Have you ever been in the middle of some very trying time of life where your circumstances seemed almost insurmountable? You may have tried to encourage yourself by saying something to the effect of “one day I’ll look back on this and understand what God wanted me to learn or what he was accomplishing in my life.” Or I’ve heard others say something like “I know everything happens for a purpose.” I may sound harsh and unsympathetic but the problem with this perspective is it’s all about you. God is accomplishing something and there is a purpose but it’s primary focus is not you.
Oswald Chambers puts it this way, “We are inclined to think that everything that happens is to be turned into useful teaching. In actual fact, it is to be turned into something even better than teaching, namely, character.” But even that character isn’t my character, it’s God’s character re-created in me that God is accomplishing. In 2 Corinthians 4:17 Paul’s perspective on the horrific circumstances he’s in (though he calls them light and momentary) is that they are producing an eternal glory. And not his glory, but, as verse 13 shows, glory for God
Needing to have a purpose or an understanding of why I had to endure a time of great adversity is actually very self-centered. When God’s character is re-created in us we become part of something much greater than ourselves, we take part in exactly what we were created for: bringing glory to God.
Now some may suggest that this makes God self-centered. If you do then you haven’t really met God. His nature is always self-giving. His actions always result in his glory, but the actions are selfless. The most well know verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says it well. “God loved the world so much that he GAVE . . . “ And what did he give? He gave us himself in the person of Jesus who lived his life for our well-being at any cost to himself, including his death.
Your circumstances may teach you some valuable lesson, they may have a purpose that reveals itself in the coming weeks or even years, but their greatest function is not you-centered, it’s God centered.
Pastoring wasn’t my first occupation, wasn’t even my first choice of careers. I had been out of Bible School for almost 10 years before a small country church in Golden Prairie, Saskatchewan took a huge leap of faith and hired me to be their new pastor. I hadn’t really preached a sermon before beginning there so you can imagine that weekly sermon prep was a real challenge. After we’d been there about six months my friend Greg suggested I’d been there long enough I could just start preaching the first ones over again since no one would remember what I’d said back then anyway.
I was reminded of that this week because I kinda feel like I’ve been preaching not the same sermons, but undoubtedly a recurring theme. Regardless of what book in the Bible we are studying the theme of the centrality of Jesus to every detail of life keeps coming up; the awareness of his presence, his involvement and guiding, literally living his life through me, and developing within myself an increasing desire for him that supersedes every other desire.
I was momentarily concerned that some may be tiring of the message and maybe wished I would move on until I thought about it in this perspective. My newlywed son and daughter (in-law) are staying with us till they leave for a two year term at a church in the Bahamas. (I gotta figure out how to get a gig like that!) Needless to say there’re a lot of kisses and I love you’s and such going on in our house. The cynic would say “give it a few months.” The cynic would be wrong.
The truth is there’s been a lot of that stuff going on in our house for the last 25 years. I never tire of hearing Wendy tell me she loves me or the hundreds of ways she shows it. I love hearing the special beep on my phone that tells me she was thinking of me and sent me a message. And yes, I even do the silly emoticons with the hugs and kisses and nonsense. But if I were to tire of that I would have some serious concerns for my marriage.
The same is true with Jesus. To paraphrase of Lamentations 3:21-24, the love and mercy of God never gets old because he renews it every morning, and I’ll never tire of telling you about it.
“We’re keeping you in our hearts and prayers.” Isn’t that the line you often hear when news of some catastrophe or calamity befalls a person or group of people? I don’t want to question the sincerity or spirituality of people who make that comment. What is far more important is what I mean when I tell someone I will pray for them. To my shame I know many times I have agreed to pray for an individual only to forget all about it till the next time I see them. In order to avoid that I began the practice of pausing for prayer immediately, even if it’s only just a quick sentence or two.
But over the last while I’ve even been re-evaluating that. Not if I should pray, but what I’m praying. Don’t you find that most often our prayers are more or less just asking God make life work the way we expect it to? Fix this, get them out of this, or take this away? At times God’s will may be for our lives to work out in a manner that is pleasing or pleasant for us, but that’s not always be the case.
In Colossians 4:3 Paul asks for prayer, not to be released from his chains, but that he would be effective in telling about the mystery of Christ for which he was in chains. But in 2 Thessalonians Paul asked for prayer for deliverance from evil men. So how can we know what to pray for?
To begin with make certain that you are not simply praying your own will or desire. Be careful not to make the assumption that making a problem go away must be God’s will. Obviously Jesus is the prime example of this when he prayed “not my will but yours be done.” But this brings up the next question, how do I know if I’m praying God’s will or my own?
I don’t think I’m being over simplistic when I say “ask him.” I have begun trying to develop the habit of asking God what he wants me to pray for in a particular situation . . . and then actually stopping to listen. Often listening involves going to scripture to hear from God there. As you practice this you will be amazed at how clearly God shows you how to pray, and how different it often is from what your initial impulse in prayer was.