A reminder in adversity

solo treeIt takes two things to blow down a tree: a heavy wind from the outside and rot and decay on the inside. So it is with man. The winds of adversity may cause him to bend, but if — by God’s grace — he’s strong and vigorous within, he will arise and grow to new heights after the storm passes.

Author unknown

Picture occurs courtesy Stuart Low photography

Why do I still have unmet desires?

“Why am I hungry, Mamma?” the little boy’s voice pierced the darkness.

His mother sighed. “Yahweh has provided manna for us; it comes from God’s very hand.” 

“But I’m tired of manna. It’s all we ever have, and it’s not very filling.”

Again the mother’s sigh. “You sound just like your father, always wanting what you do not have.”

The Old Testament Israelites did their university training in the wilderness for 40 years; perhaps they could have finished earlier, but they kept retaking the same class: Contentment 101.  Moses gives us a peak back at the course work in Deuteronomy 8.

Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deut. 8:3, NLT)

Reading that passage recently I was drawn to the phrase “by letting you go hungry.” God let them hunger that they might learn to look to him and have their deepest longings met. You see, there is something more to live for than to silence your stomachs growling.

I have desires that are unmet. I’m betting you do too.  What if we began to view our unsatisfied wants as opportunities to turn to God and trust him?  What if, instead of complaining, the Jewish dad had taught his son that man does not live by bread alone? What if the son had seen a smile of knowing contentment on his father’s face even though the unmet desires remained? What if my sons heard in their dad’s voice the simple confidence that God knows best? What if they could never remember their father complaining? They can’t. But, by God’s grace, I can change that. So can you.

What if God has withheld from you the very thing you desire the most so that you might find your satisfaction in him alone? That’s the way you pass Contentment 101 even though you still have those nagging hunger pains.

Living life from the center of the story

I’ve often wished I could crawl into H.G Well’s time machine. Perhaps you have too, but our bodies anchor us to the present. Moving back in the past or getting a peak at the future is only available in science fiction.  Yet while we are physically bound within the limitations of time, our thoughts, emotions, and choices are not.

For instance the Christian is to be grateful that his sins of the past have been forgiven (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Likewise, he is to live his life with the end in view.

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But 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. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you (Philippians 3:13-15).

You and I tend to live our lives from the center of our story. Such a temporal perspective will cause us to feel trapped by our circumstances. For instance, when things are going well, that’s great; but when things are difficult it’s easy to get discouraged.

When we read about biblical characters it’s easier for us to see the end of the story.

Here are a few examples:

  • We know that Moses will be used to split the Red Sea, and victoriously lead the Israelites out of Egypt; but we forget that he cared for sheep in the desert for 40 years first.
  • We read the letters of Paul, and know that they have ministered to millions of people, but we forget that they were written when Paul was facing beatings, danger, toil, and hardship (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

We live life from the center of the story, but our thinking is not trapped there. We must learn to set our eyes on the end of the story. When life is challenging today, remember God’s promises for tomorrow. Here’s one:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Having the right attitude matters to God

A quick summary of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount will reveal that he contrasted the internal with the external. In essence his message was, “Just because everything appears right on the outside, is no assurance everything is right on the inside.”

Jesus points out this truth by looking at three elements that are initially hidden to even your closest of friends: your attitude, thoughts, and actions. In so doing, Jesus communicates that each of these matters to God.

Having a right attitude in the worst of circumstances glorifies God (Matt. 5:3-10).

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with what we have traditionally known as the beatitudes.

The Latin word beatus means to be blessed or happy. It is the basis for the word beatitude. Nine times Jesus uses this word in his introduction to his sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7). I’ve taken the liberty to replace blessed with happy in the text. This is God’s definition of a right attitude.

 And Jesus said,

“Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Happy are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Happy are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Matt. 5:1-11)

This is a passage that starts hard and only gets harder. You may be crying in verse 4, but you’re being reviled and persecuted in verses 11 and 12. Either way your attitude is to be one of rejoicing. That seems impossible, and that is precisely the point.

If the focus of your happiness is only your circumstances, then you will always be trying to change or alter your circumstances before you change your attitude – such happiness will always be elusive. But if the focus of your attention is hungering and thirsting after God (5:6), then your attitude is untouched by your circumstances. Each circumstance (whether easy of difficult) becomes an additional opportunity to grow in our trust in the Lord and an opportunity to rejoice in whatever circumstances have become your lot.

This is why our attitude matters to God. We can choose to have a joyful attitude even when it requires the submission of our personal desires. That’s why the writer of Hebrews told us that “Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross…” (Heb. 12:2). Jesus understood that having a right attitude in the worst of circumstances glorifies God.

The other two internal issues that Jesus addresses we will follow-up on later this week.

  • Your thoughts: Pursuing wrong thoughts brings disastrous consequences (5:22, 28).
  • Your motives: Doing the right thing for the wrong reason reveals a self-centered heart (6:2, 5, 16).

What if your past was dark & your future darker…

The apostle Paul knew his past and he knew his future. His past was filled with regret, and his future would be filled with suffering. How’s that for a combination? He knew both of these to be true within moments of meeting Jesus.

Notice the account in Acts:

And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4, 5).

Did Paul remember the people he’d thrown in prison for following Jesus? Was he haunted by the cries of Steven’s widow after he gave approval for his execution?

Possibly. Years later Paul would confess,

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:9).

Do you have things in your past you regret? I know I do. As far back as I can remember there are moments I wish I could do over again. Statements made, actions taken, pain that I caused in another’s life. Your past can feel like a prison at times – with bars of regret that have locked you in.

Paul also had a future, and it didn’t look bright. Within three days of meeting Jesus God sent him a message through Ananias.

But the Lord said to [Ananias], “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Must suffer. When Paul heard those words for the first time, was he tempted to say, “No thanks”? Did he think, “Ananias, I think you have the wrong address?”

I don’t think so, and here is why. In meeting Jesus, Paul had found a delight greater than regrets or suffering. His words to the Galatians certainly seem to communicate this truth.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

Loved me and gave himself for me. Seven words that help us overcome the regrets of our past, and embrace the suffering in our not so distant future.

So whatever’s behind, and no matter what lies ahead, find hope in these words: Jesus loved me, and gave himself for me.

Getting victory over anxiety – Part 4

This final principle may be the most essential of all when it comes to gaining victory over anxiety. I like to call Psalm 37 the “don’t worry Psalm.” Three times in Psalm 37 we are told not to worry (37:1, 7, 8).

The New Living Translation captures the opening verses well.

Don’t worry about the wicked or envy those who do wrong. For like grass they soon fade away. Like spring flowers they soon wither. Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires (Psalm 37:1-4).

The approach of this Psalm to anxiety is different from any of the passages we had studied previously. The apostle Peter reminded us to focus on the Word not our feelings (1 Peter 5:7). The apostle Paul told us to give greater efforts to how we pray and think (Phil. 4:6, 8). In this Psalm, King David combats worry with one’s ever increasing delight in the Lord (Psa. 37:4).

When we delight in something it consumes our thinking. We find joy simply letting our mind dwell on that person. Yet, the worrier finds that his thoughts and actions are consumed with what he is worrying about, and they don’t bring him joy. He needs something else to delight in.

I have found that most worriers really don’t want to be that way. In fact, often they desire relief from the anxiety. So much so that relief from the anxiety starts to consume their thinking and their conversations; distracting them further from delighting in the Lord.

I articulate this final principle in this way: Desire God more than you desire relief from the anxiety. Don’t simply try to get rid of the anxiety, give your greater effort to loving God well. Delight in him!

The Bible teaches that if we desire anything more than God we are an idolater (Ex. 20:3-4). Perhaps you thought that you needed a figure made of silver and gold to be an idolater. But King Belshazzar didn’t need figurines; he just flat-out worshipped the silver and gold (Dan. 5:4). Ezekiel the prophet pointed out that you didn’t need carved images in your living room to be an idol worshipper; you could actually have idols in your heart (Eze. 14:1-5). Think about that, a hidden desire, tucked away where no one could see it, but God. According to the Bible all you need to be an idolater is a strong desire for something other than God.

If our all-consuming desire has become “relief from anxiety” then it signals an idolatry problem. And the best way to combat an idolatry problem is to delight oneself in the true and living God.

Start with a list of the qualities of God (https://philmoser.com/2012/03/23/the-character-of-god-from-a-to-z/). Study them. Mediate upon them. Delight in them.

You will discover that it’s difficult to truly dwell upon the goodness of God, while at the same time giving your mind to the things you worry about. Something will have to go. Which will it be?

Getting victory over anxiety — Part 3

There are certain things in this life which we can control, and others which God alone is to handle. For instance, while we are to control how we respond to others, we cannot control how they respond to us (Rom. 12:18).  We are to control how we react to authority, but we can’t control how they react to us (Rom. 13:17).

Those who struggle with worry have a tendency to be anxious about the things they can’t control. In so doing, their attention is often diverted from the things they can (and should) control.

That is why, for the one who is anxious, this second principal is so important. Change your mind, not your circumstances.

God controls your circumstances (Dan. 4:34-35), but he expects you to control your mind (Phil. 4:8). So if you struggle with worry, you will have to change the way you think.

The worrier has a tendency to let his mind run wild. Like a scared child running in a dark forest, every shadow is a potential enemy.  The anxious person tends to believe that if he can think about something in advance he can avoid it. Yet, God controls our circumstances, we need to bring our thoughts captive, and trust him with our future.

I have found one verse to be the most helpful in the retraining of the worrier’s thought patterns.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things (Phil. 4:8)

Years ago I realized that the 8 qualities within this verse were to set the parameters on my thinking. If something was true, honorable, or right I could dwell on it. If it was not, I should not. This is great help for the one who worries. Most of what we worry about doesn’t actually come to pass, hence it is not true.

Perhaps you are thinking, “But the things I am worrying about actually could come to pass.” Yes, but they haven’t, and the worrier usually thinks about events in the future with certainty not possibility. He tends to think about future things as if they are true, when in fact they have not and quite possibly will not, occur.

I like to imagine that these 8 qualities were intended to form the parameters on my thinking. They are 8 walls within in which I am given complete freedom to think. Within those 8 walls it is impossible to jeopardize my communion with God.  Unfortunately, you and I often desire riskier thinking.

The picture of a stop sign served as a great reminder to control my thinking. It is good when I’m thinking within the parameters. When I am not, it is good to say, “Stop! Think on these things.”

By the way, anxious thoughts cannot occur inside the parameters. So come on now, “Stop! Think on these things.”

For additional thoughts on the subject go to: https://philmoser.com/2011/11/18/the-effect-of-scripture-on-the-mind/

Getting victory over anxiety — Part 2

When we choose to battle our anxiety we soon realize that it isn’t simply a battle with anxious feelings, but also with anxious thoughts. You will not see victory over the ingrained habits of worry without addressing the way you think (Phil. 4:8).

I refer to this second principle as: change your mind, not your circumstances. Most of us have very little control over our circumstances. You didn’t determine the family into which you would be born. Whether heart disease or cancer may run in your DNA is something over which you have no control. The downward pressure of the economy on your 401K is something outside of your control. Sometimes an employer’s decision to keep you or release you may not even be tied to your performance.

While you cannot change those circumstances you can change the way you think about them. God encourages us to do so (Phil. 4:6-8).

Here are a few ways you need to change your thinking.

You need to change how you think about worry (Phil. 4:6).

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:5, 6).

The phrase “do not be anxious about anything” is in the imperative mood. Simply put, it is a command. That means we shouldn’t see it as optional. Most of us wouldn’t get up in the morning with the intention of breaking 5 of the 10 commandments. But the command, “do not be anxious about anything” is one we don’t take quite so seriously. We need to.

When we worry, we ought to repent and ask forgiveness from the Lord for it. We need to acknowledge the truth that he had provided a way out, we just chose not to take it (1 Cor. 10:13).

As we think the same thought repeatedly, we develop the habit of thinking it intuitively. It just naturally happens. After a while it begins to feels like it’s something that is happening to us, but really it is just the habitual way we have grown accustomed to thinking about challenges. We worry, as opposed to trust God.

This is so important to understand. We are still responsible for our thoughts when we break God’s command about anxiety. We don’t get a pass, just because they have become habitual.

To gain victory, you will need to change how you think about worry. It wasn’t something that just happened. It was something you chose to do.

You need to change how you think about prayer (Phil 4:6).

When it comes to anxiety, most people see prayer as a last-ditch effort. Usually, we try to handle the difficulty on our own. But, it begins to feel overwhelming. We start to worry. When all else fails…we pray.

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:5, 6).

There are three additional words in this verse that shape out the way we should think about prayer: supplication, thanksgiving, and requests.

The word supplication speaks of one’s neediness. We come to the Lord with a spirit of humility that acknowledges our great need. Not just our struggle with the thing we’re worrying about at the moment, but our daily need on the Lord for all things. (Go here for a helpful article on learning to pray with 24/7 dependence https://philmoser.com/2012/02/21/give-us-this-day-our-daily-bread/).

We need God, not just relief from our circumstances.

Thanksgiving means that we express our gratitude to the Lord through prayer. When you only make your prayer about the thing you’re worrying about, you strip out of your prayer a tremendous resource: a grateful heart. If you don’t feel thankful, revisit the end of verse 5. It reminds you the Lord is at hand. God has not left you alone in your struggle. Start by thanking him for that.

Notice that your requests come last in this listing. This is by God’s design. You need to develop more fully your pattern of prayer. Another way to say this is: Prayer should be your pattern, not your panic button.

When you are praying in a more complete way, you will find that prayer becomes your replacement for worry. When you worry, you try to figure life out on your own. When you pray, you invite God’s strength, wisdom, and sovereign love into the equation.

Getting Victory over Anxiety – Part 1

Anxiety. Most of us have felt it at one time or another: the fear of future events that may or may not come to pass. We’re nervous. We’re anxious. We worry.

Jesus spoke about anxiety in his sermon on the mount. Six times he used the word anxious. Each time he encouraged us to trust our heavenly Father (Matt. 6:25-34)

Three other Biblical passages are very helpful when developing a plan to battle anxiety (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6; Psalm 37: 1-5).

Peter wrote to a group of people who were suffering. They were being persecuted for their faith – even to the point of death. They had every human reason imaginable to be anxious.

Yet, in less than a dozen words he reminds them what to do with their anxiety.

Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)

If you like to fish, the word casting brings an image to mind. You feel the weight of the lure bouncing at the end of the rod. You make the cast, and begin retrieving the lure. That may work for fishing, but it is ineffective with anxiety. You’re not to retrieve the anxiety once you cast it. The Biblical word means to cast away. You’re supposed to give it to the Lord with no strings attached. You don’t retrieve those anxious thoughts so that you may start to worry over them again (I’ll talk about what you should do tomorrow).

There is a principle tucked in this verse that we have a tendency to forget. When it comes to anxiety we need to believe God’s Word over our feelings. When you experience difficulties that lead to anxiety, you might feel like God doesn’t care. Those feelings may be intense. You might feel confused: unable to understand how you can suffer if God really cares.

Yet, God’s unchanging Word stands opposed to what we feel at the time. It explicitly states: “God cares for you.” This isn’t blind faith that cast one’s anxieties on an invisible God; rather, it is reasonable faith to place one’s confidence in the unchanging Word of God instead of one’s ever-changing emotions.

So when feelings of anxiety begin to consume your thinking, learn to cast those anxieties upon the Lord. Remember, he wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it…God cares for you.

4 Ways God is at work whether you like it or not…

Way #1: God intentionally guides your steps by helping you recognize your ignorance.

If we take the Bible at face value we immediately come to the conclusion that we don’t know as much as God. It was this understanding that caused Job to say he wouldn’t speak in God’s presence, only listen (Job 50:3-5).

When I was a student and I recognized I didn’t know something my hand went up. My curiosity with subjects where I was ignorant had me looking for answers. The one with a teachable spirit comes with a desire to learn. David had this in the 25th Psalm.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the daylong (Psalm 25:4-5).

Way #2: God actively shapes your desires by not giving you what you want.

The writer of Psalm 73 was jealous of the wicked. The wrongdoer had been able to accomplish his objectives even though he took advantage of others to do it. But, surprisingly, something happens towards the end of the Psalm. Because the Psalmist’s selfish desires were not satisfied, his desires changed. He discovered what it was like to desire only God.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:25-26).

In a world where Wal-Mart makes everything available at one low price, it’s a little hard to grasp this concept. Yet, when God withholds our earthly desires from us, we have a greater tendency to desire things of eternal value. This is the truth that Christians in third world countries have already grasped – it explains the smiles on their faces when they have so few earthly goods.

Way #3: God purposefully strengthens your faith by allowing you to feel your weaknesses.

No one argues this point as clearly as the apostle Paul. Three times he had asked the Lord to remove his thorn in the flesh. After that third request he heard from the Lord. While the answer was not what he had prayed for, he didn’t flee from his weaknesses he embraced them.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

Paul is OK with feeling weak; because, it increased his faith in the God who is strong.

Way #4: God graciously fosters your eternal perspective as you live among temporary injustices.

There are things in this world that do not seem fair or just. One man does time for a crime he never committed, and another commits a vile crime and is never brought to justice. Justice will always be imperfect in a fallen world. But while we grieve with those who are victims of injustice, we acknowledge that injustices in this world are temporary and they get us longing for another land and another time. Our attention should be drawn heavenward. There things are right. There justice is true.  

For people…make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…as it is they desire a better country that is a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Heb. 4:14, 16).

It is good to serve a God who can take our ignorance, weaknesses, unfulfilled desires, and perceived injustices, and, using these, make us more like Jesus.