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For as long as I have been a Christian I have sought to have a heart after God. I have questioned God about many things in my life including many traumatic events, but I have never questioned my belief in God. But last week a fellow believer posed a question to me that I have wrestled with since then: “Do you believe God is who he says he is; do you believe his promises?” She was encouraging me to let go of all my efforts, my own ideas of serving God, and to rest in him. She described it as a funnel where I keep running around the outside trying to do things on my own. Then she asked me, “What happens if you stop running?” I looked at her and said, “I fall into the dark hole at the bottom of the funnel, the unknown.” She nodded, “Exactly.”
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She pinpointed my greatest fear — the fear of the unknown. What I viewed as efforts to serve God were more driven by not wanting to fall into the unknown; of not wanting to fall completely into the hands of God. “Do you trust God to take care of the things you are trying to fix on your own?” I hesitated to answer. The revelation that I did not completely trust God brought tears to my eyes. I thought I was totally devoted to God, to following Christ Jesus, but her words revealed I was still clinging to the sides of the funnel with my own selfish motives and my works.
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She went on to explain that falling into the unknown, falling into the hands of God, releases us to let his Spirit work fully within us. Our efforts become a response to God’s call, a nudging of the Spirit. A heart after God is the first step, but God calls us to a deeper relationship with him. He asks us to trust him and his ways even when they don’t make sense. “Just be still,” she advised me. “He is calling you to still waters, a place of rest.” It is a place where you can hear God’s call.
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Running around the funnel on my own is tiring. Resting by still waters sounded attractive, but was it enough for me to stop running around the funnel? My fear of falling into the unknown still caused me to cling to the edge of the funnel. Even though I know God is there at the bottom with open hands to catch me, I can’t seem to let go. I feel God’s tug on my life, yet I still keep running around the funnel, too scared to fall into his hands.
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This seems like a crisis of faith I am in. Will I let go of my own efforts and fall into a deeper relationship with the God of the universe who is patiently waiting for me; am I willing to die to self so I can fully live for Christ? It is not so much a question of belief, but a question of if I will give all I am to follow God even if I don’t know where he is leading me? Can I really let go of my efforts to control my life and let the hand of God guide me?
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The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. – Gen. 12:1 (NIV)
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Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. – Matt. 16:24 (NIV)
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Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. – Matt. 4:19-20 (NIV)

Throughout my Christian life I have taken multiple spiritual gifts inventories, personality tests and aptitude quizzes. They have been helpful to some extent in orienting me toward where I feel God is calling me to serve, yet I have often wondered about God calling me to serve in areas where I feel ill-equipped or where tests show I am not strong in that area. It made me wonder what a spiritual gifts inventory would have shown Gideon prior to God calling him to save Israel.

In Judges 6 we find Israel oppressed by the Midianites because Israel “did evil in the eyes of the Lord (6:1, NIV).” Verse 6 tells us that the “Midians so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.” Did God respond with a mighty army to save them; a legion of soldiers who scored high on warrior skills on a spiritual gifts inventory? Not exactly. He sent them Gideon.

Who was Gideon? The angel of the Lord calls him, “mighty warriorand tells him “the Lord is with you (6:12)” To which Gideon responded, that “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us (6:13)?”
Gideon has doubt about God’s intent to save them and perhaps even more doubt about his ability to lead the charge against their oppressors. The Lord reassures Gideon he has the strength and that he is with him (6:14), yet Gideon still questions God’s judgement. Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family (6:15).”

Sometimes God calls us to do things where we feel unqualified and weak. We can think of others who would be far more qualified in our opinion. Yet God reassures us, as he did Gideon, “the Lord is with you (6:12); I will be with you (6:16).” The Lord who created us often knows us better than we know ourselves. He calls us to fulfill his purpose and asks us to trust him. God sees things in us that sometimes assessments and analysis do not uncover in us. We just need to have faith in God’s judgement of our abilities.

Even though Gideon has doubts, he goes on to accomplish great things for God and brings the freedom from oppression that the Israelites asked for from God — probably not in the way they expected. Read Judges 6:11 – 7:25 and see how God develops Gideon into the mighty warrior he did not see in himself when God first called him. May this passage reassure you that God is with you no matter what he calls you to do.

Fear is an interesting thing. It can create great stress in the midst of troubles and cause us to panic. Yet fear can also protect us from harm and create a proper respect for authority. In Mark 4:35-41 we have the familiar story about fear where the disciples are in the boat with Jesus when a “furious squall came up (verse 37).”

At the beginning of Mark 4 Jesus pushed off in a boat on a lake to address the crowds pressed against the shore. Here he taught the parable of the farmer sowing seed where he explained to his disciples in verse 17, “When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” He continued to teach and then by evening Jesus and his disciples pushed off in the boat to cross to the other side of the lake (verse 35-36).

Here are the disciples with the son of God sleeping in their boat. They’ve just listened to a full day of Jesus teaching to large crowds. Who wouldn’t think it should be smooth sailing ahead with Jesus along for the ride? But in an instant a storm popped up and nearly swamped the boat (verse 37). Their faith is tested and their first response is to accuse Jesus of not caring what happens to them. A moment later Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the waves, then he rebuked his disciples: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith (verse 40)?”

Why are we so afraid of the people and forces of this world? So often we respond like the disciples in the midst of the storms that pop up in life by crying out to God to do something saying, “Don’t you care?” In the calm after the storm, when the disciples saw the power of God at work, then they had a fear of the Lord. “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him (verse 41)!’”

I find it interesting how in this passage Jesus took the disciples from fear of the storm to being “terrified” of him. They acquired a proper reverence of God asking, “Who is this?” We should have the same awe and reverence of our Lord, placing our fear before the Lord Jesus and resting in him in the midst of the storms of life. Joshua 24:14 tells us, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness (NIV).”

#WednesdayWalk Through the Bible — an exploration of what unknown people might have seen or felt when they witnessed the events in the Bible. This post is from the perspective of a family member in Rahab’s house based on Joshua 2:1-22 and 6:1-25.

I sat in the room with my parents, siblings, inlaws, nieces and nephews. We all barely fit in the small house situated along the outer wall of Jericho. I wondered why I had listened to Rahab. Honestly, what credibility does a prostitute have in knowing about spiritual matters? Yet she insisted we remain in her house if we wanted to survive the impending attack. When I asked her how she knew, she refused to explain as if to protect her source.

We were all scared, melting with fear at what seemed like an inevitable attack on our city. Years ago we heard how the God of the Israelites dried up the Red Sea for them to cross and drowned Pharaoh’s army. Recently word came that they totally destroyed Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan. Now they had crossed the Jordan and were at our doorstep.

I stared out the window and watched the scarlet cord blow in the breeze. I wondered who Rahab was signaling with this impromptu flag. I felt vulnerable looking out the window perched high on the wall as I watched the Israelites approach the city again with priests carrying a golden box and trumpets made of ram horns. Armed men in front and back of them escorted the procession of priests.

I checked the marks I made on the wall to keep track of each time they marched around the city. This would be the seventh time. I tired of this game they were playing with us. I was done hiding in this cramped house with my family so I made my way to the door. I reached for the latch, but a hand stopped me. I turned to see Rahab looking at me with an intense stare. She didn’t have to say a word. She told us when we first entered the house that we could not leave — that the door was all that stood between us and certain death. She told us the God of the Israelites is Lord God in heaven above and on the earth below.

I stood a moment at the door with my hand on the latch. All eyes in the room were upon me. No one said a word as we heard the priests blow the trumpets once again as they circled the wall. The city gates were shut tight, the wall that enclosed the city stood between us and the Israelite army. I thought about who I had more faith in, this God my sister the prostitute talked about or this fortress called Jericho where I lived most of my life.

Suddenly I heard shouting coming from the group of Israelites who were marching around the city. This startled everyone in the room. Several members of our family went to the window to see what was going on. Then I heard a rumbling sound, at first distant, then growing louder. Soon I felt the whole house shaking. Someone shouted, “The wall is crumbling! It’s coming down!” I panicked, “This house is part of the wall!” I reached for the door latch to flee the inevitable.

Rahab stopped me again and looked into my eyes. The sound of the crumbling wall was deafening. We could hear the shouts of the Israelite army entering the city. Judgement day was upon us. If Rahab said something to me, I could not hear it. I stared back at her and nodded. I had to trust; I had to have faith we would be saved from certain death.

Suddenly the door flung open. I turned to see two Israelite men standing in the doorway. “Rahab!” One said. “Have your family follow us.” We exited Rahab’s house and followed the men. As we climbed over the debris of the city wall I glanced back at the chaos, the screams of people and the rising flames. Tears filled my eyes as I realized how close I had come to being part of that death and destruction. We followed the two men to a place outside of their camp. In the distance we could see the dark smoke rising from our former life.

“Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.” Matt. 1:5-6 (NIV)

In her children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst tells a story about little Alexander and his bad day. From the moment he wakes up, nothing goes his way. “I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” he says on the first page. Sure enough, from there on, a series of bad things happen to him from not getting a window seat in the car to the Dentist finding a cavity. Alexander’s solution is to move to Australia, but his mother reminds him at the end of the book that some days are like that – even in Australia.

Like Alexander, sometimes we wake up with the attitude that it’s going to be a bad day. Why? Because we decide things that don’t go our way are bad. We get frustrated at the obstacles we face and angry about unfulfilled expectations or lost dreams. Left unchecked, this attitude can taint our view of life and put us into a downward spiral.  We become like the woman in Paul Simon’s hit song “Slip Slidin’ Away” who talks about good days with no pain and what might have been.

Yet how often do we lie in bed and think of what might be if we focused on God’s purpose instead of our own expectations. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And now we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (NIV).” If you “trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5),” then your expectations will center on God’s purpose for your life. You will be better equipped to understand that God has a purpose for everything, even the terrible, horrible, no good very bad things that happen to us.

In 2 Cor. 11:24-26, Paul describes the many bad days he experienced in his ministry. “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.” Even though Paul experienced many horribly bad days, he continued to trust that God had a purpose for everything. He remained focused on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus told us that those who follow him will have bad days. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me (John 15: 20-21).” How well do you know Christ? How much faith do you have in Romans 8:28 that “God causes all things to work together for His purpose,” not ours. Do you trust that God is in everything, even the horrible stuff? The way we view each day can say a lot about how we view God in our lives.

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published July 16, 2010

I followed the others into the large room and took a seat with them. I sighed as I sat down, my body aching from another week of skirmishes; my emotions ragged from the continuing attacks. I wondered how much longer our small platoon could hold on.

For the moment we took refuge here, assembled together as one. I glanced around at the group. So many like me who had been fighting this battle for years. So many who bore the scars of relentless attacks from the enemy. I could see the fatigue in their eyes, yet I also saw their determination to press on. Together we were still a formidable force for the enemy to contend with despite our weaknesses.

In this moment together we sang praises; we shared our struggles; we prayed together; we joined together to find strength and renewal. We meditated on our mission and why we were placed here for this battle. We were told victory is ours. Each Sunday there is hope in the assembled faithful.

I left the church still feeling the fatigue and emotional trauma, but ready to take on the enemy for another week. This group of seasoned faithful, believers who deeply care, helped give me hope to carry on. Once again the enemy would try to break us this week because he feared us the most, God’s faithful warriors banded together as the church.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (NIV)

“He rescues me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.” Psalm 55:18 (NIV)

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24 (NIV)

Have you ever planned all the details of a trip and then nothing goes as planned the moment you start the trip? First you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport; then you get a flat tire; then you miss your flight because you’re late arriving at the airport. Road block after road block seems to stop you at every move. It’s aggravating when things don’t go as we planned, but do we look at these delays as God trying to get our attention?

This is what I thought about when I read Numbers 22:1-35. In this passage Balak, the king of Moab, summoned Balaam to put a curse on Israel to stop them from conquering his country. Balaam refused to go per God’s command. Then Balak tried to summon him a second time and this time God instructed Balaam to go with Balak’s officials. However, on his way to Moab, Balaam’s donkey stopped him from traveling three separate times. Balaam snapped and resorted to beating his donkey for delaying him. In the midst of this the donkey spoke and suddenly Balaam realized the angel of the Lord was in the middle of the road ready to strike him down.

The angel told Balaam, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.” Suddenly Balaam paid attention to God. Embarrassed by his angry outburst over these simple delays, he admitted his sin and offered to turnaround. But the angel told him, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” Balaam is about to be tempted with many riches to curse Israel so God reinforced to Balaam the importance of not making snap decisions and only speaking the word of God.

How many times do we proceed recklessly with our lives and our own interpretation of what God wants us to do? We saddle up our donkey and press on toward the destination where God is leading us with our own ideas, ill-prepared for trials that await us. Then we get angry when things occur that stop us from moving forward. Instead of recognizing God is trying to get our attention, we lash out until suddenly our eyes are opened so we clearly see God. In those moments we need do as Balaam did and recognize our sinful behavior and our need for full submission to God; to lay down our selfish pride and recognize that we need to wait patiently and only do what God instructs us to do.

Fear can be a powerful motivator or hinderance in our commitment to following God, particularly when we are called to go to a new and unfamiliar place. The most difficult part is often the journey, the transition between your old place and the new place. There is a tension between the uncertainty about where you are going and the familiarity of where you have been. It is this in-between place where doubt and fear can take hold of us, where faith and facts compete with one another. This is where the Israelites were as they approached the land God promised them.

In Numbers 13 and 14 God instructed Moses to “send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites (Numbers 13:2, NIV).” The spies spent 40 days exploring the land and reported that the land “does flow with milk and honey (13:27).” But they also reported that “the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large (13:28).” This is the moment where fact and faith present themselves to the Israelites.

God has laid out a plan for your life, a journey that will lead you to “a land flowing with milk and honey (14:8).” With each new step, he asks us to follow him in faith. The challenge is to not do what the Israelites did and take your eyes off God, to not let fear take hold of you. In Numbers 13:33 there is a telling phrase where some of the spies say, “in our own eyes.” They could only see that they looked tiny, like grasshoppers, compared to a foe who appeared “stronger” and “of great size (13:31-32).” They were scared they would be crushed like bugs even though God assured them they would take the land.

God asks us to view things through his eyes, not the world’s eyes of things like power and riches. Sometimes he asks us to take a step of faith even when the challenges look insurmountable. That’s when we need the advice of faithful followers of God like Joshua and Caleb. In Numbers 14:6-9 they tell the Israelites not to be afraid, that the Lord will give them the land; that it is a good land; that the Lord is with them and they should not be afraid. Numbers 14:24 tells us that Caleb “has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly.” This is the type of counsel we need to encourage us on the path that the Lord has laid before us. If we let fear instead of faith dominate our actions, we may miss what God has in store for us.

Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. – Numbers 14:30-31 (NIV)

Wednesday Walk, Acts 27:13-28:10

Today I introduce #WednesdayWalk, an occasional exploration of what unknown people might have seen or felt when they witnessed the events in the Bible. This post is from the perspective of another prisoner shipwrecked with Paul.

Who is this man? Were it not for Paul I would’ve been slaughtered on the ship by the soldiers who wanted to stop us from escaping. Were it not for his words of wisdom, we would’ve all been lost at sea in that violent storm. Were it not for him, we would not have eaten anything on the ship and would not have had strength enough to make it to the beach. This Paul has knowledge of a god seemingly so powerful, yet so personal that he prepares him for future events. What kind of god shows such love and grace to a mere man?

I thought for sure Paul was a dead man when I watched in horror as a viper latched onto his hand as he tossed brushwood on the fire. Yet I watched in awe as he shook off that deadly snake from his hand, showing no panic or fear. He has such peace about life. It is a peace I long to have in my life. It is that lack of peace in my life that put me here with these other criminals.

After surviving the snakebite, then he cured the father of Publius who suffered from fever and dysentery for who knows how long. That in and of itself was astonishing enough to hear about. Of course word spread quickly and soon all the sick on the island came to Paul. I was skeptical as I watched the crowd of sick people form around Paul. I told myself, “There is no way he can cure all these people.” Yet he did.

Who is this man? Paul talks of a Jesus from Nazareth. He talks of Jesus being the son of God. How can a man be the son of a god and walk among us? He talks of this Jesus being crucified, dying and rising from the dead. I am a condemned man who boarded the ship in chains. Now this man Paul has shown me a different life, a different way. Could there be freedom for me even in chains?

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that reading through the book of Leviticus in the Bible can be a struggle. Yet this time through something struck me about Leviticus 14:33-57. In verses 34-35, God tells Moses and Aaron: “‘When you enter the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as your possession, and I put a spreading mold in a house in that land, the owner of the house must go and tell the priest, ‘I have seen something that looks like a defiling mold in my house (NIV).’”

At this point in the Bible the Israelites are living in tents, but God is telling them that they will take possession of Canaan and become homeowners. Here, in the midst of rules about how to atone for sinful behavior and how to handle unclean things, there is a future instruction on how to handle mold in a home. God isn’t just about their current condition, but he is very much about preparing them for their future.

To me this demonstrates that God is not just about the big things, but he is also about the smallest details of our lives. He is concerned about our current well-being as well as our future. As Jeremiah 29:11 tells us, “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 (NIV).”

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. – John 14:2-3 (NIV)

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