Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Did God Really Say...?

Why is it so hard to trust Him? God's fingerprints are all over our lives, He patiently repeats Himself in a thousand ways (at least He does for me), He reveals Himself to be completely faithful as we look back at our lives, yet in the moment it is often hard (feels impossible) to trust Him.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately as our journey to wholeness continues to take longer than Jettie and I had hoped. There are, of course, many answers to this question, but I want to focus on one that I believe is our adversary's "first choice" of weapons, the one he used at the beginning to entice our ancestors away from their childlike trust in God: "Did God really say?" As you may know, this is the first question that the serpent asked Eve in his successful attempt to shift our first parents' trust from God to themselves. (Note that it was really a transfer of trust first to the serpent, but that's another topic).

It seems to me that most of my journeys away from trust somehow involve some level of questioning what God has said, either in His written word or through His Spirit. The thought seems to creep in that I really didn't hear Him or that I don't really understand it, etc. What is so sneaky about this question is that it's effective not because of the question itself but because it subtly shifts my focus away from God. Suddenly I am now "in charge" and I am making judgments, etc., about things that are way beyond my ability to handle. Even worse, I am now looking at the world and circumstances in a way that is essentially the same as an atheist! I am now left basically acting as if I were on my own, analyzing, deciding, etc., on the basis of my very limited human ability to perceive and reason. Yikes--this is scary just thinking about it!

Even more sneaky is the subtle way this question causes me to doubt God's character. Can God be trusted to communicate with me in a way that I understand? Or am I somehow so defective that even God can't or won't get through to me? Such thinking ultimately is a question about God and His nature, not about me, since it calls into question His goodness, His love, etc.

So what's the solution when we begin to hear 'Did God really say?' in our minds? For me it helps to review and remember what God has for sure said. As I have grown older I have deposited more and more Scripture into my memory (at His leading, not my deciding). This memory deposit gives God the opportunity to "repeat Himself" often when things are shaky or unclear to me. I also keep a journal of things God has clearly said (very often confirmed by others), and it helps to review those things often. These two things help me to answer my adversary or my own mind with the words, "Yes, God has said" and/or "No, God didn't say..."

A second thing that helps me is to remember that hearing Him is more about His ability to communicate with those He loves than about our ability to hear Him. There's a great conversation about this in So You Don't Want to Go To Church Anymore. In response to the question, "Do you really believe we are good enough to hear God every day?" The main character, John, says, “Of course not. None of us are that good. But I think you’re asking the wrong question. Let’s phrase it like this: Is Jesus big enough to get through to you every day? Do you think he is big enough to get past your blind spots, overcome your doubts and show you his way? Doesn’t that get a resounding ‘yes’?"

Finally, I have found that simply returning to Him in my heart, however long it takes for me to get there, so that I am focusing on His character, helps perhaps more than anything. As Graham Cooke often says, we cannot put our trust in what God is doing in the moment (because we couldn't possibly understand it), but we can also put our trust in His character--who He is. And I find that turning to Him in childlike, surrendered waiting, always brings His presence and reminders of His goodness.

Is it easy to trust Him? I haven't found that to be the case. We have had way too much practice at trusting ourselves for it to be easy to trust Him (and there are adversaries who oppose this). But since God loves us and wants us to trust Him, He will persist in inviting us to do so, "shouting in our pain" as C.S. Lewis said, and repeating Himself often.

Learning to trust...

Tom, one of Abba's children

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"I'm Sorry" isn't Enough

When our sons were small, we did what a lot of parents do when a conflict arose between them. After emotions had cooled off, we would have them face one another and have them exchange forgiveness. The offending party would say, "Please forgive me," and the other one would dutifully (if not always sincerely) say, "I forgive you." Notice that we didn't have them say, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize"--I will return to that in a moment.

Now I will be the first to admit that "forced reconciliation" doesn't work, but we weren't really expecting genuine forgiveness to be exchanged at the moment our sons were being required to say these words. Instead we were attempting to set a pattern in their lives, which as we modeled it with sincerity, would lead to a teaching moment later when we would be able to explain why the exchange of forgiveness and not simply an apology is so important. We knew that this pattern when combined with the many times they saw Daddy or Mommy come to one of them and say (sincerely), "Daddy/Mommy was wrong, please forgive me" or saw Daddy say to Mommy, "Please forgive me," would eventually help them understand the supreme importance of relationships.

Now back to why "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" isn't enough. Do you know? It's not too hard to figure out. Look at the language of both of these phrases: who is the focus? Answer: I am. So neither of these terms expresses my valuing the other person or the relationship. (The word "apology" actually comes from a word that means to make a defense, hardly a concept that is consistent with reconciliation!). On the other hand, when I ask, "Will you please forgive me?" The focus has rightly shifted away from me to the person I have hurt. I am recognizing that I have wounded this person and I am telling him/her that I value my relationship with them enough to want the obstacle of my hurting them removed from between us. I am saying, "I have hurt you, and I treasure you and our relationship so much that I am asking you to release me back into the circle of your love."

But I wonder if even "I forgive" is always enough to fully communicate my value of the relationship. There are many times, I think, when I also need to offer to make things right, when I need to assure the other person that I will with God's help not harm them in this way again, etc. These ideas also communicate the value I place on the relationship. The bottom line, I think, is that if we begin with treasuring the other person and the relationship, God will show us how to achieve full reconciliation (which may take time if the wounds are deep, or may not happen at all if the other refuses to forgive, but that's another topic). Whatever the Father leads you/me to, though, I am certain that "I'm sorry" isn't quite enough!

A friend of mine recently gave me The Five Languages of Apology (Gary Chapman & Jennifer Thomas), which has an unfortunate title (Apology????!), but a quick glance at it reveals these same truths spelled out a bit more fully. The authors show five parts to the approach to reconciliation they call apology: "expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, requesting forgiveness." If you have read the book and want to comment on it, I would welcome your thoughts as well.

Enough for today, I think. May you learn to treasure others as much as Father treasures you and them (each and all of them) and may you know the joy of His total forgiveness that so wonderfully enables each of us to treasure relationship above "being right"!

Tom, one of Abba's children

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

God's View of Failure

     God seems to have a totally different view of failure than we do. He obviously doesn't fear failure in Himself, and He doesn't fear it in you and me, either. A couple of stories from the life of Simon Peter, an accomplished "failer," help us to see how God views failure.
     The first of Peter's failures I want to highlight is a story that may be familiar to you: Peter's bumpy walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The story is found in Matthew 16:28-31 and it shows us Peter boldly asking Jesus to invite him to walk to Him then actually getting out of the boat when Jesus said, "Come!" But as you may know, Peter didn't make it out to where Jesus was before he started sinking and had to cry out to Jesus to save him. What's intriguing about the story is what Jesus did and didn't do. When Peter cried out for help, Jesus immediately reached out His hand and rescued Peter and apparently walked with Peter back to the boat. He didn't let Peter flounder in his failure or lecture him for a while before saving him, instead Jesus immediately came to Peter's rescue. Yes, He did ask Peter (perhaps even playfully), "O mini-faithed one, why did you doubt?" But that question came after the rescue, not in order for the rescue to take place. (Think about it).
     This story reveals a very important truth about God's view of failure and our response to our own failures. Andrew Murray put his finger on this many years ago in his book, The Deeper Christian Walk. Consider his words below.
     Someone may say, “I have been trying, to say, ‘Lord, I will live it;’ but, tell me, suppose failure come, what then?” Learn from Peter what you ought to do. What did Peter do? The very opposite of what most do. What did he do when he began to sink? That very moment, without one word of self-reproach or self-condemnation, he cried, “Lord, help me!” I wish I could teach every Christian that. I remember the time in my spiritual life when that became clear to me; for up to that time, when I failed, my only thought was to reproach and condemn myself, and I thought that would do me good. I found it didn’t do me good; and I learn from Peter that my work is, the very moment I fail, to say, “Jesus, Master, help me!” and the very moment I say that, Jesus does help me. Remember, failure is not an impossibility!...Jesus is always ready to hear, and the very moment you find there is the lost temper, the hasty word, or some other wrong, at once the living Jesus is near, so gracious, and so mighty. Appeal to Him and there will be help at once. If you learn to do this, Jesus will lift you up and lead you on to a walk where His strength shall secure you from failure.
     Parts of the my second story about Peter's failure are well known (Peter's three time denial of Jesus), but I want to focus on a less well known part of that story found in Luke 22:31-34. 31 “Simon, Simon! Satan has asked to sift you disciples like wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon. I have prayed that your faith will not fail. When you have turned back, help your brothers to be strong.” 33 But Simon replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, you will say three times that you don’t know me. And you will do it before the rooster crows today.” (NIRV)
     Several things about failure really stand out to me in this story. First, Jesus was fully aware of the impending failure of all of His disciples (due to Satan's sifting), including Simon, and He prepared them for this by warning them ahead of time and by praying for Simon in particular. Wow! Did you catch that? Jesus is anticipating failure and praying about it before it happens. (He is constantly praying for you and me, too! See Romans 8:34). Second, Jesus seems to view failure in a different way than we do. He prayed for Simon's faith not to fail, but Peter's faith did fail at least for a while during the three denials, so what's up with that? My guess is that Jesus views faith as a process--with bumps and temporary failures along the way as part of the package. In other words, He looks at the entire picture and not just the occasional failures along the way. I wonder if He really views our failures this way. (I think He does!). Finally, Jesus is so unafraid of Simon's failure that in predicting it He calls Simon by the name He gave him (Rock)! This is huge to me. Even as He predicts Simon's failure, Jesus is saying, "But you are still a Rock (Peter) in my view!" I wonder if that's how He views us (as He is making us)? (I think He does).
     This is all very precious to me right now. I failed miserably the other day by losing my temper while driving in a snow storm. Jettie had to listen to me have a melt down that culminated in me suggesting things about another driver's mother. (I will leave you to fill in the gaps on this). This is terribly out of character for me (thankfully), but I was appalled that I allowed fear to make me so vulnerable to anger.
    But it's what Papa said about it the next day that blows me away and also confirms that He views failure in a very different way from how I tend to view it. I paste below what I sensed were His words to me.
     "I am not disappointed in you but rather I feel your fears and like any good father, am grieved because of that which assaults you. Don’t be afraid, little one. I am holding onto you and your beloved, and I will continue to hold on. Whenever your foot is slipping, my love will surely support you. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, I will be there in the midst of your pain and fear, holding onto you more tightly than you can imagine."
     I was so undone by these words. Instead of God judging me during my anxious and angry moments, He was feeling the pain and assault on me that brought me to that point, and He was in the midst of my failure even as it was happening. Yes, God's view of failure is very different from ours. And I am so thankful!

Tom, one of Abba's children

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Git er done for God?

"For those who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons (children) of God." (Romans 8:14 literal translation).
"Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner." (John 5:19 (NASV).
"I can do nothing on my own initiative..." (John 5:30 NASV).
"Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." (John 11:41-42 NIV).

Is it possible, really, to be always being led by the Spirit of God? Lots of believers don't believe that this is possible. Just this past week I was following a discussion where an enthusiastic young believer was rather brashly asking why anyone should talk about "waiting on God," basically suggesting that we can and should just "git er done" for God. And although others may not be quite so blunt, many who claim to be followers of Jesus show less-than-convincing evidence that they are always so in tune with God's Spirit that they can honestly claim to be "led by His Spirit."

So is it possible to be "led by the Spirit," to be so in tune with Him, so quiet on the inside that you can catch His whispers, sense when His peace lets you know that you are off track? Jesus' life and Paul's writing and the lives of countless followers of Jesus down through the ages answer this question with a resounding, "Yes!" And I would add my vote and gently suggest that the "git er done" for God approach is one of the reasons the church has been so terribly ineffective at facilitating transformation in our culture and why the church is filled with so many miserable, still broken "Christians." If Jesus Himself spent His time following Father's leading, doing nothing on His own initiative, who are we to think that we can do otherwise?

Note, however, that Jesus' relationship with His Father was one of mutual communication. The quote above from John 11 gives us an amazing glimpse into the relationship between Father and Son (which is a model for our own relationship with Papa). The picture we see from John 11:41-42 is that of an incredibly free-flowing conversation between Father and Son, with Jesus watching Father because He so loved Father, and with Father listening to every word/thought of His beloved Son. Out of this intimate and continuing conversation life and love and power exploded all around Jesus. And this to me is what it means to be led by the Spirit: an ever more intimate conversation that on our part is characterized by tenderness to the Spirit's slightest nudges but with allowance for conversation along the way.

So why do so many choose the "git er done" approach? Perhaps because living loved and listening requires a level of surrender and inner stillness that is frightening. It takes time to become inwardly still enough to always hear Abba's Spirit (and I am not there yet!). It takes a level of "softness" in one's heart to catch and follow the gentle nudges of Holy Spirit. It takes lots of interaction with Abba to finally catch the shouted messages of His immeasurable love for us that free us to say, "Father, can we do something about that man who is hurting?"

I am not sure I am expressing this as well as I wish I could. Let me be blunt: It is possible and it is necessary to live a life that is increasingly and literally led by the Spirit. It isn't easy but it is simple (simple doesn't mean easy). The more we surrender to His love and His leading, the more we spend time with Him simply as our Abba, the more we discover that it is possible to hear His voice and live in response to His initiative rather than callously living almost entirely on our own initiative. History is filled with examples of ordinary people who discovered this: the lay brother we know as Brother Lawrence, the humble tailor named John Woolman, the plumber who rocked the world we know as Smith Wigglesworth, and countless others who lived this life so quietly that we will only know about them in heaven.

What about you? Remember one of my maxims: when Scripture and my experience collide and don't agree, it is my experience that must change. I dare not rewrite Scripture based on my experience! And I am one who more and more knows by experience that is is possible to live so still inside that the Spirit speaks clearly and also listens intently. Try it, please. It's not just for a few mystical types. According to Paul in Romans 8:14 it is the normal condition of each/all of God's children to be being led by His Spirit. We don't have to just "git er done" for God! We can partner with Him from a place of joyful intimacy that results in His power and love being released in ever-increasing measure upon those around us.

Living lost in His love, listening for His voice,

Tom, one of Abba's children