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Where Are You, God?

The little boy was somewhere between four and six years old and had been playing contently with blocks only moments before. But now he was in front of me, crying, and telling me that he couldn’t find his mommy. Libraries are difficult places for children, because there are row after row of shelves that block their lines of sight. Mom could be across the room or just around a shelf; whatever the distance, as far as this little guy was concerned, his mom was just gone, and he was terrified.

The story has a happy ending: we walked to the reference desk, and he remembered his mom’s name. The librarian paged his mom, who hurried to the desk. “Oh, sweetie,” she said, “I told you I was just going to the ladies’ room with your sister for a minute. I wouldn’t ever leave you!” She hugged her little boy and said, “I’m sorry you were afraid, but you did the right thing and asked for help. Good job!”

As I watched, I remembered when my own son was about four and we had gone to the grocery store. As he waited with the cart behind the car, I stopped to buckle his brother into his car seat. With the car between us—even in a very brief amount of time—he became convinced that I had disappeared. Just for that moment, he couldn’t see me, and the wind blew my words away from him so he couldn’t hear me.  In less than half a minute, he went from content to crying, his voice reaching me: “Mommy! Where are you?”

How often, in our lives, do we become convinced that God has left us all alone? Do we ever find ourselves feeling suddenly lost and crying, “God, where are you?” It isn’t cars or library shelves that loom between us, but situations and circumstances in our lives. Troubles seem to leap up and overwhelm us, and in an instant we are terrified: where is God? Is He hiding? Has He left us to fend for ourselves? And will He ever come back?

I know I have felt this way. And I’m not alone: at least three separate psalms (Psalms 10, 13, and 88) deal directly with the feeling that God has hidden His face or forgotten His people. So what can we learn about what to do when it feels like we can’t see or hear God? When trouble overtakes us and we seem to be battling alone?

  • Cry out. Acknowledge your feelings and seek God’s help. Pray and tell Him your needs, your fears, and your need for reassurance. Psalm 13 shows David doing just that: confessing that he feels alone and afraid, and asking for God’s enlightenment and concern.  The author of Psalm 88 also honestly expresses his feelings and begs for God to hear.
  • Make sure that it isn’t you who is moving away from God. Sometimes, when it feels like God has left us, it is really that we have turned away from God. Sins that we don’t repent of can come between us and God. In Isaiah 59, the prophet writes that God’s arm isn’t too short to save or His ears unable to hear, but that iniquities have caused Him not to hear the prayers of His people. If we are feeling alone, it’s a good idea to make sure that we haven’t allowed sin to come between us and God.
  • Remember the blessings that God has brought before. David concludes Psalm 13 by saying that he trusts in God’s mercy and will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with David in the past. Remind yourself of God’s goodness by examining the times that He has helped you before.
  • Get help when you need it. There are some things we just can’t do alone. The boy in the library couldn’t find his mom on his own, so he turned to someone who could help him. Likewise, sometimes we need other people to help us when we feel alone. One of the reasons that it is important to continue assembling together (Hebrews 10:24, 25) is so that we can encourage one another and build a network of support for times of trouble.

In Hebrews 13:5, the apostle Paul reminded the recipients of his letter not to be covetous, but content, because God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. When trouble comes, it is easy to feel that He doesn’t care or that He has gone away, but we have His promise to always be with us, as long as we are walking with Him. When you look up and God seems to have gone, remember that God has promised never to leave. He who has begun a good work in us will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6).

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Beautiful Trials

Winter is descending on Cincinnati, but there are still a few leftovers of fall. A few trees are still clinging to their brightly colored leaves, though those leaves are quickly fading to brown. I remember wondering as a child why the leaves changed color, but I hadn’t thought of that question in years. But recently I read an article that stated that the leaves really aren’t changing color at all: instead, scientists say that the colors we see in fall are in the leaves throughout the year. During the spring and summer, the green color of chlorophyll in the leaves covers the red, orange, or yellow color. When fall comes, with shorter days and colder temperatures, the trees stop producing chlorophyll, and we can see bright colors that have been under that green all along.

I am charmed by the idea that those bright bursts of fall color can only show themselves when the world around them is gray and dreary. The cold temperatures and changes that make fall a blustery, unpredictable month are the same things that reveal the blaze of beauty that has been hidden all along. The trees that might have seemed to be all the same shade of green all year suddenly stand apart from one another. We can even see how healthy a tree is: when a tree isn’t very healthy, its colors won’t be as bright.

As Christians, we experience blustery times in life, too. And when trials come and life gets unpredictable, those are the moments when our true colors stand revealed, too. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, the apostle Paul writes that everyone who builds on the foundation of Jesus Christ should be careful how he builds and what he or she uses as material, because “…each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work…” There are two lessons for us here.

  1. 1.       We have to use the easy times to build for the hard times. When life is running smoothly, it isn’t a time to relax in our spiritual disciplines; it’s time to put in the work that will pay off when trouble comes.
  2. 2.       Hard times will show our true colors. No one wants to experience trials, but they’re going to come to everyone. We have to make sure that we are striving to become like Christ from the inside out.

We can weather the storms of life if we put our trust in God and work diligently in our Christian walk. When we do those things, trials can become times when our true colors show forth brilliant and beautiful, giving hope and courage to others.

 

Recently, we had the opportunity to help a friend with a home repair project. He needed to waterproof his basement, and in order to do that it was necessary to dig a trench beside the basement wall. This was no small undertaking: the trench would need to be about 7 feet deep and 15 feet long, and wide enough that he could stand down in it. Fortunately, several acquaintances had come to help, lured with the promise of free food.

Digging wasn’t the only task at hand, though it was the main objective: as we dug, the growing pile of dirt needed to be raked and shoveled into a stable heap that wouldn’t collapse back onto the diggers. And to make things a little more exciting, our friend and his wife have a toddler and an infant that needed a close eye kept on them. In addition, we had all ages and skill levels represented, from preteens to teenagers to young adults to my husband and I, who are fast approaching middle age.

The further we dug, the heavier the shovels became as the topsoil turned to clay. As the trench got deeper, fewer people could work in it at one time, because we needed more room to swing the shovels. It was dirty, hot, and graceless work as we dug into the earth below where we were standing and then swung shovels full of damp clay up above our heads.

The fascinating thing to me was that we accomplished this task in several hours that were free from complaining, criticism, or anger. We were all so focused on the work we needed to do, and the help we wanted to give our friends, that we worked closely together without a single negative remark. And as we came together in this difficult task, our combined effort showed itself not only in a growing pile of dirt, but also in a growing together of our love for one another. Where we had been only acquaintances, we developed a new bond of respect and love. Where friendship had already existed, it grew deeper as we tackled a challenge together and spurred one another on. As we came together to do the work, the work itself brought us closer together.

As we finished our digging, late in the afternoon, and gratefully dropped our gloves and shovels, I thought about Ephesians 4:15-16, where Paul writes of his hope that we, the body of Christ, “…speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”

Hard work can indeed bring individuals together and build a deep bond between them. But hard work alone is not enough. We have been called to an enormous task, a lifelong commitment to the work of God. What are the things we need to keep in mind as we labor together so that we do form those deep bonds of respect and love?

1)      We have to speak and act in love. One of the things that set our digging party apart was that there was no complaining or criticism. I didn’t hear even one negative word about the work someone else was doing; instead, I heard politeness and encouraging comments: “Thank you.” “Please.” “You’re a rock star!” “Fantastic job!” Despite having to work very closely together—so close that there were occasional near-misses with flying dirt or shovel handles—our feelings remained intact because we spoke and acted in love towards one another.

2)      We have to be focused on the task we’re trying to accomplish. We each had different duties. Some of us spent most of the time babysitting; others took turns digging, or worked with shovels and rakes to keep the dirt from falling back into the trench. But instead of focusing on whatever our task was at the moment, we kept in mind the bigger goal: digging a ditch. It didn’t really matter who spent the most time digging, or who dug fastest, or who never dug at all; the point was that we were laboring together for a specific cause, and we were committed to doing what needed to be done in order to reach that goal.

3)      Every part must do their share, and every part must respect that the others are doing their share. Imagine how poorly we would have worked together if we had spent our time looking at what everyone else was doing and trying to figure out whether what they were doing was as hard as what we were doing. Not only would the work have taken longer, the atmosphere would have been rotten. We were able to finish our task and grow closer together because we respected the jobs that others were doing, even when it was different from what we were doing. One friend made coffee and went out to get pizza; one entertained the toddler and kept him from getting too close to the work; some were digging, some were raking, and some were resting so they could help when one of the others got tired. All of those tasks were necessary for the completion of the work; without even one of those, the work would have been slower and harder. Every person did their task cheerfully and to the best of their ability, and every person respected the others for doing their tasks.

4)      We have to desire to grow together in love. If we didn’t care about each other, we could still get the task done—but we wouldn’t have the benefit of having created positive bonds of friendship, and that task would have been only a difficult chore. In addition, we would have little motivation to ever work together again. But because we all shared a desire to work well together, and acted in love towards each other, we did grow in love—and we know that we can work well together on any other task that comes up.

The body of Christ has an immense task to do, and we can only accomplish it if we remember these things. We must focus on the larger goal, be willing to do our share, respect that others are doing the task that God has given them to do, and we have to truly desire to grow together in love. If we do all those things, we will indeed grow and edify one another in love, and we will accomplish the commission we have been given. If we do our work in love, then the work will bring us closer together.

Fatal Error

My family and I are fond of playing a particular series of popular computer games, where the player takes the place of a detective and must find clues and solve puzzles to identify the culprit. We play as a family, helping each other figure out how to best proceed. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves baffled or, worse, we guide ourselves into a bad misstep: we step too far and fall off the stepping stones, or we blunder so badly that we are sent packing, or we accidentally cause a small explosion, or we take too long figuring out a puzzle in the middle of the winter wilderness…you get the idea. Every game contains several crucial spots in which the unwary detective can make an error so bad that it stops the game. A screen pops up with the message, “You have made a fatal error. Would you like to try again?” The player must select either “Yes” or “No”, thus either returning to a point just before the fatal error, or returning to the beginning of the game.

When we find we have made a fatal error, we are relieved to have the option to say that we would like to try again, that it’s not a permanent failure that results in having lost all of our work. Thinking about this made me think about repentance. So often, it’s easy to think of repentance as what we have to do; it may take on a negative feeling, associated as it is with having made another kind of fatal error: sin. Paul doesn’t call it a fatal error, but he does write, “The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). In Ezekiel 18:4, the Lord Himself says that “The soul who sins shall die.” When we commit sin, we place ourselves under the death penalty once again, and we have to take action in order to step back under the sacrifice of Christ.

It’s hard to say we’re sorry, and it’s hard to repent: to realize that we have stepped outside God’s rule in our life and that we have to admit our mistake. But repentance itself is not a chore: it is a divine gift. This is implied in Acts 11:17, where Peter defends his actions in baptizing Gentiles by saying, “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”

The ability to repent and turn again to God is a gift, a gift that God wants us to use when we have made a fatal error. He doesn’t take pleasure in seeing us caught in perilous places and under the death penalty. To repent is to change one’s mind and purpose, to turn towards God instead of continuing away from Him. And when we repent, the sin we pursued is removed, as God Himself says in Ezekiel 18:21-23. “‘…if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord God, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’”

When we turn away from God, we are given a similar message to the one my family gets when we make a misstep in our computer game. Sin is a fatal error, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice and God’s gracious gift of repentance, we are able to say, “Yes, I’d like to try again.”

When I started working at my job this summer, one of the expectations was that I would become certified in food safety so that I could help in the kitchen. After two months of studying the material and learning how to make sure food that is prepared in a commercial kitchen is safe, I took a test to determine whether my knowledge was sufficient. Fortunately, I scored highly on the exam and so was able to earn the certification.

There was, however, a small problem: I had never worked in a commercial kitchen, not even the one that I was now—in theory—certified to run. I had a head full of knowledge, and a certificate to prove it, but I had never used any of it. I knew how to prepare food safely, but I hadn’t prepared a single thing in actual practice. The solution, of course, was training under the kitchen supervisor. As I worked to her directions, I learned how to apply all the things I had learned, not just in any kitchen, but specifically in this kitchen.

The process reminded me of what James wrote: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:22-25, NIV).

We are certainly expected to learn from the word of God, and to gain knowledge of what the Bible tells us about God’s way of life. But if we only gain the knowledge and fail to apply it, it’s not going to help us or anyone else; we will be as useless as I would have been in the kitchen on the day I took my exam. Studying alone only does so much to help us grow: we have to study and then apply that knowledge to our lives.

I studied kitchen safety with a definite purpose in mind: to be able to be a useful helper when an extra pair of hands is needed. But all my reading and studying could not prepare me for the actual work I needed to do. For that, I had to put my knowledge into action to gain real experience. In the process, I am becoming a reliable and knowledgeable helper. In the same way, when we read the Bible and then apply the principles we learn, we become useful for God’s purposes.

Provoking Peace

 

I open my Facebook page and try to catch up on my friends’ news. But instead of seeing the camp photos, summer trip stories, and new baby updates I’m looking for, I find myself scrolling past heated words, pictures and cartoons with in-your-face messages, and status updates designed to provoke. My Twitter account is no better as friends and acquaintances of various backgrounds and ideologies loudly proclaim their allegiance and belief in the causes about which they’re passionate. Rather than feeling connected with anyone, I start the day feeling like everyone is unpleasant. I haven’t said a word to anyone yet, but it feels like the world is shouting at me, and sometimes it’s using words that aren’t very nice.

I might be the only person who has had this experience, but I suspect that there are others out there. Many seem to be wondering whether society is getting ruder, or whether we’re just noticing it more. And the problem is intensified on the Internet, where some seem to lose their inhibitions when it comes to speaking in rude, provocative, or angry ways. Often, bold or harsh statements are made in a passive-aggressive way: just vague enough that when someone’s feelings are hurt, the author can say, “Well, I’m not angry. I’m just saying how I see things.” Or, “I didn’t say I was talking about anyone specific.”  Others claim the more altruistic motives of “just telling the truth” or “trying to make people more aware.” But whatever the reasoning or the motive, the result is not harmony, education, or enlightenment; instead, these words that fill my screen (and perhaps yours) often result in hurt feelings, damaged relationships, loss of respect, and the creation of a hostile environment.

Does the Bible have anything to say about what seems to be a very modern problem? I found an interesting passage in the book of Proverbs as I was thinking about this.

“If you have been foolish in exalting yourself,
Or if you have devised evil, put your hand on your mouth.
For as the churning of milk produces butter,
And wringing the nose produces blood,
So the forcing of wrath produces strife”
(Proverbs 30:32-33, NKJV).

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that the “forcing of wrath” is equivalent to purposely irritating someone, provoking them to anger. Strife and anger follow provocative behavior and words. I can certainly testify to that; when others’ words are meant to provoke, my initial reaction is anger. I want to respond with my own harsh words or provoking statements. But we, as Christians, are called to a different reaction. We are also called to a different action.

Perhaps the clearest summation of how we ought to guide our conduct was written by James. He advised, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18, NKJV).

When we compare the proverb to James’s instructions, we can quickly see the similarity. Exalting ourselves, says the proverb, is foolish. James points out that wisdom is meek and willing to yield. Righteousness, he continues, is sown by those who make peace; strife—which is the opposite of peace—is created by those who force wrath. There are two options open to us when we choose how to act or how to speak: wisdom and folly. Wise choices—righteous choices—lead to peace. They create it where it may not have existed previously. By contrast, foolish, provocative behaviors create wrath and strife where it may not have been before.

Rude and obnoxious behavior is nothing new. It has existed as long as humans have been alive. We can see from the book of Proverbs that provocative behavior was not born in the Internet age. The same choices that were open to the ancients—peace or strife, wisdom or folly—are open to us today. We can either choose to say the sharp, provocative thing, or we can choose to stop shouting and start making peace. Only one of those choices shows us as truly wise.

There are times in our lives when we seem to experience nothing but setbacks: a lost job, money trouble, difficult relationships, illness, or other trials. As we struggle to continue through the trial and learn whatever lesson we can from it, we can feel as though God must be punishing us for something. We can wonder whether it will ever end. And we can even find some of the promises in the Bible to sound a little hollow.

Take for example the first psalm in the book of Psalms. Here, the psalmist writes of the man who follows God,

“He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalms 1:3, NKJV).

Surely I am not alone in having that last line give me pause. Don’t we all know people who seem to do good and follow God, and yet they have extreme difficulties in their lives? Haven’t we been there ourselves? When we see trial after trial come to us or to others, it doesn’t seem like these words can possibly be true. How can we be prospering when life is so painful?

It may be that we are incomplete in our definition of prospering. When we think of someone who is prosperous, we tend to think of someone who is wealthy, well, and whole. We wouldn’t, for instance, think of an imprisoned slave. Yet when we read of Joseph in Genesis 39, that’s exactly what we find. Imagine the scenario from Joseph’s point of view: he had been the favorite son of his father, cherished and at ease. And then he is seized by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery. While enslaved in Potiphar’s house, he did just what he should have done when tempted to sin: he ran away from the sin and obeyed God. Yet for his obedience to God, he ended up being thrown into prison.

The Bible doesn’t record Joseph’s thoughts, but I can imagine that in his place, I would have been pretty discouraged. What the Bible does record is this: “The keeper of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (Genesis 39:23, NKJV).  Here we see two things of note. First, the Lord was with him. And second, God made whatever he did prosper.

So even while Joseph was in the direst of circumstances, God had not abandoned him or forsaken him; instead, the Lord was with him every step of the way. And whatever was given to Joseph to do, Joseph prospered in because the Lord made it so. The outside circumstances weren’t the mark of whether Joseph was prospering. Instead, the prospering happened in what Joseph had control over and, we can argue, in the growth he experienced. The end of the story isn’t in this prison. The end of the story is with Joseph as second in command of Egypt, saving the Egyptian people from famine and reconciling himself to his family.

God had a bigger plan in store for Joseph than simply being the favored son. But to get there, Joseph was going to have to walk through some scary circumstances, over which he had no control. God gave Joseph trials to allow him the opportunity to grow in strength and faith, so that he would be ready for the role God wanted him to play. And all along the way, the Lord walked with him and helped him so that even in the middle of prison, whatever Joseph found to do was blessed. Often, the hard times in our lives are times that are allowed by God in order for us to grow into some new opportunity. And that is prospering!

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