God Loves Us
Continuing on in our series Faith in the Night Seasons, how appropriate it is during this Christmas season that we first spend a few moments remembering how much God loves us. The whole purpose of our book Faith in the Night Seasons is to show the length, the height and the depth of God's Love toward us.
"When thou passest through the waters [trouble], I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God...[You are] precious in My sight and...I have loved thee." (Isaiah 43:2-4)
God loves us so much that He literally came to earth, died for our sins, was buried and rose again the third day. Searching the world over, there is absolutely no greater Love than that. And because God loves us so much, He wants the absolute best for our lives. However, only He knows exactly what that "best" is and only He knows what it will take to implement it in our lives. Consequently, we need to unconditionally trust Him and know that everything He allows into our lives comes only as a result of His Love. In other words, all the circumstances in our life, every single event, occurs only by His loving permission.
God's Love comes in many different ways, however. In the Old Testament, His Love was called chesed in the Hebrew and it meant not only God's loving and compassionate Love, but also His strict and disciplinary Love.
God loved the Israelites, but He often had to discipline them harshly. And it's the same with us. It doesn't mean that He loves us any less. In fact, it often means that He loves us more. As Hebrews 12:6 states, "For who the Lord loveth He chasteneth...."
Fenelon, the 16th century theologian, once noted, "The more God loves [us], the less He spares [us]!"
The imperfections in our lives are the reason for God's refining process. Once these impurities are gone, then God's Love can be experienced in a new and magnificent way and our joy will return. Even though at first God's ways might seem harsh to our human mind, it's only because we cannot comprehend the glory that God wants to weave into our lives, once the hard shell of our soul has been shattered. Only then will we know the healing, the strengthening, the empowering, the rest, the peace and joy that comes from God's presence.
God is continually and lovingly chiseling away at the marble slab of our soul, like the old sculptor who was asked by his apprentice, "How do you carve a horse?" The old man looked at the boy matter-of-factly and answered, "That's easy. I just chip away anything that doesn't look like a horse." That pretty well describes what the Lord is doing in each of our lives-chipping away anything that doesn't look like Jesus.
"[God] does not afflict willingly nor grieve [His] children," Lamentations 3:33 tells us, but only as is needed to accomplish His perfect will in us-our sanctification.
An Example: Mickey
Let me attempt to draw a spiritual analogy: Several months after a friend's hand was severely burned, his doctor stripped away all the scar tissue and then created a small pouch under the top layers of skin upon the man's breast. After the doctor carefully inserted the hand, he then stitched it into place and immobilized it for the next six weeks. During that time, the man's body slowly and steadily created new blood vessels, which naturally grafted the healthy skin onto the injured hand.
Although this process was very painful in the natural, I believe it somehow parallels the spiritual sanctification process that God takes each of us through. After first stripping us of our "soulish" ways, the Lord spiritually places us upon His breast and asks us to be still and know that He is God. We, however, cry out, "How long, O Lord? How long do I have to stay like this?" He simply answers, "Till it is no longer you who live, but Christ who lives in you."
Although this process seems cruel to us, our loving God is simply trying to replace us with Himself. What seems good to us may not be good in God's eyes, and what seems bad to us, may not be bad to God. He longs to hear us say, "Once I was self-centered, but now I'm God-centered. Once I trusted in my own strength, but now I trust in You. Once I only heard about You, but now I see You."
Many of us assume that we've already arrived at this place, yet when God begins to touch our lives in ways that we didn't expect, we suddenly comprehend the smallness of our faith. Nothing reveals our true selves like the advent of hard times. In order to reveal what is hidden below the surface of our pleasant religious exterior, God must turn up the heat. Not only is this the only process capable of refining gold, but also it's the only process capable of refining a human being.
Since many of us do not willingly respond when the Holy Spirit prompts us to unconditionally surrender our lives and die to self, God takes matters into His own hands. He is the Potter and we are the clay. Therefore, He begins to push and pull and stretch and cut and shape us back into His original design. He places us in life's oven where it's very dark and very hot, hoping we will emerge from the fire, finally willing for His perfect will to be done in our lives.
C. S. Lewis eloquently expounds this point in his book, The Problem of Pain:
"While what we call 'our own life' remains agreeable, we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make 'our own life' less agreeable to us?" ...[He] whispers in our pleasures; speaks in our conscience; but shouts in our pain."
God wants us not only doing all that He asks, but also accepting, with praise and thanksgiving, all that He allows. All that He gives, we must receive. All that He allows, we must embrace. In other words, whatever He permits in our lives must be exactly what we need at that moment. Only He knows how to ultimately weave His perfect will into our lives and how to produce the image of Christ in us.
Will We Trust God?
God finds new ways every day to ask us, "Will you trust Me? Will you trust Me to do towards you all that I need to do, in order to accomplish My perfect will through you?"
In our dark seasons of life, God doesn't ask us to understand everything that He is doing, but simply to trust and believe in His Love through what He is doing.
Most of us, however, still rate the events of our lives as either a "good" thing or a "bad" thing, but when we're finally able to merge all the events of our lives into the category of a God thing, then we will be where He wants us.
God wants us open and pliable to whatever He needs to do in our lives in order to accomplish His will. He wants us not only surrendering the moment to Him, but also surrendering our reactions to that moment to Him. We all need to get to the place where Job was when he said, "Though [You] slay me, yet will I trust [You]." (13:15)
Our Own Free Will
Over the past several months, we have been exploring several different aspects of God's will. We cannot close this subject without briefly touching upon man's individual will-i.e., our free choice to follow God's will or not.
God has given us a free will, much like His own. Our free will is the most important element of our design, because within that will lies the power to choose between life and death, good and evil, faith and fear, darkness and light, God and Satan. Our will is the master of all of our faculties and upon our will everything else depends. It controls our reason, our intelligence, our emotions and our abilities. It directs everything within us and is the "gate" through which all things must pass.
The reason our own will is so very important to God is that unless we choose (by an act of our will) to allow God to accomplish His will through us, He is unable to do so. (Of course, God can always do as He pleases; however, we must cooperate with Him in order for the sanctification process to proceed.) God has not set Himself up as our Divine Dictator, but rather as loving Discipler, and thus, He has given us the free choice to either deny Him or to follow Him. His perfect will is that we render back to Him that which we have so long claimed as our own-namely, our own will.
Our will is important because it's the bridge over which our faith must travel. As we have said before, we don't necessarily have to understand all that God does in our lives, but simply have the faith and the trust to choose to obey His will. As my dear husband says, "Faith is not believing in spite of the evidence, but obeying in spite of the consequences."
Life is simply a series of ongoing choices. For the nonbeliever, it's a daily choice between good and evil; for the believer, it's a moment-by-moment choice of faith (to follow God's will) or emotions (to follow our own will). Choosing by faith to follow God, is where we place ourselves in the hands of God and freely allow Him to direct our paths. Choosing according to our emotions, is where we willfully quench God's Spirit and shut Him out of our lives completely.
Moment by moment, we have the awesome responsibility of either choosing to "walk after the Spirit" or choosing to "walk by the flesh." We can define the "flesh" as everything that occurs naturally in our soul and body-everything that is "not of the Spirit" or that is "not of faith." God tells us in Romans 7:18 that our flesh is corrupted beyond repair.
His answer to this problem was to give us His Life. Only His Life in us can enable us to overcome the "motions of our flesh" and to please Him in all that we do. Thus, until we learn to "crucify our flesh," there will be a continual war between our flesh and our spirit.
Over and over again in Scripture we see the wonderful and terrible consequences of man's free will (free choice) enabling us to either follow God or follow self. David tearfully humbles himself at the feet of God (Psalm 51), but Saul proudly plots to get his own way (1 Samuel 15). Joseph continually turns away from Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39:7-9), but Samson rushes into the arms of Delilah (Judges 16).
At the exact moment John the Beloved is choosing to lay his head upon Jesus' breast, Judas is choosing to betray Him (John 13:23-27). Mary of Bethany spends a year's income to anoint Jesus with costly perfume (Mark 14:3-9), yet Ananias and Sapphira lie in order to withhold a small portion of their income (Acts 5:1-11). A poor widow gives her last few coins to the Lord (Luke 21:2-4), but the rich young ruler won't let go of his great wealth (Luke 18:18-25). Parthian Magistrates travel a great distance to worship the babe in a manger (Luke 2:1-2), but the Pharisees won't walk six miles into Bethlehem to meet their Messiah!
As Christians, God has given us the freedom to either choose, moment by moment, to follow His Spirit and believe and trust in Him, or to follow the flesh and believe and trust in ourselves. He has given us the authority to choose to open ourselves up to Him and be willing to abandon ourselves to His will; or, the authority to shut ourselves off from Him and follow what we think, feel and desire.
An Example: Wendy
Here's a wonderful example that illustrates the power of our choices. A friend of mine, named Wendy, had to travel on business from Durango, Colorado, to the next town which was at least 40 miles away. This part of Colorado is spectacularly beautiful, but quite desolate as far as cities or population. There is nothing between Durango and the next town.
Wendy had received The Way of Agape audio tapes a few months previously and had been periodically listening to them. She thought this long drive would be a perfect opportunity to finish the series, so she took them along with her. As she became so engrossed in what she was hearing on the tapes (all about our constant, moment-by-moment "faith" choices), she didn't realize she was nearly out of gas and that she had just driven past the last gas station in Durango. There would not be another station for 40 miles.
Sure enough, about 15 or 20 miles outside of Durango, she ran out of gas. The car literally stopped. She pulled over to the side of the road and became totally distraught as she realized her precarious predicament. Since she was going to a business appointment, she was all dressed up (heels and all), so there was no way she could walk any distance. And even if she could have, there was no place to go for help. As she sat there contemplating her situation, God impressed upon her heart what she had been listening to on those tapes-about making faith choices (non-feeling choices) to give any and all situations over to God. It became apparent to her that, even in this scary situation, she had a choice. She could either become paralyzed with fear (which she was already beginning to experience) and make emotional choices to follow the flesh; or, she could make faith choices to relinquish herself to God and trust Him to perform His perfect Will through her (just like she was hearing on the tapes).
She decided to try the latter. Without "feeling" anything, she chose by faith to give God her fear and apprehension and to trust Him to protect her and make a way for her. After her prayer, she decided to try the ignition one more time. She gently turned it on and, surprisingly, the motor sputtered and then started. She was ecstatic! She put the car into first gear and crept down the highway on the far right side. The farther she went, the more elated she became. She had made the appropriate faith choices, God had heard her prayers, and He was now performing a miracle right before her eyes.
My friend Wendy drove that "empty" car all the way (about 20 miles) to the next city. She made it to her appointment a little late, but nevertheless, she arrived safely and learned an incredible lesson about God's faithfulness.
Now, I don't recommend putting God to the test and going out of town without gas. But, to me, this is a perfect example of the importance of faith choices in our lives.
The Power of Our Human Will
Can you see the incredible power of the human will? Our life is not determined by our circumstances, our church attendance, our social standing, our finances or even our belief systems: the character of our life is simply determined by the daily choices we make. Sin isn't birthed in our mind or in our body; it's begun within our will! God has given us a fearful and awesome responsibility with our "free will." Thus, acts of our free will, or our momentary choices, determines the degree of our sanctification.
We were created, not only to be loved, but also to love. Thus, the only thing that will ever redirect our will and lead us to the fulness of Christ is our choice to love God. In other words, the more we fall in love with Jesus, the more we will be able to freely give Him our will. And surrendering our will, moment by moment, is the only thing that will allow Him to complete the sanctification process in our lives.
Our supreme purpose as Christians, then, is not only learning to become vessels of God's Love to others, but also learning to return that Love to Him.
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This article has been excerpted from Chuck and Nan's book Faith in the Night Seasons.