Obedience

The Greater Blessing

Hebrews 12:1-2a

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
And let us run
 with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus,
the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

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If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you may recall how I feel about blessings and what it means to be blessed. Awhile back, our pastor described blessings in terms of a nearness to God. So it isn’t the material things (money, houses, cars) or even the nonmaterial things (health, longevity, family) that we so often ask God for that offer the greatest blessings. Rather, it is those things that draw us closer to Him, that force us to place our trust more firmly in Him, and that help us to fall ever more in love with Him.

I recently posed an argument that opportunities to become more like Christ would also fall under this definition of blessing, and I still believe that’s true. However, over the last week or so, God has begun to change my heart about what that Christ-like transformation might look like—namely, it will look different for each one of us.

Of course, we are seeking a likeness to the same Jesus, who is as unchanging as God the Father Himself. But that Jesus is made up of many more characteristics than one. And we each excel at Christ-likeness in some areas, and struggle in others. And God wants us to grow closer to Him along all of those dimensions. And that growth may look different for you than it does for me—in fact, it almost assuredly will!

So, perhaps God will grow my patience, while He grows your joy. Or my gentleness and your love. Or my self-control and your peace. These exercises will require different actions from each of us. God has convicted me to recognize that my way is not the only way, or the right way, or the only right way. It isn’t even necessarily the better way. Instead, each of us will find the greater blessing when we openly accept God’s invitation to draw most near to Him. It will come when we allow God to stretch us beyond our current strengths, and to grow us in our areas of weakness.

I pray that we would each be open to God’s leading and instruction: that we would read the Word with intention and conviction, taking from it the hard as well as the easy truths; that we would seek and discern wise counsel from among the many voices swirling around us; and that we would trust and follow the Holy Spirit. Godspeed as you seek the greater blessing!

Who I Am–Part VII

Matthew 16:24-25

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me,
he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it;
but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

I’ve been married almost seven years. But I have to admit, I was never one of those girls who was anxious or eager to get my MRS degree. I had plans, and I worried that marriage would interrupt those plans—be it through an inconvenient move, or an unplanned pregnancy, or any number of other “trials” that sometimes come along with marriage.

But what can you do? I met a great guy and we decided that we might be able to serve God better together than alone. Besides, when the time came to say good-bye and go our separate ways, neither of us really wanted to. So we planned a beautiful but casual wedding—in a barn! And that was before it was “cool” to get married in a barn. But before we got married, I got my most recent tattoo. It’s on the inside of my left wrist, and reads “Surrender” in Arabic.

This was very intentional. I knew that marriage would mean sacrifice. I knew that motherhood would mean sacrifice. Knowing this, I chose to give up any control that I perceived myself to have, in pursuit of the greater good. But making that choice consciously didn’t negate or nullify the sacrifices that would follow. It hasn’t even always made those sacrifices easier. But if they were easy, I guess they wouldn’t be sacrifices.

As I’ve thought about this truth over the past few days, it occurs to me how perfectly suited this entry is for today—Easter. Jesus, after all, is also well acquainted with the ideas of sacrifice and surrender. He chose to submit to the Heavenly Father’s will, to come to earth, and to humble himself, taking on human flesh. He laid down the rights of his deity, and then he laid down his very life as a sacrifice for our sins. And we sometimes console ourselves with the delusion that, because this sacrifice was undertaken willingly, it was somehow less sacrificial and less requiring of surrender. But the Bible makes clear that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even knowing the glory set before him on the other side of the grave, Jesus pleaded with God the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). As if that wasn’t enough, Luke 22:44 tells us that “in His anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.”

And if surrender and sacrifice were so taxing to Jesus’s spirit, how can we expect anything less? Our lives will offer these opportunities and invitations over and over again, until we are ultimately called home. When they come my way, I do my best to hold open hands up to the heavens in acceptance of God’s will. And when I do, I’m reminded of that word—surrender. I’m convinced that Jesus also holds his hands out in front of him from time to time. But instead of his scars reminding him of surrender or sacrifice, they remind him of you and of me. It is as though his hands are tattooed with the word beloved…along with each of our names.

Isaiah 49:16

“Look, I have inscribed your name on my palms; your walls are constantly before me.” 

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Abide

John 15:4-5
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine,
so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches;
he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Last weekend, I hopped between two different local sites for this year’s IF:Gathering. This worldwide livestream event allows women of God to gather, to find encouragement, and to be challenged to a deeper and closer—a more active—walk with Jesus. The premise? IF we believed that Jesus is real, IF we believed that God is who He says He is, IF we believed that the Bible is true, then what? What would that mean for our thoughts, words, actions, and relationships?

And each year, we come away with a token of God’s personal challenge to us. This year, we each received a domino, on which we were invited to write one word—one word representing something the Holy Spirit is calling us to “fall into” this year, in prayerful hope of an amazing chain reaction among God’s people across the globe.

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By the end of the weekend, my word was pretty clear: ABIDE. Abide in the Word, and in prayer, and in Christ’s presence. I can recall a time in my life when morning quiet time was a staple in my day. But then I let it slip for a bit. First it was because I was studying for comprehensive exams and writing a dissertation. Then it was because I was a new mom, sleep deprived and exhausted. Then it was because my second child came out with no intention of sleeping through the night—at least not until she was 18 months old. Then it was my part-time teaching job. Now the kids are 4 ½ and 3, and are still keeping us up at night, and my commitment to that quiet time is still sketchy.

I’ve made all kinds of excuses—being there for my kids is my calling in this season; my students are my mission field right now, and they take so much of my time and attention; my gift is encouragement, and so and so needs encouragement right now; there are only so many minutes in the day…blah, blah, blah. And truthfully, none of that has changed.

Still, the time has come to be more deliberate about spending time in the Word daily. After all, I spend so much time praying for direction, guidance, and clarity—but perhaps it’s in that abiding that God wants to speak the answers to those prayers.

How about you? What is God calling YOU to fall into during this season?

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).

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.

A New Look at Lent

“What are you giving up for Lent?” This seems to be a common greeting among believers during this season. It’s assumed that we will be observing a sustained period of sacrifice, in observance and remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made so long ago on our behalf. But on the cross, as Jesus breathed His last, He declared with all of heaven’s authority, “It is finished!” As I rest in the completed work of Christ on the cross, a season of sacrifice seems out of place. Instead, this should be a season of joy and gratitude (“celebrated as a festival to the Lord” (Exodus 12:14)), and one in which we embrace our roles as co-heirs with Christ in the kingdom of heaven.

In this spirit, it occurs to me that God may not necessarily be calling all of us to “give something up” for Lent. What if, instead, He’s calling us into a deeper fellowship with Him? What might that look like? A few ideas come to mind:

  • You could commit to beginning each day with a time of praise and worship—thanking God for His love and faithfulness.
  • You could make a point of interceding on behalf of someone whose need resonates strongly with you.
  • You could learn something about some of the foreign lands that may not have the freedom to worship as we do. Then you can pray for the specific struggles, challenges, and needs of the people living in those far-away places.
  • You could begin to mend a broken or strained relationship in your life, through either seeking or offering forgiveness.
  • You could send notes of encouragement to the people that God has divinely placed in your life and in your path.

In short, rather than giving something up, why not try something new? In so doing, you will surely allow God to begin a new work in and through you.

Just As…

Joshua 1:16-18

They answered Joshua, saying, “All that you have commanded us we will do,
and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things,
so we will obey you; only may the LORD your God be with you as He was with Moses.
Anyone who rebels against your command and does not obey your words
in all that you command him, shall be put to death;
only be strong and courageous.”

We’ve been studying Joshua lately, and I’ve been trying to focus on new angles that I may not have noticed before. In the passage above, that angle came as I read “Just as we obeyed Moses…” I quickly flipped back to the preceding verses to make sure that I was properly attributing the quote. And I was—it was the Israelites that made this claim, without batting an eye. I wanted to yell, “Blasphemy!” Seriously?! Just as you obeyed Moses?

And how was that, exactly? By building and worshipping a golden calf? By whining and moaning all through the desert? By questioning Moses and God at every turn? By threatening to have Moses replaced as your leader? By refusing to enter the Promised Land for fear of its inhabitants? By failing to put your trust in God, no matter how many times He proved himself faithful?

Just like that, huh? I can only imagine Joshua’s response to that.

I could sit in judgment of the Israelites all day long, but you know what? God chose them as an illustration of humanity. And that means that many times, the way that I obey God turns out to be just as the Israelites obeyed Moses, which is not very well. So, to me, this passage was a reminder of grace—the grace God had for the Israelites and the grace that He continues to show me. Grace is often described as unmerited favor. And it is just as unmerited for me, and for you, as it is for anyone else. When we forget that is when we begin to place ourselves in a judgment seat that belongs to God alone.

May we view ourselves rightly, that we may also rightly view those around us.