In my last post, I said I’d look next at living deliberately. Batting practice for all who like me freeze up at the plate. Practical steps for living life intentionally. But no sooner did I write that post than I started freezing up again. Held hostage by old lies and fears. With every 'at bat', I wanted to swing. But for some reason I couldn’t.
A voice says ‘Don’t say you couldn’t! The truth is you wouldn't. You decided not to decide. That’s a decision! It’s called avoidance. Don’t deny it. You’re not paralyzed!’
On one hand, it makes sense. I could swing yet I don’t. So I guess I’m guilty as charged. Yet how do I do otherwise? I truly want to swing. Every time. Why don’t I?
Don't tell me to try harder!
With these thoughts in my head, I hit a wall after my last post. I read the tips I had already written earlier on being more decisive. But then I realized ‘I rarely do this stuff myself! Before trying, I convince myself I can’t do it. So I don’t try. Am I lazy and making excuses? Is it fear? Rebellion? Or is it simply that I don’t try hard enough?’
Since that post, I’ve learned there’s more to being decisive than deciding to be. For the paralyzed, it's not about effort (‘Try harder!’) or motivation (‘Gotta want it!’).
Action steps do help so I’ll still write that post. But it’s premature now. I can’t improve a swing I don’t have. If I freeze up, I need courage. Not tips. If paralyzed, I don't need willpower. I need God's power. If I can't walk, I don't need action steps!
On one hand, I might be justifying my avoidance by saying I'm paralyzed. An easy excuse for refusing to act. On the other hand, if I don’t believe I can do a task, I see only one option. Quit before I start. If I can't do it, I'd rather not try than try and fail.
I’ve prayed over this a lot. Not seeking answers as much as hope. I need hope! What good is it to learn I’m paralyzed if at the end of the day, I still can’t walk! Or worse, learn I'm not paralyzed. Yet I avoid life. Convinced I can’t walk. Lord, help!
God recently gave me what I needed. Words of hope. No tips. No shame about my fear. But words to hold on to when I freeze. Hope when I lose all hope of changing.
Words of Hope for the Paralyzed Soul
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. Romans 15:4 NIV God’s gift of hope came through an unlikely vessel. Me. I 'stumbled' on a sermon I preached in 2017 on Jesus healing a paralyzed man. I listened, not to hear me but to hear what Jesus said to me then through this man's story. A man I can relate to.
Much of this post is from that sermon. But this time I’m preaching it to myself. It’s a heartfelt confession of what I’m relearning through this story. I write it for my sake, but I also pray God uses it to give hope to anyone else who feels paralyzed too.
How did Jesus reply to the paralyzed man in John 5? What would He say to me?
Here a great number of disabled people used to lie – the blind, the lame and the paralyzed. John 5:3
Do you have a disability?
A disability is whatever weakens my physical ability or puts me at a disadvantage. A disability of the heart is a spiritual, moral or mental weakness that I can't change.
I often feel like an invalid. I can’t seem to get started on the easiest task. I’ll freeze up. Unable to make a choice or take initiative. I also feel blind. I can’t see God or spiritual realities. Nor appreciate beauty as before. I can’t see the good stuff in life. I’m emotionally numb. I don’t feel joy or the love I once felt for others. Or for God.
Do you have a disability of the heart? Anything that leaves you weak? Unable to do what you want to do? Here’s a list. Do you ever wrestle with any of these issues? Do you face the same issue repeatedly? Unable to gain victory or see deep change?
Selfishness, pride, shame, lust, discontent, attention seeking, perfectionism, people-pleasing, anger, insecurity, fear, addictions, cynicism. Fill in the blank. The list is endless. Are you weak? What is it you can't change despite your best effort?
We’re all disabled. If I don’t think I am, my disability is called blindness. Cause? Pride. Pride leaves me ‘unable’ to see how weak I am. I think I'm the one exception.
Even if I see my weakness, I live in a culture where it’s not cool to not be cool. And weakness is not cool. If you’re weak, never admit it. Fix it. If you can’t, then hide it.
Yet it’s the weak Jesus looks for. Not those who climb ladders of success. Nor those who think they can climb a ladder to God. Jesus came down a ladder for the lame. For those who can’t climb at all. We seek the strong. Not God. He seeks the weak.
What does Jesus say to the weak? The paralyzed? The one who can’t help himself?
Do you want to get well? Jesus
An odd question. Why ask permission? Why does Jesus need to know whether this man wants to get well? Isn’t it obvious that any sick person would want to get well?
Perhaps he resigned himself to his fate. ‘This mat by this pool is my home. Forever’. He was lame for 38 years. ‘It's my new normal. Don’t hope for healing. Accept it!’
Do you have a disability of the heart? Do you resent it? Deny it? Ignore it? Has it stolen your hope? Shattered your dreams? Jesus asks, ‘Do you want to get well?’
I wonder if He asks this because we stop asking Him to heal us. We tend to stop asking once we stop hoping. We’re no longer sure He wants to heal us. If He can.
Don't raise my hopes! Please!!!
It’s easy to lose hope or resign ourselves to our fate. Like the Shunammite in 2 Ki.4, promises of healing anger us. “Don’t raise my hopes! I cannot handle another loss!”
God understands, yet says 'Hope!' He won’t push miracles on us. He asks us to ask.
But asking isn’t easy. Especially if you have asked. Repeatedly. And He doesn't answer. I can see why many stop believing God cares. And why they stop asking.
A man who lost his job and can't find another was told ‘Hold on to hope’. His reply: “I’m beginning to despise the hope. It just sets me up for another fall. Why bother?” Carol after being hurt again wants to quit on love altogether. She said 'I hate hope'.
Life without hope is like being in a coma. I’m alive, yet I’m not. God wants to revive my hope. And me. But it’s not easy to trust Him and risk being disappointed again.
Have I given up on love due to past hurt? Or given up on dreams to avoid pain? It’s not easy to let my heart desire again. Yet if I shut down desire, my heart suffocates.
“I stand at a crossroads, and I am afraid of my desire being stirred up. For 41 years I’ve tried to control my life by killing the desire, but I can’t. Now I know it. But to allow it to be, to let it out is frightening because I know I'll have to give up the control of my life. Is there another option?” A friend of John Eldredge
John said the easier or safer option is to reduce my desires to a manageable size. Like a batter who settles for the occasional walk instead of ‘swinging for the fences’.
It’s hard to recall how many opportunities I've lost because I'm afraid to swing. That pain inspired my last post. And it's why I want to live the rest of my life deliberately.
Like Paul, I want to ‘take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’. I want to keep the faith. Fight the fight. Until it’s over. Not end my days in regret. I want to cross the finish line with joy. Not haunted by dreams I quit on or missions I aborted.
But am I ready to do what I must do to get well? Of course I want a miracle. But like the rich young ruler, ‘getting well’ may require that I give up idols I can’t give up. Or it may require some difficult choices or lifestyle changes I’m not ready to make.
Do you want to get well? Are you sure?
After 20 years in ministry, Jon Walker was laid off. Lost his home and savings. He suffered from depression and bipolar II disorder. Then his wife filed for divorce close to their 24th anniversary. Then God spoke to him through this story. (John 5) Years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and began the hard work of deep, lasting, Jesus-led recovery. I read in John 5 where Jesus said to the invalid ‘Do you want to get well?’ As I read that, it felt like Jesus was saying to me ‘Jon, do you want to be healed?’ What?! Of course, I want to be healed! But then I realized what he meant. Was I willing to take the steps necessary for my full healing?
Was I willing to do the hard work of facing painful situations, uncovering bitterness and admit to deep, resentful anger? Was I willing to give up my stubborn excuses that allowed me to stay the same, somehow seeing my sickness as more secure than my health? (at least I know what to expect) Was I willing to give up control, let God be God, and admit that I can’t, but he can. Or will I instead insist that I can, even though I can’t, keeping myself in a cycle of helplessness and hopelessness?” As I read John 5 and Jon’s story, I felt like Jesus was asking me the same question.
I shared this with a friend and he said “Change is scary because you get comfortable with the way things are even when you know it’s not good. It takes a lot of faith to ask Jesus to change you. Sometimes it’s easier to stay the way you are.” If I'm 'disabled', my only hope is finding someone 'able' to help me do what I can't.
My hope is only as strong as what I rest my hope upon.
So how did the paralyzed man respond to Jesus question? Where did his hope lie?
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I'm trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” John 5:7
If Jesus asked if I wanted to get well, I'd simply say ‘Yes!’ Instead he explains why he can’t get healed. He has his own plan. But God and others aren’t cooperating.
I too have a plan for overcoming disability, eliminating weakness and showing the world I’m not as weak as I appear. Like a toddler, I really think "I can do it myself!"
Jesus knows I need His help. And that I’ve resigned myself to my mat. In love, He seeks me out. Wanting more for me than I do. So He asks me the same question.
Do YOU want to get well?
Next Post: I’ll explore the roots of my paralysis and finish this ‘sermon to myself’.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. Henry David Thoreau
I want to live deliberately. I don’t want to come to the end of my life only to realize I never ‘lived’.
Sounds easy. ‘Don’t overthink it. Just do it.' Yet for some, making choices or taking action feels impossible. You don’t tell a paralyzed man ‘Just do it! Walk!' Or 'You gotta want it!’ It’s not a motivation issue. His body can’t do what he wants it to. As for me, I can't get my will (my 'chooser’ muscle) to do what my mind tells it to do.
I hate making decisions. So I make excuses instead. My default response is to not respond. The pros and cons both feel equally important. So I vacillate back and forth until I’m paralyzed. Even if I do make a choice, I’ll second guess it for days.
In Larry Crabb’s book ‘The Pressure’s Off’, his friend Al recalls a Little League story. After a few strikeouts, Al would freeze up and not swing. After he got on base with a walk, he stopped swinging altogether. His coach urged him to, but he wouldn’t.
As an adult, Al realized he was still afraid to swing. It became his default response to all life threw at him. As a boy, he wouldn’t swing. As a man, he couldn’t. His habitual avoidance was ruining his life. After a wake-up call, he started swinging away. It was scary. But each swing helped pull him out of the quicksand of inertia.
In his refusal to swing, I saw my own reluctance to act, make choices or take risks.
I too had settled for the occasional walk. Afraid to ‘swing for the fences’. Al’s story has became my wake-up call. For me, it's the fear of failure that makes me freeze up. It sounds easy, but living intentionally is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.
Most attempts fail. Partly because it's so hard to even get started. I want to give up on this idea of living deliberately. As if I'll avoid the failure I fear by not trying. But if I put off making decisions, I lose my ability to make them. Don’t ask how I know. Plus there is a fear avoiders can't avoid: a fear that one day I’ll look back in regret.
If I don't live on purpose, life feels like a long slow death. If you can call that living. Either I face the pain of making changes or I live with the pain of never changing.
As for me, I want to change. For me, that means I want to live life deliberately.
Feels noble. But it’s just a wish unless I learn how to be an intentional person. And I’m not. I have good intentions but that's not the same as being intentional. Most people have good intentions. But only a few are truly intentional in how they live.
Intentional people are not content with just having good intentions. They turn intentions into actions. Desires into choices. Dreams into plans. Their initial choices and actions are followed up with more choices and actions. In time, the seed of intention becomes a fruitful tree. The dream becomes reality.
Proverbs 13:4 says a sluggard ‘craves and gets nothing’ while ‘the desires of the diligent (or deliberate) are fully satisfied’. The word ‘diligent’ is from a root word meaning ‘to cut into or dig into’. Also a Hebrew word for plow or threshing sickle.
A farmer cuts into soil to till it. He also cuts into the harvest to thresh out the chaff from the wheat. The lazy man looks at his land and waits for harvest. Content with his big dreams and trusting his good intentions. Fully convinced he’ll have a great harvest simply because he has great intentions. Solomon calls such a man foolish. He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment. Prov. 12:11
Why do we chase fantasies? Why are we content to have dreams we never act on?
I think it’s because dreaming itself feels good. Even if we don’t achieve our dream. Neuroscientists say that desire by itself triggers the pleasure center in our brains. Even before we get what we want. Or even if we don't. It’s why online browsing is addictive. I see it. I want it. And crave to see more. Why? Desire itself is a pleasure.
To dream up a vacation is easy. But to afford it, plan it and take it is not. To want a close marriage is easy. To build a deep friendship that survives the pressures of life is not. We aren’t just pulled by desires. We like them to come easy and often give up if they don't. I’ll dream up a future I never invest in. Dreaming can become a substitute for action. If life is hard, dreaming gives us far more joy than reality.
For a minute. Until you wake up one day and find you never acted on your dream.
Those ‘who chase fantasies lack judgment’. Obsessing over a dream can keep us from doing what we must do to realize any dream: Take action. It also distracts me from God’s dream. If I fixate on the life I have, but don’t want or the life I want but don’t have, I'll never discover the life God had in mind for me. Much less live it.
I’ve fought procrastination all my life. I spend more time avoiding life than living it. I spend time imagining a future but not preparing for it. Wanting opportunities yet not taking them. It grieves me to think of God-given dreams I never acted on.
Most people spend their entire lives indefinitely preparing to live. Paul Tournier
I’m tired of making promises to me I don’t keep or having intentions I don’t act on. Intentional people do what they intend to. They make a commitment and keep it. They turn goals into plans and action steps that are realistic. Doable. Energizing. The most important thing they do is so obvious yet easily neglected by most of us.
They take action. Not once but over and over. In spite of fatigue. Setbacks. Failure. Little by little, task by task, project by project, their dream is gradually realized. Yes, God may let detours or setbacks to change or even derail our original dream. But for the most part, those who realize their dreams are people who act on them.
Then there are others like me. I’m not naturally intentional. I don’t live deliberately. My journals are littered with great ideas or dreams that never saw the light of day. Life changing insights I never acted on. And I wonder why my life hasn't changed. Each one was a ‘seed of promise’ that landed on the soil of my optimistic heart.
But by neglect, procrastination and the failure to act, these seeds never took root. There’s little harvest I can point to despite years of dreaming about harvest. Why?
The paralysis of analysis. A life changing truth can’t change my life until I act on it.
It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting. Jerry Sternin
Ideas that blew me away have themselves blown away like leaves in the wind. Yet God will still send new ‘seeds of promise’ that land on my soul, reviving my hopes.
But a passive spirit can harden my heart’s receptivity to truth just like rebellion will. Fueled by doubt, passivity makes it hard to act on the life changing word of God. I can love the experience of hearing God’s word, yet invest no effort to live it out. Israel did this so God warned Ezekiel about the danger of pretense and hypocrisy. As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are no more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. Ezekiel 33: 30-32
This isn't spoken to those who attend church and enjoy hearing God's Word. But to those who like to hear His word yet don't intend to obey it if it means changing.
For the passive, change is difficult. But not because they're intentionally resistant. They don't change because they’re not deliberate. They're paralyzed by passivity. Like a muscle, the less we use our will, the harder it is to use. It's far easier to stop.
Newton's First Law of Motion says that a body at rest stays at rest until an outside force acts on it. And a body in motion at a constant speed stays in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force. I regret all I've missed by waiting for an outside force (God) to pull me up. He won't. He tells me 'Get up and walk!'.
Jesus said that the truth can set us free. But it only does so if I act upon it. To not live by the truth I know is like a POW having a key to get out and not using it. He sees it daily, dreams of his escape and imagines his future as a free man. Decades later, he's still in a prison cell. Dreaming of freedom and still tinkering with his key.
Great ideas inspire dreams and deep insights stir up hopes for change. But these ‘seeds of promise’ won't grow into their potential unless they’re acted on. Those who live deliberately can turn life changing insights into a life that really changes. I know all this yet I find myself totally unable to do what I most want to do. Get up!
As a Dad wants his lame son to walk, God wants me to live with purpose. I want it too. I don't want to end my days in regret. But to finish my race happily exhausted. Not haunted by dreams I didn't act on or missions I aborted. But 'swinging away'.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on to the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. Philippians 3: 12-15
With all my soul, I want to ‘take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’. I want to forget the past and reach forward to all God has for me. The question is: how? How do I stop being passive? How do I learn to live life more deliberately?
NEXT POST: Swing away! (Batting practice for the soul) How do I ‘live deliberately’? How do I break free from the 'paralysis of analysis'? (No success stories or formulas. Just some stuff I'm learning by trying and failing.)
Molly sat by Jesus every night at dinner. He had His own chair and place setting. And the whole family greeted Him nightly. “Come Lord Jesus. Be our Guest”. One night Molly had her own greeting. “Jesus! You are so rude! You just sit there and never say a stinkin’ thing!” The shocked adults all laughed and rolled their eyes.
I read this story 20 years ago. In a magazine column of stories sent in by parents. I think God wanted me to meet this girl. Her candor jump-started my prayer life.
Her honest prayer exposed just how superficial my own prayers were. I did pray. But if I'm honest, I was never very honest with God. I rarely said what I actually felt. A painful crisis made it difficult to trust His heart. So I didn’t trust Him with mine.
Yet like Molly’s family, I still prayed. Daily. My own version of ‘Come Lord Jesus’. But prayer wasn’t personal or conversational. And I didn't expect Him to talk back.
To the adults, the Jesus plate is just a visual aid. The empty Jesus chair is exactly that. Empty. Yet I can’t judge them. I’ve rolled my eyes too. At the same faith I once had myself. I knew He was with me. Until I grew up and decided He wasn’t.
How we interpret setbacks or suffering will either deepen our faith or weaken it. A disillusioned mind can talk my heart out of believing what I ‘know’ to be true. I was in this confused state of mind around the time I discovered Molly’s story. After repeated disappointments, my heart grew weary of trusting. And praying.
Molly convicts me. Not just how she prayed but that she prayed at all. If God is silent, so am I. I talk about God but not to Him. For His silence feels like absence. Which feels more real than His presence. He who comes to God must believe He is. The reverse is also true. If I think He isn’t here, I won’t come. Much less pray.
When our oldest daughter Stacey announced to us that she was pregnant, we all reacted with surprise and joy. But what my son Bryce did caught us off guard. He instantly jumped up and ran to Stacey, knelt down and spoke to her unborn child. ‘Hello little one! We’re so happy you’re in our family! We can’t wait to meet you!’
Bryce’s response reminded us that a baby was in the room. Molly reminds me that Jesus is here too. Unlike the adults, His invisibility didn’t affect her faith. She just didn’t like His silence. A silence I won’t try to defend. Jesus doesn’t need me to. Besides, I couldn’t anyway. Knowing He’s here 24-7, His silence bothers me too.
The point isn’t whether Jesus was actually rude. The point is she felt like He was. So she told Him so. She felt safe enough and loved enough to say what she felt. I find her candor with God refreshing. I think God does too. He's a parent. So I'm sure He’d prefer we vent our angst than recite rote prayers from insincere hearts.
I like Molly’s prayer because her words convey what’s really going on inside her. I’m an appeaser. I say what you want to hear or what I think you’ll like. I present the me I want you to see. The real me can’t risk being seen. Afraid he might lose your love. What’s silly is I do this with God when I pray. As if He doesn’t see me.
We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us. C.S. Lewis
If I can’t be real with you, I won’t talk much if at all. Same with God. Nothing will end a conversation like worrying over whether or not I’m saying what I should. If that’s my goal, I won’t speak from the heart. And it’s my heart He wants to hear.
I was 40 when I found Molly’s story. I wanted to be like her. Not the adults who laughed. I criticized them for settling for empty ritual. Rolling their eyes at faith.
Now 20+ years later I ran across her story in my journal. It stings to read it again. For I’m still more like the adults than Molly. Not that I don’t pray. I do. Everyday. But the heart to hearts are rare. The Jesus chair isn’t empty. But it feels empty.
The first time I stopped praying because of disappointments I didn’t understand. But now I’m just preoccupied. Without realizing it, I simply left the conversation. I know I can’t lose God’s presence, but I can lose my awareness of it. And I have When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it”. And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” Genesis 28:16 – 17
Molly was acutely aware of His presence. So much so that she listened for Him. In her I see a younger me. A boy who walked with God in simple childlike faith.
I want it back! My grownup version doesn’t cut it. I want an unadulterated faith! Where I talk as if He’s really here and listening. And listen as if He’s here to talk.
I don’t know why God doesn’t speak more often or more clearly like He used to. But I know this. The Jesus chair was never empty. His grave? Yes. The chair next to His girl. Never. Nor is the chair next to me. But unlike me, Molly believed it.
Also unlike me, she didn’t stop talking when He did. I don’t like it either if God is silent. But do I tell Him? No. I go silent too. If I’m mad at God, I grumble or hold a grudge. But I seldom voice the anger I feel. Not Molly. If she doesn’t hear from God, you can bet He’ll hear from her. To talk that freely is what good friends do.
Where is your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion is withheld from us. Yet you are our Father… Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! Isaiah 63:15, 64:1
That’s a ‘Molly prayer’. I could see God rending the heavens for a faith like that! And if He doesn’t, I can see her saying ‘Hey! I know you’re here and I know you care. So what’s up with the silent treatment! Don’t treat me like this! Show up!”
Her candor may feel improper. But God prefers honesty over pretense or silence. So why do I still not open up? I think I settle for silence or rote prayers because I believe a lie that He can’t be trusted. I don’t feel safe enough to speak my heart.
But what if it’s my picture of God and my unsafe feelings that can’t be trusted?
What if God loves me far more than my ‘grown up faith’ can believe? In spite of my sin and failure. What if His silence is not proof of His absence? But rather an opportunity to experience His presence and love in a way I couldn’t otherwise.
What if He was in His chair? Hearing Molly’s rant. Loving her because of it. Even loving the adults who ‘knew better’. In spite of their distance and rote prayers.
Molly relates to Jesus in a way I used to. In a way I hope to recapture again. He really is her best friend. As real as the chair He sits in. And as kind as she thinks He is. No wonder she feels safe. Being next to Jesus is the safest place on earth.
But if I refuse to trust God, all I can trust is people or myself. And people will fail us and my heart knows it can’t be trusted. It's why I feel unsafe. And why I won’t pray. I feel unsafe because I'm in a storm and my only hope is a lighthouse I don’t trust.
Molly's faith helps her be honest. She clearly feels safe enough and loved enough to be herself with God. If you feel safe with a friend, the words flow easily. With no fear of being ignored, shamed or cut off. It’s why Molly could tell God He’s rude.
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away. Dinah Craik
This is prayer: a heart-to-heart with a friend I trust. The place of prayer is a tent of meeting. Where God and friend meet and talk freely. Where it’s safe to be me.
Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp... calling it the 'tent of meeting'. As Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Exodus 33:7,9,11
So how do friends speak to each other? Freely. Honestly. From the heart.
Moses said to the LORD, “Why are you treating me so harshly? Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people? Numbers 11:11
Reflection: Write God a prayer. Starting with 'Could I be honest God?'
I like a good story. Or a good painting. Even better? A good painting that pulls you into a good story. Which happens in the ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ by C.S. Lewis.
As tale opens, Lucy and Edmund are viewing a painting. A ship at sea. For Edmund, it “makes things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there?”
To Lucy “the ship looks as if it’s actually moving”. As if it could sail right in the room. And then it does. Both ship and sea burst right out of the painting into their room. Minutes later they’re sinking in Narnia’s Eastern Sea. But Prince Caspian comes to the rescue. He pulls them up to safety. And into the ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’.
Imagine what it might feel like for Edmund and Lucy as their painting came to life. I was doing just that one day when I thought of another painting that tells a story. I put the book down and looked up at a painting that’s hung on my wall for years.
'The Journey to Emmaus' By Robert Zund (Public Domain)
Matt Ridley says that whenever two ideas meet, they often generate a third idea. And it’s usually original. Unique. A new idea. Or a new perspective on an old idea.
This happened to me. I imagined this Narnian ship coming to life. Sailing out of a painting into their room. Pulling three bored kids into a story they will never forget. Then I thought of the painting on my wall. Until that moment, it was just a painting.
You can see where I’m going with this ‘third idea’. But before reading on, hit pause. Imagine the Emmaus painting on your wall. Suddenly the road curves toward you. And Jesus walks out of the painting into your room. Which isn’t a fairy tale. He has!
I love this image! God and man. Engaged in deep conversation. On a country road. To me, it’s the epic story of God. Captured in a single image. It’s a picture of God!
I see God when I see His heart. And I see it here. I see what He loves. And desires. I see why He came. Died. Rose. And why He waited before ascending to the Father. If you endured all that He did, would you linger very long before returning home?
Why is He here? On this road? Because they are! And they’re in grief. Their hope is gone. He delays His return to glory to give them hope. To let them know He’s alive.
For many, the ascension is a reminder of Jesus’ absence. For Him, it’s the opposite. It’s precisely because of His ascension that He can enter any heart that'll have Him. By means of His Spirit, He’s not only with us. He’s in us! Which is why He ascended!
What is it that Jesus is really after? He’s after you! He wants a friendship! With you!
Friends like to be together. So like the disciples, Jesus calls you ‘Come’ and ‘Follow’. The word that Jesus used for ‘follow’ stems from 2 root words: ‘union’ and ‘road’. Jesus says “You were never meant to walk this road alone. Can we walk together?”
Put yourself in the shoes of these 2 disciples. Because you are! God in flesh comes to earth. Finds your road. Enters your home. Opens His heart to you. Breaks bread with you! And then you realize. This is God! On my road! In my home! At my table!
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32
Why does a heart burn? Blaise Pascal said 'The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of’. The head can study fire. But only the heart can feel it’s warmth. Eyes look. Only hearts see. Lips meet. Hearts kiss. My head knows that God is love. But when God seeks me out, sits at my table and tells me Himself, my heart burns!
No wonder their hearts burned! You can’t meet God face to face and be unaffected. And yet when the story first opens, their hearts are not burning. They’re breaking.
Whether true or not, if I think a friend has broken his promise, it’ll break my heart. When the friend is God, it breaks my world. Kills my hope. For these two, all their hope died with Jesus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” V. 21
Imagine these two at the triumphal entry. Israel’s long awaited King is finally here! Like a gust of wind catching a kite, Jesus pulls their future hopes out of the grave.
Dreams long forgotten return. Once again, hope soars. Until their new king dies. And with Him the wind. And when the wind dies, kites fall. Dreams die. Hope dies.
I feel conflicted as I read their story. Living on this side of Easter, my brain wants to shake these two and yell ‘Do you realize who you’re talking to?! Hope isn’t dead! He’s right in front of you! As He said He would be. He’s with you! Open your eyes!’
Yet another part of me identifies with their disillusionment. I too have kites of hope scattered lifeless on the ground. Promises unrealized. Prayers that go unanswered. Problems unresolved. Prophecies unfulfilled. I realize that life seldom turns out as I would like it to. I don’t expect an exemption from pain. I just want Him to show up!
But like these two, we can miss what's right in front of us. He did show up. He’s here!
Confession: This painting hangs in my office. I see it daily. And the same Jesus who walked with these two is walking beside me. He is on my road! Sitting at my table. We too break bread together. Daily. So why isn’t my heart burning like it once did?
While introducing a friend, an old man said “There’s nothing I treasure in life more than our friendship”. I once said this of Jesus. He was the only treasure I wanted. But over time, I let desires for other things choke out my desire for Him. I thought of Him just as much, but my thoughts no longer affected me. Nor did this painting.
This painting used to move my heart each time I glanced at it. It stirred my love for Jesus. And a hunger for His companionship. But as I shared in my initial post, I let overfamiliarity and many other desires lull me into a coma. Alive but not awake.
A day came when I’d see this picture and feel as emotionally detached as I do in a history museum. I had quarantined Jesus to a picture frame called history.* It used to trigger a desire to be near Him, talk with Him and listen for His voice. So I would.
But a day came when I’d look at it but not see it. Or Him. I tried to ‘keep Him alive’ by reading His story. But that’s like looking at old photo albums hoping to stir up memories of a dear friend. As if he's dead. When he’s right next to me. Loving me.
The painting Lucy saw is far more than a painting. Same with the Emmaus painting. It’s an artist’s rendition of an actual event. The Son of God really did walk with men. And He still does. He is not confined by a tomb. Nor by any picture frame I put Him in. If I just see Jesus on the Emmaus road, I may not see Him on mine. Which He is.
Reflection: Think over recent events in your life that stirred up an awareness of God. Is it possible Jesus is closer to you than you know? But you've grown oblivious to it? What would you do if Jesus was standing beside you right now? Saying your name? Because He is.
I know God sees my heart tonight and hears my silent cry. I know He feels the pain I feel and understands the why.
I know that He still wants me. Even though my love is weak. I know His heart’s a safe place where a soul is free to speak.
What I don’t know is why I hide. Behind a me that isn’t me. When He sees the me I really am and loves the me He sees.
All my longings lie open before you O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. Psalms 38:9
Even with God, I hate to feel weak. As if I need to be strong. He sees it all yet wants me. So why do I hide when I'm wrong? I pray a lot that isn’t me. I pray like the me I want Him to see.
Even with you I’ll hide the truth. Not voicing what I really feel. I show you a me I want you to see. Yet the me you see isn’t real.
I try to forget the man I was or I dream of the great man I’ll be. But the man I am reminds me: The man in my dream isn’t me.
Behind my humble selfless icon is another man. Another me.
The real me is not that selfless nor as humble as he may seem. He’ll listen as long as he’s heard or serve as long as he’s seen. Preaches Christ. Thinks of self. Humble til he's put on a shelf. Extols God’s glory. Seeks his own. Prays a lot. Until he's alone.
God sees it all yet love this me. The me behind the me you see. Fully seen yet not rejected. Spared the shame I fully expected. Deeply loved despite my sham, I'm more at rest with who I am.
Safe in His love, my heart is free. Free to be real. Free to be me.
The most important freedom is the freedom from self-judgment. Vironika Tugaleva
So why is it then I drift away? He wants to talk, yet I rarely pray. He'll love me whatever I say. Yet I ignore Him most of the day. I'll cry or rant and call it prayer but a heart to heart is very rare. I text my needs and I leave, yet never mention my fear or grief.
Prayer's become an obligation. 911 calls replace conversation. I say I want a deeper walk. But love can't deepen until we talk.
If I talk to God, I must real. Yet I don't know what I want or feel. Plus I hear a lie, feel a fear. Is the real me the man in my mirror? But God knows my heart better than I. Even if I can't utter a cry. He knows what it is I must say. 'So Lord I ask, teach me to pray.'
So if my heart is to ever be heard, I need a voice. I need words! So I never again end a day with prayers in my head I never say.
We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us. C.S. Lewis
On the hunt for words to give my heart a voice
My opinion: The scariest place on earth for husbands is a greeting card aisle. My mission: Find the perfect card that says just what she would want me to say. My dilemma: She wants it to say what I feel. So I'm hoping Hallmark will tell me. My nightmare: Every single card is blank. Dream come true: The perfect card. The perfect card: One that says exactly what my heart has always wanted to say.
What makes it special is not the roses or card. But the heart it comes from. I want my prayer to come from the heart too. But finding words is not easy.
Except for God. He’s quite articulate. His words convey and reveal His heart. But they not only help me know His heart. God's words help me know mine.
I must know my heart to voice it. To man or God. But with God, I don't know how to pray. But the Son and Spirit.do. God knows how to talk to God. Plus, no one knows me better than God. He knows what it is I most need to say.
We often see Scripture as only a written record of what God said to man. But it's also a book of stories. Stories of real people. People who prayed. And who wrote it all down! And left us a record of what they said to God.
Many were God’s friends. He said so Himself. They talked with God and He with them. Imagine having their personal prayer journals. Actually, you do. It's a Hallmark of 'perfect cards'. Words that’ll give your mute heart a voice.
Their words are a mirror for the soul. Showing me what I can't see myself. For example, not only does God want me to seek His face. My own heart does. Ps. 27:8 Yet I seek everything but God. Why? I don't know my heart.
His words not only help me know my heart. If prayed, they can heal my heart. God tells Israel to return to Him (Ho.14:2) He says 'Take words with you and return to the Lord.' What words? His. This is prayer: His words in my mouth.
Why do men linger in card aisles? We needs words to say what we feel. For we know that's what she wants to hear. Yet even if a card says it well, I must add my own words. She'll look for it. If I only sign my name, I miss the intent of the card.
I do this in worship. I'll sing lyrics of love to God yet not sing it to Him directly. Prayer and worship means more to God (and me) if it comes from me. It's fine to use the prayer of another. If I make it mine. If I don't, I'm just signing a card.
If a prayer or song voices what you feel, make it your own. Let it be from you. As with a card, my words can prime the pump but they can't replace my own.
God wants to hear what only you can say. Only you can speak for your heart.
Reflection: Any prayers in your head left unsaid? Is there a cry in your heart not yet cried? Do you need a heart to heart with God? Unsure how? Ask God. He'll help you. More than anything else God asks of you, He wants to hear from you!
It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Amos 5:19 Ever had a day like that? Or a year? When all that can go wrong does. Bad news follows failure follows rejection follows setback follows job loss. And all efforts to stop the bleeding or ease the pain don't help. And you wonder 'Must life be so painful?
I recently had surgery done on both knees simultaneously. Piece of cake. Then I woke up. Then the pain block wore off. Then I started rehab. To my dismay, there is no such thing as pain-free rehab. I'm also discovering there is no such thing as a pain free life. Pain is inevitable. So how do we live with the pain we can't avoid, escape or turn off?
The refreshing freedom of holy indifference
I was told my doctor may not agree to doing both knees at once. I didn't know how I could endure more pain in either leg if he said ‘no’. Nor did I know if insurance would cover both. I was worrying about this one day as I left for work. But I resolved to not start my day in worry. I would trust God regardless. My bold faith was quickly tested.
As I backed out, I hit my trash can and broke a tail light. A small blunder. Yet it'll steal my joy or ruin my day if I let it. Why? I do it a lot. I'm prone to blunder. Confirming my fear that I can't do anything right. I know it's a lie. Yet in the moment, it sure feels true.
But this time was different. The mix of pain, unknowns about surgery and busting my tail light would usually make me angry, anxious and cynical. I’d either yell at God. (As if He put the garbage can there when my wife, I mean, when I did). Or I'd rehearse all the stupid stuff I've done or broadcast all my woes in search of pity. But not this time.
I drove to work, listened to Isa. 40 and spent time in worship. Am I that spiritual? No. Far too selfish. So why didn't I spiral down as usual? I had a different response only because I had a different focus. I had recently seen God's glory in a way I never had before. In Isaiah 40. All I could think about is God. I wanted to see more of His glory.
Ignatius calls every Christ follower to cultivate something he called ‘holy indifference’. Indifference is apathy. A lack of caring. Holy indifference is the exact opposite. It's where you care so much about what matters that you're indifferent to everything else. God's love has ruined you for all else. All you want is Him. To know Him. To love Him.
Will those with chronic pain magically rise above their sickness and no longer be so affected by what afflicts them? No. But it is possible that the wounded soul beneath the skin can find deep and real comfort in the love of God. To the point that even if my body is battered again by pain today, the bruise goes no deeper than my skin.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul. It is well with my soul. It is well, it is well with my soul. Yet I'll obsess over a life I want but don’t have or have but don’t want. And miss God! But if I saw Him as He is, I'd love Him. And my life. As it is. Why? He would BE my life!
Paul said 'For to me, to live is Christ'. That's what life is like when you fall in love. A man in love has no time for little stuff. And what's not about her is all little stuff. Same with Christ. If I see Him, I'll love Him. And the ‘things of earth will grow strangely dim’.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:17,18
In spite of such dire circumstances, Habakkuk found joy in God. Not because his circumstances no longer matter. They do. But to him, God matters more. He feels the effects of hunger as all men do. Yet a deeper hunger pulls on him: a hunger for God.
Pay attention to what you pay attention to.
How did he find joy in such circumstances? Actually, he didn't. He found joy in God.
How? By focusing on God. Not his circumstances. How did he do it? Was he just that spiritual? No. God taught him what to focus on. In Ch. 1 he complains that God never answered his prayer. God's response? He tells him to ‘look’ and see what God is up to. (1:5) I think God was saying "Fix your eyes on me. Not your unanswered prayers." It may sound cold. If you're the one who's prayers are unanswered. It's actually wise advice. Unanswered prayer is a painful reality we can't avoid nor easily explain. Yet we try to. But to make that our focus distorts our view of prayer. Let me make just one point about unanswered prayer. The primary point of prayer is not getting an answer.
It's communion with God. Talking with Him. Listening to Him. Pouring out my heart to my Father. Hearing His heart for me. And yes, it includes taking my needs to Him and asking for His help. It may not always seem like it, but my needs do matter to God. But if they become the only topic I ever talk to Him about, it affects Him just like it would affect me if my adult children only spoke to me when they needed something.
If all I care about is getting my problems fixed and avoiding pain, I'll tend to measure God’s love for me by whether or not He fixes my problems and spares me from pain. Once I let my circumstances or my pain shape my view of God, it has the power to destroy my friendship with God. And my capacity to cope with the pain I can't avoid.
When life is hard, it is so easy for our view of God to change. No longer is He the one we run to. He is the one we run from. We tried to run to Him. We fled from the lion of pain and trouble and heartache, only to run into a bear of an even deeper heartache. God is the wall that fails me as I rest on it. And the snake waiting to bite. Or so I think.
When pain and suffering is at it's worst and my prayer has not been answered, Satan will do all He can to convince me I've been deceived and that God cannot be trusted.
God is not a deceiver, that He should offer to support us, and then, when we lean upon Him, should slip away from us. Augustine.
God is not fickle or unreliable. Don't believe the lie that your Father can't be trusted. Be slow to see your broken tail light as the judgment of God. I'm not saying He never disciplines. I'm just saying let God speak for Himself. Don't put words in His mouth.
Like us, Habakkuk wants answers too. But He wants God more. Even if God appears unjust, he refuses to get his view of God from his circumstances. He gets it from God.
He asks God in Ch.1:13 'Why do you tolerate the wicked who devour the righteous?" In desperate need of an answer, watch what he does with all of his angst. ‘I will stand at my watch. I will look to see what He will say to me”. (2:1) God appears unjust. Yet he won't accuse God's heart. He asks God to speak for Himself. And waits until He does.
How does God reply? He says 'write down the revelation I'm about to give you'. (2:2) God trusted him with a revelation of His will. Why? He wanted it! He waited for it! Pleasing God pleases him. All he wants is what God wants. Regardless of what it is.
When I listen to God, I have selective hearing. Especially if I'm in trouble or in pain. I want to know why this is happening and what I've done wrong to deserve it. And I want to know how soon this misery will be over. That's the only 'answer' I really want.
Habakkuk wants out of trouble too. But what he wants more is for God to step into his trouble. Why? God's power is best displayed in our troubles. Instead of resenting his crisis, he sees it as a chance for God to show Himself. 'You did it before. Do it again!'
“Lord I have heard of your fame. I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day. In our time make them known. In wrath remember mercy.’ Habakkuk 3:2
If God shows up in a crisis, we expect He'll get us out of it. What if He's here to help us face it. Before He took 3 Hebrews out of a fire, He walked with them in it. Dan 3:25 It's how joy can coexist with pain. God not only enters my fire. He stays with me in it.
So how do I keep my joy in the midst of it all? Keep my eyes on Him in spite of it all.
***************** INTERMISSION Note of apology to all veteran pain survivors It sounds so simple. And almost believable. Until you're thrown in a furnace.
I started these posts knowing what I wanted to say and wanted you to learn. About pain. I then spent a month in pain. Only to learn that I'm the one who needs to learn. Explaining a truth isn't the same as learning it. The only way to learn truth is to live it. So I've just begun to learn what I thought I knew. So if it sounds good, but rings hollow, it is. Not because it's untrue. It's untried.
If someone talks on and on, it's not always a sign of expertise. It could mean they're lost. Trying to reaffirm what they thought they knew. The fire of pain can make you doubt all you believe. Or forge in you an even stronger faith.
I believe God is saying 'Focus on me. Not your pain'. But I tried to share this with you before I learned it myself. And the best way to learn about pain is to hurt. While trying to listen to God. Which is what this pain and this post is all about. When I couldn't avoid my own pain, I realized these posts are for me.
Disclaimer and Note of caution to all lovers of brevity So if I need to live what I write about before I can learn it, I'm a slow learner. Translation: The end is nowhere in sight. So here's an off ramp if you need it. But if you need this crucible of pain to forge a deep love for Twitter, read on. Because this post is part of a personal journey, I chose to write until 'done'.
Shifting focus sounds easy. Even doable. Doing so while in pain is anything but easy.
Once the pain block wore off after my knee replacement surgery, I felt a level of pain I've not felt before. In learning what they actually do in a knee replacement, I see why the pain is so intense. To think I asked a stranger to do this to me and paid him for it!
Then the pain intensified once I started PT. The mix of acute pain and little sleep took its toll. The Dr asked if I'd been taking muscle relaxers. We were told it was for spasms. Mine was a constant tightness. I hadn't taken any. For ten miserable days. I texted my friend Tim and asked for prayer. In his reply, he added 'Read 2 Chron. 20'.
What to do when you don't know what to do
Another story of dire circumstances. And a man who won't be held hostage by them. A vast army threatens Judah. The king calls Judah to fast and pray. Here's his prayer:
We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you’. 2 Chronicles 20:12
A choir precedes the army singing ‘Give thanks to the Lord. His love endures forever’. Imagine this choir out in front of the army, singing God's praise as they approach the enemy. Who surely mocked. "Fools! That's your war strategy!?" Yes! Watch and learn!
So what is God's strategy? Fix your eyes on Me. And as for your enemy, trust me'. Their way of doing this is to worship. Proclaim His name. Sing His praises. Lift Him up!
Like David they take no sword or spear. They're trusting God. The odds? Impossible! But their attention is on God. Not their odds. Who's where? Out front. Leading the charge. Their song is His cue. He takes the field. As God's army watches. And learns.
This story taught me how to fight pain. (Thanks Tim.) A soldier is trained to be acutely aware of his enemy. Yet in our battles, God is training us to lock our attention on Him.
It feels counter-intuitive. Yet David did it. In Ps. 27:4 he focuses on the one thing that consumes him. While he's surrounded by enemies (v.3) and facing daily trouble (v.5). I want to stay riveted on God in spite of my pain. But I can't. The pain is all see or feel.
'We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to.' C.S. Lewis
The deeper the pain, the stronger it's pull for my attention. Speaking of deeper pain, there's a giant gap between a broken tail light and cancer. Or knee pain and the loss of a loved one. My troubles are light compared to what many of you are facing now. And what I'm learning is easier to explain than live. That's especially true with prayer.
Is my purpose for prayer the same as God's? If you face serious setbacks or complex issues, this advice may sound oversimplified. For many, 'Just focus on God’ feels like another empty platitude. Why? Seldom does it solve our problem! We've tried! We focus on God in prayer, Bible study or worship. And we do it for as long as we possibly can. Then we open our eyes only to find our problem is still there or worse. Conclusion: We did look to God. He didn’t look back!
What good is prayer if my needs go unmet after praying my heart out 24-7 for years?
If my aim in prayer is to get my problems fixed, then yes, it doesn't always 'work'. But God's aim in prayer is conversation. It's how we walk with Him. Connect. Talk. Listen. It's how we live life. We live it together. It's also how good friends face pain. Together.
But for many, pain is a threat to prayer. It cuts us off from God. But it doesn’t have to. If we keep looking, talking and listening. Even in the furnace of pain. (Ps.6, 22, 31, 69) It's not easy to pour out your heart to someone who's been silent. While you suffer. Nor is it easy to listen for what God might say when He hasn't said anything for so far.
I urge you friend. Ask God to speak. And stay in His Word so He can. For He wants to speak to you more than you know. When good fathers are quiet, it's not that they have nothing to say. Or don't care enough to speak to you. Just because He lets you go through this pain, doesn't mean He will let you go through it alone. Listen to Him!
People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you.Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them.Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Isa.30: 18-21
Notice who He promises to speak to. Those whom He's given the bread of adversity. In Isa 40: 26, we see God speak encouragement to those He loves who are suffering.
God knows how unanswered prayer affects us. But when He says ‘lift your eyes’ in Isa. 40:26, it’s not to see our prayers answered. He wants us to ‘look at the stars’. Why? To encourage those who suffer. For just like the stars, we aren't overlooked or forgotten.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Isaiah 40: 26,27
He knows each star by name. Why? It's unique. It's presence matters in the universe. He knows you by name. Why? You're unique. Your presence matters in the universe.
I can feel unseen, unheard and unloved. But the fact it feels true doesn't make it true. My feelings tell me God can't see, hear or love me. But feeling it doesn't make it true.
Did you ever assume someone didn't love you only to learn they did and always had? I see a sea of stars and feel invisible. God sees them too. They make Him think of me. He asked us to look at the stars to show us this truth about Him. He sees us. Loves us. For more on this subject, see my previous post: 'When Pain is all I think about - Pt.1'
So what can you do for your heart when pain is all you feel? Fix your attention on God Himself. And less on the pain you feel. Sure it's an impossible ask, but it's an ask God Himself makes. Col. 3:1 And He'll never ask for what He won't help you do. Mt. 19:26
Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Col.3:1,2
Now set your mind and heart to seek the Lord your God. 1 Chron. 22:19
You will keep perfectly peaceful the one whose mind remains focused on you, because he remains in you. Isaiah 26:3 ISV
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Phil. 4:8
In Phil. 4:8, Paul tells us how to ‘be anxious for nothing’. (4:6) Another impossible ask. One way we worry less is by fixing our minds on the One who is bigger than the problem or issue that worries us. Our faith in God grows stronger to the degree we focus on God. Just as it shrinks and weakens to the degree we focus on our problem.
I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy. Psalms 123:1,2
Oswald Chambers says of Ps 123: “As the eyes of a servant are riveted on his master, our eyes should be directed to and focused on God.Our spiritual strength begins to be drained when we stop lifting our eyes to Him. Our stamina is sapped, not so much through external troubles surrounding us but through problems in our thinking.” Maybe the problem with our thinking is ...
He said our stamina is sapped by problems in our thinking. I wonder if the problem with our thinking is thinking so much about our problem. The more I fixate on my pain, the more it consumes me. Nothing distracts like pain. Yet if all I think about is my pain or crisis, it blinds me to everything and everyone around me. Including God.
If a pain and trouble free life matters more to me than God, I can't be happy even if my pain is removed and my troubles are solved. Why? Pain and trouble is still the focus of my life as long as my primary purpose in life is to avoid all pain and trouble.
I give my attention to what I treasure. What do I treasure? Whatever has my attention.
Your mind is an attention pointing device. If you point it at painful subjects, don’t be surprised if you find yourself in pain. That’s why they’re called ‘painful subjects’ Scott McPherson Sometimes the best thing I can do about my problems is to turn my back on them. I don't mean abdicate responsibility. I must face my issues and do all I can to fix them. Yet I must not let them consume me. I must look at Him! Not just so He'll fix my issue.
But simply so I can see Him.
It’s easy to fall for the lie that you can’t have peace until your most pressing problem is fixed and the issue is behind you. Once it’s behind you, guess what you'll find in front of you tomorrow? A new issue. Look up. It's easier than looking back or ahead.
Some say 'I did look to God. I didn't find the answer I was looking for'. Perhaps that's the problem. You looked for an answer when an answer isn't what you need. It's God.
So do I just ignore all my issues? No! I'm responsible to do my part in resolving them. Yet I know my best efforts can’t always fix them. If honest, I rarely know what the issue is. Much less how to fix it. However I can trust God with all I can't do and do all I can. There’s only one person who actually knows how to fix my issue. And has the ability to actually do it. The wisest thing I can do is listen to Him, trust Him, do what He says. Only then will I ever find peace. My heart will only rest when all my hope is in Him.
This is personal for me. This gift from my daughter reminds me of what matters most.
I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Psalms 16:8
I need not be shaken by what's around me if I fix my attention on the God before me.
Charles Stanley once told this story about his early years of ministry. He faced great opposition from many who wanted to remove him as pastor. Imagine how you would feel if you were in his shoes. It’s all he could think about. During this time, an elderly widow asked him to stop by her house. She showed him a famous painting of ‘Daniel in the Den of Lions’. Daniel is standing in a lion’s den with all these lions behind him.
There’s a window high on the wall and a beam of light steaming into the den of lions. The lady asked him “What do you see, Pastor?” He said impatiently ‘Daniel standing in the lion’s den. I’ve seen this painting before’. She asked, "But what's Daniel doing?”.
He said "I told you. He's standing in the lion’s den. What do you see that I'm missing?" She said, “Pastor, Daniel isn’t looking at the lions. He’s looking up at the light. Pastor, what are YOU looking at?” She put her arm around her pastor's shoulder and said, “Pastor, don’t look at all the lions that are threatening you. Keep your eyes on Jesus.”
Dr. Stanley said that visit was a turning point. He chose to stop looking at his troubles and just focus on Jesus. You’re surrounded by lions too. Are they all you think about? The more you focus on your problems, the bigger it gets. And the less rest you get.
It would take a supernatural peace to not think about the lions. Which is exactly what God intends to give us. A peace that passes understanding. Which means I can have peace in my soul even without understanding what’s going on in my circumstances.
If Daniel had fixated on the lions, he never could have slept. He didn’t. He had one thing on his mind. God. The one who made the lions. And had power over them to shut their mouths. In spite of these lions he can't avoid, all he can think about is God.
It's a small gesture to lift your eyes. But worth it. Your heart and mind will thank you.
I will lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1, 2
Reflection: What are you looking at? The lions around you or the Lord before you?
Both beauty and pleasure have the power to distract even the most disciplined mind. They can hijack your attention and hold you hostage for hours, days or a lifetime. But there’s something else that once it gets its teeth in you, can hold you in such a fierce grip, you can’t think of anything else. Despite how much you want to. It’s called pain.
Like a swat team ambush, suffering comes into our lives whether we want it or not. When you least expect it, bad news can rush in like a flash flood and break your heart. Anxiety moves in and peace leaves. Hope fades as the waters rise to overwhelm you.
Whether physical or emotional, uninvited suffering can commandeer your thoughts, overwhelm all your emotions and throw life into turmoil. You can’t focus on anything but the pain. Even if you want to focus on something else, this tyrant won’t let you.
I’m the last person to talk about pain. Why? I have no tolerance for it. For physical or emotional pain. I moan and groan over a sore neck. And I want you to moan with me.
So why write about pain? Did I suffer a loss? Am I dying? Nope. My knees are hurting.
I should be grateful. Unlike many, I do have two legs. Though I don’t have a good one to stand on right now. My left knee is due for a knee replacement. And I’ve torn the meniscus in my right knee. So I can’t walk far or stand very long without both knees screaming for relief. So I scream for relief too. Ask my wife. On second thought, don't.
I’m a wimp when it comes to pain. I think a pill should make it go away instantly. If it doesn’t, my knees scream. And I scream at the pill. ‘Why can’t you do what I’m paying you an arm and a leg to do?! (Pun intended.) The pill is silent. So I ask the doctor. He says take the pill. I ask God. He must be hard of hearing. So I scream again but louder.
It seems like God speaks less when life is hard. Especially if I ask Him why. So I answer my own question. I tell myself why I think it happened. The truth is: I have no answers. Even if I did, very seldom does any ‘answer’ ease the pain or undo the damage done.
Even the very best answers rarely satisfy my urgent need to make sense of suffering. I think a more helpful question is ‘How?’. How do I live with the pain I cannot avoid?
There is one principle God’s been teaching me that does help minimize the pain a bit. Maybe not the physical pain. But the emotional and mental anguish that comes with physical pain or adversity. For me, pain often turns into self-pity. Which turns into low grade depression. But God's advice is helping. I still feel pain but my heart hurts less.
This isn’t new advice. You know it already. But wisdom is not measured by what we know. But by what we do with what we know. Unless I act on it, the wisest advice is no more helpful than the prescription I never fill or take. I’m not saying this is a cure-all for pain. But it does help minimize the pain of being in pain. So what is this advice?
Lift up your eyes.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Isaiah 40: 26,27
For the last 6 months, I’ve been ‘stuck’ in Isaiah 40. I’ve read it daily. I’m memorizing it, studying it and reading books on it. I also listened to Handel’s Messiah, inspired by Isa. 40. I’ve listened to sermons on it. Journaled my thoughts. Why? I’m not sure. All I know is my heart is pulled here. And the more I see of God, the more I want to see.
This chapter and those that follow are preoccupied with one main focus: God Himself. Isaiah's message announces the coming of God to earth as a man: Behold your God!
O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Isaiah 40:9
I won’t try to unpack the message of Isaiah 40. I just wanted you to notice it’s theme. It’s God Himself. We see the transcendent glory of a reigning king. Who gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart! Isaiah presents us a revelation of who God is. For God’s greatest gift to us is Himself. And He is man’s greatest need.
Isaiah’s message was written to the people of God during their long exile in Babylon. Enduring years of hard service in a strange land with foreign gods ruled by evil men. But to the hopeless comes a word of hope. ‘This is not the end! Don’t fear! Your God is coming!” Israel’s only hope is the Shepherd of Israel. The focus of Isaiah’s message.
Did you notice what God says after He lifts their eyes to the stars above them? v. 27 He says ‘Not one of them is missing’. So “Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? The God who knows every star by name knows every heart that breaks. Ps 147:3,4
When a wave of pain breaks on the shore of my soul, whatever its cause, a wave of loneliness almost always follows behind it. The feeling that no one knows what I’m feeling or cares that I hurt. It hurts enough to hurt. But to hurt alone pours salt on the wound. The pain is more painful. We need friends as much as we need relief.
The soul in pain must be told they’re not alone! This is why God says ‘lift your eyes’.
Now I already know I should look to God if I’m suffering. Yet God’s call in v.26 to ‘lift your eyes’ struck me like the good news it is. I normally would balk at such a phrase. I don’t to hear pat answers for a complex issue? ‘Lift up your eyes’ can sound a lot like ‘Just trust God’. The last thing you want to hear when life is hard and God is silent.
For me, it’s not a pat answer. God’s calling to lift my eyes filled me with hope. Why? Because I ‘stumbled’ on it. I didn’t hear the advice first and look up to God for relief. It was the other way around. While looking at God to know Him, I grew more aware of Him and less preoccupied with me or my needs. Ignatius calls it ‘holy indifference’.
I’m not saying I’m no longer affected by pain or adversity. I am. Just not as much.
As long as I keep my focus on God, that is. Which I’ll admit is easier said than done. I am easily pulled into the quicksand of anxiety and self-focus. But I’ve tasted sweet moments when all that fills my vision is God. And ‘the things of earth growstrangely dim in the light of His glory and grace’. What captures my attention affects my heart!
Two men looked out a window, One sees mud, the other saw stars. Oscar Wilde
My friend Patrick asked me what’s helped most through this ordeal. What’s made it more bearable is not being consumed by it. I was already ‘lifting my eyes’ before I read vs. 26. I’ve been in Isa 40: 1-11 for 6 mo's. Pulled by a need to know God freshly. Yesterday I saw this call to 'lift your eyes' in v. 26. And realized why I have such peace.
It’s unlike me to feel pain and peace at the same time. I still moan and groan. And my wife endures it graciously. But what I haven’t done lately (which I usually do) is whine over my trouble, rant at God for allowing it or give in to fear. Why? I trust Him. My faith though weak, can be as strong as what I focus on. It's hard to focus on God and worry.
You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Isaiah 26:3
Do you ever find yourself having to relearn the same life lesson over and over?
It wouldn’t be so bad, but for me it’s been 40 years trying to learn one simple truth. Imagine 1st grade 40 times. With no recess and tiny chairs. So why am I here? What’s the lesson I have yet to learn? The truth in my head my heart keeps missing?
Before God calls me to a task, He calls me to Himself. Our friendship matters more to Him than anything I do for Him. My head knows this. But my heart’s not there yet.
I tend to value impact over intimacy. Fruit over friendship. Whenever I do, it shows. Impact diminishes. Fruit withers. Like a branch off the vine. If I don't connect with God and feed on Him, all people get from me is me. When what they need is God.
And I need Him just as much. If I preach a sermon on walking with God, yet He and I haven’t had a heart to heart in months, you'll know it. And I'll be the last to notice. I can write a bestseller on prayer. But if I don't pray, all those insights are just clouds without rain. Especially for me. Artificial fruit won't nourish the soul. Mine included.
This is a current issue for me. I've struggled lately to express myself or write a post. I'm too focused on how I say it than what I say. Or how you hear it. To the point I stop speaking from my heart. Nor am I listening for God's. That's when I become an echo instead of a voice. I describe this life I don’t live. Not that I lie. But I assume I’ve learned a truth if I understand it. As if knowing it is living it. So I guess it is a lie.
Example: I’ve said that what God wants most from us is friendship. And I believe it.
God called Moses up the mountain. To have a conversation with His friend. He told him what matters most to Him. As friends do. Jesus called men to ‘Come' and 'follow’. The word ‘follow’ comes from 2 words: ‘union’ and ‘road’. He’s saying 'Let's walk together.' If I ask where, He won’t tell. To Him, the walk is about the friendship.
We were created for God. He wants a one on one friendship with every one of us.
My head know it's true. My heart finds it hard to believe God wants me for a friend. Richard Bolles said that just because a truth is universally true for all of us (i.e. Man is made in the image of God.) does not make it less individually true for each of us. What God said to Moses, David or Peter, He says to you. He wants your friendship.
Once I would have said 'I already am His friend'. I'm not so sure now. Yes, He's a friend to me. But what kind of friend am I? If I gave my friends the same amount of time, focus and devotion as I give to God, I"m not sure how close we'd actually be.
The Christian life is often called a ‘personal relationship with God’. So why do I feel closer to everyone I know than I do to God? It seems to me that if a friendship is personal, it means we’re close. We invest in the friendship. We talk to each other, know each other, trust each other. I care about you. Not just what you'll do for me.
But for me, most of my prayer life is focused on me. What God is doing or not doing for me. In worship, I focus on my experience or lack of it.. And miss Him. Or I fixate on my emotions and miss His. Yet I can't truly pray if I watch me pray. Or grow if I fixate on growing. When's the last time I asked God about what's on His heart?
A friendship is two hearts taking a long walk on the same road. It's what He's after.
In Bible College, God made it clear that this journey with Him is the reason I exist. I grew up in a Christian home and ‘received Christ’ as a boy. My dad was a pastor. So I grew up hearing about God. Wanting to serve God somehow, I went to a Bible college in Ohio. After one year, I felt like I knew God fairly well. And then I met Him.
Here’s what happened. Apart from my studies, I felt this strong pull to the Gospel of John. At first, I resisted. I saw it as a book for seekers or new believers. I did not want to read a book I’d read many times. Yet God was the one pulling. So I yielded.
To see God's Son is to see His heart. To see God's heart is to see Him as He truly is. Which lights a fire in any soul. I grew restless in my hunger to know Him. I started taking late night walks in the nearby hills. I’d pray, weep, sing, rant or just enjoy His company. The hills were my ‘tent of meeting’. A place for 2 friends to meet and talk.
Life was simple. All my heart wanted is God. 'Things of earth grew strangely dim’.
That is, until my senior year. Thoughts of graduation woke up my worry. I had no idea what I was going to do. Both for the summer and the rest of my life. I had prayed about career since high school. The 'calling' I waited for never came. I went to college wanting to know God and help others. As for future plans, I was clueless.
With graduation approaching, my prayer life disintegrated into one single prayer: “Tell me what to do!” I kept waiting for a call that never came. Despite much prayer and fasting. I was desperate. 'Please say something!' And He did. But all He said is “Seek my face”. I was mad! “Are you serious!? What do you think I’ve been doing?”
Truth is: I hadn't sought God Himself for months. I was too intent on finding His will. In fact, my desire for direction had all but replaced my desire for God. It may sound noble to say 'I just want His will’. But love isn't the only motive that fuels that prayer. I was taught and believed my future in ministry depended on knowing my 'calling'.
One day God finally spoke. All I had on my mind that day is lunch, my need for a restroom and seeing the girl who would become my wife. (Not in this order Dear.) As I left the restroom (so much for Mt. Sinai) I heard a whisper. “Jack, I’ve called you to love.” I instantly knew two things. I knew that God was simply reissuing the first commandment: Love God. Love others. I also knew this was it. This is my 'calling'.
I was mad! Again. "Thanks for the clarity! Must you be so generic! So vague! It’s like calling me to breathe! I need details! I know I’m to love. Love who? How? Where?"
This lack of direction about my ministry role would trouble me for years to come. I pursued pastoral care as it fit with my passion and gifts. But not hearing from God left me unclear as to where I fit and who I am. I had no title to hang my identity on. I felt lost. Without a 'call', major decisions paralyzed me. Please tell me what to do!
The older you get, the ego takes a hit if you still don't know what you want to be when you grow up. A lot of my angst over this is from misunderstanding God's will. To me, His 'will' is specific direction: what to do. That's part of it, but what matters most to God is His general will. His purpose in making me. The kind of heart I have.
If I ignore that, I miss what matters most.To want direction is OK. Yet I can't confuse it with wantingHis will. His will is Hisdesire. When Hesaid 'I've called you to love', He was telling me His dream. His vision for my life. What He wants most. He wants me! He wants my love. And He wants me to love. Like Him. I was created for love.
He tried to tell me so. In a still small voice. But I insisted on wind, earthquake or fire. I regret the years I wasted pursuing what I wanted while ignoring what He wanted.
We will not be satisfied until we satisfy Him, and we will never find what we are looking for until we find what He is looking for. Misty Edwards
I now know that God in fact did call me. Back in college. Just as I prayed He would. It just wasn’t the call I expected. He had called me to Himself. To love. It’s not that He didn’t have a ministry assignment for me. He did. But it's not His primary calling.
So why is it mine?
God's will is His desire. He calls us to what He wants. Which is? The conversational friendship we enjoyed in the rolling hills of Ohio. That's what He was after all along.
It took me a lifetime to learn this lesson. Actually, scratch that. I still haven't learned it. I still want to hear a 'Go!' Yet what I still hear most is ‘Come!’. It's frustrating. And I tell Him. 'Hello!! I’m here already! So stop saying ‘Come’ and tell me where to go'
I want a mission. He wants a friend. Like me, Pastor Rick McKinley craved direction. His mentor told him, “God didn’t call you to Himself to use you Rick. He called you to love you.” Yes, God wants to use us. But not at the expense of friendship. Mission can't be first. He only sends out friends. Those who put the friendship first. Mk 3:14
Like Peter pulling up his feet, He can't use me to love you if I won't let Him love me.
My son Bryce wrote a song I needed 40 years ago I hear God's heart in the lyrics. ‘First let’s fall in love', then we’ll change the world.’ God changes the world. But He does so with fearless lovers who want to make Him known more than make a mark. In fact, He already did. They turned the world upside down. And they'll do it again.
Do you ever get so distracted by what you do for God that you’re unaware of Him? Does your service for God keep you so busy, you rarely have time to sit with Him? I don’t ask for guilt's sake. But for His. And yours. We need the God we offer others.
Jack Hayford spoke at my graduation. Reminding us of what matters most before we set out to change the world. He said 'Fresh ministry flows out of fresh fellowship with God. The water you give others is only as fresh or life-giving as your prayer life'.
We can miss His call to fellowship if we just focus on His call to stewardship. His call to the first commandment is a call to what matters. When He said ‘Seek my face’, He was clarifying my purpose. The pull I felt to the hills was God calling me to Him. An invitation to a journey. “Peter! Andrew! And yes, Jack! Will you walk with me?”
Do you ever feel a restless hunger you can’t explain? Which nothing satisfies? I do. I once heard these lyrics during worship. It clarifies why I have this itch in my soul. ‘Your hunger is His invitation. Your longing is the evidence He’s drawing you to Him.” I can’t take credit for this hunger. The reason I want God is that He first wanted me.
“Before a man can seek God, God must first have sought the man.” A.W. Tozer
It's not just God that's calling me to a deeper friendship with Him. My own heart is. David said 'My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.' Ps. 27
Reflection: Do you feel a restless hunger you can't account for? Is God calling you to Him? Is ministry distracting your heart? If so, go for a walk. Have a heart to heart.
Excerpts: It’s hard to love me as I am if no one else does. Or if I don't feel they do. For my default response is to see me as others do. Or as I assume they do. My only hope is if I can see me the way God does. For He sees me as I am and yet He still loves me.
How does our self-image gets distorted in the first place? It’s often when a person I love or respect, shames, ignores or hurts me. Rejection makes me doubt my worth. The younger I am, the more likely I’ll believe them. It’s also likely I’ll look at me in the same way they do. Or in the way I think they do. Maybe for the rest of my life.
Unless someone shows up who sees me differently. If I trust them, their view of me makes me doubt mine. Jesus does this. He helps me as God sees me. As I really am. This is my story. I saw me as I thought my Dad did. Until someone showed up who saw me differently. A person who matters a lot to me told me I matter a lot to them.
Who is it that challenged this view of myself I received from my father? My other father.