Faith

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.

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Prepositions

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There’s a song that I love, by All Sons and Daughters, that contains these lyrics:

“I will sing, sing, sing,
To my God, my King,
For all else fades away…”

But often, as I sing along, I will unconsciously replace the word “for” with “‘til.” Of course, that changes the meaning. “For” essentially means “because,” which is nothing like “until.” But somehow, it fits. And really, I’ve realized that there are several prepositions that could work with those lyrics:

For: Everything else will fade away, so why sing our praises—or follow after—anything else?

‘Til: Trials, suffering, challenges—they won’t last forever. If you hold onto God, and keep your eyes on him, he will carry you through.

When: Loss and disappointment are a part of life—not always, and not only, but they can never be completely avoided. And sometimes, those experiences are so intense that you’ll feel as if everything else has faded away. And that’s when we need to cling to God even more.

Luke 21:33 assures us that all else WILL pass away. So why would we want to hold onto anything else, or anyone else? When this world crumbles, I want to be holding onto the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God, the Creator of all else. So I will sing, sing, sing, to my God, my King…

I’ll Take It

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Early this spring, I remember driving around Waco. I noticed that it was 75 degrees outside, but a little cloudy. Still I said to myself, thinking about the cold and snow my family was experiencing up north, “I’ll take it.”

It’s easy to say that when it means embracing a few clouds in the sky on an otherwise gorgeous day. But I quickly realized that this should be my response to whatever God brings my way—not just in terms of weather, but also in terms of opportunities, experiences, and challenges. Whatever God allows is something He certainly plans on using to his glory.

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, lacking in nothing.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s well for you in Christ Jesus.”

Of course, that’s every bit as hard as it sounds. And I don’t know the half of it. I haven’t been through the kinds of things that many of you have. I haven’t suffered the same losses or tragedies. But I know someone who has—God. He suffers with you. He hurts with you. He grieves with you. He weeps with you. What’s more, He watched as his own and only son suffered and died on our behalf. He grieved as Jesus looked at the world and at our sin and as he considered his great love for us and the sacrifice required to save us, and as he declared with resolve, “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but for them, I’ll take it.”

So let’s follow his lead, shall we?

Of Sandals and Seeds

Luke 4:24, 28-30

“‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown’…. All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”

Matthew 10:14

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”

Do you ever feel like God has given you something worthwhile to say, but the only people who really hear it are total strangers? Or maybe you feel like no one hears you at all. Well, take heart, this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, Jesus himself faced the same thing. He made the claim in Luke 4:24 that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” He then gave a couple of prominent examples before the town folk of Nazareth drove him out of town under the threat of death. And do you know what Jesus did? He “walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).

Now, you and I won’t likely ever be prophets, per se, but we would still be wise to follow our Lord’s example. He advised as much when he sent his disciples out on mission, saying, “If anyone will not welcome you, or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14). It sounds harsh, I know. But any time the disciples were forced to leave in this manner, they were leaving something behind—the seeds of the Gospel, the seeds of faith.

And those seeds are invasive. Do you remember when Jesus talked about faith the size of a mustard seed? (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6) Why did he choose that illustration? Was it because a mustard seed is so small? Or could it have been because mustard was an invasive species—a WEED? Have you ever had to water a weed? Provide it with nutrients? Of course not. And while we always want to plant seeds of the Gospel in good soil, the seeds of faith tend to have a mind and trajectory of their own.

Need evidence? Look no further than the book of James. This James was, contrary to what some believe, NOT James, the disciple of Jesus. Rather, it was his BROTHER! The story told in Luke 4 would lead us to believe that this James remained in Nazareth when Jesus left. He may even have joined the rest of the town folk in scorning Jesus—although I like to believe he stopped shy of the death threats.

But we can safely assume that James was not a “follower” of his brother’s early on. Nonetheless, we see that he later came to his senses and came to his savior. And he went on to write one of the most poignant books in the Bible. So it would appear that, as Jesus “went on his way” that day, he left something behind in the dirt he brushed from his sandals—SEEDS, seeds of faith and seeds of the Gospel.

Believer, don’t give up. You are a sower of seeds. You won’t always see or know the eternal outcomes of the work you are doing now. And even when you need to walk away for a time, you can rest in the hope that you may one day return to witness a harvest that you could not have dreamed or imagined. So keep sowing good seeds, and whenever you dust off your sandals, be sure you leave some of those seeds behind.

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Spirit Intercede

Romans 8:25-27

“But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
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.”

I am not an authority on prayer. In fact, for the most part I pretty well stink as a prayer warrior. One of my biggest problems with prayer—besides the obvious one of disciplining myself to do it regularly—is knowing what to pray for. I might think I know what I want in any given moment, but I am also fully aware that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). I might think I know what would bring God the greatest glory in any given situation, but I also know that God’s ways are higher than my ways, and that His thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). I also know that “a man’s heart plans his way,” while “the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). So ultimately, then, we are left to pray only for what we THINK God’s will is, or what we believe it might be.

Thank God we have the Spirit to intercede—or translate—for us, through groans we can’t understand. While that’s a comfort to me, I know that it is a source of frustration for others. Some will ask, if the Spirit is interceding anyway, and if we don’t even know how we ought to pray, then why do it at all? Well, it seems to me that there are a number of reasons for us to pray in concert with God and other believers.

  1. God invites us to participate in His processes. Not many perspectives on God recognize how relational He is, how He longs to be in constant communion with us. It’s a privilege that He extends this invitation to talk with Him whenever, however, and about whatever we desire. We shouldn’t take it for granted.
  2. The more time we spend in prayer, the more God can align OUR wills with His. I love Psalm 37:4—“Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.” What I love most about this verse is the meaning that sometimes eludes us. Namely, this scripture promises that, as we delight ourselves in the Lord, He will mold our desires to more closely match His desires for us. What a comfort.
  3. We become better in tune with the needs of others around us, and grow in compassion. At times, I’ve set out on a renewed commitment to prayer. And do you know what I have found? The more I pray, the more there is to pray about. I begin watching, listening, caring, and feeling empathy and grace for others. In short, I grow in compassion. It’s kind of like a muscle: if I exercise it more, it gets stronger. And by the same token, if I get out of the habit of regularly exercising compassion through prayer (among other things), it gets weaker. I begin to forget, overlook, focus inward, and dismiss—none of which are good traits to display as a follower of Christ.
  4. We learn faith and trust—in waiting, in receiving “nos” from God, in hearing “later” from Him. I am not I don’t know what’s best for me, or you, or anyone else. But God does. He is the all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful Heavenly Father. And He knows what we need before we even ask Him (Matthew 6:8). So whatever His answer is to our prayers, we can be assured that it is the right answer. And we can have peace in that.

So pray boldly, and then believe boldly in a Holy Spirit who is forever advocating for you and compensating for your weaknesses in the courts of God. And praise the Lord when He answers—no matter what that answer is!

The Healing Box

Romans 8:36-37

“As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Revelation 21:4

“And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Philippians 4:4

“Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, Rejoice.”

Have you ever heard someone accused of “putting God in a box”? That is, we artificially limit Him to a realm of intention and action that is unfitting for an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful Creator and Heavenly Father. On the one hand, it’s understandable. We are finite creatures, living in a three-dimensional world—and so we find ourselves unable to comprehend the intricacies of God and of the universe. I get it. On the other hand, though, we need to acknowledge that God’s ways are higher than ours, that his knowledge is greater, that His will and plan are more perfect, good, and holy than we could even imagine.

Still, the temptation remains hard to resist—when we’re faced with trials, struggles, tragedies, and losses—to put God back in that box, to assume that He will or should act in accordance with our feeble understanding. Case in point: the healing box. How often, when faced with illness or injury, do we hear people pray for healing? But praying for healing is tricky, because we don’t know what KIND of healing God has in mind. Instead, we try to put God in a healing box by trying to dictate to Him what is best for us and our loved ones. But only He knows best.

I love how I once heard Beth Moore put it, that we are delivered from illness, delivered through illness, or delivered into glory. Amen to that! God may spare us from illness or injury. But it’s just as likely that He will allow us to experience one or both, and survive through His strength. Every bit as possible is the prospect that we will face these trials and that we will seemingly ‘succumb’ to them, at least when viewed through an earthly lens. But it is then when, as believers, we can have confidence and faith that God will usher us safely into heaven—that He will deliver us into glory.

Does this mean that our prayers need to display a fatalist resignation—“Oh well, God’s going to do whatever He wants anyway, so who cares?” By NO MEANS, as the apostle Paul might say. But when we pray for healing, we can reflect a heaven-sent peace by understanding and accepting that God WILL heal, one way or the other.

Some time ago, a family that we know of lost one of its members to cancer. In his honor, they dedicated a remission bell to the local cancer center. At that time, the family ceremoniously rang the bell, declaring David cancer free, since he was a believer and had arrived in heaven—safe and sound, and healed. Just yesterday, we had the opportunity to ring the bell on behalf of the mother of a good friend, whose earthly battle with cancer has now come to an end. But praise God her eternal life has only just begun. Welcome home, Robin!

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Mothers’ Dreams and Wishes

With Mothers’ Day coming up on Sunday, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on motherhood and what it looks like in action. And one aspect of that is that we, as mothers, have a lot of dreams for our kids. If you’re a mom, I’ll bet you can relate. But I think that we also let ourselves get caught up in some wishes that we hold onto for our kids as well. You may be asking by now, what’s the difference between dreams and wishes? Well, at least from my perspective, the two are vastly different.

If I were to list some wishes that I had for my kids, that list might include things like comfort, happiness, pleasure—fuzzy, feel-good kinds of things. On the other hand, if I were asked to list some dreams I have for my kids, I would say that I want them to display godly character. I would say that I went them to be used mightily by God and to accomplish amazing things for His kingdom. And through it all, I would want them to show humility and grace.

These are two different perspectives—one more temporal, and one more eternal. And where our focus is will, to a large degree, affect how we act out our role as mothers. I think of several mothers in the Bible who sought God’s best for their children because they placed their dreams for them ahead of their wishes for them. Think of Moses’ mother, who—in order to save his life—placed him in a basket in a river in hopes that someone would find and raise him and that he would accomplish God’s will for his life. Then there was Hannah, who—barren for SO long—promised God that if He gave her a child, she would offer him right back. And when God granted her request, she honored her promise, allowing Eli the priest to raise her son, Samuel, in the service of the Lord. And of course, there was Elizabeth—mother of John the Baptist—who conceived her child while barren and in her old age. He also was dedicated to the Lord and committed to serving Him as a messenger sent to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. And of course, let’s don’t forget Mary, the mother of Jesus, who accepted not only a difficult calling for herself, but also a difficult row to hoe for her child.

These women shared their faith and their faithfulness in common. But they also shared something else. Each of their children, in pursuit of their God-given callings, faced challenges, trials, tribulations, and suffering. Each of those children also remained faithful in spite of everything they endured. I wouldn’t describe their lives as full of comfort, happiness, and pleasure. But I would say that each developed godly character, that each was used mightily by God, that each accomplished amazing things for His kingdom, and that each showed humility and grace.

As mothers, I think it’s difficult to consider that our dreams for our children may take them into difficult places. And I’ve sometimes wondered whether these biblical mothers would have made different choices, had they known what lied ahead for their sons. But I always come to the conclusion that, no, they wouldn’t have. I believe that they placed their trust wholly and completely in a known and knowing God to do what was best, and to go with their children wherever He would lead them. I think their focus remained on the dreams that they had for their children, rather than on fleeting wishes. I pray that when you and I are faced with these choices, we will choose wisely, just as these women did.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

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Why?

Isaiah 55:8-9

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways
and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

2 Corinthians 4:17

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us
an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

When something ‘bad’ happens, when we experience pain or suffering, we—as humans—often ask “Why?” We ask, “Why me?” We ask, “Why now?” But it’s usually a rhetorical question. We think we’ve been dealt a bad hand, and that our suffering is somehow unjust.

Sometimes Christians, myself included, suggest that we should instead ask, “Why not?” or “Why not me?” After all, the Bible never suggests that Christians will be shielded from suffering. And I think it’s fine to reframe those questions, but it occurs to me that asking “Why?” can actually be helpful. Not in the way that we often ask, but in a way that is seeking a loving answer from God.

God has a reason and a purpose behind everything we go through, whether our suffering is due to our own sin, someone else’s, or God’s greater glory. So if we ask, “Why? What is God trying to accomplish through this trial?” then I believe it changes our perspective. We can begin to imagine all of the good that may come from what seems bad at the moment. What we imagine may not come to pass, and the fact is that we may never know or see the answer on this side of heaven. But we can know and trust that God is good, and that the answer—when we finally receive it—will prove our trials justified.

Doubt, Grumble, AND Obey

Joshua 6:20
“When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet,
when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed;
so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.”

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Earlier this year, I heard Bianca Olthoff (IF:Gathering 2015) speak on the story of Joshua 6, wherein the Israelites conquered the heavily fortified city of Jericho by marching around the city’s wall. Bianca stated at that the Israelites who marched around Jericho were obedient and didn’t doubt or grumble. But I’m not sure that’s scripturally accurate. The account in Joshua 6 doesn’t tell us one way or the other, but we could surmise from this group’s past behavior (on the banks of the Red Sea, out in the wilderness, and on and on) that at least some of them were grumbling and doubting—even if only under their breath or in the privacy of their own hearts.

And I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we can obey through our doubt and grumbling. I feel like, at times, this is the truest form of obedience. When we recognize that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9), and we follow without knowing where He will lead us, that is true obedience. When we confess to the Lord in humility, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), that is true obedience. When we accept suffering graciously, in spite of our utter confusion (Job 42:1-6), that is true obedience.

When you understand why and you have full faith, it’s easy to obey. How much more meaningful to obey when you don’t understand, when you have only a mustard seed of faith? I think that’s more likely what was going on beneath the walls of Jericho. And I imagine that’s what often goes on in our own lives. And when we feel defeated and hopeless, we too can respond like so many of the saints have before us. We can doubt, grumble, AND obey.

Strength to Submit

Last year around this time, I became convinced that our son, Tijge, had lymphoma. Okay, not entirely convinced, but well aware of that possibility. You have to understand—I’m the kind of person who has not only contingency plans, but contingency plans for contingency plans, almost contingency flowcharts. My mind operates kind of like a “choose your own adventure” plot map. I know it sounds like a tedious exercise to some, but for me, it’s a way to prepare myself to always accept and submit to God’s will, whatever that may entail.
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But somehow, this felt different. Even though I could see countless good things—Kingdom things—coming from any outcome, it seemed wrong for me to accept those outcomes on behalf of a 3-year old boy who couldn’t begin to understand the why behindany of it. I thought about the Bible and about the many examples that Scripture gives of people who were given strength to submit to God’s will. For example, in Genesis22:9, we’re told that Abraham “bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” Most of us picture a young boy in this story, but scholars estimate that Isaac was at least a teenager, and possibly as old as 25. Surely, he was capable of overtaking his aging father, if he had chosen to do so. But he chose to submit instead (thankfully, God intervened just in time to prevent his sacrifice).

And then in Luke 22:41-43, we read that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus “knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’” and that “an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” Of course, in this case, Jesus knew the reason for his suffering, but still pleaded that there might be any other way to redeem the world. As we know, there was not, and He obeyed.

I could recount example after example from Scripture of believers given supernatural strength to submit to God’s will, even when it seems like too much to ask and too much to bear (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace; Daniel in the lions’ den,; and David and Goliath, to name a few). But one thing struck me about all of these examples—consent. These individuals all made a cognitive decision to submit to God. So what about when we’re asked to, in essence, choose submission on someone else’s behalf? Where is our precedent for that?

Well, having pondered it for weeks leading up to Tijge’s diagnosis, I came up with the answer. WE are the precedent. We are God’s children, and He sometimes chooses hardship for us in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes the only thing in our control is our response to our circumstances. And just as in the Garden, where an angel appeared to strengthen Jesus, God will grant us strength to submit to his will.

Ultimately, I chose to believe that a God who could help me to see past pain and suffering to His greater glory could surely also strengthen a little boy to do the same. In this case, it didn’t come to that. But the deeper faith that came through this time of wrestling will surely strengthen me when God’s plans for me call for submission.