Saturday, October 20, 2012

COM Ch 18: The Desert

Part III  Growing Faith

Chapter 18:  The Desert

            When I was a junior in college, I went on a week-long hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains.  It was a college mission trip to clean up the paths as we hiked.  And a group of about twenty of us took an overnight bus down.  After we got there, we broke up into four teams that would all be hiking different paths.  My team consisted of all tall people, except for me.  I was the only five-footer (well, five feet and three-quarters of an inch) in a group of at least five-foot-eight-ers.  My brand-new backpack and the sleeping bag that I wore on my back were about as big as I was and weighed about as much, at least a hundred pounds.  (Ok, not that much.  But close!)  It was going to be a long week.

            After we broke into our teams, we began our treks into the woods.  And for the first few miles, we walked single file.  Which ended up being a really good thing because . . . I cried the whole way.  (I am not a cry-baby.  Really, I’m not!)  Now, I love nature and trees and walks in the fresh air.  But I do not like walking and walking and walking while carrying what feels like a St. Bernard strapped to my back.  And my tiny, little legs had to work twice as hard to keep up with the big people.  I may as well have been a cartoon character whose feet are spinning in circles really fast, but I’m not getting anywhere.  I was physically hurting just a few miles in, and the pain came out as tears.  It was going to be a LONG week! 
            We hiked and hiked and hiked.  And I was so thankful that the path was only one-person wide, so we couldn’t really turn easily to look at people behind us.  I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was crying or anything!   (Oh, yes!  Yet another opportunity to display my lack of athletic prowess!  Why do I pick these trips?  I am not a hiker.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  Did I learn nothing from my Boot Camp obstacle course pathetic-ness and my PNG “hike up the mountain and turn back around halfway-up” adventure and my “doggy-paddle back to shore because I can’t keep myself afloat” wimpy-ness?  Guess not!)
            I have never walked as much as I did that week.  The miles went on and on.  Sometimes I had to set my jaw and resolve to make it just another quarter mile.  And then the next quarter mile!  And then the next quarter mile!  And I couldn’t talk to anyone or I might start crying from exhaustion.  I needed all the energy and determination I had just to put one foot in front of the other.  It was the only way I could get through it without laying down and giving up!  And then I would get up the next day and do it all over again.  (Sounds like cleaning house!)
            I remember that the best part of that week of hiking was sitting down for a few minutes to have an apple in the shade one day.  Everyone else was enjoying the sun.  But remember that I’m a great big whiner in the heat (and the cold), so I sat under a tree by myself.  It was nice!  You know it’s been a rough week when that’s the best memory. 
            Actually, I shouldn’t say that.  There was one really nice time when we took a hike to the top of one of the mountains on a cool, moist morning.  We wanted to look out across the valley from the top of that mountain.  The sky was cloudy and the air was crisp, clean, and fresh!  It was one of the more peaceful, relaxing moments in a week full of treacherous hiking!  A nice respite!  (What?  More hiking?  And just for fun?)  We got to look down on the valleys below and stand with our feet in two different states (or so we were told).  I have a picture of my feet like that.  It looks like I just took a picture of my boots! 
            Well, after a lot of walking and basically no path-cleaning, we made it to the end of the week.  And I learned that I could push myself to the limit physically and be alright.  That I could make it through without giving up!  (Of course, giving up would mean waiting on the mountain by myself until everyone else got back to civilization and sent a helicopter to come find me.  And since I’m not that handy with just a pocket knife, sleeping bag, backpack, and Bible, I don’t think I’d last long.  So giving up was really not an option!) 
            But when we finally met up with the other teams at the end of the week, I learned something else.  I learned that each of the other teams hiked about twenty-five miles total over the week.  And that our team hiked . . . fifty-five miles! 
            What!?!  They put the smallest person on the team that hiked the farthest.  Compared to the less horizontally-challenged people, I could probably claim that fifty-five miles for them was more like a hundred miles for me.  Yeah, that’s more like it.  I hiked one hundred miles on my trip to the Smokies!  Now there’s some bragging rights! 
            I was NOT!  TOO!  HAPPY! about that.  How unfair!  I wanted to gripe to someone.  I wanted a do-over, to go back to the beginning and pick a wimpy team.  That’s the team I belonged on.  And I wanted to brag to someone about what I accomplished against my will.  But what could I say, really?  Either they were on my team and hiked the fifty-five miles, too.  Therefore, they wouldn’t be impressed with my accomplishment.  Or they were on the wimpy teams and wouldn’t like me bragging about the “fifty-five miles I hiked, up and down the mountains, with a hundred pounds strapped to my back.”  (But, oh, how my kids will hear about it when they complain about the things they have to do!)
            I couldn’t complain and I couldn’t brag.  But I did realize that I could be thankful.  I could be thankful that they didn’t tell me this ahead of time.  Because if I had known that I was going to be on the longest-trekking team, I would have grumbled and cried a lot more than I did.
            Something about that trip reminds me of waiting for God’s answer about a house.  Walking and walking and walking and feeling like I am not getting anywhere.  The scenery is the same: trees, trees, trees.  Walking and waiting, waiting and walking.  One foot in front of the other.  Grumbling the whole way. 
            And as I said, for years (before I humbled myself) I did grumble.  I hate to admit it.  But I did!  “Lord, why?  Why can’t I just have this thing that I so need to feel secure?  Why do we have to work and wait and not get anywhere?  It doesn’t seem fair, working so hard and not getting ahead at all, watching everyone else settle down with the one thing I want?  We can’t even get a dog in this rental.” 
            Grumble, grumble, walking on mile after mile.  Thankful that no one’s around to see me cry!  Have you ever driven along the highway and seen a little bird at the edge of the road, flapping with all of its might into the wind but not getting anywhere?  I know how they feel because that’s how I felt!  And I was tired!  I might have come a long way in my relationship with the Lord, but there was still a long way to go.
            As I said before, when I was younger the Old Testament was . . . well . . . boring.  It had none of Jesus’ words, none of the neat pieces of relevant advice that the New Testament offered.  It was too detached from me and my century.  It was all, “This person came from this blood line, that country went to war with the other one, the Israelites wandered around and around and around.  Blah, blah, blah.” 
            But during the trials and the waiting - my “time in the furnace” - I began to see the Old Testament in a much different way.  I had just started over reading the Bible from the beginning, and these amazing lessons began to pop out at me.  Lessons that had been there the whole time, hidden in plain sight. 
            As I said before, I am a firm believer in learning from other people’s mistakes.  (Which is probably why I am sharing my story with you.  So you can hopefully learn from mine!)  And as I began to see myself in the Israelites - and then see how God responded to them - I became very sobered and humbled!  The Israelites were not just some ancient people.  They were people, people who could be you or me.  The circumstances might be different, but human hearts and minds are very similar.  And the God of the Old Testament wasn’t just some ancient God of yesteryear.  He is the same today as He was then and as He will be in the future.    
            While thousands of years separate us, the Israelites and I are not really that different at all.  Many of the behaviors and attitudes that God punished them for were ones I was guilty of, also.  And in God’s justice, they got hammered sometimes.  The OT was about God’s wrath, sure.  But that’s pretty much all it was about for me before.  And all I could think was, How harsh and unfair!
            But as I began to reread it this time, it came alive for me in so many new ways.  It wasn’t just full of terrifying wrath now, but it was full of God’s holiness, faithfulness, TLC, providence, justice, mercy, and love.  I began to see all of the ways that His heart ached for His people and how He desired the best for them, how He dealt patiently and mercifully with them before dishing out the discipline.  And yet again and again, the people broke His heart and rejected Him.  And so when He had to discipline, it was in righteous anger and because of His just character.  But it grieved Him to punish His children.    
            As I began to read it again as someone who has been touched by His love, He wasn’t irrational and angry to me anymore.  He was not the harsh, not-easily-pleased, just-waiting-to-find-fault-with-us God that I always lived like He was.  He’s an ever-hopeful, always-loving, extremely-patient, ready-to-forgive Father that just wants to be near us and to have us know the joy and peace that come with trusting His love and His goodness.     
            Particularly, for me, Exodus and Numbers are just bursting with life lessons.  And so, here is the world’s shortest Bible study on the Exodus and the forty years in the desert:
           It would seem to me that the two biggest things that the Israelites constantly got in trouble for were forgetting and grumbling.  Two things that I am constantly guilty of.  Obviously, they probably felt that they had a lot to grumble about.  They were under a major hardship in Egypt, being slaves and all.  And then things only got worse when God first sent Moses to Pharaoh.  They didn’t get immediate deliverance.  Pharaoh increased their work by taking away their straw, but he kept the quota the same.  And the Israelite foremen were beaten.  Doesn’t sound too promising, yet. 
            Didn’t God promise deliverance?  And yet things got worse!  I can just hear them thinking, What kind of a God is that?  He isn’t doing what He said He would do?  (Hmm, sounds an awful lot like me, Why aren’t You getting us out of here yet?  Didn’t You say that You clothe the fields and take care of the birds?  And if I just seek Your kingdom, You’ll provide those things as well?  Didn’t You say that You would provide the desires of my heart?  What happened?”)  And although Moses said that God would deliver them and bring them to the land He promised their forefathers, they didn’t listen to him because they were too discouraged.  Their eyes were on their circumstances and not on God! 
            Then, to get Pharaoh to release the people and to demonstrate His power, God sent the plagues.  We all know this story.  No need to elaborate.  But that must have been amazing to see: blood, frogs, hail, etc.  What a clear sign of supernatural power!  Surely that would be enough to convince the Israelites that this is the one true God?  Surely they would be able to place their faith in Him wholeheartedly, no matter the circumstances, because they had seen His awesome display of power? 
            But God, in His wisdom, knows how human hearts work.  He knows that regardless of the ways He proves Himself, people will forget.  So He instructed them to celebrate Passover.  And He commanded it as a yearly event.  He gave this command even before He sent the last plague, before they were set free by Pharaoh.  He knew that the people would see this terrible plague - this amazing deliverance - and still be able to forget what He can do.  That is why He instructed them to make it a yearly festival, so that they were constantly reminded of God’s power and faithfulness, and so that they could teach future generations about it. 
            The Bible is full of times when God instructs people to remember something or to do things in remembrance of Him.  (Exodus 20:8, Deuteronomy 5:15, 27:2-3, 1 Chronicles 16:12, Joshua 4:1-7, Luke 22:19 and many more)  Because He knows that no matter how grand of a display of His supernatural power, as time goes on, the event that it signifies becomes less and less powerful to us.  And when we begin to forget or take Him for granted, when we doubt His power or love or goodness, we (or, at least, I) lose heart.  We forget who He is and what He is capable of.  And we forget that He is God and we are not!  And so He commands us to remember. 
            The Israelites had been through a time unlike any other in the history of mankind.  They saw the plagues, the pillar of fire, and the cloud.  And what is one of the first things that they do when things get rough?  When they see Pharaoh’s army approaching?  They freak out!  They lose heart and courage and they begin to despair. 
            Did they stop to remember Who was on their side?  Did they remember how they were protected from the plagues that God sent on the Egyptians, how the destroyer passed over their homes when the firstborn of the Egyptians died?  Did they ask Him for His help or lay their concerns and fears at His feet? 
            Nope!  It sounds like they just lost it.  Exodus 14: 11: “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?  What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’?  It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert?’“ 
            They weren’t really saying this to Moses.  They were saying it to God.  They were saying, “What kind of a God are You that You would lead us into danger and death?  I’d rather be under Pharaoh’s thumb than under Your care!”  How that must have broken God’s heart; the people He handpicked to save and to bless couldn’t relax in His arms, especially after seeing His power and goodness! 
            But what seemed to them to be an impossible situation - hemmed in all around with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them - was actually set up by God.  God chose this to display His most awesome “event.”  And in order to make it the grandest display ever, He waited until the last possible second.  Despite appearances, the people were never really in harm’s way.  Not when they were right where God wanted them to be. 
            Exodus 14:1-4: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephron.  Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’  And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them.  But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.’  So the Israelites did this.” 
            This gives me courage when I want to despair, when I see no way out and I begin to wonder where God is.  He’s in it all along.  I think of an ant farm being picked up and moved to a different place.  The little ant’s world is shaking.  Nothing feels stable.  The little ants don’t know that someone big and strong is holding it up and purposely moving it to a better position.  All they know is that their world is falling apart, and they are freaking out.  (Humor me here!)  What an unnecessary waste of emotions and energy and fear!  They were never in danger, no matter how uncertain it felt.  They just didn’t know it because of their limited vision.  (So many times, I am such a little ant!) 
            Anyway, do you know what Moses tells them to do when they are freaking out?  I love this and I think it is so important to remember when we face difficulties or decisions.  It’s something that is so simple to do, yet incredibly difficult.  Exodus 14:13-14:  “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.  The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” 
            Be still!  They only had to be still.  Stand firm, firm in their faith that God would handle it.  The Lord would do the fighting.  Psalm 46:10 echoes this:  “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Once again, be still!  As long as they trusted and simply stood still and firm in the Lord, they were safe.  And God would be glorified!  It was in His hands all along, even if they couldn’t see it.  That encourages my soul.  I don’t see the big picture.  I don’t have to see the big picture because I can trust that God does.  My job is just to trust and remain still and firm in my faith.  I’m right where I need to be as long as I am walking in obedience under His guidance.   
            So the Red Sea was parted and the Israelites walked through on dry ground.  And then they saw Pharaoh’s army completely destroyed.  And this so filled them with awe and thankfulness that they sang songs of praise and celebrated God’s supernatural deliverance.  It so filled them with a tangible sense of God’s strength and care that they . . . several days later . . . freaked out again! 
            Exodus 15:22-24: “Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur.  For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter.  (That is why the place is called Marah.)  So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?”
            Just several days after seeing the Red Sea parted!  I don’t know how long it took them to get to the desert, but after three days of not finding water they completely forget God’s strength and faithfulness.  After the Red Sea!  After the pillar of fire!  After the plagues!  (Oh, yes!  God knows how human hearts are!) 
            And, once again, they weren’t really complaining to Moses, they were grumbling about God’s care for them, or lack of care.  They were essentially saying, “How small and unloving is our God that He would bring us into a place with no water!” 
            There are many more examples of their grumblings in Exodus and Numbers.  And through it all, they demonstrated how they really viewed the God of the universe.  And as a consequence of their complaining – of their lack of faith in God - terrible things happened.  Deaths, plagues, quail overrunning them until it came out their ears, and then more death. 
            God doesn’t take it lightly when we complain about our circumstances.  In Numbers 14, God reveals what grumbling and lack of faith in Him really is.  Numbers 14: 11: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt?  How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?”
            Contempt!  Complaining about or being totally distraught/worried about our circumstances is not just "understandably being concerned" or "just being honest"; it is contempt for God and His care!  And needing to be in control, needing all the answers up front, and being too afraid of trusting the Lord are not just "things that any reasonable person would do"; they are signs of faithlessness.  And this is contempt for God and doubt about what kind of God He is!  (Ouch!  OUCH!) 
            I used to look down on the Israelites.  I used to think, You foolish people!  How could you be so forgetful and blind?  Tsk-tsk!  If I were in your shoes, I would never . . .  But lately, I’ve been seeing so much of myself in them.  And it’s been humbling. 
            I’m stunned, sometimes, how quickly I forget who God really is.  I will wake up refreshed and hopeful and ready to take on the world.  Things will seem sunny and I’ll think, “Lord, I’ll go where You want me to go, do what You want me to do.  Even if it means going nowhere right now.  I trust You.  I know that You can work everything out!  I know You’ll bring us a place when it is time.” 
            And, then, a mere twelve hours later, when it’s been a long day and I’m tired and worn-down or when I’m thinking about the garden I may never have, I find myself thinking, I don’t even think He’s listening.  Maybe I’m a fool for waiting.  Why?  Why is He taking so long?  Where is He?  Does He even care?  The Israelites couldn’t make it a week.  But sometimes I can’t even make it a day without despairing, without forgetting Who it is that I’m really speaking to when I pray.    
            He is so much bigger than I give Him credit for.  And yet so often, when I am focusing on my problems or discontent, I maximize my problems and I shrink God.  They can’t both be big.  And the one that I focus on more will dwarf the other one soon enough. 
            I ran across a verse recently that I just fell in love with.  It’s one that gives me goose-bumps and opens my eyes to the greatness of God.  Numbers 11: 23: “The Lord answered Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s arm too short?  You will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.’“ 
            Is the Lord’s arm too short?  This isn’t what someone else was saying about God.  These are His words.  “Is the Lord’s arm too short?”  It’s like He’s asking, “Who do you think I am?  I created the universe, but you still don’t trust Me with your little concern!  You still don’t think that I am capable of so much more!  Well, just watch Me!”  I love that verse.  I LOVE that verse.  I want to write it on my wall where I can see it daily.  “Is the Lord’s arm too short?”  I know that He is asking me this same question all throughout the day.     
            And so, what was it that the Lord required of the Israelites?  That He requires of me?  Trust and faith, in spite of the circumstance.  Trust and faith without all the answers and assurances up front.  And this is not easy when you are someone who needs the control to feel secure, when you are used to protecting yourself from vulnerability and risk and hurt.  (And trust and faith are the very first things to go when despair and fear take over.) 
            During the Exodus, God proved to the Israelites how in-control, capable, and powerful He is.  He supernaturally delivered them from the Egyptians.  He guided them through the desert and the Red Sea.  He gave them water when they had none.  He kept their clothes from wearing out.  And He provided their daily bread in a most unusual way - the never-before-seen manna. 
            And what did He ask of them when He provided the manna?  All He required was that they gathered just enough for that day, that they had enough faith in Him to provide for tomorrow.  That was their only job; just sit back and eat their fill and trust Him.  But the simple things are so hard to do when it means relinquishing the control and stepping out in faith.  And so they gathered more.
            Did you know that when God provided the manna, He was actually testing them?  Deuteronomy 8:16 says “He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you.”  Verse 2 explains why He tested them: “. . . in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”    
            In the simple act of taking it upon themselves to provide tomorrow’s needs when God said “Don’t,” they showed God that they trusted in themselves more than in Him.  They basically said to Him, “I will not trust You with the future, the unknown.  You might fail me!”  And this got Moses and the Lord angry.  They had been through so much with the Lord and He had been so faithful to them, but they still couldn’t just rest in faith in Him.  Oh, sounds so familiar to me!  I’ve been there many, many times! 
            On a different note, I think that tithing follows this principle, too.  God tells us to tithe.  And yet we are afraid of not having enough money for tomorrow and so we hoard more than we should, when in Proverbs 3:9-10 God tells us to give of the first-fruits. 
            “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” 
            I was further convicted about this when I read what God commanded in Numbers 15:20:  “Present a cake from the first of your ground meal and present it as an offering from the threshing floor.”  They weren’t even to get it out of the processing area and into their homes before presenting the offering.  They were supposed to do it from the threshing floor, before they even got it out the door.  That’s how serious the “first-fruit” command is.  God gets the best, because He deserves the best.  And because it’s all His anyway.      
            This is more of an issue of trust and obedience than it is about finances.  By not tithing as He tells us to, we show God that we choose to rely on ourselves to meet our future needs, instead of relying on Him.  And according to Malachi 3:6-12, we are robbing God.  And when we do this, we cut ourselves off from being blessed by Him, as He promises to bless us when we tithe in trust.  Because, after all, we have chosen to rely on ourselves.    
            And I think God, being a respecter of our free-will, has to let us rely on ourselves if we choose to.  And He lets us face the consequences of it.  But He is waiting to give us so much more if we would just show our faith in Him by tithing as we are told.  And oftentimes, He further tests us by letting it hurt a little before He opens the floodgates of Heaven.  But the blessings will come when we obey.
            (But even if we tithe, we still might not see an abundance of stuff on this side of eternity.  God may choose to bless us with more stuff now, or He may choose to bless us in Heaven.  Either way, our job is to be faithful and obedient; His job is to bless as He sees fit.) 
            I know that this isn’t easy.  And I’m sure that some of you are thinking, “Yeah, right.  Easy for you to say.  You published a book and probably have an abundance of money.  You don’t know how hard it is for us and how little we have.”  (At least, that’s how I tend to see authors and celebrities of any kind.) 
            Well, let me say that right now we don’t have an abundance.  As I write this, I haven’t published a thing.  (I’m simply taking it on faith that God will allow this to get published.  I told Him that I’d be faithfully obedient to write it, but that it’s then His to do with as He pleases.  Even if He calls me to give it away, I will.  I just pray that He uses it however He can, for His glory and to help other people!) 
            Right now, though, we have one small income for a family of six.  And I am still paying hundreds a month on a school loan that I am not putting to any use.  We have one car because we can’t afford another one.  And Jason takes that one to work, so I am left home without any transportation all day.  (It’s a good thing that I like staying home and that I love being around my children . . . all day long . . . for hours on end!  But, no, seriously . . . I really do love it!)
            In fact, for us to make enough money to pay our bills and get groceries, Jason has to work overtime because working straight full-time means that we sink farther and farther into debt every week, living on credit.  And when the economy tanked, his hours got cut down to well below full-time.  And we had to trim corners that had already been cut down, and we dug ourselves a nice, little hole that we have never gotten out of. 
            And we don’t live lavishly.  We don’t have cell phones, except a pay-as-you-go Tracfone for emergencies.  We don’t go out to eat very often.  We hardly ever go clothes shopping (and even then, it’s thrift stores or whatever we can find on sale.)  We don’t have cable or any other channel provider.  Just the basic channels that come in over the antenna.  (My theory is this:  If you pay for channels but don’t watch them, you are wasting your money.  If you pay for channels and watch them, you are wasting your money and your time.  And probably filling your head with garbage, because there is not much good out there on television.  Cable companies don’t like me very much.  Neither do newspaper salespeople, because I tell them that I don’t want the newspaper until they start printing pleasant stories.  Why would I want to start my day with all that bad news?  Besides, whatever I really have to know about, I’ll find out eventually.) 
            We are very much homegrown, hand-me-down, make-it-yourself, salvage-it-or-buy-it-on-sale-or-do-without people.  Seriously, it takes me forever to get around to buying a package of plain Jane socks or underwear for the family because I balk at the prices.  In fact, if anyone broke into our home to try to steal anything, I bet that they’d end up leaving us money with a note saying, “Go out and buy yourself something nice . . . please.”  (And I’m sure that my husband is laughing right now as he reads this because he knows how true it is.  Or else he’s saying, “Don’t let people know that!”)  And yet, tithing is a priority. 
            But it wasn’t always.  We have gone through times when we used excuses like “The Lord knows that we don’t make enough to tithe.  I’m sure He’ll understand.”  But God has gotten a hold of us in such a way that we realize the importance of obeying this command to tithe.  To be honest, though, we have yet to see Him throw open the floodgates of Heaven, as He promises in Malachi.  But I believe that our part is simply to obey and to tithe.  And to let Him provide in the way He chooses. 
            We may never have an abundance of money.  We may always find shopping a balancing act, waiting for months for that $10 item to go on sale for $8 so that we can buy it without feeling guilty.  We may always have just one car.  I may always end up using my Christmas money to pay the kids back for the money we “borrowed” from their banks over the year or to take them out for an extra-special dinner to Culvers.  But I still believe that God will provide . . . in His own way. 
            And it may not be in financial gains.  Maybe we need to broaden our definition of abundance and blessing.  Just recently, after many prayers on my part, three of my boys asked Jesus into their heart, at a far younger age than even I did.  You can’t put a price on that.  Even if we never get our heads above water financially, my abundant rewards are in Heaven.  Because I get to spend eternity with my children.  (And I’m still praying for Jackson, who is currently way too young to understand yet.)  I tell you, I feel like the richest, most blessed person.  God has been good.  No, God has been great!
            I believe that if we remain obedient, God will bless.  He has promised that.  But we create additional financial hardships by choosing to disobey God and to rely on ourselves.  Think about this when you wonder why you might be hurting financially.  Are you relying on yourselves by hoarding, or on God by offering the first-fruits that belong to Him anyway?  After all, it all belongs to Him; He just allows us to keep the other 90%.  And once He knows that we are thankful, godly, obedient stewards with His money and blessings, He can give us more.  
            Anyway, back to the topic, when I forget all the ways that God has taken care of me before, I begin to feel that I have to rely on myself.  How many times have I brought a new fear or complaint before the Lord and acted like (not necessarily said out loud to Him, but He knows my heart) it’s the end of the world and there is no way He could really handle it?  Um, let me count:  possible adoption, Ryder’s teeth, my teeth, gum infection, the economic recession, the medical decision, our reduced income, our housing situation, an infection on my son’s finger, my congested sinuses, and on and on and on.  Oddly enough, learning to rest is a very hard thing to do. 
            In my humanness, I go right back to my same mode of fretting about it, mulling over the details, wishing that I could have all answers and assurances up front before I trust, and giving the situation over to God . . . only to take it right back again, as if worrying about it would make it turn out the way I want.  
            I think that’s why I worry over things that I don’t have control over; it makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I have some sort of control when I really don’t.  I mean, you’d think it would be easier to hand it over to Him when there’s nothing you can do about it anyway?  Kind of like road rage, why get all upset when there’s nothing you can do about it?  Just relax and go with it, instead of choosing to make yourself crazy.  I may as well be saying, “Oh, Lord, there’s no way You could ever work this housing issue out.  It’s too big for You.  Your arm is just too short!”   
            I wonder what would have happened if every time the Israelites wanted to grumble, they prayed instead?  I wonder what would happen if I did?  I wonder what would have happened if every time they wanted to doubt, they remembered?  I wonder what would happen if I did?  How different their time in the desert would have been if they simply hit their knees and prayed: for water, for food, and for strength and courage to take the promised land.  How different it would have been if they had remembered the blessings that He poured out and the miracles He performed in the past, even just days before.      
            I hate to admit it, but for years I have been grumbling.  I’m not proud of that.  I would go to Him with my pain and fears, but I would also grumble about the situation I was in.  I wouldn’t speak bad of God, but I would grumble in my own mind and to Jason.  I would highlight all the bad things about our circumstances, about how moldy the house was, about how cramped it was getting, about how He just wasn’t doing anything to help us.  Surely it can’t be wrong to honestly share my grievances with others, or with my husband in my own (rented) house? 
            Hmm?  Numbers 11: 10:  “Moses heard the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent.  The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled.”  Makes me wonder!  Maybe complaining in my own house, even just to my husband, isn’t such a smart idea?  Maybe it’s more than just blowing off a little steam or venting frustrations?  Maybe it’s actually not that I’m saying those things to Jason, maybe I’m saying them to the Lord and showing contempt?  Hmm?  
            You know, I’m beginning to see it like this: Complaining to other people is contempt for God, but complaining to God is prayer!  I don’t mean complaining to God in a judgmental, I’m-throwing-you-off-the-throne-because-I-don’t-like-the-way-You-do- things way.  I’m talking about going to Him with our fears, doubts, and concerns, and telling Him honestly about the things that break our hearts.  That is prayer! 
            Now, it’s not wrong to tell others about things that we are going through.  It’s important to seek support from other Christians.  It’s one of the reasons God made us as a community of believers.  But I think there’s a difference between honest sharing in order to seek support and griping about our situation.  We can share what’s going on without criticizing God for what He’s doing or allowing in our lives and without questioning His ability to be God.  But how often is our complaining really just a way of saying, “I just don’t trust what God is doing in my life!” 
            I think, though, that the problem is that we tend to share/gripe with others (or just to ourselves, as I do) about what we are really feeling, but then we try very hard to be composed and “proper” with God.  (Or at least I do!)  And I think that God would rather that we bring our real selves directly to Him than just to others and ourselves.  This is the difference between prayer and griping.      
            Anyway, the more I focused on the things that I was unhappy about, the more depressed and upset I became, feeling as though God wasn’t going to do anything about them or wasn’t capable.  I didn’t like the circumstances that God had allowed into my life, that we were still stuck in a moldy rental that we couldn’t get out of.  I was like a child pouting at the table with crossed arms and a giant frown because I didn’t want to eat my veggies. 
            “What is this pile of green slop?  You expect me to eat that?!?  I know You said there’s reasons why You serve this, but it looks and smells like rotten worms.  In fact, I can’t even get a bite down.  Look, I keep gagging!  What are You trying to do to me?  You know I can’t handle this.  Look, I’ll eat any other healthy thing as long as I can pick it.  But this should be cruel and inhumane treatment.  You gave So-and-So French fries.  What did they do to deserve that?  What did I do to deserve this?  But . . . whatever You want is fine with me.  You know, I’m not really happy with it, but I’ll eat it.  Your Will be done!”   
            I wonder how much delight God takes in those kinds of prayers.  I can just hear God saying, “Don’t bother.  I’ll give your dinner to someone else.”   
            I don’t know if this has happened to you, but my kids will come into the kitchen and ask, “When are we going to have dinner?”  And this is not just a “What time are we going to have dinner?” question, but an “Are you going to feed us?” kind of a question.  A genuine concern that I might forget to feed them.  They would look at me in anxiousness, practically wringing their hands together, and ask, “What about dinner?  Aren’t we gonna have it?  When?”  As though I don’t feed them three meals a day on a regular basis. 
            And what gets me the most is that it is usually when I have been in the kitchen for hours, standing there elbow-deep in food, in the process of making them dinner.  “Umm . . . No, Honey! I wasn’t going to feed you today.  I just thought it would be fun to stand here for hours making food and then let you sit and watch me eat it all.”  Stunned looks!  Tears well up!  They seriously believe me!  “Of course, I’m making you dinner!  Can’t you see that’s what I’m doing right now?  Get out of here until I call you.”   
            Number one, they didn’t even notice the enormous amount of work I was putting into getting dinner ready.  For all they knew, I was in the kitchen making a one-man junk band out of all my pots and pans instead of cooking for them. 
            Number two, they were nervous.  They were questioning whether I would feed them or let them go hungry.  What kind of mother did they think I was?  Have I ever once forgotten to feed them?  Maybe I’ve forgotten to feed myself sometimes in the bustle to care for kids.  But I’ve never forgotten them.  (Trust me, I couldn’t forget if I wanted to, with growing children inhaling food all day long!  Making food is a full-time job in itself.)  Should they be wondering if I’ll let them down?  Were they expecting me to fail in that area? 
            And then number three, I know that I’m going to put this lovingly made dish in front of them and they are going to do one of two things.  They would either turn up their noses at it and start whining, “This is what we are having?  I hate this.  I don’t want green beans.  I’d rather have peas!”  And then they would proceed to gag and choke through the whole meal.  (Back before three children, I used to be like “Oh, ok, Honey.  Well, I don’t mind if you have something else.  Let me make you a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.”  Now I say, “I didn’t say you have to like it.  I said you have to eat it.”  I’ve gotten smarter over the years.) 
            Or they would shovel it into their mouths until their cheeks were so full that they couldn’t close their lips.  And through a wall of food, they would ask, “Can I have some more?”  Is this all kids or just my boys?   I mean it!  They can’t even close their mouths to chew the food.  It’s protruding from their lips making them look like Neanderthals, and they are already asking for more or for something else.  You would think that I liked to snatch their plates from them after a couple bites just for fun, and so they have to shovel in as much as possible and as quickly as possible before I do.  Hey, survival of the fittest!  And then, they are not even enjoying or savoring what I’ve spent hours making before moving onto the next thing.
            Wow, how many times do I do that exact same thing to my Heavenly Father?  God has been amazingly faithful in so many ways, and I know that He is always in the process of working in my life.        
            Philippians 1:6:  “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” 
            Deuteronomy 31:6:  “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified . . . for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” 
            And yet how often do I find myself walking into His kitchen, asking, “Are You gonna feed me?  Are You gonna take care of me?  Were You listening to my prayers?”  Do I remember who He really is when a new fear arises?  Have I trained myself to go to Him in prayer before worrying?  For so many years, sadly, the answer is “no.”    
            How it must disappoint Him when I show such little faith, as though He somehow failed me before and I have to remind Him to provide for me.  If God could handle creating a whole universe, I know He can handle whatever request I bring His way.  But do I remember all the ways He has been faithful in the past?  Do I stop and savor the blessings that He’s rained down on me?  Do I remember to thank Him for His faithfulness? 
            No!  I question if He’ll feed me and then I wolf down the blessings as fast as I can, barely appreciating them before moving onto the next prayer or concern.  “Do you have anymore?  Can I have something else?”  
            So what is the opposite of grumbling and forgetting?  What would be the godly way to deal with the large, dry desert, when I am ready to complain and to doubt?  Thankfulness and remembering.  This is something that I have been convicted on lately: thankfulness.  We are called over and over again to be thankful.  And yet so often, I forget to do that.  How must that make God feel?  One Christmas, I got a glimpse.   
            A few years back, our boys were asking for GameBoys.  They wanted one for months and Christmas was almost here.  I didn’t want more game systems in the house, and so I firmly put my foot down. 
            “We are not getting GameBoys, guys,” I would tell them.  “We have enough games and you guys spend enough time playing those.  We don’t need more.”
            And I meant it!  But as Christmas approached and my resolve melted (and we found some good, used ones), we wrapped them up and put them under the tree.  Jason and I were just as excited to give them as they would be to get them.  We were looking forward to seeing their faces light up on Christmas morning.  A gift that they never thought they would get!  That would be a gift to us!
            Well, the next morning the boys woke up bright and early.  We had our video camera waiting and our traditional Christmas cinnamon rolls.  And as always, first things first . . . Mom and Dad get their coffee.  Belligerent gorilla before presents. 
            We finally made it into the living room and began passing the boys each of their gifts.  We limit ourselves to three gifts each, not including stocking stuffers.  (Jesus got three gifts.  It seems like a good precedent.  And before you feel sorry for the children, let me say that sometimes a gift is actually a “compound” gift around a certain theme.  Like three action figures as one present.  So it’s usually more than just three things.  But it does help weed out the superfluous gifts.)             
            The first gift that they opened was the GameBoy cover.  I expected them to say, “GameBoy cover?  But we don’t have any GameBoys!”  And then they would get filled with more and more anticipation as they moved onto the games and then the GameBoys.  And we would get to watch them jump up and down with excitement, and they would throw their arms around us in thankfulness and bust out in a song of praise! 
            Just as Kody opened his cover, Hunter looked over.   
            “Oh, I know what that is.  It’s a GameBoy cover,” he said, incredibly nonchalantly.  And then they opened the games and the GameBoys. 
            “Oh, GameBoys,” they said.  However, when they said it, it wasn’t like, Wow!  Thanks Mom and Dad.  Just what we wanted!  I never thought we’d get one!  It was more like, Oh, socks and underwear.  Yeah, I guess we wanted those!  Umm . . . sure . . . thanks, I guess!  (These are so my kids.  That’s about as much excitement as I showed Santa when he came to our house.  So I can’t be too hard on them.  I’m just getting a taste of my own medicine.)
            Anyway, Jason and I were both quite disappointed in their responses.  We thought that they’d be thrilled with the longed-for, unexpected gift.  We wanted to be able to see them get excited, to enjoy it and to feel blessed by it.  That would bless us!  Instead, we got the kind of response that I probably give God all the time.  Instead of getting excited with the gifts He gives me and thoroughly enjoying them, I remain reserved, cautious, and overly worried about my response or some new concern in my life. 
            You’d think that I believe that God is up there with His big lightning-bolt rod, just waiting to go, “Oh, look!  She’s just a little too happy with the blessings I’ve poured out on her.  Smite her.  Smite her now before she forgets that life is supposed to be hard.” 
            In my mind, I see Job.  A man that was blessed so much, and it was precisely because of those blessings that Satan requested to test him.  And so, in a way, I feared being too happy with too many blessings.  I didn’t want my name brought up.  
            And I hate that!  What kind of a witness is that to others?  Who wants to join the Christian life when all they see is someone too scared to enjoy it?  When they see someone who believes the Christian life is a tightrope act that they can never truly perform satisfactorily?  What does that really say about my belief in the kind of God I serve?  How can I ever show others that He is a God of love when I focus more on His wrath and all the ways to “do it wrong”? 
            Sure, people need to see how well we handle the pains of life, but they also need to see how well we handle the joys and the blessings.  And how many of us think about what kind of a witness we have by our responses to His gifts and blessings?  How many of us draw near to Him in our times of abundance and glorify Him with prayers of thanks?  How many of us share with others the news of our glorious and generous God, and let the blessings overflow from our lives into theirs, that they might be blessed, too?  How many of us thank Him for the silver lining, when our skies are filled with clouds?  Totally rambling here.  Sorry!  Just things I’ve thought about.  
            (Speaking of pain and joy!  Did you ever notice how many times people, especially non-believers, ignore God in the good times, not giving Him any credit for the blessings, but then they blame Him for the bad times?  Even Christians tend to ignore Him in the good times and only call out to Him in the bad.  Maybe that’s why, as believers, we should expect the trials.  Sometimes that is the only way for God to get our attention and to grow our character and faith!  Otherwise, we are just too comfortable to seek Him!)   
            My family has been so blessed by Him in so many ways.  Food, shelter, health, a job!  I’ve said this many times, I know.  But I really do mean it!  These are things that I don’t want to take lightly or for granted; I would miss them terribly if we didn’t have them.  So I am trying to learn to cultivate an attitude of remembering and thankfulness for these blessings and to just appreciate them as the gifts He wants them to be.  I’m sure it doesn’t honor and glorify Him when I focus on my responses and how things might go wrong, instead of focusing on the good God that I serve, the Giver of all wonderful things.  This is hard for someone who always waits for the other shoe to drop and who is not good with showing excitement.    
            Even if the warm, fuzzy feelings aren’t always there, we can still be thankful and remember.  Being thankful and remembering doesn’t mean that we have to be “happy” or delirious with excitement.  We can be sad and melancholic and still be thankful.  It’s more about our wills and what we do than how we feel.  And I think that God still delights in us when we show thankfulness, even if we don’t feel like it. 
            I’ve recently found so many verses (along with the one that talks about getting the desires of your heart) that talk about how I should delight myself in Him and how He delights in us.  Wow!  How great would it be to know that He delights in me?  Not just that He loves me, but that He takes delight in me, too?  That was a new concept to me.  I could be a delight to Him. 
            I know that God always loves us, but I had never realized that my responses to Him, my behaviors, and my attitudes do affect the degree to which He delights in me.  It affects how much joy He takes in me and how much I delight in Him.  And Scripture is very clear on that. 
            1 Chronicles 29:17:  “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.”
              Psalm 147: 11:  “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in His unfailing love.”
            Psalm 37:23:  “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”
            Proverbs 11: 20:  “The Lord detests men of perverse heart but delights in those whose ways are blameless.”
            Proverbs 12:22:  “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.”
            Proverbs 15: 9:  “The Lord detests the way of the wicked but he loves those who pursue righteousness.”
            John 14:21:  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
            I love my children no matter what.  But, honestly, how much I delight in them has something to do with how they act.  How much God delights in me has something to do with how I act and the thoughts that I set my mind on.  The Bible says that He delights in those who fear Him and who hope in His love.  Wow!  I can bet that He hasn’t been delighting in me for a long time now.  Far too often, I grumbled and forgot.  I showed contempt for Him, and I know that’s not delightful.  And it would seem that I usually feared the punishment for doing things wrong more than I feared the Lord.      
            Oh, I have so much to learn!  And I thank God that He gave us that boring Old Testament so that I can learn from it.  (Oh, I love that boring Old Testament!)  It was in reading about the Israelites and seeing that I am no different than they are that it finally dawned on me what a grumbler I was.  And it sobered me up!  Who did I think I was that I could challenge God’s goodness, authority, and care like that?  Not only was God teaching me a lot through my children, but He was teaching me a lot through His children - the Israelites! 
            And, yet, I still had to go and make so many mistakes myself.  I’m still learning!  I don’t want to be like an Israelite in the desert.  I want to be like Jesus in Gethsemane.  I want to be able to honestly go before God with my concerns, to open my heart up to Him, to cry out to Him, and to seek the security of His embrace.  And then, when I have poured out everything within me, I want to be able to say in humility and trusting submission, “But Your Will be done!  I still trust You!  May You be glorified through it all!”  So we prayed and we prayed for a house.  We waited and we waited for His guidance.   And then . . . 

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