God Understands

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.

Psalm 139:1-2 NLT

Regardless of how many times I explained the concept, some continued to misunderstand and make mistakes.

Correctly punctuating compound sentences is one of the simplest yet most difficult concepts I teach in Language Arts. The rule is simple: when two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction, a comma must precede the conjunction. In order for an independent clause to be claimed as such, it must have a subject, verb, and a complete thought—not just a verb and a few prepositional phrases.

And it was the latter that confused many students. Many of them placed a comma when the sentence was actually a simple sentence with compound verbs. Others would mistake the word “then” for a coordinating conjunction and place a comma. I spilled much red ink correcting papers that related to correctly punctuating compound sentences. Although I explained the concept in every imaginable way, the rule often didn’t sink in. Their failure to understand cost them many unnecessary mistakes.

I, too, have failed to understand concepts when I was in school. My misunderstanding was more in math than English classes though. But more worrisome is being misunderstood by others. The psalmist was confident God understood him. After all, God had created him. He knew everything about him, even his innermost thoughts.

Failing to understand a concept and being misunderstood by others aren’t pleasant. Both can lead to frustration. I’ve taught students who practically gave up, and I’ve known people who struggled with depression because others just didn’t “get” them.

Since God made us, He knows everything about us. He knows what things we struggle with—the hard subject, the unpleasant work atmosphere, the tough relationship, the co-dependent friend, the addiction. He doesn’t have to hear us voice our frustrations because He knows our thoughts. He understands us.

There will always be things we don’t understand, as well as some who don’t understand us. We can live with that as long as our Creator is by our side, guiding us along life’s journey. He’s the friend who will never leave, who will always comfort, and who will forever understand.

Take comfort in knowing God understands when no one else does.

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Good Comforting

I have heard all this before. What miserable comforters you are! Job 16:2 NLT

Regardless of where she went, she couldn’t find comfort.

Leah and her husband were never apart. They even volunteered at the same place after they retired. Both appeared to be in good health, so you can imagine Leah’s shock when her husband dropped dead. Jeff was outside cutting grass. He had no recent health concerns. But when Leah saw him stumble into the doorway and say he wasn’t feeling well, she could see something wasn’t right. Within a few minutes, he had slumped over, never to recover.

Although months had passed since Jeff’s death, Leah still mourned and suffered from anxiety and depression. She went to counselors, pastors, and friends, but nothing seemed to soothe her pain. She couldn’t focus and struggled to make it through each day. She left her old church, saying she just couldn’t stand to attend without Jeff. Leah longed for lasting comfort, but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Job didn’t find it with his fair-weather friends either. He had lost almost everything a person could lose and still survive. What’s worse, God permitted his woes to prove to Satan that Job would maintain his loyalty to God despite extreme adversity. The only comfort Job’s friends could muster was telling him he had sinned. Confess, and things would get better was their advice. Job, however, had nothing to confess. He maintained his innocence and muddled through his pain and sorrow.

Job’s friends did what is typical. They thought they had to say something to soothe his grief—and they did. But what they said didn’t do the trick nor was it biblically sound. Telling someone God needed another angel or that you know how they feel is hollow comforting. God doesn’t take life to get angels, nor do humans become angels after death. And no two people experience the same episode in the same way.

Presence in the midst of grief is better than words. Sharing truth from God’s Word can be comforting, but timing is critical. Sitting and listening and letting the person cry on your shoulder is better. When the time is right, they’ll ask, and then you can share words of wisdom they might need to hear. For the moment, silence is golden, and practical help is priceless.

Comforting those who grieve is tricky business. Before you speak or act, pray and ask God for direction and wisdom.

The Christmas Gift

His eyes welled with tears as he opened the envelope. The gift was the most unselfish act he’d ever witnessed.

Harry* was about to experience the most agonizing Christmas of his life. A few months before, he had taken out a consolidation loan. The loan seemed like the right approach to his family’s financial situation. With a lower interest rate than he currently paid to his separate creditors, this loan would let him pay them off quicker. So with his wife’s blessing, he signed the paperwork and began paying the monthly payment.

Life seemed good for Harry. His job was rewarding, secure, and paid an honorable salary—enough for his family to live on comfortably. He planned to keep doing what he enjoyed for many years to come. But life changed suddenly. He noticed his wife changing. She associated with a different set of friends, worked longer hours, frequented places she shouldn’t, and became more distant in the process.

Harry was concerned but never imagined he’d hear, “I don’t love you anymore.” Topping this off came the news she’d had an affair. What seemed like a safe and cozy world shattered into a million pieces. He couldn’t form a thought. His mind raced in hundreds of directions. Anger mixed with sadness. A thousand questions entered and exited his mind before he could answer them.

Failed attempts at reconciliation eventually led to their separation and divorce. Harry was left with two teenage children and bills he couldn’t pay. Not only had his wife walked away from him, but she had also walked away from their mutual responsibilities. His family disintegration also led to the loss of his once-secure job.

The only employment available to him paid a mere pittance of what he once earned. Bills lagged further behind, one of which was the consolidation loan he had taken out just months before the bad news broke. He struggled to make the payment, but he knew the day was rapidly approaching when he wouldn’t find the funds anymore.

December arrived and with it the prospect of meager presents, mounting bills, and one that would go unpaid—his consolidation loan. In spite of his depressed mood, Harry agreed to continue his traditional Christmas celebration with his parents, siblings, and their families.

For a number of years, the family had made a practice of sitting in a circle, having the grandchildren pass out presents, and then opening them one by one for the others to adore. Everyone understood why Harry didn’t have any gifts to share this year, but the pile lying at his feet was monumental nevertheless. One was a simple white envelope that read, “To Dad, from ______.”

Harry’s curiosity prompted him to open the envelope first, but his daughter warned him this present was the last one he could open. Reluctantly, he opened his other presents one by one, but the enjoyment he would have normally got from opening them was trumped by his anticipation over what was in the envelope.

Finally, only the envelope remained. Carefully, he tore through the scotch tape that held it securely shut. As he carefully ran his fingers into the envelope and extracted the contents, a bundle of money fell into his lap. He counted it and discovered the exact amount needed to make his loan payment. His teenage daughter who worked three part-time jobs while attending high school had saved enough to help him do what he couldn’t have done otherwise. Never before had he received a gift like this one.

But Harry’s daughter’s gift—as unselfish as it was—pales in comparison to a greater gift given more than 2,000 years ago. Angels announced this offering to shepherds living in the fields. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:9-11 NLT)!

Harry reluctantly accepted his daughter’s gift, even though he needed it desperately. She had worked so hard for this money and could have used it to purchase things she wanted. But he honored her unselfishness by slipping it into his pocket and giving her a big hug followed by an “I love you.”

God gave an extremely unselfish gift as well. He gave it with no strings attached. All we must do is willingly accept it, slip it into our hearts, and he’ll do the rest by letting the results of our acceptance change our lives and the lives of others.

*Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy.

Wondering Why

And Moses said to the Lord, “Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly?
Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people?

Numbers 11:11 NLT

Wondering why often leaves us wondering.

I sat in the car with my daughter’s two children while my wife underwent a physical test. The three-year-old sat in the front seat with me biding his time and asking questions.

“Pop, what is this,” he asked, pointing to one knob on the radio.

“It turns the radio on and makes it louder,” I said, trying to focus on what I was doing.

“Why,” was the next question.

“I don’t know. It just does.”

“What about this button,” he asked as he pointed to a button beside the first knob.

I finally told him all the buttons in that general area worked the radio. My answer still didn’t’ satisfy him.

“Why?” he asked.

After playing this game for every piece associated with the dashboard and exterior mirrors, I finally said, “Pop’s tired of answering questions. I need to work.” He stopped asking questions.

I’m glad he has entered the inquisitive stage and wants to know things. But he’s soon finding out I don’t have an answer for everything he asks, and I do eventually tire of answering his “why” inquiries.

Moses wondered why in the world God had saddled him with caring for more than a million people. People who complained most of the time, who couldn’t get along, who had a tendency to rebel against God, and who on occasion threatened to kill him. God answered his why questions by giving him some help. God wanted those people in the Promised Land, and Moses was the person he chose to lead them there. He didn’t need to know why; he just needed to obey.

God’s ways and will are often a mystery He chooses not to solve in our presence. Perhaps in heaven, He’ll answer some of our “why” questions—but He might not. There is nothing wrong with asking God why, but we must be prepared to experience silence. While God never tires of us asking why, He doesn’t want our why’s to come from disbelief or discouragement but from a desire for more understanding—like Moses.

Don’t be afraid to ask God why, but be prepared to be kept in suspense. Following His will is a faith journey with many unanswered why’s.

Love Fulfills

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14 NLT

In a split second, their lives were changed.

Bobby and Jackie were a young couple with a small child. He had been called into youth ministry and was serving in a little church not far from Jackie’s home. Things were going well—until the accident.

Out of nowhere, a truck slammed into their vehicle. Jackie and their infant daughter, Angie, weren’t seriously injured, but Bobby’s life was changed forever. The wreck placed him in a vegetative state for the remainder of his life.

I was told the story when I became Jackie’s pastor. Angie was a young child without a father, Jackie was a young wife and mother who for all practical purposes had no husband, and Bobby lay in a nursing home fifty miles away.

I visited Bobby once a month, and every time one of his family members was present. They all took turns caring for him. Bobby was fed with a tube, but he still needed constant attention. Coughing spells racked his body. Fluids drained from his mouth and nose.

As I watched Bobby’s family tend to his special needs, I realized what the apostle Paul meant. For the committed Jew, the law consisted of the Ten Commandments, the ceremonial laws, and the laws added by the religious authorities. For Paul, it was simply God’s moral laws, and all of them could be obeyed by merely loving one’s neighbor.

I’ve seen enough love for the wrong reasons. The consequences are never pretty. But loving for the right reason paints a beautiful portrait. I can experience and demonstrate love because Christ has loved me. While I was still a sinner, Christ died for me and now gives me the opportunity to love for Him.

Loving others sets an example. As I watched Bobby’s family perform the unpleasant parts of caring for an invalid, I was reminded of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. The example was inspiring. My loving others gives an example to those who desperately need to see love in action.

When I love my neighbor as myself, I also point them to Christ. My words may not crack the hard shell of someone who doubts or disbelieves in Christ, but it’s hard to argue with acts of love. They say what my words can’t adequately speak.

Just ask, and God will give you myriad opportunities to put love for others into action.

Fear Not

The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid?
The
 Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?
Psalm 27:1 NLT

I dropped the pans on the floor, and a loud scream rewarded me.

When my son was an infant, I worried that ear infections had affected his hearing. Rather than take him to the pediatrician, I decided to perform a home test. As my wife sat at the kitchen table with him cuddled in her arms, I dropped a heavy pan. His screams reassured us his hearing was okay.

Humans are born with two innate fears: falling and loud noises. I saw the second in my son; I witnessed the first in my grandson. After he started walking, I noticed he hesitated when approaching a ledge or when he got too close to the edge of a chair or the couch. I didn’t have to say, “Watch out, you’ll fall.” He naturally knew something was different.

I’m sure David was frightened by many things, but he had the sense to know he shouldn’t be. God saved him from lions, bears, enemies, and a jealous king. He gave light to his path and provided a protective wall.

I may have been born with only two fears, but I’ve accumulated many more: fear of those who can harm me physically, fear of financial failure, fear of relationship demise, fear of not being loved, fear of emotional abuse, fear of unemployment, fear of depleted retirement savings. Yet I’m reminded of what Paul told Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV).

Fears seem to come naturally in my human experience, but if I’m only created with two, they shouldn’t. As with David, experience should teach me I can depend on God for salvation and protection. He has saved me from the greatest fear I could ever have: spending an eternity apart from Him to pay for my sins. Even if my life is taken by others, my soul is secure.

I can also depend on God to guard my daily steps. I may incur sicknesses—even life-threatening diseases—but He provides ultimate protection. Since the imperishable part of me is safe in His arms, I can live without fearing the other things that assault me during my life’s journey.

Don’t live with a spirit of fear, when God says, “Fear not.”

Prayer: Father, we thank You for allowing us to live a life free of fear.

Sin Sick

No, it’s because of your wickedness! There’s no limit to your sins.
Job 22:5 NLT

“Have you anointed her and prayed for her healing?”

My wife suffers from various physical ailments—too many, in fact, for her young age. She has undergone numerous surgeries to remove tumors that could have turned deadly. Then came surgeries to repair hernias, remove a gallbladder, take off planter’s warts, and repair carpal tunnel. She still needs to have herniated disks in her back and neck repaired. To top off these issues, she suffers from fibromyalgia, degenerative arthritis, and neuropathy. Every trip to the doctor seems to entail another medicine or a further diagnosis.

Had Michelle lived in Job’s time, there would have been any number of good church folks who would be telling her she sinned. Though a righteous man—declared so by God and himself, Job was accused by several fair-weather friends of having sinned against God. Why else would he be afflicted by boils and have lost most of his family and possessions? Even his wife told him to curse God so he could die and get his miserable life over with.

Job maintained his innocence, and at the end of the story God corroborated his testimony. Sickness is the bane of living in a world tainted by sin. The world God originally created was free from sickness—and all of the other results of sin, and the new world He will create at the end of time will be identical.

While sickness came when sin entered the world, all sickness is not the result of individual sins. If this were true, my wife would be one of the greatest sinners in the world—when in fact she is quite saintly. God can and does use sickness as a means of disciplining or punishing those who revel in willful sin, but having a cold doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve committed a particular sin.

When my pastor friend asked if I had anointed and prayed for my wife, my answer was yes. But she hasn’t been healed. Just as sickness is not always the result of sin, so God doesn’t always choose to heal our sicknesses when we ask. He is sovereign. I must trust His plan.

If you’re sick, examine your spiritual life. If it’s in order, pray for healing, but leave the results to an all-wise God.

Prayer: Father, we entrust our health-related matters to you. If sin is the cause, convict us. If it’s not, then give us courage to trust You and endure.

Seeking Refuge

Protect me! Rescue my life from them!
Do not let me be disgraced, for in you I take refuge.

Psalm 25:20 NLT

The day appeared calm enough, but Mother Nature soon released her hidden fury.

My brother and I—along with my daughter—set out early for a ten-mile mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. At the five mile point, we planned to set up camp and walk the remainder of the way without our packs.

As we reached our destination, the sound of thunder greeted us. Mountain storms were familiar to us, so we decided to set up camp. Within minutes of driving the last tent stake, we felt the first drops of rain. Then came a torrential downpour with lighting to match. We huddled on our rubber sleeping mats, hoping lightning wouldn’t strike the tall pines above us.

After sitting for what seemed like hours, we tumbled into a trail shelter nestled a mere 100 yards away. Through pouring rain, intermittent lightning, and puddled water, we made it to our refuge where we remained for the next several hours, listening to storm after storm march through the mountains. Though our refuge was only a three-sided shelter, we felt secure.

David’s enemies were numerous—among them lions, bears, Philistines, giants, and even a jealous king. Regardless of who or what they were, David found refuge in a big God whom he trusted to protect him.

I’ve sought refuge in healthy and unhealthy things. At the end of a stressful day, I love taking refuge in a good book. I cherish the times when my wife and I can go to a restaurant alone, without friends or the grandboys. Sitting in our old glider on our back patio in the fall of the year is also nice.

But I’ve also attempted to find refuge in unhealthy things during stressful times. Instead of running to God, I ran to addictions or unhealthy relationships. They brought only temporary satisfaction, along with a foreboding sense of guilt that I was looking in the wrong place.

Where David found refuge is where we should. A healthy relationship with a loving Savior is the only thing that brings satisfaction, contentment, and peace. All other things and people will disappoint. He always loves unconditionally and protects faithfully. Friendships and family can be the icing on the cake, but they can never take God’s place.

Run to God for refuge when times are tough.

Prayer: Father, thank You for being a trustworthy place of refuge when life is stormy—a place that will never disappoint us.

Take a Break

Before daybreak the next morning,
Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray.

Mark 1:35 NLT

When you’re spastic, taking a break isn’t easy.

I’ve never been one to sit and twiddle my thumbs. Sitting and doing nothing makes me feel lazy. Since I only have so much time in life, I want to make the best use of every minute. Having this tendency opens me up to the possibility of over-commitment and burnout. What others ask of me, I usually agree to do—often not pausing long enough to pray first. I love seeing how much I can accomplish in 24 hours. Not that I crave recognition or do things for recognition, but like most people I enjoy being appreciated. Sitting for hours watching a movie or relaxing in conversation with company is difficult. My mind races, thinking about all the things I could be doing that would seem more productive.

Jesus was a busy man. Knowledge of His ability to heal spread like a California wildfire. Crowds crowded around Him. Everyone wanted healing for themselves, a friend, or a family member. Had He taken advantage of every opportunity, He would have never gotten any rest or sleep.

After a long day and evening of healing, Jesus rose the next morning, went to an isolated place, and prayed. When some of the disciples found Him and told Him everyone was looking for Him, He told them He had other places to go. He couldn’t stay in this one place forever.

Breaks from the daily grind of life are essential for good health—mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. We can’t do everything everyone might ask of us. There’s not enough time in the day, nor does God expect that of us. Jesus knew He needed rejuvenation, and it came through a quiet time with the Father.

Quiet times—whether in the early morning, late morning, or evening, are crucial in our service for God. Not only did Jesus’ spirit receive refreshing, but He also received instructions from the Father about His next move. Ironically, it wasn’t where He was—even though there were many there who needed His help. Rather, the Father told Him to move to a different area.

Enjoying life and making sure we’re on God’s track only happen when we’ve taken a break long enough to discover God’s will. So go ahead, take a break—and don’t feel guilty about it.

Prayer: Father, remind us we need breaks to refresh our spirits so we can do our best for You.

An Army of Misfits

So David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. Soon his brothers and all his other relatives joined him there.  Then others began coming—men who were in trouble or in debt or who were just discontented—until David was the captain of about 400 men. 1 Samuel 22:1-2 NLT

What others consider misfits, God often considers fits.

My father served as interim pastor for a small, struggling church after he retired. Once a thriving church on the local lake, it now struggled to survive. Dad tried to get them to take their eyes off their situation and focus outwardly. If the church grew, many of their problems would disappear.

At Dad’s behest, the church began reaching out. They ordered door hangers and placed them on houses in the community, inviting any and everyone who would come…planting seeds. When the church called a new pastor, the preparatory work had been done. He picked up where Dad left off and continued going into the community, inviting all.

People from all walks of life began to come. Most of them from the wrong side of the tracks. People who had sordid backgrounds and lived questionable lifestyles. The people in the church found the people in their community were quite different, but they didn’t let that stop them. They loved them and took them in. Soon, the church became the fastest growing church in the local association. But it was a church of misfits—at least according to many.

Jesus also had a tendency to invite those to follow Him who were considered misfits. His 12 disciples weren’t who others might have picked to change the world: fishermen, a tax collector, and who knows what else. Nor were those who collected around David as he ran from King Saul’s attempts to kill him. But they became a great army. And those 12 disciples initiated a world revival.

Thinking God can’t use me because I have a sordid background or because I’m enduring unfortunate circumstances in the present is the Devil’s ploy. If he can convince you, he will keep you unproductive. God, on the other hand, has good plans for us. We were created in His image, and nothing we’ve experienced—or are experiencing, can hinder His work unless we let it. Confession, repentance, and trust wipe the slate clean.

God loves to use those the world considers misfits because when great things are accomplished through them He gets the credit. And after all, shining the spotlight on God is what life is about.

Don’t let others—or Satan—convince you God can’t use you. All God requires is your willingness.