Take Care Lest You Forget

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you–with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant–and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Deuteronomy 6:10-12 (ESV)

Before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, they paused.  Moses had one last set of instructions to give them.

This would have driven me crazy. When I am poised to enter a promised opportunity or path the Lord has shown me, I don’t generally want to wait around.  I want to rush in the minute I am aware that the Lord is beginning to move me in that direction, full of my own expectations of what is ahead, not bothering to be still, wait and listen to His instruction.

Which is precisely why I have been disappointed so many times that I now cringe whenever the word “promise” comes up.  Not that He is unfaithful to His word.  But I run out the door before He has even finished His sentence, thinking I know what He has in store because I caught a few words, confident that my overactive imagination can supply the rest of the plan.

But it’s all in the details with God.  It’s the ONE thing He puts in front of us, the ONE person He asks us to minister to, the ONE attitude He asks us to change.  It’s never everything at once.  We never see the big picture right away.  And His way never involves fudging the corners, putting a shiny cover on it and shrugging it off by saying it’s “close enough for jazz.”

In Genesis 4:3-5, Cain’s sacrifice was not acceptable.  It looked like a nice sacrifice, but his heart was not in the right place when he put it together, so God was not pleased with it.

In Leviticus 10:1-2, Aaron’s eldest two sons were burnt up with holy fire because they got creative on their first day on the job in the Tabernacle and decided to offer incense in a way not specified by God.

In 1 Samuel 2:6-7, Uzzah was killed because he reached out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant; they had missed the detail where you don’t load the Ark on a cart.

So why do I think I can skip the details, or add my own expectations, or assume there’s nothing more to it than what my eye can see?  Why do I think I don’t need to seek Him for further instructions once the first clear word is spoken?

To make matters worse, those vital last instructions are usually nothing like what I’m expecting.

And so it was with the Israelites.  You would think the instructions would simply be not to fear, to fight well against the giants, to build a temple once they got there — some tip about the winning the impending battles, at the very least. And those things were covered, eventually, but Moses’ first instruction in this address, after He covered loving the LORD first, and after reminding them to teach this to their children, was that they needed to be careful not to forget where they came from and Who it was that rescued them from it.

Because the LORD knows us, and He knows that a little prosperity can instantly go to our heads, and that we very quickly fall into an attitude of entitlement.  So before it even started, He wanted to make sure they understood the dangers inherent in the blessing.  He wanted to make sure that they remembered that they didn’t plant those vineyards and dig those wells and build those cities, because the minute they started to take credit where credit wasn’t due, they would think they could turn their eyes from Him and worship more convenient, portable gods.  The cool gods that “everyone else” was worshiping.

When poised on the brink of something new, I’m so concerned about whether my expectations are going to be met.  I’m so sensitive about my agenda not being considered, about being disappointed again (conveniently forgetting that I made those expectations up out of whole cloth in the first place). Rather than trying not to disappoint me, however, the LORD is far more concerned that I not spoil the blessing He has prepared for me.  He is far more concerned that I remember His mighty works, that I remember that he has defeated my enemies and moved them aside and that there but for the grace of God go I. Because like the Israelites, if I lose hold of gratitude, if I forget that I got where I am because of His hand and that I can claim little more than somewhat nearsighted and reluctant obedience as my contribution to the situation, I will get my eyes off Him and start to look for the short-term thrill, the enticing quick fix, the controllable pleasure.

There are giants in the land, yes.  But the ones with which I need to concern myself the most are the ones inside my own foolish heart.

A Table In The Presence Of My Enemies

I recently experienced a few months of physical incapacity due to a mysterious condition that caused sudden blood pressure drops, chest pains, dizziness and faintness.  After visiting many doctors and having many tests run, I was still no closer to knowing the cause of my illness; in fact, every test proved that I was very healthy.  And yet every day, about two hours after I got out of bed, I would suddenly have to sit down to prevent myself from keeling over, and then would fight exhaustion and dizziness for the rest of the day.

I am no stranger to dealing with a mysterious, debilitating condition. Three years ago I was healed after suffering for 25 years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  That’s a story for another post, but at least when these episodes started, I knew how to deal with living with a limit.  I asked for prayer. I dropped out of all but essential activities. I cut down on caffeine.  I exercised gently.  I asked for more prayer.  I took vitamins.  I made sure I got enough sleep.  I drank plenty of water.  I ate right.  This all helped, because anyone can benefit from doing good things for their body, but the episodes didn’t go away.   The doctors kept scratching their heads; to their credit, they all agreed that there was something wrong and didn’t write me off as a hypochondriac.  They just couldn’t figure out what it was.

In the middle of this trial, one phrase kept coming to me.  It got to the point that any time I asked for prayer, I pretty much expected it to come out of the mouth of the person praying.  That phrase was “Rest in Me.”  So I started searching the Scriptures for passages about rest.  The first one I came to was in the Psalms:

“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. … My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest– I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”  Psalm 55:1, 6-8 (NIV)

That passage completely expressed the condition of my heart.  I felt that if I could just go find a retreat center somewhere in the desert and stay there for a month, I would get better.  I yearned for that rest with all of my being.  With four kids to homeschool, I knew it was an impossibility, but I yearned for it just the same.  It took a few days of mulling over that passage, of crying out to the Lord, “Yes, Lord!  This is what I feel!” before I realized that this passage did not describe God’s idea of rest.   This was man’s idea of rest — to escape the storm, to hide out somewhere and ride it out until it was over.  To take a vacation.

God’s idea of rest is different from that.

Verse 22 of the same Psalm says “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.”  His rest is a sustaining rest.  His rest does not require us to escape the storm; it’s a rest that comes in the middle of the storm.  Psalm 23:5 says “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  It says nothing about the enemies going away.  The sustaining help comes in the very presence of the enemies.  I picture a table set with white linen and fine china in the middle of a battlefield.  God doesn’t need to pull you out of the battle to sustain you — He can do it right there.

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…”(Isaiah 30:15 NIV).  God wants us to enter His rest.  He provided for it in His law, giving it prominence as one of the Ten Commandments, and He has promised to give it to us when we take on His yoke: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matt 11:28-30 NIV)  

The Israelites who were led out of Egypt missed entering His rest because they were afraid to cross over the Jordan and take possession of the land He had promised them; they were afraid of the giants.  They trusted their own appraisal of the situation more than they trusted the God who had led them thus far.

We are no better, missing His rest because we refuse to trust Him with the giants in our own lives. We obey nine out of ten commandments, ignoring the one about the Sabbath in the name of “living under grace instead of the law.”  (Taking that train of thought to its logical conclusion, living under grace must also mean it’s also okay to murder, covet, lie and worship idols.)  Which is bad enough, disobeying God’s commandment, but the truth is it just doesn’t work.  When we do not trust God to be our portion, thinking it is so important that we accomplish all the tasks to which we set our hands and not believing there is any other way to do it than to “rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2 ESV), we get so burned out we no longer have even adrenaline to fall back upon.  We begin at that point to look for rest, only to find that we have scheduled it out of our lives.

The truth is, if the yoke you are carrying is that heavy, it can’t possibly be the one God has given you.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light.  You must be carrying someone else’s yoke.   You must be fighting your own battles instead of stepping out of the way and allowing God to fight them as He had intended all along.  You are missing His rest, and that has far worse consequences than we like to consider in the “grace-living, blinkers on, don’t tell me what the Word says because I’m doing my Christianity according to what is socially correct” mindset we so easily slip into.  Missing His rest is a point of disobedience.  An entire generation of Israelites died in the desert because they refused to take His rest.  God is not shrugging and smiling indulgently when He watches us plow our lives into the ground, saying, “Oh yes, well, you should slow down a little there.”  He is standing in our path, grabbing our faces in His hands, looking into our eyes and saying, “I can’t do what I want to do through you until you change the way you are living.”

Did you hear that?

I can’t do what I want to do through you until you change the way you are living.

It may not be WHAT we are doing that is the problem.  It’s the way we are doing it, the attitude that it’s all up to me, that I should jump first and ask for direction later.

The second generation of desert-roaming Israelites learned, when they finally did enter the Promised Land, that God was fighting the battles.  They just had to show up.  Sometimes they didn’t even have to draw their swords.  They learned that their salvation was in repentance and rest, that their strength was in quietness and trust.

The end of my own story is that after three months of enforced rest,  I began to understand that I needed to change my attitude. I realized that I needed to take my fingers out of all the pies and let others take care of some things.  I stopped volunteering for things simply because I was able to fill the position. Instead, I asked the Lord each day to show me what He was doing and what part He wanted me to play in it.  Sometimes He told me His Kingdom lay in doing the laundry.  Sometimes He “hijacked” my day and brought people to my house unexpectedly, sent me on missions of mercy or set up divine appointments for conversations where I would find myself telling a person the very thing they needed to hear.

I also began to schedule the Sabbath back into my life.  It wasn’t a legalistic, sundown-on-Friday to sundown-on-Saturday, get the neighbors to come turn the lights on for me kind of a Sabbath.  That’s where the living under grace comes into play; not in whether I bother to keep the Sabbath, but in how uptight I get about the details.  Some weeks it was on a Saturday, some weeks it was on a Sunday, depending on ministry, activities and family schedules. But each week I would consciously put aside the day not just to take a break, but to worship, study the Word, enjoy the life He has given me and fellowship with His people.  It began to occur to me that I could attend church each week, but if my heart and mind were not engaged before I got there, and if I did not carry home with me the things He had spoken through the pastor, I was not keeping the Sabbath at all.  I was merely putting on a show.

And then one Sunday, after experiencing another episode as soon as I stood up to worship at church, I went to the prayer room and asked a pastor for prayer, not just for my health, but for a change in attitude, a letting go of the old way of doing things where the only time I gave myself permission to rest was when my feet were swept out from under me by illness.

And that was the end of that.  The doctors are still scratching their heads, or perhaps heaving a sigh of relief that this is one mystery illness they don’t have to figure out.

And I am entering into His rest.

Of Weeds and Graves

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So the Lord God banished (mankind) from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. Genesis 3:23

Genesis 2:4-22 describes how, in the Garden of Eden, life sprang up from the ground.  Man was made from it, animals were made from it, plants grew up from it. Water sprung up out of it to water the plants. It was the stuff of life, breathed into being by the Creator.   The Lord took man and put him in the Garden to “cultivate it and take care of it,” but it was God who made the life spring forth.

Once man was banished, however, he was outside the life-giving Garden and was sentenced to work a cursed ground, one that produced thorns and thistles, one that required “painful toil” and “sweat of the brow.”  As if that weren’t bad enough, God told Adam that he would wrestle with this ground until the day he died, at which point he would return to it.

He was fated to spend his life digging in his own grave.

This is not what God had intended. He had intended for the man to “cultivate it and take care of it,” not wrestle with it and die in it.

We still live under the physical curse of weeds and graves.  No question there — it’s hard to make things grow.  A farmer’s lot is a tough one.  By extension, it’s also hard to make a living for those of us who are not farmers.  Life is just difficult much of the time.  We’re still wrestling, and we still die. But since that is not what God intended, He has provided a remedy.  Certainly, in order to produce the food we need to live, we may still have to dig in the dirt from which we come and to which we will return, but there is more to us than the physical, short-term life in which we live at the moment.  We are, in the words of John Mayer, “bigger than our bodies.”  We are eternal beings.  And so far more important, although less immediately obvious when one’s vision is obscured by the weeds and rocks of life, is the spiritual, eternal part of us. Since He created us, God never lost sight of that fact, and it is in that arena that He provided the remedy when Christ died for us.

“For freedom Christ has set us free….” Gal 5:1a

The original plan in the Garden was for mankind to cultivate the land (abad in the original Hebrew),  and keep it (shamar).  Abad is the same word that is used later for the concept of serving, in the sense of serving a king, serving God or serving as a Levite in the Temple. Mankind was to serve the land.  Once sin entered the picture and corrupted the purpose, he became a slave of the land — an entirely different thing.  Shamar has a sense of guarding, protecting and preserving.  It can also mean to be on one’s guard, to take heed or take care. Unfortunately, Adam did not shamar. He was not taking care, nor was he protecting the Garden.  The serpent walked right in and messed with Eve’s mind without Adam even noticing, and then when he did see what was going on, he carelessly went right along with it.  The result of this was the grave-digging, the slavery, and the separation from God.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Going back to Galatians 5:1, we can see this concept echoed in the remainder of the verse “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.”

Because Christ has set us free, we can return to that original purpose, to cultivate life, not in the dirt, but springing up in the spiritual and eternal soil of our hearts.  We can choose to make ourselves servants of the living God rather than being forced into a yoke of slavery to sin.  We choose it by accepting his remedy – Christ’s death on the cross in our place.  We live in freedom by never losing sight of the important and eternal no matter how many weeds and dirt clods infest the path before us.  We lay down our life of slavery and live instead for His kingdom, the hidden kingdom that exists in the hearts of those who know and love Him.

But just as before the fall, Adam’s mission was to cultivate and guard the Garden, we must also guard our hearts and minds and stand firm against the lies of the Enemy.

We either live as servants of the Most High, serving His Kingdom by cultivating life in our hearts and with each other, or we live as slaves to sin, trying to coax whatever short-lived pleasure we can out of lives beset with the troubles of a fallen world.

We either protect the life that He has planted in our hearts by refusing to identify with and live under a mantle of sin, or we grasp at everything we can for ourselves, hoarding any good thing we come across, protecting what we deem as “ours,” and miss the freedom of sharing our lives, our resources and our time with others.  Even worse, we miss the multiplication of life and love that results when hearts are open and connected.  We miss the springing up that was the original plan. We are left with the dirt, the weeds and the grave.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery. Gal 5:1

Do not be distressed…

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Genesis 45:4-5

“…do not be distressed and angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”

When Joseph said this to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery many years before, it was the ultimate letting off the hook. Joseph saw what we so often forget — even when someone hurts us, God is still in control.  God is still able to work in circumstances even when they are brought about by sin.

The history of God’s “chosen people” up to this point is full of sin; lying, trickery, manipulation and unbelief. But God is still intent on His purpose and continues to work through His chosen people, even despite their imperfections. He did not choose them because they were perfect — He does not reject them because of their imperfections.

And so it is with us.  We think we have to do everything right to stay in His graces, forgetting that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, thinking that we can disqualify ourselves from His presence with our sin, not understanding that it is only by His grace that we are allowed into His presence in the first place.  And it is our misunderstanding of this concept that causes us to have such trouble with forgiving each other.

When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he wasn’t just concerned that they knew he had forgiven them. He wanted to make sure that they forgave themselves. What a foreshadowing of Christ’s cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

When we find ourselves wronged, it is so easy to focus on the pain, the unfairness, the injustice of it all.  That focus, if kept for too long, can till the soil for a root of bitterness and unforgiveness.  Or we can choose, as Joseph did, to let God work through our lives after the event, forgiving those who caused it so thoroughly that we find ourselves concerned in the end with their own state of heart.  That is the working of God’s grace; no amount of self-control or willpower on our parts can achieve such a lofty goal.  And only as we remember what a huge debt we ourselves have had forgiven can we even begin to operate in His grace.

Broad Places

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Genesis 26:19-22 gives the account of Isaac’s herdsmen quarreling with the Philistines over some wells he had dug. He named those wells “Esek,” or “Dispute,” and “Sitnah,” or “Opposition.”  When he finally dug a well that they didn’t quarrel over, he named it “Rehoboth.”  One might logically suppose that this name means something like “peace,” but it doesn’t.  It means “room.”  After he named it, he said, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.”

This brings to mind two thoughts — one is that sometimes you move on from battles instead of trying to win them.  It’s better for everyone that way, even though you may be giving up some of your “rights” in doing so.

The other is that open spaces seem to be symbolic of blessing and prosperity in Scripture.  Why is this?  Why does Jabez, in 1 Chron. 4:10, ask for his boundaries to be enlarged?  Why do Psalm 18:19 and 31:8 and Job 36:6 use the image of “broad” places to symbolize rescue, deliverance and prosperity?

According to Isaac, when we have room, we can prosper.  The point to him in digging the well wasn’t that he had outwitted his opponents.  It was that he had room to flourish.  Herds need room — more room than just what they can stand in.  They need to move around.  Apparently, so do we.

Which brought me to the conclusion that when we hem ourselves in with self-inflicted boundaries, we prevent our own growth. Narrow thinking, disbelief, strongholds of misunderstanding, ignorance or offense, unforgiveness, pride and stubbornness, instead of being the walls that protect us from harm, become the straight-jacket that keeps us mired in our misery. We become our own opposing herdsmen, fighting with ourselves over things from our past that simply need to be acknowledged, named and then left behind. We need to move forward into wide open spaces.

When we leave behind the contention we can open our hearts and minds to the possibility that God’s view of our lives is much farther reaching than we can imagine. We see that He wants only our good, only to bless us and to allow us to participate in the work He is doing.  We see that He has prepared good works in advance for us to do and that those works might very well lie in an area into which we have never ventured before.  When we live in the freedom of trusting Him to protect us, to deal with our past, to handle the things over which we have no control, then we start to see how much room we have to move.  Then He can truly prosper us.  Then He causes His life to spring up within us and flow out of us.  And then we understand the value of accepting his daily bread, His “now-blessing,” rather than reaching for something that may not be His plan for us and may not be worth fighting over in the first place.

He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me. Psalm 18:19