more sympathetic and suggesting that the lost need to understand that we’re not perfect. But Rosalind felt that what Jonathan said and how he said it were just what she needed to bring her to conviction. A theme she deals with all through the book is her lack of love and tendency toward wanting her own way, and by the end of the book the nationals they interacted with had a much different testimony of her. Yes, lost people or new Christians need to understand that though we are changed we’re not sinless, but this was a matter of first impressions. Jonathan was right that a harsh reaction could undo much positive ministry. Though understanding her annoyance, his point was that it was not an excuse and she could have accessed God’s grace to react in a right manner.

  • The verses mentioned above in Galatians 5 say that gentleness, long-suffering, self-control, etc., are all a part of the fruit of the Spirit. Maintaining time in the Word so He can speak to me through it, yielding to His control throughout the day, memorizing verses in the areas I am having trouble with, sending out a quick prayer for help when I feel that agitation and frustration building up will all help in gaining the victory.
  • Pray. Part of a prayer I often pray from Colossians 1:9-14 is I might be “Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (verse 11). That’s also a reminder to focus not just on avoiding irritation but to also cultivate the positive: longsuffering and patience with joyfulness.
  • Remember “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (Romans 5:3-5, KJV). Even the little tribulations can be used by God to grow and sanctify us. Elisabeth Elliot wrote in A Lamp For My Feet (and it encourages me that she felt this way about some people, too, sometimes):

How can this person who so annoys or offends me be God’s messenger? Is God so unkind as to send that sort across my path? Insofar as his treatment of me requires more kindness than I can find in my own heart, demands love of a quality I do not possess, asks of me patience which only the Spirit of God can produce in me, he is God’s messenger. God sends him in order that he may send me running to God for help.

This is true of irritating situations and intimate objects as well as people. Like sandpaper they can help rub off our sharp edges.

  • Behold our God. II Corinthians 3:18 says we’re changed more and more into Christ’s likeness as we behold Him. When I look inside and tell myself I need to be more kind, loving, forbearing, etc., I get discouraged and fail because I don’t have it in myself. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Romans 7:18). But when I look at Him, that irritability seems to just melt away. “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.  The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.” (Psalm 145:8-9).

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16.

___________
(1) Houghton, Frank. Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur. (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1983), 86-87.

(2) Goforth, Rosalind. Climbing. (USA: Bethel Publishing, 1940), 45-46.

(Revised from the archives)

(Sharing With Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

Advertisements

Book Review: The Scars That Have Shaped Me

ScarsWhen Vaneetha Rendall Risner was a baby in India, she contracted polio before her inoculation. The doctor had never seen a case of polio before, misdiagnosed it, and prescribed a wrong treatment which left Vaneetha paralyzed. Vaneetha had twenty-one operations from age two to thirteen. She spent much of her young life in the hospital and felt safe there and at home,  but was “openly picked on at school.”

She wanted “nothing to do with God because he had allowed all this to happen,” but when she was a teenager, He drew her to Himself.

Vaneetha’s trials weren’t over, though. After her first daughter was born, she had three miscarriages. Her son was born with a heart defect which surgery corrected, but a doctor’s mistake led to her baby’s death at the age of two. Then she contracted post-polio syndrome,  which causes “increasing pain and weakness, which could potentially result in quadriplegia.” There is no cure. Then her husband left her.

The magnitude of any of one of those trials weighs heavy, but all of them together are crushing. How does a person cope with all of that?

Vaneetha tells her story in short order in The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering and then spends the rest of the book  sharing what God has taught her through her trials. Her words, like Joni Earecksn Tada’s, carry weight because they are based on Scripture and they’ve been tried in the trenches.

It’s hard to summarize a book like this, so I’ll just share a few quotes:

Our faith is not a facade we erect to convince ourselves and others that pain doesn’t hurt—it is an oak tree that can withstand the storms of doubt and pain in our lives, and grow stronger through them.

I’ve often been devastated when he tells me no, but as I submit to his will in those situations—even with disappointment and tears—he assures me he’s working for my good. I see only part of the picture. He has a purpose in his denials. The Father said no to the Son [in Gethsemane]. And that no brought about the greatest good in all of history. God is not capricious. If he says no to our requests, he has a reason—perhaps ten thousand. We may never know the reasons in this life, but one day we’ll see them all. For now, we must trust that his refusals are always his mercies to us (emphasis mine).

In this life, I may never see how God is using my trials. But one day I will be grateful for them. All I can do now is trust that he who made the lame walk and the blind see, who died on a cross so I could spend eternity with him, is going to do the very best thing for me.

This is the most precious answer God can give us: wait. It makes us cling to him rather than to an outcome. God knows what I need; I do not. He sees the future; I cannot. His perspective is eternal; mine is not. He will give me what is best for me when it is best for me (emphases mine).

Replacing “what if ” with “even if ” in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make. We trade our irrational fears of an uncertain future for the loving assurance of an unchanging God. We see that even if the very worst happens, God will carry us. He will still be good. And he will never leave us.

So what do we do when we feel drained and empty? When no one understands our suffering and no one seems to care? When we feel discouraged and tired and unbearably lonely? Read the Bible and pray. Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall. Does it sound simple? It is. Does it also sound exceedingly hard? It is that as well. But reading the Bible and praying is the only way I have ever found out of my grief. There are no shortcuts to healing.

When I say read, I don’t mean just reading words for a specific amount of time. I mean meditating on them. Writing down what God is saying to me. Asking God to reveal himself to me. Believing God uses Scripture to teach and to comfort me. To teach me wonderful things in his law (Ps. 119:18). To comfort me with his promises (Ps. 119:76). Reading this way changes cardboard into manna. I echo Jeremiah who said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” ( Jer. 15:16).

I mentioned yesterday the concept she brought out that what we think of as the lowest points of our lives are actually the highest, from God’s viewpoint, because that’s often where the most change and growth occurs in our lives. Another concept she described was that we often feel our prayers have not been answered when God doesn’t deliver us out of a situation, but His grace sustaining us through a trial is just as much an evidence of His power as a miraculous deliverance.

In waiting for the huge, monumental deliverance—the kind where I can put my issue to bed and never have to pray about it again—I’ve overlooked the grace that keeps drawing me to him. The prayers that may appear unanswered, but actually are fulfilled in ways that keep me dependent, tethered, needy.

I’ve often wondered about the difference between Biblical lament, such as what we see in the Psalms and other places in the Bible, and complaining. These thoughts helped:

Scripture never mandates that we constantly act upbeat. God wants us to come to him in truth. And so the Bible doesn’t whitewash the raw emotions of its writers as they cry out to God in anguish, fear, and frustration when life ceases to make sense. People like Jeremiah and Job, Habakkuk and David have all poured out their honest feelings of sadness and disappointment to God.

The Bible is shockingly honest. And because of that, I can be honest as well. I can both complain and cry, knowing that God can handle anything I say. The Lord wants me to talk to him, to pour out my heart and my thoughts unedited because he knows them already.

This conversation is different than the grumbling of the children of Israel. They complained about God and Moses to each other. I am talking directly to God. Telling him my doubts. Asking him to help me see. These saints I quoted all talked directly to God, which was the first step to healing. They named their disappointments and voiced their struggles before him. They needed to know that God understood them. And that they could be truthful with him. No pretense or platitudes. Just raw honesty, acknowledging their pain before God.

Like most of us, I would rather learn from others about suffering than have to go through it myself. But some portion of suffering is allotted to all of us, and I am so thankful for a godly example like Vaneetha’s. Much of what she said spoke to my heart even though my trials have been different.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Our Valleys Are God’s Peaks

In Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me , she shares an illustration that friends had shared with her. A counselor had asked her friends to make a timeline of the high and low points of their lives, briefly describe each one, and then connect them into up and down graphs. After spending some time on this project, the friends finally finished. Then the counselor asked them to turn their charts upside down. Why? To point out that what we consider the “low” times of life are often the times God is most at work in us, or when we come to know Him significantly better.

“God sees our lowest moments as our spiritual highs because that is when he is doing the deepest work in us…from them come our most significant growth and our greatest dependence on God.”

It’s not that God doesn’t work in the “good” or “high” times: He does, and those are blessings from Him. But it’s usually when we’re experiencing hardship, doubt, pain, need, or other trials that we most seek Him, and, as He promised, find Him. It’s in our weakness that we turn to and depend on His strength.

Vaneetha tried this exercise for herself and found the same observation to be true. She writes:

I often reflect back on that exercise when I’m struggling. Because when I’m in the pit, I’d like to eliminate all the valleys on my graph. I’d be thrilled if the line of my life story featured frequent upward peaks—times of success and fulfillment—but otherwise be mostly flat. That way there would be no more valleys, no more anguish or tears or pain. Just happiness. And that sounds wonderful.

But turning that graph around, I would see a boring, unexamined, and unfruitful spiritual life. An untested life marked by superficiality and entitlement. A life filled with temporary happiness but little lasting joy.

Suffering and trials are gifts. They refine my character, draw me to God, deepen my faith. They have shaped my theology and carved into me the capacity for great joy. In many ways they are God’s greatest blessings.

This gives a new perspective to the phrase “mountaintop experience.” That phrase comes from the time Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus to a mountain and saw Him wondrously transfigured, talking to Moses and Elijah. Right on the heels of that glorious, once-in-a-lifetime experience, they descended the mountain to find the other disciples unable to help a demon-possessed boy. Often right after we experience some kind of glorious high point with the Lord, we run into a low point, and we wonder what happened and why we can’t feel those “highs” all the time. Vaneetha comments:

In the midst of trials, I rarely feel that spiritual growth is happening. Often I’m depressed and just trying to hang on. Life is gray, and I don’t see God’s work at all. But in retrospect, it is in the hanging on, the trusting in the dark, the waiting patiently for God, where real growth occurs.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV). What we would consider the lowest points of our lives He might consider the highest points, because those are the times we most turned to Him, leaned on Him, learned of Him, and grew in our experience and love of Him.

And you just can’t beat the view from the mountaintop.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, 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.

IMG_0792

(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)

“Let patience have her perfect work”

Sometimes when people are going through a hardship or loss or suffering in some way, we want to “fix” it. And that can be good: sometimes the very reason God allows something to come to our attention is so that we can help in whatever way He has prompted us and gifted us to help.

But sometimes in our attempts to fix or set things “right,” we can seem to minimize someone else’s concerns or brush off their situation as not really that hard. Many of us are familiar with Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Too often we want to make those who are weeping rejoice instead. That’s not wrong in itself: there’s certainly time for encouragement, for gently helping someone restore their focus, for cheering someone up. But there are also times to just sympathize.

We run a few risks when we don’t take that time to sympathize. The person might not feel heard and validated, and in that case, nothing we say is going to register. Or, we might make them feel somehow “less than” an ideal spiritual Christian for having such a struggle. We not only fail to help them, but also they’re sure not going to open up to us next time.

Here is an example: a single person says she sometimes struggles with loneliness and discontentment. Most Christians rush to point out that we need to find our contentment in Christ and not a human being, that no human being can totally meet our needs, that Paul says being single provides many more opportunities to serve the Lord. And those are all true. But we’re bypassing the cry of her heart: loneliness is hard. And it’s not unspiritual to feel lonely. God is the One who said it wasn’t good for man to be alone and who inspired Solomon to write “two are better than one.” He knows the hardship, yet He allows it for other purposes.

Or someone’s husband dies. We rush to assure that her loved one is in a better place. True, if they’ve believed on Christ. And we’ll see them again. True. But it hurts like everything until that time comes. It hurts when a loved one is away for a week, even with smartphones and Skype and texts and all the ways we have to keep in touch: how much more when they’re away for years with no contact? The Bible calls death an enemy. So while death has lost its sting and we don’t sorrow like those who have no hope, we do still sorrow.

Sometimes we find grace by acknowledging the pain and working through it rather than by downplaying it. I so appreciated the pastor speaking at a funeral of a young mom of five children: he said publicly to her husband, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it. You’re going to need God’s grace.” The husband was probably thinking the same thing, that he had no idea how he was going to carry on parenting five children without his wife while also missing her companionship. How refreshing to have someone acknowledge that rather that quote Romans 8:28, pat him on the back, and go on his merry way. The pastor pointed to the available and needful grace of God without minimizing the hardship.

James 1:3-4 says, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. The ESV says, instead of patience, steadfastness: the NASB says endurance. If God allows trials to help us grow and strengthen our faith, among other reasons, we need to let it do its work, to work through grief and pain rather than bypassing it. We need to offer comfort and assistance, yes, but without short-circuiting or brushing away the depth or effect of it. Acknowledge it. Empathize with it. Someone once said Job’s friends did more for him when they sat in silence with him for a week than by saying all that they said to him.

True, sometimes we whine or wallow and need to adjust our perspective. Sometimes our thinking is wrong and needs adjustment. James even says to count it joy when we experience trials, not that the trial is joyful, but that God is using it to do a work of some kind in us. Sometimes as a friend or counselor, it’s not easy to know just what to say or how to help. That’s why I am so glad the next verses in James assure us that we can ask God for wisdom. He also reminds us a few verses later to be swift to hear and slow to speak. We need to hear people out and seek God’s wisdom rather than presuming or assuming or rushing in to “set them straight.” Sometimes God does guide and give us something to say in the moment. Sometimes all we can say is, “I don’t know why God is allowing this, but I know He has a reason. It’s hard. I don’t know how to help. But I can listen and pray with you.

When we go through a trial of some sort, usually we just want relief, preferably from a change in circumstances, or at least by finding some way of making the situation easier. And that’s fine, both to pray for and seek for relief. And when people sometimes say the wrong thing, we can avoid bitterness and appreciate that at least they were trying to help. When people don’t understand, we can encourage ourselves in the Lord. Sometimes that lack of understanding is part of the trial. But in the midst of all of that, we need to remind ourselves that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). We can let them do their work; we can trust in and work with God’s processes and purposes; we can ask Him what He wants us to learn through it all. And knowing that God is working something in us, even when we don’t understand, we can “rejoice in our sufferings” (verse 3).

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

“The Beauty of the Bone”: Finding Beauty in Bleakness

img_00231A couple of weeks into January, and the excitement of Christmas and new beginnings has died away. Darkness comes early, the skies are often overcast, it’s cold, the landscape seems barren with no hope of any new blooms or growth for months yet. Our family makes a big deal of Valentine’s Day, so we have that to look forward to as well a few birthdays before spring. But otherwise this time of year seems bleak and colorless. I feel I’m just longing for that first warm breeze and green shoot indicating spring.

John Updike’s poem “November,” from A Child’s Calendar, seems more suited to January for me except for the last verse and the line about the year being old:

The striped and shapely
Maple grieves
The loss of her
Departed leaves

The ground is hard
As hard as stone.
The year is old.
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
Nevertheless,
Displays a certain loveliness–

The beauty of
The bone. Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod.

Give thanks: we do,
Each in his place
Around the table
During grace.

The first time I ever read this, the quote I was reading stopped at “the beauty of the bone,” and that phrase arrested me. (This, by the way, is not a total endorsement of Updike: I’m not familiar with his other work.)

Leafless trees do have “a certain loveliness.” You see the structure, the symmetry, the basic form that is usually hidden underneath the leaves. Artist Andrew Wyeth is quoted as saying, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

The lack of foliage also allows other sights to come into view. On the “scenic route” to church, there’s a stretch where trees line the road. But in the wintertime, when the leaves are gone, I can see what was hidden before: a pond with various animals coming to drink from it. Mountains covered in varying leaves most of the year display houses and meadows I would never have known of without the missing leaves.

These observations led to reflections about winter times of the soul, when everything (financially, relationally, or otherwise) seems stripped down to the bone. My own salvation was like that. Everything in my life that I had ever leaned on was no longer available: my parents divorced; my mom, with whom I had always been very close, was distant for a while; we moved from a very small town of less than 200 to Houston, a city of over a million, causing a major culture shock, especially when I started school; I had no contact with friends or relatives for a time. I never felt so totally alone in my life. I had not grown up in a church-going family, but I had heard enough in going occasionally with friends and relatives to know where to turn. I had made a profession as a child that I struggled with, but at this point I desperately needed to know God was there and He cared for me. Through a series of events and seeming “coincidences,” God led me to a Christian school and then a church where I was regularly under solid teaching and eventually made sure of my salvation.

When life seems like a barren winter landscape, we can see and understand spiritual truths we never realized before, or at least not in the same depth. In a different metaphor, Hebrews speaks of  ” the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (12:27, ESV). Spurgeon said in the June 22 reading of Morning and Evening:

We have many things in our possession at the present moment which can be shaken, and it ill becomes a Christian man to set much store by them, for there is nothing stable beneath these rolling skies; change is written upon all things. Yet, we have certain “things which cannot be shaken,” and I invite you this evening to think of them, that if the things which can be shaken should all be taken away, you may derive real comfort from the things that cannot be shaken, which will remain. Whatever your losses have been, or may be, you enjoy present salvation. You are standing at the foot of his cross, trusting alone in the merit of Jesus’ precious blood, and no rise or fall of the markets can interfere with your salvation in him; no breaking of banks, no failures and bankruptcies can touch that. Then you are a child of God this evening. God is your Father. No change of circumstances can ever rob you of that. Although by losses brought to poverty, and stripped bare, you can say, “He is my Father still. In my Father’s house are many mansions; therefore will I not be troubled.” You have another permanent blessing, namely, the love of Jesus Christ. He who is God and Man loves you with all the strength of his affectionate nature–nothing can affect that. The fig tree may not blossom, and the flocks may cease from the field, it matters not to the man who can sing, “My Beloved is mine, and I am his.” Our best portion and richest heritage we cannot lose. Whatever troubles come, let us play the man; let us show that we are not such little children as to be cast down by what may happen in this poor fleeting state of time. Our country is Immanuel’s land, our hope is above the sky, and therefore, calm as the summer’s ocean; we will see the wreck of everything earthborn, and yet rejoice in the God of our salvation.

Sometimes when things are shaken to their core, we see the strength of that core of God’s truth; we see what really matters. Corrie ten Boom said, ” “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” Or, taken in reverse, when Christ is all you have, you find He is all you need.

Nancy Guthrie wrote in  Holding on to Hope. “Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness—this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all. This is the kind of faith that can be developed and displayed only in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is the kind of faith that cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken. “

Our winters shall not frown for ever; summer shall soon smile. The tide will not eternally ebb out; the floods retrace their march. The night shall not hang its darkness for ever over our souls; the sun shall yet arise with healing beneath his wings. – ‘The Lord turned again to the captivity of Job.’ Our sorrows shall have an end when God has gotten his end in them. ~ Spurgeon

Glory follows afflictions, not as the day follows the night but as the spring follows the winter; for the winter prepares the earth for the spring, so do afflictions sanctified prepare the soul for glory. ~ Richard Sibbes

The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer.  I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and the blood. ~ John Burroughs

So winter is still not my favorite season, but I have learned it has its purposes. I almost never see a bare tree any more without thinking of that phrase, “the beauty of the bone.” Sometimes winter is a time of rest or preparing for new growth. A friend who describes herself as a homesteader loves winter for catching up on reading and knitting and planning for her garden, things she can’t do when planting, weeding, harvesting, and tending animals are all in full swing. Hard freezes kill bugs. And if nothing else, winter helps us appreciate spring and summer all the more. So in spiritual “winters,” we can “hunker down” with the bedrock of God’s truth, nourish our souls with it, and trust that spring will come.

Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter. Psalm 74:17.

See also:

Colorlessness.
Help for the “Winter Blues.”
The Winter of Life.

(Sharing with Inspire me Mondays, Testimony Tuesday, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday, Thought-provoking Thursday)

Save

Save

Save

Save

Laudable Linkage

It’s a busy time of year, but I’ve discovered several thought-provoking reads online the last couple of weeks. Perhaps some of them will pique your interest as well.

Weep, Groan, Wail: The Need to Lament. “How is it possible to grieve, mourn, and wail but still know God is good?”

Even If He Doesn’t. “When the bad things come, when the kind of rescue we think we need just isn’t part of our story, will we be able to testify before a watching world that God can do it, that He will do it, but even if He doesn’t, we won’t turn away.”

Immanuel. From a friend’s whose 25 year old daughter is fighting yet another setback in her cancer battle. God is with us, even in the hard places, even in bad news.

5 Reasons to Read the Bible When You Feel Absolutely Nothing. I kept thinking Yes! all throughout reading this.

Jesus Isn’t Threatened by Your Christmas Gifts. Loved the practicality and balance in this. “The implicit messaging is that Christmas is a kind of either/or proposition in which we can either emphasize Jesus or emphasize gifts. But one always threatens to displace the other. I disagree with this.”

Miracles at Midnight.

5 Ways We Stunt Our Spiritual Growth.

Seekest Thou Great Things For Thyself? HT to Challies.

It’s Time to Take Your Medicine. “As we read the letters of Paul we find he always frames things this way: ‘God has done this for you in Christ, therefore you should respond in the following ways.’ ‘Thus the motivation, energy, and drive for holiness are all found in the reality and power of God’s grace in Christ.'”

Words That Shimmer. “For Christians, isn’t it amazing that our gracious God chose something as powerful as words to communicate to us His glorious truth? Everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What a gift! What a treasure! Collectors of words take heart:”

Praying Biblical Prayers.

(Re)Remembering What We Mean. “Fairy tales employ the tool of the fantastic to jar us back to a truer vision that sees that all things are fantastic. Wonder is an appropriate response to all things because all things are wonderfully made.”

On parenting:

Should Parents Lay Down The Law Or Give Grace? “Grace is not rejecting authority. Grace is not walking away from the need of my children to have boundaries in their life—grace is about the way that I do that.”

My Changing Thoughts On Being a Mother. I wrestled with many of the same things mentioned here.

On writing:

Why Backstory Is Better Than Flashbacks.

And finally, I loved this video of a deer and rabbit playing. At least the deer is playing – it takes a while for the rabbit. Someone posted this on Facebook with the caption “Bambi and Thumper are real!”

Happy Saturday!

Laudable Linkage

Here are some good reads discovered recently:

Women: Trade Self-Worth For Awe and Wonder. Yes!

Trouble, We’ve Been Expecting You. Excellent.

Stop Trying to Make the Bible Relevant to Teenagers, HT to Challies, by which he means, you don’t have to present it in a way to try to make it “cool” to them. Its truth relates to all of us: just show them how it speaks to their needs.

Back to the Early Church? Excellent. Sometimes people idealize the early church in Acts, but it had its problems, too.

On Bible study:

What Is Bible Study?

4 Reasons Why Every Bible Reader Should Do Word Studies.

On prayer:

The Busy Mom’s Guide to Prayer. Good tips not just for moms.

4 Ways to Keep a Fresh Prayer Life.

On caregiving and dealing with aging parents:

What I’ll Say to My Children If I’m Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s.

What Caregivers Know and You Can, Too.

Her New Happy.

On parenting:

As Seemed Best to Them. Yes! Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

Why We Don’t Punish Our Kids. Not advocating not dealing with sin, but explaining the difference between punishment and discipline.

And to end on a smile…I saw this on Pinterest and cracked up:

Lego

Happy Saturday!

Save

It’s ok to say it hurts

Its-okay-to-say-it-hurts

Recently a friend shared a painful incident that had occurred in her life, and when a couple of us who were listening tried to express sympathy, her tone changed to one of upbeat cheeriness while she tried to assure us everything was ok and she was rejoicing in the Lord.

It’s not the first time that kind of thing has happened.

As Christians, when we face some kind of trial, we remind ourselves of Biblical truth: God is in control, this has not taken Him by surprise, He has a purpose for it, something to teach us in it; He wants to grow our faith by it; He will give us the grace and strength to deal with it. Those are comforting and do help us as we work through the situation.

On top of that, we’re conscious that other people are watching, and we want to be a good testimony and to glorify God in our responses. So sometimes we translate that into putting on a happy face before others and dealing with our confusion and pain in private.

I’ve mentioned that I used to do this after contracting transverse myelitis and finding an online support group of TM patients and caregivers. Honestly, at first I didn’t join them with the idea of trying to be a good testimony. I was just looking for answers in an era when I couldn’t find information anywhere else (thankfully there is a great amount of information available now). But as I interacted with the group, I did realize that I couldn’t help but share God’s grace in dealing with me and helping me cope. I wanted to represent Him well, so I shared only the positive and kept to myself the hard days and frustrations. Later on another Christian joined the group, and she was refreshingly honest and real about her struggles, yet still expressed faith and reliance on God. That was one incident that helped me realize that having joy in the Lord is not the same thing as grinning and bearing it or keeping a stiff upper lip.

The Bible is full of God’s people speaking honestly about their pain and trouble. The Psalms especially are balm for a weary soul. Lamentations shares the full emotion resulting from God’s judgment even while acknowledging God’s justice in His actions. Paul says, “ We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He admits to being troubled, perplexed, and cast down while still testifying to God’s keeping him from being distressed, in despair, forsaken, and destroyed. Even our Lord Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).

I admit it’s hard sometimes to find the balance. We do want to honor the Lord in our trials and not sound like we’re complaining. But I think it helps people more to see us apply Biblical truth to our painful situation rather than acting like we’re above it all and unaffected. Thus, I’d rather hear, “It hurts that so many special things were stolen in the break-in, but it’s a reminder to us that thieves do break through and steal in this world, and we’re to store up treasures in heaven” than an attempt to brush it off. Or, “God, this disease really hurts today. I so wish and pray you’d take it from me. In the meantime, please give me the grace to deal with it.” Or, “I don’t understand why God took my wife home so early, and it hurts like crazy, but I depend on His grace moment by moment.” In one of Elisabeth Elliot’s writings, she said that even with knowing so many wonderful things God did as a result of her husband’s death, that still didn’t satisfy. God can save people and draw them to a closer walk with Him or into service for Him without taking someone’s life to do so. Yet she accepted it and trusted Him in the midst of it. The “peace that passes understanding” that God gives when we take our requests to Him with prayer and thanksgiving doesn’t deny the pain or problems: in fact, it’s all the more marvelous because it occurs in the midst of the pain and problems.

It doesn’t dishonor God to say that something hurts or confuses us. It might dishonor Him to wallow in it without looking to Him. But when we look to Him, honor Him, rejoice in Him, and trust Him even while acknowledging painful or frustrating situations, people see His grace is sufficient for any need.

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10

Sharing at Thought-Provoking Thursday.

Book Review: Crowded to Christ

Crowded to ChristThe first I remembering hearing of Crowded to Christ was in an online sermon from a former pastor that I think I listened to while home sick one Sunday. He must have mentioned it before, but this time he recommended finding a copy and reading it. It was first published in 1950 and is apparently out of print now, but I found an inexpensive used copy online.

Its author, L. E. Maxwell, was a co-founder, principal, and eventually president of Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada, which I don’t know much about except that Elisabeth Elliot attended there for a time and Don Richardson (author of Peace Child and other books) graduated from there.

Maxwell’s main theme is that God uses a variety of measures – the law of God as well as pain, pressure, and other means – to draw or to “crowd” people to Christ in the sense of realizing He is the only answer.

For instance, “In his determination to be humble, to love His enemies,… to be more than conqueror – in other words, to be like Christ –  the Christian may come sooner or later to a sense of crushing failure and defeat.” He realizes he can’t possibly do this on his own. Some go on half-heartedly, thinking full victory will just never be possible, while others, “not having made Paul’s deep discovery, ‘I know in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing,’ they redouble their efforts…They think that if they are only more watchful, more prayerful, more diligent, they will yet be able to attain. They strive and struggle; they fight and fast; they yearn and pray.” He quotes Hudson Taylor as saying, “I felt I was a child of God: His Spirit in my heart would cry: ‘Abba, Father’; but to rise to my privileges as a child I was utterly powerless.” Maxwell continues, “Not until they had come to an end of all self-righteousness and satisfaction in themselves, not until all their peace and joy and strength of will and resolution and purpose had been ‘slain by the law,’ could faith stretch forth her hands for victory. Only when they sensed the tragedy, the futility, the folly and failure of every human attempt to overcome the law of sin and death, were they shut up to Him who not only ‘justifies the ungodly’ but also ‘quickens the dead'” (pp 17-18).

He describes how God sometimes puts us in extenuating circumstances that result in a crisis of faith that drive us to Him as our only way through, like Jacob on his way home finding out Esau was coming to meet him, or Israel’s being caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, or Israel when called to enter into Canaan but looked at the obstacles instead of God and failed.

I have far too many quotes marked to share, but here are a few that stood out to me:

“Have you ever had God lay hold of you in the wee hours and reduce you until you had ‘Nothing left to do but fling/Care aside and simply cling?'” (p. 29).

“God must secure our confidence, and…He tries us in order to make us trust where we cannot trace. Without faith it is impossible to please Him. ‘Thy way is in the sea.’ While, therefore, He has no pleasure in our agony and perplexity, He knows that it is in the trackless and traceless sea of trouble that we come to trust” (p. 38).

“To be self-centered is to be self-destroyed…The preservation of self is the surest path to self-destruction” (p. 128).

“When the Lord Jesus dealt with souls, His method was adapted to the need of the individual. However, it is remarkable that almost invariably He brought souls face to face with some one thing which in their own strength they could not do, and there demanded an act of obedience…In order to create a sense of sin and a need of divine strength Jesus gave command just where men were inclined to wander or argue or excuse themselves” (p. 150).

“If only the Saviour had asked me to do something else! But that something else would not have reached your heart. You could have done that other thing without faith and without grace; yes, without even being right with God. So, in asking you to do the one impossible thing, Christ crosses your will through your withered limb” (p. 178).

“Grace is no mere favour conferred upon the ungodly, but it is to be experienced as a ruling force and sufficiency, reigning in our hearts as the new, living ‘law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,’ and enabling us to prove the no-more dominion of sin. Grace abounding is to lead at once to grace reigning” (p. 219).

In ways simple and inscrutable and fiery God must drain away the dregs of self-confidence. He must let the flesh fail…when all those remaining are convinced that God alone is their rescue and remedy…” (p. 256).

The New Testament is enfolded in the Old, and the Old Testament is unfolded in the New” (p. 272).

“Love and righteousness are not contrary principles” (p. 299).

He spends a good deal of space in the book talking about the law of God. Though Christ has fulfilled the law and we never could, and in this day of grace are not required to, still, God has uses for the law, which the Bible describes as “good” and “spiritual.” “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” His appendices on “The Old and New Testaments Compared” and “The Purpose of the Law” are some of the best parts of the book, especially on this point.

Overall I enjoyed, benefited from, and saw myself in the pages of this book. I wasn’t quite so interested in arguments about dispensationalism and ultra-dispensationalism or Calvinism vs. Armenianism: those seemed to make the book drag a bit, but I understand their necessity, especially with Maxwell coming from an academic background where students have debated these things back and forth for ages.

I think the only places where I disagreed with him were some such as when he described a man who did not want to go into a grove and pray as the folks in that place and time did when they wanted to meet with God after a service. He acknowledged that there is nothing in the Bible about doing such a thing and that one can get right with God without that action, but this man had no peace until he finally did so. I guess perhaps I could see that if it was just a matter of pride or something, but I’d still have trouble saying he should have done that when it is not a Biblical issue.

This book often brought to mind a quote from Hudson Taylor, though the quote itself is not in the book: “It doesn’t really matter how great the pressure is. What matters is where the pressure lies, whether it comes between me and God or whether it presses me nearer His heart.” As Maxwell says in the second quote listed above, God takes “no pleasure in our agony and perplexity.” He is not dreaming up ways to torture us, but He knows best what we most need in our inmost hearts to grow in our faith and relationship with Him.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)