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.

Permission To Speak Freely – Part Two

I am a fan of space movies and have watched most of the Star Trek series on television and the big screen. I enjoy the plot of each episode or movie and the action. It stretches my imagination and helps me to wonder about the universe. When the situation is difficult or demanding in the story often a junior officer will say to the senior commander “Permission to speak freely.” This means off the record and deep, personal honesty usually with some risk.

Habakkuk, as we saw yesterday, is having one of those “permission to speak freely” times with his superior officer and “boss” – the God of Israel. He is going through a deep valley and is questioning what is happening to him and his people. Wondering where God is in all the things that are happening. And, as we saw, it has been quite a conversation. It might be good to reread yesterday’s blog to refresh your memory. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I agree with C.S. Lewis that God’s highest agenda is not our immediate happiness. I believe that God is much more committed to our eternal joy, our spiritual growth, and the condition of our hearts. This means what we need to grow out of spiritual infancy into a richer, ever-maturing belief in a God who is infinitely wiser than we are. We need to learn to trust Him even when we can’t feel Him, believe in Him even when He doesn’t make sense, and follow Him even though we’re not sure where He’s leading us.

“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” (James 1:2-4). As counterintuitive as this may sound, I don’t think James is telling us just to suck it up and keep going. I think he is reminding us of that bigger picture, the larger story, that sense that something greater is going on than the trial we find ourselves caught up in. Here’s something curious: James don’t tell us that we can’t ask God what’s going on; he tells us only to count our problem as joy.

The point, as Habakkuk seems to have grasped, is asking honest questions while also trusting God and His Word. Think about it: you can have a sincere faith in God even as you are wrestling with unanswered questions. God is big enough to handle it. And He loves you enough to be patient with you as you learn about parts of His character that were too deep for you to comprehend before your crisis of belief.

Apparently, this prophet was also willing to listen when God responded. The good news is that God will meet you in your moment of greatest need. Just as He responded to Habakkuk, He will respond to you. In fact, God has plenty to say to us about how we should face our trials – the valleys we walk through. Again, He never says we can’t ask Him our honest questions. On the contrary, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8)

So if you have questions, ask away.

Just be prepared when God answers. 

Permission To Speak Freely – Part One

We have been chatting about mountaintop and valley experiences. Habakkuk knew firsthand what we have been talking about. He clearly slipped into the valley and experienced a crisis of belief. What he saw and what he knew about God didn’t line up. It was just hard for him, as a prophet and as a believer, to grasp that the God of Israel would sit on His hands and allow the kind of atrocities that Habakkuk was witnessing. He wrote:

“Lord, are you not from everlasting?

My God, my Holy One, you will never die.

You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment;

you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish.

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;

you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.

Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?

Why are you silent while the wicked

swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”

Habakkuk 1:12-13

Can you feel his pain? His doubts? His sense of injustice? Basically, he asks, “Aren’t you the eternal, all-powerful God? Why don’t you do something?” He goes on to remind God that God was the one who chose the people who are now punishing the innocent. The innocent, in Habakkuk’s eyes, being Israel. In an almost sarcastic tone, Habakkuk says, “You can’t even look at evil, but you allow it.” Like many of us, Habakkuk can’t figure out why God doesn’t do what he things God should do.

Keep in mind: Habakkuk is a man who loves God! This is in the Bible, not in an angry blog post from some smug person who hates Christians. Habakkuk didn’t hold back.

And neither should we.

God can handle any question we dare to ask Him. He may not answer in an audible, booming voice. Most likely He won’t. But He isn’t angry with us when we do ask. It’s not as if He’s going to storm out of the room when we throw a tantrum. He understands. Even as we’re pouring out our emotions, He wants to draw us closer to Himself.

We have His permission to speak freely.

Sometimes I think we’re afraid of expressing our questions not because we’re worried about God’s response but because we’re worried about our own. We’re afraid to say what we’re feeling, deep down in the dark corners of our souls. We’re terrified that if we admit how we’re truly feeling, then our faith will crack. But the opposite is true. It’s when we suppress the pain of what we’re experiencing, stuffing it down, and denying it, that our faith becomes so hard and brittle that it breaks.

Maybe this explains why, when some of us slip into the valley, we try to force our way back up to the mountaintop. We want that closeness we used to have with God. But denying that things are the way they are, refusing to believe the truth, is like trying to run up a sand dune.

A woman who’s been downsized might say, “It’s okay that I lost my job. I know that God can provide a better job. So I’ll just sit here and wait for it come to me.”

Or a man might refuse to believe his doctor’s diagnosis. “Nope. Not me. I’m just going to pray and trust that God will heal me. I don’t need to seek any kind of treatment.”

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not discounting that God can (and does) provide jobs out of the blue and heal people miraculously. But when we retreat and refuse to feel the pain of our disappointment, then we’re not really trusting Him. We’re using Him. And maybe missing greater opportunities for growth. Peaks are nice, but you don’t see many farms on mountaintops. Why? Because things grow better in valleys. Your time in the valley (with your many questions, doubts, and feelings) may not be pleasant, but it’s in the valleys of life that you grow closer to God and stronger in your faith. 

More next time… Part Two

Mountaintop Experience – Part Two

We had a mountaintop experience with the Lord and now life has apparently settled back to “normal” and we are walking through a deep, dark valley. Faith does not seem to exist and you even question whether God really does love you and wonder if He seriously cares for you or even knows that you exist.

Sometimes the pain in these valley times is so intense that all you can think about is relief. Everything in you just wants it to stop. Because the immediate hurt is so extreme, instead of thinking about Jesus, you may just be thinking about getting out of the pain you’re in. But this can be become a pivotal moment in your faith journey. This is when you can experience the depth of God’s grace in a way that’s impossible during better moments. During mountaintop times. His presence is real in your pain. And it might become more real in this valley than it was on the mountaintop, if you can recognize that the way is through, not out.

Perhaps that’s why Blackaby sees this crisis as so vital, a requisite part of the Christian’s faith. If we’re going to become stronger in our faith, more committed to God, more in love with Jesus, then our beliefs will be tested. They must be tested. Blackaby explains, “Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes, all the time!” People may tell you that God won’t give you more than you can bear. While they probably mean well, that’s simply not true. The Bible does say that God won’t let you be tempted beyond what you can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13). But He often gives you more than you can handle, so you can learn to depend wholly on Him.. 

Those words can be difficult to read and digest when you’re hurting. Believe me, I understand. Remember: I’ve been there. As a father of 6, I have been there. And as a pastor for 50+ years, I often walk with people through the lowest points in their lives. It’s never easy. But God’s faithfulness is always evident. Often in hindsight. But He is always there and working on your behalf.

I think Christianity has gotten a bad rap in the last few decades because so many Christians try to pretend they have everything figured out. This includes the problem of pain in the world. I’m not against developing a theological understanding of evil in the world, of human suffering, and of the goodness of God. That’s very important. It’s just that when you’re standing in front of a father whose son has just be killed for his faith, or a woman who just learned that her cancer has returned, theology — or at least the ability or need to explain it — isn’t necessarily our first objective. When words don’t work, remember that presence does. Love does. An embrace does. It is time to embrace those walking through the valley and do the same thing Jesus did: love them, challenge them, accept them, forgive them, be there for them.

That’s the beauty and power of the incarnation. God didn’t shout His love from heaven or the mountaintop. He showed us His love on earth as He became one of us in the person of His Son Jesus. When someone is in the valley, rather than trying to explain what’s happening, sometimes we are better off listening. Rather than preaching, we focus on loving. And in those moments of quiet presence, God often reveals Himself in ways that go beyond our human ability to understand. 

Unless our own suffering draws us closer to God, it’s hard to offer genuine compassion — and hope — to others. When we aren’t connected to others’ pain, it’s tempting instead to offer them bumper sticker platitudes and pat answers designed to keep our own fragile faith intact. Some people even go so far as to tell those who are suffering that it’s because of sin in their lives or because they don’t have enough faith or because they’re simply getting what they deserve. What a terrible, dangerously, hurtful, unbiblical response! Nowhere do I see Jesus condemning people who are hurting; I see Him only allowing His grace to convict their hearts and convince them of their real need.

Our world is broken. Because we live in a world where our free will has opened the door to our spiritual enemy, we will all continue to experience painfully hard, terrible, unexpected events in our lives. It’s not that growing mature in our faith exempts us from these events. The opposite might be closer to the truth. It’s simply that we’ve experienced enough pain and grown so much closer to God — even in spite of our pain — that our faith has been strengthened, deepened, and matured for the next tough time in the valley.

Author and scholar C. S. Lewis explains it this way: “I’m not sure God wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to love, and be loved. But we are like children, thinking our toys will make us happy and the whole world is our nursery. Something must drive us out of that nursery and into the lives of others, and that something is suffering.”

So, remember, mountaintop or valley — God is with you and He never leaves you or forsakes you. Take His hand and walk through the valley. 

Mountaintop Experience – Part One

Most of us know what it’s like to have a mountaintop experience. For many of us, this is how we became Christians in the first place. We had an amazing experience in which we felt God’s presence in a real, tangible, all-consuming way. We sensed His love, His grace, His power, His Spirit. In that moment we knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives on this earth, as well as the rest of eternity, serving Him, pursuing Him, and making Him known.

That is certainly my story. The night that I was saved I actually saw Jesus ‘in the flesh’ and He physically hugged me and poured His love into me. I saw Him. I touched Him. I heard His voice speak to me (see 1 John 1:1-4). I experienced His forgiveness and an inner washing resulting in a supernatural clean feeling inside. And the spiritual transformation began!

It didn’t matter where I was; I believed that God was with me. I shared my faith with anyone and everyone I met or ran into while out shopping or just taking a walk. I especially spoke to other pastors and priests assuming that, like me, they had bought into religion and did not have a personal relationship with the living Jesus Christ. It seemed like God answered every prayer. Every Bible verse I read seemed to be written just for me. And everywhere I went it seemed like God gave me the words to say and showed me a difference that I could make.

Initially, being a Christian felt like this amazing experience. You have these powerful times of praying and studying the Bible. Each day the words of the Bible seem to jump off the page, ministering to you in just the perfect way. Sermons seem to be especially for you, directly addressing something important that you’re going through or thoroughly explaining a Scripture you just read. Then you see the same verse on somebody’s social media feed, and you know that God is speaking to you. When you get in your car, your favourite song comes on the radio, and it feels like God played it just for you. You feel an urgency to help your non-Christian friends, and God constantly gives you the right words to say. You know He’s with you. When you’re in a rush at the mall, a parking spot opens up right in the front row.

That’s when you know you are on the top of the mountain. 

Then, at some point, life starts to creep back in. And God’s presence seems to fade. Without even realizing it, you have come down from the mountain, back to the real world, and your faith doesn’t seem quite so amazing anymore. You still believe in God, still go to church, still try to read the Bible and pray when you have time. But the sermons aren’t always just for you. Your favourite song isn’t on the radio anymore. And the best parking spots are all taken.

Suddenly life isn’t going as you planned and hoped. Your prayers feel flat and stale. Like God has stopped listening. Someone betrays you. God doesn’t feel as close as He once did. You feel disoriented, uncertain where you stand with God, or whether you’re still standing at all. You were up on the mountaintop, and now you’re down in the valley.

If you’ve never been there, I hope you never are. But I suspect you might know something about what I’m saying. You woke up one day only to realize you were burned out. Discouraged. That little orange light comes on, telling you that your faith tank is dangerously low. It’s at this time that we hit the valley. You have come off the mountaintop and are now walking through the dark valley 

In his book Experiencing God, author Henry Blackaby describes this valley as a “crisis of belief,” a season of struggles and doubting God and His goodness in our lives. Usually, this crisis is ignited by a specific trigger, such as a serious physical challenge, a financial setback, or a relational disappointment.

Often the trigger is something unexpected or even unthinkable. Sometimes several smaller but challenging events overlap, and the combined burden becomes a crushing weight that causes a person’s faith to collapse. Didn’t Christ say that His burden is light and His yoke was easy (Matthew 11:30)? Suddenly, getting out of bed in the morning feels intimidating. You can’t imagine how you’re going to get through the rest of the morning, let alone an entire day. Where’s God now?

In those moments, faith seems irrelevant. When the Titanic is sinking, it’s hard to enjoy a game of shuffleboard on deck or to appreciate the string quartet playing music on the bandstand. When you don’t know whether the radiation and chemo will work or where the money’s going to come from or when you’ll see your child again, it’s hard to believe that praying, trusting and hoping will make a difference. It’s hard to keep the faith when you have so little control over everything else in your life. Yup, you are in the valley. 

More next time…

Bigger Barn Syndrome – Part Five

Remember what your mother told you when you had two cookies and your sister had none? “Quick, eat them both before she can wrench one out of your greedy little hands!” Probably not. She would say, “Share.” What do you tell your own kids, nieces, and nephews when they have more than they need and a friend or sibling has none? We tell them to share. Watching someone eat two cookies in the presence of someone who has none doesn’t seem right, does it? We feel compelled to say or do something. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

Imagine seeing the world from God’s point of view. Imagine being able to see everybody in the world who has two cookies and everyone who has none, all at the same time. You would probably say something. You would tell everyone to share. If God has blessed you with more than you need, it’s so that you can share your abundance with those who have need, Embracing that simple truth is the key to ridding your heart of greed and removing that dreaded Bigger Barn Syndrome.

It is so basic and simple – not easy, but simple… Generous giving (and living) will break the grip of greed on your life. So whether or not you think you have extra, give and give generously. You’ve got to give to the point that it forces you to adjust your lifestyle. If you are not willing to give to the point that it impacts your lifestyle, then according to Jesus you’re greedy. If you’re consuming to the point of having little or nothing left to give, you’re greedy. If you’re consuming and saving to the point that their’s little or nothing to give, you’re greedy.

I know that’s strong. Actually, it’s harsh.

But it’s true. 

Maybe this is a bit hard for you to swallow because you’ve never had a greedy thought in your life. Maybe you feel compassion every time you see someone in need. And in your heart you really do want to help. You want to give, but you can’t. Or you won’t. Why? Because you’re afraid you won’t have enough. But your heart genuinely goes out to those in need. So is it fair to say you’re greedy? Yes. Because greed is not a feeling; it’s a refusal to act.

You can feel compassion toward people in need and be as avaricious as Scrooge. Greed is evident not by how you feel but by what you do. Generous feelings and good intentions don’t compensate for a greedy heart; in fact, good intentions and greed can cohabit in your heart indefinitely. This is what makes this covert enemy such a threat to the heart. You may never feel it the way you do anger or guilt or even jealousy. But it’s there. It’s dangerous. And it can lead to total loss. 

Just as you can’t wait until you’re in shape to start exercising, you dare not wait to start giving until your fear of giving is gone. Don’t wait until God changes your heart to begin giving. Giving is the way God chooses to change our hearts. As your heart changes, your attitude and feelings will follow suit. God loves a cheerful giver, but He’’ll put your money to good use whether you’re cheerful or not. My advice: Give until you get cheerful.

Our giving must impact our lifestyle if it’s going to break the power of greed in our lives. The best way to do this is to become a percentage giver. Percentage giving involves giving away a percentage of everything you receive right off the top, as soon as you get it. Specifically, the first cheque or e-Transfer you would write after depositing your paycheque is a cheque to an organization(s) that supports the work of the Kingdom. That’s how you become rich toward God. In New Testament times there were no such organizations; believers gave to their place of worship and to the poor. We now have multiple options. Choose one or two to start. Now.

Writing this cheque or making this e-Transfer ensures that God’s Kingdom is funded ahead of yours. You’ll have to live on the leftovers for a change. If that scares you, start at a low percentage, say 2 percent. You’ll never miss it. Bump it up a percentage point every 6 months or every year until you’re giving at least 10 or 12 percent of your income. Giving at that level is evidence of a lifestyle adjustment. But percentage giving is just the beginning.

You need to be a spontaneous giver as well. When you see someone in need, give. Isn’t that what you expect God to do for you when you’re in need? Then go ahead and make the first move. If you’ve got extra and somebody is in need, share. That’s who your extra is there for. 

These two habits, percentage giving and spontaneous giving, will protect you from Bigger Barn Syndrome. The day will come when you receive an unexpected windfall and your first thought will be, who can I help? What Kingdom endeavour can I fund? In that moment you’ll know that through the habit of generous giving, you’ve broken the power of greed in your life.

It’s a habit that changes everything.