A Dangerous Place to Be

A friend of mine shared in a small group that she thought she probably would be safe from idols in an atmosphere alone with no distractions: no TV, no radio, all alone. She said people wouldn’t distract her from her spiritual life and worldly music or television programs wouldn’t do it either.

Listening to her, the concept sounded good. But at that time, my situation was pretty much what she described and I was still in danger of idolatry on a regular basis.

I have an active imagination. I have a good mind. And sometimes I believe they are sincerely out to get me.

Other people I know who are seriously trying to change from lifestyles of addiction to being “clean,” tell me it’s important to change playmates, playthings and playgrounds. To live the life of obedience to Christ, I pretty much need to do the same thing. That doesn’t mean I sequester myself away from the world. It doesn’t mean I don’t engage with people who don’t believe what I believe about God and Jesus. Doing that is hiding my lamp under a bowl. And Jesus says I’m to let my light shine before men.

However, scripture does tell me it’s dangerous for me to wander the playground of my mind without Jesus. I must “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

Not every thought I have is sinful, but some of them can lead to sin. My addictions are waiting in the sidelines if I fall prey to just one ugly thought. Or a twisted, selfish emotion. As a matter of fact, being alone can be a hindrance in my relationship with God if I let myself get lonely. I need my friends to help me, so I reach out.

A mind, they say, is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes, it can be a dangerous place to be.

“Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:14,15).

God Asks Questions

Occasionally, I ask God a question. It’s not a case of questioning God, which is entirely different. Sometimes I just feel the need to have a conversation in which he makes things clearer. I don’t always understand.

For instance, I sometimes ask, “What’s going on here, Lord?” Hoping he’ll give me insight to a situation or how another person is responding, I check in with him first. Another one I ask is “Will you please direct me here, Lord? I’m not sure which way to go.”

These, obviously, aren’t hard questions for God. He can answer any question. When he wants to. The thing I’ve learned about asking God a question is sometimes he answers in a way I wasn’t expecting. God’s answer to my question might be that I get another situation. When asking for direction, he more often than not leads me to some place I never even considered. Or someplace I thought of but didn’t want to go.man in woods praying

God is in the habit of asking me questions as well. In fact, I get more questions from God than he gets from me.  To inspire me toward further spiritual maturity and to being conformed to the image of his Son, the questions are much harder for me than my questions are for him.

Obviously.

Some time ago, God asked me about my motivations and wanted me to be clear on something. Turnabout is fair play with him, for sure. This is what he asked me:

“What is the difference between your devotion to Jesus and devotion to your idea of what Jesus wants?”

This question is one I return to repeatedly. Because I tend to think I know what God wants, my actions will reflect that. If I don’t stop and consider first my relationship with Jesus and remember what his mission is, I create my own mission.

Heavenly Father, I’m so grateful that you’re always working and that your Son is as well. The questions you ask are sometimes difficult for me because I so often think I know the way you work and how you want to work in the world. Please keep reminding me that you are the one in charge, even when I don’t understand what’s going on. You’re the perfect parent and I trust you to raise me as a good Father would. For your glory, Amen.

Strength Over the Long Haul

“Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, I shall not be moved.” ~ traditional Christian hymn

How we respond when trouble comes into our lives does two things, in my estimation. Our responses can reveal our character. They can also develop our character. How we respond also reveals what we believe about God. In other words, how we see his character; his personhood, if you will.

At my age, I’ve been through numerous troubles. Some of them never happened–they were all imaginary and caused by nagging worries and fretting. Some of them were hardly worth mentioning. I was acting spoiled and being petty to think I had it so bad (Insert ‘pet peeves’ here). But in truth, I’ve also seen troubles hard enough to put my faith in God to the test.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The way I see it, whether I’m 21 or 61 (as I am now), those troubles come not to test my maturity at a chronological age, but to test my spiritual maturity. I believe our growth in spiritual maturity begins the moment we respond to the initial promptings of the Holy Spirit. We may not know who that is when we first respond, but later, we realize that it was him speaking to us and drawing us to God. Twilight tree Jeremiah 17

I’ve been slow to move at times, needing to repeat an experience to finally understand what God wants me to know about him. Over the years, however, I’ve kept in mind something I read early on from A.W. Tozer’s, “The Knowledge of the Holy.”

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

Even after reading that book almost 20 years ago, that truth stays with me. Look in the table of contents of Tozer’s book and you’ll see he included each thing that makes God who he is. We can’t separate holiness, goodness or majesty from wisdom, love or justice. God is. Period.

May I go out on a limb and say his immutability–the unchanging nature he owns–explains why we can’t leave out any of his attributes? Nor can we forget that God will always be who he says he is. This unchanging nature is one reason I’ve discovered that God gets me through those troubles better than I can do it myself. (Insert “I change my mind” and “I can be moody” here.)

He guides me, comforts me, has each situation under control. And he gives me strength. I’ve seen it over the long haul, and that strength is only equal to the faith I have in him. Whether it makes sense at the time or not, I have to believe he’ll do what he says he’ll do. Formerly, when my faith was less strong, the realization that he was involved so intimately in my trouble often came later. Now, that knowledge is instinctive.

Trusting him has helped me get through some trouble recently. I wish I could tell you how safe I feel because of it. But it’s beyond words, and that’s probably what God intends. He doesn’t need to be understood as I sometimes think I should be.

Agree with me that Jeremiah the prophet is right when he says a person who trusts in the Lord and has confidence in him is blessed. Does that necessarily mean God gives us gifts so we can make our lives better? I think not.

I believe it means the blessing is the gift of God himself. The God who–because he is who he is–gets us through our troubles and gives us strength for the long haul.

Know and Grow

For the past year, Dallas Theological Seminary has been kind enough to offer me some of their classes. I get the notifications in my email and I get to decide if I want to take the course by watching a series of videos.

The first course I took, a study of the gospel of John, was with Dr. Mark Bailey. Dr. Bailey is president of the seminary but likes to stay involved in classroom instruction. He’s a fine professor.

This past week I began another study with Dr. Howard Hendricks, “How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor.” Dr. Hendricks passed away in 2013, but his teaching (so far as I’ve seen) is relevant and direly needed.

Dr. Bailey was quotable. His sense of humor and authenticity shined. He’s been around a long time and obviously lives what he teaches. Dr. Hendricks is no different. Here’s something he said, which I need to remember at all times:

“God’s Word was not written to make you a smarter sinner.”

In other words, reading and studying the Bible aren’t meant just for information, but for transformation, according to Dr. Hendricks. “You can’t grow without knowing,” he says, “but it’s possible to know and not grow.” (Read that sentence again if you need to; I did.)

After my decision to follow Christ, I ate the Word like a little kid devouring an ice cream cone. I enjoyed having Bible knowledge. Other people enjoyed it too; they often asked for information because I did know the Word. They weren’t always so quick to ask me about how to live the Word. That’s disturbing to me because it means I wasn’t allowing God to make that transformation a reality.

If you’re interested in getting started with this particular study, lesson 1 is posted on YouTube here. Once you bring that video up, you’ll see subsequent lessons on the right-hand side of the screen. They’re numbered and titled so you know where you are.

You can also find the course on the DTS site (as long as it’s listed there) to sign up and receive the first lesson immediately.

I hope you’ll enjoy studying with Dr. Hendricks. It’s a blessing to know DTS is willing to share the wisdom, experience and caring of its people.

This is a Test

When I was a kid, it was common to receive messages from the Emergency Broadcast System through television broadcasting. Our show would be interrupted by a voice announcing the message and then a grating, buzzing sound would come on for a few moments.

That warning sound was so disturbing, I remember times we covered our ears so we wouldn’t hear it.

When the buzzing stopped, that voice would come on and let us know that the pause in our regularly televised program was “only a test” of the system. Had it been a real emergency, the voice said, we would have been given instructions on how to proceed further.

Sometimes I wish God would let me know ahead of time when he’s testing me. It seems that I often don’t know a situation occurring in my life has been a test of my faith until the whole thing has passed.

It’s true what they said about hindsight.

But I wonder. If God gave me fair warning of an upcoming trial and the manner in which I’d be tested, would I listen to it? Would I consider it a grating sound in my ears and cover them so I could ignore that warning?

Frankly, I don’t remember one time when I received advance warning of a trial coming in my life. A test, so to speak. But I remember times when, further into the difficult situation, I realized it was probably a test.

God wants to know how I’ll respond when things get a little “testy.” He wants to see if I’ll trust him through it to do the amazing things he can do in that situation. Will I respond to people and events as Jesus would?

Will I pray, seek his direction and stay out of his way?ex cu woman praying

A little over a year ago, a friend gave me the opportunity to leave a situation in which we both felt frustrated and somewhat angry. Another individual had entered our happy circumstance and jarred it with an annoying presence. He was only doing what he’d been asked to do and the permission he was given to do it was given by someone who had authority.

Still, the situation was “testy.”

When my friend said, “You can leave if you want,” I told her I’d stay. In this situation, which actually wasn’t a big deal compared to some, I realized immediately that God might have something for me to learn. And that’s what I told her.

While that situation was one in which I knew right off that God could be testing me and watching to see how I responded, that’s not always the case.

Often times, as I said, it takes me a while to recognize that God has a hand in the situation and that his hand is large and in charge. He wants me to do some footwork in most cases, but ultimately, he’s in control.

In the letter Jesus’s brother, James, wrote to Jewish Christians, he said

“You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete” (James 1:3, 4)

When I read scripture, I’ve learned to pay attention to the places where it says, “so that.” Those two words tell me there’s a good reason for the direction I’m being given by the writer. Because I know the writer’s words were inspired by God himself, I trust them.

Trusting those words, however, doesn’t mean it will always be easy to follow through on the directions. God’s ideas are usually simple ones, but he doesn’t make things necessarily easy for us.

That means if we’re to grow in our faith in God and what he can–and will–accomplish in our lives, we can’t cover our ears when he tells us “This is a test.” Listening–and follow-through–will keep us humbled. It will help us to grow. Listening and follow-through will keep us safe. Just in case of a real emergency.

Sometimes It Doesn’t Make Sense

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19:16, 21, 22

What happens when there’s something we know for certain we need to do, but the action itself goes against what makes sense to us?

Do we ignore that nagging voice telling us to follow through?

God often gives instructions to act on what He says without explaining why. Perhaps you can relate to some of the stories in the Bible.

Joshua was a general. He followed Moses as leader of the Israelites when God led them to the Promised Land. It was now time for them to seize the property and take possession of it. The first city to be taken was Jericho.

God explained to Joshua that He had delivered Jericho into his hands. It implied that all the people had to do was follow God’s instructions. Imagine what some of the people must have thought when they were told the plan.

March around the city with all the armed men and the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant for six days. On the seventh day, as they marched, the priests were to blow the trumpets. When they heard the long blast from the trumpets, God told Joshua to have the people shout loudly. “The walls of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.”

Yell at a huge fortified city after marching in silence for six days? That doesn’t make sense. But they did it. The city fell.

God chose Gideon as a judge of Israel to defeat the Midianites who were constantly harassing the people. Here’s another example of God commanding a plan that doesn’t make sense to mere mortals.

To prepare for the battle, God told Gideon to reduce his troops to 300 men. First, the ones who were afraid to fight went home excused. The rest of the army was tested to see if they lapped water like dogs or with their hands to their mouths. Only the men who drank water in a ready position were retained.

Fight the enemy with only 300 men?

Gideon had previously been wary of God’s message that he was a “mighty man of valor” and even went so far as to ask for signs from God that He meant what He said. When Gideon asked, God didn’t become angry; He answered Gideon in the way Gideon requested. (Judges 6:36-40; 7:1-8)

Naaman, commander of King Aram’s army “was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.” He sought a way to be healed and one of his servants offered a solution. She suggested her master see the prophet Elisha. When Naaman arrived, Elisha sent a messenger to say that the commander should wash himself seven times in the Jordan River and his flesh would be restored.

Naaman went away angry. He had the idea that Elisha would intervene, calling on the name of the Lord for a miracle. When considering the solution given, he ranted that the Jordan was an unfit river and there were better ones in which he could dip himself.

Again, his servants seemed to grasp the situation better than he. They reasoned that if the prophet had told him to go and “do some great thing,” would he not have done it?

Washing in what Naaman thought was a dirty river didn’t make sense to him. But he went. He was cleansed. (2 Kings 5: 1-14)

The prophet Jeremiah had an inside track with God, continually receiving God’s word as a way to speak to the Israelites about His plans. The message that the people would be sent into exile wasn’t a pretty one. The message had been given by other prophets as well. Israel had plenty of warning about what was coming.

At one point, God told Jeremiah to buy a piece of land from his cousin. Surely buying property during a time of siege by the Babylonians must have seemed foolish to Jeremiah’s friends. Even to his enemies.

However, Jeremiah obeyed God when his cousin came to him in the courtyard of the guards. Despite the fact that he was a prisoner and the people would be exiled for seventy years, Jeremiah knew when God restored His people, “Houses, fields and vineyards (would) again be bought in (the) land.” (Jeremiah 32: 6-25)

Jesus’ chosen apostle, Peter, was a commercial fisherman. One day, after Jesus taught the people who gathered on the shore to hear Him, He told Peter to put his boat into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.

“Simon (Peter) answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

After fishing all night and not catching a thing? Why now? That doesn’t make sense.

But Peter obeyed. And they caught such a large number of fish the nets broke. (Luke 5: 4-11)take first step

Who are you most like? Naaman, who argues God’s instructions? Gideon who doubts he can be used by God and asks for signs to be sure? Jeremiah who has an inside track and trusts God will come through? Or Joshua and Peter, who obey immediately because God “says so”?

Maybe you’ve acted like any one of them at some time. That would be understandable because faith can be a tricky thing.

Sometimes, as in Naaman’s case, we need other people to help us see what God is trying to do in our lives. Or we need to ask God for further clarification like Gideon did with the fleece. Then we can move with a small “army” instead of surging ahead full force.

As we mature spiritually, God gives us an “inside track.” We may still pray for a clearer vision, or depend on others to help us see how God intends His instructions for our benefit. Ultimately, we’ll come to a point in which we simply obey because God says so.

Even when it doesn’t make sense.

Imagine what would have happened for the young man whom Jesus told to sell his possessions and give to the poor. Imagine the rewards he would have seen and the joy that could have been his if he’d decided to obey, despite the fact that losing his riches didn’t make sense.

What is God asking you to do today that doesn’t seem to make sense? God’s thoughts are greater than ours. His ultimate plan may be hidden even though He provides a way to see His revealed will. Maybe today is the day to trust God and put our lives completely in His hands.

“We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Questions For God

When I was a teenager, I began to have some doubts about my faith. Whenever I would say something even closely resembling such a thing, my mother would say, “Don’t question God, Paula.”

Now that my doubts have been cleared up, I have great faith in God and trust him with everything. However, that journey to complete trust wasn’t down an easy road. Most of the time I discovered his faithfulness through difficult times.

Something else I discovered through becoming familiar with scripture is that there is a difference between questioning God and asking him questions. Questioning him, in my opinion, displays an attitude based on a lack of trust. Asking questions is based on an honest search for God’s heart.

I look at people in the Bible as examples. King David asked questions in many of his psalms. The story of Job, a man God described as “blameless and upright” is full of questions he would like to ask God. The prophets, especially Jeremiah, had questions for God. Jeremiah wrote a whole “letter” to God full of lamentations. Mary asked Gabriel how God would accomplish the virgin birth.

Jesus wasn’t questioning his Father when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to have the cup removed. He was lamenting what he would face in the crucifixion.

Often, it’s in this state of lament that we find ourselves asking hard questions of our Maker.Q A for blog

Examining these instances of lament–whoever it is in scripture–the people involved do the same thing. They often describe the situation to God. They ask their questions. Then they turn from the questions to praising God for what he’s done in the past. They tell him how much they trust him.

Looking back, I believe my doubts were simply a case of wanting some questions answered. I was an immature Christian and needed to have those answers.

Doubt isn’t inherently a bad thing. If our doubts lead us to ask questions and those questions lead us to sound belief, they can create a closer relationship with the Lord.

Doubt accompanied by the questioning attitude, however, can lead to a hard heart. That inevitably causes distance from God.

When we come to God with questions we may not always get an answer. Or the answer we hope for. But we’ll be drawing closer to him, remembering our dependence on him and remaining teachable by his Spirit.

Dear heavenly Father, help me to remember that there are people who, whether Christians or not, have sincere questions they need answered. Remind me that I still come to you with my own. Give me the ability to extend grace and not judge someone’s lack of faith because they have questions. I pray that all who seek you with all of our hearts–even through our questions–will find you as you have promised we will.

God’s Surprise Messengers

I went in for the scheduled oil change and learned something.

I already know I should get regular oil changes and top off those fluid levels. My late father was an auto mechanic, so if there’s anything he would preach as car maintenance religion, it’s that. But on this particular day, my van also underwent a transmission fluid flush and fill.

Now that all sounds pretty normal, but what might not seem so usual is that a woman was handling all this. When the process was explained to me, she did it. When I had questions, she answered them. There were a couple of guys around, but she was right on top of things, helping me understand what they were doing and how I should follow up. (Although I have to admit when she talked about my torque converter, she lost me.)3d white people leaning back against a question mark

My point, and I do have one, is that I was shown once again that I can learn from the most unlikely sources. I’m not sexist, but this was so new to me. It never occurred to me that a woman would know about torque converters. She may not have great knowledge in other areas, but she surely knew auto maintenance.

Likewise, I should never underestimate who God chooses to use in my life to see what it is he wants me to see.

I sat in a 12-step meeting once watching a man come in, sit down, say his name and pass at his turn to speak every single week for months. I honestly wondered if he was getting it. Then one night it came his turn and after telling us his name, he told us what was on his heart. He made so much sense, I sat there stunned.

Silly me, thinking one has to have years of spiritual maturity to make sense.

If God can use a donkey to set one of his people straight (see Numbers 22), I guess he can use anyone. Where I’m slow to learn, someone else may have great wisdom for me. I hope I never underestimate the power of God’s word through the people he places in my path.

The Intruders

Prayer and meditation get to be a problem for me. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. Sure, I can pray for a while and enjoy the company of the Lord some days with absolutely no problem. Then there are times when the noise in my brain is like the sound of scanning radio stations:

“Heavenly Father, thank you for being in my life today. You are worthy of my worship and I praise you for your faithfulness and love. Lord, I wish that Josie would stop gossiping about people. She can be so mean. Oh, wait, I do it too. Sorry. And by the way, thank you for forgiving my sin of gossiping. “Squirrel!” Lord, when I sit down to the computer to write today, please help me to write only what is on Your mind so that I can be an encouragement to others and not be a whiner.”

Then I whine.

Instead of guests in the temple of my body as I go to God in prayer, these rabbit trails are more like intruders. Do you see the problem I have? I’d like to be a great example and be one of those people who can pray for extended periods and nothing gets in the way. At this point in my walk with God, however, I’m just not.

As I said, I do have times when I enjoy a lengthy period of prayer. Occasions happen when I actually lose track of time in the morning and nearly make myself late for appointments. But as someone with the attention span of a spider monkey, I want to do this more often. Well, not the ‘late’ part.

Maybe you can relate and would like to do it too.

Reading and studying scripture is no problem for me; I eat it right up. And I’ve noticed that when Paul wrote his epistles, he would even include prayers in them. The man thought of everything. I would never think to write out a prayer for someone in a letter. But how blessed those people must have felt when they read them. They were also the kind of prayers with some meat to them because most of the time he prayed for their spiritual maturity or to know Christ more.

ex cu woman prayingIt’s been said that the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. Well, here I am—God and everyone can know right here. (Okay, God already knew.) I’m thinking the solution must be somewhere in his Word.

Given my own way, I tend to complicate things. However, God’s ideas are usually simple ones. So what, do I ask, does he have to say to me about improving this area of my life? (Even Christ’s disciples implored him, “Teach us to pray.”)

What occurs to me first is what most people refer to as the Lord’s Prayer. The model prayer Jesus gave his disciples would be better called This Particular Disciple’s Prayer.

First, I worship and acknowledge the Lord for who he is. Next, I pray that his will—not mine—is done in all things. (By the way, if I truly want to pray God’s will, acknowledging who he is right off is pretty important. Honest worship takes the focus off me.) Then, I pray for only today’s needs because “tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34) Acknowledging his forgiveness to me and praying for the willingness to forgive others as I’m forgiven is what I take up next with God. Then, because evil is everywhere, I pray to be delivered from temptation.

Some folks might ask, “What about praying for others’ needs and what about this or that or that other thing?” Good call. I agree that we are to stand strong; put on our armor. Pray for others—believers and unbelievers alike. Those we love. Our enemies as well. That’s scriptural too.

I’m just saying that this simple model Christ offers is a great start for someone like me, who sometimes can’t string two coherent thoughts together even when I’m NOT praying. And though I’m admitting my general frustration, I also know that the words don’t matter as much as the fellowship we have with our heavenly Father. (If you’re not the spider monkey type, maybe you don’t relate to this at all. But we all have distractions in our lives and I think “intruders” happen more often than we like to admit.)

So I’m hoping that in this writing effort, I was maybe a little bit encouraging. I hope I said something God might offer as a solution to a problem. If not, I pray to do better next time. And, hey, while I’m at it…

Lord, you know all things. You know me better than I know myself. I am a scatterbrain sometimes. When I sit down to enjoy prayer time with you and meet you to meditate on your word, help me to focus on only our time together. Help me to clear the clutter from my mind and heart as I would clear the clutter from my home. Please also help all those who come to you today to lean in to you and trust you. Allow them to know that you hear their prayers. Remind us that your Spirit speaks for us when we don’t know how to pray and that your Son is always interceding on our behalf. Thank you for your mercy and love. In Christ’s name, amen.