This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Inclined to Us - Part 1

There are many aspects of God's character that believers fail to understand or fully appreciate. Of those, I believe there is one particular characteristic in which, beyond a diminished appreciation, Christians actually do God a great disservice. More serious than incomplete understanding, many Christians tend to believe almost the opposite of what is true. This deficiency in the knowledge of God is in regards to His love for His children.

One would rarely admit publicly that he thinks God does not love him. A believer would be hesitant to reveal such a belief to his pastor or another respected leader. How often, however, have believers thought it within themselves or stated it in frustration to a friend? The assertion may exhibit some variation - that God doesn't love them very much, that He doesn't love them as much as He used to, that He doesn't love them as much as He loves someone else, or that He doesn't love them anymore. Perhaps instead of a statement, they express it as a question or doubt: I wonder if He loves me, I wonder why I don't see His love, I guess He is mad at me.

Regardless of how (or if) believers express it, Christianity seems to have a fairly widespread conception of God as a judgmental, unpredictable tyrant who flies into a rage and beats His children for every wrong move, that He is incensed if they step out of line even once in any area, and that He is interested in their personal lives only when they violate His commands.

The reality is that God is a god of love. As such, He is inclined toward His children. He wants to help them, wants to bless them, wants to see them grow. He wants to enjoy sweet fellowship with them. He wants to respond to their needs and desires. In contrast to being a god who rejects his followers for the smallest offence, the true God embraces believers upon their smallest advance toward Him.

The misconception about God's love comes in part from the knowledge of Bible stories, especially from the Old Testament, in which God poured out His wrath. While there certainly were instances of God's decisive judgment, those were against wicked and unrepentant people. The Bible is also filled with truths and stories demonstrating a very different response to those who believed in God, repented of their sins, and sought Him. There are far more verses than I can include in this post, but here is a sampling that illustrates God's positive inclination toward those who genuinely seek Him.

"For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). God is pleased to see His work accomplished in His children.

"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:11). God wants to give good gifts if believers will simply ask.

"Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know" (Jeremiah 33:3). God answers when His children call and wants to do even more than they ask.

"Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us" (Ephesians 3:20). God wants to do abundant things beyond what man can even imagine, let alone ask.

"He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him" (Psalm 91:15). It's that simple. When Christians call, God answers. The psalms are filled with verses attesting to this truth.

How about some specific examples? Jacob connived and fought to make his success without God's help, but when he finally begged for God's blessing, God changed his name and pronounced blessing upon him. In great anguish and distress, Hannah cried and begged God for a son, and God responded by giving her a son. Hezekiah prayed during his severe illness, and God healed him and added years to his life. On numerous occasions God provided food, gave protection, and brought victory in battle, along with many other miracles for the benefit of His children.

The stories could continue, because they are many. These are stories of people in great need and in helpless situations. Because He was inclined to them, God responded to their simple prayers. He met their needs, gave them blessings, and delivered them.

God wants people to come to Him. He wants to receive and help them. "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37).

As a note of caution, this prevalent Biblical truth is not a magic formula or a guarantee of bounty. It is not an assurance that God will do everything His children want. God's interaction with His children is filtered through His infinite wisdom and ultimate plan. What ought to be abundantly clear, however, is the underlying inclination of God toward His children. He loves them very much and wants to do what is right and good for them. He wants to have a relationship with them as a loving God, not as an overbearing ogre. He is an accessible and interested God.

"You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart." Jeremiah 29:13 (NASB)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gateways to Praise

        Gateways to Praise (Sonnet 25)
That trials and tests are hard I can’t deny;
At times they seem to cruelly break my heart
And pierce right through me like a wounding dart.
With grief and heaviness they make me sigh.
I share what Christ faced when He came to die;
Like Him, in learning suff’ring has a part.
In tests, Christ-like compassion gets its start.
“You’ll be more like my Son,” is God’s reply.
When testing ends, what blessings there will be
Because of how God ably brings me through.
I’ll stand amazed at all my God can do
And see what otherwise I’d never see.
The glorious vict’ry yields abundant song;
His awesome answers bring praise sweet and strong.

The bottom line is that no matter how deep the pain of a situation may be, God is big enough to bring good out of it. At times God changes the outcome of a situation to achieve a victory that no one else could possibly achieve. Other times He changes His children, giving them grace to endure the situation and blossom in it in a manner completely outside human comprehension. Whether His transformation is of the situation or of the people involved, God puts His power on display. His responses are worthy of praise.

"According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death." Philippians 1:20 (NASB)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where It Hurts Most

Several years ago I went through a particularly difficult situation that profoundly affected me. It staggered me for many months and in some ways changed me permanently. I believe the situation was especially challenging because it was an area in which I have struggled for most of my life. I knew it was a weak area for me, and one in which I was particularly vulnerable. In spite of growth over the years, I would probably have evaluated myself as being on semi-solid ground, by no means having mastered it, but experiencing some level of stability.

Ironically, the very situation that I thought was contributing to that level of stability ended up transforming into the most painful situation ever in regards to this particular area of my life. There had been smaller episodes and struggles over the years, through which I believed I had made some progress. This particular incident eclipsed all of the others in its intensity and seemingly denied any progress I had ever made. I was left crushed and hurting, like the floor was taken out from under me. In some ways I am still at a loss, even years later, to know how to properly handle this aspect of my life.

With the passing of time and much communication with God, the situation has become easier to deal with. It is not completely forgotten, and probably never will be, but the pain has subsided. I have made necessary adjustments, and life has moved on. I don't dwell on what happened, but the inevitable reminders of it can still bring sadness and pain. At times I have wondered why it happened. Of all the possible challenges I could have faced in life, why be hit so hard in this particular area of struggle? Why be injured where it already hurt the most? Why this area of life again, and why harder than ever?

I believe God has gradually helped me to see some of the answer to those questions. I do believe the incident happened for a reason. From a human perspective, I would say the situation was wrong and should not have happened. Even through the "wrongness," however, God has His purposes. He wants to use it for good and to bring additional growth in my life. Logically, if this is the area in which I am weakest and need the most growth, then God must return to it often and address it repeatedly.

God is faithful to work with His children over and over in the same areas, gradually bringing growth and maturity. God doesn't give up when His children struggle to master certain concepts. Instead, He is patient and compassionate. In spite of the work to be done, sometimes He even gives times of reprieve in the areas of weakness that concern Him. God knows when to push an issue and when to back off in order to give time for healing and growth in understanding. He prepares the heart, and He knows just how and when to bring the pressure. Because God's purpose is Christ-likeness, He keeps faithfully coming back, strengthening the spiritual muscles a bit more each time until they are finally developed.

Isn't this what He did with Abraham in regard to faith?  Would Abraham trust God and obey Him when God asked him to leave his family and homeland? Would he travel to a strange land? Would he live in tents, never having a permanent dwelling or seeing an established inheritance? What if there was a famine in the land? What if he believed his very life was in danger and that his wife might be taken from him? What if conflict with his nephew led to a parting of ways? What if that beloved nephew was later captured in battle or in danger of destruction? What if the birth of the promised child was delayed for decades? What if Abraham was then asked to sacrifice that child and heir? God kept bringing Abraham back to tests of his faith. Abraham sometimes passed and sometimes failed, but he gradually grew in his faith. He ultimately learned the concept and had victory. Numerous verses in the New Testament hold up Abraham's example of faith, and Hebrews 11 repeatedly attests to it. Abraham learned faith, but it was not always that way. He had to take some hits in some hard areas before he truly learned to trust God.

As with Abraham, God's intent in my life is not to cause pain, but to bring growth. So I cannot view what happened as a painful experience, but as a springboard for helping me to search for answers and seek growth. One thing is certain: the situation that happened has clearly shown me that I am still weak in this area and that I do not have the answers. The repeated challenges in this particular realm keep me aware of my deficiency so that I can continue to seek God for help. They identify for me an area in which I need to grow. It is good for me to realize that I need God and am insufficient in myself instead of thinking I have everything under control.

Honestly, the impact of this particular situation is so great that I often feel clueless and permanently broken in this aspect of my life. Everything I thought I had learned and all the growth I thought I had achieved seem to be completely erased. In some ways I see myself as more deficient in this area than ever before, and the years since the incident haven't changed that. All I can do is to trust God to do His good work through it and to bring growth out of something that looks like only failure and loss to me. I need to remain open and observant to absorb the understanding God wants to give. I must trust Him to teach me and to prompt growth when He knows the timing is right.

While these unexpected incidents and shakeups in life are difficult, confusing, and painful, there is peace in realizing that God is working through them all. There is a confident quietness in the soul through the knowledge that God is purposefully targeting areas of needed growth. There is hope and expectation in knowing that He will do His intended work of maturity even if that means additional pain where it hurts most.

"For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6 (NASB)

"Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit." John 15:2b (NASB)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

God's Priorities

"Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison." II Corinthians 4:16-17 (all verses NASB)

"Concerning this [thorn in the flesh] I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecution, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong." II Corinthians 12:8-10

"Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. and let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." James 1:2-4

"In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." I Peter 1:6-7

God's priorities are often not the same as man's priorities. This is particularly clear in the area of trials. Christians do face trials; there is no question of that. In the midst of those health problems, family problems, relationship issues, financial struggles, employment challenges, and so forth, man tends to focus on wanting to be delivered. He wants the difficulty to be fixed.

The verses above describe the trials of life in these terms: "our outer man is decaying," "affliction," "thorn in the flesh," "weakness, . . . insults, . . . distresses, . . . persecution, . . . difficulties," "various trials," "testing of your faith," and "distressed by various trials." These believers wanted to be delivered from their difficulties. Paul mentions repeated prayer to that effect.

God is not unsympathetic to the pain of His children, and in many cases He does, in fact, give deliverance. God also sees a bigger picture. God's biggest concern is not the physical condition of His children, but their spiritual condition. In other words, God sees multiple aspects that need to be fixed in each situation. The physical component is just part of the trial, and not the most important part. Like a doctor who restarts a patient's breathing before attending to his broken leg, God prioritizes spiritual needs over physical needs. It isn't that He ignores the physical, but He knows what must be done first, or what must be fixed even if nothing else is.

In the words of the verses above, God is focused on accomplishing the following: "our inner man is being renewed day by day," "an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison," "that the power of Christ may dwell in me," "so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing," and "so that the proof of your faith . . . may be found to result in praise and glory and honor." This concept is so common in the Bible that the list of verses and phrases could be much longer. In essence, God wants His children to mature and to look more and more like His Son, thereby bringing glory to Himself.

A godly believer desires that same goal. Above all, he wants to please and honor God.  When the believer understands God's spiritual priorities in his life, he is able to respond as mentioned in the verses above: "we do not lose heart," "most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses," "I am well content with weaknesses . . .[etc.] ," "consider it all joy," and "in this you greatly rejoice." Those responses cannot happen until the believer realizes that God is doing His amazing work through the difficulties.

Even with that mindset, a Christian may find himself at a loss in the situation. He may not know what to hope for, what to pray for, what to expect, or what to work toward in the physical aspect of the trial. Thankfully, God gives this amazing truth:

"In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; for He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren." Romans 8:26-29

The Holy Spirit takes man's feeble attempts at prayer, filters them through the infinite knowledge of the will of God, and presents them properly to the Father. When these prayers reach God, they appropriately request the right desires and are focused on the priority of the Christian becoming "conformed to the image of His Son." God then works all things together for His good purposes.

God hears the prayers of His children, and He knows their hearts. When He responds by doing something other than the expected, He is in essence saying, "I know what you want, but I'm doing something better. I know what is important to you, but I'm doing something more important."  With a heart properly inclined to God, His better and more important response actually answers the deepest desire of the heart - above all else, to be like Christ.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Where Is the Top?

I with Thee would begin, O my Savior so dear,
On the way that I still must pursue;
I with Thee would begin every day granted here,
As my earnest resolve I renew
To be and remain Thine forever.

This is a lesser-known hymn by Karolina Sandell-Berg, the writer of "Day by Day" and "Children of the Heavenly Father." It is a good prayer for the beginning of a new year or a new day. I suppose it is somewhat natural at this time of year to reflect on and evaluate both the past and the future.

At the beginning of this new year, one of the things that most stands out to me is how much I have to learn. God has taught me many wonderful truths over the years. He has given me amazing growth in many areas. In light of what God has already done in my life, it sobers me to realize how much He still needs to do. In so many areas, I feel like I am closer to the beginning of learning than the end.

I need to learn much more about how to interact with God through His Word and through prayer. I need to learn more about God Himself. I need to learn more about loving and serving others. I need to learn more about resting in God's plan for my life and about being faithful where He has put me. I need to learn that there are some things I don't need to know but just need to trust God for. I need to learn more about having a testimony that can impact both the saved and the lost.

Part of me wonders how this can be true. How can I still need to learn so much and grow so much after all that God has already done for me? Shouldn't I be a mature Christian by now? Shouldn't at least the major areas be under control and my struggles now be just in minor things?

I am reminded of when I lived in New Hampshire. Our school (and sometimes I personally) would climb Mt. Monadnock. It took some amount of meandering through woods and ascending rocky slopes before it was possible to see the top of the mountain - or, I should say, what one thought was the top of the mountain. Upon advancing further, one learned that what had looked like the top was, in fact, not the top at all. This deceitful illusion was repeated several times before the actual apex of the mountain could be viewed and scaled.

So it is in the Christian life. Often one perceives he is learning and growing so much that he must be near the top. Then comes the realization that he is not as close as he thought he was. As a believer matures through his earthly journey, there are some truths that he must gradually learn to deeper and deeper levels. It is much like the school experience in which students begin learning about grammar in lower elementary school, but keep learning it all the way through graduation, each year going a little bit deeper and gaining fuller understanding.

In addition to this gradual or progressive understanding, there are also times that a believer forgets a lesson he has learned in the past and must re-learn it. This may be the case particularly when many years go by without that area of life having been tested. A believer rarely learns a lesson completely without ever needing to review it.

Finally, even lessons that have been well-learned must be maintained or reinforced. For any skill to remain sharp, it must be practiced periodically. How many times have I started to summarize a book I had read or a movie I had watched, only to find that my recollection was not as vivid and accurate as I had expected? The longer it had been since I had read or watched the story, the more I struggled with accuracy. Reading or watching again would correct my inaccuracies and enhance my mastery. The Christian life is somewhat like that. Regular review and practice are needed to maintain the lesson. In the process, small adjustments can be made as needed and understanding becomes more accurate.

Perhaps this final area is the one in which believers experience the most frustration, as they continue to struggle in areas they thought they had mastered. Instead of condemning themselves for their weakness or failure (I John 1:9), they simply need a refreshing of the lesson and a continued march forward.

As I move into this new year, realizing how much I still have to learn, that is what I desire - a freshening and renewal of the lessons I have learned well in the past. I also want a reinforcement and deepening of lessons I have learned only partially. I realize that I may also need an introduction to lessons that I have not yet begun to learn. Only with God's help in all of these areas can I continue moving upward in this life-long journey that is the Christian walk.

"Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." Philippians 3:13-14 (NASB)