Tag Archives: perseverance

Waiting With Haste

ohcomeletusadorehimbymatthaisstomer
Adoration of the Christ Child by Matthias Stomer circa 1630

As I sit on our South Asian rooftop listening to birdsong and soaking in four years worth of sunshine, nothing feels urgent. Of course the usual piles of laundry, children’s schoolbooks, and student’s assignments await my attention, but up here my mind goes into neutral, simply drinking in the slow beauty of the moment.

But if I peel back a layer deeper into my soul, I confront within myself a practiced apathy, one which has crept unnoticed into my spirit through prolonged waiting on God. It’s not that I haven’t been seeing His hand at work in amazing ways (this latest move topping the cake), but there are desires near and dear to my heart which I haven’t yet seen Him meet. And though I can explain away why the timing might not yet be right and how He is using this period of waiting to do a deep work in me, the fact is that my soul grows weary of wanting.

I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.
Psalm 69:2

In a self-protective measure, it slowly slips into not caring so much, both about the things God has withheld from me and the things with which He has already graciously filled my arms. Why can’t I engage life with the same level of anticipation and zeal that normally characterize me? Why do I find the immediate and the mundane so much more comfortable to focus on than the long term and the profound? If I’m honest, the answer lies somewhere between exhaustion and fear.

From this position, I feel a growing awe over the persevering faith that so many of the saints of old sustained through a lifetime of waiting. Didn’t Abraham get tired of moving around, waiting for the child and the land that God had promised him? Didn’t Moses ever feel like staying in his bedroll and watching the ancient near-eastern equivalent of Netflix instead of getting up each day only to discover that the cloud wasn’t drifting towards the promised land yet?

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Luke 2:36-37

But the hero of the faith whose story really resonates with me this morning is Anna. Unlike Simeon, it doesn’t seem that she had really been promised anything specific by God. She had no angelic revelation or Spirit-defined expectation that God had promised to fulfill for her, and yet clearly she was anticipating something. Why else would she live a life of such intense self-denial and focused preparation?

So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.
1 Timothy 4:14

It wasn’t exactly the social norm of her day for young, childless widows to renounce the comforts of home and the hope of a family in order to dedicate themselves to temple service. In fact Paul would later encourage women in her position to remarry and live the domestic dream. But something compelled Anna to passionately pursue a very different sort of vision, whether or not the means were socially acceptable or the goal guaranteed.

There was something that she wanted so much that she was willing to give up food, sleep, and her very self in order to pursue. And sixty years later, she was still at it night and day. Hadn’t anyone introduced this old woman to the idea of retirement, to a realistic resetting of her expectations, or even to the importance of diversified interests and hobbies? Didn’t she ever wonder why she worked so hard to keep herself continuously in the Lord’s presence when she had so little to show for it?

And yet this humble servant of the Lord simply refused to stop getting up each day and doing it all over again. I have to believe that, as a frail human, her flesh grew weak and her soul grew weary. But God’s presence was not only the goal towards which she strained, it was also the power that fueled her flame.

Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:38

Anna’s major contribution to redemptive history comes almost as an accidental side-product of her daily lifestyle. Walking through the temple courts in a state of constant communion with the Spirit, she “chanced” upon a young couple bringing their baby in for the standard procedures. What to a human eye would have looked like more of the same, the Spirit enabled her to see the eternal significance of. Had she not spent a lifetime practicing for and anticipating this moment, she might just have missed it.

Instead, this holy woman raised her voice to confirm the identity of Jesus and to preach about Him to all those who were gathered in the temple, eagerly anticipating the redemption for which they had been waiting for millenia. Anna’s refusal to give in to external pressures or to internal exhaustion landed her this special role in God’s Kingdom story.

And so as I falter in my faith, wanting to keep expecting great things from God but weary from waiting for them, I raise my eyes to this member of that great host of witnesses who have gone before me. I have no guarantee of what God will do through my persevering faith, but I trust that this spark of desire that His Spirit continues to fan within me will one day spring into flame. And in the meantime, I will get up each day to stoke my soul’s anticipation all over again.

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The Slog to Glory

IMG_0587My family and I set out to climb a mountain last weekend.

Let’s just say that the idea of making it to the summit of a Highland munro was more glorious than the reality of actually doing it. Images of the Von Trapp family cresting a grassy, Alpine peak to soaring strains of “Climb Every Mountain” came back to mock me as we slogged across the prerequisite boggy plain. At times our lofty goal was reduced to simply trying to take the next few steps without being sucked down in the mud. And that beautiful vertical ascent I had imagined involved a lot more back-and-forth trudging (to the tune of whining children) than climbing from glory to glory. Despite our burning lungs and quivering calves, the top of the mountain seemed to loom even farther overhead than when we had started. In frustration, my youngest child finally expressed what I was feeling:IMG_0613

“Why are we even doing this?”

If I’m brutally honest, I have to admit that permutations of this question have risen in my mind at different times during my long walk of faith. And I witness the same deep disillusionment in other discouraged believers, trying to find a positive spin on why their lives and ministries have not turned out as they had expected .

IMG_0584We set out with glorious expectations of victorious living and mountaintop experiences with God. We are fortified with stories of great heroes of the faith who seemed to effortlessly leap over challenge after challenge, buoyed up by their overcoming faith. And yet when we get hit in the face by crisis after crisis, or bogged down by the life-sucking sludge of everyday struggle, we are tempted to lose heart.

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

We begin to wonder why we work so hard to accomplish so little, why one hard-won step forward inevitably results in a downhill slide back. Doesn’t God want us to make it to the top? Why does the path have to be so steep, our struggle to climb it so constant? In the face of so many insurmountable odds, we are sorely tempted to sit down and settle for spiritual mediocrity.

Why are we even doing this?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”
Hebrews 10:35-38

No one forced us to choose this difficult path of faith, and no one is forcing us to keep moving forward in ministry. We chose it because we believe in the One who called us. Yes, we believe in the miserable outcome for those who do not respond to Him in obedient faith. But it’s not really fear of hell that motivates us. It is love for God, and an overwhelming desire to see that look of delight on His face when we finally crest the last summit.

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.
Hebrews 10:39, 11:26-27

The truth is that we really are members of that great cloud of witnesses, ones whose very transformed nature it is to keep going despite ourselves. They kept going not because it was somehow easier for them to keep believing or because the trials they faced were any less daunting, but because their deeper longing for God won out over their immediate desire for comfort and security.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And 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

When I look for what earned these “faith hall of famers” a spot on the list, I don’t find major accomplishments or grand success stories. In fact, most of them died long before they reached the top. Abel got killed; Enoch simply kept walking. Noah got up each day and added a few more planks to the most futile project anyone could imagine. Abraham meandered as a refugee in a land he would never own; and Moses died gazing at it from a distance.

They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Hebrews 11:37-39

What set these men and women apart were not their heroic feats of faith but rather their unsung refusal to quit. By any human standard, they lived their lives as losers, people who had very little to show for all they had invested. And yet they looked to God for their stamp of approval. And He deemed them worthy. In fact, He is proud to be called their God.

God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, …let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 11:40-12:3

The same Spirit that kept these saints of old going is now at work in us, prodding us to keep putting one wobbly foot in front of the other. They cheer us on as we finish what they started. Yes, the slog is slow and mucky, but it is taking us somewhere. Our victory is not in how quickly or easily we make the summit, but in how faithful we are to take each inglorious step along the way.

Why are we even doing this?

For the joy set before us.IMG_0641

Sharing at Grace & Truth

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 God Finally Says Yes

My husband and I were up till all hours last night, scrambling to find a solution to, what seemed at the time, a major crisis. Our 14-year-old daughter was about to be stranded in Houston overnight, stuck on an incoming flight so delayed that she had already missed the last flight out to her destination. We felt so powerless as parents, sitting in our kitchen in Scotland, unable to get to our child when she needed our help. So in between being put on hold again by the airlines and posting frantic facebook requests, we kept calling out to God to please take care of our girl.

We didn’t have to wait nearly as long as David did to receive God’s reply.

God’s delay may have sounded like a no, but His reply was a profoundly gratifying yes.

David spent years as a youth, helplessly stuck between the rock of God’s calling on his life and the hard place of Saul’s jealous attempts to thwart it. Anointed as king but hiding out like a convict. Promised God’s protective love but constantly running for his life. Again and again he called out to God for help. He saw God intervene in the moment and deliver him from each immediate threat, but God did not instantly solve his ongoing, bigger problem. If anything, each time when Saul walked away from an encounter still the rightful king and still his powerful antagonist, David very well could have felt like God had just said “no.”

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. O LORD, save the king! Answer us when we call!
Psalm 20:7-9

But David didn’t stop asking. He didn’t really have much choice about his life circumstances; those were mostly out of his control. In the face of his helplessness, he clung all the more intensely to God as his only helper. And in the end, God came through.

O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength. How great is his joy in the victories you give! You have granted him the desire of his heart and have not withheld the request of his lips.
Psalm 21:1-2

When God finally removed Saul and established David as king, David’s prayers overflowed with gratitude and relief. His joy in what God had done was that much greater because he had waited so long to see it happen. What he might have taken for granted had it come quickly and easily he could now savor as a precious gift from God.

You welcomed him with rich blessings and placed a crown of pure gold on his head. He asked you for life, and you gave it to him– length of days, for ever and ever. Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Psalm 21:3-5

Similarly, Jesus’ long wait for deliverance made His resurrection all the sweeter, His exaltation all the more glorious. He had begged God for His life, and for a time it certainly seemed as if God had said “no.” Long, silent night on trial. Eternal, agonizing day on the cross. Three solar cycles in the grave, wondering if God would show up, if He would reverse the natural laws of death and decay.

Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the LORD; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken.
Psalm 21:6-7

But Jesus didn’t stop trusting His Father’s love. And in the end, God came through. He had not prayed in futility. He had not waited in vain. God’s delay may have sounded like a no, but His reply was a profoundly gratifying yes.

Anticipation heightens gratification.

On a much smaller scale, God’s reply to our frantic prayers last night brought us greater joy because He made us wait for it. Of course we had asked Him to bless and protect our daughter as she left home yesterday morning. But had He answered that prayer in the time and way that we expected, she would have arrived at her grandparents’ home without a hitch and we would have carried on our routine with little thought for God’s intervention.

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1-2

Instead He allowed us a sleepless night and heart-stopping moments in exchange for the deep delight of seeing Him answer. Countless concerned friends. Loving, proactive strangers. A safe home to shelter our child. A kind-hearted soul to put her on the next day’s flight. At last we snuggled down into our bed, blissfully at rest in the unfailing love of our Father.

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.
Psalm 116:7

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

Delivered!

“I think that God is telling me to go back.” My heart sank as I listened to my friend talk about returning to life with her abusive husband. She had endured so much at his hands that the thought of her going back into that situation made me feel sick. Surely it wasn’t God’s voice she was hearing. It must be the voice of her own damaged identity telling her that she wasn’t worth any better, convincing her that God would be more pleased with her if she sacrificed herself to “help” her husband. But despite my stated concerns and strong conviction that she had every biblical right to leave, she remained unshakably certain. This was what God was asking her to do.

God was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her freedom.

I wanted to keep trying to talk her out of it, to claim that God would never send someone back into such a harmful situation, but who was I to say what God was or was not asking of her? Had He not met Hagar running away and told her to go back to her abusive mistress? And yet along with that terrifying directive He had also given her assurances of His ongoing presence and care for her. He was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her good.

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery.
Genesis 16:9-11

Hagar believed God. She reached out and took His hand as He led her back to Abraham and Sarah. She submitted to them and served them for at least another fifteen years. She gave birth to the child they had forced on her, and gave him the special name God had given her in advance. Ishmael became her constant reminder that “God hears,” that God was watching over her and she was not alone. But God was not content to leave her in that precarious situation. He was at work to bring about her deliverance in a way she never would have chosen.

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10

The day came when Hagar’s worst nightmare came true. Jealous for her little Isaac to be Abraham’s only delight and heir, Sarah insisted that Abraham divorce Hagar. Never mind Hagar’s rights as a concubine, never mind the fate of a homeless woman and child wandering alone in the desert. Sarah just wanted them gone, erased from her family picture.

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you… Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.
Genesis 21:11-14

Abraham was not so quick to reach the same conclusion. He felt trapped between honoring his wife and doing right by her maid, his concubine. But God intervened and nudged him in the direction of going along with his wife’s wishes. He got up early the next morning, packed Hagar up with enough provisions to get her started on her journey, and sent her off with nothing to her name but her son.

Devastated. Where could she go for food and housing? Abraham’s home had not exactly been a paradise for her, but at least there she and her child had steady provision and secure shelter. What would become of her precious child without a father? Maybe theirs had not been an ideal family situation, but at least before Ishmael had the identity and hope of an inheritance as Abraham’s son. To whom did she now belong? Hagar was riddled with fears. She had never made her own decisions. How could a life-long slave suddenly start being the master of her own life? She would not have chosen to walk away like this, but now it had been forced on her.

She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
Genesis 21:14-16

Scorching sun. Empty water bottle. Crying child. Panicking mother. Where was that cool refreshing stream this time? Where was the God who had met her there and promised a great future for her son?

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
Genesis 21:17-20

God was right there, just as He had been all along. He had given her this child and He had every plan to make sure that she was able to keep him. He had brought her safely through the fire of living in an abusive home, and now He had intervened to deliver her from it. She was not leaving as a runaway slave; she had been sent off as a free woman. She was not leaving alone; she had the future security and the current dignity of being the mother of a son, one whom everyone now recognized as the legitimate son of a well-reputed man.

This time when God addressed her, He did so by her own name. He acknowledged her identity as no longer the handmaiden of Sarah, but as Hagar, her own person. This was her independence day, and He was here to share it with her. Through her He would protect and provide for the child. Through her He would raise him up to become a mighty man. And through her He would establish a great nation.

The way God took care of Hagar gave me confidence to support my friend in her decision. I prayerfully held my breath to see what He would do for His trusting, devoted daughter. Many terrifying twists and turns later, she phoned me with the devastating news that her husband was divorcing her. The dreaded day finally came, and I sat praying in the attorney’s office waiting room as she signed the final papers. But my mourning turned to rejoicing as the realization dawned: this was her independence day. God had seen her misery and had intervened on her behalf. He was delivering her from the bonds of an abusive marriage, and He Himself would be her nurturing husband, a wise, tender father to her children. Together we wept and worshiped, mourned the past and celebrated the future. God’s goodness had prevailed. At last, she was free.

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.

Giving Up with a Fight

If God took from me everything on earth that I most cherish—my husband and children, my home and community, my health and security—could I still rise and bless His name? I used to periodically ask myself this question, using it as a litmus test for my heart’s posture towards God. Was He truly on the throne of my heart, or was I holding on to anything else more tightly than to Him? In moments of abandoned worship, I could wholeheartedly answer yes. At other times the question would make me shudder, suck in my breath, and confess that no, my heart was not oriented towards Him in such total surrender.

True relationship calls for a fight;
true love results in surrender.

It struck me recently that I have not asked myself that question in a long time. Perhaps this is because in the years since I last asked it, I have experienced many aspects of that hypothetical worst scenario, and by His grace, I love Him more now than ever. But this discovery also made me fear that I have grown so accustomed to wrestling with God that I have forgotten how to surrender. How do these two postures fit together in how I relate to God?

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
Mark 14:32-34

Jesus embodied both wrestling and surrender during the hours leading up to His worst scenario. Like His ancestor Jacob, He stayed up all night wrestling with God over the outcome of the next day’s events. Jesus knew what was coming. He had been preparing for it and preaching it for a long time now. But that didn’t take away His shear dread at the thought of actually going through with it.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

Sleepless night. Anguished cries. Hot tears. Bloody sweat. No, God! Don’t make me have to bear this. It’s too hard, too much. Spare me! I don’t want to go through with it. Won’t you let me off the hook?

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Matthew 26:42-44

Through the night Jesus called out these candid objections to His Father. All was not well with His soul, and He did not pretend otherwise. He would not lie down and rest, He would not back down, He would not stop wrestling until God answered Him.

But even as He voiced His protest to God, Jesus affirmed His willingness to surrender. With each round of stating His will, He also declared His desire that God’s will would ultimately prevail. Here was a wrestling match between two contestants with opposing wills but united hearts. Their clash in desire did not undermine their deep love for each other or their mutual commitment to each other’s honor. And not for a minute did Jesus let go of the submitted respect of a son to his Father, a servant to His Master, a man to His God. More than anything else—even more than His very life—Jesus wanted God to win. But that didn’t stop Him from wrestling in the meantime.

Jesus’ exemplary prayer unmasks our false dichotomy between grappling prayer and serene surrender. What does God want of us? To argue our case heatedly and pester Him persistently until He answers. To love Him wholeheartedly and surrender to Him fully after He does, even when His answer is no. True relationship calls for a fight; true love results in surrender.