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.


“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.

A Broken Tool: God Wrestles with Jacob

Whenever I get a tool, whether it’s for the garden or the kitchen or something to do with the computer, I try to take care of it, keep it in good condition. If something breaks, I probably can’t use it any more. If it can be fixed at all, it may not work as well as before it broke. So I am very careful. Keeping things in good working order is very important to me. I would guess that most of you would say the same thing.

God is different from us, if you haven’t noticed. His tools include the human beings he created, and he always breaks them before he uses them. Genesis 32:22-30 is just one example among dozens in the Bible. Sometimes, a person whom God wants to use gets broken more than once.

Jacob was a cheater. He cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. Then he fled to his uncle Laban, and the two of them spent years trying to out-cheat each other. Now Jacob was going back home and heard reports that Esau was coming to greet him with four hundred armed men. He prayed to the God of Abraham and Isaac, to the God who had appeared to him earlier, but whom he did not yet regard as “my God.” He tried once again to be clever and sent a sizable bribe ahead of him. Then he sent his entire family and all his provisions across the river and stayed, so he thought, alone.

But a man came and wrestled with him. Where did he come from? He just abruptly showed up and jumped poor Jacob. If he had wanted a fist fight or if he had had a weapon, Jacob could have chosen whether to fight back or run away. But the man began to wrestle, and Jacob had no choice but to wrestle back. Slowly, it dawned on him that the man he was wrestling with was God himself, the God to whom he had prayed for deliverance earlier in the day. And he kept striving. He kept struggling. He did not surrender to his divine visitor, so finally the man, God, touched his hip and dislocated it. Now Jacob could no longer struggle against him, but had to cling to him for support. That’s when God said, “Well, it’s time for me to get going, so let go.” Jacob said, “Not until you bless me.” And God did.

Jacob, the grasper and grabber, had let go of everything he had and sent it on ahead of him. That removed everything that came between him and God. He got alone with God and engaged his presence. Pain is part of the process. It hurts to give up cherished habits. It hurts to accept unwanted consequences of our actions. It hurts to keep struggling against God after we recognize his presence and his will. Jacob’s dislocated hip was only an outward sign of an inner brokenness. Forever afterward, he walked differently than he had before.

But whatever God breaks, he blesses. In a very real sense, Jacob died that night. It was not Jacob, but Israel who hobbled across the ford to join his family. He was no longer operating under the blessing he stole from his brother; he had asked for and obtained his own blessing. By losing a wrestling match, he emerged the victor. By being broken, he became a fit vessel for God.

Stretching Out a Withered Hand

“He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”–Mark 3:5, NIV

Yesterday I touched on the first half of this verse. Today we’ll look at the remarkable second half.

Picture yourself as the man with the withered hand. Make a fist as a symbol of a withered hand. Now, pretend that the computer screen is Jesus and move your fist towards it. Have you stretched out your hand? No. You have stretched out your arm. The man with the withered hand could have done that easily, but that’s not what Jesus told him to do. How do you stretch forth your hand? By opening your fist. You can do that effortlessly, but for the man in the synagogue, it was impossible. That, in fact, was his trouble.

Jesus asked the man to do something that he could not do on his own. He could not stretch out his hand; it was withered. But by an act of faith, he did it anyway.The healing came to him by obeying what, from anyone else, would have been an unreasonable order. When Jesus asks us to do the impossible, we should do no less. In the doing comes the divine empowerment. In the act of faith comes the healing.

Jesus’ anger

“He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.”–Mark 3:5, NIV

We don’t like to think of Jesus being angry. We like to think of him as gentle, meek, mild. Whatever else he was, he was never mild. Perhaps one reason we find Jesus’ anger uncomfortable is that we so often find our own embarrassing. Anger feels sinful, but the Bible commands us to be angry without sin.

Much of the congregation in the synagogue waited to see if Jesus would dare heal on the sabbath. At least the leadership was looking for an excuse to accuse Jesus of law-breaking. If Jesus had been offended at their hostility, as would many of us in that situation, it could have led him into sin.

But Jesus was angry at their hardness of heart towards not only a suffering member of their synagogue, but towards God himself, who did not consider deeds of mercy a violation of the sabbath. Notice that Jesus was angry with sin. He did not direct his anger personally at anyone in the room. His distress over their stubborn hearts was for their sake, and therefore loving, not for his sake. He illustrated for us how to be angry without sin.