image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash
Recently I attended the annual combined youth camp that my church participates in with other Reformed churches from different countries. It is always a good chance to step outside of your comfort zone, broaden your horizons, be encouraged when sharing and hearing about the wider work of God across various churches, countries, and cultures.
This year, one of the speakers did a short series on Elijah--which just happened to be the same passage I had chosen to do with my Sunday School kids. Ah, I thought. I'm very familiar with this.
However, as we studied the passages in 1 Kings chp 17-19, I felt for the first time a personal connection with Elijah and what he went through. Elijah has one of the most exciting narratives in the Bible. It's the stuff of any epic action movie. A national crisis. An evil king egged on by a bloodthirsty evil queen. The one man fighting for what is right despite being the underdog, being hunted for his life. Multiple life-and-death situations. Incredible supernatural miracles in every chapter, and equally incredible courage that enabled Elijah to defy the king and queen, the entire idolatrous nation, and basically everything against him. Heck, Netflix be calling to make a series of this soon.
Naturally, though it made for a cool story, I never really connected with Elijah's character. His bravery-to-the-point-of-recklessness, incredible faith in God, macho toughness in the face of impossible odds, and general badassery (is that even a term?) made him seem like some swashbuckling superhero who had very little in common with someone ordinary like me. Come on, I struggled to have faith for my exam grades. Elijah had faith that God would rescue him from Jezebel when he was standing before her and surrounded by her guards.
So studying this passage again made me suddenly sensitive to the chronology of events, and the peculiar insight into Elijah's character which transformed him, hero though he be in so many aspects, into a human no different from us, who struggled with fears, lack of faith, and self-pity.
At the dramatic contest of Mt Carmel, Elijah was at his peak. God used him in the most fantastic and epic way imaginable, with all the spotlight on him, to prove that the God of Israel was real. He was outnumbered by the prophets of Baal, his life was in danger at every moment, and yet God's power coursed through him, in the miracle that he performed, and the fearlessness he displayed. This is the Elijah we remember, the tough guy who sneers at the prophets of Baal, the guy who isn't scared of Jezebel, the guy who calls down fire from Heaven.
One would have thought that after this amazing display of God's power over Baal, over man, Elijah's faith would be even stronger than before. However, after the contest at Mt Carmel concludes, we see Elijah fold to pieces almost instantly, after receiving Jezebel's death threat in chp 19. Like any of us, despite the obvious proof of God's power which he had just witnessed--just conducted--he fell to the fear of man. Terror gripped him. All of a sudden, he did not believe that God could protect him now, when God had protected him all along. He turned to his own devices and fled, following what his scared human reasoning told him was the smart thing to do: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life." He ran from his fears, trying to deal with them as he thought best, overwhelmed by the humanly impossible odds against him.
So often we too, after God answers our prayers, or demonstrates His power in our lives, fail to grow in faith, and instead fall again so easily into the pit of our fears--fear of what we can't control; fear of man; but ultimately, fear that God is not good, that we cannot rely on God to protect and provide for us. He was clearly disappointed that even after the miracle they had witnessed at Carmel, the Israelites were still too cowardly to come to his support, and that the victory God had given him at Carmel was not going to work out as he had expected, the turning point for Israel to recognize their sin and repent immediately. Elijah had put his hope in man instead of God. Now he was overwhelmed--with fear of Jezebel, and disappointment in the Israelites. A crushing sense of failure and disillusionment, probably bitterness as well, added to the fear of being killed.
It seems so obvious in Elijah's case, that the God Who sent ravens to feed him, Who raised the widow's son from the dead, Who kept him safe from Jezebel all these years, Who sent blazing fire down from heaven, would definitely be able to protect him. But it doesn't seem so obvious to us, blinded by our fears, in our own situations we face today.
When Elijah collapsed in the wilderness, unable to go any further on his own, at his wit's end, at the limit of his own human devices, he fell into despair and depression. Wallowing in self-pity and hopelessness, he turned suicidal, questioned the meaning of his life, and told God he couldn't take any more. "He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said, 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' "
When was the last time we felt this way?
Suddenly I saw myself in Elijah.
What I love most is how God responded at this point. God had let him try his own solutions, God had waited till Elijah realized it was no use, and when Elijah gave up in despair and wished to die, God stepped in.
Without rebuking him for his lack of faith. Without scolding him for his ungratefulness or short-sightedness. "I just used you so powerfully at Mt Carmel, did you get amnesia already? Do you think, if I sent fire down from heaven at your request, I can't rescue you from Jezebel? As ifffffff"
God knew Elijah's fears and struggles, and He had compassion on him. He first of all cared for his physical needs, letting him sleep soundly, sending him food and water, all of which Elijah had neglected in his fear-crazed escape plan (and which clearly also contributed to his emotional and psychological collapse.)
After Elijah had rested, been fed, hydrated, God spoke to him. Gently. God asked him simply, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" One question, to make him stop in his tracks, to think and examine his motivations.
Elijah hadn't gotten over his self-pity yet. He ranted to God about his loneliness and suffering and generally had a good bawl that also managed to be as paegro as he dared.
And still, God didn't scold him, God didn't tell him off for being needy or weak or faithless.
God simply told him, feel My presence.
After the dramatic demonstrations of power and strength, Elijah was shaken, yet reminded that God, Who could do all this, was nevertheless was not just the fire on Mt Carmel, some impersonal supernatural power like The Force.
God was in the gentle whisper after all that, the still small voice. Personal. Compassionate. And once again, without telling him off, God asked him again to examine himself. "What are you dong here, Elijah?"
Still clinging defensively to his rant, Elijah delivered it again, weakly.
And God's response was to give him clear directions which reinforced the meaning for his life which he had been looking for. You are important to Me. I have important work for you to do, which will affect not only the nation of Israel but even the neighbouring pagan nations as well. You will anoint kings, directly subverting the power of Ahab and Jezebel from within and without.
In addition to that, God acknowledged his weariness, and comforted him--God told him He had already chosen and prepared a successor. Retirement was in sight, when Elijah had thought that it would never end. And finally, God reminded him-so gently!--that he was not alone. He might have suffered, but all God's true people were making the same, often difficult decisions, to stay faithful in each day when surrounded by an ungodly and idolatrous culture. In Elijah's (very) limited perspective, everything seemed hopeless, his efforts seemed pointless, and his life meaningless. But in God's plan, as we can clearly see when we read these chapters, it was anything but so. In fact, at the point when Elijah felt he couldn't go on anymore, God had already prepared his "exit strategy."
God knew him, on a deeply personal, deeply compassionate and loving way. God knew his fears and weariness and struggles, and God did not resent him for them or punish him for them, even when he behaved foolishly or weakly. God was not a relentless taskmaster who didn't care what the emotional state of this tool was as long as it got His job done. Far from it. God was gentle with Elijah at his lowest, most broken point--a great man, but still a man like us.
to be continued
image by Tribesh Kayastha from Unsplash
Right now, what seems like the most impossible thing that you've been requesting from God?
There are so many things which seem impossible to us. They discourage us, making us doubt God's goodness, God's providence, God's power. They affect our prayer--we pray passionately, fervently, then desperately, despairingly, and finally half-heartedly because we are secretly convinced that God is not going to answer us. They make us unable to give thanks, unable to enjoy and appreciate what God has already given us, because the big unanswered desire is still hovering over our hearts, a ghost of IF ONLY.
We feel inadequate. We feel weak. Limited. Unable. Small.
Whether fighting against temptation, dealing with a besetting sin that we keep falling into, our hopes and desires for the future, facing an impossible task, our most pressing emotional and physical needs, or our own sense of limitation and inability. God promises us grace. Grace through the Holy Spirit. Like He did for Zerubbabel.
I have an unexplicable fondness for this guy, maybe because he comes across as such an ordinary guy who was so bountifully blessed by God (can I be him already?) God was so gracious to him. So heartwarmingly, wonderfully gracious and affirming. When faced with what seemed like a truly impossible task--rebuilding the Temple (and symbolically, the society) of the Jews returned from exile, and dealing with the nationwide struggles of discouragement, self-pity, sin, fear, God reminded Zerubbabel of Who he should be looking to. For power. For encouragement. For help. Zerubbabel's name meant "God's Servant," a fitting title for a man who did his best to serve God and serve God's people, rising to meet the needs and challenges of his time.
God did not tell him that "to help you accomplish My work, here are otherworldly smarts, incredible energy and stamina, overflowing charisma and insight in dealing with difficult people, and an extra five hours to your day. And duct tape for troublesome uncooperative people." Though admittedly sometimes we're tempted to feel that that might just be the solution we need.
God didn't tell him that "this task you have set your mind on is too ambitious for someone of your caliber, you should settle for just contributing a little to the first stage, and leave the completion to someone more qualified."
God simply told him that His Spirit would enable him. Not by might. Not by power. (v 6)
The impossible would be accomplished, by the Holy Spirit. God gave him a vision of hope, of fruitfulness and assurance of His blessing. (v 7) God would bless his labours, not just the beginning, but allow him to see its completion. And though it might not seem promising now, the "day of small things" was not to be despised. Though there were many reasons to be discouraged, though it might seem like it would never end.
So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
7 “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”
8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.
10 “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?”
image by Timon Studler from Unsplash
It is no secret that one of my besetting sins throughout my life has been impatience.
I grew up listening to my mom constantly telling me that my personality traits of being independent, organized, and task-oriented also fed my weakness of impatience. When my mind is fixed on finishing a task, clearing my to-do list or squeezing in one last item before I wrap up, everything else takes a back seat, and anything which threatens to get in the way becomes Public Enemy Number One. I get short-tempered and snap easily at those who are too slow for my pace, since I work (and talk--and read--and move, apparently) at a rapid pace.
With a sigh, I wrote patience down on my prayer journal as one of my goals for 2018--and 2019--and here I am, seemingly without any obvious improvement, still working at cultivating this elusive virtue. Why is it I wasn't getting anywhere? I would think I was fine for a stint, then something would happen--some situation would catch me off guard, or some person would just be "too much!!"--and it would happen.
As when dealing with any other habitual sin, it's not a straightforward master-this-level-and-move-on-without-having-to-deal-with-it-again matter, handy as that would be. You think you've overcome this besetting sin, broken this habit; then a few weeks--days--hours--later when you least expect, it hits you. And we get discouraged, when our self-control and discipline eventually prove insufficient.
This was where Walter Henegar's advice from his little booklet on procrastination came in handy.
All along, I had been focusing on the actions themselves--the isolated incidents of impatience. I lost my temper just now; I spoke sharply and dismissed someone who I felt was taking too long; and so on. However, this meant reinforcing a pattern of guilt, of examining myself when it was already too late.
Henegar describes how he too used this approach at first when dealing with his own habitual sin--procrastination. Like me, he quickly got discouraged, tempted to blame external situations for his regular lapses, and struggling with guilt yet without any real sense of hope in breaking out of this cycle. Eventually he realized that the right approach was to examine the sinful attitudes in his heart which were the root of the problem, rather than fire-fighting the manifestations.
Though our respective habitual sins seem polar opposite, I came to the same conclusion as Henegar when I tried examining the root issues at heart of my impatience: pride. Pride in prioritizing my own agenda before people, before opportunities God had put before me. Pride in assuming my methods were better and others inferior if they took up more time. Pride in relying on that sense of achievement and success as my fulfilment and self-identity, rather than what I had in Christ. Pride in being unwilling to accept and trust in God's plan and God's timing for my life, and instead steamrollering my own plan and own timings.
Realizing this transformed the way I prayed about my struggle to be patient. Instead of the well-intentioned but vague Lord help me to be more patient today (which I often forgot by the time I finished praying, and which definitely did not come to mind in time when needed later on in the day!), I found myself praying about the attitudes and priorities in my heart. Lord, help me to love others more than I love the adrenaline rush and sense of gratification I get from clearing my to-do list. Help me not to be blinded by my agenda to Your hand directing me to Your work. Help me to seek Your purpose and Your timing today, rather than mine. Help me to change the sinful attitudes I accept so unthinkingly, and to be transformed heart, soul, mind--and to-do-list!
Instead of a guilt-driven pattern of sin spiraling into despair, this enables a grace-driven, humbled, yet hopeful understanding of our hearts, empowered for true change as we work at overcoming our habitual sins, and more deeply than ever aware of the grace and power of God, and where we stand before Him.
image by Cameron Offer from Unsplash
It's a horrible feeling, isn't it, when you realize what you should have done--but didn't.
After the storm of an outburst fades, and the fury gripping you gives way to regret.
When you realize that the bitterness you clung onto poisoned your relationships and ruined chances for reconciliation and healing, both for yourself and others.
When, unable to resist, you end up contributing to the private gossip sesh behind someone's back. What felt like harmless, negligible entertainment doesn't feel like that when you're looking at them face to face.
After that sudden eye-opening jolt when for the first time you feel convicted of laziness, selfishness, pride; you see how they've been leaving dirty tracks over each day, each seemingly small action or scene.
Failure, especially failure to do what you should have done.
We talk a lot about Christ's death for us on the cross (and we ought to) but when we reduce it to an isolated event we diminish its staggering significance, the full weight of its impact.
The context of His death--the OT prophecies and history of God's covenant with His people, which the Gospels so insistently refer to, to remind us--the symbolism, the parallelisms, between the Old and New Covenant, between the first and the last Passover Lamb--and also, the life that He lived on earth, before it culminated in the cross. As Wayne Gruddem points out, we often neglect this aspect in our discussion of Christ. Jesus's "active and passive obedience," as the term goes, are the two halves of His perfect redemption of us. They mirror the concept sins of omission and sins of commission, which I still vividly remember learning for the first time from Edna Gerstner's lovable book Conduct for the Crayon Crowd.
"Do not steal," "do not lie," "do not kill,"...these are sins of commission, things we ought not to do, but did.
"Honour your parents," "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and strength, and mind...and your neighbour as yourself," these are sins of omission, things we ought to do, but didn't.
All those years on earth growing up, going through all the mundane processes of childhood, adolescence, puberty, the burdens of adulthood, but WITHOUT SIN--Jesus lived the perfect, spotless life we all should have lived. He wasn't simply biding His time, waiting idly until the time for Him to die on the cross. Every day--every moment--in every small everyday routine and action of His 30 years, He was purposefully, faithfully, steadfastly, working out His redemption for us.
The cross is the ultimate expression of Christ's love for us, but it is precious to me to think of how each ordinary day in Christ's life was also dedicated to His love for us.
He fulfilled what we failed to do.
And His passive obedience? For our sins of commission--all that we did, which we should not have done--He took the punishment for them on the cross, meekly and humbly accepting what He did not deserve, even though any moment He could have stopped it, found relief for Himself or revenge on His enemies.
He suffered what we deserved to suffer.
And His redemption of us is perfect. Complete. Comprehensive.
It redeems us from guilt.
When you struggle with this sense of inadequacy, when guilt for what you failed to do haunts your mind and cripples you, remember that the perfect life--so impossible to us now!--has already been accomplished for us, that on God's record, we have already done all, done well.
"...perfect redemption, the purchase of blood..."
As I prepared for this lesson, I did some reading up on the topic, mainly because last week's lesson had given me so much food for thought. One thing I am very thankful for is how engaged the children are. They constantly ask questions and offer opinions which show me how much--young as they are--they're thinking through and relating to what we're studying. It is humbling to realize how much you don't know, at the same time you're trying to teach so much--a paradox that I've experienced only when I'm teaching spiritual things.
On the other hand that also means being frequently stumped by baffling questions. Do babies go to heaven if they die? can girls be pastors? if demons/fallen angels repent can they go back to being angels? do we wear clothes in heaven? isn't God really annoyed or busy if He has to listen to everyone's prayers and requests at the same time? if God already knows what's in our minds why do we still bother praying? won't we feel sad if we're in heaven but we know that our loved ones are in Hell? does Satan feel joy? if God is all-powerful why can't He come up with another way to save us instead of Jesus having to suffer so much?
And all this was just in one class! Teaching Sunday School is no simple thing. It feels like a crash course in theology sometimes. Four out of ten times I feel woefully inadequate, praying nervously throughout the weekend as Sunday approaches. But it's a challenge which has made me grow--at a rather breathless speed perhaps (try answering weighty theological questions thrown at you from five different kids on different aspects of the Bible at the same time)--spiritually, in ways that I would never have otherwise. Let's be honest--how many of us are dedicated enough to read up and research on questions we might have? I had questions, of course, but was too lazy to bother studying and thinking them through--or too fearful. I think many Christians are too fearful of addressing doubts and tough questions that can't be answered pat. Acknowledging and understanding that there will be questions, there will be things hard to explain, is a form of spiritual maturity, a form of applying what that crucial Biblical phrase means: "the truth will set you free." (John 8:32) We shouldn't shy away from them in the misguided idea that we're "thinking too much," that we might end up losing our faith or becoming a heretic, is hardly what Paul calls us to be when he urges us: "For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but of power, and love, and a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7)
We have God's sovereignty and other attributes--our knowledge of Who He is and what He is like--as our guidelines, as well as the bottomless treasure chest of the Word.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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