What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
1 Kings 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

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Running on Empty

gas guageAs a child, George Mueller stories struck me as particularly romantic and exciting. I dreamed of living that amazing, edge-of-your-seat kind of life, constantly getting stuck in crises and then watching God show up with His miraculous deliverance.

But living the stories on a daily basis is radically different from listening to them from a comfy couch. For those whose lives are defined by constantly wondering where the money is going to come from to pay each pending bill or by surviving one crisis only to face another, this lifestyle is far from the exhilarating rush that many imagine. It is an exhausting way to live.

Faith is an exhausting way to live.

I suspect that at times, Jesus’ disciples reached the point where they would have gladly traded their adventures for a couch, the opportunity to sit and listen to other people’s exciting stories rather than endure yet another grueling test of faith. Being sent out without an expense account probably got old after a while, and healing one town-full of sick people only to face the next was hardly rejuvenating.

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Mark 6:30-31

Exhausted and empty, they came to Jesus for some much needed refueling. Hopefully with Him around they wouldn’t have to bear the weight of constant responsibility for themselves and for everyone else. But the crowds were inescapable and the needs incessant.

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32-34

Even Jesus’ attempts to get away for some R&R were perpetually frustrated. True to His teachings, Jesus never relieved Himself of the responsibility to love the many “neighbors” who kept tracking Him down. And faithful to their Master, His disciples never took a day off from following in His footsteps.

By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Mark 6:35-36

But when their own resources were so completely depleted, how could they possibly keep giving out? The hour was late, their stomachs were empty, and their emotional wells had long-since run dry. Surely it was reasonable to ask the crowds to sort themselves out for a while. What else could Jesus possibly expect of them?

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages ! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
Mark 6:37

Just when they felt fully within their rights to take a sabbatical from the whole Good Samaritan business, Jesus upped the stakes. He pushed them beyond the limits of their carefully hoarded resources, calling them to cater for a hungry crowd big enough to make Martha cry. And who would bear the financial burden for such a massive undertaking? Jesus sent them to take an inventory of their own impossibly meager stash.

“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.”

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.
Mark 6:38-39

In their poverty and exhaustion, all the disciples could see was what they didn’t have. But Jesus called them to count the resources already provided for them. Sure that child-sized lunch would only put a drop in the bucket of their need, but like the widows’ last handful of grain in Elijah’s time, it was the seed form of the multiplying miracle that Jesus was about to do. All that they needed had already been provided.

Our tanks may be on empty,
but His never run dry.

Of course from a human standpoint, their needs were far from supplied. Counting those tiny loaves and fish while eyeing a crowd of five thousand was almost laughable. But what the disciples forgot to count was the vast storehouses of the One who was asking so much of them. In their slavish worry over how they would accomplish the impossible, they forgot that with Him all things are.

So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
Mark 6:40-43

Nevertheless, in obedient faith they set the table, raising the expectations of those around them and risking that they all might be disappointed. Piece by piece they kept handing out whatever Jesus handed them, never knowing when the stream of bread would dry up. And moment by moment, God faithfully supplied the manna for each person under their care.

In the most backhanded way imaginable, Jesus was refueling His disciples’ faith tank. Rather than relieving them of responsibility or offering them a spiritual retreat, He supplied them with the opportunity to witness Him at work through them. Their step-by-step faith was an integral part of the miracle that He gradually unfolded before their eyes, one they never could have foreseen and yet in retrospect would love to retell.

Like the disciples, we want the comfort of seeing God’s provision in advance. We get tired of feeling forever on the edge of physical and emotional bankruptcy. But so much of our feeling of emptiness comes from looking at what we don’t have, worrying over where tomorrow’s provision will come from. Instead, Jesus calls us to look back at what He has already supplied. With Him at our right hand, those negligible scraps become the basis for all we need and more.

The most amazing of His miracles come through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit.

Our tanks may be on empty, but His never run dry. The most amazing of His miracles don’t come with a sudden bang, but rather through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit. Only at the end of each day will we be able to look back and see how all of our needs have been supplied, with basketfuls of leftovers to share.

Don’t forget to count them.

When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Dead before God

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
Hans Holbein,
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

Dear Weary Warrior,

I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. You have braved so many battles, stood strong through storms that would have sunk a lesser man.

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.
Psalm 88:15-17

Anyone looking at all you have been through might be tempted to wonder why God has been so hard on you. After all, aren’t you His son? And yet He has allowed blow after blow to knock the wind out of you. The painful events that He has ordained for your life are so huge that your sufferings have come to define you.

For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
Psalm 88:3-5

No wonder you are a dead man, drained of life and numb before God. No wonder all you can do is lie there like a corpse, unable to work, unable to fight, unable to feel anything other than exhaustion beyond your years. You have born enough trouble and grief to count for many lifetimes. In fact, you have shouldered the weight of the world, and that cross has crushed you.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
Psalm 88:6-9

Does the darkness of the grave disturb you? Do you feel like you should be able to resist this, too, to somehow throw off the grave clothes and dig your way out from underneath that massive stone? And yet you simply can’t. The life has been pummeled out of you until all that is left is an empty shell. As much as you would like to escape this current state, there is nothing you can do but lie there in the grave: helpless, still, undone.

Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Psalm 88:10-12

Are you wondering about God’s purposes for your life? Statements about your glorious future probably feel like a mockery right now. The only thing you can see in front of you is the ugly black wall that traps you in. How in the world can your current condition bring glory to the God you have served? It seems to testify against His faithfulness and love, not to them. Wouldn’t a dramatic deliverance serve His purposes better than debilitating oblivion?

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. …even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you…
Psalm 139:7-12

But that isn’t what He has chosen for you right now. Resurrection might come in the morning, but for now He has provided night. This grave is your shelter from the storms that await you outside. It blocks the blinding light and muffles the sharp sounds that threaten to overwhelm you. Snuggle into its swaddling clothes and let the darkness hold you tight. You are here with God.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139:13-15

He has been with you from before the time you had consciousness, before the time you were aware of your identity or your commission. He created you with the physical and emotional limitations that now hold you down. His perfect design of your body included the inability to pass through every storm unscathed, to resist succumbing to the death that now defines you.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Psalm 139:16-18

In fact, this day is among those that He wrote for you in His book. For today your assignment is not to save the world, to preach the kingdom, to heal the masses. Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God. Tomorrow will eventually come, when hope dawns and the “new you” emerges. But God is not in a rush to get you there. He created this gap between death and resurrection for a reason.

Today your job is simply to exist, cut off from the land of the living but near to the heart of God.

This is your space to simply be with Him, the Sabbath for your soul. Sleep in His presence. Lie numbly and do nothing in His presence. Cry if you want to, or let Him do it for you if your tears won’t come. You don’t have to answer the questions of the cosmos or figure out how this is working together for your good. You have committed your spirit into His hands. Now simply let Him hold you.

Today, darkness is your friend.