On God and gummy worms

NCSPCJXHSeveral Sundays ago, right in the middle of singing a familiar worship song, God showed up. My eight-year-old son was singing next to me. His attitude had not been the greatest, and mine could have used a few adjustments too. He was fidgeting, and I was trying hard to keep my thoughts in order for the message that I was about to give. That’s when it happened — he stopped fidgeting long enough to tug on my sleeve. “Dad” he whispered, as his lower lip quivered. I leaned down to listen as he continued. “Remember the other night when you told me not to eat any more gummy worms after I got in bed?” He pauses, his eyes refusing to look at me. “Well, I did.”

I stop singing, and sit down next to him. I touch his chin to redirect his eyes to mine. “Are you asking me to forgive you?” He nods. His lip still quivering. I smile. “Well, I do.” He throws his arms around my neck, refusing to let go. The music is still playing. The congregation is still singing. But God’s message is rising above all of that. He is speaking his familiar story of repentance and forgiveness through a little boy who is clinging tightly to the neck of his father.

I set my son down and continue to sing with the rest of the congregation, but there is a voice that is singing more loudly than mine. I stop singing again, and listen to the eight year old next to me singing with all of his heart:

God of wonders beyond our galaxy; You are holy, holy.
Precious Lord reveal Your heart to me, Father hold me, hold me.
The universe declares Your majesty, You are holy, holy, holy, holy.
Hallelujah, to the Lord of heaven and earth!

My son isn’t only singing loudly, but he’s smiling — the kind of smile you can’t hold back no matter how hard you try. The kind of smile you have when you no longer have to hide a secret.

God, do you feel this kind of joy — the father’s joy I feel right now — when I come to you in repentance, seeking your forgiveness? I look at my son again, who is still belting the song with everything he’s got.  And is that what I look like when I’ve been forgiven — unable to contain the joy of a burden lifted? 

His voice raises at the refrain: Hallelujah, to the Lord of heaven and earth! I think to myself: I couldn’t agree more.

How to apply God’s strength to your weakness

Strong in the lord_t_nvThe short Hebrew word El means “to be strong.” It is often used in combination with other words to communicate that God’s strength is unequalled. This applied truth  provides tremendous help for the one struggling with discouragement or self-pity. Meditating upon the strength of God encourages your heart, and moves your attention away from your personal weakness.  Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Dr. C.R. Marsh applies God’s unparalleled strength to his attributes, and comes up with an excellent list for reflection during your prayer time.

  • As to his duration, he is the everlasting God (Gen. 21:33).
  • As to this power, he is the almighty God (Gen. 17:1).
  • As to his exclusiveness, he is the jealous God (Ex. 20:3-5).
  • As to his holiness, he is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24).
  • As to his pity, he is a merciful God (Deut. 4:31).
  • As to his fidelity, he is a faithful God (Deut. 7:9).
  • As to his vitality, he is the living God (Josh. 3:10).
  • As to his greatness, he is the awesome God (Neh. 1:5).
  • As to his compassion, he is the gracious God (Jonah 4:2) (All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p. 8)

Choose one of the italicized words, and shape your personal praise to God around that attribute. Then, dwell upon God’s strength in that area throughout the day. As you face challenges, remember to concentrate on God’s strength, not your weakness.

Assume God’s responsibilities and you’ll neglect your own

One of the common themes I’ve observed as a pastor is that people often fail to do what they should do, because they’re trying to do what only God can do. We are not equipped to carry out God’s role, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.  Here are some examples:

  • God sees the future; we can’t see it, so we worry instead (Psalm 139:16)
  • God knows a person’s inner desires and intentions; we can’t know them, so we develop a judgmental spirit questioning their motives (1 Corinthians 4:5).
  • God can change a heart; we can’t, but we try; we seek to control and manipulate others through our words and emotional responses (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Titus 3:5-6).

When we attempt to do God’s job we end up defaulting on our own. Look back at the emphasized words in the previous points. God told us not to worry (Phil. 4:6), not to judge the heart (1 Cor. 4:5), and not to control and manipulate others (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When we attempt to do what only God can do, we fail to do what he asks us to do. The Bible teaches we are totally inadequate to carry out God’s responsibilities (Romans 11:33-34).  This is why we not only do them poorly but complain because the burden is too great to bear.

This is prime territory for self-pity to grow, as God’s dialogue with Moses revealed (Num. 11). So how do we overcome this tendency? By trusting God with those less than desirable circumstances and believing that he can accomplish something purposeful through them (Romans 8:28).

This was a truth that carried Joseph through betrayal, slavery, false accusations, and nearly ten years in prison.  At the conclusion of his story he reminds his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20)  Joseph had grown in contentment. He didn’t need his brother’s approval to feel successful. He found it easy to love them and forgive. He didn’t need pleasant surroundings or positive conditions. It’s not our circumstances that make us prone to self-pity; it’s our dissatisfaction with those circumstances. Self-pity takes root in the soil of discontentment.

Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for defeating self-pity.

Available November 2012 through www.biblicalstrategies.com.


Feelings, truth and the promises of God

At the beginning of Moses’ ministry, God made him a promise: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). At his retirement, 40 years later it was said of him, “And there has not arisen a prophet . . . like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

So from the beginning to the end of his ministry God had been with him. God had never left Moses alone. In the middle of his ministry; however, weary from the complaints of the people, Moses does not acknowledge God’s promise. He leans instead into what he’s feeling.

Moses said to the LORD, “Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? . . .   I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me [emphasis added] (Numbers 11:11-14).

Was Moses really alone or did he just feel alone? Had God not kept his promise? 

God had kept his promise. Moses only felt alone, but he spoke about it as if it were a substantiated fact. Had he used God’s promises as his basis of truth, he would have endured those strong external and internal forces without succumbing to self-pity.

Years ago I memorized the following poem that has helped clarify this idea. In the poem interpret fact as God’s promises.

Three men were walking on a wall,
Feeling, Faith, and Fact;
Feeling had an awful fall,
And Faith was taken back.
But Fact remained and pulled Faith though
And Faith brought Feeling too.

If Moses hadn’t cut himself free from the anchor of God’s promise to him, perhaps his prayer might have sounded something like this: “God, I feel really alone right now. The people are complaining, they don’t like what you’re serving, and they insist that I do something about it. But even though I feel alone, I will cling to your promise that “you will always be with me.” Please strengthen me so that I don’t waver in my belief.”

For me, the prayer of faith always brings clarity. It is my self-pity that brings confusion. God made the same promise to us he made to Moses. In the New Testament we read, “‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say. ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6)

God’s truth doesn’t waver; I can’t say the same for my feelings.


How the character of God holds self-pity at bay. . .

Living with suffering is hard work; it’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented it becomes difficult to hold self-pity at bay.  Suffering can come in many forms; not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of loving God.

When the apostle Peter heard Jesus speak of suffering that was needful for him to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). 

Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic (1 Cor. 2:8, 13). God’ wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God (not the wisdom of the man) is a quality Jesus develops (Heb. 5:8). He exercises this ability most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.

When confronted with the suffering (separation from God) he will experience on the cross Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way: “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).

Abba is a family term. It might be best rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me. . .” Jesus is clinging to this aspect of his Father’s character: his love. Then he adds, “. . . all things are possible for you.” He is acknowledging that the Father has the power to act if he would so choose.

Both with Peter and with his Father Jesus embraces suffering without questioning the character of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that he affirms and focuses on the character of God in the midst of his suffering. This is the means through which we avoid self-pity when times are hard. We trust the character of God not the wisdom of man.

One of my seminary professors who left a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year of seminary, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own and immediately recognized the similarity. Having not intended to so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath, and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly. Then I asked him how I could pray for him. There was a long pause, and then the words: pray that I would be faithful to the end. I did. Thirty days later, Fred Barshaw met Jesus.

Our response to suffering will take one of two roads. We can focus on the character of God and pray for faithfulness; or focus on the difficulty of our circumstances and indulge self-pity. Your focus will determine your ultimate outcome.

Discovering God

When we speak of discovering God it is not because he is lost, but because we are. The Bible describes our condition in this way,

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Rom. 3:10-12).

Left to ourselves we pursue our pleasures, our desires, what makes us feel good. It was never our natural inclination to seek out God. In a sense, we were lost and didn’t even know it.

From the start, the glory of God should have been our goal, but it wasn’t. Each of us pursued our sin instead. So the Bible says, “. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

The good news is that although we were not seeking God he was seeking us. The Scriptures declare,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

God saw that we were lost, and he didn’t wait for us to make the first move. He sought us out. If you have been waiting to move towards God, until you feel better about yourself or the things you’ve done this verse should help “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

God wasn’t waiting for our self-improvement, self-discovery or self-righteousness. He sent Jesus to pay the ultimate price while we were still lost. Because the wages of sin was death (Rom. 6:23), someone was going to have to pay. Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sin and the penalty was paid.

This is a gift and the Bible calls it grace (Eph. 2:8, 9). It can’t be earned; it can only be received. We do this through believing. Believing that we need a Savior; believing that he is that Savior; believing that when we ask, he saves us.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jer. 29:11-13).

What your life has in common with Mount Rushmore

My family and I just returned from a road trip out west. One of the stops we made was Mount Rushmore. There is nothing quite like seeing it in person to truly appreciate how small you are! As I was listening to the presentations I kept pondering what our walk with Christ has in common with this national treasure. Here are a few of those ideas.

The workers conformed the mountain to specific images.

Over a period of 14 years (1927-1941) Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers labored to carve the 60 foot images from the wall of granite.  They did so with precision, measuring Borglum’s model, multiplying it by 10, and reproducing the measurements on the side of the mountain. Only then could the sculpting begin. Next to the sculptor, the most important person on the mountain was the pointer – the individual responsible for placing the measurements on the wall of granite.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son  . . . (Romans 8:28)

God is in the process of sculpting each of us into the image of Jesus. Do we think like Jesus? Love like him? Act like him? Are others seeing Jesus in us? It is the Sculptor’s plan that they would. He is carving, conforming us to a specific image.

Ninety percent of the mountain was sculpted with dynamite.

When you see the precision of the work this statistic becomes all the more remarkable. Because the granite was so fine, it didn’t crumble like most rock. Therefore, the workers would drill small holes, insert specific charges of dynamite, light the fuse, and George Washington would appear! Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, but dynamite remained the most necessary element for carving.

There are things in my life that feel like a dynamite explosion. Perhaps your circumstances seem like that too. Those explosions seem so random, that I forget that God is divinely purposing them (Jer. 29:11, 13). He is intentional in the location of the charges, sloughing off the necessary sections of rock so that the image of Jesus may appear in my life. I really don’t think about the explosion of trials in my life from that perspective, but I should.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:3-4).

The images are long-lasting.

The granite erosion rate is one inch every 10,000 years. Theoretically, Borglum reasoned, when the United States of America had ceased to exist, the granite images would still remain, pointing to the great leaders of our past.

For you and I, revealing the image of Christ has more eternal value than our plans for the weekend, an entire work career, 401K or retirement. Those things fade and pass away. Being conformed to the image of God surpasses all of these. Perhaps we are misguided in what we think is important. Paul said,

One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14).