Hostages of Hope

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.

Here’s why.

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?

Hostages of Hope
image via sattva at freedigitalphotos.net

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.

When we find ourselves feeling hopeless and cynical, I think the underlying cause is that our hope has subtly shifted from being in Christ to being in man (others or ourselves). We have to find a way to put our hope back where it needs to be.

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).

“Never partake of the cynical view of life.” –Oswald Chambers

 

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Everlasting Father

Some 700 years before Jesus was born, a prophet said of Him, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” (Isaiah 9:6).

The Trinity… right there in the Old Testament…

Everlasting Father… I read the words again. Is there anything sweeter? permanent dad, to hold us and love us, to delight in us and rejoice over us… forever?

I marvel. It’s too wonderful.

In a world full of failing – of fathers gone wrong or just plain gone, of children gone wrong or just plain gone – there is One who knows His role and shines in it always…

God – the Everlasting Father. There never was a time, nor will there ever be a time, when God was not our Father… Before the creation of the world, He was our Father. The day each of us were born, He was our Father. He is our Father today, and He will be our Father forevermore… Everlasting.

Matthew 5:48 describes God as our perfect Father.

Mine and yours.

He claims us as His, and He fathers us – guiding, protecting, loving, disciplining, correcting, providing, encouraging, listening, affirming, supporting, nurturing – perfectly.

It’s too wonderful.

My flesh objects, “But!”

“But, Lord, how could You? How could You choose to love me when You know the evil in my heart? How are You not disappointed in me when I fail? How can You think so highly of me when You know the lowly things I think and say and do…?” I search His eyes for answers, reassurance.

And He says, “I just love you…. nothing else… just love. I am the Everlasting Father, and I have loved you with an everlasting love… nothing else…. just love,” (Jeremiah 31:3).

My heart quickens at the thought that it could be true. It could be true that I am loved!

“There is no ‘could’ about it,” God says, “It is true.”

Love with no strings attached? True affection that withstands all the ugly that seeps out of my heart and all the broken that still hides inside? Love that doesn’t wane when I make mistakes? Or, even worse, when I choose to do wrong?

I’ve seen glimpses of this kind of love in people… and now I understand…

He’s been showing me human examples – free samples – of His Everlasting Fatherly love all along, using people to reflect His love to me in ways I can see so my faith in the Love I can’t see will grow…

God. Everlasting Father with everlasting love. For you. For me.

How Could I Not?

I don’t really fear Satan. I believe in God’s power over him and don’t worry that Satan will somehow usurp God’s good plan for me. Satan can only do what God allows him to do (Job 1,2), and I have confidence God will use Satan’s schemes for my greater good and His greater glory (Jeremiah 29:11).

Where I struggle is with the fear that God is powerless to save me from myself. Obviously, God is all-powerful. But when we factor in human free will, I get a little nervous. Because I know myself. I know my tendency to run away from God instead of toward Him. I know my resistance to pain and suffering and all things undesirable – the very mediums God tends to use to accomplish spiritual growth in us…

In light of all these facts, I worry that I might have the ability to choose to resist God. I fear I possess the capability to utterly ruin whatever good plans He may have for me by being disobedient and uncooperative. He isn’t going to force me to do anything I don’t want to do. That’s scary. Because sometimes I need to be forced. I know myself; left to my own devices, I won’t always choose to do the best things. Sometimes I need God to make me.

I was talking to the Lord about all this the other night. And at one point I just asked Him, “Do You get exasperated with me?”

I was thinking along the lines of human parents who get exasperated with their children for asking the same questions a hundred times or for stubbornly refusing to obey certain rules. We get exasperated…

Since God is our Father and we believers are his children, does He experience similar feelings of exasperation with us when we act childishly or foolishly? Or does the whole parent/child analogy break down there? The Bible does say the Lord doesn’t grow tired or weary (Isaiah 40:28)… even of me and my ridculousness?

I continued to think about my children. At the end of the day, when they’ve fallen asleep, I take a few minutes to go in and look at them. I pray over them. But, mostly, I just look at them – their little features, their cute positions, their innocence – it all overwhelms me. It fills me. And I inevitably feel inexplicably blessed that they are mine.

How Could I Not?

Whatever feelings of exasperation toward them I had throughout the day, all those feelings disappear when I watch my children sleep.

That got me thinking about God watching me sleep. Does He have to fight the urge to reach through the heavens and stroke my hair or kiss my forehead? Is His heart overwhelmed with love? Is He speechless that I am His? I think it’s a safe bet He probably is (Jeremiah 31:3, Isaiah 43:1).

After pondering that image and those questions, I was reminded of a David Crowder lyric in which he says to God, “Thank You for loving me.” And because I was feeling thankful, I said those exact words to God, “Thank You for loving me.”

And without missing a beat, He smiled and said, “How could I not?”

God. Of the universe. Said that to me.

I fought the urge to count the ways to Him that He could not, and I chose, instead, to accept His fatherly gift.

After all, what was God really saying?

He didn’t mean He loves everything about me. I’m certain He’s not real fond of the countless ways I find to sin, for example.

He meant there is something special about our relationship – Parent/child – that endears His heart to mine no matter what I do or don’t do. Just like me with my kids. When they’re sleeping, and I can hardly breathe for their beauty, no matter how many times I felt exasperated with them that day, I can’t come up with any possible reason I wouldn’t love them.

They are mine – I love them – how could I not?

I need this reminder of God’s heart toward me often. Daily. And I figure I’m not alone.

If you’re needing a reminder, too, I recommend Isaiah 43, in which God says to the Israelites, and subsequently, to Christ-followers, “I have called you by name; you are mine…  you are precious and honored in my sight… I love you,” (Isaiah 43:1, 4).

Loving Well

It’s hard to be a good writer without also being honest. And being honest is tricky because sharing my life necessarily means sharing others’ lives, at least where their lives intersect with mine, and others don’t always want to be as open as I am willing to be.

So, out of respect for them, I sometimes speak in the theoretical or the hypothetical. Just know there is always more beyond the generalizations I make. Personal experience isn’t far.

That being said, we “all” know “someone” who doesn’t love us well. If we’re lucky, we only know a couple of folks who are too self-absorbed and/or too broken themselves to realize what a gem we are.

image via Boykung at freedigitalphotos.net
image via Boykung at freedigitalphotos.net

I say this not because I have soaring self-confidence (I don’t). I speak highly of me and of you solely because God speaks highly of us. He says things like, “You are precious and honored in my sight and…I love you,” (Isaiah 43:4). He calls us his “dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1). He created us with painstaking detail, he knows everything about us, and he has great plans for us (Psalm 139:13, Matthew 10:30, Jeremiah 29:11).

For reasons unbeknownst to me, we are valuable to God.

This fact, when appropriately internalized, is enough. It’s enough to make me feel secure and complete and whole.

But sometimes the positive feelings that come from knowing God loves me get crowded out by the negative feelings that come from suspecting someone else doesn’t love me.

This happened the other day. A person who shall remain nameless hurt me deeply. I talked myself through the biblical truths above, trying to heal my heart with scripture. It didn’t work instantly, like I’d wanted it to. So I talked through my hurt with God. I basically lamented that this person wasn’t willing to do whatever it takes to love me, even though I think this person ought to be willing. If the roles were reversed, I’d be willing…

And you know what God showed me?

First, He said, “Kelly, I did whatever it took to love you. I literally gave up my life for you. There’s nothing I wasn’t willing to do – no discomfort or pain or suffering I wouldn’t endure – to get to you.” God’s words sunk in deep, and I just let them hold my heart for awhile. They were a timely reminder that we are all looking for that kind of love, and the one place we will consistently find it is in the person of Jesus.

Then I sat down to write this post, and God kept talking. I typed that sentence above that reads, “If the roles were reversed, I’d be willing…” and the Holy Spirit convicted me quicker than an apt metaphor about something that is fast.

God let me know, “The roles don’t have to be reversed; the roles are the same. That person ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love you well, and you ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love that person well.” Except God used that person’s name because there is no keeping things private from God.

The truth is I don’t want to do whatever it takes to love that person well because it takes being uncomfortable and sorting through my issues and learning how to turn the other cheek and learning how to see the best in people and all sorts of things that HURT.

But then I remember that I am precious and honored in His sight, and He loves me, and He has great plans for me, and part of those plans is learning how to love others well, no matter how they respond. 

Why Does God Discipline Us?

In my post The Longest Time Out Ever, I let Jeremiah show us how God exercised His right to severely discipline the Israelites.

Jeremiah makes a good case as to God being just in disciplining. He is holy. We are not. He tells us to obey. We don’t. Therefore, it is fair for Him to discipline us.

But that doesn’t explain why He disciplines us. Just because He can doesn’t mean He must. When He occasionally doesn’t discipline us even though we deserve it, we call that mercy. But if He never disciplines us when we deserve it, we call that terrible parenting. We will not grow. We’ll remain immature Christians, failing to impact the world with the love and truth of Jesus.

Surely, God disciplines us for the sake of His reputation – He can’t have no one take Him seriously because He never follows through with His punishments. And He can’t have people thinking He is okay with sin, undermining His holiness.

But the primary reason God disciplines us is for our benefit.

And our good buddy, Jeremiah, speaks to that as well.

God banishes the Israelites to Babylon for 70 years on account of their gross sin and unwillingness to repent. During that time, the Israelites begin to get it. They start to grasp the gravity of their idolatry. They weep. They repent. They seek forgiveness.

Discipline accomplishes its initial purpose. The Israelites feel the weight of their sin.

But that’s not the end all be all of repentance.

When their hearts turn from their sin and toward Him, God promises to, “…gather [the Israelites] from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to [Jerusalem] and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul,” (Jeremiah 32:37-41).

We see here the underlying purpose of discipline.

Yes, God wants us to stop doing sinful things. But much more so, He wants us to always live in close emotional proximity to Him. He wants our hearts! He wants our love. He wants us to trust Him. He wants relationship with us. He wants to be the single focus of our hearts.

No matter what He is disciplining you over, this is why He is disciplining you. He wants your heart. Give it to Him.

The Longest Time Out Ever

Once upon a time, Israel disobeyed God year after year after year. Like a patient parent, He warned them time and time again, “Please don’t do this. Choose to obey.” He took the time to explain to them they were headed toward destruction and pain. They wouldn’t listen.

Finally, God had to follow through and discipline them. Like the best parents, He had to go against every impulse of His Father heart and punish His children so they would learn to not be self-destructive anymore.

In Israel’s case, God allowed/orchestrated the capture of the Israelites by enemy nations. They were carried off to Babylon, where the Israelites were enslaved for 70 years.

This may sound harsh at first read, but keep in mind God had been warning Israel through prophets for YEARS they were heading toward this exact punishment. God didn’t mince words. He was as honest with Israel as I am when I tell my children beforehand that a certain behavior WILL result in a spanking.

Like the unruliest of children, like me, Israel tested those limits. And they got exactly what God told them they’d get.

While reaping what they had sown in Babylon, Jeremiah, who was still in Jerusalem, sent the exiled Israelites a letter. In it Jeremiah quoted the Lord telling the Israelites to, “Build houses and settle down… Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage… seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile,” (Jeremiah 29:5-9).

When I am being disciplined by the Lord, the last thing I want to hear is, “Settle in; you’re going to be here awhile.” I much prefer to take my discipline quickly and get it over with.

Seventy years. The Israelites had FOUR GENERATIONS to sit and think about what they’d done wrong. That’s the longest time out ever. And yet, we can’t really get mad at God for going overboard – they were WARNED this was going to happen!

Imagine the self-loathing the Israelites felt. I can picture the Babylonians coming in, taking over, and marching the Israelites out of Jerusalem. I imagine the shocked men thinking, “This is really happening… God said things would happen this way, but we didn’t believe Him. We didn’t think He’d really go through with it, but here we are, being exiled. We have ANGERED God. We have angered GOD. Oh <expletive>!” Then the fear took over their bodies as the reality of the situation set in. It’s a wonder their legs were able to work at all.

I think a little fear was good for the Israelites. I know it’s good for me. I spend way too much time not having a healthy fear (awe, respect for) God. I need reality checks sometimes, and this was just such a reality check for the Israelites.

But lest that healthy fear turn into unhealthy fear (“God is scary”, “God doesn’t love us”, “God is spiteful”, etc.), God sends the Israelites a word of encouragement and reassurance once they arrive in Babylon. He says, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to [Jerusalem]. For I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:10-11).

When this letter was read aloud to the Israelites, I imagine they wept at these words. When my children come out of time out, they look at me with one question in their eyes, “Do you still love me?” And just as God says to the Israelites here, I want nothing more than to tell my children, “YES! YES! Of course I still love you! There is nothing you can EVER do that would make me not love you.”

God goes on to say to the Israelites, “I am with you and will save you…I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished,: (Jeremiah 30:11).

Even when you and I are in “times of exile”, experiencing the just discipline of the Lord for our disobedience, GOD IS WITH US! AND HE WILL SAVE US!

It may be a longer season of discipline than we’d like, but He is near, and He is good. And that is enough to get us through. That is enough to get us through.

How to Receive God’s Mercy

Yesterday we looked at Jeremiah 2 and saw ourselves in Israel’s rebellion. Like the Israelites, sometimes we choose to abandon God and go find substitute gods. We stop trusting the Lord and trust ourselves instead. We lose our awe of the Lord; we harden our hearts; we refuse to call sin sin.

We leave God with every right to abandon us. We have not loved Him well. In some cases, we have not loved Him at all. He has given us everything we have, including our lives themselves… but our twisted hearts have chosen to dishonor Him. We’ve opted to do things our way instead, loving ourselves and others more than God.

The Lord would be totally justified to wash His hands of Israel and of us forever.

But He doesn’t.

Instead, He says, “Return, faithless Israel…I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful…I will not be angry forever,” (Jeremiah 3:12).

What kind of God is this that loves the undeserving? How can anyone, much less the GOD OF EVERYTHING, extend this kind of mercy to the very people that have abandoned Him?

My brain cannot process this love. It makes no sense to humans. We don’t practice this kind of love, so we’ve never experienced it. It cannot be real. There must be some kind of catch. The verse says “return”… but that can’t be all one has to do to receive God’s mercy.

God goes on to say, “Only acknowledge your guilt–you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,” (Jeremiah 3:13).

Jeremiah 2 gives us the two-step plan to commit idolatry.

  1. Abandon God
  2. Find God Substitute

And Jeremiah 3 gives us the two-step plan to receive God’s mercy.

  1. Return to God
  2. Acknowledge Your Guilt

Simple. But not easy.

Oh, how my pride flares up at that second step! I know I have sinned, but I refuse to admit it. God knows I have sinned, but I still refuse to admit it.  WHY?

I am not the only one who struggles with step two. Many people will never accept Jesus’ gift of salvation because they staunchly refuse to acknowledge their guilt – their need of such a gift.

I’m sure a psych major could confirm there are several reasons why we dig in our heels when it comes to acknowledging guilt. Some of us have egos the size of China, and we are actually unwilling to believe we can do wrong. Some of us have the self-esteem of Eeyore, and we are afraid people won’t love us or value us if we admit we did something bad. Those of us who are particularly depraved oscillate between these two extremes.

But if we get hung up on “acknowledge your guilt”, we miss God’s heart in all of this.

Hear what God is saying.

“Return, faithless people…I will choose you…I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding…No longer will [you] follow the stubbornness of [your] evil hearts…How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation…Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding,” (Jeremiah 3:14, 15, 17, 19, 22).

Look past “acknowledge your guilt” and see the mercy and love God offers us! I want Him to choose me. I want knowledge and understanding. I want to stop following my stubborn heart. I want the blessings He has for me. And I want to be cured of my backsliding!

When we begin to understand the richness that can be ours, acknowledging guilt doesn’t seem so terrible. And when we start to realize, “Surely the [idolatrous] commotion on the hills and mountains is a deception; surely in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel,” the less we want our own idols (Jeremiah 3:23).

Whatever idol you are choosing – yourself, another person, another thing – it is a DECEPTION. Salvation is in the Lord. Return to God. Acknowledge your guilt. And feel His mercy and love wash over you afresh. He will frown on you no longer. He is merciful.