Promises and Plans

Just when we think we understand God’s plan for our lives, He sometimes takes us the opposite way than we would expect.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Gen. 22:8 (NIV)

“Now there was a famine in the land… The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live.” Gen. 26:1-2 (NIV)

The Lord had promised an heir to Abraham and had miraculously brought it to pass.  But He made it clear that even though Isaac was a key figure in His plan, and even though he was the long-awaited fulfillment of a promise, it still was not all about Isaac. Flying in the face of logic, which would dictate that the precious promised one should be protected at all costs, the Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice him. When Abraham, in faith, went through the steps of doing so, right up to the last second, the Lord stopped him and reiterated His promise to bless the world through his offspring.

Fast-forward to the time when Isaac was an adult, married with children — the seed of the promise and the carrying out of God’s plan. Once again, logic would dictate protecting them and providing for them in whatever way was practical.  But when famine came to the land, the Lord instructed Isaac not to take the prudent course of taking refuge in Egypt, but to stay in the land where He had told them to live. When Isaac obeyed, He again reiterated the promise of blessing through the offspring.

Abraham and Isaac both seemed to understand an important concept here — it was important to keep listening to the Lord even after He had delivered on His promise, and even after He had set His plan in motion. When He promises us something, and especially when that promise or that plan involves a period of waiting, our faith can be built by the process as we learn to trust Him.  However, if the focus of that faith shifts off the Lord and onto the promise, or the plan, then we can be in danger of going astray after its completion.

This is usually right at the point where we think we are “safe.” The long-awaited answer to prayer is delivered, or the wheels finally begin to turn on the new ministry or venture, and things appear to be just as they should be. This is not the time to get complacent, though. Just as Abraham needed to understand that he could not hold on to the son for which he waited such a long time, and just as Isaac needed to understand that his safety lay in obedience to the Lord and not necessarily in what he thought was the best course of action, we need to understand that the important thing in our lives is our relationship to the Lord, not the circumstances we have so longed for.

It’s never about the promise or the plan; it’s always about the Promiser and the Planner.

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Of Precious Stones and Well-Watered Gardens

Gold-Doors-Mysore-Palace-India

Gold-Doors-Mysore-Palace-India (Photo credit: Keith “Captain Photo” Cuddeback)

The land of Havilah, back in the days of Eden, was known for gold, pearls and onyx.  It was watered by the river Pishon (meaning “increase, overflowing”), which wound through, or encircled, the entire land (thus the name Havilah, or “circle”). (Genesis 2:10-12; all Scriptures in this post taken from the NIV)

Bear with me here, but this brings to my mind Isaiah 54:11-12, where the LORD promises to build up Jerusalem after it has fallen, saying, “I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.”

I know, I know, tenuous connection at best, but it’s how my mind works.  But thinking about the Isaiah passage made me realize that the LORD knows all about precious stones, gold and jewels.  And, that, in fact, He considers them excellent building materials. Keep in mind, this passage isn’t just talking about building the physical city, but has a larger context of figuratively building up His people, who were afflicted and storm-tossed by invasion and exile.

That’s a nice history lesson, with a smattering of geology, but what does this mean for us today?

The world around us may have changed drastically since the days of Eden, and even since the relatively more recent time of the exile of the Jews to Babylon, but the LORD hasn’t changed; He is still in the business of building.  Take Philippians 1:6, for example: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

And then there’s 1 Peter 2:5: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Just as Nehemiah led his people in repairing the walls of Jerusalem, one section, one brick at a time, each of us is a living stone in the spiritual house God is creating.  And He doesn’t build with junk.  He is building His Church.  He is also building into each of our lives, and He always builds with precious, costly and beautiful things.

Now here’s where the needle scratches on the record for me, abruptly ending the soaring and inspirational strains of gilt-edged wonder I feel rising in my mind when I consider these things.  Because frankly, when I look at my life, I don’t see precious stones.  I don’t see how he has adorned me, clothed me and called me His Beloved.  I know it to be true, I believe it has already been accomplished by His sacrifice for my sins on the cross, but I don’t see it in my day to day life.  What I do see is a body encumbered with the results of stress eating and too little exercise.  I see a critical, petty mindset.  I see selfishness, self-centeredness and desire for comfort. I see lack of discipline.

And so, with these thoughts of walls of precious stones in mind, I cry out to the LORD.  I ask Him how my life can reflect what He is building instead of the results of a lifetime of being human and imperfect.  And then my thoughts turn from precious stones to fruit, as I ask Him to produce in my life His fruit, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and, especially in my case, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

Now I have lived long enough, and walked as a Christian long enough, to know that no amount of resolve and teeth-gritting on my part will establish self-control, or any other fruit for that matter, firmly in my life.  I cannot will this fruit to grow. There are no seven effective habits or 12 steps I can take to make it appear, although once it starts to grow, those habits and steps can be helpful.  It is fruit.  It has to grow, out of fertile ground, unencumbered by disobedience, sin and pride.  I have to surrender to the Spirit completely and take my hands out of the way.

And I really, really need this fruit to grow. I need my life to match what I know to be true in God’s Kingdom, His view of me. I need to see some precious stones in evidence instead of wood, hay and straw. The dichotomy between living like an orphan, snatching, hoarding and surviving at all costs, when I am in fact a beloved child, a joint heir with Christ and part of a royal priesthood, is tearing me apart.

So how do I make fruit grow?  Trick question, because the whole point here is that it’s the Spirit who makes His fruit grow, not me.  But there must be something I can do, at the very least, to get out of the way and encourage it.

Well, there’s always watering.  You water a garden to help it grow, right?  So then, how does one water the garden of the Spirit?  With a watering can?  That smacks of slavery in Egypt.  With the rain of many tears?  That smacks of exile in Babylon. Yet those are the first methods we tend to turn to — heaping up works and lugging around a litany of do’s and don’ts for the Effective Christian Life. Then when that fails, we turn to weeping, wailing and mourning over our lack of ability to get it right, comporting ourselves like convicted criminals despite the fact that our sins have been paid for.  And that doesn’t work very effectively either.

Then it occurs to me that the most effective method of watering was in the Garden of Eden: “…streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.”  Gen. 2:6.  The most effective method of watering is to plant the seed right where the water is.

So how do I do this, spiritually speaking, with my problem of wanting more fruit of the Spirit to grow? Jeremiah 17:7-8 gives a good answer (emphasis mine):

River Itchen - Winchester

“But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.  He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Psalm 1:1-3 also gives a good answer (emphasis mine):

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.  But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

There’s my answer – I water my garden, encouraging the fruit of the Spirit to grow, by trusting in the LORD rather than trusting in man or depending on flesh for my strength (Jer. 17:5).

And I also water my garden by staying in constant contact with His Word.  Not just reading it, but thinking about it, pondering it throughout the day, letting it seep into my being, memorizing it, studying it, pursuing answers to questions that arise no matter how trivial they may seem.  The more I trust in Him and allow my thought process to be inundated with the living Word of the Creator, the more my mind is renewed and the more I become transformed.  (Rom. 12:2)  The more I try to produce the fruit of the Spirit by my own power, however, the more I end up with legalism, frustration and the works of the flesh. (Gal. 5:19-21)

So if I want to see the evidence of the wonderful building that God has crafted in my life, I must be planted by a stream.  Or like the land of Havilah (“circle”), where gold was good and pearls and onyx were found, where the Pishon (“increase, overflowing”) river flowed, (yes, I finally came back to that) I must be encircled by an overflowing, increasing flood that originates directly from His throne.