Accepting Blessings

 

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There are two particular passages in Scripture that help us to understand the consequences of refusing to receive a blessing with gratitude.  We often talk about blessings as being those things that we wished for.  We say we are blessed when things are going according to our plan.  But God sometimes has a different definition of blessing than we do.  He often sends blessings that are entirely opposite of what we think we want, and yet the impact of goodness that comes with them is even greater than our plan.  Sometimes God sends more babies when we wish we could be done, sometimes God provides a new job in a new city when we don’t want to move, sometimes He leads us to selling our home when we really wish we could keep it.  There are many more ways that He calls us to do something we either don’t want to do or think we are ill equipped for.

In Numbers 14, the people of Israel curse Moses and question God for bringing them out of Egypt.  They complain that the people of Canaan are too strong for them, and they long be back in their days of slavery.  They look at the direction God is sending them and it looks too hard, too risky, too scary.  God has told them there is great blessing on the other side, but they can’t see past the tough stuff they must get through to get to the beauty of the promise land.  God is not pleased with this lack of faith.  He takes the blessing from them because they do not have the faith to see it as a blessing.  Instead he gives the blessing to their children, and they must stay in the wilderness until they die and their children are ready to take the land

In Luke 1, Zacharias is told that he will finally be given the blessing of a son.  But, instead of believing the word of the Lord, He questions how God will be able to bring it about.  Instead of accepting the news with joy and faith, he is doubtful of its truth.  God is not pleased with his doubt.  He strikes him with muteness until after John is born.

When a blessing comes our way, even if it is disguised in lots of hard work, sleepless nights, uncertainty, and confusion, God wants us to receive it in faith.  He wants us to believe that the magnitude of blessedness will far outweigh the hard work that comes at the outset.  When the Israelites were facing the people of Canaan, God wanted them to look past the strength of the opposing army and see a land flowing with milk and honey that was promised to them.  When the angel told Zacharias he was going to finally have a son, God wanted Zacharias to look past the confusion and uncertainty of the situation and receive the blessing of a child with joy and hope.

Many times in my life I have seen a big change on the horizon and groaned with worry about all that needed to be done instead of focusing on how that change would bring with it a greater amount of blessing in our lives. When God called our family to move across the country, I faced my unpacked home with anxiety.  I added up the hours I had in a week and found that I had none left for moving a home, especially with toddlers running around.  I constantly made mental lists of all the details: change of address forms, new internet service, changing banks, finding a church, readjusting my shopping routines, etc.  Of course all these things need to be done and it is necessary to have some level of organization when a change comes, but God wants us to see past all of that and give thanks for the good things that are on the other side.  He wants us to lay aside the worry and the need to have everything figured out.  Fear keeps us focused on the “how” and the “when” instead of giving us the courage and hope to see the great benefits.  The hard work is a means to a greater end.

God is always moving us from glory to glory, refining us, and sanctifying us for our good and His glory.  Often moving from one glory to the next glory seems challenging and sometimes impossible.  This is the way we see God working through all of Scripture: when things are getting hard and the enemies appear to be giants, blessing and glory are right around the corner.  He wants our cheerful obedience.  He wants His people to march around the walls seven times and in the end it is the shouts of joy that bring the walls of Jericho tumbling down.

Trusting God in Long Illness

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I was recently listening to an interview with an MD on treating chronic illness. He mentioned that one of the exercises he prescribes to his patients is to keep a journal of symptoms, improvements, relapses, and any changes made to diet and lifestyle. Besides this being a helpful tool for the doctor to know what is working, his reason was because when a patient is feeling ill, they have a hard time remembering that they have made any progress. And when a patient has a good day, they have a hard time remembering that they are sick and need to care for themselves with rest and nutrition. The journal was to work as a tool for keeping the patient on the right track, and to give them encouragement because they could see the progress however slow.

Chronic pain and chronic illness can cause us to forget all kinds of things. We forget what it is like to be well. I remember having a cold as a child, and I could not remember what it was like to breath through my nose, although I’m sure the cold lasted only a week.  Sickness brings short-term memory loss. More importantly, we forget that we have God on our side. When Moses sent the men to scout Canaan before moving in, most of them returned in fear of the fortified cities and giant men. They allowed the reality of the situation to cloud their faith. But, as Joshua and Caleb pointed out, they forgot the key factor. Strong walls and strong men are nothing compared to the strength of God. David knew this when he stood across from Goliath. He knew that without God the odds were not in his favor. In illness, we can easily fear the future. We can fear what doctors tell us . They are looking at lab reports and medical files and comparative illnesses. They are looking at what they believe to be reality. But doctors often do not factor in God’s strength. Even when facing the reality of a chronic or incurable illness, God is on our side. Even if we have to live through all the horrifying symptoms and procedures, God is on our side.

Chronic illness brings with it plenty of fuel for discouragement and despair. Besides the fact of suffering through the physical pain, the fear that the pain will worsen is frequently present. The pain itself can drain courage out of you. James says that testing our faith brings patience, and patience bring perfection.  If we do not have the wisdom to understand the test then we must pray for God to open our eyes. James found a direct link between suffering and joy. My husband often tells me that emotions are like nerves. Our experiences cause emotional reactions, just how physical contact causes nerves to react. James is saying that the emotional reaction to the experience of suffering should be joy. But that is not a natural reaction. The natural reaction to suffering is despair, which is why we have to pray for wisdom. We have to pray for the wisdom to feel joy when we suffer.  We have to pray for the Spirit to do His work in us so that we can see the joy in suffering.

The most intense frustration with chronic illness is the limitations that it places on your life. Often illnesses stand in the way of doing the things we love the most, sometimes they even stand in the way of performing basic work that we would otherwise be content to do. Illness can stand in the way of building and maintaining friendships, and of accomplishing goals and plans. The Westminster Catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. If that is our purpose, and we believe God to be all sovereign over our life, then accepting His will to lay in a sick bed is following His calling. I think we often talk about “our calling” like it is our life-work. But our calling is really just doing whatever God has put right in front of us each day. If chronic fatigue is right in front of you, then God has called you to glorify Him and enjoy Him on the couch. We don’t have to be discouraged over canceled plans or goals, because God’s will for our days will be whatever He does with them. Sickness brings with it a stressful panic for relief, for healing, for finding the right doctor or medication. God has counted every single hour of the illness, and in Him we can find the peace to live through illness with patience. He knows when and how relief will come, and He will always bring it at just the right time.

Idols Crashing Down

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In Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts, she talks about giving thanks for all things.  She spends most of the book focusing on gratitude for the small things like the moon and flowers and chocolate, but she includes the exhortation that is is necessary to give thanks even for tough circumstances.  She calls this hard eucharisteo.  It is hard to give thanks for the tough things.  How do we give thanks for a chronically sick child or a dying friend or financial devastation?  How do we go about actually feeling gratitude for those things?  Voskamp suggests that we begin with the words and the feelings will follow.  Gratitude opens our eyes to good.

If you are struggling to be thankful for hard circumstances, start by thanking God for the fruit.  When God brings you something that you do not like, something hard, we know that it is for our good.  As we thank Him for our circumstances, our eyes are opened to fruit in us that He is using this hardship to grow.  Pruning, although painful, produces a generous harvest.  But you may still struggle to see the fruit because it takes time to grow.  If you struggle to see fruit, give thanks for the idols that you see crashing down. I have often found my hardships to be perfectly aimed at my own personal idols.  I have found that God brings hardship to the area of my life which I have started to love more than Him.  The hardship tears my idols apart, until only God is left to bring me joy.

Before I had children, I loved saying yes to everything.  I loved being involved with every event that I could, I loved running events, I loved being involved with my church and school.  If there was something to sign up for, my name was on the list.  While this is not a sin, I began to make an idol out of it.  I found so much self-gratification out of serving the community this way, that it drove many of my decisions and even friendships.  I took great pride in being dependable.  Then God gave me a baby that needed more from me than I had imagined.  I found that it was nearly impossible to commit to anything.  I was home most of the time trying to figure out nap schedules and nursing and swaddling and how to comfort a colicky baby.  I was lonely.  I felt like I was not doing anything worthwhile because nobody could see anything I was doing.  God took my idols of “community involvement” and “people pleasing” and smashed them.  I had to look to Him for joy and value.

Seasons of life bring their own unique challenges and hardships.  We can welcome the hardships because we know that God uses hardships like a sword, tearing down all the things that stand between us and Him.  Give thanks for all the things that are falling.  Maybe you have are gifted athletically, but you have an injury that will take months to heal.  Give thanks that God will not let you make an idol out of fitness.  Maybe you have always wanted to be married, but the circumstances have not worked out that way yet.  Give thanks that God will not let you make an idol out of marriage.  Maybe you excel in hospitality, but chronic illness is keeping you from opening your home.  Give thanks that God will not let you make an idol our of hospitality.  Maybe you extremely talented in your field of work, but babies or aging parents are requiring you to spend more time at home.  Give thanks that God will not let you make an idol out of work.

 It is not uncommon for the Lord to test us on the things we love the most.  When He asked Abraham for the life of his son, He wanted to see Abraham’s devotion to Him.  God wanted to see that Abraham loved Him with his whole heart.  God wanted Abraham to see that he loved Him with his whole heart.  When you are asked to lay your most prized possession on an altar, prepare to see all your idols crashing down around you.  No matter how much joy they may bring you, when your idols crash you find that God is your only comfort, and that is the sweetest place to be.

Remembering

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I would apologize for my long absence from writing on this blog, but in all honestly I’m not really sorry. I have been putting all my energy into getting hot dinners on the table, keeping school uniforms clean, corralling the crayons, surviving a thousand winter illnesses (isn’t that always what happens the first year of living anywhere?), and working on a bigger writing project. But here I am, back again, with some thoughts from Psalm 136.

Psalm 136 is a song of gratitude to God for His mercy. The Psalm opens with “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”   The last line (for His mercy endures forever) ends every verse in the Psalm.  The writing walks through the history of creation, through the deliverance from Egypt, through the victories against the Amorites, and through God’s direction in leading the Israelites to their new home.  This was written as a song that the people of God could sing in worship and it acted as a reminder for all the the Lord had done for His people in protecting and guiding them.

One of the common enemies of Christians is fear, anxiety, and worry.  This isn’t a new struggle.  When God’s people first came to the promise land, the spies (with the exception of Caleb and Joshua) were too afraid to pursue the promise because the people dwelling in that land were strong and terrifying.  We still struggle with this.  We are afraid of financial devastation, of illness, of terrorism, of death.  It cripples us.  We are even too afraid of what others think of us.  We worry about the present and the future.  We worry about the past and psychologically our culture is infatuated with defining people by their past trauma.

This is where Psalm 136 comes as a glorious example to us of how to break free from the sin of fear.  We have to remember.  The Psalmist remembers all that God has done and writes a song so others can remember too.  When we look back on our story with eyes of gratitude, scanning our chapters for moments of His mercy, we are reminded of how good He has been.  What if you wrote the story of your life like the Psalm 136?

I was born into a Christian family, with my whole body functioning perfectly, for His mercy endures forever.

I was given nourishing food, education, and siblings to be my friends, for His mercy endures forever.

I was given a spouse to sharpen me and love me and care for me, for His mercy endures forever.

My body was sustained through pregnancies and c-sections, for His mercy endures forever.

I could go on and on.  He has shown mercy to me in a thousand ways.  When we remember all these mercies, the big ones and the little ones, it gives us the faith to have courage in the future.  Remembering His mercy is the arrow that pierces fear.  Remembering is our shield to face the future with the assurance of His protection.  Remembering His mercy is the lens to look at the past without regret or bitterness.  Cling to the good things He has already done and you will find faith that He will be good on every day in the future.

Worry

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I have been thinking recently about the nature of worry.  It is a sin that we are pretty quick to excuse, sometimes perhaps because we confuse worry with concern.  Concern is often on some else’s behalf and it often has a conclusive action on our part.  If I am concerned for my friend because she looked really tired, I can offer to watch her kids or take her a meal.  If I am concerned for my child because they are sick, I can take them to the doctor to get them medicine.  But worry doesn’t have an action that is helpful.  Worry is caught-up in the what-ifs.  Worry is us telling ourselves a bad story.  Worry is usually about our own well-being instead of some else’s.  Here is the interesting thing about worry that I have been meditating on: worry is telling ourselves a story where we sin in the future.

I worry about not having any money because I am afraid of not having food or clothing or a home.  I am worried that I might be discontent in the future.  I worry about illness because I won’t be able to do the things I love to do.  I am worried that I might be selfish in the future.  I worry about loosing someone I love because I will be in the pit of despair without them.  I am worried that I might wallow in self-pity in the future.

Do you see what I mean?  Worry is telling myself that I will have a live a hard story and I will just be sinning up a storm in the middle of that story.  It is telling myself that in this bad, hard story I will not be rejoicing and I will be discontent and I will not be loving others or loved by them. But what about the fact that I am sinning in my current story with all this worry?  No wonder Christ told us to stop it. I am telling myself that if disaster comes then I will not have the strength of the Holy Spirit and I will not have the support of the church.  Worry is telling myself a lie.  Worry is telling myself that I will not have a Comforter or a comforter.  It is taking the worst case scenario about tomorrow and robbing it of all God’s graces and mercies.

Psalm 112:7 says “They will have no fear of bad news, their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”  It is only possible to have no fear of bad news if we believe the Lord when He says He will be with us through the deep waters, He will guide us with His counsel, He is trust-worthy.  Whatever the future holds, there God will be, ready to protect us from sin, ready to enable us to rejoice.

Faith and Authority

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When Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, saying, “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.”

Jesus saith unto him, “I will come and heal him.”  

The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.”

When Jesus heard it, he marveled, and said to them that followed, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.  And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And Jesus said unto the centurion, “Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the same hour.” (Matthew 8)

I often hear faith equivocated with being bold, with putting everything on the line and not being afraid to take risks.  I hear people talking about faith as a lack of worry when things aren’t looking so great.  I hear of faith as a reassurance in your heart and soul that you have been bought with His blood.  Faith has many facets, and faith manifests itself in our stories in many different ways.  In His interaction with the centurion, Christ gives us another angle on faith that many of us miss.  The centurion tells Christ if He will just say the words then his servant will be healed.  How does he know this?  Because he understands authority and submission and obedience, and he believes that Jesus is God the Creator, which means that Jesus has authority over words and bodies and “the palsy”.  Jesus says this is the greatest faith he has seen in all of Israel!  It is so easy to skip over the centurion’s explanation of his own ranking in the military line of authority and think that his faith is praised because he believes Christ is a healer.  But that is not what is happening here.  Jesus praises the centurion’s faith because the centurion understands authority, and he understands that if Christ is in authority of heaven and earth then His words cannot return void.  He merely has to speak the word and the servant will be healed.

We are drowning in a culture that has no idea how authority should function.  We are a people who dishonors parents, who disrespects teachers, who humiliates pastors, who pokes fun at political leaders, who complains about bosses, who tears down husbands.  We think we have a right to disrespect men or women in authority because we disagree with them.  It is possible that the only place where we even begin to properly recognize authority is within sports, on the ball-field, with coaches and umpires and referees, but even then we feel it is our right to scream and yell if we do not get our way.  Perhaps the military has a small grasp on how to respect an authority, which was the case with the centurion.  Of all the men in Israel, Jesus had found no one else whose faith was as strong as the centurion’s.  His understanding and respect of Jesus’ authority was attributed to him as faith.

How can we even begin to understand faith when we are so confused on what it means to respect authority?  Christ is our King!  I think we spend more time meditating Christ as a servant than meditating on being obedient to His marching orders.  We focus so much on the cross (which is wonderful!!), but we forget that our faith is not only believing in that event.  What happens next?  Christ says that if we love Him we will obey His commands.  Our faith is manifested in following His lead, in obeying Him, in recognizing His authority over all words and events.  Our faith is manifested in joyful submission to whatever He is doing in our lives and however He has chosen to tell our stories.

And what has He done in your life?  Has he given you parents? Honor them, speak kind words about them.  Has He given you a husband? Praise him, defer to him, obey him.  Has He given you a pastor? Treat him with respect, listen to him, trust him.  Has He given you a boss?  Obey them, work hard for them, speak kindly of them.

We are quick to think of exceptions, aren’t we?  We are quick to say “yes, but what about when an authority is mistreating you?  When an authority is not acting wisely? When your boss really does overwork you and underpay you?  When your parents act selfishly?”  We are quick to think we are all Abigails and it would be Godly to call our husbands fools.  We are quick to compare our authority figures to Sisera and think of ourselves as Jael. We are quick to think that because an authority figure has made a mistake or has a weakness it gives us the right to speak out against them and demand an apology.  We are quick to say that because it is possible to abuse authority, therefore no one should have authority, and we mock and start name calling so everyone knows that NO AUTHORITY IS ABSOLUTE.  It is very possible that we are focusing on the wrong end of the spectrum.  Christ equivocates the centurion’s faith with his understanding of obedience under authority.  Maybe we should spend more time looking for ways to respect authority than looking for exceptions, and maybe this would be accounted to us as faith.  Maybe the faith that Christ is asking us to show is faith in the ones He has placed in authority in your story, faith that He wants you to honor and respect them, faith that He knows all their faults and shortcomings and He knows how obedience to them will work in your story for your good.

There will be situations where authority is abused, where husbands are lazy and ask too much of their wives, where parents are selfish and put ridiculously restraining rules on their children, where governments tax too much.  Remember David?  When his King and father-in-law was chasing him through the Desert of En Gedi trying to kill him and Saul fell asleep in the cave?  David’s men were urging him to kill Saul, but instead David just cut off a corner of his robe.  And afterward “David’s heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul’s skirt. And he said unto his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD’S anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD. So David stayed his servants with these words, and suffered them not to rise against Saul.”(1 Samuel 24)  David was on the run.  He fled from Saul multiple times.  He did not put his own life in danger or the lives of the men with him, but He refused to harm the one that God had chosen to put in authority over Israel.  That was the Lord’s decision, and David’s faith was manifested in recognizing that he had no right to harm one whom the Lord put in authority over him.  There is obviously a time when fleeing from an authority is right, when disagreeing with an authority is wise, and turning an authority over to a greater authority is prudent, but we often think that this is a free pass for disrespect.  We are often more interested in making sure everyone else knows about how we were wronged than about forgiveness and having faith that the Lord is the judge and He will not let our righteousness be overlooked.

For the Lord loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off.

The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever.

The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment.

The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.

The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him.

The Lord will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him when he is judged.

Wait on the Lord, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land: when the wicked are cut off, thou shalt see it.

I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.

Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.

Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.

But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off.

But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble.

And the Lord shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him. (Psalm 37)