Out Of Our Depth

English: Ocean waves

English: Ocean waves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing in church today, singing along with the congregation, I suddenly glanced around and watched the those around me, belting out, with all their hearts and souls, the words from the song “Oceans” by Hillsong:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

It was a moment of corporate devotion, and since I personally knew a lot of those around me, I knew that they absolutely meant every word they were singing.  They weren’t just singing along.  Their body language, their fervor, and the way they live their lives outside of the church service all tell me that this song was echoing a cry of their heart.  It has been the cry of my own heart for years, and being able to sing it in the company of others who felt the same way brought tears to my eyes.

But oh, how I wanted to get up on the mic and offer them a warning.  “Brothers, sisters, are you counting the cost?  Because you may well get what you are asking for here.”

Not that I would suggest for a moment that someone should not pray this prayer.  I think more prayers should be this challenging, this fervent, this heart-surrendering.  No, I am all for the singing and praying of verses like this. I have spent most of my life doing so.

But when we do pray something like this, it is important to count the cost.   If we have not counted the cost, then when the Lord answers our prayer, and leads us “deeper than our feet would ever wander,” we run the risk of missing the strengthening of our faith.

Because it is relatively easy, when surrounded by fellow saints and caught up in worship, to cry out to the Lord, ‘Yes, Lord! Send me! Call me! Bring it on! Let my faith in You be strengthened!”   Certainly, it can still be a struggle, but let’s assume for the moment that we have reached the point where we are hungry for more than just social Christianity, more than just Church attendance, more than just a declaration of belief.  We are ready to be challenged, knowing that we could be going so much deeper in our understanding, our service and our devotion to Christ.

This is a good thing.  This is a very, very good thing.

But here’s the warning: This FIRST step is not the LAST step. It’s just the first one.  And each subsequent step is just as, if not more, challenging than the one before.

I say this not to discourage anyone from taking that first step, or praying that prayer.  I say this because of all the times I have pleaded with the Lord to take me deeper, only to find myself moaning about circumstances that are trying my faith a little while down the road.

Remember, we prayed that we would be led “deeper than our feet would ever wander.” Think about that for a minute.  That implies that we are asking the Lord to take us to places WE DO NOT NATURALLY WANT TO GO. Because if we wanted to go there, we would eventually wander there of our own accord.

Where is it you do not, absolutely DO NOT want to go?  Strained relationships with loved ones? Sickness in the family? A career or ministry opportunity where you feel totally out of your depth? Financial disaster? Natural disaster?  Think about how hard it would be to be there, in the place you do not want to go, and understand that you just asked the Lord to take you to a place that involves similar not-wanting-to-be-there-ness.

Please understand, I am not saying that if you sing this song, God will strike you down with sickness or make you lose your job or send a hurricane your way.  That would be ludicrous, for many reasons. What I’m saying is, wherever it is the Lord leads you, it will take you outside of your comfort zone, stretch you, show you the areas in which you need to grow, and try your faith to make it stronger.  In all of that, you will most likely come to a point where you FEEL the way any of those situations I listed earlier would make you feel, because, well, He will be leading you somewhere you wouldn’t have chosen to go, and we tend to avoid situations that make us feel that way.

So when you get to that point, if you have not counted the cost and were not expecting it, your first reaction will most likely be to switch to a different song.  Something like, “Rescue me…”  Something along the lines of, “This is all messed up and I want out of it now and I’m sure there’s a Bible verse somewhere that says You have to make it stop.” At that point, you will most likely have completely forgotten that you are right where you asked the Lord to lead you, poised on the brink of going deeper, of having your faith made stronger.

If, however, you have counted the cost, if you have your eyes on Christ rather than the situation, then you will be “in the presence of your Savior.”  In the midst of the most angst-ridden day of your life, you can still be in the presence of your Savior, resting in Him, abiding in Him, trusting in Him. And THAT is where you will suddenly realize you went deeper, and that you hardly recognize your faith, because it has become so strong you no longer worry about the situation, its outcome or your level of stress. You will be reaching out to others from the middle of your need, comforting people with the comfort with which you have been comforted, and hearing things like, “Oh, you’re such a strong person, I could never handle that…”

So sing this song.  Do sing it.  But then don’t forget about it.

And when things start to get uncomfortable, come back and sing it again; it will take on a whole new meaning.

Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)
by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston and Salomon Lighthelm

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

I will call upon Your Name
Keep my eyes above the waves
My soul will rest in Your embrace
I am Yours and You are mine

©2012 Hillsong Music Publishing
CCLI #: 6428767

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The Not So Great Debate

Argue

Argue (Photo credit: fixedgear)

I have recently become a tutor for Classical Conversations, a homeschooling curriculum/ community.  For those of you familiar with CC, I’m directing Challenge II.  For those of you not familiar, it boils down to me meeting with eight 14-16 year olds once a week for six 6 hours and having conversations about a variety of subjects they are learning at home.  And by conversations, I mean, since this is my first year, struggling with myself to not lecture while simultaneously trying to encourage the students to dialogue with the class, and since the class is 3/4 male, about something other than sports.  And since I have the Most Awesome group of Challenge II students in existence, we succeed a lot of the time.

We went over a chart the other day that spells out the difference between debate and dialogue, taken from the book Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland, which he in turn took from a Social Studies textbook published by Saskatchewan Education. It details the fact that while debate is about winning, dialogue is about finding common ground. Debate is oppositional, while dialogue is collaborative.  In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and counter arguments.  In dialogue, one listens to the other side in order to understand, find meaning and find agreement.  Debate affirms a person’s own point of view; dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view.  And the list goes on. After we had gone over the chart, the students spent the rest of the day calling each other out on it: “Wait, is this dialogue going on here or is it debate?  Because it sounds like some DEBATE is going on here…”

I think it would behoove many of us to study this chart. Go ahead, click on the link. It will take you to a pdf; the chart is on pages 5-6.  Print it out.  Stick it on your refrigerator. Because I think we could all use a reminder of the difference between debate and dialogue, and I think we could all benefit if we aimed at the dialogue before the debate.

The thing is, I find myself avoiding posting many overtly Christian statuses on Facebook, not because I’m ashamed of the gospel, but because I cringe at what some of my well-meaning but deluded Christian friends may do in the comments section. It seems to me that far too many who claim to be following Christ are operating under the mistaken assumption that it’s a club sport.  It’s all about being on the winning team.  We are right and you are wrong.  We win and you lose. This works great if you are actually playing a club sport — the teamwork, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the chants and cheers and slogans. Awesome, if you’re trying to win at soccer.

Horrific if you are trying to display the love of God to a hurting world.

Because somehow, coming from a debate mindset makes it acceptable to name-call, to be rude to people you haven’t even met.  It causes you to lower yourself to the level of someone who may be spouting negativity simply because they are hurting so very, very badly, which means they have an excuse… but what is yours? It blurs the lines between religion, politics and what-my-daddy-told-me, while having nothing to do with what the Bible actually says.  A disagreement about a favorite candidate/political issue/social arena somehow gets taken as an attack on the “Christian’s” personal relationship with God. And I do mean those quotation marks around the word Christian, because there is nothing about following Christ that has anything to do with this kind of behavior.

Religion should never look like a team sport. This is what gives the word “religion” a bad name.  This is why many Christians avoid using it, and even avoid using the label “Christian.”  And yet the Bible does talk about religion. It says,

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26 (ESV)

The Greek word for “religious” here is thrēskos, which means,

  1. fearing or worshiping God

  2. to tremble

    1. trembling, fearful (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)

Not much about debating in that definition.   A lot about keeping in mind Who is listening to your every word (and reading your emails).

What is interesting is that the Greek word for “religion” at the end of the verse is not the same word, but a derivative: threskeia.  It has a slightly different connotation:

  1. religious worship

    1. esp. external, that which consists of ceremonies

      1. religious discipline, religion (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)

     

A "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) bracelet

A “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) bracelet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what James is saying here is that if you think you are a God-fearing, God-worshiping Christian, but do not bridle your tongue, then you are deceiving yourself, and your external show of Christianity is worthless. Scrape the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker off the back of your car. Put away the WWJD bracelet. It’s worth absolutely nothing.  You might as well just go to a ballgame on Sunday.

The verse doesn’t just deal with the concept of religion, however; there is actually something about debating in that verse.  It’s pretty clear. Bridle your tongue, i.e.  DON’T DO IT!!

And by debate, here, I mean lashing out and trying to prove that your idea is better than someone else’s idea.  Not that you shouldn’t participate in a formal debate about any issue regarding religion, Christ or anything else.  Because in a formal debate, there are rules, structures and guidelines designed to eliminate our tendency to degenerate into name-calling.  Being able to explain clearly why you believe a certain way about any given topic is a good skill to develop, and a true, formal debate is a good way to develop it.

Facebook, however, and likewise the comment sections on blogs and articles, is not the arena for a formal debate.  Those avenues are excellent places, on the other hand, to practice dialogue.  Can you disagree with someone in a dialogue?  Certainly.  But you do it respectfully.  Can you contradict someone in a dialogue?  Again, of course, but you do it out of a desire to reach a better understanding of what they are saying  rather than to shut them down.  Will everyone else respond to you with the same courtesy?  Probably not. But we have to start somewhere.  And at least we won’t be deceiving ourselves.

And possibly, if we are truly dialoguing, we will communicate to the other person that we value him or her as an individual, rather than attacking him or her as a representative of this or that belief system.  We may even, by listening carefully, with respect and honor, learn something new, something that causes us to rethink our propensity towards jerking our spiritual “knees” every time we hear a certain word or phrase that someone once told us was an awful, awful sin and therefore scary.

Not that sin isn’t scary. It messes people up.  It derails lives. It entices, sells a bag of goods that is nothing like what it was purported to be, and then condemns the person for holding that bag. But sin does not extend to the person. Sin does not become the definition of the person.  The person may be a “sinner,” i.e. someone who sins, but he or she is still a much-loved and desired creation, made by an Almighty God, who valued that person so much He sent His only Son to die in that person’s place. Who desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9) and quite possibly is trying to reach out to that person through us, if He can just get us to get over our list of Buzz Words That Are Evil and bridle our tongues long enough to communicate love.

The Bible has something else to say about religion.  In fact, it’s in the very next verse in the book of James:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27 (ESV)

Again, the word threskeia is used for “religion.” So he’s saying half of your outward form of worship, the thing you display to those around you, rather than your scintillating intellect, rather than your ability to spout memorized arguments, catch phrases of apologetics or slogans you collected off bumper stickers, is to take care of people who need your help.  The other half is to simply keep yourself unstained from the world.  Note it doesn’t say, ‘better than the world” or “insulated by a bubble of Christianliness from the world.” Just unstained.  Let the world’s standards of judgment, attack and one-upmanship roll right off your back.

I think if we all worked a little harder on rising above on the inside while reaching out on the outside, we would find ourselves needing the tools of dialogue far more than we need the tools of debate.

Besides, in a post-Christian, relativistic culture, winning an argument means very little.  Even if you do disprove their belief, your opponent is just as likely to shrug and say, “Whatever, man, I’m still going to believe this,” as he or she is to say, “Forsooth!  At last I see the error of mine ways!” Showing understanding, honor, respect and love to someone, however, goes much further. You may be the only kind words that person has come across that day.

Which is probably why Jesus tended to answer his critics with questions.  He could have silenced every last one of them with his superior understanding of spiritual matters, but He chose not to.  Those of us who claim to be Christ-followers, should, indeed, follow Him in this.

Offering What You Have

Bread!

Bread! (Photo credit: Tim Patterson)

It seems like there is never enough to go around; money is tight, time is stretched, and just when I think I have nothing left to give, a situation arises where I have to come up with more.  So I look into my cache of resources and come up scratching my head, sighing when that all-too-familiar feeling of inadequacy starts to form in the pit of my stomach.  But what if the problem isn’t me and my lack, my imperfection, my sheer limited humanity… what if the problem is that I’m looking in the wrong place for the things I need?

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him,

“Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up,

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:5-14(

It was a problem.  Thousands of people had trekked to a remote place to hear Jesus, it was late, and they needed to eat.  According to Matthew’s recounting of this event, the disciples suggested a very logical and reasonable solution:

“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”  (Matt 14:15)

Now, Jesus had a better, completely illogical solution in mind.  Illogical, that is, if you haven’t yet understood the power of God.  But He didn’t come forth with it right away.  Instead, He asked a question designed to get the disciples thinking:

 “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5)

This was a preposterous question, of course, because even if there had been a baker out in the middle of nowhere with enough bread for over 5000 people, they didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay for it.  In fact, Philip pointed out that eight months wages wouldn’t buy enough for each person to have just one bite.

Jesus knew this, of course.  He was simply nudging them in the right direction, trying to get the wheels turning in their minds to see if anyone would think outside the box. He wanted to see if they would look past the logical and reasonable and remember who was speaking to them.  He wanted to see if they would remember the times in the past when the logical and reasonable were suspended for the miraculous; when the sick were healed, demons were cast out, the dead were raised.  When the storm was calmed. You can almost hear the gears shifting in their heads.

Finally, Andrew came forward with a ridiculous statement.  “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish…” This must have taken some fortitude on his part, because Philip had just described the magnitude of the problem quite vividly.  But Andrew trusted Jesus, and like a student in a classroom who is the first to see where the instructor is heading, he stepped out and tested the waters to see if he was understanding correctly.  And like a student in a classroom, he wasn’t confident enough to leave it with the statement, but turned it into a question.  Just in case he was wrong. “…but how far will they go among so many?”

Still, he had the right idea.  He stopped focusing on what they didn’t have and offered up what they did have, meager as it was.  And that was all it took — Jesus did the rest and multiplied it so that it would meet the need.

When I am in an impossible situation, I usually focus on the problem, the lack or the need.  What if I were to change my view, think outside of the logical and reasonable and focus on what I have, no matter how insufficient it seems?  What if I were to take that $12 in the face of a bill for $900, that ability to do one part of a project in the face of an overwhelming amount of work, that love for my children in the face of a string of days of hurt, disappointment and feeling inadequate, that tiny, sputtering, remaining flame of love in a difficult relationship, what if I were to take those small things, give thanks for them and then, instead of trying myself to make them stretch, what if I were to turn those things over to God and ask Him to multiply them?

Well, then all I would need would be some baskets to pick up the leftovers when He was done!

 

The Freedom To Choose Love

Love hurts

Love hurts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Love is a battlefield.” “Love is a temple.” “Love hurts.” “Love is a many-splendored thing.”  “Love stinks.” “What’s love got to do with it?” Popular songs are full of ideas about love, but what is love, anyway, and why is it so hard to do?

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (NIV)

This is probably one of the most-quoted passages in the Bible, after Psalm 23.  Most of us have heard countless sermons on it, heard it propounded upon at weddings, memorized it in Sunday School, and many have it hanging on a wall in some form of artwork or other.

But I must confess, whenever I come across it, I cringe a little inside.  Because like many of us, some of those sermons I heard preached on this passage recommended that we insert our names in there instead of the word “love.”  This, I suppose, is supposed to be an encouragement to show us how we should live.  A goal to shoot towards.

The problem, however, is that when you do that, you’re messing with Scripture.  Fiddling around with the living, breathing Word of God.  So naturally, it backfires.  And what happens is that this beautiful passage that was written to show us a “more excellent way” is twisted into a checklist.  A to-do list.  One more set of rules to live up to.  The more excellent way turns into condemnation and legalism, but so subtly that many people swallow it whole and think how wonderful it is that God has given us this template to follow to be a more loving person.

And therein they completely miss the point.

You can’t follow a template to love.  Love is not a checklist.  Love is not a to do list.  Love is not a burden.

Because, how many of us, if we were really honest with ourselves, would admit that deep down inside we really feel inadequate in the love department? We just don’t seem to be able to get it right, all the time, and after all, “love never fails,” so we must just need to try harder, love smarter, read more Bible, or grit our teeth a little more.  It’s been a constant prayer of mine for years.  “Lord, just help me to love better.”  Not that that’s a BAD prayer, but I think I was missing the point.

So when I read this passage recently, I suddenly saw it differently.  I was trying to apply it to dealing with difficult people, but before I could get too far down my head-shaking, sigh-heaving road of self-condemnation, the Lord stopped me up short.

“It says ‘love is patient,'” He said.

“Yes, I know,” I wailed.  “I’m so impatient sometimes!  I just can’t do it right…”

He was gentle when He interrupted me.  “But sometimes you are patient with difficult people, right?”

“Well… yes, I guess so,” I replied.

“Good then, you’re doing that.  Keep doing it.  Do it more.  What’s next?”

“Love is kind,” I replied.

“Okay, are you kind to these difficult people?”

“Well, yes, usually I am kind.  I don’t try to be mean, anyway.”

“Great.  You’re doing the kind thing.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.  What else?”

And we went down the list and I suddenly saw that it wasn’t saying I had to do ALL these things, ALL the time, without fail.  It was saying that LOVE is this way.  And that LOVE never fails.

Big difference. I suddenly saw that the more I allowed myself to become more like Christ, to be transformed by the renewing of my mind, the more I would naturally act out of love.  It wasn’t a checklist; it was a description of what I could expect if I surrendered to Him.  And it was already playing out in my life.  Not perfectly, because I am not perfect, nor am I completely transformed.  Nor will I be, this side of Glory.  But I’m not supposed to beat myself up over the parts I get wrong — I’m supposed to celebrate the parts I’m getting right and keep practicing them, because the more I practice it, the more I will choose love without even thinking about it. The more it will become a life-giving outpouring of God’s Spirit and love at work in my heart and the less it will be a set of empty works that I force myself to do through sheer willpower.  All one has to do is look back a few verses to see what works is like — a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.”  Ironic, isn’t it, that in trying to “do” love we end up producing the very thing love is supposed to prevent us from being?

The key here is that love never fails.  So maybe I can only muster up, in a given situation, two grams of love.  But that’s two grams of potent, everlasting, unfailing stuff, so I need to go ahead and dispense it and not worry about the part I can’t come up with.  Because those two grams will NEVER FAIL.  Those two grams will do their stuff, and the nature of love being what it is, those two grams will go out, make changes, multiply and come back to me. And maybe next time, with all the multiplication going on, I’ll be further along in my own process of forgiveness, healing and becoming Christ-like, and I’ll have more than two grams to give.

It doesn’t matter how MUCH love we have.  It matters that we choose to nurture it, feed it and give it away.

Love is not a burden.  Love is freedom. I don’t need to beat myself up over the ways I struggle with difficult people.  I need to rejoice in the love that I can give, and keep giving it.  And remind myself that choosing to be kind, gentle, even-tempered and all the rest of the qualities of love is always the right choice, so even if it’s in small ways, I can go ahead and choose that over being petty, mean-spirited, judgmental or fearful.  There is no element of being a door-mat in that; I am simply choosing to let God’s more excellent way rule the way I respond.  There will be times that I need to step out of the way of a person so bound up in themselves or their own struggles that they threaten to smack into me with the force of a freight train, so I will.  Politely, kindly, without keeping record of wrong, and without dishonoring them, but stepping out of their way nonetheless, and choosing not to join them in whatever hurtful behavior they are engaging.

Because regardless of what those around me choose to do, I have the freedom to choose love. And love never fails.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)

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.

The Confidantes of the Almighty

Humility

Humility (Photo credit: bbyrnes59)

God rarely does things the way we would expect. In fact, His take on things often seems diametrically opposed to human understanding.  Take Psalm 25:14, for example:

“The Lord confides in those who fear Him…” (NIV)

From a human standpoint, fear is a bad thing.  Those who indulge in it, we reason, are weak.  The truly successful figures are those who are above fear.  At times confidence is valued even above integrity, especially in the business world.

In fact, there are even those who go so far, when carried away by pride, to claim that God speaks to them in a special way, giving them revelation not meant for the lowly, because they have attained some level of super-spirituality.  They point to their own efforts in studying the bible, in seeking out mysteries or in time communing with God, as if that alone raises them closer to His level and causes Him to take them into his confidence with heretofore unknown truths.

But then there’s Psalm 25:14, which states quite plainly that those people are not the ones in whom God chooses to confide. He confides in the ones who have a proper understanding of His majesty, of their own utter helplessness and the depravity to which they would sink apart from Him.  He confides in the ones who, as a result of this understanding, develop a healthy fear and awe of the Almighty.

With the truly humble, He shares His heart, while those who think they are good enough to be in God’s inner circle actually find themselves on the fringes.

Which is probably why Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (NIV) There’s a fine line between my confidence in what Christ has done for me, the salvation which He has granted me and my subsequent standing in His Kingdom as part of a royal priesthood, and my misplaced confidence in what I have done for Him. And yet that fine line is all it takes to divide me from communion with Him.

“Though the Lord is on high, He looks upon the lowly, but the proud He knows from afar.” Psalm 138:6 (NIV)

Fighting The Battle With Your Hands Full

Judges 6-7

English: Gideon and His Three Hundred; as in J...

Gideon and His Three Hundred; as in Judges 7:9-23; illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When God called Gideon to fight the invading Midianites, it was all about God’s glory rather than man’s ability.

From start to finish, God was determined to show His hand working as He not only delivered the Israelites from their enemies, but did it in such a way that no man could possibly take the credit for it.  He wanted the Israelites to know who their Deliverer was so they would stop turning away from Him to other gods.

First of all, to begin his great plan of deliverance, God approached a man who was threshing wheat in a winepress.   Since threshing depends on wind to blow away the chaff, a winepress is not the most effective venue for it.   Anyone with experience with grass clipping, dead leaves, or, indeed, actual threshing, can probably imagine that a good portion of the chaff was sticking to Gideon.  This was the man God chose to call “Mighty Man of Valor.”  (Judges 6:12)

Now there was neither “mighty” nor “valor” about this man at that moment.  There was “fearfully trying to get some food to survive this invasion.”   There was “do this by myself so there’s a better chance I’ll get away with it without drawing attention to myself.”  There was certainly “chaff-encrusted beard and hair.”  And by Gideon’s own account there was, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Judges 6:15)

But God is the “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17),  so He went ahead and called Gideon anyway and assured him He would be with him.  It took some persuasion, testing and patience, but He eventually convinced Gideon to answer the call.

Granted, Gideon’s first act of valor, pulling down his father’s altar to Baal and cutting down his Asherah pole, was done at night “because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day.” (Judges 6:27)

And granted, he required not one but two miraculous signs to confirm that God was really going to do what He said.

But still, he stepped out, trusted God and eventually mustered some men.  It was an army of about 32,000, which is a fairly decent troop for the least in the house, from the weakest clan.  Fairly decent, as long as you don’t think about the fact that “the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern people had settled in the valley, thick as locusts,” and that “their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.”

But God is the God for whom “nothing is too difficult.” (Jer. 32:17)  So it should come as no surprise that the Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands.”  Gideon’s army was getting in the way.  God didn’t need Gideon’s strength, Gideon’s fame, Gideon’s cunning or Gideon’s valor, and apparently He didn’t really need Gideon’s men, either.  He chose Gideon to be His “mighty warrior” precisely because he did not possess those qualities in any great measure.  God’s idea of a mighty warrior was a man who, totally against the odds, would step out and obey a call that seemed ludicrous to consider.

At some point, Gideon seems to catch on, because without arguing he sent home 22,000 men.

The 10,000 men he had left was nowhere near enough to fight the eastern hoards, but at least it felt like an army.  Again, however, God didn’t need an army.  He didn’t even need the feel of an army.  He wanted to deliver Israel in such a way that Israel could not boast that “her own strength had saved her.” So He winnowed the army down to 300 men.

Three hundred men. There was no escaping reality at this point.  This was not an army.  This was a special force of the bravest and most alert men, but it wasn’t a big enough force in and of itself to make a dent in the hosts of the enemy.

And since God is the God who brings life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were, and since God is the God for whom nothing is too difficult, He sent these 300 men into battle… armed with a trumpet in one hand and a torch in the other.  A trumpet and a torch.  Not exactly what I would want to have in my hands were I to go into battle where the enemy vastly outnumbered us.  A sword at my side would have been little comfort if I had no free hand with which to draw it. But that was precisely what God wanted.  There was no question at this point that it was God who would fight the battle.  He had so filled their hands with the things He wanted them to carry, the tools for the plan He had in mind, that there was no way they could fight their own battle.

If they had not trusted God, if they had looked at the situation with their human understanding and said, “This is crazy!  I’m not going in there without my sword in my hand,” then they would not have been able to do what God wanted with the torches and the trumpets.  The enemy would not have been thrown into confusion, would not have fled, and the group of men would have been left with the option of fighting a vast horde with 300 swords, or fleeing themselves.  The only way they could hope to win this battle was to do exactly what God said.  He never intended for them to use their swords in this battle, despite the fact that “going into battle” is pretty much synonymous in the mind of any warrior with “being fully armed.”

Which makes me wonder how many times I’m picking up the reasonable tool to solve a problem, trusting on my own skill, knowledge, money, connections or sheer will-power, when all along God wants me to put those things aside and pick up the tools of His plan.  Maybe He doesn’t want me barreling into a meeting with my superior grasp of the problem, so that I can show up my co-workers with my brilliant solution.  Maybe He wants me to simply wait for the right time and his prompting and say one sentence that will change everything, without putting anyone else to shame.  Maybe He doesn’t want me throwing the law against my neighbor with his loud music and late-night parties.  Maybe He wants me to pray for him when I can’t sleep, show him love and bring him food when he’s sick.

There is no formula for winning battles.  As far as we know, Gideon never again went into battle armed with torches and trumpets. The point isn’t to do foolish things.  The point is to listen to the Lord and trust Him when His plan appears to fly in the face of reason.  And to remember that He is the “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17) and that “nothing is too difficult” for Him. (Jer. 32:17)