Learning to Hope

Romans 4:18-21
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 

25 years is a long time to wait, especially when you are already old and God promises you and your wife you will have a baby. Paul said after this period of time, Abraham hoped against hope and trusted God that He will deliver on His promise.

If you have been through great loss and sadness, it is hard to hope for good again, but we can learn to hope again just like Abraham and Sarah did. It takes time. But we are reminded that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not stay there (Psalm 23). Take time to look at the Psalms to see the goodness of God and His wonderful works for you (Psalm 103). Remind yourself of passages in the Bible that give hope (Romans 15:4), like the story of Abraham and Sarah. Cry out to God in your pain, and He will in time heal your broken heart (Psalm 147:3). Surround yourself with encouraging people who will lift you up in your pain. I had a friend, Benjamin, who gave me an assignment to take a mason jar and fill it with accomplishments, positive things, and what God has done for me. It was an encouraging and hope-building exercise to see all the great things God has done. The jar is full. Your jar is full too. You can hope again.

Proverbs 13:12 – Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. 

Even though I walk through the valley…

Psalms 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Today’s article is inspired by chapter 7 of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller.

In order to get to the mountain meadows, which might include the “table” or plateau above where the summer pasture is for the flock, the shepherd has to lead his sheep up the mountains. This includes going through ravines and dark valleys. Dangers can abound in such places, but the shepherd is there by their side.

In his book, Keller, talks about his reasons for taking sheep up through the winding valleys. One is that as mentioned, his goal is to take them up to the summer meadows to graze. A second is that those valleys were generally the gentlest grades up the mountain. Thirdly, he pointed out that valley is usually well watered. And a fourth reason is that there is usually good grazing along the way in those valleys.

To parallel this to our lives under the Gentle Shepherd, Jesus, we know that on the way to that higher ground with God, we have to walk through dark valleys. Death and danger are there. But in the valley as we face those trials, God is with us all the way. We are well fed and watered through those valleys. It is in some of the darkest valleys of our lives that we find the greatest refreshment from our loving Shepherd.

Keller also pointed out the phrase, “I walk through” this valley. We don’t stop there. That is not the end. The shepherd walks the sheep through this valley. And the sheep are secure, because of the presence of the loving shepherd. The dark valleys are temporary and even necessary to reach that higher meadow in the mountains. But they are just that, temporary. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Remember that Jesus as our Shepherd walked this valley for Himself, and He knows the terrain. He was a sheep, the lamb who was slain, and now He is risen to be our Good Shepherd. As you can see in our final verse below, Jesus was not alone in those valleys, because His Shepherd was always with Him.

John 16:32-33 – “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world”

He grew in faith

Abraham’s great unwavering faith did not happen overnight. He grew in faith.

Romans 4:16-25
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring–not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

We are told by Paul in Romans 4 that Abraham did not “weaken in faith” or “waver” at the promise, yet when you read Genesis you see a lot of wavering. But what we must see is what Paul pointed out about Abraham’s faith here in Romans 4. It grew! He grew in faith! Abraham became fully convinced over time. Abram (“father”) turned into Abraham (“father of a multitude”). As Abraham grew in his faith and continued to give glory to God, he became fully convinced that God was able to do whatever He promised.

You will see below the times Abraham and Sarah wavered as they “grew in faith.”

Genesis 12 – Abraham lied to project himself. There was no need to lie. If God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would conceive and bear a child, nobody would have the power to kill Abraham.

Genesis 15 – Abraham asked God, “Where is the son you promised me?” God promised Abraham again, and he believed. Genesis 15:6 is often quoted in the New Testament. But notice what happens in the next chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 16 – Abraham and Sarah came up with an alternate plan to bring the promised son into the world. Sarah convinced Abraham to go into her servant girl, Hagar, and have a son. Ishmael was born.

Genesis 17 – Abraham fell on his face and laughed at God’s promise of him and Sarah having a son. He also begged God that Ishmael might be considered the promised son.

Genesis 18 – Sarah also laughed at God’s promise.

Genesis 20 – Abraham lied again to protect himself. See Genesis 12. It was unnecessary to lie. God’s promise of a “multitude of nations” through Abraham showed that Abraham was not going to be killed at that point.

Now, consider what happened after Isaac was born. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to Him. Look at where Abraham’s faith had come. He did not lie. He did not waver. He did not try to form an alternate plan. He did not fall on his face and laugh and ask for another way. Abraham just did what God said.

But what gave Abraham such strength to offer up Isaac? His strong faith. Look at what Hebrews says about what Abraham’s faith did for him.

Hebrews 11:17-19
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

By this point, Abraham had such trust in God’s promises that he concluded by faith that if Isaac was killed on that altar, then God would raise him from the dead. That’s incredible faith!

But remember that Abraham did not get to that faith overnight. He grew in faith. Just like you and me. Growth is a process.

I would encourage you to go back over those chapters and take note of all of the great moments of Abraham’s faith. We can list out our failings or moments of weakness in faith, but can we also look back at the times we stood strong in faith? Abraham left everything to go to a strange land (Gen. 12). He showed great humility and generosity to his nephew Lot (Gen. 13). Abraham fought for and rescued Lot (Genesis 14). He trusted in God’s promises (Gen. 15). He obeyed God and was circumcised at 99 years old (Gen. 17)! Abraham showed generosity toward strangers which turned out to be angels (Gen. 18). He prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18), and he also prayed for Lot (Genesis 19). As you think about Abraham, think about your own faith. You are growing. Don’t just focus on the failings, focus on the victories!

Could This Thing Be?

But Elisha said, “Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the LORD, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “If the LORD himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” But he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”
(2 Kings 7:1-2)

In the days of Elisha, things got bad, really bad in Israel. The nation of Israel was rebelling against God, the king was a wicked son of the wicked king Ahab. Syria (Aram) came against Israel and besieged them. Look at how bad things were economically in Israel:

Afterward Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria. And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver.
(2 Kings 6:24-25)

We think we’ve got it bad that there is no toilet paper on the shelf? They were paying a high price to eat donkey brains and bird poop! Yuck! It even got so bad that some moms agreed to eat each other’s children (2 Kings 6:26-29). It’s sad that even in this destitute condition people were not turning back to God. Even worse, the king of Israel was blaming God. God was the problem, how could He be part of the solution?

And he said, “If the LORD will not help you, how shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the winepress?”
(2 Kings 6:27)

And while he was still speaking with them, the (King’s) messenger came down to him and said, “This trouble is from the LORD! Why should I wait for the LORD any longer?”
(2 Kings 6:33)

That’s what brings us to the beginning of chapter 7 when Elisha through the Spirit promises that the change and recovery will happen overnight. They were paying high prices for donkey brains and bird poop, but by tomorrow they will be paying cheap prices for barley and flour. Would you believe that if a prophet of God said that to you? Would I believe it as I am eating donkey brain soup? We can see in verse 1 of chapter 7 that a captain who was very close to the king didn’t believe it. He said,

“If the LORD himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?”

God has made windows in heaven. Remember the flood in Noah’s day? It is clear that the captain here did not believe that (1) God had the power to make such a quick change, nor (2) could God make such a change happen overnight.

Elisha said, “Oh it will happen. You just won’t be able to enjoy any of the blessings of it.” What happened is that as the people were rushing out to get the food and supplies, the captain was trampled by the crowds (2 Kings 7:17). This leader could not see nor believe that God was able and willing to restore goodness to His people.

But God did make windows in heaven, and God did care, and God did make immediate changes to care for His people. God is good, and God is all-powerful.

Sometimes things are so bad we have a very difficult time hoping that there will be any improvement. But this passage reminds us that we serve an awesome and loving God, and that even when things are at their darkest, God can make incredible changes in a hurry!

Even When We Struggle to Believe

Acts 12:5
Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.

Herod had just killed James the brother of John. The Jews apparently loved the move, so Herod decided to go for another one of the apostles. This time it was Peter. He was going to make a show of Peter before the crowds on Passover.

The church came together at Mary’s house and prayed constantly for Peter. That’s what God’s people do in times like this. But what strikes me in Acts 12 is that God had already answered their prayers, delivered Peter to their door, and they were blown away not at first believing it was him.

Acts 12:12-16
So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying. And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate. But they said to her, “You are beside yourself!” Yet she kept insisting that it was so. So they said, “It is his angel.” Now Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.

I love this because it shows that even when we struggle to believe God will still answer our prayers. Jesus said even a mustard grain sized faith in God can move mountains! Sometimes I have thought I had to be just rock solid in conviction before I pray. Maybe you have been the same way, thinking that if you are not as confident as Joshua asking the sun to stand still (Joshua 10), then God won’t even consider your prayer.

That certainly didn’t happen here in Acts 12. It was a pretty dire situation for Peter, and the church knew it. They just lost James, and it looked certain they would lose Peter too. So when they heard Peter was knocking at their door while they were praying for him to be released, they struggled at first to accept it. That’s human…and God knows it. He was merciful to them in their struggle to believe and He is the same for us.

We can pray like the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9.

Mark 9:23-24
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! God will answer you.

And They Laughed at Him

 And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went through all that district (Matthew 9:23-26).

They laughed at Jesus. The crowd is surrounding this family and the little twelve year old girl that just passed, and they are crying, playing flutes and wailing. That, I believe, was a normal part of how things went when a loved one passed. In comes Jesus and says she is not dead, just sleeping. Can you imagine how you would react if Jesus came into a room with your departed loved one and declare to you that she isn’t really dead?

How would you and I react? We might have had the same reaction. We’d like to think differently that we wouldn’t laugh at Jesus, but I think a lot of us would probably have had the same instantaneous response. You’re nuts, Jesus, that girl is plainly dead. Of course she was dead, and Jesus knew that, but Jesus also knew what he was about to do.

This wasn’t the first time people laughed at something God said. Remember Sarah? When God told Abraham that ninety-year old Sarah would have a baby, she laughed in her tent (see Genesis 18:9-15). God was pretty merciful to her, because then she proceeded to lie that she didn’t laugh! But again, put yourself in Sarah’s sandals, her body was effectively “dead” when it came to childbearing (Romans 4:19), so laughing would be a natural reaction to God’s promise of her bearing a child. Don’t forget that Abraham also laughed at the same promise (Genesis 17:17).

Interesting that God named Abraham and Sarah’s child, “Isaac,” which means laughter.

Here we have two examples in Scripture where God came into a hopeless situation and promised the impossible, and the reaction was the same. The people laughed. God then continued to work the impossible and their sadness and hopelessness led to true rejoicing and a faith that was strengthened.

Maybe we are facing situations in our own lives that we might consider “dead” or “impossible,” but remember that God can bring to life what we consider dead, and he can make possible what we see as impossible. Let’s finish with a question that God asked of Abraham and Sarah after Sarah laughed.

Genesis 18:13-14 – The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Psalm 107:31-43

31 Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!  32 Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, and praise Him in the company of the elders. 33 He turns rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground; 34 A fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of those who dwell in it. 35 He turns a wilderness into pools of water, And dry land into watersprings. 36 There He makes the hungry dwell, that they may establish a city for a dwelling place, 37 And sow fields and plant vineyards, that they may yield a fruitful harvest. 38 He also blesses them, and they multiply greatly; and He does not let their cattle decrease. 39 When they  are diminished and brought low through oppression, affliction, and sorrow, 40 He pours contempt on princes, and causes them to wander in the wilderness where there is no way; 41 Yet He sets the poor on high, far from affliction, and makes their families like a flock. 42 The righteous see it and rejoice, and all iniquity stops its mouth. 43 Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness of the Lord. (Psa 107:31-43)

God has the power and the capacity to make a home for His children where there is none…to provide water in a desert, to provide a fruitful harvest and plentiful cattle that will not decrease in number.  God will provide for those who cannot provide for themselves and are humbled by their circumstance.  God will humble those (princes) who think they can provide for themselves and have no need of Him.  If we are with Jesus, we are home…temporarily here in this life and forever with Him in Heaven.  Jesus taught in Matthew 5:2-12:

Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Hide this in your heart and hold-fast your confession in Jesus.  Go back to Psalm 107 regularly and call to mind what God has done and promises to do if we are wise in Him and understand who He is.

31 Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!  …. 43 Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness of the Lord.

Good Deed

Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. 12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. (Philemon 8-14; NKJV)

In considering this text, do you see the awesome and powerful demonstration of leadership by Paul and made possible by the tremendous followership of Philemon?

We have established this is a tough ask Paul is making of Philemon in receiving Onesimus…a slave of Philemon who has run away and is not profitable.  With that in mind, consider the fact that Paul does not command Philemon and he never uses the words “forgive” or “reconcile”.  What Paul does is “appeal” to Philemon’s character to “receive” Onesimus as a brother in Christ.  Paul knows that Philemon understands this is only possible if he forgives and they are reconciled.  Paul is encouraging Philemon to put his faith and love into action and to further refresh the hearts of the saints.

Why didn’t Paul command him?  I cannot say for certain but I understand the power and joy in others doing the right thing because they choose to rather than because they are told or command to.  I understand the tremendous catalyst of choice.  I have responsibility of leadership in my life whether it is with a colleague, an employee, a child, a spouse, a brother/sister…God has given me specific commands and responsibilities to lead.  Do you see that?  God has given me a work to do (responsibility) and I am accountable to the outcomes of that leadership work…and though the authority is implied…the focus is on the responsibility and the expectation is that I fulfill that responsibility as a Christian who emulates Christ Who is love!  Love in the case of Christ is “choice”!  The catalyst!

Leadership is a result of a cultivated relationship of trust, understanding, and mutual respect which provides the foundation for leading or influencing others towards a common purpose and work.  Paul cultivated this relationship with Philemon.  Philemon demonstrated his heart through his fruit.  Paul trusted the faith and love of Philemon and Philemon trusted Paul’s leadership.

This is what is so awesome in this scenario.  No barking orders.  No insecurity.  No resentment.  All of these are opportunities for Satan to place a wedge and start working a relationship apart.  The more people involved, the more opportunity and this is why leadership is so very important!  Choosing the assume the best of another provides the opportunity for them to exceed your expectations and reduces the opportunity for Satan to divide.

Paul’s letter is all about the need to forgive and how to go about forgiveness.  Paul’s approach is all about trust in Philemon’s character because of Philemon’s actions and fruit.  This is a pattern worth evaluating in our own lives.  If a brother or sister has demonstrated love and faith then we can assume the best of them and that they will demonstrate love and faith now and in the future.  This should provide us with a confidence in each other and relieve the need for “orders” or “commands” but rather open opportunity for encouragement, increased opportunity to serve, and growth.

Forgiveness and reconciliation is a hard work that has to be voluntary for everyone.  We can lead others through forgiveness and reconciliation if we first trust and provide opportunity for reconciliation rather than command that we forgive.  Jesus chose us.  Lets choose each other!

Faith in an Invisible God

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:20)

These 2 verses are from the opening chapter of Romans and the first section is about being justified through a life of faith and the second section is a portion of a lesson about God’s wrath towards unrighteous people though I pulled it out in support of my thought this morning that our God is alive and working in eternity.

Over the weekend, my Brittany had pups and though it was a nerve-racking experience for me the owner, everything happened just as the Creator designed it.  I had worked to ensure that there was a safe and clean place for Ginger and her puppies and I was ready to help if I was needed…but I wasn’t.  As I sat and counted puppies and time, that was all I could do.  The design of life took care of the rest and it just occurred to me over and over how awesome our God the Designer is and how much I can see Him in all the creation and life around me.  God is revealed all around me (Psalms 19) and His handiwork should point to His all powerful nature.  I am His handiwork as well and if I can see what He has done and is doing in nature, I can trust He is doing and will do mighty things in my spiritual and physical life.

In remembering and praying for his brethren in Philippi, Paul says that he is confident in the fact that “that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ”.  The design is our Father’s.  That is the work that is being done “behind the curtain” of our flesh.  We need to be present.  We need to be prepared.  But we also need to stand in trust of Him through faith…even if we cannot see Him.  God is all around us and He is working within us…take some time today and be present to see it and believe it and trust it.

Surviving Storms

Do you trust God?  Our currency has written on it, “In God We Trust.”  But do we trust Him?  It’s easy to say we do, but it’s another to live it and believe it.  It’s easy to raise our hand in Bible class and say, “We should always trust God.”  However, it’s different when you experience a death in the family, or if your child is suffering, or when problems arise in the church.  You wouldn’t think that God’s people would need to be reminded to trust in God, but we do.  God’s people have always needed reminders.  This was true even for the apostles.  In the gospels, we read about the apostles going through a couple of storms.  They would have to trust in God.  We can learn some lessons from these stories as we think about different storms we will face.

Storm #1: Mark 4:35-41.  After a long day of teaching on the sea, Jesus told the apostles to cross to the other side.  Soon after, there arose a fierce (great) wind.  Water began to pour into their boat.  This was no regular storm.  Fear quickly set in the hearts of the apostles.  They cried out to Jesus for help, and He responded, Mark 4:39. It was Jesus who then questioned them about their faith.

Storm #2: Matthew 14:22-33.  After feeding 5,000 people with a boy’s sack lunch, Jesus told His apostles to get into the boat.  While the apostles were in the boat crossing the sea, Jesus spent time in prayer, Matthew 14:23.  By the time Jesus began to cross the sea, His apostles were far ahead of Him.  Instead of Jesus taking a boat to catch up to His apostles, He decided to go on a walk.  It’s here that we find Peter asking Jesus to walk on water, Matthew 14:28-29.  That took some FAITH.  However, as he saw the winds, Peter became fearful, Matthew 14:30.  What can we learn from these stories?

    1. Storms will come.  Life can change from calm to stormy quickly.  Trials don’t make us unique (as one man said).  How we respond to them is what will make us unique.
    2. Storms will reveal our faith.  Trials will reveal what kind of faith we have.  The disciples’ faith was shaken but then strengthened as a result of the storms, Mark 4:41; Matthew 14:33.  Storms can be useful for us as they will help us to draw closer to God.
    3. Know that Jesus cares.  He cared for His apostles, and He cares for us.
    4. Trust the facts and not your feelings.  Always remember God is in control.