For I Know

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jer. 29:11

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  Rom. 8:28

My friend Caroline and I were talking last night about our tendency as Christians to need to sanitize and neatly wrap up messy, painful, disappointing, and heart wrenching circumstances with our own explanations and understanding of God’s very good purposes for those particular events.  We have this basic knowledge that God is good all the time and that He is in control of all things, therefore, this current suffering I am experiencing must be “good” and here, let me give a whack at explaining just how it is so.

Unfortunately, as a result, some fairly hurtful and off the wall things can be said to the one who is already hurting and feeling disoriented.  We mean well, but at the end of the day, it seems more about our need to justify God before one another than about our deep trust that even when we don’t know the plans He has, He does.  “I know the plans I have for you…”  That is His promise and that should be enough.  But, as any normal kid who demands to have the “WHY?” explained, I need for Him to move my faith to a place that I trust Him and believe in His goodness and actively cherishing love even if it is never clear this side of Jesus’ return what the very good purpose for this or that actually is.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” John 9:1-3

See, for me, I want to find out whose sin caused this calamity because blaming is really important.  Then, had I been in the family of the blind man, I might have demanded to know exactly how God’s work was being displayed, couldn’t it have been displayed without all the trouble of blindness and is there a clear marketing press release that will make God’s glroifying purpose evident to every single person who has observed this suffering or who might ask about it?

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”  Luke 23:36-37

It was not remotely apparent to any onlookers that God was faithful, good, present, powerful, loving, in exclusive control of the moment or any number of characteristics that He has revealed about Himself in all of Scripture.  Yet, “I Am” continued to be His name and His reality.  Even Jesus, who knew the purpose and how God’s glory would be progressively revealed through this excruciating suffering, felt the darkness deeply and with incomparable agony.  Yet, an explanation of God’s reasoning and plans was not what the hearts of the onlookers really needed nor was God in need of justification before His people.  For reasons I won’t understand until I meet Him in person, God does not have the same urgent need to clear up misperceptions and misunderstandings that I do.  Maybe it is like when I took my newborn babies to get their first shots and their infant screams and big eyes looking at me made me actually start to cry.  But an explanation would not have helped them at that age.  What they needed was to know that I was with them, that I loved them, and that I had ok’d these painful pokes they were experiencing so they could trust it.

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  Daniel 3:17-18
Jesus suffered so that I could live and I am invited to share in His sufferings, ultimately to participate in fuller life than I have known or settled for before.  I am so thankful that His purposes and goodness and love and exclusive control are not dependent upon my (or my friends’) understanding or being able to package Him in a marketable fashion.

How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?  Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;  my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. 
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. 
I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
Psalm 13

Darkness is as Light

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Phil. 2:12-13

To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. Col. 1:29

Now that my children are both in school five days a week, I feel a bit lost in this new phase of mothering.  I feel like a part time mom and I really want to be a full time mom, even though it makes me feel crazy and tired so much of the time.  The desire to keep my children near me and to be the primary voice and shaping influence in their world is strong.  Yet, I know the goal of parenting is to equip them to leave home and flourish independently.  As I thought about this over the weekend, it occured to me that this is exactly the opposite of God’s parenting of me…or should I say, re-parenting?

As a non-believer or immature believer, I am convinced of my own autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency.  The more I come to know God the Father through the person and work of Jesus, the more I realize that growing in faith is growing in my genuine belief that I am utterly dependent upon Him and fundamentally incapable of sustaining myself or developing emotionally, physically, intellectually or obviously spiritually apart from Him.  The weaning, then, is the opposite of a breastfeeding child.  The weaning of my life in the Gospel is from my own perceived self-reliance to a life of reliance upon Him alone for all things and in all things.

In real life in real time, I am never consciously saying, “I will trust in myself rather than God.”  Sin is much more subtle and powerfully deceptive than that.  Instead, my self-reliant and autonomy driven heart much more simply turns to other sources for my needs than to God.  It may be some habit of escape into comfort (food, alcohol, television, web surfing) or it may be to people who I expect should satisfy my longings for being known, cared for, protected or rescued.  In either case, I have ceased placing my trust and dependence upon God as my comforter, provider, protector, encourager and source of significance and instead offered these positions to lesser “gods” of my own making.

A scenario that keeps presenting itself is that of extreme darkness encountered in such seasons as trauma, depression, divorce, job loss, chronic illness or the death of a loved one.  There is a tangible sense in these moments of life that there is a dark bottomless hole that I or my loved ones are in danger of falling in and never getting out, and that we together must avoid that unknown yet certain quicksand with all our might.  The looming assumption is that if I or she or he does fall in, tragedy and regret of some form is certain.

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.  You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.  Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.  Psalm 139:1-12

What dark places can my thoughts, emotions or even physical body find that God is not already present or where He is not hemming me in behind and before?  What darkness can I or a friend encounter that is not as light as day to my loving heavenly Father?  Why do I expend so much of my own energy, in any form, avoiding these dark places for myself or loved ones at all costs when they are often the place I and they can see Jesus most clearly?  What am I so afraid of in those places and what has persuaded me that God will be defeated by them?

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them. Is. 42:16

My tendency in times of disorientation is to grab for the familiar, the comfortable, or to run to people and activity rather than to find my safety and rest in Him.  This is simply because I still do not really believe what He has told me is true about His uninterrupted presence with me, especially when I cannot see and do not understand.  My faith that I have not been left alone to survive by my own “inner strength” or understanding brings about that Gospel amnesia and convinces me that the ship is going down unless I do something now.
Oh that I would trust Him to be present with me and would I trust Him to be present with my loved ones, as He has promised He is and always will be.  And might I entrust myself and those I cherish deeply to His care and redemptive work rather than just simply wanting to fix the moment with comfort.  Do I trust Him?  Perhaps then, slowly, I can see as Job was able only as a result of suffering, and know how fundamentally dependent I am upon the Lover of my soul.
I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.  You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Job 42:2-5

Joy for the Accused

Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy in his dwelling place.  1 Chronicles 16:27

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Neh. 8:10

The two biggest arenas in which God is growing my family’s faith, showing Himself to us in more dynamic ways, exposing our unbelief and false beliefs, and meeting our needs with the person and work of Jesus rather than our usual replacements are this move to a less traditional neighborhood (less traditional for white people, I should say, while generationally very traditional for our new black neighbors) and the adoption of our third child from Uganda.  God’s grace has been on the move in our hearts through these processes and is continuing to move us forward in these circumstances, even if excruciatingly slowly for our taste.

His grace is on the move in our hearts through these “classrooms”…His Spirit is developing more patience in my heart that clearly wasn’t there naturally before, more gentleness in my interactions with my children and Terrell than the snippy, micro-managing tendencies that are more natural for me, more peace about not being all things to all people, more love for people that wouldn’t be most comfortable on a long trip across the country and He is showing me more of Who He is, how trustworthy He is, how specifically He really does orchestrate all of our circumstances and how intimately involved He is in the process of making all things new even now.

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.  2 Cor. 1:24

If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  John 15:10-12

Knowing that God’s grace is on the move in my heart and that God’s grace is on the move in my community, that it is on the move not just as a goal in itself but to make all things new and to develop His image in all of His creation, my response should be worship and celebration.  Walking with Him through my apartment or the streets of Kampala can be coupled with joy simply because I am with Him and He is with me and therefore I have nothing to fear.  The heaviness and lack of joy is indicating to me that my faith is not so firm.
Instead of dancing through each phase of the adoption or toward our new home with joy, I find myself dragging legs of concrete with an increasingly downcast expression.  My lack of joy has something to do with the fact that I don’t fully believe He is with me and so I begin to fear.  These doubts come from within, but they have also been unfortunately encouraged from well-intentioned friends.  It’s not that questions like “Is it safe?” or “Do you think you might be forcing your own will when God is trying to tell you no?” are out of bounds.  It is right to examine our decisions and ask God to search our hearts.  But, what I’m realizing is that these kinds of questions, usually asked by people who haven’t been walking intimately with us through this, have an accusatory undertone.  The questions from my own heart and from the mouths of others, accuse me of acting alone apart from God, assume that it is possible for me to act alone apart from God, assume that God would leave me alone for trying to act alone apart from Him and that my welfare and that of my family’s rests not on God’s provision and commitment to us but on our getting it right.  Condemnation lurks just around the corner for us if we get it wrong.
No!  That equation and all those accusations totally exclude Jesus!  They totally overestimate the power of my will as being greater than God’s and they totally underestimate His mercy, authority and goodness in ALL things.  We cheer as we read in the Chronicles of Narnia Mr. Beaver’s pronouncement that of course Aslan isn’t safe, but he is good.  In Narnia, Aslan’s goodness totally overrides the fact that he is not safe because it is His presence in the midst of the battle, his sovereignty even over the White Witch and his will for the restoration of Narnia that are trustworthy and true.  The questions in and to my heart accuse in a way that God’s voice and His Good News do not.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— Col. 1:15-22

He has promised never to leave nor forsake us, that if I make my bed in the depths or settle on the far side of the sea, even there His hand will guide me, that nobody can open a door He shuts nor shut a door that He opens, that nothing not anything can separate me from His love which is firmly grounded in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus and not my own perfect choices or understanding.  Oh I pray that He will cut off the cement blocks of accusation and unbelief from my legs so that I may dance with joy down the road He is taking us.

I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.  I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.  Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure,  because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.  You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:7-11

Need to Pray

The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” John 6:63-64

If my heart could be compared to a screen door, the strong pull of the spring back to the shut position seems always to be to settle for the ideology of Christian theology rather than a present tense need and love for Jesus.  What I mean is that my heart seems far more readily inclined to live “for” Jesus than to simply live with Him.  It is a subtle process, really, and not something I deliberately set out to do.

Somewhere in the caverns of the mission control center of my heart, the daily briefing gets consumed with problems “out there”, drawing attention away from the problems within.  The argument is not that we should all spend a little more time focusing on ourselves and a little less time worrying about the concerns of others.  Rather, the misstep as Paul Tripp identifies it is that “Whenever you believe that the evil outside you is greater than the evil inside you, a heartfelt pursuit of Christ will be replaced by a zealous fighting of the ‘evil’ around you…reducing the gospel to participation in Christian causes” rather than celebrating and living out of our participation in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Here is how I know this has happened:  I am spending more time chitter chattering about situations than praying desperately for God’s intervention, I am fixated on changes I would like to see happen in others more than changes I would like for God to make in me, and my hope for change in others or in situations or in myself becomes my strategic plan rather than God’s Spirit at work in the hearts and minds of His people, including my own.  I don’t pray because I don’t see my real need for what only God can do.

So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. Zech. 4:6

I love that these verses aren’t challenging me to show off God’s power to the world outside of myself in new and inventive ways, but are inviting me to see my own heart’s need to have that power effect change within.  As I increasingly trust Him to redeem me, I can increasingly trust Him to redeem the world around me.  Oh would I chitter chatter and jitter less and believe Him, seek Him and love Him more!

My Worried Unbelief

You grumbled in your tents and said, “The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.  Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’ ” Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go. Deut. 1:27-33
The first step in recovery is acknowledging you have a problem…from healing a sinus infection to a drug addiction to a broken marriage. I am beginning to acknowledge the fact that I worry. The problem with worry isn’t just that “we’re not supposed to do it” but the problem with worry is that it consumes thought, energy and focus that ought to be directed to loving and serving my children, husband, family, friends and neighbors. I can’t be present with them when I am pre-occupied with concern for things that aren’t right in front of me. At the heart of my worry and lovelessness is a lack of faith.
Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. Mark 13:11
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Luke 12:25-26
I have greater faith in my self-reliant (which disguises itself in “responsibility” and “preparedness”) than in the completed work of Jesus on my behalf. How much time do I waste scripting out a conversation that I might have with someone in the future? I do this so as not to be caught off guard as if any actual dialogue with another person would ever follow my exact train of thought from start to finish and not be immediately off script the minute the other person genuinely entered into the thought process. I’m trying to control ahead of time what has never been in my control.

And why do I spend so much time worrying about what I will say or how I will pay for future bills or creating a script for an upcoming activity I’d like to see happen? It is because deep down, I really am trying to add hours to my life by avoiding anything potentially stressful, any moment of delay due to not having thought through the answers to questions that might be asked or the dreaded punishment of not having done my homework before that next class starts. But it wasn’t Joseph’s foresight that saved Israel from famine, it was God’s plan even before Joseph was sent to Egypt. Or take an opposite example: Jonah. He knew clearly what God was asking him to do and deliberately ran the other way. God’s plan was not thwarted, Jonah wasn’t discarded as unusable because of his disobedience, the Ninevites heard the Gospel and God was glorified.
God’s plans and my tomorrows are not resting on my clear mindedness, my foresight, my responsible budgeting, my perfect obedience or advanced wisdom and understanding. God’s plans and my tomorrows are resting fully on Him, on the person and work of Jesus which also attained my record of perfect obedience and in whom alone are found the riches of wisdom and understanding.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal. 2:20
There is no qualifier to those verses, such as “except when you are too tired to pray, at which time He is not living in you” or “except when you are lazy and don’t plan ahead, in which case, Christ is no longer living in you.” Nothing can separate me from His love or His commitment to His redemptive plan. Do I not trust Him to order my steps? Do I not trust His care and commitment to complete the good work that He alone began? Do I not believe what He said, that He works in me to will and to act according to His good purpose? Did His will not include rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, despite their blindness to His bigger purposes, despite their grumbling and complaining, despite their hearts which readily accepted new idols to worship? Did His will include Jonah’s running away, Joseph’s brothers’ wicked treatment of him, Judas’ betrayal, the snake’s activity in the Garden? Did His will include Peter’s well-intentioned but totally misdirected act of cutting off the soldier’s ear in defense of Jesus? Did it include his own disciples’ total lack of understanding Who Jesus really was, even as they mourned His death and were left confused? Of course it did…and all these things were and are working together for God’s good purposes of redemption in all of His creation. None of those are “off script” in God’s beautiful story. None of those represent a momentary lapse in God’s control or goodness, perfections or strength, authority or love.

My need to have tomorrow all lined up today reveals how little I trust that God has tomorrow all lined up already. All of the blessings and curses of the covenant were met in the person of Jesus, by His life, death and resurrection, into and by which I have been hidden, covered, clothed and identified. My status as His dependent and cared for child does not ebb and flow based on my faithfulness each hour, but remains steady because of Jesus’ faithfulness on earth as it is in heaven.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Romans 5:9-11

All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:25-27