I wrote a post back in 2013 that has been my most-read post to date. In it I set out to answer the question, “What, exactly, is God’s grace sufficient for?”
Apparently, a lot of you have asked that question, because over 57,000 of you have taken to the Google, entered a form of that question, and wound up reading my post on the subject.
Yesterday, I turned that post into a 2-part sermon and preached it to about 80 women at a conference at Slayden Baptist Church in Slayden, MS.
(Side note: they misspelled my name on the poster for the retreat, and I could not love that fact more. I see it as God’s way of saying, “This ain’t about you.”)
And, let me tell you something, brother [read that in a Hulk Hogan voice], they were a sweet bunch of ladies who encouraged me to no end. We had women in their 20’s to their 70’s, most of whom had been born in that country church, who knew how to love one another across generations and make a stranger like me feel welcome.
My 8 year old, Lexi, stayed home from school Thursday with a fever and cold. Apparently, her immune system didn’t get the memo that Mommy needed to be writing a 7 page paper for grad school, but that’s ok.
I took it in stride.
Took something in stride.
(For an explanation as to why that is so shocking, see my previous post.)
Any who, I used the day to clean the house a little (a very little), finish reading a book, and play Monopoly for 2 hours because Lexi is addicted to it.
As we got ready to go pick up the 6 year old from school, my daughter noticed her dad and me texting. She asked what we were talking about so, I shared that our friend is going to Ethiopia next month to work with some orphans over there our family has long prayed and hurt for. Lexi said she wanted to give our friend money to help fund her trip.
Lexi asked, “How much do you think I should give? $1?”
As we got into the car, I suggested we ask the Lord what He thought.
[Note: like all of you Christian parents out there, I have recently been lamenting that I fail way too often to teach my daughters how to have relationship with the Lord. They have plenty of head knowledge about Him, but I long for them to learn what it means to live with Him, day in and day out, far past rote bedtime prayers. And, like you, I’ve struggled not only to make the time to teach them to be relational with God, but I’ve also lacked the know-how, or so I thought. How do you teach a 6 and 8 year old (read: little people who aren’t great at thinking abstractly yet) to discern the voice of God, something most adults can’t do? Well, He was about to teach me how to teach them.]
My daughter whispered a prayer asking God how much He wanted her to give, and then I instructed her to listen. She said she didn’t hear anything, so I told her what I heard. I heard God say, “I love Lexi. I love her caring heart and that she wants to give. I would love it if she gave $1.”
Lexi responded, “I keep thinking of the numbers 9, 2, and 3, but I don’t have $923…”
I told her we should ask the Lord what He means with those numbers, and as we began to pray, my phone rang. It was my husband, so I put God on hold. (I was very polite about it and said, “Excuse me, Lord.” He understood completely. At least that’s what I’m telling myself…)
I told my husband what Lexi and I were doing, and he suggested God might mean $9.23. I told Lexi when I hung up, and she quickly dismissed the idea of giving her version of a small fortune. Since she was sure that’s not what God meant, I told her we should pray some more and ask Him to make it clear. She said she didn’t hear anything, so I told her what I thought I heard, “I want Lexi to give $9.23.” I reported this to Lexi, but she was still hesitant. She suggested $1 again, so we prayed and asked the Lord how He felt about $1. She didn’t sense anything, so I told her what I heard Him say, “No, I want her to give $9.23 exactly.”
I decided it was a good time to show Lexi how to determine if we are hearing from God, making things up ourselves, or hearing from Satan when we pray. To be clear, I don’t think we can corner the market on this exercise. We can and should have a rule of thumb, like anything we hear in prayer that goes against scripture is not from God. But I think, for the most part, we have to take things we think are from God with a grain of salt, unless something we sense He says is directly backed up by scripture.
In this case, there is no Bible verse that tells Lexi to give or not to give $9.23 to the Lord. So I told her about general giving verses and how the Bible teaches we are to take care of orphans (James 1:27), and we are to give with cheerful hearts (2 Corinthians 9:7), so God is definitely for her supporting our friend’s trip. I suggested to her the amount she gave was inconsequential; it was the spirit behind the giving that God cared most about…unless she felt very strongly that He told her to give an exact amount…then she’d better obey Him.
We decided we’d ask the Lord to confirm the amount He wanted her to give, and we’d keep our eyes and hearts open the rest of the day to see if He did. I told her not to be surprised if she started to see 923 different places. She got excited at the thought of it, and so did I.
I prayed silently all the way to our destination that God would visually confirm His will for her immediately. When we pulled into the parking lot and got in the car line to pick up her sister, we found ourselves behind this vehicle.
I asked Lexi to tell me what numbers were on the license plate. She didn’t understand at first, but then she realized the three numbers she thought God was showing her – 9, 2, and 3 – were right there on the plate.
I said, “Huh, there are your three numbers… but they’re not in the order we expected to see them, are they?” Her face lit up, “Do you think God is trying to tell me to give $3.29?” I said, “Maybe.” She texted her dad a picture of the license plate and her theory, and he agreed he thought she was right.
She smiled at me and said, “Good – that’s a lot less than $9.23!”
I smiled as I watched this little girl learn to hear from God while continuing to struggle with her humanity all at the same time.
She is not perfect. Her heart will always have selfish leanings. But they pale in comparison to the amazing goodness and obedience and delight in Him that God is growing in her heart. So I rejoiced.
And as I finish this post, God is reminding me that is exactly how He feels about me. I may be 32 years old, and I may have been a Christian for 16 years, but I am still His little girl, learning to hear from Him while continuing to struggle with my humanity all at the same time. I am not perfect. My heart will always have selfish leanings. But they pale in comparison to the amazing goodness and obedience and delight in Him that God is growing in my heart. So He rejoices.
I can’t begin to understand the fervency of this dude’s faith. I think part of it is just his personality. He was a zealous Jew before he became a zealous Christ-follower. He seems to just be one of those people that never does anything halfway. It’s all or nothing for Paul.
As such, his vocal dedication to Jesus through every conceivable trial and tribulation makes sense… sort of.
I mean, Paul went. through. it. If ever there were a Christian who would have had reasonable cause to give up the faith, it was Paul. Beatings and imprisonments and persecution far greater than anything we could imagine – not to mention having to lead a bunch of knuckleheads in the faith who seemed to exasperate him in every city he planted a church… The whole thing sounds exhausting to me.
So what was Paul’s secret to staying the course? How did he muster up the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to go round after round of his ridiculous life?
I think he gives us a little glimpse in 2 Corinthians.
He tells the believers at Corinth that he and Timothy suffered and had hardships in Asia. In fact, Paul says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death,” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
No, there is no bounty on my head. The government isn’t after me (although folks from the Department of Defense have been reading my blog – I like to pretend it’s Jack Bauer). I don’t have a physical malady that is threatening my life like Paul seemed to have had.
But I do often share Paul’s sentiments that I am under great pressure, far beyond my ability to endure… at home… at church… in new ministry ventures… in relationships… in my walk with the Lord… and sometimes I just want to pack it all up and go Home. My mind spins, like Paul’s, and I despair, thinking to myself, “Surely, this is it. Surely, this is the end of the madness because I cannot. take. any. more.”
And that’s usually where I stop. I identify with Paul’s emotions, and I sit down in the mud and give up. I stop reading his letter to the Corinthians right there, in the middle of verse 9.
And I miss out.
I miss out on the explanation as to why hard things happen in my life.
“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead,” (2 Corinthians 1:9). I miss out on the invitation to intimacy with the Lord – utter reliance on Him – and seeing His power displayed in a new, tangible, personal way in my life. One reason we experience hardship is because God wants us! He wants us to realize we can’t really do anything – much less anything difficult – without Him. He wants us to draw near to Him, and we simply will not do that unless circumstances force us to. The human heart is a stubborn beast that way.
As if He Himself weren’t enough reason for us to draw near, God offers us even more. He is not “empty-handed”, as it were. He gives us an invaluable gift I miss out on when I give up during hard times.
I miss out on the deliverance offered me by the Lord.
If I would just keep walking, relying on Him, “…he will deliver [me],” as Paul says (2 Corinthians 1:10). Paul recounts how God has delivered him in the past and declares his belief that God will deliver him in the future. “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (2 Corinthians 1:10).
(Side note: what deliverance looks like in your mind may be far different than the deliverance God has in mind. His version is always better, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.)
At this point I’m thinking, “This is all well and good, Paul, but I am not an optimist like you seem to be. You may be able to ‘set your hope‘ on God’s deliverance, but I just can’t swing that in my own power.”
And Paul says to me, “Kelly, once again, you’ve stopped reading prematurely. Look at the next verse, friend.”
“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers,” (2 Corinthians 1:10-11).
Zealous Paul – superhero Christian Paul – derives help keeping his hope set on God through the prayers of fellow believers!
I feel better.
Paul needed people to pray for Him. I need people to pray for me. And I need to be praying for other people, especially those who are struggling to keep their hope set on God.
And Paul really believed that the Corinthians’ praying for him helped him. Prayer to Paul was not some obligatory, trite ritual. It was an avenue of powerful support one believer could and should offer to another.
When we are suffering, we need to remember how the Lord has delivered us in the past, and we need to believe He will do it again. And when we can’t muster up that belief on our own, we need to ask believers who love us to help us set our hope on God by praying for us.
One of the stories in the gospels that intrigues me is when Jesus got so ticked off He started turning over tables like a mad man.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:13-16)
I guess I’m drawn to this part of Jesus because I can identify with feeling angry. I get angry every day. Anger is a commonplace human emotion, and to read that Jesus experienced this emotion, too, makes me feel like He gets me. He understands. He wasn’t always cool, calm, and collected.
What’s peculiar to Jesus, though, is that while He was angry, He didn’t sin. He couldn’t sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). Even when He looked totally out of control, He wasn’t sinning.
Of course, that’s not usually the case with us. When we get angry, we often sin. Sometimes our anger prompts us to use speech that tears down others (Ephesians 4:29), to retaliate against the person who hurt us (Matthew 5:38-42), or to harbor bitterness and resentment (read: unforgiveness) (Ephesians 4:31).
As Jesus illustrates, it’s not the anger that is sin. As we demonstrate, it’s the feelings and behaviors that flow out of anger that can be sinful (Ephesians 4:26).
Truth be told, I struggle with knowing how my outbursts are any different/worse than Jesus’ tantrum in the temple courts. And on the outside, they may look very similar. But inside – in my heart – things might not be so similar.
Everything Jesus did was motivated by love for His Father and love for people. Everything. Even scattering animals and flipping over merchant tables (John 14:31, 15:9).
Jesus wasn’t angry because He wasn’t getting attention or because things weren’t going His way or because somebody hurt His feelings. Jesus’ anger wasn’t fueled by self-focus at all.
Jesus was angry because God the Father was being disrespected. Jesus loved the Father too much to idly sit by and allow others to disrespect Him.
At the same time, Jesus was angry that the money changers weren’t making God-honoring decisions for themselves. Jesus loved every person in the temple courts. He loved them too much to idly sit by and allow them to disrespect God because He knew that wasn’t in their best interest; Jesus wanted better for those money changers.
When we find ourselves turning over tables, or at least wanting to, we need to ask ourselves why? Why are we angry? Are we angry for self-centered reasons or for God and others-centered reasons? Is love the motivation of our violent display of emotions? If not, we should probably hold off on pulling a Jesus-in-the-temple-courts.
I’m not really sure how it happened.
Maybe it’s because I keep re-reading that crazy gratitude book.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time in the Psalms this year than any other book of the Bible.
Or maybe it’s because I finally got fed up with being fed up and did something about it.
Or maybe it’s a combination of these things, swirled together by the Lord in His perfect timing to finally begin producing a change in me that’s been a long time coming.
I hardly recognize myself.
I’m positive. As in optimistic. As in not cynical. As in I have hope.
And those of you who know me well know this is a radical change indeed.
I used to quip, “I’m not a pessimist; I’m a realist.” And I always knew it was a cop out. What I really was was stuck in feelings of hopelessness, even after – well after – I became a Christian.
And I know I’m not alone. A lot of (most) Christians live in doubt and bitterness and anger and depression and cynicism.
But we don’t have to.
(It’s taken me YEARS to believe that to be a true statement, by the way – that we can choose to have hope. It can be a lot more complicated than it sounds, which is why it often feels impossible, but it’s not. And that’s another post for another day.)
Not only do we not have to live in hopelessness and cynicism, upon further reflection, I think, as believers, we mustn’t.
To not have hope – to adopt a cynical, hopeless perspective about ANYTHING – is to disbelieve the power of Christ.
As Christians we believe that Jesus bore the punishment we deserved for our sins on the cross, died and rose again. We believe God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and the evidence of that acceptance is that Jesus was resurrected (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
If we are convinced the resurrection happened, we are also convinced of God’s total sovereignty (Psalm 103:19). After all, if He can make a dead man rise to life again, as impossible as that sounds, can’t He do anything (Jeremiah 32:27)?
Can’t He redeem any impossible situation we find ourselves in?
If we have hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we must have hope in ALL seemingly hopeless situations. There’s no room for cynicism and/or giving up and/or losing hope in anything or anyone if we believe in Christ.
THIS IS NOT NATURAL FOR ME! I can’t emphasize enough that I am NOT a naturally sunny person with a pleasant disposition. You will never catch me with a “Life is good” bumper sticker on my car. Hear me when I say I am not an optimist writing this pie-in-the-sky blog post. To hope when it seems illogical, to hope when it is uncomfortable, to hope against my natural will is just as difficult for me as it is for you.
It’s hard to not let people and circumstances affect our having unwavering hope in Jesus’ ability – His desire, and His ultimate plan – to rescue and redeem everything.
Here is one practical way I have found to do that. When you catch yourself having a cynical/hopeless/depressed/angry thought about anything, staunchly refuse it by asking God to take away that feeling and to replace it with hope in Him (2 Corinthians 10:5). And then make yourself find something to thank Him for in that moment (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
This is a simple exercise, but it’s very difficult. Don’t worry – you don’t have to do it perfectly. But you won’t begin to change unless you start. You will find, as I have, the more gratitude you offer, the more hopeful you will become. You’ll feel yourself begin to change. Others will notice a change in you. You’ll go from being a hostage of negativity to a hostage of hope. And I think that’s exactly what the Lord has in mind for us when we become believers (Romans 6:22).
This is what the Lord says –
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:18-19
I am guilty, as I’m sure you are, of remembering the former things instead of forgetting them, of dwelling on the past instead of moving forward, of not perceiving what God is doing in my life because I’m stuck on what’s already been done.
We rehearse the ways we failed and the ways we were failed by others.
Combing through our childhoods, looking for explanations – excuses – as to why we are what we wish we weren’t.
Combing through our careers, looking for choices we made that led us to the jobs we wish we didn’t have.
Combing through our marriages, looking for moments that brought us to the places we wish we weren’t.
Combing through our broken relationships, looking for reasons we aren’t as close as we wish we were.
Other times we run to the former things because we’re certain they were better than where we are now.
We replay those handful of good memories made perfect by the passage of time, wishing we could rewind to relive those days we’re certain were our best.
All of this dwelling on the past, whether we’re loathing it or glorifying it? It’s no good.
Because when we look back – with our eyes and with our hearts – we can’t see what’s happening now. We can’t perceive the new thing – the good thing – the Lord is doing right under our noses when they’re pointed toward the past.
The Lord – He’s always doing a new thing for us – in us. He’s always making a way in the desert, streams in the wasteland.
He is continually renewing and redeeming all that we thought was barren and parched (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Do we perceive it?
Are we paying attention to the now?
The new things God is doing in each of our lives – they spring up like Jacks in boxes. And like children surprised something so delightful comes out of something so plain, God wants us to laugh in astonishment as He raises new things from our nothings.
Don’t miss it.
Spread your smile wide and your eyes even wider and delight yourself in the Lord (Psalm 37:4).
He is doing a new thing. For me. For you.