Compassion

Ice, Mice, and the Lessons They Teach Us

About nine months ago, we moved into a new house and inherited an ice machine. That was exciting in itself, but even more exciting is the kind of ice the machine produces. It’s soft and porous, a little crunchy but not too much so. You can actually bite a cube in half with your front teeth! It does wonders for my oral fixation, but it is much less suited to my TMJ. While this condition has laid dormant for some time, this newfound ice-chewing habit of mine has caused my symptoms to flare up. They extend beyond jaw pain at this point, causing horrible earaches as well as sharp headaches throughout the left side of my head (I’ve even begun to wonder if they aren’t migraines). And yet, I sit here munching away. I’ve even been known to delay my bedtime routine some nights just so that I can eat a few more pieces of this marvelous confection. All of this, even though I am likely driving myself to one day need a titanium jaw replacement—and that is not a good thing to have to have replaced!

The whole thing reminds me of a research study I once read about, involving a bunch of lab rats (or mice, I don’t recall). These rats were placed in cages containing buttons that, when pushed, would allow them to directly stimulate the pleasure centers in their brains. What the researchers found was that the mice would literally pleasure themselves TO DEATH! They wouldn’t eat, or sleep, or do anything else. It seemed so sad and pitiful.

But my ice fetish got me thinking, aren’t we all a bit like those lab rats? It seems that many of us could identify something that might compel us to pleasure ourselves to death—literally or figuratively. It might be something that in itself is relatively benign, or it might be something highly destructive. It might be something that affects only ourselves, or it might affect our friends, families, colleagues, and communities. It might not reach MOAS (Mother of All Sins) proportions, but it might.

In any event, recognizing our own weaknesses, temptations, and vulnerabilities should awaken us from our delusions of self-righteousness. It should give us a frame of reference from which to reach out to one another in our shared humanity. And from this place, we can reach out in grace, and compassion—and yes, in accountability, but first and foremost, in LOVE…because after all, didn’t God first love us? (1 John 4:19).

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His Glory Revealed

I don’t cry very often, thanks to some well-dosed antidepressants, but every now and then I still have my moments. What landed me in that place the other night might surprise you. I had been waiting for some medical test results, and I received them earlier in the day. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” is what the nurse said. This might be a relief to many patients, but to me it represented one more failed attempt at an answer—and with no answers looming on the horizon that I could see.

Chronic pain and illness—some treatable, some not; some diagnosable, some not—has been my plight for years, and it’s one I try to endure with some semblance of grace. But sometimes one more symptom to add to the bray just feels like more than I can handle. You know?

Well, I’ve allowed the Spirit to comfort me in the past through verses like these.

James 1:2-4:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10:

“…I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

But the other night, the passage that came and kept coming to my mind was John 9:1-3:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

I guess the reason I’ve never connected this story with my own is that Jesus chose to heal this blind man. And if we look at God’s glory as healing, strictly speaking, then I guess it might never apply to me. But even when our paths and journeys differ, God’s glory can still be seen, can it not? Regardless of what we face, God can use our circumstances to reveal His heart.

  • It may look like renewed compassion and empathy for others who suffer.
  • It may look like the encouragement you share with and receive from others.
  • It may look like a strengthened faith in God’s sufficient grace.
  • It may look like God walking alongside you—carrying you when the road becomes too long.
  • It may look like you walking alongside a fellow sojourner—helping them to bear a burden that is too heavy for them to carry on their own.
  • It may look like peace that passes understanding, in spite of swirling turmoil.

I could go on, I’m sure, but I hope you get my point. Chronic pain and illness are my cross to bear (and that of many others), but your struggles (or your friend’s, or your neighbor’s, or your colleague’s, or your sister’s) may be very different. They may include losses, addictions, hurts, sins, you name it. But they are no less usable by God, for the display of His glory—if we will allow Him to use them.

Look for God in your circumstances—chances are, you’ll find Him.

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Burning Coals

Romans 12:18-20:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

I have to be honest, I’ve never liked this passage. I’ve always thought to myself, first of all, that we as believers shouldn’t be wishing God’s wrath or vengeance upon anyone, no matter their offense. We should hope, pray, and work for repentance, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. So revenge has never been my M.O. And I’ve never really seen it as God’s, either.

The second reason why I’ve always disliked this passage is the idea of doing good to your enemy in order to “heap burning coals on his head.” That has always struck me as incredibly spiteful. And God doesn’t call us to spite our enemies. No, He calls us to love and bless them. So in my cognitive dissonance, I’ve just glossed over the verses, vowing to ask God about it one day. Well, it turns out that now I don’t have to—thank you Jon Green!

You see, Jon taught from this passage in his Sunday sermon this week, and he shed SO much light on the context of this passage for me. Specifically, he pointed out that this refers to a common-ish practice of the day, and one undertaken when an enemy was attacking. From the top of the city’s wall, soldiers would heap burning coals on the heads of their attackers in order to keep them at bay. And Jon rightly described this as a defensive action, a response from a position of strength, but one respecting appropriate boundaries. So rather than going on the offensive, or being spiteful, this heaping of coals was simply a strategy for protection. And for me, that changes everything.

So then, what about God’s wrath and His vengeance? Well, when Jon suggested that we are to leave revenge to God, I got to thinking that one reason for this is that we do not know how to properly wield vengeance. But God does. And do you know how we know that? John 8. You remember, don’t you, when a woman was brought before Jesus after being caught in adultery? And the teachers of the law wanted to stone her, but Jesus quietly called each one out in his sin, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:9-11).

So when we turn our enemies over to God—who is righteous, just, AND merciful—we can trust that He will do the right thing. We can certainly have no such faith in ourselves. What a relief, then, to let go and give it to God—not asking Him to avenge us, but pleading with Him for mercy and forgiveness, on behalf of our enemy. Jesus Himself did no less as He hung on the cross to die for our sins. Let us live by His example, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

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Vantage Point

Romans 12:15-16a

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another…”

The other night, I re-watched the movie, “Vantage Point.” The movie portrays a terrorist attack, but from about nine different points of view. There’s a Secret Service member, a local police officer, a spectator, members of the media, and even a couple of terrorists. What’s interesting is that we, as the audience, had no real idea what was going on until the end—after all of the vantage points had been pieced together. Granted, by the end of the film, there were still a couple of questions remaining, but for the most part, the plot was resolved.

I think this film actually provides a relevant comparison for some of the major discussions and events going on in our country and our world today. I think we are experiencing a lot of uncertainty, confusion, separation, division, self-righteousness, anger, resentment, disparity—and the list goes on.

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But I believe that much of it stems from (or is at least aggravated by) our limited vantage points, our myopic perspectives, and our self-righteous agendas. We have refused to acknowledge and empathize with the positions and perspectives of others around us, in particular those who are not like us. We have elevated our own needs, desires, and comforts above those of others. We have denied or ignored disparities and injustices. And Romans (among other passages in the Bible) makes it clear that this should not be.

Instead, we should rejoice with those who rejoice AND mourn with those who mourn. A huge step in that direction is for us to actively and intentionally adopt—even momentarily—the perspectives and the vantage points of those with whom we are at odds. It may be that we would find ourselves in greater awareness, understanding, and even agreement with one another. This might well allow us to feel greater empathy, express greater compassion, and extend greater assistance to our fellow human beings. In short, we would be that much closer to living in the harmony that Paul calls us to in Romans. What do you say? Shall we give it a try?

 

Jesus…DOES

James 2:15-17

“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.
If one of you tells him, ‘Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,’
but does not provide for his physical needs,
what good is that? So too, faith by itself,
if it is not complemented by action, is dead.”

I have a brother in need. He’s not my brother because we share the same parents, or the same last name, or the same political ideology, or the same faith. He’s my brother because the same God who created and loves me created and loves him. Now his name could be Tim, or Bob, or Joe, and his need could be for a place to sleep, a job, a car, or a hot meal. But today, his name is Steve, and he happens to need a kidney transplant.

His story found me through social media, but one thing that stood out to me most was the outpouring of sentiment that his story elicited. In response to his need, his friends sent him good thoughts, positive energy, prayers, and cyber-hugs. But no offers to actually help him, or to tangibly meet his need. Now, to be fair, I don’t know these people. Perhaps they’ve been disqualified from donation. Maybe they are kidney recipients themselves, or are also waiting on transplants of their own. But these comments reflect a common occurrence in our society, namely, that many of us would rather send someone a heartfelt emoji than take action on another’s behalf.

This tendency is not limited to our day and age. Even back in the Bible times, people were keen to offer well wishes to those suffering, rather than to recognize their own ability to help and to accept that responsibility. Think about the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). While a priest and a Levite passed by a man in need, a Samaritan (of no relation whatsoever) stopped to help—even going above and beyond that which common decency would have dictated. Jesus commended this third stranger, and instructed his listeners to do likewise. Also consider James 2:15-17, wherein we see that well wishes are likened to faith without action, and therefore dead.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Prayer is a crucial component in our relationship with God and in our relationships with others. But sometimes—I dare say often—God chooses to answer prayers through the ACTIONS of His people. We will, of course, not always be in a position to meet the needs we observe in the world. But maybe the next time we feel compelled to send someone good vibes, we could at least consider the possibility that God wants us to ACT on those intentions, and to be Jesus’s hands and feet to a world (or a friend or a neighbor or a stranger) in need. And in this particular case, it just so happens that I have a spare kidney—perhaps for just such a time as this.

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Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.”

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Well, I finally got tattoo #8 yesterday. I’d been thinking about it for some time, but the logistics only just fell into place. Whenever people see a tattoo in another language, the first thing they ask is what it means. Well, in this case, the Korean symbol on the back of my ankle means “dust.” It isn’t the only symbol for dust in the Korean language, but this one means, “soil, earth, clay, dust, ground, terra.” And that seems pretty close to the meaning of dust in the Bible verse above. WE. ARE. DUST.

I think we forget that sometimes. We think we are greater than we are, more invincible, more in control of our own destiny. Or maybe we are constantly beating ourselves up because we aren’t as great as we think we should be; we aren’t as kind, honest, or righteous as we are called to be. We fail. We fall. We disappoint ourselves, and those around us, and presumably God. But the verse above suggests that our God is a God of compassion, understanding, and unconditional love.

We also need to remember that, just as we are formed from dust, so are the people around us. They will fail. They will fall—and the higher the pedestal you’ve put them on, the greater the fall will be. They will disappoint. They will betray. And God remembers that they, too, are but dust.

Now, does this mean we should throw in the towel and dispense with all the good we know we should do? Does it mean we should do away with our efforts to promote justice and righteousness? And does it mean we should try to avoid the consequences of our actions, or protect others from suffering the consequences of theirs? No, no, and no. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 6:1-2: “What then shall we say? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may increase? By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?”

We should do what we know to be right and good. As Micah 6:8 commands, we must seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus stated (Luke 10:27), we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Still, as hard as we try to obey God’s instructions, we will fail at least some of the time. And no matter how hard our fellow believers try to keep those commands, they will fail. And no matter how much trust and loyalty we place in our leaders, they too will fail. And maybe, just maybe, if the God of the universe—holy, righteous, and just—can show compassion toward such dusty creatures as you and me, then perhaps we could too.

Compassion for Humanity

Psalm 103: 13-14

“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

I may have mentioned before how I feel like our testimonies should be living, changing, and growing. God should be moving in us each day—what He’s doing in and through us should never be stagnant, it should never be only in the past. I’m thankful that God challenges and convicts me each week, and that I have the privilege of sharing that journey with all 12 of you. Does my testimony include falls and failures? Absolutely. But just as surely, His continued work in my heart is evidence to me that I am not living surrendered to my sins. It gives me faith that God is not through with me yet. And I praise Him for it.

It is against this backdrop that I confess that this week, I lost hope in humanity. I felt disappointed, and to some extent betrayed, by the words and thoughts expressed by some within my circle of friends and family. I felt like we couldn’t find a common ground—and of course, I was in the right. My first instinct was to—well—judge. I quickly convinced myself that these people lacked compassion. To some degree, they were heartless. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45)? So there I was, peering into hearts that looked to me a lot like tar pits. But then I felt the disquiet that often accompanies the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and I heard a still, small, slow voice speaking to my heart, No.

No. Okay, you’re right, it wasn’t my place to judge. I can’t see people’s hearts. But I could see their actions, and I could tell that these people (and frankly most others) were not to be counted upon. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that GOD will supply all my needs (Philippians 4:19)? God, not people. So the best course of action was clearly just to rely solely on God for every need and to ask for nothing from others, expect nothing from others. But again, there was that still small voice, No.

How about bearing with one another (Colossians 3:13), and accepting those of weaker faith (Romans 14:1)? No. I don’t know about you, but in my flesh, I end up applying these verses from a place of pious self-righteousness, which was never the author’s intent. It wasn’t Paul’s intent, and it wasn’t God’s.

My heart finally started coming around to a right place once I started thinking about what Jesus would do, what Jesus in fact did. I know it sounds trite, but it’s so right. Jesus encountered an adulterous woman at a well, and another in the street, and He forgave both. He chose Peter, knowing full well that this guy’s fear of man and his temper would lead him to sin. Then later, He asked if Peter loved Him with a sacrificial love. Peter’s answer was essentially, “No. I mean, come on Jesus. You know I love you like a brother and you’re one of my closest friends. Isn’t that enough?” The answer was basically, “No. But that’s okay, you’ll get there.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

But this seems to always be Christ’s sentiment. So even though I may occasionally struggle with my fellow humans, even though I may not be able to reconcile their perspectives with my own, I know what Jesus would do. Or rather, I know what He wouldn’t do: He wouldn’t give up on them. So if I want to be like Him, then I can’t give up either.

Jesus Said, “Love.”

There, but by the grace of God, go I.

I don’t know a lot about world news. Let’s be honest, I don’t know much about national or local news either. Ever since I switched to Outlook as my e-mail platform, and no longer regularly see the Yahoo! News postings, I’m pretty much in the dark. And yet, it didn’t escape my attention that last Friday, Paris fell victim to multiple terrorist attacks. I knew because the media coverage of events was nonstop. I knew because Facebook friends near and far changed their profile pictures in solidarity, and posted prayer requests and sympathy notes. My first inkling that something had happened was actually a status update from a friend in Paris, letting us all know that she and her family were safe. Praise God!

But then, a bit later, I saw a post that convicted me (https://newmatilda.com/2015/11/14/paris-attacks-highlight-western-vulnerability-and-our-selective-grief-and-outrage/). In this post, Chris Graham accused the Western world of selective outrage, stating that, “Meanwhile, in a brown part of the world, as the attacks began in Paris, Lebanon was just emerging from a National Day of Mourning, after 43 people were killed and 200 more were injured during a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Beirut.” He also highlighted an attack 11 months ago, in which “Boko Haram razed the town of Baja in Nigeria, killing more than 2,000 people.” He went on to tell about several other heinous crimes against humanity that received very little popular or media attention. And then he asked a poignant question: “How do we explain our indifference to the suffering of people we perceive as different, Lebanese, African, Hazara, Muslim…. Brown people?”

The sober answer is, “I don’t know.” But I know it’s wrong. Sure, France is an ally—a friend. Sure some of us have visited there, or have friends who live there. But are we justified in dismissing suffering just because it happens in a place we’ve never been before? Or in a war-torn country where it “happens every day”? You know, many of the people killed in these terrorist attacks in the non-Western world are innocent civilians, casualties of war. But even those who are not, even those whose hearts and actions are bent on malice, even those are among the fallen humanity that Jesus died to save. We should pray for redemption and salvation for ALL. And we should see and be heartbroken over ALL suffering. Period.

After all, “God so loved the WORLD, that He gave his only begotten son, that WHOSOEVER believes in Him shall not parish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The Danger of “Every”

Always. Never. Every. These are dangerous words. First of all, they’re almost never correct. Our world and this life are full of exceptions, for better or worse. Just this week, I read an article about abortion, wherein the author argued that “every” abortion is a failure of community. I have to disagree. Sometimes, the decision may be one of compassion and even selflessness. I’ve always been one to say that I would never have an abortion, but then I heard a story that gave me pause.

You see, there’s this condition called osteogenesis imperfecta (A.K.A. brittle bone disease). This disease can cause babies to suffer multiple and repeated broken bones in utero and after birth. In many of these severe cases, the babies don’t live through the gestation period. Of those that do, many die shortly after being born. I read an article about one little girl who had 30 broken bones at birth. I’ve personally never broken a bone, but I have no doubt that it is quite painful and traumatic—to break even ONE, I mean. I cannot fathom 30 broken bones at once or the pain that this poor girl must have been experiencing constantly. In her case, the parents decided not to terminate the pregnancy, and she has survived thus far. They report that she has a huge personality and a strong will to live. Still, she uses a wheelchair because her feet would break under the weight of her legs. She once broke a bone by sitting down on a waterbed. The slightest touch can cause fractures, so even holding or hugging her presents that danger.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not, by any means, saying that those parents made the wrong decision. But what I am saying is that I would have understood their motives, had they made the other choice. I believe that life begins at conception, but my understanding is also that babies can feel pain in the womb, somewhere around 20 weeks’ gestation. That leaves 20 weeks of severe pain in this case. If you or I were to suffer that kind of pain for 20 weeks, we would call it torture. The very thought of it brings to mind advanced interrogation techniques, which represent the antithesis of compassion.

So, even though I would like to say that I would never choose abortion, and though I will say that I would always seek out EVERY other possible option before pursuing that one, I can also say that I don’t envy the position of being forced to make that choice. I can also say that I would choose to grieve with someone who had made that choice, rather than judging them. After all, Romans 12:15 instructs us to “weep with hose who weep.” That is community. That is the Body of Christ. That is the Gospel.

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Signs

Judges 6: 39-40

“Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.
Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.’ That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gideon this week. If you spent any time at all in Sunday school as a kid, you’re probably familiar with his story. You may recall how God once commanded him to deliver the Israelites from the oppression of the Midianites. What’s more, this deliverance came after God had whittled Gideon’s army from 32,000 men to a mere 300. It was a pretty impressive victory, by all accounts.

But I, for one, have never given Gideon all that much credit. While he was technically a man of faith, consistency wasn’t exactly his strong suit. Besides that, he always seemed to need an inordinate amount of hand holding from God in order to follow through with His commands. I mean, after all, before the call to deliver Israel from the Midianites, God commanded Gideon to destroy Israel’s altars to false gods. At that time, Gideon had asked for a sign—and God had obliged—before obeying. God had also instructed Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you? …. I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.” And yet, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, making him believe that it was time to deliver the Israelites, he asked for another sign: “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said” (Judges 6: 37). Again, God honored his request. When Gideon arose the next morning, verse 38 tells us, “he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.”

Time to round up the troops, right? Wrong. Instead, Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” If we ever needed more proof that His mercies are new every morning, it comes to us in verse 40: “That night God did so.” Finally, Gideon believed and trusted and set out to conquer Midian. He obeyed, seemingly without question, as God reduced his fighting force from 32,000 to 10,000, and then from 10,000 to 300. But in God’s faithfulness, He offered even more assurance: “During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp” (Judges 7:9-11). And so they did, and so they were. And God delivered Israel, as promised.

But I’ve never thought of Gideon as the hero in this story. Instead, he seems like the vessel that God had to drag kicking and screaming onto the pages of history. He was the epitome of one who had greatness thrust upon him. As such, I have never been surprised at the lack of popularity with which people have bestowed this name ever since 1880 when the Social Security Administration began keeping these kinds of records. My apologies to the 928 of you who chose that name for your sons in 2014 alone. But maybe you realized a few things that I only just considered this last week:

  • Gideon only thought that he was hearing from God. He truly wasn’t sure. It isn’t as though God actually showed up in a burning bush. There were a few signs, to be sure, but how definitive were they really?
  • Gideon probably knew about the unreliability of dew. They probably didn’t understand dew points back then, and beyond that, there are a lot of other variables that play into the phenomenon that is the morning dew. How else would you explain why the presence or absence of dew on any given morning is just as likely to depend on the type of surface or the side of the house on which an object is placed?
  • Gideon was charged with the wellbeing of 32,000 troops as well as the rest of the Israeli population. That is a huge responsibility and a matter of stewardship that Gideon obviously didn’t take lightly. And finally,
  • Gideon, like all of us, was flesh and blood and dust. He was a finite human, without the eternal perspective that God had (and still has) to see the ultimate big picture.

Just as this story tells us a little bit about a man named Gideon, I think it’s a good reflection of us. Not many of us hear from prophets or angels, and even fewer hear the audible voice of God. So when we’re faced with big and important decisions, our natural tendency is to ask for signs, for confirmation. We don’t want to proceed without assurance that God will go with us.

Thankfully, this story also tells us a lot about God. He understands us, He sees our hearts, He knows our weaknesses. And in spite of all of that, He remains faithful, just as He did to Gideon. And so, when we wish we could just step out in faith, but when God’s voice is so difficult to discern from the voices of others and even our own desires, we have this assurance: God is willing and able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), even if that sometimes means sending a supernatural, undeniable sign from heaven.