Tag Archives: boldness

When the Spirit Doesn’t Come

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I can think of few experiences more disheartening than seeking God’s face and not finding it. We struggle enough to remember Him in our busy daily lives, to hunger for Him in the midst of so many competing attractions. But when we finally say no to everything else and discipline ourselves to tune in to His voice, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal when He doesn’t immediately reward our efforts with a blissful mountaintop experience.

We want spiritual climax without the amorous preliminaries. We want a relational harvest without the months of weeding, planting, watering, and waiting. Underlying our efforts at holiness and our attempts at devotion, we have this absurd assumption that God should feel honored by our intentions and be standing at attention, ready to jump whenever we feel like spending some time with Him.

Somewhere between the extremes of slavish groveling and childish petulance, we struggle to know exactly what we should expect of God relationally. Is He the sovereign, almighty King into whose holy presence we are unfit to ascend, or is He the compassionate Father who stands with arms ever spread just waiting for us to come home?

Looking back over the course of history, He is a good deal of both. The Spirit comes when His people call, but not always on cue.

When the slaves in Egypt cried out for God to come, He kept them waiting awhile. After their deliverance (and according to His instructions), they worked hard and long to prepare a place where they could continue to meet with Him. And when the tabernacle was built, the people purified, and the priests consecrated, God’s glory cloud visibly descended and filled that space, providing a very real experience of His presence among His people.

Similarly, when David took proactive steps to create a dwelling place where the Spirit could come in all His glory, he received a promise for the future rather than the immediate answer he was looking for. His son Solomon picked up where he left off, clearing the ground, laying the foundation, and building a magnificent structure faithful to its heavenly counterpart and worthy of its divine Tenant. And when the temple was finally built, the sacrifices offered, and the prayers lifted up, God’s Spirit once again came in an overwhelmingly tangible form, His presence gloriously visible to all who had gathered to partake of it.

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel… And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
…The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:16-21

Perhaps the most perplexing wait was the one the worshippers experienced in the post-exilic temple. After years of crying out in exile, risking life and limb to trickle back into the land, building walls with sword in one hand and trowel in another, and finally managing to erect a slightly diminished but nonetheless glorious temple, the Spirit didn’t show up. The people had assembled, the sacrifices had been offered, and the priests installed, but the glory cloud never came. No smoke. No fire. No filling.

Though they couldn’t have understood it at the time, the Spirit was planning to return differently than they had expected, and much later in history than they had in mind. In the meantime, how were they to feel? As though they hadn’t tried hard enough, or maybe they had missed some prerequisite that God had intended of them? Or perhaps it was God’s fault. Maybe He had quit on them or no longer cared. In moments of faith they could see His presence through the small favors He sent their way, but the long waiting with little visible evidence of His coming made it hard to keep seeking His face.

The tiny bundle of flesh carried into that temple in his mother’s arms hundreds of years later would contain the longed-for Spirit, but only those who hadn’t quit watching for it would recognize His coming.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 1:4, 2:1-4

He would be the one to pour out the same Spirit on another group of waiting worshippers who had gathered, been purified, and were faithfully offering up sacrifices of praise. Who knows what the disciples were expecting or even if they were expecting at that time, but when fire and wind descended from heaven to fill their house, I think they all knew that the Spirit had come. The wait had been worth it.

Thankfully we don’t have to wait for centuries to experience the Spirit’s presence with us now. Each ray of sun touches us with His warmth; each meal on our table fills us with His provision. And more than that, God’s Spirit testifies directly with ours that we are securely loved, not abandoned. At times He meets with us in powerfully tangible ways, speaking into our minds and moving in our hearts in a manner indescribable but no less real. At other times He seems silent and inactive, provoking us to frustration and longing.

But even this desire for Him to come is the fruit of His presence already at work in us. It is the wind behind the faith that keeps us walking and waiting, preparing our hearts and creating space in our lives for the Spirit to move. He may not come when or how we expect. But when He comes, the soul feels its worth.

Inhabiting No Mans’ Land

attachment-e1430302595774I’m caught in an evangelistic no man’s land.

I will exalt you, my God the King…
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations…
Psalm 145:1-2,13

On one side of me I see my glorious King, risen and reigning over heaven and earth. I see multitudes of saints and angels around His throne, caught up in the ecstasy of white-hot worship. And I feel myself drawn into their number, ready to abandon all inhibition and join in their joyous, unfettered proclamation of Jesus as King.

One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. ..They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
Psalm 145:3-7

But then I look in the other direction. There I see sidewalks full of regular folks, going about their everyday business with little or no reference to this supposed King. Where is He when their paycheck runs short or their partner walks out? What mighty deeds or miraculous intervention can they speak of? Life is hard and, in their estimation, the only one looking out for them is Number 1.

The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Psalm 145:20

When I look at the proclamation of God as King through these eyes, it suddenly loses its luster. It begins to sound like a taunt instead of a tender. Aren’t His benefits only available to those who are already members of the club? Isn’t He the God who threatens to destroy those outside the club, the “wicked”? I can see how the good news that I so desperately want to proclaim would come across as slightly less than appealing.

And this is how I find myself stuck, marooned between two radically different perspectives. In this no man’s land I fall silent, relegating my worship to my private life and proclaiming God’s goodness only within the confines of the clubhouse.

…The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:13-16

But when I go back to the bold, unapologetic claims of my spiritual predecessors in the Psalms, I realize that I have missed something. Those outside the “holy club” may feel like God has done nothing for them, but that doesn’t mean He hasn’t. Their very existence is testimony to His proactive love. When they were oblivious to their own existence, He formed them in their mother’s womb. When they felt vulnerable and alone, He was watching over their every step. Even though they haven’t looked to Him for food, He has repeatedly handed them both their bodies’ needs and their hearts’ desires.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Psalm 145:17-18

The point is that God doesn’t just take care of the people who are in His club. He actively relates to every person He has made, showering them with daily expressions of His love whether or not they return the favor. Even better, He promises to get more involved in their lives if they will turn around and ask for it.

I’m not stuck in the gap;
I’ve been called to stand in the gap.

I confess that I too often stand helplessly in the space between these two camps, wondering why God doesn’t do more to make Himself known to those who live apart from Him. How can they know to turn around and call out to Him if they don’t even know that He is there and that He cares?

The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

And then I realize the ridiculousness of my self-imposed predicament. I’m not stuck in the gap; I’ve been called to stand in the gap. I wonder at God’s seeming apathy towards the suffering of the world while blindly neglecting my role in bringing the news of His deliverance. I’m the one who doesn’t adequately care. I’ve been trying to pass the world off as God’s problem when all along He keeps calling me to be part of the solution.

All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Psalm 145:10-12

My role is to take His praise to the streets, not in a rubbing-it-in-your-face sort of way but with all the boldness and compassion of one who has been sent with a life-altering report. My awareness of people’s perspective should not neutralize my message. Rather it should compel me to raise their awareness of God’s reality.

No man’s land is the place where the prophets lived, the expanse that Jesus bridged, the gap that we are now called to fill.

I guess it’s not such a bad place to inhabit, after all.

Rules of Engagement

Being invited to wrestle with God feels just a bit like being told to jump in the arena and fight with a lion. As C.S. Lewis so pithily remarks in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, He is “not like a tame lion.” And as many who have gone before us have discovered, crossing the line with Him can result in devastating consequences.

So what does it look like to be friends with God? It’s not like He will stop being the almighty Ruler of the earth, nor will we stop being frail, needy mortals. What happens when we have a difference of opinion? Is that the point where our friendship breaks down and we return to a state of respectful resignation before Him, or does He want us to push back? How do we argue with the Judge of the universe?

When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
Genesis 18:16-17, 20-21

Abraham walked this fine line with terrifying audacity and unrelenting humility. God had taken him into His confidence. He had formed a special relationship with Abraham and had told him the amazing things He had in store for him and His descendants. He had even hung out at Abraham’s house and had dinner with him. But when God revealed His plans to destroy the city where Abraham’s relatives lived, Abraham faced a real conundrum. He knew how to handle a dispute with men, but what were the rules of engagement when disagreeing with God?

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.
Genesis 18:22

Abraham did not meekly accept God’s revealed intent. He did not bow before God’s sovereignty in compliant determinism. Instead he remained standing in God’s presence, continuing to assert the same intimate status that they had shared up till then. In fact, he took a bold step further and approached God with an incredulous, almost reproachful question.

Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Genesis 18:23-25

Would God really act this way? It seemed so out of character for Him! How could the Judge of all the earth violate His own standards of right and wrong? Abraham argued vigorously against God’s plan, appealing to God’s own justice, righteousness, and compassion. There was a lot more than just the preservation of Abraham’s loved-ones on the line. This was about God’s own integrity, and Abraham wasn’t about to let go of that without a fight.

The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Genesis 18:26

God reassured His friend. No, He would not destroy a city with that many righteous people still living in it. He would be true to His character and would spare it, if fifty righteous ones were actually found there.

God is not a tame lion, but He is a loving one.

Abraham could have stopped there. God’s integrity had been established. His character was no longer in question. But the fact was, Abraham really didn’t want anything bad to happen to his relatives. This was a matter of personal interest, but wasn’t that reason enough between friends? Did he have a firm enough platform from which to plead for something that he just really wanted?

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” … “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?” … Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” … Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Genesis 18:27-33

Abraham ventured out in fearful faith, with no defense in hand but an appeal to their relationship. He relentlessly pursued God in a bargaining duel, closing in the gap each time God stepped back and gave him a little ground. He knew he was treading on thin ice, pushing God so far, but with each round of success he felt like he might just be able to get a little closer to getting his way. But even in the midst of such boldness, Abraham never forgot Whom he was sparring with. As he poked and prodded forward, he repeatedly affirmed his smallness and unworthiness before God, and God’s right to get angry and put him back in his place.

So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.
Genesis 19:29

Amazingly, God played along. He did not rebuke Abraham for being so forward. He did not shut down the argument with a “Because I said so!” And in the end, He honored Abraham’s wishes. Out of His love for Abraham, He went to great lengths to spare his relatives.

What are the rules of engagement when we are compelled to wrestle with God? For starters, we already have to be His friends, to be walking the course of our lives in communion with Him. With that relationship firmly established, we may boldly approach, argue, persist, even negotiate. But we can never forget Who it is we are wrestling with. He is not a tame lion, but He is a loving one. He may or may not grant us our wish, but He will not devour us for bringing it to Him boldly.