How Abraham’s Test and Paul’s Thorn Help Lala (and you) Pass Your Own Test

Tests. Every professor gives them. Every student takes them. Some pass. Some fail. God tests too. God tested Abraham at the beginning of his life (leave the comforts of home) and at the end of his life (sacrifice the object of your love, Isaac). God tested Job with unbelievable trials. Tests are inevitable.

Kenneth Matthews says God tests people in order to “reveal their obedience, produce fear in Him resulting in godliness, discover their authenticity and produce their well-being.” But here is the remarkable reality of God’s tests: he always gives everything you need to pass them. Paul wrote about this:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10, ESV)

Your test is God’s opportunity to make available his perfect power. Your test is the opportunity to point people to the Christ who gives you contentment, yes contentment, in the midst of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. When you’re tested, God gives you all the grace needed to pass the test. When you pass the test, He gets all the glory because he gave all the grace.

There is a purpose in your testing (as Matthews noted above) and there is an end result of your testing: God is glorified. Sunday I shared in the second service about Lala Seagle, retired school teacher and ardent follower of Christ. She was recently diagnosed with ALS. After Sunday’s sermon, she emailed me and I asked permission to share. She wrote:

This is definitely the granddaddy of all the tests I’ve had so far.  But as you mentioned, God gives you the test you are ready for.  I’ll be looking for signs that I am passing this test:

  1. Is my faith getting stronger?
  2. Am I being obedient?
  3. Am I producing strong spiritual muscle?
  4. Do I see God’s power and am I in awe of Him?
  5. Am I thankful in the midst of this?
  6. Am I able to give Him the glory and praise?

Great questions for times of great testing.

Do Not Despise the Day of Small Things

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. “These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth.” (Zechariah 4:10 ESV)

Zerubbabel was Israel’s civic leader with a formidable task: rebuilding the temple. The temple lay in ruins, destroyed by the Assyrians. Twenty years had passed and no rebuilding had been done. No doubt there were naysayers, negative Nancys, pouting Pollys, barking Bobs. Before they could rebuild, they had to remove the rubble. And there’s no glory in rubble removal–it’s one tedious chunk after another.

However, days of small things are followed by moments of glory. We forget that, without the days of small things, there won’t be moments of glory. Noah spent up to 120 years building the ark–and a year riding in it to safety. Moses was on the backside of the desert 40 years, and spent one day crossing the Red Sea. Israel marched around Jericho for 7 straight days, and watched it fall in a few hours. Days of small things: moments of glory.

What is your day of small things? A fussy one-year old? A dirty diaper? Helping your aged mother into the shower? 10 hours on a Wednesday at work? One more semester in college? Correcting your teenager again…for the same thing you pointed out to her yesterday? Another day in singleness?

We love the miraculous, endure the mundane. We relish the glory, despise the groan. We celebrate the extraordinary, trudge through the ordinary.

When you’re sifting through the rubble remember there will be a day of rejoicing. Though Zerubbabel’s hands now held broken scraps of temple stone, one day they would hold the plumb line. One day he would measure corners, lay stones, build walls, erect altars, sew curtains, lead the people in celebration. Until then…the day of small things.

Jesus lived 33 years in relative obscurity, held neglected children, fed hungry commoners, angered religious elites. He endured six agonizing hours on a cross, three days in a tomb, and rose from the dead in a moment of glory.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)

Jesus endured the day of small things “for the joy set before him.” For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice.

 

 

Promises for Perilous Times

Once again the news announces another attack. This time, more than 80 people killed as a lone truck driver plows through families celebrating Bastille Day in France. Fifty children are hospitalized. Even for someone with great faith, the question of God’s presence can surface. Where is God in all this?

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1 ESV)

In this one sentence, we discover two powerful reasons God is concerned about those who are his: he created them and he redeemed them. You are God’s masterpiece, the climax of his creation. God breathed the breath of life into Adam and he became a living being. “And God saw that it was good.” God also redeemed you. To redeem is to buy or pay off, to clear by payment. God bought Israel back…many times. Their most powerful redeeming moment was the Red Sea rescue. With Pharaoh’s army closing in, God parted the Red Sea and more than a million Israelites left 400 years of slavery in their rearview mirror.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2 ESV)

Notice the tiny word that begins God’s next statement: when, not if. God’s created and redeemed people will pass through deep waters. They will ford raging rivers. They will walk through fiery places. Don’t miss God’s promise: I will be with you. God’s people are not exempt from trials–they are exempt from abandonment. I will be with you.  God’s people are also safe from ultimate destruction. Though the water rises, the rivers rage and the fire threatens, they will not ultimately destroy. Why?

In the next five verses, God makes these statements:

For I am the Lord your God (vs. 3)

Because you are precious in my eyes (vs. 4)

Fear not, for I am with you (vs. 5)

I created you for my glory (vs. 7)

Let those sink in today. When you read the newspaper, watch the news, check your twitter feed, hear the insistent voice of your Redeemer.

Haters

“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”— let Israel now say— “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.” The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked. May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward! (Psalm 129:1-5 ESV)

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 9.51.38 PMI must admit that I write this blog as a white pastor trying to understand the plight of a black pastor–a black pastor who was gunned down while pouring into ten of his parishioners Wednesday night. Ralph West is a black pastor from Houston, Texas whom I podcast. In January he preached a sermon on Psalm 129 called “Haters.” He says it better than I can. “Listen” in to a few excerpts.

It’s one thing to read about haters…it’s something else to be hated. Haters hate. And nobody’s off limits from being hated. Psalm 129 begins with the reality of haters. Ishmael derides the promised child Isaac. He’s a hater. What God blesses God always increases. You would think with all that blessing you would be off limits to any kind of ridicule. The enemies of Israel tried at every attempt to exterminate their existence. Egypt tries to drown them–in return they are drowned. The Assyrians come up against them to try to starve them and God breaks their back. The Babylonians exile them and God emancipates them. The Persians and their soothsayers throw Daniel into the lions den and God closes the mouth of the lions and opens their mouths to eat the very people who threw them in. Then in the 20th century six million Jews were exterminated and yet Israel became a nation again.

People are always looking for ways to handle haters. When haters come against you, read Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” Or Psalm 59: “the Lord delivered me from my enemy and gave me victory over their power.” Or read Isaiah who says, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.” You don’t defeat a hater by hating–you give the hater something they don’t know how to deal with: “The LORD is my light and my salvation!

When the Psalmist says, “They plowed my back…” he is talking about suffering and abuse, mistreatment and ill treatment. Here’s the line that needs your attention: but the Lord is righteous. Things were bad for Israel, yet they were able to say in the midst of ill treatment, “But the Lord is righteous.” Whatever evil and wrong comes your way, God may not make it right when you want him to, but according to his divine calendar, God will make it right.

Stop trying to fight haters with hate. God will uproot them and they cannot abide with you. Martin Luther King said, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It’s like abiding by the law, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ If we deal with haters the way haters deal with us, we’re going to have a blind and toothless society.” You have to let the Lord deal with the haters.

When hate comes your way don’t think God’s mad at you–He’s trying to make you. He’s not trying to break you, he’s trying to bless you. And remember you’ve got a Jesus who’s dealt with it.

To listen to the entire sermon (and it’s 40 minutes well spent), go to: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-haters/id627605406?i=315079750&mt=2

What a Day That Will Be!

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10 ESV)whataday

Sometimes knowing how familiar words are defined can be worshipful in the study of Scripture. Here’s how dictionary.com defines these four words:

Restoreto bring back to a former, original, or normal condition, as a building, statue, or painting; to bring back to a state of health, soundness, or vigor. And here’s the kicker: we don’t know what our former, original condition looked like. We have never experienced it! We have to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, see Adam and Eve without the condition of sin to know that. What a Day That Will Be!

Confirm–to establish the truth, accuracy, validity, or genuineness of; corroborate; verify: to acknowledge with definite assurance. Peter wrote to scattered Christians who had lost their homeland and their identity as good Jews. Here he promises them a permanent place with a permanent status. What a Day that Will Be!

Strengthento make stronger; give strength. What encouragement! To those who are physically or emotionally weak right now–God will strengthen you! It may be today…it will definitely happen in eternity. What a Day that Will Be!

Peter saved the best for last:

Establishto found, institute, build, or bring into being on a firm or stable basis; install or settle in a position, place; to show to be valid or true; prove; to establish the facts of the matter; to cause to be accepted or recognized; to bring about permanently. What a Day that Will Be!

John Newton, former slave trader and author of Amazing Grace, said it this way:

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

If you have time, take about 2 minutes and listen to the words of this old song:

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

rainy_daysNo one in his right mind wants to suffer. Sometimes suffering comes quickly: the stroke that robs your mom of her dignity; the heart attack that takes your dad’s life. Other times suffering comes slowly: the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; the slow, painful divorce.

Suffering is unavoidable. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it this way:

The Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Peter, writing to suffering saints in the first century, put it this way:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10 ESV)

Peter agreed with Longfellow: suffering is inevitable. Into each life some rain must fall. Suffering is the common plot of every human being. Life languishes. Problems persist. Grief grips. The difference between Peter’s words and Longfellow’s dirge is this: Longfellow depends on the sun shining behind the clouds. Peter points to the God who shines through the clouds. He is the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ.

Your suffering is not wasted. God himself shapes you through suffering. When suffering has reared its ugly head and left you mangled and marred by the pain of life, God himself shows up and restores, confirms, strengthens and establishes you. Take heart. God has not forgotten you. He sees you, not as you are, but as you will be.

The Groan and the Glory

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:18-22 ESV)

 …if indeed we suffer with Him

There is a Greek construction here that you cannot see in the English language. A common conjunction in Greek takes the prefix sun and combines it with other words. Sun means “with.” They are sungkleeronomos, sunpascho, sundoxastho. These are the three “withs” of Romans 8:17.

  • We are heirs with Christ
  • We suffer with Christ
  • We will be glorified with Christ.

Suffering was the way of life for Jesus.   Jesus had been brutally murdered on the cross. Three days had passed and he had come forth from the tomb. He wass walking on the Emmaus road, having a conversation with some guys who have no idea who He is. They were followers of Jesus but they didn’t recognize him. And they were distraught that Jesus had to suffer. In Luke 24:26, we have Jesus’s response to their question. And notice that Jesus’s response is a question: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter His glory?”

The groan always comes before the glory. Suffering is a real part of our human existence.

Suffering takes many forms.

The man and woman who struggle to get along with each other. They don’t love each other like they used to. Their respect for one another is failing. The suffering: knowing how they should relate to one another—and the reality of how they do relate to each other.

The woman dominated by depression. She knows there’s more to life than she sees. Yet she wonders how she’s going to make it through another day. The groan is the desire to live life to the fullest. The suffering is wondering how to get there.

The pain of death—especially during the holidays. A sister. Your mom. A dad.  A son. A brother. Death hurts so badly. You feel alone, abandoned, cheated. This is real suffering. Tears flow down your cheeks in the middle of the night when no one else notices.

Don’t miss the 3 “withs.” You are an heir with Christ. You now suffer with Christ. You will be glorified with Him. One day the you God really intended will become clear. Free from sin and suffering, you will be resplendent in all of the glory God created you to exude. Until then, we groan…and anticipate.

Joseph, the Ultimate Waiter

The last fifteen chapters of Genesis are filled with the story of a young man who learned first hand the art of “waiting.” As a young teen Joseph had a couple of dreams. His critical mistake was sharing those dreams prematurely with his brothers. When he told them that they would one day bow down to him, they didn’t receive it well.  Joseph paid dearly for that mistake.

One day his father sent him into the fields where his brothers were shepherding to take them some food. They seized the opportunity to get rid of him once for all–they grabbed him, ripping off his coat of many colors–and threw him into a pit. When traders heading to Egypt passed by, Joseph’s brothers sold him. Faced with the dilemma of what to tell their aging father, they dipped Joseph’s prized coat in animal blood and told dad he was killed. Jacob mourned, the brothers gloated and Joseph learned a new language in Egypt.

Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a high-ranking Egyptian official. He served flawlessly. His dreams seemed a not-so-likely reality as he managed Potiphar’s household. Then one day–oh the difference a day makes–Potiphar’s wife found Joseph attractive and threw herself at him. Joseph repeatedly refused.

So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her. (Genesis 39:6-10 ESV)

Joseph faithfully waited on his God. God gave him the dream and God would fulfill the dream. Though a slave, Joseph never lost sight of the God who gave him those dreams.  When he wouldn’t succumb, Potiphar’s wife accused him of trying to rape her and Potiphar threw Joseph in prison.  Again he actively waited. In a foreign land surrounded by strangers, Joseph waited longingly for His God.

Tomorrow we’ll discover the next chapter in Joseph’s life. His entire life was a holding pattern–he waited.

Perhaps you feel you’re in a holding pattern, waiting for your ship to sail. You feel bound to the shore, at a proverbial stalemate in your life. Joseph’s life is a testimony that there are no stalemates in God’s economy. Your suffering is his stage to announce his sufficient grace. Your poverty is his opportunity to show his plenty. Your emptiness is his opportunity to showcase his fullness.

Wait…longingly and faithfully.

Wait.

Suffering…Hope’s Distant Cousin

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. (Psalm 62:5-7 ESV)

David returns to his opening thought. (see verse 1)  For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence. Why? For my hope is from him. As I am writing this the forecast is calling for snow tomorrow. I hope it snows–I really do! That idea of hope is not what David means here. Most of the time we use the word hope for “wish.” I wish it would snow tomorrow. I wish the Panthers would win. I wish…

Biblical hope is far more than a wish. Biblical hope is the sure promise of future reward. Paul talks about this kind of hope in Romans 5:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Paul tells the believers in Rome that they can rejoice in sufferings. Why? Paul isn’t advocating an emotionless response to the very real pain of life. No! Rejoicing in suffering is possible for the same reason a mother endures the pain of giving birth to a child: the hope of holding that child in her arms as a newborn. Our hope is fixed on the glory of God–we live to honor Him. And strangely enough it comes through waiting and suffering.

Suffering initiates a domino effect: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Hope grows best in the soil of suffering.  Notice the distance between suffering and hope. Suffering is followed by endurance (which takes time).  Endurance is followed by character (which is built over time). Character produces hope.

For some of you this has been the worst year of your life. Your suffering is so intense that hope seems a distant dream, a far-flung idea. Don’t despair. Hope is coming! Endure–don’t quit!

David writes: He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Today, lean in on God. Wait on him–quieten yourself before him. He is your refuge, your safe place…your hope.

3 Shibboleths for Modern-Day Saints

shib·bo·leth

ˈSHibəliTH,-ˌleTH/

noun

noun: shibboleth; plural noun: shibboleths

  1. a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.

I stumbled across this word. In Judges 12, the Ephraimites fought with Jephthah, God’s appointed judge. They tried to disguise themselves and Jephthah had one test for them: pronounce “shibboleth.” The Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the word! They couldn’t make the “sh” sound and pronounced it “sibboleth.” It’s a simple word meaning corn, but it’s hard to pronounce. Talk about a spelling bee with a price–when they couldn’t pronounce it they were killed for trying to infiltrate God’s people!

Today would be impostors still try to infiltrate God’s people. I call them the “If-thens.” If God is good, then why…? If God is loving, then why…? If God is just, then why…?

Let me provide you with 3 modern-day shibboleths.

  • God will do whatever you need for as long as you need because He loves you. In Deuteronomy 31:6 Moses is encouraging his protege Joshua: Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. Whatever or whoever is assailing you, God is with you.  He promises His presence and provision always.
  • God will only ask of you what is good for you and what is glorious for himOr which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Jesus, Matthew 6:9-11) God knows what we need better than we do and will only give us what is ultimately good for us. I confess that I struggle at times to see the goodness in the path carved out for me. But it is a shibboleth I hold onto.
  • God will make all things right. When I struggle with the injustice and unfairness in the world, I cling to this. In Psalm 58 David is crying out to God against evildoers. His last words ring loud: Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.” In a sentence David is saying that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. This life cannot serve as a measure of fairness or justice. The wicked sometimes prosper and the righteous sometimes suffer. One day it will all be made right.

I carry these three statements in my planner. Every week I pull them out and read them.  I need to be reminded.  I’m writing to remind you today.