Thursday, January 26, 2012

Training Ground

Boot camp seems like another lifetime to me. I was there fifteen years ago at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC for thirteen weeks of rigorous physical and mental training. It was a time of preparation for what was to come- for the moment when I could call myself a U.S. Marine, and I still remember that moment well. All the push-ups, running, marching, memorization- all for that moment. Everything was timed, whether it was getting dressed, brushing teeth, eating, packing gear- and there was a method to everything we did. For example, when eating, the food and utensils could only be touched with one hand, and I remember one specific occasion when I used my other hand to butter bread, and having been seen by a drill instructor, I was sent out without finishing. There were many procedures that I didn't really understand, but my lack of understanding didn't relieve me of my duty  to obey. Looking back, it all comes through now with more clarity. I was being taught to obey a voice, to listen to authority, and to set aside my own opinion and rights, even when it didn't make sense. I had to learn to trust that those in command knew what they were doing, and that they were guiding those under them toward their good, and the good of others. Similarly, God trains His people in the present for what He prepared for them to take hold of in the future. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses recounts to the people the meaning of their years of wilderness wandering, which to many, must have seemed to be a time of no purpose, or a waste, before they got to the good life in the good land. However, he says to them:

2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord...5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. 6 So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land
Deut 8:2-3, 5-7 (ESV)

Everything that these people experienced prepared them for the time when they would take hold of what God had promised them. The lack of food and water was not punishment for wrongdoing, but training to know where true nourishment comes from. Their experiences were designed to teach them to listen to the voice of their Father, rather than the call of their stomachs. A people driven by their own appetites are a people who will wander headlong into sin and idolatry, which is exactly what Moses warned them against (vv. 17-19). It is through difficulty, trial, and testing that God, the master blacksmith, hammers and heats His metal to strengthen and prove it reliable. The circumstances we find ourselves in are not arbitrary. They are the plan of a perfect and loving Father who knows exactly what we, His children, need and He gives it to us, even though these circumstances can be painful, because He is preparing a people for a place, just as He is preparing a place for His people (John 14:2,3). God has led us, in Christ, out of the bondage of Egypt and toward the Promised Land that waits on the other side of the Jordan, but first we must learn to endure the wilderness, its fiery serpents, its difficult sustenance, and its temptation to lead our hearts astray (Deut. 8:15-17). On the other side of those trials, God will have strengthened faith, taught His loved ones to trust His voice and obey its leading, and to give Him preeminence over every other thing that competes for the heart's ultimate affection. You may find yourself in the middle of one of these experiences at this very moment, surrounded by uncertainty and feeling real pain. You may be praying for these things to be lifted and wondering why it is that you have not found the relief you seek. It could be that there is greater gain to be had by your enduring the hard road than what would be gained in the alternative. Knowing this teaches us to trust and hope through those times, rather than despair. God does not forget or abandon His children. He prepares them for a permanent home with Him. This is the training ground.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Internal Battles

I like it when things go smoothly or when problems go away easily...I don't think anyone will find that statement abnormal. But, as I often find out (as I'm sure you have as well), life does not always provide us with smooth or easy. This should not come as any surprise, though. In fact, a life with little or no struggle would (should) be a strange one to the Christian. The path laid before us is one fraught with battles- both internal and external. In the internal, what we fight against are those evils that have either found a place to make a home in our hearts, or those things that look to do so. We need the Lord's help to be able to see clearly into our own thoughts, words, and actions. Often, God uses a spouse or a trusted friend to bring this clarity, but sometimes it comes simply through prayerful reflection. It's said that George Whitefield, the great 18th century evangelist, laid in bed each night thinking over all of the days events, not just replaying them in his mind, but desiring to find the motivation of his heart as to why he said, or acted, or thought as he did. These actions are not necessarily evil in and of themselves- they might look innocent enough, but the intention of the heart may not be pure or innocent. It's possible for one to look like a servant while manipulating for his own gain. Whitfield knew this, and wanted to snuff out sin before it had a chance to take root. There is nothing passive about sin. It is an active power that gains strength in a willing or lackadaisical heart. Even while it might appear to lay dormant, it still wants more of the heart, more of the mind, more of the affections. In essence, it wants all of the person, ultimately his/her destruction. Hebrews 3:14 describes sin as working to deceive, and when it has done so, it then sets itself to harden. After taking root, not only is it more difficult to kill, but sin aggressively seeks to harden you against the notion that it is either evil or present. It simply wants to become the norm in your life, much like the arrangement of the pictures on your walls; there was a time when these things were placed in their current position, but after a while, neither their configuration nor their existence is even noticed. Also, sin never stops once it has started. In fact, according to John Owen, it "aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head." There can be no level of comfort within the Christian after the discovery of a present sin. It will not cease to gain territory- much like an army that progresses in battle or a fire that consumes a dry forest, it will not stop until its design is complete. It cannot be ignored. Even if it has not shown its face for a time, do not become complacent, as it is a sly enemy which will present itself stronger in the future, often at the most inopportune time The flesh is weak and powerless against it. Self-discipline and "trying harder next time" might show some temporary gains, but eventually the sinful desire overcomes the will, and having fallen prey again, the hardening process continues. Fortunately for the believer in Christ, the battle can be won. It is a war that only the Spirit of God can achieve (Romans 8:5-13). The Spirit, by faith, awakens in the believer a desire for holiness and righteousness, and as this desire is kindled, sin will be more noticeable, more hated, and more aggressively fought. In the process the cross of Christ will be seen more clearly, the grace of our Lord praised more loudly, and the blood of Jesus found more precious, as it cleanses the repentant from that which injures fellowship with our God. The Lord is indeed a refiner's fire and a fuller's soap (Mal. 3:2). He will purify His people, and He calls us to set ourselves against the sin that still dwells within and fight to the death. I do like it when things go smoothly and when problems go away easily. Unfortunately, when dealing with sin, it does not fit neatly into this category. This difficult internal engagement will take a lifetime of Spirit-enabled, Gospel-focused fighting, resisting, and thwarting, but it is a battle worth waging- for His glory and our joy.

Monday, January 16, 2012

When God Feels Distant

Without question, the Christian desires to have a closeness with God that he feels in his soul. It may be hard to express in simple terms, but intrinsic to its nature is a warmth that comes from the Divine when He communes with the creatures on whom He has placed His love. After experiencing this, the believer craves to continually draw from this well, but in the providence of God, it can become empty just as soon as it seemed full. This isn't a popular topic, but it very real, and it has a place in God's plan for His children. Each week as the people stream into our churches, many can say with the psalmist, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?" (Ps.42:5). It would be easy for these men and women of the faith to begin to believe that they are somehow strange, lacking in something that everyone else around them seems to have(even though there is no prevalent sin that has overtaken them, nor is there a lack in the use of those means God normally gives grace and growth through). However, God does great work in these periods where heat is lacking. There is no wasted day with the Mighty One; no time where He is not at work. When it seems that our Lord has forgotten us, just as a good friend can become distracted and forget to check in for a time, the heart needs to be reminded that God does not slumber nor can he forget. It is absurd to think that a human father could forget his children. How much more so that our heavenly Father could forget His own, those He has given His perfect Son for? Could it be possible that God has a great purpose for these times that the Puritans called "desertions?" We feel loved by God as long as we have this continual emotional experience where He seems close, but does this mean that we are less loved when this feeling is not there? Not at all! As a perfect Father, we as His children receive from Him what we need, not what we want. We want the warm feeling, but without it, God creates in us a longing for Him by seemingly separating Himself for a time. The heart learns to desire His fellowship more than anything else, and also learns to trust Him in all circumstances. Faith demands that we follow when following doesn't come easy, even when our own hearts have become dull (I might add, especially when our hearts become dull). It is true, as the song says, that our hearts are prone to wander, and the Lord knows he must train a people who are awaiting a promised land by leading them through the wilderness- a place where they learn to obey His voice rather than their own desires. We need these times even though we don't want them, and if you are experiencing this very thing right now, pursue God more than ever. Your heart would have you back away, but it needs to be tested (Deut. 8:2) so that it might long more perfectly for the God it desires.