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"He will be their peace."
Peace has been on the top of my mind recently, simply because of the lack of it.
When a friend initiated an app-based Bible study, I didn't hesitate suggesting a study topic. Anxiety. Worry. Fighting for peace. Yes, please.
As the study discussed, those emotions of anxiety and worry--if you break them down--stem from fear and lack of trust. Sure enough, if you consider, the fear we face is basically the fear of what is beyond our control: limitations, external situations, etc.
We're afraid that we can't manage everything.
We're afraid that despite our best attempts, we won't win the love and respect of others.
We're afraid of rejection, of failure, of unfulfilled dreams.
Of pain, without any hope of painkillers.
Of grief that doesn't go away.
Of losing something we can't imagine living without.
And this reflects the self-reliant, self-centered mentality that is so ingrained in us as our instinctive coping mechanism for our life here--full of tragedy just around the corner, of devastated hopes one hair's breadth away, of happiness so fragile that we can only hope hopelessly for it to last. We're terrified of losing control, of being helpless, being uncertain. We rely on our efforts to control our lives but don't dare to acknowledge that it won't, can't, be enough.
Which clearly shows us the link, as Christians, between a lack of faith (in the One who is in control, though we aren't) and a lack of peace.
It's easy to say that we need to "trust God Who is in control"--too easy to spout another vague abstract statement about His sovereignty which only gives us a greater sense of how far off we are from achieving that peace we want so desperately.
And that very naturally leads us to the age-old question: how to increase our faith? Though we pray to God about our problems they still harass and burden us with worry. We echo the heartbroken father in Mark 9:23-25; "I believe; help my unbelief!"
As someone who is struggling with this issue now--present tense!--who is very much treading water at sea, not as someone waving nochalently from the shore, high and dry--I believe we need to realize two things.
Firstly, a deeper understanding of and love for God. Before we can actually apply our abstract knowledge about His attributes, power, sovereignty, etc. We may know and believe that He is powerful, that He's in control, that He holds all things in His hands, (and there, I've almost composed a Christian hit song.) But let's be honest, those are cold comfort when you're lying awake at 2 am trying to sleep while your heart is throbbing uncomfortably, your head is swimming with worry and apprehension for tomorrow, and you wonder drearily if a good cry would help disperse the cloud of anxiety, exhaustion, and fear--but no, you got to sleep, you need your sleep, the last thing you need is to be sleep-deprived...and you lie awake miserably for another two wretched hours before falling into a restless sleep filled with bad dreams of your teeth falling out or being endlessly chased by serial killers. All right, maybe we don't all have the same experiences of being stressed.
The strongest, most absolute trust does not necessarily depend on the ability of the one trusted but rather on the relationship you have with them. I would feel more comfortable trusting my sis than a prime minister--powerful as he might be, however much I believe he's sincere about helping me. Does that make sense? Perhaps not logically, but then when were human emotions logical?
It's a good time to ask yourself what actually is your personal relationship like with this God who is in control.
How much do I actually love and know Him, aside from how much I know about Him?
Secondly, realize our anxiety and worry stem from the nature of our priorities.
It's hard to manage our anxiety and fears when we're convinced the sum total of our happiness and fulfilment depends on them.
We all know the difficult verses like 1 John 2:15; "Do not love the world or anything in the world." Turning from that verse to examine our lives is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things any pastor could do to his congregation.
Which brings up another uncomfortable but related question: what does it mean to be spiritually minded?
We need to strive, as a long-term goal, to define our happiness less and less on how things work out on earth. Not just when dealing with worry and anxiety, but throughout our lives; the sunbathing, beach holiday times as well as the shipwreck survivor dog-paddling in the middle of the ocean. To have a long-sighted view of ultimate happiness that we're moving towards, that we can start to enjoy even now regardless of what happens to us during our time here. To let our understanding of Heaven transform the way we understand life here.
Still dog-paddling in the ocean, taking life ten seconds at a time, but knowing that behind the fog surrounding us lies the shore--however faint it may look now--a solid and dependable shore.
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As we grow in spiritual maturity, we continue to face suffering. Reversing the order of that sentence would still be truth--as we continue to face suffering, we grow in spiritual maturity. God intended a link between the two that we often cannot--short of looking at it through the analogy of a writer developing characters--understand. That, and having experienced myself how suffering can produce growth in a way that no form of happiness could, have enabled me to accept what might otherwise seem unsatisfying or even sadistic to some.
Instead of being discouraged that no matter how holy we are, we can't earn ourselves freedom from pain or guarantee against heartbreak while we're on earth--being able to have this spiritual maturity and perspective when we face suffering is a precious gift from God, one that strengthens and encourages us. Instead of praying to be spared suffering a more mature response would be to pray that we would be prepared for suffering when it does come. There is a beautiful passage in Isaiah I stumbled across this morning which reminds us--just like Habakkuk's "Though the fig tree wither and the vine fail...yet I will rejoice in the Lord"--that God can be most present, most real to us, in our suffering.
Isaiah 30: 20-22
And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,
Yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore,
But your eyes shall see your teachers,
Your ears shall hear a word behind you saying "This is the way, walk in it,"
Whenever you turn to the right hand
Or whenever you turn to the left.
To have faith which enables us to see our "teachers" in the difficult situations and trials of our lives. To sense God's guidance, as result, leading us by the Spirit to respond blamelessly, humbly, to grow even as we suffer.
You will also defile the covering of your images of silver,
And the ornament of your moulded images of gold.
You will throw them away as an unclean thing;
You will say to them, "Get away!"
And led by these teachers, our opened eyes enable us to identify the idols that nestle in our hearts, the small petty sins we'd been doing too well to address, the pride we'd been nurturing, the self-entitlement, selfishness, or materialism. We see them, with startling clarity, at the bleak moment when we're forced to realize how destructive and empty they are
And, as David pleads in Psalm 119:37, we want to "turn my eyes away from worthless things."
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Reading casually through Micah chapter 4, I absorbed a depiction of peace. Unity. Restoration. Healing, contentment. That most beautiful line--"every man under his vine and fig tree"--brightest of all. What a calming and comforting passage.
It was only when I read Search the Scriptures' prompt that I realized--for the first time--that the same passage was also predicting the fall of Zion and the exile of the people.
Only passingly mentioned in this chapter, the devastation and suffering it entailed would take place before the peace pictured here, and be the context from which God would deliver His people.
And that was sobering. To know that so much war, violence, heartbreak, and despair lay just around the corner, and yet, at the same time, to know that that was not the end--that in God's eyes, that was only the setting for the greater, overarching, lasting deliverance of His people.
Perhaps you are in the midst of experiencing a spiritual or emotional equivalent of the war and exile in this passage.
4 But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever.
You long for the peace, the healing, the restoration, the contentment that Micah depicts. The confidence and comfort of God's presence. The sense of security and quiet contentment, the assurance that comes from knowing we are where we belong, where we are needed. Beyond the reach of fear. Whether external or internal.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
For justice. For deliverance. When what is being used now as weapons and sources of conflict become tools to nurture and cultivate peace, growth, fruitfulness.
6 “In that day,” says the Lord,
“I will assemble the lame,
I will gather the outcast
And those whom I have afflicted;
7 I will make the lame a remnant,
And the outcast a strong nation;
So the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on, even forever.
You long for healing. From the fears and hurts which cripple you. From limitations. From imperfections, both of the flesh and spirit. You long for strength that you can only dream of now, and wholeness that wrings your heart to think about. For community, for friendship, for encouragement; for assurance of God's sovereignty in a frightening and chaotic world.
9 Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in your midst?
Has your counselor perished?
For pangs have seized you like a woman in labor.
And He answers us, directly.
Am I not here?
Am I not in control?
Do you not trust my plans?
Can you trust that the pain you're in now--
--without dismissing any of your suffering, its effects, its scars--
--may be the threshold to something greater?
10 Be in pain, and labor to bring forth,
O daughter of Zion,
Like a woman in birth pangs.
For now you shall go forth from the city,
You shall dwell in the field,
And to Babylon you shall go.
There you shall be delivered;
There the Lord will redeem you
From the hand of your enemies.
Hold on to hope, even as you face pain and suffering and what seems--as it must have seemed to the Israelites, being led out from the ruins of their city, towards exile and slavery and the end of every proud dream or ambition--crushing disappointment and despair.
You can't see it now, but there is peace and joy ahead of you.
Babylon--the heart of the storm, the fiercest depths of your humiliation, the white-hot nucleus of your suffering, the most numbing despair, the trial you dread the most--is where you will see redemption burst forth, more glorious and breathtaking and life-changing than ever for its context.
12 But they do not know the thoughts of the Lord,
Nor do they understand His counsel;
For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor.
We don't. Indeed we cannot understand Him.
His power to transcend even pain.
But we can trust Who He is.
O God, help me to realize that in all my life, the most important thing is my walk with You.
Not my dreams and hopes. Even though it feels like I can't live without them, can't identify myself without them.
Not my relationships with people. Even though they give me life, affirm me, build me.
Not for things to go well--success, not just in ostensibly 'secular' things, but even in good things; like church or family or the conversions of others even.
Not even what I do for You.
There are so many distractions, so many things crying to be done. So many things I could be. As the choices and the options dazzle me, as the opportunity cost paralyzes me, this life gets reduced to a list of tasks and accomplishments, of do's and don'ts, in both senses of the word--even my spiritual life.
It's ultimately my relationship with You.
This past year--did I love You better?
Do I understand You better?
I get carried away by the idea that I have to DO something in order to show that any one thing in my life is important to me, and I often focus too much, even when it comes to You, on whether I've "spent enough time," "done," "witnessed," even "glorified," that word which gets thrown around so easily that it loses its full weight and significance, and gets reduced to yet another to-do list.
I forget that we glorify God and enjoy Him.
That my relationship with You should be the true priority, rather than what I can do for You, or what I need to be.
That this coming year, I want my focus to emerge clearly, amid all my work, plans, relationships, goals, and responsibilities...
You and I. To grow in this relationship.
Guided by Search the Scriptures, I took a look at the parables in Matthew 13 in a way that better befitted a lit student.
I had always found parables fun but rather enigmatic; my imagination was often more attracted (or rather, distracted) by the scenes and images they conjured, than to the deeper meaning they gave to the framing story. Especially Matthew 13's rapid succession of brief, tableaux-esque parables. (boom! there goes a short attention span and a hyperactive imagination)
Search the Scriptures, however, gave a guideline to interpreting these parables, as the different ways individuals may enter the kingdom of heaven. Immediately I saw a great white light--all the scattered parables came together, beads strung on one necklace, complete in unity. That redemptive aha! moment that balances the love-hate relationship I have with symbolism and literary analysis.
The field parable illustrated how some people stumble on salvation unexpectedly, like discovering hidden treasure in a field. It is all the sweeter and more precious for being unexpected. The pearl merchant parable, in contrast, illustrated how others have been seeking truth, beauty, perfection, fulfilment, meaning, and finally find it in the Gospel. Their experience makes them more and more discerning, better at seeing flaws and shams after having been taken in, so that finally they can be completely convinced and confident that this is the pearl worth all other pearls, and more.
Similarly, the parable of the fishermen depicted how the Gospel draws both the 'bad and the good'--those who are truly saved and those who are not--but it's not obvious at first; all that can be seen is a messy net full of writhing fish of all shapes and sizes, all colours and weights. Maybe the beautifully patterned one with shimmery scales turns out to be poisonous, though it catches everyone's eye. Maybe the one you thought was fat and succulent turns out to be just a pufferfish full of frightened air. Maybe the ugly pockmarked one has the most meat, or the flat, skinny looking one that looks all bones actually tastes the sweetest. Soon, once the fisherman sits down to sort out the fish, the bad ones go overboard, and there's no more confusion. But for now, it doesn't matter; for now, you can't really tell, amid all the thrashing tails and spray and wet scales, and you would be foolish to insist on sorting the fish at once, to try to toss out all the unwanted ones now. Perhaps why we keep assuming that we need to sort, to know NOW, is just one of the Devil's ways of distracting us by busying us over useless tasks. Perhaps our assumption that there should only be good fish in the net is his means of stumbling us when we inevitably bump into a bad fish.
And then Search the Scriptures threw a sudden curveball question, stopping me short after leading me this far: what do these parables illustrate as the condition of true enjoyment?
Both the field digger and the pearl merchant had the same response when they found their treasure, regardless of their different backgrounds and means; they 'sold everything they had' in order to possess it. Such a dramatic response is surely intriguing. I remember thinking back to my own experience and realizing yes, that was the feeling I had felt when seeking (in my case, like the pearl merchant); wanting, desperately, to possess for myself that elusive treasure, to know what I had to do to get it. Please, O God, hear me...please, God, give it to me, show me how to get it...I don't know how after all, but I want it more than ever...
Receiving the Gospel is a whole-hearted commitment that we can only make room for by kicking out something else. We can only accept the Gospel if we're willing to sacrifice our sin. There has to be an exchange of sorts, so to speak; we must see it, and feel it, to be so valuable that it's worth this exchange.
If we don't have to lose anything in exchange, if it doesn't cost us anything so to speak--that says something about its value. We're probably settling for some second-rate imitation, a pearlescent plastic bead.
The condition of true enjoyment entails a cost.
Psalm 119: 71 --- 'It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.'
There will be times when you read this verse, and wonder what it means.
At other times it will be too painful.
Sadness is a fairly common part of everyday life, as Inside Out might have taught you. Grief, however, is different. It is not simply, like sadness, the 'opposite of happiness'. It is a complicated and extended process of emotional suffering which has a permanent effect on you. It's like an earthquake hitting a city, making your tallest skyscrapers and biggest buildings--everything that made you complacent, assured, everything that seemed so immovable and permanent to you--collapse. It negates roadmaps and street signs--what previously made perfect sense to you--and drastically changes your needs. Having faulty traffic lights fixed is suddenly not important anymore. Food, medical attention, a roof over your head--you just need the basic necessities to survive.
The process of healing, too, is like having to rebuild your demolished city--without being able to dispose of all the rubble. It remains as a foundation for the new buildings, always there as a humbling reminder of fragility, pain, and weakness--in the past, and present.
I've observed such humbling in certain people who experienced this sort of suffering. They have less assumptions. Are simpler. Kinder. Gentler. More empathetic. Less judgemental. It has truly brought them closer to Christ--closer to understanding Him--closer to being like Him. This is what Jesus is like; humble in His obedience, in His love, and in serving. He suffered too, in His time here, which is why we know He understands, and why He is so patient and gentle with us in our weaknesses. Such gentleness and empathy is only possible through humility. We can only care for others when we stop caring so much for ourselves. We can best appreciate their strengths when we have no delusions or pretensions on our own, when we aren't instinctively comparing ourselves. We can only help them discern their weaknesses when we're not busy trying to deny our own.
Watching them has taught me to have more hope and faith in suffering and in God's ability to let changes that may feel so painful to work such wonders, even in me. Perhaps the pain will never quite go away, just as earthquake prone zones experience recurring tremors. The rebuilding will take time, may be slow and constantly being set back. Sometimes that site was so badly devastated, you can never quite build something as momentous there again. But the rubble that looks so ugly, that is such a sobering reminder to you of how fragile all these buildings are, how much wreckage there once was here, is also hope in its own way. If another earthquake--and you flinch at the thought--should come and devastate this new city, you have the comfort of knowing that though you still can't withstand it, still can't predict when it will hit, you have hope of surviving and recovering again. That your first experience has equipped you to be a little--even if just a little--more able to deal with a second.
In other words, this city may not be earthquake proof, but it is proof that earthquakes are not the end.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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