The Providence of God

I caught myself the other day thinking, “If I could change one thing about my past…” The problem is I found a lot of things. Choices. People. Places. Priorities. Desires.  I’ll bet you can finish that sentence with a few thoughts of your own. Who hasn’t lamented something in their past? For some, the choices were huge and life-altering. For others, they were moments, that while not quite as monumental, we wish we could do over. I have spent so much time living with regrets, living in the “if only’s,” and wishing I had made wiser decisions, or that circumstances had turned out differently. I have discovered that when I live in constant regret I set myself up for a very sad life.

But I am learning to trust in the sovereign providence of God. Those are words we don’t use much in our contemporary religion, but they are powerful. In the original Hebrew, the word combination has a rich and significant meaning. The word “sovereign” speaks to God’s rightful authority as Creator over nature, nations, mankind, and individual lives. Likewise, the word “providence” is speaking to God’s charge over everything He has made – including you and me.  The root word means “to pay attention, to care for, to be in charge of.” This is His tender, loving oversight as our Good Shepherd and Heavenly Father. God has pledged to pay attention to you, to care for you, and to be in charge of your life – not as a dictator – but as One who seeks always and only what is best for you. Job 10:12 expresses this duality beautifully. “You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in Your providence watched over my spirit.” The combination of terms tells us that God is always looking out on your behalf, knows what you need and He has the authority to move heaven and earth to accomplish all things for you – because He loves you.

If you have grieved over your past, know that Your sovereign, providential Father has been watching over and caring for you all along. In His hands, the very thing that caused you the most pain can be the seed for a whole new life. Beloved, God loves you too much to waste the struggles of your life. He has a plan. He has a purpose. And He has you in the palm of His great hand.

The Voice of the Lord

My voice is naturally loud, especially if I’m excited – like when I’m teaching about the Bible. Sometimes I want to type in all caps when I’m writing a devotional so I can pump up the volume. Voices communicate more than words. Our inflections reveal what’s happening in our hearts. The tone and timbre of my voice change when I talk to Joy depending on what I’m trying to relay to her. If we’re playing together, I will use a silly, happy voice. If I’m comforting her my voice is soft and gentle, and if she has picked up the cat for the third time, my voice is firm and somewhat sharp.

In Psalm 29 David was meditating on “The voice of the Lord.” He said the Lord’s voice “thunders over the mighty waters” (v. 3), it is “powerful” and “majestic” (v. 4). “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars” (v. 5), “strikes with flashes of lightning” (v. 7), shakes the desert” (v. 8), “twists the oaks and strips the forest bare” (v. 9). Those are frightening images of the fierce power of God’s voice.

But God also speaks with a softer voice. The prophet Elijah was at his lowest point, running from the wicked Queen Jezebel who wanted to kill him. He was worn out and worn down. He told the Lord, “I have had enough” (1 Kings 19:4). He was hiding out in a cave when God called him. Elijah listened for the Lord, expecting to hear Him in “a great and powerful wind,” an earthquake, and a fire. But God was in none of these. He came to Elijah in a “gentle whisper,” in “a still, small voice” (vs. 11-13).

I have not always walked faithfully and obediently. I have made some big, ugly mistakes and fallen into sin. God has never once yelled at me or spoken to me in anger or disgust. He has always spoken in a gentle voice, especially when I am broken. Just as He speaks to you, Beloved. Even if he has to chastise you He speaks with grace. Those harsh voices that shout at you are never God. If you listen closely you will hear that the voice of the Lord is always the voice of love.

Know Thine Enemy

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher in the early 6th Century wrote the classic, “The Art of War,” From which we have taken the phrase “Know thine enemy.”  Paul cautioned believers with similar words saying that satan will not outwit us if we are aware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11 paraphrased). We need to know our enemy to the degree that we recognize his evil hand in situations we face.

I thought of this yesterday as I was writing out a passage from Job. “God has found fault with me;” Job 33:10. This is one of Job’s detractors summarizing Job’s lament. Yet in the very beginning of his story, God said of him: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3). The truth is, God didn’t find fault with Job. Satan did.

One of Satan’s favorite schemes goes like this: he presents a temptation, dangling the carrot of pleasure or power or wealth before us, enticing us until we bite. And as soon as we do he changes his tactic from temptation to condemnation. “Look at you! You call yourself a Christian? God is disgusted with you! He will never love you after what you’ve done!” Pretty soon we’re crying, “God has found fault with me.”  Sound familiar?

You and I need to know the difference between satan’s guilt trips and the Spirit’s conviction. When the Spirit speaks to us about our sin he does so with the goal of restoration. Conviction from the Holy Spirit brings “godly sorrow [which] brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. But satan brings “worldly sorrow [that] brings death”  (2 Cor 7:9-10). Satan just wants to tear us down and bury us under a load of shame. Here’s how you can recognize one from the other. Satan’s attacks turn our attention to ourselves and what horrible creatures we are. The Spirit will always turn your attention to God and His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And love.

In heaven, satan is called “the accuser of [God’s people], who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). But God’s not buying it. And neither should you Beloved. If you are in Christ, God sees His Son when He looks at you. Not your sin. And so should you.

You can be Free from Shame

If your life has always been sunshine and rainbows, you can skip it today. But if you have scars on your body or on your heart, if you carry a backpack of sorrow and shame, please stay. God has a word for you.

Isaiah prophesied the coming Babylonian captivity. Why was all this happening? Because they were a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They [had] forsaken the Lord; they [had] spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him” (Is 1:4). They were steeped in sin and idolatry. Judgment was coming.

Can you relate? I sure can. I have a past filled with regret and shame. I have been places, done things, and been with people I should have given a wide berth. I have made some foolish, disastrous decisions. I hurt people. I hurt myself. You may be nodding your head right now. You understand. You’ve done the same. Maybe you’re still doing it.

But maybe your past wasn’t your foolish actions, but someone else’s. You were abused, misused, rejected, stepped on, then stepped over. I understand that too. Mixed in with my own sin is the stain of others’ sins. A counselor once told me that my actions were a reaction to others’ actions against me. If you hear, “You’re so stupid!” enough you start to act stupid. If you’re treated like you’re worthless you believe you’re worthless and you act like you’re worthless. This is my life story, but I bet I’m ringing some bells.

However you got your backpack of shame, I want you to listen to God’s words: “Do not be afraid, you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace, you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth” (Is 54:4). “How?” you ask, “it’s a huge, heavy burden”. Jesus. Jesus is how you can be free from shame. Because Jesus took it all to the cross. And to the grave. And when He rose to life three days later, He left it all in the ground. God declared, “The former things will not be remembered; nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17). In Jesus you are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). That’s your story now, Beloved. Set your backpack down and go live like who you are. Forgiven and free.

When Misery Becomes Ministry

“Lord, why do I have to go through this? It is awful. It is painful. It is scary. Why?” Ever thought that? Yeah, me too. More than once. And recently. I’ve also wiped tears from someone’s face who said much the same. The question looms large in our minds: “Is there a purpose for all this pain?” Let me encourage you friend – I believe there is. Paul put it this way, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).

Alcoholics Anonymous understands that a recovering alcoholic is uniquely qualified to help another find sobriety. Bosom Buddies brings a breast cancer survivor alongside one who is newly diagnosed. I have a dear friend who has a powerful ministry to post-abortive women because she made that same choice years ago. Because of my past experiences, I can sit across the table from a someone dealing with childhood bullying, sexual abuse, divorce, rejection, ridicule, depression, self-esteem issues, financial failure, a wayward child, uncertainty, and the fallout of their own sinful and foolish choices and say, “Been there, done that, and let me tell you how God got me through it.”

Paul continued his thought saying: “For just as the suffering of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” ( 2 Cor 1:5). It’s like that old game of “Barrel of Monkeys,” where you link the arms of plastic monkeys to see how many you can pull out of the barrel in a conjoined string. All these things I’ve been through make me uniquely qualified to link arms with another and help them out of the barrel. In the end, we hopefully become a long string of survivors pulling more and more people out of despair, depression, and hopelessness.

One thing of which I am certain to the marrow of my bones: God wants to take your misery and turn it into ministry. He wants to use you and your story and your scars to speak hope and life into another suffering soul. You can sit and stew in your pain or you can help Him pull monkeys out of the barrel. Beloved, which will it be?

Bought Lessons

If you’ve read my devotionals for very long, you’ve heard me quote my Mom who used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.” It is the most profound thing she ever told me and I have the scars to prove that she was right. I’ve done some very foolish things in my life that I will never, ever do again. Her mantra reminds me of Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word.”

One lesson I bought is that when I ignore the Word of God I will wind up in trouble. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27. He said the wise man built his house on the rock and the foolish man built on the sand. The wise builder illustrated a person who built his life on obedience to Jesus’ words. No storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on – not just by reading the Bible – but by putting its teachings and principles into practice. Knowing and obeying the Bible can save us so much trouble and heartache in life.

But I’ve also learned a gentler lesson: God doesn’t give up on us just because we messed up. He won’t write you off, wash His hands of me or turn away from us because we stumble. All through the Bible God tells us that He is patient, forgiving, compassionate, merciful, and full of grace. He loves you, even when your knees are bloody because you fell. He loves me, even when I am covered in the muck of my own choices. Jesus died so you and I can be forgiven, so we could have a second chance at life.

Have you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Have you run in the wrong direction, played with the wrong people, touched something that left you in pain? Take heart, Beloved, God has not given up on you. Take this affliction, this difficulty, and the pain it has caused and place it before your loving Heavenly Father. Then put your hand in the nail-scarred hand of Jesus and start walking, a little wiser, in the right direction.

Hanging by a Thread

I was standing in the kitchen, begging the coffee maker to hurry up when my son walked in to get something to drink. I heard him behind me – “HIC!” “HIC!” “HIC!” He said, “I don’t think there’s anything worse than waking up with the hiccups.”  I answered him, “There is – waking up and being sick to your stomach is worse.” And I playfully growled at him and said, “I know from experience – and it was all your fault!” Of course, I was referring to the morning sickness I endured when I was pregnant with him. But our conversation made me think – what would be the worst thing to wake up to? I could list a lot of things – I’m sure you could too. Waking up to pain or sorrow or loss or violence or loneliness or heartache would be hard to face first thing in the morning. Then I thought, the worst thing to wake up to is hopelessness. That feeling that life is awful and it’s never going to get any better.  I’ve had seasons like that and I know that you have too. You may be there now. When all those hard things feel like permanent fixtures in our lives, we wonder if there’s any point in waking up at all.

A few thousand years ago, a prophet was waking up to the reality that all of his efforts to turn the nation of Israel back to God were useless. Jeremiah watched helplessly as the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem – under God’s judgment. He said, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord . . . my soul is downcast” (Lamentations 3:18, 19). He had hoped to save his people. He had hoped God would stop the invasion. But his hopes were not to be. He wept bitterly for the rebellious children of God.

But he did not give up. He declared “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I HAVE HOPE: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vs. 21-23, emphasis added). He still had a thread of hope that was tied securely to the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God. And that was enough. It’s enough for you too, Beloved. Tie your last thread of hope to the goodness of the Lord. He will never fail you.

Real-Life Wisdom

What do we do with the failures of our past? Now that we have survived some of the trials and struggles of life, now that we have lived through the results of our own mistakes, now that we have found that sowing wild oats doesn’t bring much of a harvest—what do we do with all that hard-earned wisdom?  Paul offers the best advice: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).  We reach back and help someone else who is struggling in the same manner.  Why is AA so powerful? Because it is built on experience and a shared struggle.  It is one person who has found freedom from addiction walking alongside someone who is trying to break free. The best counselors (either formal or informal) are the one who have “been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it.” 

I have a lifetime of experience with the consequences of my own foolishness. But I also have a lifetime of experience with God’s faithfulness and mercy. The Lord has rescued me many, many times and now I am able to offer a hand up and a bit of wisdom and encouragement to someone else in the same kind of pit.  When God rescues us and we in turn lead others to Him for freedom, we have turned the devil’s handiwork against him.  We can say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). 

Dear friends, this is how we redeem our foolish past—we take our experiences, our failures, and our sins to the table and say to another struggling soul, “I know where you are, I understand what you’re feeling and I will take you to the One who rescued me. I will walk the whole way with you until you are free.”  Beloved, don’t let the enemy bury you in shame.  Let God use you and your scars to turn mistakes into ministry and heartbreak into hope.

Burning Ropes

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the refiner’s fire. Today is another hot devotional. Daniel’s three companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow and worship the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected in his image. They declared their allegiance to the God of Israel and said, “The God we serve is able to save us . . . but even if he does not we will not worship your golden image” (Dan 3:17-18, para). That infuriated the king, and he ordered the men to be bound and thrown into a fiery furnace that had been stoked to seven times its normal heat. It was so hot it instantly killed the soldiers who tossed them in.

But the king saw something unexpected in that fire. “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (3:25). When the men came out of the fire they were unharmed, “not a hair of their heads [was] singed, their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them” (3:27). How’s that for a miracle!

What stands out to me isn’t just that they survived but that the only thing that was destroyed by the fire were the ropes that were used to bind them. Just as we learned in Peter’s story, God often uses fire to free us from the very things that bind us and hinder our usefulness to the Kingdom. God’s enemy – Nebuchadnezzar – tied up the three Hebrew men. God’s enemy – satan – is still binding up the Lord’s people to destroy them and exalt himself as King over heaven and earth. But God uses the very flames that are intended to devastate us to instead free us.

I don’t know what ropes the enemy has used to try to tie you up (or down). It may be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or pornography (or something “innocent” like eating, shopping, or gaming). It may be pride, habitual lying, shoplifting, or gossiping. It may be a hard, painful past or an overload of responsibilities that are crushing the life out of you. Whatever it is, it will take the fires of heaven to set you free. But don’t fear the furnace of affliction Beloved. Jesus will be in the fire with you and only the ropes will be burned. You will walk away without one hair singed and not even a trace of smoke.

God of Mercy

For many years I carried a picture in my mind of God. He sat on His throne with a fly swatter in His hand and a scowl on His face. Every time I sinned – which was often – He would slap me down and tell me I was a disappointment to Him. I would ask for forgiveness and He would give it begrudgingly – and always with a warning to straighten up because He was losing patience with me.

Then I began to really study His Word and a different picture of God emerged when I read the Old Testament prophet Micah: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgressions . . . You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).

I saw a God who was patient, gentle, and forgave without limit. I saw a God – the God that Micah saw – who “delights to show mercy.” I realized two things: God doesn’t expect me to be perfect – that is flawless – on my own. If that were possible – and it’s not – He wouldn’t have sent his Son to die for my sins. It is only by His Son that I can be made perfect – that is complete in Christ. I don’t know about you, but that is a huge relief to me.

The second thing I realized is it gives God great pleasure to forgive me. And there is much to forgive. He delights in being merciful. Let me be clear, He doesn’t take please in my sinfulness. He takes pleasure in my dependence on Him for salvation. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .” (Matt 5:3) meaning those who realize their wretched state and come to the only One who redeems wretches. Like me.

I don’t know what you’ve done Beloved, but I know that it would delight God to take all your sin away and show you mercy. There is no scowl on His face when He looks at you – only love. He does not have a fly swatter in His hands – but He does have scars.