Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
The only real security
Joel 3: God is a safe hiding place.
When the prophet describes God as a “safe hiding place” he isn’t talking about hiding from the natural disaster that’s struck the land. He’s moved forward in his sermon and is thinking about how the world as we know it will come to an end. He pictures a great final battle when God’s Judgment will fall over the earth. Joel says the forces of evil will come to do battle against the forces of God and that the Almighty will respond in full force, shaking the earth and sky in one unforgettable blow that will spell the end of all opposition to his Kingdom. Lest his own people fear that day, the Lord promises to, himself, be a “safe hiding place” for all who trust in him. We’re told that the end result of all this will be that “God has moved into Zion for good.” The fact is that natural disasters will come and go as the pages of history are turned. Most of the time, I’m merely a concerned spectator, watching from the sidelines. Some of the time, I can involve myself in some relief effort. Once in a while, maybe only once in a lifetime, I will find myself unhappily at the epicenter of it all. This passage reminds me that an event much greater than any of that is out there on the horizon of history. On that day everything’s going to come crashing down as Good and evil clash in a Creation-shaking battle. There’ll be no storm shelter secure enough and no place remote enough to protect me from it all. My only hope of safety is in God. As I live my life in him, I not only find strength for the unwelcome ordinary trials and tribulations of life, but shelter against this, the biggest storm of all.
Take Away: My only hope of safety is in the Lord.
God’s last word
Jeremiah 33: The last word is, I will have mercy on them.
This phrase is the conclusion of another of Jeremiah’s “prison epistles.” King Zedekiah feels he can’t have Jeremiah preaching defeat even as their enemies have their city under siege so he’s thrown Jeremiah into jail. It’s interesting that the prophet’s focus turns away from “right now” to looking to a much brighter day. In the future the people of Israel and Judah will return to this land. At that time the Lord will do “marvelous and wondrous things” for them (that is, their descendants). God has made some specific promises to this nation and even though, right now, it seems that everything’s falling apart, God has never lost sight of those promises. It’ll all start with the return of the people of Israel to this land. Every promise the Lord has given them will be fulfilled. While it’s true that things are going to get worse before they get better, it is just as true that things will get better; in fact, better than they can imagine. Right now it seems that God’s anger and dismissal of them will be their epitaph, but it isn’t so. Jeremiah says that in the end, when everything’s being summed up that the conclusion to it all will be that God has had mercy on them. Getting from where they are to that wonderful conclusion isn’t going to be easy, but in the end, when all’s said and done, it’ll be clear that everything that happened was an act of divine mercy. It’s hard to see the big picture when I’m in the middle of things that aren’t going to suit me. At times like that I have to simply trust the character of God: that he’s a good and merciful God who loves me. The last word concerning God’s dealings with me will be: “mercy.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his unfathomable mercy.
Don’t sweat the little stuff
Jeremiah 12: What’s going to happen when troubles break loose?
The whole question is: “If you can’t keep your wits during times of calm, what’s going to happen when troubles break loose like the Jordan in flood?” God’s question to Jeremiah is attention getting. My first response is that “calm” is a relative term. At almost any time I can find something unsettling to think about. Just watching the evening news provides me plenty of “troublesome” thought ammunition. Frankly, of course, I don’t have to reach that far. Like everyone else I always have something going on: family concerns, finances, and health spring to mind. Again, calm is a relative term because much of this is just part of living. No one has confused my neighborhood with the Garden of Eden and the same can be said of yours. So, I must learn to take life in stride. I’m not saying that life is always easy. For everyone there are times of “flooding Jordan” that knock the props out of everything in our lives. Even in that, though, the Lord isn’t giving me the permission to fall apart. Through Jeremiah he tells me to stop making big deals out of little deals in my life; to learn to trust him in those common problems and then, when the “biggie” comes, to apply what I’ve learned about trust even as the flood waters really are sweeping through my life. I know, I know, it’s easier said than done. Then again, that’s why I have to practice keeping my wits about me in the little stuff first.
Take Away: As we learn to trust the Lord with the little things of life we lay the foundation for trusting him with the big ones when they come.
Job 42: God restored his fortune — and then doubled it all.
Some people, probably the same ones who question Elihu’s contribution to the book of Job, question the conclusion of the book. They think it’s possibly an after-the-fact addition made by someone who felt the book was incomplete without Job’s restoration. Happily, as a devotional writer, I don’t have to take a stand on that. Instead, I can simply read and respond. I do understand where they’re coming from though. The main question, “will a man serve God for nothing” has been answered. The secondary issue, the question of human suffering, hasn’t been answered. Rather I’ve been taken in an unexpected direction to an unexpected conclusion. To finish the story with Job getting everything back does nothing to help us with either of the two primary issues raised in Job’s story. But again, I’m thinking devotionally here and not dealing so much with this sticky issue. So, what’s going on here? I believe that the reason Job is fully restored is that everything is taken from him for unnatural reasons. His loss of family, wealth, and health don’t “just happen.” They happen because Satan is given permission to take them from him. Once the test is over, that permission is withdrawn and God acts to return things to how they were. In other words, these are extraordinary circumstances all the way around. Most of the bad things that happen to us aren’t a result of Satan’s meddling in our lives. After all, it rains on the just and the unjust. We may be tested by such things, but they aren’t Satan-designed tests. Instead, they’re just life. That means that I can’t read the ending of the book of Job and conclude that if I handle my current difficulty of life okay I’ll get it all back, maybe double! When life “happens” and the plug is pulled simply because I live in a world where bad things happen to people, there’s no guarantee that, if I handle it well, it will all come back to me.
Take Away: This is an extraordinary story and we have to be careful to not take the more outstanding elements of it and conclude that that’s how things always are.
God is God
Job 42: I babbled on about things far beyond me.
Job responds to the Almighty’s questions as a humbled man. Here he is, still sitting in the ashes. His children are still dead. His wealth is still gone. He’s still in the agony of his affliction. Job isn’t now humbly spiritual because God has fixed everything or even explained everything to him. So far as I know, Job never learns what this is all about; that it’s all a test designed to answer the question, “Does he serve God for nothing?” Job has proved the Lord’s point though. Through it all, even when he’s struggling with the issues at hand, Job maintains his righteousness and trust in God. Now, God has spoken, revealing himself to Job, challenging him to respond to his own questions. Job responds, “I babbled on about things far beyond me.” This meeting with God makes all of Job’s questions moot. God is God and, even when life is unfair and perplexing, well, God is still God. In his trial, Job tries to state his case; to explain himself to his friends. More, he tries to explain God. This suffering man now realizes that he’s been trying to deal with the details of life but has lost sight of this huge, overpowering truth: God is God. In my life, even as I struggle with circumstances that don’t fit my theology, I must, after all my babbling on about how I think things are, remember this: God is God.
Take Away: Even when I don’t understand…even when I don’t like how things are going…even then, God is God.
The difference between imperfection and unrighteousness
Job 25: Even the stars aren’t perfect in God’s eyes.
The final statement from one of Job’s three friends (although the fourth speaker, Elihu, is still to come), is a short one and it causes us to wonder if maybe Job has argued them to a standstill. However, Bildad does take us down a bit different track. He argues that only God is truly perfect, and next to him, everything else comes up short. Even the stars of the sky are lacking in God’s eyes. Since that’s true (according to Bildad) God is justified in bringing calamity on anybody, including Job. After all, we’re all less than insects when compared to God. That’s his argument, but it isn’t a very good one. Job replies that he maintains his integrity even in the midst of what he sees as an unjust trial. His argument isn’t that he’s perfect. Rather, it’s that he’s just. Job understands something that many modern Christians fail to grasp. There’s a difference between imperfection and unrighteousness. God looks, not on our performance, but on our intent. My humanity guarantees that I’ll have a sub-par performance. However, by God’s grace, I can live for God and maintain my integrity before him even in the worst of times. Samuel learned this truth before anointing David King of Israel: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Job may be struggling with several theological concepts, but he has this one down pat.
Take Away: By the grace of the Lord it is, indeed, possible to have a pure heart in his sight.
Paddling around in the shallow end of the pool
Job 19: Why do you insist on putting me down, using my troubles as a stick to beat me?
I think I can safely pick up speed in my journey through Job because the themes are now pretty well established. Job insists on his integrity and stubbornly holds to his faith even though he feels God is treating him unfairly. His friends have become his accusers. Ever though they can’t point to a single act of unrighteousness in his life, they point to his terrible afflictions as proof that there has to be unrighteousness. Job characterizes this as their using his “troubles as a stick to beat me.” By now we’re supposed to understand that the suffering has come to Job precisely because he is righteous. It’s this righteousness that sets this chain of events in motion in the first place. The question being answered is “does Job serve God out of love and commitment or is it because of the good things he gets out of it?” Is human righteousness a part of some kind of business arraignment between man and God or is there something deeper going on? Of course, all this is beyond Job’s friends and is beyond Job himself. His friends are so overwhelmed by the terrible scene of suffering before them that they can’t see anything else. I think we’re all in danger of living at that level. We like the easy way out, the conventional wisdom, and cling to easily held beliefs. Sooner or later, God will challenge such an approach to life, taking us deeper even, if necessary, over our groans of protest.
Take Away: Easily held beliefs are often the hardest ones to let go.
Caution: big issues in play
Job 8: Does God mess up?
We’re still at the beginning of the debate that makes up the most of the book of Job but the battle lines are already drawn. Job doesn’t really disagree with what his friends believe; he just sees himself as an innocent victim of some cosmic mistake. Bildad’s comment that “God doesn’t mess up” is at the heart of all this. Job and his friends believe that when a person has something bad happen to them that it’s because they’re being punished by God. Bildad doesn’t need any other evidence of Job’s children’s sin than the fact that they all died in a tornado. Since he can’t imagine a horrible thing like that “just happening” it has to be that God did it. And, if God did it, he did it for a reason. After all, everyone knows God doesn’t make mistakes. As I’ve said, the purpose of this book to answer the question, “Will a man serve God for nothing?” However, there are other issues in play and the majority of the book is taken up with those issues. This is one of the big ones: how does the reality of bad things happening to good people fit a theology of a wise, loving, and all knowing God?
Take Away: One result of reading this book of the Bible is that the reader has to think about big issues.
Do you see what I see?
2Kings 6: Don’t worry about it — there are more on our side than on their side.
The Lord has been revealing to Elisha the military plans of nearby Aram and Elisha has, in turn, told those plans to the King of Israel. Because of that, Elisha has become a prime target. In fact, on this morning in the town of Dothan Elisha awakes to find the whole town surrounded by his enemies. To Elisha and his servant this is more than an inspirational Bible story: its life and death. His servant is mystified by Elisha’s calmness in the midst of his pending capture. That is, he’s mystified until Elisha prays that this young servant will see what he sees. Surrounding the army that surrounds them is a “whole mountainside full of horses and chariots of fire.” With God’s army escorting him Elisha has nothing to fear from the army of Aram or anywhere else for that matter. God didn’t send the army of Aram that day, but he was prepared for it to come. Had Elisha been captured, well, that would have been an unwelcome thing for Elisha and company, but it could only happen if God allowed it to happen. Elisha might have been more aware of it than I am, but the Lord’s army is escorting me too. That doesn’t mean that everything always works out just the way I want. Still, difficult days only come if he allows it, and in the end, I have the assurance that victory will be mine.
Take Away: The Lord walks through life with us, even when we aren’t aware of his presence.