Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash
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.
"But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring him into the land where he went, and his descendents shall inherit it."
I used to see those beginning books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (an impressive word I learnt from a Sunday School teacher) as rollicking adventure stories, with more than a dash of PG scariness (the book of Judges, for example, isn't quite bedtime reading.) The Gospel seemed relegated to the New Testament. Overall, my childhood impression of the Old Testmanet was kind of like the impression one may get from watching Hollywood's takes on the Bible--great movie material, perhaps, but not what you would/should expect to learn much about actual Christianity from!
These parts of the Bible are actually quite fascinating. As stories, they are great; and precisely for that reason, easy Sunday School lessons for little ones (12 spies, 2 good obeyed God, 10 bad were punished, now colour the picture of the giant bunch of grapes and remember the names of the good ones, Joshua and Caleb.)
However, when we force ourselves, as Christians, to consider why they were included in the Bible, and what they contribute to the Gospel and the person of God, and human nature in response, it gets more complicated.
The Old Testament depiction of God, to me, is sobering. It reminds me that I cannot understand Him. It reminds me that holiness is the foremost of His qualities--something which should add reverence and humility as well as comfort in His justice. It reminds me of the immensity of the gap between Him and I, which Christ in the New Testament bridged, and which we take for granted when we forget to look down.
Caleb was commended for his trust in God's power and person, as a God both able to and committed to fulfilling His promises. He applied this trust into action--the willingness to work hard, to embrace the challenge. This was the 'different spirit,' the sole factor which made such a great difference between the ten spies and Caleb and Joshua's perspective of the promised land.
It may sound rather anticlimactic, but I realized that I'd had a similar experience. When my two older sisters both left within months of each other to study overseas for several years, it was a traumatic change that I agonized over months before the actual parting took place. We had always been pretty close for siblings, but as sisters the thought was even harder to bear. Between the four of us, each one's personality contributed a unique aspect to the family dynamics; I couldn't imagine having to get on without the two of them, as moderators so to speak between my brother and I (who had grown up fighting in the classic cat-and-dog sibling style.) I prayed about it, torn but clueless about what I wanted, and I remember writing anguished journal entries trying to find out why I felt so miserable and what could be done.
I knew, even then, that this was something for my good; that it'd be an opportunity for me to become more mature, force me to take more initiative. I could see, even in the midst of my unhappiness, that it would make me grow as an individual, in relationships, and in serving--whether I liked it or not. The problem was that I didn't like the idea at all. It was too hard. It flung me far out of my comfort zone relentlessly. I saw the potential, I saw God's purpose for me in this experience already, but I didn't want it.
Thankfully, God didn't give me a choice; otherwise I would have missed out on significant lessons and chances to grow--spiritually, emotionally; in wisdom about people, relationships, and most of all in my own sense of selfhood. I would have missed getting to really know my brother, and develop the relationship we have today, one of the most valuable ones I have been blessed with.
It was hard. Definitely. Being forced out of my comfort zone; the burden of new responsibilities; finding independence, emotionally and physically. Having to trust and rely on God even though I felt aggrieved against Him. Having to work on relationships which challenged my selfishness and complacency. To use a corny phrase, however, looking back I know it was all worth it, that it couldn't have happened any other way except the hard way.
That is precisely what happened with the spies. The pessimistic ten preferred to focus on the challenge that the land presented. It was going to be hard. They would have to fight, some of them might get injured or even killed. It would take time, plenty of effort, and it would be uncertain as well as dangerous, even with God on their side.
They wanted an easy way out; a land flowing with milk and honey, but in a giftbox. No need to think too much or try too hard.
God's gifts to us sometimes take shape as challenges. Sometimes we can even see the goodness offered to us; the grapes are just in front of our eyes, crisp with juice; we can see the swathes of buttery sunlit meadows spread out before us. But the challenge is there. What matters is the 'different spirit' with which we face it. When we are able to apply trust in God's person and power, as Caleb did, into active willingness to accept the challenge, accept the hard work and effort it entails, with hope and humility.
2 Timothy 2: 11-13.
For if we died with Him,
--to our sins, just as He died for our sins--
We shall also endure with Him.
If we endure,
--temptation and trials, just as He endured temptations and trials for us--
We shall also reign with Him.
If we deny Him,
--the place belonging to Him in our hearts and lives--
He also will deny us
--the place we were made for and intended for, in His heart and home.
If we are faithless,
--when we fail our promises, when our love cools, when we don't trust Him as He deserves--
He remains faithful--He cannot deny Himself.
For the longest time I could not understand 2 Timothy 2: 11-13. What was the logical progression between the correlative equations of the first three, and the seeming inconsistency of the last couplet?
Our relationship with Christ may seem like an equation on several levels. A promise of glory and greater good through suffering patiently endured, a promise of purity and perfection through purposeful overcoming of sin, as depicted in these verses. In our effort to motivate ourselves we reduce our relationship with Christ into a simplistic equation. If I want that, I have to do this.
But love is not an equation, and Christ's love for us is definitely not an equation. He loved us while we were still sinners, when there was no sign of us ever being worthy of that love. He loved us knowing that His love and His grace would have to be what changed us, that the force behind this relationship would have to be 100% His--not the '50-50' relationship that seems so ideal to us. We were suckers in more sense than one--parasitical, needy; 'high-maintenance' friends in other words.
And still, He loved.
His call to put off sin, to endure, to courageously accept, is a calling that is integral to His relationship to us as a Saviour--just as mentorship is an intrinsic aspect of your relationship with a coach or parent. He calls us away from what He came to save us from, and towards what He embodies.
But ultimately, Love is what characterizes and created this relationship, what sustains it--His love.
His love is what transforms 2 Timothy 2: 11-13 from a series of equations to a description of a relationship.
His love is an aspect of His character and not an evaluation of our worthiness.
And sometimes, that is all that gets me through the day, all that gives me hope and courage for living; for living with myself, for living with others, for living in this messed up and terribly painful world, a world and its people desperately in need of perfection.
What are you praying hardest to God for now?
We've all had searing, heart-cry desires weigh on our souls. Tear up our insides. Hollow us out in an anguish of wanting. Drive us desperate as nothing seems to be changing, to be happening, as we ask God yet again to grant us our desire, feverish with impatience.
I've had desires, all right. I didn't want them to come between me and God, to become something which embittered me and alienated me, which dulled my awareness of His goodness. But on the other hand, they weren't wrong--right?
Hebrews 13:5-6 was maybe the last place I expected to find guidance. It didn't mention patience, or God's wisdom, or even trust. But it dealt with the heart of the matter nevertheless.
I realize, reading it for Search the Scriptures, that it was a very simple guideline.
Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will never leave you nor forsake you.'
Christians, of all people, should be at once the most content and the most hopeful. Their reason for being content is an ultimate and complete one, because we believe that our God is the source and essence of all goodness and power--and we know that He is with us. Hebrews 13 reminds us that Christ Himself has promised to be with us, to never leave us nor forsake us, and that with this most important need met, we have all we need to be content.
On the other hand, this reason for our contentment is also the reason for our hope. We believe that God can do great things in this fallen world, and since He is all-powerful and all-good, we have the best reason to hope for the best. What Hebrews 13 warned was the line between hope and covetousness.
Covetousness is basically understood as a 'strong desire, especially for material possessions.' It usually has the implication of greed, that you already have, but desire more. It suggests a restless discontent and a one-minded drive to fulfill a desire--not a need.
Our hope should be balanced by our contentment, so that we desire things not because of self-gratification. Our desires are based on a foundation of contentment with what we have in Christ, and what God has given us. Our desires are shaped by our desire for God's glory and our trust in God's goodness. Our desires should not arise from discontent with our current situation but desire for increase in God's glory, increase in what pleases God.
Hopeful, but contented.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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