We all have our thorns.
Something which digs into us 24/7 (well, almost.) Something which we feel keeps us from being perfectly happy. Something which is at the very top of our prayer list, over which we spend the most time frowning in prayer.
Maybe we think our greatest need is emotional fulfilment, better relationships; we pray desperately for God to give us a husband, a wife, like-minded friends, a stable family etc...
Or maybe we have other thorns--wanting success, stability, affirmation. Or that difficult person, difficult situation. Please God kick this out of my life, put that in.
To digress to a different analogy, we tend to see life as ice cream. Smooth. Sweet. And we have no idea why it has these dirty pebbles--pebbles have no business to be in ice cream!--of trouble, spoiling our nice plate of ice cream. Eeeurgh!
What if life isn't meant to be ice cream? What if the pebbles are part of what it is?
Perhaps we need to realize that our thorns, which seem the most important things in our eyes, may not be the most important thing in God's eyes. Like the lame man at the Gate Beautiful, asking for alms when complete healing, complete recovery, was just in front of him.
What we're praying hardest for now--does it really matter? Is it really what we need, as much as we think we do?
The thorns themselves, I'm learning to see, are not what we should be agonising over. Gene Edward Veith speculated: 'That there can be no meaningful story without a conflict of some kind is worth contemplating. If, as [William] Kilpatrick suggests, our lives are actually a story (whose author and finisher is Christ), then our own conflicts may well be necessary for our lives to be meaningful.' (Reading Between the Lines) Just as stories need conflict to be meaningful, Kilpatrick suggests that our lives, as Christians, are meaningful because of the conflict we experience. These conflicts change us, just as stories change characters. These conflicts bring about revelations and choices, just as they do in stories. These conflicts create meaning--not in a sadistic, horribly impersonal and unfeeling way; not any more than a writer can be considered sadistic for writing a tragedy, or accused of being unfeeling towards his characters because he puts conflict in their lives. (as a writer, I think I feel more for my characters than any reader possibly could, and so I can't allow that as a possibility!)
Back to the thorns.
Perhaps I should be praying, not simply that God will take away whatever it is which is making life difficult for me, but rather that He will open my eyes and heart to learn from it.
That a thorn-free life is not what we were called to, though we wait to experience it in Heaven.
Psalm 51, in my Bible, has its page slightly disfigured by a sticker bookmark which keeps it permanently marked, for better or for worse (considering the tape needed to mend the resulting small tear, probably for the worse.)
It is my 'salvation psalm'. As a seeker, desperately searching the Bible for words which would give me light in my darkness, this psalm caught me by its echoes of my sobbing heart. I remember choking on the vivid feeling of realizing someone understands how you feel. David wonderfully expressed the riot of emotions and desires which had torn my soul.
Guilt. Fear. Shame. Helplessness. Despair. Desperation.
And trembling hope under it all, hope for redemption, forgiveness, life, love.
Even afterwards, as a young Christian learning to walk, this psalm continued to echo my heart.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
Our sins may be against others, but deep down inside, the greatest guilt of all is against God our Maker and Creator. We have rejected Him. We have hated Him and hurt our fellow creatures and sinned willfully, against them, but primarily against Him, because sin is is the antithesis of His being.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
The 'hidden part'. Depths in myself which I never knew existed. Emotions and desires I had never had before, which I couldn't explain, but were the most poignant soul-cries I had ever experienced. I had never wanted holiness, righteousness, so badly that it felt my life depended on it. I had never been so desperately afraid of God and yet at the same time, so desperately wanting to love Him and be loved by Him. I had never been so sure I needed Christ and yet so unsure how to satisfy this need.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
...sin...sin...sin! If it could be taken away! If I could just be freed from it--
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
A clean heart is created, once and for all, in an irrevocable work of the Holy Spirit. But our spirit will, and can, waver; be distracted; forget. We need it constantly renewed by experiencing God's presence and the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
If we truly have joy in Christ, our delight in sin and attraction towards idols fades by default. Watching advertisements for holiday tours is dull and unsatisfying once you know you have air tickets for a real holiday in your pocket.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
What should motivate us to evangelize? Guilt? Duty?
Joy. Joy in the grace which saved us.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
No matter how foolish, how misled, how overdue, God never despises our brokenness..
It is always, always, precious to Him.
What comfort to have, even if we're confused and struggling with everything else.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
And it doesn't end there. We look forward to sacrifices of righteousness (yes, actually righteousness! hooray for sanctification!)
We look forward to God's pleasure...to His building us up--doing good to us...
This is just the beginning.
Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult to love people as Christ calls us to?
As I get older--wiser--it's hard not to complete the proverb and get sadder too. Inevitably, you're forced to be increasingly aware of the failings in yourself and others. New friends with different expectations, who take things for granted, or who don't place the same value on things you thought were basic for friendship. Old friends having problems you never knew they had before, until something happens to bring it into the open, and leaves you both hurting and confused. Ugly parts of yourself which you never knew, or wanted to know, existed.
How to keep a tender and compassionate heart, a forgiving and loving heart in the midst of all this, seems impossible. We're not perfect ourselves. We struggle with our own selfishness and ugliness, and at the same time we have to struggle with the same two faults in others.
We know what divine love looks like, because we've experienced it at the cross. Yet we're not able to reflect it perfectly, just as we can't understand it perfectly. Hence the struggle to love others--because they're not lovable and we're not loving.
Jonathan Edwards addressed this problem when he said that divine love is not natural to the heart of man. In fact, he wrote: '....it is a plant transplanted into the soul out of heaven...its foundation [is] in God, and not in self.'
'Self-love', he wrote, 'is the sum of natural principles, as divine love is of supernatural principles.'
Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney add to that: 'As one matures, one's love for God and His creation spills over into the lives of others, just as a maturing plant or tree stretches across an ever-widening distance and shelters it. The believer who lives for God ultimately cannot avoid blessing others.'
Divine love does not naturally exist in our hearts, and that's why we feel that struggle--the sin-stained terrain of our hearts wants to reject the seedling, choke it, because the roots it puts out clashes with the cement that's all we've ever known.
But it's here nevertheless. Christ placed the seed there; transplanted it from heaven, in Edwards' words. And though the struggle now is real, and tough, the concrete will slowly give way and the plant grows, its leaves grow, and the shade its leaves cast grows...
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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