Choosing not to Fall Into Doubt and Unbelief

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Several years ago, a television show that gained a lot of popularity was “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” In the show, a family who had fallen on hard times was whisked off for a vacation and their house, in the meantime, was rebuilt from top to bottom. I believe that the show was so popular because people love to see a reversal of fortunes — a turnaround where they can see a person move from a desperate situation to prosperity.

Perhaps it gives the viewers watching hope and inspiration to apply to their hard situations of life — they can believe someday things are going to change and get better.

Zechariah: A Man Who Fell Into Unbelief

Insert the story of Zechariah. He is told that a reversal of fortunes will occur in his life and grant his long-held desire for a child, yet, he doesn’t believe the message when it comes.

Selected by lot, Zechariah goes to the temple of the Lord to perform his priestly duties of burning incense and sees an angel standing at the right side of the altar of incense. Notice the events that transpire in Luke 1:12,13, 18-21:

When Zechariah saw him [the angel], he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord … Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’ The angel said to him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.’ Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple.

A few things that we can observe:

1. Even righteous men can fall into unbelief.

Zechariah is described as a righteous man, and yet, he falls into unbelief. When the angel gives him the incredibly exciting news that he will receive the child that he has prayed for, he asks, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (v. 18). I can imagine that Zechariah had resigned himself to a situation that he didn’t believe would ever change. He had prayed for many years for a child, and now, as an old man, he could not comprehend how his situation could turn around. From a natural point-of-view, the situation was impossible. He and his wife were well past child-bearing age, and yet, the angel was clear that they would have a son and his name would be John.

Surely such an announcement would elicit excitement it its recipient, but perhaps years of disappointment and dashed hopes had worn Zechariah down so that he was unwilling to emotionally invest himself in an event that sounded just a little too good to be true. Therefore, his response to the angel is not, “Yes, let it happen just like you said,” but rather, “How can I be sure of this?” (v. 18). Can we blame him? When circumstances have been dark for so long, can we dare to believe that they can change? As this story reveals, yes, we can!

2. God wants us to believe Him.

It sounds so simple to believe God’s words are true, but it’s not so easy when His words predict events that look utterly impossible. Of course, in this passage, God speaks words that would fulfill a dream for Zechariah, but God sometimes speaks words that we don’t want to hear. He may give us instructions that are hard or lead in a way that we don’t want to go, and it’s easy in those times to act like we didn’t hear Him or we don’t know what He is saying to us.

In any event, whether we like what God tells us or not, God wants us to trust Him. In Mary’s story, when she goes to see Elizabeth after hearing that she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth announces upon seeing Mary, “Blessed is she who believes that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45, emphasis mine).

Did you catch that? Mary is “blessed” because she believes. The word “believes” here in the Greek means “to believe, have faith in, trust in, or entrust one’s self to.” It means to be fully persuaded of something and it is not merely a passive thought. Rather, the word here is a verb and represents a belief that affects everything a person does. Here, Elizabeth praises Mary for accepting what God has said will come to pass and fully entrusting her life to her Savior.

In looking at Mary’s response and the praise given to her, the message to us is that we need to model ourselves after Mary and accept what the Lord tells us, no matter how hard it is for us to wrap our minds around His words. Although God is the One who performs miracles, we usher in the blessings of God by accepting what He tells us, and we can at times delay or thwart these blessings with our unbelief (John 6:29; Matthew 13:58).

3. God wants to restore our belief if we fall into unbelief.

Though Zechariah does not believe and is silenced for a time for his unbelief, God does not leave him in that state forever. God allows him to suffer a trial for his unbelief: his speech and hearing are taken from him for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy, but then his trial ends and his speech and hearing are restored.

But note this: Zechariah’s speech and hearing return when he exhibits belief. Note what happens in Luke 1:59-64:

On the eighth day they [neighbors and relatives] came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is not one among your relatives who has that name.’

Then they made signs to the father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.

Did you notice the connection? When Zechariah writes down the name of his son, he shows his belief in God’s words delivered by the angel and “immediately his mouth [is] opened and his tongue set free” (v. 64). Neighbors and friends think it odd the name they had selected because there is no one with that name among their relatives, but Zechariah chooses not to abide by the expectations of those around him, but obey the Lord.

We can take hope from Zechariah’s response and not despair if we can point to circumstances that have come because of our unbelief. Maybe we can currently point to a trial that is in our life because we simply didn’t believe what God told us and went our own way, but we can find hope here that God is merciful and will not leave us in our trial.

If God gave Zechariah, under the old covenant, mercy, how much more do we have the mercy and help of God under the new covenant? Jesus is our sympathizer and suffers with us in our trials. Ultimately, whatever trials we face because of our unbelief are meant to bring us back to belief and teach us what we did not choose to embrace the first time around.

Conclusion:

Sometimes the pain of years of disappointment or failure in an area can make us believe that we will never receive what we have been praying for or our situation will never improve, but the story of Zechariah shows us that with God anything is possible. Zechariah and Elizabeth were too old to have a child. They had no reason to believe in the natural realm that they would have one. It was impossible! But it wasn’t impossible for God.

Friend, are we looking at our impossible circumstance with eyes of faith or eyes of doubt? When tempted to fall into unbelief, we can remember that nothing is too hard for our God and no word that proceeds from His mouth will ever fail (Luke 1:37).

Related Resources:

This is the second post in a brand new series called “What Happens When We Believe God’s Words Are True.” Check out Part 1 from last week: “When You Need a Miracle,” where we talk about signs and miracles in the Bible and King Hezekiah, a person in need of a miracle. Stay tuned the next few weeks as we look at several individuals in the Bible, including the Christmas story, who received a message from God or a miraculous intervention. We will examine how they responded and what we can learn from their stories.

Want to read more about conquering unbelief? You might enjoy “What It Means to Walk by Faith, Not Sight.”

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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When You Need a Miracle

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When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was convinced I was having a boy. I had not received any word from God or sign by which to base this belief upon; I merely had a hunch — but was so sure of what I thought to be true that I picked out a boy name and planned in my head a sports-themed nursery long before I got to the gender-reveal ultrasound appointment. My husband wasn’t so sure, but I was confident enough of my position that I didn’t even think I needed the ultrasound.

Imagine my surprise when the ultrasound technician announced we were having a girl. “Are you sure?” I asked the technician enough times to be slightly aggravating. She patiently moved the ultrasound wand and showed me shots of the baby from different angles to further convince me, and I finally had to relent as I surveyed the evidence on the computer screen in front of me. My “hunches” had been wrong: I was having a girl.

God Gives Us Signs to Confirm His Will

In our faith life, we will receive signs that reveal God’s will and purpose as we follow Jesus. These signs are those that will not only provide direction, but encourage us when we’re worn out, confirm a word God has given us, or warn us from going down the wrong path. But these are more than a “hunch” or “feeling,” like I had when I was pregnant. God will communicate to us in ways that are more concrete. We might be praying about what direction to take job-wise and then open up an email offering us a new job opportunity. Then, we may read in a devotional the very next day how God takes us in new directions — and we will know in our spirit that God is leading us away from our current job to take another one.

Or, we may be exhausted and God will refresh us with an encouraging word that appears through a dream or a friend’s words or the words of a song. We may see the same words in multiple ways throughout the day — and God gives us just what we need to get through. Though these signs will help us on our journey by showing us where to go and what to do or simply providing encouragement at low points in our faith walk, these supernatural happenings that indicate God’s purposes can seem a little intangible as a hunch like I had when I was pregnant. We may wonder, Did God truly send that message for me today? Am I going in the right way? Is God really asking me to step out in this way?

Yet, walking with Jesus requires that we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Though the means by which God reveals Himself to us and directs us may seem a little intangible at times, and we might remember past times where we blew it or missed a cue and this may make us not want to take a step of faith, faith requires that we heed what God tells us and step out as He leads.

Hezekiah: A Man Willing to Step out in Faith

Hezekiah was a man in the Old Testament not afraid to step out in faith. As king of Judah, he tore down idols, consulted God on how to lead the nation, and attempted to walk in upright ways before God. And yet, in 2 Kings 20:1-11 we see that Hezekiah is in a dire situation. He is ill and has been told by the prophet Isaiah that he is at the end of his life and he must get the affairs of his house in order (v. 1). We’re not told exactly what Hezekiah suffers from, but it is most likely some kind of ulcerous growth or “boil” (v. 7).

Hezekiah is distressed by the news that he will soon die. He has no heir to the throne and is concerned about his kingdom, as they are either being attacked by Assyria or are going to be attacked in the very near future. Immediately, upon hearing the news, he turns to the wall and prays. Upon hearing his prayer, God decides to heal Hezekiah and grant him 15 more years of life. He sends Isaiah back to tell the king. Hezekiah asks for a sign that God’s word will come to pass. It’s not really clear in the passage when he asks for this sign, but it’s most likely that he asks for it right after Isaiah announces his extension of life.

God’s response to Hezekiah’s request for a sign is truly miraculous. He tells Hezekiah that the sign he will receive is that the sun dial on Ahaz’s stairwell will go back 10 degrees. We don’t know from the passage how God performs this feat — whether by actually moving the position of the sun or simply moving the shadow on the sun dial. But it’s impossible in the natural all the same! In addition to the miraculous sign that God grants him, Isaiah also applies a treatment of figs to Hezekiah’s sore. Hezekiah is healed, and he lives for the extended time God promises.

A few things we can observe:

1. Hezekiah acknowledges God as the only One who can help.

Before his healing, Hezekiah is in a really bad place. Jerusalem is threatened by neighboring Assyria (and may even have been under attack when Hezekiah fell ill). Though he is in the prime of life (probably around 39 or 40 years of age), Hezekiah has unfinished plans for his kingdom and is surprised by Isaiah’s announcement because the view in this Jewish culture was that if one died young that one had displeased God — and Hezekiah had adhered to God’s laws as best he could. He does not want to leave his kingdom in such an unsettled place. In addition, Hezekiah is concerned because he will leave no heir.

Clearly, Hezekiah has no hope in his situation, so he does the one thing he can do: He turns to the Lord. So often in our place of want we don’t want to turn to God because we’re sad or angry, but Hezekiah shows us the only One who can rescue us in our distress.

2. Hezekiah participates in the process in order to have his miracle.

Though it’s clear that the miracle of Hezekiah’s healing will come from the Lord, God still requires an action of faith: Isaiah is to lay a poultice of figs on the area. Notice that the treatment is applied after Isaiah announces that the Lord plans to heal him.

Hadn’t God already said He would heal Hezekiah? Why was such a treatment necessary? While God can do whatever He wants in whatever way He wants, at times, we are asked to participate in the process of our healing. If God has given us a directive in a situation, our miracle comes when we step out and obey what He asks. Like the lame man at the pool of Bethesda is asked to stir himself at Christ’s command (John 5:8), the blind man is instructed to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam (John 9:7), and Naaman is asked to go wash himself seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:10), we, too, may find that God gives us a prescription for our healing or miracle.

As commentator Matthew Henry explains: “We do not trust God, but tempt him, if when we pray to him for help, we do not second our prayers with our endeavors … help thyself and God will help thee.” In other words, if God has given us a specific action to complete in a situation and we pray for rescue but do not do what He has asked of us, however simple it may seem, we should not expect a miracle. God’s miracles, although they can stand alone apart from our actions, can at times be connected to an act of faith on our part.

3. Hezekiah asks for a sign because of his faith — not because he lacks it.

People ask for signs for different reasons in the Bible, but God honors those who ask for signs because they believe and desire confirmation of God’s word — not those who ask for a sign in order to believe. Hezekiah asks how he can know that the Lord will heal him and join the assembly once again before he is healed, but he asks the question for a confirmation of the prophet’s words. His question does not come out of an unbelieving heart.

What if Hezekiah had told Isaiah that it was impossible for him to be healed and his kingdom to be saved? Or, what if Hezekiah had refused the figs from Isaiah and told him that such a procedure was pointless and wouldn’t make a difference? What if he had scoffed at the sign of the sun dial moving backwards and refused to accept that such a sign be possible? He does none of those things. Rather, he assumes the words of God are true and carefully submits himself to God in the process of his healing.

In his song of thanksgiving he writes after he is healed, as recorded in Isaiah 38:15, Hezekiah says these words: “What shall I say? He has spoken unto me; he himself has done it.” In other words, Hezekiah notes that God alone is responsible for his healing: what God says He will do. Hezekiah merely believes (and, yes, this is an active belief that also affects his actions), but He trusts 100% in the truth of what God says, and praises God afterward for what God has done on his behalf.

4. We need to share with others what God has done for us.

What we see throughout Scripture is concern by God not only for individuals but concern for the greater community. For instance, God chose Israel to be His chosen people so that they might be a light to the rest of the world. Here, in this passage, we see that God is concerned not just with Hezekiah’s life, but with defending Jerusalem against the Assyrian threat. Hezekiah’s recovery will positively impact not only him, but his kingdom. Similarly, although the struggles we go through are deeply personal, they can benefit others when we choose to share God’s intervention on our behalf. Therefore, we need to publicly praise God for what he does in our life.

Though it’s not included in the 2 Kings account, as I mentioned earlier, Hezekiah pens a song of thanksgiving after his ordeal. The song records the trial he went through and what God does on his behalf. Apparently, it was fairly common during this time to compose a song of thanksgiving in response to a great work of God. However, Hezekiah authors it to be hung where others can see it and also shares it in song with others. Clearly, we see Hezekiah’s resolve here to spread the story of God’s goodness in his life by telling others about the miracles God has performed on his behalf.

Conclusion:

Walking in faith can sometimes feel uncomfortable. We want to be sure we heard from God and sure of the way He is leading. However, God will provide a clear path for us to walk in when we walk with Him — and, however odd the way seems, we are to step out in faith as He leads.

If we are in a circumstance where God has given us a clear directive, we should follow. At times, when we pray about a problem or ask for rescue, He will give us an action to take — and our miracle may be connected to our act of faith. Miracles can happen in a myriad of different ways and not every intervention of God’s is the same. In addition, God performs miracles according to His will and purposes, not merely because we ask for them. However, we see in the story of Hezekiah a clear pattern that we see elsewhere in Scripture of a man acting in faith and, as a result, receiving a miracle.

Related Resources:

This is the first post in a brand new series called “What Happens When We Believe God’s Words Are True.” Stay tuned the next few weeks as we look at several individuals in the Bible, including the Christmas story, who received a message from God or a miraculous intervention. We will examine how they responded and what we can learn from their stories.

Want to read more about how God moves our obstacles when we act in faith? Check out the following article on walking in faith: “How Forward-Motion Faith Overcomes Obstacles.”

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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How God Encourages Us When We Need It Most

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Our house has been for sale since the beginning of the summer.

After just a few weeks on the market, we received two offers. However, through a series of events, both offers fell through, and we’ve had a long stretch since then of realtors texting me at all hours of the day to see our property and the continued challenge of keeping it clean with two small children underfoot.

My husband’s new job (the one that necessitated our move) has been proving to be a stressful transition for my husband and our family. He has been commuting long hours and putting extra time into the basketball program where he is serving as a coach. As a result, I have had many long evenings and weekends alone with my small children.

To add to the mix, shortly after we lost the offers, I found out that I am pregnant.

While this is exciting news, at 36, everything in my body hurts — my knees, my legs, my stomach, everything! I’ve been fighting all-day nausea, so each day feels like an uphill battle. And to add to that, God keeps pruning away at areas in my life that has me feeling so worn out. All the cutting away God has been doing has left me feeling like I should just give up on the direction God has pointed out for me. At certain intervals these past few weeks, I have wanted to back out on selling our house, on starting a ministry, on continuing to step out into the difficult territory God keeps calling me to.

However, just in the past two weeks, I’ve received texts from several old friends I haven’t spoken to in some time asking how I am doing, letting me know they were thinking of me. Another friend from years ago messaged me to ask me if she could pray for me. She said God had put me on her heart. Just her simple few lines brought me to tears because I felt so cherished and loved when I received her words.

I knew God had orchestrated these special contacts on my behalf. I knew that He was looking out for me and sending me much-needed comfort. I was reminded by my friends’ words of all the other times God had rejuvenated and motivated me to keep following Him down the path He had for me even when so many trials made me want to look for an easier way.

A Woman Who Walked a Difficult Road

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a woman who must have longed at times for a simpler course. We often think of the Christmas card pictures of Mary — a serene woman garbed in blue cradling an equally serene Jesus. But what that picture does not portray is the pain she had to go through in being the mother of the Messiah. Let’s take a quick peek at Mary’s early road as the mother of Jesus:

— She was impregnated by the Holy Spirit as a virgin and had a whole lot of explaining to do to her family and fiancé.

— She was pregnant out of wedlock in a time when it was not socially acceptable for women to be pregnant without being married.

— She endured a long expedition on a mule while pregnant.

— Once the trip to Bethlehem was complete, the inns were too crowded to house her, so she had to give birth to Jesus in a stable.

And this was just at the beginning of her role as Jesus’ mama! I don’t know about you, but at this juncture I might have been ready to throw in the towel and tell God that I wasn’t cut out for this job, you know?

However, at this point in her journey, after the birth of Jesus in the stable, shepherds saw angels in the sky proclaiming Jesus’ birth and came to see this new infant king. And then the shepherds left to tell everyone in the town what they had seen.

These shepherds were strangers to Mary. They just showed up after Jesus was born and spoke of her baby with awe and wonder because of the message they had been given through the angels. After the proclamation of the shepherds’ news, the Scriptures tell us that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). To “ponder” means to “think about or consider something carefully” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Most likely, the shepherds’ confirmation and joyous proclamation of her God-son was just the news Mary needed after a hard, long journey — a journey that was only beginning. Surely the shepherds’ visit validated Mary in a way that helped to lift her up after enduring tough circumstances.

Mary Examined the Other Moments in the Past

And perhaps Mary, in her pondering of the shepherds’ visit. was not only encouraged but was able to examine these newest developments in her story and her son’s story and gain further insight into the person she had birthed.

She could compare this newest spiritual occurrence with instances in the past: when the angel had visited her to tell her of the child she would bear; when she met with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s baby leaped for joy in her womb; and when Joseph was told by an angel in a dream that Mary had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit.

With each of these events, Mary could further be assured that God was with her and was indeed going to accomplish what He said.

Because so often God tells us a vision of what we will accomplish for Him but provides us with no other details, and those are not filled in until we are actually underway on the journey. Personally, in my own journey to answer God’s call, I, too, have had a string of events that have gone beyond just the most recent messages from friends that have helped to not only comfort me but clarify a call that felt very fuzzy initially.

A few years ago when I was just starting to get a sense that God wanted me to start a ministry, I was visiting my parents in my home state of Washington and happened to attend a small church where no one knew me or my story. The first time that I visited, I received prayer from a woman who told me that God was going to use me in a big way in ministry. I gave her no details about myself, but she repeated and even expanded on what God had already told me.

The second time I visited, exactly one year later, the pastor himself approached me and gave me a prophetic word. He told me that God was going to use me to write curriculum for others and how God had given me administrative gifts that He was going to utilize in me to lead others. Just a few months after visiting his church, I knew what that “curriculum” was going to be. I felt God specifically tell me to write down the lessons He had taught me in a blog.

Even with these past occurrences where God has confirmed to me the direction I should go — I have felt distracted and pulled down by just how hard everything has felt the past few months. That big vision God gave me concerning how He wants to use me feels suffocated by the other things going on in my life.

His Comfort Keeps Me Going

But by receiving the comfort He is providing now and meditating on key times He has shown up for me in the last few years, as Mary did when she saw the shepherds, I have been able to find fresh inspiration and strength to continue on in my course.

Because the promise we have is this: Whatever God has called us to as far as kingdom work is not work we do alone. He will refresh us in the process (Proverbs 11:25). Yes, there will be hardship and inconvenience and trials, but God is there to renew us at pivotal points.

And when I survey His faithfulness, I can rest knowing that the next stretch of the journey, whatever it is, however hard it is — is that which He has already charted.

I can know that those moments in the future, just when I am about to plunge into despair, when I am too weary to go on, is right where God will provide again — another pearl of encouragement to ponder.

UPDATE: This post was adapted from a post published December 13, 2015. Shortly after writing this post, we received a brand new offer on our house and moved to a new county. In addition, my daughter was delivered, healthy and 9 days overdue, just a few months after we moved into our new home! God is good!

Related Bible Verses:

Isaiah 40:31: “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Related Resources:

Need more encouragement in your journey? Read this post about Hagar, a woman from the Old Testament who was in a desperate situation and encountered God at her lowest point.

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Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

More Posts

More Than an Example, Jesus Gives Us the Power to Obey: Part 3


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Have you ever seen a flawless model on a magazine cover or television commercial that made you self-conscious about your own looks or abilities because the chasm between the two of you felt impossibly huge? Models are everywhere, featured in more than magazines and advertisements. They are given to us to inspire consumption of magazines or products, but also to make us want to pattern ourselves after them or attain a certain level of achievement or status.

But instead of always doing what they are designed to do, sometimes if too-perfect, models can discourage us from even trying to be like them because they represent an unattainable ideal.*

The Model of Faith: Jesus

In Hebrews 12, we are given a model for our Christian faith. And yet, this model, although perfect, is different than other models you can recall that did more to discourage than inspire you. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but first, let’s remind ourselves of verses 1,2 which I have been focusing on throughout this series:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

First, before the author ever discusses the perfect example of Jesus, he mentions a “great cloud of witnesses” (v. 1), referring back to the heroes of the faith mentioned in chapter 11. We should know that the author is systematically making an argument throughout Hebrews that Christianity is superior to Judaism. Speaking to Jewish Christians that were being persecuted and were tempted to return back to their Jewish faith, the writer continues this argument, bringing it towards a culmination in chapter 12.

Therefore, if we view this passage through that lens, we can conclude that although the many witnesses are given to encourage us to follow in their footsteps, we should note that they are more than just the usual I-am-perfect-so-be-like-me examples. First of all, they weren’t perfect! They screwed up in multiple ways just like you and me, but they shared one thing in common: their willingness to step out in faith and do what God said.

While we might envision spectators watching us in our walks of faith when we read the phrase “cloud of witnesses,” as the NIV Application Commentary points out, this image is meant to do more than tell us we have spectators in our journey. Rather, these witnesses “bear witness to the Christian community of God’s faithfulness and of the effectiveness of faith.”

Then, after mentioning the “great cloud of witnesses” to convince us that walking in faith is worth it, the author gives us Jesus as the one perfect example of the faith that eclipses the rest of the pack. However, again, as I mentioned above with the “cloud of witnesses,” the author’s use of Jesus as the ultimate example of faith is more than just a model for us to follow.

Jesus is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (v. 2). As I explained in Part 2 of this series, certainly this can mean what is sounds like — that our faith begins with Him and He works in us. That in and of itself is exciting, but that’s not all. There’s more. If we examine the words “pioneer” and “perfecter” in the Greek, we see that the meaning is not just of One who begins and ends our faith — but One who is the leader or pioneer of faith, as in the faith. The word “our” was added later before the word “faith.”

If we read it this way, we understand that Jesus is more than a model for us to emulate. He is the champion and forerunner of the faith. He is the only One who was able to run the race perfectly. And that changes everything. How? Let me explain:

How Jesus Perfects the Faith

If we skip down to verses 18-24 of chapter 12 of Hebrews, the writer says this:

For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm … . But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.

While the author started off Hebrews 12 by mentioning the “cloud of witnesses” and our one perfect example in Jesus, he goes deeper into this argument by asserting the better that the new covenant brings because of the race of faith Jesus perfectly completed. The verse states that the old covenant “can be touched” (v. 18). The Israelites were not allowed to touch Mt. Sinai, but the law was received in a physical location and was palpable. And this law was delivered to them in an awe-inspiring way, but in their weak humanity, they couldn’t even look at the face of Moses when he returned from the mountain with the law because his face glowed from being in the presence of God. Though the law was necessary, it was hard to abide by it.

However, the law was only temporary and Jesus brought with His death the new covenant — or new and better arrangement between God and believers. As believers, we are no longer under the old covenant. We no longer have to tremble at the words of God because we have come to “Mt. Zion” and have in Jesus a “mediator of the new covenant” (v. 24). While we can also point to Mt. Zion as a place, we don’t have to go to a physical locale any longer to receive Jesus into our lives. The new covenant is no longer external like the old covenant, but rather, internal.

Mt. Zion is representative of the spiritual nature of the new covenant and the union we have with God when we ask Jesus into our lives to be our Savior. While we have commands to follow given to us in Scripture, we have the Spirit of God living in us that helps us and transforms us to be more like Jesus as we walk with Him (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:5).

The Freedom We Have In the New Covenant

Another place we see this same idea of the internal nature of the new covenant and the freedom we have in the new covenant is 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 where Paul says:

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of the new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Here, Paul states that his ability and competency comes from God. He can’t boast of anything in and of himself to do the work of God. This is important to note because we get the idea that weakness on our part isn’t anything to hide or try to cover up. God knows we’re weak and He works in our weakness! When we come to places in our spiritual walk that are too hard or look impossible to us, we may think that we have to overcome those places on our own. We get down on ourselves because we’re weak.

Maybe we’ve tried before in the area and failed, or maybe we have been running from God because we don’t think we can do what He is asking us to do. But here, it tells us that rather than be discouraged by our weakness or disqualify ourselves based on our weakness, our weakness is an opportunity for us to acknowledge that our strength is not in ourselves and turn to the Source of our power.

Paul also compares the old and new covenants here, as we see in chapter 12 of Hebrews, saying that the old covenant, or letter of the law, kills. Why does it bring death? Because those who couldn’t keep the law in the Old Testament were given judgment and even death.

Similarly, those who are saved now but attempt to live up to the law without the help of God’s Spirit will only experience shame and guilt and frustration. As the IVP New Testament Commentary says: “A covenant that is letter in nature kills because it makes external demands without giving the inward power for obedience, while a covenant that is Spirit in character gives life because it works internally to produce a change of nature.” To put it simply, the Gospel provides the way by which we can live as we should. On the other hand, the law simply makes us feel guilty and condemned because we are continually reminded of a standard we can’t live up to without the power to live it out.

Those who accept Jesus’ work on the cross by becoming believers and living by His Spirit live in freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). As the IVP illuminates: “Because of Christ, the Spirit, rather than sin, becomes the controlling principle in the life of the believer. The power that was lacking under the old covenant is now there for us to be the kind of moral people God intended.”

Friends, why is this such incredibly good news? The jaw-dropping conclusion and the twist I have been alluding to when we examine both Hebrews 12 and 2 Corinthians is that Jesus is more than a model — He also empowers us to become what He designed us to be. We don’t have to be perfect or despair when the gulf is wide between us and Jesus. He helps us do what we can’t on our own — and we have freedom to breathe in the new covenant because we have the help within us to live the life we were called to live as believers.

As Paul emphasizes, our weakness is an opportunity for the Spirit of God to do in us what we simply can’t do for ourselves. I love what Alexander McLaren observes in his commentary of Hebrews:

He [Jesus] is more than example. He gives us power to copy His fair pattern. The influence of heroic saintly lives may be depressing as well as encouraging. Despondency often creeps over us when we thinking of them. It is not models that we want, for we all know what we ought to be, and an example of supreme excellence in morals or religions may be as hurtful as the unapproachable superiority of Shake-spears or Raphael may be to a young aspirant. Perfect patterns do not save the world. They do not get themselves copied. What we want is not the knowledge of what we ought to be, but the will and power to be it. And that we get from Christ and Him alone.

It’s not that living in the Spirit of God erases the hard things that we have to do in our walks with God. There will still be hard things, but what freedom when we realize that we aren’t left alone to do what we can’t on our own. We aren’t given an impossible example — but rather, an example and the power to do what He asks.

Walking With Jesus Eases Our Guilt and Condemnation

I had a conversation with a Catholic gentleman the other day. He told me that he hadn’t been to mass lately because he got sick every time he went to church. Confused by his words, I asked for more details. As English was his second language, he had difficulty explaining to me what he meant. However, I finally got the gist of what he was saying — by “sick” he meant that he felt so much guilt and condemnation as he sat through a service that he would break into a profuse sweat and fall ill during the service and afterwards. Though he believed that salvation was in Christ alone and had received Christ as his Savior, he had been also looking into other religions such as Islam and Buddhism to try to help him with some of his everyday problems and the emotions he was experiencing.

In response, I emphasized to him that Christ was enough. No religion could give him what he could find in Christ. The answers to his problems could be found in a daily relationship with Christ — by investing in a quiet time each day and reading the Word and prayer. I also shared with him Romans 8:1 and told him that the moment he confessed his sins, as a believer, he was forgiven. Whatever he was feeling so guilty about could not have any hold on him because Jesus forgave him when he confessed. Sure, there might be, at times, a follow-up with a person if he hurt someone and needed to apologize, but he was under no condemnation for sin when he confessed because he was covered by Jesus’ blood.

Though words came easy to ease this man’s burden, after our conversation, I thought about how ironic it was that I was comforting this man when I have had similar thoughts or reactions of guilt and condemnation at different intervals in my Christian walk! I have read the words of Scripture that were hard or I have listened to a tough sermon that addressed an area of sin in my life and have felt at times, even knowing the message of the Gospel and repeatedly experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ, that maybe God couldn’t forgive me or maybe a problem or area of my life I wanted to change was impossible for God. In addition, though I haven’t looked into other religions, I could attest to drifting to other comforts or distractions when I felt far from God.

Yet, as I shared with this man, we must continually remind ourselves what we have as believers in Jesus. As the writer of Hebrews says, we have not come to Mt. Sinai but Mt. Zion. We have no need to be burdened down as believers because we are under a new covenant where we can freely approach the throne of God and ask for His help in our weakness. Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG) says this:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Jesus beckons those of us who are burdened by religion or guilt or life’s demands to come to Him. When we’re weary of trying to be what we can’t, He tells us to take His yoke upon us and learn from Him. We’re not instructed to go alone, but rather, He walks with us in our journey and we find rest when we go His way in His power — not by trying to somehow meet the requirements of the law.

We’ve been talking this series about some hard topics — about being diligent in our faith, and not falling away. Yes, there is certainly work to be done in our Christian walk, but this is work done with a capable Savior yoked in with us who willingly leads us, but also shares the burden with us, so nothing we do in His will is ever that which we can’t do in His strength.

Let’s pray: Lord, sometimes the words of Scripture strike terror in our hearts or maybe even our own misconceptions about You have led us to believe that where we are is too far gone for your hand to save. Or maybe our discouragement is great because we have been believing lies that we can never make it. We can never measure up. We can never surmount the obstacles in front of us. But, through the power of your Holy Spirit, we can. As I read one time, You will never ask us to do that which we can’t do in Your power. You will never, as this verse says, put anything “ill-fitting” on us. Let us turn to You when we lack strength and pray and persevere in our walk with You when it would be easier to give up and fall away.

*Editor’s note: The example theme running throughout the piece was developed in part after reading comments regarding the idea that Jesus is more than a model from commentators John Owen, A.W. Pink, and Alexander McLaren.

Also, when speaking of Old Testament saints and saying they did not have any aid to meet the requirements of the law, this is not to say that they did not have any help by God or mercy. Admittedly, heroes of the faith in the Old Testament did have the aid of God and did look to the coming of Christ for encouragement. God repeatedly offered mercy to a rebellious Israel, but the point being made is that what we have in the new covenant is far better in that we have an access to God that they did not have and the Spirit of God dwelling within us to help us live the Christian life.

Related Resources:

Did you enjoy this article? Check out the first two articles in the series over Hebrews 12: When You Wonder if Your Obedience Will Be Worth the Cost: Part 1 and When You Fear You Will Never Measure up in Your Faith: Part 2.

Are you not yet a believer and want to find out more about being a Christ-follower? Check out our Know God page to learn about salvation and how to invite Jesus to be the Lord of your life so that you, too, can come to Mt. Zion and enjoy the benefits available to Christ-followers.

Podcast Notes and Corrections:

A.W. Pink did write about the example of Jesus and is meant to be included in the list of commentators given in the podcast (among them John Owen and Alexander McLaren) that helped to develop the idea of Jesus as more than example.

*Updated November 18, 2018.

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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When You Feel Like You Will Never Measure Up in Your Faith: Part 2

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“I can’t do it,” my 7-year-old son exclaimed, throwing down his pencil in frustration.

The source of his angst? A second grade subtraction and addition worksheet. My son had started out writing down the answers with ease, but when he came to a hard sum with large numbers, he proclaimed that he would never be able to do it.

After asking him a few questions, I assessed that my son, a great memorizer, had either memorized the answers for the previous problems or was able to work out the answers in his head for sums with simple numbers. However, when he got to problems that he hadn’t seen before or problems with larger numbers than he was used to, he wasn’t able to figure out the answers in his head — and he wanted to give up.

With as much patience as I could muster, I demonstrated to him how to count on his fingers. I know that they don’t probably encourage this strategy in schools anymore, but it always helped me when I was in elementary school. When I first showed him the new strategy, he crossed his arms, repeating, “I can’t do it!” I repeated the instructions again several times.

Just when I wondered if my coaching efforts would help, he began to try the new strategy. At first, he got mixed up on how to “count up” on subtraction problems, but I kept repeating how to do it. He kept trying, and he was still getting wrong answers because he was counting starting on the wrong number or getting mixed up with the numbers on his fingers.

However, my little boy had more persistence than I thought and kept trying over the course of the next few days. A week later, I noticed him counting correctly and finding the right answers without my help!

When We Feel Like We Can’t Do What God Wants in Our Christian Walk

Sometimes in our Christian walk we might be like my son and get to a place where we say, “I can’t!” When we try to do the task God sets before us, we fall short. We may find ourselves in a frustrating pattern of failing and feeling like we can never measure up. We don’t desire to be disobedient, but He may “up the ante,” so to speak, where He teaches us new things and desires us to walk at a higher level with Him. And that place that He brings us may not be comfortable or easy for us. We may wonder how we will ever overcome the obstacles in front of us or change certain patterns we’ve held onto for far too long.

In a recent post “A Fix for the Disconnect Between Your Head and Your Heart,” Hayley Morgan calls the distance between what we intellectually know we should do and what we do an “integrity gap.” She notes that we’ve all experienced how hard it is to put our head knowledge into life practice and continues to explain how tackling the hard tasks Jesus sets before us can be as awkward and uncomfortable as riding a backwards bike. We keep falling off because we’re not used to riding a bike this way. We may want to give up on learning whatever Jesus wants to teach us or making a needed change in our lives because it’s not coming naturally or easily for us.

Perhaps this very dilemma of finding it hard to live out what we know in our head to be true is what the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he penned these words: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (12:15). As I explained in my previous post, I had always understood this verse to mean that anger that festers can affect others in a negative way. However, when I did a deeper study of the words, I realized that the meaning goes beyond that. Certainly, the verse can refer to those with bad attitudes that pollute the body of Christ and need heart adjustments after suffering disappointment or pain that has made them bitter. But “bitter root” in the context of this passage is most likely primarily referring to those who get slothful in their spiritual walk and fall away.

The passage is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18, 19 where Moses warns the nation of Israel not to turn from God and infect the nation with sinful actions and idolatrous worship. Similarly, in Hebrews, the writer is cautioning Christians not to allow themselves to turn away from God and become a “bitter root” in the community of believers that causes trouble to self and others.

In addition, when we look to see that we and others around us do not “fall short of the grace of God,” this is referring not to our salvation, but to coming up short or deficient by not doing the tasks God would have us do in our faith walk.

My guess is that many Christians who drift do so not because they stop believing in God, but because they get to a place where the path before them looks too hard. Like my son encountering the math problems with big numbers he had never seen before, we get to new levels with Jesus and want to progress but get stuck in a behavior or a pattern that, try as we might, we can’t overcome.

It’s in those places where rather than turn to God in our weakness and ask Him for the help to get through, we shut down instead. “I want to, Lord! But I can’t!” we cry. We are aware of the “integrity gap” between His standard given to us in His Word and where we are and fear that we will never “measure up” in terms of making needed changes in our spiritual walk. Or can we?

How Jesus Helps Us Change

Recently, as I sat crying over the painfulness of circumstances and my inability to change myself in an area of fear I’ve been struggling in for far too long, I remembered a verse from the beginning of Hebrews 12:1, 2 that cites Jesus as the “perfecter of our faith.” I decided to take another look at the passage, and one word kept ringing through my mind: “perfecter.”

What does that mean for us? The word “perfecter” means “finisher, completer” in the Greek. We might look at that and say, “Yes, Jesus does finish my faith.” But it’s more than that. Jesus is the finisher not just of our faith, but the finisher of the faith. He made it possible for us to run the race of faith because of what He did for us on the cross. We are no longer under the imperfect system of the law, but we have been given the Gospel. What Jesus did for us on the cross makes us righteous and acceptable in the sight of God — and makes it possible for us to have the help of Jesus on our journey.

He is our elder brother, our interceder. He completed the race of faith and reached a standard we could never reach on our own. This doesn’t mean that we don’t ever have to participate in our faith journey or do hard things in our Christian walk. To the contrary. We do have to do hard things, and Jesus will take us up steep, rocky inclines that are far above where we could ever walk on our own (or think we want to go at times). But we don’t do these things alone. (And, as I emphasized earlier, we certainly don’t do these things to try to earn salvation or His love. We obey in response to what He has done for us and trust Him to lead us.) When things feel as hard and impossible as riding a backwards bike, we have Jesus to help us.

You might be reading this, saying, “I’ve been with Jesus a long time, and I still can’t get a handle on this. I literally can’t.” And to you I would say the same thing I’ve been telling myself: “Through Him, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). When we can’t, rather than try harder, we turn to Him and we keep pressing in. We keep praying and asking for His help. We keep taking small, shaky, scared steps in reliance on His Spirit — however sloppy and imperfect. We repent when we mess up, but we keep going. We keep trying. We don’t stop running the race. And we don’t let our imperfection keep us from turning to Him.

While I was able to give my son a strategy to use to help him overcome his difficulty solving math problems, life doesn’t always work like that. We can’t always fix whatever stands in our way or our own problems with a simple 1-2-3 plan or book or helpful mantra. We need God — and our strategy should always be to fall before Him and proclaim our utter need for Him and inability to do whatever it is on our own.

That, friends, turns our “I can’t” statements into “I can.” Do all things through Him who gives me strength, that is (Philippians 4:13).

Want to learn more about how Jesus helps us in our weakness and how our inadequacies aren’t a cause for giving up, but rather, a cause for pressing in more than ever for His power to fill us? Check out Part 3 of this series on not falling back in the race of faith and attaining the promises God has for us. We will also explore both the old and new covenants and how the new covenant frees us from striving in our own strength to live up to the demands of the law.

Related Resources:

This is a 3-part series on Hebrews 12, where we have been exploring not falling away in our faith and pushing through hardship to attain the blessings of God. Check out Part 1 of the series that talks about why the hard things we do for Jesus are always worth it.

If you would like to learn more about how God doesn’t base his love for us on what we do, check out this article on God’s love for us in the midst of our failures.

We’d love for you to become a friend of the blog. If you are not yet part of our online community, get our latest posts by subscribing to Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

*Updated November 11, 2018.

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

More Posts

When You Wonder if Your Obedience Will Be Worth the Cost: Part 1

when you wonder if your obedience will be worth the cost part 1

Have you ever thought you understood a verse, only to find out that there was much more to it than you originally thought?

For the longest time, I understood Hebrews 12:15 to mean that we shouldn’t allow our anger to fester, as it can cause us to become bitter. And bitterness will affect not only ourselves, but others. If you’re not familiar with the verse, it reads: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

While one application of the verse is that bitterness, festering anger or unforgiveness, affects not only us but others, the writer’s primary intention is much deeper. If we look into the phrase “bitter root” used in the verse, we see that it alludes to Deuteronomy 29:18, 19:

Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces bitter poison. When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.

Basically, a “bitter root” refers here to an idolater, or someone who puts his trust in something other than God. Moses had brought the covenant before the people once again to warn them not to fall into idolatry. He cautioned that such a person would not be safe going his own way, but his rebellion would have implications not only for the “watered land but for the dry” (v. 19). In other words, a “bitter root” would infect not only himself but cause others to fall away as well.

The writer of Hebrews alludes to the “bitter root” used in Deuteronomy 29:18, 19 to warn the Jewish Christians that would have been his audience not to fall away like that of the Israelites who fell away from God’s covenant in the Old Testament. And the exhortation is for us, too.

Not Falling Away in Our Faith

In order to fully understand what Hebrews 12:15 is saying, we need to understand not only what “bitter root” in this context is talking about, but also, what is required of us in our faith walk so we don’t “fall short of the grace of God.”

First, let’s examine what it means to run an effective faith race.

In reading a verse such as this, we might be seized with panic and begin a frenzy of religious activity in an effort not to be the “bitter root” described in this verse, but that is not what the writer is urging.

The author of Hebrews is not telling us that we need to add more on our plates or engage in as much random religious work as possible. What the writer is telling us is that we must be diligent in doing the tasks that God gives us, less we fail the grace of God. If we notice the wording at the beginning of Hebrews 12:1, 2, it tells us:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Notice, verse 1 tells us that “we run the race marked out for us.” This implies that our Creator has a specific design for our race — and He alone orchestrated our purpose and the tasks that we daily complete when walking in His Spirit. We’ll get back to explaining that verse in a moment, but I want to return back to our discussion of God’s grace and our faith race.

To do that, we need to look at what it means to “fall short of God’s grace.”

A song which has grabbed my attention lately is “The Motions,” by Matthew West. The lyrics say: “I don’t wanna spend my whole life asking, ‘What if I had given everything, instead of going through the motions?’ ” West describes in this song the temptation that comes to all of us as Christians — we can easily slip into “going through the motions” in our Christian lives. We can attend church, even serve in church, and attempt to live moral lives, and yet, still fall short of God’s grace.

If we look at this meaning of “failing the grace of God,” it means to come up short, fall behind. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, it means “to be left behind in the race and so fail to reach the goal, to fall short of the end” or “to fail to become a partaker” or “to fall back.” We can do work that is good and yet isn’t what God would have us do and fall behind in listening to the Spirit of God and doing what He would have us do. It doesn’t mean that we lose our salvation (because salvation is not something we can earn), but it does mean that we can fall short of attaining the promises God has for us, the blessings the grace of God offers.

The writer tells us later in the next verse (Hebrews 12:16) that Esau fell short of his blessings because He sold his birthright. He had been promised, as the firstborn, a double inheritance and inheritance of his father’s role in the family, among other privileges. And yet, when he came in from the field hungry and Jacob offered him a bowl of stew in exchange for the fulfillment of blessings that were rightfully his, he traded his rightful blessings for what was convenient and fulfilling in the moment.

Friends, this is such a difficult concept to embrace, but we, too, can trade away the blessings of God in our lives when we ignore His will for us and instead do what is more comfortable and easy. Though going our own path with our choices won’t cause us to lose our salvation, when we don’t listen to the Spirit of God we will become an empty vine that bears no fruit (Hosea 10:1) and become like the wicked servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents who buried his talents rather than invest them (Matthew 25:14-30).

While the idea of “falling short of the grace of God” is a hard idea to reflect on, the most terrible thing for any of us would be to get to our deathbed and look back and reflect on the fact that we never made the choices necessary to live the life we were called to live. The good news is that we can turn around right now what wrongs we have done by repenting.

We can choose to listen to the Spirit of God and do what He asks. And when His will leads us to uncomfortable places that we would rather not go, we can remind ourselves that God’s blessings don’t come cheap. While we don’t have to work to earn our salvation, we do have to fight for that which has been promised to us in the way of God’s blessings. And yet, God doesn’t leave us to fight on our own. We fight by relying on Jesus’ power and strength and leaning into Him in our journey.

Running the Race of Faith

What is interesting is that in Hebrews 12:2 it says that “for the joy set before him” Jesus endured the cross. I had always read that to mean that for the joy of what lay after the cross, Jesus was willing to go through what He did. Although that is certainly one way we can read it, another interpretation I found in studying the passage is that rather than choose His position as the Son of God and all the benefits it afforded Him, He chose the cross. The word “for” in the Greek can mean “in stead of” or “in place of.” Therefore, “in stead of” heaven and the privileges and benefits He had there, He came here to suffer a humiliating death so that we might be saved.

In either translation, we get this idea that Jesus chose what He did because of the better thing it would bring Him in the end. He valued the will of the Father more than His personal goals and comforts and gave up His privileges and rights for the cross. Similarly, when we survey what lies ahead for us, as Jesus may be leading us in a way that looks scary or is nudging us to step out in a way that requires us to change or stretches us in uncomfortable ways, we are encouraged here that we can embrace the humiliation that may come for doing God’s will because of what we get in exchange.

In addition, we should note Jesus’ view of shame, as described in Hebrews 12:2. He looked at the cross that would be shameful — the mockery, the cruel death, the pain — and, He did so, “scorning the shame,” or as some translations read, “despising the shame.” How does one scorn or despise the shame? He viewed the humiliation that would come from the cross as the less significant thing, as the pain it would bring meant less to Him than doing the Father’s will.

We will often be in the place of literally weighing out what God wants us to do and the cost, and we can do what God wants because of the better it will mean in the end. While Esau took the easy way over the hard and lost his birthright, Jesus did the opposite and accomplished the Father’s will and is sitting at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33; Hebrews 10:12).

When we are afraid, and we are facing circumstances that could get very dim if we boldly declare our faith and act in obedience to God, the writer of Hebrews here assures us that the sacrifice will be worth it. And Jesus stands as the ultimate example of One who went before and accomplished the Father’s will.

We don’t have to be the bitter root that falls away — but rather, the flourishing vine and faithful steward rooted in God that finishes our race.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week where we talk about how Jesus isn’t just a perfect example. He’s a perfect example who helps us in our journey. Though walking with Jesus will lead us to hard and uncomfortable places, we won’t walk the journey alone — and He will give us the power necessary to do His will.

Related Resources:

Ever struggled to know in what way God would like to use you in serving others? Check out “Christian Service: What Does God Want Me to Do?”

Not really sure how to hear from God or how to walk in His will? Check out the following resources: “3 Lessons the Wise Men Can Teach Us About Knowing God’s Will for Our Lives” and “What the Wise Men Teach Us About Following God.”

Podcast Notes and Corrections:

The following explanation of Hebrews 1, 2 used in the podcast is loosely adapted from John Gill’s Expositions: “If we look at the word “for” in the passage, it can sometimes mean “in stead of” or “in place of” — and we can say in stead of God staying in heaven, he came into the world, in stead of his privileges and glory as God He became a servant and suffered shame.

 

 

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

More Posts

4 Things That Can Derail Us in Our Christian Walk

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As a blogger, I receive positive feedback for many of my posts, and I always love to hear how an article on the site has helped someone else through a struggle. However, on the flip side, from time to time I receive negative responses by those who disagree with my theology or Christianity in general.

While I know that disagreement from others comes with the territory when you publish your work online, I never find it easy to read a negative comment or email. I can easily get discouraged by the opposition and think, “Why am I doing this? What insane person would put herself out there like this?” But I remember that Jesus called me to write, and difficulty and opposition is part of the Christian experience.

Whether we put ourselves out there by publishing work in an online forum or simply living out the Christian walk within our community, resistance will come when we express our Christian views and live a Christ-centered lifestyle. Such resistance coupled with other difficulties we face as Christians can discourage us and keep us from wanting to continue running the race of faith.

Rather than allow difficulties to slow us down in our faith walk, though, we can be aware of these obstacles and turn to God for strength in the midst of them, knowing that they are a normal reality of the Christian experience.

A few obstacles we need to be aware of so that they don’t derail us from our calling:

 1. Lack of visible results.

As Christians, when we walk in dependence on God, we will bear fruit (John 15:4). However, we won’t always see what comes of our obedience when doing the will of God. God may inspire us to talk to a distant friend we don’t ever see again or a stranger in a grocery store. I remember once hearing a missionary tell our Sunday school class about his frustration on the mission field. He spent a great deal of time and energy evangelizing, but rarely had the person responded in the moment and accepted Christ.

In praying about his frustrations, he felt God tell him that he was planting seeds that would someday bear fruit in the person’s life. Similarly, you and I may simply plant a seed in a person’s life by our godly words or actions. That seed may be nurtured or added to by others who come along at a later time. We have to trust that that person’s life is in God’s hands. We are only responsible for the part God gives us to do, and it may mean not seeing what comes out of our obedience. While we may be tempted to give up because of the lack of visible results, the Bible tells us not to grow tired in doing the work of God, for in due time we will see a harvest (Galatians 6:9).

2. The stress of everyday life.

Serving God is demanding in and of itself, but the truth is that we don’t live out our service to God (in whatever capacity) in an insulated bubble. (I wish!) When I wrote the original draft of this article, I had three children age 8 and under. We had spent the majority of the winter doctoring one or more sick kids through fevers and stomach viruses.

In addition, during that same period, my 10-month-old was teething and had spent a good portion of each night in my bed when her teeth caused her pain. Such nights equaled no sleep for mama — or only short intervals here and there throughout the night! During this stressful season, I was trying to write not only posts as I felt led, but a study as well, and I felt overwhelmed by the demands of raising small children and trying to work on the projects God had given me. More than once I wanted to bail on the study and tell God that it just wasn’t working out in my life to write at the moment, but He just kept encouraging me to keep going.

Navigating the demands of life, family, and ministry at once can feel brutally hard at times. Sick kids need our attention. Bills need to be paid. The house still needs to be cleaned. And those demands don’t go away when we follow Jesus. If anything, our journey gets tougher in many ways when we choose to follow Him. However, Jesus reminds us that He has overcome the world (John 16:33). We shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged by the many troubles and distractions we encounter as we live out His will in our lives.

However, rather than be like the shallow or thorny soil in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23), where the seed planted grew but then withered or was completely choked out by the cares of life, we need to be like the good soil and allow His Word to grow deep in our lives, despite situations that make it difficult for us to tend to the seed He has planted.

3. Internal fears and doubts.

Not only will we face trials and everyday inconveniences in doing the will of God, but we also are on a transforming journey ourselves where God is working out of us undesirable traits and forming in us the image of His Son. Sometimes our own personal battles with sin, as well as the fears and doubts that come as we step out to obey God, can contribute to us being ready to throw in the towel.

In 2 Corinthians 7:5, Paul says: “For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn — conflicts on the outside, fears within.” When he wrote this, Paul was on a missionary journey and described the amount of pressure his group experienced. Paul had arguments with false teachers, opposition from people in the community, and “fears within.” By this last choice of words, scholars say that Paul was most likely referring to anxieties about the church of Corinth, and a recent letter of church discipline he had sent them.

Whatever Paul was worried about, the point is that Paul — bold apostle that he was — still experienced stresses and fears. Similarly, though our stresses might not be the same as Paul’s, we will face fears. We might experience fear because of our inadequacies, safety, or message when we speak to others about God. Are we saying the right thing? Is our message going to be received by others? What will happen to us if we step out in this way? We are fragile and human, mere jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). In the midst of intense outside pressures, we will also face our own “fears within” and wonder if we’re up to what God has called us to do.

If we look further down in chapter 7, though, we see that Paul was comforted by God in the midst of his afflictions and the coming of Titus, who informed him that the church had accepted Paul’s letter in the right spirit and had decided to repent. Though we will face intense fears and internal doubts at times, God is still able to sustain us and comfort us in whatever place we find ourselves in.

4. Persecution by others.

Lastly, as I’ve alluded to earlier, no matter how much we perfect our delivery of the Gospel message or seek to live an upright life, we will have those who actively work against us. We will be persecuted, at times, even by those close to us in our friendships and family relationships.

An interesting tidbit about Jesus is that His own brothers did not believe in Him (John 7:5). We can imagine the tension in the house when Jesus made comments about who He was only to receive eye rolls or contemptuous remarks. Therefore, not only did He face scorn from people outside of His home, He had unbelieving family members that didn’t provide support for Jesus at key times that He needed it.

However, the story doesn’t end here. Jesus’ brothers eventually became believers. After His resurrection, they went on to help further His ministry and lead in the early church. In addition, Jesus’ brothers James and Jude penned books of the Bible. The very brothers that didn’t understand His identity at an earlier point testified to Him as Lord later in life.

What an encouragement to all of us when opposed by those close to us. I love what Jon Bloom on desiringgod.org says about the opposition of Jesus’ brothers to Jesus: “Not even a perfect witness guarantees that loved ones will see and embrace the gospel.” And yet, as Bloom says (in particular about James, but could also apply to all the brothers): Jesus endured the unbelief, loved his brothers, and paid the debt of their sin!

We may be tempted to take personally the persecution we experience when doing the will of God, but we must remember that the world hated Jesus first (John 15:18). While our enemies and those within our families or friend circles can certainly make our days challenging, they can’t derail the plans God has for us. Though Jesus suffered from His brothers’ unbelief, they didn’t halt the plans God had for Him in ministry.

If anything, God can use even our enemies to help us reach our destiny — and may use us to reach them (as Jesus reached His own brothers) even if they don’t act like they receive our message in the moment.

Conclusion:

Friend, the Christian life is no cake walk. We are a peculiar people living in a place that isn’t our home (Hebrews 13:14). People will laugh at us. We will struggle to do God’s work in the midst of other demands that pull on us. Often, the work God gives us to do will not make sense to us and might feel confusing or pointless. We will at times struggle with anxiety and fear about what God would have us do.

But if we are aligned in God’s will, our work will yield fruit. The very trials we want God to remove can develop good things in us if we turn to Him rather than away from Him when life gets hard, and understand that we will only find the strength to persevere in Him.

Related Resources:

Are you tired and burned out in your Christian walk? Check out the following for more encouragement: “Encouragement When the Road Feels Broken,” and “How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up.”

Don’t have time to read over previous posts? Check out our posts in podcast form by visiting our podcast archive or get our newest posts by subscribing on Soundcloud.

We’d love for you to become a friend of the blog. If you are not yet part of our online community, get our latest posts by subscribing to Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

*Updated October 29, 2018.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

More Posts

Running the Race of Faith With Perseverance

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My husband loves to run. For the duration of our marriage, several days a week, he has consistently risen before daylight to run a few miles. His discipline has paid off. He still fits in the same size pants he wore when I met him 20 years ago!

No one likes to discipline one’s self to do the hard work (except perhaps my husband when it comes to exercise!), but there is no payoff without it. Certainly, we are called to rest in God’s grace, but a “doing” component exists in the Christian walk. While we don’t earn our salvation or standing with God by our works, we are called to discipline ourselves to follow the call of God, which involves willingly persevering through difficulties and trials and “running” the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1; Philippians 2:16).

One such place where perseverance in our faith walk is emphasized and the idea of an athlete (possibly running a race or participating in another athletic event) is used is 2 Timothy 2:3-6. Sitting in a Roman prison awaiting execution, Paul writes to Timothy in this letter and exhorts him to persevere through the challenges and suffering he is enduring and will continue to endure as a minister of the faith, saying:

Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive the share of the crops.

Just as Paul encourages Timothy to compete like an athlete in his letter, we as Christians can be encouraged to “run” strong in the Lord and remain faithful in our service. An athlete isn’t the only picture Paul uses to describe the dedicated Christian. He also uses two other pictures to make his point. We should observe the pictures he uses and how he encourages us to mimic the actions of these individuals in our Christian walk:

 1. No soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs.

Paul urges Timothy to stay focused on his calling and not allow himself to be distracted by anything that might take his energies away from his ultimate task, which is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and obey His voice.

Soldiers are required to be obedient to their commanding officers and forsake activities that distract them from their duty. Similarly, as Christians, following Jesus means being willing to leave behind certain tasks and interests in order to pursue the course God has for us.

However, so often, as Christians, we get pulled off course by plans that may take us away from what we know we should do. I can recall a season where I had a huge list of to-do items I wanted to get to for my house, and I remember God telling me that my focus was in the wrong place. It’s not wrong to do home fixer-upper projects or take care of your home — we should do that — but my plans were taking me away from the project that God wanted me to complete in that season.

Rather than go to the store daily for new house items and fill my days with repairs and decorating plans, I surrendered and instead invested my time in the project He had for me. The Bible tells us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, AKJV). You know what happened when I surrendered to God? I didn’t get my repairs done right away, but sometime later, when I finished the tasks God had for me in that season, all of these “to-do” items got done when my husband had a job change and we had to put our house up for sale.

As Christians, we will have to attend to certain affairs in the world. We will have jobs and families. We will have to do normal things like grocery shop, pay bills, and mow our lawns. This verse isn’t urging us to forsake everyday tasks, but rather, reminding us not to get “entangled” in those affairs where they take precedence above what God would have us do.

As James Burton Coffman quotes E.M. Zerr as saying, “Any kind of occupation, whether right or wrong in itself that prevents a disciple from doing his duty would constitute the entangling affairs mentioned in this verse.” Similarly, Matthew Henry says, “The great care of a soldier should be to please his general, so the great care of a Christian should be to please Christ, to approve himself to him.”

2. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

Here, Paul switches from his soldier metaphor to one of an athlete, and we are told that we will not receive a crown unless we compete according to the rules.

An athlete must compete despite fatigue, thirst, and physical discomfort. He must not allow those obstacles to prevent him from finishing the event or race. Similarly, in our spiritual walk, we will face persecution, temptation, opposition, and other trials — that will wear us down and make us want to quit running the race. However, to obtain a crown we must stand firm to the end (Hebrews 3:14; Revelation 2:10).

The Bible mentions several types of crowns that we will receive at the judgment seat of Christ — among them the imperishable crown for people who exercise self-discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) and the crown of life for those who endure trials, testing, and persecution (James 1:12).

However, to win such a crown, we must exhibit discipline and endurance. We won’t achieve the plans God has for us and successfully answer our call with a “lassez-faire” attitude. As I found in my study of this passage, Paul may have been addressing “I’ll do it my way, how I want” approaches to religion in his day and emphasizing faith meant a dependence on Christ and adherence to His commands.

Perhaps in Paul’s time, just as in ours, there were those that were hoping to obtain God’s rewards and promises without putting in any effort in their Christian walk or others creating their own faith apart from Christ.

However, just as an athlete must adhere to guidelines for competitions, we as Christians have the Holy Spirit and the Bible to guide us as we go through our days. Our run is not aimless, but rather one where we follow the model of Christ and have a clear goal in mind (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

3. It is the hard-working farmer who should have the first share of the crops.

The last picture Paul uses to illustrate how we must approach the Christian life is of the hard-working farmer. Again, this kind of illustration uses someone, like the soldier and athlete, who must be disciplined and steady as he labors on his farm: cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, and fighting off insects and other threats to ensure a good crop.

As Christians, we must work intently just like a farmer if we expect to see a crop. This means we must discipline ourselves to soak in the Word of God, learn God’s will, and faithfully sow in the lives of others as we walk in His Spirit.

However, the work is hard, and we won’t always see immediate results. Elsewhere in Scripture we are told that “at the proper time,” when we are faithful, we will “reap a harvest” (Galatians 6:9). Yet, whether we see visible results or not when we follow Christ and endeavor to do His work, we will still benefit and reap a reward in our lives when we invest in the lives of others and do the will of God.

As far as the farmer getting the “first share of the crops,” I found varied ideas among scholars about what this could mean. One meaning could be that in order to serve others we must stay connected to God’s power in order to offer Him to others.

Another meaning could be that only those who labor will have fruits to partake in. Along these lines, I love what Albert Barnes observes: “The point was not that the husbandmen [farmer] would be the first one who would partake in the fruits; but that he must labor first before he obtained the reward. Thus understood, this would be an encouragement to Timothy to persevere in his toils, looking onward to the reward.”

Conclusion:

All of these pictures Paul uses show us that the Christian walk is one where we must be intentional about doing what we are able to do on our end to run the race of faith and run it well. We don’t have to strive to earn salvation or earn our standing with God, but each day we have choices as to how we will spend our time and our efforts.

The passage reminds us to put God’s interests at the forefront and live a disciplined life in service to Him in order to bear much fruit and win a crown that will never fade.

“It is the enduring, patient, self-sacrificing toil that is rewarded in the affairs of common life — the man that endures hardness and whether as a soldier, or athlete, or tiller of the ground, wins the reward, and as in the world — so in religion.” Ellicott’s Commentary

Related Resources:

Want to hear the post in podcast form? Check out the accompanying podcast episode above the article where co-hosts Suzy Lolley and Carol Whitaker talk over the points of this post.

For additional podcast episodes from Season 1 & 2, check out our podcast archive.

Podcast Notes and Corrections:

James Burton Coffman quotes E.M. Zerr when he says in his commentary, “Any kind of occupation, whether right or wrong in itself that prevents a disciple from doing his duty would constitute the entangling affairs mentioned in this verse.”

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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When God Uses Our Trials to Teach Us: Part 2

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Trials come in many shapes and sizes: a health problem that drags on, a relationship conflict that pops up when we least expect it, house repairs that exceed our savings, a business venture that fails despite our best efforts.

Trials are a part of living in our fallen world. However, we can also go through trials for a myriad of other reasons: we can be afflicted by Satan, we can suffer natural consequences for our sin, or we can be persecuted for our good actions as Christians. However, at times, God orchestrates particular situations to teach us a particular lesson that will benefit us.

Psalm 119:71, 75-76 says: “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees … I know, Lord that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.”

As I discussed in my last post, we find it difficult to wrap our minds around the idea of a God who afflicts us, but when we understand that God uses affliction to draw us to Himself and turn us from going astray, we can better embrace those difficult situations that make us want to run or turn on God.

Some ideas to remember when looking at the idea that God afflicts us:

1. God afflicts us because of His faithfulness.

In Psalm 119, the writer notes that “in faithfulness” God has afflicted him (v. 75). That concept is so hard to comprehend. Say what? However, we have been talking in this series about the idea that God instructs us through our circumstances not to destroy us but to make us more like His Son. We read in 1 Peter 4:19: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”

While 1 Peter 4:19 is referring to those who suffer for doing what is right in the will of God (and a little different suffering than we have been discussing), we see the idea that whether we suffer for doing what is good or suffer because God in His loving discipline is teaching us, we can trust God with our lives — knowing He always knows what is best for us.

A God who allows affliction sounds terrifying, and when circumstances get challenging in our lives, our natural tendency is to get angry at God and bolt. However, Psalm 119 reminds us that God does what He does because of His great love for us.

He allows pain to encourage us to return from the path of destruction we’re on, and He’s willing to use whatever means necessary to save us from our own folly. In addition, God always acts consistently with His character. Whatever decisions He makes are always out of His perfect mercy, love, justice, and holiness. Therefore, though His actions toward us might not always feel loving, we can be confident, as the psalmist is here, that God is not out to get us, but always has our best interests in mind.

2. God comforts us when we turn to Him in our affliction.

The amazing thing is that even in the midst of affliction that has come to correct us or turn from our bad choices, we see that God is a refuge for us and a comfort to our wayward souls. Verse 76 says, “May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.” The Living Bible paraphrases it like this: “Now let your loving-kindness comfort me, just as you promised. Surround me with your tender mercies that I may live. For your law is my delight.”

Even if we have turned from God and run from Him, if we are willing to learn what we need to learn in our afflictions and turn back to Him, He will guide us back into the way we should go. But too often we let our afflictions anger us and keep us from God.

Here, in Psalm 119, we see that the psalmist not only has confidence in God’s faithfulness, he models for us what we should do in our trials: turn to God. However, that is often the last thing we feel like doing because we’re too angry. Proverbs 19:3 says that a person’s own foolishness causes him to go astray — but get this — he rages against the Lord! In other words, at times we can find ourselves in a mess because of our own choices, but yet we get angry at the Lord. Instead of going down that path, we can learn what we need to learn and let God rescue us from the places we’re stuck — instead of blaming others or God, or remaining stuck in our anger.

Because as I’ve learned in my research on affliction: God may orchestrate the afflictions in our lives, but He can rescue us from our troubles. Psalm 34:17 tells us: “The righteous cry out and the Lord hears them. He delivers them from all their troubles.” Similarly James 1:2-4 (VOICE) urges us:

Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as thy are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line — mature, complete, and wanting nothing.

Fighting against God or blaming Him will only delay our ordeals and won’t give us the escape we’re looking for. So, knowing that God can rescue us, what else can we do when we are in the midst of circumstances that threaten to derail us? I picked these up from the Holman Bible Dictionary:

  1. Pray.
  2. Comfort Others.
  3. Remain faithful through patient endurance of suffering.
  4. Cultivate an attitude of joy.
  5. Follow the example of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion:

No one wants a trial, but we often get stuck in the place of how hard the trial is, and that can make us angry and make us want to turn on God. Most of us in the midst of a hard season resist and try to fight our way out instead of leaning into the pain and asking, “God, what is it you want me to learn here?”

One pastor I know used to say that God will tell us what we need to know, but we won’t always like what He tells us. When we understand that God’s faithfulness and love are the motivation behind His discipline of us, we understand that He is not just out to make us miserable, but to make us holy like Him and fit us for His purposes.

As the Holman Bible Dictionary emphasizes, trials are temporary. As I shared about in Part 1 of the series, in one particular tough season God allowed for my own discipline, I got out of it. God moved me on. After fighting him for a few months, I relented and did what He asked me to do. In response, He mercifully lifted me out of the situation. I am right now in another learning season, and I can look back and see how He delivered me then and can deliver me now if I choose to submit to the process.

How we react, though, is a choice. Our Red Sea will remain until we learn what God wants us to learn. In other words, those immoveable obstacles and adversities that we are desperate to have removed will stay as long as necessary to help us learn what we need to learn. But, as commentator Matthew Henry observes, the God who brought us in can bring us out! He is the only One who can rescue us from our circumstances, so let’s turn to Him in the process, trusting that He always does what is best for us.

This is the conclusion of a 2-part series on how God uses trials for our instruction. Check out Part 1 in the previous post and podcast where I discuss how trials teach us.

Related Resources:

Are you at a Red Sea moment in your life where it feels like an immoveable wall is before you and you can’t find your way out? Check out how our faith can help us move forward against immoveable obstacles in these two articles: “How Forward Motion Faith Overcomes Obstacles” and “Why Won’t God Bless Me?”

While God can bring us to Red Seas for different reasons, and you may know what action He has given you to begin the process of moving through your obstacle, sometimes we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. If you’re in that place of not knowing what to do, you may be encouraged by the following: “Waiting on God When You’re Facing a Red Sea Problem in Your Life.”

Co-host Suzy Lolley is back with us this month on the podcast! So good to have her with us! Check out the podcast episode above the article if you’d like to hear us talk over the points of the post.

Podcast Notes and Corrections:

The writer of Psalm 119 is unknown, although some scholars attribute it to David.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

More Posts

When God Uses Our Trials to Teach Us: Part 1

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I pray over the topics I write about for each month, and I felt I needed to look further into “trials” for October, or the troubles and afflictions we face in life. I wasn’t sure what direction I should go with the subject, so I decided to start by looking up the definition of “trials” in a Bible dictionary and go from there. However, the funny thing is that when I looked up “trials” in the Bible dictionary, I found a short statement about judicial trials (as in a judge and a person who is convicted of a crime!), rather than the kind of trials I was thinking of.

So I changed up my search tactic and instead looked under “affliction.” And, the heading yielded me a better result. A definite direction began to unfold as I read through the heading and also came across a passage in my notes (which I’ve shared below).

As I’ve written before about pain and the troubles we encounter in this life, I wasn’t entirely naïve on what the Bible says about the topic. We can have afflictions in this life because we live in a fallen world or as consequences for our sin. In addition, the Bible talks about evil spirits and Satan afflicting us. However, there is another reason that we can suffer trials in our life, and that is because God allows them or even orchestrates them for our instruction.

This, of course, is not a popular idea. We have a hard time wrapping our heads around the idea that God allows certain situations and suffering for our instruction. However, if you press in for a moment with me, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the beauty of this idea and the goodness of a God who loves us so much that He teaches us and draws us back to Himself when we stray.

Psalm 119:71, 75-76 says: “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees … I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.”

A few ideas we can take away:

1. Affliction teaches us God’s lessons.

The psalmist notes that it was beneficial and good that he was afflicted. While we generally associate affliction with the negative, the writer of this psalm does the opposite and says that affliction can be good — not that the trying events themselves are good, but the outcome of the events. Hebrews 12:11 says it a different way, saying, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” God orchestrates at times just the right heat in our lives to bring about a desired result: that we might learn His decrees.

Affliction is the teacher that teaches us through our experiences what God wants us to learn. Along these same lines, in the Treasury of David Commentary it says this: “Very little is to be learned without affliction. If we would be scholars we must be sufferers. As the Latins say, ‘Experientia docet’, experience teaches. There is no royal road to learning the royal statues; God’s commands are best read by eyes wet with tears.”

It is one thing to read about an idea in a book, but another thing entirely to learn it through experience. In fact, the New Testament consistently uses the word “know,” in verses such as John 8:32, that translates in the Greek as “ginosko,” or knowledge through personal experience. To truly understand God’s commands, we can’t just read about them. God allows us to understand these precepts through our experiences as believers, and the lessons He teaches are often though personal pain and difficult circumstances. I have heard it say that God’s lessons come in hard packages.

I had my own experience with this when I was leaving my job to go a new direction, and I tried to bypass a few tasks that God wanted me to do. I ignored those nudges and focused instead on what I wanted to do — which was get into music. Yes, God had promised me that He was going to use me in music, but the way He was leading didn’t look like the right way to go. I didn’t see ignoring his small nudges as that big of a deal. But He did!

In response to my refusal to do what He said, He orchestrated some very tough situations in my life that were so difficult and humiliating that I literally spent every Sunday weeping at the altar, asking Him in desperation to take the pain away. He did take me out of that situation when I chose to go the way He wanted me to go and learned that I had to trust Him, rather than in my own strength and plans. I also learned during that time that God wanted me to remove an addiction from my life that I didn’t even know I had! (Check out the podcast episode at the top of this post to hear the story.)

2. Affliction encourages us to obey in future situations.

Not only does affliction teach us God’s ways, affliction encourages us to obey. As in the story I shared, the tough situation I went through not only taught me an important lesson in the moment about trust, but is one that encouraged me to make it a point to obey Him right away, rather than wait for affliction to teach me.

I view Scripture now as the lifeline it is and try to learn as much as I can and use Scriptural knowledge to guide my life so that I can avoid learning through God’s discipline of me. Earlier in Psalms 119:67, the same writer says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” In other words, his past afflictions served to motivate him to stay on the straight and narrow because he remembered his past painful experiences that had come about because of his choices and did not want to repeat those.

Certainly, we can’t avoid every challenging circumstance with our obedience. And we will fail at times even when we try to get it right. We sometimes will unknowingly bring consequences in our lives with our actions or we will simply face problems because of the world we live in. Or, God might allow trials not because of anything we have done but for our strengthening and the building of our faith. In addition, we may actually face troubles because others see our faith and persecute us for it. However, if we have been taught a certain lesson in an area (say, trust), we can learn the lesson and not fall into the same trap of self-reliance in the future.

When I was preparing to be a teacher, I had to observe at a middle school. In my observation of a classroom one week, I observed a mother who followed her son around for a few days at school. She sat behind him in class, walked behind him in the hall, and sat near him at lunch. When I asked about this mother, the teacher told me the boy’s mama was coming to school for a few days to help inspire her wayward son to clean his act up.

This mama loved her son so much she was willing to let him got through some humiliation in order to help him make the choices he needed to make to turn away from his bad attitude and laziness. You better believe that this boy learned his lesson. And whenever he felt tempted to slide back into his former habits, he remembered the sting of his mama following him around and decided against it.

That’s what God does with us: He lets us fall into some challenging circumstances when we choose to go our own way, but He doesn’t leave us there. He uses those experiences, if we let Him, to give us a desire and zeal to know His Word and His precepts — so that we don’t fall into those same ones again because of our ignorance.

Conclusion:

The trials we go through not only teach us and encourage us to learn God’s Word, they also make us more like Christ if we let them do their work. Our natural reaction is often to get so angry at what we’re going through that we don’t press into what God would have us learn, but afflictions rub against our hard edges and soften us into a more beautiful version of ourselves.

I read about this in a devotional once, but there is a beach in California called Pebble Beach that has the most beautiful polished stones. People flock there to collect the rocks. The reason the rocks are so polished there is because they are exposed to harsh waves. Nearby, in a quiet cove, people do not go to gather the rocks because the cove has protected the rocks there so that they are rough and less beautiful — as they have never had the chance to be worn down by the pounding surf.

If we have been walking with Christ awhile, we can look back and see those places in our lives that were hard in the moment but yielded fruit — either because we learned an important spiritual lesson through our trial, we came out of the trial with more compassion and love for others, or we experienced a closeness to Jesus that we never had before because we turned to Him in the midst of it.

Stay tuned to next week’s post and podcast episode as we dive into Part 2 to conclude this article. We will talk about how we can trust the faithfulness of God in our trials and what we can do when we’re in a challenging circumstance.

 Afflictions are among the most precious means of grace. They are entirely under the direction of God. They may be endlessly varied, and adapted to the case of every individual … Among those things for which good men have most occasion for thankfulness are afflictions; and when we lie down on the bed of death, and look over life and the divine dealings with us through life, as the glories of heaven are about to open upon us, we shall feel that among the chiefest mercies of God are those dealings of his holy hand, trying at the time, which kept us from going astray, or which recalled us when we had wandered from him — and ‘that in our life, now closing, there has not been one trial too much.’ ”– Albert Barnes, theologian and minister

” ‘I had never known,’ said Martin Luther’s wife, ‘what such and such things meant, in such and such psalms, such complaints and workings of spirit; I had never understood the practice of Christian duties, had not God brought me under some affliction.’ It is very true that God’s rod is as the schoolmaster’s pointer to the child, pointing out the letter, that he may the better take notice of it; thus he points out to us many good lessons which we should never otherwise have learned.” — From John Spencer’s “Things New and Old,” qtd. in The Treasury of David

Related Resources:

Co-host Suzy Lolley is back with us this month on the podcast! So good to have her with us! Check out the podcast episode above the article if you’d like to hear us talk over the points of the post.

Want to hear your other articles in podcast form? Check out our podcast archive for all of our episodes.

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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