how do we grow? trials

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

I recently heard a pastor say essentially that we don’t grow except through trials. I don’t know if that’s an overstatement. They have been in the ministry a good number of years and are older than many of us themselves, and I know they have far more wisdom through that pastoral experience and in their lives than I do. It seems to me we might mount an argument from passages like 2 Peter 1 to say that growth can occur apart from trials. But it does seem true to a significant extent as we consider our own lives and the lives of others. It’s so easy to drift, which results in actually diminishing in our spiritual life. We probably don’t just remain the same. We are probably growing or losing ground. Well, that’s some speculation.

But we’re clearly told here at the beginning of this letter how we’re to approach trials of any kind. That we’re to consider such as nothing but joy. That is not easy to swallow, but that is to be our mindset and attitude. It is sadly easier to wallow in fear, despair and grief. Instead we’re to approach each in an active faith, as well as passive in the correct sense, that of receiving from God. And we’re to look at life that way, all the problems and troubles we face, and again, whatever kind they might be. No exceptions.

I find this so helpful myself. There are many reasons left to ourselves to be down in the mouth and simply wanting to escape. But God wants us to meet all of life head on, but in full dependence on the Lord, along with interdependence on each other. But finding our way so that we can stand on our own, but only because of God, along with the help of others along the way. What God has for each one of us. In and through Jesus.

when under siege: silence

When you are disturbed,[a] do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

Psalm 4:4

The context of this psalm is a faithful person or persons being verbally attacked with the implication of physical danger lurking somewhere behind (click above link for entire psalm). The psalm is attributed to David who certainly knew more than his share of such trouble. Most of us experience nothing like that, but given the time we’re in, there definitely is something of this in the air, evident largely in what people are saying, and sometimes in what some have done. And plenty of disturbance (and anger, see above footnote) can accompany that.

What we’re called to here is silence. In this day when our ears are filled with music and podcasts, the news and whatnot, that can be challenging. We’re better off to plug our ears during such difficulties and simply remain in meditative silence. According to this Scripture, the alternative is to sin. Somehow to figure things out ourselves, to get it over with ourselves, instead of casting ourselves on God.

In the midst of the tumult and settling despair, we need to silence ourselves and ponder. Not just something we do in an instant and it’s done. But what we do until it’s done. God will answer, giving us what we need. In and through Jesus.

learning to rest in God

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91:1-2

Yes, Christians in too many places in the world are being persecuted. And people of other faiths, also. For us followers of Christ, the enemy which we struggle against is spiritual (Ephesians 6:10-20). We love all human enemies, while seeking to live in wisdom both for them and for ourselves.

Much of our struggle is tied both to our own weaknesses as humans and to the cosmic, spiritual conflict that is waging. So we need to see our troubled thoughts and troubles in that context. And we need to learn to rest in God. God is the One to whom we need to run and hide. God’s provision is in God’s Presence and with that comes our protection. I’m not referring to experience, that we have to feel that. Those feelings thankfully do come, but they also go. And sometimes they’re hard to come by at all because of our fears. This is simply something by faith which we do. Something we want to learn to be accustomed to doing. Where we want to live.

Notice the rest of the psalm (click link above). What we see is that God takes care of it. We’re still present, our faith active in complete dependence on God. The promise is that God will see us through trouble.

In the meantime I want to learn to rest more in God. And in that to truly learn to be at rest. In and through Jesus.

better days are coming

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

One of my favorite pastors used to say, “The best is yet to come!” And that’s true in God’s world. In the world in which we live, which in the end is also God’s world we see trouble piled on trouble, no end of it. If it isn’t one thing it’s another and another and then the next problem. There’s always something. And it’s not just problems we might solve, but issues far beyond us. And we can thank only ourselves collectively as well as individually for much of the mess we’re in.

But God’s promise in Jesus is that better days are coming. God can’t wait to forgive and pour out God’s love on us. This does require repentance of sins, of our own foolish ways. All we have to be is honest to God, to others. God will take care of everything in the end. In the meantime God helps us, setting us on a course to be a part of solution the world needs, nothing short of God’s kingdom and that kingdom come in Jesus.

But we can take solace and even find relief with the thought that good days are ahead. That the problem or problems, troubles and trials which weigh in on us will someday be a thing of the past. It will all be gone. This can help us in the present, not to ignore hard reality, but not be suffocated in it, either. God will help us now as we look forward to the day when it will all be gone. In and through Jesus.

resting in God

Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.

….Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.

Psalm 62:1-5

In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127:2

Life hits us hard with all kinds of challenges, questions, twists and turns, things imagined and unimagined. It’s hard to keep one’s bearings well, hard to relax and more or less take things in stride. At least for many of us.

I find actual physical sleep a great blessing myself. Relief from the wear and tear of the day, and just from all the difficulties faced. Underrated throughout my life. In the past I often and routinely did not get enough sleep and tanked up on coffee. It is better to get the sleep one needs and appreciate such as a blessing from God.

To translate that rest into our waking hours would be a blessing. Our rest is to be in God. God can and sometimes does give us a strong sense of that rest. But just like having to discipline ourselves to get the physical sleep, going to bed when we should, somehow we need to manage our lives in such a way that God can help us during our awakened hours to find our rest in him, to live more in that rest.

We are so restless both physically and spiritually. As if all depends on us. When actually all true blessing and blessedness depends on God. As Augustine put it, “Our souls are restless until they find rest in God.” Not hiding our face in the sand, but finding God and the rest that comes from “God with us.” In and through Jesus.

fresh faith

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Psalm 13

If there’s one thing we need day after day after day, it’s what we might call fresh faith. In other words faith which meets the new challenges, demands and problems facing us.

In this psalm, David (and/or whoever wrote this David psalm) is recounting the real world with real trouble, in this case threatening enemies. We would all like all to be well all the time. But that’s not this life or this world. We know there’s plenty of issues in every place, every nation, every household for that matter.

And besides, God doesn’t want God’s people to simply luxuriate in a trouble free paradise in this world. It’s not like we don’t need some rests and getaways from the normal day to day grind and everyday problems. But our lives as followers of Christ are meant to be lived in the real world, finding God’s help for ourselves, and in so doing having a renewed fresh faith by which we can seek God’s help for others. Through prayers, and being present with them. God doing the work, but we being present to be part of that work as we’re prompted in our hearts. In and through Jesus.

nothing at all can separate us from God’s deep, unchanging love

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:31-39

1 We are often tossed and driv’n
on the restless sea of time,
somber skies and howling tempest
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists have rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by.

Refrain:
By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll tell the story,
how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

2 We are often destitute
of the things that life demands,
want of food and want of shelter,
thirsty hills and barren lands;
we are trusting in the Lord,
and according to the Word,
we will understand it better by and by. [Refrain]

3 Temptations, hidden snares,
often take us unawares,
and our hearts are made to bleed for
any thoughtless word or deed;
and we wonder why the test
when we try to do our best,
but we’ll understand it better by and by. [Refrain]

Voices Together, 311

Also from Voices Together, 656God Weeps with Us. Cannot share lyrics due to copyright laws. A portrait of the song from another hymnbook here.

I’m not much into the idea of understanding it better by and by, in the life to come. I’m kind of the persuasion that I won’t care about trying to understand, being bathed in the love of God. Though that thought might come from living such a privileged life compared to so many others in our world. I think now of specific situations and sometimes we have to lament in horror, and then I soon forget about it, though hopefully it leaves an indelible mark on us so that we’re changed over time. And pray and do our part to alleviate human suffering.

Both of the hymns mentioned above spoke powerfully to me recently of how much God loves us no matter what happens, no matter what we’re up against. God’s love is always present and can become palpable, felt, if only we will learn to more and more trust God.

This is needed encouragement for me day after day when facing new difficulties, and considering the hard times so many are going through. God’s love is with us through everything. We need to count on it, so that no matter what we’re facing or how we’re feeling, we won’t accept the lie that somehow we are separated from God and God’s love. The words above say it better than I can. And note the second hymn as well. Given and present for us in and through Jesus.

rejoicing all the time?

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Philippians 4:4

Lament is a missing word in our vocabulary. I remember once leading a short devotional time on Psalm 88, and asking everyone if they thought it might apply to us today. They didn’t think so. I think it does.  So what’s up when Paul tells us more than once in this letter, and others elsewhere in Scripture to rejoice in God, to rejoice in the Lord, no matter what?

It is helpful that Paul gives it as something we’re to do. It’s not something he’s saying we’re caught up into, though that certainly may occur. It is part of the attitude we’re to adopt as Christ followers. Instead of groveling, being down in the mouth over difficulties, we choose to do something. Notice I didn’t say feel different. There’s nothing we can do directly to change our feelings, though what we do can indirectly result in our feelings being changed, given some time. We simply do something. We rejoice, and we rejoice in God.

Some do this loud and often, others like me don’t. Or depending on what we’re doing, we rejoice in the Lord under our breath. This is an important starting point for us, if we’re to live in the life God has for us in Christ. And it doesn’t mean we don’t sorrow or lament. Quite the contrary. If you return to the Psalms, unlike the Psalm mentioned above, you’ll notice that the psalms of lament and complaint are mixed with praise to God. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10a).

Something I’m working on, that helps lift my spirits when I’m weighed down with trouble. In and through Jesus.

facing the uncertainties and dangers of life

Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.

Job 14:1

If there’s one thing that’s certain in this life, it’s that you’re going to have trouble of one sort or another. I remember a professor telling us that he saw life as basically problem solving, from one situation to the next. Yellow flags should come up when anyone suggests otherwise, say in a sales pitch or whatever.

Troubles will come. It’s what we do with our troubles that matter, and can even make or break us. Job in this story was certainly head over heels, literally from his head to his toes in trouble, and then some. Job couldn’t sweep his troubles under the rug. He was living in it.

For us, they might be “first world problems,” but nevertheless we have to face them with the goal and passion of being true to God’s call to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We need to leave no stone unturned in doing the best we can so that others will not be harmed, but blessed. Insofar as that’s possible.

And it seems to me that we do so with much prayer, seeking to be as responsible as we possibly can. But also realizing that even our best efforts are not foolproof. This life has built in trouble to it. Along with the realization that we can’t avoid uncertainty and danger. It happens, and it will happen again. God will help us in answer to prayer to apply wisdom. But some needed wisdom is to simply realize that instead of relieving us from trouble in this life, God promises to be with us in that trouble. To see us through that trouble. And there will be the other side. To some extent in this life, as we see in the story of Job. The worst of his trouble did come and go. But completely and forever only in the eternal life to come. In and through Jesus.

God meets us where we’re at

Passing along, Jesus saw a man at his work collecting taxes. His name was Matthew. Jesus said, “Come along with me.” Matthew stood up and followed him.

Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and misfits?”

Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”

Matthew 9:9-13; MSG

God wants to meet us all where we’re at. We have to come to God just as we are to be accepted. I think of the great hymn, Just As I Am. We come to him with all of our sin, all of our troubles. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not, as if that will make us acceptable to God. Nor do we try to overcome our troubles by ourselves. Coming to God involves trusting God to answer our prayers, to actually meet us where we are, and to do God’s needed work in us.

Matthew was as low can be in Jewish eyes of his day. Here was one of their own, doing work of the hated Romans, and siphoning extra for himself at their expense, making himself rich in the process. Jesus calls him right at his tax collector’s booth, and then eats with him and others like him. And of course gets called on the carpet for that by the religious leaders. What was missing for these leaders was the point of their religion: God’s mercy. For them, for all. 

I’m thankful I can keep returning to God again and again, not for who I wish I would be, or only when I feel good about life. But when I’m struggling, which honestly is at least a lot of the time, and when troubles are just a fact of life. God meets me there. Meets us all there, if we just come to God as we are. Even calls us, like Jesus did Matthew. In and through Jesus.