Monday, September 8, 2014

Hardest Spiritual Lesson #3: Praise

3.  Learning to Praise and Trust God Anyway
            I think one of the hardest lessons to learn and one of the greatest indicators of humility is whether or not we have learned to praise God, to trust Him, and to cling to Him in the pain and in the hard times. 
            It is easy to be thankful and to trust Him and to “sing His praises” when things are going our way and when we have more than enough (which is why I wonder about the level of spiritual maturity and commitment of those who are richly blessed on earth with success and money and power and who have not been broken by the trials and hard times).  But it is so hard to do this when we are in the “desert times” of our lives and when we feel like life is letting us down, like God is letting us down, and like we have been abandoned by Him.
            Learning to praise Him and trust Him (and to glorify Him) completely and at all times - regardless of what is going on in our lives - is part of the journey.  And it can only be learned that hard way.  It can only be learned . . .
            when God strips us of things we want or “need” so that we can learn that He is enough for us . . .
            when we find ourselves knocked flat on our backs and learn that only God can pick us back up again . . .
            when we learn to follow instead of lead . . .
            when we begin to rely on Him and not on ourselves . . .
            when we let down our walls and our defenses, letting Him fully into our hearts, minds, lives, and pasts . . .
            when we give up selfish or sinful things that we are holding onto so that we can become the person He wants us to be . . .
            when we learn to hold things loosely - our desires, dreams, goals, accomplishments, possessions, relationships, life - remembering that everything we have should ultimately be about His glory and for His purposes . . .
            when we willingly give up our will so that we can get in line with His, following the path and plans that He has for our lives and bearing that crosses that He lays on our backs (sometimes, thankfully, God’s plans for us do coincide with ours, but not always) . . .
            when we stop feeling sorry for ourselves - for what's happened to us, for what we didn't get, for what didn't go our way - and we remember that He is sovereign and will eventually work all things out for good . . .
            when we stop defining God based on our circumstances or our own desires of who we want Him to be and we start to see Him for who He really is . . .
            when we learn to trust that even when He is silent, He is still listening, still cares, and that He will move when it is time . . .
            when we choose to accept His “no” and to cling to Him anyway instead of getting bitter or giving up on Him to go our own way. 
            (And for those who are richly blessed with earthly things and who are spared from confidence-crushing trials, it can only be learned when you realize that no earthly thing – no matter how enjoyable it is – can truly fulfill you and bring you purpose and meaning and Life.  You can only find these in Jesus.)     
            In order to have the most whole, effective, fulfilling, sweet (sometimes bittersweet) relationship with Him possible, we have to allow God to strip us down when He chooses to strip us down.  Because we can’t learn to be content with little unless we have little.  We can’t learn to be faithful during trials, waiting, heartache, “not yet,” and “no” unless we face trials, waiting, heartache, “not yet,” and “no.”  We can’t learn to praise Him in the pain unless we accept the pain.  We can’t learn to glorify Him in hard times unless we have hard times.  Trials are amazing opportunities for spiritual growth and development.  Never waste a trial!
            But before we can learn contentment and faithfulness during the hard times, we usually need to wrestle with our views of ourselves and of God.  Too many times, our discontentment, distrust, and fear come from misconceptions we have about God and ourselves, unreasonable expectations, old wounds that ruined our views of ourselves and of God, and possibly outright rebellion or disobedience.  And we need to explore and work through these before we can get to a place of contentment and trust.  Examining how we see God and ourselves, figuring out what in our past created these misconceptions, and finding out the truth about ourselves and God as revealed in the Bible may be the most important step for those of us who are struggling with doubts, depression, discontentment, discouragement, distrust, fear, anger toward God, negative self-views, etc.  (I try to help people do this in the Through the Furnace series.)   
            Because once we see things clearer and have a better grasp on what is true, trust and contentment come easier.  Not completely easy – trust me, I still struggle and fight with God sometimes about things.  But easier.  Because now that I know Him and myself better, I can’t help but fall at His feet in humility, brokenness, and trust, saying, “Whether You give or take away, blessed be Your name.  I still trust and love You because I know You too well to think otherwise.  No matter what happens in my life, may You be glorified.”  (Although, this point usually comes after a lot of struggling with God, trying to get my way first, and confusion about why my “faith” isn’t working.)  
            I think our goal during the hard times should be to get to a point where, no matter what happens in life, we can say, “It is well with my soul!”  Because no matter what happens, we have a strong faith in a good, loving Father who will redeem all things in the end and turn all ugly things beautiful. 
            If we let trials and God’s “no” answers destroy our faith in Him then we didn’t really have faith in Him to begin with; we had faith in our faith, faith in our own ideas of how God should be.  But a faith that is grounded in God as He is in the Bible - mysterious, powerful, far above us, loving, holy, slow to intervene on earth out of respect for the freedoms He gave man, etc. – makes it easier for us to trust Him even when things don’t go our way.  Because we have learned to let Him be God.  Oftentimes, many of our “faith struggles” come because we are not looking for God as He is because we are looking for an easily manipulated, Vending Machine God who will give us what we want when we put our money in and push the button.  But this is not who God is.  And this is not what faith is.      
            Jesus modeled this kind of trust and humility and faith for us in the garden of Gethsemane.  In His humanness, He desperately wanted to live, to not go to the cross.  He pleaded with God three times to “take the cup” of suffering from Him.  And yet in the end, even though things didn’t go the way He wanted, He still trusted and loved the Father enough to say, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”  He had enough faith in the Father to accept the hard times, to embrace the “no” answer, and to let His life – good times and difficult times, blessings and sacrifices – bring God glory.  Can we expect to do any less? 
            Can we praise Him in the pain?  Like Jesus in the garden, can we still call Him “Father” in faith and trust and love, even when the times are dark?  Do we cling to Him in our desperate times because we know Him to be a good, loving, faithful Father who will work all things out in the end?  Or are we only faithful to Him when we are getting what we want?  Do we live like God owes us something, like He is a Heavenly Vending Machine that is here to give us good things, and like we can only really be “happy” when we get bigger and better and more?
            Contentment starts right now, or else it never starts at all!
       

            2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

            Psalm 96:4, 8:  “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . .”

            Colossians 2: 6-7:  “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

            1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

            Hebrews 13:15:  “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name.”  (And, yes, sometimes praise is a sacrifice, something that hurts and that we don’t want to do.  But for the health of our spiritual relationships and our hearts and minds – and I think for spiritual protection - we do it anyway.)    

            Job 1:21, 2:10:  “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. . . . Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”   

            James 1:2-4:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
 

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