Expect, Endure, Embrace – Part Two

We have been chatting about what should happen when we are persecuted. To start with we should EXPECT to be persecuted when we are living life as followers of Jesus and speaking up for what is right and true. 

Then we saw that Scripture tells us that we must ENDURE the persecution and respond only in love as Jesus did. 

I would make a personal comment here: I have found that if I am earthly-minded and self-centered, I will always feel the sting of critical people. But if I’m walking close to God and my life is His, then by faith I can rise above the smaller-minded criticisms.

If you are facing persecution — or should I say when you face persecution — turn to God. EXPECT persecution. ENDURE persecution. By His power, even EMBRACE it, as Peter advices. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed …Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:12-13, 16). Don’t be shocked when persecution comes. Take it another step: EMBRACE it. Rejoice that in some small ways you are counted worthy to suffer with and for the One who suffered for you.

When someone says something cruel about you because of your faith, don’t be ashamed. Instead, thank God that you belong to Jesus. Praise God that He’s chosen you. Never react with some defensive or hateful rebuttal. As you’re led and enabled by the Spirit, either respond in love or realize that you don’t always have to respond. Ultimately God is your Defender. And you live for Him.

Yes, it’s really tough when other people shoot at you. Believe me, I understand. All of us want to be liked by others. When you read a hundred positive comments about something you did and one negative one, which do you focus on most? If you’re like me, it often takes only one negative voice to drown out all the positive ones.

Becoming obsessed with what people think about you is the quickest way to forget what God thinks about you. But the opposite is true as well. If you’re living for Jesus in this selfie-centered world, you know a higher truth: becoming obsessed with what God thinks about you is the quickest way to forget what people think about you.

By faith, rise above the criticism. When persecution comes, EXPECT it. ENDURE it with the One who endured it for you. And by His power, EMBRACE it, thanking God that He is with you.

And that’s the truth. 

Expect, Endure, Embrace – Part One

As a believer and follower of Jesus you should expect persecution from others. That you should expect persecution probably isn’t something you want to hear, but it is something you need to hear. Paul told his younger disciple Timothy, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12 emphasis added). Did you see the first word I emphasized? Everyone. No matter who you are, how old you are, or how much you care about others, if you stand up for Jesus, someone will try to shoot you down. Everyone who wants to live a godly life will eventually be persecuted. Don’t be shocked by this. Don’t be discouraged by it. Don’t be overwhelmed by it.

EXPECT it.

Some of your friends may not like what you say on Facebook. They may talk behind your back. They may not invite you to some wild party they’re having. Or you might even be overlooked for a promotion because you follow Jesus. None of these things surprise God. And they shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” (John 15:18-20a emphasis added) This is why I try never to worry when people shoot at me online for my faith. I actually worry when they don’t.

Not only should you EXPECT people to occasionally (or often) push back on your faith, but also when they do, you should ENDURE it. Paul said, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it” (1 Corinthians 4:12 emphasis added). Our example is Jesus on the cross. When the creation mocked the Creator, He didn’t whine, gripe, or retaliate. Instead, He prayed for those who mocked and beat Him. Jesus ENDURED it. He rose above it.

When you’re praying for others who are persecuting you, it’s also wise to pray for yourself. If someone attacks, ask God to help you know how — or if — you should respond. Just because they shoot your way doesn’t mean you have to answer. There are times you should answer and other times when you should ignore it. Either way, be careful not to react out of emotion; respond only in love.

While ENDURING persecution, you might reply with a thoughtful or encouraging comment. But remember that social media isn’t a good place for long explanations. Just like a serious theological debate can’t happen in 140 characters or less, it’s hard to solve difficult problems in social media or email. Don’t feel pressured to respond. God can take care of Himself; He doesn’t need you to defend Him every time some online heckler rattles your cage.

When critics flail at you, you aren’t under any obligation to answer. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I responded to someone hurling bombs my way on social media. I often respond to people who have legitimate questions about the church or something I posted (blogs, articles, teachings). But I won’t debate with people who simply want to pick a fight online. Pray and ask God if He wants you to respond.

I also encourage you to ask God to help you know when to listen and when to dismiss invalid criticism. If someone has a valid point and they’re trying to help you, you should listen. Scripture confirms, “If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise.

If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself;  but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding” (Proverbs 13:31-32 NLT, emphasis added). But when strangers (or angry people) take cheap shots. You can often disregard what they’re saying and move on. Don’t let that poison seep into your heart.

Some people tend to be naturally critical and negative, but I choose not to let their foul disposition ruin a good day. It’s also helpful to remember that sometimes people are simply hurting. Rather than taking their negative comments personally, I try to let them remind me to pray (in private) that they will experience God’s healing. Peter describes how Jesus modeled this for us: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 ESV). In the middle of His pain, Jesus din’t fight back. Instead He allowed God to be His defender and submitted Himself to he loving care of His heavenly Father. He call us to do the same. 

More next time… 

The Price of Peace – Part Two

The Bible is quite clear about how we can cultivate and enjoy God’s peace, as well as how we can lose it. When we worry and fret over what we don’t have, what we wish we had, what someone else thinks of us, or how jealous we are of others, inner peace remains elusive. Scripture tells us, “Worry weighs a person down, an encouraging word cheers a person up (Proverbs 12:25 NLT).

Whenever technology increases our worry, whenever it helps us fragment our attention and compartmentalize our hearts, it also kills our peace. We worry when we rely on our own abilities rather than trust in God. But His Word tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

When we lack peace, we live stressed and afraid. We’re always wondering when the next problem is going to pop up, the next conflict arise, the next crisis hit. Even when things are good, we hold our breath, constantly expecting that other shoe to drop. (It always does, right?) It’s hard to be whole-hearted in our pursuit of God when our thoughts are polluted by worry and anxiety. Instead, we should, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).

Now is a great time to be brutally honest.

Are you addicted to something on line? Looking lustfully? Spending uncontrollably? Surfing endlessly? Playing continually? Gambling consistently? Scrolling incessantly?

Tell the truth.

While it’s never going to be fun or easy to kick an online addiction, you’ll be surprised how quickly your peace will be restored once you surrender the problem to God. Because if you’re serious about pursuing God’s healing, He’ll meet you wherever you are.

So if you find yourself overwhelmed with virtual temptations, remember that God isn’t surprised. He knows what you face, and He’s already made a plan to help you find freedom. Paul offers us this amazing promise: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful, He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Don’t miss the power of these words. 

God will provide a way out.

What’s your way out? I don’t know. It could be something dramatic. But be honest. You are a sharp person. If some small tweak would have fixed your problem, you would have done it a long time ago.

You way out may be confessing to your spouse, your best friend, your small group, or your pastor. It might be deleting an app and making sure you can’t get it again. You might need to lay down your phone, iPad, iPod, Kindle, Kobo, computer, television, and anything else so you can’t get to anything you shouldn’t see. I don’t know what you need to do. But chances are you have a pretty good idea.

God promises to give you a way out.

James tells us, “Submit yourselves then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you, Come near to God and He will come near to you” (James 4:7-8).

If you want to be a man or woman of integrity, then maybe it’s time for you to submit to God like never before. That’s where you start. Then with Christ’s power, you can resist the devil and all his e-temptations. Tragically, so many people do just the opposite. They resist God’s promptings and give in to the temptations of the evil one. But that won’t be you. And it won’t be me.

Instead we will live with online integrity leading to holiness and righteous living. Because our lives are not about us. We will not gratify the self-centered lusts of the flesh because we’re born of the Spirit. We will not allow God’s loving trust to slide into the quicksand or popular opinion sink us into lower standards. We will guard our peace. We won’t allow how we use tech to rob us of our purpose, passion, and power.

As we pray, God will give us wisdom to set up pleasant boundaries and safeguards to keep temptations as far away from us as possible. And when we are tempted, we know that Jesus has already given us an escape route.

We will seek Him, see His way out, and take it.

We have His power to overcome sin. We have His Spirit to lead us into righteousness. We have His presence to keep us pure.

We will be whole.

We will be complete.

We will know the peace of the Lord. 

The Price of Peace – Part One

When you think about it, no one stumbles into righteousness. People fall into sin every day. But no one just falls into holiness. It requires making deliberate, prayerful choices and walking an intentional path. Which bring us around to thinking of the peace that being right with God brings into our life. When we are born again, we finally have peace with God (Romans 5:1) as the war is over. And then as we walk with Jesus we have the inner peace that passes all understanding just as He promises.

However, there is a stress point here in our lives. Because of modern technology we see this peace that is specific to being a believer destroyed by the constant need (or what we think is a need) to respond to every sound that our phones and laptops make when messages are being received. 

Peace is a funny thing. We tend to think of it as the absence of conflict, the period between wars and military battles where opposing sides at least pretend to get along. (Does that remind you of some marriages?) Whether it’s “peace and quiet” longed for by a stay-at-home mom with young children or something negotiated among world political leaders, we all tend to think of peace as this quiet, calm, serene state of being.

But in the Jewish culture, the word peace, shalom, has a much richer, fuller meaning than just “getting along” with everybody. In fact. Shalom is one of the underlying principles of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible that Jews consider foundational to their history. Shalom means not only the kind of personal peace we often crave but also a harmonious environment and a sense that everything’s right with the world.

Shalom is about living out the fullness of who God created you to be and enjoying the abundance of blessings God showers on you. This kind of peace includes a feeling of confidence and blessing because you know who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. It also encompasses a sense of security, an ability to relax and not have to try to control everything because you’re able to trust in God’s goodness as well as His plan. What’s interesting is that peace, shalom, cannot be earned like a paycheque after a week’s work. It comes as a free gift if we’re just willing to receive it. 

We all say we want more peace, but I wonder if we recognize what we do that often robs us of God-given peace. Like checking our email obsessively because we’re afraid we’ll miss something, when we should be enjoying time with God, our family, or a close friend we’ve been missing. Or like responding to emails to make sure everyone views us as the hardworking, super-efficient people we are, when we should be focusing on more important priorities. Like killing time surfing for an hour or so because we are avoiding a difficult conversation. Like obsessing over the latest hot app game when we should be playing with our kids. Like numbing the paining of life by clicking to the “wrong sites” for a lustful escape from reality.

Here’s what many people miss: when we misuse technology, we’re robbing ourselves of the peace we so desperate crave, because even the momentary escape is followed by waves of intense guilt. We want to numb the pain, but on the other side of our binge, the pain is still there, only worse. We love the momentary distraction, but then reality screams at us and our responsibilities pile up. We love the thrill of the lust, but the fear of getting caught haunts us and robs us of sleep and peace. Like a person dying of thirst who gulps salt water, that which is supposed to satisfy only intensifies our need. So life goes on as usual. More stress. More anxiety. More worries.

And less peace.

Everyone talks about being so busy and longing for more rest, but not many of us are willing to guard our integrity by unplugging and protecting our personal peace.

One way to measure the peace in your life is to think about your level of satisfaction and contentment. Are you always striving for more, trying to keep up with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers? Or can you appreciate the enormous blessings you’re enjoying today — a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a family to love, friends to enjoy, a car to drive, and a job that provides income?

I’m convinced that our peace (or the absence thereof) is directly tied to what we focus on each day. We don’t need a lot of specialized knowledge or superhuman will to achieve peace. We simply need to keep paying attention to what we are doing with our time. If we’re focused on escaping the pain of life, avoiding problems, and trying to control our image to the rest of the world, then we won’t have much peace. And the more we seek to surf porn, feed a shopping or gambling addiction online, or envy others for all they appear to have online, the more miserable, restless, and anxious we’re going to feel.

Guaranteed.

More next time….

Moved To Action

The Greek word that the New Testament translates “compassion” is splagchnizomai. It is pronounced “splag-ch-NEE-zo-my.” It means “to be moved as to one’s bowels.” It means to have your bowels yearn. It’s a passion arising from a place so deep inside you that you can feel it, that it sounds like your intestines are working, doing something inside of you.

When the New Testament was being written, people believed that love and compassion originated from within your bowels because that was the deepest place in your body, right in your center. When they used the word splagchnizomai, they were describing an ache, an empathy for another person felt deep inside. But even more important, it means that you feel so strongly, you are moved to action. Don’t miss this. It’s powerful. Compassion is not just an emotion, not just some feeling you have that eventually passes.

True compassion demands action.

Let me put this another way. If you say that you care but then don’t act on that feeling, it’s the same as not caring at all. Please reflect on this, because It can be hard to process.

Let’s think about what this looks like in our everyday life. When we see something on Instagram that really connects with us, or something on Facebook that makes us feel some emotion., what do we do? We click. On Instagram, we may spring to double-tap on the picture, because that Likes it. Tap, tap. We can see that the person is going through a hard time, and that makes us feel bad for them. So we acknowledge their pain by giving them our Like or double-click. But clicking isn’t caring. Truly caring means taking some action. It’s getting ourselves involved so we can make a difference in a life. Clicking doesn’t change anything. Caring is not Liking a post; it’s loving a person.

As you might guess, Jesus is the best example of how this concept was lived out. In every verse in the Gospels where we see Jesus and the word compassion together, we immediately see Him perform some action. He was there, He felt compassion, and He did something. Every single time.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look for yourself. For example, in the gospel of Mark, a man approaches Jesus with a desperate need:

“A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed” (Mark 1:40-42 NLT).

Compassion. Splagchnizomai. Jesus felt, and immediately He acted. He touched the man. 

Here’s another one. When Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind men heard Him going by and called out to Him, asking for His help (Matthew 20:29-30). “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed Him” (Matthew 20:34).

Jesus felt compassion; therefore, He acted. True compassion demands action. To say you care but then not act is not to care at all. We’re living in a society where we care less and less about other people. That’s even quantifiable: young adults care 40 percent less than they did just a few decades ago. It’s tragic. And I believe, it’s unacceptable for those of us who call ourselves God’s people, His Church, to just sit by and not act when we’re surrounded by people in need.

It boils down to this: the more I obsess over social media, the more I care about me and the less I care about other people. But the more I focus on Jesus — the more I try to get to know Him, to serve Him, to draw closer to Him — the less I care about me and the more I care about His people (John 3:30).

When I look at how Jesus lived His life, and when I allow the words He said to challenge me, something in me changes. I am compelled to deny myself, to take up my cross, and to follow Him (Matthew 16:24). I actually want to die to myself. I want to follow Him.

I’m going to ask you some potentially really difficult questions. When was the last time you gave an hour to serve someone else? What about a whole day? Have you ever spent an entire weekend just serving other people?

What about financially? When was the last time you really went out of your way to give financially? I don’t mean something obligatory, something people might expect of you. I mean that you gave just because you felt like it. You gave a significant, difficult amount for you that would genuinely make a difference in some else’s life.

When was the last time you missed out on doing something that you really wanted to do because you chose instead to invest that time in someone else? If you’ve done any of these things recently, then I praise God with you.

If you don’t remember the last time you did something like these things, could it be that you’re not really that close to Jesus? You might think that’s a judgmental question. Possibly. But here’s something I know for a fact: when people are really close to Jesus, their lives are no longer about themselves. They become about glorifying God and loving others. 

Sink or Swim

Former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1923-29, 1935-37) is quoted as saying, “I am one of those who would rather sink with faith than swim without it.

The quote, when I read it a few days back, reminded me of three Bible characters; friends. They were put to the test as circumstances where they were living changed drastically. Now they were no longer allowed to practice their faith in the one living God of Israel. They could not practice their faith either privately or publicly. Often in the Scriptures we see people who have their faith tested. I would judge that these three young men went through one of the most severe tests of faith of any Bible character.

Shadrach’s, Meshach’s, and Abednego’s very lives were at stake. They were faced with a terrible dilemma, as the rules for practicing their faith while living in Babylon changed dramatically overnight. They faced a terrible dilemma. They said, “King Nebuchadnezzar is telling us to bow down and worship him instead of God, or he’ll throw us in this fiery furnace. We’re not going to bow down and worship a man, even if that man is a king. We believe that God will deliver us. We believe that God will rescue us. But even if He doesn’t, it will still be okay. We’re not bowing down to anyone but our Lord.”

Do you see that deep, inward, unshakeable faith in a trustworthy God? Theirs wasn’t a faith based on the outcome they desired; it was a faith based only on the character and goodness of God. 

Essentially these three teenagers stood boldly and declared,

“We believe our God can.”

“We believe our God will.”

“But even if He doesn’t, we still believe.”

How could they have such confidence? How could they be willing to die instead of making a lifesaving decision and then ask God for forgiveness later?

Because they believed that God is God and that He has everything under control, and that was good enough for them.

They knew that even if they died a terrible excruciating death in the flames of the king’s furnace, God was still God. They believed that the Lord was on His throne and that they simply had to do their part and trust Him.

The Key: It was a faith based only on the character and goodness of God. Not based on answered prayer or desired results. It was a faith based on who God was — His character — and not on what He had done or was about to do. 

You might be shocked at how your trial can reveal a depth of faith you never knew you possessed. 1 Peter 1:7 says this: “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honour on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world” (NLT).

When things are not always going the way you want them to or you are about to be overwhelmed by circumstances and your situation. When you are going through one of the many tests and trials of your faith and are wondering if you are going to survive. It is always good to remember three small words that appear in the Bible whenever someone has reached the end of the road and have apparently run out of options and no longer have any hope. Those three little words are: “But the Lord…”

Recently we were looking at the prophet Habakkuk. He didn’t get the answer he wanted from God, but still he believed and hung on to his faith. Although his life was about to grow even harder, still he chose to keep the faith. He knew, like these three young teenagers in the furnace, that God was still God. He knew God was still in charge. No matter what Habakkuk experienced, he kept coming back to those three little words that carry such enormous power:

“But the LORD…”

It would be good for us to remember those words when we are having our faith tested and tried. 

Write It Down!

When God says something to you, record it, because your spiritual enemy is an expert at stealing the seeds of truth that God wants to plant. You might keep a notebook just for such impressions or jot them down in your daily journal. You keep a daily journal, right? God may show you something from His Word or speak directly to your spirit, and if you don’t write it down or make some kind of record that you can refer back to, it’s way too easy to forget what He showed you.

I can’t tell you how many time this has happened to me. I’ll be wrestling with something I don’t understand and praying about it. “God, are you there? What’s going on? What do you want me to do in the situation? What are you up to?” Then I feel that God is showing me something, providing direction, or simply speaking personally to my heart. I have learned to write down what I believe God is saying to me. I write it down because inevitably, a few days later, I’ll be thinking about it again, and I might talk myself out of it. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe it was that late-night snack. Just some divinely inspired indigestion.” So I begin to doubt what I knew with certainty only a couple of days before. My awareness of God’s message to me seems to vanish unless I write it down.

When I record it however – in my electronic journal on my laptop – it becomes a spiritual anchor that tethers me to God and to the consistency of His promises. “Yes, I believe that God has spoken.” And better than that, I have a reference point that I can return to; it doesn’t depend on my mood or what I had to eat the night before. It’s there in print just as I originally received it. 

When you develop the disciple of writing down what God shows you and what you’re praying about, you might be shocked over a few years at all that God does. George Mueller (one of my spiritual heroes from the early years of my walk with the Lord) was a well-known evangelist who lived in the 1800’s. One day, his heart broke when he saw hundreds of homeless children fending for themselves on the streets of Bristol, England.

With almost no money to his name, he decided to start an orphanage, and over the next sixty years, Mr. Mueller helped care for more than ten thousand orphans. All throughout his ministry, he kept a record of his prayers, in a journal that ultimately filled more than three thousand pages. He recorded how one night there was no food to give the children the next morning for breakfast, so he begged God to do something. Early the next morning, a local baker knocked at his door. When Mueller answered, the baker told him he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, so he had gotten up and baked three batches of bread, which he had brought for them. Another time, a milk truck just “happened” to break down in front of the orphanage on the exact day they had no milk for the children. Since the milk would have spoiled in the heat, the driver gave it to the orphans. All in all, Mr. Mueller recorded more than thirty thousand direct answers to his prayers. Just imagine ow this built his faith, as he saw God’s faithfulness laid out before him again and again, in black and white in his journal.

If you are anything like me, journaling is a challenge. I can’t count how many years I committed to journal daily, only to forget and quit in the middle of January. Finally, I had a breakthrough. I got this idea from another pastor who has experiencing the same problem… 

Someone gave him a five-year journal that helped his relationship with God more than anything else. Instead of pressuring him to write a couple of pages a day about his feelings, prayer requests, and important events, this journal was way simpler. Each page represented one day but will eventually cover five years. For example, on January 1st there are five lines to write on for the current year. Then just below those five lines are five more lines, for January 1 next year. And so on. So essentially he was writing a fifth of a page each day. And over a five-year period, you get to see what happened each year on the same day. The best part – instead of writing pages, he only had a few lines to fill in, making it easy to continue. 

He writes … “During the first year, I found it easy and somewhat meaningful. The daily discipline helped me keep God at the front of my mind as I recorded something I was praying about each day. But during year two, I noticed something that really impacted me. When I returned to the same day from the previous year to begin the next one, suddenly I realized how many things that had weighed on me then were completely handled now. Problems worked out. Challenges met. Prayers answered. Concern with one of my kids had been resolved and was no longer even on my radar. Losing a valuable staff member had seemed like a big setback, but a year later we had someone in place who was even more effective. A challenge with a friendship had course-corrected, and we’re now closer than ever before.

Journaling daily with a glimpse back to the previous year helped me see the bigger picture. Once I stopped obsessing over my present problems and started looking back to past ones, I could see how God was faithful in ways I might have missed otherwise. And the power of this realization came from one simple discipline: write it down.”

Hope that helps and encourages you to try journaling for the first time or to retry journaling if you have tried in the past and it simply faded out. 

Permission To Speak Freely –  Part Five

As we continue our look at asking God the tough questions during a time when we are doubting Him and our faith and trust in Him …

In the New Testament Paul, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, experienced what he referred to as “a thorn in my flesh” in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Paul said he had asked God over and over to remove it. But God didn’t. Paul describes this agonizing prayer: “God, I know you can do something about this. Please do. Take it away. Remove it. I’m pleading with you, please take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).

Maybe you can relate. “Please heal my loved one.” “Please help me get a better job.” Please help me get accepted by the new friend I have made.” Please save my dad.” Please take the depression away.” “Please stop my migraines.”

But the thorn remained, and Paul came to understand that God was allowing it in order to help Paul stay humble and dependent on God and to do something even more amazing that simply taking it away. God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It’s almost as if God were telling Paul, “Look, I could take away this thorn for you. But if I did, then you’d miss out on drawing closer to Me and finding a deeper appreciation of my grace.”

Paul got it. He wrote, “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” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Paul didn’t just hear God’s response; he listened. And that subtle difference changed the very fabric of who Paul was.

It can change you too. In your most desperate moments, God’s presence can sustain you. Just as resistance in the gym makes your muscles grow stronger, resistance in life strengthens your faith in God.  Over time, as you grow in the grace of God, what normally would have rocked your world becomes something you can take in stride, knowing God is with you and will carry you when you are weak.

You may not want to hear this right now. If you don’t that’s fair. I’m guessing this message wasn’t what Paul wanted to hear. But it served a purpose higher than Paul might have been able to understand at the time. Without Paul and his influence, the Christian faith as we know it might not exist today. 

That means this ordinary man who refused to believe that God had abandoned him could be at least partially responsible for the faith in Christ that we still see around us today.

But seeing God’s impact through you is hard to do when you are in the valley and in pain.

All our lofty principles and spiritual convictions seem to blur when we’re looking through the cracked lens of a broken heart.

That’s when you take the next step by faith.

Maybe you’ve been asking God for what you need. That’s perfectly reasonable; God wants us to reach out to Him. But are you willing to listen to what He has to say to you, even if His answer isn’t what you want to hear? Keep listening. God has not abandon you in your time of need; He will tenacious hold you close and carry you through your pain if you will let Him. 

Permission To Speak Freely –  Part Four

So Habakkuk is listening for God. He has asked some seriously tough questions in the midst of a test of his faith. And God speaks. God said, “Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own” (Habakkuk 1:5-6)

That’s stunning. Shocking. And hard to swallow. God’s raising up the enemy?

Basically, He told Habakkuk, a guy He had chosen to be His prophet and therefore His messenger to the Jewish people, “Here’s the thing: you’re right — My people have really sunk to a new low. And while it may feel like I’m letting things slide, really I’m not. In fact, I’m going to have to destroy the people of Israel because they’re so wicked. And I’m going to use the Babylonians to do it.”

I imagine Habakkuk’s jaw dropping as he expressed some deep, theologically mature response like, “Say what?” Essentially God said that things would get worse before they’d get better. The Babylonians were notorious for being ruthless, violent, and aggressive in the relentless conquest of other tribes and nations. Corruption and violence among the Israelites might have been bad, but it was nothing compared with that of the Babylonians. It would almost be like us asking God why He allows so much injustice in our country, only to have Him tell us that He was going to allow foreign terrorists to annihilate us.

When times are tough, the last thing we want to hear is that they’re about to get tougher. But we know that real life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. So what now?

When you’re going through a season of struggle with God, remember: Habakkuk’s name means both to wrestle and to embrace. You can wrestle with God about all that you don’t like, yet simultaneously embrace Him because He is good and trustworthy. It really comes down to how we respond to a crisis of belief. Usually when a person enters that valley, they go to one of two extremes.

Many want to return to their last spiritual high, that mountaintop experience in which everything with God seemed great. He was answering their prayers, life was good, and their faith felt strong. They deny all the doubts undermining their faith, telling themselves, “I’m going to pretend this crisis isn’t happening right now. I know if I can just get back up on that mountaintop again, everything will be all right.” Now, you can’t fault this person for their strong belief in God’s provision and providence, but sometimes we have to come down off the mountaintop and let God help us deal with the real world.

Some others slide into the valley and decide to descent even further. They say, “Okay, God, if you’re not going to do what I know you could do, then forget you! I’m going back to the life I used to know. If you could help, but you’re not helping, then you must not be good, so I can’t trust you.” They wrongly assume that God must not love them if He’s not willing to do what they want Him to do to alleviate their suffering. 

Thankfully, there is a third option. If, like Habakkuk, we’re willing to lean into the hardship we’re experiencing and wrestle with how God might use it to achieve His purposes (the bigger picture), then we can begin to climb out of the valley. You have to remember, through, that just because things aren’t going your way doesn’t mean God isn’t still working. But I will admit that from a human perspective, His interventions may seem mysterious or even capricious. 

Although we don’t understand, we continue to believe God, listening for His voice and waiting for His answer. And just like Habakkuk, we will cling to God and trust Him, even when He doesn’t seem to make sense. The I-want-to-believer who will continue to embrace God, even though things may not get any better at first, will grow much closer to God than he or she was in the past. If you look at the people you know who are closest to God, often they’re the very ones who have been through the most difficult times, and God has proved Himself faithful to them. Their intimacy was forged through honest and open conversations with Him — permission to speak freely — asking Him and then listening patiently. 

Once more – more next time 

Permission To Speak Freely –  Part Three

We have been looking at the prophet Habakkuk and his boldness to ask God all the hard questions that were on his heart. He may have known that sometimes just allowing yourself to ask these questions can take you a long way toward reconnecting with God and learning to, once again, trust Him. It’s hard to love someone — even the Creator of the universe — if you’re holding grudges and hiding your true feelings. Habakkuk clearly loves God but that didn’t keep him from respectfully challenging God (not testing Him; there’s a difference) with a request to help him understand the huge gap between what he believed and what he saw around him.

Once the prophet had finished asking his questions, he knew it was time to listen. The same is true for you. Habakkuk wrote, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts;

I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint”   (Habakkuk 2:1, emphasis mine)

I love those images. I will stand at my watch and look to see what God will say to me. As basic and obvious as this may seem, sometimes the reason we’re not getting answers to our questions is that we’re not willing to pause and wait long enough for God to reveal Himself to us.

Sometimes when we rave and rant, what we really want is simply to vent our emotions, not to engage in a conversation. When we allow our anger, doubt, and fear to control us, our questions can drown out what God wants to say back to us.

Other times, we may pose our questions to God, but then, because we’re so preoccupied with the many things that are pulling at us, we don’t pause to listen for His response. We hear but we don’t listen.

Why don’t we slow down to hear God’s still, small, comforting voice? Honestly, I think it’s because too many of us are overwhelmed. We’re so busy juggling work, home, school, church — not to mention whatever crisis ignited our doubts in the first place — that we don’t take the time to stop, to quiet our hearts before God in silence.

The writer of Psalm 46:10 quotes God: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

When was the last time you stopped everything and just sat completely still, listening for God’s voice?

Notice that God did not say, “Be busy, and know that I am God.”

Be said, “Be still.”

Be.

Still.

And listen.

How do you actually listen to God? You can open His Word and let His Spirit bring truth to life. God speaks through circumstances, if you pause long enough to reflect. He speaks through people, offering divine wisdom from heaven. And He can speak directly to you through His Spirit. When you belong to Him, spend time with Him, and quiet yourself before Him, you will learn to recognize His voice. Only then!

Think about it this way: one of the unexpected benefits of going through a difficult season — walking in and through the valley — is that it gives us the chance to stop and reevaluate our priorities. To refocus. In fact, some say that the Chinese word for crisis uses two characters: one means “danger,” and the other means “opportunity.” When hard things happen, we often see more clearly what means the most to us. Spending time alone with God should be at the top of our list, even if the conversation with Him will be a difficult one.

However, as Habakkuk discovered, when you ask God the tough questions, you have to be prepared to listen to His answers, even if you don’t like them. Hopefully, if you are hurting and you press into God’s presence, He will direct you, guide you, and comfort you. But in Habakkuk’s case, God had other things to do first. And the news would be difficult to hear. 

More next time.