Roundabout to Victory–part 3

After the ten plagues, Pharaoh had not only let the people go, he expelled them. Later it dawned on him: his entire economy depended on slave labor and he had driven all the slaves out. He had to get them back. They had obeyed the Egyptians for as long as anyone remembered. Surely he could make them return. Thus he forgot that it was God’s supernatural power, not the slaves, that had defeated

Likewise, the entire human race, and each individual in it, starts out subject to Satan. He is the god of this world and the world does his bidding. Jesus came to rescue the world and defeated Satan at every turn. Every time someone turns to Jesus for salvation, Satan loses a slave, a loss he refuses to accept. He cannot undo what Jesus has done, but he can make us forget it or neglect it. When we do, he can make us obey him again.

God was not surprised when Pharaoh sent all those chariots, but the Israelites did not expect to see them. It was a test. Would they remember the Passover and all of the other miracles each of them had personally experienced or observed? They did not. They were armed, but not well enough. They could not flee, both because of the geography and the inability for such a large group of people to move quickly enough. It would have been a good time for prayer, but fear overruled faith. They blamed the leadership and started criticizing Moses. Moses reminded them not of past miracles, but God’s recent promise of deliverance.

So it is with the church. Satan wants his slaves back. He can rage, threaten, intimidate (or soothe and tempt to unwatchfulness), but he cannot win. When we seem the most helpless against him, God is ready to show himself strong. Too many people start to panic, grumble, and speak out against the human leadership, as if trouble were their fault and stronger than God. Thank God he will always see to it that some people will speak a genuine word of faith over the situation.

If God doesn’t assign work for people to do, it means that he intends to win the battle on his own. The promise of God is that if we can’t do anything to help ourselves, then we don’t need to.

This passage rather clearly demonstrates that God can and will help those whose faith has vanished–so long as at least one among them, like Moses, will speak the word of faith. I would rather be that one that be among the clueless multitude that forgets God in a crisis.

Roundabout to Victory–part 2

Not only did the Lord lead the people the long way to where they were going, he told them to backtrack. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%2013:20-14:4&version=NIV He told Moses why: he wanted to provoke Pharaoh and work one more miracle at his expense. He led them to a very vulnerable place.
It looked to Pharaoh like the Israelites were lost and easy to recapture. Where they camped was surrounded by sea and desert. He would sweep in for the kill, right into the trap the Lord set for him.

If we just look at Pharaoh as a man, it seems that God was cruel, toying with him like that, but if we look at him as a thyme of Satan, a different picture emerges. Satan will never do anything righteous. He vigorously opposes God and intends to do every kind of harm to God’s plans, no matter how spectacularly he comes out second best in their encounters. He actually thinks he is strong enough an crafty enough to succeed. He is too stubborn to recognize defeat and too utterly predictable to gain more than short-term advantage.

Satan cannot thwart God’s plans, but he must be destroyed before they can be completed. And so God puts himself, as well as his people, in positions that look weak and defenseless, knowing that Satan will overplay his hand (as he did in forcing the crucifixion of Jesus).

For a while, it will look like all hope is lost, that the leaders are incompetent, and that the enemy is too powerful to withstand. Actually, from any viewpoint but God’s, that exactly describes the human condition in everything from the struggles of any given individual to, say, American foreign policy.

Back then, God was visibly present with his people. He spoke directly to Moses. We no longer have a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The church has multiple leaders, not just Moses. Some of them have direct revelation of some part of what God is up to, but no means of communicating it to the whole church. It appears that Moses didn’t, either.

It almost looks like God wanted most of the people to be essentially clueless so that they would feel and act as helpless as they looked to the enemy. We at least have Scripture, which sets out the general plan for ultimate victory. We have no idea where we are in the working out of that plan.

When we don’t know where we are or where we’re going and all hell breaks loose, maybe we’re exactly where God wants us, and deliverance from the immediate troubles is just around the corner.

Of course, even the miracle that ends this story left Israel in the wilderness and subject to more attacks. Victories in this life seem like near misses, and the next problem awaits us. In fact, despite relentless Satanic attack, a few faithful people always remained in Israel, even in the most backslidden of times. The church, too, has survived multiple crises both in times of stress and complacency and continues to grow. As individuals, we need to wait for God to do what he planned for us from the beginning. Eventually (if only in the next life), everything will be set right.

Roundabout to Victory–part 1

“When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt. So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.” — Exodus 13:17-18.

I always try to find the most direct route to where I want to go. When I’m driving somewhere, I get there quickly. When I’ve tried to reach life goals that way, it hasn’t worked out so well. Maybe if I had known how to listen to God years ago, I would have found a roundabout path that would have actually gotten me where I wanted to go.

The ancient Israelites were leaving Egypt to go to the Promised Land. These people had never known freedom from oppression. Neither had the grandparents of the oldest among them. In a perverse way, slavery is a protection from making hard decisions. Freedom is difficult for people who haven’t known it. Of course, they thought they were ready. They were all armed for battle, but not trained.

We, like them, are fleeing from oppression to freedom. The god of this world (a title Satan stole from Adam in Eden) has held the whole human race in bondage to sin and does not want to let anyone go. He will make sure that we meet conflict and opposition. God will determine where the battle takes place.

Israel would see war in any case, but God saw to it that they met and overcame an old enemy before they ever met a new one. He also saw to it that their encounter would be so terrifying and so beyond their ability that only he could bring victory.

Only when we truly break free from old bondages are we ready to face new challenges. Satan will always stand in our way. We are no match for him, but if we follow God, then no matter how roundabout the way seems and no matter how terrifying the opposition seems, he will see to it that we prevail.

On being glad in rotten circumstances

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”–1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

I have had to fight a gloomy mood all my life. Not surprisingly, that has made it difficult for me to understand the concept of joy. How can I be happy and upbeat all the time, when such rotten stuff keeps happening to me? Then I noticed the number of times scriptures say, “rejoice and be glad.”

I can understand being glad to get out of a cold rain into a warm building, even though the rain hasn’t stopped. I can understand how being glad to see a beautiful sunset, or flowers, or something can at least momentarily pull me out of a funk–so long as I make an effort to notice. So I decided that maybe making a point to be glad about things every day and remember what they were at the end of the day could lead me to a deeper understanding of joy. It does, when I remember to do it.

Continual prayer follows from practicing joy. I want to share my gladness with someone. I can at the very least share it with God, and if I find someone else to tell about it, then the telling is yet another way to praise God. Prayer means so much more than just, “gimme gimme gimme,” even if we ask for things for other people. Gratitude is a huge part of it.

So yes, I can give thanks in all circumstances. No matter how rotten a day is, something good happened. And even if I can’t think of anything, if I have some money in my pockets, my health, a place to live, enough to eat, or any of the other stuff I take for granted, I thereby have something to give thanks for.

This verse does not say to be thankful for all circumstances, just in all circumstances. But I have noticed that spirituality mature people have learned to give thanks for past troubles, and that the most spiritually mature people can even give thanks for present troubles. After all, God has promised ultimate deliverance, and that whatever bad stuff I live through will eventually benefit me, if only after Jesus returns.

Remember to remember God

“Beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage,”–Deuteronomy 6:12, NKJV

Moses looked over a crowd of people who had grown up as wanderers in the wilderness. They were about to enter the Promised Land, where God would give them houses and cities they had not built and crops they had not planted. It would take hard work to occupy the land, but Moses foresaw trouble resulting from the prosperity that would follow.

Hard times can make or break our faith. People will either cling to God through a crisis or turn away from “religion” entirely. In times of prosperity, people are tempted to become complacent, then to become persuaded somehow that they deserve the prosperity, and then to become ungrateful when they feel they don’t prosper enough.

Right now, the American economy has hit a rough patch, but even those among us who are struggling the hardest have it better than most of the rest of the world. Let us all beware, lest we forget God, lest we fall into ingratitude by valuing the blessings we don’t possess more than those we do.

The secret of the valley

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”–Psalm 23:4, NKJV

No one welcomes hard times, but no one can avoid them. What is your “valley of the shadow of death?” Remember, it is the valley of the shadow. What’s the point of being afraid of a shadow? The path through the valley may be difficult. It will probably twist and turn so that we cannot see very far ahead. I know from experience that not knowing the outcome from the beginning tempts me to fear.

The secret of the valley is to walk through it, anyway. That is the way to fear no evil. That is the way to learn that, however unpleasant the valley may be, there is no evil in the valley to fear; it is only a shadow. Whoever balks at walking through or stops along the way to cower will fear the shadow.

We must keep walking, even though we may encounter much that seems like evil at the time. We are not called to walk in the valley or around it. We must walk through it. There is another side of the valley, and the one who walks through it will find that other side and the easier, more pleasant path that continues there.

God himself walks through the valley with each of us. David, the shepherd, envisions God himself as a shepherd, using his shepherd’s tools to keep the sheep from wandering away from the safe path. On the other side of the valley, we may well recognize that what seemed like evil in the valley was God’s rod and staff, preventing us from going in an attractive but dangerous direction. Whatever we lost in the valley, God will restore in another way.

Are you walking through a valley? Cling to God. Listen for his voice; you will hear it if you listen. Take comfort in his correction, and hope in the promise of the other side of the valley. Walk through.

Defeated? No! Victorious!

“Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long. We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Psalm 44:22

The Kingdom of Judah was under siege, undoubtedly because of its persistent idolatry. The psalmist remembers the glory of past generations and wails that God no longer goes out with the nation’s army.

I simply assume that anyone whose poetry was worthy of inclusion in the psalter must have been a godly man. When, in verse 20, he denies forgetting God or worshiping idols, I believe him. I don’t believe that he could speak for the nations a whole.The righteous must often suffer as a consequence of the sins of the unrighteous. It seems so unfair. The psalmist, feeling defeated and alone, went so far as to urge God to wake up and see the injustice.

Paul quoted this verse in Romans 8:36, and then immediately continued, “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” How so? Because when we suffer for God’s sake, we partake of the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.

Jesus suffered more than any other human can ever imagine and rose victorious from the grave. When we suffer with him and for him, our suffering becomes a battle scar, not a punishment for anything.

Isn’t that a marvel! We have all sinned and richly deserve punishment, but by God’s grace, we get instead the promise that we will partake in Christ’s final victory!

Christian warfare

“Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all of your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.”–1 Peter 1:13, NRSV

The hymn says, “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” And the war is between our ears. We can’t avoid it. We have no human enemies! As Christians, our reborn spirit desires to serve Christ; our old sin nature desires to please our own flesh. Did you get mad when you read, “we have no human enemies?” That was the voice of your sin nature and its desire to get even with someone.

What about enemies of our country? The U.S. is in two wars now, and with no reflection on their rightness or wrongness intended, they have nothing to do with Christian warfare.

All of our words and actions begin as thoughts, and so our minds are continually torn between the reborn spirit and the old sin nature. As the latter is older and more familiar, it has an advantage. How can our minds choose the urging of the spirit over the urgings of the flesh? By the hard work of developing self-discipline.

The rewards of the flesh are immediate, and the troubles from bad choices play out over time. God gives grace every day to help us overcome our flesh, but it is on the long-term grace, which is not yet revealed, that we fix our hope as an incentive to self-discipline and to turning the battle in our minds in favor of our re-born spirit.

Prayer that really works

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”–I John 5:14, NIV

I spent years, decades, comparing what I prayed for with what I got. I struggled that whole time with trying to find scriptures to “claim” so that what I asked for was according to God’s will. All that happened was that, little by little, I began to doubt that God loved me.

More recently, I have done something else. I have asked God to remake my thoughts. I have asked God to conform me to the image of Jesus. I no longer have an expectation of what a blessing has to be before I’ll recognize it as such.

It all started almost ten years ago, when I finally decided to believe that Jesus loves me simply because the Bible says so. It all started when I stopped looking for evidence of his love in my circumstances.

After several years of peaceful, and perhaps complacent, contentment, the last two years have held devastating loss. Through it all, I have not been tempted to doubt God’s love again. It looks like God answered some of my prayers from years ago in a way I could have never anticipated.

Courage

“Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”–Joshua 1:9, NRSV

Moses was dead, and Joshua, his designated successor, was scared. That’s a good place to be for anyone who is about to start on a new ministry. Any ministry worth doing will be bigger than one human can handle by himself. If Joshua had been supremely confident in his ability to carry on, it would have only demonstrated that he was not adequately prepared.

So what do we do when we know what the Lord wants from us, and it seems more than we can do? What if we are frightened by the task before us? Step forth and do it anyway. Be strong and courageous. If God has called, he will equip. We can do nothing in our own strength. We can do anything in his strength.