The Secret of Contentment

As we contemplate being content and counting our blessings this week….

“And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:19) It was the favorite verse of every impoverished college student, and we repeated it to one another encouragingly as we worked our campus jobs, and prayed over bills, and looked for lists of secondhand textbooks on the board in the Campus Center, checked our post office boxes for letters from home in hopes of a check. Lessons in faith well-learned in those years and often leaned upon. But somehow financial needs are the most straightforward place to trust and I have been struggling ever since to know where else to pin it.

Is that verse for grandparents who are raising a grandchild and finding it takes more energy than they have to give? Will God supply for the parents who are moving a college grad back home because he can’t find a job, knowing full well that student loans are looming? Does that verse belong to the ministry leader who keeps pleading for more workers, and often grows weary? Does God’s promise of provision cover the heart-sore mother on another holiday, who just wishes her family could be together? So many needs, and they color our lives with desperation for a solution, because they make us feel helpless and afraid. We need a Provider, and doesn’t this well-known verse say that God will supply all our needs…?

It strikes me, all these years later, that maybe it wasn’t really meant to be applied to many other things. Just before the missionary Paul made this sweeping claim for the Philippian church who had given generously to him in spite of their own hardship, he confided to them that he had learned the secret of contentment through trial and error….in all the pressing and shifting circumstances of his journeys, he had found this one thing to be constant: the God who had called him was with him always and gave him strength to meet every situation. In joyful abundance… it was Christ who enabled Paul to live well in the midst of it. And in hunger and need… it was Christ who enabled Paul to live well in the midst of it. It was a secret, a treasure he had found hidden in life’s ups and downs, the kind you only find by living through them. Clearly then, his statement to the Philippian church was no promise that God would supply everything lacking in their lives, nor was it a promise that they would never go without in the future.

Indeed, because the secret of contentment is a treasure worth sharing with his readers, Paul implies that both abundance and need are only a means to an end. To his way of thinking it is good for our souls to experience both (and probably repeatedly, given how slow we are to learn) so that we may find the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ. Clearly going without was not something Paul feared, not something he would be quick to promise away for his readers. And yet a few paragraphs later he says God will supply all their needs, and it makes me think that maybe his idea of need is something different than mine. And maybe it’s just that their generosity is something God notices and rewards.

We believe that Christ’s riches are big enough to cover, and we would like God to supply all our needs as concretely as money in a bag, but I think Paul’s real point is about that deeper issue: the secret of knowing God and living in His presence, whether you have the tangible things you need or not. Because the truth is, the assurance of His presence and being content there is what I need most of all. As I look for verses about God’s provision this week I see Him promising forgiveness, mercy, peace, justice, Presence, strength to do what is in front of me….these are the intangibles He thinks I need in life. The other stuff is just the extra details, the context. Like Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

It is culture shock, this head-long collision between normal human perspective and the spiritual reality, like trying to get my brain around a foreign concept. Show me what I really need, Lord, in each situation, and help me focus there, rather than on the needs most obvious. Help me discover the secret of being “content in whatever circumstances I am.”

It would be frightening to depend on a God who cared more about my spiritual growth than my situation, except that I know His heart. I know He cares about me as a person. Verse after verse piles up overwhelmingly in my favor. He loves me and He is good. I can trust Him in this.

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“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (1 Timothy 6:6)

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“All of You is more than enough for all of me
For every thirst and every need
You satisfy me with Your love
And all I have in You is more than enough”
(Enough, Chris Tomlin)

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Speaking from the Heart

As we explore the topic of silence, it is inevitable that we talk about the words we speak. Not only does practicing silence require us to speak less and listen more, but it also gets at the heart of the matter– specifically the heart that is in us. We are seeing more and more how listening to God is a heart-stillness, a heart-readiness, a heart-focus, rather than an outer condition or environment. At some point it seems reasonable to turn that inside out, and look at how our changing inner hearts will affect the words that come out of us.

It’s pretty straightforward cause and effect, that a heart tuned toward Self will produce words that promote your welfare and your concerns…and the more one’s heart is consumed with God, the more your words start to reflect His beauty, His nature, His concerns. Similarly, when you are filled with thankfulness for His blessings, it’s much harder to complain on the outside. When your heart longs for more of His beauty and goodness, the words to make yourself the center of attention just don’t even seem to matter any more. This connection between heart and words is predictable enough to be plotted on a graph. And we laughed ruefully as a group, about the mathematics of words…how a greater volume of words leads to increased potential for the wrong ones coming out, and for useless chatter…and how we women are good at using words. (Sobering when you realize that in terms of sheer verbal potential, women are twice as likely as men to let their tongues get into trouble.)

But looking at the math does make you consider the words you speak in a day and how you will spend them…makes you take a long look at what is inside of you. Jesus put it in more agrarian terms when he said a tree is known by the fruit it produces. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Luke 6:43) But His point is the same, that words and actions grow out of the soil of a person’s heart. It may take awhile to look past the showy leaves and bright colors, but the proof is always in the quality of the fruit.

James borrows the analogy and adds the idea of a water well, mocking the idea that you can draw both good and bad water out of the same place. We all understand how what is inside is eventually going to bubble up into our speech, even if we are trying very hard to keep our mouths shut. So rather than figuring out ways to guard our tongues, it seems like we would do better to guard our hearts– and then here we are, back to the value of cultivating silence before God. When the insides are silent and resting in His presence, that kind of thing can’t help but show up on the outside. And it’s starting to sound a lot like what Paul was encouraging us to do: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8)  A heart that is focused on Him and full of praise for who He is, is going to overflow into words that are “helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:28

Lord, help us to keep putting these things into practice in our everyday lives, “and let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

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“Simply to refrain from talking, without a heart listening to God , is not silence.” (Richard Foster)

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“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)

 

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In The Silence

You would think silence would be an easy thing to practice. I mean, really…is it even something you can Do? Or is it more of a Not-Doing? And yet it is oddly difficult to choose silence, and do it repeatedly, consistently. We tend to consider it a moment of happenstance, however welcome it may come, or maybe something to pursue every now and then if we are unusually overwhelmed by normal life. My brother-in-law flees to the woods and the mountains periodically in his year, deliberately exchanging his busy people-oriented life for the peace and quiet of nature for a week or two to re-charge his emotional batteries. Several mothers I know would probably settle for a half hour alone anywhere, for any purpose, even locked in the bathroom…and even that is no guarantee of actual silence. As a regular spiritual practice, it seems rather foreign to us (or maybe a little too mystical) and we wonder how exactly one goes about such a thing and why it matters.

The late author/professor Dallas Willard suggests that we practice silence in two ways: by evading noise and intrusive sounds (whether traffic, or Pandora radio, or alarms, or kitchen appliances) and by avoiding talk. Not that any of these are bad things, but they do distract and clutter our minds and spirits with constant noise that requires us to multi-task just to function. Because we are surrounded by such noise from birth, we are hardly even aware of it as a stressor. Our ears and brains have grown accustomed to filtering out what we deem unnecessary and focusing on whatever we need in the moment, and often partially focusing on several things at once. It doesn’t feel like hard work at all– it feels like normalcy. And therein lies the subtle misdirection of our energies, so that normal everyday surroundings claim more and more of our attention, our brains grow used to the constant distractions….and silence becomes more and more an occasional oddity.

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that we rarely sink into the contemplative awareness that lets us examine our hearts and connect with God meaningfully. I wonder how many of us Christ-followers are withering away on the inside from chronic neglect of the spirit while we chase after the tyranny of the urgent on the outside? So our challenge this week is to try out silence, like a new dress in a clothing store– just trying on ten minutes a day of retreating and listening to the quiet, turning our attention towards our Heavenly Father.

It may be harder than it seems, to create that small respite from the noise. Now that I am looking for the silence, I am discovering how loud my world actually is, and how hard it is to pull away from the constant input, even if it is only the quiet noise of written words. For me, silence won’t happen on its own, and if I don’t intentionally step off the merry-go-round to grow this healthy habit I will just keep whirling around in the familiar sensory overload.

And of course when you start looking for silence it doesn’t take you long to realize that outer silence does not guarantee inner stillness. You can find quiet places and still have the inner roar of thoughts and emotions. But the silence is a place to start. Not for His sake (as if He requires the silence to speak to us), but for ours, so we are in a place where we can hear Him. Because God is always with us and His Spirit is always speaking to His own, if we have ears to hear. Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It’s as much a heart issue as it is an ears issue; what you actually hear often depends on what you value…what you are seeking. Those who are serious about following the Good Shepherd want to catch His every word, will drop everything to listen to Him….don’t care about normal as much as they care about growing closer to Him. I suspect that as we train ourselves to be still and listen in God’s presence, we will discover great riches in the silence. And in the silence we will be able to agree with David, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.” (Psalm 23:1-2)

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“Our habits unclothe us — they expose our wounds, our insecurities, our idols, our addictions — or our hopes, our dreams, our prayers. Our habits are us. The patterns of our lives reveal the form of our souls….You change your life when you change what you do everyday.” (Ann VosKamp)

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“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” (Hebrews 4:12)

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When You Just Need to Stop and Listen

There was a time in my life when I was afraid of the silence. So I understand when people tell me they need the TV on when they are at home, and how the radio in the bedroom is the only way they can fall asleep. I know what it’s like to turn the music up the whole way in the car and sink into it, lose yourself for awhile. There is no shortage of sound and color and sensory stimulation that we can pour into any hunger.

Maybe we depend on the background noise, to keep us from hearing the thoughts we’d rather not think. Maybe this is why we welcome every pleasant distraction in the world, to avoid the full brunt of our regrets, our disappointments, the big questions of how to make our lives mean something. When in doubt, cover up the unease with noise and more stuff. The problem is, when you pile enough on there to dull the pain, you are liable to cover up the very answers that you so desperately need. I’ve been there, and I know how the fear of stopping to listen can seem bigger than the weight you are carrying around.

Jesus isn’t afraid of our wounds and our baggage. He isn’t deterred by our commotion and clamor. He has already seen it up close, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” as the Prophet Isaiah called Him. He would rather pull us in, touch our dirt-streaked face and bent limbs with His own hands, and speak into our ears Himself–the way He did with the hundreds that came to Him for healing when He walked this earth. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asked the two blind men who were calling out to Him by the roadside. And this is what He asks us, still. “What do you want me to do for you?”

If we are not afraid to be still, to stop and listen, to be honest about our pain and the things that bind us, we will find Him standing right there next to us, ready to begin the work of healing. But it’s up to us to weigh whether it’s worth hanging onto the pain that we know, for fear of the change that we don’t know….up to us to still the noise of our own need and listen for His voice calling. “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us….” (Psalm 46:10-11)

And yes, it is a fearsome prospect to stand in silence with the Lord Almighty. Because like the old hymn says, “the things of this earth will grow strangely dim,” in His presence, and all the masks we wear get stripped away. And we can see who we are “in the light of His glory and grace”…and Who He IsBlessed are you when your sense of need outweighs your fear, and when you have come to the end of yourself so that all you want is Him. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

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“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
(Psalm 73:25-26)

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“I tasted the world seen more than enough
It’s promises fleeting
Of water and wine I emptied the cup
And found myself wanting
But there is a well that never runs dry
The water of life the blood of the vine

‘Cause all I know is everything I have means nothing
Jesus, if You’re not my one thing
Everything I need right now
All I need is You right now”
(One Thing, Hillsong)

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Carried

For the days when the weight of this world seem too heavy to bear, and you wonder if you are going to make it, remember that He is big enough to carry us all. The brokenness of our sin and disease….the heart-wounds and empty places of our lives….all the peoples of the world crying out for deliverance….and the Cross at the center of our human existence, the sacrifice of our Savior answering with His own flesh and blood: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)

On days like this He is the only place to run. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” (Proverbs 18:10)

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“Take this fainted heart
Take these tainted hands
Wash me in Your love
Come like grace again
Even when my strength is lost I’ll praise You
Even when I have no song I’ll praise You
Even when it’s hard to find the words
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise
I will only sing Your praise…”
(Praise Song, Hillsong United)

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“Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you. Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are.”
(1 Peter 5:7-9)

 

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The Simple Lifestyle

We have been carefully avoiding concrete measurements and formulas, in our discussions of simplicity, mostly because we do not want to obscure the very real internal issues at stake. It would be far too easy to get distracted by controversial details and completely misunderstand what practicing simplicity means in our lives. Not to mention that coming up with one visible standard to lay across all our backs (to make sure we are measuring up) is nothing more than forging chains of man-made expectations; Jesus warned us about our hypocritical tendency to tie other people up into tidy bundles.

So let’s revisit the truths we’ve been distilling, drop by drop, gaze into that quiet pool of clear water and breathe deep, let it sink in where the Holy Spirit can make His own connections to life. Simplicity is trusting God for life itself. It is total dependence on His provision and the resulting freedom from anxiety and fear. It is a focus of heart and mind and life on the “pearl of great price” that we Christ-followers have discovered in the Kingdom of Heaven, seeing everything else falling into new perspectives because of that focus.

And let’s not overlook the fact that at some point these truths are going to have to push their way into the Everyday, both in large and small ways. Perhaps even in some startling life-upheaval ways. Otherwise simplicity is just one more nice idea. But that is between your heart and God’s Spirit. We are babes at this, so we stand and lurch forward a few steps, maybe even take off at a tip-toe run across new wide open spaces, only to lose our balance and fall flat a moment later. It’s all in a day’s growth. He will show us where we need to change, and how much is enough. That’s why we use the phrase spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (training) when we talk about learning these new habits.

It is perhaps encouraging to remember that this does not come naturally to us– mistrust comes naturally…wanting to control my own world comes naturally…following my emotions comes naturally. These are the old-way habits I am trying to unlearn. Only the Spirit of God living in me can open my eyes to how beautiful a simple dependence on my Creator can be. It takes His divine power at work in my heart to shift my viewpoint to realize how unnecessarily I complicate my life with worries, how I get tangled up with rationalization and desire for others’ approval and wanting things. Only Jesus’ grace will cover the mistakes I make and give me the courage to try again. And His strong arms will guide me and protect me as I go on.

So when we slide back into old ways we will get back up on our feet, with the Spirit’s help, and follow after Jesus with our baby steps, and keep on putting these truths into practice, until someday we can look back and see how far we have come, just like any child growing up under a parent’s loving watchful care. The important thing is that we practice this new habit of simplicity over and over again, knowing it is for our own spiritual health…keep listening and obeying. Life is much simpler when we do.

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“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 in Matthew 11:29-30, The Message)

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“At every moment,God’s Will produces what is needful for the task at hand, and the simple soul, instructed by faith, finds everything as it should be and wants neither more nor less than whatever it has.” (Jean-Pierre de Caussade)

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It’s Simple, Really

Things get complicated as soon as we start talking about simplifying. Bring up the very idea of simplicity in life and people start looking for formulas and measuring sticks. We want to know how much we have to give up and still be able to claim the label of simplicity…or maybe, more accurately, how much we can hang onto. And are we talking just about quantity or are we addressing quality as well? Because maybe we could just downsize with a big yard sale, or start shopping at the Dollar Store. And do we really need to apply this to our calendars and being able to say no? (Now everyone’s feeling quite nervous, because isn’t our love measured by how much we are willing to do for our families?) It doesn’t even help to put simplicity in terms of an attitude or perspective. It’s just too foreign a concept for most of us twenty-first century consumers to wrap our heads around– and yet it is something we long for, on some level, so what are we missing, here? Maybe in our looking for answers we are making it more complicated than it really is.

The very freedom and abundance we prize has saddled us with complexity. If you have found yourself standing in the hair care aisle looking for the right product, you understand the difficulty, here. To most of us freedom means options…and options mean choices…and choices mean time and comparisons and evaluation. Abundance ensures freedom. All of which keeps us focused on what we want and the means to getting what we want, which tends to be a time-consuming business.

But what if we have it all backwards? What if all the judicious comparing of products and value and quality that makes us feel well-informed and in control are actually symptoms of lives thrown wildly off-balance? What if true freedom means ignoring all the distracting options to get to what matters most, so you can make the best choices? What if we are not even meant to be consumers, but beloved children instead? What if we are working hard to make our own lives very complicated and stressful, when all along we were meant to find our purpose in peace and simplicity?

Jesus implied as much when He warned His followers, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) Trying to hang onto too many different things brings only conflict and turmoil– apparently we only have room for one thing at the center of our hearts. So simplicity is not about how much you have, or how much money you make, or even about how busy you are. It’s about what drives you, what you are focusing on– or to enter into Jesus’ word picture, who we are devoted to. Big-Brother James says clearly that God wants that heart’s focus to be on Himself and Him alone: “God is passionate that the spirit He has placed within us should be faithful to Him.” (James 4:5) Simplicity is trusting in God alone because I have learned that there is no one else like Him, and nothing else that can satisfy. It is total dependence on Him that results in thankfulness for all the ways He provides for me. Lose that focus, and life gets complicated very quickly with all sorts of worries, and fears, and wants, and things we try to hold onto.

Simply put, the more single your focus, the more simple your life is. Repeatedly James urges us to see the benefits: “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:8) So here we are, back to talking about desiring the Kingdom of God first and more than anything else in life. When your heart has that single purpose, everything else begins to fall into perspective and serve that heart’s desire. Not simple in the sense of easy (these are new spiritual habits we are building, after all) but a simple perspective and uncomplicated results. I have a feeling it is what we have been longing for all along.

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“This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength….'” (Isaiah 30:15)

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“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” (Augustine, Confessions (Book 1)

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Wise Words for Winds of Change

“Do you have any words of wisdom?” she asked earnestly across the table. And truly, I had none. Or at least none that sounded sage enough to offer to someone I barely knew. Because in my experience there is no way to fix what she was going through, no best solution that makes it bearable. There’s only getting up every day and choosing to be thankful, choosing to set your heart and mind on God and what He wants. There’s only making the right decisions one day at a time and leaning hard on Jesus with all your wild emotions, trusting that He loves you and is working out good for you. Truly, that is all there is, and some days it feels like precious little. I managed to mumble something in the moment, but mostly what I felt was embarrassment at having no profound and encouraging words polished up and ready to go.

As I sit here almost a week later, it is sinking in that this is all any of us have, when we are facing grief or change. There is no shortcut to the other side of loss. Feelings simply must have their space, and words must be said, and you just have to face each rising difficulty as it comes. Might as well square yourself to meet it head on and push through, because the circumstances themselves won’t go away. But we are not alone in our chaos and storm, and maybe that is enough. Because this I know from experience also, that Jesus stands beside, whether we can see Him or not, and you can hear Him whispering in the dark, “Come to Me… and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:29) In the midst of any upheaval, we can prove the Musician-King’s words to be true for ourselves: “For You are my rock and my fortress; and for Your name’s sake You lead me and guide me…” (Psalm  31:3) It is ordinary one-day-at-a-time perseverance, and it is extraordinary mercy that holds you, until one day you find that the loss doesn’t cut quite so deep, and hope is springing up unexpectedly.

“It doesn’t sound like much to offer as “words of wisdom,” but I wish I could tell her that she is not alone, and that truly is enough.

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“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:1-2)

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“I have heard You calling my name
I have heard the song of love that You sing
So I will let You draw me out beyond the shore
Into Your grace… Your grace.”
(You Make Me Brave, Bethel Music)

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Three Cheers for the Tortoise

I have always thought perseverance is the boring virtue. I mean, let’s face it: love is beautiful…gentleness has a soft warm glow to it…integrity is noble and strong…even patience has a certain sense of satisfaction to it. But perseverance is just ordinary. Keeping on with the everyday of what you’ve been given, and then doing it all again tomorrow. Even when it’s hard. Even when no one notices. Even when it’s not where you want to be.  Perseverance is a slow steady progress that is easy to disparage. It’s like in Aesop’s old story about the tortoise and the hare, where the fast hare is so confident in his abilities to win that he doesn’t even take the race seriously.

And really, who wants to be like the tortoise in the story? No one wants to keep plodding along slow and steady when there are others out there flashing by, to the cheers of the crowd. (And wouldn’t we all rather have life come easily, with plenty of time to play in the meadow and take naps?) Sure, the tortoise won the race, but it wasn’t even through any skill or cleverness or strength on his part. All he had to do was keep on going. Anyone could have beaten the hare with that kind of mindset. But of course that is precisely the point. Visible skill means nothing if it makes you careless. Confidence and charm are pointless if you are going to quit running in favor of indulging yourself, before you hit the finish line. In the long run the character quality of perseverance may matter more than buckets of talent and ability, and not just in results. God says it’s actually a matter of who you are becoming on the inside.

Specifically, God says dull old perseverance is a building block of our character. When life gets tough and we find that things don’t come naturally to us, we get to choose whether to run away or to face the pain and let Him use it to grow us. The Apostle Paul drew a straight line to connect our hard times and strength of character, encouraged the young believers this way: “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) It is that nitty-gritty virtue of perseverance that makes the difference. “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) Perseverance is the holding-on strength that takes us from the growing to the good set before us. And it comes by the Holy Spirit at work in us with His power, just like all the other virtues. I need the help, because my own determination wears out after awhile, especially when life gets difficult and complicated.

Perseverance is what makes you give grace to that person and try to communicate better, to work together, instead of walking away….even though your heart is hurting. Because healthy relationships matter.

Perseverance makes you clean up one more mess….drag yourself out of bed one more time….listen to one more story of playground drama… when what you really want is just eight solid hours of sleep, or a quiet cup of coffee on the porch. Because you know they are worth it.

Perseverance is what keeps you praying long and hard until you have God’s answer. No matter how long it takes. Because you trust His love and His power and His timing.

Perseverance pushes you to face another day of the same old thing: of errands and phone calls and workday and chores that will need to be done again tomorrow. Because these hidden acts of service laid down with love and prayer are building a home and nurturing lives that will last beyond this world.

I guess the older I get, the more I value the simple virtue of slow and steady progress. Perseverance is about focus and determination– being willing to make many small right choices over and over, because you have your eyes out ahead on a bigger goal. It’s having faith that all those smaller, more boring choices are adding up to something wonderful just because God says so. It is simple obedience in the everyday, according to Paul: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17) Hang in there and keep on going– as old Aesop the storyteller said, “slow and steady wins the race.” And this Faith-race above all, is worth winning.

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“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

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Hannah’s Song

Whenever I read Hannah’s story right there at the beginning of the book, I pause to wonder over the fact that she gave up her sweet boy. After praying so long for him “year after year” (so the story goes), she finally promises to give him back if God will just hear her prayer for a child. It is reminiscent of the desperate promises that lead to tragedy in some of our best folk-tales, except this one seems to be told with joy and we hear her song of praise, get to see her leading the little boy to the Temple to live with old Eli, watch her making wee garments to take to him when she visits once a year and sees how much he has grown. I chose her words of faith as our own commitment when we dedicated our children: “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27-28) And I meant it, but I always wondered how she could bear to leave Samuel there to travel back home, after waiting so long to hold him. I always thought how she must be a stronger woman than I am.

Once you get past the main attraction that God answered a weeping woman’s prayers with a miracle baby, other valuable features of the story come to light, the first of which is that it is not really her story at all, but the beginning of Samuel’s. He himself is writing down the story he must have heard dozens of times– probably once a year when his parents came to visit. (I have it on good authority that parents tend to tell and re-tell their favorite stories about their children…you know we all do it.) And he records it with good reason, because his mother’s struggle has shaped his life, poured the foundation for who he is and the role he will play in the nation of Israel.

The first years of Hannah’s marriage read like an ancient soap opera, with two wives and one good-hearted husband caught in the middle. One wife loved, but barren; a second-choice wife (and probably younger) having child after child, but all too conscious of where their husband’s affections lay. Not surprisingly, their home becomes the grounds for some pretty serious rivalry and drama. Hannah weeps and prays and fasts. The husband gives gifts and coaxes her with declarations of his love. The other wife taunts and shows off her pregnancies and her children, jabs at Hannah’s faith year after year. You can’t help but wonder how Hannah kept praying; she kept going to the Temple to worship, kept asking God and did not give up. On the surface it appears that when Eli finally notices her praying in a public place, he casts his favor with her, and God at last gives her what she wants. But the year after year of praying without answers is a part of the story we would not want to miss.

We can feel it with her, the monthly cycle of hoping and praying and being disappointed yet again. Every month watching others flourish while she waited on her own body to bear life. Month after month pouring out her heart’s desires and believing that Someone out there was listening and could help her, despite every visible circumstance to the contrary.  And I wonder how her prayers began to change as she wrestled. We only catch glimpses of what was happening in her heart: Certainly she prayed for a child to fill her arms…to affirm her womanhood…to bring joy to her life. Surely she prayed for a child to please her husband and validate his love for her. Perhaps she prayed for a child to silence the neighbors’ whispering tongues. To restore her honor. Year after year, the narrative says. Her persistence speaks loudly of her devotion to God and her determination not to turn elsewhere for answers, and in the shape of her prayers we hear how God met her in those wilderness years. “… for the Lord is a God who knows, and by Him deeds are weighed….He will guard the feet of his faithful servants….” (1 Samuel 2:3,9)

She kept on giving her pain and her longing and her dreams into God’s care, until finally she just laid it all down– gave up her ideas of what should happen and why, and said Not my will but Your purposes be accomplished in my life…This child will be from You and for You, and this miracle will be for Your glory. And Samuel did belong to the Lord from the moment he was born, dedicated to serve Him as the last of the judges and the first of the prophets– the one who would guide the great kings of Israel’s Golden Age. Both mother and child were overshadowed by the Holy Spirit so that Hannah could prophesy “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high….for I delight in Your deliverance.” (1 Samuel 2:1) Maybe this is how she could gladly give up little Samuel to be trained in the House of the Lord– because she had already surrendered her life and her son into the Lord’s good purposes for them. A thousand years later, Jesus will describe the rightful and appropriate cost of obedience this way: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it.” (Luke 9:24) So Samuel begins his book here, with the faith and perseverance and worship of a strong woman who understood her purpose to know God.

This is where Hannah’s story intersects our own, because whatever we long for most, and whenever we labor long in prayer and wait for answers, we can know there is much more at stake than the object of our desire. We can be assured that God’s purposes are much larger than ours, and that He will allow us to wrestle with our emotions, and our circumstances, and His answers, until we are ready to surrender to His right to rule. And we can know for sure “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Hannah understood that He is not diminished in the least by our turning away; it is only our own everyday experiences that are affected by the blessing or loss of His presence. She said “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:2) In the end she chose Him, and gained everything that mattered for both her and her little boy Samuel. May we be as strong and as faithful.

And we can hear Hannah singing her prayer, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (1 Samuel 2:8)

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“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
(Psalm 73:25-26)

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“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
(Jim Elliot)

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