Pride, Humility, and the Weather

I’m always somewhat surprised when I hear someone complain that the weather forecaster was wrong. Yes, people should do their jobs well. Accountants should do their math correctly, mailmen should deliver to the right address, and cooks shouldn’t burn the food. But meteorologists? That’s a different story altogether. After all, their job is to try to predict what God will do, which is precisely why they’re so often wrong!

We human beings like to be in control (or at least we like to believe that we are). Thanks to climate control, mankind can now survive in locations that were previously uninhabitable, whether due to extreme heat or extreme cold. This can give us the false notion that we are much more powerful than we actually are, and a false sense that our ingenuity makes us invincible. But all it takes is a breath from God’s mouth or a touch of His hand, and we immediately realize just how frail we are.

I recently saw a show about the 10 most extreme weather cities. In one case, Death Valley became so hot that observers saw birds falling from the sky dead from the heat. In the coldest cities, they described the erratic behavior of people suffering hypothermia in the severe cold, their bodies unable to function at such low temperatures.

I am not the biggest fan of the cold snap we’ve had across the south the past few weeks. My California blood is freezing as I daydream about sunshine, palm trees, and mountains in the midst of cold, gloom, and ice. Yet I will say that it’s been a reminder of the sheer power and absolute sovereignty of God. When He brings His snow and ice out of the storehouses, the plans of man cannot stand. We must back down. We must cancel or change our plans. And we must be careful in the midst of potentially dangerous elements much stronger than ourselves. It’s a reminder that we are not in control, and we are not as strong as we think we are. And it’s a reminder that God is in absolute control, He is more powerful than we can imagine, and He is not constrained to operate according to our preferences. He cannot be controlled. “He gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow” Psalm 147:16-18.

So rather than being surprised next time that human meteorologists failed to predict the will of God, let it be a reminder of who God is and who we are, and let the snow and ice move you to humility and worship before Him who is completely above us in every way, yet in Christ, came near to bring us to Himself.

Broken Cisterns of Validation, Vindication, and Veneration

Inevitably, I find myself drinking from the rainwater cisterns of man. You’d think that the bitter taste of the water would help me see that I’m drinking from the wrong source, but I can drink there a while without realizing it. And sometimes, I drink there on purpose and enjoy receiving my satisfaction from what the cistern can give. I find myself craving 3 things: validation, vindication, and veneration. Where will I go to find them?

I want to be validated. I want my life to be substantiated, confirmed, and approved. I want to hear that my life is successful, fruitful, and valuable. I want to know that I’m not a loser. I want to believe that my life counts for something, both in the here and now and into eternity. Yet I easily seek to measure these things by worldly standards. How prestigious is my job? (and this is not just in a corporate America sense, but also for people esteemed by others for their full-time ministry positions). How much money am I making? (especially when the salary goes down at every new turn in life rather than up). Where am I living? (do I own a house, or at least can I rent an apartment, or I am unable to even manage that?) What do other people think of me and say about my life and how successful it is? Do I measure up? But by these standards, it looks as though I’ll never achieve validation. The cistern is broken and the water does not satisfy.

I want to be vindicated. I want to know that the choices and decisions I’ve made were the right ones, especially when they made my life harder rather than easier. I want confirmation that I’m going in the right direction. I want to know that I’m on the right track. Yet again, I look to the circumstances of my life or the chorus of public opinion for the vindication I crave. The cistern is broken and the water does not satisfy.

I want to be venerated. What do people think of me and say about me? As much as I am repulsed and embarrassed by kind acknowledgements, there’s another part of me that likes it. Oh please, don’t embarrass me by saying nice things (err…but please keep saying them!). What twisted hearts we have, the holy and the heinous both residing there. I want to be good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, godly enough, successful enough, etc. And I look to people to feed me what I desire. The cistern is broken and the water does not satisfy.

In its commentary on Jeremiah 2:13, the ESV Study Bible says this: “Palestine has three sources of water: the best is fresh running water, such as flows from a spring or stream, which is called ‘living water’ (Hb. mayim khayyim); next comes ground water, such as might collect in a well; and last is runoff water collected in a cistern…thus in Jeremiah’s image, not only have the Israelites traded the best of water supplies for the worst, but their cistern is broken, with all its water leaked out and nothing but sludge remaining. Their covenant infidelity is not just ungrateful and unnatural; it is also foolish. It leaves them without help in the coming difficult days.”

It reminds me of another woman looking for water. We seem very different on the outside, but perhaps we’re not so different after all. We meet her in John 4, where she meets Jesus. She came looking for physical water, but Jesus changed her life by giving her the living water of salvation and eternal life. In John 7:37-39, Jesus cried out to the crowds to receive this living water, the Holy Spirit who would indwell believers and empower them continually from the inside out.

And faith is not a one-time drinking, but rather, repeatedly going to drink from the living waters that only Jesus gives. It’s continually recognizing the tendency to drink from the wrong place. The cistern will not satisfy my desires for validation, vindication, and veneration. And even if it did, it would just be a pleasant-feeling deception. I have no validation in and of myself. Only in union with Christ and a life-direction of glorifying God does true validation of my life take place. Not in the world’s eyes and according to superficial standards, but in God’s eyes. Better to be considered invalid by the world than to be considered invalid by God, and better to be validated by God than validated by the world. Only in union with Christ will I be vindicated, because I actually don’t deserve vindication outside of Him. I deserve condemnation, but through faith in Jesus, He is my vindication before the Father. And whoever trusts in Him will not be put to shame. So I make my decisions and live my life with an aim to do what I believe is pleasing to Him, as best as any human being knows how to do. Because ultimately, His opinion is the only one that matters. Better to be vindicated in the eyes of God than vindicated in the eyes of the world. And only in union with Jesus do I remember that veneration for myself is not the right pursuit. God is to receive veneration, and I am to offer worship to Him for His worthiness, and live so as to receive His commendation of having been a good and faithful servant. Praise from the world is a lame and pathetic substitute for praise from God.

So may we seek mayim khayyim in the only place it can be found: the triune God.

How a Stranger is Changing my Life

I don’t know what she looks like. I don’t know whether she’s tall or short, what color her hair is, or what her laugh sounds like. But a woman I’ve never met is changing my life. You might wonder how this could be possible… the answer is simple: she has been praying for me almost every single day for about two years now.

I know very little about her besides her name (which is Gayle). We are connected through our mutual friend Betty, who has been a steadfast and faithful friend to me. She and Gayle have prayed for me almost every single night.

Prayer is hard work, especially prayer for others. We are all fairly motivated to pray for our own needs, problems, and desires, since obviously we’re the ones being benefited by the prayers. But praying for others, especially with any consistency, is hard. In fact, I think that the ministry of prayer is one of the most humble ways we can serve each other in the body of Christ. After all, when we encourage someone through our words or our works, our labors on others’ behalf are fairly conspicuous. People will know that we took time to serve and help them, and we’re more likely to be thanked for our investment. But prayer? That’s a different story. For the most part, we’re completely unaware when another person is sacrificing time with their friends and family, hobbies, relaxation, or work, to knock on heaven’s door not for their own needs, but for ours. Since what they do is in secret, they’re not likely to get thanked or praised. Their reward will come from the God who sees in secret.

Life events over the past few years have caused me to see the reality of spiritual warfare with new clarity. We really do have an enemy, he really does desire to destroy our faith, and we can come treacherously close to wanting to give up. Of course, God is the sovereign one, but I believe that He uses means, and that Gayle and Betty’s prayers have been one aspect of God’s means of preserving me in the faith.

Ultimately, this displays the glory of Jesus Christ in His ministry of prayer for us. In John 17, we see Jesus praying to the Father for those who belong to Him. And in the book of Hebrews, we see His ongoing ministry as our High Priest, interceding for us, as does the Holy Spirit.

It’s hard for me to fathom how someone who doesn’t even know me has been such a faithful friend in prayer for me. But I am convinced that one day in the glories of the new heavens and earth, I will see just how much my life was preserved and protected through her prayers. And until then, I hope to become a woman like her: full of the character of Jesus Christ that I too might labor in prayer for someone I’ve never met.

Antiques Roadshow and the Judgment Seat of Christ

It was one of my geekier moments. I had seen a flier at the local library for a free antiques appraisal, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring in some jewelry and art I’d received from my grandparents. I rolled out of bed early on a Saturday morning, packed my treasures into reusable bags, and drove to the library.

After arriving, I sat down and started people-watching while I waited for my number to be called. I saw all types of interesting items: an antique wooden rocking horse, an enormous Asian art scroll, and a commemorative plate of American presidents. Some of the items were pretty, some were interesting, and some were downright ugly.

The most surprising part of the whole experience was listening to the values assigned by the appraisers. Some of the items that looked beautiful in my estimation were worth relatively little, and some were worth nothing at all. On the other hand, some items that looked like garage sale rejects were valued as worth thousands of dollars.

The valuations seemed so unexpected, so counterintuitive. In that moment, I realized that my observations pointed to a more significant reality: how we tend to see and judge our lives may be quite different from how the Lord will see and judge our lives one day. Scripture clearly teaches that believers will be judged, though not for our right to stand in God’s presence and dwell with Him (for Christ has accomplished that on our behalf). However, our works will be tested, and rewards will be given based on God’s appraisal system. And this appraisal system may be quite different from our human appraisal system.

Young moms: do your days of dirty diapers and laundry seem less valuable than a fruitful workplace career or church ministry? Pastors: does your faithful preaching to a small congregation seem less valuable than being a well-known pastor writing books and speaking at conferences? Employees: does your diligence in your boring job seem less valuable than a fulfilling career that impacts the world in concrete and tangible ways? Sick ones: does your confinement in your home or hospital bed seem less valuable than a life of busy activity? Believers: does your present circumstance tempt you to feel as though you’re having very little impact for God’s kingdom, and is a grand departure from the script you would have written?

Jesus Christ is the Ultimate Appraiser. He alone will define what is of great value and what is relatively worthless. And simple acts of faith and obedience done in relative obscurity may rank far above what seem to be grandiose acts done before a stage of observers. So take heart, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. And you just may be surprised one day at the true value God places on your perseverance in the seemingly small things.

Blank Check or Invisible Ink?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of giving the Lord a “blank check” with our lives. The blank check metaphor communicates our desire for everything in our lives and our future to be at the Lord’s choosing and disposal… our pursuits, direction, decisions, etc. Usually this is not a one-time event, but a prayer that is repeated throughout our lives as we fight to seek His kingdom above our selfish pursuits. And this fight, of course, is a good thing. The Lord calls us to deny ourselves and submit ourselves to His rule, His plans, and His desires. And Scripture makes plain that He is a sovereign God who has ordained the good works that we should walk in, and controls all the sweet and bitter providences of our lives.

In the past, I have truly thought that I had offered the Lord a blank check. But lately, I am beginning to see that the metaphorical blank check I handed over is laden with invisible ink. Though I’ve never tried it, I have seen on TV how a “secret message” can be written in lemon juice, and by exposing the paper to heat, the words that had previously been invisible on the “empty” sheet of paper begin to appear seemingly out of nowhere. In a similar way, the “heat” of trials in life have revealed some stipulations I had written on the check without consciously realizing it.

Apparently, the Lord could do whatever He wanted in my life (and here comes the invisible part)… but only (fill in the blank) or as long as (fill in the blank). For example, the Lord could inflict me with sickness and disability, but only to a certain degree and for a certain length of time. Or, the Lord could keep me single, as long as eventually I got married. Or perhaps, the Lord could call me into any kind of ministry and career anywhere, as long as I found it interesting, fulfilling, or important. I thought I had given a blank check, when in fact, I began to see all over the check the invisible ink of a comprehensive contract which I was expecting God to keep. And only the heat of life revealed it.

What’s written in the invisible ink of your own heart and life? In what ways do you need to surrender the story of your life again to the Lord? As you consider, be sure of this: though each of us has written a “bad check” so to speak, there is One whose perfect check has been fully accepted. He wrote a true blank check to His Father, submitting to His will at every point because of His love for the Father. And in return, the Father was pleased to accept His offering and apply it to the bank accounts of those who trust in Him. Jesus has done what we could not do, and through His Spirit, empowers us to become more like Him. One day at a time, we can purge the invisible ink, offering ourselves in greater measure to Him, trusting that the investment of faith and obedience is worth every penny in heaven’s economy.

When Words Fail

Words are supposed to help us. But sometimes, words are horribly inadequate conveyors of meaning, hope, and help, and at their worst, can be dangerously destructive. In particular, words seem most inadequate in times of overwhelming loss and pain. The very gift of communication that was intended for us to connect with other human beings becomes like a wall that closes us off from others, because sometimes, words are simply not suitable vehicles for communicating our pain to another. When we feel as though our life is being ripped apart, when we’ve lost almost everything that was once precious and dear, when we struggle each day not to live but just to survive, when the pain is deeper than we ever imagined it could reach and lasts longer than we ever imagined it could go, when Satan seems to be seeking to destroy our very souls, when God no longer seems close, compassionate, and caring, when we try to look into our future and simply can’t see one, when a dark curtain seems to hang over any hope of a better tomorrow, when in our heart of hearts we wish the Lord would take us home. In times like these, words simply fail as they buckle under the weight of our pain.

We experience a simultaneous and contradictory longing. A part of us wants to use words to unburden our souls and share our pain with others who can help us bear the burden. Yet the other part of us is afraid. Afraid that trying to put the pain into words will only cheapen it, lighten it, distort it, and fail to communicate our true heart. Afraid that the words we receive in response will be cheap, light, distorted, and fail to evidence the ability to meet us in our pain. Afraid that we will be misunderstood. Afraid that we will only burden others. Afraid that it will only make things worse to speak. Afraid that all our fears will be proven right.

Proverbs 25:20 relates a painful experience: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” It is far too easy for us to do this to each other. There are countless reasons why someone might try to “cheer up” a heavy heart, some good and some bad. We may genuinely think we’re being helpful by trying to focus on the positive, or give hope, or encourage. Or, we may be uncomfortable with pain and tension in our own life, seeking to use humor and frivolity to cover over it, and therefore relate to others in the same manner. Or, we may just lack compassion and the ability to truly listen. In any case, Scripture makes clear that singing songs to a heavy heart is not helpful, but in fact, quite hurtful. It’s like taking someone who is already suffering and shivering in the cold winds, and rather than giving them a warm blanket for comfort and protection, tearing off the coat that was the only comfort they had against the stormy gale. We make things worse. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this, and unfortunately, we’ve probably all been on the giving end of this as well. Perhaps Job understood this better than any of us ever will, being battered by the harmful words of his friends whose faulty theology drove them to speak things that were not true about God or appropriate to Job’s particular situation.

This fearful prospect of what our words can do for evil may tempt us to respond wrongly on both sides of the equation. On one hand, as the one in pain, we may close ourselves off from everyone so that we won’t be further wounded by their misguided words. We cover our gaping wound with a Band-Aid lest others unwittingly pour salt in our bleeding flesh. We stay away because we can’t handle getting unintentionally kicked while we’re already down. Or on the other hand, we might fail to speak at all to our friends in pain, terrified that we’ll say something stupid, insensitive, inaccurate, hurtful, or unhelpful. While this is an unfortunate possibility, we must offer more than silence (though at times, not less). We must listen, we must empathize, we must weigh our words and our timing, but yes, at some point, we must speak. Yes, words can bring damage, but they are also a means of blessing and healing that we must seek to speak over our friends. Proverbs 16:24 teaches that “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” The book of James teaches that our mouths are a strange paradox, in that both blessing and cursing can flow out of them. But if the fear of speaking harmful words causes us to say nothing, we fail to exercise God’s means of our bringing blessing to one another, to bring sweetness to each other’s souls and health to each other’s bodies.

While words can fail in our relationships with each other, there is another sense in which words fail in times of deep pain and anguish, this one related directly to our relationship with God. When words fail, sometimes the only adequate communication consists of moans and groans, literally. This is not merely my own personal opinion, but the very words of God in Scripture. Sometimes pain defies words as we seek to come to God—“When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:3-4). Moans and groans reveal our utter weakness and fragility as fallen human beings. The times I have moaned on my bed in pain, both in times of intense physical pain and times of intense emotional pain, have been the times that I’ve felt the most utterly destitute of any resources of strength or ability in myself. I am so weak that I cannot even offer coherent and cohesive words of prayer to God, but can only moan in my pain, trusting and looking to Him to transpose these moans into intelligible prayers for help, strength, and assistance. I am so weak that I not only need Him to answer my prayers, but I need Him to construct the very human words of the prayers themselves from my weak moans. And thankfully, this is precisely what He promises to do in Romans 8:26, as the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with groanings too deep for words.

So how do we seek to relate to God and others when our pain is too deep for words, especially if we are struggling to believe the reality of His goodness, love, and care in the midst of our adverse circumstances? A few closing thoughts:

  • Take comfort in the compassion of God to translate your groanings into prayers. He does not demand our human ability to offer amazingly crafted words of prayer in order to reach His ears and move His hand. He does not stand with folded arms and tapping foot until we can pray correctly. Rather, He rushes to our aid, reading our hearts and taking upon Himself the task of praying for us when we know not how. Moan with a Godward heart, and He will hear.

 

  • Remember the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). While we simply cannot wrap our minds around the necessity of our sufferings in God’s eternal plan, we can know this: God does not look down on us from distant ivory towers. Rather, He entered into the squalor of the human ghetto called Earth and took up residence on the roughest block. Jesus understands your suffering. He understands your suffering because He suffered, that your sin might be paid for, and that you might be relieved of everlasting suffering in hell and know everlasting bliss in His coming kingdom.

 

  • Hang onto the words of God. God is never a bad counselor. God is never an insensitive friend. God is never unwilling or unable to shoulder the weight of your burden. He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it, and He has said it all in His Word. His Word is our only hope in our affliction. His Word gives life to the soul that clings to the dust. His Word strengthens the soul that melts away for sorrow. His Word comforts us in our affliction. His Word makes us hope. His Word gives us life when we are severely afflicted. His Word gives us hope when we rise before dawn and cry for help. His Word gives light to our path (Psalm 119). Hear God speak His words to you by reading His Word. And use His Word as a means of speaking to Him in prayer, making His words and the words of His people in history your own words back to Him.

 

  • Don’t give up on opening yourself up to other believers. Yes, sometimes their words will hurt you rather than help you. Yes, sometimes you will be misunderstood. Yes, sometimes they may fail to understand you and relate to you. But the fact remains that we are a spiritual body. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’’’ (1 Corinthians 12:21). God purposes to build you up through His body, so don’t give up on His people and neglect His means of grace. After all, Jesus had more reason to keep to Himself than anybody. Who could help and encourage the very Son of God in His darkest hour in Gethsemane? Yet in utterly shocking fashion (as are so many of Jesus’ words and actions), He does the unimaginable. He tells Peter, James, and John that His soul is very sorrowful, even to death, and invites them to remain and watch with Him while He prays (Matthew 26:38). And as we know, they failed to encourage Jesus, they failed to pray for strength against their own pending temptation, and they failed to even stay awake! Yet none of that kept Jesus from seeking to invite others into sharing His suffering, and as weak human beings, how much more must we seek to invite others to aid us in our suffering.

So let us press on in hope that we are being carried along by the triune God. And let us look forward to the day when words will never again fail us, when we will perfectly communicate with one another and perfectly communicate with our God, in a perfectly wonderful new heavens and new earth. Come, Lord Jesus!