NO EXPERIENCE WASTED

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

God has a plan for each and every one of us and no experience is ever wasted. All that happened in the past has prepared us for what happens today and what will happen tomorrow. For example, consider Moses; the first two-thirds of his life were merely preparation for what he accomplished during the last third. For forty years, he acquired a unique skill set while living as a member of Pharaoh’s household. Being the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, he received an education befitting a prince and came to understand the protocol and ways of the royal court. Moreover, since he also was cared for by his birth mother, he knew Hebrew and understood the plight of his people. With his Egyptian/Hebrew background, Moses could communicate with both Israelites and their Egyptian oppressors. Quite likely, he was the only person with access to both Israel’s elders and Pharaoh’s court and that royal education certainly served him well when he penned most of the first five books of the Bible.

Moses’ second forty years were spent as a shepherd in Midian. A stranger in a strange land, the pampered prince had four decades to learn how to live as a nomad and shepherd. He also had forty years to learn about controlling his temper (the reason he landed in Midian in the first place). The skills he developed while herding dumb animals in the wilderness prepared him for forty years of guiding over two million “stiff-necked” people and their livestock through the desert.

At eighty, Moses might have been thinking about taking it easy—maybe selling the sheep and relaxing in his hammock under a palm tree. God, however, wasn’t going to let those eighty years of experience go to waste. It was during the last third of his life that Moses fulfilled his God-given purpose by shepherding the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Our life experiences do more than develop character and spiritual maturity; they provide us with distinctive insights, strengths, and capabilities. Every one of our past successes, failures, sorrows, joys, gains, and losses prepared us to do God’s work today and every one of today’s experiences will become tomorrow’s assets. We know how the story of Moses finished but how will our stories end? Like Moses, will we use our assets to further God’s Kingdom or will we squander them while relaxing in the hammock under a palm tree or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair?

No experience is wasted. Everything in life is happening to grow you up, to fill you up, to help you to become more of who you were created to be. [Oprah Winfrey]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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HAVING FAITH

It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. [Hebrews 11:17-19 (NLT)]
lanceleaf arrowhead - duck potato

Since Sunday school days, we’ve read the story of Isaac and Abraham and we know it has a happy ending. Abraham, however, hadn’t read the end of the chapter when he set out for Mt. Moriah. During the fifty-mile journey, the father had three days during which he must have agonized over God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Did Abraham ask God, “Why?” Why would God finally provide the promised child and then take the blessing away? Did he ask God, “How?” How, with his son dead, was he going to have those countless descendants God promised? Did he ask God, “What next?” What would he tell Sarah if he returned home without their dear boy? True faith isn’t blind—it knows exactly what can happen but steps forward anyway and Abraham had seventy-two hours to agonize over the possible consequences of his actions. In his distress, he may even have been tempted to turn back home again.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew what happens to flesh in a fiery furnace, Daniel knew what hungry lions do to fresh meat, and, after the deaths of Stephen and James, the rest of the apostles knew what happened to Christians when they dared to share the gospel message. None knew whether they’d die or miraculously escape their fates and yet all boldly acted in faith. If we’ve peeked ahead and know the story ends well, we’re simply being obedient and cooperative. It’s faith when we know full well what could happen but not what actually will. Faith trusts God’s promises. It knows that stepping out in obedience to Him means the story will end, not as we would write it, but as God wants it written.

Scripture tells us Abraham thought God might bring Isaac back to life again but God made no such promise and this was centuries before another resurrection would occur. Abraham may not have known the outcome but the father knew his God so he faithfully obeyed. Him. With confidence, he told his servants that both father and son would return after worshipping on the hill and, when Isaac asked why they had no lamb for their offering, Abraham assured him that God would provide. Still, Abraham had no way of knowing if his words would prove true. As Abraham and Isaac built an altar and piled wood on it, there must have been tears in the father’s eyes. How anxious he must have been as he tied up his son and laid him on the altar and what anguish he must have felt as he picked up his knife and brought it to Isaac’s neck. Nevertheless, Abraham continued in faith and demonstrated that he loved God more than his own flesh and blood.

Faith takes steps knowing that a loving God has given the command and trusting that whatever the result, it is God’s plan. I’ve never been asked to exercise the kind of faith shown by Abraham and the rest of the Bible’s heroes and I pray I never have to do so. I wonder how my faith would stand up at the door of a fiery furnace, the mouth of a lion’s den, in front of a soldier’s sword, facing an angry mob of unbelievers, or if told to sacrifice one of my children. Would I trust God with the outcome or would my faith crumble? Father, forgive me, but I just don’t know.

Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. [Max Lucado]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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COWARDS NEED NOT APPLY

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!” [Jeremiah 1:7-8 (NLT)]

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One look at the Bible’s heroes makes it clear that obstacles and challenges are an unavoidable part of doing God’s work. While they knew doing God’s work wouldn’t be trouble-free, did they realize it would be so very hard? Consider Moses—he knew it would be challenging when he signed on to lead the Israelites, but he didn’t know that an eleven-day journey to Canaan would turn into a forty-year commitment. God never promised it would be easy but He also never warned Moses about the decades of complaints, rebellion, and continual disobedience of the “stiff-necked people” he’d be leading. Moses certainly wasn’t told that he’d never enter the Promised Land once he got there. If he had known what lay ahead, would Moses have accepted God’s assignment or would he still be arguing with God on Mt. Sinai?

Would David have told Samuel to go find another fellow to anoint if the young shepherd knew he’d spend most of the next fifteen years fleeing for his life before actually becoming king? If he’d been told about the trials, battles, responsibilities, betrayals, and challenges of being king or known of the tears that he’d shed during his life, would he have decided to stick to shepherding?

What about Mary? When she told the angel she was the “servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead—the finger pointing and whispers regarding her pregnancy, the difficult journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, and fleeing to Egypt to save her son’s life. Had she anticipated that or the anguish of watching her son’s torment as He died a criminal’s death, would she so willingly have accepted God’s plan? Would Elizabeth have welcomed her pregnancy if she knew her beloved son’s head would be served on a platter to Herodias? Although Paul and the Apostles realized their ministries would be demanding, would they have been as enthusiastic in their evangelism if they’d seen all the struggle, imprisonments, persecution and martyrdom that lay ahead for them? Would Isaiah have said “Send me!” to God if he knew, as tradition has it, that King Manasseh would order him sawn in half? If Jeremiah had known how he’d be despised, abused, beaten, put in stocks, cast into a muddy cistern, and continually preach to a people who refused to hear his words before being stoned to death in Egypt, would he have accepted God’s call?

When describing the lives of the Bible’s heroes and heroines, the book of Hebrews lists the sufferings: being destitute, homeless, afflicted, mistreated, mocked, flogged, tortured, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and being killed with a sword. Some of those heroes (like Moses, Jeremiah, and Gideon) hesitated about their ability to serve God but, once God assured them that they were up to the task, they signed on without knowing exactly what the future held for them. Putting their unknown futures into the hands of a known God, they trusted Him, followed His plan, and boldly did His work.

Like the Bible’s heroes, let us fearlessly go forth wherever God sends us and do whatever He calls us to do. As we faithfully place our unknown future in the hands of God, we can remain secure in the knowledge that He always is with us on our journey. If we trust God, we don’t have to know or understand!

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:29-31 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 1

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]


Next weekend, my son will be participating in Chicago’s triathlon during which he’ll swim nearly a mile, bike 24.8 miles, and finish up with a 6.2-mile run. Because it’s a grueling race that requires stripping off extraneous equipment twice, it reminds me of Hebrews 12:1. After coming out of the water, my son rushes to the first transition area while stripping off swim cap, goggles, and wet suit. Having worn shorts and shirt under the wet suit, he drops off his swim attire and dons his race bib, socks, shoes, helmet, and sunglasses before mounting his bike. Then, after biking nearly 25 miles, he makes his second transition by changing into running shoes and leaving behind his bike, helmet, and bike shoes. At each transition, he strips off any unnecessary gear that can slow him down. After all, the wet suit would be extra weight when biking as would be the bike and helmet during the run!

Although my son is a seasoned triathlete, he wasn’t when he did his first triathlon a dozen years ago in rural Illinois. Not knowing that seasoned triathletes don’t wear wetsuits designed for water sports, he wore the same wetsuit he used when wake boarding and diving. Wet suits made for triathlons, however, are designed to be taken off quickly for an easy transition and made of thinner lighter neoprene with a slippery outer coating that reduces drag and provides optimal swimming dynamics and speed. He also made the mistake of wearing regular bike shorts under his wetsuit. While bike shorts have the extra padding necessary for long rides, in a triathlon that padding acts like a sponge and holds onto the wetness from the swim along with any sweat from the ride and run. My son ended up biking and running in what felt like a toddler’s very wet and heavy soiled diaper! Instead of conserving energy and swimming, biking, and running faster, he was weighed down by his poor choice of equipment.

The race referred to in Hebrews 12, however, isn’t a triathlon; it is our journey of faith. Nevertheless, it is like a triathlon because it requires strength, determination, and endurance. It’s long and strenuous, often grueling, and comes with a variety of challenges and difficult transitions. The epistle’s writer tells us that we must cast off anything that hinders us in order to complete the journey. Rather than stripping off water-logged bike shorts or leaving behind the bike when we start to run, the believer needs to strip himself of the extra weight found in things like unbelieving friends, questionable activities, greed, fear, anxiety, bitterness, unconfessed sins, or doubt. Those can impede our progress and cause us to stumble as easily as can running a race in bike shoes.

There will be times when even the best prepared Christian will tire, falter, turn the wrong way, or consider quitting. Unlike a triathlon, however, the time it takes to complete the course doesn’t matter; finishing is the only thing that counts. Moreover, there is no winner in the race of faith—staying true to the course, no matter how long it takes, makes anyone a winner!

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:7-8 (NLT)]

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BUTTERFLY KISSES – Part 2

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 107:1 (NLT)]

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

red-spotted purple admiral butterflyAs I began looking for, listing, and thanking God for the little blessings hidden in each day (His “butterfly kisses”), I couldn’t help but wonder about the rest of the day. In a fallen world that all but guarantees loss, pain, misery, and trouble, does God just scatter these special moments of grace willy-nilly? Does He randomly send things like encouraging emails, the perfect worship song at just the right time, the aroma of gardenias wafting through the air, a hummingbird flitting through the garden, a shooting star, or doves nesting outside the window? What about the rest of our moments—the ones when we’re struggling with colicky babies, chronic pain, a severely disabled child, stage-4 cancer, betrayal, or abuse? As I look at my prayer list, I see prodigal children, financial woes, severe depression, food insecurity, parents who’ve lost two infants in less than two years, families dealing with Alzheimer’s, and a newly-wed who, less than an hour after sending her husband off to work with a kiss, learned that he died of an aortic aneurysm while on the train. Hearing children’s laughter while frolicking in the pool, a popsicle on a hot summer day, a rainbow, or seeing the elusive green flash at sunset only go so far in alleviating their anguish or sorrow. Where is God’s grace the rest of the time?

But wait! What do we know of God? Throughout Scripture, we are told that He is good and that He loves us as a parent loves a child. We know we have a loving God who gives us good gifts because, in Matthew 7, Jesus compared God’s provision to that of a loving father who wouldn’t deceive his children by giving them an inedible stone or a poisonous snake instead of bread or fish. Scripture also tells us that this good and loving God has a plan for us. So, if we believe that we are loved by a good God and that this good and loving God has set our lives in motion according to His plan, does it not follow that His entire plan is for our good (even when it includes sleepless nights, loss, hurt, pain, and tears)?

While we grab with gusto all that seems good to us, we’d prefer escaping the rest. While we find joy in the gifts we like, we feel cheated when it’s not the gift we wanted or expected. Nevertheless, every moment, even the ones that seem to break our hearts, are as much a part of God’s grace as are the little blessings of the day. Perhaps, God’s butterfly kisses are simply His way of reminding us of His loving presence in everything and serve as a way for us to see His hand in all things. It is in thanking Him for the little insignificant gifts of our day that we eventually find the ability to gives thanks in all circumstances!

Be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:18b-20 (NLT)]

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