Ever find yourself fighting against God? I have. It makes no sense.
- If God is all-powerful, things will turn out the way he wants. It’s inevitable.
- If God wills for ultimate good to triumph, why resist?
- If God is all-knowing, why insist on having things my way? Do I really think I know better than God?
Besides, when I fight reality, reality always wins.
Unfortunately, self-will is sneaky and dies hard. A few years ago I attended a four-day writers’ conference, convinced it was God’s will for me. I volunteered for service opportunities, looked forward to promoting my first book and to being interviewed for an ongoing writing gig. Above all, I was excited for the chance to find a publisher for my second book. In my eagerness, I denied my body’s ongoing physical limitations. Less than 24 hours after the conference began, my body rebelled and I was forced to slink home.
Apparently, God and I hadn’t seen things the same way after all. It took weeks to work through my disappointment and accept reality. I have disabilities. The symptoms may not be apparent to others, but the challenges are very real. It’s self-defeating to ignore them, no matter how much I want to.
Evidently God, who knows all about my limitations, achieves his plans in spite of my willful schemes. Although I could not attend the conference interview, I received the ongoing writing assignment anyway. Eventually, I was offered a contract for my second book—my new publisher hadn’t even attended that conference.
When my conviction about God’s will is wishful thinking on my part, whenever I’m trying to force outcomes, I’m fighting reality. Whenever I accept circumstances exactly as they are, do my best, then let go and trust God with the outcome, I feel peace.
Why struggle? Even if things don’t go my way, they can still turn out just fine.
Who guessed faith involved accepting reality?
Prayer: Lord, help me trust that you have everything under control.
Reflection: When have you found yourself fighting against God? What happened?
Whenever the cloud lifted, they moved on. Numbers 9: 18b; 21b
God led the Hebrew slaves to freedom through desert territory they’d never seen before. They were wise to stay put while the cloud of God’s presence covered them. It makes sense not to travel when you can’t see clearly where you’re going. Sooner or later the cloud lifted. Eventually they were led to the Promised Land.
Similarly, God sometimes guides me by allowing my mind to be clouded with confusion. It slows me down. When I can’t see clearly what action to take, I’m forced to wait. That’s when God has a chance to direct my thinking and actions. Otherwise, guided only by self-will, I zip along full speed ahead, impatiently following my own agenda.
Like the Hebrews in the desert, it’s good for me to stay put when my thoughts are cloudy. Sooner or later, the cloud lifts and I’m led to where God wants me to be. His plan is always so much better than mine.
Prayer: Lord, grant me patient trust in your guidance when I can’t see clearly.
Reflection: When has patience brought you clarity?
I replied, “Sovereign Lord, only you can answer that!” Ezekiel 37: 3
It’s okay not to have all the answers. There are some questions we can’t know the answers to, this side of heaven. There’s no shame in knowing what we have no way of knowing.
Why God asked Ezekiel if those bones could come back to life? God already knew the answer. Surely God also knew that Ezekiel didn’t know the answer. Why ask? Maybe God just wanted Ezekiel to pay attention to the issue, to consider the possibilities, and to do just what Ezekiel did: stand in humble silence and watch God’s power in action.
At the transfiguration, we’re told that Peter offered to build three shelters for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, although Peter really didn’t know what he was saying. The proper response when we don’t know what to say is to keep silent and listen. Then we will find out what we’re meant to know.
If we have questions, maybe it’s because God wants our attention so he can give us the answer or just demonstrate his power.
Prayer: Lord, help me trust that when I don’t know, you do.
Reflection: What question does God want you to consider but leave in his hands today?
…Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts, which is able to save you. James 1: 21b
God plants his word—not in our heads, not in our hands, but in our hearts.
Accepting the word of God isn’t an intellectual exercise. Jesus praised his Father for showing the unlearned what he hid from the learned. (Luke 10: 21)
It isn’t just about what we do, either. Jesus warned against praying, fasting, or helping the needy to gain approval or admiration. (Matthew 6: 1-17)
That could be why Jesus said the most important commandments were to love God with all our being and love our neighbors and ourselves. Living our faith goes much deeper than our heads and our hands, it goes to our hearts. We’re not equipped to go deep enough to change the kernel of our hearts on our own. Only God can get in there and do the deep surgery needed to bring about a change of heart.
What we can do is be open to the word God wants to plant in our hearts and nurture it. We can take actions that encourage spiritual growth. Honest prayer opens our hearts to God, He can heal what needs to be healed in us when we stop covering it up. Connecting with other people who are growing spiritually inspires us to desire a genuine change of heart. Serving others can soften our hearts to the needs of those around us and allow God an easier entrance.
We can come to God just as we are, warts and all, and accept his unconditional love for us. We can welcome the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us to save us from our self-defeating faults. We can give our hearts back to Him.
Prayer: Lord, I open my heart to your healing love.
Reflection: What word of love is God planting in your heart today?
Jesus was angry as he looked around at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong. Mark 3:5
Jesus had mixed feelings about the religious leaders who couldn’t see beyond the letter of the law. They wanted to condemn Jesus for breaking the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day. What could be more holy than reaching out with compassion to relieve someone else’s suffering? No wonder he felt angry.
He also felt sorry for them. Why? Because they were stubborn and wrong. I can’t claim to know what Jesus was thinking, but I suspect it had more to do with their being stubborn than wrong. When we’re wrong, we can always change our minds once we’re corrected. But when we’re stubborn, the right information won’t help. We refuse to see the truth even if it’s right under our eyes. Stubbornness truly deserves pity. There is no hope of growth or change when our minds are already made up. We dig in our heels and refuse to budge.
What’s so hard about being open to another point of view? What’s the harm in looking at things in a new way? We have nothing to lose. If the new idea isn’t correct we can retain original position. But if we obstinately cling to what we think we know—without even considering other options—we’re stuck with no hope of growth. No wonder Jesus pitied them.
I’ve been stubborn more than once in my life, often for no better reason than, “I’ve been doing it this way for years, why change?” I said it in the 1970’s when our office computerized operations we used to do by hand. Luckily, my inflexibility gave way to the desire to keep my job. What if I had refused to consider the new procedure? I wouldn’t be writing this blog, for one thing. I would have shut the door on learning the skills that have become a way of life our culture today.
Stubbornness can stunt our spiritual life with even more impact. The Holy Spirt is dynamic. God’s truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it and the way we live it grows as we grow. The religious leaders weren’t wrong in wanting to honor the Sabbath, but they were wrong clinging to their narrow interpretation of what that meant. May God grace us with open-mindedness as he deepens our understanding of his truth.
Prayer: Lord, grant me the humility to be teachable.
Reflection: What ideas are you clinging to that might be worth a second look? How can open-mindedness help you grow spiritually?
We have courage in God’s presence, because we are sure that he hears us if we ask him for anything that is according to his will. 1 John 5: 14
We pray for lots of things. It’s right to bring our needs and desires to God. After all, he knows what’s in our minds and hearts before we ask, so we may as well be honest. But asking for things in accordance with his will is trickier.
When my mother was seriously ill I prayed for her healing because that’s what I hoped for. As I prayed, I questioned whether she’d be healed. James warned that if we doubt and are tossed about like a wave blown by the wind when we pray we shouldn’t think that we’ll receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:6-8) Praying for Mom’s healing wasn’t a prayer I could make without doubting. I began praying that God’s will be done and that he hold her close to him. I was certain that was God’s will. I felt consoled as I pictured the Good Shepherd tenderly leading Mom home. Shortly before her passing she smiled and said to me, “Oh, Barbara, it’s all One and it’s beautiful.” I don’t know what she saw, but I know my prayers were heard and answered.
Honest prayer about what we want and for God’s will to be done can coexist. After all, if we can’t be honest with God, who can we be honest with? Sometimes my honest prayers look like this: “God, I don’t know if this is your will or not. I pray your will be done, but I know that you know what I really want is for this situation to turn out in this certain way. I recognize your power of veto. Help me accept your will.”
I never doubt that God is hearing and answering when I remember C.S. Lewis said God answers prayer in four ways:
- No, I love you too much.
- No, not yet.
- Yes, and here’s more.
- I thought you’d never ask
I think this matter of removing all doubt is clearest when I pray for God to change me. Usually, the first petitions that come to mind are for God to make a situation go a certain way, have a certain person brought through a challenge, a conflict resolved, etc. But I’m never sure if that is God’s will. But every time I have asked God to change me in whatever way I need changing and for openness to act on those changes, I have truly believed I have been heard. Those prayers have been answered. I started praying for patience, and was told patience can be acquired by letting go of self-will. When I started praying for God to help me let go of self-will, I could almost hear God saying, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Prayer: Lord, your will be done today.
Reflection: How confident are you of God’s response to your requests?
“My food,” Jesus said to them, “is to obey the will of the one who sent me and to finish the work he gave me to do.” John 4: 34
Jesus stopped by a well to rest while his disciples went on to buy food. During this rest period, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman. Their conversation changed her life and the lives of the townspeople she brought back to meet him. When the disciples returned and urged Jesus to eat, he explained that he had been nourished by sharing the truth of God’s love with those who needed it.
I had my first taste of that kind of nourishment years ago, when I was working full time. One day, I found myself with an unexpected hour of free time before I had to pick my daughter up at school. I didn’t know what to do with this precious windfall. Beginning a new chapter in my spiritual journey, I decided to pray and ask God what he wanted me to do with the extra time. I felt a strong nudge to go to my daughter’s second grade classroom even though school was still in session. The urge was completely out of character for me, but very persistent. I reasoned that I had asked God for direction and received an answer, so I’d better act on it. Feeling shy and nervous, I walked in to the classroom anyway, smiled, and asked if I could help. The teacher, my daughter, her classmates were all surprised, but no more surprised than I was myself. Following the teacher’s instructions, I began helping the children with their lessons.
As it turns out, an hour or so earlier, the teacher had received a phone call about a family member who had taken ill. Although she still was running her class, the teacher was understandably concerned. An extra pair of adult hands in the classroom that afternoon was just the thing. I know, because the teacher told me all this after class was dismissed. I could not have felt more energized and nourished, all because I asked to know God’s will for me for that day and did the work he gave me to do. I didn’t convert a town, but I made a difference in at least two lives that day.
Prayer: Lord, show me what you want me to do today and give me the willingness to do it.
Reflection: What might God have planned for you today?
Why do the nations plan rebellion? Why do people make their useless plots? …From his throne in heaven the Lord laughs and mocks their feeble plans. Psalm 2: 1; 3
I can’t speak for the nations. I’m not even sure why I make my useless plots…except that sometimes I just want things to go my way! Apparently, I need to keep learning, over and over again, that just because things don’t go my way, doesn’t mean they don’t turn out well—or at least the way they’re supposed to turn out.
Rebellion has its roots in my past. When I was a kid, time and again my mom warned me not to wait until the last minute to work on school projects. I knew she was right, but kept procrastinating, just to assert my independence. The results weren’t pretty. I was a freshman in college before I finally realized that refusing to do things the right way just because somebody else told me to only hurt myself. Surrendering to Mom’s wisdom instead of my own has been a blessing ever since.
I’ve also concocted schemes to steer events a certain way. I’ve rehearsed conversations in advance. If I say x, he’ll say y but I want him to say a, so I better say z instead. I’ve anticipated other people’s reactions and made my choices based on getting the response I wanted. Neither form of manipulation has worked for me. Other people are beyond my control…so are any number of things.
There’s nothing wrong with setting goals. Making plans and working towards them is important, but blind attempts to force the outcomes I want is doomed. For example, I had my heart set on attending a writer’s conference a few years ago. Eager to further my writing efforts, I wanted to participate in all the workshops, network, and do some volunteering. I chose to ignore my physical limitations and carried out my useless plot. My physical problems forced me to leave the conference after only one day. When I fight reality, reality always wins.
I know God loves me, but I’m sure He sits in heaven shaking His head at my feeble plans. He knows my circumstances and limitations much better than I do. If God is all wise, all powerful, and all loving, doesn’t it make sense to surrender to His plans instead of my own? You’d think I’d get it by now…and sometimes I do…but sometimes I’m sure I give Him a good laugh.
How about you?
- When have you felt defiant/rebellious? Have you acted on it? How did it help or hurt you? Did you get what you wanted? Was it worth it?
- When have you schemed or manipulated to get things to go your way or to get others to do what you wanted? How did that turn out?
- When have you felt “feeble” in the face of complications/situations/elements beyond your control?
- Think back. Are there times when God, although loving you more than words can say, might also have been chuckling at your activities? Can you laugh at yourself? How is the ability to laugh at yourself related to a healthy sense of humility?
The Lord gave the donkey the power of speech, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you? Why have you beaten me these three times?”…Then the Lord let Balaam see the angel standing there with his sword; and Balaam threw himself face downward on the ground. The angel demanded, “Why have you beaten your donkey three times like this? I have come to bar your way, because you should not be making this journey.”
King Balak asked Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. Although Balaam originally resisted, eventually he did go. On the way, an angel blocked the road. Balaam didn’t see the angel, but the donkey he was riding on did and turned aside three separate times. Each time, Balaam beat the donkey. Finally God gave the donkey the power of speech. Balaam then saw the angel blocking the road and realized God didn’t want the Israelites cursed. Following the angel’s instructions, Balaam continued his journey with a renewed conviction to do what God wanted, not what Balak wanted.
Balaam’s words had power only when he said what God told him to say. When Balaam forgot that, God used the animal beneath him to show him the light. The donkey saw the truth long before Balaam did. Like Balaam, we may get temporary amnesia about our reliance on God. When pride makes us forget our true relationship with Him, God may speak to us through unexpected sources. How much wisdom might we miss out on if we refuse to accept the truth spoken by those we feel are beneath us?
I’m ashamed to admit it but when I was much younger, I looked down on an unkempt woman in my faith sharing group because she was uneducated. At the same time, I was stuck in a tangle of my own thoughts and worries. The more I tried to reason my way out the more tangled I got. One day I shared my dilemma with the group. That same woman came up to me privately and asked, “Have you asked God for peace of mind?” Her wisdom blew me away. It was a humbling experience. I’m grateful she told me what I believe God told her to say. I’m grateful for the reminder not to judge others. I’m grateful to be more open to God’s wisdom wherever it comes from.
Prayer: Lord grant me the humility to be open to the truth no matter who is speaking it.
Reflection: In what unexpected way might God be trying to speak to you today?
[Felix] sent for Paul and listened to him as he talked about faith in Christ Jesus. But as Paul went on discussing about goodness, self-control, and the coming Day of Judgment, Felix was afraid and said, “You may leave now. I will call you again when I get the chance.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would give him some money; and for this reason he would call for him often and talk with him. Acts 24: 24b-27
Paul was in prison. Governor Felix, responsible for deciding the case, hoped for a bribe. Even so, there might have been more to Felix’ interest in Paul. Felix’s wife was Jewish and he “was well informed about the Way” of early Christians. (Acts 24:22) Felix might have had a sincere interest in learning what Paul had to say. Maybe it was boredom. Maybe Felix felt disillusioned by all the excess perks the life of a governor in the Roman Empire offered. Maybe he longed for something more…that is, until Paul’s talk about goodness and self-control hit too close to home.
Aren’t we like Felix sometimes? We seek to learn more about God. We thrive on hearing about His unconditional love and mercy—and rightly so. But spiritual growth costs us. Following Christ’s teaching can sound intimidating. Thoughts of not judging others, surrendering self-will, or letting go of an over-blown ego frighten us…or at least dampen our enthusiasm.
We might not look for a bribe from God but have we ever bargained with Him? As a return for our investment in prayer do we expect things to turn out our way? Do we assume good deeds secure a place for ourselves in heaven? Is there room for love when our spiritual walk has strings attached?
As humans, none of us loves perfectly without a shred of self-interest. Most of us have mixed motives. That’s all the more reason to let go of judging others and ourselves. So let’s not think too poorly of Felix who had qualms about the challenges of following Christ. After all, Jesus did caution us to count the cost before starting a building. (Luke 14:28) Maybe we can learn a thing or two about cost-counting from Felix.
Prayer: Loving God, open my heart to all that following you means.
Reflection: What parts of God’s call seem intimidating? Answering the call doesn’t demand perfection. How can knowing that help?