Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Follow the Leader

I was reading a book by Francis Chan about the Holy Spirit recently, and the thing that keeps coming back to me from that book is the question, "Are you trying to lead the Holy Spirit, or are you being led by the Spirit?" There's a big difference. I think many Christians (including me), believe in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and we recognize the importance of involving the Spirit in our ministry, lives and decisions. But I think what happens a lot of times is that we see the Spirit as a means to an end, a tool to be used, a source of power and experiences, rather than as God, to be followed and submitted to. The Spirit gives us power, so we manipulate our experiences and conditions in order to receive that power when we want it for the results we want.  The Spirit gives wisdom and guidance so we try our hardest to get the Spirit to tell us what we need to know for the situations we think are important. We know we can't accomplish God's work on our own, so we try to lead the Spirit to do what we think God's work is. We try to convince him to do what we need him to do. If he does not do what we need him for, then there must be sin in our lives or doubt or hardness of heart. We think if we get those things right, we can then go again to the Spirit and lead him to do the right thing.

This leading instead of following is subtle but tragic. Leading implies initiation and action on the part of the leader, and following implies observation, waiting and agreement on the part of the follower. As I've begun to see the distinction I've realized how hard I have worked to get the Spirit to do what I want him to do, instead of really letting the Spirit lead without assuming I know what needs to be done. I've begun waking up every morning, not requesting anything of the Spirit, but surrendering to him. "Spirit, I trust your leadership. I will follow you today. Soften my heart, and help me to hear." When I think of a situation that I am uncertain about or that I would like resolution or change in, instead of tyring to convince the Spirit to work, or to work in a certain way, I again pray, "Spirit I know you are working. I am not going to try to figure this all out. I want to follow you." You are leading. I am waiting and following and trusting.

What peace this brings! It really is a huge burden to have to try to figure out what God needs to do and then to try to convince him to do it. And what a lack of belief in who he is that attitude reveals. Of course, really following the Spirit moment by moment is easier said than done. There is still A LOT of pride and fear and selfish desires that interfere, but I surrender those too, and trust God's grace and power to gradually chip those away. The more we see him, the more we will be like him. And the more we know him, the more we will be one with him and with each other.

Friday, April 23, 2010

You ask but you don't receive...

Aaaaa! So many things I'm learning, and I want to write about them all! So even though I should be writing a paper for my Masters, I will write on my blog instead. :o)
James 4
"1What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 4You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
"God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble."[b]

I read James recently, and somehow God has been helping me to see things I had never connected before. It's like he's been shouting these things at me, not in anger, but just so loudly that I HAVE to hear. What I do with it is another question...

In chapter 4 James talks about why the Christians he is writing to pray for things but do not receive them. Good question, right? Jesus tells us, "ask and you will receive," but a lot of the time that doesn't happen. Before when I read this passage I usually thought it was saying that we don't receive what we ask for because we want to use want we get for evil purposes. Of course God wouldn't give us things that we will use for evil! But I don't think that is quite what James is saying here. He says the people in this church are fighting with each other because of desires "battling" among them. They want what they don't have and are jealous of those who do have them. These desires are creating havoc! So then they turn to God when they can't get what they want and ask him for them. Maybe these aren't necessarily bad things, but they have made these desires the goal of their faith and prayers. They ask God for these things in order to satisfy these desires that are consuming their lives.

James continues on in verse 4 saying, essentially, "when you are obsessed with the things you want, you are having an affair with your desires and are rejecting God." The desires are not evil because their object is by nature bad, but because the desire has turned its object into an idol. The Spirit that lives in us "envies intensely." He WANTS us. And he will not give us what we desire when that thing has become for us an idol, more important than God. The Spirit leads us to love God above all else, and anything that gets in the way of that has to go. And even though that can be incredibly painful, ultimately it is a demonstration of God's grace because those "evil desires" will always leave us empty when their intent is to replace God. We were created for God and are satisfied in him alone. As Psalm 73:25 says, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you."

So what is the solution then?
7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. "

We submit ourselves, our desires, our plans for what our lives should look like, to God. Resist the devil and the evil desires he dangles in front of us to distract us from the true source of life, and turn to God. The promise? God will come near to us. We wash our hands and hearts, ridding ourselves of these consuming desires so that we can be of one mind, one intent, one desire, no longer the double-minded person, tossed by the wind, that we see in the first chapter. We truly grieve and confess those things that have replaced God in our hearts, recognizing our need for him and trusting that he alone is our good. When we do this, he will lift us up. He does not leave us in the "gloom." He restores us and brings us into the joy that only a life full of Him can give. But before he does this, there must be a grieving, a purging, a letting go of the things we cling so tightly to that keep us from seeking God himself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I'm asking for WHA...?

James 1:2-16

"2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."

As long as I can remember, I've been asking God for wisdom. I'm not sure why I started. I just remember I decided one day that wisdom was something I really wanted.  I've always assumed that this passages in James means that if I believe when I ask for wisdom, I'll get it, and I pretty much stopped at that. But recently, I've been wondering some things... James says that trials come so that the testing will develop perseverance which works in us to make us mature and complete, not "lacking" anything. He then goes on to say that if we "lack" wisdom we should ask for it. Apparently, wisdom is one of the things produced by perseverance through trials. So, I began wondering, "does that mean that when we are asking for wisdom, we are really asking for trials, which in turn, produce perseverance which produces wisdom?" Yikes! Have I been asking for trials my whole life without knowing it???

In this light, the following verses also make a lot more sense. James says that we must "believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind."  The reason we are to believe and not doubt is that our request for wisdom implies the coming of all kinds of trials. If a man asks for wisdom but then doubts and is "tossed about by the wind" when the trials come, the work of perseverance cannot be completed. In order for wisdom to be born out of trials, there must be belief, faith that enables us to persevere. It is this perseverance through faith that breeds wisdom. A woman who doubts when trials come, who is unstable and does not persevere in faith, should not expect to receive the wisdom she has asked for.

Ouch. That hurts a bit. Here I've been asking for wisdom, full of confidence that I am not doubting God's willingness to provide wisdom. What I did not realize is that the doubting is revealed during the trials, not in the asking. Tossed about by the winds like a wave of the sea... Haven't been the best in that area... Forgive me, Father. It is not faith alone, nor trials alone that result in wisdom, but faith in the midst of the trials.

"9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. 12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

This passage is also still connected to the former, but what is the connection? Why does James suddenly jump to wealth vs. poverty? Well, I assumed it was wealth and poverty, but if I'm considering the context again, maybe this has to do, not just with material riches, but with a life full of humble, difficult circumstances vs. a life of ease and apparent blessing. The privileges of the rich are temporary, fading away without him even realizing it. But the person in humble circumstances who perseveres under trial will receive the crown of life from God. Because of this the person with the life that seems to be plagued with problems and struggles can rejoice and take pride in his position, because he will receive God's eternal promise and reward.

"13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."

When the painful or difficult circumstances come and we respond in doubt, "tossing about like the waves in the wind," it is easy to blame God... not only for our circumstances but for our response to them, for the pain they cause us, for our hardness of heart and sin. It's easier that way. That way we do not have to face our own weakness. We do not have to admit that our faith was weak, our desires evil. But the response is all our own. Another scripture says that when we are tempted God always provides a way out (1Cor.10:13). When we waver during the trials, letting our desires for things other than God lead us into sin, it is our own choice. It is a  part of the testing inherent in suffering that reveals our faith for what it is. This is not a testing for God to figure out whether we really have faith or not, but for our hearts to be revealed to ourselves. When the trials come, do we choose to turn to God in faith, or do we choose to follow our evil desires, which will always lead us into sin?

"16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created."

After all this talk of suffering and testing and perseverance and temptation, James says, "but don't be fooled! Every good gift is from God, who never changes." In the trials, the suffering, the poverty, the injustice, God is not tempting us. He is blessing us. He gives us good gifts. He gives the gift of wisdom, the gift of growth. He gives Himself. He gave us birth through the word of truth (Jesus). Though we may be tossed about by the wind, the Father is not. He is constant, and he is Good. And everything he gives us is a good and perfect gift.

Man... That puts a different spin on my prayers for wisdom...

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Strange (but extravagant) Love

It is counter-intuitive to believe in God's love, especially when we are hurting... when it seems impossible that a God who loves us could allow or ordain such pain. It's the old saying that if someone has the power to prevent evil and does not, or the power to do good and does not, that in itself is evil. So how can we believe in a good God who allows suffering? It is easy to give a theological argument and brush off the question when the suffering belongs to someone else, but when it enters our own lives, that is when our true belief comes to the surface.

I have this picture of my faith being refined like gold, like it talks about in First Peter. I have a picture of my faith in a big pot, with fire under it, boiling, boiling, boiling... as slowly, all these ugly  impurities of doubt and anger and control, selfishness and pride creep to the surface. Boy, do we hate the fire! Not just because it burns, but because it injures our pride. Because when the fire is burning we see all the impurities that were hidden inside. Able to hide or ignore them before, the refining process makes them impossible to hide. And I do not want to see my sins and weaknesses, especially when they are revealed in suffering.

When we realize that this is going on, we can admit that maybe God has a purpose in our circumstances and pain, but this still doesn't mean he loves us. Even an unloving God could use suffering to refine our faith. "You can refine me, but I don't have to like it!" How can we trust God when we don't believe that he is working for our good?  How can a God who loves me cause me pain? And how can I ever trust him to lead my life if he works this way?

Hebrews 11 says:
"13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect."
The first thing we see here is that God knew ahead of time that what he promised would not be fulfilled during the lifetime of those he promised it to. God commended all these people for their faith, but NONE of them received what had been promised. It is not that God did not fulfill that promise, but that his plan reached beyond the lives of those he promised it to. The same is true for us. We can become bitter when it appears that what God has promised has not been fulfilled, but we know that what God has planned reaches beyond our lifetime to something far greater that only he knows. Secondly, these "heroes of the faith" persevered because they did not look back to what they were leaving, but forward to what God had promised, a heavenly promise beyond this life. What a temptation it is, in the moment of suffering, to look back to what we have lost instead of forward to what God has planned for us to gain.
Hebrews 12
"1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood."
Jesus is our example of faith and suffering. When we are in the middle of a trial, we look to Jesus, who voluntarily endured the suffering of the cross because of the joy set before him, this future fulfillment of the promise. Not only did Jesus endure great suffering, but he did it for me. For all of us. Plain and simple, that is the proof of his love. He did not have to. He chose to, and God had this planned from the foundations of the world. That is how I know he loves me: God sent Jesus to die for me. Whatever suffering, injustice, circumstances I endure, these are all outshadowed by the fact that Jesus died for me. I cannot say he does not love me because he already gave me the greatest proof of love possible. His own life. Further, I cannot say that my suffering is proof that God does not love me, because God ordained suffering for his own son, Jesus, whom he loved, again for a purpose that went beyond the physical life of Christ on this earth, for the good of all of us, not just for one.
Hebrews 12 continues...
"5And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."

I think this passage speaks for itself. This is the connection between a God who refines and a God who loves. The process of refining, the hardship, should be thought of as discipline by a Father who loves us . It does not seem pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces righteousness and peace. The suffering too is proof of God's love.