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, October 31, 2015

Thankful Things

"In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (I Thessalonians 5:18).

There are some times in life when it is easier to give thanks than at other times. Regardless of the ease or difficulty, however, God wants His children to always give thanks. His ultimate instruction is to give thanks in and for everything. That is certainly a great challenge. The very least one can do is to focus on the aspects of life for which he can be thankful, even if he still finds it difficult to give thanks in the harder things.

To be honest, there are days that if I made one list of things for which to be thankful and a second list of things that are troubling, I would find it much easier to make the second list, which would probably be longer. I'm trying to learn not to focus on the negative things. Yes, they happen, but dwelling on them and how hard they are is not at all helpful, nor is it in keeping with God's desire for me. I have found that even on the "worst" days, there is always something for which I can genuinely give thanks. Here is a sampling from the past few months.
  • blessing of special music in church - "My Heavenly Father Watches Over Me"
  • a compliment from my supervisor at work over a suggestion I presented
  • a compassionate and encouraging email from a friend when I shared a struggle
  • two friends shared book titles that were very appropriate for me
  • hugs from a lady at church for no reason other than she wanted to
  • laughter through watching I Love Lucy episodes
  • discovered a path near work that is a great place for me to walk after work
  • had the opportunity and courage to invite my neighbor to church again
  • had a nice phone call from a new friend at an especially helpful time
  • my doctor's determination to continue treatment in spite of opposition
  • thinking of a hymn "Never Alone" in the middle of a troubling night
  • my children's class really enjoyed a Bible memory game I made for them
  • finally cool enough to sleep without the air conditioner
  • a dinner invitation from busy but caring friends
  • on a few occasions at church when my heart was struggling with God, He made my heart tender
  • able to hold a friend's little baby
  • safety for my parents who were driving on a trip while exhausted
  • had the best opportunity I've ever had at work to share my belief in God
  • able to do some cleaning without any seeming effect
  • had a good opportunity for an extended talk with my little friend about sin and related topics
  • beautiful mountains along a drive home
  • fun with my niece and nephew
  • God helping me to figure some things out as I walked and talked with Him
  • God reminded me that I have His armor to protect me from the attacks of Satan
  • an excellent week of special meetings at church
  • the church song leader was able to find me an old hymnal that I can use
  • enjoyed a half day off work - doing errands and going to volleyball tournament
  • able to locate an important package that had been badly delivered
The "thankful things," as I call them, fall into every category - physical, practical, social, emotional, and spiritual. They happen at work, home, church, and elsewhere. If I'm not trying to make a list, I sometimes (or often) miss these blessings. When I do list them, however, I am encouraged to see how much God has done as He has poured out His love upon me. Is every day good? No, I wouldn't say so - but God is always good.

"Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting." Psalm 107:1 (NASB)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Where You End Up - Part 2

In the previous post, I looked at the life of Job, a man who faced great trials and who struggled intensely as a result. In the end Job gained the victory and was blessed by God. From Job's example, I pointed out that where a believer starts out is not nearly as important as where he ends up. I also noted that the only way for a better conclusion to result is for a believer to have dependable anchors to keep him in the right place.

Job recalled many great truths about God - truths that sustained him and kept him from falling away in the midst of his struggles. Eventually the scattered stabilizing truths grew to the point that they became the overwhelming body of truth that gave him victory. Job is not the only Bible character to go through a similar process of clinging to God's truth until the testing has passed. In fact, while Job's example is inspirational for long-term trials, other Bible passages illustrate that the same process must be applied in short-term struggles.

In the frustrations of daily life, in the troubling thoughts of ordinary existence, and in the regular struggles of common human experience, the believer's starting point (of frustration, anger, fear, discouragement, worry, confusion, or doubt) is not nearly as important as where he ends up. The end result may not be months or years down the road as in Job's case. There are struggles that take place often within the scope of a single day, or even within a few hours or even minutes. However serious the nature of the struggle and however long the duration, the believer must focus on truth that will bring him to a victorious result.

Many of the Psalms illustrate this principle. Psalm 2 begins with concerns over the threats of heathen nations and over their desire to break free of God's control. Then the psalmist focuses on God's unstoppable power and on the universal control that He will easily exercise over every nation. The psalmist concludes with a warning to the haughty kings, a call to worship, and an assurance in his great refuge.

Much of Psalm 6 is filled with David's intense discomfort. He senses the anger of God and describes the intense suffering of both his body and spirit. He is overwhelmed by tears and grief. In the midst of this trial, David then remembers God's graciousness, His healing power, and His lovingkindness. David affirms his belief that God hears and answers prayer. These truths calm David so that he concludes with confidence in God and an expectation of deliverance.

In Psalm 10, the psalmist feels that God has abandoned him and that the wicked are about to triumph over him. Then he remembers the accountability that God holds over the wicked and His characteristic helpfulness to the needy. The psalmist ends with a recognition of God's invincible kingship and with confidence in God's strengthening and deliverance of the vulnerable.

In Psalm 12, David despairs that almost all the righteous people have disappeared. All that seem to remain are the wicked with their lying, abusive, and destructive speech. David then thinks about God's attention to the afflicted and the purity of God's words. He ends up resting in the assurance that God will preserve the godly.

In Psalm 13, David begins in anguish, believing that God has forgotten him, experiencing great sorrow, and thinking he is about to die. He then recalls God's lovingkindness and salvation, and he concludes with rejoicing and praise to God.

As Psalm 36 begins, David's eyes are filled with the wicked, with their iniquity and their schemes. Then he focuses on God's lovingkindness, His faithfulness, and His righteousness. He ends up rejoicing in the precious refuge found in God and in the abundant delights provided by God.

The psalmist of Psalms 42 & 43 speaks of his sorrow, his lack of opportunity to come to God, and his despair. He is mourning and believes himself to be forgotten by God. This soul burden is not easily overcome, but throughout these psalms, the writer repeatedly brings himself back to a place of hope and trust in God. While he goes through ups and downs in his soul struggle, he tenaciously remembers various truths about God and pulls himself back to the necessity of trusting in a good and helpful God.

In Psalm 73, Asaph shares that he had very nearly come to the point of stumbling; he was overcome with envy at the wicked who are too vile to imagine, yet seem to have success in their lives and impunity from any judgment. He saw them defying God with no apparent consequence, and he believed that he had lived for God in vain. Then he remembered God's pending righteous judgment of the wicked. Asaph turned the bitterness of his soul as he exulted in the constant nearness of his God, his home in heaven, and his satisfaction with such a good God.

In Psalm 79, Asaph begins with a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. As a survivor, he looks around at the multitude of dead bodies, and he hears the mocking of the enemy. When he observes the waste and destruction, he believes that God is angrily bent on continued judgment. Then he calls to mind God's compassion, His salvation, His forgiveness, His power, and His merciful treatment of the needy. Asaph is able to end with a resolve to thank and praise God. He gladly acknowledges himself as belonging to such a God.

The Bible contains many more examples of this same process. God knows the weakness of man. He knows that Christians will struggle as they move through the challenges of life, and He provides the help and the answers. The Bible is filled with truths about the nature and character of God. These truths, when remembered and focused upon, are sufficient to stop the negative thoughts and the downward slide. They are sufficient to give the believer hope and confidence in God and to lift him to a place of victory. Truth about God can make all the difference, but only when the believer purposes within himself to consider it.

"Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God." Psalm 43:5 (NASB)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where You End Up - Part 1

Even the most mature believers have times of struggle. All Christians go through seasons of discouragement, doubt, or disillusionment. I suppose Job was the most outstanding example. Job was an amazing follower of God. God Himself gave this testimony: "Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil" (Job 1:8).

This man endured a barrage of horrific trials while still worshiping God and maintaining his trust in God (Job 1:14-22). When a severe and prolonged illness quickly followed the previous disasters, Job reached a point of despair. He was filled with questions. He cried out to God for answers and for righteous treatment instead of what he believed he was undeservedly enduring. There is no doubt that this godly man Job went through a time of significant struggle.

The question for a believer is not whether or not those times will come; it is more a matter of how many, how often, and how intense the faith-threatening trials will be. I believe there are two very important, even critical, principles for a believer in such times of intense struggle. The first is that where the believer starts out is not nearly as important as where he ends up.

God understands human weakness. "For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14). His response is one of compassion (Ps. 103:13) and sympathy. "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

Jesus had first-hand experience of what these shattering trials are like for someone living in the weakness of a human body. It does not shock God that believers struggle. I do not believe that it even alarms God when they waver. He understands that this is the completely normal human response when someone is dealt a powerful blow.

Everyone faces battles, and everyone struggles when facing those battles. Struggles - accompanied by perhaps doubt, fear, or despair - are the common plight of mankind. The above-mentioned troubling responses surface when a new trial appears. The question then is how to change the initial response in order to end up with a different conclusion. God understands how typical it is for believers to start out with confusion or discouragement. What He wants to see is where they will end up. He desires to see them emerge at the other end with a stronger faith, a greater God-dependence, and a more submissive heart.

How does the conclusion end up better than the beginning? The answer is found in the second principle, which is that in the midst of the trial, the believer must have dependable anchors to keep him in the right place. He must have unshakeable truths to cling to. These statements might be one statement of truth amidst ten or even one hundred expressions of doubt, but there must be at least one steadfast underlying truth that upholds the believer and keeps him pressing on through the trial.

Job had several such statements that provided him with anchors amidst the raging storm, lights within the stark blackness, and hope within the overwhelming despair. He made the following statements that helped to stabilize him and allow him to eventually emerge at a much better outcome. Job believed and stated the following:

"The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (1:21).

"Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (2:10).

"Though He slay me, I will hope in Him" (13:15).

"As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God" (19:25-26).

"But He knows the way I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (23:10).

"I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (42:2).

Being sustained with such strong statements of faith in God and in His plan, is it any wonder that Job eventually ended up in a position of humble submission and complete trust? In the midst of his conflict, doubts, struggles, and despair, Job clung to some unshakeable truth that held him securely throughout the trial and enabled him to emerge at a much different position. He may have started out with intense struggle during the severe storm he faced, but he emerged victorious. Without the focus on truth, Job would never have been able to end up at the successful destination. Because he remembered truth, however, Job ended up being able to confess the following.

"Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes" (42:3, 5-6). "Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add nothing more" (40:4-5).

Job had to fight through the battle, but he held onto stabilizing truth, and he came out on the other end with victory over the trial. God understood Job's initial struggle, He was patient through the extended crisis, and He was pleased by the victorious result. God does not expect men to be super-human, but He rejoices when mere humans cling to supernatural truth to overcome daunting trials. God is pleased when believers learn and grow enough to make the position in which they end up far different from the struggles along the way.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Wanting Two Things

Last week's post examined the Israelites, who on multiple occasions got what they wanted even though they didn't always realize what they were asking for. Wanting things is completely natural. In fact, I believe it is actually impossible never to want anything.  Last week's post focused in part on the fact that desires can be expressed in an improper way or out of a rebellious heart.

This week I would like to look at situations in which someone wants two things at the same time. Very often believers have a physical (personal) desire at the same time that they also have a spiritual (God-ward) desire. Generally speaking, the physical desires are short-term, while the spiritual desires are long-sighted.

What are some examples of physical desires? A person could want to watch a football game, eat ice cream, or go on vacation. He might desire to be rich or to be successful in his career. He may want to be married or have children. These desires range from the fairly trivial to the relatively serious. Some would change merely the course of an afternoon while others might prompt an entire life change.

How about spiritual desires? A believer may wish to please God or grow in godliness. He may want to learn contentment or submission. He might desire to be used in God's service or to see souls saved. He could want victory over a besetting temptation. He may long for a heart that is completely right with God. He may want to have a positive testimony to those around him or for his life to count for God. These desires are basically foundations for life. Many of them permeate every aspect of life as well as the entire breadth of life. They will not be completely achieved until the believer is glorified in heaven.

Physical and spiritual desires do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, God often blesses His children with physical gifts, especially when they are striving for the right spiritual desires. Job and Abraham are biblical examples. In Psalm 17, David describes how he had achieved his desire of living uprightly before God. "You have tried my heart; You have visited me by night; You have tested me and You find nothing; I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress" (v. 3). As a result, he reasonably expected some things from God. "Wondrously show your lovingkindness, . . . Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me . . . from my deadly enemies who surround me" (vs. 7-9). God granted David's desires of displayed goodness, special favor, and physical protection, while also helping David to achieve his goal of living correctly before God.

As long as a desire is good and legitimate, it is certainly possible that God will grant the desire. Psalm 37:4 instructs, "Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart." Some believers have tried to exercise this truth as if it represents a blank check from God. They think that if they are Christians, God will give them anything they want. This is a misunderstanding of the verse.

The believer is first instructed to delight himself in God. This term refers to a luxurious splendor in the presence of God; the position is so delightful that it feels like soft and delicate surroundings that are welcoming and satisfying. If a believer relates to God in this way, he will certainly have the kinds of desires that God would love to grant.

Some have also interpreted this verse as meaning that when a believer so delights in God, God Himself will initiate or shape the person's desires so that they are exactly what God also wants. In other words, God will give (or place) right desires into the heart, after which He will then be able to bestow the answers. Because the word desire means a request or petition, I lean toward the interpretation in the previous paragraph. Either way, the application is basically the same. A man who delights in God has a heart that is inclined to want what God wants, and God delights to meet desires that are pleasing to Him.

It is important to realize that this harmony is not a given. Too often the Christian's unfulfilled desires (or desires met but accompanied by unpleasant consequences) are a result of physical desires that are in opposition to spiritual desires. A believer who watches football to the point of rarely attending church is not fulfilling his desire to please God. Someone who eats a half gallon of ice cream daily is not honoring God, because he is not properly caring for the body God has entrusted to him. A man who spends thousands of dollars on an extravagant vacation, leaving him without the resources to provide for his family, is not having a positive impact in his realm of influence. A believer who wants to be successful as a bartender is not achieving his spiritual goal of being a good testimony. A Christian who marries a non-Christian does not reach his goal of pleasing God. When the physical and spiritual desires are mutually exclusive, the believer must abandon the physical desire in deference to the greater spiritual desire.

What about when the desires could profitably co-exist, but God does not give the physical desire (or hasn't yet given it)? The believer must then rank his desires. The longing for a vacation may be good, but the longing to obediently provide for the family is more important. The desire to be successful in a career is good, but the desire to maintain a godly testimony is more critical. Wanting to be married may seem to be the strongest desire imaginable, but it must be secondary to the desire to please God, serve Him, and grow in Him.

Believers can legitimately live without football, ice cream, vacations, wealth, successful careers, marriage, or children; if they want their lives to be what God wants, however, they cannot live without striving to please Him, without obeying His commands, and without being moldable and receptive to His work. While it may be difficult to never see the fulfillment of certain physical desires, it would be tragic to receive the physical requests at the expense of falling short of the spiritual desires. The spiritual desires must be the most important.

"God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God." I Peter 5:5-6 (NASB)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

They Got What They Wanted

In reading through the beginning of the Old Testament, I was struck with how often the Israelites got what they wanted - though in a somewhat ironic fashion. They did not always know what was right or what was best for them, so their desires, wishes, and requests were not always wise. Nevertheless, God often gave them just what they wanted, albeit with consequences that were not desired.

In Exodus 16:3, the Israelites wanted food. God gave them a special food called manna. This food miraculously appeared every day (except the Sabbath) for forty years; it tasted like "wafers with honey" (v. 31); Psalm 78:25 refers to it as "the bread of angels." They got what they wanted. What was the result? Some of them went hungry or had the unpleasant experience of spoiled food when they wouldn't follow God's simple instructions for gathering the manna (Ex. 16:20,27). They also reached the point that they did not appreciate God's good gift to them. They complained about not having anything better to eat, and even said they no longer had an appetite because their food was so unappealing (Numbers 11:6). Although God gave them what they wanted, they came to hate His gift.

In Exodus 20:19, the people didn't want God to speak directly with them because they were afraid to come near Him. They wanted Moses to listen to God on their behalf and relate God's words to them. They got what they wanted, but the results were disastrous. God revealed that His reason for wanting the people to draw near to Him was so that they would see His imposing splendor and learn to fear Him (v. 20). Because they failed to come near and listen to God, they also failed to learn the reverence for Him that they should have developed. The result was continued rebellion and disobedience, resulting in hardship and judgment.

In Exodus 32:1, the people wanted a visible god to look at and to credit with their deliverance from Egypt. With Aaron's help, they got what they wanted. They donated their jewelry, which was then fashioned into a golden calf. As a result of God's displeasure and the judgment decreed by Moses, 3,000 of them died (v. 28). Not only that, the calf was ground into gold powder and thrown into the water, which the Israelites then had to drink (v. 20). In addition to being an unappealing experience, the people also lost their valued treasures without having anything to show for it.

In Numbers 11:4, the people wanted meat. In spite of the seeming impossibility of providing meat for such a large group of people, they got what they wanted. God gave them a month's worth of meat (v. 20). What was the result? They quickly came to hate it; the meat became "loathsome" to them (v. 20). Also "the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague" (v. 33), after which many who had eaten the desired meat were buried.

In Numbers 14:2, the Israelites expressed the strange desire to have died in the wilderness. They found that option preferable to following Moses and taking the land as God had commanded. They got what they wanted. God promised that every adult (except Joshua and Caleb) would die in the wilderness (v. 33). This is such a sad result, compared with what God wanted to give them. This desire to die in the wilderness was linked to a desire for safety. They were afraid to die at the hands of the Canaanites. Again, they got what they wanted. They were not killed by the wicked nations - but they still died, and their deaths came after decades more of wandering in spartan and deprived conditions.

Oddly, when the Israelites realized the consequences of their choice, they decided in Deuteronomy 1:42-45 that they actually wanted to enter the land, even though God had now forbidden them to do so. They got what they wanted. They entered the land and engaged in combat. The result was that they were chased and crushed in battle.

In Numbers 16:41 (among other passages), the people wanted to be free of Moses' leadership. They didn't want to follow him. 14,700 of them got what they wanted, when they died of the plague that ravaged the people (v. 49).

In Numbers 20:2, the people wanted water. They got what they wanted when God gave water from the rock. In the process, however, they ultimately lost the stable leadership of Moses, as God cut his ministry short. He would no longer be available at a critical time in their history (v. 12).

In Numbers 21:4, the people wanted their miserable journey to end. Many of them got what they wanted when they were bitten by fiery snakes and died (v. 6).

In Numbers 25:1, the men wanted wives of Moab. They got what they wanted, but at great cost. As a result of the mixed marriages, the people's hearts were turned to false gods. Their idolatry sparked God's anger; the leaders were executed, and 24,000 others were killed by a plague (v. 4,9).

Not all of the desires of the people were bad. There was nothing wrong with wanting food, water, and safety. These requests, however, were rooted in wrong attitudes and in a lack of trust in God. The Israelites were not satisfied with what God had chosen for them; they did not believe that God was properly supplying for them.

Other requests were even worse, as they stemmed from disobedience and outright rebellion. The people rejected God's leader, His commandments, and His instructions. Their desires were so strongly in opposition to God's desires that following these desires automatically meant disobedience.

Their desires came from rebellious and mistrusting hearts that did not delight in God. If their hearts had been rightly devoted toward God, their desires would have been pleasing to God, expressed in ways that pleased God, and God would have been able to abundantly give their desires in ways that would have brought blessing. "Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4). The challenge for the believer is to have a heart that seeks God's desires, rather than a heart that insists on its own desires. If the heart is wrong, leading to wrong desires (or wrongly expressed desires), God might give exactly what the believer wants, but the results could be disastrous.

"So He gave them their request, but sent a wasting disease among them." Psalm 106:15 (NASB)
"There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." Proverbs 14:12 (NASB)