When God Digs a Hole

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You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure.

– Gordon B. Hinckley –

What is God up to?

This past week, full of thoughts and struggles, I heard a story called “Skyscraper.” Part of a collection of thoughts about God, this story, in a few short paragraphs, taught me to hope.

In this story, author Sally Lloyd Jones tells about the building of a high-rise building. First, long before the steel skeleton of a structure goes up, the foundation is dug.

“They are digging down to go up,” she writes.

In the years after being freed, Corrie ten Boom shared about her experience with her sister Betsie in a Nazi concentration camp. In one of her famous quotes, she spoke of their suffering as a deep pit–but it was a pit that could not go down deeper than the love of her God. With every painful shovelful that sank her deeper into that pit, God was making a solid, spacious place for her life to grow out of. One day, she walked out of that concentration camp. She lived to tell about the fantastic love of Christ that not only saw fit to place her in a pit for a time, but the love that raised her up triumphant to new heights.

This is the parable of the skyscraper.

In the middle of an amazing life, I keep feeling the scrape of rocks as my foundation is dug. Only, foundation-digging does not feel like progress. It feels like falling. It feels like the solid things in your life are being removed. It can feel like fear.

When our neighbors built a basement beneath their house, they hoped that the dirt beneath would not contain too many rocks. Unfortunately, we live in a county full of rocks, some of which run in thick layers beneath the surface. We do live in the Ozark Mountains, after all. So when the neighbors hired builders to dig beneath the house, they were dismayed when they hit a slab of stone only 18 inches beneath the dirt.

This happens in my life. God is digging deep into me, and even though it hurts sometimes, I am thankful. Then He hits rock.

“Great, Lord!” I grin. “That means you don’t have to dig anymore, right?”

Maybe our neighbors thought the same thing–maybe a deeper basement was impossible. Maybe the digging was over.

Then the digging crew brought out the dynamite.

Have you ever felt God pull out the dynamite? Have you ever thought the painful digging was done, only to feel your roots shake with blast after blast?

Using dynamite beneath a house takes great care and skill. Do you think our heavenly Father uses any less skill and precision and concern when He lays the explosive charges all around us?

“When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”

– Isaiah 43:2, NLT –

What does digging look like in your life? In mine, it looks like normal days at home that are anything but routine. It looks like deeper pains and joys than I have ever experienced. It is harder decisions and more impactful words. Digging looks like long talks and many tears. Digging means grabbing onto something solid when the soil is crumbling out from under me. It means feeling overwhelmed–and maybe that’s the point. “When my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the Rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2, ASV).

O taste and see that the Lord is good…” (Psalm 34:8). 

I never realized that this tasting might be with a dry mouth, and this seeing might be with teary eyes. And that His goodness would taste so incredibly sweet.

I have many days of delight, when the digging is not frightening, when I trust the Architect. And you know…in a way, they are not any sweeter than the days when I am utterly unmoored, but Jesus carries me. Do I wish for the hardest days? No. But when they come, they are the bitter that makes the sweet all the sweeter.

And so the digging goes on. Some days, I don’t understand. Some days, I want to hide all the shovels and run from the growth. Sometimes, I forget what He is making me into.

But today, I choose to be grateful for the dynamite, and thankful for the chipping away.

Today, I will believe the Builder. He is laying the groundwork for something amazing.

I will show you what someone is like who comes to Me, hears My words, and acts on them: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. When the flood came, the river crashed against that house and couldn’t shake it, because it was well-built.” 

 – Luke 6:47-48, HCSB –

I step back to consider the wall that I have built,
A section of my castle where I laid my dreams in stone
Though the wall is new and short, the cracks already show,
And when the storm begins to wash it away, I fall on my knees and say

Lord, my Architect, come build me.
Lay my dreams’ foundation on the Rock of Christ.
Those words that broke off the stones around me
Can’t shake the castle You will build for me.
And one day I’ll wake up and see
The plan You’ve laid for me is the castle of my dreams.

I bring you dream stones glimmering with starlight from my eyes,
But stone by stone You clear away the best of the plans I have.
In Your strength I sweep the ashes, in the wind they fly away.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” You say.
I stretch out my empty hands.

The first floor is finished, the Builder’s strength undiminished
As the first golden plans begin to take place
New walls rise above me, my eyes shine with trust,
And my Architect keeps pressing on to build the life He has for me.


Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd Jones (foreword by Timothy Keller), is an amazingly-profound book with gorgeous illustrations. Today’s blog concept of skyscrapers came from this collection of one-paged lessons on Scriptural themes, teaching poignant truths of the beauty of our God. Written especially for children, this book has encouraged me again and again. The wonders of God are for all ages! I highly recommend this breathtaking book–and the only reward I get for recommending it is the pleasure of seeing my friends love something I love. 

When Life Knocks You Down

snowball-in-hand2.jpg“A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.”

― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief ―
Last week, the snow was light on the ground, drifting only in sparse piles on top of the vehicles and the edge of the driveway. I looked out the kitchen window, and this is what I saw.
Around the driveway drifts, two young friends of mine gathered, rolling snow into lopsided balls in an attempt to build a snowman. Somewhere along the way the lure of the snow was just too much for one of them and snowballs began to fly.

Before you knew it, the round snowman torso was being plundered for ammunition. One of my little friends, laughing in the thrill of the moment, suddenly caught a huge wad of snow in the head. He went flying backward into the snow, his red coat a streak of color against the blank palette of yard.

It was one of those magical moments.

Laying on his back, he grinned, laughing at being bowled over. Soon he was up again, and before long, not a trace of the original snowman remained.

This is the joy I seek.

To go down laughing when this world bowls me right over.

The boys playing in my snowy yard plowed through the cold like it was a joy to do it. They lay down in the stuff like it was comfortable. They took hits like troopers. It was all a blast–a game without risk or reason to fear.

Life seems a little more heartless. Its snowballs are packed a lot harder, carry a little more ice inside them. Adventures we once craved, we now see in their true light: cold, wet, hard things that we really don’t want to go out in.

No wonder so many of us stay inside ourselves, where it is warm and comfortable.

But there was something marvelous about my little friends trouncing through the snow. Their exhilaration in the beautiful discomfort. Their embracing of being swept off their feet.

So I think I know a secret, how life can be like a snow day. You can get cranky because the snow went down your neck and into your boots, and your gloves are soaked clean through, and your nose is dripping off. Or, when the big snowballs of life knock you off your feet, you can lay there a while and laugh at the sky above you.

Maybe that’s the best place to see the sky–when you are flat on your back. Sometimes it takes being knocked down to get you to look up. 

Maybe that’s when you can stop trying to prove how well you can stand up to the barrage, and you can just flop over and laugh into the cold sky.

“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”

 – Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p.31 –

I think that hope teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Life can be very, very hard. It is true.

But when we are knocked down, we can cry over our smallness and weakness…or we can laugh at it. We can marvel at a God who loves the little person bowled over by the snowball. And we can trust that the God of the snow knows all about snowballs…and He knows just how much we needed to take a long look at the sky and ponder what kind of Creator would gift us with such blue beauty.

“This is why we do not lose courage. Though our outer self is heading for decay, our inner self is being renewed daily.”

 – 2 Corinthians 4:16, CJB –

The God of snow days and of little boys and long, happy falls into snow banks is also my God. He has promised to make all this world into something fresh and new one of these days.

Until then, He gives grace for the days when we are knocked right off our feet. His redeemed daughters “smile when they think about the future” (paraphrase of Proverbs 31:25, The Voice.)

It is easy to be discouraged when life knocks us down.

But take a deep breath and look up at the blue, blue sky and laugh. Your Father is making it all come out perfect in the end.

That’s why snow days are worth celebrating.

As cold as everything looks in winter, the sun has not forsaken us. He has only drawn away for a little, for good reasons, one of which is that we may learn that we cannot do without him.

– George MacDonald –

Christmas for Real People

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“Blessed is
The season which
Engages the whole
World in a
Conspiracy of love.”

 – Hamilton Wright Mabie –


I adore Christmas. I really do.

But I am also a girl becoming more and more an adult…and I’ve seen things this year that make me look at Christmas differently.

I’ve made decisions that have rippled their effects through my future.

I’ve stared into the eyes of a laughing girl–eyes that laugh to hide how deep the often-inflicted pain has scarred her.

I’ve held other hands and prayed for peace to come at last, after dark days and frightening nights.

I’ve known pain, especially the pain of others.

Becoming an adult, ever so slowly, means I can’t help but see Christmas differently.

But “differently” doesn’t mean that my love of Christmas is dimming. In fact…maybe I am just beginning to understand. I think I get it now.

Christmas is for real people.

Christmas is not made up of fake, perfectly-cast families that you see on the Hallmark Channel. Christmas is not flawless decorating. It is not smooth ornaments and trees without bare spots and everlastingly-cheerful radio music.

Christmas is made of real people. Chipped china and deformed gingerbread. An undercurrent of stress combined with the wonder. People who get tired and cranky and who don’t always get along. People who hurt and love and want to know if Christmas is really for people like them.

Just like we create false ideas of God in our minds, I think we create wrong ideas of the purpose of Christmas.

Christmas is not for the people who have no problems and gather together to celebrate flawless lives.

Christmas is the beginning of God’s expression of love, a response to all our outcries for help and deliverance. When the angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth to the nearby sheep herders, what did they say? “We bring you good news of incredible joy which will be for all nations.” (Luke 2:10-11, my paraphrase)

Good news–after centuries and centuries of waiting. At last, good news!

“Like cold water to a thirsty soul is good news from a far country.” (Proverbs 25:25)

So God spoke from the Far Country, bringing at last the refreshment, the consolation–both to Israel and, through them, to the world.

He didn’t bring Christmas to the King Herods entranced by their own power, to the religious right impressed with their own piety, to the well-satisfied in their own prosperity.

“The well [at least, those who think they’re well!] have no need for a doctor–the sick are the ones who need the doctor.” Jesus would one day say. “I come to call sinners, not the self-righteous. “(Mark 2:17, my paraphrase)

Christmas is for those who see the bare truth of their own powerlessness, sinfulness, and emptiness apart from a God who opens the way for redemption.

I’ll tell you the truth–I’m having to re-think Christmas in my own heart. I’m having to consciously remember that it is not  a holiday made for the perfect and put-together. It is a holy day because God came down to our level–pitiful and impoverished as we are– and made all days holy, because He is with us in them.

If you don’t feel up to celebrating Christmas…

If you feel too empty, too broken, too needy, too much like a refugee from the wounds of life…

If you don’t feel worthy, or capable…

If you think you have nothing to give…

Remember–this is why He came. He came for people like you, “to bring good news to the suffering and afflicted. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted, to announce liberty to captives, and to open the eyes of the blind. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of God’s favor to them has come, and the day of his wrath to their enemies. To all who mourn in Israel he will give: beauty for ashes; joy instead of mourning; praise instead of heaviness. For God has planted them like strong and graceful oaks for his own glory.” (Isaiah 61:1-3, TLB)

He came for real people, giving real, satisfying love, and will eventually bring real wholeness to the entire earth.

My inadequacy, my scars, my falling-short–these are not barriers to celebrating Christmas. Since Jesus came, my barriers are now the very reasons I can rejoice in this season. Because Jesus came to bring healing and true joy at last. Because Jesus’s birth and life, death and rising, mean that this world’s suffering isn’t meaningless. Because this good news is for me, too.

I learned a lot about myself this year…and that changed the way I look at Christmas.

I think, maybe, I’m starting to understand.


“The more unworthy you feel yourself to be, the more evidence have you that nothing but unspeakable love could have led the Lord Jesus to save such a soul as yours. The more demerit you feel, the clearer is the display of the abounding love of God in having chosen you, and called you, and made you an heir of bliss.”

 – Charles Haddon Spurgeon –

 

When God’s Hand Burns

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“Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”

– Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Suffering, p. 30 –

I watched the searing iron come down. The goat kid squirmed and begin to gasp, and yet the iron stayed.

Have you ever been burned? Has the iron stayed so long that you wondered what God was doing, why He was making you suffer?

Why Lord?

We always take our new goat kids to get their horn buds removed, when they are only days old. The process takes only seconds. Held by a firm, practiced hand, the kids are one by one laid across a lap. Then a hot iron, specially made for the purpose, is held to each horn bud for 10 seconds. The heat burns away the forming horns.

The soft hair on their heads singes and smokes. It stinks. They struggle and kick and cry, but no one lets them up.

To them, the pain is purposeless and cruel. All they wanted was a nice pile of straw and a warm bottle. Was that too much to ask?

But I had a purpose in their pain: I dreamed for them — when they were unable to dream for themselves — of a future with no horns. They, had they known what I was taking from them, might have complained. “Hey, those are mine! I need those. They look dashing, I’ll be popular with the lady goats, and I’ll be the king of the pasture.”

When I pulled out of the disbudder’s driveway, I thought about the whole painful process. A friend riding with me asked why their horns had to be removed. I started listing the benefits of hornless goats. They wouldn’t get their heads stuck in fences as easily. They wouldn’t be hurt in the occasional “status” fights that goats use to determine who is boss. They wouldn’t gore another goat. They couldn’t poke people with the sharp tips.

So I pondered this too. It was love, I realized. We loved them enough to give them pain, because there was a purpose beyond it. Even though the kids couldn’t see it, I brought pain into their lives for their ultimate good.

Recently, a friend finally got me to listen to a song she’d been telling me about for over a week. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe the beauty in it.

Singer Elliott Park writes about a young sapling whose trunk is doubled over when a dying Rebel soldier hangs his gun on it. Watered by pain and tinted by blood, this oak grows that way — bent over, ruined in the eyes of most. But…just listen to the song “The Soldier and the Oak.” There was a purpose beyond the pain. The reality became better than the dream. The suffering can transform you into something even lovelier.

In the recent film Cinderella, after she long endures the hatefulness of her stepmother and sisters, Ella finally stands before the Prince, who still doesn’t know her name. “Who are you?” he asks.

“Cinderella,” she replies, using the name of derision that others had used to mock her. But she said it with a smile — a smile that showed that not only had she survived the suffering, but she was stronger for it. Her pain wasn’t a shoved-away corner of her identity. She embraced it, along with the change it wrought in her. Not Ella anymore. No, the pain had made her lovelier. She was Cinderella.

Keller says,

“In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption.” (Ibid., 26)

I’ve definitely seen pain that way — an entirely unpleasant interruption to my otherwise-happy existence.

But that night driving back toward the farm, I caught a new vision of suffering. In a strange shifting of roles, I found out what it was to be on the “knowing” end of things, the one that knew it would all be okay and the pain had a point (John 9:3; Rev. 21:1-7).

Every other day, I’m on the “not knowing” end of things. But…the uncertain cries of baby goats taught me a lesson that night.

“I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18, CEB)

Sinful and weak as I am, I know better than my goats. How much more does our Heavenly Father know better than us where a moment of pain might lead (Isa. 55:8-9)? To what heights might it allow us to soar?

Could it be…that after this long enmity, suffering might turn out to be a friend?

Or that when God’s hand burns, we can trust after all?


“Tears are often the telescope by which men see far into heaven.”

– Henry Ward Beecher –

When God Doesn’t Show Up

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“Our sorrows are all, like ourselves, mortal. There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls. They come, but blessed be God, they also go. Like birds of the air, they fly over our heads. But they cannot make their abode in our souls. We suffer today, but we shall rejoice tomorrow.”
– Charles Spurgeon –

She didn’t have John 11 in her Bible.

And she didn’t understand.

Maybe, as the quiet, cold countryside air drifted through the house, she leaned against the wall and held her breath, waiting for her sick brother to inhale one more time.

A slow breath just beyond the thin wall.

She exhales, waiting for the next sound of air in fragile lungs.

It doesn’t come.

Her throat tightens. Hands go still where they’ve been digging a thin place in the hem of her skirt. Oh God, let him breathe.

It still doesn’t come.

A thin, reedy wail bubbles up from her chest, rising into deep sobs.

It didn’t come.

And neither had Jesus.

Other cries begin–her sister’s weary, husky choking, the softer wails of watching friends, a baby stirring on her cousin’s hip.

She closes her eyes and tastes the hot salt wetting her lips. “Why didn’t you come?” she whispers in the dark. “You could have stopped this.”


Have you seen a night that dark?

A death that tore out your heart. A friendship that melted away in the forge instead of being tempered by the flames. A dream that withered again and again.

We all ask this question, don’t we? “Why weren’t You there, Lord, when that happened? Where were You when I needed you?”

There’s the theological voice in our heads, telling us that God is omnipresent, that Jesus promised to never leave us, that He sent us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and be our Comforter.

But…honestly? You can’t always feel truth. That theological voice can tell me all it wants, but there’s no doubt that sometimes we cry and it seems like there is no reply. No comfort. No easing of the pain. Just silence.

I think that’s how Mary felt.

She sat, perhaps, in the dark and wept for her lost brother Lazarus, and wondered why, why on earth, did Jesus fail them.

He could have stopped this. He’d done it before–healed so many. Healed those that didn’t even follow Him, healed beggars on roadsides, healed servants of Gentiles long-distance.

But the man he loved, whose sisters he loved? He didn’t show up for him.

Don’t you know that Mary cried in the dark and couldn’t wrap her mind around the lostness. It was bad enough that her brother was dead.

But the ache of Jesus failing them…that must have been a thousand times worse.

She’d sat at his feet (Luke 10:39). She thrown her soul into following Him. She’d tossed everything aside as unimportant, secondary to knowing Him.

And yet He hadn’t come.

So Mary buried her brother, perhaps helping her sister Martha wrap him in spice-soaked cloths. So Mary cried until her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, until her heart felt drained of tears, and then she kept crying.

It was another four days, four days after the tombstone was shoved across the cave’s mouth, when Jesus finally showed up.

Late. Too late to heal. Too late, even, for the funeral. Just too late.

The Bible records Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus’ illness this way:

” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (John 11:5-6, NKJV).

Wait…what? This seems like a bad joke.

He hears about Lazarus…and stays away?

So, when he comes four days after the funeral (John 11:17), I wonder if Mary had stopped looking for Him? The passage doesn’t say. It only records,

“Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house” (John 11:20). 

Did Mary hear? Why did she stay at the house? Perhaps she she was too swallowed by her grief. Maybe she didn’t know Jesus had arrived. Or maybe she had given up on Jesus, because He hadn’t been there when she needed Him most.

But Martha–strong, capable, warm–went running in her tears and met Jesus as He approached:

“Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

But then, as Matthew Henry suggests in his commentary on the passage, she seems to regret her hasty, grieved words. Thought probably still asking “why” inside, she corrects herself:

“But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 11:22).

This is a grief-stricken, somewhat-shaken faith. “Lord, I don’t understand,” she seems to be saying. “I still believe in you. I still know you have power. But I don’t understand.”

Under Jesus’ gentle questioning, she affirms her conviction that He is the Messiah, even the Son of God.

Then he sends for Mary.

Remember, Mary hadn’t read John 11. She didn’t know what would happen. We who have the whole Bible, who have grown up with the narratives, become numb to it.

But this wasn’t a flannel graph, two-dimensional story for Mary. This was real.

Her brother was dead. Her Savior had abandoned her.

Then He called for her and she hurries to meet him.

“Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).

The same words as her sister–this same theme that resounds in our own hearts when God doesn’t show up in our pain.

“If you had been here, God…If only You had been here.”

And what does Jesus do? He had given Martha the theological answers. For Mary?

For Mary, He cries.

With Mary, He cries. Yes, God in flesh sees her tears, the tears of her sister, and He openly weeps (John 11:35).

What comes next?

A glorious rising. A heart-stopping, mind-blowing resurrection right on the fringes of Jerusalem. The world was shaken up that day.

Because Lazarus rose and walked out of that tomb!

But if we walk away from Mary’s story with the idea that Jesus will immediately come along and undo all our griefs, set it all right, make it not hurt anymore–then we’ve not learned our lesson.

You see, Mary didn’t know what Jesus was going to do. 

But, behind Mary’s grieving, Martha’s questioning, Lazarus’ dying–behind all this was a much larger Story at work:

The Story of God glorifying His Son in the world (John 17).

In fact, in the very next chapter, we see the results of Lazarus rising:

“Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (John 12:9-11).

The Bible never tells the end of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s story.

But that passage–rather than scaring me, or making me worry about Lazarus’ safety–reassures me.

See what God did?

The whole mess of grief and then wonder, death and then life–all of it was a master-design to point the world to Jesus. Lazarus was such a testimony to His God that the Jews wanted him dead just to get people to stop believing!

God doesn’t always ride in and fix our problems. He doesn’t always come and heal our loved ones, raise our dead dreams, or mend our broken relationships. (One day, yes, He will! He will make all things new!)

But Mary’s story teaches me to hope.

Because whatever God is doing in the pain–however silent He seems to be–I know two things.

I know He knows my sorrows and is moved by my pain.

And I know that He is up to something glorious.

Grief is hard.

Pain hurts terribly.

Prayers don’t always feel like they’re going through.

But whether my Lazarus rises or not, I know that “God’s absence”–when He decides not to intervene in my hurt–is part of plan that makes God look amazing.

When He doesn’t show up, I will cling to the knowledge of His love and presence. He won’t always tell me why I have to hurt. He doesn’t owe me an explanation.

But I will believe.

And then I will watch His beauty be put on display.


 “And He’s kneeling in the garden, as silent as a Stone

All His friends are sleeping and He’s weeping all alone

And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God.”

– Andrew Peterson, “The Silence of God”  –

* All Scripture verses come from the New King James Version

 

God’s Show and Tell

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“Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?’ “

– Job 1:8, NKJV –


 Why?

If I were summarizing the book of Job in one word, that would be the one. “Why?”

Why, God, is everything going badly for me? Why, God, am I suffering when all the evil out there seems to be winning? Why am I the one with the trials when my unbelieving friends seem to have nothing but good times?

Immediately, voices chime in. “We deserve nothing but condemnation from God. It is only His grace that gives us less pain than we deserve.” Everyone seems to agree. “Wrong choices have consequences. You must have done something wrong, and now God is chastening you.”

There is truth–or at least some of it–in these typical statements. Of course, no human except the Lord Jesus was ever truly undeserving of any punishment. This is true. But that second analysis is, according to the book of Job, often untrue.

Certainly, God deals with us as His children. He does discipline us at times (Hebrews 12:5-11), but is that the only reason we suffer? Because we sinned?

Jesus’ disciples had this question too:

” Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’

When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing.”

– John 9:1-7, NKJV –

Jesus’ answer? Sin wasn’t the cause of this man’s blindness. His temporary disability was so that God’s healing work would be put on display.

When I recently read through the book of Job, I experienced something very strange. You would think that Job’s story might make me uncomfortable. In the first two chapters, God grants Satan permission to send all sorts of pain and grief into righteous Job’s life. In fact, Satan didn’t even start the conversation–God did. “What do you think my servant Job? He’s the most righteous man alive.”

Satan sneers. “Well, if You hadn’t blessed him so much, Job wouldn’t love You at all. I bet that if You took all those blessings away, Job would sing a different tune. He’d curse Your name.”

And so God said, “Do it. Just don’t touch his health.” And a chapter later, God lifts even that stipulation, merely forbidding Satan to kill Job.

Whoa. Hold on. What? God just hands over Job just like that? HIS child Job? The man who serves him with a pure heart?

Why?

Job is full of theories about God’s reasons. Job’s three “friends” who come visiting during the course of the story–Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad–all have the same idea. Job must have done something terribly wicked.

Their thought process went something like this: God is just. God punishes sin and blesses righteousness. Therefore, Job must have sinned–and pretty badly–for God to do this to him.

But they were dead wrong.

Pastor Mark Dever has this to say about Job’s friends:

“Most of the book consists of Job’s friends saying to him, ‘Hey, Job, I know you look virtuous, but there must be some sin here. Otherwise you would not be experiencing such severe punishment.’ But so far were Job’s friends from being right, that, ironically, someone could have said to them, ‘Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad, this suffering might have come on you had you been more virtuous!’ We the readers know that God did not allow Job to face these trials because of Job’s vices–but because of his virtue! God looked over the world, wanting to brag on part of his creation of Satan. And he chose to brag about Job….No, this is not a Pelagian man-can-choose-what-is-right theology. Job is God’s own workmanship. God had caused Job to trust him, and God knew that he did.”

The Message of the Old Testament, page 477 –

But, as Pastor Dever points out in his discussion of Job, God never told Job why. From Job’s perspective, things just went bad. He didn’t get a message from heaven explaining the reason for his trials. He didn’t get a Divine apology. He didn’t get to read about “this heavenly court scene that we are allowed to peek into in the first chapters of the book. All the evidence he has for trusting God in these trials is the fact of God himself, and Job trusted that God” (The Message of the Old Testament, page 476).

And yet, as I said earlier, I finished the book of Job with a very strange reaction: Job’s story gave me intense satisfaction and peace.

Why? Because, as much as we want to find meaning in our suffering, sometimes we can’t. Like Job, we can’t see into God’s mind. Like Job, when things go bad, we wonder why God is doing this to us. When we’re serving Him with all our hearts, we wonder why He lets things go wrong.

And the book of Job tells me the only reason I can understand: God is putting his handiwork on display. Sometimes things go wrong and the only reason we can know for sure is that God is being glorified in our pain. 

“God Is Most Glorified in Us When We Are Most Satisfied in Him.”– John Piper –

When God allows our comforts to be stripped away, our health to fail, and our hearts to break, all we have left is Him. And his praise is shouted to the ends of the earth when we discover something in our pain: He is really enough. He really satisfies.

Pain puts our trust to the test. As Job was tested, he asked God why. God did answer him, in a way. In a swirling whirlwind of responses, He revealed His glory to Job in chapters 38-41, listing His mighty works, creative power, and incredible wisdom.

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

” ‘Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
 To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ “

– Job 38:1-7, NKJV –

I would summarize God’s response like this: I am God. You are not. Trust me.

And that is why the story of Job makes me smile. This foundation is unshakeable. No matter what gets thrown at us, we can trust that God’s glory is being put on display.

What will tomorrow bring? I don’t know. But whether bright with joy or clouded with sorrow, I trust the God who brings all things to pass. I trust Him with the whys I may never know. Whatever may come, it will be for His glory and my good.

I believe it with all my heart.


 “What does this mean for us, friend? It means that we do not trust God because we are clever or holy but because his character is trustworthy.”

– Mark Dever,  The Message of the Old Testament, page 477 

 

Hope on the Dark Side

barbed-wire-fence-closeup

“So you think that you’re the only one to cry yourself to sleep? That you’re the only one who’s scared they’ll all forget you when you leave? So you think that you’re the only one whose heart is black and blue? Listen, I’ve got news for you….

So you feel so wrecked and dirty He could never make you new? Man, have I got news for you, for you. I’m so compelled to tell you that it’s true….I’ve got good news for you.”

– Andrew Peterson, “I’ve Got News” –


Suffering. We’ve learned to run away from it, ever since we bumped our heads as babies. Ever since our childhood pet got hit by a passing car. Ever since our young hearts broke over the first person we knew that died. Ever since our adolescent souls were scarred by one-time friends that turned into Judases, Brutuses, Benedict Arnolds, betraying who they claim to love. It all seemed so unnatural, a blip in the happiness of childhood.

As adults, we see more of the pain. Our early immunity to the harshness of the world beyond has worn off. We see it all: the death mixed in with life, the tears that come as often as laughter, the hate that turns so much love sour.

Suffering. We recoil from it. We take medication for it. We know, instinctively, that pain means that all is NOT right with the world. Pain means something has gone wrong…crazily wrong.

Atheists say that the world has always been this way, that nature’s desperate struggle for dominance. We’re swept up in the unending pain, only to have it stop at death. We just have to survive till then.

Transcendentalists say that life is suffering–and only suffering. The only way to escape is to disconnect from the material, stop wanting anything, and join up with the cosmos. Let it swallow you. And hopefully you’ll come back as a being better than the one you are now–just don’t mess up the karma.

I have good news.

Jesus says that a better kind of life is possible. Unlike the meaningless suffering that other beliefs offer, Jesus says there is hope beyond the pain. Others can only hope for oblivion, a cessation of the bad. But the loved ones of God hold to a greater dream–the Biblical portrait of a Day when all is made new and clean and pure and empty of pain.

When Jesus came to earth as a man, grew up partaking in our pain, and died at the hands of His own creatures, His death lent value to suffering.

The cross said: Suffering isn’t pointless.

But, in three days, the rest of the message came clearly. If Jesus’ death gave meaning to pain, then His resurrection gave hope . Hope–the promise that one day this pain will be over. Our “three days” of languishing have the possibility of ending with the same kind of triumph–a rock-quaking, life-raising, never-dying kind of resurrection can be ours too.

Without Jesus, the world languishes. Suffering is pointless, pain leads to nowhere but a grave that levels all things to dust. But WITH Jesus, the difference is too great for words. Imagine a dark room, with the windows covered in heavy black cloth. Sun is excluded. The darkness is almost thick and the air is stifling with the absence of color or light or breeze. Then imagine someone came in and threw open the curtains. Imagine someone came and knocked out the walls. Imagine that the ceiling crumbled away and the sun’s full-noon glory pierced down.  It was dark, and now it is light.

But those words, simple and short, cannot convey the power of the change. The hope of God is not just a prick of light at the end of a tunnel. God’s hope is a total smashing of our room of darkness. We still stand in the same place, but now we see it differently. Before we saw only interminable darkness. Now, what do we see? Light flowing over, around, through us. Told another way, the blind cannot see the end of the pain. Only the opened eyes can perceive the reason to hope that stood as a crossroad of history and even now is rising again on the horizon.

“The good news breaks into a world where the news has been so bad for so long that when it is good nobody hears it much except for a few. And who are the few that hear it? They are the ones who labor and are heavy-laden like everybody else, but who, unlike everybody else, know that they labor and are heavy-laden….Rich or poor, successes or failures as the world counts it, they are the ones who are willing to believe in miracles because they know it will take a miracle to fill the empty place inside them where grace and peace belong….Maybe the truth of it is that [the good news is] too good not to be true.”

– Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth, page 70-71 –

Do you see it? Christ, in you, the hope–the HOPE!–of  glory (Colossians 1:27). Hope of glory? Yes, hope of a glory beyond this world of pain. Hope of a life beyond what we know here. Hope that this present world is not how it was nor how it will always be. Hope hinges on what we believe (Hebrews 1:1). First, what we believe about Jesus. And, as a result, what we believe about suffering.

Our view of pain depends on our faith. Do we believe that all that goes wrong here will be–soon and gloriously–put to right? Do we believe in a God with an incomprehensible blend of grace and justice, a God who will make us, his rebellious creation, into His perfect creation again? Paul perfectly captured the hopeless view of most of our world:

“If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!'” (1 Corinthians 15:32b, NKJV)

If this life–this hard, often-agonizing life–is all there is to look forward to, we are right to despair. But Paul himself had another perspective on pain:

“….that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NKJV).

In his commentary on this passage, 17th century theologian Matthew Henry explains:

“Knowing him here is believing in him: it is an experimental knowledge of the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, or feeling the transforming efficacy and virtue of them….We are then made conformable to his death when we die to sin, as Christ died for sin, when we are crucified with Christ, the flesh and affections of it mortified, and the world is crucified to us, and we to the world, by virtue of the cross of Christ. This is our conformity to his death…..This joyful resurrection the apostle pressed towards. He was willing to do any thing, or suffer any thing, that he might attain that resurrection. The hope and prospect of it carried him with so much courage and constancy through all the difficulties he met with in his work….Observe, His care to be found in Christ was in order to his attaining the resurrection of the dead. Paul himself did not hope to attain it through his own merit and righteousness, but through the merit and righteousness of Jesus Christ. “Let me be found in Christ, that I may attain the resurrection of the dead, be found a believer in him, and interested in him by faith….”

Here, we see that pain can be a tool for our good. No, pain is not good itself, just like every other product of fallen humanity. But our powerful God can work even these present hard things into glory to come.

This is my message to you today, sisters: We live in a dying world. Have hope! We live daily with the painful consequences of sin. Have hope! We live among people who see no answer, no end, no solution, to this suffering. But have hope!

Many of us have heard this tale until our ears are full of it and we cease to wonder at its beauty. But the cross is not just for the unsaved. The cross–and the resurrection–is for me and you, every day, just as it was for the apostle Paul. The cross proclaims that our horrible sinfulness has a potent cure. The resurrection announces that we have a good reason to laugh today, because this momentary sorrow is dying away. Yes, our world is crying out, like a woman almost ready to deliver her child (Romans 8:22). But soon the baby will be born. Do not fear. The pain is almost over. New life is on its way. Spread the hope to those who see no end to the pain.

This earth is being birthed into new life. Good news: Our God never miscarries.


“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”

And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.”

– Revelation 21:1-7, NKJV –

Growing-Up Grace

“We are puzzled and bewildered whenever we see suffering in this world….

Amazing grace is no longer amazing to us.”

— R.C. Sproul —

dark-sky

Is it growing up to suddenly carry the hurt? Growing pain to suddenly begin knowing the pain? Does being an adult mean that I lose the mercifully given dream-glaze of childhood?

And why does it feel like this growing-upness has settled down thick on my soul?

Why is it that never before has the burden been so suffocating?

My strong-enough, wide-enough capabilities are now like narrow, powerless shoulders under a crushing yoke.

And yet I breathe. Oxygen sucks in bitter-sweet. Why can I still breathe in this pain-smoke that is smothering those to whom my heart clings, every brother and sister of them? How can the pain reach and wrench without laying even one cold, numb talon on me?

Is it growing up to suddenly feel the travail, to sense the birth-pangs that writhe this world?

How can I rejoice in Life when darkness is all I see?

By all means, I should praise God for the sunshine.

What if there isn’t any?

“Any man can sing in the day. When the cup is full, man draws inspiration from it…he is skillful who sings when there is not a ray of light to read by—who sings from his heart…O Thou chief musician, let us not remain songless because affliction is upon us, but tune Thou our lips the melody of thanksgiving.”

– Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Oct. 19th, Evening –

And yet, my throat burns songless. How can I sing past the ache-knot?

Today a friend calls and says it is good new and bad news. My heart immediately stills, that heart drop-out that shoots up a prayer without words. O God, help me know what to say. Help her. Help us breathe.

She says it’s not her, it’s a friend. A tumor, she says. A word shapes in my head—cancer. I wish with a numb heart that it’s not so.

I lay on the couch, phone cradled to my chin, held close as I wish I could hold my friend. A wish to tell her its okay, it will all be fine.

She pours out the story, of all the pain she’s surrounded with. She’s drowning in it—the frustration of why. Why my friends? Why now? Why all at once?

God, why?

And then my sweet friend confesses she’s tired of praying? Is it, after all, doing any good?

So I push away my own sense of all the world-crumblings near and clench my heart around her words. She’s weary in the battle.

So I’ll go in for her. O God, hear me.

She’s panting, aching for friends’ pain that she can’t push prayers through.

Hold on, I want to say. He’s there. Just keep praying.

The line soon clicked empty and as I returned the phone to its charger I knew I couldn’t solve her pain.

But I could pray. I remembered lines that could keep me breathing in and out. Ann Voskamp, in her poetic, arresting voice, wrote about her hope, and now I mull over it again:

“I wonder too…if the rent in the canvas of our life backdrop, the losses that puncture our world, our own emptiness, might actually become places to see.

To see through to God.

That that which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond. To Him. To the God whom we endlessly crave.”

– Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, p. 22 –

In her blog, this dear sister wrote,

“Grace is not soft or trite—Grace is what saves and grace is what transforms. Grace isn’t the weakness of a Christian—grace is the completeness of a Christian. Grace isn’t ever a paltry thing—Grace is always the very power of God….The power of God to save and to stand, to give and forgive, to breathe and believe, to laugh and love and wring the last little bit of living out of all the days under the sky. Grace is what we need more than the very air or water; grace is what is necessary for life: it’s His very grace that needs to be sufficient today, it is His very grace that makes today sustainable.”

We have our hands on something that can rock a moaning world. We have to believe it. We have to possess it. We have to live it.

And then, we give it away. Think this, sisters: We were not meant to hoard grace.

“All the paths of the Lord are loving and faithful” (Psalm 25:10). I have pondered this verse lately and have found that it feeds my spirit. All does not mean “all—except the paths I am walking in now,” or “nearly all—except this especially difficult and painful path.” All must mean all. So your path with its unexplained sorrow or turmoil, and mine with its sharp flints and briers—and both our paths, with their unexplained perplexity, their sheer mystery—they are His paths, on which he will show himself loving and faithful. Nothing else; nothing less.”

– Amy Carmichael –

I’m not sure why I didn’t see it before, in John 11. Martha, grieving, devoted Martha, trusts Jesus through that body and soul-tearing event called death that snatched her brother away. Can you hear her hoarse, trusting whisper?

“Even now I know that whatever you ask your Father he will give it to you.”

What I so often gloss over, miss in the pace of reading and living, is the glory of the next words.

Martha says, “I know he will be raised in the resurrection in the last day.”

But then, glorious consummation of thousands of years of hope and longing and death-cries—Jesus must have looked at her with a beautiful Kingliness in His eyes.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

My soul, why do you ever stop wondering? Not wallowing in the death, but wondering in the Life? Why do you ever tire of hearing and glorying in this?

My Savior IS Life. I don’t have to fear anything. I don’t have to  hesitate when He calls, wonder when He speaks.

In His Life, I have life.

“What grace is mine that He who dwells in endless light
Called through the night to find my distant soul
And from his scars poured mercy that would plead for me
That I might live and in his name be known

What grace is mine to know His breath alive in me
Beneath his wings my wakened soul may soar
All fear can flee for death’s dark night is overcome
My Saviour lives and reigns forevermore

So I will go wherever He is calling me
I lose my life to find my life in Him
I give my all to gain the hope that never dies
I bow my heart, take up my cross and follow Him.”

– “What Grace Is Mine,” by Keith and Kristyn Getty –

Let us press on in the dark, because the night is far spent, and the day is at hand. The Light has arisen in our hearts.

We aren’t meant to be the victims of cruel fate. We are meant to shine in darkness, to keep emitting the light of grace.

Because His Grace is ours for living.

“Shouldn’t we suppose that many of our most painful ordeals will look quite different a million years from now, as we recall them on the New Earth? What if one day we discover that God has wasted nothing in our life on Earth? What if we see that every agony was part of giving birth to an eternal joy?”

— Randy Alcorn —

With always-love, Shelbie