Saturday, August 28, 2010

God Knows Best

More time than usual has passed between posts, because an electrical storm last Monday “fried” my cable connection and has left my online work dependent on the wireless services of public venues. Annoying, to say the least. I rarely work offsite; I can live very well without the bother of unplugging and reattaching a half dozen cords, the strain of packing around a ten-pound laptop on a stiff back, the hum of public activity intruding on my concentration, and the inherent hassles of either the coffee shop (with its sense of obligation to spend money I don’t have on caffeine I don’t need) or the library (with its increasingly limited hours).

“Limited hours” may be the greatest bugaboo. However much lip service we give to the Scriptural commands to “wait on the Lord” and “be still,” the conviction that it’s productivity that counts remains fixed in our minds. There’s a Christian song with a chorus something like, “It’s not in trying, but in trusting,/It’s not in running, but in resting,/It’s not in planning, but in praying,/That we find the strength of the Lord.” Biblically sound, but who really lives as if we believe it? If you’re anything like me, even prayer easily becomes a performance issue: how many hours a day, with what ratio of praise to requests, should one pray to achieve a Spirit-filled life?

Wayne Jacobsen, author of
He Loves Me!: Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection and coeditor of bestselling Christian novel The Shack, tells of a time he was invited to serve a brief interim pastorate: “We’ve heard that you really emphasize God’s grace and the cross,” the church elders told him.

“That’s true,” he replied, “but before you decide that’s what you want, I’d like you to answer two questions. First, how much of what gets done at your church, gets done because someone would feel guilty about not doing it?”

The elders exchanged glances, chuckled, and replied, “About ninety percent!”

“So, are you prepared to accept that if your congregation fully understands God’s grace, ninety percent of what’s currently getting done at your church may stop?”

Dead silence.

Most Christians harbor the same fear as those elders: that if we give too much attention to God Himself, if we allow ourselves to trust that He will not be angry if we stop striving to do all we can, we will end up getting nothing done. Serving out of love rather than duty, let alone believing that the former is ultimately the route of greater accomplishment, has always been a stumbling block for human nature. It didn’t take long for the “striving trap” to infect even the Church; St. Paul wrote Galatians, perhaps chronologically the first book of the New Testament, largely to battle that enemy. It didn’t come close to winning the war.

Perhaps the real reason we get angry with God for not preventing our problems is that problems interrupt our work and interfere with our striving. My online difficulties started just when I thought I might finally have an effective priority-based work schedule, and I’ve had enough similar experiences to convince me it’s more than coincidence—that some angel or demon has an ongoing assignment to strike at my weakest point, my aversion to interruptions and disappointment, whenever I seem on the edge of a significant reduction in those annoyances.

To some degree, everyone’s most hated troubles have to do with the failure of human striving, whether to get to an appointment on time or to “positive-think” oneself into a life where everything always goes “right.” All our bitterness at our failures, all our frustration over glitches and roadblocks, has its roots in the idea that God is either punishing us for something He won’t show us how to remedy, or doesn’t care about our happiness at all.

The apex of spiritual maturity is neither always doing the right thing, nor the absence of grief or anger in any circumstance, nor understanding the “whys” of it all. It’s trusting that
God understands the “whys”—and that He will make full use of all circumstances to finish the good work He began in us.

This life will bring its troubles
And unexpected pain;
Some days are bright with sunshine,
But some are full of rain;
Whatever roads we travel,
As we face every test,
Let us remember always:
In all things, God knows best.

God gives the perfect balance
Of happiness and tears;
He marks our mortal limits
And sets each lifetime’s years;
Though we seek wealth and wellness—
It seems the obvious guess
That these are good things for us—
Remember: God knows best.

One may grow strong through hardship
Or through prosperity;
And I can judge no other
By God’s best plan for me.
But when, in realms eternal,
Our souls at last find rest,
We all shall sing in chorus,
“Praise God: He knew the best!”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Our Once and Future Joy

"I can't say this for sure," notes author/journalist Laura Fraser in "My So-Called Genius" (MORE Magazine, May 2008), "but I'd bet it was a formerly precocious person who coined the term midlife crisis." Fraser's article reflects on the emotional side of her transition from a top academic achiever to an accomplished-but-not-world-famous fortysomething--and on the disappointment that awaits many child prodigies when they learn high potential doesn't equal effortless and spectacular success. Or even high self-esteem.

Of course, you don't have to be a former high school valedictorian to experience a midlife crisis. Many of us spend the first half of our lives figuring we have "plenty of time" to accomplish our dreams--and the second half figuring we've already blown the chance. That's the kind of thinking that leads to an obsession with the "good old days." It can also lead to embarrassing moments if we haven't yet outlived those who remember us as kids; have you ever complained to your mother that life was so much better when you were twenty-one and been told, "The letters you wrote home from college during those days didn't give the impression you found things all that great"? As often as not, the "worst time of our lives" is the one we're living through at this moment.

Regardless, God didn't put us on earth to waste the present living in the past or the future. More than that, He is the only One with a truly accurate picture of all three--and the only One Who brings meaning to any of them. The Scriptures don't call Him the One "who was, and is, and is to come" (Rev. 4:8) for nothing.

In Him is the wisdom to learn from the past. In Him is the strength to thrive in the present. And in Him is all hope for the future--not simply in time but through the timelessness of eternity.

Look to the future—remember the past—
Look into both for the things that will last.
Sweet are the memories of good times now done;
Sweet is the vision of things yet to come.

Look to the past for the lessons that guide;
Look to the future, where they’ll be applied.
Praise for the wisdom a lifetime has brought;
Praise for the insights of days yet unsought.

Open the Scriptures and look to the Word,
Wisdom far sweeter than ever was heard.
Praise all the things God has done for His own,
Praise for His planning of things yet unknown.

He Who was shaping the earth as it grew—
He is the One Who will make all things new.
He Who came once to free mortals from sin—
He is the One Who is coming again.

He Who stood by us through all that has been—
He is the One Who will reign without end.
Seek out His blessing for all that will last:
Look to the future, remember the past.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Master of Camouflage

"Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes.... Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (Eph. 6:11; 1 Pet. 5:8).

Anyone who lives with a cat knows that members of the feline tribe don't approach their prey openly. Rather, they sneak up soundlessly, every move patiently calculated, eyes fixed firm on the target, until they judge themselves close enough to deliver the killing blow in one quick leap. Often, they maintain a literal low profile, particularly useful if you're a lion and your preferred habitat is grassland where much of the cover is shorter than you are.

The "roaring lion" who is the devil uses similar tactics. He doesn't show his real self openly, and he saves most of his roaring for boasting about his kills. When scheming to deliver a crippling blow to someone's spiritual health, he's more likely to purr, speaking soothingly about how this really isn't sinful and would be so wonderful. He watches his targets carefully, keeping an eye on how they react to certain situations and what they aren't paying attention to. Carefully he maneuvers his victim into position, covering his true nature with whatever innocuous-looking aspect of the environment he can hide behind--then when danger is least suspected, he makes the fatal suggestion that leads his prey to fall hard and leaves everyone stunned, wondering what happened.

Also like the natural predator, which selects its victims based on the perceived ease of overpowering them, the devil has an eye for those souls most vulnerable to temptation. Ironically, these are often the ones who seem strongest to human eyes: the wealthy executive, the high-profile superstar, even the Christian worker who seems to be accomplishing great things for God. The devil knows that the more "successful" we become in human terms, the easier we find it to start relying on our own abilities rather than God's supernatural power--and human nature being what it is, there's no guarantee of an exception when those abilities are used for strictly "Christian" work. The megachurch pastor who commits adultery with an attractive young counselee may well have started with the purest of intentions, but brushed off warnings about the temptations of being alone with her because he was sure he was above such carnal thoughts. He put his spiritual armor in the closet months before because he didn't think he needed it any longer, and he learned the hard way that his flesh was still vulnerable.

We're all equally helpless against the devil when we have only our own strength to rely on. Just as a gazelle must eat daily if it's to keep up its strength to escape lions, we have to replenish our spiritual defenses daily through prayer and Scripture.

"But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:57).

The devil is a master when
It comes to craft and art,
For he can paint the blackest sin
To lure the purest heart.

The devil is a master of
Deceit and subtle change,
And he can take the truest love
And twist it for his gain.

The devil is a master who
Perverts each thing that's good:
Beware, or he may work on you
Like craftsmen carving wood.

The only way to dodge the plans
This master thief can weave:
Find strength in Christ, the Son of Man,
Who saves all who believe.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Here's another item from the "Christian books I've recently read" department: Jean Fleming's Between Walden and the Whirlwind is for the busy Christian who's fed up with not being able to get her life in order. Not because the book solves your organization problems once and for all (how many books, Christian and secular alike, have made that claim?), but because it helps you come to peace with disorganization. More specifically, it emphasizes accepting that the ultimate order of life is in God's hands alone, and that our best planning skills--or intentions--can't earn us the right to grab the controls.

"Jesus has not asked me to have it all together," writes the author. "Here on earth no one arrives. All Christians are en route.... Even after we get God's direction for our life... we sometimes end up living out God's will to the wrong audience [ashamed to admit, even to fellow Christians, that God has called us only to "humble" tasks].... In our ardor to serve, we often overlook a critical truth: The servant doesn't choose his task. Our concept of serving God may be doing what we would like to do--for God. We tell God what we'll do for Him, and what we won't do; where we'll go for Him, and where we won't go. We even tell Him what mustn't interfere with our plans to serve Him" (1985 hardback edition, pp. 17, 31, 88).

Can you say "Ouch!"?

However obviously a task seems to be "God's work," God will not be pleased if it is done in a prideful spirit. This doesn't apply only to the "showy piety" Jesus condemns in Mt. 6; it includes deliberate or thoughtless disregard for seeking God's will in our decisions. How many times do we rationalize something just has to be God's will for us because we want it so much? ("I've realized my first marriage was really against God's will, so the only Christian thing to do is end it and be united with the person God wanted me to marry in the first place.") Some of us even presume to tell others what God's will is for them: "I don't care if you prayed about it with fasting for three weeks, dear; I'm your mother, and I know God couldn't possibly want you to take a dangerous job like that." "You have to marry me; God told me we're meant to be together, even if He didn't tell you." But true servanthood is being willing to accept God's will as He reveals it, not to try to change it to fit our wishes or our logic.

Where would we be now if Jesus had convinced Himself the Cross was not God's will?

Lord, I would like so much
To do great things for You:
But may "greatness" not overwhelm my power
To stay humble through and through.

Lord, I have glorious plans;
My heart is full of dreams;
But may they come true only if their glow
Never blinds to Your Truth's gleams.

Lord, minds so quickly stray
When they have pride to chase;
If I turn away, please do trip me up,
Lest I fail in faith's great race.

Lord, I still long to stand
With those who can achieve:
But please never let me achieve those things
That would weaken my belief.

Lord, all my days are Yours:
May what I gain and do
Never be so great as to tempt to pride,
Or distract my eyes from You.