Holding Fast to God While the World Breaks Down

Holding Fast to God When the World is Breaking Apart

While I write this, in my peaceful writing space, in my cozy house, all around the world, people’s lives are unraveling. I’m thinking about our sister in Christ, Kayla Mueller, and her family, today. Kayla was on a humanitarian mission with Doctors Without Borders, when she was abducted by Isis in Syria in 2013.  Her death is still shrouded in confusion, but we know, from firsthand witnesses, that during her last months of captivity and torture, she was repeatedly raped by the terrorist, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who committed suicide over the weekend while fleeing from U.S. forces. The mission to capture him was named after Kayla, in honor of the courage she demonstrated during her eighteen months of captivity.

Through many means, death will claim loved ones, leaving shattered people in its wake. Terrorists will rage. Murderers will kill. The destructive power of death will touch lives in other ways too. Divorce papers will be served, termination notices delivered, and eviction notices posted. Dreams and hopes will perish today while some watch their loved ones leave a courtroom in shackles and others watch their homes swept away by natural disaster.

In this world, it shall always be this way until Christ’s return. Once death planted its flag in the Garden of Eden, destruction and decay became our norm until God banishes evil to eternal damnation. Just like you, I’ve faced losses and crushing blows where it seems that wickedness is kicking righteousness to the curb. By faith, I know that may be temporarily true but never ever eternally true. Nevertheless, my soul and emotions need to be reminded that although Jesus died a brutal death, he rose victorious and triumphant over death, hell and the grave.

The first chapter of Habakkuk resonates with me whenever I feel as if horrible things are happening around the world and to people I know, and God doesn’t intervene.

How long, O Lord, must I call for help” But you do not listen! ‘Violence is everywhere,’ I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery: Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence. I am surrounded by people who love to argue and fight. The law has become paralyzed and there is no justice in the courts. The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” Habakkuk 1:2-4 (NLT).

“Should you be silent while the wicked swallow up people more righteous than they? Are we only fish to be caught and killed?” Habakkuk 1:13-14 (NLT).

In the same way Isis once roamed all over Syria, the Babylonians terrorized the Jews of Habakkuk’s time. We don’t need to look far to imagine what Habakkuk might have been feeling to write such complaints to God. Worldwide, many inner cities are brutalized by gangs and justice and political systems are too often under the control of the wicked. The prophet struggled to understand God’s apparent silence in the face of his country being overrun by godless barbarians.

So, what should be my posture and attitude be when wickedness seems to be winning? Let me turn back to Kayla Mueller’s life for a beautiful example of Christ-like behavior in the face of the worst of evils and to suggest some things for us to think about.

  • Obeying God fervently will put you in the enemy’s line of fire. Kayla was traveling in war-torn areas, bringing comfort and healing to victims of violence. If we choose to obey God in every way, we must expect resistance and trust him for courage to face it and keep going. He sometimes leads his children into dangerous situations.
  • The measure of our character will be revealed through pain. At the bottom of this post are two stories that share the details of Kayla’s imprisonment but also tell us about her remarkable fortitude and compassion for others despite her own pain. Witnesses, held captive with her in various locations, testify to her kindness and concern for their well-being. In fact, at one point, 25-year-old Kayla chose not to escape with two younger girls as she told them that without her, they stood a much better chance of eluding recapture.

I am deeply moved by this young girl’s example when I consider my behavior during dark times. Too often I can trend towards a self-centered response to my trials and become oblivious to others in pain around me.

  • God will not always rescue us from disasters, dangers, heartbreaks and problems but he will deliver us through them.

Witnesses report that Kayla refused to deny her Christian faith to the end. Although she pretended sympathy towards the Muslim faith with a couple captors, those who lived in the prison cells with her said she never denied Christ. In a letter to her parents she said,

 

“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else.+ by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall…I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful.”

 

The apostle, Paul, also knew the secret of being free in prison. He suffered numerous beatings, was shipwrecked three times and imprisoned repeatedly, yet he never stopped sharing the gospel news. He said, “For me to live is Christ, for me to die is gain” Philippians 1:21 (NLT). God sent earthquakes to remove his shackles and open prison doors, plucked him out of the ocean and neutralized a snake’s venom to keep Paul’s ministry going. In the end, though, the time came when God did not perform any rescue and the apostle died violently, like Kayla and so many other believers.

 

Things will come apart in this life. If I seek help from anything before God, I won’t be able to function powerfully, as Kayla and Paul did. Holding fast to God’s word and the truth about his character will keep me steadfast and others-focused when all around me might be shaking and breaking. I need to go deeper with him now and remember his reply to Habakkuk, so that when the next storm comes, my foundations will be strong enough to keep me standing.

 

“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves and their lives are crooked. But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God” Habakkuk 2:4 (NLT).

 

https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/israel/2019/october/baghdadi-operation-named-after-christian-woman-who-refused-to-give-up-faith-before-being-killed-by-isis

https://abcnews.go.com/International/kayla-mueller-captivity-courage-selflessness-defended-christian-faith/story?id=41626763

 

 

 

Choosing Joy In the Midst of Disappointment

Some years ago, my husband, Ken, and I almost lost everything we owned due to some unethical and dishonest business practices of a corporation he worked for at the time. Faced with the potential loss of our home and business, I wandered in a spiritual desert for a few months, where I learned much about myself and God and his Word.

During another challenging season, many years ago, God called Ken and I to step away from everything we knew and most things we allowed to define who we were at that time. We left our home of twelve years, (it was a parsonage), with no place to live and both stepped down from our ministry positions with no other jobs lined up.  This desert season lasted a couple of years as it took me some time to understand that God wanted to teach and instruct me and draw him closer to himself.

The third dry season that comes to my mind occurred even before the other two when Ken took his first ministry position. Released from the rigors of seminary life and a job I tolerated but didn’t love, I eagerly looked forward to our new season. I felt certain God would now open doors for a teaching position for me, the job I dreamed of and prepared for my whole life up to that point. God opened no teaching doors and instead positioned me as a floral designer in a small shop in our town. I didn’t dislike the job at all, and I enjoyed my new role as a pastor’s wife, but the Desert of Disappointment haunted my soul for four long years, as I pined away, every day, for a teaching position. At that time, I lacked any understanding that God was up to something, and I needed to submit to it. I’m so glad I started to get a clue in the next two deserts.

When I read the end of Habakkuk 3, I am reminded of those seasons, and one of the main ideas God wanted me to grab hold of.

“Even though the fig trees have not blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!”  Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NLT).

This. This is the type of attitude God wanted to develop in me. Even if my plans fail, I lose what I have and my dreams don’t come to pass, will I still take joy in God and my salvation? That’s one of the primary questions God will ask of any believer in the Desert of Disappointment. So, what’s your “even though…” situation?

The pastor may say, “Even though my church hasn’t grown the way I thought it would by now, and my salary isn’t what I hoped for.”

The single person might yearn, “Even though I’ve dreamed of being married for so long, but I’m not even dating anyone yet.”

The parent could say, “Even though my child is rebelling against God and walking with the world.”

The worker sighs, “Even though I can’t find a job and bills are piling up.”

The divorcee whispers, “Even though my spouse left me for another.”

How do you fill in this blank?  Even though_______________________________________

yet will I rejoice in the Lord!  There’s a lot that needs to happen in the average human heart between the front and back ends of that sentence.

Matthew Henry describes this purifying and revealing of the condition of our hearts in his commentary on this passage.

“Destroy the vines and the fig-trees, and you make all the mirth of a carnal heart to cease. But those who, when full, enjoyed God in all, when emptied and poor, can enjoy all in God. They can sit down upon the heap of the ruins of their creature-comforts, and even then, praise the Lord, as the God of their salvation, the salvation of the soul, and rejoice in him as such, in their greatest distresses. Joy in the Lord is especially seasonable when we meet with losses and crosses in the world. Even when provisions are cut off, to make it appear that man lives not by bread alone, we may be supplied by the graces and comforts of God’s Spirit. Then we shall be strong for spiritual warfare and work, and with enlargement of heart may run the way of his commandments and outrun our troubles. And we shall be successful in spiritual undertakings.”

My deserts always revealed the true condition of my heart. Oh, dear brothers and sisters, we will continue to experience “losses and crosses,” until Jesus takes us home or catches us up with him in the air. Will we choose to be strengthened and matured by these things, better equipped to fight on our Lord’s front lines or shall we wander around, as I did, sorrowful and hopeless in our wilderness?

Disappointment is a valid emotion that we should experience and move past not an address where we set up housekeeping. When I daily lay down my discouraging situations and ongoing trials at Jesus’ feet in his throne room, I must be so careful not to pick them back up lug them with me all day. They are too heavy, and I will walk bent over instead of leaping around with “hind’s feet on high places” (Habakkuk 3:19). Instead, I need to open my eyes to the doors that God opens, the blessings he’s providing and the new direction in which he’s leading.

 

Decluttering Our Hearts and Spaces

Yesterday, I said good-bye to four large boxes of Santa Claus figurines, which I’d collected over 30 years. God nudged me about them last Christmas as I struggled again with where and how to display all of them. I used to find joy in placing them around our home. The past three years I noticed a distinct lack of joy and a mechanical approach to putting them out.

All summer I struggled with those Santa’s. Their twinkling little eyes stared back at me every time I turned the light on in the storeroom and I wavered a bit, but I knew my season with them was over. Please don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with hunting for and collecting special items then displaying them. I simply had too much of a good thing.

I appreciate all that Marie Kondo and others did to awaken people about decluttering their lives, in this last decade or so, but God has been dealing with me about this for many years. This isn’t the first collection I’ve given away.

In different ways, God keeps teaching me the same lesson about living uncluttered, peacefully. I am to manage well the homes, yards, cars and possessions he allows me to own but they should never hinder me from achieving God’s purposes for me because they use up too much of my resources. My current season of life doesn’t allow for dozens of hours for Christmas decorating without robbing time from other things with higher eternal priority.

Every day, in small ways, we must make the choices for the best over the good. Honestly, I felt joy about all my Santa’s one last time, when I dropped them off at the mission thrift store. The delighted looks on the faces of the volunteers, used to sorting through a lot of donated junk, made me grin.

Too much of anything of this world, no matter how good or valuable, can sidetrack us away from higher callings and obeying God. Modern civilization didn’t invent this problem. Fallen human nature did. Even in ancient times, God’s people messed up their priorities and valued temporal things more than the eternal. This is what happened to the people of Judah, to whom the prophet Haggai prophesied.

Haggai holds the unique distinction, among all the minor prophets, of being the only one Israelites listened to enough to change their ways. The prophet wrote the book shortly after the people of Judah returned home from their humbling, sixty some years in Babylonian captivity. God commanded them, before they even arrived home, to rebuild his temple. The people obeyed for awhile but then became caught up in their own pursuits and abandoned the project, according to Ezra 4:24. Sixteen years passed, and Haggai delivered this message from God.

 “Then the Lord sent this message through the prophet Haggai: “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins? This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Look at what’s happening to you! You have planted much but harvest little. You eat but are not satisfied. You drink but are still thirsty. You put on clothes but cannot keep warm. Your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes!” Haggai 1:3-6

Can you make out the picture of these people? In a short time, they restored themselves to beautiful homes and surroundings but apparently did not enjoy their lives. Why? I believe the Lord became angry with their stewardship and disrespect for his priorities and so removed his blessing from their crops and incomes. The people of Judah loved their homes and stuff too much and ignored God’s direction to rebuild his temple first.

God’s agenda hasn’t changed. The temple in Judah was to function in the center of a society that God created to be a light to the rest of the ancient world. In the same way, he will always prioritize our primary 21st century mission, to bring souls to the saving knowledge of Jesus and teach them to be disciples, over anything else. We are designed to be world changers. Can we use beautiful church facilities, lovely homes, cottages and even Christmas decorations to accomplish that mission? Yes! Of course! We are to be ambassadors of God, in every way, in this darkened world, and that includes representing his love of beauty in all things.

Beauty is diminished though, in the presence of clutter, whether it’s in the physical realm or in our hearts and minds. Whether it’s too many Santa’s or too many activities, I’ve learned that de-cluttering my life is an ongoing process for me. I used to live amidst too much stuff, with a too-full schedule, trying to maintain too many hobbies and relationships. My ability to hear from God, obey him and to live peacefully, yet powerfully, became elusive. Here’s some suggestions I followed that helped me to change:

My “Why”

Read the following scripture then ask God where he wants you to start. Without a biblical, Christ-centered “Why,” decluttering anything is just a nasty chore, not a life change.  1 Corinthians 14: 33 and 40, Ecclesiastes 3:6, Matthew 6:19, Mark 4:19, Matthew 19:22, Matthew 6:21, 1 John 2:15, Matthew 6:33, 2 Corinthians 5:9, Philippians 1:21, Colossians 1:10

My “Where”

  • Start with whatever God impresses on your heart. Whether it’s home, job, relationships or schedule, begin with only one area. Don’t try to change everything at once. You’ll simply create more stress.
  • . If you have a spouse and/or child, you need to share your thoughts before you start canceling dinner dates and giving away Santa’s. Share the above scriptures with them and talk about your desire to live a more balanced, available-to-God existence.

My “How”

There are so many wonderful books and podcasts available to help you declutter everything from your mind to your kitchen cabinets. Look on my Facebook page,” The Pastor’s Feisty Wife,” for some helpful book recommendations. There is no need for you to feel overwhelmed by the how, if you take things step by step, day by day. It takes time for us to set unhealthy life patterns and time to undo them. This post is merely a kick start to get you moving in a right direction.

Whoever is following behind you, whether it’s a church, a family, a group of friends or co-workers, you are intentionally or unintentionally teaching by example. What is your life communicating about priorities, peaceful living and God’s kingdom values? If people imitate your everyday life, what will that look like?  I know I need more of Jesus radiating in my choices, speech and behavior, and a lot less of me. His supremely focused, obedient and sacrificial life inspires me to allow him to change me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Connection Between Holiness and Happiness

“What makes a people holy, will make them happy.” When I encountered this statement in Mathew Henry’s commentary on Zephaniah 3: 14-20, my first response was, “Huh.” I’d never heard that equation before, that a state of holiness and a state of happiness are shared ground. Past seasons of unhappiness paraded through my mind like:

  • The years when I longed for a teaching job but could not find one
  • Some long-term conflict situations in churches where my husband and I served
  • Sitting home with pneumonia several winters in a row

Henry’s statement caused me to view those times with fresh eyes. I wondered how I stepped away from holy ground and its privileges, which Henry says include happiness. Digging deeper into the chapter, I found clues in verses 1-6 where the prophet compares the sinful behavior of God’s people in Jerusalem and the righteous actions of God. Look at the contrast between verse 2 and verse 6.

(Speaking of Jerusalem) “She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God” Zeph. 3:2 NIV

“The Lord within her is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice and every new day he does not fail…” Zeph. 3:6 NIV

Verse two rang with conviction as I considered my behavior during those unhappy seasons. I used the failing of the Israelites as a personal checklist.

  • Obedience

Truthfully, I didn’t comply with God’s commands about several things. For example, I didn’t fix my mind on all the lovely and true things God graced into my life (Philippians 4:8-9).  Instead, I focused on troubles and disappointments. Rather than counting trials as joy and character builders (James 1:2), I fumed, fussed and moped, not all the time, but too much.

  • Accepting Correction

When the Holy Spirit or a family member pointed out an ungodly attitude about my situation, I often justified it instead of repenting.

  • Trusting God

I knew many verses, like Jeremiah 29:11 and Psalm 84:11, plainly told me that God’s hand is generous toward me and that he will never keep good things from his children.  I questioned the truth of those promises being specifically for me. I felt jealousy when God granted the things I desired, to others, but not me. I wanted answers but God wanted my unwavering trust.

  • Drawing Near to God

Typically, I spent more time talking to people about my troubles and sorrows then communing with God, listening carefully for his voice and insights.  Times of pain are the times when we should pull our chairs in closer to God than ever. Sometimes I did that, but not consistently.

My conclusion?  I was the architect of my own unhappiness, not my circumstances, health or other people. Me. God made tables for me in the wilderness (Psalm 78:19) but I didn’t dine with him nearly enough.

Dear one, if you find yourself in a place of great unhappiness right now, use Zephaniah’s yardstick as a measure of your own attitudes and responses to life. God wants your feet planted firmly on holy ground, in His presence, where there is fullness of joy. Ask yourself the following:

  1. Am I breaking one of God’s commands by action or inaction?
  2. Am I receptive to suggestions or criticisms about my behavior and attitudes?
  3. Am I trusting God completely, regardless of the loneliness of the desert of disappointments, or the choppiness of the sea of troubles?
  4. Am I deliberately drawing nearer to him, spending more time in prayer in the Word?

What makes you holy, will make you happy. Can you see it? Ask God to create a clean heart and renew a right spirit in you. (Psalm 51) Jesus promised us troubles in this world but in the same breath assured us that he overcame them. I don’t think he equated overcoming with instantaneous problem resolution. Instead, I think he meant that our spirits can soar above whatever circumstances attempt to drag us off the high, narrow road down into the pits.

That’s why I love Psalm 103 and often say it out loud when I sense I’m being tempted into an unhappy state. I encourage you to use this one or another similar verse attesting to God’s goodness. Use your mighty sword of the Spirit, as soon as you find yourself slipping off the holy ground.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

 

 

Loving God Well-Dangers of a Stagnant Heart

 

Crusty is not a word I ever want anyone to use as a descriptive of me. Except for freshly baked bread, there are more negative connotations of that word than positives.

“Promises are like pie crusts- easily made, easily broken.”

The “Upper Crust- “referring to society’s elite

“…a crusty old man….”   Popular descriptive in fiction of a grumpy guy

“Oh my, that’s quite a crust there!”  My eye doctor commenting on my

nasty eye infection.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word two ways; either an irritable older person or something with a hard, outer layer or coating.  Even the Urban Dictionary uses it in a negative way which I cannot adequately describe to you as it involves language that would shock my keyboard. The point is, I’m not the only one who thinks of being crusty as a negative quality.

Turns out, God’s not a fan of that quality in humans either, according to Zephaniah 1:12. In this case, the King James version comes most close to the original Hebrew thought.

And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.”

“Settled on their lees,” is an interesting phrase that made me excited when I read it’s meaning.  According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary, it refers to a hard crust that forms at the bottom of a wineskin that is long left undisturbed. Can you see it? God is saying he will punish hardened, crusty folk who think that since they’ve gotten away with sin so long, God apparently doesn’t care.

The Amplified Bible version also captured my heart, putting a slightly different color on the Hebrew words.

“It will come about at that time
That I will search Jerusalem with lamps
And I will punish the men
Who [like old wine] are stagnant in spirit…”

While old wines today are valuable, due to bottling technology, in ancient times, old wine could be become very stagnant with a nasty crust on the bottom. That’s quite an interesting word choice God uses.

From the outside, old wineskins may not have looked completely different from newer ones but when you touched them the difference became obvious. Aged wineskins become very brittle and can burst as the wine continues to ferment in them, creating more yeast and expanding its volume. Do you understand better now what Jesus meant in Matthew 9:17?

“Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved”(NIV).

When I put all this knowledge together, I came away with several conclusions about God’s view of the human heart.

  • A crusty, stagnant heart displeases God.  Proverbs 4:23 warns me to guard my heart because everything I do, flows from it. Therefore, God determined to punish these hard-hearted folks in Judah. The dreadful fruit flowing out of their lives reflected their sinful hearts.
  • God will not pour fresh wine into brittle wineskins. God is always on the move in billions of ways we can and cannot see. Amazingly, he chooses to partner with flawed humans to fulfill his purposes on earth. Although he accepts our imperfectness if we remain submissive and soft, he will not force the details of new things he’s doing into complacent, sour hearts. His new work every day is like the best, most flavorful of wines. Jesus intimates that only a fool would pour beautiful new wine into a stagnant, brittle wineskin.
  • Delayed discipline does not equal no discipline. Time and time again, the settled Israelites made the mistake of thinking they could continue in sin unpunished. I wonder if they turned the stories of Miriam’s episode with leprosy and the earth opening and swallowing Korah and his rebellious followers alive, or the venomous snakes God used in the desert to teach complainers a lesson? Did they legendize these true stories and forget that God’s nature is justice?

 

They are a cautionary tale to me to faithfully pray as David did in Psalm 139:23-24.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (NLT).

There’s lots of things I hope people remember about me when I’m gone, particularly my grandchildren. Crusty, is not one of them. I’ve resolved many times that by God’s grace and the Spirit’s work in me, I will never become one of those folks who make pastors and deacons roll their eyes and young people groan under their breath.

My goal is that they will recall a woman whose wineskin stayed soft and poured out sweet refreshment on those around her until her dying breath. For someone whose natural character leans towards spicy hummus, this will be an ongoing battle.

 

 

Trying To Love God With A Divided Heart

Growing up Baptist in the 1960’s and 70’s meant no movies, dancing, playing cards, smoking or drinking. Externally, I obeyed these rules, but internally, I chomped at the bit, certain I missed out on great times. On my own in college, I followed friends to bars and nightclubs and learned to enjoy different forms of alcohol.  I never took up smoking (it tasted horrible!) and I never once became intoxicated. I formed a new set of morals that seemed to be very high road compared to the low road on which many of my college friends lived.

Sundays, I attended a church near the college, logging extra spiritual points for getting up early and going, even when I stayed out late the night before. Although I didn’t consciously think this at the time, I believe that I thought I lived the best of both worlds. I enjoyed all the security of knowing my heart belonged to Christ while still kicking up my heels with some of the world’s pleasures.

What fruit did I produce during that season of life? I earned a bachelor’s degree. That’s it. Unlike high school, I led no one to Christ, nor did I disciple anyone.  I dare say, many college folks who intersected with me didn’t know I was a God-follower.  How would they?  I was home from church on Sundays before most of them rolled out of bed and never once invited a soul to attend with me.

The illusion that we can live with one foot in the presence of God and the other dancing with the world, is just that, an illusion. The prophet Zephaniah dealt with people in Judah, much farther down the road with this divided kind of lifestyle than myself, yet who knows how far I might have gone had the Holy Spirit not grabbed onto me like a tenacious Rottweiler?  They still worshiped in the Jewish temple while offering their children in the fires of Moloch and Baal.  I doubt that’s where they started, but it’s certainly where they ended up.

Maybe it began with a house god on the kitchen window by the herbs. Or perhaps their entrance to evil living started as a spectator at one of the many pagan festivals the godless nations around Judah hosted. Small sins grew to large ones over time until they became as perverse as their pagan neighbors.

I’m not endorsing legalism. That’s a different sin in which we adhere to rules more stridently than we passionately seek God. There is, however, a call on the life of all who profess Jesus as Savior and Lord, to love God best, before anyone or anything. Then, our obedience to him flows out of love and gratitude, not obligation. Honestly, it’s not as complicated as we make it. I spend time with God in scripture and prayer then listen. After that, I do what he says and stop doing what he dislikes. Ancient Judah forgot how to do that.

Zephaniah is the last prophet, in a series of nine, that warns God’s people of impending doom if they do not repent.

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,  those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens, those who bow down and swear to the Lord
and yet swear by Milcom (the king of Judah) those who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him”
Zephaniah 1:3-5.

Like me, I think those folks thought they could ride the fence between God and the world, but that’s an untenable life. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Zephaniah 1 says, “If Satan have half, he will have all; if the Lord have but half, he will have none. Neglect of God shows impiety and contempt.”

Obedience to God is an all or nothing thing and will look different for you than it does for me.  This is the problem with rule-oriented living. One set of rules does not fit all. For example, playing card games with face cards doesn’t lead me into sin. For my grandfather, a reformed gambler, those cards had completely different meaning.  This is why the Pharisees had like a bajillion rules, covering all bases for all people all the time. That’s some crazy living.

On occasion, I dip my toes in sin’s pool with poor media choices, but I found that I recognize quickly now when I’m grieving God and step out. There’s a sensitivity to the Spirit of God I want to develop even more deeply where I won’t stick my toes in at all.

Zephaniah’s first chapter is not just a prophecy against wicked Judah, it is a call to assess our walks of holiness, as 21st century believers. The pagan culture around Judah perceived THE God of heaven and earth as just another god because of the behavior of his people. What are the godless in our society understanding about our God by watching you and me? What are the people following behind us in the body of Christ learning about being a God-follower  by observing me and you?

 

 

Hearing From God by Positioning Yourself Rightly

There are times when I think God is quiet towards me when, in fact, he is speaking but I’m unable to hear. Why?  I’ve discovered several reasons, but one of the biggies is how I position myself spiritually. The way that we listen to God and others is important. Deficit listening skills affect every relationship. I didn’t comprehend that for years because, well…………..I didn’t listen well. Clear communication with God and others around me is crucial for healthy relationships, so it’s a good idea to think about what kind of receiver I am, on the listening end.

In our early years of marriage, I didn’t understand that my husband is a thinking-first, internal processor while I am a feeling-first external processor. When we disagreed, I started throwing a lot of words and ideas at him, wanting him to toss the same back to me. Sometimes he did holler back, mainly to  defend himself, but eventually he’d exit the premises, so he could think. Alone. Quietly. I misinterpreted that as a lack of caring, which I usually shouted at his retreating back. We needed to learn to communicate more productively when we disagreed.

In the book of Habakkuk, chapter two, the prophet has finished quite a list of complaints to God about the unpunished evil in the world around him. God replies and Habakkuk complains more. Then, a marvelous change occurs in his attitude, and he re-positions himself completely towards God.  Instead of shaking his fist at the heavens, he takes a humbler posture.

“I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guard post.  There I will wait to see what the Lord says and how he will answer my complaint “Habakkuk 2:1.

Commentator, Matthew Henry’s wisdom about this verse is powerful.

“When tossed and perplexed with doubt about the methods of Providence, we must watch against temptations to be impatient.  When we have poured out complaints and requests before God, we must observe the answers God gives by his word, his Spirit, and providences; what the Lord will say to our case.  God will not disappoint the believing expectations of those who wait to hear what he will say unto them.”

In the past, I used the same poor listening skills with God that I used with Ken, expecting him to fit through my narrow funnel of hearing.  When Habakkuk positioned himself rightly, God told him profound things and inspired him to write a few of the most beautiful verses in the Old Testament. (See the bottom of the post for my favorites.) God wants to speak weighty things to me today. I don’t want to miss any more than I already have in the past. What can we learn from this prophet to improve our God-listening skills?

  • Designate quiet times and spaces in each day.

Most of us live in a crazy, loud world compared to ancient times. Media, traffic, families, workplaces and such create a lot of noise.  Whether Habakkuk went to a literal watchtower or a figurative one, there is an implied quiet there. Ancient watchtowers were often manned by one or two people, high in the sky, away from the bustle of their communities. Whether it’s a quiet room in your home, walking trail or even your bathroom with the vent fan running, (my mom used to do this for quiet) it’s so important to carve out physical quiet in your day, specifically to talk with God and listen.

  • Be prepared to wait.

God does not move on our timetable.  That’s an important fact to wrap our 21st century minds around. He may take days, weeks, months and even years to respond to a prayer request or complaint. Think about the lapse of time between all the Old Testament prophecies about Christ and his date of birth. Being impatient with him demonstrates a lack of trust. We are implying that he is doing nothing, simply because we can’t see his movements.

 

  • Accept that the answer you receive may not be the outcome you expect.

Notice that Habakkuk says, “how he will answer my complaint,” in verse one.  In the first chapter, the prophet implies that God is not doing what Habakkuk thinks he should do concerning the evil Chaldeans, who are oppressing the Israelites, but here I see a change in his attitude. There used to be times when I looked for that one right answer from God. When it didn’t come the way I imagined, I felt disappointed. I missed entirely the other things he did instead in those situations.  He is Alpha and Omega who sees the entire picture and knows what is ultimately best. We see a limited viewpoint of any set of circumstances, colored by our own perceptions, experiences and prejudices.  God is not limited by any of that junk.

I want to position myself in a spiritual watchtower where I hear and discern the words and movements of God in my world and the world around me. I long to pray effectively, lined up with the will of God. Wherever you are in your God-listening skills, are you ready to come up to the next level?

 

Treasures from Habakkuk

(all from NLT)

“For as the waters fill the sea, the earth will be filled with an awareness of the glory of the Lord.” 2:14

“But the Lord is in his holy Temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.” 2:20

“I have heard all about you, Lord. I am filled with awe by your amazing works.” 3:2

“Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren…yet I will rejoice in the Lord!” 3:17-18

“The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights.” 3:19

 

What To Do When It Feels Like God Isn’t Listening

In the past, I dabbled with the thought that God was ignoring me. I knew this was false, yet I use to agonize during God’s silent seasons with me. For example, he seemed quiet on the matter of me finding a teaching job for many years, although he faithfully opened other career doors of opportunity for me. When fraudulent behavior and unethical corporate practices decimated my husband’s business like a tsunami, some days, I only heard the roar of the waves.

When you are a leader, these types of experiences are unsettling since people under you often expect you to be a God-hearing vision caster 24/7. Parents can feel the pressure from children, spouses from their mates and so on. Every true God-follower will experience deserts and dry seasons in their faith and just as Satan pounced on Jesus in the wilderness, he waits to attack us in the same places. Starting with Adam and Eve, our enemy tries to trick humans into doubting God’s character, particularly his love and power.

I remember praying faithfully and fervently for a couple’s broken marriage relationship that still ended in a bitter divorce. I know God does not override our free will to choose sin, which is what one partner did. Although I hurt deeply for this couple, I also struggled that through the whole, agonizing process, I couldn’t seem to see God’s hand moving in their situation. By faith, I know he is always active on behalf of his children but at that time, I felt like my prayers hit a wall and then slid back down.

Nowadays, I’ve learned to trust God’s heart when I can’t see his activity, and it seems like evil is winning. It’s a faith stretcher.  I’ve met many Christians who experience that struggle of feeling like they are faithfully conversing with God, but he isn’t talking back. These are not new, 21st century feelings.  The ancient prophet Habakkuk cried out to God with similar emotions.

“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save. Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (Habakkuk 1:1-4).

God answers the prophet and reveals his plans for judgement on the wicked. Instead of finding comfort in that, Habakkuk is in despair. He rails on God some more concerning the activities of evil. I remember times when I landed in similar valleys where I struggled to believe the truth of God’s word because it seemed so far removed from present, painful circumstances.

God doesn’t scold Habakkuk in his brokenness and despair. Instead, he says, “Okay, I’m going to share more of my plan with you and I want you to write it down and then see that the message is spread around your country.” In the next post, we’ll dive more deeply into what God said and Habakkuk’s change of heart. For now, may I share a couple ideas on what to do when you find yourself feeling disconnected from God, in a valley of doubt and discouragement?

  • Feed your spirit man rich food. The old saying is true; whatever you feed grows and whatever you starve dies. Even though devotions and Bible study might feel like a chore, don’t forsake them; they will strengthen the best part of you and help take your emotions out of the driver’s seat. Storing up God’s word in your heart and mind gives the Holy Spirit the materials he needs to help you climb up out of your valley.  
  • Read Stories of Other’s Successful Journeys through the valleys of despair.

There are hundreds of books and websites available where brothers and sisters in Christ share their narratives on overcoming debilitating circumstances. I’ll list a few below.  Also, there’s a great website I worked with for awhile entitled, “Why Is This Happening?” (whyisthishappening.org) Great stories from overcomers are available on the site.

  • Spend your prayer time on others needs more than your own.

My prayer times used to become myopic during valley times, until I learned the discipline of casting my cares on God and then moving on to intercede for someone else’s situation. God wants to know that we trust him with our stuff.  Jesus set the perfect example of caring more for the tragedies of others rather than his own, many times. Dying on the cross, he spoke to John about caring for his mother, Mary, and also taught salvation to the lost soul crucified next to him.

  • Continue in the last clear direction God gave you until he gives you a new one. My former pastor, M. Wayne Benson used to say, “If you’re not hearing from God right now, then keep doing the last thing he told you to do.”  Don’t equate God’s temporary silence towards you, with indifference. Whatever Satan may be screaming at you, remember, as the Newsboys song says, “The cross has the final word.”

One of the beautiful things about seasons is that they change. You may think that impossible right now, during your winter, but spring will come to your life again.

“Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (Hosea 6:3 ESV).

Recommended books:

You’ll Get Through This: Hope and Help for Turbulent Times,” by Max Lucado.

“It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way,” Lisa Ter Keurst

 

 

Hope When You Feel Helpless

When feelings of hopelessness edge into my heart, its first cousin, helplessness, often accompanies. Yesterday, both tried to climb over walls I’ve put around my heart to guard it against such things. Some pernicious health issues created a pathway to my wall and carelessly, I let the cousins start climbing.  Their hands made it up over the bricks of morning worship and prayer and even beyond the lessons from my current devotional study about displaying God’s glory in our lives.  Just as they began to fling their legs over the top of the wall, the Holy Spirit reminded me of a power verse. “Greater is he that is in me than he who is the world!” (I John 4:4)

I belted that phrase and then sang a scripture-based song, “Whom the son sets free, is free indeed. I’m a child of God, yes I am!” The last I saw hopeless and helpless, they were running away with their ears covered. They will most likely attempt to breach my walls again because my health situation is not resolved, and Satan is nothing if not persistent. This is not my first fight with him on this battlefield but when I stay in step with the Captain of the Host, victory comes.

There are many ways our enemy tries to attack our faith in God’s power and love, and for some of us, it’s directly on our physical bodies. For others, it’s our families, our finances, jobs, churches, mind and emotions or any other place in our lives where Satan thinks he can advance his army.  Sometimes he confronts me on multiple fields of battle. Truthfully, there have been days when I’ve allowed hopelessness and helplessness to climb the wall and camp out in the garden of my heart for a time. Let me tell you, once you let them all the way in, it’s tough to get them back over that wall.

The forces of hell will plot against God’s kingdom until the final judgement. I find hope and strength for my battles throughout scripture, but today I want to point you to a passage in the book of Nahum I recently discovered. In the first chapter, the prophet describes the fierce anger of the Lord towards the enemies of his people.

“The Lord is a jealous God, filled with vengeance and rage. He takes revenge on ALL who oppose him and continues to rage against his enemies. The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great, and he NEVER lets the guilty go unpunished. He displays his power in the whirlwind and the storm.  The billowing clouds are the dust beneath his feet. At his command the oceans dry up, and the rivers disappear. In his presence the mountains quake, and the hills melt away; the earth trembles… “Nahum 1:2-6 NLT (emphasis mine).

I love what commentator Matthew Henry, says about this passage. “Let sinners read it and tremble, and let saints read it and triumph.”  For Satan, his army, and those who choose to align themselves with darkness, this passage, and others like it, are terrifying. They’ve experienced God’s wrath. I don’t think only Egyptians screamed when the Red Sea crashed down on them or that only the inhabitants of Jericho quaked when their mighty walls crumbled.  Wherever evil resides, the unseen world of darkness exists in tandem.

For the believer, these types of scriptures are assurance that God sees every injustice against his children, whether in the natural or the supernatural, and will deal with every perpetrator of wickedness in ferocious ways.Your feelings of helplessness or hopelessness may come from sinful acts committed against you by humans but understand there is always a vile puppet master pulling the strings behind them. This is why Paul instructed the church in the book of Ephesians, that Christians are not wrestling merely with humans and we best be wearing our spiritual armor.

It’s Satan’s delight to keep our vision horizontally focused on enemies we can see in the natural, pitting Christ followers against each other and against unbelievers.  Passages like the one in Nahum remind us that this is a vertical war between good and evil, with the outcome already determined in heaven.  Satan knows this and is simply working to take as many spoils of war as he possibly can, namely the souls of men.

If he can distract me with hopelessness and helplessness about my own situations, how likely am I to see and respond to the needs of others in their broken moments? Maybe a fellow believer falls because I’m not there to throw my arm around them and help them to the med station. Or perhaps my unbelieving friend sinks deeper into the enemy’s darkness because they can’t see my lantern pointing the way to the Light. That’s why scriptures like Nahum’s first chapter are so powerful and affirming. They remind us that we are marching with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s the God who piles up seas then tumbles them down and crushes giant walls like brittle leaves. He’s always working on behalf of his children and against the forces of evil whether we can see it in the natural or not.

I’ve developed a phrase that I roll out repeatedly, to speak to my soul when I find it trending towards hopelessness.  I say, “I don’t know exactly what God’s gonna do, but he’s gonna do something.” Then I choose to focus on the tasks God places before me and the needs of others rather than continuing to stew about my own situations.

Be encouraged today by the knowledge of God’s power and might inserted into your circumstances. Sometimes I am helpless to change sinful or painful situations to any great degree, but God never is and loves to demonstrate his authority over heaven and earth on behalf of his children. Here’s a few more passages to meditate on concerning his power and might.

Job 26:7-14, Psalm 136,  Isaiah 14:27,  Isaiah 52:10, Psalm 66:7, Ephesians 1:19-21,

 

Hope for Those Who Love Prodigals

The agony of loving a prodigal can be unbearable. As I’ve wept and prayed with their family and friends, they’ve taught me valuable insights. First, when someone who walked with God chooses the world instead, life can become a roller coaster. Wee hour phone calls slam you with news of arrests, overdoses or other dire circumstances. Often those with substance abuse problems steal from family and friends. Their new “friends,” are people who can’t take care of themselves, let alone anyone else. They are rarely trustworthy people and often add to the self-destructive lifestyle of your prodigal.

Secondly, your pain is intensified when your wandering soul is a parent who carries children along in their wild current. This complicates boundaries and availability. How often does one offer resources to the unstable parent, for the sake of the child?  Complex questions arise in these gut-wrenching situations.

Third, there are many kinds of prodigals. Your prodigal may be a high functioning, productive member of society, yet they want nothing to do with God and his people anymore. This describes my Uncle Donald, a vice president for a large pharmaceutical corporation. He grew up in a Christian home, professed a personal faith in Christ and then turned his back on God for his entire adult life until near the end. His younger sister, my Aunt Mary Lea, chose the same spiritual path, while functioning well in society.

Fourth, parents instinctively want to blame themselves for the choices of their prodigal child, but they shouldn’t. All humans make their own choices to respond to or reject God’s grace and love extended specifically to every person, regardless of home environment.  My mother and her sister, Miriam, grew up in the same home as Donald and Mary Lea. They both loved and served God their whole lives. Did my grandparents do everything wrong with Donald and Mary Lea and everything right with the other two? Doubtful.

I include my own family’s story to encourage parents who might be agonizing over their family dynamic in light of a wayward child. Franklin Graham, director of Samaritan’s Purse Ministry, son of evangelist Billy Graham, lived a wild life, until he turned 22. Franklin will tell you that Billy and Ruth Graham were amazing, godly parents. Unfortunately, some children from solid, Christian homes choose sin for a season, for reasons they don’t even fully understand.  They break the hearts of everyone who loves them.

Prodigals are featured throughout scripture including the one in Jesus’ famous parable. Manasseh, king of Judah during the prophet Nahum’s season of ministry, went completely nuts for sin. Bible scholars declare him to be the most evil king in all of Israel’s history. The surprise in Manasseh’s story is that his father was Hezekiah, one of Judah’s best kings.

Manasseh’s story is a fascinating one told in 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33.  To summarize, he became King at the age of twelve and in early adulthood, dove into the worship of Moloch, to the point of sacrificing his own child in Moloch’s fires. Most of Israel followed him into idol worship, child sacrifice and immorality. The Bible is silent on the reasons for his descent into madness. That’s a wise example for anyone judging parents of prodigals.

Before Manasseh’s tale turns for good, it becomes much worse, for him and Israel. God loves his people too much too allow them to continue in sin without intervention.  He sends the Assyrian army to brutally conquer Judah and take Manasseh away as a captive. The original Hebrew text indicates that the Assyrians pierced either his nose or his cheek with a large ring attached to a chain and led the humbled king off into captivity in chains, like a pig to market.

As horrific as this is, God cared more about the condition of Manasseh’s eternal soul than his earthly life. That’s why he sent Nahum first, then the Assyrians, when Manasseh refused to repent. The same is true of your prodigal. God may allow excruciatingly painful circumstances into the life of a wayward child to recapture their attention and their heart.  During his captivity, Manasseh repented and transformed entirely. He is mysteriously returned to his throne and allowed to rule Judah until his death. The Bible gives no more details as to why the Assyrians did this but the point is that he came back as a very different king.

He got rid of the foreign gods and removed the image from the temple of the Lord, as well as all the altars he had built on the temple hill and in Jerusalem; and he threw them out of the city. Then he restored the altar of the Lord and sacrificed fellowship offerings and thank offerings on it and told Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel” 2 Chronicles 33:15-16.

God’s grace reaches into the prodigal’s chosen pigpen, although his mercy may be severe at times, like it was for Manasseh and Judah.  He loves mankind too much to allow people to choose hell as their eternal home, without allowing them a taste of it here on earth. This is where discernment, wisdom and the leading of the Spirit is critical in your relationship to a prodigal.  Only God can instruct you when to help them and when to leave them to the consequences of their own poor decisions as painful as that may be.  Only God can redirect a wayward heart back to himself.  We serve as prayer warriors against the dark kingdom and as lighthouses on their journey home.

The fifth thing prodigal’s families taught me is not to try and get in between them and their destructive relationships, without a clear directive from God.  Although our intentions are to rescue, they are usually not perceived that way. We may find ourselves cut off from our loved one entirely. Take comfort that God sees all evil doers and will deal with them himself. The entire book of Nahum is a judgement against Assyria, for conquering Judah, even though Manasseh and the kingdom were steeped in sin. Read the short book to see how God feels and behaves towards those who mess with his children, even wayward ones.

I’ve watched the endless power of God’s love and provision towards those who love a prodigal. He supplies comfort when everything turns sideways. He grants discernment to determine when to intervene and when to stand back.  He sends the Holy Spirit to groan with them during prayer times and weep with them when there seems to be no change of heart in their loved one.  He understands our situations intimately and He cares deeply.  He is always a source of hope in hopeless situations.