Category Archives: Lent 2021
Not only does the false self show up as we are tempted to craft an identity around “what we do,” it can also arise as we connect our hearts to “what we have.” Certainly, in the wilderness, so often shaped by loss or lack, we are very aware of what we don’t have. The idolatry of what we possess can be quite deceptive because what we possess are generally good things, needed things. The trouble arises in how we are possessing them.
As the wilderness lays us bare, we become aware that things are amiss and the need for deep soul work is brought to our attention. Our impulse can be to deal with it on our own, to use our own resources to address our emptiness, nakedness, and loneliness. The impulse “to do” or produce is a response to the emptiness (we explored this yesterday), the impulse to “possess” response to the experience of feeling naked, or exposed. Tomorrow, we will explore how we deal with our loneliness through the idol of “what other’s think about us.” All of these are self-protective strategies and time in the wilderness is designed to strip of these things so we will take up what God provides.
First, what are the specific possessions we may use to protect or cover ourselves? It could be so many things: finances, good health, family, nationality, knowledge, relationships, experiences, etc. Let’s pause here for a moment. Do you use any of these “possessions” to cover your shame? Are there other “possessions” the Lord is bringing to your awareness? You might consider what it would be like to lose any of these things. What happens in your heart and mind as you reflect? Do you notice yourself in some kind of discomfort? Is there a reaction of clinging?
Dismantling the idol of “what we have” occurs as we notice our attachment and clinging, and then trust that God’s provision is enough. Unexamined, our clinging to things other than Christ can function like a computer program running underneath our awareness. Advertisers and marketers know this incredibly well and utilize it to stir a “sense of need” where need does not necessarily exist. The supposed scarcity of things is also something that can cultivate an attachment to things, even a hoarding of possessions.
The challenge for us … do we believe that what God’s provides is enough? Do we believe that life in in Him is truly abundant? And are we noticing when our hunger and need is being manipulated? For Jesus in the wilderness, the enemy came to Him to attempted to exploit the real hunger He was experiencing as He fasted. “’If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But He answered, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:3-4) Notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t deny that He was hungry. He also doesn’t deny that bread is something needed for life. He does refuse to trust in His own resources (as the Son of God) to cover His hunger. He also recognized that something deeper than physical hunger was in play: will I trust where the Father has me right now? Jesus’ trust/rest in being the beloved was being tested, as is ours in a wilderness season.
Jesus’s response of not living by bread alone is a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3 and in the verse that follows we find a fascinating statement: “Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years.” It might seem like a meaningless detail. However, the inclusion of this detail, right after talking about the provision of manna and that their lives were sustained by God, points to something deeper than just clothes and good foot health. God was saying, “I took care of you. I provided for you.” As we consider how naked and exposed we feel in the wilderness, God wants to remind us of His provision. In 1 Peter 1:4, we read that in Christ, we have “an inheritance (clothing, provision) that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” And then, Peter discusses walking through trials so that our faith is tested. By faith, we trust in God’s provision for all things we need, and then that faith is tested. The prayer of David in Psalm 23 reminds us of this perspective as well … “The Lord is my Shepherd; I don’t need a thing.”
1 John 2:16 calls this temptation to idolatry “pride in one’s possessions,” and it highlights the need for humility. David Benner echoes this: “The way of the true self is always the way of humility. Pride and arrogance move us toward our false self, but humility and love allow us to live the truth of our being.” As we become aware of our need being stirred and directed away from humble trust, we look to God in humility, trusting in His provision.
So, in contrast to the expression of the false self which is about what we have, the true self rests in God’s provision … receiving His provision as enough. What might that look like for you? How will you release an identity based on possessions and remember that what He provides is truly enough?
Question for reflection: how do you see the false self of “what we have” at work in your life?
Prayer: Lord, give me the wisdom to see Your provision and to humbly trust that it is enough for me. I am grateful for the way that You provide everything I need for a life of godliness. Amen.
When it comes to the deep soul work of the wilderness, we experience losses that can be incredibly disorienting. The ways our lives have been defined are no longer in place, and the things we thought we knew have been removed. The comfort of knowing what would happen next, even for the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, was stripped away and replaced with the unknowing/uncertainty of following God in the dry, dusty desert. While it feels harsh, it is love.
In Soul Making, Alan Jones observes: “The task of love is to help us rid ourselves of the exoskeleton, to lay us bare, to set us free. But we love the prison house. The place of bondage is, at least, familiar. Love, then, comes as an unwelcome shock.” We may love the prison house because it gave us a sense of identity. When God rescues us from being enslaved to things other than Himself, He is doing it to bring us back to remembrance … remembering that we are not machines whose existence is defined by how many bricks we can make and how fast we can make them … remembering that we are designed and created to live fruitful lives that spring out of our life with God in which He alone is enough for us. For the people of Israel, they were shaped over centuries to believe that their worth was rooted in what they could do, what they could accomplish. We may find that have we been shaped in similar ways. It may have been family pressures to “make something of your life” or the societal pressures in which we are seemingly always asked, “what do you do for a living?”
As we explore how the idolatry of “what we do” may be present in our lives, we may become overwhelmed. We may react by thinking, “Ok, well, just tell me what to do.” We may desire things to be simple and easy, but the realities of the heart are complex, and we have a relationship with God, not lists of “do this” and “don’t do that.” Dismantling the idols that have become lodged in our hearts takes time, and the impulse to “do” actually reveals a heart that has been shaped in a particular way. This can be part of the attraction of a religious system of dos and don’ts. It doesn’t take faith or trust but simply the either/or of “doing.” We’re either in or we’re out. We either did it or we didn’t. This can be our thought process. While it is not gracious or lifegiving, it is manageable. However, God’s heart for us is not to live a manageable life but a life flowing with goodness and grace that is rooted in relationship. Relationship can feel like a fuzzy word, perhaps even a bit vague. However, if we put it in terms of identity, we can ask: do you see yourself, as your core identity, as a beloved son or daughter of God?
It is interesting to note that before Jesus had done any work or accomplished any ministry, He was baptized (Matthew 3). At His baptism, He heard those words we discussed last week, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Belovedness, relationship, and value do not come as a result of work but should be what lead us into the work/the “doing” of life. Then, of course, the next stop in Matthew 4 was the wilderness temptation where this was all challenged. In verses 8-9, we read: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” In a very basic way, the temptation for Jesus was to “do” life on His own terms … to circumnavigate the suffering of the cross and go straight to being a king. His “doing” in life, we see over and over again, was shaped by a responsiveness to His Father. In John 5:19, Jesus says, “The Son can do nothing of His own accord but only what He sees the Father doing.” Relationship, connection with the Father, was primary and foundational.
As we are pressed into a wilderness space where we are limited in what we can do and things are stripped away, our prayers can be shaped by wanting to get around the suffering or they can be shaped by resting in our identity as the beloved. The loss of a dream or the loss of ability to “do” can be a deep grace if we are willing to receive it that way. Rather than asking God to get us out of the desert, what would it be like to rest in what is? How might you receive what is as an invitation to press more deeply into your identity as one who is living in a relationship with God?
As we make that kind of choice, we begin to experience that His love is enough … that His presence is more satisfying than anything we might do or accomplish. We are able to say with confidence, “It is not about what I do, but who I am as a son (or daughter) of God.” It is a life of resting in faith and trust rather than striving to accomplish. To be sure, this is not easy. It is upside down from what we have often experienced. Henri Nouwen said it so beautifully, “Jesus’ [life] is characterized by a downward pull. That is what disturbs us. We cannot even think about ourselves in terms other than those of an upward pull, an upward mobility in which we strive for better lives, higher salaries and more prestigious positions. Thus, we are deeply disturbed by a God who embodies a downward movement.”
As opposed to the false self which is about what we do, the true self is resting in our belovedness and actually letting God love us … receiving His presence as enough. What might that look like for you? How will you release an identity based on doing and remember that God is loving you, He is with you?
Notice the way Habakkuk describes resting in faith (the heart of true worship) in the following: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (3:17–19)
Question for reflection: how do you see the false self of “what we do” at work in your life?
Prayer: Lord, give me the strength to rest in relationship with You. Give me the wisdom to see You and listen to You in the ways you desire to be with me and love me. Amen.
Idolatry might be most succinctly and helpfully understood with the following: “if I can just do, have, or be this, I will be happy.” Instead of God, what we think will make life work is what we do, what have, or what image we are able to project in the world. Generally, we might not even have the awareness to say it so directly, but this is often what is going on in our hearts.
And when undetected, for those who are in Christ, we can end up putting this “idolatry” into our relationship with God. In a sense, we can idolize God in an attempt to get our own independence and self-fulfillment through what we do, what we have, and what others think of us. Rather than a life of depending on Him/surrendering to His heart, we may view Him as one who can get us what we want. Of course, what we most desire is a life of dependence, but lesser desires are often more intensely at play.
For the people of Israel, the text of Exodus 32:6 is tragically fascinating. Aaron, the brother of Moses, had just built the golden calf. Then, he pronounced, “these are your gods that delivered you from Egypt,” and announced that the next day they will have a feast to the Lord. The word “Lord” is the Hebrew word Yahwehwhich was the personal name of God. There are two things to note. First, they were attributing their release from captivity to these false gods. Second, they were mixing the worship of those gods with worshipping the one, true God.
Let’s pause right here. Are there ways that you attribute things in your life to yourself? to your hard work? to whatever? Or do you see yourself as completely dependent upon the vine who is Christ? (cf. John 15:1-5) Next, ask God to search your heart. Are there ways that you have combined worship/surrender to God with other pursuits? Again, pause here for a few moments as you listen and explore with God. He is gracious and will meet you where you are.
In Deuteronomy 8:17–19, we read: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” It is distinctly possible that we end up worshipping the gift rather than the giver. John Piper challenges us:
“The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but His gifts, and the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God Himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.” (A Hunger for God)
The temptation of mixing our worship of God with the pursuit of other things also includes a beautiful invitation because when we reflect on how we are tempted to be shaped by what some have called the false-self, we have an opportunity to release and remember in trust and worship. More specifically, the false-self is what we have been discussing: identifying ourselves with three things – what we do, what we have, and what others think of us. We can “use” God to prop these things up. Graciously, God waits, abides with us and beckons us, quietly and non-forcefully, to release and look fully at His provision … to rest in the reality that He is enough.
These three elements of the false-self are the same things that showed up in Adam and Eve’s temptation in Genesis 3 as well as Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4. For Adam and Eve, it was in the silence and joy of the Garden, and for Jesus, it was in the wilderness. And in both, temptation was presented in the context of their lives with God. Notice the parallels of these temptations:
- make one wise | get the kingdoms of the world | what I do
- fruit is good for food | turning stones to bread | what I have
- delight to the eyes | throw self down | what others think of me
In his book Basking in His Presence, Bill Volkman offers that the temptation contrasted with the invitation is about knowing (possessing) and unknowing (faith). “Like Adam and Eve, we all have been given the same basic commandment: ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ But, like Adam and Eve, most of us continue to make the mistake of choosing to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, or tree of knowing, instead of in faith taking from the Tree of Life, the Tree of Unknowing.”
Can you allow yourself to be in that place of unknowing … of trust? The idolatry of the false-self is centered around garnering and possessing what we need rather than trusting God as our provider.
Over the next three days, we’ll look at each of these parts of the false-self and what it might mean to move from a place of striving into rest where we are increasingly freed to worship God alone. It is out of the “enoughness” of God that our true-self emerges.
Questions for reflection: is God alone enough for me? In what ways would you say yes? In what ways would you say no?
Prayer: Lord, today I confess that in particular ways … dependence and trust in You alone has not been enough for me. And I desire deeply to live into the worshipping You alone more and more. Thank you for the grace of letting me be in process along the way. Amen.
In the coming movement through the wilderness, God graciously and kindly desires to reveal more and more of our heart to us. While the terrain can be quite harsh on this journey, it is foundational to remember that it is His “kindness that leads us to repentance.” (Romans 2:4) Repentance is that beautiful rhythm of reflect, release, and remember which is invited as we see those parts of our heart that would lead us astray. In the overall journey from expectation to trust, this week we come to the specific movement: from striving to rest.
Striving is an energy which is grounded in the impulse that we have to control whatever is going on around us. In the cherished verse from Psalm 46, God encourages His people to “be still (or, cease striving) and know that I am God.” Why? If you read through the previous verses, you see that war and destruction was all around. The imagination of the people had gone wild, and they really believed that their world was falling apart. And what do we do when we perceive that things are out of control … that we’ve lost all semblance of power? We tend to run to things we believe will help us regain a sense of equilibrium, a sense of control.
In 1 Corinthians 10:7, Paul writes: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’” The issue of the heart we are encouraged to explore this week is idolatry. For most of us, idolatry is not something on our radar. Compared to our observations of the ancient world, idolatry may not be as recognizable in our modern world because objects of false worship are generally regular, familiar parts of our everyday existence. But even for the ancients, what seems odd to us was regular and familiar to them, and the dynamics at the heart level were the same as what we experience today. Idolatry is so dangerous because it can be hard to detect.
The incident to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians is found in Exodus 32:1-6:
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.’ And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
It’s easy to see what is going on in this passage, and yet harder to see how this might be at work in our own lives. The people had grown impatient. How often are we impatient with the work of God in our lives? How often to do we want we want … now? God may seem slow, but His timing is always perfect. We can trust in the slowness of God because He is our provider and will never leave us or forsake us. Impatience is something we might notice as an issue when idolatry is at work in our lives. And it can also be an invitation to seek God’s heart so that our desires would be furthered shaped by Him. Sit with these questions for a few minutes … where does your mind tend to go when impatience arises? Where do you tend to look when impatient?
An idol is a false god as opposed to the true God of the universe. We were created and designed to live in a dependent relationship with God (consider our reflections from last week) as the one who is everything … the sovereign One, the powerful One, the loving One, the holy One, the omniscient One. When seeking our independence, we gravitate toward things that will give us a personal grasp of those same things … control, power, love, holiness, knowledge, etc. When God isn’t coming through the way we thought He might or when we thought He would or how we thought He should, we look for other sources of the things that only God can provide. Without careful observation and reflection, we might not see that this is what is occurring because we can be on autopilot.
We simply go to what is familiar, what seems tangible, what we believe has come through for us in the past. We see this dynamic at play in Isaiah as God invites them to rest in trusting quiet:
For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said, “No! We will flee upon horses”; therefore you shall flee away; and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. (vs. 15-16)
In their response, they chose familiar, tangible strength and power (horses were symbolic of power and strength in the ancient world). The contrast could not be clearer between striving to maintain control, power, and security and resting in God’s strength that comes through trust and quietness. With the words your pursuers shall be swift, God graciously reminds them that “worshiping/trusting” in the gods of this world put us in a vicious cycle. True worship comes from a heart at rest.
Confronting the idols in our lives is not easy work and we often fail, but there is grace. Just a few verses later, Isaiah reminds: “Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18) The word wait brings us back again to the concept of patience. For what do you need to wait?
Questions for reflection: do you see the tendency to run to things that might give you a sense of control and power and significance? Ask God to give insight into what this might be for you.
Prayer: Lord, thank You for always pursuing my heart and desiring what connects most clearly with how You’ve made me. This week, please give me courage and wisdom to reflect well on how idolatry is at work in my life, to release what I’ve been trusting that isn’t You, and to remember that I can wait on You because Your timing is always perfect in all things. 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. In Psalm 78, the question is asked, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” We read later in Psalm 78 that they had forgotten His power. Take some time to remember.
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 week with gratitude. What is the Spirit bringing to your awareness?
- Notice the ways that God has been present to you in the previous week.
- What are you thankful for? What might God want you to see that you didn’t previously notice? Perhaps a place to repent?
- Select a part of your reflection from the week to pray over.
- Pray for the coming week.
Write out a prayer of thanksgiving and celebration as you look back and look forward.
As you consider what was going on with the people of Israel, you can almost hear them whispering to one another, “This is not what we signed up for!” The Lord told them they were on the way to the promised land and that had become their hope. In their minds, what they were experiencing was certainly not part of the plan. Notice how Moses describes this:
“And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’ Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God, who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.” (Deuteronomy 1:27–33)
Rather than seeing the love of God, they actually thought that God must hate them. Of course, if you sat them down and had a theological discussion, they might know the right answers but this was how they were experiencing the wilderness. “God hates us. He wants to destroy us.” At times, we may also find ourselves in this kind of place. Our cancer, our failing marriage, our depleted bank account, or some other wilderness encounter may leave us wondering the same things. Did God save me to let me experience such difficult things? This is the abundant life? Really? This is not what I signed up for!
In Deuteronomy 1, Moses contrasts their response with the encouragement: “do not be in dread.” Why? He explains:
- The LORD your God who goes before you
- (He) will himself fight for you
- the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son
What is he saying here?
First, God leads us and He takes the initiative. He doesn’t leave us to fend for ourselves. We may feel alone but we aren’t. He is leading us somewhere. As we consider the wilderness, we remember that He is taking us from something to something, and He always takes us through something … from, through, to. We like the “from” and the “to” … it is the “through” that can trip us up. God does not work by magic, transporting us to a new situation and location. He graciously (even if painfully) leads us “through.” The journey is about deepening our dependence on Him. Why? Because dependence is the promised land. Hear that clearly. A life of dependence is the truest, most real hope in our lives. Our hope is Him, not some location outside of difficulty. It is experiencing Him and trusting Him in the wilderness that forges a dependence and reliance which is what we long for.
Father Pedro Arrupe expresses this beautifully: “More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference, the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience. To know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.” Is this your hope? What might it be like to fully embrace Him as your hope? Hope is a person, not a place. Have you set your sights on heaven (or some other earthly paradise) as your promised land or on Him as what you have wanted all your life?
Second, He fights for us. A common refrain throughout the Scriptures is God saying: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5; Joshua 1:5; Psalm 37:25; 2 Cor. 4:9) He is with us and He fights for us. Because He is the one who has taken the initiative and goes before us, we can trust that He is leading the way in whatever situation we find ourselves. For those who are in Christ, Jesus is described as the forerunner, the one who goes before us. He fought for our redemption, and He keeps on fighting for us. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) He is always praying for us and loving us. Sit with that for a moment.
In Hebrews 6:19, hope is described as an anchor for the soul. It is a beautiful metaphor for the way that hope keeps us tethered. Hope keeps us on the path. Hope is described as “entering into the inner place behind the curtain.” This “inner place” is a reference to the Holy of Holies in the Temple of God. It is the place where we experience direct and complete access to God. Our hope is God Himself.
Finally, He tenderly carries us, as a man carries his son, all the way through the wilderness. We return again to the imagery of a tender father. He carries us through. He is faithful in His love for us … to lead us to that place of dependence which ends up transcending space and time.
Part of the pruning in the desert is an awareness that our hope has been situational and circumstantial and then the movement toward our hope being the life that we have with God … right now, in the middle of the wilderness. To engage in this kind of hope, let’s revisit that repentance rhythm of reflect, release, and remember.
Reflect: in what ways has my hope been in other than the abiding presence of God?
Release: gently let go of those hopes.
Remember: your life is hidden with God in Christ. (Col 3:3)
Question for reflection: what would it be like to simply sit quietly and prayerfully with God, releasing other hopes and resting in His presence? (no words, just presence)
Prayer: Lord, You are my hope. It is You and the life we have together. Give me the strength to simply release other hopes that I might rest in your presence. Amen.
Another barrier in the movement from independence to dependence can be trying to wrap our brain around what is going on. When things aren’t making sense, we have a tendency to go to what we know … the familiar. For the people of Israel, the wilderness was filled with confusion, uncertainty, and discomfort. So, they longed for the familiarity and certainty of Egypt, even bringing themselves to think of it as a paradise compared to what they were experiencing. The invitation into deepening dependence is often accompanied by uncertainty whereas needing to understand everything is frequently a sign that we desire our independence. How do we get our bearings when we notice this struggle in ourselves? How do we jettison this barrier?
First, it can be helpful to remember that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55). If we are uncertain about what is going on and we are aware of that uncertainty, then we are paying attention. In both Ephesians 3 and Philippians 4, we are told of a “love that surpasses knowledge” and a “peace that surpasses understanding.” In Him, we have access to love and peace, and yet we can’t think our way into experiencing them.
Second, we are wise to consider the counsel of 2 Corinthians 3:16-18: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And 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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Transformation happens as we behold God, not as we understand Him. Certainly, there are many things we can and need to understand about God but a shifting and changing of desires only occurs as we behold. And what does it mean to behold?
In Psalm 27:4, David provides some insight, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to meditate in his temple.” To behold is to gaze and meditate. Psalm 37:4 develops this further in using the word “delight.” “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” This verse has often been read in a transactional way: if you delight in God, He will give you what you want. However, the word for “give” is better understood as the idea that God will instill desires in us or we might even say “shape our desires.” Here’s the point: what we gaze upon or delight in will shape us.
Not only does a desert season reveal our hearts, it also reveals God’s heart if we are looking … or if we are delighting. We see this in the verses from Deuteronomy we looked at yesterday: “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:6)
What do you hear as you read this? The word discipline may seem harsh, especially if we have received abusive kinds of discipline in the past. However, in this verse God is revealing His father-heart. The heart of a father delights in his children. He is for us, He loves us, He provides what is best for us, and the list could go on. God’s discipline gives us an insight into the beauty of what can happen in the desert. As things are stripped away and we experience loss, His peace and love can become more real, more integrated into our hearts and lives. God, in His delight and love for His children, will lead us into spaces where our hearts can be shaped in ways that we could never imagine or even ask for.
Delight opens us to trust and receive a good Father’s love in the midst of wilderness. Alternatively, when we are enmeshed in our thoughts and understanding, we may see our wilderness as a harsh punishment or that we’ve been abandoned by God. We might ask ourselves: am I delighting in God or trying to make sense of what is going on around me?
How do we delight in God? First, we can meditate on the reality that He delights in us. Our delight is always a response to His delight. Can you set aside some undistracted time and space to simply gaze upon the goodness and grace of God toward you? Seek to remember all the ways He has been present with you. Ask Him to help you see and then gaze, behold. Second, we can engage in wondering what kind of good/beautiful things God must be up to in the midst of the desert. We may have no idea and even be confused, but as we wonder with God it sets us in a space of waiting and watching.
“My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen in the morning … for with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” (Psalm 130:6-7)
As we develop a habit of delighting in God in the quiet spaces, it overflows into our daily living and gives us eyes to see His love and His redemption.
Questions for reflection: what might God be up to in your life? Take some time to imagine with God how He is with you and shaping your heart. What do you notice?
Prayer: Lord, I am ready to let go and release my understanding of how things ought to work and seek to gaze upon Your beauty and meditate in Your presence. Give me eyes to see your goodness and mercy. Amen.
As we consider misdirected desires and bringing them God in prayer, we may encounter a sense of shame. Asking questions like Am I worthy? or What’s wrong with me? are quite common. And yet, God is not asking those questions. His posture toward us is that of grace upon grace. Romans 5:1-5 describes the salvation life that we have in Christ as one of hope, and “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Hope (or, confidence) emerges from suffering … a time in the wilderness. Notice the progression in Romans 5:3-4: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” As we walk with God through the wilderness, not trying to escape our circumstances or our desires, it leads us to hope. And, the hope is specifically a confidence that we can draw near to God. No matter what our experience may be, He receives us in the same way He received Jesus in Matthew 3:17: “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Sit with this for a moment … God is pleased with you. In Christ, you have been adopted as a beloved child. (Galatians 4:5-6) Don’t let this pass by too quickly. In many communities, the idea of being pleasing or displeasing to God is used over and over again, and we may use it as a grid through which we look at our life with God. The truth is this: with YOU, God is well pleased. He receives you and loves you beyond your capability to fully understand. Certainly, there may be desires or actions that are not pleasing to God, but you are not your behavior and you are not your thoughts. There is something deeper and truer about you as one made in the image of God and called His beloved.
How do we move this forward from a place of head knowledge to lived experience and identity? It happens as we actually relate to God with all of who we are. As we pray our desires (even the misdirected one), we connect with a God who loves us and receives us. What is incredibly pleasing to God from a “behavior” standpoint is when we choose to draw near to Him … and not a “drawing near” with thinking, believing, desiring, and doing all the right things, but coming to Him as we are … in need of a Father. At the core of God’s heart is a desire for us to experience closeness to Him. The truth is that we could never be any closer to God than we are at this moment, but we are often unaware of that presence.
With shame, we can tend to avoid or hide … desiring to get things cleaned up and figured out before we come close. This illustrates the movement from independence (I’ll get things together or I’ll deal with this on my own) to dependence (I need God and will seek Him in prayer).
The wilderness lays bare to us the reality of our hearts and our inability to deal with our “stuff” on our own. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 explains this beautifully, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble you and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” This may not be what we expect but it is how God works. It is certainly no coincidence that Jesus quoted verse 4 when He was in His wilderness experienc
Thomas Keating observed: “Our expectations of becoming paragons of piety, great contemplatives, attaining higher stages of consciousness – all subtly aimed at carrying us beyond the daily troubles of ordinary life – are not the way into the kingdom. Rather the kingdom consists in finding God in our disappointments, failures, problems, and even in our inability to rid ourselves of our vices.”
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that they can lead us into the confidence for approaching Him with no shame. The wilderness is harsh, and it is also a place where we draw close to the heart of God like never before … if we choose to be with Him in it.
Questions for reflection: are there ways that you can see shame at work in your life? What might be the invitation to release your shame?
Prayer: Lord, I am grateful to be Your beloved and to have the ability to draw near to Your heart. Give me eyes to see and then release shame when it is at play in my life. Amen.
Part of the tragic irony in Numbers 11 is that God was graciously and miraculously providing for His people. Each morning, manna (some sort of seed/grain that could be crafted into bread) appeared on the ground. God had demonstrated His provision in delivering them from bondage in Egypt and now they were having a difficult time appreciating His provision of manna.
This manna from heaven was not enough. It failed to live up to their expectations. In Psalm 23, we are told the Lord is our shepherd and that this reality leaves us in a place of having “no want.” However, we often find ourselves having a hard time seeing the provision, and instead we compare it with our previous provision or our expectations of what life would be like. At a foundational level, God always provides what is truly needed to live a life of dependence. Let that sink in for a moment. He gives us what we truly need to live a life of dependence. How often do our ideas of provision have more to do with living in such a way that we are independent and self-sufficient as opposed to vulnerable or dependent upon God?
In Isaiah 58:3, we observe this dynamic as the people of God fasted (entered into a wilderness of sorts) and asked: “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” The Lord responds by saying: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers.” What can subtly creep into our lives is a kind of transactional theology. God, I’ll do this (fasting, prayer, service) so that I get that (my ideas of the good life). It’s a transaction. God never promises this kind of relationship. What he promises is Himself, and our invitation is to move toward trust and dependence.
A few verses later in Isaiah 58, we read: “and the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” (v. 11) The questions that surface in the wilderness are: can I trust? Will he really provide? Can I put all my eggs in this one basket?
The questions are answered as we wrestle with the idea of satisfaction. What do I believe will truly satisfy me in this life? Is He enough? Is His provision enough? If we can be honest enough to say that God is not always what satisfies me, then we’re making progress. It starts with wrestling with what we really believe and then it progresses as we actually wrestle with God. We can hold all the right “beliefs” and never see those beliefs worked out in the reality of our experience. How do we wrestle with God? Quite simply, in prayer. Perhaps our prayers might sound like this …
God, I want to trust You, but I don’t.
Lord, these other desires feel stronger and more powerful than my desire for you.
Father, I desire You, and yet I also desire to find my satisfaction in my work or …
Jesus, help me. I feel so dissatisfied. Give me eyes to see your provision.
As we experience misdirected desires, the invitation is to bring them to God in prayer. As we bring ourselves to God over and over, our response to desire begins to be: God Himself. Our desires begin to be directed toward Him. This is often a messy process and not for the fainthearted. We see this modeled over and over again in the Scripture. We see it in Jesus. Before Jesus went to the cross, He agonized in prayer. He prayed His desire: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) The apostle Paul had a thorn in his flesh and he wrestled with God. He didn’t know if the desire was misdirected or not, so he simply prayed. What he heard from God was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
God reshaped and reframed desire for Paul. First with the reality that God’s grace (His love, His presence) was enough for Paul. Second with the truth that weakness or dependence is where power is experienced. It wasn’t just believing the right things but hearing them from God in listening prayer … a dialogue in which we share and then listen. This happens, not as we try harder or simply believe the right things, but as we wrestle with God in prayer.
Alan Jones puts it so well: “A human being is a longing for God and nothing less than God will satisfy us; the seductive voices that would make us anything less than this are to be resisted.”
Question for reflection: can I be honest enough to say that God is not always what I desire? Can I bring that to Him?
Prayer: Father, I bring all of who I am to you … all of my desires. I desire You, and I also don’t desire You. What do you want to say to me? Amen.
Let’s go back to Egypt! The food out here in the wilderness is horrible. Back in Egypt, the food was great, the vegetables were fresh, and it was all free!
Wow! Quite a response from the people in the wilderness (Numbers 11:4-6) They had been in slavery and had been led by God into freedom. Now, their desires (strong cravings) seemed to be getting the best of them. In the pain, confusion, doubt, frustration, and deprivation of the wilderness, their unformed, misdirected desires were shaping their response of let’s go back.
It sounds so ridiculous until we realize that we often respond in the same way. When we find ourselves in the desert, we look for answers and comfort, and our desire directs where we go. In what can feel like an automatic response, we overeat, drink too much, indulge in fantasy, grumble, snap at others, or perhaps fall into despair when hurting. When life doesn’t make sense, we can begin to sleepwalk into misdirected desire. The beauty of the wilderness (if you’d be willing to think about this way) is that we see those temptations more clearly. We see where those desires can take us. Getting angry when we are hungry has a name: hangry.
Jesus encountered hunger in the wilderness. Matthew 4:2-3 explain Jesus experience: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came …” (Matthew 4:2-3) To say He was hungry after 40 days is perhaps the understatement of all understatements, and it demonstrates that He was vulnerable and truly tested. It was in that moment that the tempter came. When we experience temptation in the wilderness, we can choose to engage it as a gift from God, an opportunity to grow deeper and closer to Him. Indeed, “without temptation, there is no transformation.”
So, how do we do this? In temptation, we often end up distancing ourselves from God, thinking that we have to get it together. What does it look like to draw near? Let me suggest a few things:
First, don’t suppress desire. Desire is a beautiful, powerful thing. When desire is suppressed, it becomes more powerful under the pressure. Pay attention to your desires because they are telling you something. To ignore desire is to let it run rampant in the corners of our unconscious self. Look at desire (holy, unholy, or unknown) and notice what is truer and deeper. Discern how an “unholy” desire is really a desire for God. Curtis Almquist, SSJE suggests: “Our desires are worth listening to. They do need to be brought into the light. Many of us – certainly I – need help sifting through our life’s desires to see where they need to be deepened or purified, where they are connected to God’s gift of life for us.”
Second, pray your desires. Let God shape and redeem them. In the Psalms, we see our forefathers in the faith wrestling with God in prayer. Some of the things we observe in their prayers would certainly not be classified as “pure” desires, but it is bringing desire to God that sanctifies desires. “One of the best pieces of spiritual advice I ever received from a spiritual director was to pray for anything that I desired, even if that desire seemed sinful. It was a kind of ‘prayer shock therapy,’ designed to break through dualistic thinking patterns and begin integrating prayer with life as we actually experience it, rather than as we might wish it to be.” (Robert L’Esperance, SSJE)
Third, practice gratefulness. Many of our misdirected desires are a result of jealously and lack of gratefulness. The last of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 encourages us to let go of covetousness. Covet is a desire word, and it means that we are desiring someone else’s life. It is perhaps no coincidence that after the challenges to be honest and honor others, the capstone of the ten deals with gratefulness and desire. Arthur Simon shares: “When things are valued too much, they lose their value because they nourish a never-satisfied craving for more. Conversely, when things are received as gifts from God and used obediently in service to God, they are enriched with gratitude. As sages have said, contentment lies not in obtaining things you want, but in giving thanks for what you have.” I would suggest this gratitude includes our wilderness seasons and the struggles with desire. God is doing something that we can trust and, dare I say, even celebrate.
Jesus said, “come and rest” (Matthew 11:28-30) and we find that rest as we learn His way of being which He described as gentleness and humility. Gentleness and humility are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Gentleness is strength under control … we might even say it is desire under control. Humility is the acknowledgement that God alone can direct our desires and strengths. As you experience desire today, practice humility by not suppressing, by praying, and by expressing gratitude. The result? A gentleness that leads to peace and rest!
Questions for reflection: what are some desires that you might pray? How might you trust God by bringing your desires to Him rather than waiting for the desires to (magically) go away?
Prayer: O Lord, I come to you with humility and give to you desires that I know are not your plan for me. I give you desires that I am uncertain about. I ask that you would shape these desires in the context of our time together. Amen.