Undivided Devotion

I’ve been thinking a lot about 1 Corinthians 7 recently. Paul writes that as Christians it is good to stay unmarried (v. 8). Unmarried women are able to live lives in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 34-35).

He assures his readers that he’s not trying to restrict them. Paul even considers his own singleness a gift (1 Corinthians 7:7).

I used to long to be loved and married. I watched my younger siblings then friends marry and start families. I wondered why God withheld such blessings from me, what was wrong with me?

But I’ve learned to appreciate the single life. As a single I completed my Master’s degree, I wrote and self-published a book, I traveled to many places, including living in New Jersey for four months to work with FEMA and HOPE Worldwide after Super Storm Sandy hit the east coast. It is likely that I would not have accomplished any of those things had I been married.

Relationships are also gifts, but God wants Christians to reflect His love and draw people closer to Him and help people get to Heaven. As Christians, that is our mission and purpose.

Jesus knew that the single life was not for everyone, but for those for whom singleness was given He encouraged (Matthew 19:12).

I’ve learned to not only be at peace with being single, but to embrace it. My desire is to grow in my relationship with God and be more like Christ. If God brings a man into my life who falls in love with me and leads me Biblically, a man whose love for me reflects that of God’s love for the church in Ephesians 5, a man with whom I can be in the spiritual battle helping each other get to Heaven and ministering to others as well, that will be a blessing.

But if God does not grant me that, Jesus already loves me more than any other human being. He’s already given to me more than anyone could ask or imagine. And His Word is the most beautiful love letter I’ve ever received. My heart is full in Him.

Three times Solomon says, “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, 8:4). When love is from God it does not have to be rushed, coerced, forced or manipulated.

Isaiah 54:5 says that God has already proposed to me. I’m already His bride.

Prayers for Protection

I’ve seen many posts of people praying for God’s protection during this time of crisis. First Corinthians 13 does say that love always protects. But the Greek word used here is stegei, which seems to mean, in part, withstanding difficulty.

We live in a fallen world and God does not protect us from every calamity. Job was not protected from loss. Joseph was not protected from being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The Israelites were not protected from becoming slaves to the Egyptians. Stephen was not protected from being stoned. John the Baptist was not protected from being beheaded. Even Jesus was not protected from the cross, even after He prayed that God would remove that cup from His life.

This is a time when we’re all thinking about how to protect our loved ones if not ourselves. People are praying more. We’re taking precautions we didn’t consider just a few weeks ago. Despite these precautions and prayers there are no guarantees.

And so I’ve been wondering what should I pray? Do I pray for protection that God does not guarantee? I can hope for protection, but is that prayer in alignment with God’s will? Do I give up and pray that if it’s God’s will He allows me to become ill?

In Acts Luke does not write that the apostles prayed for protection. As they were persecuted they prayed for boldness in preaching God’s Word. Their faith was not in circumstances but in God.

So while I hope for protection for myself and loved ones, I pray that whatever chaos the virus may create, I may be a source of comfort and compassion, that God will show me ways to serve and help, that God will give our leaders wisdom during this time, and that ultimately God may bring good from these circumstances and be glorified.

Please Don’t Rob Me of my Blessings

I’ve mentioned before that my father has Parkinson’s disease. He frequently comments that he does not want to become a burden to the family.

I remind him that when I was growing up with Crohn’s disease he and mom and my grandmother took care of me, and I hope they didn’t consider me a burden. I also have a niece who has spina bifida, whom I’ve also mentioned. She is a gift, a miracle, not a burden.

The writer of Hebrew stated that God will remember those who help his people. To me, serving other people is an opportunity for me to receive God’s blessings.

This morning as I prayed through my day I thought about how much of my prayers are petitions. I’ve read a statistic that one-third of the Psalms are praise and thanksgiving, and two-thirds are laments. I believe this is likely accurate.

It’s just easier to think of what I want and need, or would like to see God do, than to praise and thank Him. Not that I’m always ungrateful, and not that I never thank Him. I try to praise and thank Him for at least something in every prayer. But the requests come more easily.

As I prayed this morning I though about my dad, and what a blessing it is to be able to serve him. I thought about how feeling needed often is part of what makes me feel loved and special. I considered some of the many scriptures in which God invites us to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:7). Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about laying my requests before God. I realized that He welcomes them, and that He also, probably likes to feel needed. We’re not burdens to Him because He loves us, and when you love someone, serving them is a gift, not a burden.

Comfortable Christianity

Someone I know recently began attending church regularly and reading his Bible. The other day he remarked to me about some of the difficult things going on in his life lately. I remembered Jesus’s interactions with Satan in the desert before He began His ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), and commented that when one embarks on reconciliation towards God or working towards God’s mission on earth, it’s not uncommon for Satan, through life, to turn up the heat.

I’ve heard people thank God for the lack of persecution we experience as American christians. I’ve prayed this prayer as well. Perhaps, though, God is less thankful for our comfortable Christianity.

Jesus promised his followers that they would be persecuted (Mark 10:30). Jesus also said that being persecuted for following Him is a blessing, because the Old Testament prophets were treated in the same way, and those who are persecuted for His name’s sake will be richly rewarded in Heaven. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he said that anyone who wanted to live a Godly life would be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

I’m not a theologian. Perhaps I’m reading into these passages. Perhaps they were more applicable for the first century Christians than today, although there are many places in the world still where Christians are still persecuted today.

However, I cannot help but wonder at passages like Acts 19. In verse 15 Luke writes that the demons knew Paul by name, but they didn’t recognize everyone who was trying to cast out demons.

I can’t help but wonder if God is saddened by the lack of persecution in America. I can’t help but wonder how He feels about comfortable Christianity. In his letter to the church at Ephesus Paul advises the Christians how to prepare for spiritual war (Ephesians 6:10-20). Are we not persecuted, as a whole, because Satan does not feel that we are enough of a threat to his schemes to warrant his attacks? Does he allow us to worship God in comfort because he considers us ineffective in spiritual battles? I can’t help but wonder…

 

A Confession

I confess…I find prayer difficult.

I was raised in a faith-based home. I’ve been a Christian for decades. And yet, I find prayer difficult. It is an elementary teaching, and yet, for me, it is a struggle. I love to study my Bible. I love to read, and learn, and research, so Bible study is a natural desire for me. Even obedience to many Scriptures comes easily. Sharing my faith and the gospel are much easier than they used to be. But prayer still eludes me.

The idea of having a conversation with someone who is in many ways intangible and doesn’t respond to my attempts at communication the way others do is difficult for me to wrap my rational mind around. I am by nature a planning, task-oriented woman. I write my lists, make my plans, plan my schedule and budget, and watch as little turns out the way I expect. I like results. When I study the Bible or share my faith, results or lack thereof, are evident immediately. With prayer, I often wait, continuing the same prayer, sometimes for years, before I see any response. And that’s if I ever see any response.

So this year, instead of making New Year’s resolutions I decided that I would focus on praying, listening and waiting for God’s direction rather than making my plans, or allowing others to plan my life for me. I wanted to hear God’s voice above all other noises that can so easily drown out the quiet whisper of wind Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:11-13). I chose to focus on being still, and knowing and acknowledging that God is God (Psalm 46:10).

To that end, being the reader that I am, I rounded up every devotional book I have on prayer, bought a couple more, and began studying prayer. I wanted to commune and engage with God.

Right now I’m reading Philip Yancey’s “Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?” Yancey shares the story of a man who is doing some masonry work at home. His young daughter watches and offers to help. The man knows that the bricks he’s working with are too large and heavy for his daughter to help. Wanting her to be encouraged, though, he suggests that instead of helping him she sing for him. She is not to be deterred, and insists that she wants to help. Finally, he relents. When the task is completed she’s thrilled at the work she’s helped accomplished. He, on the other hand, knows that the work could have been done more quickly without her. He accommodated her weakness in the way he organized his work, preparing the bricks and mortar, and helping her with the heavy lifting. But seeing her happiness he can’t help but acknowledge that including her in the work was worth the effort as they made a special memory together.

Yancey uses that story in connection to Jesus telling the apostles to pray for the Lord to send out workers because the harvest is plentiful. Yancey asks why is it that Jesus didn’t just recruit more workers? Why does he ask the apostles to pray for more workers? Why doesn’t Jesus himself just bring in the harvest? Because, Yancey proposes, we are not just God’s servants, but his friends. And as a God of relationship, He longs to include us in His plans and mission. He wants us to be involved, He invites us to communicate, because He wants to include us and share His purpose with us, even when we make His job more difficult.

Last evening I had a spiritual meltdown. This morning as I sat in church and listened to the communion message my heart broke for how my sin and spiritual meltdowns impede God’s work. I hurt for how my sin hurts God, hurts people, and especially people in whose lives I want to have a spiritual impact. I wondered at the majesty and mercy of a God who would allow me to be included in His projects and missions, even when He has to accommodate my weaknesses, even when I make His job more difficult, even when I get in His way. I’m so thankful that His gospel is bigger and more powerful than a wretched messenger like me who’s been given the grace to share His story.

Have You Considered My Servant Job?

For the past week and a half I have barely slept. What began as a rash on my face a year and a half ago has recently developed into a burning, angry, weeping disaster. I toss and turn all night, scratching my neck, rubbing my face, and begging God for relief.

After my Crohn’s went into remission I took pride in God’s blessings in my life, but also in the fact that unlike modern medicine, I had learned to keep the Crohn’s in remission through diet and lifestyle changes. I wanted to share with others what I had learned.

When a friend remarked, “That’s great that you want to help people, but what do you tell people who do everything right and remain sick?”

How God has humbled me as I’ve spent the past several months researching and trying to figure out what is causing these symptoms and how to manage them, only to have them blow up to even greater proportions. I’ve tried elimination diets, essential oils, and supplements. And I just keep feeling worse and worse.

Job 2:7 says that Job was covered in painful boils. In Job 7:4 Job says, “When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn.” I can relate.

To make matters worse, Job’s friends criticized him and asked what he needed to repent of so that God would bless him once again. But God was not punishing Job. God told Satan that he could test Job because God had faith that Job would remain faithful no matter what he endured. And so he did. And eventually God did bless his faithfulness.

So for those who make every effort to do the right thing, whether it’s with your health, or spiritually, or in some other area of your life, and yet you don’t get the results you’re looking for, take heart: sometimes those who suffer the most are the ones in whom God has the greatest faith.

 

 

Living Free

I”m digressing from my 1 Corinthians 13 posts to share my heart.

I’ve been taking an online class through an organization called Living Free. The class is a faith-based approach to dealing with and preventing life-controlling issues in ourselves and helping others with the same.

Honestly, I took the class because I thought it might be a way for me to learn to minister to others in my life. Instead, I’m learning a lot about myself.

Our sermon Sunday was titled Christ Invented Karma. I was defensive about it. Psalm 103 says that God does not treat us as our sins deserve, and I’ve seen way too much injustice in the world to buy into the concept of Karma. However, Galatians does say that we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7-8).

So as I’ve thought more about the sermon and what I’ve been learning about the class I’ve seen more of how my behaviors and attitudes affect those around me. How my defensiveness keeps people at arm’s length; how my intensity keeps people from being at ease; how my need to share my opinion or input makes others feel like they can’t do anything right.

The Bible says that Christ came to set us free (John 8:36), yet even those of us who have been Christians for years can remain captive to our sinful natures. Paul said he couldn’t understand why he kept doing the things he didn’t want to do, and couldn’t do the things he wanted (Romans 7:15-25). He was at war within himself.

All of us are in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6), whether we are aware of it or not.

I am grateful to serve a God who’s already won the victory, and who sees my weaknesses, gently points them out to me, and continues to heal me spiritually, and in other ways. I won’t wake up tomorrow being completely vulnerable and open, but I am a work in progress, and with God’s grace and help, I can be more open and vulnerable tomorrow than I was yesterday.

Love Does Not Boast

One of the books that I’ve been reading this summer has been Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I am amazed by the faith of people who would endure such hardships for the sake of the gospel of Christ.

Jesus did not promise worldly prosperity to His followers. Instead, in Mark 10, He promises persecution: “Truly I tell you… no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel  will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

He never referred to Himself as God. His followers were “unschooled, ordinary men (Acts 4:13). They had little of which to boast. Christ’s early followers were imprisoned, sawed in half, crucified, beheaded, used as human torches, stoned, and fed to lions in public arenas.

Yet despite the persecution, the mocking, the insults, the loneliness, the sacrifices, these men and women held to their convictions. They were willing to give up everything: comfort, relationships, careers, financial security, even their own lives in defense of the gospel.

It’s difficult to watch someone you love go through trials, or wrestle for their faith. Sometimes you wish you could take the other person’s place. But Paul wrote, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character;and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.…(Romans 5:3-4).”

Jesus did not always get what He asked for from God, so we should not be surprised when we do not either. And He had to endure the worst of suffering that humanity could imagine, through no fault of His own. Three times on the night of His arrest He asked God to remove this cup of suffering from His life, but repeatedly said that if it was God’s will He would do it. God did not remove the cup; it was indeed His will for Jesus to suffer over the next 24 hours. But it was only His will because He had a greater plan.

Paul also prays three times for God to remove what he calls, “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan (2 Corinthians 12), but again, God refuses. So Paul decides that rather than boast about his successes, he will boast about his weaknesses, and delight in insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties, so that Christ’s power could rest on him.

Sometimes we question if we’ll be able to survive our sufferings. When those times come it helps to know our reason why. John wrote that Jesus prayed for three things before His arrest: God’s glory, His disciples, and the rest of believers.

When He was arrested, when He was flogged, mocked, persecuted, tortured, killed, He knew His why. He wanted people to see God’s ability to work through the most impossible of situations, which in the case of the crucifixion meant resurrection.

Secondly, He wanted God to protect His disciples from losing their salvation to Satan’s attacks. He knew the world hated them. He knew that they would be persecuted for following Him. But He prayed for their protection, not from the persecution and hatred, but from losing their faith in God.

Finally, He prayed for all of the followers who would one day believe in Him. The one time that I know of Jesus being recorded to say that He wants something specific is in John 17, where He says of future believers, “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

Jesus knew His why: God’s glory, protection from Satan’s attacks and loss of faith, and for us to make it to Heaven with Him. He did not boast or glory in the things of this world; these eternal factors were the things that motivated Him.

Time is Not the Enemy

A few years ago I lived with my minister and his family. I lived with them for ten months.  Talk about having your character exposed. We had several “kitchen talks.” Sonny and Kim would stand in one corner of the kitchen, with me in another. I would cry and vent over my frustrations of feeling stuck in life.

I was in my forties, living in their basement, working overtime in a dead-end job with no benefits, using none of my three degrees, with nearly ninety thousand dollars in student loan debt, and no men in my life who seemed to have the potential or desire to be in any significant relationship with me. While I tried to live in obedience to the Bible, I saw others my age who did not mind throwing other people under the bus to get ahead, and wondered why God did not bless me, but people who were willing to cheat and lie and live according to non-Biblical standards advanced financially, professionally and personally. It seemed unfair.

Sonny always took me back to the Bible. One of his favorite examples to review was Joseph. When Joseph was a teenager he dreamed that his brothers would one day bow down to him. Instead, they sold him to some Egyptian slave traders and told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. Once in Egypt he is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a woman and spends somewhere between two and thirteen years in prison for a crime he never committed. Then, through a series of unforeseeable incidents, he is brought before Pharaoh to decipher a dream, and prophesies that God will send a famine upon Egypt and the surrounding geography. When the prophesy comes true Pharaoh appoints him second in command of all of Egypt. Eventually, his brothers come to Egypt begging for grain as the famine has reached as far as Israel.

Through all of that time and all of those circumstances Joseph did nothing wrong. Day after day he continued to be obedient to the Jewish faith, despite being separated from his family, despite false accusations, despite imprisonment. Never once do we read of him compromising.

Yet, maybe he got discouraged. Maybe he wondered why God seemed to have forgotten him, why he had been abandoned to an Egyptian prison cell. Perhaps he wondered whether it was worth it to maintain his faith, to even get out of bed some mornings. What was the point?

He surely didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the dreams of his youth.

Yet all along God was working. If his brothers had not sold him he would not have ended up in Egypt. If he had not been in Egypt he would have never been able to decipher Pharaoh’s dream and help prepare Egypt for the coming famine. And if he hadn’t been in Egypt he would never have been able to save his family. Things came full circle.

There are many other examples of people in whose life God takes time to work: Abraham and Sarah, David, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, even Jesus.

This is not to say that God grants all of our dreams. Or that if we wait long enough life will get easier. Some people have harder lives than others. Some people endure more. Several verses in Hebrews 11 refer to people whose faith was never rewarded in this lifetime.

But that’s not to say that they weren’t rewarded. Life can be difficult, even excruciatingly so sometimes. I’m grateful that God included people in the Bible who wanted to throw in the towel. Job asked God to take his life before he lost his faith (Job 3:11). Paul said it would be much better to be with Christ than to remain in this body (Philippians 1:23).

Ultimately, Paul stated that if as Christians we only have hope for this life, we are to be pitied more than all men (1 Corinthians 15:19). Some people believe that Christianity is about what you lose. People choose to be chaste and obedient to a book written hundreds of years ago.

But ultimately, what we gain is freedom, peace, joy. The next adjective in our 1 Corinthians 13 list is envy. Recently I’ve envied friends trips they were going on: one on vacation, one on a mission trip. But those moments are fleeting, as are my days of feeling stuck. I’ve learned that Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Corinthians 6:6).

There is a peace that comes with obedience to God’s Word. More than that, I know that my rewards will be eternal. If I sacrifice professional advancement, or prosperity, or for you, whatever it might be that you are confronting, I know where I stand before Christ.

Ultimately, it does not matter what others say or believe, because I know what’s true, and I know where I stand before my Judge, and I know that ultimately, his eternal gifts far outweigh anything this world has to offer.

Kindness

After patience, the next adjective Paul uses to describe love in 1 Corinthians 13 is kindness. Wikipedia and the dictionary define kindness as generosity, concern and consideration for others. It is a voluntary behavior marked by ethical considerations and a pleasant disposition.

At work recently my coworkers have had opportunities to express kindness to each other as we watch our team members and their families go through difficult times. I’m reminded of a singles ministry I belonged to for a while. There was a household of single men. When we single gals needed help with our cars or other things that they usually knew more about than us, we sought their advice. And in turn we looked for ways to encourage them, cooking for them, baking for them, voluntarily cleaning their house. While we all lived in Cleveland, one of the fellas had a girlfriend who lived on the east coast, and one of them had a girlfriend who lived on the west coast. We looked out for each other simply because we were brothers and sisters in Christ and considered how we could “spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).” We had no ulterior motives other than knowing the joy that our kindness brought into each other’s lives.

Throughout the New Testament there are acts of generosity and kindness, including many examples of physical healing. Perhaps my favorite example is when Jesus healed the ten lepers in Luke 17. Of the ten, only one returned to thank Jesus. Jesus surely knew the other nine would be ungrateful, yet He healed all ten. He expressed kindness with no need or expectation of receiving anything in return.