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“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
As we come out of hiding, we are invited to be a “house of prayer.” (Luke 19:46) Our lives are designed to embody prayer as a way of life. It is our identity, our calling, our joy. And yet, the intimacy and emptiness of the wilderness way of the cross may confuse us.
The temptation is that we might resist or avoid the releasing and letting go required for following Jesus to the cross. As we consider the cost of taking up our own crosses, we can be tempted to look for an easier way. We may find ourselves drawn to the fruit of a life in Christ, and yet not sure if we really want to lay down our lives. For most of us, we’ve spent years constructing a life that we perceive will keep us safe … and that all falls apart in the wilderness. As we begin to stabilize in a wilderness season, we find ourselves drawn to move into the fullness of a humble, surrendered, dependent life, and yet the temptation to return to those old strategies of protecting ourselves may become quite fierce.
It’s not that the temptation is necessarily stronger, but we are aware like never before and it seems more significant. The choice is laid out before us.
Peter was confronted with this same choice as He walked with Jesus during this final week. Previously, Peter boldly expressed His desire to follow Jesus and leave everything behind. (cf., Matthew 19:27) He also expressed some misunderstanding when he “rebuked” Jesus and said, “This shall never happen to you.” (Matt 16:22) During that week, as the pressure to fully embrace the way of the cross mounted, we see Peter resisting and avoiding. He resisted as he cut off the ear of the Roman guard (John 18:10) even though Jesus had told him that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected (Luke 9:22). Peter avoided the issue as we read that he followed at a distance (Mark 14:54) which then led to a denial that he even knew Jesus.
Are there ways that you are fighting against the forces that threaten your safety? Are there places where you are following at a distance?
Perceiving that our ways of existing in the world are threatened by the cross is both a necessary discernment as well as a normal experience. If we don’t feel that threat, we probably aren’t paying attention. Jesus made it quite clear, but it often only reaches to the depths of our heart when in the wilderness and face to face with the loss: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24–25) Certainly, Peter felt his way of life slipping away as he saw the guards coming after Jesus and as he was confronted by the crowd. And this is where the temptation comes in.
If it will cost us something, we are tempted to look for an easier way. The statement that there is no temptation that has not been common to man is meant to encourage and also to humble. These temptations are normal and something we can expect. Discerning the presence of avoidance and resistance in our spiritual journey is vital. Otherwise, we may find ourselves swept off the path without even realizing what is going on.
Avoidance tends to be a bit more passive and shows up in a lack of honesty or a lack of awareness of our internal world. We end up staying in our heads and ignoring our heart as a way of ignoring the cost of following Jesus. We might employ avoidance in order to not deal with the very real pain we’ve experienced or are experiencing. Part of the temptation of avoidance is that we may cloak it in the religious garb of platitudes (“God is good … all the time” or “I just need to trust“), of correct theology, or of right behavior.
Avoidance often has particular expressions based on our temperaments and giftings. We may feel the need to avoid anger, needs, failure, ordinariness, emptiness, doubt, pain, weakness, or conflict. Can you see yourself in any of these things? Are you willing to ask the Lord to search your heart? How do you perceive these kinds of avoidance “protecting” you from the suffering of taking up your cross?
Resistance is the more active expression of the temptation to deny the suffering of the cross. We flat out say “no” or we refuse to engage in the kind of deep soul work that is necessary in the desert. Again, we might wrap our resistance in optimism (“everything is fine”), moralism (we go to behavior modification), or spiritualizing. Interestingly, Henry David Thoreau observed: “The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.”
In any kind of avoidance or resistance, we are asking: how do I stay safe? When we ask that question, we are actually trying to be safe from having to follow Christ. The fullness of life in Christ is found as we die to self … as we choose to love. As Carl Trueman put it, “Much of life can be explained as an attempt to deny or escape from death.” The intimacy and emptiness of the wilderness threaten our previous understandings of how life should work.
Getting the “Egypt” out of us requires time and patience. The layers of resistance and avoidance that can build up over time have to be peeled away layer by layer. And in it all, God abides with us in grace … tenderly, gently, and persistently inviting us to sit still and submit ourselves to His surgeon’s scalpel.
Question for reflection: how do I see the temptation to avoid in my life? What does resistance look like for me? Sit in quiet trust and ask the Lord to give insight into these things.
Prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer)
“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” 1 Corinthians 10:12
As we walk toward the cross with Jesus, it is wise to consider this encouragement to notice: are there ways that I think I am “standing”? Do I believe I have it all figured out? Do I believe that I’ve got it together? If we believe we’ve got it together, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. This is reminiscent of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction.”
One of the consistent themes of the ministry of Jesus was the critique and challenge of religious leaders. In our reading of the Gospels, we may like to identify with the prodigal son, the lost coin, or the lost sheep (cf. Luke 15), but the truth is that we often have more in common with the older son (in the prodigal son parable) and the religious leaders. This can be a difficult thing to consider. You may even experience some resistance to the suggestion. Will you take a moment and reflect on this possibility? The nature of Jesus’ challenge to the religious was that they believed they had it all figured out when they actually were blind to spiritual realities. They had constructed their lives in such a way that they used “religion” to hide from their hearts – to hide from their sin. Are there ways that you hide?
All of this came to a head after Jesus entered Jerusalem when one of the first things He did was go to the temple. In Luke 19, it is recorded that he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” (vs. 45-46) While this is a very familiar event from the Gospels (all four record it), it will be helpful to explore the background of Jesus’ statement which is made up of quotations from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.
When a rabbi quoted the Old Testament, listeners would have heard the verse in the context of the original statements. So, what may seem to be a simple reference was loaded with all the power the context supplies. First, the statement of the temple being a house of prayer is from Isaiah 56:7. Notice the overall context: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (vs. 6-8) This was a statement of God’s heart for not only the people of Israel but all peoples to have access to Him … to be able to pray and seek Him. Second, the statement about the temple being made a den of robbers is found in Jeremiah 7:11. Again, the overall context is found in verses 8-11: “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.” The people of Israel were going to the temple and calling out to God while they were also oppressing others and shedding the blood of others. (vs. 6)
The word “robber” in the Hebrew language of Jeremiah could be more appropriately be rendered “violent one.” Jesus was accusing them of violence against others … of not giving access to the poor, the widowed, orphans, and foreigners. Further, calling the temple a “den” is a way of saying … “you have made this place a hideout.” The temple (and by extension, their relationship with God) had become a place to hide … a place to ignore how they were living their faith in the world and with others. To put this into a modern context, we might say that “religious” people often do not address the way they treat others and then hide out in church singing praise songs and calling on the name of God. And don’t pass too quickly over the reality that people were being oppressed. Are there ways that you actively or (more likely) passively are involved in the oppression of others?
Before you react with, I don’t do that, are you willing to stop and consider a few questions? Do you ever use God as a hideout … a way to make yourself feel better … but leave sin in your life unaddressed? Can you humble yourself and acknowledge ways that you praise God on the one hand and then ignore sin on the other? Are you open to looking at ways that you are part of things that oppress others? Are there systems in place around you that it is easy to ignore because you benefit from them?
We are plunged into a wilderness season to lay bare the reality of our lives … to come out of hiding. This demonstrates the grace of a wilderness season. When the circumstances of our lives are pleasant, we may not pay attention. Can you come out of hiding? It requires trusting the grace of God … trusting that we will be safe. Simone Weil wrote “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” This illustrates the need for faith and trust. We may not feel safe or experience grace in those places where we are holding on and not releasing our sin. And then, when we do, grace comes flowing in.
In his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May discussed this reality in taking about things being “stripped away, leaving a desert like spaciousness where my customary props and securities no longer existed. Grace was able to flow into this emptiness, and something new was able to grow.” In this event from Jesus’ last week, we are encouraged to empty our hands … to let the desert expose things hidden.
Questions for reflection: sit with what you are noticing being stirred in your spirit. Ask the Lord to search your heart. What is coming to your awareness? How is God calling you out of hiding?
Prayer: Lord, I humble myself and acknowledge the ways I have praised You on the one hand and not treated others with justice and equity on the other. Thank you for the grace to let go of those things and the experience of grace that flows as I do. Amen.
As we move into this final week of the Lenten Season, we come to the last part of the passage from 1 Corinthians 10: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (vs. 11–13)
In the examples of the people of Israel, we have considered various ways we stray off the path as we journey through the wilderness. The invitation of the wilderness is to trust the voice of love … to trust that the pain, the disorientation, and the confusion is all used by God to deepen our souls. The temptation is to short-cut the process … to try to escape the wilderness rather than receive it. Jesus received the wilderness that was His life (taking on human flesh) and death. The last week of His life displayed a purposed, intentional movement that mirrors the transformational process into which we are called. In Luke 9:51, we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He willingly entered these days that lead to the crucifixion on Friday. His life was not taken from Him, but He freely gave His life. (John 10:17-18) He could have hidden or even quietly moved on. Instead, He modeled trusting the love of the Father.
Cynthia Bourgeault suggests Holy Week is “the most sacred and mystical passage in the Christian year, when we ritually re-live and re-claim the very epicenter of Christianity, as Jesus reveals the depth of love and wagers his very life for the reality of the premise he has staked his whole ministry on: that love is stronger than death – love is the strongest power in the world … stronger than fear — stronger than hatred – stronger than division — stronger than violence. This is the moment, this week, when we again have the opportunity in a very special way to enter into this mystery of love with him, confront our own fears and shadows, and emerge as shareholders in his resurrection — not only through faith but through our own lived experience.”
In Jesus, we are given someone to follow. Jesus invited, over and over in the Gospels, with the simple words: “Follow me.” This invitation is to be with Him, to trust Him, and to live like Him. This is the hope of the one who has been redeemed by grace … to be like Jesus. (Romans 8:29) 1 Peter 2:21 says: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” As Jesus walked this earth, he retraced the steps of Israel’s wilderness journey with faithfulness rather than faithlessness. He became the example for us to follow in learning what it means to live faithfully … to trust God’s love and presence in our lives. As we approach the cross this week … we will walk through the events of the Passion Week.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus, it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
This may feel quite counter-intuitive. As we think about the spiritual journey with Christ, we may think of abundant life (John 10:10) as a sweet, nice, pleasant sort of existence. By this point in our Lenten journey, I pray that you have been disabused of such a notion and are embracing the reality that abundance of life (eternal life) is found in a gritty kind of faith that transforms us into lovers from the depths of who we are. The pattern of the cross is a stripping away so that life can emerge. It is letting go of what is so what can be will emerge. All of the movements we’ve explored in these previous weeks can be summed up with the movement from “death to life.” Jesus described this in John 12:24-25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus also put it this way: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23–24) The invitation is to die before you die. But there is a choice. God never forces us. He invites. He woos. He beckons. And He is always present, patient, and available to lead us.
In 1 Corinthians 10, we see a progression: humility, temptation, escape, and endurance which also marked Jesus’ life. This week, we will walk through these elements of trusting God in the wilderness. Humility comes as we trust that the way of the cross is the way … as we decide not to think we know better or that perhaps there is a different, easier way. Then, we notice the temptations to hold on, to protect, to run so that we can save our life. As we notice, we discover there is a way of escape which is most simply understood as following in the steps of Christ. Finally, we are able to endure and stay in the desert as God does His gracious work in us.
There is an intensity to the way of the cross and yet deep joy and freedom as we let go. Much of the pain, confusion, and turmoil comes as we fight and refuse the process. We can become fearful because it may seem too intense, but Jesus challenges us to see that the way of the cross is actually free and light. Matthew 11:29-30, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” His yoke, or His way, is not burdensome. It is actually “easy” which might be better translated as “well-fitting” or “free.” When we release and let go of that to which we cling, we actually find freedom and that this way of the cross fits us better than we could have ever imagined.
In Jesus, we see One who knew fully what He was walking into and yet trusted the Father step by step. It is those steps we are invited to follow.
Questions for reflection: will you set your face toward Jerusalem? What fears are you noticing as we move into this final week of Lent? As you pray, what are you being asked to release? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you to surrender?
Prayer: Lord, I want to follow the way of the cross, but I am often fearful. Give me the courage to release into trusting You and the process of Your gracious, deepening work in my life. Amen.
On Sundays, we are invited to pause in order to remember God’s goodness and His work in us on the journey thus far. Today, look back at the last six weeks and also consider the One who entered Jerusalem on a donkey. (Matthew 21:6-11) How does Jesus (proclaimed as coming in the name of the Lord) calm your fears and awaken your trust?
Use the following to engage in a time of examen prayer:
- Begin by quieting your heart before God and simply taking a few deep, slow breaths as you remember that you are in God’s presence.
- Review the last six weeks with gratitude. What is the Spirit bringing to your awareness?
- Notice the ways that God has been present to you in this journey so far.
- What are you thankful for? What might God want you to see that you didn’t previously notice? Perhaps a place to repent? Is there something that you have been led to release, but you’ve been holding on to it? Are you ready to release and trust?
- Select a part of your reflection to pray over.
- Pray for the coming week as we walk with Jesus to the cross and then wait in trust for what is next!
Write out a prayer in which you release fears and enter with trust into participating with what God is doing in you.
As we near the end of this journey, let’s revisit the concept of story. As we are able to see our story in the context of God’s love, it brings healing and hope without denying the hard parts of the wilderness. When we can see our lives as part of an unfolding story, we experience joy. The joy that is discovered in the midst of pain has richness and depth as opposed to momentary or shallow joy.
Grumbling is a response to being enmeshed in the details of the story. However, our grumbling begins to fade as we take a step back and get some distance. Getting distance from the details allows us to see them in the context of the story that God is telling. When we do not see things in their context, we can misinterpret and become overwhelmed. The story that God is telling is a story of love. Love is who He is (1 John 4:8) and as Julian of Norwich said, “love is our Lord’s meaning.”
In Deuteronomy 6, we find the beautiful invitation that God relayed to His people through Moses: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and with all your soul and with all your strength.” We are likely familiar with the invitation to love but may skip over the statement that the Lord is one. While this statement supports the idea of monotheism, the point becomes clear as we look at the word that is used for one. It is the same word used in Genesis 2 to describe man and woman becoming one. One describes the loving, committed union of the marriage covenant. With God, it is suggesting that core to God’s essence is loving union. First, we now know with the fullness of revelation that God exists in a perfect union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, He invites us into that loving union. 2 Peter 1:3-4 tells us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Our response of loving God comes as we respond to the love God has shown us. “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) As we receive His loyal, faithful love, we are led to love Him and move toward deepening union and oneness with Him.
Receiving His love is rooted in seeing it. He is always loving us, but it can remain an abstract concept that is not experienced if we are not seeing it in the context of our lives. The praise and joy in the prayers of the Psalms are always rooted in recognizing specific acts of God’s love. Psalm 136 begins with the words: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Then, as the story of the people of Israel is told, the phrase “His steadfast love endures forever” is connected to particular details and is repeated twenty-five more times in twenty-five verses. Today, stop for a few minutes and prayerfully read through Psalm 136.
Psalm 107 walks through various descriptions of where the people of God found themselves. Some wandered in desert wastes, find no city to dwell in. (v. 4) Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons. (v. 10) Some were fools through their sinful ways and because of their iniquities suffered affliction. (v. 17) Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters … He commanded and raised the stormy wind … their courage melted away in their evil plight. (v. 23, 25, 26) Sometimes we find ourselves in tough places through no fault of our own and sometimes we find ourselves in tough places because of the consequence of our sin. For whatever reason we end up in the wilderness, God’s heart is that we would see our desperate need for Him … that we would cry out to Him. It is not as simple as “do good” and things will go well, or “do bad” and things won’t. In each situation, the people cried out to God and He was right there … listening and loving them.
In the final verse of the Psalm, we read: “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” (v. 43) Pause for moment and consider the love of God … the way He is meeting you or has met you in your wilderness season. How has He loved you?
Anthony DeMello describes the joy of considering God’s love: “behold the One beholding you and smiling.” As we perceive and receive His love, we move from discontentment toward joy because we are moving from isolated details to seeing all things in the context of His story of love. Our wilderness story becomes a love story that we wouldn’t trade for the world.
Question for reflection: select a time period in your life. Take a few steps back from the details and ask God to help you see how He has loved you during that time. What do you notice in your spirit as you see His love frame the details?
Prayer: Lord, I want to see You in the circumstances of my story. Give me eyes to see and discernment to know Your love. As I perceive and receive it, may I respond by loving You with the same kind of commitment and desire with which You pursue me. Amen.
Contentment and joy are rooted in love. When we receive and experience God’s love in the Spirit, joy is part of the package. The fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5 lists nine aspects of the fruit. Rather than describing nine separate pieces of fruit, they are referred to as a singular unit. Love could be described as the overarching description with all the other aspects being specific descriptions of the experience of love. Joy comes immediately after love on the list.
The love of God for His people is clear in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Each book was written by Moses who led the people out of slavery in Egypt. The intention of what was recorded in these books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was to explain how God had made a covenant with the people that He was faithfully keeping. In Genesis 12 and 15, the covenant is described as an unconditional promise. God would be faithful no matter what. Even as the people of Israel failed to live up to their identity as the beloved of God, God made a way for them. While pain and difficult consequences resulted from not trusting Him, He never turned His back. Over and over again, God pursued His people. He was present. He listened to their cries for help. He led them through the wilderness. While many have questioned the presence of the love of God in the Old Testament, His love is overwhelmingly present. Consider these words from Deuteronomy 7 that explain God’s faithfulness to His promise:
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations. (vs. 6-9)
As we have explored previously, the steadfast love of God is the Hebrew word hesed which speaks of His loyal, faithful, pursuing love. He chooses us to be His beloved, His treasure. The reference in verse 9 to “a thousand generations” invokes a phrase from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (vs. 4-6)
While our unfaithfulness may create consequences that last for a few generations, His love extends to a thousand generations. A powerful statement is being made about God’s love … it is more powerful and longer lasting than our lack of faith and trust. God’s hesed beckons us back to Himself over and over again. A significant loss of joy occurs when we dwell upon and even define ourselves by our sin and/or lack of trust. In His love, God leads us to remember that we are His people … this is our identity. We can wallow in the discontentment of our sins and failures, or we can listen to God’s voice which calls us His own … His treasure. His love and His loyalty to us is more significant than we can imagine. His love leads us into joy. No matter where we find ourselves, His love is present and preeminent. Contentment unfolds before our eyes.
Part of what we begin to notice in the desert is that as we return to God’s love as our reference point, we notice God changing and shaping our heart. We notice a freedom and detachment from the conditions of the desert. This is God’s work and His initiative that shapes us as we seek to be present to His love.
The great English mystic of the early 20th century, Evelyn Underhill, observed: “God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.” Receiving God’s love means being able to say: I love my life. There is deep joy and contentment in that. Notice: we are not saying that we love the circumstances around us or what we have and don’t have or what we do and don’t do. We can say that we love “life” because life is not defined by all these external realities but by the love and presence of God. In this space, we are accessing deep joy. We might even be surprised by joy.
When seriously ill and living in a time of pandemic (bubonic plague) and war (100 Years War), Julian of Norwich (14th century) experienced a vision of God in which she heard Him say, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The war started before she was born and ended after she died. The plague affected her village in England three different times. She was transformed by the love of God and experienced deep joy as Christ became her life as evidenced in the statement that “love is our Lord’s meaning.”
“The contemplative vision keeps before us the truth that the deepest longings of our heart were placed there by a loving God, to find their fulfillment only in relationship with God.” Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE
Questions for reflection: are you tempted to define life by the circumstances of life and your interaction with them? How might you grow in being able to say: “I love my life”?
Prayer: Lord, I can see the ways I often define my life by my failures, and yet I desire deeply to grow further into seeing life through my identity as Your beloved. I thank You for the ways that Your surprise me by joy. Amen.
What we behold shapes us. Our ultimate transformation will occur as “we see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2) and this gives us a window into how transformation and shaping happen in the present as well. This concept is found through the canon of Scripture. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22) Proverbs 4 connects the heart with what with view: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life … let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” (v. 23, 25) And, David, in Psalm 101 wrote: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.” And, finally, we are reminded that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:16)
What we behold and put before our eyes is not a minor issue in the Scriptures. It is deeply significant. If we gaze upon things other than God, we will be shaped by the culture around us, others, or even the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves. The wilderness can devastate us if we do not know how to take it all in. Of course, the answer is not to deny or ignore or escape but look at things through a different lens. If we behold without the lens of God’s presence, we begin to look like the desert – dry, desperate, and desolate. As we behold God and view all through the reality of who He is, we begin to see God and see how He is at work in all things. This is certainly easier said than done, and we are challenged to be intentional so that this does not stay in the realm of words and ideas.
Let’s examine two practical ways we can develop and deepen our “beholding.” First, as the people of Israel were travelling in the wilderness, God instructed them to make specific, physical reminders of His presence and commandments for them. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is being addressed. When there are not specific physical reminders, we can find ourselves gazing upon almost anything without any reference to God’s presence with us. Specifically, we find this encouragement in Numbers 15:37-41:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”
In addition, Deuteronomy 6 lists several encouragements to bring the commandment to love God with all your heart into every day, physical realities. God encouraged them to wear the commands and even post them on the gates to their home. He urged them to talk about the command to love when they sit down, lie down, rise up, and walk. The idea is to integrate the reality of who He is into actual, physical rhythms of our lives. What might that look like for you? Pray and ask God. Perhaps, you already have some physical reminders integrated into your life. Are they still helping you? Do you need a refresh? Finally, God says “you shall teach them to your children.” A relational component to our beholding is so important. Are there ways that you are sharing and connecting with others about your life with God … His presence with you and love for you?
Frank Laubach, in the early 20th century, asked this question in Letters by a Modern Mystic: “Can I bring the Lord back into my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind? I choose to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.” The challenge to have reminders and structures addresses a part of what this question is asking.
The second way we develop and deepen our “beholding” is through a contemplative seeing. This is not a physical kind of seeing per se, but a beholding in our spirit. As we develop a contemplative vision of God in our lives, it colors everything we see and behold. Then, our joy is protected as our temptation to move into discontentment wanes. We see this beautifully illustrated in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (vs. 1-2)
Notice the clear desert imagery in these verses: thirst, faintness, barrenness, and weariness. The response? Beholding God. Psalm 27 uses similar imagery: gazing upon the beauty of the Lord and meditating in His temple. (v. 4) This is a call to contemplative prayer. In The Cloud of Unknowing, we read: “Contemplation will change your heart. It will make you so kind and dynamic in loving that when you stop doing it and mingle with the world again, you’ll discover that you love your slanderer as much as your friend.”
The Cloud of Unknowing goes further in describing contemplative prayer: “Unclothe your awareness of analytical thoughts. Keep it empty. Don’t cogitate on yourself or on others whom you know. Let them go… You no longer need to feed your mind by meditating on who you are and who God is. Grace will help you focus on holding yourself steady in the deep center of your soul, where you’ll offer God the simple fact of your existence. Your spiritual affection will be filled to overflowing with love and virtue in God, who grounds you in integrity.”
Questions for reflection: review the two ways that beholding can take hold in our lives. How is the Lord inviting you to behold? What might this look like in your life? Are there things you behold that you might eliminate from your life?
Prayer: Lord, I acknowledge the weariness and desolation of the desert. By Your mercy and grace, may this not lead into discontentment as I look at You, beholding Your power and glory. Amen.
Experiencing contentment and joy in the wilderness may seem to be a bit unrealistic. Is it really possible to say hallelujah in the desert? At the close of the 40 years of wandering, God graciously anticipated this possible response in His words to Israel in the days leading up to their entry into the land of promise.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
The commandment is referred to in the previous verse? Obey the voice of the Lord, keep his commandments, and turn to the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul. Certainly, this also refers to the commandment in chapter six to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might” which is the overarching command of all the Scriptures. In addition, this describes all that we have been exploring in the previous weeks. In these verses, God is saying “you’ve got this. It’s not unrealistic. I’ve been shaping you to live with me in the fullness of joy.” We have a tendency to think that the promised life is far away and somewhere else – not within our grasp. However, the text goes on to say: it is not in heaven or on the other side of the ocean. When we are not present to God right where we are, we may think that the sand is better on the other side of the sea. We may think the grass is greener. All that we need to experience and enjoy life with God is present now. Jesus said something similar in Luke 17:20–21:
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
In Christ, not only is the rule and reign of God not a far-off reality, but a power and dynamic of life at work in us now. In Colossians 3:3-4, we read: “You died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. Whenever Christ, your life, should become manifest, then you also will become manifested with him in glory.” Let these words sink in for a moment. We are hidden in Christ. A life of joy and contentment is not simply a theoretical possibility but something that is already in our possession. We experience it as we release discontentment.
The repentance process occurs as we reflect, release and remember. As you have been reflecting these last few days, how are you seeing discontentment surface in your life? Do you believe you don’t have what you need? Are you tired? Are you overly busy? Are there significant stressors present? Is comparison to others a temptation?
In Hebrews 12:1-2, we are encouraged to lay some things aside in order to stay on the path that is before us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The ultimate expression of wilderness is certainly the cross. Jesus endured the cross. He remained faithful in the midst of questions (can this cup pass from me?), stress (sweating drops of blood), abandonment (His disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray), and pain (the mockery, the beatings, the cross itself). He endured or was faithful to stay on the path because of “the joy that was before him.” This is an example for us because it demonstrates that the reality of joy is something that can undergird us as we seek to release. We release in order to fully experience the joy and it is joy that leads us to release. We release both weights and sin. Weights are burdens, things that encumber our journey. Put simply, sin is independence. As I think, speak, and act autonomously, it is sin. The call to lay it aside is a prompting toward dependence, a humble trusting of God.
What are the weights that are holding you down? What are those things that are leading toward discontentment? When discontent in the desert, the temptation is to take things into our own hands … to act autonomously. Where are you most tempted to autonomy? Pausing here … what do you notice? What is the Lord bringing to your awareness?
What are you being led to release? What sin will you confess? Releasing and confession lead to joy. Psalm 51:12 describes the process: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Psalm 25:10: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” Again, today we come to hallelujah. There is a lightness and a freedom on the journey as we release all but Christ. In joy, we can proclaim that we have Christ, and He is our life. The encouragement in Deuteronomy 30 closes with:
“Choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land.” (vs. 19-20)
Question for reflection: what does “choosing life” look like for you as you consider the movement from discontentment to joy?
Prayer: Lord, in the midst of so many things that could lead to discontentment, I choose You. You are my life. You are my hope. You are my joy. In each element of the wilderness, may I connect with you and abide with you in the midst of it – not denying or ignoring anything – but choosing You as the lens through which I look. Hallelujah. Amen.
In our season of distress, questions can be our downfall, but they can also be what leads us to a joyful acceptance of all that is happening in our lives. With the people of Israel, a recurring question came from their hearts as they experienced the dismantling of the wilderness: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7)
When things are not going the way we’d prefer or expect, “where is God?” is the question we can find coming from our lips. It can be an accusatory query: “God, You are clearly not involved or You obviously don’t care if You would allow things like this to occur.” These kinds of questions also can come from those around us as well. We find this pattern throughout the Psalms and especially in Psalm 42:
“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (vs. 3)
As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (vs. 10)
Connecting our difficulties to the absence of God can become an automatic response because of the way we may have been formed to think about God and the way that other people talk about Him. The assumption is that God is not involved. Or perhaps even worse, we assume that God has withdrawn from us or is punishing us. It can be subtle or it can be quite direct, but the result is the same: we lose any sense of joy because we are believing and trusting in things that are not accurate. Further, the question can devolve into asking: what did I do wrong that I am being treated like this? Or, what do I have to do to get God back on my “good side?”
“Where is God?” is a great question when it is asked with the assumption that God is involved and we desire to discern His presence. Joy in the difficult season of wilderness is discovered as we view things through the lens of His presence in our lives.
Writer Paula D’Arcy stated it beautifully: “God comes to us disguised as our life.” We don’t “find” God in spite of our circumstances or on the “other side” of our circumstances, but in the midst of where we are. When we look at life through the lens of good things/bad things or through the eyes of others, God becomes hidden in plain sight and joy seems illusive.
What we may have missed or never been taught is that God will graciously and reliably walk us through a process of dismantling and deconstruction at some point in our journey of faith. This deconstruction often hits us in areas that we were sure we had figured out, and without the discernment that God deconstructs so He can reconstruct, we may come to the conclusion that God has abandoned us, that it is just not worth it, or that none of this “God stuff” really works. Or, we may be tempted to think that living a trusting, surrendered life is for other people but not us.
A curious, hard to understand verse in the letter to the Philippians helps tremendously as we consider the possibility of joy and its juxtaposition with suffering. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ … and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (1:27–29) The wording is a bit awkward in its English translation, but the wording in Greek is “This is a clear sign to them of destruction, but to you of salvation.” For many people, our suffering looks like destruction or obliteration, but for a follower of Jesus we can see it as our salvation. Paul is referring to a broader definition of salvation than being saved from hell. The salvation described is being saved from all the things we’ve been exploring in these weeks of Lent … being saved or delivered from expectations, independence, striving, isolation, certainty, idolatry, and the false self.
As we trust that God does these kinds of things in the wilderness, we can smile. We rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3) and count it joy when we encounter trials (James 1:2). We might even say “of course, I’m in a wilderness because God loves me that much!” Indeed, hallelujah is the song of the desert. We take on a perspective that says “I’m in for whatever it takes to experience the deliverance of God.” (note: hallelujah means praise (halle) to (lu) Yahweh (yah))
So, the question “where is God?” is transformed into “where is God in this?” As we move out of discontentment to joy, we expectantly look for the ways that God is with us and how He is at work in us, and as the wilderness does it’s work, we may find ourselves saying, “is there anything more joyful than knowing God is at work in your life?”
“By virtue of Creation, and still more the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Question for reflection: where is God in this? Sit with that question. Listen for the Spirit’s answer.
Prayer: Lord, hallelujah. I rejoice in the wilderness because I know You are at work and You are good. Amen.
A common experience in the wilderness is discontentment. We feel discouraged, downcast, ready to throw in the towel, or even some level of depression. 1 Corinthians 10:10 encourages us “we must not grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the destroyer.” This is an intense admonition to not let our discouragement move into discontentment. Why? What’s the problem with a little grumbling and complaining?
First, Paul cited the example of the Israelites when some of them were destroyed. The reference to a “destroyer” is not completely clear but is most likely a reference to angels who kept that generation from entering the land of promise. The words “destroyed” and “destroyer” demonstrate the seriousness of discontent. The numerous times the people grumbled and complained throughout their wilderness journey makes it clear that this was a consequence after a pattern had been established. God will not force us into the transformation the wilderness can provide, and neither will He magically transform our hearts without our participation and a process.
The challenge is we often desire the magic. We want a formula. We desire to know exactly how the process works so that we can manage it and master it. God, in His gracious fathering love, desires more for us than that. He desires that we learn to be dependent and trusting.
Second, discontentment fosters a way of being in which we are not able to see or receive how God is loving us and leading us. Discontentment also steals our ability to experience joy. Quite simply, it is a miserable state. We lose out on being able to see God’s love and presence because we are looking in the wrong place. A discontented heart has come to believe that happiness and joy is found in acquiring satisfaction rather than experiencing a satisfaction that is already ours in Christ.
The idea that we can acquire satisfaction is at the heart of a culture of discontent that has come to define most of western society. However, as we see in the people of Israel, discontent is not a modern phenomenon but there is an intensity and pervasiveness that has become the water in which we swim. Nothing is ever enough. Suffering is not supposed to happen. Undoubtedly, there is plenty in our world and in each of our lives that can lead toward discontentment. The challenge is that if we have the perspective that adding something or subtracting something from our lives will finally make us happy, we are missing the point. If we are always waiting for that next thing, saying “when I have this or that, then I’ll finally be content,” we will never arrive at that destination. The reality is that if you can’t be happy where you are, you will not be happy anywhere.
Psalm 16:11 provides an emphatic reorientation: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Being present to God … this is where we find joy. With Him is satisfaction and pleasure. The psalmist describes this as the path of life … it is the way. There are times when the path of life runs right through the wilderness, but it can still be a place of joy. This is true, not because we become okay with pain in and of itself or because we deny the pain and trials, but in spite them. Wilderness can become a place of joy because it is no longer the vicissitudes of life that function as our reference point. Now, it is the presence of God and abiding in Him that becomes the lens through which we look at life. This was particularly true for the Apostle Paul as he shared in Philippians 4:11-13 that he had learned the secret to being content: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Again, it was not that he now had superhuman strength to endure all the tough things of life, but the joy of the Lord was strengthening him. Life in God’s presence had become the reference point. That was the secret. This is the path of life.
As we focus this week on the movement from discontentment to joy, we’ll see that joy is not something to gain or acquire but something that we begin to notice and therefore experience in God’s presence. God’s heart for us to depend upon Him and to trust Him is because everything for which we long is a fruit of trust and dependence. Joy is part of the fruit of entrusting ourselves to the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:25 makes clear “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” We “keep in step” as we step by step, or moment by moment, live in an awareness of and attentiveness to His presence. Earlier in this portion of Scripture, we read: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (v. 16) The implication is astounding: joyful people do not sin. When we experience joy in God’s presence, we are seeing Him as we depend upon Him. If we wallow in discontent, we are not seeing Him and we open ourselves to defining life on our own terms and creating our own path.
Questions for reflection: do you believe that joy can be found in the presence of God? Don’t rush too quickly past this question. Consider a specific circumstance in your life: what would it look like to see it through the lens of God’s presence?
Prayer: Lord, I acknowledge that discontentment and grumbling is sometimes where I settle in the midst of difficult things. I desire to live in Your joy and be at rest. Give me eyes to look at life through the lens of Your presence. Amen.