Thoughts from Doug Knox.
Waiting on the Lord, Part 1
Footsteps in the Sea
The Jolting Reality concerning our Circumstances
Last week, one of my students in my theology class opened up before the class. He said that his circumstances lately have become so difficult that he no longer is able to discern the Lord’s leading in his life. He had no idea whether the Lord even was leading.
I had to admire his courage. Every Christian struggles with this question, but few ask it out loud. The question has to do with the complete disconnection between our purposeful obedience to God’s word and the results that emerge from it. To put it crassly, “If I am doing my best to follow God’s commands, why does my life look like a crash and burn?”
Unraveling the Tangle
Part of the struggle comes out of our tendency to interpret “faith” as a cause-and-effect relationship with God. We want to draw a hard line connection between faith and circumstances. That is, strong faith causes God to bless us. Weak faith misses God’s blessings.
This kind of thinking says, “Keep on keeping on. Don’t give up. Persevere and God will give you success. Remember, Thomas Edison experienced over a hundred failures before he succeeded in finding a working light bulb filament.”
The Fallacy of a Works Relationship with God
This kind of faith holds a close connection between outward circumstances and inward blessing. It tells us, “If your circumstances are difficult, you must not be there yet. You just need to work a little harder.” Of course, “there” means the place where cars run smoothly, bills go in on time, colds and flu symptoms pass us by, and….
You get the picture.
Let me say at the outset that there is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above. If we watch the oil level in our vehicles, learn to live within our means, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, we usually can avoid unpleasant surprises like those above. And yes, these are blessings from God.
The place where our thinking tips the scales occurs when we say, “If I do this good thing, than God must respond with that blessing.” This kind of thinking puts God in a position where he owes us something.
We fall into a works relationship with God when we try to do things that make God want to reward us. The practice can become a by-your-bootstraps philosophy that judges everything by outward circumstances. Faith equals success. Therefore, if something is unsuccessful, it must not have been motivated by faith.
Those places are not where we meet God.
So what about my student’s question? Where can we find God when life crumbles around us and our circumstances drive us to despair?
Let me say at the outset that the particular students that I teach have a number of characteristics in common. They are all older individuals who have enrolled in Bible college because they feel a sense of calling from God. They struggle financially, but they are serious about their studies and they all love God deeply.
Those facts made my answer easier, because I knew that I would not have to romanticize the facts to make them go down more easily.
I related two examples from the biblical narratives. First, Joseph’s saga in Genesis begins with the exciting news that God wants to make Joseph a powerful man (Genesis 37:1-11). To a seventeen-year-old, that is pretty heady news. We know that God ultimately elevated him to the office of Vice-Pharaoh, but he took him through slavery and prison first.
Why? Because he would have to learn to balance compassion with an iron-fisted sense of consistency, and those skills could come only through the kind of hardship he endured.
Second, the story of Moses in Exodus 1-2 makes the fact clear that knew he was called to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage. But he killed an Egyptian man and had to flee the country. For forty years, he tended his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert. He thought he was a washout, but during that time the LORD taught him the survival skills he would need to lead his people through the wilderness wanderings.
God was with both these men during their darkest times. He is not tied to our circumstances. He is bigger than the events that pummel us. In Joseph and Moses’ cases—and I am convinced ours as well—during our dark days he does far more to shape us than during all the good times.
The eighteenth-century English hymn writer, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), expressed the truth this way in his hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Cowper new much about God’s “mysterious ways.” He suffered from depression so severe that he spent the last third of his life indoors, apart from any human contact. He was unable even to attend church, but managed to pen some of the most meaningful statements of truth in hymnody.
The line in the first stanza about God planting his footsteps on the sea comes from Psalm 77.
Your way was through the sea;
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
-- Psalm 77:19
The psalm is penned by Asaph, David’s chief musician. It too relates a time during which God’s presence was undetectable. Concerning his own circumstances, Asaph wrote, “When I remember God, I moan; / when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:3).
In simple words, Asaph is saying, “Thoughts about God make me feel sick.” Yet he has to interpret his experience by what he knows to be true. God’s footprints through the sea may be unseen, but he is still there.
When we burn these truths into our being, we begin to realize that obedience is more than a list of dos and don’ts. Our happiness does not have to be tied to results. We can draw two truths from this:
Truth number one: God never promised that he will make our walk easy if we only remain faithful.
Truth number two: Invisibility does not mean absence. Our Lord is always there with us.
This frees us from the tyranny of ideas like, “5 Sure Ways to Guarantee God’s Blessings.” Our motivation for following God stems from relationship, not results.
Waiting on the Lord, Part 2
The Cure for Loneliness
The other evening I was in the car listening to Gary Rathbun’s AM radio call-in show, “An Economy of One.” The program is a mix of investment advice, economic theory and commentary, and occasional philosophical ramblings on life itself. And even though the title is a contradiction in terms (you need at least two people for an economy to exist), I love its assertiveness. This particular evening, I tuned in at the end of a rant. When the radio came on the program, he said, “The cure for loneliness is not company. It is solitude.” Then he said it again. “The cure for loneliness is not company. It is solitude.” His commentary got me thinking—again—about solitude.
Shades of Loneliness
Certain kinds of loneliness are more fundamental than others. For example, when God observed, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” in Genesis, he addressed a man’s profound need for companionship. Men’s lives are completed by a good woman in marriage.Similarly, we benefit from purposeful relationships with other men. The loneliness that Gary Rathbun was talking about is far more superficial. His subject involved addiction to company.Have you ever noticed, for example, that some people just have to be around noise all the time? One of my great frustrations when I worked at the university involved the frequent sight of two students walking down the sidewalk side by side while they texted someone else.Constant company only feeds the addiction. Solitude, on the other hand, forces us to slow down, to think deliberately, and to become content in quietness. It is one of the chief ways we learn to listen. Solitude is about learning to be deliberate.
Look at any great leader in the Bible, and you will see a period of solitude come before ministry. Solitude offers God the chance to speak deliberately into our lives.
Here are some examples:
· Moses earned his education from the most advanced schools in the world of his time, but he learned to walk with God by spending forty years with his father-in-law’s sheep on the west side of the Arabian desert. It was in that desert that the LORD called him to deliver his people. (Exodus 3:1-4:17).
· When the LORD called Ezekiel to be a watchman for Israel, he made him sit down. Ezekiel had to watch and listen before he was allowed to speak (Ezekiel 2:12-17).
· When Nehemiah learned about the extent of the destruction in Jerusalem from Nebuchadnezzar’s siege in 586 BC, he prayed and fasted (Neh. 1:1-4). This requires solitude. Later, when he went to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall, he took time to observe the task alone before he invited the elders to join him (Nehemiah 2:9-18).
· Jesus began his ministry in solitude, during the forty days’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-15).
· Paul began his ministry with an extended period of deliberate solitude (Galatians 1:15-18).
Solitude teaches us to be quiet, and in quietness we learn to listen and wait for the Lord to speak.
David on Solitude
David wrote this short Psalm on solitude:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.
The psalm begins three points of preparation, habits that David has jettisoned in order to make himself ready to hear what God will say to him. All three are stated negatively.
· First, his heart is not lifted up. Whenever we prepare to meet the lord on his terms, we approach him humbly. Voluntary surrender to the Lord is one of the most courageous acts a man can perform.
· Second, his eyes are not raised too high. He understands his position before his Creator. God is God, and we are his creatures.
· Third, he does not occupy himself with things that lie outside of his ability to understand them. Human beings are fascinated with the mysterious. This is not wrong in itself, as long as we remain aware of the boundary between understanding and mystery. Here, David leaves mystery with God.
In the positive sense, David has calmed his soul “like a weaned child with its mother.” Have you ever watched a young child sitting on her mother’s lap? It is the picture of contentment.Finally, David calls his people to hope in the LORD with the same sense of contentment that he has come to know. Meditations like this do not arise out of noise and crowds. They grow out of deliberation. David learned an incredibly important lesson from his time spent in quiet. Psalm 131 is one of the fifteen songs of ascents that appear in Psalms 120-134. These are the psalms that the Israelites would recite on their temple pilgrimages. While Psalm 131 contains the most pointed image of solitude, they all focus on a meditative walk with the Lord. From now as long as you live, hope in the Lord.