July 31, 2013

Is it ever too late?

The two saddest words in English are supposedly “If only” but another pair also makes the list: “too late” is also sad.

Too late is a fear that can haunt us because it is a sad reality, a grim fact of life. I met my former high school teacher at a party and she said she would have liked to write. I suggested she start, but she said, “It is too late.” I remember the sadness in her voice.

Sometimes I feel like that. After thinking about this today, I thought of all the opportunities God has given me to serve Him and I didn’t, or the many times I made the wrong choices that could not be reversed. After enough of them, I often feel like this is now part of who I am and my habits seem so ingrained that it is too late to change.

When the disciples were with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asked them to watch and pray with Him, but also had to say, “Are you still sleeping?” How sad. They could have supported Him in His worst hour and they missed it. He even told them to sleep on. It didn’t matter now, their opportunity is lost. It is too late.

In one way, every failure is irremediable. My record will be by that amount less than it might and should and could have been. I look wistfully at Christ and then sadly at myself, thinking about what I might have been and what I am. So many foolish choices and now it is too late.

For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:3)

Or is it too late? The prophet says the vision God gave will certainly come, it will not delay. What does this mean for the vision I have about what could have been? Is there hope yet?

The point of the gospel is that in one way, it is never too late for anyone. This is the power of Christ. He encountered the poorest, most tangled lives with confidence that they could be made right and even that He could do it with a word or a touch. How often did He do this in situations looked impossible? Can He not do the same in my life? He promises to use all things for changing me, even my mistakes...

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28–29)

The Lord of eternity stepped into time and space to find a bride, to make ordinary sinners into a pure and spotless bride. Through His death and resurrection, through new life, through bewildering promises and staggering claims, He is purifying His people for Himself. He prays astounding prayers and says we will be all that He intended when we see Him as He is. He is so certain that even when I bemoan that it is too late, He never gives up on me.

It is never too late to throw myself on Jesus Christ, to rely on His power and grow toward being like Him. It is never too late for His dream of me to come true. For that, He bids me to get back into the thick of things with a steady heart and quiet assurance. Even though the vision lingers, I’m to wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.

July 30, 2013

Practicing patience

Of the American Civil War, a man said, “We all thought that one battle would end it, but we were all very much mistaken.” It is the same with spiritual life. In the beginning, we expect to mature much faster than we have, our temptations will be quickly defeated and we will become more like Jesus in our zeal for change.

Yet those sins and temptations persist, even after years of serving the Lord. I am so aware of how prone my heart is to wander. In the beginning, I saw the glory of life in Christ and grabbed hold of it with great eagerness, but find that even cooperation is exceedingly difficult as He uses all things to shape my character into His likeness. I need prayer and power, and at times both seem so ineffective. At times, I even wonder if Christ is really in my life and why don’t I have more to show for it.

One Old Testament prophet was told that God was going to do something astonishing in the lives of His people. With that vision, God also told him…

For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:3)

In his case, it wasn’t something He wanted to see, but the idea of perseverance is in this verse. It is said that faith, hope, and love are great gifts, yet not all of them together will bring a Christian through with honor. For maturity, something more is needed — of all the virtues, perseverance alone wins the crown.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)

Unfortunately for those of us who love comfort, the perseverance that perfects our character is usually won through trials and tribulation, through much suffering. If struggles do not produce it, they certainly test whether patience is there or not.

Waiting on God instead of becoming demanding, impatient, or taking matters into my own hands, can be practiced in the little things. If I lose my car keys, I can search for them with an attitude of annoyance, or one of trusting God that this inconvenience is testing my patience so I can become more like Jesus. If someone cuts me off in traffic, or a certain telemarketer refuses to stop calling my number, I can tense up or respond with patience.

I am reading the story of Job. His faith was tested with great severity. Sometimes he became riled. Occasionally his faith shone as a bright light. Also, as I read the dialog between God and Satan, I can see that this test was not about Job’s ability to believe, but about the faith that God gives His people. It is faith in Him, a trust based on knowing who He is. Because God is God, sovereign and in control, then all that happened to Job (and all that happens to me) is by His permission, even by His design. Even when I don’t understand what He has in mind, because of His character and His proven love for me, I can be patient in my circumstances.

Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:20–22)

This is a form of courage, a trust that when tested and even beaten, holds its ground, not because I am strong, but because God is strong. He has never failed me. I can be patient and wait to see what He is doing. He will see me through any difficulty.

This is true for my spiritual growth also. It is slow, even like dropping food dye into a large pail of water to color it. Drop by drop, nothing seems to change. Then one more, precisely like the rest, and suddenly that change happens. The water is faintly colored at first, but soon the drops show themselves and permeate the entire mass.

In my prayers, I persist in trust. There may not be much to show for some of them, at least in outward appearance, yet because of the promises of God, I know far more is going on than my eyes can see. One day, one more prayer, one more look toward Jesus Christ, and not only will the prayer be answered, but I also will have far more perseverance than I did in the beginning.

July 29, 2013

Delighting in God

Sometimes when I am praying, songs bubble up from my heart. It seems that this also is part of what it means to…
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

Stephen Charnock says that delight in God will also mean a delight in the things that I ask for. When God is my chief joy, then the things of God are delightful too. Some might get excited about praying for worldly goods or temporary things, yet there is a greater delight in asking for the light of God’s face and for things in the spiritual realm.

I cannot feel dull of heart when I am praying for heavenly mercies and eternal well-being. Just as sunshine and blue sky never become tiresome (at least in my part of the world), neither do I get tired of spiritual blessings. Even though God blesses me countless times, I cannot get enough and long for more. I will repeat some requests for many years, experiencing joy in the asking just as I anticipate joy in the answering. As Charnock says, I can delight in those desires that God has set in my heart and put in my prayers.

Another delight is being overjoyed when I tell God the desires of my heart. I can go through a prayer list and become tired of the routine and repetition, but when I speak from the heart, my emotions are lifted, sometimes so much that I start singing. Charnock says, “The soul desires not only to speak to God, but to make melody to God; the heart is the instrument, but grace is the strings, and prayer is touching them, and therefore the soul is more displeased with the flagging of grace than with missing an answer.”

He is right. I can delight in God’s gifts to me and to others. I can delight in my devotion to Him, but exercising the spiritual life He gives in communion with Him is a more lasting delight. When I return from prayer to my other responsibilities, His delight lingers with me. It gives me peace, strength for the day and keeps my heart focused on spiritual matters and on the Lord.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3)

Delighting in God is an expression of trust. I cannot enjoy Him when filled with doubt or frustration at His decisions in my life. I can enjoy Him when my heart is convinced by His Word that He is good and that He loves me and wants the very best for me. 

July 28, 2013

God grants the desires of a transformed heart

It is often said that women don’t know what we want. Usually it is men that say it, but sometimes I must admit that I don’t know what I want. This happens most often when I am in a spiritual battle about something, a battle between my old sinful nature and the new nature given to me by the Spirit of God. The Bible is clear which one should be allowed to win, but sometimes those old I-wants can be exceedingly strong.

The Bible says that if I delight in God, He will give me, or put into me the desires of my heart. That is, He will change my I-wants into things He wants.

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

I’ve always understood this verse this way, that it is about changed desires, but this morning I looked up the meaning of the Hebrew word that is translated “desires.” It means “requests, petitions.”

I am surprised. Is this verse actually saying that God will give me what I want? My study Bible says that some take “the desires” as referring to the feeling of desire, i.e., “God will shape your heart so that it desires the right things”; but the sense is rather, “He will give you what your heart desires.” It is safe to say this to those who embrace the advice of this psalm, because as they delight themselves in the LORD, their hearts will desire the right things.

That means that right desires are assumed for the person who delights in God. This verse is not about desires,  but about assurance of answered prayer. God will answer the prayers of those who delight in Him. If I put Him in His rightful place in my life, then my prayers will align with His will and the answers will be given to me. More Scripture verses carry the same sense…

You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah (Psalm 21:2)
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them. (Psalm 145:19)

Obviously, this is not talking about the desires of my old sinful self. When I am walking in the flesh, that list of I-wants is harmful if not disgusting. However, when I am obedient to the Holy Spirit, those I-wants align with the will of God. They are expressions of love for Him and others, and give me great joy.

Why then would I not delight in God all the time and thus have all godly desires fulfilled? Just asking that question shows a clinging ignorance of the power of sin and the need for the saving power of Jesus Christ. Some strongholds linger in my life, some “I want what I want” places that pop up every now and then and try to throw me off in my relationship to the Lord. I’m certain every Christian has them. We call them “besetting sins” and know their power. However, the Bible says to lay them aside, put them off.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us… (Hebrews 12:1)
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22–24)
The image is like a change of clothing. When I was in high school, I noticed that when I dressed up (rather than jeans or sloppy) I felt more like working. The same principle applies with putting off the old. When I do, it is much easier to delight in God — and to enjoy the answers He gives to the desires of my heart.

July 27, 2013

Delighted with God

If I delight in a person, perhaps a good friend, or a small child, or someone close to me, it doesn’t matter much what we talk about because just being together is total pleasure. Prayer is supposed to be like that.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. (Psalm 37:4–6)

I’ve prayed with a ‘shopping list’ as if God is a genie and offering me three wishes. I’ve prayed in needy agony. I’ve also prayer in delight at answers to my prayers. Yet, as Stephen Charnock says in today’s devotional, the real objective in prayer is learning how to delight in God, to commune with Him in delicious enjoyment because being with Him is total pleasure. All requests take second place.

God is the center of everything. In Him, my soul rests. He is the ultimate good, the One that is without self-centeredness in any part of Him. Being with Him is pure delight, or it should be. To experience this, I must know Him truly, even know Him fully. If I have suspicions of Him, mistrust or fear, anxiety or resentment, then there can be no delight.

Delight is a grace, and, as faith, desire, and love have God for their object, so does this, but how can I be delighted in God? It helps me to realize that God delights in me. This is how He comes to the conversation of prayer…

For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory. (Psalm 149:4, NIV)
The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

How can He do that? I am a sinful person, yet He delights in me? What a wonder!
I know that only the Gospel makes it so. The Lord loves sinners, sent Jesus to pay my price for sin, and because of the Cross and the resurrection, He declares me forgiven, washed, cleansed. In Christ, I am made righteous. If He loved me even as a sinner, how much greater is His delight in that grace and faith has made me a new creation?

The Bible says that we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Love is a response to His love. This surely means delight is also a response and I can delight in Him because He delights in me. This joyous communication called prayer is a two-way communication of delight. It isn’t about rattling off a list, or a sense of duty, or even about telling Him all our troubles. It isn’t even about praise, although delight tends to produce it. Prayer is about approaching God because He is altogether a delight to be with, to talk to, to enjoy. Without sweet thoughts of God, desire for prayer will come and go, but delight makes it a major occupation of my heart.

Also, when I truly delight in Him, He works to make me more like Jesus — for He gives me the desires of my heart, desires that fit with His, desires that open the way for His righteousness to shine in my life.

I’m impressed and totally delighted with this amazing arrangement!