Faith in Clutch Moments

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it…But even if he does not…we will not serve your gods.”

A few months into my work at a fast food restaurant, I sauntered in for my evening shift. The place was quiet and the manager stood at the register and greeted me as I entered the service area.

“Mike, you missed all the fun last night.”

“Oh, really,” I replied.

“We got robbed last night,” he said.

“Yeah, right.” I passed it off as a joke, but he was serious.

This store was two years old and sat on a state highway in a suburban area. Still, that meant little in the scenario he proceeded to explain. My co-worker Richard who first encountered the robber relayed the following account.

Beginning his nightly breakdown and cleaning routine at 9 p.m., an hour before closing, with no customers in the store, a man entered, drew a gun three inches to his face, and ordered him and all other staff to the back. There he made them lie in the floor on their stomachs in an enclosed area while he and the shift manager went to the safe. He left with $1,500 without harming anyone.

Alarmed by the details, I felt sorry for the people who had experienced the ordeal, some of whom were traumatized. It scared me to think of the outcome being any different. The robber was never caught.

Just, Why?

Obviously, I’m grateful I hadn’t been working. Would the situation have been worse if another set of people were present?

Why does God allow such things? Why doesn’t he clearly intervene in crisis…manifest in some way? It’s his world, after all. I think of super-scale natural disasters and heinous moral evils—where is God? These are tough questions to which there are no answers and the Bible offers none.

One of my favorite pastors whimsically asks, “If God is so powerful and good, why doesn’t he just erase the Devil?” I think we all can agree.

Playing with Fire

The topic makes me consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who boldly confronted evil in their uniquely dicey situation. For it’s one thing for misfortune and tragedy to strike and overcome you; it’s another thing to have a choice in your fate, which can be much more difficult. “God, I’ll trust you”—because I have no other choice is easier than “God, I’ll trust you”—when I do.

Yet the ‘Hebrew Boys’’ resolve convinces me that questioning, the struggle to understand why, is limited to its ability to make us feel our experience and to induce personal growth and, hopefully, deep faith in God. And that role should not be underestimated. Deep inquiry can even provoke change; however, it just won’t ever halt wickedness. Nebuchadnezzar will have his way.

So evil in the world will continue, yet God remains sovereign and providentially good to humankind. On that basis alone he is to be trusted. God rescues all, the believer and non-believer. I’m so thankful he protected my co-workers. And although only he can fully explain why, I doubt those answers outweigh our rest in his abiding care for us. We wouldn’t understand if he did explain.

In the end, why questions must give way to how questions that confront us about our response. Otherwise, we won’t emerge from fear or pain to wholesome life. Circumstances often don’t change but we must.

{Too, let us praise God for all the ways he does deliver that we never see! There could be far more hardship in the world.}

New Strength is Coming!

CC BY-NC, theothernate, Flickr

CC BY-NC, theothernate, Flickr

Isaiah begins his 40th chapter with prophetic words of comfort detailing the deliverance of God’s people from impending captivity. “The Sovereign Lord is coming in power,” he says; then he transitions into a marvelous exposition on God’s omnipotence.

Starting with nature, he compares the greatness of God and the weakness of humans—“Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?” (v. 12, NLT). “Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice?” (v. 14).

The nations are nothing to God, for he can lift the earth like a grain of sand. His worth is incalculable: “All the wood in Lebanon’s forests and all Lebanon’s animals would not be enough to make a burnt offering worthy of our God” (v. 16).

Idols are laughable and only speak to the foolishness of human hearts—“at least choose wood that won’t decay and a skilled craftsman to carve an image that won’t fall down!” (v. 20).

For the Lord sits atop the earth as upon a throne, the King of every king.

A Sobering Indictment

After this illustrious oration, Isaiah directs a pointed question to God’s people: “O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights?”

It is the prophet bringing correction: “You’ve stood in awe of this boundless God, but you have not understood him.”

Do we not act the same way when our cares have us submitted and down for the count? We feel the Lord doesn’t see. In our dark moments we miss God’s intentions with our trials and sometimes forget that he is for us. But he never forgets us.

Strength to Run

What comes next is truly grand:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (vs. 28-40, NKJV).

Isn’t this moving?

We get excited about the “they that wait” part. But the really exciting truth is why those who wait renew their strength—ever stop to consider that? Is it merely because they…wait? We find it at the start of the passage: “Did you not hear or know that the Lord doesn’t faint or get weary?” When I finally saw this—WHAM!

Our strength can be renewed because his strength never fails.

I realized how I could wait on God through trials completely confident of his onrushing aid.

The visual is easy: if you and a friend are holding candles and yours goes out, you will relight your candle with the one that still burns. Well God’s fire never goes out! There’s no good or logical comparison for God—match-to-Sun?—but you get the picture.

Perhaps you’re waiting on God right now with every ounce of your strength. You’re fainting or have fallen to a knee; your flame has gone out. I want to assure you that your renewed strength is guaranteed and imminent because the One you trust never loses his strength.

Put another way—God’s coming to light your fire!

More on this topic: God of the Process and God, You’re Killing Me!

God, Our Contender

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

Jacob and Peter seem like spiritual brothers in my mind. Both carried a profound calling in their lives but didn’t quite grasp the process it would require to develop them in order to maximize it. Thus, we read about their lives with fascination and some puzzlement, at least I do.

Jacob, with a godly heritage, is that guy in every church who respects God and spiritual things but resists the calling he knows is on his life; he isn’t quite ready to give up his game. It’s not his M.O. right now—“I’m not ready for all that”—that is, until God has to get in his face.

Is not that encounter at Jabbock one of the most riveting accounts in scripture? All of Jacob’s years of impartation and resistance come to a singular moment of judgment. I believe the fight actually occurred, but it isn’t difficult to allegorize and deem that here was a moment of crisis in which God gripped Jacob’s heart and gave him the psychological and spiritual fight of his life.

Have you ever fought to the death of your will? Has the call of God ever overwhelmed you…pinned you to the wall?

But what grips me about the story is Jacob’s surrender. In a flash he goes from self-reliance and stubbornness to “I won’t let you go until I have all of you!”

Do You Love Me?

Sounds a little like Peter—“Then wash my hands and head, Lord, not just my feet!” This is Simon whom Jesus renames Peter, don’t forget that. (Didn’t that happen at Jabbock, too? Hmm.)

I really cherish Peter in the scriptures. Some people find their own humanness in the Psalms, Paul’s transparency, and elsewhere; but I discover myself in Peter. I’m not sure if there is a more honest biblical character. I read about him and think, I am Peter.

Peter spent a few years as the closest to Jesus of the disciples. Yet he reminds us of a toddler just learning to walk, sometimes standing, even running, other times stumbling and falling. Peter shows us glimpses of enlightenment—“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” and “If it is you, bid me to come”—and equal measures of ineptitude and failure—“Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will!”

Still, Peter may have had one of the deepest loves for Jesus.

I recall him outrunning John to the tomb after the report of Jesus’s body being gone. Then, while he and a few of the disciples fished, John identifies the resurrected Christ by his instruction to them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat: “It is the Lord,” John says.

And at that this rough-hewn fisherman wraps his garment around him, leaps out of the boat, and swims to where Jesus stood. Although Peter was at times unstable and insecure, Jesus had made an indelible impact on him.

God’s Will with Our Pain

Like Jacob and Peter, I’ve discovered that the life of faith is not convenient, especially to the imperfections of my heart that ultimately resist the best God has for me. Sometimes I wonder, however, if God doesn’t allow the disappointments and internal conflicts to surface in us to bring us to a place of surrender.

Hosea says, “Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up” (6:1). Only if you’ve gone through such hardship yourself or with others can you understand how a person’s insolence and weaknesses may actually accomplish the will of God.

After denying the Lord the third time, John relates that the cock crowed and Jesus turned and looked straight in Peter’s face. That had to be the worst moment in Peter’s entire acquaintance with Jesus—and he runs away and cries his eyes out.

But where we might ridicule and excoriate him, God is getting his way with Peter. In fact, he just might have him…and Jacob…and your brother, daughter, or co-worker exactly where he wants them—broken and in submission. They have wrestled with God long enough and now God will wait no longer to prove his sufficiency for them. God gets the best of us to get the best out of us.

The late Dr. Adrian Rogers used to say, “The will of God is the thing we would want for ourselves if we had the sense to want it!”

Thank God that he’s patient with us and uses even our mistakes and hang-ups, our malice and carnality to break our own hearts and wrestle us into submission, as only he can. Our assurance lies in a grace that rescues us from ourselves.

So we can have hope that our friends and loved ones, perhaps out of control right now, are, by prayer and the mercy of God, being steered into the very heart of the kingdom.

Read more on the topic: John the Baptist

The Spectacle of Grace

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. (Luke 2:8-9, NLT) 

God hides big messages in plain sight.

The announcement to the shepherds is my favorite divine encounter story in the Bible. It is obviously a bucolic scene, but there is also featured an enjoyable contrast of rustic earthiness and divine splendor, not unlike the satisfaction of creamy and crumbly in the mouth.

The glory of a single angel is apparently enough to frighten folk stiff. That’s the case throughout scripture, and it was the case with the shepherds. But then all heaven broke loose and the sky filled with the heavenly emissaries shouting praises to God, creating what had to be an overwhelming and spectacular scene of grace-come-to-earth.

I hope God will let us relive these events one day. This one is at the top of my list.

But what about that big message, you said? We know it wasn’t about the angels and the scene itself. And although the angels heralded the birth of the Savior, this isn’t the big message I want you to see. Instead, it deals with…the rustic earthiness and crumbly nature of the recipients: the shepherds.

Life of the Scorned

I’m certain there were many events and incidents the Holy Spirit could have included in the Bible and did not (cf. John 21:25). But I’m glad this particular one made it in.

You see, shepherds were not an esteemed bunch; their reputation was more akin to tax collectors. Although many folk in the Bible, from Abraham to David to Amos, were shepherds and the task was common and respectable for a period of time, the occupation gradually lost its noble standing.

Many shepherds were cheats and thieves and their actions stereotyped the vocation. Society viewed shepherds as untrustworthy and incompetent, second-class citizens; and they were not allowed to hold judicial office or serve as witnesses in court—just like tax collectors.

The youngest son in the home usually tended the sheep. The elder sons would move on to help the father plow, sow, and harvest, so the younger boy would be left with the sheep. If you’ll recall, David was the youngest of his family; and do you remember the scorn he met from his brother Eliab on the battlefield: “What are you doing around here anyway…What about those few sheep you’re supposed to be taking care of?” (1 Sam. 17:28).

Leveled Playing Fields

God preserves this birth announcement for us and with it delivers an enormous message about human social stratification from his point of view. For God has entrusted outcasts and the marginalized with the prize of first knowing that a Savior has come for them and everyone.

Understand, this encounter did not offer these shepherds more reason to know this Messiah would be a spiritual deliverer as opposed to the political one they anticipated. Contrarily, it would have convinced them that he was indeed the long awaited ruler. Signs affirmed the presence and help of Jehovah to the Jews. The revelation of grace and spiritual truth would come later through Jesus himself. Yet this symbolic event serves a bigger point to us.

And this truth is that God’s grace and immense love is all-inclusive, not about caste and class and petty human divisions that disenfranchise and diminish in our eyes the glory of God in one another. Each of us, regardless of our status, morally identifies with the shepherds’ odious reputation and shares the same guilt in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, by grace we stand tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest, and beside Christ in the presence of the Father.

Grace, a Battering Ram

We like to portray grace as sweet and refined—and it is that; but, like the Word of God John was instructed to eat (Rev. 10:9), it can be both sweet to the mouth and bitter to the belly. It is possible to live infatuated with God until his precepts judge and demolish our sinfully convenient and self-serving configurations.

Thus, God chose not to make his announcement to kings and officials, who with this information could conceivably engineer a plan to further their own power, wealth, and corruption—again leaving those with the greatest need with nothing and being deprived.

Instead, God spared no expense in pomp and gallantry on a few men with nothing more to lose in life and so erects an earthly kingdom from the floor-up.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26-31, NIV)

More on this topic in “People of Your Kind!”

Simply the Bee’s Knees!

CC BY NC-ND, Roger Smith, Flickr

CC BY NC-ND, Roger Smith, Flickr

This summer I cleared away years of brush in my sister’s backyard. It was good physical work and there were many lessons I learned about myself and God. From this time I want to share with you a special moment that encouraged me.

The yard is large and forested and gently slopes toward a dry creek bed. After cutting my way to the very back, working along the bank, I encountered a thriving underground yellow jacket nest in the side of the hill, which concerned me. I have heard stories of adults and children being severely injured and killed by the wasps as a result of ground vibrations unnerving the colony. I was working with a garden rake and a heavy cutter mattock razing everything above- and belowground.

Being slightly perfectionist with my work, the nest complicated things. I wanted the entire hill cleared just like the rest I had done. I got close and took a long look: the wasps busily entered and exited the burrow at several openings paying me little attention.

Later, still tinkering around the nest, I sensed that I had crossed the line and provoked them. Their behavior changed and a few started flying at me, pelleting my clothing. I was in work gear, so I knew I couldn’t be stung. But one wily little feller surprised me, managing to get beneath my glove and sting me on the bottom of my wrist. It was my fault, although he had to die for it.

I had spent too much time on the nest. Since it was near quitting time, I let the sting be the last word on the matter. I’d deal with it the next day.

I went out the next morning and immediately checked the nest. To my astonishment, an animal had come along sometime in the interim and bored out the entire colony! Nothing was left of it. A few wasps would come around looking for it, but there was only a hole there now.

I couldn’t believe it. I had no doubt that it was a gift from the Lord. He knew how concerned I was about it and providentially sent that animal along to do its natural thing to help me out.

It is little things like this that reassure me of the Lord’s great care for us and regard to answer before we’ve called for help.

Lectio Divina: Psalms 126

"Jews in Exile" by Eduard Bendemann Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

“Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

Encouraging articles about persevering through tough times are plentiful; there is nothing wrong with them. But I want to share with you an inspiring coming-out scenario lifted directly from scripture. Since we all are in process and will encounter tough times, it would do us well to keep this text handy. It offers a glimpse of God’s rescue.

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is one of 15 psalms (120-134) called “Songs of Degrees” or “Songs of Ascent.” Four of them are attributed to David (122, 124, 131, 133), one to Solomon (127), and the remainder have unknown authors.

The origin of the name—Degrees, Ascent—is uncertain. It is often thought that they were purposed for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or sung by the Hebrews upon their return from captivity. There is also the notion that there may be a thought progression in them. The truth, however, is that the categorization is not understood. The circumstances of their composition or the occasion for which they were used granted them a certain unity and distinction by the editor of Psalms. Still, the title would have been fully understood by Hebrew readers.

Psalm 126 is one of only two (the other: Ch. 122) that could possibly have anything to do with a Babylonian return; and it appears that the return of exiles may very well be the subject here. The psalm is a first-person testimony of exiles recalling their release from captivity.

VERSE 1(ESV)

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”

Have you ever been in hardship so severe that it seemed that you would never get out of it? Pain and suffering has the tendency to make us feel isolated and locked in circumstance. Sometimes we forget faith and cast off hope (Isa. 49:15). But this verse reveals a God who always knows where we are and how to free us.

Some Bible versions are worded more aligned to the New King James (NKJV)—“When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion…”—the word “captivity” meaning “return,” referring to the captives themselves. The notion is the Lord’s deliverance and by not only bringing us out of misery, but also freeing everything connected to us. It is a recovery or recompense in ways we may have resolved would never happen.

You see, God has the power to free us, our goods, and our ability to prosper. He doesn’t just release the captives; he establishes them and gives them livelihood. “He will beautify the humble with salvation” (Ps. 149:4). The word “fortunes” used by some versions is good.

“…we were like those who dream.”

Our burdens were so monumental that, once delivered, we could hardly believe it. It was surreal. Too often we’ve watched news stories of a man wrongly imprisoned for 10, 15, 25 years, only to be set free immediately after conclusive evidence proved his innocence; certainly it takes time for him to understand his new reality.

It is the great disparity between our dire situation and unexpected relief that shocks the senses and may even cause us to fear that our new state isn’t lasting. For instance, people who have starved have to learn not to hide food when they finally have enough to eat. They fear that satisfaction won’t last and that they’ll starve again.

VERSE 2

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…”

These people were exiles—prisoners—for years. Now they were free, and it came without expectation and with ecstatic joy. What we’re witnessing in these two verses is a reversal of what we understand of the Kubler-Ross model, or five stages of grief. The first two stages are denial and anger. Denial encompasses shock at a great sadness, just as shock and denial, seen here, was the initial response of the exiles’ great joy. Now, the shock wearing off, they cannot contain their giddiness.

They’re so full with excitement that all they can do is laugh with incredulity. I imagine it to be like a person on the verge of bankruptcy suddenly inheriting millions of dollars. The NKJV expresses the latter clause as “our tongue with singing.” Music often expresses what mere sentences cannot.

“…then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”

The “they” here are non-Israelites, or heathen (KJV), those that don’t know the Lord—they testify to his mighty deeds! It reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar, after seeing the fourth man in the fire, standing back in amazement and acknowledging the reality of the Hebrew God.

People around us often know details about our lives. It is not possible to hide everything about ourselves (and who really cares to expend a great deal of energy trying?) And non-Christian people on our jobs, in our social organizations, our peers and neighbors will see us, the Christians, go through trial. Some will mock for the seeming lack of regard our so-called God shows toward us. But we should be encouraged. Not only is pain working a reward within us and for us, it is also working toward a testimony of the greatness of God.

In the end God will prove himself and no one will be able to deny that it is his doing. Some struggles are so monumental that only God can change them, but we must be convinced—like the Hebrew boys—that God is able even if he doesn’t answer. He just might shock us all with his goodness!

And isn’t that the point? The glory of God is a testimony of his affection, that he is for us and his nature is goodness itself. He is eager to show us kindness.

VERSE 3

“The Lord has done great things for us!”

This is the reply of the Israelites—“Absolutely!” “Indeed!” And there’s also an element of “You cannot possibly understand.” We see people, perhaps smiling on the outside or getting on with their lives, but never have a clue about the depth of pain, lack, or suffering they’re dealing with. If they told us stories about the ins-and-outs of their daily lives…the number of jobs and the type of schedule they manage just to put food on their tables or the domino effect of trouble that fell upon them—we might be stunned.

So when God delivers people like this, we can rejoice with them; yet there is an intimacy about the whole thing that only they can share with their Deliverer. Only he knows how their hearts hurt, how situations tried their souls, the things they lost, and the lessons they learned.

“…we are glad.”

Our souls are satisfied. Others can be happy for us, but only we can be satisfied. If the Lord permits us to go through pain, he knew what the pain would accomplish. But when he brings us out, the true reward is not the mere reversal of fortune; instead it is the satisfaction of seeing the full scope of his purpose. It takes a really “seasoned saint” to acknowledge on the coming-out end, “It was good that I went through my affliction” (Isa. 53:10-12).  The experience may have been hell itself, but the work of God within us and through us makes it all worth it.

VERSE 4

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord…”

This verse implies that the restoration wasn’t complete and was most likely in progress. So the psalmist implores the Lord that full deliverance would be manifested. It very well could have been a prayer that all of his Israelite compatriots be freed from exile since we know that the exiles returned in stages over several years.

This is a good place for us to stop and ask the Lord to finish his work within us, using that great Pauline verse, Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Lord, we thank you that our lives are hidden in you. You have ordered our every step along this path of life. Where we must face trial, teach us patience and help us to trust your providence. You will deliver us; you will satisfy us. You will make your name great to all who see. Complete your work in us. Cause us to one day acknowledge that when you tested the good in us, it was a good thing indeed. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

“…like streams in the Negeb!”

Restore our fortunes like the dry desert streams that are restored and swollen by the autumn and winter rains.

VERSE 5

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

Isn’t this wonderfully poetic? Agriculture is obviously a readily used illustration tool and a worthy one. But what I like about this verse is the oblivious thing happening with the subject. No one views suffering as valuable; pain is visceral—you feel it, spurn it, run away from it. God allows the yoke to come upon us and we ask why. It all seems so needless.

The psalmist images tears as seed. All of our misery is borne in our tears, yet our tears, in God’s eyes, are rudiments of renewal and reward. Suffering people might never be convinced that their grief is a spiritual act of sowing, but the scriptures assure us of this concept in many places.

God’s promise comes through resoundingly in this verse: “I will repay your trouble.” And to anyone experiencing hardship, you should know that God has not forgotten your pain. He has seen every tear you’ve cried. You’re gonna get through this. The harvest sprouting for you is going to make you shout with joy.

VERSE 6

“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing…”

The concept continues. Picture that person ambling along dejected and softly weeping.

“…shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

I like the assurance of the NKJV here: “shall doubtless come again…” The allusion to the sower remains, but the reward is imaged here: a sheaf. A sheaf is a bundle of grain produced from a harvest.

Need I say more? The one who trod the earth lamenting his or her lack and loss and without a clue that their own tears were working toward the answer of their prayers will “doubtless come again” leaping and laughing and falling over in disbelief that the Lord has favored them with more than they could have ever imagined.

More: Lectio Divina: Psalm 130

In Praise of the One Who Guides

CC BY-NC, bionicteaching, Flickr

CC BY-NC, bionicteaching, Flickr

The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Ps. 121:7-8)

Have you ever known you had lost your way or fallen out of the will of God? Let me share that moment in my life and God’s providential yet strangely dramatic way of pulling me back on course.

I returned from work overseas in 2004 and started searching for a job. But the economy was tanking and my hopes shriveled into a horrendously long unemployment. Frustrated and determined to make something happen, I decided to return to retail management with the drugstore where I had worked eight years beginning in high school. But it would be somewhere away from my stagnant hometown region.

So I went hunting. I analyzed cities and matched them with a list of personal criteria. I finally settled on Indianapolis. This would be my life’s first throw-a-dart-at-the-map-and-go moment. I then emailed a district manager in the area about the possibility of a management position, and in one day I received a reply telling me to come and interview.

Well I got the job and things were mostly fine, except one unsettling thing. I would often walk out of my apartment headed to my car thinking, Michael, why are you here? Away from home on my own in the city of my choice, enjoying my independence, yet I sensed that I was out of the will of God.

Time passed until one momentous day—Thursday, June 8th (2006), around 12:30 p.m. Let’s call it the “intervention.”

It was my day off. I still remember it: I was sitting on the couch watching the French Open tennis tournament. Someone knocked at the door, which was unusual; I opened it and greeted a professional plumber not part of the complex staff, even more unusual.  He talked to me about the laundry room just a few feet away; it had been flooded for some time.

He explained that all signs pointed to a blockage most likely directly beneath my kitchen. And the only way to reach it was tear out the floor. Action needed to be taken immediately lest it led to further trouble.

The office offered me two options: place all my things in a provided storage pod and stay in a hotel for a few weeks or move out without penalty and receive my deposit back—oh, I needed to be decided today; the work needed to start tomorrow.   

In previous weeks my sister had talked to me about returning home. My finances were slowing sliding into perdition. Bills were stacking up and the rent was now difficult to pay. My sister gladly offered to let me stay at her place and insisted that I come. But I resisted because I didn’t wish to be there and felt that I could get a handle on the situation.

For any normal person, moving, at all, would have certainly been an inconvenience, but they would have gone on and moved into the hotel. Who could possibly pack up and move without notice? But when the plumber left, I closed the door and thought, Could this be God giving me a way out? I seriously considered returning to Virginia.

I cannot express the stress I endured for the next 12 hours. This decision seemed to throw my world into a tailspin, and I was a basket case. The management nagged me about my decision. Then, I wondered how would I leave my job or haul away my belongings if I indeed decided to leave? Staying was the reasonable (and sane) thing to do. Any image of a nervous wreck you can come up with, I fit the bill that day. At one point, I sat in my car in tears, beaten merciless by a pressing decision.

(And why does it seem God isn’t speaking whenever you need to clearly hear him?)

By 4 p.m. or so I called the management and told them that I would move away. I could hear the stun in the woman’s silence. In fact, in the hours following the conversation with the plumber, I had a terribly difficult conversation with my boss and I borrowed money from home to rent a U-Haul and car hitch.

By 2 a.m. my entire apartment was packed in boxes; at 6 a.m. I loaded the truck; at 8 a.m. I dropped off the house key; then I had my car hitched to the truck and returned my work keys; and in 600 miles and about 24 hours after my decision to leave, my life had totally changed.

The Providence of God

I apologize for the details, but they mean so much to the process God used to teach me what I share now. I’m sure you understand.

Romans 8:28 explains that God works together with us to bring about his good purpose. But Paul also explains in the preceding verses that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; that we don’t always know how to pray as we should, so he helps us.

I knew I was on the fringes of God’s will just being in Indiana. Moreover, I experienced the worst spiritual slump of my life during that time, and vice grew like weeds. I didn’t like myself. Yes, I was weak, but thank God I was never lost to him.

Just maybe God was in the details of my bizarre departure, you think? I was out of place geophysically and spiritually. God knew that I would have never left Indianapolis without the rushed decision coupled with my growing financial burden.

I heard later that people at my workplace assumed I was running away from some type of trouble. No, I recognize it as divine providence, God’s guidance and preservation over his creation, including human life. It is his sovereignty over situations and even evil that ultimately results in the fulfillment of his will and good purpose. It is as much mysterious as it is pervasive and great.

The providence of God supplies us with confidence that when we veer off course, he watches over and steers us back into the right lane. But his way with us may not always be conventional.

Sometimes we get a glimpse of the value of his saving hand. Psalm 116:8 says, “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” Perhaps there was a financial collapse ahead of me or worse. Where in your life do you perceive God saved you? Some of us, by now, might have been in grave troubles or even dead, but God intervened. Is he not worthy of praise?

The psalmist continues (vv. 12-13):

What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.

The Person God Chooses

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

Nothing is news to God. Our common, human customs and contingencies are atypical of Heaven. What are recent events or developing stories to us were in the mind of God before time. Astounding as it may be, God’s omniscience should be encouraging to those who trust him. His providence means that he mightily and lovingly controls all that can be known. Nothing happens that is outside of his intelligence.

That includes us, too. God knows every aspect of our lives. He understands the range of our unique personalities, our likes and dislikes, desires and temptations, potential, and even the possibilities of an infinite combination of our choices. He knew the when-and-where of our birth before the world existed. He knows about our work, finances, relationships, goals, and health. He has already seen our final days and cross into the afterlife. Again, this is encouraging to know.

NC, Stef Lewandowski, Flickr

NC, Stef Lewandowski, Flickr

He Knows Us

Sometimes we get moody with God, however, because we too know some things about him and ourselves, if only meager by comparison. One thing we realize is that his great holiness and our sinful imprudence don’t comport, and we find it inelegant and awfully hard-to-believe that, beyond our relationship, he still chooses us for his service.

Then, with what has to be exasperating to God, we find other non-issues with which to excuse ourselves from the divine call. Jeremiah saw himself as too young (1:6). Gideon felt he was too poor and wrestled feelings of God’s abandonment (Judges 6:13, 15). Moses deemed himself insignificant, speech-impeded, and ignorant of God (Ex. 3:11-13; 4:10). The first task seems to be God getting us out of the way of his using us!

God tells Jeremiah in very concrete language, “I knew everything there was to know about you before your life began. And I had already determined to use you as my prophet!” This had to be an eye-opening moment for Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 1:5 is one of those verses people often whip out with some use of emotional provocation; however, if we stop and think about it—and put ourselves in Jeremiah’s place—we might catch a glimpse of God’s greatness implied therein.

Still Within His Reach

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives a list of qualifications for overseers and deacons in the church. The bar of moral character is set high. They are reasonable qualities by traditional leadership standards and Christian ideals. Even the secular world today affirms such expectations of Christian leadership.

But to say that Paul’s list requires perfection in any way is to miss the point. God doesn’t call perfect people because there are none. All people, even the most spiritually disciplined ones, daily deal with the very personal problem of sin; and let no one convince you that he or she does not.

Let’s be honest about this: There are many reasons for God to reject us for his service, reasons well beyond the ones we can point out to him. He knows what else lies within our hearts and what will develop there; the circumstances that might activate vice; and how we will deal with it. Still, he chooses us.

Despite all our failings and misgivings, he is eager to make us his ambassadors and to display his strength where we can only prove weak. It is the depth and glory of his love.

So after we’ve messed up big-time, lost our heads and sinned to the max, wanted no part of God and his ways, and then regained our spiritual composure and wondered if he could possibly still use us, let us rest assured that he never left our side and tells us, as he did Peter, “I’ve already prayed for you that your faith wouldn’t fail. Now that you’ve repented and returned to me, go strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32, my paraphrase).

Our Joyful Obligation

This underscores another point. The fact that God is relentless to use us in his service should drive us to serve him better. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 4:1-2, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.”

Such mercy should strike the chord of spiritual discipline within us and cause us to yield to the Holy Spirit’s work to transform us in Christlikeness. This includes our resolution to fight and conquer sin, our willingness to accept our eternal status as God’s debtors, and our conscientious endeavor to think about ourselves as God does.

And to be clear, this isn’t just about those called by God to special or highly visible ministry, such as a pastor. God will use anyone that avails him- or herself to him for the smallest of tasks that spread his character, name, and kingdom. It’s just a matter of degree on our part: how much of ourselves are we willing to give him, including those weak areas of our lives?

No Need to Hide

Let’s be even more candid about Jeremiah 1:5. God, knowing everything there is to possibly know about us, knew the sinful penchants and weights we would deal with in life—the excesses, vile urges, secret rages, and sinful comforts we all have faced.

We hide our indecencies from others like we conceal our naked bodies. We act this way toward God, too. We feel that what is odious and shameful before others should also be hidden from God, for he certainly detests it more; ergo, he will certainly reject us as people do.

First, it is pointless to hide anything from God because he knew about it before we did. Second, we are right to evince an attitude of shame and culpability for the weak and sinful parts of our lives. Yes, Christ took our shame so that we wouldn’t have to be shamed by our sin; however, we respect God’s holiness and should feel uncomfortable about sin controlling any part of us.

NC-ND, Fabrizio Lonzini Flickr

NC-ND, Fabrizio Lonzini, Flickr

But, third, God doesn’t reject us in our sin but asks us to draw near with naked honesty. Only then can we find “the grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). God is not like us. Exposure to his light gives freedom. Remember, Jesus came and took our sin upon himself in order to place his righteousness on us.

Concealing weakness and sin, apart from being a silly thing to do in God’s sight, is unbiblical and more harmful than helpful. Solomon states it best: “Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and renounce them find mercy” (Prov. 28:13).

David says, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Ps. 32:3). God can do more with the heart that prays, Lord, I’m struggling and I need your help, than with the one, like Adam in the Garden, who runs to hide from him.

And let’s be real—some things from our past lives we may struggle with until we die. But God honors the one who keeps fighting while relying on his grace not to be overcome.

Even Our Weakness…an Offering

Moreover, God doesn’t only use us despite our vices but also because of them. Two fish and five loaves of bread were useless to a crowd of multiple thousands. But such a weakness given into Jesus’s hands became a miracle. This is ministry.

The weak areas of our lives that we’re willing to place in God’s hands can be the starting place of healing for someone else. What we are willing to share of our own struggles and deliverances, God can use to draw others to himself. We may not be able to share every detail about our troubled or sinful past, but our honesty before God, in the least, will keep us compassionate and empathic toward others who suffer in ways we did or still do (1 Cor. 6:11).

And as we know of Christ’s ministry, compassion is a portal of the glory of God.

This is why a revamp toward deep spiritual discipline is important. The fruit of the Spirit growing where sin once abounded in our lives is the safeguard that we won’t disregard those who find themselves in our former, unenlightened state. We have an obligation to God to be transformed by what has altered our circumstance.

Jesus, in Matt. 18:21-35, tells the story of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven his debt of 10,000 bags of gold but couldn’t forgive his fellow servant’s debt of 100 silver coins. This incurs God’s judgment. When we’ve received grace, we can offer grace; however, to refuse to do so is egregious sin.

Content to Be His

NC-ND, Dustin Bryson, Flickr

NC-ND, Dustin Bryson, Flickr

Thank God that sin and weakness isn’t enough to change God’s mind about us. He still desires us and can use our lives and various situations to bring others closer to himself. So to all of our shamefulness, outrage, incredulity, and excuses, we are still his choice.

He could send the angels in dazzling displays of heaven-on-earth to preach us out of sin and convince everyone to believe. But, no, he uses “jars of clay” instead (2 Cor. 4:7), cracked and stained and fragile, to show other cracked pots how they too can display the beauty of salvation.