Tag Archives: weakness

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.

Tiny Things

baby imageNations rage, victims quake,
Children die, terrorists shake
Our souls to the core.
Cancer wins, marriages fail,
Dreams die, depression prevails:
We cry for a cure.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15

Innocence gone, evil won,
Curse pronounced, Eden done.
All hopes lost but one.
A tiny seed, a fragile child
Would still the powers raging wild.
Woman’s labor works: a son.

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore… and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Genesis 22:17-18

Abraham hopes, Sarah dreams
Of children like stars, promised seed
To fill the earth with blessing.
Impotent man and barren woman
Despair and laugh, doubt but believe,
All hope on God resting.

…And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Matthew 2:15

Dream diverted, children overtaken;
Slaves in Egypt, feeling forsaken.
Was God’s promise done?
Endangered child, saved from the river;
Infant nation, through waters delivered.
“Out of Egypt I called my Son.”

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham…
whose mother was Tamar…
whose mother was Rahab,
whose mother was Ruth…
whose mother had been Uriah’s wife
Matthew 1:1-6

Prostitute’s offspring, immigrant’s line,
Seed passing through wombs of all shape and kind,
Overlooked, so small.
From David the youngest, least of these
Raised to power, father of kings,
Stems the greatest of all.

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”
Matthew 2:6

War-torn land, occupied country,
Backwater town, least among many,
Host to eternity.
Young woman’s womb, watery and tight,
Rough wooden trough, borrowed for the night.
Home for divinity.

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Psalm 22:9-11

Infant arms, helplessly bound
Newborn mouth, unable to sound
The gospel of the kingdom.
Vulnerable life, carried around
Vagabond child, hunted down.
The hope of the nations.

From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. …You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.
Psalm 8:2-6

Power discarded, frailty embraced,
Position lowered, heaven’s throne replaced
With earth’s dust, un-glorified.
Despised by the great, praised by the weak,
Disarming dark powers with the turn of a cheek.
The seed fell and died.

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
Isaiah 11:6

But from the dust rising it grew
Mighty tree filling earth with something new:
A cure for all nations.
Children that lead, leaders that serve,
Eden restored, Heaven on earth:
A new creation.

…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
Matthew 18:2-5

So why look down on little things,
Small starts, tiny tasks, and the trouble they bring?
God became one of these.
Why chafe at roles that seem downgrading,
Snub a thirsty child, too busy earth saving?
He’s good company.

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…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Hebrews 2:10-11, 14-15

Humble obedience, being made low
Trains me like Him, helps me to know
My place in His story.
I bear the seed, through weakness give birth
To small deeds of mercy, new heavens and earth.
In this is victory.

Body Interrupted

Mind over matter. Reason regulating emotion. These mantras defined how I approached my life, until it was interrupted by trauma.

I certainly hadn’t anticipated the events that overpowered my body. The fact that they happened to me was a harsh enough reality to deal with. But what I never would have expected was the way they continued to overwhelm my soul.

During the months following the attacks, I kept encountering reactions within myself that I just couldn’t control or make sense of. The neckline of my T-shirt brushing against my throat would send me into a cold panic. The slightest body chill would cause me to curl up into a tight ball and shake violently. A hearty laugh with old friends quickly dissolved into body-wracking tears. The adrenaline rush of an adventure park transformed a fun family outing into a personal nightmare, leaving me curled up on the backseat of our car moaning and sobbing uncontrollably.

The nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I control this? This was not the way that I wanted to feel or behave, but no amount of will power could make it stop. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, the nightmare of my past kept invading the peace of my present.

Somehow I felt that as a Christian, I should be better equipped to deal with trauma. Shouldn’t the indwelling of God’s Spirit enable me to be more self- controlled than this? How could my train-wreck of emotions and their obvious effect on my physical frame bring Him glory? Messy and desperate, I searched His Word for any sort of precedent for what I was experiencing.

And I found it. Many of God’s servants had faced overwhelming circumstances, ones greater than what their physical and emotional frames could handle. Elijah hid away in a cave and begged God to let him die. Joseph wept uncontrollably. David struggled to find words that could express his anguish. And Daniel took to his bed and stayed there for a season, unable to move or function despite his pressing responsibilities.

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.” …
As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.
Daniel 7:15,28; 8:17-18

What surprised me most about Daniel’s story was the source of his trauma. Daniel was no physical or emotional wimp! Refusing orders. Confronting executioners. Delivering treacherous messages. Facing down lions. He had repeatedly stared death in the face, unflinching in his resolve to honor God. Yet when faced with visions from God too glorious and terrifying for any mortal to comprehend, Daniel crumpled.

I, Daniel, was exhausted and lay ill for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.
Daniel 8:27

The limits of his mortal frame had been exceeded. Daniel had seen and experienced things beyond his emotional ability to cope, and that trauma manifested itself in very real physical symptoms. The brave soldier physically incapacitated. The steadfast counselor emotionally undone. Despite the strength of his character, despite the depth of his faith, Daniel was rendered temporarily useless by the force of trauma.

There are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences.

Clearly, Daniel’s post-traumatic symptoms were not evidence of some weakness that he should have been able to overcome. They were a testimony of the enormity of the burden God had entrusted him to carry. But what I could readily see and accept in Daniel’s story took me a bit longer to apply to my own.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Psalm 139:15-16

I had to come to grips with the fact that my mind is not fully my body’s master, that there are times when emotional experiences have legitimate physical consequences. I found solace in the company of my spiritual ancestors, reliving their stories with newfound understanding. But even more I found solace in the God who knit us all together.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14

God knew my frame when I could not make sense of it. He had designed its limits and He had ordained experiences for me in which they had been exceeded. For much longer than Daniel’s “several days,” I continued to be a physical and emotional mess, but at least I was God’s mess. Like a child’s broken toy, I laid myself in my Father’s hands, trusting that He could fix what was broken. And in time He did.

His hands held my body. His love governed my soul.

Renovating Fatherhood

“I can’t call Him Father.”

God entrusts His image to frail human fathers.

I looked across the table at the emaciated young woman whose life had been destroyed by the double whammy of a manipulative, molesting father and a violent, abusive husband. For as far back as she could remember, the men in her life had treated her with anger and contempt, violence and disapproval. As I listened to her story, I marveled at the fact that she could still relate to God at all. After years of having Him so misrepresented to her by her father and her bridegroom, how did she now conceptualize Him?

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

The Scriptures tell all kinds of stories about messy human fathers. Adam blew it. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Abraham sent his son away empty-handed; Isaac got his kids mixed up; Jacob played favorites. Judah broke his promises. Eli spoiled his boys. Samuel did more with other people’s kids than his own. Saul was violent and verbally abusive. David was negligent and aloof. But the Scriptures also tell the story of the perfect Father whom human fathers were designed to represent.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud … And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

It amazes me that God would entrust His image to frail human fathers. No wonder He constantly has to come in behind them and set the record straight. When He explained to Moses what He was really like, He emphasized how much He loves all of His children, explaining that He prefers to treat them with grace and compassion, not anger and retribution. That being said, He also sets clear expectations for them, standards which He lovingly but firmly enforces.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, … who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed…
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:3-5, 9-14

Despite his shortcomings in demonstrating the Father’s love to his own children, David did an excellent job of describing it. Fixing our problems and satisfying our desires, this Father takes great delight in caring for His children. He doesn’t look down on us for our limitations or resent us for our neediness. He understands our genetic disposition and our emotional hardwiring, because He designed us that way. Rather than hold our weaknesses against us in anger, He compensates for them with His love.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
John 14:8-10

Jesus took up the role of showing us what the Father is really like. His actions and His words perfectly reflected the heart of the Father. Welcoming the prodigal. Forgiving the delinquent. Challenging the self-satisfied. Empowering the weak through the gift of His Spirit. His Fatherly love does not lower His standards for His children; it compels Him to stoop down, take us by the hand, and help us up to meet them.

…go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:6, 8, 26

But it wasn’t enough to Jesus to merely mediate an accurate picture of the Father. He repeatedly prompted people to go directly to His Father and relate to Him as their own. Turn to Him. Talk to Him. Ask Him for anything. He’s already tuned in to you. He values you. He anticipates your needs. He delights in giving you good things. That’s the kind of Father He is. That’s the kind of Father He wants to be to you.

Our heavenly Father throws open His arms to His kids in a gesture of delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

For better or for worse, our experience of our human fathers informs our perception of our heavenly Father. Some of us have been blessed with fathers who beautifully portray the heart of God, enabling us to tangibly experience His unconditional love. Others of us have had our picture of God horribly distorted, wrinkled, twisted, or shredded by frail mortals who conveyed a very different message about who we are to the Father.

But despite the strength or weakness of the messenger, the message stays the same. God throws open His arms to us with a delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

And we get to call Him Father.

Letters from the Front Lines

Last weekend I received a letter from the front lines. It came from a man who is separated from his wife on their anniversary, who is missing out on the little milestones in his children’s lives, and who lives with a daily threat to his life as he helps to ensure legal justice in an area full of hostile militants. And yet his letter was full of gratitude for the privilege of serving his country. He considered spending the Memorial Day holiday in a war zone an honor, because it allowed him to participate closely in the sacrifice of those who have died serving their country. My eyes filled with tears over the strength of this man’s character and the depth of his devotion.

He loves his country much because he has given up much for its sake.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. … He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.
2 Corinthians 1:8-11

Paul wrote his friends a similar letter from the front lines. Things had gotten really tough on his last assignment in Ephesus, so much so that he had often wondered if he would make it out alive. He was exhausted, shaken, and still reeling from the intensity of battle. But his letter contained no hint of self-pity or suggestion of retreat. Rather, he wrote about how hard things had been so that he could convey the depth of his commitment and gratitude in being counted worthy to continue serving the cause.

Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger … with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on … beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:4-10

That isn’t to say that it had been easy. Actually, things had been downright rotten. But the more Paul lost for the kingdom, the more personally invested he became in seeing it through. He began to count his hardships as proof of its worth, his trials as identification badges. Through combat and trauma, Paul’s identity as a servant of God was being forged deep within. It would become impossible for him to see himself as a regular civilian again. He would always identify himself as servant of the gospel, whether on the front lines or back at home.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 11:23-27; 12:9

By suffering with and for God, Paul’s love for His kingdom grew to the point where it exceeded the bounds of reason. At times he sounded out of his mind, rambling on about the many horrors he had endured as if suffering were a good thing. And yet, in Paul’s mind, it was. Suffering made him weak. His weakness made way for God to show up and be the Hero, rescuing Paul and accomplishing impossible missions through him.

He loved the kingdom much because he had suffered much for its sake.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 2:7-11

This past weekend I also had the privilege of visiting with another brother of mine, one who is in the process of giving up much for the sake of God’s kingdom. I listened as he and his wife counted the cost of taking their toddler and unborn child to go serve the indigenous church in a country where local pastors have been beheaded for their faith. My heart wrenches with fear on their behalf, knowing from personal experience the trials and losses that they will face. And yet I also know from experience the privilege of serving the kingdom, of participating closely in the sufferings of Him who gave His life serving on the front lines.

I wouldn’t trade my losses for anything. They have gained for me a greater share in what I love the most.

The Gospel for the Abused

What is the good news for a world full of battered women and traumatized men, molested girls and bullied boys? Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins reassures us that one important problem has been taken care of, but what about our other pressing needs? Every day we grapple with our desperate need to be rescued and sheltered, comforted and healed. Does the gospel cover that, too?

“I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” …
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:6, 11-12

At first glance, the idea of a king coming to conquer and rule doesn’t seem very reassuring. After all, we have already experienced what powerful people do. The mess we are currently in has been caused by their selfish ambition and arrogant oppression. How is one more violent, controlling leader going to solve our problems?

This ruler measures the glory of His kingdom by the way He cares for its weakest members.

Somehow the less intimidating images of God as a tender shepherd or a sheltering hen seem more comforting. We latch on to the idea of Him holding us close, wiping away our tears and whispering sweet words of love into our ears. And indeed, this is precisely what He does with His wounded children. But that is not all that He does, because that is not all that He is.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

The news that Jesus is King may not initially strike us as good, because our experience of corrupt, abusive leaders has left us broken and terrified. But considering the kind of king that He is, it is the best news we could hear.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7, 9-10

For Jewish captives living under the cruel, tyrannical rule of the Babylonians, this news gave cause to lift their heads in hope. Despite their oppressors’ ruthless power, despite their own trembling helplessness, they had a King who was coming to rescue them. His military might was not limited. His political clout was not inhibited. He had heard their cry and was determined to do whatever it took to take down their abusers and to set them free.

But what would He do with them after that? Become yet another domineering, self-promoting leader who used them up to accomplish His own empire-building ends?
How could they know that He would use His power for their good instead of just His own?

Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. …
All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
Psalm 72:1, 11-14

God reassured His people of the kind of King He would be. Sensitive to the needs of His people. Tuned in to the silent cries of the abused. He would use His power to rescue and defend them because He valued them. He would be strong enough to protect, loving enough to care, and faithful enough to follow through.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:1, 13-16

And when Jesus finally showed up to establish His kingdom on earth, He fulfilled every one of those promises. He rode a gentle donkey instead of a raging stallion. He confronted the corrupt religious leaders who marginalized His messy people. He exerted His power to drive out spiritual oppressors and to restore traumatized victims. He focused His eyes on the needs of His people. He extended His hands to feed and heal, touch and wash them. And in an ultimate act of servant leadership, He laid His life down to lift their lives up.

As terrifying as it can be to come under the leadership of a powerful king, this King makes it easy. He measures the glory of His kingdom by the way He cares for its weakest members. He satisfies the desires of each of His people because He delights us. In the face of cruel abusers and terrorizing bullies, His superior strength becomes our sure hope. We may feel powerless, but the good news is that our God reigns!

It Isn’t Finished

Wait a minute. I thought everything was supposed to be under Your feet! So how could a curse placed on me actually be effective?

That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Ephesians 1:19-23

The gears in my mind ground to a halt, my paradigm attempting to shift without the prerequisite clutch. For years I had been banking on the fact that Jesus is the victor over all the powers of darkness, that His resurrection and enthronement had broken their ability to directly harm His people. After all, was He not now seated on the throne of heaven, ruling over every creature in the world, both seen and unseen? Was I not seated there with Him, too, endowed with every spiritual blessing because I was His adopted child?

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:6-7

These truths had become the core of my faith as I lived and worked in a spiritually hostile environment. They gave me the confidence to persevere through the graphic demonic nightmares and intense spiritual struggle that were our constant companions. And they were the ready response that I gave to local friends who warned me that I should be careful not to incite the anger of the gods and spirits who inhabited that place.

I had been so confident that powers of evil couldn’t touch me. It never occurred to me that a curse could cause the illness that threatened my life and the lingering effects that redefined it for a long time after. So years later, when our pastor prayed that any curses on me would be broken and those symptoms abruptly lifted, I was left with some major questions.

Our frail bodies are the means through which God is putting all things under Jesus’ feet.

If Jesus has already defeated the spirits that stand in opposition to Him, then how could they still have that sort of power over me? If all things have already been placed under His feet, then by what authority could they dictate what happened in my body?

You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” … Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
Hebrews 2:8

But as I revisited the claims of Scripture, I realized that I had assumed wrongly. Jesus is seated on the throne of Heaven, but all things have not yet been put under His feet. He is the victor, but the battle still rages.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ephesians 3:10-11

And we are the battlefield. Our hearts, minds, and bodies are the places in which His enemies seek to spite Him. And our hearts, minds, and bodies are the places in which He will finish what He started with His death and resurrection.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:10-12

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we run into those subtle, well-laid traps of temptation deep within our hearts. We should expect those deadly arrows of doubt and lies to go flying through our minds. And of course messengers of Satan can place strategic thorns in our flesh, all in an attempt to rob us of our blessed position in Christ, to separate us from His love and to hold us under the curse.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand…. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:14-18

There is absolutely nothing fair about this battle! We can’t even see our enemy as they duck about laying landmines in our least expected, most vulnerable places. How are we to win a cosmic war for the preeminence of Christ with handicapped spirits, besieged minds, and mortal bodies?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21

The point is that we can’t, but He can. From within our weak bodies, our willing spirits receive strength from His Spirit, the power that delivered Jesus’ weak body from death. Our faith may be thin, but His armor is impenetrable. We may take hits along the way, but He will succeed in winning the battle in and through us.

The battle is far from finished. All things will be eventually put in their rightful place under Jesus’ feet, but we are the means through which God is accomplishing that end goal. We are the weak vessels through which His strength is being proven.

And when it is finally finished, His troops will have every cause to cheer.

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. Your troops will be willing on your day of battle.
Psalm 110:1-3

I Need a Hero!

Terrified. Trembling. Powerless. Crushed. I’m not big enough to handle this. I can’t keep fighting it. Where can I find a champion strong enough to protect me? I need a hero.

David had always been that hero, the one who showed up to protect everyone else. He had thrown himself at the lions and bears that threatened his sheep, charged at the giant who bullied his people, and chased off the armies that terrorized their land. From childhood, he had been fearless and undaunted in facing down his enemies. So why was he now a trembling wreck?

Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
Psalm 5:1-2

Vulnerable. Bewildered. This time the enemy was not so obvious. This time the danger was hidden, intimate, within the bounds of a relationship that he had thought was safe. He had not been on his guard towards Saul. He had looked up to him as a leader, a protector, not someone from whom he needed to protect himself. He had trusted Saul like his own father, and Saul had used that trust against him. Now which hero could he trust? To which refuge could he run?

When David had fled and made his escape, he went to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. Then he and Samuel went to Naioth and stayed there.
1 Samuel 19:18

Samuel seemed the right man for the job. He was a spiritual giant, the one who had appointed Saul to his position of power and the one who had gotten David into this mess by anointing him, too. And yet Samuel was riddled with fear for his own life when it came to Saul. He welcomed David and listened to his painful story of betrayal and abuse, but there was little he could physically do to protect him, or himself, from Saul’s jealous rage.

But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies– make straight your way before me.
Psalm 5:7-8

So Samuel took David to his place of refuge. Naioth was no fortified city; it was merely a ragtag community of prophets. What made this place safe was not a wall of stone around it, but rather the Spirit of God within it. Together they took refuge in God, receiving the comfort and assurance of His powerful presence surrounding them.

You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.
Psalm 5:4-6

Despite David’s escape into prayer and worship, his troubles soon caught up with him. He watched with horror as a group of Saul’s men approached their sanctuary, armed and ready to forcibly return him to his abuser. He witnessed his worst nightmare unfolding in front of him, and he was powerless to stop it. But his Hero wasn’t.

Word came to Saul: “David is in Naioth at Ramah”; so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they also prophesied. Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied.
1 Samuel 19:19-21

One by one David’s feared aggressors stopped in their tracks, dropped their weapons, and joined in the worship. Their ferocity was turned into futility, their hostility into halleluiahs. Two more groups of soldiers arrived, and twice more David saw God turn their strength into weakness, their crafty plans into blathering incompetence. And as he watched, David’s fear was turned into faith. He had never seen anything like it. What kind of champion could overpower people from the inside out?

At the height of our vulnerability,
our Hero proves His super-ability.

But could this Hero protect David from his abuser? When Saul showed up at David’s safe place, David was brought face to face with the man whose very name struck terror into his heart. The mighty warrior was once again reduced to a quivering mess.

So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night.
1 Samuel 19:23-24

At the height of David’s vulnerability, his Hero proved His super-ability. Saul the arrogant oppressor fell flat on his face. He was not allowed to touch David, not able to speak a word to bring him harm. Overwhelmed and undone by God’s Spirit, Saul was reduced to public stripping and incoherent babbling. David’s heart slowly stilled, his fears put to rest by the sight of his terrifying abuser rendered as helpless as a child before God.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.
Psalm 5:11-12

Abuse turns the mightiest of us into frightened children. It strips us of the confidence to defend ourselves and leaves us in search of someone else who will. In the desperate search for a hero, we are tempted to indiscriminately latch on to anyone who will take us in and provide us a sense of safety. Sometimes we unwittingly turn to people who are abusers in disguise, who prey on our vulnerability and take advantage of our desperate trust. Sometimes we find people who are worthy of our trust, who will do all within their limited power to love and care for us. But standing head and shoulders above all the others, God awaits, ready to gather His trembling lambs into His arms, able to come to our defense. We have a hero.

Called to Wrestle

I’m a fighter. As a kid, my rebel spirit frequently collided with the older, wiser people in my life. Heated arguments with my big brother, disciplinary sessions at school, corrective lectures at home—all repeated the same clear message: I needed to learn to submit. My insubordinate attitude certainly warranted extra doses of correction, but with such a strong emphasis on submission and obedience, I began to assume that godliness meant being mild and compliant, relating to God and others in submissive surrender. But the story of Israel flies in the face of that assumption.

The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” …
After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.

Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. … Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.”
Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied.
Genesis 25:22, 26; 27:19-20

Jacob had always been a fighter. His pre-natal wrestling matches with his twin brother were a cause for great alarm (and discomfort) for their mother. He came into the world grabbing onto Esau’s heel, stubbornly refusing to let go or be left behind. Throughout childhood Jacob tussled with his brother for first place in the family, conning him of his birthright and cheating him of his blessing. For years he grappled with his cunning uncle Laban over ladies and livestock, eventually emerging the victor with four wives, twelve sons, and a massive horde of wealth.

The spunky, tenacious spirit that God instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him.

But the one superior with whom Jacob had never wrestled was God. Rather, he had been content to maintain a reverent but distant relationship with the One whom he referred to as his father’s God. Jacob had spoken with Him at critical times in his life, but these encounters had usually been initiated by God. For the most part, Jacob’s own cunning and strength had seemed sufficient to overcome the challenges he faced. He appreciated God’s assistance along the way, but so far he had avoided entering into the kind of intense, life-defining relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham had modeled.

Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” He spent the night there …
Genesis 32:9-11, 13

God was not content to leave it there. He had created Jacob with his fighting spirit, and He wanted Jacob to engage Him full-on. The night came when Jacob felt most vulnerable and helpless. His brother Esau was coming with a band of 400 men, and Jacob, with his many wives, children, and livestock, was a sitting duck. This was no time to get into a fight, and Jacob knew it. He was scared; his strong will was subdued. In desperation, Jacob initiated an encounter with God. This time he had nothing with which to leverage God’s favor; all he could do was humble himself before God and beg for help. If God had wanted Jacob to relate to Him as a mild, compliant vassal, then this would have been the posture in which He met him. But it wasn’t.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Genesis 32:24-26

Dark night. Mysterious man. Hand-to-hand combat. Strange. For once, Jacob had not picked this fight, but he certainly had no intent of losing it. He knew this was no ordinary opponent; he had seen the angels camping nearby. So he did what came naturally: grab on and refuse to let go. Maybe he could manipulate this man into blessing him. God knew he needed it! Day began to break, and the man seemed to grow desperate. Wrenched hip. Staggering pain! But Jacob still refused to back off. The man pleaded for release. Finally, Jacob had him where he wanted him. Or was it the other way around?

The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Genesis 32:27-31

Finally. Jacob was wrestling with God, and God was delighted. He had wanted Jacob to engage Him, to come directly to Him for blessing rather than to sneak it in his brother’s name. But as a result of the new relationship they had formed this night, God had a new name for Jacob: Israel, “he struggles with God.” This name defined the kind of relationship that God was calling Jacob into. It would define the rest of Jacob’s life and the nation that God would raise up after him.

God loves fighters. Yes, He demands our whole-hearted respect and life-long submission, but He did not create us to grovel like slaves. The spunky, tenacious spirit that He instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him. For reasons beyond my understanding, He delights in our gutsy engagement. Like our predecessor Israel, we are called to wrestle with God.

After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
(which means ‘God, the God of Israel’)
Genesis 33:18, 20

Comfort and Joy? Glad Tidings in the Dark

Christmas caroling facilitates the most bizarre cultural collisions. When else do people open their doors and light up with a smile at the sound of the gospel being proclaimed? When else do secular, public facilities thank you for singing about the global reign of Christ the King?

All is calm; all is bright.

But Christmas caroling also produces poignant emotional collisions. Nostalgic tunes, cheery colors, cherubic faces, soft lights, and celebrating words weave together to send a message that all is right with the world. But what about when it isn’t? For those who sit in deep darkness, songs of comfort and joy dredge up the underlying sorrows, the deep pain, the unresolved conflicts that keep their world from being right. Blessed arms cradling a thriving infant call to mind the babies who didn’t make it or cause an ache in the hearts of those whose arms remain empty.  Presents stacked under a tree and a sumptuous feast spread on the table taunt those who struggle to cover their family’s most basic financial needs. And picture-perfect families happily celebrating together stand in stark contrast to the painful reality of those whose families are broken or abusive, separated by miles or perhaps even by death.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The first Christmas “songs” were for people sitting in the dark. The infertile couple who were past hope of ever holding their own child. An unwed mother wondering how this was going to work out. An engaged man wondering if his woman had cheated on him. Marginalized men working the night shift out in the fields to feed their families. An old widow living in the temple, without the security of a home of her own or the comfort of a family gathered around her. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the prophetess Anna, these songs brought a message of comfort and hope into their messy lives.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.

God had heard their cries. He had noticed their plight. They were not alone. They were not forgotten. He had come to walk with them, to grieve with them, and to comfort them. He had also come to change their world. He had come to overturn the curse and make the wrong things right. He would heal the sick and restore the broken, feed empty stomachs and fill empty arms, affirm the humiliated and admonish the arrogant. And ultimately, He would restore all things to their rightful place in relationship with their God.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night and pierce the clouds and bring us light!

Songs of Christmas stir our deepest longings. They bring us face to face with what is not right in our lives, and then promise us so much more. The thought of hope can be painful, especially in light of our past disappointments. But the message of Jesus’ birth calls us out of our dark caves to bask in the dawning light. God has heard our laments. He has and is responding to our pain.  And He will make all things new.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2