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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."
'And He gave them their request, but sent leaness into their souls.'
The Israelites lusted for better food to the point that they became unable to see anything beyond their desires. We know that food became their idol because we see how they became blind to God's promises and to the past proof of His power and providence; though the very manna that kept them alive and which they were complaining about ought to have reminded them of it. They were led into greed as well as unbelief. Even when God promised to give them their request--not just for one day, but for a whole month--they stockpiled far more than they needed, unable to understand that a God who was able to provide all this was also able to keep His word.
God gave them what they wanted. And it was the opposite of what they though it would be. Instead of fulfilment, 'leaness.' Instead of life, death. Aren't all idols the same? They are not what we need. They leave us, ultimately, unfulfilled and only hungrier for that vague something we yearn for, which we glimpse in glorious sunsets, in a strain of music, in the feelings evoked so intensely and confusedly by fleeting images. The danger of desires morphing into idols is that too easily we start to see them as the solution to all our problems; the lie that 'if only I had ___ I would be happy.' I write this wistfully because like you, I grapple with discontent, with unfulfilled dreams and desires that sometimes grip me till it aches. I wonder with some trepidation whether my dreams have become idols, if my ambitions are blinders. I write this without judging the Israelites because it frightens me how easily I too could have behaved in the same way, in my own version of their situation, however foolish theirs may seem now to me.
'Your gentleness has made me great.' I am still finding new ways to understand this fascinating phrase from Psalm 18:35. Perhaps sometimes this gentleness manifests itself when God denies us what we want, forcing us--so to speak--to seek a harder, more abstract, more complex, but more real satisfaction and fulfilment in Himself. The same lesson, learnt less poignantly through discontent perhaps, but with less emotional havoc than if it had been learnt through disappointment and disillusion. Perhaps one way He is gentle with us is when He keeps us from the destructiveness of our desires.
As a kid, I always thought Esau a less than bright person.
Whenever I read his birthright story in Genesis I felt sorry for him, granted; his heart-felt 'Bless me, even me also, O my father!' was truly pathetic--but mostly just exasperated.
Come on. Surely Esau was a bit dense to have chosen the bowl of lentils.
What was more, lentils hardly sounded appetizing. If it had been a chocolate-drizzled Earthquake of eight different flavors I might have understood Esau more...
So much for Genesis 27; I'm afraid I didn't learn much from that chapter as a kid, other than the comfortable thought that sometimes it doesn't pay to eat healthy (just kidding.)
It took me several years and a retelling of the old Birthright vs. Bowl of Lentils story, this time in Hebrews 12:16-17, through Search the Scriptures (yes, I'm still working through that in my devotions. It has proved immensely helpful, and the best part is that it doesn't need to end--every time you repeat you find new answers and new insights, due to your added experience and growth.)
The interesting thing was, Esau's choice was still a stupid one--the only difference was that it suddenly opened my eyes to the equally stupid choices that I myself made.
Esau's choice, I realized, was a symbolic choice of the flesh. Food satisfied his present fleshly appetite, gratified the sensual part of him, even though the obvious greater good would have been his birthright---the glory and fulfillment he was intended for.
And Esau, with his hungry belly and near-sighted, pathetic bad judgement, is really just a dumbed-down, simplified analogy of ourselves.
We were meant to be with God. We were meant to be gloriously holy like Him. We were meant for so much more than what we aim for now. Like Esau, we were meant for glory and fulfillment.
And we know--even if vaguely--that we could grasp something much, much better than what we're dreaming of and struggling to get now. We were made for more.
But that's just too far away for our short-sighted heart and short-sighted eyes, even if it's so beautiful it dazzles us. We focus instead on something that's not even half as beautiful, but which looks closer, and decide it's more attractive, because it seems so much easier to get, because it seems like it'll fulfill the I want driving our flesh now.
It's like pursuing one night stands instead of finding your true love.
It's like Esau, choosing the food his flesh wanted now over what he knew was much, much better.
The desires of the flesh are driving all of us in different ways, definitely in more than one way.
Esau's was food, the most basic sensual/fleshly desire.
Popularity, making sure there are only smiles and people eager to please us in our lives?
Possessions, things we can feel good over because we can call them 'mine'?
Pride, how we appear to others?
Or something else?
Just as this Bible story obviously isn't meant to tell us we need to stop eating (duhhhh), the desires of the flesh that we face today may be legitimately good things in themselves. It was not wrong for Esau to eat. His mistake was choosing that over something else worth much more. There is nothing wrong in choosing a rhinestone, but everyone's going to be gaping at you if you chose that over a diamond that you could have had instead.
Likewise for us.
Perhaps He calls you to stop worshiping the gifts He has given to you instead of Him.
Perhaps God calls you to wake up from the numbness you've carefully bubble-wrapped all your pet sins and idols with, not wanting to let them go, not able to overcome the desires of your flesh.
Let go of your bowl of lentils, friend. You'll be hungry again in a few hours, and then you'll be off looking for more again--a vicious cycle. Look up at the birthright you were intended to fulfill.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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