Hope Let Me Down

The nurse met us in the sterile, grey hall again. “We weren’t able to do the procedure, but there’s one more thing we can try.” At least three times, one nurse or another met us in the hall with essentially the same statement. At least three times, my heart grabbed onto that slim chance and held on…hoped on.

I left the second, bigger hospital, sure that this new facility with different doctors and fresher equipment would make a difference. But when the phone rang the next morning, I had to face the facts: even our last option hadn’t worked. Continue reading

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Fishers of Men: The Story Behind the Story

We open the New Testament and start reading in Matthew. Okay, we skip the geneaology (but we shouldn’t!) After everything surrounding Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1-2), He’s suddenly a grown-up, and His cousin John is out in the wilderness preaching (Matthew 3). Jesus gets baptized by John, then He’s tested by Satan. Right after the testing, he starts preaching, and then, toward the end of Matthew 4, Jesus calls Simon (a.k.a. Peter), Andrew, James, and John to leave their fishing nets and follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Pastors love this story. It looks like these two sets of brothers meet Jesus and just turn their lives upside down without a second thought, walking away like something from the Pied Piper. But that’s not the case. In fact, they had known Jesus for at least a few months. They had already seen Him in action and even talked to Him. Walk through this with me… Continue reading

Paul’s Inauspicious Beginning

We all know the dramatic story of Saul’s conversation on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and how he went from persecuting Christians to being principal among them and, most would say, the first cross-cultural missionary. No doubt, his calling was clear and certain.

Paul didn’t tell any
of the leading Christians
for a long time.

But here’s something really interesting. Paul talks about it in Galatians 1. He describes his conversion and what a complete change it made in him. Immediately, he began sharing with anyone who would listen in the Damascus synagogues, causing a major uproar! But even though his conversion was so phenomenal and he knew he was called to reach the Gentiles, he didn’t tell any of the leading Christians for a long time. In fact, after a few days in Damascus, he went away from the seat of Christianity (Acts 9:19-22, Galatians 1:11-17). Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Shouldn’t he go tell the leadership team in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t he start right away? But look at the next few verses:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. … Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. -Galatians 1:18-19, 21-22

I bet you’ve never heard a sermon preached from these verses. I haven’t. But there’s some real wisdom here for those of us called to something public. I’m talking to you, writers and speakers!

Three Years

Three years he remained anonymous. God called him to share Christ with the Gentiles—a totally new thing—but Paul waited three years. Jesus Himself (!!) appeared to Saul/Paul after His ascension, and yet Paul didn’t write a book, hire an agent, or start a speaking tour. He didn’t even start building a platform. (My writer friends will understand that one.) He went off by himself. So maybe he needed a little space to digest what happened on the way to Damascus and to reflect on this radical new perspective. Or maybe he realized the wounds he had previously inflicted on Christians were just too fresh. We don’t actually know why Paul went away or what he did for those three years, but I think he sought solitude because there was so much he had to unlearn from his days as a Pharisee. He knew he wasn’t spiritually mature enough to lead anything.

Get Acquainted

Finally, Paul thought himself ready to begin his ministry. So he printed some business cards, then he scheduled a social media blast and recruited a street team. He worked his connections to get a speaking engagement in a mid-size auditorium. Wait, what? He didn’t do any of that. He quietly entered Jerusalem and tried to connect with a disciple or two, but they were still afraid, even after three years! Finally, Barnabas convinced Peter to meet Paul, and Paul stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Peter was an experienced preacher and minister, a man who knew Jesus personally and who understood what “go ye therefore” (Matthew 28:19 KJV) really meant. In other words, Paul found a mentor.

Saw None of the Others

During those fifteen days with Cephas/Peter, Paul shared his faith all over Jerusalem, but he never met any of the other original disciples (Acts 9:28, Galatians 1:19). He wasn’t interested in networking with people who would further his career. In fact, I bet the only reason he saw James was because James just dropped by Peter’s house one day while Paul was there.

Personally Unknown

After those fifteen precious days with Peter, Paul went home to Tarsus. (Galatians says the more general Syria and Cilicia, but Acts 9:30 specifies Tarsus.) Jesus knew a prophet is never honored in his own country (John 4:44); it’s almost a proverb. On top of that, Paul didn’t know any of the believers in that region (Galatians 1:22). It wasn’t a logical destination for him. And yet, God began to give him an audience there—in an unlikely place at an unlikely time.

To summarize (in present tense), Jesus gives Paul an assignment. Three years later, he gets a couple of introductions, frightens a bunch of believers, then goes where no one knows him. He is not famous or popular. Not an auspicious beginning to such a profound calling.

I wonder if Paul expected more. I wonder if he was frustrated with the length of time in Arabia and the lack of recognition in Judea. I would have been. Would you?

Sometimes we have to
“grow into” our calling.
(click to tweet)

What’s my point? Calling and the ministry it produces may not be consecutive. Sometimes we have to “grow into” our calling.

More than ten years ago, I first understood God calling me to speak and write, but at the same time, He showed me I had too much pride and too little wisdom. I doubled Paul’s three-year absence, leaving more than six years before I even began blogging. The lesson we have from Paul, which is the lesson I’m still trying to learn, is to be patient. That means…

  • Not to force the ministry, like Paul waited those three years.
  • To keep working even while we’re learning, like Paul shared in Jerusalem.
  • To find a mentor, like Paul found Peter.
  • To know some people aren’t going to “get it,” like believers were frightening by Paul.
  • To take the less-prestigious, less-popular roles and wait on God, like Paul went to Tarsus.

Personally, that means I’m trying to be satisfied with my platform, with the reach of my Twitter feed, with the many (that is, all) influential people who still don’t know me. I’ll take the opportunity in front of me even when it doesn’t seem promising. And I’ll try not to scare too many people in the process.

Paul didn’t become the best-known Christian EVER over night. Likewise, our calling takes time. (click to tweet)

How’s your calling coming along? Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? How does Paul’s example help you be patient? Write me a note in the comments so I know I’m not alone on this!

Good Intentions Gone Awry

Have you ever had something completely blow up in your face when you thought it was going to be awesome? Have you ever tried really hard to do the right thing but it turned out to be the completely wrong-as-possible thing to do? The kind soul will tell you afterward, “Well, it’s the thought that counts,” but you know you’ve caused embarrassment—maybe even pain—completely without intending it.

road in Greece

I used to comfort myself when this happened to me by quoting 1 Samuel 16:7 in which God tells Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” If God could see my heart, and he knew that I meant well, then that should be enough.

Shouldn’t it?

Were my “good intentions” not enough to please God?

Even if I totally “screwed up,” hurt people’s feelings, or damaged God’s reputation, it was okay as long as “my heart was in the right place,” right? Well…

A couple of good-looking kings

In 1 Samuel 9, God chose a king for the Israelites based on appearances. He was tall, good looking, stately, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2). If wars were fought as beauty pageants, Saul would have conquered all Israel’s foes! But Saul turned out to have some heart problems, not because of cholesterol but because of covering up his disobedience.

So God sent Samuel to anoint a second king for Israel. Samuel leaned toward a young man who looked a lot like Saul, but God stayed his hand. They went through all the sons of Jesse until they came to the youngest. David was young and probably stinky from tending the sheep, but he had a fine appearance and handsome features (1 Samuel 16:12).

God does care about the external…
just not in the way we think of externals.

Wait. Really? He was good-looking too? I wanted him to be kinda ugly so God could make His point more clearly: that He doesn’t care about appearances. But God does care about the external…just not in the way we think of externals.

The main difference between Saul and David was the condition of their hearts. God knew that David’s heart was pure where Saul’s was not and never had been. David will end up doing far worse things than sparing some tasty-looking sheep and cattle from complete annihilation (1 Samuel 15:14). Umm, remember Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11)? Yeah. But David repents. In his heart, he wants to please God while Saul never gets past pleasing himself. That’s the difference.

Good motives aren’t enough

Back to my question. If my heart is in the right place, that’s all that matters, right? I mean, David had good motives and Saul had bad motives. David was forgiven and Saul was rejected.

Well, it’s not that simple. Motives are extremely important. (I wrote a whole blog post about them.) Charles Spurgeon said this:

“It is not enough to do the correct thing; it must be done in a right spirit, and with a pure motive. A good action is not wholly good unless it be done for the glory of God, and because of the greatness and goodness of his holy name.” –Charles Spurgeon

But “outward appearance”—the part that people see—also counts for something. God didn’t say, “Looks aren’t important.” In fact, He thought it important for us to know that both kings were attractive. He simply reminded Samuel that He could see more than the outward appearance. (I’m resisting the urge to go off on a tangent about judging people right now.)

For us today, it’s not about being tall or having a “fine appearance”–thank goodness! It’s about living out the Christ-life attractively. Our actions matter because they affect other people and impact God’s reputation. It plays out like this:

  • Do the wrong thing for the wrong reason: If you’re the kind of person who has read this far, you probably don’t spend much time in this category.
  • Do the right thing for the wrong reason: This is what Spurgeon was talking about. It’s not enough. Motives count to God.
  • Do the wrong thing for the right reason: Well, you had good intentions, but because people see what we do and how we act, this is insufficient.
  • Do the right thing for the right reason: This is obedience. Yes, we truly do walk a narrow road.

As long as we live on earth, we’re going to mess up—sometimes royally. But like David, those failures must be followed by repentance and a plea for forgiveness, not a cover-up, like Saul. If I “screw up” or hurt someone, even if my motives were as pure as possible, I can’t just wash my hands of it with an “Oh, I meant well.” I have to correct it with the other people involved and try to learn from it personally. Take comfort in the fact that we are still being made holy (Hebrews 10:14). We can expect those times of failure to become fewer as we mature in Christ.

So how do we fix it?

My common sense told me
I was right, but it was wrong.

My problem back there at the beginning was that I didn’t listen to the Holy Spirit. My common sense, which is not omniscient, told me I was right, but my common sense was wrong. As I learn to heed His leading, my intentions join my actions in bringing Him glory.

And also, I experience a lot less embarrassment.

“God sees the heart” is not an ‘out’ for good intentions gone awry. (click to tweet)

What about you? What well-known Bible verse have you misappropriated? OR How does this verse in 1 Samuel affect your life? Let’s start a conversation!

 

When “For the Good” Doesn’t Feel So Good

The conversation shifted from subject to subject, circling back, leaping forward, in the way conversations with good friends often do. My coffee was finished, and my friend had an appointment soon. It was almost time to go when she mentioned something about a women’s ministry team at our church. This team was established and had already planned an event.

I love women’s ministry! I think we, as women, need time together outside the regular routines of life, and we need spirit-filled relationships within those routines. I’m passionate about one-on-one discipleship. I’ve spoken at women’s events. I led the women’s ministry at our previous church in another state (a bigger church than where we go now). I mean, it just made sense for me to do this. How could I have been overlooked?!? Why wasn’t I asked to participate?!

I blurted, “Oh, you should have asked me to be on this team,” hiding my hurt with a smile.

She looked at me blankly, as if the thought had never occurred to her and replied, “Yeah, we should have.”

Everything I felt started with ‘I’.

As I backed out of the driveway a few minutes later, my heart was on fire. I felt ignored, insulted, isolated…and probably some other things that start with ‘I’.

I would have said ‘yes.’

My next stop was that really large department store where we all pay our dues even though we hate buying tires and tater tots under the same roof. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) It was about ten minutes away. As I drove, I laid my aching heart before the Lord, asking Him why my friends overlooked me or perhaps even rejected me. I told God that I wanted to be asked so I would have the chance to pray about it, to decide if it was part of His will. (Does everyone see the fault in my logic here? Does everyone see the pride that still consumes me?) Then I realized that I would have probably said ‘yes’ to being on the team.

God led my mind toward the inevitable consequences of that ‘yes’: multiple evening meetings, time away from family, tasks to complete, phone calls, brain power and emotions depleted because I can’t do anything at 50%. He gently reminded me of my callings in this ‘season’ of life. Besides the ongoing and superlative tasks of being a wife and mother, I am supposed to write. That’s where I need to spend my time and energy. I need to be home with my family in the evenings. I need to pour my heart into discipling my children. I need to reserve some attention for my husband. And I need to wear my fingers out on this keyboard.

My inevitable ‘yes’ would have put
me outside the will of God.

If I had said ‘yes’ to the women’s ministry team, I would have done good work. I would have felt positive about my contribution to our church body. It would have looked Christ-like, and I would probably have garnered praise from others in our church. But I would have rejected my very-real calling as a Bible study writer. I would have been outside the purposes of God. By causing me to be overlooked, our wise Heavenly Father protected me from myself and from a pattern of disobedience that would have eventually affected all my relationships—especially my relationship with Him.

I pulled into a far-away parking space (because I can always use the extra steps) and just sat there in the car, praising God. In ten minutes, He took me from complaining and questioning to thanksgiving; isn’t that fantastic? When he prevented my invitation to the women’s ministry team, He did something good for me; it just didn’t feel so good.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. –Romans 8:28

Confession: Sometimes “for the good” doesn’t feel so good in the moment. (click to tweet)

God was working this situation for my good even when it didn’t feel very good. When have you seem Him work “behind the scenes” to protect or promote you? How have you experienced the truth of Romans 8:28?

3 Lessons from My Empty Wallet

Let me say first that we are not impoverished. I’ve seen poverty; it doesn’t look like my life. We have enough money to pay the bills and purchase food. We have enough money to give our children a weekly allowance and buy the occasional pizza. So, no, we’re not destitute. Also, I realize that many people live in much direr straights than ours, and I am not making light of that.

These days, we have to say ‘no’
much more often than we say ‘yes.’

Maybe I should put it like this: At this ‘season’ of our lives, we don’t have extra money. We don’t pay for any television service; we can’t go to the beach or get pedicures, and we earnestly pray that our cars keep running because major repairs would be a real problem. When it comes to things that cost money, we have to say ‘no’ much more often than we say ‘yes.’

This hasn’t always been the case for us. As God led us into the circumstances that created this situation, I began to look for what we might learn through this sort-of trial. (It’s not a real trial in the Biblical sense…more like a period of testing.) So far, I’ve discovered three things.

Faith and Wealth Are Often Inversely Proportional

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  -James 2:5

It’s easier for poor people to trust God. When you have money, you need to work really hard to stay dependent on Jesus rather than depending on your finances. When you don’t have money, you’ve no choice but to trust Him for your daily needs, which increases your faith. It’s uncommon sense: being poor makes you rich.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Like the Hebrew people in the wilderness gathered just enough manna for that day, He models praying for just enough to meet one’s needs on this day. It’s hard to pray those words with authenticity when you could buy a loaf of bread using your pocket change.

Less money ⇒ more faith.
More money ⇒ less faith.

So riches and faith are often inversely proportional. Yes, there are incredibly faithful wealthy people. I’m just saying that it’s much harder for them to remain in that state of dependence on God. For me, this lack of wealth has given me so many opportunities to trust Him and therefore, to glorify Him as He met our needs every time!

(There’s an implicit reference here to Matthew 5:3, where Jesus says the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven. I don’t have the space to dig into it here, but go for it, if you’re interested.)

Self-Discipline in One Area Affects Other Areas

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  -Matthew 16:24

I’ve never been very good at telling myself ‘no.’ Indulgences such as another piece of chocolate or a new pair of shoes or ten more minutes in a novel are natural to me. (I don’t think I’m alone in this.) And fasting? Just the thought of it makes my stomach growl. But in the last two years, I’ve said no to Starbucks, to movie dates, to new clothes, to nice furniture, to weekend getaways, etc. Having done all that, I find it easier to turn off the TV, to choose a special offering over ice cream, and yes, I’ve even fasted—twice!

Because I have been compelled to discipline my spending habits, spiritual disciplines have become more accessible. I’m as surprised by this as anyone.

Contentment Doesn’t Depend on Circumstances

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  –Philippians 4:12-13

There is much in American
life that I don’t need.

Have you ever noticed this before?!? Paul’s power statement that athletes tattoo on their arms and body builders quote in their gyms…it’s actually about contentment! (Context is supremely important.) In the last two years, I have learned that there is much I don’t need. I am not hurt by saying ‘no’ to this or that fun purchase. I’ve actually become more content as I bought less stuff and spent less on entertainment.

If someone handed me a new couch or a trip to the beach, I wouldn’t refuse them. After all, I’m not trying to be ascetic, nor am I testing out a vow of poverty. The simple fact is, I no longer feel like I need those things to be satisfied with my life…or even to be comfortable.

Don’t pat me on the back just yet. I’m still working on all this, and God challenges my pride/humility ratio daily when it comes to finances. I really have a hard time saying, “We can’t afford that.” I feel like I’ve learned enough, however, to pass some of it on to you. I pray that you are encouraged and challenged.

 Becoming more content with less money: 3 Lessons from My Empty Wallet (click to tweet)

For further study: I Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19. Increased faithfulness doesn’t guarantee increased finances. Also Matthew 6:19-21.

What has God taught you about wealth, finances, money, etc.? What verses did He use? How did your life change as a result? We would all like to hear about you, so leave a comment below!

 
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The Day the King Cried

Only twice in Scripture do we see Jesus cry. The first time, He weeps with Mary over the death of her brother, Lazarus (found exclusively in John 11). The second time, He weeps over the city of Jerusalem. I wrote extensively about the first occasion in my Bible study. We will consider the second occasion today, as part of Holy Week and the coming of Easter.

Luke 19:41-44.

Jesus parades toward Jerusalem on a donkey, riding along a road covered with palm fronds and people’s clothes. At some point—and only Luke records this—He begins to cry. Was he still riding down the road on the donkey? Or had they taken a break in which he looked over the city from atop a hill? I don’t know.

Jesus cried for His people,
the Chosen People of God.

If it were me, I would have wept in anticipation of the pain, trials, abandonment, and death coming in the next five days, but Jesus’ heart is not for Himself (as usual). He cried for the people of Jerusalem—His people, the Chosen People of God. Why did the sight of this familiar city make Him cry? I believe there are at least three reasons. Let’s consider them.

Because He foresaw the consequences of their unbelief.

This is the obvious one. Speaking as if all the people could hear Him, Jesus said that destruction would come because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you (v. 44). The natural consequence of unbelief is destruction, both then and now.

Because it had to be this way.

The people were, in a sense, sacrificed much like Pharaoh. Exodus 9:12 (and five other times) says, The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Without that hardening, God would not have gotten the glory or renown that resulted from the Hebrews’ escape.

There had been plenty of time for the people of Jerusalem to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and many had believed (John 12:42). But that time was now past. Jesus said, “It is hidden from your eyes” (v. 42). Their destiny was sealed. Only in this way could God’s plan be fulfilled and, backward as it seems, His glory increased even beyond that of the Exodus.

 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” -John 12:39-40

Perhaps a less-than-comparable example will help. I took my firstborn to get her first round of shots. (No judgment, please, if you’re anti-vaccinations.) She was tiny. The needles looked so big—like they could pierce all the way through her chubby little thighs. She cried even before the first shot. I started crying, too. Did I stop the nurse? Did I scoop my baby up and run away to protect her from the awful, cruel needles? I wanted to, but no. I knew the pain was necessary and short-lived. She took the shots; we both cried, then it was over. In a similar but much more profound way, Jesus knew that Jerusalem had to go through this. He could still cry for them like I cried for my child.

What if I had refused to allow the nurse to hurt my child with that needle? More importantly, what if the majority of Jews had believed? What if they had shouted for Barabbas rather than Jesus? What if He hadn’t been crucified? Better for first-century Jewish people…much worse for us.

Because He knew how history would write His story.

In all four gospels, the crucifixion stories portray the masses of Jerusalem as blood-thirsty, gullible bad guys. Even when Pilate seeks a compromise, they shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:13-25).

“How could they be so foolish,” we think, “as to kill the One who loved and healed them?” We tell people, “Don’t be like the Jews, who didn’t recognize the Christ when He walked among them.” When Jesus looked toward Jerusalem that Sunday afternoon, He knew our present-day thoughts, and yet He continued on His course. When the author of Hebrews wrote that He endured the cross, despising the shame (12:2), could it not also mean that He hated the shame that beset Jerusalem that day?

Jesus didn’t love the people of Jerusalem
any less on the day they hung him as a
criminal than on the day they hailed
him as king.

Jesus loved His people. He didn’t want them to be destroyed or decried throughout history. He submitted to this because it was the only way, but He didn’t stop caring. He didn’t turn off His emotions. He cried because compassion and sovereignty mixed so perfectly within Him.

The Day the King Cried: 3 reasons Jesus wept over Jerusalem (click to tweet)

Could there be other reasons Jesus wept over Jerusalem? What do you think…or better yet, what do you see in Scripture? Feel free to comment below.

 

Author’s Note: I was inspired to write this post by Desiring God’s Holy Week devotional, Your Sorrow Will Turn to Joy, available for free. John Piper used the phrase “merciful sovereignty” to describe Jesus’ attitude in these verses.