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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.

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

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.

I would like to say that I am always ready to respond to God’s call with a positive attitude, but that would be far from the truth. There are days when I feel discouraged and beaten down by the world; days when I am fed up with grumbling people complaining about everything. So when I read Numbers 20:1-13, I could relate to how Moses was feeling when God showed him how to provide water to the Israelites.

From the moment Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt he endured endless grumbling, often pointed at him. We see the same old complaints in this chapter: “Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness (verse 3, NIV)? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place (4)?” Why? Why? Why? It is enough to make anyone angry. Who could blame Moses for letting off a little steam?

At first Aaron and Moses responded to these complaints with the right attitude by falling facedown before the Lord at the tent of meeting (6). The Lord appears to them and tells them to take the staff, speak to the rock, and water will pour out “so they and their livestock can drink (8).” However, when Moses gathered the assembly before the rock he snapped and said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock (10)?” Then Moses struck the rock and water gushed out for all to drink (11).

This show of anger was not exactly what God asked Moses to do. In return for this outburst God tells Moses, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them (12).” Because of his actions Moses missed out on the promised land.

Verse 12 caused me to stop and consider how I represent God to those around me. I contemplated what I might be missing by not controlling my anger. Do I trust God enough to follow his ways or do I take matters into my own hands? Do I honor God as holy in the sight of others or do I let my frustration mar my witness to others? I wonder how many times I missed out on blessing others with God’s love and grace because I let my anger guide my actions?

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)

In reading the book of Exodus, I am struck by the similarities between the Israelites back then and Christians today. Like the Israelites in Egypt, we are in a foreign land full of sin and false gods. At times, when our struggles become too much to bear, we cry out to God to save us. Just as God sent Moses to save the Israelites, God sent his son Jesus to show us the way out of enslavement to sin.

Yet Satan is not so quick to let us go free. He is the Pharaoh of our day who attempts to tighten his grip on us, trying to keep us repressed by sin. He tries to intensify our struggles on this earth, tempting us with discontent, anger and idols. But God is the victor. Even though armies may pursue us, God shows us the path to freedom.

We must remain determined to continue to follow Jesus, to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. As we wander through the desert of this world parched and hungry, let us not desire to return to the enslavement of the land of sin. May we focus on God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. May we listen to the words of Joshua and Caleb, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good (Numbers 14:6-7).” May our faith in Christ Jesus and our love of the Lord God grow deeper in the midst of temptation to return to our old life.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” – Exodus 15:2 (NIV)

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV)

He walked the streets surrounded by wicked people. It seemed evil thoughts dominated everything in the community all the time. Corruption was everywhere, yet he chose to remain faithful to God. He pursued righteousness in a world of unrighteous behavior.

This is the world of Noah before God revealed his plans for the ark and the flood. Noah had been tested in a thoroughly corrupt world yet he remained devoted to pursuing God. This is why Noah found favor in God’s eyes (Genesis 6:8); why God entrusted him with the building of the ark (Gen. 6:14-21); why “Noah did everything just as God commanded him (Gen. 6:22). Noah’s obedience to God was built on a life of faithfulness to God even when surrounded by a world saturated with evil.

This helps me understand Noah’s determination to finish building the ark. His desire to do everything God instructed was built within him before God revealed his plans to destroy the world with a flood. Scripture tells us about the world Noah lived in, but it does not reveal what must have been a daily struggle for him to remain faithful to God while surrounded by evil people. Noah was tested and proven faithful to complete the overwhelming task of constructing the ark.

When I read about Noah, I try to put myself in his place. Would I continue to live a righteous life in the midst of a world obsessed with evil? Would I become discouraged being surrounded by wicked people all the time? Would I find favor with God as Noah did? Would I willingly accept God’s command to build the ark?

Some day God will again destroy the earth and all its evil, replacing it with a new earth (Rev. 21:1-4). Like Noah, God is looking for his faithful in an evil world, the faithful who will answer the call to obedience. He is seeking true followers of Jesus Christ determined to accomplish seemingly insurmountable tasks for the Kingdom of God. He wants us, like Noah, to be prepared to do everything that God commands us to do.

What would you have done that day if you were standing in the crowd when Pilate offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas (Matt. 27)? Would you have shouted “Barabbas” like the rest of the crowd or would you have shouted “Jesus”? Would you have been persuaded to choose a rebel and murderer, instead of the Son of God, the Messiah?

Mark 15:7 tells us that Barabbas was “in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.” While Jesus chose the will of God, Barabbas chose to join others who decided to take matters into their own hands with a violent uprising. Pilate asked the crowd that day, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews (Mark 15:9)?” The crowd was swayed to choose the insurrectionist Barabbas over Jesus. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8)!”

What’s amazing about that day is that even though the people in the crowd chose to reject Jesus, God still offered redemption to them with the death and resurrection of his Son. Like Barabbas, we are rebels condemned to die for our sinful, selfish desires. Yet in God’s infinite mercy and love, he offers us freedom and eternal life through his son Jesus Christ who paid the price for our rebellion so that we could forever live in the Kingdom of God.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9

There are times in my life when I want to hide in a deep dark cave; times when discouragement causes me to retreat from the front lines of God’s work; times when the attacks from my enemies cause me to respond in fear instead of faith. It seems one moment I am fearless for the Lord and the next minute I am fearful of those who attempt to thwart God’s plans. It is in that moment of fear, that moment of vulnerability, that the evil one sows seeds of doubt that suddenly take root. It reminds me of Elijah.

In 1 Kings 18 Elijah has a show down with the prophets of Baal. In verse 37, Elijah calls on God to “answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Instantly, the fire of the Lord consumed the burnt offering, wood, stones, dust and water in the trench. Then Elijah slayed the prophets of Baal and a few verses later he outruns Ahab to Jezreel. Elijah has declared his allegiance to God and it appeared he was unstoppable until he realized he was a major target of the evil one.

Fear, doubt, loss of confidence, these are all tools that Satan uses to attempt to stop us from doing our work for the Lord. Elijah was unstoppable until Jezebel stated her intent to kill him in 1 Kings 19:2. The next verse tells us, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” He had a target on his back because he took a public stand for God. The seeds of doubt sprouted into fear in Elijah’s life which thwarted his work for God. By verse 4 he is discouraged and cries to God, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

Yet God does not give up on Elijah. He pursued him, nourishing him and encouraging him ( 1 Kings 19:6-7). Yet he still hides in a cave, with the seeds of doubt now fully grown to the point that Elijah is paralyzed with fear (verse 9). What I find interesting in the next verses is that the Lord isn’t in the powerful wind, earthquake or fire, but in the gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:11-13). This is what draws Elijah out of the cave to get him back on track. In this moment of solitude, in the gentle whisper, God said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah (verse 13)?” God tells Elijah he is not alone and instructs him to go back the way he came. He reassures him that there are thousands who remain loyal to God.

How God treats Elijah’s fear is so comforting to me. It is like a loving father bending down to encourage a scared child hiding in a dark corner. He doesn’t yell at our disobedience, but encourages us with a whisper. His gentle voice tells us, “There’s nothing to fear. I am with you as are thousands of other believers.” He whispers truth that is not always evident to us. It reminds me to stop in the midst of my fear, to pause and listen for the whisper of God in the midst of the storm.

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