LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY

For we live by faith, not by sight. [2 Corinthians 5:7 (NIV)]

Lowdermilk Park rainbowAn early morning rainstorm left a rainbow over the Gulf. “Oh, thank you, Lord,” I said, “That’s just what I needed.” You see, I was suffering from a serious case of the glums and gloomies. Having recently undergone foot surgery, I knew some of my blues had to do with pain, poor sleep, the nuisance of immobility, undone tasks, and “cabin fever.” Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to fully explain my melancholy. Struggling to discern its underlying cause, I’d prayed that God would lead me to the root of the problem. In my darkness, I’d also asked Him to give me a little sign that He heard my pleas. God is big on rainbows—just ask Noah—and it felt like He hung that rainbow out just for me and hope was on the horizon.

Later that day, I came across an article listing the qualities of the prodigal son’s father. It included “willing to live with ambiguity” which struck a chord with me. Perhaps my prayers had been answered with that simple phrase. Preferring certainty to ambiguity, I knew that several unresolved issues, unanswered questions, and unclear courses were troubling me. Perhaps, my sadness was because, wary of living with the unknown, I wanted to walk by sight rather than faith!

Out of curiosity, I took an on-line test as to whether or not I’m a risk taker (someone willing to live with ambiguity). By this point in life, I knew the answer and the test results concurred with my assessment. “While you may take risks on rare occasions, you usually choose the well-traveled path,” it said while adding that I prefer a “stable environment in which changes are made gradually and with ample warning.” Telling me that I rarely seek out situations with uncertain outcomes was just another way of saying I don’t like to live with ambiguity. I’m not comfortable unless I know what’s around the next corner!

If I’d been Elisha, before joining Elijah as a prophet, I would have asked a neighbor to care for my plow and oxen rather than cooking the oxen over a plow-fueled fire. If I’d been Peter, I might not have stepped out of the boat. If I’d been Mary, I would have asked Gabriel a whole host of questions before saying I’d be the Lord’s servant. If I’d been Ruth, rather than go to Judah, I probably would have stayed in Moab. And, if I’d been Moses, I would have asked God for a detailed itinerary and map to the Promised Land. All of these people lived with ambiguity and answered God’s call without being given a step-by-step plan or knowing the outcome. They could live with ambiguity because they wholly trusted in the Lord.

Life is filled with unanswered questions and unknown outcomes. While I tend to think of risk and uncertainty as leading to things like loss, sorrow, weakness, insufficiency, insecurity, sickness, trouble, and failure, they also can lead to gain, joy, strength, plenty, confidence, health, opportunity, and success. Elisha, Peter, Mary, Ruth, and Moses all took risks and were blessed for it! Wanting a divine road map, I’d forgotten that I already have one in my Bible where I’m told to trust in God’s plan and reassured that He’s always with me.

Rather than seek to know what the future holds for us, we can seek God’s will and let Him show us where to go. We may not know what tomorrow brings but we know the One who holds our tomorrows in His hands. We can’t control every situation but, by the grace of God, we can control our attitude in every situation and learn to embrace the ambiguity of life.

It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear. [George Macdonald]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NIV)]

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LIKE IT OR NOT

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6 (NLT)]

monarch butterflyLast week, in That Was God, I wrote these words: “For those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, death means punishment and eternal separation from God,” but reminded readers that the exclusive truths of Christianity don’t mean that we are exclusive in our love; everyone is our neighbor and a person to be loved! Finding the devotion thought provoking, a friend forwarded it to the members of his small group. One man found the message contradictory and responded this way: “In other words, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born a Christian, you’re screwed. But, we still love you, neighbor!”

In actuality, none of us are born Christian; it is when we accept Christ that we are reborn as Christians. Salvation is not a birthright. Moreover, all are welcome in Christ’s Church. After all, the early church was made up entirely of converts!

Granted, it’s far easier to be a Christian in the US than in nations like North Korea, Sudan, or India. Nevertheless, in spite of facing great persecution, there are Christian converts in all of those countries. Jesus never promised His way would be easy; in fact, He said it would be difficult! Open Doors reports that eleven Christians lose their lives every day because of their faith. With John being the only Apostle not martyred, it wasn’t easy for the early Christians either; yet, look at how rapidly the Church grew!

I have no doubt that God loves all of His children. Jesus told us that God so “loved the world…” and continued with the promise that “everyone who believes” would have eternal life. He didn’t say God only loved some of the world or just the Jews, Romans or Greeks. God’s gift of His son was for everyone and for all time. As the Holy Spirit moves throughout the world drawing people to Christ, God has revealed Himself to people in ways we can’t understand.

In Matthew 7:7, we are told, “Ask and it will be given…seek and you will find…” Mark Mittleberg points out that anyone who genuinely seeks God will be led to Him. When people sincerely seek the truth, they will find it only in Christ. In his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi sought the truth about Mohammed; instead, he found Jesus! When skeptics Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and David Limbaugh went looking for the truth, they also found it in Jesus. God will reveal Himself to those who want to find Him.

“What about those who didn’t have the opportunity to hear about Jesus?” is one of those questions no Christian wants to be asked. Admittedly, not everyone has equal access to the gospel. Luke 12:48 tells us that from the one given much, much will be demanded. The inverse must also be true: from the one given little, little will be asked. We each are responsible for following whatever light God has given us.

When I think of infants like my nephew who never lived long enough to know his mother (let alone Jesus) or those people completely unreached by the Gospel, I am as disturbed as the man who didn’t like my words. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t leave much in the way of wiggle room when He said He was “the way” rather than “one of the ways” to the Father. While contrary beliefs are possible, contrary truths are not and there seem to be some undeniably exclusive truths in Scripture as to salvation and eternal life. Like them or not, we are neither to add nor subtract from God’s Word. It’s not a buffet where we can pick and choose only the things we like nor is it a potluck where we get to bring in concepts that make it more palatable. At some point, everyone will answer to God and He will separate the sheep from the goats. Scripture doesn’t elaborate on how that will happen but I’m sure our loving and merciful God has it worked out in a way that only He can understand.

And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:47-48 (NLT)]

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IMMANUEL – PENTECOST

”And be sure of this,” He promised, ”I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

oleanderMy mother’s father walked out of her life when she was a child and never made contact with her again. When I learned this as a girl, I couldn’t understand how someone could do that. How could he not care about the daughter he’d left behind? Didn’t he want to know the beautiful woman she’d become? I secretly fantasized that he would finally come to his senses, seek her out, and embrace both his daughter and his grands. He never did.

People come in and go out of our lives; some leave abruptly and others just fade away. We see that most clearly in December with Christmas cards. We remove names from our list because we stopped getting a card from someone we haven’t seen for twenty years or last year’s card was returned as undeliverable. Because of a death or divorce, some cards we receive are signed by only one when once there were two. In this world, people move, depart, and die and even our closest relationships are only temporary.

Relationships may be transitory, but there is one constant: Jesus. Isaiah called Him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” But, when Jesus lived as a man, He could be with only a few people at a time. Confined to a man’s body, even though he was God, He couldn’t be with everyone at once. When in Capernaum, He drove an evil spirit out of a man and healed both Simon Peter’s mother and the paralytic who came through the roof but He had to leave Capernaum to raise the widow’s son in Nain and heal the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda.

Because Jesus couldn’t be with people in Jerusalem, Gennesaret, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Cana, Bethany, Ephraim, and Samaria all at once, he journeyed from place to place. It’s estimated that He walked more than 3,000 miles during his three year ministry. Sadly, we don’t know what became of most of the people whose lives He touched. After Jesus left Samaria, did the woman He met at the well ever see Him again? Did she lose touch the way we lose touch with old friends? What of the ten lepers, the two blind men, Jairus, his daughter, or the bleeding woman? Jesus was with them for a time but then He left to preach and heal elsewhere. When confined to a human body, Jesus couldn’t be with both Martha and Mary in Bethany and with the disciples a day’s journey from Jerusalem. When He lived as a man, Jesus was only Immanuel, “God with Us,” to those who were near Him.

When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t leave us alone the way the loved ones of so many of my friends have. When He ascended into heaven, Jesus didn’t move without a forwarding address, lose touch with us as happens with friends, and He certainly didn’t walk out on us the way my grandfather did to his family. Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven but He never really left us. Because of His Holy Spirit, Jesus is truly with every one of us, all of the time, no matter where we are. Moreover, unlike my grandfather who never came back for his children, Jesus will. No longer limited by time or space, He is, indeed, Immanuel: God with Us.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. [John 14:16-18 (NLT)]

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HE ALWAYS ANSWERS

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him. [Matthew 7:7-11 (NLT)]

Holy Name Catholic church - Steamboat Spgs.Thrilled at the result of her biopsy, Mary joyfully announced, “God is good and God always answers prayers!” Indeed, He is and does but we must remember that God does not always answer prayers the way we want Him to. I recently wrote that God is not a miser and our prayers should not be puny half-hearted ones. Nevertheless, regardless of the size of our petitions, we must remember that it is God’s will, not ours, that will be done. In spite of fervent prayers, some biopsies will say “malignant,” some prodigals will never return, some marriages will fail, and some people will not recover.

People often claim that Jesus’s words in Matthew 7 are a promise that God will give us anything we ask. But, seen in context, this verse is about seeking and finding God rather than having all of our wishes fulfilled. If we ask for things like His wisdom, discernment, patience, love, compassion, peace, and understanding, He will give them to us. That promise, however, does not mean God will answer all of our prayers with a “Yes!”

Just as loving parents wouldn’t give their children something bad when they ask for something good, Jesus tells us neither will God. But, what if, in his naiveté, the child unwittingly asks for something that isn’t what’s best? When my son was a teenager, he pled for a shiny new sports car; we answered with a second-hand Ford Tempo. Older and wiser, we knew a sixteen-year old boy didn’t belong behind the wheel of a Corvette. Now that he has a sixteen-year-old boy of his own, our son understands. A loving parent, like God, knows how to say “No!”

God is God and we are not. It is His will that reigns and our prayers are answered according to His plan rather than our wants. Both Elijah and Jonah asked God to take their lives, but He refused. God denied King Zedekiah’s prayer for help in defeating Nebuchadnezzar. When Jesus prayed in the garden, Paul prayed to be rid of the thorn in his flesh and David wanted to build the temple, God said “No” to them. When the disciples wanted Jesus to go back and heal in Capernaum, when a man asked Him to intervene in a family dispute, and when James and John wanted places of honor in heaven, our Lord answered them all with, “No!”

God always answers prayers but frequently not the way we expect or desire. Just because we don’t get what we want, however, doesn’t mean we get nothing. Although God’s answers often are mysterious and even heart-breaking, they always are purposeful. God’s “No!” is His “Yes!” for a far greater end, be it protection, teaching, spiritual growth, or guidance. Let us be thankful that God keeps us from what we thought we wanted and blesses us with what we didn’t know we needed!

When God says no, we are sometimes tempted to wonder if He loves us. In reality, it’s because He loves us, He sometimes says no. [Lysa TerKeurst]

Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine. [Luke 22:42 (NLT)]

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PROPERTY LAWS

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. [Romans 3:23-24 (NLT)]

toddlerAlthough my husband attended law school, there is one law he never knew until he became a father: the Toddler Property Law. Starting out with the basic premise of “What’s mine is mine!” it then defines exactly what is meant by “mine.” The toddler defines “mine” as the following: it’s mine if I like it; if I think it’s mine, it is; if it’s yours, it’s mine; if I can take it from you, it’s mine; if I had it but put it down, it’s still mine; if you had it but put it down, then it’s mine; and, if it is broken, it’s yours.

If we ever doubted the existence of original sin, we only need to watch a few toddlers at play to see that we are born into this world with sinful natures. Granted, the toddler doesn’t exhibit vanity or pride or practice sorcery, watch porn, get drunk and disorderly or commit adultery, but he sure knows a lot about greed, selfishness, coveting, hitting, defiance, anger, and the attachment to worldly goods (especially if made by Fisher-Price or Melissa & Doug).

Since I have difficulty following the various theological arguments and isms regarding original sin, I’m not going to define it or expound on how it came to be. Nevertheless, I don’t need a theologian to tell me that it’s not necessary to teach a toddler how to be a selfish grabby little beast but we do have to teach him how to share. I don’t think we’re born defective; after all, we were created in God’s image. Nevertheless, we were given that troublesome thing called free will which means we have the capacity to choose between right and wrong. Simply put, we sin because we can.

C.S. Lewis posits that Satan gave Adam and Eve the idea that “they could be like gods” and “be their own masters.” Without the theology, that’s pretty much the toddler mind set; he thinks he’s the master of the universe, the world revolves around him, and all that he wants is his. Sadly, some of us never grow out of thinking that way.

I don’t think God is holding me responsible for Adam and Eve’s poor choices; He doesn’t have to! Long ago, I started making plenty of my own poor decisions. If we didn’t have a tendency or predisposition to sin, you’d think someone (other than Jesus) could have remained sinless in all of this time! One reading of Scripture, however, tells us no one seems to have been able to keep perfectly the moral standards and precepts set by God. For example, Abraham, a man who walked with God, was a liar and a coward and David, said to be “a man after God’s own heart,” was an adulterer and murderer. Under mankind’s own power, we don’t appear to have the ability to stop sinning even when we want to do so.

Christianity tells us that we are unable to overcome the power of sin without the power of the Holy Spirit. That power comes by turning to Christ and relying on his sacrifice to atone for our sins. It’s only when we admit that we are helpless in the face of sin and that our sin has separated us from God, that we see the need for a savior and understand why Jesus (the perfect sacrifice) died for us. It is only through God’s grace that we finally have the power to renounce the sin of the world.

The beautiful thing about God’s grace is that when we sin (and try as we might not to do so, we will), God has enough grace to shower us with His undeserved mercy again and again. He gives us yet another chance to grow in godliness and His Spirit will empower us to do just that.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. [Romans 5:18-19 (NLT)]

He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds. [Titus 2: 14 (NLT)]

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TURNING A DEAF EAR

Haven’t you heard? Don’t you understand? Are you deaf to the words of God— the words he gave before the world began? Are you so ignorant?… Listen, you who are deaf! Look and see, you blind! [Isaiah 40:21, 42:18 (NLT)]

the Shanahan sistersMy Great-aunt Camilla began to lose her hearing as a girl and was completely deaf by the time she reached adulthood. Although she didn’t sign, she did lip-read quite well. In spite of her deafness, as long as we were face-to-face, we were able to converse without much difficulty. However, if Camilla didn’t want to continue the discussion or disagreed with us, she’d simply turn away and refuse to look at us. Tug as we might at her sleeve, she’d not turn back to rejoin the conversation until we’d convinced her that the subject had changed to one she preferred or that we agreed wholeheartedly with her opinion.

Thinking back to her, I wonder if we all might be a little like my aunt. We don’t have to be unable to hear to turn a deaf ear to someone. People do that all of the time when they ignore a doctor’s advice; recommendations to eat less and exercise more frequently fall on deaf ears. Most of us will hear only what we want to hear when we want to hear it. What should be heard is another matter and, just as the people of Israel did, we frequently turn a deaf ear to God. As long as everything is going our way, life is pleasant, and the future looks rosy, we keep our eyes and ears on Him. But, when we hear the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit, God’s plan differs from ours (as it frequently does), or life takes a nosedive, we often turn away from Him. We only turn back with complaint or demands. We readily accuse God of being deaf to our pleas when, in actuality, we are the ones not hearing Him.

When my deaf aunt turned away from us and refused to listen with her eyes, she won. The topic was changed and we spoke of what she wanted. God, however, is persistent. We just need to look at the Old Testament to see the various (and often severe) methods He used to get the attention of His chosen people. When they refused to listen to His prophets, God took measures that were not as easily ignored.

Faith is trusting God’s words and actions, even when we don’t like them. Faith isn’t turning a deaf ear to God; it is turning to Him and listening closely to what He is telling us. When life isn’t working out, He’s probably telling us something important so it’s best to listen carefully. God can speak to us in a whisper or a shout; as for me, I’d rather hear His whisper!

None so deaf as those that will not hear. None so blind as those that will not see. [Matthew Henry]

Listen to me, O my people, while I give you stern warnings. O Israel, if you would only listen to me! [Psalm 81:8 (NLT)]

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand! [Matthew 11:15 (NLT)]

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