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Thursday, October 23, 2014

In The Dungeon Of Doubt

I confess, there have been seasons when I've questioned God. I have empowered the Devil with my negative self-talk and the lies I entertain in my thoughts. For two weeks, a story in the Bible has shaken me. I've cried over it. I've yelled at the pages. I've pleaded with others for insight. I have researched long into the night. When my heart finally reached a place of humility and my spirit was teachable, God revealed a new universe of truth which I would like to share with you. 

If you have ever doubted God - questioned if you really knew Him - if you "got it right", you are in good company with John the Baptist. (You might dress funny and eat weird things too!) John was kin to Jesus. He prepared the way for His ministry. He baptized Jesus and saw the Spirit descend on Him like a dove. He wasn't a scratch-everyone-behind-the-ears kind of guy. He pointed out sin and required that it be dealt with. He crossed the line when he publicly spoke out against Herod Antipas. John's actions landed him in prison.

John was locked away in the prison at Machaerus. Mattew 4:12-13a tells us that 

"When he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea…" What? Did Jesus not care? One would think Jesus would go visit him, maybe giving John a word of encouragement. Certainly He would take John food. Jesus could spring him with one snap of His fingers! No. Jesus went the other way. Note, the fortress of Machaerus was located 15 miles southeast of the mouth of the Jordan River on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Capernaum on the other hand, was located miles north on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. 

Jesus seriously left His kin - the guy who prepared the way for Him- in prison and up and went the other way. Have you felt like that before? Oh boy! I sure have. But, that's not all. John was in prison. Chained. Not fed unless someone brought him food. Rumor was that if you were in Herod's prison, you didn't see the light of day again. John knew he was likely awaiting execution. He was in the barren desert, alone.  Can you imagine the blistering heat? The windstorms? The hike up the hill for his disciples to bring him food. I wonder how often they actually came? 

Meanwhile, Jesus has set up His headquarters in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Needless to say, Jesus' view was a bit different than John's. 

(This is when I began yelling.) So, John is in prison, starving and awaiting death. Jesus went the opposite way and is sitting under a palm tree. Maybe your blood is beginning to boil. Where has He been in the midst of your trial? Do you feel as though you're rotting away and the Lord is no where to be found? Surely the all-knowing God is aware of your difficult circumstances. But, if He's aware, then why isn't He here; why doesn't He act on my behalf?

In Matthew 11, John sends word to Jesus by his disciples and asks, "Are you the one who is to come or should we look for someone else?" (v3) By this time, scholars estimate that John had been in prison for over a year and a half. His strength was wearing thin, his faith was tired, and the Devil had John trapped in a dungeon of doubt. 

John, being the last of the Old Testament prophets, expected a military-type king. One who would come set Israel free from the oppression of the Romans. He was ready for the new kingdom. As John's disciples brought word about Jesus' ministry- healing people, treasuring the trashed, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, bringing rest to the weary and delivering powerful messages like the Sermon on the Mount… Jesus didn't look like the guy John thought would come. "If He really came to set the captives free, why am I still sitting in prison?"

Have you felt abandoned? John certainly was feeling that way. Not only had Jesus left him, it seemed as though the Devil himself had taken His place. John knew the scriptures back-forth-and-inside-out. I'm sure he tried to recall the promises and prophesies. The signs that were once crystal clear, now clear as mud. In the midst of doubt, it's impossible to think straight. 

John was aware of the deaths the prophets before him faced. I bet he could handle the idea of dying for justice and righteousness. I think it was the doubt that he was wrong about Jesus that pushed him to question. What if he prepared the way for the wrong one? What if he had been wrong and thus led others astray? What if his life and ministry was in vain? In the dark, dusty cell, you can almost feel the weight John carried with each and every passing question. We really can't blame him for asking. It wasn't so much a lack of faith as it was a lack of understanding of Jesus' eternal kingdom.

Jesus is gracious to John's disciples and doesn't rebuke anyone for the doubt-filled question. He was well-aware of John's hardships, sorrows and grief long before the boys showed up. Unshaken by the honest inquiry, Jesus continues doing what He came to do. John's disciples watch and listen, taking in the miracles and hope Jesus lavishes on the least of these. "Yes, please… encourage the captive, John, who is suffering on YOUR account, and tell him all the great things YOU'RE doing for everyone else!" That's what I thought…

But that's not what John understood. Jesus, moved with compassion for His friend, looked at the curious disciples and told them, "Tell John all that you've seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers and made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." A knowledgeable prophet, John would have recognized that Jesus was quoting the prophet Isaiah. Out of love for His friend, Jesus didn't include Isaiah's phrase "to proclaim liberty to the captives." Initially, I was incredibly frustrated by this. How can Jesus manipulate His own word like that? You and I both know, that's not the God we serve. I don't think Jesus left that little nugget out because He was sealing John's fate as a dead man, rather that He didn't want to cause further doubt. John was looking for more of a military king - one who would free all the captives in Israel. Little did he know that Jesus' purpose was so much more than that. He didn't come just to set the captives free in Israel, He came to set all people free from sin and eternal damnation. 

As John's disciples embark on their journey back to their weary friend in the desert, Jesus pays him an incredible tribute. "I tell you the truth, of all who ever lived, none is greater than John…" (v11) And Jesus says this right after John questioned who He was…. I want Jesus to say that about me - in spite of my fleshly doubts.

You, my friend, are in company with the greats. Even the strongest saints have experienced deep darkness, tortuous trial and gut-wrentching grief. Study the lives of Abraham, Moses, David and Paul. Jesus promised us that we would have trouble in this world - none of us is an exception!  

Do you feel that God has left you? As though He's heard of your trial and known of your suffering, yet walked the other way? Have you cried out to God, begging for rescue and it seems as though He's only sitting on His hands under a palm tree? Take another look. He's not sitting on His hands. The hands of Jesus have holes in them. Pierced for you. 

Jesus cried out too. He begged His father for another way. To spare the suffering. He experienced the true abandonment of His Father for a moment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet, His momentary suffering produced eternal glory. Had Jesus not gone to the cross, we would be forever damned and He wouldn't know the joy His bride will one day bring. 

Psalm 23:3a, The Psalmist writes, "He restores my soul…" The promise is not that the Lord will restore your health, that friendship, the marriage, finances, career, etc. His promise is that He will restore your soul. It's the only eternal thing, thus it's the only thing that really matters. I pray you come to a place in humility to recognize that sometimes God says "No," but it's always for an eternal reason. Why would you let the Devil rob you of an eternal reward and keep you locked in the dungeon of doubt? 

Imagine John the Baptizer, now enjoying Heaven. Yes, he stayed in prison. Yes, he was beheaded. But, I don't imagine that John would change a single thing. Can you fathom his reward in Heaven?! God forgive us when recklessly trade earthly things for eternal ones! Don't sacrifice the eternal on the altar of the immediate. 

"What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way." Luke 6:22-23

You and I may feel frustrated - experience doubt - assume abandonment, but we don't know abandonment like Jesus does. He did it to give us abundant life. God always has purpose in the pain. You will be happy again. When you can look back with eternal perspective, I doubt you'd want to change a thing. This life is so menial and so fleeting - it is a speck in light of the glory of eternity. So, I'm sorry you're suffering now, but, one day I may be battling jealousy over your reward in heaven! Stay faithful. Hang on to what you know. Recognize the miracles and the way He's moving in the lives of others. Your day will come and perspective will change. 

These hands are active. These hands are marked with love for you. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

In the Meantime

Yes, it has been a while. Many of you have been asking why I've quit posting. To be completely honest, this season of my life has proven to be so challenging that I felt as though I would be a hypocrite to write something uplifting and spiritual. I have gone back and read previous blogs I've posted and just cried as God allowed them to speak to me thinking that there was no possible way I ever wrote it. This entire year has been one of closed doors and "No's." I cried in my moms arms a few days ago after another bit of bad news and said, "I just want to hear a 'YES' soon!" 

Facing trials from the time I was tiny, I have grown up hearing others talk about how strong I was or how, "nothing gets that girl down." This from well-meaning people who have never ceased to pray for or encourage me. Yet, it has created in me this idea that others expect me to be tough. Even after my engagement ended, I handled it like a tough girl would. Only a handful of people have ever seen me cry and for some odd reason, I take pride in that. 

That being said, it's been easier to disappear from social media and my blog rather than tell the world:
I am not that tough.

This week, a friend suggested a podcast that he felt might be uplifting. Turns out, the entire sermon series knocked me on my tail so hard that it caused this mask of super strength I wear to fall off. Aptly title, In The Meantime, the series touches on how to handle the seasons of anxiety. The seasons when you've clearly left Point A, but don't see Point B anywhere in sight. Where your past, present and future seem to be nothing more than a tangled ball of sticky yarn. 

In light of serious medical issues, the emotions of leaving my friends and loved ones across the country, and a general sense of purposelessness, there are many days where I have lost sight of the hope and promises of God and sink into depression. 

I have found such great comfort in the Psalms. So many times, David is able to express the anguish and desperation of his heart using the very words I can't seem to find. But, he wasn't the only one. Paul was there - he wrestled with the thorn in his flesh - he mentions learning to find contentment in the most bleak of circumstances. Moses was there. He spent 40 years "In the Meantime" pleading with God for forgiveness, favor and food. Ruth was there. She lost her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law and opted to leave the world she knew clinging to the hope that something - maybe something - was better somewhere else. Esther was there; essentially kidnapped from her home waiting for one night with the king. 

I think we each have "In the Meantime" seasons, yet we don't like to talk about them. Why? 

I venture to give you a few reasons:

1. We ourselves are insecure. We wear a mask trying to pretend the hurt and frustration isn't there. If we ignore it long enough, everything might just smooth itself out and magically get better and no one has to know the struggle. Pride and self-sufficiency drive us to keep our needs to ourself. 

2. Social Media. It's a monster! I recently removed myself from all my social media feeds for a month. It was so refreshing! Try it - I dare you. Granted, your Facebook news feed is about as authentic as Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Bachelor, but it still gets in our heads. Is anyone actually going to post a bad photo of themselves? NO! That selfie has probably been shot at least three times, has been edited and is now sporting a filter. Their wedding photos are adorable, but you know their marriage isn't perfect. Their baby is so cute and well-behaved, but can't you imagine the bedtime temper-tantrum followed by the 2am "I'm thirsty, Mommy"? Scroll through your feed. It's likely you know some of the stories and heartaches behind the photos. But, it's easy to compare, isn't it? When I made the decision to go off the grid for a month, it was vital. My world was changing yet again. If I saw another engagement announcement, wedding album or gender reveal party, I thought I was going to be sick. Somehow the photos of my friends instilled in me the idea that I was behind. I don't have my life together the way they do. I'm not as pretty, lovable, smart, independent… Unplugging was freeing and greatly diminished the lies I was believing about myself. My attitude and heart had a chance to regroup. Amazingly enough, true friends still found a way to get in touch with me! If you're in a "In the Meantime" season, unplug. I believe you'd be better able to hear God's status updates over your life. 

3. We don't trust others. The Bible is full of verses telling us to share one another's burdens. To lift one another up when one is down. To ask for prayer. But, we don't. I have certainly been guilty of wearing the "everything's ok" mask to church. It could be fear of judgement, concern of gossip, lack of trust or just a good stiff-arm that keeps our mask on. I can't imagine what His ministry would have been like if Jesus wasn't honest and transparent. What if Paul didn't need Timothy? What if Moses decided he could do it all by himself and cast Aaron aside? We are God's gift to one another. You and I were never meant to do this life alone. The whole point was that we would see our inability and Christ's ability - He sends us each other to help be that encouragement and support along the way. I know better than just about anyone how gut-wrentchingly painful it can be to lay down your mask and admit that you're not ok. Yet, the love and grace that flows through admission is palpable. Don't be afraid of the help God has sitting the pew right next to you. 

4. Backpedaling. So, you've finally confided a tiny bit in that friend and they stare back across the table from you with a blank expression, speechless. No words would make the situation better anyway, but you were hoping for a little something. Now the thoughts swirl in your mind. "Why on earth did I say anything to them anyway?" you ask yourself. Maybe it's for them. Revolutionary thought, I know. We tend to get really self-consumed during those "In the Meantime" seasons. Take a peek outside of your world that seems to be crumbling and consider their expression across the table. Maybe it's for her. Maybe he is watching you wage yet another trial and is astounded by your faith. I am exceedingly thankful that many of the Bible Greats faced such seasons. Their stories are what give us hope. Have you considered that maybe by simply sharing your story, you could be that for someone else? Our testimony is the key to victory

5. You're out of faith. If you've been "In the Meantime" for more than a few months, you're probably growing tired. When you're weary and struggling to fight one more day, it seems that the devil gets a microphone. His lies become louder and louder in our ear until he has us curled in the fetal position ready to quit. Consider his battle strategy. The devil's tactics are NEVER new. He knows exactly what will make you feel worthless, empty and defeated and he will repeat himself day after day. Do what you can to strap on the Armor of God. I am so thankful that the only task we are given once the armor is on is to simply stand. Nothing else. Stand. Just one more day. And when you're just plum out of faith and are desperately wondering where God's hand is, take heart in the promise that the Lord will fight for you.  Again, the command is simply to be still - be calm - chill out - take a deep breath. He never leaves. He is busy fighting for you. 

Having lived behind a mask for years, I need to recall each of these points daily. Please feel free to remind me! God has a purpose for the in between times. I am still in the thick of it and don't have a clue what He's up to or where He's headed with me, I just cling to the promises He's given in His word and wait for him to act on my behalf knowing that even in the silence, He is busy. Just because you find yourself in one of life's dark hallways, doesn't mean you need to pitch a tent there. Keep standing until you see the light and the door. I will try to do the same. In the Meantime…