What Sheep Really Need

Originally published on October 3, 2015.

Funny, isn’t it? How we can sit around talking about sheep and their needs as if we are farmers– except we all know what we are really digging at. (Without looking too desperate or anything…because we are all relatively successful, put-together women with careers and families and homes in a nice small town….and who wants to admit that sometimes you feel as harried and helpless as a sheep?) When we read the Musician-King’s familiar words, we can imagine him singing over his flock in the hills of Judea: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” (Psalm 23:1) And that’s what we are all looking for, right there….that relationship with God that satisfies our hearts, gives us peace. No matter how good our lives seem from the outside, there is still this longing on the inside, a kind of soul-hunger that we can be good at ignoring. So we keep on talking about woolly sheep, and what is it that we really need, anyway?

Thing is, only the Shepherd knows, for sure. Having been one himself, King David was convinced that a shepherd knew best for his sheep. Sheep need someone bigger than they, who knows what they need and can provide it– and Jesus said we are not so very different. Jesus told people not to worry about the necessities of life, because His Father “already knows all your needs.” And yet it is shockingly easy to spend our days on bringing home a paycheck…on shoes, electric bills, hobbies, and retirement funds. Jesus said the only important thing we really need to be doing is to “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously….” (Matthew 6:33) After all, our well-being rests in the hands of Someone who will provide for us in order to bring honor to His own eternal, glorious Name….we could not ask for a more fail-proof arrangement. So why not just get on with Kingdom business, live like we mean it, and trust the Shepherd to provide for our needs? As David sang, “Surely Your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life…” (Psalm 23:6).

And we need Goodness to pursue us.  Because life is a dangerous place, where a curve in the road or a routine lab test can change everything in a matter of minutes. Because even America is not necessarily a safe place for Christ-followers, any more. Because all the unexpected in a day serves to remind us over and over that our sense of control is only an illusion. I heard a preacher say once that sheep aren’t stupid– just vulnerable in a world where they have no natural defenses and many predators. We get that, and we work hard to cover up that vulnerability (as if masks can ward off the wolves). King David knew from experience how quickly people could turn on you, spent years on the run in the desert; he also knew the Infinite Goodness who was watching over him, and there he found peace and a safety he could trust. “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for You are close beside me.” (Psalm 23:4) 

Especially in the desert places, sheep need to belong. They need to be seen and heard individually, recognized by someone who loves them and would lay down his life to protect them. Jesus said the Good Shepherd “calls His own sheep by name and leads them out..He walks ahead of them, and they follow Him because they know His voice.” (John 10:4) Infinite Love takes on flesh and blood to come find all us sheep who have gotten hopelessly lost in the brambles and the mud. The sheep recognize the Shepherd’s voice because He has met their deepest needs– needs that go beyond the physical. Jesus told a woman He met at a well, “those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:14) Because most of all, sheep need to be washed white as wool, to be forgiven and get a chance to start over. And this time we will listen to the voice of the One who loves us and calls us by name, and we will follow wherever He leads.  “He lets me rest in green meadows; He leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths…” (Psalm 23:2-3)

And the Shepherd is assuring us that we have all we really need: “For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17) What I need most is Him.

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Your presence is all I need,
It’s all I want, all I seek,
And without it, without it there’s no meaning.

Your presence is the air I breathe,
The song I sing, the love I need
Without it, without it I’m not living.

I will exalt You Lord, I will exalt You Lord.
There is no one like You, God.

Amanda Faulk, I Will Exalt

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Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Psalm 34:8-10

Eyes to See

Originally published September 30, 2015.

My favorite name for God in the Bible is the one the slave girl from Egypt gave Him. When she was used and then rejected in a household of people who should have known better, the Lord Himself came to comfort her, not only meeting her present heartfelt needs, but giving her a glimpse of His own plans to bless and use her, give her “hope and a future.” And so, as a woman who thought she was alone in the desert of this world, Hagar called Him “the God who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13) The name still evokes both the anguish and the wonder of the weak and forgotten, who find that they are near to the heart of the Almighty and ever in His care.

Paul discovered the same thing in his travels, and for a long time I looked at his declaration of contentment like an ideal to reach, a standard of maturity to set up there alongside Someday. Paul wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” (Philippians 4:11-12) I still remember the day I was reading those words, crying out to God for peace in the circumstances I was facing myself, and suddenly realized that Paul meant exactly what he wrote in the most tangible and practical of ways. He was telling his own story of the things he had experienced, and how in each circumstance he had discovered that God was right there with him… that God loved him even in this… that God already had planned to meet his needs of the moment. Over and over again until at this point in his life Paul could say with the utmost confidence that God was enough for him, no matter what, “for I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) God is not some intangible, impersonal Presence out there somewhere. He walks in our desert places to find us where we are; He is bigger than the craziest of circumstances, and loves us with a forever-love. He is “the God who sees me.”

Paul’s faith may have started with an intellectual belief, but it was in applying what he knew to his everyday experiences that his heart and body found God to be utterly faithful and sufficient. It’s like a science experiment that allows you to see with your own eyes how an invisible natural law is working all around you in the world. Paul and Hagar both realized what Eve didn’t understand until it was much too late: when you trust that God is who He says He is and step out on that belief, He shows Himself to be present and powerful in your life. It’s like your faith isn’t for real until you decide to test-drive it on your own life-roads.

I think sometimes we feel like God has to prove His love and faithfulness to us, to earn our trust (which of course is all backwards since it puts us in the center of the universe to decide who is most worthy of our worship). The Wise King put it right way around, and said it’s the only way to walk straight in this world: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek His will in all you do, and He will show you which path to take.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) See, my choice doesn’t affect Who He Is one bit– but it makes all the difference in how I experience life. Just ask Eve how life changed when she acted on her own evaluation of what she and her husband needed, instead of trusting God to be enough for them. Ironically, when she doubted that He saw her as an individual– when she wondered if He was committed to meeting her deepest needs– she also lost sight of the beautiful unique creature she really was (with devastating effects on women’s healthy self-images, ever since).

Let us do better, and step out into this day’s needs believing what we have learned, and willing to prove to ourselves that He is Enough. Then we can say with Hagar, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13)

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If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for He cannot deny who He is.

2 Timothy 2:13

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How things appear to us, and how they actually are, are rarely the same. Sometimes it looks and feels like the Almighty is dealing “very bitterly” with us,when all the while He is doing us and many others more good than we could have imagined. God’s purposes in the lives of His children are always gracious. Always.
If they don’t look like it, don’t trust your perceptions. Trust God’s promises. He is always fulfilling His promises.  

Ann VosKamp

When You Just Need to Stop and Listen

Originally published March 29, 2016.

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’ve tasted the world, seen more than enough
Its 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

The Safest Place

Originally published August 17, 2018.

On days when you are trying to be brave, holding onto faith for dear life, but there’s this frantic whisper in the back of your head that circumstances are more than you can handle right now, and what in the world does a person have to do to catch a break in this tempest, let this truth sink in deep: Jesus is standing beside His Father in Heaven paying attention to everything that concerns you. He is holding you securely in His strong arms, and even before you reach out to Him, He is praying for you.

The writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we understand the richness of our inheritance in Christ, and all the ways He fulfills the promises of God. The Law was God’s gift to Israel as His chosen people; but Jesus is the Father’s precious gift to all who believe– God giving Himself to us forever. The author of the book of Hebrews says it this way: “…He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) 

Rest in this, that you are His own, and He is acting on your behalf. If you make your spirit comfortably at home in this truth, you will find all that you need for this day.

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The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Lamentations 3:25-26

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Jesus lives to endlessly, relentlessly and flawlessly pray for you….Jesus is praying for your holiness because He knows holiness is your ultimate happiness….Jesus is praying that you’ll be brave when you’re about to break, that you’ll turn from what’s tempting, that you’ll stand against what’s strangling, that you’ll escape into Him instead of trying to escape in a thousand unfulfilling ways.

Ann VosKamp

Hidden Treasures in Hard Times

It is remarkable to me that the man in the Bible with the most healthy perspective on suffering also speaks the most about joy. It’s like Paul had some secret reservoir of joy that carried him through the hardship of being a pioneer messenger of the Cross. Or maybe he discovered joy along the way, because he had learned how to speak truth to himself in suffering. He would probably answer Yes to both ideas. When you read his letters to the early believers, and see how instruction gives way seamlessly to worship and thanks-giving, you catch a glimpse of the inner streams of joy that energized him. And is it any wonder that the bulk of what we call the New Testament comes from this man? It’s like God laid out Paul, his life and experiences and all that wisdom for us, and said “watch and learn, people.”

Lately I have been pondering the way we avoid hardship and pain at all costs. We chase happiness as persistently as our neighbors, even while nodding our heads that this world doesn’t satisfy, and all we really need is Jesus. Wouldn’t you think that people who follow the One called “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) would be a little more comfortable with it themselves? Paul seemed to take hardship as a matter of course– and sure the ancient world was a difficult place to survive, but maybe we rationalize his perspective away too easily as a function of his surroundings, and assume that if he grew up in America he would have more modern expectations for his life. Have we lost some valuable perspectives along the way, in our all-out pursuit of happiness and prosperity?

I know well that the gap between what our heads believe and what our hearts want can spread impossibly wide, and it isn’t until the hard times come that you have to choose which direction to leap. And I have found myself holding on for dear life to the words of Scripture, not so much out of certainty in what I believed, as in the knowledge that if I let go of this faith there was nowhere else to turn…nothing else that rings this true. The father looking for his child’s healing was in the same white-knuckled place when he cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Here is stripped-bare honesty, a man pushed to his limits, and though he does not have the eloquence to say it in theological terms, he is hanging onto the same truth the famous Church-Planter learned. Paul wrote it out this way: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Clearly he had learned some valuable secret in his life-struggles, and although it sounds like an absolutely terrible marketing slogan for a new belief-system, it does ring out with the authority of experience. Here is a man who has learned that when you hang onto the Savior, you have everything you need.

And it is strange but true– when you run out of your own ability and throw yourself upon the mercy of God, suddenly what felt like giving up becomes a solid place to stand. Not the kind of thing you learn while lining up your ducks in neat rows. I wonder, if our lives were all comfortable safety, would we ever even realize the fatal gap between the theology we believe with our heads and the theology we live out in the everyday? And isn’t that discovery, and the opportunity to grow up into what we believe, totally worth it, in the long run? No wonder Paul could write “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:7-8) Considering that the only thing that will last in this world is our life in Christ, that kind of Ah-ha moment can turn suffering into priceless gain.

I remember the exact day I realized that Paul wasn’t just saying all the right things, setting up ideals and principles for people to follow. It was a grasping-onto-straws kind of day, and one of those moments when you read a familiar passage of Scripture and suddenly the light turns on. Paul wrote “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) Somehow it stepped right out of the flat impersonal page and into the mess of everyday life. I do know what it is to cry out for help, to need wisdom, need patience. I also know what it is to have a happy day when everything is running smoothly. The one constant in both situations is the presence of Jesus’ Spirit and His power at work in me. This I know because I have lived it. Paul’s secret to getting through any situation was to live through both good times and terrible times, experience them fully, and find God standing there with him in the middle of it all. And when you can say honestly, because it is tried-and-true, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need” (Psalm 23:1), there is joy.

See, Paul understood that when you are desperate and at the end of yourself, you are in exactly the right place to experience the riches of the Kingdom of God. The same inexorable grace that washes the rags of beggars clean drives nails into the hands of God, and the same persistent mercy that heals the outcast lepers trims away our self-indulgence so that we can fall headlong into the Everlasting Arms. I am slowly, slowly learning how big is the over-arching power of God and how consistent is His attention to detail. How good are His intentions toward me, how seriously He takes them, and how little I understand what He is doing. But what I need to know best is His heart, and that He has already given me, laid bare at the Cross. That I can trust.

A wise man once told me that trust and fear cannot live in the same place. If I want to know the secret of joy in suffering that Paul talked about, then all I need is to release my death-grip on the life I think I need, and accept the childlike life of trust that Jesus died to give me. Let my hands simply open.

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Because I AM is unbelievably with us, we can say even now: I am unbelievably safe.

Ann VosKamp

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Anyone who intends to come with Me has to let Me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Matthew 16:25 (The Message)

Grace is the One Word You Need Most

I look around this small group as they talk about how life turned out differently than they thought it would, this past year, see the unspoken sorrows and unexpected joy in the paths they have walked. And we try to put into One Word our goal for the New Year, knowing full well that we do not know what lies ahead, only that the One who goes with us has already provided what we need. It is His promise to us, from the pen of the Church-planter Paul: “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

This we can trust, that no matter what word we choose, our loving Father will be working in it and through it, both for our benefit and for His glory. This is His bountiful Grace, to walk amid our days and soften the sharp edges, lift up the weary head, light up the dark places. Grace is the biggest and best word He will give to meet us when we offer up this year to Him. That One Word became flesh and blood in the person of Christ Jesus, so that we could see for ourselves what Grace looked like in this everyday world. Nothing will take Him by surprise in this year, and nothing will take Him from our sides. So we will be okay, whatever comes. Because the Good Shepherd calls us by name and leads us on.

May we only be faithful to follow.

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“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9)

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“You don’t need to be perfect; you need to simply feel His perfect love. You don’t need to be in control; you need to simply be in Christ. You don’t need to be more because He is all you need.”
(Ann VosKamp)

Where Jesus Is

In wilderness places when it’s hard to make it through the day, sometimes the biggest battle is in your head. Because in the desert, the Enemy’s voice whispers loud, and there is no rest from the scouring wind and scorching sun. The sand keeps shifting beneath your feet until you begin to forget that there is a rock-solid Truth underneath it all…seems easier to listen to the voice saying that you are not enough, and that you better take what you need any way you can get it because no one else is watching out for you. The way to get lost in the wilderness is to listen to the constant refrain that where you are is all there is ever going to be.

But David the Musician knew the wilderness long before he became King, and he is singing out of the desert , “O God…I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) He knew that the only way to survive the harsh barren places was to turn his eyes on the One who gives Living Water…the One who is beautiful beyond measure. “I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (verses 2-4) You can focus on all that you lack in the seemingly endless days, or you can focus on the Giver of all things, like a compass-point to steer by and know that eventually you will end up safely Home. “I cling to You; Your right hand upholds me.” (v.8) It is the first choice of every day, the last before you lay your head down at night; even when no one else can hear, and you feel like you are all alone. “On my bed I remember You; I think of You through the watches of the night.” (verse 6) This is Wilderness Survival 101.

And yeah, maybe the Enemy knows all the right buttons to push, because I am most assuredly not enough for any of this…but in the middle of all I cannot control and everything I cannot fix, and the obvious shortage of wisdom and patience and strength in me, still the Spirit of the Lord who conquered death and sin is alive in me, and I am not alone. “Because You are my help, I sing in the shadow of Your wings.” (verse 7) 

Just hold on tight and take the next step, one after another, and don’t be afraid to hurl the everlasting Truth defiantly into the face of the storm.

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“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:21-24)

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“Can’t go back to the beginning,
Can’t control what tomorrow will bring,
But I know here in the middle
Is the place where You promise to be.

I’m not enough unless You come;
Will you meet me here again?
Cause all I want is all You are;
Will You meet me here again?

As I walk now through the valley,
Let Your love rise above every fear;
Like the sun shaping the shadow,
In my weakness Your glory appears…

Not for a minute
Was I forsaken;
The Lord is in this place,
The Lord is in this place.

Come Holy Spirit–
Dry bones awaken;
The Lord is in this place,
The Lord is in this place.”
(Here Again, Elevation Worship)

Hope-Full

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I chose the word at the beginning of the year and wrote down Hope in curving letters on the page. But I can say that when I asked God what He wanted to do in my life this year, the answer came back quietly, persistently: Hope. It seemed like a good way to begin the year: new beginnings and bright horizons and all that, so I hung it up where I could see it, to remind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but surely, we of all people should be people of hope, because of our God who can do all things.

I was most definitely not thinking that it would be the one word we would be needing most. Hope. When you are facing one impossible thing after another, and the gale-winds just won’t stop blowing, hope seems like a ridiculously flimsy flag to wave in the air. Yet there it hangs like a banner flying brave across my shelves, every time I walk into the room– a silent reminder and a promise. And somehow, as days turn into weeks, turn into the months of a year, Hope is being redefined into a most sturdy anchor for the soul. Because hope has nothing to do with what is going on around us, and everything to do with what is happening inside of us. And the promise is not that we will get what we are longing for, but that we will get Himself, and He will be enough.  In Jesus, God fulfills all His promises; He comes to us, and says over and over again, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified …for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Sometimes it is really hard to know what to hope for, especially when the future seems so uncertain and the world is going crazy all around you. But this I do know: about the time you stop hanging onto the good things you want God to do for you, and start hanging onto Him alone, as the One who is mighty to save, you begin to notice what He is doing deep in your heart. Instead of grasping at straws for your own way out of the mess you are in, so you can survive, you just start taking one step at a time in the simple knowledge that God is walking with you and you will be okay whatever happens.  Hope is looking at what is going on around you, and believing there is a whole lot more that you cannot see. Hope is acting on that faith in everyday relationships and everyday decisions, because you know God is good and He is accomplishing something worthwhile.  Hope isn’t afraid to lean on others, or to admit that sometimes life hurts unbearably– it simply refuses to give up under the load. Hope knows that “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1) And is this not following in the footsteps of our Savior, being willing to bear intolerable things with childlike trust in the Father’s plan?

The Musician-King didn’t believe in pretending to be all right when he was not; he was an honest shepherd who loved God with all his might, and poured out his soul in his songs to the Lord: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord…hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy….I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my hope…” (Psalm 130:1-2, 5) When you finally want the Giver more than anything He can give–then you have found a hope you can hold onto. A thousand years later, the Church-Planter agreed, and added his own triumphant proof to the matter: “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) This is the hope that God wants to give us– a certain-sure hope that reaches beyond the temporary happenings of this world and embraces the reality of the next. We have all the hope we need, because we have all of Him.

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“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… (Titus 2:11-13)

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“Doesn’t matter what I feel
Doesn’t matter what I see
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me…
Nothing’s gonna stop the plans You’ve made
Nothing’s gonna take Your love away
You will always be more than enough for me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

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)

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)