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, March 19, 2016

Working for Good - Part 2

"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 8:28-29 NASB).

The previous post presented the idea that the primary good that God works out of all things is conforming His children to the image of Christ. Often God also works some amazing providential good through the challenges of life, but His more important agenda is that of molding Christian character. If a believer is looking only for providential life results worked through unpleasant circumstances, he can easily become frustrated and disillusioned, even tempted to give up on God. On the other hand, when a Christian understands the eternal aspect of what God is doing, the important internal factor in his own heart, and the gradual, life-long process utilized to achieve these purposes, he can rest at peace even when he fails to see anything good result from his situation.

In this post, I want to focus on practical application of the above truth. As an illustration, let us consider a twenty-nine year old lady who is approaching a much-anticipated wedding. She has trusted God and remained faithful to Him through years of yearning for marriage and wondering if it would ever happen. Just as it appears that her heart's desire is about to be fulfilled, her fiancé calls off the wedding and moves to another state.

How can that incredible disappointment work for good in her life? Some people might try to console her by suggesting some possible good. They could theorize that the man might turn to alcoholism and violence in later years, and that the breakup spared her from that. They might suggest that God stopped that marriage because He had a different plan - a more suitable man in the future, parents who unexpectedly need care, or an unanticipated ministry opportunity. Time might even confirm these or similar positive circumstantial outcomes.

In reality, God is doing something bigger and more important. He may or may not ever work the outcomes listed above, but what He can do through the situation is to advance that believer in Christ-likeness. He can lead the jilted bride to depend more fully on Him. God can use the situation over the years to work greater contentment and peace in her life as she willingly walks forward on the path He has chosen for her. He can make her better prepared to serve Him and to be a testimony for Him.

I realize that this concept has happened in my own life. I have had several "aha" moments in which I realized the significance of what God had previously done in my life. I think of (at least) three specific manifestations: writing my devotional book for the chronically ill, starting this blog, and volunteering as a chaplain at the hospital. These ministries were made possible through God's previous arrangement of my life: chronic illness, unemployment, Bible study, journaling, writing devotionally, a summer devoted to seeking God, and multiple years of teaching English. These factors helped to prepare me for the ministry opportunities. In fact, as each of these three ministries began, I recall thinking, "God has been preparing me for this throughout my entire life!"

There is a practical level of truth in that; without my illness, I would not be able to minister as deeply to others. Without my times of dedication to Bible study, I would not be able to share God's truth as well. Without the years teaching English, I wouldn't be able to communicate as effectively. These correspond with the common interpretation of Romans 8:28 - that God brings good things out of bad things.

There is, however, a deeper level of truth. Those practical experiences were necessary, but in themselves they were not the most important. Far more critical is that through the years of illness and Bible study and teaching, God was gradually working in my heart. He was progressively teaching and maturing me so that my heart would be better prepared to serve Him. Realistically, it is not the illness or the unemployment or any of the other factors that best prepared me to serve God. Rather, I can do what I do for Him because of what He has done in my heart and character through those things.

In a difficult circumstance, therefore, the question should not be about what external good God will work out, but instead about how the circumstance aids in producing greater Christ-likeness. A believer may not be aware of what particular trait God is trying to work in him, (and it's probably more than one), but he can be aware of God's ultimate objective of greater maturity. The circumstance itself might never change into something humanly identified as good, but a Christian can be at peace and can yield to God more readily when he understands the good spiritual result toward which God is working.

A believer does not and cannot know what will be required to bring him to the level of Christ-like maturity that God desires for him. If he is the least bit honest and insightful, however, he will realize that it will take a lot of work. Maybe caring for a handicapped child is the only way a particular believer would ever learn the level of love God desires. Maybe continued health issues are the only way God can bring a believer to a right submissive spirit. Perhaps only a troubled marriage will adequately teach patience, or nothing but a failed ministry would properly teach forgiveness. Years of singleness or widowhood might be required for the achieving of contentment. The tools might be "bad," but they produce something good.

God uses these personally-designed tools to produce the fruit that He desires in each life. A believer can have confidence that God is using every circumstance ("all things") to accomplish meaningful growth in the heart. He can submit to God's choice of tools when he also desires the intended result; even if he does not know specifically what God is trying to work in him, he can sincerely pray in the midst of each difficulty, "Father, help me through this to more fully reflect Your Son."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Working for Good - Part 1

"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 8:28-29 NASB).

For many this will not be a new concept, and when I recently heard it, it was not a new concept for me, either. This truth was, however, exalted to a higher level than what I had heard before and broke through with increased clarity over what I had understood before.  While the central thought of this blog comes from a sermon by Dr. Mark Minnick, the post is primarily my response to the sermon.

The central idea is that when God works all things together for the believer's good, God's primary good objective is to conform His child to the image of Christ. I don't think any Christian would deny that God wants to accomplish that goal. When I have heard these verses taught in the past, however, I have commonly been left with the interpretation that God turns bad things into good things, that He achieves some specific and visible result in the life of His child through something bad that happens to him. For example, through the circumstance in question, God directs someone to a new job, provides protection from danger, or initiates an encounter with a particular person.

There is no doubt that God does those providential kinds of things. Both the Bible and life itself provide abundant proof. The story of Joseph is a classic example, when Joseph tells his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20). Many Christians can share similar stories, confidently affirming that if a certain bad thing had not happened to them, they would never have been able to do some other thing, or they would have been injured, killed, trapped in a bad marriage, etc.

Those stories, and God's work through them, are accurate and wonderful. In my past teaching, however, I have seen those good results lifted to the pedestal of God's only (or ultimate) plan within the situation. The conformity into the image of Christ has been almost an afterthought. The impression I have been given is that, "Oh, yeah, God does that, too. Conforming to Christ happens incidentally as part of the package," but what appears to be most exciting is the meeting of Mr. Right through the bad situation or being spared from an accident or house fire.

Instead of an afterthought or a minor part of the equation, I submit that conforming the believer to Christ-likeness is the big deal. It is God's main objective, and along the way, He incidentally works out some very interesting life situations - what believers typically look for as the "good" in the situation.

I believe that looking for a visible and providential good result rather than being stabilized by the assurance of God's conforming work in the life (whether any "good" result is seen or not) leaves a believer with a few shortfalls. First, he misinterprets God's objective. He forgets that God is doing bigger things in the world than arranging victories or positive results in the lives of individuals. God has a major goal of wanting to produce a vast multitude of children, men and women who will exalt His Son by their imitation of the greatest and foremost Son of God. God wants to present these children to the Son in a way that will bring Him great honor and glory. A believer who is focused on how some event works out in his life misses the grander objective that God is seeking to achieve.

Second, the believer underestimates the scope of what God is doing. The believer is satisfied, perhaps even amazed, that a flat tire saved him from an accident down the road, but God desires to do far more in that person's life. Perhaps the flat tire was just another small step in His design to teach the believer patience or trust. Being delivered from the accident is nice, but God is interested in doing more on the inside of a man than on the outside. Everything that God does and allows in life is designed and utilized to bring increased conformity to the image of Christ.

I believe this concept becomes clearer when one ponders the end of life. What does he want people to say about him when he is old (or has passed)? How does he want God to view his life? Will people say, "He was a man of faith," "She was the most loving person I knew," or "He was an example of what patience should look like"? Those are the things God wants to accomplish, maybe through a thorn in the flesh. Maybe through a troubled or abusive past. Maybe through a long illness. Maybe through a disabled child. Maybe through years of singleness or widowhood. Maybe through repeated job losses, ministry opposition, or financial reversals. Paul gloried in his weakness because he realized it worked the grace of God in him.

Third, the narrow-sighted believer misinterprets God's process. Perhaps because faith, which requires belief in what one cannot see, is difficult, man prefers to look on what he can see. Man therefore focuses on the concrete - an accident, a chance encounter, a storm, a surgery, and so on. He wants to see God's good worked through these incidents; often he even looks for a one-to-one correlation. He wants to see that out of the accident came X, out of the chance encounter came Y, and out of the surgery came Z. He can then be convinced that God worked each incident for his good.

God plans much further ahead than that. God foresees a lifetime of events, struggles, and conditions, and He orchestrates all of them into a lifetime process of gradually achieving a masterpiece as the result. Man too often thinks of God as a jeweler who makes a series of distinct cuts in order to form a beautiful diamond. Sometimes God does advance His work through brief and focused blows, but more often He could be compared to a rock tumbler.  God achieves His work gradually over time. While events and incidents are part of the process, a lot of God's molding comes through the repeated drudgery of everyday life. Rather than a single doctor's appointment, although that may have impact, God works through the years of battling cancer. More than through the birth of a disabled child, God works through the years of parenting him. Much more significant than a job loss would be the years of working under a difficult boss or with constant uncertainty about the future of the job.

God is working all things for good in the life of the believer. When one realizes the eternal impact, the internal aspect, and the gradual process, he will be much better prepared to appreciate the good that God is doing.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Helping My Prayers

The Bible contains much encouraging truth about prayer, a wonderful privilege that allows lowly man to talk to an exalted God. Though there is no merit on man's part to warrant such communication, God repeatedly encourages believers to talk to Him. "Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us" (Psalm 62:8 - all verses NASB).

The believers' prayers are not like cards dropped into a suggestion box or letters written to a politician; those communications might be ignored for months, perhaps never answered nor even given serious consideration. God, on the other hand, always cares about the prayers of His children, and He always hears their cries. "But know that the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to Him" (Psalm 4:3).

A major reason that a believer can pray confidently to God is that Jesus has told him he can. In human experience, this is like someone who directs a friend to a source of help; the friend does not know the potential helper, but is instructed to say, "So-and-so told me to ask you." The helper then gives help, not because of the merits of the one asking, but based on the reputation and authorization of the one who suggested the contact. Jesus says that believers can come to the Father in this way. "Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13).

God can do some amazing things through prayer. The truth is that believers do not understand or anticipate all that God is able to do. There are prayers that believers never pray because they cannot comprehend the level to which God can answer.  They do not even imagine to ask for what God is entirely capable of doing. "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).

There are believers who want to take illegitimate advantage of prayer, seeing prayer as a blank check with which to ask for (and expect to receive) anything they want. Prayer does not work that way. God will not fulfill every selfish or misguided request from His children; He will, however, answer every request that is in accordance with His will. "This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him" (I John 5:14-15).

Here is where prayer can seem a little confusing or challenging. How does the believer know what God's will is? The truth is that some situations are so complicated that a believer could not possibly know what the answer should be. God offers hope even for this scenario. "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).

In situations where wisdom is slow in coming or when God chooses to keep the believer in uncertainty, the Christian can still pray for what is on his heart and for what he desires or believes the answer to be. Jesus offers an excellent example of heart-felt yet submissive prayer. As Jesus prayed in agony in the garden, He asked, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39).

While I appreciate all of the above truths, there is one truth that recently has been especially precious to me. In my life context, I find myself knowing neither what God's will is nor what my own desire is. At times evidence and yearning stack up on one side; later everything will seem to support the opposite. Just to introduce some of the factors, I don't know if I should continue doing what I am doing, seek to get back into teaching, or do something completely different. Neither do I know if I can best serve God as a single lady or whether my service would be enhanced with the blessing of marriage.

At times it seems that marriage to the right person would give me a platform for ministry, and at other times it seems that being single allows me time to devote to ministry. Sometimes I desire to teach again and be part of something that really matters, and at other times I wonder if I have the energy to teach again. Perhaps God wants me to return to vocational Christian ministry, but then again maybe He wants me in a secular job that allows me time and resources to invest in other types of outreach. Maybe being married would provide some areas of support that would make me more effective in ministering to others, but maybe it would limit my compassion and effectiveness by making me less dependent on God. Maybe all of these things are relatively inconsequential, and I should be praying only for God to develop His character in me.

So often I find my heart strongly directed toward one or another of these scenarios, and I want to plead with God to do the particular thing that seems like it must be the right answer. Then with a little time, one of the other options seems to be the overwhelmingly correct one. The best I know to do is to keep my heart tender to God, to keep doing what He has shown me to do, to explore possibilities that He brings across my path, and to rely on this final encouraging 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; and 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" (Romans 8:26-27).

The Holy Spirit is my intercessor; He meets with God on my behalf. He knows what God's will is, and He prays for me as I ought to be prayed for in each situation. I can want to do God's will with all my heart. I can fervently pray for what I believe to be God's will. I can humbly submit to God's overriding of my desires. Having done all of those things, I still might not know what God wants. Part of my weakness is that even my prayers are weak. I don't know how to pray, but the Spirit prays the best things for me even when my most sincere efforts fall short.