Life is full of contrasting experiences! One moment we are celebrating something the next we can be plunged into hardship by a phone call or some unexpected trouble.
In Mark 1:11-12, Jesus has a thoroughly human experience. One moment Jesus is basking in the love and affirmation of Father God, the next He is being sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan – juxtaposition.
You know the feeling, don’t you? Sunday you’re lost in worship, basking in the love of God, or you’ve just had a great time of personal devotion with bible reading prayer and worship and then BAM!
Someone rear-ends your car in traffic, or something hits the news on the radio that plunges you into despair, or your cell phone buzzes with a message you really didn’t anticipate or need – juxtaposition.
When this happens, we need to remember that our faith is not feelings. We know the God we were worshipping, delighting in and listening to. We know who has loved us and who had proclaimed that love. Feelings are fickle; they come and go, rise and fall, but our faith is anchored by something greater than feelings.
What anchored Jesus in the midst of this sudden change of atmosphere and experience?
- Jesus knew WHO He was, and Jesus knew WHOSE He was. At His baptism, God the Father had confirmed this in an emphatic way through His words to Jesus (vs11).
- Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1)
- Jesus knew Scripture and quoted it when Satan tempted and tested Him (Luke 4:9-13)
And what will anchor you when your life is thrown a serious curveball? I pray that it will be anchored by the same three things that anchored Jesus in his moment of contrasting circumstances.
Verse 12 reveals another surprising contrast. How can Scripture say that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (see also Matthew 4:1)?
We prefer to attribute bad or hard things to our own agency or the sinful agency of others or Satan himself. We are happy with language that places God with us in trials or working in trials, yet all synoptic Gospels ascribe Jesus’ guidance to the Holy Spirit!
God doesn’t just work in all things; God is sovereign over all things. God, the Holy Spirit, lead Jesus into this challenging time for the sake of the purposes of God in and through Jesus. Being tempted by Satan and being without food for 40days could not have been easy or pleasant at all for Jesus. And yet it was God Himself who sovereignly lead Jesus into those circumstances.
At present we are facing a world-wide pandemic, economies are shaking, people have lost their jobs in thousands, businesses are struggling, people are sick, and many have lost their lives. There seems to be hardship on every side, and yet one of the keys to thriving in this world-wide crisis is; “knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.” – John Piper
Sometimes I think we want to let God off the hook for our tough life circumstances. We feel it is too conflicting to know that God could have been involved in our circumstances or don’t want God to be blamed for not relieving them. But then you can’t have it both ways! “If we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good.” – John Piper
The Gospels report without any apology or embarrassment that God the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into this time of hardship and discomfort and testing by Satan, and God sustained Jesus in it too! Luke records also; “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14). God, the Holy Spirit, never left Jesus from the time of His baptism, strengthening Him through his trial and temptation, and empowering Him in all His ministry (Acts 10:38).
Likewise, God will never leave you (Hebrews 13:5-6)! No matter what you face, no matter what He leads you into for His sovereign purposes, God the Holy Spirit will always be with you to enable and equip you to do God’s will in it all.
So in these times full of juxtaposed experiences, good things and hard things know this – God is sovereign in it all and God loves you and me with an everlasting love.
Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you again today, knowing; “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)
Psalm 131 is a little Psalm with a big message for us on day 60 of our national lockdown due to COVID-19.
Peace is an active choice; it is not a state of being that is arbitrarily obtained. This Psalm reveals how peace is the result of choices we make. In this Psalm, David makes four active choices that together result in peace and calm in the midst of trying circumstances.
vs1: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
The first thing David chooses is to reign in his heart. David won’t let his heart get proud. Humility and peace are interconnected. Pride leads to lofty thoughts about your ability or ideas, your grasp on a situation. And so pride multiples agitation and frustration – the absence of peace.
When our hearts are proud we bemoan; ‘Why isn’t what I think should happen, happening?’ Pride gifts one with opinions, and strong opinions don’t tend to lead to peace, especially in the face of an unprecedented national and world crises!
Every time we hear; “My fellow South Africans…” the state of our hearts is tested. The humble heart will see a man, a group of leaders and experts doing their very best, might think; “Phew that must be a hard job!” and won’t just complain and moan & criticise.
Do you need to reign in your heart?
vs1: my eyes are not raised too high;
The second choice David has to make is to curb ambition. Ambition, like pride, doesn’t lead to a peaceful state of being. Proud or ambitious eyes that look up to selfish & ambitious future plans that are being frustrated by the present circumstances are agitated ones – not peaceful ones.
In contrast, humble eyes don’t think too highly of oneself but rather submit to the Almighty hand of our sovereign God who holds all things together by just the words of His mouth. Humble people say things like; “If the LORD wills, we will do this or that.” (James 4:15)
Humble eyes see clearly, understand who God is and who they are in relation to God. Humble eyes rest in the sure knowledge of the goodness of God. They rest in God’s everlasting love for His children and the sovereign omnipotence of God. We can only rest in humble peace when we know that God is good and loving and in control of all things for us who believe in Jesus.
vs1: I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
Anyone who has studied something, in particular, will probably know the paradoxical feeling; that the more you know about anything, the more you realise how little you know!
As human beings created in the image of God, we have this incredible God-given ability to advance knowledge and understanding. But even with all that data and insight, we are finite & limited. God’s ways aren’t ours; God’s ways and thoughts are infinitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9).
If I am honest, I don’t even know how my toaster works just that it does what I want it to the bread I put in it. I can use this computer, but I honestly don’t know how the computer is transforming touches from my fingers into characters and streaming data to the internet that can be read by yourself..!
David’s third choice that leads to a peaceful and calm life is that he has embraced his limits. He knows that there is much in life that is honestly beyond his ability to comprehend, and so he has chosen not to fret and occupy his thoughts with that which is beyond his grasp.
I don’t believe that this is laziness on the part of David but wisdom. It is wise to know your limits, and wise to trust God where your comprehension is outstripped by circumstances. In bewildering moments we can fathom or control we can either choose to fret and worry, or we can trust our omniscient, omnipotent Father in heaven.
vs 2: But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
David’s fourth choice is his active decision to calm and quieten his soul (his whole body) satisfied to be in God’s presence. David is like a weaned child nestled into the bosom of God, drawing comfort and security from just being there in a relationship, intimate and close to the one who loves him.
In contrast to a weaned child nestling with their mom, a breastfeeding child in that position and posture close to their mother’s breasts will often have their desire for food awakened – they will not be content to just nestle there safe and secure but will want to be fed.
This is a picture of our relationship with God. Are we like a breastfeeding child coming to God looking for something from God, or a weaned child coming close to God simply for that, to be close to God?
In times of personal, community, national and world-wide crises, we can easily be those who are coming to God always asking for something. David challenges us to come to God in a different way, to come close to God not because we want or need something but simply because we love God, and we know God loves us! Come to God contented like a weaned child, come to God not to always ask for something but simply because you get to come into God’s presence because of Jesus!
Think through your prayers, your devotion times. How much of them are just nestling into the bosom of God because you belong there because He loves you and you love Him? Ask God to forgive you of coming just to ask for something else…
vs3: O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.
The Psalm closes with an exhortation; ‘Hope in Yahweh!’ Put your hope in God alone. Do this now in this global pandemic, do this today and do it for the rest of this life God’s given you. Hope in God for eternity to come. Hope in Yahweh alone, and you will truly be at peace.
Sometimes we feel trapped in situations and powerless to change them like David felt when writing this Psalm (vs 7). In moments like this, it’s hard to know what our next step should be. It can be overwhelming. Perhaps you remember being in a situation like that or you might find yourself feeling like that today.
I cry out to the Lord;
I plead for the Lord’s mercy.
2 I pour out my complaints before him
and tell him all my troubles.
3 When I am overwhelmed,
you alone know the way I should turn.
Like David, telling Jesus how you’re feeling is a step in the right direction. He already knows what’s in your heart and the struggles you’re experiencing, but when we pour out our hearts to him, we are inviting him to walk with us and do it together rather than alone. It’s crucial that we acknowledge him and the fact that he knows what the way forward is. By acknowledging God we are showing him that we trust him. We are also helping ourselves by speaking truth to our troubled hearts.
5 Then I pray to you, O Lord.
I say, “You are my place of refuge.
You are all I really want in life.
Putting Christ at the centre of our lives is the best decision we could make. It’s about coming to a place where we genuinely want his input above any other in our lives. He should be the only thing that we put our hope in and the biggest desire in our life. He is the best thing for us and should be the longing of our hearts.
6 Hear my cry,
for I am very low.
Rescue me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me.
Once we’ve acknowledged him and invited him into our place of need and trouble, we can confidently ask him to help us and rescue us from this place where we feel stuck. He wants us to ask him. He is our Father, and he loves us with unfailing love. He also happens to be the Lord of Heaven’s armies and is powerful and able!
7 Bring me out of prison
so I can thank you.
The godly will crowd around me,
for you are good to me.”
In this Psalm, David asks God to free him from this trapped and powerless place, so that he can thank him. Let’s not forget to thank our Father when he does show us a way forward and lead us out of difficult situations. When we focus on being thankful for what he has done for us, it helps us to see life in a different light.
Lamenting before him and sharing what’s in our hearts is an important thing to do; however, we can become stuck in this mode if we don’t focus our eyes on Jesus and allow him to help us out of that place. If we are intentional about thanking him, our hearts become more focused on the wonders and goodness of knowing Jesus in our lives.
So let’s turn to him, acknowledge him, ask him and be thankful for all the goodness he brings into our lives.
[All references are from the NLT translation]
1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.
Do know that feeling? When you’ve done something deserving of punishment or someone’s anger – you deserve what is coming, and you know it. David seems to know that he has done something worthy of a rebuke.
The opening words of this lament is a frank acknowledgement that he is appealing to God asking for grace. David knows, that God never disciplines those He loves in unhinged anger, after all, then God wouldn’t be righteous or loving.
Rather, God disciplines His people because He loves us (Hebrews 12:5-11) and because of that unchangeable truth if and when God chooses to discipline us it is for our good, for our training.
The motive is not anger or frustration, and the aim is not punishment but loving training. And so, like David, when next we feel God’s discipline we don’t need to worry as His beloved children whether He is angry with us, we know the motivation for God’s actions towards us – and it is always His love.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.
So David’s appeal is for grace. He knows that he doesn’t deserve anything; he is not standing on his rights but simply asking for grace. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, which in this case sounds like mercy which is not getting what you do deserve!
David’s plea to God is not from a place of strength but acknowledging his weakness. He is languishing, his strength is failing him, and he has no hope of resuscitation.
Do you know that feeling? When the trouble you are in is so great that your bones feel uneasy, troubled. And so David, in addition to grace, appeals to God to heal him, to make him whole again. Only Creator God can also be re-Creator God; this hopeful desperate prayer is entirely reasonable when Almighty God is the One you’re praying to! David asks for God’s healing with confidence that radiates his belief in who God is.
3 My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord -how long?
The big question at this point in David’s lament is; “God you see my anguish of soul, but God You don’t seem to have done anything, haven’t responded, haven’t spoken yet – LORD how much longer will You be?”
How often isn’t our Father’s perfect & loving timetable not the same as the one we had in mind! What’s needed in moments like this is trust – when we can’t see & don’t understand. Are you in a moment like this? Does your soul echo the question of vs3? Right now is the time to trust.
4 Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
It’s like David is speaking to himself in between his lines of prose. He bounces back from vs3 with another faith-filled request for God to deliver him. His confident request is grounded on the certainty he has regained that God loves him in a way that is utterly steadfast and immoveable.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?
Remembering God’s love, it feels like David’s lament for grace, healing and deliverance becomes a cheeky logical prayer argument. David says to God; “Listen I’m of more use to You alive than dead! After all God; if I’m dead I won’t be able even to remember You, and if I’m dead I can’t give you praise from down there in Sheol – so you might as well save me while You still can LORD.”
God can handle it all, though! God can handle our questions, our praise, our logic and our nonsense.
6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 7 My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.
Lament is exhausting, strength-sapping. David has cried so much that his couch is drenched. The continual river of tears have left their mark on his eyes & wearied him.
8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 9 The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer. 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
Lament is replaced by confidence, David has reached the point in his lament where in his heart he knows that God has heard his cries and has accepted his prayer.
In once sense, nothing has changed, and yet nothing is the same. David is now certain that he and his God are reconciled since God has heard and accepted his request for grace & healing. And so David commands his enemies with the confidence of one who knows – God is on my side! The uncertainty of the future has become certain in an instant. No more details of the future are known, but this unshakeable truth is now certain – God is with me!
Who hasn’t felt the pain of being misrepresented or misunderstood? Many leaders have known the uncomfortable feeling of not being trusted or feeling confident in your leadership slip or even being challenged. Added to the pain and pressure of such moments are your own internal struggles and doubts which only get amplified by the enemy.
Times of pressure, moments when there are delays, setbacks or significant obstacles often heighten these dynamics. The context leading up to Numbers 17 was that God’s people had grumbled against God and His appointed leaders for bribing them out of Egypt, they had doubted and feared rather than trusted God, there had been internal leadership squabbles and outright rebellion and questions raised continually about who should lead.
In moments like these, it is often inappropriate and ineffective, trying to vindicate yourself. Managing the perceptions of others is not only exhausting; it is impossible in the long run. In a wise, lucid moment the apostle Paul reflecting no doubt on some situations from his own life and ministry said this with fatherly wisdom;
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.” (Romans 12:19)
RT Kendal reflecting on this passage advises that we often want to vindicate ourselves, take revenge, make our point, and we could choose to do so, but that is very unwise. It’s like God then says; ‘Oh you want to vindicate yourself! Go ahead and try but you’ll mess it up and end up sinning.’ Rather Kendal says God’s wisdom is to leave vengeance and the desire to vindicate oneself to Him and to His timing.
In Numbers 17, we see God doing exactly what Romans 12:19 promises He will do, as He vindicated Aaron’s ministry as head of the priesthood in a remarkable, public and miraculous way! God’s intent was to stop the discontent & grumbling which doesn’t help those leading or those following;
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each fathers’ house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, 3 and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each fathers’ house. 4 Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 5 And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.”
The key thing to notice here is that this is God’s initiative, God stepped in to vindicate Aaron, to silence the discontent. Moses and Aaron were not trying to vindicate themselves (although no doubt they were glad for what God was doing) – God did it. God chose how, and God chose when it would happen – and so it was effective. A right reverence returned to the camp, respect for those God had appointed (vs12).
Remember, when we try to vindicate ourselves, we are likely to mess it up! Not the least because we should be slow to think that we have an accurate perspective on ourselves, our own heads and hearts or the situation we find ourselves in.
Wisely, Paul was cautious about judging himself as he wrote to the Corinthians, some of whom were challenging his leadership;
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)
So, if it is God’s prerogative to vindicate, what ought you to do if you feel unjustly treated, misrepresented, falsely accused…?
Three things come to mind in sequential order:
- Lament – “A passionate expression of sorrow and grief” – Christina Fox. The Psalms are full of this processing raw emotions to God and leaving it with Him.
- Forgive – Because we have been forgiven much because this is the only pathway to health and not bitterness & because it honours God.
- Leave it to God – Remember that Jesus died without being vindicated! As did many of the heroes of the faith. Vindication is hardly ever on our time scale and is quite likely to be only seen in full at the return of Christ.
Elisha is the one true God’s representative. In a nation divided and filled with the worship of false gods, the call on Elisha is not just to bring messages for God but to reveal who God is through his everyday life, actions and interactions.
In this chapter we see God revealed in numerous ways through a collection of short stories which all put on display God’s nature as the one who sees, a personal God, involved in the intricate details of people’s lives, who is not indifferent to the cries and the pain that individual people endure. These stories reveal God as the one who is able to miraculously suspend or overturn the normal with His supernatural inbreakings of power at any time on people’s behalf.
Short story 1: Debt (2 Kings 4:1-7)
A poor widow in crisis is struggling with mounting debts and the ongoing challenge of providing for her two children as a single woman has the debt collectors at her door threatening to take away her children as slaves as payment for her debt! Crisis. She asks God by asking Elisha and God provides miraculously an abundance of olive oil which she sells and pays off all her debt and as able to live off the rest. God is the miracle working, prayer answering, need-seeing God who intervenes in remarkable ways for poor or rich people.
Short story 2: Deep Longings & Despair (2 Kings 4:8-39)
A wealthy woman is hospitable and honouring of God’s servant, she was rich but used her wealth to bless Elisha & Gehazi not to gain anything (vs13-14). Elisha discerns the true longing in her heart, one she is not even willing to express for fear of her longing being dashed again, and so promises her a child. She is so shocked she can’t receive this good news (vs16) but she does conceive and a son is given to her. Many years later the child falls suddenly ill and dies will in the fields with his father. She rushes straight to Elisha in deep despair, she would have rather not had a son than have one and then loose one like this! Elisha goes with her, and raises the son from the dead and gives him back to her alive. God knows the deepest longings in our hearts, even the ones we dare not speak of for fear of being hurt or disappointed again or opening up the wound… God is able to bring back to life people, marriages, finances – God is good and is so whether you are rich or poor.
Short story 3: Deadly Stew & Multiplication (2 Kings 4:38-44)
There is a famine in the land, Elisha is hosting around 100 of the prophets. He wants to cook for them, but Gehazi is a bad cook or one of the prophets is injudicious in his produce selection and the stew being cooked is bad, so bad it is like death warmed up. They complain. Elisha miraculously cures the pot with a little flour and the food becomes edible to them all. While they are all there, a man brings to Elisha some of his first fruits offering to supply food for Elisha. Elisha tells Gehazi to set it before the men to eat (but there is not enough – vs43). Elisha tells him to proceed and they all ate and yet there was excess and they had food to spare. God is hospitable, able to throw feasts of abundance in the midst of a famine, able to supply all our needs according to His riches in glory (Philippians 4:19).
Our God heals, answers long-lost longings, provides financially and materially. This all makes me think of the song we sung on Sunday;
You’re my author, my maker
My ransom, my Saviour
My refuge, my hiding place
You’re my helper, my healer
My blessed redeemer
My answer, my saving grace
You’re my hope, in the shadows
My strength, in the battle
My anchor, for all my days
And You stand, by my side
And You stood, in my place
Jesus, no other name
No, only Jesus, no other name…
So, cry out to him now! Tell your Father in Heaven your deepest longings, know that He is good and when you can’t join all the dots of your confusing life, He can and He does and so having asked Him trust Him.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep… (vs13)
In their short time in Thessalonica, despite having covered many questions about life and faith, it appears as though questions regarding death and life after death were either not covered in Paul’s preaching while in person with them and so much of the remainder of 1 Thessalonians 4-5 focusses on what is commonly regarded as Paul answering questions that had been asked probably via Timothy who returned to Paul and the team.
When someone dies we as believers can be faced with the struggle of reconciling;
- our faith and our emotions,
- our faith and the loss of a loved one,
- our faith and the likelihood that some of the things we prayed for weren’t answered as we wished they would be,
- our faith and some of that which is unknown concerning this loved one and life after death.
Paul said to the Thessalonians, “we do not want you to be uninformed”(vs13). We do not want you to not know what we ought to know. As believers, although there is mystery still regarding death we do know many things from Scripture, and knowing helps grieving.
…that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.(vs13)
Grief is our multifaceted response to loss. Grief is unpredictable and can be full of conflicting emotions ranging from deep desperate sadness through to the relief that the person who died is no longer suffering, or even relief as the load of caring lifts and yet the pain of guilt that you feel relieved or are doing ok after their death…
Scripture doesn’t say that we as Christ followers won’t grieve.
To not grieve would be to deny our common human experience post-the-fall of humankind. Rather, what this verse teaches is that we don’t grieve in the same way, as those who ‘have no hope’.
Our grieving is transformed by hope. This life is not the end, death is not the end but rather a transition from this life to the next as Jesus Himself said;
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
Believing in Jesus transforms us so radically that death becomes the doorway to eternal life! And in that moment death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:55), in life that’s imperishable.
This is why believers in Jesus don’t grieve the death of a fellow believer in the same way, as those with no hope, yes they grieve – because there is loss, a break in relationship for the present time, but that loss is informed, is transformed by the knowledge that this loved one if they believed in Jesus Christ has nothing but glorious suffering free imperishable life in their eternal trajectory with Jesus!
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.(vs14)
Jesus who died and rose again, will resurrect us who believe, will resurrect those who have died having believed in Him in this life. And this knowledge, that believers in Jesus will be resurrected by Jesus on the day of His glorious second coming transforms our grief, doesn’t take it away, but fills it with unshakeable hope.