Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pain and Hope

How does one accept the reality of pain and disappointment without losing hope? How do we surrender and face reality and yet not give up? How do we trust that God might never answer our prayer the way we want it and yet still keep asking for a miracle? How does one continue to experience loss and yet still have faith?

Because if you live long enough, you will learn and experience first hand that life is hard. Wishes don't always come true. Dreams are crushed and die. Sickness destroys and takes away life and love. Prayers don't always get answered. Loved ones aren't always healed.

I've heard and told myself all the usual answers: God is good. He knows what he's doing. He is sympathetic to my cry. His answer is sometimes wait or in heaven. He is doing some great work through the pain. It will all be redeemed. I can trust him. He loves me.

That is all true and I still believe it. But now I am at a new level. Do I give up hope of ever seeing the thing I wish to come true? Is it faith to just keep doggedly believing and then feeling disappointment and pain with every reminder that healing has not yet happened? Or is it faith to totally let go of any and all expectation, desire and hope?

It feels like if I let go, then I have lost hope. It feels like the end. That I have doomed myself to a life of lack, that things will never change. Is this what God wants me to do? To totally let go? To never expect my desires again?

I have done this before. I surrendered my desire to be married, believing I probably would not, only to meet my husband. Everyone has heard stores of couples who finally gave up trying to conceive only to quickly get pregnant as soon as they stopped trying. Hence, the temptation to make it a formula: If only I surrender totally, then God will give it to me. But this "formula" is not a guarantee.

In John 11:1-27, we find the story of Mary and Martha, close friends of Jesus whose brother was dying. They sent word to Jesus to come help. 
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
What? That doesn't sound like love to me! So when Jesus does finally show up, it is understandable that Martha blurts out her disappointment.
If you had been here, my brother would not have died. 
Martha faces the facts. She knows that Jesus could have answered her request and yet he chooses not to. She is saying what I feel: It hasn't turned out the way I wanted it to. You didn't make it all better. You haven't answered my prayer. It still hurts.

But Martha doesn't stop there. She also expresses faith.
But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.
She is stating the truth that she still believes God can answer prayer. God can heal, restore, break strongholds, set people free.
Jesus calls Martha to hope in him in the present, to take what she believes about him and cling to it in her distress. It is a call not simply to affirm the truth about Jesus' power but to affirm his right to exercise his power according to his own purposes. She will never have the answers to all her why's, but in his character she will find enough of an answer to sustain her faith...Jesus calls Martha to trust him now - trust that he is good even here, when her losses are insurmountable and when Jesus, who had the power to prevent it all, had chosen not to act. (Carolyn Custis James, When Life and Beliefs Collide)
After this amazing statement of faith, the bystanders ask the age-old question:
Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?
We think that love is shown by keeping tragedy from happening. Yet Jesus had a bigger plan in mind - to show them his glory. He was disturbed in spirit and deeply moved and he wept. And then he gave them back their brother.

So, like Martha, I do not stuff the pain, minimize it or explain it away. I face the fact of my disappointment. But I also exercise faith. Isaiah 30:15b tells me how to do that.
In quietness and trust is your strength.
This kind of quietness means to be tranquil, at peace, to rest, lie still, be undisturbed, with the sense of idleness. It is used of the land when it is not producing and of a city that is not at war. It means to not strive or wrestle, but rather to be idle. In other words, DO NOTHING. The Message translation put it this way: Your strength will come from settling down in complete dependence on me.

And yet, still be confident and trust in God.

There have been times in the past that God has called me to be active, to speak up, to initiate. Other times, he has said to pray for the ones fighting the battle. This time he says, "Be quiet, do nothing. Trust. Trust Me".

Waterbom Park in Bali, Indonesia has the most beautiful
lazy river. This to me, is what quietness and trust look like.
And this answers my initial question. Because I trust God who is absolute love, I can surrender, let go and release my efforts, tension and fear. I have not given up or lost hope. Rather, I float in the river of God's love and let the current of his Holy Spirit carry me to my destination. I trust that he will get me to where he wants me to go.
The reason we do not have to be afraid is that we have been given the Spirit of God. We are in the river. We do not not have to thrash about trying to float. We must simply open our spiritual eyes and see that we are in the river of God's love and that our staying afloat and moving along are God's responsibility. (David Benner, Surrender to Love)

Lord God, I surrender to your absolute love. I trust your goodness. I float quietly in your Spirit. You have heard my prayer and my heart's desire. I trust that your Spirit will carry me to the end that you have prepared for me. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Deeper than Hell

I pray that you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God's love]. Ephesians 3:18

Finally, we come to the depth of God's love. God's Love is also deeper than Hell.

One of the most gripping scenes in the Lord of the Rings is when Gandalf confronts the Balrog. The battle really only begins when they both fall and fall and fall into the depths of the earth. It seems to never end and there is a sense of hopelessness to the falling. This illustrates the depths of hell to me.

God's love went deep into hell to save me. [H]e made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Philippians 2:7-8 God sent his Son, Jesus into the depths of hell, instead of me. What greater love is there than this?

God's love goes to my deep places of sin and anguish, into the very lows of my life. Don’t consider your servant a wicked woman, for until now I have spoken from my deep pain and anguish 1 Samuel 1:16. Like Hannah, I can express my deepest pain, abuse and secret sin to God and he will still love me. Rather than reject me, he covers those wounds with his love.

God's love is deep, full of riches and complexities. Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Romans 11:33These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God 1 Corinthians 2:10. Every now and then, I need a deep conversation, a connection that reaches from one soul to another. I love it that God is deep and full of complexity. His love satisfies my need for deep connection.

So I will let Chuck Smith sum up verse 18:
God loves you so much, I pray that you might know the depths of Gods love for you, the length of God's love, the height of God's love. If you could only fathom the depths, if you could only explore the heights, if you could only see the length. To the length to which God was willing to go to save you. The depths to which Jesus was willing to come in order to redeem you. The heights to which God intends to bring you. That He might seat you together with Christ in heavenly places and make you a joint heir with Christ of His eternal kingdom. Oh the heights of the glory that God has for you. If you could only know," Paul said, "comprehend that which is beyond knowledge. Hey, you cannot know it, it is beyond knowledge." - Chuck Smith Commentary
What deep places in your soul has the love of God reached? 
While still incomprehensible in its entirety, what new insights do you have about God's love?

Other entries in this series:
Higher than the Heavens
Longer than the Earth

Higher than the Heavens

I pray that you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God's love]. Ephesians 3:18

A few months ago, I watched The Martian, starring Matt Damon. There is nothing like views of space, planets, stars and distances so far away it takes 24 minutes for a message to be received and 6 months to travel there. This kind of thing blows my mind. This is the heavens that God has created. And God's love is higher than the heavens.

God's love is so great it is unfathomable. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him Ps 103:11. Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above - what can you do? Job 11:7 Even though Scripture says I cannot understand God's love, I keep trying. It's greatness moves me to want more of it and to trust that it will be enough for me.

God's love lifts me to high places. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus Ephesians 2:6. There is an eternal aspect to God's love that lifts me out of the mundane and the troubles of this world. I embrace the hope of reigning with Christ in the future.

God's love is a natural high. You have let me experience the joys of life and the exquisite pleasures of your own eternal presence Psalm 16:11 (LB). His love brings ecstasy, pleasure, delight, not just in the future heavenly realms, but in the here and now. Little by little, I am learning that earthly pleasures (even the best and most wholesome) are fleeting. I want God's love to bring me my ultimate joy and delight.

What part of the highs of God's love have you experienced? What have you yet to experience? Talk to God about that.

Other entries in this series:
Longer than the Earth

Longer than the Earth

Job 11:7-9 Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?... Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.

Job confirms it. Not only is God's love wider than the sea, it is longer than the earth. I think this is what the Apostle Paul meant in Ephesians 3:18:

I pray that you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God's love].

I have flown around the earth a few times in my life, both as an MK and as a missionary. There is nothing quite like a 40 hour journey from Dallas, USA to Chiang Mai, Thailand to confirm the reality that the earth is long. This is what I learn about God's love from the length of the earth.

God's love is so long that He has always loved me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb...My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in the secret pace...Your eyes saw my unformed body...Psalm 139: 13-16. He created me. He loved me from the moment of my conception. Ephesians 2:10 says that I am his masterpiece.

God's love will never end. He will never on purpose stop loving me. From everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him Psalm 103:17a. His love will last through all eternity. Earthly relationships will end with death. "Death cannot stop true love", Westley said in The Princess Bride. Westley's comment is meant to bring a chuckle, but it is not true. My friend Ben is learning this as he grapples with loosing his wife to death. His love for her continues, but what does that look like now? In heaven? What if he marries again? Only God's true love cannot be stopped by death.

Nothing I do will make God's love stop. I cannot even force him to stop. Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord Romans 8:39. Sometimes we think that we have done something so awful that God could not love us anymore. That is simply not the case. His love is looooong.
The love of Jesus has length. When considering the length of God's love, ask yourself "When did the love of God start towards me? How long will it continue?" These truths measure the length of God's love. Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) David Guzak
How does it make you feel to realize that God will never stop loving you?

Other entries in this series:

Relieving my Fears

My devotional asks me, "What can I do to relieve the fears of others?" I am stopped short. I have been exacerbating fears, not relieving them. 

In Luke 23:28-31, Jesus says these words as he stumbles down the Via Delarosa: Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are coming when they will say, "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed," Then they will begin to say to the mountains, "Fall on us"; and to the hills, "Cover us." For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?

This was a very dark day for the women disciples who followed Jesus. Their very hope was about to be crucified. It looked like evil was going to win after all. The innocent One was going to die. Such injustice. Such waste. Such madness. Such hopelessness.

And instead of comforting the women and telling them it will be okay (like I would prefer to hear), Jesus, in essence, tells them that it is going to get worse! And it did, in one sense. The Romans remained in power. Jerusalem was destroyed. The fledgling church was persecuted. The innocent continued to suffer. 

But in another sense, it was okay. Fortunately, I know the end of the story. Jesus' death had a greater purpose. There was a bigger picture unfolding. His death conquered death (I Corinthians 15:24-28). In the end, the righteous do win. Justice will be done. Jesus will reign forevermore (Revelation 21:1-4)!

So why does this relieve my fears today in a world with terrorism, narcissism, dictators and overall insanity? 

Because I am reminded to trust God's bigger plan. To trust it for my life here and now. 

While I don't like seeing evil reign in the world today nor do I want to accept that it is most likely going to get worse, I must focus on the hope of God's bigger plan. 

I must confess that it is pride that makes me believe the lie that I should be exempt from suffering, that I am deserving of blessing and comfort and worldly peace, that I am above that or better than others who suffer (because I am an American or I made better choices or obeyed God or whatever). 

I must depend more and more on the God who is Peace for my safety and security and not on law enforcement or leadership or even common sense. 

And I must focus on what really counts - building God's kingdom by discipling others and helping them know that they are dearly loved.

Lord, help me to keep living dependent on you, not on the supposed safety of my nation or the wisdom of its leaders. Show me how to spread your hope as I look at your bigger picture. And most of all, renew my zeal to dive into what matters most - building your kingdom!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Broader than as the Sea

My favorite beach shot! Taken in 1997.
I love everything about beaches. Even though as a child I grew up in the mountains of Papua New Guinea and played in streams and rivers, I was introduced to the ocean when first a missionary in Indonesia. Later I discovered other beauties such as St Lucia, Montenegro, Assateague Island and most recently the Mediterranean Sea off the southern coast of Turkey.

South Lombok, Indonesia has a beach where the sand is actually perfectly round pellets of coral. Last year in Montenegro, I discovered sand made up of smooth rocks. Some beaches are covered in shells, some in sea glass. Some are good for wading, some for wave surfing, some for snorkeling. 

Then there's the colors! Some seas are aqua, some deep blue. The light dancing on the waves produces further shades and the foam of crashing waves adds white. And don't even get me started on the sounds of the waves, the wind, the gulls! There is something about the beauty of a beach that lulls me to a place of silence and rest.

Thus you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that beaches illustrate love! I was in another slump. I needed a fresh reminder (again!) that God loves me. I took some time to sit at Jesus' feet (following Mary's example) and read this from the Apostle Paul: 
I pray that you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God's love]. Ephesians 3:18
The same word "breadth" to also used to describe King Solomon's wisdom: the breadth of his understanding was as infinite as the sand on the seashore (1 Kings 4:29).

The sands of South Lombok, Indonesia
Is it ok then, to say that the breadth of God's love is as infinite as the sand on the seashore? This means that his love is extending indefinitely, it has no limit, it is measureless. I find this concept also in Psalm 139:17-18:
How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God! How vast is their sum total! If I tried to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. Even if I finished counting them, I would still have to contend with you.
Since God himself is infinite, that would of course mean his love is infinite too. It helps me to look at the grains of sand and think that just as I cannot begin to count them, I cannot begin to count the ways that God loves me, that nothing I do will ever stop his love.

From the ocean, I also learn that God's love is as wide as the east is from the west. Psalm 103:12 says as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. God's love is so wide, that it covers all my sin. He demonstrated his love for me by dying on the cross to take the punishment for my sin. His love covered the sins of my past, present and future. Scripture says that sometimes someone will die for a righteous man, but only Christ died for sinful men and women. God loves me that much! I am completely forgiven! When I stand on the shore and gaze out at the ocean, I cannot see where it ends and I cannot see what is beneath the waves. Just as I cannot see the end of the sea, I cannot see the end of God's saving love.

If I were to follow the ocean, it would take me to another shore, another country, another people. God's love is so inclusive it encompasses ALL people and extends even towards those I struggle to love. I have the tendency to want to stick with my kind, to not welcome people different than me. But God said that all may enter who believe. God's love is wide enough to include every person. God's love is so far reaching, it will save many, many more than I would save for he loves the world (John 3:16, I John 2:2).

In Genesis 18:18, God told Abraham that his descendants would bless many nations. We see him extending his love to an Egyptian slave, a Canaanite prostitute, a Philistine alien, an Army Commander from Aram, the leper Namaan and Ninevites in Iraq. In the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples to "Go out to the highways and country roads and urge people to come in, so that my house will be filled" (Luke 14:23). The Apostle Paul taught that salvation has been extended to the Gentiles along with the chosen Jews (Ephesians 3:6). We know that some from every tongue and tribe will be in heaven some day.
" would think from hearing [some] preach that Christ came into the world to save half-a-dozen, and that they were five of them … Out on their narrowness! There will be more in heaven than we expect to see there by a long way; and there will be some there with whom we had very little comfortable fellowship on earth who had fellowship with Christ, and who are therefore taken to dwell with him for ever." (Spurgeon)
What aspect of the breadth of God's love - that it is measureless, that it covers all your sin, that it encompasses all people - ministers to you most? Why? 

Other entries in this series:
With All the Saints
Rooted and Grounded
More and More at Home
Unlimited Resources
Named by God
Let us Kneel