Category Archives: Lent

A Place for Pleasure

IMG_8283A post on pleasure in the middle of Lent? The irony has not escaped me. And yet as my husband has astutely pointed out, the very messiness of theology done at the crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come demands a degree of irony. Sweetness in the midst of sorrow. Pleasure in the midst of pain.

For years I have only valued these conflicting experiences the other way around. My mind would resonate in agreement with Wesley’s pithy statement to his Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Moments of mirth or passing pleasures seemed to me just that: temporary, trivial experiences that had little value in the overall picture of things.

But in His perfect irony, God has chosen this season of Lent to be the time in which He is calling me to make space for pleasure in my life.

The very messiness of theology done at the
crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come
demands a degree of irony.

Since childhood I have been trained in hard work, self-discipline, and kingdom living. As a young adult, I was profoundly influenced by John Piper’s analogy of adopting a war-time mentality in prioritizing my time, efforts, and resources for the work of God’s kingdom. But because my understanding of that kingdom was largely limited to the heavenly realm, I was left with little cause to invest in earthly pleasures. An expensive dinner out with my husband. An indulgent pamper-treatment at home on my own. None of these seemed worth the time or expense in light of eternity.

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:2, 5

But God has been showing me that pleasure is not just bookended on the front and back end of eternity. He did not put it on a cosmic hold once the perfection of the Garden was broken. And He is not waiting for the golden streets of Heaven to finally roll it back out as a godly part of our experience.

He makes …plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:14-15, 28

Pleasure is a part of God’s plan for the here and now, even if it is intermixed with tears and toil. He has created in us desires that He then delights in satisfying. He weaves pleasure into the fabric of our everyday lives: food that is intended to taste good, wine that is meant to make us feel giddy, faces that are designed to look beautiful, and sensory experiences that are supposed to make us stop in our tracks out of sheer ecstasy.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

Obviously God has much to say about not making a god out of earthly pleasures by overly indulging in or pursuing them before Him. But that does not negate their value in His estimation. If anything, His promise to add all these things to us when we seek first His kingdom reinforces the importance of their place in our lives. He gives us beautiful clothes and delicious food along with His kingdom and His righteousness.

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” …”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. John 4:32-34
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘
Matthew 11:19

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the example of Jesus. He was all about the kingdom: eating, sleeping, and preaching it day and night. He certainly wasn’t overly attached to creature comforts, voluntarily going without them for long periods of time in His pursuit of God. And yet He also had quite a reputation for enjoying Himself at parties.

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
Matthew 26:6-7

Even in the midst of the intensity and passion of holy week, Jesus made space for pleasure. In between passionate temple cleansings and intensive final instructions, He found the time to hang out at a banquet table, savoring fine food and wine with His friends. He didn’t get the meal to go. And He didn’t rush the perfumed head and foot massage that came with it. He simply enjoyed it as a gift from God.

Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain,
I do it all as an act of worship.

And that is the point. Physical pleasure is a gift from God. Far from being a distraction from God, it is meant to be enjoyed with God. My stripped down, productivity-driven lifestyle may make more room for ministry, but it has crowded out the ability to enjoy God and His good gifts. I need to take a lesson from Jesus, knowing when to push through hardship and when to stop for pleasure.

If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
I Corinthians 10:30-31

So even in the midst of Lent’s austerity, God is punctuating my sobriety with mirth, my fasts with indulgence, and my focus with frivolity. While it all seems a bit unorthodox, I am finding great pleasure in enjoying both ends of the spectrum in His presence. Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain, I do it all as an act of worship.

God’s pleasure is my own. My pleasure is His.

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A Friend to God

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Lent again.

My tummy grumbles and my spirit joins in. I don’t really feel like forty days of self-imposed discomfort.

What’s the point? Life is tough enough as it is. Why add to the misery?

But then I think of someone I love. He has gone through incredibly tough stuff, grief beyond my ability to comprehend. I want to be able to relate to Him, to understand what makes Him tick. But how can I if I don’t share His experiences?

Abraham got a chance to do just that. He got to know what it would feel like to lose his only child. He experienced the heart-rending agony of a father watching his son silently plead for mercy as he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? … And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
James 2:21-23

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Abraham was getting a backstage pass into God’s cosmic play. He was getting the chance to enact God’s future story, to experience the same grief and elation that God the Father would feel over the death and resurrection of His only Son.

Moses, too, got the inside scoop on God. He got to bear the brunt of an ungrateful crowd griping about how he was handling things, angry about their health and safety conditions and ready to get rid of him as soon as he had outlived his usefulness to them. He also got to feel the agonized betrayal of a people head-spinningly quick to forget all he had done for them when their convenience or comfort was at stake.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” …As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. …The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
Exodus 33:7-11

But along with the pain, Moses got the privilege of being God’s friend. He got to feel what God feels and know what God thinks. Incredibly, he even got to chat with God face to face, swapping stories about the “kids” and deciding how they would handle them. Sometimes they argued, often they disagreed, but their relationship was characterized by mutual commitment and love. At the end of the day, God was still God and Moses still a mortal. But they were friends.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:13-15

It’s easy to think of holy men long ago who walked with God that way. But when I stop to think about what God says He wants from us, I am dumbfounded. His greatest “command” is to love Him with all that I am. He doesn’t want a polite, contractual relationship in which I do my bit and He does His. He wants me to engage Him with all my heart, soul, body, and mind. He wants me to speak my mind and to listen to His. At the end of the day I am still the child and He the Father; I am the servant and He the Master. But we are friends.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26:38
Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15:6

And our friendship will express itself in my getting involved in His life story just as He is involved in mine. If I am His friend, I will love the things that He loves and do the things that He wants doing. But on a deeper level, if I am His friend I will groan when He groans and laugh when He laughs. I will stay awake with Him in the garden, watching and praying as He faces the darkest night of His soul. And I will party with Him in the kingdom, celebrating each stray sheep that is found and each lost son that comes home.

Rather than being what I most avoid,
hardship is a gateway to what I most desire.

Just as sharing similar experiences ushered Abraham and Moses into closer friendship with God, so walking a mile in God’s shoes enables me to relate with Him in greater solidarity. As I learn to see myself and the world around me through this lens, I come to value suffering in a new way. The trials that I experience (whether voluntary or not) are opening my mind and shaping my heart to be able to commune with God in ways I couldn’t before. Rather than being what I most avoid, they are a gateway to what I most desire.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 3:10-11

So I dive into the disciplines of Lent full on—not because the Bible commands it or because I enjoy self-imposed misery, but because I really want to know Christ. I want to be His friend in joy and in sorrow, in struggle and in triumph, in the middle of His story and at the end. I want to walk these forty days of trial with Him so that I can also celebrate their victorious completion with Him. This is my opportunity to invest in our relationship.

For better or for worse, I get to be God’s friend. Now that’s a privilege worth suffering for.

Assaulted but…

If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:9-12

“I don’t know how to make sense of this. I thought You were supposed to show up, to protect me from harm. I thought that if I loved You and served You with all my heart, You wouldn’t let anything like this happen to me. I trusted You. I put myself in harm’s way for Your sake. And now look at me…”

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have … defiled his crown in the dust. You have broken through all his walls and reduced his strongholds to ruins. All who pass by have plundered him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:38-41, 44-45

Tears ran down my face as my feet pounded the pavement. The physical intensity of running released my pent up emotions, and along with them the agonized cries of my heart. How could I reconcile God’s promises of protection and honor with my experience of being beaten and violated? I didn’t doubt His strength to stop my attackers, nor did I doubt His presence with me as they threw me about and had their way with me. But that left me with a deeper, even more painful question.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?… Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!
O Lord, where is your former great love… ?
Psalm 89:46-47, 49

Who was I to God? A disposable item, designed to be used up and thrown away? I had been plundered and defiled, broken and discarded. Was that all I was worth to Him? Where was that great love that He had professed for me? I felt more like a sheep handed over to be slaughtered than like a cherished child.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
Romans 8:35-36

A sacrificial lamb. That rang a bell. Jesus had been treated this way, too. Those promises of love and honor and protection had been made to Him, too. Satan had even pulled out that particular psalm to quote to Him, reminding Him that His Father would send angels to protect Him from all harm, even a stone in His path that might threaten His toes.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53:5, 7

So why didn’t He? Didn’t Jesus plead with His Father in the garden, begging Him to deliver Him from the evil that was about to happen? And yet the angels didn’t show up. God didn’t intervene. They all stood back and watched as His body was pummeled, His soul was tormented, His life was snuffed out.

The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
Isaiah 50:5-6; Psalm 22:1

If anyone ever had reason to feel unloved by God, to feel completely abandoned by the Father, Jesus did. He subjected Himself to everything that God had called Him to do. He exposed Himself to danger out of loving obedience to His Father. And where did that get Him? Broken. Desecrated. Used up. Dead.

Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Isaiah 50:7-9

And yet God had repeatedly affirmed His love for Jesus in advance. A descending dove. A thundering voice. “My Son. I love Him. I delight in Him.” Jesus knew who He was to God. He knew God would stay true to their relationship, even when it was put through the ultimate test. He endangered Himself because He knew that nothing could come between them. Nothing could separate Him from His Father’s love, not trembling with fear in the garden, not being ripped to pieces by accusers in court, not crying out in abandonment on the cross, not even the silent helplessness of the grave.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Psalm 91:14-16

Jesus endured all these because He believed His story would not end there. He trusted His Father’s love, even when He felt abandoned. He clung to His Father’s promises, even when they seemed forgotten. And sure as the dawn, God came through. The angels showed up to move the stone out of His way. The Most High came down to revive His body, restore His soul, and lead Him to glory.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:37-39

Broken and trembling and messy, I basked in this unfailing love. I drank in the end of Jesus’ story like the parched soul that I was. God had not turned His back on me. And He was not finished with me. Hardship and danger, violence and contempt had certainly taken their toll on me, but they had not succeeded in separating me from His love. Sure as the dawn, God would come through for me, too. He had me by the hand, and He was leading me up the resurrection path to glory.

Romans 8:28-30

Remember.

What does Holy Week have to do with abuse? Everything. Meditating on Jesus’ experience of abuse illumines the path of healing from our own experiences of abuse. It also invites us to enter into a deeper, more significant relationship with Him.

Painful memories. Violent memories. Memories that won’t go away and leave me alone.

Voices that reverberate through my mind. Undermining questions. Devastating accusations.
“How dare you go against us! Who do you think you are? ”
“You son of a devil. You are nothing.”
“Liar! No one cares about you. Where is your daddy now?”
“Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”

He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. Lamentations 3:13-16

Sensations that travel through my body. A gentle kiss on my cheek. The harsh blow that followed. Cold chains on my wrists. Hot welts on my back. Wet spit hitting my face. Dry thorns piercing my scalp. Blows and more blows. Split lip. Pierced hands. Gasping for breath. Struggling to survive.

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Lamentations 3:17-20

Experiences that stay with me. Betrayal. He was one of my trusted friends. Denial. He was my best friend. Mockery. No one came to my defense. Violation. They took off all my clothes, molested me, and strung me out naked for everyone to see. They stripped away my glory, leaving me defiled, degraded, and desolate.

My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees. Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Lamentations 3:49-50; 5:1

Look on my pain, oh God! Remember all that I have been through. I won’t stop bringing it up until you acknowledge the wrong that was done to me. My body was broken. My spirit was crushed. My scars continue to bear witness.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you… You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry … in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:14, 17-18

But even in the midst of my unresolved pain, I have hope. I look to you, because I know you will make it right. You saw all that they did to me. You heard all that they said about me. And you will vindicate me. Into your hands I commit my spirit.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. Mark 14:61-64

I cling to the truth that you will you will give back all that has been taken from me. You will rectify my wounds. You will heal my memories. You will give me the spot right beside you, with even greater dignity and honor than I had before. And you will show off my glory for all to see, both to shame those who degraded it and to delight those who revel in it.

“… do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19 “…and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8

But even as I wait on you, I want friends who will be part of the process. When they remember my suffering, they validate my experience. When they speak the truth about me before those who doubt or question, they restore my honor. When they praise me with their lips, they bless my heart.

In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Revelation 5:12-13

Unemployed but Rich

“You have no idea how rich you are in Jesus.”

I stared incredulously at my friend through tear-swollen eyes, thinking to myself that she was the one who had no idea how terrifyingly poor I was. We had just lost our job, and were subsequently being forced to abruptly leave the country in which we had been living and serving for eleven years. We were in the midst of selling and giving away most of our possessions, saying goodbye to all our friends and church family, and leaving behind the only life we had dreamed of. Ahead of us lay a great void, with no certainty of a job, a home, or a community awaiting us. I had never felt so poor.

Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked … The days of the blameless are known to the LORD, and their inheritance will endure forever. In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.
I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be blessed.
Psalm 37:16-19, 25-26

But as much as the weight of our poverty pressed in on me from all sides, my friend’s words rang true. I may be selling my cherished table and chairs in order to buy next month’s groceries, but I had to believe that all we had invested in the kingdom of God was not lost. As we launched into a season of severe financial insecurity, I wondered how true the psalmist’s words were about never seeing the children of the righteous begging for bread. I had always been the one distributing food to other people’s children. What would now become of my own?

The nation of Israel worried over the same question as they launched into the great unknown of the wilderness. Slavery hadn’t been a lucrative form of employment, but at least it had kept a roof over their heads and bread on the table. Wandering about in the desert as unemployed nomads didn’t exactly smack of financial responsibility. How would they feed and clothe their families? How could they provide a stable home and a secure future for their children?

You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance. Your people settled in it, and from your bounty, O God, you provided for the poor.
Psalm 68:9-10

Yet in the midst of their poverty, they never lacked what they needed for each day. Clothes and shoes that didn’t wear out. Meat and bread falling from the sky. Water gushing from unexpected sources, unattached to bills or taxes.

Even major life expenses were covered in the most unanticipated ways. When it came time to build a place for worship, they didn’t have to settle for crumbs, cobbling together a makeshift structure with which they could “get by.” They found they had more gold and silver, precious gems and expensive fabrics than they could use, all unexpected gifts that had been handed to them by their former masters as they had hastily exited Egypt.

Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Luke 9:58

Similarly, Jesus lived out the same juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, of financial insecurity and abundant provision. He left behind the steady income of his earthly father’s business in order to invest Himself in His heavenly Father’s business. It didn’t pay much; in fact, He didn’t have a pillow to call His own or a bank account to fall back on.

…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58:10-11

Jesus may have been God, but He still experienced the needs of a man, complete with all of the demands and expenses of life in the real world. Regardless, He never lacked what He needed. Scraps of bread stretched to feed thousands. Jars of water became the finest of wine. The tax collector still showed up to demand his share, but a fish caught from the sea coughed up just the right number of coins to cover it.

He was assigned a grave … with the rich.
Isaiah 53:9

And as the Israelites in the wilderness had experienced before, even Jesus’ major life expenses were provided for in the most lavish of ways. Just the right vehicle given on loan for His triumphal procession. Just the right facility offered rent-free for a farewell banquet with His disciples. The finest perfume for His anointing. The finest real-estate for His burial.

Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.
Mark 10:28-30

As I meditated on God’s promise to provide for His needy people, to exponentially supply them with all the things they had given up for His sake, I was deeply convicted. My pauper’s spirit betrayed my miserly faith. Of course He would feed my children. Of course He would meet all of our needs, not just the spiritual ones.

In the months ahead, the bills still came in and our cash still flowed out, but we saw God take care of us in the most lavish of ways. He dressed us in designer hand-me-downs. He fed us with gourmet day-old bread. He spoiled us with up-scale temporary housing. And He showered us with the priceless gift of experiencing the abundance of His love.

I look back now and see that my friend was right. I had been measuring my wealth by the wrong standard. I had no idea how rich we were in Jesus. We still are.

Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
James 2:5

Hungry but Satisfied

“Fasting isn’t helping me to want God. It’s just making me want food.”

Jesus chose the Author of life over instant vitality, the Bread of Heaven over fast food, the Source of delight over immediate gratification.

This candid statement from the youngest member of our family did not surprise me at all; if anything, it captured what we were all feeling at the moment. Hungry, weak, and irritable, we were all secretly feeling that a hot, hearty meal would do a lot more to help us love God than more prayer and fasting would. And yet even though we were struggling to believe it, Jesus’ statement about not living by bread alone inspired us to carry on with our fast.

See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected.
Hebrews 12:16-17

The story of Esau selling his birthright for some hot, mouthwatering stew took on new significance as we faced a similarly hard choice. Was some nebulous future blessing really worth this very tangible current discomfort? Our gnawing stomachs competed with our hungry spirits, threatening to overpower their good intentions with practical realities.

They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly. But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?”
When the LORD heard them, he was very angry … for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance. Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat.
Psalm 78:18-25

As the day wore on, we sympathized more and more with the children of Israel’s fixation with food during their forty years in the wilderness. No wonder they grumbled and complained. They were hungry! They were crying out for the most basic of human needs, one that God had designed their bodies to crave. And yet, God was clearly displeased by their desperate demand for food. What was He trying to teach them that they failed to get?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ …
It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Matthew 4:1-4, 7

Jesus voluntarily put Himself through a similar trial. When God’s Spirit led Him out into the wilderness for forty days, He chose to deny Himself food during that time. Some people would call that mentally imbalanced or perhaps overly zealous. But Jesus took it very seriously. Despite His severe hunger, He refused Satan’s suggestion that He turn rocks into bread. What would have been so wrong with that? Was it simply a bad idea because it originated with Satan, or did Jesus refuse to help Himself to some much-needed food for some higher reason?

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.
Hebrews 3:7-9; 4:15

In many ways, Jesus was reliving the story of humanity: the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, the story of Esau in the wilderness, the story of the children of Israel in the desert, and the story of our family around the empty kitchen table. He chose to resist the appeal of food that was dangling just within reach. He chose not to settle for less, not to sell Himself short of the blessing that He knew He would receive if would just hold out for it. He chose not to put God to the test with demands for food, acting as if God were ultimately unsatisfying and inadequate to meet His needs.

In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
… I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. …
But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Psalm 81:7-10, 16

Instead, Jesus chose the Author of life over instant vitality, the Bread of Heaven over fast food, the Source of delight over immediate gratification. He passed the test that all others had failed. He proved to us that it could be done. And as His followers, He invites us to voluntarily take up the challenge.

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, … Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. … My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:1-5

Fasting provides us with the opportunity to sharpen our appetite for God, to turn to Him for the strength and satisfaction we ordinarily receive from food. Of course it is miserable and difficult and requires patient endurance: that is the point. But as our family later admitted to each other, despite our moment by moment struggle to choose God over food, He supplied what we needed to keep going through the day. And the longer we went, the sweeter the thought of Him became. We found that we, like the Psalmist, were empty but full, weak but strong, hungry but satisfied.

Homeless but Hopeful

I hate packing. Hate is pretty strong language for such a mundane task, but the sight of jumbled piles and a deconstructed home revives unsettling memories of years of frequent moves and unexpected transitions. More than once I have awakened in the morning, knowing that my family’s belongings needed to be sorted through, packed up, and moved out before the end of the day, but not knowing where our next home would be, let alone where we would sleep that night. I have too often fought off that familiar lump of panic in my throat while paring down our possessions, making an endless series of emotionally laden, partially informed decisions about what we should hold on to and what we can give up.

Packing reminds me that I am essentially homeless. Each time I go through the process of either relinquishing or transporting the sum total of my earthly goods, I live out the reality that there is no place on earth that I can call my own. And each time I empty a place that I had cleaned, decorated, and made into a refuge for my family, I am faced with the bare truth that it was never really my home.

What happened to the blessing of being securely settled in the land, of planting gardens and still being around to enjoy their fruit? Is that sense of settled security not something that I should look for, too?

The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Displacement and homelessness have always been a reality for God’s people, transition and immigration have always been our lot in life. When God brought His people out of slavery in Egypt, He took them through forty years of homelessness, forty years of waking up each morning and wondering if this day they would have to pack and move again, forty years of going to bed each night and wondering where the next day’s food and water would come from. No continuity with their past. No security for their future. No place on earth they could claim as their own, except what God provided.

“In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble… By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone– until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by. You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance– the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established.”
Exodus 15:13-17

But He did provide. Day after day He showered down food. Night after night He kept watch from the pillar of fire in their midst. He took them through harsh conditions and terrifying moments, leading them away from the only known sources of water and civilization and towards the unknown of adverse terrain and hostile people. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with gratitude at His past provision. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with fear at their future uncertainty. But at all times, God was their refuge, their safe place, their home.

“In your distress you called and I rescued you, I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. …If you would but listen to me, O Israel! You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not bow down to an alien god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
Psalm 81:7-10

Like the forty days that Jesus endured in the wilderness, these forty years of insecurity and homelessness were a time of training. God was walking his people through a series of carefully crafted trials, designed to disconnect them from their former home, deconstruct their former identity, and detach them from every source of security save Himself. But through that painful weaning process, He was preparing them for a better home than the one they had left.

…They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. … If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Looking back on all they had lost, the price seemed too high: at least in Egypt they had been settled. But looking forward to the home God had promised, they had every reason to persevere, to embrace the pilgrimage on which God was leading them.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
Psalm 84:1-2, 4-7, 10

Comfortably settled in my own current dwelling, I find it easy to lose sight of the life-long pilgrimage to which God has called me. But when I raise my eyes beyond my pretty kitchen curtains to gaze on the beauty of His dwelling place, my heart churns with longing for my real home. In seasons of comfort and of distress, He has been my shelter.

Pilgrimage is not easy; frequent moves and unsettling circumstances inevitably feed our fears about whether we will survive the journey. But along the way He turns our struggles into blessing, our tears into sources of fruitfulness and beauty. The more we feel our current homelessness, the more we love our future home.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.
Psalm 90:1

The Hard Way

“Lord, why do we have to do this the hard way?”

Last year I set out on an ambitious Good Friday run, wanting to conclude Lent with a time to focus on Christ’s sufferings on the cross and prepare to celebrate His resurrection. The first twelve miles were bathed in glorious sunlight. My heart soared in worship to strains from Handel’s Messiah as I wound along glistening brooks and through green rolling hills. But soon heavy snow clouds rolled in and a Siberian wind whipped across the North Sea, stopping me almost dead in my tracks as I struggled to push on across the wide-open fields. For the next twelve miles I contended with the elements, my double-gloved hands coated in an inch of frozen slush and my eyes stinging from the driving sleet. This was not fun; my exuberant praise quickly faded into frustrated survival. Why was God making this so hard on me? We had been having such a great time together. Why did He have to go and complicate it with hardship?

As I survey the scope of human history, I keep coming away with the same question. Why complicate the perfection of the garden with a fruit tree that would encourage people to stumble? Why complicate the beauty of the Church by filling her with unfinished works-in-progress who hurt each other and tarnish His glory?

The hard way leads to glory.

I have a growing suspicion that God values doing things the hard way. He has certainly involved Himself in a fair share of hardship. There were easier, much more direct ways to get His people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. Instead, God led them across a sea and meandered with them through a desert for forty years. There were nicer, more comfortable ways for Jesus to connect with God and hammer out a vision for His ministry. Instead, God led Him to pass through the river and to meander in a desert for forty days. Somehow hunger and homelessness, loneliness and danger, internal wrestling and external testing were all a significant part of God’s plan for them. But what was the point? What was all that hardship supposed to accomplish?

…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.
God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:1, 7, 10–11

Any good coach knows that answer to that one. Hardship trains us; suffering perfects us. Yes, it is miserable. Yes, we gripe and complain and wish we could squirm our way out of it. But in the end, it makes us stronger and better than we were before. It sheds our excess weight. It focuses us in on what really matters. And it sets us up for success in the great contest of life.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 2:10–11; 12:2

So what is this great victory that we are training for? What gain makes all the pain worthwhile? We are being fitted for glory, qualified to live as adult kids in God’s house, to share in the inheritance of all that belongs to Him, to rule over heaven and earth along with Him. Amazingly, His firstborn Son is on board with that plan. He even subjected Himself to intensive training in order to make it possible. In the grueling race that we now run, we are merely following in His footsteps.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Romans 8:16–18

The longer I meditate on the ways of God, the more I see a pattern emerge. He is not a God of short cuts, of easy, 3-step formulas. He does sympathize with our suffering and deliver us from trial, but not in a way that makes it all go away overnight. If anything, He orchestrates complexity and hardship in our lives in order to train us for something better than we had to start with, better than we would have thought to pursue on our own.

The hard way leads to glory.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Romans 8:29–30