Tag Archives: waiting

Waiting With Haste

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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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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.

Missing Purple

attachmentBombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…

I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.

Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.

But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.

…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.

I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.

You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26

The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18

The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.

But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.

We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.

We are missing the purple.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9

If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.

We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4

Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.

If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.

What are the colors in your worldview window?

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

When God Says No

What happens if I pray for a miracle but God doesn’t show up and do it?

I recently received an email from a woman struggling with how to pray expectantly for a healthy baby while facing genetic odds to the contrary. Her fearful questions reminded me of a time years ago when I faced similar circumstances, stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

Sometimes we feel stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

God had been teaching me much about faith, calling me to higher levels of prayer and expectation. I had been reticent to claim things of Him that He had not clearly promised, but at the same time His Spirit was convicting me to ask more of Him. As I slowly began to do so, I was amazed to see Him show up and do things that I never would have expected. Miraculous healings. Sudden changes of heart. My faith was growing in leaps and bounds, and I wanted that to continue.

So when I found out that I was expecting a child, I recognized another opportunity for my faith to grow. My joy over this new gift of life was mixed with fear that, like the three who had gone before her, she would die in utero. Each doctor’s appointment confirmed my fear as her development began to fall off the charts. I was tempted to resign myself to the inevitable, to protect myself from the crushing weight of disappointment by not holding out hope that God would work a miracle. At the same time, I wanted to live by faith, not fear. So I kept wrestling in prayer, begging my Heavenly Father to spare her life. I clung to the truth that He loved me and that nothing was impossible for Him.

God said no to His only Son.

When I lost the baby, I almost lost my faith. God had told me to ask, so I asked. Then He said no. I felt betrayed. My faith in His goodness was shattered. Where could I go from here?

Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
John 11:41-44

I was not alone in this experience. Jesus had walked this path ahead of me. He had approached God in faith, asking Him to do the impossible and watching Him answer with incredible miracles. He had related to God with the boldness of a child, confident in God’s fatherly love that would hear and respond to His requests.

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

But when Jesus begged God to spare His life, God said no. Jesus had put His faith on the line, wrestling with God in prayer in the garden, refusing to resign Himself to the inevitable. He clung to the truth that God loved Him and that nothing was impossible for Him.

“He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ”
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “”Eloi, Eloi,” “lama” “sabachthani?””–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew 27:43, 46

And yet at the end of the day, Jesus found Himself strung out on a cross, fighting a losing battle for breath, and crying out His feeling of abandonment by God. He had trusted His Father. Through prayer and supplication He had made His request known to God, but God hadn’t granted it. Where could He go from here?

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46

In an ultimate act of faith, Jesus went right back to God. He laid His Spirit in His Father’s hands, trusting in His unfailing love despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And His Father didn’t fail Him. He let Him down as far as the grave, but He held His body intact through the agonizing wait for the third day’s dawn. Then He said yes.

God’s love is powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold us through a “no.”

As I teetered on the brink of losing my faith, I, too, reached out to God in a final act of desperation. I placed the last shredded remains of my faith into His hands, begging Him to hold onto it for me because I had no strength left to hold into it myself. And God didn’t fail me, either. He held my faith intact through the death of another dream and the long wait for hope’s resurrection.

On the other side of healings and deaths, high hopes and devastating disappointment, the confidence that I can claim as I boldly ask God for a miracle is His Fatherly love: powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold me through a “no.”

Abuse Exposed

Abuse is such an ugly topic; it pains me to write about it. But left unaddressed, its sinister message continues to radiate through layer after layer of its victim’s soul, damaging the very essence of the image of God within. Following my own devastating experience of abuse, I wrestled for years with gut-wrenching questions about what I was worth in light of the treatment of me that God and others seemed to deem “beneath their notice.”

They clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. … They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?”
Psalm 73:6-8, 11

Did God not see what was happening to me? Did He not hear me calling for help? I thought He was the righteous Judge of all the earth, the One who sees everything and calls the wicked to account. So why did they get away with treating me this way? Is this really how He is going to let my story end, with me a broken mess and my abusers perfectly unscathed?

The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

But that isn’t how the stories of His other abused children turned out. God saw what had happened to Bathsheba. He took note of how Uriah was handled. And He was not about to turn a blind eye to such abuse, even if it was at the hands of one of His favorites, a man after His own heart.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. … Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
2 Samuel 12:1-4

How could David live with himself? Surely he knew that his actions were wrong, and yet somehow he managed to justify them to himself. Despite his un-confessed sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, David maintained a strong sense of his own righteousness and a quick willingness to judge others. After all, he was God’s appointed leader, the one called to make sure everyone else was obeying God’s law.

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
2 Samuel 12:5-6

What David could not see in himself, he readily identified in others. So when the prophet Nathan approached him with the case of one man using his power to take advantage of another, David did not hesitate to judge such behavior as intolerably wrong, deserving of severe punishment.

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:7-9

In one of His grand reversals, God yanked the carpet out from underneath David’s royal feet, leaving him flat on his face, defenseless and exposed. Who did he think he was, taking all the privilege and position that God had given him and using it to get more? God had not given him the right to treat others however he deemed fit. He named the people David had abused, cataloguing his crimes against them. They were precious to God too, and He was here to judge the judge for their abuse.

The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants? … But suppose the servant … then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants … That servant who knows his master’s will and … does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. … From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:42-48

David was not above the law, somehow an exception to the standards that he held for others. In fact, God judged him all the more severely because David knew His standards and ignored them, because he used his position of leadership to get away with his own self-indulgence. God had entrusted him with much, and he had abused it. Did he really think that God wouldn’t notice?

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ”
2 Samuel 12:11-12

God had seen every action, heard every word, noted every detail of their mistreatment. What David had done in secret, God was going to make public. What David had thought he would get away with, God was going to repay in the sight of all. And the price was going to be high, so much so that anyone who heard of it would wince at its brutality.

For all those who have suffered at the hands of others, who have wondered if God really notices or will ever right such horrible wrongs, the story of God’s harsh retribution of David’s crimes lays our questions to rest. (If anything, it moves us to compassion on behalf of our abusers, making us want to ask God to go a little easier on them.) Yes, He will vindicate our suffering; He will expose our abuse, no matter how important or invincible our abusers may seem. This is what we are worth to God. The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

Blessed?

“And what about you—tell me about your children?” This standard getting-to-know-you line fell flat on its face yesterday as I chatted with a woman sitting next to me at the lunch table. All around us women were enjoying the venue of a pastor’s wives conference to talk about their joys and struggles in family and ministry, but this vivacious woman, ministering in conflict-hardened Belfast, had no children to speak of. Her face fell as she spoke frankly about the deep grief of infertility, about how she has mourned the loss of being the fruitful woman she was created to be. And yet despite this gaping hole in her life, this woman considers herself blessed.

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. … Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
Psalm 127:3-5

Listening to her painful musings on living between the curse and the kingdom took me back to a season in my own life when the grim realities of life left me cynical and questioning towards the glorious promises of Scripture. I had always cherished the Psalms that spoke of the blessings that God pours out on those who love Him: long life, success in their work, good reputation, lots of kids, established home, and all that.

Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD.
Psalm 128:1-4

These happy descriptions fit perfectly with my own picture of what it looked like to be blessed by God. But the further I got into life, the more of a mockery that ideal became. When I looked around me at those who were wholeheartedly pursuing the kingdom of God, so many of their lives were full of anything but safety, security, and prosperity. Their children died of cancer, their husbands lost their jobs, their wives miscarried, their finances diminished, their health declined, their ministries failed. How could I reconcile the picture I witnessed before me with the picture described for me in the Psalms?

Our suffering now is part of our glory then.

I finally reached the point where I stopped reading the Psalms. It hurt too much to read about that fruitful woman, flourishing and happy as she placed yet another infant into the delighted arms of a proud father. My motivation in following God was not all the perks that came with the deal—I loved Him for His own sake—and yet His promises had taught me to expect more. His Word raised my hopes; my experience dashed them. As I wrestled with God over this, I began to suspect that my picture of “blessing” was missing something.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3-10
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.
1 Peter 3:14

I began to search the New Testament for the way it described blessing, but each time I encountered the word it was paired with descriptions of suffering and difficulty. How could failure and frustration, tears and infertility count as blessing? Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? And yet Jesus’ teaching was clear. In His coming kingdom, those who have it hard in this life are first in line for the good things of the life to come. And this doesn’t just mean those who have chosen to give things up for God. It covers those who have suffered under poverty, injustice, or any source of sorrow that is “not the way it is supposed to be.” In one of God’s predictably grand reversals, those who endure the effects of the curse now will be proportionately blessed then.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18, 22-23

Does that dry the tears of those who mourn or lessen the pain of those who struggle? Not at all. But it does give hope for what will come in the future and new significance to what we are experiencing now. In a way, our suffering now is part of our glory then. It is a critical part of the birthing process that all of creation is groaning under. We cry out, waiting for our bodies to be redeemed from this wretched curse, assured that they eventually will be, but struggling through the messy process nonetheless.

As I wrapped up my conversation with the woman at the lunch table, we shared in a moment of joyful celebration over the coming kingdom of God and the specific joys that it will bring us. We affirmed to each other how our earthly struggles have heightened our motivation to labor for the coming of that kingdom. And we parted ways, all the more certain of the truth that we are blessed.

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. …
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1, 17

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.

A Better Dream

“When I try to think about the future, all I can see is an enormous black curtain blocking out everything else.” I could see no way around it. I knew what I was saying did not fit with the biblical hope that I professed, but that dark cloud of despair had settled so thickly over my soul that I could see little else. I didn’t want to be overcome by depression, but it was so much bigger than me, beyond what my simply “choosing joy” could dispel. Where could I go for help? Who could free me from this invisible prison?

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Psalm 42:9-10

The answer was obvious. Every Sunday school child knows the songs about God being able to do anything. But He wasn’t doing it now. He was not delivering me from my troubles, He was not wiping away my tears, He was not lifting me out of my despair. Not yet, at least. Submerged under a shroud of darkness, I waited. But for what?

My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Psalm 42:3-4

The longer I pondered that question, the more I realized that I was waiting for Him. One by one, all my other hopes and dreams had faded and died. The memory of them brought a painful chuckle. Had I really once been so bold and carefree as to pursue such idyllic aspirations? I had taken them for granted at the time, but experience taught me that life doesn’t usually work out the way we imagine it will. As the pathetic Fantine in Les Miserables so poignantly sings, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

The death of our dreams gives rise to the life of our worship.

But the longer I waited in the dark, the more a new dream emerged. Sure I still wanted to be a cheery, engaged mother to my children, a loving, encouraging wife to my husband, a useful, effective servant for the kingdom of God. Those were good goals that were right to pursue, but they were no longer the center of my vision. Losing the ability to fulfill them had whetted my appetite for God.

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
Psalm 43:3-4

Stripped of all the other dreams in which I had formerly found significance and delight, I wanted nothing more than to be in God’s presence. I woke each morning desperate to escape into His heavenly throne room and to lose myself in all-consuming worship. I walked through each day clinging to Him with every step. And I fell asleep each night savoring the sweet comfort of being cradled in His arms.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Psalm 43:5

This was a dream that nothing in this life could deprive me of. It penetrated the dark barriers that hemmed me in and gave me a palpable hope to cling to. Even if I still could not envision the future, even if the thought of what lay ahead overwhelmed and intimidated me, beyond all that I could anticipate the sweetest of prospects: eternity in God’s presence. It was only a matter of time until my hope would be fulfilled, a matter of when, not if. And in the meantime, as I walked the up-and-down path of this life, there was no reason I couldn’t enjoy His presence along the way. Worship became my highest joy. I discovered that I was participating already in what would be perfect then.

Persevering Hope

“Hope? I have no hope left for anything good in this life.” I had been clinging to it against all odds, but hope had died with the last baby. I was still going through the motions of everyday life, but I had lost all motivation to press forward. Forward towards what? More pain, more disappointment, more death? My faith in God was still intact, much to my relief, but I had quit on hope. It just hurt too much.

… 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

God gently called me back to hope through His Word. The book of Hebrews was written to people who, like me, had already weathered some pretty intense storms. They had not backed down, they had not quit on their faith, and they had even joyfully accepted their hardships because of their hope in God’s coming kingdom. But having persevered through the first several rounds of suffering, they were losing steam. Life was so hard, the journey was so long, the cost was so high: how could they keep going?

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. … But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 10:35-11:1)

Those of us who travel this long, hard road need relevant, regular reminders that our hope is not in vain.

But what cause did I have for hope? My experience with hope was that it inevitably resulted in even greater disappointment. I had kept on sharing my faith with resistant people. I had prayed for my friend with cancer to be healed. I had persevered in hope that God could give life to this last baby, despite the discouraging ultrasounds. But none of it had worked. I still held on to a theoretical hope for the life to come, but that seemed so distant that it made little difference in the way I felt now. What good thing did I dare raise my eyes to in the here and now?

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 12:2-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, 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.
Hebrews 12:1

This call to hope was not a harsh demand; it was a gentle reminder. It nudged my perspective back up to the truest reality. Jesus walked this path ahead of me, and He made it to the other side. He, along with that great cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews 11, kept putting one foot in front of the other, clinging to hope despite the constant barrage of circumstances that tried to steal it away. That journey was not easy for them—they still bear the scars—but they did eventually get what they had hoped for.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, … but let us encourage one another–all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25

I, like the believers in Hebrews, needed to hear that I was not alone in my struggle. No wonder the author of Hebrews encouraged them to keep getting together so that they could cheer each other on! And we are in that same company. All of us traveling this long, hard road need frequent, tangible reminders that, as much as it might not feel like it in the moment, our hope is not in vain. Our Prize is waiting.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23