Helping God

There’s a slightly crazy story in the Bible that speaks to the slightly crazy in my life, even though some of the details are a bit different.

Abraham.

God chose this nothing-special-about-him man to be the patriarch through which God would grow His people and, eventually, through which He would birth Christ to save the world.

So God lets Abraham in on this plan when he was 75 years young. He and his wife, Sarah, had no children, but when God made this promise to him, “Abraham believed the Lord,” (Genesis 15:6).

But then life happened.

Days gave way to months, and months gave way to years, and Sarah didn’t conceive. Slowly, their confidence in the Lord’s promise began to waver. Nobody was getting any younger, and, finally, they cracked.

Helping God
Photo by Stuart Miles @freedigitalphotos.net

Eight years later and still childless, probably fairly depressed and in need of a good marriage counselor, Sarah came up with a brilliant plan to “help” God make good on His word. She convinced Abraham to sleep with her servant, and, sure enough, the servant bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, at the ripe old age of 86.

Patting themselves on the back, Abraham and Sarah looked forward excitedly to God extending their family line through Ishmael, making the Abrahams into a great nation, blessing them, and giving them a beautiful land to live in under God’s protection with everything they could ever want.

Until Abraham turned 99 years old and God said, “No, no. You’re mistaken. Ishmael is not going to father My people. That was never My plan. I always intended to bless you with innumerable descendants through your wife, Sarah. You know, the moral way?”

More literally, God said to Abraham, “I will bless [Sarah] and will surely give you a son by her…she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her,” (Genesis 17:15-16).

This time, however, instead of responding in faith to God, Abraham hit the floor and laughed (Genesis 17:17). The text doesn’t explicitly say how Abraham laughed, but it could have very likely been a mocking laugh, as could have Abraham’s rhetorical question he asked under his breath, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?”

Hold up just a minute there, Abe. Aren’t you the same dude who had his first son at age 86? What really is even the difference? You were old then, and you’re old now. GOD HAS DONE THIS FOR YOU BEFORE. And you’re going to doubt Him now?

Yeah, he is. Just like we do.

Honestly, it had been 13 years since Ishmael was born – 13 years since God had done the improbable in Abraham’s life. That was plenty of time for Abraham to lose the awe over that situation…or to rationalize it away.

Instead of learning from that experience and trusting God anew, Abraham says to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Genesis 17:18).

Abraham is bargaining with God! He’s trying to help God out again… “No, no, God. Making my super old and, up until now, totally barren wife pregnant would be way too much effort. Just use the boy I already have to carry out your grand plan of redemption!” When you think about it, that’s pretty kind of Abraham to look out for God like that… he was just trying to spare the Almighty the stress of having to figure out a way to make a woman who shouldn’t be able to get pregnant conceive.

Now, if I were God, my patience with this Abraham guy would be all but over. Yes, he has had faith at times, but, by and large, he has mucked things up over and over, taken matters into his own hands, and thinks he knows better than Me the majority of the time. I’d be ready to exercise my holy judgment right about now.

But God doesn’t do that.

God pours out grace.

“Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers,'” (Genesis 17:19-20).

Do you see what God did there? He answered Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael.

Abraham loved Ishmael dearly and wanted the best for him. He asked God to bless Ishmael. Now, true, Abraham was thinking that blessing should come instead of God blessing Sarah’s future son. But God, rich in love and mercy, blessed Ishmael in addition to blessing Sarah’s son. A lot of times we think, “Poor Ishmael! He was conceived in a sinful way because his dad didn’t trust God, and then he got gypped out of his inheritance when Isaac came along.” But we forget that God loved Ishmael as much as He loved Isaac. Abraham asked God to take care of Ishmael, and God did (although, not quite like Abraham had in mind.)

So what can we learn from this story? It’s okay to “help” God keep His promises, and He may even doubly bless you for doing so? That’s probably not the takeaway.

I think the morals of the story are more along the lines of a) God can be trusted, b) He doesn’t need our suggestions, c) He shows us more grace and mercy than we deserve when we don’t trust Him, d) He is okay with us telling Him what’s really on our minds, e) He makes wrong choices work out for our good, but not without allowing the natural consequences to break our hearts, and f) nothing is too hard for God.

If I’m honest, I’m a little too much like Abraham. I have faith at times, but, mostly, I doubt God’s power and trustworthiness. I doubt God’s intelligence and try to “help” Him by suggesting ways He should work my life out for me. I forget God’s track record of provision and follow through in my life and in the lives of others. And, like, Abraham, I need to stop distrusting and start waiting patiently for the Lord to unfold His perfect plan. 

You too?

Dream

It was about 2 o’clock in the morning, and I hadn’t slept yet. I stared at the ceiling, weighing pros and cons of a major pending decision – where to get my master’s degree.

I rehearsed the countless variables and possible outcomes; I recalled the details of the diligent research I’d done; I reflected on the conversations I’d had with many people who had done what I want to do, who had been where I am going, weighing their advice carefully. Between making my own guesses about what would be the most practical and affordable choice, I asked the Lord to reveal His wisdom and will.

Not getting very far, I tried to focus my mind elsewhere, hoping to relax enough to finally fall asleep. I was almost there when a thought was emblazoned in my mind. I came to and wrote it down because I didn’t want to forget it by morning.

Too often I dream too small because I think God is limited by dollar signs. He isn’t. He has a way of providing the funds for me to become all He has created me to be. Dream on.

Huh.

I’m not sure where this thought came from (and I didn’t care for the Aerosmith reference one bit), but I knew immediately it was true of me.

I’ve always dreamt small, aimed low, settled for low-hanging fruit.

I’m not saying I haven’t worked hard – I have, especially in academia. I’m saying I’ve always made my decisions based strictly upon practicality.

“I can’t” is central to my vocabulary, not because I lack ability or drive, but because I limit myself based on what I think is reasonable to assume can be accomplished with the resources I have – time, money, circumstances, experience, level of education, etc.

In this grad school case, I have let my estimations of what would be practical financially for our family limit my decision as to what program I enroll in. In other words, I’ve picked the cheapest, shortest degree possible in my field.

I began to groggily wonder at 2:26 AM if perhaps the Lord was nudging me to rethink my practical approach…

Six-something AM came too quickly, and I knew two things immediately: 1) There would not be enough coffee that day, and 2) I had to make a decision sooner than later or nights of little sleep would continue.

I got the girls off to school and sat down with a cup of coffee and my computer to check the news (which really means to scroll through my Twitter feed).

I follow a guy named Michael Hyatt, a big wig in publishing, platform building, leadership, and the like, and, wouldn’t you know it, he had posted an article with the tag line, “Are you dreaming big enough?” (The actual name of the article is “Don’t Leave God Out of Your Plans“.)

Huh.

I clicked on the short article, which basically says work hard, but don’t forget it is God that chooses whether or not an endeavor will be successful. In and of ourselves, we aren’t enough.

Michael quoted Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”

What struck me about this verse is the Lord has to be behind the building of the small house as well as the protection of the large city. He must be the foundation of all things, no matter their size or perceived importance. He is just as capable of building the house as well as guarding the city, and He must or neither effort will be successful.

I am going to have to rely on Him just as much to provide for the “cheap” degree as I am the “expensive” degrees. Ultimately, if He is not building my education, I am building it in vain. But if He is building my education, there will be no stopping Him. The Lord is not limited by dollar signs.

A little while later I picked up a book I am reading for advent called The Greatest Gift (Voskamp). The scripture for that day was the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Right in the nick of time, God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead, so Abraham named that place The Lord Provides (Genesis 22:1-14).

Huh.

I paused and thought about my early morning musing – God has a way of providing everything we need to become all He has created us to be. Isaac needed that ram. Without that ram, Isaac never would’ve become the ancestor to Christ God created him to be, and Jesus’ lineage would’ve stopped right then… the story would’ve been over. Redemption would’ve become an impossibility. All would’ve been lost. Forever.

I read on.

Voskamp wrote, like only she can, “The Lord sees. And He will see to it. And He will be seen.” The simplicity of the words juxtaposed against the complexity of the thoughts behind the words stopped me. I re-read them. I considered each sentence slowly, absorbing the full weight of the truth she’d encapsulated.

The Lord sees… He sees my situation… He sees yours… He is not blind… He isn’t disinterested… He is paying attention… He is aware… The Lord sees.

And He will see to it… He will take care of your dilemma… He will provide what you need… He will not forget… He will not drop the ball… He will see to it.

And He will be seen… He will be glorified through your situation… Your heart will respond in praise to His faithfulness… Others will see His hand and marvel, too… He will be seen.

Huh.

At this point I acutely (hear the sarcasm) observed the Lord was telling me to dream big and trust Him to provide.

So I committed to the school I felt would help me do that best, enrolled in my first class, and shelled out a lot of money.

And then my husband came home and told me he’d gotten a Christmas bonus for the price of the class minus $50. Sure, we could stand to put that money toward other things, but the timing of the provision of this particular check was not lost on either of us. It was as if the Lord said to me, “Go. I got this.”

I share all this to give Him glory and to encourage you in your situation where you need to be dreaming bigger and trusting Him more. God will provide everything you need to become exactly who He created you to be. 

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

I love when the Lord asks people (us) questions in scripture. He’s never asking for His benefit; He knows all answers to all questions, being that He is God and whatnot.

No, He asks questions to spur us on to examine our thinking about Him so we can discover where we might be erring.

In Genesis Abraham and God have quite a few conversations. And in one such dialogue, God tells Abraham his geriatric wife, Sarah, is going to have a baby. Sarah is eavesdropping on this conversation and bursts into condescending laughter at the idea of her bearing a child. She even mutters to herself sarcastically, and with just a hint of bitterness, “After I am worn out and my [husband] is old, will I now have this pleasure?” (Genesis 18:12).

I’m thinking the Lord’s feelings were a bit hurt by this.

Sarah didn’t trust Him. She had heard with her own ears the Lord’s voice say she was going to have a son… but she didn’t believe Him… What’s more, she scoffed at His promise.

(I’m certainly glad I’ve never done that… I mean, how arrogant do you have to be to hear the God of everything tell you something is definitely going to happen and your response is to laugh in His face, question His judgment, basically CALL HIM A LIAR? Yup, so glad I can’t relate at all in any way… … …)

The Lord heard Sarah’s distrustful musings and asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?'” (Genesis 18:13).

First of all, God knew why Sarah asked that question, He just wanted Abraham to think about why Sarah asked that question.

Secondly, I find it interesting God didn’t ask Sarah directly, but, then again, she wasn’t the person with whom He was having a conversation.

Thirdly, I can hear the hurt in God’s question to Abraham. I can sense the sadness God felt at His own creation’s mocking Him.

I don’t think it was self-pity because that would mean God was feeling His own inadequacies, and we know God is not inadequate. Whereas humans would be tempted to ask this question with a “What’s wrong with me that she doesn’t trust me?” sentiment, God is sad for Sarah. God’s sadness says, “I hate that she is so broken she doesn’t trust me. I hate that for her. It was never meant to be this way. I long to make her whole that she might experience the joy of completely trusting me.”

On the heels of His first question, God asks Abraham a second question, “‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?'” (Genesis 18:14).

Again, God knows the answer to this question. He asks Abraham to get him to think it through.

This question clarifies the first. Sarah laughed and scoffed sarcastically at the idea of her having a baby because she secretly believed some things, like a 90 year old woman conceiving, were too hard for God.

God asked these two questions successively to lead Abraham to realize that Sarah, and maybe himself as well, didn’t have an accurate view of the power and sovereignty of God. She was limiting God to the rules of natural law: old people don’t bear children. She trusted biology more than the very words of God.

Like Abraham and Sarah, when God asks us, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” We respond with a pious, “NO! Nothing!” so as to not give anyone a reason to believe our faith is weak. Our answer is right, of course, nothing is too hard for God.

But as soon as the words leave our lips, we feel a twinge of guilt – conviction from the Spirit – because we don’t live like we really believe nothing is too hard for God.

Instead, we live like God can do a lot of things, but He can’t deliver us from our particularly difficult situations…

God is in control of a lot of things, but He dropped the ball by letting _____ happen, and He can’t use it for our good…

He can save a lot of people, but He can’t save that lost friend that is just completely unreceptive to the Gospel…

God can provide a lot of stuff, but He’ll never find a way to help us out of our mounding debt…

God can heal a lot of illnesses, but He can’t heal our bodies.

And so on and so forth.

And just like He asked Abraham, God asks us, “Why are you laughing and saying ‘God can’t do it’? Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

He hurts for us, crippled by our lack of faith. He longs to make us whole that we might experience the joy of completely trusting Him.

What’s your “anything”?

In what ways are you not trusting the Word of God? Which of His promises do you think impossible?

Nothing is too hard for the Lord.

Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. 

True Security

I don’t know if it’s a female thing or a human thing, but I seem to spend a lot of time and energy working toward one thing: feeling secure.

Safe.

Stable.

Accepted.

We can find security in a lot of different places… how much money is in our bank accounts… a significant other to come home to every night… “atta boys” from our bosses… compliments on our children… nods of approval from our parents…

But if that’s all? If those are our only sources of security and significance, we’re setting ourselves up for a guaranteed fall. 

Because that money can be gone the second your car dies or your child needs surgery.

And that significant other can decide you aren’t so significant to them, and they can walk out the door.

And that boss can be unimpressed with your latest project and decide to let you go.

And our children can embarrass us with their choices we didn’t raise them to make.

And our parents can disagree with the paths we take and shake their heads side to side instead of up and down.

These sources of security – they’re all tenuous. Even the most reliable sources can and will let us down because people weren’t made to shoulder the identity of another.

No, there is only One who can handle that responsibility and handle it well all. the. time.

God made us.

In line with the creation story, God made Kelly Marie Vreeland on April 1, 1983, and He saw that it was very good.

If it weren’t, He wouldn’t have done it. God only does good things.

I am His intentional good work, knit together in my mother’s womb, and so are you. 

And if He says we are good, what greater source of security could we have?

God created good things – us – but very early on – from childhood, the scriptures say – every inclination of our hearts was evil (Genesis 8:21).

Ah.

So that’s what happened. That’s why we all feel so not good. Sin overtook that which was good and all but ruined us. But God loved us too much to leave us at that. We needed a rescuer, so He came Himself to redeem us from the Fall – our fall into pure evil.

When Christ died on the cross, He looked me and you in the eye and said, “It is finished.”

His sacrificing Himself for us was done. His pouring out His life to redeem us from every evil inclination that rules our hearts was complete.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God offered up complete redemption on a silver platter to each one of us. It was finished. There was nothing else He could do but wait.

He waits to see who will take Him.

He waited a good long while for me. And He’s still waiting for some of you.

But when I chose Him – when I agreed that I needed Him and only He would do – I became God’s daughter.

And the best part is there is no undoing that (John 10:28-29).

Anyone who accepts their need for redemption and acknowledges only Jesus is capable of such a feat becomes God’s child. Forever.

That is security.

There is nothing more sure, more certain.

He meant what He did on the cross, and if He had to do it again, He would because His love for us never changes. He is the perfect Father, delighting in us, wanting only the best for us, leading us, protecting us, and there is no more prominent a position, no securer a place, than being a child of God. 

Take heart, we are His.

We are HIS.

We are His!

Who Told You that You Were Naked?

I’ve never considered being a girl my strong suit. I guess I should say I’ve never considered being a stereotypical girl my strong suit.

I was the tomboy, the athlete, the competitor, the girl with mostly boy friends. When I was 10 I took everything pink out of my room. I never wore dresses unless forced to. I wasn’t interested in hair or make up or clothes. I wanted to be outside playing ball.

So when I was pregnant with my first child and had that gender-revealing ultrasound, I was scared to death to learn that baby was a girl. I had no idea how to be a girl mommy! Two and one quarter years later, they didn’t have to tell me my second baby was a girl – I could see it myself on the ultrasound.

God smiled. He wasn’t being vindictive or playing a joke or entertaining Himself by giving a tomboy two little girls. (Well, maybe He was partly entertaining Himself…) Mainly, He was giving me two reasons to grow in my own womanhood.

I couldn’t love my daughters anymore than I do and am actually thankful I don’t have loud, stinky boys now. I am learning how to put in hair bows and make buns (thank you, YouTube). I still feel unconfident, but I’m not scared anymore. I will learn the girly things along the way to teach my daughters how to be girls and women who are confident in their identity.

My oldest is 5 and a half now. She goes to kindergarten, out of my sphere of influence 7 hrs each day. And she is learning self-consciousness. I don’t like it.

There is not a day that has gone by that I haven’t emphasized to her how beautiful she is. But she has picked up on the importance of appearance somehow, and it is beginning to worry her.

Already? Already.

She went to her first gymnastics class Saturday. I dressed her in a pink leotard and matching leggings. Because it was cold out, I had her put pants and a sweatshirt on over the gymnastics garb until we got to the gym. She frowned at her green pants, not at all matching her pink leotard, and said, “I look silly.”

My heart grew sad. I thought of the Lord saying to Adam and Eve after the Fall, when they became conscious and ashamed of their nakedness, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11).

I assured my daughter she did not look silly, but she remained unconvinced… She doubted me. “Who told you that you look silly?” I wanted to ask. When she got to the gym and saw the other girls dressed similarly, she felt better about it.

The next day I put her in her favorite fancy dress for church. The knee-length dress left her legs exposed, so I put lotion on her wintry dry skin. Lotion. Clear lotion. When I was finished, she said, “I look ugly.”

Ugly? Who told her about that word? As far as I am concerned, it is a curse word that has deliberately never been said in our home. I know the destructive power of this word on a young girl’s developing self-image.

My heart broke for my little girl… that she would EVER consider herself ugly is too much for me. “Who told you that you were ugly?” I thought.

I was also confused. This was her FAVORITE dress – she’d wear it everyday if she could.

“Why do you think you look ugly?” I inquired gently.

“If the dress sticks to the lotion on my legs, I’ll look ugly,” she reasoned.

I assured her the lotion would soak in, and her dress wouldn’t stick to her legs. That was enough to quell her fears. This time.

I keep playing these conversations over in my mind, wanting so badly to give my baby a rock-solid confidence in her self, her value, her worth.

But how?

I can’t protect her from other people’s insensitive remarks or from other kids’ mean-spirited barbs. I can’t insulate her from the constant reminders from our media that outward appearance is king. I can’t make her believe me when I INSIST she is beautiful because I am “just her mom”; I “have” to say that.

I can tell her of God’s unmatched love for her, His immeasurable delight in her no matter her appearance… but no matter how often I drill these truths into her head, I don’t believe it will be enough to convince her.

Reality is hard. Being a girl is hard. Being a kid is hard. Growing up is hard.

Like God must’ve felt toward that snake in the Garden, I feel enraged when I imagine people telling my child she ought to feel ashamed of herself – her pants, her dress, her “nakedness”. God never meant for us to feel less than or unworthy. Low self-esteem and poor self-image were never in the original plans. We were never meant to be concerned with ourselves at all…

Try as I may, I think only God can convince my daughter – anyone – of their true value, beauty. So I pray to that end.

As God has to re-convince me of my worth in Him on a daily basis, I pray my daughter will learn to believe Him when He tells her she is beautiful, she is enough, she is lovely.

 

Instructions for Life

There is a rule of thumb for how we ought to live. It’s pretty simple, straight-forward. And I found it in Genesis 4 the other day.

God is speaking with Cain after he offers a sacrifice to God Cain knew would be inadequate.

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it. (Genesis 4:7)

Cain is pouting. He is very angry, and his face is downcast, the Bible says twice (Genesis 4:5-6). Cain is mad God didn’t accept his paltry offering.

God comes to Cain and essentially says, “Why are you upset? Do what is right – follow the rules of offering I have established – and you will be blessed.”  

If I were God, I would’ve been less merciful and responded like this, “Look, buddy! You may not like the system I have set up, but it is what it is. You don’t have power to change it. You don’t have perspective to see why it is best for you. And you don’t have a choice – you ARE in it. My system says obey and be accepted; disobey and be destroyed by sin.”

Cain chooses anger. He chooses disillusionment. He chooses joylessness. He chooses rebelliousness. He chooses to not do what is right, and sin masters him instead of the other way around. He chooses to be enslaved by his sinful desire to NOT offer God the sacrifices He orders (and of which He is worthy, by the way).

Instead of responding to God’s second chance and offering the appropriate sacrifice (what grace that our Lord offers us second chances!), Cain chooses to act out his anger and kill his God-obeying brother.

By choosing rebellion, Cain didn’t get out of the system. He didn’t improve his quality of life – he was kicked out of the protection of community and had to start his family in desolation. His offspring were the first in scripture to practice polygamy (Genesis 4:19) and followed in Cain’s footsteps of murdering (Genesis 4:23). In summary, no good came of Cain’s submission to sin. In fact, a lot of bad came of it.

You and I are in the same system. Even if we don’t believe it. Even if we don’t want it to be true. The fact is, if we do what is right, we will be accepted. And if we do not do what is right, sin will try to master us, enslave us to our desires instead of God’s Word.

Make no mistake – we will be slaves to one thing or another, to sin or to the Lord. Sin is the worst kind of master, abusing people, destroying people, ruining relationships and families. God, on the other hand, blesses those who serve Him. God so handsomely rewards His slaves that they never want to leave His plantation. In fact, He sets them free, and they stay. They know there is no better place.

I think of my children. We have rules in our home. If they do what is right and obey those rules, it goes well with them. If they choose to not to what is right and disobey those rules, they receive undesirable consequences. It’s a simple system. It doesn’t really matter how they feel about our system or if they even think our system is real. All that matters is how they respond to the rules. That’s all they can control.

And it’s all we can control in our lives. Choose well.

Soul Sick

Some things about life suck.

This has nothing to do with my natural bent toward pessimism or my forgetting to take my depression medication.

It has everything to do with the Fall.  (The event, not the season.)

When sin entered the world, it ruined stuff.  And ever since then, stuff has had the propensity to suck.  Deep, no?  This sucking takes on two forms: 1) some stuff has bad components, and 2) some stuff is good, but it can never be as good as it was meant to be this side of Heaven.

The first kind of stuff is the clearly bad/evil stuff.  I don’t have a hometown, but if I did, it would be Collierville, TN.  And right now, there is a high school student there who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  That cancer is BAD.  There is nothing good about the cancer itself.  That component of Trey’s health is an evil, destructive result of the Fall.  And that sucks.

The second kind of stuff is the good stuff that can’t reach it’s fullest potential because we live post-Fall.  Relationships come to mind.  Relationships are generally good things – good things that can’t be best things because sin limits them.  Dysfunction taints them.  Conflict strains them.  And a myriad of complicated reasons can limit them, even though the two people care about each other.

When I think about these kinds of effects of the Fall, I get sad.  I am bummed that things can’t be as great as they were meant to be because of that crappy day in the Garden.  I used the phrase “soul sick” to describe my feelings about these kinds of things today.

It’s not depression – no pill or talk therapy will change the fact that we live in a fallen world, stained with sin.

It’s not a matter of being more optimistic, trying to look at things differently so I don’t see the bad.  The bad IS there – it’s not dependent on my outlook.

It’s soul sickness.  It’s a weariness that comes from understanding what the world was supposed to be like and grieving the fact that it can no longer be that phenomenal, no matter how hard I try.

Some days it is hard for me to get past the reality of soul sickness.  It is comforting to know that this reality is only for a limited time.  Heaven gets closer every passing minute.  And that will be the perfection I long for.

But the waiting isn’t easy.