Little things I see or hear often fill me with joy and even wonder…. The intricate care that God has shown in forming all things, yes, even the most insignificant and “useless” things, is something to pause and think on, indeed…especially when great, complicated matters are filling one’s mind…. It reminds me of this verse: “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.” ~Psalm 111:1-2
I found this little poem somewhere recently, scratched out in my scrawling hand….My God has declared a covenant. This – this is the gospel! Among the nations he shall be praised; For he is merciful.
Justice is satisfied, Holiness is met; Mercy has triumphed, Love has won.
God has made a covenant eternal, His own he has chosen; Christ has taken up the station, He – he alone – the Mediator.
Come! O, come and hear! Hearing, heed his command! The King is come! Death is overrun and razed!
Salvation is eternal life; Life is to know the Father; To know him is to be born anew; To be re-born is to belong to Christ.
Come and see the Christ! You will see the covenant. Let your heart be changed, Lest you pass by the mercy of God.
Pass by Christ and pass by life; Ignore the Mediator and despise your Maker. Pass by Christ and pass on to death, Where there is only pain and sorrow forever.
Pass by Christ and feel God’s wrath; He has no mercy for you. Pass by Christ and joy you will never know; For God’s covenant you call a lie.
Do you believe? Where is your faith? Are you dead? Beg for life.
He will hear. He has spoken. His covenant stands. His name shall be praised.
It is a good thing to step back and consider what the Lord has done in history, so that I can understand myself in context. It is also a good thing to step back and consider what the Lord has done in my own short life, so that I can better understand my God.
I have recently had a birthday and I am now twenty-six years old. I feel as though I am going around a bend in the road into a new season of my life. At the same time, I think I have rediscovered something I had lost – and dearly missed without knowing quite what it was that I had forgotten. It is very simple and nearly unbelievable: I had almost forgotten how it is that God loves me.
Yes, I know how God loves me. I can describe the love of God in theological language. I tremble at the thought of the justice of the Holy One and at his just love and mercy. So, no, I didn’t exactly forget how God loves his saints. But I failed to remember that – and what that means in my own life. The past ten years, in particular, have been filled with spiritual – and physical – struggles as God has slowly cracked apart my pride. I have struggled long with things that were only symptoms of my failure and lack of knowing God. Many sins have I had to face – sins which turned out to only be at a surface layer, no matter how deep and fundamental I may have thought them at the time of discovering them.
Now the gospel is transforming me yet again – that same gospel I have believed since before I can actually remember anything. In the few very early memories I have, my childish heart was made happy because God loved me. I did not really understand sin, but, while I knew there were horrible terrors unknown to me, all that was “out there somewhere” because I was assured that God loved me and that he would take care of my family and myself. I was happy because God forgave me when I was disobedient because of Jesus, somehow. And in this I was content as a young child.
Then I began to learn of sin a little more. I grew cold and hard. I knew indeed that I was a sinner, but, on account of my pride, I was but rarely able to behold my own iniquity – so I often begged God to show me my sins so that I might repent. He left me in this state for a number of years, though I was secretly miserable because I knew I wasn’t pleasing God. I believed the Scriptures and I knew in my soul that I was living with a sinful heart and committing far more sins that I was aware of. But I yet clung to the fact of Christ, knowing that he stood between my sin and the Father – even when I could not feel it.
Finally, God began to show me a few of the sins in my life, even as he used the Westminster Standards to deeply shape my heart in those formative teenage years. I slowly began to be able to identify more and more what sin was – both in myself and in the culture around me. At this time I began to struggle with ill health and weakness, as well as with my uneasy conscience and abiding fear. I wept in private nearly daily. The blackness of the darkness of evil intruded into my presence often. I clung to the fact that God is – and that I was his because he has spoken. I sought to repent; but my pride proved to be a greater wall than I could ever possibly surmount in my own strength.
Then my life was turned upside down. Or so it seemed at the time. It was at this juncture that I began to understand that a local church truly, Scripturally, ought to be a part of the individual believer’s life and not just an optional thing that is sometimes nice to have. Arrogant and lonely, I struggled with this in a particular congregation, as well as with the other recent upheavals. Even darker days in my heart ensued. My health was still less than perfect – and my very soul was anguished. I cried out to God – but, still, most of the time my Father seemed quite deaf to my voice, even as I remained blind to my own iniquity. Again, the utter blackness of the abyss drew near to me. Rarely did a day pass when I did not weep in private. Yet, I still knew that God was faithful who had promised – I knew the very King of glory stood between myself and his own holy wrath. Even so, my soul drew near to the gates of death in the foolishness of my heart.
Strange, slow days for my heart followed this. I suddenly was brought face to face with the humiliating fact that, not only the very sins I had been denying were present in my life, but also that I was exceedingly selfish and dishonoring God in my heart. Even though I was greatly humbled, I yet remained centered on myself. I regained my health to a great degree – but after encountering a very large disappointment, my health began to erode again. I was afraid to admit that because I was too afraid, too self-important, and too self-reliant. I planned things. I embarked upon things. I continued to learn, little by little, more and more about the importance of other believers in the life of the Christian – and a little bit about proper humility towards the due authorities appointed by God, especially in the church. I learned more about sin and suffering, more about Scripture and its applications in my own soul. And, little by little, I learned more of the awesome, fearsome, holy, kingship of my Lord and Savior and of his everlasting covenant. I believed that nothing I ever did could ever change that word of God – and in that there was great comfort, though I yet was uneasy in his presence.
Then it so happened that God destroyed me. Slowly, one by one, he took my skills, my plans, my hopes, my abilities, plucking them from my greedy, clutching hands. He took my church family from me – family which meant more to me than my extended family. He took from me the capacity to enjoy things I previously delighted in – including the ability to think, reason, and converse coherently. He took from me strength, stamina, and the ability to work hard. My health was slipping quickly and I felt as though he was even taking from me my sanity. I was disappointed, frustrated, crushed, frightened, and, in some respects, truly outcast. In these dark days, I learned of God’s love – more precisely, of the strength of his love to his people in defending them and judging their enemies. God shall never leave the ones for whom Christ died unvindicated. Yet – all this! – and I was still filled with pride. Anguish overwhelmed me because I believed I was no longer good enough to work hard – ergo, that I was unable to love others; thus, unable to obey and please God. I was humiliated because I was ill; staggering, though not drunk; weeping, though not truly “depressed”; mourning as one doomed to die, but not dead, afraid of the justice of God, knowing I could not please him; seeing primarily the strong, hard face of my King set against those who rebel against him and against his holy Father – my Father.
I do not quite know what happened next – save this – my Father granted me mercy. Somehow, he showed me that which I had long known and declared: it was not the quantity of expenditure of energy in my deeds that would come before him and find his approval, gaining his attention and love. I was already – and had been all along – one beloved for the sake of Christ – and for his sake alone. My obedience added absolutely nothing to that. I knew that – Oh! how I knew that! – but I had forgotten to remember to apply that deeply and broadly to every area of my life – I had retained my pride to a great degree, keeping it hidden under the face of love. I still do not know how it was that God finally granted me this understanding – I do not know if it was through blessing me in a different, loving congregation of his church; or perhaps through reducing me to sitting nearly idle and lifeless, listless and too weary to be ashamed of my inactivity, too confused to be able to confront life; or perhaps through placing me into the loving, protecting, comforting arms of my family at such a time. However – in my anguish he showed me a truth so profound as to leave no room for that humiliation that results from pride – only for a quiet, silent, humble wonder at the mercy of God beyond any I had yet known. The gospel – perhaps I have finally learned it. For Christ’s sake – Christ, the Lamb of God and my merciful High Priest, for me, as well as for the whole church – for Christ’s sake, I am one beloved, one provided for. This is my name. My given name means “the barren one, gift of God” – and my barrenness and weaknesses have indeed proved a gift of God in order to destroy some fundamental falsehoods I had been cultivating for the past ten years.
This is my testimony: I am a sinner. I am beloved of Christ. I do not have to labor to deserve his favor and blessing – his love is freely given – as freely given to the weak as to the strong, who are better able to engage in the deeds associated with the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. The response of faith is heart-obedience – and the measure of heart-obedience is not calories expended, but in willingness to put aside self – all self – willingness to be weak, willingness to be patient, willingness to trust Christ wholly, entirely, and to draw strength only from him and his promise. It is not labor alone that sanctifies us. Nor is labor itself love. Love is the reason for the labor. Love is obedience – and love is the impetus for obedience.
I know not what lessons come next. I have learned much of thanksgiving, of praise, of hope, of steadfast love, discipline, patience, work, fear, humility – but I have much yet to learn. I am twenty six years old now. I have hope that my body shall yet fully be healed, even as I have been blessed significantly already. I must re-learn self-discipline for holy reasons. I must learn how to walk in love – in love freely bestowed. I must learn how to accept love freely bestowed. I must learn how to lean on Christ. I must learn how to pray without ceasing. I must learn how to identify the wicked, creeping pride that buries itself under good things, that I may, in a godly, truly humble way, make war on the wicked parasite of selfish pride and fear of what others might say. This – this – only because I am now free, no longer enslaved to pride as I once was, because God loves me freely.
When I was a young child, my favorite song was “Jesus Loves Me.” I think I sing it now, again, with a little bit greater understanding:
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”
For the glory of God!
“And it shall be said, ‘Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.’ For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.'” ~Isaiah 57:14-15
“The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” ~Psalm 121:7-8
For me, life is always interesting. And sometimes life is very interesting. And sometimes I can’t figure out what is going on.
Today is a day like that–which is also interesting.
It is a rainy spring evening in the American Midwest. The sky is a soft, pale grey, the air is still quite chilly, the rain is blowing and dripping heavily, and the wind is slipping by as quickly as the time seems to be flying….
I awoke this morning with my head full of the things I had been planning on doing this week–I have a few sewing projects with my name on them all cut out and ready to assemble. But I have not done this because I have felt ill all day long, dull of mind, and weak. Experience has taught me that, in such a state, I surely would have merely bumbled my sewing, made huge messes, and ended up with a less-than-excellently made garment…. When I am in a slightly more “normal” state of mind, I love the process of “building” clothing–especially when it is to be pretty outfits for a specific event…but I simply cannot find it in myself to enjoy this work in the state in which I found myself this morning.
The other foremost thoughts in my mind upon awakening were of my grandfather who lives with us. He had a long day out and about yesterday getting his dislocated hip reset–only to discover that it was quite visibly out of joint again by bedtime. My exhausted father was immediately on the phone with various hospitals and doctors, which resulted in a plan to take him in first thing in the morning. My grandfather has had significant decline since he broke his hip the end of November last year–but the amount and significance of his decline of the past week, in particular, has been difficult to watch. By this afternoon, I learn that he also has a previously undiagnosed heart condition which has (most likely) been somewhat contributing to his current frailty.
Meantime, along with all this and many more thoughts scattering around my dulled consciousness, I am wondering what is going on with me and my indwelling spirochetes, protozoa, bacteria, and viruses, for my symptom sets seem to be shifting here recently and I don’t know what to make of it…but the words of Psalm 121 keep running through my head. When my mind is as grey and befuddled as it is today, I can’t seem to keep focus on any series of thoughts for very long–at least, not to any significant depth. The short Psalms of ascents are especially suited to such days…. Not only have I read Psalm 121 multiple times in my daily Scripture reading over the past week, but the sermon at church yesterday drew heavily from this passage, as well. Indeed, yesterday “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!'” (Psalm 122:1). Some of us in my family have been taking turns staying home from church with my grandfather and I had thought that it was my turn to stay home yesterday. But the good providence of God had arranged otherwise–and I also was among those who were assembled together to worship our gracious Lord. Not only that, I was feeling pretty good; so I was doubly blessed yesterday.
Here, then, are a few of my bumbling thoughts from Psalm 121….
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Up, up…looking up the side of a mountain, up to the fortress, up to the stronghold, up to the throne of the King…it is from there, from on high, not from the earth or from any earthly physical power that we are given strength to persevere. Not only that–our God finds and helps each one of us individually…and it is with the same power of him who made heaven and earth that he stretches forth his hand to help us, each one….
“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” The Shepherd of Israel, the King of the Church, watches over all his own, he keeps each one of us, he knows all our paths–all the time…. In the hour when we are not able to sleep, he is there. In the times when we are given sweet rest, he never slumbers. Always he watches and guards each one of his own….
“The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” Not only does our Shepherd and King never sleep in his watching over us and strengthening us, he promises he will keep us and bring us safely at last into his presence forever. We are his–our lives are in his hand because we belong to Christ–and he will preserve us through all those things he has ordained for us to pass through, for our good, for the good of his people, for his name’s sake, for his glory……
In what do we find our worth?
In other words, how do we define ourselves?
Do we define ourselves by our deeds and accomplishments? Do we define ourselves by our families? Our jobs? Our churches? Our words? Our God? Our character? Our vision? Our successes? Our failures? How do we define ourselves? What is that gives us a feeling of worth and of value?
Emotions are indicators–feelings are symptoms. If we learn to read our emotions and our feelings, we will be led to understand our thoughts. So…with an inquiring mind, follow your feelings with me for a moment and let us discover what it is that we truly think….
Ask why. Why is that you feel as you have done well when you have finished a job? Why is it that you feel discouraged and downcast at the end of the day, even when you have worked hard and actually accomplished something? Why?
Think for a moment, follow the trail of your feelings, tracing them back to the law of God.
Our Lord tells us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Thus we learn that those desires which are the most important to us will be that which leads us to feel concern and sorrow when these are threatened, or joy and confidence when these are fulfilled.
Is it our dearest pleasure to delight in the ways of righteousness, rejoicing when truth is done, God is honored, and his law of holiness upheld? Or is there something else, some other desire, which leaves us secretly–or not so secretly–unsatisfied with the place and times given us by the Lord of glory?
If I may give an example, follow this story with me: once upon a time, a young princess worked hard every day at learning the laws of the kingdom and studying how to apply them in various cases relating to everyday life and justice, as well as about the wars that they heard rumors of round and about them. Meantime, she also had other duties upon which to attend–not least of which was her responsibility to oversee the kitchen garden and the supply of food for the palace. Day after day, she would work hard at her tasks, but every evening she went to bed feeling unsatisfied, weary, and empty of joy. She felt as if she was useless and profitless to the kingdom, wanting to do more and better things for her people, but frustrated and apparently unable to do so.
Why did she feel this way, we may ask? We see that she was doing valuable service and would one day make a fine lady, ready and able to govern her family and her people.
Though working hard, she was unsatisfied with the place and with the tasks God had given her. Once, when she dared to complain to a friend, her friend, with a little surprise, pointedly asked her, “What would make you feel as if you were doing enough?” She blushed and had no answer, for she could see that it was from her own discontent that her sorrow came. She was placing her worth in her deeds, instead of asking God to bless the work of her hands and then doing each day’s tasks for his glory alone. She was secretly viewing herself as an utter failure unless she were able to do more than that day’s duties–because she defined herself by what she did.
Thus, we can see that she was practicing a form of works-righteousness, though her tongue denied it. Her constant dissatisfaction was because her heart was bent on trying to prove that she was good enough to be a princess, instead of walking in obedience to God, trusting that each hour brought exactly what God had ordained–and that he put her exactly where she was, day by day, not so that she could prove that she was good enough, but so that she could walk in justice, mercy, and praise towards God.
This is just one example. There are many, many others.
One person defines himself by his family, pitting the reputation of his family’s name against the command of God, suffering justice to be trampled because his brother’s name is dearer to him than the name of God. Blood relationship is more to be esteemed in his eyes than truth. He is secretly unsettled, on edge, wary, uncomfortable, stooping to underhanded dealings to preserve his reputation as a God-fearing man.
Another defines herself by her successes in life–until they are swept from her by the hand of providence. At this time, she begins to define herself by her failures, cutting herself off from hope, counting herself too miserable to ever obey God and content herself in praising him, thus dismissing his almighty power as insufficient for her.
What shall we find when we follow our feelings, in order to see from what source they spring? Surely we shall often be surprised at the darkness and the pride that lurks in the hearts of even the most faithful saint–yes, even of our own selves. To discover your treasure, to find out what it is that you are most unwilling to give up, to uncover the causes of your reactions to life, follow the trail left by your emotions, etched on your heart. With the lamp of Scripture, by the light of the law of God, search your soul.
You will find out what you truly think.
You will see who you truly are.
“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” ~Psalm 118:17-18
This is a phrase I have thought of often over the past few months–living is dying.
In a very real way, from the moment we begin to live, we are dying. Physically, as soon as we exist, we are culpable to degeneration, destruction, and death. Spiritually, we are dead already, though God can work regeneration in a heart even in the womb. Yet, when we come to believe in Christ and thus begin becoming conformed to the law of God written on our hearts, in this way also we are truly dying, though we truly live–dying to self, dying to sin, just as much as our bodies are dying physically. Thus, in two ways even while we live, we are dying.
The apostle Paul frequently uses the language of living and dying in his epistles–for the calling to be a Christian is indeed a matter of life and death. Until our physical deaths, our dying will be incomplete, for it is then that our spirits are made perfect. And at the resurrection, our living will come into its’ fullness, for then death itself shall be made to relinquish its’ last hold upon the saints.
The salvation for us on account of which Christ, our God, was incarnate, walked the earth as a man, suffered, died, was buried, and was raised as the firstfruits was certainly a powerful salvation. The redemption into which we were brought when we were drawn to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit is indeed a redemption beyond the collective imagination of mankind. For, indeed, not only is the believer promised that he shall stand forgiven before the just Creator, not only is he promised that he shall be called a child of God, not only is he promised that he shall dwell forever before the holy throne of God, not only is he promised that, though dying here on earth, he shall live in his spirit and be kept by the power of God, but he is also promised that he shall be raised from the dead by the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead–that his body shall be brought also to life, nevermore to know what it is to be dying. His spirit already has this new life and freedom from death–but his body also shall be set free from the bondage of sin, since death is the curse upon sin–and Christ has borne away every curse upon sin that might otherwise very justly fall upon them.
Without the Scriptures, who would have imagined such a thing as this? Who, apart from the revelation of God, has ever imagined such a complete destruction of death in the history of mankind? Unless the Bible is true, death is merely a normal part of natural existence and there is truly nothing lasting, nothing of permanent value at all, no reason for living, nothing in which to hope–for there is no real, abiding life–there is only dying.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” ~John 1:1-4
“Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.” ~Psalm 25:4-5, 15
“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” ~Isaiah 45:7
“Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.” ~Psalm 116:7
The Lord our God is good indeed. Let us trust him for all things, since all things are in his hand, including our own souls, our own peace, our own happiness–yes, our very lives, both here on earth now and in eternity forever, where we shall stand before him clothed in the righteousness of Christ Jesus.