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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Dealing with Discouragement 1 Kings 19

We all face discouragement: circumstances change, jobs, people, even ourselves, —we get overwhelmed, can’t seem to see a “way out” and just want to to push the button and say, “ok, I quit, I’ve had enough!”  Learning how to deal with these feelings is a major step in our growth as a Christian and walking daily with the Lord.  After a quick review of an event in the life of Elijah, we will look at some specific ways God dealt with the prophet that can help us with discouragement when it comes our way.

The prophet comes on the scene in chapter 17 as he proclaims God’s declaration of no rain, which would last for 3½ years. King Ahab, Israel’s monarch of the northern tribes had fostered idolatry across the kingdom. In God’s timing to end the drought, the prophet is commanded to confront the king and challenge those that are responsible for turning the people’s hearts against God. 

Directed by God, Elijah calls for a public challenge between Yaweh and Baal, the Canaanite storm god and bringer of rain. The prophets of Baal were to offer their sacrifice and Elijah his; the god who answered by fire would prove himself to be truly God. For several hours the prophets of Baal cried out with all their might and by all possible means, but no fire came. Elijah even made fun of them. Then when it was Elijah’s turn, he repaired the altar built for the sacrifice which the other prophets had tried to destroy it in their frenzies. Water was then poured over the entire sacrifice 3 different times.  Elijah prayed and fire fell consuming everything so that nothing is left. The people erupted in praise declaring the Yaweh was God alone and then the 450 prophets of Baal were killed. 

Ahab told his wife, Jezebel, that the prophet had killed all of the prophets of Baal, the god she worshiped, but nothing of what God had done. She vowed to have Elijah killed, so he fled for his life, going as far south as the southern edge of the kingdom of Judah, out of Ahab’s rule. He leaves his servant there and goes a day’s journey into the desert. Convinced his life and ministry have been fruitless, he tells God, “It’s enough! Everything I’ve done is worthless!” 

In chapter 19 we see the same prophet who called down fire from heaven so discouraged, he is ready to die. What happened? I’m sure there is much more, but I would like to make a few suggestions to show how God worked in Elijah’s life to bring change and restoration. Let’s trace what happened:

1. The prophet was physically exhausted. In 18:45-46 we read that Ahab rode back to town after the showdown on Mt. Carmel, but that Elijah ran and beat him there. Sometimes we keep pushing to go own, whether because the situation is so dire we just can’t stop or that we just because we have developed habits of burning the candle at both ends. Regardless, our bodies will begin to send warnings. For Elijah, his strength to focus was lost.

2. He lost his focus on God and focused on his fear of Jezebel because of his weakened condition.  He began to make poor choices. He left his servant in Beersheba, perhaps for the servant’s protection from the queen, but in doing so he lost companionship, encouragement, and any sounding board that might have helped him think differently.

3. God continued to watch out and direct His prophet. Elijah was alone, depressed, exhausted, discouraged and finally collapsed into a long sleep. God provided food [not unlike what he had been eating with the widow for 3½ years], and fell asleep again. God’s angel woke the prophet again and instructed him to eat otherwise the journey would be too much for him. Elijah then traveled 40 days [200 miles] to Mt. Horeb without eating, reminiscent of Moses receiving the law after 40 days of fasting in the same place. Elijah then found a cave in which to rest.

4. God began to help him change his thinking.  God asked him: “What are you doing here?” That sounds odd, since God was the one who led him there, so there must have been more to the question. Elijah’s answer seemed almost rehearsed, perhaps a thoughts and words that played a continual loop in his mind: “I’ve been obedient, but it hasn’t made any difference and they are trying to kill me.”  His physical condition and circumstances had led to distorted thought patterns. He had forgotten the great victory God had just given and the people’s declaration that only Yahweh was God. Instead of Jezebel, now an nebulous group called “they” were out to kill him.

5. God responded in a way that Elijah was not expecting. Rather than respond to the prophet’s commentary, God sent him out to the mouth of the cave where God would pass by, again, like Moses. There was a powerful wind, but God didn’t speak, an earthquake, but no voice, and a raging fire; still God did not speak. All three of these could have been understood as things God would use to display His power and might, but God didn’t choose to speak through them. Instead, after all three, there was a period of silence and the prophet heard a still small whisper. Sometimes God speaks in ways that we are not expecting.  We need to listen carefully in the times of silence.

6. God repeated the same question. To get a better grasp of the situation, it might be helpful for us to repeat the question, but change the emphasis on the words:

— What are you doing here, Elijah? 

     Hiding in a cave? Running away? Am I not the one who protects?

— What are you doing here, Elijah?  

     You are my prophet, my voice, your life and mission are wrapped up in my will for you.

Unfortunately, Elijah was stuck in his distorted thoughts. He responded with the exact same words as before as if God didn’t hear it the first time.

7. God shared His truth about the situation. God sent him back to anoint two foreign kings and a replacement to take his place as prophet, but just as important, God shared His truth and reality of the situation that Elijah did not know: there were 7000 in Israel who were faithful and had not bowed down to Baal. Rather than chastising the prophet, God helped him see God’s truth and called him to obedient service once more.  When we get stuck in distorted thoughts, we need to go back and ask ourselves, “What is the truth of God in this situation?” and be obedient. God’s command showed the prophet that God still had work for him to do and that his work would not be in vain; it wasn’t all left up to Elijah, but God to carry on His will.

Ministry and life in general are challenging; relationships, jobs, illness, and a host of other issues can lead us down a path toward becoming discouraged. However, we don’t have to stay there; there is hope. 

Hope in our God that is ever watching over us, even when we are down. 

Hope that His plan is perfect, even when we can’t see the way. 

Hope in seeing the truth of God in difficult situations and being obedient to His will.



Tuesday, March 9, 2021

He must increase; I must decrease [John 4:30]

From the very beginning, John the Baptist recognized who Jesus was; even when John’s own followers were leaving to follow Jesus, his response, “He must increase; I must decrease,” showed the clarity of his understanding of his unique role with the Messiah. Yet, not long before his own death, suffering in prison, he sends some of his remaining followers to Jesus just to make sure; John’s idea of what Messiah was going to do didn’t seem to match with what he was hearing about Jesus. Most likely, he never envisioned imprisonment as part of is life and how his ministry would transition. Jesus reassured John that prophetic scripture was being fulfilled. 

We, too, all called to decrease and see that Christ increase; John’s mission was to prepare for Messiah, our is to proclaim Him. If John the Baptist can get confused in his destined mission, so can we. I’m sure there are more, but here are five of the “red flags” to help us avoid failing in our role to “decrease.”

1. Focusing on making a name for myself.

As someone once said, if we focus on deepening our relationship with God, He will take care of the breadth of our ministry.  It is easy to get lost in putting ourselves in positions for recognition, so much so that even the preparation and study for what we do is to further our position, not deepen the relationship of obedience.  We study, we practice, we prepare so we can offer the best offering of service to the King of kings and Lord of lords, not be in pursuit of the next best position. God makes the decision and timing in our journey; it is His choice whether or not what we do expands to a broader audience.

2. When I am unable to receive the truth that contradicts my desire.

The rejection of wisdom from those outside “my circle” could reveal an unwillingness to admit that someone else's opinion might be a better option. When my desire, my opinion, or my perspective, becomes more important than searching out the truth, the opinion of others just becomes noise and we have failed to decrease.  Sometimes we even look down on opinions from those that “aren’t as prepared as we are,” so their opinion really doesn’t matter. In ignoring even the evaluating of that advise, we may be passing up an idea that would transform what God is doing in our lives. Remember that God’s Word is always our final authority and source of truth.

3. Not accepting my limits.

Contrary to the popular belief “that we can do anything we really set our mind to,” the truth is we all have limits.  In accepting our limits, we seek out God’s will for our lives rather than some dream that is beyond the limits of our 

reality. As I age, I am reminded regularly that I cannot do what I could do 10 or 15 years before. The aging process is only one of many that are a natural part of “decreasing.”  Even learning how to deal with death is a part of our decreasing. In death, we finally get to see His greatness and glory. We can do all that God has called us to, because He will equip those He calls to do what He commands. 

4. When circumstances or plans don’t go as I had expected. 

John the Baptist was living in that reality: he was in jail though obedient, and what he was hearing about Jesus didn’t match his expectations. God’s plan for his life did not make his expectations. When we are more driven by our expectations than we are the truth of God’s Word, then we are setting ourselves up to get side-tracked from God’s plan of decreasing.

5. Decreasing is not self-criticism or demeaning. 

We are all made in the image of God, and all share the same fallen nature. Our worth does not come from what we might be able to accomplish, from fame, popularity, etc., but from what Christ has done in our lives. Continual beating ourselves up does not help us “decrease” nor is a part of His increasing. When we continually beat up on ourselves, we are actually doing the opposite of what we think we are doing because the focus centers around “us.”  Living a life of grateful obedience in humility and joy brings honor and glory to God.

 He must increase; I must decrease! 

Paul had faced incredible hardships and persecutions, as he shares in 2 Corinthians 1:8 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” While he was transparent about his difficulties, later in 12:9-10, he underscores the importance of refocusing our perceptions:  9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  

Rather than viewing our weaknesses and "decreasing" as something negative, Paul helps us realize God's truth that can help us as we continue in our journey here.

He must increase; I must decrease!

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Fear Not...

For the past two or three weeks God has continually brought to my mind and heart the words from Psalm 34:4-9:

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. 5 Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.  6 This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. 7 The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.  8 Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.  9 Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.

I had started having some unexpected side effects that I thought were related to the radiation treatment, but upon consultation, probably were not. After ending the phone call, my mind began to race and the idea of a “reappearance of cancer” began to loop in my thoughts. Dread, denial, and fear all seemed to coalesce; even my heart seemed to begin to race. I stopped and took some deep breaths and began to pray: “God, I trust You...” Honestly, I really couldn’t say much more. Then God brought me to His Word in Psalm 34:4: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.”  God has not put me on the planning committee, and He isn’t obligated to explain to me what or why, but the greater question was and still is, “Will I trust Him?” 

I began to look at fear in a different light and jotted some notes down during my private devotional time in the morning. When we go through the storms of life, we do not become automatic experts in how to deal with the issues, however, if we allow Him, God can use those events to help mold us into His image. That’s where I am, on a journey trying to learn what God wants to teach me and to re-mold me into more of the likeness of His Son.

What are some of those fears that seem to eat us alive and consume our thoughts? Here are few thoughts:

Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment: Sometimes we base our worth on what we can do, but our worth is really based on what Christ has already done in our lives. Our pride scrambles to save face and make excuses when we fail or push us to do things we probably would not have done in other circumstances. In these situations, we need to trust our reputations to God and remember our worth is what God has already done in us through Christ. Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Fear of suffering: No one wants to suffer; regardless of what kind of suffering it may be, there isn’t a line of volunteers waiting to jump right in to suffer. We forget that suffering is just a natural part of growing and becoming like Christ. As Paul said “...that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His suffering...[Phil 3:10]. Jesus assured His disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33] Suffering is the fire that burns away that which is unpleasing to God and the anvil that helps mold us into His character.  We do suffer when we sin, but the kind of suffering to which I refer is not destructive, but constructive.

Fear of persecution: Similar to the previous one, but perhaps more related to personal freedom and those in authority over us. We should never forget that regardless of what human government may be in power, God is still on His throne and still in control. What is more, throughout history, God has allowed persecution and His Church has grown strong through it. I am somewhat amazed that we would pray, “God, do whatever it takes to bring the world to Your feet!” and then, when God allows persecution to purify His Body to be able to be used by Him, we tell Him that persecution was not what we had in mind. One issue we must come to grips with is: “Do we really believe God is who He says He is and that He is really in control?” Trust is more than a word, it is faith put into active belief. We lay our fears at His feet, trusting Him.  To be able to hear Him, we must be pure before Him and able to be used by Him.  Hear the words of the psalmist to comfort your heart and spirit:
Psalm 55:22 “Cast your cares on the Lord  and he will sustain you; he will never let  the righteous be shaken.”  
Psalm 56:3 “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”
Psalm 4:8 “In peace, I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

Fear of punishment: God does discipline those He loves as a loving father would his children, however, sometimes we secretly believe that God is sneaking up behind us, waiting for us to mess up so He can punish us; that He delights in making us squirm. We have misunderstood the love of God. Remember He sent His only Son to take our punishment, the punishment we really deserved, so we might have forgiveness and eternal life in relationship with Him. Rather than the “mean man” with a big stick to hit us and keep us in line, He is the loving Father that stands behinds the baby that is learning to walk to help him when he falls. Remember 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Fear of death: We all know we are going to die, but think that it is only something that happens to “older people.” If we are going to have to die, we just don’t want to suffer or cause a lot of suffering in the process.  I am not trying to minimize the grief associated with the loss of a loved one; that grief is real and we need to be honest in our feelings. I am not trying to make light of death; the finality of this earthly existence is real. While that is true, the reality of an eternity in the presence of our living Lord is also real. When Jesus was trying to walk the disciples through His own impending death, He said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” [John 14:27] Only our relationship with Christ can really give us the peace that comfort. Remember Psalm 23:4  “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me...” We will close our eyes here on earth only to open them in the presence of Christ. The longings of our entire life will be fulfilled in the twinkling of an eye. Our focus then, it not on death, but on spending eternity with God in heaven.

So what can we do? Here is a start:
[1] Verbalize your fear to God; He already knows, but being able to articulate our fear, naming our fears is a great step in overcoming them. If you have a trusted mature believer, share those concerns with them.
[2] Go to the promises of God in His Word. You can start with those listed here, or follow the Spirit’s leading in Scripture.
[3] Shift your focus from your fear to your faith in God. What caused our fear may still exist, but our focus is on Him. Each time that wave of doubt or the dark cloud of fear tries to engulf you, go back to the promise of God’s Word. Memorize the passage, say it out loud.
[4] Thank God for His provision and care; list out those things for which you are grateful. Keep a gratitude list and review it early in the morning and before you go to bed.
[5] Remember: God is in control. God loves you and has a plan for your life. You can trust God.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Parable: When JB Unfriended God


“JB unfriended God. After being stuck in this pandemic so long and God hadn’t done enough to stop it, so JB decided to just unfriend Him. After all, friends don’t let friends suffer, do they? JB had given God his Sunday mornings and even an occasional extra day. JB had prayed to stop this mess, but it just kept on. He was tired of staying at home, tired of wearing a mask, tired of keeping his distance, and it had been nearly a year. He just wanted his life back. And it wasn’t just JB, he looked around and saw how many other people were suffering? It certainly looked as if God had “unfriended” JB; he would just return the favor. Fortunately, God never had unfriended JB.

Why God allows suffering is one of the greatest mysteries and sometimes one of the greatest obstacles for some to overcome. There are no easy answers; I certainly don’t have one.  Fortunately, I don’t have to understand everything to trust God. I know that His love was so great that He allowed His own Son to suffer and die for my sin and the sins of the world; I can’t doubt that kind of love. I may not be able to understand, but I can trust that kind of love and that kind of God.  I know there are some wonderful explanations about this and I encourage everyone to search those out.  For me, this is my starting point: Almighty God is in control, He loves me and has a plan and purpose for my life; I can trust Him. 

One of the purposes of my life with Him is that I would be conformed to the image of His Son. While salvation is instantaneous, being conformed takes time. He must continually cut away everything that does not reflect the nature and character of His Son. It is a long and painful process, but the result is a deeper relationship with God and knowing Him in new and more intimates ways.  God is more concerned in deepening this relationship than the avoidance of temporary discomfort. So at times, while there is a temptation to believe that God might have “unfriended” me, I know I can go and trust Him. He is our faithful, loving God.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Expectation


The year 2020, and so far 2021 have not been what I anticipated. I was somewhat irritated recently with the limitations COVID has caused and came to the realization that, though I’m not fond of wearing the mask, etc., it’s really not that big a deal; what was really under the surface was I expected this to last a couple of months and then things would return to “normal.” Over and over again, my expectations of what I thought should happen got shot down with every new report or announcement of changes in what we must do.
Meditating on 2 Kings 5, I was reminded of another person whose unfulfilled expectations almost cost him healing. You know the story, Naaman, the powerful military leader from Aram had leprosy. Through the testimony of a young Hebrew girl who had been captured, he learns of a prophet that can heal him. [Too much here that I wished we could unpack, but not now.] He eventually shows up with a group of soldiers to the prophet’s house and is greeted by a servant who instructs him to go wash in the Jordan River. Infuriated, Naaman storms off. Listen to his crushed expectations in 2 Kings 5:11-12:
11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
He had already imagined what needed to happen:
[1] the prophet would come out to meet him,
[2] call on His God, and
[3] wave his hand over the place,
[4] then be healed.

Bathing in a muddy river just wasn’t in his plans. At the urging of one of his soldiers, he finally does what Elisha had commanded and is healed. God wanted to teach some lessons to him:
[1] to humble himself,
[2] that Yahweh was the only true God, and
[3] to trust God’s commands and obey, even when it doesn’t seem logical.
Naaman returns not only healed of his leprosy but a believer in the only True God.
Fast forward to 2021; if we are not careful we can begin to trust our expectations of what we think should happen more than trusting God in the midst of everything going on. So when we catch ourselves getting flustered over unmet expectations, let’s stop and give them back to God, seek Him to see what HE wants us to do or how to respond.
I pray that the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, as you trust in Him!