image by Matthew Schwartz from Unsplash
The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 is one of the most graphic and powerful visions given to us in the Bible.
I've always been fascinated by the imagery of that scene. Imagine seeing it come to life on the big screen. It gives me vibes reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean and Qin Shi-huang's terracotta warriors for reasons I can't explain. Slightly creepy surreal; yet without the horror element.
For the context of this vision: the people were unable to believe Ezekiel's prophecies of restoration in chp 36, because the bleakness of their external situations made them lose hope. There was a general atmosphere of despair, hopelessness, pessimism, even bitterness.
We don't have to look far to see traces of that same attitude in our world today. It's hard not to be depressed. It's hard not to be overwhelmed by the vast problems in our lives, our immediate situations, or on a larger scale; in our communities and countries.
God gave Ezekiel this vision for a reason--to show them that hope lay not in how conducive or hopeful their external situation was, but in Him.
He did not comfort them by saying, "oh, it's not that bad, you shouldn't be so pessimistic!" He did not present a strategy after analyzing all the pros and cons of their situation, the statistics for success, the potential actions they could take. "Never say die. Believe in yourself. Here are the odds, and here's what we can try." He didn't encourage them to work harder, to put in more effort: "You just have to push yourself harder for what you want! You got to fight for this! The real war is in your mind! The only place left to go now is up!" and all the other motivational pep talk phrases you can find on laminated posters in bookstores, in capitalized Times New Roman font.
God showed the people of Israel exactly what their external situation was like--dry. Bleak. A valley of bones; not just dead bodies with traces of life still visible on them. Dry bones, all the signs of life and potential evaporated from them. God showed Ezekiel, not in one isolated action but in a specifically ordered process, how He restored those dry bones. He caused them to connect to each other, the skeleton army to reform; He caused the sinews and flesh to appear on them in a grotesque rewind.
And finally, most importantly of all, He breathed life into them.
The external situation was not the determining factor; no matter how dry the bones were, how impossible it seemed for life, God's power to transform and restore remained the same. Instead of obsessing over the bleakness of their situation and wallowing in despair--"Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!"--they should have sought God, looking to His ability to restore when human hope seemed impossible. It was not a question of whether God could restore them, but a question of whether they believed He could.
Similarly, even when all the apparent signs of life were there, when the external situation was promising,
He showed them that it wasn't what really mattered. They were still dead, despite the skin, the hair, the muscles; "...but there was no breath in them." It was still a valley of death, as surely as when they had been heaps of dry, disconnected, random bones lying around. Without God, even the best, most ideal external situations cannot disguise the fact that we are still dead. Spiritually dead, surrounded by death, despite the deceptive appearance of life.
It was God's breath of life upon them that transformed a valley of bones--of bodies--into "an exceedingly great army," a force to be reckoned with. With this symbolism, God introduced His promise of transformation and restoration from within, not just externally: "Then you shall know that I am the Lord...I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it." (v13-14)
If your life is going amazingly well, if you're flushed with success and pleasure and you have no griefs or anxieties driving you to seek God--please don't forget that we can still be like Snow White in her glass coffin; life-like to all appearances, but virtually dead.
If you're struggling with despair and hopelessness, feeling like you're one of the dry bones in the valley-God calls you through Ezekiel, exactly as you are: "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live." He promises you what may seem impossible right now. Peace. Joy. Fulfilment. Forgiveness. Grace.
To both of us, He offers the same promise: "...I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore...I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
image by Jeremy Perkins from Unsplash
"Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
Okay, so that was the desert.
Why did Moses make so many excuses when God finally, after what must have seemed years of silence, revealed Himself to him?
God told him, in words that couldn't be any clearer, that yes, He had chosen him to save the people of Israel. After years of self-doubt and disappointment, Moses' pet dream and life goal suddenly exploded into reality. Why didn't he scream "YESSSSS FINALLY I KNEW ITTT"?
After the humbling desert phase he went through, Moses had fallen into the other extreme--the crippling fear of unworthiness and failure.
Like Moses, the excuse of unworthiness often keeps us from serving God.
We don't need to look far. A common protest when it comes to finding new Sunday School teachers/Bible study leaders is always "But I'm not spiritually mature enough!"
Humility, as we can also see in Moses' life, is an essential quality for every servant of God.
Yet often when it comes to serving God we can be manipulated by fear disguising itself under the pious cloak of humility.
When we feel crippled by a sense of self-doubt and unworthiness, instead of panicking we need to ask ourselves several questions:
1. Are we willing? Under all our fears, are we even willing to serve God in the first place? That should be our first self-examination, because that after all is what matters most to God. Our flesh is weak, and will always be weak; but is our spirit willing?
2. God, if He sends us, is sending us with His presence and His help. As with Moses, He promises to be our sufficiency. He repeatedly tells Moses: I will be with you; I will help you; I will help you speak, I will teach you what to say.
(and yet, Moses' fears are louder than the Living God speaking directly to him--actually out loud at that!)
3. It's not just us. Everyone is unworthy to serve God. Let that sink in. God delights in using and transforming unworthy people. He has always used common, unskilled people to do His work. It is the process, not the end--or He would not bother using us at all, since He has the power to accomplish His plans without us.
Hence, we see God's patience in addressing all Moses' fears, as this is also part of God's plan for Moses' own spiritual life, for growth in his relationship with God.
God's outburst was not the irritated banging of a sticky TV remote, but anger against Moses' overwhelming fear and lack of faith, even in the face of God Himself.
God was not just prepping a clumsy tool for His great plan; God was shaping His child.
image by Behzad Ghaffarian from Unsplash
Recently I've been going through the miracles of Jesus with my Sunday School class, specifically people that Jesus healed.
We discussed leprosy, resurrection from the dead, the lack of love that the judgmental Pharisees showed in their indifference to the radical, wonderful change that Jesus worked in the sufferer's lives, and the parallels between Christ's power to save, not only from physical ailments, but from our spiritual state.
In Mark 9:14-29 we get some quite specific detail on this particular case of demon possession, yet precisely because of that it was a challenging lesson to teach. It was hard to explain, because I didn't have all the answers; how did the demon possession happen? why don't we hear about that many people being demon possessed nowadays? why does foam come out of your mouth during a fit? (I had never thought of that before, and had to google it)
I found the symptoms of the boy, however, were a striking analogy to help us understand how we ourselves are enslaved by the power of sin. If you read the passage, the description sounds frightening; but also familiar. We are powerless to gain control over ourselves, despite our good intentions; sin controls us, the way the boy was unable to control his muscles, which often went rigid so that he could not even stand. Sin drives us relentlessly towards our own destruction, even if we have both our eyes open, even if we know the danger; the same way the boy would fling himself into the fire, into the water, repeatedly endangering himself. And, like how he was unable to hear or speak, sin makes us spiritually dead, unable to respond to or understand spiritual things.
Coming from such a state, the change that takes place when we are saved becomes all the more radical--and seems all the more impossible, even. In the process of our salvation, it definitely seems impossible. I remember how frustrated and despairing I felt then. I wanted so much to believe, yet it wasn't something you could achieve through sheer willpower--another major lesson which until I grasped it held back much of my spiritual growth.
The process of coming to faith is often a conflicted, even anguished one. It's seldom a flip-the-switch, 180 degrees change, in the sense that it doesn't just automatically take place once you first find yourself wanting it. It can be a long, conflicted journey of wanting to believe, struggling to, feeling at once how impossible it is and yet also how much you desire it. And ontop of that, feeling unworthy, unsure, even guilty because why is it so hard? why can't you just 'psycho yourself' into it since you want it that much?
Learning to trust is so difficult as an adult. Which is why they always use children as an example.
And that was exactly the father's situation. He wanted to believe Jesus could heal his son. Oh, he wanted to so badly.
Yet he struggled with so many complex reasons that made it seem impossible. Despair. Great grief and suffering. Hopelessness. Cynicism. Disappointing and disillusioning experiences (think the disciples who brashly thought they could heal the boy) Such that even with Jesus right in front of him, he could only manage a last desperate, despairing appeal: "if You can do anything...have compassion on us."
How many similar such reasons do we struggle with, when it comes to having greater faith? when it comes to trusting what God's will is for us?
But we don't have to wait until we feel our faith is "strong" enough--we don't have to feel like we're not ready, or not worthy, because we're still struggling with doubts. He knows our hearts. The sign of the spirit's work in us is often as simple as that--the desire to trust, to believe, more than we currently do. The desire to overcome that cynicism or doubt or pride or whatever it is that is holding us back. The desire to believe.
The faith that we need can be as simple as coming to Him, doubts and failures and all, in the hope that though we haven't sorted it out yet, though we're a mess of conflicted thoughts and feelings, though we're still struggling, He knows that our desire to believe in Him, to trust Him, is greater. And that not only does He understand, He has compassion. That fulfilling in us what we lack, He will save us.
"I believe; help my unbelief..."
image by Alex from Unsplash
Looking back, when you try to grasp at specific memories, you tend to find yourself lost in a confusing blur of split second images, fragments of a phrase, and the abstract but poignantly tangible memory of emotions.
I was just musing the other day on how life goes by without us really purposefully acknowledging memories. If you asked me to think back and select any one memory that I remember the most clearly, the painful ones are often the ones you are most conscious of. We take so many photos, and we call that "making memories," but we don't often sit down to rewind those happy memories--or do you? To me, we seem to pass through them gleefully like a cloud of confetti and move on in search of more before the pieces hit the ground. Pessimistic as it sounds. I made a point to be more consciously thankful and aware of the golden moments that God gives me in life, to have them polished and accessible in my mind.
Perhaps it's because as you get older, you have so many regrets. You can't help remembering them, because those are the moments you've relived the most often, replayed in your mind, wishing uselessly that you could change what happened. And that's why you know them so well, why they leap to the front whenever you look back.
One of the greatest lessons I learnt as a Christian and as a young adult was being able to let go of guilt.
Let me take a moment to differentiate between guilt and repentance, seeing them as the "worldly sorrow" and "godly sorrow" that the Bible talks about. Repentance and guilt are similar and yet so distinct that it's well we have different terms for them. Both indicate a recognition of a mistake, taking responsibility for it by acknowledging it was your fault, and feeling regret for your actions. However, guilt implies a sense of helplessness, confined to facing the past, to what can't be undone; whereas repentance implies a sense of hope, looking forward to the future with a resolution to learn from what happened.
Learning to understand that all things--even our mistakes--even our sin--happen within the providence of God.
Also that, as children of God, our mistakes do not define us. They did, previously, branding us as sinners; but a new name has been given to us, a new identity.
"...the glory of God shall be your rearguard"--Isaiah 58
I couldn't understand this phrase the first time I read it, but I loved the sound of it. Like poetry, the cadences stuck in my mind. Why, though? How did glory become your rearguard--something which protects, which enables you to move forward confidently, which is full of military connotations and is much closer to struggle and conflict than glory?
Looking back on our pasts, as Christians, the legacy that we have in Christ also includes rescuing us from the guilt and regret that so often makes us fixate on the past, makes us feel our courage for the future fail.
To trust that even our mistakes and sins can be part of God's plan, can be part of the process of our sanctification, since they no longer define who we are. And since even Christ's death--the ultimate proof of man's sin--became the greatest proof of God's mercy and love, became the greatest manifestation of God's glory.
The doctrine of God's sovereignty, the attributes of His wisdom and providence, become truths that have a vital, direct impact on our everyday lives, on our emotions, on the moments when we weep, when we wonder how we can face tomorrow. They are so much more than musty theological jargon and abstract concepts that don't seem relevant to our struggles and experiences.
Trusting that His glory can be manifested even despite our mistakes and failures and outright sins, by His power and providence--that flawed as we are, destructively self-willed as we seemed, we are yet His instruments, and we have never fallen out of His hands, we have not ruined what He was working on.
We can look back. With regret, most likely. Who wouldn't? But without being consumed by guilt. With the knowledge that God's sovereignty transcends man's sin. With the knowledge that our lives can and will be used to manifest His glory, even our weaknesses and shame.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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